Willa: So Joie, a few weeks ago we talked about how Michael Jackson seemed to see a connection between his creative life and his spiritual life, something we’ve talked about a couple times before. But you know, he also saw a connection between his creativity, his spirituality, and the physicality of his body, especially his body’s movements as a dancer. He seemed to feel a deep connection between spiritual energy, creative energy, and physical energy, including sexual energy.
All of this has me wondering – how is sex and sexual energy represented in Michael Jackson’s work, what does it mean, and does it perhaps mean different things at different times? For example, what does it mean when he sings about sex in “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough” or “Give In to Me” or “Superfly Sister” or “Break of Dawn”? What does it mean when he zips his fly during the panther dance in Black or White? And what does it mean, exactly, when he’s dancing and grabs his crotch?
Joie: Hmm. All very good questions, Willa. But you know, I seem to remember Michael telling Oprah that he really didn’t think about it when he was dancing and that the whole crotch grab thing just sort of happened on its own and meant nothing. I think he said he was just a slave to the rhythm or something.
Willa: Well, I think that’s true, Joie, but I don’t think it’s the whole truth. I think sometimes he’d be dancing and get really absorbed in the music and, Bam! He’d punctuate a dance sequence with a crotch grab, kind of like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. But I also think that sometimes he’d decide he liked that exclamation point and deliberately make it part of the choreography.
So, for example, we have that hilarious dance rehearsal in This Is It where two middle-aged women are teaching a group of young male dancers proper crotch-grabbing technique, and I have to say, that whole scene just cracks me up. First there is the Russian ballet instructor, Irina Brecher, explaining how the movements they’re doing compare with Baryshnikov’s:
“I saw you! You were going like this. What it this? That’s Russian! This is Russian. So Baryshnikov does it like this, and you guys are doing like this. Same thing.”
Then the assistant choreographer, Stacy Walker, helps them perfect their technique. She says, “One more time,” and they all do a crotch grab in unison. And they’re all so earnest – it just makes me laugh. Then she demonstrates proper crotch-grabbing movements while saying,
“We’re straight up and down now, right? I don’t think it’s anything except hand moving…. I think that’s smoother, you know what I mean? I mean, I have nothing to move….”
That is such a funny scene! I get such a kick out of it, but I also love seeing how trusting and respectful these talented young dancers are toward these older women. It’s really wonderful.
So this funny little scene shows us several important things: that the crotch grab was a deliberate part of the choreography, that it really wasn’t sexual in a traditional sense (and Michael Jackson always said it wasn’t), and that it certainly wasn’t a way to show dominance over women. After all, those two women were the instructors! And they were handling it in a very fun, lighthearted way.
Joie: Well, I find it very funny that we are having a discussion about crotch grabbing!
Willa: Oh c’mon, Joie. This is a very academic discussion!
Joie: Uh huh. But I have to say I agree with you, Willa. I believe that he did like ‘the exclamation point’ of the crotch grab and it really did become sort of his signature move – or one of his signature moves because, we all know, there are several.
Willa: That’s true. Like there’s that move called the Moonwalk that got a bit of attention….
Joie: Yeah. Or the twisting leg kick. But he really is synonymous with the crotch grab now. Whenever we see another singer or dancer execute that move, our minds will immediately, and forever, associate that with Michael Jackson.
But you said something that I find really interesting. You said the crotch grab wasn’t sexual and that Michael always maintained that it wasn’t sexual. The reason I find this statement interesting is because I think most people just always assumed the complete opposite. I think to most of the world, the reason the crotch grab was so controversial or provocative was precisely because they projected a sexual connotation onto it that Michael never intended for it to have.
Willa: Well, now you have me thinking, Joie – what did I mean when I said it wasn’t sexual? Hmmm … Now that I think about it, that seems too absolute because obviously there are sexual connotations, but I guess I meant it doesn’t seem erotic to me, like he isn’t using it to evoke a sexual feeling or suggest a sexual situation – not like, say, that long undulating crotch grab in the “Billie Jean” segment of This Is It. Oh my. Now, that is sexual. So he certainly knew how to do it in a suggestive way if he wanted to, but he never did that on stage, ever. That scene in This Is It was strictly a fun thing for the enjoyment of the cast and crew at the rehearsal, especially those young dancers. He never did anything like that in a real performance.
Instead, it was almost always just a quick exclamation mark, as we said earlier, and it seemed to me to express an artistic impulse rather than a sexual urge, though it’s hard to completely separate that out since he seemed to feel a strong connection between creativity and sexual energy. We talked about that a little bit with Give In to Me last April.
But there’s another element to it too, which is that the crotch grab always kind of struck me as something of a political statement as well, especially when he defiantly continued doing it despite all the controversy. You know, he was a very sexy black man – a sex idol, even – in a country that’s very uncomfortable with sexual black men, and I think he felt a lot of pressure to restrain his sexuality because of that. And in that sense, the crotch grab always kind of felt to me like a way for him to reclaim his sexuality and his own body, in a way. It’s like he’s calling attention to the fact that, not only does he have a beautiful, talented, amazing body, but it’s a sexual body as well.
Joie: I think you may be on to something, Willa. It could also have been a way for him to sort of flip off the world. I don’t mean to be crass here but, grabbing the crotch was never really seen as a nice gesture. In fact, long before Michael ever adopted it and turned it into a signature dance move, a guy grabbing his crotch was seen as either an insult (if it was directed toward another man) or a very lewd gesture (if it was directed toward a woman). So your suggestion that it could have been sort of political really fits here. It could definitely be considered a defiant, ‘up yours’ type of gesture.
Willa: Wow, that’s true, Joie. It’s funny but I never thought about that before, but you’re right, it definitely could be interpreted that way. And he did express those impulses every so often, as we see in Scream. And there’s that line in Shaquille O’Neal’s rap in “2Bad”:
Grab my crotch, twist my knee, then I’m through Mike’s bad. I’m bad. Are you?
“2Bad” as a whole is a declaration that he won’t be broken or bowed – “I’m standin’ though you’re kickin’ me” – and that line in particular is a pretty defiant statement.
Joie: That is a defiant statement, Willa. In fact, the whole song is pretty defiant, you’re right. But I wonder if we can go back to your original question if we can. You asked what does it mean when Michael sings about sex in his songs and how is that sexual energy expressed in his work? So, obviously I’m thinking you have some thoughts on this?
Willa: I don’t know that I really have thoughts, or any firm conclusions – just a lot of questions. I see sex represented so many different ways in his work, and I wonder how it all fits together. Like, what do you make of the sexual references in the panther dance? That whole section is a strong protest against racism, but it includes some pretty explicit sexual gestures – more explicit than critics were used to seeing from Michael Jackson, that’s for sure. There was a lot of criticism about that when Black or White first aired. Here was a song that a lot of critics interpreted as being about racial harmony, and suddenly in the panther dance section Michael Jackson is breaking glass, zipping his fly, and grabbing his crotch pretty explicitly. Why is that there? How do you interpret that?
Joie: Well, I’m honestly not sure about how to interpret it. But you’re correct in saying that it was much more explicit than critics were used to seeing from him, and sometimes I think that was the intended purpose. Perhaps it was done simply to shake things up a little bit. If you think about it, it was done at a time when Michael was going through some changes. He had broken away from his long and successful association with Quincy Jones and he was taking the reins of producing by himself and he was eager to try new things, new producers, new sounds. And the resulting album, Dangerous, really has a much edgier feel because of it. So maybe he simply wanted to do something edgy. And let’s face it, that panther dance is certainly edgy.
But also, I want to point out the fact that those racial slurs that are written on the car and the building in the panther dance weren’t actually in the original version that first aired to millions of people around the world. Those were added in after the initial hoopla over the “disturbing violence and simulating masturbation.” So, I’ve never really held the belief that that section of the video was meant to be a protest against racism. Maybe it was but, it doesn’t feel that way to me. How do you interpret it?
Willa: Really? Wow, I’m surprised, Joie. To me, adding in those slogans didn’t change the meaning at all, just clarified what was already there. I mean, the title of the song is “Black or White,” and the lyrics are all about standing up to racial prejudices – he even references the KKK specifically when he sings, “I ain’t scared of no sheets.” So when he added in the KKK and neo-Nazi and Aryan Nation-type graffiti, it felt right to me and just seemed to fit right in. How do you see it?
Joie: Well, that’s true, it does fit right in. But, I don’t know; I guess I’ve just always looked at it as an afterthought, a way to simply try and clean up the controversy. But what you just said makes a lot of sense too, that it was done as a way to sort of clarify the artist’s intentions. You’re probably right.
Willa: Well, it’s pretty ambiguous. There’s breaking glass throughout Black or White, beginning with the crashing poster and exploding windows in the opening sequence, so the violence of the breaking glass could mean many different things. In fact, the entire panther dance is pretty ambiguous, with so many intriguing elements and so many different ways to approach and interpret them.
It begins with the panther walking down into a basement, just like Michael Jackson’s character does before the first dance sequence in You Rock My World, and in both cases there’s a suggestion that we’re going into subterranean territory both literally and figuratively as well, into the subconscious. He transforms back into a human, and is immediately caught in a spotlight. For me, it doesn’t feel so much like the spotlight of a stage as the spotlight of a prison or an interrogation, and the bars on the windows and over the doorway reinforce that idea. But he strikes a pose in that spotlight nonetheless, with one hand on his crotch. Then he straightens up, stands tall, and a cat jumps out of a garbage can, which is interesting since Michael Jackson is frequently linked to cats symbolically. He was just a panther, after all.
So the cat’s out of the bag, or out of the can, and it feels like some aspect of Michael Jackson himself has been released. He pulls his shirt back like a gunslinger about to enter a duel with the town marshal, and an eerie wind blows past him that seems to suggest he’s entering an alternate space and time. (For example, a similar wind blows past him when he opens the door to Club 30s in Smooth Criminal, a wind that transports him back to Dem Bones Cafe of The Band Wagon.) He begins a dance routine that evokes a long history of dance in the U.S., then he and the panther yowl in unison, and that’s when he begins the segment that had critics in an uproar.
Joie: I like the way you put that, Willa. That some aspect of Michael Jackson himself has been released. And I think you just hit on exactly what it is that I feel whenever I watch the panther dance. You asked me how I interpret it, and you were surprised when I said that I have never ascribed any sort of racial protest to it. But I think you just touched on the reason why. Because to me, it just feels like Michael unchained and free. It is a very passionate, expressive dance sequence in which we are given the pleasure of watching one of the greatest dancers in the world just … let … go! We are treated to four blissful, astounding (and yes, erotic) minutes of Michael Jackson doing what only Michael Jackson can. And to me … there is nothing racially motivated about it. It is beautiful, it is celebratory, it is alive! It is the Eternal Dance of Creation that he talks about over and over again in Dancing the Dream, and it is pure joy to witness!
Willa: Oh I agree with that, Joie! But I also think it’s especially significant because of who he was and the cultural position he occupied.
We live in a very strange age where we as a culture are both over-sexed and overly repressed. It’s a bizarre combination. And I think Michael Jackson felt that much more intensely than most of us because of his unique position as the first black teen idol – a sex symbol who clearly aroused desire in white women, black women, women of many races. That was a potentially explosive situation, and he had to be very careful about how he presented himself in public. He was obviously very sexy on stage, but off stage he made sure that people – white people in particular – felt he was “safe,” asexual. In fact, I remember a Saturday Night Live skit years ago where Eddie Murphy pulled the pants off a Michael Jackson doll and used that as proof that he was literally asexual – without sex organs.
The panther dance feels like a dramatic departure from all that. He’s reclaiming his sexuality – he is black, beautiful, and sexual – but that doesn’t mean he plans to spend a lot of time with groupies. In other words, resisting sexual repression doesn’t seem to mean advocating a life of one-night stands. As he sings in “Superfly Sister,”
Push it in Stick it out That ain’t what it’s all about
So he isn’t talking about mindless sex. As we’ve talked about a couple of times before, he seems to see sexuality as much more than just a physical act. Instead, he seems to be saying that we need to reclaim our sexuality as part of our whole being, so that our sexuality isn’t something that only appears behind closed doors but is integrated with who we are as a person – creatively, emotionally, psychologically.
So to me, when looking at how sexuality is represented in the panther dance, the most significant part isn’t the “release” sequence that got critics in an uproar – though that’s important – but the “integration” sequence that happens immediately after. He’s standing on the sidewalk with that ethereal wind blowing, and the camera zooms past him four times as he repeatedly pushes his hands from his heart to his groin, visually joining them, integrating them.
Joie: Well, that’s an interesting interpretation, Willa. And it seems to me that our ideas are not that far off from each other. You seem to see the panther dance as a bold statement on reclaiming our sexuality. While to me, the panther dance is a very sexually charged, incredible dance sequence. One that Michael Jackson seems to delight in performing. Dancing just for the pure joy of dancing.
Willa: Well, actually, I see reclaiming his sexuality is just one aspect of it – to me, it’s really about reclaiming the entirety of himself and his body, including his sexuality. But I love what you just said, Joie, and I think you’re right, we’re not that far apart, and I think you put your finger right on the central point – it’s joy.
I think that, in the panther dance, we see Michael Jackson pushing back against all the cultural narratives that have been imposed on him and his body – ideas about what it means to be a man (or woman), what it means to be black (or white), what it means to be normal (or abnormal), what it means to cool (or uncool), what it means to be desirable (or not desirable), what it means to be lovable (or unlovable) – a human being worthy (or unworthy) of love. He pushes back so hard he shatters the confining narratives written on his body, just like he shatters the ugly confining narratives written on the glass.
And what we find when we break through all those labels and prejudices and false ideologies is something so simple yet so profound – a person fully inhabiting his body, and finding joy in that. As you said so beautifully, Joie, “It is beautiful, it is celebratory, it is alive! It is the Eternal Dance of Creation.”
Willa: This week Joie and I are excited and honored to be joined by Dr. Susan Fast, Professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University and Director of their graduate program in Gender Studies and Feminist Research. And, in addition to all that, you’re a musicologist and study popular music as well. Is that right?
Susan: Studying popular music is really the main thing that I do!
Willa: Really? Well, then we definitely want to have a nice, long chat with you!
Susan: Well, I want to begin by thanking you both for inviting me to be part of the rich conversation about Michael Jackson that you have on this blog. I’m so glad that there are, increasingly, spaces devoted to the serious discussion of his work and cultural impact.
Joie: Yes, so are we. It’s way overdue.
Willa: That’s true, Joie. And Susan, you’ve done so much interesting work with Michael Jackson’s music and stage performances. There’s “Difference That Exceeded Understanding: Remembering Michael Jackson, 1958-2009,” a popular article in our Reading Room, and the recently published “Michael Jackson’s Queer Musical Belongings.” You also co-edited the special Michael Jackson issue of Popular Music and Society that came out a few months ago, and you’re currently working on a book about the Dangerous album, which will be published by Bloomsbury Press next year, right?
Susan: Yes, I’m really thrilled to be able to write a book on Dangerous as part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, in which an entire book is devoted to the study of a single album. Remarkably, there is no book in that series about any of Michael Jackson’s records! You can go here to see which albums have been written about, and which books are forthcoming.
Willa: That’s really exciting!
Joie: It is exciting. And again, it’s long overdue. Susan, here’s a question for you, and it’s one that I know really puzzles and frustrates so many fans. Why do you believe there haven’t been more publications of serious study of the work and artistry of Michael Jackson?
Susan: This is quite puzzling, Joie. I remember looking for scholarly work right after his death and I was stunned at how little there was; it was one of the things that made me want to write about him. There is a little bit from the 1980′s and early 90′s – a wonderful article on “Thriller” by Kobena Mercer, a chapter of a book called Invisibility Blues by Michelle Wallace, and one in Michael Eric Dyson’s book Reflecting Black, etc. And then there was Margo Jefferson’s rich book On Michael Jackson from 2006. (Joe Vogel has a good bibliography on his website.) But considering what an important cultural figure Michael was, it’s a pitifully small amount, and some of it isn’t all that sound in terms of scholarship. Scholars of popular music have been much more interested in MJ’s contemporaries, Prince and Madonna, because they saw there a more radical questioning of gender and, in the case of Prince, racial norms.
My sense is that MJ’s lack of irony played a key role in scholars’ disinterest in his work; this is a perpetual problem in popular music studies: one is just not hip if one is playing it straight. He was not considered oppositional enough, in a counter or subcultural way – at least not on the surface of much of his work.
I also think that the accusations of child molestation played a role in scholars staying away from him as a research subject. There have only been a few scholarly articles that have taken up the accusations, and then not particularly well. This is beginning to change; unfortunately it took his death to make it happen.
Willa: It’s terribly unfortunate. And I agree the lack of irony in his work was a big factor – one that hasn’t been examined nearly enough. The postmodern aesthetic tends toward irony, and since his work is so earnest and sincere, it was seen by many as simplistic and harkening back to an earlier, outdated and discredited point of view. However, as you and other critics are starting to reveal, his work is far from simple. And if one of the goals of postmodernism is to expose the constructedness of our beliefs and perceptions – in part by undermining binary oppositions such as black/white, masculine/feminine, gay/straight – then Michael Jackson wasn’t just in touch with the times but at the forefront, pushing the envelope.
I also wonder if another factor was his refusal to interpret his work for us. He always resisted attempts to draw him out about what his work meant, and many critics took that as a sign that it didn’t mean anything – or if it did, it was purely unintentional. Here’s a quote from Randy Taraborrelli, and while I know he’s not really a critic, it expresses a feeling shared by many critics, I think.
Even if [Michael Jackson's publicists] could fathom a way to promote him as an accessible human artist with goals that were artistic instead of just commercial, it would never work. No one would believe it; Michael simply wasn’t that way and didn’t even know how to act that way.
Michael has always been myopic in his thinking about the music business: how many records are being bought by the fans? How long does it take to get to number one? How many records are sold? For Michael, commercialism is key, and he doesn’t understand any artist who doesn’t get that. …
For instance, Michael has never been a fan of Madonna, a woman who has managed to combine commerciality with artistic vision because, from the start, she has had something she wants to communicate with her music and, usually, a clear-eyed vision as to how to go about it. She gives interviews; she has a point of view. Other than lamenting about his lost childhood and his victimization at the hands of the media, Michael has never had much of a public viewpoint about anything. He’s not what one would call articulate, not by any stretch of the imagination.
I shouldn’t pick on Taraborrelli because he isn’t a critic and for the most part doesn’t pretend to be, but this just makes me crazy. Thank goodness there are critics and academics and musicologists like you, Susan, who are starting to lead us to a deeper understanding of Michael Jackson’s work, and just how complex and meaningful it really is.
Susan: Same with your work, Willa, which is also giving us new ways to think about his work and life. You’re so right: Michael’s reluctance to give interviews and really talk about his work left the door wide open for critics to dismiss or misconstrue it – although Prince doesn’t talk about his work much either and there hasn’t been the same problem, I think because there isn’t the same kind of cultural and artistic illegibility and confusion as there is with MJ.
Willa: That’s another reason pioneering work like yours is so important. It not only provides insights into his music and performances, but also legitimizes the serious study of his art and helps frame his work in new ways.
So I wanted to ask you about the title of your most recent article. Generally when we hear the word “queer,” it brings to mind sexual orientation as well as a specific political stance. Basically, it means gay and proud, and opposed to any attempt to cast shame onto anyone’s sexual orientation. But that isn’t what your article is about. It’s a wonderfully insightful analysis of how Michael Jackson incorporates and juxtaposes and plays with and off of different genres in his music and concert performances. So what does the word “queer” mean to you in terms of his work, and why did you choose that title for your article?
Susan: I chose to situate Michael’s genre-crossing in terms of queerness in order to, hopefully, shine a new light on the powerful cultural politics of his work. I’m not the only one to have used this frame to think about MJ – there are two other recent articles and one older one that look at him through this lens, but in ways very different from my approach. Queerness is not only about subverting, and thereby questioning, norms, but about the creation of ambiguity, of de-stablizing binaries, especially around gender and sexuality. It’s meant to be an empowering idea in that it gets us away from the notion that our identities need to be pigeon-holed into tidy, rigid categories. An important queer theorist, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, put it this way: queer is “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning” when someone’s gender, sexuality, or race can’t be made to “add up” in the way we’re used to, or isn’t stable.
Willa: That’s a wonderful definition, and very applicable to Michael Jackson.
Susan: Queerness often refers to sexuality, but it has also been used more broadly – in my article I also talk about race, and others have used the term to refer to the “non-normal” more broadly, although this can have the effect of diluting the concept. So … I’m not interested in MJ’s private life at all in this essay, but rather in the way he played with gender, sexuality, and race in his work in order to make us think about these categories and in order to subvert them, mess them up, and shift normal power relations in the process.
Willa: And we definitely see that urge to subvert categories and in that way “shift normal power relations” running throughout his work – in his music, dance, fashion, films, stage performances, and even public perceptions of his own body. And in your article you take a really detailed look at how this “queering” of established categories and genres functions in his music and live performances, especially.
Susan: Yes, that was my goal. Everyone knows how skillful he was at combining elements of pop, rock, soul, R&B, Tin Pan Alley and later hip hop in his work; his ability to cross genres is partly what made his music accessible to a wide audience. That’s a story that’s often been told about him. What I wanted to examine is what that “crossover” really looks like in particular songs and performances of those songs. Musical genres are deeply connected to ideas of social belonging, of ideas we have about race, gender, sexuality, class and so on. We already understand this in the well-known narrative about MJ and genre: his inclusion of elements of pop and rock made his music reach into the white mainstream, while the music of his idol, James Brown, remained deeply connected to black musical forms and didn’t have the same crossover appeal. When one begins to cross musical genres, one recognizes these categories more forcefully: they become denaturalized, and what gets called “normal” comes into question.
Joie: Susan, I love what you just said about musical genres being deeply connected to our ideas of social belonging and the ideas we have about race. I think that’s so unfortunate, but it is also so very true. I can think of so many instances where a person was harassed or just made to feel really uncomfortable because of the type of music he or she liked to listen to, and it was all because it just didn’t fit into the racial “norm.” Black kids aren’t supposed to like rock or country, and white kids are ridiculed and made fun of everyday for having an affinity for rap and hip hop. It just doesn’t make sense; music should be universal. And I have always believed that striving for that was one of Michael Jackson’s goals.
Susan: Yes, I agree, but on the positive side, music gives us such a powerful way to feel connected to others, to feel a sense of belonging when we might otherwise feel socially isolated; feeling part of a social scene organized around genre is one way that that happens. We could also think of genre as a way of celebrating difference. And it’s certainly a means through which artists cultivate their audience, which makes MJ’s successful crossing of generic boundaries all the more interesting. I think his musical virtuosity is what made that possible; people sometimes write about his genre-crossing as a brilliant marketing ploy: sure, but there aren’t many artists who can pull off moving so easily among very disparate musical genres convincingly.
Joie: Well, I agree with you that music is a great way to feel connected to and accepted by others, but I believe strongly that we shouldn’t allow it to close us off from other genres either. I believe that Michael was constantly trying to educate us – on so many different subjects – and I think this is one of his lessons. And you’re right, there aren’t many other artists out there who could move between genres so convincingly.
Susan: I recently watched his 1989 performance at the Sammy Davis Jr. TV special, a song he wrote for that occasion called “You Were There,” which could have come right out of a Broadway musical, and tried to reconcile this with, for example, a song like “Jam,” or “Give Into Me.” He internalized generic codes so that somehow he was as convincing as a rock star as he was a Broadway or soul singer. And I agree with you, Joie, exploiting this incredible skill was probably an extension of MJ’s desire to blur, or queer, all kinds of boundaries.
In my essay on MJ’s queer musical belongings, I look at a lot of different songs, but one of my favorite examples is the live performance of “Working Day and Night” from the 1992 Bucharest concert.
Here’s a song that first appears on what is often considered to be the finest disco album ever made, Off the Wall, transformed from its glossy production values into quite a raunchy R&B/funk number (by punching up the groove, emphasizing the slap bass part and, especially, through MJ’s gritty vocals – completely transformed from the album version). In live performance this song really ends up being quite the homage to James!
So MJ has already messed with genre and, in the process, social relations here, by highlighting the black roots of disco in soul and funk, a connection that often got lost as disco entered the mainstream in the late 1970′s. The part of this performance that truly blows my mind, however, is Jennifer Batten’s metal guitar solo. What on earth is this doing in the middle of “Working Day and Night?”
Willa: That is so interesting, Susan, and you know, looking back at that clip I see exactly what you’re saying – that guitar solo really is quite a disruption – but I never thought about it until I read your article. The guitar solo sounded perfectly “natural” to me, so I didn’t question it. And in talking to you, Susan, I feel like I have to put that word “natural” in quotation marks because as you point out so well, he’s really calling into question so many things we tend to think of as “natural.”
But you’re right. That guitar solo is like a sudden intrusion of “white male” rock by a female guitarist into the middle of a black R&B/funk/disco song – just a classic Michael Jackson situation!
Susan: It does seem “natural” at first because both the hard-driving funk groove and the metal guitar solo are high-energy, but when you start to take it apart, it’s pretty camp and queer! Of course it could be argued that the guitar solo adds to the spectacle of the performance – it’s near the end of the show and MJ clearly wanted to ramp the energy up – but this could have been done without creating such genre dissonance. What’s interesting is that musically, Batten’s guitar solo is never really integrated into the rest of the performance: it’s left as a disturbance, a generic dissonance – that’s partly what makes it queer. The loose ends aren’t neatly tied up. Metal (the white genre) “serves” the larger R&B/funk (black) genre.
MJ liked to queer rock music in particular: it’s a genre of music that really (even still) belongs to white men, who control so many things in our culture. He was clearly aware of rock’s cultural power and turned it on its head. First, he chooses one of the only women guitarists in the 80s and 90s who is a heavy metal virtuoso; Batten is an excellent guitarist, but so are plenty of men: why choose a woman, when you know that it’s unusual, unless you want to point to how unusual it is?
Clearly MJ was interested in questioning genre expectations in this respect. And he was going to do it again in the This Is It concerts, for which he chose Orianthi Panagaris, another blonde, white, woman rock guitarist. MJ dressed Batten up to parody the typical rock guitar god (and the look was his idea); although other musicians in his band wore costumes, none of them were as camp as Jennifer. He wanted to point to the genre of rock/metal in a particular way, a way that, I suggest signifies his control over it. So he makes sure that rock’s whiteness is represented in the figure of the metal guitar player (Batten is one of the very few white musicians in his touring band, and in this show, the only one who takes center stage with him, representing the genre of rock music), but subverts genre expectations by choosing a woman. Brilliant!
Joie: Susan, it is so fascinating to go back and watch the footage of that performance keeping in mind your comments here. And really, all of his live performances where Jennifer Batten was featured very prominently. You’re correct in saying that she was always the only member of his band that he routinely presented center stage during performances. And as Willa and I have learned during the course of this blog, Michael rarely did anything without having a very good reason for it.
Willa: That’s true, Joie – it does seem like this was a deliberate artistic decision on his part because we see it repeatedly in his work. Lisha McDuff described a similar inversion and disruption of genres in the post we did with her about the Black or White video.
“I am tired of this devil” is sung to the hard rock and heavy metal styles that have been overwhelmingly consumed by white audiences. … But they are not coming from the viewpoint of the white musical style being offered. The lyrics are coming from a black perspective of frustration and the horror of racial injustice, even invoking an image of the KKK with a reference to “sheets” …
The next section is hip hop rap, a black musical style, but the rap lyrics are unmistakably white in tone and perspective … This rap section flies at a completely different altitude than we might expect. The message is uplifting and inspirational, and in the short film it is lip synced by Macaulay Culkin, the same white child who appears in the opening drama. Instead of appearing in a lily white suburb as he does earlier, the child is now in an urban melting pot and his clothing and mannerisms register black.
So in the Black or White video as well as the “Working Day or Night” concert performance – and Susan, I love your analysis of that – he’s inverting the norms of white male rock so it becomes very self-referential and kind of a critique of itself, and he’s doing it in both a musical and visual way, as you say.
Susan: That’s a very perceptive analysis of “Black or White,” one that made me go and read the entire blog you did with Lisha. Her reading of the song and video is terrific – it begins to get at how complicated MJ’s music is and how we need to dig beneath the surface to really understand it.
In the issue of Popular Music and Society that I co-edited, there’s an article by musicologist David Brackett in which he talks about “Black or White” and his analysis moves in the same direction as Lisha’s. One of the points he makes is that the main guitar riff sounds remarkably similar to the Rolling Stones’ song “Soul Survivor,” off of Exile on Main Street.
The riff incorporates, generally, sounds that are central to Keith Richards’ rhythm guitar style. David’s point is that Michael chose what has become an archetypal rock riff, from an album that is central to the rock canon: it’s not some random “rock-like” sound, but one that goes to the heart of white blues rock; it’s also an interesting re-appropriation of blues-based white rock by a black musician. Touché, Michael!
What makes this even more interesting is that this guitar riff is combined with a bass guitar part that comes out of the R&B/funk tradition, rather than the straight-ahead rock bass part that is used in “Soul Survivor” (or other Stones’ songs). So from the very beginning of the song, two generic, racialized and gendered worlds are brought together.
Willa: And he does something similar in the Bucharest performance of “Working Day or Night,” right? There’s a very funky bass guitar solo right before Jennifer Batten’s hard rock guitar solo.
Susan: Yes, that’s right: Don Boyette, his touring bassist, takes centre stage for a slap bass solo, but it’s not nearly as lengthy or developed as Batten’s solo, and there are no theatrics associated with it. Boyette just comes to centre stage and plays.
Willa: You talk about those theatrics quite a bit in your article, pointing out how important the onstage visual drama between Michael Jackson and Jennifer Batten is to the meaning of the performance. I was so intrigued by that.
Susan: The interaction between MJ and Batten during the solo is fascinating. It’s quite complex – there’s an awful lot going on. But one of the things that’s striking is that MJ seems to control the performance. Batten follows him back and forth across the stage and when he’s watching her play, it sometimes appears that he is conjuring the sounds out of her guitar himself. Often in rock performances, the relationship between singer and guitar player is quite different: the guitarist (the virtuoso) controls the performance. My reading of this performance is that Batten stands in for hegemonic, or controlling, white power, albeit queerly because of her gender, and that MJ ends up mostly controlling that power. A pretty significant social statement.
Willa: That is such a fascinating interpretation!
Joie: It really is. I’m blown away! I had never thought of it in this way before but it makes so much sense knowing what we do about the way he liked to blur the lines.
Susan: Yes, and while I’ve mentioned the racial politics here, it’s also pretty interesting to consider what’s happening in terms of gender. Batten’s appearance points in a complicated way both to the feminization we see in glam rockers of the 80′s and earlier 90′s and the understanding that these were generally not female bodies: so we get all the expected “hard” and aggressive moves associated with rock from Batten. At the same time, there is MJ’s quite complicated gendered body playing against this. He is androgynous, somewhat feminized, but still performs traditional masculinity through some of his moves, and the fact that he’s in control of Batten’s performance. While many of these kinds of exchanges between singers and guitarists in rock bands have an erotic element to them, I don’t see that in the performance here. MJ was certainly capable of creating eroticized spectacle on stage (think of some of those steamy encounters with Sheryl Crow or Siedah Garrett during performances of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” for example), but that was not the intent here.
I think this is one of many instances where MJ queered all kinds of normative social and musical relations. Willa, your analysis of “Ben” in your book, M Poetica, including the pictures you offer of MJ with rats on his shoulder and his pet snake draped over him can similarly be thought of as queering human/animal relations, of rethinking ideas of kinship, for example.
Willa: That’s an interesting way to look at that, Susan, and it’s significant in that context that the animals he’s holding aren’t traditional pets. Just the opposite – they’re animals that are viewed with fear and loathing by many people. It wouldn’t be “queering” the human/animal relationship in the same way if he were holding a cat or dog or riding a horse. And of course we see this again in his very public relationship with Bubbles.
Susan: Exactly. These are examples of what can be called queer kinship; whatever might have been going on in his private life, the vision of family that he presented as part of his public self included children (some his own, some not), animals, and various adults, like Elizabeth Taylor. He eschewed the normative nuclear family structure, creating instead a more and less fluid chosen family consisting of both humans of various generations, as well as non-humans. There has been a lot of interesting scholarly work done on the role of the nuclear family as a primary means of structuring power – patriarchal power, for one, but also integral to such things as the smooth running of capitalism. Queer kinship threatens patriarchy as well as all kinds of other power structures.
Joie: Now I find that truly fascinating because I believe we are increasingly seeing this ‘queer kinship’ becoming the norm in our society. More and more, people are creating their own versions of what we know as the nuclear family. And yet, Michael Jackson was severely criticized and ridiculed for such behavior.
Willa: He really was. In fact, while he resisted social normalization on so many fronts – norms of what it means to be black, to be a man, to be straight, to be a pop artist, to be a father figure – it was this last transgression that proved intolerable. As threatening as they were, those other transgressions could still be accepted more easily than his defiance of the traditional family unit. Even people who concede that the evidence shows he was not guilty of abusing children still see something damning in his creating familial relationships with children who were not related to him. It shows just how deeply engrained the idea of the nuclear family is. Of all the boundaries he crossed, that was the line that could not be crossed. And as you said so well, Susan, the nuclear family plays an important cultural role – politically, legally, psychologically – in “structuring power.” No wonder that transgression was so threatening.
Susan: Absolutely. Judith (Jack) Halberstam has written beautifully about time, space and normativity, citing, for example, reproductive time – the biological clock for women – and the “bougeois rules of respectability and scheduling for married couples” and how these have become not only normalized, but naturalized and desirable. She talks about how everyday time gets regulated – when to eat, sleep, play, for children, etc. – and how this gets tied to normative morality (I think of MJ’s sleepovers with a bunch of kids here and how many normative lines this crossed). She also talks about the time of inheritance, meaning how generational wealth, including both goods and morals, pass through the family – so if you aren’t part of a traditional one, heaven help you – and how this also connects the family to the history of the nation and forward to the nation’s future (the book is In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives). MJ transgressed these rules about family, space and time in almost every way. I think the narrative that we constantly hear about how his children could not possibly be his biological offspring is partly a way of striking back at his threat to the normative family unit, along with a general desire to emasculate him whenever possible.
Halberstam and other queer theorists claim the queering of space and time for the LGBTQ community and it’s tricky to talk about queerness – as I do in my article and as we’ve done in this blog – in a context that isn’t explicitly queer in terms of sexual orientation, although other musicologists have done so (for a wonderful example, see Freya Jarman-Iven’s book Queer Voices: Technologies, Vocalities and the Musical Flaw). There’s the risk that the political potential of the term could be watered down and re-appropriated for straight culture. But I actually don’t think it’s inappropriate to talk about MJ in these terms, because he so messed with heteronormativity and with race and left the reading of his work and life so open and unsettled. I’ve never really understood why he hasn’t been claimed by the queer community, although I suspect that his more-or-less insistence that he was straight, as well as the accusations and trial tempered enthusiasm for this.
Willa: This is such an important issue, Susan, and I’m so glad you raised it. I’ve asked myself a similar question many times. If ever there was a champion of difference it was Michel Jackson, so why didn’t the groups who’ve traditionally advocated tolerance for difference support him when he was under attack? He had no constituency other than his fans – which, granted, is a lot of people, but it’s not a political constituency. So why didn’t certain political advocacy groups support him?
I think partly it’s because the accusations were so ugly that many saw him as a tainted messenger, and that “tempered enthusiasm” as you say. But I wonder if there isn’t another reason also, which is that tolerance for difference, at least as a political stance, has itself been normalized, and Michael Jackson refused to express his difference in proper ways. While we like to believe we’ve moved beyond the White male stereotypes of the past, they still exist and have been joined by stereotypes of diversity that in many ways are just as constraining. For example, Black kids are supposed to show pride in their race by identifying with the approved genres for their demographic and “aren’t supposed to like rock or country,” as you pointed out earlier, Joie. And “queer,” which by definition should be a celebration of difference, has been politically codified as well.
You express this so well in your “Difference that Exceeded Understanding” article, Susan, when you write,
Michael Jackson’s subjectivity off the stage was disquieting … racial, gendered, able-bodied/disabled, child/teenager/adult, adult man who loved children, father/mother. These differences were impenetrable, uncontainable, and they created enormous anxiety. Please be black, Michael, or white, or gay or straight, father or mother, father to children, not a child yourself, so we at least know how to direct our liberal (in)tolerance. And try not to confuse all the codes simultaneously.
I love this quote, and I think it really gets to the heart of why he wasn’t supported by those who traditionally support the disenfranchised – namely liberals.
Susan: We desperately want categories in order to make sense of the world; there’s safety in being able to say someone is this or that. It bothered many people that this was not possible with MJ. And that’s exactly why I think “queer” is a productive way to think of him (partly because it names the confusion – very unqueer!). Queer is a process, a constant becoming (of something else); by its definition, as musicologist Freya Jarman argues, it cannot be and does not want to be contained. It is “anti-normal.”
Joie: I like that. “Anti-normal.” What a great way to put that!
Susan, thank you again, so much for taking the time to sit and chat with us. Willa and I really appreciate it and we had so much fun talking to you. We hope that you’ll join us again some time!
Susan: And thanks again for inviting me to blog with you! It was really a pleasure.
Joie: This week, Willa and I are thrilled to be joined once again by Lisha McDuff, a professional musician who many of you know as Ultravioletrae in the comments section. She’s joining us to talk about Black or White, a song and video that hold special meaning for her.
Willa: So Lisha, back in February you made a fascinating comment about Michael Jackson’s complex approach to song composition and used Black or White as an example. Here’s what you said:
[T]he white rap section in Black or White uses black hip hop, but runs it through a white perspective, Bill Bottrell’s feel good lyrics and performance. The previous section, “I am tired of this devil” uses white hard rock and heavy metal but runs it through a black perspective and the frustration of racial injustice. He is deliberately confusing musical codes here, attempting to integrate all these perspectives into a single view in a very trans-ethnic way (the way he uses his body). He is autonomously choosing the perspectives he wishes to use, ingeniously expressing the Black or White theme in the song.
I’m so intrigued by this, and would really love to dive into this a little deeper so I understand it better. Can you explain in more detail what you hear going on in these two sections?
Lisha: These two sections in Black or White have revealed so much to me, not only about how brilliant and meticulously crafted this song is, but also about Michael Jackson as a musician, a composer, and all around force for good on the planet. It is such a thrilling concept: Black or White presents a literal “black or white” musical perspective. At any given point in the song, a simultaneous “black or white” musical idea is being offered to the listener in a way that embraces and honors both traditions. It suggests going beyond our false distinctions and ethnic boundaries. But at the same time, the song addresses some very serious issues and really challenges the listener on a more subtle level. There is a lot going on in the song and in the film, and it’s easy to be fooled by its deceptive simplicity.
At first, I was just curious about the song’s structure. There are two “middle 8″ sections in the song, which just means there are two sections in the middle of the song that are each 8 bars long. The function of a “middle 8″ is to introduce a new and interesting musical idea that sets up the return of the final verse and chorus. I’m talking about the “I am tired of this devil” and the “white rap” sections. While there are no hard and fast rules in song structure, it is more standard to have only one “middle 8″ section, not two.
Willa: And we usually call that “middle 8″ the bridge, right? But this isn’t just a long bridge – a “middle 16,” as it were. It’s actually two separate bridges juxtaposed in a very sophisticated and interesting way. Is that an accurate way of seeing this?
Lisha: Yes, that’s right. These sections function as a bridge back to the final verse and chorus, and they are significantly different from each other and the rest of the song. When I looked to see if I could understand why there were two sections like this, I began to realize there was a deliberate attempt to confuse the musical codes associated with “black or white” musical styles. This ingenious idea so beautifully expresses the lyrics and the visual images we see in the short film. The music itself expresses the message of the song: “it don’t matter if you’re black or white.”
“I am tired of this devil” is sung to the hard rock and heavy metal styles that have been overwhelmingly consumed by white audiences. According to the principal collaborator on Black or White, Bill Bottrell, Michael was very specific about this section, even composing the exact heavy metal guitar solo he wanted by singing every rhythm, note, and chord to Bottrell. The musical feeling here abruptly turns very dark, and the lyrics are direct and to the point. But they are not coming from the viewpoint of the white musical style being offered. The lyrics are coming from a black perspective of frustration and the horror of racial injustice, even invoking an image of the KKK with a reference to “sheets”:
I am tired of this devil I am tired of this stuff I am tired of this business Go when the going gets rough I ain’t scared of your brother I ain’t scared of no sheets I ain’t scared of nobody Girl, when the going gets mean
The next section is hip hop rap, a black musical style, but the rap lyrics are unmistakably white in tone and perspective – they were written and performed by Bill Bottrell. This rap section flies at a completely different altitude than we might expect. The message is uplifting and inspirational, and in the short film it is lip synced by Macaulay Culkin, the same white child who appears in the opening drama. Instead of appearing in a lily white suburb as he does earlier, the child is now in an urban melting pot and his clothing and mannerisms register black:
Protection for gangs, clubs and nations Causing grief in human relations It’s a turf war on a global scale I’d rather hear both sides of the tale You see it’s not about races, just places Faces, where your blood comes from Is where your space is I’ve seen the bright get duller I’m not gonna spend my life being a color
Joie: Lisha, I have to say that I just love talking to you about Michael’s work because you always bring such a unique perspective to the conversation. As Willa said the last time we spoke with you, it’s like you’re granting us entrance into a world that we can’t enter on our own, not being trained musicians as you are. This whole discussion of the two middle 8 sections in Black or White is completely fascinating to me, and so much more sophisticated and complex than you would expect a “pop” star to be.
Lisha: It really is very clever, isn’t it? We’re lucky to have a first hand account of how this record was created from an interview Bill Bottrell did for Sound on Sound in 2004. It seems that the use of “black or white” perspectives was an idea Michael had all along, starting with his choice of Bottrell as a co-producer for Black or White. Bottrell explained:
“As a co-producer, Michael was always prepared to listen and put his trust in me, but he was also a sort of guide all the time. He knew why I was there and, among all the songs he was recording, what he needed from me. I was an influence that he didn’t otherwise have. I was the rock guy and also the country guy, which nobody else was.”
Bottrell was selected to co-produce Black or White for the very reason that he would bring this rock/country perspective to the song. So from the very beginning, a “black or white” musical idea was beginning to take shape. Bottrell describes this song as having a Southern rock feel, achieved through his interpretation of the music Michael composed. He plays the famous guitar riff and many other parts throughout the song. Interestingly enough, it was Bottrell who had the idea to insert a rap section in the middle, not Michael. This led Michael to suggest placing a heavy metal section right next to it, side by side. However, I don’t believe Michael ever fully revealed his idea for these two middle sections to Bottrell.
The rap section was the very last part of the song to be completed after months and months of difficult, tedious and time consuming work. And while there were some serious rappers coming into the studio to work on other songs for the Dangerous album, Michael didn’t ask any of them to perform on Black or White. Bottrell couldn’t really figure out why, as he explains:
“All the time I kept telling Michael that we had to have a rap, and he brought in rappers like LL Cool J and the Notorious BIG who were performing on other songs. Somehow, I didn’t have access to them for ‘Black Or White’, and it was getting later and later and I wanted the song to be done. So, one day I wrote the rap — I woke up in the morning and, before my first cup of coffee, I began writing down what I was hearing, because the song had been in my head for about eight months by that time and it was an obsession to try and fill that last gap.”
Bottrell decided to go ahead and do a mock up of the rap section when something very unexpected happened, the birth of “LTB”:
“It seems kind of random, but it’s as if he [Michael] makes things happen through omission. There’s nobody else, and it’s as if he knows that’s what you’re up against and challenges you to do it. For my part, I didn’t think much of white rap, so I brought in Bryan Loren to rap my words and he did change some of the rhythms, but he was not comfortable being a rapper. As a result, I performed it the same day after Bryan left, did several versions, fixed one, played it for Michael the next day and he went ‘Ohhh, I love it Bill, I love it. That should be the one.’ I kept saying ‘No, we’ve got to get a real rapper,’ but as soon as he heard my performance he was committed to it and wouldn’t consider using anybody else.”
If you’ve ever looked at the credits on this song and wondered, who is “LTB”? Now you know!
Willa: That story just cracks me up! As you showed so well, Lisha, he really needed a “white” rap for this section to balance the “black” rock, so he simply makes all these incredible rappers coming in and out of the studio unavailable for this particular song. As Bottrell says, “Somehow, I didn’t have access to them for ‘Black Or White.’” Finally, he’s kinda forced to do it himself. That whole situation is too funny – I can just picture Michael Jackson telling him, “Ohhh, I love it Bill, I love it.” I think Bottrell is right – he really does “make things happen through omission” – and it’s pretty astute of Bottrell to pick up on that.
Lisha: I could laugh about it all day – I find that so hilarious. And it is just such a great example of how Michael used multiple perspectives as a compositional technique in this song. Genius. There is no better way to capture a certain perspective than to just utilize someone who is genuinely approaching music from that perspective.
Willa: That’s a really interesting way to look at this, Lisha. So, to begin expanding out to the other sections of the film, the intro section is set in a “lily white suburb,” as you say, with an Archie Bunker-like father who is throning it over his family from his recliner. The mother is completely silent as long as he’s in the house – and once he’s gone, she just worries about how upset he’ll be when he gets home. It is so stereotypically white and patriarchal.
Joie: That’s a very amusing assessment, Willa.
Willa: It is funny, isn’t it? I think there’s a lot of humor in Black or White, though it’s subtle and often overlooked. So the son is upstairs listening to loud rock music, which is generally coded as white also, just like the setting, but he has a poster of Michael Jackson hanging on the back of his door, so already there’s a bit of ambiguity. The father stomps upstairs and demands he “turn that noise off!” then slams the door. The poster falls to the floor, the glass shatters – the first of many scenes of shattering glass in this video – and it just feels to me like Michael Jackson has been released by the shattering glass. He’s no longer safely encased in the poster behind the door. He’s now been let loose, like a genie from his bottle.
The boy responds to his father’s demands with a blast of sound from his electric guitar – a mode of defiance that is generally coded as “white” – but ironically, that blast of sound shatters the windows of this insulated white suburban home and sends the father flying back to Africa and the origins of music, including ultimately hard rock and heavy metal. So it subtly forces us to question how we label and situate this music. After landing in Africa, the father observes Michael Jackson dancing with tribesman in traditional dress and body ornamentation, but they’re dancing to rock music, which again is generally coded as white. But this particular music was written by Michael Jackson, and is now forming the soundtrack for people around the world – Africa, India, North America, Russia – to engage with him in their traditional dance. So that “white” label is really being complicated and undermined on many different fronts.
Joie: As usual, Willa, your observations are brilliant and dead on! And listening to your take on the opening shots of this video really highlights just how calculating and methodical Michael was about every aspect of this project – both the song and the short film. He obviously had a vision and a message … a mission, if you will, for this particular song and video, and it’s really interesting to dissect it and decipher what that message is.
Lisha: You’re absolutely right, Joie, it’s not just a song – it’s a mission! And I really love what you said, Willa, about Michael Jackson being released from that shattered poster frame like a genie from his bottle. He comes in as such a powerful musical force when the song begins and we start to see the African landscape. The guitar introduces the strong musical motif, that famous 2 bar hook that repeats throughout the song. Underneath the guitar and the accompanying rock rhythms, you hear this light percussion with an African feel, things like cowbells and shakers. These percussive African-sounding instruments traditionally suggest the feeling of community and a continuous invitation to dance. As you point out, the short film extends that invitation out to the whole world.
According to musicologist Susan McClary’s book Conventional Wisdom, “one of the most important facts about culture of the last hundred years” is “that the innovations of African Americans have become the dominant force in music around the globe.” The short film really emphasizes this point. But it also emphasizes another point each time the camera pulls away from these traditional dance scenes. The sound stage is revealed, the artifice of the scene is exposed. We have to ask ourselves the question, is this the way it really is? Do we really dance together in harmony all over the world?
The way the sounds are layered and placed in the song tells a “black or white” story too. The white dominant culture is sonically represented by the overpowering guitar hook, but the African feel of the percussion underneath it is steady and understated, always inviting us to dance together in community.
Willa: Those kind of details are so interesting to me, Lisha, and I love your reading of this. It reinforces the idea once again that the central themes of Black or White are being expressed on so many fronts – through the lyrics and dance and visuals, but also through the music itself and how the music is structured.
Lisha: It is endlessly fascinating to think about the way the music itself gets used as part of the literal meaning in this song. One of the best examples is after Michael sings in the first verse “we’re one in the same.” Suddenly the guitar hook stops and all the musical focus is now on the down beat or the one. Beat one now carries a literal meaning of unity and oneness. “Now, I believe in miracles, and a miracle has happened tonight.” It happens again in the chorus when we hear: “If you’re thinkin’ about my baby it don’t matter if you’re black or white.” The emphasis on beat one is a sonic statement to remind us “we are one in the same.” Brilliant!
Joie: Now that’s really interesting, Lisha. Of course, we all focus on beat one as we listen to the song – as was probably Michael’s intention. But I never realized that beat one was a musical representation of our oneness. Of our unity. That is truly fascinating to me!
Let’s move on to the ending section of the short film, the part usually referred to as the panther dance. Almost from the moment the video was released on November 14, 1991, it was mired in controversy because of the suggestive way Michael danced and touched himself during the piece, as well as the uncharacteristic violence he portrayed. It was so controversial that many TV stations would only play the shortened version of the video, removing the panther dance sequence all together.
The interesting thing here to me is that, as Willa has pointed out many times in other conversations, when it came to his art, Michael usually had a very specific reason for everything he did. He knew that the public, and the ratings machine, were practically salivating at the thought of his next video. Since the colossal success of Thriller and the resulting videos for that album, Michael’s short films were debuted with all the drama of a major Hollywood release. People would mark the date on their calendars and gather around their TV sets with baited breath to watch a new Michael Jackson video, and Black or White was no exception. It was first broadcast on MTV, VH1, BET and Fox (giving that network its highest Nielsen ratings ever). It also premiered simultaneously in 27 countries around the world with an audience of over 500 million viewers – the most ever to watch a music video!
So Michael orchestrated this massive audience to sit and watch, knowing that what he was about to do would not only stir up controversy but would also be talked about for years to come! And I believe that’s exactly what he wanted from the panther dance – to create so much controversy that it would be assured that this song/video and its message could never be ignored or overlooked.
Lisha: I have to say that as I go back and look at what was going on for Michael Jackson in 1991, the release of this video seems as carefully orchestrated as the song itself. In June of that year, there was quite a stir when Madonna very publicly criticized Michael Jackson saying he needed a complete makeover. I actually remember this news item even though I wasn’t a fan at that time. Now I wonder if Michael didn’t recruit Madonna himself to make this statement because it got so much publicity! After all, they had been seeing quite a bit of each other that year. Two of Madonna’s dancers claimed to be in contact with the Jackson camp and said “we intend to get rid of the boots and buckles and glitter … We want to give him an updated street look that’s very what’s-happening-in-New-York-today.” This prompted Michael’s spokesman, Bob Jones, to release a statement denying their involvement, and he said something I find quite fascinating: “He [Michael] had a different look for each of his albums by his choice. Absolutely no one determines which direction Mr. Jackson goes.”
Willa: Wow, that is interesting, isn’t it? It states pretty clearly that “his look” – meaning the appearance of his face, his body, his hair, his clothing – was part of his art, and he hints at that in the film as well. There’s the morphing faces scene, which is so interesting, and then at the end of that section the director, John Landis, steps into the frame of the film (once again disrupting the illusion of reality and emphasizing the constructedness of this film, as you mentioned earlier, Lisha) and says to the actress, “That was perfect. How do you do that?” It’s a joke, of course, but the implication is that they aren’t using special effects to morph between different people of different races and genders; rather they’re simply filming one person as s/he morphs between race and gender. And of course, Michael Jackson himself morphed across race and gender lines, and a lot of people wondered, “How do you do that?” This is echoed immediately afterwards when the panther appears and then morphs into Michael Jackson. So there’s a lot of morphing going on – across race, across gender, even across species.
Lisha: I had never gotten that joke before. That is hysterical!
Willa: Isn’t it funny? I love that line.
Lisha: I do too, and what an insight into this piece and his entire body of work. When I go back and look at the physical images Michael released for the previous album, Bad, and even the photos of his outings with Madonna earlier in 1991, I see what we call “a person of color.” However, in this short film, what I see signifies white in my mind. I honestly think, and I am not exaggerating in any way, that this is arguably the most significant artistic creation of our time. This song and the physical image of the artist coming together in this way … I just don’t know what to say … I am awestruck by this kind of genius.
Willa: I agree wholeheartedly. He just blows me away. And it’s so interesting how what you were just saying about his body kind of echoes what you were saying earlier about the middle 8 sections, where he takes a white music genre – hard rock – and runs it through a black perspective, and takes a black genre – hip hop – and runs it through a white perspective. By this point in his career his appearance may have registered as white, but he still vigorously claimed his black identity. So just as he was “deliberately confusing the musical codes” in those middle 8 sections, as you described so well, he seems to be deliberately confusing racial codes – specifically the signifiers written on his body – and challenges how we read and interpret his face and body.
And we see that again in the panther dance that you were just talking about, Joie. His face does seem to register as white in the earlier sections of the video, as you mentioned, Lisha, but his racial “coding” is more ambiguous during the panther dance. For example, when he kneels in the puddle and rips his shirt open, I wouldn’t say his face and body in that scene can be easily classified as either black or white. But the message is definitely from a black perspective. It’s a strong protest against white imperialism, colonialism, racism, and oppression.
Lisha: Those agonizing cries and yells in this scene are so expressive – you can feel centuries of pent up anger and frustration in his vocals that point to just that. Words and literal meanings just aren’t necessary. You understand from the voice and the visual symbols what is being communicated. And I think there is something more ambiguous going on here musically too. Many have described the panther dance as being a silent dance without musical accompaniment, but I really hear this differently. I hear a complex layering of sound that feels more like an avant-garde composition, exploring the musical value of all kinds of things like glass breaking, wind, and water splashing. It feels like much more than just a soundscape. Over the recorded dance steps you can hear these very rhythmic, sharp, crisp aspirants or little whispers that function like a percussion instrument to hold the music together and keep the beat steady. Other “mouth percussion” sounds are there too, like “cha,” “sss,” “hew,” and popping sounds with the lips. It’s possible that this alternative musical expression is another form of protest as well.
Willa: Wow! That is fascinating!
Lisha: The ending panther dance coda is a little masterpiece of its own, and it creates such a perfect bookend for the song. The opening drama with its white suburban setting creates one bookend and the black panther dance set in the city streets creates the other. Perfect symmetry. We have this “black or white” song, co-produced through “black or white” perspectives, with its “black or white” middle sections, placed between these two “black or white” bookends. There doesn’t seem to be anything here that hasn’t been thought out to the “nth” degree to communicate the message of the song, including the artist himself!
Joie: Which goes back to what I was saying before about how he always had very specific, very calculated reasons for doing everything he did. When it came to his art, he really was very methodical and deliberate in his choices and his decisions. Remarkable!
Joie: Willa, last week we talked about the Ghosts short film and that got me thinking about the dance sequence in that video. You know, for so many years, Michael’s name has been synonymous with dance, and he has long been recognized as one of the greatest dancers of our time. I believe we would have to search long and hard to find someone – anyone – who would take issue with that statement. Even people who don’t consider themselves to be fans seem to have no trouble admitting that. In fact, he was the first figure from the world of rock and roll to be inducted into the prestigious National Dance Hall of Fame in 2010.
Willa: Really? How do you know all this, Joie? You’re just amazing. But no, I didn’t know about that. That is impressive.
Joie: Yeah, it is really impressive. Especially since the honor is usually reserved for classically trained dancers from the world of ballet and modern dance. The list of inductees includes names like George Balanchine, Martha Graham and Bronislava Nijinska as well as Fred Astaire and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
I think one of the reasons so many people acknowledge his dance talent is because he always used his short films to showcase that amazing ability, and I really love the big dance sequence in the Ghosts short film. Even though it’s the storyline and the dialogue that really drive this video, the dance sequence, to me, is really just as important. From the very beginning where he introduces the invading villagers to his “family” of ghosts, to the very menacing charge against the Mayor, to the almost angelic conclusion where the ghosts float from the ceiling in reverence. I think it’s one of the most complex dance sequences we’ve ever seen in a Michael Jackson video and I love how he used the background music to sort of shift the mood of the dance throughout – from lighthearted circus-feel entertainment, to very threatening, to almost ethereal. It’s just so much fun to sit and watch; I love to pop in this video and really immerse myself in it.
Willa: Oh, I agree! The dance sequences are fascinating and you’re right – they really propel us through a wide range of emotions. I wish I knew more about dance so I could be more aware of what’s happening and have a better understanding of what he’s doing and why. He had three choreographers, including Travis Payne, working with him and the other dancers on this movie, but the credits say, “All Dance Sequences Conceived and Staged by Michael Jackson.” And you can definitely feel his guiding vision in these dance sequences – they embody through physical movement some of the central themes of the film. And that first dance, with all those ghosts and ghouls dancing behind him, feels so different from any other dance sequence he ever did.
You know, he really liked to develop each dance so that it precisely fit what he was trying to convey in that particular piece. In a 1999 MTV interview, he described how he and Michael Peters choreographed the big dance sequence with the zombies in Thriller:
“It was a delicate thing to work on,” he says, because zombies move in such a stiff, unnatural way – they clomp around on their undead legs and can scarcely walk. As he says, “I remember my original approach was, How do you make zombies and monsters dance without it being comical?” He approached that problem by imaginatively putting himself in the body of a zombie and working through it that way. As he says, “I got in the room with Michael Peters, and he and I together kind of imagined how these zombies should move.”
And they solved the problem brilliantly. When you watch the big dance sequence in Thriller, it feels so right you don’t even think about how difficult it must have been to choreograph a dance for undead legs. He and the other zombies really move, so it’s fun to watch, but there are some distinctive gestures that vividly convey the idea that these are rigid, corpse-like bodies.
Joie: And, you know, it’s not something that most people would think about. But asking the question, “how do you make zombies dance without it being comical,” is really what made him such a brilliant talent – that attention to detail is incredible. He approached everything he did with that same obsessive attention to detail. It’s really astounding to think about! I just love when he says that he would even go so far as to show up for rehearsals with Michael Peters wearing monster makeup in order to get into character, to make it easier to envision just how these undead creatures would move and dance. That dedication to detail is key.
Willa: I agree. I think it’s subtle details like that, along with the ability to imaginatively put yourself in the emotional and physical space of your character, that sets apart great dancers, great actors, great artists. I remember reading an article one time about Baryshnikov when he was very young. He was dancing the role of a toy, I think it was, who comes to life, but he was acting listless on stage. His instructor stopped the music and asked if there was something wrong, and he said no, he just hadn’t come to life yet. I love that! He was dragging around on stage because he was completely immersed in that role and imagining what it would be like to inhabit a wooden mechanical body and not yet have a living body. How would your arms and legs move if they weren’t alive yet?
Michael Jackson had that same imaginative capacity to genuinely inhabit a character and move in a way that suggested he really was a zombie or a gangster or a mayor forced to dance against his will. He describes dancing as the Mayor in “The Making of Ghosts,” about 6½ minutes in:
Joie: You know what I love about that clip, Willa, is the fact that, even though he is being interviewed about his new video, he stays completely in character because of all the makeup and conducts the interview as the Mayor – with the voice, the attitude and everything! So funny.
Willa: I love that too! And then he starts to jerk and move, and it really feels like something inside him is yanking his muscles and compelling him to dance. And then he really gets into it and starts to groove, but there’s still that resistance the Mayor has to the dance. It’s just amazing to hear him talk through what’s happening as he does it, and so fun to watch him pull it off.
I see something similar but a little more complicated happening in the big dance sequence in Ghosts. He’s creating a dance that’s appropriate for these characters – for ghosts and ghouls – but he’s also creating a dance that carries out an important thematic function by evoking the grotesque. He suggests the grotesque in many different ways throughout Ghosts: in the contortions of his face when he first confronts the villagers, in the laughing fool with his jingling three-pointed hat, in the irreverent ghouls who challenge the Mayor, in the upside-down dancing on the ceiling. And he also evokes it through the dance steps themselves. There’s lots of splayed legs, and these skittery spider-like jumps and sidewinder movements that we’ve never seen him do before.
Joie: You’re right, there are lots of really different, menacing, even almost sinister moves in this one. In Thriller, even though they were portraying dancing undead zombies, the feel of the dance was still sort of lighthearted, soft-horror. But in Ghosts, the entire dance sequence feels much darker and more frightening because of the unique choreography.
Willa: I hadn’t thought about that, but it is kind of unsettling, isn’t it, just because it is so different from any dance I can think of. I don’t remember ever seeing a dancer move their body in quite that way before. And you know, while you see people from around the world doing so many distinctive Michael Jackson dance moves, you don’t see them doing those splayed-leg movements from Ghosts. I’ve never seen those moves outside this film, and maybe that’s also because they are so unnervingly different.
There is so much going on in this film, and in the dance sequences, and there are some subtle gestures that really jump out at me in interesting ways. For example, he begins the first dance sequence by calling up all these ghouls to dance with him and then wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. He uses that same gesture in Bad after calling up the imaginary gang members/artists to back him up in the big dance sequence there. And the Macaulay Culkin character does the same thing in the intro to Black or White, just before blasting the electric guitar so loud he sends his father flying back to Africa and the origins of music and dance.
That small gesture seems to carry the same meaning in all three cases. In all three, a rather powerless solitary figure is confronted with the threat of violence, and in all three he stands up to that threat and counters it with art: with music and dance. It’s almost like Michael Jackson is creating his own vocabulary of gesture, so when we see him wipe his mouth with the back of his hand in Ghosts, we feel the echoes of those prior films and kind of know what’s coming.
Joie: “His own vocabulary of gesture.” I like that!
Willa: You know what I mean, right? It’s just so fascinating to me what he’s doing – how he uses subtle gestures like that to signify a very specific concept, but in an unspoken way. He does something similar to begin the skeleton dance. As we were talking about last week, the villagers have very conflicted feelings about the Maestro – they aren’t sure if they can trust him or not – so he reflects that back at them by making himself unfamiliar, a skeleton, but then dances in a very fun, familiar way that draws them to him.
Interestingly, he begins the skeleton dance by jerking up his right shoulder – and that is exactly how he began the zombie dance in Thriller. And he’s dealing with a similar situation in both films. In Thriller, he’s addressing people’s very conflicted feelings about him as our first black teen idol. The United States was and is a racist country with oppressive taboos against inter-racial relationships – especially in the early 1980s when Thriller was made – and suddenly millions of teenage girls of all races were fainting at his concerts and affirming that he was sexually desirable. So he was really challenging those taboos, and a lot of people felt very unsettled about that. He responded to those conflicted emotions just as he does in Ghosts: he makes himself unfamiliar – a zombie – so he reflects those emotions back at us, but then dances in a way that’s unmistakably Michael Jackson and draws us in to him.
Joie: Ok, you have officially blown me away here! I never made that connection between the skeleton dance in Ghosts and the zombie dance in Thriller before. But you are right; he does begin both dances the exact same way, in order to remind us that he is still the same person. Wow!
Willa: Isn’t it fascinating? He just knocks me out, over and over again – he’s just breathtakingly brilliant. Every time I experience his work, I feel awed by it all over again.
Joie: Willa, that is a statement that I think so many of us can agree with. It never fails to astound me that, no matter how many times I listen to his music or watch one of his short films or watch a concert performance, I always discover something new that I had never heard or experienced before. It’s just amazing to me.
Willa: Oh, I know! And it’s so interesting to me how he conveyed meaning through so many different avenues simultaneously. For example, he conveys so much through that gesture of jerking up his right shoulder or wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, and importantly, those gestures are nonverbal. I wonder if that’s one reason his work was so popular around the world – because even if you didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand the lyrics, you could still understand the central ideas because he was able to convey meaning in so many other ways.
And he didn’t just use gesture to convey concepts and emotions. He used them to convey personality details as well that brought his characters vividly to life. In a wonderful comment Nina posted a couple weeks ago, she describes how he was able to “sketch a character” through a few subtle gestures:
As some of the most skilled artist/draftspeople could sketch a character in an attitude or pose with just a few simple lines – so that we become privy to an essence the figure’s demeanor and personality – Michael could perform such a character “sketch” through movement alone. It’s gestural economy at its finest … you can recognize the “character” at once.
Nina goes on to say,
he can strike the attitude of a louche sort of fellow who runs a comb through his hair in “Billie Jean,” a gangster in “Smooth Criminal,” and a different [gangster] in “You Rock My World,” and so on. Each of these characters is composed of a few basic elements that are familiar throughout his repertoire. But these elements are rearranged and sequenced in a different way for each “number,” with variations throughout. It’s no wonder that, as a mime, he’d been going to perform with Marcel Marceau. And in film study, we’d consider Michael’s distinctive style that runs throughout his body of work the mark of an “auteur.”
Nina’s descriptions of his “gestural economy” are so interesting, and I absolutely agree about his ability to “sketch a character … with just a few simple lines,” so the “essence” of that character comes to life for us. So in Ghosts, for example, he isn’t just performing the dance of a generic Mayor forced to move against his will. He’s performing as a Mayor with a distinctive personality and specific desires and biases and beliefs, including a desperate need to be in control at all times. And those individualizing characteristics are conveyed to us through simple gestures, such as that abrupt gesture with his hands when his body begins to move. He’s losing control of his legs and then his hips as his body begins to dance, but he’s trying to reassure the villagers that he’s still in control – of the situation, of the Maestro, of them, of his own body.
Joie: Willa, I love the comment you used from Nina. I agree with what she says about the “elements being rearranged and sequenced in a different way for each number.” This is really true and we can see this in various performances throughout his career. One of my absolute favorites is the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards performance. His entire opening number is incredible. He performs a medley of “Don’t Stop,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Scream,” “Beat It,” “Black or White,” and “Billie Jean,” with a little help from his friend, Slash.
But it’s the full-length rendition of “Dangerous” that really makes this performance something special. He’s not even singing live here but, you quickly forgive and forget about it because the dance is so spectacular! Even now, nearly 20 years later, I can’t watch it without getting goosebumps. The way he moves is just so totally beyond anyone else; it’s like he’s made of rubber. His body bends and twists and moves in ways that regular people’s just don’t. There have been, and I’m sure there will continue to be, many imitators but, the simple fact is that nobody else moves like that! Slash once made this observation:
”The thing about Michael is he’s hands down one of the most professional, most talented performers I have ever worked with. All the brouhaha aside, when it comes down to it, you can have 60 choreographed dancers up there and you know which one Michael is.”
I just love this quote because Slash is absolutely right; you can always pick Michael out when he’s on stage with other singers and dancers. He just moves differently than anyone else. And I especially love that this quote came from Slash – someone you wouldn’t normally think would pay attention to the dancing, you know?
Willa: And what he says is absolutely true. When Michael Jackson is dancing with a group, you simply can’t take your eyes off him. Even in the group dance in The Way You Make Me Feel when all you can see are silhouettes of the dancers, you know which one is him and you can’t help watching him.
And of course, he also received praise from professionals who do pay close attention to dancing – people like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Debbie Allen, and Michael Flatley, as Jacksonaktak noted in a comment a couple months ago. I love this quote she cited from Baryshnikov, saying,
What Baryshnikov remembers most about Jackson, he said, was “… his simple, bouncy walk across the stage, that was what was most beautiful and arresting, swinging his hips, kicking his heel forward. That’s to me what he is: that superior confidence in his body as a dancer. You wanted to say, ‘Wow, this guy, what a cat; he can really move in his own way.’”
As soon as I read this, I could picture that “simple, bouncy walk” so well. I love that walk, and it’s so distinctively Michael Jackson. We see snippets of it throughout the MTV medley you love so much, Joie. He also performs it as the skeleton in Ghosts, and even as a skeleton, it is so distinctively him. It’s just so joyful and carefree, and as Baryshnikov says, it reflects “that superior confidence in his body as a dancer.”
Joie: Yeah, that is a great quote from Baryshnikov and, you’re right. He did receive a lot of praise from many in the dance community. From the highly acclaimed and regarded all the way to the neophyte just trying to catch a break – like all those young dancers at the beginning of the This Is It film. You know, during an interview on The Making of Thriller, Michael Peters talks about how Michael had never taken a formal dance lesson in his life and yet, there he was in the dance rehearsals with all of these classically trained dancers who had been studying dance for years, and he was not simply holding his own with them, but he was actually out-dancing them. “It’s just something you’re born with,” Peters said. “It’s just in him.”
Joie: Last week, we began a discussion about Michael’s frequent use of an on-screen audience in many of his short films, and how he used this on-screen audience to convey a certain mood or to model behavior in the video that he wanted us – the off-screen audience – to emulate. And during our discussion, Willa and I were surprised to find that there was so much ground to cover on this topic. So much, in fact, that we had no choice but to do it in two posts.
So this week, we want to continue by picking up where we left off with our conversation about how Michael often breaks the illusion of reality in his videos, as we pointed out he does at the end of Beat It. The dancers are doing their thing while the gang members watch and then the camera pans back to reveal that they are actually on a stage and we hear the roar of the unseen on-screen audience, which makes it clear that this has been a performance.
Willa: That’s true, Joie, and he does that a lot in his work, even when there isn’t an on-screen audience. He likes to draw us in – immerse us in a story or an experience – and then remind us that it’s a performance. Black or White may be the best example. He’s constantly breaking the illusion of reality in that video: after almost every scene he reveals that he’s been performing on a soundstage. And at the big break in the middle – before the panther dance begins – he pans back to show us the film crew, and the director stepping into the frame to talk with the actress who was performing for us. We’re never allowed to forget that this is a performance.
He’s even more explicit about emphasizing he’s a performer in Remember the Time. In fact, the plot of this video focuses on the interactions between a performer and his audience. An Egyptian royal couple is bored and eager for entertainment, but they’re ruthless in passing judgment on those who try to please them. One poor entertainer is beheaded; another is thrown to the lions. So clearly, if you’re to survive as a performer, you have to please your audience. Michael Jackson’s character succeeds in pleasing the queen – and as he frequently does in his work, he presents the relationship between him and his audience, the queen, as a love affair. But while the queen is pleased, the king is not. In fact, he turns against Michael Jackson’s character precisely because the queen is so taken with him. Clearly, the life of a performer is not an easy one.
Joie: That’s interesting, Willa. I never really think about Remember the Time in terms of an on-screen audience but I guess it does apply. The king and queen are watching several performers, looking for someone to entertain them, so they are indeed the audience here!
Willa: They really are, and they aren’t a very loving audience either – at least, not entirely. His relationship with this on-screen audience is pretty complicated, just as his relationship with the public was really complicated. We have two different elements of his audience – represented by the king and queen – reacting in very different ways to his performance, and each is motivated by a complex mix of emotions. The queen is bored and falls for him simply because his performance amuses her, but she’s capricious. She could easily change her mind. The king is initially drawn to his performance also, but then he observes how the queen is responding and turns against him.
And of course, something very similar happened off screen with the general public as well. Michael Jackson first appeared as this cute little bundle of energy singing and dancing with the Jackson 5, and a lot of people became caught up in the sheer delight of that. And then his fame grew and grew with Off the Wall and of course Thriller, and a large segment of the population became completely infatuated with him – like the queen does. But at the same time, the critics began to turn against him – just like the king – and the haters began to appear, along with people who were just too cool to like someone that popular.
I don’t know if you have friends like this, Joie, but I know people who are constantly gushing about some new undiscovered talent, and then turning against them when they get too popular. I have friends who loved REM when they were playing little clubs in Athens, Georgia, but lost interest as soon as they became a big name. They loved Bruce Springsteen when he was a scrawny kid from New Jersey but shook their heads and said he’d “sold out” somehow when he muscled up and became recognized as the voice of the working class.
Joie: Yeah, I know people like that. One in particular who just loved the band Journey when they weren’t very successful. But the minute they hired Steve Perry to be their lead singer and the group suddenly started turning out hits, he didn’t like them anymore. They were too popular, too “commercial.” I don’t understand that at all.
Willa: I don’t really understand that either – performers are just as talented after they become popular as they were before – but I see this same story playing out over and over again: with Charlie Chaplin and Elvis and Barbra Streisand and The Beatles, and now Justin Bieber. And I see Michael Jackson exploring that phenomenon in Remember the Time. So he’s doing something a little different with his on-screen audience this time. He isn’t modeling how he wants us to react. Instead, he’s reflecting our emotions back at us so we’re forced to look at them and think about them, at some level of consciousness.
Joie: Hmm. I never would have made that connection or thought of it in that way. But, like I said, I hadn’t ever thought about Remember the Time as having an on-screen audience before now so, that really floors me. You’ve just given me a whole new way of thinking about this short film.
But, you know, there are a couple of other videos that I never really thought about as having an on-screen audience before. One of those is You Rock My World. But I guess you could say that the club patrons and the managers of the club are his audience in that one. After all, he does take it upon himself to get up on the stage in that video. They haven’t asked him to perform. In fact, the club managers look like they want to kill him the minute he enters the establishment, so they don’t want him on the stage. But he gets up there and gives an impromptu performance anyway.
Willa: That’s interesting, Joie, and it connects back to Remember the Time in really interesting ways. I hadn’t thought about those two videos together like that before, but there are some striking parallels between them. As we talked about last fall, the club managers and club owner in You Rock My World seem to represent the managers and CEO of Sony, while the patrons – especially the love interest in the green dress – seem to represent the public. And both of these groups are watching him as he performs.
So, as in Remember the Time, he has a split audience. The love interest is drawn to the performer, just like the queen in Remember the Time, and the club managers feel very threatened by that, just like the king. The club managers act like they own her, and when they see she’s drawn to his performance, they begin bullying him and taunting him, saying, “That’s it? That’s all you got? That ain’t nothin.’ You ain’t nothin.’ C’mon, big man, show me all you got.” And that highlights an important difference between these two videos. While the king seems to respect his talent, even though he’s threatened by it, the club owner and club managers don’t – which is pretty telling if they really do represent Sony management at that time.
Joie: Those are eye-opening observations, Willa. I had never drawn those parallels between these two videos before.
Willa: I hadn’t either, until you mentioned You Rock My World while Remember the Time was still on my mind. But I can see now why one reminded you of the other because, in terms of the on-screen audience, they really are very similar.
Joie: Yeah, it’s interesting how my mind made that connection on a subconscious level, isn’t it? You know, another video I never really thought about in terms of an on-screen audience before reading M Poetica and our subsequent conversations is The Way You Make Me Feel but, you explain how the group of guys talking on the street corner and even the group of girls across the street are all watching the protagonist as he tries to get the object of his affection to talk to him. They all become his audience, as well as his cheering section.
Willa: Oh, The Way You Make Me Feel is just fascinating to me! There is so much going on in that video. And you’re right, the people on the street are cheering him on as he woos this beautiful young woman, but they’re also judging him as well. It’s really interesting how he sets that all up. And then once he starts to connect with this woman and care for her, he’s pretty uncomfortable having all those eyes watching him as he tries to develop a relationship with her. It’s all so public, and he wants some privacy. As he sings, “Ain’t nobody’s business but mine and My Baby’s.” So in this case, he includes an on-screen audience that performs several different functions, and one is to show how intrusive it feels to have an audience when you’re wanting a private moment.
Joie: It does feel very intrusive at times, even for us – the off-screen audience – as we watch him try to woo the girl. We sort of breathe a little bit easier when he’s finally able to maneuver her onto a somewhat private porch so they can sit and be alone. But it’s short-lived because she quickly runs away from him again. And then there’s the tension we feel when he joins his friends in the shadows and does this very primal dance for her and there’s a little bit of awkwardness because, again, it is so not private when it really should be.
Willa: I agree – I really get the sense that he wants his relationship with her to be intimate and private, so he disappears. And then when she begins searching for him, that on-screen audience isn’t just awkward. It’s threatening. We see a series of male faces staring right at us – he’s placed us in her position so we’re experiencing what she experiences – and all those male faces are staring straight at us. It’s very unsettling, I think. Even the policeman’s face feels threatening.
Joie: And then we – the off-screen audience – breathe a collective sigh of relief at the end when she envelops him in her arms.
Willa: Exactly. And I think it’s significant that the on-screen audience is gone by then.
Joie: Oh, I never made that connection before. You’re right! This is a really interesting use of the on-screen audience, I think, because he’s using them to fuel the tension throughout the film.
Willa: Oh, I like that! I hadn’t thought of it quite that way, Joie, but I think you’re right – I think the on-screen audience does “fuel the tension” in this video.
Joie: By contrast, in another short film, Say, Say, Say, with Paul McCartney, he uses the on-screen audience in just the opposite way – to promote a feeling of light-heartedness.
In this video, there are several different instances of an on-screen audience and each of them sort of fosters this feeling of goodwill or light-heartedness. The first one is the crowd of on-lookers who are obviously being scammed by the “Mac and Jack” miracle potion. Only they don’t know they’re being scammed, so all they feel is happy and excited about this new product. The second on-screen audience we see here is the group of children and workers at the orphanage who benefit from that miracle potion scam. Our main characters jump out of the truck and “Mac” and his wife – the adults, taking care of business – hand over the money to the workers of the orphanage, while “Jack” – Michael’s character – immediately gathers up the children; they follow him as soon as he hops off the truck, like he’s the pied piper. The workers are delighted with the money, of course, while the children are delighted with “Jack’s” presence; he entertains them, balancing on the fence, dancing around for them. At the end of his little display for the children, he even takes a bow – to point out that it’s been a performance. Then they jump back onto the truck as quickly as they arrived and move on.
The final on-screen audience we see in this video is the crowd sitting in the saloon, watching the “Mac and Jack” Vaudeville Show. That show is full of such fun and humor that the watching crowd can’t help but be amused by their antics and we – the off-screen audience – likewise, can’t help but smile as we watch it all.
Willa: Wow, Joie, I hadn’t thought about all the different audiences but you’re right, and the entertainers modify their performance for each audience. With the townspeople at the beginning, they’re mostly con artists – putting on a performance to bilk them of their money. With the kids, it’s pure performance, the sheer joy of entertaining. And with the Vaudeville crowd at the end, it’s a mix – they’re performing on stage, but they’re still presented as hucksters and hustlers. When the police come in and things start looking a little dodgy, they start a small fire as a distraction and then escape out the back.
Joie: That’s true, they never let us forget that this is a small band of con-artists who need to keep moving.
Willa: They really are. They’re fooling their audience as well as entertaining them. And this idea of the performer as a type of huckster has me thinking about Who Is It again. As we talked about a couple weeks ago, in that film he seems to parallel the experiences of this high-priced call girl and con artist with his life as a performer, and we definitely see that parallel here too – the entertainer as a kind of hustler and con artist. And he conveys that idea through the on-screen audience.
And then there’s Ghosts. That is such an amazing film in so many ways, and the on-screen audience is at the absolute center of that film. It’s very psychological, and to me, the central conflict of the film is actually happening inside the on-screen audience’s heads.
Joie: I agree, it is psychological but I don’t think it’s happening inside their heads. I think it’s real for them; they really are seeing these ghosts climbing the walls and dancing on the ceiling and the Mayor really is temporarily possessed by the Maestro and then runs screaming through a window when he just can’t take the “strangeness” any longer.
Willa: Oh, I see what you’re saying. I didn’t explain myself very well – that isn’t what I meant. I agree that the ghosts “really” are there, and the villagers really are experiencing them. What I meant was that, in a lot of films, the plot focuses on some sort of external conflict, like crossing a frozen tundra with sled dogs, or pulling off a bank heist, or fighting the evil Empire, or something like that. But in this film, there’s very little going on, in that sense. A group of people stand in a room and stare at each other. What kind of plot is that?
But there’s actually a lot going on in this film. It’s just that the conflict is all interior – the conflict is inside the villagers’ minds – and the resolution of that conflict is occurring inside their minds as well. There aren’t any sled dogs, but this film traces a journey just as difficult as the Iditarod in some ways. It begins with a group of scared villagers with burning torches invading the home of an artist, the Maestro. The villagers are from a place called Normal Valley, and they’re scared of the Maestro because he doesn’t fit their definition of “normal.” And they want to drive him out of town because of that fear.
So the plot of the film traces the Maestro’s attempts to change their thoughts and feelings about him. And he succeeds, but he does it in an interesting way. He doesn’t reassure them that he’s normal and really one of them. Just the opposite. He responds by becoming even more freakish and then altering their emotional response to things that aren’t normal – that seem different or strange or freakish to them.
I have to say, everything about this film fascinates me: how he represents their psychological journey, how he brings it about, how he resolves it – but not completely – at the end. There’s still a lot of uncertainty, even at the end. And the on-screen audience is central to all that. And we as an off-screen audience are watching them and tracking their thought processes as they take this psychological journey so, in a way, we take that psychological journey with them. It’s just fascinating to me.
Joie: Oh, I see what you’re saying. And you’re right, the on-screen audience is totally central to that film, the whole plot hinges on them.
But you know, of course, the ultimate on-screen audience is the one in the video for One More Chance, which we discussed at length back in the fall. That video really puts the presence of the on-screen audience to interesting use, placing them on the stage while he pleads with them for just “one more chance at love.”
As you pointed out in that discussion, at the end of the video he’s left the room but the audience is still up on the stage. This visual suggests to the off-screen audience that there’s nothing left for him to do now. His work is done and it’s up to us now. We’re the ones who have to carry on in his absence and do what we can to preserve his legacy and help “make these mysteries unfold.”
You know, Willa, the fact that this turned out to be Michael’s final video is really sort of bittersweet when we understand the purpose of that on-screen audience and the final shot of the short film. It becomes very emotional for me personally.
Willa: I know exactly what you mean, Joie. It’s emotional for me too, but it’s also really motivating as well. “Bittersweet” is a good description.
I’m really committed to changing the conversation about Michael Jackson, and sometimes I just get overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. It’s like trying to push water upstream with your hands. This river of negative commentary is all flowing in the opposite direction, and it’s like, How can we possibly fight all that? But I honestly believe that, with all of us working together, we can begin to channel that water in a different direction. I already sense a major shift happening, and I’m so inspired by seeing all these different people around the world working hard to make a difference. And I’m inspired by you, Joie. I’m so impressed with all the work you’ve done for so many years. You’ve really kept the faith a long time. And I’m motivated by the One More Chance video as well. When I get discouraged, I watch it and think, He’s left the room but we haven’t. We’re still here. It’s up to us now.
Willa: This week Joie and I wanted to dance with one of those elephants in the room and address the recurring criticism that Michael Jackson wasn’t “Black enough.” We’re not talking about skin color. We’re talking about the criticism that began way back in the 1970s and 80s, when critics would look at his penny loafers and his public persona and say he wasn’t doing enough to embrace his Black heritage.
Joie: OK, this is a hard one for me. Not because I don’t know where I stand on this issue but, because this question makes me a little angry for a couple of reasons. One of them is that it’s a question that has been leveled at me on more than one occasion. I had a very middle-class upbringing and the schools I went to in the 1970s and ’80s were a pretty good mix of Black and White. But because I chose not to strictly hang out with only the other Black kids and instead had many friends who were White, suddenly I was trying to be a White girl. And this criticism came not just from other Black kids, but from one of my own siblings as well. Never mind the fact that I had more in common with the kids I chose to hang out with than I did the kids who looked like me. That, apparently wasn’t the point. But here’s the thing… I’m still not really sure what the point is and I don’t believe anyone else knows either.
My nephew, whom I adore, recently graduated from Morehouse College. It’s an all Black, all male campus (its female counterpart, Spelman, is just across the road). I asked him what he thought of this “Black enough” question and I have to admit I was a little saddened by his response. Saddened because he said that even on an all Black campus, there were guys who had to endure this same criticism – either because of the way they dressed (like fitted clothes instead of baggy or relaxed hair instead of natural) or who they dated (White girlfriends instead of Black). Well, by that standard, there are any number of Black people out there – both male and female (myself included) who are just not Black enough anymore! Why, oh why didn’t someone tell me that by relaxing my hair and entering into an interracial marriage that I was selling out my race! Oh the shame!! Guess it’s a good thing I’m a firm believer that we all come from the same race – the Human one!
Willa: Joie, that sentence, “I’m still not really sure what the point is and I don’t believe anyone else knows either,” really caught my attention. Because what exactly is the underlying issue here? I do understand the fear that a group’s cultural heritage will be lost. I really do get that. My grandfather’s grandmother was Potawatomi, but except for a few quilt squares they made together when he was a child and an old sepia-toned photograph, I have no access to my great-great-grandmother or to that culture. That’s all completely lost to me. If I’m filling out a form and have to check a box to identify myself, I check White. Even if I’m allowed to check more than one box, I still only check White. Genetically I’m a little bit Potawatomi, but culturally I’m not, and it would feel presumptuous to me to claim a connection to a heritage I know nothing about. I really regret that that heritage has been lost to me, but at this point it has.
At the same time, I find it very troubling when commentators, especially White commentators, criticize Michael Jackson or President Obama or any Black public figure for allegedly not embracing a more-traditional Black identity. For one thing, it assumes there’s only one definition of Black and that everyone who is Black should conform to it. I know if I were shopping at the grocery store in jeans and a t-shirt and a man came up to me and told me I needed to embrace my femininity, I’d be pretty taken aback by it – and a little offended, frankly. What right does he have to impose his ideas about what’s feminine onto me? I get to decide for myself what’s feminine and what isn’t, or whether or not I even want to be feminine, whatever that means, and I think most people would agree with me.
Yet somehow it’s OK for White commentators to impose their definition of what’s Black onto Michael Jackson. And generally when they say that, it doesn’t feel like it’s expressing concern for Black culture. It feels like a put-down, of a really manipulative and insidious kind.
Joie: That’s because it is a put-down. But here’s what really bothers me about this issue, Willa, and it’s something that you just touched on. And I would like for all of those doing the criticizing to really pay attention and understand this: what is a “traditional Black identity?” Because the truth is that whatever your response is to that question will undoubtedly be a stereotype. There is NO SUCH THING as a “traditional Black identity.” There are as many different “kinds” of Black people as there are shades of Black. We come from all walks of life, from all social and economic backgrounds – contrary to what the media would have you believe! And why is it that if I’m listening to Rap music and talking in slang, that’s OK but, if I’m listening to Heavy Metal and speaking articulately, then I have lost touch with my heritage? In my nephew’s words…. why are we allowing pop culture to be the measuring stick by which we decide who’s “Black enough?” In order to really be Black you have to wear certain clothes and listen to/sing certain music and date certain people and speak a certain way? That’s just plain silly. And that line of thinking that insists all Black people must conform to a certain stereotype is, in a way, its own weird form of internal, self-imposed racism. I don’t understand that thinking at all. I mean, if all Black people went through life taking this view to heart, how much beauty and wonder would the world be deprived of because of it? Would there even be a Michael Jackson for us to discuss then?
So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, YES! Michael Jackson was plenty Black enough. And so are Darius Rucker and Charlie Pride, for that matter! Whoever said that music has to be color-coded? Who said that our Black public figures had to fit into some imaginary stereotypical pigeon hole in order to be seen as valid? Why can’t we simply take pride in the fact that Michael Jackson – a proud Black man – became the greatest, most celebrated entertainer of all time, beloved by millions the world over? Why can’t we take pride in the knowledge that Michael Jackson – a proud Black man – became the most influential musical innovator in the world; he never followed the trends, he set them! Why can’t we just celebrate the fact that Michael Jackson – a proud Black man – is responsible for the biggest-selling album in history? He will forever be known as the one and only King of Pop. A Black man did that! A proud, beautiful, strong, hard-working Black man did all that and so much more! Why can’t we just celebrate him instead of accusing him of not being “Black enough?”
I guess the real reason this question upsets me is because I find it extremely insulting that it is never asked of anyone else. No one ever asks is Jackie Chan Chinese enough or is Robin Thicke White enough? I mean really, let’s just look at that for a minute. Robin Thicke is a very talented singer with a really wonderful voice. But he sings R&B and he kind of talks Black and he is married to a beautiful Black woman so, I don’t know…. I think maybe he’s sold out his White heritage. Is anybody worried about that?
Willa: That’s a really interesting point, and one I’d never thought about before. I’ve never once in my life questioned if I was White enough, and I’ve never felt I had to rein myself in or second guess myself or limit myself in any way to conform with my racial identification. I can wear my hair straight or permed or even in dreadlocks, I can have French toast for breakfast and sushi for lunch and fish tacos for supper, I can fall under the spell of a book by Toni Morrison or Leslie Marmon Silko or Maxine Hong Kingston, and it’s simply not an issue. Because I’m White and belong to the “dominant” culture, I can explore other cultures as much as I want and it doesn’t threaten my identity in any way. And no one ever questions that. I could be accused of appropriating someone else’s culture, which is a whole other issue. But I’ve never had to deal with the kinds of external criticisms or internal self-doubts you’re talking about.
Maybe that’s what Michael Jackson was referring to in the rap section of “Black or White” when he wrote, “I’m not going to spend my life being a color.” I believe Michael Jackson resisted anything that led us to limit ourselves, including our age, gender, nationality, sexuality, or racial identification. As you said, he “was plenty Black enough” – he was a direct heir of James Brown and Jackie Wilson and Sammy Davis, Jr., and was very proud of that – but he reserved the right to define for himself what it means to be Black.
Ideally, everyone should have that right of self-definition, of defining for ourselves who we are and who we want to be. Artists tend to experiment with that right of self-definition more than most people – and no one pushed that right of self-definition further than Michael Jackson did. He absolutely refused to be boxed in by other people’s expectations of him. If he wanted to wear red lipstick, he did. However, that resistance to cultural expectations has a long history as well. Josephine Baker and James Baldwin severely challenged the cultural roles laid out for them, but that doesn’t in any way suggest that they didn’t respect their Black heritage. Instead, they were extending it, and creating a new chapter in the history of Black culture. And as you described so well, Michael Jackson boldly created a whole new chapter all his own.
I think Michael Jackson was a transformative cultural figure who profoundly influenced how we as a people perceive and experience the differences that segment and divide us – differences of race, gender, age, religion, nationality, sexuality – and I believe he was the most important artist of our time. Not the most important Black artist. The most important artist, period. No artist since Warhol has challenged and changed us the way Michael Jackson did. And ironically, he accomplished that, in part, by defying the very constraints he’s accused of transgressing.
Joie: Wow. I love the way you put that: “…by defying the very constraints he’s accused of transgressing.” You’re so right. And I really believe it was his goal to unite the world – all races, all colors, all nationalities – through his gift of music. He once told reporter Sylvia Chase:
“When they’re all holding hands, and everybody’s rockin’ and all colors of people are there, all races… it’s the most wonderful thing. Politicians can’t even do that!”
The awe in his voice as he said those words to her is so real and so reverent, you just know that he truly is moved by the sight of it. You can feel it in his voice and I believe that he really felt what he sang in “Black or White”: “If you’re thinkin’ of being my brother / it don’t matter if you’re Black or White.” I believe those lyrics really spoke to him and were important to him. I think on the surface, it was seen by most people as a sweet,”can’t-we-all-just-get-along,” yeah unity type of song but, really it was a very serious message that he was trying to get across to us all. It really doesn’t matter if you’re Black or White, and all of the judging and the labeling is only serving to keep us all down. Is someone Black enough? White enough? Chinese enough? Puerto Rican enough? That’s not even a valid question. Certainly not one that anybody – of any race – should ever be asking of anyone else because only the individual can answer that question. Only I have the right to ask if I’m Black enough just like only you, Willa, have the right to ask if you’re White enough. And only Michael Jackson had the right to question whether or not he was Black enough. And I think he answered that question for us over and over again both in his art and in the causes he chose to support, like the United Negro College Fund and the Equality For Blacks in the Music World conference.
Joie: So, “Dancing With the Elephant.” Pretty strange title for a blog about Michael Jackson, huh? Well, not really. Not once you understand where my friend and I are coming from and how this blog came to be.
My name is Joie Collins and I am one of the dedicated individuals who helps run the MJFC (Michael Jackson Fan Club) website. Needless to say, I’m a huge Michael fan and have been since I was a very small child watching the Jackson 5 perform on Soul Train. I’ve been doing what I do for MJFC for a long time and I love it! I get great satisfaction out of overseeing the website’s News page and answering the website’s business mail. Recently, I’ve had the great pleasure of getting to know Dr. Willa Stillwater when I agreed to read her new book, M Poetica, and give her my honest, gut-reaction from a fan’s point of view.
I’m not sure she knew exactly what she was asking of me at the time. As you know, we MJ fans tend to take our opinions very seriously! And, as you may have guessed, my “honest, gut-reaction” sparked an immediate, heated debate! Willa and I went back and forth and back and forth over various topics and points covered in her book. I would tell her all the things I loved about it, but I also pulled no punches in telling her what I hated about it. And she would counter with all the reasons why she had written it the way she had written it and I would explain to her why I felt the way I did and why most fans would agree with me. This went on for a couple of weeks, and finally she and I began to understand that we had hit on something special.
What we realized is that, during our debates, we actually had some pretty interesting discussions about Michael Jackson, his art and his music. We were talking openly and honestly, having real, in-depth conversations about the work of the greatest entertainer of all time. And even when we were disagreeing (which happened a fair amount of the time), we both always came away from the conversation with an enlightened point of view, and a new way of looking at the King of Pop than we had previously. So we thought… what if we continued the conversation on a larger scale? And what if we invited all of you to witness that conversation and even take part in it yourselves?
Still doesn’t explain the name though, right? Well, we wanted a name that spoke to both of us and also had relevant meaning to Michael himself. We all know how deeply Michael felt about the majestic elephant. He loved them! Gypsy and Babar were among his favorite animals at his Neverland Valley Ranch zoo. He even wrote a beautiful essay about elephants in his book, Dancing the Dream called “So the Elephants March.” In it, he talks about the lessons that elephants have been trying for centuries to teach man. He writes, “But the elephants’ most important message is in their movement. For they know that to live is to move. Dawn after dawn, age after age, the herds march on, one great mass of life that never falls down, an unstoppable force of peace.” I think that last part describes Michael pretty well. “An unstoppable force of peace.” In many ways, that’s what he himself was.
For me, not only are elephants amazing animals, but they also symbolize a “touchy subject.” A difficult conversation that people may wish to avoid. For example, I’m a Black American (I don’t like the term “African” American because neither I, nor my parents, nor my grandparents – or even my great-grandparents for that matter - have ever been to Africa) and my husband is White. He and I often talk about different racial issues and it’s wonderful because we can do so in a very open and honest way without the fear of offending anyone or hurting each other’s feelings. We’ve been married for 10 and a half years now and we often interact with one another’s families – all of whom have always been very supportive of our relationship. During our conversations about the differences between Black families and White families, one of the things I often say to my husband is that, in my experience, White families sometimes tend to want to avoid “the elephant in the room,” preferring to dodge the uncomfortable topics of conversation, while Black families tend to draw as much attention to the awkward topic as possible, often wrapping Christmas lights around that elephant and setting up big flashing arrows pointing right to it! It’s a generalization, of course, but you get what I mean. The point is, sometimes people (of all races) don’t really know how to tackle the uncomfortable topics, so instead they “avoid the elephant in the room.”
Well, I think we can all agree that when it comes to Michael Jackson there are a lot of uncomfortable topics that might come up. Even in a blog that focuses on his art. And Willa and I are not going to avoid those elephants. Instead, we’ve decided to dance with them!
Willa: Joie, I love your description of the elephant in the room! I just love it. It creates this little movie in my mind of a bunch of people sitting in a room with an elephant no one invited, and everyone is feeling uncomfortable and awkward and no one knows what to do. Finally someone walks right up to the elephant, welcomes him, and invites him to dance – and they all find out he’s not so scary after all. Suddenly, that awkward situation becomes much more comfortable, and maybe even turns into a party. I just love that image of dancing with the elephant!
I also think it’s crucially important to openly acknowledge the elephant in the room when trying to interpret Michael Jackson since confronting painful issues, especially racial prejudice, was so central to his work – from relatively straightforward anthems like “Black or White” to more complicated things like the changing color of his skin. I don’t think you can understand him and what he was doing and how incredibly important it is if you exclude race from the picture, or marginalize it off to the side somewhere. Confronting prejudice in one form or another was at the heart of almost everything he did, both as an artist and as a cultural figure.
Because we aren’t honestly acknowledging the elephant in the room, I don’t think we’ve even begun to realize the deep, tectonic shifts he helped bring about. I’m White and I grew up in the South, in a very racist place. Yet, as a teenager, my definition of the ultimate in sexiness was Michael Jackson, a young Black man. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. And there were millions of girls around the world who felt the same way I did. There’s a whole generation of us whose ideas about race and sexuality – about what’s sexy and what isn’t – were shaped by him. That’s huge. He was a teen idol, our first Black teen idol, and the implications of that are deep and powerful and profound, but no one’s really talking about that, or what it means culturally.
You know, every time he ripped his shirt on stage, like in Dirty Diana or Come Together, and showed us his dark chest and how beautiful and sexy it was, he was challenging how White America, especially, “read” his body. But he did it in such an interesting way. He was beautiful and sexy, but he was always a genuine person too – in part, I think, because he had the courage to let himself be vulnerable, and let us see that side of him too. He wasn’t just a Chippendale guy. He was sexy, but he never became just a glossy sex object because we could always see the humanity in him. I look at him in Dirty Diana up on stage with his bare chest and shoulders, and he’s so sexy I can hardly stand it, but he also looks so vulnerable. I don’t know whether to faint or make him some soup.
Joie: Faint or make him soup! I love the way you put things sometimes!
Willa: Well, you know what I mean! You just feel the urge to take care of him sometimes, and I think that vulnerability was really important also. This was during the 1980s, when the inner cities were erupting in gang violence and the dominant narrative in the media was that young Black men were scary and alien and dangerous. We kept getting told that – in news reports and movies and even commercials – but then there’s Michael Jackson, and he’s almost single-handedly pushing back against that dominant narrative and offering a very different vision. He was a young Black man, but he was sweet and funny and smart and sexy and vulnerable. He gave us an alternate image of what it means to be a young Black man in America, and for me, his vision always seemed more honest and human and believable than that scary stereotype.
Joie: Well, I agree with you completely. He did give us an alternative image of what it means to be a young Black man in America and, to this day, Black Americans take pride in that. And I could go off on a whole different tangent here, but before I do that, why don’t you explain what the title means to you.
Willa: So “Dancing with the Elephant” speaks to me about art and interpretation. To me, interpretation isn’t about passively observing a work of art, but about actively engaging with it, “dancing” with it, opening yourself up to it, and becoming emotionally invested in it.
It also reminds me of a folktale I love about six blind men trying to understand and describe an elephant. The first approaches the elephant and happens to touch his trunk. He feels the elephant’s trunk, realizes how strong yet flexible it is, and announces that an elephant is like a huge snake – like a python or boa constrictor. The second blind man steps forward and touches one of the elephant’s legs. He feels all around, noting the round shape and how sturdy it is, and says, no, an elephant is more like a column or pillar. The third comes forward and encounters the elephant’s side. He spreads his hands along the vast breadth of the elephant’s side and says they are both wrong: an elephant is like a wall. Then the fourth steps forward, happens to catch the elephant’s tail, and says, no, an elephant is like a rope. The fifth feels his ear waving back and forth and says an elephant is like a fan. The sixth feels his tusk and says an elephant is like a spear.
Each of the blind men is providing an accurate description of that aspect of the elephant he happened to encounter and experience for himself, but none of them comprehends the entire animal. They only perceive bits and pieces. Only by sharing their experiences and combining their ideas will they ever be able to develop some understanding of an elephant and begin to fully appreciate what a truly magnificent animal it is.
I love this story of the six blind men, and think it’s especially important to compare notes and share our perceptions and experiences when trying to understand something as complicated and subjective as a work of art, especially with an artist as experimental as Michael Jackson who pushed so many boundaries and challenged so many preconceived ideas and accepted beliefs.
For example, Joie and I really went back and forth and around and around about how we interpret the changing color of Michael Jackson’s skin. She wasn’t kidding when she talked about our heated debates. I saw it as a brilliant artistic decision that profoundly influenced how White America, especially, experiences racial differences. Joie saw it as a wrenching emotional decision that he struggled with for years. My discussions with Joie haven’t fundamentally altered my interpretation, but they’ve influenced me tremendously. Her ideas have deepened and complicated my understanding of this aspect of his work and actually made it much more powerful and meaningful to me by helping me understand just how difficult this decision must have been for him, and how very painful it must have been to be so misunderstood.
Joie: So, with this blog, Willa and I hope to have some really in-depth conversations about Michael Jackson’s art and his cultural impact. We intend for this to be a weekly blog, so come back next week and we’ll get the conversation started.
Willa: Our goal is to have a substantive discussion where we can all share ideas and even disagree sometimes, but in a respectful way that leads to a deeper understanding of his work. If you would like to contact us with questions or future blog topics, our email address is email@example.com.
Joie: And you can also check us out on Facebook and give us your own take on our discussion. Tell us what you think. We want to hear it!