MJ’s Art: Taking Us Higher
Joie: A few weeks ago, Willa and I were talking about Michael’s repeated use of an on-screen audience in many of his short films. And during that conversation, we talked a lot about the performance videos – the videos that portray a “staged” concert – and how they have a different feeling about them than simply watching actual concert footage. Well, since that discussion, I have not been able to get Give In to Me out of my head. I started watching it over and over shortly after we posted Part 1 of the on-screen audience conversation and what I realized is that there are a lot of interesting things going on in both the video and the song.
I have often heard “Give In to Me” described as a love song and that always puzzles me because, in my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth here. To me, this is not a song about love; it’s a song about lust. And it’s really very raw and frank in its lyrics. In the first verse, he tells the object of his desire, “Don’t try to understand me / Just simply do the things I say.” Then in the second verse, he tells her, “Don’t try to understand me / because your words just aren’t enough.”
I believe there is something much deeper going on here, and we’ll get to that in a minute. But, on the surface, I believe he’s talking about very base emotions: sexual desire, lust, physical satisfaction. He’s telling her that he doesn’t want to connect with her on any emotional level. “Don’t try to understand me,” he repeatedly sings. Then he goes on to say this:
Love is a feeling Quench my desire Give it when I want it Taking me higher Love is a woman I don’t wanna hear it Give in to me Give in to me
Every time I listen to this song, I’m struck by that line, “I don’t wanna hear it.” He repeats it several times throughout the song. It’s like he’s saying he doesn’t want to talk at all, he just wants to have sex.
Willa: I agree, especially when he follows it up with the line, “Tell it to the preacher.” It’s like he’s saying, save the romantic talk for someone who cares, because I don’t. He just wants her to “quench my desire” and be quiet about it. A preacher may care about love and commitment, but “I don’t want to hear it.”
Joie: It’s such an insensitive, cold, unfeeling thing to say, and those are attributes that we don’t usually associate with Michael Jackson but, there it is. Whether he himself ever felt this way, we will never know – and it’s totally none of our business anyway. But he did write a song about it and performed it very convincingly. The frustration and sexual tension in his vocal delivery is palpable, and combined with the sultry rhythm of the music it makes for one very sexy song.
Willa: You know, everything you’ve just said is so interesting, Joie, because on the one hand, I know exactly what you’re saying. There are some lines in this song that, if someone I cared about said them to me, I would find pretty hard to take – lines like “Don’t try to understand me / Just simply do the things I say.” I can understand why you zeroed in on that one because it really jumps out at me too. No woman I know would tolerate something like that. And while we need to keep in mind that these are the words of a character Michael Jackson is portraying in song and not necessarily his own thoughts and feelings, it’s still a shock because they seem to completely contradict everything he was about.
Willa: But I tend to interpret this in a different way. I agree that “Give In to Me” is a song about passion – and sexual passion is definitely part of that, as we see in those steamy images in the video. But it’s also a song about artistic passion. As we’ve talked about many times, Michael Jackson frequently represents his relationship with his audience as a love affair. We see that double relationship throughout his work: in Dirty Diana, Remember the Time, Who Is It, Blood on the Dance Floor, You Rock My World, and One More Chance, to name a few. And I see that same parallel relationship here. In fact, it’s very explicit – after all, he isn’t with a woman in the images for this video. He’s on stage, singing to an audience. But he keeps cutting to some pretty steamy scenes, so it seems to me that he’s very deliberately juxtaposing those scenes of couples in a sexual passion with him on stage in a creative passion.
Joie: I agree, it is very deliberate, isn’t it? And that’s the “something deeper” that I alluded to earlier.
Willa: I think so too – as with a lot of his work, you can intuitively feel that “something deeper” even before you dig in to see what that something is. And if we look at those troublesome lines that way – as an artist speaking to his audience – they make a lot more sense. When he says, “Don’t try to understand me” and “Give in to me,” he means we should stop speculating about his love life and his boa constrictors and his mannequins and on and on, and stop trying to psychoanalyze his relationship with his father and his mother and his siblings – in other words, we should stop looking at his personal life and stop trying to understand him that way – and instead, we should simply “give in” to him as an artist, and let ourselves be swept up by the power of his art.
But as usual with his work, I don’t see this as an either/or situation, meaning I don’t think we have to choose one interpretation over the other. Instead, I see it functioning both ways. To me, this is a song about sexual passion AND creative passion, and it explores both at the same time.
Joie: Willa, I agree with you completely, although I don’t like to use the words “sexual passion.” To me, that implies a loving relationship is in existence here but, that’s clearly not the case. But for lack of a better word or phrase to use, I think we’re talking about the same thing here. Basic lust – no strings attached gratification.
As for the relationship between the artist and his audience – I think we have to look at which segment of his audience he is really speaking to here. Clearly he’s not addressing those of us who were already on his side or he would be expressing feelings of love. I think this is another one of those songs where his intended audience is everyone who’s giving him grief over his eccentric lifestyle. All those people who are so busy speculating about the rumors and his private life that they can’t enjoy the music anymore. They’re too busy trying to psychoanalyze him, as you said.
But you know, Willa, even though I see this mainly as a song about lust, I also see something else very interesting happening in the song itself, which the short film sort of echoes. In the second verse he says,
You always knew just how to make me cry And never did I ask you questions why It seems you get your kicks from hurting me
Then, in the bridge of the song, he goes on to say,
You and your friends Were laughing at me in town But it’s okay And it’s okay You won’t be laughing, girl When I’m not around I’ll be okay And I … I gotta find Gotta … some peace of mind, oh
So, even though on the one hand, he says he doesn’t want any emotional entanglements with this woman, in the very next breath he’s expressing his hurt feelings over the way she treats him. And we see this in the video as well. On the surface, it’s just a simple performance video but there are some interesting things happening in the background that really catch my eye. Interspersed with the “concert” are these really sexy shots of various couples kissing and touching each other. Then suddenly one of those couples is in the midst of a heated argument. The man is very upset with his girlfriend and we – the off-screen audience – can really feel his frustration. There are shots of people laughing – presumably at him – as they whisper and stare. He storms off and begins throwing things around.
Willa, continuing to view this song/video with this dual interpretation in mind, those lines in the second verse and in the bridge of the song make so much sense if he’s talking to that segment of his audience I mentioned earlier.
Willa: Oh, I agree, Joie. Can you imagine putting your heart and soul into an album, and then having snarky critics mock you for your efforts? Just imagine what that would feel like. And that’s exactly what I think of every time I hear that line, “You and your friends / Were laughing at me in town.” He was a visionary: he knew the value of his work, he knew it was ahead of its time, and he knew those critics were wrong. But still, that had to sting – to work so hard on something and have it be so horribly misunderstood and under-appreciated. But he was also very knowledgeable about art history, and he knew critics would come to appreciate his work some day. And that’s what I think of when I hear the lines, “You won’t be laughing, girl / When I’m not around.” And it’s proven to be true. We can see it happening already. Now that he’s gone, a lot of people are discovering or rediscovering his work, and starting to realize just how incredible and important it is.
Joie: That is so true! And isn’t it amazing? Why is it that we never seem to appreciate the good things until they’re gone and it’s much too late? It makes me think of something my grandmother used to say quite a bit. She would always say ‘give me my flowers while I’m still here to enjoy them.’ And when I was younger, I didn’t really understand that. But now that I’m older and I’ve lost a few people who meant a great deal to me – her included – I understand so completely. What is it about human nature that makes us take so much for granted?
But getting back to what you were saying about putting your heart and soul into an album only to have critics mock your efforts … no, I can’t even begin to imagine what that must feel like. I mean, I would think it must be such a huge act of courage to devote yourself to your art – to labor over it and pour your soul into it, as you said – and then to actually be brave enough to share it with the world. Just writing this blog with you was such a major step outside of my comfort zone, Willa. And you remember how nervous I was about that!
Willa: Oh, me too!
Joie: I can’t imagine doing anything on the scale that Michael was doing it. That man just amazes me every time I think about his life and all that he accomplished. It just boggles my mind.
Willa: I agree, and I think that in Give In to Me he’s dealing with both the exhilaration and the pain of that – of creating art that is witnessed by millions of people who may or may not understand it – by connecting it with all the intensely felt emotions surrounding sexual desire.
But I don’t think this is just a metaphor for him. I think he really did see a connection between artistic passion and sexual passion. In a wonderful 1982 interview with Gerri Hirshey, he told her,
“Being on stage is magic. There’s nothing like it. You feel the energy of everybody who’s out there. You feel it all over your body. When the lights hit you, it’s all over, I swear it is.”
Hirshey notes that, as he talks, “He is smiling now, sitting upright, trying to explain weightlessness to the earth-bound.” His mother told Hirshey that he fasted and danced for hours every Sunday, “a weekly ritual that leaves her son laid out, sweating, laughing and crying.” Hirshey goes on to write,
“It is also a ritual very similar to Michael’s performances. … There is nothing tentative about his solo turns. He can tuck his long, thin frame into a figure skater’s spin without benefit of ice or skates. Aided by the burn and flash of silvery body suits, he seems to change molecular structure at will, all robot angles one second and rippling curves the next. So sure is the body that his eyes are often closed, his face turned upward to some unseen muse. The bony chest heaves. He pants, bumps and squeals. He has been known to leap offstage and climb the rigging. At home, in his room, he dances until he falls down.”
In another interview, he talked about how, when he’s on stage and the lights hit him, it just feels electric – like electricity is playing across his skin – and that’s represented visually in Give In to Me. Especially near the end, we see blue streaks of electricity racing across the surface of his body. It’s really erotic, the way he describes the experience of being on stage, and I think in Give In to Me he’s trying to share that feeling with those of us who’ve never performed – as Hirshey put it so well, he’s “trying to explain weightlessness to the earth-bound.”
Joie: What he’s trying to describe in that interview is the feeling of ecstasy.
Willa: Exactly. He’s trying to express an inexplicable feeling to those of us who’ve never experienced it. I see something very similar in the beginning of Martin Bashir’s notorious documentary. I know a lot of people are morally opposed to watching the Bashir documentary, and I can understand that, but if you want to see the intro part, here it is.
About 30 seconds in there’s the reference to “classical” music that Utravioletrae mentioned in an intriguing comment last week. About 3 minutes in he tries to explain his creative process to Bashir, which is both fascinating and frustrating. And then about 11 minutes in he tells Bashir, “I love climbing trees. I think it’s my favorite thing. Having water balloon fights and climbing trees. I think those two are my favorite.” Bashir immediately sensationalizes it, of course, saying, “Don’t you prefer making love?” Michael Jackson just looks at him with this indulgent little smile and very patiently explains that he’s talking about hobbies, not passions. As he says, climbing trees is one of his favorite things “as my pastime fun. I can’t compare it to performing. Other people like to play football or basketball. I like to climb trees.”
What catches my attention in this conversation is that, for Bashir, the ultimate expression of passion is “making love.” But Michael Jackson knows a passion that goes even beyond that – the agony and the ecstasy of creative passion. It’s a type of passion Bashir will never know, and he doesn’t understand it and even kind of ridicules it. But I look at that scene and think, wow, Michael Jackson experienced intensities of emotion most of us can’t even imagine.
Joie: And you’re probably very right about that, Willa. He did experience things in his life – both highs and lows – that most of us will never be able to begin to comprehend. And again, it just boggles my mind when I sit and think about the events of his life and his amazing career.
And, it is very interesting – and also very telling – that he obviously equates making love with performing. “I can’t compare it to performing,” he says. Bashir is talking about sex and, in Michael’s mind, “making love” equals being onstage. To him, that’s the only thing that can rival all the intense emotions one goes through when caught up in a sexual passion. That is fascinating!
But getting back to the video for a minute, I have to say that this has always been one of my very favorite short films. I love how dark and intense it feels, and I love the whole “concert” set up and watching Michael interact both with the fans in the crowd and with the other musicians on stage with him. You know, Michael himself said that this entire video was shot in just about two hours, which shocks me. When it debuted during his famous interview with Oprah, this is what they said about it:
Oprah: So, we want to know how it starts on a piece of paper … quench my desire … and turns into that.
Michael: Well, “Give In To Me,” I wanted to write another song, you know, that was kinda exciting and fun and had a rock edge to it. You know, like when I did “Beat It” and “Black or White.” And Slash, who’s a dear friend of mine … I wanted him to play guitar [on it]. We got together and we went to Germany and we shot this thing in just like two hours. We had no time at all to shoot it. We wanted it to be exciting and fantastical and fans, you know, like it’s a rock concert and that’s how it ends up, that’s the result.
He makes it all sound so effortless, doesn’t he? Like, ‘oh anybody can do that!’ I just crack up every time I read that.
Willa: He really does, though he almost always understated things in interviews, so it’s completely in character for him to say that. But even so, it was only the concert footage that they were able to shoot in two hours – and as you pointed out earlier, there’s a lot more going on in this video than just the concert footage. There are all those steamy scenes, and then the way he juxtaposes them is so interesting.
Joie: The video was directed by Andy Moharan and features not only Slash, who at the time was still with rock group Guns ‘N Roses, but also GnR’s Gilby Clarke makes an uncredited appearance as well as Teddy Andreadis, who was GnR’s touring keyboardist at the time. So the concert scenes really have an authentic feel to them with all the talent on the stage and the excitement from the screaming fans in the crowd.
Willa: It’s true, it does, and that intense excitement is really important to this video, both experientially and thematically. He wants us to feel what he feels. He wants us to experience the intensity of the artistic passion he feels on stage, and he creates that intensity through the screaming crowd, and the steamy scenes of couples in a sexual passion, and the jolts of lightning playing across his skin, and his incredible voice, and the way his body moves, and, wow – I can understand why this is one of your favorite videos, Joie! I think I need a drink of water – really cold water.
Joie: Mmm, it is getting warm in here, isn’t it?
Willa: It really is! But I want to get back to those steamy scenes you were describing earlier, Joie, and how that one couple is fighting. I’d never really noticed that until you mentioned it and then described it in detail, but I went back and looked and, you’re right, those scenes are so interesting, especially the way he echoes on stage what they’re doing off stage. At the beginning, the guy is murmuring reassurances to his girlfriend, trying to soothe things over, as Michael Jackson sings softly into the microphone:
She always takes it with a heart of stone ‘Cause all she does is throws it back to me I spent a lifetime looking for someone Don’t try to understand me Just simply do the things I say
Then, as the woman slaps the man’s face and begins arguing with him, Michael Jackson’s voice becomes much louder and harsher as he breaks into the chorus:
Love is a feeling Give it when I want it ‘Cause I’m on fire Quench my desire Give it when I want it Talk to me, woman Give in to me Give in to me
Frankly, if someone talked to me like that, I’d feel really hurt and maybe want to slap his face too. I’ve never actually slapped anyone before, but I just might if they acted like that! And then, as the man rubs his face from the slap, Michael Jackson’s voice softens and he begins quietly singing the second verse, which you quoted earlier:
You always knew just how to make me cry And never did I ask you questions why It seems you get your kicks from hurting me Don’t try to understand me Because your words just aren’t enough
So he’s telling us this isn’t just a one-time argument but a perpetual problem – as he sings, “You always knew just how to make me cry.” And as he sings this verse, we see the couple trying to reconcile, but there’s an iron fence between them. There’s a barrier they can’t get through, though they grab it and shake it. They can speak through it, but their “words just aren’t enough.” Finally, the man staggers away in frustration, leans on the fence, kicks at it. By this point he’s inarticulate – there’s nothing more to say – and so is Michael Jackson. The electric guitar goes off on a raging solo while he remains completely silent, spinning and hugging himself on stage.
This is when things get really interesting, because suddenly the on screen images and off screen images diverge. So far, what’s happening on stage has precisely paralleled what’s happening off stage. But now it bifurcates. Off stage, the man reunites with his girlfriend, sort of: he’s trying to kiss her through the iron fence and they’re making the best of it, but they both seem pretty frustrated and unsatisfied. But on stage – oh my gosh. I need another long drink of cold water because Michael Jackson is, like, climaxing on stage: the electric guitars are going crazy, he’s in a dancing frenzy, blue electricity is sizzling all over his body, pyrotechnics are going off, steam is shooting up around him, and his voice is throbbing, “Give in to me. Give in to me. Give in to me.” Oh my. It is intense.
Joie: Wow. … That was … good, Willa. That … was really … really … good. I hope it was good for you too!
Willa: Actually, I’m feeling kinda woozy. No wonder he sold a gazillion records. So part of me wants to just settle in with a nice pitcher of iced tea and watch this video over and over again – just do what he says, “give in” to the experience, and just immerse myself in it and enjoy it. Believe me, I have no problem with that at all!
But then the English major part of me wants to figure out what it means, and it seems like he’s saying that, while sexual passion has its limits, artistic passion doesn’t. We live in an imperfect world with imperfect relationships, where it’s very difficult for people to really connect and understand each other, and our sex lives reflect that. Sexual relationships can be beautiful and exhilarating and nourishing to the spirit, like you’re closer to the person you love than you ever dreamed possible, but they can also be confusing and painful and frustrating, like you’re trying to kiss the person you love through an iron fence. But in many ways, art is a heightened version of real life. So artistically, you can take that frustration, sublimate it, release it through art, and discover a passion beyond sexual desire.
Joie: Well, I think I agree with you 100% on this one. I think he was attempting to share what it feels like for him – being onstage – with the rest of us mere mortals. He was trying to explain that feeling of ecstasy he experienced when performing, and boy, did he do a great job of it! You know, like I said, this has always been one of my favorite videos but, I could never really explain why. I’ve never sat and dissected it like this before. Now that we have, I feel spent and I’m fighting the urge to cuddle. I will never be able to watch this video the same way again.