Willa: Joie, I know we’ve tended to stay away from breaking news and sensationalized stories, with good reason. It’s all too easy to get caught up on the rollercoaster of rumor and innuendo and pseudo news, and lose sight of the big picture. In general, I think it’s much better to focus on Michael Jackson’s art and let the sensationalism wear itself out.
Joie: I couldn’t agree more.
Willa: But one interesting aspect of Michael Jackson’s art is that he wrestled with complex issues like mass media, public perception, and prejudice, and the complicated interconnections between them. And something happened last week that really underscored that for me. Wade Robson’s lawyer, Henry Gradstein, said in a prepared statement that “Michael Jackson was a monster, and in their hearts every normal person knows it.”
Joie, how many times did Michael Jackson warn us about this – about “normal people” becoming fearful of those who are different, and imagining they’re “monsters” because of that fear? That’s the central plot of Ghosts. (I can actually close my eyes and imagine the Mayor saying Gradstein’s words during that long speech when he’s confronting the Maestro: “We have a nice normal town, normal people, normal kids. We don’t need freaks like you. …”) He addresses that fear in Thriller as well – in fact, it provides the psychological underpinnings of that short film. Thriller “works” because it taps into that fear. And that’s exactly what he’s talking about in “Is It Scary,” “Threatened,” and “Monster” as well.
Joie: You know, Willa, it’s still so shocking to me that people feel that way about him. I mean, it’s one thing to jump on the bandwagon and badmouth someone when everybody else seems to be doing it too. But to attack someone after they’re gone in such a vicious manner … I was just really shocked when I read that quote last week. In fact, I think I still am.
But to get back to what you just said, you’re absolutely right. Michael addressed this very topic over and over and over again. It’s almost as if it was constantly at the forefront of his mind and his imagination. And if you think about it, I’m sure it probably was. I mean, after all, it was a subject he just couldn’t seem to get away from. It was, quite literally, “the story of his life.” And I just think it’s so sad. When you first proposed this topic for this week’s post, the lyrics to “Monster” came immediately to my mind, and I just felt so tired. Do you know what I mean?
Willa: Oh, I do. I know exactly what you mean. …
Joie: Like I actually took a deep, sad breath and I just felt so exhausted. If I felt that way, can you imagine how he must have felt when he wrote these words:
Monster He’s a monster He’s an animal
We hear that short refrain over and over again in the song, and it just breaks my heart. He goes on to say:
Why are they never satisfied with all you give? You give them your all They’re watching you fall And they eat your soul like a vegetable
Don’t you ever wonder what that felt like to him? How lonely and miserable that must have been? I don’t know that there has ever been a more miserable soul on this planet than Michael Jackson’s. Which is truly heartbreaking when you think about the immense amount of talent he possessed and the staggering numbers of people that he brought happiness to. And yet, he himself was this miserable, tragic, sad, sad creature.
Willa: Well, yes and no. I mean, Michael Jackson endured a level of public vilification few of us can even imagine. I mean, it’s literally unimaginable to me – beyond my capacity to comprehend what he went through. But I think he also experienced a kind of joy few of us can imagine either – the joy of creative ecstasy as we talked about a little bit with Give In to Me last spring. So I guess I feel he had higher highs as well as lower lows.
But I do know what you’re saying, Joie, and I think those lyrics you quoted are really important, especially that last line, “they eat your soul like a vegetable.” One reason that jumps out at me is because it echoes words he wrote much earlier in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” where he repeatedly sings these lines at the end of each chorus:
You’re a vegetable (You’re a vegetable) Still they hate you (You’re a vegetable) You’re just a buffet (You’re a vegetable) They eat off of you (You’re a vegetable)
This song was written in the mid-1970s and “Monster” was written in the mid-2000s, sometime after the 2005 trial – that’s a 30-year time span – yet both songs express a similar idea using the same metaphor: that the press feeds off him (“they eat your soul”) just like the zombies in a horror movie feed off the souls of the living.
So there’s this interesting reversal where the mass media is portraying him as a “monster,” but he’s saying they are the true monsters. He’s alive – vibrantly alive – with the exuberant vitality of a dancer and creative artist, but their souls are dead – they have no creative spark animating them – and so they try to feed off him. He makes that reversal explicit the last couple of times he sings the chorus you quoted earlier, when he reverses the meaning by adding interstitial lines:
Monster (Why you haunting me?) He’s a monster (Why are you stalking me?) He’s an animal (Why’d you do it? Why’d you? Why you stalking me?)
Joie: Willa, I think that’s a wonderful interpretation of “Monster” and I love what you just said, comparing the press to flesh-eating zombies that can’t wait to feed off of Michael Jackson’s creativity and vitality. It’s a beautiful assessment of the situation.
Willa: It is fascinating how he sets that up and then flips it around, isn’t it? And that idea that the tabloids are feeding off him reminds me of those threatening teeth in Leave Me Alone that we talked about last fall. Those chomping teeth form the bass line of Leave Me Alone, which is an extended look at media excess that links modern tabloids with exploitative freak shows of the past. So again he’s suggesting that the press wants to feed off him, and the sound of those teeth throughout the video reinforces that.
Joie: What’s really interesting to me, Willa, is how, in one corner, you’ve got the press, who keep repeatedly referring to him as a monster, and all of the “talking heads” from all of the news outlets (be it tabloid or mainstream) join in on the charge. But then in the other corner, there’s Michael himself, pointing back at the press and stating very clearly for all who will listen, that he’s not the monster … they are! It almost feels like that episode of the old Twilight Zone series where the people in a diner all know very clearly that there is an alien/monster among them. Only no one is really quite sure exactly who the real monster is and they’re all accusing each other! Remember that episode?
Willa: No, I don’t think I ever saw that one, but it sounds really interesting. And thinking of The Twilight Zone reminds me of “Threatened,” with its posthumous Rod Serling intro:
Tonight’s story is somewhat unique and calls for a different kind of introduction. A monster had arrived in the village. The major ingredient of any recipe for fear is the unknown, and this person or thing is soon to be met. He knows every thought. He can feel every emotion. Oh yes, I did forget something, didn’t I? I forgot to introduce you to the monster.
And then we hear Michael Jackson’s voice – he’s the monster Rod Serling was talking about. So we’re in the unusual position of hearing the story from the monster’s point of view.
And that reminds me of one of the first monster stories, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. In the original novel, Mary Shelley casts Frankenstein’s monster as an intelligent, sensitive soul who’s abused and mistreated because his appearance is so frightening. In fact, in some ways the people he meets are the true monsters because they’re so vicious to him. So the question is, who’s the real monster in this situation?
That’s a question Michael Jackson raised many times. For example, in “Is It Scary” he says, “It’s you who’s haunting me / Because you’re wanting me / To be the stranger in the night.” And he concludes with this fairly blunt assessment:
I’m tired of being abused You know you’re scaring me too I see the evil is you Is it scary for you, baby?
In other words, the “evil” that people fear is coming from their own minds. They’re imposing their fears onto him, and he’s just a mirror reflecting their own thoughts and fears back at them:
Can the heart reveal the proof Like a mirror reveals the truth? See the evil one is you
Joie: Yeah, that song is just so telling. And really, if you just sit and listen to them, most of the “scary” songs are very telling, deeply personal glimpses into what his life must have felt like to him. And you know, Willa, whenever I let myself dwell on it, I just cannot imagine living with that level of scrutiny every single day of my life, and still being able to function. And ultimately, I guess the argument could be made that he wasn’t able to function that way for very long.
Willa: Oh, it’s just unbelievable what his life must have been like, but we can kind of get a glimpse of it through these “monster” songs and films because one thing he’s trying to do in these works is show us what it feels like to be in that position – to be the object of everyone fears.
You know, Michael Jackson had an incredible habit of empathy. We see it in his work as well as interviews. Whenever he’s trying to understand a situation, his first impulse is almost always to immediately look at it from the other person’s point of view. We see that over and over again, like in “Dirty Diana” where a groupie is trying to manipulate him, but instead of simply rejecting her, or using her and walking away as many rock stars would do, he tries to understand her by looking at things from her perspective. He does something similar in his “scary” songs where he doesn’t just push back against the attacks, but also tries to get inside the mind of his attackers and understand why they are treating him like a monster. (And by the way, this habit of empathy is one reason I’m so sure he would never molest a child, in addition to all the evidence. If you have that habit of empathy, you can’t abuse someone because you’re too aware of how that abuse must feel to them.) And he also encourages us to try to see things from his perspective as well.
So one way of interpreting his “monster” works is to see them as an artistic way for him to work through these issues and explore why the police, the press, and the public were so insistent on seeing him as a monster – and there are important cultural and psychological reasons for why that keeps happening. As he tells us in “Threatened,” “I’m not a ghost from Hell / but I’ve got a spell on you.” He is the Other, the “monster,” the embodiment of difference that both fascinates and frightens us – that is the “spell” he has on the public imagination – but he’s an Other who seems to know us all too well:
You’re fearing me ’Cause you know I’m a beast … I’m the living dead The dark thoughts in your head I heard just what you said That’s why you’ve got to be threatened by me
So we fear that he’s a “beast” but an extremely intelligent beast, a beast who knows “the dark thoughts in your head” and can move us emotionally and psychologically in ways we don’t fully understand – and what could be more frightening than that? That’s why he tells us “You should be watching me / You should feel threatened,” because he represents our worst fears.
But that’s not really who he is – he’s not really a monster – it’s just a reflection of our own minds. We’re simply giving vent to all our deepest fears by projecting them onto him.
Joie: And the ugly truth is that he made such an easy target of himself. He made it almost effortless for those doing the venting to project that madness onto him. But he always turned the other cheek with such dignity and grace, never lowering himself to their standards, never lashing out in anger. Not really the actions of a monster, huh?
Willa: Joie, a few weeks ago we were talking about “Best of Joy,” and you quoted some lines from Dylan Thomas:
Though lovers be lost, love shall not
And death shall have no dominion
I’ve been thinking about those lines ever since because we see this idea of “death shall have no dominion” a number of times in Michael Jackson’s work – perhaps most explicitly in “Heaven Can Wait,” but also when he seemingly dies but then returns in Moonwalker and Ghosts.
Joie: That’s true, Willa. It is a theme that we see more than once from him – in both songs and short films.
Willa: And not just from him, Joie, but many major artists, and I think it’s because death is probably the most difficult concept humans have to face. I read an article a long time ago where the author said he felt the real distinction between humans and other animals is the terrible knowledge that we’re all going to die. As he said, all animals die but humans are the only animals that know it. Or we assume we’re the only animals that know it. Elephants will sometimes visit the bones of their ancestors, and handle them in an almost reverent way. Does that mean they understand the concept of death? Do they know they’re going to die?
Joie: You know, I am a firm believer that animals know a lot more than we as humans will ever comprehend. I believe that some are more intuitive than others – like the majestic elephant – and they know things and understand things about our world. Much more than humans will ever give them credit for.
Willa: Oh I agree, and think it’s a huge mistake to assume that since we don’t know the depth of an animal’s thoughts and emotions, they don’t have profound thoughts and emotions. When one of my dogs died of bone cancer several years ago, the other went into deep mourning for a long time and never forgot his friend. If I mentioned his friend’s name in conversation, even years later, he’d look up and watch me very closely.
But the point I’m trying to make is that we all carry the terrible burden of knowing we’re going to die someday, and so are all the people we care about. And one function of art is to help us deal with our deepest emotions, like the fear of death and the grief of losing someone we love. Poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, musicians – artists in many different forms – have struggled for centuries to somehow come to grips with that terrible, terrible knowledge. How do you face life when you know you’re going to die? How do you let yourself love someone fully and deeply when you know they’re going to die? How do you have children when you know they will die someday and pass on this legacy of death? Does life become bitter for us, or does it seem all the more sweet and precious because of that constant threat of death?
Joie: Wow. Those are heavy questions, Willa. But you’re right … artists have struggled with that knowledge for centuries and have used it to fuel some of the greatest artistic works of all time.
Willa: They really have, and they’ve come up with a wide range of responses, though some are a lot more popular than others. For example, there’s the famous Thomas Herrick poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” where he advises “the Virgins” to go ahead and have a good time while they can:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
Herrick published this poem in the 1600s, and this “carpe diem” philosophy of “have fun now while you’re young and full of life” is expressed in poetry written more than 2,000 years ago. And it’s still very popular today – especially with musicians, it seems. You hear it on the radio all the time, like in the Kesha song with the repeated refrain, “Let’s make the most of the night / Like we’re gonna die young.”
Joie: Ok, I see what you’re saying, Willa. It is a very popular topic with musicians. But getting back to your question of ‘does life become bitter for us or does it seem all the more sweet and precious’ because of this constant threat of death … I think the answer to that lies with the individual. Some people are inevitably going to lean toward the bitter option. But I like to think that, for most of us, we tend to embrace the latter idea of life becoming more sweet and precious because of this knowledge. And I think what you said about some artists’ responses being more popular than others reflects that.
Willa: Yes, but artists can also lead us to think about these ideas in new ways. Like I just heard a song on the radio called “Carry On,” and it had these lyrics:
So I met up with some friends at the edge of the night
At a bar off 75
And we talked and talked about how our parents will die
All our neighbors and wives
But I like to think I can cheat it all
To make up for the times I’ve been cheated on
So what the band, Fun, seems to be saying with these lyrics is that they want to believe they can “cheat” death and in that way compensate for times when they’ve felt “cheated on” by life. You know, I’ve never thought about things in quite that way before.
An even better example, I think, is Michael Jackson’s “Be Not Always.” It’s a song about war (“Mothers cry, babies die / Helplessly in arms / While rockets fly”) and racism (“How can we claim to stand for peace / When the races are in strife / Destroying life?”) and poverty (“To have nothing / To dream something / Then lose hoping …”). In other words, this song addresses some of our biggest societal problems – problems so big and so complicated we tend to think of them as eternal and unsolvable. But Michael Jackson is begging us to stop thinking that way. He’s telling us these problems don’t have to be eternal … and shame on us if they are:
Be not always
But if always
Bow our heads in shame
Please, be not always
‘Cause if always
Bow our heads in blame
‘Cause time has made promises
This is the chorus, and he sings it twice with a slight variation between them. The first time he sings it, he ends with “Time has made promises / Just promises,” and to me, what he seems to be saying is that these problems are difficult but not everlasting. Time is what’s eternal, and “time has made promises” that we can solve these problems if we keep working at them. But as he goes on to say, time gives us “just promises.” Those promises won’t come true unless we work for them – and we must. In fact, we should “bow our heads in shame” if we don’t keep striving against them until we’ve solved them.
But then he sings the chorus a second time, and this time around he changes that final line. This time he sings, “Time has made promises / Death promises.” Joie, that line just gives me chills, but it’s also strangely inspiring. He’s revised what he told us before, and now his message is much darker. What he seems to be saying is that, really, the only thing Time promises us for certain is that we’re all going to die. Time makes “death promises.” And because of that – because Time will surely bring death to each of us someday – we need to strive with everything we have to preserve the preciousness of all life.
Joie: I see what you’re saying, Willa. But I have to be honest with you and admit that I really don’t care for that particular song. I understand the importance of the message behind it, but the song itself is so depressing and morbid in tone and feeling. And I understand why the critics at the time were really left scratching their heads when the Victory album came out. Their question was, what is this song of such gloom and doom doing on an album that is supposed to be a victorious celebration? It just didn’t fit, and I remember reading somewhere back then that the brothers weren’t very happy with Michael’s choice of song either.
But I’m getting slightly off topic here. You are right in your assertion that this song points out, rather bluntly, that the only thing Time really promises to us is death.
Willa: But so does the Kesha song, and no one seems to think it’s morbid. And to me, if a song is going to remind me of my own mortality, I’d much rather it be a beautiful ballad like “Be Not Always” than a flippant pop song. And the Thomas Herrick / Kesha idea that we’re all going to die so we should just party like there’s no tomorrow quite frankly isn’t very inspiring to me. In fact, it makes life seem pretty pointless. To me, Michael Jackson’s approach in “Be Not Always” is much more uplifting. It makes me feel like I should try to live in a meaningful way precisely because life is so short and so precious.
And actually, in one of those funny little moments of synchronicity, our friend Lisha McDuff just sent me a wonderful 10-minute short film called The Empathic Civilization that touches on this very topic. It’s based on a speech by economist and writer Jeremy Rifkin. Here’s a link:
I love this film, and two things especially jump out at me. First, scientists in Italy have found that mammals are “soft wired” to feel empathy – especially humans and primates, probably elephants, and maybe dogs and dolphins. And secondly, that our empathetic development takes a huge leap forward – an “existential leap” – when we realize that we’re going to die someday, and so is every other living thing on this planet. It’s precisely that painful knowledge that leads us to care deeply for other people we may not even have met. And to me, this is exactly the idea Michael Jackson is getting at in “Be Not Always.”
Joie: That is such an interesting video to watch, Willa. The animation really holds your attention and illustrates the “lesson” the narrator is giving.
But I disagree with your assertion that “Be Not Always” is more uplifting than Kesha’s “Die Young.” I’m not a fan of the song by any means but, all it’s really saying is ‘hey, let’s go out and have a good time tonight.’ “Be Not Always,” on the other hand is talking about some really heavy, overwhelmingly depressing subject matter. And his delivery of it, while poignant, heartbreaking and thought-provoking, is so raw. It’s almost too painful to listen to. For me, anyway. I’m sorry to be so negative here. You know that I can count the number of Michael Jackson songs that I really don’t like on one hand, but this song just happens to be one of them. In fact … I honestly can’t think of another one right now. This may actually be the only one.
Willa: Wow, that’s interesting, Joie. We have such similar reactions to so many of Michael Jackson’s works, it always kind of shocks me when we see things differently. And I guess we see “Be Not Always” very differently. To me, it’s a lot like Stranger in Moscow, where he’s taking a painful situation and turning it into something beautiful and meaningful. I love it when he does that. To me, that’s Michael Jackson at his best.
Joie: Well, I agree with that statement, Willa. That is Michael Jackson at his best. But I just don’t see that happening here. To me, “Be Not Always” just takes a painful situation and makes it more morbid. And I’ll admit that I’m probably just not “getting it,” but the message is totally lost on me because I can’t get past how depressing it is. And I know this is going to sound extremely shallow of me, but I can’t listen to a song that’s only going to depress me.
You know, we talked about “Little Susie” a few weeks ago, and to me that song is a great example of Michael taking a painful situation and turning it into something beautiful, as you said. And yet, even though the subject matter is sad and depressing, the lyrics are beautiful. The music itself is breathtaking. The song grabs a hold of me from the very beginning and draws me in, making me care about this poor, neglected, dead little girl.
“Be Not Always” doesn’t do that for me. Instead of being drawn in, I am repelled. There’s nothing for me to grab onto – the lyrics are distressing, the music is bleak, the mood is hopeless. At the end of the song I feel empty, not uplifted.
Willa: Joie, I’m just astonished. To me, “Little Susie” is far more depressing than “Be Not Always.” And the melody and his voice are so beautiful, and so is the instrumentation – just a simple acoustic guitar accompanying him throughout the entire song. It’s like his own version of MJ Unplugged, something we don’t get to hear very often.
Joie: Wow. I can’t believe you find “Little Susie” more depressing than “Be Not Always.” I’m actually equally astonished, Willa. And I find our differences in opinion on this one so interesting. I don’t know that we’ve ever had such a huge gap in our feelings about a song before, do you?
Willa: No, I think you’re right. We’ve disagreed about how we interpret different aspects of certain songs or videos, but I can’t remember us ever having such completely opposite reactions before. I feel like I need to listen to “Be Not Always” again with your words in mind to see if I can try to hear it the way you do, because I respond so differently.
But to get back to the theme of death, he actually touches on it fairly often, in different ways. Sometimes he addresses it more directly, like in “Gone Too Soon,” the song he dedicated to Ryan White. And sometimes he’s much more subtle. For example, it’s part of the backstory for the Bad short film, and contributes to the sense of threat and foreboding we feel in that film, I think.
Joie: Oh, I agree, it is a theme that he touched on often and in varying degrees.
Willa: It is, and what I really wanted to talk about were the “death shall have no dominion” ones. For example, in Moonwalker, the main character, Michael, is surrounded by armed soldiers with seemingly no escape. He transforms into an armed robot and begins fighting back – though interestingly, his most powerful weapon seems to be his voice, crying in pain. He then transforms into a spaceship and tries to escape, but is shot down and seems to be destroyed. But when the evil Mr. Lideo threatens the children, the spaceship returns and destroys Mr. Lideo and his entire operation instead – and again, even though he is now a spaceship and not human, we hear his voice, crying in pain. And again, his voice seems to be what makes him so powerful.
Then he begins to fly off into space, but a shooting star suddenly appears. We see a shooting star repeatedly in Moonwalker, and it’s somehow linked with the Michael character and with magic – it seems to call out the magic that’s within him. But this time the shooting star collides with the spaceship, there’s a big explosion, and he’s gone. The children miss him, and even start to question whether that magic exists – as Katie says, “It’s not a lucky star.” But then she says, “I wish he would come back,” and he does. So he seemingly dies not once but twice, and then against all odds he reappears and there’s a happy reunion.
Ghosts has a somewhat similar structure, but with some major differences also. Once again his character, the nameless Maestro, is under attack, but this time it’s not by a criminal mastermind and his thugs – it’s by the Mayor and townspeople where he lives. And they aren’t attacking him because they harbor evil ambitions, but because they’re frightened and want to make that fear go away. So his goal is different. He isn’t trying to defeat the villagers but connect with them and dissipate that fear. And as in Moonwalker, his voice – actually, the evocative power of both his singing and dancing – is his most powerful weapon.
However, the Mayor still wants him to leave, so the Maestro destroys himself – pounding himself to dust, which then blows away. After he’s gone, the children miss him, and even the townspeople who were trying to drive him out of town feel regret for what’s happened. And it’s after that change of heart that he returns.
Joie: Oh, I see what you’re saying, Willa. It’s as if he’s repeating that theme of “death shall have no dominion” in each of those short films by returning just when everyone starts to believe that he really is gone. You know, it’s a subject he addresses head on in the song “Heaven Can Wait.” And of course, much more subtly in “Best of Joy,” as we talked about a few weeks ago.
Willa: Exactly, but it seems to function a little differently here. He doesn’t seem to be trying to say something about death, so much as using death as an artistic device for psychological and artistic reasons. What I mean is, he’s using the presumed death and reappearance of these two protagonists to create a specific emotional effect in the audience.
In both of these films, the protagonist is under attack and undergoes a deep personal trauma – one we as an audience experience also through our identification with him. In Moonwalker, we witness Michael’s powerlessness as Mr. Lideo hits and threatens Katie, and then kicks and beats him when he tries to help her. In Ghosts we hear the Mayor threaten and ridicule the Maestro and stir the villagers against him, and then we watch the Maestro brutally destroy himself in front of our very eyes.
These are both very traumatic events. When Michael and the Maestro “die,” it draws out all the painful emotions evoked by those traumas: grief, fear, compassion, anger, outrage. It’s like a snakebite kit pulling venom from a wound. And then when Michael and the Maestro return, all of those emotions are washed away, and we’re left with a feeling of relief and renewal. So taken together, this double movement of death and reappearance provide us with catharsis – almost like a Reset button for rebooting our emotions so we aren’t stuck with the trauma of what we’ve experienced.
Joie: That’s a very interesting way of looking at that, Willa. I’m not sure I would have thought of it in that way before but, I like the way you put that.
Willa: Well, there are many different ways to interpret these two films, and this is only one approach. But it’s very interesting to me to think about how his character’s death and reappearance in these films affect us as an audience. The extreme emotional whiplash we experience when he dies and comes back to life seems to bring about a kind of psychological cleansing – a purging of the deep trauma we endured before this final crisis. And using art to purge an audience of uncomfortable emotions and bring about a feeling of rebirth or renewal is precisely what Aristotle meant by the word “catharsis.”
It’s a very old concept – more than 2,000 years old – and we tend to think we’ve changed a lot in those 2,000 years. But while daily life for humans has changed tremendously since then, human nature apparently hasn’t, and this process of catharsis still powerfully moves us as an audience, even today.
Willa: So Joie, you’d think I’d have learned by now never to label any of Michael Jackson’s videos as “just entertainment.” I thought that about You Rock My World – that it was “just entertainment” – but after talking with you about it last fall I’ve come to see it as a very pointed critique of the music industry. I thought that about In the Closet, but after talking with you about it last January I’ve come to see it as a fascinating look at taboo relationships. At different times I’ve thought it about Thriller, and Smooth Criminal, and Scream, but later came to see those three as some of his most important works. And I’ve thought it about Speed Demon, but now I’m starting to wonder if I haven’t been overlooking something important in that video as well.
It seems to me there are two major themes running through the nine Bad videos. First, there’s the extremely complicated issue of violence, poverty, and criminality, especially as it presents itself in the inner city. We see this theme in the videos for Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, Man in the Mirror, Smooth Criminal, and Speed Demon. Then there’s the complicated issue of celebrity and fame, as we see in Dirty Diana, Leave Me Alone, Liberian Girl, Another Part of Me, and Speed Demon. So Speed Demon – that cute, quirky, inoffensive little claymation video – is the place where these two major themes intersect.
Joie: Willa, I have to say, you have me intrigued now because I don’t think of Speed Demon in terms of “violence, poverty and criminality,” as you put it.
Willa: Well, he has a light touch. You wouldn’t think someone could make an enjoyable video about some of our worst and most complicated social ills, but he did – over and over again.
Joie: Well, yes. That’s true; he did. But, I’m not sure I see that going on in Speed Demon. And I also never would have thought about Liberian Girl or Another Part of Me as commentaries on celebrity and fame so, I’m interested to see where you’re going with this.
Willa: I know what you mean, Joie. I would have said the same thing just a few days ago. Speed Demon especially seems to have more in common with Wallace & Gromit than Beat It, at least on the surface.
Joie: Wallace & Gromit. That’s funny!
Willa: Well, you know what I’m saying – it’s claymation! But remember a couple weeks ago when you asked me what I saw as the major themes of Bad?
Willa: Well, I’d never thought about that before, so I started listening to the songs and watching the videos with that question in mind, and as I was doing that these two very disparate themes started to emerge, especially in the videos. I mean, think about it: is there a video anywhere with more celebrities than Liberian Girl? It’s nothing but celebrities. And suddenly there’s Michael Jackson behind the scenes laughing, which seems like such an interesting statement all in itself!
And look at the opening of Another Part of Me and how it focuses on his complicated relationship with his fame – how he both enjoys it but seeks refuge from it, and how he uses it to convey his “message” – a message he states very clearly in the chorus:
We’re sending out a major love And this is our message to you The planets are lining up We’re bringing brighter days They’re all in line waiting for you Can’t you see? You’re just another part of me
So he’s on a mission to send “major love” out into the world, and he uses his art and his celebrity to help him accomplish that. But this isn’t an easy issue – his celebrity both empowers him and isolates him. And as usual, he presents these ideas in subtle but sophisticated ways in the video.
Joie: Hmm. That is very interesting, Willa. I see your point. And what you’re saying makes a lot of sense. I guess, now that you mention it, I have been thinking of both Liberian Girl and Another Part of Me as purely entertainment. And you’re right – that is something that we should never do when it comes to Michael Jackson.
Willa: We really shouldn’t. It’s easy to fall into that because his work is so entertaining, but there are always so many layers to his work, and a lot of times there are really interesting things happening if we just look. Like it’s easy to dismiss Speed Demon as just a cartoon, but it addresses his complicated relationship with his celebrity as well. It opens with him being chased by some over-eager fans, and they’re pretty rude and obnoxious.
Joie: Oh, they are incredibly rude and obnoxious! And it makes me kind of sad to think that he may have encountered that often, you know? That fans were ever that thoughtless and unkind to him. In fact, I have a hard time thinking of them as fans; to me, they’re more like an angry mob that’s out to get him. They even seem to be quite angry at him as they chase him around the movie set and out onto the open road. And the longer they chase him, the angrier they seem to become.
Willa: They really do. You know, it’s presented as this fun chase sequence – and he does seem to enjoy it – but all the same, there is something threatening about it and he really doesn’t want them to catch him. And I think he did have to deal with obnoxious fans sometimes. He talked about it in a 1978 phone interview with Lisa Robinson. She asked him, “do you still like meeting your fans?” and he said,
I enjoy all that sometimes, seeing people who love me, or buy my records. I think it’s fun, and I enjoy meeting my fans and I think it’s important. But sometimes people think you owe your life to them; they have a bad attitude – like, ‘I made you who you are.’ That may be true – but not that one person. Sometimes you have to say to them, If the music wasn’t good, you wouldn’t have bought it. Because some of them think they actually own you. Someone will say, “Sit down,” “Sign this,” or “Can I have your autograph?” and I’ll say, “Yes, do you have a pen?” And they say, “No, go get one.” Honestly. I’m not exaggerating. But I just try to deal with it.
And remember, this was in 1978 – three years before Thriller came out.
Joie: Yes, I remember that interview and it is really sad when you think about it. And again, I have a difficult time thinking of those people as fans. I guess I just have a different idea of what that word means. “Fan.” You know, oftentimes that word has such a negative connotation to it. Especially with regard to Michael Jackson fans. But I’ve been in the fan community a long time and I know Michael Jackson fans to be some of the nicest, most respectful people I’ve ever met, so that’s difficult for me to reconcile. But, I’m certain from his point of view there were times when the attention probably became extremely rude or even threatening. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live with that kind of attention 24/7.
But I was really more referring to the video itself – not his real life. In the short film, the “fans” who are chasing him sort of become this angry mob that seems like they’re out to get him. And it’s not clear what they intend to do with him if they catch up to him. Do they want to hurt him or do they simply want his autograph? It’s difficult to tell by the snarls on their faces. It’s no wonder he’s trying to get away from them!
Willa: I think you’re exactly right, Joie – they are like a “mob,” meaning they’re gripped by that weird mob mentality that takes over sometimes, and I think Michael Jackson had seen how dangerous that could be and was scared of it. We see that fear of the mob in the intro to Ghosts. And he said in a number of interviews that being mobbed “hurts.” That people go crazy and start pulling your hair and twisting your arms, and it really hurts. Apparently, the first time the Jackson 5 went to England, a mob scene broke out at the airport and he could have been killed. He was wearing a scarf, and one girl grabbed one end and another grabbed the other end, and they were both pulling as hard as they could. The scarf was tightening around his neck, and he couldn’t breathe and couldn’t loosen it, and his brothers had to rescue him. What a scary story!
So you’re right – it’s hard to predict what a mob will do, and it’s not clear at all what the mob chasing him in Speed Demon will do if they catch him.
Joie: But luckily, they don’t get that chance because they all end up getting stopped for speeding and causing a pile-up of sorts. The last we see of them, they’re all being taken away in a police wagon as Michael speeds away, finally free to breathe now that the mob that was chasing him is gone. He heads out to the open road and stops for a few minutes to discard the costume he used to escape his pursuers, then finds himself in the middle of a dance-off when that costume comes to life and issues a challenge.
But I have to say, Willa, that while I agree that the complicated issues of celebrity and fame are definitely present in this short film, I’m still not really seeing the issues of ‘violence, poverty and criminality’ in Speed Demon that you mentioned at the beginning of this discussion.
Willa: Well, think about those repeated lines from the police: “Pull over, boy, and get your ticket right.” There’s so much sheer joy of flight in Speed Demon, just the exhilaration of speed and escaping all the pressures being put on him. But then near the end a trooper gives him a ticket. In fact, there are policemen throughout this video, and a lot of times they’re chasing him too. So while it’s a policeman who puts those obsessive fans in jail and kind of rescues him from the mob, as you just described, another policeman shows up and treats him like a criminal.
You know, what really started me thinking differently about Speed Demon was the MJ Academia Project videos. Unfortunately, the people who posted those videos have taken them down and they aren’t available at the moment, which is disappointing. I’d really like to watch them again and link to them right now. I hope they repost them. But anyway, in one of their videos they talk about how Michael Jackson repeatedly uses the word “boy” in a number of songs and videos as a code word for how black men have been treated by the criminal justice system in the U.S., and they specifically mention Speed Demon. I’d never thought of Speed Demon like that – as anything more than a cartoon, actually – but I started listening to it differently after that. And one thing I realized is that the video really softens the message of the song. If you can somehow block the video images out of your mind while listening to it, it feels much grittier than when your mind is full of Michael Jackson in a dancing competition with Spike, the claymation rabbit (which I love, by the way).
So, as he does so many times with so many different subjects, he shows how complicated human relationships can be. He loves his fans, but feels threatened by them when they turn into a mob. He feels protected by the police, especially when the mob is carted off to the police station, but he also knows the police can turn on him at any minute and criminalize him. And this was filmed in 1988, before he’d really experienced just how biased and abusive the police could be.
Joie: Well, I agree with you, the video does really soften the message of the song. And I wonder if he did that intentionally, seeing as how this video was part of the movie, Moonwalker – which is really sort of a kid’s movie with a feel-good theme to it. But, as we talked about last week, this is one of those short films where the visual he presents us with is much different than what we conjure up in our minds when merely listening to the song itself.
Willa: That’s true, though we need to be careful about viewing Moonwalker as just entertainment also. It does have a fun, “feel-good” mood through most of it, but there’s a lot of very interesting things going on in that movie. We should talk about that sometime. I can’t believe we’ve been chatting about Michael Jackson’s work for a year now and still haven’t talked about Moonwalker.
But getting back to Speed Demon, we really see that structure of a fun entertaining film overlying a serious message here too. In some ways, he seems to be exploring the role of artists in society, and how artists and police are kind of at cross purposes. The police tend to want everyone to follow the rules and behave in conventional ways, even if that has nothing to do with legality, and artists are constantly challenging those conventions. We see that conflict between the police and the artist with the “sheriff” from the western movie early in the video. He starts chasing Michael Jackson and calls out to him in this really patronizing way, “Hey, Songbird.” And then at the end the trooper gives him the ticket, saying, “I need your autograph right here.” Importantly, the ticket isn’t for speeding. It’s for dancing.
Joie: Well, in the trooper’s defense, Willa, it was a clearly marked No Dancing zone!
Willa: That’s true! And you notice he’s a very law-abiding citizen. He doesn’t dance after the trooper points to that funny sign telling him he’s not supposed to, though you know he disagrees with it.
But you know, while this is all handled in a very light, entertaining way, it’s addressing some really complex ideas as well. The policeman is trying to rein him in and prevent him from dancing, from expressing his art, and even treats him as a criminal, or at least a law-breaker, because of his dancing. And this ties back to what we talked about a couple weeks ago with the Bad short film. As we said then, artists and criminals actually have something in common: they both challenge social norms. They do it in very different ways – one legally to improve our cultural awareness, and one illegally and often destructively – but sometimes that distinction becomes blurred and artists are treated as criminals. And Michael Jackson was very aware of that, as he shows us in Speed Demon and Bad, and perhaps most explicitly in Ghosts. Remember, the “crime” he’s accused of in Ghosts is being an artist, a teller of ghost stories, and too outrageously different.
And I think this criminalization of artists played out in very real ways in how the police (and the press and the public) interpreted the allegations against him in 1993 and 2003. It’s like there was this idea that he was willing to transgress social norms – by singing and dancing, by challenging gender and racial boundaries, by representing the Other, as Joe Vogel described a few weeks ago – so some people seemed to think that maybe he was willing to transgress legal and moral boundaries as well and do illegal, immoral things.
Joie: I think that’s a very interesting point, Willa. And maybe a very simplistic way of describing that is the old saying ‘judging a book by its cover.’ Because he looked “strange” or “freaky” to some, then perhaps he was more likely to be a criminal than someone who looked sweet and innocent. Actress Winona Ryder comes to mind. Who would have ever imagined she would behave like a common criminal? After all, she looked so “normal.”
Willa: I don’t really know much about the Winona Ryder case, except that it got a lot of attention in the press – far more than shoplifting charges usually get. But this criminalization of artists has a long history. Think about the McCarthy trials, and how many artists’ careers were destroyed by them. And William Tyndale, who may have been the greatest English poet of all time. Most of the King James Bible was written by Tyndale, and you can make the case that Shakespeare wouldn’t have been Shakespeare without him – even the cadence of his language reflects Tyndale. And Tyndale was burned at the stake.
And I always wonder how many of the women, and men too, condemned as witches during the Salem witch trials had an artist’s sensibility. They were definitely people who didn’t fit in, and were seen as “strange” or “freaky,” as you just said. Many were independent women who didn’t marry and lived unconventional lives. And this is interesting: one of the first people accused during the trials was a slave named Tituba who liked to tell children stories, just like the Maestro in Ghosts.
Joie: That’s a really interesting point, Willa. And you’re probably right about that, many of them probably were artists in some form, or at the very least, free thinkers – also like the Maestro in Ghosts. But I think what you’re trying to get at is that, even though on the surface it’s a cute little claymation video, Speed Demon is anything but childish or simplistic.
Willa: Exactly. Or maybe what I’m trying to say is that it works on both levels. It’s a fun, cartoon-like film that kids enjoy, but there are some complicated ideas for adults to grapple with as well.
NOTE: The My Baby series was originally posted last August on the 14th, 20th and 27th. You can see the original posts and comments here.
Thinking About My Baby
Willa: As Joie mentioned last week, the idea for this blog grew out of a long series of emails we were exchanging back and forth. We were having a wonderful time sharing ideas and comparing notes about Michael Jackson’s work, and we each really enjoyed talking with someone who knew his work and cared about it as much as we did. One thing she and I discovered over the course of our emails is that we’re both fascinated by My Baby, and have been for a long time.
Joie: You all know who she is; you have heard Michael sing about her for years. She is presumably the girl of his dreams, the woman who knows him and loves him and truly cares about him. She’s also the woman who is constantly hurt time and time again by other devious, “bad girls” who throw themselves into Michael’s orbit like in “Billie Jean,” “Dirty Diana,” and “Dangerous.”
Willa: She’s a very important figure in Michael Jackson’s work, appearing on album after album, from Triumph and Thriller in the early 1980s to Invincible in 2001. And, as Joie says, she’s almost always hurt or threatened in some way. In fact, we often see her walking away in tears.
Joie: What draws my attention to her, I guess, is the fact that Michael sings about her as if she is someone who has been in his life for a long time. Even though her appearance on the songs I just mentioned – and others – is usually brief, we get the feeling that she is incredibly important to him. He loves her and he clearly wants to protect her from the ‘wicked women,’ he sings about in “Heartbreak Hotel,” (a.k.a. This Place Hotel). We see him constantly fretting over the fact that she will be hurt somehow by the “bad girls” and that they will drive her away from him.
Someone’s always tryin’ to start My Baby cryin.’ Talking, squealing, lying, saying you just want to be startin’ somethin.’
It’s almost as if he’s describing a relationship that has seen its share of ups and downs. They’ve been through this sort of thing before and My Baby always ends up hurt. At least, in the early years of their relationship – in the 1980s and ’90s. But by 2001′s “Heaven Can Wait,” it’s clearly a much different relationship. Here we see that My Baby not only loves him and cares about him, but now she trusts him too; she has faith in him. Their relationship is solid and no one can come between them anymore. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with and it’s the greatest love affair either of them has ever experienced. He loves her so deeply that he doesn’t want to leave her for an instant – not even for heaven!
Oh no, can’t be without My Baby. Won’t go, without her I’ll go crazy. Oh no, guess Heaven will be waiting.
It’s really interesting to me that their union changes over time. The way he writes about her grows and matures over the years just as if it were a real relationship. We see the initial infatuation in songs like “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and “Streetwalker,” and we watch it grow and blossom in songs like “Black or White,” and “Fly Away.” And then we see the culmination of their love on the beautiful “Heaven Can Wait.”
Willa: As Joie says, in his early albums, she’s threatened by another woman. My Baby seems to be a private person who knows and cares about the protagonist, though she avoids the limelight and seems somewhat uncomfortable with his fame. He loves her and tries to protect her, but she’s repeatedly hurt by another woman who wants to push her out and take her place. This second woman doesn’t really know him or care about him, but she’s much bolder than My Baby and is actually attracted to fame, the protagonist’s fame – in fact, she’s something of an adventurer. The protagonist recognizes all that and distrusts her. Yet at the same time, he finds himself strangely drawn to this other, bolder woman.
Joie: And his relationship with this other woman is just as interesting as his relationship with My Baby. It’s almost like you can’t have one without the other. Like they are two halves of the same coin, so to speak.
Willa: I agree. The recurring conflict between these women is very interesting. There’s obviously something very important going on here – something Michael Jackson explored and wrestled with for years. I think that’s one reason I started seeing My Baby as representing more than just a romantic relationship. To me, My Baby and the other woman seem to represent his shy side versus his public side, or his private life versus his public life, with the intrusions of the media and intense public interest in him threatening to destroy his private life, just as that bold other woman threatens to drive away My Baby.
Or these two women could represent his muse – the woman of myth who has quietly inspired artists’ creativity for centuries – and the audience and critics who kept demanding that he create another Thriller and just wanted him to sing “Billie Jean” over and over again for the rest of his life. But it’s not an either/or situation. While I see these other interpretations, I still see My Baby as a woman who knows him and cares for him, and provides for him emotionally as well.
Welcome to Heartbreak Hotel
Willa: We first meet My Baby in “Heartbreak Hotel” (or “This Place Hotel”), which Michael Jackson wrote and recorded for The Jacksons’ 1980 Triumph album. And it seems to have been an important song for him: he performed it with his brothers on the Triumph and Victory tours, and it was the only Jacksons’ song he sang throughout his Bad tour.
“Heartbreak Hotel” begins with a reference to a traumatic loss that happened “Ten years ago on this day”:
Live in sin Ten years ago on this day my heart was yearning I promised I would never ever be returning Where My Baby broke my heart and left me yearning
Importantly, “ten years ago” is when Michael Jackson first became a public figure on the national stage: “I Want You Back” became the Jackson 5′s first number one hit in 1970.
The protagonist and My Baby enter Heartbreak Hotel together. It’s a public place where they encounter a crowd of “faces staring.” And while the staring people are strangers, they seem to know him: “they smiled with eyes that looked as if they knew me.” But they don’t really know him, and he doesn’t know them. It’s a pretty accurate description of the life of a celebrity. This stanza ends with Jackson singing, “This is scaring me.”
He and My Baby walk upstairs together and enter his hotel room, but two women are there already. One of them approaches him and says, “This is the place / You said to meet you right here at noon.” It’s not true, but My Baby believes her – believes this stranger is his lover – and Jackson sings, “Hope is dead.” He goes on to describe how My Baby is hurt because she doesn’t understand the situation, but ends with “Someone’s evil to hurt my soul.” So this lie not only hurts My Baby; it also hurts “my soul.” The two are so closely connected, it’s as if My Baby is his soul. The stanza ends with these lines:
This is scaring me Then the man next door had told He’s been here in tears for fifteen years This is scaring me
Who is this man? Could it possibly be Elvis? After all, Elvis begins his song “Heartbreak Hotel” (which was his first number one hit) with the lines:
Since My Baby left me I found a new place to dwell It’s down at the end of Lonely Street At Heartbreak Hotel
So apparently Elvis lives there. Now Michael Jackson has checked into the room next door, and he’s in the same position Elvis was in for years.
This “man next door” says “He’s been here in tears for fifteen years,” so since 1965 – right when Elvis’ career began its decline, and his celebrity began to take an ugly turn. Elvis was the King in the late 1950s and early ’60s, but then the British Invasion took place from 1964 to 1966. Suddenly, the Beatles and Rolling Stones were climbing the pop charts, and Elvis was increasingly seen as outdated and irrelevant, even an object of ridicule.
So in these two very different songs with the same name, Elvis and Michael Jackson describe a situation that’s emotionally devastating to them. However, while Elvis is clearly singing about a romantic loss, Jackson’s song is much more complicated, and much more ambiguous. Is it just a shattered romance, or more than that? Jackson’s “Heartbreak Hotel” ends with these lines:
Someone’s stabbing my heart This is Heartbreak Hotel Ten years ago today Hurting my mind You break My Baby’s heart This is Heartbreak Hotel Just welcome to the scene
“Welcome to the scene” is a pretty odd ending for a song about lost love. So again, there seems to be more going on than just an ill-fated romance. And once again, he and My Baby are conflated: his heart is hurt, her heart is hurt, his mind is hurt. They share the same pain. He’s feeling what she’s feeling, as if she were a part of him.
Joie: Wow! Not sure I would have made the obvious Elvis connection here but, I’ve got to say, it makes a crazy kind of sense.
Willa: I know. It does sound kind of crazy, doesn’t it? I wasn’t expecting to go off on an Elvis tangent, and obviously “the man next door” could mean many different things, but suddenly that idea popped into my head and I went with it, just to see where it took me. I think any interpretation – even a crazy-sounding interpretation – is valid as long as it can be adequately supported by evidence from the text, and there’s quite a bit of evidence to support this. And it does make a lot of sense if you see this song as talking about celebrity, which was a very important theme for Michael Jackson.
Joie: Well, I’ll go with that for a minute and say that, if this was intentional on Michael’s part, it’s actually brilliant. However, when The Jacksons made the decision to change the name of the song to “This Place Hotel,” Michael did say that he was not familiar with Elvis’ song. So, while I agree that the imagery of both songs work very well together, I’m skeptical that there is any real connection between the two.
But I love what you have to say about My Baby possibly representing his own soul. And that line towards the end where he says “Hurting my mind.” It’s like My Baby represents him: his psyche. His mind, his heart, his soul – the inner self that he keeps protected from public view. As I said last week, Michael sings about My Baby as if she is someone who is very important to him and has been in his life for a very long time, and I think this notion that she is symbolic of his own inner being carries a lot of weight. In “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” Michael says,
Someone’s always tryin’ To start My Baby cryin’ Talking, squealing, lying Saying you just want to be startin’ somethin’
If we look at this verse in these terms, it’s very easy to see how My Baby could be a euphemism for his inner self. Someone’s always trying to hurt him. He goes on to sing,
Billie Jean is always talkin’ When nobody else is talkin’ Telling lies and rubbing shoulders So they called her mouth a motor
Sticking with this theory we can argue that Billie Jean – and all of the other “bad girls” who come his way – represents his public life and all the baggage that comes with it (the lies, the media, the paparazzi, etc.).
Willa: I agree, and I really like that quotation you cited. “Billie Jean is always talkin’” – just like the media is always talking. From a very young age, Michael Jackson faced constant commentary and speculation about his private life. And the media’s mouth isn’t just “a motor.” It’s an industry.
Joie: An industry he would end up battling for the rest of his career. But we’ll talk more about that next time when we take a closer look at the “bad girls” in this threesome.
Willa: Right. And this three-way conflict between My Baby, the intrusive women who hurt her, and the protagonist who finds himself caught between the two continues to evolve – just as Michael Jackson’s relationship with the media evolved. We see this scenario of My Baby being hurt by an aggressive, dishonest woman recurring again and again: for example, in “Billie Jean” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” on Thriller, in “Dirty Diana” from Bad, and in the title track to Dangerous. And then she disappears. My Baby isn’t mentioned once on his HIStory album, which was his first album after the 1993 molestation allegations. It’s like his public life has become so toxic she’s completely hidden from view now.
Or maybe not. Maybe she does appear, but in an unexpected way, and in an unexpected place – in the video to a song he didn’t write, “You Are Not Alone.” The song opens with a story of lost love:
Another day has gone I’m still all alone How could this be You’re not here with me You never said goodbye Someone tell me why Did you have to go And leave my world so cold
However, the video opens with a crowd of reporters and photographers pressing in on him as he walks by with his head bowed. It’s the exact same situation he sang about repeatedly in earlier albums: these intrusive people are claiming to know him and telling lies about him, and My Baby has left him. Only this time he’s telling that story through visual cues.
He’s devastated, heartbroken, feeling so sad and alone. Then he hears a voice. We don’t know whose voice it is, but it “whispers” to him, and this is what it tells him:
You are not alone I am here with you Though you’re far away I am here to stay You are not alone I am here with you Though we’re far apart You’re always in my heart But you are not alone
Whose voice is this? The lyrics don’t say, but once again there are visual cues. The scene of walking before a sea of aggressive reporters alternates with another scene, far removed from the media: it’s the setting of Maxfield Parrish’s Daybreak, a beautiful painting of serenity and rebirth. He’s happy, and sharing an intimate moment with a woman.
And it’s not just any woman. It’s his wife, Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis Presley. When Elvis’ public life was falling apart and he was a target of criticism and even ridicule by the press, he had a little girl who stood by him and brought some joy into his life. Now Michael Jackson is in the same position Elvis was in before. And that little girl has grown up and married him, and she’s standing by him through one of the worst periods of his life and bringing some joy into his life.
I’m pretty uncomfortable talking about all this because these are real people, and I try very hard to stay out of an artist’s private life as much as possible. But these real people also symbolize certain things, and the symbolism of that image with Lisa Marie Presley is so powerful to me.
Joie: Well, I absolutely agree with you that the still small voice in “You Are Not Alone” is definitely that of My Baby. But I can’t agree that it has anything to do with Lisa Marie Presley in the literal sense. In the abstract as a visual cue, yes definitely. The recreation of Daybreak for this video was an inspired choice in my opinion as it expertly captures the intimate, private place that Michael is trying to take us to here, and the use of his wife as the visual portrayal of My Baby makes perfect sense to me. After all, if My Baby were a real person, she would certainly be the person who was closest to him and knew him intimately – as a wife does.
However, he repeatedly says that “something whispers in his ear.” Not someone, something. That still small voice. His very soul. His inner self. That part of him that he has nurtured and tried so hard to protect over the years and keep pure. Away from all of the “bad girls” and the bad media that have threatened My Baby for so long. And what does that voice say to him? “You are not alone.” Even though he may feel like the loneliest person on the face of the earth – which is the feeling all those shots of him standing alone in front of the beautiful nature scenes and onstage in the deserted theater are meant to evoke – he is not alone. He still has his soul and it’s intact and strong. It may be a little bruised and banged up but, it is still there. And he can still feel it, calling to him, telling him that what he has just been through was a nightmare but, he got through it and he came out the other side and there is still hope for a bright future.
Even though Michael didn’t write this particular song, I believe that the lyrics must have spoken to him on some level and perhaps they expressed something – some emotion or idea – that he could relate to and identify with. And I think that something was My Baby.
Willa: Joie, that’s beautiful. I was groping forward, trying to get at what that recurring scene symbolized and why it was so moving for me, and just not getting there. And you beautifully captured in words that feeling I have when I watch this video. I do think it’s significant that the woman in this scene is Lisa Marie Presley. It wouldn’t have the same depth of meaning if it were just any actress from a casting call who didn’t have her history. But I love the way you brought our discussion back to the idea of My Baby as representing a part of himself – as something that will always be there for him, whether it’s his soul or his heart or his muse. As you describe so well, this video is an affirmation that there is something inside that will sustain him, regardless of what threatens him in the outside world.
A Touch, a Kiss, a Whisper of Love
You’ll never make me stay So take your weight off of me I know your every move So won’t you just let me be I’ve been here times before But I was too blind to see That you seduce every man This time you won’t seduce me
Joie: With these words begin the game of seduction that is “Dirty Diana.” And it’s apparently one they’ve been playing for some time. He knows her “every move,” he’s “been here times before.” But this time it’s different. This time he’s finally opened his eyes and he sees her now for what she really is, and he doesn’t want to go through it again.
She’s saying that’s ok Hey baby do what you please I have the stuff that you want I am the thing that you need She looked me deep in the eyes She’s touchin’ me so to start She says there’s no turnin’ back She trapped me in her heart
She wants him and she’s not willing to take no for an answer. So she taunts him, telling him that she knows exactly what he wants and what he needs. Then she touches him suggestively and says, “there’s no turnin’ back.” He’s been trapped by this beautiful, ruthless seductress and he’s torn. On one side there’s My Baby, the woman he loves and has waiting for him at home. But standing right in front of him is this wicked temptress, telling him that she’s ready and willing. He wants to be faithful. But he’s also strangely drawn to this other woman. She’s wild and exciting and unpredictable and he likes that. But he also likes the fact that My Baby is in his life, someone who knows him and loves him and cares about him. He feels this same dilemma in “Dangerous”:
She came at me in sections With the eyes of desire I fell trapped into her web of sin A touch, a kiss A whisper of love I was at the point of no return
Once again, he feels trapped. But this time, it’s a little darker. The first time, he sings, “She trapped me in her heart.” The second time, he is “trapped into her web of sin.” The Bad album was released in 1988 when Michael was still a relatively young, inexperienced man but Dangerous is released a few years later in 1991, and few years can make a whole lot of difference. So in 1988, he was a little bit naive and then caught completely by surprise when Diana grabs the phone out of his hand and tells My Baby that he’s not coming home “because he’s sleeping with me.” But in 1991, he’s not so naive anymore and he knows exactly what he’s getting into.
Her mouth was Smoother than oil But her inner spirit Is as sharp as A two-edged sword But I loved it ‘Cause it’s dangerous
He knows it’s wrong. He knows he shouldn’t. But he can’t help himself; he’s inexplicably drawn to her. But who is she really? And if we continue to see My Baby as representing a part of his psyche or his inner self, then who exactly are these other women who constantly threaten her and try to come between them? Could these women possibly represent another side of his own psyche? Perhaps the part of him that courted fame, the side of him that was drawn to entertaining and creating and being on stage. That part of him that loved being in front of a camera or onstage performing in front of 80,000 people. Is it possible that these “dangerous” women represent fame itself and that Michael Jackson often felt seduced by it? Compelled to go off with her instead of going home to My Baby. Compelled to pursue his career instead of nurturing that secret part of himself that he tried to keep safely hidden away from the limelight.
Fame is the dream of many, the hope of millions. But it always comes at a price and often, those who find it end up wishing that it was different. Fame is wild and exciting and unpredictable – just like the temptress in both “Dirty Diana” and “Dangerous.” But fame can also be brutal and unkind and hurtful to those who get in its way. Just ask My Baby.
Willa: Wow, Joie. You’ve officially blown me away. I had never considered the possibility that these seductive, threatening women were fame itself, or that part of himself that was drawn to fame. But now that you say that, it makes perfect sense. It never made sense to me that he would be attracted to a cruel person, to someone whose “inner spirit is as sharp as a two-edged sword.” But fame is cruel, and he knows it, but still he’s drawn to it. That makes perfect sense. It also explains why he can’t escape it – why these seductive women reappear again and again, album after album, threatening My Baby. He can’t escape it because it’s also a part of him, just as My Baby is – the part of himself that’s drawn to fame.
It also explains why this complicated love triangle that has entangled him for years suddenly disappears after the false accusations came out in 1993, and he discovered just how cruel fame could be. That was such a searing experience for him that fame no longer attracts him. The spell has been broken, and now he sees fame for what it truly is. He still recognizes and respects its power – maybe more so than before – but he’s no longer naively drawn to it, and he doesn’t let it threaten My Baby.
Joie: No, he doesn’t let it threaten My Baby anymore. It’s like from that point (1993) on, he goes to much greater efforts to keep the two apart, and he makes a conscious decision to focus on My Baby – or his private life. He gets married and tries to start a family. It doesn’t work the first time but, he keeps trying. He becomes a father. He takes active steps to build a happy private life, to nurture My Baby a little bit.
And I never thought about it before either! For years, I always thought that the threatening women were referring to the media, the tabloids, the paparazzi, etc. It wasn’t until writing this blog and focusing on “Dirty Diana” and “Dangerous” that it hit me like a lightning bolt. Fame is the bold, threatening presence in this threesome. I think it all makes so much sense now.
Willa: I agree, and I’m so intrigued by this idea. I really want to go back and listen to those earlier songs again with this interpretation in mind, and see if it sheds new light on that ongoing conflict between the protagonist, My Baby, and the women who threaten her. But this conflict abruptly disappears after 1993. After the horror of that experience, he no longer lets the allure of fame threaten My Baby. She’s still somewhat fragile and in need of protection, but the threats are different now.
We’re introduced to one of those threats in “Ghosts,” the first song to reference My Baby after the 1993 scandal erupted. As the video makes clear, he’s addressing a threatening figure – a figure many critics saw as representing District Attorney Tom Sneddon, the man who led the investigation against Jackson. The protagonist is standing up to this figure and demanding answers, repeatedly asking him,
And who gave you the right to shake my family? And who gave you the right to shake My Baby? She needs me And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?
So once again My Baby is at risk, but this time it isn’t a seductress who hurts her. It’s the police. And this time the protagonist isn’t torn by conflicting impulses. He knows whose side he’s on, and he’s doing everything he can to defend and protect her. He’s clearly addressing an authority figure in this scene, and importantly, he’s challenging the very basis of his authority. As he repeatedly asks this man, “who gave you the right . . . ?” Why do you have this authority, this power to “shake” another person’s life? Where does this authority come from? What gives you the right to treat other people this way?
This line of questioning is repeated three times over the course of “Ghosts,” but the third time it’s extended and a new question is subtly added in the midst of the other questions:
And who gave you the right to shake my family? And who gave you the right to shake My Baby? She needs me And who gave you the right to shake my family tree? And who gave you the right to take intrusion, To see me? And who gave you the right to shake my family? And who gave you the right to shake My Baby? She needs me And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?
This new question is “Who gave you the right to take intrusion / To see me?” I think this is clearly a reference to the strip search that was conducted on December 20, 1993 – a procedure ordered by Tom Sneddon – where the most intimate parts of Michael Jackson’s body were photographed and videotaped by the police.
My sense is that he experienced that strip search as a rape – a police-authorized rape – and I don’t use that word lightly. For example, in “They Don’t Care about Us,” he says, “I am the victim of police brutality. . . . You’re raping me of my pride.” And in “Privacy” he references “that cold winter night” when “my pride was snatched away.” The immediate context suggests he’s talking about the death of Princess Diana while being chased by paparazzi, but she died in August. The strip search occurred in December. And if we look at the wider context of those lyrics, we see that he repeatedly juxtaposes his experiences and hers.
I’m not sure it’s possible to overstate how deeply the events of 1993 impacted Michael Jackson. His world view shifts in profound ways after that time, and one of those shifts is in the way he viewed institutions of power, such as the police or the press. He was always very concerned about injustice and discrimination, but before 1993 his focus was on occasional injustices that occurred within those institutions. After 1993, his focus is on the institutions themselves, and what gives them the right to invade the most intimate aspects of a person’s life – the place where My Baby dwells.
Joie: Willa, I completely agree with you that he experienced the strip search as a rape and was deeply affected by it. It’s like after the events of 1993 and that whole battle, he is a different person in terms of his relationship with his fame. And I think you were right when you said that My Baby is still fragile and in need of protection but that the threats to her are different now. In fact, the threats to her seem to have turned a little bit sinister after the allegations. Just listening to the lyrics of “Ghosts” makes that clear. And the lyrics of “Heaven Can Wait” are somewhat sinister as well, and also slightly sad.
You’re beautiful Each moment spent with you is simply wonderful This love I have for you girl, it’s incredible I don’t know what I’d do, if I can’t be with you The world could not go on so every night I pray If the Lord should come for me before I wake I wouldn’t wanna go if I can’t see your face Can’t hold you close What good would Heaven be If the angels came for me I’d tell them no
On the surface, it’s a beautiful song about how he loves this woman – My Baby – so much that he doesn’t want to leave her for anything. Not even for Heaven. But if My Baby represents his private life that he has worked so hard to build and maintain – a life that now includes his precious children who he adores – then this song suddenly takes on new meaning. And if we continue our theory that the threat to My Baby is fame itself, then these lyrics are like a foreshadowing. Almost as if he has resigned himself to the fact that, ultimately, his fame will be the reason for his demise and he feels powerless to overcome that. At the end of the song he begs, “Just leave us alone. Please leave us alone.” It’s a futile attempt and he knows it, but he has to try anyway. His babies – My Baby – are at stake now.
Willa: Joie, I agree with you for the most part, except that I see him feeling much more empowered than you do. He’s been severely tested now. Really, he’s been to hell and back. And he survived, with his soul, his psyche, his inner being intact. It was horrible – no one should have to go through the years of misery he endured – but he survived. He knows nothing can separate him from My Baby without his permission. And now he’s challenging Death itself to divide him from that innermost part of himself. As he sings in the final stanza, he refuses to go without her:
Oh no, can’t be without My Baby Won’t go, without her I’ll go crazy Oh no, guess Heaven will be waiting
He knows his own strength now. He may lose everything else – he can’t control fate – but he won’t lose My Baby: his soul, his psyche, his self-knowledge, his creativity.
Joie: No, don’t misunderstand me. What I’m saying is that his plea, “Just leave us alone,” is futile. He knows that, no matter how much he begs, fame (or death, or the media, or Sneddon) is never going to leave him alone. All of those threats to My Baby are never truly going away. But I agree with you that he is empowered. As I said, he is a much different person after the events of 1993, and in many ways he is much stronger and much wiser than he ever was before. And he’s also much more at peace. It’s like My Baby is his anchor and he finally realizes that and respects it and he’ll do anything to protect it.
Joie: So, Willa, for the past two weeks, we have looked at two out of the three Michael Jackson works that you say sort of form The Trilogy of his aesthetic – “Ben” and Thriller. This week, let’s go over the final work in that trilogy – Ghosts – and talk about how it fits in and how all three of them seem to deal with this complicated issue of crossing the boundaries that separate us. As we all know, this is a subject that Michael dealt with often in his career and, for you, this idea of The Trilogy is very important because of it, right?
Willa: It really is, partly because each of these works is so important individually, and partly because looking at them together allows us to see the progression of his ideas.
In “Ben,” which was recorded in January of 1972, Michael Jackson adopts the role of a young boy who becomes friends with a rat. Most humans see rats as disgusting, as “other,” so this friendship is a socially transgressive act. In other words, “Ben” is the story of an improper friendship. But it presents this relationship as so special and beautiful that it challenges us to alter our perceptions about this unconventional friendship. Importantly, though, while the boy and the rat cross social boundaries, they’re external boundaries. What I mean is they cross the boundary between them by becoming friends, but the boy remains a boy and the rat remains a rat.
Twelve years later, in December of 1983, Michael Jackson released the Thriller video, and it expands the ideas of “Ben” in crucially important ways. Once again, Michael Jackson is a young man crossing socially prohibited boundaries, but this time those boundaries are within himself. He becomes a werewolf, which blurs the boundary between man and animal, and then becomes a zombie, which blurs the boundary between living and dead. So Thriller isn’t about an “improper” friendship but about an “improper” person whose identity is constantly in flux. So it internalizes the crossing of those boundaries and alters how we perceive and respond to this unconventional person, as well as how we perceive and maybe express the prohibited boundaries we feel within ourselves.
What’s especially interesting about Thriller, though, is how it reworks the emotions of this issue. Basically, Thriller tells us that crossing boundaries isn’t scary – it’s fun! It’s thrilling, in fact. Look at the many Michael characters on screen. Which one do you want to be? The repressed Michael at the beginning who’s trying very hard to be a proper person, or the free-spirited Michael who’s cutting loose and dancing with zombies? As you said so well last week, Joie, he’s “inhabiting those differences” he feels within himself – he’s embracing the many different aspects of his personality, including the scary or shameful parts we’re told to keep hidden – and he’s having a blast! Just look at him dance, and look at his face at the end when he turns and fixes us with those freaky cat eyes. He’s beaming! He couldn’t be happier. Thriller handles this all so skillfully and effortlessly that we don’t realize what a radical psychological shift this is, but I believe Thriller functions at a deep psychological level to challenge some of our most primal fears about difference, about “other,” and neutralize them. And it’s brilliant.
Thirteen years later, in 1996, Michael Jackson created Ghosts and took another quantum leap forward. This time he’s approaching the issue in a theoretical way and suggesting specific ways in which art can help us overcome the boundaries between us. In other words, Ghosts isn’t just a work of art. It’s meta-art – it’s art about art – and in it we see evidence of Michael Jackson creating a new poetics.
Joie: You know, Willa, that’s something you say often – that Michael was creating a new poetics. Can you explain what you mean in very simple terms for those who may not understand what it is you’re trying to say?
Willa: That’s a really good question, Joie. There are many different definitions, actually, but what I mean is that he’s creating a new philosophy of art, or a new paradigm for conceptualizing art – a new theoretical framework for understanding what art is, how it functions, and what it has the potential to accomplish. You know, if we go back and look at the major artists in history – artists like da Vinci, Michelangelo, Vermeer, Monet, van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol – they didn’t just create important works of art. They also altered our definition of art, and that’s what Michael Jackson is doing. He’s creating exquisite works of art, but he’s also redefining what art is and expanding our ideas about what is possible through art. And that’s why he’s the most important artist of our time.
Joie: Ok, so let’s talk about what’s going on in Ghosts and why you feel it’s part of The Trilogy. You say that Ghosts is art about art, but how does it fit in with this theme of crossing the boundaries that keep us separated?
Willa: Well, as we’ve talked about before, Ghosts is the story of an artist – a Maestro – who’s under attack by the provincial townspeople of Normal Valley. They’re scared of him because he’s so unnervingly different – they think he’s a “freak,” a “weirdo” – so they approach his home with torches in hand, determined to drive him away. But something unexpected happens: the Maestro engages them in a series of artistic experiences, and through those artistic experiences not only changes how they feel about him, but how they feel about difference more generally.
So Ghosts is functioning on several levels at once. On one level, it’s pure entertainment and engaging us in an interesting story. At another level, it’s creating a parable for what was actually happening to Michael Jackson himself in real life, and explaining how he plans to respond as an artist to the threats against him by Tom Sneddon and others. And at another level, it’s art talking about art and demonstrating how art can change perceptions and bring about significant social change – just like it changes the perceptions and attitudes of the residents of Normal Valley.
Joie: That is really very interesting, Willa. You know, I’ve said this before but, I really feel like I need to say it again. Before you asked me to read M Poetica and give you my opinion on it, I never really thought about Michael’s work on such a deep artistic level before. And I know now that it was because I didn’t really have the tools or the knowledge to do so. But I really feel like you have taught me so much about art and about how to interpret art, and I’m really grateful for that. Its allowed me to really examine Michael’s work in a way I never really had before.
Willa: Well, believe me, Joie, I know exactly how you feel. I enjoyed Thriller for years simply as a very entertaining video. In fact, I still enjoy it that way, and that’s perfectly ok. In the 1999 MTV interview we cited last week, Michael Jackson is asked what makes a good music video, and his first response is, “In my opinion, it has to be completely entertaining.” And he succeeded: his work in general, and Thriller in particular, is wonderfully entertaining.
But as much as I appreciated Thriller simply as entertainment, I increasingly felt there was a lot more going on – but I just couldn’t get my mind around it somehow. I could feel that something significant was happening, but I couldn’t explain it, not even to myself. It wasn’t until I started studying Ghosts that something clicked for me. As I mentioned earlier, Ghosts isn’t just a work of art – it’s also art talking about art, and exploring specific ways that art can change people’s minds about difference and bring about social change. And as I studied that and thought about it, I suddenly realized that the specific processes he’s describing in Ghosts are happening in Thriller. So basically, Ghosts gave me the tools I needed to interpret Thriller in a whole new way. For me, Ghosts opened up a new avenue for thinking about art, and that new view allowed me to see Thriller in ways I never had before.
So Michael Jackson isn’t just creating a new type of art that functions in a new way, which is amazing enough. He’s also providing us with the theoretical apparatus we need to interpret this new kind of art. And Joie, it just blows me away. As an artist, he’s phenomenally intelligent and phenomenally creative – just off-the-charts brilliant – and I think we’re only beginning to realize the depths of his work and the tremendous implications of what he’s showing us.
Joie: Well, I agree completely that he is ‘off-the-charts brilliant’ as you put it. I don’t think anyone would dispute that. And I have to say that, I really love your observation that Ghosts is ‘art talking about art.’ That’s not only a really profound statement to make but, it was also a very profound, very bold move for Michael Jackson to make. Create a video – a work of art – that talks about art and the ways we can use it to educate and to change people’s minds about the social injustices surrounding us. That’s amazing stuff!
Willa: It really is. And in Ghosts, we see him directly addressing a very specific question about art and the power of art: How can an artist use art to change people’s minds about those they reject as different, especially when their antipathy is based on false narratives and unfounded prejudices?
As I mentioned earlier, Ghosts begins with the residents of Normal Valley approaching the Maestro’s home, intent on driving him out because they think he’s monstrous, a “freak.” And their emotions at that moment are pretty complicated: they fear him, but they’re also excited and empowered by the idea of driving him out.
As we discussed in a post about Ghosts a few weeks ago, the Maestro responds to the townspeople with a two-phase process. First he takes on their fears and desires and reflects those emotions back at them: he appears to them in a mask, so gives them the monster they want him to be. But then he lowers the mask and reveals it’s just an illusion. That’s the second phase. And this quick double movement of first inflating their fears and desires and then deflating them provides a type of catharsis, and helps neutralize the emotions they are projecting onto him.
But the Mayor doesn’t want those fears neutralized. His goal is just the opposite – he wants to whip up those emotions and keep the townspeople in a state of fear and agitation. So he begins building his case against the Maestro: that he’s a “freak,” a scary unknown, a monster who’s infecting the town’s children with mysterious ghost stories. In response, the Maestro once again evokes that two-phase movement of embodying and inflating the emotions they’re projecting onto him and then deflating them. First, he distorts his face, making it grotesque and scary. Here are a couple of screen captures:
Then he rips his face off altogether so there’s nothing but a laughing skull. But importantly, after the townspeople have fully experienced those emotions they were projecting onto him, he cracks the skull, reveals his true face, and shows it’s all just an illusion.
Then he enacts this two-phase process a third time, but it’s a little different this time around because their emotions have changed, so the emotions they’re projecting onto him have changed. They aren’t as afraid of him as they were before – in fact, they’re starting to enjoy him and his “freakish” troupe of dancers – but they’re still unsure of him and still want him to leave, though they’re conflicted about it. So he enacts those emotions for them: he destroys himself and turns to dust before their eyes. But then he reappears and once again shows it was just an illusion. So repeatedly we see him embodying and even exaggerating the fears and desires the townspeople are projecting onto him, and then diffusing them.
Joie: I think it’s really interesting that he repeats this process over and over again throughout this short film. That lets me know that he was really trying to make a point. There’s something that he wants us to really get … some idea that he wants us to really grasp and understand. Otherwise why keep repeating yourself?
Willa: It feels that way to me too. He enacts this double movement three times in Ghosts, one right after the other – in fact, that’s basically the plot of Ghosts, that series of three double movements – which tells me this is really significant. Importantly, that’s exactly what he’s doing in Thriller as well, as we talked about last week. In fact, the plot of Thriller is also a series of three double movements – or rather two and a half since the last one ends unresolved – and if we look at what was happening in 1983, the plot of Thriller makes perfect sense. In the early 1980s, he was our nation’s first Black teen idol, which was both titillating and monstrous to a lot of people. So he responds by becoming a monster onscreen – a werewolf, a zombie, an unknown creature with cat eyes – but then neutralizes those emotions by showing us “It’s only a movie.”
And I believe he responded to the media hysteria surrounding the false molestation allegations the same way. Through the illusion of plastic surgery, he made himself monstrous in the public mind. But it’s just an illusion. He’s merely reflecting what the public is projecting onto him, as he explains very clearly in “Is It Scary”:
I’m gonna be Exactly what you wanna see It’s you who’s taunting me Because you’re wanting me To be the stranger in the night Am I amusing you Or just confusing you? Am I the beast you visualized? And if you wanna see Eccentric oddities I’ll be grotesque before your eyes Let them all materialize. … So did you come to me To see your fantasies Performed before your very eyes? A haunting ghostly treat The ghoulish trickery And spirits dancing in the night? But if you came to see The truth, the purity It’s here inside a lonely heart So let the performance start So tell me, Is that realism for you, baby? Am I scary for you?
The plastic surgery scandal was, in fact, a type of performance art, but it was an entirely new kind of art unlike any we’ve ever seen before. It was “realism” on a scale we’ve never experienced before. It’s such a new kind of art it’s hard to recognize it at first, but it’s a work of art with a very specific purpose and function – to rewrite a false cultural narrative and provide catharsis for the emotions driving that false narrative. It’s breathtaking in its sheer audacity, but once we get our minds around it, we realize it’s built on sound principles of art and psychology – and the intersection of art and psychology, especially group psychology, is a primary focus of Michael Jackson’s aesthetic. In other words, it’s perfectly aligned with the artistic principles he’s establishing in Ghosts and throughout his work.
And Joie, I can’t say emphatically enough how important and radical this work is. In M Poetica I said that I see his face as his masterpiece, and I believe that strongly. I love his voice and his music and his dancing and his films – you know how much I love them – but his face, and the illusions he conducted through his face, points the way to a new kind of art that has the potential to challenge some of our most entrenched cultural narratives and rewrite those narratives. And that is truly revolutionary.
Joie: Willa, I love the way you put that: “It’s breathtaking in its sheer audacity.” That is such a true statement when it comes to anything having to do with Michael Jackson. I think that sentence pretty much sums up his entire career and persona. He was “breathtaking in his sheer audacity!”
Joie: So Willa, last week we began a discussion about something you call The Trilogy, and it has to do with the way you relate to three of Michael Jackson’s works – “Ben,” Thriller, and Ghosts – and how you feel that they all fit together in some way and sort of form Michael Jackson’s aesthetic. Last week we concentrated on the song “Ben” and what a powerful message of acceptance that song carries. This week, I was hoping we could take a look at the Thriller short film and talk about how it fits into this idea of The Trilogy for you.
Willa: Well, as we’ve talked about before, I see challenging the differences that divide us as a primary focus of Michael Jackson’s art and life. He was driven by a vision of all of us united as one people, despite divisions of race, gender, nationality, sexuality, age, religion, disability, or any other differences used to segregate people into separate camps. We see this in song after song, video after video, as well as in interviews and speeches and the charities he supported. However, for me, there are three works in particular that shine like beacons and really challenge the artificial boundaries that divide us, and those three are “Ben,” Thriller, and Ghosts.
Joie: That’s really interesting, Willa, because as I said last week, I have never looked at the Thriller short film as addressing ‘the artificial boundaries,’ as you put it or the differences between us all. I’m really interested to hear how you see this.
Willa: Well, it’s subtly handled – in fact, it’s almost like he’s transmitting his message in a preconscious way – but all three of these works breach the boundaries between us in new and compelling ways, and I especially see that in Thriller.
As we all know, both Thriller and Ghosts play off of the horror movie genre. But interestingly, when Alex Colletti asked Michael Jackson, “Were you a fan of horror movies?” in a 1999 MTV interview, he replied,
Believe it or not, I’m afraid to watch scary movies. Honestly, I don’t quite like to watch them very much. I never thought I’d be involved in making that sort of thing.
And evoking horror doesn’t seem to be his objective in these two short films. There seems to be something else going on.
If we look carefully at Thriller, we discover that it’s a very specific type of horror movie. It isn’t about mutant spiders or snakes, or an enormous ape climbing the Empire State building, or dinosaurs brought back to life through their DNA. It’s not about an especially lethal tornado or tidal wave or an asteroid about to hit the Earth. It’s not about extra-terrestrial aliens intent on world domination, or a mysterious infection sweeping the population. It’s not about a homicidal maniac with a chain saw or a rifle or an unquenchable taste for his fellow humans. It’s not about an ancient prediction that the world will end in two weeks, or the start of World War III, or nuclear holocaust, or environmental collapse. It’s not even a monster movie in the same way as Godzilla or Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Joie: Well, you make a really good point here but, now I’m afraid you have me wanting to curl up on the couch with some DVDs and a big bowl of popcorn!
Willa: That’s funny! We should have a movie night sometime, though I’m warning you – I’m a wimp when it comes to scary movies. But if we look closely at Thriller, we discover it’s a very specific kind of horror movie: it’s the story of a cute teenage boy who crosses boundaries. First he crosses the boundary between wolf and man, but he doesn’t cross that boundary completely. He doesn’t become a wolf. Instead, he stops midway and comes to inhabit this intermediate space where he is both wolf and man. He becomes a wolfman, a werewolf. Later he confuses the boundary between the living and the dead, and again comes to inhabit this weird in-between space where he is both living and dead. He becomes one of the undead, a zombie.
Joie: Ok. I think I see where you’re going with this. Basically, what you’re saying is that you feel Michael Jackson’s character in Thriller is sort of symbolic of embracing the differences between us that we talked about last week when looking at the song “Ben.” In the Thriller video, his character is inhabiting those differences and purposely crossing those boundaries.
Willa: Exactly. That’s exactly where I was heading, and you’re right – it ties in beautifully with “Ben” and expands the ideas he was singing about in that song. But I think there’s a lot more going on as well.
Julia Kristeva is a literary theorist who’s also a psychoanalyst, and she believes that humans feel a deep psychological threat when certain kinds of boundaries are blurred or challenged or transgressed in some way. As she describes in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, we create our identity and define who we are by creating boundaries between what is us and what is not us, so anything that threatens to break down those boundaries also threatens us with dissolution – it threatens our identity at the most fundamental psychological level. For example, she says that’s why we feel such disgust toward human waste, because it has crossed the boundary between inside the body and outside the body, between us and not-us, and forced us to realize that those boundaries are more permeable than we’d like them to be, and that threatens us at a deep, primal level.
Joie: Now that is really interesting! I’ve never heard of her before but, I’d like to read that book. It sounds fascinating.
Willa: Oh, it is fascinating, and it’s really led me to see this issue of crossing boundaries in a very different way – not just as a social/political issue, but as a powerful psychological issue. She also talks about corpses, and why they are so horrifying to us:
If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel, “I” is expelled. The border has become an object. How can I be without border?
So Kristeva sees our revulsion for corpses as the most extreme example of the primal fear that threatens to overwhelm us when the boundaries between us and not-us fail. As she says, “How can I be without border?” It threatens our very existence, psychologically. It threatens who we are, the “I” that I establish as myself. And I think this explains why corpses figure so prominently in two of Michael Jackson’s most important works, even though he didn’t like horror movies. It’s because he’s directly confronting our deepest fears of the dissolution of those boundaries at their most primal level.
Aldebaran provided a fascinating example of this deep-seated fear of transgressing boundaries in a comment a couple of weeks ago, when she talked about an article in The Guardian. As Aldebaran described it, the article is
about a bi-racial family and they had twins – one twin was born Black and the other White. Interestingly, it was the White twin who got bullied in school, so much that his parents took him out. It is a very interesting article about the racial barriers in place. The kids bullied the White twin b/c they thought he was really Black yet appeared White – sort of like MJ and the dancer Arthur Wright. In school the teachers wanted the White twin to draw himself as Black – it was unreal.
If we look at this situation through the lens of Kristeva’s ideas, the actions of the school bullies make perfect sense. They didn’t bully the “Black” twin because he looked Black, he stayed within his proper category, and therefore didn’t threaten their identity. He was “safely” Black. But the other twin had the same parents and the same genetic background and therefore was signified as “Black” by the other kids and even the teachers, but he looked White. Apparently, blurring this boundary between Black and White presented a deep psychological threat to those school kids because he looked like he was one of them but they felt he was not one of them. They reacted to that threat by reinforcing the boundary between them and him – in other words, they bullied him to state very clearly to him (and themselves) that he was not-them.
And of course, as Aldebaran points out, this is “sort of like MJ.” He challenged racial boundaries even before he developed vitiligo, and he blurred many other boundaries as well. And that provoked a violent backlash, just like the backlash against the White-Black twin.
Joie: Well, that is very true; he did. And, I guess we could make the argument that Kristeva’s theories could apply to racism in all its forms – that “us vs. them” mentality or thought process that always gets us into trouble.
Willa: That’s true, or to anti-Semitism, or misogyny, or homophobia, or xenophobia, or any of the prejudices that divide us. And how do we as a culture break out of that? There is no logical reason why those boundaries have been drawn the way they have – there’s nothing real or true or natural about those boundaries – but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and don’t pack a lot of psychological power. I think that is the problem Thriller is tackling. We could spend months exploring this more fully, but I think Thriller functions at a deep psychological level by directly confronting the fear and horror we feel toward anything – or anyone – who transgresses the boundaries we use to define ourselves.
For example, at the time Thriller was made, Michael Jackson was becoming recognized as a sex symbol of the same magnitude as Elvis or the Beatles or Frank Sinatra. It was unheard of for a Black man to be in that position, in part because the United States is a deeply racist country with strong prohibitions against sexual attraction between Black men and White women. One element of that racism is a centuries-old cultural narrative that Black men are oversexed, that they can’t control their animal urges, that they are in fact rapists. Statistically, a White woman is much more likely to be raped by her (White) boyfriend than by a (Black) stranger on the street, and that message is being conveyed more accurately now. But in the early 1980s, when Thriller was released, it was still very common for young White women to be warned not to walk alone, especially in unfamiliar places, because they could be attacked by a (Black) assailant.
So what does it mean to be a Black male sex symbol in a country that signifies Black men as unable to control their sexual urges? That’s a incredibly complicated situation to be in, and that’s one of the issues Michael Jackson confronts in Thriller. The film begins with a teenage boy and girl out on a date. Importantly, the boy’s name is Michael, so there’s an identification between the character on screen and Michael Jackson himself, and that’s significant. It wouldn’t work quite the same way if his name were William or Gregory.
This teenage couple is in a car and they run out of gas – a familiar ploy for “parking” or making out, so we’re in a sexual situation – and suddenly we are confronted with our worst fears. This rather repressed young Black man loses control of himself, he can’t control his animal urges, he becomes unrecognizable, and he assaults his girlfriend. It’s like a rape scene: she’s lying on her back in fear, he’s looming over her, and he attacks her. We don’t see it but we hear it, and we see the reactions of the audience watching this scene, including the boyfriend and girlfriend, who are now positioned in the movie theater with the audience. She can’t take it and walks out, and he follows her and tells her, “It’s only a movie.”
Joie: Wow, Willa. You know, I had never looked at that scene as mirroring a rape scenario before but, you’re absolutely right; it does play out that way, doesn’t it? Now I feel silly for never picking up on that before!
Willa: Well it’s very subtly handled, and we can interpret this intro section of Thriller many ways, but one way is to see it as directly challenging the racist cultural narrative that Black men cannot control their sexual urges. And it does so brilliantly through a two-phase process. First, it exaggerates this myth, inflating it until its huge and fills our minds, so we as a nation are forced to come face to face with our worst fears. And then it explodes that myth and shows us it’s just an illusion. Our fears are just a myth, a false cultural narrative – or as Michael tells us, “It’s only a movie.”
But I want to emphasize that this is merely one way to interpret Thriller, and to be honest, I don’t particularly like this interpretation. It’s too specific, and feels too restrictive to me. Those elements are definitely in there, so I think this is a valid interpretation, but to me Thriller is about much more than that. It’s addressing difference more generally, and it is functioning at a deep psychological, almost preconscious level. And what it’s saying – amazingly enough – is that crossing boundaries isn’t scary. It’s fun! That to me is the message of Thriller, and what an incredible message it is! It’s taking all those fears and flipping them upside down and inside out.
Thriller is an amazing work of art. Everything about it – the way the narrative is structured, the way the two central characters reappear again and again, the way it draws on and connects the legend of the werewolf and the zombie, the way it incorporates song and dance into the narrative – every detail is stunning and perfect. It’s truly a brilliant work of art, but it’s also a work of art that brought about profound cultural changes, and we’re just beginning to look at that in an in-depth way. And I think we’re far from understanding it.
Joie: I think you’re right about that; we are very far from understanding most of what Michael was trying to teach us through his art. You know, according to Merriam-Webster, one of the definitions of the word prophet is: one gifted with more than ordinary spiritual and moral insight; especially: an inspired poet. I think that definition could easily be describing Michael Jackson.
Willa: Oh, I love that! “An inspired poet” – what a great description!
Joie: It is nice, isn’t it? And as I’ve said before, I truly believe that each short film had a message or a lesson hidden in there somewhere and it was usually a lesson about how we should be treating one another with love and respect. I believe that was his mission and his purpose here on this Earth and he completed that mission to the very best of his ability. The rest is up to us now.
On a side note – Willa and I have come across a clip of the Adair Lion video, Ben. So, as promised, we have now updated last week’s post with the new link so, be sure to go back and check it out!
Willa: So Joie, as Michael Jackson and his collaborators were preparing for the This Is It concerts in London, they created some film segments to be shown on that huge screen behind the stage during the performances of “Bad / They Don’t Care about Us,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Earth Song,” and “Thriller / Ghosts / Threatened.” Kenny Ortega included those films, or parts of them, in the movie, This Is It, and they’re very interesting – like little vignettes or short stories within the larger film.
I’m really intrigued by those short films and how they were going to be incorporated into the concerts. I’m especially intrigued by this one moment in This Is It, just as “Thriller” is about to segue into “Ghosts,” where we see Michael Jackson dancing to “Thriller,” then see a film clip of a rat climbing on an iron fence, and then see one of those huge ghost puppets that were going to be carried throughout the audience during “Ghosts.”
That moment is so interesting to me because, if I had to identify the works that best illustrate Michael Jackson’s aesthetic, I would have to say “Ben,” Thriller, and Ghosts. I find myself returning to these three works again and again when trying to clarify for myself Michael Jackson’s ideas, and his strategies for conveying those ideas. To me, they are the trilogy at the center of his belief system and his aesthetic. And for one brief moment in This Is It, they seem to come together – almost as if they are clasping hands.
Joie: Ok, Willa, I have to be honest and say that you have me a little baffled here. Please explain what you mean about ‘the trilogy’ because, I’m having difficulty understanding how these three works connect for you because, to me – on the surface anyway – the song “Ben” has very little to do with the Thriller and Ghosts short films.
Willa: Well, for me, Michael Jackson was always very interested in “difference” – how we designate it, how we perceive it, and how we respond to it. Because he was Black and because the U.S. is so fixated on race, we tend to interpret his work in terms of racial prejudice – and it’s true that challenging racist ideas and biases was very important to him. But I think he was also talking about difference more generally, and working toward overcoming boundaries of difference based on race, age, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, disability, height, weight, wealth, social status, or even just a vague sense that someone is “weird” or “freakish” or uncomfortably odd in some way.
And I definitely see this in “Ben” – this impulse to question how we perceive and designate difference, and to challenge the prejudices that often result from that. After all, “Ben” is a story about a rat who is despised by most people simply because he’s a rat. But he’s befriended by a boy who is able to see beyond those prejudices and love him for who he is inside. As the boy sings,
Ben, most people would turn you away I don’t listen to a word they say They don’t see you as I do I wish they would try to I’m sure they’d think again If they had a friend like Ben
There have been other works that have tried to turn rats and mice into appealing characters – for example, Stuart Little, or Ratty in Wind in the Willows, or Ralph in Beverly Cleary’s The Mouse and the Motorcycle stories, or Mrs. Tittlemouse in the Beatrix Potter stories.
Joie: Or Mrs. Fribsy and The Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brian. I love that book!
Willa: Oh, that’s a great example! Or more recently, there’s Ratatouille or The Tale of Despereau. But what’s interesting is that in all of these works, these characters are made acceptable by making them less rodent-like and more human – in other words, by making them more “normal” from our point of view. They wear human clothes. They pilot a boat or ride a motorcycle. They live in human-like houses and cook human-like food and do human-like chores. Here’s a picture of Mrs. Tittlemouse:
But “Ben” is very different. The boy knows that Ben is a rat, knows that he is marked as different because of that, but loves him just the way he is. In all those other works, there’s this very strong impulse to make these little rodents cute and appealing and more “normal” – more human. But that impulse is entirely absent from “Ben.” The boy doesn’t seem to feel the need to change Ben to make him more acceptable. He doesn’t dress him up in doll clothes or give him a toy motorcycle to ride or humanize him in any way. It’s much simpler than that. He loves Ben, Ben loves him, and that’s it.
Joie: Ok, I see what you’re saying. And you’re right; he doesn’t attempt to humanize the rat at all. In fact, it’s just the opposite. As you said, he knows that Ben is a rat and that he’s “different.” But he’s not afraid of or intimidated by those differences. Instead, he embraces the differences and loves Ben anyway. It’s a lesson that we can all learn from – love and tolerance. Even though we’re all different doesn’t mean we can’t still treat one another with decency and respect.
Willa: Exactly, and I love the way you put that: “he embraces the differences.” He’s not saying differences don’t exist. They do – we’re all wonderfully different. Instead, he’s saying that those kinds of surface differences shouldn’t determine how we respond to each other and feel about each other. He knows Ben is a rat but he also knows his heart, and that’s what’s important. He’s still able to “see” him and genuinely know him, and love him. So instead of trying to make Ben acceptable by trying to change him and make him “normal,” he challenges us to overcome our prejudices and accept Ben the way he is. As he sings, “They don’t see you as I do / I wish they would try to.”
Joie: It makes me think about a video I recently came across by rapper Adair Lion. The song is called “Ben” and, even though he is addressing homosexuality, the song’s message could be talking about racism, sexism, or any other form of prejudice. He samples Michael Jackson’s “Ben” quite a bit in the song and I think that Michael probably would have loved it.
Willa: Oh heavens, Joie, what a wonderful video! Thanks for sharing that. And you’re right, Adair Lion is talking about homophobia but he also parallels it with racism and other forms of prejudice – like when the white girl goes to kiss him and the other white girl stops her and gets pretty violent about it. And he makes those connections explicit in the rap when he says:
I guess him over there He chose to be Black And her Asian And them White And those god-awful gays Chose to live that life
So he’s talking about specific forms of prejudice, but by paralleling them he’s also talking about difference more generally, and that’s very Michael Jackson – and very appropriate to the message of “Ben,” I think.
I’m also really drawn to the scenes of the little girl trying to spend the birthday money her two fathers gave her. It’s a $3 bill, and the woman at the ice cream store rejects her funny money and refuses to serve her an ice cream cone, and the woman at the toy store rejects it as well and refuses to sell her a doll. But then she comes to the taco stand where Adair Lion’s character is working, and his buddy is surprised by the $3 bill but accepts it – he not only sells her a lollypop but gives her two extra ones. It’s a simple straightforward message, but very moving.
And then the video ends with this powerful postscript:
Coincidentally, Ben is the name of someone I’ve never met – my dad So why would I ever judge someone who’s trying to be two Of what I never had?
As you know, Joie, “Ben” is very special to me, and to be perfectly honest I was pretty reluctant to watch this video because the original means so much to me. I guess I was worried he’d misappropriate it or trivialize it somehow. But actually it made me cry. I’m not sure why it affected me so much – maybe because I was about the same age as that little girl the first time I heard “Ben” – but also because this video feels so heart-felt and sincere.
Joie: It is a pretty compelling video; you’re right. And the fact that he has sampled Michael Jackson’s “Ben” only serves to make it that much more powerful since that song is all about seeing past the differences in all of us.
You know, Willa, the sweet sentiment in Michael Jackson’s voice as he sings that song is so overwhelmingly pure and real. And I wonder sometimes if – at only 14 years old – he understood what a huge message that song carried. It certainly feels very heartfelt when you listen to it. The song was written by Don Black and composed by Walter Scharf, and was the theme song for the 1972 film, Ben (the sequel to the 1971 movie Willard, about a killer rat). It was originally intended for young Donny Osmond but he was on tour and unavailable at the time. So, Michael was actually the second choice to record the song – which just confounds me because, as wonderful as Donny Osmond is, I just can’t imagine anyone else but Michael singing it.
Willa: Oh, I know, and apparently Michael Jackson couldn’t either! In an interview with Life After 50 a few months ago, Donny Osmond says he told him that “Ben” was originally written for him, and Michael Jackson said, “Get out of here!” He couldn’t believe it, and I can’t either. “Ben” and Michael Jackson are so connected in my mind.
And you can tell “Ben” was very important to him. You can hear it in his voice, and by how often he returned to it. He sang it in concerts for years, and he included it on almost all of his compilation albums, including The Best of Michael Jackson, Anthology, Number Ones, The Ultimate Collection, and The Essential Michael Jackson.
Joie: That’s true; he did return to it again and again.
Willa: He really did. And as a child he even adopted some pet rats. Here’s a picture:
Perhaps most importantly is how the themes of “Ben” recur in his later work – not just confronting prejudice against difference, but linking that prejudice to perception. In “Ben” he sings, “They don’t see you as I do.” In “Can You Feel It,” he sings,
Can you see what’s going down? Open up your mind … ‘Cause, we’re all the same Yes, the blood inside my veins is inside of you
In “Another Part of Me” he asks, “Can’t you see / You’re just another part of me?” Repeatedly he tells us that prejudice against difference is simply a matter of perception, or rather a culturally produced misperception. Those prejudices aren’t real and natural – children aren’t born with them – they’re just part of our social “conditioning.” And I think we see him challenging this misperception most dramatically in the changing color of his skin. He proved in a way that cannot be denied that, regardless of race, we are all connected. We are all gloriously different, unique individuals, but we are all one people. As he says, “Yes, the blood inside of me is inside of you.”
Joie: Willa, I think that’s a wonderful observation, and I agree completely. I think the message of “Ben” was obviously very important to him. As you pointed out, he would return to this message, in various forms, many times all throughout his career. It might even be fair to say that the message of this song helped to shape the man he became – the songs he wrote about unity and acceptance, the humanitarian causes he chose to support, the humble, loving way he lived his life. I think “Ben” probably had a very profound effect on him.
Willa: You know, that’s interesting because I’ve wondered about that a lot – about what exactly “Ben” meant to him – and I think you’re right. I think “Ben” probably did have a profound effect on him, or maybe it gave him a way to express something he already felt. I know he felt a lot of sympathy for Ben – you can tell that simply by listening to his voice as he sings the lyrics – but I wonder if he identified with him as well. After all, Ben isn’t accepted simply because he’s seen as different, and that’s something Michael Jackson struggled with too. Even as they idolized him, people still treated him as uncomfortably different.
In a 1980 interview with 20/20, his mother tells reporter Sylvia Chase,
“Wherever he goes, everybody’s coming out to see Michael Jackson – you know, want to look at him and see what he looks like – and he said he feels like an animal in a cage.”
When Sylvia Chase asks him about this, he says, “I do, all the time. Well, I shouldn’t say all the time, but I get embarrassed easily. … Being around, you know, everyday people and stuff, I feel strange. I do.” She follows up by saying, “There are some people who believe that, having always been on stage, you’ve never had to deal with the real world.” He replies,
“That’s true in a lot of ways. That’s true in one way. But it’s hard to in my position. I try to sometimes, but people won’t deal with me in that way because they see me differently. They won’t talk to me like they will a next-door neighbor.”
So as he says, people don’t interact with him in a casual, typical way “because they see me differently.” And if he felt that way in 1980 – before Thriller, before vitiligo, before the 1993 allegations and the 2005 trial and the screaming headlines about Wacko Jacko – imagine how he felt later on.
Joie: You’re absolutely right; his isolation only grew as his fame grew. I’m certain that he probably did feel very much ‘like an animal in a cage.’
Willa: Oh, it’s just unimaginable what he had to endure. And there’s another connection between Ben and Michael Jackson that I’ve been thinking about for quite a while now but still haven’t reached any firm conclusions about, and that’s the reasons why they were seen as so strange. And while I’m still trying to figure this out, I think a lot of it has to do with cultural taboos against crossing certain boundaries.
Think about it – why are rats so abhorrent to so many people? I think it’s because they cross boundaries, or rather live in that weird in-between place where two distinct categories overlap. After all, when we think about rats, we don’t generally think about them living in the woods or in meadows or along streams. Instead, we think of them living in sewer pipes and garbage dumps and the basements of tenement buildings or dilapidated houses. In other words, we think of them living at the margins of civilization in places that are neither completely wild nor completely civilized. They exist in this weird no man’s land that blurs the boundary between what’s wild and what’s civilized. We tend to want to keep those ideals distinct and separate, but rats blur the boundary and threaten our notions of both civilization and wilderness – and it’s that threat that makes them abhorrent.
And in many ways, Michael Jackson did the same thing. He lived in that no man’s land between Black and White, masculine and feminine, gay and straight, upper class and lower class, liberal and conservative, child and adult, Christian and Jewish and Islamic and Buddhist, soul and blues and disco and rock, singer and dancer and filmmaker and philosopher. He challenged so many artificial, culturally constructed boundaries. And he didn’t just cross those boundaries. He lived in the in-between space where those categories uncomfortably overlap, and demonstrated that those boundaries are artificial constructs. And that was very threatening to a lot of people, especially those who want to keep those categories clearly defined and separate.
Joie: Ok, Willa. That was yet another ‘Wow’ moment for me! You have just connected the dots and drawn all the parallels between Michael Jackson and the subject of the song “Ben,” and it makes total, perfect sense. And you’re right; people are typically freaked out by rats and it is because we tend to think of them as living on the fringe of society. But rats are actually really cool. Most people are usually very stunned to learn that rats make really good pets. In fact, rats make better pets than mice because they don’t tend to bite like mice will. They are very intelligent, social animals that can be easily tamed and most owners compare the companionship to that of a dog!
So, next week, we will continue this discussion of what Willa calls ‘the trilogy’ with a look at the Thriller short film. And, I have to say, Willa, I’m still not seeing how “Ben” relates to the Thriller and Ghosts short films for you. Maybe I can see the Ghosts video somewhat, as that one really is all about being different. But I guess I just don’t think of the Thriller video in those terms at all. Yes, Michael Jackson’s character in that one is constantly changing from a teenage boy to a werewolf to a zombie and back again but, I just don’t think of this video as being about our “differences.” But, we’ll discuss that next week.
Joie: Willa, last week we talked about the Ghosts short film and that got me thinking about the dance sequence in that video. You know, for so many years, Michael’s name has been synonymous with dance, and he has long been recognized as one of the greatest dancers of our time. I believe we would have to search long and hard to find someone – anyone – who would take issue with that statement. Even people who don’t consider themselves to be fans seem to have no trouble admitting that. In fact, he was the first figure from the world of rock and roll to be inducted into the prestigious National Dance Hall of Fame in 2010.
Willa: Really? How do you know all this, Joie? You’re just amazing. But no, I didn’t know about that. That is impressive.
Joie: Yeah, it is really impressive. Especially since the honor is usually reserved for classically trained dancers from the world of ballet and modern dance. The list of inductees includes names like George Balanchine, Martha Graham and Bronislava Nijinska as well as Fred Astaire and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
I think one of the reasons so many people acknowledge his dance talent is because he always used his short films to showcase that amazing ability, and I really love the big dance sequence in the Ghosts short film. Even though it’s the storyline and the dialogue that really drive this video, the dance sequence, to me, is really just as important. From the very beginning where he introduces the invading villagers to his “family” of ghosts, to the very menacing charge against the Mayor, to the almost angelic conclusion where the ghosts float from the ceiling in reverence. I think it’s one of the most complex dance sequences we’ve ever seen in a Michael Jackson video and I love how he used the background music to sort of shift the mood of the dance throughout – from lighthearted circus-feel entertainment, to very threatening, to almost ethereal. It’s just so much fun to sit and watch; I love to pop in this video and really immerse myself in it.
Willa: Oh, I agree! The dance sequences are fascinating and you’re right – they really propel us through a wide range of emotions. I wish I knew more about dance so I could be more aware of what’s happening and have a better understanding of what he’s doing and why. He had three choreographers, including Travis Payne, working with him and the other dancers on this movie, but the credits say, “All Dance Sequences Conceived and Staged by Michael Jackson.” And you can definitely feel his guiding vision in these dance sequences – they embody through physical movement some of the central themes of the film. And that first dance, with all those ghosts and ghouls dancing behind him, feels so different from any other dance sequence he ever did.
You know, he really liked to develop each dance so that it precisely fit what he was trying to convey in that particular piece. In a 1999 MTV interview, he described how he and Michael Peters choreographed the big dance sequence with the zombies in Thriller:
“It was a delicate thing to work on,” he says, because zombies move in such a stiff, unnatural way – they clomp around on their undead legs and can scarcely walk. As he says, “I remember my original approach was, How do you make zombies and monsters dance without it being comical?” He approached that problem by imaginatively putting himself in the body of a zombie and working through it that way. As he says, “I got in the room with Michael Peters, and he and I together kind of imagined how these zombies should move.”
And they solved the problem brilliantly. When you watch the big dance sequence in Thriller, it feels so right you don’t even think about how difficult it must have been to choreograph a dance for undead legs. He and the other zombies really move, so it’s fun to watch, but there are some distinctive gestures that vividly convey the idea that these are rigid, corpse-like bodies.
Joie: And, you know, it’s not something that most people would think about. But asking the question, “how do you make zombies dance without it being comical,” is really what made him such a brilliant talent – that attention to detail is incredible. He approached everything he did with that same obsessive attention to detail. It’s really astounding to think about! I just love when he says that he would even go so far as to show up for rehearsals with Michael Peters wearing monster makeup in order to get into character, to make it easier to envision just how these undead creatures would move and dance. That dedication to detail is key.
Willa: I agree. I think it’s subtle details like that, along with the ability to imaginatively put yourself in the emotional and physical space of your character, that sets apart great dancers, great actors, great artists. I remember reading an article one time about Baryshnikov when he was very young. He was dancing the role of a toy, I think it was, who comes to life, but he was acting listless on stage. His instructor stopped the music and asked if there was something wrong, and he said no, he just hadn’t come to life yet. I love that! He was dragging around on stage because he was completely immersed in that role and imagining what it would be like to inhabit a wooden mechanical body and not yet have a living body. How would your arms and legs move if they weren’t alive yet?
Michael Jackson had that same imaginative capacity to genuinely inhabit a character and move in a way that suggested he really was a zombie or a gangster or a mayor forced to dance against his will. He describes dancing as the Mayor in “The Making of Ghosts,” about 6½ minutes in:
Joie: You know what I love about that clip, Willa, is the fact that, even though he is being interviewed about his new video, he stays completely in character because of all the makeup and conducts the interview as the Mayor – with the voice, the attitude and everything! So funny.
Willa: I love that too! And then he starts to jerk and move, and it really feels like something inside him is yanking his muscles and compelling him to dance. And then he really gets into it and starts to groove, but there’s still that resistance the Mayor has to the dance. It’s just amazing to hear him talk through what’s happening as he does it, and so fun to watch him pull it off.
I see something similar but a little more complicated happening in the big dance sequence in Ghosts. He’s creating a dance that’s appropriate for these characters – for ghosts and ghouls – but he’s also creating a dance that carries out an important thematic function by evoking the grotesque. He suggests the grotesque in many different ways throughout Ghosts: in the contortions of his face when he first confronts the villagers, in the laughing fool with his jingling three-pointed hat, in the irreverent ghouls who challenge the Mayor, in the upside-down dancing on the ceiling. And he also evokes it through the dance steps themselves. There’s lots of splayed legs, and these skittery spider-like jumps and sidewinder movements that we’ve never seen him do before.
Joie: You’re right, there are lots of really different, menacing, even almost sinister moves in this one. In Thriller, even though they were portraying dancing undead zombies, the feel of the dance was still sort of lighthearted, soft-horror. But in Ghosts, the entire dance sequence feels much darker and more frightening because of the unique choreography.
Willa: I hadn’t thought about that, but it is kind of unsettling, isn’t it, just because it is so different from any dance I can think of. I don’t remember ever seeing a dancer move their body in quite that way before. And you know, while you see people from around the world doing so many distinctive Michael Jackson dance moves, you don’t see them doing those splayed-leg movements from Ghosts. I’ve never seen those moves outside this film, and maybe that’s also because they are so unnervingly different.
There is so much going on in this film, and in the dance sequences, and there are some subtle gestures that really jump out at me in interesting ways. For example, he begins the first dance sequence by calling up all these ghouls to dance with him and then wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. He uses that same gesture in Bad after calling up the imaginary gang members/artists to back him up in the big dance sequence there. And the Macaulay Culkin character does the same thing in the intro to Black or White, just before blasting the electric guitar so loud he sends his father flying back to Africa and the origins of music and dance.
That small gesture seems to carry the same meaning in all three cases. In all three, a rather powerless solitary figure is confronted with the threat of violence, and in all three he stands up to that threat and counters it with art: with music and dance. It’s almost like Michael Jackson is creating his own vocabulary of gesture, so when we see him wipe his mouth with the back of his hand in Ghosts, we feel the echoes of those prior films and kind of know what’s coming.
Joie: “His own vocabulary of gesture.” I like that!
Willa: You know what I mean, right? It’s just so fascinating to me what he’s doing – how he uses subtle gestures like that to signify a very specific concept, but in an unspoken way. He does something similar to begin the skeleton dance. As we were talking about last week, the villagers have very conflicted feelings about the Maestro – they aren’t sure if they can trust him or not – so he reflects that back at them by making himself unfamiliar, a skeleton, but then dances in a very fun, familiar way that draws them to him.
Interestingly, he begins the skeleton dance by jerking up his right shoulder – and that is exactly how he began the zombie dance in Thriller. And he’s dealing with a similar situation in both films. In Thriller, he’s addressing people’s very conflicted feelings about him as our first black teen idol. The United States was and is a racist country with oppressive taboos against inter-racial relationships – especially in the early 1980s when Thriller was made – and suddenly millions of teenage girls of all races were fainting at his concerts and affirming that he was sexually desirable. So he was really challenging those taboos, and a lot of people felt very unsettled about that. He responded to those conflicted emotions just as he does in Ghosts: he makes himself unfamiliar – a zombie – so he reflects those emotions back at us, but then dances in a way that’s unmistakably Michael Jackson and draws us in to him.
Joie: Ok, you have officially blown me away here! I never made that connection between the skeleton dance in Ghosts and the zombie dance in Thriller before. But you are right; he does begin both dances the exact same way, in order to remind us that he is still the same person. Wow!
Willa: Isn’t it fascinating? He just knocks me out, over and over again – he’s just breathtakingly brilliant. Every time I experience his work, I feel awed by it all over again.
Joie: Willa, that is a statement that I think so many of us can agree with. It never fails to astound me that, no matter how many times I listen to his music or watch one of his short films or watch a concert performance, I always discover something new that I had never heard or experienced before. It’s just amazing to me.
Willa: Oh, I know! And it’s so interesting to me how he conveyed meaning through so many different avenues simultaneously. For example, he conveys so much through that gesture of jerking up his right shoulder or wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, and importantly, those gestures are nonverbal. I wonder if that’s one reason his work was so popular around the world – because even if you didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand the lyrics, you could still understand the central ideas because he was able to convey meaning in so many other ways.
And he didn’t just use gesture to convey concepts and emotions. He used them to convey personality details as well that brought his characters vividly to life. In a wonderful comment Nina posted a couple weeks ago, she describes how he was able to “sketch a character” through a few subtle gestures:
As some of the most skilled artist/draftspeople could sketch a character in an attitude or pose with just a few simple lines – so that we become privy to an essence the figure’s demeanor and personality – Michael could perform such a character “sketch” through movement alone. It’s gestural economy at its finest … you can recognize the “character” at once.
Nina goes on to say,
he can strike the attitude of a louche sort of fellow who runs a comb through his hair in “Billie Jean,” a gangster in “Smooth Criminal,” and a different [gangster] in “You Rock My World,” and so on. Each of these characters is composed of a few basic elements that are familiar throughout his repertoire. But these elements are rearranged and sequenced in a different way for each “number,” with variations throughout. It’s no wonder that, as a mime, he’d been going to perform with Marcel Marceau. And in film study, we’d consider Michael’s distinctive style that runs throughout his body of work the mark of an “auteur.”
Nina’s descriptions of his “gestural economy” are so interesting, and I absolutely agree about his ability to “sketch a character … with just a few simple lines,” so the “essence” of that character comes to life for us. So in Ghosts, for example, he isn’t just performing the dance of a generic Mayor forced to move against his will. He’s performing as a Mayor with a distinctive personality and specific desires and biases and beliefs, including a desperate need to be in control at all times. And those individualizing characteristics are conveyed to us through simple gestures, such as that abrupt gesture with his hands when his body begins to move. He’s losing control of his legs and then his hips as his body begins to dance, but he’s trying to reassure the villagers that he’s still in control – of the situation, of the Maestro, of them, of his own body.
Joie: Willa, I love the comment you used from Nina. I agree with what she says about the “elements being rearranged and sequenced in a different way for each number.” This is really true and we can see this in various performances throughout his career. One of my absolute favorites is the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards performance. His entire opening number is incredible. He performs a medley of “Don’t Stop,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Scream,” “Beat It,” “Black or White,” and “Billie Jean,” with a little help from his friend, Slash.
But it’s the full-length rendition of “Dangerous” that really makes this performance something special. He’s not even singing live here but, you quickly forgive and forget about it because the dance is so spectacular! Even now, nearly 20 years later, I can’t watch it without getting goosebumps. The way he moves is just so totally beyond anyone else; it’s like he’s made of rubber. His body bends and twists and moves in ways that regular people’s just don’t. There have been, and I’m sure there will continue to be, many imitators but, the simple fact is that nobody else moves like that! Slash once made this observation:
”The thing about Michael is he’s hands down one of the most professional, most talented performers I have ever worked with. All the brouhaha aside, when it comes down to it, you can have 60 choreographed dancers up there and you know which one Michael is.”
I just love this quote because Slash is absolutely right; you can always pick Michael out when he’s on stage with other singers and dancers. He just moves differently than anyone else. And I especially love that this quote came from Slash – someone you wouldn’t normally think would pay attention to the dancing, you know?
Willa: And what he says is absolutely true. When Michael Jackson is dancing with a group, you simply can’t take your eyes off him. Even in the group dance in The Way You Make Me Feel when all you can see are silhouettes of the dancers, you know which one is him and you can’t help watching him.
And of course, he also received praise from professionals who do pay close attention to dancing – people like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Debbie Allen, and Michael Flatley, as Jacksonaktak noted in a comment a couple months ago. I love this quote she cited from Baryshnikov, saying,
What Baryshnikov remembers most about Jackson, he said, was “… his simple, bouncy walk across the stage, that was what was most beautiful and arresting, swinging his hips, kicking his heel forward. That’s to me what he is: that superior confidence in his body as a dancer. You wanted to say, ‘Wow, this guy, what a cat; he can really move in his own way.’”
As soon as I read this, I could picture that “simple, bouncy walk” so well. I love that walk, and it’s so distinctively Michael Jackson. We see snippets of it throughout the MTV medley you love so much, Joie. He also performs it as the skeleton in Ghosts, and even as a skeleton, it is so distinctively him. It’s just so joyful and carefree, and as Baryshnikov says, it reflects “that superior confidence in his body as a dancer.”
Joie: Yeah, that is a great quote from Baryshnikov and, you’re right. He did receive a lot of praise from many in the dance community. From the highly acclaimed and regarded all the way to the neophyte just trying to catch a break – like all those young dancers at the beginning of the This Is It film. You know, during an interview on The Making of Thriller, Michael Peters talks about how Michael had never taken a formal dance lesson in his life and yet, there he was in the dance rehearsals with all of these classically trained dancers who had been studying dance for years, and he was not simply holding his own with them, but he was actually out-dancing them. “It’s just something you’re born with,” Peters said. “It’s just in him.”
Willa: So a recent article, “Who Is Peter Pan,” in The New York Review of Books mentions Michael Jackson’s identification with Peter Pan, and it rather nonchalantly drops this little bombshell:
Occasionally, young boys slept over in Jackson’s mansion; he was twice accused of having abused them, but never convicted. Today, the consensus seems to be that he was innocent.
Joie, I know I should be thrilled that people are finally coming to their senses, and I am. But I have to admit, I’ve been storming around ever since I read that, muttering to anyone who will listen about the fickleness of public opinion. When he died, the overwhelming “consensus” was that he was guilty. If he wasn’t guilty of molestation exactly, though most people thought he was, he was suspiciously weird and almost certainly guilty of something. Now, three years later, “the consensus seems to be that he was innocent.” Why the change? No significant new evidence has emerged. There is no logical reason for people to have changed their minds, but they have. Millions of people have changed their minds. Why?
Joie: I don’t know, Willa, but I understand exactly why you’re upset about it. It’s very distressing to know that this beautiful man, who only ever had love in his heart and compassion for his fellow man, was so tortured and ridiculed and falsely accused during his life. But now, in death, so many of those who were doing the maligning seem to have changed their tune. Now, when it’s much too late.
Willa: I know. I just keep feeling this deep regret that the change couldn’t have come about while he was still alive. But the most vexing part of all this is that it couldn’t have, because his death is what triggered the change. There’s no logical reason for public opinion to shift just now. People aren’t changing their minds because of startling new evidence. The only difference between now and three years ago is that he’s gone. He had to die before public sentiment could change. And for me, one of the most distressing aspects of all this is that he knew it – he knew he had to die before people’s attitudes would change. He told us so in Ghosts.
Ghosts is such a fascinating short film in so many ways. In M Poetica I said it was like a seminar on art theory, and it is. We could use it as a springboard to get into some really fascinating theory, like Lewis Hyde’s ideas about trickster figures, or Elaine Scarry’s ideas about the body, or Julia Kristeva’s ideas about the abject, or Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas about carnival and the power of the grotesque to disrupt and defy authoritarian power structures. That’s one of the core ideas of Ghosts. We could spend months just talking about this one short film.
But we can also look at Ghosts as an artistic response to the 1993 allegations and scandal, and that’s the approach I wanted to take this week. There is so much in Ghosts that directly corresponds to what happened in 1993, and the media firestorm that followed.
Joie: You’re right, Willa. Both the song and the short film are virtually all about the events surrounding the extortion attempt of 1993, and it’s not even hidden; it’s all right there on the surface. All anyone has to do is simply pay close attention, starting with the three songs he chose to spotlight in the short film itself – “Is It Scary,” “Ghosts,” and “2Bad.”
Willa: It’s true – all three of those songs deal very explicitly with the 1993 allegations – and the plot of Ghosts reinforces that. It opens with a mob of angry villagers invading the home of an artist, a Maestro. He’s become friends with some of the village children and has been telling them ghost stories, and the villagers think that’s inappropriate. As one mom from the village tells him, “Aren’t you ashamed? Young people are impressionable.”
And of course, that precisely parallels what was happening in real life: he was an artist who developed close friendships with children, and a lot of people thought that was inappropriate. And they responded by obtaining a search warrant and invading his home.
Joie: You know, Willa, it really is very difficult to watch Ghosts and not see the parallels to his real life. If you had been paying attention to what was going on in his life at all – and let’s face it, the world couldn’t help but pay attention because the news media was obsessed with “the scandal” – you don’t have to wonder where he got his inspiration for the storyline. It mirrors exactly what happened to him, and I think it’s wonderful that he chose to channel his frustrations in such a creative way. And I think that says a lot about his character that he was willing to put his personal pain on display in order to try and educate the rest of us.
Willa: I agree, Joie. I think he was working through a lot of emotions as he created and developed this film. But he was also helping us as an audience work through our emotions as well. As an artist deeply committed to social change, he didn’t just express his feelings through his work. He was also very interested in how his work influenced us as an audience and how it helped us work through our feelings – how it evoked and redirected our emotions and altered our perceptions, as we talked about in the on-screen audience posts a couple weeks ago. And the way he approaches that in Ghosts is fascinating.
When the villagers invade the Maestro’s home, the first thing he does is appear to them in a frightening mask: instead of seeing his face, the villagers see a skull. They gasp and retreat from him in horror. But as soon as they back off, he drops the mask and reveals it’s just a disguise. The villagers then breathe a sigh of relief, start to relax, and reapproach him in a more friendly way.
It’s very interesting what’s just happened, both dramatically and psychologically. The villagers have invaded his home, which is a very aggressive act, but he immediately flips that dynamic so they are the ones feeling threatened – not him – and then he removes that threat, so they actually feel kind of grateful to him. Importantly, the villagers have invaded his home because they see him as a kind of monster – the kind who would hurt children – and he responds by appearing to them as a monster. So through the mask he evokes the precise emotions they already feel about him. But then he reveals it’s just an illusion: he’s not a monster. So there’s a very quick up-and-down movement of crisis and release that functions on several different levels.
Joie: Hmm. I never really examined that before, but you’re right. The villagers have invaded his home – they are the ones who are threatening him. But even before they actually enter the house, they are made to feel very frightened and apprehensive. They haven’t even met him yet, but they already feel afraid of him; it’s all in their minds!
Willa: Exactly, and he reflects those emotions back at them through the mask, but then undoes them in a way. So through the mask, he encourages the villagers to vent their emotions and then subtly reconfigures those emotions.
The Maestro and the villagers begin to talk, and as they talk the Mayor gradually builds a case against the Maestro. He says, “We have a nice normal town, normal people, normal kids. We don’t need freaks like you telling them ghost stories.” He then becomes more aggressive, saying, “You’re weird, you’re strange, and I don’t like you. You’re scaring these kids, living up here all alone.” He even begins to threaten the Maestro, saying, “Back to the circus, you freak. And do yourself a favor, OK? Don’t force us get rough with you because we will, if we have to.” Finally, he gives him an ultimatum, saying, “Are you going to leave, or am I going to have to hurt you?”
Joie: That’s very interesting, Willa, particularly in terms of the language he uses in the dialogue between the Mayor and the Maestro. As you pointed out, the Mayor’s words are very specific. “We have a nice normal town, normal people, normal kids.” And, of course, that was always the main accusation leveled against Michael himself – he wasn’t “normal.” He was called “weird” and “strange.” Many people thought of him as a “freak.” So, it’s very telling that these are the words Michael would choose to use for this particular exchange. It makes me think of Joe Vogel’s article, “Am I the Beast You Visualized: The Cultural Abuse of Michael Jackson,” which we talked about back in November, where Joe referred to all of those hurtful words as “slurs.”
Willa: That’s a really important point, Joie, and I think you’re right. I think he chose those words very deliberately. As you say, they are exactly the words that were used against him so often in the later years of his life. So what’s happening on screen is precisely reflecting what’s happening to him in real life off screen. Just as the mask reflected the villagers’ emotions back at them, his word choices reflect our emotions back at us.
Importantly, the Maestro responds to this aggression exactly as he did before, only more intensely this time: he distorts his face beyond recognition and then rips it off altogether, so once again his face appears as just a skull. Once again the villagers retreat from him in terror, just as they did before. And once again, as soon as they back off, he restores his face and reveals it’s just an illusion, exactly as he did before. So once again there’s that very quick up-and-down movement of crisis and release that gives vent to the villagers’ emotions by evoking their fears and reflecting them back at them, and then resolving those fears by showing it’s just an illusion.
Joie: The message here is very clear, I think. He’s pointing out the parallels between the Maestro character and his own personal life. So, by showing that it’s just an illusion, as you say, he’s telling us very clearly that all the perceived “weirdness” surrounding his personal life is also just an illusion, and what we – the public and the media – think we see, isn’t actually the real story.
Willa: I think so too, though there’s also a lot going on psychologically as well. We see that when he repeats that same up-and-down movement of crisis and release a third time. It’s even more extreme this time – instead of his face becoming a skull, his entire body becomes a skeleton – but the villagers reactions are rather different this time around, so there’s been a psychological shift. They’re surprised but they aren’t terrified, and they don’t retreat this time. They stay and watch what he has to show them, and when the skeleton begins to dance, they smile and enjoy his performance. In other words, they aren’t having such a fearful response to the “strange” and the “weird” as they were before. They’re still wary, but they’re becoming a little more accepting of difference.
And then he repeats this up-and-down pattern of crisis and release a fourth and final time, and this is the most intense of all: he destroys himself. He asks them, “So, do you still want me to go?” Many of the villagers, the children especially, shake their heads no, but the Mayor affirms, “Yes! Yes!” So the Maestro says, “Fine. I’ll go.” He drops down and smashes his hands into the floor, then his arms, and then his face. His nose drops off, his entire face disintegrates, his body turns to dust, and an unearthly wind blows it away.
The villagers are horrified, but for a completely different reason than before: not because they’re scared of him, but because they’ve started to feel a connection to him and are horrified that he’s destroying himself. So their feelings over the course of the film have undergone a complete reversal. He’s left, so he’s done what they said they wanted him to do, what they invaded his home to force him to do. But by this point they no longer want him to leave, and as soon as he’s gone they feel a sense of loss and want him back.
Joie: Just like what we’re seeing now that he’s no longer here with us. Wow. That’s very compelling, Willa. So you believe he understood that both he and his art would only be truly appreciated after his death?
Willa: I do. But I also think there’s more going on than that. I’m still struggling to figure this out and articulate it for myself, but I keep coming back to these lines from “Is It Scary”:
I’m gonna be Exactly what you wanna see It’s you who’s taunting me Because you’re wanting me To be the stranger in the night Am I amusing you? Or just confusing you? Am I the beast you visualized? And if you wanna see eccentric oddities I’ll be grotesque before your eyes Let them all materialize … So tell me Is that realism for you, baby? Am I scary for you?
You know, after he died, a lot of commentators expressed surprise that there was such an outpouring of grief for him considering all the years of scandal and controversy – of “eccentric oddities,” as Michael Jackson calls them in “Is It Scary.” But I’m starting to believe just the opposite: that the public outpouring of grief wouldn’t have been possible without all those years of “eccentric oddities.” Those eccentric oddities performed a crucial function – they provided a series of mini-dramas of crisis and release – just like that repeated up-and-down movement in Ghosts. As in Ghosts, those eccentric oddities allowed us to vent our emotions about him following the molestation accusations and encouraged us to work through them. So when he died, we’d already dealt with a lot of those negative emotions, and once he was really gone it was revealed to us that those negative emotions were an illusion – as The New York Review of Books article says, “Today, the consensus seems to be that he was innocent” – and we were brought back to our true feelings, which is how much he meant to us.
Joie: That’s a fascinating take on all this, Willa. I’ve never looked at it in this way before.
Willa: You know, I’m still working my way through this, and I could be completely wrong about this, but it feels to me that something very significant was happening through those “eccentric oddities,” both culturally and psychologically, and I think Ghosts is the key to understanding it. He had a very sophisticated aesthetic – I’m convinced his work functioned at deep psychological levels – and he was dealing with some very difficult issues of group psychology after the 1993 scandal broke. Basically, he was dealing with mass hysteria and the fear of the unfamiliar, just like the Maestro, and he responded in a way that directly addressed that group hysteria.
His response may not seem logical at first, but the subconscious mind isn’t logical – or rather, it has a logic of its own that differs from the logic of the conscious mind – and I believe that, through his “eccentric oddities,” he’s speaking directly to the subconscious mind. As he tells us in Ghosts, those repeated mini-dramas of crisis and release had a very specific psychological effect, and they were deliberately created to produce that psychological effect. In “Is It Scary” he tells us very explicitly what he intends to do: “I’m gonna be exactly what you wanna see” and “If you wanna see eccentric oddities, I’ll be grotesque before your eyes.”
Joie: I agree with you about the deliberateness of his art, Willa, and I really do believe the three songs featured in the short film (“Ghosts,” “Is It Scary,” and “2Bad”) were chosen very deliberately. I think you and I could probably spend an entire blog – maybe even two – just talking about those three songs in detail and how they relate both to the film and to what was going on in his life at the time.
You know, since we have been working on this blog, I have come to understand that there really wasn’t much about Michael Jackson’s art that was not done deliberately. He usually had a very calculated reason for everything he did and it just leaves me in awe. Wouldn’t you love to be able to get inside the mind of a truly great artist … just to try to understand their passion and fire for their art? That thought is so fascinating to me for some reason and I would just have loved to talk with him about his art. I can’t believe that so many journalists, like Bashir for instance, wasted the precious time they were granted with him by talking about such trivial things like his skin color and his perceived odd behavior. What a colossal waste of an opportunity!
Willa: Oh I know! That’s what strikes me most about the Bashir documentary as well – that he was given this incredible opportunity and completely squandered it. Imagine if you could go back in time and talk to Van Gogh for eight months and learn more – maybe not about how to interpret specific works, since artists tend to be very reluctant to limit their work to just one interpretation – but about his worldview and how his art fit within that worldview. What an amazing opportunity that would be. And Bashir was given that opportunity and completely wasted it. And the really sad thing is that Bashir has fed his mind on a diet of scandal for so long he doesn’t even seem to realize there’s a bigger world out there. Michael Jackson is wrestling with complex issues of social justice and perception and how we make meaning, as well as art’s ability to profoundly influence how we perceive and make sense of the world, and Bashir spends the entire eight months asking tabloid-type questions. It’s just stunning.
Fortunately, Michael Jackson left a lot of clues to help guide us in developing ways to approach his work and understand his worldview. And as we see in Ghosts, there is so much to discover and explore.
Joie: Last week, we began a discussion about Michael’s frequent use of an on-screen audience in many of his short films, and how he used this on-screen audience to convey a certain mood or to model behavior in the video that he wanted us – the off-screen audience – to emulate. And during our discussion, Willa and I were surprised to find that there was so much ground to cover on this topic. So much, in fact, that we had no choice but to do it in two posts.
So this week, we want to continue by picking up where we left off with our conversation about how Michael often breaks the illusion of reality in his videos, as we pointed out he does at the end of Beat It. The dancers are doing their thing while the gang members watch and then the camera pans back to reveal that they are actually on a stage and we hear the roar of the unseen on-screen audience, which makes it clear that this has been a performance.
Willa: That’s true, Joie, and he does that a lot in his work, even when there isn’t an on-screen audience. He likes to draw us in – immerse us in a story or an experience – and then remind us that it’s a performance. Black or White may be the best example. He’s constantly breaking the illusion of reality in that video: after almost every scene he reveals that he’s been performing on a soundstage. And at the big break in the middle – before the panther dance begins – he pans back to show us the film crew, and the director stepping into the frame to talk with the actress who was performing for us. We’re never allowed to forget that this is a performance.
He’s even more explicit about emphasizing he’s a performer in Remember the Time. In fact, the plot of this video focuses on the interactions between a performer and his audience. An Egyptian royal couple is bored and eager for entertainment, but they’re ruthless in passing judgment on those who try to please them. One poor entertainer is beheaded; another is thrown to the lions. So clearly, if you’re to survive as a performer, you have to please your audience. Michael Jackson’s character succeeds in pleasing the queen – and as he frequently does in his work, he presents the relationship between him and his audience, the queen, as a love affair. But while the queen is pleased, the king is not. In fact, he turns against Michael Jackson’s character precisely because the queen is so taken with him. Clearly, the life of a performer is not an easy one.
Joie: That’s interesting, Willa. I never really think about Remember the Time in terms of an on-screen audience but I guess it does apply. The king and queen are watching several performers, looking for someone to entertain them, so they are indeed the audience here!
Willa: They really are, and they aren’t a very loving audience either – at least, not entirely. His relationship with this on-screen audience is pretty complicated, just as his relationship with the public was really complicated. We have two different elements of his audience – represented by the king and queen – reacting in very different ways to his performance, and each is motivated by a complex mix of emotions. The queen is bored and falls for him simply because his performance amuses her, but she’s capricious. She could easily change her mind. The king is initially drawn to his performance also, but then he observes how the queen is responding and turns against him.
And of course, something very similar happened off screen with the general public as well. Michael Jackson first appeared as this cute little bundle of energy singing and dancing with the Jackson 5, and a lot of people became caught up in the sheer delight of that. And then his fame grew and grew with Off the Wall and of course Thriller, and a large segment of the population became completely infatuated with him – like the queen does. But at the same time, the critics began to turn against him – just like the king – and the haters began to appear, along with people who were just too cool to like someone that popular.
I don’t know if you have friends like this, Joie, but I know people who are constantly gushing about some new undiscovered talent, and then turning against them when they get too popular. I have friends who loved REM when they were playing little clubs in Athens, Georgia, but lost interest as soon as they became a big name. They loved Bruce Springsteen when he was a scrawny kid from New Jersey but shook their heads and said he’d “sold out” somehow when he muscled up and became recognized as the voice of the working class.
Joie: Yeah, I know people like that. One in particular who just loved the band Journey when they weren’t very successful. But the minute they hired Steve Perry to be their lead singer and the group suddenly started turning out hits, he didn’t like them anymore. They were too popular, too “commercial.” I don’t understand that at all.
Willa: I don’t really understand that either – performers are just as talented after they become popular as they were before – but I see this same story playing out over and over again: with Charlie Chaplin and Elvis and Barbra Streisand and The Beatles, and now Justin Bieber. And I see Michael Jackson exploring that phenomenon in Remember the Time. So he’s doing something a little different with his on-screen audience this time. He isn’t modeling how he wants us to react. Instead, he’s reflecting our emotions back at us so we’re forced to look at them and think about them, at some level of consciousness.
Joie: Hmm. I never would have made that connection or thought of it in that way. But, like I said, I hadn’t ever thought about Remember the Time as having an on-screen audience before now so, that really floors me. You’ve just given me a whole new way of thinking about this short film.
But, you know, there are a couple of other videos that I never really thought about as having an on-screen audience before. One of those is You Rock My World. But I guess you could say that the club patrons and the managers of the club are his audience in that one. After all, he does take it upon himself to get up on the stage in that video. They haven’t asked him to perform. In fact, the club managers look like they want to kill him the minute he enters the establishment, so they don’t want him on the stage. But he gets up there and gives an impromptu performance anyway.
Willa: That’s interesting, Joie, and it connects back to Remember the Time in really interesting ways. I hadn’t thought about those two videos together like that before, but there are some striking parallels between them. As we talked about last fall, the club managers and club owner in You Rock My World seem to represent the managers and CEO of Sony, while the patrons – especially the love interest in the green dress – seem to represent the public. And both of these groups are watching him as he performs.
So, as in Remember the Time, he has a split audience. The love interest is drawn to the performer, just like the queen in Remember the Time, and the club managers feel very threatened by that, just like the king. The club managers act like they own her, and when they see she’s drawn to his performance, they begin bullying him and taunting him, saying, “That’s it? That’s all you got? That ain’t nothin.’ You ain’t nothin.’ C’mon, big man, show me all you got.” And that highlights an important difference between these two videos. While the king seems to respect his talent, even though he’s threatened by it, the club owner and club managers don’t – which is pretty telling if they really do represent Sony management at that time.
Joie: Those are eye-opening observations, Willa. I had never drawn those parallels between these two videos before.
Willa: I hadn’t either, until you mentioned You Rock My World while Remember the Time was still on my mind. But I can see now why one reminded you of the other because, in terms of the on-screen audience, they really are very similar.
Joie: Yeah, it’s interesting how my mind made that connection on a subconscious level, isn’t it? You know, another video I never really thought about in terms of an on-screen audience before reading M Poetica and our subsequent conversations is The Way You Make Me Feel but, you explain how the group of guys talking on the street corner and even the group of girls across the street are all watching the protagonist as he tries to get the object of his affection to talk to him. They all become his audience, as well as his cheering section.
Willa: Oh, The Way You Make Me Feel is just fascinating to me! There is so much going on in that video. And you’re right, the people on the street are cheering him on as he woos this beautiful young woman, but they’re also judging him as well. It’s really interesting how he sets that all up. And then once he starts to connect with this woman and care for her, he’s pretty uncomfortable having all those eyes watching him as he tries to develop a relationship with her. It’s all so public, and he wants some privacy. As he sings, “Ain’t nobody’s business but mine and My Baby’s.” So in this case, he includes an on-screen audience that performs several different functions, and one is to show how intrusive it feels to have an audience when you’re wanting a private moment.
Joie: It does feel very intrusive at times, even for us – the off-screen audience – as we watch him try to woo the girl. We sort of breathe a little bit easier when he’s finally able to maneuver her onto a somewhat private porch so they can sit and be alone. But it’s short-lived because she quickly runs away from him again. And then there’s the tension we feel when he joins his friends in the shadows and does this very primal dance for her and there’s a little bit of awkwardness because, again, it is so not private when it really should be.
Willa: I agree – I really get the sense that he wants his relationship with her to be intimate and private, so he disappears. And then when she begins searching for him, that on-screen audience isn’t just awkward. It’s threatening. We see a series of male faces staring right at us – he’s placed us in her position so we’re experiencing what she experiences – and all those male faces are staring straight at us. It’s very unsettling, I think. Even the policeman’s face feels threatening.
Joie: And then we – the off-screen audience – breathe a collective sigh of relief at the end when she envelops him in her arms.
Willa: Exactly. And I think it’s significant that the on-screen audience is gone by then.
Joie: Oh, I never made that connection before. You’re right! This is a really interesting use of the on-screen audience, I think, because he’s using them to fuel the tension throughout the film.
Willa: Oh, I like that! I hadn’t thought of it quite that way, Joie, but I think you’re right – I think the on-screen audience does “fuel the tension” in this video.
Joie: By contrast, in another short film, Say, Say, Say, with Paul McCartney, he uses the on-screen audience in just the opposite way – to promote a feeling of light-heartedness.
In this video, there are several different instances of an on-screen audience and each of them sort of fosters this feeling of goodwill or light-heartedness. The first one is the crowd of on-lookers who are obviously being scammed by the “Mac and Jack” miracle potion. Only they don’t know they’re being scammed, so all they feel is happy and excited about this new product. The second on-screen audience we see here is the group of children and workers at the orphanage who benefit from that miracle potion scam. Our main characters jump out of the truck and “Mac” and his wife – the adults, taking care of business – hand over the money to the workers of the orphanage, while “Jack” – Michael’s character – immediately gathers up the children; they follow him as soon as he hops off the truck, like he’s the pied piper. The workers are delighted with the money, of course, while the children are delighted with “Jack’s” presence; he entertains them, balancing on the fence, dancing around for them. At the end of his little display for the children, he even takes a bow – to point out that it’s been a performance. Then they jump back onto the truck as quickly as they arrived and move on.
The final on-screen audience we see in this video is the crowd sitting in the saloon, watching the “Mac and Jack” Vaudeville Show. That show is full of such fun and humor that the watching crowd can’t help but be amused by their antics and we – the off-screen audience – likewise, can’t help but smile as we watch it all.
Willa: Wow, Joie, I hadn’t thought about all the different audiences but you’re right, and the entertainers modify their performance for each audience. With the townspeople at the beginning, they’re mostly con artists – putting on a performance to bilk them of their money. With the kids, it’s pure performance, the sheer joy of entertaining. And with the Vaudeville crowd at the end, it’s a mix – they’re performing on stage, but they’re still presented as hucksters and hustlers. When the police come in and things start looking a little dodgy, they start a small fire as a distraction and then escape out the back.
Joie: That’s true, they never let us forget that this is a small band of con-artists who need to keep moving.
Willa: They really are. They’re fooling their audience as well as entertaining them. And this idea of the performer as a type of huckster has me thinking about Who Is It again. As we talked about a couple weeks ago, in that film he seems to parallel the experiences of this high-priced call girl and con artist with his life as a performer, and we definitely see that parallel here too – the entertainer as a kind of hustler and con artist. And he conveys that idea through the on-screen audience.
And then there’s Ghosts. That is such an amazing film in so many ways, and the on-screen audience is at the absolute center of that film. It’s very psychological, and to me, the central conflict of the film is actually happening inside the on-screen audience’s heads.
Joie: I agree, it is psychological but I don’t think it’s happening inside their heads. I think it’s real for them; they really are seeing these ghosts climbing the walls and dancing on the ceiling and the Mayor really is temporarily possessed by the Maestro and then runs screaming through a window when he just can’t take the “strangeness” any longer.
Willa: Oh, I see what you’re saying. I didn’t explain myself very well – that isn’t what I meant. I agree that the ghosts “really” are there, and the villagers really are experiencing them. What I meant was that, in a lot of films, the plot focuses on some sort of external conflict, like crossing a frozen tundra with sled dogs, or pulling off a bank heist, or fighting the evil Empire, or something like that. But in this film, there’s very little going on, in that sense. A group of people stand in a room and stare at each other. What kind of plot is that?
But there’s actually a lot going on in this film. It’s just that the conflict is all interior – the conflict is inside the villagers’ minds – and the resolution of that conflict is occurring inside their minds as well. There aren’t any sled dogs, but this film traces a journey just as difficult as the Iditarod in some ways. It begins with a group of scared villagers with burning torches invading the home of an artist, the Maestro. The villagers are from a place called Normal Valley, and they’re scared of the Maestro because he doesn’t fit their definition of “normal.” And they want to drive him out of town because of that fear.
So the plot of the film traces the Maestro’s attempts to change their thoughts and feelings about him. And he succeeds, but he does it in an interesting way. He doesn’t reassure them that he’s normal and really one of them. Just the opposite. He responds by becoming even more freakish and then altering their emotional response to things that aren’t normal – that seem different or strange or freakish to them.
I have to say, everything about this film fascinates me: how he represents their psychological journey, how he brings it about, how he resolves it – but not completely – at the end. There’s still a lot of uncertainty, even at the end. And the on-screen audience is central to all that. And we as an off-screen audience are watching them and tracking their thought processes as they take this psychological journey so, in a way, we take that psychological journey with them. It’s just fascinating to me.
Joie: Oh, I see what you’re saying. And you’re right, the on-screen audience is totally central to that film, the whole plot hinges on them.
But you know, of course, the ultimate on-screen audience is the one in the video for One More Chance, which we discussed at length back in the fall. That video really puts the presence of the on-screen audience to interesting use, placing them on the stage while he pleads with them for just “one more chance at love.”
As you pointed out in that discussion, at the end of the video he’s left the room but the audience is still up on the stage. This visual suggests to the off-screen audience that there’s nothing left for him to do now. His work is done and it’s up to us now. We’re the ones who have to carry on in his absence and do what we can to preserve his legacy and help “make these mysteries unfold.”
You know, Willa, the fact that this turned out to be Michael’s final video is really sort of bittersweet when we understand the purpose of that on-screen audience and the final shot of the short film. It becomes very emotional for me personally.
Willa: I know exactly what you mean, Joie. It’s emotional for me too, but it’s also really motivating as well. “Bittersweet” is a good description.
I’m really committed to changing the conversation about Michael Jackson, and sometimes I just get overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. It’s like trying to push water upstream with your hands. This river of negative commentary is all flowing in the opposite direction, and it’s like, How can we possibly fight all that? But I honestly believe that, with all of us working together, we can begin to channel that water in a different direction. I already sense a major shift happening, and I’m so inspired by seeing all these different people around the world working hard to make a difference. And I’m inspired by you, Joie. I’m so impressed with all the work you’ve done for so many years. You’ve really kept the faith a long time. And I’m motivated by the One More Chance video as well. When I get discouraged, I watch it and think, He’s left the room but we haven’t. We’re still here. It’s up to us now.