Summer Rewind Series, Week 3: Invincible (Parts 1 & 2)

NOTE:  The following two conversations were originally posted on October 6 and 13, 2011. To read the original posts and comments, please click here.

Celebrating Invincible Month, Part 1: Unbreakable

Willa:  This week Joie and I are kicking off a month-long series on the Invincible album with a close look at “Unbreakable,” a defiant battle cry we both love with some really fascinating lyrics.

Joie:  I love “Unbreakable.” It is a fascinating song with lyrics that just jump right out at you simply because they are like a window into what life must have been like for him.

Now I’m just wondering, why you think  
That you can get to me, with anything  
Seems like you’d know by now  
When and how, I get down  
And with all that I’ve been through, I’m still around  

It’s as if he’s addressing all of the Sneddons, the Dimonds, the Chandlers – all the tabloids of the world – and saying, “You tried your best but, I’m still here and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Willa:  I agree, and I love the way you put that. In fact, a lot of songs on Invincible seem like “a window into what life was like for him,” and I really see that in “Unbreakable.” It’s such a defiant response to everything he’s been going through, and I’m especially struck by this line:  “You can’t touch me ’cause I’m untouchable.”

In the caste system in India, Pakistan, and other parts of the world, Untouchables were (and in some places, still are) the people at the very bottom, the lowest of the low. They were perceived as impure – so impure that if they touched you, even brushed up against you accidentally, you would become impure also. That’s why they were “untouchable” – because you must never touch them, or let them touch you.

When I was in sixth grade, I became friends with an elderly woman who lived near us who became a doctor back when very few women were doctors. She spent nearly 30 years working in Pakistan and India, and was just an incredible person. I loved to visit her and listen to her stories, and hearing about the Untouchables made a big impression on me. I used to wonder what it would be like to have everyone you loved or everything you cared about be corrupted by your touch – kind of like King Midas, but worse. Your touch turns everything impure rather than to metal.

That was Michael Jackson’s life after the 1993 allegations. His public image became so toxic, so impure, that anyone who supported him, any place that gave him sanctuary, any project he worked on was tainted as well. His friends and family, even his fans, were ridiculed in the press, and Lisa Marie Presley was treated horribly – nearly as badly as he was. “What More Can I Give,” a song to benefit victims of the September 11th terrorist attack, was portrayed as a cynical ploy to improve his image by exploiting a national tragedy. And his efforts to help children in need were criticized as, at best, inappropriate and, at worst, additional evidence of his brazen moral corruption. In other words, by the time Invincible came out, he had become an Untouchable. No one in the press believed his motives were genuine or pure, and everything he touched was symbolically contaminated merely by association with him.

In the chorus of “Unbreakable,” he seems to acknowledge this (“You can’t touch me ’cause I’m untouchable”) but then he does something remarkable that he did throughout his career:  he takes that cultural narrative and flips it inside-out, completely rewriting it. “You can’t touch me ’cause I’m untouchable” doesn’t feel like a concession. It feels like a declaration of strength. He’s “untouchable” because he’s too powerful to be touched, too invincible to be hurt. He conveys this redefinition both through the sheer power of his voice when singing this line and through a parallel line that echoes the first, emphasizing this bold new meaning:

You can’t touch me ’cause I’m untouchable . . .  
You’ll never break me ’cause I’m unbreakable  

He sings these lines six times over the course of “Unbreakable,” including three times in succession at the end of the track. These words are important, and in some ways capture in miniature what Jackson did over and over throughout his work. He’s positioning himself with the dispossessed and giving them a voice – in this case, those (including himself) classed as impure, outcast, “untouchable” – while fundamentally changing the narrative that disempowers them. In this context, his cry that “I’m untouchable” becomes a defiant challenge to those who try to twist his motives and impose their worst interpretations onto him.

Joie:  Wow. Ok, Willa. Now you have officially blown me away with that one!! I have never thought of “Unbreakable” in terms of caste. I have read about the caste systems in various parts of the world and you’re right, it is both fascinating and sad to think about. But I had never viewed this song in those terms.

I have to make a confession here. I absolutely adore the Invincible album. I am in love with it actually and most of the time, it runs a very close race with Dangerous as they vie for the title of my favorite Michael Jackson album. I have multiple copies of both of them. They are the only two Michael CDs that I must have at least 3 copies of at all times (one for my car, one for my husband’s truck, one for the CD player in my kitchen so that I can have music while I cook dinner). And that doesn’t even count the ones that I have given away over the years to friends and family members or the digital copies on my computer and my iPod.

So, needless to say, I have listened to this album about a million times and when listening to “Unbreakable,” that line about being untouchable never struck me that way before. I am really intrigued by this idea that he was identifying with the lowliest people on earth through that line and now that you’ve pointed it out, it just makes so much sense to me. Really profound observation! And you’re completely correct when saying that anyone who supported him was tainted as well. And I think, as fans, we can all attest that we still feel that way, to some degree. That stigma never really let up. Not for us and certainly not for him or his family.

Willa:  That’s interesting, because that line has always struck me that way, maybe because of those stories my friend told me way back in sixth grade, and because of the strong parallels to his life at that time. That’s one reason I think it’s so valuable to share interpretations of his work – because we all bring different ways of seeing and we can learn so much by sharing those different views. I’ve learned so much through my conversations with you. And this line from “Unbreakable” has always evoked a very powerful image for me – of Michael Jackson being made to feel ashamed and “untouchable” for something he didn’t do, and then rewriting that as a declaration of strength.

But you’re right, that stigma never let up, and the consequences were horrible – personally, professionally, and artistically. We see references to the pain of that stigma throughout Invincible. It’s like he can never escape it, and I really don’t know how he endured it for so long. It also ham-strung his efforts to help others, which had to be incredibly frustrating for him. He was passionately committed to social change and improving the lives of those classified as outsiders – a commitment we see throughout his career from “Ben,” his first solo hit when he was 13 years old, to the “Earth Song” number he was working on the day before he died. Yet he was severely hampered after 1993 because everything he did was seen through this lens of corruption and impurity. By 2001 he had matured into a truly amazing artist and should have been at his peak creatively, but he was shackled by those allegations. Not only was he reviled in the press, but other artists became reluctant to work with him – even his own record company was hesitant to support him.

Joie:  You’re absolutely right and I feel like in many ways, he never totally rebounded from the ’93 allegations. In fact, I often find myself wondering how his career would have been different if it had never happened. I mean, he was such an extraordinary talent with so much passion and imagination so, I wonder what amazing things he could have accomplished in his career – and in his life –  had the allegations in ’93 never happened. How would his career have unfolded if he had never been falsely accused of the most horrible of crimes? But I know those thoughts are pointless because, the allegations did happen and here we are. But as for Invincible, I also wonder what heights this truly incredible album could have seen if Sony had gotten behind him and promoted it properly.

This month there is a whole movement by Michael fans around the world to get the Invincible album to number one on the charts during October. It’s called the Invincible Campaign and its mission is two-fold. The first order of business is to get the album to number one in celebration of its 10th Anniversary (it was released in October, 2001). The second purpose of the campaign is to let the music from the album serve as a sort of backdrop or a peaceful banner for Michael during the trial of Conrad Murray in order to remind the world that Michael’s art was “Unbreakable” and “Invincible.”

Willa:  It also encourages fans, as well as the public at large, to take a second look at an album that never received the attention it deserved when it was first released. There’s a long tangled history here, but the result was that Sony didn’t promote it well, as you say. Much worse, to my mind, is that Sony prevented him from producing the videos he had planned for this album. I believe his visual art was as important as his music – that, in fact, he was able to express his ideas more fully through film than music – so cutting off that avenue of artistic expression from him is tragic, for him and us. Can you imagine the Thriller album without the videos for “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” or “Thriller?” He made ten videos for the Bad album and nine for Dangerous, but Sony cut him off after two for Invincible, refusing to let him create the video he had planned for “Unbreakable,” or any others – a decision that infuriated him. (It was after this decision that he launched the protests in Harlem.)

Joie:  Actually, Michael only really created one video for the Invincible album as he was so upset with Sony at the time that he refused to participate in the video for “Cry.” But you’re right, it was really such a shame that they chose not to support him.

Willa:  To me, that decision borders on criminal. What potential works of art did the world lose because of Sony’s short-sighted decision?  I’m sorry, but if Michelangelo has an idea for a sculpture and wants a 20-foot block of marble, you give him a 20-foot block of marble. You don’t tell him that marble is too expensive. You do everything in your power to provide him with whatever he needs to fulfill his artistic vision. And if Michael Jackson wants to create a video, then you do everything in your power to facilitate that. Can you imagine if the world had been deprived of Michelangelo’s David or the Pieta because he was denied the materials he needed to create them?

That’s how I feel about Sony’s decision. I’m just stunned that they would act this way – especially since you can make the argument that there wouldn’t even be a Sony music division as we know it without Michael Jackson – and I really wonder what he had planned for “Unbreakable.” It’s fascinating to think about, especially since this is such an intriguing song. For example, what about these lyrics: “You can’t believe it / You can’t conceive it.” What does that mean? What is he thinking? And would he have provided clues in the video he had planned – a video his own record company prevented him from making?

Joie:  I absolutely agree with you. What a HUGE mistake for Sony to virtually bail on their biggest artist, and it’s easy to understand why Michael felt that the company was plotting against him. I mean, even the album’s name frustrated him. The title track was, of course, supposed to be “Unbreakable” but, Sony “mistakenly” had the cover printed up with the wrong title song and by then it was too late to fix it.

But, I do want to point out that Sony was a very different place back then. Tommy Mattola, who was the head of Sony at the time and the one giving Michael such a hard time, is no longer there and hasn’t been since 2003. In fact, Sony has gone through three other chairmen/CEO’s since Matolla left so, it really is a different environment now than it was back then.

The whole fight between Michael and Sony became such a public mess with cries of conspiracy over the Sony/ATV catalog and I am certain that Michael had very good reason to feel the way he did. But the unfortunate outcome of it was that a truly wonderful work of art that Michael Jackson spent a great deal of time on, pouring his heart and soul into for months and months, got overlooked and pushed to the wayside in all of the confusion. The Invincible album is practically unknown outside of the fan world and it’s just such a shame that the rest of the world missed it because there are some real musical gems on this record. That’s why Willa and I wanted to do our part this October and help celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Invincible by doing a month-long series on the album.

And I have to admit that I did participate in the campaign’s buy event yesterday; I went out and purchased another copy of the CD. But, of course, I do that periodically anyway … it’s like a sickness! I am obsessed with this album.

Willa:  Well, as you know, I’m not the most technologically advanced person in the world, but I have this iPod I’m gradually bonding with – at least, I’m comfortable checking email and searching the web with it now. But my son keeps laughing at me because I’m so cautious about using it. As he pointed out the other day, I let it “mellow” in its box for four months before I even opened it. Apparently he’d been monitoring the situation to see how long it would take, but finally decided I was going to let the warranty expire before I ever tried it so finally just opened it for me and got it going. (He has one too.) And then practically the first thing I did with it was somehow take a picture of my own eyeball. He thinks this is all very funny – just the whole situation of his 50-year-old mother trying to figure out an iPod. It cracks him up.

Anyway, I’ve had this thing for 10 months now and still don’t have any music on it, so I was thinking I might download Invincible – my first music download! – and support the campaign at the same time. Wish me luck! And then next week we’ll continue our discussion of this remarkable yet frequently overlooked album.

Celebrating Invincible, Part 2

Willa:  A few weeks ago, Pamela visited our blog and posted this comment:

“I think whenever Michael wrote a song about a woman, the woman was us, the fans. I think he understood the love affair we had for each other (the fans and Michael)…. I felt he looked at us, the fans, as a single relationship and that was his inspiration. If you follow his songs, according to the major events in his life, you can see the feelings he writes about are how he thinks the fans are feeling about him during that time.”  

I thought this beautifully expressed an idea Joie and I have felt also:  that Michael Jackson’s love songs can be interpreted as a romance with a woman, or more metaphorically as describing that ongoing “love affair” between him and his audience.   Seen in this way, it seems significant that Invincible has so many songs of unrequited or fading love. From “Heartbreaker” and “Invincible” in the thundering opening trilogy with their stories of cold-hearted women who don’t care about him or won’t give him a chance, to the lyrical “Don’t Walk Away” and “Whatever Happens” and their poignant depictions of a love affair in trouble and in decline, Invincible is filled with songs of unfulfilled love.

Joie:  Willa, you know before reading M Poetica, I never really spent much time thinking about the love songs in terms of Michael’s relationship with his audience. I mean, it was always just sort of there, beneath the surface. But I never really thought about it in depth before you and I began discussing his work in a serious way. And now that I have been focusing on it more, it is amazing to me how it just jumps out at you.

For instance, listening to “Don’t Walk Away,” these lyrics in particular really strike me as so meaningful when viewing this song through that lens of Michael and his audience:

Don’t walk away  
See I just can’t find the right thing to say  
I tried but all my pain gets in the way  
Tell me what I have to do so you’ll stay  
Should I get down on my knees and pray
How  can I stop losing you  
And how  can I begin to stay  
When there’s nothing left to do but walk away
I close my eyes  
Just to try and see you smile one more time  
But it’s been so long now all I do is cry  
Can’t we find some love to take this away  
‘Cause the pain gets stronger every day  

It’s as if he is begging us – the audience – to tell him how to fix it. He’s not asking us what went wrong; he’s well aware of the problems this relationship has faced over the years. But he doesn’t want to let it die. This relationship is very important to him and he’s willing to work at it:  “Can’t you see, I don’t want to walk away,” he sings. He just needs to know how. He can’t figure it out so, he’s asking us. “How can I stop losing you?”  

Willa:  Oh heavens, Joie, those lines are so heart-wrenching for me, especially that last line, “Cause the pain gets stronger every day.” And for me it’s not an either-or decision of ‘is he talking about a romance’ or ‘is he talking about his audience’ – it’s both, simultaneously. It works as the story of a fading love affair with a woman, and as the troubled “love affair” Pamela described that he had with us, his audience.   And when he goes on to sing, “How am I to understand . . . why all my dreams been broken?” I can’t help but think of the aftermath of the 1993 allegations and how devastating that was, both for him personally and in terms of his relationship with his audience. I imagine there were many times when he felt that things had become so bad, there really was “nothing left to do but walk away.” But he didn’t. He kept trying to make it work.

Joie:  It is just heartbreaking! And what makes it so painful in my mind are these lines:  “I close my eyes / Just to try and see you smile one more time / But it’s been so long now all I do is cry.” That just tears me apart. How many times did we hear him say that he just wanted to make people happy? That he loved to be able to put a smile on someone’s face with his music? That’s what it was about for him – making us happy. But somewhere along the way he lost us; and he’s acknowledging that and he wants to fix it. But he just doesn’t know how. It’s like he doesn’t understand what it is we want from him. What does he have to do to make the audience love him again?

Heartbreaking. Particularly because the audience he’s singing to – or at least, the ones who are still paying attention – are already firmly on his side. We never left him; we never stopped loving him. But this song isn’t really directed toward us – the fans. Its intended audience is made up of the others – those who fell away when things got uncomfortable (they know who they are), those who eagerly took part in all the MJ-bashing that went on (the media), and those who jumped on the bandwagon because it got them a laugh or two (late-night comedians, talk show hosts, Those are the people he’s really singing to in this song. And, as always with the general public, his pleas fell on deaf ears. No one heard his cries but us – the fans.

Willa:  It is heartbreaking, and Joie, I think what you just said is so important. In fact, I think you put your finger on a crucial theme of this album. I was listening to all the songs of lost love on Invincible this afternoon and was really struck by this recurring theme that he’s inarticulate – either unable to speak at all, or speak in a way that will make a difference. In each of these songs, there’s a misunderstanding or some other barrier that is driving the couple apart or preventing them from connecting. He desperately wants to “tear down these walls” so she will see the truth and they will be united, but either he can’t speak or he can’t find the right words so she will listen to him. The title song, “Invincible,” begins with these lines:

If I could tear down these walls that keep you and I apart  
I know I could claim your heart and our perfect love will start  

But either he isn’t expressing himself in a way she understands, or she simply isn’t listening:

Now many times I’ve told you of all the things I would do  
But I can’t seem to get through, no matter how I try to  

As he tells us repeatedly in the chorus, “Even when I beg and plead, she’s invincible” – which perfectly parallels what you just said: “as always with the general public, his pleas fell on deaf ears.”

We see a similar situation in “Butterflies.” He’s trying to woo a woman, but he can’t speak, and she’s not listening anyway. It begins with these lines:

All you gotta do is walk away and pass me by  
Don’t acknowledge my smile when I try to say hello to you  
And all you gotta do is not answer my calls
When I’m trying to get through  
Keep me wondering why, when all I can do is sigh  

So again, he can’t communicate his thoughts and feelings to her – “all I can do is sigh.” As you quoted earlier, “Don’t Walk Away” begins with these lines:

Don’t walk away  
See I just can’t find the right thing to say  
I tried but all my pain gets in the way  
Tell me what I have to do so you’ll stay  
Should I get down on my knees and pray  

This time he can speak, but not in a way that she understands – “I just can’t find the right thing to say” – so he silently prays instead.

He repeats this idea in “Whatever Happens,” a truly beautiful song I just love. (I played this song over and over while writing M Poetica. Writing that book took me to some pretty dark and uncomfortable places, and this song helped me get through it. I just kept playing that wonderful chorus – “Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand” – and he sings it so beautifully). “Whatever happens” tells the story of a couple being torn apart by difficult circumstances in their lives, and once again his spoken words are ineffectual. All he can do is pray – in other words, speak to a higher power since he can’t seem to speak to her – and hope she somehow receives his message that way.

Everything will be all right, he assures her  
But she doesn’t hear a word that he says  
Preoccupied, she’s afraid . . .  
He doesn’t know what to say, so he prays  
Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand  

Over and over in these songs, we see this same situation of the protagonist unable to connect with the woman he loves because he can’t speak, and she can’t hear him – which is exactly how you described his relationship with the public at that time. He “can’t find the right thing to say,” and “she doesn’t hear a word that he says.” It’s pretty ironic because he’s an amazing songwriter and isn’t inarticulate at all. In fact, he’s very eloquent in describing his inarticulateness. However, it doesn’t matter how eloquent he is if his audience won’t listen to him, or misinterprets everything he says.

And then, in the midst of these songs of mute suffering, there’s “Speechless,” a beautiful expression of love and joy. The entire song is about his inability to speak – as the title says, he’s “speechless” – but it’s completely different this time. He’s speechless with joy. And even though he can’t speak, she understands and loves him anyway.

Joie:  Willa, I am floored! Until this very conversation I never paid attention to the fact there are so many songs on this amazing album that fit into this formula of parallel stories – a man and his lover / Michael and his audience. Or that have this recurring theme of not being able to communicate with the person he loves (or connect with his intended audience). Now I have to go back and listen to it all over again with new ears!

But, I love what you said about “Speechless” and I think the reason his inability to communicate feels different here is because, once again, his target audience is different. First of all, I firmly believe that this song is not about a romance but about the most precious thing in Michael’s life – his children. So, that’s the first story here. But the parallel, metaphorical story is that he’s singing to a very specific audience. That special group of people who have stood by him through thick and through thin; the millions of people whose love and support of him never wavered even when things got ugly. He’s talking to his fans here and he is so moved by the depth of their love that he can’t speak. That’s the reason she understands him anyway – because she (the fans) truly loves him unconditionally, and always has. She understands what he’s feeling even though he can’t put it into words.

Willa:  You know, when you said you felt “Speechless” was about his children, that reminded me of something Randy Taraborrelli wrote in his biography. He was doing a phone interview, I believe, and Michael Jackson told him that “Speechless” came to him while playing with a group of children. And of course, children are much more accepting than adults are. They don’t need to have everything explained to them in words – a hug works just as well. So thematically that fits also.

Joie:  Well, I am loving this whole month-long Invincible celebration and I hope everyone else is too. Next week we’ll be talking about Michael Jackson’s vocal range and the fact that he’s often not given the credit he deserves for being a truly talented vocalist – something that the Invincible album highlights perfectly!

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 July 11, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the re-cap ladies. Invincible is always an album that left me feeling a little disconnected. As always, I’m going to have to pull it out an listen with new ears.

  2. Gloria Christopher

    Invincible is my favorite album. First I feel he gives free range to his voice in all of it’s incredible beauty and one just has to sit down and listen. The songs “Don’t Walk Away” and “Whatever Happens” impressed me as written about his relationship with Lisa Marie.
    And “Break of Dawn” has that expression too.

  3. I listened to Invincible with fresh ears after Michael’s passing; the lyrics are so profound and, I believe, a direct lens into his soul. I purchased a couple more albums during the campaign and passed them on to friends. I hadn’t though of the lyrics of Don’t Walk Away as beseeching his fans to stay with him, but I can now see that as a possibility. I have read that Mottola is coming out with a book next year “about his life”; I hope he stays away from the subject of his relationships with Michael while head of Sony, but, sadly, that will probably be the hook that draws buyers. Thank you ladies for this update on Invincible.

  4. I have always felt that Invincible was a great album. Michael showed that he could switch things up a little and make it sound great! I believed that the album was a nice change for the new millenium. To those who don’t like it, that is your own personal opinion. As for me, Michael will always be the MAN!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Iris Valgaeren

    Wow, this post has really blown me away!
    Did you know that Katherine Jackson called Michael (and probably his sisters & brothers too) : my baby? So I do believe that for most of the time MJ’s “My baby” refers to his inner personality.
    Further, MJ always feld a connection with India, he even described his first visit to India as “coming home”. (he was a Jehova’s witness, so I think he referred to it as a reincarnation)
    And he did dance on the street corner with the street children, maybe “the intouchables”.

    Iris (Belgium)

  6. aldebaranredstar

    Off topic, but what about all this stuff happening with some of the Jacksons challenging the Estate and asking the Executors to resign, and this just after the good news that they have cleared the bulk of the debts and hope to clear them all by the end of 2012, and on top of this, the Bad 25 releases coming up? Hmmm. BTW, Willa and Joie, did you guys get your copies of the new single yet? I have been reading about this letter and how it is impacting the children, especially Paris. I really feel bad that they are getting caught up in this kind of feuding. It seems a bit late late to ask the Executors to resign so I am wondering why now.

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