Willa: So this week we’re wrapping up our month-long celebration of Bad, but that doesn’t mean we’re leaving it behind. I imagine we’ll be talking quite a bit about Bad and Bad 25, and the additional tracks, and the concert DVD, and the Spike Lee documentary as well. There are a lot of exciting things to discuss!
But this week we’re concluding our celebration with a look at Leave Me Alone, which is one of Michael Jackson’s sharpest and most pointed critiques of celebrity media – all contained in a fun and very entertaining video. And you know, Joie, one of the first things that jumps out at me are all the images of confinement we see in the video. Aldebaranredstar talked about the theme of entrapment in a comment about Dirty Diana a couple weeks ago, and we definitely see that here as well. Both he and Bubbles are portrayed with a ball and chain clamped to their ankles, and chains on their wrists. We also see a Lilliputian figure driving in a stake with ropes to hold him down, and we later discover an entire theme park has been built on his reclining body. More subtly, we see him encased in tabloid photographs, and in a dollar bill.
But importantly, he subverts all these efforts to constrain and define him. Those static images of him aren’t static at all – they move and sing, like the portraits in a Harry Potter movie. He dances with the ball and chain, so it becomes nothing more than a stage prop in a Vaudeville act. And ultimately he breaks free from the fun house industry that has built itself on him and his body.
Joie: Willa, I think it’s very interesting that you just referred to the amusement park that is restraining him as a “fun house industry,” because that is a really telling metaphor for fame and the business of being a celebrity. And I have always thought the Leave Me Alone video was just brilliant because of that image at the very end when we discover that all of the scenes we’ve just witnessed are ultimately a part of this giant amusement park – or “fun house” – that the media presumably has built around Michael Jackson. That was just a genius idea and so perfect for the concept of a video for this particular song.
Willa: I agree. It beautifully captures in a visual way how an entire industry built itself on him – and if you think about it, that’s really true.
Joie: It is true. In fact, I think an argument could be made that the current state of things, with the media feeling entitled to every aspect of a star’s personal life, began with their treatment of Michael Jackson.
Willa: Well, I don’t know. I mean, it seems like there have been people like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons since the early days of the movie industry – or at least its adolescence – and they could make life pretty miserable for celebrities. You definitely didn’t want to have them on your trail if you were a gay actor in the 1950s. And really, the tabloid press has been part of American life since before we were a nation. In fact, it’s been suggested that the American revolution might not have happened if there hadn’t been pamphleteers stirring things up. And some of the early political attacks were shocking – scandalous stories of corruption and debauchery and illegitimate children with no basis in fact.
Joie: Well, that may all be true, Willa but, I believe the media’s treatment of Michael Jackson hit an all time low and paved the way for the extremely intrusive, bully-style aggressive paparazzi that everyone loves so much. And I think that in the Leave Me Alone short film, Michael makes it pretty clear how he felt about the media’s behavior.
Willa: I see what you’re saying, Joie – I really do – but you know, even that is problematic. I mean, when he was creating this video, he obviously wanted to express his feelings about the tabloid press and what it felt like to be the subject of so much public scrutiny and speculation. And if he truly hated it, you’d think he’d depict it in unequivocally horrible ways – like being tortured by the Inquisition, or grilled during the McCarthy hearings, or nibbled to death by ants, or chased by savage hyenas, or stung by a swarm of killer bees, or something agonizing like that.
But he doesn’t. He depicts it as a ride through an amusement park, with sideshows and a carnivalesque atmosphere. And here’s the kicker – Michael Jackson loved amusement parks and sideshows and carnivals. He really admired P.T. Barnum (there’s a picture of him on the cover of the Dangerous album) and Barnum specialized in whipping up public interest in human and animal oddities and “freak shows” – precisely the kind of sideshow attractions we see throughout Leave Me Alone.
And really, the mood of this video isn’t one of anger or resentment. He seems more amused than angry, and incredulous that people would actually believe such crazy things. He’s smiling through much of the video as he rides past all these exhibits – in fact, he smiles more in this video than any other video I can think of. At one point he actually breaks out in laughter, which gives us a clue to the question he asks repeatedly in the lyrics: “Who’s laughin’, baby?” Apparently the correct answer is Michael Jackson himself. The tabloids are trying to turn him into an object of ridicule, but he’s the one laughing.
Joie: That’s true, Willa. He is smiling a lot in this video, although I think he actually smiles more in the Speed Demon short film.
Willa: Oh, you’re right! And interestingly, that video talks about celebrity also – about being pursued by obsessive fans.
Joie: Yes it does, but we’re getting a little bit off topic. I agree with you that his critique of the media in this video is very subtly done and he masks it well with the whole ‘fun house’ approach. But I believe that his disdain for the media is actually hidden in plain view here. You’re right that he loved amusement parks, they were one of his most favorite things in the world, and his admiration of P.T. Barnum is well known. But I think it’s very telling that he places himself as the subject of all of the attractions and “freak show” oddities that he rides past. And while those fun house attractions are meant to poke fun at some of the most persistent – and most ridiculous – tabloid rumors about his life, his message is pretty clear, I think. In his book, Man in the Music, Joe Vogel tells us:
“For years, the press – mainstream and tabloid alike – fed on Michael Jackson like no other pop star in history. ‘Leave Me Alone’ is his expression of exasperation at a media and public that had grown insatiable.”
And, in fact, in an interview about the song itself, Michael said this:
“I’m sending a simple message here: Leave me alone. The song is about a relationship between a guy and a girl, but what I’m really saying to people who are bothering me is, ‘leave me alone!’”
I don’t think you can get much clearer than that.
Willa: That’s true, and I think it’s significant that one of the tabloids is named The Intruder. I also think it’s very interesting that in that interview he explicitly links the lyrics “about a relationship between a guy and a girl” with his relationship “to people who are bothering me,” such as reporters and the paparazzi. That’s a pattern we see in many of his songs and something we’ve talked about quite a bit in the past, but I’d never heard Michael Jackson himself discuss that connection before. That’s really interesting.
But Joie, I also love what you just said about how “he places himself as the subject of all of the attractions and ‘freak show’ oddities that he rides past.” That is such an important point, I think. He positions himself as the “freak” in the “freak show” and exaggerates that to outrageous proportions, with one of the tabloid headlines screaming, “Jackson’s 3rd Eye Starts Sunglass Fad” and another, “Michael and Diana Same Person!”
Joie: I’ll bet he had fun coming up with those headlines!
Willa: Oh, I bet he did too! But his response to all that is interesting. He doesn’t deny those stories – they’re too ridiculous to bother with – and he certainly doesn’t try to convince us he’s normal. Instead, he celebrates difference, as he always does. So it seems to me there’s an interesting double message here. On the one hand, he doesn’t like being called a freak (which brings to mind that confrontation between the Mayor and the Maestro in Ghosts) but at the same time, he seems to be saying it’s ok to be different and kind of celebrating freakishness.
Joie: Yes, I would agree with that. And I think it’s a message he tried to get across to us often. It’s in many of his songs and videos if you think about it.
Willa: It really is – ever since “Ben,” which as you know holds a very special place for me. But all of this reminds me of P.T. Barnum again. There are people who, through no fault of their own, are treated like freaks – because of their height or their weight or their pigmentation or some other physical attribute. It’s completely unfair, and generally it’s considered polite to pretend there’s no difference, while secretly feeling that there is. But Barnum didn’t do the polite thing. He hired people who were in this position and put them on display, but he also treated them as people. Tom Thumb was his most famous “discovery,” and the two became close friends and toured Europe together – and became celebrities together.
This is all very problematic, but I do think it’s important that Barnum insisted on the humanity of every person, including people who were often treated as outcasts in their own communities. As he said in a passionate speech to the Connecticut state senate, as they were debating the rights of freed slaves following the Civil War,
“A human soul . . . is not to be trifled with. It may inhabit the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hotentot—it is still an immortal spirit.”
I see that insistence on the humanity of all people, including people unfairly labeled as freaks, continuing on in Michael Jackson – except in this case, the person on display is himself. Or rather, he’s in a double position: he’s the object of the spectacle, but he’s also witnessing it and commenting on it at the same time.
Joie: Hmm. I see what you’re saying and I agree with you, Willa. Barnum did insist on their humanity, and that makes me think about that old Ebony/Jet interview that took place shortly after the release of the Bad album. The journalist asks Michael about his fondness for John Merrick, the Elephant Man, and he says that his favorite part of that film is where Merrick shouts, “Leave me alone! I am not an animal. I’m a human being!” What I love about that part of the interview is that, before the interviewer can even get the words out, Michael has already quoted the very part that the interviewer is talking about. And what a quote it is! Not only is it perfect for this discussion we’re having, but it could also describe Michael himself.
Willa: It really could – and it’s so interesting that it begins with the title of this video – “Leave me alone!” – and that Merrick is the one shouting it. That’s fascinating. I wonder if that’s where the title came from?
Joie: The title of the song? I don’t know; that’s an interesting question. And it is fascinating, isn’t it? In that interview, Michael tells his interviewer that he identifies with John Merrick: “I feel a closeness to [him],” he says. You know, the media always tried to make that something weird but, in actuality, it’s a very compassionate thing to have a fondness for John Merrick.
Willa: I agree.
Joie: In fact, long before that rumor of Michael wanting to buy the Elephant Man’s bones, I developed my own fondness for John Merrick. I don’t see how anyone could watch that movie and not become fond of him. Or, at the very least, have a little bit of compassion for the man. He was – as he said – a human being! And I think it was such a bold and fun move for Michael to highlight that particular rumor in the Leave Me Alone short film the way he does, dancing with the Elephant Man’s bones. I think that is just hilarious!
Willa: Oh, it’s wonderful! It’s such a funny, bizarre, Vaudeville, carnivalesque scene – who would ever dream up something like that? But it’s also significant, I think, that he and the Elephant Man’s bones are dancing side by side. That gets back to what you were saying earlier, Joie, about how he positions himself in this video as one of the spectacles. I think it’s very important that he and the Elephant Man are both on display, dancing the same movements in tandem, so are clearly presented as equals in that scene. It’s like he’s created a visual representation of what he told the interviewer – of the connection he feels to the Elephant Man.
And importantly, Merrick tried to make people understand how painful it was to be in that position – always on display, always treated as different – by shouting, “Leave me alone! I am not an animal. I’m a human being!” as you quoted earlier. And I think that’s exactly what Michael Jackson is telling us in this video as well. He’s occupying a double position – as spectacle and as observer of the spectacle – and he’s encouraging us as an audience to consider this situation from both of those perspectives and consider what that must feel like for him.
Joie: It’s very brilliant really. And you’re right. Who would ever think of that concept but Michael Jackson? The video was directed by Jim Blashfield and it actually won a Grammy in 1988 for Best Music Video Short Form. It also won an MTV Video Music Award for Best Special Effects in a Video. And, as always, I wonder just how much of the concept was the director and how much was Michael. He told an MTV interviewer in 1999 that he was always very involved in the conception process, and Joe Vogel tells us in Man in the Music that Blashfield directed “with input from Jackson.”
Willa: Oh, I think he was very involved. If he had one or two exceptional videos to his name, then you might think it was just the work of the director. But when you consider that he made one exceptional film after another, with around 30 different directors, and the only common element was him – well, then at some point you have to conclude that the true guiding presence behind his work was Michael Jackson himself.
Willa: So Joie, you’d think I’d have learned by now never to label any of Michael Jackson’s videos as “just entertainment.” I thought that about You Rock My World – that it was “just entertainment” – but after talking with you about it last fall I’ve come to see it as a very pointed critique of the music industry. I thought that about In the Closet, but after talking with you about it last January I’ve come to see it as a fascinating look at taboo relationships. At different times I’ve thought it about Thriller, and Smooth Criminal, and Scream, but later came to see those three as some of his most important works. And I’ve thought it about Speed Demon, but now I’m starting to wonder if I haven’t been overlooking something important in that video as well.
It seems to me there are two major themes running through the nine Bad videos. First, there’s the extremely complicated issue of violence, poverty, and criminality, especially as it presents itself in the inner city. We see this theme in the videos for Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, Man in the Mirror, Smooth Criminal, and Speed Demon. Then there’s the complicated issue of celebrity and fame, as we see in Dirty Diana, Leave Me Alone, Liberian Girl, Another Part of Me, and Speed Demon. So Speed Demon – that cute, quirky, inoffensive little claymation video – is the place where these two major themes intersect.
Joie: Willa, I have to say, you have me intrigued now because I don’t think of Speed Demon in terms of “violence, poverty and criminality,” as you put it.
Willa: Well, he has a light touch. You wouldn’t think someone could make an enjoyable video about some of our worst and most complicated social ills, but he did – over and over again.
Joie: Well, yes. That’s true; he did. But, I’m not sure I see that going on in Speed Demon. And I also never would have thought about Liberian Girl or Another Part of Me as commentaries on celebrity and fame so, I’m interested to see where you’re going with this.
Willa: I know what you mean, Joie. I would have said the same thing just a few days ago. Speed Demon especially seems to have more in common with Wallace & Gromit than Beat It, at least on the surface.
Joie: Wallace & Gromit. That’s funny!
Willa: Well, you know what I’m saying – it’s claymation! But remember a couple weeks ago when you asked me what I saw as the major themes of Bad?
Willa: Well, I’d never thought about that before, so I started listening to the songs and watching the videos with that question in mind, and as I was doing that these two very disparate themes started to emerge, especially in the videos. I mean, think about it: is there a video anywhere with more celebrities than Liberian Girl? It’s nothing but celebrities. And suddenly there’s Michael Jackson behind the scenes laughing, which seems like such an interesting statement all in itself!
And look at the opening of Another Part of Me and how it focuses on his complicated relationship with his fame – how he both enjoys it but seeks refuge from it, and how he uses it to convey his “message” – a message he states very clearly in the chorus:
We’re sending out a major love And this is our message to you The planets are lining up We’re bringing brighter days They’re all in line waiting for you Can’t you see? You’re just another part of me
So he’s on a mission to send “major love” out into the world, and he uses his art and his celebrity to help him accomplish that. But this isn’t an easy issue – his celebrity both empowers him and isolates him. And as usual, he presents these ideas in subtle but sophisticated ways in the video.
Joie: Hmm. That is very interesting, Willa. I see your point. And what you’re saying makes a lot of sense. I guess, now that you mention it, I have been thinking of both Liberian Girl and Another Part of Me as purely entertainment. And you’re right – that is something that we should never do when it comes to Michael Jackson.
Willa: We really shouldn’t. It’s easy to fall into that because his work is so entertaining, but there are always so many layers to his work, and a lot of times there are really interesting things happening if we just look. Like it’s easy to dismiss Speed Demon as just a cartoon, but it addresses his complicated relationship with his celebrity as well. It opens with him being chased by some over-eager fans, and they’re pretty rude and obnoxious.
Joie: Oh, they are incredibly rude and obnoxious! And it makes me kind of sad to think that he may have encountered that often, you know? That fans were ever that thoughtless and unkind to him. In fact, I have a hard time thinking of them as fans; to me, they’re more like an angry mob that’s out to get him. They even seem to be quite angry at him as they chase him around the movie set and out onto the open road. And the longer they chase him, the angrier they seem to become.
Willa: They really do. You know, it’s presented as this fun chase sequence – and he does seem to enjoy it – but all the same, there is something threatening about it and he really doesn’t want them to catch him. And I think he did have to deal with obnoxious fans sometimes. He talked about it in a 1978 phone interview with Lisa Robinson. She asked him, “do you still like meeting your fans?” and he said,
I enjoy all that sometimes, seeing people who love me, or buy my records. I think it’s fun, and I enjoy meeting my fans and I think it’s important. But sometimes people think you owe your life to them; they have a bad attitude – like, ‘I made you who you are.’ That may be true – but not that one person. Sometimes you have to say to them, If the music wasn’t good, you wouldn’t have bought it. Because some of them think they actually own you. Someone will say, “Sit down,” “Sign this,” or “Can I have your autograph?” and I’ll say, “Yes, do you have a pen?” And they say, “No, go get one.” Honestly. I’m not exaggerating. But I just try to deal with it.
And remember, this was in 1978 – three years before Thriller came out.
Joie: Yes, I remember that interview and it is really sad when you think about it. And again, I have a difficult time thinking of those people as fans. I guess I just have a different idea of what that word means. “Fan.” You know, oftentimes that word has such a negative connotation to it. Especially with regard to Michael Jackson fans. But I’ve been in the fan community a long time and I know Michael Jackson fans to be some of the nicest, most respectful people I’ve ever met, so that’s difficult for me to reconcile. But, I’m certain from his point of view there were times when the attention probably became extremely rude or even threatening. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live with that kind of attention 24/7.
But I was really more referring to the video itself – not his real life. In the short film, the “fans” who are chasing him sort of become this angry mob that seems like they’re out to get him. And it’s not clear what they intend to do with him if they catch up to him. Do they want to hurt him or do they simply want his autograph? It’s difficult to tell by the snarls on their faces. It’s no wonder he’s trying to get away from them!
Willa: I think you’re exactly right, Joie – they are like a “mob,” meaning they’re gripped by that weird mob mentality that takes over sometimes, and I think Michael Jackson had seen how dangerous that could be and was scared of it. We see that fear of the mob in the intro to Ghosts. And he said in a number of interviews that being mobbed “hurts.” That people go crazy and start pulling your hair and twisting your arms, and it really hurts. Apparently, the first time the Jackson 5 went to England, a mob scene broke out at the airport and he could have been killed. He was wearing a scarf, and one girl grabbed one end and another grabbed the other end, and they were both pulling as hard as they could. The scarf was tightening around his neck, and he couldn’t breathe and couldn’t loosen it, and his brothers had to rescue him. What a scary story!
So you’re right – it’s hard to predict what a mob will do, and it’s not clear at all what the mob chasing him in Speed Demon will do if they catch him.
Joie: But luckily, they don’t get that chance because they all end up getting stopped for speeding and causing a pile-up of sorts. The last we see of them, they’re all being taken away in a police wagon as Michael speeds away, finally free to breathe now that the mob that was chasing him is gone. He heads out to the open road and stops for a few minutes to discard the costume he used to escape his pursuers, then finds himself in the middle of a dance-off when that costume comes to life and issues a challenge.
But I have to say, Willa, that while I agree that the complicated issues of celebrity and fame are definitely present in this short film, I’m still not really seeing the issues of ‘violence, poverty and criminality’ in Speed Demon that you mentioned at the beginning of this discussion.
Willa: Well, think about those repeated lines from the police: “Pull over, boy, and get your ticket right.” There’s so much sheer joy of flight in Speed Demon, just the exhilaration of speed and escaping all the pressures being put on him. But then near the end a trooper gives him a ticket. In fact, there are policemen throughout this video, and a lot of times they’re chasing him too. So while it’s a policeman who puts those obsessive fans in jail and kind of rescues him from the mob, as you just described, another policeman shows up and treats him like a criminal.
You know, what really started me thinking differently about Speed Demon was the MJ Academia Project videos. Unfortunately, the people who posted those videos have taken them down and they aren’t available at the moment, which is disappointing. I’d really like to watch them again and link to them right now. I hope they repost them. But anyway, in one of their videos they talk about how Michael Jackson repeatedly uses the word “boy” in a number of songs and videos as a code word for how black men have been treated by the criminal justice system in the U.S., and they specifically mention Speed Demon. I’d never thought of Speed Demon like that – as anything more than a cartoon, actually – but I started listening to it differently after that. And one thing I realized is that the video really softens the message of the song. If you can somehow block the video images out of your mind while listening to it, it feels much grittier than when your mind is full of Michael Jackson in a dancing competition with Spike, the claymation rabbit (which I love, by the way).
So, as he does so many times with so many different subjects, he shows how complicated human relationships can be. He loves his fans, but feels threatened by them when they turn into a mob. He feels protected by the police, especially when the mob is carted off to the police station, but he also knows the police can turn on him at any minute and criminalize him. And this was filmed in 1988, before he’d really experienced just how biased and abusive the police could be.
Joie: Well, I agree with you, the video does really soften the message of the song. And I wonder if he did that intentionally, seeing as how this video was part of the movie, Moonwalker – which is really sort of a kid’s movie with a feel-good theme to it. But, as we talked about last week, this is one of those short films where the visual he presents us with is much different than what we conjure up in our minds when merely listening to the song itself.
Willa: That’s true, though we need to be careful about viewing Moonwalker as just entertainment also. It does have a fun, “feel-good” mood through most of it, but there’s a lot of very interesting things going on in that movie. We should talk about that sometime. I can’t believe we’ve been chatting about Michael Jackson’s work for a year now and still haven’t talked about Moonwalker.
But getting back to Speed Demon, we really see that structure of a fun entertaining film overlying a serious message here too. In some ways, he seems to be exploring the role of artists in society, and how artists and police are kind of at cross purposes. The police tend to want everyone to follow the rules and behave in conventional ways, even if that has nothing to do with legality, and artists are constantly challenging those conventions. We see that conflict between the police and the artist with the “sheriff” from the western movie early in the video. He starts chasing Michael Jackson and calls out to him in this really patronizing way, “Hey, Songbird.” And then at the end the trooper gives him the ticket, saying, “I need your autograph right here.” Importantly, the ticket isn’t for speeding. It’s for dancing.
Joie: Well, in the trooper’s defense, Willa, it was a clearly marked No Dancing zone!
Willa: That’s true! And you notice he’s a very law-abiding citizen. He doesn’t dance after the trooper points to that funny sign telling him he’s not supposed to, though you know he disagrees with it.
But you know, while this is all handled in a very light, entertaining way, it’s addressing some really complex ideas as well. The policeman is trying to rein him in and prevent him from dancing, from expressing his art, and even treats him as a criminal, or at least a law-breaker, because of his dancing. And this ties back to what we talked about a couple weeks ago with the Bad short film. As we said then, artists and criminals actually have something in common: they both challenge social norms. They do it in very different ways – one legally to improve our cultural awareness, and one illegally and often destructively – but sometimes that distinction becomes blurred and artists are treated as criminals. And Michael Jackson was very aware of that, as he shows us in Speed Demon and Bad, and perhaps most explicitly in Ghosts. Remember, the “crime” he’s accused of in Ghosts is being an artist, a teller of ghost stories, and too outrageously different.
And I think this criminalization of artists played out in very real ways in how the police (and the press and the public) interpreted the allegations against him in 1993 and 2003. It’s like there was this idea that he was willing to transgress social norms – by singing and dancing, by challenging gender and racial boundaries, by representing the Other, as Joe Vogel described a few weeks ago – so some people seemed to think that maybe he was willing to transgress legal and moral boundaries as well and do illegal, immoral things.
Joie: I think that’s a very interesting point, Willa. And maybe a very simplistic way of describing that is the old saying ‘judging a book by its cover.’ Because he looked “strange” or “freaky” to some, then perhaps he was more likely to be a criminal than someone who looked sweet and innocent. Actress Winona Ryder comes to mind. Who would have ever imagined she would behave like a common criminal? After all, she looked so “normal.”
Willa: I don’t really know much about the Winona Ryder case, except that it got a lot of attention in the press – far more than shoplifting charges usually get. But this criminalization of artists has a long history. Think about the McCarthy trials, and how many artists’ careers were destroyed by them. And William Tyndale, who may have been the greatest English poet of all time. Most of the King James Bible was written by Tyndale, and you can make the case that Shakespeare wouldn’t have been Shakespeare without him – even the cadence of his language reflects Tyndale. And Tyndale was burned at the stake.
And I always wonder how many of the women, and men too, condemned as witches during the Salem witch trials had an artist’s sensibility. They were definitely people who didn’t fit in, and were seen as “strange” or “freaky,” as you just said. Many were independent women who didn’t marry and lived unconventional lives. And this is interesting: one of the first people accused during the trials was a slave named Tituba who liked to tell children stories, just like the Maestro in Ghosts.
Joie: That’s a really interesting point, Willa. And you’re probably right about that, many of them probably were artists in some form, or at the very least, free thinkers – also like the Maestro in Ghosts. But I think what you’re trying to get at is that, even though on the surface it’s a cute little claymation video, Speed Demon is anything but childish or simplistic.
Willa: Exactly. Or maybe what I’m trying to say is that it works on both levels. It’s a fun, cartoon-like film that kids enjoy, but there are some complicated ideas for adults to grapple with as well.
Joie: So Willa, everyone knows that Thriller is the biggest-selling album of all time. But did you know that for a short while, Bad was actually the second biggest-selling album of all time?
Willa: Really? No, I didn’t know that.
Joie: To this day, in fact, it is still regarded as one of the best-selling albums ever made – I think it’s like number six on the worldwide list – and until Katy Perry tied the record with her album Teenage Dream, it was the first and only album to spawn five number one singles.
Willa: I did know that, and it’s amazing – especially for an album many saw as under-performing in terms of record sales. It shows just how high the bar was set for the follow-up album to Thriller.
Joie: That record stood unmatched for 23 years! And what I love most about this album is that Michael penned over 80% of it himself – nine out of the 11 tracks on the album were written by him.
So, I guess what I’m getting at here is that, even though for many people, Thriller is often seen as the pinnacle of Michael Jackson’s success (and commercially, that is certainly true), it is actually the follow-up album, Bad, where we begin to see the artist really stretch his wings and grow artistically, emotionally, creatively, and politically.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Joie, and something Quincy Jones has suggested also. As he says in the first additional track on the Bad, Special Edition album, “I could just see him growing as an artist and understanding production and all that stuff.” So here’s a question I want to ask Quincy Jones every time I hear that, but I’m going to put you on the spot and ask you instead: what do you see as the major signs of growth between Thriller and Bad?
Joie: Well, first of all, what I just pointed out. The fact that he wrote the majority of the songs on it. With his first two adult solo efforts, Off the Wall and Thriller, that wasn’t the case. He only wrote three of the songs on Off the Wall and four on Thriller. So I think that shows major growth and maturity, both artistically and creatively.
Willa: That’s true, and we can see that in the number of videos he made also. He made three each for Off the Wall and Thriller, but he made eight for Bad – nine if you count “Leave Me Alone” – and nine for Dangerous, so Bad seems to have been an important turning point for him that way too.
Joie: Also, the things he’s writing about. The subject matter of the songs on Bad show a lot of maturity and growth as well.
Willa: I suppose, though “Billie Jean” is so emotionally complex, and there’s a lot of depth in “Beat It,” and “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Workin’ Day and Night” as well. So it’s not like his previous songs were simplistic.
Joie: Well, that’s very true. Simplistic is not a word I would use to describe his writing. But, I don’t know. The Bad album just seems a little more “grown up” to me than his previous two adult efforts.
Willa: And more uniquely “him” because he did write so many of the songs himself, as you mentioned earlier. You know, the story you always hear about Bad is that he put tremendous pressure on himself to top Thriller, and I’m sure those kinds of pressures were there to some degree. Creating a follow-up to Thriller would be intimidating, I’m sure.
Joie: Oh, no doubt about it. I can’t imagine what that kind of pressure must be like.
Willa: Oh, I know! But listening to this album, it doesn’t feel like it’s coming from a place of anxiety and insecurity. He sounds very sure of himself, with a message he feels compelled to share and the confidence to share it. I wonder if that’s part of what you’re feeling, Joie, when you say that, for you, this is the album where he really comes into his own.
Joie: You could be onto something there, Willa. He does seem to have a certain level of self-confidence and even cockiness on this album so, maybe that is what I’m reacting to. And, you know, when I think about this album, it’s really difficult for me to choose the one stand-out track that sets this CD apart or makes it great because really, every song is a masterpiece all by itself.
Willa: I know what you mean, and I wonder if that’s because of all the videos. You know, in Moonwalk he talks about the videos he made for the Thriller album and emphasizes that they weren’t just tacked on after the fact as a marketing tool. They were part of his vision from the beginning. As he says,
The three videos that came out of Thriller – “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” – were all part of my original concept for the album. I was determined to present this music as visually as possible.
And Bad is where he really achieves that goal of presenting his songs “as visually as possible.” Except for the two duets, he made a video for every song on the album, and I think that contributes to that feeling you’re talking about, Joie, that “every song is a masterpiece.” Because each song has its own video, each one feels like a fully realized, multi-sensory work of art.
You know, even when I’m not watching the videos themselves, like when I’m listening to Bad on the car stereo, I’m still visualizing those images. They’re just an integral part of each song for me now.
Joie: I agree with you, Willa; they do feel like an “integral part of each song” and it is almost impossible not to visualize the short film when listening to the songs themselves. And I’m sure that was probably very intentional on his part, as that quote you cited from Moonwalk points out. And, as you said earlier, he also made nine videos for his following album, Dangerous and eight for the HIStory album so, I believe presenting the music “as visually as possible” was something that was very important to him and something that he was committed to doing.
Willa: I agree. It really feels to me like he achieved the fullest expression of his art through his videos. That’s where it all comes together: the music, the dance, that incredible voice, the visual cues, the backstory and narrative – or as he described the structure of his videos, the beginning and the middle and the ending of what he’s trying to convey.
Joie: I agree. And it really makes you think about his great love of films. Sometimes I believe his videos are so amazing because of his love for film. How many times did he talk about the power of film and being able to take an audience anywhere you wanted them to go, all through film. And many times, that’s what his videos do – they transport you momentarily to a different place. A place of his choosing. It’s no wonder he wanted them referred to as ‘short films’ instead of videos.
And just thinking about that fact makes me really angry that he was hindered from doing the same with Invincible. I love that album so much, and I would have loved to have seen what videos he could have come up with for it. But you’re right, Bad is the first album where he achieves this goal of presenting the music as visually as possible and because of that, his name really became sort of synonymous with music videos.
It’s an interesting concept that no one else was really doing at the time. You know, most artists were just using the music video as a sort of promotional tool and the resulting videos had very little to do with the song itself. But Michael changed all that; he ‘flipped the script’ as the saying goes. Suddenly music videos weren’t just some abstract add on but, they were a way to actually bring the song to life.
Willa: And not always in ways you expect – like who would ever listen to “Liberian Girl” and imagine the video he created for it? Or “The Way You Make Me Feel”? Or “Speed Demon”? Or “Bad” or “Smooth Criminal” or “Dirty Diana”? Actually, the Dirty Diana video probably enacts the lyrics more closely than the others: as he sings about a performer being approached by a groupie, we discover that he really is a performer being approached by a groupie.
But even it heightens and complicates the lyrics in interesting ways. In fact, there are some very interesting details in Dirty Diana. For example, he’s singing about this love triangle between himself, My Baby, and Diana. Diana just wants him, or her idea of him as a famous rock star, and she doesn’t really care if she hurts him or My Baby. At one point he sings that he’s talking on the phone with My Baby, and Diana says into the phone, “He’s not coming back because he’s sleeping with me.” That is such a moment of betrayal – just imagine how painful that moment must be for him and My Baby – yet the concert crowd roars when he sings that. The audience goes nuts. And it’s interesting – the roar of the crowd at that moment isn’t on the album; it’s only in the video.
What the crowd’s reaction says pretty clearly is that they aren’t listening to this song from My Baby’s point of view, or even his point of view, but from Diana’s – and really, that makes perfect sense because they are like Diana. They want him too, just like Diana does. We see that in the video when he rips his shirt open. The crowd really goes wild then. He’s an object of desire, and they fantasize about fulfilling that desire, regardless of the consequences for him or his private life.
And actually, that seems to be the position he wants the audience to be in – he wants us to desire him when he’s on stage, and he wants us to align ourselves with Diana. We see that in the lyrics, where he encourages us to sympathize with her and see things from her point of view. So the audience is positioned with her, which makes sense. But then at the end of the video he does that classic Michael Jackson move we see in so many of his videos where he suddenly shifts the perspective. We follow him as he comes offstage, he opens the door of his car, and there’s a very unsettling power chord as he sees there’s a woman waiting for him inside.
Joie: That’s a very sharp observation, Willa. I never made that connection between the roar of the crowd and the audience’s point of view in this video before. Interesting.
Willa: Oh, it’s so interesting – what he does with point of view is just fascinating to me, and he plays with it constantly, in such complicated ways. Like when the perspective shifts in Dirty Diana, suddenly everything takes on a very different character. This isn’t the typical rock star/groupie fantasy we see played out in so many music videos. This is the fantasy giving way to realism, and suddenly our perspective shifts and we’re forced to consider the situation more from his point of view – and his point of view is really complicated. It’s always complicated. He never lets us off with a simple answer.
So there’s a beautiful young woman sitting in his car wanting to have sex with him, and on the one hand, that’s a nice problem to have. I mean, really, things could be worse. But on the other hand, he doesn’t know her, doesn’t know anything about her – doesn’t know if she’s kind or cruel or nutty as a fruitcake – and he’s just described in the lyrics how a woman like this has the potential to hurt him and My Baby. So it’s complicated.
Joie: It is complicated. And, as we talked about last summer during the My Baby series, Dirty Diana perfectly highlights that complicated, often strange issue of celebrity and fame. And it’s also a perfect example of presenting the music “as visually as possible.” As you stated earlier, many of the short films tell a much different story than we would expect when simply listening to the song itself; but that’s not the case with Dirty Diana. Here the short film mirrors the song very closely – so the song itself really does come alive before our very eyes. If that’s not presenting the music visually, I don’t know what is!
Willa: So Joie, last June we began talking about the Bad short film and video cut, but we didn’t really get a chance to look at them in depth. It seems like we’d just started chatting when we had to quit, and there’s so much more to talk about!
Joie: I agree, Willa. It just never felt like we got into the video itself, did it?
Willa: It really didn’t. We started talking about how there really wasn’t a forum for the full 16-minute version of Bad to be seen, which is an important issue.
Joie: It is an important issue and I got sidetracked by my disdain for the “reality” format that killed my MTV, and I’m sorry about that. I’ll try to stay on topic this time.
Willa: Well, sometimes those side trips can be pretty rewarding, but I would like for us to get a chance to burrow in to the film itself, so this week I was hoping we could pick up where we left off a couple months ago.
You know, it really does seem like every time I watch one of Michael Jackson’s short films I see something new, or feel echoes of something I hadn’t felt before, or see a connection I hadn’t really noticed before. And the last time I watched Bad I was really struck by the fact that his character in this film doesn’t have anyone he can truly depend on and trust. We hear the voice of his mother (spoken by Roberta Flack) and she sounds like a warm person and a loving parent, but she’s at work and unavailable. We never see her. He seems to interact and get along well with the other kids at his prep school, but there doesn’t seem to be any real depth of friendship there. He does seem to feel a connection with his friends back in his old neighborhood, but they’re pressuring him hard to prove he’s one of them, so he can’t depend on them either.
In fact, the only person he genuinely connects with in the entire film is the nameless fellow on the train. Like Daryl (and Michael Jackson himself) he’s positioned between two worlds – and this is portrayed literally, as they are riding a train from a rather unfamiliar new life back to the life they grew up in. So both of them are physically and symbolically between two worlds. This fellow on the train seems to understand what Daryl is going through – that patronizing show of acceptance from other students who don’t really accept him – because he’s experienced it himself. He asks Daryl, “How many guys proud of you?” Daryl counts in his head, then says, “Three.” “Shoot,” the other guy says, “Four guys proud of me.”
But that moment of connection lasts only a moment and then he’s gone. Interestingly, when we first see that other guy, he seems threatening. He’s watching Daryl through slitty eyes, and Daryl feels uncomfortable and turns away. So it’s a relief when we realize we can trust this guy … maybe. At least he seems like someone we can trust, but can we really? So in some ways it only heightens this feeling of doubt and alienation, and this sense that there’s no one he can really rely on.
Joie: You are so right about that, Willa. In the beginning, it does seem like this guy on the train is someone very threatening and for a few minutes we don’t really know which way this is going to go. There is a heightened sense of anxiety because of it. Then, by the time he gets off the train, the two have clearly made a connection – as you say – even though it is fleeting. And what I find interesting is that, as he exits, he tells Daryl to “be the man.” It’s like he’s encouraging him to stand up for himself and what he believes in and not be swayed by peer pressure. It’s sort of foreboding in a way, like he’s preparing him for what’s to come.
Willa: Joie, that is so interesting! I never looked at it that way. I always saw that line as a response to the prep school experience they’ve both had, and this idea that they’re being groomed to enter a life of privilege and “be the man.” But you’re right – it also foreshadows the test he’s about to face in his old neighborhood, which in many ways is set up as a test of his manhood. And that reminds me of the lyrics to “Beat It,” which in many ways serves as a prologue to Bad:
Don’t wanna be a boy, you wanna be a man You wanna stay alive, better do what you can
Here too he’s talking about being “a man,” but in this context he’s obviously talking about dealing with gangs. But it’s complicated – does being a man mean you have to hurt people, or be hurt yourself? He raises that question pretty directly in Beat It:
You better run, you better do what you can Don’t wanna see no blood, don’t be a macho man You wanna be tough, better do what you can So beat it, but you wanna be bad
So while he understands “you wanna be a man,” he advises “don’t be a macho man” – though he then ends this verse by acknowledging “you wanna be bad.” So in both of these short films, he seems to be questioning what it means to be bad and be a man – and developing his own unique answers.
Joie: And in doing so, he’s forcing others to think about those questions as well.
Joie: What does it mean to be bad? To be a man? By bringing those questions up, he’s attempting to educate us through his art – something he does so well. And when thinking about the lyrics to “Bad,” it’s almost like he’s telling young men everywhere that their ideas of what it means to be a man are all wrong, as he sings:
Your talk is cheap You’re not a man You’re throwing stones To hide your hands
You know, it’s like the old expression your grandmother would sometimes say when you misbehaved – “don’t throw stones and then hide your hands!” Of course, as a kid, you never really understood what that meant; at least, I didn’t. It wasn’t until this song came out that I bothered to look it up and find out. Basically, it means to start some kind of trouble or mischief and then not take responsibility for it when the consequences start rolling in. And unfortunately, there is quite a lot of that going on in our society – it’s always someone else’s fault. So Michael Jackson was addressing that in “Bad” and saying, that’s not what a real man would do.
Willa: You know, Joie, I always get so much out of our conversations. I’d never heard that expression before. I thought the “throwing stones” line was a reference to the Bible story where a crowd is gathering to stone a woman for committing adultery, but Jesus stops them and says, “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.” In other words, we shouldn’t “throw stones” – we should focus on improving our own behavior instead of criticizing the behavior of others. But then I didn’t understand what the “hide your hands” part meant. But what you’re saying about “don’t throw stones and then hide your hands” makes a lot of sense. That is so interesting.
Joie: It is interesting, isn’t it? One of those old expressions that don’t make a whole lot of sense until you really stop and think about them. Of course, some of them, I never figure out. Like “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” What the heck does that mean, anyway? It drives me crazy! But, I’m not getting sidetracked this time; I promise!
Willa: OK, I’ll be good too and not ask what on earth “naked as a jaybird” means. Birds aren’t naked….
But anyway, it really does seem to me that he’s proposing a new definition of “bad” in this film, and through that a new definition of manhood. At first he tells his friends, “You wanna see who’s bad?” and agrees to help with the robbery. He’s going along with their definition of “bad.” But then he changes his mind and gives them (and us) a different definition – and presents us with two examples of this new definition.
One is very subtle – so subtle it’s easy to miss. It’s in the Wanted poster in the subway station. Big letters at the bottom of the poster tell us this man is “BAD” – and the man in the mugshot is Martin Scorsese, the director of Bad. The poster goes on to tell us he’s “Guilty of Sacrilege.” Scorsese was working on his film The Last Temptation of Christ at about that time, and he would come under intense criticism for it, for being sacrilegious. So he seems to be telling us that Martin Scorsese is “bad” because he’s an artist who challenges social norms.
Ironically, the other example is easy to miss for the exact opposite reason, because it’s so pervasive – it’s Michael Jackson himself. He repeatedly sings, “I’m bad,” and he is, but not because he’s tough or violent. Instead, he’s bad because he’s an artist, and an artist of a certain type – an artist who forces us to see ourselves and our world in a different way. In other words, he’s bad in the same way Martin Scorsese is.
Michael Jackson seems to be saying in this film that acting mean, carrying a gun, selling drugs, robbing an old man, hurting people – those things don’t make you “bad.” Instead, it’s developing your talents, specifically artistic talents, and then using those talents to effect important change in the world, in people’s perceptions and emotions. Michael Jackson and Martin Scorsese are respected around the world because they’re artists, with the unique courage of artists. They’re incredibly talented and creative, and in Michael Jackson’s case especially, they have the courage to present an alternate vision of how life can be lived.
And that reminds me of what you were just saying about throwing stones and then hiding your hands, and how that means to stir things up and then pretend you didn’t do it. You know, artists and gang members do have something very important in common: they’re both transgressive, meaning they both challenge the established social order. But while gang members do it in a negative way and then “hide their hands,” artists do it in a positive way and take responsibility and even pride in their “transgressions.” They show their hands.
Joie: That’s a very interesting analogy, Willa. I would never have thought those two things – artists and gang members – are alike in any way but, you make a great point.
Willa: They do seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, don’t they? But they both push the limits of what’s socially acceptable, and sometimes motivate change. But while gang members tend to bring about negative change – more violence, more police, more repression, more jails – artists can sometimes bring about positive change. And I think the difference is that violence makes people fearful and reactionary, so they close their minds, while art can help open people’s minds to new ways of seeing and experiencing the world.
Joie: Really interesting comparison. But, you know, speaking of gang members … there is something about this video that I have always found fascinating, and that’s the fact that the entire film is shot in black and white while the dance sequence with the gang members is in vibrant technicolor.
Maybe I should pause here and say that you and I talked a bit last spring about exactly who are the “gang members” in this particular short film, and I stated that I didn’t look upon Daryl’s three so-called friends as gang members but as wanna-be thugs. So, when I say “gang members,” I am referring to the dancers, not the friends.
Willa: Though they’re a very different kind of gang – a “gang” of dancers, of artists, which circles back to that connection between artists and outlaws we were just talking about. I hadn’t thought of the dancers in Bad quite that way until just now , but they’re kind of embodying the conflation of those two categories. They are a “gang” of artists – they’re outlaw artists – so doubly transgressive.
Joie: Oh, you’re right. Hadn’t thought of that. But I just love the way that portion of the short film is set apart from the rest of the video by the vibrant color and I always wonder, what was Michael (or Scorsese) trying to convey with that distinction? What message is hidden in that artistic decision? Could it be perhaps that the misery of the lives of the three wanna-be thugs is reflected in the bleak, dismal black and white, and that Michael is showing them through the dance sequence how vibrant and alive they could be if they left their world of violence and misery behind? Or perhaps that’s too simplistic and I’m reading too much into it.
Willa: Oh no, I don’t think you’re reading too much into it, Joie – not at all. It must be important because he repeats that same shift in Ghosts.
Joie: Oh, that’s right; he does make that transition in Ghosts as well!
Willa: He does. We see the fearful villagers and the vengeful mayor creeping toward the Maestro’s castle in black and white, and then a door opens and they see a room suffused with color, and that’s the space of the Maestro. And I think your interpretation of this shift in Bad works equally well for both films. As you said, “the misery of the lives of the three wanna-be thugs,” and the villagers in Ghosts, as well, “is reflected in the bleak, dismal black and white.” And as you say, “Michael is showing them through the dance sequence how vibrant and alive they could be if they left their world of violence and misery behind.” I think that’s a beautiful way to interpret both films.
Another way to approach this is to look back at the most famous example of a film that shifts between color and black and white: The Wizard of Oz. The scenes in Kansas are all shot in black and white, and the scenes in Oz are in color. Michael Jackson was well aware of that shift, and talked about it with Rabbi Boteach when describing how he designed the drive up to Neverland, beginning with the very plain and simple gates:
I was gonna have people swing them open and really kind of have them funky and tattered, just so psychologically you really feel like you’re coming to a ranch, so that when you go around the bend I want it to change to Technicolor, like The Wizard of Oz does.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s “real” world of Kansas is black and white, but the world of her imagination – the world of Oz – is in color. And the same is true of Bad as well: the black and white scenes are “real,” and the color scenes are Daryl’s imagination.
Joie: Willa, that’s fascinating. I hadn’t thought of that before. The color scenes are happening in Daryl’s imagination, so they are in Technicolor! That makes so much sense now.
Willa: Yeah, but it doesn’t work for Ghosts, where all the scenes – both the color and the black and white – are “real.” There the shift seems to mean something different. The color scenes are “real,” but it’s a reality heightened and made vibrant by the creativity of a powerful artist – which is closer to your interpretation, Joie. And I wonder if that isn’t closer to what Michael Jackson had in mind for Bad as well. As in Ghosts, when we’re in the color scenes, we know we’re in the presence of an amazing artist.
So as with a lot of his work, Bad seems to be another example of meta-art – of art talking about art, including the importance of art and the role of the artist. And he seems to be saying that art can bring personal fulfillment as well as social change – that through art we too can shift from a dull, grey, monotonous world of black and white to a world of glorious color.
Joie: That’s a nice thought, Willa.
Joie: As many of you know, our friend, Joe Vogel, has just released a new book called Featuring Michael Jackson. I recently posted a review of it on the MJFC website. It is a collection of Joe’s various articles and essays on the King of Pop, and Willa and I are delighted that he agreed to join us for a discussion about it.
So Joe, this new book is a collection of articles that you have written since Michael passed away in 2009. Why did you decide to only include articles written after his death?
Joe: I guess the one exception to that is the bonus chapter on Michael’s childhood, which was part of the original manuscript to Man in the Music. We ultimately cut that since that book was focused on MJ’s career as a solo artist. Once I finished Man in the Music (or at least finished the heavy research/writing phase), I was able to go back and explore some areas I wasn’t able to in the book. Some of these were by assignment (for example, the PopMatters piece on the Dangerous album or the Atlantic piece on race), some were inspired by new releases (for example, the pieces on “Hollywood Tonight” and “Don’t Be Messin’ Round”), and some were just the result of conversations with Michael’s collaborators. So really, it was just a matter of gathering together in one book some of the MJ-related work I did after writing Man in the Music.
Willa: I’m glad you mentioned the bonus chapter, Joe, because I was hoping to talk with you about that. It’s just a heartbreaker. It really captures the poignancy of Michael Jackson’s childhood. On the one hand, he loved what he was doing – the music and dancing and performing. Yet as you quote in that chapter, “Those were sad, sad years for me.” We see that same paradox in the songs themselves that he recorded at that time. They’re so polished and perfect, you know it must have taken painstaking work to create them. Yet when you listen to them, they sound so fresh and spontaneous – just brimming with sheer joy. You include a Nelson George quotation that describes this so well:
Forty years later … [Michael's] exuberance still leaps out of your speakers. Despite all the work that obviously went into crafting these vocals, Michael still sounds like he just walked into the studio from the playground.
That’s such a bittersweet way of describing his music because, of course, he was rarely able to play on a playground, and he felt that loss deeply. It’s as if the things he wanted most in his life – the things that were absent from his real life – he magically conjured up with his voice, and they became present in his imaginative life – an imaginative life we all enter into and participate in when we listen to his songs. And I wonder if somehow, the fact that he wanted those things so badly – love, sympathy, the simple freedom to play and be a child – is what made them so vibrantly present in his voice.
Joe: I agree, Willa. I’ve always thought one of Michael’s great gifts is his ability to express the full gamut of human emotion. There are some artists who are brilliant at conveying one end of the spectrum (for example, Kurt Cobain), but Michael can take you from the brink of despair to a transcendent, soul-vitalizing joy. I think his solo work takes on more weight and nuance and shades, but even in the Motown songs, I think you’re right, that he is imagining himself into those words and emotions (using what experiences he had to draw from), and his vocal performances reflect that. He’s not just mimicking his heroes, as some critics have said. He’s interpreting and expressing. In so many of his early songs, there is this sense of melancholy and yearning (“Music and Me,” “With a Child’s Heart,” “Maybe Tomorrow,” “Ben”). Yet there is also an exuberance and vitality and charm.
Joe: He’s a lot like Chaplin in that way, though for me Michael communicates on an even deeper level.
Joie: I like the way you put that, Joe. There is a mix of “melancholy and yearning” in many of those early recordings and it always makes me wonder, what experiences was he drawing from? He was so young at the time, really what of life had he experienced? How did he put so much emotion into those songs? It makes me think of Smokey Robinson’s comment about his song, “Who’s Lovin’ You,” that Michael covered. He asked the same questions when he first heard Michael sing it.
“This song is about somebody who has somebody who loved him but … they treated them so bad until they lost them … How could he possibly know these things? … I did not believe that someone that young could have that much feeling and soul and knowing. Knowing. He had a lot of knowing. He had to know something to sing that song like that.”
You know, you always hear the old Motown greats talk about young Michael and they consistently describe him as an “old soul” because he had this amazing ability to infuse his vocal performance with so much emotion and feeling. Feelings that were obviously way beyond his years.
Willa: Jermaine Jackson says that too in You Are Not Alone, and goes on to say that he was kind of like Benjamin Button – that he was “old” as a child, and became “younger” later on as he tried to experience the childhood he never had.
Joie: But, I want to get back to something else you just touched on, Joe. You mentioned Kurt Cobain as someone who is brilliant at exploring one end of the emotional spectrum, and that makes me want to talk about one of the articles in Featuring Michael Jackson. Your PopMatters piece comparing the Dangerous album to Nirvana’s Nevermind is completely inspired.
Willa: I agree.
Joie: It is hands down my favorite article in the book. I love the way you effortlessly point out the differences and similarities between the two. You write:
“Michael Jackson, meanwhile, the defining pop icon of the ‘80s, created an album in Dangerous that had as much—or little—to do with pop as Nevermind did. The stylistic differences are obvious enough. Nevermind was rooted in punk rock and grunge, while Dangerous was primarily grounded in R&B and New Jack Swing. Yet both introduced gritty new sounds to mass audiences weary of 80s sheen—Jackson’s was urban, industrial, streetinflected, while Nirvana’s was raw, grimy, garage rock. Jackson and Cobain also cultivated images as “outsiders”—wounded, sensitive souls at odds with the corrupt world around them. Both Nevermind and Dangerous are populated with a similar sense of angst and alienation, with many songs functioning as a kind of confessional poetry. Compare Cobain’s lyrics from “Lithium”—“I’m so happy / Cause today I found my friends / They’re in my head”—to Jackson’s on “Who Is It”—“I am the damned/ I am the dead/ I am the agony inside this dying head.”
You then go on to compare the Black or White short film to the Smells Like Teen Spirit video, where you point out that it was safe, non-threatening Jackson whose video was deemed more subversive:
“Ironically, it was the “establishment pop star,” not the outsider grunge band, whose music video was censored following public outcry over its controversial coda. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, meanwhile, was in such heavy rotation it had one MTV executive gushing that they had “a whole new generation to sell to.”
On the surface, they seem like such completely opposite entities; I don’t think anyone would argue that point. Michael Jackson and Nirvana couldn’t be any further apart, musically. But yet, you found a connection between the two and made it work. I’m curious, did those commonalities between Dangerous and Nevermind jump out at you immediately?
Joe: Thanks for the kind words about this piece. It was a fun one to write. 1991 was probably the most exciting year of music for me personally. Before 1991, I mostly heard songs on the radio or the albums my parents listened to. I had a small collection of my own cassette tapes. But 1991 was the year that I became obsessed with music and it was the beginning of my lifelong fascination with Michael Jackson. I just remember all these major albums were coming out — Dangerous, Achtung Baby, Use Your Illusion, Cooleyhighharmony, Diamonds and Pearls, Ten, Nevermind — and I loved all of it. I can still vividly remember what it was like buying these at my local record store and opening them up — the sense of discovery and excitement, the smell of the liner notes, the anticipation of popping it in the stereo. My brother and I saved up money for months to buy a $50 boombox. And it was a much different experience then because we would just sit there in our room with no other distractions and listen. I remember getting the Dangerous album and listening to “Black or White” over and over.
But what used to bother me is that even then, as a kid in ’91, liking Michael Jackson was considered strange. All my friends were into rock and grunge – which I liked too. But when it came to Michael Jackson, they felt he was a freak or too feminine or “gay.” For me though, for whatever reasons, even then I could hear and see something similar in Jackson and Cobain. They came from very different places, but there was a woundedness about them. If you could get past the images and the marketing and the groupthink that often surrounds popular music, there were some striking similarities in what they were expressing. All this nonsense about Jackson being a mere pop star or entertainer, I felt, didn’t account for the depth and range of what I was hearing on Dangerous. Of course, I couldn’t articulate much of this at the time. But over the years, when I would see music critics lavish praise on Nirvana and dismiss Michael Jackson, and make these really simplistic claims about Nevermind effectively ending Jackson and everything he represented, I would think, well, wait a minute – let’s break this down: maybe these artists and albums aren’t exactly what popular mythology suggests. So it was really an attempt to re-evaluate their historical (and aesthetic) roles.
Willa: That’s so interesting, Joe, because I had a similar experience. I’ve loved Michael Jackson’s music since I was nine years old, and I just felt things in his songs that I couldn’t articulate. It was years – like 20 years – before I could begin to understand and describe in words what was so compelling for me.
And Joie’s right – your Nirvana article is fascinating, especially how it forces us to really think about what it means to challenge cultural norms. Who really challenged the system at its deepest levels: the “gritty” grunge rocker or the “safe, nonthreatening” pop star? As you show in your article, Joe, perceptions can be very misleading. And I’m not in any way casting aspersions on Kurt Cobain. Rather, I’m talking about the differences you highlight so well between how each of them was perceived, and what they actually confronted.
I’m also intrigued that your friends dismissed Michael Jackson as “a freak or too feminine or ‘gay,’” because I’ve felt for a long time that challenging social norms of gender and sexuality was the most transgressive thing Michael Jackson ever did. You know, there are a lot of rock stars who wear makeup and dress in androgynous ways, but then they express a kind of hyper-masculinity, even misogyny, through their lyrics and personal life that lets us all know they’re really guy guys. We see it from punk rock to heavy metal to hip hop. It’s like it’s ok to play with gender stereotypes a bit if, at the end of the day, you sleep with a bunch of groupies or call women “bitches” and prove you’re really a guy guy at heart.
Michael Jackson never did that. He fundamentally challenged what it means to “be a man,” as he talks about in “Beat It” and “Bad,” and he refused to express his difference in “proper” ways. He wasn’t “properly” straight or properly gay, or properly masculine or feminine, or properly black or white. And he paid a huge price for it. You can make a very strong case that that’s why the molestation allegations “stuck” – because he challenged norms of gender and sexuality. And no one defended him, from the queer theory guys on the left to Southern Baptists on the right to everyone in between. He had no constituency, other than his fans, because he refused to fit proper preconceived categories acceptable to identity politics of any stripe.
Joe: Totally agree with you, Willa. This is part of what James Baldwin is getting at in his essay, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood.” Michael refused to be what people expected him to be. He defied traditional scripts of race, gender and sexuality. I recently saw a rough cut of Spike Lee’s new documentary for Bad 25, and the Bad video, directed by Martin Scorsese, really stuck out
Willa: Oh, that’s right! Spike Lee brought you in as a consultant, right? Joie and I really want to talk with you about that!
Joe: Yes, it was a great experience. Spike is one of my heroes — I have so much respect for his work. He had me down to Brooklyn several times. One of those times we went to a theater in Manhattan and watched a two-hour rough cut of the documentary. The part on the Bad video was just phenomenal. I had goosebumps. I think it’s such a brave, bold, complex film, and it explores many of these issues we were discussing in really profound ways. The refrain – “Who’s bad?” – is in many ways about acceptance and solidarity. But it’s also about defiance and expanding the range of possibilities for a black man in America. Keep in mind, he’s not only showing he’s still down with his friends in Harlem (and by extension, the black community); he’s also saying to the white entertainment industry: “You can’t reduce me to a type. I refuse to fit into one of the four or five boxes or roles that black people have been put in.” So it’s really a remarkable short film on a number of levels.
Joie: It is a remarkable short film and Willa and I are currently working on a Bad series in honor of the Bad album’s anniversary.
But what you just said about him refusing to fit into one of the little boxes usually indicated for black people actually makes me think about another of the articles in Featuring Michael Jackson, “Am I the Beast You Visualized: The Cultural Abuse of Michael Jackson.” I just love that article because it highlights the treatment Jackson was given by the mass media in this country and, to me, that article more than any of the others has the potential to educate non-Jackson fans about who he was and what he went through. When you’re writing, is it your intention to educate others about Jackson or are you simply putting your thoughts down on paper?
Joe: I’m glad to hear you will be doing a Bad series! I’ll be sure to read it when the time comes. To respond to your question about the intent of my writing: it’s really a number of things. I’m trying to introduce Michael’s work to people who haven’t thought of him in such terms before. So yes, there is definitely an “education” component. I want people to see and experience Michael and his work in new ways. I think for the average person he is still more of a celebrity entertainer than a real artist and human being, though that is changing. My goal has always been to try to show the richness, depth, power and vitality of his work and to document how he operated as an artist. When I’m writing, then, my main goal is to try to do justice to Michael – because I think he was treated very condescendingly and dismissively by most critics and journalists. Now, the flip side is to turn him into some kind of demi-god, or as some fans have done, appropriate him for various “causes.” What I’m trying to do is stay focused on the range and diversity and multi-faceted nature of his artistry. I try to push against any narratives that deny him his humanity or his rightful place as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. That latter part isn’t as important for some artists, but it is for Michael because of what he represents.
Willa: Which is … ? He represents so many things for so many people, I wonder if he represents the same thing for you that does for me, or for you, Joie.
Joe: Well, you’re right that he represents many things to many people, but what I mean when I say that is that Michael Jackson signified from a specific place. Who he was and where he came from mattered in terms of how he was received and read. To me, in his life, his work, the context in which he is creating, he represents the “Other,” which is something I explore in that piece. Here’s a passage:
In “They Don’t Care About Us,” he witnesses for the disenfranchised and demeaned. “Tell me what has become of my rights,” he sings, “Am I invisible because you ignore me?” “Little Susie” draws attention to the plight of the neglected and abandoned, telling the story of a young girl whose gifts go unnoticed until she is found dead at the bottom of the stairs in her home (“Lift her with care,” Jackson sings, “Oh, the blood in her hair”); “Earth Song” offers an epic lamentation on behalf of the planet and its most vulnerable inhabitants (represented by the choir’s passionate shouts, “What about us!”). Through such songs (as well as through his life and persona), Jackson became a sort of global representative of the “Other.” The mass media, however, never held much regard for Jackson’s other-ness, just as they held little regard for the “others” he spoke of in his songs. Rather, they found a narrative that was simple and profitable – Jackson as eccentric “freak” – and stuck with it for nearly three decades, gradually upping the stakes.
Willa: Oh, I absolutely agree that he “witnesses for the disenfranchised and demeaned,” as you say, and gives voice to those without a voice. And he challenges not only how we think about Otherness, but how we feel about it, and in really powerful ways. That’s something that has drawn me to his work since I first heard “Ben” as a little girl – it’s one of those things we just talked about that I felt deeply but couldn’t articulate until much later. Typically, the Other is invisible or, when we do see it, it’s disturbing, embarrassing, threatening. But he encourages us to see ourselves in the Other and to feel compassion, as in “Ben” and so many of his later songs – and even to feel liberated by the possibilities Otherness represents, as we see in Ghosts and much of his later work as well.
But you know, while he represents the Outsider in many ways, in other ways he was seen as the ultimate Insider. In fact, the backlash against him began before the scandals and the vitiligo and the “eccentric oddities,” as he calls them in “Is It Scary.” And when the backlash started back in the 80s, it wasn’t because he was “freaky.” Just the opposite. It was because he was seen as too mainstream, too conventional, too focused on record sales and not on revolutionizing the music – in other words, he was seen as too Establishment. And as you point out so well in your article comparing Dangerous with Nirvana’s Nevermind, the critics didn’t reject Dangerous for being too transgressive, but because they couldn’t see just how transgressive and different and defiant it really was.
So even his Otherness is ambiguous, and we see that same complex duality, even multiplicity, that we see in him so much. He’s Insider/Outsider just as he’s Black/White, masculine/feminine, straight/gay/bisexual/asexual/unknowable, Christian/Buddhist/Islamic/Jewish, environmentalist/materialist/artist.
Joe: I agree with you in part, Willa. I definitely concur that these shifting tensions and paradoxes are crucial to Jackson and his work. But I don’t think that he only became “different” and “eccentric” later in his career. At the height of his career, he was, as his character famously says in Thriller, “not like other guys.” Farrakhan criticized him in 1984 for his “female acting, sissified acting expression.” Many people thought he was gay starting in the late 70s and taking hormones for his voice. And of course, as the apartheid on MTV and radio made clear, he was a young black man working in an industry almost completely dominated by white men. So to me the backlash was not about him being too “mainstream”; I think the establishment was uncomfortable and threatened by his power and his difference. The paradox for me is that he manages to be so popular in spite of these differences.
Willa: Well, it’s a complicated question. You’re right that there were people making comments about him in the 80s, but there’s always going to be someone making comments, especially someone like Louis Farrakhan who’s made a career out of saying shocking things. There are things said now about Justin Bieber and pretty much every celebrity out there. But as I remember, that wasn’t the dominant narrative about Michael Jackson in the 80s. If anything, he was seen as too straight and narrow, too conventional – a lightweight. As he wrote in Moonwalk in 1988,
“I think I have a goody-goody image in the press and I hate that. … Everybody has many facets to them and I’m no different.”
And the question of his Insider/Outsider status is even more complicated. As you point out so powerfully in the lead-off article of your new book, “Second to None: Race, Representation, and the Misunderstood Power of Michael Jackson’s Music,” he never received the recognition he deserved. Your list of Rolling Stone album covers is one clear piece of evidence – I was shocked by that. And there’s the familiar story of how Off the Wall was ignored at the Grammy’s. So in that sense he was marginalized, and something of an Outsider.
But on the other hand, he had a lot of power in the 1980s – the power of an Insider – and he knew how to use it. Typically, when we think of an Outsider, it’s someone with no power and no voice – someone who is unheard and invisible to those in power. No one will take their calls, and they’re left sitting in the lobby when they try to get a meeting. That was not Micheal Jackson’s position in the 1980s. Everyone in the 1980s took his call. Whether they liked him or not, they still had to reckon with him. He was simply too powerful to be ignored.
But as we see in his music, he still strongly identified with those without a voice, and so he lent them his voice. He used his voice – the voice of an Insider – to speak for those who have been left out, to express their concerns and their point of view. He knew what it felt like to be over-looked and marginalized, yet he also understood how power worked, from the inside out. And that double-vision of the Insider/Outsider is fascinating to me. It’s part of what gave his work such depth and nuance.
Joe: I think we are mostly on the same page here, though we may be framing the oppositions a bit differently. I agree that he was popular, successful and powerful, but I still don’t feel comfortable describing him as an “insider.” Even at the peak of his mainstream acceptability, when he appears with Reagan at the White House, he is clearly not a part of that world. He is different (indeed, almost the polar opposite of Reagan). I have a biography of Michael Jackson written by Dave Marsh called Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream, which was published in 1985. Marsh represents the kind of cultural consensus coming from establishment journalists and rock critics in the 80s, and the tone is very condescending, arrogant and disdainful. Michael is very clearly not taken seriously the way someone like, say, Bruce Springsteen would be. The irony (and this is what I try to point out in the Dangerous piece and the Atlantic piece) is that critics like Dave Marsh delude themselves into believing that they and their traditionally white hetero-normative rock heroes are the “outsiders” when they are the ones operating within much more conservative scripts, they are the ones appearing on magazines, they are the ones who have no trouble getting on TV and radio, they are the ones who get fawned over by critics and executives.
So yes, Michael was an insider in that his success gave him some money and an enormous platform — and he was a very keen businessman who understood the industry and outwitted some of its biggest power brokers. But once he turned some of those tables, as Baldwin puts it, he had an enormous target on his back because he was never really accepted as part of that system. His power and standing was always tenuous. He had to break down barriers on TV, radio and print – none of that access was a “given” in the early 80s. But the irony is that even when he did that and was selling millions of records and on constant rotation at MTV, he was culturally positioned as “different” – and, of course, that only intensified in the years to come.
Willa: I see what you’re saying and I think you’re right – we are basically on the same page. I guess it just depends on how we define an Insider. You know, a lot of people thought Reagan was an Outsider because he wasn’t part of the Washington establishment, he didn’t go to the “right” schools or have a law degree – he was an actor, and a divorced actor at that. The Old Guard of his own party didn’t accept him for a long time. And I don’t know that anyone is ever so secure in their position that they overcome the fear of losing their status. Presidents can lose the next election; tycoons can lose their money; rock stars can lose their fan base. That Insider standing is tenuous for everyone, and the deep-seated fear that arises from that uncertainty is part of what keeps the whole system running, I think.
But I absolutely agree that Michael Jackson possessed an Outsider sensibility, certainly much more than most of the rock critics condemning him – critics who positioned themselves as raging against the system while functioning very comfortably within it. Which makes it especially ironic that they speak so condescendingly and disdainfully of Michael Jackson as representing the Establishment.
Joie: Well, I think this debate between the two of you has been fascinating and I can’t decide which side I come down on. I think you both make very valid points and I agree with you both. I think Joe is right when he says that you are basically on the same page here.
Joe, Willa and I really appreciate you making time to talk with us once again and I am thrilled to add Featuring Michael Jackson to my personal library. It is a wonderful collection and, as always, so thought provoking. I truly feel that you are on the front lines in the battle to change the conversation when it comes to Michael Jackson and, for that, I thank you.
Willa: I agree. Thank you, Joe.
Joe: Thanks to both of you! It’s always a pleasure.
Joie: So, Willa, you know that there is a whole huge campaign going on right now for Sony’s upcoming re-issue of the Bad album. They’re re-releasing it in honor of its 25th Anniversary and it sounds like it’s going to be a pretty big deal, with a re-issue of the album itself, plus a separate disc of previously unreleased material that was recorded during the Bad sessions, plus a third disc recorded live during the Bad tour – the first ever Michael Jackson live CD – and a DVD of the July 16, 1988, concert at Wembley Stadium performed in front of the Prince and Princess of Wales! I’m really excited about it.
Willa: I am too. I actually went to Walmart today to get the new Bad-era single “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” / “Don’t Be Messin’ ‘Round.” To be honest, I haven’t bought a single since the old 45s with the big hole in the middle. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as singles anymore, except on iTunes. So I went to Walmart and was completely disoriented – wandered around for about 10 minutes before I even found the music section – and then it wasn’t there. They had Immortal and Number Ones but that was it, and I didn’t see any singles for anyone anywhere. So either they had sold out already, or that store wasn’t carrying it.
Joie: You know, I couldn’t find it at my Walmart either. I don’t know if they can’t keep it stocked or if they didn’t carry it at all but, I was very disappointed. Anyway, not surprisingly, all this has me thinking about the Bad album, and more specifically, the Bad video. I just love the long version of that video with the black and white, Martin Scorsese film. And I love the way that story sort of frames the actual music video itself.
Willa: I do too. I saw the video many times when it was in rotation on MTV, but didn’t see the full Scorsese film until years later, and I was stunned by it. I’ve always really liked the Bad video. He’s addressing some very important and sensitive issues – and at the risk of sounding like a teeny bopper, let me just say upfront that he is unbelievably gorgeous throughout the entire dance sequence. But the film is fascinating and adds so much nuance and dimension to what’s happening in the video cut. As with so many of Michael Jackson’s films, there is so much going on – and the more you look, the more you see.
Joie: Oh, I agree. I always see something new, or something that I hadn’t noticed before, every time I watch a Michael Jackson video or live performance. It is really amazing how that happens. But I’m shocked by your admission. You really went years before you saw the full short film version of this video? How did that happen?
Willa: Well, Joie, I guess the short answer is that I’m old! I wrote my college papers on a typewriter, if you can believe that. It had built-in correction tape, and I thought that was really high-tech! And I did my graduate research without the Internet. Just imagine. I went to the library to do my research. How quaint is that? My son actually asked me the other day if cars were invented when I was a kid. For Pete’s sake.
Joie: Oh, Willa. Sometimes you make yourself sound like a dinosaur. You are not THAT old! I wrote my college papers on a typewriter too, for heaven’s sake!
Willa: Really? Well, that’s reassuring. Thanks, Joie. And I don’t mean to sound like a dinosaur – I think I’m still a little wigged out from wandering around inside that huge strange store with no idea where anything was, or what I was even looking for. I felt like Mr. Magoo.
So anyway, MTV played the Bad video, but they didn’t play the entire film. And it wasn’t in movie theaters. And there wasn’t any YouTube – there wasn’t even an Internet. So where would I have seen it? Where did you see it?
Joie: Well, you know, sometimes MTV and VH1 and others would have a special ‘Michael Jackson Weekend’ and they would play the long versions of all the videos. You might have seen it that way. So anyway, now I’m really interested to know, since you had only seen the short version for so long, what was your initial reaction when you finally saw the long version? Did it measure up to things you had maybe heard about it? Or had you even heard about it?
Willa: I don’t think I did know there was a longer film or I would have made an effort to see it. I’ve always liked the video cut, and think it’s fascinating how he’s redefining what it means to be “bad.” He’s not bad because he’s mean or macho, but because he has self-knowledge – he’s in tune with himself. He’s creative and talented and more adorable than mere mortals have any right to be, and he’s not afraid to show it. I loved that.
You know, a lot of critics mocked him because they said he looked effeminate but was claiming to be “bad,” and I absolutely disagreed with that all the way around. First of all, he’s not effeminate. He doesn’t reject his feminine side (which is refreshing) but he certainly doesn’t reject his masculine side either – he just seems like a wonderfully complete person to me. Secondly, I strongly objected to the notion that you have to be macho to be “bad,” or worthy of respect. To me, this video is pushing back against that kind of thinking – in fact, that’s the whole point, to my mind – and I really welcomed that.
But then I saw the complete film, and suddenly the video portion took on so much more meaning than it ever had before. It was amazing to me. So you didn’t have that experience? You saw the long film around the same time as the video, so knew how it all fit together?
Joie: Yes. In fact, the first few times I saw the video, it was the long version. I think MTV played it in its entirety for like a whole day or something. You know … back then, they used to make a really big deal out of video premieres, and the day a video premiered, they would show it at the top of every hour for the entire day.
You know, this is slightly off topic here but, I feel led to say this. MTV really used to be something special. Now, of course, you would never know that because all they show anymore are “reality” shows but, back in the day – when Music Television actually focused on the music – it was the coolest station on cable. Never before had there been a station completely devoted to popular music; it was awesome and unlike anything we had ever seen! And then it just … died. I honestly don’t know how they still get away with calling themselves MTV. They should change their name to RTV!
Willa: Actually, that raises a really important question, Joie. Where do people go to see music videos now? YouTube? I use YouTube a lot for looking up things I already know about, but I don’t know that it exposes you to new bands and new videos the way MTV did.
Joie: No, that’s really true, Willa. And it’s also a little sad. I have a teenaged nephew who loves “reality” TV shows and MTV is his favorite channel because that’s all they show. When I told him what the M in MTV actually stood for, he had no clue! He had no idea that it used to be a channel devoted to music. And he’s a very talented young musician himself! But I just think it’s so sad that there’s an entire generation out there that has no idea how great MTV used to be.
Willa: Hampton Stevens talks about that a bit in his wonderful article in The Atlantic, “Michael Jackson’s Unparalleled Influence,” and he has an interesting take on the rise and fall of MTV:
The oft-repeated conventional wisdom – that Jackson’s videos made MTV and so “changed the music industry” is only half true. It’s more like the music industry ballooned to encompass Jackson’s talent and shrunk down again without him.
I have to say, I think he’s on to something.
Joie: It is an interesting thought, isn’t it? And in some ways, it’s a very valid point he’s making. Of course, that’s not to discredit all the thousands of other wonderful bands and artists that were featured on MTV over the years but, it is almost as if they simply couldn’t exist in the music format without the continued contributions of the King of Pop. You know, this is a topic that fascinates me and it may need further exploration sometime.
But getting back to the Bad video, even though I had seen the whole short film version when it premiered, after that it really was like it went underground for several years and you just had to be lucky enough to catch one of those ‘Michael Jackson Weekends’ in order to get a glimpse of the film version. But it really is an incredible film, and what I love most about it is the fact that it really showcases Michael’s acting ability. You know, he was not a bad actor and he’s never really been given credit for that.
Willa: Oh, I think he’s an amazing actor, and an intelligent actor, if that makes sense. One of the things I love most about his lyrics are their emotional complexity, and we see that emotional complexity in his acting as well. The character he plays in Bad has a lot of different forces weighing on him, and as an actor, he conveys that so subtly and well.
His character is a smart kid from the inner city who’s done well and earned a scholarship to a prestigious prep school, and the film opens with him at the prep school trying to negotiate this other world that sees him as something of an outsider. Then we see him coming back to his old neighborhood and trying to re-enter and negotiate the world he grew up in, but that world doesn’t fit him anymore either. So we see him positioned between these two worlds – just as Michael Jackson himself always seemed to be positioned between two worlds – and we can really see and feel his internal struggles as he works through all that.
Joie: I agree with that statement, Willa, that Michael himself always seemed to be positioned between two worlds. I never quite made that comparison between his own life and this short film though. Very keen observation.
Willa: It’s funny, isn’t it? On the surface, this kid from the inner city seems to have very little in common with a superstar like Michael Jackson, but there are some pretty profound connections between them, I think. Or maybe it’s just part of his skill as an actor that we feel a connection between him and the character he’s portraying.
Joie: But you know, the really interesting thing about this video is that the storyline of the short film is actually based on a true story. In fact, Michael was very careful not to take credit for the storyline of the video, as we saw during a taped interview for Ebony/Jet Magazine back in 1987. Michael told the interviewer that they adapted the story from an actual incident that was reported in Time or Newsweek magazine where a young Black boy from the ghetto named Daryl goes away upstate to prep school in a bid to better his life, and when he returned home on Thanksgiving break, his old friends back in the hood became so envious of him and suddenly saw him as such an outsider, that they actually killed him. So, once again, we see him using his art to draw attention to the social ills plaguing us.
Willa: Oh, I’m glad you shared that, Joie, because I had that story all wrong. I thought the real story behind the screenplay was that his old friends talked him into joining them in a robbery, and he was killed during the robbery.
But what’s really interesting to me about how the screenplay revises the actual story is that there are no bad guys. As you say, he often uses his videos and longer films to draw attention to social ills, but he also forces us to then think about those social ills in more complicated ways. It’s very easy to say the problem of gang violence is simply that there are all these evil hoodlums running around in gangs. But as Bad shows us, these guys may be talking tough and playing the role of hoodlums – “wanna-be thugs” as you called them a few weeks ago, Joie – but they aren’t mean or evil. They’re just young men trying to prove themselves and protect themselves in a harsh environment.
At the same time, it’s very easy to go to the opposite extreme as well – from a position of rigid condemnation of these young men to a position of moral relativism – and say we’re all the product of social forces so there’s really no such thing as free will, and no such thing as right and wrong. And Michael Jackson rejects that as well. As he sings to those wanna-be gang members, “You’re doing wrong / Gonna lock you up before too long.” And in the long call-and-response at the end, he tells them that if they don’t know the difference between right and wrong, they need to find out:
Ask your brother Ask your mother Ask your sister Ask me ’Cause you’re doing wrong
So while he refuses to condemn them, he still insists that they need to make a choice between right and wrong, and he insists that their choice matters.
Joie: And I think that’s a message that he tried repeatedly to convey to us, Willa. That our choices matter. Whether we’re talking about racism, like in “Black or White,” or about prostitution, like in the Who Is It short film, or about gang violence and inner-city turmoil like in this video. We always have a choice in life – no matter what the circumstance – and our choices are important; they shape the outcome of our lives.
Willa: That’s a really important point, Joie. You’re right – we can’t control the circumstances we’re born into, or many of the things that happen to us, but we can control how we respond to those circumstances, and those decisions matter. As he sings so beautifully in “Much Too Soon” from the Michael album,
I hope to make a change now for the better Never letting fate control my soul
We can’t control fate, but that doesn’t mean we have to let fate control us.
Joie: And I think that is the central message of the Bad short film, Willa.
So, next week, Willa and I will begin a 10-week Summer hiatus. It’s that time of year when everyone is busily taking advantage of the nice weather and enjoying some much needed R & R with their families, and Willa and I both have some upcoming travel plans so, it’s time for Summer vacation. But this doesn’t mean that we’re going to leave you high and dry! We have decided to revisit some of our favorite blog posts over the next 10 weeks and we’re actually really excited about it. We spent a great deal of time going over our conversations and deciding which ones to “rerun” and I think we were a little surprised when our choices coincided perfectly.
Willa: Though looking back, maybe it’s not so surprising, Joie. We discovered that, while it’s important to look at larger cultural issues sometimes, such as prejudices about race, gender, and sexuality, what really nourishes both of us is Michael Jackson’s art – his songs, his videos, his voice. That’s not too surprising! So for the next 10 weeks we’ll snuggle in with some blog posts from throughout the year that take a close look at his art. And the comments sections will still be open, so we hope you’ll join us as we revisit some of his songs and videos and maybe bring new perspectives to the conversation the second time around.
Joie: Willa, last week we talked about the Ghosts short film and that got me thinking about the dance sequence in that video. You know, for so many years, Michael’s name has been synonymous with dance, and he has long been recognized as one of the greatest dancers of our time. I believe we would have to search long and hard to find someone – anyone – who would take issue with that statement. Even people who don’t consider themselves to be fans seem to have no trouble admitting that. In fact, he was the first figure from the world of rock and roll to be inducted into the prestigious National Dance Hall of Fame in 2010.
Willa: Really? How do you know all this, Joie? You’re just amazing. But no, I didn’t know about that. That is impressive.
Joie: Yeah, it is really impressive. Especially since the honor is usually reserved for classically trained dancers from the world of ballet and modern dance. The list of inductees includes names like George Balanchine, Martha Graham and Bronislava Nijinska as well as Fred Astaire and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
I think one of the reasons so many people acknowledge his dance talent is because he always used his short films to showcase that amazing ability, and I really love the big dance sequence in the Ghosts short film. Even though it’s the storyline and the dialogue that really drive this video, the dance sequence, to me, is really just as important. From the very beginning where he introduces the invading villagers to his “family” of ghosts, to the very menacing charge against the Mayor, to the almost angelic conclusion where the ghosts float from the ceiling in reverence. I think it’s one of the most complex dance sequences we’ve ever seen in a Michael Jackson video and I love how he used the background music to sort of shift the mood of the dance throughout – from lighthearted circus-feel entertainment, to very threatening, to almost ethereal. It’s just so much fun to sit and watch; I love to pop in this video and really immerse myself in it.
Willa: Oh, I agree! The dance sequences are fascinating and you’re right – they really propel us through a wide range of emotions. I wish I knew more about dance so I could be more aware of what’s happening and have a better understanding of what he’s doing and why. He had three choreographers, including Travis Payne, working with him and the other dancers on this movie, but the credits say, “All Dance Sequences Conceived and Staged by Michael Jackson.” And you can definitely feel his guiding vision in these dance sequences – they embody through physical movement some of the central themes of the film. And that first dance, with all those ghosts and ghouls dancing behind him, feels so different from any other dance sequence he ever did.
You know, he really liked to develop each dance so that it precisely fit what he was trying to convey in that particular piece. In a 1999 MTV interview, he described how he and Michael Peters choreographed the big dance sequence with the zombies in Thriller:
“It was a delicate thing to work on,” he says, because zombies move in such a stiff, unnatural way – they clomp around on their undead legs and can scarcely walk. As he says, “I remember my original approach was, How do you make zombies and monsters dance without it being comical?” He approached that problem by imaginatively putting himself in the body of a zombie and working through it that way. As he says, “I got in the room with Michael Peters, and he and I together kind of imagined how these zombies should move.”
And they solved the problem brilliantly. When you watch the big dance sequence in Thriller, it feels so right you don’t even think about how difficult it must have been to choreograph a dance for undead legs. He and the other zombies really move, so it’s fun to watch, but there are some distinctive gestures that vividly convey the idea that these are rigid, corpse-like bodies.
Joie: And, you know, it’s not something that most people would think about. But asking the question, “how do you make zombies dance without it being comical,” is really what made him such a brilliant talent – that attention to detail is incredible. He approached everything he did with that same obsessive attention to detail. It’s really astounding to think about! I just love when he says that he would even go so far as to show up for rehearsals with Michael Peters wearing monster makeup in order to get into character, to make it easier to envision just how these undead creatures would move and dance. That dedication to detail is key.
Willa: I agree. I think it’s subtle details like that, along with the ability to imaginatively put yourself in the emotional and physical space of your character, that sets apart great dancers, great actors, great artists. I remember reading an article one time about Baryshnikov when he was very young. He was dancing the role of a toy, I think it was, who comes to life, but he was acting listless on stage. His instructor stopped the music and asked if there was something wrong, and he said no, he just hadn’t come to life yet. I love that! He was dragging around on stage because he was completely immersed in that role and imagining what it would be like to inhabit a wooden mechanical body and not yet have a living body. How would your arms and legs move if they weren’t alive yet?
Michael Jackson had that same imaginative capacity to genuinely inhabit a character and move in a way that suggested he really was a zombie or a gangster or a mayor forced to dance against his will. He describes dancing as the Mayor in “The Making of Ghosts,” about 6½ minutes in:
Joie: You know what I love about that clip, Willa, is the fact that, even though he is being interviewed about his new video, he stays completely in character because of all the makeup and conducts the interview as the Mayor – with the voice, the attitude and everything! So funny.
Willa: I love that too! And then he starts to jerk and move, and it really feels like something inside him is yanking his muscles and compelling him to dance. And then he really gets into it and starts to groove, but there’s still that resistance the Mayor has to the dance. It’s just amazing to hear him talk through what’s happening as he does it, and so fun to watch him pull it off.
I see something similar but a little more complicated happening in the big dance sequence in Ghosts. He’s creating a dance that’s appropriate for these characters – for ghosts and ghouls – but he’s also creating a dance that carries out an important thematic function by evoking the grotesque. He suggests the grotesque in many different ways throughout Ghosts: in the contortions of his face when he first confronts the villagers, in the laughing fool with his jingling three-pointed hat, in the irreverent ghouls who challenge the Mayor, in the upside-down dancing on the ceiling. And he also evokes it through the dance steps themselves. There’s lots of splayed legs, and these skittery spider-like jumps and sidewinder movements that we’ve never seen him do before.
Joie: You’re right, there are lots of really different, menacing, even almost sinister moves in this one. In Thriller, even though they were portraying dancing undead zombies, the feel of the dance was still sort of lighthearted, soft-horror. But in Ghosts, the entire dance sequence feels much darker and more frightening because of the unique choreography.
Willa: I hadn’t thought about that, but it is kind of unsettling, isn’t it, just because it is so different from any dance I can think of. I don’t remember ever seeing a dancer move their body in quite that way before. And you know, while you see people from around the world doing so many distinctive Michael Jackson dance moves, you don’t see them doing those splayed-leg movements from Ghosts. I’ve never seen those moves outside this film, and maybe that’s also because they are so unnervingly different.
There is so much going on in this film, and in the dance sequences, and there are some subtle gestures that really jump out at me in interesting ways. For example, he begins the first dance sequence by calling up all these ghouls to dance with him and then wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. He uses that same gesture in Bad after calling up the imaginary gang members/artists to back him up in the big dance sequence there. And the Macaulay Culkin character does the same thing in the intro to Black or White, just before blasting the electric guitar so loud he sends his father flying back to Africa and the origins of music and dance.
That small gesture seems to carry the same meaning in all three cases. In all three, a rather powerless solitary figure is confronted with the threat of violence, and in all three he stands up to that threat and counters it with art: with music and dance. It’s almost like Michael Jackson is creating his own vocabulary of gesture, so when we see him wipe his mouth with the back of his hand in Ghosts, we feel the echoes of those prior films and kind of know what’s coming.
Joie: “His own vocabulary of gesture.” I like that!
Willa: You know what I mean, right? It’s just so fascinating to me what he’s doing – how he uses subtle gestures like that to signify a very specific concept, but in an unspoken way. He does something similar to begin the skeleton dance. As we were talking about last week, the villagers have very conflicted feelings about the Maestro – they aren’t sure if they can trust him or not – so he reflects that back at them by making himself unfamiliar, a skeleton, but then dances in a very fun, familiar way that draws them to him.
Interestingly, he begins the skeleton dance by jerking up his right shoulder – and that is exactly how he began the zombie dance in Thriller. And he’s dealing with a similar situation in both films. In Thriller, he’s addressing people’s very conflicted feelings about him as our first black teen idol. The United States was and is a racist country with oppressive taboos against inter-racial relationships – especially in the early 1980s when Thriller was made – and suddenly millions of teenage girls of all races were fainting at his concerts and affirming that he was sexually desirable. So he was really challenging those taboos, and a lot of people felt very unsettled about that. He responded to those conflicted emotions just as he does in Ghosts: he makes himself unfamiliar – a zombie – so he reflects those emotions back at us, but then dances in a way that’s unmistakably Michael Jackson and draws us in to him.
Joie: Ok, you have officially blown me away here! I never made that connection between the skeleton dance in Ghosts and the zombie dance in Thriller before. But you are right; he does begin both dances the exact same way, in order to remind us that he is still the same person. Wow!
Willa: Isn’t it fascinating? He just knocks me out, over and over again – he’s just breathtakingly brilliant. Every time I experience his work, I feel awed by it all over again.
Joie: Willa, that is a statement that I think so many of us can agree with. It never fails to astound me that, no matter how many times I listen to his music or watch one of his short films or watch a concert performance, I always discover something new that I had never heard or experienced before. It’s just amazing to me.
Willa: Oh, I know! And it’s so interesting to me how he conveyed meaning through so many different avenues simultaneously. For example, he conveys so much through that gesture of jerking up his right shoulder or wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, and importantly, those gestures are nonverbal. I wonder if that’s one reason his work was so popular around the world – because even if you didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand the lyrics, you could still understand the central ideas because he was able to convey meaning in so many other ways.
And he didn’t just use gesture to convey concepts and emotions. He used them to convey personality details as well that brought his characters vividly to life. In a wonderful comment Nina posted a couple weeks ago, she describes how he was able to “sketch a character” through a few subtle gestures:
As some of the most skilled artist/draftspeople could sketch a character in an attitude or pose with just a few simple lines – so that we become privy to an essence the figure’s demeanor and personality – Michael could perform such a character “sketch” through movement alone. It’s gestural economy at its finest … you can recognize the “character” at once.
Nina goes on to say,
he can strike the attitude of a louche sort of fellow who runs a comb through his hair in “Billie Jean,” a gangster in “Smooth Criminal,” and a different [gangster] in “You Rock My World,” and so on. Each of these characters is composed of a few basic elements that are familiar throughout his repertoire. But these elements are rearranged and sequenced in a different way for each “number,” with variations throughout. It’s no wonder that, as a mime, he’d been going to perform with Marcel Marceau. And in film study, we’d consider Michael’s distinctive style that runs throughout his body of work the mark of an “auteur.”
Nina’s descriptions of his “gestural economy” are so interesting, and I absolutely agree about his ability to “sketch a character … with just a few simple lines,” so the “essence” of that character comes to life for us. So in Ghosts, for example, he isn’t just performing the dance of a generic Mayor forced to move against his will. He’s performing as a Mayor with a distinctive personality and specific desires and biases and beliefs, including a desperate need to be in control at all times. And those individualizing characteristics are conveyed to us through simple gestures, such as that abrupt gesture with his hands when his body begins to move. He’s losing control of his legs and then his hips as his body begins to dance, but he’s trying to reassure the villagers that he’s still in control – of the situation, of the Maestro, of them, of his own body.
Joie: Willa, I love the comment you used from Nina. I agree with what she says about the “elements being rearranged and sequenced in a different way for each number.” This is really true and we can see this in various performances throughout his career. One of my absolute favorites is the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards performance. His entire opening number is incredible. He performs a medley of “Don’t Stop,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Scream,” “Beat It,” “Black or White,” and “Billie Jean,” with a little help from his friend, Slash.
But it’s the full-length rendition of “Dangerous” that really makes this performance something special. He’s not even singing live here but, you quickly forgive and forget about it because the dance is so spectacular! Even now, nearly 20 years later, I can’t watch it without getting goosebumps. The way he moves is just so totally beyond anyone else; it’s like he’s made of rubber. His body bends and twists and moves in ways that regular people’s just don’t. There have been, and I’m sure there will continue to be, many imitators but, the simple fact is that nobody else moves like that! Slash once made this observation:
”The thing about Michael is he’s hands down one of the most professional, most talented performers I have ever worked with. All the brouhaha aside, when it comes down to it, you can have 60 choreographed dancers up there and you know which one Michael is.”
I just love this quote because Slash is absolutely right; you can always pick Michael out when he’s on stage with other singers and dancers. He just moves differently than anyone else. And I especially love that this quote came from Slash – someone you wouldn’t normally think would pay attention to the dancing, you know?
Willa: And what he says is absolutely true. When Michael Jackson is dancing with a group, you simply can’t take your eyes off him. Even in the group dance in The Way You Make Me Feel when all you can see are silhouettes of the dancers, you know which one is him and you can’t help watching him.
And of course, he also received praise from professionals who do pay close attention to dancing – people like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Debbie Allen, and Michael Flatley, as Jacksonaktak noted in a comment a couple months ago. I love this quote she cited from Baryshnikov, saying,
What Baryshnikov remembers most about Jackson, he said, was “… his simple, bouncy walk across the stage, that was what was most beautiful and arresting, swinging his hips, kicking his heel forward. That’s to me what he is: that superior confidence in his body as a dancer. You wanted to say, ‘Wow, this guy, what a cat; he can really move in his own way.’”
As soon as I read this, I could picture that “simple, bouncy walk” so well. I love that walk, and it’s so distinctively Michael Jackson. We see snippets of it throughout the MTV medley you love so much, Joie. He also performs it as the skeleton in Ghosts, and even as a skeleton, it is so distinctively him. It’s just so joyful and carefree, and as Baryshnikov says, it reflects “that superior confidence in his body as a dancer.”
Joie: Yeah, that is a great quote from Baryshnikov and, you’re right. He did receive a lot of praise from many in the dance community. From the highly acclaimed and regarded all the way to the neophyte just trying to catch a break – like all those young dancers at the beginning of the This Is It film. You know, during an interview on The Making of Thriller, Michael Peters talks about how Michael had never taken a formal dance lesson in his life and yet, there he was in the dance rehearsals with all of these classically trained dancers who had been studying dance for years, and he was not simply holding his own with them, but he was actually out-dancing them. “It’s just something you’re born with,” Peters said. “It’s just in him.”
Willa: As we’ve talked about many times, Joie, Michael Jackson wasn’t just an amazing artist – the most important artist of our time, I believe. He was also a transformational cultural figure whose art brought about deep cultural changes. Through his art, he was able to revise some of our most entrenched cultural narratives, especially narratives about racial differences, and profoundly influence how we as a people respond to those narratives. So, as an artist, he wasn’t just expressing himself creatively. He was also very focused on how his art impacted his audience.
All of this has me thinking about the number of times he incorporates an on-screen audience into his videos. Sometimes that audience participates – most famously when the two feuding gangs join the big ensemble dance in Beat It. Other times, they simply watch, like the gang members in Bad, or the villagers in Ghosts, or the club managers in You Rock My World. Either way, I’m struck by the number of times he positions us as an audience so that we are, in effect, watching him perform over the shoulder of an on-screen audience.
Joie: You’re right, Willa; it is a formula that he uses often. But I’m struck by what you just said about the Bad video. The gang members, or dancers, are actively participating. But it’s the three so-called “friends” who are standing there watching. I guess I just don’t view them as gang members but rather as young punks who think they’re bad. Wanna-be thugs.
Willa: That’s interesting, Joie. I never really thought about that before, but you’re right. I don’t think of the dancers as gang members. I think of them as dancers, imaginary dancers. The whole dance sequence happens in his imagination. But I do tend to think of the three friends planning the robbery as gang members – in fact, I often refer to them that way – but you’re right, they aren’t. They’re just “young punks who think they’re bad,” as you say.
And that’s a really important distinction because the whole point of Bad is to redefine what it means to be “bad,” which is exactly what those three friends are struggling with. Does it mean being respected because you’re tough – “wanna-be thugs,” as you called them? Or can you be “bad” in a different way, and be respected for other reasons? This is the pivotal issue at the center of Bad, and it’s an excellent example of Michael Jackson using his art to rewrite a cultural narrative. And I believe the presence of those three friends as the on-screen audience is crucial to conveying that idea.
Earlier in the film, we see the three friends trying to force their definition of “bad” onto the main character, Daryl. He starts to go along with it, even though he knows it’s wrong, because he wants their respect. But then there’s the big dance sequence where he shares with them a new definition of “bad.” He reveals to them that he’s an artist – an incredible singer and dancer who can both challenge and move people through his art. His friends watch all this and then clasp hands with him.
That handshake is the climax of the film, I think, because that’s the moment when his friends make the crucial decision to accept his redefinition. So he’s found an entirely new way to gain the respect of his peers – not by being tough and committing petty crimes, but by developing and expressing his talents and creativity. And I believe that on-screen audience is modeling the response he wants from us as an audience as well. He wants us to accept his redefinition too, just as the on-screen audience does.
Joie: I agree; he does want the on-screen audience to model the behavior he expects of the off-screen audience. It’s classic Michael Jackson really. In most of his short films I believe his goal was always to try and teach us something. If you think about it, in almost every video there was a message or a lesson hidden in there somewhere, and it’s our job as the audience to try and figure out what that lesson or message is. And in the videos that have an on-screen audience, we can usually figure out what the lesson is by watching the response of the on-screen audience.
Willa: That’s a really interesting take on that, Joie. So the on-screen audience can be seen as an interpretive tool too, helping us figure out the meaning of the video. That’s really interesting.
Joie: It is interesting, isn’t it? You know, Willa, my favorite videos with an on-screen audience are the ones that incorporate concert footage: Give In to Me, Dirty Diana, and Come Together. They are three of my favorites and I think it’s because Michael was always so electrifying to watch onstage anyway. So these videos where it’s sort of a “staged” concert performance are really interesting to watch for me. It’s like he’s walking a very thin line between all-out performance and playing a scripted character. I find that fascinating. I also think it’s really interesting that these concert videos are among his sexiest, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that he was always very naturally sexual on stage.
Willa: Oh, I’d agree with that! And that’s an interesting distinction between the footage from his live concerts and the concerts that were “staged” as part of a video. I hadn’t thought of that before. But while it’s more subtle, you can make a pretty strong case that his concert videos have an important political message as well – a message that is reinforced once again by the on-screen audience. As we’ve talked about before, he was a sex symbol – the first Black teen idol – at a time when Black men weren’t supposed to be sexual in public. They were supposed to repress that part of themselves. And wow, did he challenge that one!
And once again, that on-screen audience – which includes a lot of screaming, fainting, crying women of all races – models for us how we should react. We shouldn’t feel shocked or upset or threatened by a sexy young Black man ripping his shirt open in front of us. We should set aside the racist prejudices of the past and just appreciate that beautiful body for the wonder that it is. And we did! All of us – Black, White, Asian, all races. He completely rewrote that cultural narrative. Just as importantly, he revised the emotional response both women and men had to that cultural narrative.
Joie: I agree. And that also goes back to what I was just saying about there usually being a message or a lesson hidden in every short film. And you just pointed out, I think, the main lesson of all those performance videos – breaking through those racial prejudices and rewriting that particular cultural narrative.
You know, Willa, I wonder, do you think other artists – mainly today’s popular music artists – ever focus on how their music and videos, or even their image, will impact not only their audience but the world around them? Because I think Michael was very much aware of that and I believe he actively focused on it, as you said earlier. But with a lot of today’s artists, I don’t get that feeling.
Willa: Oh, I don’t know. I think some younger artists are very passionate about social change, whether explicitly – like Will.i.am’s Yes We Can video supporting Barack Obama during the last presidential campaign – or more subtly, like Lady Gaga’s Born This Way video. I know you and I disagree about that one, but I see her video as a direct descendant of Can You Feel It, both visually and thematically. Both are fighting the many manifestations of prejudice, but while Can You Feel It focuses on racism, Born This Way focuses on homophobia and the deep prejudices surrounding sexuality.
Joie: Well, you’re right; we do completely disagree about that video, and I guess I walked right into that one. But Lady Gaga and Will.i.am aside, I see a lot of popular artists out there right now who I just don’t think give any real thought to how their music impacts the world. I don’t want to offend anybody so, I won’t point out the obvious ones that spring to my mind … but you get what I’m saying, right?
Willa: I guess so, though you know a lot more about current music than I do. A lot more. I’m pretty out of the loop with that. But artists develop over time, so with young artists especially, I guess I like to just wait and see what happens. Michael Jackson became more overtly political, I guess you’d call it, over time, and they might do that as well. And while I love works like Earth Song that are both moving and meaningful, I can still appreciate a good performance like Rock With You just for his music and his voice and his dancing – and I know you and I agree about that video!
Joie: Oh man, just mentioning that video distracts me in ways you wouldn’t believe! The only other video that affects me that way is Blood on the Dance Floor, but I’m getting way off topic here!
You know another thing I love about the performance videos or concert films is the roar of the crowd. It’s so different from watching actual concert footage. Like in Another Part of Me, the shots of the crowd are much more candid and “real” because we’re watching an actual audience experience a real Michael Jackson concert. In the other three performance videos – Give In to Me, Dirty Diana and Come Together – the audience’s experience is much less authentic, much more scripted, but still every bit as interesting for the off-screen audience to watch. But what all four of these concert films have in common is that awesome roar of the crowd. I think it’s really interesting that all four of these videos ends essentially the same way. No matter what’s happening on the screen, the cheering crowd can be heard above everything at the end. The only exception is Give In to Me when the roar of the crowd fades into the drumming rhythm of the song at the tail end.
Willa: That’s an interesting point, and we leave Give In to Me with a very different feeling because of it, I think – kind of eerie and unsettling in some ways. You know, talking about the roar of the crowd at the end of these videos reminds me that Beat It ends the same way. We don’t tend to think of Beat It as a concert film because it has a narrative: it tells a story, and we get caught up in the story and tend to forget that it’s a performance for an audience. But at the very end of the video, when the conflict has been resolved and all the gang members are dancing, the camera pans back and we see they’re on a stage, and we hear an audience cheering and clapping.
Joie: That’s true, Willa. I hadn’t thought of that but, you’re right. We don’t actually see the on-screen audience here but we do hear them at the very end of the video. Really interesting perspective to end on, don’t you think?
Willa: It’s very interesting, I think, because it recasts what we’ve just seen. This wasn’t meant to be interpreted as a scene from real life – a misinterpretation many critics fell into when they called it “naive” and “unrealistic” – but as a staged performance, and that alters how we tend to interpret it. The story we’ve witnessed isn’t meant to be seen as realistic or live action but as a story – a morality tale – purposely created for us, and the people we’ve been watching aren’t gang members but dancers and artists. By ending the video this way with an audience responding to their performance, he’s emphasizing that this is a work of art and asking us to think about it as a work of art, with a purpose and a message, as you mentioned earlier.
Joie: Except that the people we’ve been watching are real gang members; don’t forget that.
Willa: Oh, that’s right!
Joie: It’s true that there were about 20 professional dancers but, many of those featured prominently in the video, and certainly all of the extras in the background watching the “fight” going on, were actual members of both the Crips and the Bloods – two infamous, rival Los Angeles street gangs, and the video was shot on location on LA’s skid row for even more authenticity. So although this particular fight may have been a “performance” created purposely for us, they were in a way, reenacting a very real conflict that these two gangs had probably been engaged in for many, many years. I find that really interesting, like perhaps that knowledge is part of the message or the hidden lesson in this short film. By using the roar of the unseen audience at the end, he is forcing us to see this as a performance, as you say. But by using the real gang members in their natural habitat, so to speak, he is also forcing us to realize that these kinds of conflicts do actually happen in “real life” in cities all across the country.
Willa: That’s an excellent point – it’s like he really is modeling on screen something he’d like to see happen off screen, for both those of us watching this performance as well as the gang members participating in it. Those gang members really were working with opposing gang members to create this film, so that enacts the message of the film on yet another level.
Joie: That’s really true, and these two rival gangs actually called a temporary truce in their conflict so they could participate in the filming of this video. In fact, the video’s director, Bob Giraldi, once said in an interview that he thought the idea of using real gang members was insane but Michael was adamant about it and was always looking for ways to foster peace. So he obviously wanted to use this short film to show these gang members that fighting wasn’t the only way and that they could work together if they really wanted to. I think that’s genius.
Willa: It really is, and I especially feel that after reading that interview. That’s fascinating. I hadn’t read that before, but I loved the part where the interviewer asks, “How did you cast the real gang members?” and Bob Giraldi says,
It was Michael. He went out and he got ‘em through, I guess, the LAPD’s gang squad and he convinced them that, with enough police presence, this would be a smart and charitable thing to do; get them there to like each other and hang with each other for two days doing the video. I didn’t like the idea because it was hard enough to direct actors and dancers, let alone hoods.
Can you imagine being in trouble with the LAPD’s gang squad and not sure what’s going to happen next, and then have someone walk in and ask if you want to be in a Michael Jackson video? How surreal would that be? It’s also a very Michael Jackson-type scenario to have gang members playing actors who are playing gang members. We see those funny kinds of loop-de-loop twists throughout his work, especially with notions of identity. And it’s also very common for him to break the illusion of reality, like he does at the end of Beat It, and show us it’s all been a performance.
Joie: You’re right, Willa; this is something we see from him on more than one occasion. And next week we’ll look at a few more examples of this trick in his work.
Willa: That’s right. We’ll continue on and see how he uses an on-screen audience in some of his later videos. It is a narrative device that he uses often in his work, as you say, but I think it’s more than that too. As we see in these videos with an on-screen audience, his work isn’t just art. It’s meta-art. It’s art about art. His work is very self-reflective – that’s one of the things that’s so fascinating about it – and through his videos, especially, he’s talking about the function of art and its ability to influence an audience, and maybe lead them (and us) to see things in a different way. I believe Michael Jackson wasn’t just creating art; he was creating a new poetics, meaning a new theory of art as a means of altering perceptions and bringing about sweeping social change. And we can see him modeling this process through his on-screen audiences.
Willa: We first meet My Baby in “Heartbreak Hotel” (or “This Place Hotel”), which Michael Jackson wrote and recorded for The Jacksons’ 1980 Triumph album. And it seems to have been an important song for him: he performed it with his brothers on the Triumph and Victory tours, and it was the only Jacksons’ song he sang throughout his Bad tour.
“Heartbreak Hotel” begins with a reference to a traumatic loss that happened “Ten years ago on this day”:
Live in sin
Ten years ago on this day my heart was yearning
I promised I would never ever be returning
Where My Baby broke my heart and left me yearning
Importantly, “ten years ago” is when Michael Jackson first became a public figure on the national stage: “I Want You Back” became the Jackson 5′s first number one hit in 1970.
The protagonist and My Baby enter Heartbreak Hotel together. It’s a public place where they encounter a crowd of “faces staring.” And while the staring people are strangers, they seem to know him: “they smiled with eyes that looked as if they knew me.” But they don’t really know him, and he doesn’t know them. It’s a pretty accurate description of the life of a celebrity. This stanza ends with Jackson singing, “This is scaring me.”
He and My Baby walk upstairs together and enter his hotel room, but two women are there already. One of them approaches him and says, “This is the place / You said to meet you right here at noon.” It’s not true, but My Baby believes her – believes this stranger is his lover – and Jackson sings, “Hope is dead.” He goes on to describe how My Baby is hurt because she doesn’t understand the situation, but ends with “Someone’s evil to hurt my soul.” So this lie not only hurts My Baby; it also hurts “my soul.” The two are so closely connected, it’s as if My Baby is his soul. The stanza ends with these lines:
This is scaring me
Then the man next door had told
He’s been here in tears for fifteen years
This is scaring me
Who is this man? Could it possibly be Elvis? After all, Elvis begins his song “Heartbreak Hotel” (which was his first number one hit) with the lines:
Since My Baby left me
I found a new place to dwell
It’s down at the end of Lonely Street
At Heartbreak Hotel
So apparently Elvis lives there. Now Michael Jackson has checked into the room next door, and he’s in the same position Elvis was in for years.
This “man next door” says “He’s been here in tears for fifteen years,” so since 1965 – right when Elvis’ career began its decline, and his celebrity began to take an ugly turn. Elvis was the King in the late 1950s and early ’60s, but then the British Invasion took place from 1964 to 1966. Suddenly, the Beatles and Rolling Stones were climbing the pop charts, and Elvis was increasingly seen as outdated and irrelevant, even an object of ridicule.
So in these two very different songs with the same name, Elvis and Michael Jackson describe a situation that’s emotionally devastating to them. However, while Elvis is clearly singing about a romantic loss, Jackson’s song is much more complicated, and much more ambiguous. Is it just a shattered romance, or more than that? Jackson’s “Heartbreak Hotel” ends with these lines:
Someone’s stabbing my heart
This is Heartbreak Hotel
Ten years ago today
Hurting my mind
You break My Baby’s heart
This is Heartbreak Hotel
Just welcome to the scene
“Welcome to the scene” is a pretty odd ending for a song about lost love. So again, there seems to be more going on than just an ill-fated romance. And once again, he and My Baby are conflated: his heart is hurt, her heart is hurt, his mind is hurt. They share the same pain. He’s feeling what she’s feeling, as if she were a part of him.
Joie: Wow! Not sure I would have made the obvious Elvis connection here but, I’ve got to say, it makes a crazy kind of sense.
Willa: I know. It does sound kind of crazy, doesn’t it? I wasn’t expecting to go off on an Elvis tangent, and obviously “the man next door” could mean many different things, but suddenly that idea popped into my head and I went with it, just to see where it took me. I think any interpretation – even a crazy-sounding interpretation – is valid as long as it can be adequately supported by evidence from the text, and there’s quite a bit of evidence to support this. And it does make a lot of sense if you see this song as talking about celebrity, which was a very important theme for Michael Jackson.
Joie: Well, I’ll go with that for a minute and say that, if this was intentional on Michael’s part, it’s actually brilliant. However, when The Jacksons made the decision to change the name of the song to “This Place Hotel,” Michael did say that he was not familiar with Elvis’ song. So, while I agree that the imagery of both songs work very well together, I’m skeptical that there is any real connection between the two.
But I love what you have to say about My Baby possibly representing his own soul. And that line towards the end where he says “Hurting my mind.” It’s like My Baby represents him: his psyche. His mind, his heart, his soul – the inner self that he keeps protected from public view. As I said last week, Michael sings about My Baby as if she is someone who is very important to him and has been in his life for a very long time, and I think this notion that she is symbolic of his own inner being carries a lot of weight. In “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” Michael says,
Someone’s always tryin’
To start My Baby cryin’
Talking, squealing, lying
Saying you just want to be startin’ somethin’
If we look at this verse in these terms, it’s very easy to see how My Baby could be a euphemism for his inner self. Someone’s always trying to hurt him. He goes on to sing,
Billie Jean is always talkin’
When nobody else is talkin’
Telling lies and rubbing shoulders
So they called her mouth a motor
Sticking with this theory we can argue that Billie Jean – and all of the other “bad girls” who come his way – represents his public life and all the baggage that comes with it (the lies, the media, the paparazzi, etc.).
Willa: I agree, and I really like that quotation you cited. “Billie Jean is always talkin’” – just like the media is always talking. From a very young age, Michael Jackson faced constant commentary and speculation about his private life. And the media’s mouth isn’t just “a motor.” It’s an industry.
Joie: An industry he would end up battling for the rest of his career. But we’ll talk more about that next time when we take a closer look at the “bad girls” in this threesome.
Willa: Right. And this three-way conflict between My Baby, the intrusive women who hurt her, and the protagonist who finds himself caught between the two continues to evolve – just as Michael Jackson’s relationship with the media evolved. We see this scenario of My Baby being hurt by an aggressive, dishonest woman recurring again and again: for example, in “Billie Jean” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” on Thriller, in “Dirty Diana” from Bad, and in the title track to Dangerous. And then she disappears. My Baby isn’t mentioned once on his HIStory album, which was his first album after the 1993 molestation allegations. It’s like his public life has become so toxic she’s completely hidden from view now.
Or maybe not. Maybe she does appear, but in an unexpected way, and in an unexpected place – in the video to a song he didn’t write, “You Are Not Alone.” The song opens with a story of lost love:
Another day has gone
I’m still all alone
How could this be
You’re not here with me
You never said goodbye
Someone tell me why
Did you have to go
And leave my world so cold
However, the video opens with a crowd of reporters and photographers pressing in on him as he walks by with his head bowed. It’s the exact same situation he sang about repeatedly in earlier albums: these intrusive people are claiming to know him and telling lies about him, and My Baby has left him. Only this time he’s telling that story through visual cues.
He’s devastated, heartbroken, feeling so sad and alone. Then he hears a voice. We don’t know whose voice it is, but it “whispers” to him, and this is what it tells him:
You are not alone
I am here with you
Though you’re far away
I am here to stay
You are not alone
I am here with you
Though we’re far apart
You’re always in my heart
But you are not alone
Whose voice is this? The lyrics don’t say, but once again there are visual cues. The scene of walking before a sea of aggressive reporters alternates with another scene, far removed from the media: it’s the setting of Maxfield Parrish’s Daybreak, a beautiful painting of serenity and rebirth. He’s happy, and sharing an intimate moment with a woman.
And it’s not just any woman. It’s his wife, Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis Presley. When Elvis’ public life was falling apart and he was a target of criticism and even ridicule by the press, he had a little girl who stood by him and brought some joy into his life. Now Michael Jackson is in the same position Elvis was in before. And that little girl has grown up and married him, and she’s standing by him through one of the worst periods of his life and bringing some joy into his life. I’m pretty uncomfortable talking about all this because these are real people, and I try very hard to stay out of an artist’s private life as much as possible. But these real people also symbolize certain things, and the symbolism of that image with Lisa Marie Presley is so powerful to me.
Joie: Well, I absolutely agree with you that the still small voice in “You Are Not Alone” is definitely that of My Baby. But I can’t agree that it has anything to do with Lisa Marie Presley in the literal sense. In the abstract as a visual cue, yes definitely. The recreation of Daybreak for this video was an inspired choice in my opinion as it expertly captures the intimate, private place that Michael is trying to take us to here, and the use of his wife as the visual portrayal of My Baby makes perfect sense to me. After all, if My Baby were a real person, she would certainly be the person who was closest to him and knew him intimately – as a wife does.
However, he repeatedly says that “something whispers in his ear.” Not someone, something. That still small voice. His very soul. His inner self. That part of him that he has nurtured and tried so hard to protect over the years and keep pure. Away from all of the “bad girls” and the bad media that have threatened My Baby for so long. And what does that voice say to him? “You are not alone.” Even though he may feel like the loneliest person on the face of the earth – which is the feeling all those shots of him standing alone in front of the beautiful nature scenes and onstage in the deserted theater are meant to evoke – he is not alone. He still has his soul and it’s intact and strong. It may be a little bruised and banged up but, it is still there. And he can still feel it, calling to him, telling him that what he has just been through was a nightmare but, he got through it and he came out the other side and there is still hope for a bright future.
Even though Michael didn’t write this particular song, I believe that the lyrics must have spoken to him on some level and perhaps they expressed something – some emotion or idea – that he could relate to and identify with. And I think that something was My Baby.
Willa: Joie, that’s beautiful. I was groping forward, trying to get at what that recurring scene symbolized and why it was so moving for me, and just not getting there. And you beautifully captured in words that feeling I have when I watch this video. I do think it’s significant that the woman in this scene is Lisa Marie Presley. It wouldn’t have the same depth of meaning if it were just any actress from a casting call who didn’t have her history. But I love the way you brought our discussion back to the idea of My Baby as representing a part of himself – as something that will always be there for him, whether it’s his soul or his heart or his muse. As you describe so well, this video is an affirmation that there is something inside that will sustain him, regardless of what threatens him in the outside world.
We’ll conclude this series on My Baby next week when we look more closely at what some of those threats are.
Joie: And don’t forget to weigh in on our discussion and let us know what you think about My Baby. You can comment here or on our Facebook page.