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.


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 March 1, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. Willa & Joie!

    Thank you for discussing “Who Is It”! It’s my favourite song ever! In my opinion it’s better than Billie Jean. The rich and multiple layers, the beatbox, the melody, everything!

    And I love the video too. It’s true that it’s not on YouTube and I don’t know why. But here it is on Daily Motion:

    It was a big hit here in Europe and I was surprised to learn that many Americans don’t even know the real video for it! In the US they played a compilation of old concert footage of Michael as a video for it. I was trying to find out why. First I thought maybe the subject itself is too touchy for American taste? I mean prostitutes and all that. Though it would be yet another example of hypocrisy because then they have no problem with playing utterly violent and sexual hip hop videos or Lady Gaga videos.

    And then I found that probably there was another reason. The video was directed by David Fincher. It was made in 1992. Around the same time, but a little bit later he also directed the video “Bad Girl” for Madonna. That was made in 1993 but it was released sooner than “Who Is It”. And as you can see there is some similarity in the mood and also in the theme of the videos (though Michael’s song is very, very much superior in my opinion). So probably this is why Michael didn’t release the video in the US at the end. It’s sad because it’s such a great video and also it was made sooner than Madonna’s “Bad Girl”, so if anybody copied any ideas then it was Madonna.

    • Wow, Jacksonaktak, thank you so much for sharing the Bad Girl video. It was just fascinating to me. You know, I’m always trying to define what it is exactly that makes a Michael Jackson video so compelling. And here we have two videos – similar format, similar theme, same director – and yet they feel completely different to me. Whatever that special something is that Michael Jackson brings to his work, and I’m still far from figuring that out, it’s definitely there in Who Is It and definitely not there in Bad Girl.

      It’s not him personally, because as Joie pointed out, he’s not really on screen very much in this video. It’s something else, but what? I don’t know, but it’s subtle yet fundamental, I think. He just has a very different way of seeing of the world, and expresses a level of sympathy and connection with his characters that I don’t see or feel in Bad Girl, for example. It’s hard to put what I feel in words, but I definitely have a very different emotional reaction to these two videos. Hmmmm …

      Thanks again for sharing. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

      • I don’t know what it is for you, Willa, but for me it’s the MUSIC that makes all the difference. And not only Michael’s is better music, but also it’s performed in a lot more heartfelt, more profound way.

    • Jacksonaktak, I am a big Madonna fan and I have seen the Bad Girl video before but, I don’t think I ever really saw any similarities between it and Who Is It. But you’re right, there are some striking similarities here. As you say, the “mood” of the videos are very much the same even though the content is slightly different. Is there really a difference between prostitution and blatant promiscuity? Perhaps that was a question that David Fincher was trying to explore at the time he made these two videos. Really interesting.

  2. Gloria Christopher

    This video has always confused me. Thank you for bringing forth this clarity.
    Makes all the difference in the world after reading this and thank you for pointing out all these details I have not seen.

  3. I have no words to express how happy I am that you have decided to talk about my favorite video and one of my favorite songs!!! For me WII is the most amazing video for a lot of reasons.

    And is not only that I love how Michael looks in suit (which I really really do!) But also is because I am a big fan of David Fincher (my favorite films are Se7en, Fight Club and recently I really like The Girl with the….). Being a movie freak I have study and watch most of his films and music videos, and WII is one of the best in my opinion, from the cinematographic point of view. The texture of the photography, the angles, the editing, is all amazing.

    One this that fascinates me most about this video is that the story of these two lovers is never really clear. The first time I watch the video for me the story was that a rich men have feel in love with this beautiful call girl and that because he has fell in love and she won’t quit her job he decides to go away to forget about her and then when she tries to quit for him is too late. Kinda like Pretty Woman, but with a bad ending. Of course I never thought that for this plot to work, this rich men (Michael) had to be a client first! And that might be not very good for his image in America. But any way, for me this was the plot in my head for a long time. Until I read in Wikipedia the other plot.
    In Wikipedia the plot is the next:

    “It begins with Jackson in what seems to be a hotel, singing about his girlfriend. He is distressed because he found a silver card in with the name “Alex” on it. To him, it implies that “Alex” is another man who his girlfriend is with; thus, she is cheating on Jackson. However, as the story in the video unfolds, this is not true, because the girl takes on different identities (I.e. Eve, Diana, etc.) for her job as a high class call girl. “Alex” (which is also a girl’s name), just happens to be one of them. The video alternates scenes from where Jackson is singing about his pain, to where the girl is being changed into her different identities and taking care of her jobs (mostly meeting with other men and even some women and making love with them). Towards the end of the video, Jackson has packed up his bags to leave town, because of his distress. A helicopter comes to pick him up from his house, where he is only seen again on it, trying to sleep. The girl comes to Jackson’s house, and she asks his assistant (who knows the situation and aided Jackson in his departure) to let her in. The assistant shakes his head, implying that he left. When she asks why, he drops a flutter of silver nameplates (including the one that said “Alex”) from a slot in the door. The girl only nods and walks away.”

    And now Willa gives this other plot which is also very possible. For me is about forbidden, impossible love, that, like we you guys have discuss so many times, is one of Michael’s favorite themes. And like in the rest of his videos Michael gives a very central and important position to the girl. Actually if you really study de video she appears like a powerful, self confident strong woman, that actually makes lot of money with what she does. In one point she can quit, if she really wants to, and escapes to go with him, but when that dosen’t works then she comes back to what she knows.

    So what you said about her representing Michael makes so much sense for me. He had so much money for the time Dangerous came out, really if he would really wanted Michael didn’t have to work never again in his life and he was away of the audience for a long time (remember the thank you speech at the Grammys 1993: “I went from: where is he?, to here he is again!”), but the show business is the only life he knew, so he came back to what he knew, even thou that meant sacrifices and sometimes lots of pain.

    The song it self is also one of my favorites. Not long time ago I was talking to a friend of mine since we could not decide which musical arc was better, if Billie Jean or WII and a friend of mine who is a teacher for kids about 7 or 8 years old told me this song is his students favorite, “they ask me to play this song all the time, dunno why this is special to them, but they can hear it a thousand times and they don’t get tired of it” he told me. For my WII is a hidden treasure, that only fans know about. Is a little master piece and I am sure one day someone will find it and it will received the proper credit.

    I also have heard something about the banned problems this video had in America, which didn’t happened in the rest of the world. Remember watching this video a lot in MTV Latinamerica and here in Europe is also very well known.

    When I found out about the alternative video, the fan’s video with other performances and videos, I try to find it but I never did. If someone has it I would really appreciate to watch it, me and my friends here in Spain that have never heard about this before would really appreciated.

    Thanks again for an amazing post!!!

  4. The alternative version is the one that you will find on MJ’s official YouTube channel. Here it is (just a compilation of old footage):

    Putting things together my theory is that while Michael released the WII video in Europe in the summer of 1992, he didn’t wish to release it in the US, but after the Oprah show where he sang and beatboxed the song the demand was so big that he decided to release it in the US as well. However by the time Madonna also released “Bad Girl” and Michael didn’t want that people thought he was copying Madonna (because the mood of the two videos is similar) and that’s why he went for an alternative version. Even though in reality it was him who made WII first and “Bad Girl” was made only after that.

    I don’t really understand though why Michael didn’t intend to release it in the States. It’s such a great song. He also didn’t release Earth Song in the US and I don’t understand that either. It was a HUGE hit everywhere else!

  5. Thank you for making my Thursday morning so rewarding and thought provoking, Willa and Joie. I adore this song- it is a masterpiece – from the layering, to the execution, the pain portrayed, the breathless feel, the haunting, trancelike ending (which I think deserves its own analysis…). I also adore the video- which I actually had not seen until 2009, I only knew the “other” version. From the first time I laid eyes on it, I was captivated…

    I love how you point out the shifting perspectives, and the amount of empathy directed at the woman. While of course my heart always went out to Michael (because in the song, you FEEL his pain), in the video, I immediately felt horrible for the trapped hopelessness portrayed by the woman.

    I agree- she (as in Billy Jean and Dirty Diana) can be seen as a representation of his audience. Ever shifting…unpredictable. Loving him, betraying him, something he would maybe at times love to leave, but then- look how alone, exhausted, and tired he is without “her”… A double dependent relationship.

    What an amazing angle you added by pointing out “she” also represents aspects of Michael. This of course is right inline with his mercurial personality and the masks he was forced to wear. The persona MICHAEL JACKSON- versus the person Michael. Where are the boundaries? Who is he- and does he himself still know?

    How about the figure of the butler/assistant? Is it just me, or does anyone else get the eebie-jeebies fro him? On the surface, he is so supportive and loyal to his “master.” He shows him the betrayal… But what is his angle? Does he have a stake at leaving Michael alone and isolated? If you think about it- I think this is what happened a lot. People working for Michael- on the surface loyal. But could he trust their solicitous efforts? Or did they want to keep him isolated and vulnerable?
    The glances I catch are interesting- to me, it almost seems he rushes Michael off. Enforces in a way, he has to get away from her.

    I always wondered if “the people” behind her are maybe the assistants “real” masters…keeping her where they wanted her, and him, possibly where they want him. Alone, sad, isolated, finding solace in sleep.

    Finally, after reading what you said and thinking about it- OMG, you are SO right about the inclusion of E Casanova! It makes so much sense if seen in context of the overall theme of the short film.! Michael to me, was the master of passive aggression- as you put it, he got things done by omission. Billy Bush talked about that in the recent MJJ Magazine: When Michael didn’t want to wear the headdress for Remember the Time, it miraculously “got lost.” Only to be found just as miraculously the day shooting was finished. SO Michael!

    Thank you, ladies. As always an enjoyment and a brain teaser!

  6. I forgot….what about the “ghostly” presence we see in several spots… I need to go back and rewatch in light of all that was said…I have some ideas, but I want to look at the video first (sadly, after work…).

  7. Another wondeful blog,girls-you are to be congratulated. Is it only me as a fan that feels ‘guilty’ that Michael felt he had to please me to such a degree that he compromised himself in the process? If only we could go back in time and somehow tell him “I love it that you feel this for people you don’t even know but, please take care of yourself”-would any of us really do that-asked him to stop thinking he had to please us so much? Then part of me thinks that is who he was/is. He couldn’t stop being that way if he wanted to. Ah well, what’s done is done-Michael is in a better place now.

    • It’s not only you, Sunny. I have heard many fans express a similar feeling of guilt and I include myself in that group. I can’t tell you how many times during the last few years of his life that I thought to myself, ‘if he never releases another album; if he never sings another note and never steps foot on another stage, I am just so thankful for all of the songs and all of the albums and all of the performances that he DID give.’ And I truly meant that and, like you, I wish like crazy that I could have somehow let him know that. And I believe that most fans feel that way. But sadly … as you said, what’s done is done.

  8. I love your blog, it’s really opened my eyes to the meaning behind a lot of Michael’s lyrics that, in the past, I just kind of took for granted. The discussion on “my baby” in particular absolutely blew my mind.

    I wanted to comment on the plastic surgery vindication photos, even though I know it won’t be popular of me to do so here. I always felt like Michael was human and was entitled to human faults. People tend to look at him as an earth-born angel that could never do wrong, but Michael was a human being and I never required him to be perfect for me to love his art.

    Part of being human, however, is the aging process and the Ebony photo with its two halves taken 20 years apart do not show a natural aging progression, which if anything could be greater evidence for the presence of plastic surgery than anything else. I recently read an article where a plastic surgeon was interviewed about Tom Cruise; it was his opinion that Cruise could not possibly be 50 and look 30 without having had continuous work done to his face and neck. It seems like that is definitely the case here (I do after all remember the autopsy report mentioning that evidence of multiple plastic surgeries were found, even though they didn’t mention specifics).

    I guess the only reason I bring this up is because it’s always bugged me that it was ever even a big deal for him to have done it. How many Hollywood stars have the same kind of age-reversing procedures done to them all the time without any kind of fuss? Is it necessary? No, but it’s done and no one cares.

    Michael surgically had things done. So what? There’s no need to put him down over it and there’s no need to defend that he didn’t do it either. As Dave Chappelle once said, “The man made Thriller. Thriller!” Isn’t that all that matters?

    • “I always felt like Michael was human and was entitled to human faults. People tend to look at him as an earth-born angel that could never do wrong, but Michael was a human being and I never required him to be perfect for me to love his art.”

      Hi Vinnie. I love the way you put this, and I absolutely agree. In fact, I think the fact that he was so heart-breakingly human is one of the things that draws people to him, and that makes his art so powerful – you can feel him struggling with real human emotions and conflicting impulses in his work (and his life). He isn’t an angel up above the fray. He’s a human being confronted with the kinds of conflicts we all face, and struggling to decide what’s right – and I know that’s something I identify with very strongly.

      About the plastic surgery – I agree that faces change over time as we age, and that we should expect his face to change too. And you’re right, the two pictures in the composite photo look almost too similar considering they were taken 19 years apart. However, I want to point out that that completely contradicts the story that was repeated in the tabloids and even in the mainstream press for most of his adult life. The dominant narrative isn’t that he must have had plastic surgery because his face never changed. It’s that he must have had plastic surgery because his face changed so radically. There are people who believe he completely altered the shape of his face through plastic surgery – that he had cheek implants and chin implants, raised his forehead, raised his eyebrows, widened his eyes, sharpened his cheekbones, thinned and/or plumped his lips (both procedures have been reported in detail), bulked up his chin, and squared his jawline. And I see no evidence of that.

      The main point Joie and I were trying to make is that his appearance did change from time to time, just like Alex / Diana / Celeste / Eve, but it was the result of art and illusion – hair and make-up – not surgery. He did not change the underlying structure of his face through plastic surgery. It sounds like you think the shape of his face stayed the same too (perhaps too much the same) so I think we’re actually in agreement on this one.

      • Oh, definitely in agreement. I just never really thought it had to be as big of a deal as everyone’s always made it and I just wanted to point that out.

        Keep up the great work on this blog! Can’t wait to see what you have planned when Bad turns 25 later this year… I really loved the retrospective on Invincible 🙂

  9. Thanks for the post and the info and the intriguing discussion of this video. I have to say, contrary to what others have said, this is not one of my favs. I did not relate to the woman character who changes identities, so I didn’t feel empathy for her situation. Well, maybe a bit but not a huge amount. Also I don’t agree that she represents Michael or his changing ‘looks’–to me, his looks pretty much stayed the same over time, as Willa points out in the photos (btw, I read that the one that shows his face really white was photoshopped by the media to look more pasty white than he really was– to make him look more weird of course.) Also I remember how Madonna said she wanted to do a ‘makeover’–get rid of the buckles, etc, and he totally wasn’t having any of that. It’s true his hair changed–but it was mostly always long (except for YANA).

    Ok–back to the WII video. The opening is very intriguing with the shots of the sunlight and changing shadows on the buildings–this to me suggests that the video is about modern life–buildings–as opposed to nature–it is about human society, human constructs, how people relate to each other in a very urban environment where nature is virtually absent. I think nature only appears at the end of the video where the Michael persona (an impersonator??) looks out at the ocean. I like this shot a lot. To me, this video is about how human beings get detached from nature and how their lives become corrupted as a result. They don’t know who they are and they can’t form authentic relationships with each other–there are too many false personas. The Michael persona is saddened by this to the point that he just plain abandons this lifestyle and goes to stare at the ocean, a metaphor for the power of nature. Instead of his vision being limited by the buildings surrounding him, to the point where there is no horizon but just buildings (the time he stands looking out the window at an urban environment), his vision is now expanded–he can see into vast spaces–infinity.

    I also think it is interesting that part of the video shows faces turning under a white surface–maybe a desk top or a table top–it is as if these faces are trapped in some manmade substance and they can’t get free. This is a good image to me of what the city environment is doing both to nature and to human beings. It is all fake–fake relationships, fake ‘persons’ (alex, eva, etc), marketing (the make-up and costume artists creating these false persons), and money (the suitcases filled with money–this is very interesting). There is also violence in this false world in the WII video, as when a woman (a ‘madam’?) slaps the Alex persona, as opposed to love. It is really a sick world that any sane person would want to leave.

    To me, the Michael persona makes the right decision to leave this world that is causing him so much pain–‘I cry alone at night,’ ‘I can’t take it ’cause I’m lonely.’ In the song, this pain is well expressed and we know that Michael often spoke of his loneliness. He didn’t have authentic people to relate to, too many fakes and con artists; that is why he chose to spend time with children, who were more authentic and less manufactured people, or other child stars like Elizabeth Taylor who knew what he was faced with. In the WII film, the Michael character in the end chooses to be alone with nature, and maybe Michael did too–as when he chose to buy a 2,700 acre ranch and be in as complete a natural world as he could–far removed from a place where as he said in ‘Keeping Your Head Up’–‘I can’t even breathe.’

    Just my 2 cents and thanks for focussing on this very interesting video. I think we need more info as to why Michael pulled it and how he felt about it, if he ever expressed his point of view.

    • Hi Aldebaran. I’m so intrigued by the approach you took to interpreting this video – as a conflict between the constructed and natural world – and now that you’ve highlighted some of those oppositions, I definitely see what you’re saying. I love that scene at the end where he (an impersonator? really?) is looking out at the ocean, and it contrasts so well with the scene early on where he’s standing in front of a huge plate glass window with his hands on the glass, viewing a cityscape. I love the contrast of those two scenes. And there are some beautiful shots that juxtapose the built and natural environment – like the image of the moon moving behind a skyscraper in the Eve section.

      However, I’m not sure I see this film as a rejection of the built world for the natural world. I think the conflict is more complicated than that. For me, those opening scenes of art and architecture are beautiful – I especially love the play of light on the buildings and statues – and if you think about it, art isn’t “natural.” It’s an artificial human construct that reshapes a natural material into something different, something man-made. So while I definitely see this film revealing the artificiality of the main characters’ lives and showing how hurtful and hollow that is, I don’t see it as a rejection of civilization. After all, in that final scene by the ocean, he’s framed by majestic stone columns that evoke Greek and Roman architecture and the rise of human civilization, so it’s a blending of the natural and built environment. But you really have me thinking about all this in a new way.

  10. Thanks for helping me to understand this short movie. I always loved this song also but never quite understood what the movie was trying to say, and now I do, and once again it shows just what an absolute genius Michael was. The beatboxing on Oprah was just unbelievable – I had never come across it before, and was blown away that someone could make so many sounds just from their mouth and throat. In answer to Brigit and her “ghosly face’, I have an art book which shows a mask made in marble by Constantin Brancusi in the early 1900s called ‘Sleeping Muse’, and I am pretty convinced that this is the mask used several times in this movie. Michael was very keen on modern art and we have seen him use it in other movies such as Scream. Look it up and see if you agree.

  11. Fantastic. Thank you and so enlightening. I always wondered what the meaning was behind this video. It does have MJ written all over it…. xoxoxo Peace and Love

  12. I am soooooooooooo.. happy that ” Who Is It ” is finally getting its time in the limelight. This has always been my favorite all time Michael Jackson song… ” Behind the Mask” and “Ghosts” are songs that I think need to be heard by the masses….

  13. Birgit, Aldebaran, Caro – I’m really curious about that anonymous “ghostly face” as well. It appears three times in the video, pushing forward and rolling beneath a white surface. It’s significant to me that each time it appears, the main character is thinking about her – this woman he loves but doesn’t really know. And to me, it’s visually and thematically linked to the scene in her apartment where he’s imagining her in bed with someone – whether him or someone else, we don’t know. We just see two figures moving beneath the white sheets, just as the face moves beneath a white surface. These are the kinds of subtle details that keep me thinking about his films and draw me back to them again and again.

    Caro, the connections to Brancusi’s “Sleeping Muse” are really interesting. I want to learn more about that now. Thanks for sharing that.

  14. Hi, Willa–Thanks for your response to my post. It really got me thinking about this video so here goes . . .

    I did not mean the film rejects the built world of human construction in favor of the natural environment in all cases–just that it seems to reject the human society that is depicted (the woman who is manipulated to such a suffocating degree that she is poured over by all these ‘handlers’ and then with her manufactured personas goes to engage in false relationships or intimacy for $$).

    I am intrigued by your comments about art, that art isn’t ‘natural’–I wonder if this is true and it gets me thinking about how Michael viewed art. It is a very interesting issue: what is the nature of art? In fact, we do know that some ‘nonhumans’ create ‘art’–especially birds in creating their nests often use all kinds of artistic/decorative items–and in some species the males create bowers to attract their mates–I have seen videos of this– they do this in very creative and unusual ways, using whatever they can find that appeals to them–can’t we say this is ‘found art’? and when we get to MUSIC and SONG–and DANCE there are so many ‘nonhuman’ species who sing and dance in beautiful ways and I wonder if humans started to do the same thing in imitation–maybe the ‘nonhumans’ were our teachers. What do you think? Look at the mating dances of some birds–the cranes and grouse. I know that in Dancing the Dream Michael talks about dolphins as fellow dancers–he says they ‘love to dance’ and he honors them ‘as one dancer to another’ (in “Enough For Today’). And when we get to song, there are so many ‘nonhumans’ who sing–and they communicate and vary their singing–it’s something creative, a language (whales, dolphins–studies where one dolphin who is taught something will teach the others the same thing–it is amazing). I am a big fan of the nonhuman world and I believe Michael was too.

    The other issue is how did MJ see art. He said that music basically dropped into his lap, that it is in the air, that melodies were ancient. He seems to have agreed with Michelangelo’s idea that there was a ‘sleeping form’ in the stone or in the natural world and that the artist’s task was to get ‘out of the way’ and let the music ‘create itself.’ So if the music or the form is already present–then ‘art’ takes on a new meaning. As Joe Vogel says when he talks about the Aeolian Harp (which creates music simply by letting the wind blow through it), MJ shared the views of the Romantic poets about art. Wordsworth wrote, and maybe MJ felt the same, ‘let nature be your teacher.’

    In this way, there is not so much a difference between art and nature as a continuum, interchange, interaction, dialogue, or as you said, a ‘blending’ (as you indicate in the final shot of the ocean and the columns). Michael also wrote about his music in Dancing the Dream’: “People ask how I make music. I tell them I just step into it. It’s like stepping into a river and joining the flow. Every moment in the river has its song. So I stay in the moment and listen. What I hear is never the same. A walk through the woods brings a light, crackling song: Leaves rustle in the wind, birds chatter and squirrels scold, twigs crunch underfoot, and the beat of my heart holds it all together. When you join the flow, the music is inside and outside, and both are the same. As long as I can listen to the moment, I’ll always have music.” This quote suggests that, to MJ, the best way to describe the relationship between ‘art’ and ‘nature’ is the word “flow” (how human consciousness interacts or joins with nature in the moment).

    Yes, Willa, you are so right about the beautiful opening and the sunlight–but where there is sunlight, there are also shadows. And the buildings and statues start out in sunlight, but then are covered in shadows. These shadows IMO create a sense of foreboding for what is to come–the betrayals, the loneliness, the inauthenticity, the lies, the pain–and I think the music adds to this in some ways but I am not adept to speak about that–the strings and the sopranos and then the bass–maybe Ultravioletrae can take it on (?).

    This question of the relationship between ‘art and nature’ is profound and goes way back–look at the cave painting in Spain and France. But there was always IMO an interaction with nature or a copying/learning from or flowing with nature–but unfortunately in very sterile urban areas, such as we see in WII, there is little inspiration/interaction and I do believe people become deadened to themselves and others, as well as nature, and basically go off the rails and become de-humanized, sick in body and mind. The world in WII is stifling of creativity and authenticity IMO. While the Alex persona recognizes this in that she runs away from her ‘handlers’ and goes to the door of the Michael persona seemingly for help or connection, it is too late and she goes back to her trap while the MJ persona gets his freedom.

    You know what, Willa,–I think I am coming round to your initial take on this video–that it depicts 2 sides of Michael–the one that is trapped in a corrupt, unfeeling, inauthentic world, a world that makes him feel as he once said in an early interview ‘like an animal in a cage’–and the one who rebels, who leaves that world–as he did when he went solo, bought Neverland, and tried to build his own life free of all that. But as we know–tragically–he could not get free b/c the corrupt world would not let him go. Wow!! So the video then depicts both the free and the unfree Michael and the conflict between them–yet I do think the one who leaves is the ‘fuller’ or ‘more complete’ MJ–the one who contemplates the ocean in peace as opposed to the one who is ‘constructed’ by a make-up crew (I wonder if we can see Joseph in that world–trying to make MJ into a kind of puppet?) . If the song was written in 1989–as Joe Vogel says–this would have been shortly after MJ purchased Neverland in 1988.

    The lyric ‘is it my brother?’ is interesting b/c of the complicated relationship MJ had with his brothers. The theme–who is it?–is also like a who-done-it murder mystery–who did the dastardly deed–who is guilty and who is innocent–themes important in MJ’s life. Joe Vogel doesn’t talk about the video unfortunately–but he says the theme of the song is loneliness–and I agree. If you consider the 2 worlds (city and nature) and the 2 Michael personas (MJ and Alex), the MJ persona feels the loneliness (he is the expressive voice) and that is the healthy way to feel when faced with this corrupt world. We don’t really know how the Alex persona feels–she seems confused more than anything. What do you think? She seems very shut-down emotionally to me except she shows some signs of weeping at the end (make-up running and a more honest face appearing). If we think about loneliness as a choice vs. being with the (IMO) loathsome people depicted in the video–it is better to be alone b/c the others are untrustworthy, even Alex (possible exception the ‘assistant’ or ‘butler’). Bottom line–MJ had major issues with trust–so he walked away as much as he could. If there are 2 choices–be a manipulated puppet or be lonely–loneliness is the better way to go, painful as it is. Vogel says that the cry, ‘I can’t take it cause I’m lonely’ is ‘one of the most piercing moments in his entire catalogue,’ and that the song’s lyrics ‘I am the dead/ I am the damned/ I am the agony inside this dying head’ are ‘powerful expressions of despair’ similar to poets like Sylvia Plath. Was this how MJ felt when a child and a young adult under the control of someone like Joseph?

    Thanks, Willa–you REALLY made me think about this one!! You know, I did not especially like this video because it seems so devoid of joy, which I love about MJ’s work–and it even colored my view of the song, to the extent that I can’t hear the song without thinking of the video–yet the other comments show that the song has a big following. I am starting to have a much better appreciation for the video and its depth now–thanks to your blog! and many thanks to your patience if you have read this far!

    Maybe the film was too close to the bone and that’s why MJ pulled it? I wish we could find out if he ever said anything about his reasons or his opinion of the video. What about contacting Fincher and asking him about it?

    P.S. There are some parallels to other films–for example, the sheets with the people underneath disappearing is in ‘Billie Jean.’ Does this ‘disappearing lovers’ image mean Alex is not my lover ( ‘BJ is not my lover’)? and I wonder if there is a reference to the film ‘Blue Velvet’–when the man in the wheelchair puts on the oxygen mask. Was this put in by Fincher to refer to Lynch’s movie?

    • Wow, Aldebaran, that is so fascinating. You’ve completely turned my ideas upside-down about this, and have me questioning my definition of art. I’ve just always assumed that art is a human artifact, but you’re right – there are animals who create objects or images or vocal arrangements that, if it were produced by a human, we would call art.

      I love the example of the bowerbird. You’re right – they have an incredible eye for color and texture and placement, and what’s really wonderful is that different individuals express their creativity different ways. My son and I love David Attenborough’s Life of Birds, and here’s some of his footage about bowerbirds:

      I love the way this bird creates this amazing work of art – and you’re right, we can only call it art – and then stands back and looks at it from a spectator’s point of view, just like a painter would do. And then he flies back in and tweaks a few things so they look better and more appealing for a spectator. Amazing.

      And have you heard of lyre birds? They create these incredibly complex songs that incorporate the songs of other birds as well as found sounds like camera shutters and car alarms and chainsaws. Here’s a clip, again from David Attenborough, and if you’ve never heard it before, it’s unbelievable.

      As I was watching this clip this morning, I kept thinking about how Michael Jackson incorporated found sounds into his work, especially “She Drives Me Wild.” As Joe Vogel points out, all the instrumentation for this song is created from found sounds, with vocals above it – and how is that different from the lyre bird’s creative process?

      And as you point out so well, I think Michael Jackson himself would agree with this. As you say, he talks very eloquently in Dancing the Dream about the Dance of Creation, and emphasizes that this “eternal dance” requires that we be attuned to nature.

      Wow, wow, wow. This is so fascinating, Aldebaran, and really has me thinking about these things in new ways. Thank you so much for writing in.

  15. Hi, Willa–Thanks so much for posting those amazing videos of the bowerbirds and the lyre birds–David Attenborough is a wonderful man. I was so impressed with the artistic sense and skill of the birds–in terms of visual design and the song full of innovative sounds–unbelievable. Yes, it is just like Michael’s experimental work with sounds. I must listen to “She Drives Me Wild”–I didn’t know about that, so thanks.

    Well–I have what I hope is a treat for you. I went to Youtube to look for videos of birds dancing. One is the dance of the Japanese cranes set to Japanese music:

    The next one is a collection of a few different birds doing their mating dance, also set to rock-type music:

    And the third is a little bird doing–the MOONWALK–yes! This is the best one. And the music is ‘Billy Jean’:

    Also, I wanted to thank Jacksonaktak for the link to Madonna’s ‘Bad Girl.” It does explain why MJ would have pulled his David Fincher film after that one came out before his. And I agree that Mj’s WII is similar but very different–not so bleak IMO, and deeper.

    I hope these links to the birds dancing work. We owe so much to Planet Earth and to the beautiful life-forms who are our fellow earthlings. Thanks for the great videos you posted and looking forward to the next discussion of Michael’s art.

    • aldebaran, those moonwalking manakin birds are a hoot! I was just going back through some old posts, and got a kick out of these all over again. Thanks for sharing!

  16. Willa,

    You say, “I think the fact that he was so heart-breakingly human is one of the things that draws people to him, and that makes his art so powerful …”

    aldebaran says,
    “But there was always IMO an interaction with nature or a copying/learning from or flowing with nature–but unfortunately in very sterile urban areas, such as we see in WII, there is little inspiration/interaction and I do believe people become deadened to themselves and others, as well as nature, and basically go off the rails and become de-humanized…”

    Wow, this is so true! some great ideas here! And like some others, I was never very keen on this short film. But now that it’s been opened up to me in these ways…..

    I also see some parallels between “Who is It” and “Billie Jean,” as you mentioned, aldebaran, and also “Blue Velvet”: the disappearing figures under the sheets in the former, the disturbing image of the man inhaling from a mask in the David Lynch film. Both “Who Is It” and “Billie Jean” are strongly reminiscent of a number of classic films from the Film Noir genre, from which they borrow certain themes: a vision of the city as a forbidding and alienating place; the implied secrets of a hidden past; and the lure of a “bad woman” who must be punished in the end.

    But instead of the run down, “other-side-of the tracks” atmosphere of “Billie Jean” (which places it much closer to the classic Noir films of the 40s and 50s), “Who is It” features another kind of desolation: a hermetically sealed world without human contact, a world without neighbors, without even the specious comfort of telephones, billboards, homeless people, or a police force (!) So this representation of the bleak city—the rich city this time— also contributes to the feeling of inauthenticity and dehumanization you’ve mentioned.

    Aldebaran, I agree that there’s a sense of foreboding as the shadows move across buildings in the classical golden city. Throughout the film, the hard, polished surfaces of chrome, ebony, glass, marble, titanium pervade everything. In some ways, this mise-en-scène is redolent of the science fiction genre (I’m thinking here of Fritz Lang’s classic silent film “Metropolis,” from 1926), where the streamlined, sterile living quarters of the wealthy signify a half-life, another level of hell which is scarcely better than that of worker drones, living below, whose labor and sweat make possible the vacuous and empty lives that their rich bosses enjoy.

    I’m also thinking of the image where Michael, standing at an enormous plate-glass window, gazes onto a monochromatic city devoid of any sign of life, and sings:

    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

    Yet we know we are in a world where things like heart, passion, soul, and even secrets, cannot exist.

  17. And the face moving underneath the surface… hmmm… a beautiful and haunting image. The first time it appears, the face seems to be moving under a desk blotter, which may be significant. It’s a writing surface, which might signify a kind of erasure and then re-writing, or “reinscription” of identity: a featureless mask whose details have to be continually removed and put back on, as the woman transitions from “Alex” to “Eve,” to ….the rest of her “identities.” The face moving beneath the blotter is like an impression, a mold, or a prototype from which a number of different personae will be struck: drawn and redrawn, painted and repainted, over the course of the woman’s peripatetic career.

    I think this must in some way parallel Michael’s journey through his changing appearance (though I haven’t figured this out yet). This would be either Michael himself, or the persona he continually reinvented through his face (I know you’ve written extensively about this in Chapter 3 of your book, Willa…. so I really want to read it before I can go on in this vein)!

    Moreover, as you’ve pointed out, Willa, the woman has a lot of handlers—a “madam/manager,” hairdressers, makeup artists, perfumiers. The number of people around the woman seems a bit of overkill for a call girl …. though not, perhaps, for a rock star, who routinely travels with a whole phalanx of dressers, assistants, beauticians. So perhaps “Alex” is a stand-in for Michael himself; he identifies with her and her life. It may be that Michael’s life of touring, of being a star, on “call,” is not unlike the world of the prostitute: “worked over” and then chauffeured to your next gig.

    I remain (emotionally) unconvinced by “Who Is It” in a lot of ways — it seems more atmospherically depressing than evocative of genuine tragedy (as opposed to “Stranger in Moscow,” for instance… one of my very favorites!) It also seems that there’s a disconnect between the film’s visual structure, the song’s gritty musical quality (and the timbre and texture of Michael’s voice), and the story itself.

    Nevertheless, so much to think about here! In spite of my caveats, I’ve gained a whole new appreciation of both the song and the film.

    Thanks so much, all, for the great insights and inspiration!

  18. Nina Y F–Thanks so much–your comments are wonderful–connecting WII to Film Noir, to sci-fi and ‘Metropolis,’ and to ‘Stranger in Moscow’–great! — a brilliant analysis in so many ways. I love your attention to the ‘hard surfaces’–and to the empty life of the uber-wealthy in the cityscape environment (yes, ‘another level of hell’ indeed, like Sartre’s ‘No Exit,’ perhaps? Or maybe even the cold, dead, high-tech polish of a spaceship that we see in ‘2001’?). Thanks for taking the discussion further. It would be interesting now to look at ‘Stranger in Moscow’ as Film Noir and compare it to BJ and WII.

    Good point re the overkill of handlers suggesting that we are talking about a rock star–or maybe an actor. I agree there is a strong connection to Michael’s experience while performing. Also nice connection to the ghostly face and the writing desk–written and erased and rewritten.

    What about the last scene–the Michael figure gazing at the ocean? I am interested in your take on that. Like the healing rain in ‘Stranger in Moscow’ perhaps? Also–we haven’t discussed the ‘flying’ images–the helicopter and then the shots of a plane flying through clouds–this seems to represent escape from that ‘hermetically sealed’ world into space and freedom, a turning away from the dead world that has caused so much pain and a search for something beyond.

    I really enjoyed reading your comments!

  19. Thanks, aldebaran…. and I love your idea about the art and performances found in the natural world.

    I’ll have to give some more thought to the flying and the ocean images in “Who Is It?” But the kind of moodiness I see in the images themselves—darkness, artifice, isolation—-suggests to me a continuation of the whole film’s world rather than a respite or an escape from it. But this may also be what gives the piece its integrity…. there’s no easy solution, but that goes along with the song’s mood, too.

    Thanks for your input!

  20. As a writer, I’ve had others deliberately or inadvertently copy parts of my original material, whether it be phrases, characters, names, or plot-lines. It immediately tarnishes my creations for me. There’s no point in arguing about it. If I would insist that those who copied me cease what they were doing, it would only make a bigger mess and feel even uglier. I can imagine that for Michael, who took great pride in his originality, to even find parts of his story line in someone else’s video would have made him want to pull his own creation off the market, since for him it would have lost its luster. To me, the fault here lies with Fincher, who either should not have agreed to make a similar film for Madonna right after WII, or should at least have insisted that the look of hers be completely different. As far as Michael was concerned, it must have felt like Fincher had a conflict of interests. Can you imagine John Landis making Thriller and then turning around and recycling the concept for another artist?

  21. Regarding the “Who Is It” short film, Didn’t have time to carefully read the whole blog. But I do have a few points on what I read:

    –I don’t think she’s a hooker.
    –I think unlike Michael who lives a jet set lifestyle as symbolized by him getting on the plane, she is not in the limelight.
    –While he was devasted, that she didn’t join him in his around the world life, after they have shared so much, it’s not because she conned him. Michael is asking “who is it” who could keep her away from him, and his BIG life. Whatever the reason, she didn’t join him in his around the world lifestyle, but stayed “on the ground.”
    –He’s devastated, because when you are in angst over love it feels desperate.
    — Michael is unresolved in this song/short film, and in the ebb and flow of love he’s at an “ebb point,” but the passion is undeniable, and compelling…

Tell us what you think...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: