Willa: Joie and I are thrilled to be joined this week by journalist Charles Thomson, who has written numerous articles and blog posts about Michael Jackson, the charges against him, and the way those accusations were handled in the media. In fact, he’s the author of “One of the Most Shameful Episodes in Journalistic History,” the best article I’ve read about media coverage of the 2005 trial. He’s also contributed to two best-selling biographies about Michael Jackson and has appeared on TV and radio shows to discuss him and how he has been portrayed.
So Charles, as an investigative reporter, you’re trained to be skeptical of what you hear and to be cautious about drawing conclusions. For that reason, the official position of most credible media outlets – as opposed to the tabloids – is “we’ll never know for sure” if the accusations are true or not, though their reporting often reveals a bias that they believe Michael Jackson was guilty of something, if not the exact crimes he was accused of. However, you seem convinced that Michael Jackson was innocent, and I’m curious: What exactly convinced you?
Charles: I believe wholeheartedly in the principle that a man is innocent until he is proven guilty. All too often you see right-wing pundits making comments like, ‘Not guilty is not the same as innocent’. Well, I beg to differ. That is the whole point of our legal system. A man is innocent until he is found guilty by a jury of his peers. Michael Jackson was found not guilty, ergo, to the letter of the law, he was innocent. To start making comments like, ‘Just because he was found not guilty, that doesn’t mean he was innocent’, makes a mockery of the entire legal system.
It seemed to me that the media was just loathe to accept the possibility that Jackson could be innocent. Most reporters seemed to already be convinced of Jackson’s guilt because they thought he was a weirdo. Aphrodite Jones wrote about that in her book. I wasn’t a journalist at the time of the Michael Jackson trial – I was still training – but I’ve always had the same mindset: I like to see evidence before I believe something.
What became apparent throughout the Jackson trial was that evidence was not the prosecution’s strong suit. For all their bluster, they failed to produce a single piece of tangible evidence connecting Jackson to any crime. All they really had was a parade of witnesses, half of whom collapsed under cross-examination, and the other half wound up helping the defense rather than the prosecutors.
The Jackson case was one in which the prosecution had every advantage. They plundered Jackson’s house unannounced while he was miles away in Las Vegas. They had the benefit of global media coverage and put out pleas for other victims. They went into areas not covered by their search warrant, stole defense documents from the home of Jackson’s PA and illegally raided the office of the PI working for the defense – all of which gave them an unfair advantage.
Despite all of this, they were still unable to concoct anything approaching a strong case. I followed the trial at the time and remember being shocked by the diversion between the transcripts and the media coverage.
J. Randy Taraborrelli has told a story before about the trial. He and the rest of the press pack were queuing up for their passes. A well-known female reporter from a big magazine became increasingly agitated at the indignity of having to wait in line (the horror!) and suddenly exploded: ‘Does ANYONE here believe Michael Jackson is innocent besides J. Randy Taraborrelli!?’
That story sums up much of the media’s attitude towards the trial: ‘We know he’s guilty. This is a waste of time. They should just lock him up now.’ It tainted their reporting, consciously or otherwise.
Joie: It absolutely tainted their reporting and I just find it so hard to believe that they unilaterally told the story they wanted told – across the board. You know, I recently loaned my mother my copy of Michael Jackson Conspiracy by Aphrodite Jones, and after she had read it, she was completely shocked because all she really knew of that trial was that Michael Jackson had shown up to court in his pajamas. And when she said that, at first I was sort of angry but, once I thought about it I realized, of course that’s all she knew. That’s all most of the world knows because that’s all the media told them. No one really knows that all of the prosecution’s witnesses were annihilated under cross examination because the media didn’t report anything the defense had to say. They only reported on the prosecution’s side of things.
Charles: I have been a working journalist for five years now and I have spent a lot of time in court, covering cases for local and national newspapers. Spending all that time in court cases – including child abuse cases – has only cemented my belief that the Michael Jackson prosecution was a farce.
Willa: That’s a pretty strong condemnation, Charles. So what exactly is different about this case than other cases you’ve reported on?
Charles: A lot was different about the Michael Jackson trial than other child abuse trials I have sat in on. Firstly, while I have sat in on some incompetent prosecutions in the past, I have never seen anything approaching the stupidity of the Michael Jackson prosecution. It was like the case had been put together by Mr. Bean. Every witness turned out to be useless. There was no evidence to support any of the charges. The prosecutors behaved like buffoons, sometimes attempting to re-write their entire case on the spot because witnesses hadn’t panned out as they’d hoped. It was hopeless. The Santa Barbara DA’s office should thank their lucky stars every night that Michael Jackson didn’t file a malicious prosecution lawsuit.
As far as differences between the Michael Jackson case and other child abuse cases I’ve sat in on, nothing really married up. Michael Jackson did not fit the profile of a predatory paedophile in any sense. The victims in such cases are usually devastated, breaking down in tears on the stand as they recount the abuse they were subjected to, whereas Arvizzo was cracking jokes. They are usually traumatised by their abuse to the point that it’s like a flashbulb memory – their recollections are vivid and consistent – whereas the recollections in the Jackson case were entirely inconsistent.
To go into all the details of how the Michael Jackson case differed from others I’ve covered – I could write a 5,000 word essay about that. But to put it briefly: I have sat in on numerous trials in which genuine victims of abuse have testified against their abusers. I saw no similarities in the demeanour of the victims or the defendants, no similarities in the testimony, no similarities in the prosecutions – and I’ve never seen a real molester come within a million miles of putting up the incredibly strong defense that Jackson was able to either. The transcripts of the Arvizzo case read like an extremely ill-advised spoof of a real child molestation trial.
Willa: Which kind of leads back to the question I asked you at the beginning. Was there a particular piece of evidence that was especially compelling for you, or was it just an accumulation of evidence so that after a while you reached a tipping point and became convinced of Michael Jackson’s innocence?
Charles: To answer that, I will return to the first line of my answer: I believe wholeheartedly in the principle that a man is innocent until he is proven guilty. The prosecutors in the Michael Jackson trial didn’t even come close to doing that. Michael Jackson was acquitted by a combination of the prosecution’s complete inability to produce any compelling evidence of Jackson’s guilt and the defense’s ability to present an abundance compelling evidence of Jackson’s innocence. By acquitting Michael Jackson, in law, they declared him innocent.
Here’s just a short example which I feel demonstrates clearly why the defense won this case. The prosecution called several ex-Jackson employees who had allegedly witnessed molestation of three boys: Brett Barnes, Wade Robson and Macaulay Culkin. Other than the extremely shaky testimony of these ex-employees – all completely destroyed under cross-examination – the prosecution had no evidence at all of any abuse.
The defense called Barnes, Robson and Culkin right at the beginning of their case. All three of them told jurors in no uncertain terms that they were never molested and they resented the implication.
While cross-examining Robson, prosecutor Ron Zonen made a desperate attempt to claw back some semblance of credibility to the notion that these boys could have been molested. In doing so, he actually invented a scenario out of nowhere, in which he seemed to accept that the prosecution’s own witnesses had been lying but tried to insinuate that Robson could have been molested anyway. The ex-employees’ evidence to the jury was that Robson had been awake when he was molested, but Zonen wound up practically pleading with the jury to consider that perhaps Robson was molested on other occasions while he was asleep, so he wouldn’t have known about it!
Willa: That’s really pretty shocking – talk about leading a witness – and it really illustrates how the District Attorney’s office approached this case from the beginning, I think. They didn’t conduct an investigation to find out what happened. Instead, they rushed to judgment about what happened, and then tried to gather evidence to prove it. Their judgment that he was guilty came before the investigation, not after.
Charles: That is sort of a microcosm of the whole case. The prosecution’s version of events was like a house built on weak foundations. They started out with an extremely weak premise – a very tenuous witness or rather meaningless piece of ‘evidence’ – then built enormous towers of conspiracy on top. The defense just kept coming in and kicking the foundations out from underneath.
In short, it is beyond my comprehension that anybody, having studied the case in any depth, could ask themselves the question – ‘Did the prosecutors prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt?’ – and honestly answer that they did.
Joie: Oh, I don’t know how anyone could make an argument for the prosecution here.
So Charles, you were involved in requesting the FBI files on Michael Jackson under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). I’m curious, what prompted you to request them and what exactly were you hoping to find in those files?
Charles: I wasn’t sure what I would find in those files, or even if he would have a file. I made the Freedom of Information request on the off-chance.
Freedom of Information is a brilliant piece of legislation that allows citizens to demand hidden information possessed by government agencies. You can demand to know how much your local government spends every year on biscuits for the staff room, or obtain information on how many accusations of police brutality were made at your local police station last year, or demand correspondence between government departments regarding controversial issues.
I had used it with the FBI a few times before. I had acquired James Brown’s file, for instance. In there, I found an eye-opening account of the supposed police chase for which he was arrested and imprisoned in the 1980s, which related events in a very different way to the police’s story from the time. In other celebrities’ files, there are memos about the FBI monitoring them during the 60s because they thought the were communists.
Had Michael Jackson been monitored by the FBI because of the power he could be perceived as having had over his audience? Had they investigated the so-called financial ‘conspiracy’ against him, proof of which Raymone Bain said was being sent to the Attorney General in around 2006/7? Had they been involved in the child molestation investigations? These were the kind of questions I was asking myself.
I wasn’t very happy about the way the FBI handled the release, as I made clear in my blogs about the subject and in the passage I wrote about the files for J. Randy Taraborrelli’s book. Instead of releasing the files directly to those who had requested them – I don’t know how many others had requested them – the FBI announced that it would upload the files to its website at a particular time for anybody and everybody to read.
Joie: Yes, that is surprising. You wouldn’t expect the FBI to operate in this fashion.
Charles: What this essentially provoked was a free-for-all, with news organizations around the world all scrambling to download, skim-read and report on the files faster than anybody else. This led to some extremely shoddy reporting on the files’ contents. I wrote about the media’s shambolic coverage of the documents on my blog.
I also wrote a blog about how the files revealed that Tom Sneddon, the DA pursuing Jackson, tried to get the FBI to prosecute Jackson under the Mann Act. The Mann Act is an inherently racist law which was widely used after its introduction to punish black men who consorted with white women. The notion of interracial relationships was at that time considered ‘immoral’. As such, any black men caught traveling with white girlfriends could find themselves prosecuted under the Mann Act for ‘transporting a female over the state line for immoral purposes’.
The phenomenal book, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, tells how Johnson, the first ever black Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World, was one of the motivations behind the law’s introduction. The government didn’t like the way in which Johnson ‘flaunted his wealth’ (read: bought cars) and dated white women. He was arrested under the act for traveling with a white lover. The law was also used to prosecute Chuck Berry for allegedly consorting with a 14-year-old girl, in the same year that Elvis Presley began dating Priscilla Beaulieu – his future wife. She was 14 at the time. Elvis was not prosecuted.
Joie: Wow. I knew, of course, that Priscilla was only 14 years old when she began dating Elvis, but I had no idea that Chuck Berry was prosecuted for doing the exact same thing Elvis was doing, in the exact same year. Talk about “unforgivable Blackness.” That’s unbelievable.
Charles: Chuck Berry, for the record, denied the accusation that he had slept with the girl. He said she was a hitchhiker who he’d given a job in his club, then fired, and that she had concocted the allegations to spite him. Throughout his trial, the presiding judge made repeated comments about his race. He was convicted.
Willa: Oh, there is such a double standard. Jerry Lee Lewis married a 13 year old - and then defended himself by saying he thought she was 15, as if that makes all the difference. And this was just a year or two before Chuck Berry was arrested, so at the very time Chuck Berry was being prosecuted for allegedly consorting with a 14 year old, Elvis was dating a 14 year old and Jerry Lee Lewis was married to a 14 year old.
Charles: You can read my full blog about the Mann Act here.
One interesting factor is that the FBI only released 333 pages of Jackson’s 673 page file – so less than half of it. They never gave an explanation as to why the rest had been withheld, even though they are legally obliged by the Freedom of Information Act to do so.
During the 1993 scandal, Johnnie Cochran announced that he had sent files to the FBI and asked them to commence an extortion investigation into the Chandlers. No documents pertaining to this were released in Jackson’s file. I ordered Cochran’s file and they weren’t in there either. I challenged this and the FBI claimed it could not locate any such documents. Whether or not that’s true – who knows? They also claim not to hold a file on Hunter S. Thompson, even though he detailed at least two encounters with the FBI in his writings over the years.
Joie: That is interesting, isn’t it? And only 333 out of 673 pages released. What possible reason could they have for keeping over half of the file under wraps?
Charles: Perhaps the FBI doesn’t want to release those extortion documents because their investigation was half-hearted, or even non-existent. Other reasons could be that the pages include references to other people who are still alive or references to agents who are still active – although neither is an especially legitimate excuse, given that those details could simply be redacted.
Willa: Though legally they aren’t allowed to withhold documents just to cover their mismanagement of a case, right? According to the law, they can only withhold information for legitimate reasons: because releasing it would pose a security threat, or put active agents at risk, or violate the privacy of private citizens who are still alive, as you say.
Charles: That’s absolutely correct, but who’s policing the FBI? While Freedom of Information is a brilliant piece of legislation, it has its flaws. Agencies can reject requests for flimsy reasons in the knowledge that the appeals process is extremely long-winded and most people haven’t the time or resources to pursue it.
I recently had an FOI request rejected by the police on the flimsiest of grounds. I have been sitting in on a series of court hearings about an undercover police operation – all public record, because it’s being discussed in open court – but when I sent an FOI to the police for more information on that operation, they refused to comply by claiming that even acknowledging the existence of the operation would jeopardize national security, or some such gibberish.
So it can be discussed in open court, where any member of the public can walk in and listen, but acknowledging its existence under FOI is a threat to national security? It’s clear nonsense.
So organizations are constantly flouting the law on FOI in the knowledge that the appeals process is slow, laborious and often ineffective. The prison service once told a colleague of mine that releasing the cost to the taxpayer of a prisoner’s breakfast was a threat to national security. He took it to appeal and won – but that took almost a year.
Oh well. Perhaps in a few years we’ll be able to see a little more of what they held on Michael Jackson.
Joie: So Charles, let’s talk about what was in those 333 pages. Basically, the files revealed that the FBI had kept tabs on Michael Jackson for approximately ten years and had never found any evidence of child molestation. Is that correct?
Charles: Yes, that’s correct. They received allegations but never found any evidence to support them. The media, either intentionally or as a result of not reading the files properly, misreported their contents in a huge way.
For instance, many media outlets wrongly claimed that the FBI had investigated Jackson for molesting two Mexican boys in the 1980s. What the file actually says is that a writer contacted the FBI to say they’d heard a rumor that the FBI had investigated the matter. The FBI searched its records, found no evidence to suggest that it had ever conducted any such investigation, but noted the phone call. That note was wrongly cited by journalists – either lazily or maliciously – as proof that the FBI had investigated the matter, when in fact it said the exact opposite.
Willa: That’s crazy! It’s like the media and the FBI are caught in a feedback loop. A writer hears a rumor that the FBI is investigating Michael Jackson and contacts them to see if it’s true, the FBI conducts an internal investigation and finds that it’s not true, and then the media outlets report that the FBI is conducting an investigation. So in this case, the media didn’t just report the news – they created it.
Joie: Yes, it seems that creating the “news” is something the media does quite a bit of these days.
Charles: Included in the file was a run-down of the FBI’s analysis of all the computers seized from Neverland during the 2003 raid. The files clearly state that nothing incriminating was found on any of the computers – but numerous media outlets claimed that the files did not include the FBI’s findings!
The FBI once analyzed a videotape to see if it contained child pornography. There is no suggestion in the files that it was ever owned by Michael Jackson. His name was simply on a label attached to the videotape. There is also no suggestion that the tape actually contained any child pornography. But various media outlets reported that Jackson had been investigated for possession of child pornography.
The only thing in the file which could – if someone was particularly desperate to find something – be considered remotely incriminating was the Mann Act incident – and even that is a real stretch. Somebody contacted the FBI and reported seeing Michael Jackson, in full view of other passengers on a public train, go into a cabin with a young companion. They had no idea what, if anything, occurred in the room. The FBI determined that there was no basis for an investigation.
Willa: And you know, I think that gets to one of the issues at the heart of the media coverage of Michael Jackson: how does the media report on an “absence” of incriminating evidence? It violates their definition of news. A rumor is news, because it’s “something” to report on. But page after page of FBI files with the word “NOTHING” written across them – because the FBI investigated and found nothing – is not news, because it’s “nothing.” How do you report on “nothing”?
You touched on this in your blog post about the FBI files when you wrote:
On a more general level, the files reveal that it was not only the Los Angeles Police force which pursued Jackson for more than a decade and failed to produce one iota of information to connect the star to any crime – it was the FBI too. That Jackson’s life was dissected and his behavior was investigated for more than 10 years by two major law enforcement agencies and not one piece of evidence was ever produced to indicate his guilt speaks volumes.
On the whole, the media didn’t quite tell it that way, though.
You know, it seems to me that if there’s one rock star we can safely say wasn’t a pedophile, it’s Michael Jackson. Who else has been vetted as thoroughly as he has? Yet that isn’t the public perception because that overwhelming “absence” of any evidence against him has not been reported.
Charles: While the FBI files stating that nothing was found on Jackson’s computer is, as far as many journalists and indeed readers/viewers are concerned, not as interesting as if they had found something, I believe it’s still a story. It’s just a positive story – and positive stories about Michael Jackson are just not something the media is generally interested in reporting. So I don’t believe the media found it difficult to report, for instance, on that segment of the files. I think the media chose not to because it didn’t suit their agenda.
There’s an element of ass-covering involved too, of course. When you’ve spent years reporting extremely unfairly on Michael Jackson, doing everything within your power to convince your audience that he must be guilty – reporting accurately on the contents of those files is going to look like an enormous backpedal.
Joie: And, to me, that just seems like such a travesty of justice. For years the media had a hand in destroying this man’s career and his very character and they did so with great relish – reporting rumors and vile innuendo as though they were facts. But report on something that could actually prove the man was innocent … that, for some reason, is out of the question! It’s completely criminal. And it makes me wonder if we really know the truth about anything, or are we just eating up whatever morsels the media dishes out to us – regardless of if there’s any truth to what they report or not.
Willa: That’s a huge question, Joie, and a really important one. After all, there are a lot of people in the U.S. who still believe Iraq was somehow involved in the attack on the World Trade Center. That’s just shocking, and it reflects an almost criminal lack of media coverage about the essential issues at the crux of the Iraq War. And it gets back once again to this question of how do media outlets report on an “absence”? How do they report on the lack of any credible evidence against Michael Jackson? How do they report on the lack of any credible evidence linking Iraq with September 11th? The answer seems to be that they don’t. They know how to report on rumors, but don’t know how to go back and report that those rumors aren’t true – or don’t want to.
Charles: As someone who works in the media, it is my experience that these rogue journalists are very much in the minority. For all my work on the Michael Jackson scandal, I don’t feel it is indicative of the way the media operates generally. If it was, I would be constantly writing about other cases in which the media has operated similarly. There are many, many more, of course, but they are still the minority.
Most of the journalists I have encountered or worked with are diligent, hard-working, passionate and ethical – even on newspapers which are unpopular with Jackson’s fans for the way in which they covered him.
Nonetheless, there are these enormous travesties of journalism which go on all the time. A lot of it, I think, is attributable to pack mentality. Media outlets feel like if everybody else is covering a big story, they should be too or they’re missing out. Nick Davies writes about this very eloquently in his book Flat Earth News. In fact, if I could recommend one book to people who are interested in the way the media operates and the reasons behind its failings, it would be Flat Earth News. In it Davies examines the systemic failures which lead to widespread inaccuracy and distortion. I’d say it’s essential reading for anybody interested in this topic.
Joie: Thanks for that recommendation, Charles; it sounds like a really interesting book. And thank you so much for joining us. This is a discussion that Willa and I have wanted to have for a long time and we appreciate you taking the time to chat with us!
On another note, Willa and I want to take a minute and share two important bits of information with all of you. Willa, do you want to go first?
Willa: We’ve added some blank pages for the Bad 25 bonus tracks to the Lyrics Library. They’re blank right now because the lyrics weren’t included in the liner notes. There’s space for comments for each song, so if you would like to post your ideas of what the lyrics are, we can begin compiling those. Oh, and thanks a lot to Caro for suggesting this a couple of weeks ago!
Joie: Also, after a lot of discussion and soul-searching, Willa and I have decided that we need to switch to a biweekly format for the blog. In order to continue bringing thought provoking, well researched discussions to you, and still take care of ourselves and our families in the process, we needed to restructure some things so, we will now be posting on the first and the third Thursdays of each month. We hope you all understand and we hope this won’t cause any inconvenience for anyone.
Willa: A few weeks ago, Joie and I had a fascinating conversation with author Joe Vogel and investigative reporter Charles Thomson about Michael Jackson as a songwriter. That conversation focused on the musical aspects of his songwriting, so we decided to meet again to talk about Michael Jackson as a lyricist. However, when we sat down to talk, our discussion immediately took a left turn and developed in ways none of us had expected, but was very interesting to all of us. Here’s the discussion that followed …
* * *
Charles: Have you been watching the Michael Jackson Academia Project videos? They’re magnificent. Joe spoke in the last session about how Michael’s lyrics weren’t always as great as his compositions, but those videos make a very strong argument that his lyrics were actually a lot more insightful and astute than people gave him credit for – especially on the HIStory album.
Joe: The HIStory album, I’ve argued for years, contains some of MJ’s boldest and strongest work. It’s both his most personal album and his most political. I should clarify, since you mentioned his lyrics: my case isn’t that Jackson’s lyrics aren’t “as great as his compositions.” My argument is that his lyrics are augmented by their vocal delivery, supplemented by his non-verbal vocalizations, and enhanced by how they are performed and represented visually. So I think for the many critics who dismiss Jackson as a songwriter, these aspects of his artistry/creative expression need to be taken into account.
Now, regarding the MJAP videos, there are definitely things I like about what they’re doing. They take MJ’s work seriously, which is a good thing, and provide close readings of his work (I’d actually never heard the capitalist tycoon names mentioned in “Money”). They’re also quite well-made. However, for all the research that has clearly gone into them they do some things that are a bit confusing for an “academia project.” For example, they don’t attach their names to their work and from what I understand, aren’t affiliated with a university or academic organization. They also don’t cite sources that have already published the same information/interpretation in their videos, which is very important if it is going to be taken seriously outside the MJ fan community.
Joie: I have to say that I agree with Joe on this point. I don’t understand why whoever is behind the MJAP videos seems reluctant to reveal themselves. It’s almost as if they’re hiding and I think Joe is correct in saying that they can’t really hope to be taken seriously outside of the MJ fan community if they’re unwilling to stand behind their work. Right now the videos, as great as they are, are really just preaching to the choir, so to speak.
Joe: Also, I think in certain ways they lack context and nuance. For example, they make it seem like MJ was deeply entrenched in the Black Power movement of the 60s/70s. In one of the videos they imply that MJ was a member of, or in allegiance with the Black Panther Party; in another they quote Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam and a figure with an ideology far different than Michael’s. MJ believed deeply in social justice and equality, but never advocated Black supremacy, anti-semitism, or violence.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Joe, because I don’t think those videos are saying that, and I don’t react to them that way at all. Maybe if the dominant narrative in the media was that Michael Jackson was an angry Black man, then I might agree that they portray him as too radical. But that isn’t the case. The dominant media image is that he was a deeply troubled Black man who was ashamed of his race – a shockingly false image. So I think they provide a much-needed counterweight.
Joe: I think there’s some merit to that, Willa. Certainly there have been serious misunderstandings and false narratives about Jackson’s racial heritage and how that informs his identity and work. But for me, the counterweight shouldn’t be to present him as an ideologue who is aligned with Farrakhan and the Black Panthers. It should be to present him as a complex African American artist who refused to be boxed in, who constantly challenged, provoked and inspired us with his work. In certain ways, I feel the MJAP videos do that, and in certain ways they feel a bit simplistic and reductive to me.
Willa: Wow, Joe, my response was just the opposite. I thought it was really interesting that the Academia Project showed the connections with Black Panther symbology and included the clip of Louis Farrakhan precisely because they are so different, or are perceived as being so ideologically different, from Michael Jackson.
In other words, Louis Farrakhan and Michael Jackson are two important cultural figures typically placed at opposite ends of the spectrum: Farrakhan is portrayed as deeply divisive, a separatist, while Michael Jackson is portrayed as such an integrationist he actually wanted to be White. It’s a horrible distortion of who he was, but it’s out there. So to me, suggesting common ground between them really forces people to question their preconceived ideas about both. But showing they share some common ground doesn’t mean they’re identical. I can’t imagine anyone mistaking Michael Jackson for Louis Farrakhan. I just don’t see that.
Charles: I think that if you listen to a song like “They Don’t Care About Us,” Michael discusses race in a clear ‘them and us’ sense. It’s right there in the title. He is juxtaposing ‘us’ – the subordinates – with ‘they’ – the establishment. He makes clear that the ‘us’ are racial minorities through other lyrics in the track. “Black man, blackmail / Throw the brother in jail.” “I’m tired of being a victim of shame / You’re throwing me in a class with a bad name.” The use of the police radio message about the young Black man killed by police in a case of mistaken identity reinforces this position.
Then you look at the two videos which accompanied the song. The prison version shows the inmates to be almost unanimously Black. There are images of the KKK. In the Brazil version, he goosesteps and gives a Nazi salute. He stands on a balcony delivering a song based in part on Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream speech.’ There is little room for any interpretation besides that Jackson is railing against racism and identifying himself as a Black man and therefore a victim.
He reiterated this belief quite often in later years. There was the summit with Al Sharpton in 2002, where he slammed the music industry for ripping off Black artists and the media for attributing their innovations to their White contemporaries. Then there was the Jesse Jackson interview where he spoke very eloquently about the Jack Johnson story and compared himself to other Black luminaries who had been targeted by the establishment.
At the very least, I’d say Michael Jackson demonstrated conflicting ideologies on race. On the one hand, he spoke often about being ‘colour blind’ or wanting people of all races to come together. On the other, a lot of his music and his public speeches and interviews after the 1993 allegations demonstrated a deep belief that racism was very much alive and that he was a victim of it. He seemed to become more ‘militant’ after the 1993 allegations. His music spoke of police brutality, being targeted by the FBI, his prosecutor being aligned with the KKK, the media ‘lying to shame the race’. During his trial and even at the This Is It concert announcement, he would give the Black power salute. He surrounded himself with the Nation of Islam – led by Farrakhan.
I think it’s very difficult to dismiss the MJAP’s conclusions on this basis. I would also disagree with the comment that they don’t reference their work. Most of it seems to come from books, which they name explicitly in the videos.
Joe: I’ll explain what I mean by not referencing their work. If they say that MJ’s Earth Song video was inspired by a Soviet propaganda film that looks somewhat similar, as a researcher, I just want to be able to look at where they discovered that information. Did it come from an interview? Did they have access to his archives? Or is it an educated guess based on other information? (The Triumph of the Will connection is more obvious.)
Charles: The similarities are so striking that I’d be floored if it turned out it wasn’t an influence. Michael is dead now so it’s most likely we’ll never know for sure, but if the Earth Song video and concert performances weren’t based on that Soviet film, it’s one eerie coincidence.
Joe: There are some striking similarities, but I’d say it’s about 50/50. Michael had a huge video archive and a personal archivist though, so it would certainly be possible to try to verify something like that.
One more example about citing: much of what they explore in “Black or White” has been written about before (by Armond White, myself and others). So it would be customary in academia to credit ideas that have already been established so you aren’t charged with plagiarism. Of course, if these videos are primarily intended as “fan videos” these criticisms are less relevant.
Now let me go back, Charles, to the point you made about MJ engaging with race/racism: I don’t disagree with the fact that Jackson became more politically radical and outspoken in his later career. There is no question that he was fighting against institutional racism and oppression/injustice in general. Where I disagree with MJAP (and you) is in the literalness of interpretation. For example, I see him morphing into a black panther as symbolic, not that he was secretly attending Black Panther meetings and sending out discrete codes to a specific political group. Similarly, with “They Don’t Care About Us,” I think he is identifying with the oppressed and speaking truth to power regardless of skin color or nationality. It is radical, but it has nothing to do with Nation of Islam or Louis Farrakhan (a man known for being racist, homophobic, anti-semitic, and many believe, partially responsible for the assassination of Malcolm X).
Like I said at the top, I think there is a lot to like about these videos – I think they have a lot of potential – but especially to reach outside the fan base (if that’s the goal) I think they could benefit from some nuance.
Joie: Again, I completely agree with Joe here; I think the first MJAP video took a huge leap in suggesting that Michael was a member of, or at least in total support of both the Black Panther Party and Mr. Farrakhan simply because he morphed into a panther at the end of the “Black or White” video. And in “They Don’t Care About Us,” he is definitely “identifying with the oppressed,” as Joe put it, but ‘the oppressed’ come in many colors. As Willa and I discussed in our conversation about “They Don’t Care About Us,” this song/short film(s) is not simply a Black or White issue. It’s dealing with much more than that – poverty, the abuse of human rights, and yes, racism. And he did become much more outspoken on issues of race after 1993 and I agree that he felt very much victimized by the system. How could he not? But I don’t believe that it reveals some hidden connection to the Nation of Islam or Louis Farrakhan.
Willa: But are these videos saying that? I don’t think so. They include a clip of Farrakhan on the Arsenio Hall show saying, “Michael is becoming politically mature. And he wants to use his political maturity, along with his wealth, to aid his people.” That’s it. To me, that shows that Louis Farrakhan has an opinion – a positive opinion – about Michael Jackson’s work and activism, but it doesn’t suggest anything more than that.
And I don’t think they are suggesting “he was secretly attending Black Panther meetings,” as you mentioned, Joe, or anything like that. I didn’t get that from the videos at all. To me, Michael Jackson’s work is this incredible tapestry that weaves together threads from many different sources. And the first Academia Project video highlights some of the Black Panther imagery in his work and traces a few of those threads. I thought that was fascinating, and it helped me appreciate a part of the tapestry I hadn’t focused on before. But I never thought they were saying he was literally a Black Panther. I just don’t see that.
Joie: No, I’m not saying these videos are suggesting that. I don’t think that. I’m simply disagreeing with Charles’ assessment that the MJAP’s conclusions on this matter are difficult to dismiss.
That said, I do agree that the videos are really wonderful in their own way. They are very well researched and well thought out. Whoever is behind them has obviously put a great deal of time and effort into creating them and they could have a lot of potential if they were reaching the right people. Right now, they are limited to making the rounds of the MJ fan community, which is fine as there are still a lot of fans out there – especially the new fans – who maybe aren’t aware of the extent of what Michael went through and how biased the media coverage was. But in order to be really effective in changing the conversation about him, the videos need to reach a wider, more mainstream audience.
Joe: These are very good points, Joie. I think, what I hope at least, are my constructive criticisms stem from exactly what you’re talking about: becoming more credible so they can reach a broader audience. In fact, I think this third video they did was by far their best effort. So let me go back quickly to something Willa said. You mentioned that the Farrakhan quote is interesting because it speaks positively about Michael’s work and activism. I actually agree (mostly) with what Farrakhan is saying in this clip. But for me, again, it’s about credibility. Using Farrakhan to establish a point will actually work the opposite direction for 99% of people.
With the Black Panther stuff, I would personally just like to see more nuanced interpretation so its taken seriously in an academic context. I think they provide much more compelling interpretation when they write about how Jackson is reversing certain symbolism to opposite ends (a la the HIStory teaser and Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will).
Joie: I agree completely with what you just said about Farrakhan and credibility. The fact is, the very sight of him turns a lot of people off and using him to establish a point or to try and persuade others to your point of view is risky and could be counterproductive.
Willa: He is really polarizing, and I understand what you and Joe are saying, Joie. But as I said before, I think it’s really interesting and worthwhile to juxtapose Michael Jackson and Louis Farrakhan precisely because they are so different. It’s like seeing Michael Jackson on the steps of the White House with Ronald Reagan. My response is always, Wow, what a contrast! Yet they shared some common ground. That image doesn’t lead me to assume that Michael Jackson is a closet conservative and secretly funneling money to the Republican Party. Not at all. And I don’t think that about Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam either.
It’s true that Louis Farrakhan has said some things I strongly disagree with. So did Ronald Reagan, for that matter. But I don’t think the answer is to try to stuff Farrakhan in a box in the closet and pretend he doesn’t exist. Instead, I think he should be one of a collage of people who supported Michael Jackson in some way. I think it’s incredible that one person appealed to both Ronald Reagan and Louis Farrakhan, Nelson Mandela and Elizabeth Taylor, fans from the U.S. to Japan, Africa to Ireland. That’s wonderful to me.
Charles: I don’t think the MJAP videos in any way imply that Michael Jackson was secretly attending Black Panther meetings or anything of that nature. I think they just demonstrate that his work, even prior to the allegations, was laced with political and racial commentary which was completely ignored by the critics.
Charles: I agree that using Farrakhan as a source is not going to win anybody over because the man has shown himself repeatedly to be a racist and a loon. I remember being very alarmed a while back to see fans passing around an hour or more of Farrakhan ‘preaching’ about Michael Jackson in church. During the sermon, he interpreted “They Don’t Care About Us” as a targeted assault on Jewish people and praised Michael for having the balls to express his anti-Semitic beliefs. But Farrakhan is just one of many sources used to support the point being made by the MJAP creators and I certainly agree with him that Michael Jackson’s treatment was at least partly racially motivated. If the whole thing hinged on Farrakhan, it’d be another matter – but that’s not the case.
I also disagree that the lyrics to TDCAU aren’t about any specific race. The line, “Black man, blackmail (black male) / Throw the brother in jail” is pretty blunt, especially in tandem with the police radio message at the beginning of the track and comments throughout the rest of the album, such as “In the hood / Frame him if you could… In the black / Stab him in the back / In the face / To lie and shame the race.”
Willa: But in the videos – the prison version, especially – the visuals complicate those lyrics. Most of the prisoners are Black, but some are White or American Indian or some other minority. Most of the guards are White, but several are Black. And I’m really struck by the fact that when he gets angry and shoves aside a guard’s billy club, that guard is Black. What that says to me is that while he’s fighting racism, as you say, it’s institutional racism, and he opposes anyone who supports that institutional racism, regardless of whether that individual is White or Black. He’s evaluating people by their beliefs and actions, not their skin color, and that’s a message he consistently expressed throughout his life.
There are also newsreel-type visuals of some fairly horrific violence – so horrific MTV refused to show this version before 9 at night. And while many of those scenes focus on images of the Ku Klux Klan or White-on-Black racial violence, there are also scenes of a White truck driver being severely beaten by young Black men during the Rodney King riots. And some of the most graphic scenes are war footage from Southeast Asia. So again, he’s fighting racism, but not in a simplistic Black versus White sort of way.
And I don’t think the lyrics are a simplistic Black versus White either. Here are those notorious lyrics that were so badly misinterpreted by a few outspoken people like Stephen Spielberg and Louis Farrakhan (speaking of strange bedfellows):
Beat me, hate me You can never break me Will me, thrill me You can never kill me Jew me, sue me Everybody do me Kick me, kike me Don’t you black or white me
He’s clearly fighting anti-Semitism in these lyrics, I believe, which is why it’s so galling that he was charged with anti-Semitism because of them. So this isn’t just about race. And when identifying leaders in the fight for justice, he says, “if Roosevelt was living / He wouldn’t let this be.” The next time he sings this verse, he replaces “Roosevelt” with “Martin Luther,” suggesting that the torch of civil rights was carried and passed on by many hands, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt as well as Martin Luther King, Jr.
So I think it’s an oversimplification to reduce this work down to simply Us versus Them. As Michael Jackson himself says, “Don’t you black or white me.”
Joe: Exactly, Willa. This is what I think is so important: Michael’s creative life and work, to me, is about getting beyond these air-tight oppositions. He always provides these shifting tensions. He was constantly pushing his audience, even in his protest songs, to consider the various faces cruelty, bigotry and injustice can take. He wasn’t calling for “black power” to replace “white power.” That’s the way the Bush’s and Farrakhan’s see the world. Us versus them. White versus Black. Christians versus Muslims. It’s more complex than that. Malcolm X began to realize that in his final years; MLK knew it; Michael Jackson knew it. He knew the history of White supremacy in America. He also knew about other forms of bigotry and cruelty, whether because of appearance, gender, sexuality, class, religion, illness or any other difference. But he fought such discrimination with rich, complex, syncretic art, not ideological dogma.
Joie: A couple of weeks ago our friend, Joe Vogel, posed an interesting question to Willa and me and journalist, Charles Thomson. Charles, of course, is the author of the wonderful article, “One of the Most Shameful Episodes in Journalistic History,” among others. So Joe’s question sparked a very lively discussion between the four of us, and you can read that conversation below.
Joe: Do you think the fact that MJ wasn’t a technically trained musician and couldn’t read/write music diminishes him as a songwriter? And how would you respond to critics who make this claim?
Joie: Hmm. Joe, that’s a really good question. And it got me thinking about all of the great talents that we usually think of as prolific songwriters in our society. And so I started doing a little research on this topic and I was really surprised to learn that many of those who we bestow that mantle on never learned to read or write music either. Names like Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney. In fact, none of the Beatles could read music, not even the great John Lennon. And Paul said in an interview once that as long as he and John both knew what chords they were playing and they remembered the melody, they never had any need to write it down or to read it.
None of the Gibb brothers, who I think wrote some of the most beautiful music ever, could read or write music either. So no, I don’t think the fact that Michael couldn’t read/write music diminishes his talent as a songwriter in any way, and if that’s the argument that critics are using to deny him a spot on that list with the other “greats,” then I would say their argument clearly doesn’t hold water.
Willa: And I would have to add that I don’t really understand this criticism, and maybe that just reflects my own lack of knowledge about how composing music really works. But it seems to me that the important part of the creative process is having the ideas, and a vision for how to express those ideas to an audience so they really feel what you’re trying to say. Writing notes on paper is just a way of capturing your musical ideas so you can remember them later, or share them with other musicians, and Michael Jackson was able to do that other ways. He could record his ideas into a tape recorder, or he could sing it live. There’s a wonderful quotation about this in your book, Joe, that just fascinated me:
“One morning [Michael] came in with a new song he had written overnight,” recalls assistant engineer Rob Hoffman. “We called in a guitar player, and Michael sang every note of every chord to him. ‘Here’s the first chord, first note, second note, third note. Here’s the second chord, first note, second note, third note,’ etc. We then witnessed him giving the most heartfelt and profound vocal performance, live in the control room through an SM57. He would sing us an entire string arrangement, every part. Steve Porcaro once told me he witnessed [Jackson] doing that with the string section in the room. Had it all in his head, harmony and everything. Not just little eight bar loop ideas. He would actually sing the entire arrangement into a microcassette recorder complete with stops and fills.”
I love that! To me, having that vision in your head is the essence of songwriting. To say Michael Jackson wasn’t really a songwriter because he didn’t know how to write notes on paper is like saying Jane Austen wasn’t really a novelist because she didn’t know how to type. That’s all fiddly bookkeeping kind of stuff, it seems to me. Having the ideas and being able to express those ideas passionately and evocatively to an audience is what’s important.
Charles: Michael’s idol was James Brown, who famously could not read or write music either. It is probably no accident that Michael adopted Brown’s method, therefore, of surrounding himself with talented collaborators who could bring his vision to life based on beatboxing, scatting, humming, singing and so on, but also bringing their own contributions to the table.
Michael undoubtedly lacked autonomy as an artist thanks to his inability to read or write music. That’s not a criticism; it’s true of anyone in the same position. I’m going to risk a lynching by raising Prince as a comparison. Prince can not only write an entire composition out in musical terms, but then go into the studio and play every instrument exactly how he wants it, then put it all together. It’s undeniable that Prince, for example, therefore had more autonomy and independence as an artist.
Joie: Well don’t worry, Charles; you are safe here as I actually consider myself a casual Prince fan. He is an amazing musician and very worthy of recognition. And I agree with your assertion that he certainly enjoyed more autonomy and freedom than Michael did.
Willa: But was that because Prince could read and write music, or because he could play instruments? After all, when you write a score of music, it still leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Someone who could write music but not play instruments would still need to rely on a roomful of collaborators, but that seems like a whole other question to me.
Joie: That’s a really good point, Willa. Prince’s autonomy probably did have a lot more to do with the fact that he is more than proficient at many musical instruments and less to do with the fact that he can read and write music. If he hadn’t had the ability to play all those instruments, things certainly would have been different.
Charles: But, if you put Michael in a room on his own, he couldn’t have created most of his tracks and got them sounding like they did on the finished albums. Take “Billie Jean.” All the key elements of the song are there in his original demo but his team of collaborators helped him polish and tighten the composition. Bruce Swedien, for instance, came up with the idea of using a special sleeve to achieve that iconic sound on the drum.
None of this seeks to diminish Michael’s ability as a songwriter. Just look at his catalogue of self-penned classics. Most pop acts never score even a quarter of the hits Michael had, let alone with self-penned compositions.
Joie: That’s very true, Charles. In fact, 17 out of his 28 top ten singles as a solo artist were written by him. And 9 out of his 13 number one hits as a solo artist were written by him. That’s very impressive, and like you said, it is somewhat unique among pop acts.
But I want to go back for a second to what you just said about putting Michael in a room alone. Recently, I was listening to the demo version of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” for another post that Willa and I were working on. That demo was made with just Michael and his siblings, Randy and Janet. And I was really struck by how close that demo is to the finished version that ended up on the completed album. That song was practically finished before he ever presented it to Quincy Jones and his other collaborators to “polish.” So, even though you’re probably correct in saying that he couldn’t have created most of his tracks and gotten them to sound the way they did on the finished albums, I tend to believe that he could have gotten them all pretty darn close.
Charles: The “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” demo is very impressive but, as you say, he’s not in the studio on his own. He had instrumentalists in there helping him out, and although the key elements of the composition are present, they wouldn’t have been if he hadn’t had those instrumentalists there, and the overall composition doesn’t have the polish or sheen that he was able to achieve when working with his highly decorated collaborators.
Returning to Michael’s hero, James Brown: It became fashionable for a period to strip James Brown of all responsibility for his compositions. Critics claimed he ‘rode the coattails’ of his collaborators and that without their expertise, he could never have produced the music he did. But I’ve spent a lot of time over the years interviewing Mr. Brown’s collaborators, from all different stages in his career. I’ve never found one who didn’t believe James Brown was a genius or who believed that any of that music would have existed without him.
When I interviewed Pee Wee Ellis, he told me:
“He was a definite collaborator, a strong influence, a leader. He had a vision that we won’t see again in this lifetime. He was the funkiest man in the world. He had more rhythm in his little finger than most of us have in our body. Just natural stuff, you know. And the way he fronted the band. If anything, the band rode on his coattails. But the band provided a platform for him to be able to do that.”
I view Michael similarly. None of those genre-defining hits he wrote could have existed without his vision, but none of them would exist as they do if he hadn’t had the right team of people around him to make his vision a reality. His inability to read or write music didn’t hinder him as long as he had people around him to interpret and bring those ideas to life.
Joe: This is a very good point, Charles, and something I try to bring out in Man in the Music. We have this idea embedded in our culture that doing something in isolation is more admirable than doing it collaboratively (the myth of the “solitary genius”). So critics marvel at an artist like Prince who can basically take a track from conception to completion without collaborators. Not that this isn’t impressive (it is), but I would compare making an album to directing a film: Is a director better if they carry out every single role of its creation (screenplay, camera, costumes, lighting, acting, etc.)? Or is what makes a director great the ability to bring together a creative team and guide a project with their overall vision and passion?
Willa: That’s an excellent analogy, Joe, I think, and shifts the definition of “songwriter” to something much closer to Michael Jackson’s process. He didn’t come out of the Tin Pan Alley tradition of creating sheet music, which was then sold to a singer or musician. That’s how Neil Diamond, for example, got his start – writing songs for a publishing company – and historically, a lot of great singer/songwriters have come from that tradition. Michael Jackson came from a very different background, and his approach was much more holistic than that. He didn’t just write songs and then hand them off to someone else to produce. When he created a song, he had a vision of what he wanted the final piece to sound like, and then he guided the entire production process to achieve that vision, much like a movie director would do. So I think that comparison works really well.
Joe: I’m glad you brought up James Brown, Charles, because I know you have done a lot of work on him, and there are certainly a lot of parallels. I found the same sentiment you found with Brown’s collaborators when speaking with MJ’s collaborators. They didn’t feel his reliance on musicians, producers, and engineers diminished him as an artist at all. All of them talked about how involved he was at every stage of the creative process, but also how he would give them space and freedom; they talked about creative chemistry and how magic often occurred in the act of collaborating. So you’re absolutely right that he may have lost something in autonomy, but he also gained something in unexpected synergistic inspiration. I think Michael picked some of this up from Quincy Jones as well, because Jones (who came with a background in jazz and film scores) was brilliant at assembling dynamic teams and getting them to work well together.
Now, to follow up on reading/writing music, I wanted to get all of your thoughts on something. Why do you think Michael often told people that learning to read/write music might ruin his creativity?
Joie: Well, I don’t know much about songwriting but, I would imagine that if you were constantly worried about whether or not something worked “technically,” then it would sort of suck the creativity out of it. And not only that but, it would probably suck the joy and the heart out of it as well. You would be so worried about getting it right technically that you would be in danger of losing that creative flow – that magic. And we all know Michael was all about the magic. So I think his comment about fearing it would ruin his creativity was valid. And I think I read somewhere where Paul McCartney once voiced a similar concern so, it’s possible that the two even spoke about it.
Willa: That’s a really interesting question, Joe. I can tell you’re a good teacher! To be honest, the fear that learning to write music will diminish your creativity doesn’t really make sense to me. After all, it doesn’t seem to have hindered Mozart or Beethoven or Bach too much. Musical notation is simply a way for musicians to communicate with each other, and whether you express your musical ideas through singing into a tape recorder or writing notes on paper shouldn’t make much difference.
But I agree with Joie. If I had to guess, I would imagine that fear had something to do with calculating the beats per measure and getting the key signature right and making sure it “worked ‘technically,’” as you put it, Joie. I know that when talking about dancing, he said sometimes he would watch dancers perform and he could actually see them mentally counting the beats. And he said that just doesn’t work. You have to practice and practice and practice until the steps become ingrained in you, so when you’re performing your focus is on feeling the music and expressing the ideas and the emotions of the music through your body, and not on the technical details of “one, two, three, slide.”
And I imagine he felt the same way about learning to write sheet music. It takes years to become proficient enough at it where it becomes second nature and you can do it without counting the beats in your head, so to speak. In the meantime, it would just get in the way of feeling the music, and why bother with that when he already had very effective methods for communicating his ideas to other musicians?
Charles: It’s an interesting point about whether technical knowledge hinders creativity and the person who springs immediately to mind, once again, is James Brown. Lacking a lot of technical expertise, in my opinion, helped Mr Brown. He spoke time and again about how his music was all about the feeling.
Several of James Brown’s biggest recordings contain mistakes, but he didn’t care because for him it was all about the energy. More often than not, he would release the first take, even if it contained errors. “The first take is God,” he would say. “The second take is man.”
Willa: What a great quote! Though it also highlights a difference between Michael Jackson and James Brown. Michael Jackson didn’t hesitate to record 50 takes, if that’s what it took to get the sound he wanted.
Charles: In the documentary Soul Survivor, several of Mr. Brown’s collaborators said that on a technical level, a lot of his music was ‘wrong’:
“You cannot count [it], you cannot write [it] because it violates all musical rules… Things as simple as 1, 2, 3, 4 – if it doesn’t work with what he’s doing, then he may go 1, 2, 3-and-a-half.”
Mr. Brown, when told his music was ‘wrong,’ would reply, “But it sounds good. God gave you those ears. Are you gonna argue with God’s ears?”
Fred Wesley, one of Mr. Brown’s arrangers, has spoken in the past about how embarrassed he felt when fans used to come up to him and tell him how much they loved the track “Pass The Peas.” Wesley felt the track, on a technical level, was garbage. But that song is still loved around the world today. Prince regularly plays it at his concerts. It’s often the biggest crowd pleaser at any Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, or Pee Wee Ellis gig. Wesley may have found it technically unspectacular, but it touched people. It got inside them, made them smile, made them move.
If James Brown had played by the technical rules, we may never have encountered funk music. Without funk, we may never have heard disco or hip-hop. James Brown broke the rules and changed the world. Twenty years later when Michael Jackson spent all that money on the Thriller video, everybody thought his brain had gone soft. He too broke the rules and changed the world.
Maybe Michael saw the rules of writing music as oppressive. If he didn’t know what the barriers were, he couldn’t be confined by them.
Joie: I love the way you put that, Charles! “If he didn’t know what the barriers were, he couldn’t be confined by them.” That is a very profound way to put it.
Willa: I agree.
Joie: And you are so right about James Brown. Without him, funk music may never have existed and then the whole landscape of the music scene might look very different today.
Willa: You guys, I feel like I’m having a major light bulb moment. This is so fascinating to me. And Charles, I think I’m just now starting to get what you’ve been saying. You aren’t just talking about plunking down notes on a page. You’re talking about being trained in the “rules” of the Western songwriting tradition and internalizing those rules – and James Brown broke the beat, and broke the rules of that tradition.
I was talking to a music professor a long time ago – maybe 15 years ago – who liked to compose songs at a keyboard that was connected to her computer. She showed me this software she had where she could play a song, and the software would take what she played and automatically generate the sheet music for it. It was really cool. You’d think there’d be a lot of tweaking and clean up to get it right, but there really wasn’t. It was pretty clean. She said there’s something satisfying about handwriting notes on a staff, but it can get tedious after a while and this software let her generate sheet music as easily as playing. She could just focus on the music, and then the sheet music would magically be there when she was done.
I’ve been thinking about her throughout this whole conversation and thinking, this is no big deal. If you’re working with musicians who can play by ear, then you don’t need sheet music. If you’re working with a classically trained cellist, for example, or someone who really wants sheet music, then just buy some software or hire a grad student to jot down the notes. Either way, it’s no big deal.
But of course, that music professor was thoroughly steeped in the Western songwriting tradition, so everything she composed just consciously or unconsciously fell within the conventions of that tradition. The computer had no trouble recognizing the structure of her music and placing the notes and rests on a staff exactly where they should go because everything she played fit within the rules of what it expected her to play.
But what does the computer do when James Brown comes along and throws a time warp in the middle of a measure? I’m having this really funny mental image right now of a computer whirring and beeping, trying to crank through a James Brown song.
Joie: Willa, you are hilarious. I swear, you crack me up sometimes! But you’re right; it does paint an amusing mental picture – this computer having a nervous breakdown trying to keep up with James Brown’s grunts and non-verbal vocalizations. That’s hysterical!
Willa: That’s funny, Joie! It’s like James Brown’s computer is imitating James Brown – the hardest working computer in the music lab. All the other computers are sedately working through Mendelssohn and Brahms, and the James Brown computer is rocking and popping. And can you imagine what it would do if it were plotting out a song in 4/4 time and suddenly hit a measure with 3½ beats? It would blow its little circuits.
Joe: I just want to add to this discussion that part of the dismissal of Michael Jackson as an artist, in my opinion, has to do with this White, Eurocentric understanding of music and an ignorance (or dismissal) of African-American aesthetics. Some of this has to do with what we’re talking about: deviating from established forms/techniques. What James Brown did is not unlike the “swing” and improvisation jazz musicians injected into traditional melodies. These were deviations from long-established traditions that took time for people to acknowledge as legit. For a long time, it was considered a very low-brow form of entertainment. This is often the reaction to artistic innovation.
Willa: Absolutely. We see this over and over again. When the novel was first developed, it was considered “low art” and serious drama, poetry, and essays were “high art.” Then when movies were first introduced, they were considered “low art” and serious novels were “high art.” Today, music videos are considered “low art” and serious feature-length films are “high art,” though Michael Jackson’s videos clearly challenge that.
You talk about this prejudice against new art forms in your Atlantic article, Joe – specifically new music genres in the U.S. – and show there’s not just a bias against new forms, but also some deep-seated racial biases as well:
Historically, this dismissal of black artists (and black styles) as somehow lacking substance, depth and import is as old as America. … It was a common criticism of spirituals (in relation to traditional hymns), of jazz in the ’20s and ’30s, of R&B in the ’50s and ’60s, of funk and disco in the ’70s, and of hip-hop in the ’80s and ’90s (and still today). The cultural gatekeepers not only failed to initially recognize the legitimacy of these new musical styles and forms, they also tended to overlook or reduce the achievements of the African-American men and women who pioneered them. The King of Jazz, for white critics, wasn’t Louis Armstrong, it was Paul Whiteman; the King of Swing wasn’t Duke Ellington, it was Benny Goodman; the King of Rock wasn’t Chuck Berry or Little Richard, it was Elvis Presley.
And as you show so clearly in your article, this pattern clearly extends to Michael Jackson as well. He was so innovative on so many fronts, and he had to fight this two-pronged bias against Black innovators throughout his adult career.
Joe: So, I think this informs how Jackson has been received and misunderstood. He often fuses Black and White styles in fascinating ways (see “History” and “Will You Be There,” for example). But he is rooted in the African-American tradition. That is why it’s a mistake for critics to judge his music against artists like Dylan or Springsteen or Bono or Costello (all critical darlings), because Jackson isn’t that kind of artist. It would be like expecting Langston Hughes to write poems like Robert Frost. It’s not that Jackson’s lyrics aren’t poetic; it’s that he is communicating in a different way.
Part of his greatness is in moving beyond words (as the spirituals, and the blues and jazz do); it is his non-verbal vocalizations — his cries, his exclamations of joy, his gasps, his scatting, his beatboxing, his ability to become the music. In fact, even when using language he often twists and contorts words, or delivers them with such freshness, nuance and intensity that lines become more than the sum of their parts. Stevie Wonder once said that Jackson had an amazing capacity to “read” a lyric. In other words, he had the ability to inject ordinary words with something far deeper. Music is ultimately about expression and communication, and for me, his songs (and performances) convey far greater emotional range than most artists.
Joie: I agree with you, Joe. Michael is all about the emotion and the intensity. It’s always right there just beneath the surface in every video and live performance, on every track of every album. You don’t seem to get that kind of raw emotion with most other artists.
Joe: Another thing that makes Jackson great as a songwriter is that he had this incredible ability to communicate across every barrier that typically divides people (race, gender, sexuality, language, culture, class). He was constantly fusing. Rock and R&B, hip hop and pop, gospel and classical. He was simultaneously accessible and challenging, simple but multi-layered. He brought Beethoven to the masses, and street music to the suburbs.
Joie: I think that’s a beautiful thought to end wtih, Joe. And Willa and I want to thank you both for joining us in this conversation!
Next week, Willa and I will be delving into Dancing the Dream, Michael’s book of poems and essays, so be sure to come back for that discussion.
Joie: So, you know how sometimes you get this idea in your head about something and your mind is made up. But then you stumble upon new information and suddenly that thing you were so certain about just takes on brand new meaning? Well, that’s what happened to me and my view of Michael Jackson’s One More Chance video.
Gonna do my best to make it right.
Can’t go on without you by my side.
Come and rescue me out of this storm
Get out of this cold, I need someone.
(If you see her)
Tell her this for me:
All I need is
One more chance at love….
This R. Kelly ballad is a really beautiful song sung to perfection by Michael, and when it was released on 2003′s Number Ones, I loved it instantly. And after Michael died and the Estate announced that they would be including the long-lost video for this song on the much anticipated Vision box set, I was ecstatic that we would finally get the chance to see Michael’s last short film.
But once the video collection was released and I eagerly sat down to devour it, my excitement was short lived. I have to admit, I did not love the video. I didn’t even like it. Not even a little bit. Where was Michael? The setting was gorgeous and romantic, the premise – with the audience on the stage – was unusual and intriguing, the song was beautiful and one of my favorites. But where was Michael in the video? It was all seemingly shot either totally from behind him or at really weird angles, his face – and therefore, his amazingly expressive eyes that I love – completely hidden from view. And in fact, the video even sparked some debate at MJFC as to whether it was even Michael at all. Perhaps it was merely a body double, a really good MJ impersonator! I was so disappointed. Just between you and me… I often get into my comfy sweats, fire up the DVD player and snuggle in with my Vision box set when I have a free afternoon. But honestly, the One More Chance video was one that I would frequently skip over.
And then recently I stumbled upon an article published just after the Vision box set was released in November of 2010. The article was written by journalist Charles Thomson and titled, “One More Chance: The Dream That Turned into a Nightmare.” Now I have to make a confession here: this article actually came across my inbox shortly after it was published but, things have a way of getting very busy for me with MJFC and my everyday life (and now I’m dancing with elephants too!) so, I set it aside with the intentions of reading it later. Well, “later” turned into much later and, I’m ashamed to say, I just recently found it sitting in my “To Do” folder. So I took a few moments and read it. And boy…. did it change EVERYTHING!
In writing this article, Charles Thomson researched the video thoroughly, speaking to Michael’s publicist and his manager at the time as well as several of the crew members and extras who worked on the video, and in doing so, he gives us a peek into where Michael Jackson’s life was at the time this video was created. And it is that context, that knowledge that puts this entire video in a whole new light for me. I look at the video with new eyes now and, whereas before it really held no connection for me at all, now I have such an emotional attachment to this video and it holds so much meaning for me.
Willa: That is so interesting, Joie. My initial response to the One More Chance video was much more positive than yours, though I know what you mean about “where’s Michael?” And my response to Thomson’s article was much less positive. I appreciate all the background information Thomson provides, and it’s definitely an article worth reading, but I thoroughly disagree with his interpretation and assessment of this video.
Like you, I thought “One More Chance” was a beautiful love song and was eager to see the video, and like you I watched it as soon as the Vision DVDs came out. And I was surprised – it wasn’t at all what I was expecting – but I loved it. As often happens with Michael Jackson’s videos, it led me to completely rethink my ideas about this song and opened up a whole new way of interpreting it. Now I see “One More Chance” as much more than a love song. Responding to it as a beautiful love ballad is still there for me and still valid, but other interpretations have become apparent to me as well. And frankly, I think Thomson’s interpretation completely misses the boat.
In his article Thomson writes rather critically of the video’s concept:
The song was a yearning ballad about lost love in which Jackson pleaded with an ex-girlfriend for “one more chance at love.” The video would feature a unique role reversal in which an audience would stand onstage and watch Jackson as he performed the track in an empty, upscale nightclub, hopping banisters and jumping on tables. The set-up seemed to have little correlation with the song and appeared to be more of a comment on the press and public’s perpetual invasion into Jackson’s privacy – a common theme in the star’s videos – essentially showing a crowd of bystanders watching over Jackson in an intimate, off-stage moment, transfixed by his heartbreak.
Thomson is right to some extent: if we see “One More Chance” simply as a love song, then the video doesn’t make much sense and the “set-up seem[s] to have little correlation with the song.” But I disagree with Thomson’s interpretation. I don’t think the point of this video is show “a crowd of bystanders . . . transfixed by his heartbreak.” Jackson doesn’t treat the on-stage audience in this video like intrusive voyeurs, that isn’t the mood he creates here – the mood is much more celebratory than that – and that isn’t what this video says to me. As you know, Joie, I’m all for multiple interpretations, and I think any interpretation is valid as long as it can be supported by evidence from the work, but I see very little evidence to support Thomson’s interpretation.
But what if we approach this video like the My Baby songs and view it more metaphorically? In his videos, Michael Jackson frequently parallels the relationship between a man and his lover with that of a performer and his audience. What if we view One More Chance that way? What if he isn’t talking to an ex-girlfriend, but to us, his audience? What if he’s telling us, his audience, that the false allegations and misunderstandings and years of bad press have been terrible for him – it “Hurts so bad sometimes it’s hard to breathe” – but he’s ready to try again, despite everything, and he wants us to give him “one more chance?”
As Thomson writes in his article, Michael Jackson made this video at an important turning point in his life. He was planning to make a fresh start in film, and saw this as a new beginning to his career. So maybe he’s telling us, his audience, that “This time / Gonna do my best to make it right.” Maybe the reason he set up the video with an audience on stage is because he’s talking directly to us, his audience, when he says “All I need is / One more chance.” If we view it that way, this video makes perfect sense. And the fact that the police raided his home the very next day is heartbreaking.
Joie: It is heartbreaking. Thomson explains that with “One More Chance” – the single and the video – Michael was fulfilling his contractual obligations to Sony and CBS. Once they were completed, Michael was done. He was freeing himself from his contract with Sony and preparing to move on to bigger and better things. He was tired of touring and he wanted to venture into the realm of film. Ironically, something he tried to do in 1993 but couldn’t once the first allegations happened. So, in the video, that last shot of him turning his back on the audience and walking out of the frame with a smile on his face, was very symbolic of the transition he was about to make. He was walking away from the music industry and walking toward his long-harbored dreams of making movies. All he needed was “one more chance.”
And, in answer to my question of “where is Michael,” Thomson tells us that the video was purposely shot from behind Michael in order to track his movements more fluidly. The following day, they were all set to capture the frontal shots and close ups of Michael doing his thing. But that never happened because the following morning came the bad news that the police were raiding the Neverland Ranch for the second time. And I can’t help but think of the lyrics to the song itself:
‘Bout to strike and rain only on me.
Hurts so bad sometime its hard to breathe.
I imagine those lyrics mirror what Michael must have been feeling when he got the news and realized that his dreams were being snatched away for the second time.
Willa: Those are good points, and I really do appreciate all the background information Thomson provides. It’s really deepened my understanding of this video. Maybe I’m being a little hard on Thomson simply because One More Chance has become very special to me. Just the idea of Michael Jackson in pain but ready to try again and asking us for “one more chance” is incredibly poignant. And then the conclusion of the video is so moving, and very motivating for me personally. At the end, he has left the room, but his audience is still on stage. It’s up to us now. He’s no longer here, but we are – we’re the ones left on stage – and we’re the ones who have to act to preserve his legacy and “help these mysteries unfold.”
Joie: I think you are being hard on Thomson. I don’t think he really offered any sort of interpretation of the video at all. I think he was merely just giving us the set up, explaining the premise, if you will. But I don’t think his one-sentence assessment of the premise of the video was ever intended to be viewed as an interpretation.
But I do understand your readiness to defend something you love. As you said, this particular video has become very special to you so, wanting to explain it and possibly make others love it as much as you do is only natural. I feel the same way about a certain ballad from the Michael album that you and I violently disagree on but, we’ll save that for another discussion!
Willa: Joie! That is just wicked. You really aren’t going to let me forget about that are you? Oh well, I guess I deserve it. (Heavy sigh). You really are just too funny sometimes. . .
Joie: Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But this video is as special to you as that song is to me so, I understand how you feel about it.
Willa: So here’s some exciting news. Joie is flying to Montreal this morning to see a sneak preview of Cirque du Soleil’s tribute to Michael Jackson – The Immortal World Tour and next week she’ll tell us all about it!