Monthly Archives: September 2012
Willa: So this week we’re wrapping up our month-long celebration of Bad, but that doesn’t mean we’re leaving it behind. I imagine we’ll be talking quite a bit about Bad and Bad 25, and the additional tracks, and the concert DVD, and the Spike Lee documentary as well. There are a lot of exciting things to discuss!
But this week we’re concluding our celebration with a look at Leave Me Alone, which is one of Michael Jackson’s sharpest and most pointed critiques of celebrity media – all contained in a fun and very entertaining video. And you know, Joie, one of the first things that jumps out at me are all the images of confinement we see in the video. Aldebaranredstar talked about the theme of entrapment in a comment about Dirty Diana a couple weeks ago, and we definitely see that here as well. Both he and Bubbles are portrayed with a ball and chain clamped to their ankles, and chains on their wrists. We also see a Lilliputian figure driving in a stake with ropes to hold him down, and we later discover an entire theme park has been built on his reclining body. More subtly, we see him encased in tabloid photographs, and in a dollar bill.
But importantly, he subverts all these efforts to constrain and define him. Those static images of him aren’t static at all – they move and sing, like the portraits in a Harry Potter movie. He dances with the ball and chain, so it becomes nothing more than a stage prop in a Vaudeville act. And ultimately he breaks free from the fun house industry that has built itself on him and his body.
Joie: Willa, I think it’s very interesting that you just referred to the amusement park that is restraining him as a “fun house industry,” because that is a really telling metaphor for fame and the business of being a celebrity. And I have always thought the Leave Me Alone video was just brilliant because of that image at the very end when we discover that all of the scenes we’ve just witnessed are ultimately a part of this giant amusement park – or “fun house” – that the media presumably has built around Michael Jackson. That was just a genius idea and so perfect for the concept of a video for this particular song.
Willa: I agree. It beautifully captures in a visual way how an entire industry built itself on him – and if you think about it, that’s really true.
Joie: It is true. In fact, I think an argument could be made that the current state of things, with the media feeling entitled to every aspect of a star’s personal life, began with their treatment of Michael Jackson.
Willa: Well, I don’t know. I mean, it seems like there have been people like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons since the early days of the movie industry – or at least its adolescence – and they could make life pretty miserable for celebrities. You definitely didn’t want to have them on your trail if you were a gay actor in the 1950s. And really, the tabloid press has been part of American life since before we were a nation. In fact, it’s been suggested that the American revolution might not have happened if there hadn’t been pamphleteers stirring things up. And some of the early political attacks were shocking – scandalous stories of corruption and debauchery and illegitimate children with no basis in fact.
Joie: Well, that may all be true, Willa but, I believe the media’s treatment of Michael Jackson hit an all time low and paved the way for the extremely intrusive, bully-style aggressive paparazzi that everyone loves so much. And I think that in the Leave Me Alone short film, Michael makes it pretty clear how he felt about the media’s behavior.
Willa: I see what you’re saying, Joie – I really do – but you know, even that is problematic. I mean, when he was creating this video, he obviously wanted to express his feelings about the tabloid press and what it felt like to be the subject of so much public scrutiny and speculation. And if he truly hated it, you’d think he’d depict it in unequivocally horrible ways – like being tortured by the Inquisition, or grilled during the McCarthy hearings, or nibbled to death by ants, or chased by savage hyenas, or stung by a swarm of killer bees, or something agonizing like that.
But he doesn’t. He depicts it as a ride through an amusement park, with sideshows and a carnivalesque atmosphere. And here’s the kicker – Michael Jackson loved amusement parks and sideshows and carnivals. He really admired P.T. Barnum (there’s a picture of him on the cover of the Dangerous album) and Barnum specialized in whipping up public interest in human and animal oddities and “freak shows” – precisely the kind of sideshow attractions we see throughout Leave Me Alone.
And really, the mood of this video isn’t one of anger or resentment. He seems more amused than angry, and incredulous that people would actually believe such crazy things. He’s smiling through much of the video as he rides past all these exhibits – in fact, he smiles more in this video than any other video I can think of. At one point he actually breaks out in laughter, which gives us a clue to the question he asks repeatedly in the lyrics: “Who’s laughin’, baby?” Apparently the correct answer is Michael Jackson himself. The tabloids are trying to turn him into an object of ridicule, but he’s the one laughing.
Joie: That’s true, Willa. He is smiling a lot in this video, although I think he actually smiles more in the Speed Demon short film.
Willa: Oh, you’re right! And interestingly, that video talks about celebrity also – about being pursued by obsessive fans.
Joie: Yes it does, but we’re getting a little bit off topic. I agree with you that his critique of the media in this video is very subtly done and he masks it well with the whole ‘fun house’ approach. But I believe that his disdain for the media is actually hidden in plain view here. You’re right that he loved amusement parks, they were one of his most favorite things in the world, and his admiration of P.T. Barnum is well known. But I think it’s very telling that he places himself as the subject of all of the attractions and “freak show” oddities that he rides past. And while those fun house attractions are meant to poke fun at some of the most persistent – and most ridiculous – tabloid rumors about his life, his message is pretty clear, I think. In his book, Man in the Music, Joe Vogel tells us:
“For years, the press – mainstream and tabloid alike – fed on Michael Jackson like no other pop star in history. ‘Leave Me Alone’ is his expression of exasperation at a media and public that had grown insatiable.”
And, in fact, in an interview about the song itself, Michael said this:
“I’m sending a simple message here: Leave me alone. The song is about a relationship between a guy and a girl, but what I’m really saying to people who are bothering me is, ‘leave me alone!'”
I don’t think you can get much clearer than that.
Willa: That’s true, and I think it’s significant that one of the tabloids is named The Intruder. I also think it’s very interesting that in that interview he explicitly links the lyrics “about a relationship between a guy and a girl” with his relationship “to people who are bothering me,” such as reporters and the paparazzi. That’s a pattern we see in many of his songs and something we’ve talked about quite a bit in the past, but I’d never heard Michael Jackson himself discuss that connection before. That’s really interesting.
But Joie, I also love what you just said about how “he places himself as the subject of all of the attractions and ‘freak show’ oddities that he rides past.” That is such an important point, I think. He positions himself as the “freak” in the “freak show” and exaggerates that to outrageous proportions, with one of the tabloid headlines screaming, “Jackson’s 3rd Eye Starts Sunglass Fad” and another, “Michael and Diana Same Person!”
Joie: I’ll bet he had fun coming up with those headlines!
Willa: Oh, I bet he did too! But his response to all that is interesting. He doesn’t deny those stories – they’re too ridiculous to bother with – and he certainly doesn’t try to convince us he’s normal. Instead, he celebrates difference, as he always does. So it seems to me there’s an interesting double message here. On the one hand, he doesn’t like being called a freak (which brings to mind that confrontation between the Mayor and the Maestro in Ghosts) but at the same time, he seems to be saying it’s ok to be different and kind of celebrating freakishness.
Joie: Yes, I would agree with that. And I think it’s a message he tried to get across to us often. It’s in many of his songs and videos if you think about it.
Willa: It really is – ever since “Ben,” which as you know holds a very special place for me. But all of this reminds me of P.T. Barnum again. There are people who, through no fault of their own, are treated like freaks – because of their height or their weight or their pigmentation or some other physical attribute. It’s completely unfair, and generally it’s considered polite to pretend there’s no difference, while secretly feeling that there is. But Barnum didn’t do the polite thing. He hired people who were in this position and put them on display, but he also treated them as people. Tom Thumb was his most famous “discovery,” and the two became close friends and toured Europe together – and became celebrities together.
This is all very problematic, but I do think it’s important that Barnum insisted on the humanity of every person, including people who were often treated as outcasts in their own communities. As he said in a passionate speech to the Connecticut state senate, as they were debating the rights of freed slaves following the Civil War,
“A human soul . . . is not to be trifled with. It may inhabit the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hotentot—it is still an immortal spirit.”
I see that insistence on the humanity of all people, including people unfairly labeled as freaks, continuing on in Michael Jackson – except in this case, the person on display is himself. Or rather, he’s in a double position: he’s the object of the spectacle, but he’s also witnessing it and commenting on it at the same time.
Joie: Hmm. I see what you’re saying and I agree with you, Willa. Barnum did insist on their humanity, and that makes me think about that old Ebony/Jet interview that took place shortly after the release of the Bad album. The journalist asks Michael about his fondness for John Merrick, the Elephant Man, and he says that his favorite part of that film is where Merrick shouts, “Leave me alone! I am not an animal. I’m a human being!” What I love about that part of the interview is that, before the interviewer can even get the words out, Michael has already quoted the very part that the interviewer is talking about. And what a quote it is! Not only is it perfect for this discussion we’re having, but it could also describe Michael himself.
Willa: It really could – and it’s so interesting that it begins with the title of this video – “Leave me alone!” – and that Merrick is the one shouting it. That’s fascinating. I wonder if that’s where the title came from?
Joie: The title of the song? I don’t know; that’s an interesting question. And it is fascinating, isn’t it? In that interview, Michael tells his interviewer that he identifies with John Merrick: “I feel a closeness to [him],” he says. You know, the media always tried to make that something weird but, in actuality, it’s a very compassionate thing to have a fondness for John Merrick.
Willa: I agree.
Joie: In fact, long before that rumor of Michael wanting to buy the Elephant Man’s bones, I developed my own fondness for John Merrick. I don’t see how anyone could watch that movie and not become fond of him. Or, at the very least, have a little bit of compassion for the man. He was – as he said – a human being! And I think it was such a bold and fun move for Michael to highlight that particular rumor in the Leave Me Alone short film the way he does, dancing with the Elephant Man’s bones. I think that is just hilarious!
Willa: Oh, it’s wonderful! It’s such a funny, bizarre, Vaudeville, carnivalesque scene – who would ever dream up something like that? But it’s also significant, I think, that he and the Elephant Man’s bones are dancing side by side. That gets back to what you were saying earlier, Joie, about how he positions himself in this video as one of the spectacles. I think it’s very important that he and the Elephant Man are both on display, dancing the same movements in tandem, so are clearly presented as equals in that scene. It’s like he’s created a visual representation of what he told the interviewer – of the connection he feels to the Elephant Man.
And importantly, Merrick tried to make people understand how painful it was to be in that position – always on display, always treated as different – by shouting, “Leave me alone! I am not an animal. I’m a human being!” as you quoted earlier. And I think that’s exactly what Michael Jackson is telling us in this video as well. He’s occupying a double position – as spectacle and as observer of the spectacle – and he’s encouraging us as an audience to consider this situation from both of those perspectives and consider what that must feel like for him.
Joie: It’s very brilliant really. And you’re right. Who would ever think of that concept but Michael Jackson? The video was directed by Jim Blashfield and it actually won a Grammy in 1988 for Best Music Video Short Form. It also won an MTV Video Music Award for Best Special Effects in a Video. And, as always, I wonder just how much of the concept was the director and how much was Michael. He told an MTV interviewer in 1999 that he was always very involved in the conception process, and Joe Vogel tells us in Man in the Music that Blashfield directed “with input from Jackson.”
Willa: Oh, I think he was very involved. If he had one or two exceptional videos to his name, then you might think it was just the work of the director. But when you consider that he made one exceptional film after another, with around 30 different directors, and the only common element was him – well, then at some point you have to conclude that the true guiding presence behind his work was Michael Jackson himself.
Willa: So Joie, you’d think I’d have learned by now never to label any of Michael Jackson’s videos as “just entertainment.” I thought that about You Rock My World – that it was “just entertainment” – but after talking with you about it last fall I’ve come to see it as a very pointed critique of the music industry. I thought that about In the Closet, but after talking with you about it last January I’ve come to see it as a fascinating look at taboo relationships. At different times I’ve thought it about Thriller, and Smooth Criminal, and Scream, but later came to see those three as some of his most important works. And I’ve thought it about Speed Demon, but now I’m starting to wonder if I haven’t been overlooking something important in that video as well.
It seems to me there are two major themes running through the nine Bad videos. First, there’s the extremely complicated issue of violence, poverty, and criminality, especially as it presents itself in the inner city. We see this theme in the videos for Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, Man in the Mirror, Smooth Criminal, and Speed Demon. Then there’s the complicated issue of celebrity and fame, as we see in Dirty Diana, Leave Me Alone, Liberian Girl, Another Part of Me, and Speed Demon. So Speed Demon – that cute, quirky, inoffensive little claymation video – is the place where these two major themes intersect.
Joie: Willa, I have to say, you have me intrigued now because I don’t think of Speed Demon in terms of “violence, poverty and criminality,” as you put it.
Willa: Well, he has a light touch. You wouldn’t think someone could make an enjoyable video about some of our worst and most complicated social ills, but he did – over and over again.
Joie: Well, yes. That’s true; he did. But, I’m not sure I see that going on in Speed Demon. And I also never would have thought about Liberian Girl or Another Part of Me as commentaries on celebrity and fame so, I’m interested to see where you’re going with this.
Willa: I know what you mean, Joie. I would have said the same thing just a few days ago. Speed Demon especially seems to have more in common with Wallace & Gromit than Beat It, at least on the surface.
Joie: Wallace & Gromit. That’s funny!
Willa: Well, you know what I’m saying – it’s claymation! But remember a couple weeks ago when you asked me what I saw as the major themes of Bad?
Willa: Well, I’d never thought about that before, so I started listening to the songs and watching the videos with that question in mind, and as I was doing that these two very disparate themes started to emerge, especially in the videos. I mean, think about it: is there a video anywhere with more celebrities than Liberian Girl? It’s nothing but celebrities. And suddenly there’s Michael Jackson behind the scenes laughing, which seems like such an interesting statement all in itself!
And look at the opening of Another Part of Me and how it focuses on his complicated relationship with his fame – how he both enjoys it but seeks refuge from it, and how he uses it to convey his “message” – a message he states very clearly in the chorus:
We’re sending out a major love And this is our message to you The planets are lining up We’re bringing brighter days They’re all in line waiting for you Can’t you see? You’re just another part of me
So he’s on a mission to send “major love” out into the world, and he uses his art and his celebrity to help him accomplish that. But this isn’t an easy issue – his celebrity both empowers him and isolates him. And as usual, he presents these ideas in subtle but sophisticated ways in the video.
Joie: Hmm. That is very interesting, Willa. I see your point. And what you’re saying makes a lot of sense. I guess, now that you mention it, I have been thinking of both Liberian Girl and Another Part of Me as purely entertainment. And you’re right – that is something that we should never do when it comes to Michael Jackson.
Willa: We really shouldn’t. It’s easy to fall into that because his work is so entertaining, but there are always so many layers to his work, and a lot of times there are really interesting things happening if we just look. Like it’s easy to dismiss Speed Demon as just a cartoon, but it addresses his complicated relationship with his celebrity as well. It opens with him being chased by some over-eager fans, and they’re pretty rude and obnoxious.
Joie: Oh, they are incredibly rude and obnoxious! And it makes me kind of sad to think that he may have encountered that often, you know? That fans were ever that thoughtless and unkind to him. In fact, I have a hard time thinking of them as fans; to me, they’re more like an angry mob that’s out to get him. They even seem to be quite angry at him as they chase him around the movie set and out onto the open road. And the longer they chase him, the angrier they seem to become.
Willa: They really do. You know, it’s presented as this fun chase sequence – and he does seem to enjoy it – but all the same, there is something threatening about it and he really doesn’t want them to catch him. And I think he did have to deal with obnoxious fans sometimes. He talked about it in a 1978 phone interview with Lisa Robinson. She asked him, “do you still like meeting your fans?” and he said,
I enjoy all that sometimes, seeing people who love me, or buy my records. I think it’s fun, and I enjoy meeting my fans and I think it’s important. But sometimes people think you owe your life to them; they have a bad attitude – like, ‘I made you who you are.’ That may be true – but not that one person. Sometimes you have to say to them, If the music wasn’t good, you wouldn’t have bought it. Because some of them think they actually own you. Someone will say, “Sit down,” “Sign this,” or “Can I have your autograph?” and I’ll say, “Yes, do you have a pen?” And they say, “No, go get one.” Honestly. I’m not exaggerating. But I just try to deal with it.
And remember, this was in 1978 – three years before Thriller came out.
Joie: Yes, I remember that interview and it is really sad when you think about it. And again, I have a difficult time thinking of those people as fans. I guess I just have a different idea of what that word means. “Fan.” You know, oftentimes that word has such a negative connotation to it. Especially with regard to Michael Jackson fans. But I’ve been in the fan community a long time and I know Michael Jackson fans to be some of the nicest, most respectful people I’ve ever met, so that’s difficult for me to reconcile. But, I’m certain from his point of view there were times when the attention probably became extremely rude or even threatening. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live with that kind of attention 24/7.
But I was really more referring to the video itself – not his real life. In the short film, the “fans” who are chasing him sort of become this angry mob that seems like they’re out to get him. And it’s not clear what they intend to do with him if they catch up to him. Do they want to hurt him or do they simply want his autograph? It’s difficult to tell by the snarls on their faces. It’s no wonder he’s trying to get away from them!
Willa: I think you’re exactly right, Joie – they are like a “mob,” meaning they’re gripped by that weird mob mentality that takes over sometimes, and I think Michael Jackson had seen how dangerous that could be and was scared of it. We see that fear of the mob in the intro to Ghosts. And he said in a number of interviews that being mobbed “hurts.” That people go crazy and start pulling your hair and twisting your arms, and it really hurts. Apparently, the first time the Jackson 5 went to England, a mob scene broke out at the airport and he could have been killed. He was wearing a scarf, and one girl grabbed one end and another grabbed the other end, and they were both pulling as hard as they could. The scarf was tightening around his neck, and he couldn’t breathe and couldn’t loosen it, and his brothers had to rescue him. What a scary story!
So you’re right – it’s hard to predict what a mob will do, and it’s not clear at all what the mob chasing him in Speed Demon will do if they catch him.
Joie: But luckily, they don’t get that chance because they all end up getting stopped for speeding and causing a pile-up of sorts. The last we see of them, they’re all being taken away in a police wagon as Michael speeds away, finally free to breathe now that the mob that was chasing him is gone. He heads out to the open road and stops for a few minutes to discard the costume he used to escape his pursuers, then finds himself in the middle of a dance-off when that costume comes to life and issues a challenge.
But I have to say, Willa, that while I agree that the complicated issues of celebrity and fame are definitely present in this short film, I’m still not really seeing the issues of ‘violence, poverty and criminality’ in Speed Demon that you mentioned at the beginning of this discussion.
Willa: Well, think about those repeated lines from the police: “Pull over, boy, and get your ticket right.” There’s so much sheer joy of flight in Speed Demon, just the exhilaration of speed and escaping all the pressures being put on him. But then near the end a trooper gives him a ticket. In fact, there are policemen throughout this video, and a lot of times they’re chasing him too. So while it’s a policeman who puts those obsessive fans in jail and kind of rescues him from the mob, as you just described, another policeman shows up and treats him like a criminal.
You know, what really started me thinking differently about Speed Demon was the MJ Academia Project videos. Unfortunately, the people who posted those videos have taken them down and they aren’t available at the moment, which is disappointing. I’d really like to watch them again and link to them right now. I hope they repost them. But anyway, in one of their videos they talk about how Michael Jackson repeatedly uses the word “boy” in a number of songs and videos as a code word for how black men have been treated by the criminal justice system in the U.S., and they specifically mention Speed Demon. I’d never thought of Speed Demon like that – as anything more than a cartoon, actually – but I started listening to it differently after that. And one thing I realized is that the video really softens the message of the song. If you can somehow block the video images out of your mind while listening to it, it feels much grittier than when your mind is full of Michael Jackson in a dancing competition with Spike, the claymation rabbit (which I love, by the way).
So, as he does so many times with so many different subjects, he shows how complicated human relationships can be. He loves his fans, but feels threatened by them when they turn into a mob. He feels protected by the police, especially when the mob is carted off to the police station, but he also knows the police can turn on him at any minute and criminalize him. And this was filmed in 1988, before he’d really experienced just how biased and abusive the police could be.
Joie: Well, I agree with you, the video does really soften the message of the song. And I wonder if he did that intentionally, seeing as how this video was part of the movie, Moonwalker – which is really sort of a kid’s movie with a feel-good theme to it. But, as we talked about last week, this is one of those short films where the visual he presents us with is much different than what we conjure up in our minds when merely listening to the song itself.
Willa: That’s true, though we need to be careful about viewing Moonwalker as just entertainment also. It does have a fun, “feel-good” mood through most of it, but there’s a lot of very interesting things going on in that movie. We should talk about that sometime. I can’t believe we’ve been chatting about Michael Jackson’s work for a year now and still haven’t talked about Moonwalker.
But getting back to Speed Demon, we really see that structure of a fun entertaining film overlying a serious message here too. In some ways, he seems to be exploring the role of artists in society, and how artists and police are kind of at cross purposes. The police tend to want everyone to follow the rules and behave in conventional ways, even if that has nothing to do with legality, and artists are constantly challenging those conventions. We see that conflict between the police and the artist with the “sheriff” from the western movie early in the video. He starts chasing Michael Jackson and calls out to him in this really patronizing way, “Hey, Songbird.” And then at the end the trooper gives him the ticket, saying, “I need your autograph right here.” Importantly, the ticket isn’t for speeding. It’s for dancing.
Joie: Well, in the trooper’s defense, Willa, it was a clearly marked No Dancing zone!
Willa: That’s true! And you notice he’s a very law-abiding citizen. He doesn’t dance after the trooper points to that funny sign telling him he’s not supposed to, though you know he disagrees with it.
But you know, while this is all handled in a very light, entertaining way, it’s addressing some really complex ideas as well. The policeman is trying to rein him in and prevent him from dancing, from expressing his art, and even treats him as a criminal, or at least a law-breaker, because of his dancing. And this ties back to what we talked about a couple weeks ago with the Bad short film. As we said then, artists and criminals actually have something in common: they both challenge social norms. They do it in very different ways – one legally to improve our cultural awareness, and one illegally and often destructively – but sometimes that distinction becomes blurred and artists are treated as criminals. And Michael Jackson was very aware of that, as he shows us in Speed Demon and Bad, and perhaps most explicitly in Ghosts. Remember, the “crime” he’s accused of in Ghosts is being an artist, a teller of ghost stories, and too outrageously different.
And I think this criminalization of artists played out in very real ways in how the police (and the press and the public) interpreted the allegations against him in 1993 and 2003. It’s like there was this idea that he was willing to transgress social norms – by singing and dancing, by challenging gender and racial boundaries, by representing the Other, as Joe Vogel described a few weeks ago – so some people seemed to think that maybe he was willing to transgress legal and moral boundaries as well and do illegal, immoral things.
Joie: I think that’s a very interesting point, Willa. And maybe a very simplistic way of describing that is the old saying ‘judging a book by its cover.’ Because he looked “strange” or “freaky” to some, then perhaps he was more likely to be a criminal than someone who looked sweet and innocent. Actress Winona Ryder comes to mind. Who would have ever imagined she would behave like a common criminal? After all, she looked so “normal.”
Willa: I don’t really know much about the Winona Ryder case, except that it got a lot of attention in the press – far more than shoplifting charges usually get. But this criminalization of artists has a long history. Think about the McCarthy trials, and how many artists’ careers were destroyed by them. And William Tyndale, who may have been the greatest English poet of all time. Most of the King James Bible was written by Tyndale, and you can make the case that Shakespeare wouldn’t have been Shakespeare without him – even the cadence of his language reflects Tyndale. And Tyndale was burned at the stake.
And I always wonder how many of the women, and men too, condemned as witches during the Salem witch trials had an artist’s sensibility. They were definitely people who didn’t fit in, and were seen as “strange” or “freaky,” as you just said. Many were independent women who didn’t marry and lived unconventional lives. And this is interesting: one of the first people accused during the trials was a slave named Tituba who liked to tell children stories, just like the Maestro in Ghosts.
Joie: That’s a really interesting point, Willa. And you’re probably right about that, many of them probably were artists in some form, or at the very least, free thinkers – also like the Maestro in Ghosts. But I think what you’re trying to get at is that, even though on the surface it’s a cute little claymation video, Speed Demon is anything but childish or simplistic.
Willa: Exactly. Or maybe what I’m trying to say is that it works on both levels. It’s a fun, cartoon-like film that kids enjoy, but there are some complicated ideas for adults to grapple with as well.
Joie: So Willa, everyone knows that Thriller is the biggest-selling album of all time. But did you know that for a short while, Bad was actually the second biggest-selling album of all time?
Willa: Really? No, I didn’t know that.
Joie: To this day, in fact, it is still regarded as one of the best-selling albums ever made – I think it’s like number six on the worldwide list – and until Katy Perry tied the record with her album Teenage Dream, it was the first and only album to spawn five number one singles.
Willa: I did know that, and it’s amazing – especially for an album many saw as under-performing in terms of record sales. It shows just how high the bar was set for the follow-up album to Thriller.
Joie: That record stood unmatched for 23 years! And what I love most about this album is that Michael penned over 80% of it himself – nine out of the 11 tracks on the album were written by him.
So, I guess what I’m getting at here is that, even though for many people, Thriller is often seen as the pinnacle of Michael Jackson’s success (and commercially, that is certainly true), it is actually the follow-up album, Bad, where we begin to see the artist really stretch his wings and grow artistically, emotionally, creatively, and politically.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Joie, and something Quincy Jones has suggested also. As he says in the first additional track on the Bad, Special Edition album, “I could just see him growing as an artist and understanding production and all that stuff.” So here’s a question I want to ask Quincy Jones every time I hear that, but I’m going to put you on the spot and ask you instead: what do you see as the major signs of growth between Thriller and Bad?
Joie: Well, first of all, what I just pointed out. The fact that he wrote the majority of the songs on it. With his first two adult solo efforts, Off the Wall and Thriller, that wasn’t the case. He only wrote three of the songs on Off the Wall and four on Thriller. So I think that shows major growth and maturity, both artistically and creatively.
Willa: That’s true, and we can see that in the number of videos he made also. He made three each for Off the Wall and Thriller, but he made eight for Bad – nine if you count “Leave Me Alone” – and nine for Dangerous, so Bad seems to have been an important turning point for him that way too.
Joie: Also, the things he’s writing about. The subject matter of the songs on Bad show a lot of maturity and growth as well.
Willa: I suppose, though “Billie Jean” is so emotionally complex, and there’s a lot of depth in “Beat It,” and “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Workin’ Day and Night” as well. So it’s not like his previous songs were simplistic.
Joie: Well, that’s very true. Simplistic is not a word I would use to describe his writing. But, I don’t know. The Bad album just seems a little more “grown up” to me than his previous two adult efforts.
Willa: And more uniquely “him” because he did write so many of the songs himself, as you mentioned earlier. You know, the story you always hear about Bad is that he put tremendous pressure on himself to top Thriller, and I’m sure those kinds of pressures were there to some degree. Creating a follow-up to Thriller would be intimidating, I’m sure.
Joie: Oh, no doubt about it. I can’t imagine what that kind of pressure must be like.
Willa: Oh, I know! But listening to this album, it doesn’t feel like it’s coming from a place of anxiety and insecurity. He sounds very sure of himself, with a message he feels compelled to share and the confidence to share it. I wonder if that’s part of what you’re feeling, Joie, when you say that, for you, this is the album where he really comes into his own.
Joie: You could be onto something there, Willa. He does seem to have a certain level of self-confidence and even cockiness on this album so, maybe that is what I’m reacting to. And, you know, when I think about this album, it’s really difficult for me to choose the one stand-out track that sets this CD apart or makes it great because really, every song is a masterpiece all by itself.
Willa: I know what you mean, and I wonder if that’s because of all the videos. You know, in Moonwalk he talks about the videos he made for the Thriller album and emphasizes that they weren’t just tacked on after the fact as a marketing tool. They were part of his vision from the beginning. As he says,
The three videos that came out of Thriller – “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” – were all part of my original concept for the album. I was determined to present this music as visually as possible.
And Bad is where he really achieves that goal of presenting his songs “as visually as possible.” Except for the two duets, he made a video for every song on the album, and I think that contributes to that feeling you’re talking about, Joie, that “every song is a masterpiece.” Because each song has its own video, each one feels like a fully realized, multi-sensory work of art.
You know, even when I’m not watching the videos themselves, like when I’m listening to Bad on the car stereo, I’m still visualizing those images. They’re just an integral part of each song for me now.
Joie: I agree with you, Willa; they do feel like an “integral part of each song” and it is almost impossible not to visualize the short film when listening to the songs themselves. And I’m sure that was probably very intentional on his part, as that quote you cited from Moonwalk points out. And, as you said earlier, he also made nine videos for his following album, Dangerous and eight for the HIStory album so, I believe presenting the music “as visually as possible” was something that was very important to him and something that he was committed to doing.
Willa: I agree. It really feels to me like he achieved the fullest expression of his art through his videos. That’s where it all comes together: the music, the dance, that incredible voice, the visual cues, the backstory and narrative – or as he described the structure of his videos, the beginning and the middle and the ending of what he’s trying to convey.
Joie: I agree. And it really makes you think about his great love of films. Sometimes I believe his videos are so amazing because of his love for film. How many times did he talk about the power of film and being able to take an audience anywhere you wanted them to go, all through film. And many times, that’s what his videos do – they transport you momentarily to a different place. A place of his choosing. It’s no wonder he wanted them referred to as ‘short films’ instead of videos.
And just thinking about that fact makes me really angry that he was hindered from doing the same with Invincible. I love that album so much, and I would have loved to have seen what videos he could have come up with for it. But you’re right, Bad is the first album where he achieves this goal of presenting the music as visually as possible and because of that, his name really became sort of synonymous with music videos.
It’s an interesting concept that no one else was really doing at the time. You know, most artists were just using the music video as a sort of promotional tool and the resulting videos had very little to do with the song itself. But Michael changed all that; he ‘flipped the script’ as the saying goes. Suddenly music videos weren’t just some abstract add on but, they were a way to actually bring the song to life.
Willa: And not always in ways you expect – like who would ever listen to “Liberian Girl” and imagine the video he created for it? Or “The Way You Make Me Feel”? Or “Speed Demon”? Or “Bad” or “Smooth Criminal” or “Dirty Diana”? Actually, the Dirty Diana video probably enacts the lyrics more closely than the others: as he sings about a performer being approached by a groupie, we discover that he really is a performer being approached by a groupie.
But even it heightens and complicates the lyrics in interesting ways. In fact, there are some very interesting details in Dirty Diana. For example, he’s singing about this love triangle between himself, My Baby, and Diana. Diana just wants him, or her idea of him as a famous rock star, and she doesn’t really care if she hurts him or My Baby. At one point he sings that he’s talking on the phone with My Baby, and Diana says into the phone, “He’s not coming back because he’s sleeping with me.” That is such a moment of betrayal – just imagine how painful that moment must be for him and My Baby – yet the concert crowd roars when he sings that. The audience goes nuts. And it’s interesting – the roar of the crowd at that moment isn’t on the album; it’s only in the video.
What the crowd’s reaction says pretty clearly is that they aren’t listening to this song from My Baby’s point of view, or even his point of view, but from Diana’s – and really, that makes perfect sense because they are like Diana. They want him too, just like Diana does. We see that in the video when he rips his shirt open. The crowd really goes wild then. He’s an object of desire, and they fantasize about fulfilling that desire, regardless of the consequences for him or his private life.
And actually, that seems to be the position he wants the audience to be in – he wants us to desire him when he’s on stage, and he wants us to align ourselves with Diana. We see that in the lyrics, where he encourages us to sympathize with her and see things from her point of view. So the audience is positioned with her, which makes sense. But then at the end of the video he does that classic Michael Jackson move we see in so many of his videos where he suddenly shifts the perspective. We follow him as he comes offstage, he opens the door of his car, and there’s a very unsettling power chord as he sees there’s a woman waiting for him inside.
Joie: That’s a very sharp observation, Willa. I never made that connection between the roar of the crowd and the audience’s point of view in this video before. Interesting.
Willa: Oh, it’s so interesting – what he does with point of view is just fascinating to me, and he plays with it constantly, in such complicated ways. Like when the perspective shifts in Dirty Diana, suddenly everything takes on a very different character. This isn’t the typical rock star/groupie fantasy we see played out in so many music videos. This is the fantasy giving way to realism, and suddenly our perspective shifts and we’re forced to consider the situation more from his point of view – and his point of view is really complicated. It’s always complicated. He never lets us off with a simple answer.
So there’s a beautiful young woman sitting in his car wanting to have sex with him, and on the one hand, that’s a nice problem to have. I mean, really, things could be worse. But on the other hand, he doesn’t know her, doesn’t know anything about her – doesn’t know if she’s kind or cruel or nutty as a fruitcake – and he’s just described in the lyrics how a woman like this has the potential to hurt him and My Baby. So it’s complicated.
Joie: It is complicated. And, as we talked about last summer during the My Baby series, Dirty Diana perfectly highlights that complicated, often strange issue of celebrity and fame. And it’s also a perfect example of presenting the music “as visually as possible.” As you stated earlier, many of the short films tell a much different story than we would expect when simply listening to the song itself; but that’s not the case with Dirty Diana. Here the short film mirrors the song very closely – so the song itself really does come alive before our very eyes. If that’s not presenting the music visually, I don’t know what is!
Willa: So Joie, last June we began talking about the Bad short film and video cut, but we didn’t really get a chance to look at them in depth. It seems like we’d just started chatting when we had to quit, and there’s so much more to talk about!
Joie: I agree, Willa. It just never felt like we got into the video itself, did it?
Willa: It really didn’t. We started talking about how there really wasn’t a forum for the full 16-minute version of Bad to be seen, which is an important issue.
Joie: It is an important issue and I got sidetracked by my disdain for the “reality” format that killed my MTV, and I’m sorry about that. I’ll try to stay on topic this time.
Willa: Well, sometimes those side trips can be pretty rewarding, but I would like for us to get a chance to burrow in to the film itself, so this week I was hoping we could pick up where we left off a couple months ago.
You know, it really does seem like every time I watch one of Michael Jackson’s short films I see something new, or feel echoes of something I hadn’t felt before, or see a connection I hadn’t really noticed before. And the last time I watched Bad I was really struck by the fact that his character in this film doesn’t have anyone he can truly depend on and trust. We hear the voice of his mother (spoken by Roberta Flack) and she sounds like a warm person and a loving parent, but she’s at work and unavailable. We never see her. He seems to interact and get along well with the other kids at his prep school, but there doesn’t seem to be any real depth of friendship there. He does seem to feel a connection with his friends back in his old neighborhood, but they’re pressuring him hard to prove he’s one of them, so he can’t depend on them either.
In fact, the only person he genuinely connects with in the entire film is the nameless fellow on the train. Like Daryl (and Michael Jackson himself) he’s positioned between two worlds – and this is portrayed literally, as they are riding a train from a rather unfamiliar new life back to the life they grew up in. So both of them are physically and symbolically between two worlds. This fellow on the train seems to understand what Daryl is going through – that patronizing show of acceptance from other students who don’t really accept him – because he’s experienced it himself. He asks Daryl, “How many guys proud of you?” Daryl counts in his head, then says, “Three.” “Shoot,” the other guy says, “Four guys proud of me.”
But that moment of connection lasts only a moment and then he’s gone. Interestingly, when we first see that other guy, he seems threatening. He’s watching Daryl through slitty eyes, and Daryl feels uncomfortable and turns away. So it’s a relief when we realize we can trust this guy … maybe. At least he seems like someone we can trust, but can we really? So in some ways it only heightens this feeling of doubt and alienation, and this sense that there’s no one he can really rely on.
Joie: You are so right about that, Willa. In the beginning, it does seem like this guy on the train is someone very threatening and for a few minutes we don’t really know which way this is going to go. There is a heightened sense of anxiety because of it. Then, by the time he gets off the train, the two have clearly made a connection – as you say – even though it is fleeting. And what I find interesting is that, as he exits, he tells Daryl to “be the man.” It’s like he’s encouraging him to stand up for himself and what he believes in and not be swayed by peer pressure. It’s sort of foreboding in a way, like he’s preparing him for what’s to come.
Willa: Joie, that is so interesting! I never looked at it that way. I always saw that line as a response to the prep school experience they’ve both had, and this idea that they’re being groomed to enter a life of privilege and “be the man.” But you’re right – it also foreshadows the test he’s about to face in his old neighborhood, which in many ways is set up as a test of his manhood. And that reminds me of the lyrics to “Beat It,” which in many ways serves as a prologue to Bad:
Don’t wanna be a boy, you wanna be a man You wanna stay alive, better do what you can
Here too he’s talking about being “a man,” but in this context he’s obviously talking about dealing with gangs. But it’s complicated – does being a man mean you have to hurt people, or be hurt yourself? He raises that question pretty directly in Beat It:
You better run, you better do what you can Don’t wanna see no blood, don’t be a macho man You wanna be tough, better do what you can So beat it, but you wanna be bad
So while he understands “you wanna be a man,” he advises “don’t be a macho man” – though he then ends this verse by acknowledging “you wanna be bad.” So in both of these short films, he seems to be questioning what it means to be bad and be a man – and developing his own unique answers.
Joie: And in doing so, he’s forcing others to think about those questions as well.
Joie: What does it mean to be bad? To be a man? By bringing those questions up, he’s attempting to educate us through his art – something he does so well. And when thinking about the lyrics to “Bad,” it’s almost like he’s telling young men everywhere that their ideas of what it means to be a man are all wrong, as he sings:
Your talk is cheap You’re not a man You’re throwing stones To hide your hands
You know, it’s like the old expression your grandmother would sometimes say when you misbehaved – “don’t throw stones and then hide your hands!” Of course, as a kid, you never really understood what that meant; at least, I didn’t. It wasn’t until this song came out that I bothered to look it up and find out. Basically, it means to start some kind of trouble or mischief and then not take responsibility for it when the consequences start rolling in. And unfortunately, there is quite a lot of that going on in our society – it’s always someone else’s fault. So Michael Jackson was addressing that in “Bad” and saying, that’s not what a real man would do.
Willa: You know, Joie, I always get so much out of our conversations. I’d never heard that expression before. I thought the “throwing stones” line was a reference to the Bible story where a crowd is gathering to stone a woman for committing adultery, but Jesus stops them and says, “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.” In other words, we shouldn’t “throw stones” – we should focus on improving our own behavior instead of criticizing the behavior of others. But then I didn’t understand what the “hide your hands” part meant. But what you’re saying about “don’t throw stones and then hide your hands” makes a lot of sense. That is so interesting.
Joie: It is interesting, isn’t it? One of those old expressions that don’t make a whole lot of sense until you really stop and think about them. Of course, some of them, I never figure out. Like “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” What the heck does that mean, anyway? It drives me crazy! But, I’m not getting sidetracked this time; I promise!
Willa: OK, I’ll be good too and not ask what on earth “naked as a jaybird” means. Birds aren’t naked….
But anyway, it really does seem to me that he’s proposing a new definition of “bad” in this film, and through that a new definition of manhood. At first he tells his friends, “You wanna see who’s bad?” and agrees to help with the robbery. He’s going along with their definition of “bad.” But then he changes his mind and gives them (and us) a different definition – and presents us with two examples of this new definition.
One is very subtle – so subtle it’s easy to miss. It’s in the Wanted poster in the subway station. Big letters at the bottom of the poster tell us this man is “BAD” – and the man in the mugshot is Martin Scorsese, the director of Bad. The poster goes on to tell us he’s “Guilty of Sacrilege.” Scorsese was working on his film The Last Temptation of Christ at about that time, and he would come under intense criticism for it, for being sacrilegious. So he seems to be telling us that Martin Scorsese is “bad” because he’s an artist who challenges social norms.
Ironically, the other example is easy to miss for the exact opposite reason, because it’s so pervasive – it’s Michael Jackson himself. He repeatedly sings, “I’m bad,” and he is, but not because he’s tough or violent. Instead, he’s bad because he’s an artist, and an artist of a certain type – an artist who forces us to see ourselves and our world in a different way. In other words, he’s bad in the same way Martin Scorsese is.
Michael Jackson seems to be saying in this film that acting mean, carrying a gun, selling drugs, robbing an old man, hurting people – those things don’t make you “bad.” Instead, it’s developing your talents, specifically artistic talents, and then using those talents to effect important change in the world, in people’s perceptions and emotions. Michael Jackson and Martin Scorsese are respected around the world because they’re artists, with the unique courage of artists. They’re incredibly talented and creative, and in Michael Jackson’s case especially, they have the courage to present an alternate vision of how life can be lived.
And that reminds me of what you were just saying about throwing stones and then hiding your hands, and how that means to stir things up and then pretend you didn’t do it. You know, artists and gang members do have something very important in common: they’re both transgressive, meaning they both challenge the established social order. But while gang members do it in a negative way and then “hide their hands,” artists do it in a positive way and take responsibility and even pride in their “transgressions.” They show their hands.
Joie: That’s a very interesting analogy, Willa. I would never have thought those two things – artists and gang members – are alike in any way but, you make a great point.
Willa: They do seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, don’t they? But they both push the limits of what’s socially acceptable, and sometimes motivate change. But while gang members tend to bring about negative change – more violence, more police, more repression, more jails – artists can sometimes bring about positive change. And I think the difference is that violence makes people fearful and reactionary, so they close their minds, while art can help open people’s minds to new ways of seeing and experiencing the world.
Joie: Really interesting comparison. But, you know, speaking of gang members … there is something about this video that I have always found fascinating, and that’s the fact that the entire film is shot in black and white while the dance sequence with the gang members is in vibrant technicolor.
Maybe I should pause here and say that you and I talked a bit last spring about exactly who are the “gang members” in this particular short film, and I stated that I didn’t look upon Daryl’s three so-called friends as gang members but as wanna-be thugs. So, when I say “gang members,” I am referring to the dancers, not the friends.
Willa: Though they’re a very different kind of gang – a “gang” of dancers, of artists, which circles back to that connection between artists and outlaws we were just talking about. I hadn’t thought of the dancers in Bad quite that way until just now , but they’re kind of embodying the conflation of those two categories. They are a “gang” of artists – they’re outlaw artists – so doubly transgressive.
Joie: Oh, you’re right. Hadn’t thought of that. But I just love the way that portion of the short film is set apart from the rest of the video by the vibrant color and I always wonder, what was Michael (or Scorsese) trying to convey with that distinction? What message is hidden in that artistic decision? Could it be perhaps that the misery of the lives of the three wanna-be thugs is reflected in the bleak, dismal black and white, and that Michael is showing them through the dance sequence how vibrant and alive they could be if they left their world of violence and misery behind? Or perhaps that’s too simplistic and I’m reading too much into it.
Willa: Oh no, I don’t think you’re reading too much into it, Joie – not at all. It must be important because he repeats that same shift in Ghosts.
Joie: Oh, that’s right; he does make that transition in Ghosts as well!
Willa: He does. We see the fearful villagers and the vengeful mayor creeping toward the Maestro’s castle in black and white, and then a door opens and they see a room suffused with color, and that’s the space of the Maestro. And I think your interpretation of this shift in Bad works equally well for both films. As you said, “the misery of the lives of the three wanna-be thugs,” and the villagers in Ghosts, as well, “is reflected in the bleak, dismal black and white.” And as you say, “Michael is showing them through the dance sequence how vibrant and alive they could be if they left their world of violence and misery behind.” I think that’s a beautiful way to interpret both films.
Another way to approach this is to look back at the most famous example of a film that shifts between color and black and white: The Wizard of Oz. The scenes in Kansas are all shot in black and white, and the scenes in Oz are in color. Michael Jackson was well aware of that shift, and talked about it with Rabbi Boteach when describing how he designed the drive up to Neverland, beginning with the very plain and simple gates:
I was gonna have people swing them open and really kind of have them funky and tattered, just so psychologically you really feel like you’re coming to a ranch, so that when you go around the bend I want it to change to Technicolor, like The Wizard of Oz does.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s “real” world of Kansas is black and white, but the world of her imagination – the world of Oz – is in color. And the same is true of Bad as well: the black and white scenes are “real,” and the color scenes are Daryl’s imagination.
Joie: Willa, that’s fascinating. I hadn’t thought of that before. The color scenes are happening in Daryl’s imagination, so they are in Technicolor! That makes so much sense now.
Willa: Yeah, but it doesn’t work for Ghosts, where all the scenes – both the color and the black and white – are “real.” There the shift seems to mean something different. The color scenes are “real,” but it’s a reality heightened and made vibrant by the creativity of a powerful artist – which is closer to your interpretation, Joie. And I wonder if that isn’t closer to what Michael Jackson had in mind for Bad as well. As in Ghosts, when we’re in the color scenes, we know we’re in the presence of an amazing artist.
So as with a lot of his work, Bad seems to be another example of meta-art – of art talking about art, including the importance of art and the role of the artist. And he seems to be saying that art can bring personal fulfillment as well as social change – that through art we too can shift from a dull, grey, monotonous world of black and white to a world of glorious color.
Joie: That’s a nice thought, Willa.