MJ: the Musical
Willa: Happy holidays, everyone! I hope you all are happy and healthy, snug and warm. Back before Covid, Lisha asked if I’d like to go with her to see MJ: the Musical. Of course, I would! What could be more fun than running around New York City with Lisha and seeing a Broadway show – with Broadway-level talent – devoted to Michael Jackson’s music and dance? I jumped at the chance! We were all set to go, but then Covid hit New York terribly hard and Broadway shut down. Now, 18 months later, Broadway is opening back up, with a few fits and starts, and we were finally able to see MJ: the Musical at long last.
Lisha, thank you so much for putting our trip together! That was so fun!
Lisha: Willa, I don’t know when I have had so much fun! Thanks for the company and the amazing conversations we’ve had about the show. I hope every fan has the opportunity at some point to see this production.
Willa: I do too! I have to say, I was just blown away by the singing and dancing. The entire cast was incredibly talented – every single person on that stage had a wonderful voice. And I was amazed by how close the “Michaels” came to replicating Michael Jackson’s voice and dance moves. Myles Frost, who plays the Dangerous-era Michael, has a lovely singing voice, and there’s something about it that’s very evocative of Michael Jackson’s voice, I thought.
Lisha: Myles Frost! Amazing. Covering a Michael Jackson song is an impossible task in my book – the standard is so high. But I would say Frost is about the best I’ve heard. It was so beautifully done. I can’t say enough about his singing. Gorgeous!
Willa: It really was! And like I said, there’s something about his voice that conjures up Michael Jackson in a way most singers don’t. Remember when we went to see Thriller Live! in London a few years ago? It was a great show, and the singers and dancers were all fantastic, but their voices had their own color and none of them really sounded like Michael Jackson to me. Myles Frost is about as close as I’ve heard. But then again, I really thought the Cascio tracks were Michael Jackson, just a little digitized in the studio or something, so maybe I’m not the best judge of voices.…
Lisha: No, you’re right! It was eerie at times how well Frost could match the timbre of Michael Jackson’s voice. I wasn’t expecting that. Remarkable.
Willa: It really is. He’s also developing into a skilled Michael Jackson-style dancer, especially his “ankle work,” to borrow a phrase from Rembert Browne, and he has an impressive moonwalk. His dancing isn’t Michael Jackson caliber, but he’s getting there. Here’s a clip of him working on his moves with Rich and Tone Talauega:
I was really struck by the scene in this clip where Frost says that some of Michael Jackson’s moves were actually signals to the other dancers: “Every step, every move has a purpose. … He controls every element of the stage.” That was fascinating to me.
Lisha: That clip sums up the complexity of the dancing really well. It looks effortless at times due to the skill of the dancers, but when you see them pull it apart it is evident how intricate the dances really are. And Michael Jackson wasn’t just signaling the other dancers onstage, he was throwing lots of other cues as well – effectively using his body to drive the entire show.
Willa: Amazing. The more you learn about what exactly he’s doing, the more incredible it seems. I mean, the steps themselves are surprisingly complicated, even without everything else that’s going on. As Myles Frost says in that clip, working with the Talauega brothers helped him “appreciate … just how difficult Mike’s moves really are.” I think that may be one reason the creators of MJ: the Musical decided to have more than one Michael, and for me, that really works.
Tavon Olds-Sample, who plays the teen to young adult Michael – basically from Dancing Machine through Thriller – has his robot dance down! Watching that scene was like seeing an old Soul Train clip spring to life. He has a wonderful voice also. It’s not as similar to the original as Frost’s voice is, but some of my favorite moments were when the Michaels sang together – both these two and the Motown-era “little Michaels.”
Lisha: I was wowed by that robot dance! And I think one of my favorite things about the show was the interaction of the various “Michaels.” Such a clever way of depicting a long and epic career. I could have used even more of it to be honest. Fantastic!
And I don’t want to create a spoiler, but do you remember the scene that highlights two (of the many) historical influences in Michael Jackson’s dancing? Brilliant!
Willa: Yes! I loved that! For me, it worked on every level. It placed him within specific dance traditions, as you say, while showcasing some incredible dancing, and it was just a genuine feel-good moment. The dancers looked like they were having a blast, and so did the audience.
Lisha: It was fabulous. It really got my creative juices flowing and I thought how cool it would be to use film at that point to project even more historical influences onto the set, like Charlie Chaplin doing the moonwalk, the Buster Keaton lean, or even James Brown juxtaposed with the Broadway/Hollywood dance styles would be amazing. He really was an “encyclopedia of dance,” as the dance historians at Columbia College showed us during the Michael Jackson symposium back in 2010. I guess my idea could quickly get out of hand!
Another device that worked really well was the scene when Michael Jackson simply sang a song at a press conference, avoiding spoken dialogue entirely. Again, I don’t want to give anything away, but it was beautifully done and I loved how there were recognizable rhythms from another song underpinning the melody. Wonderful!
Willa: I really liked that too, and I’m going to spill the beans on this one because when I went back to see the show a second time, they didn’t do it! It was a really compelling combination of “They Don’t Care about Us” and “Earth Song” – two songs I never would have thought to put together, but it worked beautifully.
As you said, Lisha, there’s a press conference and a scrum of reporters is asking a bunch of frivolous questions about the Elephant Man’s bones and the hyperbaric chamber, just trying to stir up scandal. As they’re shouting these questions, we hear undertones of “They Don’t Care about Us.” But Frost’s Michael character is trying to communicate something meaningful to the reporters, so he begins to sing “Earth Song.” It’s beautiful and compelling, but the reporters aren’t prepared to hear something like that and they ignore it. The result is this wonderful layering of “They Don’t Care about Us” underneath with “Earth Song” soaring above, and for me it just worked beautifully, both musically and thematically.
Lisha: I absolutely loved it!
Willa: I did too! But when I went back the next day, they didn’t layer them like that. They simply performed one song and then the other. I was so disappointed! Of course, the show is still in previews, so they’re experimenting, and that layering effect could return. I hope it does, because it was a real highlight of the evening, I thought.
Lisha: Hmmm. Was that a happy accident we heard the first night? It sure sounded intentional to me, and I hope they keep it in. I’d love to know how that turns out.
Willa: I would too!
Lisha: Actually, I would probably see this show again any time the opportunity strikes! It’s a wonderful way to experience how powerful this music really is.
Having said all that, I do have a couple of critiques that I think are worth discussing. The show is still in previews, so some revision before opening night is to be expected?
Willa: I think so. It felt like a polished show, but apparently they’re still working some things out. A woman who sat beside me the second night said she saw the show a few days earlier, and the dancers’ costumes had changed a lot since then.
Lisha: Interesting, because my first comment is about costuming! Throughout the show I found myself wishing there had been more attention given to the way Michael Jackson used clothing musically. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but I’m convinced he used clothing in a multi-sensory, musical way. One example: don’t sing a note of “Thriller” without the “Thriller” jacket! End of story. The visual of the jacket evokes the music and vice versa. We even have footage of Michael Jackson wearing the jacket in early dance rehearsals with Michael Peters to make sure he understood how the jacket looked and felt. (That’s not true for tech rehearsals but that’s another matter entirely.)
The same goes for “Smooth Criminal.” We’ve seen footage from early private rehearsals with Vince Patterson, still working out choreography, but the jacket and hat are already there. “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” are great examples of clothing used only for those songs and they really can’t be performed without them. Then there’s the billowy, flowing white shirt that signals “Black or White,” a costume that conveys the lyrical content of the song. Michael Jackson also used that flowing white shirt onstage for more contemplative songs like “Will You Be There” or “Earth Song.” So the white shirt is linked to a specific song, but it was also used to create a contemplative mood as well.
Anyway, suffice it to say when my ears hear “Black or White” as my eyes see a red shirt, it is incredibly jarring – unless perhaps it’s made clear that what I am seeing is the red corduroy shirt worn at tech rehearsals, as he simply marks the show. I’m pretty sure Michael Jackson only performed “Black or White” in the flowing white shirt and it was just crazy how much I wanted and needed to see it.
Similarly, the bluer-than-blue “The Way You Make Me Feel” shirt immediately brings that song-and-dance routine to mind. (Hats off again to Rembert for his unforgettable description of this shirt!) And the blue shirt he wore in performance has a totally different vibe than the casual blue shirts he sometimes wore as street clothing. In fact, for a stage production, I would think it’s best to stay away from cobalt blue altogether, no matter how great it looks, unless at some point you intend to use it for “The Way You Make Me Feel.”
Willa: I agree. Michael Jackson was very visual in how he created the concert experience, and he used costumes to give his audience visual cues that helped prepare us emotionally for what was to come. The most obvious is “Billie Jean.” At the 30th Anniversary show, for example, getting into the classic “Billie Jean” costume was an important part of the performance. He walked on stage with a Charlie Chaplin-style suitcase, pulled out the glittery black jacket and put it on as the audience began to get excited. Then he did a few dance moves, as if he were working his way into the character. Excitement continued to build as he pulled out the black fedora, put that on, and slid a flat hand down the front brim. And then he sloooowly pulled out the white glove and laid it across his arm, toying with the audience as they jumped to their feet and roared in anticipation.
Lisha: Ok, maybe I’m being nitpicky, but didn’t the suitcase routine first appear on the HIStory tour? Not Dangerous?
Willa: Yes, but I’m ok with a little time distortion, I guess. Like they included several of his later songs in MJ: the Musical – “They Don’t Care about Us,” “Earth Song,” “2 Bad,” “Stranger in Moscow,” “Money,” “Tabloid Junkie” – and those certainly don’t fit the Dangerous time frame, but they incorporated them well and I really enjoyed them.
Lisha: I agree that the time distortion device worked incredibly well in many parts of the show. And I tend to think of that suitcase routine as an interrogation of Michael Jackson’s private vs. public life, so maybe that was the point. The suitcase suggests to the audience they are somehow backstage, hanging out in the dressing room, sharing a private moment with the performer. But as Michael Jackson cues the spotlight and suddenly jumps into it, he dramatically transforms into the superstar performer, in stark contrast to his private life.
Actually, come to think of it, the technique reminds me of the opening of MJ: the Musical, which was really clever. The musicians and performers slowly saunter onstage while the audience is still being seated, creating an atmosphere like they are just coming to rehearsal, and we are there with them, privy to what is happening inside the rehearsal studio.
Willa: Oh, I’m glad you mentioned that, Lisha, because I really liked that opening! We as an audience are arriving, getting to our seats, milling around talking, while the performers on stage are gradually arriving, warming up and stretching, and milling around talking. So the audience offstage and the actors onstage kind of reflect one another, and it makes you feel like you’re part of the experience, as you said. It was really well done, I thought.
It also introduces the idea that the play is structured as a series of rehearsals, not a performance – though we do see some incredible performances! I hadn’t read as much as you had, Lisha, so didn’t know that MJ: the Musical is supposedly taking us inside rehearsals for the Dangerous tour, and that intro helped me get my bearings. I thought that was really effective, and that hum of conversation everywhere – both onstage and off – creates a wonderful atmosphere.
Lisha: I thought so too!
Willa: But getting back to costuming for a moment, you’re right that Michael Jackson linked certain costumes to specific songs so that they became an important part of the audience’s experience. We know that a red leather jacket with a deep V front means “Thriller.” So when we see that outfit, we’re already anticipating that particular song before we hear a single note. He sometimes played with a look or updated it – I’m thinking specifically of the glow-in-the-dark “Thriller” jacket he wore on the Dangerous tour, or the light-up “Billie Jean” glove and pants stripe he had planned for the This Is It concerts – but as far as I know he never wore a “Thriller” jacket to perform any other song.
That cobalt blue shirt you’re talking about, Lisha, means “The Way You Make Me Feel,” always – though at the 1988 Grammys he went straight from “The Way You Make Me Feel” to “Man in the Mirror” without a costume change, so wore that deep blue shirt for both songs. But I can’t imagine him wearing that costume to perform “Thriller,” as the Myles Frost character does, even though that intense blue did look striking against the vivid red set and costumes of the other characters. Viewed simply as costuming it worked well, but in terms of Michael Jackson’s iconography it didn’t. He was very deliberate in his costume choices, and to see them all scrambled up just feels wrong. I mean, we could create a whole list of songs in MJ: the Musical that were performed wearing the costume of a different song!
Lisha: It seems to me there needs to be extra care in thinking through these wardrobe choices. “Man in the Mirror” is an example of a song that is not really paired with clothing, so you can take some liberty there. Same with “Jam” or “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” I think the main argument we’re getting at is this: a major feature of Michael Jackson’s music was his ability to fuse sound with visuals, and where that involved clothing, there needs to be a great deal of consistency.
Willa: Yes, well stated, Lisha. And here’s another small costume note: Myles Frost wore baggy black pants that didn’t fit or move well, and you could tell they were a distraction for him. They were a distraction to the audience too – at least they were for me. He was constantly hitching up a pant leg before bending his knee so his pants wouldn’t bind up, and they just didn’t seem to work well for him.
Lisha: Interesting, because I noticed that too. My take was that they were replicating the look from video footage of a Dangerous technical rehearsal. It’s a look I find delightfully nerdy, given how cool Michael Jackson looks in costume! Here’s that rehearsal footage:
By the way, if you haven’t seen this rehearsal in a while, it is definitely worth your time to rewatch. Wow. Dangerous was a huge and complex show from a technical perspective, which is what we see rehearsed in that footage. The sound and light cues are every bit as intricate and precise as the music and dance. For example, at about 6 minutes in, notice how they are practicing the shattered glass sound effects at the top of the show and how rhythmic that cue needs to be. Michael Jackson is pretty much functioning as the music director throughout, on top of every detail, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.
Lisha: The ability to execute thousands of cues and small details like this is nothing less than stunning. Every beat of the show has been carefully mapped out on multiple levels. Think about those rhythmic pyro explosions that happen precisely on beat 2 in the chorus of “Jam.” A lot goes into making sure the timing is so precise and that no one is anywhere near those pyro pots when they detonate.
Willa: Lisha, I love it when you point out details like these! I always feel like I’m seeing his performances with new eyes when you share your insights like that.
You know, one criticism that was leveled against Michael Jackson’s concerts is that they were all the same, with very little improvisation – the show you saw in one city was pretty much the same show you saw in the next city. It’s the polar opposite of a Grateful Dead concert, say, where the song list was constantly changing from show to show.
But as this Dangerous rehearsal video shows, Michael Jackson’s concerts were as carefully staged as a play, with precisely timed lighting, sound, props, and choreography cues, and everyone had to be on their mark. His concerts also had the elaborate sets and quick costume changes we expect from a play. So of course they weren’t improvised, any more than an elaborate Broadway production would be. No one complains when Wicked or Lion King is the same in one city as it was in the last. In that sense, his concerts were more like a dramatic performance than a concert as we typically think of one.
Lisha: That’s one of the things that initially struck me when I first became interested in Michael Jackson’s work through the film This Is It. It felt more like an overgrown Broadway musical than a concert!
Willa: Interesting. And you’ve worked on a lot of Broadway musicals, so you would know!
Lisha: It’s true I’ve seen a show or two in my day! So the “all the same” critique you just mentioned? (a.k.a. the pop/rock split, artifice vs. authenticity, or art vs. commerce.) Quite honestly, I don’t understand it. Except as a way some punk or rockist white men elevate low-budget, thrown-together concerts as subversive “art,” claiming it is a meaningful interrogation of the music and entertainment industry itself.
Willa: Hmmm. Maybe. The rock establishment was pretty critical of Michael Jackson in general – he kept defying the conventions of rock in a way they didn’t like – and they pointed to his polished, carefully choreographed concerts as evidence that he was too “slick” and didn’t have the requisite “authenticity” that rock stars strive to project. Of course, a lot of rock concerts are carefully planned out as well, with all the lighting cues and pyrotechnics – something those critics tend to ignore – but Michael Jackson’s concerts took this to a whole other level, as we see in that clip you shared of the Dangerous tech rehearsal. It really shows how complicated this all is, and how Michael Jackson and his team had thought through every detail.
Here’s an example: When I went to see MJ: the Musical the second time, there was a little glitch in the “Billie Jean” performance. Frost’s character calls for a tight, narrow spotlight to shine down on him, and when we saw the play together they pulled that off perfectly. But the second night they didn’t. The spotlight came down a little behind him rather than directly on him, creating a silhouette rather than the intended effect. It’s a minor glitch that I’m sure they’ll have worked out by opening night. I only mention it because it reminded me of the “Billie Jean” rehearsal in This Is It, where we discover that Michael Jackson had anticipated that problem and solved it.
It’s the exact same situation, but in This Is It he insists that the lighting crew spotlight an empty space on stage and let him step into it, rather than spotlighting him. I assumed he wanted it that way to build anticipation, which it does, but it also prevents mistakes like the one I saw in MJ: the Musical and gives him more control over when and how he interacts with the spotlight. It’s just one more example of how he had carefully considered every aspect of the performance.
Lisha: Don’t you think he was using that spotlight symbolically? My experience is that any cue can be missed at any time. In fact, if you do a show long enough, it eventually will be missed! Truth be told, something goes wrong at every show, no matter how polished. It’s just a matter of degree.
Willa: Well, most of those misses go right over my head! But that’s a good question, Lisha. I really think it was both. I think he liked the drama of spotlighting an empty space and then stepping into it – it works both thematically and theatrically. But seeing that spotlight “miss” Myles Frost and realizing how easy it would be for that to happen, especially with the huge venues Michael Jackson performed in where the lighting cans could be far above him, has me thinking he might have had some good practical reasons also. I mean, he’d been on stage since he was a kid, he understood all the nuts and bolts of putting on a big show like this, and he seemed to have thought through every detail.
We get a sense of that level of care from the people he assembled to work on those shows too. For example, in The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson, Michael Bush talks about one solution to the pants problem Myles Frost was experiencing. He says he and Dennis Tompkins would sometimes buy black, off-the-rack 501 jeans, carefully remove the stitching from the leg seams, and then add in a small strip of stretchy fabric. It was invisible but effective – it gave Michael Jackson the stability of jeans, but with the range of motion a dancer needs.
Frankly, I think the costume designers for MJ: the Musical should get in touch with Michael Bush. He’s been there and worked through all sorts of problems like this in his decades working with Michael Jackson. So why reinvent the wheel? Just let a thoroughly experienced professional like him tell you what works and what doesn’t.
Lisha: Or just study the short films and live performances a little more carefully!
Willa: That too.
Lisha: I also noticed some time distortion with the iconic Motown costuming used to depict the early pre-Motown years. Maybe this was intentional? If so, it was illegible to me. I couldn’t understand it. Suzanne de Passe’s pink hat in pre-Motown night club acts? I never figured out why it might have been there. I also seem to recall some Motown musical examples mixed in there with the early Gary/Chicago years. Do you remember that too?
Willa: Yes, some of that chronology was pretty scrambled. They had the Jackson 5 playing “The Love You Save” at Mr. Lucky’s in Gary and “ABC” at the Regal Theater in Chicago. Those are songs created for them at Motown, so it doesn’t make sense that they’d be playing them in local clubs before signing with Motown. And then they had them winning the talent show at the Apollo in New York after they’d signed with Motown. That’s not right either.
But I guess I’m willing to grant a little poetic license, especially since some of their distortions of chronology had me thinking about these songs in a new way. For example, after Joseph hit little Michael, they had Katherine comfort him by singing “I’ll Be There.” I’d never thought of that song in that way before – as a kind of lullaby from mother to child. Frost’s Michael is watching them from the sidelines, almost as if he is lost in the memory of that moment, and then he steps forward and joins them and they all sing together. I loved that! It reminded me a little bit of the “I’ll Be There” Pepsi commercial.
Lisha: I loved the idea of bringing the different Michaels together with Katherine Jackson singing. That’s another favorite moment for me. The scene was so moving, and it’s a perfect example of a timeline distortion that really works.
Willa: I agree! And Ayana George, the actress who plays Katherine Jackson, has a gorgeous voice. Actually, talking about this “I’ll Be There” scene brings up another point. The creators of MJ: the Musical repeatedly show Joseph Jackson as an overbearing, tyrannical father. But each time they do that, they somehow ground it in his awareness of the racism his sons will face and what it will mean for them to be black men in America. For example, he comes down really hard on his sons during a rehearsal, and then says something like, “My hand isn’t nearly as heavy as the world’s will be on your black asses if you mess up.” I may not be remembering that line exactly right, but that was the gist of it. To me, his deep awareness of the racism his sons will face added some depth and nuance to Joseph’s character.
The creators of MJ: the Musical also suggested in subtle ways that Michael Jackson had internalized a lot of his father’s teachings, like his work ethic and his drive for perfection. So Joseph comes across as a complicated character, and the relationship between father and son appears complicated also – just as it did in real life.
Lisha: I am all for humanizing Joseph Jackson! I really appreciate the idea of creating a character who explicitly talks about the racism he knows his sons will face. The character is tough, even brutal at times, but it’s clear he is preparing them for what to expect both from the industry and from the culture, which in reality will be far more challenging than anything Joseph Jackson ever dished out. I don’t think nearly enough is said about how hard Joseph Jackson worked and the immense pressure he put on himself to make sure his sons were ready for what would come their way.
There was an incredibly interesting casting choice for the Joseph Jackson character, that I think gets at what you said about internalizing his father’s teachings: they used the same actor, without comment or visual cues, to play the creative director of the tour, Rob. I think many fans will remember Kenny Ortega directed the Dangerous tour, so I’m not sure where the name “Rob” came from. Nonetheless, the idea of using the same actor for father and director is really creative, even inspiring. Although I’m still on the fence about how well it works. I don’t sense that father/son dynamic at all between Michael Jackson and his own employees. My concern is that later on it infantilizes Michael Jackson, when in reality he was the one in control of his show and his employees.
Willa: It does set up an interesting dynamic to have the same actor, Quentin Earl Tarrington, play both roles, but he handled it really well, I thought. He switches back and forth constantly, with the only cue about which character he’s playing being his voice. His “Joseph” voice is much raspier than his “Rob” voice, and it’s impressive how seamlessly he switches between the two. It’s a tricky thing to accomplish, and apparently he’s been actively working on it for a while, trying to figure out the best approach. The woman sitting beside me said that when she saw the show earlier, he used a heavy accent for his “Joseph” voice that was really hard to understand. She thought this new, raspy voice worked much better. It’s easy to understand while clearly differentiating between “Joseph” and “Rob.”
For me, this double role was unexpected but it added some intrigue and depth to the story and to Michael Jackson’s character. I didn’t read it as suggesting that Rob was a father figure – not at all. He was tasked with helping Michael Jackson’s vision become a reality, and he works to please him and make the show a success. So to my mind, he’s definitely more of an employee than a father figure or mentor. But sometimes he would channel Joseph’s voice, almost like a projection of Michael Jackson’s mind, and I thought that was really effective and interesting. I think Joseph’s influence continued throughout Michael Jackson’s life, as a parent’s influence often does, and to me, that’s what they were trying to convey.
Lisha: A really interesting idea, for sure! I would really like to see that work out. Maybe a few tweaks could make the power dynamic even clearer.
Ok, so I do have a more serious critique of the show that I’d like to get your take on, which has to do with a narrative that I think distorts Michael Jackson’s overall cultural significance. From my point of view, the biggest mistake in the show by far is portraying the Dangerous tour as being in serious financial trouble at the outset. I know that timeline distortion is used as a device throughout the show, and I know that Michael Jackson’s financial picture would dramatically change on the third leg of this tour, about a year later, when scandal hits and his business fortunes are reversed. But this narrative couldn’t be further from the truth at the time the show is set in and I would like to think about why that matters.
One of the most important things to understand about Michael Jackson’s cultural significance more broadly was not only how successful he became as a performer, but how his success in the music industry eclipsed that of his white counterparts and started to attract big business, surpassing what had been done before. In an industry that from its inception has always exploited blackness, black labor and black intellectual property – for white business interests – Michael Jackson came along and toppled that power dynamic in a way that went even beyond the music industry.
Big business took note of Michael Jackson. A few examples: Sony acquired CBS Records in part because of his phenomenal success, and later started a major music publishing company with him. He was pivotal in the so-called “cola wars,” handing market dominance to Pepsi Cola through huge endorsement deals. There was a mega-deal with Disney for a theme park attraction, in collaboration with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. The owners of the New England Patriots invested heavily in the Victory tour because they were convinced it would solve major financial problems they were having at the time. Major shoe companies wanted a piece of the action. Even presidents and politicians the world over wanted to be associated with him.
So in MJ: the Musical, when we see a business advisor who is constantly warning Michael Jackson that unless he can get his production costs under control, he would have to leverage ATV and Neverland to cover overages, I laughed! That’s ridiculous!
Willa: It is ridiculous, and it makes Michael Jackson look irresponsible and unprofessional. To be honest, this is my only major criticism of the show, but it’s a big one.
Lisha: For me, it distorts the thing we need to understand most about “the Michael Jackson cacophony,” as James Baldwin wrote in 1985 – that “he will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael.”
Willa: I love that quote, Lisha, and it really captures what was going on at the time. It’s important to remember that the backlash against Michael Jackson began before the 1993 allegations, and it was motivated at least in part because of how he “grabbed the brass ring,” as Baldwin put it. He was a force to be reckoned with: artistically, culturally, financially. He not only had the best-selling album of all time, and the most Grammy wins in one night, and lots of other superlatives, but he was also reshaping the business side of things in ways that made some people very uncomfortable.
Lisha: From what I can tell, that’s really the heart of the matter. For example, as he outmaneuvered big players in the music industry to acquire ATV, which included the Beatles publishing rights, the backlash really intensified. It was as if Michael Jackson somehow didn’t have the right to own ATV. If you’re familiar with the history of the music industry, it’s not hard to see how that purchase disrupted a longstanding racial caste system and put Michael Jackson in a position to control and profit from some of the most valuable assets in the business.
Willa: Absolutely. I’ve been doing a little research about the Beatles catalogue and Paul McCartney’s other holdings, and the more I learn the more convinced I am that racism was a big part of this backlash. It seems it’s ok for Paul McCartney to own the copyrights to songs by Little Richard and other pioneering black artists, but it’s not ok for Michael Jackson to own the copyrights to songs by the Beatles and other pioneering white artists. I think the reason gets back to what you were talking about earlier, Lisha – that the music business has a long history of exploiting “black labor and black intellectual property” for white financial gain. Michael Jackson flipped the script, and that’s what was so unforgivable.
Lisha: That’s why I was surprised the show doesn’t portray how wildly successful he was in 1992. There is no acknowledgement of the huge sponsorship deal he had with Pepsi, or how he got the biggest HBO deal of all time for the Bucharest performance, or any hint of how he would soon remake the NFL Superbowl halftime show, all while donating his tour earnings to his own charitable foundation. It’s pretty clear that in 1992 he wasn’t struggling!
Take a look at this February 3, 1992, international press conference to announce the Dangerous tour and tell me again how Michael Jackson couldn’t raise the cash for the “toaster” elevator to make his stage entrance!
Willa: You’re absolutely right, Lisha – it’s laughable. In 1992 Michael Jackson was phenomenally successful and, just as importantly, businesses were falling all over themselves to get sponsorship deals or other tie-ins with him, as you pointed out. If ever a person had the Midas touch, it was Michael Jackson in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It seems like all he had to do was stretch out his hand and sponsorship money just rained down into it. So all this drama over the cost of a couple of special effects on the Dangerous tour is ludicrous.
I can understand that the creators of MJ: the Musical wanted to tell a story – not just perform song-and-dance numbers but put them together in a meaningful way. And generally stories are structured as conflict followed by resolution. So they needed a conflict or two to propel the story. I get that. But to have that conflict be a financial crunch is a total fabrication! And to suggest that Michael Jackson put his home and his ATV catalogue and his financial future at risk for a couple of special effects on the Dangerous tour is ridiculous, as you said, Lisha. And it makes him look ridiculous.
What puzzles me is that Michael Jackson had plenty of real conflicts to choose from, so why invent one? If I had to guess why – and this is only speculation – it would be because this is a simple, familiar conflict that’s easy to communicate to an audience. Disagreements between artists and bean counters is a fairly common plot line, so we as an audience recognize it immediately and know how to interpret it.
Lisha: Well said. It’s true that what was happening in 1992 gets complicated pretty quickly – one reason all that tabloid nonsense is out there to begin with. There is discomfort with his prominence and level of success, yet no one can articulate exactly why. Instead we see overreactions to things like hyperbaric chambers (which he’d actually donated to hospitals) or vague suspicions there must have been something shady or unfair about the ATV purchase, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Willa: That’s an interesting way to interpret that, Lisha, and it explains why the backlash was both pervasive yet ill-defined – there wasn’t a real cause for it, just a vague “discomfort,” as you put it, with his phenomenal success.
But I can see why the creators of MJ: the Musical wouldn’t want to use something like this as their central conflict. It’s too complicated! And it’s too heavy, also. After all, MJ: the Musical is a feel-good musical, not a drama. I imagine they don’t want to deal with a lot of heavy emotion – they just want enough plot to hold the song-and-dance numbers together.
In fact, the more we talk about this, Lisha, the more I sympathize with the creators of MJ: the Musical. I’m starting to understand why they’d want to invent a light and easy conflict, like a budget dispute, rather than take on some of the real challenges Michael Jackson faced at that time, which were weighty and difficult to explain and generally stem from systemic racism, as James Baldwin alluded to in that quotation you cited.
And to be charitable, maybe the creators were trying to portray Michael Jackson as a committed artist willing to risk everything for his art.
Lisha: If I had to guess, I would say that’s it: that the intention was to portray Michael Jackson as an artist who refused to skimp on his art, showing how he constantly tried to surpass what had been done before, and that excellence was the real motivation behind his decisions, not profit and monetary calculations. His focus was on creating a mind-blowing show, with the assumption that if he got that right, the money would follow.
Willa: I can see that and I think it’s true to some extent, but he was also very savvy about the business side of things. I mean, Epic rejected the $1.2 million budget to make the Thriller video. (And you can kind of understand why, from a business point of view. A typical music video of the time cost around $50,000, and Thriller was already a number one album with seven number one singles. How much more promotion did it need? Apparently, Walter Yetnikoff pitched a screaming, obscenity-laced hissy fit when he heard that $1.2 million figure.) But Michael Jackson was determined to make the Thriller video, thank goodness. He didn’t see it simply as promotion but as art in its own right. So he and John Branca figured out a creative way to get MTV and Showtime to pay for it.
My point is that he was able to accomplish his goals without putting himself at financial risk. And if he didn’t put himself at risk to make Thriller, one of his most important films, I can’t imagine he’d do it for a couple of special effects on the Dangerous tour. Anyway, I didn’t mean to go off on that, but this whole conflict they invented just feels very wrong to me on many fronts.
Lisha: It’s a good point, Willa. I have to agree!
While we’re at it, there is one more problematic narrative I wanted to run past you, which is the character of the snooping reporter, Rachel, loosely based on MTV reporter Sonya Saul’s Dangerous Diary. The show imagines Rachel as having limited access to Michael Jackson during the Dangerous rehearsals and their interaction is used as a way to try to get inside his head. Rachel seems primarily concerned with uncovering hidden prescription drug use at the time, and she eventually confronts Michael Jackson about it. The assumption is made that medication is being abused as a coping strategy for childhood trauma at the hands of his father.
So, we know that medication indeed became problematic on the third leg of the tour (prescribed for repeated scalp surgeries, dental surgery, etc.). But it’s really hard for me to believe that was the case during the creation of the tour. When I watch that tech rehearsal again, also the live HBO Bucharest performance, I don’t see impairment of any kind. Instead, I see an utterly amazing physical and intellectual feat. Why take that away?
Is this the temporal distortion technique again? A layering of the pain management issues with the loss of corporate sponsorship that happens much later in 1993? If so, then why set the play in 1992? The problem with this kind of artistic license is that it robs Michael Jackson of what he had genuinely achieved with the creation of this album and tour, and ignores how the culture started to punish that success.
Willa: Absolutely. And to get back to Rachel, the pushy reporter, the resolution of the conflict with her didn’t make sense to me. She tells Myles Frost’s Michael that she’s going to go public with her findings, which is a betrayal of the promises she made when he let her into rehearsals. (She had said she was going to focus exclusively on the creative process behind the Dangerous tour.) But then she joins the chorus in a group song and suddenly everything is supposed to be ok. It’s a tidy little ending, but it didn’t make much sense to me.
I guess my overall opinion is that I loved everything about MJ: the Musical except the plot – the conflict and resolution pieces. Again, I can see how the creators wanted the characters to face some hurdles to give the show a narrative structure, but frankly, those were the weakest elements.
Lisha: I have to agree. What comes to mind is media scholar Jesse Schlotterbeck’s insight that today’s audiences actually demand knowledge of a scandal and there is a lot of effort to deliver it. Early depictions of popular musicians were often fictionalized to portray flawless characters and happy endings. Remember the old biopics of Cole Porter and George M. Cohan? But today’s audiences expect and demand some form of scandal. So producers go out of their way to provide it, fictionalizing scandal as freely as they once did happy endings. The example that comes to mind is the 2014 James Brown biopic that shows Brown walking into a meeting and firing off a shotgun. Never happened, as Charles Thomson pointed out, but hey, it gives the audience what they want!
In his article in Michael Jackson: Grasping the Spectacle, Schlotterbeck characterizes audience demand for Michael Jackson lore as “split biography” or “ambivalent fandom,” which allows the viewer to see the story through wildly opposing viewpoints. He argues that Michael Jackson himself deployed the strategy – think teenage werewolf vs. handsome date in Thriller. So perhaps this split biography approach is exactly what the creative team was after? No doubt the producers are thinking about how to appeal to the widest possible audience.
Willa: That’s a really interesting point, Lisha. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it’s true that celebrities were once depicted as people to emulate and revere, with all their human frailties carefully hidden away, and now those frailties take center stage. I’m thinking specifically of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, two fairly recent films on Freddie Mercury and Elton John, respectively. They were both sympathetic treatments – in fact, Elton John’s husband, David Furnish, was a producer on Rocketman – but they definitely put their subject’s frailties on full display.
Lisha: Perfect examples! There was strong emphasis on scandal in these films, but I also detected a sensitivity towards mental health and drug addiction that I don’t believe that we, as a culture, have ever afforded Michael Jackson. The one exception: the often repeated line that he suffered at the hands of his father, which is utilized in the show. My problem with this line of thinking is that it displaces any cultural responsibility we might have and puts it back onto Joseph Jackson. Once again, the truth is much more complicated.
Willa: That’s an excellent point, Lisha – if we make Joseph Jackson the villain, then we don’t have to look at ourselves and consider what we as a people did to Michael Jackson. But you’re right, it’s complicated – probably far too complicated for a Broadway musical. And you know, I can see Schlotterbeck’s point that modern audiences want scandal – that seems true at some level – but from what I could tell, what audiences for MJ: the Musical really wanted was to enjoy the incredible performances!
That’s what gave this show its sparkle: its wonderfully talented cast. The singing and dancing were phenomenal, and the audience really seemed hungry for that. Both times I went, the line was wrapped around the block. There was a little boy sitting beside me, maybe 10 or 11 years old, and he was just going nuts during some of the dance numbers, especially “Billie Jean.” And by the end of the second act, people were dancing in the aisles. That happened both nights, and it just felt wonderful to be there and experience such talented people bringing Michael Jackson’s work to life once again.
Lisha: Yes, I agree. It did feel great to be there. And I suppose I have a lot in common with that little boy! I’m hungry for an honest look at Michael Jackson the artist and the musician, not more tabloid fiction.
Hey Willa, let’s go back and see it again soon – what do you say? I might want to dance in the aisle this time!
Willa: Oh, I’d love to! Thank you again for putting together this last trip. I enjoyed it so much! And I want to wish you and everyone a happy, healthy, and fulfilling new year!
Lisha: Thank you, Willa! Happy new year to all!
Part 4: Did I Scare You?
Willa: Hello everyone. Part 4 of the series has just been published! This final essay takes a close look at Michael Jackson’s Ghosts, considering it not only as a fascinating film but also as a psychological exploration of the allegations against him, as well as a guide to his aesthetic. It then uses Ghosts as a jumping off point to suggest a radically new genre of art he created in response to the allegations – a type of art so revolutionary we don’t yet even recognize it as art. Here’s a link to Part 4.
Thank you so much to all of you who have provided feedback and shared your ideas and knowledge so generously over the years. Michael Jackson’s work is so rich, with so much to explore, that it truly takes a village to wrap your mind around it. The virtual village that sprang up here has been so helpful and supportive, and I sincerely appreciate that.
I hope you all are feeling safe and content, healthy and strong.
Part 3: Am I the Beast You Visualized?
Willa: Hello everyone. Part 3 of the series has just been published! This essay takes a deep dive into the allegations against Michael Jackson, from the Chandler allegations in 1993 through the Leaving Neverland documentary in 2019. It also places these allegations within a historical context. For decades, false allegations of sexual assault and abuse have been used to silence some of America’s most successful and outspoken black men, and this essay places Jackson squarely within that tradition. Here’s a link to Part 3.
Again, much of this information will be familiar to long-time readers. In fact, many of you know a lot more about this than I do. Thank you sincerely for sharing your ideas and knowledge so generously! I have tried to research this essay as thoroughly and carefully as I could. However, if anything I have written is incorrect, please let me know.
I hope you all are staying healthy and happy.
Part 2: Are You Scared Yet?
Willa: Hello friends. I wanted to let you know that Part 2 of the series has just been published! This essay looks at some of Jackson’s important early work, including Thriller, to discover how he addressed and to some extent neutralized white fears of black men. It also looks at the apparent changing color of his skin, one of his most powerful and most transgressive works of art. Here’s a link.
Again, many of these ideas will be familiar to long-time readers. I want to thank you again for helping to develop my thinking on these topics by sharing insights and information and by encouraging – and sometimes challenging – my ponderings. For example, my thoughts on his struggles with vitiligo, and how that eventually evolved into an important element of his art, have become much more nuanced because of our discussions.
I hope you all are healthy and doing well.
Part 1: Can You Feel It?
Willa: Hello everyone. I wanted to let you know that I’ve written a four-part series of essays about how Michael Jackson fought racial prejudice in psychologically complex ways by challenging the sensations of racism. Part 1 was just published on Medium.com. Here’s a link.
The other three essays will be published weekly, with the final one going up August 29th, Michael Jackson’s birthday.
Some of these ideas will be familiar to longtime readers. In fact, in some ways this series of essays is a culmination of many of the things we’ve talked about for the past nine years. I have learned so much from our conversations, and I wanted to thank all of you for participating and generously sharing your knowledge and insights.
I hope you are all safe and well.
Take Off the Mask So I Can See Your Face
Lisha: Hey Willa, I’ve been anxious to talk to you! As we navigate our way through coronavirus and all that our “new normal” entails, I’m so struck by the strong reactions we’ve seen to mask-wearing recommendations.
Willa: Hi Lisha! It’s so great to talk with you again! And I know what you mean about the blowback against wearing a mask. It’s really surprising, isn’t it?
Lisha: It is.
Willa: When news outlets first started reporting about hospitals running low on masks, a local group got together and began creating mask-making kits, and they put out a call for volunteers to sew them up. So I pulled out my sewing machine and started working. Each week a local high school student would drop off mask kits onto my front porch, and she’d pick up the masks I’d finished. I was really impressed with how organized they were, and together we were able to make thousands of masks for the local hospital, a cancer clinic, and others in need.
And of course, the whole time I was sewing, I kept thinking about Michael Jackson and his many masks….
Lisha: How can you work on surgical masks and not think Michael Jackson, right? He wore them like a fashion statement!
Willa: Absolutely! Here’s a fan video that celebrates his ability to rock a face mask.
Lisha: And by the way, Willa, I had no idea you knew how to sew! That’s so cool that you were able to participate in that way.
Willa: You know, I really enjoyed it. My mom has five sisters, and they are all very skilled with sewing, knitting, crocheting, and handcrafts of all kinds, and so were both of my grandmothers. I was taught from an early age to keep my hands busy. And I have to say, it’s really calming for me, especially when I’m trying to process difficult ideas or situations. I just seem to think better when my hands are active. You wouldn’t believe how much knitting I did in grad school!
Lisha: I can’t even imagine knitting in grad school. But over the years working as a musician I’ve noticed that a lot of singers like to knit and crochet in their down time, including Michael Jackson collaborator Siedah Garrett. Surely there is some fascinating psychology research somewhere that could explain this!
Willa: Oh, I love the long vest Siedah Garrett is modelling in the link you shared, Lisha. I wonder if she ever knit or crocheted during downtime in the studio?
Lisha: Yes! I remember her telling the story that she was sitting in the studio knitting when Quincy Jones asked if she wanted to sing “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”!
Willa: Wow! That’s awesome! I love that!
So back to masks, I was really happy when this local group started organizing volunteers to sew facemasks. Working on them helped me personally as I tried to process everything that was happening, it helped local health care workers, and it provided a wonderful opportunity for community bonding in a scary time.
Lisha: I think that’s great, Willa.
Willa: I do too – a real win-win-win situation. But then this odd backlash hit, and I just couldn’t understand it, Lisha. I mean, health care specialists were trying to give guidance on how we could protect ourselves and our communities from this terrible disease. How could anyone possibly be against that? It really made me wonder what was causing such a strong reaction….
Lisha: I was similarly perplexed. For me, the mask is just a simple courtesy we can extend to others. I am more than happy to do something that might keep someone from getting sick.
Willa: Exactly. To my mind, Dan Levy says it best in this short clip:
As he says, “Imagine seeing it not as an infringement on your freedom but rather the simplest, easiest act of kindness that you can do.”
Lisha: Great clip! Thanks for sharing that. It definitely reflects my own views on the topic. But not everyone sees it that way. Some really do perceive the mask as a threat to their individual freedom, as if they are being forced into a display of submission, fear, or weakness.
It makes me wonder if the mask somehow represents a kind of collective weakness and insecurity as well. Has the mask become a symbol of our failure to contain and control the virus? Does the mask signal a collective “loss of face” in terms of American exceptionalism?
Willa: That’s interesting, Lisha. I hadn’t thought of it that way, as a literal “loss of face,” but it makes sense. I’d just been thinking about masks in general, and why they seem to make a lot of people uncomfortable, even hostile. It makes me wonder if some of the anger and scorn directed against Michael Jackson was generated simply by his habit of wearing masks.
Lisha: I think you are onto something, Willa. I know the more I think about the way Michael Jackson wore masks, the more intriguing it gets.
Willa: It really does. You know, when I think of masks – not surgical masks specifically, but masks more generally – I tend to think of Halloween, because that’s the one time when most American kids wear masks. Looked at from that perspective, masks are fun and playful, an important element of a time when kids get to run around in the dark and engage in community-sanctioned games of pretend and imagination. You’re even rewarded for participating with lots of free candy – what could be better than that? And I tend to think that Michael Jackson saw masks in that kind of fun, playful way.
Lisha: It’s spooky and fun all at the same time! Very much like Michael Jackson’s engagement with the horror film genre.
Willa: That’s a great analogy, Lisha. Michael Jackson and others who worked with him, such as John Landis and Rick Baker, have all said that he didn’t like movies that were too frightening or gruesome, and that isn’t what he made. Instead, his take on the horror movie genre is more entertaining than scary, though those films are also doing something really important and complicated, as we’ve talked about a number of times with Thriller and Ghosts. And I think his use of masks is kind of similar. That’s an interesting connection, Lisha.
Masks also remind me of Carnival, an ancient ancestor of Halloween whose roots go back thousands of years. Looked at in that way, masks also signify something far more transgressive – a moment of serious disruption to the established social order. So in that sense, I can see how masks might be threatening. And Michael Jackson was definitely disruptive to social norms. In fact, I see strong echoes of Carnival and this kind of turbulent, unruly use of masks in his Dangerous album cover.
Lisha: That’s interesting Willa. I’d love to better understand how Michael Jackson fits into that history as an artist. Especially now, as we see how the mask is stirring up all kinds of cultural and political meanings.
Willa: I would love to know more about that too. And you’re right, now is a perfect time to dive into that history, and also consider the symbology of surgical masks in particular. Surgical masks are a specific subspecies of mask that signify in unique ways. What I mean is, you can wear a surgical mask as part of a doctor costume, and it’ll perform similar functions of disguise and masquerade as other masks. But it will also carry specific connotations that complicate how we read and respond to it. And of course, Michael Jackson often wore surgical masks, and many commentators struggled with how to interpret that.
Lisha: You are reminding me of a paper I read in grad school titled “Masked States” by Mel Y. Chen. It really sent me down a rabbit hole as far as thinking about Michael Jackson and his use of masks. The paper was written in response to an earlier epidemic, H1N1, and it wasn’t about art per se, but about the cultural and political implications of the mask. Chen uses the analysis of masks to make a much broader point about how state power exploits narratives of “protection” and “threat.” For example, think of how the burqa played a role in constructing a racialized threat to legitimize the US “War on Terror.”
But when I look back at my reading notes on this paper, they aren’t really focused on state power at all, but on loads of Michael Jackson images!
Willa: That’s funny, Lisha!
Lisha: Ok, so I’m easily distracted thinking about Michael Jackson! And no doubt that’s an understatement. But the paper rehearsed so many of the complexities of mask symbolization, starting with the surgical mask, that it really got me thinking more deeply about the ways Michael Jackson used them as a performative device.
The essay starts with a discussion of a 2011 hospital poster that asks visitors to comply with the CDC’s mask-wearing guidelines for H1N1. The poster is clearly meant to be reassuring––a gentle reminder that masks are a form of safety and protection, used to “help protect our patients, visitors, and employees.”
It also reassures visitors that the sight of a masked person doesn’t necessarily mean that individual is infected with H1N1. The whole gist of it is this: please wear a mask for protection, and if you see someone in a mask, don’t assume that person is a threat.
This creates a question in my mind. Although the mask is intended as a form of protection, is there a disconnect when it comes to its symbolic resonance? Does the mask communicate safety and protection, or does it function as a warning sign of deadly infection, illness, disability, and threat, which generates fear?
Willa: Or maybe both – a symbol of necessary protection as well as a scary reminder of the threat of this new disease, H1N1? In other words, perhaps one reason a surgical mask is such a fraught symbol is because it carries both of those contradictory meanings simultaneously – both reassuring and threatening at the same time.
Lisha: I think that’s exactly it, Willa. There are two messages and they are polar opposites: protection and threat. Why else would it be necessary to assure people that it’s ok to wear and see masks? Isn’t the poster itself an acknowledgement that masks are broadly understood as unsettling?
Willa: Those are good questions, Lisha. You’re right – it doesn’t seem like the hospital would have gone to the trouble to put up those reassuring signs about how to interpret the sight of a mask unless they realized some patients were uncomfortable about them.
Lisha: Another key takeaway for me is that not only is the mask polarizing, it is also specular, meaning how we interpret the mask, as protection or threat, is self-reflective, like a mirror. A mask invites opposing interpretations, and those interpretations become like a mirror of one’s own personal feelings and attitudes.
Willa: That’s a really important point, Lisha. As we’ve seen recently, surgical masks have come to resonate as a powerful political symbol, and in that context they seem to be amplifying pre-existing cultural divides, with a small but vocal minority opposing them on ideological grounds.
Lisha: That’s so true.
Willa: The intensity of our reactions may also reflect our particular life experiences. For example, surgeons probably see a surgical mask in rather utilitarian terms, about as meaningful as their car keys – simple familiarity has muted their emotional response. The same might be true of someone with severe allergies. I live in an area with a very high pollen count in the spring, and it’s pretty common to see people wearing surgical masks then – when they’re driving, shopping, walking the dog, mowing the grass. You see people wearing masks all around you for about six weeks each spring, and then they disappear like daffodils once allergy season is over.
That experience of seeing surgical masks so often in such everyday settings can drain them of some of their symbolic weight. However, for those who never see a surgical mask outside a medical drama on TV, I’m sure it can feel pretty alien and scary.
Lisha: That makes sense to me. Anything that’s unfamiliar or out of the ordinary could potentially cause some apprehension or anxiety.
That said, here’s a photo I’ve been thinking about! It’s from a Santa Maria courtroom, taken November 13, 2002, when Michael Jackson appeared in court to testify in a breach of contract lawsuit.
Had he just come from the hospital or had a medical procedure? Is he protecting himself from illness or an environmental threat? Is the mask hiding some kind of disfigurement, like The Elephant Man or The Phantom of the Opera, two stories he claimed to identify with? Or, is Michael Jackson simply being dramatic and mysterious and bizarre just for the heck of it?
Willa: From what I’ve been able to gather, those kinds of questions created a lot of buzz in the courtroom that day….
Lisha: It certainly did. And it’s important to give it some historical context. This photo was taken just one year after 9/11, so there were a lot of debates at the time about facial recognition as a form of security.
Willa, I think you delved into this a bit in M Poetica, about how the judge ordered the mask to be removed in the courtroom?
Willa: I talked about it briefly, but there’s a lot more there to unpack. It did create a very specific kind of courtroom drama that day, as if Michael Jackson was about to be officially “unmasked” by the judge’s order. But I wonder if he anticipated that, because removing the mask did not reveal him so much as deepen the mystery since he had bandages on underneath – a kind of double masking.
What’s most interesting to me about all this is how intensely some people wanted to unmask him, to see behind the mask. And I have to say, it really amuses me how skilled he was at thwarting that, while also playing with it – kind of like a fan dance with facial masks.
Lisha: It’s really fascinating, and I love your analysis, Willa. But I have to say it bothers me that there was so little consideration for medical issues that might have genuinely required accommodation. I’m being critical of the press here, but I am being especially critical of the judge, who should have had a more sophisticated understanding of medical privacy.
Willa: That’s true.
Lisha: But perhaps the most baffling thing for me about that courtroom scene is how Michael Jackson seemed on board with just letting all these issues of health, both physical and mental, float around in an indeterminate fashion. One day he’s wearing a mask and a bandage for the cameras, the next day he’s not and there’s no sign that there was ever a wound there to begin with, and it’s like, what mask? Was someone wearing a mask?
A former bodyguard recently claimed the surgical mask was all a big publicity stunt – not that I have much confidence in former employees who sell stories to tabloids.
Willa: Actually, I’m happy to see people defending him, regardless of venue. And this bodyguard, Matt Fiddes, who worked with Michael Jackson for 10 years, has important things to say – about his use of masks, the molestation accusations, and his life in general out of the public eye. If the more reputable news outlets won’t carry what Fiddes has to say, then he might as well turn to the tabloids. At least his words are getting recorded in print somewhere. When historians look back at Michael Jackson’s life, art, and career – and I think he will be the focus of significant reevaluation in the future – this kind of first-hand account will be important to have.
Lisha: I can’t argue with that.
Willa: So I didn’t mean to jump on a soapbox. Sorry about that! You were talking about how Michael Jackson used face masks in unexpected and confusing ways….
Lisha: Well, I’m just thinking about how we all know there are industry expectations that celebrities try to adhere to when going out in public, especially concerning appearance standards. After all, in many ways they are a commercial product that is being sold, so they have to look the part. Tabloids play the game of trying to catch them off guard, publishing photos of celebs without makeup or with a few extra pounds. But Michael Jackson’s “startext” (all the various elements that make up a celebrity’s public persona) is radically different, and doesn’t conform to anything I can think of before or since. At times, he seemed to go out of his way to get caught off guard.
Willa: Or to intentionally disrupt or complicate his “startext,” to borrow that terminology. I mean, there are celebrities who have intentionally cultivated a bad boy image – lots of rock bands have done that, like the Rolling Stones, for example – but that’s fundamentally different from what Michael Jackson was doing. Like you, I can’t think of anything quite like it by any other artist, and I find it absolutely fascinating.
But you’re right, Lisha – while I find this courtroom scene kind of amusing, we have to be careful not to treat it too lightly. The fact that this was happening only a year after September 11th adds a lot of cultural weight to the question of “unmasking” those who could be perceived as a threat.
Lisha: I remember a lot of debate about Muslim women wearing head and facial coverings for religious and cultural reasons. Should they be required to display their faces to TSA or other law enforcement officials to prove their identity? Is the government justified in asking someone to remove head and facial coverings for security purposes?
Willa: I remember that too, and it raised some complicated legal and cultural questions – especially for those who might be prejudicially seen as a threat, no matter how false or unfair that perception might be.
Navigating this issue of facial coverings can still be pretty complicated, as we’ve seen in recent discussions about the CDC guidelines to wear a facemask. For example, there has been some online debate among black men about which is more dangerous: to forego a mask and risk getting infected with the coronavirus, or wear a mask and risk getting shot by police. A Washington Post article addressed this after a Walmart security guard accosted two black men and forced them to leave the store because they were wearing protective masks.
Lisha: It’s so painful to hear this, although not entirely surprising. You’ve just pinpointed how strongly white privilege is associated with wearing a mask. Willa, earlier you mentioned that allergy sufferers in your area commonly wear masks in the spring. I’m wondering if black and brown men in your area are as comfortable with that practice as the white neighbors seem to be?
Willa: Well, that’s a good question, Lisha. I don’t have any sort of definitive answer to that, but it’s an important question to think about.
Lisha: The academic paper I referred to earlier addresses this point with a fascinating reference to Julianne Moore’s character in the movie Safe, directed by Todd Haynes. This 1995 film is generating some interest again in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
Moore plays a white suburban housewife who is afflicted with a mysterious environmental illness. The film dramatizes quite well what is already culturally understood: an upper middle-class white suburban woman never has to fear her medical mask will be interpreted as criminal intent, the way a black man does when buying groceries at Walmart during a pandemic. And she will never be treated with the same suspicion that a Muslim woman wearing the burqa is either, who might be viewed in terms of violence, terror, or even a strategy to legitimize war. In each instance, race (which is always tangled up with gender, class, religion, national origin, etc.) overrides the coding of the mask in a way that I would argue is a threat to democracy itself, like the hooded mask of the KKK.
And at the same time Moore’s character illustrates the racialized privilege to wear a mask – she is also emblematic of the stigma associated with medical issues that code as effeminizing weakness, as opposed to say a war injury, which is valorized as macho.
Willa: Wow, Lisha, you’ve just landed at an intersection where several complicated and somewhat contradictory cultural narratives collide. And as you point out, race and machismo play out in interesting ways in all this.
Lisha: Yes, and it’s especially interesting in the context of health.
Willa: That’s true. It just seems painfully ironic to me that many black men feel constrained about wearing a mask because it may be perceived as too threatening – too powerful, too criminal, too badass – while a lot of white men (and some white women as well) seem to resist wearing a mask because they feel it signals weakness. This even includes world leaders, who are getting advice from some of the world’s best medical experts and therefore should know the importance of masks in controlling the spread of airborne diseases. The title of a recent article in The Guardian sums this up pretty well: “Putin, Johnson, Bolsonaro and Trump: Men Too Macho for Masks.”
David Marcus applauds this kind of macho stance in The Federalist, in an opinion piece with its own declarative title: “The President of the United States Should Not Wear a Mask.” Marcus believes that Trump “is projecting American strength and health at a time when strong leadership is needed.” The implication is that wearing a mask would make Trump look weak.
Of course, Superman didn’t seem to have that problem! Or Batman, or Spiderman, or lots of other superheroes. But maybe all those bulging muscles were a type of overcompensation – a visual signal that they were strong despite wearing a mask….
Lisha: Good point, Willa! And is it just me, or does all this talk of leadership and strength unmask some real insecurity in terms of masculinity and power?
Willa: Well, that’s a very good question, Lisha. Actually, Amanda Taub does a great job of questioning the logic behind this kind of macho posturing, and Marcus’s argument in particular, in a New York Times article. Taub writes that “Marcus’s analysis is … consistent with the traditional idea of a strong American leader: one who projects power, acts aggressively and above all shows no fear, thereby cowing the nation’s enemies into submission.” Or as she succinctly summarizes, “In other words, a strong leader is one who conforms to the swaggering ideals of masculinity.”
However, as Taub points out, countries led by women have been more successful in addressing the pandemic than those led by men. In general, they’ve had significantly lower rates of infection and mortality. Taub’s point seems to be that “swaggering ideals of masculinity” – both by world leaders and by the people who vote for them – can actually get in the way of addressing the challenges posed by the novel coronavirus.
As interesting as this is – and I must say, I think it deserves a lot more attention – what really struck me most about all this is that a mask seems to be interpreted in radically different ways depending on who’s wearing it. If you’re a black man, it conveys a threatening kind of strength, menace, criminality. But if you’re a white man, it apparently conveys the opposite: weakness, vulnerability, even perhaps a kind of facelessness or loss of identity.
Lisha: I think what we’re seeing is how race actually overcodes the mask.
Willa: Yes, that’s it exactly, Lisha. So what does it mean when Michael Jackson wears a mask?
Lisha: Hang in there with me, Willa, because I think there is another piece of the puzzle that is essential to understanding Michael Jackson’s mask and the intersection of race and health. I just revisited Raphael Raphael’s essay “Dancing with the Elephant Man’s Bones” in Christopher Smit’s book Grasping the Spectacle. It is an amazing piece on its own, but I am finding it especially revealing when placed in conversation with the Chen essay.
Raphael argues that health and “the crisis of the body” are key to understanding Michael Jackson’s radically fluid and unstable startext, citing his frequent use of the surgical mask as well as other visual signs of disability. I’m thinking wheelchairs, crutches, arm braces, finger tape, hyperbaric chambers, his fascination with Joseph Merrick, his associations with Dave Dave, Ryan White, Bela Farkas, Make-A-Wish Foundation, hospital visits, etc.
Willa: Wow, Lisha. I feel like I’ve been pretty slow on the uptake. You’ve referred to the health/disability symbolism of medical masks several times now, and it’s just kind of blown right past me. I guess I don’t typically think of Michael Jackson’s use of masks in those terms – as signalling poor health or physical vulnerability – because I’m so focused on them as an aesthetic choice and even a type of street theater.
But when you place it in context with “other visual signs of disability,” as you catalogue so well – the finger tape, wrist braces, etc – I see what you mean. There does seem to be a significant symbolic language centered on bodily injury and disease, as well as resulting medical interventions, that Michael Jackson tapped into for decades. Wow. That’s opening up a whole new way of seeing this, Lisha. I think I’m finally starting to catch on to what you’ve been saying. Sorry to be so slow!
Lisha: You’re not slow, Willa! To be honest, this is all just unfolding for me too.
Raphael tightly weaves Michael Jackson’s multivalence and cultural/political power with race, health, and his study of P.T. Barnum. I don’t think I fully understood Barnum’s exploitation of race and health before, perhaps because so much of it is offensive and treated as better off forgotten.
Barnum clearly understood America’s fascination with race and disability and turned it into a wildly successful form of entertainment. For example, his most popular performer, Joice Heth, was an elderly black woman who was said to be the 161-year-old nursemaid of George Washington. Of course she wasn’t. But the highly charged mix of blackness and disability, along with a wildly false claim, generated huge interest and publicity. Raphael argues that Heth was so popular at the time, we can think of her as the first international celebrity performer.
Barnum also caused a full blown moral panic by claiming he had discovered a weed that caused black people to turn white––all while exhibiting black people who, like Michael Jackson, suffered from vitiligo. The claim was explosive. As Raphael writes:
For a culture in which racial binaries were sacred, this was a dangerous claim indeed. If the most reliable visual marker for distribution of power could suddenly be made fluid, the whole social order (at least symbolically) was under threat.
Eureka. Isn’t that the key to understanding the public fascination with unmasking Michael Jackson? Isn’t that what everyone wanted to know? Was Michael Jackson altering/destroying his skin and nose with some kind of race-changing, freak science plastic surgery, threatening cultural constructs of race and power – all while suspiciously claiming a disability: vitiligo?
Willa: Ha! That’s funny…
Lisha: And it’s like the surgical mask heightened the mystery and suspense around it, acting as a kind of super multiplier for all these projections of race and health. However you interpret it, this was an extraordinary spectacle.
Willa: Oh, absolutely. White America, especially, was absolutely transfixed by the way Michael Jackson challenged popular notions of race, particularly the idea that race is something biologically determined and immutable. I mean, white Americans couldn’t seem to wrap their minds around what was happening, or tear their eyes away from the ever-shifting spectacle of his face. I honestly see this illusory spectacle as perhaps his most important work of art.
But oh my gosh, Lisha – I have never thought of his use of masks as a “super multiplier,” focusing and intensifying the public gaze. Wow. Just wow. I’m going to need a moment to process this. You have given me so much to think about.
Lisha: I’m sitting here trying to process that too! And remember Chen?
Willa: Who wrote about the H1N1 masks?
Lisha: Yes. Of all the masks that Chen explores, perhaps the most threatening is the nonphysical mask we can’t actually see, like the mask of normalcy that the sociopath wears, or the mask of duplicity that Michael Jackson describes in the song “Behind the Mask”:
You sit around and I watch your face
I try to find the truth but that’s your hiding place
It is this nonphysical mask, as it relates to power, that I want to relate to Raphael’s analysis as well as your observation of “how intensely some people wanted to unmask [Michael Jackson], to see behind the mask.”
Exactly one year after the dramatic unmasking of Michael Jackson in the Santa Maria courtroom in 2002, he was arrested on criminal charges. Raphael surprisingly cites his arrest as evidence of his tremendous cultural and political power, in that the intensity of the American media spectacle it generated that day totally eclipsed another important international news story. On November 20, 2003, as many as 300,000 people gathered in London to protest President George W. Bush and the US “War on Terror” – one of the largest protests in British history.
These protesters were questioning the legitimacy of the Iraq war as well as Britain’s complicity in the US effort. As President Bush met with Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Queen, the world watched as protesters unmasked American economic and military might, destroying a statue of George W. Bush that mocked the US removal of an Iraqi statue of Sadam Hussein. But while the international press was busy covering this massive show of political resistance, the American press seemed more interested in a state effort to unmask Michael Jackson’s floating, indeterminate identity, attempting to define it and permanently fix it once and for all as a dangerous, racialized, criminal “threat.”
Willa: Whoa. Let me see if I’m following this correctly. So Raphael is suggesting that Michael Jackson himself became a mask for the Bush-Cheney administration, or the power of the state more broadly? And Michael Jackson’s arrest was a way to reaffirm state power at a time when it was threatened by the growing protests against the invasion of Iraq?
Lisha: Raphael isn’t claiming politics of distraction or any kind of media coordination to bury a politically damaging story. He is just saying that the American media spectacle of Michael Jackson’s arrest––understood as the government’s attempt to “fix” Michael Jackson’s radically unstable startext by aligning it with tropes of black criminality––totally eclipsed the news of one of the largest protests in the world, one that exposed the frailties of US power:
While American newspaper covers were saturated with the arrest of the “King of Pop,” papers throughout much of the world featured the single most spectacular image from the protests in London: the felling of a giant plaster statue of Bush.
… [S]ome wondered what the political impact for Bush and the larger “War on Terror” would be from this potentially humiliating spectacle of resistance. There were no such discussions in the dominant American press, where the protests received little attention…. Consequently, in the United States, the event is not widely remembered by American citizens, certainly not as well as Jackson’s arrest the same day.
That’s true for me because I honestly don’t remember the London protest at all, though I do have a memory of Michael Jackson in handcuffs performing the staged perp walk, and I wasn’t a fan at the time. Using Chen’s logic, one might argue that Michael Jackson’s arrest actually masked the insecurities of the Bush administration, with Tom Sneddon’s narrative to “protect” the public from a dangerous “threat.”
All protest is ultimately a media strategy that attempts to focus attention on an issue or cause. However, on that particular day, even 300,000 protesters in London, along with the Prime Minister, the Queen, and the US president, couldn’t compete with the American media spectacle of Michael Jackson’s arrest.
Willa: When you look at it that way, I can see Raphael’s point. I mean, it’s pretty amazing that media coverage of Michael Jackson’s arrest was able to knock one of the largest protests in the world off the front page. Raphael is right – that is a testament of Michael Jackson’s cultural power … though it may also be true that American media were not that enthusiastic about covering the protests.
I have to say, though, that initially it felt like a bit of a stretch to draw a connection between Iraq war protests in London and Michael Jackson’s arrest in California. But as I think about it, it’s true that in moments of crisis, whether from real or perceived threats, there has typically been a kind of national contraction in the US – a curtailing of civil liberties, an increase in bigotry and xenophobia, a growing intolerance to difference of all kinds, including the targeting of popular artists. Several examples spring to mind. There’s the execution of the Rosenbergs during the Cold War, and Charlie Chaplin’s paternity trial and banishment from the US at about the same time. Or the Kent State shootings during the Vietnam War, and John Lennon’s banishment not long after that.
And Michael Jackson was a much bigger threat to the established social order – to white male supremacy in particular – than Chaplin or Lennon were. So the more I think about it, the more it makes sense to me. I can see how there would be an urge to “fix” or contain or neutralize the threat Michael Jackson represented, especially at that time of perceived national crisis following September 11th and the invasion of Iraq. And I mean that in the Foucaultian sense of diffuse mechanisms of power, not in a premeditated conspiracy type way.
Lisha: I think that’s exactly it.
Willa: Lisha, your take on Raphael’s article was so intriguing to me that I went back and reread it, and based on some of the things you’ve been pointing out, I was also struck by this passage:
In these widely circulated images [of his arrest], Jackson as (at least potentially) symbolic revolutionary symbol was “fixed” as pathological at precisely the same moment resistance itself was pathologized. So it was in such a moment that this constantly changing body, perhaps the ur-text of otherness, was politically contained.
So in the mainstream press anyway, Michael Jackson as a “revolutionary symbol” was finally unmasked, and what was revealed behind the mask as something pathological – a pedophile – thereby neutralizing or “containing” him as a cultural threat. And Raphael suggests this same process happened to the war protests also. As he writes, “resistance itself was pathologized.” But the pathology that was revealed by this symbolic unmasking was false.
Lisha: Yes! It’s like who unmasked who? Where is the true site of this pathology?
In 2005, the 14 not guilty verdicts unmasked Tom Sneddon and the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s office, in “an absolute and complete victory for Michael Jackson, utter humiliation and defeat for Thomas Sneddon” to quote CNN. It’s also worth noting that during that trial, yet another judge decided Michael Jackson’s medical issues were all just a big show, and ordered him to leave a hospital emergency room to appear in court. So he did. In the pajamas he was wearing when he was rushed to the ER.
After the trial, Michael Jackson leaves the US and moves to Bahrain, on the advice of counsel that it was not safe to remain in his own home because of the threat posed by law enforcement.
And whoops, he is at it again:
Willa: I have to say, I love this image, and also this quote from the manager of a theater he frequented in Bahrain, taken from an old GQ article:
“The first time he come here, he’s not dressed like woman,” he says. “He come in like regular person.… But people recognize, ask to make a few pictures. So then he come with abaya like woman! But he don’t know how to put on. Grace [Jackson’s nanny] she come in here and ask me how do you put on this. I tell her, ‘Michael have man body, this for woman body.’ I fix Michael’s dress!”
I love the fact that in these brief glimpses, Michael Jackson still seems playful and creative – unbroken and unbowed. He’s still boldly stirring the pot, which is especially remarkable since it’s during the thick of the Iraq War.
Lisha: And when finally returning to the United States in preparation for “This Is It” (which Rita Alves connects to Barnum’s wildly popular attraction “What Is It?”), I see no signs of Michael Jackson slowing down with the mask symbolization, and absolutely zero fear or insecurity about wearing them. In fact, he’s kind of leaning into it:
Dan Reed’s wildly popular Barnum-esque spectacle of race and (mental) health, Leaving Neverland, provided another breath-taking display of Michael Jackson’s cultural and political power in 2019, in that the intensity and the fascination continues a full ten years after his death. I do sense another unmasking coming soon, but I doubt it’s going to be Michael Jackson.
‘Leaving Neverland’: Why You Wanna Trip on Me?
Willa: Hi Lisha. It’s so great to talk with you again! Though I wish it were under happier circumstances. I’m just heartsick about this Leaving Neverland documentary.
Lisha: Hey Willa! Great to chat with you again too, but I think we’re all heartsick about this film.
Willa: You’re probably right, though I have to say, a part of me also feels some small stirrings of hope. I’m trying not to be overly optimistic, but I wonder if this might actually be the turning point when the mainstream media finally begins to look at the evidence surrounding the allegations. I mean, there was such an outcry following the release of this film, and now it appears that some key statements in it simply aren’t true. So I wonder if that might lead to some sort of public reckoning.
Lisha: I really hope so. Not the “MJ Reckoning” that Slate magazine proposed, with an overkill of largely uncritical, unskeptical articles, but a more careful response to how sexual allegations are mediated in general. Accusations are not proof of a crime, so we need to be cautious about assuming guilt based solely on salacious claims. Especially when huge sums of money are involved, as is the case with the lawsuits that Wade Robson and James Safechuck filed against the Michael Jackson Estate.
Willa: Yes, and the new evidence that’s just come out really raises some questions about their lawsuit filings as well as their testimony in the film. For example, in his lawsuit, James Safechuck claims that Jackson began abusing him in 1988, when he was 10, and began to taper off when he “started puberty at age 12.” He describes this as a confusing “transition period” that “spanned several months” and then the abuse ended. In the documentary, he says this abuse often occurred in the train station at Neverland:
At the train station, there’s a room upstairs. And we would have sex up there too. It would happen every day. It sounds sick, but it’s kinda like when you’re first dating somebody, right?, and you do a lot of it. So it was very much like that.
However, Mike Smallcombe, the author of Making Michael: Inside the Career of Michael Jackson, investigated this and discovered that the train station didn’t exist at that time. According to county records, the building permit was issued in the fall of 1993.
Here’s a tweet from Smallcombe about this, and it includes an image of the construction permit, with a date stamp of September 2, 1993.
Lisha: Excellent work by Mike Smallcombe!
Willa: I agree! Major kudus for some crucial investigative journalism.
Lisha: It’s amazing how one piece of information can cast doubt on the entire story.
Willa: Or at least make you wonder why Safechuck isn’t being truthful about this. And it appears this part of his story can’t be true, even if you try to force the pieces together to make them fit.
Construction of the train station was completed in 1994, when Michael Jackson was away from Neverland and had a lot going on – the Chandler accusations had become public, he spent quite a bit of time in rehab, he married Lisa Marie Presley, and he was living in New York. He didn’t move back to Neverland until 1995. Here’s an article with additional information, and it includes a brief video clip of the train station segment of Leaving Neverland.
So putting all this together, the earliest any episodes of alleged daily abuse could have occurred in the train station would have been in 1995, when Safechuck was 17. In a response to Smallcombe’s tweet, Dan Reed, the director of Leaving Neverland, replied that the abuse must have gone on for more years than Safechuck originally stated. Here’s a screen capture of Reed’s response.
So Dan Reed is trying to make the pieces fit. And so is a recent Cosmopolitan article which says that “it’s not uncommon for traumatic experiences to muddle memories, including dates and details, for victims.” I imagine that’s true, especially when the victim is a child.
However, extending the period of abuse by several years, so that it continued into 1995 rather than ending in 1990 or so, isn’t just confusing dates. It’s changing the entire arc of Dan Reed’s narrative, which is that Michael Jackson preyed on young boys and then abandoned them as they entered puberty. Safechuck claims that when he was 12 and starting to show signs of puberty, Michael Jackson began to distance himself from him and turn his attention to younger boys. And he says that by the time he was 14, Michael Jackson had painfully rejected him. Daily sexual abuse of a 17-year-old doesn’t fit this narrative at all.
In addition, Safechuck implies in the film that the train station was one of the first places where abuse occurred: “it’s kinda like when you’re first dating somebody, right?, and you do a lot of it.” So that suggests the late 1980s, when Safechuck was 10 or so. But the train station didn’t exist then. There just doesn’t seem to be any way that all of Safechuck’s claims can be true.
Lisha: Yes, and don’t forget both Safechuck and Robson say they were not traumatized at the time of the alleged abuse. They claim the trauma they experienced came much later – after imagining their own children being abused. So I don’t see how this explanation makes sense. Besides, doesn’t trauma enhance memory rather than distort it? I recall Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony last summer, when she explained that traumatic memories are actually much more vivid than normal memory function.
Willa: Well, it’s complicated. People can be traumatized without realizing it – what I mean is, without realizing what an effect the trauma has had on them. For example, a lot of times soldiers with PTSD don’t realize they have it until they are diagnosed.
And as I understand it, sensory memories from traumatic events can be very vivid, while things like dates or, in Christine Blasey Ford’s case, the location of the house where the abuse occurred or the memory of how she got home that evening, can be confused or forgotten.
Lisha: That’s exactly why the police routinely record interviews with victims, witnesses, and suspects. If you ask someone to go on the record and tell what happened, you can nail down their story and try to corroborate it. It’s often the first thing police do – separate all the known parties and ask them to recall what happened. We know that child sexual abuse cases are very difficult to prove because physical evidence of the crime itself is rarely available. So it’s the other elements of the story that need to be corroborated.
Willa: If possible, but sometimes there isn’t much corroborating evidence, especially if victims aren’t able to come forward until years later, after they’ve had a chance to process what happened to them as children. That’s what makes these cases so challenging.
I’ve been doing some research on the Start By Believing campaign, and I understand and support their goals: to prevent victims of sexual assault or abuse from experiencing additional trauma when they tell their stories, encourage other victims to come forward, and tear down the cloak of silence and shame that surrounds sexual abuse. I think those goals are admirable, and I support them.
But when a prosecutor Starts By Believing the victims, as Tom Sneddon did in 1993 and 2003, or much of the media did when Leaving Neverland came out, that presumption of guilt can lead to injustice.
Lisha: I think this is where the Michael Jackson case can contribute to a broader conversation about how we discriminate between false accusations and valid claims of sexual abuse. We cannot simply assume that all accusers give accurate or truthful information.
Willa: Unfortunately, that’s true. And it isn’t just Safechuck. Smallcombe has uncovered contradictory evidence about Wade Robson’s story as well. In the documentary, Robson says the first time he was abused was in 1990, when he was 7 years old and his family left him alone at Neverland while they went to the Grand Canyon. However, Smallcombe unearthed a 1993 deposition where Wade’s mother, Joy, says the entire family went to the Grand Canyon. She also says that the first time she left Wade alone at Neverland was three years later, in 1993 – just a few months before she gave her deposition, so at a time when her memories about these events would have been fresh.
Again, here’s a tweet from Smallcombe:
And here’s an article with additional information, including corroboration by Wade Robson himself while under oath.
Lisha: So we know that the information presented in the film cannot be taken at face value. In fact, how do we know anything in the film is accurate?
Willa: That’s a good question, Lisha. Maybe as more evidence emerges, we’ll be able to figure that out. Just as importantly, I hope that information like this may finally force the mainstream media to look back and reevaluate all of the allegations, and actually look at the evidence this time.
Lisha: I do, too.
Willa: Unfortunately, I’m afraid it’s a slim hope. I was talking to a friend a couple weeks ago who was editor-in-chief of the local newspaper for many years, and now teaches journalism classes at the local college. He’s a really nice guy and I respect him a lot, but he told me that, to be honest, he’d written Michael Jackson off as a freak a long time ago, regardless of whether he was a child molester or not. He said that evidence about this or that particular point didn’t matter to him. His general feeling about Michael Jackson was already set and not likely to change.
I’m worried a lot of people feel that way, including other journalists. For example, I get the sense from the national media that they don’t care much about the evidence either. Instead, there has been almost universal condemnation of Michael Jackson, as well as public shaming of anyone who dares to defend him.
Lisha: I think this is why we need to step back and think about the cultural response to the film, apart from trying to evaluate every scrap of evidence.
Willa: Hmmm… I still think looking at the evidence is crucial, but that’s a good point, Lisha. I think you’re right – the two have to happen in tandem.
Lisha: Yes, I agree. Uncovering the facts is critical. But what does it say about the culture when a film of this nature – four hours of imagining graphic pedophilic acts – generates so much buzz? It’s worth thinking about why an entertainment product like this has so much appeal.
For me, the worst part of Leaving Neverland has been the relentless, sensationalized media coverage. I really didn’t see that coming. So often it feels like it is coming from one uncritical voice, despite all we’ve learned about these cases over the last six years. The Robson/Safechuck lawsuits have already been dismissed twice, with prejudice. Major outlets reported the claims back in 2013. Plus, Michael Jackson died in 2009! So why did this suddenly explode into public consciousness and generate such a massive response?
Looking back at some earlier media analysis, I see a familiar story. For example, back in 1998 media scholar John Erni described the coverage of the Chandler allegations as both “arduously simplistic and blatantly homophophic,” and I think that still applies. Too many journalists are simply accepting these claims at face value. And in a culture that “tirelessly recycles the myth of gay people as child molesters,” once again we see a homophobic containment of Michael Jackson and difference.
Lisha: But I’m struggling to understand why this narrative has come roaring back with a vengeance. Why now?
Willa: That’s a really good question, Lisha. I think maybe it’s because the allegations were presented in a film, like a story, with people that viewers could see and connect with – what psychologists call the “identifiable victim effect.” There was an article about this in Salon recently.
Lisha: Great article! I’m sure that this a big piece of the puzzle.
Willa: Well, you’re probably right, Lisha, that this is only one of several reasons for why Leaving Neverland caused such an outcry. But I think it’s an important one. It seems that we as humans are hard-wired to respond emotionally to stories. I think that’s one reason Freud turned to Greek mythology so often when he was mapping out and naming human psychology. (There’s Eros and Narcissus, Oedipus and Electra, … ) It’s like we as humans create stories, but our stories have also created us. Over the millennia our stories have shaped our minds, our cultures, and our understanding of what it means to be human. As a result, our stories are able to move us emotionally in ways that can be hard to fully understand.
So seeing a film like Leaving Neverland, and watching a fellow human tell a horrific story – even one that has been circulating for several years, as Robson and Safechuck’s allegations have – rouses our emotions and affects us very differently than reading a news report about a court case, even if both convey the same information.
Lisha: It’s true that this film relies entirely on affective and emotional capture, which is a totally different way of taking in information than say, reading legal documents. Even if the information is the same, film allows the viewer to evaluate non-verbal information, which can be very powerful.
Willa: That’s true.
Lisha: I noticed that Untouchable, the new documentary about Harvey Weinstein, follows the same approach. It premiered alongside Leaving Neverland at Sundance, and similarly focused on the accuser’s allegations. One reviewer explained it this way:
Newspaper and magazine stories can tell us the details, but cinema, an image- and time-based medium, can do what print cannot. It can make us sit with victims and serve as witnesses while they recount their experiences.
Willa: Yes, that’s a good way to describe it. And putting us in that uncomfortable position can be powerful: it can force us to confront harsh realities, unleash strong emotions, and possibly bring about important social changes. But the sheer force of those emotions can also get us into trouble.
Lisha: That’s for sure. I’ve noticed this is where the #MeToo movement has gotten a little wobbly – encouraging us to “believe the victims” while inadvertently cuing us to leave our critical thinking skills behind. Some have even tried to explain the sudden interest in Leaving Neverland as a part of the #MeToo movement. But I tend to think if this were the case, we would have seen a much bigger response to Untouchable and the upcoming trial of Harvey Weinstein – a living, breathing human being.
Willa: The differing reactions to Untouchable and Leaving Neverland are pretty striking when you put them side by side like that, Lisha. I think you’re right that there’s more going on – something that generates a much stronger emotional response for Michael Jackson’s accusers than for Weinstein’s.
And again, we need to be wary of judging the truth of a story based on our emotional reactions. Just because a story is compelling doesn’t mean it’s true. Some of our most emotionally wrenching stories are fiction. But because they move us so deeply, they feel true on some level.
Lisha: Yes, that’s right. On a psychological level, I’ve often thought many fictional stories are true! Maybe even more than mere presentation of fact
Willa: I know what you mean. Fiction can convey important psychological truths, even when the storyline is a complete fabrication. In fact, sometimes fiction can express something more profound and move us more deeply than a strict adherence to actual events. I recently saw Never Look Away, an amazing film about art’s ability to express truths that even the artist may not understand. In a recent article, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the director of Never Look Away, said that “Sticking to every fact and chronology tends to weaken something. Citizen Kane would be a lesser film if it were called Citizen Hearst.”
Willa: I think so too. That comment really struck me. So directors try to convey stories in a way that stirs emotions – they work hard to move our emotions. And those emotions may spark important insights, but they can also lead us astray.
For example, emotions can generate a kind of mob mentality that sweeps people along. I think that’s one reason Michael Jackson watched To Kill a Mockingbird over and over during his trial – to understand how that mob mentality works, especially when a white person accuses a black man of a sex crime. It can be nearly impossible in those situations, when emotions are running so high, to get the general public to pause a moment and not rush to judgment before they’ve considered the evidence.
Lisha: History is littered with these kinds of events and cultural products – Birth of a Nation comes to mind – showing how easily we get trapped by cultural narratives and knee-jerk reactions. Leaving Neverland was crafted to evoke an intense emotional response and that has turned into an effort to modulate Michael Jackson into some kind of cultural folk devil, to use sociologist Stanley Cohen’s term. Because this trial-by-media demonization of Michael Jackson includes calls to ban his music, I think we need to be vigilant in dealing with this cultural moment. Banning music and art is a very dark impulse.
Willa: Well, it’s a complicated subject. I agree we must be vigilant, as you say, anytime we see signs of that sort of mob mentality. Mobs are scary things, especially in person but even online. And it’s troubling that there’s been so little discussion of actual evidence, or the presentation of multiple points of view. For a while there, it seemed like Joe Vogel’s article in Forbes was the only one out there pushing back against Leaving Neverland and the all-too-familiar narrative of Michael Jackson as a sexual predator of young white boys.
But to be perfectly honest, I can understand why most viewers of Leaving Neverland are outraged and feel sympathy for Wade Robson and James Safechuck. I have a dear friend who was sexually abused more than 40 years ago, and it still affects almost every aspect of her life. It was such a deep betrayal. It’s almost impossible to convey in words the effect it has had on her. I have another friend who discovered one day that her husband had been sexually abusing their two children. She told me she went to work that morning thinking she had a strong marriage and a happy family, and by the end of the day everything she thought she knew was turned inside out.
Lisha: That’s heartbreaking, Willa.
Willa: It is. It’s heartbreaking and devastating and completely disorienting. She told me she kept asking herself, How could I have missed this? How could I have misread my husband as a fun, happy extrovert when he had such darkness inside him? How could I have misread his relationship with our children? She really lost confidence in her ability to read people, and I’m not sure she’ll ever fully recover from that.
Lisha: That’s incredibly sad because people who commit these crimes are not proud of their behavior and go to great lengths to hide it. No doubt this was carefully hidden – especially from her. But unfortunately, mothers often take the blame for failing to protect the children – another cultural narrative that deserves more scrutiny.
Willa: That’s true. We see that in Leaving Neverland also.
Lisha: Painfully so.
Willa: Anyway, my point is that I’ve seen how sexual abuse can rip people apart, not just victims but their families too, and I’ve seen the long-term effects it can have on the deepest reaches of a victim’s psyche. So I can understand why most people watching Leaving Neverland would feel shock and anger and disgust.
Lisha: I can certainly understand empathizing with someone who is suffering and wanting to help those who have been victimized. It seems only natural to want to offer as much support and comfort as possible.
Willa: Yes, I think so too.
Lisha: But I also want to think about the victims of false accusations, too. What is missing from the Leaving Neverland conversation for me is an acknowledgement that there has been a heightened cultural awareness of child sexual abuse for decades now, since the 1980s as I recall it. This is not a social problem that we’ve swept under the rug or pretended doesn’t exist. We have been inundated with all kinds of information on child sexual abuse. Oprah alone claims to have made 217 television programs on the topic. At times, the intense interest in this topic has risen to full-blown panic and hysteria. In the words of Mike Lew, author of Victims No Longer (a book that Wade Robson recommends on his website): “One would have to have been living in a cave to be unaware of the reality of sexual child abuse.…”
Along with this heightened awareness of abuse comes the knowledge of how destructive false accusations can be. Just as we see in cases of abuse, false accusations can ruin people’s lives and tear families apart, too. So these claims have to be evaluated very carefully.
Willa: Yes, especially when the accusers are white and the accused is not.
Lisha: Excellent point! Race complicates this discussion exponentially, especially with accusations of black-on-white sexual violence.
Willa: It really does. You know, I grew up in the South, so I’m very aware that those powerful feelings of anger and outrage can be manipulated, especially against men of color. Repeatedly throughout American history, white men have accused non-white or racially ambiguous men of sexually abusing white women and children, and then used the intense fear and anger that resulted for political and financial gain.
For example, this strategy was repeatedly used against American Indians during colonialism to justify the violation of treaties and forfeiture of Indian land. What I mean is, white settlers would spread stories of Indians abducting and abusing white women and children, and then use those stories as justification for driving Indians from land that was rightfully theirs. This strategy had an interesting effect: it allowed white settlers to paint themselves as victims, even as they were committing violence against indigenous peoples and taking their land.
A similar strategy was used against Chinese immigrants in the 1880s and against Mexican immigrants in the 1930s (as well as the 2016 presidential elections) to effect changes in immigration policy. And it has been turned against black men for generations. Thousands of freed black men were lynched in the decades following Reconstruction, and a false accusation of sexual assault was often the justification used to stir up mob violence, destroy successful black businesses and communities, and confiscate black property.
In a 1892 pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, journalist Ida Wells suggests these vicious lynchings also had an over-arching political purpose: to suppress freed black people, especially black men, following the abolition of slavery. Wells went on to warn her readers that using a false allegation of rape to justify white-on-black violence had become so prevalent that “it is in a fair way to stamp us a race of rapists.” (By the way, thank you to Eleanor Bowman for sharing Wells’ pamphlet with me. I’ve learned a lot from it. If anyone else would like to read it, the complete text is available here.)
Unfortunately, I think Wells’ prediction came true to some extent – over the decades this narrative did “stamp” African Americans as “a race of rapists” in the minds of many people. So now, a lot of white Americans especially are predisposed to see black men and other men of color as sexual predators. This history has a powerful influence on how whites perceive and respond to black men accused of sexually abusing white women and children. But I think a lot of white Americans either don’t realize this, or don’t want to admit it.
Lisha: Cultural narratives are so much a part of our daily lives that we’re rarely even aware of them – that is, until they get challenged. It’s important to point out that the culture industry (e.g., music and film) is a site where these myths and cultural blind spots are continually reinforced (and sometimes contested). It is one of the ways that the dominant culture holds onto their social advantage.
Willa: That’s true.
Lisha: This reminds me of a recent article on Leaving Neverland that deals with these issues in terms of cognitive bias, including racial bias, and explains how this impacts viewer response to the film. It is titled “How Your Judgment Can Be Skewed About the Michael Jackson Documentary” and was written by a psychiatrist, Dr. Srini Pillay. Pillay said he had trouble finding a publisher for this piece because it was not in step with dominant media narratives about the film. He of course points out this is also strong evidence of cognitive bias!
Willa: It really is, especially since this is an insightful article from a trustworthy source: a Harvard psychiatrist and brain researcher. It says a lot that he wasn’t able to find someone to publish it.
Lisha: I think that any time we observe the media speaking in one voice, it’s a signal that we’re in a danger zone, culturally speaking. It makes me want to look around and see if I can detect what is hiding just beyond our peripheral vision.
Pillay shows how bias operates in both overt and subtle ways. For example in the documentary, the white accusers are “the only people with a voice or perspective,” while “the alleged black perpetrator not only has no voice, but is dead.” That strikes me as an example of overt racial bias.
But there are more subtle manipulations going on as well. What surprised me most was a study he cited on the “posthumous demonization and criminalization” of black men, showing that “black men are at increased risk of racial bias against them, especially after they die.”
Willa: That surprised me as well.
Lisha: I think that’s incredibly significant here, considering that Michael Jackson has been dead for almost ten years.
Willa: Yes. I’d never thought about the “increased risk of racial bias” black men face after death. They face so much during life! But it does bring to mind Martin Luther King Jr, for example, and everything that was done to tear done his legacy after he died – like all the stories of affairs and one-night stands. Why was that made public, and why then?
Lisha: That’s a perfect example! The struggle for Dr. King’s legacy triggered an old (and still active) cultural myth about black male hypersexuality, and that theme repeats itself in the struggle for Michael Jackson’s legacy.
Willa: I agree completely.
Lisha: Pillay also describes the bias against successful people, which we can think about in relation to Dr. King as well. Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke about this in a 2005 interview with Bill Maher, in reference to Michael Jackson: “whether you are Jack Johnson or Paul Robeson or Martin King or Mandela, seemingly when blacks hit very high spots, they’re in the line of fire. Michael perceives himself to be in that line.”
Willa: Yes, that’s a good point. It’s like the Star is Born effect, where we repeatedly tell the story of a talented person making it big, achieving incredible success, and then crashing and burning. We tell that story over and over again. And it’s especially true of successful black men. As Michael Jackson himself said in a 2005 interview with Jesse Jackson, “there has been kind of a pattern among black luminaries in this country.”
Lisha: It’s practically a national pastime at this point: the “swift and sudden fall from grace.”
Willa: Exactly. In that clip you shared, Lisha, Jesse Jackson describes another phenomenon that’s relevant here too, I think: that Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, and Nelson Mandela were reviled when they were alive, and then their image was sanitized and celebrated after they died.
So I think we saw a number of different phenomena with Michael Jackson, at different phases. He was scorned the last decade or so of his life, then celebrated immediately after he died – like Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, and Nelson Mandela were. But now there seems to be a kind of backlash setting in. Once again he’s becoming “the beast you visualized,” to quote another of his lyrics. It’s like we need him to fulfill that cultural role.
Lisha: Yes, you’re right. It’s that mob mentality again and the impulse to manufacture a cultural folk devil. Now add to that the creativity bias …
Willa: Right, I thought that was a really interesting part of Dr. Pillay’s article too. I mean, just think of the popular image of the famous composer or painter who’s half mad, or think of all the songs or folk tales where an artist makes some sort of pact with the devil to gain success or creativity. There really does seem to be contradictory perceptions of creative people – that they should be celebrated for their talents, but also that there’s something not quite right with them. Michael Jackson explicitly addresses that bias in Ghosts. After all, the main character is a “maestro,” and the village people feel threatened by his creativity as much as anything.
Lisha: There are many cultural narratives about artists – Ghosts rehearses a lot of them. And I think we could even create a subset for popular music. I mean, fill in the blank: Musicians are ________ (sexually promiscuous, drug addicted, reckless, irresponsible…) There’s even a cultural short-hand for it: “Sex, Drugs and Rock-n-Roll.”
Willa: I see what you mean!
Lisha: So there is a lot of complexity driving viewer response to this film, including one more significant factor, which is the final element that Pillay identifies: memory bias. As it turns out, memory isn’t nearly as stable and reliable as we like to believe.
Elizabeth Loftus is a leading memory researcher who flagged the Wade Robson accusations early on as being suspect, especially when initial reports characterized his claims as a repressed memory case. Although Robson walked this back and publicly said that his memories were never repressed, on his website he recommends a popular psychology book, Courage to Heal, that has been widely criticized for promoting the theory of repressed memory. Dr. Loftus addresses this specifically in her own book, but perhaps this is a longer discussion for another time!
Willa: I think so. It sounds like there’s a lot to learn and a lot to unpack about that topic! And I look forward to another discussion. It’s always so great to talk with you, Lisha!
The Early Years
Lisha: Hey, Willa. Has it really been almost a year since our last blog post?
Willa: It has! Hard to believe, isn’t it? It’s so nice to talk with you again!
Lisha: Oh, it’s such a joy to chat with you again, Willa.
Willa: I’ve really missed it. You know, whenever we dive deep into Michael Jackson’s work and just immerse ourselves in it and discover how profound and revolutionary it is, that feels so nourishing to me. There’s nothing else quite like it. And I strongly believe we need Michael Jackson now more than ever! But at the same time, I think we really needed to take some time off, take a step back, and kind of regroup and reevaluate.
Lisha: Well, I know I did. To be honest, being an American citizen feels like a full-time job right now, with all the non-stop political chaos. It’s difficult to process it all.
Willa: I agree. Just listening to the news on the radio is exhausting. But for me, something else has been going on too. This election and some of the terrible things that have happened since have really forced me to go back and question some of my assumptions.
For example, looking back I realize that one of the founding beliefs of this blog was that racism and other types of prejudice have diminished significantly in recent decades, and that Michael Jackson played an important role in bringing about those changes. I still believe that’s true in some respects. For example, younger people seem to be much more accepting of interracial relationships than previous generations. They’re also less homophobic, and less threatened by difference in general. But at the same time, I see deep systemic injustices that are not being addressed, and in fact seem to be getting worse.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that, when Obama won the election, I felt so hopeful that we were at last becoming that “more just society” Martin Luther King envisioned so long ago. And I really believed Michael Jackson helped bring us there. But now those hopes seem premature. It was so easy to make rosy declarations about social change when Obama was president! It’s much harder to do that now.
Lisha: I agree. I keep thinking about how the first woman president would have wrapped such a nice, neat, little bow around the Obama years and all my optimistic ideas about how the culture is moving forward, even if it isn’t as far or fast as I would like. Now I find myself questioning that whole premise, wondering, is the culture really moving forward at all? It’s heartbreaking. Especially today, on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination.
Here’s a sobering article I read recently about the 1968 Kerner Commission on civil rights in the U.S. A 2018 reexamination of their original report shows that any gains we’ve made since 1968 have either stalled or been completely reversed.
Willa: Wow, that’s a really painful article. But I have to say, it corresponds with what we’ve been hearing in the news. It’s heartbreaking, as you say.
Racism in particular has been woven into the fabric of America since before we became a country, though with important advances and regressions, and this feels like a time of regression. But maybe that’s not true – maybe it’s not so much a step back as simply making visible what was hidden before. There have been a number of news articles suggesting that one effect of this election has been to embolden people to declare prejudices they felt the need to keep hidden before. That would suggest that racism hadn’t receded in recent decades, but just gone underground. If that’s true, then maybe what we’re going through now is a painful but necessary phase to finally root out and address that latent racism. Maybe.
But it’s also true that if you look back at American history, every step forward – whether it’s racial equality or women’s suffrage or workers’ rights or environmental awareness and protections or any major advance – has been followed by a backlash similar to what we’re seeing now. And this does feel like a backlash to me: a violent reaction to fundamental changes that really have taken place, politically and culturally.
I keep telling myself that – that I need to take the long view and not get caught up in the day-to-day drama of the current White House – but it’s so disturbing to see what’s happened in the past year, and how much ground has been lost on so many fronts. I wonder if that’s one reason Michael Jackson never gave much credence to politics, and instead tried to bring about change through his art instead.
Lisha: I’ve thought about that a lot recently, especially in relation to the early years, before the Motown signing, when the Jackson 5 were freelancing in the Gary/Chicagoland area. This was one of the most politically charged eras in American history, and it reached a boiling point in Chicago in 1968, about the time the Jackson 5 started really picking up some steam with their regional hit, “Big Boy,” on the Steeltown label.
Willa: That’s true! I never put that together before, Lisha – that the Jackson 5 would have been traveling around Chicago that summer when everything blew up.
Lisha: Yes! For those who aren’t familiar with that area, Gary, Indiana, is very much a part of the Chicago metro area, even though it is across the state line. And by 1968, the Jackson 5 were appearing in some of Chicago’s most successful black venues, like the Regal Theater, the Capitol Theater, the Central Park Theater, and the High Chaparral Lounge.
But Chicago was also a pretty tumultuous place to be in 1968. For example, there are reports that the Jackson 5 performed at a South Side night club, the Guys & Gals, on April 6, 1968, as the city erupted in violence in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. The rioting was so intense that the National Guard was brought in to respond to all the fires, shootings, and looting that occurred that weekend.
Willa: Wow. I wonder how aware Michael Jackson would have been about that? He turned 10 that summer, and he doesn’t seem to have been shielded much from harsh realities as a child. I’m sure he would have known about the assassination of Dr. King and some of the unrest that followed all around the nation. I wonder if he realized what was happening right there on the streets of Chicago?
Lisha: I don’t see how he could have avoided it. Especially since he was working in Chicago, where the response to Dr. King’s death was so intense.
Fortunately, I think the Jacksons probably escaped the worst of the violence that occurred later that summer – the apocalyptic “Battle of Michigan Avenue” leading up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention – because there’s a gap in their performance schedule at that time.
My guess is that’s when they made their annual trip to Arizona. There was a really good article about this recently in Phoenix Magazine, describing the Jackson family vacations in Arizona. If they did manage to escape Chicago in August of 1968, it would have been great timing, given all the chaos back at home.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha. From that article, it sounds like they definitely went to Arizona in 1966 and 67, and several times after that as well. And you think they may have gone in 1968? It’s certainly possible, though 1968 turned out to be a pivotal year for them. They might have been too busy to go!
Lisha: You are absolutely right! I’m just guessing because we know that the previous two years they made the trip to Winslow, Arizona, around the same time. 1968 is the year that their grandparents moved from Winslow to Phoenix, so that would account for why people in Winslow didn’t see them that summer.
Willa: Oh, that’s a good point. I didn’t think about that….
Lisha: Anyway, as you say, it’s quite possible they went elsewhere – or maybe they were just at home in Gary, enjoying some time off before school started back up.
A lot of my interest in this early period stems from some outstanding journalism the Chicago Reader’s Jake Austen did back in 2009, digging into the Jackson 5’s early history. It’s a riveting story. Contrary to the myth that the Jackson 5 were plucked from obscurity by Motown records in 1969, Austen shows how the Jackson 5 were actually climbing their way to the top of a very vibrant black music scene in Chicago, appearing on local television, radio, and in some of the city’s most popular live venues.
Willa: Yes, it’s so interesting to read about what they were doing in those early years! I had no idea about any of this, Lisha – about how often they were performing in Chicago and how involved they were in the Chicago scene – until you shared some of your research with me a couple of years ago.
I think some critics think Michael Jackson was exaggerating when he talked about how hard he worked as a child, but the evidence Jake Austen has uncovered supports him. As is often the case with a so-called “overnight success,” it took a lot of hard work and determination to bring about that success.
Lisha: That’s so true. In fact, there was so much going on in those early years, even Michael Jackson gets some details wrong in his book, Moonwalk. Perfectly understandable given his young age!
Willa: Really? I didn’t know that. What are some of the things he gets wrong?
Lisha: Well, Austen shows how Michael Jackson seems to conflate events, like the marathon recording session he did for Steeltown Records at Sunny Sawyer’s studio in Chicago, with post production work he observed in Gary, Indiana, “on Saturday mornings after watching Roadrunner cartoons.” More significantly, Michael Jackson seems to have completely forgotten about the work he did in 1967 at One-derful records on Chicago’s Record Row. That’s a huge story, for many reasons.
Chicago birthed a number of important developments in popular music: Chicago Blues, Chicago Soul, and many key moments in early rock-n-roll. By the late 1950s, legendary artists like Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry were recording on a 12-block stretch of S. Michigan Avenue known as Record Row, a beehive of small independent record labels that specialized in R&B. These record companies sprang up mostly in response to the major record labels either undervaluing or neglecting this music altogether.
Many of the amazing artists on Record Row would provide inspiration for generations of musicians to come. For example, the Rolling Stones recognized the importance of the Chicago R&B scene early on and went to Record Row to study with their idols at Chess Records.
Willa: Yes, they did, and they treated it like a pilgrimage … almost like they were visiting a holy place where American music sprang forth.
Lisha: So true! They even recorded a song titled “2120 S. Michigan Ave” in homage to the studio.
Willa: And to give the Rolling Stones their due, blues musicians didn’t receive much recognition in America until the British invasion groups acknowledged them as the incredible artists they are, and pointed to them as the forefathers of much of their own music. It’s the old story of prophets not being accepted in their own hometowns, I guess. It took the outspoken admiration of British groups like the Rolling Stones before white American audiences started to wake up and appreciate some of the early blues artists who had been ignored and overlooked before.
Lisha: That’s right. British musicians quickly recognized the significance of Chicago R&B and rock-n-roll, when American records started making their way to port cities like Liverpool, England, via American military ships. Both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles cite Chess Record’s Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry as strong influences.
The Beatles also claim Elvis Presley as an early inspiration, but we know Presley got his start by simply covering Arthur Crudup, an earlier Chicago R&B artist whose “That’s All Right” was recorded in Chicago at RCA Victor in 1946. Some have argued that Crudup’s “That’s All Right” is the earliest example of rock-n-roll, although Presley often gets the credit for being an early rock-n-roll pioneer.
Other early rock-n-roll artists like Little Richard and Jackie Wilson recorded on Record Row at Brunswick Records, located at 1449 S. Michigan, in the same building that housed Vee-Jay Records, the company that gave the Beatles their first U.S. distribution deal.
And then we find out Michael Jackson was in development just down the street at 1827 S. Michigan, home of One-derful Records, where the Jackson 5 recorded a forgotten early version of “Big Boy.” That’s a lot of music history happening on a single city street, and we haven’t even scratched the surface!
Willa: It really is! In the 1950s and 60s, Chicago’s Record Row was pretty much the center of the recording industry universe for “black music,” and therefore white music as well since many of the biggest hits of the time were “white” covers of “black” songs released from Record Row.
Lisha: That’s a crucially important point. As the major record companies underestimated the appeal this music would have outside the black community, independent labels started generating big hits that crossed over into white markets, so the majors quickly put out cover records to cash in on the trend.
Because the U.S. was (and is) so deeply divided along color lines, racial divisions are clearly visible in the industrial production and consumption of music. A nation segregated by race will produce music that is segregated by race as well. In studying this music, it’s striking how rigidly segregated every aspect of the business is. There are black/white live venues, recording studios, record shops, radio stations, …
Willa: Yes, but radio waves go everywhere, not just to black houses or white houses.
Lisha: That was the key! As people heard how compelling this music was over the airwaves, it created huge demand for the records and that included white teenagers, who had disposable income to spend on recorded music.
Willa: Yes, and that’s another important point, Lisha. This was the beginning of the rise of youth culture in the U.S., with teenagers having access to cars (and car radios) as well as money to spend, and it caused a very real fear in some quarters – especially since a lot of these white kids really seemed to like the music coming from Record Row. So some people, especially in the South, put a lot of energy into deliberate attempts to keep the music segregated – in part because, as Michael Jackson said many times, music is such a powerful force for bringing people together.
Lisha: I think that because music both reflects and potentially drives the culture, you can see that when musical divisions are destabilized, it threatens social divisions as well.
Lisha: Many white parents were anxious about their children consuming music previously marketed as “race records.” So the knock-offs addressed that anxiety and proved to be wildly successful at market. But that meant the true innovators of this music were never properly recognized or fairly compensated for their work. Cover records outsold the originals many times over, and intellectual property rights were commonly signed over to the record companies in those days.
Willa: That’s true, and that’s something else Michael Jackson talked about a number of times – for example, in his protests against Sony.
So here’s a really good documentary that talks about Chicago’s Record Row and the crucial role it played in this formative period in American music. About 20 minutes in, it talks about efforts in the 1950s to keep keep white teenagers from listening to these new black artists by having white artists cover their music, sometimes practically note for note.
But the main focus of this documentary is what a happening place Record Row was back then! Here’s the film:
I love this documentary! And for me the big takeaway is simply all the energy and excitement and creativity on Record Row at that time! This really was the center of the music industry, like Hollywood for the film industry, and it’s incredible to think that a very young Michael Jackson was right there too, taking it all in.
Lisha: It is such a fascinating story, isn’t it? For anyone having trouble with the link, we’re discussing a PBS documentary titled Cradle of Rhythm and Blues: Record Row, narrated by Etta James. (Michael Jackson opened for her at the Apollo Theater in 1968.)
Willa: Yes, but if you want to find a physical copy you’re going to have a hard time of it, as one YouTube blogger explained:
Record Row – Was produced by WTTW in Chicago (PBS) and aired in February 1997. I happened to tape it. Lost my tape a few months ago and then discovered that Record Row had disappeared from the earth more or less. Found one copy in a small college’s library somewhere in the south but not available for loan. Called WTTW and they disavowed ever having produced Record Row! Obviously no VHS or DVD’s for sale! But this is an important historical document.
I bring that up to emphasize how difficult it is to find information about Record Row, and how precious it is when something does turn up. It really feels like an important part of American music history is being lost.
Lisha: Musically speaking, it seems like Chicago has been hiding its light under a bushel for decades.
Willa: Yes, but those with roots in Chicago know the history. Here’s a short but fun clip of President Obama singing “Sweet Home Chicago” in the White House with some of the artists who recorded in Chicago at one time or another, including B.B. King (who frequently performed in Chicago and recorded a number of live albums there), Buddy Guy (who was a house musician at Chess Records early in his career), and Mick Jagger (who recorded an album at Chess, as you mentioned earlier, Lisha, and whose picture is on the wall at Chess):
Lisha: Whoa! That is the coolest clip ever, Willa!
Willa: Oh, it just does my heart good to watch this! And it’s fascinating if you think about the chronology of voices in this clip. It begins with Buddy Guy singing a song reportedly by Robert Johnson, though no one knows for sure. He recorded the first known version of it, but it’s never been clearly documented whether he wrote it or not. It’s then picked up by a wonderful singer I don’t know – do you, Lisha?
Lisha: No idea, but she is incredible! Let me see if I can find out …
So looking at the credits of In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues, which was taped in the East Room of the White House, I see that the spectacular female vocalist we are so curious about is Shemekia Copeland, and she is the daughter of Texas Blues guitarist Johnny Copeland. I’m an instant fan!
Willa: Thank you for tracking that down, Lisha. I love her voice! It’s nice to put a name with it.
So after Shemekia Copeland, Mick Jagger sings a verse, and then Buddy Guy insists Obama take a turn. (“I heard you singing Al Green!”) And Obama does sing! He also holds the microphone out for B.B. King to sing a phrase before coming back in. It ends with many different voices joining together.
I have to say, I just love this clip! And in some way I can’t explain very well, it encapsulates everything I think about the role of music in bringing about social change.
Lisha: I love it too! There is something about this music that makes me so proud to be American – just obnoxiously so. It’s as if racial divisions fall away in musical moments like this, and we all just become Americans. It’s amazing to me how national identity and music are so closely bound together, and this music so perfectly captures what I think of as American music. Pretty interesting when you consider how this music was devalued and marginalized historically, yet it ends up defining a nation. Maybe that’s why it’s such a thrill to see it celebrated at the White House in such a meaningful way?
Willa: That makes a lot of sense, Lisha. I feel a sense of pride and belonging also, though I wasn’t able to explain it as well as you just did. There’s just something so uplifting about hearing all these talented musicians come together and celebrate this distinctly American style of music!
But there’s also something very special about the way the song is picked up and carried by one voice after another in this clip – from Buddy Guy to a chorus of voices at the end, with nods along the way to Robert Johnson and B.B. King and even the Rolling Stones – that almost seems to trace the history of American music, and especially Chicago Blues, in compressed form. Looking at it in a more symbolic way, it’s pretty profound what’s happening on that stage.
Lisha: Wow. Now that you mention it, I can see this performance as being like a map of the human history of this country, representing centuries of struggle in a musical way. I mean, you have the stringed instruments and Western harmony that were imposed on this land by European conquerors, the enslaved peoples who took it and made it their own – only to send it back to Europe where it is admired and copied and returned to us via the British musical invasion.
Willa: Represented by the hand of Mick Jagger taking the microphone for a verse and then passing it on to Obama.
Lisha: Oh gosh, you’re right!
Willa: It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? And then, the sheer fact that Obama joins in and plays a role in carrying the song forward, and that this is all happening at the White House at the invitation of the first black president, really drives home the connection between art and politics, and the role of music – particularly the music of Chicago and Record Row – in changing public opinions about race. This clip is just amazing to me, on so many levels.
Lisha: I agree with you. I think I’ve already hit replay about 10 times! It’s like a musical snapshot of the whole story.
I think what we’re learning here is that making music in and of itself can be a very powerful political act. Also, I’m starting to think Chicago is a much bigger part of the Michael Jackson story than we previously imagined, both musically and politically.
Willa: I agree. Thank you so much for sharing your musical knowledge with me, Lisha! As a Chicago musician yourself, you’ve really opened my eyes to the fact that Chicago – in particular, Record Row – was where it was happening, musically, in the 1950s and 60s. And Michael Jackson was right there, talented and prepped and ready to step up to the microphone …
Lisha: … at a pivotal moment in history. 1968 marks the end of the Civil Rights Movement proper with the assassination of Dr. King and the final legislative achievement of the movement, the Fair Housing Act. When Michael Jackson steps onto the world stage the following year, in 1969, it is the beginning of the post-civil rights era. And he remains highly visible for the remainder of his life – until 2009, when President Obama is sworn into office.
Willa: That’s true. And it seems really significant that Michael Jackson’s career is bookended in that way – by Martin Luther King on one end and President Obama on the other. We need to look at that further – that seems like a really important conversation to have. But it’s also important to look at Gary, and the surprising role it played in the Chicago music scene…. There’s a lot to talk about!
Michael Jackson, Leonard Bernstein, and the Artist’s Role in a Chaotic World
Lisha: Hey Willa! It’s been a long time since we’ve talked.
Willa: Yes, it has, and an awful lot has happened since then.
Lisha: So true. Here in the US, it feels like a luxury to think about anything other than the news of the day – we have so much political turmoil going on. But I recently saw something that really spoke to me and I wanted to see if it resonated for you, too.
It’s a quote by the conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein, published in the Boston Globe on July 5, 1970. It was taken from remarks he made at the Tanglewood Music Festival, addressing the “artist’s role in a chaotic world”:
It is the artists of this world, the feelers and thinkers, who will ultimately save us, who can articulate, educate, defy, insist, sing, and shout the big dreams. Only the artists can turn the “not-yet” into reality.
Willa: Thank you for sharing this, Lisha! I love everything about this quote – especially that bold opening line of “It is the artists of the world … who will ultimately save us.”
When I read about all the injustice and violence around the world, and about increasing intolerance here in the US, and when I think about how rapidly climate change is happening, and about the recent political changes that indicate we’ll not only respond too slowly in coming years but may actually start moving back in the wrong direction, I do wonder if we’ll be able to save ourselves and the other inhabitants of this planet.
Lisha: It’s a dangerous time, for sure.
Willa: It feels that way, doesn’t it? – like we’re on the edge of a precipice. But if there’s a chance, it lies with artists.
Lisha: Yes! Artists play such an important role in showing us where we are and where we need to go. They are the leading edge of what we’re capable of imagining and creating and becoming.
Willa: Exactly! Very well stated, Lisha. As Bernstein said, “Only the artists can turn the ‘not-yet’ into reality.” I really believe that. Before you can “make that change,” to quote another visionary artist, you first have to be able to visualize that change. And then you have to make people care enough to bring it about.
Those two acts – of imagining a new way of being and of making people care enough to enact that vision – may be the two most important and most difficult steps in bringing about social change. And those talents lie uniquely with artists: the ability to visualize the “not-yet” and to make people care.
Lisha: That’s it, really. And I think we can point to very concrete examples of this in both Leonard Bernstein and Michael Jackson’s work.
Leonard Bernstein was one of the first to take a very broad view of American music, wanting to understand what makes some music sound “American,” in such a way that all Americans could identify with it. As a result, he was among the first to challenge the high/low art divide in American music and to explore the racial politics buried within it. It’s a position he never backed away from throughout his entire career.
Willa: That’s interesting, Lisha. We’ve talked several times about how Michael Jackson blurred the boundary between high art and popular art, along with other artists like Andy Warhol, Fred Astaire, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, even Walt Disney to some extent. And you’re right – Bernstein worked to bridge that divide also.
Lisha: Yes. Bernstein seemed just as comfortable in the symphonic world as he was in musical theatre and film, even nightclubs for that matter! As a composer and conductor, he interrogated the boundary between “serious” and “popular” music, and he refused to segregate musical styles, using music as a form of civic engagement. He was also a very dynamic performer. So it’s no surprise to me that he was a huge fan of Michael Jackson.
Author Jonathan Cott, who got the last substantive interview with Bernstein over a dinner in his home, described Bernstein’s admiration for Michael Jackson this way:
Above all, in every aspect of his life and work, Bernstein was a boundless enthusiast. In the course of my dinner conversation with him, he informed me that the word “enthusiasm” was derived from the Greek adjective ‘entheos’, meaning “having the god within,” with its attendant sense of ‘living without aging,’ as did the gods on Mount Olympus.
One of my favorite Bernstein stories that perfectly exemplifies and highlights his enthusiastic disposition tells of the occasion when the conductor invited the then twenty-eight-year-old Michael Jackson – another age defying musical “god” whom Bernstein wildly admired – to attend a concert he was leading with the New York Philharmonic in 1996 at Los Angeles’s Royce Hall. Jackson was bowled over by Bernstein’s hyperkinetic performance, and during the intermission he went backstage to pay tribute to his fellow musical potentate. The hyper-appreciative Bernstein then wrapped both his arms around Jackson, lifted him up and kissed him on the lips. Landing back on the terra firma, the breathless singer found himself only able to ask the conductor, “Do you always use the same baton?”
Here’s a photo that I believe is from their backstage meeting in Royce Hall, August 1986:
Willa: That’s a wonderful story, Lisha! I love the image of Bernstein scooping Michael Jackson up in a big embrace. I’m always struck by how other talented and creative people seemed to recognize him as a kindred spirit, like Baryshnikov talking about his dancing.
It’s funny to think of Michael Jackson being star-struck, but I’ve read about other instances where he felt overwhelmed meeting someone he admired, so I guess it really did happen sometimes.
Lisha: Yes, it does seem funny, since Michael Jackson was obviously a much bigger star. And it’s hilarious that he responded to Bernstein’s enthusiastic greeting by asking about the baton!
Willa: It really is, and it reminds me of something David Michael Frank told Joe Vogel. Frank was working with Michael Jackson on a classical album in the spring of 2009 – this was on top of everything else Michael Jackson had going on in the months before he died, with rehearsals starting for This Is It also.
Frank talked to Joe Vogel about it later, and he mentioned Bernstein’s batons:
I hope one day his family will decide to record this music as a tribute, and show the world the depth of his artistry. … I told Michael I was going to use one of Leonard Bernstein’s batons I had bought at an auction when we did the recording. I knew he would have gotten a big kick out of that.
Lisha: Wow! How cool is that?
Willa: Wouldn’t that be wonderful if it came to pass? I’d love to see a video of Frank using one of Bernstein’s batons to conduct an orchestra playing Michael Jackson’s classical music.
Lisha: Or even better, maybe someday we will hear it live!
Willa: That would be an experience! According to a post by David Pack, who arranged a meeting between Bernstein and Michael Jackson, the admiration went both directions. Pack wrote that Bernstein was in Los Angeles in 1986 a few days before his birthday, and Pack asked him what he would like to do to celebrate: “Without missing a beat, Leonard said, ‘I want to meet Michael Jackson.’” Unfortunately, I think the original post has been taken down, but here’s a repost on Reflections on the Dance that tells the story of that evening.
Lisha: That is such a captivating story. I would love to know what Leonard Bernstein and Michael Jackson discussed that evening!
Willa: I would too!
Lisha: I’m guessing this dinner party happened on the same evening Michael Jackson attended the New York Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles because I noticed Michael Jackson is wearing the same clothing in all the photos. Bernstein is wearing a tux in the above photo, but more casual clothing at the dinner. Conductors typically change after a concert and don’t wear their tuxes out of the concert hall, so I think there’s a good chance this dinner happened right after the concert.
Willa: Oh, I bet you’re right, Lisha. Good detective work! It makes sense that Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones would have dinner with Bernstein after meeting him backstage.
Lisha: Yes, and it sounds like Bernstein hoped this meeting might lead to them working together. According to Pack, “Leonard wanted to introduce Michael to classical music and maybe inspire Michael toward a collaboration of classical and pop music.” I wonder if they realized no introduction was necessary when it came to Michael Jackson and classical music? As Jermaine Jackson tells in his book, You Are Not Alone:
Michael viewed music as a “science” as well as a feeling. From the moment we moved into Bowmont Drive , he started to study composition. He strove to understand the make-up of someone’s song in the same way a scientist set out to understand a person’s DNA. Together we tuned into any classical station we could find on the radio, listening to the structure of a piece of music and “seeing” what color, mood and emotion each instrument would create … he loved so many classical pieces, how they started slowly with the strings, swelled into something dramatic or racing, then calmed again. This structure – the A-B-A form – was something we constantly dissected. And this classical inspiration runs as a thread through so much of his music… (p. 129)
In fact, according to Michael Jackson’s own words, the Thriller album (released four years prior to his meeting with Bernstein) is based on Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Talk about counter-intuitive!
Willa: Yes, Susan Fast talked about that in a post a few years ago. I was really surprised by that, but after Susan explained it it made a lot of sense.
Lisha: Yes, she always has a way of making complicated ideas seem crystal clear!
And there is another interesting influence. I think most everyone who has spent some time with the short film Beat It can see a lot of Bernstein’s West Side Story in Michael Jackson’s work.
Willa: Yes, director Bob Giraldi has denied there’s any connection, but I’ve found that Michael Jackson’s directors often seem to have a pretty superficial understanding of his films. And it seems doubtful to me that West Side Story wasn’t an inspiration for Beat It, whether Giraldi realizes it or not – there are just too many connections.
Lisha: I agree. I don’t doubt Giraldi’s account of what happened, but I don’t think it necessarily rules out West Side Story as an influence either.
Willa: Yes, that’s a good way to put it, Lisha. I think you’re right.
Lisha: Michael Jackson knew the history of popular music, theatre, and film well. Really well. Many consider West Side Story to be the pinnacle of the genre, so I find it hard to believe it escaped his attention. There are just too many connections between Beat It and West Side Story to simply dismiss them as coincidence.
Willa: I agree. For example, the first words you hear in West Side Story, repeated at intervals as the gangs collide, is “Beat it!” Also, the way the gangs walk in unison in West Side Story, clicking their fingers as they walk – we see clear echoes of that repeatedly in Beat It. And actually, the whole idea of a musical about overcoming gang violence – that lies at the heart of both works. So it seems pretty likely to me that West Side Story was in Michael Jackson’s mind to some extent as he was creating Beat It.
Lisha: Those are brilliant observations, Willa! And by the way, anyone who hasn’t read your analysis of Beat It in M Poetica is truly missing out. You so convincingly show how artists interact with previous works by connecting the dots between Beat It, West Side Story and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Michael Jackson updates previous incarnations of the story by envisioning a world where strong group identification isn’t based on ethnic or family ties, as it is in the works that preceded him.
The Eddie Van Halen guitar solo plopped into the middle of the song illustrates this point musically, as it strongly codes white in a tune that would otherwise be pigeonholed as black music. And at the very end of Beat It, the camera pulls away to break the fourth wall between the viewer and the performance. Assuming everyone is paying attention, it becomes explicit that this is a vision of the world as it could be, rather than a naïve remark about how the world really is.
Willa: That’s a really important observation, Lisha – one that critics who call Beat It naïve have clearly missed.
Lisha: Envisioning a more peaceful, colorblind society through music on stage and screen also strikes me as a Bernsteinian move. It strongly echoes Bernstein’s first Broadway show, On the Town, written in 1944 at the height of World War II, in collaboration with three other Jewish artists: Jerome Robbins (whose choreography shows up in Michael Jackson’s work), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (the screenwriters for two very important Michael Jackson influences: The Band Wagon and Singin’ In The Rain).
Willa: Interesting! There are more connections between Bernstein and Michael Jackson, creatively, than I realized.
Lisha: Yes, and I find it very intriguing. Especially when you consider how revolutionary the show On the Town was in its day. It was the first Broadway musical written by a symphonic composer, and it was the first show to cast actors in an integrated, colorblind way. African American actors played a variety of roles right alongside their white counterparts, appearing as typical New Yorkers, sailors, and pedestrians – something that hadn’t really happened before. There was an interracial chorus performing hand-holding dances. Everett Lee conducted the orchestra, making him the first African American musical director on Broadway.
But perhaps the most revolutionary casting decision was for the lead female role, which featured the Japanese-American dancer, Sono Osato, as the ultimate “all-American” beauty, Ivy Smith. That was a truly radical move at that time, considering Osato’s father was one of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans interned during the war.
Here’s a picture of Sono Osato and John Battles in On the Town, from Carol J. Oja’s Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War:
And here’s a picture of the original Broadway cast of On the Town in 1944:
Willa: Wow, thanks for the insights about On the Town, Lisha! It really sounds like a Michael Jackson kind of production, doesn’t it? I mean, think of how he transformed the all-white nightclub in The Band Wagon into the multi-ethnic clientele of Smooth Criminal or You Rock My World.
Lisha: Yes, it does resemble the creative philosophy of Michael Jackson. And I’m so glad you mentioned You Rock My World, Willa, because that’s another strong Leonard Bernstein connection. Bernstein wrote the music for the film On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando, which is alluded to throughout You Rock My World, including a cameo appearance by Brando himself.
Willa: That’s right! I hadn’t put all that together, Lisha, but that’s another important connection … and a really interesting one. Thanks for connecting the dots.
And I’m still intrigued by your description of On the Town. It sounds like it was an early forerunner of the kind of boundary-crossing sensibility we see throughout Michael Jackson’s work – and at a time when interracial relationships were far less accepted. In fact, there were anti-miscegenation laws in many states in 1944.
Lisha: Yes and don’t forget this was happening during World War II, when America was fighting for human rights and freedom abroad, despite obvious shortcomings here at home.
Willa: That’s right, and when fear of “foreigners” was at a peak, especially against Japanese-Americans. I was really struck by what you said earlier, Lisha, that the father of the lead actress was one of the thousands taken from their homes and forced to live in camps during the war.
Lisha: I had to take a moment to really let that sink in, especially in relation to our current moment. In 1944, as Japanese-Americans were being carted off and placed in internment camps, a group of young Jewish artists responded by constructing a new beauty icon: Japanese-American Sono Osato as the fresh-faced, all-American girl next door.
Willa: Yes, it’s a creative way of speaking truth to power.
Lisha: For sure. From a 2017 perspective, when you look at those photos of the original On the Town cast, you wouldn’t have a clue anything radical was going on unless someone told you the history of the show. There’s absolutely nothing there that seems out of the ordinary to our 21st century eyes. But in 1944, it wasn’t what audiences expected to see at all.
One indication of how truly radical the show was is that when MGM released a film version five years later, the racial politics were removed, in very disturbing ways, I might add. And most of Bernstein’s music was removed as well – all but three songs and the ballet. The producers thought it was too symphonic, so they assumed audiences wouldn’t like or understand it.
Willa: Really? Even though Bernstein was seen as one of the greatest composer/conductors of the 20th century? I have to say, stories like this make me crazy – it reminds me of what happened to the panther dance segment of Black or White. You would think that when an artist of Bernstein’s stature, or Michael Jackson’s, released a revolutionary new work, there would be a certain level of trust in their judgment, and a hesitation in condemning it too quickly. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Lisha: Yes, it’s really hard to take. I recommend watching the MGM version of On the Town sometime, just to see for yourself how awful the new music is and how horrible the racialized nightclub scenes really are! And why? It cost them a lot of money to substitute poor quality for the original!
Willa: Wow, Lisha, it’s pretty ironic when you look at it that way …
Lisha: But perhaps that’s what happens when artists get too many steps ahead of the culture: not everyone gets it. Michael Jackson seemed to be aware of this. I suspect that’s the reason he backed down and issued an apology for the panther dance. If you push too far too fast, the message doesn’t get across.
That’s one of the most interesting things about Bernstein and the original production of On the Town. It doesn’t necessarily hit you over the head with overt political statements – the show simply imagines the world as it could be, which has always been the purview of the arts. As musicologist Carol Oja writes in her essay “Bernstein’s Musicals: Reflections of Their Time,” Bernstein was
someone whose music had the kind of political orientation that was worth following. But the political messages in Bernstein’s shows were rarely confrontational or didactic … Rather, the politics emerged through the overall ethos of the show …
This strikes me as the approach Michael Jackson brings to many of his songs and short films.
Willa: Yes, we could list many of his films as examples, or even something as subtle as “The Girl is Mine.” There isn’t a single mention of race anywhere in the song, but if you recognize Paul McCartney’s voice and Michael Jackson’s voice – as pretty much everyone did in 1983 – then you know that a black man and a white man are singing about going out with the same woman, and debating which of them she likes better. That was a radical scenario in 1983.
Lisha: You’re right. As embarrassing as it is to admit, that was a radical scenario back in 1983. But the song approached the topic in such a non-confrontational way, I’ll bet many didn’t notice the political implications as they cheerfully absorbed the message and sang along.
Willa: You may be right, Lisha – especially for young listeners. And I think you’re raising a crucial point about art not being too preachy or confrontational.
I’ve been thinking a lot about social change the past few months, and how it actually happens. We know that overcoming racism and other kinds of intolerance was very important to Michael Jackson – there’s ample evidence of that – and he always advocated for a more just society. But at the same time, he never made people who held racist beliefs feel dumb or unenlightened or evil. I think that’s really important for us to keep in mind, for the pragmatic reason that it simply doesn’t work. You can’t change people’s hearts and minds by telling them they’re ignorant. In fact, sometimes I think it has the opposite effect of actually hardening people in their positions.
What does seem to work is art. As you said of On the Town, “It was … the first show to cast actors in an integrated, colorblind way” – something Michael Jackson did repeatedly as well and talked about a number of times, saying he hired talent, not color.
Lisha: With Michael Jackson, there was always that idea of radical inclusivity. As he told Rolling Stone in a 1984 interview,
I happen to be colorblind; I don’t hire color, I hire competence…. Racism is not my motto. One day, I strongly expect every color to love as one family.
Willa: Yes, exactly, and that refusal to abide by social norms of the time, especially in terms of race, was a revolutionary stance for both Bernstein and Michael Jackson. After all, many radio stations refused to play “The Girl is Mine” because of the implied interracial dating … not to mention the audacity of a black man telling a white man (a Beatle, no less!) that she prefers him.
But as radical as this was in 1983, he handles it with a light touch. I think this kind of art that subtly challenges the boundaries of what’s acceptable has taken a leading role in changing popular opinions about race and interracial relationships.
An example of how much social mores have changed is audiences’ reactions – or nonreactions – to the new Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, which in subtle ways has “cast actors in an integrated, colorblind way,” as you said earlier about On the Town. There are a number of characters who have been turned into household objects by an evil enchantment, and they yearn to touch the face of their loved ones but can’t because they’re locked into those inanimate forms – as a piano or dresser or candelabra or whatever. At the end, the spell is broken and those characters we’ve already come to care about revert to human form, and they include two interracial couples. In fact, Beauty and the Beast includes the first two instances of interracial kissing in a Disney film … and almost nothing has been said about that, positively or negatively.
Interracial relationships have become so mainstream they’re even in Disney movies, and they’re pretty much passing without notice. I think in a lot of ways we can attribute that change to visionary artists like Bernstein and Michael Jackson.
Lisha: I agree with you, Willa. It matters when a Leonard Bernstein or Jerome Robbins put together a hand-holding dance chorus that allows people to see and feel what racial equality is about. It matters when Michael Jackson builds a giant bridge onstage and he helps us think through climate change as a problem that requires everyone’s participation, regardless of affiliation, because it’s a crisis that cannot be solved by any one nation or any one group. Our only hope of averting disaster lies in our willingness to collaborate as one. And it’s a failure of the imagination not to foresee how disastrous the outcome could be, if we don’t act now.
Willa: Yes, beautifully said, Lisha. And as Bernstein said in that statement you quoted at the beginning of this post, it is artists who will lead the way.
Lisha: Before we go, I’d like to share the second part of that quote, on turning “the ‘not-yet’ into reality”:
How do you do it? Find out what you can do well, uniquely well, and then do it for all you’re worth. And I don’t mean “doing your own thing” in the hip sense. That’s passivity, that’s dropping out, that’s not doing anything. I’m talking about doing, which means serving your community, whether it’s a tiny town or six continents.
Willa: That’s really inspiring, Lisha.
Lisha: I think so too, Willa. It feels like we need our Bernsteins and Michael Jacksons now more than ever!
Presidential Politics, Part 3
Willa: Lisha, so much has changed since we wrote our last post. This emotionally wrenching election has finally ended, and I feel so stunned and demoralized. It feels like our political process is deeply damaged, maybe even broken as many people say, and it seems now more than ever it’s important to talk about alternative forms of power – meaning ways other than politics to bring about social change.
Lisha: This has been such a difficult time for me – confronting how deeply divided we are as a nation. I’m not at all sure that our institutions are strong enough to withstand the pressure they’re under, and I believe it demands a response. As Michael Jackson said in This Is It, “It starts with us. It’s us, or else it will never be done.”
Willa: I think you’re right, Lisha, and that’s a great example. He’s specifically talking about the limitations of government here, and how politicians tend to follow public opinion, rather than lead it. That’s clear in the sentences leading up to the sentences you quoted:
People are always saying, “Oh, they’ll take care of it. The government will do it. Don’t worry, they’ll …” They who? It starts with us. It’s us, or else it will never be done.
Lisha: Michael Jackson made this statement back in 2009 as a part of “Earth Song,” urgently sounding the alarm about climate change. He warned this was going to require our participation if it was ever going to be solved, and he knew time was running out. So I can’t even imagine how he might have felt now, over seven years later, knowing that a climate change denier is about to be nominated as head of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Willa: I’ve been thinking the exact same thing. It feels like, at a time of great environmental peril, we’re about to take a huge step in the wrong direction. One small ray of hope is that Ivanka Trump arranged a meeting between her father and Al Gore, and afterward Gore called it “a lengthy and very productive session” and said it would “be continued.”
Lisha: Yes, it’s at least a glimmer of hope.
Willa: But I don’t know that we can just sit back and hope it all works out. After all, Michael Jackson never put much faith in politics.
Lisha: True. When Ebony magazine asked him about his political views back in 2007, he said:
To tell you the truth, I don’t follow that stuff. We were raised to not … we don’t look to man to fix the problems of the world, we don’t. They can’t do it. That’s how I see it. It’s beyond us.
Willa: That’s a great quote, Lisha. But while he was skeptical of politics, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t socially engaged. He believed passionately in the power of art, specifically, to change people’s perceptions, ideas, and emotions.
Lisha: He was willing to step up to the plate and do what he knew to do. And I think he made some amazing contributions that we still benefit from today.
Willa: Exactly. In a 1980 interview on 20/20, he described how audiences would respond when he and his brothers performed on stage, and then he linked that response to important cultural changes – the kind of deep emotional changes artists can evoke but politicians can’t. Here’s what he said:
When they’re all holding hands and everybody’s rocking, and all colors of people are there, all races, it’s the most wonderful thing. Politicians can’t even do that.
Lisha: Wow. He was so young when he said that. But it sums up so much about his life’s work and what was yet to come.
Willa: It really does. And we see that focus on deep cultural change not only in his concerts, but in his song lyrics, short films, poems and essays, and other art as well.
However, some of his art didn’t announce itself as art, and often we don’t think of it as art. But this other kind of “art” was also very important at bringing about social change.
Lisha: That’s so very true.
Willa: For example, his meetings at the White House with Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush can be seen as a type of public theater, as we talked about last time. There’s staging and costumes, photography and cinematography, and the distribution of the resulting images around the world – all elements of an elaborate, globally released theatrical production.
And those images of Michael Jackson being treated as a respected guest at the White House, like an honored dignitary, had a political as well as an artistic effect – they helped change public perceptions about the “proper” position of a black man in America. Those images of a black man walking with confidence through the White House may even have helped Americans visualize what it might be like to someday have a black man living in the White House, and in that way may have helped pave the way for Barack Obama.
Lisha: This is such an important point, Willa. Those were very powerful images that helped loosen up old, unconscious ideas about the great white male as being uniquely qualified to lead.
I think a lot of Americans hear the word “racism” and instantly try to disown it, thinking it exclusively means the kind of hateful prejudice expressed by David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan. We know from experience that most Americans aren’t like that, although I will say there has been a shocking degree of tolerance for these groups in this election cycle.
Willa: There really has. That’s one of the most disheartening realizations of this election – that a large percentage of Americans are able to ignore racism, misogyny, xenophobia, religious intolerance, and other kinds of prejudice in exchange for promises of economic gain.
Lisha: This has been so painful for me to come to grips with. And I feel like there’s just so much denial about it. For example, even without harboring any kind of racial animus, racism is still a part of all of our lives in the US, whether we want to admit to it or not. The term “racism” isn’t just about hate groups or hate speech. It also refers to a caste system based on race, where the dominant white culture enjoys a distinct advantage. And that’s something we desperately need to address.
Willa: Absolutely. That’s such an important point, Lisha.
Lisha: But as you said, Michael Jackson used his art to upend that system back in 1984, at least for a moment, when he put on a glitzy military costume and commanded the White House lawn. He upstaged all involved, President and Mrs. Reagan included. I think that was such a smart, bold move that challenged how power operates in a very clever way.
Willa: Yes, and those images of him with President and Mrs. Reagan, and later with President Bush, were widely broadcast and I think they had a powerful political effect around the world.
You know, we began our last post with Frederick Douglass, who was one of the first to realize the power of images in overcoming racism. We also mentioned Douglass visiting Abraham Lincoln, so I thought it was interesting that Dave Chappelle talked about that in a moving monologue on Saturday Night Live after our recent election.
At 9:50 minutes in, Chappelle describes going to a party at the White House a few weeks ago and says this:
Now I’m not sure if this is true, but to my knowledge the first black person who was officially invited to the White House was Frederick Douglass. They stopped him at the gates. Abraham Lincoln had to walk out himself and escort Frederick Douglass into the White House. And it didn’t happen again, as far as I know, until Roosevelt was president. When Roosevelt was president, he had a black guy over and got so much flak from the media that he literally said “I will never have a nigger in this house again.”
Lisha: I have to say that Chappelle’s words hit me hard. How shameful – how utterly disgraceful – that a group of Americans have been thought of and treated in such an abominable way.
Willa: Yes, and by President Roosevelt of all people, who along with his wife Eleanor is often considered a champion of civil rights. In fact, Michael Jackson includes Roosevelt’s picture in the prison version of They Don’t Care about Us.
He also mentions Roosevelt by name in the lyrics, singing these powerful words of praise:
Tell me, what has become of my rights?
Am I invisible because you ignore me?
Your proclamation promised me free liberty, now
I’m tired of being the victim of shame
They’re throwing me in a class with a bad name
I can’t believe this is the land from which I came
You know I really do hate to say it
The government don’t wanna see
But if Roosevelt was living
He wouldn’t let this be, no no
Michael Jackson repeats these last two lines in a later verse, substituting Martin Luther King’s name for Roosevelt’s, which suggests he sees them in somewhat parallel ways. Specifically, he implies that neither Roosevelt nor Martin Luther King would tolerate injustice – they “wouldn’t let this be.”
But if Dave Chappelle is right, that may not be true. Maybe Roosevelt would have bowed to political pressure after all, as presidents often do, and as he himself did when “he had a black guy over” to the White House and capitulated to all the criticism he received for it in the press.
Lisha: Ok, well, let’s stop and think about that. Clearly, there was a limit as to how far he would go in defending the racialized “Other.”
Willa: That’s true, or how far he felt he could go. If politicians get too much beyond the people who elected them, they run the risk of losing their constituency. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he reportedly told an aide, “We have just lost the South for a generation.” And he was right. With a few minor exceptions, the South has gone solidly Republican ever since, though a few states like North Carolina and Virginia seem to be tilting back.
But your point is well taken, Lisha. In general, politicians simply can’t move people the way an artist like Michael Jackson can. If they push their constituencies further than they want to go, they may lose what power they do have.
Lisha: Michael Jackson wrote “They Don’t Care About Us” more than twenty years ago, but it’s just as relevant now as it’s ever been. The song has continued to show up when needed, for example as protesters take to the streets to defend this simple claim: “all lives can’t matter until black lives matter.”
It’s crucial right now that we try to hang on to those lofty ideals we just never got around to carrying out, things like “liberty and justice for all.” Michael Jackson envisioned them in artistic ways that bypassed our rational mind and hit at deeply buried, unconscious ideas and attitudes. It’s up to us to recognize these as meaningful sites of resistance and keep moving forward.
Willa: Absolutely. He talked about this explicitly in films such as They Don’t Care About Us, Black or White, and Can You Feel It, but also in numerous more subtle ways as well. We see some of these more subtle explorations in Thriller and Ghosts, and more radically in the changing color of his skin. We also see it in unconventional art such as the political theater of his visits to the White House.
But there were times when he explicitly used the power and spectacle of politics to draw attention to causes he cared about.
Lisha: One example I’ve been inspired by is the 1993 inaugural gala for then President-elect Bill Clinton. Although Michael Jackson was previously honored by two Republican administrations, when a Democrat was elected, Michael Jackson was again on center stage. He used the opportunity to draw attention to an issue that he deeply cared about, paying tribute to Ryan White with “Gone Too Soon.” It’s worth taking a few minutes to re-watch this and really take it in:
Willa: This is such a powerful moment. And you’re right, Lisha. It’s also a clear example of Michael Jackson using the political theater surrounding the American presidency to raise awareness about a cause he believed in – in this case, AIDS – as well as a person he cared about.
Lisha: I can’t help but notice how moved both President and Secretary Clinton are by this performance. As we all know, they later established a charity foundation that now supplies life-saving medication to over half the world’s AIDS population.
Willa: Yes, and that’s really important to remember. I don’t think Bill Clinton expended much political capital on the AIDS epidemic before Michael Jackson championed the issue during this inauguration performance. And that artistic act has had a long-term effect through the Clinton Foundation, as you say, saving thousands of lives worldwide.
We see a similar focus on raising awareness for specific political issues when Michael Jackson teamed up with former President Carter for the Heal LA Project, which was later expanded to Atlanta also. Michael Jackson talked about the LA project during a speech about his upcoming 1993 Superbowl halftime show, and he cites both President Carter and President Clinton as inspirations:
And of course, he incorporated these themes into the halftime show itself, especially in the grand finale performance of “Heal the World”.
President Carter actually came to Neverland as they worked on the project. Here’s a picture taken during his visit:
Lisha: I love that photo!
Willa: I do too! And there are quite a few photos from the announcement of the Atlanta project in the Omni. Here’s a video slideshow of some of those:
Lisha: Those are wonderful, Willa. Michael Jackson certainly did hang out with the presidents, didn’t he?
Willa: He really did – another trait he shared with Frederick Douglass.
Lisha: Well, we still have more to cover on this topic. To be continued…