Why Dance with an Elephant?

Joie:  So, “Dancing With the Elephant.” Pretty strange title for a blog about Michael Jackson, huh? Well, not really. Not once you understand where my friend and I are coming from and how this blog came to be.

My name is Joie Collins and I am one of the dedicated individuals who helps run the MJFC (Michael Jackson Fan Club) website. Needless to say, I’m a huge Michael fan and have been since I was a very small child watching the Jackson 5 perform on Soul Train. I’ve been doing what I do for MJFC for a long time and I love it! I get great satisfaction out of overseeing the website’s News page and answering the website’s business mail. Recently, I’ve had the great pleasure of getting to know Dr. Willa Stillwater when I agreed to read her new book, M Poetica, and give her my honest, gut-reaction from a fan’s point of view.

I’m not sure she knew exactly what she was asking of me at the time. As you know, we MJ fans tend to take our opinions very seriously! And, as you may have guessed, my “honest, gut-reaction” sparked an immediate, heated debate! Willa and I went back and forth and back and forth over various topics and points covered in her book. I would tell her all the things I loved about it, but I also pulled no punches in telling her what I hated about it. And she would counter with all the reasons why she had written it the way she had written it and I would explain to her why I felt the way I did and why most fans would agree with me. This went on for a couple of weeks, and finally she and I began to understand that we had hit on something special.

What we realized is that, during our debates, we actually had some pretty interesting discussions about Michael Jackson, his art and his music. We were talking openly and honestly, having real, in-depth conversations about the work of the greatest entertainer of all time. And even when we were disagreeing (which happened a fair amount of the time), we both always came away from the conversation with an enlightened point of view, and a new way of looking at the King of Pop than we had previously. So we thought… what if we continued the conversation on a larger scale? And what if we invited all of you to witness that conversation and even take part in it yourselves?

Still doesn’t explain the name though, right? Well, we wanted a name that spoke to both of us and also had relevant meaning to Michael himself. We all know how deeply Michael felt about the majestic elephant. He loved them! Gypsy and Babar were among his favorite animals at his Neverland Valley Ranch zoo. He even wrote a beautiful essay about elephants in his book, Dancing the Dream called “So the Elephants March.” In it, he talks about the lessons that elephants have been trying for centuries to teach man. He writes, “But the elephants’ most important message is in their movement. For they know that to live is to move. Dawn after dawn, age after age, the herds march on, one great mass of life that never falls down, an unstoppable force of peace.” I think that last part describes Michael pretty well. “An unstoppable force of peace.” In many ways, that’s what he himself was.

For me, not only are elephants amazing animals, but they also symbolize a “touchy subject.” A difficult conversation that people may wish to avoid. For example, I’m a Black American (I don’t like the term “African” American because neither I, nor my parents, nor my grandparents – or even my great-grandparents for that matter – have ever been to Africa) and my husband is White. He and I often talk about different racial issues and it’s wonderful because we can do so in a very open and honest way without the fear of offending anyone or hurting each other’s feelings. We’ve been married for 10 and a half years now and we often interact with one another’s families – all of whom have always been very supportive of our relationship. During our conversations about the differences between Black families and White families, one of the things I often say to my husband is that, in my experience, White families sometimes tend to want to avoid “the elephant in the room,” preferring to dodge the uncomfortable topics of conversation, while Black families tend to draw as much attention to the awkward topic as possible, often wrapping Christmas lights around that elephant and setting up big flashing arrows pointing right to it! It’s a generalization, of course, but you get what I mean. The point is, sometimes people (of all races) don’t really know how to tackle the uncomfortable topics, so instead they “avoid the elephant in the room.”

Well, I think we can all agree that when it comes to Michael Jackson there are a lot of uncomfortable topics that might come up. Even in a blog that focuses on his art. And Willa and I are not going to avoid those elephants. Instead, we’ve decided to dance with them!

Willa:  Joie, I love your description of the elephant in the room! I just love it. It creates this little movie in my mind of a bunch of people sitting in a room with an elephant no one invited, and everyone is feeling uncomfortable and awkward and no one knows what to do. Finally someone walks right up to the elephant, welcomes him, and invites him to dance – and they all find out he’s not so scary after all. Suddenly, that awkward situation becomes much more comfortable, and maybe even turns into a party. I just love that image of dancing with the elephant!

I also think it’s crucially important to openly acknowledge the elephant in the room when trying to interpret Michael Jackson since confronting painful issues, especially racial prejudice, was so central to his work – from relatively straightforward anthems like “Black or White” to more complicated things like the changing color of his skin. I don’t think you can understand him and what he was doing and how incredibly important it is if you exclude race from the picture, or marginalize it off to the side somewhere. Confronting prejudice in one form or another was at the heart of almost everything he did, both as an artist and as a cultural figure.

Because we aren’t honestly acknowledging the elephant in the room, I don’t think we’ve even begun to realize the deep, tectonic shifts he helped bring about. I’m White and I grew up in the South, in a very racist place. Yet, as a teenager, my definition of the ultimate in sexiness was Michael Jackson, a young Black man. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. And there were millions of girls around the world who felt the same way I did. There’s a whole generation of us whose ideas about race and sexuality – about what’s sexy and what isn’t – were shaped by him. That’s huge. He was a teen idol, our first Black teen idol, and the implications of that are deep and powerful and profound, but no one’s really talking about that, or what it means culturally.

You know, every time he ripped his shirt on stage, like in Dirty Diana or Come Together, and showed us his dark chest and how beautiful and sexy it was, he was challenging how White America, especially, “read” his body. But he did it in such an interesting way. He was beautiful and sexy, but he was always a genuine person too – in part, I think, because he had the courage to let himself be vulnerable, and let us see that side of him too. He wasn’t just a Chippendale guy. He was sexy, but he never became just a glossy sex object because we could always see the humanity in him. I look at him in Dirty Diana up on stage with his bare chest and shoulders, and he’s so sexy I can hardly stand it, but he also looks so vulnerable. I don’t know whether to faint or make him some soup.

Joie:  Faint or make him soup! I love the way you put things sometimes!

Willa: Well, you know what I mean!  You just feel the urge to take care of him sometimes, and I think that vulnerability was really important also. This was during the 1980s, when the inner cities were erupting in gang violence and the dominant narrative in the media was that young Black men were scary and alien and dangerous. We kept getting told that – in news reports and movies and even commercials – but then there’s Michael Jackson, and he’s almost single-handedly pushing back against that dominant narrative and offering a very different vision. He was a young Black man, but he was sweet and funny and smart and sexy and vulnerable. He gave us an alternate image of what it means to be a young Black man in America, and for me, his vision always seemed more honest and human and believable than that scary stereotype.

Joie: Well, I agree with you completely. He did give us an alternative image of what it means to be a young Black man in America and, to this day, Black Americans take pride in that. And I could go off on a whole different tangent here, but before I do that, why don’t you explain what the title means to you.

Willa:  So “Dancing with the Elephant” speaks to me about art and interpretation. To me, interpretation isn’t about passively observing a work of art, but about actively engaging with it, “dancing” with it, opening yourself up to it, and becoming emotionally invested in it.

It also reminds me of a folktale I love about six blind men trying to understand and describe an elephant. The first approaches the elephant and happens to touch his trunk. He feels the elephant’s trunk, realizes how strong yet flexible it is, and announces that an elephant is like a huge snake – like a python or boa constrictor. The second blind man steps forward and touches one of the elephant’s legs. He feels all around, noting the round shape and how sturdy it is, and says, no, an elephant is more like a column or pillar. The third comes forward and encounters the elephant’s side. He spreads his hands along the vast breadth of the elephant’s side and says they are both wrong: an elephant is like a wall. Then the fourth steps forward, happens to catch the elephant’s tail, and says, no, an elephant is like a rope. The fifth feels his ear waving back and forth and says an elephant is like a fan. The sixth feels his tusk and says an elephant is like a spear.

Each of the blind men is providing an accurate description of that aspect of the elephant he happened to encounter and experience for himself, but none of them comprehends the entire animal. They only perceive bits and pieces. Only by sharing their experiences and combining their ideas will they ever be able to develop some understanding of an elephant and begin to fully appreciate what a truly magnificent animal it is.

I love this story of the six blind men, and think it’s especially important to compare notes and share our perceptions and experiences when trying to understand something as complicated and subjective as a work of art, especially with an artist as experimental as Michael Jackson who pushed so many boundaries and challenged so many preconceived ideas and accepted beliefs.

For example, Joie and I really went back and forth and around and around about how we interpret the changing color of Michael Jackson’s skin. She wasn’t kidding when she talked about our heated debates. I saw it as a brilliant artistic decision that profoundly influenced how White America, especially, experiences racial differences. Joie saw it as a wrenching emotional decision that he struggled with for years. My discussions with Joie haven’t fundamentally altered my interpretation, but they’ve influenced me tremendously. Her ideas have deepened and complicated my understanding of this aspect of his work and actually made it much more powerful and meaningful to me by helping me understand just how difficult this decision must have been for him, and how very painful it must have been to be so misunderstood.

Joie:  So, with this blog, Willa and I hope to have some really in-depth conversations about Michael Jackson’s art and his cultural impact. We intend for this to be a weekly blog, so come back next week and we’ll get the conversation started.

Willa:  Our goal is to have a substantive discussion where we can all share ideas and even disagree sometimes, but in a respectful way that leads to a deeper understanding of his work. If you would like to contact us with questions or future blog topics, our email address is dancing.with.the.elephant@gmail.com.

Joie:  And you can also check us out on Facebook and give us your own take on our discussion. Tell us what you think. We want to hear it!

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About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on August 11, 2011, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Thank you for starting this blog, ladies. I’m reading “M Poetica” at the moment, and although I agree with Dr. Stillwater in some of her interpretations and disagree in others, overall I’m loving the thoughtful analysis and questions raised in the book. For the first time I see the level of literary discourse that matches Michael Jackson’s impact on culture, his scale of artistry and his genius.
    So I’m waiting for your discussions here with great anticipation.

  2. I am so excited about this site. I read the book, no actually I devoured it, and can’t wait to discuss some of the ideas. The book was amazing, just brilliant, and I very much share the same views. There is no doubt in my mind that Michael is the Mozart of our time. But we haven’t seen the whole elephant yet because we have yet to develop the tools we need to analyze and interpret the work fully. We literally can’t see it, because it’s a little beyond our ability to conceive at this time. It requires the ability to include multiple viewpoints, disciplines, and intelligences into a single, seamless, all inclusive view. It’s like when visual art shifted from 2D to 3D or like Michael-angel-o. It requires a shift in consciousness to be able to comprehend it. I find it endlessly fascinating to think about and I am happy to have a book like Dr. Stillwater’s to start the conversation. Thanks so much for sharing your insights and observations.

  3. I echo what morinen says above. While I don’t agree with the author’s interpretation all the time, it is thought provoking and gives us a glimpse of what is yet to come from the academic world in regard to Michael Jackson’s art and what it means. I am nearly finished with it and am thoroughly enjoying it. Thank you for writing the book and starting this blog.

  4. Thank you both for writing this blog. I am also reading M Poetica, so am very much looking forward to the conversations on this blog and what new insights we might learn on Michael’s art and his impact on our culture. Thank you.

  5. Thank you very much for the interpretations you give in this blog. I really like to see things from this point of few, it’s amazing..I never thouhgt “my baby” could be more than just simple words..

  6. I have read your article and agree with the MY BABY theory. It reminded me of when he was growing up and living with diana ross. she took him to art museums and maybe the music was like the interpritation of a painting. with a lot of meaning and symbolism. He also stated that he liked movies so much because it can change a persons ideas and the way they view things. I believe he had a hard time with the identity of michael jackson from gary indiana and the michael jackson we know on stage. He was really shy off stage and a tiger on stage. I am just amazed at how stong his spirit was. I think his connection with god was a factor. He gave his life for his fans and to make a change in this world. and he did this. He will never be forgotten. I grew up with him and deeply sad about his death. but even in death he is still alive. He is the greatest person and entertainer that has ever lived.

  7. Dear Willa, dear Joie,

    I´m so glad I came across your wonderful blog ´cause I´ve been desperately searching and waiting for such a serious discussion and approach to Michael Jackson and his art as well as the world´s incredible reactions towards him as a cultural phenomenon of profound global impact, longing for (scholarly) exchange, so I truely LOVE your productive and important communication here. I totally agree with Willa´s rereading of Michael Jackson regarding dominant cultural narratives and his revolutionary vision of art, its unsettling function and its world-transforming effects as she perfectly describes in “M Poetica”, which I found brilliant. Way too long scarcely anybody in the academic world seemed to be interested in talking that topic over; scholarly literature on Michael Jackson is very rare, not to say extremely rare and I just could´nt believe it! As the German author Jochen Ebmeier mentions in his remarkable book (“Michael Jackson-the phenomenon” first published in 1997), there are numerous valid reasons why Michael Jackson should be a much noticed subject of university research, especially in humanities, but without a fight they leave it to the tabloids. Now I feel reassured and just very happy that this kind of uncomfortable yet telling silence is progressively breaking. For one thing Michael´s death and the unexpected hugeness of global commiseration broke a spiral of silence and for another thing the generations growing up with Michael are more and more “taking over” now, just “starting something” because it deeply matters to us: there´s now a door we all walk through. Of course that is no easy thing to do and it always takes time and a few generations to address such unsettling issues as far as I can tell, growing up in Germany, a nation struggeling with its horrifying past, shifting from complete silence to ever-present accounting. But finally it happens… and Michael knew. Keep on girls! U ROCK!

    Love,
    Julie

  8. Hello Willa, Hello Joie,

    I’m very very happy I just found your blog!

    I read M Poetica months ago, at the same time as another dear friend. We too have had long discussiuons about Michael as an artist, about Michael’s historical importance, and the book M Poetica inspired many long email exchanges!
    What I realized in the process is that Michael Jackson is a source, through which we can discuss historical facts, psychological phenomena, artistic concepts and so much more. This study I began years ago, because of an overwhelming love I felt for the man and his music, has led me to understand so much about myself and the world we live in.
    I want to thank you for the blog, and I am looking forward to reading it all, from the start 🙂

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