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.