Visualizing Sound

Willa:  This week Joie and I are thrilled to be joined by Lisha McDuff, a classically trained, full-time, career musician with over 25 years of working experience – though actually, Lisha has been joining us for quite a while now. Many of you know her already as Ultravioletrae.

Lisha, we’re so excited to have you join us and share your insights about Michael Jackson’s work as one professional musician listening to another. I’ve been so intrigued by your comments in the past – especially how you’re able to share what you’re hearing and make it accessible to those of us without formal training in music. It’s like it allows me to peek into a world I don’t know how to enter on my own. So thank you very much for joining us!

In one of your comments, you mentioned that you weren’t really a Michael Jackson fan until you saw This Is It, but then you were so blown away by what you saw that you became an ardent supporter and began studying his work. So I’m curious: what exactly did you see that impressed you so much?

Lisha:  I don’t know that I’ll ever stop talking about the day I decided to see This Is It. It just totally captured me the way great art has the ability to do. From Michael’s first appearance in the film through the ending credits, I was caught in the moment, totally fixed on what I was seeing and hearing. I didn’t care about anything I had ever done, or what I needed to do in the future. It took my breath away. For me, that’s what great art does. It allows you to enter a timeless realm, where your mind has to stop its incessant activity and you can do nothing else but contemplate the beauty of what’s in front of you. I think that is what Michael meant when he said he wanted to create “escapism.” It’s that magic moment, when a great painting, literature, film, whatever it is, stops you dead in your tracks, takes you out of your ordinary perception, and arrests your mind with something beautiful and fascinating.

Willa:  What a wonderful image! And a great description of that special feeling when art completely enraptures you. So “that magic moment,” as you call it, happens when you’re completely mesmerized and absorbed in the present moment. I love that.

Lisha:  I can remember the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas talking about this when he described how he distinguishes a truly great musical performance from an ordinary one. He said that listening to music gives the mind a chance to daydream and wander, but a great musician will never allow this to happen. A truly great musician will command your full and undivided attention, and your mind will not stray even for a second. You must hear every note. This Is It was seeing a master at work. It was riveting.

Joie:  I have heard from so many people – most of them not fans in the traditional sense before viewing the film – who expressed similar reactions after watching him in action in This Is It.

Lisha:  It’s surprising how many of us new fans are out there. Why weren’t we paying attention sooner? Imagine not knowing much about Michael Jackson and then plopping yourself down in a movie theater and getting hit with it all at once. It’s pretty overwhelming.

Initially, I was so struck by how creative and free everything I saw and heard was. Some of the first images in the film are things like Michael in the orange jeans and the shiny jacket doing the sideways Moonwalk across the stage, singing “you’re a vegetable” while grasping in the air with his hands, and turning into a robot. He was like an endless fountain of creativity, taking inspiration from such a vast range of influences, from 70’s dance music to Marcel Marceau. It was like nothing I usually think of as pop, rock, soul, or even song and dance for that matter. I mean, what other musician would even dream of using a mime as inspiration for their work? A mime is totally silent!

You just couldn’t tell what was coming next from Michael. He might decide to do a dance using nothing but his back and shoulders, or he might drop to the floor and wiggle his feet in the air. He might use an achingly beautiful flute solo, or the voice of Dr. King, or he might use a car horn – you just didn’t know. He sang soft, gentle melodies a capella and then did some serious rock n roll. Whatever came next, it was always a complete surprise, nothing you could have predicted or expected. And it was always just the exact right thing for that musical moment.

Watching him interact with his musicians was a jaw dropping experience, like hearing him sing a line he wanted brought out while beat boxing the accompanying rhythm! I love this clip from the film:

His comments were so astute I knew Alex Al wasn’t exaggerating when he said you can’t fool Michael – you’d better come in knowing your part. I’d be willing to bet every musician there had the feeling that Michael was listening only to them. Ears like that are rare, the musicianship even rarer.

Willa:  So what does that mean exactly?

Lisha:  I mean that there aren’t a lot of people on the planet who can come into a rehearsal and really hear everything that’s going on all at once, identify where the problems are, and know exactly how to fix it. That’s what I mean about having great ears.

Joie:  And when you think about the fact that he hadn’t prepared for the stage in over twelve years, that ability to hear everything all at once really is amazing. You would expect him to be sorely out of practice or something but, that clearly wasn’t the case.

Lisha:  But Michael wasn’t simply cleaning things up, he was shaping things, adding musical tension and interest to everything he did. In that first instruction where he beat boxed the rhythm and the guitar line, he was balancing and blending the sound. He knew that line needed to come out and knew it was so crucial to the overall musical feel. A small detail like that can make a huge difference in how effective a performance is. It was so impressive how he listened and responded to what he heard. He was addressing the kinds of details that most composers and performers leave up to the arrangers, the music director and the musicians. I was really surprised at the level of interaction – he was taking what his musicians could do to a whole new level, and they knew it. Here’s another revealing clip that just popped up on YouTube:

Willa:  That’s a wonderful clip, Lisha, and it really shows just how involved he was with the background vocalists, the musicians, the music director.

Lisha:  Astonishingly, Michael also seemed to have that hyper-awareness with other aspects of the show: the dancing, the lighting, the filmmaking, the special effects, etc. Who can forget the moment he took over the bulldozer scene in “Earth Song,” directing the use of silence as the bulldozer closed its jaws? You could feel your heart cracking open with the timing of the next cue for the piano solo. Extraordinary. Michael Bearden, the music director, said on his fan page something like a jolt of electricity passed through him at that moment.

Willa:  I can believe it! I love that scene, and it’s another moment where you really see his influence. The musicians are playing as the bulldozer closes, following the director’s – Kenny Ortega’s – direction. But Michael Jackson is waving him and them down. He wants the music to stop before then, while the bulldozer’s jaws are still open. As he explains to them, “The value would be greater if you let it rumble – let it stay open – let it close in silence.”

Joie:  I agree, that is a powerful scene. And I also love the scene where they’re rehearsing Smooth Criminal and after the film portion, Michael turns around and stands motionless for a moment, and Kenny Ortega thinks they’ve gotten their wires crossed and misunderstood when the music is supposed to kick in. But Michael is “sizzling” and waiting for just the right dramatic moment to give the cue to his drummer. Kenny then points out that Michael won’t be able to see the screen behind him change from the marquee to a shot of the city if he does it this way, and Michael says simply, “I gotta feel that. I’ll feel it on the screen behind me.” I love that! He won’t see the screen change behind him, but he’ll feel it! It’s as if every fiber of his being is completely in tune with every aspect of “the performance.” He’ll be able to feel when the screen changes just like he’ll be able to feel the exact right moment to cue the drums. Amazing!

Lisha:  I was amazed by that moment in Smooth Criminal too. And how poetic of Michael to describe himself as “sizzling!” Bearden was funny, sort of imitating Michael by telling Ortega that the band didn’t miss their cue, they were waiting because “he’s sizzling.” I got the feeling that everything Michael did or said had artistic flair – it’s just the way his mind worked.

Of all the things I saw that day, the thing that really left me down for the count was what I felt he was doing with music conceptually. I still don’t think I’ve got my head around it. It’s the way he merges multiple styles of music/dance/art with his own multiple intelligences: composing, performing, producing, directing, choreographing, filmmaking, staging, imagineering, his emotional depth, compassion, universal spirituality. He is approaching music from so many disciplines, and with so much depth, history, social and psychological insight. All of it collides with these giant mythic concepts, like the infinite 4D army in They Don’t Care About Us, suggesting the epic battle between good and evil. I gasped at this, recalling the iconic pictures of his military style wardrobe, realizing he has been exploring the powerful role music plays in swaying the hearts and minds of people for years. He’s used this image and concept in many different ways.

I felt he was even exploring the boundaries of space and time with his 4D concept and time bending. He jumps out of the 3D films and onto the stage. He takes you into the future with Light Man, then he jumps back in time into the old classic movies.

Willa:  Oh, Light Man is such an interesting image, especially in terms of “time bending.” He looks futuristic, but important scenes from our political and cultural history are playing across the surface of his body and the sphere he’s holding. So we are witnessing history on this shiny futuristic surface – it’s superimposing collective memories of our past onto this vision of the future.

Kenny Ortega said that Michael Jackson connected Light Man gazing at that sphere with Hamlet gazing at the skull during his “Alas, poor Yorick” speech. I love that, and it adds yet another layer of meaning to that image. And then Light Man opens and Michael Jackson jumps out onto the stage.

And then he extends his reach beyond the stage as well. He planned to break down the “fourth wall” between the performers and the audience with the huge puppets moving among the audience during the “Thriller / Ghosts / Threatened” segment. I was also really struck by how the bullets in the Smooth Criminal 3D film fly out at the audience. He frequently tried to lead us as an audience to sympathize with those who are vulnerable, and in this case he positions us so the bullets are flying right at us as well as him so we really experience what a vulnerable position he’s in, and feel the threat against him.

Lisha:  I love your take on Light Man, Willa, and yes, I also felt he was using space in such an incredibly meaningful way. This is something I am totally fascinated by. Have you ever noticed this happens in his recorded music? Not long after I saw the film I read Bruce Swedien’s book In The Studio with Michael Jackson. Swedien talks about music as sonic sculpture, how he likes to make the soundfield multi-dimensional. For Swedien to be satisfied with sound, it must have the proportions of left, center, right, and depth. This was a real eye opener to me when I started paying attention to the way the sounds are localized in Michael’s recordings.

For example, when you listen to the intro to “Thriller,” the footsteps will walk right out of your right speaker, across the room or your desk, and right back into your left speaker. They don’t just pan right and left. They walk. If you’re wearing headphones, they will walk right through your head!

Joie:  Oh, my God! I cannot tell you how many times I have marveled at how those footsteps seem to walk through my head when I listen to “Thriller” with my headphones on! That is simply amazing and I always wonder, how did they do that?! Because you’re right, the sound doesn’t just pan from the right speaker to the left – it literally walks across the room!

Lisha:  I love to listen to “Thriller” in my car because of the clever way the sound gets sent around the space. Like in the Vincent Price rap section, Michael ad libs between the rap verses, singing “I’m gonna thrill her tonight,” which I hear in the front of my car. But from a distance as if in the back seat I hear “hee hee hee…” and “thriller, thriller baby…” like it is coming from behind me! It sounds like Michael Jackson is in the back seat of my car doing his ad libs!

Willa:  That’s funny!

Lisha:  What a hilarious musical joke when you consider the horror film genre he is spoofing.

Willa:  Oh, I hadn’t thought about that. So you don’t just have Michael Jackson in the backseat – you actually have a monster back there … right … behind … you. That is funny!

Lisha:  Are you scared yet? I feel like I’ve entered the Michael Jackson dream world, symbolized by the first sound you hear, the squeaky door opening, and the last sound, the door closing shut. You’re being taken into a space in your imagination that exists just for that song. You can see how the talent and imagination of the composer, performer, engineer and producer have to work together to create an effect like that.

Joie:  Lisha, I could not agree with you more about the sonic sculpture thing. And as I think about each album, there are just so many examples of “sonic sculptures” throughout his work. The ones that immediately jump to mind for me are, “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Dangerous,” “History,” “Ghosts,” and “Heartbreaker.” And that’s just picking one song from each album but honestly, every single song on each album can be described this way. As a sonic sculpture – a three-dimensional work of art that will live on forever.

Lisha:  They truly are works of art and I love every one of your examples, Joie. I even love this game music he created – and don’t forget to listen with headphones:

Joie:  The game music is incredible.

Willa:  It definitely shows a different side of him, doesn’t it? Though it’s not what I would have expected you to pick, Lisha, as a classically trained musician.

Joie:  Willa, it’s interesting you would say that because, when I listen to that game music, I can’t help but wonder about the classical album he was working on when he died. I would give just about anything to hear that music. Talk about sonic sculpture! Can you imagine what that music must sound like?

Willa:  Oh, I know! I really hope the Estate releases it sometime in some form or other because I’d love to hear it. And this idea of sonic sculpture is fascinating, especially the way it merges the senses – almost like a type of synesthesia. It’s like visualizing sound.

Joie:  I love the way you put that, Willa. “Visualizing sound.” That’s very poetic.

Willa:  It’s a fascinating idea, isn’t it? And this idea of sonic sculpture kind of captures something I’ve felt in his music for a long time but didn’t know how to express. For me, his music has always been very visual, but I just assumed that was because of his videos, and the imagery of his lyrics. To me, his videos seem so integral to his artistic vision. As he says in Moonwalk,

The three videos that came out of Thriller – “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” – were all part of my original concept for the album. I was determined to present this music as visually as possible.

So the videos weren’t just something he tacked on later as a marketing tool. From the very beginning, he planned to incorporate film as part of how we experienced that album, “to present this music … visually.” And those visual elements are integral to how we experience Thriller, I think. I can’t think of any of those three songs without imagining the videos as well.

But this concept of “sonic sculpture” adds a whole other way of thinking about this. It’s like his music itself is visual in some ways – it’s three dimensional and occupies three-dimensional space, and I don’t usually think of sound doing that.

Lisha:  I had never thought of music as three dimensional in quite this way before either. I still find it mind blowing. Classical music explores the spatialization of sound – other music and popular recordings do as well – but this seems different to me somehow. I’m not sure I even know how to quantify it. In the ancient architecture of South India, known as Vaastu, architecture is defined as “frozen music.” One of the concepts of Vaastu is “rhythm-bound space.” The way Michael conceives of music as architecture reminds me of these concepts in Vaastu. He merges visuals/movement/space with music in a way that leaves one indistinguishable from the other. It’s not music with dance and visuals – it’s somehow structured as one single thing. I can’t hear the music without associating it with the sensation of movement and the visual, artistic, spatial concepts. I think this is really critical to understanding Michael as a composer and as a musician.

Willa:  That’s just fascinating, Lisha, and it really expands not only how I think about Michael Jackson’s music, but music in general. Wow, I’m really going to have to ponder this for a while!

And I wonder how this idea of music as spatial and visual ties back in with his videos. I visualize his videos every time I listen to his songs – the songs and videos are so interconnected for me, and there’s a lot of emotional slippage between them. I don’t know if that makes sense but, for example, for a long time I didn’t like the You Rock My World video. In fact, it made me really uncomfortable. It’s pretty angry and I didn’t understand where that anger was coming from or who it was directed against, and it always left me feeling so frustrated and unsettled that I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like all those uncomfortable emotions it aroused in me. And I didn’t like the song either because of that – because all those unsettled emotions spilled over from the video. But after Joie and I talked about You Rock My World last fall and really explored everything that was going on in that video, I came to appreciate it so much more and now I like it a lot. And I like the song much more now also. That’s what I meant by “emotional slippage” between his songs and videos – the emotions of one color the other.

But even in the songs without videos, he paints such vivid pictures sometimes that I actually visualize the woman sitting at the kitchen table in “Much Too Soon,” or the patient lying on the examining table in “Morphine,” listening to the doctor explain what’s going to happen as the drug flows into his veins.

Joie:  I know exactly what you mean, Willa; I do that too. In fact, for some of his songs that don’t have an accompanying video, I have actually conjured up an entire short film in my head. And every time I hear the songs – “Money,” “Unbreakable,” and “2000 Watts,” for example – those images that my imagination created play in my mind, simply because he has painted such a vivid picture with his words.

Willa:  Now I want to see your mental movies, Joie! That’s so interesting. Another good one is “Human Nature” – his voice is so expressive you can really picture the main character, feeling restless and intensely alive and full of energy, just longing to be out in the night air, walking the city streets.

Lisha:  Yes, I’ve made a lot of short films in my mind too! Like “Human Nature,” which I shot looking into a high-rise apartment window, but then you turn and look outside and see the fire escape and street scenes of New York.

Willa:  That’s wonderful! What a cinemagraphic way of visualizing it. I can really picture that.

Lisha:  “Human Nature” was another remarkable scene in This Is It. I couldn’t believe that rehearsal, how he created so much musical tension just with his voice and his movement, no accompaniment at all, totally solo. It made a strong impression on me visually as well because I remember looking at his body and fashion sense and I thought to myself, wow, this man gave everything he had to his art, even his own body was used. He held nothing back, including every cell of his body – he gave it all. This struck me as astonishing new territory, that an artist would use their own body to make art. He was like a living, breathing piece of sculpture. I’ve seen people customize their bodies with tattoos or piercings, but never anything like this. I was fascinated by his physical beauty and what it said to me, combined with my own memory of him as a child star, a teenager, the Thriller icon, and the many images I had seen in the media over the years.

Willa:  I know what you mean, Lisha. Even the color of his skin was part of his art, and it feels to me like an entirely new kind of art, a new genre of art – it creates meaning in a way that’s very different from a piercing or tattoo, I think, though there are connections. They are all “rewriting” the body to some extent, but Michael Jackson is also rewriting the cultural narratives that have been inscribed on his body in a way I’ve never seen before. So the way he’s rewriting his body carries enormous cultural implications for how we read and interpret signifiers of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and ultimately identity.

Lisha:  I believe Michael Jackson does mark an entirely new chapter in music and art.  Think how powerful all of this is when you consider how it is being aimed at the masses, the entire globe, the inclusion of everyone, even the planet itself. I remember seeing the intro to “Earth Song” for the first time in This Is It, realizing he had been playing with his audience all along as he revealed the true meaning of his show. This Is It isn’t “the final curtain call” or the “it” place to be.  This Is It is our marching orders:  time is running out to avoid a global catastrophe. He was using his musical artistic ability to reach the masses and heal the world.  I thought, what event in all of art even comes close to this?

Joie:  Lisha, I love what you just said about Michael’s music being aimed at the entire globe. It made me remember something that Akon once said about him in an interview. He said,

“He’s incredible. He’s a genius. Just to be in the same room [with him], I felt everything I wanted to accomplish in life has been achieved….That aura … that’s how incredible that aura is….The way he thinks … some artists think regional, some think national, I was thinking international. He thinks planets! It’s on another level!”

I always find it fascinating to learn that his music industry peers, and the younger generation of music artists who are influenced by him, find him just as mind-blowing as the fans do. And I love this quote from Akon because it illustrates so well what you were just saying about appealing to the masses. It also highlights another point you just made when you said “what event in art even comes close to this?” As Akon said, Michael didn’t think small. “He thinks planets!”

Lisha:  Isn’t it true? I think Akon was right. There is something so expansive about the way Michael thinks and conceives of art. I’m also trying to think of someone else who has had that kind of reach, and I’m stumped. Is there another historical figure who has reached around the globe the way Michael Jackson has? I’m no historian, but I really can’t think of one.

Joie:  I can’t think of one either, Lisha, and I’ve tried for many years.

Willa:  He did have a very different way of conceptualizing art, didn’t he? Not just the global reach of his art, but the way he envisions art. I honestly believe he was creating a new poetics, an entirely new philosophy of art.

So I wanted to circle back to his musicianship for just a moment, if we could. When Joie and I talked with Joe Vogel and Charles Thomson a few weeks ago about Michael Jackson as a songwriter, we talked quite a bit about the many collaborators he worked with in the studio, and how they deserve at least some of the credit for what we hear when we listen to one of his albums. But we disagreed about what that means in terms of his musicianship and his songwriting. For example, Charles felt he had far less autonomy as a songwriter because he brought other musicians into the studio, while Joie and I tended to think he was still the composer of his songs and the guiding vision for his albums, and still had a lot of control over what happened in the studio. So as a professional musician who’s worked collaboratively with other musicians, what are your thoughts about this?

Lisha:  Well, from my viewpoint, I think there is a paradigm shift going on that makes this difficult to see. Because great music will always reflect the reality of the time and place it was created, whether it intends to or not. For example, Michael Jackson lived in a country that values technology, material prosperity, and global commerce. So it’s no accident that his music strongly reflects these values. It is technologically advanced, lavishly produced, and commercially successful on a global scale.

Willa:  Wow, I’d never thought about that before.

Lisha:  He also lived in a time and place where it was becoming clear that human beings must develop the capacity to value each other’s perspectives and work together effectively. This was critically important as we moved into a global economy and began working to save the planet’s resources and viability. And that is exactly how I would sum up Michael’s creative process – as the ability to value multiple perspectives, working to fuse them together seamlessly in a way that benefits and enhances every part of the whole. I don’t think for a second that it diminishes his musicianship. On the contrary, I think it is his genius.

Another way to look at this is through The Beatles. I am religiously in love with their work, and I especially admire Paul McCartney. I get a kick out of reading the liner notes on his solo albums and seeing him credited as the bass player, the drummer, the lead guitar player, the keyboard player, the lead vocalist, and the background vocalists as well. Pretty amazing, DIY records! What can’t this man do? I love his solo albums. But at the end of the day, I have to admit, none of the work that The Beatles did as solo artists comes close to what they produced synergistically as The Beatles. You can really hear and understand the value of their working together – the proof is in the pudding as they say. I think it’s clear that musical synergy was a part of their genius.

Willa:  What a great analogy! And I certainly don’t think that working together as The Beatles diminished the musical accomplishments of any of them:  Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, or Starr.

Lisha:  Not at all, it brought out their best work. That is how Kenny Ortega summed up Michael’s philosophy for This Is It – he wanted to gather the best people he could find and challenge them to work together to go beyond anything they had done before.

So I’ve asked myself the question, What work done by Michael’s collaborators on their own can hold up next to a Michael Jackson album? Even the Michael album, which contains a great deal of Michael’s work, cannot stand the test of a Michael Jackson album! Only the man himself could pull that off. Without Michael Jackson guiding the vision and polishing every last detail to perfection, I’m afraid there are no more Michael Jackson albums.

Joie:  So does that mean you agree then with Will.i.am, who is very much against posthumous albums of previously unreleased music?

Lisha:  Not at all. Will.i.am scared the living daylights out of me when he said he considered destroying some of the tracks he and Michael were working on! I can’t say strongly enough how important it is to preserve and archive everything EXACTLY as Michael left it, including things that were meant for the trash can. Future musicologists will need to have access to all of this. As long as that is done first, I hope the Estate releases everything that has any commercial value at all. It won’t be the exquisitely crafted works of art that Michael created no matter who does the final production work, but it will be a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a genius and his creative process. I would love to be able to hear every last bit of it, even whole albums of snippets and unfinished songs. I think most artists would die for something as good as what Michael Jackson throws away!

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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 28, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 49 Comments.

  1. Beautiful discussion!! Thank you all, and especially Lisha for your insights. I just finished reading this and will read it over and over to let it sink in. He was such a master in so many ways–it is just staggering. About the synergy or synaesthesia–this is truly poetic–when MJ uses words like sizzling, or letting it ‘simmer’ or ‘bathe in the moonlight’ in speaking about music. It reminds me of Keats, who also blends senses (‘Darkling, I listen’–from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’). Another line of MJ’s showing this: ‘And the pain is thunder.”

    When you ask about MJ’s global reach and what historical figure has had this reach–I can only think of religious figures–Buddha, Christ, Mohammed, Moses–but their global reach came after death. Yes, how did we miss all this while he was with us? When I think of the stupid interviewer’s questions he was asked–not only stupid but downright insulting–it makes me so furious. I am glad that Lisha was so impacted by This Is It–yes, from the moment of seeing him in those orange jeans–it was all so magical. This film is important to me too in that it was the last movie my mother saw before she passed away. My brother took her and she loved it–I am so glad she got to see it before she left. She loved MJ even though she had been to some extent brainwashed by the media (‘he wanted to be white’ and ‘why did he take 40 xanax?’)–I kept sending her youtube videos of Mj that I liked and then she saw This Is It. So the movie is special to me on that level too.

    Thanks again for a wonderful discussion. So happy MJ is getting his due at last. Yes, he wanted to change the world and bring us into a fuller awareness of what has happened to our planet so we could stop the ‘runaway train.’ One thing I am grateful for–he did not live to experience the awful BP Gulf Disaster and see the heartbreaking images of the dying birds and dolphins and fish.I think it would have been unbearable for him.

    • “When you ask about MJ’s global reach and what historical figure has had this reach – I can only think of religious figures – Buddha, Christ, Mohammed, Moses”

      Hi Aldebaran, and others. That’s a really interesting point, I think, and I’m intrigued that several of you have been speaking this week about Michael Jackson and his art in religious terms – for example, having something like a conversion experience while watching This Is It or being “born again” – because at their best, art and religion perform similar functions, I think. They both have the potential to take us out of ourselves, lift us up, and encourage us to adopt a more expansive view beyond our everyday lives. They’re both very experiencial, meaning they’re able to tap into our deepest emotions and profoundly influence how we experience our world and our place in the world. And they both have the power to rewrite our cultural narratives, meaning the stories we use to interpret our world, and in that way are able to reshape our beliefs and perceptions. That is a tremendous power, and I think Michael Jackson understood that in a way few artists do, and he wielded that power in fascinating and important ways. So when he talked about changing the world, he meant it!

  2. Theresa Biggerstaff

    Thank you to all three of you for this interesting musical discussion. Michael Jackson’s genius continues to be underestimated. It is always difficult to put into words what that genius encompasses because it is so unique in history as it combines so many elements seemlessly but at the time deliberately.

    I especially liked the references to Michael’s collaboration with others as compared to the Beatles as collaborative partners in their art with both entities producing better art.

    Most of us love tge music because we feel these qualities even though we may not be able to articulate them. I hope Michael, the artist, will
    be studied thoroughly in an academic sens. This
    seems to be happening, finally.

  3. Incredibly rich and illuminating discussion, Lisha, Willa and Joie. This is one of the best discussions I’ve read yet. I’ve been thinking a great deal about some of these concepts, particularly regarding his artistic fusion/immersion/embodiment. Regarding the sound sculpture metaphor: there is a quote in my book (from Mark Fisher) that describes “Billie Jean” as “one of the greatest art works of the twentieth century, a multi-leveled sound sculpture whose slinky, synthetic panther sheen still yields up previously unnoticed details and nuance nearly thirty years on.”

    I completely agree with Fisher. Not only is it a brilliant song that evokes visuals in its very sonic composition (like “Thriller”); it is also a short film, a performance, a choreography (that he later revises and improvises), an iconography, a costume, an energy. All of these are wrapped together as a sort of elaborate, kaleidoscopic web under the signifier, “Billie Jean.” As Lisha eloquently put it: “He merges visuals/movement/space with music in a way that leaves one indistinguishable from the other. It’s not music with dance and visuals – it’s somehow structured as one single thing.” I completely agree! This is what I was trying to tell Charles in one of our previous discussions. To me, it is what sets MJ apart as one of the most significant artists of our time. The greatest artists, historically, are forced to invent new forms/mediums to express their visions. The old forms won’t do.

    Another interesting component to this conversation is how he aestheticized space in the creation of Neverland. Not only in imagining and architecting it, but in making it a living, full-immersion, multi-sensory experience for his guests (that like his art was both organic and technological). He conceptualized the way people would come into the gates, what they would see and hear and feel. There is a quote somewhere where he talks about how he wanted the drive up to evoke mystery and anticipation, and then when they see it and the gates open, there would be this sense of wonder and awe.

    Like all of you, I believe MJ invented a profoundly significant new aesthetic that is so multi-faceted and complex it is difficult to wrap my mind around. Most scholars and critics are situated in specific fields, which makes it extremely challenging to adequately appreciate all that’s going on in his work. It’s going to require serious, historically-informed, interdisciplinary, and yes, collaborative study to even begin to comprehend his genius.

    Thank you again for the wonderful discussion.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Joe; that means so much coming from you. I agree with you comepletely that it is going to require serious collaborative study from many in various fields and disciplines in order to begin to fairly and thoroughly comprehend Michael Jackson the artist.

      I especially loved your comments about Neverland. That quote about how he really wanted the drive up to evoke a feeling of anticipation and wonder and awe. Those are precisely the feelings one got when those gates were opened and you slowly drove through them. Neverland was so much more than just his home or his playground. It really was an extension of the man himself but, it was also one of this artist’s great masterpieces. I would love to have a discussion about Neverland sometime because I find it fascinating.

      • Joie–YES!!!! I agree 1000%–To me, it would be sooo great to talk about Neverland–to me, this is very important and central to understanding MJ–the place he chose to live in–he looked for a while at various properties before deciding on it, how he sculpted it, created it and how he designed so many features–I believe he designed the gates himself with his own drawings–Even the name Neverland is so important–the Peter Pan connection has not been looked into enough. I happened upon an interesting site–maybe you know of it–a professional photographer named Jonathan Haeber snuck into Neverland before it was dismantled and took night photos–amazing photos. When people visited Neverland, they were not allowed to take photos. I will post the site in case you are interested.

        http://www.terrastories.com/bearings/goodbye-michael-jackson

        but maybe you know about it already–the comments on his site are wonderful too.

        Yes–I would love a Neverland discussion. Great idea!! Thank you to Joe for talking about Neverland as one of MJ’s great works of art. In a way, MJ is creating with his art a new world and inviting us to join him there.

        • So–to elaborate my last sentence–perhaps MJ is creating not just a new art form but it is so complex and fully realized that it is–in some way–a new world. Take ‘Childhood’–and I am going back to your 2-part discussion of how he positions the audience in his films to model how he want us to respond–in that film MJ sits and sings but a child enters the forest– a ‘stand-in’ for the audience– and the child eventually sees the magical world in the sky–the floating ships with the happy children inside–and he wants to join them–join that world. And he is invited to join and does join–by flying up to them (Peter Pan).

          In a way, then, MJ created a new world–with its own ‘government’–a king (him of course!)–its own population (fans)–with music and joy and spontaneity and dance–and magic and love! Some comments I read on the HIStory teaser (on YouTube) indicated that people really wanted this to be an actual country and they wanted sooo much to live there.

          Joie–so you have been to Neverland? Thanks for your words about its beauty and importance to MJ’s art–I agree it is one of his greatest ‘masterpieces.’

    • ultravioletrae

      @ Joe Vogel, Joie, and aldebaran, I also think it would be wonderful to explore the topic of Neverland more in depth. I was really thinking about this when I made MJ related trips to Disney and Las Vegas. I tried to see and imagine them through Michael’s eyes because I have to admit I have never been of fan of either place. But when I realized that both represent little man made alternate realities, it made perfect sense to me why he found them appealing. Both places attempt to create another dimension you can step in and out of at will. They invite you to perceive and experience the world differently. Neverland follows this pattern in a kind of utopian impulse to create the world as we wish it would be and it strikes me as another masterpiece that mimics Michael’s musical mind. I read a fascinating musical analysis of what Michael told Martin Bashir about his choice of music for the Neverland carousel. (it’s in the book, Beautiful Monsters by Michael Long) I had thought Michael was being silly when he said he wanted only “classical” music for his carousel, defined as “People”, “Childhood” and “Smile”. But in a musicological sense, it turns out he was being very precise. All 3 are movie theme songs (Funny Girl, Free Willy, Modern Times) and they have the same aural markers, especially the lush string parts. Michael even imitates “People” in his own song by using his voice in the high register for the word “people.” Moral of the story: never underestimate Michael Jackson! It would be fascinating to really dig in and take a look at Neverland as an artistic creation.

      • So you’re going to have to explain this to me, because I was confused by that line in Bashir’s documentary also. Michael Jackson loved blurring the line between high art and popular art so I assumed he was refering to those three songs as “classical” as a way to blur that boundary. But from what you just said – “in a musicological sense, it turns out he was being very precise” – it sounds like there’s a lot more going on there. So what exactly is the definition of “classical” music for musicologists? (Remember, I don’t have much of a background in music! Can you explain it to a lay person?)

        • ultravioletrae

          “Classical music” as most of us understand the term is just a catch all phrase for art music of the Western world – symphony, opera, ballet, chamber music, etc. It includes a lot of different styles and time periods, from baroque to avant-garde. Musicologists refer to the “Classical” period as a musical style from roughly 1700-1850 that is defined by its elegant simplicity. Mozart is considered the great genius of this period. But, musicologist Michael Long’s study looked at the term “classical” as a “register” in musical media. People describe all kinds of things as sounding “classic” or “classical”, like Liberace and Broadway show tunes, or movie music like “Laura”:

          Long cited the Bashir documentary as a way to understand this. What is so interesting to me about Michael Jackson’s description of the carousel music at Neverland, is that he has such definite ideas about what music should accompany the experience of movement and the spinning visuals of a carousel. It sounds naive at first, but if you look at Michael’s examples, he is very precise about what musical sounds he intends to use specifically for that carousel. And he uses the term “classical” to describe it, even in reference to even his own song, “Childhood.” I agree he was deliberately destroying the boundary placed between current popular music and what is considered art music, as Michael does often does. He selected all kinds of other music for Neverland, including things we usually think of as “classical”, heard in this example:

          I’d love to know more about the music at Neverland.

          • Sadly, As much as I love hearing the lovely, serene, music and watching such a gentle, caring, and loving Michael enjoying the tranquility and gorgeous surroundings of his beloved Neverland, it is extremely difficult to watch knowing that the other individuals in this video were the ones to break his heart and destroy his life!
            The music is amazing and as you said, I would have loved to hear all the music that played at Neverland and talk to Michael about how and why he chose it.
            Thanks Ultravioletrae!

    • ultravioletrae

      @Joyce, I agree with you. This is heart breaking. I wish I had better examples of Neverland than this one, it’s hard to watch.

  4. An invigorating post, Lisha, Willa, and Joie. Your topic, and Joe’s comments, resonate with something I’m writing.

    Lisha writes, “There is something so expansive about the way Michael thinks and conceives of art.” Joe hones in on the fusion and immersion that MJ’s work offers, and his aesetheticization of space with Neverland (and elsewhere).

    What I’m writing argues that Michael’s artistic approach echoes and even embodies the “total work of art,” or Gesamtkunstwerk, the aesthetic concept that refers to the synthesis of the diverse arts, and the affective experience of total performance. The concept of the total work of art was developed by (among others) the opera composer and theater director Richard Wagner who, we can’t forget, possessed highly regrettable nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiments. But writing with an artist’s sensibility, in his “Artwork of the Future”, Wagner seems in some way to be heralding Michael’s contributions – the fusion of singing, dancing, poetry/lyrics, and joining the fine arts with the performing arts. Integration is at the heart of how Wagner, and others who have adapted elements of the total work of art, envisioned the artistic experience. Integration/unity is also at the core of MJ’s system, and his ideals (minus, of course, any of the negativity associated with Wagner or fascist aesthetics).

    Neverland also represented the unity of nature and humanity (a recording studio amid a rural retreat) – that kind of synthesis being another component of the total work of art. This is likely a legacy of MJ’s own experiences at Disneyland (another union of nature/humanity/technology) – and we see that unity play out in MJ’s affectively totalizing performances of “Earth Song”. (And in fact, the interactivity that Neverland and his concerts provided illustrates just how 2.0 Michael was.)

    Does this resonate for any of you?

    Thanks again to all.

    • ultravioletrae

      Yes, this resonates very strongly for me! Really look forward to reading your work. I think Gesamtkunstwerk and even beyond applies here because MJ’s art will not be confined to the stage, or a record, or a film. It gets expressed in so many ways, as his home, (see the reply to Joe Vogel above) a Disney 4D attraction, the re-imagining of Vegas or as showing up at the White House in a flashy military uniform, which I think is an amazing work of performance art. MJ’s art will not fit into any frame, which seems to be his point. He is the human statue, the embodiment of art, the total musician/actor/artist. The whole world is his stage and no boundary between the arts or cultural differences will be observed.

  5. Thanks for this wonderful discussion. I, too will need to read it again to let it sink in. Lisha- I used to love your posts on MJFC and I hope to see you there again in the future.

    Joe- Its always a joy to read anything you write about Michael and I love your book!!

  6. Just terrific. I can only begin to grasp the complexity of MJs genius through this wonderful discussion. I wish I had a better grasp of art as creation, particularly regarding music. Just such a novice with no background to aid understanding. It’s like a door partly open and I get a glimpse of it and than the concept blurs again. Such a treat to read intelligent input on this complicated subject…thank you.

  7. OMG I don’t even know where to begin but thank you all for this wonderful blog. I didn’t even come to Michael via the movie This Is It, but some 7 months later when a friend lent me her DVD, just a couple of weeks before my 60th birthday. Like Lishsa I just couldn’t believe my eyes, or any other of my senses come to that, and haven’t been able to explain the impact he has had on me ever since – my life has been changed forever. I am often very sad that it took Michael’s death to bring me to him, but he has so revoluntionised my life, that my overall feeling can only be one of profound gratitude as I think of the cliche ‘better late than never’. i am soooo grateful to everyone who is making a serious study of this genius as it improves my knowledge of him on all levels of his being, and my goodness there were so many. I often think of his influence on the scale of the great religious prophets also, because I feel that in years to come that is how many many people will view him. He didn’t just reach the few people around him as they did, but mllions, perhaps billions in his own lifetime. It may take his death to bring it home to the world just what he was saying and doing, and only then will we really listen, as we did to Jesus, Buddha etc. I have said before that a prophet is often not recoginised in his own land, and Michael was not recognised pariticularly in his own land, but in the whole world either in terms of the absolute depth of spirituality from where he got his inspiration on all those levels. So thank you to everyone who is sharing their growing knowledge of Michael with the world, and educating us past all that media rubbish, to the ‘real’ messages that he was trying to get us to see. This really Is It, and we and our planet can only benefit from your work.

  8. Thanks to you all for these wonderful ongoing discussions. I look forward to every Thursday to see what you have to say next. I am one of the many fans who came late to appreciating Michael Jackson. I am amazed at how many of us are out there and how similar our stories are. Michael Jackson’s art is truly integrated (pun intended); there is no way to separate any single aspect out from any performance, as everything goes together to create a single powerful experience. I was interested in Joe’s use of the word “embodiment” in his comment. Michael truly embodied his art, and from that point of view I also like to use the word “Immanent” rather than “transcendent” to describe his work. Michael found ultimate value in the body, in nature, in nature’s many manifestations. For me, he embodied the life force which energizes all life — and through his art, he reconnected his audience to it. Michael Jackson’s life and art (are they separate?) have truly changed my life.

    Again, thank you.

  9. Another wonderful blog. I always love to hear the comments by ‘new’ fans-although deep inside I feel like slapping them on the side of their head and saying what took you so long? I would never do that really. I loved Lishas’s comment about This Is It being our ‘marching orders’. Very well put. Not much else to write, others have said it before me.
    Thanks again,

  10. WOW!!!!! All I can say is that I thank God and Michael every day as it was Michael who brought Lisha into my orbit and I am SO proud to call her a friend. Your analysis of Michael and Michael’s work (because you are essentially breaking down both for us) continues to overwhelm me. The depth of the analysis and the ties to so many other aspects of Michael’s own way of shaping his thinking (psychology, political science, history, all forms of art to name only a few) is simply fascinating and SO, SO, SO important. Thanks to the three of you for a truly amazing post! And, though I don’t claim to be a historian of all periods or of the whole world, I am a historian and I take every opportunity I can to make people realize that we have never seen the likes of the type of global reach across politics, religion, language, culture, ethnicity, race, gender, geography, ideological leanings, governmental structures, or any other barrier between human beings we have constructed for ourselves. So, I totally agree with Lisha that Michael as a historical figure is on a new level that we can’t totally wrap our heads around yet.

  11. Another great post and I’m so glad Lisha/Ultravioletrae was able to contribute.

  12. Bridget Rowley

    I want to thank all of you for your amazing thoughts and insights into Michael, both in this blog and the comments following….I, like Roberta, also call Lisha my dear friend, all of us brought together from across the country by Michael himself, albeit posthumously…I’m quite sure we are but thousands, if not more, who could claim the same….I, like Lisha, was “Born Again” after seeing “This Is It”….as I walked to my car after seeing it the first time (of four!), I literally felt like an entirely different person than the one who entered the theatre…I couldn’t even drive for awhile…emotions were rushing through me like waves at high tide…I was, as the Irish say, “gobsmacked” by Michael’s entire being and presence…he opened a door into my heart, walked right in, sat down and took up residence there, thankfully closing that door behind him so as never to leave…and while I do regret that it took his death for me to finally “get” Michael Jackson, I will never regret the impact he has made in my life since he left this mortal plain…as a musician myself on a verrrry minor scale in comparison to this genius called Michael Jackson, I am lapping up these discussions like a nomad at an oasis…FASCINATING STUFF HERE!!…the very concept of “sonic sculpture”….it fits right in with his love of architecture in general, don’t you think? I think that Michael Jackson was the most unique creature ever born….and I use the word, “creature” intentionally and with all affection…he was unlike any other human being…a true genius…a stunning visionary…so filled with talent, love and brilliance, is it any wonder that he was so misunderstood by so many? By nature, humans tend to discard what they don’t understand….we live in a world where being “different” always has a negative connotation…I challenge that notion…and before Michael Jackson came into my life, I couldn’t say that about myself…in a nutshell, Michael has made me a better person…and I never met the man once. Please keep this discussion going…it’s so important to his legacy!

  13. A stunning, stunning discussion. The clarity and true resonance of what was shared here was staggering to read — and experience in fact.

    Ms McDuff, if you’re not writing a book, please write one. And if you are/have, please direct me to the nearest Amazon link. The world needs to hear what you have to say.

    .

  14. And Joe, your comment was amazingly informative and generously given — as always.

  15. This never gets old, does it?! Clearly because there are so many, many layers to peel back and look under in thinking and talking about Michael Jackson–always some new take or retake on some aspect of his creativity. In the above discussion, let us remember that there is not now nor has there ever been– that I can think of–, another artist that associated his clothes to a specific song–so when you saw him come on stage in a blue shirt and the white sash/belt, you knew it was going to be “The Way you Make Me Feel”, the black lace shirt and before he uttered one note you knew you were going to hear “You Are Not Alone”, and, of course, the obvious with Billie Jean, Thriller, etc. No artist has even done that kind of clothes-to-song association and it is a brilliant move on his part to so immediately, visually connect his audience to his specific song before he even starts to sing.

    I have seen This Is It at least 70-75 times and he STILL blows my mind. “Escapism” indeed. Perhaps with one of the future viewings I’ll be able to take my eyes off Michael as I am really curious about whoever else must have been in that movie!!!

    Thanks to all for these intelligent layers on MJ.

    • Don’t forget the red leather jacket! I’ve been thinking about his costumes a lot lately also, ever since Nina left an intriguing comment and video clip a couple weeks ago. It’s like he uses costumes sometimes as a way to cite his sources, almost like bibliographic notation. We know he drew inspiration from The Band Wagon when creating Smooth Criminal because he’s wearing the exact same costume Fred Astaire wore: white fedora with a black band, white suit, blue shirt, white tie, blue socks. And as Nina pointed out, he subtly cites Singing in the Rain in Say, Say, Say. As she says, during the vaudeville show they’re wearing the same costumes as Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, “checkered coats and all.”

    • Grace, you are so right! What other artist attaches a certain outfit/costume to a certain song or video? Genius! I don’t know ANY other artist who does this and it is a brilliant move. Only Michael would think to use clothes-recognition to visually connect his audience to specific works – marrying fashion with music. Amazing!

  16. Ja Sunny I do deserve a slap upside the head, but was living a very different life back then!! Like Bridget I am soooo glad to be “born again” – just love that. I am constantly amazed at my reaction to Michael and am so glad to read the comments of others who are so totally overwhelmed by him also – now I know I Am Not Alone! Grace, I have also watched This Is It countless times, and like you I am still totally unable to take my eyes off Michael, but then I am like that with all his short films, and certainly can do little else when I am listening to his music. What a wonder he is, and what a wonder to read all these so highly informed blogs and comments to help me understand the wonder. Thank you.

  17. Thank you girls for a very very interesting blog I totally agree with your observations I so love my music it is such an important part of my life and always has been right from a child living in a household of Irish relatives who constantly sang, I had such a fantastic music teacher at high school who made us look more into music and gave us a broad spectrum of all types, so you can imagine my absolute admiration for Michael, I do agree he uses his whole body inner and outer, when I listen to music I listen to the lyrics, the background harmonizing, all the instruments, just everything, it blows my mind how Michael had all this in his head he visualized it as well, he knew how he wanted it to sound, the feel of it and when it was put together how to tweak it to make it better, to have been in the recording studio when he heard how ppl interpreted what he wanted then watch when he reshaped it to excatly how he wanted it, I have spoken to ppl who hear music without listening, you know when you say aren’t the lyrics clever and they reply “what I don’t listen to the words” that is so alien to me how can you listen to music and not try to understand what the song is about, with Michael it’s like winning the lottery

    • Hi Sharon. I absolutely agree with you. I have heard people say, ‘oh, I never really listen to the words of a song.’ And I just think, how in the world is that even possible! How can you listen to a song and not disect it – concentrate on the music, the rhythm, the melodies, the lyrics, EVERYTHING! I don’t understand that at all. I recently had someone say to me that they never listen to music. They don’t buy cd’s, they don’t download music, they never listen to the radio unless it’s a program with all talking. I can’t even imagine my life without music in it. I looked at her as if she had sprouted three heads!!! The idea was completely terrifying to me!

  18. This is a great post, thank you. While I owned a few Michael CD’s prior to his demise; since June 2009 I’ve bought every Michael Jackson CD I could get my hands on and read the album inserts cover to cover several times. These cover jackets are quite revealing in the thank you’s from Michael to people who were important in his life at the time. In nearly every CD Michael released he did most if not all of his background vocals himself, recording over his main vocals with subsequent track(s), and so I wasn’t surprised to hear him speak of this in your TII clip posted here. And so, this must have been the case in Michael’s other tours, where the singers had to learn the background vocals that Michael, himself, had put down on the CD’s, really amazing. And he would know instantly if they didn’t get it quite right! I don’t know how many other artists (especially today) record background tracks for their own songs, as, now, all I own are Michael CD’s!

  19. I quite honestly feel speechless after getting to this post several days after it’s initial appearance and finally reading every single amazing word, every single thought provoking comment, and watching all the wonderful attached video clips.
    I practically have whiplash from nodding my head up and down so much!! Thank you to Joie, Willa and Lisha(Ultravioletrae) as well as all the commenters for sharing your incredible dialogue.
    I fall somewhere in between being a life long MIchael Jackson fan and a brand new fan. I grew up loving the Jackson 5 songs, The Jackson’s and of course the incredible ’80s that Michael completely dominated. Then my life got more complicated and busy and I quit listening to the radio much and really lost track of Michael except for catching a few songs here and there. I didn’t believe all the horrible accusations but I chose to tune it out rather than trying to defend it. I truly regret that decision! I can make myself crazy wishing that I could go back in time to slap myself and say “Pay Attention to this unbelievably unique and gifted human being with so much to teach us”! LIke so many others who tell the same story, when I heard the news that Michael Jackson had died I was so overwhelmed with sadness and this unexplainable desire to find out everything I possibly could about him. It has been almost 3 years now and if anything I am even more “obsessed’ than ever! I love learning new things about Michael’s creative genius, finding new songs I never heard before, discovering obscure collaborations, watching countless video clips on youtube, and reading remembrances of the real Michael Jackson from those who actually were blessed to have shared time with him.
    This informative post has really given me so much more to think about and appreciate. There is nothing I can add except to say thank you again to Lisha for sharing your knowledge and expertise with us. I can never explain to people exactly why Michael’s music is so unlike anyone elses in how it absolutely grabs hold of me and touches every emotion I have. You have really found a way to put that into words for me. The term “Sonic Sculpture” and your description of how Michael was somehow able to merge visual/movement/space with music that included all types of sounds and layers upon layers of his incredible voice is perfect. His music and his message will continue to capture the world for generations to come!

  20. This is one of the best discussions you have had here yet, and Lisha McDuff’s contributions have been wonderfully perceptive and insightful.

    Joe Vogel’s comment quoting Mark Fisher that “Billie Jean” was “one of the greatest art works of the twentieth century, a multi-leveled sound sculpture whose slinky, synthetic panther sheen still yields up previously unnoticed details and nuance nearly thirty years on” reminds me that Armond White’s review of This Is It in 2009 singled out Michael’s contemporaneous performance during the rehearsals as one of the greatest live performances ever.

    Thank you for this fascinating discussion about the nature and meaning of Michael Jackson’s artistry. It is very much needed.

  21. Willa, Joie, and Lisha…..thank you! A really fascinating exploration into the visualization of sound and how naturally it came to Michael. I am in constant awe, discovering subtle nuances and new revelations about his artistic and musical genius. Imagine creating a song and hearing each instrument and knowing where and when its presence should appear as the song unfolds? That is a “heavenly” gift. As he confessed, “You can’t teach it, it’s a gift from above.” Each time I listen to one of his songs, my consciousness is awakened to something I missed before. One of his most profound statements was, “Don’t try to write the music. Let the music write itself.” How incredibly intuitive and aware he was of the power of creation.

    Which leads me to something that I’ve become painfully contemplating since reading Joe Vogel’s masterpiece: Is it really fair or even reasonable to release future music knowing what we know now about how Michael decided when a song was ready for release. So much went into his exhaustive process. As much as I enjoy the posthumous CD, Michael, I still experience a twinge of doubt where some songs are concerned. The songs that we’ve all heard on YouTube, i.e., Blue Gangsta, Do You Know Where Your Chidren Are, She Got It, It’s All in Your Name, to mention a few–do you wonder about how MIchael might have felt about them in the context of timing, what he was feeling, what was happening in the world, etc.? There isn’t any producer who could know those things. There isn’t anyone alive who had such a connection to and feel for music that Michael had. As much as I love every released song, I do question whether it’s “right” to release more of his music without his incomparable finishing touch. Heaven forbid that any collaborator would “destroy” any tracts or demos he/she did with him. They should be preserved for all time but not necessarily issued commercially.

    Any thoughts?

    • Susan, I some what agree with what you are saying. But Lisha also made a really good point regarding Michael’s unfinished music. It would be nice to see everything archived, just as Michael left it. I think from a business point, even unfinished songs would sell and make his estate more money. I don’t know if anything like that has ever been done for other artist who have passed on, but hey, Michael was a first for some many things. He could be a first at release unfinished songs as well.

      • Minnie Ripperton (yes the woman with the amazingly high vocals!) had a postumous album released in 1980. I believe that she died at a very young age from cancer. They took several of her vocal recordings and mixed them with new instrumentation and also did a few as new duets. One of those duets was recorded with Michael! it is called “I’m in Love Again” and the Album is titled “Love Lives Forever”. I wish I had a link for you to listen. I think I read somewhere that there was some dispute even then about this postumous release.
        As to Michael’s countless unreleased songs, I think Lisha’s final sentence in the post says it all! “I think most artists would die for something as good as what Michael Jackson throws away!” My personal opinion is that if Michael were still with us, And oh how much I wish he were, then certainly he would be in charge of deciding what he had in mind for all of those amazing songs. Sadly, he is not, but we do know how much MIchael loved his fans and how important music and art was to him. He even said, and I am not quoting, that the artist lives on in their work! I just think it would be so sad to let that amazing creative musical genius be silenced while all of those incredible songs sit somewhere not being heard, appreciated and cherished!

        • Joyce, aahhhh Minnie. I can’t say that I’ve listened to her posthumous stuff. I’m always too busy trying to chase down old Rotary Connection material. Yes she was amazing and another artist that the industry didn’t seem to know what to do with. But her songs were finished posthumously. I’m talking about leaving Michael’s material just as it is – unfinished.

          I had a analogy in my head when I was writing the above comment. What would one do if they found an unfinished Picasso in a closet? First, they might sell it because I’m sure it would be worth tons of money…lol. But then the new owner would display it for the world to see just the way it is. I guess that’s what I feel about Michael’s unfinished music. Just leave it as is, maybe figuring out how to group it together to sell. As for finished products, I have no problem with those being released, again, just as Michael left them. For me, and this is just a personal opinion, I can’t imagine other producers getting their hands in the mix of Michael’s music without his direction. It sort of makes it LESS of a Michael Jackson song to me. Still, I do want to hear them and any demos he may have left or also him just goofing around in the booth.

          There are so many opinions on this subject and I don’t envy the estate in having to make these tough choices. They won’t be able to please everyone. God Bless them.

  22. While you are right, Susan, that ‘so much went into his exhaustive process’ of creating music, I would rather hear the music he was working on. LL Cool J has said that he worked on a number of song with Michael but that none have been released. There are obviously many unreleased tracks and songs out there. I hope they will be released and that collaborators that MJ previously worked with, who knew him in the studio very well (for example, Teddy Riley), will produce the tracks. I love the ‘Michael’ album (Whatever Happens, one of my top MJ favs) and was disturbed by all the commotion/hysteria about it. ‘Preserved but not issued commercially’–so who will get to hear them? When?

    We accept that MJ is not here, so IMO we have to accept that any future MJ releases by the Estate will be the best that they can do under those circumstances. Moreover, who knows what MJ would want for those tracks if he were still alive–maybe he would have gone in new directions we can’t imagine. I want to hear his voice, listen to the music he was working on, find out where he was going. ‘Monster’ and ‘Broadcast News’ are certainly in the same vein as other attacks on the media–‘you want to write my obituary’–‘you’re breaking the news’–these are great lyrics. The scream in ‘Monster’ is wonderful. I love the tracks that I know of that have been released. I have seen ‘All in Your Name’ (not the others you mention)–MJ doesn’t sing too much on that compared to Barry Gibb–but I love just seeing him and hearing him.

    The other point, aside from the main issue of release or not, is the fact that releasing the music will enable the Estate to clear MJ’s debts, which are still not cleared, and set aside $$ for his children and his charities. Who knows what wonderful things his children can do with the money that their father can leave them?

    • Aldebaran, I agree with you that “The scream in ‘Monster’ is wonderful.”

      I love that scream. It is perfect! I was listening to “Monster” in my car earlier today and was again amazed at the multitude of emotions that scream expresses. And it is so perfectly placed, so perfectly pitched. How did he do it??!!

      • Yes, Eleanor–you describe that scream so well. It reminds me a bit of the scream of an eagle–have you ever heard that sound? But as you say–there are so many levels and a ‘multitude of emotions’ in that scream. Wow! Amazing.

  23. Another thought–since I believe MJ’s will was legit and the Estate executors now in place were chosen by MJ–then they were selected by him to make these decisions regarding his Estate–they have to do the best they can–they are humans and fallible like the rest of us, but I believe they have the right to make those decisions and also as MJ’s chosen representatives, I support them. Of course, I agree we have the right to express what we would like them to do or not do, but ultimately they have to make the call. This is not easy for them–they have been barraged by claims totaling millions and millions of dollars–they have endless litigation to handle, seemingly, now with Tohme Tohme.

  24. Wow, wonderful discussion about releasing posthumous work. I just wanted to add a couple of comments. First, if we preserve art too pristinely, it dies. I’ve seen some really wonderful interpretations of Shakespeare (and a couple of pretty dreadful ones) but one reason Shakespeare’s work still lives for us today is because artists are still engaging with it and offering new takes on it and presenting it in fresh ways. So I would love to hear Michael Jackson’s unfinished tracks exactly as they are, but I would also like to hear what other artists would do with those tracks, and where they would take them. My only caveat is that it all needs to be clearly labeled. I really like the Michael album a lot – my only complaint is that it was released as a Michael Jackson album and it isn’t. It builds on his work, but a number of the tracks – such as “Hollywood Tonight” – reflect the vision of the producer as much as Michael Jackson.

    The second comment is that it was widely reported that he was in debt when he died, and according to Ian Halperin, his creditors could seize his financial assets but not his unreleased songs. Halperin quotes a couple of unnamed sources who say he intentionally left some completed tracks unreleased to provide a nest egg for his children. Here’s what Halperin says:

    According to two separate sources in Jackson’s camp, the singer put in place a well-thought-out contingency plan to ensure his children would be well taken care of in the event of bankruptcy.

    “He has as many as 200 unpublished songs that he is planning to leave behind for his children when he dies. They can’t be touched by the creditors, but they could be worth as much as $100 million or more that will ensure his kids a comfortable existence no matter what happens,” one of his collaborators revealed.

    Another producer that Jackson collaborated with said some of the songs Jackson penned and produced were in considerably different styles than his fans were used to hearing. “When he dies, his unpublished catalogue will consist of many surprises,” the producer said. “There’s lots of ballads, children’s lullabies, African beats, and even some country. Michael liked to experiment a lot when he fooled around in the studio. He’ll leave behind more unpublished songs than any rock star ever left behind. It’s the only way to ensure that his kids will be properly taken care of forever.” (214-215)

    • Hi, Willa, about the album ‘Michael’–you say isn’t a Michael Jackson album–but to me, it is clearly an MJ album–although a POSTHUMOUS MJ album. Joe Vogel includes it in his Appendix and he discusses the 10 tracks, who worked on them with MJ and/or after MJ died, and so forth–all the similar info he gives on the other albums, both in his introductory section and then in his analysis track by track. Joe writes: “MICHAEL,’ then, is inevitably different than the album Jackson would have created were he alive. Yet in spite of its limitations, MICHAEL still contains some fantastic new music, including a handful of gems. Songs like the sublime vocal masterwork, ‘(I like) The Way You Love Me,’ the long-anticipated Thriller outtake, ‘Behind the Mask,’ the tender ballad, ‘Best of Joy,’ the funky cautionary tale, ‘Hollywood Tonight,’ and the poignant song-poem, ‘Much Too Soon,’ all make excellent additions to an already legendary catalogue.”

      Joe points out the 2 approaches to posthumous work–leave it as is, or ‘try to complete the artist’s vision based on instructions and/or intuition.” He says ‘This Is It’ took the first approach and MICHAEL the second. I think many complaints about MICHAEL were unfounded–for example, I read complaints about the Gregorian chant intro to ‘Hollywood Tonight,’ but Joe writes that it was ‘Jackson’s idea.’ MJ did leave notes for how he wanted the songs to go on some tracks. Joe writes: “All of the songs were completed after his death by people who had worked with Jackson in the past, ranging from producers Teddy Riley, Tricky Stewart, and Neff-U, to estate co-executor John McClain. They wanted to make the tracks as complete as possible, believing that this is what Jackson would have wanted.”

      As with Brad Buxer and others, MJ had worked with these people for years and they were his friends as well as his collaborators, so I would rather have them complete tracks, from their knowledge of how he worked and what he wanted, than have them released completely as is/unfinished. (Possibly it would be good to have both versions–finished and unfinished– released.) My main point is that I think MJ would have preferred to have his former collaborators and friends complete the tracks rather than releasing them without their input/work. Given that he was a perfectionist, releasing them ‘in the raw’ state or without some necessary completion, I think (just my 2 cents of course) would have violated his perfectionism even more than having his former collaborators complete them. These are not just random people coming in out of the blue to complete MJ’s works any-old-how–as Joe’s book makes clear, MJ chose to work with these people and, as he did with others in his life, he stuck with them.

      • Hi Aldebaran. I love the Michael album, and if I were making a list of my favorite songs, “Monster” would have to be on it. There is so much going on in that song – it intrigues me and moves me, and I can listen to it over and over and still discover new things. So I’m not in an way disparaging the Michael album. But there are issues that come up any time posthumous work is released, and Joie and I are actually planning to do a post on this soon.

        • Hi Willa–Great that you and Joie will be discussing this issue. I re-read your original comment and I see that you are asking that any new release be accurately labeled–that sounds very reasonable, and I bet Sony will be careful the next time as they experienced so much reaction from fans the first time. No question, all the strong reactions (both about MICHAEL and about THIS IS IT) from fans would be a big warning to them. They are treading on thin ice and know it. I myself loved both posthumous releases and have no problem with them, except I agree about the clear labeling. Looking forward to your discussion–as well as the release of those 200 songs. ( I love ‘Monster’ too.)

  25. I’m finally getting around to responding to what Joe Vogel said was an “incredibly rich” discussion: and I totally agree that it will, as he said, take “serious, historically informed, interdisciplinary, and yes, collaborative study” to reckon with his achievement.

    Thank you so much for proposing the idea of “sonic sculpture,” and that wonderful sensation of the sound “marching”! I’ve thought of Michael projecting his voice as a kind of ventriloquism, even in its rawest and most unadulterated form, say, on a demo recording. I think it has to do with the way he can modulate his volume.

    This discussion sent me back to “This is It,” noting all the details of the preparation and Michael’s interactions with the people he worked with. As you said, Lisha, it’s not simply a matter of fixing anything “wrong”—which the audience likely would never have noticed. But as a sculptor and scenographer—indeed, a multi-media artist—he was concerned about setting all the details in place, building layer upon layer to add dimensionality to the whole performance.

    And as you mention, Lisha, he “held nothing back… used every cell in his body.” I’ve marveled at how he was able to use every part of himself—his hands, his eyes—so no moveable part of his body was left unemployed. As choreographer Savion Glover says, as he raptly watches the Motown 25 “Billie Jean” performance: “Down to the pinkie”:

    As Grace mentioned, each song is connected with a specific outfit; and his movements themselves actually tell stories. They extrapolate some essential ingredients from characters we’ve encountered in cartoons, movies, perhaps comedy routines, even the martial arts: as he told Frank Cascio, he really admired Bruce Lee’s moves in “Enter the Dragon.” He makes dance itself into a narrative art—not even (exclusively) through mise-en-scène, libretto, wardrobe, singing as “acting,” or the kind of gestural expression we associate with classical opera. Instead, he does it through the totality of his movements, in and of themselves. As some of the most skilled artist/draftspeople could sketch a character in an attitude or pose with just a few simple lines—so that we become privy to an essence the figure’s demeanor and personality—-Michael could perform such a character “sketch” through movement alone. It’s gestural economy at its finest…. you can recognize the “character” at once.

    The dances associated with each short film are distinct, one from another: he can strike the attitude of a louche sort of fellow who runs a comb through his hair in “Billie Jean”; a gangster in “Smooth Criminal,” and a different one in “You Rock My World,” and so on. Each of these characters is composed of a few basic elements that are familiar throughout his repertoire. But these elements are rearranged and sequenced in a different way for each “number,” with variations throughout It’s no wonder that, as a mime, he’d been going to perform with Marcel Marceau. And in film study, we’d consider Michael’s distinctive style that runs throughout his body of work the mark of an “auteur.”

    One friend who, like me, had never been a fan before Michael’s death, ended up watching the DVD of “This is It” over twenty times, hoping to discover the secret of Michael’s abilities. A practicing Zen Buddhist, she believed he was a Bodhisattva: as she put it, he “became something larger than himself.”

  26. Sylvia,

    As soon as this post went up, I immediately thought of the idea of the “gesamtkunstwerk,” of which Michael may have been one of the most accomplished practitioners of our time. Wikipedia:

    “A Gesamtkunstwerk (translated as total work of art,[1] ideal work of art,[2] universal artwork, synthesis of the arts, comprehensive artwork, all-embracing art form, or total artwork) is a work of art that makes use of all or many art forms or strives to do so.[3] The term is a German word which has come to be accepted in English as a term in aesthetics.”

    I can’t wait to read what you’ve written, Sylvia and also to explore some of the implications of Neverland itself as a kind of “gestamtkunstwerk”— an orchestration of landscape architecture, music, perhaps “land art” with multiple components, and as you tantalizingly suggest, Willa, a fusion of nature and technology…wow.

    Film might already be considered a “gesamtkunstwerk”—involving as it does music, moving images, sonic events of various kinds, spoken word, acting, performance, sometimes dance. And musical theater and film, in our time (or more accurately, a generation ago), may be the cinematic answer to Wagner’s “gesamtkunstwerk” as live performance… But beyond the projection of a single image (“single channel,” as we call it), and onto the live stage, as you suggested, involves a “fourth” dimension; the “Light Man” is a fantastic light sculpture, and I love what you say, Willa, about projections of our collective past mapped onto a form that evokes the future.

    I had more to say about the nature of Michael’s dance style as “cinematic” in itself; but now I’ve forgotten what it is! Oh well…. I’m sure it’ll come to me.

    Like you, Lisha, I wish the estate would release the songs just as Michael recorded them—unfinished or not. Another songwriter/composer I greatly admire, Brian Wilson (of Beach Boys fame), sat on his unreleased “Smile” album for over forty years, declaring it “iinappropriate music.” Just this year, it was finally released with all kinds of demo tapes and tracking sessions that were unavailable before—or maybe only available as bootlegs. It’s wonderful to hear. I hope someday that’ll be possible for Michael’s music.

  27. I just saw the Cirque du Soleil show last night–MJ Immortal–AMAZING!!! I so loved it and it was great to be among so many MJ enthusiasts–there were all kinds of ages–from young kids to 70 year olds. I heard a few people call out, “Michael!” as if he were still here–so the title ‘Immortal” for the show is apt. One observation that relates to or bounces off what Nina says above: I noticed for all the really incredible and amazing skill and talent and beauty of the Cirque performers, when MJ himself comes on the BIG screen, you see how much he infuses into every pose–the simplicity, the power, the beauty, the PRESENCE–and he rivets you with his mastery. Yes, I think he was a Bodhisattva. Nina, this is a great phrase ‘gestural economy at its finest.’ There are certain poses that take one’s breath away–the pose that was out in front of the Staples Center for his Memorial–taken from the dance epilogue to ‘Black or White”–that pose is used very effectively and powerfully in the Cirque show. And the standing on his toes pose–that is also used in the Cirque at the close of the show. I think he was in some ways like a magnificent animal–like a tiger–that is always totally itself–always graceful–always radiant and bursting with power. It’s as if he does with dance what he does, as Eleanor says, with his scream–the many levels and the multitude of emotions. His ability to inhabit and project such emotional mastery is maybe his strength?

    Cirque also uses Neverland very effectively–to return to the comments on Neverland in this outstanding discussion. The show in fact seems to present Neverland as an emblem of who MJ is–the gates are there at the opening and as they open, we enter his world–of song, dance, teachings, magic, love, beauty. And towards the end of the show the gates are there on stage and close.

    I would love to have people who have seen the Cirque MJ Immortal show comment on it in terms of how it links up with and furthers MJ’s art and social contributions. It is a very powerful show and I think it drives home his messages–in all their variety–beautifully.

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