Spotlight on You Rock My World

Willa:  So Joie, in October we spent the entire month taking a close look at the Invincible album, including some of the battles Michael Jackson had with Sony during its production and promotion. To be honest, I never knew much about those battles or paid much attention to them, but focusing on Invincible for a month forced me to really think about what he must have been going through then, and that’s led me to look at the You Rock My World video in a whole new way.

To be honest, this video has always made me really uncomfortable. It’s very angry, for one thing – one of his angriest. But Black or White is angry also, and I love Black or White. It’s one of my favorites. But Black or White expresses a righteous anger. I watch it and come away feeling empowered and inspired and ready to take on the world. You Rock My World is completely different. I watch it and just feel frustrated and powerless and angry, and not even sure who I’m mad at.

Joie:  Well, I understand completely about the video making you uncomfortable. I have always had a similar reaction to this one. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it makes me uncomfortable but, I do come away from it feeling very on edge. The whole video just feels a little bit raw to me. Like you can actually feel the tension beneath the surface as you watch it. And I think the reasons for that are really clear. I’m sure Michael was feeling very “frustrated and powerless and angry” by that point. As you know, You Rock My World was not the video he originally wanted to make. As you mentioned last month, he really wanted to make a video for “Unbreakable.” This is also the song he wanted to be the lead single from the album, not to mention the title of the the album itself. He already had the video concept worked out and everything so, when Sony made the decision to release “You Rock My World” instead of “Unbreakable,” I know he probably felt extreme anger and frustration. One would think that an artist of Michael’s caliber would have complete autonomy and control over how a project would unfold. And maybe that very issue was one of the bones of contention between him and Sony at the time.

But, I remember getting the phone call from the MJFC president back in 2001 when all of this was happening and her telling me that the video Michael wanted to make had to be scrapped because of friction with Sony and Michael was now scrambling to make a video for “You Rock My World” and it had to be completed in a very short amount of time and he was “less than happy” about the situation. And I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, I bet he’s pissed!’

Willa:  And you can really feel a lot of those intense emotions in this video. The plot has his character trying to woo a young woman, and as we’ve talked about a number of times in previous posts, these love interests often seem to represent his audience. Importantly, another character played by Chris Tucker – a popular entertainer in his own right – is also attracted to her. So this woman – possibly representing their audience – has more than one performer competing for her attention, just as entertainers often seem to compete for an audience and market share.

Michael Jackson’s character is pretty sure of himself and confident he can win her over, but they go to a club where the managers want her also and seem to think they have a right to her, and they try to keep him away from her. In fact, he begins having confrontations with these managers and ultimately the club owner, just as Michael Jackson himself was having increasingly heated confrontations with the managers and ultimately the head of Sony over how to reach an audience.

Joie:  Wow, Willa. You know, I never really thought about that connection of the club managers and the big boss, played to perfection by Marlon Brando, as possibly representing the powers-that-be at Sony but, now that you point it out, it makes perfect sense! Really keen observation.

Willa:  Well, I’d never thought about it before either until we were working on the Invincible posts, and you clued me in to what exactly was happening then and just how bad it was. And as I was thinking about that, I realized that the emotions of that situation precisely paralleled those unsettling emotions that have always made this such an uncomfortable video for me to watch.

So Michael Jackson’s character has to deal with all these confrontations with the managers, and he responds by performing – by singing and dancing – which is what he always does in his videos when forced to deal with confrontational situations. And as we’ve seen in videos stretching back to Beat It and Bad, the power of art has always been able to bridge those differences and bring about some sort of harmonious resolution.

But that doesn’t happen this time. The outcome is completely different here than in any other Michael Jackson video because the people he’s battling against don’t respect his art. The managers watch him dance and then taunt him, saying “That’s it? That’s all you got? That ain’t nothin.’ You ain’t nothin.’ C’mon, big man, show me all you got.”

Then later, in that crucial scene with the club owner, the owner trivializes his art as well, saying, “You were pretty cute in there.” That’s exactly the kind of patronizing thing an executive, a money guy, would think about an artist, and it is so incredibly condescending and disrespectful. Can you imagine Michael Jackson, a brilliant artist who put himself on the line every time he walked on stage, coming off stage after dancing his heart out and hearing, “You were pretty cute in there”? That is such a belittling thing to say to a dancer, and it just scorches me every time I hear it.

However, Michael Jackson’s character responds in an interesting way. He gives the owner a defiant look and says, “I know who you are” – which immediately leads me to think, Who? Who is this guy? The simple answer is that he represents Tommy Mattola, the head of Sony at the time, but that’s a little too easy, I think. Instead, I think it’s more useful to see him as symbolic of all those executives and accountants and mid-level managers who make money off artists but don’t really respect them or understand what they’re doing, or realize how important it is.

Joie:  It’s interesting that you say that, Willa, because I remember reading an account of a Sony listening party for Invincible and it seemed so intense. I can’t remember now exactly where I read it but, basically it was Michael and his manager or his publicist or someone like that, in a room with a bunch of Sony executives and they sat and listened to the entire album from start to finish. And when the album was over, no one said a word. The Sony execs just got up and filed out of the room without saying a word to Michael – no congratulations, no words of praise, no nothing. And it just reminds me of that part you pointed out from the video. “Is that all you got? That ain’t nothin’. You ain’t nothin’.” I’m sure, that must have been what Michael was feeling at the end of that listening party when they all got up and left without saying a word.

Willa:  Are you serious? How awful! And it’s so interesting that you should cite that passage again because “You ain’t nothin'” is a line from the Bad video as well, which in many ways depicts a comparable situation. There, he’s a young man from the inner city who received a scholarship to a prep school, and then comes home and has to regain the respect of guys he thought were his friends, but aren’t really. Now he’s involved in a similar confrontation with Sony and having to regain the respect of people who should be supporting him, but aren’t really.

In fact, the You Rock My World video frequently references his earlier work:  “P. Y. T.,” “The Girl is Mine,” “Beat It,” “Bad,” “Dangerous.” And all of those songs were hits that made money for Sony specifically. He doesn’t mention any of his Motown hits. They’re included in a fun way, so they add a touch of humor to the video, but I think there’s an underlying message as well. He’s reminding Sony that he’s done his part – he’s built an audience and proven he can create big money-making hits. Now it’s time for them to do their part and support him while he creates something more experimental and artistically challenging, like the Invincible album.

Joie:  Again, that is such a keen observation and I have to say that I agree with you completely. And in fact, this opening sequence of the video where his earlier work is cited – first at the Chinese restaurant and then at the club – is the most fun, relaxing, entertaining part of the entire video. He’s with his friend, Chris Tucker and the two of them are having really good fun playing with the words and interacting with each other, and it is as if he is sort of reminding everyone of the hits, reminding us – Sony and the audience as well – of why we fell in love with him in the first place.

And really, if you think about it, it isn’t until he leaves Chris’ side to begin wooing the girl that things start to get a little bit uncomfortable. That’s when we begin to feel the tension creep in. That’s when we begin to get the feeling that there is more going on just beneath the surface that we’re not fully aware of. We can feel his anger and frustration but, we don’t really know why.

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Joie. While there’s something of a competition between these two characters, they’re presented as good friends and it feels like fun back-and-forth banter – unlike the tension-filled conflicts with the managers of the club. You know, stepping back and looking at this video through the lens of all the confrontations that were happening then with the executives at Sony has helped me figure out why it always made me so uncomfortable – it’s helped me see at least one possible reason for why it’s so angry and where that anger comes from – and understanding that has given me a way to get into this video and appreciate it a lot more. It doesn’t make me so uncomfortable now because I have a better idea of what’s causing all those intense emotions.

And they are intense. To be honest, I get the feeling that by the time this video came out, Michael Jackson had had it up to here with Sony. And as he shows pretty dramatically in the conclusion to You Rock My World, he’s done with negotiations. He’s ready to burn the place down.

Joie:  He was so over it; he was done. You have to feel pretty angry to want to burn the place down, even symbolically. I don’t think it takes much art interpretation to understand that scene. The place goes up in flames and presumably, the big boss goes with it, as we see him turning to head back up the stairs instead of out of the building with everyone else. And not only is he so angry he’s ready to torch the place but, he’s also angry enough to fight. You have to remember that this is the one and only video where we see Michael throw a punch! As the club is going up in flames and he’s shouting for Chris to get the car, he is embroiled in a bar room brawl.

Willa:  Wow, Joie, I think you’ve just highlighted something really important. We’ve never seen him lash out like that before. Michael Jackson punch someone in the face? That’s shocking! But even so, he makes it clear he didn’t come looking for a fight. Before the brawl breaks out, he and his dancers perform this subtle movement of pulling back the lower edge of their jackets, just as the street tough does in Bad to reveal he has a gun. But here, they reveal they have no guns. So he’s unarmed and he isn’t looking for a fight – but he’s ready to fight if threatened and pushed too far.

Joie:  And significantly, in his own life he is going through a situation where he feels the need to fight and he does so in very public ways – something many people were not used to seeing from him. This is a man who was always more inclined to ‘turn the other cheek’ than to go into battle but he has clearly had just about all that he can stand.

And, of course, at the end we see our hero connect with his love interest – the audience – as they all pile into the car and drive safely away.

Willa:  I agree, and I think you were really onto something earlier when you said there’s a very friendly feeling between these characters. The intense conflicts in this video come almost exclusively from the confrontation with the managers, not the competition between the friends. We see that reflected in the conclusion as well. They are still friends and in a way they both have the girl – she’s in the car with both of them – just as performers can share an audience and even help each other gain an audience. Looking at this symbolically, the video seems to be saying that artists should band together because other artists aren’t the problem. The problem comes from all the people trying to control artists and how they express themselves simply to maximize profit without really understanding what they’re trying to say or accomplish through their work.

And I have to say, in this context Marlon Brando plays the role of the club owner so well, especially his interactions with the main character. He completely belittles Michael Jackson’s character but smiles a wonderful smile, he’s charming, you want to like him – and yet you know he would have his henchmen slip a knife through your heart without a moment’s regret. His smile is open, engaging, sincere, and yet he is soulless. Brando was such an amazing actor, and what he does with that little scene is so compelling. To me, it just completely captures the essence of that character.

Joie:  I agree, Brando is great, as always! But I want to go back to the middle of the video for a moment and talk about two small parts that stand out for me and I already know one of them is a big stand out moment for you too, Willa. The first one is the part that intrigues us both:  that way-too-short interlude before the fighting begins where we suddenly become aware of the sounds in the club. The “street music” as you called it. We hear the rhythm of the broom sweeping across the floor and the glasses clinking, the shoe shine guy buffing, the high heals clicking and the patrons tapping on the tables. To me, this rhythm section feels like a pause in the tension. It almost feels out of place in terms of the dominant negative emotions that are driving the rest of the video.

The second part comes just before the rhythm section when we see a stage and a spotlight. Presumably, we’re in the same club but the setting is different. No one else is around. It’s just Michael and the lady he’s trying to woo. Only she is dressed very differently in a sexy suit and fedora, like him. And instead of commanding that spotlight as he rightfully should, Michael does something unexpected. He chooses not to dance this small solo ‘spotlight’ moment, opting instead to let the female love interest take center stage and do her best MJ impersonation while he simply glides across the floor behind her. This scene has always puzzled me because, again, it just seems a little out of place among the tension of the rest of the video. And yet, I know that it’s significant because it is so different and out of place.

Willa:  You know, art interpretation is a tricky thing. It’s tremendously fun and I love it, especially with an artist like Michael Jackson whose work is so rich, with so much to discover and explore. But it can also be a challenge sometimes to explore all the possible meanings of a work while still staying true to the artist’s vision. In this case, I really don’t think that Michael Jackson sat down and said, I’m going to create a video that is a symbolic critique of Sony and its minions, and A is going to represent B, and Y is going to represent Z. I seriously doubt that. Very few artists work that way, and from everything I’ve read about his creative process, his work tended to develop much more organically than that.

But I do think that, at the time he created this video, he was embroiled in some intense conflicts with Sony and was very frustrated and angry about that, and some of those emotions and conflicts expressed themselves in his work. And I think that looking at this video through the lens of what he was experiencing at that time allows us to see some things that weren’t apparent before.

For example, that whole “street music” sequence is simply wonderful, and I love to just experience it and enjoy it for what it is – a lovely tapestry of found sounds skillfully woven together to form music. But if I look at this sequence in terms of everything that was going on then with Sony, it seems significant to me that Michael Jackson’s character is totally tuned in to this street music, this music of the people, and beautifully engages with it and threads the rhythm of it into his music – and the club managers aren’t. They’re oblivious to this rhythm of the people. So through music, Michael Jackson’s character shares a deep symbiotic connection with the people, just as Michael Jackson himself did, but it’s a connection the club managers and Sony executives don’t participate in and don’t understand. That’s why it’s so galling that they’re the ones making the marketing decisions – decisions that not only affect his art (like canceling the “Unbreakable” video) but actually impose barriers between him and his audience.

Joie:  That’s a great point, Willa and I think you just hit the ball out of the park with that one! This is why that sequence has always seemed so out of place to me. Because it’s like, for that brief instant, Michael hits the pause button on all of the tension and the anger he feels toward the club managers (and the Sony execs) and just connects with the audience for a minute – to make sure we’re still there with him. That’s why this street music portion is so powerful and such an important part of the video!

And I agree with you about his creative process. I don’t think he ever set out to create a video where A represents this and B represents that. As you and I have talked about before, ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,’ as Freud would say. And perhaps, this spotlight scene that fascinates me so much is one of those cases. Maybe it was just a cool visual that he wanted to include. Or perhaps he was aware of Kishaya Dudley – the dancer in the role – and her impressive skills and wanted to give her a spotlight to shine. Or maybe it was more than that.

Since we have argued in the past that the love interest in many of his songs and videos ultimately represents his audience, perhaps we can look at this small scene in the same way. You know, the fans were – and still are – fiercely loyal to Michael and during his conflict with Sony, the fans were very vocal and they took up his charge with gusto, executing rallies and chanting ‘Sony Sucks’ to the delight of the press. In fact, Michael often called his fans his ‘Army of Love.’ So, if the love interest is supposed to represent his audience, then maybe the message here is that it’s time for us – the audience – to get into the act, so to speak, while he encourages us from the background. Or maybe – and I think this might be more to the point – he is acknowledging how the fans always step up to fight for him just as Ms. Dudley stepped into the spotlight in his place.

Willa:  That makes a lot of sense to me, Joie, and it reminds me again of the street music sequence. It’s like he’s emphasizing once again that deep connection he and his audience share through music and dance, and the strength and vitality each receives from the other. We love and support him; he loves and inspires us. He dances; we dance. It’s a deeply interconnected relationship that nourishes us all.


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 November 17, 2011, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 49 Comments.

  1. good topic and lots of food for thought here. The interpretation of the video is apt–especially when I think of the joyfulness of the song itself and yet the video is full of conflict. When Michael performed that song at the 30th anniversary in NYC, the song is so happy and amazing. It doesn’t have any conflict–only love and joy. The video seen via his conflict with Sony does shed light on Marlon Brando’s performance. There is also the black fighter (can’t recall his name, sorry) depicted in posters in the video–this poster is shown a number of times. I have read that this fighter was the victim of racism, as Michael was also. It is interesting to me, and I have been thinking about this lately, that in Michael’s press conference about Sony and Mottola, he speaks of how black artists (like James Brown) were exploited by the music industry and how they ended up penniless and forced to perform into old age. Michael pointed this out in the press conference, and yet–the same thing happened to him. He ended up deep in debt and under an apparently onerous contract in which (it is said) his music Sony ATV catalogue (worth up to a billion) was put up as collateral for the This Is It tour. Although I think Murray is a big liar, I think he might have told the truth when he quoted Randy Phillips of AEG saying that Michael was practically homeless and that he was paying for everything (and so he thought Michael should do what he wanted when he wanted). This whole thing is very sad–but I will always remember how Michael fought back and used his incredible music and artistry to defeat the ones who tried to control him. Sad that he could not have made the video of Unbreakable that he wanted to do. Does anyone know more about his plans for that video? Thanks so much–I love these conversations. Willa, I want soooo much to read M Poetica but have no Kindle–is there another way to read it or get access? Thank you.

    • Hi Aldebaran. That’s a really good point about the posters of the fighter up on the walls in the video. You’re right, they are shown numerous times throughout the entire video, which is very significant. Thanks for pointing that out!

      As for Willa’s book, you can still download it to your computer even if you don’t have a Kindle. Go to purchase it from Amazon and they will walk you through the steps of downloading ‘Kindle for PC.’ Then you basically have the Kindle capabilities right there on your computer.

      • Hi aldebaran. You can also read it on an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad. I tried to make it as accessible as possible, though I realize it’s not the same as a real book.

        Your point about black artists ending up “penniless” while others made money off the copyrights to their songs is really important. It’s my understanding that when Michael Jackson purchased the ATV catalog, it not only included copyrights to a lot of Beatles songs but to songs by some financially strapped black artists as well, and that he turned ownership of those copyrights back over to those artists so they’d receive income from their work. I need to look into this and learn more of the details, but that’s my understanding.

  2. Joie and Willa, your interpretation of the YRMW film makes such complete sense, I love it.

    I had pondered the meaning of the video several times before. Right at the start of the film, there is a painted signage which reads “The Waterfront Hotel”. As we know, “On the Waterfront” is the famous 1954 drama film where Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a heroic mob informer who decides to speak out againt the mob-connected union violence corruption amongst longshoremen. (The man and woman painted on the signage in the YRMW video , to my eyes even looks like Marlon and the actress in the 1954 movie. )

    This sign had made me see the video as symbolic of MJ’s own fight and decision to “speak out” against big corp Sony and other powers, at the time. MJ’s own violence in the video really stands out such as the scene where he breaks the bottles at the club. Uncharacteristic of him – as if he is saying that sometimes you have to fight, that the situation calls for it.

    • Hi Elsa. The connection to On the Waterfront is so important and really expands the frame of reference for You Rock My World – it places Michael Jackson’s fight with Sony within the context of a long struggle between individuals and abusive (possibly corrupt) institutions. Thanks for pulling that in.

      By the way, I was really struck by those figures on the Waterfront Hotel billboard as well. Did you notice how, at the end, the main character and his love interest are embracing in front of it, just like those figures are embracing on the billboard? It creates this wonderful double image where he’s both enacting and revising the billboard image. There are so many subtle details like that, and they make YRMW so interesting to watch again and again.

  3. George Andronikidis

    hmmmmmmmmm…….good points there……i dont agree though…..u mentioned that mike was in a way “forced” to visualise “u rock my world”……having that in mind i think that all he did was go to his “inventory” to come up with a good and “safe” idea…….so i think all he did . to “escape” his obligation. was to take the “smooth criminal” video and made a remake of it, set in a different environment, than that of a 30’s night club

  4. Interesting discussion here. I don’t think Michael would bother to just do a re-make (although, George, now you have me thinking about SC as well! A comparison between the two might also make for lively discussion!). Michael was a master of art and metaphor, and, appreciating all that was going on in his professional life at the time this video was made, I think the metaphor here has more to do with the complex relationship between life and art, and how each informs, influences, seduces, and yes, even “battles with” the other. But I need to watch it a few more times before I can more fully flesh out my thoughts.

  5. Wow, this is a major epiphany for me! I’ve never really been able to watch this video it makes me so angry and uncomfortable. And all this time I thought it was the wardrobe department’s fault for putting Michael in a BROWN SUIT! Doesn’t everyone know Michael looks best in cool reds, blue, black and white??? It makes me so mad every time I see that brown suit and orange shirt I can’t even watch the film, or so I thought! (Of course it’s also against my principles to eat blue M&M’s. We all know M&M’s should only be warm fall colors! lol.)

    Must know more about “On the Waterfront” and those boxing photos…..

    In the mean time I am certain that Willa and Joie have cracked the code on this short film, and I feel like it’s not an unintended message bubbling up from the subconscious. This is pretty deliberate and in your face message if you connect the dots between the speech he made around this time and the film.

    The opening scene depicts the most ridiculous of racial stereotypes – the chinese restaurant, the rickshaw, the karate chop – and two black guys making cat calls and running off without paying. When they follow the girl into the club, the white mob makes it clear THEY own and control her. The whites are in power here. Then Michael goes on stage, and BAM! The scrim comes down and he dances behind it like a shadow puppet. He’s letting us know we’re in shadow territory here. He intends to poke around in our unconscious biases.

    Michael openly pursues this beautiful lady clearly defying what is expected of him. The white thug’s response is “I think he wants to die”. He’s playing with his life by stepping out of his subservient role to challenge the white power structure.

    The solo spotlight dance is fascinating. I assume it’s the same girl in another costume, like a dream sequence. Am I wrong? It’s hard to tell because of the hat over her face and the different hair. We see Michael descending the stair case down into the basement, a universal symbol for subconscious terrain. Then the spotlight appears, and the girl performs her dance with the hat. To my eye this evokes the minstrelsy and the tradition of white exploitation of black talent. (The same concept is used in the panther dance). Michael dances straight across the spotlight and back up into the club, where the girl is again in her emerald dress.

    He eventually smashes a bottle into the sign that says “NO FIGHTING”, he’s done with being told he can’t challenge white authority.

    The boss upstairs is informed the trouble has started and he responds “Get rid of this guy”. Chilling, because Michael believed his business dealings with Sony placed his life in jeopardy. Long ago he dared to topple the white power structure of the entertainment industry and there were consequences. Black artists must know their place and not threaten this profitable exploitation! So much to be said about this.

    Would give anything to see what he had in mind for Unbreakable. Breaks my heart he didn’t do it, but this is an amazing film too. Still wish Michael could wear the royal purple shirt and black suit Chris is wearing. He would have looked so beautiful and kingly in it!

    • Wow, Ultravioletrae. Lots to think about… I especially love your comments about “shadow territory” and about connections to the panther dance in Black or White, another “angry” video, and putting this within the context of a long history of racial “coding.” And I agree – I tend to think Michael Jackson was very aware of what he was doing in his short films. There are so many subtle allusions and parallels to his fight with Sony and the speech he gave during that time, it does seem “pretty deliberate,” as you say. I don’t know that he sat down and thought, hmmm, I want to critique this situation with Sony, and how can I do that? But once he had the concept, I think he saw the connections and just added layer on layer of meaning, like the references to On the Waterfront that Elsa mentioned.

      btw, all those stereotypes in the opening sequence really caught my attention as well. They’re handled in such an interesting way – he’s really commenting on them and flipping them around, and also playing (yet again) with notions of racial identity. For example, there’s the line where Chris Tucker’s character says, “That’s why I don’t like going out to eat with black people ’cause when the bill comes, they start tripping.” Michael Jackson’s character immediately responds with, “Yeah, that’s why you’re paying for it.” It’s like this quirky syllogism: black people don’t like to pay, Michael Jackson doesn’t like to pay, therefore Michael Jackson is black. It’s funny.

  6. It’s funny that Ultravioletrae mentioned the color of Michael’s wardrobe because I have always been intrigued by that myself. In just about all his short films he is divinely wearing black and red, as in real life. Color has always been used as a literary device and this got me thinking of the color chosen for Michael’s love interest’s dress (we could call her “My Baby”). It is so vibrant and she looks absolutely lavish in it (I think the lining of her coat in her “solo” sequence is green as well). The first thing that came to my mind is nature. Of course, we all know the earth was precious to Michael and green is a way to symbolize Earth. Also, green represents the heart; as in “life” in the chakras of the body and not to forget, it is the color of money (Sony connection?)…Also, green is the complement color to red on the color wheel, which Michael usually wears. (Wow Ultravioletae, this whole time I thought Michael was wearing black and red. It just reads black and red to my eye. Oh well.) Hmmm. I am thinking that Michael had input in almost all visuals in his short films…perhaps that green dress meant something to him. It just really stands out to me.

    One more thing, did anyone notice the male face on the billboard outside? It looks like part of the face is missing and the tip of the nose is not attached. I am reminded of Willa’s, “Rereading Michael Jackson” regarding Michael’s sense of humor and the origination of the nose falling off story; possibly another sly addition by the master himself.

    Thank you for your wonderful interpretations. They are always thought provoking and so insightful.

    • Yes monica! I totally think you’re right, green equals the color of money in this context, and I also noticed the peeling male face in the intro, reminded me of Phantom of the Opera. Half of the face removed, hidden from view. The lighting in a few scenes does make that suit look black and red, and in those scenes I get incredible relief, my eyes relax for a split second then ewww! back to the coral and brown. even coral lips. criminal!

  7. George and Midnight Boomer – It would be really fun to look at all the connections between Smooth Criminal and You Rock My World, and between them and the club scene in “Girl Hunt Ballet,” the final number from The Bandwagon. Michael Jackson LOVED this movie and referenced it over and over. If you watch the youtube clip of “Girl Hunt Ballet,” you can see the animal print piece of cloth lying on the ground (as in Billie Jean), you can hear some of the lyrics for “Dangerous,” and there are so many connections to Smooth Criminal and You Rock My World.

    Monica and Ultravioletrae – “Girl Hunt Ballet” is really interesting to watch in terms of costumes, also. In Smooth Criminal, Michael Jackson’s character is dressed exactly like Rod Riley (Fred Astaire’s character): white fedora with a black band, white suit, blue shirt, blue socks. And I hadn’t noticed this until you guys started talking about it, but in You Rock My World he’s dressed like the henchmen. During the fights in the train station and in the club, notice the guys wearing the black fedora, black suit, red/orange shirt. (And I can’t tell if his suit is black or brown in YRMW – it shifts a lot with the light. I’d always assumed it was black, but now I’m not so sure. It would be interesting if it were brown because that would be a totally different palette for him – he almost always wore winter colors, not fall colors.)

  8. Wow, you guys, I’m loving all these ideas. I’d never noticed before that all the managers he’s battling are white, but you’re right, Ultravioletrae, they are. And I just noticed that everyone creating the “street music” in that beautiful interlude in the middle of the video is black, and he’s clearly drawing on that rich environment and incorporating it into his music and gaining strength from it. So it’s like the central conflict of the video is ultimately between white management and black music, and the people who create it – and as you noted, Aldebaran, that conflict has a long history. It’s all handled very subtly, so of course there are many other possible interpretations as well, but this view of YRMW is so fascinating to me.

    You know, Michael Jackson’s work is so amazing to me. Every time I look at it I see something new and intriguing. It’s just brilliant.

  9. In reference to Joie’s comment about the listening party, I’m pretty sure that is in Bruce Swedien’s book. Might be other places too. I’ll have to look.

  10. Ultravioletrae, excellent additional spin on the video! On the Waterfront is a powerful film. All about challenging a corrupt system–in the case of the movie, it is about the corruption of the labor unions that controlled hiring for longshoremen as well as in the boxing industry. Brando’s character is forced to take a fall and hence the “I could have been a contender” line. Lots of shadowy figures and only a few who stand up to the system of corruption that has infected all aspects of the lives of those within Brando’s neighborhood and immediate community. Truly, one of the best films in Hollywood’s history. Brando is brilliant in the film as are all of the rest of the supporting players. There are clear parallels to the underbelly of corruption, greed and darkness that permeated the business and personal worlds in which Michael operated.

  11. Wow, wow, and wow! This is a great conversation!

    You know, I’ve always felt that there was a reason why I was always on edge while watching the YRMW video, and why I felt tense and a little unhappy afterwards. You’re right. There’s just a lot of raw anger, hurt, and sadness in the video, but the first time I watched it, it made no sense why those feelings would be there. It’s about him finding his soul mate and doing anything to keep her. Why should I feel those particular emotions radiating from the video? Although… that works! He mentioned once that he was married to his work and his fans. He loved his fans so much, so he would do anything to keep them. And since he’d undergone all of the extortion attempts the first time already at the making of this video (I too prefer to use this terminology rather than “allegations”), perhaps he felt he was in danger of losing his fans to the lies?

    Unbreakable was supposed to be the title track? Well, I can understand that, it was Michael’s favorite off the CD (mine too!) and it really symbolized more thoroughly what he was feeling at the time. Invincible works, but Unbreakable would have sent the message loud and clear.

    When he’s first gearing up to do the first dance to get rid of the managers threatening him, he seems a little scared and a little sad. I’m not sure if I’m imagining things, but I swear I saw his chin quivering. And then he busts into a short dance, after which the managers tell him that “He ain’t nothin'” and his resolve sets. He flips them off like he usually does (the under the chin flick) which possibly says, “You know what? I’m done with your crap. So this is nothing?” And breaks into a dance that ends up flinging a table into the wall, flipping a guy, and punching the manager out, which escalates into a full out bar fight. Maybe the first dance was his idea for doing an Unbreakable video.

    As for the street music, I really like the ideas that have been formulating. I forget now who said the bit about the white management (and they were all white! Huh, I never really took the time to notice that.) and the people doing the street music were all black, symbolizing the fact that Michael was and will always be a black man through and through, and that he drew so much from the street music and the rhythms of the African American people.

    Keep writing! I can’t wait to see what’s next!

  12. Wow!! What a great conversation, you guys! You all have brought up so many interesting ideas that I honestly never thought of before. Like the fact that all the club patrons making the ‘street music’ are Black while all of the management are White and the “On The Waterfront” connection – that was a brilliant observation that I’m ashamed to say went right over my head.

    And, I don’t remember who brought up the color issue but, the bright green of the love interest’s dress and the lining of her suit in the ‘spotlight’ section absolutely represent the color of money, in my opinion. And let’s not forget that the managers of the club seem to feel as if they “own” her or have some sort of rights to her so, I think this makes perfect sense.

    Awesome insights and conversation. You guys rock!

  13. Another great conversation between Willa and Joie and now through the comments. I was already starting to look at YRMW in a different way after reading “M Poetica” which by the way is an amazing book, well done Willa (I learned about 10 days ago that I could get Kindle on my phone and download it and read it on my phone, so easy–to the person that was asking). I’m wondering why no one has commented on MJ’s “look” in this video. I had always been uncomfortable with his “look” and then Willa pointed out in her book that his face is not shown much and there are shadows added to further hide his face. There’s a reference to his face being ravaged when he showed up for the video shoot. Post Conrad Murray Trial, it seems he may have accomplished a lot of the changes with Botox!

    • Hi Michelle. I agree, he does look different and somewhat unfamiliar in this video. To me, his face looks “tight,” and while I don’t know much about it, I think you can achieve that look pretty simply with some sort of masque. Remember, he loved disguises and worked with some of the best makeup artists in the world, so he knew the tricks. Whatever he did, it wasn’t anything permanent – he’s completely back to normal at the Sony protests in Harlem a few months later.

      To me, the interesting question is why he did it – why did he want to look unfamiliar in YRMW, and Scream, and Why, and Earth Song, and Stranger in Moscow? He looks vaguely unfamiliar in all of these videos, though in the other four he achieves it through over-lighting and washing out the details of his face, rather than disguise.

      I think partly he was representing artistically our inability to see him, and he was reflecting back at us the perceptions the media and public were imposing onto him. (Remember the lyrics from “Is It Scary”: “I’m gonna be exactly what you wanna see.”) I also think there was something else going on – something more complicated – and it involves this idea of catharsis that Joie and I were talking about a few weeks ago, but I’m still working out my thoughts on that.

  14. I’ve been thinking about the origami bird that Brando plays with, wondering if it is significant. I looked up origami flapping bird:

    “In Japanese legends, making or giving 1,000 paper cranes holds great significance, both for traditional reasons and because of the association of this act with peace after Hiroshima.”

    “The crane is a bird with a long neck and tail feathers. This origami crane has become an international symbol for peace. Sadako, a young girl in Japan who initially survived the atom bomb blast tried to make 1,000 origami cranes before she died. Sadako’s story has an inspiration for many people around the world who hope for greater peace in our world.

    Often, friends and well wishers make 1,000 peace cranes and string them together to give to a person who is unwell as a gesture of hope, good wishes and healing. ”

    Any thoughts on this?

    • Sandra, that story of the paper cranes becoming an international symbol of peace following the bombing of Hiroshima is so powerful. It seems significant to me that people made paper cranes to help promote peace throughout the world, just as Michael Jackson hoped his music would help promote world peace. The crane is also a beautiful object that someone skillfully created out of a plain piece of paper, just as Michael Jackson skillfully crafted his music. But now Brando’s character rather callously holds it in his hands and tugs on its wings, and he controls its fate, just as Sony held control over Michael Jackson’s music. He could easily crush the crane in his hands, just as Tommy Mattola cancelled the “Unbreakable” video, blocked the release of “Butterflies,” and stopped promotion of the Invincible album. In both cases, Brando’s character and Sony’s bureaucrats hold control over something precious and beautiful – something they don’t understand.

      Of course, there are many different ways to interpret this, but all those parallels between the paper crane and Michael Jackson’s music seem really significant to me. Thanks a lot for sharing that story.

  15. Sylvia J. Martin, PhD

    Joie wrote about one of the more puzzling scenes, “It’s just Michael and the lady he’s trying to woo. Only she is dressed very differently in a sexy suit and fedora, like him. And instead of commanding that spotlight as he rightfully should, Michael does something unexpected. He chooses not to dance this small solo ‘spotlight’ moment, opting instead to let the female love interest take center stage and do her best MJ impersonation while he simply glides across the floor behind her. This scene has always puzzled me because, again, it just seems a little out of place among the tension of the rest of the video. And yet, I know that it’s significant because it is so different and out of place.”

    Given Michael’s frustrations with Sony, could this female iteration of Michael be his symbolic way of expressing a feeling of being emasculated by Sony?

    The song, after all, starts with “guy talk” between MJ and Chris Tucker about the “girl” and MJ declaring he can “get” that girl.

    So although MJ can “get” the girl, a part of him also becomes the powerless girl.

    • Sylvia, this is an interesting idea! Never thought about it in terms of Michael feeling emasculated by Sony but, that interpretation would certainly fit, wouldn’t it? Thanks for sharing that.

  16. Wow, so much to think about here. First, thanks to Sandra for looking up the origami crane…I noticed it too. I don’t know the exact date that this film was released, but assuming it was after 9/11, the subtle peace symbol is not surprising, and that it appears in the video just as we anticipate the beginning of a conflict is priceless Michael! I wondered about its blue color also, because it symbolizes, among other things, spirituality: Michael uses blue in some of his films to indicate a spiritual message, so I wonder if he’s not hinting to us that there’s a teensy spiritual message here somewhere. “Peace,” of course, would cover that, but I tend to think there’s more…just haven’t figured it out yet.
    I’m with Ultravioletrae on this one…I haven’t watched it much because I just didn’t like it. The dark colors and the way Michael looks have done nothing for me…until this discussion! I have to comment on his hair, which appears “slicked back,” which to me indicates that he is going to be “slick” in this film.
    As for Michael’s dancing behind the screen, well, that says to me, “I’m behind it!” His work is indeed “behind” much of what we see today in music videos…it’s virtually everywhere, and he clearly saw his influence on many other artists…another “in your face” to Sony: they may not value him, but he is widely valued nonetheless.
    I am loving this discussion!

  17. more questions:

    1. When the girl comes in and sits down on the barstool, the man checks his watch and lifts his arms. The girl shrugs. Is he telling her she’s late? Is he waiting for someone that they both know, and she shrugs because she doesn’t know where that person is? Is he saying, “it’s about time you showed up”?

    2. When Michael leads the girl away from the bar, he spanks her on the rear, and she glances back at him. The feeling I get is that he is scolding her, or punishing her for misbehavior. It isn’t a sensual or affectionate pat. Is he rebuking her for associating with those other men?

    3. Why do Michael and the girl throw down money while looking at each other? What are they paying for? The didn’t buy anything at the bar. Is it gambling money? Michael’s money lands on the king of diamonds.

    • Sandra, those are all good questions. Here’s my take on the answers:

      1. The feeling I get when the girl sits down on the barstool is that she’s apologizing for being late and the manager is not happy with her. Again, I think he feels like he has some sort of “right” to her, like he feels that she’s his property.

      2. The pat on the butt… you’re right here, it’s not a sensual or sexy spank at all and I have often felt that Michael is sort of sending a message with this gesture. But unlike your suggestion that he’s rebuking her for associating with the ‘bad guys,’ I have always thought the message was directed toward the bad guys. See, they feel she is their property and no one has a right to her but them. But Michael spanks her rear while looking directly at THEM. I take that to mean that he’s letting them know that they don’t own her and he has every right to be with her if she so chooses.

      3. The poker table scene is a mystery to me. Right before this, Michael dances next to Chris Tucker and they share a brief, mumbled exchange where Michael says that the girl is headed over to the poker tables and Chris tries again to tell him to leave the girl alone because it’s too dangerous. Then he joins her at the poker table and they both throw down money. It is definately gambling money but, not sure what significance it has, if any.

  18. Michelle, I wanted to ask you what you were referring when you mentioned that Michael showed up for the shoot and his face was “ravaged”? I hadn’t heard that and I was hoping you could shed some light or direct me to where I can read about that.

    Also, I wanted to throw out this thought I have been having about Michael’s emerald wearing lady. All this time I thought he didn’t know her but to me it seems they are more familiar to each other than at first glance. The spank directed at the bad guys like Joie said, seems out of bounds for Michael’s character (they haven’t even met yet!) Also, the looks they give each other are interesting because they appear to say more than what is on the surface. Finally, at the end after the Waterfront catches fire and Michael is calling out to Chris to get the car…when she runs out into his arms she screams, “Michael!” Then he says, “Thank god you’re alright”. I find it out of place that 1)she knows his name and 2)he speaks to her in a more familiar way when they are alone and out of those dangerous circumstances.

    One more thing…I remember Michael’s children doing a funny little dance with him he called the Wiggle. It looks like he does this dance as he goes down the staircase.

  19. Monica – Actually it is a comment (I believe a quote) from Willa’s book “M Poetica” which is a fantastic, fascinating read. You can download it on an iPhone, iPad, Android (what I have and works great) etc.

    Willa – I understand what you are saying, I think a masque would cause the same “tightness” that Botox would. What made me think about the Botox was the inability it seems for him to really smile, the lack of expression, but a masque, you are right, would do the same thing. However, I don’t think Boxtox is permanent either. It is completely frustrating to me…and sad…that he felt the need to do this. It was such a revelation for me to read in your book about “Stranger in Moscow” because I literally suffered over the fact that he was so beautiful behind the scenes, and yet something happened in the video. Clearly there was such torment and sadness at times for him, I can certainly see where you might be going with the catharsis idea. The only other comment I wanted to make, in a “tongue in cheek” kind of way, I don’t agree with the idea that both characters win the girl. I definitely believe Michael got the girl. 🙂

  20. Have you ever compared the full version to the cut version? Who decided what scenes to cut, and why? The scenes that are cut are the ones that fully show his face (in the chinese restaurant in the beginning and confronting the Boss at the end), the scene where the girl walks into the bar and sits down, and the scene where the girl dances in top hat.

  21. Thank you Michelle. “M Poetica” is on my list of must reads. There are some important people revealing important things about Michael now and that makes it a little less difficult to get past all the heartache. I agree with Willa. Thanks again for directing me.

  22. On this day in 1908, the boxer John Arthur Johnson defeats Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, becoming the first black heavyweight champion of the world and an international icon.

    Born in Galveston, Texas, in 1878, Johnson began boxing professionally in 1897, when it was a relatively new sport. In an era of persistent racial discrimination, African-Americans were allowed to enter many competitions, but were not permitted to compete for the title of world champion. After winning many titles and a good deal of prize money, Johnson pushed for a fight against the reigning world heavyweight champion, James Jeffries. Jeffries refused to fight a black boxer, and decided to retire undefeated. In 1908, the new champion, Tommy Burns of Canada, agreed to fight Johnson for the title after Johnson attended a number of Burns’ matches around the world and taunted him from the sidelines.

    In Sydney on December 26, 20,000 screaming fans watched Johnson relentlessly pound at Burns over 14 rounds. At that point, the police stepped in to stop the one-sided bout. Officials awarded the fight to Johnson on a technical knock-out (TKO), making him the first black heavyweight champion of the world. He would hold the title until April 1915, including a successful defense against Jeffries, who came out of retirement to face Johnson in what was billed as the “Fight of the Century” on July 4, 1910. Heralded by the press as the “Great White Hope,” Jeffries was knocked out by Johnson in the 15th round of that bout.

    As the heavyweight world champion in a sport that was captivating a global audience, Johnson became one of the most famous figures–black or white–in his native country and around the world. In addition to his punishing victories, however, Johnson was known for his extravagant lifestyle, and was excoriated by his white critics for his romantic relationships with white women. In 1913, Johnson was convicted (in what was widely considered a sham trial) of violating a federal law, the Mann Act of 1910, which outlawed the transportation of women across state lines for “prostitution, debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” He was found to have traveled with his second wife, a former prostitute, across state lines before they were married.

    Johnson fled the country to avoid sentencing and didn’t return until 1920, five years after losing the heavyweight title to Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba. After serving one year in prison, Johnson fought occasionally and appeared in vaudeville and carnival acts, and wrote two memoirs. He died in an automobile accident in 1946. Inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954, he is considered by many to be one of the best heavyweight fighters of all time.

    (I think this is the fighter we see in the poster several times. (from–amazing parallels to MJ)

  23. @ aldebaran

    Yes. Michael himself used his example to take strength from. He mentions it in an interview he gave to Jesse Jackson in March, 2005 (during the trial):

    It’s at about 4:58 minutes, but start at 3:50 for context. BTW this interview has 6 parts on YouTube, this is part 3, you can look for the other parts, it’s a great interview.

    And did you know Tom Sneddon tried to use the Mann Act (the very law that was created against Jack Johnson) against Michael? It’s in Michael’s FBI files. Here it is:

    Another story that is very similar to Michael’s is Roscoe Arbuckle’s stories. You can read about it here:

    • aldebaran and jacksonaktak – thank you so much for the historical information. The parallels between Michael Jackson, John Johnson, and Roscoe Arbuckle (and Charlie Chaplin as well) are so striking. You really have to wonder what causes this American impulse to destroy some of our most successful sports figures (like John Johnson and Tiger Woods) and most creative and beloved artists. In a 1987 Rolling Stone interview, Robbie Robertson talks about this “strange American phenomenon where we take these heroes and we build them up and we build them up and blow them out of the sky.” It does seem that this same pattern repeats itself over and over again, and there’s a similar undercurrent of hysteria driving the McCarthy hearings, where many artists were blacklisted and their careers destroyed. Where does that impulse come from?

      • Can you elaborate what the boxer photos on the wall mean in the “You Rock My World” video? There’s a black boxer and a white boxer, what does that mean?

        • The black boxer was Jack Johnson who was the first African-American heavyweight champion (1908-1915) defeating the white reigning champion Tommy Burns. It was an era when racism was rampant and Johnson’s victory was scorned by whites. In 1912 he was charged w/ the Mann Act for taking his white girlfriend across state lines.before their marriage. He fled to Europe to avoid imprisonment. Michael had read biographies on Johnson and, of course, understood his struggles. Sneddon at one time tried to bring charges against Michael under the same law.

          • So the black boxing guy on the wall in the video of “You Rock My World” is Jack Johnson? How do you know for sure that it’s him? Because when I looked him up he looks different from the photo on the wall of the “You Rock My World” video. So that is Jack Johnson in the “You Rock My World” video right?

            And who is the white guy in the “You Rock My World” video?

  24. Wow I have learned a great deal while reading this. Thank you Willa and Joie. I will never look at the video the same again. Michael was such a passionate artist, it’s no wonder that whatever he might be feeling or dealing with in his personal life would transcend into the making of the video. With the things that I learned while reading this blog, I see and understand the video much more clearly or at least my interpretation has changed without a doubt. I am catching up on your blogs, so I will now need to read your series on Invincible. I know that is going backwards, but that is ok. I enjoy reading all of your blogs. Thank you and much gratitude to you both. -Kim

  25. Well, I am glad you ladies have decided to boldy talk about Michael’s sex appeal and for the educated discussion about the Gold Pants.. ahem.. Michael has always been a sexy (mf) One of the facets that have always drove me nuts about Michael his strong business acumen. Yummy. Yeah, that may seem a bit off the wall but it is the truth.. And the strut of his.. Can I get an Amen… That’s all for now.. See You Later.. 🙂

    • Reva, I’m so happy you enjoyed the educational discussion about Michael’s pants. And I’m very excited that you’re reading our blog. Thanks for the support, girlfriend!

  26. I watched the scene with the gambling again and for me this is a turning point for the girl. She’s actually the one who’s most opressed in this story, she’s the one who is handled as an obeject, owned by the managers. When Michael starts to go after her, she doesn’t immediately want to go with him. I’d say she even avoids him, maybe because she’s affraid of the consequences, maybe because she doesn’t trust this man who’s challenging her bosses. Shortly before she goes up to the poker tables, she starts to dance to Michael’s music and looks at him. I understand it as if she’s saying “I got your music, now can I trust you?”
    When Michael runs after her again and they meet at the gambling table, she takes out the money first, as if to say “It’s risky, but I’m gonna play your game”. She shows she’s willing to “invest” sth in him. He takes out his money in response, as if to say “I’m risking things too, but you can trust me. I’m confident, I’m the King.” From that point on, it’s she who’s dancing and running after Michael.
    I don’t see the girl as only representing the money. I see her as a full human caracter, an opressed woman. She’s very serious about what she’s doing, she doesn’t smile, she doesn’t flirt, and when she decides she wants to be free and take the chance Michael is offering, she seems to do it very thoughtfully.
    In the end, I believe the fight this video represents is much more than the sony conflict. It’s a conflict of power between artists and the money making showbiz industry, and race plays a big role in it.

  27. The White-Slave Traffic Act, better known as the Mann Act, is a United States law, passed June 25, 1910 … The same date of MJ’s passing.

  28. Can someone elaborate what the boxer photos on the wall mean in the “You Rock My World” video? There’s a black boxer and a white boxer, what does that mean?

    • Hi Patricia,

      I’ve been looking through historic photos of boxers trying to identify the two photos you mentioned and haven’t had any luck. I’ve looked at lots of photos of Jack Johnson, and I agree, the photo in the film is not him. I also did a google image search with screen shots and did not find a match. So I’m at a loss! I don’t know the identities of these boxers.

      But I think there’s a good chance these two boxing photos are used to represent the racialized power struggle that is going on in this film. When MJ breaks a glass against the wall, he hits a sign that says “no fighting,” but clearly, the fight is on. The white characters seem to portray a corrupt system of power, while the black talent characters work against that system in their own imaginative and creative ways.

      No words for how brilliant I think this is, and how blown away I am that MJ got Sony to pay for this!

      • Well, hello there. This is one interesting analysis. I never noticed the boxing photos on the wall of the YRMW video. I took a look at the video, and I did see these photos of the boxers. Michael Jackson did identify with Jack Johnson. Why do you think he used this other boxer guy besides Jack Johnson, the guy he identified with?

        • Good question. I wish I knew. What do you think?

          • I’m actually doing some research on it. It may take a while, maybe not. But I’ll be sure to get back to you when I get the answer.

            And by the way, why don’t Willa and Joie ever reply?

            And are you Lisha, Willa and Joie the owner of this site?

            Another question, out of curiosity, I read somewhere that Willa was Caucasian, but I didn’t find anywhere what ethnicity Joie was. What ethnicity are you by the way?

            I just think it’s very nice when MJ fans come together from all ethnicities.

  1. Pingback: Dramatic Fights of the Decades – 100 Years of Boxing! | The Boxing

  2. Pingback: Dancing with the Elephant – Spotlight on You Rock My World – Michael Jackson Academic Studies

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