I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me, Part 1

Willa:  As we’ve talked about many times, Joie, Michael Jackson wasn’t just an amazing artist – the most important artist of our time, I believe. He was also a transformational cultural figure whose art brought about deep cultural changes. Through his art, he was able to revise some of our most entrenched cultural narratives, especially narratives about racial differences, and profoundly influence how we as a people respond to those narratives. So, as an artist, he wasn’t just expressing himself creatively. He was also very focused on how his art impacted his audience.

All of this has me thinking about the number of times he incorporates an on-screen audience into his videos. Sometimes that audience participates – most famously when the two feuding gangs join the big ensemble dance in Beat It. Other times, they simply watch, like the gang members in Bad, or the villagers in Ghosts, or the club managers in You Rock My World. Either way, I’m struck by the number of times he positions us as an audience so that we are, in effect, watching him perform over the shoulder of an on-screen audience.

Joie:  You’re right, Willa; it is a formula that he uses often. But I’m struck by what you just said about the Bad video. The gang members, or dancers, are actively participating. But it’s the three so-called “friends” who are standing there watching. I guess I just don’t view them as gang members but rather as young punks who think they’re bad. Wanna-be thugs.

Willa:  That’s interesting, Joie. I never really thought about that before, but you’re right. I don’t think of the dancers as gang members. I think of them as dancers, imaginary dancers. The whole dance sequence happens in his imagination. But I do tend to think of the three friends planning the robbery as gang members – in fact, I often refer to them that way – but you’re right, they aren’t. They’re just “young punks who think they’re bad,” as you say.

And that’s a really important distinction because the whole point of Bad is to redefine what it means to be “bad,” which is exactly what those three friends are struggling with. Does it mean being respected because you’re tough – “wanna-be thugs,” as you called them? Or can you be “bad” in a different way, and be respected for other reasons? This is the pivotal issue at the center of Bad, and it’s an excellent example of Michael Jackson using his art to rewrite a cultural narrative. And I believe the presence of those three friends as the on-screen audience is crucial to conveying that idea.

Earlier in the film, we see the three friends trying to force their definition of “bad” onto the main character, Daryl. He starts to go along with it, even though he knows it’s wrong, because he wants their respect. But then there’s the big dance sequence where he shares with them a new definition of “bad.” He reveals to them that he’s an artist – an incredible singer and dancer who can both challenge and move people through his art. His friends watch all this and then clasp hands with him.

That handshake is the climax of the film, I think, because that’s the moment when his friends make the crucial decision to accept his redefinition. So he’s found an entirely new way to gain the respect of his peers – not by being tough and committing petty crimes, but by developing and expressing his talents and creativity. And I believe that on-screen audience is modeling the response he wants from us as an audience as well. He wants us to accept his redefinition too, just as the on-screen audience does.

Joie:  I agree; he does want the on-screen audience to model the behavior he expects of the off-screen audience. It’s classic Michael Jackson really. In most of his short films I believe his goal was always to try and teach us something. If you think about it, in almost every video there was a message or a lesson hidden in there somewhere, and it’s our job as the audience to try and figure out what that lesson or message is. And in the videos that have an on-screen audience, we can usually figure out what the lesson is by watching the response of the on-screen audience.

Willa:  That’s a really interesting take on that, Joie. So the on-screen audience can be seen as an interpretive tool too, helping us figure out the meaning of the video. That’s really interesting.

Joie:  It is interesting, isn’t it? You know, Willa, my favorite videos with an on-screen audience are the ones that incorporate concert footage:  Give In to Me, Dirty Diana, and Come Together. They are three of my favorites and I think it’s because Michael was always so electrifying to watch onstage anyway. So these videos where it’s sort of a “staged” concert performance are really interesting to watch for me. It’s like he’s walking a very thin line between all-out performance and playing a scripted character. I find that fascinating. I also think it’s really interesting that these concert videos are among his sexiest, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that he was always very naturally sexual on stage.

Willa:  Oh, I’d agree with that! And that’s an interesting distinction between the footage from his live concerts and the concerts that were “staged” as part of a video. I hadn’t thought of that before. But while it’s more subtle, you can make a pretty strong case that his concert videos have an important political message as well – a message that is reinforced once again by the on-screen audience. As we’ve talked about before, he was a sex symbol – the first Black teen idol – at a time when Black men weren’t supposed to be sexual in public. They were supposed to repress that part of themselves. And wow, did he challenge that one!

And once again, that on-screen audience – which includes a lot of screaming, fainting, crying women of all races – models for us how we should react. We shouldn’t feel shocked or upset or threatened by a sexy young Black man ripping his shirt open in front of us. We should set aside the racist prejudices of the past and just appreciate that beautiful body for the wonder that it is. And we did! All of us – Black, White, Asian, all races. He completely rewrote that cultural narrative. Just as importantly, he revised the emotional response both women and men had to that cultural narrative.

Joie:  I agree. And that also goes back to what I was just saying about there usually being a message or a lesson hidden in every short film. And you just pointed out, I think, the main lesson of all those performance videos – breaking through those racial prejudices and rewriting that particular cultural narrative.

You know, Willa, I wonder, do you think other artists – mainly today’s popular music artists – ever focus on how their music and videos, or even their image, will impact not only their audience but the world around them? Because I think Michael was very much aware of that and I believe he actively focused on it, as you said earlier. But with a lot of today’s artists, I don’t get that feeling.

Willa:  Oh, I don’t know. I think some younger artists are very passionate about social change, whether explicitly – like Will.i.am’s Yes We Can video supporting Barack Obama during the last presidential campaign – or more subtly, like Lady Gaga’s Born This Way video. I know you and I disagree about that one, but I see her video as a direct descendant of Can You Feel It, both visually and thematically. Both are fighting the many manifestations of prejudice, but while Can You Feel It focuses on racism, Born This Way focuses on homophobia and the deep prejudices surrounding sexuality.

Joie:  Well, you’re right; we do completely disagree about that video, and I guess I walked right into that one. But Lady Gaga and Will.i.am aside, I see a lot of popular artists out there right now who I just don’t think give any real thought to how their music impacts the world. I don’t want to offend anybody so, I won’t point out the obvious ones that spring to my mind … but you get what I’m saying, right?

Willa:  I guess so, though you know a lot more about current music than I do. A lot more. I’m pretty out of the loop with that. But artists develop over time, so with young artists especially, I guess I like to just wait and see what happens. Michael Jackson became more overtly political, I guess you’d call it, over time, and they might do that as well. And while I love works like Earth Song that are both moving and meaningful, I can still appreciate a good performance like Rock With You just for his music and his voice and his dancing – and I know you and I agree about that video!

Joie:  Oh man, just mentioning that video distracts me in ways you wouldn’t believe! The only other video that affects me that way is Blood on the Dance Floor, but I’m getting way off topic here!

You know another thing I love about the performance videos or concert films is the roar of the crowd. It’s so different from watching actual concert footage. Like in Another Part of Me, the shots of the crowd are much more candid and “real” because we’re watching an actual audience experience a real Michael Jackson concert. In the other three performance videos – Give In to Me, Dirty Diana and Come Together – the audience’s experience is much less authentic, much more scripted, but still every bit as interesting for the off-screen audience to watch. But what all four of these concert films have in common is that awesome roar of the crowd. I think it’s really interesting that all four of these videos ends essentially the same way. No matter what’s happening on the screen, the cheering crowd can be heard above everything at the end. The only exception is Give In to Me when the roar of the crowd fades into the drumming rhythm of the song at the tail end.

Willa:  That’s an interesting point, and we leave Give In to Me with a very different feeling because of it, I think – kind of eerie and unsettling in some ways. You know, talking about the roar of the crowd at the end of these videos reminds me that Beat It ends the same way. We don’t tend to think of Beat It as a concert film because it has a narrative:  it tells a story, and we get caught up in the story and tend to forget that it’s a performance for an audience. But at the very end of the video, when the conflict has been resolved and all the gang members are dancing, the camera pans back and we see they’re on a stage, and we hear an audience cheering and clapping.

Joie:  That’s true, Willa. I hadn’t thought of that but, you’re right. We don’t actually see the on-screen audience here but we do hear them at the very end of the video. Really interesting perspective to end on, don’t you think?

Willa:  It’s very interesting, I think, because it recasts what we’ve just seen. This wasn’t meant to be interpreted as a scene from real life – a misinterpretation many critics fell into when they called it “naive” and “unrealistic” – but as a staged performance, and that alters how we tend to interpret it. The story we’ve witnessed isn’t meant to be seen as realistic or live action but as a story – a morality tale – purposely created for us, and the people we’ve been watching aren’t gang members but dancers and artists. By ending the video this way with an audience responding to their performance, he’s emphasizing that this is a work of art and asking us to think about it as a work of art, with a purpose and a message, as you mentioned earlier.

Joie:  Except that the people we’ve been watching are real gang members; don’t forget that.

Willa:  Oh, that’s right!

Joie:  It’s true that there were about 20 professional dancers but, many of those featured prominently in the video, and certainly all of the extras in the background watching the “fight” going on, were actual members of both the Crips and the Bloods – two infamous, rival Los Angeles street gangs, and the video was shot on location on LA’s skid row for even more authenticity. So although this particular fight may have been a “performance” created purposely for us, they were in a way, reenacting a very real conflict that these two gangs had probably been engaged in for many, many years. I find that really interesting, like perhaps that knowledge is part of the message or the hidden lesson in this short film. By using the roar of the unseen audience at the end, he is forcing us to see this as a performance, as you say. But by using the real gang members in their natural habitat, so to speak, he is also forcing us to realize that these kinds of conflicts do actually happen in “real life” in cities all across the country.

Willa:  That’s an excellent point – it’s like he really is modeling on screen something he’d like to see happen off screen, for both those of us watching this performance as well as the gang members participating in it. Those gang members really were working with opposing gang members to create this film, so that enacts the message of the film on yet another level.

Joie:  That’s really true, and these two rival gangs actually called a temporary truce in their conflict so they could participate in the filming of this video. In fact, the video’s director, Bob Giraldi, once said in an interview that he thought the idea of using real gang members was insane but Michael was adamant about it and was always looking for ways to foster peace. So he obviously wanted to use this short film to show these gang members that fighting wasn’t the only way and that they could work together if they really wanted to. I think that’s genius.

Willa:  It really is, and I especially feel that after reading that interview. That’s fascinating. I hadn’t read that before, but I loved the part where the interviewer asks, “How did you cast the real gang members?” and Bob Giraldi says,

It was Michael. He went out and he got ’em through, I guess, the LAPD’s gang squad and he convinced them that, with enough police presence, this would be a smart and charitable thing to do; get them there to like each other and hang with each other for two days doing the video. I didn’t like the idea because it was hard enough to direct actors and dancers, let alone hoods.

Can you imagine being in trouble with the LAPD’s gang squad and not sure what’s going to happen next, and then have someone walk in and ask if you want to be in a Michael Jackson video? How surreal would that be? It’s also a very Michael Jackson-type scenario to have gang members playing actors who are playing gang members. We see those funny kinds of loop-de-loop twists throughout his work, especially with notions of identity. And it’s also very common for him to break the illusion of reality, like he does at the end of Beat It, and show us it’s all been a performance.

Joie:  You’re right, Willa; this is something we see from him on more than one occasion. And next week we’ll look at a few more examples of this trick in his work.

Willa:  That’s right. We’ll continue on and see how he uses an on-screen audience in some of his later videos. It is a narrative device that he uses often in his work, as you say, but I think it’s more than that too. As we see in these videos with an on-screen audience, his work isn’t just art. It’s meta-art. It’s art about art. His work is very self-reflective – that’s one of the things that’s so fascinating about it – and through his videos, especially, he’s talking about the function of art and its ability to influence an audience, and maybe lead them (and us) to see things in a different way. I believe Michael Jackson wasn’t just creating art; he was creating a new poetics, meaning a new theory of art as a means of altering perceptions and bringing about sweeping social change. And we can see him modeling this process through his on-screen audiences.

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 15, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Hello, As always very interesting analysis of Bad, mainly because my video was not “like me” understand by that “I did not like” no I do not look like a great video and a special composition, but it at the time of my life my children were 12 and 9 years, the largest was a fan of MJ and very rebellious boy image and the gang, was not a good example, so when I was a fan of Michael did not agree video and the influence it had on my son, so at least here in Spain and among the fans of my age did not understand the message they are talking about, but considering that came after thriller, I understood as a rebellion generational and encouraged indiscipline today is so established.
    As always I appreciate your views, so different from MJ, What is certain is that his work is so magnificent as contradictory depending on where and who analyze, not to what extent was aware of his great power, but it is curious different as we see it from different continents, All the racial message here was absolutely ignored and it is high time that we get to Europe, so again thanks
    PS: The text is translated by Google translator, sorry if it is not explanatory
    music kisses

    • Hi Mahuoly. It’s interesting that your initial impression of Bad was that it promoted rebelliousness. Quite a few critics at the time had similar feelings, I think, even going so far as to say that it glamorized gang violence.

      But I think Michael Jackson is doing something very different in this video, and it’s really interesting. It’s true that his character is something of a gang leader in the dance sequence, and he’s a very appealing character, but he’s leading a very different kind of gang – it’s a “gang” of artists, of singers and dancers. It’s also important that he prevents his friends from attacking the old man, and he’s very explicit about why in that long call-and-response at the end:

      You’re telling me
      You’re doing wrong
      Gonna lock you up
      Before too long
      You’re doing wrong
      You’re doing wrong
      You’re doing wrong, boy
      You’re doing wrong
      Who’s bad?
      Who’s bad? . . .

      So it seems pretty clear that he’s far from endorsing gang violence – just the opposite. He actually tells these young wannabe gang members to “watch your mouth,” and says if they don’t know the difference between right and wrong, they should “Ask your brother / Ask your mother / Ask your sister / Ask me / ‘Cause you’re doing wrong.” Someone trying to glamorize rebelliousness or gang violence wouldn’t tell a bunch of young thugs that they should listen to their mothers. He’s doing something very different here, and it seems to me he’s redefining what it means to be Bad. It’s not about being tough. It’s about staying true to yourself and expressing your own inner creativity. That’s how you gain genuine respect on the street – by doing something worthy of respect.

  2. Hi, Great discussion that makes us think–as always! I agree that MJ was always trying to teach us–as he said in Dancing the Dream–‘to change the world is my deepest desire’–I think he was fully committed to that and he actually did change the world, amazingly enough! He also asked in a speech when he received a Lifetime Achievement Award–what delight God must feel when we use our creative talents that we have received–I am paraphrasing. I think this speech is also in a ‘Heal the World’ film–when he talks about children and healing–he also stresses here the importance of PLAY as a vehicle to creativity. By allowing us to witness the audience in his films and how they respond, he is teaching us as well. Looking forward to your treatment of “One More Chance’–his last film, as the audience is so prominent in that film–and they are all so happy when he runs by and touches their hands! It is beautiful to see. I think it shows how much love there was between him and his fans.

    Joie, I love those ‘performance’ films too! And yes, they are so sexy!! My favs are also ‘Come Together” and ‘Dirty Diana”–wow! His dance moves on both are just so hot!

    Mahuoly raises such a great point when she talks about different cultures in different continents perceiving or interpreting MJ and his art differently. I think we in USA need to look at this more closely–how the other nations of the world saw MJ. I heard an interview with the author of a new book on MJ–Dr. Karen Moriarty–and she address this point briefly. She said that when she spoke with fans from other countries, she was struck by the ‘reverence’ they have for Michael. It seems likely that in USA he was much more undervalued than in other parts of the world–I believe many other countries did not have to suffer through the malicious mud-slinging that went on in USA for decades, not to mention the false accusations and the out-of-control D.A.. Here we humiliated this great man rather than revering him.

  3. Very good discussion as usual the both of you dig deep and don’t just take his videos and his music at face value. I think that it’s especially good when the two of you disagree or come up with differing interpretations because I think that is what discussing art, whether it’s music, dance, poetry, etc. is all about. Each person may see it a little bit differently.
    Just to add my two cents….I feel Michael was strongly influenced by the American musical..and since we know that he was a great fan of many of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelley’s films I think this shows in the video art form that he uses. Often in these films, like American In Paris to name one…there is a dream sequence that includes a dance sequence and his videos seem to follow this format…Smooth Criminal, Beat It, Bad and Remember the Time all remind me of these musicals.
    Just a thought….thank you for your discourse..always enlightening, always thought provoking..

    • Hi Terry. That’s a really good point. Another good example is The Band Wagon, a Fred Astaire film that had a strong influence on Smooth Criminal, especially. But we also see echoes of it in Billie Jean and You Rock My World, and in the lyrics of “Dangerous.” Here’s a clip of the final song-and-dance number:

    • Thanks, Terry and Willa. The references to musicals are legion, I think, as this clip of “The Bandwagon” shows. About the stage-show motif, I’m thinking of “Say, Say, Say” where Michael and Paul McCartney are doing their “Mac & Jack” vaudeville routine. The two comic performers remind me of the “Fit as a Fiddle” number in “Singin’ in the Rain,” with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor; checkered coats and all.

      • Hi Nina. That is so interesting! I’ve been thinking about this ever since you posted it. And we can’t forget West Side Story. To me, the opening number is a direct forefather of Beat It. The Jets even say “Beat It!” a couple times as they try to drive the Sharks out of their territory:

        And then “Cool,” the dance number in the parking garage, strikes me as a forerunner to Bad, the dance number in the subway station:

        I see a lot of connections between West Side Story, Beat It, and Bad, but the differences are as interesting as the similarities. While he definitely drew on West Side Story for inspiration, just as West Side Story drew on Romeo and Juliet, he took his work in a very different direction: it’s much more uplifting and ultimately more effective, I believe.

  4. My first thought at seeing this post was the One More Chance video, referred to by Aldebaran in these comments. I wonder if the back story I read on why the short film wasn’t completed is true. In One More Chance, Michael is dancing on the floor and tables of a cabaret and his audience is “watching” him from the stage. This short film shot Michael only from the back with the audience (on the stage) enjoying his performance. The back shot was done in Las Vegas with the intention being to film the front shot of Michael the following day. However, that evening Neverland was raided and, of course, the video was not completed. The audience on the stage had been brought into the location of the filming not knowing they were about to witness and become part of this “moment”. Imagine their shock to find themselves on stage “watching” Michael Jackson dance on the tables! For more reasons than I can enumerate, I wish Michael’s vision for One More Chance had reached completion.

  5. Juney and Aldebaran – Willa and I will touch on One More Chance in next week’s discussion. However, we did take an in-depth look at this short film back in September. You can look up our blog post from Sept. 15th to read it.

  6. great stuff and always another set of thoughts and ideas to add to my education of Michael.
    To come off this theme a bit, I am going to Russia in May and of course am going to Moscow. Am looking forward to finding that lampost in Red Square and having my photo taken leaning against it!! I have read that Michael wrote Stranger in Moscow as a poem in a hotel room in Moscow, and wonder if anyone knows which hotel he stayed in? Am going to the Moscow Hilton and really hope it was this hotel – I am soooooo excited and really hope that it is. Am going away for a few days now and taking all your past blogs with me to re-read, and of course Michael’s Vision set – like to read your comments then watch the relevant video. Thanks for all your efforts.

  7. Susan MJs Wife

    Thank you so much for this wonderful analysis of aspects of the Bad video.

    You gave me a new angle with which to watch and appreciate MJ videos. I never really thought of the staged audience’s role of being a sort of inetrpretator of the video’s message.

    Michael Jackson is absolutely amazing. (I love him with all my heart)

  1. Pingback: Dancing with the Elephant – MJ’s Art: Taking Us Higher – Michael Jackson Academic Studies

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