I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me, Part 2

Joie:  Last week, we began a discussion about Michael’s frequent use of an on-screen audience in many of his short films, and how he used this on-screen audience to convey a certain mood or to model behavior in the video that he wanted us – the off-screen audience – to emulate. And during our discussion, Willa and I were surprised to find that there was so much ground to cover on this topic. So much, in fact, that we had no choice but to do it in two posts.

So this week, we want to continue by picking up where we left off with our conversation about how Michael often breaks the illusion of reality in his videos, as we pointed out he does at the end of Beat It. The dancers are doing their thing while the gang members watch and then the camera pans back to reveal that they are actually on a stage and we hear the roar of the unseen on-screen audience, which makes it clear that this has been a performance.

Willa:  That’s true, Joie, and he does that a lot in his work, even when there isn’t an on-screen audience. He likes to draw us in – immerse us in a story or an experience – and then remind us that it’s a performance. Black or White may be the best example. He’s constantly breaking the illusion of reality in that video: after almost every scene he reveals that he’s been performing on a soundstage. And at the big break in the middle – before the panther dance begins – he pans back to show us the film crew, and the director stepping into the frame to talk with the actress who was performing for us. We’re never allowed to forget that this is a performance.

He’s even more explicit about emphasizing he’s a performer in Remember the Time. In fact, the plot of this video focuses on the interactions between a performer and his audience. An Egyptian royal couple is bored and eager for entertainment, but they’re ruthless in passing judgment on those who try to please them. One poor entertainer is beheaded; another is thrown to the lions. So clearly, if you’re to survive as a performer, you have to please your audience. Michael Jackson’s character succeeds in pleasing the queen – and as he frequently does in his work, he presents the relationship between him and his audience, the queen, as a love affair. But while the queen is pleased, the king is not. In fact, he turns against Michael Jackson’s character precisely because the queen is so taken with him. Clearly, the life of a performer is not an easy one.

Joie:  That’s interesting, Willa. I never really think about Remember the Time in terms of an on-screen audience but I guess it does apply. The king and queen are watching several performers, looking for someone to entertain them, so they are indeed the audience here!

Willa:  They really are, and they aren’t a very loving audience either – at least, not entirely. His relationship with this on-screen audience is pretty complicated, just as his relationship with the public was really complicated. We have two different elements of his audience – represented by the king and queen – reacting in very different ways to his performance, and each is motivated by a complex mix of emotions. The queen is bored and falls for him simply because his performance amuses her, but she’s capricious. She could easily change her mind. The king is initially drawn to his performance also, but then he observes how the queen is responding and turns against him.

And of course, something very similar happened off screen with the general public as well. Michael Jackson first appeared as this cute little bundle of energy singing and dancing with the Jackson 5, and a lot of people became caught up in the sheer delight of that. And then his fame grew and grew with Off the Wall and of course Thriller, and a large segment of the population became completely infatuated with him – like the queen does. But at the same time, the critics began to turn against him – just like the king – and the haters began to appear, along with people who were just too cool to like someone that popular.

I don’t know if you have friends like this, Joie, but I know people who are constantly gushing about some new undiscovered talent, and then turning against them when they get too popular. I have friends who loved REM when they were playing little clubs in Athens, Georgia, but lost interest as soon as they became a big name. They loved Bruce Springsteen when he was a scrawny kid from New Jersey but shook their heads and said he’d “sold out” somehow when he muscled up and became recognized as the voice of the working class.

Joie:  Yeah, I know people like that. One in particular who just loved the band Journey when they weren’t very successful. But the minute they hired Steve Perry to be their lead singer and the group suddenly started turning out hits, he didn’t like them anymore. They were too popular, too “commercial.” I don’t understand that at all.

Willa:  I don’t really understand that either – performers are just as talented after they become popular as they were before – but I see this same story playing out over and over again:  with Charlie Chaplin and Elvis and Barbra Streisand and The Beatles, and now Justin Bieber. And I see Michael Jackson exploring that phenomenon in Remember the Time. So he’s doing something a little different with his on-screen audience this time. He isn’t modeling how he wants us to react. Instead, he’s reflecting our emotions back at us so we’re forced to look at them and think about them, at some level of consciousness.

Joie:  Hmm. I never would have made that connection or thought of it in that way. But, like I said, I hadn’t ever thought about Remember the Time as having an on-screen audience before now so, that really floors me. You’ve just given me a whole new way of thinking about this short film.

But, you know, there are a couple of other videos that I never really thought about as having an on-screen audience before. One of those is You Rock My World. But I guess you could say that the club patrons and the managers of the club are his audience in that one. After all, he does take it upon himself to get up on the stage in that video. They haven’t asked him to perform. In fact, the club managers look like they want to kill him the minute he enters the establishment, so they don’t want him on the stage. But he gets up there and gives an impromptu performance anyway.

Willa:  That’s interesting, Joie, and it connects back to Remember the Time in really interesting ways. I hadn’t thought about those two videos together like that before, but there are some striking parallels between them. As we talked about last fall, the club managers and club owner in You Rock My World seem to represent the managers and CEO of Sony, while the patrons – especially the love interest in the green dress – seem to represent the public. And both of these groups are watching him as he performs.

So, as in Remember the Time, he has a split audience. The love interest is drawn to the performer, just like the queen in Remember the Time, and the club managers feel very threatened by that, just like the king. The club managers act like they own her, and when they see she’s drawn to his performance, they begin bullying him and taunting him, saying, “That’s it? That’s all you got? That ain’t nothin.’ You ain’t nothin.’ C’mon, big man, show me all you got.” And that highlights an important difference between these two videos. While the king seems to respect his talent, even though he’s threatened by it, the club owner and club managers don’t – which is pretty telling if they really do represent Sony management at that time.

Joie:  Those are eye-opening observations, Willa. I had never drawn those parallels between these two videos before.

Willa:  I hadn’t either, until you mentioned You Rock My World while Remember the Time was still on my mind. But I can see now why one reminded you of the other because, in terms of the on-screen audience, they really are very similar.

Joie:  Yeah, it’s interesting how my mind made that connection on a subconscious level, isn’t it? You know, another video I never really thought about in terms of an on-screen audience before reading M Poetica and our subsequent conversations is The Way You Make Me Feel but, you explain how the group of guys talking on the street corner and even the group of girls across the street are all watching the protagonist as he tries to get the object of his affection to talk to him. They all become his audience, as well as his cheering section.

Willa:  Oh, The Way You Make Me Feel is just fascinating to me! There is so much going on in that video. And you’re right, the people on the street are cheering him on as he woos this beautiful young woman, but they’re also judging him as well. It’s really interesting how he sets that all up. And then once he starts to connect with this woman and care for her, he’s pretty uncomfortable having all those eyes watching him as he tries to develop a relationship with her. It’s all so public, and he wants some privacy. As he sings, “Ain’t nobody’s business but mine and My Baby’s.” So in this case, he includes an on-screen audience that performs several different functions, and one is to show how intrusive it feels to have an audience when you’re wanting a private moment.

Joie:  It does feel very intrusive at times, even for us – the off-screen audience – as we watch him try to woo the girl. We sort of breathe a little bit easier when he’s finally able to maneuver her onto a somewhat private porch so they can sit and be alone. But it’s short-lived because she quickly runs away from him again. And then there’s the tension we feel when he joins his friends in the shadows and does this very primal dance for her and there’s a little bit of awkwardness because, again, it is so not private when it really should be.

Willa:  I agree – I really get the sense that he wants his relationship with her to be intimate and private, so he disappears. And then when she begins searching for him, that on-screen audience isn’t just awkward. It’s threatening. We see a series of male faces staring right at us – he’s placed us in her position so we’re experiencing what she experiences – and all those male faces are staring straight at us. It’s very unsettling, I think. Even the policeman’s face feels threatening.

Joie:  And then we – the off-screen audience – breathe a collective sigh of relief at the end when she envelops him in her arms.

Willa:  Exactly. And I think it’s significant that the on-screen audience is gone by then.

Joie:  Oh, I never made that connection before. You’re right! This is a really interesting use of the on-screen audience, I think, because he’s using them to fuel the tension throughout the film.

Willa:  Oh, I like that! I hadn’t thought of it quite that way, Joie, but I think you’re right – I think the on-screen audience does “fuel the tension” in this video.

Joie:  By contrast, in another short film, Say, Say, Say, with Paul McCartney, he uses the on-screen audience in just the opposite way – to promote a feeling of light-heartedness.

In this video, there are several different instances of an on-screen audience and each of them sort of fosters this feeling of goodwill or light-heartedness. The first one is the crowd of on-lookers who are obviously being scammed by the “Mac and Jack” miracle potion. Only they don’t know they’re being scammed, so all they feel is happy and excited about this new product. The second on-screen audience we see here is the group of children and workers at the orphanage who benefit from that miracle potion scam. Our main characters jump out of the truck and “Mac” and his wife – the adults, taking care of business – hand over the money to the workers of the orphanage, while “Jack” – Michael’s character – immediately gathers up the children; they follow him as soon as he hops off the truck, like he’s the pied piper. The workers are delighted with the money, of course, while the children are delighted with “Jack’s” presence; he entertains them, balancing on the fence, dancing around for them. At the end of his little display for the children, he even takes a bow – to point out that it’s been a performance. Then they jump back onto the truck as quickly as they arrived and move on.

The final on-screen audience we see in this video is the crowd sitting in the saloon, watching the “Mac and Jack” Vaudeville Show. That show is full of such fun and humor that the watching crowd can’t help but be amused by their antics and we – the off-screen audience – likewise, can’t help but smile as we watch it all.

Willa:  Wow, Joie, I hadn’t thought about all the different audiences but you’re right, and the entertainers modify their performance for each audience. With the townspeople at the beginning, they’re mostly con artists – putting on a performance to bilk them of their money. With the kids, it’s pure performance, the sheer joy of entertaining. And with the Vaudeville crowd at the end, it’s a mix – they’re performing on stage, but they’re still presented as hucksters and hustlers. When the police come in and things start looking a little dodgy, they start a small fire as a distraction and then escape out the back.

Joie:  That’s true, they never let us forget that this is a small band of con-artists who need to keep moving.

Willa:  They really are. They’re fooling their audience as well as entertaining them. And this idea of the performer as a type of huckster has me thinking about Who Is It again. As we talked about a couple weeks ago, in that film he seems to parallel the experiences of this high-priced call girl and con artist with his life as a performer, and we definitely see that parallel here too – the entertainer as a kind of hustler and con artist. And he conveys that idea through the on-screen audience.

And then there’s Ghosts. That is such an amazing film in so many ways, and the on-screen audience is at the absolute center of that film. It’s very psychological, and to me, the central conflict of the film is actually happening inside the on-screen audience’s heads.

Joie:  I agree, it is psychological but I don’t think it’s happening inside their heads. I think it’s real for them; they really are seeing these ghosts climbing the walls and dancing on the ceiling and the Mayor really is temporarily possessed by the Maestro and then runs screaming through a window when he just can’t take the “strangeness” any longer.

Willa:  Oh, I see what you’re saying. I didn’t explain myself very well – that isn’t what I meant. I agree that the ghosts “really” are there, and the villagers really are experiencing them. What I meant was that, in a lot of films, the plot focuses on some sort of external conflict, like crossing a frozen tundra with sled dogs, or pulling off a bank heist, or fighting the evil Empire, or something like that. But in this film, there’s very little going on, in that sense. A group of people stand in a room and stare at each other. What kind of plot is that?

But there’s actually a lot going on in this film. It’s just that the conflict is all interior – the conflict is inside the villagers’ minds – and the resolution of that conflict is occurring inside their minds as well. There aren’t any sled dogs, but this film traces a journey just as difficult as the Iditarod in some ways. It begins with a group of scared villagers with burning torches invading the home of an artist, the Maestro. The villagers are from a place called Normal Valley, and they’re scared of the Maestro because he doesn’t fit their definition of “normal.” And they want to drive him out of town because of that fear.

So the plot of the film traces the Maestro’s attempts to change their thoughts and feelings about him. And he succeeds, but he does it in an interesting way. He doesn’t reassure them that he’s normal and really one of them. Just the opposite. He responds by becoming even more freakish and then altering their emotional response to things that aren’t normal – that seem different or strange or freakish to them.

I have to say, everything about this film fascinates me: how he represents their psychological journey, how he brings it about, how he resolves it – but not completely – at the end. There’s still a lot of uncertainty, even at the end. And the on-screen audience is central to all that. And we as an off-screen audience are watching them and tracking their thought processes as they take this psychological journey so, in a way, we take that psychological journey with them. It’s just fascinating to me.

Joie:  Oh, I see what you’re saying. And you’re right, the on-screen audience is totally central to that film, the whole plot hinges on them.

But you know, of course, the ultimate on-screen audience is the one in the video for One More Chance, which we discussed at length back in the fall. That video really puts the presence of the on-screen audience to interesting use, placing them on the stage while he pleads with them for just “one more chance at love.”

As you pointed out in that discussion, at the end of the video he’s left the room but the audience is still up on the stage. This visual suggests to the off-screen audience that there’s nothing left for him to do now. His work is done and it’s up to us now. We’re the ones who have to carry on in his absence and do what we can to preserve his legacy and help “make these mysteries unfold.”

You know, Willa, the fact that this turned out to be Michael’s final video is really sort of bittersweet when we understand the purpose of that on-screen audience and the final shot of the short film. It becomes very emotional for me personally.

Willa:  I know exactly what you mean, Joie. It’s emotional for me too, but it’s also really motivating as well. “Bittersweet” is a good description.

I’m really committed to changing the conversation about Michael Jackson, and sometimes I just get overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. It’s like trying to push water upstream with your hands. This river of negative commentary is all flowing in the opposite direction, and it’s like, How can we possibly fight all that? But I honestly believe that, with all of us working together, we can begin to channel that water in a different direction. I already sense a major shift happening, and I’m so inspired by seeing all these different people around the world working hard to make a difference. And I’m inspired by you, Joie. I’m so impressed with all the work you’ve done for so many years. You’ve really kept the faith a long time. And I’m motivated by the One More Chance video as well. When I get discouraged, I watch it and think, He’s left the room but we haven’t. We’re still here. It’s up to us now.

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 21, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. i love your comments and literary wisdom. I will have to look at michaels videos again with a different opinion. he was a genius. i wish he could have moved into the film industry like he wanted.

  2. Excellent insights! I never would have thought that a discussion of the use of the audience in Michael Jackson’s short films would prove so rewarding. You guys are definitely opening the minds of the MJ faithful and helping to change the discussion for everyone else. Thank you so very much!

    One thing I wanted to point out about the One More Chance short film is that apparently it wasn’t ever completed as the 2003 accusations halted filming after just one day on set. It doesn’t change any of the conclusions you come to, but I think it’s important to note when discussing the short film. (source: SAWF News)


  3. I am one of those people fighting to make a difference, and push the water back upstream; well, I hope I am. I shall watch all his videos again now with different eyes and mindset.

  4. Most interesting as ever. I had not thought of some of these short films a ‘performance’ pieces, but now that you have drawn my attention to it, I can see. It is amazing that one can watch these films over and over and over and still there is more to see – true mark of genius!
    I am sure Nina that we are all making a difference to ‘educate’ the world about this marvellous man, and I am sooooo glad to read more and more positive articles – thank you Joie for posting links on the fanclub site, as here in South Africa I would not kinow about them otherwise. Got lots of links from Joe’s piece about Blood on the Dance Floor, so looking forward to a weekend of reading.

  5. I love you ladies!!! I enjoy reading your posts and thinking deeper or critically about MJ’s art. These last two post were great because I never really thought about the audiences in the films.

    Willa, and Joie as well, please know that you are doing wonderful things. You are right about all the negativity out there with regards to MJ, but all you can do is stand in your own truth and pray that others will do the same.

  6. As for breaking the illusion of reality (or, as an expression that comes from theater, “breaking the fourth wall”), nearly all of Michael’s short films are rife with this self-reflexive device, whether it’s through an off-screen audience or other methods.

    In “Black or White” alone, there are so many instances of this—as you mentioned, with some kind of a “wipe” (I’m not sure how it was done), Michael runs from a landscape into what appears to be a stage setting with Thai dancers.

    The celebrated face-morphing sequence is often mentioned in connection with “Black or White,” possibly because the technology they used was relatively new at the time. But there are other kinds of implied “morphs” throughout the film—visual “ellipses” of one kind or another. In the transitions between scenes, or mise-en-scène itself, the notion of a “global village” or small world is continually implied, where distant and disparate places and landmarks are being telescoped or squeezed together spatially:

    “It’s not about races, just places, faces….”

    One of the most startling moments of this kind, for me, is the one where Michael is dancing in a line and a circle with the Russian dancers, and the ensemble is then “frozen” into miniature—we then see these figures as part of a snow globe in the hands of the babies who sit on top of another, larger globe. There’s a continual interplay throughout, between large and small scale objects and locales, between “high” and “low” spaces…. the clouds (and beyond), the cellar ….

    I could go on and on here! Thanks much, Willa and Joie, for bringing this to our attention!

  7. Willa and Joie,

    You mention not understanding why people talk about certain bands and musicians who “sell out.” (I used to be one of those people, so it just goes to show….!)

    Actually, for someone who came of age as a white, middle-class kid at the tail end of the ’60s, the concept of “selling out” was direly important. For some who believed that music could be a “political,” perhaps even “revolutionary” gesture of rebellion against the prevailing society, the problem was not that the musician(s) in question became any less talented, but that over time they became increasingly beholden to the corporate interests that underwrote their “success….” and thereby lost a measure of creative freedom they once had. That’s the main gist of the story, anyway.

    In his 1981 biography of Bruce Springsteen (Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story) music critic and onetime “Creem” editor Dave Marsh writes:

    “…. over the past decade rock has betrayed itself. It gnaws at my marrow to recall a hundred sellouts…. The inevitable result was that records were made not with feeling but because there was a market demanding a product, concerts performed with an eye only toward the profit margin. Rock became just another hierarchical system in which consumers took what was offered without question. Asking who was fake and who was real used to be half the joy of the thing. Losing that option was our own fault of course, but that doesn’t make it hurt less. Rock saved my life. It also broke my heart.”

    You may have seen this, but Dave Marsh also wrote a book about Michael Jackson that was published in 1985, “Trapped: Crossover Dreams and Michael Jackson.”

    But many people—especially recently—have rebutted this view of “selling out,” which I think is important—because the idea evades the whole issue of who has more or less political and/or cultural power in the first place: i.e., who gets to be “in” the system that they can then drop out of.

    So I just thought I’d add my two cents about this notion of “selling out.”

    • Thanks for this point, Nina. I think there’s a lot to cover about this, and the encounters between the commercial and the artistic with someone such as MJ. When we approach the issue from the standpoint of race, “who gets to be ‘in’ the system that they can then drop out of”, as you say, things become more complicated. I’ve been mulling this point over myself, so I’m glad you brought it up. I still have many friends who thought MJ also didn’t “appreciate” the Beatles enough to not commercialize them, and I think about this alot. (Btw, Nina, you wanted to email me – I believe you have my email? Or you can get it from Willa).

    • Hi Nina. You raise some really important points and, as you show, this is not an easy issue at all. I’ve been thinking about your comment ever since you posted it, trying to clarify for myself exactly what I feel about this. And while I understand what you’re saying, I’m also deeply suspicious of this charge that popular artists have “sold out” – in large part because too many people have used that accusation as a club to beat artists with. And I’m not just talking about rock stars. Here’s what Brian O’Doherty says about the painter Andrew Wyeth in his book, American Masters: The Voice and the Myth:

      Wyeth’s success, within which he apparently resides easily enough, arouses in the “genuine” artist a contempt that is obligatory if he is to maintain his intellectual respectability. The artist-hero is expected to be so troubled by his success that he reinforces his myth by rejecting it – thus raging, as it were, against the bars of that zoo to which American society generally relegates its cultural activities. Success cuts off careers in America for a very sharp reason. It makes the artist part of what he has based his art on rejecting: the values of the majority and the commercial engines supporting them. The divided mind and the aborted career usually have been attributed to the crassness of American society or some easily apprehended generality. More acutely felt by the successful artist or writer, however, may be the closing of the ranks among his colleagues, and an expulsion, prompted by envy and intolerance, that amounts almost to an expulsion. … [W]e have underestimated the attrition caused, not just by the public, but by colleagues. To succeed in America may demand more toughness of spirit than to fail. Few manage to have careers both successful and long.

      I think this is an especially important issue in terms of Michael Jackson for several reasons. One is that he repeatedly crossed the boundary between popular art and high art, and we judge the two by somewhat different rules. His work also functioned on several different levels – you can simply appreciate it as a catchy song or compelling video or dazzling dance move, or you can look at his work more closely and see all the layers of meaning percolating beneath the surface – and to me, it’s the content of an artist’s work that matters most.

      And race plays an important part in this too. He was black, and black artists have traditionally been denied the level of success enjoyed by their white counterparts. So for him, was his phenomenal success a “sell-out,” or was it challenging the system in ways it had never been challenged before? As you say, “who gets to be ‘in’ the system that they can then drop out of”? That’s a crucially important consideration.

      Oh, and Sylvia, one quick comment about The Beatles catalog. Yoko Ono has said she’s glad Michael Jackson bought the Beatles catalog because he brought an artist’s sensibility to how their songs were marketed, and she said she was really pleased with how he balanced the immense financial value of those songs with preserving their emotional integrity. Just something else to consider.

      It’s all very complicated. …

  8. Michael also uses this technique in the Liberian Girl short film-in fact, the video’s entire concept centers on the idea of “breaking illusion,” as we are made acutely aware that a Michael Jackson video is being filmed. We even have all of the big name celebs-the guest players-gathered to fulfill their roles. The only thing missing is “the star.” Where IS he, everyone wonders…only to realize he has been filming them all along, and that was the video!

    Personally, Liberian Girl has never been one of my favorites because there’s just not enough Michael in it for me, lol. When I watch a Michael Jackson video I want to see HIM, not a bunch of other celebrities. But I understand what he was doing, and you have to admire what a clever concept it was.

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