Joie: So, Willa, I’m sure you heard the news about the big Jackson family feud a couple of months ago. Unfortunately it was pretty difficult to avoid; every day it seemed there was a new wrinkle and you couldn’t really get away from it. And it just seemed to get uglier and uglier with each passing day as it became clear that the motivating factor was money. Anger and resentment over the terms of Michael Jackson’s will. And, oddly enough, all that has me thinking about the song “Money,” from the HIStory album.
He never made a short film for this particular song and I’ve always thought it’s such a shame because I would have loved to have seen what he could have come up with for it. It’s one of those songs that really makes you think. One that makes you grab the liner notes and hunker down until you’ve deciphered every word he’s saying. And it has some really fascinating lyrics.
Willa: Wow, Joie! I can’t even believe you’re going there. That’s not just dancing with elephants – more like dancing with cobras. To be honest, I tried not to get caught up in it but it’s hard not to peek sometimes, and sorting out all those conflicting rumors and accusations and hard feelings just seems like negotiating a snake pit to me. It’s complicated even more by the fact that there are so many different sides to it and it’s all so public, and it was plenty complicated enough to begin with.
Anyway, I’m not sure if the main motivation is money or creative control. I tend to think it’s more about wanting to participate in creative decisions – but of course, his songs and his films and his name are all worth a lot of money, so even that’s not a clear distinction. It just seems really, really complicated to me, and I’m very sorry everything became so heated and so public, and people got their feelings hurt.
But I’d love to talk about “Money,” and you’re right – it is fascinating.
Joie: Well, I wasn’t trying to step into a snake pit! And I don’t want to ‘go there,’ as you put it, because you’re right. It is like dancing with cobras, and ultimately, it’s really none of our business anyway.
But it does bring to mind that particular song for me and that’s what I want to focus on.
Willa: I’d love to. And I didn’t mean to be dramatic. I just get really uncomfortable talking about artists’ private lives, though it’s kind of hard to avoid with Michael Jackson because public and private get so tangled up sometimes. Like, I really don’t think we can understand his later work if we don’t know what happened in 1993, but some of that is intensely personal. So how much should be considered public, and how much private? It’s really hard to figure out where to draw that line sometimes. And it’s hard to talk about “Money” without mentioning 1993 also.
Joie: I agree with you. You can’t talk about “Money” without mentioning the events of 1993. Those allegations are at the heart of the song, I think. “Money” was included on the HIStory album, which was released in 1995, just two years after the extortion attempt and the subsequent allegations that ultimately changed his life. In fact, so many of the songs on that album do cover the events of 1993 because he actually used that album to vent his frustrations about the way he was treated – by Evan Chandler, by the police, by the public and by the media. I believe it’s the most personal, honest album in his entire catalog.
Willa: I agree – it’s very personal – but in a way that universalizes his emotions. For example, you can feel his anger on “They Don’t Care about Us,” but it draws on the biased police treatment he’s experienced and then extends that anger beyond his own experiences, so it becomes a commentary on many types of injustice. So it feels personal, but with larger social implications as well.
And even though there are some angry, painful songs on this album – and rightfully so considering the experiences he’d been through – there are also some exquisitely beautiful songs, like “Stranger in Moscow,” “Earth Song,” “You Are Not Alone,” and “Smile.” So it seems like he was in a really interesting place when he put the HIStory album together.
Joie: You know, he was in an interesting place. He had just lived through one of the most difficult periods of his life, his career was in jeopardy, and he had fallen in love and just gotten married. That’s quite a jumble of emotions for anyone to go through in such a short period of time. And he was doing it all in the public eye on top of that so, he had both the media and the public perception to deal with as well. So, you’re right. HIStory is a complex album for all of those reasons. In fact, in his book, Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson, Joe Vogel describes it this way:
“HIStory is Michael Jackson’s most personal album. From the impassioned rage of “Scream” to the pained vulnerability of “Childhood,” the record was, in Jackson’s words, ‘a musical book.’ It encompassed all the turbulent emotions and struggles of the previous few years: it was his journal, his canvas, his rebuttal.”
Willa: Absolutely, and we can really see that in “Money.” It’s a very strong “rebuttal,” as Joe says, to the 1993 accusations. In fact, it’s a counter-accusation, saying in no uncertain terms that he is innocent and those accusing him – meaning Evan Chandler and Blanca Francia and Tom Sneddon, as well as the tabloids and mainstream press who perpetuated and magnified the hysteria – are the ones who are guilty. And their crimes are “lust, gluttony, and greed.”
Joie: I agree with you completely, Willa. The song opens with an ominous, almost sinister chant from Michael proclaiming all the horrifying things that people will do for money: “Lie for it / Spy for it / Kill for it / Die for it.” And he spits the words out as if the thought completely disgusts him. Then he goes on to say,
So you call it trust But I say it’s just In the devil’s game Of greed and lust They don’t care They’d do me for the money They don’t care They use me for the money
I think it would pretty simplistic of us to believe that this song is merely an unflattering critique of greed and materialism. In fact, I think it’s fairly clear from these opening lines who ‘they’ are and how he feels about them.
Willa: I agree, it’s a really strong indictment. But then he makes that classic Michael Jackson move we see in him so often where he suddenly flips the narrative, adopts the persona of those he’s critiquing, and begins speaking from their point of view:
I’ll never betray or deceive you my friend but If you show me the cash Then I will take it If you tell me to cry Then I will fake it If you give me a hand Then I will shake it You will do anything for money
And then he breaks to the chorus, which pushes this reversal even further:
Anything (anything) Anything for money I’d lie for you Would die for you Even sell my soul to the devil
So suddenly he’s speaking from their perspective, even going so far as to say he would “sell my soul to the devil.” And the “you” he’s talking to seems to be money itself. If you didn’t know who the “you” was, you might think this was a love song, and these lines were a vow a man was pledging to his lover: I’d do anything for you, “I’d lie for you,” “die for you.”
But this is no love song. Just the opposite. He goes on to suggest that romance can’t compete with greed – so even if a woman were involved, she’d be sold out soon enough if the price were right:
You don’t care You’d do her for the money Say it’s fair You’d sue her for the money
So the beloved he’s swearing loyalty to isn’t a woman but Money itself, and the effect of that personification is really chilling.
Joie: It is chilling. It’s actually a very frightening song if you just sit and really listen to it. The lyrics are not for the fainthearted, and his eerie delivery of those lyrics is somewhat disquieting. And once again, without paying at least a little attention to the details of the events of 1993, I don’t believe one can fully appreciate the message of this song. And unfortunately, that message is that many people worship money and value it above all else.
In the second verse, he makes this accusation plain, asking where our loyalties and priorities are:
Insurance? Where do your loyalties lie? Is that your alibi? I don’t think so
Willa: Oh, that is such an important verse, Joie, and I agree, it clearly connects with the events of 1993. Insurance companies don’t protect their profits by upholding truth and justice, but by minimizing risk – and letting the Chandler civil case go to trial would have been a huge risk for them, financially. Michael Jackson wanted to fight, but his insurance company wanted him to settle, and so did his own lawyers because it’s always much safer to settle than go to court. So he wasn’t just fighting Evan Chandler but the people on his own team, and you can feel his outrage about that throughout this song, especially in a few pointed references, like that one, Joie.
Joie: I agree completely. And it was a pretty bold move for him to put that in a song, I thought. And then he goes on to say this:
Want your pot of gold? Need the Midas touch? Bet you’d sell your soul ‘Cause your God is such You don’t care You kill for the money Do or dare The thrill for the money
I think he’s clearly accusing the masses of worshiping money here, and near the end of the song, he begins a chant of “money makes the world go around” that punctuates his point.
Willa: I don’t know, Joie. I’m not sure he’s accusing all of us of worshiping money. I mean, there are some places where he definitely implies that, like the beginning of the final verse:
You say you wouldn’t do it For all the money in the world? I don’t think so If you show me the man Then I will sell him
He’s implying pretty strongly here that everyone has a price – “If you show me the man / Then I will sell him” – and no one is exempt from that. So I see what you’re saying, Joie, and I definitely think this song has implications for all of us. But the “you” in this song – the person or thing he’s addressing – is very interesting and complicated, and shifts around constantly.
Joie: It is complicated. In fact, I think it may be one of his most complicated songs because, as you said, the “you” does constantly shift. In one voice, he’s clearly pointing his finger and saying “you would do anything for money.” But in the next breath he’s taken on the persona of the “you” and saying he’d “even sell my soul to the devil.” And you know, I believe that ambiguity is exactly what he was going for here. He wanted us to question the “you” in this song. Because questioning the “you” also makes us question what our own feelings and thoughts about money are. Would we do “anything for money” as the chorus states? And does money make the world go around? I believe Michael was trying to prompt us to ask ourselves these hard questions.
Willa: Wow, that’s a really interesting take on that, Joie. I like that interpretation. So it’s like he’s adopting multiple personas so we as an audience have to look at it from all those different points of view and to some degree adopt those subject positions as well, and some of those subject positions aren’t very comfortable. Like, if we sing along with the car stereo – which I tend to do a lot – we find ourselves singing the words, “Anything for money / I’d lie for you / Would die for you / Even sell my soul to the devil,” and what does it feel like to sing that? What happens mentally and emotionally when we sing those lyrics?
Joie: Oh, my God, such good questions, Willa. What does it feel like when we sing those lyrics? I personally wouldn’t know because that line bothers me on a spiritual level. And, as a result, I have never sung those words before. Whenever I’m listening to this song and I’m singing along, I am very aware of that line and usually I end up replacing the word “my” with “your” when I’m singing along to this one. If I don’t do that, then I just avoid singing that line completely. And it’s really interesting to me that I do that, but I just always have.
Willa: That is interesting, Joie, and I think it underscores just how much this song challenges us to question our own actions and values – to the point of making us pretty uncomfortable in some places. I do sing along, but I’m very aware of that line too, and it always pulls me up short.
So it sounds like we both have a powerful reaction to this song, and I think that was intentional – I think he wanted to shake us up and force us to take a hard look at ourselves. This song puts us in some really weird subject positions where we have to ask ourselves a lot of hard questions, as you say. Like “If you show me the cash / Then I will take it.” Every time I sing that out loud I wonder, is that true? Would I? Would I take “the cash” if someone offered it to me? And under what circumstances?
Joie: I know what you mean, Willa. I have the same thought process whenever I listen to this song too. And I think you’re right, that was intentional. And it just proves to me, once again, how intentional he always was in his art and how brilliant he was.
Willa: Oh, he was breathtakingly brilliant – and courageous as well, with that distinctive courage of a true artist. For one thing, he didn’t always try to please his audience. Sometimes he really shook us up and challenged us and made us uncomfortable, like he does in “Money” or “Little Susie” or the You Rock My World video. But that discomfort is never gratuitous. When we take a closer look, we find it serves an important artistic function and often leads us to see ourselves and our world a little differently.
Willa: So I’m just going to be upfront about this and say that working on this week’s post put Joie and me into a terrible funk – the Great Depression, as Joie called it. It deals pretty explicitly with some very painful scenes from our nation’s history, including scenes of racial oppression and sexual abuse. But we felt it was necessary to provide that context to understand what happened in 1993, and everything that followed from that.
Joie: And Willa’s not kidding when she said it sent us both into a Great Depression. This has been the hardest conversation we’ve ever had and it stirred up some really negative emotions in both of us. For a while we didn’t know if we would get through it; we were even worried about hurting each other’s feelings.
Willa: We also didn’t want to hurt or upset anyone who reads this, and we’ve been especially concerned about new readers who may not know us too well. We gained a lot of new readers and new subscribers with the sex appeal post a few weeks ago, which was such a fun, feel-good post to write. Joie and I had a blast with it, and we’re planning to get back to some fun topics soon. In fact, we’re treating ourselves with a look back at Off the Wall next week.
But we both strongly believe that sometimes you just have to stand up and speak the truth, even if it’s unpleasant and upsetting. We believe the public’s refusal to look at things that are unpleasant is what allowed District Attorney Tom Sneddon to abuse the power of his office for so long. So while this was very painful to write, and while we tried to be as sensitive as possible, we felt compelled to speak honestly about specific aspects of our nation’s terrible history of racism and abuse.
Joie: So this week, we continue with our conversation about Michael as a sex symbol and why that was both a significant and a dangerous spot for him to be in. And we ended last week with a discussion of the time period – from the late 1970s to 1982 when Michael’s career really exploded with the release of Thriller – and how the cultural attitudes were in a state of flux. Things were shifting a little bit and the time was right for someone with Michael’s broad-ranging cross-over appeal, and he didn’t hesitate for a second. He stepped up and took full advantage of the moment and became the biggest star the world had ever seen.
Willa: Then in 1993, a White man, Evan Chandler, falsely accused him of a sex crime. Importantly, in a secretly recorded phone conversation, Chandler admits he has paid people to carry out “a plan that isn’t just mine,” saying,
“There are other people involved that are waiting for my phone call that are in certain positions. I’ve paid them to do it. Everything’s going according to a plan that isn’t just mine.”
He also says, “I’ve been rehearsed about what to say and what not to say,” and says there will “be a massacre if I don’t get what I want,” which is $20 million dollars. This is clearly an extortion attempt.
To understand what happened next, we have to go back in our nation’s history and look at some truly horrifying scenes. And we know this is hard to read. It was incredibly hard to write. But we both feel we can’t really understand what happened in 1993 without this background.
As we’ve mentioned before, there existed a cultural narrative that Black men were a sexual threat to White women, and this narrative was used as an excuse to oppress, demean, and abuse Black men and force them to be submissive. Black men who were not properly deferential could be tortured and killed. Importantly, the torture those men endured tended to focus on the parts of the body we designate as sexual, and their mutilated bodies were often displayed afterwards as a warning to other Black men.
So Black men weren’t just physically abused; they were sexually abused and put on display in very public ways. And this type of sexual intimidation wasn’t restricted to just a few isolated cases. It was systemic, and an integral part of racial oppression in the United States.
In urban areas like New Orleans, there were public whipping houses, and if you were a slave you could be sent there at the whim of your owner for something as trivial as having a defiant look in your eyes. The purpose of those places was to break your spirit and force you to accept the idea that you were a slave. Both men and women were sent to those places, and they did not whip you through your clothes. If you were a woman and were sent to that place, you would have to stand bare chested before a brutal man who made his living hurting people. He would bind your hands over your head to hold you upright as you were whipped, but he could also punish you in ways that were less painful physically but perhaps more damaging psychologically. He could molest you. He could take your clothing. He could force you to stand exposed for hours. He could demean and humiliate you as much as he wanted. And this was a public place with galleries for spectators, so there was likely a crowd of rough, jeering men who gathered in such places just to watch other human beings be hurt and humiliated.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe suggests that the intense humiliation women (and men) experienced in those places was as cruel a punishment in its way as the physical pain they endured from the whip. A beautiful teenager, Rosa, is caught trying on a dress that belongs to her mistress, Maria. As punishment, Maria writes out an order for Rosa to be taken to the whipping house to receive 15 lashes, “lightly” applied. An older woman tries to intervene on Rosa’s behalf, saying, “But could not you punish her some other way, – some way that would be less shameful?” Maria replies,
“I mean to shame her; that’s just what I want. She has all her life presumed on her delicacy, and her good looks, and her lady-like airs, till she forgets who she is; – and I’ll give her one lesson that will bring her down, I fancy!”
The intense shame Rosa will experience in that place is not accidental: as Maria says, “I mean to shame her; that’s just what I want.” That extreme public humiliation is intentional, and its purpose is to “bring her down” – to scorch her mind as well as her body and make her submissive – by forcing her to accept and internalize the idea that she is powerless, and a slave.
Joie: You know, Willa, I have not read Uncle Tom’s Cabin since I was in High School but I have to say, just the little snippet you’ve mentioned here makes me remember how uncomfortable – and angry, and indignant, and horrified, and outraged, and hurt – I felt reading it back then. It is not a pleasant or an easy book for a Black person to read.
Willa: Oh God, Joie. Some of those scenes are just terrible to read. I was in my 40s, and it was still really hard to take. And I can believe that reading it as a Black teenage girl would be a very different experience than reading it as a White middle-aged woman. Most of the worst things happen behind the scenes – for example, a weeping Rosa is sent to the whipping house and we don’t see her again – but still, it’s really painful and uncomfortable. A lot of White people don’t like reading that book either just because it is so painful, and because it can stir up a lot of feelings of collective guilt as well.
I know as a Southern White girl learning about slavery, I felt like I’d found out that my mother was a murderer. I just couldn’t hardly come to grips with it. And it really wasn’t that long ago. My grandmother loved her grandfather, and used to tell me stories about him and how kind he was. Looking back much later, I realized that he was 12 years old when the Civil War began. He was 16 when the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery. We tend to think it’s ancient history, but it really wasn’t that long ago. My grandmother’s grandfather was alive during that time, and we’re still dealing with a lot of those attitudes today.
Joie: No, it wasn’t that long ago. My mother’s great-grandfather was lost in slavery. Sold to another slave owner and never heard from again. That’s just four generations ago.
Willa: Oh God, Joie. That’s terrible.
Joie: And even though that book is fiction, it is based on the very real experience of slavery in our country. And it is largely responsible for creating and ingraining most of the racial stereotypes about Blacks that we know today into the collective American psyche.
Willa: You’re right, it’s fiction but it draws on the experiences of real people. Stowe’s husband visited a whipping house in New Orleans and wrote about what he saw there, including a naked teenage girl – a girl like Rosa – and scenes of just unspeakable cruelty. So a lot of the ideas for Stowe’s novel came from real life experiences.
But a lot of the racial stereotypes you mentioned – especially the stereotype of Uncle Tom – didn’t come from Stowe’s novel, at least not directly. Her novel was incredibly popular – the most popular novel of the 19th Century – and Vaudeville skits based on her novel became very popular as well. Those skits often featured White actors in blackface playing the role of happy slaves, including a happy Uncle Tom, and that’s where those stereotypes came from, but that’s not at all what her novel is like. Stowe’s Tom is no Uncle Tom. In fact, he is tortured and killed by his owner because he refuses to whip other slaves, or tell him where two slaves who escaped have been hiding. Judging Uncle Tom’s Cabin because of those Vaudeville stereotypes is like judging Michael Jackson based on Wierd Al Yankovic.
Joie: I completely disagree with you. While it’s true that Stowe probably intended for the character of Tom to be some sort of ‘noble hero,’ and the stereotype of him as a subservient old fool who bows down like a good little slave and does everything he can to keep his White master happy was perpetuated by the many stage productions that Stowe had no control over, her novel is completely responsible for many other racial stereotypes. The lazy, carefree “happy darky.” The tragic figure of the attractive light-skinned mulatto female who’s used as a sex object by all the White men. The plump, motherly, dark-skinned “Mammy” with the kerchief wrapped around her head like Aunt Jemima. Even the “pickaninny” stereotype of Black children – “wooly heads and glistening eyes.” It’s incredibly offensive and it came directly from the descriptions and illustrations in that book. And as you pointed out, in its day, it was the single most popular novel of the 19th Century.
I’m not discounting its significance as an invaluable commentary against slavery. I’m just pointing out its complicity in creating and perpetuating all those racial stereotypes that we still struggle with today.
Willa: You know, I don’t mean to make Uncle Tom’s Cabin sound better than it is. It was written in a very different place and time with a very different mindset, and I admit I winced quite a bit while reading it. But I think Stowe explodes a lot of those stereotypes by taking us inside the minds of those characters and making them real, human, complicated people – especially the women characters. The Mammy figure, Chloe, is a smart no-nonsense woman who says some pretty subversive things, and if Cassie had her way, she’d drive a stake through the heart of the man who forced her to be his mistress. She remains her own person and never becomes what he wants her to be. She’s no sex kitten. And Cassie is a crucial figure. One of the things I find so important about Stowe and the reason I keep referring to her is that, through characters like Rosa and Cassie, she shows the interconnections between slavery and sexuality – specifically, how abuse of power in terms of race, gender, and sexuality is intricately related and interwoven.
Joie: Ok. First, I never said the mulatto female characters were sex kittens, I said they were sex objects (there’s a big difference) and a racial stereotype. Second, and most importantly, we are obviously never going to agree or even meet in the middle on our opinions of this book so, we should probably just move on.
Willa: Ok. I shouldn’t have pushed that so hard. I apologize.
The idea I’m trying to get at is that racism and slavery are false ideologies – artificial human constructs – that are deeply abhorrent to the human mind. Everything within us rebels at the thought of being a slave, and it takes brutal measures to break us to the point where we’ll accept it. And in the American South, brutal measures were used.
And here’s the crucially important point, the reason it’s important to look back at all this terrible history: those false ideologies were “made real” by being “written” on real human bodies. Those ideologies were literally written in the scars of whips or chains or a branding iron, but they were also written in less obvious ways through sexual abuse or even the public gaze of White men who thought they had a right to dominate the bodies of Black men and women, and refused to acknowledge their humanity. And this other type of “writing” on the body is perhaps more damaging to the psyche than physical suffering because it focuses on the areas of the body we tend to designate as sexual. These areas are more intimate and therefore more closely aligned with our inner being and sense of self, so it is more wounding psychologically when those areas are abused.
This is part of our nation’s horrible legacy of racial/sexual abuse, and this is the background for what Michael Jackson faced in 1993. In that secretly recorded phone conversation, Even Chandler says,
“This lawyer I found – I picked the nastiest son of a bitch I could find. All he wants to do is get this out in the public as fast as he can, as big as he can, and humiliate as many people as he can. He’s nasty, he’s mean, he’s smart, and he’s hungry for publicity.”
In other words, Chandler wants to control Michael Jackson – he wants to make him submissive and force him to bow to his wishes – by threatening to publicly “humiliate” him in a sexual way by accusing him of a sex crime. This is simply an extension of what Maria wants to do to Rosa in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As Maria says, “I mean to shame her; that’s just what I want.” And in Michael Jackson’s final meeting with Chandler, when he refuses to pay him the money he wants, Chandler points a finger at him and says, “You’re going down, Michael. You’re going down.” Again, this is simply a modern variation of what Maria said of Rosa more than a century earlier: “I’ll give her one lesson that will bring her down, I fancy!”
When Michael Jackson refuses to give in to Chandler’s demands, the police are brought in, led by a White District Attorney named Tom Sneddon. Sneddon blindly accepts Chandler’s accusations despite all the evidence that it is an extortion attempt, and he sides with Chandler against Michael Jackson. Sneddon then uses his position as District Attorney to order a strip search. A few days before Christmas 1993, Michael Jackson is forced to stand naked on a platform while the most intimate parts of his body – the areas designated as sexual – are photographed and videotaped. If the civil case goes to trial, those photographs and videotape could be entered as evidence and made public in a courtroom.
The intense humiliation Michael Jackson was forced to endure during the strip search, and that he would have faced during the civil trial, is entirely in keeping with our nation’s horrifying history of racial/sexual abuse. Again, it is merely an extension of the humiliations slaves were forced to endure in the public whipping houses when the most intimate areas of their bodies – areas designated as sexual – were put on public display.
Joie: You’re absolutely right, Willa. And you know, I have always had a difficult time reading accounts of that strip search, and for the longest time, I thought it was just because it felt so much like reading the account of a rape. And it does. I mean, putting yourself in Michael’s shoes as you read what happened during that strip search, it just feels like he’s being gang raped by everyone in that room – the photographers, the videographer, the DA’s physician, the police officers that were in the room – everyone. It’s just so uncomfortable to read; it feels like such a violation.
But, until we began working on this post, I never realized that perhaps another reason I have so much trouble reading about that incident is because it also feels very reminiscent of a slave being publicly examined and violated and humiliated before being sold or whipped. I believe Aldebaran and I talked about it briefly in the comments section a couple weeks ago.
You know for many Black Americans, reading about, watching on TV, or even just talking about slavery in any deep and meaningful way is very difficult and uncomfortable to do. And, as you know, Willa, I’ve had a very difficult time contributing to this particular conversation. I felt paralyzed by it. When you first mentioned that we talk about this, I avoided it for weeks. And I was very puzzled by it for a long time until I really just sat and thought about the reasons why. Why was I having such a hard time with this one? And finally, I realized that this topic is just so unpleasant for me for so many reasons. Slavery is ugly and I don’t like to talk about it. And rape is ugly and I don’t want to talk about it. And trying to have a meaningful conversation about how someone you love and adore was humiliated and raped and made to feel like a common slave is … unpleasant. To say the least. It’s ugly, and I don’t want to talk about it.
Willa: You know, I felt that way for a long time. I’ve felt a deep connection to Michael Jackson since I was nine years old, and I always believed he was innocent, but I didn’t want to know any of the details. It was too ugly, plus I always felt his private life should be private. I never read any biographies of him while he was alive – actually, didn’t read anything like that until I was well into writing M Poetica, and noticed his later work kept pointing back to 1993. Then I felt like I had to learn something about what happened, just so I could understand what he was responding to and trying to convey.
And it was shocking. I didn’t know about the strip search. When I read a description of what happened that day, I felt physically sick for hours, just hollowed out inside – I can’t even describe it. And I definitely didn’t know about the photographs and videotape. As soon as I found out about them, I thought, Of course he settled. Of course. I would too.
But I didn’t know about them, or about that recording where Evan Chandler says, “Everything’s going according to a plan that isn’t just mine,” and says he’s paid people to help carry out that plan. I didn’t know Chandler’s son agreed to the allegations after being sedated, and I didn’t know the details of how Chandler interrogated his son – how he lied and threatened and manipulated his son until he finally agreed to the allegations. I kept hoping some evidence would appear that would prove his innocence. I had no idea that evidence was already available, but the police and press were ignoring it.
Looking back, I think Tom Sneddon was able to abuse the power of his office – and abuse and harass Michael Jackson – because a lot of people like me refused to look at the evidence and look at what was happening. You were a lot better about that than I was, Joie – you were working through the fan club to help make people aware, but looking back I feel like I was willfully, woefully ignorant.
Joie: Well I wasn’t working with MJFC then. There was no MJFC back in 1993.
Willa: I’m not just talking about 1993. I’m talking about the whole period from 1993 on. Tom Sneddon hounded him for years.
Joie: Well, that’s very true; he went after him with a vengeance and I truly believe he was obsessed with Michael. But, I was very much plugged in to what was going on, even before I started working with MJFC. I made it a point to follow what was happening. And like you, I didn’t want to know any of the details either. I don’t think anyone really wanted to look too closely into the details because it was such an ugly accusation. And I feel like I keep using that word – ugly – and I apologize for that, but I just can’t seem to get away from it in this conversation.
But in order to prove what we knew to be true – that Michael was innocent – and in order to educate others about the truth (since the sensationalized news certainly wasn’t doing it) we had to look at the facts; we had no choice. And the facts clearly pointed to extortion. And how Sneddon and his minions could ignore that and go on a witch hunt instead still floors me. And there is no doubt in my mind that if it had gone to trial, Michael would have been victorious. But I understand completely why he suddenly stopped pushing for his day in court after the strip search and I can’t blame him. I probably would have done the exact same thing. Even though settling made him look guilty. And it makes me think of that part in Frank Cascio’s book, My Friend Michael, where he talks about how Michael would occasionally bring that up, saying,
“I have the whole world thinking I’m a child molester. You don’t know what it feels like to be falsely accused.”
Willa: I agree, Joie. I would have settled. If that civil case had gone to trial, think of what that would have been like. Not only would it have been unbearably humiliating, it also would have served as a warning to other Black men of what could happen if they weren’t careful. In other words, it would have been an extension of the message conveyed by the bodies of Black men lynched in the past as a warning to be submissive. As in all those earlier abuses of power we talked about, the purpose of this intense sexual humiliation was to break his spirit – to control him, and subdue him, and force him to accept the cultural position set out for him – by “writing” this ideology on his body, by writing how powerless he was on the most intimate areas of his body.
But it didn’t work. It didn’t break him or control him or make him submissive. Instead, he became defiant – more openly defiant than he’d ever been before. The press called him uncontrollable, outrageous. It’s striking to me how many articles were written saying that someone needed to take control of him – his family, his managers, someone. And this isn’t a person who’s brandishing weapons or threatening people or causing massive property damage. He’s simply making people very uncomfortable through what he calls his “eccentric oddities.”
But his “eccentric oddities” weren’t random – they took a very specific form. He responded to the attempts to write the ideologies of racism and subservience on his body by completely confounding the way we read and interpret his face and body. He manipulated public perceptions of his face until it simply could not be read in conventional ways. Was he Black, or was he White? Was he masculine, or was he feminine? Was he handsome and desirable, a sex symbol, or was he ravaged by plastic surgery? Was he heterosexual? Homosexual? Bisexual? Asexual? Was he a pedophile or a victim? Innocent or guilty? Everyone who looked at him saw something different. We as a culture completely lost the ability to read and interpret his face and body because he scrambled the signifiers we’re used to reading.
And that wasn’t accidental. As he himself tells us rather explicitly through his work, it was an artistic decision. Specifically, the illusion of plastic surgery was an artistic response to the cultural constraints being forced on him, and it’s brilliant. In fact, as much as I love his music and his dancing and his films (and I do love them) I believe his face and body – and the illusions he created with them – are his greatest work of art. I believe future generations will look back at Michael Jackson and see him as a transformational figure, and the most important artist of our time – not the greatest singer or dancer or filmmaker, but the most important artist, period, including poets and painters and playwrights. And I believe they will see his face as his masterpiece.
However, his face isn’t just his most ambitious and most important work of art. It’s also an entirely new kind of art – an entirely new genre of art. It makes us uncomfortable because it is such a new kind of art and we don’t yet know how to interpret it. But it has the potential to “rewrite” the ideologies that have been written on our bodies, and alter the way we make sense of ourselves and our world. And that is truly revolutionary.
Joie: Willa, I agree with you that everyone who looked at him saw something different. But I tend to think that was our doing, not his. Everyone saw something different simply because people see what they want to see. You yourself told us back during our discussion of “Is It Scary” that “if you look at someone with compassion, you simply see them differently than if you don’t.” And those people who looked at him and believed that he was ‘ravaged by plastic surgery’ or guilty as sin, or crazy as a loon or whatever, simply wanted to see him that way.
But I do agree with you that, in time, the world will come to realize that Michael Jackson was in fact the most important artist of our time. And that statement has nothing to do with his music or his dancing abilities or his short films. Instead, it has everything to do with the fact that he – the most famous man on the planet, the most successful entertainer in the world – was given the great responsibility of proving to the world that Black people and White people are all the same. And that responsibility came with a disease that he was ridiculed for and teased about and tormented with for the rest of his life. But he handled it with so much grace and dignity and humility and bravery. And he tried his best to use it to teach us some very profound lessons along the way. And you’re right. That is very revolutionary.
You’ll never make me stay
So take your weight off of me
I know your every move
So won’t you just let me be
I’ve been here times before
But I was too blind to see
That you seduce every man
This time you won’t seduce me
Joie: With these words begin the game of seduction that is “Dirty Diana.” And it’s apparently one they’ve been playing for some time. He knows her “every move,” he’s “been here times before.” But this time it’s different. This time he’s finally opened his eyes and he sees her now for what she really is, and he doesn’t want to go through it again.
She’s saying that’s ok
Hey baby do what you please
I have the stuff that you want
I am the thing that you need
She looked me deep in the eyes
She’s touchin’ me so to start
She says there’s no turnin’ back
She trapped me in her heart
She wants him and she’s not willing to take no for an answer. So she taunts him, telling him that she knows exactly what he wants and what he needs. Then she touches him suggestively and says, “there’s no turnin’ back.” He’s been trapped by this beautiful, ruthless seductress and he’s torn. On one side there’s My Baby, the woman he loves and has waiting for him at home. But standing right in front of him is this wicked temptress, telling him that she’s ready and willing. He wants to be faithful. But he’s also strangely drawn to this other woman. She’s wild and exciting and unpredictable and he likes that. But he also likes the fact that My Baby is in his life, someone who knows him and loves him and cares about him. He feels this same dilemma in “Dangerous”:
She came at me in sections
With the eyes of desire
I fell trapped into her
Web of sin
A touch, a kiss
A whisper of love
I was at the point
Of no return
Once again, he feels trapped. But this time, it’s a little darker. The first time, he sings, “She trapped me in her heart.” The second time, he is “trapped into her web of sin.” The Bad album was released in 1988 when Michael was still a relatively young, inexperienced man but Dangerous is released a few years later in 1991, and few years can make a whole lot of difference. So in 1988, he was a little bit naive and then caught completely by surprise when Diana grabs the phone out of his hand and tells My Baby that he’s not coming home “because he’s sleeping with me.” But in 1991, he’s not so naive anymore and he knows exactly what he’s getting into.
Her mouth was
Smoother than oil
But her inner spirit
Is as sharp as
A two-edged sword
But I loved it
‘Cause it’s dangerous
He knows it’s wrong. He knows he shouldn’t. But he can’t help himself; he’s inexplicably drawn to her. But who is she really? And if we continue to see My Baby as representing a part of his psyche or his inner self, then who exactly are these other women who constantly threaten her and try to come between them? Could these women possibly represent another side of his own psyche? Perhaps the part of him that courted fame, the side of him that was drawn to entertaining and creating and being on stage. That part of him that loved being in front of a camera or onstage performing in front of 80,000 people. Is it possible that these “dangerous” women represent fame itself and that Michael Jackson often felt seduced by it? Compelled to go off with her instead of going home to My Baby. Compelled to pursue his career instead of nurturing that secret part of himself that he tried to keep safely hidden away from the limelight.
Fame is the dream of many, the hope of millions. But it always comes at a price and often, those who find it end up wishing that it was different. Fame is wild and exciting and unpredictable – just like the temptress in both “Dirty Diana” and “Dangerous.” But fame can also be brutal and unkind and hurtful to those who get in its way. Just ask My Baby.
Willa: Wow, Joie. You’ve officially blown me away. I had never considered the possibility that these seductive, threatening women were fame itself, or that part of himself that was drawn to fame. But now that you say that, it makes perfect sense. I’ve never understood why he would be attracted to a cruel person, to someone whose “inner spirit is as sharp as a two-edged sword.” But fame is cruel, and he knows it, but still he’s drawn to it. That makes perfect sense. It also explains why he can’t escape it – why these seductive women reappear again and again, album after album, threatening My Baby. He can’t escape it because it’s also a part of him, just as My Baby is – the part of himself that’s drawn to fame.
It also explains why this complicated love triangle that has entangled him for years suddenly disappears after the false accusations came out in 1993, and he discovered just how cruel fame could be. That was such a searing experience for him that fame no longer attracts him. The spell has been broken, and now he sees fame for what it truly is. He still recognizes and respects its power – maybe more so than before – but he’s no longer naively drawn to it, and he doesn’t let it threaten My Baby.
Joie: No, he doesn’t let it threaten My Baby anymore. It’s like from that point (1993) on, he goes to much greater efforts to keep the two apart, and he makes a conscious decision to focus on My Baby – or his private life. He gets married and tries to start a family. It doesn’t work the first time but, he keeps trying. He becomes a father. He takes active steps to build a happy private life, to nurture My Baby a little bit.
And I never thought about it before either! For years, I always thought that the threatening women were referring to the media, the tabloids, the paparazzi, etc. It wasn’t until writing this blog and focusing on “Dirty Diana” and “Dangerous” that it hit me like a lightning bolt. Fame is the bold, threatening presence in this threesome. I think it all makes so much sense now.
Willa: I agree, and I’m so intrigued by this idea. I really want to go back and listen to those earlier songs again with this interpretation in mind, and see if it sheds new light on that ongoing conflict between the protagonist, My Baby, and the women who threaten her. But this conflict abruptly disappears after 1993. After the horror of that experience, he no longer lets the allure of fame threaten My Baby. She’s still somewhat fragile and in need of protection, but the threats are different now.
We’re introduced to one of those threats in “Ghosts,” the first song to reference My Baby after the 1993 scandal erupted. As the video makes clear, he’s addressing a threatening figure – a figure many critics saw as representing District Attorney Tom Sneddon, the man who led the investigation against Jackson. The protagonist is standing up to this figure and demanding answers, repeatedly asking him,
And who gave you the right to shake my family?
And who gave you the right to shake My Baby?
She needs me
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?
So once again My Baby is at risk, but this time it isn’t a seductress who hurts her. It’s the police. And this time the protagonist isn’t torn by conflicting impulses. He knows whose side he’s on, and he’s doing everything he can to defend and protect her. He’s clearly addressing an authority figure in this scene, and importantly, he’s challenging the very basis of his authority. As he repeatedly asks this man, “who gave you the right . . . ?” Why do you have this authority, this power to “shake” another person’s life? Where does this authority come from? What gives you the right to treat other people this way?
This line of questioning is repeated three times over the course of “Ghosts,” but the third time it’s extended and a new question is subtly added in the midst of the other questions:
And who gave you the right to shake my family?
And who gave you the right to shake My Baby?
She needs me
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?
And who gave you the right to take intrusion,
To see me?
And who gave you the right to shake my family?
And who gave you the right to shake My Baby?
She needs me
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?
This new question is “Who gave you the right to take intrusion / To see me?” I think this is clearly a reference to the strip search that was conducted on December 20, 1993 – a procedure ordered by Tom Sneddon – where the most intimate parts of Michael Jackson’s body were photographed and videotaped by the police.
My sense is that he experienced that strip search as a rape – a police-authorized rape – and I don’t use that word lightly. For example, in “They Don’t Care about Us,” he says, “I am the victim of police brutality. . . . You’re raping me of my pride.” And in “Privacy” he references “that cold winter night” when “my pride was snatched away.” The immediate context suggests he’s talking about the death of Princess Diana while being chased by paparazzi, but she died in August. The strip search occurred in December. And if we look at the wider context of those lyrics, we see that he repeatedly juxtaposes his experiences and hers.
I’m not sure it’s possible to overstate how deeply the events of 1993 impacted Michael Jackson. His world view shifts in profound ways after that time, and one of those shifts is in the way he viewed institutions of power, such as the police or the press. He was always very concerned about injustice and discrimination, but before 1993 his focus was on occasional injustices that occurred within those institutions. After 1993, his focus is on the institutions themselves, and what gives them the right to invade the most intimate aspects of a person’s life – the place where My Baby dwells.
Joie: Willa, I completely agree with you that he experienced the strip search as a rape and was deeply affected by it. It’s like after the events of 1993 and that whole battle, he is a different person in terms of his relationship with his fame. And I think you were right when you said that My Baby is still fragile and in need of protection but that the threats to her are different now. In fact, the threats to her seem to have turned a little bit sinister after the allegations. Just listening to the lyrics of “Ghosts” makes that clear. And the lyrics of “Heaven Can Wait” are somewhat sinister as well, and also slightly sad.
Each moment spent with you is simply wonderful
This love I have for you girl, it’s incredible
I don’t know what I’d do, if I can’t be with you
The world could not go on so every night I pray
If the Lord should come for me before I wake
I wouldn’t wanna go if I can’t see your face
Can’t hold you close
What good would Heaven be
If the angels came for me I’d tell them no
On the surface, it’s a beautiful song about how he loves this woman – My Baby – so much that he doesn’t want to leave her for anything. Not even for Heaven. But if My Baby represents his private life that he has worked so hard to build and maintain – a life that now includes his precious children who he adores – then this song suddenly takes on new meaning. And if we continue our theory that the threat to My Baby is fame itself, then these lyrics are like a foreshadowing. Almost as if he has resigned himself to the fact that, ultimately, his fame will be the reason for his demise and he feels powerless to overcome that. At the end of the song he begs, “Just leave us alone. Please leave us alone.” It’s a futile attempt and he knows it, but he has to try anyway. His babies – My Baby – are at stake now.
Willa: Joie, I agree with you for the most part, except that I see him feeling much more empowered than you do. He’s been severely tested now. Really, he’s been to hell and back. And he survived, with his soul, his psyche, his inner being intact. It was horrible – no one should have to go through the years of misery he endured – but he survived. He knows nothing can separate him from My Baby without his permission. And now he’s challenging Death itself to divide him from that innermost part of himself. As he sings in the final stanza, he refuses to go without her:
Oh no, can’t be without My Baby
Won’t go, without her I’ll go crazy
Oh no, guess Heaven will be waiting
He knows his own strength now. He may lose everything else – he can’t control fate – but he won’t lose My Baby: his soul, his psyche, his self-knowledge, his creativity.
Joie: No, don’t misunderstand me. What I’m saying is that his plea, “Just leave us alone,” is futile. He knows that, no matter how much he begs, fame (or death, or the media, or Sneddon) is never going to leave him alone. All of those threats to My Baby are never truly going away. But I agree with you that he is empowered. As I said, he is a much different person after the events of 1993, and in many ways he is much stronger and much wiser than he ever was before. And he’s also much more at peace. It’s like My Baby is his anchor and he finally realizes that and respects it and he’ll do anything to protect it.