Willa: As we’ve talked about many times, Joie, Michael Jackson wasn’t just an amazing artist – the most important artist of our time, I believe. He was also a transformational cultural figure whose art brought about deep cultural changes. Through his art, he was able to revise some of our most entrenched cultural narratives, especially narratives about racial differences, and profoundly influence how we as a people respond to those narratives. So, as an artist, he wasn’t just expressing himself creatively. He was also very focused on how his art impacted his audience.
All of this has me thinking about the number of times he incorporates an on-screen audience into his videos. Sometimes that audience participates – most famously when the two feuding gangs join the big ensemble dance in Beat It. Other times, they simply watch, like the gang members in Bad, or the villagers in Ghosts, or the club managers in You Rock My World. Either way, I’m struck by the number of times he positions us as an audience so that we are, in effect, watching him perform over the shoulder of an on-screen audience.
Joie: You’re right, Willa; it is a formula that he uses often. But I’m struck by what you just said about the Bad video. The gang members, or dancers, are actively participating. But it’s the three so-called “friends” who are standing there watching. I guess I just don’t view them as gang members but rather as young punks who think they’re bad. Wanna-be thugs.
Willa: That’s interesting, Joie. I never really thought about that before, but you’re right. I don’t think of the dancers as gang members. I think of them as dancers, imaginary dancers. The whole dance sequence happens in his imagination. But I do tend to think of the three friends planning the robbery as gang members – in fact, I often refer to them that way – but you’re right, they aren’t. They’re just “young punks who think they’re bad,” as you say.
And that’s a really important distinction because the whole point of Bad is to redefine what it means to be “bad,” which is exactly what those three friends are struggling with. Does it mean being respected because you’re tough – “wanna-be thugs,” as you called them? Or can you be “bad” in a different way, and be respected for other reasons? This is the pivotal issue at the center of Bad, and it’s an excellent example of Michael Jackson using his art to rewrite a cultural narrative. And I believe the presence of those three friends as the on-screen audience is crucial to conveying that idea.
Earlier in the film, we see the three friends trying to force their definition of “bad” onto the main character, Daryl. He starts to go along with it, even though he knows it’s wrong, because he wants their respect. But then there’s the big dance sequence where he shares with them a new definition of “bad.” He reveals to them that he’s an artist – an incredible singer and dancer who can both challenge and move people through his art. His friends watch all this and then clasp hands with him.
That handshake is the climax of the film, I think, because that’s the moment when his friends make the crucial decision to accept his redefinition. So he’s found an entirely new way to gain the respect of his peers – not by being tough and committing petty crimes, but by developing and expressing his talents and creativity. And I believe that on-screen audience is modeling the response he wants from us as an audience as well. He wants us to accept his redefinition too, just as the on-screen audience does.
Joie: I agree; he does want the on-screen audience to model the behavior he expects of the off-screen audience. It’s classic Michael Jackson really. In most of his short films I believe his goal was always to try and teach us something. If you think about it, in almost every video there was a message or a lesson hidden in there somewhere, and it’s our job as the audience to try and figure out what that lesson or message is. And in the videos that have an on-screen audience, we can usually figure out what the lesson is by watching the response of the on-screen audience.
Willa: That’s a really interesting take on that, Joie. So the on-screen audience can be seen as an interpretive tool too, helping us figure out the meaning of the video. That’s really interesting.
Joie: It is interesting, isn’t it? You know, Willa, my favorite videos with an on-screen audience are the ones that incorporate concert footage: Give In to Me, Dirty Diana, and Come Together. They are three of my favorites and I think it’s because Michael was always so electrifying to watch onstage anyway. So these videos where it’s sort of a “staged” concert performance are really interesting to watch for me. It’s like he’s walking a very thin line between all-out performance and playing a scripted character. I find that fascinating. I also think it’s really interesting that these concert videos are among his sexiest, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that he was always very naturally sexual on stage.
Willa: Oh, I’d agree with that! And that’s an interesting distinction between the footage from his live concerts and the concerts that were “staged” as part of a video. I hadn’t thought of that before. But while it’s more subtle, you can make a pretty strong case that his concert videos have an important political message as well – a message that is reinforced once again by the on-screen audience. As we’ve talked about before, he was a sex symbol – the first Black teen idol – at a time when Black men weren’t supposed to be sexual in public. They were supposed to repress that part of themselves. And wow, did he challenge that one!
And once again, that on-screen audience – which includes a lot of screaming, fainting, crying women of all races – models for us how we should react. We shouldn’t feel shocked or upset or threatened by a sexy young Black man ripping his shirt open in front of us. We should set aside the racist prejudices of the past and just appreciate that beautiful body for the wonder that it is. And we did! All of us – Black, White, Asian, all races. He completely rewrote that cultural narrative. Just as importantly, he revised the emotional response both women and men had to that cultural narrative.
Joie: I agree. And that also goes back to what I was just saying about there usually being a message or a lesson hidden in every short film. And you just pointed out, I think, the main lesson of all those performance videos – breaking through those racial prejudices and rewriting that particular cultural narrative.
You know, Willa, I wonder, do you think other artists – mainly today’s popular music artists – ever focus on how their music and videos, or even their image, will impact not only their audience but the world around them? Because I think Michael was very much aware of that and I believe he actively focused on it, as you said earlier. But with a lot of today’s artists, I don’t get that feeling.
Willa: Oh, I don’t know. I think some younger artists are very passionate about social change, whether explicitly – like Will.i.am’s Yes We Can video supporting Barack Obama during the last presidential campaign – or more subtly, like Lady Gaga’s Born This Way video. I know you and I disagree about that one, but I see her video as a direct descendant of Can You Feel It, both visually and thematically. Both are fighting the many manifestations of prejudice, but while Can You Feel It focuses on racism, Born This Way focuses on homophobia and the deep prejudices surrounding sexuality.
Joie: Well, you’re right; we do completely disagree about that video, and I guess I walked right into that one. But Lady Gaga and Will.i.am aside, I see a lot of popular artists out there right now who I just don’t think give any real thought to how their music impacts the world. I don’t want to offend anybody so, I won’t point out the obvious ones that spring to my mind … but you get what I’m saying, right?
Willa: I guess so, though you know a lot more about current music than I do. A lot more. I’m pretty out of the loop with that. But artists develop over time, so with young artists especially, I guess I like to just wait and see what happens. Michael Jackson became more overtly political, I guess you’d call it, over time, and they might do that as well. And while I love works like Earth Song that are both moving and meaningful, I can still appreciate a good performance like Rock With You just for his music and his voice and his dancing – and I know you and I agree about that video!
Joie: Oh man, just mentioning that video distracts me in ways you wouldn’t believe! The only other video that affects me that way is Blood on the Dance Floor, but I’m getting way off topic here!
You know another thing I love about the performance videos or concert films is the roar of the crowd. It’s so different from watching actual concert footage. Like in Another Part of Me, the shots of the crowd are much more candid and “real” because we’re watching an actual audience experience a real Michael Jackson concert. In the other three performance videos – Give In to Me, Dirty Diana and Come Together – the audience’s experience is much less authentic, much more scripted, but still every bit as interesting for the off-screen audience to watch. But what all four of these concert films have in common is that awesome roar of the crowd. I think it’s really interesting that all four of these videos ends essentially the same way. No matter what’s happening on the screen, the cheering crowd can be heard above everything at the end. The only exception is Give In to Me when the roar of the crowd fades into the drumming rhythm of the song at the tail end.
Willa: That’s an interesting point, and we leave Give In to Me with a very different feeling because of it, I think – kind of eerie and unsettling in some ways. You know, talking about the roar of the crowd at the end of these videos reminds me that Beat It ends the same way. We don’t tend to think of Beat It as a concert film because it has a narrative: it tells a story, and we get caught up in the story and tend to forget that it’s a performance for an audience. But at the very end of the video, when the conflict has been resolved and all the gang members are dancing, the camera pans back and we see they’re on a stage, and we hear an audience cheering and clapping.
Joie: That’s true, Willa. I hadn’t thought of that but, you’re right. We don’t actually see the on-screen audience here but we do hear them at the very end of the video. Really interesting perspective to end on, don’t you think?
Willa: It’s very interesting, I think, because it recasts what we’ve just seen. This wasn’t meant to be interpreted as a scene from real life – a misinterpretation many critics fell into when they called it “naive” and “unrealistic” – but as a staged performance, and that alters how we tend to interpret it. The story we’ve witnessed isn’t meant to be seen as realistic or live action but as a story – a morality tale – purposely created for us, and the people we’ve been watching aren’t gang members but dancers and artists. By ending the video this way with an audience responding to their performance, he’s emphasizing that this is a work of art and asking us to think about it as a work of art, with a purpose and a message, as you mentioned earlier.
Joie: Except that the people we’ve been watching are real gang members; don’t forget that.
Willa: Oh, that’s right!
Joie: It’s true that there were about 20 professional dancers but, many of those featured prominently in the video, and certainly all of the extras in the background watching the “fight” going on, were actual members of both the Crips and the Bloods – two infamous, rival Los Angeles street gangs, and the video was shot on location on LA’s skid row for even more authenticity. So although this particular fight may have been a “performance” created purposely for us, they were in a way, reenacting a very real conflict that these two gangs had probably been engaged in for many, many years. I find that really interesting, like perhaps that knowledge is part of the message or the hidden lesson in this short film. By using the roar of the unseen audience at the end, he is forcing us to see this as a performance, as you say. But by using the real gang members in their natural habitat, so to speak, he is also forcing us to realize that these kinds of conflicts do actually happen in “real life” in cities all across the country.
Willa: That’s an excellent point – it’s like he really is modeling on screen something he’d like to see happen off screen, for both those of us watching this performance as well as the gang members participating in it. Those gang members really were working with opposing gang members to create this film, so that enacts the message of the film on yet another level.
Joie: That’s really true, and these two rival gangs actually called a temporary truce in their conflict so they could participate in the filming of this video. In fact, the video’s director, Bob Giraldi, once said in an interview that he thought the idea of using real gang members was insane but Michael was adamant about it and was always looking for ways to foster peace. So he obviously wanted to use this short film to show these gang members that fighting wasn’t the only way and that they could work together if they really wanted to. I think that’s genius.
Willa: It really is, and I especially feel that after reading that interview. That’s fascinating. I hadn’t read that before, but I loved the part where the interviewer asks, “How did you cast the real gang members?” and Bob Giraldi says,
It was Michael. He went out and he got ‘em through, I guess, the LAPD’s gang squad and he convinced them that, with enough police presence, this would be a smart and charitable thing to do; get them there to like each other and hang with each other for two days doing the video. I didn’t like the idea because it was hard enough to direct actors and dancers, let alone hoods.
Can you imagine being in trouble with the LAPD’s gang squad and not sure what’s going to happen next, and then have someone walk in and ask if you want to be in a Michael Jackson video? How surreal would that be? It’s also a very Michael Jackson-type scenario to have gang members playing actors who are playing gang members. We see those funny kinds of loop-de-loop twists throughout his work, especially with notions of identity. And it’s also very common for him to break the illusion of reality, like he does at the end of Beat It, and show us it’s all been a performance.
Joie: You’re right, Willa; this is something we see from him on more than one occasion. And next week we’ll look at a few more examples of this trick in his work.
Willa: That’s right. We’ll continue on and see how he uses an on-screen audience in some of his later videos. It is a narrative device that he uses often in his work, as you say, but I think it’s more than that too. As we see in these videos with an on-screen audience, his work isn’t just art. It’s meta-art. It’s art about art. His work is very self-reflective – that’s one of the things that’s so fascinating about it – and through his videos, especially, he’s talking about the function of art and its ability to influence an audience, and maybe lead them (and us) to see things in a different way. I believe Michael Jackson wasn’t just creating art; he was creating a new poetics, meaning a new theory of art as a means of altering perceptions and bringing about sweeping social change. And we can see him modeling this process through his on-screen audiences.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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!