Summer Rewind Series, Week 5: Rock My World

NOTE: The following conversation was originally posted on November 17, 2011. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Spotlight on You Rock My World

Willa:  So Joie, in October we spent the entire month taking a close look at the Invincible album, including some of the battles Michael Jackson had with Sony during its production and promotion. To be honest, I never knew much about those battles or paid much attention to them, but focusing on Invincible for a month forced me to really think about what he must have been going through then, and that’s led me to look at the You Rock My World video in a whole new way.

To be honest, this video has always made me really uncomfortable. It’s very angry, for one thing – one of his angriest. But Black or White is angry also, and I love Black or White. It’s one of my favorites. But Black or White expresses a righteous anger. I watch it and come away feeling empowered and inspired and ready to take on the world. You Rock My World is completely different. I watch it and just feel frustrated and powerless and angry, and not even sure who I’m mad at.

Joie:  Well, I understand completely about the video making you uncomfortable. I have always had a similar reaction to this one. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it makes me uncomfortable but, I do come away from it feeling very on edge. The whole video just feels a little bit raw to me. Like you can actually feel the tension beneath the surface as you watch it. And I think the reasons for that are really clear. I’m sure Michael was feeling very “frustrated and powerless and angry” by that point. As you know, You Rock My World was not the video he originally wanted to make. As you mentioned last month, he really wanted to make a video for “Unbreakable.” This is also the song he wanted to be the lead single from the album, not to mention the title of the the album itself. He already had the video concept worked out and everything so, when Sony made the decision to release “You Rock My World” instead of “Unbreakable,” I know he probably felt extreme anger and frustration. One would think that an artist of Michael’s caliber would have complete autonomy and control over how a project would unfold. And maybe that very issue was one of the bones of contention between him and Sony at the time.

But, I remember getting the phone call from the MJFC president back in 2001 when all of this was happening and her telling me that the video Michael wanted to make had to be scrapped because of friction with Sony and Michael was now scrambling to make a video for “You Rock My World” and it had to be completed in a very short amount of time and he was “less than happy” about the situation. And I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, I bet he’s pissed!’

Willa:  And you can really feel a lot of those intense emotions in this video. The plot has his character trying to woo a young woman, and as we’ve talked about a number of times in previous posts, these love interests often seem to represent his audience. Importantly, another character played by Chris Tucker – a popular entertainer in his own right – is also attracted to her. So this woman – possibly representing their audience – has more than one performer competing for her attention, just as entertainers often seem to compete for an audience and market share.

Michael Jackson’s character is pretty sure of himself and confident he can win her over, but they go to a club where the managers want her also and seem to think they have a right to her, and they try to keep him away from her. In fact, he begins having confrontations with these managers and ultimately the club owner, just as Michael Jackson himself was having increasingly heated confrontations with the managers and ultimately the head of Sony over how to reach an audience.

Joie:  Wow, Willa. You know, I never really thought about that connection of the club managers and the big boss, played to perfection by Marlon Brando, as possibly representing the powers-that-be at Sony but, now that you point it out, it makes perfect sense! Really keen observation.

Willa:  Well, I’d never thought about it before either until we were working on the Invincible posts, and you clued me in to what exactly was happening then and just how bad it was. And as I was thinking about that, I realized that the emotions of that situation precisely paralleled those unsettling emotions that have always made this such an uncomfortable video for me to watch.

So Michael Jackson’s character has to deal with all these confrontations with the managers, and he responds by performing – by singing and dancing – which is what he always does in his videos when forced to deal with confrontational situations. And as we’ve seen in videos stretching back to Beat It and Bad, the power of art has always been able to bridge those differences and bring about some sort of harmonious resolution.

But that doesn’t happen this time. The outcome is completely different here than in any other Michael Jackson video because the people he’s battling against don’t respect his art. The managers watch him dance and then taunt him, saying “That’s it? That’s all you got? That ain’t nothin.’ You ain’t nothin.’ C’mon, big man, show me all you got.”

Then later, in that crucial scene with the club owner, the owner trivializes his art as well, saying, “You were pretty cute in there.” That’s exactly the kind of patronizing thing an executive, a money guy, would think about an artist, and it is so incredibly condescending and disrespectful. Can you imagine Michael Jackson, a brilliant artist who put himself on the line every time he walked on stage, coming off stage after dancing his heart out and hearing, “You were pretty cute in there.” That is such a belittling thing to say to a dancer, and it just scorches me every time I hear it.

However, Michael Jackson’s character responds in an interesting way. He gives the owner a defiant look and says, “I know who you are” – which immediately leads me to think, Who? Who is this guy? The simple answer is that he represents Tommy Mattola, the head of Sony at the time, but that’s a little too easy, I think. Instead, I think it’s more useful to see him as symbolic of all those executives and accountants and mid-level managers who make money off artists but don’t really respect them or understand what they’re doing, or realize how important it is.

Joie:  It’s interesting that you say that, Willa, because I remember reading an account of a Sony listening party for Invincible and it seemed so intense. I can’t remember now exactly where I read it but, basically it was Michael and his manager or his publicist or someone like that, in a room with a bunch of Sony executives and they sat and listened to the entire album from start to finish. And when the album was over, no one said a word. The Sony execs just got up and filed out of the room without saying a word to Michael – no congratulations, no words of praise, no nothing. And it just reminds me of that part you pointed out from the video. “Is that all you got? That ain’t nothin’. You ain’t nothin’.” I’m sure, that must have been what Michael was feeling at the end of that listening party when they all got up and left without saying a word.

Willa:  Are you serious? How awful! And it’s so interesting that you should cite that passage again because “You ain’t nothin’” is a line from the Bad video as well, which in many ways depicts a comparable situation. There, he’s a young man from the inner city who received a scholarship to a prep school, and then comes home and has to regain the respect of guys he thought were his friends, but aren’t really. Now he’s involved in a similar confrontation with Sony and having to regain the respect of people who should be supporting him, but aren’t really.

In fact, the You Rock My World video frequently references his earlier work:  “P. Y. T.,” “The Girl is Mine,” “Beat It,” “Bad,” “Dangerous.” And all of those songs were hits that made money for Sony specifically. He doesn’t mention any of his Motown hits. They’re included in a fun way, so they add a touch of humor to the video, but I think there’s an underlying message as well. He’s reminding Sony that he’s done his part – he’s built an audience and proven he can create big money-making hits. Now it’s time for them to do their part and support him while he creates something more experimental and artistically challenging, like the Invincible album.

Joie:  Again, that is such a keen observation and I have to say that I agree with you completely. And in fact, this opening sequence of the video where his earlier work is cited – first at the Chinese restaurant and then at the club – is the most fun, relaxing, entertaining part of the entire video. He’s with his friend, Chris Tucker and the two of them are having really good fun playing with the words and interacting with each other, and it is as if he is sort of reminding everyone of the hits, reminding us – Sony and the audience as well – of why we fell in love with him in the first place.

And really, if you think about it, it isn’t until he leaves Chris’ side to begin wooing the girl that things start to get a little bit uncomfortable. That’s when we begin to feel the tension creep in. That’s when we begin to get the feeling that there is more going on just beneath the surface that we’re not fully aware of. We can feel his anger and frustration but, we don’t really know why.

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Joie. While there’s something of a competition between these two characters, they’re presented as good friends and it feels like fun back-and-forth bantering – unlike the tension-filled conflicts with the managers of the club. You know, stepping back and looking at this video through the lens of all the confrontations that were happening then with the executives at Sony has helped me figure out why it always made me so uncomfortable – it’s helped me see at least one possible reason for why it’s so angry and where that anger comes from – and understanding that has given me a way to get into this video and appreciate it a lot more. It doesn’t make me so uncomfortable now because I have a better idea of what’s causing all those intense emotions.

And they are intense. To be honest, I get the feeling that by the time this video came out, Michael Jackson had had it up to here with Sony. And as he shows pretty dramatically in the conclusion to You Rock My World, he’s done with negotiations. He’s ready to burn the place down.

Joie:  He was so over it; he was done. You have to feel pretty angry to want to burn the place down, even symbolically. I don’t think it takes much art interpretation to understand that scene. The place goes up in flames and presumably, the big boss goes with it, as we see him turning to head back up the stairs instead of out of the building with everyone else. And not only is he so angry he’s ready to torch the place but, he’s also angry enough to fight. You have to remember that this is the one and only video where we see Michael throw a punch! As the club is going up in flames and he’s shouting for Chris to get the car, he is embroiled in a bar room brawl.

Willa:  Wow, Joie, I think you’ve just highlighted something really important. We’ve never seen him lash out like that before. Michael Jackson punch someone in the face? That’s shocking! But even so, he makes it clear he didn’t come looking for a fight. Before the brawl breaks out, he and his dancers perform this subtle movement of pulling back the lower edge of their jackets, just as the street tough does in Bad to reveal he has a gun. But here, they reveal they have no guns. So he’s unarmed and he isn’t looking for a fight – but he’s ready to fight if threatened and pushed too far.

Joie:  And significantly, in his own life he is going through a situation where he feels the need to fight and he does so in very public ways – something many people were not used to seeing from him. This is a man who was always more inclined to ‘turn the other cheek’ than to go into battle but he has clearly had just about all that he can stand.

And, of course, at the end we see our hero connect with his love interest – the audience – as they all pile into the car and drive safely away.

Willa:  I agree, and I think you were really onto something earlier when you said there’s a very friendly feeling between these characters. The intense conflicts in this video come almost exclusively from the confrontation with the managers, not the competition between the friends. We see that reflected in the conclusion as well. They are still friends and in a way they both have the girl – she’s in the car with both of them – just as performers can share an audience and even help each other gain an audience. Looking at this symbolically, the video seems to be saying that artists should band together because other artists aren’t the problem. The problem comes from all the people trying to control artists and how they express themselves simply to maximize profit without really understanding what they’re trying to say or accomplish through their work.

And I have to say, in this context Marlon Brando plays the role of the club owner so well, especially his interactions with the main character. He completely belittles Michael Jackson’s character but smiles a wonderful smile, he’s charming, you want to like him – and yet you know he would have his henchmen slip a knife through your heart without a moment’s regret. His smile is open, engaging, sincere, and yet he is soulless. Brando was such an amazing actor, and what he does with that little scene is so compelling. To me, it just completely captures the essence of that character.

Joie:  I agree, Brando is great, as always! But I want to go back to the middle of the video for a moment and talk about two small parts that stand out for me and I already know one of them is a big stand out moment for you too, Willa. The first one is the part that intrigues us both:  that way-too-short interlude before the fighting begins where we suddenly become aware of the sounds in the club. The “street music” as you called it. We hear the rhythm of the broom sweeping across the floor and the glasses clinking, the shoe shine guy buffing, the high heals clicking and the patrons tapping on the tables. To me, this rhythm section feels like a pause in the tension. It almost feels out of place in terms of the dominant negative emotions that are driving the rest of the video.

The second part comes just before the rhythm section when we see a stage and a spotlight. Presumably, we’re in the same club but the setting is different. No one else is around. It’s just Michael and the lady he’s trying to woo. Only she is dressed very differently in a sexy suit and fedora, like him. And instead of commanding that spotlight as he rightfully should, Michael does something unexpected. He chooses not to dance this small solo ‘spotlight’ moment, opting instead to let the female love interest take center stage and do her best MJ impersonation while he simply glides across the floor behind her. This scene has always puzzled me because, again, it just seems a little out of place among the tension of the rest of the video. And yet, I know that it’s significant because it is so different and out of place.

Willa:  You know, art interpretation is a tricky thing. It’s tremendously fun and I love it, especially with an artist like Michael Jackson whose work is so rich, with so much to discover and explore. But it can also be a challenge sometimes to explore all the possible meanings of a work while still staying true to the artist’s vision. In this case, I really don’t think that Michael Jackson sat down and said, I’m going to create a video that is a symbolic critique of Sony and its minions, and A is going to represent B, and Y is going to represent Z. I seriously doubt that. Very few artists work that way, and from everything I’ve read about his creative process, his work tended to develop much more organically than that.

But I do think that, at the time he created this video, he was embroiled in some intense conflicts with Sony and was very frustrated and angry about that, and some of those emotions and conflicts expressed themselves in his work. And I think that looking at this video through the lens of what he was experiencing at that time allows us to see some things that weren’t apparent before.

For example, that whole “street music” sequence is simply wonderful, and I love to just experience it and enjoy it for what it is – a lovely tapestry of found sounds skillfully woven together to form music. But if I look at this sequence in terms of everything that was going on then with Sony, it seems significant to me that Michael Jackson’s character is totally tuned in to this street music, this music of the people, and beautifully engages with it and threads the rhythm of it into his music – and the club managers aren’t. They’re oblivious to this rhythm of the people. So through music, Michael Jackson’s character shares a deep symbiotic connection with the people, just as Michael Jackson himself did, but it’s a connection the club managers and Sony executives don’t participate in and don’t understand. That’s why it’s so galling that they’re the ones making the marketing decisions – decisions that not only affect his art (like canceling the “Unbreakable” video) but actually impose barriers between him and his audience.

Joie:  That’s a great point, Willa and I think you just hit the ball out of the park with that one! This is why that sequence has always seemed so out of place to me. Because it’s like, for that brief instant, Michael hits the pause button on all of the tension and the anger he feels toward the club managers (and the Sony execs) and just connects with the audience for a minute – to make sure we’re still there with him. That’s why this street music portion is so powerful and such an important part of the video!

And I agree with you about his creative process. I don’t think he ever set out to create a video where A represents this and B represents that. As you and I have talked about before, ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,’ as Freud would say. And perhaps, this spotlight scene that fascinates me so much is one of those cases. Maybe it was just a cool visual that he wanted to include. Or perhaps he was aware of Kishaya Dudley – the dancer in the role – and her impressive skills and wanted to give her a spotlight to shine. Or maybe it was more than that.

Since we have argued in the past that the love interest in many of his songs and videos ultimately represents his audience, perhaps we can look at this small scene in the same way. You know, the fans were – and still are – fiercely loyal to Michael and during his conflict with Sony, the fans were very vocal and they took up his charge with gusto, executing rallies and chanting ‘Sony Sucks’ to the delight of the press. In fact, Michael often called his fans his ‘Army of Love.’ So, if the love interest is supposed to represent his audience, then maybe the message here is that it’s time for us – the audience – to get into the act, so to speak, while he encourages us from the background. Or maybe – and I think this might be more to the point – he is acknowledging how the fans always step up to fight for him just as Ms. Dudley stepped into the spotlight in his place.

Willa:  That makes a lot of sense to me, Joie, and it reminds me again of the street music sequence. It’s like he’s emphasizing once again that deep connection he and his audience share through music and dance, and the strength and vitality each receives from the other. We love and support him; he loves and inspires us. He dances; we dance. It’s a deeply interconnected relationship that nourishes us all.

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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 July 25, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I must just tell you this. During the London riots last summer, I think it was, a large tall building went up in flames and a TV helicopter flew over it to film it, and the giant letters on the roof said ‘S O N Y’! I thought ‘Wow’ and why did they film it? Did someone have an idea that it meant something? Incidentally, my favourite songs on ‘Invincible’ are ‘Speechless’, ‘Don’t Walk Away’ and ‘Whatever Happens.’ My heart is beating faster and I feel breathless when I hear them. They always affect me a lot.

    • Hi Nina. I love those also – in fact, I went through several weeks where I played “Whatever Happens” over and over again. It was when I was researching the 1993 molestation allegations and police response. Michael Jackson’s later works keep pointing back to that period, so I felt like I had to learn more about what happened to understand what he was trying to say in those works, but I really didn’t want to. My son was 12 years old – just the age that boy was in 1993 – and I really didn’t want to go there. But finally I felt like I had to, and it was terrible. It sent me to such a dark place. And I just felt this compulsion to play “Whatever Happens” over and over. It’s hard to explain, but it was very reassuring to me, and it still feels comforting to me – even though it’s telling a sad story. Funny how that works. And I still love it.

  2. Hi guys here I am again – been very busy and not even able to look at the blogs but have just caught up with this one. I remember reading it the first time around with great interest as I knew nothing of these battles, and also felt very uncomfortable when I watched this video. You made it so much more understandable and therefore easier to watch. Interesting that Michael throws a punch, but also in Smooth Criminal he elbows one of the bad guys in the kidneys – remember that?
    I also love the “street music” part and it reminds me just how well attuned Michael was to that and how he had people going out recording all sorts of ‘everyday’ sounds – just brilliant!!
    I can’t remember where (was it in M Poetica Willa? I think so on reflection?) but I recently read about how awful Michael looked when he showed up for rehersals for You Rock My World video, and the Director made him pull his hat down over his face for a lot of the shots. Anyone have any comments on that?? We all know that nothing was random with Michael’s work, even if a cigar was a cigar (love that), so why did he turn up looking awful, if in fact he did?
    Speechless is still my all-time favourite song on any album, and that one I listen to over and over again -sheet poetry in song!!
    Hope you all having a great summer break, as I ‘endure’ a very cold and wet winter in Cape Town.

    • Hi Caro. I agree – the “street music” part of You Rock My World is amazing. I just love it!

      I think the quotation you’re thinking about was of Paul Hunter, the director of You Rock My World. I quoted it in M Poetica, but it originally came from a Rolling Stone article by Brian Hiatt called “What Went Wrong.” Here’s what the article says:

      Jackson was oblivious to how his appearance came off. When he showed up in 1991 with ghostly-pale skin in the video for “Black or White,” he had absolutely no sense that listeners might apply the title to his own life.

      “Look at the guy’s face, and I mean that in a very sad way,” says a music-industry source who worked with Jackson. “If he couldn’t see that, why would he see the irony of the title?”

      For one of Jackson’s final music videos, 2001’s Guys-and-Dolls-in-Cuba-style “You Rock My World,” director Paul Hunter simply resorted to hiding the star’s ravaged features as much as he possibly could – there’s even an extended dance sequence where Jackson performs entirely in silhouette. “One of the tricks that we did was we said, ‘We’re in this gangster world, so let’s come in with some swagger, get your hat brim pulled down, get a doo-rag going.’ What I tried to do was not call too much attention to it.”

      Of course, I don’t think he was “oblivious” at all….

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