There was nothing left of the guy, nothing at all – except a bone, a rag, a hank of hair. The guy had been trying to tell me something … but what?
– The Band Wagon (1953)
Willa: A few months ago I was joined by Nina Fonoroff, who is both a professor of cinematic arts and an independent filmmaker. We did a post about the first section of Billie Jean, and also talked about how Michael Jackson drew inspiration from the Fred Astaire movie The Band Wagon, and from film noir more generally. Then a few weeks later Nina joined me for a second post about the middle section of Billie Jean, and Nina suggested fascinating visual connections to The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz. Today we are continuing this discussion by looking at the concluding scenes of Billie Jean and some potential visual allusions in that section of the film.
Thank you so much for joining me, Nina!
Nina: Thank you, Willa! I’m hoping we’ll find a new wrinkle in the “case” of Billie Jean (the film).
Willa: Oh, I always discover something new whenever I talk with you!
So last time we looked at Michael Jackson’s iconic dance sequence in the middle of Billie Jean, with the bleak ribbon of road stretching behind him to the foreboding “Mauve City” in the background. As you described so well, it’s like the antithesis of the shining “Emerald City” we see glistening at the end Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz, which of course featured Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow. I’m still very intrigued by that, and by your discussion of how those visual landscapes function within each film.
So that’s where we left off last time. The “Mauve City” dance sequence begins at about the 1:50 minute mark and extends to about 3:25, but about 2:45 minutes in we begin to transition into the final section of the film. First we cut to a view of Billie Jean’s bedroom – the first time we’ve seen it – and that’s followed by a series of snapshot-type images of her room. They’re kind of awkwardly framed, and almost look like something a paparazzo or intruder might take.
And then we immediately jump to the detective out on the street picking up a tiger-print rag. It’s the same rag Michael Jackson’s character pulled from his pocket in the opening scenes and used to wipe his shoe. And as we’ve talked about before, this is another connection to The Band Wagon, right?
Nina: Yes, it looks like a direct homage to the musical The Band Wagon, and specifically to a song-and-dance number within it, the “Girl Hunt Ballet,” which we’ve mentioned before. In this play-within-the-movie, Fred Astaire, who plays a character named Tony Hunter in the larger movie, and who stars in this sequence, begins his narration:
The city was asleep. The joints were closed, the rats, the hoods, and the killers were in their holes. I hate killers. My name is Rod Riley. I’m a detective. Somewhere, some guy in a furnished room was practicing his horn. It was a lonesome sound. It crawled on my spine. I’d just finished a tough case, I was ready to hit the sack….
All of the well-worn tropes of the noir genre are present here: in the images, the sounds, the music, the feelings Astaire’s character mentions (lonesomeness, having personal vendettas – “I hate killers”) and his attitude of guarded nonchalance as he lights his cigarette. Later in the scene, another man appears in a trenchcoat and hat. We see him from a low angle as he emerges out of a thick fog and walks toward Riley. After picking a bottle up from the street and examining it, the strange man disappears, literally, in a flame and a cloud of smoke. And this is where Riley says,
There was nothing left of the guy! Nothing at all – except a bone, a rag, a hank of hair. The guy had been trying to tell me something. But what?
The detective is left with an enigma which compels him to pursue the disappearing man, while also falling prey to the femme fatale (played by Cyd Charisse), who doubles as a hapless victim whom Riley wants to protect until she betrays him. The whole “Girl Hunt Ballet” is an affectionate parody of the film noir genre at its apogee in the 1950s.
And in Billie Jean, too, we find many of the same elements: enigmatic characters, mysteries, clues, pursuits, deceptions, and reversals. These are deeply, if subtly, present in the story, the lyrics, the sounds, and the varied images of the short film as a whole – and many of our own responses, as we watch and listen to it.
First, there are a few different pursuits going on in Billie Jean. There’s the detective’s pursuit of his elusive prey, a disappearing man, Michael – though Michael is clearly no “killer.”
Then, Michael is the narrator of the story as well as the star of the show. Through his demeanor, his lyrics, and the whole story and setting of Billie Jean (song and film), Michael is an enigma to himself. He must consider why he has done the things he has done, that have caused him such remorse. One of his aims may be to attain self-knowledge – which I believe is what the song is ultimately about.
Finally, there’s our own perplexity, as we sort out the scattered clues that Michael Jackson himself – as our object of pursuit, our enigma, and our hero – has left behind. Aren’t we continually “going after” this man in our search for what he was “trying to tell us”? As fans, we have ourselves become detectives.
Willa: That’s an interesting way of looking at this, Nina. And those layers of mystery seem to telescope within one another. What I mean is, the private detective – if that’s what he is – really doesn’t seem that interested in what happened or whether the main character is guilty or not. He just wants to catch him on film in a compromising position. That’s his job and he’s trying to do it.
Then we as an audience are a little closer in. We do care about the main character and we do want to know what happened and why, so we’re trying to piece together “the scattered clues,” as you say. We have “become detectives” as we try to construct a narrative that makes sense.
And then there’s the main character himself, who’s even closer in – so much so that in some ways the story of Billie Jean all seems to be playing out inside his own head. It’s like he’s obsessively retelling the story over and over again in his mind, as people tend to do after a traumatic event. I mean, how many times does he repeat the line “Billie Jean is not my lover” or “The kid is not my son”? It’s almost like he’s trying to convince himself that he isn’t culpable somehow. Even if he isn’t legally obligated to provide for her baby, there seems to be an emotional connection to the child whose “eyes looked like mine,” and he seems to be working through that as he replays the story of Billie Jean over and over again.
Nina: That’s a great point, Willa. There’s a persistent disavowal of his relationship with this particular woman and child through the chorus, which carries the song’s main theme.
In the last part of the film, we hear the instrumental break with its punchy guitar riff, as the film cuts to another space. We are no longer beside the huge billboard on the ribbon of sidewalk. Between two dilapidated brick buildings, we are with Michael in an enclosed stairwell that has a somewhat claustrophobic feel.
Willa: Which seems to be a fairly accurate reflection of his psychological state at that point.
Nina: I think so, Willa. Through the lyrics especially, he has already given us a good idea of how he was entrapped or enclosed – with seemingly no way out – by “schemes and plans” that are not of his own making.
A window prominently shows us a neighbor – a woman sitting at a table right next to the window of the adjoining building, with a red phone before her. We see several quick inserted shots, where Michael spins in this small space. His “heeeeess,” which periodically interrupt the guitar riff, are precisely timed to each of his spins.
Willa: Oh, you’re right! I hadn’t noticed that before.
Nina: I don’t know whether it was planned in advance or created in the editing process, but that kind of synchronous moment recalls the one earlier in the film, when Michael’s footfalls on the lit-up squares were timed to the rhythm of the song. It’s a powerful editing device.
And the image of the woman in the window, as seen from outside, distinctly reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 film, Rear Window. Here are a couple of movie posters:
In Rear Window, L. B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is a professional news photographer who’s temporarily disabled; he’s in a wheelchair with a broken leg, an injury he sustained on his last assignment. Since he has too much time on his hands and is more or less in an immobilized condition, he cuts his boredom and entertains himself by spying on his neighbors, whose activities across the courtyard he can readily view through his apartment’s big picture window – which functions, for him, as a kind of movie screen. Here’s his view of a newlywed couple:
And the courtyard at dusk:
Willa: Interesting! This image of the courtyard, especially, is very evocative of Billie Jean, isn’t it? It’s the same sort of dead-end alley where Michael Jackson’s character goes to climb the steps to Billie Jean’s room.
And here’s a screen capture of the scene you were just describing of the older woman with the red phone seen through the window – the woman who later calls the police:
That could easily be a frame from Rear Window, couldn’t it?
Nina: Yes, they both evoke a very similar atmosphere and a sense of illicit looking – even though this window is closer to us than the neighbors’ windows in Rear Window, which are clear across Jeffries’ courtyard, maybe a hundred feet away.
Willa: Yes, there’s a strong feeling of intimacy in Billie Jean, and maybe that sense of intimacy, even in public spaces, is part of what makes this seem like a psychological journey – that we are inside his mind as much as inhabiting a physical space.
Nina: Yes, Willa. To name one thing, he draws his story from memory, and how can anyone gainsay that? We must identify with him, subjectively. Because he narrates, and because we see so many lingering closeups on his face (and no one else’s), because we share his emotional life on these levels, and because, as Michael Jackson, he comes to the whole scenario with the kind of star power that “needs no introduction,” we can develop very strong bonds of identification with his character, even if this character’s life situation is in no way comparable to ours.
Willa: That’s true.
Nina: Yet Michael’s gesture to the woman on the other side of the window, with her red phone and table fan, wearing something on her head that looks something like a shower cap, gives me a moment of discomfort. It’s as if some contract regarding privacy has been breached, because our sense of decorum in a city requires that a pedestrian and a resident – on opposite sides of a window – not acknowledge each other. By gesturing this “shush” to a stranger in her own apartment, Michael leads us to a different kind of space where conspiracy and secrecy replaces anonymity and invisibility. He is asking her not to “give him away” or reveal his presence there. According to some established social conventions, when you live in a congested city, there ought to be an implicit agreement to maintain an illusion of privacy. When you pass by an open window on the street, for instance, you are not to look in. Even if you spot a person “parading around naked” (as the saying goes), and even if some kind of sexual encounter is taking place, you are to keep walking and pretend you haven’t seen anything. (Even if they were to witness a violent crime taking place in an apartment, many people prefer just to keep their noses clean and walk past as if nothing had happened.)
But many breaches of personal space and privacy occur all the time, beyond anyone’s control. You may sense at times that you’re living in a fishbowl where constant surveillance is your daily lot, while at the same time you are chafing under the anonymity that city life often imposes, which can provide a kind of shelter from constant monitoring but at the same time denies you the fame and notoriety you may desperately want! Those contradictions, I think, formed a large part of Michael Jackson’s life. And both Billie Jean and Rear Window are largely about blurring the distinctions between the public and the private.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Nina. And it’s true that the boundary between public and private was a fraught one for Michael Jackson – one he was constantly trying to negotiate as he dealt with that odd mix of isolation and exposure brought on by celebrity. So it’s interesting to see how that boundary between public and private is breached and redrawn in both of these films.
Nina: Yes, and it’s also telling that the staging of these stories required a sealed, private environment: both films were shot on a film set (an enclosed, controlled space), and not on location.
Jeffries is housebound, and he is increasingly fascinated by the activities he sees. He can enjoy a sense of power through his ability to control other people by narrativizing them: he makes up stories and even invents nicknames for them. First with a pair of binoculars, and then the long telephoto lens of a camera he uses for his professional work, he concocts fantasies about his neighbors’ lives as he peers into their curtainless windows. He finally becomes an amateur detective himself: his prosthetic “eyes” allow him to discover a possible murder and cover-up as he stares, transfixed, at the windows across the courtyard. The following stills show us Jeffries and the apparatuses he uses:
And then “reverse” shots that disclose his point of view, such as this shot of Mr. and Mrs Thorward:
And this one of Mr. Thorwald, a potential murderer:
And this one of a neighbor he calls “Miss Lonelyhearts”:
Willa: And again, these images are evocative of Billie Jean. For example, in this last movie still, there’s the dark brick wall outside and the well-lit space inside so that, ironically, what’s inside is more visible than what’s outside – just like the apartment of the woman with the red phone in Billie Jean. We can barely make out the bushes, gutter pipe, and iron railing outside, but we can see every detail of “Miss Lonelyhearts” preparing a romantic table for two.
So in some ways, Jeffries is like us as we “narrativize” the images we see in Billie Jean and try to form them into a story. But in other ways, he’s more like the detective character. He’s a photographer and he intrudes into other people’s private lives – just like the detective in Billie Jean – without their knowing it.
Nina: Yes, that’s true, I think – Jeffries combines both kinds of obsessive looking. What he’s up to seems sleazy, and several people in his life urge him to stop his near-obsessive spying (including his girlfriend, who at one point tells him his behavior is “diseased”). As it turns out, however, he is vindicated in the end, since his spying was instrumental in uncovering a criminal act.
Willa: He’s vindicated because his “looking” allows him to bring a murderer to justice?
Nina: Well … He starts out “spying” as a distraction, to pass the time. But then he discovers something untoward happening in an apartment across the courtyard. I won’t give away too much here, but everyone should really see this film! It’s one of the classics of the “suspense thriller” genre, which Hitchcock was especially known for.
Willa: You’re really making me want to see it again, Nina. To be honest, I haven’t watched it since I was a teenager (about 40 years ago!) so a lot of the plot details are pretty fuzzy. I do remember having contradictory feelings about Jimmy Stewart’s character, and agreeing with Grace Kelly’s character about his obsessive watching.
Nina: Rear Window has been very thoroughly studied by film critics and scholars for decades now because it so perfectly illustrates how our own physical and psychological state as film spectators are akin to Jeffries’, and especially when we view films on the big screen at the theater. We are more or less immobilized in our seats, as he is in his wheelchair, and we’re peering into a world that’s displayed before us, gazing at a screen that reveals people in their most private moments: moments that maybe we’re not “supposed” to be seeing. By all rights, we should be embarrassed by this “guilty pleasure,” but of course that’s the whole appeal of the film spectacle. Why would we give up a position where we have the distinct privilege of seeing everything that’s going on through an omniscient camera? We never get that chance in real life!
And so, it can be said that we become voyeurs every time we see a movie, just as L.B. Jeffries, watching his window as if it were a movie “screen,” is a classic voyeur in Rear Window.
Willa: Oh, interesting! And of course, that plays out at both levels in Billie Jean as well. There are the repeated scenes of voyeurism within the film, as you’ve been pointing out (the detective with his camera obviously, but also the main character himself looking at the panhandler, or looking at the woman with the red phone, or looking at Billie Jean lying in her bed) and also outside the film, as we as an audience watch the video and piece together the clues we’re given into a story.
Nina: That’s true, Willa. And yet, maybe because Billie Jean is a music video, or because it’s short (as music videos tend to be), or because it’s Michael Jackson, this main character’s mode of voyeurism seems somehow less sinister, because he’s looking at things without the intermediary of binoculars, a camera, or (usually) a window. The people he sees can see him, too.
Still, it turns out that Billie Jean’s way of telling a story and revealing information is almost as cagey as Michael Jackson himself could sometimes be! There’s allusion and implication, rather than disclosure of facts (but isn’t that’s what many works of art are about, anyway; since they’re built on metaphor)? But while most films noir assure us that we will learn the “answer” to the puzzle in due time, in Billie Jean (as in the ongoing saga of Michael Jackson’s life), while more disclosures are promised, and while we eagerly await the definitive “solution” to a riddle or mystery, the answer, of course, never arrives.
But in the end, as we watch Billie Jean – and as we regard Michael Jackson with the kind of fascination reserved for larger-than-life figures – we (or, speaking for myself here, I) am again left with a set of vexing questions about Michael himself. I’m revisiting these questions for the umpteenth time, knowing that I will never find an answer, but compelled by the process of investigation itself. Like Rod Riley and his mysterious disappearing man, I ask again and again, “the guy was trying to tell me something. But what?” I think many of us feel this way. We’re MJ sleuths.
There are many parallels, I think, between Rear Window and Billie Jean, on the thematic as well as the visual level. For one thing, there is a tradition in cinema where photography is a major motif, and photographers play a pivotal role in solving crimes … or in committing them. Here I’m thinking of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), where a fashion photographer becomes a reluctant hero-detective; or Peeping Tom, a psychological thriller (1960) by British director Michael Powell, where an amateur-style movie camera assists a young man’s killing spree.
I’m also thinking of photography’s role in divorce cases (based on some old-school detective work) where the goings-on of “cheating” husbands and wives can be recorded as evidence. Here I’m thinking of Maurice Chevalier’s role as a Parisian detective in Love in the Afternoon, with Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper, from 1957, which is also the stuff of Hollywood romantic comedies from the 1930s through the 1960s. And so, what immediately came to my mind when I first started thinking about Billie Jean, was that the lyrics alone might imply a paternity suit; and a few music critics I’ve read believe that’s where things are heading in the story of Billie Jean as retold by Michael, the “narrator.”
Willa: I think so too – especially with the lines, “For forty days and forty nights / The law was on her side.” That implies there’s a lawsuit involved in her “claims that I am the one” who fathered her son. So maybe the detective has been hired to support her claims.
Nina: Yes, It would seem so, Willa; at least that’s a good possibility. It seems cryptic – but again, prescient in terms of Michael Jackson’s legal battles.
You also had an intriguing idea last time we posted, Willa, about how the man in the trenchcoat may be a detective (in the old-fashioned film noir sense), and also a more present-day kind of paparazzo. That made me think more about Michael’s many real-life encounters (pleasant and not) with photographers. And of course this bears directly on Billie Jean, as well as the first few moments of You Are Not Alone, where we see an intense display of flashbulbs going off as Michael walks slowly past a huge crowd of reporters, while singing, “Another day is gone / I’m still all alone.” An ordinary day for Michael Jackson is a day in which thousands – or tens of thousands – of photographs have been taken of him. “All in a day’s work.”
Willa: Yes. We see depictions of paparazzi in Speed Demon also, and as in Billie Jean, it ends with them getting hauled off to jail by the police. But that doesn’t mean the police are on Michael Jackson’s side – they may help him at times, but they’re a potential threat also, and so he tries to elude them as well. So there’s a constant three-way tension between him, the photographers who pursue him, and the police.
Nina: Yes, Willa, now that you mention it, his tormenters in Speed Demon are carted away by the police, while Michael goes free, thanks to his power to transform (or “disappear”) himself.
And speaking of the representation of paparazzi in more recent films, I recent came across an article by Aurore Fossard-De Almeida, “The Paparazzo on Screen: The Construction of a Contemporary Myth.” According to Fossard-De Almeida, those who practice within this relatively new profession are pure products of contemporary tabloid culture. Unlike the classic detectives of old, like Sam Spade, or Philip Marlowe, or the one-off “Rod Riley” (quasi-heroes who had smarts, integrity, and charm underneath their gruff exteriors), these guys are thoroughly despicable characters with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. They have no interest in seeing justice served.
Detectives’ work serves to uphold the law and establish “truth and justice”; therefore they have the moral high ground, even with their cold personalities and unscrupulous methods. Paparazzi’s only function in society, however, is to make a great deal of money by selling their bounty to publications whose main appeal is to the baser instincts of a public obsessed with celebrities and their downfall. Either way, this pursuer cannot be caught looking. In Billie Jean, the detective skitters around in the street, runs around corners, flattens himself against buildings. He must not be detected; and so he tries to make himself invisible, just as Michael has done, but without Michael’s superlative magical powers.
His success lies in apprehending or photographing his suspect/subject without attracting his or her notice. He should be able to watch the person while remaining out of range of any reciprocal watching: that’s his whole currency. As an amateur “sleuth,” L.B. Jeffries has to maintain his own invisibility; it’s also the key characteristic of the classic voyeur. So the detective, in his role as a paparazzo, becomes a voyeur. Michael Jackson also stands at the window of an apartment (Billie Jean’s room, we assume), looking in. He is also a voyeur, but of a less sinister kind. As the focus of our sympathy and identification (and, for many, desire), and as the object of our collective “gaze,” we might admit that “he was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene.” His distinct advantage – the ability to become invisible – is one key to his numinous beauty: in some way, we might regard him as a disembodied, pure spirit.
Willa: Which would answer in an unexpected way the central question of the song. A spirit can’t father a child since it takes a body to reproduce a body. So if it’s true that he’s disembodied, then it must also be true that “Billie Jean is not my lover.” And this interpretation is supported by the scene where he climbs into her bed and then disappears – the sheet falls flat as he dematerializes.
But he isn’t purely spirit, I don’t think. At times he seems very embodied! To me, it seems more accurate to say that he’s ever-changing – like a conjurer he can seemingly shift at will and make himself invisible or immaterial. There are also times when he’s both – when he’s invisible yet seems to have material weight – like the two scenes near the end when he isn’t visible but yet the pavers light up under his weight. So in those final scenes, he is both present and absent – material yet invisible.
Nina: Yes, I think that’s true, Willa: a conjurer is a good way to put it. And an invisible man can still have a tangible body, and even impregnate somebody: I’m sure Gothic fiction is filled with such strange occurrences!
Willa: Yes, and so is Greek and Roman mythology, and the New Testament of the Bible. I mean, that’s the miracle of the immaculate conception …
Nina: At another level, Michael’s actions in the film hint at some intangibles that, in many ways, echo his life. In Billie Jean he can “dematerialize” in order to shield himself from the prying eyes of either the law, the detective, neighbor, the photographer, but he also excelled – across his whole body of work – in making the invisible visible.
Ever since he started performing as a child, his presence as a visible force in an industry that thrives on both intense exposure (the “star system”) and secrecy, enabled him to bring some hidden practices to light. His own sacrifices to an industry that created and destroyed him served as an allegory about what happens to other children who take on the burden of too much responsibility at too young an age. The exploitation of child labor was a consistent theme of his, central to the ways he narrated his life in interviews, etc. Perhaps the ways he exposed this issue and others, was the “crime” for which he paid; some people may have feared that he was about to “blow the whistle.” But, to paraphrase Riley’s question: “blow the whistle” on what?
Willa: That’s an interesting point, Nina. He also forced us to confront some of our most intractable social problems – racism, misogyny, child abuse, war and police brutality, hunger and neglect, and other “invisible” crimes – and in doing so made them highly visible, as you say. For example, his mere presence in Dona Marta in the Brazil version of They Don’t Care about Us brought global attention and improved conditions there. As Claudia Silva of Rio’s office of tourism told Rolling Stone,
This process to make Dona Marta better started with Michael Jackson. … There are no drug dealers anymore, and there’s a massive social project. But all the attention started with Michael Jackson.
We see subtle hints of him making the invisible visible as he climbs the steps to Billie Jean’s room. Each tread lights up as he steps on it, and the letters of the vertical “HOTEL” sign illuminate one by one as he rises to their height. So his mere presence makes them highly visible.
Nina: I agree, Willa: the work he did in Brazil, for example, kind of gives new meaning to the expression, “shedding light.” And he did shed light on some realities that some highly placed people would probably rather stay covered.
Besides The Band Wagon, Billie Jean pays a more-or-less direct homage to another musical by Vincente Minnelli: An American in Paris, with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron (1950).
I became aware of this because in September 2009, the University of California at Berkeley held a one-day conference called Michael Jackson: Critical Reflections on a Life and a Phenomenon. One presentation, by Ph.D. student Megan Pugh (“Who’s Bad?: Michael Jackson’s Movements”), pointed to a strong visual comparison between the sequence in Billie Jean where each stairstep lights up, and a musical number called “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” that appears in An American in Paris. (The stairway sequence begins at 1:00):
The song was written by George Gershwin (who in fact wrote all the music in An American in Paris), and was first recorded by the “King of Jazz,” Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, in 1922:
All you preachers
Who delight in panning the dancing teachers
Let me tell you there are a lot of features
Of the dance that carry you through
The gates of Heaven
To be always sitting around in sadness
When you could be learning the steps of gladness
You’ll be happy when you can do
Just six or seven
You’ll find it nice
The quickest way to paradise
When you practice
Here’s the thing to know
Simply say as you go…
I’ll build a stairway to Paradise
With a new step every day
I’m gonna get there at any price
Stand aside, I’m on my way!
I’ve got the blues
And up above it’s so fair. Shoes
Go on and carry me there
I’ll build a stairway to Paradise
With a new step every day
And another verse:
Dance with Maud the countess, or just plain Lizzy
Dance until you’re blue in the face and dizzy
When you’ve learned to dance in your sleep
You’re sure to win out
This is kind of the obverse of Michael’s simultaneous singing and dancing in Billie Jean, where he tells us how risky it can be to “dance on the floor in the round.” (“So take my strong advice / Just remember to always think twice.”)
People often frequent dance clubs when they’ve “got the blues”; they go in the hopes that dancing will help them transform their ill mood into something rosier. So much pop music, through the ages, has brought out the possibility of cheering up, of “losing your blues” through dancing. Of course, Michael Jackson himself often sang these kinds of songs as lead singer of the Jackson 5 and The Jacksons, as well as in his adult solo career. There’s “Keep on Dancing” from The Jacksons first album in 1976, with Michael singing lead:
Dancing, girl, will make you happy
And happy is what you want to be
Dancing fast, just spinning around
Dancing slow when you get down
Keep on dancing … let the music take your mind
Keep on dancing … and have a real, real good time
Keep on dancing … why don’t you get up on the floor
Keep on dancing … ’til you can’t dance no more
“Enjoy Yourself,” from the same album, is another example, with Michael singing lead:
You, sitting over there, staring into space
While people are dancing, dancing all over the place
You shouldn’t worry about things you can’t control
Come on girl, while the night is young
Why don’t we mix the place up and go! Whoooo!
By all rights, Michael’s wingtip shoes should have “carried him” away from his blues when he first met Billie Jean on the dance floor. Interestingly, the idea of dancing as a way to escape your woes, has turned to its opposite with the Thriller album in 1983, where “dancing” may result in misery. Some shift has taken place, even since 1979’s “Off the Wall” where dancing is still a harmless pastime that’s connected with achieving happiness (“Rock With You,” “Get on the Floor,” “Off the Wall,” and “Burn This Disco Out”).
What has happened, I wonder? We can blame it on the boogie, but it would seem that dancing itself can no longer be seen as a straightforward matter, and can be read as a euphemism for a sexual encounter: in this instance having unexpected, tragic results. On the album, “Billie Jean” and even “Wanna Be Startin Something” (“you’re a vegetable, they eat off you, you’re a buffet”), are the two tracks that several writers believe to have marked the initial stages of a “paranoid” tendency in Michael’s songwriting: and in their view, this tendency would become more prominent in his later albums.
And so, in Michael’s fateful encounter with Billie Jean – a girl he apparently picked up and casually bedded after meeting her for the first time at a club – dancing didn’t remove his unhappiness, but deepened it. Throughout the film, his demeanor is somewhat despondent: he sighs, frowns, and sings lyrics about how he rues the day he and Billie Jean first “danced.” Nevertheless he is about to reenact, before our eyes, the same error that initially brought him to this regrettable state, as he spins in Billie Jean’s garbage-strewn, graffiti-ridden stairwell.
Willa: Hmmm … That’s really interesting, Nina. I’m not sure that the main character “bedded” Billie Jean – I think that’s left pretty indeterminate, with contradictory clues – but it is true dancing has taken a sinister turn in “Billie Jean” that we haven’t seen before. I’m quickly running through Michael Jackson’s albums in my mind, trying to think of other songs where dancing leads to misery. There’s “Blood on the Dance Floor,” of course – but in many ways that song feels to me like a retelling of “Billie Jean,” so it makes sense they would share that connection.
Nina: Yes, that’s a good point; I also wonder if any other songwriter has written such a tale of woe about dancing.
Michael’s ascension of the back-alley staircase in this “slum” dwelling (as we might describe it) of course contrasts hugely with George Guétary’s opulent fantasy staircase, with its glamorous showgirls and ornate candelabras. Michael’s character will surely not “win out,” nor will he find any stairway to “paradise” or “heaven” (Led Zeppelin) through his dancing – only his divided self, a guilty conscience, and a compulsion to return to the sordid scene of his “downfall.” Instead of finding (or building) paradise, he seems to fear he’ll be sent in the opposite direction. But he dances and goes upstairs anyway.
As Megan Pugh observes,
Jackson zooms between a longing for the dreamworld of Hollywood Musicals – where you can solve problems by putting on a show, where boy gets girl, and where everything ties up neatly – and the realizations that such dreams may not be attainable. For in the end, Jackson almost always ends up alone.
As he lights up each step, the neon sign “HOTEL” is also lit, one letter at a time. This HOTEL sign became a regular feature of Michael Jackson’s concerts, when he performed as a silhouette behind a screen that accentuated the sharpness of his moves. It was used as an introduction that preceded either “Smooth Criminal” or “Heartbreak Hotel” on the Bad tour.
Willa: Wow, that’s fascinating, Nina! Here’s a clip of “Smooth Criminal” from Wembley Stadium in 1988, and we can clearly see the neon “HOTEL” sign with the red letters arranged vertically. It’s just like in Billie Jean, but I hadn’t made that connection before.
As it says in the voiceover,
My footsteps broke the silence of the predawn hours, as I drifted down Baker Street past shop windows, barred against the perils of the night. Up ahead a neon sign emerged from the fog. The letters glowed red hot, in that way I knew so well, branding a message into my mind, a single word: “hotel.”
So he draws our attention to this “red hot” hotel sign both visually and aurally, suggesting it’s an important element for him.
Nina: Yes: and thanks, Willa! I’ve often wondered what was being said there, but I never heard the words on a good sound system. So here we have an idea of the “red hot” letters branding our protagonist’s mind – like a mental stigmata – along with certain “perils of the night,” and his musings that he knew these red letters “so well.”
By this account, then, our hero seems to be taking us on an imaginary journey to the “red light district” of the city, where his memory reveals his repeated visits to a certain house of ill-repute.
“The House of the Rising Sun,” a song that was recorded by just about everybody, was made most famous by The Animals in the 1960s. Here are some lyrics that are used in another version, recorded by a woman:
There is a house in New Orleans
They call the rising sun
It’s been the ruin of a many a poor girl
And me, oh god are one
If I had listened like mama said
I would not be here today
But being so young and foolish too
That a gambler led me astray
Again, we have a mother whose advice to her child went unheeded, as it did in Billie Jean:
And mother always told me
Be careful who you love
Be careful what you do
’Cause the lie becomes the truth
The many recorded versions of “House of the Rising Sun” reveal the song’s storied history, where the “house” is sometimes (most obviously) a bordello in New Orleans, a women’s prison, or a nightclub that serves as a gambling den, among other kinds of places. Nowhere in “Billie Jean” do we have the sense that she is a prostitute, but there are some common themes in those lyrics, such as giving in to temptation, experiencing remorse, and being “led astray” by an unscrupulous lover.
This places the story of “Billie Jean” in a folk-blues-country tradition, where there are so many songs that impart this message: you disregard your mother’s wisdom at your own peril. Another example is “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane,” of which countless versions have been recorded, many with different lyrics and in different musical styles.
Hand me down my walking cane
Hand me down my walking cane
Oh hand me down my walking cane,
I’m gonna leave on the midnight train
My sins they have overtaken me.
If I had listened to what mama said
If I had listened to what mama said
If I had listened to what Mama said
I’d be sleepin in a feather bed
My sins they have overtaken me
I’m sure there are many, many other examples.
Willa: Yes, there really are. One that immediately springs to mind is the old Merle Haggard song “Mama Tried,” with this attention-grabbing chorus:
I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole
No one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried
Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied
That leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried
Nina: Oh yes, that song was in the back of my mind, but I couldn’t quite place it! Thanks for reminding me, Willa. Michael Jackson clearly absorbed and understood these songs and their themes, whether or not he consciously inscribed them into his lyrics. In some ways, we might say that he re-wrote some traditional songs in ways that could later be recognized as the timeless folk songs of a new generation. (Although it’ll be a LONG time before his compositions pass into the public domain!)
As for the vertical “HOTEL” sign, here’s one that’s beautifully photographed in black-and-white with window reflections:
This still is from the 1946 noir film, Murder, My Sweet, directed by Edward Dmytryk. Here, Dick Powell (an actor and singer who is best known for his roles, a decade earlier, in a series of depression-era musicals) – appears as hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe. It’s possible that Michael Jackson, or Steve Barron, or another person involved in the production of Billie Jean, drew from this image – which had been “branded” indelibly into their mind.
As we were saying in an earlier post, according to AMC Filmsite commentator Tim Dirks on the film noir genre, these films often featured
an oppressive atmosphere of menace, pessimism, anxiety, suspicion that anything can go wrong, dingy realism, futility, fatalism, defeat and entrapment.… The protagonists in film noir were normally driven by their past or by human weakness to repeat former mistakes.
Michael’s predicament in Billie Jean readily fits several of these elements. As we’ve discussed before, he implies that he was driven by “human weakness.”
People always told me be careful what you do
Don’t go around breaking young girls’ hearts
But she came and stood right by me
Just the smell of sweet perfume
This happened much too soon
She called me to her room
Here, his “Human Nature” is among the qualities that elicits our sympathy. This is also where “voice-over” narration – a prominent characteristic of so many noir films – becomes important in the ways we identify with the main character. The voice of the hard-boiled detective, often delivered with a studied coldness and cynicism (and parodied by Fred Astaire as Rod Riley in “Girl Hunt Ballet”), has become part of the mythological fabric of American popular culture. And this man is almost always talking about events that have occurred in the past. His portentous tone of voice signals an anxiety about even more fearsome events yet to come, including the possibility of facing danger, even death. Like our protagonist in Billie Jean, he becomes the focal point of our identification.
We identify with him, first and foremost, because his voice fills our ears, and his story fills our psyche. But the noir antihero is also someone whose distance and detachment we can almost palpably feel – not necessarily because his life or his values are so different from ours, but because we’re hearing him describe a world that exists only his head, and that he cannot share.
Willa: Interesting. And that’s precisely the feeling we were describing earlier with Billie Jean, though it’s achieved in a different way. Michael Jackson’s character is not a tough, not a “hard-boiled detective,” and he doesn’t tell us the story in a voice of “studied coldness and cynicism,” as you described.
Nina: True, and certainly by the ‘80s, these archetypes were long overdue for another update! (The image of these kinds of men had already altered somewhat in the ‘60s and ‘70s.) In the 1980s, the kind of hard-boiled masculinity that’s apparent in Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, and other classic movie detectives was due for a complete overhaul.
New or old, though, these figures seem unapproachable on an emotional level, although at times they reveal a vulnerability that goes to the heart of their humanity. In any case, our desire to share their knowledge – to learn what they know, so that we, too, can become active participants in their criminal investigation – exerts such a strong hold on our imagination that it almost compels us to identify with them. (This goes for L.B. Jeffries in Rear Window too, though not so much for the “detective” in Billie Jean, who doesn’t know anything as far as I can tell!)
But, like Michael Jackson’s other performances, Billie Jean puts a tear, or rip, in that mythological fabric where we find the kind of masculinity that the noir detectives and action have shared, seemingly forever, in American cinema.
Willa: Yes, and he seemed to actively play off that 50s style masculinity – the figure of man as a stoic loner – by adopting the suit and fedora of men of that era, but displaying emotions and a sensitivity toward others that they rarely showed.
Nina: Yes, in the film this display of emotion comes through partly because he sings and dances, which are things that imply passion, vulnerability, and emotion. As writer Jonathan Lethem writes in his essay “The Fly in the Ointment,”
there’s something about a voice that’s personal, that its issuer remains profoundly stuck inside, like the particular odor of shape of their body. … Summoned through belly, hammered into final form by tongue and lips, voice is a kind of audible kiss, a blurted confession, a soul-burp. … How helplessly candid! How appalling!
I also think part of Michael’s more sensitive persona came about because 1980s pop culture generally featured less convention and more free-play with the styles of gender expression. Joe Vogel’s article in the Journal of Popular Culture, published this June (“Freaks in the Reagan Era: James Baldwin, the New Pop Cinema, and the American Ideal of Manhood”) speaks to this very phenomenon. He points out the ways Michael Jackson, along with Prince, Madonna, Boy George, David Bowie, and Grace Jones “openly experimented with and transgressed gender expectations.”
I see Michael’s suit and fedora as accouterments, theatrical props that were meant to provide a fairly self-conscious reference to these earlier (1940s-50s) film styles. At least a few of Michael’s films, from Billie Jean to Thriller to You Rock My World, were outright genre parodies. His character in Smooth Criminal was a 1987 “re-do” of Fred Astaire’s Rod Riley (from 1953), and the two film segments share the same feeling of self-conscious parody. In fact, The Band Wagon was made at the same time that some “genuine” noir films were still being turned out by the Hollywood studios. Strangely, both the parody and the “real deal” could coexist in the film world of the 1950s.
But from at least the 1980s until today, the signifiers of the noir-type film have shifted dramatically. (Recent decades have seen the rise of “neo noir” films, as Elizabeth pointed out in a comment on Part 1). Unless the more recent films are meant as a strict parody of the earlier noir style, all those trenchcoats, fedoras, two-toned wingtip shoes (or spats, as in Smooth Criminal), and voiceovers of the hard-boiled tough guy – including the ’40s slang expressions he uses – are a thing of the past, and have a kind of “camp” value when used today. Even Billie Jean, in 1983, was “camping” on those old styles. Of course, the hyper-masculine characteristics of those “hard-boiled” figures persist; but their tone has shifted, and they’ve been updated with different clothing, voices, inflections, etc.
Because the detective in Billie Jean is, for our purposes, useless as a figure of identification on any level, Michael’s character functions as both the detective and the criminal. This makes him doubly alone. It’s no accident that he’s framed by himself in almost every shot. Here, where he’s leaning against the lamppost, oblivious to the detective, is one of the only moments where the two men are framed together in the shot:
And because the detective who has taken on this “case” is an incompetent buffoon, Michael is left to investigate himself, since investigation itself is a formal requirement of the genre.
Willa: That’s a fascinating way of seeing this, Nina! – that he is, in a way, investigating himself. He does seem to be interrogating himself in the lyrics …
Nina: Yes, the vehemence with which he defends his honor, seems at some point to turn around and become a self-interrogation. And I don’t know how, in the first place, they came up with idea of the noir style for the design of this film. Someone (probably Steve Barron, or he and Michael together) had to assess the song with an eye toward what kind of scenario would be most suitable. If you decide to use all the well-known elements of a noir/detective movie, then it follows that there has to be some kind of investigation!
When he arrives at the top landing, we see Michael framed as though he were looking through a window, observing whatever he views inside the room (we presume). Then the detective who has been pursuing him appears below. He is about to follow Michael upstairs, when the woman with the red phone, still sitting in the window, places a call. We don’t yet know who she calls, or why. But now it appears that Michael can move through walls, as we see him standing inside the room he was surveying from outside, just a moment ago – the same room where, in a few flashes, we earlier saw the four-poster brass bed and the curtains hung around it.
As an aside, here’s an endearing anecdote I found by Raquel Pena, the young woman who played Billie Jean all those years ago. She is interviewed by a blogger named Marc Tyler Nobleman:
Q: How was it to work with Michael Jackson? What was he like?
A: He was fantastic! I have worked with a lot of celebrities, and he was hands down, without hesitation, the sweetest, kindest person I had ever met and worked with…… He had such a playful, kidlike spirit. There were several sets designed for the different vignettes and I remember Michael would do funny things…like he’d sort of disappear into the maze and then pop out of nowhere and “boo” whoever was walking by (he got me more than once). He was working and serious one minute and then goofing around and just having fun with everyone the next.
Last scene of the video, I had to lie down in the bed (it was actually a wooden board with a sheet over it). They wanted to give the illusion that the body in the bed was Billie Jean. I remember looking up and Michael was staring down at me, and I was like, “OMG, Michael Jackson is jumping in under the sheet with me!”
At one point during the day, Michael pulled me aside and said, “You know you’re Billie Jean, right”—more as a statement than a question. He was trying to be serious, but he had that MJ grin … he was playing with me again. I found out later that he and his brothers used to call the zillions of groupies that were always after them a “billie jean” after an incident with one crazy groupie in particular who was really named Billie Jean.
Willa: Thanks for sharing that, Nina! I love her description that “he was hands down, without hesitation, the sweetest, kindest person I had ever met” and that “He had such a playful, kidlike spirit.” I can believe that!
Nina: Yes, it’s consistent with so many other testimonials we’ve heard, about how easy it was to work with Michael.
In the classic noir films, the criminal never gets away with their crime (as per the Production Code, which we discussed in an earlier post). But in the real world, we can fairly predict how these events will unfold, at least about one aspect of the situation. The detective climbs the staircase, as we’d seen Michael do moments earlier. Presumably the two would meet at the top landing. In any American city today, if a neighbor calls the police to report a disturbance, and if that disturbance turns out to involve a black man and a white one, then it probably won’t go very well for the black man – no matter how good-looking or well-dressed he may be.
Willa: Though by the time the police arrive, Michael Jackson’s character is gone, right? He dematerializes under the sheets on Billie Jean’s bed. So when the police arrive, all they see is a man with a camera taking a picture of a woman alone in her bedroom. They never see Michael Jackson’s character.
Nina: That’s right, Willa. When Michael slips under the sheets of the bed alongside Billie Jean, who is entirely covered by the sheet, he lights up the whole bed. He is fully clothed, which is probably disappointing to some of us. (All that fuss, and he doesn’t even so much as take off his shoes!) Meanwhile, the detective stands outside the window with his camera raised to his eye, while Michael vanishes, leaving a sleeping Billie Jean under the sheet. So at this point, the detective/photographer may well be perceived as a kind of “pervert” – a prowler, exhibitionist, or pornographer. At any rate, he’s clearly up to no good.
Here, a kind of realism, based on what we know about the world today, is turned on its head. The police nab the white “detective,” not the black “suspect.” The implication is that not only has an innocent man been allowed to escape, but the detective/paparazzo, a thoroughly shady character who elicits none of our sympathy, will probably be nailed for something.
Billie Jean’s narrative produces themes of false prosecution and an innocent man accused, in ways that seem remarkably prescient in light of later developments in Michael Jackson’s life.
Willa: Yes, that’s something Veronica Bassil explores in depth in her book, Thinking Twice about Billie Jean.
Nina: Yes, and it’s strange to consider that an artist might be able to foretell the events of their future – at least the basic outlines of what may occur later in their life. It’s as though they had a nightmare, and some version of it actually came true.
But for fans, too, the film’s outcome defies social reality in a way that may make it a dream of wish-fulfillment (Michael survives and his tormentor is punished). I imagine this would be especially true for people who followed Michael’s legal battles closely in the last years of his life. As the 1990s and 2000s wore on, the legions of corrupt and opportunistic tabloid writers and photographers – who impaired Michael Jackson’s reputation and hampered his freedom in many ways – caused heartache for those fans who have wanted to hold people like Martin Bashir, Diane Dimond, Maureen Orth, and even Oprah Winfrey accountable for their unfair treatment of him.
In Billie Jean, the two cops apprehend the detective at the top of the staircase, causing him to drop his camera. They lead him down the stairs, undoubtedly over protestations of his innocence (we imagine). In this improbable scenario, Michael has narrowly escaped arrest (or worse), but only by dint of his ability to disappear.
Consistently throughout his body of work in film, Michael Jackson plays characters who pass for “normal,” yet can transform themselves to escape detection. In Thriller, Ghosts, Remember the Time, Speed Demon, and other of his short films, Michael stands in for embodied physicality: a person who is transformed into creatures made variously of papier maché, clay, metal, fur, plastic, bone, ectoplasm, dead (or maimed) flesh, and even nothing: or at least nothing that can be seen. Again, “There was nothing left of the guy! Nothing at all!”
Yet there’s also a contradiction in the star’s life, where Michael Jackson’s own hypervisibility, from the time he was a very young child, required that he invent a number of disguises. There were undoubtedly times when he wished he could disappear. There’s a tragic irony that I imagine would apply to many well-recognized stars: Michael was seen by everyone, and no one. If anything, his hypervisibility ensured that he would remain profoundly unseen.
Here are the opening paragraphs of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel, The Invisible Man (1952):
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is it though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.
Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a biochemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality….
Willa: I’m so glad you brought in that quote, Nina, because it really gets to the heart of this idea of invisibility in terms of race – specifically the invisibility of black men. It’s always seemed to me that Michael Jackson is referencing these lines directly in the lyrics of “They Don’t Care about Us”:
Tell me what has become of my rights
Am I invisible because you ignore me?
Your proclamation promised me free liberty
I’m tired of being the victim of shame
They’re throwing me in a class with a bad name
I can’t believe this is the land from which I came
You know I really do hate to say
The government don’t wanna see
But if Roosevelt was living
He wouldn’t let this be
Especially the lines “Am I invisible because you ignore me?” and “The government don’t want to see” seem like a direct reference to Ralph Ellison’s “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” And his invisibility is an important element in Billie Jean, Speed Demon, Remember the Time, and Ghosts, as you pointed out earlier, Nina. But in all of those instances, he uses it to his advantage, as you said, while Ellison is protesting his invisibility. The key seems to be control, being able to appear invisible or visible – even highly visible – as needed.
Nina: I agree, Willa. And thanks for these lyrics – it had slipped my mind that Michael had used the idea of invisibility here. I’m sure he would have wanted to stage his own disappearances, and to control how and when his “episodes” of invisibility would take place.
In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recently-published memoir, we read about the death of Coates’ Howard University friend, Prince Jones. In his twenties, and the son of a black woman who worked her way up from poverty in the south to become a physician, Jones was pursued across several states by the police and eventually shot by an officer – although he bore no resemblance to the man they were actually looking for.
Then very recently, this news story broke: James Blake, a retired tennis star, who was mistaken for another man. He is leaning against a structure and apparently minding his own business, when he is abruptly tackled and brought down by an assailant, a plainclothes officer with the New York Police Department.
Willa: Wow, the image of James Blake leaning against the column of the hotel is reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s character leaning against the lamppost in Billie Jean, isn’t it?
Nina: Yes, and this is another case of a striking misrecognition. The plainclothes cop was looking for someone else. It would seem that the fact of having dark skin is enough to make a person hypervisible, as well as invisible (as Ralph Ellison describes it). As I mentioned earlier, about city dwellers walking past a window and pretending not to have seen anything (even violent activity), we note here that all the passers-by are “keeping their nose clean” and minding their own business.
Also, we’re confronted with the fallibility of the photographic image when it’s used as a way of identifying a suspect. According to an article by Shaun King about the James Blake case: “Not only was tennis star James Blake innocent, so was the other black man NYPD said he looked like.” Here’s Blake’s testimony:
I was standing there doing nothing — not running, not resisting, in fact smiling,” Mr. Blake said, explaining that he thought the man might have been an old friend. Then, he said, the officer “picked me up and body slammed me and put me on the ground and told me to turn over and shut my mouth, and put the cuffs on me.
As we contemplate what happened to James Blake, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and so many others at the hands of the police, we may recognize that the device of making oneself invisible for the purpose of sheer survival may not be such a pressing concern for those who are visibly white. Racial profiling is one direct consequence of the hypervisibility of dark-skinned people in this country; and for Michael Jackson, it was also a consequence of his extreme fame.
But for Michael, in another sense, invisibility and hypervisibility are flip sides of a coin. By being seen too much, by being ubiquitous, he was profoundly unseen. That motif of invisibility that we see across a number of his films, was perhaps his way of reflecting upon the ways prosecutors, the press, and the public are very quick to attribute wrongdoing to a person who is both widely seen, and also unseen in specific ways: that is, mistaken for another, misperceived, misrepresented, and falsely accused.
Also, Michael does a lot of looking. Throughout Billie Jean, we observe his calm, steady gaze, and we look at him looking at things.
Willa: That’s true. Except for the scenes where he’s dancing, he seems pretty contemplative throughout Billie Jean – and often he’s contemplating something that gives an indication of what he’s thinking.
Nina: If not the very content of his thoughts, then at least a sense that he’s lost in thought. Once we glean what the song is about, though, it all fits together: he’s preoccupied with this problem he’s telling us he has to face.
A few months ago, you and Joe Vogel were discussing D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film, Birth of a Nation. In that film we see very few closeups of the black characters (actually played by white actors in blackface). A closeup is one device that film (as opposed to live theater) affords us: a glimpse into the character’s state of mind. Even in a more distant shot we can sometimes see the actors’ expression and the direction of their gaze. Often the closeup will be followed by a “reverse shot” – the character is looking at something, and the film quickly edits to what he or she is looking at. In Billie Jean, this occurs when Michael first sees the homeless man who was partly hidden behind a garbage can, and also when he is wiping his shoe.
This is a very powerful cinematic device, and it’s so common that we probably take it for granted most of the time; yet it’s what glues us to the character’s point of view. Following from this, we develop a strong bond of identification with any character whose eyes we see through, whose voice we hear, whose inner life we can discern, through the film’s images and its sound – including dialogue, narration, or something else we can associate with that character.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Nina. It’s true that seeing something through the eyes of another person is a powerful way of creating a feeling of intimacy and identification. In fact, it’s the very basis of empathy.
Nina: Yes, exactly, Willa. Billie Jean establishes Michael’s eyes: closeups of his face, shots of him looking around him as he strolls down the street. We know his moods. He can be agitated (when singing and dancing), reflective and absorbed (when walking), and perhaps sad (when standing, and not singing). The agitation we feel through him, when he’s singing and dancing on the ribbon of sidewalk, is of course a function of his remarkable skill at physically interpreting any song through his voice and body, with just enough exaggeration; that’s the power of his performance style.
Following from your conversation with Joe, then, we can see that almost from the beginning of mainstream American cinema, we have rarely been afforded the chance to perceive the world through the eyes and ears of a nonwhite character, taking on their point of view. And at the time Billie Jean was made, early in 1983, there really would have been no major roles for someone like Michael, much as he aspired to branch out into film acting.
Since most Hollywood films (then and now) are made for white audiences, it may not surprise us to consider that white characters’ interiority – that is, their subjective point of view – will be prominent in the way the story is told. Black, Latino, Native, and Asian characters will assume their places as pure spectacle; only recently has this started changing. (The representation of women, of any race, has of course been discussed by feminist and other film scholars for decades now: it’s a huge issue, best left for another time.) In any case, in Billie Jean, we’re privy to a whole range of the character’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories – all of which are yoked to a black body. In some ways, it’s more personal than either Thriller or Beat It. Not until the Bad film do we have another such character study.
Willa: Though Beat It does have quite a few shots that seem to reveal the main character’s “interiority,” as you say – especially in the first half of the film. In fact, there’s one shot at the end of the pool hall sequence where we’re drawn so close to his face that his breath practically fogs up the camera lens …
Nina: True, but as I see it, he’s singing at that moment – not brooding, and not looking around. The essential thing about the closeup as a glimpse of a character’s interior state is that we see his gaze, and also what it is he’s looking at. That is, we should see his point of view. The face expresses the mood, but we must also look at the world through his eyes.
Willa: Oh, I see what you’re saying.
Nina: If he’s right in our face it’s more a self-conscious moment, as if he is breaking the “fourth wall” so to speak, by directly addressing the camera, and therefore, us. In this and other ways, Michael in Beat It is positioned as a “natural” part of a group. Although “different from other guys,” he’s a social creature in Beat It, while in Billie Jean he comes across as somewhat antisocial: an inveterate loner. In the end of Beat It, he even dances with the group; while in Billie Jean, he dances strictly alone.
Upon leaving Billie Jean’s room he’s invisible. We see his traces, however, as the pavement lights up under his feet on the sidewalk where he first appeared. The billboard reappears to the right of the sidewalk, this time with an image of the brass bed where Michael lately was – the display may be a haunting reminder of the memory that he wishes he could forget.
Willa: Nina! In all the hundreds of times that I’ve watched Billie Jean, I’ve never noticed that before! My eyes were always drawn to the rapidly moving trail of lighted tiles on the left side of the screen. But you’re right, at about 4:27 the billboard appears on the right side of the screen, and it’s now showing a view of Billie Jean’s bed. Here’s a screen capture:
Wow! Very interesting. So that reinforces the interpretation from our first post that the billboard seems to illuminate his thoughts or memories of Billie Jean.
Nina: True: it implies that wherever he goes, he may be haunted by this recurring image – it can spring up in front of him at any time. Our traumas are projected on a public surface for all the world to see. What a nightmare.
In the last few moments of the film, we see the two cops leading their “nabbed” detective down the street, and the formerly homeless man crosses their path, arm in arm with a woman (a date, we assume). Meanwhile, the uncanny presence of the “invisible man” is felt as successive tiles light up, marking his progress down the sidewalk. The tiger-print rag has reappeared on the sidewalk, and the large yellow cat enters the frame and appears to take it away, as the tiles continue to show Michael’s invisible (but perhaps felt) presence. The song and the image fade out.
Willa: Hmmm … that’s interesting, Nina. I’ve always interpreted that final scene a little differently – that the detective drops the tiger-print rag and then, once he’s gone, it magically turns into a tiger. So the tiger eludes him, just as Michael Jackson’s character eludes him – in fact, I feel in some ways that the tiger is Michael Jackson. Both are shape-shifters who use their supernatural ability to escape the detective, the police, the paparazzi … anyone who’s stalking them.
Nina: As I saw it, the “tiger” in Billie Jean seems to turn around and go back in the direction it came from – offscreen – while the tiles that light up continue moving forward. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to consider that the animal, like Michael, is a shape-shifter! Michael’s magic somehow rubbed off on him.
A word about the role of the paparazzi in “Michael’s” (and Michael Jackson’s) life. In Billie Jean, Michael is being photographed surreptitiously by the detective, which collapses the function of the paparazzi into that of law enforcement. I once read a sequence of articles about Michael Jackson that had been published in The Washington Post from 1982 to 1986. As early as 1984, and at the pinnacle of his success, I saw that there were already some signs that Michael Jackson would soon go from being the darling of the music world and a hero, to a figure of ridicule and derision.
This became the pattern for his life, as the Billie Jean film seems to oddly (and sadly) foretell. Even before the charges were first brought in 1993, the sentiment at large was that Michael’s celebrity – now linked to all things that are bizarre and over-the-top – had within it the seeds of criminality. That being the case, his only recourse would be to disappear: to remove himself from the prying gaze of the photographers and the public.
A photograph is itself “a lie [that] becomes the truth,” especially in its uses in the tabloid press, and elsewhere in the media. In Billie Jean, even when Michael shows up on the street leaning against a lamppost, the shot that comes out of that Polaroid Autofocus 660 camera in the store window reveals nothing of him, no sign that he had ever been there. “There was nothing left of the guy! Nothing at all!”
I continue to hope for more (and better) monitoring of those who represent the most powerful state in history, and whose actions make a mockery of the principles of American justice that have been loudly touted, and not carried out. The corruption that has existed within US political culture is something that traditional and present-day noir films could only hint at. Today, the police force is often equipped with dash cams or miniature recording devices. Hidden cameras in banks, retail stores, and streets are set up to monitor people, often without being detected, and certainly without permission. Yet at the same time, civilians are using iPhone and their own dashcam videos to ensure that the surveillors – who represent the state – can themselves be subject to surveillance, even by amateurs.
Willa: Yes, it’s like the panopticon is becoming a reality …
Nina: The panopticon (as conceived by 18th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham) was to be a way that one guard could monitor inmates in a prison, and they wouldn’t know they were being monitored. According to Wikipedia:
Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behaviour constantly.
So, we are back to the idea of the voyeur again, as in Rear Window; only this time, the apartment dwellers across Jeffries’s courtyard know that they are being watched – they just don’t know when! But this model definitely adheres to the existing, one-way power structure, and not its reverse. The guard can watch the prisoners, but they cannot watch him. And if Michael Jackson was watched by “everyone,” who could he watch?
Again, Ralph Ellison’s protagonist in The Invisible Man, who narrates in the first-person (like the classic film noir detective, and like Michael Jackson’s character in Billie Jean), is able to describe the perceptions others have of him. In effect, by holding up a mirror to those who claim to “see” him, he reverses the customary social pattern, debunking the idea that human perception is a simple one-way dynamic. There is, he says,
a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality….
Many of Michael’s adherents are inclined to do battle – with the media, with the public, and with each other – to ensure that the “truth” of Michael Jackson comes out (as if there were any unsullied, pristine “truth” to be found). But my feeling is that we’d be better advised to look into our “inner eyes,” those eyes that are capable of looking both inward and outward. Michael Jackson’s quest for self-knowledge in this regard may parallel our own.
As Michael Jackson memorably sang, with lyrics by Siedah Garrett, “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.”
Or to put it another way: in Rear Window, Stella, the insurance company nurse (played by Thelma Ritter) who takes care of the temporarily disabled L.B. Jeffries, remarks upon his habit of spying on his neighbors: “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.”
Willa: In late 2011, the Michael Jackson Academia Project posted two videos to YouTube analyzing Black or White and They Don’t Care about Us. Joie and I both thought they were interesting and well constructed – in fact, we liked them so much we published a quick post promoting them, even though we were both on Christmas vacation at the time. These videos were followed in February 2012 by two videos on the HIStory album, and again Joie and I thought they were thought provoking and well produced, and we encouraged others to watch them.
We also added the Academia Project videos to our Reading Room, providing recommendations and links, and we have kept them there ever since, even after the videos themselves were removed from YouTube for copyright infringement (something I strongly disagree with, by the way – those videos were analyzing Michael Jackson’s work, not pirating it, so I believe they should have been allowed to stay up under US copyright provisions for Fair Use). We hoped the copyright issues would be resolved and the videos would be republished.
In general, we believed the Academia Project was working to increase understanding of Michael Jackson and his art, and we wanted to support them. And I would like to continue to support them in producing positive work.
However, two days ago we received a pingback from the Academia Project website. They had just published a post accusing Joe Vogel of plagiarizing their work. I was very concerned by this because plagiarism is one of the most serious professional offenses that can be leveled against an academic – it can ruin reputations and careers – and those accusations did not square with my own experiences and observations from working with Joe. We have done several posts together over the past four years, including a post last April on the article at the center of the Academia Project accusations. I also read and provided comments on the first chapter of his dissertation, which later became that article. During the time I’ve known him, I have found him to be conscientious in recognizing the contributions of others who have gone before him, and generous in acknowledging them and expressing his gratitude for their work.
So I was deeply troubled by the allegations. I went to the Academia Project website and looked at their claims, and I found them to be without merit. Specifically, I came to the following conclusions:
First, academic writers must be scrupulous about attributing unique research data, ideas, perspectives, and turns of phrase to the people who originally collected or developed them. However, information that is considered to be common knowledge does not have to be cited. For example, if I wrote that Michael Jackson was from Gary, Indiana, I would not need to cite a source for that. And much of what the Academia Project is claiming as their unique contribution I consider to be common knowledge.
For example, the Academia Project notes that their video on Black or White includes this statement:
On 14 November 1991 the music video for Michael Jackson’s new single, ‘Black or White’, was premiered. The film was the most anticipated music video of all time and was televised simultaneously on MTV, VH1, BET, Fox and on channels around the world.
And they point out that Joe Vogel’s article includes this statement: “Michael Jackson’s 11-minute short film, Black or White, was the most watched music video premiere in television history.” This information is widely known – it has been reported numerous times, in many different sources, for more than 20 years. As such, I believe this qualifies as common knowledge.
Second, when documenting prior work, academic researchers try to cite the original source of an idea – and the Academia Project is not the original source for many of the ideas they are claiming as their own. For example, they point to this statement in their November 2011 video:
As the ‘Black or White’ video progresses, Michael sings “I ain’t scared of no sheets’ while bursting through imagery of a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning rally.
The ‘sheets’ referred to are the white hooded robes of the hate group.
They claim it is the source for this statement in Joe Vogel’s 2015 article: “The sheets Jackson refers to, of course, are the sheets of the Ku Klux Klan.” To me, this is a fairly obvious interpretation and doesn’t need to be cited. (In fact, I mentioned that the “sheets” referred to the Ku Klux Klan in M Poetica, published six months before the Academia Project videos, and I did not cite anyone.) However, Joe wrote of this connection in Man in the Music, which was published before the Academia Project videos were posted. Here’s what he says, in an image from page 159 of his book:
Again, I think the reference to the Ku Klux Klan is common knowledge and that Joe doesn’t need to cite anyone. However, if he did decide to include a citation, the Academia Project would not be the original source. I would need to do some research to find out who was, but I know Eric Lott mentioned it in “The Aesthetic Ante: Pleasure, Pop Culture, and the Middle Passage” – an academic article published in the spring of 1994 – and Armond White mentioned it even earlier, in a newspaper article that I believe was published soon after the video’s premiere in 1991.
Third, while the Academia Project’s videos and Joe Vogel’s article share some similar background information, those areas of overlap are only a tiny fraction of the overall scope of Joe’s article. For example, while the Academia Project focuses primarily on the political history of race and the civil rights movement, Joe takes a more theoretical approach and looks at the constructedness of race. He also focuses on constructions of gender, as his title suggests: “I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets: Re-screening Black Masculinity in Michael Jackson’s Black or White.” Gender isn’t addressed in the Academia Project video.
Finally, it is certainly possible and even likely for people working in similar areas, studying similar texts, to draw similar conclusions. For example, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz both developed the branch of mathematics called calculus at approximately the same time, working independently of one another and using very different notation. In another example, Samuel Johnson and Voltaire published remarkably similar novels (Rasselas and Candide) at the same time, though they lived in separate countries and wrote in different languages. Johnson himself remarked that if their books hadn’t been published simultaneously, neither author would have been able to counter the charge of plagiarizing the other.
My point is that as Michael Jackson’s stature continues to grow, the field of Jackson studies will inevitably become more crowded, with more and more people publishing analysis and posting opinions of his work. So there is bound to be some stepping on toes and jostling of elbows. However, while we may find that we disagree on some things – even strenuously disagree – it is imperative that we treat one another with respect and generosity of spirit.
I have seen too many instances of passionate fans allowing their passion to threaten or destroy something positive. The Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC) was a wonderful resource for disseminating information and sharing ideas. However, it was destroyed in large part by rival factions who could not settle their differences. And I was very disheartened to read a news article last week that a memorial in Germany may be dismantled because of ongoing disagreements between fan groups. This does not honor Michael Jackson’s legacy.
I would like to end by letting Joe respond to the Academia Project claims in his own words, from a post he published yesterday:
To be clear: My article on “Black or White” is not in any way derived from this fan’s videos, blogs, or other commentary. It is, however, indebted, to the scholars and critics I mention in my piece …
Over the years, I have interacted with numerous scholars, journalists and critics doing great work on Michael Jackson. They are overwhelmingly wonderful, generous, and civil, even when there are disagreements. I have had similar experiences with most Michael Jackson fans and fan groups.
It is my continued hope that those engaged in … attacks will instead focus on more positive ways to productively engage with Michael Jackson’s life and work.
His full post is available here.
Willa: This week I am very happy to be joined by Toni Bowers, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of four books and dozens of articles, including a fabulous article in our Reading Room, “Dancing with Michael Jackson: Baltimore and Its Discontents.”
Toni: Hey, Willa – thanks for this invitation. I’m a big admirer of your blog.
Willa: Thank you, Toni. It’s wonderful to have you here with me, especially since we have some very exciting news to announce! Toni and I are planning to publish a book on Michael Jackson as an artist, cultural figure, and agent of social change. It will be a collection of essays, and we’re hoping writers from many different disciplines and perspectives will contribute to it. Here is our Call for Papers:
And here’s a link to the posting at Academia.edu.
Toni: I am so excited about this collaborative project, Willa, and honored to be working with you.
Willa: Oh, I was honored that you asked me to participate. This seems like such an important and timely project.
Toni: Definitely. I think that it is the right time to recognize what Michael Jackson really achieved artistically and what a prescient voice his was when it comes to the civil rights emergency that our country is in right now. We hope to include voices from around the world in this collection of essays, but at the same time the project has a particular agenda in our US context – not only because of the specific civil rights issues that are erupting here, but also because this is the place where Jackson’s reputation and influence have suffered so much, and so unfairly.
Willa: I agree. I don’t think it’s coincidental that #BlackLivesMatter activists keeps turning to his music. As you wrote in your article, “the same structures of injustice that are permitting civil authorities to murder unarmed American citizens right now also hurt Jackson.” And also “Jackson achieved more than irresistible, superbly marketable tracks, or even magnificent music. His work also remains politically potent.” So in that sense, this is a good time to go back and take a close look at his work, and explore why it continues to speak to people so powerfully to this day.
But also, I think this is a good time because perceptions of him have changed radically in recent years. Scholars, especially, have gained a deeper appreciation of his work, but I don’t think those insights have filtered into popular opinion yet. Public attitudes have softened, it’s true, but I don’t think the public at large really understands yet the cultural significance of his work, or what was so extraordinary about him as an artist. So a volume of essays that brings those insights to a larger audience is important, I think.
And maybe the fact that public opinion about him is starting to shift, or at least soften, means that readers will be more receptive now to different ways of looking at him.
Toni: Well, I hope so. I know what you mean about the softening of opinion, but it is important also to recognize that there’s not really a single “popular opinion.” I think that many “black” Americans (again, not a single community, not a stable racial marker – these are the myths that perpetuate racism) never did turn against Jackson the way many “white” Americans did. Or more accurately, many “white” Americans had long looked askance at him out of embedded racist notions, and that simmering resentment, distrust, and even hatred were able to roar out in the context of the molestation set-up. I think that in a way, when we work on editing this collection we are helping to balance out the lagging and misinformed interpretations of his work that still often prevail in some communities, correcting them with more rounded, generous, and informed interpretations, based on actual thinking and evidence, like those that have long prevailed elsewhere.
Achieving that balancing act seems to me to have something in common with the delicate position of “white” Americans in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I fall into the “white” category, and I have no doubt that I can and must be an active ally. But I have also started to recognize that it is “black” Americans who are at the front of the line, who best understand what is going on, and whose voices must be heard. That community – or set of communities, which I think is more accurate – is leading the way, and should lead the way.
(I’m going to stop with the scare quotes, by the way, because they’re visually distracting. But if I say “white” or “black” again, I hope you’ll still hear my scepticism toward the fiction that those terms denote unchanging, clearly defined, tidily separate categories.)
Willa: I agree, though sometimes whites use that as an excuse to do nothing. It should not be up to blacks to solve racism. After all, it is white attitudes, for the most part, that need to change. So I agree that whites should take guidance from black leaders and writers and thinkers, but then we need to look within – both individually and institutionally – to help bring about the changes necessary to end the racism that continues to pervade American culture.
Toni: You’ve said it so eloquently. To paraphrase a wise man, we as privileged citizens need to “take a look at ourselves and make a change.”
I really want to find good ways to practice this balancing act with my white friends, who express real heartache and rage about what’s happening across the country right now. How to respond? I tried to get at this in “Dancing with Michael Jackson” (I don’t like the subtitle, by the way, and didn’t write it; I’d have suggested something more positive like “Learning from Baltimore” if it had been up to me) when I said that it is a pity that those already privileged expect the very people they are oppressing to educate them – or words to that effect. That’s really more than a pity, it’s a disgrace.
Willa: It really is, and one of the many things about your article that caused me to say, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” as I was reading it. So Toni, what led you to write your article?
Toni: It was a strange experience. To give any kind of accurate narrative, I’d have to begin by saying that I seem to have been one of only a few people on Earth who wasn’t especially aware of Michael Jackson in the 80s and 90s. There are complicated reasons for that, which may or may not interest you and your readers; I’m happy to expand, if so. But the bottom line is that when someone said “Michael Jackson,” I thought of “Rockin’ Robin” and “Ben” and “I’ll Be There,” songs I loved as a child. I heard Jackson’s music everywhere, I now realize, but I didn’t really listen to it, didn’t identify it as his or focus on him in any way at all.
It may have been because when I was small, my parents were very wisely grieved about his experiences as a child star with the Jackson 5. I did like J5, but when my parents looked at it they saw a re-run of the exploitation of their contemporary Shirley Temple, and they were horrified. I guess I picked up their disapproval and sadness, and just turned my attention elsewhere. Anyway, even though I was actually living in Pasadena when Jackson first danced “Billy Jean” at the Motown anniversary concert – I could possibly have bought a ticket! I’d move mountains to have that possibility again! – he just wasn’t on my radar screen.
Until the tabloids in the grocery store, of course, and all the “wacko” stuff. I’m glad to say that I’ve never purchased a copy of The National Enquirer or People, and didn’t read those stories that were all over the place. But even I, though pretty colossally oblivious, could not remain oblivious to Michael Jackson at that time – the headlines and pictures were everywhere, even on the TV. I’m sure I sat through some of the southern California “news” reports that he quotes in “Breaking News.” They sound eerily familiar.
I am ashamed to say that I didn’t much question the narrative I was being fed, either. It was very easy, too easy, just to accept that this person, this human being, was the worst kind of monster. I just believed it – still without giving it a lot of attention – based on absolutely nothing except those crazy headlines. It disturbs me now to realize that I participated in the injustice and character assassination leveled at Jackson during those years by not questioning what I was hearing. I cared a lot about Rodney King; I chose a job in Philadelphia in order to live a diverse city; but I didn’t connect the dots. I was the walking personification of unselfconscious white privilege. If I thought about it at all, I think I would have tended to link Jackson with OJ Simpson – two rich celebrities who got off. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to think about the racial piece, or about my own racism in conflating those two very different men.
Fast forward to 2015. Yeah really, 2015! That’s how long it took me to think this through at all. In January of 2015, I heard “You are Not Alone” after many years, and it was a revelation. I recognized the song, had surely heard it before, but didn’t know it, really. This time I was struck by its beauty as a piece of music, moved by the lyrics, and really, really impressed by the subtlety of the voice. Lo and behold, it was Michael Jackson.
That got me looking for more Jackson songs on YouTube. It surprised me that songs I already liked but hadn’t paid a lot of attention to (“Human Nature,” “We Are the World”) were all performed by this same guy! I was blown away by his version of “Come Together,” which I knew from John Lennon (who didn’t do it nearly as well, in my humble opinion). I listened again and again to “Smooth Criminal,” “They Don’t Care About Us,” “Fall Again,” “Don’t Walk Away.” And of course, because this was YouTube, instantly I was watching him dance – another amazing, astounding revelation. Then I watched the Bucharest concert and found that I was just sitting forward in the chair with my mouth open. I really had had no idea.
My response to being interested in something is always to do research, one of the great joys of my life. I just love to uncover and learn and put the pieces together. So I dove in really deep, and learned a lot fast.
Willa: You really have. I would never have guessed you were such a recent convert! I’ve been a Michael Jackson fan most of my life – since I was nine years old – and you’ve taught me some things I didn’t know.
Toni: I am still learning. I’ve read a lot, and watched and listened a lot, and memorized a lot, and corresponded with a lot of people. (Even John Branca very graciously wrote back to me.) I wrote that LARB essay, and – this makes me very proud – I’ve started learning to dance.
It was also in January that I returned from an extended time abroad, and began to catch up on the racist horrors that were happening here. And for once it all just came together in my mind. In fact, I’d like to make clear that I think of the LARB article not as something primarily about Jackson (though that’s how it’s been received, and being welcomed by the huge variety of communities of people who think about Jackson has been a really great experience) but about the racism and brutality that persist in the United States. Jackson is not only a representative for me – he matters in himself, as a person, for his brilliance, his courage, and the careful, responsible uses he made of his gifts. But he is representative, too. His experience seems to me to clarify the suffering that majorities inflict on minorities, the cruelty so easily practiced against anyone who draws outside the lines, and the degree to which we who have (entirely unearned) racial privilege are willing to put up with all kinds of ugliness in order to protect it.
Willa: I really like the way you explained that, Toni – that he’s “not only a representative for me – he matters in himself, as a person … But he is representative, too.” I feel that way also. His story is important because he matters – as an individual human being and as an artist – but also because it provides insights into larger cultural issues as well. His story forces us to take a hard look at race and difference and the American judicial system, as well as the media and public perception. What was it exactly that allowed perceptions of him to be so distorted for so long? That can really take you down the rabbit hole, raising questions about how we conceptualize black and white, masculine and feminine, adult and child, and a whole host of other rather artificial binaries – and also why we as a culture are so uncomfortable with those who dare to challenge or blur those distinctions.
So Toni, listening to you talk about your own shifting perceptions of Michael Jackson – your childhood love for “Rockin’ Robin” and “Ben” and “I’ll Be There” (three of my favorites as well), your drift away in the 80s, your acceptance of the dominant narratives about him in the 90s, and then your rediscovery of him recently – helps explain something that really struck me while reading your article. Academics like yourself seem to be increasingly drawn to his work – drawn to explore the depth and power and complexity of his work – and that’s a fascinating intellectual exercise. I can see why academics are so intrigued by him. But the best new articles not only engage with his work intellectually but also emotionally and even physically. I really sensed that in your article – that you feel a deep connection to his music and his dancing. For example, I love the way you talk about the sheer joy of his dancing. And now you’re learning to dance! Is that related to your interest in Michael Jackson?
Toni: Yes, entirely. It’s the joy and exuberance of his dancing that hooked me, fully as much as the artistic and intellectual excellence. It just looked like so much fun! Even though it was work for him, he obviously loved it. I liked that he experimented and practiced really hard, and that encouraged me to experiment and practice. Dancing at all was a totally new experiment for me, which I know is weird. I’ve found Michael Jackson’s music and dancing to be one of the most joyful places (as it were) on Earth. I’m grateful I finally got there.
Should I explain my background?
Willa: Yes, please.
Toni: Well. I was raised in an evangelical Christian home, and there were lots of rules designed, basically, to tamp down physical pleasure, confidence, and spontaneity. One major rule was No Dancing Ever. I never went to a high school dance, never danced at a party (no parties), never saw dancing at a wedding (if there was any, I guess we left first), never went to a concert that wasn’t classical music or something at church. I had to check with my parents to be sure it was okay to learn square dancing in gym class. All my socializing was at the church, and dancing was out for the kids there, too.
I was a serious violinist, gave piano lessons, loved music theory and how music is put together – how it works – and all that was approved at home. I loved, and still love, Protestant hymns, ethnic folk music (Jewish, British, Spanish, Mexican), spirituals and gospel; I’ve sung in a lot of choirs, first at church and then madrigals and renaissance music, Welsh music, much more sophisticated liturgical music in Episcopalian churches, lots of stuff. I deeply appreciate all the music I’ve had in my life, and I wouldn’t be me without it.
But a lot was missing, too, especially dance. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t lived in a subculture like that, but it probably never even occurred to me to dance. My world was a (softer) version of the Mennonite community Miriam Toews describes in her wonderful recent novel, All My Puny Sorrows. A lot more children than most of us recognize are growing up in repressive worlds, and those places tend to be especially repressive toward girls.
Anyway, by the beginning of 2015 when I noticed Michael Jackson at last, I’d long listened to lots of kinds of music, and though I still try to be a person of faith, my evangelical upbringing was firmly in the past. Even so, actually listening to Jackson changed something: it made me dance for the first time. I found that I could not watch his concerts (those I’ve been able to find on DVD) or even listen to his music without dancing, even though I knew nothing about dancing and had never danced. It was just impossible not to. So, I gave in. Now, many nights I spend an hour in front of the mirror trying to teach myself to dance a little bit more elegantly, with the volume way up. I’ve rediscovered Motown, and have found Stax and Chess records, and a lot of more recent voices that I won’t name-drop, but really, it’s mostly Jackson. He’s the one who gets me dancing. His is such a wide, deep corpus, and the recordings are of such amazing musical complexity, creativity, and craft. It’s just beautiful stuff.
Willa: It really is.
Toni: I do sometimes wish he’d used more time signatures, though. Anyway, I’ve been taking ballroom classes for a few months now, and am lined up for tap toward the end of the year. My ballroom teacher has even promised to teach me to moonwalk!
So yeah, Michael Jackson “taught” me to dance! (Ha ha, if only)
Willa: That’s awesome! So it sounds like, for you, dancing is truly an expression of personal liberation – from your own past, the repression you internalized in childhood that continued into your adult life. But in your article, you also suggest a number of times that dancing is a communal act, and a powerful political act. For example, I love the way you end your article:
To dance with Michael Jackson, to take his outstretched hand, is about more than honoring a difficult, extraordinary life and immense gifts — though it is high time we did that without grudging, judging, or telling lies. It is something we must do for ourselves and for each other — not in an attempt to keep ourselves safe from the present pain and danger, but to move farther into the most perplexing aspects of our own lives, and confront them with joy. It is a way of choosing the kind of future we want, and the kind of people we want to be.
Dancing with Michael Jackson will mean letting go of hatred and fear, acknowledging beauty in what seems strange to us, and being willing to take a chance. It will demand that we deal with other people imaginatively, empathetically, in what we think of as our own space, and with respect. In these ways, the dance Jackson invites us to dance is a kind of ethical practice. It is a way of living up to our creeds and professions, and of taking responsibility for our privileges.
Got the point? Good. Let’s dance.
Toni: Yeah, you’re right, I’ve learned that dancing is an “us” thing, not an “I” thing. It’s a leveller and a way of welcoming difference. As soon as I realized that, I became less self-conscious and found a whole new kind of joy.
And thanks, by the way, for giving the article so much space in your blog. (The quotation, apparently, is not quite correct: it should be “Get,” not “Got.” The commenters on the LARB site let me know that, so many thanks to them.)
The truth is that when I started watching/listening to Jackson, I wasn’t sure I could accept his ideas about popular music’s potential as a social catalyst for change. It wasn’t that the idea itself seemed wrong or untrue – as a materialist literary critic I am absolutely convinced of the power of art to change attitudes and practices, and I had no trouble accepting that popular music is indeed art – but there was a kind of quantity problem for me: all those thousands of waving arms, and where was the change? Also in terms of scale, there was the grandiosity of some of the productions, which it took me a while to realize were not designed for my little TV, but for stadiums seating 90,000 people. Still, I wondered: was dancing on stage, in these mass venues, for millions of dollars, really a political act?
So of course, time for more research. I found Jackson’s own words – in his books, songs, interviews – very helpful. But reading his writing also made me realize that in his case, words are only part of the picture: the meaning is in the whole thing – words, music, dance, his mysterious, perfect-pitch physical language of gesture and restraint. Critical writings like your close readings in M Poetica and Joe Vogel’s essay on Black or White demonstrated more than I had imagined, and were responsible to the whole picture in a really productive way.
Then getting into the biography, it became clear to me that Jackson didn’t just claim to be a political agent; he was really perceived as a threat to white supremacy in this country. Here he was, a young, working-class black man with epic-scale musical gifts and never-before-seen professional success. He was richer than Paul McCartney, for goodness sake, and he was so young! The very smart business decision to buy McCartney’s songs as part of that ATV catalog is still an affront to many people, even though Jackson first took the unusual step of making sure that McCartney and Yoko Ono weren’t buying. I had to ask myself: where does such violent and lasting resentment and disapproval come from? Does anybody blame other businessmen for making stupendous coups? I learned that the problem is not what Jackson did, but the racism that was always harbored against him, and the danger lurking in his really pioneering challenges to the identity categories that organize and limit our lives (as you mentioned above) – gender, race, age. Only that peculiarly combustible combination, I think, can explain the level of malice directed at such a gentle man.
So it dawned on me – I, a person who wanted to see a reorganized and more just world, was doubting the power of Jackson’s art to bring it about, but those who didn’t want their own supremacy to change understood very well that they were threatened by his work, and they really, really wanted to hurt him.
Willa: Exactly. Perhaps the strongest empirical evidence of the power of his work is the howling reaction it provoked …
Toni: … again and again.
It’s instructive to notice, in visual footage, how open Jackson was to people stepping up spontaneously to dance with him. I’m not talking about the selected fans who had those staged moments of closeness at concerts. (Those scenes have different kinds of significance that I would like to examine in an essay sometime.) I’m thinking now of tiny moments when somebody just steps up to dance with him, not to grab him or shout at him or demand something. Jackson looks simply delighted, and does everything possible with his body to welcome and include these ordinary people and their happy-but-not-brilliant dancing.
It’s similar to the delight he showed when Diana Ross struggled to keep up with him at the 1981 Diana Ross special. Here’s a video of the entire show, and their dancing begins about 8 minutes in:
Ross was obviously self-conscious about dancing next to him on this show, but he was just so happy to dance with her. (Yes, he is in love with her, but that’s part of the point, I think. He loves all the happy amateurs as well, and he just loves, loves, loves to dance with other people.)
I think that Jackson’s joy in dancing and his welcome to others are connected – mutually generative – and I think they’re political. What I’ve experienced has been a kind of political process – Jackson’s art changes me; it makes me think in new ways and risk new undertakings. And of course my experience is not unique: lots of people have had it, and will have it in the future, I think. So, yes – I’ve learned something new about an idea that I already believed in, but perhaps in a too-abstract way – that art has a peculiar potential to make people more complete, more accepting and imaginative. It offers new ways to experience and communicate joy with other people. I saw dance’s joyful welcome enacted by one of the most accomplished and imaginative dancers ever, without snobbery or calculation. The political potential of that kind of gesture is just immense.
Willa: It really is, and Toni, I love the way you phrased that. It was beautiful. I agree completely – in part because I’ve experienced the same kind of awakening through him – and it’s really wonderful to see that in action.
For example, just think of how he inspires communal dancing. A friend was planning a wedding a few years ago, and the DJ for the reception strongly advised her to include some Michael Jackson songs in the playlist. As he said, “No one gets people on the floor like Michael Jackson!” And then there are the Philippine prisoners dancing to “Thriller” – hundreds of prisoners in their orange jumpsuits dancing together. Through his spirit of dance, they were able to find joy and a creative outlet, even in prison. And of course there are the flash mob dances that continue to break out around the world, such as this enormous one in Mexico not long after he died:
Toni: Another thing that has taught me that the power he claimed for his art really is there is the truly amazing international reach his work has achieved, and how his songs continue to motivate and accompany and encourage political action around the world. I have been thrilled to be corresponding with people in Spain and Germany who saw and translated my essay, and to see #BlackLivesMatter marchers blasting out “They Don’t Care About Us.” Maybe it’s really only in mainstream (a.k.a., white) USA that we have all this tabloid baggage distancing us from the solidarity and beauty and joy that Jackson made available.
Willa: Maybe, though the British tabloids have been pretty awful as well – after all, they’re the ones who coined the phrase “Wacko Jacko.” And there have been tabloid articles printed about him in Moscow, Australia, Asia, … But I get your point – the way his work has touched people around the world is truly awe inspiring.
Toni: I see what you mean. It would be interesting to actually test my impression that people in this country are particularly reluctant to honor Michael Jackson. The British tabloid press is, if anything, even slimier than ours; maybe I’m being too categorical about the US. But even if it’s just as bad elsewhere (qualitatively; I doubt it could possibly be as bad as it was here in quantitative terms during what you elegantly call “the allegations” and I just think of as “the set-up”), it’s still true that Jackson remains noticeably without honor in his own country.
Willa: That’s true – tragically, shamefully true.
So thinking about your statement that “Michael Jackson taught me to dance” suggests another way in which his dance is political. The way he invites us to dance, almost compels us to dance, reconnects us with our own bodies, as you pointed out in your own story, Toni. And that can have profound implications.
For example, Eleanor Bowman feels that many of the most entrenched problems facing us today can be traced back to the way the Judeo-Christian tradition privileges mind over body, the spiritual world over the material world, as she explained in a post with us a while back. So by reconnecting us with our own bodies, and with materiality more generally, dance could fundamentally alter our relationship with the physical world – not just as a source of resources to be exploited, or carnal enticements to be overcome, but as something to be honored and celebrated and revered.
Toni: I’m familiar with that posting and Eleanor very graciously contacted me not long ago. It’s interesting to watch her thinking about dance, and about Jackson, through the old platonic split. I love the spiritual dimensions she explores, and how she shows Jackson’s work to be a challenge to the hierarchies and losses that kind of bifurcated thinking necessitates.
Willa: I agree, and I wonder if this disconnect with our own bodies is part of what’s behind that “odd furtiveness” in the way many people – especially people of privilege – react to his music, as you describe so well in your article:
On the same day as Reeves’s first videotaped dance, I was pacing around an expensive “specialty” grocery in Philadelphia. The muzak must have been buzzing away unnoticed until suddenly there it was: the air filled with an ageless, raucous beat, and “Thriller” came on. In an instant, everyone was moving. The man slicing the meat swayed ever so slightly left and right. The face of the armed guard at the entrance (the only person of color in the store) softened; he began to nod. A woman near me paused and gazed away. Feet tapped. For a mysterious instant, something that we needed and had lost became present again.
It was a great moment, but there was something missing, too. Though everyone responded to the music, it was with an odd furtiveness — not openly, communally, or with the infectious jubilation going on in Baltimore. No eyes met, no one laughed or sang, no one moved without restraint or melted into the beat. Another song came on. We went back to shuffling behind our carts and examining artisan cheeses. Nothing changed.
I immediately recognized what you were talking about, Toni, though I had never conceptualized it into words – and certainly not as evocatively as you did here. But you’re absolutely right – there is something “furtive,” almost shamefaced, in the way many people respond to him, as if they have been caught in a guilty pleasure.
I imagine partly that’s because of the allegations. (As the young friend you quote in your article told you, “Great music … but when someone got up to what he did with little children, he’s better forgotten.”) But I wonder if that “furtiveness” also arises from conflicted feelings about our own bodies – if too many of us have been taught that our own bodies are “better forgotten.” And his music insistently reminds us that, yes, we do have bodies, and they want to dance …
Toni: Right, yes. Though I still think it matters that there is a special kind of hesitation when it comes to Michael Jackson. People can’t resist the music, but as I saw in the Philadelphia grocery store, the joy is weirdly stifled and directed inward rather than outward to the world, as it was in Baltimore. The healing available in Jackson’s work so often is not shared, and that’s a way of diminishing it, or taming or denying it.
I think there’s a lot to be said about why it’s so difficult for so many Americans to look straight at Michael Jackson, and recognize and celebrate what he gave us – there are lots of reasons. But for me, our peculiar, venomous American racism is at the bottom of all the other explanations even when they’re right. Racism is just so hard to kill. It keeps morphing like a virus just when you thought it was conquered. Who is it serving, at this point? We need to ask that in this country.
One more thing, as far as the political functions of Jackson’s music goes – as you’ve mentioned already, we’re witnessing his voice’s power and ubiquity in the #BlackLivesMatter struggle. His work lives in public space, at this moment, more than it has in many years, and it is making a difference. To me, that’s just so, so great!
Willa: Absolutely. Well, thank you for joining me, Toni, and for allowing me to join you on the big adventure of collecting and selecting essays and assembling this new book. I sincerely hope it will awaken a much larger audience to the power and importance of his work.
Willa: One of the most intriguing features of Michael Jackson’s lyrics, I think, is the way he frequently shifts subject positions, looking at a story from one point of view, then another, and then another. This is something Joie and I have touched on a number of times – for example, in posts about “Morphine,” “Whatever Happens,” “Money,” “Threatened,” “Dirty Diana,” “Best of Joy,” “Monster,” and the Who Is It video – but we’ve never done a post that focuses specifically on his use of multiple voices. So I was very excited when Marie Plasse wrote this comment a few weeks ago:
I think that one of the most generally misunderstood or overlooked features of Michael’s art is the way he was able to occupy different characters in his lyrics and how … he expressed and explored aspects of his own psychic divisions and struggles. (It was perhaps a willful misunderstanding of this aspect of Michael’s art that precipitated, at least in part, the controversy over the lyrics of “They Don’t Care About Us.”)
This past fall I taught a full semester college-level course on Michael Jackson (“Reading the King of Pop as Cultural Text”) and one of the things the class found most surprising (but initially most difficult to do) was close-reading his lyrics and following the shifting perspectives. The complexities and the rapid shifts are really fascinating.
Marie is a professor of English at Merrimack College, and I’m very excited to talk with her about this aspect of Michael Jackson’s aesthetic that has intrigued me for so long. Thank you so much for joining me, Marie!
Marie: Thanks very much for inviting me, Willa. I’ve followed Dancing with the Elephant for a long time and have learned so much from your posts and the comments that readers send. I haven’t always had time to join in the comments as much as I would like, so I’m really happy to have this opportunity to talk with you.
Willa: Oh, so am I! And I’m so glad to finally have the chance to talk in depth about Michael Jackson’s use of multiple points of view. This is a recurring feature of his art, and a very important part of his aesthetic, I think – and personally, it’s something that has attracted me to his work for a long time. So I’m eager to find out more about how he uses it and how it functions.
Marie: I agree, Willa. Michael’s work as a lyricist is as complex as it is moving, and it’s so often overlooked as a key feature of his aesthetic. This might be because, as Joe Vogel points out in Man in the Music, Michael’s work as a songwriter is “much different from that of a traditional singer-songwriter like Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan” where the lyrics are much more “out front.” Joe goes on to suggest that Michael’s lyrics tend to get overlooked because they are only one of “several media to consider” amidst the music, short films, and dancing that are so prominently featured in his work.
But looking carefully at the lyrics on their own, and especially at their multiple points of view, reveals that Michael writes with great complexity and deep insight. I’ve gone back and reread all those posts you mentioned above in which you and Joie have talked about this quality of shifting perspectives and subject positions in Michael’s songwriting. I think you’ve already covered a lot of ground on this and opened up a lot of intriguing ideas about the possible meanings of the songs. So instead of offering my own close readings of certain lyrics, or at least before doing any of that, I thought I would try to think a bit further into this notion of multiple perspectives and voices to see where it might lead in a more general way.
Willa: OK, that sounds really interesting.
Marie: Reflecting on Michael’s use of multiple voices and shifting perspectives in his songs makes me think about his fervent interest in storytelling, which he talks about on the very first page of Moonwalk. His emphasis there is on how storytelling can move an audience and “take them anywhere emotionally” and on how it has the power to “move their souls and transform them.” He goes on to muse about “how the great writers must feel, knowing they have that power” and confesses that he has “always wanted to be able to do that.” He says he feels that he “could do it” and would like to develop his storytelling skills.
Just before this reflective section on storytelling ends and Michael swings into the beginnings of his own life story in the chapter, he mentions that songwriting uses the same skills as those of the great storytellers he admires, but in a much shorter format in which “the story is a sketch. It’s quicksilver.” Of course, we all know that by the time he wrote Moonwalk, Michael was already a masterful storyteller and his skills in this art only got better and better as time went on! He does “move [our] souls and transform them” very powerfully in his songs, short films, and performances, often using a multi-media approach that is much more complex than the traditional storytelling around the fire that he seems to admire so much as he opens the first chapter of Moonwalk.
Willa: That’s true. And I think you’ve raised a really important point in talking about how he conceptualized songwriting as storytelling. I was just reading Damien Shields’ book, Xscape Origins, and Cory Rooney talked to Damien about how important storytelling was in creating “Chicago”:
When working on the lyrics for the track, Rooney took inspiration from a conversation he’d recently had with one of Jackson’s collaborative partners – prolific songwriter Carole Bayer Sager – who urged him to write a song that tells a story. “[Michael] loves to tell a tale,” Bayer Sager told Rooney, so putting that advice into practice, Rooney went about writing a story for Jackson.
Rooney then passed that advice on to Rodney Jerkins, one of the authors of “Xscape”:
Rodney called me up and said, “Cory, we’re still confused. We don’t know what to write about. We don’t know what to do.” … So I told him, “Well, I got a little tip from Carole Bayer Sager. She told me that Michael is a storyteller. She said Michael loves to tell stories in his music. If you listen to ‘Billie Jean,’ it’s a story. If you listen to ‘Thriller,’ it’s a story. If you listen to ‘Beat It,’ it’s a story. He loves to tell a tale.”
So Carole Bayer Sager and Cory Rooney both confirm exactly what you’re saying, Marie – that Michael Jackson “loves to tell a tale.”
Marie: That’s a great connection, Willa. Thanks for reminding us about those passages in Damien’s book (which I thought was terrific, by the way. Thank you, Damien, for your wonderful work!). They really do underscore that Michael saw himself as a storyteller. And in order to have that power to move and transform an audience that he refers to in Moonwalk, a good storyteller definitely needs to be a master at crafting the point(s) of view from which the story is told, and to have the capacity to inhabit and express the experience of the story from those different perspectives (and the characters that they belong to).
Michael’s songwriting certainly displays his mastery of these essential aspects of good storytelling. As you’ve pointed out in so many different posts, he’s able to see his subject matter from many different perspectives and to shift in and out of those perspectives in interesting and meaningful ways. This is true across the full range of his work and, perhaps most interestingly, even within individual songs. He sees and he makes us see from all sorts of different angles and he occupies and places us in many different subject positions.
Willa: Yes, he really does. And often these subject positions and perspectives are ones that have rarely been considered before by mainstream culture. What I mean is, he frequently takes us inside the minds of outsiders – like the drug addict in “Morphine,” or the groupie in “Dirty Diana,” or the neighbor who has been labeled a “freak” and “weirdo” in Ghosts – and shows us the world from their perspective.
Marie: Absolutely, Willa. Clearly, the multiple subject positions and perspectives are in service of Michael’s larger mission of calling attention to the experiences of those who are “othered” or forgotten by mainstream society and who suffer for it. By shifting the perspective so often to these marginalized ones, he pushes us out of what may be our own relatively comfortable positions and makes us see through the eyes of the “other.”
And while we can easily agree that these features of Michael’s art are clearly those of a master storyteller, I would also venture to associate them with yet another literary tradition. Since I study and teach plays as part of my work as a literature professor, the multiple and shifting perspectives we’re talking about also make me think about what I would call Michael’s remarkably theatrical imagination. The way he tackles his subject matter through storytelling that imagines situations from different points of view and allows many different voices to speak reminds me of the special qualities of dramatic texts, where there is no single narrative voice, but rather the multiple voices of the various characters speaking directly to the reader or audience member in the theater.
Willa: Oh, that’s really interesting, Marie! It’s true that his songs often feel “theatrical” to me, and I think partly that’s because he tends to approach his songs visually, if that makes sense. For example, in Moonwalk he says,
The three videos that came out of Thriller – “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” – were all part of my original concept for the album. I was determined to present this music as visually as possible.
But I think you’re right – they also feel theatrical because they often sound like snippets of dialogue from a play, with interspersed lines spoken by different characters. I hadn’t thought about that before, but I think you’re really on to something.
Marie: What you say about his visual approach makes a lot of sense to me, Willa. I think that this visual approach to the songs in the short films is always what comes to mind first because the films have become so inextricably fused to the songs. And as we know, the songs lend themselves so well to the fully realized theatrical treatment that Michael gives them in the short films, where the different perspectives and characters in the song lyrics literally come alive in the embodied performances of the actors and the specific cinematic choices that structure the way the films are shot.
As we also know, Michael was meticulous in crafting the aesthetic and technical choices that governed his short films and live performances, working as a director rather than just the star. I remember seeing a number of comments from him on just how important camera angles – the very mechanism that creates perspective and point of view in film – were to him. I can’t recall specifically where I read this, but I seem to remember something that quoted him discussing the famous Motown 25 performance of “Billie Jean,” for example, where he explained that he designed exactly how his solo song should be presented through camera angles.
Willa: Yes, I remember reading that too. And you can actually see him controlling the camera angle in this video of the Jacksons’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At about 14:45 minutes in, he pauses in his prepared comments and says, “I don’t like that angle. I like this one” and motions to the camera straight in front of him. Here’s that clip:
Marie: That’s a great example, too, Willa! He really was determined to control the perspectives from which the television audience saw not only his performances but also his public appearances at award ceremonies.
Willa: Yes, he was! We don’t normally think of something like this as a “performance,” but he did, and he was staging and directing it even as he was participating in it.
Marie: Exactly! That’s a great way to put it, Willa. And there’s also the endearing story of how he taught his son Prince about film by watching movies with the sound turned off so they could analyze each shot visually.
Willa: Yes, I was really struck by that story also.
Marie: So the visual connection you made, Willa, falls nicely into place as one of the many things we know about Michael and his work that indicate that he thought deeply about the issue of perspective and the significance of multiple and shifting points of view, whether those were conveyed through song lyrics alone, through the complex visualizations of his songs that he created in the short films, or even in public appearances like the one at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But it seems that in all this the song lyrics themselves have not been given the full discussion that they deserve.
Willa: No, they haven’t.
Marie: Their complexity, especially their multiple perspectives, really carries a lot of significance, and I do think that they work in similar fashion to dramatic texts. In order to understand the story that a play tells, we have to follow each character’s perspective and listen to each character’s voice carefully. Unlike in conventional narrative fiction, a play text isn’t dominated by a single narrator who controls our perspective and interprets events for us. It’s through the interaction of many different perspectives and voices unfolding over time that the play delivers its message and overall effect. And since it’s set up this way, there is a certain openness to a play that leaves a lot of room for individual interpretation.
Willa: And possibly misinterpretation, as you mentioned earlier about the uproar surrounding the lyrics to “They Don’t Care about Us.” Part of the confusion was that many critics didn’t seem to realize that when Michael Jackson sang “Jew me, sue me / Everybody do me / Kick me, kike me / Don’t you black or white me,” he was adopting the subject position of a Jewish person in the first three lines, and a black person in the fourth line. Both Jews and blacks have experienced the kind of slurs he’s addressing in these lines, and through these lines he’s showing solidarity with Jews – which is the exact opposite of the intolerance he was accused of. As Michael Jackson himself said in response to the scandal:
The idea that these lyrics could be deemed objectionable is extremely hurtful to me, and misleading. The song in fact is about the pain of prejudice and hate and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems. I am the voice of the accused and the attacked. I am the voice of everyone. I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the black man, I am the white man. I am not the one who was attacking. It is about the injustices to young people and how the system can wrongfully accuse them. I am angry and outraged that I could be so misinterpreted.
So as you were saying, Marie, he adopts different personae at different moments in this song – just like the roles in a play. As he says, “I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the black man, I am the white man.” Those are the different characters in this “play.”
So if we approach this song like a play, as I think you’re suggesting, Marie, and if we consider that the lines “Jew me, sue me” and “Kick me, kike me” are being spoken by character – a Jewish character who is protesting the prejudice against him – then the scandal makes no sense. It suddenly becomes very clear that Michael Jackson is denouncing anti-Semitism, not engaging in it – just as he said.
Marie: That’s a great example, Willa, and a really great way of explaining the danger of misinterpretation that opens up when multiple voices and perspectives are put out there with no overarching narrative voice to explain what’s going on. These lyrics, like play texts, require us to navigate among all the different perspectives we’re given and to make our own decisions about how we understand the subject matter. And this navigation can be pretty tricky in something as compressed as a song where, as Michael pointed out, “the story is a sketch. It’s quicksilver.” The controversy that erupted about “They Don’t Care About Us” clearly demonstrates the great risk for misinterpretation that comes along with the “multi-vocal” mode he used to sketch the story in this song.
But of course that controversy also underscored the disappointing and misguided lack of understanding among mainstream critics of Michael’s lyrical abilities, among their other problems. They just didn’t expect and weren’t receptive to the complexity that is clearly there. Armond White’s brilliant discussion of the HIStory album in Chapters 10 and 11 of his book, Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles, addresses some of the larger issues at play in this controversy very well, connecting the critics’ misreading of the song’s lyrics to what he sees as white journalists’ habitual “denial of the complexity in Black artistry.” I think that White’s arguments about how the lyrics to “They Don’t Care About Us” work and about what drove that awful controversy are spot on.
Willa: I agree, though there may have been some corporate intrigue going on as well, as D.B. Anderson discusses in “Sony Hack Re-ignites Questions about Michael Jackson’s Banned Song.”
Marie: Yes, there’s probably a tangled web there, Willa, though from what I understand, critic Bernard Weinraub was not married to Amy Pascal, the Sony executive, until 1997, and his scathing New York Times review of “They Don’t Care About Us” appeared in 1995. Still, it appears that tensions between Michael and Sony existed even then, so it’s hard to know exactly what motivated that review.
But looking at it purely in relation to our discussion of lyrics, it seems clear that Weinraub didn’t read the so-called slurs in context and missed Michael’s intended purpose, which was to speak from the position of those being attacked. However, I also think that part of what makes those lyrics a lightning rod for the charges that Weinraub and others made is that since the words need to follow the staccato rhythm that drives the verses of the song, they are fairly elliptical, meaning that some key connecting ideas are left out in order to achieve that rhythm.
Willa: Oh, that’s an interesting point, Marie.
Marie: The lyrics in the verses of this song are really minimalist – they attempt to convey a complex set of observations and feelings in a really compressed way. In part, the compression is required by the medium: songs are short, so it wouldn’t work to go into long discourses.
But the shape of the verses and the way they spit out their words in a very truncated, staccato fashion is also part of the intended message and effect. The prejudice, hatred, oppression, and abuse that Michael rails against in the song do hit and bash, literally and metaphorically, and that’s what the pounding rhythm of these words conveys, along with Michael’s own disgust and frustration with these circumstances. The first verse sets the tone, offering a general picture of a world gone mad:
In the suite
On the news
The second verse is a bit more challenging to understand, as the first-person narrator takes on the shifting subject positions that we’ve been talking about:
You can never
You can never
Black or white me
Clearly, Michael is alluding to his own recent tribulations here in lines like “Beat me / Hate me / You can never / Break me,” “Sue me,” and “Don’t you / Black or white me.” And “thrill me,” which at first seems out of place in this string of negative action verbs (“beat,” “hate,” “kill,” “kick,” etc.), also links the speaker here very directly with Michael Jackson, in an obvious allusion to “Thriller.”
Willa: Yes, I think so too.
Marie: But while we might first associate “thrill me” with “Thriller” or with something more generally positive, as in the colloquial usage “I’m thrilled to be talking with you here, Willa,” the word “thrilled” can also refer to excitement of a more negative or scary sort, like the fear we might feel at a horror movie. And read in the context of the “will me” which precedes it, “thrill me” might well be alluding to the terror Michael felt as the force (or “will”) of his accusers, the criminal justice system, and the media pressed in on him. So Michael is packing this one word with a lot of meaning: it’s a blatant, even defiant, allusion to his own phenomenal success with “Thriller” and to his reputation as a thrilling performer, but it also falls in line with the more negative actions that are stacked up in these lyrics. All together, though, Michael can be pretty easily understood to be saying something like, “Go ahead, do your worst, but you’ll never defeat me.” That’s clear.
But beginning with “Jew me” in line 9, the point of view shifts radically, as Michael starts speaking in the voice of a Jewish person who is the target of anti-Semitic slurs, making that person speak in that same “go ahead, do your worst” mode that he used in the earlier lyric. Here, the Jewish person seems to be saying, “Go ahead, call me those awful names, but you’ll never defeat me,” very much parallel to the mode of expression that was used in the lyrics a few lines earlier.
Willa: I agree.
Marie: But again, the actual expression here is elliptical and relies on the listener to recognize the parallel. And the lyrics don’t stick with this Jewish person’s point of view for long. Michael very quickly mixes in language that seemingly shifts the point of view back to his own personal situation, with “Sue me.” Then he switches back to the perspective of the Jewish person targeted by the anti-Semitic slur with “Kike me” and quickly follows that with a return to something that would be read as more directly related to himself, “Don’t you / Black or white me.”
If a listener is not following the shifting perspectives carefully, or if they are not even aware that this technique is being used, as seems to be the case with so many critics, then it would be pretty easy to decide that there is only one narrative point of view here and that the voice of the narrator is always Michael Jackson, speaking about his own personal situation and expressing his own point of view. As an English professor, I can’t help but be frustrated at the fact that the critics were making one of the most elementary mistakes you can make when reading literature, which is to confuse the speaker of the piece with the author.
Willa: Yes, it almost seems like a willful misreading of what he was saying.
Marie: Exactly. It’s not just that these critics are bad students of literature! There were many reasons for the media’s “misreading” of these lines. By the time this song was released in 1995, the general practice of attacking and ridiculing Michael was well established, fueled by complicated social and political energies that are now finally being carefully explored by many good scholars, journalists, and bloggers.
But if we look with attention at what is actually there in the words of the lyrics, we can see that by shifting the point of view so quickly, Michael is rapidly stepping in and out of different roles with the same kind of agility that he steps in and out of the choreographed group dances in his performances. He speaks for himself and about his own specific situation, and then he puts himself in someone else’s shoes and speaks their troubles, too. The effect of all this shifting is to erase the distinction between himself and others, to express solidarity and understanding in relation to those who are oppressed in different ways, and by doing so, to define really carefully the “us” that is the subject of the song and the focus of the chorus.
Willa: Yes, that’s a beautiful way of explaining this, Marie. And this ability “to erase the distinction between himself and others,” as you say, and “express solidarity … to those who are oppressed in different ways” is made very clear in the videos for the song, especially the original video – the one that’s become known as the “prison version.”
For example, in this screen capture, we see him in handcuffs with his hand positioned like a gun and his finger to his head, as if he’s about to be shot – and on the TV screen behind him, we see a prisoner of war in handcuffs who is about to be shot. In fact, this prisoner is shot as we watch, which is shocking and horrifying. And as this is happening, Michael Jackson sings “Bang, bang / Shot dead / Everybody gone bad.” So through the lyrics and these dual images, he makes a direct and visceral connection between himself and this anonymous prisoner.
By juxtaposing numerous images such as these, he links racial injustice in the US with war in Southeast Asia and hunger in Africa and political oppression in China and urban poverty in Brazil. In other words, he isn’t simply protesting the injustices he’s facing from a racially biased criminal justice system here in the US. He’s also linking that injustice with political, economic, and military oppression around the world.
Marie: Good point, Willa, and another terrific example. I think what you’re identifying when you say that the film makes clear that the perspective offered goes beyond Michael’s personal one reflects precisely the way a particular “production” of a play script works to clarify the words on the page by actually dramatizing the situation and embodying the different perspectives from which the characters speak. The particular creative choices that a production demands typically serve to specify and clarify those “open” or ambiguous elements that a written script presents.
So while the “They Don’t Care About Us” song lyrics alone might leave room for the kind of misinterpretation you mentioned earlier, the “prison version” makes it clear that the “me” who is speaking in the second verse of the song can be generalized to encompass all those who have been oppressed by hatred and violence, as in the example from the screen capture above. What we get in the film is a clearer and visually rich version of what the song lyrics tell us in much more elliptical terms, namely that Michael deliberately identifies with these many different oppressed individuals as part of an “us,” rather than as a more distant “them.” To me, this is emblematic of the often misunderstood beauty and power of the HIStory album as a whole. Michael’s personal anger and frustration extend beyond the personal to encompass much more than that.
Willa: I agree, and that’s part of what makes him such a powerful artist, I think.
Marie: Yes, absolutely. But in the lyrics to individual songs like “They Don’t Care About Us,” all this unfolds very fast (as Michael said, songs are “quicksilver”), and without clear markers to clarify who is speaking, as one would find in an actual play text where the speeches are preceded by the speaking characters’ names. The complexity of what Michael is doing here is easy to miss if you’re not paying attention or if, as I think many of the critics were, you’re responding with a pre-ordained agenda in place.
Marie: But to move on a bit from “They Don’t Care About Us” and take this playwriting angle I’ve suggested a step further, we might say that one way to think about the multiple perspectives and voices Michael creates in his songs is to note that they are often used to set up explorations that are structured as powerful conflicts (between individuals or ideas). Conflict is a key element of the storytelling that goes on in plays (and many other forms of literature as well), and it’s one of the basic ways that these texts keep us interested. We get invested in the struggle, we want to see what the terms of it are, we might identify with a certain character within it, and we want to see what happens in the end.
Willa: Oh, absolutely – either conflicts in personal relationships, like we see in “Billie Jean” or “In the Closet” or “Whatever Happens,” or between groups of people, as in “Beat It” or “Bad.” Or an individual fighting authority, as in “Ghosts” or “This Time Around.” Or internal conflicts, as in “Will You Be There” or “Stranger in Moscow.” Or large cultural conflicts as in “Earth Song” or “Black or White” or “HIStory” or “Be Not Always” or even “Little Susie.” That’s a really important point, Marie. A lot of his songs are driven by powerful conflicts, as you say – though often in complex ways where the protagonist sympathizes with the antagonist to some degree, so it’s rarely a simple “us” versus “them” situation.
Marie: That’s a really good survey of the different kinds of conflicts Michael lays out in his songs, Willa, and I love how you can pull those titles together so quickly! It’s so much fun to talk with you about this topic! And yes, I agree that while many songs start off with clearly drawn conflicts, they end up complicating those basic oppositions, but we can see very clearly even in songs that remain starkly polarized how he evokes both sides really powerfully and is able to deftly sketch out what’s at stake in the conflict by invoking the shifting subject positions we’ve been talking about.
Willa: Yes, it’s really remarkable.
Marie: In “Scream,” for example, where it’s clear in the first part of the first verse that he’s expressing his opposition to the abuse he suffered from the press and the culture at large after the 1993 allegations (“Tired of injustice, tired of the schemes . . . as jacked as it sounds, the whole system sucks”), he follows up in the second part of the first verse with a more detailed invocation of the conflict, using the “you” pronoun in opposition to “me,” “mine,” and “I”:
You tell me I’m wrong
Then you better prove you’re right
You’re sellin’ out souls but
I care about mine
I’ve got to get stronger
And I won’t give up the fight
The rapid oscillation of the pronouns here makes me think about how spectators’ eyes move back and forth as they watch a tennis match between opposing players. The back and forth between the perspectives of the “I” and the “you” reads at first like a verbal argument (“You tell me I’m wrong / Then you better prove you’re right”), but the same opposing pronoun structure is used to ramp up the stakes of the conflict really quickly in the next couple of lines: “You’re sellin’ out souls but / I care about mine.” Now the apparent argument about who’s right or wrong takes on much larger proportions, with the “you” attached to the evil-sounding act of “sellin’ out souls” (which works both metaphorically as a way of describing terrible betrayal in economic/religious terms, and more literally in connection with the greed that was involved in the efforts to destroy Michael) and the “I” declaring how important his soul is to him and vowing to get stronger so as to keep up “the fight.” In just a few lines, the really high-stakes conflict has been sketched out for us.
Willa: It really has. And it’s made all the more intense because of the very real conflicts he was facing, conflicts that can lead us to fill in the “you” position in different ways – as referring to the media, the police, the judicial system more generally, the music industry, the insurance industry, the specific accusers, the general public, and so on. The ambiguity of that unspecified “you” lets us fill in that slot with a multitude of characters who were complicit in “selling out souls.”
Marie: That’s a great insight, Willa. I think you’re right about how that “unspecified you” works as an open slot that can be filled in with a number of different characters. And in typical Michael fashion, things get even more complicated in the chorus, where the second person “you” references shift really quickly as the lines move forward:
With such confusions
Don’t it make you wanna scream?
(Make you wanna scream)
Your bash abusin’
Victimize within the scheme
You try to cope with every lie they scrutinize
Somebody please have mercy
‘Cause I just can’t take it
Here, as in other songs, the “you” is ambiguous, and expansively so.
Willa: Yes, and I like the way you put that, Marie. It’s an “expansive” you that can stretch to encompass all of us listening to his words.
Marie: Yes, it addresses us directly and urges us to join in and identify with the speaker in his indignant question (“don’t it make you wanna scream?”) but it also sounds like he is addressing himself, as if he is suddenly on the outside looking in and asking himself about what the circumstances make him feel, just to double check on the accuracy of his feelings, or perhaps to give himself temporary relief from occupying the besieged position of “I” in this scenario. And the call and response from the background vocal that repeats “make you wanna scream” suggests yet another perspective, from a chorus that is echoing this idea, as if to confirm that yes, all this does make you wanna scream.
In the next two lines, the perspective referenced by the second-person pronoun “your” seems to shift dramatically, to those victimizers who are perpetrating all the things that make “you” and the speaker himself want to scream: “Your bash abusin’ / Victimize within the scheme.” Then in the following line, we’re back into the perspective of the previous “you” who is reacting to all this: “You try to cope with every lie they scrutinize.”
And finally, the last two lines of the chorus land squarely in the first-person, pleading, “Somebody please have mercy / ’Cause I just can’t take it,” and the rest of the chorus expands this plea into a more aggressive demand to “Stop pressurin’ me,” with the first-person objective pronoun “me” repeated eight times, once in every line, so that it’s painfully clear who is experiencing all the pressure! The effect of all this for me – the shifting perspectives described by the quick pronoun shifts – is that I feel like my head is being spun around! Trying to follow the perspectives creates for me a version of the “confusion” that the speaker is describing and makes me able to imagine just a tiny bit of what it must have felt like to be in the whirlwind of abuse that Michael went through.
Willa: That’s a great description, Marie! And maybe this “confusion” also works to complicate the distinction between the heroes and the villains. Because there are so many shifts in perspective, the “you” is accused of “bash abusin’ / Victimize within the scheme” but is also asked, “Don’t it make you wanna scream?” as you say. So maybe the villains are pressured by the system too? Maybe it makes them want to scream also? And maybe we need to look at our own complicity in the system and change our own ways also?
Marie: I like that reading very much, Willa! It goes along with the idea from the first verse where Michael says, “The whole system sucks.” So it would make sense that the villains are caught up in it in ways that are harmful to them as well, whether they admit it or not. Your point about our own complicity in the system is interesting, too. We know from songs like “Tabloid Junkie” that Michael doesn’t let us off the hook either, as he reminds us of the role we might play in the system, specifically through the consumption of tabloids: “And you don’t have to read it / And you don’t have to eat it / To buy it is to feed it . . . And you don’t go and buy it / And they won’t glorify it / To read it sanctifies it.”
Willa: Exactly. That’s a great connection, Marie.
Marie: It’s also really interesting, too, that since “Scream” was recorded as a duet with Janet, the speaker who utters “I” literally shifts as each of them sings their assigned part. Janet’s sharing the lead vocal with Michael is a solid act of support for her brother (even before she appeared with him in the short film). When she sings as “I,” she’s singing from his perspective in all the “confusion” and also joining in his opposition to it.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, and a really important point, Marie. I hadn’t thought about that before, but you’re right. And again, the ideas expressed in the lyrics are reinforced by the video, where Janet and Michael Jackson are repeatedly pictured as almost mirror images of one another, identically dressed and reflecting each other’s feelings and facial expressions. Here are some screen captures:
So unlike a play, where one actor would typically play one character while the other plays a different character – for example, where one might play the victim while the other takes on the role of victimizer – in Scream it’s like they take turns playing the same character. That’s really interesting, Marie.
Marie: Exactly, Willa. And as they take turns playing the same character, I think that what we see, particularly in Janet’s willingness and ability to take on the role of the victim in “Scream,” is a clearer, more easily understood version of what Michael does on his own in so many songs where he himself takes turns playing all the characters, as in “They Don’t Care About Us.” In Janet’s case, it’s clear that she empathizes with her brother and can understand deeply what he’s going through. She shares and can give voice to his anger and frustration, not only because she’s his sister and she loves him, but because as a famous artist she’s also in the public eye and knows what it’s like to be subject to the abuses of “the system.” (And just think, “Scream” was recorded long before the infamous 2004 Superbowl “wardrobe malfunction” that blew up into such a nightmare for Janet.)
Thinking about Janet’s role in “Scream” also reminds me of that great moment at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards when the Scream short film won the award for Best Dance Video. When she went up to accept the award with Michael, Janet appeared in a cropped t-shirt that said “Pervert 2” on the back!
Willa: I was just thinking about that! As you were describing so well how she shoulders some of his burden in “Scream” by stepping into his subject position and speaking from his perspective – “giv[ing] voice to his anger and frustration,” as you said – I suddenly flashed on her in the “Pervert 2” t-shirt. That really was a powerful act of solidarity.
Marie: I love how, by choosing to wear this shirt at such a widely viewed event, Janet performs a really cheeky extension of her identification with Michael in the song and the film, as if to say, “Well, if my brother is a pervert, then so am I!” Here’s a link to the awards telecast. Janet appears in the shirt right around 1:15.
The larger point here, though, is that Michael’s skill at incorporating different subject positions and points of view in his song lyrics allows him to convey so many complex and important messages in the space of the “quicksilver sketch” that the song medium requires. As Janet did with Michael in “Scream,” Michael is able to forge strong connections to the “others” that he invokes through the shifting points of view in many different songs. It’s not always about this same level of empathy that Janet displays in “Scream,” but it does suggest how important it is for him to present many different perspectives and voices. And it’s significant that he chooses not to just describe them in the third person (“he did this” or “she feels that”) but to speak “as if” he himself were these other individuals, as he does in “They Don’t Care About Us.”
Willa: I agree, and in doing so he immerses us as listeners in those subject positions as well – not only in “Scream” and “They Don’t Care about Us” but in many other songs also.
Marie: To me that demonstrates a remarkable spirit of openness, generosity, community, and heartfelt interest in people and situations beyond himself – all those qualities that we recognize and admire in Michael.
Willa: Yes, absolutely, and a lifelong habit of empathy that led him to reach out emotionally and try to consider a situation from many different perspectives, even perspectives in opposition to his own.
Marie: And just like Shakespeare and his contemporaries who worked so masterfully within the confines of the conventional fourteen-line, rhymed sonnet form, what he does is remarkable to me precisely because he’s working in such a compressed form with so many of its own constraints – song lyrics can’t be too long, they need to work with the musical rhythms and pitches of the song, they need to be pronounceable for the singer, in most cases they need to rhyme, etc.
And while it may sound crazy, I mean to draw the Shakespeare analogy here very deliberately. I specialize in Shakespeare, so he’s always on my mind and I can’t help but make the connection. But more importantly, I think that Michael’s lyrics are overlooked or misunderstood (as they were with “They Don’t Care About Us”) in part because people in general, and especially certain critics, are often reluctant to think of pop song lyrics as complex forms of language that spring from poetic impulses that are not that different from Shakespeare’s or those of any other venerated poet.
Willa: I agree completely – though coming from you, as a Shakespeare scholar, that means a lot!
Marie: As we’ve said, going back to the commentary I mentioned earlier from Joe Vogel, with Michael’s work there are so many other “channels” of expression to pay attention to – the music, the dance, the films, the live concerts – in short, the full spectacle that comprises the incredibly compelling pop phenomenon known as “Michael Jackson” – that the complexity of the lyrics alone is often overlooked. (And this is even putting aside the additional effects of all the controversies and tabloid distortions that played into how Michael was viewed from the mid-1980s onward.) But I also think that there’s a certain elitism that comes into play that’s connected to the divide that still persists in some people’s minds between so-called “high culture” and “low culture” or “pop culture.”
Willa: Absolutely, and it’s really curious how that line is drawn. Of course, for some critics no pop music is high culture. But even for those who concede some ground to popular music, the distinction often feels arbitrary. For example, for some reason U2 is generally regarded as high brow and the Beach Boys are not, even though the Beach Boys were much more experimental musically, incorporating complex arrangements and harmonies and pioneering new recording techniques that changed the course of music history.
That’s just an example, but my point is that the division between “high” and “low” art often doesn’t make much sense, and seems to depend more on some academic “cool” factor rather than artistic merit.
Marie: The Beach Boys example is a great one, Willa. I recently saw Love and Mercy, the new film about Brian Wilson, and learned so much from it about how complex and innovative Wilson’s music was. A lot of recent academic work has critiqued that “high/low culture” divide and there are many music and cultural critics who don’t let it stop them from taking the work of popular artists seriously. (Serious considerations of hip-hop, for example, have been under way for a long time now, as evidenced not only in the music press, but in academia, where we see specialized journals, books, courses, and even college-level majors and minors in hip-hop studies.)
But as we know, Willa, as an artist whose popularity was (and still is) unprecedented around the world, Michael was often mistakenly pigeon-holed as just an “entertainer” focused mainly on mainstream commercial success as shown in record and ticket sales, rather than being viewed as a serious artist whose keen intelligence, sharp social insight, and nuanced emotional understanding got expressed in the language of his lyrics as well as in all the other media he used.
Willa: Absolutely. You expressed my feelings exactly, Marie, though much more elegantly than I could. And it continues to mystify me how critics could have overlooked and undervalued his work for so long.
Marie: It is hard to fathom, for sure. But working on this post has made me see even more clearly that there really have been a bunch of different obstacles preventing the kind of careful consideration and appreciation of Michael’s lyrics that we’re trying to do here. And I think we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what there is to say about how Michael’s lyrics use shifting subject positions, Willa!
Willa: I agree, and thank you so much for joining me, Marie, to try to gain a better understand of all this. You’ve given me a lot to think about, and I really appreciate your insights into the “quicksilver” quality of his songwriting – of his ability to not only tell a story but sketch out a miniature drama in his songs. I’m really intrigued by that, and want to ponder that some more. Thank you for sharing your ideas!
Marie: It’s been a pleasure, Willa. Thanks again for coming up with this topic and inviting me to think about it with you!
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.