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?
Joie: So Willa, everyone knows that Thriller is the biggest-selling album of all time. But did you know that for a short while, Bad was actually the second biggest-selling album of all time?
Willa: Really? No, I didn’t know that.
Joie: To this day, in fact, it is still regarded as one of the best-selling albums ever made – I think it’s like number six on the worldwide list – and until Katy Perry tied the record with her album Teenage Dream, it was the first and only album to spawn five number one singles.
Willa: I did know that, and it’s amazing – especially for an album many saw as under-performing in terms of record sales. It shows just how high the bar was set for the follow-up album to Thriller.
Joie: That record stood unmatched for 23 years! And what I love most about this album is that Michael penned over 80% of it himself – nine out of the 11 tracks on the album were written by him.
So, I guess what I’m getting at here is that, even though for many people, Thriller is often seen as the pinnacle of Michael Jackson’s success (and commercially, that is certainly true), it is actually the follow-up album, Bad, where we begin to see the artist really stretch his wings and grow artistically, emotionally, creatively, and politically.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Joie, and something Quincy Jones has suggested also. As he says in the first additional track on the Bad, Special Edition album, “I could just see him growing as an artist and understanding production and all that stuff.” So here’s a question I want to ask Quincy Jones every time I hear that, but I’m going to put you on the spot and ask you instead: what do you see as the major signs of growth between Thriller and Bad?
Joie: Well, first of all, what I just pointed out. The fact that he wrote the majority of the songs on it. With his first two adult solo efforts, Off the Wall and Thriller, that wasn’t the case. He only wrote three of the songs on Off the Wall and four on Thriller. So I think that shows major growth and maturity, both artistically and creatively.
Willa: That’s true, and we can see that in the number of videos he made also. He made three each for Off the Wall and Thriller, but he made eight for Bad – nine if you count “Leave Me Alone” – and nine for Dangerous, so Bad seems to have been an important turning point for him that way too.
Joie: Also, the things he’s writing about. The subject matter of the songs on Bad show a lot of maturity and growth as well.
Willa: I suppose, though “Billie Jean” is so emotionally complex, and there’s a lot of depth in “Beat It,” and “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Workin’ Day and Night” as well. So it’s not like his previous songs were simplistic.
Joie: Well, that’s very true. Simplistic is not a word I would use to describe his writing. But, I don’t know. The Bad album just seems a little more “grown up” to me than his previous two adult efforts.
Willa: And more uniquely “him” because he did write so many of the songs himself, as you mentioned earlier. You know, the story you always hear about Bad is that he put tremendous pressure on himself to top Thriller, and I’m sure those kinds of pressures were there to some degree. Creating a follow-up to Thriller would be intimidating, I’m sure.
Joie: Oh, no doubt about it. I can’t imagine what that kind of pressure must be like.
Willa: Oh, I know! But listening to this album, it doesn’t feel like it’s coming from a place of anxiety and insecurity. He sounds very sure of himself, with a message he feels compelled to share and the confidence to share it. I wonder if that’s part of what you’re feeling, Joie, when you say that, for you, this is the album where he really comes into his own.
Joie: You could be onto something there, Willa. He does seem to have a certain level of self-confidence and even cockiness on this album so, maybe that is what I’m reacting to. And, you know, when I think about this album, it’s really difficult for me to choose the one stand-out track that sets this CD apart or makes it great because really, every song is a masterpiece all by itself.
Willa: I know what you mean, and I wonder if that’s because of all the videos. You know, in Moonwalk he talks about the videos he made for the Thriller album and emphasizes that they weren’t just tacked on after the fact as a marketing tool. They were part of his vision from the beginning. As he says,
The three videos that came out of Thriller – “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” – were all part of my original concept for the album. I was determined to present this music as visually as possible.
And Bad is where he really achieves that goal of presenting his songs “as visually as possible.” Except for the two duets, he made a video for every song on the album, and I think that contributes to that feeling you’re talking about, Joie, that “every song is a masterpiece.” Because each song has its own video, each one feels like a fully realized, multi-sensory work of art.
You know, even when I’m not watching the videos themselves, like when I’m listening to Bad on the car stereo, I’m still visualizing those images. They’re just an integral part of each song for me now.
Joie: I agree with you, Willa; they do feel like an “integral part of each song” and it is almost impossible not to visualize the short film when listening to the songs themselves. And I’m sure that was probably very intentional on his part, as that quote you cited from Moonwalk points out. And, as you said earlier, he also made nine videos for his following album, Dangerous and eight for the HIStory album so, I believe presenting the music “as visually as possible” was something that was very important to him and something that he was committed to doing.
Willa: I agree. It really feels to me like he achieved the fullest expression of his art through his videos. That’s where it all comes together: the music, the dance, that incredible voice, the visual cues, the backstory and narrative – or as he described the structure of his videos, the beginning and the middle and the ending of what he’s trying to convey.
Joie: I agree. And it really makes you think about his great love of films. Sometimes I believe his videos are so amazing because of his love for film. How many times did he talk about the power of film and being able to take an audience anywhere you wanted them to go, all through film. And many times, that’s what his videos do – they transport you momentarily to a different place. A place of his choosing. It’s no wonder he wanted them referred to as ‘short films’ instead of videos.
And just thinking about that fact makes me really angry that he was hindered from doing the same with Invincible. I love that album so much, and I would have loved to have seen what videos he could have come up with for it. But you’re right, Bad is the first album where he achieves this goal of presenting the music as visually as possible and because of that, his name really became sort of synonymous with music videos.
It’s an interesting concept that no one else was really doing at the time. You know, most artists were just using the music video as a sort of promotional tool and the resulting videos had very little to do with the song itself. But Michael changed all that; he ‘flipped the script’ as the saying goes. Suddenly music videos weren’t just some abstract add on but, they were a way to actually bring the song to life.
Willa: And not always in ways you expect – like who would ever listen to “Liberian Girl” and imagine the video he created for it? Or “The Way You Make Me Feel”? Or “Speed Demon”? Or “Bad” or “Smooth Criminal” or “Dirty Diana”? Actually, the Dirty Diana video probably enacts the lyrics more closely than the others: as he sings about a performer being approached by a groupie, we discover that he really is a performer being approached by a groupie.
But even it heightens and complicates the lyrics in interesting ways. In fact, there are some very interesting details in Dirty Diana. For example, he’s singing about this love triangle between himself, My Baby, and Diana. Diana just wants him, or her idea of him as a famous rock star, and she doesn’t really care if she hurts him or My Baby. At one point he sings that he’s talking on the phone with My Baby, and Diana says into the phone, “He’s not coming back because he’s sleeping with me.” That is such a moment of betrayal – just imagine how painful that moment must be for him and My Baby – yet the concert crowd roars when he sings that. The audience goes nuts. And it’s interesting – the roar of the crowd at that moment isn’t on the album; it’s only in the video.
What the crowd’s reaction says pretty clearly is that they aren’t listening to this song from My Baby’s point of view, or even his point of view, but from Diana’s – and really, that makes perfect sense because they are like Diana. They want him too, just like Diana does. We see that in the video when he rips his shirt open. The crowd really goes wild then. He’s an object of desire, and they fantasize about fulfilling that desire, regardless of the consequences for him or his private life.
And actually, that seems to be the position he wants the audience to be in – he wants us to desire him when he’s on stage, and he wants us to align ourselves with Diana. We see that in the lyrics, where he encourages us to sympathize with her and see things from her point of view. So the audience is positioned with her, which makes sense. But then at the end of the video he does that classic Michael Jackson move we see in so many of his videos where he suddenly shifts the perspective. We follow him as he comes offstage, he opens the door of his car, and there’s a very unsettling power chord as he sees there’s a woman waiting for him inside.
Joie: That’s a very sharp observation, Willa. I never made that connection between the roar of the crowd and the audience’s point of view in this video before. Interesting.
Willa: Oh, it’s so interesting – what he does with point of view is just fascinating to me, and he plays with it constantly, in such complicated ways. Like when the perspective shifts in Dirty Diana, suddenly everything takes on a very different character. This isn’t the typical rock star/groupie fantasy we see played out in so many music videos. This is the fantasy giving way to realism, and suddenly our perspective shifts and we’re forced to consider the situation more from his point of view – and his point of view is really complicated. It’s always complicated. He never lets us off with a simple answer.
So there’s a beautiful young woman sitting in his car wanting to have sex with him, and on the one hand, that’s a nice problem to have. I mean, really, things could be worse. But on the other hand, he doesn’t know her, doesn’t know anything about her – doesn’t know if she’s kind or cruel or nutty as a fruitcake – and he’s just described in the lyrics how a woman like this has the potential to hurt him and My Baby. So it’s complicated.
Joie: It is complicated. And, as we talked about last summer during the My Baby series, Dirty Diana perfectly highlights that complicated, often strange issue of celebrity and fame. And it’s also a perfect example of presenting the music “as visually as possible.” As you stated earlier, many of the short films tell a much different story than we would expect when simply listening to the song itself; but that’s not the case with Dirty Diana. Here the short film mirrors the song very closely – so the song itself really does come alive before our very eyes. If that’s not presenting the music visually, I don’t know what is!
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: This week Joie and I are thrilled to be joined by Lisha McDuff, a classically trained, full-time, career musician with over 25 years of working experience – though actually, Lisha has been joining us for quite a while now. Many of you know her already as Ultravioletrae.
Lisha, we’re so excited to have you join us and share your insights about Michael Jackson’s work as one professional musician listening to another. I’ve been so intrigued by your comments in the past – especially how you’re able to share what you’re hearing and make it accessible to those of us without formal training in music. It’s like it allows me to peek into a world I don’t know how to enter on my own. So thank you very much for joining us!
In one of your comments, you mentioned that you weren’t really a Michael Jackson fan until you saw This Is It, but then you were so blown away by what you saw that you became an ardent supporter and began studying his work. So I’m curious: what exactly did you see that impressed you so much?
Lisha: I don’t know that I’ll ever stop talking about the day I decided to see This Is It. It just totally captured me the way great art has the ability to do. From Michael’s first appearance in the film through the ending credits, I was caught in the moment, totally fixed on what I was seeing and hearing. I didn’t care about anything I had ever done, or what I needed to do in the future. It took my breath away. For me, that’s what great art does. It allows you to enter a timeless realm, where your mind has to stop its incessant activity and you can do nothing else but contemplate the beauty of what’s in front of you. I think that is what Michael meant when he said he wanted to create “escapism.” It’s that magic moment, when a great painting, literature, film, whatever it is, stops you dead in your tracks, takes you out of your ordinary perception, and arrests your mind with something beautiful and fascinating.
Willa: What a wonderful image! And a great description of that special feeling when art completely enraptures you. So “that magic moment,” as you call it, happens when you’re completely mesmerized and absorbed in the present moment. I love that.
Lisha: I can remember the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas talking about this when he described how he distinguishes a truly great musical performance from an ordinary one. He said that listening to music gives the mind a chance to daydream and wander, but a great musician will never allow this to happen. A truly great musician will command your full and undivided attention, and your mind will not stray even for a second. You must hear every note. This Is It was seeing a master at work. It was riveting.
Joie: I have heard from so many people – most of them not fans in the traditional sense before viewing the film – who expressed similar reactions after watching him in action in This Is It.
Lisha: It’s surprising how many of us new fans are out there. Why weren’t we paying attention sooner? Imagine not knowing much about Michael Jackson and then plopping yourself down in a movie theater and getting hit with it all at once. It’s pretty overwhelming.
Initially, I was so struck by how creative and free everything I saw and heard was. Some of the first images in the film are things like Michael in the orange jeans and the shiny jacket doing the sideways Moonwalk across the stage, singing “you’re a vegetable” while grasping in the air with his hands, and turning into a robot. He was like an endless fountain of creativity, taking inspiration from such a vast range of influences, from 70′s dance music to Marcel Marceau. It was like nothing I usually think of as pop, rock, soul, or even song and dance for that matter. I mean, what other musician would even dream of using a mime as inspiration for their work? A mime is totally silent!
You just couldn’t tell what was coming next from Michael. He might decide to do a dance using nothing but his back and shoulders, or he might drop to the floor and wiggle his feet in the air. He might use an achingly beautiful flute solo, or the voice of Dr. King, or he might use a car horn – you just didn’t know. He sang soft, gentle melodies a capella and then did some serious rock n roll. Whatever came next, it was always a complete surprise, nothing you could have predicted or expected. And it was always just the exact right thing for that musical moment.
Watching him interact with his musicians was a jaw dropping experience, like hearing him sing a line he wanted brought out while beat boxing the accompanying rhythm! I love this clip from the film:
His comments were so astute I knew Alex Al wasn’t exaggerating when he said you can’t fool Michael – you’d better come in knowing your part. I’d be willing to bet every musician there had the feeling that Michael was listening only to them. Ears like that are rare, the musicianship even rarer.
Willa: So what does that mean exactly?
Lisha: I mean that there aren’t a lot of people on the planet who can come into a rehearsal and really hear everything that’s going on all at once, identify where the problems are, and know exactly how to fix it. That’s what I mean about having great ears.
Joie: And when you think about the fact that he hadn’t prepared for the stage in over twelve years, that ability to hear everything all at once really is amazing. You would expect him to be sorely out of practice or something but, that clearly wasn’t the case.
Lisha: But Michael wasn’t simply cleaning things up, he was shaping things, adding musical tension and interest to everything he did. In that first instruction where he beat boxed the rhythm and the guitar line, he was balancing and blending the sound. He knew that line needed to come out and knew it was so crucial to the overall musical feel. A small detail like that can make a huge difference in how effective a performance is. It was so impressive how he listened and responded to what he heard. He was addressing the kinds of details that most composers and performers leave up to the arrangers, the music director and the musicians. I was really surprised at the level of interaction – he was taking what his musicians could do to a whole new level, and they knew it. Here’s another revealing clip that just popped up on YouTube:
Willa: That’s a wonderful clip, Lisha, and it really shows just how involved he was with the background vocalists, the musicians, the music director.
Lisha: Astonishingly, Michael also seemed to have that hyper-awareness with other aspects of the show: the dancing, the lighting, the filmmaking, the special effects, etc. Who can forget the moment he took over the bulldozer scene in “Earth Song,” directing the use of silence as the bulldozer closed its jaws? You could feel your heart cracking open with the timing of the next cue for the piano solo. Extraordinary. Michael Bearden, the music director, said on his fan page something like a jolt of electricity passed through him at that moment.
Willa: I can believe it! I love that scene, and it’s another moment where you really see his influence. The musicians are playing as the bulldozer closes, following the director’s – Kenny Ortega’s – direction. But Michael Jackson is waving him and them down. He wants the music to stop before then, while the bulldozer’s jaws are still open. As he explains to them, “The value would be greater if you let it rumble – let it stay open – let it close in silence.”
Joie: I agree, that is a powerful scene. And I also love the scene where they’re rehearsing Smooth Criminal and after the film portion, Michael turns around and stands motionless for a moment, and Kenny Ortega thinks they’ve gotten their wires crossed and misunderstood when the music is supposed to kick in. But Michael is “sizzling” and waiting for just the right dramatic moment to give the cue to his drummer. Kenny then points out that Michael won’t be able to see the screen behind him change from the marquee to a shot of the city if he does it this way, and Michael says simply, “I gotta feel that. I’ll feel it on the screen behind me.” I love that! He won’t see the screen change behind him, but he’ll feel it! It’s as if every fiber of his being is completely in tune with every aspect of “the performance.” He’ll be able to feel when the screen changes just like he’ll be able to feel the exact right moment to cue the drums. Amazing!
Lisha: I was amazed by that moment in Smooth Criminal too. And how poetic of Michael to describe himself as “sizzling!” Bearden was funny, sort of imitating Michael by telling Ortega that the band didn’t miss their cue, they were waiting because “he’s sizzling.” I got the feeling that everything Michael did or said had artistic flair – it’s just the way his mind worked.
Of all the things I saw that day, the thing that really left me down for the count was what I felt he was doing with music conceptually. I still don’t think I’ve got my head around it. It’s the way he merges multiple styles of music/dance/art with his own multiple intelligences: composing, performing, producing, directing, choreographing, filmmaking, staging, imagineering, his emotional depth, compassion, universal spirituality. He is approaching music from so many disciplines, and with so much depth, history, social and psychological insight. All of it collides with these giant mythic concepts, like the infinite 4D army in They Don’t Care About Us, suggesting the epic battle between good and evil. I gasped at this, recalling the iconic pictures of his military style wardrobe, realizing he has been exploring the powerful role music plays in swaying the hearts and minds of people for years. He’s used this image and concept in many different ways.
I felt he was even exploring the boundaries of space and time with his 4D concept and time bending. He jumps out of the 3D films and onto the stage. He takes you into the future with Light Man, then he jumps back in time into the old classic movies.
Willa: Oh, Light Man is such an interesting image, especially in terms of “time bending.” He looks futuristic, but important scenes from our political and cultural history are playing across the surface of his body and the sphere he’s holding. So we are witnessing history on this shiny futuristic surface – it’s superimposing collective memories of our past onto this vision of the future.
Kenny Ortega said that Michael Jackson connected Light Man gazing at that sphere with Hamlet gazing at the skull during his “Alas, poor Yorick” speech. I love that, and it adds yet another layer of meaning to that image. And then Light Man opens and Michael Jackson jumps out onto the stage.
And then he extends his reach beyond the stage as well. He planned to break down the “fourth wall” between the performers and the audience with the huge puppets moving among the audience during the “Thriller / Ghosts / Threatened” segment. I was also really struck by how the bullets in the Smooth Criminal 3D film fly out at the audience. He frequently tried to lead us as an audience to sympathize with those who are vulnerable, and in this case he positions us so the bullets are flying right at us as well as him so we really experience what a vulnerable position he’s in, and feel the threat against him.
Lisha: I love your take on Light Man, Willa, and yes, I also felt he was using space in such an incredibly meaningful way. This is something I am totally fascinated by. Have you ever noticed this happens in his recorded music? Not long after I saw the film I read Bruce Swedien’s book In The Studio with Michael Jackson. Swedien talks about music as sonic sculpture, how he likes to make the soundfield multi-dimensional. For Swedien to be satisfied with sound, it must have the proportions of left, center, right, and depth. This was a real eye opener to me when I started paying attention to the way the sounds are localized in Michael’s recordings.
For example, when you listen to the intro to “Thriller,” the footsteps will walk right out of your right speaker, across the room or your desk, and right back into your left speaker. They don’t just pan right and left. They walk. If you’re wearing headphones, they will walk right through your head!
Joie: Oh, my God! I cannot tell you how many times I have marveled at how those footsteps seem to walk through my head when I listen to “Thriller” with my headphones on! That is simply amazing and I always wonder, how did they do that?! Because you’re right, the sound doesn’t just pan from the right speaker to the left – it literally walks across the room!
Lisha: I love to listen to “Thriller” in my car because of the clever way the sound gets sent around the space. Like in the Vincent Price rap section, Michael ad libs between the rap verses, singing “I’m gonna thrill her tonight,” which I hear in the front of my car. But from a distance as if in the back seat I hear “hee hee hee…” and “thriller, thriller baby…” like it is coming from behind me! It sounds like Michael Jackson is in the back seat of my car doing his ad libs!
Willa: That’s funny!
Lisha: What a hilarious musical joke when you consider the horror film genre he is spoofing.
Willa: Oh, I hadn’t thought about that. So you don’t just have Michael Jackson in the backseat – you actually have a monster back there … right … behind … you. That is funny!
Lisha: Are you scared yet? I feel like I’ve entered the Michael Jackson dream world, symbolized by the first sound you hear, the squeaky door opening, and the last sound, the door closing shut. You’re being taken into a space in your imagination that exists just for that song. You can see how the talent and imagination of the composer, performer, engineer and producer have to work together to create an effect like that.
Joie: Lisha, I could not agree with you more about the sonic sculpture thing. And as I think about each album, there are just so many examples of “sonic sculptures” throughout his work. The ones that immediately jump to mind for me are, “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Dangerous,” “History,” “Ghosts,” and “Heartbreaker.” And that’s just picking one song from each album but honestly, every single song on each album can be described this way. As a sonic sculpture – a three-dimensional work of art that will live on forever.
Lisha: They truly are works of art and I love every one of your examples, Joie. I even love this game music he created – and don’t forget to listen with headphones:
Joie: The game music is incredible.
Willa: It definitely shows a different side of him, doesn’t it? Though it’s not what I would have expected you to pick, Lisha, as a classically trained musician.
Joie: Willa, it’s interesting you would say that because, when I listen to that game music, I can’t help but wonder about the classical album he was working on when he died. I would give just about anything to hear that music. Talk about sonic sculpture! Can you imagine what that music must sound like?
Willa: Oh, I know! I really hope the Estate releases it sometime in some form or other because I’d love to hear it. And this idea of sonic sculpture is fascinating, especially the way it merges the senses – almost like a type of synesthesia. It’s like visualizing sound.
Joie: I love the way you put that, Willa. “Visualizing sound.” That’s very poetic.
Willa: It’s a fascinating idea, isn’t it? And this idea of sonic sculpture kind of captures something I’ve felt in his music for a long time but didn’t know how to express. For me, his music has always been very visual, but I just assumed that was because of his videos, and the imagery of his lyrics. To me, his videos seem so integral to his artistic vision. As he says in Moonwalk,
The three videos that came out of Thriller – “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” – were all part of my original concept for the album. I was determined to present this music as visually as possible.
So the videos weren’t just something he tacked on later as a marketing tool. From the very beginning, he planned to incorporate film as part of how we experienced that album, “to present this music … visually.” And those visual elements are integral to how we experience Thriller, I think. I can’t think of any of those three songs without imagining the videos as well.
But this concept of “sonic sculpture” adds a whole other way of thinking about this. It’s like his music itself is visual in some ways – it’s three dimensional and occupies three-dimensional space, and I don’t usually think of sound doing that.
Lisha: I had never thought of music as three dimensional in quite this way before either. I still find it mind blowing. Classical music explores the spatialization of sound – other music and popular recordings do as well – but this seems different to me somehow. I’m not sure I even know how to quantify it. In the ancient architecture of South India, known as Vaastu, architecture is defined as “frozen music.” One of the concepts of Vaastu is “rhythm-bound space.” The way Michael conceives of music as architecture reminds me of these concepts in Vaastu. He merges visuals/movement/space with music in a way that leaves one indistinguishable from the other. It’s not music with dance and visuals – it’s somehow structured as one single thing. I can’t hear the music without associating it with the sensation of movement and the visual, artistic, spatial concepts. I think this is really critical to understanding Michael as a composer and as a musician.
Willa: That’s just fascinating, Lisha, and it really expands not only how I think about Michael Jackson’s music, but music in general. Wow, I’m really going to have to ponder this for a while!
And I wonder how this idea of music as spatial and visual ties back in with his videos. I visualize his videos every time I listen to his songs – the songs and videos are so interconnected for me, and there’s a lot of emotional slippage between them. I don’t know if that makes sense but, for example, for a long time I didn’t like the You Rock My World video. In fact, it made me really uncomfortable. It’s pretty angry and I didn’t understand where that anger was coming from or who it was directed against, and it always left me feeling so frustrated and unsettled that I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like all those uncomfortable emotions it aroused in me. And I didn’t like the song either because of that – because all those unsettled emotions spilled over from the video. But after Joie and I talked about You Rock My World last fall and really explored everything that was going on in that video, I came to appreciate it so much more and now I like it a lot. And I like the song much more now also. That’s what I meant by “emotional slippage” between his songs and videos – the emotions of one color the other.
But even in the songs without videos, he paints such vivid pictures sometimes that I actually visualize the woman sitting at the kitchen table in “Much Too Soon,” or the patient lying on the examining table in “Morphine,” listening to the doctor explain what’s going to happen as the drug flows into his veins.
Joie: I know exactly what you mean, Willa; I do that too. In fact, for some of his songs that don’t have an accompanying video, I have actually conjured up an entire short film in my head. And every time I hear the songs – “Money,” “Unbreakable,” and “2000 Watts,” for example – those images that my imagination created play in my mind, simply because he has painted such a vivid picture with his words.
Willa: Now I want to see your mental movies, Joie! That’s so interesting. Another good one is “Human Nature” – his voice is so expressive you can really picture the main character, feeling restless and intensely alive and full of energy, just longing to be out in the night air, walking the city streets.
Lisha: Yes, I’ve made a lot of short films in my mind too! Like “Human Nature,” which I shot looking into a high-rise apartment window, but then you turn and look outside and see the fire escape and street scenes of New York.
Willa: That’s wonderful! What a cinemagraphic way of visualizing it. I can really picture that.
Lisha: ”Human Nature” was another remarkable scene in This Is It. I couldn’t believe that rehearsal, how he created so much musical tension just with his voice and his movement, no accompaniment at all, totally solo. It made a strong impression on me visually as well because I remember looking at his body and fashion sense and I thought to myself, wow, this man gave everything he had to his art, even his own body was used. He held nothing back, including every cell of his body – he gave it all. This struck me as astonishing new territory, that an artist would use their own body to make art. He was like a living, breathing piece of sculpture. I’ve seen people customize their bodies with tattoos or piercings, but never anything like this. I was fascinated by his physical beauty and what it said to me, combined with my own memory of him as a child star, a teenager, the Thriller icon, and the many images I had seen in the media over the years.
Willa: I know what you mean, Lisha. Even the color of his skin was part of his art, and it feels to me like an entirely new kind of art, a new genre of art – it creates meaning in a way that’s very different from a piercing or tattoo, I think, though there are connections. They are all “rewriting” the body to some extent, but Michael Jackson is also rewriting the cultural narratives that have been inscribed on his body in a way I’ve never seen before. So the way he’s rewriting his body carries enormous cultural implications for how we read and interpret signifiers of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and ultimately identity.
Lisha: I believe Michael Jackson does mark an entirely new chapter in music and art. Think how powerful all of this is when you consider how it is being aimed at the masses, the entire globe, the inclusion of everyone, even the planet itself. I remember seeing the intro to “Earth Song” for the first time in This Is It, realizing he had been playing with his audience all along as he revealed the true meaning of his show. This Is It isn’t “the final curtain call” or the “it” place to be. This Is It is our marching orders: time is running out to avoid a global catastrophe. He was using his musical artistic ability to reach the masses and heal the world. I thought, what event in all of art even comes close to this?
Joie: Lisha, I love what you just said about Michael’s music being aimed at the entire globe. It made me remember something that Akon once said about him in an interview. He said,
“He’s incredible. He’s a genius. Just to be in the same room [with him], I felt everything I wanted to accomplish in life has been achieved….That aura … that’s how incredible that aura is….The way he thinks … some artists think regional, some think national, I was thinking international. He thinks planets! It’s on another level!”
I always find it fascinating to learn that his music industry peers, and the younger generation of music artists who are influenced by him, find him just as mind-blowing as the fans do. And I love this quote from Akon because it illustrates so well what you were just saying about appealing to the masses. It also highlights another point you just made when you said “what event in art even comes close to this?” As Akon said, Michael didn’t think small. “He thinks planets!”
Lisha: Isn’t it true? I think Akon was right. There is something so expansive about the way Michael thinks and conceives of art. I’m also trying to think of someone else who has had that kind of reach, and I’m stumped. Is there another historical figure who has reached around the globe the way Michael Jackson has? I’m no historian, but I really can’t think of one.
Joie: I can’t think of one either, Lisha, and I’ve tried for many years.
Willa: He did have a very different way of conceptualizing art, didn’t he? Not just the global reach of his art, but the way he envisions art. I honestly believe he was creating a new poetics, an entirely new philosophy of art.
So I wanted to circle back to his musicianship for just a moment, if we could. When Joie and I talked with Joe Vogel and Charles Thomson a few weeks ago about Michael Jackson as a songwriter, we talked quite a bit about the many collaborators he worked with in the studio, and how they deserve at least some of the credit for what we hear when we listen to one of his albums. But we disagreed about what that means in terms of his musicianship and his songwriting. For example, Charles felt he had far less autonomy as a songwriter because he brought other musicians into the studio, while Joie and I tended to think he was still the composer of his songs and the guiding vision for his albums, and still had a lot of control over what happened in the studio. So as a professional musician who’s worked collaboratively with other musicians, what are your thoughts about this?
Lisha: Well, from my viewpoint, I think there is a paradigm shift going on that makes this difficult to see. Because great music will always reflect the reality of the time and place it was created, whether it intends to or not. For example, Michael Jackson lived in a country that values technology, material prosperity, and global commerce. So it’s no accident that his music strongly reflects these values. It is technologically advanced, lavishly produced, and commercially successful on a global scale.
Willa: Wow, I’d never thought about that before.
Lisha: He also lived in a time and place where it was becoming clear that human beings must develop the capacity to value each other’s perspectives and work together effectively. This was critically important as we moved into a global economy and began working to save the planet’s resources and viability. And that is exactly how I would sum up Michael’s creative process – as the ability to value multiple perspectives, working to fuse them together seamlessly in a way that benefits and enhances every part of the whole. I don’t think for a second that it diminishes his musicianship. On the contrary, I think it is his genius.
Another way to look at this is through The Beatles. I am religiously in love with their work, and I especially admire Paul McCartney. I get a kick out of reading the liner notes on his solo albums and seeing him credited as the bass player, the drummer, the lead guitar player, the keyboard player, the lead vocalist, and the background vocalists as well. Pretty amazing, DIY records! What can’t this man do? I love his solo albums. But at the end of the day, I have to admit, none of the work that The Beatles did as solo artists comes close to what they produced synergistically as The Beatles. You can really hear and understand the value of their working together – the proof is in the pudding as they say. I think it’s clear that musical synergy was a part of their genius.
Willa: What a great analogy! And I certainly don’t think that working together as The Beatles diminished the musical accomplishments of any of them: Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, or Starr.
Lisha: Not at all, it brought out their best work. That is how Kenny Ortega summed up Michael’s philosophy for This Is It – he wanted to gather the best people he could find and challenge them to work together to go beyond anything they had done before.
So I’ve asked myself the question, What work done by Michael’s collaborators on their own can hold up next to a Michael Jackson album? Even the Michael album, which contains a great deal of Michael’s work, cannot stand the test of a Michael Jackson album! Only the man himself could pull that off. Without Michael Jackson guiding the vision and polishing every last detail to perfection, I’m afraid there are no more Michael Jackson albums.
Joie: So does that mean you agree then with Will.i.am, who is very much against posthumous albums of previously unreleased music?
Lisha: Not at all. Will.i.am scared the living daylights out of me when he said he considered destroying some of the tracks he and Michael were working on! I can’t say strongly enough how important it is to preserve and archive everything EXACTLY as Michael left it, including things that were meant for the trash can. Future musicologists will need to have access to all of this. As long as that is done first, I hope the Estate releases everything that has any commercial value at all. It won’t be the exquisitely crafted works of art that Michael created no matter who does the final production work, but it will be a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a genius and his creative process. I would love to be able to hear every last bit of it, even whole albums of snippets and unfinished songs. I think most artists would die for something as good as what Michael Jackson throws away!
Willa: This week we’re celebrating Halloween with one of Michael Jackson’s “scary” songs. And I have to admit, I was pretty excited when Joie suggested we talk about “Is It Scary” because it’s one of my favorites.
Joie: It’s one of my favorites too. So, the first time I heard “Is It Scary,” I was immediately struck by how sad it was and I actually cried. I remember hitting the repeat button several times and pouring over the liner notes, trying to make sure that I had heard Michael’s words correctly because, to me, this song is just so telling and so completely heartbreaking. All you have to do is listen to the lyrics to get a very real sense of what kind of pain he must have been in.
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
I’ll be grotesque before your eyes
Let them all materialize
It makes you wonder what kind of toll it must take on a person. Always being seen as some kind of freak or monster. Always hearing that the entire world thinks you’re strange and weird and bizarre. Constantly having a very vile label attached to your name and being seen as public enemy number one. What does that feel like? How do you cope with that? How much does that hurt? Michael Jackson knew the answers to those questions. And the first time I listened to “Is It Scary,” I got the feeling he wanted the rest of the world to know those answers too. Just for a few minutes, to put themselves in his place and feel what he must have felt.
But he didn’t just want us to put ourselves in his place for a while. He wanted us to take a look at ourselves and try to wrap our heads around the fact that he is not the oddity in this freak show – we are! We’re the ones who keep putting those ugly labels on him. We’re the ones who, for some reason, need him to play the role of the monster in our imagined horror movie. We’re the ones with the sick minds who insist that he has done very inappropriate things with inappropriate people. We – not the fans, of course but, the rest of the world – have tried and convicted him for something he never even thought about doing. All because he “seemed” weird.
Willa: Joie, I feel the exact same way about this song. I don’t think we can begin to imagine how horrible those 1993 allegations were for him. The pain of those allegations are a constant presence in his later work. We saw that in Invincible last month. The pain of those allegations is just beneath the surface of every single song on that album. He can’t get past it, can’t escape it. It’s just a constant ache. And we see it so clearly in “Is It Scary,” which was written, recorded, and released in the years immediately after those allegations came out. His voice is so beautiful and so expressive on this song, and when he sings these lyrics, you just want to bow your head and cry:
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
But there’s something else going on here also. He isn’t just expressing the pain he’s feeling because of those allegations. He’s also telling us how he’s going to respond to them.
As he says in the lyrics you cited, Joie, “I’m gonna be / Exactly what you wanna see.” In other words, if people are going to insist he’s a monster, then he’s going to become one – he’s going to fulfill their “fantasies” and give them what they want. As he says, “you’re wanting me / To be the stranger in the night.” The tabloid press, especially, and much of the public are “wanting” to see him as a pedophile (a “stranger in the night”) even though the evidence clearly contradicts it. The facts don’t matter, though, because this isn’t about reason or logic. It’s about mass hysteria – the same kind of mass hysteria that led us to attack Iraq, a sovereign nation, for no reason. We tend to think we’ve progressed since the days of the Salem witch trials, but I don’t think we have. We just vent our fears in different ways now. And he’s caught in the midst of this hysteria and he’s the target of all that mindless fear, and he’s trying to deal with it. He and his lawyers tried to fight those allegations by citing the evidence, and it made no difference at all. In fact, it just seemed to blow things up bigger, if possible, and make things worse. So now he’s developed an artistic response. As he tells us, “if you wanna see / Eccentric oddities / I’ll be grotesque before your eyes / Let them all materialize.”
Joie: I think you’re absolutely right, Willa, and I think the lyrics are so self-explanatory. All you have to do is pay attention to what it is he’s saying here and you’ll see it. He’s telling us very plainly exactly what he’s about to do next. You know, it’s almost like a defiant teenager who’s rebelling against his parents: ‘Oh, you think I’m acting out now? Well, just you wait.’ It’s a very strange tendency we have as humans to respond to personal attacks in this almost self-sabotaging way. It’s as if Michael was saying ‘So, you want to think of me as a freak show? Well, hold on tight, ’cause I’ll show you a freak show!’ It’s a point he illustrates so well in the Ghosts short film when confronted by the town Mayor.
Willa: Hold on tight is right! It was a pretty wild ride after that, especially the plastic surgery scandal, or the story printed in Vanity Fair that he paid a Mali witchdoctor $150,000 to sacrifice 42 cows and put a curse on Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. That’s crazy. I can’t believe they actually printed that.
Joie: I can’t believe they printed such a ridiculous story either. You know, sometimes I think the crazier the press got, the more it only served to make THEM look foolish, not Michael. And the fact that the public believed it just floors me. It’s no wonder he decided to “be exactly what you wanna see.” He must have felt like he couldn’t win.
Willa: And Joie, I imagine part of that was defiance. He definitely had a strong streak of defiance in his character – I don’t think he could have survived everything he faced without it – so that could be one reason why he decided to be “what you wanna see” and become the monster the press and the public wanted him to be.
But I think there’s something else going on here too, something critically important. And to understand that, I think it helps to step back for a moment and look at his other “monster” works: Thriller, Ghosts, “Threatened,” “Monster.” Repeatedly, we see him taking on the role of the monster, but these aren’t horror stories in the conventional sense. For one thing, they aren’t very scary. A conventional horror story plunges us into a frightening situation and encourages us to become immersed in feeling the full terror of that situation, but he doesn’t. He touches on it, then pulls back and shows us it’s an illusion, then touches on it again and pulls back again. We see this same structure in all of these works. He doesn’t really want to scare us. That’s not what these are about. As he said in a 1999 MTV interview when asked if he liked horror movies,
“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.”
But he didn’t really make “that sort of thing,” because these aren’t really horror stories. But what are they?
To understand that, I think it helps to go back even further – in fact, more than 2,000 years – and look at Aristotle’s theories about art. In Ars Poetica, Aristotle says that one function of art – especially tragedy – is to bring about catharsis, meaning the purging of base emotions such as fear. I think that’s what Michael Jackson is doing in his “monster” works. He’s not encouraging us to feel base emotions. In fact, he’s doing just the opposite – he’s purging us of those emotions. In Thriller, he’s attempting to purge us of a specific type of racial prejudice – the fear many people felt for him as a very sexy Black man, a sex symbol even, and our first Black teen idol. And in Ghosts, “Threatened,” “Monster,” and “Is It Scary,” he’s trying to purge us of that horrible mob mentality that erupted in the hysteria of the 1993 allegations.
Joie: Well, Willa, I have not read Aristotle since my college philosophy class so, I really can’t comment much on that. But, I do understand the idea of catharsis and purging those base emotions and cleansing and healing the psyche. So, I think this makes a lot of sense.
Willa: You know, I’m still trying to figure this out myself, but I see something really different happening in these works, and in the “eccentric oddities” that dominated the media after the release of “Is It Scary.” I think he’s creating a new type of art – in fact, I think you could make the case that he’s creating an entirely new genre of art – and it just fascinates me. And if I haven’t mentioned it in a while, let me say once again that I think Michael Jackson was brilliant – just knock your socks off, bug your eyes out, blow your mind brilliant.
Joie: I know what you mean; it is really unbelievable at times when you think about just how brilliant he was. Almost scary brilliant, actually, and I have never been able to understand those people who just don’t get it. Like, I know that I am a hard-core fan but, it just flabbergasts me to know that there are people out there who don’t think that Michael Jackson is the single most fascinatingly creative person ever to walk the earth. I am just so bewildered by that knowledge – like, how is that even possible? Why isn’t everyone as crazy about him as I am? I just don’t understand.
Willa: Joie, that is so funny because I’ve asked myself some of those exact same questions. Why are they so threatened by him, and why do they condemn him so harshly? Can’t they see how amazing and important his work is? Don’t they get it? I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot lately – about why Michael Jackson’s fans see him so differently than everyone else does – and I’ve decided the answer is very simple: it’s because we love him. And if you look at someone with compassion, you simply see them differently than if you don’t.
I was at the grocery store a few months ago and there was an elderly woman several people ahead of me in line. She was pretty slow and disorganized and was answering the check-out person’s questions in kind of an abrupt, almost rude way, and you could tell the check-out person was getting pretty annoyed with her, and so were the other people in line. But I’d worked with that woman and her husband on a community project, and while I didn’t know her well, I did know that her son had just died the week before after a long battle with cancer. When I was leaving the grocery store, I noticed she was standing at the entrance looking kind of lost and fumbling for her keys so I went over and said hi, and Joie, you could tell that she was just barely holding it together. That trip to the grocery store was about the limit of what she could do right then. And just knowing a little something about her history and what she was going through and seeing her with compassion led me to interpret her words and actions in a really different way than the other people behind her in line.
I think the same thing is true of Michael Jackson and how various people saw him. Those of us who knew his music and his ideas – knew how committed he was to social change, and how important children were for him, both personally and in terms of social change – had a much better understanding of what he must have been going through after the 1993 allegations came out, and that led us to see him with sympathy and interpret him in a much more compassionate way. And when you look at him and the situation he was in from that perspective, it all looks very different from the harsh, condemning criticism you read in the papers.
Joie: It’s really very sad when you think about it that way, you know? To realize that so many of our day-to-day conflicts could be resolved, or even totally eliminated, if we would all just have a little bit more compassion with one another and look at each other with a little bit of love first instead of always immediately reacting with annoyance. And the really sad part is, that’s a lesson Michael had been trying to teach us for so many years. Wow. That just blew my mind a little bit. Thanks for sharing that story, Willa.
But, getting back to “Is It Scary,” what makes this song especially heartbreaking for me, are these lyrics at the very end:
I’m tired of being abused
You know you’re scaring me too
I think the evil is you
Is that scary for you, baby
These last few lines just make me want to cry. You can hear all of his emotions at the end of this song – frustration, rage, anger, sadness. Especially when coupled with his mournful cries of “Don’t wanna talk about it / I don’t wanna talk about it” that immediately precede this last verse. It’s almost difficult to listen to and I feel like, if every person on the planet would really listen to this song and take it in and really digest it, then maybe the world would finally understand him a little bit better and realize all they had put him through.
I know. It’s a pipe dream. But, a girl can hope.
Willa: I agree. This song just seems to be a pure expression of all the emotions he was going through after the 1993 allegations came out. And it amazes me that in the midst of the pain of those allegations, at a time when I personally would want nothing more than to hide under the covers and cry, he was able to distance himself a bit, think through what was happening at a cultural level, and create an artistic response. That just astonishes me, on many different levels, and creates this whole mix of emotions – everything from admiration for what he accomplished to a deep sorrow for everything he had to go through, and for everything we’ve lost.
Joie: I know. It is truly amazing to think about. How anyone could have the courage to hold their head up day after day in his situation… it is just amazing to me and I think he was one of the bravest people ever. Can you imagine being in his shoes and going through the public humiliation that he did, every single day? And in the midst of it all, to still be able to work and write and create truly compelling art and keep presenting it to a world that had turned on you. He’s just incredible to me.
Willa: Well, we can both certainly agree on that.
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.
We’ll conclude this series on My Baby next week when we look more closely at what some of those threats are.
Joie: And don’t forget to weigh in on our discussion and let us know what you think about My Baby. You can comment here or on our Facebook page.
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.
Joie: My Baby is fascinating on so many levels and when Willa and I discovered that we were both very interested in her – and her nemesis – we were really surprised. I think it was then that we really started to talk in earnest about doing a blog together because we were curious as to whether or not we were the only two people out there who had ever wondered about this particular topic. So, we intend to look at My Baby more closely in the coming weeks. Our plan is to look in depth at different songs in which she is featured and talk about what/who she is and what Michael was trying to tell us through her.
Willa: And again, our goal with this blog is to create a place where a community of people can come together and share their interpretations of Michael Jackson’s work and what it has meant to them at different times – because interpretations do evolve over time. And it’s ok if we disagree – even passionately disagree – as long as we’re respectful about it. To be honest, I disagree with myself sometimes! Sometimes I see My Baby as a person, sometimes I see her as symbolic, and lots of times I see her as both. And I love that ambiguity. To me, that’s one of the things that makes Michael Jackson’s work so rich – that it can mean so many different things at different times to different people. So let us know what you think, and what My Baby means to you. We’d love to hear from you, either here or on our Facebook page.