I’m Gonna Be Exactly What You Wanna See
Willa: This week we’re celebrating Halloween with one of Michael Jackson’s “scary” songs. And I have to admit, I was pretty excited when Joie suggested we talk about “Is It Scary” because it’s one of my favorites.
Joie: It’s one of my favorites too. So, the first time I heard “Is It Scary,” I was immediately struck by how sad it was and I actually cried. I remember hitting the repeat button several times and pouring over the liner notes, trying to make sure that I had heard Michael’s words correctly because, to me, this song is just so telling and so completely heartbreaking. All you have to do is listen to the lyrics to get a very real sense of what kind of pain he must have been in.
I’m gonna be exactly what you wanna see
It’s you who’s taunting me
Because you’re wanting me
To be the stranger in the night
Am I amusing you
Or just confusing you
Am I the beast you visualized
And if you wanna see
I’ll be grotesque before your eyes
Let them all materialize
It makes you wonder what kind of toll it must take on a person. Always being seen as some kind of freak or monster. Always hearing that the entire world thinks you’re strange and weird and bizarre. Constantly having a very vile label attached to your name and being seen as public enemy number one. What does that feel like? How do you cope with that? How much does that hurt? Michael Jackson knew the answers to those questions. And the first time I listened to “Is It Scary,” I got the feeling he wanted the rest of the world to know those answers too. Just for a few minutes, to put themselves in his place and feel what he must have felt.
But he didn’t just want us to put ourselves in his place for a while. He wanted us to take a look at ourselves and try to wrap our heads around the fact that he is not the oddity in this freak show – we are! We’re the ones who keep putting those ugly labels on him. We’re the ones who, for some reason, need him to play the role of the monster in our imagined horror movie. We’re the ones with the sick minds who insist that he has done very inappropriate things with inappropriate people. We – not the fans, of course but, the rest of the world – have tried and convicted him for something he never even thought about doing. All because he “seemed” weird.
Willa: Joie, I feel the exact same way about this song. I don’t think we can begin to imagine how horrible those 1993 allegations were for him. The pain of those allegations are a constant presence in his later work. We saw that in Invincible last month. The pain of those allegations is just beneath the surface of every single song on that album. He can’t get past it, can’t escape it. It’s just a constant ache. And we see it so clearly in “Is It Scary,” which was written, recorded, and released in the years immediately after those allegations came out. His voice is so beautiful and so expressive on this song, and when he sings these lyrics, you just want to bow your head and cry:
So did you come to me
To see your fantasies
Performed before your very eyes
A haunting ghostly treat
The ghoulish trickery
And spirits dancing in the night
But if you came to see
The truth the purity
It’s here inside a lonely heart
So let the performance start
But there’s something else going on here also. He isn’t just expressing the pain he’s feeling because of those allegations. He’s also telling us how he’s going to respond to them.
As he says in the lyrics you cited, Joie, “I’m gonna be / Exactly what you wanna see.” In other words, if people are going to insist he’s a monster, then he’s going to become one – he’s going to fulfill their “fantasies” and give them what they want. As he says, “you’re wanting me / To be the stranger in the night.” The tabloid press, especially, and much of the public are “wanting” to see him as a pedophile (a “stranger in the night”) even though the evidence clearly contradicts it. The facts don’t matter, though, because this isn’t about reason or logic. It’s about mass hysteria – the same kind of mass hysteria that led us to attack Iraq, a sovereign nation, for no reason. We tend to think we’ve progressed since the days of the Salem witch trials, but I don’t think we have. We just vent our fears in different ways now. And he’s caught in the midst of this hysteria and he’s the target of all that mindless fear, and he’s trying to deal with it. He and his lawyers tried to fight those allegations by citing the evidence, and it made no difference at all. In fact, it just seemed to blow things up bigger, if possible, and make things worse. So now he’s developed an artistic response. As he tells us, “if you wanna see / Eccentric oddities / I’ll be grotesque before your eyes / Let them all materialize.”
Joie: I think you’re absolutely right, Willa, and I think the lyrics are so self-explanatory. All you have to do is pay attention to what it is he’s saying here and you’ll see it. He’s telling us very plainly exactly what he’s about to do next. You know, it’s almost like a defiant teenager who’s rebelling against his parents: ‘Oh, you think I’m acting out now? Well, just you wait.’ It’s a very strange tendency we have as humans to respond to personal attacks in this almost self-sabotaging way. It’s as if Michael was saying ‘So, you want to think of me as a freak show? Well, hold on tight, ’cause I’ll show you a freak show!’ It’s a point he illustrates so well in the Ghosts short film when confronted by the town Mayor.
Willa: Hold on tight is right! It was a pretty wild ride after that, especially the plastic surgery scandal, or the story printed in Vanity Fair that he paid a Mali witchdoctor $150,000 to sacrifice 42 cows and put a curse on Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. That’s crazy. I can’t believe they actually printed that.
Joie: I can’t believe they printed such a ridiculous story either. You know, sometimes I think the crazier the press got, the more it only served to make THEM look foolish, not Michael. And the fact that the public believed it just floors me. It’s no wonder he decided to “be exactly what you wanna see.” He must have felt like he couldn’t win.
Willa: And Joie, I imagine part of that was defiance. He definitely had a strong streak of defiance in his character – I don’t think he could have survived everything he faced without it – so that could be one reason why he decided to be “what you wanna see” and become the monster the press and the public wanted him to be.
But I think there’s something else going on here too, something critically important. And to understand that, I think it helps to step back for a moment and look at his other “monster” works: Thriller, Ghosts, “Threatened,” “Monster.” Repeatedly, we see him taking on the role of the monster, but these aren’t horror stories in the conventional sense. For one thing, they aren’t very scary. A conventional horror story plunges us into a frightening situation and encourages us to become immersed in feeling the full terror of that situation, but he doesn’t. He touches on it, then pulls back and shows us it’s an illusion, then touches on it again and pulls back again. We see this same structure in all of these works. He doesn’t really want to scare us. That’s not what these are about. As he said in a 1999 MTV interview when asked if he liked horror movies,
“Believe it or not, I’m afraid to watch scary movies. Honestly, I don’t quite like to watch them very much. I never thought I’d be involved in making that sort of thing.”
But he didn’t really make “that sort of thing,” because these aren’t really horror stories. But what are they?
To understand that, I think it helps to go back even further – in fact, more than 2,000 years – and look at Aristotle’s theories about art. In Ars Poetica, Aristotle says that one function of art – especially tragedy – is to bring about catharsis, meaning the purging of base emotions such as fear. I think that’s what Michael Jackson is doing in his “monster” works. He’s not encouraging us to feel base emotions. In fact, he’s doing just the opposite – he’s purging us of those emotions. In Thriller, he’s attempting to purge us of a specific type of racial prejudice – the fear many people felt for him as a very sexy Black man, a sex symbol even, and our first Black teen idol. And in Ghosts, “Threatened,” “Monster,” and “Is It Scary,” he’s trying to purge us of that horrible mob mentality that erupted in the hysteria of the 1993 allegations.
Joie: Well, Willa, I have not read Aristotle since my college philosophy class so, I really can’t comment much on that. But, I do understand the idea of catharsis and purging those base emotions and cleansing and healing the psyche. So, I think this makes a lot of sense.
Willa: You know, I’m still trying to figure this out myself, but I see something really different happening in these works, and in the “eccentric oddities” that dominated the media after the release of “Is It Scary.” I think he’s creating a new type of art – in fact, I think you could make the case that he’s creating an entirely new genre of art – and it just fascinates me. And if I haven’t mentioned it in a while, let me say once again that I think Michael Jackson was brilliant – just knock your socks off, bug your eyes out, blow your mind brilliant.
Joie: I know what you mean; it is really unbelievable at times when you think about just how brilliant he was. Almost scary brilliant, actually, and I have never been able to understand those people who just don’t get it. Like, I know that I am a hard-core fan but, it just flabbergasts me to know that there are people out there who don’t think that Michael Jackson is the single most fascinatingly creative person ever to walk the earth. I am just so bewildered by that knowledge – like, how is that even possible? Why isn’t everyone as crazy about him as I am? I just don’t understand.
Willa: Joie, that is so funny because I’ve asked myself some of those exact same questions. Why are they so threatened by him, and why do they condemn him so harshly? Can’t they see how amazing and important his work is? Don’t they get it? I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot lately – about why Michael Jackson’s fans see him so differently than everyone else does – and I’ve decided the answer is very simple: it’s because we love him. And if you look at someone with compassion, you simply see them differently than if you don’t.
I was at the grocery store a few months ago and there was an elderly woman several people ahead of me in line. She was pretty slow and disorganized and was answering the check-out person’s questions in kind of an abrupt, almost rude way, and you could tell the check-out person was getting pretty annoyed with her, and so were the other people in line. But I’d worked with that woman and her husband on a community project, and while I didn’t know her well, I did know that her son had just died the week before after a long battle with cancer. When I was leaving the grocery store, I noticed she was standing at the entrance looking kind of lost and fumbling for her keys so I went over and said hi, and Joie, you could tell that she was just barely holding it together. That trip to the grocery store was about the limit of what she could do right then. And just knowing a little something about her history and what she was going through and seeing her with compassion led me to interpret her words and actions in a really different way than the other people behind her in line.
I think the same thing is true of Michael Jackson and how various people saw him. Those of us who knew his music and his ideas – knew how committed he was to social change, and how important children were for him, both personally and in terms of social change – had a much better understanding of what he must have been going through after the 1993 allegations came out, and that led us to see him with sympathy and interpret him in a much more compassionate way. And when you look at him and the situation he was in from that perspective, it all looks very different from the harsh, condemning criticism you read in the papers.
Joie: It’s really very sad when you think about it that way, you know? To realize that so many of our day-to-day conflicts could be resolved, or even totally eliminated, if we would all just have a little bit more compassion with one another and look at each other with a little bit of love first instead of always immediately reacting with annoyance. And the really sad part is, that’s a lesson Michael had been trying to teach us for so many years. Wow. That just blew my mind a little bit. Thanks for sharing that story, Willa.
But, getting back to “Is It Scary,” what makes this song especially heartbreaking for me, are these lyrics at the very end:
I’m tired of being abused
You know you’re scaring me too
I think the evil is you
Is that scary for you, baby
These last few lines just make me want to cry. You can hear all of his emotions at the end of this song – frustration, rage, anger, sadness. Especially when coupled with his mournful cries of “Don’t wanna talk about it / I don’t wanna talk about it” that immediately precede this last verse. It’s almost difficult to listen to and I feel like, if every person on the planet would really listen to this song and take it in and really digest it, then maybe the world would finally understand him a little bit better and realize all they had put him through.
I know. It’s a pipe dream. But, a girl can hope.
Willa: I agree. This song just seems to be a pure expression of all the emotions he was going through after the 1993 allegations came out. And it amazes me that in the midst of the pain of those allegations, at a time when I personally would want nothing more than to hide under the covers and cry, he was able to distance himself a bit, think through what was happening at a cultural level, and create an artistic response. That just astonishes me, on many different levels, and creates this whole mix of emotions – everything from admiration for what he accomplished to a deep sorrow for everything he had to go through, and for everything we’ve lost.
Joie: I know. It is truly amazing to think about. How anyone could have the courage to hold their head up day after day in his situation… it is just amazing to me and I think he was one of the bravest people ever. Can you imagine being in his shoes and going through the public humiliation that he did, every single day? And in the midst of it all, to still be able to work and write and create truly compelling art and keep presenting it to a world that had turned on you. He’s just incredible to me.
Willa: Well, we can both certainly agree on that.