Willa: Last June our friend and frequent contributor Eleanor Bowman visited Forest Lawn Memorial Park, where Michael Jackson is interred. I had never thought much about it before – I guess I just assumed it was a nice cemetery where a lot of Hollywood stars were buried – but Eleanor explained that it was much more than that. For example, she said the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn is filled with life-size reproductions of Michelangelo’s statues, carved in marble like the originals.
Eleanor’s emails sparked my curiosity, so I started doing some research and learned that Forest Lawn was modelled on a very different vision of what a cemetery could be – as a joyful public place where people could experience great works of art, reconnect with nature, and celebrate the lives of their loved ones. In fact, it helped change popular ideas about cemeteries. As founder Hubert Eaton wrote in 1917, “I shall endeavor to build Forest Lawn as different, as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness, as Eternal Life is unlike death.”
So this year, as we approach the seventh anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, we would like to talk about Forest Lawn, about Dr. Eaton’s vision and how it relates to Michael Jackson’s ideas about art, and whether Forest Lawn is an appropriate final resting place for him. Eleanor, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us!
Lisha: Wow, this sounds like a fascinating topic. I had no idea Forest Lawn had such an unusual history. Eleanor, thank you so much for joining us. I’m anxious to learn more.
Eleanor: Hi, Willa and Lisha. And thanks for the invitation to again talk about my favorite person.
Last year, I was visiting my son, Shaw, in LA and realized it was close to the anniversary of Michael’s death, and I wanted to do something, to somehow feel closer, to honor him. And my son, who a couple of years ago had humored me by driving me by the gates to the original Jackson compound on Hayvenhurst, entered into the spirit of things and spent the whole day taking me to places associated with Michael.
Willa: Oh really? So you and your son took your own private Michael Jackson tour?
Eleanor: Yes, we did. And it was a wonderful day!
Willa: That sounds really fun! There are professional Michael Jackson tours costing hundreds of dollars, but doing your own tour sounds much better.
Lisha: I agree. Ever since I saw this YouTube video called the “Ultimate Michael Jackson Fan Tour (Red in L.A.),” I’ve wanted to do some DIY Michael Jackson tourism myself:
Willa: I love that video, Lisha. And how wonderful that you were able to do some “DIY Michael Jackson tourism” with your son, Eleanor! Where all did you go?
Eleanor: First we went to Holmby Hills (Holmby Hills is adjacent to Beverly Hills) to see the house he was living in when he was preparing for This Is It. It occupies an entire block, sitting on a steep, pie-shaped piece of land with the house at the top, backing up to the narrow end, and the front looking out over terraced gardens and beyond that over LA. The double garage opens right onto the street and the garage door was open, and I could imagine MJ coming and going from his house. The neighborhood is so beautiful and tranquil, curving narrow streets lined with lovely trees and flowering plants. So green and quiet.
Next we went into Hollywood and I found his star in the sidewalk. That evening we went to La Cabanita, a Mexican restaurant in Glendale which was one of Liz Taylor’s favorites, and we could imagine MJ and Liz having dinner together. (The food was wonderful!)
But the best and most moving part of the day for me was the visit to Forest Lawn. Very quiet. Rolling hills, mostly, with graves flush with the ground. Except, of course, for the huge mausoleum where the rich and famous, including MJ, are entombed – a sort of cathedral for the dead. Elizabeth Taylor’s crypt has beautiful sprays of white orchids on either side of a huge marble block with her name. On top was an enormous statue of an angel.
Eleanor: The building is a real cultural experience. I have never seen anything like it. Copies of Michelangelo’s sculptures everywhere, as you mentioned, Willa. Full size. And a huge stained-glass window that is a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Really over the top, but still … fitting, I think, for these people who in some way represent our cultural archetypes.
I told Shaw I was reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One and Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, both cultural critiques of the US, both inspired by Forest Lawn, and representing all I knew about Forest Lawn. I mean, Forest Lawn is a cultural icon all by itself, if a cemetery can be an icon.
Willa: I know what you mean, Eleanor. It really changed the look of cemeteries across the nation. I didn’t realize how significant it was until you told me about it and I started doing a little research. In fact, I knew very little about Forest Lawn. But after you piqued my interest I visited California and went to Forest Lawn – something I probably wouldn’t have done without your encouragement – and I was surprised by how beautiful it is. It feels like a park. In fact, it’s a popular place for weddings, which is pretty uncommon for a cemetery …
Lisha: Weddings? You can’t be serious! I can’t think of anything more antithetical to a cemetery than a wedding ceremony!
Willa: I was shocked when I read that too, so I asked David Macdonald about it. The Forest Lawn company actually has six separate cemeteries – or memorial parks, as they call them – and Mr. Macdonald is in charge of the original Glendale facility, where Michael Jackson is. Toni Bowers and I visited California last November, and before our trip we contacted Mr. Macdonald. He very kindly took us on a tour, and while we were walking around I asked him if it was true that Ronald Reagan was married there. He said yes, that thousands of people have been married there, and it’s still a popular place for weddings. In fact, he said he himself was married there. I was really surprised by all the weddings. That wasn’t at all what I expected at a cemetery.
Lisha: That is so cool you also got to visit! And that is just so surprising about the weddings – I just can’t picture it.
I google-searched and found this photo of Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman’s 1940 wedding, which was held in the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather, a church at Forest Lawn:
The newlyweds are sitting in the church’s “Wishing Chair,” a stone monument that says, in part, “good fortune will forever smile upon the bride and bridegroom who sit in this chair on their wedding day.” Forest Lawn’s wedding coordinator, Mildred Broking, told the Los Angeles Times that, “In the ’40s, if a couple wasn’t married in the Wee Kirk, they just weren’t married.… It was the elite place to be married.”
Never in a million years would I have guessed that a cemetery church would become “the elite place” for a wedding!
Eleanor: I wouldn’t either, Lisha, and I’m still not certain I’m comfortable with the idea.
Willa: It’s certainly unexpected, isn’t it? But in a way it’s a testament to the success of Dr. Eaton’s vision. He didn’t think a cemetery should be a mournful place, but a place of celebration. In fact, Mr. Macdonald said that before Disneyland was built, Forest Lawn was the most popular tourist attraction in Los Angeles, and it still attracts a lot of visitors – though not nearly as many as Disneyland, of course. It’s just hard to imagine a cemetery being such a popular place to visit.
Lisha: That’s really something. It sounds like Dr. Eaton really wanted to challenge the way people were accustomed to thinking about death.
Willa: Yes, I think so too.
Lisha: I know the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris also attracts lots of tourists, but I thought that was because of their famous “residents” like Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Édith Piaf, and Frédéric Chopin. Visitors enjoy finding the graves of the historical figures who are buried there.
Willa: And that’s true of Forest Lawn as well. It’s amazing how many famous people from many different spheres have been laid to rest there, including actors, musicians, athletes, and politicians. There’s Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Gracie Allen and George Burns, Mary Pickford, Ethel Waters, Sammy Davis Jr, Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, Red Skelton, Casey Stengel – even Dr. Suess. Here’s a list of over 1,000 famous people buried there.
Eleanor: Thanks, Willa. Pretty comprehensive.
Willa: It’s a long list, isn’t it? But I think there’s something else at Forest Lawn that accounts for all the visitors and the wedding ceremonies. Dr. Eaton envisioned it as a place for the living as well as the dead.
Legend has it that on New Year’s Day of 1917 he was walking the hills at Forest Lawn and suddenly had a vision of what it could be. He came home and wrote what came to be known as “The Builder’s Creed.” It has since been carved in stone on a wall near the entrance to the Great Mausoleum. Here are some of his words:
I believe in a happy eternal life. …
I therefore know the cemeteries of today are wrong because they depict an end, rather than a beginning. …
I shall endeavor to build Forest Lawn as different, as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness, as Eternal Life is unlike death. …
Forest Lawn shall become a place where lovers new and old shall love to stroll and watch the sunset’s glow, planning for the future or reminiscing of the past; a place where artists study and sketch; where school teachers bring happy children to see the things they read of in books …
So Dr. Eaton actually envisioned Forest Lawn as a place for lovers! In that sense – that it’s a place where lovers stroll, artists sketch, and schoolchildren visit on field trips to see great works of art – it’s very different from most cemeteries.
Lisha: That is such a radical concept – for the end of life to be celebrated as a new beginning, which is how we usually think of weddings, not funerals. It turns the concept of a burial into a celebration of life and love, rather than the ultimate tragic end.
Willa: I think you’re right, Lisha.
Lisha: The Forest Lawn website has an interesting story about the very first statue Dr. Eaton purchased for the cemetery, back in 1915, known as Duck Baby. The idea of placing art in a cemetery was so foreign at that time, the purchase created some controversy and was initially rejected by the company’s board of directors. Duck Baby depicts a smiling child, full of life, holding baby ducks in its arms. Installing a beautiful statue like this was such a different way of thinking about burials, many had a hard time envisioning the concept.
Eleanor: Yes, it is very different. And not everyone has shared or admired Eaton’s vision. Especially not early on. Forest Lawn has had quite a history and has aroused a lot of controversy, often seen as an example of American commercialism and bad taste. Jessica Mitford used it as an example of what not to do. And Evelyn Waugh used it to satirize American life.
Since my only association with Forest Lawn was through those two books, I had some reservations, myself, about it as a proper burial place for Michael Jackson. But, of course, he isn’t really buried, but entombed. For one thing, it seemed almost sacrilegious to me for him to be entombed anywhere. He seemed to feel himself so much a part of nature, it seemed against everything he believed in to separate his body from his beloved Planet Earth. Cremation seemed more appropriate.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Eleanor. I mean, Michael Jackson basically wrote a love letter to nature in “Planet Earth,” where he said,
In my veins I’ve felt the mystery
Of corridors of time, books of history
Life songs of ages throbbing in my blood
Have danced the rhythm of the tide and flood
Your misty clouds, your electric storm
Were turbulent tempests in my own form
It’s hard to believe the person who wrote those words would want his body to be kept separate from nature and the cycle of life – shut away inside a metal box which was then placed inside a stone box. But I also see how his family and fans would want a place to remember him and memorialize his life.
Eleanor: Yes, I agree. On the one hand, he seemed to feel so in tune with nature, so much a part of it. I like to think of his art as an expression of nature, flowing through his body in his dance. His voice singing nature’s songs.
However, I did a reality check and, although I think cremation would have been more suitable, he was, after all, Michael Jackson and that just wasn’t going to happen. So, on second thought, I decided that there couldn’t be any more appropriate place than Forest Lawn for the King of Pop.
Willa: It’s interesting you should say that, Eleanor, because one of the things I learned at Forest Lawn is that an early definition of “mausoleum” is “a burial place for kings.” So it’s appropriate, as you say, that the King of Pop should be laid to rest there.
Eleanor: I didn’t know that! So, really fitting for Michael.
Willa: Yes it is. But Forest Lawn was also an early proponent of cremation. According to Forest Lawn: the First 100 Years, a book published to celebrate their centennial, “Facilities for a crematory were listed among Forest Lawn’s earliest goals in the articles of incorporation in 1906,” and they built a crematory in 1917, when cremation was a pretty unsettling idea for many people and not nearly as accepted as it is today. In fact, one of their many challenges in the early days was “dispelling myths” about cremation.
But while they still offer cremation services, that isn’t what they are known for. They are known for the Great Mausoleum and the beautiful grounds, and the many celebrities who are buried or entombed there.
Eleanor: Yes, and Forest Lawn is probably the only cemetery in the world that has the resources to protect him from crazed love and hate. The part of the mausoleum where he is is kept locked – which may also have something to do with his gold casket. I don’t know. Do either of you? I couldn’t get in when I visited, so had to content myself with imagining what it was like inside.
Willa: Well, the Great Mausoleum is huge, and while some of it is open to the public, a lot of it is private. There’s the main building, which was built in 1917, and then additions have been added over the years. The first was Azalea Terrace in 1919, and then they continued alphabetically up through Jasmine Terrace. Michael Jackson is in Holly Terrace, which was added in 1949. I found a website that had a historical photo taken in 1952, before the Iris and Jasmine terraces were built. Holly Terrace is highlighted in red:
So the Great Mausoleum is an enormous structure, or series of structures, and much of it is inaccessible to the public, though family members may visit whenever they wish. In fact, I believe all of the terraces are private. I’m not sure about that, but I think that’s right. I know Holly Terrace is closed to the public, and Michael Jackson’s family chose to place him there. According to an article in Time magazine published the day of his funeral, concerns about privacy were a major factor in their decision.
Mr. Macdonald told us the Jackson family actually purchased the entire alcove where Michael Jackson is, which includes about a dozen additional tomb spaces in the walls surrounding his crypt. (Mr. Macdonald wasn’t sure of the exact number.) So I assume his mother will one day be laid to rest there, along with other family members as well.
Lisha: That’s really interesting. I have never heard that before.
Willa: I hadn’t either. By the way, you can see the outside of the Jackson alcove in the picture above. It’s the bump-out on the right side of Holly Terrace (the part in red). Here’s a better picture, looking up at the alcove where he is:
And here’s a picture I found on Pinterest of the Jackson alcove from the inside:
The beautiful stained-glass windows surrounding his crypt are called the Ascension windows, and they are based on Nicola D’Ascenzo’s “The Ascension,” which is an elaborate window in the Church of the Good Shepherd in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The series of stone panels on both sides of the alcove are where additional caskets can be slid into the walls.
Eleanor: Willa, thank you so much for including this picture.
Willa: It’s beautiful, isn’t it? And notice all the flowers. While fans aren’t allowed inside Holly Terrace, Mr. Macdonald said they try to accommodate fans as much as possible. He said that, for security reasons, they can’t place anything by his crypt that is sent from outside Forest Lawn. But if fans purchase an arrangement from the Forest Lawn flower shop, so they know it’s safe, they will take it inside and place it by his casket. Fans from around the world regularly do that, he said, and there were a lot of flower arrangements when we were there.
Eleanor: I wish I had known that last year. When we arrived, we headed over to the mausoleum and pressed a button outside the door, and a sepulchral disembodied voice from within told us it was closed, but then directed us to the door closest to Michael Jackson’s resting place.
Willa: Yes, there’s an area near the main door to Holly Terrace that has become a perpetual memorial site. When we were there, there were fresh flowers and letters and hand-made posters, and that was in November, which isn’t really a special time in the Michael Jackson calendar – not like June or August.
Eleanor: Yes. The terrace outside Holly Terrace has become a gathering place for people who have come to honor Michael. There were a few flowers near the door, and love notes. I went to buy some flowers from the onsite florist, and when I came back a few people were standing around talking quietly. I laid my spray down with the others, and then a very nice older man with an Australian accent spoke to me and said he would fill a vase with some water for my flowers so they would last longer in the hot sun. There was a feeling of such love – the love Michael Jackson gave to us in his art and his life we were giving to each other. It affected me really deeply, brought tears to my eyes.
Willa: That sounds lovely, Eleanor. We didn’t see any fans while we were there, but some fans had been there earlier that morning, and Mr. Macdonald said fans visit pretty much every day. And I was deeply affected being there also – more than I expected. I have to say, I didn’t really feel Michael Jackson’s presence at Forest Lawn. I feel him much more strongly when I’m listening to his music, or watching his short films or concert footage. But it was very moving, and there are aspects of Forest Lawn that make it particularly suited to him, I think.
For example, Dr. Eaton wanted Forest Lawn to be a place filled with statues and paintings, where people without much money could walk in a beautiful place and experience great works of art. So there’s incredible statuary, like very well crafted replicas of Michelangelo’s David and The Pieta, and a fascinating work called The Mystery of Life by Italian sculptor Ernesto Gazzeri. Here’s a picture:
There’s also an unusual tableau called Christ and the Children by Vincenzo Jerace. According to Forest Lawn: the First 100 Years, “Eaton took great joy in recounting the story” of Jerace’s statue:
He would tell listeners that he believed that Christ must have had a wonderful warm personality to draw children and adults to Him. But most art depicted Him either in agony on the cross or with a very somber expression. Eaton searched and searched for a Christ figure that exuded joy. Being unable to find such an artwork, he assembled a group of Italian sculptors and explained his vision. Most of them replied that they could not do that as their religion taught them that Christ had suffered for their sins and it would be improper to show a smiling Christ. One artist, however, Vincenzo Jerace, told Eaton that he would try. The result is this statue that is also known as “the smiling Christ.”
Here’s a picture of the Jerace statue:
Lisha: Wow, that is really beautiful!
Willa: Yes, and I really like the story behind it. There’s also incredible stained glass. There’s the reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in stained glass, as you mentioned earlier, Eleanor, which took Italian artist Rosa Caselli Moretti seven years to create using da Vinci’s original sketches. And there are the Ascension windows in the Jackson alcove. There’s also a wonderful place called the Poet’s Corner on a lower level of the Great Mausoleum, where scenes from poetry have been recreated in stained glass. When Toni and I were there the sun was low in the sky and shining directly through those windows, and it just took our breath away. It was indescribably beautiful.
Lisha: I would love to see that. It sounds absolutely gorgeous.
Willa: Oh it was! I tried taking pictures, but I just couldn’t capture that light. I’m not a very good photographer, I’m afraid …
So what I’m trying to get across is that there’s artwork everywhere at Forest Lawn, both inside the mausoleum and scattered throughout the gardens, and the statues of children especially reminded me very much of Michael Jackson. For example, here’s a statue of a girl and a boy looking up at the engraving of Dr. Eaton’s “Builder’s Creed”:
Eleanor: Hmmm. Reminds me of Neverland.
Lisha: That’s exactly what I was thinking!
Willa: I think so too, especially the way they’re holding hands, with a puppy in a wagon. Statues like this are one reason I think Forest Lawn is very well suited to Michael Jackson.
Lisha: You know, not having been to Forest Lawn, I’m having a hard time picturing what a cemetery park looks like, with all the artwork and Michelangelo replicas. It seems so unusual. I found some vacation footage that was posted to YouTube that helped me visualize all of this a little better:
My gut instinct is that Michael Jackson would love this place. In many ways, it seems like the ideal resting place for someone who was so deeply committed to making the world a more peaceful place through beauty and art.
Willa: I agree. It feels right that he should be in such a beautiful place filled with art.
Eleanor: A perfect resting place for an artist, especially a pop artist. Forest Lawn in its early years was a symbol for what is now known as pop culture, but then the juxtaposition of “pop” and “culture” was seen as oxymoronic, if not moronic, reflecting the old British/European snobbery toward the US and its more democratic approach to art, an approach exemplified by American film and popular music. For so long, “culture” and art were identified with the old world, not the new, and with the elite, not the masses.
Willa: Right, and Dr. Eaton wanted to bridge that divide and make “high” art – or at least duplications of high art – available to everyone, including schoolchildren.
Eleanor: It is interesting that Forest Lawn and so many of the people who are buried or entombed there are so closely associated with film, an art form that has struggled to be taken seriously and recognized as art, just as popular music has. And that Forest Lawn came in for some of the same kind of criticism – like that dished out by Mitford and Waugh – that dogged Michael Jackson.
For example, both Forest Lawn and Michael Jackson were accused of “commercialism.” The Los Angeles Magazine described Forest Lawn as a “theme-park necropolis,” paraphrasing Jessica Mitford, indicating “Forest Lawn’s kitsch was just a sophisticated strategy for lubricating the checkbooks of the grieved.”
Lisha: That’s kind of funny, actually!
Eleanor: Yes, and Mitford’s analysis is probably not too far off the mark. I can’t imagine how much it costs to be laid to rest in the mausoleum.
Willa: Yes, but admission is free. Anyone who wants to visit and walk the grounds and view the artwork is able to do that, free of charge. So in death, the wealthy pay to provide art and serenity to everyone. But I imagine you’re right, Eleanor – I imagine it’s very expensive to purchase a crypt in the mausoleum.
Eleanor: Forest Lawn was viewed by Mitford as turning death into an industry, and film and pop music are also referred to as industries – or lumped in together as the entertainment business – or in LA, just “the business.” Certainly, success in these areas does bring fortune as well as fame. And Michael Jackson was often criticized for his focus on sales.
Lisha: Oh, don’t even get me started on the old art/commerce binary! It’s really time to get past that. I’ve noticed it’s the same critics of commercialism who ignore all Michael Jackson albums except Thriller. As a culture, we’re really stuck in the idea that commercial success and artistry are at odds. It’s as if Michael Jackson is somehow “guilty” of having the best selling album of all time.
Eleanor: I know, Lisha. So depressing. And so wrong! He equated sales not so much with money but as an indicator of how many people he was reaching – and changing – through his art.
Willa: Exactly. I interpret this the exact same way, Eleanor. He was trying to change the world, and he needed a global audience to do that.
Eleanor: Also, his commercial success reflected a level of cultural value not usually accorded to black men. So it was very important – especially to him.
Lisha: I agree with you, Eleanor, and I think this can’t be stressed enough. There’s also the cultural idea that only the “original” work of art is of high value, while any duplicate copy, no matter how skillfully done, is a worthless replica devoid of any “real” artistic value.
It seems to me that kind of thinking plays into the devaluation of recorded music, which is often assumed to be of lesser quality because it is factory duplicated and sold to the masses, rather than being reserved for cultural elites.
Willa: That’s a really interesting connection, Lisha.
Eleanor: And, when you think about it, why should art only appeal to the few, and not the many? Why should it be an acquired taste? Forest Lawn, as a symbol of pop culture, is the perfect resting place for the King of Pop.
Lisha: I would have to agree.
Eleanor: Some critics have dismissed Forest Lawn as sort of a Disneyland for the Dead, but I think Michael Jackson would have seen that more positively, given his appreciation for pop culture and Disney. So maybe he would like the idea of being in a Disneyland for the Dead!
Lisha: Hey! Isn’t that literally true? I mean, isn’t Walt Disney buried there?
Willa: Yes, he is – or rather, there’s a private garden dedicated to him where his ashes were scattered. Here’s a link to a description and photos of his garden, which includes a Little Mermaid statue.
Apparently, Walt Disney and Dr. Eaton were good friends, and Disney wanted to be a pallbearer at Dr. Eaton’s funeral but was too sick from lung cancer to attend. He was listed as an honorary pallbearer instead, and died three months later. His nephew, Charles Disney, was also a close friend of Dr. Eaton’s, and wrote a tribute to him after his death.
Lisha: That’s wild. It’s a small world, isn’t it? I also read there is an wonderful art museum at Forest Lawn. An exhibit is on display there now through the end of the year that features the work of Eyvind Earle, one of Disney’s legendary animators. He is credited with conceiving some of the amazing background animation in Sleeping Beauty and Peter Pan.
Willa: Wow, and what could be more appropriate than that, given Michael Jackson’s love of Disney and Peter Pan?
Lisha: I agree. That’s an exhibit I would love to see, and I imagine Michael Jackson would have been quite interested as well.
Eleanor: No doubt about it. Michael Jackson was fascinated by film, especially Disney, and oddly enough the hilly terrain where Forest Lawn is located was once used as a location for films. For example, Birth of a Nation was filmed there.
Lisha: Whoa! Birth of a Nation was actually filmed there, before it became a cemetery?
Eleanor: Yes! Can you believe it!
Willa: Wow, I had no idea. That’s mind-boggling.
Eleanor: I mentioned that to my son and he reminded me that when the film industry was new – and it was very new when Birth of a Nation was made – and before LA grew to its current size, a lot of the land surrounding Hollywood served as locations for films, just as LA itself does today. Given Michael Jackson’s interest in film and his desire to be in film, and the personal significance of Birth of a Nation for him, it’s interesting that his tomb is on what once was its set. (“I ain’t scared of no sheets!”)
Willa: That’s really chilling, isn’t it? It adds a whole new dimension to the significance of Forest Lawn as his final resting place. As Joe Vogel talked about in a post with us last year, Birth of a Nation was incredibly influential in shaping American ideas about film and about race – after all, it glorifies the Ku Klux Klan. And Joe sees Black or White as pushing back against that racist history.
So how wonderful that people from around that world now come to that place – the very spot where Birth of a Nation was filmed – to pay tribute to Michael Jackson. What a reversal! That’s incredible.
Lisha: You’re right, Willa, that really does turn the tables, doesn’t it? That’s a wonderful way of thinking about this. As you pointed out earlier, visitors show up almost every day to pay their respects to Michael Jackson, as one of the most famous and distinguished artists of our time. That’s a far cry from the racially segregated future that Birth of a Nation imagines. It is so strange to think that film was widely applauded and accepted in its own time.
Eleanor: Yes, really strange. Also, in a related vein, in its early years Forest Lawn was segregated – closed to African Americans, along with Chinese and Jews.
Willa: That’s another important point, Eleanor. And now their most famous “resident” is Michael Jackson, attracting people from around the world. So again, it’s like an act of reclamation.
You know, in the beginning Forest Lawn was pretty exclusionary in their art also. The emphasis of their collection was definitely on white European art and traditions, especially the Italian Renaissance, with Dr. Eaton visiting Europe again and again in pursuit of art for Forest Lawn.
But they have become more inclusionary now, both in terms of who’s buried there and what kinds of art are displayed there. For example, on June 29, 2000, the Dalai Lama visited Forest Lawn to bless a new sculpture – the Shi-Tro Mandala – and they seem very proud of the fact that while he was there he recognized Forest Lawn as “a sacred place.”
Lisha: That’s amazing! I had no idea.
Eleanor: Wow. A sacred place. I love it. Well, it is sacred to me because Michael’s tomb is there. But I like the idea that the Dalai Lama sees it as sacred, too.
Willa: I do too. Well, thanks so much, Eleanor, for making me aware of what a special place Forest Lawn is, and encouraging me to visit!
Lisha: And thanks for joining us today to talk about it. I learned so much from you both.
Eleanor: Thanks again for inviting me.
Willa: Hey Lisha. This week I was wondering if we could talk a bit about the song “Destiny.” To be honest, it’s perplexed me for a long time. But I recently had an idea that opened up a new way of interpreting it, and I wanted to run it by you to see what you think.
What’s puzzled me about “Destiny” is the way it keeps switching genre. It starts off sounding like a country song, but then it gets funkier in the choruses and toward the end it sounds much more futuristic. You can really hear that around 3:20 minutes in: there’s a passage that sounds like a sonic “lift-off” and then at 3:30 it goes into a brief interlude of what I guess you would call “space music,” kind of like what you hear on the radio show Hearts of Space. I feel sure Michael Jackson was switching genres like this for a reason – to create a shift in mood or convey an idea – but what exactly? I’ve pondered this for a long time.
Lisha: Willa, I’m glad you brought it up because I’ve been perplexed by this song as well. If you were to add Clint Black or Reba McEntire’s twangy Southern vocals to “Destiny,” nothing would be out of place. The intro and the verses of this song would fit into any mainstream country music programming. However, by the first chorus, things start getting really urban and funky, and the rest of the song is consistent with 1970s pop/rock and R&B. And even though I hadn’t noticed it before, you’re right, there is that section after the final vocal improv that ends with some new-agey electronic sounds and feedback, almost like the ambient sonic explorations on the Hearts of Space radio show!
Willa: Yes, it’s a real smorgasbord of genres. There’s pop, rock, and R&B as you say, and even a strong hint of disco.
Lisha: Yes, especially some of the string and electronic sounds suggest disco to me in spots as well.
Willa: So the question I keep asking myself is why? Why would Michael Jackson begin a song with acoustic guitar and a bit of twang in his voice, probably the most “country” of any of his songs – his published songs, anyway – and end with synthesizer and a much more futuristic sound?
“Destiny” happened to come on the car stereo the other day, and as I was listening to it an idea struck me. Michael Jackson and his brothers repeatedly said that their mother loves country and western songs and raised them with that music. For example, in Moonwalk he writes, “My first memories are of her holding me and singing songs like ‘You Are My Sunshine’ and ‘Cotton Fields.’” And they’ve also said they started off singing together as a group by singing country songs around the house. I think Marlon and Jackie Jackson talk about that in Spike Lee’s Off the Wall documentary. So I wonder if in some ways “Destiny” charts the Jacksons musical journey, beginning with a country sound but then moving in a new, more futuristic direction?
Lisha: What a fascinating idea, Willa. While the lyrics talk about searching to “find my destiny,” it’s accompanied by music that strongly resembles the Jacksons’ own musical journey. Maybe that’s part of the plan!
Willa: Yes, that’s what I’m wondering. And you’re right, the lyrics themselves suggest the idea of a journey or quest, like when he sings, “I do dream of distant places / Where I don’t know now, but it’s destiny.” And we can interpret that as a physical or spiritual journey, or more specifically as an artistic journey.
Lisha: I really think you are onto something. The songwriting credits include all five brothers who were in the group at that time. It’s reasonable to think they might have wanted to reflect on their own musical heritage and a sense of destiny by creating a song that illustrates their journey musically. Of course, even if that wasn’t their intention, your observation still holds true. It would be hard to deny that the song makes use of the very different musical styles – styles that the family was immersed in and that are generally considered to be worlds apart, both musically and culturally.
Willa: It really does. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another song like it – meaning one that begins with country and then shifts so dramatically to other forms.
Lisha: I can’t really think of a similar move either. Mainstream country music has had strong elements of rock for some time, but that is achieved by blurring genres together, rather than just placing them side-by-side as in “Destiny.” In fact, Country Music Television’s Chet Flippo has said: “Many fans of ’70s rock have discovered that today’s mainstream country is ’70s rock.” He claims genre distinctions are not as rigid as they used to be, which means genre is not the effective marketing tool it used to be either. Today’s listeners just aren’t as loyal to one style over another, as in the past.
Willa: That’s interesting. I’d need to think about that some more, but I think he might be right. But while “blurring genres together” isn’t uncommon, that isn’t what’s happening in “Destiny,” as you pointed out, Lisha. The intro and verses are distinctly “country” so they really sound like traditional country music, and then he’s “placing them side-by-side,” as you say, with other genres in the choruses.
That’s really unusual, but juxtaposing genres in this way is something Michael Jackson experimented with more than once, as you noted in a brilliant analysis of “Black or White” a few years ago:
[T]he white rap section in Black or White uses black hip hop, but runs it through a white perspective, Bill Bottrell’s feel good lyrics and performance. The previous section, “I am tired of this devil” uses white hard rock and heavy metal but runs it through a black perspective and the frustration of racial injustice. He is deliberately confusing musical codes here, attempting to integrate all these perspectives into a single view in a very trans-ethnic way (the way he uses his body). He is autonomously choosing the perspectives he wishes to use, ingeniously expressing the Black or White theme in the song.
I’m still blown away by this! And by the paper you wrote building on these ideas. I think it’s the most insightful analysis I’ve ever read about the musical structure of “Black or White.” It’s so fascinating how he juxtaposes genres to make a statement about race, and that raises another way to approach “Destiny.” After all, country music is coded “white” just as much as hard rock is – maybe even more so. So maybe he’s subtly saying something about racial divisions in “Destiny” also?
Lisha: Thank you so much for your kindness! And I think you’re right about “Destiny.” What I found so fascinating about “Black or White” is that the lyrical content is supported by running musical commentary as well. “Destiny” strikes me as an early expression of that same idea.
Willa: Yes, it seems that way to me too.
Lisha: What is so striking to me about them both is that the rigid boundary between genres is observed, but then that boundary is dealt with by just ignoring it. It’s as if there’s nothing unusual about writing a country song, and then switching to an entirely different genre for the chorus! And even when you listen to the intro to “Destiny” in the context of the album, the country feel is strangely not out of place though I’m not exactly sure why. It doesn’t jar you into thinking, what the heck is going on? It just kind of happens.
It’s the same move in “Black or White,” when the bridge suddenly has eight bars of hard rock/heavy metal, and then it’s followed by eight bars of hip-hop rap. The seamless way the transitions are made, you almost don’t notice it.
Willa: Yes, it fits, even though when you stop to think about it, it’s not clear why. How does he do that? He makes those huge transitions so effortlessly, they seem natural, as if there’s nothing the least bit unusual about jumping genres like this. And I just want to say again that your analysis of race and genre in “Black or White” is so interesting! I’ve thought about it a lot the past couple of years, and it’s just so brilliant what he’s doing there. And I think “Destiny” could be an early experiment in using genre to subtly talk about race, just like he does in “Black or White.”
In the US, genre is divided pretty rigidly along racial lines – for example, country music is labeled as “white,” as if it’s somehow off-limits to black artists and audiences. Michael Jackson alludes to the racial biases surrounding country music in Moonwalk. After saying that his mother liked to sing country songs like “Cotton Fields,” he goes on to say,
Even though she had lived in Indiana for some time, my mother grew up in Alabama, and in that part of the country it was just as common for black people to be raised with country and western music on the radio as it was for them to hear spirituals in church. She likes Willie Nelson to this day.
So he’s using his mother as an example to show that, even though country music tends to be seen as exclusively white, that isn’t really true.
Lisha: You know, the fact that we’re even talking about music in racialized terms demonstrates how strongly music will reflect the society it was created in. What better proof of a divided nation could there be than the fact that American music codes so strongly along black and white racial lines?
Willa: That’s true, Lisha, and it’s a really important point. Musical genre – or how we think about genre – reflects the history of segregation in the US. University of Rochester music professor John Covach offers a series of free online classes through Coursera, and he talked about this in one of his History of Rock classes. He said that Billboard magazine began as a trade journal, and the Billboard charts originated as a way of letting jukebox companies know which records to put in which jukeboxes. The country charts told them which songs were popular with young white rural listeners, so they should put those records in jukeboxes in rural white hangouts. The pop charts told them which records to put in jukeboxes in urban and suburban white areas, and the R&B charts told them which records to put in jukeboxes in black areas. The assumption was that those audiences had very different tastes and didn’t intermingle much, so the jukeboxes serving those audiences each needed their own separate list.
Since that time Billboard has expanded the R&B chart (the “black” chart) to include hip-hop, and they’ve added some new categories (rock, Latin, electronic dance music) but actually this just reinforces that kind of segregated thinking: that whites want pop, rock, and country; blacks want R&B and hip-hop; and now Latin Americans want Latin music.
Lisha: Yes, segregation was the law of the land when Billboard began compiling data in order to better understand how people buy music. It makes sense that marketing people would be very interested in correlating genre and race. But I think genre is a really tricky subject for many reasons.
Willa: It really is. For example, Billboard compiles separate lists for different genres, but R&B and hip-hop are lumped together into one chart. From what I can tell, R&B and hip-hop have very little in common musically, but they have been grouped together for marketing purposes because they are both seen as black or “race music” as Billboard used to call it. So the assumption is that R&B and hip-hop appeal to the same audience or market share simply because they have both been racialized as black, but that’s a big assumption to make.
Lisha: It is. And musicians, musicologists and marketing departments often use the same terms in very different ways, so it creates a lot of confusion.
Willa: That’s true. “Folk” or “funk” or “punk” or any of those labels don’t necessarily mean the same thing to musicologists and the general public, to marketers and the musicians themselves.
Lisha: Exactly. This reminds me of the time in 1963 when a song called “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs hit #1 on the Billboard R&B chart. Because R&B gets used as a marketing term for black music that appeals to black audiences, when you listen to how hilariously white “Sugar Shack” is, it’s hard to believe it once topped the R&B charts! Billboard mysteriously didn’t publish another R&B chart for over a year after this happened, presumably so they could rethink their approach.
I guess my point is that defining genres and demographics is not that straightforward. But we can make some broad generalizations about who consumes what music, and I think that is exactly what “Destiny” is commenting on: musical styles that we recognize as belonging or appealing to different groups.
Willa: Or have been perceived as appealing to different groups, though those perceptions may not be true.
Lisha: Yes, “Destiny” seems to challenge those perceptions.
Willa: I agree. Dave Marsh talks about this in Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream, referring specifically to how country music has traditionally – and wrongly – been seen as exclusively “white.” Marsh raises some important issues about this, but unfortunately it’s part of a rant where he chastises Michael Jackson for not knowing much about music history. Seriously.
Lisha: Oh please! All right, go ahead. Let’s hear it.
Willa: Ok, prepare yourself. It’s long, condescending, and incredibly irritating. This is what Marsh says, and keep in mind that he’s writing this directly to Michael Jackson, in an open letter addressed to “Michael”:
To understand how today’s music really developed, you have to know what Berry Gordy learned from writing for Jackie Wilson; what Jackie Wilson learned from Roy Brown and Al Jolson; where what they all learned came from: the heart of American racial conflict. You have to know that just as the Beatles and Rolling Stones built a musical edifice from the foundation established by Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Elvis, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, and Little Richard – black and white performers, but mostly black ones – so did Chuck Berry come up with his style by drawing upon the jump blues of Louis Jordan and and the nasal country harmonies of Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers’ “Ida Red” and Little Richard draw upon the great gospel shouting of Marion Williams and the Ward Singers and the flamboyant costuming and pianistics of Liberace; and Bob Dylan forge his style from Roy Acuff and Robert Johnson, Ma Rainey and Woody Guthrie. And that Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” was a black man and that Nat Cole had to have spent a lot of time listening to Bing Crosby … and that your own grandfather, a black man in Arkansas, where his skin color was an excuse and opportunity for humiliation and degradation all the livelong day, nevertheless tuned in “hillbilly” radio programs not out of perversity but because that music was “his” as much as it was “theirs.” That is, because buried somewhere deep in American cultural memory is the story of your own rise and fall from grace told over and over and over again as a continuing multiracial passion play. And without knowing where your music came from – not from magic and dreams alone, as you’ve been known to claim, but from hundreds of years of such interminglings and attempts to separate and segregate them – you will never, ever be able to make sense of what has happened to yourself.
Lisha: Wow. There is so much going on there I hardly know where to start as far as trying to untangle Marsh’s superior attitude and selective amnesia. It’s revealing that he considers, in all seriousness, that there’s a black American anywhere on the planet who has failed to notice “today’s music really developed” from “the heart of American racial conflict.” That’s funny enough without accusing Michael Jackson of it!
Willa: Oh absolutely. I mean, just think of Michael Jackson’s background. He toured on the “chitlin’ circuit” while still in grade school with some of the biggest names of the day: the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the O’Jays, Sam & Dave, and many others. He played the Regal Theater in Chicago and the Apollo in Harlem. He watched wide-eyed from the wings as his heroes James Brown and Jackie Wilson performed on stage. He talked with Etta James in her dressing room, and lived for a time with Diana Ross. He was groomed by Bobby Taylor and Berry Gordy, and sat in the studio obsessively watching Gordy and Stevie Wonder and others mix an album. He danced with the Nicholas Brothers and Jeffrey Daniels and Michael Peters, and danced on Soul Train and at Studio 54. He worked with Gamble & Huff and Quincy Jones, as well as some of the best songwriters, session musicians, sound engineers, vocalists, dancers, and other performers in the business.
I mean, just think about the amazing life he lived, learning about the history of American performing arts from the people who knew it best – and not just as an eyewitness but as a fellow artist. He didn’t just research the history of performance in America; he lived it.
But Marsh never seems to consider that with this incredibly rich artistic background, steeped as it was in the traditions of previous generations (vaudeville, country, soul, R&B), coming of age at Motown (“the Sound of Young America”) and continuing on through pop, funk, and disco, Michael Jackson might know some aspects of music and entertainment history much more fully and more intimately than he (Marsh) does. It’s unbelievably patronizing.
Lisha: Well said, Willa. To challenge Michael Jackson’s knowledge of the racial divide in music or the industry shows what a naive position Marsh is coming from. He manages to overlook just about everything that Michael Jackson brings to the table, which is a pretty massive blind spot.
Lisha: Interestingly, Marsh’s book was published in 1985, seven years after Destiny. According to Marsh’s own account, he wrote the book in response to Michael Jackson’s breathtaking success in the 1980s, including his “triumph over apartheid broadcasting.” It’s revealing that Marsh specifically cites Michael Jackson’s breach of the racial divide while setting up his book-length rant.
Willa: Yes, that’s true. He praises a few individual songs on Thriller, especially “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” and notes that the album as a whole “crossed over” and appealed to white audiences on a scale that no album ever had before. But then he harshly condemns it precisely because of its crossover appeal, claiming it sells out in a way that harkens back to blackface minstrelsy. Lifting quotes from Robert C. Toll’s Blacking Up and applying them to Michael Jackson and Thriller, Marsh writes,
Why did they [white listeners] find Thriller so attractive? I’d say because both you and your album let them see what they expected, a “lazy, pretentious, frivolous, improvident, irresponsible and immature” black “who loved to entertain whites.” Now Michael, I know you aren’t improvident – you have lots of money. Maybe you aren’t lazy when the chips are down, but intellectually you are a sloth. You go ahead and deny meeting the other standards. There’s no way I can.
Lisha: Wow. I’m sorry, but that really crosses the line from harsh critique to a racially motivated personal attack.
Willa: It feels that way to me too. And by equating Michael Jackson with minstrel show stereotypes and condemning him as a black performer “who loved to entertain whites,” Marsh places him – and in fact all successful black “crossover” artists – in an ironic double bind, as if the mere fact of their ability to entrance white audiences is prima facie evidence that they have sold out their race.
Lisha: That’s a brilliant observation, Willa. I get the feeling that what Marsh ultimately wants is for Michael Jackson to stay on his side of the color line. He put an awful lot of energy into writing a book that attempts to put Michael Jackson back in his place. At least that’s what I take from it.
Willa: Yes, I think you’re right, in the sense that Marsh wants him to “be black” and stay black, but it’s more complicated than that. He actually wants Michael Jackson to be a kind of Moses figure who will lead America out of its racist past and bring about racial healing, and he expresses a mournful dismay that he apparently isn’t Moses and isn’t trying to be. As Marsh says,
Chances are, even if you’d wanted to do it, you could not have crossed an army over into the Promised Land with you. But you could have gotten them to wade in the water.
It’s really manipulative what he’s doing. We could do an entire post on Dave Marsh.
Lisha: Great idea! I think we should devote an entire post to Dave Marsh. His book is such an important document for understanding the fierce backlash Michael Jackson had to face.
Willa: It really is. However, as provoking as Marsh is, he does make an important point in that long passage I quoted earlier when he says that “your own grandfather, a black man in Arkansas, … tuned in ‘hillbilly’ radio programs not out of perversity but because that music was ‘his’ as much as it was “theirs.’” In other words, he’s saying that country music belongs to black audiences just as much as it belongs to whites. That seems to be exactly what Michael Jackson was getting at in Moonwalk when he said, “my mother grew up in Alabama, and in that part of the country it was just as common for black people to be raised with country and western music on the radio as it was for them to hear spirituals in church.”
So maybe one way of interpreting that country-sounding intro to “Destiny” is to see it as reclaiming that heritage.
Lisha: Yes, I think you’re right and that is so important to emphasize. Country music is also called the “white man’s blues” because it too owes a debt to black musicians from the Mississippi Delta. And misconceptions about the origins of rock and roll are abundant, thanks to Elvis Presley and other white artists who covered this music early on. The true architects and pioneers of rock and roll were black musicians coming out of the R&B tradition, like Little Richard for example, who was also influenced by the country music that surrounded him. “Destiny” seems to be questioning why music is still coded black or white at all.
Willa: I agree, and that’s a really interesting way to think about “Destiny,” Lisha. So by placing the genres side by side as he does, maybe he’s emphasizing their similarities and common history.
Lisha: Well at least in theory, it stands to reason that all forms of American music should be a part of our musical heritage as Americans. But as you said earlier, Willa, country music is “somehow off-limits to blacks.” And whites have repeatedly rejected or felt threatened by black music, even while appropriating it as their own.
Record producer Don Was did this amazing project called Rhythm, Country and Blues back in 1994, which addressed the issue of race and genre by focusing on the surprising commonalities between black R&B and white country music. He made some amazing recordings with country and R&B artists working together, and he did it so convincingly that you begin to question how different these genres really are. There is a wonderful documentary film about this project, and I think the segment with Little Richard and country star Tanya Tucker is especially relevant to our discussion. It starts at about 25:00 in:
Wouldn’t “Destiny” be a perfect song to receive the Don Was treatment? It so beautifully illustrates how American music has been racialized and divided, but then really makes you question why that has to be, if you stop long enough to think about it!
Willa: Wow, that is fascinating, Lisha! I remember when that album came out, but I’d never seen the documentary before – didn’t even know it existed. I loved listening to all the duets again!
Lisha: I did too! Aren’t they amazing?
Willa: They really are! What a treat to hear Aaron Neville and Trisha Yearwood sing “I Fall to Pieces” or Clint Black and the Pointer Sisters sing “Chain of Fools” or Gladys Knight and Vince Gill sing “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” or Natalie Cole and Reba McEntire sing “Since I Fell for You” or Marty Stuart and the Staple Singers sing “The Weight.” I’d forgotten how great the music on that album is, and it really shows how the separation between genres – especially between “black” music and “white” music – is “just an illusion / Wrought by the magical lens of / Perception,” to quote a very wise person. We tend to hear Little Richard and Tanya Turner as very different – as belonging to completely different musical spheres – because we’ve been trained to perceive them that way. But our conditioning fools us. They really aren’t that different. And what a wonderful way of showing that, Lisha.
Lisha: I’m glad you thought so. Willa, do you remember the interview Michael Jackson gave John Pidgeon in 1980, the one where Janet sits in and repeats the questions back to him?
Willa: Oh yes. I love that interview.
Lisha: I do too. I wanted to go back and read that again, because it was done just a couple of years after Destiny was released. Here are some excerpts that I thought were especially interesting in this context:
I hate to say it’s a category – pop, jazz. I don’t like that. It’s music. It’s wonder to the ear and that’s what counts. If you can move a person through music, that’s what makes me feel good. That’s what I enjoy about it…
I think secretly and privately, I mean really deep within, there’s a destiny, for me, and just for me to stay on that track and follow it…
Call it disco, call it anything … it’s music. … That is the ugly thing about man – they categorize too much. They get a little bit too racial about things when it should all be together. That’s why you hear us talk about the peacock a lot, because the peacock is the only bird of all the bird family that integrates every color into one.
And that’s our main goal in music, is to integrate every race into one, through music, and we’re doing that. If you go to our concerts you see every race out there, and they’re all waving hands and they’re holding hands and they’re smiling and they’re dancing. And that to me is accomplishing everything. That’s the biggest reward for me, more than money, is to bring those people together and do that. That’s what makes me feel good. You see the kids out there dancing, as well as the grownups and the grandparents. All colors. And that’s what’s great. That’s what keeps me going.
So according to Michael Jackson, integrating race through music was his “main goal.” It’s not just a happy accident that his music ends up so effectively addressing the racial divide. It’s by design. His thought process seems to be, What would happen if these musical categories began to drop? Can artists steer the culture by addressing these issues in their work? What better place to do this kind of cultural work than the music industry – an industry that is already set up to deliver artistic product to a mass audience?
Willa: Wow, Lisha. Those are really important questions. So if we approach “Destiny” from this perspective, then the way it juxtaposes different genres could really be seen as a political statement.
Lisha: Yes, I think so. It also strikes me as a deeply spiritual position, too, as you said earlier. Looking again at what Michael Jackson told John Pidgeon, “I think secretly and privately, I mean really deep within, there’s a destiny, for me…”
In this part of the interview, Michael Jackson was specifically talking about having a vision for how he wanted to push music performance and composition forward in very visual and dramatic way. When I thought about this more, the peacock illustration on the back cover of the Destiny album came to mind.
Michael Jackson said the peacock is “the only bird of all the bird family that integrates every color into one.” So the peacock is used as a visual symbol on the album of integrating all colors through music. The peacock is also featured on the back of the Triumph album, and a peacock feather floats upwards towards the sky at the end of the short film Can You Feel It, followed by a display of peacock feathers imposed on an image of the planet.
Willa: Yes, I was just thinking about that! And Can You Feel It really advances the idea of bringing people together through art, as Joie and I talked about in a post a while back. So it seems significant that the image of the peacock would appear in both Destiny and Can You Feel It.
Lisha: It does to me too. It’s a visual symbol that sums up the spiritual values or philosophy of the music.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha, and it just goes to show how “Destiny” begins as a country song but ends up being so much more.
Lisha: Something else I noticed about “Destiny” is how consistent the thematic content is with the genre of country music. I’m even tempted to think of it as a country song that strays into other musical territory, rather than think of it as a Jacksons’ song that simply tacks on a country section. The lyrics deal with some very familiar themes in country music such as longing for “the simple life,” a desire to get away from the city, a cautious attitude about excessive materialism, a stubborn but highly-valued sense of individualism. I think this holds true for the entire song, but these lines in particular strike me as typical of the country music genre:
And I’ve tasted the city life and it’s not for me…
If it’s the rich life I don’t want it,
Happiness ain’t always material things…
Give me the simple life…
Let me be me
C’mon, let me feel free…
Nobody can change my mind
Willa: That’s true, Lisha. There’s also the idea of constantly moving on, which is a common feature of country music also. For example, the cowboy, alone on the range, is a very old motif – or more recently, the country singer or the gambler moving from one honky tonk to another, playing a night or two and then traveling on. We see something similar in “Destiny,” such as the urge to “up and fly away so fancy free” or the repeated lines “I’m getting away from here / Let me be free / Let me be me.” In fact, the entire song focuses on a quest that may take him around the world as he searches for his destiny.
You know, it would be really easy to interpret this search for his “destiny” as a longing for success – wealth, accolades, a penthouse in the city – but as you pointed out earlier, Lisha, the lyrics contradict that. In the lyrics you just quoted, he emphasizes that “Happiness ain’t always material things.” So while commercial success may be part of his destiny, that doesn’t seem to be his main goal. He’s talking about something deeper and more spiritual when he refers to finding his destiny.
Lisha: That’s an excellent point. It’s clear that the character in this song is not motivated by success in terms of material gain. His motivation is something much bigger: a desire to fulfill his own destiny. He follows his own moral compass and sense of purpose.
Willa: Yes, and the idea of defining success on your own terms is part of the country music tradition also. Success may be a good paycheck, but more often it’s the satisfaction of living life on your own terms, free from constraints. You don’t need a penthouse to be happy – just a pickup truck and the love of a good woman. I’m oversimplifying of course, but that’s the general idea …
Lisha: I’m not sure you can oversimplify when it comes to satisfaction and pickup trucks in country music!
Willa: That’s funny, Lisha. But you’re right that “Destiny” evokes a lot of themes frequently heard in country music, so maybe the country flavor in the intro was also used to help convey those thematic ideas. In fact, you may be right in looking at it more as “a country song that strays into other musical territory” instead of “a Jacksons’ song that simply tacks on a country section.”
Well thank you, Lisha, for another fun conversation! I learn so much every time I talk to you.
Lisha: It’s always great to hear your ideas and talk about Michael Jackson’s work! I loved revisiting this song.
Willa: I did too. I also wanted to let everyone know about a conversation you and your friend, historian Roberta Meek, recently had with Elizabeth Amisu and Karin Merx of the Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies. Here’s a link to the podcast, which is a fascinating look at Michael Jackson and Prince. Joe Vogel recently published an article about Michael Jackson and Prince also, and Raven Woods republished a 2011 post about them on her AllForLoveBlog, with an updated ending. It’s an important topic.
Lisha: Thanks for mentioning the podcast, Willa. We had a wonderful time putting that together. I understand Part 2 of the conversation goes up June 7th, so stay tuned.
Willa: Wonderful! I’m really looking forward to it.
Lisha: In Part 1 of our tour through Neverland Valley Ranch, Brad Sundberg gave us a detailed look at the first third of Michael Jackson’s incredible home, including the guard gate, the magical “ornate gate,” the train stations, the pastures, the water features, the guest villas, and the main house. Neverland guests would usually drive a mile or so onto the property to reach the ornate gate. From there, they could park their cars and walk through that gate, boarding a train that transported them to the next section of the property. This meant most guests would bypass the main residence altogether. Is that right, Brad?
Brad: Yes, most people wouldn’t go into the main house. That was really Michael’s private home. But VIP guests would certainly stay there, and if he wanted to bring his friends in there, that was for him to do whatever he wanted.
But then you keep going to that second third, the middle section, and that was the amusement park. And that’s what people have seen all the aerial photos of. I’ve had guests at my seminars who went there on special days. They got to go to the park. So if you were going to go to Neverland as a guest, that’s probably what you were going to see.
That’s where the theater was – that big beautiful theater on the left side of the valley.
And it really was a valley. Going back to my surfboard analogy, it would be like laying a surfboard down and having hills on either side of it. You just didn’t go up into those hills that much, unless you had a motorcycle or a horse or something. Most of the activity was down in the valley.
The bulk of our work was building all the music and all the systems for the park. We had a small stage there, where you could have a barbershop quartet or something. We had the Zipper and the bumper cars and the Ferris wheel and the carousel, and it just seemed like it was never going to stop. He would add one ride, and a month later he’d call me and say he’d bought another ride, and could I start coming up with some ideas for it.
Lisha: So he would call and talk to you in terms of what you were going to do with the rides musically, right?
Brad: Yeah, or I would go up there and we would have a meeting in his library, or he loved to have meetings in the castle. And he’d roll some plans out and start talking about what’s coming next. He was very specific.
It was kind of a cool relationship where he would – and it certainly was not just with me, I think Tony would say something very similar, or different people who worked up there – he would kind of tell us what he wanted to do, but then he wanted our ideas. You know, could we do this? Or what do you think of this? It wasn’t a dictatorship, by any means. Like I say, if you’re going to work with Michael, you’ve got to bring something to the table. You can’t just kind of sit there and wait for orders. You’ve got to contribute some ideas.
Willa: So he wanted your ideas about what kinds of sounds to provide? Or how to provide them? Or … ?
Brad: Well, I’ll give you a goofy example. Michael wanted music everywhere. Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. He did not want a place on that ranch where it would just be quiet. So he came to me one day and said “I bought a Ferris wheel.” I said, “Of course you did. Why wouldn’t you?” And he said, “I want music on the Ferris wheel.”
Well, I’m a guy. I understand geometry and electronics and physics, and all these things make perfect sense to me. So I’m thinking about a Ferris wheel, and you’re picturing a wheel that’s turning. And then on that wheel there are 16 little wheels that are all turning. But you can’t get wire anywhere, because after two rotations the wire is twisted up and it’s going to break.
Willa: Oh! I didn’t think about that.
Brad: So, I don’t want to bore you with too much stuff. But with lights and things like that, you can have big pieces of copper and brushes that get the power across to the next set of wheels. But music is a whole different animal. It gets really tricky trying to have stereo speakers and wires.
So we came up with this whole complicated scheme of having a battery pack in each car, and a radio receiver and an amplifier and speakers, and then we would transmit music up to each car. And I designed the whole thing for him, and I said I can do this. But I said, good grief, Michael, the cost of this, and having to charge batteries and all the headache involved. I said, just let people take a breath! Let them just get to the top of the wheel and they can see the park, they can hear everything, they can hear kids laughing. We don’t have to flood them with more music.
And luckily, he agreed, because I didn’t want to build that. I was just like, this is the craziest thing I’ve ever designed. And it would have worked! I had a pretty good design. But, the point being, that he would listen. It was really nice when I could edit once in a while and say, just because we can doesn’t mean we should. So he was good about that. He gave me a tremendous amount of freedom.
And I’m actually going to elaborate on one point. I was a kid! I mean, I’m five years younger than Michael, and we build Neverland when I was in my 20s and into my 30s for the bulk of that work. So I’m working with him and Bruce in the studio, you know, for weeks and weeks and months and months. And then, once a project is done, he’s yanking me up there, and we’re building stuff up there. And this is Michael Jackson! He could have hired the best audio company in L.A. He could have flown people in from Berlin if he wanted. And the fact that he let me do it, and he trusted me, to this day it really humbles me, and it means so much to me.
I didn’t get rich. I was too dumb! I was charging a fair price but I was learning. He let me learn at Neverland, and that’s something I’ll never forget. He gave me a tremendous amount of freedom, and in return I gave blood, sweat, and tears. There’s not a single project that I did at Neverland that I wasn’t proud of. We really, really gave everything we had at that ranch. And I wasn’t the only one. But I’ve always been really proud of the fact that he trusted me that much. So, I’ll get off my soapbox but…
Lisha: I can definitely see why he valued you so much.
Brad: It’s something that I value to this day.
So, all through the ranch – and we’ll get to the zoo in a few minutes – but everything I’ve been describing to you, there’s always music. And Michael would hand-pick, well, he hand-picked probably 80 percent of the music. He had a playlist, and he would call me and say ok, I want you to make a CD, and I want this song and this song and this song.
And then he would repeat himself. He loved the song “Carol Anne’s Theme” from Poltergeist. It’s kind of haunting and beautiful. So he wanted “Carol Anne’s Theme” to play twice – not twice in a row, but he’d do “Carol Anne’s Theme,” and like then “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, and then some Debussy, and then he’d want “Carol Anne’s Theme” again. And I’d say, Michael, we just did that. We just played that song 9 minutes ago. And he’d say, No, but it’s so beautiful I want it again. And you couldn’t argue with him! It made no sense, but it worked!
And you’d hear music everywhere. You’d get on the trains, and there he gave me a little more freedom. I could kind of play what I wanted, but it was always classical. We never had Michael music. That was absolutely forbidden.
Lisha: Here’s the playlist Brad shared with us at his seminar and on Facebook:
Brad: Now in the later years, I’m told that people would go there after 2004, 2003, 2005, and they’ve told me it was Michael music everywhere, which is a little disappointing because that’s never what he wanted. He was so clear about the fact that he did not want his music played anywhere on the ranch.
So you’d just have this wash of music, and you didn’t know where it was coming from. It was just everywhere.
Willa: So was it the same playlist playing everywhere you went? Or would like different rides at the amusement park have different music?
Brad: Yeah, the rides were different. So as you’re walking or on a train or something, it’s the same lush beautiful music. But then on every ride we had very specific music just for that ride. And he would pick almost all of that music. So we would have to build these enormous sound systems. And I’m a carnival junkie. I love carnivals. I love Disneyland. We had annual passes to Disneyland before it was cool. So I love that kind of stuff. So yeah, the carousel, for example – on that one he would want Janet. That was when Rhythm Nation was huge. So we had a couple of Janet songs that we played on the carousel.
On the Zipper, which was his favorite ride … Do you know what the Zipper is?
Lisha: Yeah, do you, Willa?
Willa: Isn’t it kind of like a double Ferris wheel, but it flips you upside down?
Brad: Yeah, it’s just the craziest, most awesome ride. That was his favorite ride, the Zipper, and for whatever reason he loved the song, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes. And good grief, everybody who would ride that ride would have to hear that song over and over and over again. It didn’t really make sense, but it was Michael! And you just had to accept it. This is what he likes.
I think in a certain way, he was very … um, what word am I looking for? Not predictable, but he liked routine. I haven’t really thought about this before, but I think there was something about, I’m on the Zipper so I’m going to hear “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” And that’s just what it was. You didn’t change it. You didn’t adjust it. It’s what he wanted.
Willa: Earlier you said something that was so fascinating. You said that going through the security gate and driving up past the sagebrush and going through the ornate gate – you said it was like the introduction to a song. And now it almost seems like, with the amusement park, you’re kind of getting some of the verses, the different verses of the song.
Brad: Yeah. I don’t want to try to get too poetic on it or anything. But Neverland really did have kind of a beginning, middle, and end, like a song. In the beginning you had the ornate gate, this “where am I?” moment, this beautiful entrance.
And then you’d get to the theme park, and that was just craziness: the superslide and the bumper cars and the Sea Dragon and music pounding from everywhere. And the theater was right there, and it was big and dramatic and bold.
And then maybe later in the day you’d go up to the zoo. And the zoo was much more soothing. So yeah in a sense, it was almost like an intro, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, fade-out.
Willa: Oh, that’s fascinating! That’s really fascinating.
Brad: Michael loved drama. You could experience Neverland in a full day, and at the end of the day you’re up petting a giraffe and feeding a duck or something, and it’s calm again. It’s very, very soothing.
So yeah. Whether it’s was by design or by accident – I kind of lean toward design – it really worked out to be a unique experience for a lot of people.
Lisha: That is fascinating, and how it would unfold in a certain way, a kind of calculated way.
Brad: Yes. Now having said that, we had plenty of screw-ups! We would try anything. He wanted to do these goofy, you know, like at Disneyworld, the little autopia cars? Little go-karts basically. Well, we had this elaborate go-kart track that ran up the side of the mountain over by the superslide. And it was beautiful! I mean it was paved, and I have no idea the amount of time and money that was put into building this go-kart track. This was not some little figure 8. This was legit – up the side of a mountain and under the trees. It was beautiful!
And the stupid cars weren’t strong enough to take people up the side of the hill, especially the adults, and people would be out pushing the cars! I’m not sure why we didn’t get bigger engines, but I think at that point they’d spent so much money that they had to cut their losses. So they moved the go-karts down to a flat track behind the theater. It wasn’t nearly as cool, but at least they didn’t have to have people out of their cars pushing them.
Willa: As a mom, I think having kids driving cars with big engines might be a safety issue!
Brad: Yeah, there were a lot of things that you just kind of had to bite your bottom lip and go “I hope nobody dies on this thing!” But, uh…
Willa: Oh no!
Brad: I’m kind of kidding! But you’ve probably seen pictures of the superslide. The slide was hysterical. It’s one of those big, yellow… I think it had four lanes or something like that.
Well, for Michael, nothing can ever be normal. It has to be, just crank it up to level eleven. So they found some Teflon spray or something. I don’t know if they got the stuff from NASA or where it came from. But you’d sit in a gunny sack, and they’d spray the sack with this spray … and it was terrifying! I mean I love any of this stuff, but you would go so fast you’d go airborne over those bumps and think you were going to break your back and be paralyzed! And Michael would just laugh until he’d almost pee his pants. Especially for someone like me who, you know, I’m not a small guy. And I would go down that thing, it seemed like 90 miles an hour, just bouncing from hill to hill.
Willa: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh!
Brad: It’s like, you’re going to kill somebody! Or another one was the bumper cars. I loved the bumper cars. And we’ve been pretty fortunate. We travel quite a bit, and so we’ve been in Europe several times. And I’m sorry, I’m a weirdo. I still, if there’s a theme park within 40 miles, I’m going to go to it. That’s just how I am. I could care less about a museum, but get me to a theme park.
And so we were at Tivoli, which was one of Michael’s favorite parks, in Copenhagen. This was just a couple of years ago, after Michael had passed. They had bumper cars there and it was the weirdest thing, because I was like thrown back to Neverland.
In Europe, and I’m not trying to stereotype, but there are just very different standards than in the US. I mean, it’s full speed ahead, smashing into people and thinking you’re about to knock your teeth out, where in the US everything is safety related and OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] regulated and everybody has to be safe.
Well, Michael didn’t really have a whole lot of OSHA going on up there. So his bumper cars were outrageously fast. They would just go. You’d think you were going to kill yourself! Then we’d fill that tent with smoke and black lights and strobe lights, and then a huge sound system. We had Joe Santriani – that was usually the sound track in there – and then these bumper cars would just go full speed ahead. And the same thing: Michael would just die laughing! It was, I hate to say it, but it was borderline dangerous. But it was so much fun you just didn’t care.
So I can’t talk about every single ride, but the other thing that I thought was really cool in the theme park was the castle. I don’t know if people have seen pictures of it. If you go way back, I’ve got some really cool pictures of the park when it was being built, and it used to be a tree house. Michael used to go up and watch people from the tree house, and it was cool but it wasn’t that big a deal.
Well, we had so much equipment coming in that we had to have a place for all of our power and our racks and amps and everything. So we decided to build a room on the bottom of the treehouse. Well, once again this is Michael Jackson, and you can’t do anything normal. So somehow that quickly escalated into the castle.
And so nobody ever got to go into the bottom of the castle because it was just an equipment room, and that’s where we kept all of our gear. But there was a big deck up on the side of the castle. And then above that, to one side was an office. And it was a really cool room that Michael could have meetings in. We’d sit up there and talk about rides that were going to come in. Or if he had to make a phone call or something, he could run up there. There’s no cell service at Neverland, and back then cell phones were pretty crude anyway. So it was just kind of a place where he could stay connected. You know, if he had some VIPs and they just wanted to get away, they could have lunch in the castle or something. It was just so unique and so different – a really, really beautiful little piece of architecture.
Then all through the park were the Disney animated butterflies, and the elephant that at night would kind of spray water in the air, but it wasn’t water. It was just lights.
And that’s another thing. During the day, the park was fun. It was an amusement park like nobody’s backyard anywhere. But at night, we would light that place up with, I don’t know if it would be millions, but tens of thousands of little twinkling lights in the trees.
In fact, I swear this is true. I shouldn’t swear, but I believe this is true. There’s these gigantic oak trees all through Neverland. All through the park I should say.
Willa: They’re the trees you see in the Say, Say, Say video, right? It was filmed there.
Brad: Was it?
Willa: Yes. So those big oak trees you see in the Say, Say, Say video, that’s at Neverland.
Brad: Ok. Well, those were covered, and I mean covered, with little twinkling lights – you know, the little tiny lights. And each tree had what’s called a 200-amp service. And now your music people just went to sleep when I say that, but that’s the equivalent of a normal size house in America. A normal size house gets 200 amps of electricity. That’s how much power those goofy trees needed for all the lights in them.
Lisha: That’s per tree?
Brad: That’s what I’m told. You know, I don’t want to take a lie detector test. But it was just enormous power that was feeding that ranch.
But that’s where all the lights came from. We didn’t have any street lights. It was all either lights in trees or lights from the amusement park, and that was it. And at night … I’ve been to some beautiful places, but Neverland at night ranks up so high. When it was in its prime and the rides were going, and the music was going, and it was lit up, I would pretty much put it right up with being in the middle of Disneyland, or Paris. It was really, really, really a magical place.
Willa: It sounds beautiful.
Lisha: A lot of the things that we’re talking about, such as the train system, and the park, and the flowers, and the clocks, and things like that, remind me so much of Walt Disney. And we know that Michael Jackson was a huge admirer of Walt Disney, who continually blurred the line between reality and fantasy with art and animation, until he finally built Disneyland. And the idea of Disneyland was that you were going to step into these fantasy worlds that he had previously created through art.
Brad: Stories, yes.
Lisha: It sounds like to me that Michael Jackson’s Neverland is so similar, and I’m just wondering about your take on that. You know Disneyland very well and you’ve also actually been on the ranch and know that very well too. But was there some kind of fundamental difference between those places?
Brad: Well let’s see. At Disneyland you’ve got 70,000 people on a crowded day, and at Neverland there were a couple hundred – that would be one difference! I mean, they were different experiences, obviously. Neverland was breathtakingly remarkable for somebody’s backyard. Yeah, it wasn’t Disneyland, but for being able to step out in your pajamas and go out to that park was just – and I’m not saying I did that – but that experience was unlike anything else.
Michael knew that I loved Disneyland and I’ve been a Disney fan my whole life. Brace yourself for something really syrupy, but I even proposed to my wife on the steamboat to Disneyland.
Willa: Oh, really!
Brad: Yeah, actually that was the same year that I met Michael. So we kind of had our little Disney connection. We never went to Disneyland together. We always talked about it, but for him to go was such an ordeal. So he would always ask me about it, and what was new, and what he should go see.
So yeah. Neverland – there were certainly, I guess you’d call them nods or tributes to Disney all over the place. And vice versa. I mean the Imagineers did more work than I really knew about at Neverland, like the animated figurines. When you went inside the theater, there were the two dioramas. One of them was Pinocchio, and the other one was Cinderella. And you’d push a button and these things would come to life – there were lights and music and motion and everything. And I believe those came from the Imagineers. I think Michael commissioned those to be built. So yeah, there was no shortage of nods to Disney.
Willa: I just found this video clip of the Pinocchio diorama, filmed when it was scheduled to go up for auction. I’m afraid the video quality isn’t very high, but it gives an idea of what happened when you pushed the button:
Lisha: That’s so interesting! I found a photo of the Cinderella diorama, which depicts the moment the Fairy Godmother turns Cinderella’s rags into a beautiful ballgown.
So both of these displays are focused on transformation: the moment when Pinocchio is magically transformed from a puppet into a real boy, and when Cinderella is transformed from a household servant into a princess.
Willa: That’s a fascinating observation, Lisha! – especially since transformations were such a recurring theme in Michael Jackson’s work. For example, I noticed there’s a small scene from the Smooth Criminal segment of Moonwalker tucked into a corner of the Pinocchio diorama, which I imagine the Imagineers added as a little surprise. It seems a little out of place here, but at the same time it’s kind of appropriate since Moonwalker is full of transformations. For example, the main character, Michael, transforms into a sports car, and a robot, and a space ship, and there are psychological transformations as well. (By the way, there are also a lot of tarantulas in Moonwalker, which reminds me of what you were saying earlier, Brad, about the tarantulas on Figueroa Mountain Road.)
Lisha: Brad, do you remember how Michael Jackson felt about his own image being added to the Pinocchio diorama?
Brad: My recollection is that Michael did not like the Smooth Criminal in the diorama, as he had very few images of himself in the public areas of Neverland.
Another thing you said that I kind of thought about for a second, about how at Disneyland you would step into the stories or the movies. You know, Michael could have done kind of a Michael Jacksonland where the bumper cars would – you know, I’m just talking completely silly – but we could have themed things, like the Thriller bumper cars or something, and had “Thriller” playing and a bunch of zombies.
He would never in a million years have done something like that. Nor would I have suggested it. That’s not what he wanted. He wanted something that kids would love and appreciate, as well as adults. If anything, there was almost a noticeable absence of anything Michael Jackson at Neverland, except Michael. Does that make sense?
Willa: It seems like he was really trying to create this fantasy experience, and the fantasies he drew on are all kind of nostalgic kid stories, like the teepee village, and cowboys – you said the people at the zoo dressed like cowboys – and the steam engine. They’re all evoking nostalgic kid’s stories and imagination games that boys, especially, used to play in the past.
Brad: Well, if there was one theme all through Neverland, it was Peter Pan. Obviously it’s called Neverland, so there is clue number one. It’s funny – I wrote a post on Facebook about this several months ago. You know, people send me pictures, and I’ve got a pretty amazing collection of pictures now from Neverland that people have shared with me. And I was going through a bunch of them one day, and there was a picture that just stopped me in my tracks.
Out behind the house there was kind of an office. And in that office, kind of looking out at the barbecue area on the back side of the house, was this Peter Pan figure. It was probably 24 inches tall, maybe 30 inches tall – something like that. And whenever I walked by it, I would always notice it. It didn’t move. There was nothing special about it. It was just this cool figurine of Peter with his hands on his hips and his little goofy hat and everything, just kind of proudly looking out at the backyard and the barbecue area.
And it always was just like, you know what? That is the coolest thing. And even though Michael’s got Rolls Royces and a steam train and everything you can imagine, there was something about that Peter Pan that just struck me. That may have been my favorite little part of the ranch. Because it was him. I mean Michael saw himself as Peter Pan. We didn’t talk about it. I mean, I don’t want to make it sound nutty. But you know Michael just had that Peter Pan connection.
When somebody sent me that picture, it just put a little bit of a lump in my throat because it was just a really cool memory from Neverland.
Willa: The teepee village is another Peter Pan reference. I mean, there’s a teepee village in Peter Pan – that’s part of the story.
Brad: Oh yeah. And in the big train station, up in the ceiling of the station, was this kind of a flying, it wasn’t full motion, but it was Peter Pan and a couple of the other characters. They were kind of suspended up there on string or rods or something. So they were flying above you when you walked into the train station.
Willa: Oh cool! I was just looking at an interesting post that had images of Peter Pan and Tinkerbell battling Captain Hook at Neverland. Were these up in the rafters of the train station?
Brad: Yes, great photos! There was something I was going to mention about the big train station a few minutes ago. Michael would have huge groups of guests, especially if his whole family came up. The ranch house itself was pretty funny because I think it only had four bedrooms, maybe five. There weren’t that many rooms. And there were only like five guest houses. Well, his family is huge, and then he’s going to have friends and different people. So [Brad] Buxer told me that they would actually have people sleep in the train station.
Brad: Oh, they’d sleep everywhere! They’d sleep in the theater – they’d be all over the place. But the train station was really just supposed to be a train station. There was never any forethought of needing beds in there. So I don’t know if they’d sleep on air mattresses or something. But there was no bathroom! And so Buxer talks about … I don’t know if it was the brothers, Tito or whoever – you know, if you wake up in the middle of the night you’d have to walk all the way down to the house to use the bathroom. Nobody ever thought about, gee, you might want to put a bathroom in here because people might sleep here. It was just supposed to be, come in, get some candy, and get on the train.
But Michael lived there, man, and that was his house. It was not a little stopover!
Willa: And the train station – that’s something he added, right? It wasn’t part of Sycamore Valley Ranch when he bought it?
Brad: Correct. The first time I went – I always get, you know, little giggles from some of my guests in the seminars when I talk about this – but my very first job at Neverland was putting music in the bedroom, in his room. So I put big speakers on either side of his bed, and I was pulling cables and built this cool little system in the bedroom.
And there was really not a whole lot else there. I mean there was the main house, and then there were the pastures way in the back. I don’t know when the theater was built, but I think he built that soon after he bought the place. I didn’t build the theater. Lee Tucker from Warner Studios built that. But then I wound up doing just about all the other projects.
So to kind of get to the third section – when you’re finally done with the park, usually guests could jump on the train, either the big train or the little train, and then go up to the zoo. Or you could walk up there. In fact, as the park kept growing, it kept getting closer and closer to the zoo. So if you go back to my surfboard analogy, the top of that middle circle started creeping up towards the far one, which was the zoo.
So then you get up to the zoo. The petting zoo was really cool. Everything was beautiful. I mean, it was manicured like nobody’s business. People were sweeping and cleaning. The petting zoo was one of the later additions. We didn’t have that for the first few years. In the early years, I think it was just… The elephants were pretty early. Kimba the lion was pretty early. Most guests didn’t get to see Kimba. Kimba was kind of kept up the hill a little bit because he was so mad at life!
Willa: Oh no!
Brad: He was just not a friendly animal. But if you went to the ranch early in the morning or right around sunset, that’s when Kimba was going to get fed. And that animal would roar, and it would scare you to death! I mean, you could hear that roar two miles away. It was just this beautiful, angry, cool roar.
I don’t want to make it sound like like he was mistreated in any way because he wasn’t, but he was just not soft and cuddly, “come play with me.” I mean, he was just a … He was tough. So we kind of kept him a little further away from the kids, because you didn’t want to terrify them.
But we had the horse barn. We had the snake barn. That was another just complete work of art, in a weird way.
Lisha: The snake barn?
Brad: Yeah, the reptile barn they called it. It was right across the street. Now you’re way up in the zoo. And this is where the fire department is. Neverland always had, I believe, two full-time firefighters in the fire station. That was required by the county, if I’m not mistaken. Right across the road from them was the horse barn, and then the snake barn.
You’d go into the snake barn, and the first room was all of these cages. It’s funny how I think about this stuff, because the first room was kind of not that impressive. You’d go in and it was full of terrariums – almost like going to a science fair or something. And it’s kind of cool – it’s like, ok, there’s a lizard and there’s a snake and there’s hissing cockroaches. It was kind of like, yeah ok, I’m good. Let’s get out of here.
But then you go through a second set of doors – I never really thought about this before – and all the sudden you’re in a different place.
Willa: You know, it kind of reminds me of what you were saying earlier about going through the first gates and it’s not that impressive. But then you go through the ornate gates and, Wow! Now you’re in a different world.
Brad: Yeah! I swear, I’m not making this up! But I’ve never really thought about it before. I always kind of thought the first room was kind of like, yawn, whatever. But that was where you were welcomed. And we had these little – we called them spiels – which is like a little 30-second recording, you know, just like at Disneyland: keep your hands and arms inside the car at all times, permanecer sentado, por favor!
In this room, you’d walk in, and I recorded one of the the animal trainers. His name was Brock, not to be confused with Brick [Price], but Brock. We had Brick and Brock! And Brock just had this beautiful deep bass voice, you know, “Welcome to…” I can’t even do it – I don’t have a voice that deep. But it would be something like, “Welcome to the reptile barn. In this room we hope to teach you about unique creatures from all over the world. Please don’t tap on the cages.”
Willa: Here’s an audio clip of that spiel that I found in a post on your Facebook page.
Brad: Yeah, and then you’d go through a second set of doors, and there was this dark, really cool hallway. It was just a long hallway all the way to the end of the barn. And then on either side of the hallway were these beautiful glass terrariums, and that’s not even the right word. These were enclosures. I mean, they were probably six feet wide, something like that, and I don’t know, three or four feet deep by five feet tall. I mean, they were big. And for some of the big snakes, they were even bigger than that. That’s where we had the rattlesnakes and the cobras and the reticulated python and Madonna, the albino python. And they were beautiful!
Lisha: Here’s a picture of “Madonna”:
Brad: I think they had one full-time snake handler, and at least one or two assistants. Now we’re not at the science fair anymore. Now we’re in a full blown, almost like a Sea World type environment. Those enclosures were beautiful – hand-painted, with water. They were really, really something to see. And then each enclosure would have its own little narrative telling a little 30-second story about that snake and where it came from.
But then Michael wanted to … Actually, I think this was my idea. I said, “Can I have a little bit of fun in here?” And he’s like, “Yeah, whatever you want to do.” So I put these hidden speakers all through the length of the hallway, down by people’s feet. It was kind of dark in there, and we had crickets sounds, and it was kind of … not creepy, but it was very authentic. And I did some recording in my front yard, of all places. I had ivy in my front yard instead of grass, so I pulled a cooler – like an Igloo cooler with a rope on it – I pulled it across the ivy and recorded that sound. Then I put that onto a play-back chip.
And about every nine or ten minutes people would be in the snake barn, and they’d be looking at snakes and kind of looking around. Then they’d hear this rustling at the far end of the hallway, and it would just go whizzing by them, down the hall of speakers. And they would jump and think some stupid snake had escaped from a pen! Michael would just die laughing! He thought it was the funniest thing.
So you know, it was all those little details that … there’s just no way the guests could take all that in one day. We put so many surprises and cool little treats up there that you really could explore it for a long, long time.
Next to that was the alligators. And then you’d go a little bit further, and it was the chimps – huge, huge chimp enclosure. And then the elephants. I tell people in my seminars that the only time I got yelled at at Neverland was when I put my hand in the elephant cage.
Brad: You know, it’s common sense. But they’re big, beautiful animals and I wanted to pet it. And man, this trainer came and she tore my head off! She said never, ever, ever, put your hand between a steel fence and an elephant! Because they don’t know. I mean, they’re just going to lean 4,000 pounds against your hand, and now you’ve got a waffle for a hand! So I learned, don’t ever do that.
Another thing that I thought was a really nice touch was Michael had those beautiful giraffes. I’ve never really been around giraffes. Who has? It’s just not something that we encounter very often in L.A.! But he put in this deck. You’d go up like two flights of stairs, and then they had these big buckets of feed up there. And so now you’re literally eye to eye with these beautiful animals, and you’re feeding them. Any chance I got – you know, if I was going to be working up there for a day – almost without fail I’d make a buzz up to see the giraffes before I went home. They’re such beautiful, gentle giants. And to actually have them kind of push their big heads against your chest while you’re feeding them … Really, really cool stuff.
Brad: So I mean, it goes on and on and on. But, you know …
Now let’s say that I missed my ride, and I got left at the giraffe pen and had to get myself back to the ornate gate. If I had to guess, I’d say you’re going to be walking for the better part of 45 minutes. If you just, you know, put your head down and started walking. It was huge. You just didn’t really walk around Neverland. You’d walk around the area that you were in. But that’s why they had the trains and the golf carts, and I’ve seen pictures where they had trams. Because it was too big to walk it. I don’t think people understand how big it was.
Lisha: And we’re just talking about the part of the property that was developed, right? I mean, the majority of the property was not developed, is that correct?
Brad: Yeah. I found some pictures – you know, like aerial photos – that show how big it was because, yeah, it went way up the sides of the mountains on either side.
Lisha: Here are the aerial photos from Sotheby’s Sycamore Valley Ranch website:
Brad: At the very, very far end of the ranch – past the giraffes and everything – was the train barn. And I don’t think anybody really went there. There was nothing to see. But that’s where the little train would go at night for repairs and things like that. And that was about as far back as the ranch was developed.
And then after that you’d need a motorcycle or a horse or an ATV or something to keep going, exploring Michael’s land. So a big, big piece of property.
Lisha: How much of the property would you say was developed?
Brad: You know, I just don’t know how far it went. But I suppose if I had to guess, maybe it would be a quarter to a third, something like that. But a lot of it would just be, I mean, Michael had little gazebos, I want to say he had two or three gazebos up on the hills. And he was a goofball! I mean he would take his golf cart or his … What do you call those three-wheeled things that are so ridiculously dangerous? Maybe he rode a quad. I think he rode a quad.
Brad: Yeah, he would take those things up to his gazebos. He loved to be up there with a pair of binoculars, and he’d be watching people build stuff and workmen and the gardeners. And even there – it was the weirdest thing – there was a gazebo that was way above the park, and I don’t know how they even got power up there but they got electricity up there. And sure enough, man, he wanted music up there! And I’m like, Michael, no one’s ever going to come up here. “No, but I have to have music. I have to have my music!” So there we’d be, hauling speakers up the side of a mountain. I mean there were paths. And almost anywhere that you’d go – I mean, not on the horse trails – but any place that he would go or guests might go, there would almost have to be music playing.
There was kind of a joke whenever he would leave the ranch. You know, almost everyone at the ranch had a radio, and when Michael was on the ranch he was always referred to as “the owner.” They didn’t say, you know, Michael Jackson’s on property. There would just be an announcement, “The owner will be here in five minutes.” And it kind of means, you know, everybody be on your best behavior. When Michael would leave the ranch, security at the last gate would announce, “The owner has left the ranch.” And then there would be this yelling from the gardeners, “Shut the music off! Please, shut the music off!” You can only listen to Debussy and The Sound of Music so many times, and you just can’t take it anymore!
Willa: That’s funny!
Brad: So when he was gone, they would shut the music off. But man, when he was there, it had to be on!
Brad: So that’s my little virtual tour of Neverland.
Lisha: Wow, that’s fascinating. Thank you so much, Brad! That’s really incredible.
Willa: It really is! And I’m so intrigued with this idea that visiting Neverland was like moving through a song. I’m really going to have to think about that some more.
Lisha: I agree. You’ve given us so much to explore and think about.
Brad: So any final thoughts or questions?
Willa: Well, we would love to include some pictures to illustrate some of the things you’ve been talking about. I know you have some pictures on your website, and there are a lot of pictures of Neverland online. Are there any specific things you’d recommend we include pictures of?
Brad: Well, everyone has seen pictures of the park. But I would say the carousel was kind of Michael’s crown jewel. Each one of those horses and animals was, I believe, hand carved. Those were really, really beautiful pieces of art. And then David Nordahl was one of Michael’s artists, and I believe David hand painted almost all of those animals.
Willa: Oh really? I didn’t know that.
Brad: So the carousel is definitely something that people should see. You know, there’s pictures of the superslide and the old go-kart track. I’ve never found a picture of the reptile barn. Man, if one of your readers happens to have a picture of that, that would be a real treat. I have searched and searched trying to find one, and just can’t.
Willa: OK, we’ll be sure to pass that along. And thank you again for joining us!
Lisha: Yes, thank you once again, Brad, for being so generous with your time and knowledge.
Brad: Thank you both. Have an awesome evening!
Willa: So following up on Brad’s suggestion, here’s a YouTube video of the carousel at Neverland that focuses on the artwork on the horses and other animals:
During our chat with Brad, he mentioned the incredible attention to detail throughout Neverland, and you can really see that in the artwork on the carousel animals.
Lisha: Yes. I’m reminded of some of my favorite photos on the Terrastories website, from the article “Inside Neverland Ranch“:
Another great resource is Rob Swinson’s book, Maker of Dreams: Creating Michael Jackson’s Neverland Valley Park, which has many detailed photographs of the carousel at Neverland, as well as a lot of information about how the park was created. Here’s a teaser photo from the 25th Anniversary of Neverland Valley Amusement Park Facebook page.
According to Swinson, this is “a photo of the ‘Butterfly Cherub Horse’ with flowers woven into the mane that Robert Nolan Hall, Chance Rides Inc., personally custom sculptured, decorated and painted for Michael as his very own special gift. It was totally unknown to Michael at the time of delivery that it existed on his new 50′ Grand Carousel as one of the 60 different menagerie animals and horses.”
Swinson’s book also acknowledges Oliver “Brick” Price, of WonderWorks in Canoga Park, California, as an important member of the “Dream Team” who helped make Neverland a reality. Brick Price will be one of the special guests speaking at Brad’s MJU seminar next month. I hear this is something not to be missed!
Lisha: Willa and I are thrilled to be joined once again by Brad Sundberg, a recording engineer who served as Michael Jackson’s technical director for the Dangerous and History albums. Beyond the studio, Brad designed and installed music and video systems in virtually every corner of Michael Jackson’s incredible Neverland Valley Ranch property. In addition to personal listening and dance studio systems, Brad created outdoor sound systems throughout the grounds with the exact same attention to detail.
At a recent In the Studio with MJ seminar, I was so intrigued by Brad’s description of Neverland and the work he did there, it left me wanting to know more! Thank you so much, Brad, for joining us again today for an in-depth look at Neverland Valley Ranch.
Willa: Yes, welcome, Brad. Thanks so much for joining us again! From everything I’ve heard about Neverland, it wasn’t just a home for Michael Jackson but also an extension of his artistic imagination. It’s almost like Neverland was a living work of art. So I’m really curious to learn more about this relatively unknown work of “art.”
Lisha: I have to say, Brad, your seminar gave me a sense of Neverland that I really hadn’t had before. We’ve all seen photos and aerial views of the property, but I don’t think I really had an idea of the true scale and grandeur of the property until I heard you describe it.
Brad: Ok, so what I want to try and do is give you guys a sense of the size of Neverland, and in a sense almost kind of walk you through it.
Lisha: Yes, being able to visualize Neverland from the ground level is what I think a lot of us are missing.
Brad: Right. Neverland was huge. You know, I’m not from Texas, and I don’t mean like Texas ranch huge, but it was 2,800 acres. To an American, that’s basically 2,800 football fields, if I’m not mistaken. It was big.
Lisha: There are many small towns that don’t have that much land!
Brad: Right. So when you went to Neverland, number one it was … I drove to Neverland countless times. I lived just outside of Pasadena, California, and Neverland is north of Santa Barbara. So you drive to Santa Barbara and get off the freeway, and then you start winding up the side of a mountain. And it’s like two-lane mountain roads. Bel Air and Beverly Hills are a million miles away. This is sagebrush and cattle and steep ravines, way, way outside of L.A. So it would take me about two and a half hours, two hours and twenty minutes, something like that, to get from the Pasadena area to Michael’s gate.
So when you drove down the road towards Neverland – and probably some of your readers have done this – I think it’s about seven miles down Figueroa Mountain Road, and it’s just a flat, pretty nondescript road. I’ll tell you one thing: that part of the country – this is going to creep some people out – there’s a lot of tarantulas. And I know about as much about tarantulas as I do writing an Italian opera, which is nothing. But tarantulas apparently live in the ground – and we’re way off topic but I’ll go fast – and I don’t know what month they come out, but I want to say it’s like March or April or something like that. And you’d be driving down Figueroa Mountain Road, and as you’re driving you would just hear this pop, pop, pop – and you’re driving over tarantulas, and they’re popping.
Brad: I don’t want to say that the road was covered in them, but there were times when I would be swerving because I don’t want to run over the little guys! But there were so many of them you couldn’t avoid them.
Willa: Oh no!
Brad: They come out of the ground, and they’re trying to warm up and find something to eat. I never really saw too many of them on the ranch, but it was always on that road out to the ranch. A few times a year they’d be all over the road, and it was really weird.
So you’d get to Neverland, and the first thing you come to is the outside gate – kind of the guard gate. And that’s where you’ve got to say who you are, and even me – and I’m not tooting my own horn – but man, every time I’d go to Neverland, I’d have to be on the list, and I’d have to be pre-approved, and I’d have to sign this three- or four-page release that I’m not going to talk about it – which of course I am.
Lisha: Every time? Every time you went?
Brad: Every single time. Every. Single. Time. Everybody in the car would have to sign this release. Whoever the guard was, they’d know me and they’d say, Hey Brad, how are you doing, and they’d get the release, and yeah. We would have to do it every single time.
So now you’re in, and it looks just like it does out. It’s sagebrush, and do you know what cypress bushes are? That’s kind of a California thing. Just kind of low, green – they’re not pretty but kind of desert-ish looking. And you drive up and over a hill, and I’ll never forget – now other people have written about this, I’m not the only one – but you would crest over this hill, and I think somewhere up there was a sign that said “Welcome to Neverland” with a cherub or a baby or something on it.
You’d come around a corner and over this hill, and then you’d start going down the other side. It wasn’t like a steep climb in the Alps or something – it was a just a road that went over a hill. And that’s when you’d start seeing the white fences and the green grass. And then you’d go a little bit further and you’d see the fountains, and the oak trees. And I think Michael kind of coined the phrase that it was like being in The Wizard of Oz where it goes from black and white to color. And it really was. It was very, very dramatic coming down that other side, and you’re like, Holy cow, I did not know this was here, because you can’t see any of that from the road. This is easily a mile or a mile and a half onto the ranch before you even see the ranch. Does that make sense?
Willa: It does. Rabbi Boteach talks about that a bit in his book. He has a quote where Michael Jackson says,
You know, it’s almost an act of psychology. . . . I was gonna have people swing them [the gates] open and really kind of have them funky and tattered, just so psychologically you really feel like you’re coming to a ranch, so that when you go around the bend I want it to change to Technicolor, like The Wizard of Oz does.
So that’s exactly what you’re describing!
Brad: Yeah. I mean the guard shack and the gate, they were nice. But it wasn’t until you got to the second gate – the ornate gate – that it really started to make a statement.
Willa: So the gates he was talking about in this quote, that’s the first gates? And then there’s a second set of gates?
Brad: Yeah, there’s the security gate out by the road, and then there’s what he called the “ornate gate” inside. So when you got to the second gate – like I say, I’m estimating – but it had to have been a mile, or maybe even a mile and a half, from the first gate to the second.
Then there was a huge parking lot that was on the left-hand side of that gate. And they did that because when we had a lot of guests, most people were not allowed to take their cars or buses into the ranch itself. You would stop at that second gate and park there. And then you would generally walk through the ornate gate. People have seen all the pictures of the black ornate gate with the gold crest and everything. And so at that point, that’s where we would unload the buses. You know, there might be kids coming in from L.A. or Santa Barbara or someplace, or Make a Wish kids or different things. That was kind of the staging area. Then they would walk through that gate. And that’s where the little train was waiting for them.
So when people would get out of their cars and buses, Michael wanted to welcome them to Neverland in a very grand way. So he asked me to build an enormous sound system right at that gate. So up to that point, there was no music, there were no lights. I remember leaving Neverland at night and, man, after you left that ornate gate, it was dark. There was just nothing up on that hill.
So our guests would show up to the gate, the gate would open up, and we would just flood them with music. And I don’t just mean a couple speakers hanging from a chain. I mean, if I’m not mistaken, we probably had 20,000 watts of power.
Willa: I don’t know much about electricity, but that sounds like a lot.
Brad: That’s a small concert system. So they actually built us a small building, kind of a shed next to the gate – I mean, not a shed, nothing at Neverland was ever a shed – but they built it just for equipment because we had so much power. Michael’s words to me were, “I want it to be loud enough to shake a bus.” So we built just this monster system. And that’s what would welcome people in. So they would walk through that gate, music is playing, and now they’ve kind of entered into Michael’s world.
Lisha: Amazing. Were there any light designs there?
Brad: Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned that! I didn’t put the lights in but we had a fiber optic guy, and at night that sign would just explode in lights. I cannot remember if it was just white lights or color. I seem to think it was just white lights. But you’ve seen fiber optic lights – you know, very Disneyesque – where they flutter from left to right. So there’s thousands of fiber optics in that sign.
Willa: This is the Neverland sign up above the gate?
Brad: Yeah, this is the big black Neverland sign, and it has the big gold crest above it. That whole thing at night was just outrageously beautiful.
So then you would walk through, and there’d be one of the staff or a couple of staff members to meet the guests there. And there’d be the little train there. Michael was very big into costumes – you know, he kind of took a cue from Disney where just about everybody at the ranch was in costume. You know, not silly, but the guys who worked on the train and the rides, they kind of had that formal kind of a conductor’s look with a conductor’s hat and a black jacket and the whole thing.
So this is an experience. You’re stepping into a different world.
Lisha: And I’ve seen maids in uniform, right? At the time, it wasn’t fashionable for wealthy people to have their employees wear uniforms, but I’ve seen pictures of the Neverland staff in maid costumes – that kind of Hollywood look?
Brad: Yep! All the security guys were in uniform. Back in the horse ranch, it was very much cowboy attire. The firemen wore firefighters clothes, and they were real. So yeah.
Lisha: And these are all elements of theater, right? We have wardrobe. We have sound. We have lights. We have these dramatic entrances and so forth. It’s very theatrical, wouldn’t you say?
Brad: Absolutely. And very planned. There was nothing at Neverland that was by accident or overlooked.
So there was a small train station right next to the big gate, and there’s something I talk about my seminars and that’s the details of Neverland. There’s that train station, and it’s smaller than a very, very small house – you know, like the size of a southern porch, maybe, or a very big gazebo. But this thing has a slate roof and architecture, and the railings and the pillars are just beautifully turned.
I’m trying to think of the word, but there’s almost like plaques or little things on the pillars – little paintings and etchings and things. It’s just gorgeous, and this is just the first train station!
Lisha: Unbelievable. Here’s the first train station as it looks now on the Sotheby’s website for Sycamore Valley Ranch:
Do you remember the name of the architect or designer?
Brad: Well, Tony Urquidez was the contractor. I don’t know who the architect was, but Michael was really good about using local guys.
Lisha: Do you think that he actually helped design it?
Brad: Oh, I’m sure Tony did. I’m positive Tony did.
Lisha: Do you think Michael Jackson also contributed?
Brad: I’m sure he might have done some rough sketches or something, but I think he was probably a little bit more involved on the concept. He would send Tony on trips. He and Tony would travel together and go to different parks and different cities and just look at architecture and get ideas. So yeah, Michael was very specific about what he wanted. But then he also kind of got a kick out of surrounding himself with creative people, and seeing what they could bring to the table. So I think the combination worked.
Willa: Brad, you mentioned earlier that everything was very carefully thought out for effect. So how would you describe the overall effect of the first gate, the drive, the ornate gate, the little train station? What I mean is, what effect or experience do you think he going for with that?
Brad: Well, I never like to try to crawl inside his head, but it was very theatrical. And you’re setting the stage. You know this is kind of the introduction – the song is beginning. And so you don’t want to flood people with everything at once. They just got off a two-hour drive, they parked, they’re finally here, and you know, it’s almost like the excitement is building.
So at that point the guests would get on the train. And it’s not that every day was the same, but the way that we designed it was they could get on the train there, and the train would, in essence, bypass the house. The house is kind of his private residence. But the train is going past the lake, and the swans, and the swan boat. And we’ve got music playing, and these gorgeous oak trees, and that’s slowly taking them up to the theme park.
Willa: And there are actually two separate trains – is that right?
Brad: Yeah. So other guests, depending on who they were, Michael might just meet them there with a golf cart, or different things would happen. You could walk to the main house, but I’m telling you – getting from one point at Neverland to another on foot, you were hoofing it! It was a good little walk to get from the ornate gate to the house. But the house is kind of the first thing you come to. There’s pastures. There’s guest housing – I think there are five or seven guest villas. I forget. And then you get to the main house.
But then from there, you can walk further to the left, and again, it’s going to be a hike, but you’re going to go past security and past the video library, and Michael had some memorabilia upstairs. Then you keep going up the hill, and you’re coming up to the big train station. And people have seen pictures of that with the flower clock and the moving figurines. That was another just absolute piece of artwork. We had music playing there. We had cricket sounds and classical music, and all kinds of things.
Lisha: What were the cricket sounds?
Brad: Well, up in that part of California, believe it or not, it’s really quiet. Michael wanted to always be creating ambience of some sort. So we would have speakers tucked away in hedges and things just playing cricket sounds that we recorded. And there would be music playing so there were all these layers of sound. We’d have birds chirping in trees. It was funny, when you would shut everything off it was almost eerily silent. Michael always wanted something – even if people didn’t really notice it – something that just added to the ambience of Neverland.
Lisha: So there was an outdoor sound design at Neverland?
Brad: Yeah. We had these rock speakers that we got from a company called Rockustics in Colorado. They sound really good, but you know, instead of having two of them or four of them or six of them, we probably had close to 300 of them, just all over the ranch. We’d use them for music, and we’d have birds. Well, we had our own bird houses that we had built with speakers in them.
But then you would walk up to this massive train station, and this is just, I’m not quoting anybody, but I’m sure you guys have read stuff about Walt Disney. Walt used to have an expression he would use when he was building Disneyland, and it sounds kind of funny to say it, but it would be like when you go to a county fair or something, there needs to be a “weenie.” There needs to be something to get people’s attention. So at Disneyland, that’s the castle. At Epcot, it’s the giant golf ball.Well to me, at Neverland, it was that big train station. It was so beautiful and you could see it from so far away.
In fact, if I’m not mistaken, when you came over that first hill, I think you could see the train station almost right away. That thing was gorgeous. You’d go in there, and that’s where the big train would go.
So there were two trains at Neverland. There was the little train that was used to carry people really for transportation. And then the big train was more of an attraction. It was an actual steam engine, The Katherine, and that was really, really beautiful.
Willa: So it was a steam engine? It was actually powered by steam?
Brad: Oh yeah.
Willa: Wow, I didn’t know that. That’s wonderful!
Brad: Yeah, the big train was an actual refurbished steam engine. They sent a bunch of us out to, I think, it was Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, and that’s where the train was refurbished. It was an old functioning steam engine, steam train, and they rebuilt the whole thing in Mt. Pleasant. So we were out there for, I don’t know, two weeks.
Lisha: Were you working on the sound system for the train? Is that why you were sent out there?
Brad: Yeah. We were doing all the sound and lights, the generator, and the whole thing. Michael had no patience, in a good way. When a new attraction would come to the park, he would want to ride it that day. So they would actually send us away to work on stuff off site, so when the new thing would show up, we could just basically hook it up and he could jump on it and start playing. He didn’t want to wait two weeks for us to put music on the train. He wanted us to go away and put music on it and have it show up just ready to go.
Willa: That’s great that he was so excited about it. Like a kid getting a new train set, only it’s a real train!
Brad: Oh, absolutely.
Willa: Did he have a water tower to fill the steam engine with water?
Brad: Oh yeah. Right by the big train station on the back side to the right, there’s a water tower. It was legit.
I believe the heat source was propane. They weren’t shoveling coal – it wasn’t quite that authentic. But no, there was nothing artificial about it. It was the real deal. They had two or three guys who were trained – no pun intended – to operate the train. It was not something where you’re going to have some 12-year-old kid jump in there and start pulling levers. There were places at the ranch where you could have all the fun you wanted, but there was stuff like that that was real deal.
Willa: That’s incredible.
Brad: So once you were at the big train station, it was basically, for lack of a better word, almost like a huge hourglass, where there was a loop on either end, and then a long path in the middle that would take you past the theater. There was a stop at the theater, and you could jump off there. And this was on what I would call the high side of the valley. If you’re in Neverland looking all the way down the valley, the big train was on your left and the little train was on your right. They both took you all the way to the back side of the valley.
So on the big train you could jump off at the theater or keep going into a giant loop back by the zoo and the chimps and giraffes and all that. So when you’re at the train station, you could either take the train or you could walk to the theater, if you really wanted to burn some calories. I didn’t have a smart phone with a GPS on it back then, but I’m guessing it had to have been the better part of three-quarters of a mile from the train station to the theater.
It was just big. When we were working up there, we always had our trucks or cars on the property because we weren’t usually there with guests, or it would be a small group of guests. It’s pretty hard for us to be there if there were going to be three buses of people up there. But you would jump on a golf cart or something to get around.
Now go back to the little train, over on the other side of the house – way on the other side – and that’s where the teepee village was. The teepee village and the waterpark. That was one of the only places where we did not put music. We wanted to keep that really authentic.
Willa: In the teepee village?
Brad: Yeah, there was no electricity back there. It was just the teepee village and the waterpark. And it was the coolest waterpark ever, because when kids would go back there, only at Michael Jackson’s ranch are there just barrels of water balloons that have already been filled up, and they’re all set to go for you. And you can just go crazy. So they had firehoses back there, and water cannons. Of course, California has been in a pretty vicious drought for a while so now it might be frowned upon just a little bit, but back then that wasn’t quite as big a deal.
Willa: I’m just imagining being the person whose job it was to fill water balloons!
Brad: Well, I’m told that at its peak, Neverland had something like – I don’t want to exaggerate, and there’s people who have done more research than I have – but I’m told there was somewhere around 100 to 110 employees. Now about 60 or 70 of those were gardeners. The landscaping was just gorgeous. They had nurseries and fresh flowers all the time.
So yeah, I’m sure they had somebody who just filled water balloons for special event days. They had ride operators and zoo keepers and gardeners and housekeepers and cooks, and then just the ranch staff – I mean, the ranch manager and maintenance, and those kind of people behind the scenes. It was a full-blown operation. I’ve worked in some pretty astounding homes in my life, but this was on a whole different level. Really not like anything else.
Lisha: It sounds more like a hotel in that there were so many employees 24/7, right? It’s not like all the employees went home at night.
Brad: It was scheduled very well. It’s not like they had ride operators out standing by the bumper cars at 4 in the morning, wondering if someone is going to show up. It wasn’t quite like that. It was very scheduled where, if a big group was going to come on a Saturday, then they would have all the ride operators there, and the rides would be open for maybe six hours or something. If there were VIP guests there, then yeah, you could get spaghetti at 3 in the morning if that’s what you wanted. I don’t think a lot of people would do that. I mean it wasn’t that big. There weren’t that many guests. But yeah, Michael wanted his guests to be pampered to the nth degree.
Willa: Like a resort.
Brad: Yeah. So, I kind of treat the ranch in thirds. I’ve kind of taken you through the first third, which is the guard gate, the ornate gate, the pastures, the main house, the waterpark, the big train station. If you picture Neverland almost like a surfboard or something, the bottom third of it is what I have described.
Lisha: Ok, so for our readers, here’s a map of Neverland that illustrates the surfboard analogy quite well and how the ranch was divided in thirds:
Also, here is a link to some recent drone photography of the property, now called Sycamore Valley Ranch, for those who might not have seen it!
Stay tuned for Part Two of Brad’s description of Neverland, and thank you again, Brad, for being so generous with your time and walking us through Neverland Valley Ranch!
Willa: This week Lisha and I are very happy to be joined by Brad Sundberg, a recording engineer who worked with Michael Jackson for twenty years – is that right, Brad?
Brad: Oh yeah, right around twenty years, on and off, between various projects.
Willa: And you were the technical director for Dangerous, History, and Blood on the Dance Floor?
Brad: Well, really just Dangerous and History. I worked on some of the tracks for Blood – I was one of the engineers on several of those projects.
Willa: Ok, and then you also were a sound engineer at Neverland and worked on a lot of different projects there, right?
Brad: Yeah, I built most of the systems at the ranch and I worked on a bunch of his videos. So if it involved music or some sort of, you know, light control or something, I was probably involved.
Lisha: You also did the sound design at Neverland, correct?
Brad: I did the sound design. I stripped the wires. I pulled them through tubes. I carried speakers and ladders. I did it all – me and a small crew.
Willa: And you’ve also taken an active role in educating people about Michael Jackson as an artist. In fact you’re organizing something called MJU, or Michael Jackson University, that’s coming up in June. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about MJU and what it’s about.
Brad: Sure. Thank you both for having me back. It’s always great to chat with you guys.
Willa: Oh, it’s great to have you here!
Lisha: Thank you so much for joining us, Brad!
Brad: We just launched our website – or a new website, I should say – and in the process of doing that I was kind of given the task of counting all the seminars and events that we’ve hosted and where we’ve been. And we’ve done something like 75 live events to this point, in about 12 countries, and hosted somewhere around 2,400 guests. I’m pretty proud of that and I’m really pleased with our guests and the events that we’ve come up with.
So this summer we wanted to do something bigger, different … dare I say, something that no one’s ever really done before. We decided to call it MJU, and we want it to cover a pretty extensive portion of Michael’s professional life, starting at Off the Wall and going through Thriller, Bad, Dangerous, and so on all the way to This Is It.
I’m pretty fortunate in that I know so many of those guys – Ed Cherney, Matt Forger, Jerry Hey, Brian Vibberts, Brad Buxer. And so we just started making some phone calls. I started calling guys. I sent emails, smoke signals, whatever it would take to see if I can get these guys interested in all of us essentially being in one place at one time. Well, it’s too many guys for one day, so we broke it up into a four-day event that we’re going to be doing on June 20th, 21st, 22nd, and 23rd at SIR studios in Hollywood.
June 20th, the first day, which is a Monday, is going to be kind of my solo show. That’s going to be the newest version of In the Studio with MJ and we’re going to spend a good bit of time talking about Neverland, and kind of the latest incarnation of my seminar, if you will. We’ve added quite a few new songs, some new material that we tried in Europe this past January, and it went really well. So the first day is going to be In the Studio with MJ.
Day Two we’re going to dig into what I call the early years. And that’s going to be where we’re going to go all the way back to Off the Wall and I’ve got Ed Cherney coming in. Ed was basically me several years before. He was Bruce Swedien’s assistant engineer.
Willa: Oh interesting.
Brad: I find it interesting sometimes to talk to the people behind the scenes because they are a bit more, you know, they were there but they weren’t really the star of the show. So Ed was there with Michael at a really cool time. I mean that was Michael’s first project with Quincy and Bruce and that team.
Ed’s going to be opening up Day Two, and we’re going to dig straight into Off the Wall. Then from there, we’re going to bring Matt Forger in and start talking about Thriller. Matt was the assistant engineer on Thriller. Matt actually recorded the Eddie Van Halen solo on “Beat It” and pieced that whole thing together.
Willa: Oh really!
Brad: Matt’s got some great stories. Matt is the sweetest, kindest man. I love Matt, absolutely think the world of him. So then Matt went on to do Captain EO. So he did that alone with Michael. We’ve done an entire seminar just on Captain EO. Lisha, were you here for that?
Lisha: Oh my god, it was incredible. Just incredible.
Brad: You’re so kind.
Lisha: No, I’m a huge fan of Captain EO, and not nearly enough has been written about it. Just in the history of the music video in general, it has not gotten its due. Hearing Matt Forger recall how it all came together was an amazing experience. I just loved it.
Brad: You’re very kind, thank you. We need to do another one.
Willa: Now you did that at Disney World, and you all actually saw the 4D version of Captain EO a couple of times, right?
Brad: Yeah, we knew that it was going to end, and Disney would never really say when the last day was. They finally did, but I was getting nervous that they were going to pull the plug on it. So I flew Matt out, and we had a good group. Yes, we did that here at Epcot. We did the seminar at – where were we? Stark Lake Studios? Do you remember, Lisha? I think it was at Stark Lake.
Lisha: Yes, that’s right, and then we spent the next day at Disney.
Brad: I think we saw EO three or four times – something like that.
So anyway, we’ll have Matt, and somewhere I’ve got a working copy of Captain EO – kind of a production print. So we might watch part of that. Then, all on that same day, we’ll jump into the Bad album. Matt was very involved in the pre-production of the Bad album, and so he recorded a whole lot of those early versions. And then Bruce and Quincy took it from there, and did kind of the final production on that album.
Willa: Now, when you say pre-production, do you mean creating the demos so they can decide if they want to move forward with that song? Or what does pre-production involve?
Matt: Well, in Michael Jackson world, it’s much bigger than for a lot of artists. Michael had his own studio – at Hayvenhurst, I should say – you know, his home. And so Matt Forger and Bill Bottrell and Brent Averill spent a lot of time at Hayvenhurst, in essence recording a good chunk of the Bad album: “Smooth Criminal,” “Liberian Girl,” “Bad,” “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Most of those songs were done before the album even started.
There’s all kinds of forums and goofy talk about this stuff where sometimes they’re referred to as the B Team, and I just think that’s tacky and uncalled for. These are Michael’s guys, and they did a really beautiful job. But Bruce and Quincy wanted to take it up even another notch, so some of those songs were re-recorded. But the melody is in – the core, the heart of those songs was done by these guys.
So we’ll have Matt there, and of course I was very involved with the Bad album. So we’ll be talking about that. And that’s Day Two.
I don’t know what time we’re going to crawl out of there that night, but Day Three we’re going to go in a whole different direction. We’re going to start talking about Michael’s short films, and the tours. I’ve got a guy by the name of Brick Price, and Brick is an old, old dear friend. See Michael had all these – you know, Michael was complicated, and he had friends in the film industry, he had artists, and just people – like he’d hang out with the Imagineers at Disney. Brick was one of these guys. I think he came from the Star Trek world. And Brick is really good at building spaceships, and so I know Brick was involved in Captain EO. But then he was very involved in Moonwalker, and I believe Brick was also involved in Ghosts.
Willa: Oh really!
Brad: Yeah, I could be wrong, but I know he was very involved in Moonwalker. I’ve got some other friends from Ghosts and I haven’t even reached out to them yet.
But Brick has some stuff up his sleeves. I don’t know what he’s going to bring. I mean he built like the Captain EO sets and all that stuff. He’s got some crazy stuff in his collection, and it’s just in a warehouse. So he’s kind of excited to, you know, pull it out and blow the dust off it and let us see it. He’s got some photos of Michael that have just never been seen. And he’s very protective of that stuff. And he’s just a good guy. He was with us at the ranch and did a lot of the visuals up there. His kids ran around the ranch like they owned the place. He was really good friends with Michael.
So we’re going to start Wednesday with Brick. And I don’t know how I’m going to stop, but at some point I’ve got to stop that and then we’re going to shift into the tours. At that point, my plan is to have Brad Buxer and Michael Prince. And there are other people I’ve reached out to, and they may or may not surprise us. I don’t know.
But we’re going to spend a good bit of time talking about what it was like to tour with Michael Jackson. That’s something I haven’t really dug into too deep in my seminars because I didn’t tour with him. I would do all what’s called the tour pre-production, where we would get the band trained on new songs. I wasn’t involved in any of the visuals on the tours but I was involved in the music. We’d have to change the tempo of songs, change the key – things like that.
Willa: And why would you need to do that?
Brad: Well, Michael liked shows to be fast and exciting. Most artists do this, especially pop musicians. You know, if you listen to the old Jackson song, “You’ve got me working, working day and night” – listen to the album speed, and then watch one of the videos where he does it live, it’s just ridiculously fast. So he wants the audience feeling that energy. He wants the really fast tempo that’s fun to dance to. And then we would pitch it way down so he could actually sing it, because you can’t sing at that key night after night. So we’d want to get it down into a register that he was comfortable singing at.
Willa: Oh interesting. I thought you were going to say just the opposite – that you would slow it down so he could conserve energy on a long tour and not wear himself out.
Brad: Oh no! No, he wanted the tempo to be just outrageously fast for all of those songs, and then we’d pitch them way down. So we’d work with the band, and that’s where Brad Buxer really comes in, taking Michael’s ideas musically and turning them into something that’s going to be fun for the band to play and for an audience to enjoy.
Willa: So if he would sing at the pitch that it was on the album, night after night, that would strain his voice?
Brad: Yeah. If you’re going to sing live, you want to pitch it down to a lower register. It’s just easier to sing. It’s pretty hard to hit those high notes night after night – that’s going to blow your voice out.
Willa: Oh interesting. I didn’t know that.
Brad: But some of the stuff that Buxer and I have talked about before is just, you know, things that I find interesting. I don’t know, maybe I’m just a weirdo but I’ve been to so many of the shows that, yeah, it’s kind of fun what goes on on stage, but I’m always curious about backstage, and how they traveled. The European tours where they had these giant Russian jets – Brad has told me about those, and that stuff’s just crazy.
They would have three stages. Michael would be on one stage on a Tuesday. The crew would be at the previous stage that same day, breaking it down in a previous city. And there would be another crew in a third city, setting the next stage up.
Willa: Oh, so they would leap frog?
Brad: Exactly. And the logistics of that – I love that kind of stuff – just to coordinate all of that activity. They actually had a baker that traveled on the crew with them, so every day they’d have fresh bread, fresh pies. Who does that?!
I love that kind of stuff. So we’re going to dig into the tours, on stage and backstage, on that Wednesday. And then if we have any strength left at all, we’re going to come back on Thursday and dig into the later years. And more than likely that’ll be Dangerous, HIStory, Invincible. And then all the way through the Vegas years, and the Apollo Theater, and the Dubai show, and the Clinton – what was it? The Democratic National Convention whatever it was.
Willa: Oh, the inauguration?
Brad: No, I think it was a Clinton gala or something.
Lisha: Yeah, he actually did both.
Brad: Ok. And then we’ll take it all the way to, you know – it’s like I sometimes say, the story doesn’t really have a happy ending, but we’ll talk about This Is It. Brad Prince was with Michael that last night, and you know, I think it’s a good story for people to hear.
So that’s MJU. We’re kind of taking my seminar and just blowing it up over four days. And I’m bringing in the people that were there. And I could go on and on and on. There’s plenty more people I’d like to bring in in the future.
Willa: It sounds like it could go on for four months. I mean, that’s a semester’s worth of material you’re covering.
Brad: There’s actually one guy I inadvertently overlooked, and that’s Jerry Hey. Jerry’s going to be there on Day Two, the early years. Jerry is a sweet, sweet, remarkably talented man. Jerry was the lead horn player for Seawind, and he went on to build what’s called the Seawind Horns in L.A. And these guys played on all of Michael’s records – the horn section – and Quincy’s, and all over town they played.
But Jerry also was very involved in a lot of the vocal arrangements and background melodies and all that, and he’s just a funny guy. He’s another piece to the puzzle that people may not sit up and go, Oh wow, Jerry Hey’s going to be there. But you don’t want to miss Jerry. He has so much knowledge, and Michael loved Jerry so much. I haven’t really hung with Jerry in years. Jerry had a little bit of a health crisis this past summer, and thankfully he’s doing well. But I’m really, really excited to have Jerry with us on Day Two.
And then Day Four we’ve got Brian Vibberts and Rob Hoffman, who both were with us on the HIStory projects and stayed with Michael beyond that. So you know – let’s see, what more can I give? We’ve really pulled out all the stops, and I’m really excited about this.
Lisha: Wow, it sounds absolutely amazing.
Willa: It does, and I also think it’s really important. There have there been more than a few critics – and I think this is changing somewhat – but there have been quite a few people who have made it sound like Michael Jackson was a very talented singer and dancer, but that basically he was just a performer. That he didn’t have a vision. It was really Quincy Jones’ vision or Berry Gordy’s vision, and Michael Jackson was just performing. They were really the people creating the art.
Willa: And I think your seminars have really countered that and shown that Michael Jackson was very active in the studio and an artist in the fullest sense of the word.
Brad: And he was smart. I mean, to surround yourself with people that you trust. You’re in essence kind of putting your career into their hands and saying, That was great, now where are we going to go next? That takes a lot of guts. And so he would surround himself with good people – some would stick around for a while, some would kind of come and go.
You know, I think if there’s one thing you’re going to see in people that I use in my seminars, but also people that really worked with Michael for long term, they’re just good people. And they’re approachable. And they’re funny. And they might be a little bit eccentric, but they bring something to the table that Michael knew. And Michael loved that. He loved having a variety of people around him. We just didn’t have a lot of crazy egos in the studio with Michael. I think people see that in my seminars – that we just don’t have egomaniacs. Michael just didn’t work well with people like that. So they’re really cool guys, and I’m pretty proud and pleased that they’re willing to kind of go on this journey with me.
Willa: It sounds fabulous.
Brad: So buy your tickets! Get on my website and buy a ticket. It’s the biggest facility – well, we had a big facility in Tokyo – but this is probably the biggest facility that we’ve used in the States. It’s a big room where people are going to be able to stretch out, and the sound system there is unbelievable. It’s really going to be a special event.
Willa: So how many people can that studio hold?
Brad: I’m told that we can do about 100, maybe 120 – something like that.
Willa: So it will still be really intimate?
Brad: Oh yeah. We’re not talking thousands. No, it’ll certainly be comfortable. And it’s a funky dark studio that people like. I do these all over the place, and some places are so clean and pristine that it’s a little boring. I kind of like something that’s got a little more grit to it. This is a place that just has years of history. So I hope people will consider coming.
Willa: And you’ll be bringing your tapes and pictures and stories?
Brad: We’ll be bringing all kinds of stuff. I haven’t really publicly announced this yet, but tentatively we’ve got a really heavy collector – I don’t want to mention his name – but he’s offered to come and bring some crazy, you know, one of the original gloves, several of the jackets. He just has a remarkable collection. And he’s offered to come in and set that up. People aren’t going to be able to try on jackets or anything, but you know.
And then at night, we’re kind of kicking around the idea of having a Moonwalker night, and just some fun extra things that we might put together. We’re putting our heart and soul into it, and I think it’s really going to be a cool event.
Willa: It sounds very fun!
Brad: So June 20th through 23rd, in Hollywood, California.
Lisha: If anyone would like more information, check out Brad’s beautiful new website. Even if you can’t go to the seminar, you’ll definitely want to spend some time looking around on this site. There’s lots of great information on Brad’s In the Studio with Michael Jackson Facebook page, too.
Thanks again, Brad, for giving us a sneak peek of MJU!
Willa: Yes, thanks so much for talking with us! And we’ll continue our conversation soon, when we talk about Neverland.
Brad: Thank you both!
Lisha: In a previous post we talked about the evolution of Michael Jackson’s Ghosts, from an unfinished cross-promotional short film for Addams Family Values to a 38-minute musical masterpiece, which curiously, never received a proper release. Both films depict a small town Mayor leading an angry mob as they attempt to force the local “weirdo” out of his home and out of town. Unfortunately, the storyline hits terribly close to home when we consider what actually happened in Michael Jackson’s life.
Willa: It really does. It’s almost like he could predict what would happen.
Lisha: Eerily so. After years of being harassed by law enforcement and vilified by the media, “an angry mob” from the Sheriff’s Department raided Michael Jackson’s home and attempted to prosecute him based on flimsy “evidence” that frankly, strains credulity. When the facts were presented in a court of law, Michael Jackson was fully exonerated – suggesting the case should never have been brought in the first place.
But even after vindication, Michael Jackson was informed that he was still in danger of malicious prosecution. Despite his wealth, fame, and proven innocence, Michael Jackson abandoned his home and fled the country.
Willa, I know we’re all troubled by what happened in this case, but the more I think about it, the more deeply troubled I am. I’m just not ok with any government authority forcing an innocent man and his family out of their home and out of town. And it greatly disturbs me that this was accomplished in lockstep with the infotainment industry. Journalists are supposed to question authority and investigate abuses of power, not join in the mob mentality!
Willa: Exactly. That’s why the news media is sometimes called the Fourth Estate. We have a government of three branches or “estates” – the presidency, the congress, and the Supreme Court – that are supposed to provide checks and balances on one another, and then the news media is another avenue of checks and balances. That’s where the term Fourth Estate comes from. But what happens when the media fails to provide that review, and instead only adds momentum to abuses of power? It’s really frightening to think about.
Lisha: It’s terrifying. It is crucial in a democracy that the media investigate all branches of government. When they don’t, we have reason to be alarmed. But to be honest, I’m not sure the media or the prosecution has fully understood their actions in the Michael Jackson case.
Willa: Or the implications of their actions.
Lisha: Yes, and I don’t think the general public has stopped to consider what a slippery slope this is either.
Willa: I agree.
Lisha: So I’d like to dig deeper and try to put Michael Jackson’s expulsion from Neverland into some kind of historical context, in an effort to shed light on how something like this could happen in the “land of the free.” Specifically, I’d like to talk about racial politics in the US and the history of banishment that has occurred in African American communities all across the country.
I recently came across a 2007 documentary film titled Banished, directed and narrated by Marco Williams. It really got me thinking about the painful history of banishment in the US and how this history echoes in Michael Jackson’s exodus from Neverland. For anyone who is interested in watching the film, here’s a link:
Willa: We should probably warn everyone that the documentary is about 90 minutes long, but if you can find the time to watch it, it’s well worth it. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, Lisha, ever since you shared it with me.
Lisha: Me either, Willa. It’s hard to shake.
Willa: It really is, and it shows there has been a recurring pattern in the US, ever since the Civil War ended slavery as a legal institution, of resentful whites destroying successful black communities and confiscating their property. It generally begins with false accusations against a black man – that he has committed rape or some form of sexual assault against a white woman. Then a white mob gathers, and he is either lynched or threatened with lynching. The violence spreads, other black residents are advised to leave their homes if they want to save their lives, and almost everything they own is lost. The pattern is remarkably similar each time, and there are surprising similarities to the Michael Jackson case.
Lisha: Shockingly so. Especially when you consider that almost every case of banishment begins with an unproven allegation of sexual violence.
Willa: Exactly, but that accusation is just a justification for destroying or confiscating black property, which is the real motive.
What we see over and over again is black homeowners, black business owners, and entire black communities forced to flee at a moment’s notice, leaving almost all of their possessions behind. This is especially troubling since I read a study one time that said it generally takes an immigrant family to the US five generations to collect enough assets to be considered comfortably middle class, meaning secure enough where one tragic event like a house fire or the death of a breadwinner won’t send the entire family back into poverty. So if a community loses its property and all of its material assets, it is impoverished not just now but for generations.
Lisha: I agree that the consequences are far-reaching, for the families who have been displaced and for the entire community. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that the law actually supported this process. After victims were terrorized and forced to leave their homes, their property was often taken from them, legally, through laws of adverse possession.
While the specific legalities may be different in Michael Jackson’s expulsion from Neverland, the overall contour is identical: someone in the dominant culture is allowed to decide who can or cannot occupy a certain space – regardless of its rightful ownership – and the actions taken to gain control of that space are mysteriously never questioned or fully examined. In the end, black property and wealth are lost, and someone in the dominant culture takes possession of property that was legally purchased by another.
Willa: Yes, in many cases false accusations of sexual misconduct ultimately led to a legal transfer of property, as you say, Lisha. And the individuals who committed violence against black property owners were almost never held accountable for their actions.
Lisha: That’s exactly right. And we’re not just talking loss of property, but loss of life as well. Many, many African American men lost their lives this way. This is a horrific part of our past that I don’t believe has been honorably resolved. In fact, I believe this history lingers on, but in more subtle ways. For example, in a 2003 CNN interview, Jermaine Jackson called his brother’s arrest “nothing but a modern-day lynching” and I’m inclined to agree with him. While I certainly don’t want to minimize the heinous murders that occurred by comparing them to a case that ended in a fair trial and 14 not-guilty verdicts, I agree with Jermaine Jackson that this violent history still plays out in less obvious forms.
Thomas Mesereau gave an interview to Charles Thomson, Jamon Bull, and Q of the MJ Cast on Vindication Day, June 13, 2015, the tenth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s exoneration in court. As Mesereau has stated before, he strongly urged Michael Jackson to leave his home and never return, warning him that he could never be safe there again (about 1:13:17 minutes into the interview):
Bull: Following the verdict, did Michael make it clear to you that he wanted to leave the United States so soon and head to the Middle East?
Mesereau: Not in the least … When I first got into the case and met the prosecutors and met the sheriffs, and went to the evidence locker to examine evidence they had seized and planned to use in the trial, I had a very distinct feeling they were just on top of the world. They were about to embark on the world’s most covered trial. They felt there was no way they could lose it. They were feeling like movie stars and feeling no pain. …
And I remember watching some of these police officers, these sheriffs, as they were doing a second search [of Neverland]. And you know some of them were like, touching his artwork. It was almost a demonic sort of look on their faces like we’ve got the great Michael Jackson under our control. He might be the great Michael Jackson with all this wealth and fame but we control him. And I had a distinct feeling the cruelty and the abuse he could be subjected to if convicted and incarcerated might have been monumental. I mean to me it was like a death penalty case. …
I told [Michael Jackson] to leave Neverland and not return. And he seemed a bit shocked at what I said. … I said he can’t live in peace there ever again. They have ruined it. I didn’t know where he was going to go. I did not know he was going to the Middle East until he started calling our office from the Middle East. But I strongly urged that he leave and not return. I said, you know, many things in life have a time and a place. Neverland has run its course. You will not be safe there. You know you can’t go through one of these things again.
So Michael Jackson abandoned Neverland, fearing what prosecutors would do to him and his family.
Willa: Wow, Lisha, I hadn’t heard this interview before. Thank you for sharing it. Mesereau’s description of the police at Neverland is just chilling, especially the part about them “touching his artwork” and seeming eager to have “the great Michael Jackson under our control.” It’s horrifying to think about what the police could have done, or what could have happened to him in prison. As Mesereau said, “I had a distinct feeling the cruelty and the abuse he could be subjected to if convicted and incarcerated might have been monumental.” Looking at it this way, I think he was right to treat Michael Jackson’s trial like a death penalty case.
Lisha: I agree. This was no trivial matter. It’s quite clear to me that what happened to Michael Jackson was an act of violence and that he was forced to leave his home in terror. While the violence may take a different form than we’ve historically seen with lynchings, shootings and banishment, nonetheless, violence and terror were inflicted on Michael Jackson. The end result is that he was forced to flee his home and he nearly lost his freedom and his family too. He also suffered tremendous financial losses. By 2008, the AP reported that “Michael Jackson has given up title to his Neverland ranch, transferring the deed to a company he partly controls.”
So as we know, Michael Jackson did lose control of Neverland and it is now for sale. I’ve heard speculation that his Estate may not profit at all from the sale, depending on the final purchase price. Personally, I’m not willing to entertain any theory that Michael Jackson’s complicated debt structure was the cause of this loss, without first taking into account the untold millions that law enforcement and the media cost him.
Willa: Exactly. Blaming the loss of Neverland on his rising debts misses the point, which is that the false allegations against him severely damaged his career and his income, causing him to go into debt. As the article you just cited says, “Jackson has struggled to pay his debts since his financial empire began to crumble following his arrest in 2003.” Actually, the problem began much earlier, with the 1993 allegations.
So as in the three cases studied in the Banished documentary, racial jealousy and false claims of sexual misconduct against a successful black man led to loss of property. It’s tragic, especially when you think of how much he loved Neverland, and how hard he worked to make it a special place where he could feel safe from prying eyes.
Lisha: It is tragic. And there is a direct causal link between the false allegations, the official response to them, and the loss of income and property sustained. Many of the losses can be calculated quite precisely in cold hard cash, like the canceled endorsement deals and movie offers. But Michael Jackson’s home and livelihood were so much more than just a place to live and a way to earn a living.
Willa: Yes, Neverland was much more than a home, and his art was so much more than a source of income. It was his life. It really is heartbreaking.
Lisha: It is.
Willa: But it’s heartbreaking when anyone loses their home. And when we look at this through a historical lens, it becomes very clear that this is part of a larger pattern.
Lisha: I agree. It’s a larger pattern of violence attempts to disguise the intolerance at its root.
Willa: Absolutely. I recently found another documentary called The Night Tulsa Burned and it focuses on one specific case of banishment: the Tulsa, Oklahoma, race riot of 1921, which left as many as 300 people dead and 8,000 people homeless. According to a 2011 features article in The New York Times, it “may be the deadliest occurrence of racial violence in United States history.” Here’s a link to that documentary, which is about 45 minutes long:
Lisha: I’m so glad you shared this, Willa, because for me, the Tulsa riot shows so clearly why even in 2016, we are still fighting for racial justice and “Black Lives Matter.”
Historian Jelani Cobb recently pointed out in a New Yorker article that although the Tulsa race riot was one of the worst incidents of domestic terrorism in US history, it is rarely referred to that way:
The F.B.I. Web page on the [Oklahoma City] Murrah bombing lists it as “the worst act of homegrown terrorism in the nation’s history.” That designation overlooks the Tulsa riots of 1921, in which a white mob, enraged by a spurious allegation that a black teen-ager had attempted to assault a young white woman, was deputized and given carte blanche to attack the city’s prosperous black Greenwood section, resulting in as many as three hundred black fatalities. From one perspective, the Murrah bombing was the worst act of domestic terrorism in our history, but, as the descendants of the Greenwood survivors know, it was likely not even the worst incident in Oklahoma’s history.
Cobb makes a very important point: loss of black life is often diminished or forgotten when the dominant white culture historicizes the past. A big reason for this in the Tulsa case is that law enforcement and the media actually participated in the violence. A local newspaper put out false, inflammatory information to incite the riot, and law enforcement stood by and watched as approximately 300 black Tulsans were murdered. Believe it or not, the National Guard took over 6,000 black citizens into custody while their homes and businesses were being destroyed. And no one was ever arrested or prosecuted for the terrorism that happened that day.
Willa: Yes. It sounds unbelievable but that’s exactly what happened. In fact, the more you learn about the details of the riot, the more outrageous it becomes. Apparently a black teenager, Dick Rowland, who worked at a shoeshine stand in downtown Tulsa, was entering an elevator so he could visit one of the few bathrooms that was available to blacks in that segregated city. It seems he tripped as he entered the elevator and fell against the young white elevator operator, Sarah Page. He was accused of assaulting Page and arrested, but she refused to press charges, and many prominent white businessmen came to his defense, saying that wasn’t in his nature.
However, rumors of the incident spread, and that afternoon The Tulsa Tribune published an inflammatory article that accused Rowland of either rape or attempted rape. That evening, a mob of about 2,000 whites gathered at the courthouse, and violence erupted. The police resisted the mob and protected Rowland from lynching, but they didn’t arrest the white men who were leading the mob. Instead, they arrested thousands of black men, as you say, Lisha, and put them in detention centers, leaving their homes and businesses defenseless.
White men with torches then swept through the Greenwood district of Tulsa, setting fire to black homes and businesses. In the documentary, one riot survivor, George Monroe, describes what happened this way:
I will always remember four men coming in our house with torches. My mother saw them coming and she put the four of we children under the bed. And from under the bed we could see them walking to the curtains and setting fire to the curtains to set our house on fire.
I find this image of the white mob descending on Greenwood with flaming torches in hand eerily evocative of the opening scenes of Ghosts.
Lisha: Exactly! I do too. Monroe’s childhood memory is just so horrific. Like the story in Ghosts, the mob didn’t enter Greenwood looking for a criminal (they knew Rowland was already in custody). The mob went to Greenwood to force people out who they believed were different from them, despite the fact they were on their own property and legally entitled to the same rights and protections everyone else had.
Willa: That’s a very important point, Lisha – Rowland was in jail when the mob descended on Greenwood. That really underscores the fact that the false allegations against Rowland were just an excuse. That’s not what the riot was really about. The true motivation was racial jealousy.
Before the riot, the Greenwood district was one of the wealthiest black communities in the US – an area so prosperous Booker T. Washington called it Negro Wall Street. In the economic expansion of the late 1910s and early 1920s – a period known as the “Roaring Twenties” because it was such a boom time, financially – many businessmen became very wealthy, including black businessmen. And as historian Scott Ellsworth notes in the documentary, “For some white people, a black person with any wealth, then as well as today, is something that created jealousy.” So as black wealth increased, race riots broke out across the nation. As Ellsworth goes on to say,
The important thing to remember about race riots during this period is that they are characterized by whites invading black communities … attacking black businesses, attacking black homes.
So the allegations of sexual misconduct were simply a pretext, a way to justify white aggression against black property owners, when the real motivation was racial jealousy and a blatant land grab.
Lisha: Yes, that is the pattern. When black success occurs, economic jealousy, unproven allegations, and white-on-black violence follows. The false accusations of rape are even more infuriating if we look at the very real problem of white-on-black sexual violence that has occurred all throughout US history.
Willa: Yes, that’s a painful legacy with roots deep in our history. The rape of black women by white slave owners was a common practice for centuries before the Civil War. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, a US President and the author of the Declaration of Independence, had children by one of his slaves – a woman who was herself the (black) daughter of his (white) father-in-law, so his wife’s half-sister. It seems to have been tacitly accepted that white men should have access to black women’s bodies.
However, black men were prohibited from white women’s bodies, even through marriage. Miscegenation was illegal in many states until the Supreme Court finally struck down those laws in 1967. The merest hint of sexual relations between a black man and a white woman, even if it were consensual, remained an inflammatory issue, and many black celebrities were targeted because of this, as if (white) authorities were making an example of them. We see this with Jack Johnson, Chuck Berry, Malcolm X, and many others.
Michael Jackson talked about this in a 2005 interview with Jesse Jackson:
The Jack Johnson story … called Unforgivable Blackness. It’s an amazing story about this man from 1910 who was the heavyweight champion of the world, and thrust into a society that didn’t want to accept his position and his lifestyle. And what they put him through. And how they changed laws to imprison the man, to put him away behind bars, just to get him some kind of way.
Jack Johnson’s unacceptable “position and lifestyle” that Michael Jackson mentions include his title as heavyweight champion of the world, his flamboyant displays of wealth, and his numerous relationships with white women, including three marriages. Because of his success and his defiance of racial expectations, he was targeted by white authorities and sent to prison under the Mann Act. That’s what Michael Jackson was referring to when he said “they changed laws to imprison the man.”
Lisha: Yes, apparently the Mann Act was originally intended to prevent women from being lured into interstate prostitution. The law had to be bent considerably in order to prosecute Jack Johnson. Legally, it’s hard to believe it was used to send him to prison.
Willa: Yes, and that same law was later used to imprison Chuck Berry. There was an attempt to use it against Michael Jackson as well, as Charles Thomson talked about in a post with Joie and me about Michael Jackson’s recently released FBI files. As Charles said, the files reveal that “Tom Sneddon, the DA pursuing Jackson, tried to get the FBI to prosecute Jackson under the Mann Act.”
Lisha: I don’t know how much clearer the connection could be between black success and government persecution, really.
Willa: Yes. Michael Jackson himself clearly saw his case as part of a long history of white authorities targeting successful black figures. For example, when Jesse Jackson asked him, “How are you handling it?,” he replied,
I’m handling it by using other people in the past who have gone through this sort of thing. Mandela’s story has given me a lot of strength – what he’s gone through. The Jack Johnson story … And Muhammad Ali’s story … All these stories that I can go back in history and read about give me strength.
Lisha: It stands to reason that black celebrities are especially vulnerable to this kind of attack, precisely because of their wealth and success. This is especially true of those who refuse to fit the mold of the “model minority,” such as Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jackson. Ali publicly stated that he strongly related to the Jack Johnson story. It’s unsurprising that Michael Jackson identified with both their stories as well.
Here’s something that has been bugging me for a while that I’ve really wanted to talk to you about – it’s Bill Maher’s response to the Jesse Jackson interview you just mentioned. In the past, I’ve considered Bill Maher to be one of our smartest comedians. But have you seen this clip of him belittling Michael Jackson while trying to get Rev. Jackson to denounce his interview with him? It’s disturbing to me how this commentary generates so much laughter:
Willa: I agree the audience’s laughter is very troubling, and so is Bill Maher’s handling of this. I mean, they laugh because he cues them to laugh. But it’s interesting to look at what Maher is saying. He begins by telling Jesse Jackson,
He [Michael Jackson] compared himself this week to Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, and Nelson Mandela. Now, as a civil rights leader who has really, really faced the battlements – I mean, you were there with Martin Luther King when he was shot, you marched, I mean, you faced the firehoses – this has gotta bother you. …
This must upset you when people take this when it’s really not a racial issue.
So Bill Maher seems to think that racism was something that happened in Alabama in 1965, not something that was still happening in California in 2003. The police response to Martin Luther King is clearly racism to Maher, but he doesn’t see how the police handling of the Michael Jackson case also fits a pattern of racism.
But I thought Jesse Jackson’s response to Maher was brilliant:
We all love Nelson Mandela tonight. For 27 years we saw him as a terrorist. We’ve loved him since 1990 [when he was released from prison]. We all love Dr. King today. He was killed as one of America’s most hated men with a target on his back. We all love Jack Johnson now. He was locked out of the ring because of his race.
And so the point is, whether you are Jack Johnson or Paul Robeson or Martin King or Mandela, seemingly when blacks hit very high spots they are in the line of fire. Michael perceives himself to be in that line, and that’s the basis of his statement.
Lisha: I agree with you, Willa, Rev. Jackson nailed it. His response is nothing less than brilliant.
Willa: It really is. First, it puts Michael Jackson’s statement within a historical context that shows there is in fact a pattern of targeting successful black cultural and political leaders. As Jesse Jackson says, “when blacks hit very high spots they are in the line of fire.”
Even more importantly, to my mind, is Jesse Jackson’s point that Nelson Mandela was not a beloved figure when he was in prison, Martin Luther King was not beloved when he was leading marches and pressuring Lyndon Johnson, and Jack Johnson was not beloved when he was challenging the supremacy of the white race in and out of the boxing ring. These figures are treated as respected icons now, when they are gone and no longer a threat, but that’s not how they were treated when they were standing up and challenging white authority. They were harshly criticized and even ridiculed at the time, and so was Michael Jackson.
Lisha: Well said. I’m so glad that Rev. Jackson tactfully pointed out that although Maher can cite some significant events in the past, he still suffers from historical amnesia. He doesn’t see how the past reverberates in the events unfolding right before him.
I was especially interested in how Rev. Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg and Dr. West’s responses differed from Bill Maher and Alec Baldwin. Jackson, Goldberg and West are reluctant to assume the police allegations and media reports are correct, and they don’t seem to find a lot of pleasure in joking about them. Although West is not yet convinced of how grave Michael Jackson’s situation is, he expresses concern that he be given a fair trial. He does not automatically assume that will happen. Maher and Baldwin, on the other hand, take the law enforcement and media narratives at face value and they seem quite entertained by the idea that Michael Jackson got arrested. This effectively divides the conversation across racial lines.
Both Maher and Baldwin indicate they believe Michael Jackson is guilty of something, no proof necessary, and that the charges against him are in no way related to racial persecution. Again, it bothers me that they both find it so humorous, especially after Rev. Jackson just explained that Michael Jackson was denied dignity and due process.
Maher: But is that because he’s black? Really? If this was country singer Alan Jackson sleeping with young boys…?
Baldwin: …You’re at your home and you are inconceivably wealthy. And someone comes into your home and you give them the booze and you’re watching the internet porn and you’re doing this. Then that guy runs out the door and he sues you for trying to do something. You got everything coming to you that you deserve because you’re an idiot that you would put yourself in that position. He’s a dumbass that he put himself in that position.
Their statements assume the following unproven “facts”: (1) sleeping with boys, (2) giving them booze, and (3) watching internet porn. Yet when you look at the evidence, it’s clear these aren’t facts at all. It’s revealing that these assumptions are made by the two white panelists, while everyone else has a “not so fast” attitude in accepting the prosecution/media version of events. When we look at the history of racism in this country, it’s not hard to figure out why people of color don’t automatically assume prosecutors and the media are telling the truth.
Willa: That’s true. I also thought Jesse Jackson raised a very important point when he said that how we see Nelson Mandela now, and Martin Luther King and Jack Johnson now, is very different than how they were seen at the time. History isn’t fixed – it’s constantly being rewritten.
That’s why it’s so important that Michael Jackson’s supporters raise these issues, and keep raising them, until the allegations against him are seen in their proper context. The story of Michael Jackson’s life is still being written, as Toni Bowers addressed so well in a recent article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and it’s up to those of us who care to help write that history.
Lisha: I agree. Michael Jackson fans play an important role by interrogating the media and the government’s response to him. It’s important to keep talking!
Lisha: In a previous post with Elizabeth Amisu and Karin Merx, we began discussing the late David Bowie as an important influence in Michael Jackson’s work. Specifically, we mentioned the theme of isolation and alienation in Bowie’s 1969 music video Space Oddity, and how strongly it echoes in Michael and Janet Jackson’s 1995 short film, Scream.
With the news of David Bowie’s recent passing, we wanted to take another look at some of the connections between him and Michael Jackson. Willa is off this week, but not to worry! She will be back soon. Elizabeth’s upcoming book, The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife, features a fascinating comparison between Michael Jackson and David Bowie. So I’m really excited to welcome Eliza and Karin back to discuss this more!
Elizabeth: Hello again, Lisha. I’m so pleased to be back for a post on the late great Bowie. I was so sad to hear the news. But he has left a great legacy behind.
Lisha: He really has, and it’s wonderful to have you both here to talk about it. Thank you, Elizabeth and Karin.
Karin: Hello, Lisha, nice to be back for a Bowie post. All the great ones seem to go way too early.
Lisha: That does seem true, doesn’t it?
I was wondering if either of you happened to catch the David Bowie exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013. It was a fascinating collection of artifacts from David Bowie’s own archives simply titled: David Bowie Is. I understand the exhibit is touring internationally now. I have to say, it’s one of the most beautiful museum exhibits I have ever seen, featuring these magnificent multimedia displays of Bowie’s work:
As I was walking through the exhibit, I couldn’t help noticing a lot of Jackson/Bowie connections, although I hadn’t really considered it much before. Just curious if either of you had the same experience.
Elizabeth: Hey Lisha, I’m glad you brought this up. I spend a lot of time at the V & A for my research so I caught glimpses. I also perused the book, David Bowie Is, and it’s really something special… So many comparisons and connections between the two. What kept striking me is how Bowie’s influence and his uniqueness is really regarded by the British “establishment” while Jackson is often only begrudgingly tolerated. I thought, I understand exactly why the V & A would host this, but in the same breath, an exhibition on Jackson would be equally wonderful.
Lisha: You read my mind! David Bowie is taken up as a “serious” artist, worthy of a major exhibit at one of the world’s finest museums, while Michael Jackson still gets a fair amount of the wacko treatment and worse. I wonder how David Bowie was so successful in constructing his image as an important avant-garde artist?
Karin: I thought about that, Lisha, and I think it has to do with several factors, including cultural. First of all, when Bowie started his Ziggy Stardust in 1972, it was based on Glam Rock (glitter, high heel boots, etc. – typical British) and lots of teenagers felt drawn to it. It was a way they could express themselves and be accepted. But I don’t think that Bowie was as such tolerated in America. So there we already have a cultural difference.
Lisha: I do get the feeling that David Bowie’s impact in Britain was quite different than in America, although he enjoyed tremendous popularity in the US as well. What else might account for this?
Karin: Pop music, I think, is more a British invention than it was an American. And if you know that a lot of the popular music in America has its roots in black music and was taken over by white groups, then there is already a significant difference. Both, by the way, had their cultural revolution in the sixties and the beginning of the seventies – all a reflection from the second World War, although the US was fighting for equal rights for black people, and had their own war in Vietnam. There were a lot of artists in Europe that demonstrated against that war.
Lisha: You bring up a good point. There’s been a very productive musical dialogue between Britain and the US for some time, with musical innovations traveling back and forth. Of course this includes British Pop and American R&B, which were hugely influential for both artists.
But for some reason I don’t remember Bowie receiving such strong push back in the US, the way Michael Jackson did. Am I wrong about that?
Karin: Umm…wasn’t it Bowie who said he was bisexual in the US? Being controversial just because? That certainly did not fall into good soil …
Lisha: You’re right, that would certainly invite controversy! No doubt about it, especially in the 1970s. But as I reflect on David Bowie’s work, one of the things I admire is how effective he was at leading societal attitudes. He wasn’t so many steps ahead that you couldn’t read what he was doing and follow along. For example, there have been some wonderful stories recently about how effective he was at addressing social prejudice towards the LGBT community. I think it’s an important part of his legacy.
Elizabeth: You’re so right, Lisha. I watched an interview with him where he said that discussions about his sexual orientation really affected his ability to be as successful as he wanted to in the States.
Elizabeth: Jackson also had a lot of rumours about his sexuality. I wonder why that often seems to be the first questionable subject when a maverick appears in the industry.
Lisha: That’s an extremely important question. Refusing to conform to social constructions of heteronormativity is often considered very problematic, and we’ve seen a number of popular musicians challenge this in a very productive way. But when rumors of sexuality combine with other factors, such as racial politics, things can really get ugly. Michael Jackson faced backlash that I don’t think any other artist has had to deal with.
For example, I don’t recall anyone challenging David Bowie about his one blue eye. No one called it weird, claimed he surgically altered his eye, or made comments about eye color and racial identity. It was just accepted he had an eye injury and that was that. His blue eye read as edgy and cool.
Elizabeth: That is SO TRUE! Bowie’s eyes were seen as obviously having a serious medical reason, another thing that made him unique and special and enigmatic. However, the dominant narrative about Jackson altering himself (starting in the 1980s) quickly became the go-to answer for everything about his physical changes. It is unfair in a lot of ways.
Lisha: Incredibly so.
Elizabeth: Also, it seems that eye colour is not nearly as contentious as skin colour. Due to the legacy of racial stereotyping and eugenics, ethnicity has so much added cultural value. Some of which is so deeply ingrained that we don’t even know where exactly it stems from.
Lisha: I agree. And society could choose to categorize people by eye color, but for whatever reason we don’t, except perhaps to praise the beauty of blue eyes. Of course that raises a very troubling question: why should one eye color be valued more than another? It’s a problematic notion that no doubt carries a lot of historical baggage.
Here’s a photo of Bowie playing up the difference in his eyes:
I find it fascinating that Michael Jackson also experimented with different eye colors for the cover of the Invincible album:
Here’s another photo by Arno Bani that was considered for the cover of Invincible:
Elizabeth: Yes, Lisha. I’m so glad you introduced Invincible into this discussion because it’s so often overlooked. Invincible is possibly Jackson’s most avant-garde album. It wasn’t really designed to be a people pleaser so much as an artistic expression of Jackson’s own making. The cover and the illumination of the right eye (the viewer’s left) is particularly interesting. Again, it is unexplained but I always draw attention to the pixelation of this eye indicates Jackson is becoming digital, on the cusp of a digital age, and that digital sound is really evident in songs like 2000 Watts. Also, there is the adage, ‘the eyes are the window to the soul’. Hence why on the cover of Dangerous we look into Jackson’s eyes and are confronted with an explosion of all these images which proliferate around them.
Lisha: The single pixelated eye found on back of the album reinforces your points quite well. That’s a wonderful connection you make between the digital cover art and digital sound of the recording! I agree it’s an album that deserves much more attention.
Thinking about all this just made me flash on another Bowie move, which is the bright red Ziggy Stardust hairstyle that’s been called “A Radical Red Revolution.” Suzi Ronson was the hairstylist behind the look, and she said that Bowie wanted to do something different from the typical long hair in rock music. So she cut his hair short and dyed it bright red to create a look that was antithetical to rock at that time.
Last summer I was doing some research and was surprised to learn that red hair is commonly stigmatized, especially in Britain, where it is associated with Irish and Scottish descent. It got me to thinking about how David Bowie’s red hair reads as super glam rock cool and really busts through this social prejudice, whether it intends to or not.
Red hair is also part of a familiar comedy routine – the classic clown character – which has been interpreted as a parody based on prejudice towards the Irish and Scottish. According to The Racial Slur Database:
Not used so much as a racial slur, however, the classic clown is based on a stereotyped image of Irish people: bushy red hair, a large red nose (from excessive drinking), and colorful clothes often with plaids, and often with a great many patches to represent that the Irish were poor and could not buy themselves new clothes. With excessive plaid is a Scottish variation.
Getting back to Michael Jackson, there is considerable overlap in the history of clowning and blackface minstrelsy, both of which feature comical characters with painted faces and bushy wigs. Willa and I talked with Harriet Manning a while back about her work on blackface minstrelsy, and she very convincingly showed how Michael Jackson engaged with these demeaning stereotypes while effectively turning them inside out.
So I think we can draw a connection between Michael Jackson and David Bowie as artists who have engaged with deeply ingrained stereotypes and their historical representation. They’ve done important cultural work by pushing back against social prejudices that have been perpetuated through the entertainment industry. Most of this work flies under the radar of public awareness. As you said, Elizabeth, these stereotypes have become so deeply ingrained, we often have no idea where they came from.
In regard to the response it generated, what are other explanations for why Michael Jackson and David Bowie were treated so differently in the press?
Karin: Bowie did not disappear from the public, unlike Michael Jackson after his massive Thriller success. That gave the press all the space to create their own stories. And Bowie developed all his personas, created with 27 studio albums, whereas Michael’s personas were, probably because of his absence most of the time, created by the press (the monster) and fans (the angel) etc. Furthermore, Michael could have created tons of albums, but only made about 6. I think that if you can follow an artist and his development, and here Bowie and his personas, the combination, theatre/pop-music, it is like following the development of an artist, who is then taken seriously and accepted as an artist.
Lisha: I agree that the amount of effort, time and money that went into Michael Jackson’s mature work meant there were not going to be a lot of albums to promote. And musically, I think this is one of the biggest differences between the two: Bowie’s music feels spontaneous and almost improvised, while Jackson’s music is unbelievably detailed, highly polished and lavishly produced.
Elizabeth: I agree with you both. We can underestimate the sheer complexity of the recording process, and the quality vs. quantity argument is always very relevant. However, the rate of output of one album every four years is a relatively slow output. On the 2001 Special Edition of Bad, there are some lovely interviews with Quincy Jones and he talks about having to make final cuts with Jackson. It seems like an arduous process. In the music industry the longer one is away, the more releases are produced in the interim, the more publicity dissipates, and the more work it is to make the next album a success.
Lisha: That’s a great point, although many artists worry about overexposure as well. It must be like walking a tightrope to get it just right!
As you’ve both mentioned, Michael Jackson’s inaccessibility probably did lead to negative publicity. Sony executive Dan Beck talked about this in a recent interview:
A lot of people in the media were unhappy with Michael because he didn’t talk to them and Frank DiLeo [Jackson’s manager] essentially kept him away from the press, I think with good reason because Michael only had so much to say and he also was a very vulnerable guy. He wasn’t media savvy in the way of sitting down with a journalist and really having that engaging conversation. He was just too much in a bubble.
Frank kept him away, so with all the success that he had there were some media people who were very frustrated that they couldn’t talk to him. So, when things started to crack and there were more odd entities in his life, it started to turn negative.
Karin: But it was also Dileo who – together with Jackson – made up that weird hyperbaric chamber story, which gained Jackson a lot of negativity. And I read somewhere that Jackson liked the mystique of not being too much on TV or in the public eye.
Elizabeth: Do we know this for sure? In Man in the Music Joe Vogel writes:
[H]e cultivated a persona that kept people guessing (and talking). He liked the idea of being mysterious and elusive. He was fascinated with masks, costumes, and metamorphosis. Around this time, he even began to embrace and perpetuate the public perception of his strangeness and eccentricity. (106)
Lisha: I wonder if all of the above is true. If DiLeo planted the hyperbaric chamber story, I think there’s an argument to be made that it backfired. I’m curious if that might be one reason they decided to stay away from the press altogether. But then again, Bowie and others got away with doing and saying many strange and eccentric things, yet didn’t suffer too much for it!
At least for some period of time, it seems Michael Jackson had a deliberate strategy to avoid interviews. I was intrigued by this revealing personal note he wrote in his copy of the book, The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene:
“No more talking. Silence is more powerful.”
Here’s a screenshot of Michael Jackson’s handwritten note from Bonham’s website, the auction house that sold his annotated copy of the book:
Elizabeth: Ah, so interesting. It’s this balance between being seen and being a spectacle. The magic is the reveal. To hold back the representation of self until the reveal.
Lisha: I agree! There is so much dramatic tension in this.
Elizabeth: However, “when the media didn’t cooperate with his [Jackson’s] game and turned malicious,” to quote Joe Vogel again, we began to see a very ugly side of Jackson’s representation by the press. The press constructed Wacko Jacko out of the vacuum constructed from this disappearing act. It’s this persona which, coupled with the Monster Persona, seems to be keeping Jackson out of the V & A. Bowie didn’t have the same level of absence in his appearance, so much more about his performance was a performance, whereas Jackson’s “entire life would be performance art,” as Vogel says, “a way to turn the tables on an intrusive media and public that felt they owned him… they were subject to his directions and imagination” (106).
Lisha: I have often wondered why so many journalists felt they were entitled to have access to Michael Jackson. That’s really troubling to me actually, like a display of their power. It obviously spiraled out of control when law enforcement decided to join in the game.
There’s something else I’m curious about, and Karin, I thought you would be well positioned to answer this. The British sociomusicologist Simon Frith, who is one of the key figures in popular music studies, wrote a book in 1987 titled Art Into Pop. Frith argues very persuasively about how the British art education system influenced popular music and its reception. For example, experimental jazz became quite fashionable after it was taken up by art students who deemed it art school chic. It gained social and cultural capital that it previously lacked. So I’ve been thinking about how visual artists function as cultural gatekeepers in popular music, influencing what can be accepted as “cool.”
Do you see this influence in popular music? How much of Bowie’s reception is based on his legibility as art school chic?
Karin: Oh, Lisha, I absolutely think Frith is right. And also what he writes about the blurred boundaries between the so called “High” and “Low” art. These blurring lines were to be found in all kind of art forms. Designers became artists and vice versa, artists played music, created bands, ended up in music, and it is not so strange to see theatrical forms mixed into the performances. In Holland also, lots of art students had bands and one of them, Fay Lofsky, is a trained visual artist who ended up in music, making all kind of experimental sounds, instruments, etc.
I definitely think that a part of Bowie’s reception is based on his legibility as art school chic, which I think is very European. Difficult to describe, but I also believe that the artists who took on popular music, “messed” with it as much as they did with visual art – the “everything is possible” way of thinking. And even though I think Jackson was one of the first and most experimental sound designers of his time, it never came across as such. We know now, but he polished his complex compositions in a way that his music was/is for everyone. Bowie is more niche and therefore may also be considered more avant-garde.
Lisha: That’s a great observation that a niche market often translates into “cool.” I’ve noticed that as well. And I’m also amazed there is so little attention given to how detailed, complex, and experimental Michael Jackson’s recordings are. They are commonly understood as simplistic, which must have to do with perception, since it doesn’t accurately describe the recordings themselves.
Karin: I think, Lisha, that has also to do with the commerce. Michael Jackson was incredibly commercial, or maybe we should say he was a bestselling artist, and somehow people think that those two do not go well together, commerce and art. But there are/were very rich, very well selling great artists, like Basquiat for instance in the beginning of the eighties, and there are equally very good artists that do or did not sell well or not at all. That has nothing to do with whether their art is good or bad. That whole idea is connected with some silly romantic thought that artists should be or are poor. In short, the overall perception is that commercial works cannot be products of high standard art, and that’s how Jackson’s work was treated.
Lisha: You’re so right that there is a very stubborn, rigid cultural idea out there that says commercially successful music cannot be of high artistic value. Yet, as Susan Fast points out in her book on the Dangerous album, certain rock musicians are curiously exempt from this rule! Very suspicious, indeed.
David Bowie gave an interview to National Public Radio’s Terry Gross in 2003, and in it I think it gives us a clue about the relationship of visual art to popular music. Curious to hear your take on it:
Some of us were failed artists, or reluctant artists. The choices were either, for most Brit musicians at that point, painting or making music, and I think we opted for music. One, because it was more exciting, and two, because you can actually earn a living at it.
But I think we brought a lot of our aesthetic sensibilities to it, in terms of we wanted to manufacture a new kind of vocabulary, a new kind of currency. And so, the so-called “gender-bending,” the picking up of maybe aspects of the avant-garde, and aspects, for me personally, things like the Kabuki theater in Japan, and German expressionist movies, and poetry by Baudelaire, and it’s so long ago now — everything from Presley to Edith Piaf went into this mix of this hybridization, this pluralism about what, in fact, rock music was and could become . . .
It was a pudding, you know? It really was a pudding. It was a pudding of new ideas, and we were terribly excited, and I think we took it on our shoulders that we were creating the 21st century in 1971. That was the idea. And we wanted to just blast everything in the past.
Karin: Yeah, and to come back on the difference in culture, this is definitely one of them. Not to downplay American history, but what Bowie says here is very European.
Lisha: I so agree with you!
Karin: It also came right after the “democratisation wave” that kept most parts of Europe very busy at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies. Artists worked conceptually, which meant that they created controversial work or as Bowie mentions, “we wanted to just blast everything in the past.” That brought also the more improvised feel with it as you mentioned before. Jackson was more into creating perfection, to the extent that, even though he composed many songs, just a few were carefully selected for his album. I saw a little footage after Bowie passed away that showed Bowie on the floor of his studio with a pair of scissors cutting up text that obviously became a lyric for one of his songs – so a massive difference in the creative process. He also did not spend as much on a record as Jackson did.
Lisha: I found this short clip of Bowie demonstrating his “cut-ups” technique:
Karin: Brilliant! Lisha, that to me is what I wrote before, about the visual artist messing with (pop) music, and therefore I believe the influence art had in this music. It’s kind of creating a collage but then for lyrics of a song – sort of a Matisse way of creating a new colorful picture, but now creating “colorful” lyrics. Brian Eno (Roxy Music) had the same background and way of creating, and it was definitely an influence in pop music.
Lisha: That’s such a good point. I think we can see how Bowie used these artistic concepts and how it enhanced his image as art school chic.
Karin: It is by the way interesting to read that Bowie did not like performing that much, where Michael always tried to create the biggest show on earth. So Bowie is more for a niche audience than Jackson, and that gives this “avant-garde” feel.
Lisha: Yes, and isn’t it interesting that Bowie managed to retain his avant-garde appeal, even after his act became very big business?
I’ve been thinking a lot about how David Bowie and Michael Jackson were both strong visual artists themselves. To my eye, Bowie’s artwork expresses a more dystopian vision of the future and conforms to an avant-garde chic aesthetic, while Michael Jackson takes a very different approach, more towards a fantasy and utopian impulse. I wonder if we can relate this to their musical ideas as well.
For example, Willa and Joie wrote a wonderful blog on “Will You Be There,” and they described how Michael Jackson quotes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the intro to the song, using it like a hymn to express a utopian vision of brotherhood. It sets up the song by first suggesting a vision of the world as it could be.
As early as 1972, Bowie also used portions of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as an introduction for his live Ziggy Stardust shows. The recording he used is a synthesizer version by Wendy Carlos, which was featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film Clockwork Orange. However, Beethoven’s music was used both in the film and in Bowie’s show to express a nightmarish, dystopian vision of the future, quite the opposite from how Michael Jackson used the same work. David Bowie described his Ziggy Stardust concept to William S. Burroughs in Rolling Stone:
The time is five years to go before the end of the earth . . . Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, ’cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news . . . It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite . . . they take bits of Ziggy . . . they tear him to pieces onstage during the song “Rock and Roll Suicide” . . .
I think this demonstrates how David Bowie and Michael Jackson were both particularly adept at musical hybridization, utilizing elements as disparate as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in popular music. But it’s interesting to note how they used the very same technique and the same music to express very different ideas. The connection is quite compelling and reveals their difference at the same time.
Another very interesting connection that comes to mind is that they were both a part of the glamorous Studio 54 scene in New York in the 1970s, although once again, their participation might be viewed in very different ways.
Elizabeth: It’s a strange one, Lisha. You’re right. Raven Woods talks about this in a recent post at All For Love Blog: “It was even reported that they had danced together at Studio 54, when Michael supposedly taught David how to do ‘The Robot’!”
Most of the final section of The Dangerous Philosophies is about how Jackson receives different treatment from other artists and why that is. The first thing we have to recognise is that Jackson was a child star. Immediately, that sets him apart from everyone else.
Lisha: Yes. Not only was Michael Jackson a child star, he was a teen idol and the lead singer of a group that is still described as a “boy band,” to make matters worse. Just this past September, Rolling Stone named “I Want You Back” as the “Greatest Boy Band” song ever. Talk about a back-handed compliment! I can’t find any evidence to suggest the Jackson 5 were produced any differently from all the other spectacular Motown acts, so I really have trouble with defining the Jackson 5 as a “boy band.” It’s also pretty clear that the Jackson 5 appealed to adult audiences, even in the early days, thus the late night club dates Michael Jackson worked while still attending elementary school. I don’t believe the Jackson 5 were ever exclusively a youth act, nor did they exclusively appeal to females.
Elizabeth: Yep. It’s true. But sometimes we underestimate the power of the boy band on the collective social consciousness. I recently caught MTV doing a feature on One Direction, and I didn’t realize they were so successful. I also remember when Take That split, people were crying. The Jackson 5 were the genesis of all this global adoration and mass hysteria, and the hold that has makes it so difficult for someone like Jackson to be able to change physically and artistically right before his public.
Lisha: There is just so much social baggage that goes along with being a teen idol and there is no doubt Michael Jackson suffered as a result. I noticed in that even in the new Spike Lee documentary, there is a lot of anxiety about whether or not Michael Jackson was “adult” enough. For anyone who’s interested, here’s a quick overview of the topic from Dr. Robin James: “If You Hate Justin Bieber, Patriarchy Wins.”
Eliza, would you like to say a little more about the Bowie/Jackson comparison in your upcoming book?
Elizabeth: The chapter in my book which discusses Bowie and Jackson is “Horcruxes: Michael (Split Seven Ways) Jackson.” I also compare Jackson to Johann Sebastian Bach, Stevie Wonder and four other artists. I really tried to find a new way of talking about Jackson because he’s so unique. One of the most challenging things is to come up with a language for how we relate to him as audiences and spectators. Jackson is superlative. One of the ways I try and explore this is through metaphor.
Lisha: Wow, that does sound fascinating. What a counterintuitive group of artists to compare! I am so looking forward to reading your book. By the way, what exactly is a horcrux? It sounds like something spooky from a Harry Potter movie!
Elizabeth: I’m really so excited for you to read it. It’s been a labor of love for two years. A “horcrux” is from a Potter movie. It’s a way to cheat death by putting pieces of a soul into objects. For a fuller explanation (and pretty pictures) see: Pottermore. I like this metaphor for Michael Jackson, especially in terms of looking at him from new perspectives. If you look at Jackson through the prism of another artist it becomes easier to articulate who and what he signifies. I also really like the image of a prism because through it white light is revealed to be many colours. Jackson, for me, is like that. I always find more than I was looking for when I look in different way.
Lisha: That sounds like a perfect metaphor. I’m always amazed by how many lenses it takes to view Michael Jackson’s work. Like I was saying earlier, I didn’t really think about David Bowie as a major Michael Jackson influence until I saw the V & A exhibit in London. Then it seemed like such an obvious connection I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before.
Elizabeth: That’s what happened to me. Every time I found a new person to compare Jackson to I found more connections. I was really inspired by Willa’s book and how she deconstructed the appearance of Warhol in the Scream short film: another horcrux. Jackson met Warhol on several occasions and Bowie played Warhol in a film. There’s a great powerful connection there.
Lisha: For all we know, the three of them were hanging out together at Studio 54! Willa’s analysis is really inspiring, I agree. We also started to tackle a Warhol/Jackson comparison a little while back. Like everything Michael Jackson, there’s so much more to explore.
I wonder how much is known about any possible interaction between Michael Jackson and David Bowie? In Molly Meldrum’s tribute to Bowie written shortly after his death, he reports that Michael Jackson was “a major David Bowie fan.” I had not heard that before, but I must say I’m not surprised in the least.
Elizabeth: I don’t know that much about Jackson and Bowie’s interactions on a personal level, but artistically, they share a wonderful sense of style, enigmatic persona-creation, showmanship and definitely, the power of androgynous self-representation.
Karin: I don’t know how much interaction there was between the two, but if you know Bowie and his artistic life, you can at least see a lot of similarities. Apart from the way they often provoked the world with their music, both also were very good actors. If you know the film Basquiat by artist Julian Schnabel, Bowie plays Andy Warhol, very well.
So, we know about Warhol and Jackson, they met and have a lot in common, and the same goes for Bowie and Jackson, as Elizabeth writes, the androgynous self-representation, showmanship etc. It is interesting to me that the three somewhere meet, and with somewhere I mean the way all three had the ability to cultivate a persona. Warhol kind of started this, Bowie took it and used it throughout his career and Jackson did the same. All three were exploiting the boundaries between the artist and their art. However, I think the relation between Jackson and Bowie or Warhol is not that clear at first hand for a lot of people.
Elizabeth: But that’s because Jackson has only really started meriting serious academic discussion posthumously. So when we start with something simple like Ziggy Stardust, the stage character Bowie created, with (like Harry Potter) a lightning bolt on his face. He lands on stage, an alien from mars, a spectre. Jackson did the same in the HIStory tour. He landed in a spacecraft in a gold and silver spacesuit.
Lisha: I think this points to one of the most important connections between two: the sheer theatricality of their performances. As popular music scholar John Covach recently noted, there were a number of rock musicians back in the 60s and 70s bringing strong theatrical elements into their work, but Bowie seemed to really take it to another level.
Elizabeth: He completely does. Also, if we think about Glam Rock, it’s all about the show. Making it bigger and more outlandish than ever. I read in David Bowie: Style that he went to learn stagecraft and stage design and then he started to incorporate a lot of what he learned into his productions.
Lisha: I can definitely see how this must have influenced Michael Jackson. Bowie even said that as young musician, he dreamed of writing for musical theatre:
I really wanted to write musicals. That’s what I wanted to do more than anything else. And because I like rock music, I kind of moved into that sphere, somehow thinking that somewhere along the line I’d be able to put the two together. And I suppose I very nearly did with the Ziggy character … My point was I wanted to rewrite how rock music was perceived and I thought that I could do some kind of vehicle involving rock musicals and presenting rock and characters and storyline in a completely different fashion.
Elizabeth: Bowie really understood that a performer is far more than the music. They are a character within their viewers’ minds. The world of the celebrity is often so distant from their experience that they might as well be aliens. Bowie wielded the power of a persona so expertly, Ziggy Stardust became entirely separate from him.
Lisha: Raven Wood’s wonderful post you mentioned really gets into this. Michael Jackson and David Bowie are both incredibly theatrical musicians and performers, but the major difference is that Bowie’s alter egos were perfectly legible as theatrical roles, while Michael Jackson’s were not. As John Covach said, “Michael Jackson was still Michael Jackson.” I think that’s a crucially important distinction.
To prove the point, we don’t need to look any further than Jarvis Cocker’s disruption of “Earth Song” at the 1996 Brit Awards. Cocker told The Guardian’s Lucy Siegle in 2012 that he protested this performance because he objected to Michael Jackson “pretending to be Christ.” Siegle writes:
Does [Cocker] feel remorse for that stage invasion incident at the Brits in 1996 now that he’s engaged with the Arctic and other environmental issues? After all, Michael Jackson was merely giving an epic performance of “Earth Song,” presumably directing our attention to the strife of the planet. “Well, and pretending to be Christ,” says Jarvis, only slightly rolling his eyes. “It is a right good song, obviously.”
The same year Jarvis Cocker gave the above interview to The Guardian, he praised Bowie’s use of alter egos in a BBC special titled David Bowie & the Story of Ziggy Stardust, showing a great deal of reverence for Bowie’s theatrical roles.
While I’m not at all convinced Michael Jackson was “pretending to be Christ” at the Brit Awards, I would be curious to hear Cocker’s take on other actors who have played the role. For example, David Bowie played the role of Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ. He did a very powerful scene opposite Willem Dafoe as Christ. Is Cocker similarly offended?
What about Bowie’s 1999 album cover ‘hours. . .’?
According to Nicholas Pegg, David Bowie confirmed the cover photo was inspired by Michelangelo’s La Pieta, a sculpture of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Christ. I’d love to know Cocker’s thoughts on Bowie as both the Virgin Mary and Christ!
And what about David Bowie “pretending to be Christ” in his 2013 video The Next Day?
I noticed Cocker didn’t seem to object at all in the interviews he gave following the video’s release.
Elizabeth: You’ve hit the nail on the head, Lisha. Bowie was clearly playing different roles but Jackson left us with ambiguity because, being “Michael Jackson” was the role. There’s a vacuum between person and persona. In my essay, “‘Throwing Stones to Hide Your Hands’: The Mortal Persona of Michael Jackson,” I deconstruct these personas. There’s a fissuring of Jackson’s reception which makes it difficult for us to come to the kind of agreement needed to legitimise him in art and culture. Everyone is looking at the same artist and seeing something different.
Lisha: This is an excellent point. There is still no consensus on Michael Jackson and I think there is a segment of society that wants to punish him for his transgressions. Your excellent article compares Michael Jackson’s reception to a biblical stoning. Doesn’t Jarvis Cocker’s protest reflect this punishing attitude as well?
Elizabeth: That is entirely true. Unfortunately, because of the ways in which Jackson bucked the trend and crossed boundaries, he becomes the scapegoat for a lot of society’s neuroses. I recently read a wonderful essay by a student, Maya Curry, called “But Did We Have a Good Time? An Examination of the Media Massacre of Michael Jackson.” It won an award in 2010. There was almost a sense of glee in the way in which Jackson was hounded on every front. Primarily by the press but also by stalkers and admirers. Germaine Greer wrote this in her obituary for him in The Guardian. It brings to mind the Shakespeare quote, “here’s much to do with hate, but more with love” (Romeo and Juliet 1.1.165). The stoning was part and parcel of everyone who made him, the press, the public and even the overwhelming adoration he endured which made it impossible to go anywhere anonymously.
Lisha: Wow, that’s really it! And thank you so much for mentioning Curry’s essay. You’ve given us so much to think about in terms of Michael Jackson’s reception and how David Bowie made parallel moves to a very different effect.
There’s just so much more to say about the connections between Bowie and Jackson, especially how they both created music with such strong visual elements. So in closing, maybe we should let some imagery do the talking. Thank you so much Elizabeth and Karin for joining me and for such a wonderful discussion!
Lisha: This week, Willa and I are delighted to be joined by dance scholar Elizabeth June Bergman. For the past five years Elizabeth’s fascination with Michael Jackson has produced a small body of research in MJ Dance Studies. She is currently furthering her work on Jackson as a doctoral student in the Dance Studies program at Temple University. Elizabeth also holds an MFA in dance performance from the University of Iowa (2009). She has taught a range of dance and somatic forms including yoga, ballet, modern, and improvisation as well as dance history and theory courses.
Last fall, I caught up with Elizabeth at the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association conference, where she gave a fascinating presentation titled “Allusions, Citations, and Cultural Literacy: Michael Jackson’s Choreographic Versioning.” We had such a wonderful conversation about MJ and “choreographic versioning” that I can’t wait to talk about it more with her today! Welcome, Elizabeth.
Willa: Yes, thanks so much for joining us, Elizabeth. I’m very excited to hear about your work.
Elizabeth: Thank you so much for having me. I am a longtime follower of Dancing with the Elephant and am so honored to join the conversation. I’ve been presenting short papers on Michael Jackson’s dance work at academic conferences since 2012 and am now relishing the mentorship and organizational structure that a doctoral program contributes to my expanding project on Jackson as a dancer and dancemaker.
Lisha: That’s so wonderful to hear. I had a look at your impressive list of academic research on Michael Jackson and I have to say, I think you are doing really important work. Of all the pressing research that needs to be done on Michael Jackson, this is probably at the top of list, in my opinion.
Willa: I agree. There’s a growing body of research on Michael Jackson’s music, short films, and even his persona, but it seems like the scholarship on his dance is lagging behind. So the kind of analysis you’re doing, Elizabeth, is really important, I think.
Lisha: So to get started, would you like to explain a little bit about what you mean by the term “choreographic versioning”?
Elizabeth: Yes, “choreographic versioning” is the term I’ve recently been using to frame Jackson’s citations and homages to entertainers and artists such as James Brown, Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, etc. I was prompted to write about this last spring after reading some user comments on this YouTube “mash up” video of Bob Fosse performing as The Snake in 1974’s The Little Prince set to MJ’s Billie Jean:
Lisha: That is such an exquisite performance! I’ve read many times that Michael Jackson was quite the fan of this film. While I definitely see some very Jacksonesque movement there, I don’t know exactly how to put my finger on it.
Willa: I agree. There are some poses that seem like exact “quotations,” like this one 2:54 minutes in:
We’ve all seen Michael Jackson strike a similar pose in “Billie Jean.” Here’s a video that places some of those iconic poses side by side:
There’s also his costume. Fosse’s black hat (though it’s a bowler, not a fedora) and his white spats covered in glittery rhinestones against the black pants and shoes – that all seems very similar to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” wardrobe.
But more than the specific poses or the costume, there’s something about the way Bob Fosse moves, and the way he inhabits his body – the way he fully extends his arms, for example, or bends his knees, or shuffles his feet. There’s even a bit of a moonwalk beginning at 4:20 in the video you shared, Elizabeth. But I don’t know how to really explain the resemblance.
Elizabeth: Willa, your observations are incredibly perceptive! It is tricky to articulate exactly which of Fosse’s specific qualities and movements influenced Jackson since Jackson’s style was so hybridized, but I see an elegant angularity, instances of outstretched arms and rhythmic isolated accentuations of neck, shoulders, head, and pelvis, the series of backwards shuffling steps you mentioned, certain akimbo poses, and of course the jauntily tipped hat and glove-covered jazz hands in Fosse’s Snake choreography as being part of what Jackson might have intentionally borrowed.
Willa: The “jazz hands”! Yes, I know exactly what you mean.
Elizabeth: Of course, Fosse was also inspired by Astaire, so some of those attributes I just mentioned could easily reflect back to Astaire and his influences. The video made its point however: Jackson was clearly influenced by Fosse’s style and movement vocabulary. This was not news: Jackson was vocal about his interest in Fosse’s work. Here’s a screen grab I found on the internet from the Bad 25 documentary (at about 1:23:43) of a note penned by Jackson:
Willa: Wow, that’s wonderful! I don’t remember seeing that note before, but it shows that Michael Jackson was very conscientious about “study[ing] the greats” and choosing specific traditions and choreography to create certain moods or feelings. For example, he said in this 1999 MTV interview that he thought the zombie dance in Thriller should start with “a jazzy step” to create the right mood. And the note you shared, Elizabeth, shows he knew exactly where to look for inspiration for the Smooth Criminal choreography.
I’ve often read that he was a “natural” or “intuitive” dancer, which is true to some extent, I think – even Michael Jackson himself suggested that dancing required something innate, something you’re born with. But it overlooks the fact that he was also a scholar of dance and very deliberately drew inspiration from some of the best: James Brown, Fred Astaire, Jackie Wilson, Bob Fosse, even Marcel Marceau.
Elizabeth: Jackson was incredibly gifted as a mover and musician, especially in terms of rhythmic acuity. But as you point out, he was an astute student! Coming from a dance background myself, I find the term “natural” with regards to dance somewhat problematic, especially when considering the historical baggage thrust upon black dancers in the United States. Any kind of dancing is learned, whether in a social or familial setting or via a student-teacher or mentoring relationship.
I think my hesitance about framing Jackson’s dancing this way stems from my understanding of how saying something is “natural” potentially denies the labor and intelligence required for learning and mastering. It’s true Jackson didn’t grow up attending what is typically viewed as “formal” dance classes and that he did talk about dancing as requiring something innate, but my point in troubling these terms is meant to highlight his incredible acts of labor and the keen intelligence that he brought into learning dance techniques – either by mimicking the moves of James Brown he saw on TV as a child or the time he spent in the studio with, say, Bruno “Pop n Taco” Falcon or any of the other dancer/choreographers he worked with over the years.
But I digress! We were talking about Jackson’s “choreographic versioning,” which I’ll explain in more detail in a moment. It was not just the YouTube video of Jackson/Fosse that started my thinking on this, but it was the title of another YouTube video featuring the same The Little Prince footage, “Michael Jackson’s Famed Style and Moves are Fosse Knock-offs,” that got under my skin.
Lisha: I have to say, that title bothers me as well.
Elizabeth: Right?! The YouTube user who posted and titled the video doesn’t necessarily have a nuanced understanding of the history of racial politics in American entertainment and popular culture. I understand Bob Fosse to be part of the tradition of American popular and theatrical dance of borrowing, riffing on, and appropriating movements from vernacular dances as well as other theatrical artists. In his performance and choreographic career, Fosse riffed on his predecessors in popular entertainment as well as borrowed from social dances of various eras.
Lisha: That’s so true. You know Willa and I were talking about this in a post not too long ago about Fred Astaire and Michael Jackson Because artists are constantly interacting with each other’s work, at some point in time you have to wonder, who is appropriating who?
Elizabeth: Exactly. I really appreciated the way you and Willa tackled the troubling history of racial stereotypes in the Hollywood musical in that blog and Astaire’s participation in what is viewed now as extremely offensive. Cultural borrowing is not one directional, but who gets credit and who gains capital is often unfortunately based on racial politics.
Willa: That’s a really important point, Elizabeth. Joe Vogel wrote about this phenomenon in terms of music in an article in The Atlantic a couple years ago:
The cultural gatekeepers not only failed to initially recognize the legitimacy of these new musical styles and forms, they also tended to overlook or reduce the achievements of the African-American men and women who pioneered them. The King of Jazz, for white critics, wasn’t Louis Armstrong, it was Paul Whiteman; the King of Swing wasn’t Duke Ellington, it was Benny Goodman; the King of Rock wasn’t Chuck Berry or Little Richard, it was Elvis Presley.
Elizabeth: Great reference, Willa. I respect Joe Vogel’s work on Jackson so much and what he says about American music definitely applies to American social and popular dance, although the “original authors” of these dances were typically communities and not specific individuals: the Charleston, the Lindy Hop, the Twist, hip hop, etc are all examples of social dance forms that have been capitalized upon by white artists. This issue has been the subject of various scholarly studies on popular dance in America – in fact, I’ve just finished reading a recently published book by dance scholar Anthea Kraut that deals explicitly with issues of ownership in dance. The chapter “‘Stealing Steps’ and Signature Moves” from Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance looks at methods of “borrowing,” formal innovation, and giving credit in jazz tap and other dance forms that coalesced in black communities.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting. So it’s borrowing from a community of dancers, not one identifiable person who could be cited and maybe compensated?
Elizabeth: Absolutely – and doesn’t that make it trickier! The famous husband and wife dance duo Irene and Vernon Castle are a prime example of how cultural appropriation occurs from collectively authored “folk” sources: they took ragtime and other social dances that arose from black communities, altered them to appeal to a white audience, and made a whole performing and teaching career out of it. (Coincidentally, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers played them in the 1939 movie The Story of Irene and Vernon Castle.) I’ve been influenced by Brenda Dixon-Gottschild’s work on what she calls the “invisibilization” of Africanist aesthetics and contributions in American performance, which refers to uncredited influences, both communal and individual.
For these reasons, it’s important to remember that racial dynamics play a huge role in who gets credit and who gets famous. Fosse’s style is recognizable and distinctive and I’m not denying his immense talent as a choreographer and his contributions to jazz and American musical theater, nor accusing him of cultural appropriation. He gave credit where credit was due: Fosse’s first performing duo was called “The Riff Brothers” in homage to the incredibly talented African American jazz tap team The Nicholas Brothers. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the Dancing with the Elephant readers have seen Fayard and Harold Nicholas perform alongside the Jackson siblings on The Jackson’s Variety Show:
But generally Fosse and Astaire are the better known household names, in part due to their privileged status as white artists. Therefore, the title of the YouTube video that accused Jackson of “ripping off” Fosse brought up a lot of questions for me about aesthetic and cultural values, about the history of racism and cultural appropriation in American entertainment in general.
Lisha: It is really troubling when we can observe how consistently this seems to cut across racial lines. It’s just not a two-way street when it comes to acknowledging the hugely influential, pioneering African American artists. We’ve heard so much about Michael Jackson borrowing from Fred Astaire, but little to nothing on how indebted Fred Astaire is to black dancers before him.
Elizabeth: Totally. Given this history, I feel it’s important to ground Jackson’s dance work in black diasporic aesthetic and semantic theories.
Lisha: I agree.
Willa: So do I, and I think that’s something Michael Jackson himself tried to do. When acknowledging his mentors, he almost always mentioned both black and white figures from the past, and implied there was a long history of borrowing between them. It’s interesting in this context that one of Fred Astaire’s mentors was a black dancer, John W. Sublett, who went by the stage name John W. Bubbles. I’ve heard it suggested that Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee, Bubbles, was named in honor of Sublett, who had such a large (though rarely acknowledged) influence on Fred Astaire.
Elizabeth: I’ve been doing some reading on Astaire and was just wondering that myself earlier this week!
Lisha: Wow, I didn’t know that! What an interesting thought.
Willa: It’s an intriguing possibility, isn’t it? And it’s hard to believe it was just coincidence, given Michael Jackson’s knowledge of dance, and Fred Astaire in particular.
So here’s a wonderful video that includes side-by-side comparisons of Michael Jackson with many different mentors in dance, including John W. Sublett, Bill Bailey, Eleanor Powell, and especially James Brown and Fred Astaire:
Lisha: That’s a fabulous comparison, Willa. I especially love the shadow dancing segment. It’s amazing to see those clips side-by-side.
Willa: It really is.
Lisha: Elizabeth, when we talked earlier, you mentioned that you were originally using the term “choreographic curation” to describe Michael Jackson’s encyclopedic knowledge of dance, instead of the concept of “versioning.” What is the basic difference and where does the term “versioning” come from?
Elizabeth: Prompted by a preliminary discussion of this project with dance scholar Sherril Dodds, I moved away from “curation” which connotes museums and Europeanist “high art” and took a deeper look at how various forms of African American cultural expression have been theorized. Many writers note the historical reflexivity, citational riffing, and intertextual nature of black creative practices and have conceived of these practices by various terms, but I borrowed the specific term “versioning” from dance scholar Thomas F. DeFrantz, who defines versioning as “the generational reworking of aesthetic ideals” or “a way to tell an old tale new.”
Willa: That sounds like a great way to think about the “borrowing” that happens among dancers.
Elizabeth: Absolutely! “Versioning” struck me as a useful term for what Jackson does with quotations of specific artists and his incorporation of various social or vernacular dance styles. DeFrantz himself borrows this term from cultural theorist Dick Hebdige’s 1987 work on Caribbean music, Cut ’n’ Mix. Hebdige claims that the basis of all Afro-American and Caribbean music has this principle of borrowing at its core, and he directly addresses the Eurocentric critical tendency to denigrate the practices of repetition and revision found in these forms.
Of course, many American genres that emerged from the nexus of black and white cultural forms – dance in musical theater being my case in point – feature riffing, pastiche, or versioning as part of their traditions. It’s my intention that the term “choreographic versioning” contextualizes Jackson’s homages and quotations as being part of a black diasporic tradition of expression and exposes the cultural biases that inform accusations of plagiarism or unoriginality expressed towards Jackson’s use of other artists’ work. My short response to the poster of the YouTube video that bothered me is that “ripping off” is not the same as “riffing on.”
Willa: That’s a great way of expressing that, Elizabeth!
Lisha: It is! Can I steal that line from you?
Elizabeth: Ha! Of course!
Willa: And it reminds me of the controversy that erupted after Steve Knopper’s biography came out about Michael Jackson “stealing” the moonwalk and not giving proper credit to those who’d gone before him. D.B. Anderson discusses this in her review of Knopper’s book. This controversy seems to miss the point of how artistic traditions work, and how artists of all kinds – painters, sculptors, playwrights, poets, musicians, and dancers – have always built on the work that has gone before them. And this doesn’t happen just within the African-American community, but throughout art history. Shakespeare wouldn’t be Shakespeare if he hadn’t borrowed so heavily from his predecessors.
Elizabeth: I agree, the idea of the artist as some sort of wholly innovative original genius is a total myth. No one creates in a vacuum; any art is a dialogue of ideas and variations on existing forms. Jackson was a master at this. I do have to say, however, that I just submitted a conference presentation proposal that, if accepted, will force me to work through the complexities of Jackson giving so much public credit to Astaire, Brown, etc, and the relative anonymity of the dancers and choreographers he worked with (outside of the music video and commercial dance industry especially.) This could, in part, be explained by industry practices – choreographers have not been historically high on the list of acknowledgements. You only need to look at IMDB for choreography credits to realize this.
Regarding the Knopper controversy, if the intention behind calling attention to the somewhat haphazard and vague credit that Jackson did give the actual dancers who taught him the moonwalk is meant to discredit Jackson as “original,” I’d say that it was a poor strategy given our discussion about the nature of borrowing in American social and popular dance and the fact that Jackson always gave credit to another source (however vague) for the move itself.
Willa: Yes he did, though he was “vague,” as you say, and Megan Pugh offers an interesting interpretation of why in her new book, American Dancing from the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk. Pugh notes that Michael Jackson was given lessons in how to do the “backslide” by Soul Train dancers Casper Candidate, Jeffrey Daniel, and Damita Jo Freeman (who was such an impressive dancer that Pugh speculates she may have been the inspiration for “Dancing Machine”) but he didn’t reveal that to the press:
[W]hen interviewers asked Michael Jackson about how he learned to moonwalk, he gave them a different origin story. He said he picked it up from “these black children in the ghettos,” who “have the most phenomenal rhythm of anybody on the Earth. … Just riding through Harlem in the late 70s and early 80s, … I would see these kids doing these, uh sliding backwards kinda like an illusion dancing.” He took “a mental movie of it,” went home, and started practicing.
Jackson was not simply hiding his sources. He was emphasizing that he didn’t need teaching: he could pick anything up on his own. He was also presenting himself as a conduit of black culture, New York’s in particular. It was a bid for authenticity, an attempt to tap into the street culture of America’s most famous black neighborhood.
So while he acknowledged that he didn’t invent the moonwalk, as you pointed out, Elizabeth, he didn’t cite his specific teachers, and Pugh seems to think it was to give himself some street cred “at a time when hip hop, which did come out of New York streets, was threatening to outshine his own work.”
Elizabeth: I don’t completely discount Megan Pugh’s read on this because I think the commercial context Jackson operated within has to be considered as an influence on his work. I argued in an unpublished conference paper that Bad capitalized on the “edgy” associations of street culture of the late 80s, but in the same paper I recognized that Jackson and his creative team’s intentions were to call attention to the larger social problems that provoke inner city crime and gang violence, much akin to West Side Story. Motivated by empathy and a desire for social justice, but complicated by the mechanics of capitalism perhaps?
We’re seeing this same argument play out in the discourse around Beyonce’s Formation video. I think we should remain vigilant towards parties who want to diminish or draw attention away from the political and social messages at the heart of these activist-artists’ work even while it’s important to consider the economic context these radical statements are made. Any analysis of Jackson’s work has to grapple with a great deal of complexity and sometimes seeming contradictions, but I am personally committed to shifting the popular narrative around his life to a meaningful discussion on his incredible body of work, as I know both of you are. Thank god for this blog and the thinkers that contribute their voices in this endeavor.
In a similar vein, I’ve claimed elsewhere that Jackson’s versioning on Astaire and Brown’s dance moves and theatrical styles was a strategic positioning of himself amongst the entertainment greats. The relatively unknown dancers who taught him the moonwalk did not have the cultural capital that Jackson’s famous idols did (although Jeffrey Daniel was a known Soul Train dancer and member of the disco group Shalamar, which was assembled by Soul Train’s Don Cornelius, and of course Daniel later appeared in several of Jackson’s short films and co-choreographed Bad with Gregg Burge). However, as I mentioned before, it has not been the American entertainment industry’s practice to foreground the labor of the choreographers and dancers.
There are so many nuances and complexities in Jackson’s work and creative process, the topic of “credit-giving” being just one of them, and one that could also be attributed to the media’s general disinterest in the behind-the-scenes artists rather than Jackson’s actions. As many fans will know, there are notable interventions into the entertainment industry’s “tradition” of under-acknowledging choreographic and danced labor: for example, the terrific 2013 documentary on Vincent Paterson, a long-time choreographic collaborator with Jackson, by Swedish filmmaker Kristi Grunditz called The Man Behind the Throne, brings Paterson’s work with Jackson and Madonna center stage.
Willa: That’s a really important point, Elizabeth. In general, choreographers have not been given the credit they deserve, or the money they deserve either – and neither have dancers. But apparently Michael Jackson did try to make things a little more equitable. In her book, Megan Pugh says she had a private conversation with Paterson where he said “that Jackson put his dancers in ‘Smooth Criminal’ on an SAG (Screen Actors Guild) contract to guarantee them the same union wages actors were paid.”
He also included credits at the end of many of his short films – something artists rarely did in their videos – and he made sure to credit choreographers as well as directors and producers and screenwriters. For example, the credits for Thriller include this frame:
He even gives Michael Peters top billing. The credits for You Rock My World include this:
The Talauegas aren’t exactly household names – they certainly don’t have the star power of Fred Astaire or even Hermes Pan – but Michael Jackson is conscientious about giving them their due. And the credits for Moonwalker begin with Smooth Criminal and include this:
So while Michael Jackson may not have mentioned Jeffrey Daniel by name when asked how he learned the moonwalk, he did go further than most artists in giving Daniel credit for his work.
Elizabeth: Thank you for including the screengrabs of these credits, Willa! You’re right, it’s so important to note that Jackson’s very public acknowledgement in these instances complicates an easy narrative in which Jackson didn’t give credit where credit was due in the case of the moonwalk. All the choreographers Jackson worked with speak incredibly highly of him as an artist and individual, which points to the amount of respect he extended to them in working situations. It follows that he would attempt to give them the same amount of protection afforded union actors.
The particular instance of the moonwalk may be an example of a missed opportunity to credit the specific dancers who taught him the step, but I’m personally okay with accepting that Michael Jackson was a complex and contradictory person. I don’t feel that acknowledging any elisions he made in representing his creative process in the media necessarily diminishes or detracts from his legacy as a creative genius. It’s like saying Martin Luther King Jr.’s incredibly powerful social justice messages are compromised by his personal history of infidelity. We somehow have the desire to have our heroes be unblemished by complexity, which sets us up for disappointment and disillusionment. For me, that Jackson was a complex, changing, and flawed human like the rest of us makes his creative work – and his artistic message of love and compassion – so much more inspiring.
Lisha: And as you’ve so convincingly argued, it’s more complicated than one might think to quickly and accurately explain to a journalist where a dance movement might have originated from! There’s not always a simple answer.
Elizabeth, I know you’ve also approached Michael Jackson’s work through the theoretical lens of “kinesthetic empathy,” and I think this concept could be really useful in understanding Michael Jackson’s work. Would you like to explain a little about “kinesthetic empathy”?
Elizabeth: I’d love to try! Basically, kinesthetic empathy is the idea that in watching another body move you understand something of that body’s experience because of your own embodied knowledge. Very simplistically put, I can understand that someone is feeling a certain way because I have my own embodied experience with the positions, actions, or energetics of their body that express that particular emotion.
Willa: Wow, that’s fascinating, Elizabeth! A very important book for me, one that really changed how I see the world, is The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry. It’s a fascinating work and hard to describe in just a few words, and I’m sure I won’t do it justice, but part of her argument is that the body’s physicality is our most important touchstone for what’s real and what isn’t – it’s so crucial to our understanding of what’s real that it’s used to lend reality to things that may seem insubstantial, like ideologies. For example, the outcome of a war is made real through the scars of wounded soldiers and the bodies of those who were killed.
Yet in many ways that physicality that is so central to our concept of reality is inexpressible, especially the experience of pain. That’s one reason the body can be used to substantiate something separate from itself – even something hostile to itself, like war. We can be sitting right beside someone with a splitting headache and not realize it, and even if they try to describe it to us, it’s hard for them to express in words exactly what that pain feels like. Doctors have long struggled with this. Even more than that, extreme pain breaks down language, reducing the sufferer to inarticulate cries and moans. In that sense, Scarry claims we are each locked in our own physicality – an interior experience of our own body – that we can’t express.
So it’s really interesting to think about how some aspects of the body’s interior experience might be communicated in ways other than words – that if I stand in the rain with my arms outstretched, for example, I can experience some of the same physical sensations Michael Jackson experienced while making Stranger in Moscow, and maybe begin to understand “how does it feel” – at least in a physical sense.
Elizabeth: I love that you mention that beautiful moment in Stranger in Moscow because it’s absolutely one of the videos that I’ve thought about in relation to the idea (despite the fact it’s not very “dancey”). I want to read Scarry’s book on the failure of language to express subjective pain because although I’m fascinated and hopeful of the notion of “fellow-feeling” as being part of combating racism, sexism, bigotry, etc, I have major doubts that it’s possible to completely empathize physically either. Because of course my embodied experience is different than your embodied experience!
For this reason, the notion of kinesthetic empathy is a debated topic in dance studies. The notion was first propounded by dance critic John Martin in the 1930s by the various terms “kinesthetic sympathy,” “metakinesis,” and “inner mimicry.” Martin’s concept of how this aesthetic body-to-body understanding functions did not account for cultural, racial, gendered, degrees of able-bodiedness or any kind of difference. Dance scholar Susan Leigh Foster published a book in 2011 on the subject which troubled these essentialist underpinnings of the theory of kinesthetic empathy. As I mentioned earlier, any kind of physical habit is learned, whether it be socially inscripted or learned in a more formal pedagogical context, so it follows that different cultures and communities will have different “archives” of embodied knowledge that actually mean different things.
Willa: That makes a lot of sense, Elizabeth. Different habits lead to the development of different muscles and different muscle memory, which has a big impact on how we experience movement. This is kind of a weird example, but I lived in Southeast Asia for a while, where it was not uncommon for the top of the “toilet” to be down on the floor. Islamic women, even elderly Islamic women, apparently had no trouble at all with the deep knee bends and balance needed to use those toilets – after all, they’d been using them all their lives. But many ex-pat Americans and Europeans had a lot of trouble with them. I personally would have liked a grab bar to hang on to!
So I imagine a 50-year-old Michael Jackson doing a dance step he’d done all his life – like that James Brown shuffle he performs so flawlessly in his Motown audition when he was 10 years old, and that we see him performing in concert throughout his life – would have a very different experience than a 50-year-old who was trying it for the first time.
Elizabeth: Exactly! (And two great examples, Willa.) It follows that our embodied experience extends to how we perceive and relate to someone else moving. There was an inter-institutional group from the UK that researched and reported on the theory of kinesthetic empathy in a multimodal project called “Watching Dance.” They found that audience members’ reactions were indeed colored by their experience and knowledge of the different dance forms included in their study.
I’m a very capable dancer in the forms I’ve spent years studying, but have pretty much failed in my brief attempts to master the moonwalk or any popping and locking techniques. I can’t imagine what it feels like in my body when I see another person doing any technique based on percussive isolations like popping and locking in the same way that I can relate to a ballet dancer in a space-consuming leap through the air. Watching any dancing I’m not personally versed in definitely creates an embodied response, but I don’t “feel” or relate to them in the same way. Ultimately, the idea of kinesthetic empathy is one limited by cultural and social inscription – what someone has spent time learning – but despite this I still think kinesthetic empathy is worth considering in relation to Jackson’s works that posit altruism as a way to bridge social division and prejudice.
I’m currently beginning to work through how certain examples of Jackson’s work implicitly engage this notion and how perceiving, feeling bodies are implicated in his call for altruism and social justice. How might kinesthetic empathy relate to the larger notion of empathy, and how might this incite moral action?
Willa: Those are some really intriguing and important questions.
Elizabeth: I think so! Jackson’s message of social justice often calls upon empathetic and altruistic responses to others in need. So what in art could compel people to care about others’ suffering or pain, and how do our own physical and somatic experiences shape our ability to react and relate to others? I think that Jackson’s mere posing of the question is powerful. As you quoted earlier, Willa, “how does it feel?” Of course Jackson’s lyrics ask this question in a number of ways, but as a dance scholar convinced of the potency of performance, a performative, bodily enactment of the question is what most interests me.
Lisha: What you’re both saying is utterly fascinating to me as a musician. Strictly judging from my own experience, I would translate this into sound as well. There’s no doubt in my mind that some musicians are more empathic than others. They somehow tune-in to what they hear around them and blend with other musicians in a way that makes it seem like there is only one instrument in the room. It’s an incredible feeling to work with players who can do this, and it’s something I clearly recognize in Michael Jackson.
A perfect example is “State of Shock” with Mick Jagger. Michael Jackson blends his voice into Jagger’s so completely in that recording it’s almost as if it’s one voice. Another example I know many will appreciate is “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” At times, it’s difficult to know where Siedah Garrett’s voice stops and Michael Jackson’s begins. It’s pretty remarkable.
Willa: It really is, and it’s interesting to think of that ability as a function of empathy.
Elizabeth: I love that you brought up musical empathy, Lisha, because of course musicality is rooted in the body and muscle memory.
Lisha: That’s my sense of it, too.
Elizabeth: Musicality, like the ability to move “well,” is both a “gift” that comes easier to some people than others as well as something learned and honed through continual effort and labor. Like language, dance and music express the worldview and values of the cultures in which they are created and practiced. As I’m working through this project I’ve realized I need to look into scholarship on music and empathy or sound and empathy, especially as they relate to cross-cultural communication or miscommunication.
Lisha: I’m interested in knowing more about this as well. I’m especially interested in the question you posed earlier: “how do our own physical and somatic experiences shape our ability to react and relate to others?” You must keep us posted on your research and come back to share your findings.
Elizabeth: I definitely will. This conversation has been so inspiring! It has also productively shifted some of my thinking around the topic of Jackson’s “giving credit.” You’re both so knowledgeable about everything Michael Jackson and I can’t thank you both enough for this rich and thought-provoking discussion. I’ll definitely cite your invaluable contributions to the evolution of my thought on these topics in all the forums they are aired.
Lisha: Thank you, Elizabeth!
Willa: Yes, thank you so much for joining us, Elizabeth. I love your way of looking at the artistic tradition as “riffing on” not “ripping off” the artists who’ve gone before! And I’m so intrigued by the idea of kinesthetic empathy.
I also wanted to let everyone know that a new article by Toni Bowers was just published this morning by the Los Angeles Review of Books. It begins with a review of Steve Knopper’s new biography but becomes so much more, and it ties in with some of the things we’ve been talking about today. For example, Toni points out that “Those incredible dance steps, after all, did not perfect themselves. Jackson did it, arduously.” Here’s a link to Toni’s article.
Willa: Last April Nina Fonoroff joined me for an interesting discussion about Billie Jean and Michael Jackson’s use of film noir. After that post went up, Elizabeth Amisu posted a couple of comments here and here about “neo-noir” in both Billie Jean and especially Who Is It. I was very intrigued by this since I’d never even heard of neo-noir, so I began talking with Elizabeth about it, and she very generously provided me with some introductory reading to help bring me up to speed – though I’m still very much a neophyte.
So today, Lisha and I are excited to be joined by both Elizabeth and Karin Merx to talk about neo-noir and how it can provide new ways of seeing and thinking about Who Is It, Billie Jean, Smooth Criminal, and other short films. Elizabeth is a lecturer of English Literature and Film Studies, and her ongoing academic research focuses on “high-status representations of black people” in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Her book, The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife, is being published by Praeger in August. Karin is both an academic and a classically trained musician, and she is currently completing her doctoral research in Art History. Last year she published an essay on Michael Jackson’s Stranger in Moscow. Together, Elizabeth and Karin co-founded and co-edit the Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies, which is a wonderful resource for anyone wanting to learn more about Michael Jackson’s art.
Thank you so much for joining us, Elizabeth and Karin! I’m really eager to learn more about neo-noir and how you see it functioning in Michael Jackson’s short films.
Elizabeth: Thank you very much for having us here on Dancing with the Elephant, Willa. It’s a real pleasure to have this conversation with you.
Karin: Thank you, Willa, for having us.
Willa: Oh, I really appreciate the chance to talk with both of you and learn more about this! So what exactly is neo-noir? I know from my conversations with Nina that noir can be really difficult to define. So how do you identify neo-noir when you see it, and how is it different from noir?
Elizabeth: That’s a very good place to start, Willa, because noir forces us to really question the way we define genre in the first place. It includes titles like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, and a whole series of Hollywood films released between 1941 and 1958, whose dark subject matter and cinematic style reflected the negative mood during and after World War II. Noir has easily recognisable and distinctive visual and thematic features, such as a striking use of silhouettes, low-key lighting, femme fatales, confessional voiceovers and dangerous urban landscapes.
Neo-noir, however, emerged in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and it comes in lots of forms, from modern-day attempts at pure noir films, to science-fiction and thrillers. A few key titles are The Usual Suspects, Blade Runner, L.A. Confidential, Se7en, Sin City, and one of my particular favourites, Drive. However, one of the most humorous places to see a noir-style pastiche is the American Dad episode, Star Trek.
Willa: Wow, Elizabeth, that list covers a really broad range. It sounds like neo-noir can be even more difficult to pin down than noir itself …
Elizabeth: Yep, you are so right. It’s that slipperiness of the term which causes so much debate. However, I think that’s what makes noir so fun for discussion. There is never a simple or straightforward answer. One cool thing about noir-style is that it translates across other genres, so Blade Runner is science-fiction, Se7en is a crime thriller, and The Usual Suspects is more of a mystery.
Lisha: Whoa. Hold up for a second here, because I’ll admit that when it comes to film noir, I still think of the instantly recognizable black-and-white Hollywood movie formula with all the cigarette smoking and a private detective in a snap-brim hat tracking down a bunch of shady characters. So can you tell us just a little more about the issues that make noir so difficult to pin down as a genre or style?
Elizabeth: You have a point, Lisha. For a lot of people noir is superficial, but for others noir’s heart lies in its themes rather than the visuals. The word does, however, mean “black film” and it actually grew out of the German Expressionism movement. The films were initially dark because of low-budget requirements.
In Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder (Willa and Nina’s discussion on Billie Jean featured it) the real darkness was found in the idea that the nicest guy in the world, Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray), found himself moving down a path of destruction. There’s a line he says, “I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.” He loses himself entirely because he thinks he can commit murder and get away with it.
That loss of self is very noir. So it’s the head-game, the psychological downfall, which always makes a noir film so compelling.
Lisha: Why do you think noir has been so irresistible for generations of filmmakers to copy as neo-noir? What accounts for its long-lasting appeal?
Elizabeth: That’s hard to say. It’s definitely true that the noir movement ended before the sixties. It just didn’t chime with the popularity of free love and liberation. However, when there’s a significant downturn, political intrigue, war and espionage, noir-style and noir-themes show up time and again.
Karin: Styles or tendencies are often revisited by artists, hence the word “neo,” from “neos” meaning “young” in the Greek. So we have words like “neo-expressionism.”
Elizabeth: Of course everyone knows the character Neo from the film, The Matrix. He is the “one,” the young saviour.
Willa: That’s interesting. So it sounds like filmmakers – and audiences too – are drawn to noir and neo-noir when they’re feeling anxious, like during a war or recession or other social unrest.
Lisha: It’s as if social events dictate when artistic themes become relevant again.
Karin: Yes, Willa and Lisha, artists are sensitive to what happens in society, and often use the general dissatisfaction with what is going on in their art. Sometimes even ahead of time.
Willa: Like when the panther dance in Black or White seemed to anticipate the Rodney King riots, as Joe Vogel pointed out in his article, “I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets: Re-screening Black Masculinity in Michael Jackson’s Black or White.”
Lisha: Great example, Willa.
Elizabeth: Also, a noir-style film can be quite compelling on a relatively low budget, which also makes them quite appealing for filmmakers. We are now a far more complex and savvy film-going audience, so a traditional noir film may not appeal to viewers as much as a sexy nostalgic homage (a respectful and admiring nod) to the past, as in L.A. Confidential.
Lisha: That’s true. Movie-goers have come to expect extremely high production values. Although I suspect some of the old films noirs still enjoy some popularity by intersecting with our notion of the “classic.”
Eliza, you also mentioned the term “noir-style pastiche,” so I’m wondering how we might define the term “pastiche.”
Elizabeth: A pastiche is how we term a work of art that is mostly an imitation of another. One film that always ends up in pastiche is the epic film, Spartacus, with people saying, “I am Spartacus!” A pastiche is usually a celebration rather than a mocking of source material. Imitation for comic effect is parody.
Lisha: That’s a good point to keep in mind, that imitation can take many forms – from a nostalgic homage to a parody or spoof. So would you say neo-noir is roughly equivalent to noir-style pastiche? Or does pastiche require a recognizable intertextual reference to a specific work?
Elizabeth: Yes, it would be very apt to refer to neo-noir as film noir in pastiche. Several neo-noir films reference quite specific works but that is not necessary to term a work a pastiche.
Karin: I agree, Elizabeth. Also pastiche is more something we use in postmodernism, by way of using elements we all recognise but put in another context.
Lisha: A tricky example might be Michael Jackson’s engagement with film noir in This Is It. In his Smooth Criminal vignette, he doesn’t imitate the genre as much as he literally inserts himself into noir classics like Gilda and The Big Sleep. Here’s a link:
Elizabeth: It’s so interesting that you say this, Lisha, because I was writing about this in my final edit of my book this morning. I dedicate an entire chapter to Jackson’s use of fashion, and in it I write about how he really made himself part of HIStory by integrating his image into that of classic Hollywood cinema. There’s something so warm and sumptuous about 1930s to 1950s cinema and it’s so clear from Smooth Criminal that this was his intention, to place himself within a classic era in the minds of his viewers.
Willa: Yes, I agree, though it’s also interesting to think about what might have attracted him in terms of the themes of Gilda and The Big Sleep, where nothing is as it seems and we’re never sure who we can trust.
Eliza: I didn’t even think of that. You are so right, Willa. That theme of “trust” is one of the most overarching themes in Jackson’s work, don’t you think? I thought of the moment in Smooth Criminal when the man with the pinstripe suit tries to stab him in the back.
Willa: Wow, what an incredible image! And this screen shot does look very noir, especially when frozen in time like this.
Lisha: It really does. Even though the film is in color, it still manages to capture the shadowy chiaroscuro lighting associated with black and white noir.
And that’s a perfect example, Eliza, on the theme of “trust.” It’s as if Michael Jackson’s character has grown eyes in the back of his head from having to constantly watch his back. Now that you mention it, I do think “trust” is an important overarching theme in Michael Jackson’s work. I’m surprised I hadn’t thought about it before.
Willa, didn’t you identify “Annie, are you ok?” as sort of anti-noir, in that it is a gesture of care and concern for the female character, Annie, rather than an assumption that she is a dangerous femme fatale who needs to be killed off by the heroic male protagonist? In this example, Michael Jackson engages with the film noir theme of distrust, while sharply departing from it at the same time.
Willa: Yes, so this is another kind of imitation – neither homage nor parody, but evoking a classic work from the past in order to rewrite it.
Lisha: That is such a fascinating and inspiring idea. I noticed another gendered anti-noir move in Smooth Criminal, in the instrumental break, when we see a beautiful female jazz saxophone player on the bandstand.
Musically speaking, jazz saxophone is the apotheosis of all noir cliches, and it strongly codes male. In film noir, the saxophone is typically heard when a sexy female appears on screen, as a sort of male cat call. In Smooth Criminal we never actually hear a saxophone – there’s no saxophone in the song – but we see a sax player onstage as a visual imitation of noir. However, it isn’t one of the boys in the band as we might expect. It’s a beautiful female musician looking somewhat glamorous in her fancy dress.
This strikes me as going against the way jazz saxophone is generically used in film noir. The image of a female saxophone player both engages our memory of film noir and disrupts it at the same time.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha. It’s kind of similar to how he used Jennifer Batten and Orianthi in concert to both evoke and disrupt our ideas about hard rock guitarists.
Lisha: That’s exactly what I was thinking!
Of course many fans understand Smooth Criminal as a specific intertextual reference to “Girl Hunt Ballet,” the play-within-a-movie from Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon. I think most Michael Jackson insiders would rightly point to Smooth Criminal as a heart-felt homage to Fred Astaire.
Willa: Yes, and one of the first things Fred Astaire’s character says in “Girl Hunt” is “Somewhere in a furnished room a guy was practicing on a horn. It was a lonesome sound. It crawled on my spine.” Which could evoke an image of a saxophone …
Lisha: You’re so right, Willa! That scene highlights what an important element jazz is in classic film noir. Although I do believe it is a trumpet player in that scene, not a sax player, if I remember correctly.
Willa: Oh, you’re right. I should know better than to trust my memory! I just watched that opening scene again, and we do hear a trumpet playing in the background, and even catch a glimpse of it through an open window. Here’s a clip of “Girl Hunt Ballet,” and the trumpet appears about a minute in:
Lisha: The Band Wagon is pretty interesting in and of itself, because I think we could interpret “Girl Hunt Ballet” as a noir-style pastiche, even though it was made in 1953, during the same time period classic films noirs were still being made.
So I wonder if pastiche plays an important role in genre formation itself, since pastiche identifies the specific elements that are needed for a successful imitation?
Willa: Wow, that’s a really interesting idea, Lisha! It reminds me of Lorena Turner’s work with Michael Jackson impersonators, and how they lead us to a better understanding of Michael Jackson’s iconography. What exactly is needed to “be” Michael Jackson? Through the impersonators Lorena photographed, it becomes clear that you really don’t need to physically look like Michael Jackson, his face and body – you simply need a glove, a fedora, and a distinctive pose, for example, or maybe a red leather jacket with a strong V cut.
So those “imitators” help us identify what is essential about Michael Jackson’s star text, just as you suggest that pastiche (like neo-noir) helps us identify what is essential to a given genre (like noir).
Lisha: Exactly! Perhaps we should think of Smooth Criminal as a noir pastiche of a noir pastiche?
Willa: Wow. So you’re saying that neo-noir is a pastiche of noir, and Smooth Criminal is a pastiche of neo-noir, so it’s a noir pastiche of a noir pastiche? Do I have that right?
Lisha: Too funny! Yes, I think I just suggested something crazy like that.
Willa: Ok, I’m really going to have to think about that … but it does sound like the kind of loop-de-loop reference that Michael Jackson loved …
So a director who is frequently mentioned in discussions of neo-noir is David Fincher, who directed Michael Jackson’s Who Is It video in 1993. For complicated reasons that aren’t very clear, there were actually two videos made for Who Is It. Joie talked about this a little bit in a post we did a couple years ago. The second version is simply a montage of concert and video clips, but for some reason it seems to be the “official” one – for example, it’s the one that was released in the US when the song debuted, and it’s the version available on the Michael Jackson channel of Vevo.
So the David Fincher version has not been widely viewed and can be a little difficult to find online, but here’s an HD version of it on YouTube:
Elizabeth: It’s relevant that the Who Is It short film included in the Dangerous Short Films anthology was the one Fincher directed.
Willa: That’s true, and it’s in the Vision boxed set also, so it has some degree of official acceptance. That’s a good point, Elizabeth.
So I love this short film, and it does have a very noir-ish feel to it, doesn’t it? What are some specific visual elements you see in Who Is It that help create that noir-type mood or feeling?
Elizabeth: It uses many of the specific visual elements Fincher used in his feature films in the following years – Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999) and much later, The Social Network (2010) – such as the repeated use of low-key lighting throughout the sequences to create an ominous tone and a sense of foreboding. Fincher also uses stark white light, as in the scene towards the end with the female character weeping, or he uses very muted lighting, where fluorescent bulbs don’t really illuminate the corners of the space.
Willa: Yes, and that’s pretty unusual, isn’t it? For example, here’s a screen capture from about 5:20 minutes, when the female lead is at the gate and the manager character won’t let her in. You can see that the edges of the shot are dark and uneven, as if the picture field weren’t fully exposed.
There are also scenes where the light is coming from below, which is pretty unsettling. We’re used to light coming from above, like sunlight, and we rarely see faces, especially, lit from below, unless it’s a 50s-style horror movie. Here’s a screen capture from about 4:20 minutes in with the light shining up from under the character’s faces:
It really makes them look eerie and artificial, like store mannequins.
Elizabeth: The store mannequins, oh yes. Nice observation, Willa. And that whole idea links to this sense of being plastic and fake, not quite real. We can’t quite trust what they say because, although they seem human, they aren’t. And this extends to the words they say and the theme of the song. In terms of the lighting, I really enjoy the fact that the light seems drowned out by the encroaching darkness.
And of course, there are so many shots where only half of a face is illuminated, giving us a sense that the characters are being duplicitous and untrustworthy. Isn’t that what Who is It is all about? Who can we trust? Who has betrayed us?
Willa: Exactly. And you’re right, there are numerous shots where a face is only partially lit, suggesting we don’t see that person completely – not their face, their motives, or their character. So even something as subtle as lighting reinforces the meaning of the film and the lyrics. Who can we trust?, as you say. And it isn’t just the shape-shifting female lead, the one who goes by so many different names (Alex, Diana, Celeste, Eve, … ). All of the characters are pretty shadowy – both psychologically and visually. It’s not clear that we can trust anyone.
Elizabeth: You’re right, Willa. And what you’ve highlighted is how amazing Michael Jackson was when it comes to linking across his mediums – song complements short film complements costume and so on and so forth. What is also quite clear is that there is an exchange of money going on for sexual services, which makes the nameless female lead into a literal “object” of desire.
Lisha: You know, the money for sex is something I find confusing in this film. When I see the world of rarefied luxury and helicopter travel depicted here, I’m thinking extremely high stakes. The wardrobe and makeup artists employed to execute these spectacular acts of duplicity evoke the world of espionage, corporate or national security, and figures in the hundreds of millions or billions. The level of intrigue seems to go way beyond the mere sexual encounter, although that is clearly one aspect of the betrayal and psychological torture going on. What do you think?
Elizabeth: Oooh Lisha, that is a cool point. You are very right that what seems to be at stake is far more than sex.
Willa: I agree. It does seem to be more like very high stakes espionage.
Elizabeth: The Second World War was famed for its duplicitous female agents, using their womanly wiles to tempt secrets out of the (predominantly male) opposition. However, I also find it quite interesting that the character of the high-end sex-worker has a value far higher than the average viewer might expect. This is a character who obviously serves very wealthy clients and tends to their every whim.
Either way, it’s a particularly dark theme. I like to think of Michael as the femme fatale himself. Two authors have discussed this in some depth: Susan Fast in Bloomsbury’s Dangerous, and Marjorie Garber in Vested Interests. Both wrote on Jackson’s crossing of the male-female binary. In one interview Karen Faye, Jackson’s personal makeup artist, stated he didn’t accept these binaries at all. He built his aesthetics (identification of beauty) on a level that went beyond masculine/feminine.
Karin: I agree, Elizabeth. I think he built his aesthetics way beyond the binary of male/female. He always thought of human beings as being all the same.
Elizabeth: And we all have feminine and masculine qualities. It really is two halves of a whole. Notions of femininity and masculinity are really constructed by society and ideologies which have no basis in biology or reality. They are obstacles we put in our own way and MJ wasn’t interested in them. But bringing it back to the theme of neo-noir is the idea of binaries too, because the femme fatale is dangerous because of her unrestrained sexuality and her ambiguous morals.
Karin: This ambiguity is what we see so well in Who Is It.
Elizabeth: You are so correct, Karin. This is another link to Billie Jean and is found in the shots below, again the bed becomes a place of intrigue. There are physical and nonphysical exchanges here that we (as an audience) are not privy to. So we must decide for ourselves what is going on, and this heightens the mystery.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Elizabeth, and this scene is evocative of the bed scene in Billie Jean, isn’t it?
Elizabeth: Yes it is, Willa. It also shows us how MJ references his own work. Other specific visual elements that Fincher often uses are found within the city itself, and I love how, in his work, the city is often given its own personality.
In Who Is It the city is presented as a golden otherworldly labyrinth that Jackson is separated/protected from by a glass wall. He is distanced from the society in which he lives, much like all of Fincher’s subsequent neo-noir protagonists. There are angel statues on the cover of the Dangerous album and they appear again in the city, bringing to mind the City of Angels, Los Angeles, which is ironic, of course, because “all that glitters (see the shot below) is not gold.”
Lisha: That is such a beautiful screen shot, Eliza. I’m wondering why I’ve never zeroed in on that before. He is in a major urban area, enjoying all the economic advantages the city has to offer, yet he is so completely isolated and alienated at the same time. The paradox is communicated by a sheet of glass.
Willa: Yes, and we see that same motif repeated in Stranger in Moscow. That film opens with a shot of a man seen through the glass of his apartment window, eating his supper from a can. Then we cut to a scene of a sad-looking woman in a coffee shop, but again we’re looking at her through a glass wall. And then there’s that wonderful scene about 3:05 minutes in where the man in his apartment sees the kids outside running through the rain, and then reaches up and touches the glass. Here’s a screen capture:
Lisha: That is such a strong image.
Willa: I agree. I love that moment, and think the glass imagery here functions like the glass wall in Who Is It. As you said, Elizabeth, this character “is within society but separated from it.” But I think this character begins to regret his isolation after seeing the kids run through the puddles, and that’s when he makes the decision to go outside and stand in the rain, and begin to experience life more fully.
Elizabeth: Oh yes, and only if he leaves his glass prison, can he hope to begin to communicate with those around him.
Karin: The difference with Stranger in Moscow is that it is not Michael behind a window that separates him from society, but the black man and the sad woman who play a role in the short film. Michael is walking the dark gritty streets of “Moscow” and, as I analyzed in my essay “From Throne to Wilderness: Michael Jackson’s ‘Stranger in Moscow’ and the Foucauldian Outlaw,” I believe he is separated but also separates himself from society in a different way. To me, he is also not part of the five people who are clearly abandoned from the so-called “normal” world. Michael seems to be separated by his “glowing face,” a face we can also see in the black and white sequence in the short film Bad.
Stranger in Moscow has this very estranged, alienated mood. The loneliness is dripping from the screen and is emphasised by the slow motion, which is not typical for noir but definitely for neo-noir. I think it is mainly the mood in Stranger in Moscow that is very neo-noir.
Lisha: I didn’t realize slow motion was characteristic of neo-noir, Karin. I’m fascinated by how the sense of alienation in Stranger is depicted through two distinct temporalities happening at once. Michael Jackson was filmed in front of a blue screen singing and walking very slowly on a treadmill, which was later added to the slow motion background. So as he sings in real time with the music, everyone and everything else is moving in slow motion, like some kind of separate, alternate reality.
Willa: Yes, that’s a very important observation, Lisha. It’s so interesting how slow motion is used in Stranger in Moscow. When we look at the city directly, everyone and everything moves at normal speed. But when it’s implied that we’re looking at the city from the perspective of one of the isolated people – the woman sitting alone in the coffee shop, or the homeless man lying by the sidewalk, or the teenager watching other kids play ball, or the man eating supper from a can, or the businessman watching pigeons, or even Michael Jackson himself – the world suddenly appears to be moving very slowly. Even the raindrops fall in slow motion.
Lisha: Wow, Willa, that’s exactly it. The slow motion is the perspective of those who are not participating in the normal rhythms of the city.
Willa: Exactly. Or who do participate to some degree, like the man with the pigeons or the woman in the coffee shop – both of them are wearing business suits – but who still feel disconnected from those rhythms. At least, that’s how it seems to me.
For example, we see pedestrians walking by the coffee shop, and they’re walking at normal speed. But then the scene shifts and we see the lonely woman watching the pedestrians, and now they seem to be moving in slow motion. So when we’re looking at them through her eyes, as it were, they’re moving in this oddly decelerated way. But she herself isn’t – she’s still moving at normal speed.
That difference in film speed creates a dislocation between those isolated people and the pedestrians who pass them by, and that disconnect is very effective at emphasizing just how detached they are from the world around them. As you write in your article, Karin,
On the one hand, the slow motion has the function of magnifying emotion, and on the other hand it shows two distinct worlds and the distance between those two worlds.
I agree completely. It also seems to be trying to capture or re-create the sensory experience of depression – of what it feels like to be in a bustling world when you are depressed and out of sync with everyone around you.
Lisha: It’s such a powerful visual depiction of “How does it feel, when you’re alone and it’s cold outside?”
Willa: I agree.
Lisha: And it allows us to inhabit the perspective of those five characters you mentioned, Karin, who are “clearly abandoned from the so-called ‘normal’ world.”
Getting back to what you said earlier, I’ve always been fascinated by the choices Michael Jackson made in this film to achieve such a glowing, colorless look for his face.
Karin: Yes, Lisha, it is as if he wants to disappear into the mass, the streets and the people walking around him.
Elizabeth: I agree wholeheartedly. It’s particularly interesting when we look at Michael’s use of his face and the concept of “masquing” and “masque” culture. This is an extended metaphor about identity in many neo-noir films, and one that Michael uses to articulate his relationship with his audience. They always seem to be wondering “who is he?”
Willa: Which refers us back again to Who Is It. Masques are a recurring theme in that film as well – from the oddly blank face we see rising beneath the white blotter on the desk or pushing out from behind the white wall, to the disguises worn by the Alex/Diana/Celeste/Eve character as she shifts identities, to the more subtle subterfuges of other characters as they decide what to reveal and what to keep hidden. We don’t truly know anyone in that film, not even Michael Jackson’s character, though the song accompanying the film is written from his point of view. So while we may be inside his mind to some extent, he is still somewhat distant and unknowable.
Elizabeth: Notions about identity are at the forefront of neo-noir films, especially in terms of being an individual in a society. No one is exempt from feeling alienated from others, and without our connection to others, how do we know that we are alive?
Karin: In the article “Eighties Noir: The Dissenting Voice in Reagan’s America” in The Journal of Popular Film and Television, Robert Arnett writes about the “face mask motif” that “furthers the analogy between the undercover plot device and ’80s visual media obsession.” In your article “Bad (1987),” Elizabeth, you write about the extreme close up in the black and white part and refer to it as act of defiance.
It is interesting to see how Michael used his own face, which was seen by the public as a mask, as “an act of defiance” in Bad because there was so much speculation in the tabloid media about his face. The mask as described by Arnett is “revered and experienced as a veritable apparition of the mythical being it represents.” However, in Bad, he does not represent himself as a mythical being but as himself in a “look at me, this is who I am” kind of way.
In Stranger in Moscow his “mask” is referring to him as a simple human being who walks the streets of Moscow. However, his glowing face-mask distinguishes him from all the other faces around him, which gives it this mythical representation, as if he has no connection to others anymore.
Willa: Yes, and that sense of alienation from society seems very noirish. As Nina said,
So many noir films convey a story about the way characters struggle with both internal and external forces to maintain their moral integrity in a fundamentally corrupt world.
That’s a good description of both Who Is It and Stranger in Moscow – and Bad also, as you mentioned, Karin. There’s a similar theme in Smooth Criminal, You Rock My World, Give In to Me, and others as well. In all of these films, the world is “fundamentally corrupt,” and Michael Jackson’s character must figure out how to negotiate that corruption without becoming tainted himself.
You know, I hadn’t really thought about it before, but that’s a recurring theme in Michael Jackson’s work, isn’t it? For example, if I think about his early videos, meaning the three videos from the Thriller album, that’s precisely what Beat It and Billie Jean are about – an innocent young man negotiating a corrupt world. But then Thriller complicates that. We’re never sure about the main character, Michael – about whether he’s innocent or not. He’s constantly shifting back and forth between a sweet, guileless teenage boy and a monster/zombie, between an innocent and the very epitome of corruption.
Elizabeth: Now we’re really taking it to another level: Jackson’s use of complex innocence and corruption themes is an entire theme in itself. The ambiguity, or what one could call the liminality of innocence, is what Jackson negotiates, don’t you think? The notions we have of the innocent and who is innocent. It comes up again and again. He never gives us a truly straight answer. In Smooth Criminal he is good but he commits violence throughout the sequences, in Thriller he’s the heartthrob and the zombie, and in Bad he is the innocent schoolboy and “bad” as he starts a dance-fight in a subway.
Lisha: And doesn’t that lead us right back to the issue of perspective? I feel like this is especially clear in Thriller, if we think about how we can experience the character “Michael” through his girlfriend’s eyes. As she is overwhelmed by the excitement of being in love, she sees and experiences a “thrill-her” date with her handsome new boyfriend. When she begins to fear where all this might take her, she sees and experiences a scary creature from a “thriller” horror film.
The girlfriend’s experience is dependent upon what she brings to the table at any particular moment in time. When she looks at the world through the perspective of love, she sees beauty. When she looks at the world through fear, she sees a monster.
Willa: Wow, that is so interesting, Lisha! As many times as I’ve watched Thriller, I’ve never thought about it that way before.
Lisha: Isn’t that a perfect reflection of how we collectively experience Michael Jackson? He is an angel or a devil, innocent or guilty, depending on what the viewer brings to the table. This ambiguity forces us to question the whole concept of reality, showing us how perception trumps what is “really there.”
Willa: Yes, that’s a really important connection. And I agree, Elizabeth, that he does seem to be exploring the grey areas between guilt and innocence – “the liminality of innocence,” as you called it – and I love those examples you gave. He may be positioned in the hero role in Smooth Criminal, but he commits numerous acts of violence, as you say. And in Billie Jean, he may not be the father of the child whose “eyes looked like mine,” but he did go to her room and something – we’re not sure what – “happened much too soon.” That ambiguity occurs throughout Michael Jackson’s work.
Elizabeth: However, one short film which is definitely not ambiguous is Scream, and it’s one we should definitely mention before closing because it has a lot of noir-esque features (including a heightened mood of alienation). It is set in the vacuum of space and “in space, no one can hear you scream.” Putting Michael and Janet in this off-world environment really heightens the connection between alienation and celebrity/fame.
Karin: Yes, they surrounded themselves with art, which is often qualified as higher status and more distanced from people. So the art with which they surround themselves in their spacecraft world can also be seen as an alienating aspect.
Elizabeth: Not only do they surround themselves with art, they also attempt things on their own or in a pair that would usually be done in a group, such as playing sports, playing music. What we see in Scream is more escapism, a self-imposed exile. These are two characters in exile, and they have been put as far from their fellow human beings as possible. They can only connect through screens and other conduits. We get a sense that they are trying desperately to amuse themselves and all of it is in vain. The up-tempo beat of the song contradicts sharply with this.
Lisha: Wow, Elizabeth! Never in a million years would I thought of Scream in terms of neo-noir, but there it is! Mind blown.
Willa: I agree. I wouldn’t have thought of Scream as neo-noir either, but it makes so much sense now that you say that, Elizabeth. All the elements we’ve been talking about, from visual elements like high-contrast lighting to thematic elements like isolation and the difficulty of being an innocent individual confronted by a corrupt society – they’re all there, aren’t they?
Elizabeth: Yes they are, Willa, Lisha. It’s one of those things that strikes you in a really uncanny way – that Scream which is free from all the stereotypes of noir is in fact very clearly neo-noir and dealing with so many of those ideas. Don’t you think that the space location serves to heighten the noir-ness of Scream?
Lisha: Most definitely. And with the sad news of David Bowie’s passing, I can’t help relating Scream to Bowie’s 1969 Space Oddity.
Bowie’s character “Major Tom,” was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowie said he strongly identified with its sense of isolation and alienation. I definitely see a lot of this work in Scream.
Willa: You know, we should talk about that sometime. There are a lot of connections there to Michael Jackson, as you say. Elizabeth, Karin – would you like to join us in that discussion?
Elizabeth: I would love to join you guys for a Bowie post. Can’t wait.
Karin: Yes, of course. I love Bowie and have listened to his music, and read a lot about him. So I’d be excited for that.
Willa: Wonderful! And thank you both so much for educating us about neo-noir! It really opened my eyes and allowed me to see some of his films in ways I never had before. I really value that, so thank you sincerely.
I’d also like to let everyone know that our friend Toni Bowers has an article about Michael Jackson and biography coming out soon in the Los Angeles Review of Books – next Tuesday, I believe. I’ll post a link as soon as it goes up, but you may want to keep a lookout for it.
Willa: Happy Holidays! As many of you know, Joie and I started this blog more than four years ago as a place to have in-depth discussions about “Michael Jackson, his art, and social change.” It’s been fascinating talking with you all about these ideas – I have learned so much the past four years. Michael Jackson’s full body of work – his music, dancing, lyrics and poetry, his concerts, short films and other visual art, his creative process and innovative production methods, his public persona, his costumes, his face and body, and above all his overarching aesthetic and deeply held beliefs about social justice and the power of art to bring about change – these are all so rich in meaning it really does take a village to even begin to grasp it all, and I sincerely appreciate everything you all have shared.
About a year ago Joie decided to devote herself fully to a new career, and since then she hasn’t been participating here at the blog. I’m very excited for her but I miss her terribly. To be honest, my first impulse was to retire this space, but Joie convinced me to keep it going. However, I’ve really struggled since she left, as many of you have probably noticed. I’ve been joined by some wonderful guests this year – Raven Woods, Eleanor Bowman, Joe Vogel, Nina Fonoroff, D.B. Anderson, Marie Plasse, Toni Bowers – and I deeply appreciate their involvement and support. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our conversations. However, this blog was conceived as a partnership, and it works best when there are two of us fully committed to it, week after week, post after post. And I’m starting to realize that I just don’t enjoy doing it on my own. Running the blog with Joie was a blast. Doing it by myself is not.
After a year of feeling kind of lost and overwhelmed, I decided I really need another partner to keep this blog vibrant and functioning well. So I asked Lisha McDuff if she would be willing to take that on, and I’m so grateful and happy that she has agreed. As many of you know from past conversations, Lisha is extremely knowledgeable about music and the entertainment industry in general, and about Michael Jackson in particular. She’s a classically trained musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and major touring productions like Wicked and Phantom of the Opera. Three years ago she decided to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and go back to school, and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director.
Lisha, thank you so much for joining me! I can’t tell you how grateful I am. And how fun that you’ve been working with Susan on Michael Jackson! What could be better than that?
Lisha: No kidding! Talk about some serious brain power. Susan Fast is everything a popular music scholar should be, in my opinion.
Willa: Oh, I agree! I love her work. She blows me away with her insights and depth of knowledge time after time. You’re both so knowledgeable about music and have such fascinating ideas – how wonderful that you’re working together! I know how busy you are right now, so I felt kind of guilty even asking, but I am so excited and relieved and happy to have you here as my new writing and blogging partner. Thank you sincerely from the bottom of my heart for accepting.
Lisha: Honestly, I’m thrilled you asked, Willa. I have gained so much from your work, especially your conversations with Joie and all the other amazing contributors here. Every post has been like a roller-coaster ride for me, so I’m excited for the opportunity to participate on a regular basis. Before we get started though, there is something I’d really like to say: I miss Joie’s contributions terribly as well! I’m sure we all do.
Willa: Oh, I miss her every post. But we keep in touch and she seems really happy in her new career, so I think it’s been a good move for her. And maybe we can convince her to come join us sometimes …
Lisha: I certainly hope so!
Willa: So today we’re going to look at the evolution of the 40-minute short film, Ghosts. Lisha, this all began when you found a clip of an early version of Ghosts, which was filmed in 1993. Here’s a link:
Thank you so much for sharing this! You’ve been trying to track this down for quite a while, right?
Lisha: Yes, I have been curious about this early footage for years now. I’d heard rumblings about it and I’d seen a few screenshots here and there, but I never had any luck in finding a way to view it. I just couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it had been posted to YouTube.
Willa: Oh, it’s fascinating! I was so excited when you told me you’d found it. There are quite a few demos available of Michael Jackson’s songs where we can see how his ideas progressed, but it’s rare to have a demo version, as it were, of one of his videos. And how wonderful that it’s Ghosts, which is so complex. It’s so interesting to have this opportunity to peek inside his thought process as he was developing it.
Lisha: Definitely. And after speculating about it for so long, it’s incredibly satisfying to finally get to see it.
Willa: It really is! So as I understand it, this early version was shot in 1993 as a promo piece for the feature-length film, Addams Family Values. But work on it abruptly stopped when the Chandler scandal broke and Paramount decided they no longer wanted Michael Jackson’s help promoting their film. Then the project resumed in 1996 as a stand-alone project, separate from Addams Family Values. Is that right?
Lisha: Yes, according to an interview with the original director, Mick Garris, that’s exactly what happened. A couple of weeks into the shoot, false claims generated by Evan Chandler began circulating in the media and, sadly, the project had to be scrapped. When the work finally resumed, Garris was no longer available so Stan Winston was asked to direct the final version.
At the time, few had any way of knowing it was Evan Chandler who should have been under investigation and Michael Jackson who needed police protection from him. Neither the police nor the press seemed interested in investigating that possibility. As a result, the damages sustained by Michael Jackson were very, very high – personally, professionally, and financially.
Viewing this early version of Ghosts, I began to realize I had assumed this was going to be some sort of cameo appearance for Michael Jackson in Addams Family Values. Now I am thinking it was intended as a Michael Jackson short film that would double as cross-promotion for the motion picture. If true, it’s an interesting idea from an artistic and marketing point of view. I can’t really think of a parallel move, but surely someone else has done this.
Willa, can you think of another music video that has also served as cross-promotion for a major motion picture or entertainment product like this?
Willa: Hmmm … Now that you mention it, no I can’t. I know there’s been a lot of cross-pollination between movies and popular songs before. Just look at the James Bond movies, which have featured theme songs by Paul McCartney, Carly Simon, Adele, and others. And some of the biggest-selling albums of all time have been soundtracks – for The Bodyguard, Dirty Dancing, Saturday Night Fever, Titanic, South Pacific, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, … The list goes on and on. So there’s a long history of the music industry and film industry promoting one another. But off the top of my head, I can’t think of another case where a music video has been created to promote a film.
Lisha: Those are all great examples, and you’re right there has always been a strong synergy between music and film. Popular songs are often featured in motion pictures, and movie songs frequently become hits. Many don’t realize the musical short is as old as sound-film and television itself. They were produced and widely distributed long before MTV.
But for some reason I just can’t think of another music video that includes characters from another current movie or project. The only Ghosts/Addams Family comparison I can come up with is the Black or White short film, which ends with a clip of The Simpsons.
Willa: Yes, but I think that Simpsons clip is there for thematic reasons, not to promote the show. What I mean is, I think it’s significant that Black or White begins and ends with a white boy (Macauley Culkin and Bart Simpson) dancing to Michael Jackson’s music, and then rebelling against his father when he tries to shut the music down.
Lisha: That’s true. Although The Simpsons are funny-looking lemon-yellow cartoon characters, their language and behavior codes white. That’s an important point that Susan Fast makes in her book on the Dangerous album – that the Black or White short film is literally framed by whiteness.
And I totally agree that The Simpsons clip in Black or White functions independently of any possible marketing strategy. But at the same time, I can’t help noticing its promotional value, which would have given the series massive global exposure via a Michael Jackson short film. Now I’m curious as to whether or not that ending was monetized in some way.
Willa: That’s an interesting question. I have no idea. Michael Jackson did participate in a Simpsons episode, though that wasn’t confirmed until years later, but I don’t think he was paid for it.
Lisha: I wouldn’t know, but there are some interesting possibilities there, for sure.
Willa: That’s true. And the draft version of Ghosts does have quite a few references to the Addams Family, like Thing (the disembodied hand) skittering around, and the sudden appearance near the end of the Addams children: Wednesday, Pugsley, and Pubert. They aren’t in the final version. By the way, here’s a link to the final, for comparison purposes:
Lisha: No matter how often I’ve watched this film, and I’ve seen it quite a few times, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. It’s so brilliant on so many levels. It’s hard to understand some of the reviews that characterize it as a “huge flop.”
Willa: I think a lot of critics don’t like it because it draws on the aesthetic of the grotesque, which is alien territory to a lot of people. It’s an ancient form that’s disruptive to the status quo, and it makes people feel unsettled and uncomfortable – especially people in power. That’s its function, to unsettle things. But a lot of people don’t like that feeling, and feel threatened by it. And perhaps they should feel threatened. It can be very powerful.
So my sense is that a lot of critics don’t like Ghosts because it’s so different, it makes them uncomfortable, and they don’t understand it – just like a lot of the villagers in Ghosts don’t like the Maestro because he’s so different, he makes them uncomfortable, and they don’t understand him … at least, not at the beginning. It’s another one of those loop-de-loop situations where Michael Jackson’s art reflects and predicts what will happen in real life. We see that happening over and over again with Michael Jackson, and Ghosts is a great example. He almost seemed to predict the future with that film, in a number of ways.
Lisha: You are so right. Ghosts is a powerful film that both reflects and predicts “what will happen in real life” – eerily so. And your point is well taken about the aesthetic of the grotesque and how fiercely it challenges the status quo. Ghosts is also a brutally honest work of art. Michael Jackson lets us in on the fact he’s known all along what we’ve been saying about his artistry, his face, his weirdness, his childlike innocence. Now that we have this early version available to study, I’m even more fascinated by some of the issues it raises.
Willa: So am I. And it’s really interesting to compare the two versions to see the development of his ideas. Some changes are obvious, like when the Maestro disappears at the end of the 1993 version. Of course, that version is incomplete, so it could be his return was planned but just wasn’t filmed yet when work was suspended. Still, it’s unsettling to see the Maestro disappear and not come back. At the end of the 1996 version, he definitely returns and is even stronger than before – he’s been accepted by the villagers and it’s the Mayor who’s disappeared.
That brings up another important difference: the actor who plays the Mayor in the original version is not Michael Jackson. The original Mayor does turn up a couple times in the final version though. Here he is at 1:32 minutes, entering the Maestro’s home:
Lisha: Good eye, Willa! I hadn’t seen that, but you’re right. That cut appears to have been lifted directly from the original.
Willa: Yes, instead of reshooting everything in 1996, they reused a lot of the footage from 1993 – like this shot of the original Mayor, which you don’t notice if you aren’t looking for him. At least I never noticed him before. A lot of the special effects sequences are the same also.
Lisha: I have to say, overall, I was surprised by how similar the unfinished rough cut is to the final version directed by Stan Winston. I had imagined there would be more drastic differences, but much of it looks remarkably similar.
Willa: That’s true. There are some significant differences, but the overall structure was pretty much there in 1993, and many of the scenes are very similar, as you say. But even so, sometimes subtle changes shift the feeling of what we’re seeing and how we respond to it. For example, both films feature the “Welcome to Normal Valley” sign in the opening scenes using the exact same footage. But the background music has changed and that affects our emotional response to the sign, even though the visuals are the same.
Lisha: The musical score in the finished product is very well done, I think. It adds so much to the dramatic impact of the film. I noticed a comment on YouTube claiming the 1993 rough cut has temporary music only, taken from other films. I don’t know if that’s true or not, the music and sound effects are well synchronized already, but it also makes sense. I wouldn’t expect the musical score to be added until after the film editing was complete.
Willa: That’s an interesting point, Lisha. I really don’t know how that typically works. For music videos, which were Michael Jackson’s forte and where he served his apprenticeship and learned his craft as a filmmaker, I assume the music would come first. But for a feature-length film, I imagine you’re right and the visuals come first and the music comes later. For something like Ghosts, which lies somewhere between a feature film and a video, I simply don’t know.
Lisha: I think you’ve got it, Willa. For the musical numbers, the music is produced first and played back at the film shoot so the performers can synchronize their movement with the music. For the dramatic scenes, the music and sound effects are added later, so they can be synchronized to the visuals.
Brad Sundberg just gave an interesting interview where he described working on the Ghosts film shoot. It’s a pretty entertaining story, as is the entire interview. Skip to 1:00:30 for the part about Ghosts and how loud Michael Jackson wanted the playback!
Willa: That’s funny! Especially his description of their struggles to get enough volume in the huge space they were using for filming. He said they built an “enormous sound system” and had speakers the size of “two refrigerators side by side – two American refrigerators.”
Lisha: Yes, and don’t confuse those enormous speakers with the size of a small Asian or European refrigerator! Sounds like they were going for the “Are You Nuts!?!” volume levels.
Willa: Could be! By the way, I noticed Brad mentioned “Ghosts” and “Is It Scary” together, and that reminds me of something Debbie Rowe said during the AEG trial. She said that, originally, “Ghosts” and “Is It Scary” were one song, but later it was divided and developed into two songs. After she said that, I noticed some interesting connections between them – like they both begin with the lines, “There’s a ghost out in the hall / There’s a ghoul beneath the bed.” They also come one after the other on the Blood on the Dance Floor album, and there’s an interesting parallelism between them in Ghosts. The Maestro turns into a skeleton and dances to “Is It Scary.” Later the skeleton turns into the Monster Maestro, enters the Mayor, and then he dances to “Ghosts” in a way that feels reminiscent of the skeleton dance.
Lisha: Wow, that’s really interesting. For some reason I don’t remember that from the AEG trial, but now I want to go back and re-read it. And I think that’s absolutely right, that “Ghosts” and “Is It Scary” are just two different versions of the same song. Don’t you think so?
Willa: They are very similar – in fact, I used to get them confused when I’d listen to them on my car stereo. I thought I was just being a scatterbrain, but maybe there’s a reason I confused them! If you’re able to track down Debbie Rowe’s testimony, I’d love to look it over. I know I was really struck by what she said, but I’m just going by memory, and my memory’s not the best …
Lisha: Gee, I can relate to that! Ok, Willa, here we go – found a link to Rowe’s testimony.
Willa: Thanks for tracking that down, Lisha. So here’s what Debbie Rowe said:
I remember “Ghost” was split in half, for some reason, or “Do you think it’s scary.” It was originally going to be called “Ghost,” and then it was “Is It Scary.”
That is so interesting. I’d really like to look into that some more …
Lisha: I would too.
Willa: Anyway, like you I love the music in the final version and strongly prefer it to the music in the original – not just Michael Jackson’s songs (of course!) but also the background music, and the feeling it creates.
I also prefer the scenes of the villagers marching toward the Maestro’s mansion in the final film. In the 1993 version, those scenes are in color and the villagers are individualized. We see their faces and hear their voices. The final version uses footage from that same shoot, including some of the exact same scenes, but the film has been rendered black-and-white in the final version, and it’s been edited so it’s much more abstract. We know the townspeople are upset and angry, but for the most part we don’t see their faces or hear their voices except as a murmur behind the music. So what we see in the final version isn’t so much specific people anymore, but more an abstract idea of an angry mob.
Lisha: That’s a really great point and I think you’re right. Those small details make it a little more vague, which better illustrates the mob mentality that is so central to the story.
Willa: I think so too. The problem isn’t these specific people so much as the phenomenon of fear and intolerance leading to mob violence, and the final version conveys that much better, I think.
There’s a similar shift in the dialogue. In the draft version, things tend to be spelled out in rather explicit, straightforward terms. But the final tends to be more subtle and more nuanced. For example, in the draft version the villagers begin to chant, “Come out where we can see you. Come out where we can see you.” That’s been dropped in the final. Instead, we simply see them looking for the Maestro. We also see that they’re both eager to find him and kind of fearful about it too. That kind of emotional complexity is conveyed much better in the final, I think.
Lisha: It is definitely more subtle. In the original, I feel like the demand for the Maestro to leave town is quite explicit. It’s very clear that the townspeople have entered the Maestro’s mansion for the specific purpose of running him off. In the final version, the mayor similarly states “we want you out of town,” but it’s more vague as to whether or not that is simply his wish or if that is what the townspeople had hoped to achieve by going there.
Willa: That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought about that before, but I think you’re right – and that’s an important change. Again, it makes the story more subtle and more universal, and also opens it up to multiple interpretations.
There’s a similar shift in the setting, meaning how the Maestro’s mansion is conceptualized and presented. In the original 1993 version, there are several shots of the exterior of the house, like this one, which stays on screen for a fairly long time:
Here’s another exterior view, this time from closer in:
And here’s another, closer still. If you look closely, you can see the left window in the door has been broken by one of the villagers. We don’t see them engaging in that kind of violence in the final version, though the potential for mob violence is definitely there.
Shots like these present the Maestro’s mansion as a specific, physical place. But almost all of these exterior shots have been removed from the final version. Instead, the house is presented in a more abstract way. We only have two brief glimpses of the entire house – one at the beginning behind the title block, and the other 44 seconds in, when lightning illuminates the house for just an instant. So our sense of the Maestro’s house is more impressionistic than in the 1993 version. To me it feels more like a memory or an imagined place than a real place.
This is reinforced by the shot immediately after, at 45 seconds in, of the sign identifying this as Someplace Else – not 4641 Hayvenhurst Avenue or Westlake Studios, but Someplace Else.
Lisha: I think that sign is hilarious: “Someplace Else.”
Willa: I do too. Here’s a screen capture of it, with a flaming torch passing by:
The effect of all this is to make the Maestro’s mansion feel more like a mythic space, a space located in our own imaginations, rather than an actual physical place. It’s subtle but very well done, I think.
Lisha: It reminds me of the jump from black-and-white to color in The Wizard of Oz, signaling the move into the imaginary or mythic realm.
Willa: Yes, and that jump to color happens in Ghosts also – the film switches from black-and-white to subdued color when we enter “the imaginary or mythic realm” of the Maestro. That’s a great way to put it, Lisha.
It’s in this realm that the Maestro engages and ultimately alters the villager’s hostile feelings toward him, but in unexpected ways: with the help of special effects, he stretches his eyes and mouth to grotesque proportions, or rips his face off altogether so there’s nothing but a laughing skull, or pounds himself to dust on the stone floor. For the most part, these scenes are pretty similar in the two versions. In fact, many of the special effects sequences are identical. Interestingly, Stan Winston, who acted as the director in 1996, as you mentioned earlier, was in charge of special effects in 1993, so those sequences are his. He created them.
Lisha: That would certainly explain why they look so similar!
Willa: Yes, it does. But again there are some significant changes. Some new special effects sequences have been added in the later version, like the dancing skeleton, and the Monster Maestro, and the huge face filling the doorway. And a few have been deleted, like the one where they can’t get through a locked door, and suddenly one of the villagers starts gagging and coughs up the key.
Lisha: I noticed another interesting sequence from the early version that was later omitted. It’s the black-out at around 3:50, when the mayor lights some matches to see where they are going. Suddenly we see torches on the wall that begin to fire up on their own, and they appear to be held by human arms coming out the walls. This scene is strikingly similar to one in Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête, or Beauty and the Beast. Here’s a trailer that shows the human wall sconces at about 30 seconds in:
Willa: I had the exact same feeling! Those light fixtures made of living human arms are very evocative of Cocteau’s film, aren’t they? In fact, I see a lot of connections between Cocteau and Michael Jackson. I wonder why that detail was removed from the final version?
Lisha: Good question. I see some connections as well and really like the reference.
Willa: I do too. I also like the fact that when the Maestro first appears in the original, he’s among the villagers – he’s one of them.
Lisha: I thought that was fascinating – how the Maestro disguises himself among the crowd, hiding in plain sight. It reminds me of how Michael Jackson reportedly went out in public wearing various disguises. I wonder how many people have been standing next to Michael Jackson at some point in their lives and never known it.
Willa: That’s an interesting connection, Lisha. I hadn’t thought of that. I just like the implication that he is one of the villagers, part of the community, not someone separate.
Lisha: Yes. And that is really spelled out in the final version where Michael Jackson plays the roles of both the Mayor and the Maestro.
Willa: Oh interesting, Lisha. I hadn’t thought of it that way. It’s true that in some ways he seems more connected to the villagers in the final version. For example, when he begins to interact with the villagers in the 1993 draft version, he seems pretty fearful of them, and hurt – emotionally hurt – by their animosity toward him. And I imagine that’s a pretty accurate reflection of his emotions in 1993, just as the Chandler schemes were unfolding.
Lisha: I would agree.
Willa: But his interactions with the villagers in the final version feel different to me. He seems much more comfortable with them, and more confident. It’s like he thoroughly understands the villagers and what motivates them, knows how to change their minds, and that knowledge helps him maintain total control of the situation. He’s the Maestro, and he knows his power. That’s the feeling I get from the final version – not so much in the draft version.
Lisha: Although in the original, the Maestro displays considerable power over the villagers as well, like when he signals the doors to magically close, preventing his “guests” from leaving the room.
Willa: That’s true.
Lisha: But I agree that the power he wields is more apparent in the final version.
Willa: It seems that way to me, and not just his magic powers but his bearing and facial expressions – his confidence in his abilities as an artist to touch people’s hearts and change their minds.
Another very important “lost” scene is the children’s response after the Maestro turns to dust. In the 1993 draft version, the children immediately rush to him and begin shaping the dust back into human form – creating fingers, making him whole – until he is restored. So in a very literal way, the children re-create him and bring him back to life in the original version.
Lisha: Their concern, innocence and sheer delight in his imagination and playfulness sparks the power that reanimates the Maestro.
Willa: That’s a great way to interpret it, Lisha! I really like this sequence, but it isn’t in the final version. Instead, the Maestro is restored to life in a very different way. And actually, while I love the idea of the children bringing him back to life, I think the final version works better.
While the children don’t bring him back to life in the final version, they are more vocal about protecting him and more involved in the discussions among the villagers. For example, as everyone is standing at the gate looking in, before they enter the Maestro’s home, one boy says, “Why don’t we just leave him alone?” and another says, “He hasn’t hurt anybody. Can’t we just go?” But then the brother of the second boy blames him, saying, “It’s your fault, jerk. You just couldn’t keep your mouth shut.” None of that is in the original version.
Lisha: This scene really jumped out at me as I rewatched my VCD copy of the film. (YouTube quality doesn’t really do it justice!) In the opening dialogue you described, the mother also whacks her kid on the head and says “you did the right thing.” The dissonance between her whack on the head and her reassurance of the child is confusing and unsettling.
One of the most interesting and important things about Ghosts is how it can be interpreted as an artistic response to the false accusations made against Michael Jackson in 1993. But I wonder if there is any possibility that the original concept for Ghosts predates Evan Chandler’s extortion scheme, given the amount of time it takes to put a film together and the fact that the media construction of Michael Jackson as a “weirdo” from “Someplace Else” was already firmly in place.
Willa: That’s a really good question, Lisha. The accusations became public in August but private negotiations had been going on for quite a while before that, so it’s not clear how much Michael Jackson knew before work on Ghosts began. I think Chandler says he first confronted him about his “suspicions” before Memorial Day weekend of 1993, so that would have been in May, probably. Then the phone conversation David Schwartz taped – the one where Evan Chandler says he’s hired a lawyer, “the nastiest son of a bitch I could find,” that “it could be a massacre if I don’t get what I want,” and that “everything is going according to a certain plan that isn’t just mine” – that all happened on July 8th, and Michael Jackson was given a copy of the tape soon after. The dental visit where Chandler put Jordan under sedation and asked him questions was July 16th, which is so backwards: the fact that Chandler hired a lawyer before his son had even agreed to the allegations says a lot about where those allegations originated. And then the scandal broke in late August.
Lisha: You’re so right about the timeline. Both Raymond Chandler and Geraldine Hughes claim that Evan Chandler hired attorney Barry Rothman in June 1993. Just like the Arvizo case, the timeline makes no sense whatsoever.
Willa: No, it doesn’t – or rather, it makes sense only if you realize that the allegations began with the parents and not with the children. Simply looking at the chronology of events of both cases tells a lot.
Lisha: It’s shocking, really.
Willa: It really is. How could the police and the press miss something so obvious?
Lisha: You got me. Motivated reasoning? That’s my best guess.
Willa: I think you’re right. But anyway, by the time the scandal became public, Chandler had already been negotiating for weeks, trying to get a $20 million deal in exchange for his silence. So I suspect the way things went is that Michael Jackson was asked to do a song and promotional video for Addams Family Values in early 1993, before there was a problem with the Chandlers. But then things started getting ugly with Evan Chandler – in private – right around the time he started developing the plot and ideas. And then the scandal broke publicly two weeks after they started filming.
Does that sound plausible to you, Lisha, or not really? I honestly don’t know how long it would take for the screenplay and everything to come together once they started working on it. You have a lot more insight into that side of things than I do.
Lisha: Michael Jackson was certainly aware of what Evan Chandler was up to well before they began filming, so yes, it is definitely plausible. But I also think analyzing the story as a response to negative media portrayals holds up either way – before or after Chandler. 1993 was the year that Michael Jackson began defending himself against all kinds of unfair media characterizations that had turned really mean and nasty. I mean, looking back, how crazy is it that he had to go on primetime television in February of 1993 to tell Oprah he was a gentleman, who suffered from vitiligo, and did not sleep in a hyperbaric chamber? In hindsight, why was that so necessary?
In some ways, it would be interesting if Ghosts was initially conceived before the Chandler extortion plot. What I’m trying to say is, there were already a lot of mean-spirited media portrayals going on before Evan Chandler and Barry Rothman implemented their “plan.” And there is no doubt in my mind that the reason many people fell for the false accusations is that they intersected with the negative media portrayals already in circulation.
Willa: I agree. By the way, here’s an article by Stephen King, who worked on the Ghosts screenplay, where he describes Michael Jackson’s initial concept for the short film. Interestingly, it seems that King himself interpreted the concept one way before the scandal broke – as a response to anti-Rock & Roll feelings – and another way after the scandal:
The core story he described to me that day was about a mob of angry townspeople – buttoned-down suburbanites, not torch-carrying peasants – who want the “weirdo” who lives in the nearby castle to leave town. Because, they say, he’s a bad influence on their children. I associated that with the view parents held toward rock & roll when I was growing up, and still held toward the odder artists of the breed, like Ozzy Osbourne and Marilyn Manson (who in 1995 would release an album called Smells Like Children). I didn’t know that rumors about Jackson and child abuse had begun to circulate.
I also thought it was significant that Stephen King says Michael Jackson told him the “core story” before he began writing the screenplay. So the initial concept was definitely Michael Jackson’s. King also says the final screenplay “had wandered a far distance from my original script.” So while Stephen King is generally credited with the story, I think Michael Jackson was at least equally involved, from beginning to end.
Lisha: That’s an excellent point and just what we needed to know – that the story began with Michael Jackson and evolved over this specific time period.
By the way, I’d like to know how it is that Michael Jackson got constructed as the Rock & Roll “weirdo,” with the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and Marilyn Manson around? That would be really funny if I didn’t sense something so ugly behind it all. At the same time Michael Jackson was pigeonholed as a “pop” artist, and therefore ineligible for the cultural status given to serious rock musicians, he was also the ultimate Rock & Roll “weirdo.” That doesn’t add up.
To my way of thinking, the vilification of Michael Jackson occurred long before Evan Chandler got dollar signs in his eyes. Chandler and Rothman simply capitalized on the hysteria that already existed.
Willa: I think you’re right.
Lisha: Garris, who initially met Michael Jackson on the set of Thriller, was asked if he thought Michael Jackson was just being playful with all of this “monster” imagery. Ultimately, he didn’t think the response was very funny either:
He was very playful with that image, though as the press got meaner, he was definitely hurt by it, and pulled back and became more reclusive.
Willa: Yes. And this is kind of off topic, but how interesting that Garris was involved in Thriller, playing the role of one of the zombies, and then ended up as the director for the 1993 filming of Ghosts. That’s amazing! He’s like the Forrest Gump of Michael Jackson videos …
Lisha: Pretty wild. Small world, isn’t it?
Willa: It really is. And it’s true the media attacks on Michael Jackson began long before the allegations. Just look at the Leave Me Alone video, which was released in 1989 – four years before the Chandler allegations.
Lisha: I read an interesting article by media scholar John Nguyet Erni, who studied these negative portrayals and argued that “if Michael Jackson’s troubles preceded the scandal, it is critical for us to understand the source of those troubles and their discursive life, especially in the media.” In his May 2009 article published in Critical Studies in Mass Communication, Erni cites cultural critic Michele Wallace, who questioned the breadth of the Michael Jackson controversy early on. In 1989, Wallace noted the abundance of media criticism directed toward Michael Jackson and pointed out how it totally lacked a focus:
Where does this controversy focus its attention? Is it on his videos, his music, his wealth, his fame, his sexuality, his race, his lifestyle, his aesthetics, his unwillingness to be interviewed, his family, his plastic surgery, his skin lightening, or is it some ineffable combination of any or all of the above? What, at this moment, at the peak of his career, is he being attacked and criticized [for] on all sides?
These are complicated questions, but it seems obvious that the false allegations provided a target or a resting place for all of these free-floating anxieties.
Willa: I agree, and how prescient that Wallace was raising these questions in 1989. But as Wallace asks, Why? What gives rise to this criticism? And later, in 1993, what was it exactly that made the public – white Americans, especially – predisposed to believe those allegations, regardless of the evidence? It’s like, once again, the chronology is reversed. Looking back at media coverage of Michael Jackson in the 1980s and 90s, it’s not true that the allegations came out and then people turned against him, though that’s the narrative that’s been repeated over and over about him. Instead, there was significant uneasiness toward him before the scandal, and then the allegations simply validated that unease.
Lisha: You’re right. There is a resilient narrative out there that goes something like: The public greatly admired Michael Jackson’s talent from the time he was a small child. But due to the perils of success, he lost touch with reality and began acting out in tragic ways. Some are still blinded by his celebrity and talent which causes them to irrationally reject all negative information about him, primarily jurors and fans.
Yet there is ample evidence to suggest people wanted to believe just about anything negative about Michael Jackson, regardless of the evidence, especially when it involved a lot of condemnation and ridicule. You know, I think Susan Fast really nailed it when she described the Michael Jackson controversy as “difference that exceeded understanding.”
Willa: I agree.
Lisha: Willa, in your journal article for Popular Musicology Online, you discuss how Ghosts addresses our fear of difference at the level of “sensation and affect,” a place where unowned cultural biases can overwhelm and distort judgment and sound reasoning:
Drawing on his own case history as a guide, Jackson uses Ghosts to map out an artistic approach for attacking cultural biases not only in an intellectual way but at a deep psychological level – in a place of sensation and affect, a place resistant to evidence and reason, a place where our most primal fears, prejudices, and desires hold sway. Significantly, this is also the place where hysteria arises.
For example, in the 1993 film, Michael Jackson first appears at approximately 6:20, as the mayor and the townspeople are hysterically confronting the Maestro. They claim the Maestro scares their children, but these are the very same children who smile warmly at him, giggle a lot, and are clearly delighted by his antics:
Maestro: Here I am. What do you want?
Mayor: We want you out of town! You don’t fit in here!
Townswoman: You’re not like us!
Maestro: Why do I have to be?
Townsman: You’re not like anybody. You’re weird! These kids think you’re scary. (The mayor’s son shrugs his shoulders, as if he has no idea why he is saying this.)
Maestro: I’m scary? (pauses, looks at the boy) Son, do you think I’m scary?
Mayor’s son: (shakes his head “no,” but the mayor ventriloquizes his head up and down to indicate “yes”)
Mayor: You bet you’re scary! You’re a weirdo and we want you out of town.
Willa: This is such an important scene, especially when the Mayor grabs the boy’s head and forces him to nod “yes” when he was really nodding “no.” A similar example occurs 1:40 minutes in, when the Mayor’s son tells him, “Daddy, I’m scared.” He replies, “Sure you are. It’s a scary place.” But his son says, “No, I’m scared of them,” and nods toward the villagers with their flaming torches. Then he asks, “What’s going to happen?” That’s what scares him – the villagers’ aggression – not the Maestro.
Lisha: Yes! The kids are clearly confused and disturbed by all this hysteria and intolerance.
Willa: Exactly. Repeatedly we see that the children respond in a very different way than the adults do – specifically, they’re much more open and welcoming of difference. But the adults don’t seem to realize this. Instead, they project their emotions onto their children, and then use that as justification for their intolerant actions.
That scene you mentioned, Lisha, of the Mayor “ventriloquizing” his son shows this very clearly. The boy isn’t scared of the Maestro – the Mayor is. But he says his son is scared so he can justify his attempts to drive the Maestro from his home. This is all spelled out pretty explicitly in the 1993 version. It’s central to the final version also, but it’s handled more subtly.
Lisha: Yes, I agree, the psychological projection is depicted even clearer in the earlier version which brings up another point Erni makes in his study of the media scandal. There is language in the illegally leaked copies of Jordan Chandler’s “witness testimony” that exhibits an obvious ventriloquism. Jordan Chandler’s complaint contains a lot of specialized language that a detective or a therapist might use, which is not the language of a young teenager. Erni discusses “the confluent forces that accumulate around the testimony, forces that ventriloquize the teenager’s sexual knowledge and memory, voices that speak for him – and therefore without him.”
Willa: This is such an important point.
Lisha: It is. And as you mentioned earlier, much of the action and dialogue in Ghosts is so prophetic and insightful. I mean, isn’t this exactly what happened to Michael Jackson in reality?
Willa: Yes, it is. Ghosts provides such an interesting window into his perceptions of what was happening and why – as well as what was about to happen. He was uncannily accurate in predicting what would happen in the future.
Lisha: When the hysterical mayor cries: “You’re a weirdo and we want you out of town!” it suggests to me that as early as 1993 Michael Jackson knew there were some who literally wanted him gone for no other reason than he was a “weirdo” and not like anyone else. He wouldn’t actually have to leave his home for another 12 years, but in fact, this did happen. You and D.B. Anderson were just discussing this in terms of racial politics:
D.B.: … this type of attack just fits with everything else we have seen from the white male heterosexual press. It is necessary to diminish someone else only if you are trying to establish or maintain your own dominance. If that person happens to be an extraordinarily potent black man…
Willa: … then there’s an impulse to trivialize his accomplishments. Yes, I agree.
D.B.: Or throw him in jail.
Willa: Or publicly humiliate him and drive him from his home.
It’s worth giving this some serious thought. Driving Michael Jackson out of his home was precisely what happened as a result of the false allegations – allegations that were originally manufactured by parents, police, therapists, and/or the press, and later ventriloquized through children. I don’t need to remind a Michael Jackson fan that to this day there is not one single instance of a child spontaneously making a criminal accusation against Michael Jackson. Not one. They all follow some kind of bizarre timeline where parents, police, therapists, lawyers, and/or Martin Bashir create a claim – which is later ventriloquized as “witness testimony.”
Willa: Absolutely. To my mind, the clearest example is the Jason Francia case. His mother goes on a celebrity news show, Hard Copy, and says her son may have been molested by Michael Jackson – and she does this before talking to a guidance counsellor or psychologist about her concerns, or even talking to her son about it. As a mom, that just boggles my mind. Her first step is to say something like that on a nationally broadcast television show before she’s even discussed it with her 12-year-old son? That goes against all my instincts as a mom.
Lisha: It’s unreal.
Willa: It really is – just unbelievable. So the police question her son about it and he says no, nothing happened. But they keep pushing him to say something did happen until he finally tells them, “If he really did touch, it was in the arcade.” This is such a clear case of the “ventriloquism” you pointed out in the 1993 version, Lisha. The boy shakes his head no, but the Mayor grabs his head and forces him to nod yes. That’s it exactly – a perfect description of the Chandlers and the Francias.
Lisha: That gets us into another troubling aspect of the media scandal Erni identified, which is the commodification of “witness testimony.” Accusations against Michael Jackson were bought and sold for years and it was big business. Even today we could debate whether or not there is still a market for accusations against Michael Jackson.
And what is the end result of all this? Michael Jackson suffered millions and millions in damages and was driven out of town by the Sheriff. I know I’m repeating myself, but this was the 1990s and 2000s, not the wild west! So it bears repeating: despite being exonerated in a court of law, Michael Jackson was driven out of his own home and out of his community. And not just any home. From what I understand, to call Neverland a home misses the point entirely, according to those lucky enough to have been there.
What D.B. Anderson mentioned in the previous post about cultural dominance is consistent with everything I know about how the social hierarchy works. Cultural dominance (for example white, male, heterosexual positions of power) is often maintained through the most everyday, ordinary things we take for granted. Images in the press or in popular culture often work to solidify (or sometimes challenge) the dominance of one group over another. Oftentimes we so thoroughly accept what the culture considers “normal” that we don’t even think to question our own beliefs about it. It’s simply the way things are.
Willa: Exactly. It’s so “normal” we can’t even see it, or imagine a different way.
Lisha: Yes. That’s why interrogating what is “normal” is so crucially important to understanding how society works. I think that’s one reason scholars have been interested in studying Michael Jackson and the way he seems to challenge normativity at every turn. These challenges have intersected with the very mechanisms of control, such as law enforcement and the media, which often speak in one voice when it comes to Michael Jackson.
Willa: That’s a really important point, Lisha, and it lies at the heart of Ghosts, doesn’t it? I mean, that’s precisely what this film is about. The residents of Normal Valley feel threatened by the Maestro because, like Michael Jackson, “he seems to challenge normativity at every turn,” as you say. And they respond by trying to reassert their control (over their children, over their town and who is allowed to live there) and reestablish the normalcy that has been disrupted by the Maestro by invading his home and trying to drive him out of town.
And of course, that’s true of Michael Jackson in real life as well, with the police and the media acting like the residents of Normal Valley to maintain the established social order by forcing him out – not just out of Neverland but out of the country.
Lisha: Well said. As an American citizen, it’s so troubling to me that this happened at all, but especially in my own lifetime.
Michael Jackson posed a threat to normativity that wasn’t just a lofty statement attached to a work of art. It was a very real threat to the established order, and we can find a mountain of evidence to corroborate how the culture worked very hard to contain him.
Willa, you have described Michael Jackson’s Ghosts as a new kind of art – one that isn’t necessarily confined to artwork itself, but art that is also located in our everyday lives through social discourse and other kinds of media we consume:
Through this new kind of art, Jackson captured the cultural narratives that were being imposed on him – narratives of race, of gender, of sexuality, of criminality, of celebrity and monstrous excess – inflated them to grotesque proportions, and then reflected those narratives back at us, forcing us to confront and grapple with them, and maybe reconsider them. This new genre is mediated through the tabloids and celebrity television shows and even the mainstream press, and it includes the many “eccentric oddities” (to borrow a phrase from “Is It Scary”) that came to define Jackson in the public mind.
Willa: Yes, I strongly believe that. Ghosts functions at several different levels at once. On one level, it is itself a fascinating work of art. But on another level it’s art talking about art – specifically, how art (an expanded definition of art that includes his public persona and the popular press) can bring about social change.
Lisha: You’ve definitely convinced me.
Willa: Part of what Michael Jackson was trying to address in his promo piece for Addams Family Values – the work that became Ghosts – were all the suspicions directed at him. Which makes it all the more disappointing what happened after Paramount severed ties with him. Not only did they no longer want him promoting their film, but they added a scene to Addams Family Values that played right into those allegations. Here’s a clip:
So instead of challenging the suspicions and discomfort felt toward him, as Michael Jackson intended, it did just the opposite and reinforced them.
Lisha: Wow. So there it is – everything we’ve been talking about in one 15-second clip. That gag would have worked just as well in February 1993 – at the time of the Oprah interview and several months before the accusations were made – as it did in November 1993, when Addams Family Values was released.
Willa: Though it definitely gained currency after the allegations became public …
Lisha: Making it very clear what the public was being cued to do: be very afraid of Michael Jackson!
Willa: Yes. It’s shocking to see his message of tolerance supplanted by this …
Lisha: … a message of total intolerance.
Willa: Yes, it feels that way to me too.
Well, there’s so much more to talk about with Ghosts, but we should probably wrap it up for today. Again, thank you so much for joining me, Lisha! – both today and in the weeks to come. I am so happy to have you here with me. What a wonderful way to start the new year!