Celebrating Invincible Month, Part 1: Unbreakable

Willa:  This week Joie and I are kicking off a month-long series on the Invincible album with a close look at “Unbreakable,” a defiant battle cry we both love with some really fascinating lyrics.

Joie:  I love “Unbreakable.” It is a fascinating song with lyrics that just jump right out at you simply because they are like a window into what life must have been like for him.

Now I’m just wondering, why you think
That you can get to me, with anything
Seems like you’d know by now
When and how, I get down
and with all that I’ve been through, I’m still around

It’s as if he’s addressing all of the Sneddons, the Dimonds, the Chandlers – all the tabloids of the world – and saying, “You tried your best but, I’m still here and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Willa:  I agree, and I love the way you put that. In fact, a lot of songs on Invincible seem like “a window into what life was like for him,” and I really see that in “Unbreakable.” It’s such a defiant response to everything he’s been going through, and I’m especially struck by this line:  “You can’t touch me ’cause I’m untouchable.”

In the caste system in India, Pakistan, and other parts of the world, Untouchables were (and in some places, still are) the people at the very bottom, the lowest of the low. They were perceived as impure – so impure that if they touched you, even brushed up against you accidentally, you would become impure also. That’s why they were “untouchable” – because you must never touch them, or let them touch you.

When I was in sixth grade, I became friends with an elderly woman who lived near us who became a doctor back when very few women were doctors. She spent nearly 30 years working in Pakistan and India, and was just an incredible person. I loved to visit her and listen to her stories, and hearing about the Untouchables made a big impression on me. I used to wonder what it would be like to have everyone you loved or everything you cared about be corrupted by your touch – kind of like King Midas, but worse. Your touch turns everything impure rather than to metal.

That was Michael Jackson’s life after the 1993 allegations. His public image became so toxic, so impure, that anyone who supported him, any place that gave him sanctuary, any project he worked on was tainted as well. His friends and family, even his fans, were ridiculed in the press, and Lisa Marie Presley was treated horribly – nearly as badly as he was. “What More Can I Give,” a song to benefit victims of the September 11th terrorist attack, was portrayed as a cynical ploy to improve his image by exploiting a national tragedy. And his efforts to help children in need were criticized as, at best, inappropriate and, at worst, additional evidence of his brazen moral corruption. In other words, by the time Invincible came out, he had become an Untouchable. No one in the press believed his motives were genuine or pure, and everything he touched was symbolically contaminated merely by association with him.

In the chorus of “Unbreakable,” he seems to acknowledge this (“You can’t touch me ’cause I’m untouchable”) but then he does something remarkable that he did throughout his career:  he takes that cultural narrative and flips it inside-out, completely rewriting it. “You can’t touch me ’cause I’m untouchable” doesn’t feel like a concession. It feels like a declaration of strength. He’s “untouchable” because he’s too powerful to be touched, too invincible to be hurt. He conveys this redefinition both through the sheer power of his voice when singing this line and through a parallel line that echoes the first, emphasizing this bold new meaning:

You can’t touch me ’cause I’m untouchable . . .
You’ll never break me ’cause I’m unbreakable

He sings these lines six times over the course of “Unbreakable,” including three times in succession at the end of the track. These words are important, and in some ways capture in miniature what Jackson did over and over throughout his work. He’s positioning himself with the dispossessed and giving them a voice – in this case, those (including himself) classed as impure, outcast, “untouchable” – while fundamentally changing the narrative that disempowers them. In this context, his cry that “I’m untouchable” becomes a defiant challenge to those who try to twist his motives and impose their worst interpretations onto him.

Joie:  Wow. Ok, Willa. Now you have officially blown me away with that one!! I have never thought of “Unbreakable” in terms of caste. I have read about the caste systems in various parts of the world and you’re right, it is both fascinating and sad to think about. But I had never viewed this song in those terms.

I have to make a confession here. I absolutely adore the Invincible album. I am in love with it actually and most of the time, it runs a very close race with Dangerous as they vie for the title of my favorite Michael Jackson album. I have multiple copies of both of them. They are the only two Michael CDs that I must have at least 3 copies of at all times (one for my car, one for my husband’s truck, one for the CD player in my kitchen so that I can have music while I cook dinner). And that doesn’t even count the ones that I have given away over the years to friends and family members or the digital copies on my computer and my iPod.

So, needless to say, I have listened to this album about a million times and when listening to “Unbreakable,” that line about being untouchable never struck me that way before. I am really intrigued by this idea that he was identifying with the lowliest people on earth through that line and now that you’ve pointed it out, it just makes so much sense to me. Really profound observation! And you’re completely correct when saying that anyone who supported him was tainted as well. And I think, as fans, we can all attest that we still feel that way, to some degree. That stigma never really let up. Not for us and certainly not for him or his family.

Willa:  That’s interesting, because that line has always struck me that way, maybe because of those stories my friend told me way back in sixth grade, and because of the strong parallels to his life at that time. That’s one reason I think it’s so valuable to share interpretations of his work – because we all bring different ways of seeing and we can learn so much by sharing those different views. I’ve learned so much through my conversations with you. And this line from “Unbreakable” has always evoked a very powerful image for me – of Michael Jackson being made to feel ashamed and “untouchable” for something he didn’t do, and then rewriting that as a declaration of strength.

But you’re right, that stigma never let up, and the consequences were horrible – personally, professionally, and artistically. We see references to the pain of that stigma throughout Invincible. It’s like he can never escape it, and I really don’t know how he endured it for so long. It also ham-strung his efforts to help others, which had to be incredibly frustrating for him. He was passionately committed to social change and improving the lives of those classified as outsiders – a commitment we see throughout his career from “Ben,” his first solo hit when he was 13 years old, to the “Earth Song” number he was working on the day before he died. Yet he was severely hampered after 1993 because everything he did was seen through this lens of corruption and impurity. By 2001 he had matured into a truly amazing artist and should have been at his peak creatively, but he was shackled by those allegations. Not only was he reviled in the press, but other artists became reluctant to work with him – even his own record company was hesitant to support him.

Joie:  You’re absolutely right and I feel like in many ways, he never totally rebounded from the ’93 allegations. In fact, I often find myself wondering how his career would have been different if it had never happened. I mean, he was such an extraordinary talent with so much passion and imagination so, I wonder what amazing things he could have accomplished in his career – and in his life –  had the allegations in ’93 never happened. How would his career have unfolded if he had never been falsely accused of the most horrible of crimes? But I know those thoughts are pointless because, the allegations did happen and here we are. But as for Invincible, I also wonder what heights this truly incredible album could have seen if Sony had gotten behind him and promoted it properly.

This month there is a whole movement by Michael fans around the world to get the Invincible album to number one on the charts during October. It’s called the Invincible Campaign and its mission is two-fold. The first order of business is to get the album to number one in celebration of its 10th Anniversary (it was released in October, 2001). The second purpose of the campaign is to let the music from the album serve as a sort of backdrop or a peaceful banner for Michael during the trial of Conrad Murray in order to remind the world that Michael’s art was “Unbreakable” and “Invincible.”

Willa:  It also encourages fans, as well as the public at large, to take a second look at an album that never received the attention it deserved when it was first released. There’s a long tangled history here, but the result was that Sony didn’t promote it well, as you say. Much worse, to my mind, is that Sony prevented him from producing the videos he had planned for this album. I believe his visual art was as important as his music – that, in fact, he was able to express his ideas more fully through film than music – so cutting off that avenue of artistic expression from him is tragic, for him and us. Can you imagine the Thriller album without the videos for “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” or “Thriller?” He made ten videos for the Bad album and nine for Dangerous, but Sony cut him off after two for Invincible, refusing to let him create the video he had planned for “Unbreakable,” or any others – a decision that infuriated him. (It was after this decision that he launched the protests in Harlem.)

Joie:  Actually, Michael only really created one video for the Invincible album as he was so upset with Sony at the time that he refused to participate in the video for “Cry.” But you’re right, it was really such a shame that they chose not to support him.

Willa:  To me, that decision borders on criminal. What potential works of art did the world lose because of Sony’s short-sighted decision?  I’m sorry, but if Michelangelo has an idea for a sculpture and wants a 20-foot block of marble, you give him a 20-foot block of marble. You don’t tell him that marble is too expensive. You do everything in your power to provide him with whatever he needs to fulfill his artistic vision. And if Michael Jackson wants to create a video, then you do everything in your power to facilitate that. Can you imagine if the world had been deprived of Michelangelo’s David or the Pieta because he was denied the materials he needed to create them?

That’s how I feel about Sony’s decision. I’m just stunned that they would act this way – especially since you can make the argument that there wouldn’t even be a Sony music division as we know it without Michael Jackson – and I really wonder what he had planned for “Unbreakable.” It’s fascinating to think about, especially since this is such an intriguing song. For example, what about these lyrics: “You can’t believe it / You can’t conceive it.” What does that mean? What is he thinking? And would he have provided clues in the video he had planned – a video his own record company prevented him from making?

Joie:  I absolutely agree with you. What a HUGE mistake for Sony to virtually bail on their biggest artist, and it’s easy to understand why Michael felt that the company was plotting against him. I mean, even the album’s name frustrated him. The title track was, of course, supposed to be “Unbreakable” but, Sony “mistakenly” had the cover printed up with the wrong title song and by then it was too late to fix it.

But, I do want to point out that Sony was a very different place back then. Tommy Mattola, who was the head of Sony at the time and the one giving Michael such a hard time, is no longer there and hasn’t been since 2003. In fact, Sony has gone through three other chairmen/CEO’s since Matolla left so, it really is a different environment now than it was back then.

The whole fight between Michael and Sony became such a public mess with cries of conspiracy over the Sony/ATV catalog and I am certain that Michael had very good reason to feel the way he did. But the unfortunate outcome of it was that a truly wonderful work of art that Michael Jackson spent a great deal of time on, pouring his heart and soul into for months and months, got overlooked and pushed to the wayside in all of the confusion. The Invincible album is practically unknown outside of the fan world and it’s just such a shame that the rest of the world missed it because there are some real musical gems on this record. That’s why Willa and I wanted to do our part this October and help celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Invincible by doing a month-long series on the album.

And I have to admit that I did participate in the campaign’s buy event yesterday; I went out and purchased another copy of the CD. But, of course, I do that periodically anyway…. it’s like a sickness! I am obsessed with this album.

Willa:  Well, as you know, I’m not the most technologically advanced person in the world, but I have this iPod I’m gradually bonding with – at least, I’m comfortable checking email and searching the web with it now. But my son keeps laughing at me because I’m so cautious about using it. As he pointed out the other day, I let it “mellow” in its box for four months before I even opened it. Apparently he’d been monitoring the situation to see how long it would take, but finally decided I was going to let the warranty expire before I ever tried it so finally just opened it for me and got it going. (He has one too.) And then practically the first thing I did with it was somehow take a picture of my own eyeball. He thinks this is all very funny – just the whole situation of his 50-year-old mother trying to figure out an iPod. It cracks him up.

Anyway, I’ve had this thing for 10 months now and still don’t have any music on it, so I was thinking I might download Invincible – my first music download! – and support the campaign at the same time. Wish me luck! And then next week we’ll continue our discussion of this remarkable yet frequently overlooked album.

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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 October 6, 2011, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. There is one book that desribes the whole proces with Invincible.It’s called “Invincible Sabotage”:
    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005FSSUIQ

  2. Good article, and some good observations. When Invincible was released I used to listen to the entire album almost every night. In fact, I used a diary to mark how many times I listened to the complete album. Damn, I was crazy about it. When You Rock My World Video premiered, they showed it nonstop for an entire day and i watched the video like so many times that day.

  3. No matter how many times I listen to Michael’s music I am always discovering something new, something that I think to myself just wasn’t there before. Michael’s life was really an open book if people would’ve just listened to his songs and listened to what he had to say in general. He was the “real deal” he was honest, sincere, loving and empathised with all the hurt in the world. The plight of sick, neglected and starving children of the world and the destruction of our planet were always on his mind. Michael is greatly missed and loved and there is a void left by his absence that no one else can ever fill.

  4. Hi,

    I would like to post these series of articles on Invincible on my blog. Please let me know if it is ok. Thanks so much for your consideration.

    • Hi Cutie Pie. Willa and I would be happy to allow you to post our blogs about Invincible on your blog. I have spent some time looking over your blog, “All Things Michael,” and I must admit, I lost track of time while visiting The Pleasure Dome!! That’s a nice spot for the ladies! I also started reading one of the short stories so, I will be back to keep reading and see what happens next. Your blog is a lot of fun; keep it up!

      • Thank you so much for allowing me to use the article. I just posted it tonight and I added the Unbreakable video at the end for others to enjoy. I love the work that you and Willa have done here. I enjoy your in-depth discussions about Michael’s music and the importance of its relevance in the world as we know it.

        I am glad you enjoyed the Pleasure Dome! Most people do enjoy it! It was the brain child of myself and a close friend of mine based on a discussion we had in jest. We made it not quite two years ago originally on a thread at michaeljackson.com. It’s on another MJ site now. We talked about doing a part two but we haven’t gotten around to it, but eventually we will!

        I am glad you like the blog. I work hard on it. I want it to be educational as well as fun. Take care.

  5. I’m so glad you are going to “work your way” through this incredible album. I have long thought that this was his finest piece of work, and that it portended even greater things to come. When we consider the diversity of the songs (and that he wrote or co-wrote all but two of the songs), the diversity of styles, and the many different ways he uses his voice, I think he was only beginning to display how much his talent had grown. To call it underrated is a huge understatement. And I so totally agree that it’s hard to imagine what he would have done with the videos for some of these songs.

    @ Willa, you really have NO IDEA of the pleasures that you are denying yourself by delaying your acquaintance with your iPod. I implore you to take care of that situation at once. My husband bought me my first one a couple of years ago (it is now his) and a new one for Christmas last year. As I write this the day after Steve Jobs’ death, I can tell you that, in my opinion, this really is the greatest invention since sliced bread (as they say)! I can remember the transistor radio. My iPod goes with me everywhere! It holds more music than you can imagine (I have all my Michael stuff plus gobs of other music and haven’t even half filled it yet).

    Anxiously awaiting your upcoming posts!

    • OK, I really am going to do this. Becoming friends with my iPod is now on my to-do list for the weekend. Thanks for the encouragement!

      • Absolutely… have to have an IPOD!! Can’t think of a better way to christen it Willa but with Michael’s Invincible, my absolute favorite…. so sad short films aren’t there to accompany it.

  6. I have all Michael’s CD’s in my car but for the past several months have listened to Invincible exclusively as in my opinion, it says so much about Michael’s state of mind when it was written. Unbreakable is my favorite, but who cannot love Butterflies and Speechless and what about Heaven Can Wait. I sometimes think these were all inspirec by his love for (at the time) his two precious children, Prince and Paris. I was well aware of his difficulties with Sony at the time Invincible was released and how he had to self-promote his album, for one by appearing at Virgin Records in NYC with the throngs of fans racing to him upon the announcement that he would sign CD’s. I’m buying a few more “Invincibles” during October in support of the campaign and eagerly look forward to your further articles on the album, which in my opinion was his absolute best artistic achievement.

  7. Unbreakable is one of my favorite songs on the album. The way he used the word “untouchable” reversing its meaning struck me too. I wondered if maybe he didn’t know the meaning of the word in Indian culture, but it’s hardly possible considering his interest in India, its history and philosophy. I think you are right, Willa, he made a point by taking pride in the label used for social outcasts.

    I’m dying to know what ideas MJ had for the music video to this song. For me artwise the cancellation of this project is the second greatest devastation after cancellation of the HBO concert.

    • “I’m dying to know what ideas MJ had for the music video to this song.”

      I am too. I wonder if he sketched out rough concepts for the video with anyone. He said in Moonwalk and in a couple of interviews that, often with his videos, he would talk with a . . what? not a director, not a screenwriter . . . someone who helped him develop a film concept to express his ideas. What would you call that person? Anyway, I wonder if the planned video for “Unbreakable” ever made it to that stage. Though even if it did, so much of the meaning of his videos comes from subtle visual cues – things he probably wouldn’t have talked about early on in the conceptual stage, if at all.

  8. twinlakesprairie

    I hope this doesn’t sound too bizarre, but I think of Michael as a Christ-like figure. He loved the earth and people of every race and creed. He felt the pain of all those who were suffering, and wanted to help them. He was persecuted and reviled, but never once turned away from his vision of healing the world. His “friends” turned their backs on him when he was in his darkest hours. Somehow, in death, he has become even more alive to me, as if his spirit is now free of all the torment he faced. I listen to his music and he speaks to me. Michael’s body died, but his message of love lives on in my heart.

    • Hi Twinlakesprairie. You know, I get kind of uneasy when people equate Michael to Christ; I personally don’t like to use that terminology but, I do understand exactly what you’re trying to say and it’s not bizarre at all. You hear people say it all the time and it really is true: Michael was SO ‘not-of-this-world.’ I can’t think of any other human being who cared as much as he did. About everything and everyone. And people tend to ridicule what they don’t understand so, he was persecuted for being so different from the rest of us. Really sad that the world couldn’t just take him at his word and love him back instead of tormenting him.

      But I love what you said about him somehow seeming more alive in death. As if his spirit is now finally free from all of the pain he was forced to endure on this earth. That’s a really nice thought and one that often makes me smile through my tears when I think about him.

  9. I whole heartedly join in celebrating this amazing album, a studio work of art that reveals a true master and artistic genius. It is long over due that this album get a serious review.

    I have to agree that the song Unbreakable seems aimed at Sony and the global bullying Michael endured beginning with the Chandler extortion scheme. Sony was noticeably absent coming to his defense all the way through their noticeable absence from his public memorial service in ’09. Makes you wonder if Sony actually had something to do with all the bad press for all those years. After all, they stood to make more from Michael’s demise by gaining control of his 50% stake in the Sony/ATV catalog then they could ever have made from any musical project. Maybe that explains why so many great masterpieces never got made.

    One of the most telling sonic images in the song is the last word of the last chorus, “unbreakable”, which is delivered over the sound of glass shattering into a million pieces. Is it the sound of a break through? of going beyond the falsely imposed limitations? Or is it the sound of being shattered and broken down in despair? or both? Breaking through and breaking down all at the same time?

    Many MJ songs feature the sound of air, wind, breath as percussion or sound scape or expressive vocalization. At the bridge in Unbreakable we hear the artificial sound of gasping for air through an oxygen mask as if on life support. Chilling.

    And in the very opening intro sound scape, we hear the purr of an engine moving around in sonic space but layered on top is the sound of a cat purr, cat being another common symbol throughout his work. How is he using it here? Over a theme of artificial man made sound over the sound of nature? This happens all throughout the work. What is the sonic message?

    • Wow! Just listened to “Unbreakable” a couple times with these ideas in mind, and it was amazing! I literally heard things I’ve never heard before. Btw, you’re right about that cat at the beginning, and it’s no housecat either. It’s like a panther. I know he often used cat images in his videos – some that spring to mind right away are Billie Jean, Remember the Time, and of course the panther dance in Black or White. Does he use cat sounds frequently also?

      You know, I’m a word person, and I love his songwriting, so I tend to focus on the lyrics when listening to his albums – especially when trying to understand the ideas he’s conveying. I tend to look to the words for meaning, and see the music as creating the mood or setting for the words. But reading your post helped me realize that he can also convey meaning directly through sounds and music, without words, and I’m so intrigued by this.

  10. Yes! It is so Edgar Allen Poe to me the way Michael uses sounds like words and words like sounds. Crazy genius.

    I can’t recall hearing a cat in other songs, and even though I am more aural by nature, I am constantly discovering things on tracks I’ve listened to zillions of times. It’s amazing.

    I have a theory that the panther in the BorW video represents man’s lower nature or animalistic tendencies. In Unbreakable, I’m wondering if the purr of an engine combined with the purr of a cat could be a subtle message of how dangerous our lower nature is combined with our technologies. We human beings do tend to do things like detonate nuclear bombs in the beautiful deserts of New Mexico you know. Michael was so viciously attacked and bullied on a global scale in part because of technology that allowed this unprecedented global exposure. I wonder if these sounds aren’t a very subtle statement about man’s lower nature and technology. I do know that Michael placed great importance on these intros and sound scapes and given the lyrical content of the song that’s what came to mind. In the song he’s talking about getting pounded in a way that would have left just about anyone beaten down and broken. It was vicious and inhumane or in-human.

    • “Yes! It is so Edgar Allen Poe to me the way Michael uses sounds like words and words like sounds. Crazy genius.”

      I love that! What a great way to describe this “sound scape,” as you called it before. I bought my son a book of Poe’s poems years ago, when he was in like first or second grade, and those poems where Poe “uses sounds like words and words like sounds” were so fun to read out loud. We both loved them. And you’re right, there’s a whole other layer of meaning being conveyed through those sounds, separate from the denotative meaning of the words.

      I’m intrigued by your interpretation of the cats in Black or White and “Unbreakable” because it’s so different from how I was thinking about them. To me, those cats suggest some sort mysterious elusive power, like they seem to in other videos. In Billie Jean, a tiger appears just as he disappears, and so he escapes without detection. There’s a similar scene at the end of Remember the Time where the king’s guards are chasing him – just as they close in, he disappears and a cat appears. Hmmm . . . you’ve really got me thinking about this.

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