This Passion Burns Inside of Me

Willa:  This week Joie and I are looking at In the Closet. To be honest, this wasn’t the post we meant to write – we were planning to take a historical look at race and sexuality and then position Michael Jackson within that historical context. But as we started discussing that we got into such a lively debate about In the Closet that we decided to take a detour.

However, we’re taking a little different approach this time. As the title tells us, In the Closet is about a taboo relationship. But it’s not taboo because of sexual orientation – this is a story about a man and a woman – so there must be some other reason. But why? Why is this a forbidden love? While talking about that, Joie and I discussed four different answers to that question – each interesting in its own way, each supported by lyrics and visual cues, and each leading to a very different interpretation of the video as a whole.

One interpretation is that it’s taboo because of race. The video features two characters negotiating the terms of their relationship, and those characters are played by Naomi Campbell, a beautiful Black model, and Michael Jackson. Because we know his background and because he calls himself Black, we tend to think of him as Black and assume he’s playing a Black character.

But he doesn’t look Black in this video. He looks Mediterranean, an interpretation reinforced by the Spanish architecture, and the Spanish dancers, and the fact that he’s wearing a wedding ring on his right hand rather than his left, as is customary in Spain. So we have a rather Victor/Victoria type situation where Michael Jackson is a Black actor portraying a White man involved in a taboo relationship with a Black woman. (And I have to say, who else but Michael Jackson would think up a scenario like this? And who else could play it half so well? He’s just endlessly fascinating to me….)

What makes this relationship so taboo is the issue of marriage. While White men have traditionally slept with Black women, by force if necessary, they haven’t married Black women. They’ve married proper White women. Marriage between a White man and a Black woman is as radical in its way as sex between a Black man and a White woman. And I think that’s the taboo Michael Jackson tackles in In the Closet.

Joie:  Willa, I have to say that I never thought of this video in this way before. I have never looked at In the Closet as a song about race at all. To me the lyrics are very clearly all about sex. Forbidden sex, to be more exact. And, as you say, we tend to think of Michael as a Black man – because he is – so, I’ve never viewed him in this video as portraying a White man.

Willa:  I’m really glad you brought that up, Joie, because I want to be very clear about this. I’m not in any way suggesting that, as a person, Michael Jackson wasn’t Black or tried to deny his Black heritage. I don’t believe that at all. I’m simply saying that, as an actor, I don’t think he should be restricted to Black roles, and I don’t think we should assume that all his characters are Black. I love the Kenneth Branagh version of Much Ado about Nothing, which has Denzel Washington playing a White character, Don Pedro. Interestingly enough, Don Pedro is Spanish – a Spanish nobleman – and this film came out in 1993, a year after In the Closet.

Joie:  Oh, I love that movie too! It’s really fun, isn’t it? And I’m a sucker for Shakespeare! But I know you’re not suggesting that Michael wasn’t Black. I just find your take on this video really surprising. And quite clever. But anyway, Michael often wore a ring on his right ring finger so, again, I never thought much of that. Not that I’m disagreeing with your interpretation; I do find it fascinating. I’m just saying I’ve never viewed it in this way before. Very interesting.

Willa:  And I’m certainly not saying this is the only way of interpreting it, but I do think it’s a possibility and a valid approach. There are several visual cues that suggest it, though they’re subtle. The video opens with a shot of the ring:  Michael Jackson’s character is walking with his hands in his back pockets, and the hand with the ring is toward the camera. Importantly, Naomi Campbell’s character isn’t wearing a ring, so symbolically this tells us that he is more committed to their relationship than she is – but maybe not. While he’s more committed in some ways, he wants to keep their relationship a secret, and she doesn’t. As she tells him in the opening monologue, “Don’t hide our love.” She’s not thinking marriage; she just wants a normal relationship.

He is thinking marriage. This isn’t Thomas Jefferson having as many as six children with a slave, Sally Hemings, and never acknowledging her. (In a secret codicil to his will, Jefferson freed her children but not her. She remained a slave her entire life.) This seems very different, though he still feels driven to “hide our love.” In other words, this modern 20th Century man is still wrestling with the fallout of our nation’s long, painful racial/sexual/cultural history – a history that extends back before we were even a country, and includes at least one of our founding fathers and the author of the Declaration of Independence.

I believe this is the taboo Michael Jackson’s character is struggling against. He wants a real life together. He’s wearing a ring. He evokes the image of women dancing, as at a wedding. And he takes her to a house – not a restaurant or a bar or a dance club, but to a domestic place where they could start a life together. But the house isn’t in a community; it’s completely isolated, out in the desert. He wants marriage, but that means transgressing a strong cultural taboo, and he’s not ready to take that step. So he holds his hand up to his face, shows her the wedding ring, and asks her to “take a vow” with him. But instead of a vow of marriage, he says, “For now / let’s take a vow / to keep it in the closet.”

Joie:  Well, like I said, I find your interpretation fascinating, and it is valid. But I believe you may be over-thinking it a little bit. Maybe she is not wearing a wedding ring NOT because she isn’t thinking marriage, but simply because she isn’t his wife. Maybe the reason he wants to keep their relationship a secret – taking her to a house that’s completely isolated, far away from prying eyes – is because she is his mistress. Hence, the forbidden sex. He wants to be free to love her publicly but he’s simply not able to because he’s already married to someone else. After all, he tells us in the opening lines,

She’s just a lover who gets me by
It worth the giving, it’s worth the try
You cannot cleave it, put it in the furnace
You cannot wet it, you cannot burn it

In the Bible – a book we know Michael read frequently – it tells us in Genesis 2:24, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” According to Merriam-Webster, the word cleave means ‘to adhere firmly and closely or loyally and unwaveringly.’ So the lyrics are telling us that this man is married but he’s involved in a taboo relationship with another woman. He “cannot cleave it” because he’s already vowed to “cleave” to someone else. Then he goes on to say,

 It’s just a feeling, you have to soothe it
You can’t neglect it, you can’t abuse it
It’s just desire, you cannot waste it
But if you want it, then won’t you taste it

He’s telling us here that he is consumed by lust and the desire for a woman who is not his wife. And he’s apparently willing to risk an awful lot to satisfy his desires, as he tells us,

If you can get it, it’s worth a try
I really want it, I can’t deny
It’s just desire, I really love it
‘Cause if it’s aching, you have to rub it

He even adds in the little mischievous “Dare me?” all throughout the song. He knows what he’s doing is risky and that he could be caught at any moment.

I believe this interpretation is supported by the video as well. As you pointed out, he takes her to a secluded love nest where there’s less chance they’ll be spotted by anyone who knows either of them. There are several prominent shots of the ring that he’s wearing and she is not. And then there are the shots of him dancing with his back against the wall and on the threshold – neither out nor in – because he’s not free to make a real commitment to her.

I love your interpretation; it has given me a whole new way of thinking about this video. But I tend to believe that both the song and the short film are not addressing race so much as they are adultery. Romanticizing the idea of forbidden sex. “The truth of lust, woman to man.”

Willa:  Joie, I love your analysis of this, and I absolutely agree it’s a valid interpretation of In the Closet. And I’m intrigued by that word “cleave” now. I just assumed it meant its more common definition, which is to split something apart, like with a cleaver. I hadn’t thought about the Biblical connotations of that word before, and how traditionally it has referred to marriage. But to me, while this reinforces the idea that this video is about a forbidden love – one that hasn’t been consecrated in marriage – it doesn’t identify why it’s forbidden. It could be because he’s already married, but it could also be because of race. To me, this supports either interpretation.

Joie:  Really? See, I disagree. I think the word “cleave” says it all. He’s definitely married and the woman he has the hots for is definitely not his wife. Otherwise, I don’t think Michael would have used such an unusual word. He was trying to convey a message and tell a story and he chose this word specifically to spell it out for us. The whole rest of that first verse – “put it in the furnace / you cannot wet it / you cannot burn it” – also has Biblical connotations so, I think he was really trying to paint a specific picture with those opening lines.

Willa:  That is so interesting, Joie – it conjures up images of hell and damnation that I had never associated with those lyrics before. And that actually suggests a third interpretation, and a third reason for why this relationship is taboo:  because he sees this woman as a temptress. After all, she is clearly a sexual being, and seems pretty knowledgeable about sex and desire.

There’s a centuries-old belief that respectable women don’t feel sexual desire, and in the 19th Century, especially, this led many men – and women too – to divide women into two distinct categories:  respectable women (who weren’t sexual) and sexual women (who weren’t respectable). As Edith Wharton wrote in The Age of Innocence when describing the beliefs of upper class young men in the 1880s, there was a culturally recognized abyss “between the women one loved and respected and those one enjoyed – and pitied.”  She goes on to write that, “In this view they were sedulously abetted by their mothers, aunts and other elderly female relatives.

While these rigid and repressive attitudes have softened considerably, they haven’t disappeared by any means – and Naomi Campbell’s character in this video is openly sexual and very comfortable with her sexuality. The male lead obviously feels a strong attraction for her, but is she the kind of woman you bring home for pot roast with the parents? And I keep thinking about those Spanish women dancers in their traditional dress. They’ll dance at his wedding if he marries the right kind of woman, but will they dance at his wedding if he marries her – a very sexual woman?

Looking at In the Closet this way, maybe “the truth of lust, woman to man,” is that women do feel sexual desire, and shouldn’t be judged for that. We don’t insist that respectable men deny their sexuality and live the life of a monk, so why demand that of women?

Joie:  That is an interesting point, Willa. And as I sat watching this video over and over again in preparation for this post, a fourth interpretation occurred to me and it sort of ties in to what you were just saying about the sexual attitudes of the 1880s. You’re correct in saying that those attitudes have not completely disappeared. And it could be that this song – and the video – are simply about the joy of sex itself. Perhaps he’s not married and the forbidden nature of the song is simply because sex itself is the taboo here. We’re all supposed to be “proper” individuals, and sex outside of marriage is unthinkable and wrong. Maybe that’s why it feels so exciting and forbidden for him. In the chorus of the song he sings joyously,

There’s something about you, baby
That makes me want to give it to you
 I swear there’s something about you, baby
That makes me want…

He knows that he shouldn’t feel this way; he’s not supposed to. Society – and the Bible – tells him it’s wrong. But he can’t help himself. He’s human and he has human desires. And so does she. But in his exuberance he makes sure to remind her,

Just promise me that whatever we say
Or whatever we do to each other
For now, we’ll make a vow  to just
Keep it in the closet 

It has to be a secret because what they’re doing is so wrong, or at the very least, completely inappropriate.

Willa:  That is so intriguing, Joie, and it makes a lot of sense. Michael Jackson was very aware of the complicated nature of sex. It can be a tender expression of love and intimacy, as we see in songs like “Break of Dawn.” But it can also be used for manipulation, ambition, or revenge, as we see in songs like “Billie Jean,” or it can simply satisfy mindless physical appetites, as we see in songs like “Superfly Sister.” And his songs do have an allegorical feeling to them sometimes, so I think an allegorical interpretation like this is perfectly appropriate and in keeping with his artistic vision.

I remember when we were talking about My Baby several months ago, and we were trying to figure out why the protagonist kept being attracted to these “bad girls” who repeatedly hurt both him and My Baby. It happens again and again, in songs like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Dirty Diana” and “Dangerous.” You suggested that maybe those women represented fame – that’s why he was so attracted to them and couldn’t just walk away and leave them alone – and, for me, that opened up a whole new way of looking at those songs. I think about it every time I hear them. And I think there could be a similar allegorical element here.

Joie:  I agree. And many of his songs do feel very allegorical at times. But you know, I am just flabbergasted at the fact that we were able to come up with so many different ways of interpreting both the lyrics and and the short film for this song. Before we began talking about it, I never realized that there were so many layers here! It’s actually very deep and complex and I find myself wondering if the concept for the short film came as he was writing the lyrics or if it developed later, because they just seem so intertwined to me. Really fascinating.

Willa:  That’s a really good question. I’d love to know that too. In Moonwalk, he says,

The three videos that came out of  Thriller – “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” – were all part of my original concept for the album. I was determined to present this music as visually as possible.

So it sounds like some of the visual elements are percolating in his mind from the beginning. But I think he also lets things develop during the storyboarding sessions and throughout production, as he goes on to talk about:

I felt “Beat It” should be interpreted literally, the way it was written, one gang against another on tough urban streets. It had to be rough. That’s what “Beat It” was about.

When I got back to L.A., I saw Bob Giraldi’s demo reel and knew that he was the director I wanted for “Beat It.” I loved the way he told a story in his work, so I talked with him about “Beat It.” We went over things, my ideas and his ideas, and that’s how  it was created. We played with the storyboard and molded it and created it.

So as with his work in the studio producing songs, he seems to have a vision of what he wants to convey (“I felt ‘Beat It’ should be interpreted literally, like it was written”) but then he’s able to evoke the best from his collaborators and lets things develop throughout the process, drawing on their ideas and expertise as well.

And I agree with you, Joie. In the Closet is so interesting on so many levels – artistically, culturally, psychologically. Whatever the reason, Michael Jackson portrays a deeply conflicted character in this video. He feels tremendous desire for this woman obviously, and he wants to do the right thing and marry her, but he can’t – either because he’s already married, or because he can’t quite find the courage to defy cultural taboos, or because she represents the dangerous embodiment of sex itself.

The choreography and cinematography emphasize his internal conflict. As you mentioned earlier, Joie, we see shots of him dancing with his back to the wall, literally, and we see numerous shots of him in doorways – neither in nor out, as you said. Perhaps the most striking sequences are the wonderful silhouettes where he’s dancing at the threshold. This again refers back to marriage since the groom traditionally carries the bride across the threshold to begin their new life together. But he can’t do that for some reason, so he dances in the doorway instead – unable to make an official declaration of marriage but unable to walk away.

The video ends with him shutting the door and shutting himself inside the house, telling us visually that, for now, he’s determined to keep this relationship “in the closet.”

Joie:  But Willa and I would love to know what you think on this one. If you have an interpretation for In The Closet that differs from the four that we’ve explored here, please let us know; we’d love to hear it!

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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 January 11, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.

  1. Well, your fascinating interpretations of In the closet and marriage remind me of the Oprah interview in February 1993 when Michael was asked if he was a virgin and immediately after that was asked about a possible marriage in the future. He responded: “[…] I would love to, that’s one of my dreams, but I couldn’t right now because I’m married, I’m married to my music and there has to be that closeness in order to do the kind of work that I want to do”. This “kind of work” meant nothing less than changing the world, which was his “deepest desire” as he wrote in Dancing the Dream and those horrible recordings Dr. Murray made, when MJ was sedated, made it very clear that he wanted to reach that goal through the influence of his art especially on children (maybe MyBaby is that part of his audience composed of kids and all the inner children of his adult fans) as he said on that tape: “God wants me to do it. I’m gonna do it, Conrad. […] That’s the next generation that’s gonna save our planet […] , my babies.” Maybe he was afraid of this important goal being doomed to fail if he wasn’t focused or dedicated enough and obviously sex or sexual desire carried that risk in his eyes.

  2. What about the ox and the water-wheel? The ox connotes bondage, and its cameo appearance at the water-wheel, which is replaced by Michael and Naomi, is suggestive of a “bondage” over which they have no control. The only other thing I can make out of the water-wheel is its relationship to life-sustaining water. Water in the desert = oasis.
    Or the wheel could be grinding grain, but as this video takes place in the desert, my best guess is water. Would love to read others’ thoughts.

    • I think the bull in many cultures is a symbol of virility and lust, as well as (male) power and force in general. The Spanish bullfights symbolize man´s struggle to control his passions. In contrast of the bull the life-giving water well might stand for womanhood. Both, man and woman are linked to each other in a circle of life.

      In the origin myth of Europe Zeus in the form of a white bull robbed the beautiful princess Europe he desired and (at least in the matriarchal line of tradition) was punished for his raging and wild passion. A sense of responsibility was required from men because as a result of their lust a child is born. In Nietzsche´s Zarathustra the white bull even holds out the prospect of a whole future culture.

      Modern sex life since the sexual revolution and the birth control pill however exists beyond the bounds of that biological “bondage”. New life as a result now is preventable. This had been interpreted as man´s deliverance from the law of nature as well as a exclusion of life itself as a culture of death instead.

      Maybe Jackson in an artistic way brings the different views/myths/cultural narratives face to face??

      • It’s interesting that I saw an ox where you saw a bull! You are absolutely correct about bulls, Julie. But I don’t think this is a bull. A bull is kept around basically for breeding cattle (for which your mention of virility provides support); oxen, on the other hand, are usually used for hard labor and often are castrated to “keep them in line” so they will perform labor. One would not use a good “breeding” bull for manual labor (he would not likely cooperate anyway!) such as the animal in this film is doing. All of which, to me, makes it even more curious what its presence symbolizes…Have to think on that some more…

        I really like what you said about the water wheel representing the circle of life; I hadn’t thought about that!

        • Yeah, I think you are right – it is an ox. So this might represent a man whose work is more important to him than his lust (nonetheless it´s burnin inside/in the closet)????

          I´ll join you thinking….

          • Of course! Wow! (big light bulb!)
            Had to go back and watch it again (several times to get all the details!) …the water wheel scene starts out with the ox and Michael and Naomi all three on the wheel. I am reminded of Freud’s “love and work.” The next time we see the wheel, Naomi is alone on it briefly…then Michael joins her again. This change-off happens several times…we see Naomi alone on the wheel, but never Michael alone. So I think you may be on to something…the conflict between love and work. As the ox is never seen again (at least, as best I can discern because of the speed with which things move) so I wonder if his presence was just to clue us in that “work/labor” is an issue here. And maybe why it needs to be kept “in the closet?”
            Also, I have assumed it is a water wheel, but we never actually see the bucket…it could also be grinding grain (still work), but it may not matter, because whether it is providing water or food, it is still life-sustaining.
            Also notice that this “wheel” segment is almost perfectly poised in the center of the video! Hmmm…still thinking…

      • Wow, really interesting connections, you guys. I hadn’t thought about the Zeus myth until you mentioned it, Julie, but it ties in really well with the idea of a forbidden passion that must be kept hidden, “in the closet.” And Michael Jackson was interested in and knowledgeable about Greek mythology – for example, he collected art depicting the god Apollo.

        btw, in the behind-the-scenes clip Jacksonaktak posted, the reporter says it is a Brahma bull, but she could be wrong. She also points out that there are actually two buildings in the video, and the second building is a church. I thought that was really interesting, especially since marriage seems to be an important issue in this video.

  3. I would rather go with Joie’s interpretation that it’s about a man who is having an extramarital affair with another woman and that’s why it’s taboo and should be kept “in the closet”. In fact, I remember when the video came out this is how one critic I read interpreted it as well – because of the ring on Michael’s finger. Of course, the beautiful thing about art is that a good piece of art can be interpreted several ways – and all could be true. And it doesn’t even have to mean the same for everyone as what it means to the artist.

    I’d also like to note that the video is simply beautiful – it was directed by the great Herb Ritts. I think it conveys sexuality in an open, yet very artistic and tasteful way. You see a lot of artists representing sexuality in their videos in a very raunchy, in-your-face way (Madonna or Prince come to mind, for example). But Michael was never like that. He could be so subtle about it, even in a video like In The Closet which is totally about sex. It’s sexy, but remains tasteful at the same time.

    • “Of course, the beautiful thing about art is that a good piece of art can be interpreted several ways – and all could be true. And it doesn’t even have to mean the same for everyone as what it means to the artist.”

      I agree completely, and it doesn’t have to mean the same thing to the same person all the time either. It can be appreciated different ways at different times, or you can even enjoy different layers of meaning – even contradictory meanings – at the same time. Plus, this video is so lush that a lot of times I just get lost in it and don’t really think much at all! But those meanings are still there, even when we’re not aware of them, and they’re what give his work such depth, I think.

      btw, at the moment I’m really intrigued by Joie’s idea of interpreting this video as an allegory about desire itself, and our conflicted feelings about desire. Our passions are what motivate us and give our lives meaning, but they can frighten us as well and create conflicted feelings of guilt, hope, regret, and on and on. I’m really taken with that interpretation at the moment, but that doesn’t mean other interpretations aren’t valid as well.

      • Yeah, desire and our conflicted feelings about it…

        A recurrent theme of Michael’s art – with all the songs about desirable women who are dangerous at the same time. They are dangerous because they are too desirable and with that they can control men. Billie Jean, Dirty Diana, Dangerous, Blood On The Dance Floor…

  4. Oh, I left out this from before the video:

    I think Naomi was the perfect choice for this video: she’s beautiful and she’s got the moves as well. I’m glad it wasn’t a duet between Michael and Madonna like originally intended. I also think the chemistry between Michael and Naomi was there. Actually there were even more “risky” scenes which were cut out from the finished video:

  5. I had never considered the idea that perhaps Michael was taking on the identity of another race here, but the interpretation makes perfect sense-and also may explain the particular “look” he chose for that video. The pulled back hair showed off his high cheekbones and gave him a more Mediterranean look. I always just sort of figured this was Michael reinventing his look for another video. I didn’t read too much into it except, like many, I had noticed that he seemed much more buff here than usual. It wasn’t often that he intentionally and deliberately strutted about in a short film in an overtly sexual way (that is, in a way where he is very clearly meant to be viewed in a sex object kind of way) but in this one, he does-and is.

    Of course we know that a few years later, he would play a MUCH LESS sexy white character, as the mayor in Ghosts!

    You’ve probably heard the story about Madonna’s idea for In the Closet (back when they were still considering doing the video together). Madonna wanted them to do this whole gender-bending thing where they would each dress in drag. had they gone with Madonna’s interpretation, it would have definitely added a whole, other layer (in fact, a whole other dimension!) to what being “In The Closet” meant. I do have a lot of respect for Madonna’s artistry. Like Michael, she has always been all about pushing boundaries. But I think Michael was wise to reject her idea (even though he later did the somewhat gender-bending Scream video with Janet). Michael’s artistic vision for “In The Closet” was much more straightforward, a simple story of forbidden lust between a man and a woman. What Madonna was wanting to do would have simply muddied the interpretative waters that much more. Not to mention, considering how he was already being made a target in the media about his so-called “ambiguous” sexuality, doing a video dresed in drag would have probably been something he would have never been able to live down. I think Michael was very smart to stay true to his vision-he kept it elegant, erotic, straightforward and simple.

  6. You ladies bring such wonderful discussion to Michael’s work – L.O.V.E. it!!!!

    One comment – “We don’t insist that respectable men deny their sexuality and live the life of a monk, so why demand that of women?” But the public did in the case of Michael. That is why we are having this wonderful discussion about Michael being sensual and sexy, something the public wanted very much to deny him. So maybe in the video the character Naomi is playing is really inspired by Michael. Just a thought.

    • That’s a really interesting point, Destiny, though I wonder if maybe the opposite is true as well – that the public was uncomfortable with his sexuality because he kept it private, so they didn’t know how to interpret him. If he had been a stereotypical rock star – sleeping with groupies, drinking and doing hard drugs, and trashing hotel rooms – that would have been seen as bad behavior but acceptable bad behavior – the type of bad behavior that’s expected and even encouraged in some ways. But he wasn’t like that at all – he didn’t fit the stereotype of sex, drugs, and rock and roll – and that made people uncomfortable and suspicious. If he wasn’t a “normal” rock star, what was he?

      It’s a really complicated issue, and I suspect the truth is a mix of your view and mine: the public wanted to deny his sexuality, as well as criticize the way he refused to let his sexuality be appropriated for public consumption.

      • I agree with this so much, Willa. It reminds me of the song “Threatened” and the sentence: “The major ingredient of any recipe for fear is the unknown”.

        In case people don’t know something they tend to project their own insecurities, thoughts, issues onto that unknown. They fill in the gaps with their own thoughts – which are often rather dark and negative thoughts. Clearly this happened to Michael all the time!

  7. I always thought that in this video Michael was a married man having an affair with Naomi – hence the ring and the “in the closet” love. I may be mistaken, but I think Herb Ritts might have also confirmed this.

    The funny thing is, I never thought about the fact that Michael may have played a white man in this video – until just recently. I didn’t even give much thought to the fact that he was a black man who looked white. I first learned who MJ was when Dangerous came out, and Dangerous Short Films was my first VHS, so he just looked natural to me. I remember I specifically noticed that Naomi was such a gorgeous black girl (after all, I was a 10-year old growing up in Russia, I hadn’t seen many black people in my life), but I never thought that Michael was black…. or white… he was just Michael Jackson.

    And only recently I realized how, in fact, brave of him it was to shoot this video. It happened years before the Oprah interview where he explained about vitiligo, it was during the times when no one knew what was happening to him, and the media ran wild with speculations and accusations. It was when people said he wanted to be white, that he betrayed his race. And to come out like this, in an undershirt, looking gorgeous – it was like a “f*** you all” statement.

    In this video he doesn’t only look white, he is _meant_ to look white – it’s a deliberate contrast between his pale and Naomi’s dark skin. It’s like coffee and milk, even the video itself is filmed mostly in black and white. I know how insecure he felt about his skin condition, and yet, here we see him with bare arms, dancing suggestively, looking sexy, reinforcing the controversy. It was a very very bold move.

  8. I’ve watched ITC video many times and never noticed a wedding ring. I’ve thought of this as a love story between two people who, for their own reasons, did not want the truth to be known, hence keep it in the closet. Personally, I’ve never thought of Michael as portraying himself as white, although as pointed out, that is a possibility. So I would lean toward agreement with Joie’s interpretation rather than Willa’s. As for the element of how Michael was dressed, I recall being taken back by him in a tee shirt, exposing so much skin, which was such a departure from his long sleeves. Perhaps naively, the issue of Michael’s race was never apparent to me viewing him as a performer; his magnetism and charisma just overtook every other element, in my opinion. Since his demise I have REALLY listened to the lyrics of his songs dozens of times and been able to fully appreciate the messages he conveyed. BTW, thanks for this “behind the scenes” video and Herb Ritts’ comments, really great stuff. And thanks so much for this always revealing, insightful and informative blog!

  9. I am not sure about timing but had to throw this thought into the mix, however mundane it is next to all the rest of the discussion… Michael WAS having an affair with a married woman.

    Also, interesting footwear… I love the loafers but the boots….!!!!!!! uh huh and they speak a story as well.

    • Hi mare. You are absolutely right about Michael having an affair. It’s something no one ever talks about but, his relationship with Lisa Marie did begin while she was still married to her first husband, Danny Keough. But this video came out in April of 1992 and, by most accounts, Michael and Lisa’s relationship didn’t begin until February of 1993. But – as with all romantic relationships – the only two people who really know the details are the two people in it. They could have been seeing each other when this video was made. For all we know, LMP could have very well been his inspiration for the writing the song.

      And btw, I love the boots too!

      • Joie didn’t Michael say that when he saw that Lisa Marie had gotten married in ’88 that he thought that should have been him and he was broken up about it? Maybe she was a fantasy for him that regardless if it was acted upon prior to ’92 was maybe in his mind? Just sayin…

        • Yes, he did say that, Mare. You may be on to something. Perhaps Lisa was a sort of fantasy for him that he couldn’t let go of so, he wrote about it instead. Or perhaps, as Susan pointed out below, their relationship began long before any of us really knows. After all, he did say in his Ebony/Jet interview after their wedding that the brilliant thing about them was that they dated for quite a while without letting anyone know they were together.

  10. I just want to say that I love your blog. I have always loved Michael’s music and his videos but the both of you make me think even deeper about it. I think that it would be really interesting to be able to enroll in a class analyzing both Michael’s songs and his poetry. I would be interested to hear some interpretation from the both of you regarding some of Michal’s poetry and his essays that appear in his book Dancing the Dream.
    As far as ITC is concerned…I always thought that Michael’s song Whatever Happens kind of touch on the same themes…forbidden love…or maybe even forbidden lust. When I viewed the video I always thought of it coming from the male perspective..perhaps a wealthy landowner having an affair with a young peasant girl. She is wild and carefree and she has no qualms about seducing him and playing with him and he in turn wants her but is insistent that they keep it in the closet because he is afraid of what people will say if they find out that he is having this affair with this young wild girl. Kind of sounds like something out of a western movie.
    Thank you again…and I am looking forward to reading more from the both of you…

  11. Willa- I love your blog- and I adored your book, which I inhaled over the summer.

    The concept of race you bring up is indeed interesting and thought provoking. I had not caught that aspect before. While I think the forbidden love angle is the main focus, the race concept might very well be the undercurrent. After all, Michael, I do believe, was very much aware of how his blowing apart the concept of “what it means to be a black man” affected the culture around him. As far as the “look” – Teddy Riley has said he was proud of the ITC video because he talked Michael into the hair style. Maybe Michael took the look and then ran with it- surely noticing how his outer appearance matched the Spanish influence of the rest of the video.
    I do agree with those who have brought Lisa Marie into the equation. We have several sources that seem to indicate their relationship went further back than the publicly acknowledged 1993 date (interestingly, if you carefully watch the verbal and non-verbal exchanges when that subject is raised in the 95 Diana Sawyer interview, you see that they seem to ‘disagree’ in how much to disclose there in public). There were also reports (though of tabloid nature) that linked them in 1989 (but at times, where there is smoke, there is fire). What I find interesting as well is that Princess Stephanie of Monaco speaks the lyrics. And here with have Miss Presley- the daughter of the King of RocknRoll…. Coincidence, maybe.
    Thank you, other readers who added discussion of the symbolism of the ox (or bull?) and the waterwheel. Very interesting! – and it all seems to fit.

    Amazing work- I also only had thought of “to cleave” as splitting- but as soon as I read this essay, the second, biblical meaning, made all the sense in the world. -It was a lightbulb moment!

    I love how Michael captured the duality of his inner experience. He tries to “justify” the forbidden fruit, by saying, it is purely physical (“she’s just a lover who gets me by”)- but all the symbolism of words and visuals indicates so much more.

  12. I guess I am still hung up on the previous discussion about sexy Michael–but what impresses me the most about ITC is not the story line or the lyrics but the dancing, that is #1–then, how great Michael looks, what chemistry there is with him and Naomi, the set is amazing in that it creates this magical, fantasy dream-world where 2 people can act out their sexual attraction for each other–totally removed from others (except for the Spanish dancers who briefly appear and the ox)–they intertwine, they touch, they separate, they flirt, they circle each other–I guess I am most impressed with all this and Michael’s amazing dancing. His streamlined costume and hair just make his dance moves more jaw-dropping. Love the boots, love the sleeveless and dirty T-shirt and the tight black pants–also stained. I am just too taken with all this to think about much else–in fact, it is hard to think at all–ITC is so much about the body.

  13. Ok, I went back this morning as the topic (both in a psychological and sociological regard- apart from this being one of the most stunning visual and sensual videos ever made) stayed with me.

    I agree with what most of you have said- we see an ox in the shot- he wears a yoke. So, he is burdened down and held captive, used for work- chained to the life sustaining water wheel or grain wheel. I think this once again highlights Michael’s dualistic view of women, which can be clearly explained by his upbringing and his early experiences with “bad” women: woman are either Madonna’s or whores. He had his mother on one hand, and the girls and women in nightclubs, the groupies being used and discarded by his brothers on the other. As we hear in his own words recorded by the Rabbi, he at times is “disgusted” at what women do with their bodies. On the other hand, we can see a clear fascination with that sexuality all through his work as well. The protagonist in many songs always seems to give in to the temptress. In effect th man is chained to the life giving force of women. Call it “can’t live with them, can’t live without them.” By the way, Lisa Marie must have confused the heck out of him as he must have seen her both as the “bad girl” and a saint (she was a mother and he was always very clear how good a mother she is).

    The symbolic element of bondage is all over the place in this work: from the wedding ring, to the yoke, and also as we see the shadowy background of what resembles a chain-linked, prison like confines. When we see Michael and Naomi at their sexiest (her on her knees, their hips very strongly imitating making love)- they do it in front of this “prison like” background (which interestingly is made of shadows- not concrete matter). They are in fact imprisoned by lust (and/or love) even though they could escape physically as the barrier is a shadow.

    However, I also noticed an element of free will- at the very beginning Michael is standing at his convertible, according to my husband a 63 to 65 Ford Galaxy (yes, I do enroll my poor, long suffering hubby in this). The protagonist went to the seclusion “out of his free will” (convertible and freedom seem to just jump out)- he handed himself over into this bondage of lust. In fact- just as he slams the door shut in the ending, he initially slams the door shut on the car. “I’m here- I have arrived.”

    One more thought about the ox: It goes in line with what your previous blog entry was about: the cultural castration of Michael and connected refusal to see him as a sex symbol… Wonder, if he was not all too conscious of this…

    • I need an outline for this (lol)- I forgot to add re conflict between “good girls” and “bad girls”- I think the dancers and their “white” imagery (flowing white dresses, conservative, contained, Spanish hair styles) and the contrast to dark, mysterious Naomi in her SEXY attire says it all…

  14. Excellent analysis Willa and Joie!!!

    This definitively is about Michael having a affair with a married woman to me. And if it is Michael having a relationship with a married woman, I necessarily have to think of Lisa Marie Presley. As it is said few people talk about Lisa and Michael’s relationship. Media and many people downplayed it. They formally began their relationship in 1994 but it is known was before, we don’t know the exact date only some statements that they did public. Lisa Marie said to Oprah “I left my first husband for Michael” and Michael said in 1994 to Jet magazine:

    “The brilliant thing about us is that we were often together but did not let anybody know about it. We got to see each other that way over the years. We were really quiet and comfortable with each other. That’s pretty much how the dating started happening.” It was during this period that Michael said their relationship changed from being good friends to lovers. ”

    He said his relationship with Lisa Marie had reached a new plateau when he started the Dangerous album in this same interview.

    Then it is more clear to me now more than ever, this married woman could have been Lisa Marie Presley, leaving a short space for doubt.

    Thank you for your wonderful blog, hoping more MJ’s song analysis.

  15. MariaElisabethMJ

    Willa and Joie…your conversations and analyzes of Michael and different topics are really great!! I love it! Even though we are talking about “the forbidden stuff” here, you do it when very much respect and care for Michael`s name – something I think is often missing other places; I think it`s ok to discuss those sides to Michael, as long as you are not disrepectfull towards him, and as long as it is not the only thing to talk about.
    I like your different views on this very amazing video, and some of them I hadn`t thought about before. And some of them surprised me very much. I`ve never thought of the video as being specifically about race; Michael could have chosen any woman to play the part of this “mystery woman”- I don`t really think it is very deliberate that it is a black model. White women appear in Michael`s videos all the time as far as I can remember. But there is of cause a possibility that he really wanted to sort of mix the women he chose for his videos; so that there were both black and white girls. But anyway…I think this video is very simply just about a man who has a relationship with a girl, woman, has sex with her, but don`t want to let the world know about it. I think Michael plays a man who is embarressed or feel guilty about having a sexual relationship with a woman WITHOUT being her husband. I think the ring he wears is merely a symbol of this controversy of NOT being married and still having sex with this very beautiful girl. He is in conflict with himself about this. Being somehow taught that sex outside marriage is wrong FOR HIM, and he therefor is in a constant battle with himself whether or not to end this thing with the girl, or continue to do it…and he clearly wants this girl badly, for no other reason than he feels attracted to her. Maybe he doesn`t really love her, and it is ALL about desire and lust – like he says in the lyrics. On the other hand, I think he does say something about ” I love you” in the song. It is hard to here, but he says it. So…he could love her, and he could just be with her for the danger and excitement of it all. I don`t think he is married and having an affair with someone else. I think the point is, the agony and shame and guilt of having a casual sexual affair with someone, without them being “the love of your life”. Michael in the video is battling over the fact that he is having some “guilty pleasures” with this woman, and just that. He is not head over heals inlove with her, so he feels guilty about it. Or he is not sure how he feels about her, and that makes him feel conflicted too. And should he tell the world about her? Hence the “in and out of the closet”. In short….it is about the taboo and shame and guilt of sex in general. Could it be a reference to Michael`s own, private life? Maybe…like a lot of his other music that has a strong personal feel to it. We don´t know what Michael did privately in his lovelife into every little detail; and we shouldn`t either. But he touches something in this video that is very interesting and makes you curious. I think he is very, very courageous and very daring for taking up a subject like this in this way. It is really brilliant and creative and so full of this fantasy and magic that only Michael could do. And again….even though this video is blowing out sex, Michael is still so elegant and so beautiful. He makes sex look beautiful, and something to not be taken too lightly. You can be casual in you want to, but you have to be aware of the consequences and how it affects the one your with. If its a mutual thing between two people, and they agree on it…I guess its fine and a part of life and human nature. I think Michael is very well aware of “the human nature” in this whole sexual universe; and he plays with it and awakenes everyones curiousity and fantasy. “In the closet” is one of the most beautiful and captivating of Michael`s shortfilms. And just to look at this man – he is stunningly gorgeous and just full of grace and wonder. I love him so much, and seeing this just makes me fall inlove with him even more.

  16. Good point that this ITC could be about LMP, a married woman–lust woman to man–and there is no doubt that there was lust in that relationship. Also the final parts of the film where both he and Naomi dance in their own doorways or closets–and then MJ shuts the door so we, the viewer, are shut out of what goes on inside–this reminds me of the song ‘Privacy”–I need my privacy–that this lust or love is a private feeling. I agree he is very beautiful and elegant in this film. It is clear that he and LMP had a sexual relationship while she was separated but not yet divorced. There is something very tender in the way he touches Naomi–when he touches her face for example. Lots of beauty and tenderness here.

  17. wow! well written article. i can tell you loved him too. I think sometimes by getting all this info may not be prying in his personal space but maybe just another way to get closer to the artist and man. I have never met or attended his concerts. but did grow up with him. I believe he was an angel and conducted himself with strength and class. I just wish someone could have protected him more from the evil people. I can truely say that i have a high degree of respect and love for the man too. He was too good for this earth. I hope he knows how much he is loved by his fans.
    p.s i saw betty whites 90th birthday special and she loved animals, all kinds but you didnt see anyone making stupid remarks about her affection for monkeys and every other kind of animal. i just hate how they treated him in the press. ever since his passing i cant watch the news any more. it is like watching some reality show. waist of time.sorry for the running at the mouth. it just bothers me so much.

  18. Michael was of deep water, very sensitive romantic and passionate man. I bet this song is inspired on a relationship he had with a married woman and if you search carefully you will find Lisa Marie Presley in his life at that time. The song would perfectly fit with them. Many facts of his relationship with her have been ignored, it is as if these wouldn’t have existed. Simply people don’t think nor talk about them. As ITC song Michael wrote other love songs inspired on his relationship with her, Michael gives clues into its lines that are recognizable and match with real facts. It is only matter to search.

  19. This is my first comment on this blog and must say that I have thoroughly enjoyed everything I have read. You guys are doing a wonderful job, bringing so much new insight and depth of analysis into his artistry, which he completely deserves. This kind of objective critic on Michael Jackson`s work is severely lacking and all of his fans who knows about it, really appreciates these kinds of sites. Thank you.

    I`d like to add a little comment about the In The Closet lyric Joie mentioned:
    “She’s just a lover who gets me by.”
    What he is actually singing is: “She`s just a lover, who makes me high.”

    I`ll continue reading your posts with great interest. Don`t Stop Till You Get Enough!

  1. Pingback: Dancing with the Elephant – This Passion Burns Inside of Me – Michael Jackson Academic Studies

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