Thinking about My Baby

Willa:  As Joie mentioned last week, the idea for this blog grew out of a long series of emails we were exchanging back and forth. We were having a wonderful time sharing ideas and comparing notes about Michael Jackson’s work, and we each really enjoyed talking with someone who knew his work and cared about it as much as we did. One thing she and I discovered over the course of our emails is that we’re both fascinated by My Baby, and have been for a long time.

Joie:  You all know who she is; you have heard Michael sing about her for years. She is presumably the girl of his dreams, the woman who knows him and loves him and truly cares about him. She’s also the woman who is constantly hurt time and time again by other devious, “bad girls” who throw themselves into Michael’s orbit like in “Billie Jean,” “Dirty Diana,” and “Dangerous.”

Willa:  She’s a very important figure in Michael Jackson’s work, appearing on album after album, from Triumph and Thriller in the early 1980s to Invincible in 2001. And, as Joie says, she’s almost always hurt or threatened in some way. In fact, we often see her walking away in tears.

Joie:  What draws my attention to her, I guess, is the fact that Michael sings about her as if she is someone who has been in his life for a long time. Even though her appearance on the songs I just mentioned – and others – is usually brief, we get the feeling that she is incredibly important to him. He loves her and he clearly wants to protect her from the ‘wicked women,’ he sings about in “Heartbreak Hotel,” (a.k.a. This Place Hotel). We see him constantly fretting over the fact that she will be hurt somehow by the “bad girls” and that they will drive her away from him.

Someone’s always tryin’
to start My Baby cryin.’
Talking, squealing, lying,
saying you just want to be startin’ somethin.’

It’s almost as if he’s describing a relationship that has seen its share of ups and downs. They’ve been through this sort of thing before and My Baby always ends up hurt. At least, in the early years of their relationship – in the 1980s and ’90s. But by 2001’s “Heaven Can Wait,” it’s clearly a much different relationship. Here we see that My Baby not only loves him and cares about him, but now she trusts him too; she has faith in him. Their relationship is solid and no one can come between them anymore. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with and it’s the greatest love affair either of them has ever experienced. He loves her so deeply that he doesn’t want to leave her for an instant – not even for heaven!

Oh no, can’t be without My Baby.
Won’t go, without her I’ll go crazy.
Oh no, guess Heaven will be waiting.

It’s really interesting to me that their union changes over time. The way he writes about her grows and matures over the years just as if it were a real relationship. We see the initial infatuation in songs like “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and “Streetwalker,” and we watch it grow and blossom in songs like “Black or White,” and “Fly Away.” And then we see the culmination of their love on the beautiful “Heaven Can Wait.”

Willa:  As Joie says, in his early albums, she’s threatened by another woman. My Baby seems to be a private person who knows and cares about the protagonist, though she avoids the limelight and seems somewhat uncomfortable with his fame. He loves her and tries to protect her, but she’s repeatedly hurt by another woman who wants to push her out and take her place. This second woman doesn’t really know him or care about him, but she’s much bolder than My Baby and is actually attracted to fame, the protagonist’s fame – in fact, she’s something of an adventurer. The protagonist recognizes all that and distrusts her. Yet at the same time, he finds himself strangely drawn to this other, bolder woman.

Joie:  And his relationship with this other woman is just as interesting as his relationship with My Baby. It’s almost like you can’t have one without the other. Like they are two halves of the same coin, so to speak.

Willa:  I agree. The recurring conflict between these women is very interesting. There’s obviously something very important going on here – something Michael Jackson explored and wrestled with for years. I think that’s one reason I started seeing My Baby as representing more than just a romantic relationship. To me, My Baby and the other woman seem to represent his shy side versus his public side, or his private life versus his public life, with the intrusions of the media and intense public interest in him threatening to destroy his private life, just as that bold other woman threatens to drive away My Baby. Or these two women could represent his muse – the woman of myth who has quietly inspired artists’ creativity for centuries – and the audience and critics who kept demanding that he create another Thriller and just wanted him to sing “Billie Jean” over and over again for the rest of his life. But it’s not an either/or situation. While I see these other interpretations, I still see My Baby as a woman who knows him and cares for him, and provides for him emotionally as well.

Joie:  My Baby is fascinating on so many levels and when Willa and I discovered that we were both very interested in her – and her nemesis – we were really surprised. I think it was then that we really started to talk in earnest about doing a blog together because we were curious as to whether or not we were the only two people out there who had ever wondered about this particular topic. So, we intend to look at My Baby more closely in the coming weeks. Our plan is to look in depth at different songs in which she is featured and talk about what/who she is and what Michael was trying to tell us through her.

Willa:  And again, our goal with this blog is to create a place where a community of people can come together and share their interpretations of Michael Jackson’s work and what it has meant to them at different times – because interpretations do evolve over time. And it’s ok if we disagree – even passionately disagree – as long as we’re respectful about it. To be honest, I disagree with myself sometimes!  Sometimes I see My Baby as a person, sometimes I see her as symbolic, and lots of times I see her as both. And I love that ambiguity. To me, that’s one of the things that makes Michael Jackson’s work so rich – that it can mean so many different things at different times to different people. So let us know what you think, and what My Baby means to you. We’d love to hear from you, either here or on our Facebook page.

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 14, 2011, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Excellent observation. This character, his “baby”, especially fascinated me in early albums, because at that time Michael was rumored to never having had a serious relationship with a woman (which he himself admitted in private conversations and Lisa Marie later confirmed). But it almost seemed like that mysterious soul mate who was very close to Michael, existed in his secret personal life.

    In reality, I think the attitude of the protagonist to his baby, and situations in which they both are placed in MJ’s songs through the years reflect the process of his maturing and learning to reconcile his career with his personal life. In the years of Thriller, Bad and Dangerous, Michael’s no.1 focus was his career, and he himself used to say that he was married to his work. So, his personal life gets threatened by the implications of his career – groupies (Dirty Diana, Dangerous), manipulators (Billie Jean), and liars (Wanna be Startin Something). And the career often wins leaving his baby in tears.
    By the time Invincible comes out, he seems to have figured out a way to keep his private life out of reach of his fame. He has the experience of two marriages, and two children whom he adores. He is now very family-oriented, and he seems to be yearning for close, trusting relationship in his life. Rather than talking about “his baby” in third person, more often now he addresses her directly and intimately as “girl”. It’s just the two of them. Dangers of the celebrity world are not a treat to them anymore, because he has learnt to value and protect his loved ones.

    • By the time Invincible comes out, he seems to have figured out a way to keep his private life out of reach of his fame. He has the experience of two marriages, and two children whom he adores. He is now very family-oriented, and he seems to be yearning for close, trusting relationship in his life.

      Exactly! I think you make a really excellent point here, Morinen! The way he writes about this fictional woman matures as he has matured.

  2. While i appreciate the effort of taking so much time to write this blog, i find it pretty way off topic as Mike never talked about any women in his life openly

    • Hi Z. We’re not really talking about any real person in Michael’s life. We’re referring to the fictional woman he sings about in many of his songs, whom he often refers to as My Baby, and what this character actually represents for him.

  3. Could My Baby be the inner child? The part of himself he tried so desperately to protect from the everyday details of ordinary reality and the harsh expectations of the music business? Many composers like to describe writing music as their ability to remain connected to the part of the brain that knows how to invent childhood play. It’s like knowing how to be in that space, then you just “catch” the ideas that are already out there in the cosmos, kind of like fishing! I’ve often though Little Susie was the same character, and the Man Next Door was the adult side of himself who neglected to protect the precious child living so close to him.

  4. Wow, the connection to composers and childhood play is really interesting. And I do get the feeling over and over in his work that My Baby represents some deep personal part of himself. Joie and I were talking last night about this section in “Heartbreak Hotel” where the protagonist describes how My Baby is hurt by what’s happening, and he concludes by saying it “hurt my soul” – suggesting that My Baby is his soul, or maybe this inner child or inner part of himself as you describe it.

  5. I once read a fan comment about the HH lyric “…10 yrs ago today” where it was pointed out there had been 10 years between the song and Michael’s original Motown signing. Always thought this was an extremely astute observation and it backs up what you are saying. It’s my understanding that MIchael meant for the song to have multiple meanings, listener response was an intended element in this composition. So he is expressing himself in a very deep personal way but allowing the listener to project their own personal interpretation from their own perspective. I believe this is one of the most crucial elements in his work, the inclusion of all perspectives, rejecting none, or a-perspectival. It’s my guess this started with Heartbreak Hotel, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find even earlier examples.

    • I once read a fan comment about the HH lyric “…10 yrs ago today” where it was pointed out there had been 10 years between the song and Michael’s original Motown signing.

      That’s funny – Joie and I were just writing about this for our next blog post. There is so much going on in “Heartbreak Hotel.” It really is a fascinating song. And I agree that Michael Jackson intended for his work to have multiple meanings. I think that’s why he was so careful to avoid interpreting his work for us, because that limits the range of meaning that we as an audience can bring to a work. English majors call this the “intentional fallacy” – the notion that a work can only mean what the artist intended for it to mean. Jackson’s work is so rich, with so many layers of meaning – even the color of his socks in Smooth Criminal conveys meaning – yet he never discussed his intentions in interviews. He left it up to each of us to develop those meanings for ourselves – and I think that was a very wise artistic decision.

  6. This is interesting. I have wondered myself if Michael was referring to someone in his life who he loved and cared for so deeply. There are other songs (as you both have mentioned) that references his baby and his soul being hurt. I understand there could be many meanings to Michael’s words. I do see that his work can be interpreted in various ways. I look forward to reading the various interpretations of his work.

  7. ultravioletrae

    I just had the realization that the same principle is likely to be at work with My Baby, that My Baby is probably intentionally used in multiple ways, even within the realm of his most private, personal expression. It’s also possible My Baby takes on different dimensions in different songs, though I sense an overall concept as well.

    I loved the early days of the Jackson 5, but I was not a true Michael fan until the movie, This Is It. (not because I didn’t like Michael, I was just oblivious!) I remember gasping in the theatre when I realized how many meanings Michael had managed to evoke from the simple phrase, “This Is It”. I was moved to tears when I saw he had taken me on a roller coaster ride that ended with a profound message about our planet, what human beings have done to the world, and what we must do in the future to save it. It literally took my breath away, but then again there were so many breath taking moments in that film!

    Because of that, I would imagine understanding My Baby must include keeping an eye on at least 3 different views simultaneously: 1) the artist’s intentional meaning(s) 2) the artist’s unintentional meaning(s) – for example, Willa’s book points out that Michael has a “habit of empathy”, this comes across even when he isn’t directly invoking it 3) the listener’s projected meaning(s) – even though these are also a part of the artist’s original intent!

    I hope there are some rocket scientists out there that want to get into music interpretation, because it is going to take one to figure all this out. I cannot get over the complexity of MJ’s work, so cleverly disguised as “Pop”!

    • You’re right, the complexity of Michael’s work is just astounding once you really sit and examine it. That’s why I really hope that Willa’s book will soon be published in proper book form because without in-depth studies like hers and Joe Vogel’s, the world may never truly appreciate Michael’s art. Not in the way it should. And there need to be more legitimate books that focus on the vast body of work that Michael left behind.

  8. ultravioletrae

    Couldn’t agree more. I absolutely love the book and Vogel’s writing as well. I believe there is a huge market out there for this, it’s just taking publishers a little time to realize it. MJ is not the first artistic genius who wasn’t appreciated in his own life time!

  9. I find it interesting he was more threatened by another woman trying to drive “my baby” away rather than another man coming to steal her, as most men would feel. I guess Michael was secure in himself enough to know another man is no threat? Hmm…

  10. A few days ago it I happened to be in a conversation about pop music in general, with non-fans, and we touched the subject of Michael Jackson’s “song women”. My friends knew well about Billie Jean and Dirty Diana, and also about Michael’s supposed “fear of women”. They never acknowledged My Baby, never even took notice of her.
    I had given My Baby some thought, but I still believed there is a lot more to be told about her. It is true that Michael described his “bad girls” with much more vivid colors than My Baby. The Bad Girls even have names. Maybe Michael sees the Bad Girls more as a subject worthy of talk, at least it is so in the beginning of his songwriter career and up to his Dangerous era. My guess is that these Bad Girls are so to say “a public problem”, maybe because they represent the public in his private life, maybe because he is describing real relationships he witnessed with others, his brothers for instance.
    My Baby is different. She’s more intimate, more only his, this relationship just “ain’t nobody’s business”. I don’t know how intentional the parallel between My Baby and his private life is, but it sure makes sense.
    However, in Invincible it all changes. As I understand it, My Baby (or also Girl, as Michael often calls her) is the main character of this album. I’ve always seen Invincible as Michael’s love album. Now, My Baby is much more alive, she’s not really described in detail (she’s still kept away as a private treasure), but his feelings for My Baby are open, are sung with joy to anyone who wants to hear it.
    I do believe Michael came to terms with many of his private ghosts in the times between Dangerous and Invincible, I mean now his relationships to women. These relationships were more difficult because of his fame, but I guess many men go through a long process until they feel secure with a woman, until they are able to talk about his feelings openly.
    My Baby could and should be far more discussed and understood as she is now. Thank you for opening this debate here!

  1. Pingback: Warum „Dance with an Elephant“? (Mit einem Elefanten tanzen) & Gedanken zu My Baby | all4michael

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