Willa: One of the things I love most about the community that has developed here at the website is the wide range of perspectives different readers bring to the discussion – fans, artists, academics, and professionals from many different fields and many different cultural backgrounds, all sharing a love of Michael Jackson’s work as well as your insights into what made him and his work so important and so compelling. I love that fascinating mosaic of different perspectives, and I’ve learned so much over the past 18 months from the comments you all have shared.
This week Joie and I wanted to talk about Michael Jackson’s spirituality and how that’s reflected in his work. We’ve touched on this before – for example, in posts about “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough“ and Dancing the Dream last spring. However, this week we wanted to explore this idea in a more in-depth way. And fortunately, someone in our community has a lot of ideas to share about that!
Unfortunately, Joie wasn’t able to join us this week – she’s working on an exciting personal project. But I’m thrilled that Eleanor Bowman, a regular contributor to the site, has agreed to step in. Eleanor worked with Costa Rica’s National Institute for Biodiversity in the early 1990s and, in her words, became “more and more concerned about the negative impact of our way of life on the rest of nature, and more and more puzzled as to why these concerns were not more widely shared when it was so obvious we were hurtling toward disaster.” She began to wonder if our religious beliefs played a role in shaping our attitudes toward nature, and she entered divinity school to explore that question. She received a Master’s degree in Theological Studies, and her graduate research focused on how notions of spiritual transcendence have shaped western culture’s relationship to nature. She is currently working on a book that addresses these issues - Beyond Transcendence: Seeking a Sustainable Relationship with Nature.
Importantly, Eleanor sees Michael Jackson as embodying a very different spiritual model – one of immanence rather than transcendence – that might lead us to see our relationship with nature in a different way. I am so intrigued by that! Thank you so much for joining us, Eleanor!
Eleanor: Hi Willa. Thank you so much for inviting me to participate in your ongoing discussions about Michael Jackson, his life and his art. In addition to providing your visitors with interesting insights and information, your blog has created a warm and caring community, an expression of MJ’s L.O.V.E. – which I am grateful to be a part of.
Willa: I’m very grateful for that community also, and think it’s a real testament to the power of Michael Jackson’s work – especially that his work is meaningful to people from such diverse backgrounds. For example, your appreciation of Michael Jackson seems to be strongly influenced by your knowledge of theology, which I know very little about. That’s one reason I’m especially eager to hear your ideas!
So before we talk about how you situate Michael Jackson’s spirituality in terms of these two models, I was wondering if we could start by clarifying what exactly you mean by transcendence and immanence. How would you describe these two models? How are they different, and why is that difference important?
Eleanor: Before I address your question concerning immanence and transcendence, I have to say that I have a little trouble talking about Michael Jackson’s spirituality as the term “spirituality” is becoming a foreign concept to me, and MJ is the last person in the world I would describe as spiritual – much less as having a “spirituality.”
Willa: Really? Wow, I’m surprised! Why do you say that, Eleanor? I’m wondering if maybe I didn’t express myself well, or didn’t ask the question the right way.
Eleanor: No, no. It’s not that. My reaction relates to my own idiosyncratic problems with the concept of transcendence and how it relates to the idea of spirituality. But, in no way am I “dissing” MJ. As anyone who has been reading my comments knows, I am one of MJ’s biggest admirers.
Willa: Yes, I know – that’s one reason I’m so confused right now.
Eleanor: Understandably. Because most people associate being a spiritual person with being a good person and MJ was demonstrably a very good person as well as a great artist. That being said, I admire MJ because of his “embodiment” – his materiality – rather than his spirituality. And, I think, by addressing your question and clarifying what I mean by transcendence (another word with very positive cultural associations) and contrasting it to immanence, I can also explain my problems with associating spirituality with Michael Jackson.
When I use the terms “transcendent” and “immanent,” I use them as descriptors for a worldview and value system. A transcendent worldview and value system divides spirit from matter and locates the sacred or ultimate value outside the material world, in spirit, draining nature and the earth of value, which is why, with my environmental concerns, I have come to view transcendence as sinister and the term “spirit” with suspicion.
Analyzing western culture in terms of transcendence provides an explanation as to why we, as a culture, have adopted such an exploitative attitude toward nature and the material world. And, “transcendent exploitation” doesn’t stop with nature. Along the same lines, we also think of mind as properly separate from the body, and we assign value to the mind, rather than the body.
Willa: That’s true, Eleanor. It reminds me of something Thomas Edison once said. He was a notorious workaholic who spent long hours every day in the lab, and a reporter once asked him what he did for exercise. Edison replied that the only thing he used his body for was to carry his mind from place to place.
Eleanor: Exactly! I’ve never heard that, but it fits perfectly.
Willa: It really highlights the mind/body split, doesn’t it? And I think a lot of people share that idea – not only that the mind and body are separate, but that the mind is what’s important, and the body is just an imperfect vessel for holding and transporting the mind.
Eleanor: Right. With an emphasis on imperfect! And they privilege those things and people associated with the mind over those associated with the body and nature. For example, they/we view reason as separate from and superior to emotion, and humanity (homo sapiens, the wise species) as separate from and superior to (a mindless) nature. By extension, any association with physicality, with the body, with nature – with matter – results in the devaluation of specific types of people and specific types of work.
Willa: I agree, which is one reason women, racial minorities, and lower class workers have historically been devalued, to use your term – because historically they’ve been associated with physical labor, especially labor that involves daily care for the body, things like cooking and feeding the body, making clothes and keeping the body warm and clean, nursing the body and tending to its wounds and disabilities, changing diapers and caring for the bodies of children or the elderly or the infirm. Those people in a more privileged position – generally meaning upper class, white, and male – have historically been associated with the life of the mind, and with work that is as far removed as possible from actual human bodies.
Eleanor: I know. So frustrating and so unfair. Because when you really think about it, this work is some of the most valuable on the planet; it is critical to survival. So, from my point of view transcendence is hazardous to the health of the planet and all its inhabitants. Which is why I am wary of using the term “spirit,” as it seems to reinforce the idea of a binary reality in which nature and those associated with nature and the body are devoid of value.
Willa: That’s interesting, Eleanor. And I’m starting to see the problem with my question, and why you said Michael Jackson was “the last person in the world I would describe as spiritual,” though that still kind of shocks me.
Eleanor: Well, naturally, it is shocking. It goes against the grain of everything we have been taught to believe in and value. But I think MJ in his life and art, epitomizes and personifies and promotes the immanent worldview – which is why his work is so shocking, so electrifying! He is truly radical. He radically changes our perception of reality. As an artist and as a person, he embodies a new worldview and value system: he, himself, is the materialization of a sacred energy. He is “the Avatar of Immanence.” He is “His Immanence” Michael Jackson.
Willa: As opposed to His Eminence, the Cardinal of New York or Chicago, where “eminence” emphasizes that these figures are separate from us and above us. That’s a wonderful title, Eleanor, and I love this view of Michael Jackson as integrating mind and body, and restoring value to the material, natural, physical world.
Eleanor: Well, I am pretty attached to it myself. And, as was pointed out in the discussion of MJ’s crotch grabs in “That Ain’t What It’s All About,” we can also add the integration of sexuality into what it means to be fully human, as opposed to looking on sexuality as an indicator of some sort of human failing. It is this perfect integration, his immanence, that gives his work so much authenticity, which gives his art its incredible emotional power, which distinguishes him from all other dancers on a stage.
In contrast to transcendence, immanence refers to a worldview which finds the sacred and value within matter. In an immanent reality, the term “spirit” has no meaning, because value and the sacred are now understood as being part and parcel of matter, specifically of nature and the body. There is no line dividing mind from body, reason from emotion, humanity from nature, no value system that automatically assigns value to humans over nature or whites over blacks or men over women or mental professions over physical labor. Immanence knocks the legs out from under racism and sexism – and the assumption that humans have the right to exploit nature.
To me, in everything he was and did, MJ represents this worldview, this new truth. And, it is the truth of his work which gives it so much beauty. For the first time in my life, watching Michael Jackson, I understood what Keats meant when he said,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Willa: Or when Emily Dickinson wrote, “I died for beauty,” and the person in the adjoining tomb responds,
“And I for truth – the two are one; We brethren are,” he said.
Eleanor: Yes. Exactly. And, his beautiful truth, his true beauty, is an expression of deep and true emotions, bravely revealed in his music, his dance, his art. He gives a true assessment of the world we live in and its imbalance and shows us the way to restore the balance which our world – and worldview – has lost: he puts value back in matter and nature and the body and women and people of color and everything and everybody our culture has stripped of value. And, as has been noted on this blog, he paid a high price for his steadfastness.
Willa: Yes, he did.
Eleanor: For me, Earth Song says it all. It is so amazing. The night after he died, as I you-tubed one MJ video after another, I discovered Earth Song. I was stunned. In this one work, he expressed what I had been trying to say for years …. and much more. For me, it is the most radical of all his works for it is nothing less than an indictment of the transcendent worldview and value system.
In a few deft phrases, he sketches the outlines of our global tragedy, expressing deep sorrow for the damage we ourselves are doing to the earth – a sorrow mixed with a compassion for a people who have only recently become conscious of the consequences of their own self-destructive actions, actions which somehow seem to be beyond their control to do anything about. And, as in so much of his work, there is the mixture of heart-broken sadness and anguished anger. In the complexity of its lyrics and music, it conveys a deep sense of betrayal that is very personal.
In Earth Song, MJ addresses none other than the conventional Judea-Christian God - transcendent spirit itself – the “you” who betrayed his only son, who (almost) betrayed Abraham, and whose worldview/ value system is betraying us. He calls on the transcendent god to acknowledge the mess the world is in – the mess a transcendent worldview and value system are largely responsible for.
What about sunrise? What about rain? What about all the things That you said we were to gain? What about killing fields? Is there a time? What about all the things That you said was yours and mine? Did you ever stop to notice All the blood we’ve shed before? Did you ever stop to notice The crying Earth the weeping shores? What have we done to the world? Look what we’ve done. What about all the peace That you pledged your only son? What about flowering fields? Is there a time? What about all the dreams That you said was yours and mine? Did you ever stop to notice All the children dead from war? Did you ever stop to notice The crying Earth the weeping shores?
Willa: That’s so interesting, Eleanor. I’ve always interpreted these lines rather differently – not as questions directed toward God, the Christian God, but as questions directed toward us and our ancestors. After all, our ancestors are the ones who developed and passed on the worldview that nature is simply something to be exploited to satisfy our own wants. They created the industrial revolution. They clear-cut forests. They hunted animals to extinction. In other words, they gave us the very destructive legacy that we are fulfilling today.
But listening to those lyrics you just cited with your ideas in mind, one line really jumped out at me: “What about all the peace / That you pledged your only son?” That really does suggest that he is addressing God – specifically, God the Father – doesn’t it?
Eleanor: Well, the first time I heard it, it did to me (and still does). And really knocked me out. At last, someone else, Michael Jackson, no less, seemed to “get it.” And seemed to understand and express all the complex emotions I felt. IN ONE SONG. For so many years, I believed in transcendence … and then suddenly one day I didn’t. And my overwhelming feeling was one of betrayal. I saw that in trying to be a good person and do the right thing, I was actually acting against the best interests of the planet and of myself as a woman – and society at large. And, at that moment I also lost whatever faith I had left in the JC God, because to me, as a symbol and a character in a book, the JC God represented that which no longer worked for the well-being of all. It was both a terrible and a liberating moment. I went to divinity school, in part, to see if I was correct in my assessment or, if not, if I could salvage some vestiges of my Christian faith, but, no one ever was able “to reconcile the ways of God” to nature or woman – or me. And, I came out more convinced than ever that I was on the right track (but I went to a very liberal divinity school).
To me, Earth Song is both a lament and an accusation. Michael Jackson’s lament is not only for what we are inflicting on nature, but for what we are doing to each other and what those in power are doing to the less empowered.
Hey, what about yesterday? (What about us?) What about the seas? (What about us?) The heavens are falling down (What about us?) I can’t even breathe (What about us?) What about apathy? (What about us?) I need you (What about us?) What about nature’s worth? It’s our planet’s womb (What about us?) What about animals? (What about it?) We’ve turned kingdoms to dust (What about us?) What about elephants? (What about us?) Have we lost their trust? (What about us?) What about crying whales? (What about us?) We’re ravaging the seas (What about us?) What about forest trails Burnt despite our pleas? (What about us?) What about the holy land (What about it?) Torn apart by creed? (What about us?) What about the common man? (What about us?) Can’t we set him free?….
By so tightly weaving his concerns for earth, nature, and humanity into a single thread – the themes of environmental degradation and man’s inhumanity to man, our wars on nature and each other – he is saying that these two tragedies are related, that they arise from a single source – the transcendent god of the Judeo-Christian tradition, whose worldview and value system led his only son to the cross, whose worldview and value system brought Abraham to the brink of disaster, and whose worldview and value system are destroying the planet and leading us toward self-destruction. Earth Song is both an acknowledgement of the dire situation we find ourselves in and a recognition that we have all been betrayed.
And, when he cries out “What about us?” he identifies not only himself, but all of us, his listeners, with the disempowered and dispossessed.
Willa: I agree – he’s forcing us to acknowledge their concerns and asking us to care about those concerns. In other words, he’s giving voice to the voiceless – “the disempowered and dispossessed,” to borrow your words – including animals as well as oppressed people. And again I’m struck by the references to Abraham (“What about Abraham?”) and “the holy land / Torn apart by creed,” which support your interpretation.
The reference to Abraham is especially interesting since, as I remember the story, God comes to Abraham and asks him to sacrifice his son, Isaac – in other words, he asks him to choose between his physical, material, embodied son and a spiritual, disembodied God. Abraham chooses the spiritual over the physical and builds an altar for killing his son, though God stays his hand at the last minute. Abraham has proven himself – he made the right choice – so God allows his son to live. I can see how the story of Abraham would be very troubling to Michael Jackson on many different levels, and it ties in very closely with your interpretation of “Earth Song.”
Eleanor: Yes. I think the story of Abraham is difficult for many people to live with – especially MJ.
Although there is so much anger and pain in Earth Song, there is also hope, but this hope really is only revealed in the film, which shows Michael singing the earth and nature back to life. I love watching this, because, truly, I believe his music, his art, his very being reveal and express a new way of looking at things – a new worldview and value system – that can accomplish just that. If we let nature speak to us, if we can open our hearts, I think she will show us the way, for I believe, deep within every human, nature has planted a drive which drives us toward collective survival, and when a way of life is operating against our survival, we will instinctively react and seek to right our course.
Willa: I love that section of Earth Song also, and that’s a wonderful way to describe it, Eleanor – he truly is “singing the earth and nature back to life.” I think it’s especially important that this section undoes the destruction we witnessed in the first half of the video – the cut tree rights itself and once again becomes part of the forest canopy, the elephant regrows her tusks and comes back to life, the dead civilian opens his eyes. And something very specific seems to bring about the shift between the destruction we witness in the first half and the healing and reawakening we see in the second half – it’s all the people pushing their hands down into the dirt, reconnecting themselves with the physicality of the earth.
Eleanor: I had forgotten that bit. So perfect. So significant. No doubt about it, he was a genius.
This new way of seeing things is clearly set forth in “Planet Earth,” which comes from a different emotional place altogether, but addresses the same issues. Michael Jackson references the traditional western philosophical view of matter (a view of nature refined and espoused by Enlightenment thinkers) when he asks if the earth, the material world is
a cloud of dust A minor globe, about to bust A piece of metal bound to rust A speck of matter in a mindless void A lonely spaceship, a large asteroid
Cold as a rock without a hue Held together with a bit of glue
and simply and directly refutes it: “Something tells me this isn’t true.”
In “Planet Earth,” MJ celebrates earth’s innate value and claims his own, deep connection and oneness with the earth, and his debt to nature. Contrary to traditional belief, the human race Michael Jackson belongs to is not separate from and superior to nature, but an integral part of nature. I really love the following lines:
In my veins I’ve felt the mystery Of corridors of time, books of history Life songs of ages throbbing in my blood Have danced the rhythm of the tide and flood Your misty clouds, your electric storm Were turbulent tempests in my own form …
And, he establishes and models a new relationship to nature – that of the lover to the beloved, rather than the owner to the owned or the master to the slave. In “Planet Earth,” Michael Jackson loves and cherishes the earth.
Do you care, have you a part In the deepest emotions of my own heart Tender with breezes caressing and whole Alive with music, haunting my soul. Planet Earth, gentle and blue With all my heart, I love you.
Willa: I love those lines also, and you’re right – he entirely reframes our relationship with nature and the material world. I see that throughout Dancing the Dream, where he repeatedly locates the spiritual within the material, and finds a sense of wonder and enlightenment within the physical world, not above it. (And I’m sorry about that word “spiritual” – I can’t seem to avoid it!) Even the preface suggests this idea:
Consciousness expresses itself through creation. This world we live in is the dance of the creator. Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on. On many an occasion when I’m dancing, I’ve felt touched by something sacred. In those moments, I’ve felt my spirit soar and become one with everything that exists. I become the stars and the moon. I become the lover and the beloved. I become the victor and the vanquished, I become the master and the slave. I become the singer and the song. I become the knower and the known. I keep on dancing and then, it is the eternal dance of creation. The creator and creation merge in one wholeness of joy.
I keep on dancing and dancing … and dancing, until there is only … the dance.
I’m especially struck by the line, “On many an occasion when I’m dancing, I’ve felt touched by something sacred.” Reading those lines in terms of what you’ve been saying, Eleanor, it seems significant that he connects a heightened spirituality, the “sacred,” with a heightened physicality, with “dancing.” The sacred isn’t something that transcends the physical body, but something he accesses through the physical body.
Eleanor: Yes, that is a theme he comes back to a lot. And, thanks for bringing this quote to my attention. As a relatively new fan of MJ’s, I’m afraid I still have a way to go in my Michael Jackson studies – but again, it fits so perfectly and reinforces my belief that he was very “consciously” trying to create a radically new way of looking at the world. … I love his saying that consciousness is within creation, in other words that matter has mind. Every time I look out my window or go for a walk, I wonder how anyone could ever doubt it – with each leaf knowing exactly how to position itself to get the most sun, with the roots of trees heading directly for my septic system for water, with my geese – not so silly – carefully teaching the goslings to swim and walking in a protective phalanx around them, my mare knowing so perfectly how to mother (how I wish my own mother had known as much) watching over her foal, high-tailing it and kicking up her heels in the sunlight. I don’t know about you, but I want to feel part of all this life – this energy – this consciousness within nature – not separate from the “one wholeness of joy.”
Willa: I agree. He creates a longing in his work to participate in “the eternal dance of creation” that we can see all around us, once we look at nature with deep appreciation for what it is and not just for how we can use it – for example, to appreciate a meadow or a forest for the wonder that they are and not just as a potential homesite or lumber to be exploited.
I’m also struck by the lines in the preface where he once again subverts all these hierarchical relationships – “the victor and the vanquished,” “the master and the slave,” “the knower and the known” – and connects the sacred with the lower sphere as well as the upper.
Eleanor: Yes, I guess it’s more surprising to me that he includes the “upper.” (Note how even our mental imagery is affected by the transcendent worldview.) In writing about Earth Song, I was reminded again that he seems not to blame those “on top” for the problems the world faces, but the system itself. We are all caught up in this system. And transcendence drives us all to rise to the top and seize control. By its very “nature,” it creates hierarchical relationships, so it is MJ’s goal to subvert them. And, he is not just subverting relationships, but the energy that drives us to create these relationships – the drive that energizes our culture. He wants to align the energy that drives human societies with the energy that drives nature. And, he himself is an example of someone really connected, really plugged in. I think it is this energy that he calls L.O.V.E. In the new global village, we can no longer afford to work against each other; survival depends on working for the well-being of all. And ALL means all life, not just human life (excluding mosquitoes and fire ants, of course).
Willa: Though I have a feeling he would include mosquitoes and fire ants as well! He sang a beautiful song about a rat, after all – it’s one of my favorite songs.
Thank you again for joining me, Eleanor. It’s been so interesting! You’ve really opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about these ideas of body, mind, and spirit (that problematic word again, “spirit”). Now I’m wanting to watch Earth Song and read Dancing the Dream again with these thoughts in mind, and I love that. I love it when someone gives me a new path for entering into a work and seeing it in a different way. Thank you, Eleanor.
Willa: So Joie, a few weeks ago we talked about how Michael Jackson seemed to see a connection between his creative life and his spiritual life, something we’ve talked about a couple times before. But you know, he also saw a connection between his creativity, his spirituality, and the physicality of his body, especially his body’s movements as a dancer. He seemed to feel a deep connection between spiritual energy, creative energy, and physical energy, including sexual energy.
All of this has me wondering – how is sex and sexual energy represented in Michael Jackson’s work, what does it mean, and does it perhaps mean different things at different times? For example, what does it mean when he sings about sex in “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough” or “Give In to Me” or “Superfly Sister” or “Break of Dawn”? What does it mean when he zips his fly during the panther dance in Black or White? And what does it mean, exactly, when he’s dancing and grabs his crotch?
Joie: Hmm. All very good questions, Willa. But you know, I seem to remember Michael telling Oprah that he really didn’t think about it when he was dancing and that the whole crotch grab thing just sort of happened on its own and meant nothing. I think he said he was just a slave to the rhythm or something.
Willa: Well, I think that’s true, Joie, but I don’t think it’s the whole truth. I think sometimes he’d be dancing and get really absorbed in the music and, Bam! He’d punctuate a dance sequence with a crotch grab, kind of like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. But I also think that sometimes he’d decide he liked that exclamation point and deliberately make it part of the choreography.
So, for example, we have that hilarious dance rehearsal in This Is It where two middle-aged women are teaching a group of young male dancers proper crotch-grabbing technique, and I have to say, that whole scene just cracks me up. First there is the Russian ballet instructor, Irina Brecher, explaining how the movements they’re doing compare with Baryshnikov’s:
“I saw you! You were going like this. What it this? That’s Russian! This is Russian. So Baryshnikov does it like this, and you guys are doing like this. Same thing.”
Then the assistant choreographer, Stacy Walker, helps them perfect their technique. She says, “One more time,” and they all do a crotch grab in unison. And they’re all so earnest – it just makes me laugh. Then she demonstrates proper crotch-grabbing movements while saying,
“We’re straight up and down now, right? I don’t think it’s anything except hand moving…. I think that’s smoother, you know what I mean? I mean, I have nothing to move….”
That is such a funny scene! I get such a kick out of it, but I also love seeing how trusting and respectful these talented young dancers are toward these older women. It’s really wonderful.
So this funny little scene shows us several important things: that the crotch grab was a deliberate part of the choreography, that it really wasn’t sexual in a traditional sense (and Michael Jackson always said it wasn’t), and that it certainly wasn’t a way to show dominance over women. After all, those two women were the instructors! And they were handling it in a very fun, lighthearted way.
Joie: Well, I find it very funny that we are having a discussion about crotch grabbing!
Willa: Oh c’mon, Joie. This is a very academic discussion!
Joie: Uh huh. But I have to say I agree with you, Willa. I believe that he did like ‘the exclamation point’ of the crotch grab and it really did become sort of his signature move – or one of his signature moves because, we all know, there are several.
Willa: That’s true. Like there’s that move called the Moonwalk that got a bit of attention….
Joie: Yeah. Or the twisting leg kick. But he really is synonymous with the crotch grab now. Whenever we see another singer or dancer execute that move, our minds will immediately, and forever, associate that with Michael Jackson.
But you said something that I find really interesting. You said the crotch grab wasn’t sexual and that Michael always maintained that it wasn’t sexual. The reason I find this statement interesting is because I think most people just always assumed the complete opposite. I think to most of the world, the reason the crotch grab was so controversial or provocative was precisely because they projected a sexual connotation onto it that Michael never intended for it to have.
Willa: Well, now you have me thinking, Joie – what did I mean when I said it wasn’t sexual? Hmmm … Now that I think about it, that seems too absolute because obviously there are sexual connotations, but I guess I meant it doesn’t seem erotic to me, like he isn’t using it to evoke a sexual feeling or suggest a sexual situation – not like, say, that long undulating crotch grab in the “Billie Jean” segment of This Is It. Oh my. Now, that is sexual. So he certainly knew how to do it in a suggestive way if he wanted to, but he never did that on stage, ever. That scene in This Is It was strictly a fun thing for the enjoyment of the cast and crew at the rehearsal, especially those young dancers. He never did anything like that in a real performance.
Instead, it was almost always just a quick exclamation mark, as we said earlier, and it seemed to me to express an artistic impulse rather than a sexual urge, though it’s hard to completely separate that out since he seemed to feel a strong connection between creativity and sexual energy. We talked about that a little bit with Give In to Me last April.
But there’s another element to it too, which is that the crotch grab always kind of struck me as something of a political statement as well, especially when he defiantly continued doing it despite all the controversy. You know, he was a very sexy black man – a sex idol, even – in a country that’s very uncomfortable with sexual black men, and I think he felt a lot of pressure to restrain his sexuality because of that. And in that sense, the crotch grab always kind of felt to me like a way for him to reclaim his sexuality and his own body, in a way. It’s like he’s calling attention to the fact that, not only does he have a beautiful, talented, amazing body, but it’s a sexual body as well.
Joie: I think you may be on to something, Willa. It could also have been a way for him to sort of flip off the world. I don’t mean to be crass here but, grabbing the crotch was never really seen as a nice gesture. In fact, long before Michael ever adopted it and turned it into a signature dance move, a guy grabbing his crotch was seen as either an insult (if it was directed toward another man) or a very lewd gesture (if it was directed toward a woman). So your suggestion that it could have been sort of political really fits here. It could definitely be considered a defiant, ‘up yours’ type of gesture.
Willa: Wow, that’s true, Joie. It’s funny but I never thought about that before, but you’re right, it definitely could be interpreted that way. And he did express those impulses every so often, as we see in Scream. And there’s that line in Shaquille O’Neal’s rap in “2Bad”:
Grab my crotch, twist my knee, then I’m through Mike’s bad. I’m bad. Are you?
“2Bad” as a whole is a declaration that he won’t be broken or bowed – “I’m standin’ though you’re kickin’ me” – and that line in particular is a pretty defiant statement.
Joie: That is a defiant statement, Willa. In fact, the whole song is pretty defiant, you’re right. But I wonder if we can go back to your original question if we can. You asked what does it mean when Michael sings about sex in his songs and how is that sexual energy expressed in his work? So, obviously I’m thinking you have some thoughts on this?
Willa: I don’t know that I really have thoughts, or any firm conclusions – just a lot of questions. I see sex represented so many different ways in his work, and I wonder how it all fits together. Like, what do you make of the sexual references in the panther dance? That whole section is a strong protest against racism, but it includes some pretty explicit sexual gestures – more explicit than critics were used to seeing from Michael Jackson, that’s for sure. There was a lot of criticism about that when Black or White first aired. Here was a song that a lot of critics interpreted as being about racial harmony, and suddenly in the panther dance section Michael Jackson is breaking glass, zipping his fly, and grabbing his crotch pretty explicitly. Why is that there? How do you interpret that?
Joie: Well, I’m honestly not sure about how to interpret it. But you’re correct in saying that it was much more explicit than critics were used to seeing from him, and sometimes I think that was the intended purpose. Perhaps it was done simply to shake things up a little bit. If you think about it, it was done at a time when Michael was going through some changes. He had broken away from his long and successful association with Quincy Jones and he was taking the reins of producing by himself and he was eager to try new things, new producers, new sounds. And the resulting album, Dangerous, really has a much edgier feel because of it. So maybe he simply wanted to do something edgy. And let’s face it, that panther dance is certainly edgy.
But also, I want to point out the fact that those racial slurs that are written on the car and the building in the panther dance weren’t actually in the original version that first aired to millions of people around the world. Those were added in after the initial hoopla over the “disturbing violence and simulating masturbation.” So, I’ve never really held the belief that that section of the video was meant to be a protest against racism. Maybe it was but, it doesn’t feel that way to me. How do you interpret it?
Willa: Really? Wow, I’m surprised, Joie. To me, adding in those slogans didn’t change the meaning at all, just clarified what was already there. I mean, the title of the song is “Black or White,” and the lyrics are all about standing up to racial prejudices – he even references the KKK specifically when he sings, “I ain’t scared of no sheets.” So when he added in the KKK and neo-Nazi and Aryan Nation-type graffiti, it felt right to me and just seemed to fit right in. How do you see it?
Joie: Well, that’s true, it does fit right in. But, I don’t know; I guess I’ve just always looked at it as an afterthought, a way to simply try and clean up the controversy. But what you just said makes a lot of sense too, that it was done as a way to sort of clarify the artist’s intentions. You’re probably right.
Willa: Well, it’s pretty ambiguous. There’s breaking glass throughout Black or White, beginning with the crashing poster and exploding windows in the opening sequence, so the violence of the breaking glass could mean many different things. In fact, the entire panther dance is pretty ambiguous, with so many intriguing elements and so many different ways to approach and interpret them.
It begins with the panther walking down into a basement, just like Michael Jackson’s character does before the first dance sequence in You Rock My World, and in both cases there’s a suggestion that we’re going into subterranean territory both literally and figuratively as well, into the subconscious. He transforms back into a human, and is immediately caught in a spotlight. For me, it doesn’t feel so much like the spotlight of a stage as the spotlight of a prison or an interrogation, and the bars on the windows and over the doorway reinforce that idea. But he strikes a pose in that spotlight nonetheless, with one hand on his crotch. Then he straightens up, stands tall, and a cat jumps out of a garbage can, which is interesting since Michael Jackson is frequently linked to cats symbolically. He was just a panther, after all.
So the cat’s out of the bag, or out of the can, and it feels like some aspect of Michael Jackson himself has been released. He pulls his shirt back like a gunslinger about to enter a duel with the town marshal, and an eerie wind blows past him that seems to suggest he’s entering an alternate space and time. (For example, a similar wind blows past him when he opens the door to Club 30s in Smooth Criminal, a wind that transports him back to Dem Bones Cafe of The Band Wagon.) He begins a dance routine that evokes a long history of dance in the U.S., then he and the panther yowl in unison, and that’s when he begins the segment that had critics in an uproar.
Joie: I like the way you put that, Willa. That some aspect of Michael Jackson himself has been released. And I think you just hit on exactly what it is that I feel whenever I watch the panther dance. You asked me how I interpret it, and you were surprised when I said that I have never ascribed any sort of racial protest to it. But I think you just touched on the reason why. Because to me, it just feels like Michael unchained and free. It is a very passionate, expressive dance sequence in which we are given the pleasure of watching one of the greatest dancers in the world just … let … go! We are treated to four blissful, astounding (and yes, erotic) minutes of Michael Jackson doing what only Michael Jackson can. And to me … there is nothing racially motivated about it. It is beautiful, it is celebratory, it is alive! It is the Eternal Dance of Creation that he talks about over and over again in Dancing the Dream, and it is pure joy to witness!
Willa: Oh I agree with that, Joie! But I also think it’s especially significant because of who he was and the cultural position he occupied.
We live in a very strange age where we as a culture are both over-sexed and overly repressed. It’s a bizarre combination. And I think Michael Jackson felt that much more intensely than most of us because of his unique position as the first black teen idol – a sex symbol who clearly aroused desire in white women, black women, women of many races. That was a potentially explosive situation, and he had to be very careful about how he presented himself in public. He was obviously very sexy on stage, but off stage he made sure that people – white people in particular – felt he was “safe,” asexual. In fact, I remember a Saturday Night Live skit years ago where Eddie Murphy pulled the pants off a Michael Jackson doll and used that as proof that he was literally asexual – without sex organs.
The panther dance feels like a dramatic departure from all that. He’s reclaiming his sexuality – he is black, beautiful, and sexual – but that doesn’t mean he plans to spend a lot of time with groupies. In other words, resisting sexual repression doesn’t seem to mean advocating a life of one-night stands. As he sings in “Superfly Sister,”
Push it in Stick it out That ain’t what it’s all about
So he isn’t talking about mindless sex. As we’ve talked about a couple of times before, he seems to see sexuality as much more than just a physical act. Instead, he seems to be saying that we need to reclaim our sexuality as part of our whole being, so that our sexuality isn’t something that only appears behind closed doors but is integrated with who we are as a person – creatively, emotionally, psychologically.
So to me, when looking at how sexuality is represented in the panther dance, the most significant part isn’t the “release” sequence that got critics in an uproar – though that’s important – but the “integration” sequence that happens immediately after. He’s standing on the sidewalk with that ethereal wind blowing, and the camera zooms past him four times as he repeatedly pushes his hands from his heart to his groin, visually joining them, integrating them.
Joie: Well, that’s an interesting interpretation, Willa. And it seems to me that our ideas are not that far off from each other. You seem to see the panther dance as a bold statement on reclaiming our sexuality. While to me, the panther dance is a very sexually charged, incredible dance sequence. One that Michael Jackson seems to delight in performing. Dancing just for the pure joy of dancing.
Willa: Well, actually, I see reclaiming his sexuality is just one aspect of it – to me, it’s really about reclaiming the entirety of himself and his body, including his sexuality. But I love what you just said, Joie, and I think you’re right, we’re not that far apart, and I think you put your finger right on the central point – it’s joy.
I think that, in the panther dance, we see Michael Jackson pushing back against all the cultural narratives that have been imposed on him and his body – ideas about what it means to be a man (or woman), what it means to be black (or white), what it means to be normal (or abnormal), what it means to cool (or uncool), what it means to be desirable (or not desirable), what it means to be lovable (or unlovable) – a human being worthy (or unworthy) of love. He pushes back so hard he shatters the confining narratives written on his body, just like he shatters the ugly confining narratives written on the glass.
And what we find when we break through all those labels and prejudices and false ideologies is something so simple yet so profound – a person fully inhabiting his body, and finding joy in that. As you said so beautifully, Joie, “It is beautiful, it is celebratory, it is alive! It is the Eternal Dance of Creation.”
Joie: So Willa, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all of the Michael Jackson songs that are still ‘in the vault,’ so to speak. You know, all those as of yet still unreleased tunes that we may or may not ever hear, or the ones that have leaked over the years and sound pretty much finished but, still have never been released on an actual album (I’m thinking specifically of “Slave to the Rhythm” and “Blue Gangsta” here but, there are others). And I wonder if we’ll ever see these songs released on a future posthumous album.
Willa: I don’t know. I sure hope so, though I can understand how the Estate might feel a little cautious after the Michael album and all the controversy that generated. It’s a complicated issue, as we talked about last spring, with knowledgeable, well-intentioned people passionately committed to very different points of view. And really, there are valid arguments pulling me different directions on this.
Joie: I know, me too. Both sides have really wonderful, valid arguments and it’s easy to see the merits of both. And thinking about all of this has made me take a closer look at the material that has been released since Michael’s passing three and a half years ago. Specifically, I’ve been looking at the Michael album and, you know, I can’t blame the Estate for being confused or wary at this point. The fans’ reaction to that album was so split down the middle and so vicious. On one side, you had the fans who really wanted this album and were so looking forward to hearing new, unreleased material in any form. But then on the other side you had the very large faction of fans who vehemently did not want any of Michael’s work to be touched or “finished” by other producers and just wanted the material released ‘as is.’
Willa: And then there are conflicted fans like me who agree with both sides. I think it’s very important that other artists be allowed to reinterpret his work – very important – but I also want to know what his vision was, and what his “unfinished” work sounded like.
Joie: It’s sort of like they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
Willa: But why can’t we have both – new material released “as is,” alongside more polished versions completed by others?
Joie: I don’t know; why can’t we have both? That sounds like a wonderful compromise to me and it gives the fans – all of the fans, from both sides of this issue – exactly what they want. But we’re getting a little sidetracked here.
What I really wanted to talk about is the Michael album. Or rather, a specific song from that album – “Best of Joy.” So, as you know, Willa, this is not only my favorite of the new songs we’ve heard since Michael’s passing, it has quickly become one of my most favorite songs ever. I just love it.
Willa: I know – in fact, I’ve mentally redubbed it “Best of Joie” just because you love it so much….
Joie: It is so special to me for so many reasons. One of which is the fact that it was the last song Michael ever worked on in a studio before he died. I just find that knowledge so touching and so powerful somehow because to me, the lyrics of this song almost sound as if he’s saying goodbye.
I am your joy Your best of joy I am the moonlight You are the spring Our love’s a sacred thing You know I always will love you I am forever I am your friend Through thick and thin We need each other We’ll never part Our love is from the heart We never say I don’t need you We are forever
All through the song, it’s as if he’s reminding us how great his love for us is, and how much we mean to him, and then, with the repeated refrain of “I am forever, we are forever,” it’s like he’s is assuring us that no matter what happens, his love for us will never die. It’s like a line from that old Dylan Thomas poem:
Though lovers be lost, love shall not And death shall have no dominion
Willa: Oh, I love that connection to Dylan Thomas, Joie! And we see that idea of “death shall have no dominion” in a number of Michael Jackson’s songs and films – for example, in “Heaven Can Wait” where he sings, “If the angels came for me, I’d tell them no.”
Joie: Oh, I hadn’t thought of that before, Willa, but you’re right. I guess it is a theme he’s used before. But for some reason, for me at least, “Best of Joy” just really seems to emphasize this theme. Like in “Heaven Can Wait,” he’s telling us a story of two lovers where the man is considering what he would do if death ever tried to part them. But in “Best of Joy,” his tale is more personal somehow. It’s a message that he’s trying urgently to impart before it’s too late.
I am your friend Through thick and thin We need each other… Our love is from the heart… We are forever
It’s like he’s urging us, “Don’t forget! Don’t forget how much I love you, don’t forget how much we’ve meant to each other. Always remember!” Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it because I was grieving the first time the world ever heard this song. Admittedly, I have a very emotional attachment to this song. I have yet to listen to it when I don’t end up in tears.
Willa: It is very powerful, and it’s interesting to me that you see it not just as a love song, but also as a song to his audience. I hadn’t thought about it that way.
Joie: Really? See that’s another reason it stands out to me. Because I really have never thought of it as a love song in the traditional sense at all. Not in a “romantic” kind of way, I mean.
Willa: Oh, I agree. I mean, I can see this song as a romantic tale from one lover to another, but it has always struck me as much more than a romance as well. As we’ve talked about before, Michael Jackson likes to shift the point-of-view so much in his songs, so I always like to ask, Who is the “you” in this song – who exactly is being addressed? And who is the “I” in this song? Who is speaking? Sometimes it seems to be Michael Jackson himself, but sometimes it’s a persona, or another character, or someone very different from Michael Jackson himself. We talked about that with “Money” in a post last fall. We see multiple perspectives frequently in his work, where he adopts the point of view of other characters and speaks with their voice.
I see that in “Best of Joy” also, but with a twist. To me, Michael Jackson is in this song, but he isn’t the “I” – he’s the “you.” In other words, this isn’t a song from him but to him – this is a song of reassurance and caring to him. And the voice singing to him is Music itself. Music was his “friend / through thick and thin.” Music was there for him when everyone else abandoned him, and Music revived him when “nothing would cheer” him. Music was his “Best of Joy”:
I am the one who said that you are free When living seemed so hard to be And nothing would cheer you I am forever Wasn’t it I who carried you around When all the walls came tumbling down? When things would hurt you? I am forever (I am forever) We are forever (we are forever)
Music is forever, music was always there for him, and music is what “carried” him “when all the walls came tumbling down.”
That one line in particular is interesting because it recalls the battle of Jericho. You probably know a lot more about this than I do, Joie, but the story of Jericho is about a “battle” that was won without any fighting. Instead, it was music that made “the walls come tumbling down” – except for one apartment. That part of the wall, that one apartment, was spared. So music won the battle of Jericho without a battle being fought, and music preserved the family in that one apartment “when all the walls came tumbling down.”
I’m not exactly sure why, but I’ve always seen “Best of Joy” as a song from Music to him, a song of reassurance that music will always be there for him. I think maybe it’s because this song reminds me of “Music and Me,” that beautiful song he sang as a 15-year-old boy. It’s another song where he’s singing about a forever friendship, but that friendship isn’t with another person. It’s with Music:
We’re as close as two friends can be There have been others But never two lovers Like music, music and me
Joie: Oh, my God, Willa … I love that interpretation! And it’s funny to me that you’ve centered in on Michael being the “you” in this song because, I’ve often felt that as well. And since becoming friends with you and reading M Poetica, I have learned that there are always many ways to interpret a song. Any song, as long as that interpretation can be supported by the lyrics, it’s valid. So, this song, to me, has many different interpretations, and while I primarily see it as a song from Michael to his audience, I also see it as a song to him, as you just suggested. Only I’ve never thought about Music being the “I” here, until you just said it, and it makes perfect sense. But for me, the “I” in this song was always God.
As we all know, Michael was always a very spiritual, very religious person and he had a long and close relationship with God. And when I think about the song that way, it also makes a lot of sense to me. Those very same lines that you pointed out earlier, have just as much meaning when viewing the song in this context as well:
I am the one who said that you are free When living seemed so hard to be And nothing would cheer you I am forever Wasn’t it I who carried you around When all the walls came tumbling down? When things would hurt you? I am forever (I am forever) We are forever (we are forever)
And you know, I really believe that this interpretation is what resonates so deeply with me and is a big part of the reason that I end up in tears whenever I listen to it. Yes, this song feels like a goodbye to me. As if Michael is saying he has to leave now but for me to remember that he will always love me. But it also makes me think about God, and about my relationship with Him and how good He’s always been to me. It’s a very emotional song for me for both of those reasons.
Willa: Wow, Joie, that’s a really powerful interpretation, and it really opens things up, doesn’t it? Michael Jackson was a very spiritual person, as you say, so that interpretation seems very true to who he was and to his worldview. But putting those two interpretations side by side – that the “I” is God and the “I” is Music – reminds me of something else we’ve talked about a couple of times: that for him, there seemed to be a deep connection between his spiritual life and his creative life. He saw his talents and his creativity as sacred gifts, which he was both thankful for and obligated to. It’s like he felt a sacred trust to use the gifts he had been given to the best of his abilities.
He also frequently talked about how he didn’t really write his songs – that’s not what his creative process felt like to him. Instead, his songs were like gifts from above that fell in his lap, and his role as a songwriter was to be receptive to them. Actually, Gennie sent us an email about this idea just last week: it was a link to a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Love, Pray, where she discusses the creative process. Gilbert’s main point is that the way we tend to conceptualize creativity in the modern world as the work of a solitary genius can be psychologically damaging to artists. So she researched how other cultures have viewed creativity, and she thinks the Greeks and Romans had a much healthier model. As she says,
“Ancient Greece and ancient Rome - people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then. People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source for distant and unknowable reasons.”
This seems very close to Michael Jackson’s idea that his creativity was something that flowed through him, and his role as an artist wasn’t to create works so much as to be receptive to that flow and allow it to express itself through him. Here’s the link Gennie sent us:
Joie: I just love that talk by Ms. Gilbert; it’s very inspiring I think. Something every artist or writer should hear and think about, in my opinion, and ‘thank you’ to Gennie for sending it to us.
But I also agree with you completely here, Willa. That does seem to be extremely close to what we know of Michael Jackson’s creative process and how he felt about it. How many times did we hear him say that he felt as if he couldn’t really take the credit for his songs because he was simply the vessel through which they came?
Willa: Exactly, and apparently that’s a feeling shared by other important modern artists, like John Lennon. In Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus, Joe Vogel says Michael Jackson posted a quotation from John Lennon where he could see it as a reminder to himself while working on “Earth Song”:
“When the real music comes to me,” it read, “the music of the spheres, the music that surpasseth understanding – that has nothing to do with me, ’cause I’m just the channel. The only joy for me is for it to be given to me, and to transcribe it like a medium…. Those moments are what I live for.”
That sounds very similar to Elizabeth Gilbert’s thoughts about creativity as a “divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source,” and it also reminds me of Dancing the Dream. In fact, I think this idea is one of the central themes of Dancing the Dream. As Michael Jackson writes in the preface:
Consciousness expresses itself through creation. This world we live in is the dance of the creator. Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on. On many an occasion when I’m dancing, I’ve felt touched by something sacred. In those moments, I’ve felt my spirit soar and become one with everything that exists. I become the stars and the moon. I become the lover and the beloved. I become the victor and the vanquished. I become the master and the slave. I become the singer and the song. I become the knower and the known. I keep on dancing and then, it is the eternal dance of creation. The creator and creation merge into one wholeness of joy.
I see this idea expressed throughout “Best of Joy” as well, like in the intro lines you quoted earlier:
I am your joy Your best of joy I am the moonlight You are the spring Our love’s a sacred thing You know I always will love you I am forever
When creativity is flowing through him, he becomes “the stars and the moon … the lover and the beloved … the singer and the song,” as he joins “the eternal dance of creation” and “merges into one wholeness of joy” – his “Best of Joy.”
Joie: Oh, that’s a nice interpretation, Willa. I never would have made that connection between “Best of Joy” and the dance before. Very interesting. And you know, I am really sort of anxious to find out what our readers think about “Best of Joy,” and hearing some of their interpretations of this one. It’s a very special little song, in my opinion.
Willa: It really is. To me, the lyrics are like poetry.
I also wanted to let everyone know that the second edition of M Poetica is now available, and you can download it for free today through Monday (January 10 – 14). Amazon gave me the option of letting it be free for up to five days, and I wanted to take advantage of that. I know a lot of our readers already have the first edition, and it didn’t seem fair that they should have to buy it again.
Also, I think a lot of fans have become kind of wary of books claiming to look at Michael Jackson in a positive way, simply because so many of those books have turned out not to be very positive. Frankly, after reading the Boteach book and the Halperin book, I can understand that. So I wanted to give those fans a chance to read it and decide for themselves.
Willa: So Joie, last year at the holidays we did a special post about Michael Jackson’s close connection with childhood and its links to creativity. Now it’s getting to be holiday season again, and I was thinking it would be fun to talk about childhood again.
Joie: It would be fun to talk about childhood again, Willa. And you know, that’s one song/video that we have never really talked about before. I almost don’t know where to begin. I’m kind of excited!
Willa: Oh, “Childhood”? You’re right, we’ve quoted lyrics from it several times, but we haven’t really talked about it in depth. It’s funny – it’s another Michael Jackson song that makes people really uncomfortable, and I’m not exactly sure why. It isn’t angry, like the You Rock My World video. It doesn’t force us to confront “the dark thoughts in your head” like “Threatened” or “Money.” It doesn’t challenge us with difficult social problems like “The Lost Children,” or painful stories like “Little Susie.” It’s just a beautiful song with a beautiful video, but it really bothers some people. I think some non-fans are bothered because they think he isn’t sincere, but I think some fans are bothered because it’s too sincere.
Joie: That’s interesting, Willa, and I can see your point. This song does make some people uncomfortable. And it’s not angry or scary or dark, as you say. But it is sort of ‘in your face,’ in much the same way as those other songs you mentioned. But in a very different, very personal way.
You know, I have been with non-fans when this song has come on and the feeling I get is that it really tends to stop them in their tracks and make them think. They listen to his words and they really think about what it is that he’s asking them to do:
Before you judge me Try hard to love me Look within your heart, then ask … Have you seen my childhood?
And his delivery of this song is so simple and heartfelt, that I think one can’t help but be affected by it – at least for a few fleeting moments – whether you’re a fan or not.
Willa: I think that’s true, Joie, but I also think it’s so heartfelt it’s disconcerting for some listeners. You know, when Dr. Susan Fast joined us a few weeks ago, she mentioned Michael Jackson’s lack of irony, and Eleanor wrote a very interesting response about that:
I have thought about this so much. Michael is not “cool,” he is too hot, he is sincere, he is earnest, he feels deeply the words that he sings. The impact of his work is not cerebral, but visceral. We hear his heartbeat, we feel his heartbeat – he makes us aware of the rhythm of the tide in our own bodies. He is the best at expressing and evoking powerful emotion – and that is what sets him apart – and that is the difference between a great artist and a clever artist. He is not above his topic, commenting on it, he is in it, he is part of it – he is part of “us” in “they don’t care about us.”
It is only after getting a little distance from the emotional impact that one can begin to appreciate the incredible artistry and genius that went into his work. Cerebral artists are so often directing the attention to themselves – “oh, what a clever boy/girl am I” – they are cool observers, outside of and above the fray – but Michael directs the attention to the issue itself – in earth song, in they don’t care about us, etc.
He is not cynical, he wants to heal the world – and, in spite of all, he believes that the world can be healed. He believes in love – not sentimentality. He believes in a deep connection between human beings and he is tapping into that sense of connection. Cerebral artists are often saying “I am not part of this scene, and, if you appreciate my work, you can pat yourself on the shoulder because it means that you, too, are somehow superior.” This is not Michael’s message.
That’s a long quote, but it beautifully expresses some really important ideas, I think. As Eleanor makes clear, irony gives us emotional distance from a topic – a little breathing room – and Michael Jackson doesn’t do that. He does use subtle humor in videos like Beat It, Thriller, Black or White, and Ghosts to lighten the mood, but he doesn’t give us the emotional distance that irony provides. The closest he comes to irony is Leave Me Alone, I think, but that’s unusual for him. In general, he doesn’t let us look at issues dispassionately, from a safe distance. And in works like “Childhood,” especially, I think a lot of listeners would be more comfortable if he did.
But I think Eleanor is expressing something true and important when she says, “He is the best at expressing and evoking powerful emotion – and that is what sets him apart – and that is the difference between a great artist and a clever artist.”
Joie: That is a very interesting quote from Eleanor, Willa, and she’s right. He is the best at expressing and evoking powerful emotion. No one does it better; and I think that’s because he always felt things so deeply himself. In fact, our friend Joe Vogel, writes about this in his book, Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus:
Most people read or watch the news casually, passively. They become numb to the horrifying images and stories projected on the screen. Yet such stories frequently moved Jackson to tears. He internalized them and felt physical pain. When people told him to simply enjoy his own good fortune, he got angry. He believed completely in John Donne’s philosophy that “no man is an island.”
“[For the average person],” he explained, “he sees problems ‘out there’ to be solved … But I don’t feel that way – those problems aren’t ‘out there,’ really. I feel them inside me. A child crying in Ethiopia, a seagull struggling pathetically in an oil spill … a teenage soldier trembling with terror when he hears the planes fly over: Aren’t these happening in me when I see and hear about them?”
Willa: What a great quote, Joie! And when he says, “those problems aren’t ‘out there,’ really. I feel them inside me,” you know it’s true because, through his art, he shares those feelings and we feel them inside ourselves as well. When we listen to songs like “Earth Song” or “They Don’t Care about Us” or “Speechless” or “Childhood,” we feel the pain and anger and joy, the sense of injustice or sense of wonder he’s feeling. That’s what totally captured me when I first heard “Ben” 40 years ago, and it still captivates and moves me.
Joie: Exactly! But I like what you just said about Michael not allowing us to look at issues dispassionately. That is a very true statement. He was never one to beat around the bush in his work, and opted instead for a much more ‘in your face’ approach. And you’re right when you say that with this song in particular – because it is so very personal – that approach probably made most people very uncomfortable. We don’t usually expect our entertainers to open up a vein right in front of us, but that’s exactly what “Childhood” does. Especially in these lyrics:
No one understands me They view it as such strange eccentricities ‘Cause I keep kidding around Like a child, but pardon me People say I’m not okay ‘Cause I love such elementary things It’s been my fate to compensate, For the Childhood I’ve never known
Willa: Wow, that’s a vivid way to describe that, Joie, but I think you’re right – we don’t expect artists to “open up a vein right in front of us,” as you said so well, and it does feel that way. It’s like he’s in deep mourning for “the Childhood / I’ve never known.”
It also feels like he’s trying to answer those who criticize him for “compensating” for his lost childhood, as he put it, and encourage them to try to understand how he feels. And really, what a painful situation that must be, when your deepest hurt is bandied about and criticized in the press.
But, you know, what strikes me when watching the video is that, while the song’s lyrics are intensely personal, the video isn’t. This is another one of those cases where the video expands and complicates the ideas expressed in the song. Listening to this song, we would expect the video to contain footage from 2300 Jackson Street and long hours in the studio at Motown, and maybe scenes from the Jackson 5 on The Ed Sullivan Show. But the video isn’t about his childhood – at least not directly – or even a fictional character’s childhood. It’s more subtle and more complicated than that: it’s about imagination, and about childhood as a time of heightened imagination.
Joie: You know, I was thinking the exact same thing. The video isn’t at all what one would think it would be. And it’s like he purposely went in the opposite direction here, instead of showing us little glimpses into his own imperfect childhood, which is what we would expect. And I think he probably did this simply because the song itself is so personal.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Joie. I hadn’t thought about it that way, and that makes a lot of sense. But I also think he’s trying to express a complex idea that’s very important to him.
In the video we see Michael Jackson sitting alone in a forest, while a flotilla of sailboats full of children sails through the sky overhead. He can see them, but he can’t join them. He remains on the ground. A boy walks up and stands near him, and he sees the children in the sailboats also. One of the children in the boats – an older boy – reaches out his hand, inviting him to join them, and the boy on the ground floats up and climbs on board. But Michael Jackson stays on the ground. He wants to join them – you can sense how desperately he wants to join them – but he can’t, either because he hasn’t been invited, or because he’s outgrown that phase, or because he’s been scarred by the hardships of his life. We don’t know why.
He’s not in a bad place – he’s in a lush, beautiful forest, which is important because he also linked trees to imagination. I’m thinking about his imagination tree at Neverland, where he says he wrote many of his songs. So he’s in a place of imagination and creativity – adult creativity – but its different from the experience the children are having in the sailboats above him. He longs to be in the sailboats but he can’t get there. Unlike the boy who floated up so effortlessly, he’s earthbound.
Joie: That’s a beautiful summation of the video, Willa. And I think you’re right. He obviously wants to join the children desperately but, he isn’t able to. And, like you said, we can interpret that in many ways – he wasn’t invited, he’s outgrown that phase, he’s been scarred by life’s hardships. But it could also be that he isn’t able to join them, not because of any of those factors, but because of “us.” Or maybe more accurately, “them.” I’m not talking about the children, but the people who have criticized him over the years for that compensating that he’s been doing. Perhaps he can’t float up to join the children in the sailboats because he’s weighted down by all the negativity and speculation about the way he lived his life and his closeness to children and his desire and many efforts to hang on to that childlike wonder that was so special and important to him.
Willa: Wow, Joie, I hadn’t thought about that either, but you’re right – he had to be much more careful about interacting with children after the allegations came out, and he also became more self-aware and maybe more self-conscious about his “strange eccentricities,” as he sings in the lyrics you quoted earlier: “People say I’m not okay / ‘Cause I love such elementary things.” So maybe that “negativity” did play a part, as you say.
Joie: And as you said, it’s obvious that he desperately wants to join them, but he’s sad and sort of heartbroken that he isn’t able to.
Willa: Which is odd, because he was so incredibly creative and had such a vivid imagination, even as an adult. If the boats represent being carried away by your imagination, then it seems obvious he should be on board – after all, they’re sailing to the moon, and he’s the Moonwalker! But that isn’t where he positions himself. He places himself on the ground, looking up with longing as they sail by, and I wonder what it is exactly that he thinks he’s missing?
Maybe it isn’t just how imaginative children are, but how fully they enter into the world of imagination. I can remember getting completely lost in books as a kid. I’d get so absorbed in a story that I’d completely tune out everything around me, and when I did “come to,” sometimes I’d discover that the rest of the class was halfway through a spelling test or something like that, and I’d have to scramble to try to catch up. I was completely out of it when I was deep in a book – it really did feel like I was in another world – and it was always disorienting to come back to consciousness in this world. It was just a jolt to suddenly find myself in a world of spelling tests and math quizzes, when I’d been engaging in all sorts of adventures with the characters of a book.
Joie: That is so true, Willa. Children do tend to immerse themselves fully when they play. I can remember being on the playground during recess with my best friend. We must have been in the third or fourth grade at the time, I think. And we were so absorbed in the imaginary world we had created that we didn’t hear the bell ring. And suddenly we look up and our class is nowhere to be seen. They had all gone back inside about twenty minutes before!
Willa: Oh no! Something like that happened to me too and it was really embarrassing, so I know exactly what you mean, Joie. But it’s funny, that doesn’t seem to happen to me so much anymore. I still go off in daydreams sometimes – like I was driving down the highway a couple years ago, and suddenly “woke up” and realized I’d been driving with my head in the clouds and was about 10 miles past my turnoff. So it still happens occasionally, but not so much. Like I love books, but I don’t get so completely absorbed anymore, and I don’t tune out the real world like I once did. Even while reading a great book, I stay aware that I need to pick up my son from swim team practice in 20 minutes, or start supper or fold laundry or whatever, and I don’t get “carried away” in my imagination as fully as I did when I was younger.
So maybe that’s what he’s talking about? Because he had such a fertile imagination even as an adult, and was still intensely creative – far more creative than the average person – and he had to know that.
Joie: Yep, I agree. And as adults, we just have so many responsibilities and other priorities, you know? I mean, as children, our only priority is to figure out the world and we actively search for ways to make that learning process fun. It’s just the nature of a child. But as adults, we don’t always have that luxury because there are so many other things weighing us down, pulling on our time. So maybe that’s why he stays firmly on the ground as all the children float away above him to the moon in the sailboats. Like most adults, he just doesn’t have the time to float away on his imagination anymore.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Joie, and maybe that’s another reason why he felt he didn’t really have a childhood – because he carried the responsibilities of an adult even as a child. His family pretty much became financially dependent on him when he was 10 years old. Just think about that. And there were people at Motown whose jobs were devoted to him, and dependent on him. If he failed to please an audience, they lost their jobs, and he knew that. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a child.
Also if he fell while playing and hurt himself and couldn’t dance, it had big consequences, and he knew that too. So he had to be very careful, even while playing. And his day was so scheduled he wasn’t really free to play or “float away on his imagination,” as you said, even then.
So maybe that’s part of how he compensated as an adult – by giving himself permission to climb trees (how risky!) and have water balloon fights and play with abandon, in a way he couldn’t as a child. And by giving himself time to just float and daydream.
Joie: And maybe that’s the message of this short film, Willa. You know how I like to believe that there is a hidden message or a lesson in every Michael Jackson video?
Joie: Well, maybe that lesson here is that we – adults – need to try and remember what it’s like to get carried away by our imaginations every once in a while. To remember that childlike wonder that’s still there inside each and every one of us, just waiting for the chance to get lost in a book … floating away in a sailboat to the moon.
Willa: Oh, I really like that interpretation, Joie! It feels very true to his vision, I think, and it reminds me of this wonderful final shot of the sailboats:
I love this image – it’s so beautiful, I think – and there’s so much to see in it. The final boat is piloted by a young black boy who keeps his hand very seriously on the tiller, and he really catches my attention for some reason. For one thing, the first time we see him (about 2 minutes into the video) he has a very worried look on his face. None of the other kids seems anxious at all, but he does. Also, he’s alone in his boat while most of the children are in groups of two or three.
But actually, he isn’t alone. He has two cats with him, and he pets them for reassurance. And while that may just be coincidental – after all, one of the other kids has a dog – cats tend to represent something very specific in Michael Jackson’s videos: when he feels the need to escape, he disappears and a cat appears. For example, when a reporter closes in on Michael Jackson’s character in Billie Jean, he disappears and a tiger appears. When the king’s guards have him surrounded in Remember the Time, he turns into a swirling pile of sand and blows away, and then a cat comes and stands where that transformation took place. When he is feeling oppressed by racism in Black or White, he transforms into a black panther. Because that is such a common motif in his videos, it seems significant to me that this fearful young boy has two cats accompanying him, giving him comfort. So maybe Michael Jackson himself can’t join him in the sailboat, but his totem animal can?
Joie: Wow! That’s an interesting observation, Willa. I’ve never noticed that before but, I think you may be on to something there.
Willa: It does seem significant, doesn’t it? Maybe it isn’t, but it feels significant to me. And then the children are all sailing to the moon, which is metaphorically linked to Michael Jackson as well – in titles like Moonwalk and Moonwalker, obviously, but also more subtly in key scenes in Moonwalker, and in Dancing the Dream as well. In “Dance of Life,” the moon comforts him, like a mother, but also inspires him and encourages him to dance, like a muse.
So while we don’t see Michael Jackson in embodied form in this beautiful final shot of the sailboats floating to the moon, we hear his music and sense his spirit and influence throughout.
Joie: You’re right, Willa, we do ‘sense his spirit thoughout.’ Both in the short film and in the song itself. And, in fact, we ‘sense his spirit’ a lot … in everything he did. It’s in every song and video, every dance routine and live performance. You can feel it in every poem and reflection between the pages of Dancing the Dream. His spirit can be felt in every project he ever presented to the world.
So, Willa and I want to take a moment and say thank you for all of your continuing support, and we want to wish each and every one of you a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukka, Happy Kwansa and our best wishes for a wonderful New Year. Happy Holidays to one and all!
Willa: I would also like to ask a big favor. I’m hoping to publish a second edition of M Poetica with bibliographic notes and web links, and some images and information that weren’t available when it was first published in 2011. I’d also like to fix as many errors and typos as possible, so if you’ve read M Poetica and noticed mistakes, I’d love to hear from you. Just send your corrections to email@example.com. Thank you!
Joie: A couple of weeks ago, Willa and I took a really fun look at Michael’s mention of The Force in the song “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” and that discussion led us to take a peek at Dancing the Dream, Michael’s book of poems and reflections. And it was so difficult for me not to completely lose track of time and focus as I was flipping through that book for The Force because it’s just so wonderful, and I kept finding myself engrossed in his words. And Willa expressed a similar sentiment when we talked about it so, we knew that we had to have a conversation about this incredible book.
You know, Willa, I have to say that I absolutely love this book so much. And as I was reading it this week, I came to the realization that, as much as I truly love the music and as much as the music means to me – and believe me, it means everything – I really cherish this book just as much, if not more. Dancing the Dream was released really quietly in June of 1992 as a follow up to his autobiography, Moonwalk (1988). It didn’t receive a whole lot of attention and in the only interview Michael did to promote it, he described it as, “Just a verbal expression of what I usually express through my music and my dance.” And that is the feeling that I get whenever I flip through this book. Open it up to any one of the poems or essays and it is very easy to imagine the words he has written in those pages set to music.
Willa: I agree, and I think Michael Jackson himself emphasizes that by including the lyrics to “Heal the World” and “Will You Be There,” along with images from his concerts and videos. By interspersing these throughout the book, he seems to be showing that his stories and poetry aren’t something separate from the work he’s usually known for. They’re all interconnected: his poetry and songs, his drawings and videos, his dancing and his body, the entirety of his musical and visual art.
Joie: Each poem and essay is a beautifully written, honest expression of what was in his heart. All the same love and passion he poured into every song and every dance is all right there between those pages. All the concern for the environment, all the compassion and love for humanity, all the wonder of magic and spirituality. I really get a sense that these are his deepest, innermost thoughts – his hopes and dreams for the planet and human kind – and I find it both fascinating and bittersweet in a way.
Willa: Joie, you just touched on something so important, I think, when you talked about “all the love and passion he poured into every song and every dance.” When we were talking about “Don’t Stop” a couple weeks ago and his ideas about the Dance of Creation, I kept feeling that, for him, his creativity and his spirituality have a very physical dimension, and they’re closely connected with dance and sexual energy as well. I wasn’t able to express myself very well about that, and I’m still struggling to put what I feel into words. But I think they are so deeply connected for him because they are all expressions of love and passion: creative passion, sexual passion, spiritual passion, and above all, compassion. They’re all intertwined for him, and all expressions of “the eternal dance of creation.”
Joie: Willa, I think I understand what you’re trying to get at here and you’re right, it does feel as if it’s all intricately interwoven for him because, as you say, they are all expressions of love and passion. It makes me think of his words in “Love,” one of the essays from Dancing the Dream, where he says,
“When it’s allowed to be free, love is what makes life alive, joyful, and new. It’s the juice and energy that motivates my music, my dancing, everything. As long as love is in my heart, it’s everywhere.”
For him love is the energy that motivates … everything! You know, Willa, the more we talk about this book and the more I read and re-read each poem and essay, the more it reinforces that idea that this book is really just a physical representation of his heart. Love – in all its forms – was the motivating factor in everything he did … in every song he wrote, in every note he sang, in every dance move his body executed, in every charity and humanitarian cause he supported. And this book is a physical manifestation of that.
Willa: I really feel that too, Joie. You know, talking about love tends to make us uncomfortable. But as you say, “Love – in all its forms – was the motivating factor in everything he did.” It’s the energy that powers him, the light that guides him, the warmth that comforts him and makes him strong. But as he also emphasizes throughout this book, before we can really love others, we have to know ourselves. And that means fully embracing our strengths and our talents, which can be even more difficult than acknowledging our weaknesses.
Have you ever had the feeling that an idea – something important – is nudging you at the edge of your brain, and you can’t seem to ignore it but you can’t quite grasp it either? I’ve had that feeling ever since we started talking about The Force and the Dance of Creation – that there’s something very important and powerful here, but I’m not quite able to see it or understand it yet. And I think it ties in with a quote from Marianne Williamson that was posted at my son’s Montessori school:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Joie: That is such a beautiful and inspiring quote!
Willa: Isn’t it wonderful? I used to read it every day when I picked my son up from school, and it resonated so deeply with me. I know that fear of being too powerful, too visible, too vocal, too much. I think a lot of people, women especially, experience that fear. But “playing small does not serve the world.” As she says, “We are all meant to shine, as children do.”
I see Michael Jackson expressing very similar ideas throughout Dancing the Dream. And he isn’t talking about being pushy and aggressive. People who worked with him often mention his genuine humility and gentle nature. He’s talking about knowing your strengths and talents, and fully inhabiting them. As he says in “Heaven is Here,” one of my favorite poems from Dancing the Dream,
Don’t be afraid To know who you are You are much more Than you ever imagined
Michael Jackson wasn’t just an amazing artist; he was a tremendously powerful cultural figure. And he was powerful because he knew who he was.
He also wasn’t afraid to reveal who he was. He was a wonderfully gifted child who confidently walked on stage when everyone knew a child couldn’t possibly sing and dance that way. He became the most successful recording artist of all time when everyone knew that child stars flame out into drug-addled adults. He was an incredibly sexy Black man at a time when everyone knew Black men had to hide their sexuality so they wouldn’t be too threatening. He changed the signifiers of his race when everyone knew that was impossible. He was the most important artist of our time when everyone knew pop stars were too shallow to create serious art. And he captured the imaginations of billions of people around the world because he knew who he was.
And he didn’t let anyone else define who he was. Whenever I read mainstream articles about him, I’m constantly struck by how outraged they are that he wasn’t conforming to their expectations. He did not conform. He was wonderfully and uniquely himself. He knew who he was and what he believed, he held true to that vision, and he changed the world.
Joie: That’s a really profound way to put that, Willa and you’re absolutely right. He did know exactly who he was and he wasn’t afraid to show it. And because of all those things you just mentioned, and more, I have always thought of him as one of the most courageous people ever to grace this planet. And what you just said reminds me of what he says in “Courage,” another of his essays from Dancing the Dream that I know you and I both love. He says this:
“When you have the courage to be intimate, you know who you are, and you’re willing to let others see that. It’s scary, because you feel so vulnerable, so open to rejection. But without self-acceptance, the other kind of courage, the kind heroes show in movies, seems hollow. In spite of the risks, the courage to be honest and intimate opens the way to self-discovery. It offers what we all want, the promise of love.”
The courage to know who you are and to let others see it. So just like in the poem, “Heaven is Here,” he repeats this idea in the essay “Courage.” That tells me it was a concept that meant a lot to him – this idea of being true to yourself and knowing who you are.
Willa: I love “Courage,” especially the passage you just quoted. It expresses his ideas so simply yet powerfully, but that doesn’t mean these are simple ideas. As he explains,
“Expressing your feelings is not the same as falling apart in front of someone else – it’s being accepting and true to your heart, whatever it may say.”
That’s a really important distinction. He’s not talking about being a basket case and “falling apart in front of someone,” and letting your fears and emotions rule you. Not at all. That isn’t what he means by “the courage to express true feelings.” He’s talking about self-knowledge, about knowing who you are and having the courage to be honest and “true to your heart” – true to yourself and your convictions.
Joie: Exactly! He echoes it again in the essay “Trust” when he says,
“In accepting yourself completely, trust becomes complete. There is no longer any separation between people, because there is no longer any separation inside. In the space where fear used to live, love is allowed to grow.”
Willa: Oh, I love that! I think a lot of times we’re guided by fear that other people won’t like the person we are, so we pretend to be something we’re not, and then we’re governed by fear that we’ll be found out. But if we can accept the person we are, that fear goes away and, as he says, “In the space where fear used to live, love is allowed to grow.” I really believe that’s true.
Joie: This idea of knowing who you are is one of the central themes that runs throughout the book.
Willa: I agree. He repeatedly talks about the importance of being honest with ourselves and cultivating self-knowledge, not just for our own benefit but for the benefit of all. He repeats this idea and shows the global implications in “That One in the Mirror”:
The pain of life touches me, but the joy of life is so much stronger. And it alone will heal. Life is the healer of life, and the most I can do for the earth is to be its loving child.
That one in the mirror winced and squirmed. He hadn’t thought so much about love. Seeing “problems” was much easier, because love means complete self-honesty. Ouch! …
Would that change the world? I think it will, because Mother Earth wants us to be happy and to love her as we tend her needs. She needs fearless people on her side, whose courage comes from being part of her. … When that one in the mirror is full of love for me and for him, there is no room for fear. When we were afraid and panicky, we stopped loving this life of ours and this earth. We disconnected. …
One thing I know: I never feel alone when I am earth’s child.
Joie: Willa, I just love that! That passage you just cited makes me think of the lyrics to the song “Shout” when he says, “We’re disconnected from love / We’re disrespecting each other / Whatever happened to protecting each other?” I think he is referring to the same thing here. Being disconnected from love – love of the planet and love of each other. If we could return to that connection, would it change the world? Michael believed it would.
And, you know, another central theme of this book is the idea that we are all connected to each other and to the planet, and we explored this aspect of Dancing the Dream in detail during our discussion of The Force a couple of weeks ago. But there is another theme that runs throughout the book that I find just as compelling as the first two we’ve touched on – spirituality. He touches on it in several poems and essays throughout the book. But there are two that really stand out for me. The first is “God” and the other is “Two Birds.”
In “God,” he addresses the topic of spirituality head on when he says,
“It’s strange that God doesn’t mind expressing Himself / Herself in all the religions of the world, while people still cling to the notion that their way is the only right way. Whatever you try to say about God, someone will take offense, even if you say everyone’s love of God is right for them.”
I think this is such a brutally honest statement. So simple and yet, so true. And it says so much about our collective view of God and spirituality. Basically, it is a very personal choice and none of us has a right to condemn anyone else if their views of God are different from our own. But yet, this happens over and over again in our society and in every culture in the world. And I think including this essay in his book was a very courageous thing for him to do.
In “Two Birds” he goes about it in a much more subtle way as he writes a love poem to his soul. He says,
“Two birds sit in a tree. One eats cherries, while the other looks on. Two birds fly through the air. One’s song drops like crystal from the sky while the other keeps silent. Two birds wheel in the sun. One catches the light on its silver feathers, while the other spreads wings of invisibility.
It’s easy to guess which bird I am, but they’ll never find you….
Sweet bird, my soul, your silence is so precious. How long will it be before the world hears your song in mine?
Oh, that is a day I hunger for!”
Willa: This is such an interesting image to me, Joie. We see him wrestling with the idea of his public and private selves throughout his work, but he presents it in such a different way here – as two birds. One has a physical presence: it eats, it sings, it reflects light from its feathers. The other does not: it doesn’t eat, it doesn’t sing, and sunlight passes through its invisible wings. One bird – his public self – is easily seen. The other – his private self, his “soul” – is much more difficult to perceive. But he yearns for the day when both are recognized: when “the world hears your song in mine.” That is such a lovely image, especially the suggestion that his music – the invisible bird’s “song” – is the expression of his soul.
Joie: I agree.
Willa: He builds on this idea in “A Child is a Song,” and expands it to encompass us all:
“Even if you have never written a song, your life is a song. … To live is to be musical, starting with the blood dancing in your veins. Everything living has its rhythm. To feel each one, softly and attentively, brings out its music.
Do you feel your music?
Children do, but once we grow up, life becomes a burden and a chore, and the music grows fainter. …
When I begin to feel a little tired or burdened, children revive me. I turn to them for life, for new music. Two brown eyes look at me so deeply, so innocently, and inside I murmur, ‘This child is a song.’ It is so true and direct … I am back to myself once more.”
Joie: Willa, I love when he says, “To live is to be musical.” Something about that phrase is very lyrical and poetic to me. How many people would think about the very blood flowing through our bodies as being musical? I find that fascinating!
You know, we’ve talked about all the different themes of this book – the idea that we are all connected, the belief that we must strive to know and accept who we are, and the theme of spirituality. And he connects each of these themes with love. The various expressions of love and passion that you mentioned earlier – creative passion, sexual passion, spiritual passion, compassion. All various forms of love. But it strikes me that there is one form of love that is not really a central theme of this book. Romantic love.
Now, that’s not to say it’s completely absent; he does touch on it, but only twice. First in an essay called “The Last Tear,” and then again in “I, You, We.”
In the first, he describes a horrible fight between two lovers that leaves one of them shouting, “Get out! These are the last tears I’ll ever cry for you.” And in his heartbreak, he waits and waits for her to return, all the while crying tears of frustration, tears of loneliness and tears of despair. But suddenly, he has one thought of love and everything changes. He says,
“How strange that all these tears could not wash away the hurt! Then one thought of love pierced my bitterness. I remembered you in the sunlight, with a smile as sweet as May wine. A tear of gratitude started to fall, and miraculously, you were back.”
Then in “I, You, We,” he says,
“How I love this mystery called We! … We must be love’s favorite child, because until I reach out for you, We is not even there. It arrives on the wings of tenderness; it speaks through our silent understanding. When I laugh at myself, it smiles. When I forgive you, it dances in jubilation. … We is not a choice anymore, not if you and I want to grow with one another. … The truth is that you and I would have given up long ago, but We won’t let us. It’s too wise.”
I find it really interesting that in the only two works where he touches on romantic love, he is describing how to either repair that love when it cracks or how to keep it intact in the first place.
Willa: Well, depending on how you interpret his words, romantic love does appear other places. For example, I think he touches on it in “Courage.” That may sound like an unlikely title for an essay on love, but for me it’s the most romantic of all because he’s talking about “the courage to be intimate.” As you quoted earlier, Joie, “When you have the courage to be intimate, you know who you are, and you’re willing to let others see that.”
Joie: That’s interesting, Willa. I’ve never really thought about “Courage” as being romantic but I suppose I can understand since he is talking about having the courage to be emotionally intimate with someone else. And, just like with his songs and his short films, his poems and essays can have multiple interpretations as well so, I think that makes perfect sense.
Willa: You’re right, it can be interpreted different ways, and actually, I think it’s too limiting to read “Courage” as applying only to romantic love. The need for the “courage to be intimate” is certainly true of romantic relationships, but it’s true of other relationships as well – in fact, of all genuine human relationships. In many ways, I see this “courage to be intimate” – to “know who you are, and … let others see that” – as the central idea of Dancing the Dream.
You know, Joie, Michael Jackson is such a miracle of fire and ice to me – so gentle and yet so strong. In his work I see an exquisite sensitivity, but in his life I see an incredible strength. Over and over again he withstood trials no one should have to face. He walked through one firestorm after another. He’s so sensitive and gentle; yet so strong. That seems so contradictory – like fire and ice – but they coexisted in him. How is that possible? I think the key to that mystery is written in this book.
Joie: I agree with you completely, Willa. He really was very contradictory at times. Such innocent, child-like wonder juxtaposed with such a worldly, intelligent maturity. So painfully shy around strangers but yet, such a commanding presence when on stage.
Willa: That’s true. Many different contradictions coexist within him.
So the Michael Jackson Academia Project just released a new two-part video on the HIStory album, and we thought we’d conclude by sharing them. Here’s Chapter One:
And here’s Chapter Two:
Willa: Last week, Joie and I treated ourselves to a really fun look back at Off the Wall. So of course I had to listen to “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough” over and over again – strictly for research purposes only, I promise! It had nothing whatsoever to do with that amazing low voice that interjects in the middle of the line throughout the first and second verses….
Joie: Yeah, whatever you need to tell yourself, my friend.
Willa: Well, you know, just trying to make us look professional – keeping up appearances and all that. Which isn’t easy to do with my brain full of hot lyrics from one of his steamiest songs ever, as you so kindly quoted last week: “I’m melting (I’m melting now) like hot candle wax.” Yi yi yi.
So anyway, I was listening to “Don’t Stop” over and over again for professional reasons, and also listened to the demo version he recorded at home with Randy and Janet. And it’s truly amazing – you can hear how fully developed that song was before he even brought it in to Quincy Jones. All the major elements are already there. But there is one very noticeable difference between the original demo and the recorded version. In the demo, he sings this couplet throughout the song:
Keep on with your heart, don’t stop Don’t stop til you get enough
But by the time the recorded version was released, he’d made a small but notable change:
Keep on with the force, don’t stop Don’t stop til you get enough
So that started me wondering – what does he mean by “the force”?
Joie: Willa, that is a really interesting observation. And because I am a little bit of a science fiction geek, I feel compelled to point out the obvious here and say that this album came out in the summer of 1979 and, just two years earlier in ’77, one of the greatest films of all time was released – Star Wars!
Willa: You know, I was hesitant to make that leap, but I was kind of thinking the same thing. What do you make of that?
Joie: Well, Star Wars was an immediate classic. People were so obsessed with this film that even the technical crew who worked on it were routinely asked for their autographs. I can remember going to see this movie for the first time. I was about eight years old and I went to the movie with my best friend Deron and his dad.
Willa: You were eight? I was in high school. I keep forgetting how young you are.
Joie: Aww, you say the sweetest things! But honestly though, when I look back on it, it really seems like I was older than that but, I started doing the math and yeah … I was only eight – about to turn nine! Which makes sense because I was 11 when Off the Wall came out.
But anyway, when we pulled into the theater parking lot, there was literally a line of people wrapped around the building. And they were all there to see Star Wars! It was unreal. That was the first time I had ever seen anything like that.
Star Wars was a real cultural phenomenon. It broke all box office records at the time and it remains one of the most successful films ever. I mean, it was huge! So, after its release you had people all over the country – probably all over the world – quoting lines from the movie, saying things like, “help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope,” and “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” and – oh, and this is the big one – “may The Force be with you.” People everywhere were suddenly talking about “The Force.” And if you ask someone – anyone – who was alive when the original Star Wars movie came out about “The Force,” they would know exactly what you meant.
So … I’m just going to go out on a limb here and suggest that maybe “the force” that Michael is talking about in “Don’t Stop” has something to do, at least in the abstract, with “The Force” that George Lucas envisioned in the Star Wars saga. In the movie, Jedi master, Ben ‘Obi-Wan’ Kenobi describes The Force in this way:
“Well, The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”
This idea that The Force is an energy field created by all living things, and binding us all together as one, is a concept that I can see Michael embracing. It’s sort of an extension of the message that he had already been singing about for years. If you think about it, it’s the same message from Can You Feel It, where he points out that we are all the same; we are all connected. “Yes the blood inside of me is inside of you.”
Willa: Joie, I love the direction you took this, and I agree, when you look at it this way there are so many connections to Michael Jackson. He’s not talking about grabbing a light saber and fighting the Empire, of course. But if we look at it “in the abstract,” as you say, there do seem to be a lot of parallels between George Lucas’ ideas of the Force as “an energy field created by all living things” that “binds the galaxy together,” and Michael Jackson’s ideas about an “eternal dance of creation.”
In fact, this idea of an “eternal dance” that connects us to each other, to all living things, and to the cosmos is one of the central themes of Michael Jackson’s 1992 book of poetry and essays, Dancing the Dream, as he writes in the preface:
Consciousness expresses itself through creation. This world we live in is the dance of the creator. Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on. On many an occasion when I’m dancing, I’ve felt touched by something sacred. In those moments, I’ve felt my spirit soar and become one with everything that exists. I become the stars and the moon. I become the lover and the beloved. I become the victor and the vanquished. I become the master and the slave. I become the singer and the song. I become the knower and the known. I keep on dancing and then, it is the eternal dance of creation. The creator and creation merge into one wholeness of joy.
To me, this idea that he can “become one with everything that exists” is very similar to Ben Kenobi’s description of the Force as something that “surrounds us and penetrates us,” as you quoted above. And it’s very important, I think, that he achieves this state through dance. It’s “when I’m dancing” that he joins “the eternal dance of creation,” and that’s when, he says, “The creator and creation merge into one wholeness of joy.”
Joie: I agree with you, Willa, it is one of the central themes of Dancing the Dream, this notion that we are all connected. And he mentions that eternal “Dance of Creation” several times in the book. In “Heaven is Here,” one of the poems from that book, he says:
Come, let us dance The Dance of Creation Let us celebrate The Joy of Life
This idea that we are all connected was obviously very important to him as he writes about it over and over again. Later in that same poem, he goes on to say:
You are the Sun You are the Moon You are the wildflower in bloom You are the Life-throb That pulsates, dances From a speck of dust To the most distant star And you and I Were never separate It’s an illusion Wrought by the magical lens of Perception
So, he’s telling us that everything – all life, all living creatures, the plants, the dust even – everything is connected.
Willa: I’m so glad you quoted this poem, Joie, because it’s one of my favorites from Dancing the Dream, and it really highlights the connections between us all. And as we see in the last stanza you quoted, it also connects this with the faulty nature of perception, which is another central belief for both Michael Jackson and George Lucas.
There’s a wonderful scene in Star Wars where Luke is first learning to use The Force. He’s trying out the light saber Ben gave him but he’s having trouble so, ironically, Ben blocks his vision. Ben then tells him,
“I suggest you try it again, Luke. But this time let go of your conscious self and act on instinct.”
Luke protests, “But … I can’t even see. How am I supposed to fight?”
Ben replies, “Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them. Stretch out with your feelings.”
We see this idea that “Your eyes can deceive you” repeated throughout Michael Jackson’s work as well, from videos like Who Is It to the passages you quoted from “Heaven is Here.” In this poem, he tells us that the belief that we are separate is wrong, a misperception – or as he says, “an illusion / Wrought by the magical lens of / Perception.” If we follow Ben’s advice to “let go of your conscious self” and “stretch out with your feelings,” we realize that “you and I / Were never separate / It’s an illusion,” as Michael Jackson tells us.
Joie: We are all one with each other and the universe. And interestingly, this is an idea that we tend to think of as a tenet of Buddhism or Hinduism or some other eastern religion. It sounds sort of “new agey” or “metaphysical” but, it actually has really sound principles behind it. It’s a prevailing notion in the realm of faith healing and also in the world of science as this video from Symphony of Science points out:
As Neil deGrasse Tyson says in the video,
We are all connected To each other, biologically To the earth, chemically To the rest of the universe, atomically
Willa: My son and I love Neil deGrasse Tyson! He has a PhD in astrophysics from Columbia University, but he combines that strong background in science with a poetic sensibility, so he can explain the chemistry of the cosmos in both clear scientific and beautifully poetic ways. As Tyson tells us in his Origins series, our bodies are composed of chemical elements like carbon, oxygen, and iron, and as he explains, those elements were forged in the fiery interior of stars. So literally, “We are all stardust,” as Tyson tells us, with “carbon in our bodies, iron in our blood, calcium in our bones. Every last atom was formed in a star.”
This really connects with Michael Jackson’s ideas that you quoted earlier, Joie, from “Heaven is Here”:
You are the Life-throb That pulsates, dances From a speck of dust To the most distant star
And importantly, as this poem emphasizes, for Michael Jackson this is a dynamic process that encompasses our movement as well as our substance. So not only are we formed of “stardust,” as Neil deGrasse Tyson says, but we are part of a “Dance of Creation” that connects our actions with the rhythms of the universe.
We see this in his ideas about songwriting as well. As Joe Vogel emphasizes in Man in the Music, Michael Jackson believed you had to “let the music create itself.” And when Joe talked with us last fall, he linked that to how the Romantics described artistic inspiration:
“A common metaphor in Romantic poetry is the Aeolian harp: When the wind blows, the music comes. You don’t force it. You wait for it. …
Michael believed strongly in that principle. … Another metaphor he liked to use to illustrate his creative process is Michelangelo’s philosophy that inside every piece of marble or stone is a “sleeping form.” His job as an artist, then, was to chip away, sculpt, polish, until he “freed” what was latent. So it requires a great deal of work. You might have a vision of what it should look like, but you have to be in tune throughout the process and you have to work hard to realize it.”
This reminds me again of that scene in Star Wars where Luke is first learning to use The Force by trying out his light saber with his eyes covered. Ben tells him:
“Remember, a Jedi can feel The Force flowing through him.”
“You mean, it controls your actions?” Luke asks.
“Partially, but it also obeys your commands,” Ben says.
So Michael Jackson felt you should let creativity flow through you unimpeded, just as Ben says that “a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.” But still, an artist isn’t passive in the creative process – not at all. As Joe says, “You might have a vision of what it should look like, but you have to be in tune throughout the process and you have to work hard to realize it.” Or as Luke and Ben say in their conversation about the Force, it both “controls your actions” as well as “obeys your commands.”
Joie: You know, Willa, what you just said here makes me think of all the times we heard Michael talk about writing music. How many times did we hear him say things like, “don’t write the song, let the song write itself,” or “I just step into it.” I love that essay from Dancing the Dream called “How I Make Music” where he says,
People ask me how I make music. I tell them I just step into it. It’s like stepping into a river and joining the flow. Every moment in the river has its song. So I stay in the moment and listen…. When you join the flow, the music is inside and outside, and both are the same. As long as I can listen to the moment, I’ll always have music.
This is very similar to the Jedi master’s instruction to “feel The Force flowing through him.”
Willa: I agree, and that is such a beautiful image of “stepping into” the music. But you know, the more we talk about this, the more I see some very real differences between George Lucas’ ideas and Michael Jackson’s. For one thing, the Jedi experience The Force primarily as a spiritual feeling, but with Michael Jackson, it’s much more than that. It’s very physical also. He feels most connected to it when he’s dancing – it is literally “a Dance of Creation” – and in “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough,” he suggests it’s tied in with sexual energy as well.
And this brings us back to that line you quoted last week, Joie: “I melting (I’m melting now) like hot candle wax.” As you know, that line has been getting me hot and bothered for 30 years now, and I’ve really been thinking about that a lot the past couple of weeks and trying to figure out why.
One thing that strikes me is that it’s radically different from how guys usually talk about sex. Women might melt, but guys don’t. I’ve heard guys use a lot of different metaphors when singing about sex, and no matter what genre you listen to – rock or hip hop or blues or even folk songs – there’s no melting. Definitely no melting. It seems like they’re all trying to be Sir Lancelot.
Joie: You know, my brother is a very macho sort of guy – I’m talking 6’1″, 200 lbs. of pure muscle. And he lifts weights and works out a lot so, he’s quite imposing. However, he’s also very sensitive, kind of like Michael. And he’s also a Virgo, astrologically speaking – also like Michael. And when he’s in love, he can be very mushy. I have heard him talk about melting, believe it or not. So I think maybe men do melt. It’s just that the majority of them don’t want to advertise that fact because it’s not usually thought of as a macho thing to do.
Willa: I’m so glad you mentioned that, Joie, because I know there are compassionate, sensitive, gentle men in the world. I know that’s true from my own household. But I’m talking about something very specific: the way male sexuality is represented – and misrepresented – in popular music. Female sexuality is misrepresented as well. Based on popular music, you’d think all women were either completely passive to the point of invisibility or take-charge vixens in mini skirts. There’s no middle ground, and I know that’s not true. And male sexuality tends to be represented in song in pretty rigid, even aggressive ways.
And then in the midst of all this hard, unyielding hyper-masculinity, here’s Michael Jackson “melting like hot candle wax,” and it’s so erotic I still catch my breath every time I hear it. It’s such a different way of expressing male sexuality. But it also feels so natural. The mood of “Don’t Stop” is playful and joyous and exuberant, as well as wonderfully sexy and relaxed – just a natural expression of his personality.
I have to say, this image of him melting with passion is incredibly evocative to me. It’s like his autonomous self is melting and he’s merging with the one he loves: physically, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically. That’s just so beautiful to me, and it ties in very strongly with his ideas about “the Dance of Creation.” His sexuality isn’t compartmentalized to something that only happens behind closed doors. It’s an essential part of who he is, and so his sexuality naturally manifests itself through his music and dance and everything he does. So I think that, for him, this “Dance of Creation” is both spiritual – a philosophical belief and a powerful creative force – as well as very physical.
Joie: Wow. Ok, Willa, all this talk about how erotic that “melting” line is … is really … distracting. Hey, is it just me or have we both been … distracted … a lot lately?
Willa: No, I think you’re right. Maybe it’s spring fever.
Joie: Maybe it’s Michael fever. Anyway, I agree with you that in “Don’t Stop” he is suggesting that The Force is tied in with sexual energy, but I also think he’s suggesting more than that as well. Twice in the song he says this:
So let love (oh, let love) Take us through the hours I won’t be complainin’ ‘Cause this is love power
That ‘love power’ as he calls it, is actually the very thing that the Jedi master is describing to his student. It is that energy “that binds the galaxy together,” that “something sacred” that Michael feels touched by when he’s dancing. The ‘love power’ is The Force! So, while it is a very physical phenomenon for Michael, I believe it is first and foremost very spiritual for him. As Michael himself once told us about songwriting,
“It’s the most spiritual thing in the world. When it comes, it comes with all the accompaniments – the strings, the bass, the drums, the lyrics. And you’re just the medium through which it comes, the channel. Sometimes I feel guilty putting my name on songs, ‘written by MJ,’ because it’s as if the heavens have done it already.”
And he echoes this spiritual component to songwriting in another of his essays from Dancing the Dream called simply, “God.”
“For me the form God takes is not the most important thing. What’s most important is the essence. My songs and dances are outlines for Him to come in and fill. I hold out the form, She puts in the sweetness.”
And in this same essay, he also repeats that central theme of everything being connected, and the creator and the creation merging “into one wholeness of joy” as he says,
“But for me the sweetest contact with God has no form. I close my eyes, look within, and enter a deep soft silence. The infinity of God’s creation embraces me. We are one.”
Again, we are one. We are all connected. “The creator and creation merge into one wholeness of joy.” With that statement, he could be referring to himself as the creator, and the creation is the song, or the dance, or the performance, etc. And I’m sure he probably did feel that way. But I also get the sense that he was definitely referring to God as the creator, and the creation is the earth, and the heavens, and humankind – all those living things that are connected and bound together by the force. “This world we live in is the dance of the creator.”
Willa: Joie, that’s beautiful, and it wonderfully expresses that idea that Michael Jackson shared with us so often, through music and dance, through poetry and spoken words, through his actions and beliefs, through his very being. As you say, “We are one. We are all connected.” We are all part of the Dance of Creation. What a simple yet powerful message.
So something really fun is happening next week: Joe Vogel and Charles Thomson are joining us for a roundtable discussion about Michael Jackson as a songwriter. Joie and I are really looking forward to it, so be sure to check back again next week. We’ve also added a few things to the Reading Room including those wonderful videos from the MJ Academia Project, several really insightful articles by Charles about media coverage of Michael Jackson, and a wonderful new article by Joe, “The Misunderstood Power of Michael Jackson’s Music,” so you may want to go visit and browse around a bit.
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!