I’d Rather Hear Both Sides of the Tale

Joie:  This week, Willa and I are thrilled to be joined once again by Lisha McDuff, a professional musician who many of you know as Ultravioletrae in the comments section. She’s joining us to talk about Black or White, a song and video that hold special meaning for her.

Willa:  So Lisha, back in February you made a fascinating comment about Michael Jackson’s complex approach to song composition and used Black or White as an example. Here’s what you said:

[T]he white rap section in Black or White uses black hip hop, but runs it through a white perspective, Bill Bottrell’s feel good lyrics and performance. The previous section, “I am tired of this devil” uses white hard rock and heavy metal but runs it through a black perspective and the frustration of racial injustice. He is deliberately confusing musical codes here, attempting to integrate all these perspectives into a single view in a very trans-ethnic way (the way he uses his body). He is autonomously choosing the perspectives he wishes to use, ingeniously expressing the Black or White theme in the song.

I’m so intrigued by this, and would really love to dive into this a little deeper so I understand it better. Can you explain in more detail what you hear going on in these two sections?

Lisha:  These two sections in Black or White have revealed so much to me, not only about how brilliant and meticulously crafted this song is, but also about Michael Jackson as a musician, a composer, and all around force for good on the planet. It is such a thrilling concept: Black or White presents a literal “black or white” musical perspective. At any given point in the song, a simultaneous “black or white” musical idea is being offered to the listener in a way that embraces and honors both traditions. It suggests going beyond our false distinctions and ethnic boundaries. But at the same time, the song addresses some very serious issues and really challenges the listener on a more subtle level. There is a lot going on in the song and in the film, and it’s easy to be fooled by its deceptive simplicity.

At first, I was just curious about the song’s structure. There are two “middle 8” sections in the song, which just means there are two sections in the middle of the song that are each 8 bars long. The function of a “middle 8” is to introduce a new and interesting musical idea that sets up the return of the final verse and chorus. I’m talking about the “I am tired of this devil” and the “white rap” sections. While there are no hard and fast rules in song structure, it is more standard to have only one “middle 8” section, not two.

Willa:  And we usually call that “middle 8” the bridge, right? But this isn’t just a long bridge – a “middle 16,” as it were. It’s actually two separate bridges juxtaposed in a very sophisticated and interesting way. Is that an accurate way of seeing this?

Lisha:  Yes, that’s right.  These sections function as a bridge back to the final verse and chorus, and they are significantly different from each other and the rest of the song.  When I looked to see if I could understand why there were two sections like this, I began to realize there was a deliberate attempt to confuse the musical codes associated with “black or white” musical styles. This ingenious idea so beautifully expresses the lyrics and the visual images we see in the short film.  The music itself expresses the message of the song: “it don’t matter if you’re black or white.”

“I am tired of this devil” is sung to the hard rock and heavy metal styles that have been overwhelmingly consumed by white audiences. According to the principal collaborator on Black or White, Bill Bottrell, Michael was very specific about this section, even composing the exact heavy metal guitar solo he wanted by singing every rhythm, note, and chord to Bottrell. The musical feeling here abruptly turns very dark, and the lyrics are direct and to the point. But they are not coming from the viewpoint of the white musical style being offered. The lyrics are coming from a black perspective of frustration and the horror of racial injustice, even invoking an image of the KKK with a reference to “sheets”:

I am tired of this devil
I am tired of this stuff
I am tired of this business
Go when the going gets rough
 
I ain’t scared of your brother
I ain’t scared of no sheets
I ain’t scared of nobody  
Girl, when the going gets mean

The next section is hip hop rap, a black musical style, but the rap lyrics are unmistakably white in tone and perspective – they were written and performed by Bill Bottrell. This rap section flies at a completely different altitude than we might expect. The message is uplifting and inspirational, and in the short film it is lip synced by Macaulay Culkin, the same white child who appears in the opening drama. Instead of appearing in a lily white suburb as he does earlier, the child is now in an urban melting pot and his clothing and mannerisms register black:

Protection for gangs, clubs and nations
Causing grief in human relations
It’s a turf war on a global scale
I’d  rather hear both sides of the tale
You see it’s not about races, just places
Faces, where your blood comes from
Is where your space is
I’ve seen the bright get duller
I’m not gonna spend my life being a color

Joie:  Lisha, I have to say that I just love talking to you about Michael’s work because you always bring such a unique perspective to the conversation. As Willa said the last time we spoke with you, it’s like you’re granting us entrance into a world that we can’t enter on our own, not being trained musicians as you are. This whole discussion of the two middle 8 sections in Black or White is completely fascinating to me, and so much more sophisticated and complex than you would expect a “pop” star to be.

Lisha:  It really is very clever, isn’t it?  We’re lucky to have a first hand account of how this record was created from an interview Bill Bottrell did for Sound on Sound in 2004.  It seems that the use of “black or white” perspectives was an idea Michael had all along, starting with his choice of Bottrell as a co-producer for Black or White.  Bottrell explained:

“As a co-producer, Michael was always prepared to listen and put his trust in me, but he was also a sort of guide all the time. He knew why I was there and, among all the songs he was recording, what he needed from me. I was an influence that he didn’t otherwise have. I was the rock guy and also the country guy, which nobody else was.” 

Bottrell was selected to co-produce Black or White for the very reason that he would bring this rock/country perspective to the song.  So from the very beginning, a “black or white” musical idea was beginning to take shape. Bottrell describes this song as having a Southern rock feel, achieved through his interpretation of the music Michael composed.  He plays the famous guitar riff and many other parts throughout the song. Interestingly enough, it was Bottrell who had the idea to insert a rap section in the middle, not Michael. This led Michael to suggest placing a heavy metal section right next to it, side by side. However, I don’t believe Michael ever fully revealed his idea for these two middle sections to Bottrell.

The rap section was the very last part of the song to be completed after months and months of difficult, tedious and time consuming work.  And while there were some serious rappers coming into the studio to work on other songs for the Dangerous album, Michael didn’t ask any of them to perform on Black or White.  Bottrell couldn’t really figure out why, as he explains:

“All the time I kept telling Michael that we had to have a rap, and he brought in rappers like LL Cool J and the Notorious BIG who were performing on other songs. Somehow, I didn’t have access to them for ‘Black Or White’, and it was getting later and later and I wanted the song to be done. So, one day I wrote the rap — I woke up in the morning and, before my first cup of coffee, I began writing down what I was hearing, because the song had been in my head for about eight months by that time and it was an obsession to try and fill that last gap.”

Bottrell decided to go ahead and do a mock up of the rap section when something very unexpected happened, the birth of “LTB”:

“It seems kind of random, but it’s as if he [Michael] makes things happen through omission. There’s nobody else, and it’s as if he knows that’s what you’re up against and challenges you to do it. For my part, I didn’t think much of white rap, so I brought in Bryan Loren to rap my words and he did change some of the rhythms, but he was not comfortable being a rapper. As a result, I performed it the same day after Bryan left, did several versions, fixed one, played it for Michael the next day and he went ‘Ohhh, I love it Bill, I love it. That should be the one.’ I kept saying ‘No, we’ve got to get a real rapper,’ but as soon as he heard my performance he was committed to it and wouldn’t consider using anybody else.”

If you’ve ever looked at the credits on this song and wondered, who is “LTB”?  Now you know!

Willa:  That story just cracks me up! As you showed so well, Lisha, he really needed a “white” rap for this section to balance the “black” rock, so he simply makes all these incredible rappers coming in and out of the studio unavailable for this particular song. As Bottrell says, “Somehow, I didn’t have access to them for ‘Black Or White.'” Finally, he’s kinda forced to do it himself. That whole situation is too funny – I can just picture Michael Jackson telling him, “Ohhh, I love it Bill, I love it.” I think Bottrell is right – he really does “make things happen through omission” – and it’s pretty astute of Bottrell to pick up on that.

Lisha:  I could laugh about it all day – I find that so hilarious. And it is just such a great example of how Michael used multiple perspectives as a compositional technique in this song. Genius. There is no better way to capture a certain perspective than to just utilize someone who is genuinely approaching music from that perspective.

Willa:  That’s a really interesting way to look at this, Lisha. So, to begin expanding out to the other sections of the film, the intro section is set in a “lily white suburb,” as you say, with an Archie Bunker-like father who is throning it over his family from his recliner. The mother is completely silent as long as he’s in the house – and once he’s gone, she just worries about how upset he’ll be when he gets home. It is so stereotypically white and patriarchal.

Joie:  That’s a very amusing assessment, Willa.

Willa:  It is funny, isn’t it?  I think there’s a lot of humor in Black or White, though it’s subtle and often overlooked. So the son is upstairs listening to loud rock music, which is generally coded as white also, just like the setting, but he has a poster of Michael Jackson hanging on the back of his door, so already there’s a bit of ambiguity. The father stomps upstairs and demands he “turn that noise off!” then slams the door. The poster falls to the floor, the glass shatters – the first of many scenes of shattering glass in this video – and it just feels to me like Michael Jackson has been released by the shattering glass. He’s no longer safely encased in the poster behind the door. He’s now been let loose, like a genie from his bottle.

The boy responds to his father’s demands with a blast of sound from his electric guitar – a mode of defiance that is generally coded as “white” – but ironically, that blast of sound shatters the windows of this insulated white suburban home and sends the father flying back to Africa and the origins of music, including ultimately hard rock and heavy metal. So it subtly forces us to question how we label and situate this music. After landing in Africa, the father observes Michael Jackson dancing with tribesman in traditional dress and body ornamentation, but they’re dancing to rock music, which again is generally coded as white. But this particular music was written by Michael Jackson, and is now forming the soundtrack for people around the world – Africa, India, North America, Russia – to engage with him in their traditional dance. So that “white” label is really being complicated and undermined on many different fronts.

Joie:  As usual, Willa, your observations are brilliant and dead on! And listening to your take on the opening shots of this video really highlights just how calculating and methodical Michael was about every aspect of this project – both the song and the short film. He obviously had a vision and a message … a mission, if you will, for this particular song and video, and it’s really interesting to dissect it and decipher what that message is.

Lisha:  You’re absolutely right, Joie, it’s not just a song – it’s a mission! And I really love what you said, Willa, about Michael Jackson being released from that shattered poster frame like a genie from his bottle. He comes in as such a powerful musical force when the song begins and we start to see the African landscape. The guitar introduces the strong musical motif, that famous 2 bar hook that repeats throughout the song. Underneath the guitar and the accompanying rock rhythms, you hear this light percussion with an African feel, things like cowbells and shakers. These percussive African-sounding instruments traditionally suggest the feeling of community and a continuous invitation to dance. As you point out, the short film extends that invitation out to the whole world.

According to musicologist Susan McClary’s book Conventional Wisdom, “one of the most important facts about culture of the last hundred years” is “that the innovations of African Americans have become the dominant force in music around the globe.” The short film really emphasizes this point. But it also emphasizes another point each time the camera pulls away from these traditional dance scenes. The sound stage is revealed, the artifice of the scene is exposed. We have to ask ourselves the question, is this the way it really is?  Do we really dance together in harmony all over the world?

The way the sounds are layered and placed in the song tells a “black or white” story too.  The white dominant culture is sonically represented by the overpowering guitar hook, but the African feel of the percussion underneath it is steady and understated, always inviting us to dance together in community.

Willa:  Those kind of details are so interesting to me, Lisha, and I love your reading of this. It reinforces the idea once again that the central themes of Black or White are being expressed on so many fronts – through the lyrics and dance and visuals, but also through the music itself and how the music is structured.

Lisha:  It is endlessly fascinating to think about the way the music itself gets used as part of the literal meaning in this song. One of the best examples is after Michael sings in the first verse “we’re one in the same.” Suddenly the guitar hook stops and all the musical focus is now on the down beat or the one. Beat one now carries a literal meaning of unity and oneness. “Now, I believe in miracles, and a miracle has happened tonight.” It happens again in the chorus when we hear: “If you’re thinkin’ about my baby it don’t matter if you’re black or white.” The emphasis on beat one is a sonic statement to remind us “we are one in the same.” Brilliant!

Joie:  Now that’s really interesting, Lisha. Of course, we all focus on beat one as we listen to the song – as was probably Michael’s intention. But I never realized that beat one was a musical representation of our oneness. Of our unity. That is truly fascinating to me!

Let’s move on to the ending section of the short film, the part usually referred to as the panther dance. Almost from the moment the video was released on November 14, 1991, it was mired in controversy because of the suggestive way Michael danced and touched himself during the piece, as well as the uncharacteristic violence he portrayed. It was so controversial that many TV stations would only play the shortened version of the video, removing the panther dance sequence all together.

The interesting thing here to me is that, as Willa has pointed out many times in other conversations, when it came to his art, Michael usually had a very specific reason for everything he did. He knew that the public, and the ratings machine, were practically salivating at the thought of his next video. Since the colossal success of Thriller and the resulting videos for that album, Michael’s short films were debuted with all the drama of a major Hollywood release. People would mark the date on their calendars and gather around their TV sets with baited breath to watch a new Michael Jackson video, and Black or White was no exception. It was first broadcast on MTV, VH1, BET and Fox (giving that network its highest Nielsen ratings ever). It also premiered simultaneously in 27 countries around the world with an audience of over 500 million viewers – the most ever to watch a music video!

So Michael orchestrated this massive audience to sit and watch, knowing that what he was about to do would not only stir up controversy but would also be talked about for years to come! And I believe that’s exactly what he wanted from the panther dance – to create so much controversy that it would be assured that this song/video and its message could never be ignored or overlooked.

Lisha:  I have to say that as I go back and look at what was going on for Michael Jackson in 1991, the release of this video seems as carefully orchestrated as the song itself. In June of that year, there was quite a stir when Madonna very publicly criticized Michael Jackson saying he needed a complete makeover. I actually remember this news item even though I wasn’t a fan at that time. Now I wonder if Michael didn’t recruit Madonna himself to make this statement because it got so much publicity! After all, they had been seeing quite a bit of each other that year. Two of Madonna’s dancers claimed to be in contact with the Jackson camp and said “we intend to get rid of the boots and buckles and glitter … We want to give him an updated street look that’s very what’s-happening-in-New-York-today.” This prompted Michael’s spokesman, Bob Jones, to release a statement denying their involvement, and he said something I find quite fascinating: “He [Michael] had a different look for each of his albums by his choice. Absolutely no one determines which direction Mr. Jackson goes.”

Willa:  Wow, that is interesting, isn’t it? It states pretty clearly that “his look” – meaning the appearance of his face, his body, his hair, his clothing – was part of his art, and he hints at that in the film as well. There’s the morphing faces scene, which is so interesting, and then at the end of that section the director, John Landis, steps into the frame of the film (once again disrupting the illusion of reality and emphasizing the constructedness of this film, as you mentioned earlier, Lisha) and says to the actress, “That was perfect. How do you do that?” It’s a joke, of course, but the implication is that they aren’t using special effects to morph between different people of different races and genders; rather they’re simply filming one person as s/he morphs between race and gender. And of course, Michael Jackson himself morphed across race and gender lines, and a lot of people wondered, “How do you do that?” This is echoed immediately afterwards when the panther appears and then morphs into Michael Jackson. So there’s a lot of morphing going on – across race, across gender, even across species.

Lisha:  I had never gotten that joke before. That is hysterical!

Willa:  Isn’t it funny? I love that line.

Lisha:  I do too, and what an insight into this piece and his entire body of work. When I go back and look at the physical images Michael released for the previous album, Bad, and even the photos of his outings with Madonna earlier in 1991, I see what we call “a person of color.” However, in this short film, what I see signifies white in my mind. I honestly think, and I am not exaggerating in any way, that this is arguably the most significant artistic creation of our time. This song and the physical image of the artist coming together in this way … I just don’t know what to say … I am awestruck by this kind of genius.

Willa:  I agree wholeheartedly. He just blows me away. And it’s so interesting how what you were just saying about his body kind of echoes what you were saying earlier about the middle 8 sections, where he takes a white music genre – hard rock – and runs it through a black perspective, and takes a black genre – hip hop – and runs it through a white perspective. By this point in his career his appearance may have registered as white, but he still vigorously claimed his black identity. So just as he was “deliberately confusing the musical codes” in those middle 8 sections, as you described so well, he seems to be deliberately confusing racial codes – specifically the signifiers written on his body – and challenges how we read and interpret his face and body.

And we see that again in the panther dance that you were just talking about, Joie. His face does seem to register as white in the earlier sections of the video, as you mentioned, Lisha, but his racial “coding” is more ambiguous during the panther dance. For example, when he kneels in the puddle and rips his shirt open, I wouldn’t say his face and body in that scene can be easily classified as either black or white. But the message is definitely from a black perspective. It’s a strong protest against white imperialism, colonialism, racism, and oppression.

Lisha:  Those agonizing cries and yells in this scene are so expressive – you can feel centuries of pent up anger and frustration in his vocals that point to just that. Words and literal meanings just aren’t necessary. You understand from the voice and the visual symbols what is being communicated. And I think there is something more ambiguous going on here musically too. Many have described the panther dance as being a silent dance without musical accompaniment, but I really hear this differently. I hear a complex layering of sound that feels more like an avant-garde composition, exploring the musical value of all kinds of things like glass breaking, wind, and water splashing. It feels like much more than just a soundscape. Over the recorded dance steps you can hear these very rhythmic, sharp, crisp aspirants or little whispers that function like a percussion instrument to hold the music together and keep the beat steady. Other “mouth percussion” sounds are there too, like “cha,” “sss,” “hew,” and popping sounds with the lips. It’s possible that this alternative musical expression is another form of protest as well.

Willa:  Wow! That is fascinating!

Lisha:  The ending panther dance coda is a little masterpiece of its own, and it creates such a perfect bookend for the song.  The opening drama with its white suburban setting creates one bookend and the black panther dance set in the city streets creates the other. Perfect symmetry. We have this “black or white” song, co-produced through “black or white” perspectives, with its “black or white” middle sections, placed between these two “black or white” bookends. There doesn’t seem to be anything here that hasn’t been thought out to the “nth” degree to communicate the message of the song, including the artist himself!

Joie:  Which goes back to what I was saying before about how he always had very specific, very calculated reasons for doing everything he did. When it came to his art, he really was very methodical and deliberate in his choices and his decisions. Remarkable!

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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 April 25, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.

  1. WOW!!! This is wonderful–thank you! I learned so much from this discussion. Willa, so great your saying the broken glass frame unleashes MJ like a genie from a bottle–and the genie dances at the close of the film in the panther sequence–wow–does that genie show us all what he can do! Love Lisha’s comment that the panther dance is not silent but has an avant-garde soundscape. Yes, the film is framed by the white suburbs opening and the black inner-city streets coda. Great discussion!!

    To add a few quotes from Armond White’s discussion of ‘Black or White’: “Between his Watusi entrance and his black panther exit, Jackson makes clear that he is analyzing his own condition.” “It’s doubtful if the most devoted Jackson fans were prepared for the coda’s display of complex, raw anger.” “This is a film noir version of Gene Kelley’s famous Singin’ in the Rain number.” “This solo dance lets loose the frustration built up from twenty-two years of professional good behavior, a lost childhood, and an estranged private life.” “silence unleashes the part of Jackson that was always suppressed in song. He dances free of the personal, social, racial constraints that are inseparable from Jackson’s Black and human experience in ways that empowered whites may never understand.”

    White sees this film as MJ’s coming of age–the sexuality of slowly zipping the unzipped fly is an ‘amazing semiotic moment’–also when he ‘simulates masturbation’ by caressing his body. MJ shows us the harmony of a united oneness (one beat) crossing cultures and races, but then ends with, as White says, “his furious isolation” and “the musical expression of anger,” anger that we are so far from the ideals of oneness and racial harmony, anger at his own struggles as an entertainer and a human being at the crossroads of Black or White.

    Hats off, Ladies!!

    • ultravioletrae

      Wow and thank you Aldebaran!

      I’m really glad you reminded us of White’s quote about the panther dance that “silence unleashes the part of Jackson that was always suppressed in song. He dances free of the personal, social, racial constraints that are inseparable from Jackson’s Black and human experience in ways that empowered whites may never understand.” The more I think about that the more I am convinced that the music in the coda is a stand alone composition that purposely ignores Western harmony, instruments and musical traditions. He dances free of those structures, creating his own musical accompaniment that uses the sound of his dance steps, along with what Bruce Swedien calls “mouth percussion,” and other sound effects, all hallmarks of a Michael Jackson composition.

  2. Oh my goodness, once again you ladies have done it again and to add Lisha into the mix; very exciting and insightful analysis of the song “Black or White”. Thank you so much. Each time I read your blog, your conversations take me to a new level of understanding Michael’s music. Now you incorporate input from a trained musician like Lisha, I almost feel like I have first hand access to Michael’s creative process. Thank you so much.

    Lisha is this what your wrote about awhile back? I still didn’t get a chance to read it as I am still settling in after my move (almost there :-)).

    My sincerest gratitude to all of you . Thank you for giving us a glimpse of the genius and creativity of Michael. I look forward to cat hint up and reading more.

  3. Amazing as always! And thank you Lisha for bringing the musical insights to add to my amazement at Michael’s genius. Yes, he was stunning at producing a masterpiece layered with meaning on so many levels, from musical, cultural, philosophical, sociological… As we put the different reports together we can see how every single piece had meaning and a purpose- from the “white rap” (making me again laugh at the passive aggressiveness of making it seem as if it happened ‘by accident’ that no other rappers were available) to the panther dance. I recently read how John Landis had asked him to stop “feeling himself” (I wish I could find the exact quote- it was hilarious)- and very innocently, Michael simply did it again.

    I want to add an element Joe Vogel wrote about in Man in the Music: that of the contrast of the social isolation of the family in the beginning from the concept of connectedness that starts as soon as the father lands in Africa. The song, to me, is not only about the need for racial and cultural unity, but also for human unity as a whole (the family is all white- and yet they are very separated from each other- each member in his or her own ‘world’. The nucleus of society- the family- totally estranged from each other). As you point out- the two vignettes (intro and panther dance) bookend the short film. In a way, so do the concepts of isolation.

    Thank you Lisha for pointing out that little line John Landis addresses the actress with- I NEVER caught that. LOL!

    Can’t wait for next week!

  4. Amazing discussion. I think I’ll have to give B&W another listen, those backround cowbells intrigue me! Thank you for the great work you’re doing on this blog.

  5. WONDERFUL!!!!!

  6. Bridget Rowley

    So well done, Ladies! I find this discussion completely fascinating….this deep dissection of Michael’s song makes me wonder if we should start applying this technique to ALL of his music to see what lies in store…reminds me a bit of Dorothy opening the door from her Black & White world into the Technicolor of Oz….the neverending brilliance of Michael Jackson is so obvious to me now…we were in the presence of more GENIOUS than we ever realized….I truly believe that one day his legacy will be vindicated and it is discussions like this that are integral to that end…if there was an award for Understanding Michael Jackson, you three should win! (OK, we must include Joe Vogel here too….his book blew my mind!) And Lisha? As your friend, am popping buttons with pride here! WELL DONE, GIRRRLLL!!! 🙂

    • ultravioletrae

      Hey everybody, don’t forget to check out Bridget Rowley’s chapter “Be Like Mike” in Loretta Luzajic’s book “Michael Jackson for the Soul.” It’s wonderful!

  7. Look at the scene in the opening of Black or White: what comes immediately after the father gets catapulted out through the roof of his safe, suburban home is a shot of a lion pride. This shot comes before we see the Watusi warriors or the father landing in his chair. The closing shot of BW is the black panther walking down the city street. So–it may be that MJ is lnviting several meanings here–I see a striking contrast between domestic vs. wild, for example. We start out with the domestic, repressed world–a world that limits the ability of its children to experience and grow and feel–a world that has ‘tamed’ the wild to the point of extinction. Once the child literally explodes that fake, suburban world (‘Eat this!’), we see the lion pride set in a ‘wild’ setting in Africa (although we know that this is staged) and followed by native African dancers and MJ letting loose. At the close of the coda, we see the black panther stalking the set and the city streets–interestingly, MJ has emerged out of the black panther and returned to it once again–they are ‘one and the same,’ that is, WILD. MJ’s wild, panther dance was even too wild for the censors and he had to apologize and remove it (sadly). The slow zipping of the open fly puts sexuality/sensuality back into the wild expression of feelings (a sexuality so repressed in the opening family scene: the mother is reading about being abducted by aliens and the dad is watching the ball game).

    I looked up ‘black panther’–this animal is actually a ‘melanistic variant’ of a number of big cat species (for example, jaguar, leopard, possibly cougar or bobcat or a rare black tiger). In jaguars, the melanistic variant that creates the blackness is genetically dominant, so some jaguars can be spotted and some black, depending on the genes of the parents. I believe, since the black panther political party came from USA, that what we are seeing in the film is a jaguar–jaguars were common in the Americas, although less so today. They have strong connections to Native American traditions. (It could possibly be a black leopard too– but at this point I am going with the jaguar as most likely).

    So I think MJ’s Black or White film is strongly advocating not only a return to the wild (Thoreau famously wrote, ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world’) but also contrasting the wild of Africa (lion) with the wild of the Americas (jaguar) and melding them together, or at least book-ending them, thus, bring the 2 continents and their traditions together.

    Given MJ’s strong environmentalism (as shown most amazingly in the film for ‘Earth Song’–and in his book Dancing the Dream) for him to put these wild species in such prominent positions makes so much sense to me. What do others think?

    • I think you have brought up some very interesting ideas. He isn’t just focusing on wild animals, he is also showing indigenous peoples in all their rich cultural diversity — juxtaposed to the white-bread dad watching the game. Western culture sees the wild as that which should be tamed — or destroyed. It also understands the unconscious (or our “animal nature”) as that which should be kept in check. In the black panther sequence, the wild panther goes down stairs — into the unconscious — into a dream cityscape where Michael goes wild, where he expresses his rage — a rage so strong that it blows out the circuits of the hotel sign. Michael was able to access that wild energy and use it to blow our minds. And he did — and he continues to. That is why he was such a threat. And that is why we need him so much. And although he is gone, he is here in his art which is continuing to get his message out .

      • Thanks, Eleanor, for your comment. I agree with what you are saying here. However, I did not mean to focus only on wild animals per se, but on what the wild animals meant for MJ, who loved wild animals and nature so much. (I mean here is a man who had his own tigers!)

        In fact, I think the message in ‘This Is It’ is a full-blown statement of MJ’s concern (one that I am suggesting we see to some extent in the lions and the jaguar in BW). Here is a quote from ‘This Is It’ (in Vogel’s ‘Earth Song’ book):

        ‘”I respect the secrets and magic of nature. That’s why it makes me so angry when I see these things that are happening in our world–I really, truly worry. Every second, I hear, the size of a football field is torn down in the Amazon. I mean, that kind of stuff really bothers me. That’s why I write these kinds of songs, you know, to give some sense of awareness and awakening and hope to people. I love the planet. I love trees. I have this thing for trees–and the colors and the changing of the leaves. I love it! And I respect those kinds of things.I really feel that nature is trying so hard to compensate for man’s mismanagement of the planet. The planet is sick, like a fever. If we don’t fix it now, it’s at the point of no return. This is our last chance to fix this problem that we have. It’s like a runaway train. And the time has come. This is it. People are always saying, “Oh, they’ll take care of it, the government will do it. They? They who? It starts with us. It’s us! Or it will never be done.”

        I agree MJ was, as you say, ‘a threat’ and ‘that is why we need him so much’!!

        I LOVE your image of MJ riding the ‘wild energy” and using it to blow our minds (like the dad in BW)!!!!

        About the word ‘panther’–turns out it is a word for the entire genus of big cats:

        Panthera, the feline genus which contains lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars
        Panther (in Africa and Asia), the leopard (Panthera pardus)
        Panther (in North America), the cougar or mountain lion (Puma concolor)
        Florida panther, a subspecies of cougar (Puma concolor coryi or Puma concolor couguar) found in southern Florida
        Panther (in South and Central America), the jaguar (Panthera onca)
        Black panther, a black variant of leopard, jaguar or cougar
        White panther, a white or very pale variant of leopard, jaguar or cougar
        Panther (legendary creature), a mythical creature resembling a large multicolored cat

        • Turns out the jaguar is the only panthera species in the Americas (panthera onca). In the wild about 6% are black rather than spotted (in captivity the % of black ones might be higher). Its bite is very powerful–up to 2,000 lbs of force (wow), twice the power of a lion’s bite. In Mayan culture it was assoc with the royal family and was thought to be a mediator between the living and the dead. It is an apex predator and a keystone species–which means it stabilizes the ecosystem–its numbers are declining due to deforestation and ranching (sadly) and a permanent barrier between USA and Mexico will prevent it from returning to the northern areas it used to inhabit (before it was killed off there). It is associated with water–it can swim well and climb trees. Can even carry a cow up a tree or swim with one it killed! very strong!

        • I love that quote. And, I loved what he said in that clip in your comment on the last post — that earth is his “sweetheart.” There’s an ancient pagan ritual called “The Sacred Marriage” in which one lover is humanity and the other earth or nature. In this agricultural ritual, the model for humanity’s relationship with nature is that of the lover to the beloved. I have been writing about this lately and couldn’t believe the “synchronicity” of reading Michael’s words — just when I was dealing with that topic, which is why I was so grateful for your post. Clearly, if we thought of earth as our beloved or as our sweetheart, we wouldn’t be facing the current environmental crisis. In terms of major problems our society faces, Michael took them all on with passion and compassion, rage and sorrow: “What have we done to the world? /Look what we’ve done.”

          • Beautiful comment! Thanks for speaking about ‘The Sacred Marriage’ of heaven and earth, nature and humanity–I have studied this too in terms of a Greek myth, the marriage of Eros, God of Love (Cupid to the Romans) and Psyche, Goddess of the Soul. Psyche was born a human but when she marries Eros, she becomes a goddess–she is associated with the butterfly as well as the soul–the metamorphosis of the soul. Yes, there is so much synchronicity here it is blowing my mind!!

            I agree a million times with what you said, “Clearly, if we thought of earth as our beloved or as our sweetheart, we wouldn’t be facing the current environmental crisis. In terms of major problems our society faces, Michael took them all on with passion and compassion, rage and sorrow: “What have we done to the world? /Look what we’ve done.”

            Are you writing about MJ in terms of the Sacred Marriage? I love MJ’s poem ‘Planet Earth’ and am trying to put my thoughts on paper about it. Good luck with your writing!

    • Hi Aldebaran and Eleanor. Your reading of the cat imagery in Black or White (the lion pride and the panther) is really interesting, and has me thinking about other times he uses cat imagery. Two that really jump out at me are the housecat/tiger in Billie Jean and the housecat at the end of Remember the Time. In both of those cases, the main character escapes the people trying to trap him: the reporter (and Billie Jean?) in the first, and the king and his guards in the latter. In Black or White, this is expanded as he protests a social system that’s trying to trap him.

      Also, in all three there’s a suggestion of magic or something other-worldly. In Billie Jean, the housecat becomes the tiger; then later, the reporter drops the cloth (as in “Girl Hunt Ballet”) and it becomes the tiger. In Remember the Time, the main character spins and becomes a swirling pile of sand and blows away, and the cat comes and stands where he departed. And in Black or White, the jaguar morphs into him and then back again.

      And that brings up another similarity: Michael Jackson’s character is symbolically linked with the cats in all three of these, which has me thinking about Thriller also. In Thriller, his character becomes a werewolf, but the visual representation of that werewolf is much more cat-like than wolf-like.

      So there’s this thread of cat imagery running throughout his videos, and I like your suggestion that this can be read as something wild and untamed – or uncontained or uncontainable – even in an urban setting. And of course, that can be read many ways, including rage and rebellion against the forces trying to contain him; or the “wildness” that is artificially excluded by the modern world and the resulting disconnect with the natural world, as you both talked about so passionately; or the subconscious, as you suggest, Eleanor.

      • Hi, Willa–Thanks for bringing up the cat imagery in ‘Remember the Time’ and ‘Billie Jean’ (actually, I have to go back and look at BJ again to look at the cat/tiger references), and also in ‘Thriller’–wow! Thanks for expanding the discussion. There is also a black cat in “Smooth Criminal”–this cat walks across the piano keys during a time when the music stops and we hear spontaneous sounds (another avante-garde musical composition). I think you are right about the cat references in ‘Thriller.” When MJ looks back at the camera in the final scene, his yellow eyes look like cat eyes. The cat in RTT is so prominent–MJ is graceful and slinky like a cat–(a ‘cool cat’??). He has that feline grace and, definitely, the power of the jaguar.

  8. The Black or White video is one of the two most courageous films Michael co-produced. Normally, it’s the white man who says magnanimously, hey, we’re all alike, let’s integrate. For a young virile black man to advocate race-mixing surely pissed a lot of people off, probably the same kind of people who consider Obama the antichrist. A black friend of mine who is in an interracial marriage told me once that the only reason Obama could get elected in 2008 was because he’s married to a black woman, thereby demonstrating that he “knows his place”—and that if he’d been married to a white woman, they would both have stepped over what many still consider a moral line. The other film Michael dared to co-produce that angered certain types was They Don’t Really Care About Us, particularly the prison version. If you haven’t already, you guys ought to talk about that video, which made certain old-fashioned guys determined that someone needed to bring MJ down. Here it is 2012, four years after Obama’s jubilant and much celebrated victory, and the racial undercurrents are getting stronger, not weaker (as witnessed during the Trayvon Martin crisis). I love the way BoW starts out with the father towering over the boy like a malevolent giant, and the boy having to look way up, as if to a god. Getting a glimpse of the headline on the front page of the tabloid the mother is reading always makes me smile. Just as the mother in Ghosts got hit after hitting her son, so does this father swiftly get his comeuppance for being mean to a child. You can’t mistreat a kid in an MJ video and get away with it. As much as I admire the concept of the first half of the film, the second half always leaves me in awe. Every sound, every frame, every move is perfect. In fact, I consider it a “stand-alone” piece. It has a beginning, middle and end. It has book-ends. It tells a story. It gets your blood pumping. Love and war. It’s amazingly beautiful and sensuous. Michael explained that he became the panther, and at the end I feel I’ve been in that panther skin right along with him. In conclusion, a serious Michael looks the audience straight in the eyes while the large-lettered text under his face reads “Prejudice Is Ignorance.” This film, shown in 27 countries, was so original and unique that none of the sputtering TV talking heads knew how to respond. As a classic way before it’s time, it will only increase in cultural value.

  9. Thanks to all for a remarkable discussion about a remarkable man and a remarkable work of art. I feel as blown away as Macaulay Culkin’s dad in the film. And, BTW, I love the image of the overstuffed, zombie-like, white patriarchal male in his overstuffed chair, being blown sky-high then landing in the heart of “darkest” Africa (the heart of darkness?). The living dead confronts Life. Hopefully, he feels “all shook up” — if you’ll pardon an Elvis reference.

    Clearly, Michael’s intent in B or W — and in everything he did — was to shake us all up, and he did on so many levels as you point out. He seemed to be able to layer meaning as brilliantly as he laid down tracks.

    Where Michael Jackson as an artist is concerned, so many did not have eyes to see or ears to hear. Great art was not supposed to come from a young black pop star from Gary, Indiana. Thank you for opening eyes, ears, and minds in this wonderful ongoing discussion.

    • ultravioletrae

      More and more, I’m thinking that great art happens where you LEAST expect it! It’s like they catch us when we weren’t looking.

  10. PHew I hardly know what to say, so many many layers revealed in a way that no one person could get alone. I have always LOVED the panther segment of this short film – even if I didn’t totally understand it until now thanks to all of you- and the fact that there is no instrumental music, but Michael’s ‘own music’ and the sounds of the music of life which he wrote about in Dancing the Dream. I have 2 versions of BoW – 1 with the racial slogans on the car windows and one without, and I must say that it makes no sense why he is smashing the windows without the slogans – it just seems like mindless violence and totally loses the point I think. One can just feel his anger as he totally inhabits the panther – the ‘wild’ in us all – and as usual most people watching it had no idea of what he was expressing, and therefore slated it because of their lack of understanding. He was, as ever, way ahead of the curve, as are all great artists, and yes it is blogs and serious study of his work now that will reveal his ABSOLUTE GENIUS. It is a great pity that it didn’t happen in his lifetime, but I am sure he knew that it wouldn’t, and that his legacy would live on long after he had gone, even if he had lived naturally to old age, and that idea brings me comfort and makes me feel less sad about it all. I am sure Michael got great pleasure from his work and its recognition while he was alive with all those 1sts and many awards which is comforting also. Thank you all so much.

  11. ultravioletrae

    This is an amazing discussion! Truth be told, I think there could be a blog devoted just to Black or White. There is such an amazing amount of detail, we may have just scratched the surface. Ok, carry on!

  12. Hi, Ultravioletrae–I have a question–about all the vocal shouts, cries, roars (whatever you name it) in the ‘coda’–is this the first time MJ uses these so extensively? Or not? I know he shouts, ‘Ho!’ very loudly at Tatiana in TWYMMF (from Bad, 1988–does he use them in ‘Bad’ song?), but wonder if BW (1991) is the first time he performs those shouts so much–and he later uses them more and more (TDCAU, for example, and Ghosts). Does he use them in Captain EO–I can’t recall (1986). Thanks.

    • ultravioletrae

      Hi Aldebaran! Great question and I’m trying to think. The first example off the top of my head is Beat It. Interesting because Beat It is something of a “black or white” musical style with the appearance of Van Halen in the song. Can anyone else think of an earlier example? Panther dance is the most intense and most agonizing vocal cry I can think of. The end of Earth Song uses a vocal cry in an interesting repetitive way, on every other beat.

  13. I checked ‘Beat It’ but didn’t find any ‘HO!’ shouts–I did find them in ‘Bad’–one or two in “TWYMMF’ and of course a lot in BoW. Looks like ‘Bad’ might be the first time MJ used those strong shouts. And ‘Bad’ is where he is challenged by his ‘homeboys’ about whether he is ‘bad’–whether he has sold out to the Establishment and his ‘tortoiseshell’ private school of mainly White students. In ‘TWYMMF’ he is challenged also, that is, to ‘be yourself’ and go after the girl he wants and not act like the other guys. The older man advises MJ–‘be yourself. You can’t be nobody else.’ He makes the ‘Ho!’ shout when he dances with other others silhouetted, and also to get Tatianna to stop and not walk by him. Don’t know if this is significant but it is interesting!

    • ultravioletrae

      Really interesting Aldebaran. When I was thinking of Beat It, what came to mind is the call and response that MJ does in a live performance with the audience like he rehearsed in TII. He sings “HO” for a bar, then motions for the audience to sing for a bar, trading back and forth with them. But just from a quick look on Youtube, it seems like that evolved over time which I never realized before. On the Victory Tour, there seems to just a quick “OW” or “HO” in the opening of Beat It. But then check out this clip of Beat It from the Bad Tour – quite a difference! http://youtu.be/tuFV8rZc99U

      • Thanks for the clip–amazing–and yes, on the cherry-picker, MJ really goes for those big ‘HO!” shouts–I was looking at the ‘official’ films and not the performances–so much to consider!

  14. Hi Aldebaran. Thanks, I’m glad you liked the comment. This is way off topic, but to answer your question, I’m writing a book about symbolic systems, such as “The Sacred Marriage.” In it, I am dealing with ideas of immanence vs. transcendence. I think our culture’s understanding of itself as existing outside nature — as transcending nature — separates not only humanity from nature but also mind from body, reason from emotion, and places women and minorities — associated with nature — in the category of “less than fully human.” In short, our transcendent worldview has caused a lot of problems. At the deepest levels, MJ seemed to get that — and in his art and life he was expressing a philosophy of immanence. Actually, I guess this is not off topic, since B or W is about healing the wounds of separation (while showing those wounds in the rage segment). Even the morphing sequences show that all races, all life forms are manifestations of the same life energy — of the L.O.V.E. love.

    • Thanks, Eleanor–I don’t think this is off topic. In fact, I was thinking about the morphing sequence–the one before the coda. In that, we see different human faces and races morphing. But in the coda, MJ morphs into the jaguar–a nonhuman form–and then morphs back again, so yes, I think he is showing here in BoW the oneness of all life energy uniting humans and nonhumans–all of life. He makes this point in DTD, too–for example, “The earth we all share is not just a rock tossed through space but a living, nurturing being. She cares for us; she deserves our care in return” (“Mother Earth”). Here is another quote from “god”:

      “I’ve looked at the night sky and beheld the stars so intimately close, it was as if my grandmother had made them for me. ‘How rich, how sumptuous,’ I thought. In that moment I saw God in His creation. I could as easily have seen Her in the beauty of a rainbow, the grace of a deer bounding through a meadow, the truth of a father’s kiss. But for me the sweetest contact with God has no form. I close my eyes, look within, and enter a deep soft silence. The infinity of God’s creation embraces me. We are one.” There are many other passages from DTD that reveal this immanence perspective. Yes, it is the ‘Love Power.’

      Your work sounds fascinating and important!

  15. Caro Attwell

    Hi everyone

    have you all read Rev Barbara Kaufman’s articles on Black or White posted in the Reading Room.
    I did yesterday, and they are fascinating and also very insightful – I thoroughly recommend that you do I was very happy to discover Inner Michael and love her idea of “Michaeling”. I have sort of been doing that lately but not putting it into words as Barbara suggests, but from now on I am going to be more vocal about my “Michaeling” and thereby have another way of spreading the word. Am looking forward to reading her articles on Ghosts today. Thank you so much for the link in the Reading Room – finding all the articles great, but this link really did it for me being interested in metaphysics myself, and knowing that Michael was as well – as was so clear from his work.
    Happy May Day.

  16. @Caro Attwell

    Barbara Kaufmann did not invent the concept of ‘michaeling.’ Fans have been saying this decades.

    Metaphysics or not, there’s such a thing as being honest.

  17. I haven’t even finished your post but the question comes to mind: “Was all this really intentional?” I ask that question because it seems almost impossible that a man could be that intelligent, that much of a genius, and the only time I’ve EVER asked that question about anything is: the creation of the universe. I mean that is such an unbelievable phenomenon, it boggles my mind that from Nothing came the first atoms, molecules, etc. to where we are now. The idea that MJ created his “universe” of song, dance, physical appearance and coincident message equally boggles my mind.

    • Great question ambwirt. This music is so highly organized that I think it would be difficult to make the case it was just kind of happened that way, especially given what we know about how detailed the recording process was. But even so, I have to wonder, does it really matter? The result is the same, intentional or not. And I’m with you, it completely boggles the mind.

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