Willa: This spring we’ve been talking quite a bit about “Billie Jean,” both the song and the video. Raven Woods joined me in March for a post about Michael Jackson’s concert performances of “Billie Jean.” Then Nina Fonoroff joined me in April for a post about the initial scenes of the Billie Jean video and how they draw on film noir. Nina and I continued that discussion two weeks ago in a post that focused on the “second chapter” of the video and how it evokes and reverses The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz, both visually and thematically.
However, in addition to being a song and a video, Billie Jean is also a character – a woman who tries to ensnare the protagonist by claiming he’s the father of her son – and the prototype for a recurring figure in Michael Jackson’s work. She’s a femme fatale, a “dangerous” seductress who leaves chaos in her wake. And that’s what Raven and I will be focusing on today. Thank you so much for joining me again, Raven!
Raven: Thank you again for inviting me. It’s always exciting to talk about one of my favorite subjects – Michael Jackson and his women, or at least, the mythical pantheon of female characters who dominate his work.
Many of them are quite well known to us – Billie Jean and Dirty Diana would come instantly to most minds. Others, like Susie from “Blood on the Dance Floor,” are perhaps not as well known outside the hardcore fan base but are perhaps even more lethal. Then there are the many nameless women who managed to wreck their own particular brand of havoc, such as the title characters of “Dangerous” and “Heartbreaker” and the seductress of “In the Closet” who threatens the stability of a married man’s life and home. Whether it is very well known tracks like “Billie Jean” and “Dirty Diana” or lesser known tracks like “Chicago,” in which a married woman manages to entangle a naive and basically decent man in her web of deceit, the femme fatale was certainly a recurring motif throughout Michael’s body of work.
Willa: She really was. There are subtle differences between them – for example, the scheming woman who lies about him in “Heartbreak Hotel” doesn’t have the aura, the same power to entrap men’s minds, as Dirty Diana or the femme fatale in “Dangerous,” though all three of them tell a manipulative kind of lie that hurts My Baby and drives her away. And there’s a kind of sorrow surrounding the adulterous wife and mother in “Chicago” that we don’t see in his other femme fatale songs. But despite their differences, these women nevertheless share important characteristics and function in similar ways, and they appear again and again, as you say, Raven.
Raven: The big question this raises is Why? I think it is a question worth addressing, especially given that the sheer number of such femme fatale characters who have populated his songs have given rise, perhaps, to some unfair criticisms of Michael’s personal character. For starters, these songs haven’t exactly alleviated the beliefs in certain quarters that Michael had a misogynistic streak in him. And that is certainly something I would like to address, while at the same time remaining ever respectful of the fact that when we are talking about art, we must always take care to differentiate the artist from the person.
Willa: Yes, that’s a very important point that his critics sometimes forget. And we also need to differentiate the characters he portrays from the artist and the person as well. The protagonist of “Billie Jean” or “Heartbreak Hotel” or “Who Is It” or “Chicago” is a fictional character, not Michael Jackson.
Raven: Interpreting – or trying to interpret – motifs that occur repeatedly throughout an artist’s body of work has always been a fascinating study to me, anyway. As a literature teacher, this is a subject that often comes up in my classes, though unfortunately the somewhat rushed pace of a typical semester (where many different writers and works are to be covered) doesn’t always allow the leisure time to study any one particular author’s work in depth. But sometimes it is very apparent, even from comparing and contrasting two to three works, how some writers are obsessed with certain themes – themes they feel compelled to keep returning to over and over.
And it is not a tendency limited to writers by any means, but seems to run the full spectrum of art, from music, painting and film to sculpture and architecture. We might ask why, for example, was F. Scott Fitzgerald so obsessed with characters who are trying to recapture some elusive ideal from their past? Of course, if we understand even a little of the man’s life, we know why this theme was so important to him. Similarly, in turning to pop music, we might ask why is Prince so concerned with images of the apocalypse in his songs? What was Kurt Cobain’s obsession with dolls, fetuses, and bleach? (References to all three crop up repeatedly in his songs). Why did snakes and lizards feature so prominently in Jim Morrison’s lyrics? Why did Hendrix’s songs feature so many references to both astral and aquatic themes and out of body experiences?
Often when these kinds of discussions come up in class, we have to agree that no one, not even the best critics and scholars, can ever really probe into an artist’s mind to arrive at some definitive answer.
Willa: That’s true. We can’t even probe the depths of our own psyches, so how can we ever presume to know what’s happening in an artist’s mind?
Raven: Even the artists themselves may often find that they are returning to these themes subconsciously, perhaps not even aware of how often they are reoccurring. The best we can say is that these kinds of recurring themes are almost always an indicator of something the artist is trying to work through (again, whether consciously or subconsciously) and this is because the act of creating art is in itself a therapeutic process.
Clearly, Michael had somewhat of an obsession with femme fatales – even (we might daresay) a love/hate relationship with them.
Willa: Or a love/hate relationship with what they represent, which leads to a very different type of interpretation. For example, in one of our very first posts, Joie and I talked about these “bad girls,” and Joie said something that just blew me away. She suggested that maybe these seductive but threatening women represent the allure of fame:
Could these women possibly represent another side of his own psyche? Perhaps the part of him that courted fame, the side of him that was drawn to entertaining and creating and being on stage. That part of him that loved being in front of a camera or onstage performing in front of 80,000 people. Is it possible that these “dangerous” women represent fame itself and that Michael Jackson often felt seduced by it? Compelled to go off with her instead of going home to My Baby. Compelled to pursue his career instead of nurturing that secret part of himself that he tried to keep safely hidden away from the limelight.
When Joie said this, it hit me like a thunderbolt and gave me a whole new way of interpreting these women. This love triangle we see over and over in his work, with the main character torn between My Baby (quiet, domestic, the “good” woman who loves him) and a femme fatale (very public, very visible, wild, sensuous, unpredictable – the “dangerous” woman who lures him “into her web of sin”), can be seen as conflicting parts of his own personality.
As he repeatedly said, he was actually very shy and rather fearful of fame and all the attention it brings. He also said he liked to spend quiet evenings at home and didn’t really go in for nightclubs and the party scene – just like My Baby. But at the same time, he loved performing before an audience, loved the energy and excitement – and maybe even the danger – of being on stage. And one way to approach this ongoing conflict between My Baby and the femme fatale is to see it as reflecting and working through this internal conflict between those two sides of his personality.
So I tend to interpret these women much more symbolically now, but that doesn’t mean other interpretations aren’t there and aren’t valid. I mean, it’s true these songs are populated by a series of seductive, dangerous women, and there are many ways to interpret that …
Raven: That is an interesting interpretation. If one were to ask any woman in Michael’s life – Lisa Marie Presley being a prime example – which came first in his life, she would probably tell you very quickly that his work and career came before anything else. Michael said many times that he was “married” to his work, and it seemed to become a way of explaining why real-life relationships were so hard for him to sustain. If we consider that his work was put ahead of most relationships in his life, then we can also pretty safely add to that mix the seduction of fame and all that his fame represented for him.
I think he may have always, to some degree, felt a measure of guilt about the fact that he could not entirely rise above that seduction. For example, after watching the clip of Michael’s particularly moving Brunei performance of “Earth Song,” one of my students astutely observed that Michael had a higher calling than performing. She believed he could have worked for God and saved souls, but instead made the conscious decision to remain a secular entertainer instead. And it did seem sometimes that Michael was torn between two dual sides of his nature – the one that wanted to heal the world, and the one that loved being in the spotlight and adored by screaming throngs. The former satisfied the altruistic aspect of himself – that higher ideal of himself that he aspired to – while the latter was a kind of immediate gratification that validated both his ego and the desire to feel loved.
I believe this was at least part of what he meant in his piece “That One in the Mirror” from Dancing the Dream. Initially he describes the experience of looking in the mirror as looking at an alter ego version of himself who is detached from the world’s suffering and actually quite content to remain so. He ends the fourth paragraph of that piece by admitting that maybe all of the world’s problems are hopeless to solve, but “that one in the mirror” assures him that “you and I will survive. At least, we’re doing all right.” Michael then writes of his alter ego reflection:
He sees problems “out there” to be solved. Maybe they will be; maybe they won’t. He’ll get along. But I don’t feel that way …
Eventually, of course, the dualities are merged and “that one in the mirror” begins to fade away. The ideal (the compassionate soul who cares about the plight of the world) trumps self-gratification.
But what’s interesting to me about this piece is not so much the outcome, but the fact that he introduces and honestly acknowledges this kind of dual conflict between his alter egos. I love it because this is Michael honestly acknowledging the side of him that is very human – after all, if we are totally honest with ourselves, aren’t we all more concerned with our own well-being and gratification than the suffering of humans on the other side of the world whose names we will never know, or of animals whose suffering will never directly affect us? And it was that very human side of Michael that loved the instant gratification he got from performing and the adulation of fame.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Raven, and it reminds me of another piece from Dancing the Dream that I’ve struggled with how to interpret. It’s called “Two Birds,” and one bird sings with a voice “like crystal from the sky while the other bird keeps silent.” One is beautiful and highly visible – it glows with “light on its silver feathers” – while the other remains invisible. One is celebrated while the other is ignored. And we can interpret this invisible bird as someone he loves, someone the world knows nothing about, but we can also interpret it as part of himself – as “my soul,” as he calls it. As he says in the concluding lines,
It’s easy to guess which bird I am, but they’ll never find you. Unless …
Unless they already know a love that never interferes, that watches from beyond, that breathes free in the invisible air. Sweet bird, my soul, your silence is so precious. How long will it be before the world hears your song in mine?
Oh, that is a day I hunger for!
I go back and forth on how to interpret this. On the one hand, we can read it like a love letter to someone who quietly supports and sustains him. But it’s also possible to interpret “Two Birds” as representing two parts of his own psyche – one quiet and hidden, the other famous and successful – just like My Baby and the string of dangerous women he sings about in song after song.
Raven: You have me very intrigued with this! I dug out my copy of Dancing the Dream to re-read “Two Birds.” I have noticed that these themes of duality between body and soul, or the dualities between alter ego versions of himself, seem to be quite prominent throughout the book. In looking up “Two Birds” I also ran across “The Elusive Shadow” in which he describes his soul as a stranger he has never allowed himself to know. “Your music I did not hear,” he says. “Two Birds” seems like a continuation of that theme, although in reading it I also get a sense of “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” As you may recall, that song is written from the perspective of someone who has a lot of glory, and is paying homage to the “invisible” friend who was always there, unrecognized and unsung in the background, lending the support that made it possible for the other to fly.
This poem could have possibly been Michael’s homage to such a friend, but Michael tended to be pretty straightforward when paying tribute to his friends and I believe he would have provided a clue to the person’s identity had that been the case. After all, there was certainly nothing cryptic or especially metaphoric about his poem “Mother” or the piece titled “Ryan White.”
Willa: That’s true.
Raven: And given that the entire book is really about a man’s journey of self discovery, it lends even more credence to the interpretation of “Two Birds” as a conversation with his soul. It reminds me of Walt Whitman’s conversation with his soul in Part 5 of “Song of Myself” in which the separateness of his body and soul are resolved through an erotic encounter. In the edition of Dancing the Dream that I have, “Two Birds” is accompanied by a beautiful photo from the climactic moment of his “Will You Be There” performance when the angel swoops down and wraps him in her wings. I interpret that as the protection of a guardian angel, or God’s love enveloping him and holding him up. If we assume that photo was chosen deliberately to accompany “Two Birds,” it could give a possible clue to the interpretation, as perhaps his guardian angel or spirit who sustains him.
Willa: Oh, that’s a good point, Raven. I hadn’t put those together, but you’re right – when you look at it that way, that photo does suggest that the invisible bird is his inner self.
Raven: Of course, the conclusion that Michael eventually comes to in “That One in the Mirror” is that the two halves of himself need not be mutually exclusive, and I think this was also the same peace he eventually made with his own internal conflict regarding Fame vs. Selflessness. To go back to what my student said, although it was a very good point, who’s to say that Michael wasn’t fulfilling his calling to God by performing and using the very gifts that God gave him in order to reach out to millions?
Willa: Exactly. He was able to spread his vision of a more peaceful world, a more just world, through his art. His art was his calling.
Raven: His fame gave him the greatest platform imaginable for that purpose, as well as providing the wealth that made it possible for him to go forth with much of his charity work. And even if he did not, perhaps, strictly speaking, give up the allure of fame and secular entertaining to become Mother Teresa, he still found a way to merge these dualities within himself and to solve his internal conflict in a way that, I believe, eventually gave him peace with himself and his chosen path.
But to tie this back to our subject of femme fatales and the interpretation of these women as representations of fame, I definitely agree in the sense that these women represent the idea of something that is very alluring but forbidden – a temptation that holds a very strong sway over the male protagonist in these songs.
Willa: Yes, exactly. And that “something that is very alluring but forbidden” could be sex, but it could also be fame, or material success, or some other temptation.
Raven: We know that close on the heels of these sentiments comes guilt. And guilt is really the driving factor of all of these songs. Most of them (with a few exceptions that I hope we’ll get to cover) come down to a very simplistic moral tale of Seduction (Evil) vs. Overcoming (Good), with “good” often represented as “My Baby,” the girl who is waiting at home. What is interesting, however, is the fact that “Good” very seldom triumphs in these songs. The protagonist, being a man of flesh and blood, is almost always lured into these relationships, and thus the cycle begins – momentary gratification followed by the plunge into darkness and self-castigation, or “the wages of sin.”
Willa: That’s a really good point, Raven, and I think that’s part of what gives Michael Jackson’s songs their emotional complexity. The protagonist of these songs is not a simple “good” man ensnared by an “evil” woman. It’s much more complicated than that. He’s drawn to these threatening women – in fact, he’s drawn to them precisely because they’re so threatening. As he sings in “Dangerous”:
Her mouth was smoother than oil
But her inner spirit and words
Were as sharp as a two-edged sword
But I loved it ’cause it’s dangerous
So he sees very clearly what kind of woman this is – that she’s “bad” and “dangerous” – but that’s preciously what attracts him. And repeatedly we find that he isn’t battling her so much as the part of himself that’s drawn to her, that’s drawn to this kind of dangerous, intoxicating passion. That’s a really important distinction. So these femme fatale songs aren’t so much a story of good versus evil, but rather a psychological story about his own conflicting desires.
Raven: This is another aspect of Michael’s femme fatale songs that I find quite interesting. Other male pop singers also write and sing songs about seductive women, but more often, the songs are all about the celebration and even glorification of the seductress/vixen. An immediate example that comes to mind is Michael’s own arch rival, Prince, who brought us many sexy variations of the femme fatale in his own works. (I especially love direct comparisons of Prince’s and Michael’s two most famous groupie songs, “Darling Nikki” and “Dirty Diana,” respectively).
But from “Little Red Corvette” to “Darling Nikki,” sex with these women is almost always an ends to its own means, even when the girls seem to have the upper hand, as is certainly the case with both “Little Red Corvette” and “Darling Nikki.” There is none of the kind of self-castigation for the protagonist that comes with Michael’s songs. And clearly, this is for one simple reason – the protagonist in Prince’s songs, for example, feels no guilt about the encounter. He had a great time, living out every male’s fantasy, and other than being a little worse for wear and tear, obviously enjoyed the experience enough to celebrate it in song.
This is a far cry from Michael’s “forty days and nights” worth of penitence and torture over what most guys would consider a mere fling.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Raven, and you’re right – the protagonist of these two Prince songs seems to have a great time with very little guilt or angst or anything but satisfaction. But I think you can make the case that Prince felt more conflicted than it seems.
For example, I haven’t watched his movie Purple Rain in about 30 years, but I just looked up the “Darling Nikki” scenes from Purple Rain, and it’s surprisingly similar to what you might find in a Michael Jackson song. Prince’s character is on stage singing about the “sex fiend” Little Nikki, who seduces him – and as you say, Raven, the protagonist of the song feels very little remorse about that. But as he sings this song, he’s being watched by Appollonia, the “good woman” who loves him – a woman very similar to My Baby. She begins to cry and leaves the nightclub, and when he realizes he’s hurt her, he abruptly walks off stage and storms around his dressing room. Here’s a link.
So there’s a difference between the song as it’s written and how it functions in Purple Rain, where it creates a situation remarkably similar to My Baby and the dangerous women who threaten her and drive her away. Though maybe Appollonia is upset because she thinks he’s accusing her of being a “sex fiend” like Little Nikki. I’m not sure about that.
Raven: Yes, and as we have discussed before, songs can take on many additional layers of meaning as they evolve from track to video and live performance, or in this case, to film. I know that Prince wrote the album Purple Rain as a soundtrack to the film, but I don’t know if the songs came first or if he already had the storyline for the film in mind. (I suspect he did.) When his character “The Kid” performs the song “Darling Nikki” in the film, it’s clearly intended, as you said, to hurt Appollonia because he knows she’s in the audience.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the film, also, so I can’t remember exactly what had transpired between the two characters before then, but I do recall this – his entire intention with that performance was to humiliate her and to spite the audience in general. (As you can clearly see, everyone is quite uncomfortable and put off by the performance.) When Appollonia leaves, he calls out for Nikki to “come back,” which does make it sound like “Darling Nikki” might have been her all along. And as you pointed out, even though the performance was clearly done out of spite, he regrets his actions afterward, so that is the guilt factor coming in.
Willa: Yes, but even so, to me it doesn’t seem to have the complexity of so many of Michael Jackson’s songs. This isn’t a psychological study. What I mean is, the main character may feel guilty, but he isn’t exploring his own mind and his own conflicting impulses as so many of Michael Jackson’s protagonists do.
Raven: Interestingly, it was said that Michael walked out on Purple Rain and when asked why, he reportedly said that he didn’t like the way Prince treated women. I don’t know if that is true, however, or just an urban myth. Their rivalry was always more of a press invention than anything else. But if you actually compare Prince’s sex or femme fatale songs to Michael’s, I would say the ones in Michael’s songs are often much more demonized. “Dirty Diana,” for example, is more than just a groupie. She is portrayed almost as a soul stealer. The same could be said for “Billie Jean” but I think with “Dirty Diana” it is even more graphic.
In going back and watching the original video of “Dirty Diana” I can see a lot of elements that lend credence to all of these interpretations. Diana seems to be both a literal woman who is a seducer and soul stealer (the protagonist knows he is supposed to go home to his wife or girlfriend) but could also be a metaphor for the seduction of fame itself.
At the video’s beginning, we see two events happening simultaneously: a guy is going onstage, walking into a lone spotlight to perform before an audience, and a girl with wickedly long, sexy legs is getting out of a limo and walking towards the backstage door. That first note sets up a very ominous tone, and we see her throughout the video only in shadow. The video will then continuously cut back and forth between the performer onstage and the gradually encroaching Diana. The moment when the protagonist steps onstage is also very reminiscent of the moment in “Billie Jean” when he steps into the lone spotlight and becomes “the one” in the round, but here, perhaps because it’s more of a rock song, the emphasis is on performing rather than dancing. But it seems to be the same concept, more or less.
Also, as in most of his “Billie Jean” performances, he wears a combination of black and white. Michael liked this color combination; he used it a lot. In short films like Black or White the meaning behind the color symbolism of his clothes was quite obvious. But he also liked to use this color combination in “Billie Jean” and “Dirty Diana” and it may represent the duality of someone who is in battle with the pure/ideal side of his nature on the one hand, and the darker, corrupt side of himself that he seems to be battling.
Willa: That’s interesting, Raven. I hadn’t noticed that before.
Raven: To carry that analogy further, he also always wore a black-and-white color combination when singing “Will You Be There,” which is also, in many ways, a song about a protagonist’s battle with his own humanity vs. some imposed “ideal” purity of spirit:
But they told me
A man should be faithful
And walk when not able
But I’m only human
In “Billie Jean,” black is usually the dominant color, with white usually providing a mere contrast via his undershirt, socks, and the stripes of the jogging pants. But in “Dirty Diana” it is the opposite. White is the dominant color via the full, flowing shirt he wears, and when he steps into the spotlight, it gives him an almost angelic appearance. This is contrasted sharply with the ominous, shapely legs in shadow, creeping ever closer. (Sadly, Lisa Dean, the woman whose legs were made famous in that video, lost her battle with cancer in 2010.)
The fact that “Dirty Diana” focuses so prominently on a woman’s body part was not unusual for the 80s. This was, after all, a very sexist era and most of the metal videos of the day – which “Dirty Diana” is obviously parodying – would routinely feature a vixen’s sexy legs or other body part, and not much else. Both with Dirty Diana and those videos, it’s a kind of dehumanization intended to reduce the female to little more than a body part.
But there is a decided difference in the way this dehumanization is presented in most of the 80s metal videos as compared to Dirty Diana. Whereas in most of the videos from that era, the dehumanization of females to a mere body part was all done in cheesy fun (it was just part of the culture, and the girls were always shown as having as much fun with it as the guys) in Dirty Diana there is a striking difference. Again, in most of the metal videos from the era, it was obvious that it was all in good fun and the guys obviously adored the girls (even as they exploited them) but in Dirty Diana the dehumanization of Diana seems intended to both keep her at a distance and to demonize her in some respects. Thus, while some girls might have identified with typical groupies (“Look how much fun she’s having; I want that, too!”) Dirty Diana is not someone that either male or female viewers could ever get too close to, or identify with. There’s no face to put with her, and this intensifies the idea of her as something both mysterious and ominously evil – something not quite of this world. Even the lyrics make it clear that she’s not someone who is there to have fun. She is the equivalent of a psychic vampire or succubus, someone who is there to take your soul and to leave you among the damned.
There is that great, climactic moment as the song approaches its bridge (here it occurs at about 2:47) where Michael drops to his knees as if in prayer. The moment is suspended for several seconds (he doesn’t rise to his feet until he begins singing the next verse) so obviously, it was intended to have an impact on the viewer. Michael liked these kinds of theatrics in his performances; we know that. However, he seldom threw in such theatrics without some purpose that could be applied to the interpretation of the song. Here it seems to be, as I said, very much a gesture of prayer, as if the protagonist is aware of Diana’s ever-approaching presence and is praying for the strength of spirit to be able to resist.
There is also something of the sacrificial lamb in that pose, as if he knows he is ultimately going to be sacrificed at the altar of Diana. But as the song and performance enter the final stages, and Michael’s vocal delivery intensifies to match the intensity of the struggle, it’s obvious he is going to be on the losing end of this battle.
Willa: That’s so interesting, Raven. I tend to interpret “Dirty Diana” a little differently than you do. For example, I don’t see her as evil but as very human – a woman who wants a different life and will do whatever it takes to get that life:
She waits at backstage doors
For those who have prestige
Who promise fortune and fame
A life that’s so carefree
She’s saying, That’s ok
Hey baby, do what you want
I’ll be your night loving thing
I’ll be the freak you can taunt
And I don’t care what you say
I want to go too far
I’ll be your everything
If you make me a star
In some ways, I feel a lot of sympathy for this woman who’s trapped in the life of a groupie because she craves fame so desperately – something Michael Jackson himself seemed to understand.
And as Joie mentioned in that post a long time ago, this is another case where My Baby is the quiet domestic good woman, while Dirty Diana is a femme fatale who seems to represent a lust for fame and stardom. So I tend to interpret her more symbolically, and the fact that we don’t see her face supports that. She’s a symbol of a drive or an emotion – a very human emotion – rather than an individual person.
Raven: I find a lot of elements here that do support Joie’s interpretation as well. For example, this entire video is set up as a showcase performance piece. We never actually see a man and a woman interacting or engaging. What we see is one man, on a stage, in a spotlight, with his band and the adoring audience in front of him. This could well represent the idea of fame and its seduction.
Willa: Yes, I agree.
Raven: His girl wants him at home (the normal life) and a part of him wants to be able to give her that part of himself, but he seems to doubt if it is ever going to be possible. The allure and seduction of fame have too big of a grip on him.
Even if we take the song literally (let’s say it really is just the story of a groupie) the interpretation still works because, for male performers, groupies and women like Dirty Diana go with the territory. In other words, part of the price of fame is selling your soul and accepting the things that come with it that will corrupt you. Dirty Diana and Fame could well simply be two sides of the same coin for this guy, as he may find the distinction increasingly blurred in his mind.
The ending of the video has been the subject of much critical debate and scrutiny. The last thing we see is the performer (Michael) running offstage, hoping to escape in the waiting limo. But when he opens the door, “she” is waiting inside for him. That ominous pause where he simply freezes – the expression on his face an inscrutable blank that is neither totally surprise, joy, or dread – is hands down one of the greatest and yet most cryptic endings of the entire history of music videos. The only thing we can really interpret about that moment is that the performer seems to recognize that his soul is irretrievably lost from this moment, and there is no going back. And again, whether we interpret the song as a cautionary tale about sex and the wages of sin, or as a metaphor for the seduction of fame, both make sense. What we’re left with is a protagonist who knows he’s entrapped.
Willa: Hmmm. That’s interesting, Raven. Again, I interpret this scene a little differently. To me, this is a moment of conflict – the moment when he has to decide if he will get in the car with her or not. He’s been singing about this decision for four minutes, and now it’s arrived. So what will he choose? Will he go home to My Baby, or will he go off with Dirty Diana? And to me, that’s still very much up in the air.
Raven: I guess for me I don’t see it so much as a debate for him at that point as it is a foregone conclusion. But again, it may depend on how literally one is interpreting the song – whether it is a tale of conflict over a seduction, or something deeper. But he did leave that ending very ambiguous for a reason, obviously, and that reason is to keep us guessing. I don’t know; I may be reading too much into it, but I’ve always found it one of the darkest of Michael’s femme fatale songs.
But something interesting about Michael’s “sex” songs is the very clear distinction and progression we see moving from the 80s into the 90s. Although when we say “sex” songs I think we have to distinguish those, certainly, from romance songs. In his great ballad “Lady of My Life,” for example, this is obviously an intimate relationship but one gets the feeling that the female partner is definitely one of his romanticized ideals, probably a very classy young woman, one who is closer to “My Baby.”
I would also put “Rock with You” in that category as well. He is obviously singing about making love, but it’s very much in the vein of what Susan Fast calls his “soul man” persona, where everything is very sweet, very tender, very romantic. There aren’t very many songs from this era where sex and/or the femme fatale as an object of sexual desire is celebrated in and of itself, and of course, when such women did present themselves, it was almost always in the form of a cautionary tale.
“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” may be one of the earliest exceptions, a song that seems to joyously and simply celebrate the sex act, but even here, it becomes a bit of a cautionary tale. In the spoken intro, Michael is asking his partner whether they should continue because “the force, it has a lot of power.” So again, even though it is certainly a much lighter and more joyous track than “Dirty Diana,” it’s that same sense of struggling to resist yielding to a temptation that, once given in to, will ultimately ensnare you and from which there will be no escape. However, Michael himself argued (in part to appease Katherine) that “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” wasn’t necessarily about sex. “The force” could be whatever one interpreted it to be. But it is still, basically, the idea of something bigger than one’s self that acquires a certain kind of power over you. In this case, it’s simply that giving in just happens to feel good and provides joy rather than self-castigation.
However, it really isn’t until the 90s and the Dangerous era that we really begin to see a shift, with Michael seemingly willing to write or perform songs that could simply celebrate sexuality, groupies, and sexy women without the need for a moral consequence or self-castigation.
I am sure that breaking away from the Jehovah’s Witness had much to do with liberating his views sexually. Of course, as some have pointed out, the Jacksons were never exactly strict Jehovah’s Witnesses, anyway, but we do know that Michael struggled harder than his siblings to try to maintain his faith. He truly tried to believe in the doctrines for most of his life, even when he was sometimes confused by them, and this struggle did bleed into his lyrics. The break, therefore, must have felt like a tremendous weight being lifted and, as some have attested, the impact was evident in his personal life as well, allowing him to have a new openness about his own sexuality that had before been mostly denied or repressed. Not surprisingly, this also carried over into his songwriting, and perhaps plays a huge part in why Dangerous became his sexiest and most adult album to date.
Willa: Yes, though even in his later songs, it stays complicated. For example, “Dangerous” is not the free-wheeling “Little Red Corvette,” as you mentioned earlier.
Raven: Speaking of Prince, it seems to me one of those great ironies of pop music is that, just as Prince was becoming more religious and evangelical in his songs (reflecting his own, personal spirituality) Michael’s trajectory was going the opposite direction – becoming funkier, dirtier, and a “bad boy” who could – on occasion at least – sing the praises of a dirty vixen as well as the next guy.
While tracks like “In the Closet” do seem to continue his typical femme fatale trope (though in subtly different ways), other tracks like “She Drives Me Wild” present a protagonist who shows no shame in lusting after a woman who is presented as pure sex. And one of my all-time favorite tracks from the Dangerous sessions – an outtake that didn’t make the album – is a song called “She Got It.”
Most people who hear this track recognize immediately that it has a very distinct, Prince-like sound (perhaps this was Michael attempting to out-Prince Prince!) but whatever the case, I think it does represent an important progression for Michael personally. The girl is clearly one of his typical femme fatales in many respects …
Willa: Yes. For example, like so many of his femme fatales, she craves with fame. As he sings, “She wants to be a movie star / She’d sell on TV.” And there’s still some internal conflict. For example, the title tells us “She’s Got It,” but the chorus undercuts that by repeatedly telling us, “She don’t like it / And the boy don’t want it.”
Raven: But here the subject matter is dealt with in a humorous, light fashion (reminiscent of a group of guys getting together to joke about groupies) and the protagonist clearly enjoys enumerating her assets without shame or guilt.
Willa: That’s true.
Raven: This girl clearly isn’t a romantic ideal; she isn’t even particularly a sexual ideal (the description makes her seem almost like a pig-ish caricature) but she’s clearly a good-time gal who has the protagonist sprung, even when he feebly protests “she’s too much for me.”
I call this a progression even though I know some fans might look at a song like “She Got It” and call it it a kind of regression. For example, some might argue that Michael’s vision on songs like “Billie Jean” and “Dirty Diana” was much more artistically mature than what we get here, with a song like “She Got It,” and I certainly wouldn’t argue that point. But I think it’s an interesting artistic progression for Michael in that he seems to finally feel comfortable, flirty, and free enough to allow himself to write and perform these kinds of songs – again, without the need to insert a moral compass or to turn them into a cautionary tale. However, that didn’t mean he was finished with writing cautionary tales – far from it, in fact, as “Blood on the Dance Floor” would prove.
Willa: Or “Heartbreaker,” or “Black Widow” from the Cascio tracks, if you believe those songs are his, or numerous other songs. This is a figure that runs the entire length of his career, and thank you so much, Raven, for joining me to talk about this complicated, intriguing, but difficult to interpret character!
Raven: Thank you, Willa! Always a pleasure to be a part of Dancing with the Elephant.
Willa: A few weeks ago, professor and filmmaker Nina Fonoroff joined me to talk about Billie Jean and Michael Jackson’s use of film noir. Here’s a link to that post. But we soon discovered there was so much to say, we were only able to get part way through! So Nina has graciously agreed to join me again to continue our discussion of this fascinating short film. It’s wonderful to talk with you again, Nina!
Nina: Thanks, Willa! I’m glad to be back.
Willa: So last time we ended at the chorus, and as you said, “the image fades out as we enter a new chapter: Michael is going to sing and dance.” So let’s begin with that new chapter, about 1:50 minutes into the video.
Interestingly, this section begins with another “photograph.” This time it’s a vertical rectangle – a full-body shot, one of the few in Billie Jean. It has a thin white edge outlining it (like a photograph) and it’s against a black background, just like before. So in that way it kind of visually announces “a new chapter,” as you called it, just as the horizontal “photographs” announced the first chapter at the beginning of the video.
Nina: Yes, this is a decisive moment for many reasons. For one thing, this is the first time we see him singing synchronously (albeit to “playback,” or a pre-recorded audio source).
Willa: And that’s an interesting point, Nina. Many music videos are presented as if they are an intimate live performance, with the focus on letting us as an audience watch a performer sing his or her songs. But those kinds of scenes are rare in Billie Jean. Rarely do we see him sing.
Nina: Plus, we see him and hear him “speak” simultaneously – in sync. This is more akin to our experience of ordinary character dialogue in a feature film, but with some important differences: he is singing, and through the song he is telling us the “backstory” of the ever-unfolding drama:
For forty days and for forty nights the law was on her side
But who can stand when she’s in demand, her schemes and plans
’Cause we danced on the floor in the round
By the way, I’ve always wondered about this seemingly Biblical reference to “forty days and forty nights.”
Willa: I have too! It reminds me of the story of Noah, where it rained for “forty days and forty nights.”
Nina: Perhaps he imagined his character being inundated in some way, but we will never know. It’ll have to stand as one of the many things that will be up for interpretation until the end of time!
Anyway, as you describe it, Willa, there are some interesting visual effects going on throughout this performance, which were done in post-production. The sequence begins with the freeze-frame of Michael in a pose, within a vertical rectangle. Then, we see various shots of him in motion in full frame, as well as segmented into two and three images, vertically and sometimes horizontally: diptychs and triptychs, where the screen is divided into various rectangular parts and then reassembled. Michael is shown in various stages of his dance, moving his arms, pulling up his collar, spinning, standing on his toes – only to be broken up again.
This rendering of his performance makes it look as if we’re seeing him from different vantage points simultaneously; though at times there’s also duplication of the same frozen (or moving) image in each rectangle.
Here’s one “diptych”:
This layout reveals something I hadn’t noticed before: Michael begins dancing in his pink shirt, and later puts his jacket on. At the beginning he carries the jacket, but at a later moment he seamlessly slips into it: it becomes part and parcel of the dance. (How could I have failed to notice this before, for all the times I’ve watched this film?) It shows us how adept he was at incorporating parts of his clothing into the general flow of his choreography. And then, in the subsequent stage performances of Billie Jean – from Motown 25 on – he made even more dramatic uses of articles of clothing and accessories, as you and Raven pointed out in a post a few weeks ago.
Willa: Yes, we kind of catch him in the act of slipping it on in that diptych you just mentioned, about 2 minutes into the video. Usually a diptych or triptych consists of paintings or photographs, so the images are still. But here, the images are moving – or rather, they alternate being in motion. The left one freezes while the right one moves, then the right one freezes while the left one moves. And in one of those short snippets of movement, we see him slip on his jacket as part of the choreography, as you say.
Nina: Wow, this is making me wish I could just see Michael run through the performance as a whole, without editing or fragmentation.
We know that many people, including Michael Jackson himself, felt that his dancing owed a lot to the style Fred Astaire developed many decades ago. But in his films from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, Astaire never liked for his dance sequences to be broken up through editing and different camera positions. Mostly, he and Ginger Rogers (or another dance partner) were framed in very wide shots, on a track that would follow their movements from right to left, and from foreground to background, without interruption.
Willa: Yes, I’ve read that also – that he was very meticulous about how his dance numbers were filmed. He wanted each one to be captured in one long take by just one camera, which means that he and his partner had to be perfect throughout the entire dance, from beginning to end.
Nina: It was vitally important to Astaire that his dances be presented in “real time” – in real-life duration – so that his consummate skills as a dancer could be showcased without being compromised by any evident manipulation or “cheating”!
But we know that standards and tastes have shifted tremendously since the 1930s. In the early 1980s, music videos, TV commercials, and even many experimental films reveled in montage aesthetics – with very fast cuts, quick inserts, and spatial fragmentation of all kinds. So Michael’s short films followed the cinematic trend of the times, regardless of the excellence of his dancing, or the way he or anyone else felt it needed to be portrayed. It’s likely that his dance sequences in all these films were done with multiple takes, parts of which were edited together. Yet I don’t think it necessarily bothers us when, for example, we see Michael’s spinning feet in the coda of Black or White before he falls to his knees – and it looks like an “extra” spin might have been added in!
Even so, we sometimes yearn for the feeling of the “real” – the live performance. I know I do. I think that’s why it amazes us to see footage of his concerts, or the Motown 25 TV special. Although multiple cameras were used in these settings, we can still be fairly confident that Michael really did spin that many times, or that he really did moonwalk, live, before a screaming audience. There’s a perceived authenticity – and therefore, magic – in the live performances that’s more muted in the films. This may be one reason why Michael chose to save his moonwalk for the Motown 25 broadcast, where it would have the most impact and seem the most credible.
Willa: That’s an interesting point, Nina. I hadn’t thought about that before, but it makes a lot of sense. And it’s true there’s very little moonwalking in any of his videos – that was something he reserved for his live performances.
Nina: That’s true, come to think of it – except in Captain EO, where he briefly moonwalks to “We are Here to Change the World”! Another consideration is that the moonwalk, while known as a “signature” (or characteristic) MJ move, really only properly “belonged” to the young rake in “Billie Jean.” In no other song or video did he play that particular character. Anyway, it’s fascinating to see the evolution of his ideas through one of his performances. It’s like listening to an early demo of some of his songs, even though this film for Billie Jean was never any kind of work-in-progress: it was a fully realized, completed piece of work, the first incarnation of the song’s visual display.
Last time, Willa, we were saying that the images of the film cover more story events, or provide more (and different) information than the lyrics do. It’s often said that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” I don’t take this to mean that images are superior to language: just that they’re numerically more … fecund, we might say, replete with vastly more “signifiers.” All the more so when we’re dealing with moving pictures – which, in a five-minute film, might contain some 7,500 individual still frames, moving rapidly by. This richness alone provides an opportunity for the stars and directors of music videos, like Michael Jackson and Steve Barron, to depart from a literal representation of the lyrics.
For music videos as a whole, any lyrics can be treated with a great deal of artistic license, and Billie Jean is no exception. Mostly, we are asked to deal with visual information that may be at odds with, or even at times contradicts, what we are being told by Michael as he sings (narrates) the story. Even so, there are a few moments in the film when an image does seem to illustrate the verbal concept.
Willa: Yes, there are – and there are moments where the images correspond to the lyrics, but with an interesting twist. One of my favorites is when the lyrics tell us that My Baby is looking at a photo of Billie Jean’s baby boy and crying because “his eyes were like mine.” In the video, as soon as we hear those words we find ourselves looking at a close-up image of Michael Jackson’s eyes (and what gorgeous eyes they are!) and maybe imagining a baby with similar features …
Nina: That’s interesting, Willa: it’s one of the few moments in the film that’s close to illustrative. Michael’s eyes are presented in a kind of horizontal strip, or ribbon that’s been cut out from the whole picture, and divides the screen. We’re being asked to imagine the baby’s eyes and consider Michael’s eyes at the same time. And when Michael sings “she’s just a girl that claims that I am the one,” we see first his mouth, and then his thumbs (pointing to himself), also singled out as a horizontal strip, before being blended (dissolved) back into the whole image.
Willa: That’s true. So in our last post we talked about how the lyrics and the visuals tell somewhat different stories – or give a different perspective on the same story. But in these fragmented images, there are brief moments where the lyrics and visuals seem to converge.
Nina: We were puzzled, weren’t we, about why the choice was made to fragment the image in this way – and whose decision it was?
Willa: I think we did puzzle over that a bit, yes. Though in a way, those fragmented images of him make sense to me. There’s a detective trying to “capture” Michael Jackson’s character on film, but never quite succeeding. He never quite gets him – only fragments, like the ones we see.
And Steve Barron can never quite capture him either. In the dance sequence you were talking about, Nina, Steve Barron is trying to capture his dancing on film, which is like trying to catch a genii in a bottle. You simply can’t do it – not fully. You can catch some beautiful fleeting images, but it’s never the full experience. And to me, those beautiful fragments of his dance express that.
Nina: That’s a great point, Willa. It’s like an unfolding sequence of still photographs, and even a way of compiling them into an album. The freeze frames are an attempt to seize Michael’s movements – literally, to “arrest” him. Your idea about the desire to capture the genii through a camera really does align the trenchcoat-wearing “shamus” with the director himself!
Some further implications arise from this, I think – namely, about the paparazzi’s activities and the different ways a star’s image can be constructed through these promotional technologies – for good or ill.
Willa: Yes, I agree completely. In fact, one way to read the character in the trenchcoat is to see him as reporter or newspaper photographer rather than a detective. In fact, that’s how I tend to see him – as an old-fashioned paparazzo. And those photograph-type images we see in Billie Jean reinforce that, I think.
Nina: In fact, I like your idea better than the explanation that Steve Barron has offered. As Barron tells it, Michael Jackson was prepared to dance right away, without rehearsal. They decided to shoot at once. Neither Barron nor the crew knew exactly what Michael planned to do for his dance, so it was going to come as a surprise to them.
Rolling playback. The awesome sound of Billie Jean fills the studio for the first time.
That hypnotic beat. Those breathless vocals.
I pull the 16mm Arriflex camera onto my shoulder, press my eye to the eye-piece. Through the lens I see Michael standing on the sidewalk set, gently moving one leg in rhythm to the beat of the track, holding, static, waiting for the verse to finish, for the bridge into the chorus to kick in.
Now it does. And so does he.
And how does he?
With a staggeringly different energy running through his veins now. He engages my camera. Staring straight down the barrel of the lens. He is singing and dancing. Is that dancing? This is not like any dancing I have ever seen. This is out of this world. That is extraordinary. The world is going to see that and stop. The world is going to watch this and hold their breath. I know because right now I can’t breathe. And adrenalin running through my veins is heating up the camera I am glued to. And it’s literally steaming up the lens I’m looking through. But through the mist I can still make out Michael as he rises up on his toes, as he spins, and twists with the reflexes of a cat. With the skill of Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly and every one who has ever moved. Now he’s even improvising. He’s incorporating his trepidation into his moves. He certainly didn’t practice this in front of the mirror. He’s playing with the way the poor electrician in the corner of the studio is trying to keep up. He’s playing with the way the paving lights up, merging it with the speed and invention of his dance. He is stunning. He is brilliant. He is Michael Jackson.
Cut. Cut. Wow. Wow.
That’s quite a story.
Willa: I agree! “Cut. Cut. Wow. Wow.”
Nina: I have to say that, as a filmmaker, I’m fuming with envy! I’ve often shot on 16mm film, and I’ve used Arriflex cameras (albeit lower-end ones than what they’re using here). And while I’ve filmed some exciting subjects and had those “wow wow” moments, my lens never steamed up the way Barron’s did!
Barron’s rationale for fracturing the images – as best he remembers it – was to “jazz things up.” By his account, he probably hadn’t given much thought to how it would connect with the story. A few weeks ago, the MJJC blog posted a Q & A session they’d conducted with Barron, whose memoir Egg n Chips & Billie Jean was published this past November. Folks had a chance to write in their questions, and one person asked Barron if he had a funny memory of the time he’d spent with Michael.
Yeah – I mean, obviously it was a long time ago now, but I’m using a moment I can remember kind of amusing, was in the post-production. He came into the edit suite when we were cutting the video back in London after having filmed it in LA. … And we had done the center section of the dancing piece, where there were the three split screens of Michael. … As he looked through it, Michael said “I prefer the one on the right”, and he was talking about them as if the split screens had been put up as multiple choice for what we were going to choose as we went. … So it was quite funny that, you know, it was just a misinterpretation of what this process and what was going on in this cutting room. … I quickly told him, “Well, that’s what we’re going to do. That’s how it’s going to look. And you’re going to get three of you on screen at the same time.” So, that was a funny moment.
But as I said, I like your interpretation, Willa! I think we agree that readers and viewers can productively form their own meanings as they encounter works of art. There is no one definitive answer, not even the one the artist provides. As I see it, a work of art is a living, breathing entity. If it’s powerful enough, and if it can physically survive to be presented and promoted to future audiences, it’s sure to steam up the lenses of those people in ways the artist had never anticipated.
Willa: I really like the way you put that, Nina. And I agree that Michael Jackson may be steaming up the lenses of viewers for generations to come!
Nina: I’m also struck by Barron’s account of how Michael was “incorporating his trepidation into his moves.” It’s fascinating.
Willa: It really is. And of course, that trepidation also fits the emotions of the character he’s playing, so it works on both levels. But watching this sequence with Barron’s words in mind, I can see what he means.
Nina: The way he moves in this piece, and also the business with the black jacket, might mark the beginning of Michael’s journey as a dancer and choreographer who sought to embody a distinct character through each song he performed. With “Billie Jean,” as you and Raven pointed out in the previous post, he would go on to refine this character through his Motown 25 performance and all the subsequent stage performances he did while on tour, offering more detail through props and gestures – and of course, the moonwalk.
It’s acting, it’s pantomime, it’s a quick sketch, a drawing, an impersonation, a characterization: all these things. To me, it’s always amazing to observe how Michael Jackson draws with his body as he dances.
Willa: Yes, absolutely.
Nina: His poses can be like hieroglyphs, forming a lexicon of their own. He can be bold, hesitant, torn apart by contradictions (as in Billie Jean) exuding confidence or trepidation (or even both simultaneously), as the song’s content demands or as the mood strikes him.
It may be no accident, then, that Barron was so excited for the opportunity to use “techniques from the early days of cinema,” as he says in Egg n Chips & Billie Jean. It turns out that Michael was like a silent film star and mime: “more like a beauty queen from a movie scene,” as it were. Rudolph Valentino, who was widely celebrated in the 1920s as a great film actor (and as a screen idol and sex symbol), had nothing on Michael!
Willa: I agree!
Nina: Barron mentions that the background was painted on a glass surface. Here are some production stills that can show us how shallow the studio actually was, and how the illusion of the city beyond, in deep space, was created by this painting on glass which (I’m guessing) was backlit. Look at the scaffold on the left, and how close it is to the painted backdrop. And in the color image, you can see the seam where the floor meets the painted glass wall.
Then we come to that part of the verse where Michael sings:
So take my strong advice
Just remember to always think twice
(Do think twice, do think twice)
At this point, there’s a cut from the whole series of eye-level shots of Michael dancing on the sidewalk. We are presented with a more distant view of Michael in the same setting, but here the camera is positioned slightly above him, and he is dwarfed by an enormous billboard, with the “long ribbon of pavement” still behind him. He stands at the foot of the billboard and looks up at it; we see an image in closeup of two young women. The image on the billboard shifts twice, with just a slight change in the women’s position, so we have three different images – like snapshots – seemingly projected on the billboard as a kind of tableau vivant. Today these would have been selfies.
Willa: That’s funny, Nina, but you’re right – they are like selfies of two women out at a club. And while their identity is ambiguous in the film, Michael Jackson said in a 1999 MTV interview that one of the women was Billie Jean:
Steve Barron – he just had all these different, and I thought wonderful ideas – but I let him go with it. The only part I wrote in the piece was, I said, “I just want a section.” I said, “Give me a section here I can dance a little,” because he said no dancing in the whole piece. He said, “no dancing.” I said, “just give me one little moment.” So that whole section where you see this long street and this billboard of these two girls, one of them is Billie Jean and I’m dancing – that’s the only part I contributed.
I have to say, I’m really suspicious that this dance sequence was all he contributed to Billie Jean. I really question that.
Nina: It is interesting to consider Michael’s recollection of this, although I don’t think it was Steve Barron’s idea to not allow Michael to dance. It was – if I remember reading correctly – a decision that was made by the brass at CBS Records, who were financing the production. (How wrong could they have been?)
So take my strong advice
Just remember to always think twice
(do think twice, do think twice)
We might think of this billboard not as a regular billboard, but “more like a movie screen.” For one thing, it’s too low, big, and close to be a billboard like the ones we see on the highway. We can mostly disregard those billboards as we drive past; but this is a projection surface that neither we, nor Michael, can easily ignore. It’s in our face.
Willa: And in his face, as you say. Also, the images shift, which is “more like a movie scene” than a billboard as well. So there’s something interesting going on with this billboard. It’s almost like it’s reflecting his thoughts, which are almost obsessively focused on two women – Billie Jean and My Baby – who seem to be the two women on the billboard.
Nina: Without getting too much into Freud’s theories of dream interpretation (and the dream’s role in bringing repressed material to conscious light), we might imagine the screen as a repository, or slideshow, of Michael’s memories – some of which depict scenes he likely never wants to revisit. By this mechanism, Billie Jean – a woman who, we presume, Michael probably never wants to see again – can insinuate herself in his psyche and make her way back into his life, the better to torment him with “her schemes and plans.”
Willa: Hmm … that’s interesting. Though I don’t know that he never wants to see her again. He definitely doesn’t want to be trapped by her, but he seems torn to me, conflicted, even after all he’s been through …
Nina: That may be true, Willa. Maybe his “fear and loathing” is commingled with a kind of residual desire. It’s a compulsion he cannot escape: another condition Freud would describe as “repetition compulsion.” Against his better judgment, Michael cannot let go of the memory that haunts him, and feels compelled to return to the scene of his trauma. On this screen, he sees flashes and fragments of half-remembered events, images that are both terrifying and irresistible. Maybe – to again put it in Freudian terms – the contents of his unconscious mind have come back to rear their ugly heads.
As he spins in front of the billboard, he places his hands for a brief instant over his ears, as if he’s hearing something he’d rather not.
Willa: That’s true.
Nina: On another note, Michael had his own “schemes and plans” for this film: in particular, an idea for a dramatic and choreographic adventure that never came to pass. In Egg n Chips & Billie Jean, Barron begins this part of his first-person account with a quote from Michael:
“I had another idea, Steve.” Now he’s talking – I think I sit up a little. “If another store on the street was some kind of tailor’s store, making clothes, and measuring people. Then they have some mannequins in the window, then when I walk past, the mannequins jump out of the window and they dance with me.”
That’s brilliant. That’s genius. A group of mannequins dancing in sync along the street, led by Michael Jackson. I love that idea. That idea makes the whole idea more special, takes it onto another level.
“‘That’s a great idea, Michael.’ I’ll get straight on that. We’re shooting in two days so I need to let the crew know about Michael’s fucking great new idea. A choreographed group dance. In sync. That’ll be very cool. Kinda like West Side Story. Very cool. Buzzing.”
But when Barron brought the idea to his higher-ups, they estimated that it would increase the entire budget by about $5,000. His bosses at CBS had stipulated that they were only authorized to spend $50,000, and not a penny more. (Barron felt terrible. He had been excited about the concept, and he also didn’t want to let Michael down.) In the event, Michael called him just hours before they were scheduled to begin shooting, and told him that he didn’t want to use the mannequins after all.
Willa: And I think he was right. A big dance number works well in Beat It and Thriller, but I don’t think it would fit the more intimate mood of Billie Jean.
This story also suggests that Michael Jackson was involved in developing concepts and making decisions about Billie Jean – after all, he came up with the idea of the dancing mannequins, and then he rejected it.
Nina: In lieu of the dancing mannequins and the tailor shop, here’s what we see in this view of the street:
Interestingly, Michael once revealed to an interviewer that he had a collection of mannequins at his house at Hayvenhurst. He said that they served him as a means by which he could “accompany” himself. So they could provide “company” for him if he was lonely; but they might also have served him as “accompaniment” – fellow travelers – in his musical and dance adventures.
Willa: That is interesting. I’ve wondered if his mannequins took on the roles of characters that he could imaginatively interact with when creating his songs and films. For example, I wonder if one of his mannequins is Billie Jean? …
Nina: In a comment to our last post, Raven considered the use of black-and-white and color images used in the same film. She mentioned that The Wizard of Oz, too, uses black-and-white to depict Dorothy’s daily life on the farm in Kansas. Once Dorothy arrives in Oz, however, the film switches to color.
Filmmakers will often play around with a combination of black-and-white and color sequences. Sometimes it’s done in a schematic way, where the black-and-white sequences will designate the everyday reality of a character, while the color images are reserved for dream sequences or hallucinations, or vice versa. In more experimental film work that’s less narratively based (like the films I’ve made), the choices might be less guided by a narrative conception of space, time, and locale.
Speaking of The Wizard of Oz (still a powerful and resonant film after all these decades) it comes to my mind strongly whenever I watch the Billie Jean short film: for an entirely different set of reasons, largely “irrational.” The similarities between the two films have almost nothing at all to do with the storyline of either one. It’s purely a matter of visual association. Quite simply, the felt connection between the two films grows, for me, out of the way some of their images look and feel.
There’s one particularly memorable shot in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, as the four characters (Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion) approach the distant spectacle of the Emerald City, with a field of poppies before them.
Then, in the The Wiz (which, as we know, stars Michael Jackson and Diana Ross), we have another conception of the Yellow Brick Road as an approach to the distant city – which looks something like Manhattan:
When I see the cityscape of Billie Jean, it strikes me as a kind of anti-Oz, or Oz in reverse. We get the same impression of deep space, with a character in the immediate foreground and the city some distance behind him. In this image, although it’s hard to see the perspective with as much clarity, we can nevertheless see the same kind of prospect, with a city in the distance.
Also, the color scheme in Billie Jean stands in sharp contrast to the “yellow brick road” scenes from those other films: here, it’s pink/mauve/magenta instead of green or yellowish. And instead of a yellow brick road or a field of poppies leading our eye inexorably toward a future that we hope will be brighter, we see a gray ribbon of dull sidewalk stretching out behind Michael as he dances: the “long pavement leading from the city,” as Barron calls it. In the middle-ground, there’s nothing but a big, dark, ominous void.
Willa: That’s fascinating, Nina! They really are very similar, visually, aren’t they? – but reversed as you say. You can see the “ribbon of dull sidewalk” extending into the distance behind him, like an ominous counterpart of the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz. And he’s walking away from that city behind him, rather than toward it.
Nina: Yes, Willa. The composition of this image was of course never designed to look anything like what we see in those earlier films, and I’m pretty sure that the pristine, sparkling cleanliness of the Emerald City wouldn’t have been part of the sensibility of Billie Jean and its planned scenario. The city behind Michael in Billie Jean seems only meant as a rough sketch, not a detailed representation. But the “lay of the land” here, as in his other films, implies a sense of time that is revealed through space, in deep perspective, with a city in the distant background. In no other film of Michael’s that I recall is space treated as such a large expanse of landscape or cityscape.
In Billie Jean, in contrast to those other films, the urban space is a setting that reveals the protagonist’s almost obsessive anxiety about events that occurred in the past, instead of his hopes for the future – or even, for that matter, his ability to enjoy the present. And he inhabits that space in an ambivalent way. The way he frequently looks around him, as he ambles down the street, seems to signal that this neighborhood is not his home, and that he’s not necessarily comfortable or safe there. He’s something of a stranger, despite his seeming nonchalance and devil-may-care posturing.
Willa: Yes, though he seems confident as well – and that’s actually a common feature in a lot of his videos: he both belongs and doesn’t belong to the situation he finds himself in. We see that in Beat It and Bad and The Way You Make Me Feel and In the Closet and Stranger in Moscow and Ghosts and a host of other short films. I’m just naming these off the top of my head – I’m sure there are a lot more. And in each case he moves with confidence, as if he knows the area thoroughly, but yet there’s something different about him that sets him apart, as if he doesn’t really belong there or isn’t really a part of that world. I definitely feel that in Billie Jean – and that threatening cityscape in the background really heightens the feeling.
Nina: I think it’s true, Willa – he both belongs and doesn’t belong, everywhere he goes. Here, he is (to quote his poem “Planet Earth” in Dancing the Dream), “a capricious anomaly in a sea of space.”
In Billie Jean and other short films, he simply disappears at the end, or else he moves off in isolation from others whom he had temporarily befriended or danced with. The larger community he had stumbled upon cannot (or will not) incorporate him, in the long run, into its own body politic. He seems “unassimilable.” Yet his irreducible alienation is drawn very differently from one film to another.
There are the films where he undergoes a radical transformation of his physical person – Thriller and Ghosts come immediately to mind, but there’s also Remember the Time, the coda of Black or White, and Speed Demon, among others. In other short films, like Beat It, Bad, and The Way You Make Me Feel, his social role within a group of peers shifts dramatically, to the benefit of the group. No matter the details, he is shown to initiate a group activity – or ritual – where he can inspire and lead others. But in the end, he himself can’t enjoy the fruit of his own labors, the advantages of what he has created: he must depart. And tragically, this is to some extent the real-life story of Michael Jackson’s last days and weeks as he rehearsed for This Is It at the Staples Center in 2009.
Willa: Yes it is, and it’s also the story of Peter Pan to some extent. No wonder he identified with him so strongly …
Nina: Yes. And the distant city is a painted backdrop whose basic shapes you can make out, but whose details are obscure. We wonder what’s out there. Has Michael come from that other part of the city – possibly the “other side of the tracks” – to this other neighborhood, with its menswear shop, camera store, and “Ronald’s Drugs”? We might even note a subtext about urban gentrification here, since it had become a matter of public concern even in 1982. Why not?
Willa: There does seem to be a class or economic difference between him and this place he finds himself wandering in. He has money in his pocket (which he shares with the panhandler) and he has dapper clothes, but Billie Jean lives in a small walk-up apartment in a place where winos sleep on the street, where neighbors are crowded together, and a woman with her hair in curlers keeps watch as he climbs the stairs to Billie Jean’s room.
Nina: But it sounds like a description of the way I lived in Manhattan … in 1982! That very year, I moved into a sublet. It was a walk-up apartment in a run down tenement building, whose leaseholder (unbeknownst to me at the time) was a rich heiress. This was on the Lower East Side, considered a “slum” neighborhood by many at the time, though up-and-coming. Homeless people living on the street were ubiquitous, and it wasn’t uncommon to see some well-dressed young people, getting out of the clubs late one Saturday night, giving them money. Trust-fund babies “slumming it,” working and middle-class artists, clubgoers, struggling Dominican and Puerto Rican families, homeless people of every description – all could be found in and around one single apartment building. This was New York City in the early ’80s, as I experienced it. So in that way, the whole setting of Billie Jean – through its art direction and the styling of its main character – is, although highly stylized even to the point of expressionism, somewhat true-to-life for me!
Willa: And of course, Michael Jackson was living in New York City just a few years earlier, during filming of The Wiz. So maybe he drew on similar associations …
Nina: But to get back to the plight of our isolated hero-protagonist: he cannot eagerly rush toward a place with a sense of hope – as do the characters in The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz. As opposed to those who dance happily down the Yellow Brick Road toward an imaginary utopian future, the Mauve City – which Michael is never seen entering or leaving – seems distinctly like a dystopian space. Newspaper and other debris is blowing around in the wind, reminiscent of the street on which Michael performs the Coda of the Black or White film. Between Michael and the distant neighborhood in the Mauve City – the “long pavement leading from the city,” as Barron called it – we see only a dark, dreary, empty cavity, undoubtedly more toxic than the field of poppies that (temporarily) incapacitated the four heroes in The Wizard of Oz.
I’ve been dwelling at length on the mise-en-scène because in Billie Jean as well Michael Jackson’s other films, it’s so lushly descriptive and atmospheric in myriad ways: more like a dream. The details of these scenes not only form a backdrop for the character Michael Jackson is to play; they also refer to so many stories, histories, and images that exist outside of the film’s own immediate narrative. Willa, you and Eleanor Bowen drew this out so vividly in your fascinating three-part series on the HIStory teaser. And even with a film like Billie Jean, seemingly less steeped in overt political and historical references (or at least less self-consciously so), we can still find many associative links that are not purely personal, but also serve as collective, cultural touchstones. These yield themselves up when we watch the films, whether they were put there intentionally by Michael Jackson and his collaborators, or not.
Also, I often think of most narrative films (conventional ones, anyway) as vast mechanisms for regulating our perceptions of time and space. And all three films – The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz, and Billie Jean – are no exceptions. In distinctive ways, all are involved with the spatialization of time.
In The Wizard of Oz, for instance, the characters are searching for “home.” They eagerly run toward their imagined future, concretized in the shining, immaculate city. The use of deep-focus cinematography and its depiction of deep space perspective in these shots – made possible by certain kinds of lenses – also implies that these characters have access to a future, just as long as they stay the course on the Yellow Brick Road.
Willa: Oh interesting, Nina. So the Emerald City is distant but visible in The Wizard of Oz – and in The Wiz as well – just as their (hopeful, promising) future is distant but visible, or visualizable, as well?
Nina: Yes, Willa, that’s a great point. Both are distant in space and time. In The Wizard of Oz, the distant, shining city itself is only important to the protagonists because of who resides there: the Wizard, whom they expect will deliver them to their respective homes. He will transport Dorothy to where she rightfully belongs; he will restore the Scarecrow’s and Woodman’s missing organs; and he will endow the Lion with a character trait that’s considered “proper” to his species, but that the poor animal has apparently been missing all his life.
In all these ways, these characters longed-for homecomings signal a return to normalcy, to an imagined stability, to the “proper” order of things following their time in exile. By moving spatially toward the future (at the end of the yellow brick road, or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow), they hope to return to their respective pasts, where something that they have lost will be restored to them. Dorothy, at least, has a home to return to – we’ve seen it. And so her story unfolds as a quest to get back to the Kansas of her memory.
But instead of depicting a rush forward as a means of returning “home,” the story of Billie Jean is about running away – a painful, yet necessary retreat from the unmanageability of optimism. This retreat will inevitably put the character at odds with his fellows, “out of step” with them.
Willa: So Dorothy and Scarecrow and the others aren’t moving toward the future so much as the past – or a future that reclaims the past. But Michael Jackson’s character is trying to escape the past – specifically, the entanglements of Billie Jean. So again, Billie Jean evokes The Wizard of Oz, but then reverses it. Interesting!
Nina: Yes. In fact, the thematic strands of Michael’s songs, considered together with his public statements, seem laden with the irreversibly damaging effects of time. There is no going back in time to heal those wounds, and there will be no possibility of returning to a place called “home,” which for Michael Jackson would mean the redemption of his lost childhood.
Willa: Though while he may realize it’s not possible to go back “to a place called ‘home,’” as you say, the longing to go back – to somehow find that “place called ‘home’” and reclaim his lost childhood – is certainly there. That longing runs throughout his work.
Nina: Indeed, it’s one his major themes – in fact, probably the most important theme of his entire oeuvre. So the film for Billie Jean “frames” a young man who resolutely turns his back on the Mauve City he has recently left (Sodom and Gomorrah?) rather than facing it. For him, it is a place that will forever haunt him, tarnished by ill-omened memories and associations. Michael seems destined for permanent exile: although he’s clearly not indigent, he is, in effect, as “homeless” as the homeless man he encounters and helps, and to whom he brings his magical largesse in the form of a spinning coin.
Willa: Oh, that’s an interesting connection, Nina.
Nina: A few years earlier, Michael Jackson had sung (and therefore “narrated” in the first person) a song he co-wrote with his brothers for 1978’s Destiny album, “Bless His Soul”:
Sometimes I cry ’cause I’m confused
Is this a fact of being used?
There is no life for me at all
Cause I give myself at beck and call
Poignantly, through his magical skills, our hero seems to have the power to help others but not himself, and this is also an allegorical tale that, sadly, touches upon many elements of Michael Jackson’s own biography. He seems to have irrevocably lost or sacrificed something he can never retrieve. And so there is nothing for him to happily run toward, no apparent redemption for what ails him, in all his mysterious alienation and difference. Unable to look to anyone else to “save” him (even Lisa Marie tried to do it, and couldn’t), he must be his own Wizard, as well as his own Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Dorothy.
And so, the song’s essential tragedy, as it’s presented here, is manifested not only in its music and lyrics, but also – especially – in the very mise en scène of its filmed adaptation. A sense of anxiety pervades the whole, even at times rupturing the film’s somewhat cartoonish aesthetic. And I find it interesting that many critics who have dwelt (perhaps unfairly) on the “paranoia” they see creeping into Michael’s later music – especially from the HIStory album forward – have noted that the themes of being hunted, haunted, preyed upon, exploited, and besieged, began as early as 1982 with Billie Jean.
Willa: Yes, they have – and without much compassion or understanding for where those feelings “of being hunted, haunted, preyed upon, exploited, and besieged” came from. It wasn’t paranoia – it was his life.
Nina: Despite the pleasure we may take in Michael himself, who “gifts” us with his astonishing performances, his beauty, and his acts of generosity (not to mention the cute pink shirt and red bow tie), the unease we feel for him is abiding. It’s inscribed in the film’s visual and sensory structure: its colors, its spaces, its nooks and crannies, and even the aroma of its streets – which we come to know, intuitively, through all our senses.
By the way, it’s worth checking out Salman Rushdie’s book on The Wizard of Oz (BFI Film Classics), where he explored themes of childhood, exile, and the impossibility – for any of us – to ever return to our “home sweet home.”
Willa: I will. And, Nina, I’m speechless. I have never thought about Billie Jean this way before. I’ve watched it countless times over the past 30 years, but you have opened my eyes to an entirely new way of seeing and experiencing this film. Thank you so much for joining me!
Nina: And thank you so much, Willa, for providing the opportunity!
Note: Just as this post was about to go up, we received word that Judge Mitchell Beckloff dismissed Wade Robson’s late creditor’s claim against the Michael Jackson Estate. A second Robson case is still pending. Here’s an article from My News LA.
Willa: Lisha McDuff recently shared with me a new video for the Freddie Mercury / Michael Jackson collaboration, “There Must be More to Life than This.” Directed by Dave LaChapelle and starring Sergei Polunin and Jessica Gomes, the video makes a powerful statement against the horrible human cost of war. Here’s an informative post Damien Shields wrote about it, and here’s the video:
Willa: In our last post, D.B. Anderson and I talked about the idea of “citizen journalism.” Just yesterday the Los Angeles Review of Books published a wonderful article, “Dancing with Michael Jackson,” that D.B. calls “citizen journalism at its finest.” Beautifully written by Dr. Toni Bowers, it explores the power of his music, his dance, his message, and his life, and places it all within the context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. As Dr. Bowers writes:
In the United States, we tend to understand difference as pathology. We are uncomfortable with anyone who exceeds our categories, disturbs our prejudices, or calls the bluff on reigning platitudes. Michael Jackson and his music did all that at once, on many levels. What is most important, though, and should not be forgotten, is that he did it with joy. To dwell over-long on Jackson’s suffering would be to forget his indomitable playfulness and strength of will. The amazing thing is not, finally, how weird Michael Jackson was or how difficult his life was, but how great was his capacity for delight, his generosity, his ability and determination to bring joy to others. Endlessly curious, delighted with people, and thrilled by the beauty of the world, he just had so much fun. He suffered, yes; he faced down and endured painful experiences. But that’s what makes his exuberance so remarkable, and makes the fact that he brought (and continues to bring) pleasure to other people so precious. No matter what, he danced. We need to remember and honor that, and dance along.
I strongly encourage everyone to read Bowers’ article. Here’s a link.
In addition, I just have to share a Reuters article that came out yesterday also. It begins with a video of NATO ministers singing “We are the World.” Here’s a link to that.
Willa: This week I am so excited to be joined by D.B. Anderson, author of two of the most popular articles in our Reading Room. “The Messenger King: Michael Jackson and the Politics of #BlackLivesMatter” is an opinion piece published by The Baltimore Sun that places Michael Jackson’s activism within the context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. And “Sony Hack Re-ignites Questions about Michael Jackson’s Banned Song” is a self-published article that went viral, becoming the most popular independent post in all of Gawker Media for 2014 – and it wasn’t even published until mid-December. Thank you so much for joining me, D.B.!
D.B.: Thank you so much for having me, Willa! I’ve been reading Dancing with the Elephant for a long time and I always walk away with new insights, so it’s quite an honor to be here myself.
Willa: Oh, it’s an honor to talk with you. And your Baltimore piece seems especially timely right now, with the Freddie Gray protests rocking the city. As you point out, #BlackLivesMatter protesters have been drawing on Michael Jackson’s work from the beginning of the movement:
On Twitter, #TheyDontCareAboutUs is a hashtag. In Ferguson, they blasted the Michael Jackson song through car windows. In New York City and Berkeley last weekend, it was sung and performed by protesters. And in Baltimore, there was a magical moment when the Morgan State University choir answered protests with a rendition of Jackson’s “Heal The World.”
We see that trend continuing in Baltimore, with protesters singing “They Don’t Care about Us” and recent videos of one resident, Dimitri Reeves, responding to both the police and the rioters with performances of “Beat It” and “Man in the Mirror.” Here he is dancing on a truck, with sirens in the background and a police helicopter swooping overhead:
And here he is in front of police in riot gear:
He talked about the experience in a National Post article:
Reeves, who has been dancing since age five, said a particularly nerve-wracking moment came during “Man in the Mirror,” which he performed in front of a line of riot police. To his amazement, after a while the cops slowly backed away. “It was beautiful.”
D.B.: This was fantastic, and what really made me happy was the number of media outlets who covered it, even Billboard.
Willa: Yes, and NBC, Fox, USA Today, Rolling Stone, Slate, Salon, Huffington Post, and a lot more, including the newswire service United Press International.
D.B.: I’ve heard that this gentleman actually does this regularly, and it wasn’t a one-off performance. And maybe it was just filler content, but I have a tiny hope that some media featured it because they understood a political significance.
Willa: I hope so. I know some of the articles I read focused on the fact that he was trying to calm the violence while giving voice to the frustrations of the rioters. That’s a difficult assignment, and Michael Jackson is one of the few artists whose work is up to the task – who can provide an impassioned cultural critique while promoting nonviolent solutions.
So D.B., today we’re going to talk about strategies for effectively engaging with the media, something you’ve accomplished with both of your recent articles. But maybe we should begin by talking about how you came to write these articles. What’s the story behind them?
D.B.: I suppose everyone who writes about Michael does so because he deeply touches them in some way, and I am no exception. No, let me rephrase that – everyone who writes thoughtfully about Michael. You know what I mean!
Willa: Yes, I know what you mean …
D.B.: Anyway, I’ve been reading extensively about Michael for several years, and I’ve been so deeply impressed by works like Remember The Time (Whitfield) and Man in the Music (Vogel), as well as many websites and blogs like yours. And I have had great and not-so-great conversations with people all over the world, and learned so much from them.
After a while I began to feel strongly that I had something to say about and on behalf of Michael to the world, but I didn’t know what it was, if that makes any sense. I started and then stopped writing several things because I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. Did the world need another blog about Michael? I couldn’t figure out a way to add value. So I had ideas about Michael swirling around in my brain wanting desperately to get out, but I wasn’t sure where to put them.
Meanwhile, on a parallel track, I live near Washington DC, which is sort of ground zero for the media. You can’t avoid news and talk shows, and by listening to NPR and CNN all day – which I do just to have company – you become educated on how the media thinks of itself. I noticed some commentators being very critical of other media people. And there’s a giant divide between the cable news networks – they are always talking smack about each other. In particular, I started to study Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, who have developed media criticism into an art form. This became a bigger and bigger idea for me, that somehow this fit. So these two tracks started converging in my mind and I was pretty sure that “Michael and the media” would be my focus.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, D.B. Michael Jackson criticized the media for years, both in interviews and in songs like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Leave Me Alone,” “Why You Wanna Trip on Me,” “Tabloid Junkie,” … In fact, it seems every album has at least one song taking on the media. And of course, many cable news personalities seem to take great delight in “talking smack about each other,” as you pointed out. But I hadn’t put those two threads together before, or considered that the way the media criticizes itself could provide an opening for Jackson’s supporters to join in and get their views across.
D.B.: Michael certainly did criticize them, and for good reason. And the one constant you find is utter frustration at the journalistic malpractice that was committed with no accountability, and as far I know there has never been a loud enough, satisfying, and sincere mea culpa.
So as I was listening and studying the media it dawned on me that there is a new generation of journalists out there, ones who have no reason to be invested in covering up what happened before, and who are willing to challenge each other. So the environment is ripe for revisiting Michael’s whole story.
Willa: And that’s an important point. Many of the commentators out there are surprisingly young, and do seem more open to questioning conventional wisdom and seeing Michael Jackson in new ways.
D.B.: Yes! But then there is still a subject matter knowledge problem, because how many journalists truly understand the facts? They learned about Michael through news, too. So, the other important development in my own thinking was realizing it was pointless to wait for some journalist to write what I wanted to read.
Willa: Yes, very few journalists really know the circumstances surrounding the allegations, and few seem to understand his true significance as an artist and cultural leader. I gradually came to that realization also. After he died I kept reading all these tributes, but to my mind even the positive ones seemed to miss the point about what was so special about him. It’s true he was an awe-inspiring singer and dancer, but he was so much more than that – he meant so much more than that – and none of the tributes I read seemed to get that. I kept looking for something that expressed what I felt, but it just wasn’t there. Nothing even came close. And finally I started writing about him, without really intending to, just to express what I was searching for and couldn’t find.
D.B.: I’m very glad you did. I probably owe you rent for the time spent on your pages! The pieces you’ve done on analysis and interpretation of his lyrics and imagery are the ones that stick with me the most. I’m sure that much of my understanding of “They Don’t Care about Us” was informed by your posts about the HIStory album.
In thinking about the media I came to appreciate that citizen journalism is widely practiced today – for example, most of the original reporting on the ground in Ferguson came not from reporters but from ordinary people who set up their own live streams and tweeted events.
CNN was literally days behind the activists in Ferguson. And everyone on social media knew it, and was complaining about it. The entire series of protests we’ve had over the last year – all of them – if you want to know what’s happening, you go on Twitter. Realizing this was a crucial turning point in my thinking. It was one of those ordinary citizens on the ground in Ferguson who first posted a clip of protesters blasting “They Don’t Care about Us” through open car windows. And it got passed around on social media among protesters, and then among fans, and that clip was really the first spark in what became “The Messenger King.”
The protesters continued to embrace and expand their use of “They Don’t Care about Us” throughout the fall and it was so energizing to me, that these young people found meaning in a song that was released when they were toddlers or maybe not even born yet. And I could not stop thinking how understood Michael would feel, that someone finally gets it, what this song was all about. To me, it was a vindication in many ways. You know, Michael always played a long game.
Willa: That’s true, he did. And “They Don’t Care about Us” does seem to be a perfect channel for expressing the cultural zeitgeist right now – especially among young people – at this pivotal moment in history. For example, 2Cellos just released a video of their reinterpretation of “They Don’t Care about Us,” and it blew me away. Here it is:
Even without lyrics, this video superbly captures the underlying idea that we are just pawns in a game between superpowers who “really don’t care about us.”
D.B.: By now I’m convinced that Michael understood that “They Don’t Care about Us” was a critical piece of art. It explains why he fought so hard for it. He wanted it to live, and it is living. I suspect that Michael knew The New York Times would not have the last word, you know? He was a really long-term strategic thinker.
The protesters just organically reached for this music over and over through the months. So when “where are all the celebrities?” became a topic of conversation, and Questlove held up the Dixie Chicks as an example, I got angry, to be honest! I mean, I didn’t see any clips of Dixie Chicks songs at the rallies! Are you kidding me? No. Just no. Now Questlove had a very valid point – that it is very risky to speak out – and I totally agreed with his point. It just felt to me that he had opened the door with an excellent example, but if you want to talk about brave risk-takers, let’s get down to real. He was exactly right, and he set up my premise perfectly. But at first it made me mad, and that was the juice.
Everything finally gelled after an event on December 5, and that night I sat down and wrote “The Messenger King” in about four hours. The context was, Rolling Stone had just acknowledged that their “Rape on Campus” story had serious inaccuracies, but their statement did not accept responsibility and they said they’d been misled by their source. And then this happened:
Also, fuck you RS for trying to throw your source under the bus: this is on you, not her rollingstone.com/culture/news/a…—
Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) December 05, 2014
A media professional calling out other media for not verifying the source’s story. Publicly. In writing. With profanity for emphasis, no extra charge. When this clicked into place, I knew: The world is open to receive. This is the right moment; this is Michael’s time. Go.
And so I did. Well I didn’t write it, so much as channel it. Wrote it on Friday, spent the weekend figuring out where to submit it, submitted it on Monday, and it was published on Tuesday.
Willa: Wow, D.B., that’s amazing.
D.B.: I am as amazed as anyone else, really!
And then just days after that, the Sony hack happened and there was another opportunity on a silver platter. I would never have recognized Bernard Weinraub’s name had I not just fact-checked myself for “Messenger King” by re-reading Vogel. He is mentioned in Joe’s commentary on “They Don’t Care about Us,” so when I saw Weinraub in the early hack coverage, his name was fresh on my mind. I was blown away because here was a chance to go deeper into the meaning of “They Don’t Care about Us” and answer Weinraub and put that whole controversy into the “ridiculous” department where it belonged. I knew I had to write it while the iron was hot. It was a very frenzied December! I never got my Christmas things out of storage, at all.
Willa: And I’m so glad you seized the moment like you did. It obviously struck a nerve – just look at all the attention it received! So it seems like, for you, one key lesson from all this is timeliness. To have impact, “citizen journalists” as you put it, have to get their message out at just the right moment – when a relevant story is a hot topic, and news outlets are receptive to what they’re trying to say.
D.B.: Yes. Neither story would have had as much impact without the timing. Sony and the protests were in the news, and I didn’t want to write just for fans. I wanted to reach the protesters and the media and the music industry and regular people. There was only a short window to catch a wide audience.
But just as crucial is to be ready when the opportunity comes by being prepared – you never know when it will appear. So all the thinking and writing and reading prepared me for the moment. The opportunity was there for anyone to take, but no journalist got either story, because they were not prepared.
First, they just don’t know all the history. Second, they don’t know that they don’t know it. And third, they’re already very busy. But I got some great comments from members of the press after they read my pieces. So contrary to popular wisdom, I feel like the press now generally has open minds to Michael.
Willa: And that’s a really important insight, and an important opportunity. But you have me very curious, B.D. What were some of the comments you received? And who sent them?
D.B.: After “Messenger King” was published, I got a phone call from a popular columnist. And he asked me, “did you really just say that Michael Jackson was framed by a white prosecutor? That he was a victim of police brutality?” And I thought he was going to rip into me. But instead he told me, “You have said what everyone else has been afraid to say.”
Willa: Really? He actually said that?
D.B.: He did! Willa, I was shaking, because you don’t get calls like this every day. And you know, his remark was so profound. A lot of journalists know there is something rotten in Denmark. They know it. Oh, they know – it’s saying it out loud that’s the problem. But as I say, the younger journalists, they are not invested in the old status quo. Changes will be made.
The biggest compliment I got was the estate posted a link to “Messenger King” on Michael’s official website. That will always be special to me. But for purposes of this discussion, their doing so has a message: “We endorse and agree with the position. This is who Michael was.” I think they’re telling us how we can help them.
Willa: That’s interesting. So you took the initiative and wrote that first article and got it published, and at just the right time when it would garner a lot of attention. But then once it started gaining momentum, the Estate helped push things along?
D.B.: I’m not sure how it occurred exactly. I just know that after, maybe 4 days or so, someone contacted me and said, go look at Michael’s Facebook page. The estate had seen the article – whether they are always scanning the media or whether someone sent it to them, I don’t know – they had seen it and posted about it on his website and then promoted it through his social media. And I was just stunned because I haven’t ever seen them do this before.
Since then, the estate has taken the social justice theme and run with it several times. They posted about Michael’s work during Charlie Hebdo attacks, when people were singing “Heal The World,” things like that. And, Willa, since we began this conversation yesterday, the estate has just done a post on the Baltimore dancer we spoke of! So it’s clear to me, this is where they most want the global conversation to go, in terms of his image, and well it should, because it’s absolute truth about him as a person.
Willa: And as an artist. It’s moments like these when the power of his art really shines through.
D.B.: Oh yes. This is why he did what he did. Exactly for this.
Willa: So what about your second article? Did you receive feedback from the press about it as well?
D.B.: On the piece about The New York Times, I’ll let them speak for themselves. Here’s S.I. Rosenbaum, Senior Editor at Boston Magazine:
Then there’s Wesley Lowery, national reporter covering law enforcement and justice for The Washington Post:
Almost 20 years later, suggestion at the time by NYT that song's lyrics/message anti-Semitic seems utterly absurd nytimes.com/1995/06/15/art…—
Wesley Lowery (@WesleyLowery) December 19, 2014
And Bomani Jones, sports journalist at ESPN:
Willa: Wow, D.B. Reading these just does me a world of good! It’s like a tonic. And it’s really motivating.
And I see what you’re saying … it does seem like some people in the media are open to taking a closer look at the controversies surrounding Michael Jackson, and at the media’s complicity in perpetuating them – and even creating them, as in the Weinraub case.
D.B.: It was a very eye-opening and encouraging experience. You know, how many times have people said, “when are journalists going to write the truth about Michael?” And there has been a perception that the media is united in its intent to give MJ a bad rap. But this really taught me this isn’t the case nowadays. My articles were news to them!
The journalists who read the pieces – and there were more of them than I have named here – are now, I hope, more likely to consider Michael thoughtfully in the future. Over time, I think if Michael’s advocates continue to take ownership on getting the history out, the press will delve deeper and do the parts that only they can. So I really hope that more of your readers will step out into citizen journalism too, speaking to an audience beyond the fan base, because they have the power to effect change. We can be the “live streamers” and point the way.
Willa: I agree, and this idea of citizen journalism is really exciting. Did you have any worries or concerns?
D.B.: I did have some real trepidation about doing the Weinraub/“They Don’t Care about Us” story. I was concerned that people would think I was attacking Sony – it wasn’t my goal. It’s about Weinraub, and what he was possibly up to with David Geffen, and lack of professionalism in journalism, and the very self-centered, dare I say racist, view that Weinraub took. Sony was not my target but I rode the wave. I felt slightly uncomfortable about that, but I knew that’s how the headline game is played. I was a little nervous too about taking on The New York Times, and I obsessed over making the story as bullet-proof as I could.
Willa: So have you heard from anyone at the Times?
D.B.: Not a word! I never expected the story to take off the way it did. It was helped greatly when Max Read, the editor at Gawker, included it in the Sony Hack pop-up blog, which was an enormous source of new readers. It had gotten, I think, a couple thousand page views already, so I emailed Max cold, and he said (I’m paraphrasing) “Fantastic; stories like this are exactly why we are publishing the emails. I am adding your story and apologize in advance for the trolls you will get.” And this is not to be believed, but I swear it is true – I got virtually none of the usual MJ haters. Interacting with readers in the comment section at Kinja was my favorite part.
Willa: That’s wonderful! Perhaps I’m being naive, but I really hope that we’ve moved past that intense stage of the hysteria, with all the mindless name-calling and saying terrible things without any sort of substantive evidence. It does seem that, in talking about Michael Jackson now, the conversation tends to be a little more restrained, and a little more nuanced and open-minded. But I’m very worried that the Robson-Safechuck allegations could set off a whole new round of hysteria. I worry about that a lot, actually.
D.B.: Willa, my experience shows that the majority of people believe he is innocent, or want to believe it. There is an awakening. What people still need in order to seal the deal in their minds, are facts. And when they are reading a reasonable story, they respond in a reasonable way. Michael’s story becomes a much less complicated one when you see the obvious – that he was a rebel and a social justice fighter in the style of Gandhi, and that he was persecuted by racist law enforcement. No voodoo in sight. It’s an easier thing to believe.
I think a good strategy is to completely ignore Robson/Safechuck. Don’t feed that beast. Instead, I would like to see advocates creating their own content, really good content that calls attention to the true issues: his philanthropy, or the use of his music in times of trouble, like in Paris – or interview ten children who were assisted with their medical issues by Michael. Write about how MJ put on the 9/11 concert but no one knew it. Write about AIDS. Write about South Central LA and school shootings. Lots and lots of possibilities. But with Robson, it’s different. In my opinion the current tabloid stories need to be starved of oxygen. No clicks, no commenting, no yelling at the author, just … radio silence. That is the kiss of death for a story and a reporter.
Willa: I see what you’re saying, but it also feels risky to let false claims go unanswered. Some pretty wild rumors have been circulated about him, and sometimes they get a lot of attention – even when there is concrete information contradicting them – because that information doesn’t get out. But I understand your point that giving those stories attention helps perpetuate them. It’s complicated.
D.B.: Robson’s lawyers are intentionally leaking stuff to the tabloids, as a strategy to get the estate to settle.
Willa: It does seem that way, especially with the timing of how they’ve announced the allegations. The Robson accusations were made public during the AEG trial, and the Safechuck allegations came out the day before the release of Xscape. And then there are all the really lurid leaks to the tabloids. It seems to me that Robson and Safechuck’s law firm – and they have the same law firm working for them – is engaged in a pretty sophisticated media campaign to embarrass and harass the Estate and force them to settle, as you say.
D.B.: Exactly. I’m not buying. No one believes Wade Robson. And I have more faith in journalism than I did before.
But never underestimate tabloids. So if it does get to the state where hysteria goes around, that is the moment when one of us needs to pounce on it with a story, which I hope someone is already working on right now, about Robson not getting the job at Cirque du Soleil which apparently caused his “remembering.”
And I would go for it right out of the gate with an opening sentence like “It’s widely believed that Michael Jackson was the victim of malicious prosecution by a zealous and bigoted district attorney in 2005. Now another has tried …” That story should be ready and waiting to be published at the critical media time, with last minute edits where needed, no matter which way the case ends up. In other words, I’d love to see a citizen journalist with a story on why Wade lost. But either way, a citizen journalist story can give the rest of the press some factual nutrition. Otherwise they’re just looking at a giant void filled with tabloid trash. Citizens are the anti-tabloid. We give the press choices.
Yes, now that you mention it, it would be very strategic to do a victory lap story, one that drives the final stake into the heart of this nonsense forever.
Willa: Sounds like you’ve already started writing it, D.B.! … at least in your head. And I hope you do.
D.B.: I enjoy thinking about strategy but don’t think the Robson story is in my wheelhouse. I am certain there are others more qualified to do a Robson story. Maybe we will get some volunteers in the comments section!
Willa: Maybe so – you’ve certainly motivated me to think about new ways to work within the media. And I hope you’ll join me again to talk more about citizen journalism. This has been so enlightening as well as inspiring. I feel like you’re helping to chart a course for how we really can change the world. Thank you for joining me and sharing your insights!
D.B.: Thank you very much for having me, Willa. I enjoyed talking with you.
To help celebrate Earth Day, I wanted to share this beautiful video of Michael Jackson reciting “Planet Earth” from Dancing the Dream:
Also, in honor of Earth Day, Veronica Bassil is offering her book Michael Jackson’s Love for Planet Earth as a free download today through April 26th. Here’s a link.
Willa: A few weeks ago, Raven Woods joined me for a wonderful discussion of Michael Jackson’s concert performances of “Billie Jean.” This week I am very excited to be joined by Nina Fonoroff to talk about the short film, Billie Jean, and about Michael Jackson’s use of film noir. Nina is an associate professor in cinematic arts, an independent filmmaker, and an artist who has drawn inspiration from Michael Jackson – for example, in a series of collages she created of him. And in the course of gathering material for her collages, she has collected more than 35,000 images of him. Wow! Thank you so much for joining me, Nina.
Nina: Thanks, Willa! I look forward to exploring the “anatomy” of Billie Jean!
Willa: Oh, so do I! I’ve been wanting to take an in-depth look at Billie Jean for almost four years now, but I’ve felt kind of intimidated by it. So I really appreciate your leading the way.
So today we’re planning to talk about Billie Jean specifically, and Michael Jackson’s use of film noir more generally in a number of his films, and it seems like we should begin by defining what exactly “film noir” means. But to be honest, I’m a little fuzzy about that. What makes a piece film noir? Is it the characters (a hard-boiled detective, a seductress, a criminal mastermind like Mr. Big in Moonwalker) or the setting (gritty, urban, 1940s or 50s) or the way it’s filmed (beautifully framed black-and-white scenes with lots of shadows). Or is it something else – a mood or a feeling?
Nina: Great questions, Willa. Film scholars have never been able to determine whether to call “film noir” a style, a movement, or a genre. Billie Jean uses many elements we find in typical noir films, though there are also some distinct ways it departs from them.
In noir films, there’s often (though not always) a femme fatale who leads a man into a life of crime, or some situation that is morally compromised. So there’s the criminal ne’er-do-well, and often a detective, who we usually see wearing a trench coat and fedora hat. This detective is often the film’s protagonist, or main character – we identify with him, and typically learn everything through his point of view. (In some films, like Double Indemnity (1944), we hear the story told as a flashback, from the point of view of the man who committed the crime and who is about to die.) Some classic “noir” films were adapted from crime novels written by figures like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet, and James M. Cain. In period slang, the detective is sometimes known as a “private dick” or “shamus” – in other words, a private investigator, as distinct from a detective who is employed by the regular police force.
Willa: And we see this kind of character in Billie Jean – the private investigator or reporter who’s trailing Michael Jackson’s character. We also see a variant of this character in You Rock My World and especially Smooth Criminal, right? Michael, the main character in Smooth Criminal, isn’t a private eye, but he’s an updated version of Rod Riley, Fred Astaire’s character in “Girl Hunt Ballet” from The Band Wagon, and Rod Riley is. And Michael is certainly dressed the part, especially the fedora pulled down low over his eyes.
Nina: Yes, that’s exactly the type, and Michael was very conscious of the style. Spats, an elegant suit, a fedora. Then we have dark, deserted streets within a sinister-looking city; and parts of the story are often conveyed through voice-over narration. Usually it’s the voice of the detective we hear, a device that allows us to form a strong bond of identification with him, his observations, his experiences and – most importantly – the knowledge he acquires about the case he’s working on. We know that we can count on him to eventually crack the case and “spill the beans.”
Willa: Oh that’s interesting, Nina. And we see those “dark, deserted streets” you mentioned in a number of Michael Jackson’s videos: Billie Jean, Beat It, Thriller, Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, Dirty Diana, Smooth Criminal, Jam, Give In to Me, Who Is It, Stranger in Moscow, and You Rock My World, as well as the panther dance portion of Black or White.
We certainly see it in “Girl Hunt Ballet” also, along with the use of voiceover, as you mentioned. Here’s a video clip, and it begins with Fred Astaire’s character walking those “dark, deserted streets” and talking to us in voiceover, as you just described. As he says, “The city was asleep. The joints were closed. The rats and the hoods and the killers were in their holes.”
It’s really fun to watch that clip and look for all the ways Michael Jackson borrowed from it or modified elements of it when creating Smooth Criminal. For example, some of the costumes are a direct match, like his white suit and fedora with the blue shirt and socks, or the woman in the red dress with black gloves up past her elbows.
Nina: Fred Astaire’s performance here riffs on the classic film noir hero (or antihero), especially in the tone he adopts to tell his story. There’s a heightened sense of drama when he recounts his woes – the tale of a romantic/sexual exploit turned bad. The way he delivers his interior monologue evokes an urbane male persona, whose suaveness and sophistication are no match for the “dame” who took him unawares or “done him wrong.”
We can also hear this character in Michael Jackson’s spoken introduction to “Dangerous,” some of whose lines come directly from the Rod Riley character in “Girl Hunt Ballet.” Here’s Michael Jackson’s performance of “Dangerous” at the 1995 MTV Awards:
The way she came into the place
I knew then and there
There was something different about this girl.
The way she moved. Her hair, her face.
Her lines, divinity in motion.
As she stalked the room
I could feel the aura
Of her presence
Every head turned
Feeling passion and lust
The girl was persuasive
The girl I could not trust
The girl was bad
The girl was dangerous
She came at me in sections
With the eyes of desire
I fell trapped into her
Web of sin
A touch, a kiss
A whisper of love
I was at the point
Of no return
Willa: I love that performance of “Dangerous”! And you’re right, some of these lyrics are a direct quotation from “Girl Hunt Ballet,” as you say – specifically the lines, “She came at me in sections … She was bad / She was dangerous.” And the overall feel of these lines is very “noirish.” I can easily imagine a character from one of those 1940s crime novels – or the films based on them – saying just these words.
So what other elements mark a film as noir?
Nina: They often have complicated plot twists, including flashbacks (sometimes multiple ones) or other scenes that reveal the characters’ dark pasts. And because the genre matured in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s, when black-and-white film stocks were more commonly used, we often associate these movies with a high-contrast black-and-white look that feels atmospherically menacing, with deep shadows and their connotations of secrecy, danger, paranoia, despair. The lighting effects are often described by a lovely Italian word, chiaroscuro, which means high contrasts of dark and light. The term originated in painting, and was then applied to photography and film.
Willa: And Michael Jackson occasionally filmed his videos using high-contrast black and white, like in Stranger in Moscow or parts of Billie Jean, Bad, Black or White, and Ghosts. Or he would use color film but with a very muted palette and strong contrasts between areas of light and dark, so it resembles black-and-white film. I’m thinking of moments like the dance in the basement in You Rock My World, which is almost like a series of sepia-toned photographs.
Nina: That’s true, especially for You Rock My World, which depicts a noirish environment in color – but it’s a limited color palette, as you say.
Films noir also tend to elicit a set of emotional responses from the audience, leading us on a journey of suspense, sometimes infused with anxiety for the character or the outcome of the story. The narrative unfolds so that by the end of the movie, the resolution of a puzzle or mystery – usually a violent crime – is revealed to the audience from the detective’s point of view (though, as I pointed out in the case of Double Indemnity, sometimes another character “narrates”). Through a bleak and often cynical depiction of right and wrong, these films communicate a set of social values: we are meant to ponder, even if unconsciously, what it might mean to be trustworthy or duplicitous, or to be an “outsider” looking in – as both the detective and the criminal he follows often are.
In their obsessive intelligence, exposure to danger, risk-taking, and seemingly cold-blooded approach to human relationships, these men (the detectives, and often the women they associate with) represent social deviance – they conduct their lives, as loners, in a way that’s different from the mainstream of society. They’ve either rejected or else haven’t found access to the ordinary pleasures of domesticity, marriage, family life, home and hearth. So both the criminal, and the detective who pursues him, are figures who stand apart from ordinary people, who are safely ensconced in the trappings of middle-class existence and normative social values. They are exceptional, and often deeply ambivalent characters.
According to Tim Dirks, who writes for AMC Filmsite:
Heroes (or anti-heroes), corrupt characters and villains included down-and-out, conflicted hard-boiled detectives or private eyes, cops, gangsters, government agents, a lone wolf, sociopaths or killers, crooks, war veterans, politicians, petty criminals murderers, or just plain Joes. These protagonists were often morally ambiguous lowlifes from the dark and gloomy underworld of violent crime and corruption. Distinctively, they were cynical, tarnished, obsessive (sexual and otherwise), brooding, menacing, sinister, sardonic, disillusioned, frightened and insecure loners (usually men), struggling to survive – and in the end, ultimately losing. Amnesia suffered by the protagonist was a common plot device, as was the downfall of an innocent Everyman who fell victim to temptation or was framed…. The protagonists in film noir were normally driven by their past or by human weakness to repeat former mistakes.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Nina. It seems to me that Michael Jackson drew on elements of noir when creating his characters, but with important differences. His characters are often outsiders who “stand apart from ordinary people,” as you say – characters who “haven’t found access to the ordinary pleasures of domesticity.” We see that repeatedly in his films. But they are not “cynical, tarnished, obsessive (sexual and otherwise), brooding, menacing, sinister, sardonic, disillusioned, frightened and insecure loners,” in Dirks’ words. Not at all. In fact, often his characters are alone for the opposite reason – because they are innocent in a corrupt world. I’m thinking specifically of Billie Jean, Stranger in Moscow, and Ghosts, but there are other examples as well.
Nina: Interestingly, Willa, sometimes a noir (or “noirish”) film can feature a man who is wrongly accused. As Dirk states, he may be “an innocent Everyman who fell victim to temptation or was framed.” Of course, this totally resonates with the story of Billie Jean.
Willa: It really does. So Nina, this thematic approach to film noir helps explain some of the confusion I’ve been feeling. For example, Stranger in Moscow is beautifully shot in black and white, and it’s in an urban setting, and when I watch it a lot of the individual frames look like film noir to me. But the overall feeling of the film as a whole is very different from film noir and I wouldn’t label it that way.
On the other hand, Billie Jean and Smooth Criminal were filmed primarily in color, though muted color, and when I watch them carefully – as I did while preparing for this post – a lot of the shots don’t really look like film noir to me. Less than Stranger in Moscow, actually. But the overall feeling of these two is very much film noir, I think.
Maybe some of this has to do with the “notions of social value” you were just talking about. In all three of these films – Billie Jean, Smooth Criminal, and Stranger in Moscow – Michael Jackson’s character is an “outsider,” and there’s a sense that the world is a pretty threatening place for him. So maybe that’s the undefinable thing that makes Stranger in Moscow feel kind of “noirish” to me.
Nina: Although there are a couple of shots in Stranger in Moscow that I think look distinctly noirish, I’d say that the film as a whole lacks the necessary elements of danger, criminality, violence, and pursuit. In a noir film, we expect to meet characters whose actions fall outside of the boundaries of lawful behavior, or at least outside the confines of “acceptable” social norms. Also, most (though not all) noir films feature nighttime shots of the city – and a good deal of the action takes place at night. So I’d say You Rock My World, or Who Is It, or even Dirty Diana (of all things!) have more in common with noir films than Stranger in Moscow does.
Willa: Really? Dirty Diana?! Wow. But I see what you mean about Stranger in Moscow. There is something threatening about it, but that comes primarily from the lyrics (“We’re talking danger, baby”) and from our own knowledge of the backstory behind the film – of what the Santa Barbara police were putting him through at the time. But the mood of the film itself isn’t really threatening. It’s more a feeling of hurt and sorrow, I think.
Nina: Yes, hurt and sorrow, as well as loneliness and a burdensome alienation, are the feelings that come through most strongly for me in that film, Willa.
In general, the solution to the central question (or mystery) within a noir film occurs when the detective apprehends the criminal and hands him/her over to the police. But these films also convey something we might consider a more ideological “message”: in a word, a morality tale. (Here, we might think of the expression “crime doesn’t pay.”) This kind of messaging partly came about because of the Hollywood Production Code, in force during the 1940s and 1950s, which stipulated that films couldn’t allow a character to get away with criminal behavior. They had to be punished, either by death or through the strong arm of the law. A character who has committed a crime must never be allowed to get away with it, according to the Production Code.
Willa: Oh, I didn’t know that. That’s interesting, Nina. I’d noticed that many of those films ended with the bad guys getting their just desserts, but I thought that simply reflected the mood of the country back then. I didn’t realize it was a legal requirement.
Nina: It’s interesting how much of Hollywood cinema was governed by organizations that stipulated various projects’ adherence to “community standards,” first through the Code, and later through the ratings system that replaced it.
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. This is especially the case with the detective, a complex character who himself often gives way to sordid temptations. Going even further, some analysts have seen the style/genre as it evolved in the years after World War II as a critique of postwar American society: the “dark underbelly” of the culture that lies just underneath the glittering surface of optimism and prosperity. A lot of these themes touch upon ideas about the “unconscious” that were elaborated by Sigmund Freud: in particular, the “return of the repressed.” When an individual stuffs or represses an unpleasant memory today, that memory will inevitably re-emerge in a variety of morbid psychological symptoms tomorrow. The past comes back to haunt the character.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting. I wonder if that’s one reason these films were so popular back then, and why they’re still seen as classics today – because they convey a kind of psychological truth.
So, Nina, this is all much more complicated than I realized. I’m starting to understand now why it can be so difficult to classify specific films, or even specific elements of films, as noir. We can look at how the film was constructed – the characters, plot, setting, cinematography – which is all I was thinking about when we started talking. But now I’m beginning to see that there’s also a whole other element of noir, which focuses more on how it resonates with an audience and how they interpret it.
I wonder if that’s why, for me, Stranger in Moscow kind of fits the noir label and kind of doesn’t. Except for the black-and-white format, it doesn’t meet the criteria for how film noir is typically constructed. But it definitely leads us as an audience to think about “how difficult it is for individuals to maintain moral integrity in a fundamentally corrupt world,” as you said. Or rather, it asks us to consider “how does it feel” to be alone and adrift in a corrupt world.
Nina: That may be another example, Willa. It can be difficult, though, to detect how these larger meanings might come to fruition in short films like the ones Michael Jackson made. We could more easily discern these patterns in a feature-length film that follows a more traditional narrative scheme. Michael’s short films are sometimes stories in miniature: they have characters, action, and sometimes dialogue, spoken and/or sung. Yet their brevity, as well as the way they’re structured to include singing and dancing, makes the fully developed characters and complex plot development of the feature film impossible to render.
Willa: Well, it’s true that his short films don’t have the complex plots or fully developed characters you see in feature-length films. There simply isn’t the time in five or six or even 11 minutes to convey all the plot twists, for example, that you might see in a two-hour film. But it does seem to me that Michael Jackson explores some pretty complicated ideas in his short films, and in innovative ways that are difficult to describe.
Nina: You’re right there, Willa: his films do explore complicated ideas, as well as complicated emotions. They may leave us with feelings that aren’t easily resolved, because they engage our sensibilities in ways that are very different from, say, the traditional feature-length noir film, where we come out of the experience with a satisfying sense of narrative “closure” – the detective has solved his case, and so, by proxy, have we. By contrast, Michael’s short films often don’t provide that kind of closure. Billie Jean, for example, does not – nor do the other films we’ve mentioned.
Willa: I see what you’re saying, Nina, though in Billie Jean, Michael Jackson’s character has evaded the private eye who’s been stalking him – in a trenchcoat, no less! – and even turned the tables, so the one trying to “capture” him on film has literally been “captured” by the police. The last we see of the detective, the police are taking him into custody, and Michael Jackson’s character escapes. So the problem has been solved, and in that sense it does have a degree of closure.
Nina: Yes, that’s a great point, Willa. There’s a role-reversal between the detective and Michael’s character, which I believe has implications that go beyond the film itself – about which I’ll say more presently.
Willa: Sounds intriguing! So earlier you mentioned Dirty Diana and Who Is It. I don’t think I ever would have considered Dirty Diana as film noir! Or Who Is It either, though it leans more that way. That’s interesting. I’m going to have to think about that … There’s also something very noirish about the panther dance at the end of Black or White. The setting, for one thing – those gritty city streets – but more than that, the feeling of social alienation and being an “outsider,” as you mentioned before.
Nina: Well, in true postmodern fashion, Michael Jackson and his collaborators have taken a bricolage of stylistic elements, and “pastiched” them into tableaux and stories that resemble, on some level, existing cinematic genres; but they don’t function in the same ways that those feature-length cinematic works do. Still, we can explore how the detective, the hero/protagonist (but which one?), the femme fatale, and the unsettling urban atmosphere do function in Billie Jean.
Willa: Yes, I’d love to do that! So where would you like to start? At the beginning of the film and work through it chronologically?
Nina: Yes. The film starts out with a series of black-and-white shots, in closeup. The choice of black-and-white film here may have even been a self-conscious gesture, a sort of homage to noir aesthetics. We see a brick wall, a gloved hand against the wall, a man’s trouser leg and feet walking, a garbage can overflowing with papers and debris, a cat running, a man taking a drag off a cigarette, another shot of his wing-tip shoes stomping out the cigarette, and – a motif that recurs in several of Michael’s short films – a spinning coin.
What’s noteworthy here is that these are all fairly close-up shots; we don’t get a view of the whole space right away, but instead brief, almost abstract glimpses of things that foreshadow some of the motifs that will follow. They set up an atmosphere, and provide the allure of mystery and suspense – especially in conjunction with that unmistakable bass line that starts the song!
Willa: Yes, they really do. We, as an audience, are given a series of images that we try to fit together into something meaningful. It’s like we’re trying to piece the story together, just like the detective is doing. So in a way, even though we sympathize with Michael Jackson’s character, we’re also kind of aligned with the detective character. Like him, we’re watching in a kind of voyeuristic way, and maybe intruding into Michael Jackson’s life in ways that are uncomfortable for him.
And the fact that Billie Jean begins in black and white and then switches to color reminds me of Ghosts, another film about people invading his privacy and intruding into his life. In Ghosts, the initial scenes are all black and white, and then it switches to muted color when we enter the space of the Maestro – the space where he conducts his magic. Something kind of similar happens in Bad as well. The entire film is shot in black and white, except for the scenes in the subway station that are playing out in his imagination. So for Michael Jackson, black and white seems to represent “real life,” and color represents the world of magic, or his imagination. Kind of like The Wizard of Oz, where the Kansas scenes are all black and white, as compared to the full-color scenes in the land of Oz – or rather, the land of Dorothy’s imagination.
And of course, that holds true for Billie Jean as well: a lot of magic happens in the color scenes in Billie Jean …
Nina: That’s interesting, Willa – there does seem to be a pattern. And yet, the fictional space of the black-and-white scenes function differently in each film, I find. In Ghosts, for example, the trope of the townspeople and their Mayor, carrying torches, encountering a raven on a dilapidated signpost, descending on the “haunted house” that’s inhabited by a (possibly dangerous) madman seems to be more directly lifted from certain Gothic/horror B-movies from the 1950s.
Willa: Oh, I see. So more like The Revenge of Frankenstein than a noir film with Bogart and Becall.
Nina: In Billie Jean, I suspect the choice of using black-and-white film stock (a choice that was probably made by the director, Steve Barron, or another member of the crew) seems more haphazard. Another thing that’s noteworthy here: the entire image is framed by a white line, a frame-within-a frame. Why did they choose to do that? I can’t venture to say! Maybe we should ask Steve Barron….
Willa: I’m intrigued by that “frame-within-a-frame” also – it reminds me of photographs. They’re all presented as rectangles, proportioned like photographs and surrounded by a thin white line against a black background, as you say. They almost seem like shots you’d see in a police folder about a crime scene, or in a detective’s folder about the suspect he’s investigating. That resonates in an ironic way with the scenes later on where the detective keeps trying to take a picture of Michael Jackson’s character, and not succeeding.
Nina: Yes, it invokes an idea about a succession of still photographs. And this white outline will soon return, to be used in what seems a more purposeful way – breaking up the image into diptychs and triptychs – later on, when we see Michael dancing and singing “Billie Jean.”
In any case, we’re seeing the initial black-and-white images and at the same time hearing the intro to “Billie Jean,” with its unmistakable, insistent bass line and percussion. Then the synth comes in as an additional sound layer, playing those four syncopated notes that we recognize so clearly. As soon as Michael’s feet enter the picture, the film switches to color. We see a contrasting pair of two-tone wing-tip shoes. The familiar bass line comes in, and as we see Michael’s feet lighting up each square of the pavement, each of his footfalls is timed precisely with the rhythm of the music. A closeup of his hand: he throws the coin up and catches it, a perfect gesture of nonchalance that fits in with his character.
Willa: You’re right, Nina! I hadn’t noticed that before, but you’re right – it’s when he enters the picture that the film shifts to color. That seems significant … like when he appears, magic is about to happen. And it does. The concrete pavement squares glowing under his feet are an early indication of the magic he possesses. Maybe that’s why this reminds me of Ghosts …
Nina: Yes, that’s true, Willa! A bit about the mise-en-scène as a whole. (Mise-en-scène is a French term that means “putting in the scene”; it refers to everything that we can see happening in front of the camera, including the decor, the figures and their movements, costumes, makeup, lighting, etc.) Michael appears as a nattily-dressed young man who impresses us as a mysterious, slightly louche fellow, a layabout. He’s a type of hero (or antihero) from the past – despite his (almost) contemporary garb. He may be a lovable rake, but sad: he seems preoccupied, lost in thought, perhaps tragic. His evident magical powers don’t seem to bring him any joy. He saunters down the street, in no great hurry.
This character seems a familiar kind of figure to us. In fact, it’s not the first time Michael himself played this sort of cynical, world-weary “man-about-town.” Here he is in the Diana Ross TV special from 1971, doing his best imitation of Frank Sinatra with the song Sinatra made a hit, “It Was a Very Good Year”:
Willa: Wow, that’s really interesting, isn’t it? He looks exactly like a film noir detective … and acts like one, loving and leaving women without becoming emotionally attached to any of them. He even talks like one, telling Diana Ross’ character, “We’ve been taking a train to nowhere.” Of course, part of the humor is having a 12 year old talk this way …
Nina: And here’s the cover art for Frank Sinatra’s album, In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.
This man is a “type” who occupies a certain place in our collective imagination – sometimes he has a jacket slung casually over his shoulder, and he stands under a street lamp, “loitering” – possibly up to no good. He is between engagements: coming from somewhere, and on his way to something else … but we don’t know what.
Willa: Yes, and in Billie Jean the detective definitely fits this type – and so does Michael Jackson’s character to some degree, though his character is more complicated, more difficult to pin down.
Nina: Yes. What’s he doing in that seedy neighborhood on the “other side of the tracks”? Where has he recently been? His presence there is a mystery.
Willa: It is.
Nina: Then the camera shows us Michael’s point of view, as it moves in upon the homeless man who’d been hidden behind a garbage can. At the same time, we hear the first verse:
She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene
I said, “I don’t mind but what do you mean I am the one
Who would dance on the floor in the round?”
She said, “I am the one
Who would dance on the floor in the round”
But at this point, we don’t see our protagonist singing synchronously with the song. Instead, he is silent: he looks quizzically at the homeless man and again we see a closeup of the spinning coin, which lands in the man’s cup and makes it glow. Michael seems to have transformed the pauper into another nattily-dressed caricature with a white suit, white dress shoes, and a red cummerbund. The film’s images prompt us to make connections – between characters, between events – by way of visual association, rather than by setting up a specific problem, or crime, that needs to be solved.
Willa: That’s true. The images we see aren’t acting out the words of the song, as videos often do. There is no “beauty queen” and no discotheque with a dance floor “in the round.” Instead of acting out the lyrics, something much more impressionistic is happening.
By the way, just listening to your description of the opening scenes of Billie Jean conjures up noir-type images in my head. I could very easily imagine those kinds of scenes in The Maltese Falcon, for example, or Gilda, which Michael Jackson referenced in This is It.
Nina: Yes – there are so many interesting points of connection! If Billie Jean were a feature-length film, then the “Billie Jean” number would just be one scene within the larger film. But because it’s a short film (and understood in the context of a “music video”) a different set of expectations govern what we perceive. At first, just a few simple images and the first notes of the song playing have established an atmospheric world that we’ll live in for the next few minutes, which poses the question of how these isolated elements will add up and become a story that’s about to unfold.
It’s a very neatly constructed introduction, with the edits of the film often coinciding with the beats of the music: notice how his first three footfalls correspond with the rhythms of the song.
Willa: Yes, I love that!
Nina: And while we may not know what’s “going on,” it’s not necessary to know. We encounter it as a “music video,” which means that the performance of the artist will be paramount – that’s really what we’re there for! Beyond that, the film establishes an atmosphere for us to revel in which, more than anything, might describe a dream that issues from our unconscious.
Willa: That’s interesting, Nina. And that way of suggesting a story through visual cues and juxtaposed images rather than direct narration feels psychologically accurate, if that makes sense. What I mean is, that seems to be the way the mind works, so Billie Jean seems to be expressing psychological truth – “a dream that issues from our unconscious,” as you said – rather than a conventional story with a more straightforward plot and narrative.
Nina: Yes, I think so. We find in our dreams some devices that can operate in a way that’s very similar to the flow of images in a film – especially if they appear somewhat disjointed, or out of sequence. Initially, our minds may work in this more associative way, until we engage in a process of “revision” (as Freud would put it), where we begin to remember our dreams as complete narratives, with a beginning, middle, and end.
Willa: I agree. It almost feels like we’re wandering around inside this character’s mind, inside his thoughts, as much as a real geographic place. And then from the collected images we’re shown – bits of memory, perhaps – we construct a narrative.
Nina: Yes. Plus, the film has so far shown us a handful of caricatures, like cartoons – all the more, because they appear in close up. In fact, the whole of this film could easily be translated to the medium of comic book or a graphic novel.
Willa: I can see that! I hadn’t thought about that before, but you’re right. And apparently Michael Jackson felt a connection between those two forms: comic books and films. It’s been well documented, in Frank Cascio’s book and other sources, that he wanted to buy Marvel comics and turn them into movies before anyone else had the idea for doing that. And like a comic book or graphic novel illustrator, Michael Jackson was very skilled at evoking a sense of intrigue or other powerful emotion with just a few well-crafted images.
Nina: That’s interesting, Willa. He had a real flair for being richly succinct. As you and Raven pointed out in your post a few weeks ago, just a few simple items – articles of clothing, images, gestures – and a whole flood of associations comes to us. These may include even associations we may not be aware we had, but they’re nonetheless lodged somehow in our collective cultural memory. Even if some people have never seen a movie they could identify as a “Film Noir,” we’ve all encountered so many posters, photographs, advertisements, cartoons, comics – a whole storehouse of visual information that trigger these associations. Michael Jackson, an avid movie aficionado, could tap into this rich repository like a great archivist. As you say, he was very adept at selecting a few of these motifs – and by placing them in new contexts, he created meanings that are very distinct from their original use.
The images of one cat chasing another cat are significant, because they introduce a parallel: just as one cat trails another, the detective trails Michael in a game of “cat and mouse” (or “cat and cat”). We never actually see the two animals framed together in the same shot, but through the magic of film editing (it’s called “cross-cutting”), we assume that it’s a setup of pursuer/pursued – just as the detective, in a more protracted way, stalks Michael. And in fact, only twice during the film do Michael and the detective appear in the same shot. But almost from the very beginning, we understand their relationship.
Willa: Oh, interesting! And that idea is reinforced by several subtle scenes throughout the video. At 1:10 minutes in, Michael Jackson’s character pulls out a tiger-striped cloth – just like the one in “Girl Hunt Ballet” that turns out to be an important clue for helping Fred Astaire’s character solve the murder mystery. In Billie Jean, he pulls out a similar tiger-striped cloth, puts his shoe on a trash can, polishes his shoe with the cloth, and then a tiger cub appears. So there’s a symbolic connection between the tiger-striped cloth and a real (is it real?) tiger.
A few seconds later, at 1:22, we flash back to that scene and then almost immediately, at 1:25, we see the “pursued” cat turn into the tiger cub behind the same trash can. At 2:50, the photographer picks up the tiger-striped cloth – just as Fred Astaire does in “Girl Hunt Ballet” – and smiles, thinking he’s about to capture his prey. But he’s wrong. He’s the one who’s captured. As the police take him away, he drops the tiger-striped cloth, which turns into the tiger cub and escapes. Tiles light up as the tiger runs away, just as the tiles lit up under Michael Jackson’s character at the beginning.
So as you were saying, Nina, there’s an implied connection throughout Billie Jean between the cat, Michael Jackson’s character, the tiger-striped cloth, and the tiger cub that escapes at the end, though it’s never explicitly stated or shown. We just feel a connection because of those associations.
Nina: I actually thought it was Michael’s character (as an invisible presence) lighting up the tiles in the end – it didn’t occur to me that it was the tiger cub. I’ll have to look for that next time!
Willa: Or maybe it’s his character in the form of a tiger cub – an invisible tiger cub.
Nina: At any rate, it’s true that many of the relationships, motifs, and themes of the film are set up within the first minute, or even the first thirty seconds! At the second verse, we finally see a more distant shot that reveals the whole street corner, with the detective skittering around, picking up a newspaper with the headline “Billie Jean Scandal,” and hiding around the corner of the store: “Ronald’s Drugs,” as the sign tells us, on the “West Side.” Another common motif in films noir is a newspaper headline that indicates some tragic or shocking event that has occurred, which signals a further development of the film’s plot. (That trope survives today in police procedural shows like Law and Order: “Ripped from the headlines!”)
The name “Billie Jean,” which we see in the headline, is reinforced by what we’re hearing in the second verse of the song:
She told me her name was Billie Jean, and she caused a scene
Then every head turned with eyes that dreamed
Of being the one
Who will dance on the floor in the round
So this is where we come upon a way of viewing cinematic work that’s actually a departure from the ways we view more traditional narratives. It seems we’ll be wrestling with a conundrum: the flow of images seem to be “telling” us one thing, while the song’s first-person narration – as voiced by Michael – tells us another story.
This is one important element that distinguishes feature films from a short “music video” – filmmakers, writers, and cinematographers can play fast and loose with these sound-image relationships, with no obligation to “illustrate” the song by means of the image, or vice versa. Instead, they can make more abstract and associative connections than if they were hidebound by the conventions of the linear narrative development. So that’s how I view Billie Jean, as well as others of Michael’s short films. They bear some of the iconic marks of a number of narrative film genres (horror, noir, gangster, romantic costume drama, contemporary urban drama) and the mise-en-scène we often associate with these genres. But they do not work upon our minds and our viscera in all the same ways. Creative, plastic film editing (as we see in Billie Jean) is something an editor might choose to do, as much for its rhythmic and associative possibilities as for anything else.
As Michael ambles down the street with his jacket slung over his shoulder, we get seemingly random inserts of the cat, the detective’s face, and Michael’s shoe; we are seeing a landscape that represents Michael’s interior mind, or memory … or perhaps ours. But still, we’re not necessarily seeing any visual enactment or “dramatization” of what Michael sings about.
Willa: That’s an interesting point, Nina. The song and the video really are telling different stories, aren’t they? Or maybe the same story from different perspectives – the song focuses more on Billie Jean’s treacherous actions, while the video focuses more on him navigating a treacherous world. But the song and the video “fit” together so well, it feels right to see those images with those words.
Nina: The image and the sound are glued together by the coincident rhythms that both establish: Michael’s footsteps, lighting the tiles, are timed to fall exactly upon the major beat of the music. As he puts his foot up and cleans his shoe with a rag, we see further evidence of his seemingly magical ability to light things up and transform them. Then the song’s bridge:
People always told me be careful what you do
Don’t go around breaking young girls’ hearts
And mother always told me be careful who you love
Be careful what you do, ’cause a lie becomes the truth …
What appears to be “happening” in the image, and the situation that Michael describes in the song, will pull us in different directions. It’s like two stories are going on simultaneously. We haven’t seen any women, much less any beauty queens.
Willa: That’s true. The only women we see are the two women in the shifting images on the billboard. And they could be Billie Jean and My Baby, the two women in conflict in the lyrics, but there’s really nothing to suggest that other than our own desire to make meaning from the images we see. It’s interesting, though, that the billboard dominates the scene, just as these women are dominating his thoughts. In fact, at one point, at 2:14 minutes in, he stares at the billboard and then puts his hands to his head, as if he can’t contain his thoughts.
Nina: That’s so true, Willa – we have a strong desire to make meaning from the images we see, and from the words we hear, and to connect the two. When we hear a song, we form mental images of the people, places, and events that the lyrics describe. When we watch Billie Jean as a film, we are presented with an entirely different set of images of the people, places, and events that we formed in our imagination. This could present us with a major conflict! But for the most part, we’re not aware of anything particularly jarring – we simply learn to prioritize all the information that’s coming to us, and “suspend our disbelief”! We can even tolerate a certain amount of confusion.
Willa: Yes, though I never realized until you pointed it out how much the images in the video differ from the lyrics. That’s really interesting. But while the story told by the song and the story told by the video aren’t the same, they do seem related. They both center around a false accusation of sexual impropriety – a woman named Billie Jean is accusing him of fathering her son. In the song, we’re told that story through the lyrics, and in the video, we see it in that newspaper headline you mentioned before: “Billie Jean Scandal.” The song focuses primarily on his relationship with Billie Jean and the woman he loves (My Baby), their intertwined history, and the conflicts between them, while the video takes a different approach. It shows a detective who seems to be trying to gather information to support Billie Jean’s claims. So the stories they tell seem different but connected.
Nina: Yes, the stakes of the film have dramatically changed from those of the song. Michael Jackson and Steve Barron may have wanted to “triangulate” the dispute that started out with only two people, as a kind of he said/she said situation. The detective is introduced as a third element.
Michael then leans against a lamppost (lighting it up), still oblivious to the presence of the detective who is right behind him. This is where we see a Polaroid camera in the window of Ronald’s Drugs, spitting out a photograph in which Michael – to the detective’s consternation – doesn’t appear. We hear the chorus:
Billie Jean is not my lover
She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one
But the kid is not my son
She says I am the one
But the kid is not my son
Then the image fades out as we enter a new chapter: Michael is going to sing and dance.
Willa: Wow, this is all so fascinating, Nina! And we’ll pick up with that new chapter in another post, when we continue taking a cinematographic look at Billie Jean. Thank you so much for joining me, Nina! And for sharing those wonderful movie stills.
Nina: My pleasure, Willa – and thanks so much!
Willa: This week I am so happy to be joined once again by our longtime friend, Joe Vogel. Or actually, I should say Dr. Joe Vogel – you’ve accomplished a lot since the last time we talked with you! What all have you been up to, Joe?
Joe: Hi Willa. It’s great to talk again. I’ve been so busy lately, but every time I check in with Dancing With the Elephant some great new discussion is going on. You and Joie do such a fantastic job of exploring different facets of Michael Jackson’s creative work and life.
As far as what I’ve been up to … As you noted, I recently finished my PhD at the University of Rochester. I’m now working on a book on James Baldwin that focuses on his cultural and media criticism in the 1980s.
Willa: Oh, interesting! I knew you frequently posted things about James Baldwin on your blog, but I didn’t realize you were writing a book about him.
Joe: Yes, it’s an outgrowth of one of my dissertation chapters. Once I began really digging into Baldwin’s work, I was amazed by his prescience. His work is still so relevant to the world we live in today.
I’ve also written a few new MJ-related things, some of which have already been published (an entry on Thriller for the Library of Congress and the liner notes for Xscape), and some of which will be published in the near future (an entry on Michael Jackson for Scribner’s encyclopedia, America in the World, 1776-present, and the article we will be discussing today, “I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets: Re-screening Black Masculinity in Michael Jackson’s Black or White,” which just recently came out in the Journal of Popular Music Studies).
Willa: And I’ve really been looking forward to talking with you about it. There are so many aspects of your article that fascinated or surprised me. For example, you see Black or White as pushing back against a long history of racism in the film industry, and you begin your article by reviewing some of that history – and to be honest, I was shocked by it.
As you point out, Hollywood’s first film, as we think of films today, was D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation – a movie that glorified the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, it was originally titled The Clansman. As you say in your article,
It ushered in a new art form – the motion picture – that transformed the entertainment industry. … Birth became the most profitable film of its time – and possibly of all time, adjusted for inflation. It was the first film to cost over $100 thousand dollars to make, the first to have a musical score, the first to be shown at the White House, the first to be viewed by the Supreme Court and members of congress, and the first to be viewed by millions of ordinary Americans. It was America’s original blockbuster.
So Birth of a Nation had a huge impact on America’s new film industry – in fact, it helped shape our ideas about what a film is or should be – but it also helped shape popular notions of race. And you see Black or White as taking on both of these issues, right? – as challenging the dual-headed hydra of racism and the film industry in the US?
Joe: Exactly. Ralph Ellison described Birth of a Nation as having “forged the twin screen image of the Negro as bestial rapist and grinning, eye-rolling clown.” It was hugely powerful and influential, not just in the South, but in the North, and in Los Angeles, where it premiered to a standing ovation.
Willa: Yes, in fact the turning point of the film is the murder of a black man accused of attempting to rape a white women, and the fear of miscegenation and black men as “bestial rapists” runs throughout it, from beginning to end. For example, the film ends with the double wedding of two white couples – a brother and sister from the North marry a brother and sister from the South – and what unites them, what unites whites from the North and South after the bitterness of the Civil War, is fear of black men.
Joe: Michael Jackson was so knowledgeable about the history of film that I just found it interesting that, given his biggest platform in 1991, an estimated 500 million viewers around the world, he decides to use this fledgling new medium – the short music film, a medium he pioneered as much as D.W. Griffith did the long motion picture – to challenge and replace Griffith’s mythology about black masculinity and race more broadly.
Willa: Yes, as you write in your article,
D.W. Griffith himself acknowledged that one crucial purpose of the film “was to create a feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially white women, against colored men.”
As you go on to write, Griffith does this by exaggerating racial differences and creating “a world of stark contrasts.” As you point out,
Black characters are mostly whites in blackface, making them appear darker and more uniformly black than the diverse range of skin tones of actual African-Americans. They are also more often presented in shadows with manic and animalistic expressions. The white protagonists, meanwhile, possess a glowing, radiant aura that highlights their whiteness and inherent nobility.
Michael Jackson challenges this “world of stark contrasts” throughout his short film by offering a much more complex and integrative view of humanity, and this challenge begins with the ironic title, Black or White. There is very little in Black or White that is either all black or all white.
Joe: Exactly. Throughout the song and video he is constantly complicating our understandings of these categories, and carefully juxtaposing or balancing tensions. It undercuts the central premise of Griffith’s film: the fallacy of racial purity (and by extension, white supremacy).
Willa: Oh, I agree. For example, while Griffith presents an almost cartoonish depiction of racial differences by using white actors in blackface, Michael Jackson gives us African tribesmen whose faces have been painted with both black and white facepaint, so their faces are a collage of black and white. This is an important scene – it’s when the music of Black or White begins, and it’s when Michael Jackson makes his first appearance in the film. It seems significant to me that when we first see him, he’s dancing with these men. So his face, which complicates and resists simplistic definitions of race, is first seen amid these tribesmen, whose faces are works of art combining black and white in creative ways.
Later, there’s the famous morphing sequence, where the face of an American Indian man morphs into the face of a black woman, then a white woman, then a black man, then an East Indian woman, and so on. To me both of these scenes – the black-and-white painted faces of the tribesmen and the morphing faces sequence – are an artistic expression of “the fallacy of racial purity,” as you just said.
Biologically, there’s no such thing as race – there is no genetic binary with “black” on one side and “white” on the other. It’s a cultural concept rather than a biological reality. Humanity is a vast spectrum of physical characteristics – skin tones, facial features, hair types – and we’ve had ideas about racial divisions artificially imposed onto us. As you say in your article,
“Being a color,” Jackson suggests, is not a universal essence; it is an identity fashioned through imagination, history, narrative, and myth; it is a trope and a positioning within concentric communities.
That’s such an important point, I think, and part of what Michael Jackson is suggesting in these two scenes of the tribesmen and the morphing faces. The importance of these two scenes is emphasized by their strategic placement in the film – they bookend the central section of Black or White. It seems to me that Black or White consists of three sections: the prologue in suburbia before the music begins, the main part where the song is played, and the epilogue or “panther dance” after the music ends. And it’s significant, I think, that the main part begins with the tribesmen and ends with the morphing faces.
Joe: These are great observations. And, of course, all of this new, complex racial storytelling is being relayed, presumably, for a traditional white suburban family. The prologue, as you describe it, is about white insularity and dysfunction, particularly between the father and son. The white patriarch (played by George Wendt) is angry, on the surface, because his son (played by Macaulay Culkin) is playing music too loud.
But the point Michael Jackson is making here seems to go much deeper. The rage from the father is about ignorance. He doesn’t understand his son, or his son’s music, or his son’s heroes. His worldview is narrow, provincial, outdated – which is why his son literally blasts him out of the house, and why the father lands, recliner and all, in Africa, the cradle of civilization, where his “re-education” begins.
Willa: Yes, and significantly, one of his son’s heroes is Michael Jackson – his father knocks his poster down when he storms into his son’s room. There’s a similar scene at the very end of the video, as you point out in your article, with Homer Simpson grabbing the remote and turning off the TV, where his son Bart has been watching Black or White – specifically, the panther dance. So the video is framed by these two scenes of an angry, repressive, white father trying to limit his son’s exposure to popular culture – specifically, pop culture as mediated by a black artist, Michael Jackson.
This seems to be an accurate reflection of the times since, as you say in your article, Black or White was released at a time of intense white male anger. Advances in civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights “eroded male dominance in the home and workplace,” as you say, and led to the rise of a predominantly white “men’s movement.” I thought it was very interesting that the most popular book of 1991, the year Black or White was released, was Robert Bly’s Iron John, which as you point out was “a book that sought to make sense of and rehabilitate broken men by restoring their inner ‘wildman’ or ‘warrior within.’”
I remember how popular Bly’s book and the “men’s movement” was back then. Men would gather in the woods to build huge bonfires and bang on drums and shed the supposedly emasculating influence of civilization. I hadn’t thought about all that in terms of Michael Jackson before, but it’s another fascinating historical context for interpreting Black or White – especially the scene you’re talking about, Joe, where a suburban man sitting in a recliner is blasted back to Africa and then sees Michael Jackson dancing with tribesmen.
In some ways, this seems to be exactly what Bly was proposing – for men to go back to their primal origins and reconnect with the “warrior within.” But Michael Jackson deviates from Bly’s script by dancing with Thai women, and then a group of Plains Indians, including a little girl. Next he dances with an East Indian woman and a group of Russian men. So Michael Jackson’s message seems very different than Bly’s.
Joe: Right. Part of what makes Bly’s project misguided, in my opinion, is that it assumes that there is a universal essence to all men, and by extension, a universal prescription to the so-called “masculinity crisis.” He doesn’t acknowledge difference and diversity among men, as Michael Jackson so often does. But as you say, it’s another fascinating historical context that indicates that masculinity was perceived as being in crisis.
In fact, another context I ended up cutting is the role of hip hop. So much of hip hop at the time, particularly gangsta rap, was about projecting hypermasculine power. Being a real man precluded being gay or queer or soft, or treating women with respect, or being involved in interracial relationships.
So Michael’s song and video, in this context, directly challenged the prevailing discourse in hip hop and also in hard rock/metal. While hip hop was often singled out, metal was often just as misogynistic and homophobic.
Willa: It really was.
Joe: These genres were so influential among young people in the late 80s/early 1990s. It’s no accident Michael incorporated them both into Black or White, but reimagined their “messaging.”
Willa: That’s interesting, Joe. And these contexts are important because you see Black or White not only as a critique of racism, which is how it’s usually interpreted, but also as a critique of gender – as engaging with repressive cultural narratives of what it means to be a man, specifically what it means to be a black man, and creating a “re-vision of black masculinity.” As you write in your article,
A “pattern” existed, Jackson recognized, in how black men were represented in American media. … In cinema, of course, the pattern Jackson refers to was largely introduced with Birth of a Nation.
A different but equally restrictive “pattern” was perpetuated by Bly’s “man’s movement,” and by hip hop and heavy metal as you say. And you see Black or White as directly challenging those patterns and offering a new vision, a “re-vision” as you put it, of both race and gender. Is that right?
Joe: Yes, in an interview around the time of his trial Michael Jackson spoke about the Jack Johnson story. He was keenly aware of America’s fears about black men, specifically about black male sexuality. That’s really the central fear in Birth of a Nation: the prospect of black men defiling white female purity. The director, D.W. Griffith, makes no qualms about this. As you mentioned earlier, he speaks of wanting to elicit an “abhorrence” of miscegenation and interracial marriage. This fear goes back to slavery and continues in tragedies like the deaths of Emmett Till and Yusef Hawkins. (Keep in mind, in 1958 only 4% of Americans approved of black-white marriages. By 1991, the number had risen to 48%, but that’s still less than half of America.)
So this is the mythology Michael Jackson is challenging in Black or White. From the lyric, “‘Boy, is that girl with you?’ / ‘Yes, we’re one and the same,’” to the scene in which Michael walks through a burning cross, shouting “I ain’t scared of no sheets!,” to the morphing scene, which undercuts the very notion of racial purity, to the panther coda, which, in my opinion, is one of the boldest, most defiant moments in film history – certainly in a music video.
Willa: Oh, I agree.
Joe: One of the things I find so fascinating about this moment in the short film is that he symbolically takes over as the auteur – the white director (John Landis) is dethroned. It’s an amazing moment given the history of film, and how overwhelmingly it has been dominated by white men. And the fact was, John Landis really did oppose what Michael was doing in the panther scene, as did Sony executives. Recently, an outtake surfaced on YouTube that shows a bit of this.
Michael insists that Landis is the one thinking “dirty,” not him. It’s actually pretty funny. But this film, and especially the panther segment, represent Michael Jackson’s artistic vision, his choices. He knew the risks, and he knew what he wanted to achieve. The sheer intelligence of the short film testifies to that – the black panther sneaking off the set, the complete shift in tone, lighting, setting – the juxtapositions and tensions, given what we witnessed in the “official cut.” It’s remarkable.
Willa: It really is. And thank you so much for sharing that behind-the-scenes clip! I hadn’t seen that before, but it’s very telling, isn’t it? Watching that clip, it’s obvious that John Landis really didn’t understand what Michael Jackson was doing or why it was so important. And like you, I think it’s significant that, in the video, John Landis’ role symbolically ends after the morphing sequence, and the rest of the video – the panther dance – is presented as Michael Jackson’s own.
It reminds me of Liberian Girl, a video that begins with a Hollywood-style depiction of colonial Africa, complete with missionary … but then suddenly everything shifts. We hear Malcolm-Jamal Warner (a black actor) say, “I’m afraid to open any doors around here” – and isn’t that an interesting comment? Then Whoopi Goldberg (a black actress) asks, “Who’s directing this?” The camera cuts to Steven Spielberg (a white director) sitting in the director’s chair, but he’s not in control – he’s bored and waiting.
Then Rosanna Arquette (a white actress) asks Jasmine Guy (a black actress) “Do you know what we’re supposed to be doing?” Jasmine Guy answers with, “All I know is that Michael called me. I guess when he gets here, he’ll let me know what we’re supposed to do” – implying that Michael Jackson is really the one in charge. That’s borne out at the very end of the video when we finally see him … and surprisingly, he’s in the cameraman’s chair. So he’s the one who’s been controlling the camera, and he’s the one calling the shots – not the white guy sitting in the director’s chair, glancing at his watch and waiting for someone to tell him what to do. So despite the expectations raised by its intro, Liberian Girl is not another white depiction of Afro-colonialism. It’s something else entirely. It’s about a talented young black man seizing control of what appears in millions of homes around the world, but it’s all done in such a fun, light-hearted, subtle way that no one seemed to realize what he was doing.
I think the message of the John Landis scene in Black or White is similar. John Landis may be the director, but he’s not in charge. He’s really just an employee who’s helping Michael Jackson convey his vision without understanding what that vision is. John Landis himself makes that very clear in the behind-the-scenes clip you posted, Joe. At about 1:45 in, he turns to the camera and says, “I didn’t choreograph this. I’m just shooting.” He’s completely disassociating himself from everything that appears on screen during the panther dance.
Joe: Exactly. There are quotes in my article in which he says similar things – basically, that he is a hired hand for this video. Not even out of modesty, really, but because he wants to distance himself from what Michael is doing.
Willa: Yes, it seems that way to me too. He seems very uncomfortable with the panther dance portion of the video. And that makes sense because, as you said, that’s when “the white director (John Landis) is dethroned.” And Michael Jackson is not just defying the role of the white director but, even more importantly, the long history of Hollywood representations of black men and black culture. I think it’s very significant in this context that the climax of the panther dance, to my mind anyway, is the fall of the sign for the Royal Arms Hotel, which explodes in a spray of flying sparks. This is about black resistance to “Royal Arms” and that kind of colonial ideology, and to a film industry that is steeped in that racist, colonial worldview.
One important principle of that worldview is the prohibition against miscegenation, as you point out in your article. But this prohibition isn’t a legal rule enforced by the courts, as it was in the past. Instead, it’s become internalized and is now enforced through the feelings of white women who look at a black man and feel disgust or revulsion, or the feelings of white men who witness a white woman with a black man and react with intense anger.
This new kind of postcolonial racism – “to create a feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially white women, against colored men,” as D.W. Griffith said – has been at the heart of the American film industry since its inception. And it’s what Michael Jackson is taking on in the panther dance, especially, as you show so well in your analysis of Birth of a Nation and Black or White.
Joe: Well, I tried anyway. It’s a fascinating short film, and like so much of Michael Jackson’s work, it rewards deep dives. In fact, now having talked to you about it, there is more I would like to incorporate into my article!
Willa: Oh, I know what you mean – it takes a village to fully understand a Michael Jackson work! I’ve been thinking about Black or White for years, but even so, your article opened up whole new vistas for looking at this incredible film. And once you really dive into it, you just see more and more and it’s hard to stop.
Joe: But I guess it’s probably for the best. I had to cut about 6-7,000 words as it was. That’s the nature of an academic article, and really, publishing in general. But I have no doubt this short film will continue to be written about in fresh and compelling ways. As Susan Fast points out in her amazing 33⅓ book on Dangerous, no song or video of Jackson’s has received more scholarly attention. It began with Armond White’s phenomenal article in 1991 for The City Sun, and has continued over the years, especially since Jackson’s death in 2009. My article has been in the works for a few years now (it was the first chapter I wrote for my dissertation), so it’s exciting to finally see it published!
Willa: It really is, especially since your article helps reveal just how truly revolutionary and powerful Black or White was at the time, a few months after the Rodney King beating was captured on videotape, and how powerful it remains to this day … even though the original, 11-minute version is hard to find. Though maybe that’s why it’s so hard to find – it’s just too potent for Vevo!
So your article is now out and available?
Joe: Yes, the article is now published in the March 27.1 edition of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Unfortunately, it is quite expensive at the moment to view in full. I would love to make it free obviously, but copyright won’t allow it for now. Susan Fast wrote a great explanation on her blog recently, explaining the academic publishing process, which like many other industries, is still trying to figure out how to operate and make content accessible in the digital era.
Willa: Yes, as Susan explains, academic journals are time consuming to create – that’s why articles are so expensive. It’s not about profit. Authors of academic papers don’t earn anything from publishing them, and we don’t hold the copyrights. So, for example, I wanted to repost my “Monsters, Witches, Ghosts” article here at Dancing with the Elephant, but I couldn’t – I was asked to post a summary instead, with a link to the full article. Fortunately, most university libraries carry the Journal of Popular Music Studies, so those who live near a college or university can probably access your article for free there.
I also wanted to remind everyone that we have a link to your Library of Congress entry on Thriller available in our Reading Room, but I haven’t had a chance to talk with you about it. So this article was written for the Library of Congress and placed on the National Register, is that right?
Joe: Right, I was invited to do a short piece on Thriller, which was a real honor. The Registry now includes about 400 recordings. Each of these recordings was chosen by the Librarian of Congress, with input from the National Recording Preservation Board, because they were deemed so vital to the history of America – aesthetically, culturally or historically – that they demand permanent archiving in the nation’s library. The registry has been reaching out to scholars and music critics to flesh out their website with a variety of scholarly essays on each of the 400 titles on the Registry, each of which are about 1,000 words. So people that love music history should check out some of the other essays as well – I’ve read several and they’re great reads.
Willa: They really are. I was just reading the entry for “Blue Moon of Kentucky” by Bill Monroe, the creator of bluegrass, and interestingly enough it begins by comparing him to D.W. Griffith:
Like Martha Graham and, arguably, D.W. Griffith, what he created during his lifetime would go on to become an entire genre of art, a language, a vocabulary in which hundreds of other artists would create in its wake.
So just as Martha Graham created modern dance, and D.W. Griffith – through Birth of a Nation – created the modern film, Bill Monroe created the genre of bluegrass. Here’s a full list of essays on the Register, and a list of recordings.
Well, thank you so much for joining me, Joe! It’s always such a pleasure to talk with you.
Joe: Thank you, Willa. It’s always great to talk to you. And give my best to Joie!
Willa: I will!
Willa: A few weeks ago, Raven Woods joined me for a fascinating discussion of “Scared of the Moon,” but we began with a short discussion of Michael Jackson’s concerts and how they were structured. Specifically, we talked about how his performances from the Dangerous tour on tended to follow an arc that began with him appearing in a rather militaristic, authoritarian persona but ended with a much softer, more nurturing persona. That arc was punctuated by a series of set pieces that he performed in an almost ritualized way: “Beat It,” “Thriller,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Smooth Criminal,” and especially “Billie Jean.”
Today, Raven is joining me again to talk about “Billie Jean” as one of the signature pieces of a Michael Jackson concert. Thank you so much for talking with me, Raven!
Raven: Thanks for inviting me back! This discussion is actually quite timely, considering that as I’m typing this, Motown 25 has recently been re-broadcast on PBS in its entirety for the first time in over thirty years. As we all know, this special was a historic moment in that it marked the first public performance of “Billie Jean” and the first of what would become a classic staple of Michael Jackson’s live performances.
Willa: Wasn’t that incredible? Watching the full Motown 25 broadcast was like witnessing the birth of a cultural phenomenon, one that would reverberate throughout his concerts and the culture at large for decades.
Raven: That performance really was incredible. I watched the Motown special last Sunday. For starters, I was really interested in seeing the program in its entirety because I don’t think I watched it in its entirety even back in ’83. I was so young then, and like most teens/young adults, not prone to sitting around in front of the TV – especially if I had a date! My grandmother watched it, but I only remembered seeing bits and pieces of it during the original broadcast, as I was too busy that night coming in and out of the house. So I was really interested to watch it again and to catch some of the other performances, as well as Michael’s. Marvin Gaye was just astounding, and probably would have stolen the show that night – if it hadn’t been for Michael, of course!
Willa: I was really struck by Marvin Gaye’s performance also, and how heartfelt it was. He truly wanted to open everyone’s eyes to “What’s Going On.” Another thing that struck me was that Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson’s performances felt the quietest in some ways, yet ironically they were also the most powerful. It’s kind of hard to describe, but they had a quiet intensity that is still palpable, 30 years later.
Raven: I have to say I didn’t think it was possible to fall in love with Michael all over again, but I did watching that performance! I think that, through the years, I had gotten a little blasé about the original Motown 25 “Billie Jean” performance. Sure, it was the first time, and an iconic moment in TV history, but over the years I had seen so many “Billie Jean” performances that I thought were better. After seeing the piece evolve as it did throughout his Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory tours, it seemed odd to go back to Motown 25 and realize that his moonwalk was actually quite short, and you can visibly see him lose his balance on the en pointe. Michael himself was very upset about that afterwards, thinking his entire performance was ruined!
Willa: Yes, I remember reading about that. In fact, I think he said he felt like crying afterwards because he fell back and didn’t stay up on his toes as long as he wanted. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine he could be dissatisfied with that performance!
Raven: That’s true. He only started to feel better about it after Fred Astaire called and complimented him. But in watching the whole show, and putting myself back in that moment, I realized anew why this performance was so magical and special. No one had ever seen these moves performed before, so there was no gauge by which to measure how flawlessly or smoothly he executed them. From the moment Michael stepped on that stage, you could feel the palpable electricity. He was young, vibrant, and on fire – ready to prove himself to the world.
Willa: You know, Lubov Fadeeva, a professional dancer and choreographer, talks about this in her wonderful article, “Michael Jackson: The Dancer of the Dream.” Here’s what she says:
It is obvious to me that his performance at Motown 25 in 1983 is different than all his later concert versions of “Billie Jean” in many ways. It is not yet perfect, and the moonwalk isn’t performed as smoothly as in its later versions. Perhaps the floor was not slippery enough. Still, the emotional charge of the dance is so electrifying that it has never been matched by anything.
In the end of the Motown 25 performance, when Michael stops and looks into the audience … I don’t know how to describe the expression in his eyes, but I understand all of it. It is the kind of moment when a couple of minutes can change everything. … I always watch this performance and think that Michael was passing an exam there. He didn’t even have a spotlight. Just a performer on stage. But somehow it looks more spectacular than expensive shows with special effects.
I think Fadeeva captures this perfectly. His performance at Motown 25 may not have been as technically proficient as some of his later performances, where years of practicing the moonwalk, for example, enabled him to smoothly glide the entire length of the stage. But still, that “Billie Jean” performance was just “so electrifying,” as Fadeeva says.
Raven: Fadeeva nailed it perfectly! That’s exactly what I was trying to say. And although the piece did evolve somewhat through the years, Michael never really deviated drastically from this original performance of the song. All of the symbolic elements that would become identifiable with the piece and with the performance were already there.
Willa: That’s true.
Raven: Something that has occurred to me is that, anytime we are discussing and analyzing a Michael Jackson song, there are at least three separate, distinct elements that must be considered – the recording, the short film (i.e., the video), and the live performance.
Willa: Yes, and some have a longer-format film also. I’m thinking of the 16-minute version of Bad, and the 40-minute version of Smooth Criminal from Moonwalker. And then there’s the 38-minute film Michael Jackson’s Ghosts as well.
And there’s another element we may want to consider also, which is the lyrics as poetry. He actually published “Heal the World” and “Will You Be There?” as poems in Dancing the Dream, but many of his other songs can be viewed this way also. I’ve often thought when reading his lyrics that they scan like poetry. So you’re right, Raven – with many of his songs there are different forms of audio and visual performance interacting dynamically to create meaning.
Raven: Although this may be true to some degree with many artists, especially those from the video age onward, I find it is probably more true in the case of Michael Jackson than anyone else, for I know of no other artist who so successfully merged all of those aspects of performance – the auditory and visual – in the seamless way that he did. Thus, to this day, it is almost impossible to discuss a Michael Jackson track without the associations of its accompanying visual imagery. It is almost impossible, for example, to discuss the track “Thriller” without also merging the discussion with that track’s iconic video, or to discuss any aspect of “Black or White” as a track without also bringing in those important thematic elements from the “Panther Dance” sequence of the video.
Willa: Oh, I agree. I can’t listen to any of his songs that have videos without seeing those visual images play in my head. And I think they are so connected because he conceived of them that way. His videos weren’t just something he whipped up after the fact to market his songs – they were part of his vision from the beginning. As he says in Moonwalk,
The three videos that came out of Thriller – “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” – were all part of my original concept for the album. I was determined to present this music as visually as possible.
So apparently he was already thinking about the videos for these songs as he was creating the album, and I think he achieved his goal of “present[ing] this music as visually as possible.” Listening to those tracks is a surprisingly visual experience, as you said, Raven.
Raven: Yes. It seemed that Michael, moreso than any other music artist of his time, was always thinking on at least three layers with every song he recorded. Through the art of visual imagery, he was able to add additional layers of theme and symbolism to the songs that the audio tracks alone could never convey. And on yet another level, his live performances allowed him to evolve the pieces even further. Contrary to popular belief, his live performance pieces were never simply recreations of his iconic video performances. In some cases, of course, they did not deviate much (the choreography of “Beat It,” for example, remained consistently close to the video version) but what we were more apt to see were reworkings and re-stylizations of these numbers.
Willa: Yes, and sometimes the stage performances seem very different from the videos. I’m thinking specifically of “The Way You Make Me Feel,” which always feels so light and upbeat in his concert performances … but no one would ever describe the video that way. It’s much darker and grittier than the stage versions. So even though he often evoked the video on stage through his wardrobe – a loose blue shirt over a tight white T-shirt, and a white tie belt – the mood and the meaning is very different, I think.
Raven: Absolutely. And I think it goes back, again, to the idea that he was always sort of re-visualizing the concepts of his songs. He knew that what worked on the small screen might not necessarily translate well to the performance stage, and vice versa. I always liked the way he re-worked “The Way You Make Me Feel” with the slowed down, do-wop intro. I remember when This Is It came out, some reviews mentioned Michael’s “new” re-working of “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Obviously, they weren’t very familiar with Michael’s live performances. I thought, He’s been doing “The Way You Make Me Feel” like that for years!
Once Michael found something that worked for him, he tended to stick with it for many years – his live performance motto seemed to be, “Don’t fix what isn’t broken!” But as we know, the best of Michael Jackson’s set pieces usually weren’t mere performances, in the way we think of entertainers simply getting onstage and singing or performing to a song. Michael’s numbers literally became theatrical performance pieces, with as much emphasis on the narrative storylines of the numbers (as well as use of symbolic imagery) as on the singing and dancing.
Willa: Oh, I agree!
Raven: Much has been written about the song “Billie Jean” and there has also been much written about the video. But other than Veronica Bassil’s excellent book Thinking Twice about Billie Jean, I don’t think there has really been much in the way of interpreting his live performance routine of “Billie Jean” or analyzing its symbolic implications.
Willa: You know, what struck me most about Veronica’s book is that she shows how the lyrics anticipate the 1993 abuse allegations. After all, “Billie Jean” is a song about false allegations of sexual misconduct, and how he is constantly under surveillance. In the video this is depicted by the photographer who shadows him, following him to Billie Jean’s apartment and trying to catch him in a compromising position.
But that feeling of constant surveillance is there in the opening lines of the lyrics as well, in all “the eyes” watching him and the fact that he is dancing “in the round.” That arrangement isn’t nearly as popular now, but at the height of disco in the late 1970s, it was fairly common to have the audience surrounding a lighted, elevated stage, so spectators were watching from all sides and every angle. It was even common back then to have dinner theaters “in the round,” where plays would be acted out on a raised platform with the audience seated at tables all around the stage. This means that, for the performers, there was no backstage to retreat to, no side that wasn’t hidden from the audience, and no way to step out of the stoplight or retreat from the audience’s gaze. Performers were entirely exposed.
Raven: Yes, and you know that has to be a scary feeling. I believe that Michael possibly became even more conscious of this symbolic element of the song as time wore on and his performance of it evolved (and possibly as he felt more and more that he was losing control of certain aspects of his life). The round spotlight which he steps into becomes a much more important part of the performance as time goes on.
Willa: Yes, it does.
Raven: For him, this seemed to emphasize the idea of being a lone figure in “the round.” And whereas at the Motown 25 performance, he comes out as very confident from the beginning, by the time of the Munich performance in 1997, and the Madison Square performance, he comes out looking a little lost, almost bewildered – at least until he puts on the magic symbols of jacket, glove, and hat.
Willa: That’s an interesting interpretation, Raven. In his later concert performances, he usually began “Billie Jean” on a darkened stage, with a blinding spotlight aimed straight down forming a round pool of light, as you say. And I think you’re right – that light became or defined his stage “in the round.” And then he would step into that spotlight, as you say, and it’s so harsh and glaring it’s almost like stepping into a prison searchlight. So he was literally performing “in the round” harsh glare of a spotlight – just as he did, metaphorically, throughout his life, from childhood on.
Raven: Coincidentally, we are embarking on this discussion just as I am scheduled to begin a unit on symbolism in class next week, and I had been considering the possibility of using clips of Michael’s “Billie Jean” performance to discuss the concept.
Willa: Oh interesting!
Raven: I am only hesitant because they will also be looking at “Black or White” and “Earth Song” in a few weeks and I don’t want to totally burn them out on MJ, lol! But as so often happens, these discussions seem to arise at just the right moment, when my thoughts are already channeling in that direction. In the process of trying to make this decision, I have been looking at a lot of live “Billie Jean” clips in the past few days. Regardless of whether I ultimately decide to include them in the symbolism unit, it has given me a good opportunity to really assess both how the piece evolved through the years, as well as an opportunity to take a fresh look at how Michael used symbolism in the piece to create a definite story arc.
Willa: Wow, I wish I could sit in on your class …
Raven: Thank you! I guess it’s one of the perks of my job. I get to incorporate so much of what I love into it.
But getting back to “Billie Jean,” virtually everything about that performance, from the choice of clothing and colors, the placement of the spotlight, to the props used – the glove, the jacket, and perhaps, most importantly, the fedora – all played a symbolic role in the performance. It was really the beginning of many trademark Michael Jackson “looks,” including the single glove and fedora. And though he had sported the white socks and black loafers, paired with high water pants before, in “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” it was here that the look really became formalized as a permanent and iconic fixture of the Michael Jackson “brand.”
Willa: They really did. He used the high pants, white socks, and black loafers often after Motown 25 – in fact, they literally became his trademark. I’m thinking of this logo for MJJ Productions:
Raven: Yes. And in that logo, especially, he is using the en pointe stance, which became an iconic image for him. To my knowledge, however, I think that “Billie Jean” was the only performance where he used that particular pose.
Willa: You know, I think you’re right.… I hadn’t thought about that before, but I think you’re right – I think it was a strictly “Billie Jean” move. That’s interesting.
Raven: A lot of people don’t realize that Michael had certain dance moves that were only reserved for certain numbers. Both the moonwalk and en pointe are uniquely associated with “Billie Jean.” (There are brief shots of each in the Jam video as well, but even there, they are clearly not part of the choreography of that particular number. Rather, they seemed to be serving the purpose of cultural allusions – iconic MJ dance moves that everyone would instantly recognize.) And though Michael did variations of the moonwalk step in other numbers, the famous backwards glide was reserved exclusively for “Billie Jean.”
Willa: That’s true, and the black glittery jacket was reserved solely for “Billie Jean” also. Just as a white suit with a dark armband was reserved for “Smooth Criminal,” or a red leather jacket with grey shoulder patches meant “Beat It,” or a red leather jacket with a deep black V from his shoulders to his waist meant “Thriller,” a black glittery jacket meant “Billie Jean.” With the addition of a black fedora and a white sequined glove, the costume was complete.
Raven: “Billie Jean” was also one of the few numbers he did in concert where he always made sure he was in the full costume. During the Dangerous tour, for example, he would usually simply toss the “Smooth Criminal” jacket on over the gold leotard. In this way, he created a lot of hybrids of his iconic looks. There was a very practical reason for this, of course. It saved time! It would have been impossible for him to do a full costume change with every number, so the idea was to layer pieces that could work together, gradually adding and taking off pieces as the show progressed. Therefore, it was easy to make the transition into “Smooth Criminal,” for example, simply by adding the iconic white jacket, armband, and white fedora. Those pieces were symbolic enough to carry the number; it didn’t matter if he didn’t have on the full suit. But with “Billie Jean” he always took the time to do a full, complete costume change.
Willa: It’s also interesting that in his later performances, getting into costume – and into character – was itself an important part of the show, as you mentioned earlier. Here’s a clip of his “Billie Jean” performance from his 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden:
Notice how he plays with the audience as he slowly pulls out the black glittery jacket, then the fedora, and then … dramatic pause … the glove. And the roar from the crowd grows louder as each piece appears, so by the time he’s fully in costume, they’re on their feet and clapping wildly. It’s like the act of becoming that character is part of the performance.
Raven: It is amazing, isn’t it? All they have to do is see those iconic items come out, and they start to go wild because they know what’s coming! So, as you said, getting into the character becomes a part of the ritual for the audience. A good place to start might be in looking at the origin of the “Billie Jean” persona, or character. It was clear early on that Michael was not so much performing here, as enacting a role. It was a unique character that he created specifically for this number. The character was an interesting blend of both “Mack Daddy” cool on the one hand, and a quirky, whimsical geek on the other. The transformation, or metamorphosis, was usually precipitated by plopping the fedora on his head. At that moment, the geek would disappear, replaced by the cocky and confident “Mack Daddy” persona.
It was obvious that the roots of this character came from Michael’s adoration of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Here, for example, if we compare Michael’s improv segment of “Billie Jean” to Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character, we can see that there are obvious parallels:
Willa: Yes, and while some of that is the costume, a lot of it is more abstract than that – a certain jauntiness mixed with pathos that really comes through for both of them.
Raven: And in this clip of Buster Keaton we can, no doubt, see some of the origins of Michael’s improvisations with his fedora as a kind of virility symbol (note how Keaton’s character transforms from geek to suave whenever a “cool” hat is placed on his head!):
And, of course, it has already been well noted that Michael’s famous Smooth Criminal lean owes a lot to Buster Keaton’s move in College, which Michael had no doubt seen:
Years later, Johnny Depp, who, like Michael, admired Keaton and Chaplin and brought elements of them to his own performances, blended the characteristics of both to create the character of Sam in 1993’s Benny & Joon.
Depp’s “hat trick,” as seen here, will look familiar to anyone who has watched Michael Jackson’s live “Billie Jean” performances. Go back, for example to the Bucharest “Billie Jean” performance posted above and look at how Michael similarly “plays” with his hat beginning at about the 5:54 mark, as if it is something live that is taunting and teasing him, or as if he can somehow cast a spell over it!
In later years, Michael would make this parallel even more blatantly obvious. For example, by the time of the HIStory tour, he introduced a new element to the performance which consisted of his “Little Geek” character walking onstage carrying a shaving case, looking rather lost and bewildered, as if he doesn’t quite know where he is or what he’s supposed to do. Again, this is a routine that obviously has deep roots in the pathos of the Chaplinesque and Keatonesque personas he so admired. At this point, the performance has very much of a vaudeville feel to it, and Michael is clearly and intentionally evoking those echoes.
Willa: I agree completely. Even the case itself feels worn and antiquated, like it’s from an earlier era. It’s pretty distinctive – tan with two brown leather straps wrapping around it – and he uses this same style of case for years, up through his Madison Square Garden performances. It’s interesting because in Say Say Say, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney play a pair of vaudeville performers, and they each carry that exact same style of case: tan with two brown leather straps. Here’s a clip, and you can see those suitcases starting at about 4:20 minutes in:
So Michael Jackson clearly associated that particular case with vaudeville, and I think it’s part of what gives his later “Billie Jean” performances “a vaudeville feel,” as you said, Raven.
But more than that, his body language and the way he timidly shuffles across stage, as you mentioned; his simple clothes, suggesting someone who’s down on his luck; the way he slowly pulls his props from a suitcase – these all harken back to vaudeville.
Raven: Oh, yes, absolutely. I was also just thinking that there seemed to be a definite element of miming incorporated into his “Billie Jean” persona. We know that Michael very much admired the art of miming and frequently worked elements of mime into his dance routines. “The Box” is one such example. In this video of him practicing in the studio, it is the move he performs at about the 1:00 mark:
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a performance and persona so indebted to vaudeville and silent film comedians like Chaplin and Keaton would also contain elements of mime. Chaplin and Keaton were both heavily influenced by mime artists themselves. Here is a passage excerpted from the Wikipedia page on mimes:
The restrictions of early motion picture technology meant that stories had to be told with minimal dialogue, which was largely restricted to intertitles. This often demanded a highly stylized form of physical acting largely derived from the stage. Thus, mime played an important role in films prior to advent of talkies (films with sound or speech). The mimetic style of film acting was used to great effect in German Expressionist film.
Silent film comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton learned the craft of mime in the theatre, but through film, they would have a profound influence on mimes working in live theatre decades after their deaths. Indeed, Chaplin may be the most well-documented mime in history.
Willa: Oh, that’s really interesting, Raven! I’d never connected mime with silent films before, but now that you mention it, it makes perfect sense. And I really see those elements reflected in Michael Jackson’s concert performances also.
For example, Rembert Browne wrote a wonderful analysis of Michael Jackson’s performances of “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Man in the Mirror” at the 1988 Grammys. Here’s a video of that performance:
As Rembert Browne points out, Michael Jackson is creating a fully realized character in the opening moments he’s on stage – a character Browne calls “Tough Guy Mike”:
“Tough Guy Mike” is an incredible creature, less because it was so opposite of his actual personality, and more because of how he moved his limbs as Tough Guy Mike. Every step became an aggravated kick, everything was to be pointed to, and his neck roll became the sassiest thing ever captured on camera.
As Browne says, he creates this character through his body language, and also through mime-like gestures. As Browne points out, at about 1:10 in we see “Tough Guy Mike mime-smoking a fake cigarette and blowing out fake smoke.” Then he “put[s] out the imaginary cigarette with his foot.” Through these subtle gestures, Michael Jackson gives us important clues about who this character is – just as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Marcel Marceau did through their silent gestures long before him.
Raven: “Tough Guy Mike” is an excellent interpretation of that persona! The only difference, I think, is that we don’t actually “see” the transformation in the same way that we do with “Billie Jean,” or at least the later incarnations of it. In “Billie Jean” the symbols actually instigate the change.
Willa: Oh, I see what you’re saying. As you mentioned before, it’s when he puts on his fedora that he magically transforms into his “Billie Jean” character. So his hat brings about a change in him, in who he’s portraying on stage.
Raven: As we have already discussed, hats were important props for these silent film comedians, as well as for mimes, and also many vaudeville performers. The white glove, also, is something that has roots in mime art (though not necessarily a single glove to my knowledge). However, I think that Michael probably took many of his ideas, especially those relating to color schemes, from mime artists. White and black were traditionally colors often used by mimes.
In the original “Billie Jean” video Michael wore a dark suit over a bold pink shirt with a red bow tie. That was a look significantly different from the one that came to be associated with his live “Billie Jean” performances, and again, it’s one of the few instances I can think of (perhaps the only instance) where his performance attire and persona was completely different from the video version. I think it is because he took the whole performance in such a very different direction for Motown 25 that he must have known, from that point going forward, that this was the way the song had to be performed live. The video for “Billie Jean” seemed to be one of the few instances where his choreography was actually worked out after the fact.
When he did Motown 25, he still had not completely perfected the idea of using the black-and-white color contrast, and this was probably largely due to the fact that he had only recently come up with the routine and had to work with what was available for him at the time. According to most accounts, the famous sequin jacket he wore that night came from Katherine’s closet. As the old saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers so he ended up with a purple-ish sequin jacket. However, we can see that he had already worked out how he would incorporate all three symbolic objects – the hat, the glove, and sequined jacket – into the routine. It would just be a matter of how he perfected those uses through the years.
Those primary colors, black and white, both have strong ties to mime art. Michael also mimicked the age-old mime trick of using the color white to direct an audience’s eyes to whatever body part he wanted them to focus on. He learned, for example, that wearing a white glove, or wearing white tape on his fingertips, would direct the audience’s eyes to his hand gestures, and hand gestures, as we know, were very important for Michael. I really believe that this is the origin of his single, white glove. I never really bought the oft-rumored theory that it was to hide vitiligo spots on his hands. (I believe he had vitiligo, of course; I just don’t believe it was the reason for the glove.) I believe he was thinking from an artistic standpoint about what each of these things would help him accomplish on a huge stage.
Willa: That’s interesting. I tend to think it was both – that it helped him deal with his vitiligo and was an important artistic decision.
And that’s interesting about white gloves being an important part of both vaudeville and mime. It reminds me that white gloves were also an important feature of blackface minstrelsy. Here’s a clip of Fred Astaire performing in blackface in the movie Swing Time, and it’s hard to miss his large white gloves:
In fact, the last thing we see is Astaire walking off stage, waving his hand in a floppy sort of way that draws even more attention to the oversized white glove he’s wearing.
Raven: That’s interesting. And we know that Michael would have been familiar with Swing Time. He studied everything Astaire ever did! I was also recently watching a documentary on Oscar Wilde and it was mentioned there that Wilde came up with the idea of wearing white gloves during his American tour in 1882. Wilde, like Michael, was as much of a showman as he was a writer (and his number one talent was the ability to sell himself!) and it was said that he liked the way it looked when he could stick a white gloved hand from his carriage window to wave to the crowd! I couldn’t help but think of Michael when they mentioned that.
But a glove is also something a criminal wears at the scene of their crime, in order to prevent leaving incriminating fingerprints. It would be interesting to know if Michael was playing on this idea to some degree, since the song is about a man being accused. I don’t know – that might be a stretch but it’s something interesting to think about.
Something else I’ve noticed about his live “Billie Jean” performances is that, as he jumps into the spotlight and plops the hat onto his head, a transformation takes place. In later incarnations of the performance, he jumps into the spotlight almost as a kind of symbolic “plunging in.” There is hesitancy and even a bit of fearfulness (he is still in the mode of the shy, geeky, and somewhat lost/bewildered character) and then, instantaneously, he plunges in, the bass kicks in, and the metamorphosis is complete. He starts with a series of hip thrusts, indicating a shift to masculine and virile energy. (A favorite, somewhat off-color joke of mine is that he must be acting out he how he got himself in trouble with this “Billie Jean” in the first place!) Whatever the case, the moves and gestures were clearly purposeful. If there was any doubt that these moves were intended to be interpreted as sexual gestures, Michael forever laid those to rest with his very playful and bawdy exaggeration of those moves in his This Is It rehearsal performance of “Billie Jean”:
Willa: Oh, I agree! That rehearsal performance is much more overtly sexual and “bawdy,” as you say, than anything he ever did during a concert – especially near the end. But he sure knew his audience – those young dancers watching him rehearse just loved it! And I love watching them watching him. In fact, that’s one of my favorite scenes from from This Is It – he seems to be having a great time, and really connecting, through dance, with those young dancers.
But that scene also brings out important elements of the character he’s portraying – elements that are usually presented much more subtly but still add complexity to that character. For example, he begins his Motown 25 performance and many of his later “Billie Jean” performances by pulling out an imaginary comb and slicking his hair back on both sides. This is very much a mime-type gesture, as you mentioned earlier.
Raven: I love that gesture! It invokes a very cool, 50s kind of vibe to the performance … James Dean, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando from “The Wild One”!
Willa: I love it too! It has a very 50s kind of feel to me also, and it reminds me of “Tough Guy Mike” smoking his imaginary cigarette at the beginning of the 1988 Grammy performance, and then stubbing it out with his foot. In both cases, these little gestures give us important insights into the character he’s playing. His “Billie Jean” character may be young and vulnerable, and he may still have his mother’s advice echoing in his head – “Be careful who you love … ” – but that little gesture of slicking back his hair tells us that he also sees himself as something of a ladies’ man.
Raven: But even as he moves into this aspect of the performance, he would often still retain elements of his “Little Tramp”-like character. Something I have often noticed – and one of the most endearing traits of these performances – is that he didn’t seem to be trying too hard to make them “too” perfect or “too” polished. For example, we can see when he is fighting with a particularly stubborn jacket flap that doesn’t fall exactly as it’s supposed to; he can often be seen adjusting his hat during the performance to keep it from falling off or to keep it at the angle he desires. When we consider what a perfectionist he was in his performances, we can only guess that all of these little flaws and “rough spots” of the performances were, in themselves, part of the act, or at least part of the persona.
It seems he didn’t want polish or perfection in these performances so much as desiring to retain an aura of childlike playfulness and quirkiness. It was just enough endearing quirkiness, enough pathos to keep a leash on the machismo aspect of the performance. And it was wonderfully ingenious, because it kept the machismo aspect of the character just slightly off center, so that we weren’t entirely sure just how seriously we were supposed to take this transformed persona.
Willa: Oh, that’s an interesting way to look at that, Raven – and it’s a very Chaplinesque touch, as you say. It adds a touch of pathos to this young man who’s trying so hard to be suave and debonair, and not quite succeeding – but ironically he’s all the more endearing because of that.
Raven: It’s rather like watching a little kid who has suddenly been transported into an adult body, or like Frosty the Snowman when he first puts on his “magic hat” and becomes animated. He doesn’t seem quite sure what to do with himself or with his new power and abilities. We can see him kind of growing into the persona the same way an awkward and gangly adolescent has to “grow into” their new body.
Willa: Exactly! That’s how it feels to me also, though I’d never been able to really articulate that before, and that’s one reason this character is so intriguing and appealing, I think.
Well, Raven, thank you so much for joining me again! I thoroughly enjoyed it, but there’s still so much more to say about his “Billie Jean” performances. Maybe you can join me again sometime, and we can continue this discussion?
Raven: I would love that! Thanks again for another great conversation.
Willa: Oh, it’s always a pleasure talking with you.
I also wanted to let everyone know that Australian journalist and blogger Damien Shields has a new book out, Xscape Origins: the Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind. Charles Thomson posted a review this morning on The Huffington Post, and it’s interesting – while Charles has been very open about his opposition to posthumous tracks in general, and has been rather scathing in his comments about the Xscape album in particular, his review of Xscape Origins is surprisingly positive.
According to Charles, Shields was motivated by a feeling that the promotion for Xscape focused too much on the “contemporized” tracks and the producers who worked on them, and that “Jackson’s own vision and process was almost completely overlooked.” So he set about learning more. As Charles writes,
Determined to right this perceived wrong, Shields flew to America to interview a number of Jackson’s original collaborators, including songwriters, studio engineers and producers. In his book he presents a comprehensive back story for each track. The result is a revealing and exciting insight into the working habits of pop’s most reclusive star.
Willa: In response to recent high-profile cases of white police officers killing unarmed black men – a terribly familiar story whose latest victims include Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City – #BlackLivesMatter protesters have been organizing demonstrations and staging protests across the nation, including shutting down roads in cities and towns from Massachusetts to California, Illinois to Georgia. And as D.B. Anderson pointed out in an insightful article in The Baltimore Sun, many of these protesters have been singing Michael Jackson’s anthem giving voice to the voiceless, “They Don’t Care about Us.”
However, as our friend Eleanor Bowman pointed out in a recent email, there’s another Michael Jackson song, less well known, that speaks directly and powerfully to this abuse of power. It’s “We’ve Had Enough,” whose haunting lyrics tell stories of innocent people killed by men in uniform. For example, it begins with this story:
She innocently questioned why
Why her father had to die
She asked the men in blue
“How is it that you get to choose
Who will live and who will die?
Did God say that you could decide?
You saw he didn’t run
And that my daddy had no gun”
Eleanor, you’re right – this song could have been written today. It’s chilling how closely the stories it tells parallel recent events. But then, this is a very old story, as Greg Carey, a professor of theology, posted in an article on The Huffington Post.
Eleanor: Hi Willa, and thanks for inviting me to join you in this discussion of “We’ve Had Enough,” one of Michael Jackson’s most powerful protest songs.
Willa: Thank you for joining me!
Eleanor: And thanks for linking to D.B. Anderson’s great column about “They Don’t Care about Us,” which is so closely related to “We’ve Had Enough.” I was glad that D.B. pointed out that the protesters were singing Michael’s song, because nowhere else in the news media did I see Michael’s name or “They Don’t Care about Us” mentioned in relation to the protests.
Willa: Actually, I saw it mentioned several times, though some reporters seemed surprised that the protesters were singing a Michael Jackson song. But D.B. wasn’t. And actually, if you know his history and how he was targeted by prosecutors – charged with crimes based on very shaky evidence, presumed guilty by the police and the media, forced to endure a humiliating strip search and very public trial, and ultimately driven from his home – it makes perfect sense that those protesters would be singing his music, especially “They Don’t Care about Us.”
Eleanor: I think the “they” in “They Don’t Care about Us” is the same “they” he sings about in “We’ve Had Enough” (“They’ve gotta hear it from you … me … us”), just as the “us” in “They Don’t Care about Us” is the same “us” he sings about in “Earth Song”: “What about us?” And possibly the “we” in “We’ve Had Enough” unites the “they” with the “us” – just a thought. But, no matter how you look at it, Michael Jackson gets a lot of mileage out of pronouns.
Willa: He really does …
Eleanor: “We’ve Had Enough” really gets to me, right from the start – that beautiful voice filled with sadness and outrage singing that incredible opening line:
Love was taken
From a young life
And no one told her why
Willa: Yes, and then we learn soon after that the “love” that “was taken” from this young girl was the love and protection of her father, who was killed in “one more violent crime.” But ironically and tragically, this “violent crime” was committed by the police. So the “men in blue” who should have protected him were the ones who killed him.
Eleanor: Right, and the lesson, the dim light, from that violent crime is what will give direction or misdirection to her life. Given recent events, “We’ve Had Enough” is a painful reminder that the more things change, the more they remain the same. In fact, just recently I received a link to news of a similar heartbreaking event. A life was not lost, but the love and care of a grandfather was taken from other young lives, hopefully only temporarily.
And, then there’s the son of New York Times’ columnist Charles Blow, who was accosted by a police officer at gunpoint as he was exiting the Yale library. In the case of Charles Blow’s son, both the young man and the officer were black, so the significant point was that the officer was wearing a uniform, and therefore, acting officially.
As Carey says in the article you linked to:
Race dynamics have indeed changed in our society. But the basic pattern: an unarmed but anonymous black man (or boy), a confrontation with law enforcement, something goes wrong, and the law enforcement officer empties his weapon. So familiar.
And soooo depressing … and so unjust. (Are we beginning to feel the outrage yet? Can you feel it?)
But the first verse of “We’ve Had Enough’ doesn’t tell the whole story – or at least the story Michael Jackson wants to tell. So he includes a second verse where another child, perhaps in Iraq or Afghanistan, is also orphaned, but this time the uniform is military. And this story, too, is depressingly familiar:
In the middle of a village
Way in a distant land
Lies a poor boy with his broken toy
Too young to understand
He’s awakened, ground is shaking
His father grabs his hand
Screaming, crying, his wife’s dying
Now he’s left to explain
He innocently questioned why
Why his mother had to die
What did these soldiers come here for?
If they’re for peace, why is there war?
Did God say that they could decide
Who will live and who will die?
All my mama ever did
Was try to take care of her kids
In “We’ve Had Enough,” Michael Jackson has described two tragic and all-too-familiar situations – an innocent man killed by police and an innocent woman killed by a bomb or a missile, both victims of “impersonal” state actions.
Willa: Yes, and that’s a very important point, Eleanor. By paralleling these two stories the way he does, Michael Jackson draws a connection between them – and forces us to see that connection also. Through juxtaposition, we are forced to see the similarities between the girl whose father is killed by a policeman on a city street, and the boy whose mother is killed by a soldier.
Eleanor: Right. And in revealing these similarities, he shows us that these events are not isolated incidents but part of a larger cultural pattern, a pattern of behavior in which an agent of the state takes an innocent life, apparently by mistake, and no one does anything about it. And the children left behind, also victims, bereft of their parents’ love and care, seem to be the only ones asking why.
But you know something interesting, Willa? In each story he deliberately leaves a critical piece of information out, brilliantly relying on us to fill in the blanks.
In the first story he doesn’t specify the little girl’s race – all we know is that love was taken from a girl’s life for an unknown reason. She could be any race; she could be anyone’s daughter. We all immediately feel for her. No race, no prejudice. But then the circumstances (an urban environment, a man killed by police – those whose job is to serve and protect) suggest that she is African-American.
And in the second, the song doesn’t specify the boy’s nationality – he only is a poor boy in a distant land to whom some unknown horror has happened. So we are drawn in and our sympathy is aroused. But again, the circumstances (a war zone, a woman killed by soldiers – peacekeepers – a Peacekeeper missile? – whose mission is to bring peace) suggest that this isn’t just any foreign child. He is Iraqi or Afghani, at any rate an inhabitant of some country that the US is taking an unhealthy interest in, and very possibly, he is Muslim.
MJ’s knowledge that he can rely on us to fill in the blanks, itself, speaks volumes – revealing both his understanding of human nature and his knowledge of our awareness of these atrocities. These stories, or stories like them, are old news to us, and he knows it. He also knows that by not identifying the girl’s race or the boy’s nationality that we are more likely to identify with and sympathize with them, but that once the circumstances of their parents’ deaths are revealed, whether we are black or white, we will have a pretty good idea of the girl’s race and the boy’s nationality, which proves that we are well aware of the fact that both innocent black lives and innocent Iraqi or Pakistani lives are taken. We know who these people are by the way they are treated! We cannot claim to be innocent of this information. The reckless taking of innocent lives like these has become business as usual (or not our business).
Willa: I don’t know, Eleanor. I mean, a boy from my high school was killed by police our junior year, and he was white.
Eleanor: But you still remember it because it was not routine, the way the killing, and incarceration, of black men and boys has become. I thought it was interesting that at the Oscar ceremony earlier this week, Common brought up the fact that there are more black men incarcerated in US prisons today than were enslaved before the Civil War.
Willa: Yes, and those incarceration rates are a national tragedy.
But I think I remember Brad’s death because it was so terrible. I mean, I had known him since third grade. He had a very lively sense of humor that got him into trouble sometimes, but teachers still really liked him. You could tell. And other kids liked him too. So he wasn’t mean or anything like that – just a really funny guy. But he was going through kind of a wild phase in high school and went out joyriding with a friend one night, and the police became involved and he was killed. There was an inquest and the review board determined that the police acted appropriately.
And a few years ago a young white man from my town – the father of a 2-year-old girl – was killed by police while stopped at a rest area on the interstate. He got into some sort of altercation with state troopers and had a gun in his hand and refused to drop it, and they shot and killed him. They later discovered the gun wasn’t loaded. I was talking to a friend who knew him well, and he said they called it “suicide by police” – that they thought he actually wanted to be killed by the police. And my friend said, as horrible as it sounds, he thought that might be true. He had known this young man since he was a kid and was just torn up by his death, but he said he’d been really depressed lately and acting kind of reckless, and he thought what happened really might be a kind of suicide.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s really complicated. The police have a very difficult job, and it isn’t just a black-and-white issue. As you mentioned earlier, the policeman who pulled a gun on Charles Blow’s son was black, and young whites – especially those who are poor or homeless or abused or struggling in some way – are killed by police, though blacks are much more likely to be targeted than whites are. Much more likely. And whites are not immune to bombs either – just look at all the innocent lives lost in northern Ireland. So while race is definitely a huge part of the picture, we’re all living in a very militarized time and we are all potential targets – though some are much more likely targets than others are.
Eleanor: But, Willa, it doesn’t sound like these deaths were in any way routine. And that’s the point I was trying to make, and that’s what I think Michael Jackson is trying to point out – that the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of the police in the US have become so routine that they have ceased to matter. #BlackLivesMatter indicates things haven’t changed, which is what all the recent protests have been about.
“We’ve Had Enough” focuses specifically on tragedies that are the result of the state taking actions against people who are not enemies of the state, but US citizens or citizens of other countries which we are not formally at war with. It tells the stories of gratuitous, careless killings of the poor and vulnerable, carried out by powerful state agents, armed to the teeth. The people in these stories are killed for no reason: the girl’s father is no criminal, and the boy’s mother is no enemy combatant. In fact, if he is referring to Pakistan or Afghanistan, we are not at war with her country, but only with the enemy combatants within it. MJ is telling us that from the state’s point of view, it doesn’t matter whether or not they represent any real threat because their lives don’t matter, and then he is asking us why.
Depending on the states, different groups are expendable. Which is another reason the song leaves both race and nationality out. Because, although in terms of the US, blacks are disproportionately on the receiving end of police action, and post 9/11, Muslims have become military targets, depending on who you are and where you live, you would fill in the blanks differently.
Willa: And we might fill in the blanks differently at different times in history also. At different times in American history, for example, recent immigrants from Mexico or Japan or Ireland or Italy or the Mideast or Korea or Poland or Puerto Rico or China or wherever have been discriminated against and treated as if their lives don’t matter. And American Indians have certainly been treated as if their lives don’t matter.
And I think Michael Jackson is speaking up for all those who are outcast, for whatever reason, though I certainly agree that a disproportionate number of police victims in the US are black, and a disproportionate number of bombing victims are somehow “Other” – other races, other religions, other nationalities and ethnicities. In fact, I’ve heard some very troubling discussions about the fact that the US dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities but never on a European city. If Germany or Austria or Italy had still been in the war in August 1945, would we have dropped atomic bombs on them? Or is that unthinkable to Americans?
Eleanor: Interesting. And I am having a hard time imagining the US using drones to bomb targets in Europe, even if there was strong evidence of concentrations of Islamic extremists there.
Willa: Yes, it’s like American policymakers use different rules for those who they see as similar to themselves, and those they see as Other.
So I think the issue of race hangs heavy over these two stories that begin “We’ve Had Enough,” but I also think it’s significant that it’s left unspoken. In some ways, it makes racial prejudice an even more potent part of the story precisely because it’s unspoken, forcing us to work through that complicated history in our own minds.
Eleanor: Exactly. But I would say race is the issue in the first, but nationality is the key to the second.
Willa: Yes, or religion or ethnicity or some combination of those divisions. But however we interpret it or mentally picture it in our own minds as we hear these stories, Michael Jackson just sounds heart-sick as he sings these verses, and I think he would be just as saddened by a child who lost a parent in northern Ireland as by a child who lost a parent in Iraq or the Sudan or Serbia or Israel or Southeast Asia. From the child’s perspective, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the loss of the mother or the father – and “We’ve Had Enough” encourages us to consider the perspective of that child who’s lost a parent.
Eleanor: Of course, he would. But I think he’s trying to get us to look at the loss of these two lives as representative of specific types of situations – where lives are taken recklessly and casually – as if they don’t matter, because to so many of “us” they don’t.
Willa: Yes, I would agree with that. And I think that’s the message of “They Don’t Care about Us” as well, as you mentioned earlier.
Eleanor: And to focus our attention on these events, he shows us just how much they do matter to him, singing each story in a voice loaded with sorrow and loss and telling each story from the perspective of the child whose life has been destroyed – a child who has not yet been programmed to unquestioningly accept her or his fate as par for the course or the natural order of things. His voice reflects their pain and confusion.
These children, understandably, want to know “Why?” (Even if we don’t, even if we think we know why.) Why would a policeman (whose mission is to serve and protect) shoot an unarmed man – and deprive a little girl of a loving father? Why would soldiers (whose stated mission is peace) take the life of a poor boy’s mother, a woman who spent her days taking care of her kids, leaving his father devastated, “screaming and crying [as] his wife’s dying”?
And, he wants us to focus on a second question, which the children also raise: who or what gives these men in uniform the right to take their parents’ lives? What role does God or religion, if any, play in these events? Has God decided that these lives don’t matter?
Willa: Eleanor, I think you’ve just zeroed in on the key issue at the heart of this song: what gives one person the right to kill another person? And Michael Jackson’s answer seems to be that nothing does. Nothing gives them that right. As he sings, “Did God say that they could decide / Who will live and who will die?” He seems to be saying that only God has the right to make that decision, so only God can confer that right – not the state, not a badge, only God. If that soldier and that policeman weren’t given the right to kill directly from God – and they weren’t – then they don’t have that right.
Eleanor: Well, I agree, he certainly seems to be saying that. But I’m not convinced that’s where he’s going with this. For one thing, we don’t know whose god the children are talking about or even if it is the same god. Is it the god of white supremacists or the god of the black church? Is it a Christian god or a Muslim god? Is it your god or mine?
And, so far, all he’s given us is questions, not answers. But, by having the children ask these questions, he both raises some very serious issues and ups the emotional ante, arousing the outrage most people would feel when innocent children are victims.
Willa: That’s true, it is children asking these questions, and children are among the most defenseless and voiceless. So the image of a small child asking a towering man in uniform “Why?” – why did you kill my father? why did you kill my mother? – is incredibly moving.
Eleanor: Yes, it is. And it works. We are moved and we are outraged, at least for the moment and for the fictional children in the song, who, through Michael Jackson’s artistry, are brought fully alive. But once we get into grappling with the questions they raise, we get into the area of blame and we get into trouble.
Hearing either story by itself, we might place the blame on the policeman who fired the shot or the soldier who released the missile or dropped the bomb. But, showing us that these stories are part of a larger pattern characterized by the repetition of violent acts resulting in the taking of innocent lives carried out by agents of the state, Michael Jackson begins to redirect our rage away from the police or the military, who in the larger sense didn’t make the fatal decision, and toward the states they represent, the states who have apparently decided that these lives don’t matter.
And then he complicates things even more: through the children’s questions about God, he opens up the related questions. If God said that the state “could decide who would live and who would die,” then does that make the state God’s agent, and does being an agent of the state imply that one is an agent of God? And if God said that the state “could decide who would live and who would die,” does that mean that God allows the state to decide which lives matter and which ones don’t? Who or what bears the ultimate responsibility for this insanity?
Willa: I think I see what you’re getting at, Eleanor. So when the children say, “Did God say you could decide?” you think they aren’t just questioning the men in uniform but the idea of a loving God also, for letting this happen. That’s interesting – I hadn’t thought about it that way.
Eleanor: Well, their questions do introduce the topic of God and raise the issue of the relationship between God and the state. The little girl seems to assume that the state acts without God’s blessing. She is issuing a challenge:
How is it that you get to choose
Who will live and who will die?
Did God say that you could decide?
While the little boy seems to be asking the more philosophical question:
Did God say that they could decide
Who will live and who will die?
Willa: I see what you’re saying. I only saw one interpretation before – the girl’s implied statement that the police didn’t have the right to take her father’s life. And I saw the boy as simply repeating that. But you’re right, there’s a subtle but important difference between them.
For one thing, the girl is challenging the police directly (“Did God say that you could decide?”) while the boy is asking his father to explain what happened (“Did God say that they could decide?”). And that subtle shift in pronouns from “you” to “they” really changes the situation and how we interpret it. So once again we’re back to pronouns … And like you, I think Michael Jackson’s sophisticated use of pronouns to shift perspective is nothing short of brilliant – and something we see throughout his work.
So as you pointed out, Eleanor, the girl is standing up to the police in the heat of the moment and asking them to justify their actions, while the boy is genuinely struggling to understand, perhaps days or weeks or even years later, and is asking his father to help him understand.
Eleanor: Yes, and the mental image of his poor father, who was powerless to save his wife’s life and who is left to explain the unexplainable to his now motherless son, is so heartbreaking.
Willa: It really is. My father lost his father when he was five years old, and I know from personal experience that it can take a lifetime to come to grips with that loss. Few things are more devastating to a child than the loss of a parent.
Eleanor: That’s so sad, Willa. I can’t even imagine it.
But let’s distance ourselves from the emotional content of these stories for a minute and look at the underlying logic. Both stories make clear that the men in uniform, agents of the state, are directly responsible for the deaths of the children’s parents, and both children seem to assume that only God has the power to decide who will live and who will die, so it appears that the only explanation is that God gave the state permission to take their parents’ lives. Which makes no sense at all to either child.
If their parents are innocent, then either God is evil or the state has somehow usurped God’s power, both of which are theological impossibilities. The only other logical explanation is that the children are lying and their parents are guilty of something. But this is Michael Jackson singing this song, and in MJ’s world, children don’t lie and children see clearly. It is this quality of wise innocence that MJ cherished and that these children represent. These children are the real deal.
Although adults may rationalize evil into good, the deep wisdom of children allows them to get to the heart of the matter. No matter how you look at it, in this song, they are telling us, something is rotten, something doesn’t make sense, something doesn’t add up. If “God” gave these men the right to take these innocent lives, what kind of god is that? (With friends like these…??) The children see an inherent contradiction. They are not confused by convoluted political – or theological – sophistry that turns good into evil and evil into good, such as arguments that might claim that merely being black or being born in a distant land, now defined as enemy territory, makes their parents guilty, and justifies their killing. They are not calloused or inured or jaded or brainwashed. They are truly innocent. And they know, when things like this happen, something (our understanding of the nature of reality or even our understanding of the nature of “God”) is “out of joint.”
The children’s heartbreaking stories and their simple, straightforward, and perfectly natural questions reveal inherent contradictions in conventional assumptions about the nature of God (at least the God of the Abrahamic religious traditions) who is conventionally assumed to be both all good and all powerful. And, these contradictions suggest that this God is not God, that the God of most organized religions, is not what it is cracked up to be.
Willa: And that brings up a question people have struggled with for millennia: why would a loving, all-powerful God allow terrible things to happen? Why would a loving God allow the Holocaust to happen, or war or famine or disease or torture? We see Michael Jackson grappling with this question in his talks with Rabbi Schmuley Boteach – for example, in a chapter of The Michael Jackson Tapes called “Karma and Justice”:
MJ: I don’t believe in karma. I think that is a bunch of crap, because so many mean-spirited, evil people are on top of the world and doing well and people love them, no matter how evil they are.
SB: I love it when you make strong statements like that.
MJ: Well, I’m sorry, it’s crap. Karma is a theory like any other theory that some human made up.
SB: Well, “what goes around comes around” is ok, because there’s great truth to that. But karma could actually be evil because karma says that handicapped children did something bad in a previous life.
MJ: That’s a fine line and I’m sorry for talking like that. But I hate whoever says something like that. A child did something in a past life so God is going to handicap them? There were all these orphans in this one country coming to America to be adopted. The plane crashed. Every child on the plane died. Why? If you could save those kids, if you were in Heaven, you would say, “This one is not going down. Maybe another one, but not this one.” I know I would.
Eleanor: That’s a really interesting exchange, Willa. It clearly shows Michael struggling with these issues and shows that he wasn’t willing to accept “off-the-shelf theology.” If we believe an all-powerful god is responsible for everything that happens, and we are morally outraged by many things that happen, as MJ was, then we are adopting a position that says humans are more moral than God, which in conventional religious thought is a no-no.
But regardless of the flaws in theo-logic, someone’s god is often given as an explanation for those things which otherwise are inexplicable, and someone’s god generally is thought to have the power of life and death, and someone’s god’s will has often been invoked as the reason behind state actions. And I think Michael Jackson really wants us to focus on and question the assumption many people make concerning the relationship between state actions and the will of God, how an assumption of such a relationship, even if unconscious, seems to paralyze our will and absolve us of personal responsibility. I think he wants us to think about exactly who “the state” is, whose will the state is really carrying out – and how anyone could believe that any lives don’t matter.
Willa: I agree. While “We’ve Had Enough” talks quite a bit about God in a way that may lead us to question conventional wisdom and even our own beliefs, I don’t think the focus of this song is on the concept of God – not really. I think it’s on us, and how people have appropriated the concept of God to advance their own ideology, whatever it may be.
Eleanor: And there is certainly a long history of exactly that. In ancient Greece and Rome, the emperor often was worshipped as a god, so his will in the arena of state actions was viewed as the will of a god. Then over time, this idea of the emperor-god evolved into the divine right of kings, which pretty much gave free rein to European monarchs and covered a multitude of sins and has fueled endless religious wars. And even today, there is plenty of evidence that suggests that states continue to believe, or act as if they believe, that they are instruments of divine will. Some god or other is a very convenient authority to appeal to for self-serving (in)human actions.
An argument could be made that the gods of organized religions, which have traditionally worked hand in glove with states, are actually thinly veiled “agents of the state” – a psychological construct that states have used for millennia to justify their actions and manipulate their citizen/subjects – especially in the area of sorting out the lives that matter from those that don’t.
Willa: Wow, Eleanor, there’s a lot to think about here. I think it’s true that “some god or other” is often “a very convenient authority to appeal to for self-serving (in)human actions.” In other words, nations or religions (or even football teams) frequently like to claim that God is on their side, and that their actions, no matter how violent, are carrying out God’s will.
Eleanor: And, don’t forget races. White supremacy and Christian fundamentalism often go hand in hand.
Willa: Unfortunately, that often seems to be the case. But I think you’re raising a very important point about the tendency for nations or other groups based on religion or race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or whatever to appropriate the idea of God and God’s will to justify their actions – especially when those actions are violent and repressive.
That’s something we see Michael Jackson struggling with in “All in Your Name” as well, as Joie and I talked about in a post last March. According to an article in The Guardian, “Jackson showed up at [Barry] Gibb’s doorstep with the unfinished song … about three months before the United States invaded Iraq.” In that song, he isn’t just questioning the looming war but all the things that are done “in Your Name.” He is so angry and upset with the terrible things that are being done in God’s name that he questions the very existence of God. But the idea of living his life without his strong belief in God deeply troubles him also, as he and Barry Gibb sing in the dual choruses:
So what is my life
If I don’t believe
There is someone to watch me?
Follow my dreams
Take all my chances
Like those who dare?
And where is the peace
We’re searching for
Under the shadows of war?
Can we hold out
And stand up
And say no?
Only God knows
It’s all in your name
Follow me to the gates of paradise
They’re the same
It’s all in your name
It seems to me that Michael Jackson’s belief in a loving God was one of the foundations of his life. He grew up in the church, and his religious beliefs helped guide him and keep him sane through all the craziness he went through. He can’t imagine life without it – as he repeatedly sings, “What is my life / If I don’t believe?”
But at the same time, such horrible things have been done and continue to be done in God’s name: “where is the peace / We’re searching for /Under the shadows of war? … It’s all in Your name.” And we continue to see the spread of religious intolerance and holy war throughout the Mideast, and in other parts of the war. That’s intolerable to him also.
Eleanor: So interesting, Willa….“Where is the peace?” is similar to a line out of “Earth Song” (“What about all the peace/That you pledge your only son?”), which was written years earlier. He had been dealing and struggling with these issues for such a long time.
Willa: Yes, I think so too. And so he finds himself at a crossroads, trying to understand what he should believe and what he should do. And in “All In Your Name” he seems to resolve that conflict by deciding to rise up and take a stand against religious wars and religious intolerance, while still maintaining his belief in a benevolent God. As he and Barry Gibb sing,
Can we hold out
And stand up
And say no?
Only God knows
Eleanor: I remember that discussion well, Willa, and that song so perfectly expresses the terrible dilemma he found himself faced with, given his own deep compassion and his deep feeling of connectedness to a power that he often referred to as L.O.V.E. It shows how deeply troubled, how desperate he felt at that time – and remember, he was in New York on September 11 and had witnessed that horror.
The song, and the accompanying story, also show that the “God question” and the problem of evil was an abiding concern of his. And his dilemma is exactly the dilemma faced by the children in “We’ve Had Enough.” At the core of their being, they know that their God, understood as love and a force for good, couldn’t be responsible for the evil that has befallen them and their parents; and God, understood as all powerful, wouldn’t allow such terrible things to happen. And yet they do happen. So what is the answer?
I think Michael Jackson found the solution to his dilemma in the clear-eyed innocent wisdom of children, like those in “We’ve Had Enough.” There, he found the evidence for the existence of, not an imperial god out there backing state actions and calling the shots and deciding that some lives matter while some do not, but what in some circles is called the god within – a powerful force for good, for the common good – that is accessible if we seek it, and that is all powerful if we unleash its force. But what a big “if.” Because we adults can, and in most cases do, choose to ignore it.
Unlike the rest of us, who in adulthood lose touch with our own wise innocence, MJ kept the channel wide open, keeping every emotion, every nerve ending alive, giving emotional depth and power to his work, and through this power, he was able to reach deep into our souls and touch our own innocence – the love and compassion which binds people together, rather than the fear and anger that drives them apart, and which he continued to believe was still there somewhere, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary.
Willa: I agree, Eleanor, and I think he beautifully expresses this idea in “Heaven is Here,” a poem from Dancing the Dream. Here’s a wonderful reading of it:
There’s actually a whole series of these readings and I don’t know who’s creating them, but I love his voice. Anyway, as Michael Jackson says in the opening lines of this poem:
You and I were never separate
It’s just an illusion
Wrought by the magical lens of
There is only one Wholeness
Only one Mind
We are like ripples
In the vast Ocean of Consciousness
Come, let us dance
The Dance of Creation
Let us celebrate
The Joy of Life …
Eleanor: And that beautiful poem speaks to another recurring theme in his work, the idea that we are not separate beings, that “You’re Just Another Part of Me.”
Eleanor: Like the children in “We’ve Had Enough,” Michael Jackson was in touch with that inner power, that tie that binds. It informed his vision, giving him the ability and wisdom to see clearly and recognize the cruelty, the barbarity and utter senselessness – the insanity – of the type of acts described in “We’ve Had Enough.”
The children feel the deep wound of their losses – and the injustice – and so does he … and so should we all. But, as he points out in the next lines of the song, we don’t. Instead,
We’re innocently standing by
Watching people lose their lives
It’s as if we have no voice
If we are watching people lose their lives, how could we be “innocently standing by”? He could be using irony, or he could actually see us as innocent victims of religious and cultural brainwashing. My guess is that he means it both ways. That we are both innocent bystanders and guilty as sin.
And the outrage aroused at the beginning of the song, which seemed at first to be directed at the police or the military, we now find directed at the systems that have brainwashed us, and at us for allowing ourselves to be brainwashed. After all, we do have a voice, but we choose not to use it. It is our responsibility to put a stop to these acts, but we are shirking it. As Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Willa: He also seems to be suggesting that if we stand idly by “watching others lose their lives” then that disempowers us as well. It silences us: “It’s as if we have no voice.”
Eleanor: If we are standing by, believing ourselves to be innocent bystanders, while people lose their lives, clearly something is seriously wrong. To paraphrase “Earth Song,” “we don’t know where we are / but we know we’ve drifted far….” In other words, we’ve lost our moral compass.
On the other hand, we could do something instead of nothing, and MJ is telling us it is long past time for us to act:
It’s time for us to make a choice
Only God could decide
Who will live and who will die,
There’s nothing that can’t be done
If we raise our voice as one
They’ve gotta hear it from me
They’ve gotta hear it from you
They’ve gotta hear it from us
We can’t take it
We’ve already had enough
Deep in my soul, baby
Deep in your soul and let God decide
I think he is suggesting that we need to recognize that we are the medium for the expression of “God’s” will, and so he implores us in a voice filled with urgency and desperation to make that choice to open our hearts to that power “deep in [our] souls” and “let God decide.” And note the change from “only God could decide” to “let God decide” – putting the ball in our court.
Willa: Yes, and that’s an important distinction. It reminds me of the famous line by Abraham Lincoln that Barack Obama has quoted a number of times: “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.” In other words, he’s saying we should look within and try to use our understanding of God to guide us to do what’s right, rather than using God as justification to do what serves us best.
Eleanor: If we look deep in our souls and consult and access “the god within, the life force, the drive for the common good,” a global, rather than a national or a racial common good that includes us all, that does not sacrifice the good of one group to benefit another – if we “let God decide” – it will restore our moral compass and unleash all the power that has been blocked by our inner conflicts. I think Michael Jackson sincerely believes that this energy exists, and if we let this energy guide us, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.
And the title of the song suggests that once we get our heads on straight and restore the connection between heart and brain, we should feel these injustices as if they were happening to us. Because they are; we all suffer as a consequence of these actions. And he wonders when we will decide “We’ve Had Enough” and do something.
Willa: I agree, and I think that’s the meaning he’s trying to convey in the ad libs near the end of the song, beginning about 4:10 in:
They’ve gotta hear it from me
They’ve gotta hear it from you
They’ve gotta hear it from us
We’ve already had enough
(He’s my brother)
We’ve already had enough
(Dear God, take it from me
It’s too much for me
That’s my brother
It’s too much for me
That’s my brother, baby
That’s my lover)
We’ve already had enough
When an unarmed man – a father – is killed on the streets by a policeman, or a wife is killed in her own home by a bombing raid in a distant country, Michael Jackson doesn’t want us to think of it as something distant that doesn’t affect us. Instead, he wants us to take it personally, as if “That’s my brother” or “That’s my lover.” It’s happening to all of us.
Eleanor: And in choosing not to act, we are dooming ourselves.
Eleanor: I don’t know when “We’ve Had Enough” was written, but it was released with the Ultimate Collection in 2004, during that period leading up to his trial, a trial that could have ended with his imprisonment and the loss of his children – an intensely painful period that had begun ten years before, and it has the same feel – anger and desperation mixed with deep sadness and compassion and frustration – of much of his later work.
And something about the level of desperation in his voice leads me to believe that not only does he feel the pain of these children and thousands like them, but he views himself – and all of us – ensnared in the same vicious pattern, a pattern that in one way or another diminishes all of us, a pattern that he believed could be broken and must be broken.
But, tragically, shockingly, we still haven’t had enough. Years after this song was first recorded, the innocents continue to die in confrontations with police and military – especially since police forces have become increasingly militarized and military actions become more and more impersonal, young soldiers sitting at consoles, playing video games that take real lives.
But perhaps the stakes are too high. Speaking up can exact a high price, which he alludes to late in the song: “It’s up to me and I’m still alive.” But, tragically, today, he isn’t. Like the children in the song, he knew the difference between right and wrong, he confronted the state with incredible strength and courage, he opened his heart and let the power of the life force come through, and he encouraged us in his life and in his art to raise our voices against injustice. He never gave up. He never backed down. And, he paid the ultimate price.
Willa: Yes, and that’s something D.B. Anderson talks about as well, in that article we mentioned at the beginning of this post:
Michael Jackson was never afraid to put himself out there for the truth as he saw it. We could always count on Jackson to be the global leader of the band, to give voice to everything we were feeling. His adult catalog is a trove of social activism. Starvation. AIDS. War. Gang violence. Race relations. The environment. It was Jackson who put on concerts for war-torn Sarajevo. It was Jackson who put together a group charity song and concert after 9/11. It was Jackson who used every ounce of his global celebrity to make a difference. He was there.
What happened to Jackson for his politics was so much worse than losing sales. For in speaking truth to power, Jackson made himself a target …
And D.B. Anderson is right. He did make himself a target, and he paid a terrible price for it.
Eleanor: But he left us with that powerful truth that the stakes are too high not to act, and that desperate call to action:
They’ve gotta hear it from me
They’ve gotta hear it from you
They’ve gotta hear it from us
We can’t take it
We’ve already had enough