Who Is It, Really?
Willa: You know, Joie, there are so many things I love about Michael Jackson’s videos, but one reason they’re so compelling for me is their emotional complexity. Human psychology is not simple or straightforward. None of us is purely good or purely evil – we’re all a complicated mix of conflicting emotions and desires. And Jackson’s videos aren’t simple or straightforward either. They feel emotionally honest to me because his characters are complicated, even contradictory, and you find yourself drawn to them even if there may be some unsettling or uncomfortable aspects to them – just like real people.
All of this has me thinking about Who Is It, one of his less well known videos. (In fact, I don’t even think it’s on YouTube anymore. I couldn’t find it when I looked the other day.) On the surface, the plot of this video sounds simple enough: a wealthy man is betrayed by a duplicitous woman who’s just using him for his money. That’s a story older than the Bible.
But every time I watch this video, I find myself drawn to her as well as him, and it’s clear Michael Jackson wanted us to feel that way. She’s portrayed as a sympathetic character, and the way the story is set up, we find that she has complicated reasons for acting the way she does. In fact, in many ways she has more constraints on her than he does. He’s a wealthy man who can fly off in a helicopter when things get bad, but she doesn’t have that freedom. As the video makes clear, she’s stuck in her life. So while I sympathize with him and the heartbreak he feels because of her betrayal, I’m reluctant to judge her too harshly for that betrayal – especially when she tries to break free of the constraints on her and present her “true face” to him.
Joie: Willa, I agree with you completely here and I have always loved this video simply because of the storyline. Normally, as you know, I would say that I didn’t care for this video because there’s just not enough Michael in it, and you know how I love to sit and gaze at him! But I can’t dislike this video because the storyline is so endlessly fascinating to me. In fact, every time I watch it, I find myself trying to fill in the blanks and create a back story! I want to know who is this woman and how did she get caught up in the destructive cycle she’s in; how did she meet the wealthy man that Michael is portraying and how did they fall in love; who are the shady people she’s working for and how did they coerce her into this lifestyle? I often find myself wishing that I could sit and watch the whole story play out as if it were a TV movie or something. I just love it!
In the video, I think it’s pretty clear that she is a high-priced call girl, but it’s more than that. She’s also a skillful con-artist and she works for some really shady people who seem to have invested a lot of time and energy into the task of taking money from wealthy people. They have trained her to become a different person for each client, being exactly what each client wants and bringing his or her fantasy to life. We see them transforming her from Alex (a very ‘real,’ unpretentious girl) into Diana (a blonde, buttoned up business woman for a tryst with a mysterious man), into Celeste (a brunette vixen in killer lingerie who strips while her client, an older gentleman on oxygen, watches), into Eve (a coquettish “innocent” with a million curls who we later see dressing and leaving the hotel room of three satisfied sleeping women). Interestingly, Michael appears to have encountered the unpretentious, ‘real’ Alex – but is that the real her?
Something obviously went wrong in her dealings with Michael’s character. Somehow, they fell in love. And it isn’t really clear whether or not he was one of her clients or if he was even aware of her profession. From the pain and betrayal he feels, you get the sense that he didn’t know. He also has an assistant or detective working for him, who follows this girl and takes him to her apartment to show him all the “evidence” he’s found against her, including numerous business cards with different names on them. And once the protagonist finds out, not only is he devastated, but he’s also left wondering if he was just another mark for her. As he says in the lyrics of the song:
I gave her money I gave her time I gave her everything Inside of one heart could find I gave her passion My very soul I gave her promises And secrets so untold
So he clearly developed real feelings for this woman – or at least the woman he believed her to be. He thought they were soul mates; he thought they were going to be together forever, as he sings:
And she promised me forever And the day we’d live as one We made our vows We’d live a life anew And she promised me in secret That she’d love me for all time It was a promise so untrue Tell me what will I do?
He’s devastated. Just completely heartbroken by her betrayal. And he’s left asking himself “Who Is It?” Not only ‘who is the other man she’s seeing,’ but also – and more importantly – ‘who is this woman I’ve fallen in love with?’
Willa: I know exactly what you mean, Joie. Every time I watch this video I’m left wondering, Who is this woman? Or as the title says, Who Is It?
As we’ve talked about many times before, beginning with the My Baby posts way back in August, over and over in Michael Jackson’s work we see this double scenario where he’s in a romantic relationship that also seems to represent his relationship with his audience. And I strongly sense that double relationship again here. He’s in love with a woman who’s ever-changing, and he doesn’t really know who she is – and wow, is that true of his audience. After all, his audience includes people who love him, but it also includes music critics who don’t understand him and came down really hard on him, and music industry executives who just wanted to use him and make money off him, and casual fans who liked him as long as he was cool but turned against him as soon as he wasn’t, and even haters who actively disliked him.
Remember, this video was produced in 1992, right before the molestation scandal erupted. We tend to look back and think everything was wonderful before 1993 and terrible after, but that’s not true. The backlash started before 1993. In fact, I think that’s one reason so many people were willing to believe those false allegations based on such faulty evidence: because public feelings toward him were already really confused and complicated at that point. A lot of people wanted him to remain the cherub-faced boy of the Jackson 5, but he had grown up and become an extremely powerful and wealthy young man, with an estimated $500 million in the bank. And his appearance kept changing – just like the female lead in Who Is It. So there began to be this unsettling feeling that maybe we really didn’t know this sweet-faced boy who had grown up in front of us. We thought we knew him, but did we really? Just like he thought he knew the woman in Who Is It, but did he really?
In fact, this sounds kind of crazy, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think the situation is reversed this time, and the woman in Who Is It represents him, Michael Jackson.
Joie: That doesn’t sound crazy at all, Willa. In fact, I was thinking the exact same thing!
Willa: Really? I’m always so worried you’re going to think I’m a nut, and always so grateful when you don’t. But there are a lot of parallels between them, aren’t there? After all, her career as a call girl depends on pleasing her clients, just as his career as an entertainer depends on pleasing his audience. She’s constantly shifting identities to meet the demands of different clients, just as he was constantly shifting his appearance and constantly having to deal with the demands of different segments of his audience. You know, at different times in his career, he was criticized by different groups as too mainstream, too edgy, too popular, too paranoid, too soft, too angry, too Black, too White, too predictable, too incomprehensible, too eager to please his audience, too out of touch with his audience, and on and on.
It also really strikes me that, as a call girl, she’s a type of artist – a con-artist. Just as importantly, what she’s “selling” to her clients is the most intimate part of herself, of her being. And I believe that Michael Jackson’s art was the most intimate part of himself. I think the reason his work moves people so powerfully is that, if you’re in tune with him, you feel that he is revealing his innermost feelings – all his joys and fears and hopes. And through his art, he’s putting his private thoughts and emotions out in the marketplace and making them available to a public who may or may not understand him, and may cast judgment on him. To me, that is such an incredible act of courage, but it also must have been terribly painful – especially since he did genuinely care about his audience.
And so I think he strongly identified with this woman in Who Is It, a very successful call girl who makes the “mistake” of falling in love with a client, just as he was a very successful entertainer who made the “mistake” of genuinely caring about his audience. And I think that’s one reason I feel such sympathy for her whenever I watch this video.
Joie: Willa, I think you are right on the money with this one and I agree completely. And I think Who Is It is actually one of his finest videos for exactly this reason. It’s absolutely brilliant! If you just listen to the lyrics of the song, it really doesn’t lend itself to this type of storyline. The song suggests that this is a man who has discovered his woman is having an affair with another man. “Who is it?” he sings. “Is it a friend of mine? / Is it my brother?” The song itself is pretty straightforward. But the short film is so much more complex than that.
As you say, he identifies with the woman in the video, and he clearly wants us to see beyond her shortcomings and feel sympathy and compassion for her and the predicament she finds herself in. She is “stuck” in her life, as you put it. She doesn’t have a lot of options. And as I watched it recently, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Michael was trying to convey a message with this video. The message being that he and this woman really are not all that different. She’s out there giving her all, to the shady people she’s working for as well as to the actual clients themselves. And in a very real sense, Michael was in the same exact position. Out there giving his all – to the music industry executives, to the critics, to the haters, and to the fans. And I’m sure there were probably times when he too felt sort of “stuck” in his life, just as the woman in the video does. And I think, on some level … at some point in time … we all probably feel that way at some time in our lives. So she really is someone we can all relate to.
Willa: I agree. And of course, one of the most striking similarities between her and Michael Jackson as a public figure is their constantly shifting appearance. As you pointed out earlier, her appearance changes dramatically from Alex to Diana to Celeste to Eve – in fact, her appearance shifts so radically you can hardly tell she’s the same person. It’s all just hair and make-up, but the transformations are incredible.
And of course, Michael Jackson’s appearance shifted dramatically as well – so dramatically that a lot of people insisted he must have had extensive plastic surgery, even though he repeatedly said he didn’t, and his mother confirmed that after he died. Just like the woman in Who Is It, it’s all just hair and make-up. For example, here’s my favorite photo comparison, from 1987 and 2003:
At first glance, he looks radically different in these two pictures. But if we take the time to actually look at the structural lines of his face, they are identical, even though 16 years have passed. If you outlined the details of his face in the photo on the left and the photo on the right and then put the outlines on top of each other, they would be identical. He looks radically different, but like the woman in Who Is It, it’s all just hair and make-up.
Joie: It is all just hair and make-up, Willa. And in the case of Michael’s many pictures, it’s also lighting and camera angle and facial expression. My favorite photo comparison is the composite photo from the Vindicating Michael blog where they took a picture from 1988 (from the Bad era) and a picture from 2007 (from the Ebony photo shoot) and put them together.
This composite picture clearly shows that his face is exactly the same; there were no dramatic changes. The eyes, the nose, the cheekbones, jaw line, lips and chin. All exactly the same. And the two pictures used were taken nearly 20 years apart! If that’s not proof that he was telling the truth when he repeatedly said he’d had no other work done besides various procedures to his nose and the cleft in his chin, I don’t know what is.
Willa: I’m so glad you mentioned that composite photo, Joie, because it really demonstrates something important: while public perceptions and interpretations of his face changed dramatically from 1988 to 2007, his actual face did not. It was all just hair and make-up and the power of suggestion. But while the woman in Who Is It shifts her appearance to please her clients, Michael Jackson must have had different motives, obviously, because his “clients” were not pleased. He was really challenging his audience, and a lot of people didn’t like it and were surprisingly angry about his shifting appearance.
Seen within this context, the ending of Who Is It is very poignant, I think. The Alex / Diana / Celeste / Eve character tries to break free from her false life and reveal her “true face” to the protagonist. She arrives at his estate without the perfect make-up, the perfect hair, the glamorous clothes, the regal attitude. This to me is the “real” person, whose name we don’t know – the person behind the mask. But she’s too late. He’s gone. His assistant shakes his head when she asks to see him, and then tosses all the false name cards out at her: Alex, Diana, Celeste, Eve, and more. In effect, he’s forcing her to acknowledge those false identities.
So she goes back and re-enters the life she tried to escape. In our last image of her, she’s lying on the make-up table as that same crowd leans in to remake her identity once again. And then, in a classic Michael Jackson moment, the perspective suddenly flips and we, the audience, are lying on the table looking up at the people leaning over her/us. We have become her.
To me, that sudden shift in perspective that places us in her position is quintessential Michael Jackson. Even while leading us to sympathize with his character’s heartbreak, he also encourages us to consider her point of view as well. We see these shifts in perspective throughout his work, from “Ben” through “Dirty Diana” through “Whatever Happens.” In Ghosts, he even takes us inside the mind of the Mayor (the Tom Sneddon character) and shows us the situation from his point of view, which to me shows incredible generosity of spirit. He constantly forces us to look at situations from multiple perspectives, including points of view that have rarely been considered before, and I love that. I’ve loved it since I was nine years old.
Joie: You know, one of the things I find most intriguing about this video, Willa, is the fact that we really don’t see a whole lot of Michael in this one. And the reasons for that are really sort of shrouded in mystery. There is a lot of contradictory information floating around the Internet about it, with many fans believing that this video was actually banned from American TV, and the accepted story is that Michael was extremely busy at the time with the Dangerous Tour and just didn’t have the time to fully devote to the making of this video, so it was produced without his creative input.
I’m not sure how true that is but, there are two things that are known for certain. First, the song “Who Is It” was never supposed to be released as a single in the U.S., but Michael’s impromptu a cappella, beatbox version of it during the Oprah Winfrey interview on February 10, 1993 really piqued the public’s interest in it. Requests to play the song went through the roof at radio stations across the country. So Sony decided to go ahead and release it instead of “Give In To Me,” which was slated to be the next U.S. single. (In fact, Michael debuted the video for that song during the Oprah interview for that reason.)
The second thing that’s certain is that, for whatever reason, a Michael Jackson impersonator – E’Cassanova – was hired to finish filming certain scenes and if you look very closely at all the scenes of Michael in the limo and lying down on the plane at the very end, you can clearly see that it’s not him.
Willa: Are you kidding me? That’s an impersonator? How do you know all this stuff, Joie? You really are incredible, like a living, breathing Michael Jackson encyclopedia. You just constantly amaze me.
Joie: You are so funny! That part is pretty much common knowledge.
Willa: Really? Well, I completely missed the memo on that one, because I had no idea.
Joie: But here’s where it gets confusing … people say the impersonator was hired because Michael was too busy with the tour and everything to complete filming but yet, this video was actually made in 1992. Now, I’m not certain what month it went into production but, it debuted in the UK on July 13, 1992. That means filming more than likely occurred prior to the month of July and the Dangerous Tour began on June 27, 1992. And while I’m sure he was probably very busy with tour rehearsals and preparations right up until the kick-off date, I’m not sure I buy the whole ‘too busy to complete the filming’ story.
But the facts get further complicated because on July 14, just one day after its debut in the UK, Michael had the video pulled because he was unhappy with the editing of the film and with its early release. I think this may be where the rumors that the video was “banned” from American TV originated, but the simple fact is, this video was never released in the U.S. Once Sony made the decision to release the single in America, they joined forces with MTV and created a contest where the fans could create a video for the song. So, in the U.S. the accompanying video was a compilation of earlier MJ videos and performance clips. The actual video wasn’t available in the U.S. until it was released on the Dangerous: The Short Films DVD on November 23, 1993.
But the question that keeps popping into my head is why? The video for this song was obviously already completed by the time Sony made the decision to release the song as a single in America. They made that decision following the Oprah interview (Feb.10, 1993) and released the single on March 31, 1993. But the video had already debuted in the UK (July 13, 1992). So why not just release it here too?
Willa: That is curious. Why the big scramble for a video when they already had one – a really fascinating one – sitting on the shelf?
But I’m still boggled by the impersonator at the end. That’s just astonishing. Who does that? Who hires an impersonator to imitate them in their videos? And especially Michael Jackson, whose videos aren’t just marketing tools for his songs – they are exquisitely crafted works of art. Taking a shortcut like that violates everything I know about him as an artist. It just doesn’t add up.
But you know, if we look at this a different way – if we look at it thematically – using an impersonator at the end actually adds a whole other level of meaning and intrigue to this video. Think about it. We have a female character who’s constantly shifting identities – and being condemned for that – and we as an audience are constantly unsettled by her shifting appearance and the recurring question of “Who Is It?” And then the final scenes are of Michael Jackson, but it’s not really Michael Jackson? It’s a Michael Jackson impersonator? I mean, seriously, how perfect is that? He is so endlessly fascinating to me, on so many levels. Just when you think you have something all figured out, he throws in yet another twist. Who Is It, indeed.
This situation with the impersonator reminds me of a wonderful quotation from Bill Bottrell describing how he came to write and perform the “white rap” in “Black or White”:
I kept telling Michael that we had to have a rap, and he brought in rappers like L.L. Cool J and the Notorious BIG who were performing on other songs. Somehow, I didn’t have access to them for “Black or White.” … So, one day I wrote the rap – I woke up in the morning and before my first cup of coffee, I began writing down what I was hearing. … That’s the sort of thing he does, it seems kind of random, but it’s as if he makes things happen by omission. … I didn’t think too much of white rap, so I brought in Bryan Loren to rap my words … but he was uncomfortable being a rapper. As a result, I performed it the same day after Bryan left, did several versions, fixed one, played it for Michael the next day and he went, “Ohhhh, I love it, Bill, I love it. That should be the one.” I kept saying “No, we’ve got to get a real rapper,” but as soon as he heard my performance he was committed to it and wouldn’t consider using anybody else.
As Ultravioletrae pointed out so brilliantly in a comment a couple weeks ago about “What Makes a Songwriter?” that “white rap” is a crucial feature of “Black or White.” As she wrote,
the white rap section in Black or White uses black hip hop, but runs it through a white perspective, Bill Bottrell’s feel good lyrics and performance. The previous section, “I am tired of this devil” uses white hard rock and heavy metal but runs it through a black perspective and the frustration of racial injustice. He is deliberately confusing musical codes here, attempting to integrate all these perspectives into a single view in a very trans-ethnic way.
So Michael Jackson really needs a “white rap” for this section, but he’s working with a producer who actively dislikes “white rap.” But he ingeniously figures out a way to get him to create it for him. As Bottrell said, “That’s the sort of thing he does, it seems kind of random, but it’s as if he makes things happen by omission.” I love that quote, and I can just picture the situation. Somehow all these amazing rappers are walking in and out of the studio, and they’re all willing and eager to be on a Michael Jackson album. Yet they’re mysteriously unavailable for this particular song – as Botrell says, “Somehow, I didn’t have access to them for ‘Black or White’ “ – so finally he has to do it himself. I’m sorry, but that’s brilliant.
Joie: I agree; it is brilliant.
Willa: I see the exact same scenario of “he makes things happen by omission” in the final scenes of Who Is It. It makes so much sense on so many levels to have an MJ impersonator performing those scenes, so the real Michael Jackson simply makes himself unavailable while those scenes are being filmed. Suddenly he’s too busy, can’t come, studio time is incredibly expensive, they can’t wait, and they’re forced to use an impersonator. Brilliant.
Joie: You may be right about that, Willa. It certainly would be an interesting artistic move, wouldn’t it? And it totally shuts down the Internet rumor that Michael had no creative control over this short film. The video was shot by movie director David Fincher, who directed 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and 2010’s The Social Network, among many others. He’s also directed numerous music videos for everyone from Madonna and Paula Abdul to the Rolling Stones and Nine Inch Nails. His list of video credits is just as impressive as his movie credits, and we all know how Michael always liked to work with the best in their fields.
Willa: Oh, I think he was very involved in Who Is It, from the conceptual development through production. It’s simply too him, right down to the shifting camera angles – it carries the stamp of his personality and his artistic vision throughout. All you have to do is look at it and you can tell he was very involved in creating this video.
And he wouldn’t have allowed it to be included in the Dangerous: The Short Films DVD if he were seriously dissatisfied with it. Everyone knows how meticulous he was. We’ve all heard the story of how he and Quincy Jones and others gathered around to listen to the final cut of the Thriller album – and he didn’t like it, and refused to release it until it met his standards. I don’t know what all was going on back then when the Who Is It video was released and pulled and released again – you know a lot more about that than I do, Joie – but I’m convinced this video deserves far more attention that it’s received, and deserves to be placed alongside his better known films.
Posted on March 1, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged Bill Bottrell, Dangerous: The Short Films, David Fincher, Michael Jackson, shifting perspectives, Who Is It. Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.