Welcome to Heartbreak Hotel

Willa:  We first meet My Baby in “Heartbreak Hotel” (or “This Place Hotel”), which Michael Jackson wrote and recorded for The Jacksons’ 1980 Triumph album. And it seems to have been an important song for him: he performed it with his brothers on the Triumph and Victory tours, and it was the only Jacksons’ song he sang throughout his Bad tour.

“Heartbreak Hotel” begins with a reference to a traumatic loss that happened “Ten years ago on this day”:

Live in sin
Ten years ago on this day my heart was yearning
I promised I would never ever be returning
Where My Baby broke my heart and left me yearning

Importantly, “ten years ago” is when Michael Jackson first became a public figure on the national stage: “I Want You Back” became the Jackson 5’s first number one hit in 1970.

The protagonist and My Baby enter Heartbreak Hotel together. It’s a public place where they encounter a crowd of “faces staring.” And while the staring people are strangers, they seem to know him: “they smiled with eyes that looked as if they knew me.” But they don’t really know him, and he doesn’t know them. It’s a pretty accurate description of the life of a celebrity. This stanza ends with Jackson singing, “This is scaring me.”

He and My Baby walk upstairs together and enter his hotel room, but two women are there already. One of them approaches him and says, “This is the place / You said to meet you right here at noon.” It’s not true, but My Baby believes her – believes this stranger is his lover – and Jackson sings, “Hope is dead.” He goes on to describe how My Baby is hurt because she doesn’t understand the situation, but ends with “Someone’s evil to hurt my soul.” So this lie not only hurts My Baby; it also hurts “my soul.” The two are so closely connected, it’s as if My Baby is his soul. The stanza ends with these lines:

This is scaring me
Then the man next door had told
He’s been here in tears for fifteen years
This is scaring me

Who is this man? Could it possibly be Elvis? After all, Elvis begins his song “Heartbreak Hotel” (which was his first number one hit) with the lines:

Since My Baby left me
I found a new  place to dwell
It’s down at the end of Lonely Street
At Heartbreak Hotel

So apparently Elvis lives there. Now Michael Jackson has checked into the room next door, and he’s in the same position Elvis was in for years.

This “man next door” says “He’s been here in tears for fifteen years,” so since 1965 – right when Elvis’ career began its decline, and his celebrity began to take an ugly turn. Elvis was the King in the late 1950s and early ’60s, but then the British Invasion took place from 1964 to 1966. Suddenly, the Beatles and Rolling Stones were climbing the pop charts, and Elvis was increasingly seen as outdated and irrelevant, even an object of ridicule.

So in these two very different songs with the same name, Elvis and Michael Jackson describe a situation that’s emotionally devastating to them. However, while Elvis is clearly singing about a romantic loss, Jackson’s song is much more complicated, and much more ambiguous. Is it just a shattered romance, or more than that? Jackson’s “Heartbreak Hotel” ends with these lines:

Someone’s stabbing my heart
This is Heartbreak Hotel
Ten years ago today
Hurting my mind
You break My Baby’s heart
This is Heartbreak Hotel
Just welcome to the scene

“Welcome to the scene” is a pretty odd ending for a song about lost love. So again, there seems to be more going on than just an ill-fated romance. And once again, he and My Baby are conflated: his heart is hurt, her heart is hurt, his mind is hurt. They share the same pain. He’s feeling what she’s feeling, as if she were a part of him.
 
Joie:  Wow! Not sure I would have made the obvious Elvis connection here but, I’ve got to say, it makes a crazy kind of sense.

Willa:  I know. It does sound kind of crazy, doesn’t it? I wasn’t expecting to go off on an Elvis tangent, and obviously “the man next door” could mean many different things, but suddenly that idea popped into my head and I went with it, just to see where it took me. I think any interpretation – even a crazy-sounding interpretation – is valid as long as it can be adequately supported by evidence from the text, and there’s quite a bit of evidence to support this. And it does make a lot of sense if you see this song as talking about celebrity, which was a very important theme for Michael Jackson.

Joie:  Well, I’ll go with that for a minute and say that, if this was intentional on Michael’s part, it’s actually brilliant. However, when The Jacksons made the decision to change the name of the song to “This Place Hotel,” Michael did say that he was not familiar with Elvis’ song. So, while I agree that the imagery of both songs work very well together, I’m skeptical that there is any real connection between the two.
 
But I love what you have to say about My Baby possibly representing his own soul. And that line towards the end where he says “Hurting my mind.” It’s like My Baby represents him: his psyche. His mind, his heart, his soul – the inner self that he keeps protected from public view. As I said last week, Michael sings about My Baby as if she is someone who is very important to him and has been in his life for a very long time, and I think this notion that she is symbolic of his own inner being carries a lot of weight. In “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” Michael says,

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

 
If we look at this verse in these terms, it’s very easy to see how My Baby could be a euphemism for his inner self. Someone’s always trying to hurt him. He goes on to sing,

 
Billie Jean is always talkin’
When nobody else is talkin’
Telling lies and rubbing shoulders
So they called her mouth a motor

 
Sticking with this theory we can argue that Billie Jean – and all of the other “bad girls” who come his way – represents his public life and all the baggage that comes with it (the lies, the media, the paparazzi, etc.).

Willa:  I agree, and I really like that quotation you cited. “Billie Jean is always talkin'” – just like the media is always talking. From a very young age, Michael Jackson faced constant commentary and speculation about his private life. And the media’s mouth isn’t just “a motor.” It’s an industry.  
 
Joie:  An industry he would end up battling for the rest of his career. But we’ll talk more about that next time when we take a closer look at the “bad girls” in this threesome.

Willa:  Right. And this three-way conflict between My Baby, the intrusive women who hurt her, and the protagonist who finds himself caught between the two continues to evolve – just as Michael Jackson’s relationship with the media evolved. We see this scenario of My Baby being hurt by an aggressive, dishonest woman recurring again and again: for example, in “Billie Jean” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” on Thriller, in “Dirty Diana” from Bad, and in the title track to Dangerous. And then she disappears. My Baby isn’t mentioned once on his HIStory album, which was his first album after the 1993 molestation allegations. It’s like his public life has become so toxic she’s completely hidden from view now.

Or maybe not. Maybe she does appear, but in an unexpected way, and in an unexpected place – in the video to a song he didn’t write, “You Are Not Alone.” The song opens with a story of lost love:

 
Another day has gone
I’m still all alone
How  could this be
You’re not here with me
You never said goodbye
Someone tell me why
Did you have to go
And leave my world so cold

However, the video opens with a crowd of reporters and photographers pressing in on him as he walks by with his head bowed. It’s the exact same situation he sang about repeatedly in earlier albums: these intrusive people are claiming to know him and telling lies about him, and My Baby has left him. Only this time he’s telling that story through visual cues.

He’s devastated, heartbroken, feeling so sad and alone. Then he hears a voice. We don’t know whose voice it is, but it “whispers” to him, and this is what it tells him:

You are not alone
I am here with you
Though you’re far away
I am here to stay

You are not alone
I am here with you
Though we’re far apart
You’re always in my heart
But you are not alone

Whose voice is this? The lyrics don’t say, but once again there are visual cues. The scene of walking before a sea of aggressive reporters alternates with another scene, far removed from the media: it’s the setting of Maxfield Parrish’s Daybreak, a beautiful painting of serenity and rebirth. He’s happy, and sharing an intimate moment with a woman.

And it’s not just any woman. It’s his wife, Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis Presley. When Elvis’ public life was falling apart and he was a target of criticism and even ridicule by the press, he had a little girl who stood by him and brought some joy into his life. Now Michael Jackson is in the same position Elvis was in before. And that little girl has grown up and married him, and she’s standing by him through one of the worst periods of his life and bringing some joy into his life. I’m pretty uncomfortable talking about all this because these are real people, and I try very hard to stay out of an artist’s private life as much as possible. But these real people also symbolize certain things, and the symbolism of that image with Lisa Marie Presley is so powerful to me.
 
Joie:  Well, I absolutely agree with you that the still small voice in “You Are Not Alone” is definitely that of My Baby. But I can’t agree that it has anything to do with Lisa Marie Presley in the literal sense. In the abstract as a visual cue, yes definitely. The recreation of Daybreak for this video was an inspired choice in my opinion as it expertly captures the intimate, private place that Michael is trying to take us to here, and the use of his wife as the visual portrayal of My Baby makes perfect sense to me. After all, if My Baby were a real person, she would certainly be the person who was closest to him and knew him intimately – as a wife does.
 
However, he repeatedly says that “something whispers in his ear.” Not someone, something. That still small voice. His very soul. His inner self. That part of him that he has nurtured and tried so hard to protect over the years and keep pure. Away from all of the “bad girls” and the bad media that have threatened My Baby for so long. And what does that voice say to him? “You are not alone.” Even though he may feel like the loneliest person on the face of the earth – which is the feeling all those shots of him standing alone in front of the beautiful nature scenes and onstage in the deserted theater are meant to evoke – he is not alone. He still has his soul and it’s intact and strong. It may be a little bruised and banged up but, it is still there. And he can still feel it, calling to him, telling him that what he has just been through was a nightmare but, he got through it and he came out the other side and there is still hope for a bright future.

Even though Michael didn’t write this particular song, I believe that the lyrics must have spoken to him on some level and perhaps they expressed something – some emotion or idea – that he could relate to and identify with. And I think that something was My Baby.

Willa:  Joie, that’s beautiful. I was groping forward, trying to get at what that recurring scene symbolized and why it was so moving for me, and just not getting there. And you beautifully captured in words that feeling I have when I watch this video. I do think it’s significant that the woman in this scene is Lisa Marie Presley. It wouldn’t have the same depth of meaning if it were just any actress from a casting call who didn’t have her history. But I love the way you brought our discussion back to the idea of My Baby as representing a part of himself – as something that will always be there for him, whether it’s his soul or his heart or his muse. As you describe so well, this video is an affirmation that there is something inside that will sustain him, regardless of what threatens him in the outside world. 

We’ll conclude this series on My Baby next week when we look more closely at what some of those threats are.

Joie:  And don’t forget to weigh in on our discussion and let us know what you think about My Baby. You can comment here or on our Facebook page.

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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 20, 2011, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. MJ supposedly wrote Wanna Be Startin’ Something as a commentary on his bickering sisters-in-law, who lived at Hayvenhurst. They did not get along with La Toya and often tried to pick fights with her.

    By the time the video for You Are Not Alone was shot, MJ was already with Debbie Rowe. Videos don’t always mirror reality!

    • Hi VC. Using biographical details from an artist’s life to interpret their work is a tricky thing – sometime it helps gain insight into the ideas they are expressing, and sometimes it’s just a distraction.

      I was talking to a professor once a long time ago about “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” a poem by Robert Frost. The professor told me he loved that poem, that he liked to imagine the protagonist riding home and stopping his horse to look off in the woods, and all the different things it could mean: that he’s on a road (civilization) but longs to go off into the wilderness, that he’s heading home to chores and duty but dreams of going off into the woods to find adventure and fulfillment, and on and on.

      I told the professor that I had read an autobiographical story about Robert Frost where he said he wrote that poem on Christmas eve. He said he had been preoccupied with work, and Christmas had snuck up on him. Suddenly it was Christmas eve and he realized he hadn’t bought any presents or candy or anything for his family. He had gone into town but the few shops there were closed, and he had ridden home dreading the thought of the coming morning when his children realized there weren’t any presents – at least, not from him. He was riding slowly home feeling guilty and sad when he stopped and looked off into the woods, and that poem came to him.

      I ran into that professor a week or two later, and he told me I’d completely ruined that poem for him. He said he used to love to ponder it and think of all the possibilities, and now all he could think about was that story, and Frost’s feeling of guilt. I felt terrible! But of course, all those possible interpretations were still there and still valid, but that biographical story was getting in the way and preventing him from seeing and experiencing them the way he did before.

  2. Thank you both for the reach into the depths of what we have known to be Michael and that part of him that held that place in ourselves.

    That is the thing with metaphor, it is so interpretable but the depth and the feeling of it, the part we can all connect with, remains constant. To try to talk about it is certainly a worthy call, to examine humanity and therefore our own humanity… and what it means to be alive now, in this time, how we can evolve from where we’ve been to where we might go. To look at Michael’s art and his expression, I believe shines a light on many worthy topics, as you are so beautifully doing with this blog. Isn’t it, after all with most of us, the reason we choose a significant other, because they reflect part of our soul? Our soul reflective of greater Life or God… whispers from the still small voice within, you are not alone.

  3. ultravioletrae

    Awesome discussion! So many interesting points, it’s hard to know where to start. I got really excited thinking about the Elvis connection, and for the first time the concept of the Heartbreak Hotel struck me as similar to Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” where he asks “Hank Williams, How lonely does it get? Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet, but I hear him coughing, all night long…”, “…I’m just paying my rent everyday, in the Tower of Song”. It’s this lonely mythic place where musical artists are banished to, where they struggle with and face all these difficult human feelings and try to interpret them for the rest of us.

    It’s fascinating to hear that Michael stated he was unfamiliar with Elvis’ performances of Heartbreak Hotel! Obviously Michael’s words are extremely important. But…it’s only one piece of information that has to be evaluated along with everything else. There is a mountain of evidence that suggests Michael had an encyclopedic knowledge of the music industry and that makes it hard for me to believe he didn’t know the song. We know he also had a prodigious knowledge of the legal/business side of the record industry. Walter Yetnikoff said Michael could read a legal contract as well as any of the CBS lawyers by this time. We all know that Michael understood PR and told stories to the press to please advisors (J5 discovered by Diana Ross, etc). And Michael quoted heavily from many, many different artists he admired, as a gesture of his admiration, the ultimate compliment. So, when you add all that up, I find it impossible to believe that Michael wasn’t directly referring to Elvis in his own version of HH. But, being aware of the legalities of doing so, copyright law, it was smart for him to say publicly he was unfamiliar with the song. (and an excellent prank – another one of his prodigious talents!)

    When I think about the Man Next Door (who also appears in Little Susie) I am not as convinced he could be talking about Elvis, but it certainly has piqued my interest. I am thinking Man Next Door is another piece of himself, the one who attends business meetings and reads contracts, tends to details, records in the studio all day and secretly looks after My Baby, who would rather be on the playground having fun. Man next door is the presenting persona. Wasn’t it only 5 yrs prior to the Motown signing that Michael made his debut at his elementary school singing “Climb Every Mountain”? Would that would account for the 15 yrs perhaps, of knowing the Man Next Door? And could it be Man Next Door really relates to and understands how Elvis feels?

    Little known fact about all the Motown mythology is that the J5 were already regional stars before Motown. They had 2 record contracts with Steel Town and Atlantic Records before the Motown signing and several companies were already involved in managing the group. I believe Motown had to wait for those contracts to expire before releasing the early J5 material, it’s simply not true that Motown plucked them out of obscurity and polished them up into this amazing act. They were already seasoned pros in 1969 and had been working steadily in adult clubs, they were never a kid act. There is still bitterness to this day about the way those early contracts were handled, and it’s not exactly a secret how treacherous the music business can be.

    Could this be the evil that has to be confronted in the Heartbreak Hotel? Sefra and Sue? Just a wild guess. I honestly don’t know.

    I have a little different take on YANA and the still small voice from a transpersonal or metaphysical point of view, rather than psychological, which would take at least another 4 paragraphs to describe so I’ll leave it for another discussion! For now I’ll just say a big thank you for sharing your ideas, so thought provoking and inspiring. I’m really enjoying reading everything here.

    • Wow! Interesting idea that the Man Next Door could represent another side of Michael himself. You’ve given me something to think about here!

  4. It’s great that you are so interested in Michael, but I find it ridiculous and a bit unnerving and arrogant to assume you know what symbolism he (and his brothers, by the way, not just Michael) meant when they wrote This Place Hotel, or any other song where he mentions Baby. He is gone and we will never know, but by SPECULATING, which is ALL that you can do at this point, you take his beautiful mysteries and reduce them to YOUR thoughts, not his. Please be sure to ALWAYS say in your blog that you are speculating and we cannot know for sure, because if you were really wise you would know that as history moves forward, people will be more likely to believe that YOUR thoughts and speculations were really the truth, and that is unfair to Michael’s legacy.

    • I believe that all art interpretation is basically speculation. You are taking your own thoughts and feelings and emotions and speculating about what the artist’s intentions were when they created their work of art. All Willa and I are trying to do here is provide a friendly place where we can all come and join in a fun conversation about Michael’s work. We’re not trying to impose our interpretations on anyone else. In fact, our hope is that our readers will join in the conversation and give us their own take on Michael’s songs and videos. Tell us what you think of My Baby; we really are interested.

  5. ultravioletrae

    It might be helpful to think about all the different ways that art has been interpreted for anyone who is interested, because artist intention is only one of the ways that art has been historically interpreted. Prior to artist intention (it’s called expressionism), art was solely evaluated on it’s imitation and representation of the natural world. But that was limited, not all art is a representation of nature, and that’s why people began to consider what kind of meaning and expression the artist wanted to convey and the meaning of the art was based on that. However, that is limited, we don’t always know what the artist intended and there are so many factors such as the culture, time, economic realities and so forth that are inextricable from the artist who created the work, and these factors always find a way to make it into the artwork itself intended or not. Many unconscious intentions pop up in art. The problem is how to accurately define what these are. There is no such thing as an all knowing critic. So another impulse is to do a technical analysis of the artwork itself, and say that art has to be defined by the structure of the work, forget everything else and look at it objectively, technically and structurally. But what is the structure of empathy or wonder or awe? Do we say these don’t exist in art? Then another idea that comes into play, which is viewer response. According to this idea, the true meaning of the art is the experience of the viewer and the meaning they attach to the work, the experience the viewer is the meaning of the art. That definitely has it’s merits, but, it completely ignores things like the artwork itself and what the artist had in mind! So, here’s another possibility: ALL OF THE ABOVE. Especially when you get into complex works like Michael Jackson, it’s going to take all of these viewpoints to really understand his body of work. We know that Michael intended to invoke viewer response, he did give us that much, that he wanted multiple interpretations attached to his work. He withheld information about his own meanings which encourages these multiple perceptions. I think that it’s in this spirit that a blog is really useful idea, because it allows for multiple viewpoints, and let’s people consider things they hadn’t thought of or hadn’t been open to before. Very Mike-like if you ask me.

    • Especially when you get into complex works like Michael Jackson, it’s going to take all of these viewpoints to really understand his body of work.

      I agree absolutely. I think it’s very easy to fall into the habit of applying the same interpretive strategy to every work of art we encounter, so that each work is viewed through a similar lens and from a similar perspective. But especially with an artist as innovative and experimental as Michael Jackson, it’s really important to approach “the elephant” from many different angles. I believe that’s the only way to uncover the full complexity – and brilliance – of his work.

  6. Great job ladies I believe in your evaluations and you really really made me think about each word you mentioned. I absolutely understand what you explained you are right. The very first time I heard the song Heart Break Hotel and I saw MJ perform the song live I thought it’s a very unique, heavy and so important to him there must be something pushed him to write it. The same thing about Dirty Diana and Billie Jean it’s phenomenal. MJ was an amazing superstar unlike any other artists today. MJ lyrics were direct and a cause of strong challenge to the music industry. The discussions about My Baby is true you can feel that you guys explained it perfectly many things are connected to MJ’s life people seem didn’t notice. Again great job your blog important to read for all the people not only fans to understand the person the world misunderstood.

  7. Thank you so much for educating me on Maxfield’s Daybreak! I would have never known if I had not read your blog! I looked it up and it’s exactly like the first scene with LMP and MJ. How profound it is to begin to examine all the intricacies of MJ’s work, the detailed thought he might have put into each line of song, each scene in a short film, the thought he might have put into determining what tools to use for the message he wanted to send or the symbolism he wanted to provoke. I don’t know if you plan to discuss MJ’s individual dance moves, which he claimed happens when you “become the music”, and if that’s true, then it could also have been coming from a place in his genius conscientious that wanted to introduce us to an idea we had not thought of before.

  8. Can someone who knows the intro to This place Hotel and I am refering here to that intro that he used in his Dangerous tour,can someone please tell me what is he saying…that part before the song starts…all I can remember and I have understood were his very last words before the song starts:”bring me a message into my mind…a single word:HOTEL”,this part I’m talking about and I can’t find it anywhere on the internet…please if someone knows those words,the whole part,can you let me know?Thank you.

    • Hi M Ana Maria,

      It sounds like you are thinking of the intro to Smooth Criminal. It’s here at 18:34: https://youtu.be/cvtiXLGYwjA

      My footsteps broke the silence of the predawn hours
      As I drifted down Bleecker 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

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