Searching for that Wonder in My Youth

Willa:  So Joie, last year at the holidays we did a special post about Michael Jackson’s close connection with childhood and its links to creativity. Now it’s getting to be holiday season again, and I was thinking it would be fun to talk about childhood again.

Joie:  It would be fun to talk about childhood again, Willa. And you know, that’s one song/video that we have never really talked about before. I almost don’t know where to begin. I’m kind of excited!

Willa:  Oh, “Childhood”? You’re right, we’ve quoted lyrics from it several times, but we haven’t really talked about it in depth. It’s funny – it’s another Michael Jackson song that makes people really uncomfortable, and I’m not exactly sure why. It isn’t angry, like the You Rock My World video. It doesn’t force us to confront “the dark thoughts in your head” like “Threatened” or “Money.” It doesn’t challenge us with difficult social problems like “The Lost Children,” or painful stories like “Little Susie.” It’s just a beautiful song with a beautiful video, but it really bothers some people. I think some non-fans are bothered because they think he isn’t sincere, but I think some fans are bothered because it’s too sincere.

Joie:  That’s interesting, Willa, and I can see your point. This song does make some people uncomfortable. And it’s not angry or scary or dark, as you say. But it is sort of ‘in your face,’ in much the same way as those other songs you mentioned. But in a very different, very personal way.

You know, I have been with non-fans when this song has come on and the feeling I get is that it really tends to stop them in their tracks and make them think. They listen to his words and they really think about what it is that he’s asking them to do:

Before you judge me
Try hard to love me
Look within your heart, then ask …
Have you seen my childhood?

And his delivery of this song is so simple and heartfelt, that I think one can’t help but be affected by it – at least for a few fleeting moments – whether you’re a fan or not.

Willa:  I think that’s true, Joie, but I also think it’s so heartfelt it’s disconcerting for some listeners. You know, when Dr. Susan Fast joined us a few weeks ago, she mentioned Michael Jackson’s lack of irony, and Eleanor wrote a very interesting response about that:

I have thought about this so much. Michael is not “cool,” he is too hot, he is sincere, he is earnest, he feels deeply the words that he sings. The impact of his work is not cerebral, but visceral. We hear his heartbeat, we feel his heartbeat – he makes us aware of the rhythm of the tide in our own bodies. He is the best at expressing and evoking powerful emotion – and that is what sets him apart – and that is the difference between a great artist and a clever artist. He is not above his topic, commenting on it, he is in it, he is part of it – he is part of “us” in “they don’t care about us.”

It is only after getting a little distance from the emotional impact that one can begin to appreciate the incredible artistry and genius that went into his work. Cerebral artists are so often directing the attention to themselves – “oh, what a clever boy/girl am I” – they are cool observers, outside of and above the fray – but Michael directs the attention to the issue itself – in earth song, in they don’t care about us, etc.

He is not cynical, he wants to heal the world – and, in spite of all, he believes that the world can be healed. He believes in love – not sentimentality. He believes in a deep connection between human beings and he is tapping into that sense of connection. Cerebral artists are often saying “I am not part of this scene, and, if you appreciate my work, you can pat yourself on the shoulder because it means that you, too, are somehow superior.” This is not Michael’s message.

That’s a long quote, but it beautifully expresses some really important ideas, I think. As Eleanor makes clear, irony gives us emotional distance from a topic – a little breathing room – and Michael Jackson doesn’t do that. He does use subtle humor in videos like Beat It, Thriller, Black or White, and Ghosts to lighten the mood, but he doesn’t give us the emotional distance that irony provides. The closest he comes to irony is Leave Me Alone, I think, but that’s unusual for him. In general, he doesn’t let us look at issues dispassionately, from a safe distance. And in works like “Childhood,” especially, I think a lot of listeners would be more comfortable if he did.

But I think Eleanor is expressing something true and important when she says, “He is the best at expressing and evoking powerful emotion – and that is what sets him apart – and that is the difference between a great artist and a clever artist.”

Joie:  That is a very interesting quote from Eleanor, Willa, and she’s right. He is the best at expressing and evoking powerful emotion. No one does it better; and I think that’s because he always felt things so deeply himself. In fact, our friend Joe Vogel, writes about this in his book, Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus:

Most people read or watch the news casually, passively. They become numb to the horrifying images and stories projected on the screen. Yet such stories frequently moved Jackson to tears. He internalized them and felt physical pain. When people told him to simply enjoy his own good fortune, he got angry. He believed completely in John Donne’s philosophy that “no man is an island.” 

“[For the average person],” he explained, “he sees problems ‘out there’ to be solved … But I don’t feel that way – those problems aren’t ‘out there,’ really. I feel them inside me. A child crying in Ethiopia, a seagull struggling pathetically in an oil spill … a teenage soldier trembling with terror when he hears the planes fly over: Aren’t these happening in me when I see and hear about them?”

Willa:  What a great quote, Joie! And when he says, “those problems aren’t ‘out there,’ really. I feel them inside me,” you know it’s true because, through his art, he shares those feelings and we feel them inside ourselves as well. When we listen to songs like “Earth Song” or “They Don’t Care about Us” or “Speechless” or “Childhood,” we feel the pain and anger and joy, the sense of injustice or sense of wonder he’s feeling. That’s what totally captured me when I first heard “Ben” 40 years ago, and it still captivates and moves me.

Joie:  Exactly! But I like what you just said about Michael not allowing us to look at issues dispassionately. That is a very true statement. He was never one to beat around the bush in his work, and opted instead for a much more ‘in your face’ approach. And you’re right when you say that with this song in particular – because it is so very personal – that approach probably made most people very uncomfortable. We don’t usually expect our entertainers to open up a vein right in front of us, but that’s exactly what “Childhood” does. Especially in these lyrics:

No one understands me
They view it as such strange eccentricities
‘Cause I keep kidding around
Like a child, but pardon me
People say I’m not okay
‘Cause I love such elementary things
It’s been my fate to compensate,
For the Childhood I’ve never known

Willa:  Wow, that’s a vivid way to describe that, Joie, but I think you’re right – we don’t expect artists to “open up a vein right in front of us,” as you said so well, and it does feel that way. It’s like he’s in deep mourning for “the Childhood / I’ve never known.”

It also feels like he’s trying to answer those who criticize him for “compensating” for his lost childhood, as he put it, and encourage them to try to understand how he feels. And really, what a painful situation that must be, when your deepest hurt is bandied about and criticized in the press.

But, you know, what strikes me when watching the video is that, while the song’s lyrics are intensely personal, the video isn’t. This is another one of those cases where the video expands and complicates the ideas expressed in the song. Listening to this song, we would expect the video to contain footage from 2300 Jackson Street and long hours in the studio at Motown, and maybe scenes from the Jackson 5 on The Ed Sullivan Show. But the video isn’t about his childhood – at least not directly – or even a fictional character’s childhood. It’s more subtle and more complicated than that:  it’s about imagination, and about childhood as a time of heightened imagination.

Joie:  You know, I was thinking the exact same thing. The video isn’t at all what one would think it would be. And it’s like he purposely went in the opposite direction here, instead of showing us little glimpses into his own imperfect childhood, which is what we would expect. And I think he probably did this simply because the song itself is so personal.

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, Joie. I hadn’t thought about it that way, and that makes a lot of sense. But I also think he’s trying to express a complex idea that’s very important to him.

In the video we see Michael Jackson sitting alone in a forest, while a flotilla of sailboats full of children sails through the sky overhead. He can see them, but he can’t join them. He remains on the ground. A boy walks up and stands near him, and he sees the children in the sailboats also. One of the children in the boats – an older boy – reaches out his hand, inviting him to join them, and the boy on the ground floats up and climbs on board. But Michael Jackson stays on the ground. He wants to join them – you can sense how desperately he wants to join them – but he can’t, either because he hasn’t been invited, or because he’s outgrown that phase, or because he’s been scarred by the hardships of his life. We don’t know why.

He’s not in a bad place – he’s in a lush, beautiful forest, which is important because he also linked trees to imagination. I’m thinking about his imagination tree at Neverland, where he says he wrote many of his songs. So he’s in a place of imagination and creativity – adult creativity – but its different from the experience the children are having in the sailboats above him. He longs to be in the sailboats but he can’t get there. Unlike the boy who floated up so effortlessly, he’s earthbound.

Joie:  That’s a beautiful summation of the video, Willa. And I think you’re right. He obviously wants to join the children desperately but, he isn’t able to. And, like you said, we can interpret that in many ways – he wasn’t invited, he’s outgrown that phase, he’s been scarred by life’s hardships. But it could also be that he isn’t able to join them, not because of any of those factors, but because of “us.” Or maybe more accurately, “them.” I’m not talking about the children, but the people who have criticized him over the years for that compensating that he’s been doing. Perhaps he can’t float up to join the children in the sailboats because he’s weighted down by all the negativity and speculation about the way he lived his life and his closeness to children and his desire and many efforts to hang on to that childlike wonder that was so special and important to him.

Willa:  Wow, Joie, I hadn’t thought about that either, but you’re right – he had to be much more careful about interacting with children after the allegations came out, and he also became more self-aware and maybe more self-conscious about his “strange eccentricities,” as he sings in the lyrics you quoted earlier:  “People say I’m not okay / ‘Cause I love such elementary things.” So maybe that “negativity” did play a part, as you say.

Joie:  And as you said, it’s obvious that he desperately wants to join them, but he’s sad and sort of heartbroken that he isn’t able to.

Willa:  Which is odd, because he was so incredibly creative and had such a vivid imagination, even as an adult. If the boats represent being carried away by your imagination, then it seems obvious he should be on board – after all, they’re sailing to the moon, and he’s the Moonwalker!  But that isn’t where he positions himself. He places himself on the ground, looking up with longing as they sail by, and I wonder what it is exactly that he thinks he’s missing?

Maybe it isn’t just how imaginative children are, but how fully they enter into the world of imagination. I can remember getting completely lost in books as a kid. I’d get so absorbed in a story that I’d completely tune out everything around me, and when I did “come to,” sometimes I’d discover that the rest of the class was halfway through a spelling test or something like that, and I’d have to scramble to try to catch up. I was completely out of it when I was deep in a book – it really did feel like I was in another world – and it was always disorienting to come back to consciousness in this world. It was just a jolt to suddenly find myself in a world of spelling tests and math quizzes, when I’d been engaging in all sorts of adventures with the characters of a book.

Joie:  That is so true, Willa. Children do tend to immerse themselves fully when they play. I can remember being on the playground during recess with my best friend. We must have been in the third or fourth grade at the time, I think. And we were so absorbed in the imaginary world we had created that we didn’t hear the bell ring. And suddenly we look up and our class is nowhere to be seen. They had all gone back inside about twenty minutes before!

Willa:  Oh no!  Something like that happened to me too and it was really embarrassing, so I know exactly what you mean, Joie. But it’s funny, that doesn’t seem to happen to me so much anymore. I still go off in daydreams sometimes – like I was driving down the highway a couple years ago, and suddenly “woke up” and realized I’d been driving with my head in the clouds and was about 10 miles past my turnoff. So it still happens occasionally, but not so much. Like I love books, but I don’t get so completely absorbed anymore, and I don’t tune out the real world like I once did. Even while reading a great book, I stay aware that I need to pick up my son from swim team practice in 20 minutes, or start supper or fold laundry or whatever, and I don’t get “carried away” in my imagination as fully as I did when I was younger.

So maybe that’s what he’s talking about? Because he had such a fertile imagination even as an adult, and was still intensely creative – far more creative than the average person – and he had to know that.

Joie:  Yep, I agree. And as adults, we just have so many responsibilities and other priorities, you know? I mean, as children, our only priority is to figure out the world and we actively search for ways to make that learning process fun. It’s just the nature of a child. But as adults, we don’t always have that luxury because there are so many other things weighing us down, pulling on our time. So maybe that’s why he stays firmly on the ground as all the children float away above him to the moon in the sailboats. Like most adults, he just doesn’t have the time to float away on his imagination anymore.

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Joie, and maybe that’s another reason why he felt he didn’t really have a childhood – because he carried the responsibilities of an adult even as a child. His family pretty much became financially dependent on him when he was 10 years old. Just think about that. And there were people at Motown whose jobs were devoted to him, and dependent on him. If he failed to please an audience, they lost their jobs, and he knew that. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a child.

Also if he fell while playing and hurt himself and couldn’t dance, it had big consequences, and he knew that too. So he had to be very careful, even while playing. And his day was so scheduled he wasn’t really free to play or “float away on his imagination,” as you said, even then.

So maybe that’s part of how he compensated as an adult – by giving himself permission to climb trees (how risky!) and have water balloon fights and play with abandon, in a way he couldn’t as a child. And by giving himself time to just float and daydream.

Joie:  And maybe that’s the message of this short film, Willa. You know how I like to believe that there is a hidden message or a lesson in every Michael Jackson video?

Willa:  Yeah?

Joie:  Well, maybe that lesson here is that we – adults – need to try and remember what it’s like to get carried away by our imaginations every once in a while. To remember that childlike wonder that’s still there inside each and every one of us, just waiting for the chance to get lost in a book … floating away in a sailboat to the moon.

Willa:  Oh, I really like that interpretation, Joie!  It feels very true to his vision, I think, and it reminds me of this wonderful final shot of the sailboats:


I love this image – it’s so beautiful, I think – and there’s so much to see in it. The final boat is piloted by a young black boy who keeps his hand very seriously on the tiller, and he really catches my attention for some reason. For one thing, the first time we see him (about 2 minutes into the video) he has a very worried look on his face. None of the other kids seems anxious at all, but he does. Also, he’s alone in his boat while most of the children are in groups of two or three.

But actually, he isn’t alone. He has two cats with him, and he pets them for reassurance. And while that may just be coincidental – after all, one of the other kids has a dog – cats tend to represent something very specific in Michael Jackson’s videos:  when he feels the need to escape, he disappears and a cat appears. For example, when a reporter closes in on Michael Jackson’s character in Billie Jean, he disappears and a tiger appears. When the king’s guards have him surrounded in Remember the Time, he turns into a swirling pile of sand and blows away, and then a cat comes and stands where that transformation took place. When he is feeling oppressed by racism in Black or White, he transforms into a black panther. Because that is such a common motif in his videos, it seems significant to me that this fearful young boy has two cats accompanying him, giving him comfort. So maybe Michael Jackson himself can’t join him in the sailboat, but his totem animal can?

Joie:  Wow! That’s an interesting observation, Willa. I’ve never noticed that before but, I think you may be on to something there.

Willa:  It does seem significant, doesn’t it?  Maybe it isn’t, but it feels significant to me. And then the children are all sailing to the moon, which is metaphorically linked to Michael Jackson as well – in titles like Moonwalk and Moonwalker, obviously, but also more subtly in key scenes in Moonwalker, and in Dancing the Dream as well. In “Dance of Life,” the moon comforts him, like a mother, but also inspires him and encourages him to dance, like a muse.

So while we don’t see Michael Jackson in embodied form in this beautiful final shot of the sailboats floating to the moon, we hear his music and sense his spirit and influence throughout.

Joie:  You’re right, Willa, we do ‘sense his spirit thoughout.’ Both in the short film and in the song itself. And, in fact, we ‘sense his spirit’ a lot … in everything he did. It’s in every song and video, every dance routine and live performance. You can feel it in every poem and reflection between the pages of Dancing the Dream. His spirit can be felt in every project he ever presented to the world.

So, Willa and I want to take a moment and say thank you for all of your continuing support, and we want to wish each and every one of you a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukka, Happy Kwansa and our best wishes for a wonderful New Year. Happy Holidays to one and all!

Willa:  I would also like to ask a big favor. I’m hoping to publish a second edition of M Poetica with bibliographic notes and web links, and some images and information that weren’t available when it was first published in 2011. I’d also like to fix as many errors and typos as possible, so if you’ve read M Poetica and noticed mistakes, I’d love to hear from you. Just send your corrections to Thank you!

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 December 12, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 61 Comments.

  1. Thanks Joie and Willa , yours is a great post, full of ideas and deep reflection.

    You know, I appreciate the comment of Eleanor, frankly, I lost it when it was posted. I think the point has been precisely centered and I strongly believe (long ago I tried to express this, but I’m afraid of not being able to make myself understood well in English), that being an artist as well describes Eleanor, has made Michael more vulnerable to all the attacks that he received during his life.

    This his feel devoid of artistic satisfaction and irony has lent side simplistic interpretations and demeaning of his art.

    Willa and Joie, when I see the video of Childhood I always think at the end of Spielberg’s ET: I know that Michael loved so much this film and I see the image of flying in the sky bike as it’s boats video, right?
    Both transmit the flight of that wonderful capacity for alienation of childhood!

    I wish you great holidays Willa and Joie and also to all the wonderful and profound commentators on this gorgeous blog!

  2. I absolutely love Childhood! The video reminds me of the ride Peter Pan’s Flight at Disneyland, where people sit in boats and are sailing away to Neverland soaring above the clouds of old London. I interpreted his watching the kids fly away as him having missed the boat but he wasn’t gong to let any other kid miss it if he had his way- he was going to make sure every kid got their chance to have a Childhood.

  3. aldebaranredstar

    Thanks for this great discussion, and also to Sunny for the info on the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland–that seems as if it must be behind the boats in this video–and also to Nicoletta for the reference to E.T.

    Nicolas Brandt is the director of ‘Childhood,” and he also directed ‘Earth Song,” “Stranger in Moscow” and “Cry.” I really like Brandt’s work, and I think Michael did too (obviously, as he directed some of the most important songs).

    To me, Michael is indeed “earth bound,” as Willa says, and he remains seated in a kind of cramped or hunched (arms-crossed) position, which is unusual for him. To me, he looks to be in his posture restricted (not free), and this is in keeping with the idea that he never was able to be free as a child. The boats floating so beautifully and the children playing ball between the boats really capture the imagination and freedom of childhood.

    The fact that he is seated on a rock is interesting, and here it goes along with an image I have of him as Prometheus. Prometheus brought fire (and civilization) to humanity and was punished by Zeus for that gift by being bound to a rock and having his liver devoured by an eagle. The liver regenerated overnight, and was devoured again the next day. In some accounts, Prometheus was freed by Hercules eventually. I see Michael as a Prometheus figure in that he was also a great humanitarian and yet was mercilessly punished by rumors that kept recycling throughout his life in a daily punishment or torment. Rumors, allegations, lies that refused to die.

    The boy in the woods who joins the children in the boats to me shows this is what Michael wanted to happen to him–but it didn’t, at least not when he was a child.

    I would like to quote from another person’s comment on another site (I hope she won’t mind). It is such a beautiful quote about the imagination.

    “I personally found the time in Ireland as fun for MJ. I think he liked it there. As for MJ believing in leprechauns, I still haven’t ruled out Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, Yeti’s, Unicorns, Fairies, Elves and Pixies, so I join him in that belief. I believe there are leprechauns too. Just because I haven’t seen one doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
But guess what, I stopped believing in UFO’s and aliens when Hollywood turned them from ET to Alien and Independence Day. Once they weren’t fun anymore who wants them. My imagination did not need those pictures. Once someone had filled in those pictures my imagination about them was dead. Because, you see, imagination does not come from knowing, it comes from not knowing.
Michael was an artistic genius. That is the one thing that I think everyone will agree on minus a few die hard haters. As a matter of fact that is exactly what everyone in the press and other places, has been trying to dissect since he first belted out “Who’s Loving You”. I think if they could have they would have dissected his brain while he was alive they were so mystified by it.
Michael it seemed was the only one that understood the power and importance of his imagination. It is the imagination that is the seat of that miraculous genius that gave us Billie Jean and One More Chance and everything in between. He also understood that genius slowly disappears as we age and the mathematical part of life starts to take over. He understood it because he had lived it. He tried to explain it but few adults got it.
Michael was all about imagination and its connection to innocence that is why he loved children so much. It isn’t so much that he was innocent in that sense, but it was more about holding on to a part of him that needed to be. It was about holding on to his imagination.
Very few people can explain imagination and the connection to the innocence of children but I am going to try and pardon me but this is the best example that I have seen so far. That is it’s the best without a long boring explanation of right and left brain function and growth. It’s about remembering when you thought you could fly.
There is a movie that Tom Hanks narrated called Radio Flyer. The synopsis of the film says that it is about a father telling the story of two young boys, Mike and Bobby. They move to a new area when their father abandons them and their new stepfather begins to beat Bobby. It tells the story of these two young boys and the methods that they use to escape the harsh reality of their lives. In the end Bobby escapes from his stepfather’s brutality by flying away in his Radio Flyer wagon turned airplane. He used his imagination to escape. Tom Hanks final words that he speaks in that movie are:” Somewhere inside every person… someplace inside every heart …is a power that turns fear into courage… and makes dreams take flight…Powered by imagination”.
Michael knew, and if they are honest people will admit, that there is a light which is emitted by children as the play. You can see it in the twinkle of their eyes and hear it in the bubbling of their laughter as they play together. It is called imagination and it comes from not knowing they can’t fly yet.
Once a child grows to know the humdrum mathematical side of life that innocence disappears. You can actually see it. It has nothing to do with sex but everything about having to take care of reality no matter what that reality is. That is what kills our ability to fly, it is what kills our imagination.
Michael loved children because they helped him to remember what it was like when he could fly. With them his imagination and creative genius endured. Michael never would have done anything to a child that would have killed their imagination because it would have killed his as well.” Lynande51, posted on Vindicatemichaeljackson

  4. This blog is like a box of chocolates. Each time there is a new sweetie, and it is unwrapped layer by layer until we reach the delicious centre, having enjoyed every mouthful along the way!! Thank you Willa and Joie.

    I am going away for a few days, but am going to make a copy of this blog, so that I can read it and make comments when I am back.

    I really love Childhood and resonate with it, because although mine wasn’t nearly as bad as Michaels, I didn’t have much of a childhood either and had to grow up too soon. Imagine writing the lines “Before you judge me, try hard to love me” – it really touches my soul to its core. It must have been hard enough to lose so much, but then to be critisized so cruelly when you tried to get it back, and more than that, actually did your very best to help others get their childhoods back with Neverland and all the wonderful giving Michael did there. How unjust is that!!!

    Loved all the comments above and so agree, but more anon.

    Congrats Willa on doing a second edition – I wait with baited breath. It has been a while since I read M Poetica, but will re-read it over the holidays, and let you know if I have any comments that may be helpful. Meanwhile all the best – am sure it will be as wonderful as the first edition.

  5. Thanks ladies for another great post.

    Childhood is a beautiful song and video. Childhood and Ben are two of Michael’s greatest works. Yet I am one of those people who feels uncomfortable hearing either. Well, maybe uncomfortable isn’t the word. What I feel is a sadness, a longing. And it’s noted that it doesn’t matter if Michael wrote the song and is speaking from personal experience as in Childhood, or is interpreting a song such as Ben. In both case I find myself moved, sad, in tears. Especially in the case of Childhood, and even more so if I’m listening at night, in the dark and with headphones on. My heart aches for Michael because I wish for him to have all those wonderful moments I had as a child. It’s sad because we know that had things been different for Michael as a child he might not have been the artist we know and love today, but he paid a heavy price for it in that he lost the most wonderful and magical time of a person’s life.

    Wishing everyone a most glorious Holiday Season!

    • “It’s sad because we know that had things been different for Michael as a child he might not have been the artist we know and love today, but he paid a heavy price for it in that he lost the most wonderful and magical time of a person’s life.”

      I’ve thought about this so much, Destiny, and you’re right – it’s incredibly sad and I just can’t seem to come to grips with it. It does seem that our greatest artists have experienced tremendous loss, but does it have to be that way? Would Michael Jackson have been the same without his painful childhood? Would he have had the depth of emotion to move people as much? Would he even have been an artist? Maybe he would have ended up as a steel worker in Gary, Indiana, which would have been a tragedy of another sort – an incredibly talented person trapped in an unfulfilling life. I just find myself walking around and around this question, and not coming to any good answers. …

      • Two quotes came to my mind when I read your post, Willa 🙂


        “You have to have that tragedy, that pain to pull from. That’s what makes a clown great. You can see he’s hurting behind the masquerade. He’s something else externally. Charles Chaplin did that so beautifully, better than anyone. I can play off those moments, too. I’ve been through the fire many times.”

        And F. Scott Fitzgerald:

        “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”

        Given his talent and abilities, sadly, “that pain to pull from” would have found him no matter what.

        • “You have to have that tragedy, that pain to pull from. That’s what makes a clown great. You can see he’s hurting behind the masquerade. He’s something else externally. Charles Chaplin did that so beautifully, better than anyone. I can play off those moments, too. I’ve been through the fire many times.”

          What a wonderful quotation, Gennie! Do you know where it came from? Was it an interview, or is it in Moonwalk?

          btw, I just watched Modern Times again yesterday – one of Charlie Chaplin’s best – and you can see so well what Michael Jackson is saying. Parts of it are so funny (for some reason, I just love Charlie Chaplin on roller skates – don’t know why, but I just love it) but you can always feel the tragedy just below the surface. And I always feel that same emotional complexity in Michael Jackson’s work too. He can be funny and tragic at the same time, or sexy and vulnerable, or scary and compelling, or brutally honest yet sympathetic, or … Just a very human mix of emotions that seem rooted in real experiences.

          • It is from the interview Michael did in 2001, here is a link:

            It is almost detective work to find gems like that quote since there are burried with same old ranting – notice how they use almost the half of that article to talk about what Michael didn’t want to talk about and that he *gasp* wanted to talk about his art.

            No wonder people don’t know or understand Michael or what he went through.

            Now I want to watch a Chaplin movie, actually haven’t seen any ‘blush’.

          • Wow, Gennie, I hadn’t seen that interview before. It’s really interesting, isn’t it? And it ties in very closely with “Childhood,” like when the interviewer asks, “Are you resentful that stardom stole your childhood?” and he replies, “Yeah. It’s not anger, it’s pain.”

            I was also struck by this question and answer about his father:

            Q: Have you made peace with your father?

            A: It’s much better. My father is a much nicer person now. I think he realizes his children are everything. Without your family, you have nothing. He’s a nice human being. At one time, we’d be horrified if he just showed up. We were scared to death. He turned out really well. I wish it wasn’t so late.

            I knew he had been trying to reach out to his father and had said some positive things about him, like in the Oxford speech, but I think this may be the most positive I’ve read. Thank you for sharing this.

            btw, there are a lot of Chaplin movies on YouTube. In fact, I just found this link to the full-length (1-1/2 hour) Modern Times.

  6. I think you make very uncritical comments in your discussion. There is very little substance in your textual analysis, instead there are very much of wishful thinking exposing your own feelings. I cannot understand what this may add to the knowledge of a celebrated artist in popular culture? My own interest in Michael Jackson as a musician is declining, I think it has much to do with the lack of sincerity in this kind of discussions, reviews and comments on articles.

    • Maria, I don’t mean to be rude, but i think you are way off beam here, and if your interest in Michael is declining because of this blog, then perhaps you just don’t get him in the first place. I am a newish fan to Michael – only coming to him after he had passed – and these blogs have only hightened and intensified my understand of the music, lyrics, personality etc etc etc of this genius.

      Of course Willa and Joie are expressing their personal feelings – isn’t that exactly what Michael was doing in his art???? and what he has encouraged all of us to do in how we interpret that art?? I really do feel, sadly, that you are missing the point here, and that if you look a little deeper, you will find the wealth and treasure that the rest of us find in these blogs.

    • Maria, I see what you mean about ”uncritical comments”. If you’re in love with a person, everything (s)he does is just marvellous. In a similar way, I think some (not all!) MJ fans view everything MJ ever said or did as sacrosanct. If our aim is to take an honest look at his art, then we also have to be able to express things we don’t necessarily like about the man and his work. That said, being critical just for the sake of it has zero value. If you find Joie’s and Willa’s textual analysis shallow, then I think it would be great for the general discussion if you
      – give us some examples of what you perceive as weaknesses in their analysis
      – somehow show us how it could be done better

      • I agree – especially since “being critical just for the sake of it” is usually about the critic trying to show off their “savvy” and “expertise” than the piece they are talking about. There is much greater value in trying to understand the meaning behind a piece of art and share different interpretations than pointing out what you don’t like about it.

        And if you don’t like something, trying to get it anyway is like a mental workout, like trying to see somebody else’s point of view – it exands your mind.

        Thats why I love this blog actually – it makes me consider interpretations I otherwise wouldn’t think of 🙂

    • Hi Maria. Actually, we didn’t do a textual analysis this week. We’ve used that approach with other Michael Jackson songs in the past, and it might be useful to look at “Childhood” in that way sometime in the future, but we didn’t take that approach this week. We also didn’t look at his musicianship. Again, we’ve taken that sort of approach in the past, mainly with the help of musicologists like Lisha McDuff and Susan Fast since Joie and I don’t have the expertise to really do that sort of analysis on our own. But that isn’t the approach we took this week.

      To be honest, we don’t really have a set analytical method that we use every time. Our goal is to come to a better understanding of Michael Jackson’s work, so we try to be guided by each individual work and what we think it’s trying to convey, and then we use whatever approach seems best suited to that work. So this week, we felt that with the song, “Childhood,” Michael Jackson was mainly trying to evoke an emotional reaction from his audience, so we used reader-response – a valid critical approach advocated by theorists such as Stanley Fish. We felt that gave us a way to talk about the feelings Michael Jackson was trying to share with his audience, and how different people responded to that.

      However, the Childhood video is very different from the song, and we used a different analytical approach for it. Instead of just evoking an emotional response, as in the song, Michael Jackson also seems to be trying to convey an abstract and complex idea – namely, how the imaginative experience of childhood differs from the imaginative experience of adults, especially the adult artist. In the video, he’s sitting alone in a lush forest, singing a song, which is a pretty accurate depiction of how we tend to think of adult creativity: the solitary artist working in isolation to produce his art. However, the children above him are having an imaginative experience of a very different sort. It’s much more “natural,” collaborative, fun, and free.

      I’m really intrigued by these ideas and I love the way he conveys them in the video. However, you can’t get to them through a textual analysis because they aren’t in the lyrics – at least, not primarily. Rather, he conveys these ideas through visual cues, so we have to take a different analytical approach to get at them. Does that make sense?

  7. To Joie, Willa and all those who enlighten this goreous blog, a Merry Christmas and a very creative New Year!

    You have definately discussed a very important issue, one paramount to Michael: child abuse, and tried to explain, as far as Michael is concerned, how childhood traumas really affect one’s entire life, and are in fact even more obvious in one’s maturity. Experience of that nature definately defines one’s demeanor, frame of mind, influences several important choices, and leaves a sense of sadness that nearly no one can erase. This aspect of Michael’s life should be dealt with in depth not only to interpret his personal choices in a more psychoanalytical manner but also to raise consciousness as to how malicious people can be towards children, or at least to shed further light on human nature. Michael was, or rather is as I prefer to state it, a model of personal sensitivity and set a paradigm on how each and every one can do something to alleviate the horrors of this world.

  8. aldebaranredstar

    There is a beautiful self-portrait drawing Michael did of himself as a child crouching in a corner with a microphone in his hand. The lyrics to the song “Childhood” are written on the drawing–“Before you judge me, try hard to love me, look within your heart then ask, have you seen my childhood”?

    Here is the website to view the drawing:


  9. Thank you for this great post, Willa and Joie! Reading about what you think about this sailboats in the childhood Video, i just thought about one of Michael poems from Dancing The Dream, “Children Of The world” There he used also that picture of floating boats..

    “Children of the world, we’ll do it
    We’ll meet on endless shores
    Making sandcastles and floating our boats
    While people fight and defend their point of view
    Forever putting on masks that are new
    We’ll swing the tide of time and do it.”’s also a lot about Imagination, about flying..and there’s a connection to the moon… many things in this poem i can find in the pictures Michael used in Childhood.. .

    “We’ll ride a rainbow, a cloud, a storm
    Flying in the wind, we’ll change our form
    We’ll touch the stars, embrace the moon
    We’ll break the barrier and be there soon”

    I think he discribes perfectly this special bliss and imagination, that children have, and he connects himself to the children, because he alwas talks about “we”.

    • Wow, All4Michael, that’s a really interesting connection. I need to go back and read “Children of the World” again with “Childhood” in mind, but there do seem to be some strong parallels between them. Interesting.

  10. Childhood is very moving. Your conversation about this song has made me think about a particular part of it.
    The part is this:

    “Have you seen my childhood?
    I’m searching for that wonder in my youth
    Like fantastical stories to share
    The dreams I would dare
    Watch me fly…”

    I love especially when he sings that “fly” in that amazing way, with his voice that litterally lifts up.
    I’ve checked the corresponding part in the short film and I think that it’s interesting the fact that the part is where there is that boy who joins the others on the flying boat, while Michael stays on the ground.

    I think Michael is really able to make you feel inside a song: he’s so expressive, with his voice and his body.

    Thanks for this discussion and your wishes, Willa and Joie! I wish you and all the commenters a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

  11. aldebaranredstar

    The poignant question “Have you seen my childhood?” really has to be answered in the negative for many people b/c none of us have had that kind of childhood and it is thus easy to dismiss and hard to ‘see.’ Maybe that’s why Michael said ‘try hard to love me’ b/c maybe only love could help people ‘see’ or imagine what that kind of childhood meant to him, how it affected him, and I think his sitting on the rock shows how left out he felt of what he wanted to do as a child.

    here is a quote from Karen Moriarty’s ‘Defending a King,’ which I think really does ‘get’ what his childhood was like:

    “Even though he was not working on a sewing machine or in a cotton field, Michael Jackson was still required to WORK on at least a ‘full-time basis’ from the time he was seven! Of special significance perhaps is the reality that Michael was not able to THINK like a child or succumb to the feelings of childhood. His work was all-consuming–he was singing, dancing, rehearsing, recording, giving interviews, traveling, and touring. He often worked til 3 a.m. What he was doing required complete focus and the self-discipline that is typical of adulthood, not childhood. . . .

    He recognized that he was the family meal ticket, from the time he was eight or nine, even before the Jackson 5 made it big. Performing in modest venues, the family of brothers earned a decent living, but Michael was the most important entertainer and biggest attraction in the group. He carried a huge burden of responsibility for a little boy; he had to be good at what he did; he had to be consistent. If he stopped for any reason, the whole family would suffer.” (337-8)

    Moriarty also makes the point that Michael was prevented from playing active sports for fear he would get injured and be unable to perform, that he did not celebtrate birthdays and holidays (he celebrated his first Christmas at age 35), and that he grew up and lived his life in a “moving cage” where he could not go places or do things like other people, due to paparazzi, stalkers, getting mobbed, etc.

    The last words of the last line (‘my childhood’) is sung in such a sad, wistful way–echoing the sounds of childhood (the sing-song sounds) and yet also the mournfulness of Michael’s emotions, his voice breaking and close to tears. Yes, Joie, he opens a vein for sure.

  12. Aldebaranredstar, thank you so much for the quote! I read through the “all for love” blog and the fond memories recounted therein, I was so moved! About Michael’s childhood sketch, I find it very telling, it reveals another aspect of Michael, in fact he had several talents beyond those of a stage performer. Piers Morgan has a video on youtube about Michael’s painting studio, I find this so exciting, and gives me plenty of material for future topics in my own art.

    • aldebaranredstar

      You’re welcome, Gihan. And thanks for the reference to the Piers Morgan discussion with Katherine Jackson and Brett Livingston-Stone, who was Michael’s art teacher. In that discussion, although Michael’s drawings are displayed in the background, I wish they had spent more time talking about his art work and actually showing it on screen.

  13. Its funny how a lot of fans have a hard time digesting Childhood, calling it too sentimental and corny, and Michael said it was the most autobiographical and personal song he had ever written. I have heard statements like ‘Michael is whining about this again’ ‘playing victim’ – back then it was almost like ‘get over it already’. I dont think its whiny at all – he is not saying ‘feel sorry for me’ but ‘try seeing this through my eyes’.

    But it is heartbreaking to even try. I remember the first tarraborelli book, the one that came out in 1991, before the really bad things started to happen, and after reading it I was feeling so down and helpless. The book ends with this qoute:
    “People think that they know me,” Michael once said, “but they dont. Not really. Actually, I am one of the loneliest people on this earth. I cry sometimes, because it hurts. It does. To be honest, I guess you could say that it hurts to be me.”

    Childhood has a similar vibe to me. Its not a depressing song per say and the music is not melancholic, but it pulls you in (if you let it) and makes you face his pain. No wonder it makes people feel uncomfortable.

    I just had a thought while typing this – why does Stranger in Moscow gotten a similar reaction? Noone accused him of whining or playing victim there.. Maybe Cuz its bizzare for a man to “whine” about his childhood, but feeling down about grown up problems is acceptable?

    • Oops, I meant to write why it didn’t get a similar response!

    • It’s funny how most of the songs in pop music are about the same subject (romantic relationships and sex), yet no one tells all those artists to “move on already” and find other subjects to sing about. But if Michael sings about childhood it suddenly becomes “whining” and he should just “get over it”. The other day I have seen a comment about the Cirque du Soleil show by a guy who appeared to be a casual fan. He criticized the show for having featured the “darker” songs from Michael’s catalogue, as in his opinion in a show like this they should have focused only on the fun songs. He did not name which songs he particularly meant, but the show did feature some of Michael’s deeper/”darker” songs, including Childhood.

      Michael talking so openly about his lost childhood really is a subject that makes people feel uncomfortable. Madonna or Prince singing about sex all the time is not boring, but Michael singing about tragic childhoods is. It’s almost as if they want to tell him: “just shut up and entertain us!” He has no right to feel and to complain. It reminds me of the lyrics of “Price of Fame”:

      My father always told me
      You won’t live a quiet life
      If you’re reaching for fortune and fame
      I feel the pressure setting in, I’m living just to win
      I bleed all this pain, don’t you ever complain!

      It’s the price of fame, you pay the price of fame
      So don’t you ever complain!
      It’s the price of fame, you pay the price for fame
      So don’t be feelin’ no pain!

      It’s the price of fame, you pay the price of fame!
      Father never lies, my father never lies
      My father never lies
      So don’t be feelin’ this way boy!

      It’s the price of fame, you pay the price of fame!
      Father never lies, my father never lies baby
      My father never lies
      So don’t be feelin’ no pain boy!

      How many times was he told that he should feel lucky and he should stop complaining? By his father, the media, critics, even some fans. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I have heard that Quincy Jones once told him: “Who didn’t have a crap childhood? Get over it already!” I’ve also seen this quote attributed to Lisa Marie Presley. I don’t know which one, if any, is true, but it seems like besides the pain of his childhood he also had to deal with no one acknowledging that pain. If, indeed, “everyone” had a “crap childhood” then doesn’t that make Michael’s message about it even more important? But we’d rather choose to look the other way?

      • aldebaranredstar

        Thanks, Jacksonaktak, I agree with everything you say. This “just get over it” attitude is so cruel. Maybe that’s why Michael sings in ‘Childhood”–“No one understands me.” In a way the question “Have you seen my childhood” is a challenge. A challenge NOT to look the other way, as you say, but to really SEE (in the sense of “I get it,” I understand it, I perceive it). Those who don’t understand, have not seen.

      • “It’s funny how most of the songs in pop music are about the same subject (romantic relationships and sex), yet no one tells all those artists to ‘move on already’ and find other subjects to sing about.”

        Heavens, Jacksonaktak – this just made me laugh! It is so true. And like Aldebaranredstar, I agree with everything you say.

        I was especially interested in what you said about this insistence that he entertain us, and not trouble us with more difficult issues like child abuse, gang violence, racism, misogyny, or the many other forms of prejudice he addresses in his work. To me, this gets back once again to the false split between entertainment (popular art) and high art. We expect artists (like painters, sculptors, poets, novelists – of a certain type, filmmakers – again of a certain type) to unsettle us with important social issues, but we don’t expect it from entertainers. And in fact, it can feel a little precious sometimes when entertainers adopt social causes. But we don’t expect entertainers to take on significant cultural issues in the meaningful way Michael Jackson did, or that Charlie Chaplin did, or that Charles Dickens or Anthony Trollope or Jane Austen or even Shakespeare did – all popular entertainers of their time.

        But I think that’s what makes them so enduring. They are both entertaining and troubling – they get under our skin and we can’t forget them, or what they’re trying to tell us about our world. And they reveal to us something true and important about human psychology – about the human mind and human heart – both the light and dark patches.

        And Michael Jackson’s painful childhood is part of that. It not only tells us something about him; it also tells us something of importance about our world and our culture, and we need to understand what he’s trying to tell us and not hide from it because it’s too painful.

        • On fan forums it’s been often discussed how America turned away from Michael when his messages became deeper and more personal. And many American critics are still not willing to be open to his post Bad career. While most fans feel that’s when some of his finest work came.

          As long as he just entertained America he was great. But when he started to tell more important things they felt the need to destroy him (I use this word because sometimes the criticism was really that cruel – and, like Joe Vogel pointed out, often it wasn’t even criticism about his music, his art, but about his person, just ad hominem attacks – and that in music magazines).

          I think there’s some racist attitude (probably unconscious) behind the expectation how a black musician should only entertain us, but when he sings about deeper subjects he is ridiculed. A black man can only be an entertainer, not an artist…

          A good example is how critics and the American public alike considered You Are Not Alone the best song of HIStory. That’s the only song of that album that went Nr 1 in America and that was praised by American critics. Seriously? This totally average, harmless pop ballad, when that album has Earth Song, They Don’t Care About Us, Stranger in Moscow, Scream, Money? They are all far superior to YANA both musically and in terms of what they have to say. But YANA is the type of song and “message” that is expected and accepted from Michael in the US. Nothing deeper…

          Meanwhile Earth Song was a huge hit all over the rest of the World. In Germany it was Michael’s most successful single ever. In the UK it was Christmas Nr 1, holding off the first “new” Beatles song from that spot since their split etc. In the US it wasn’t even released and largely overlooked. YANA was the best that HIStory had to offer, according to them…

          • Racism might be a part of it, but also, the critics are controlled by the industry – some even working for the multi-national company that are stake holders in the music industry. So, that might also play into it. That along with the business of bashing Michael which made many people in America and the world very, very rich!

          • But timing-wise Michael’s messages became deeper and more personal at the same time as his appearance and image became too different to relate to for general public. And America is not the most tollerant place when it comes to difference 😉

            I think Americans also felt like Michael “belonged to them” in a different way than the rest of the world. Jackson 5 had international success but not nearly as much as Michael Jackson. So he didn’t grow up before our eyes and wasn’t our national treassure as a kid. In a way there was less pressure in other countries, less rigid expectations for him to please everybody.

            So I think America did have different expections for MJ and his place but it wasn’t just racism. Although as a white russian girl it is really hard for me to understand the extent of racism in America.

          • “I think there’s some racist attitude (probably unconscious) behind the expectation how a black musician should only entertain us, but when he sings about deeper subjects he is ridiculed. A black man can only be an entertainer, not an artist …”

            I think this is a really important point, Jacksonaktak. Michael Jackson faced a host of prejudices – because he was so commercially successful, because he didn’t adopt a certain artistic posture that critics like, because he challenged boundaries of gender and genre, because …

            But racial biases were definitely part of the mix as well, especially this insistence that black artists are simply entertainers, unlike their white counterparts. Joe Vogel talks about this in his article, “The Misunderstood Power of Michael Jackson’s Music”:

            Establishment rock critics such as Dave Marsh and Greil Marcus notoriously dismissed Jackson as the first major popular music phenomenon whose impact was more commercial than cultural. Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Bruce Springsteen, they claimed, challenged and re-shaped society. Jackson simply sold records and entertained.

            It shouldn’t be much of a strain to hear the racial undertones in such an assertion. Historically, this dismissal of black artists (and black styles) as somehow lacking substance, depth and import is as old as America. It was the lie that constituted minstrelsy. It was a common criticism of spirituals (in relation to traditional hymns), of jazz in the ’20s and ’30s, of R&B in the ’50s and ’60s, of funk and disco in the ’70s, and of hip-hop in the ’80s and ’90s (and still today). The cultural gatekeepers not only failed to initially recognize the legitimacy of these new musical styles and forms, they also tended to overlook or reduce the achievements of the African-American men and women who pioneered them. The King of Jazz, for white critics, wasn’t Louis Armstrong, it was Paul Whiteman; the King of Swing wasn’t Duke Ellington, it was Benny Goodman; the King of Rock wasn’t Chuck Berry or Little Richard, it was Elvis Presley.

          • And the king of hip-hop is Eminem. And Rolling Stone magazine declared Justin Timberlake “the new king of pop” in 2003.
            It’s hard not to notice a pattern IMO…

            How come Elvis Presley is considered an artist while Michael as just an entertainer by these critics when Elvis did not write his music or lyrics? I know there is such as performing art, but art to me always has something to do with creativity. And Elvis simply cannot hold a candle to Michael in that department. So what is it that makes Elvis such a “deep” artist in the eyes of these critics, while Michael’s art is so easily dismissed? It really is hard to find any other reason than racial prejudices. Maybe not on a conscious level, but it’s there.

          • “Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Bruce Springsteen, they claimed, challenged and re-shaped society. Jackson simply sold records and entertained.”

            This Billboard article is so great because it shows why Thriller and Michael was so culturally, socially significant.

            IMO it’s debatable if Elvis really broke down racial barriers or, on the contrary, helped to reinforce them. But it’s undeniable that Thriller and Michael did break down barriers and did challenge certain a status quo at the time.

          • Hi Jacksonaktak. Thanks for the fascinating article. It was so interesting – especially its contention that, in the early 1980s when Thriller came out, the music industry was actually becoming more racially segregated. So Thriller didn’t just accelerate a positive trend (which is what I’d always assumed) but actually halted and reversed a negative trend and got things moving in a better direction. I’d never heard that or thought about it before.

            And I agree that “it’s debatable if Elvis really broke down racial barriers or, on the contrary, helped to reinforce them.” I think Elvis was a wonderful performer and he did help bring “black” music to a white audience. But as Joe’s Atlantic article makes clear, that process of white performers adopting and presenting “black” music to a white audience has a very long history – in blues, jazz, R&B, hip hop – and as you suggest, we can debate whether that promoted “black” music or simply perpetuated the segregation of white and black audiences.

          • Willa, I’m glad you liked the article. I’m not American so to me it’s even more difficult to learn about these things from the distance – so it was interesting to find out about the cultural context of when Thriller was released.

            I think it’s ironic that these artists who are credited with doing great things, like challenging and re-shaping society and are considered “serious artists”, are almost always all white, while the black Michael Jackson’s achievements are put down and he is considered “just an entertainer” in comparison. Hmm, maybe those racial barriers are still not completely broken down…

  14. aldebaranredstar

    “Stranger in Moscow” is not about childhood per se; it’s about adulthood, feeling like an alienated stranger in a big foreign city or world. There are some adolescents playing in the film, but they are not young children, as in ‘Childhood,” and the lyrics don’t mention the hot-button word “childhood.” On the other hand, ‘Childhood” has childhood and children and Michael’s childhood front and center. I think people have a big hang-up, generally speaking, about childhood and children, in USA at least. For all the lip service we give to how much we care, there are more child murders in USA than in any other first-world country. I also read an awful statistic recently, that 24,000 people die of starvation related diseases globally every DAY, and 16,000 are children. So how much do we really care about children?

  15. So perfectly stated. Very few people really care, and a lot fewer amongst the powerful. So much more to Michael’s credit.

  16. aldebaranredstar

    I just heard Michael’s song “We’ve Had Enough,” about violence, war, taking the lives of others. It’s so powerful. The story focuses on two children, boy and girl, who lose a parent due to violence.

    I feel so bad about the 20 children killed in their own school in Sandy Hook, Ct. I think the whole nation is in shock.

  17. Hi Willa and Joie —

    What an interesting and again thought-provoking post!

    And thanks for pointing me in the direction of the video; the images of the boats filled with children is enchanting — except for the fact that I guess these boats represent his childhood passing him by.

    He really does open a vein in this song — and it has made me extremely uncomfortable and I have tried to understand why.

    I think it is because, in this song and video, MJ is being so “unmanly” — going against the grain of what people expect, in this case what they expect from grown men — sitting like a little boy, rubbing his hands together, mourning the loss of a childhood, when he is a MAN! But, MJ was acutely aware of how he would be perceived, so he was not unaware of how people would view this, yet he took the risk — because it expressed his truth — and probably the truth of a lot of men, if we knew how they really felt about things. ( I was reminded of how young men on the battle field will cry out for their mothers.)

    It takes a great deal of courage for a grown man to act like a child in a world where men are supposed to be quintessentially adult and worldly. MJ rejects stereotypical manliness and longs for that protected world of childhood– a world characterized by innocence and vulnerability and wonder and imagination and dreams of what might be. But, in truth, many men, deep down, are as vulnerable as anyone else, they just don’t want anyone to know it. So, maybe he is revealing a truth about all men. And, I for one, would like to meet some men who were not childish — plenty of those around — but childlike and innocent and full of wonder.

    Although this song is clearly about the loss of his own childhood, I wondered if he also was thinking of the many children he met in hospitals who also had lost their childhoods — and the children, like the ones in the song aldabaranredstar refers to, in war torn countries and ghettos, who lose their parents and their childhoods at the same time.

    Having lost his childhood, he did not take childhood for granted, but recognized its value — the value of innocence, and wonder, and the power of fresh and honest emotion.

    I am glad that you found my quote from an earlier post useful.

    Safe and Happy Holidays to everyone!

    • I hope I did not offend anyone by admitting that this song initially made me uncomfortable. In my quest to understand Michael Jackson and our society’s reactions to him, I try to become as conscious as possible of my own emotional reactions and analyze them. When I dis-cover dis-comfort in my own reactions, I focus on it to see what it reveals about me and about the society I am a part of. Then, I listen to the music and watch the video again…and again, knowing that MJ was many steps ahead of us all in his sensitivity to reactions, and purposeful in his art. I often feel that MJ is “rubbing our noses in it” — exposing our prejudices. Who knew so many people would find a man cherishing childhood and mourning its loss offensive? What on earth does that say about us as a society? These are the questions Michael makes me ask.

      • Eleanor, I agree with you about Childhood being an uncomfortable song for the listener. I am really not sure whether Michael intended it this way to make us pay attention to our own stereotypes or he just expressed his honest feeling hoping we would try to understand him a little.

        You are so right about him presenting him self as ‘unmanly’ in this song and short film and giving his critics an opportunity to roll their eyes and write him off as too whinny. But then again, he was always too much of something and most people don’t stop to wonder why he had made them feel so uncomfortable.

        Not only MJ is ‘rubbing our noses in it’, he is constantly asking (sometimes demanding) us to change our minds and our ways. ‘before you judge me, try hard to love me’ – that line affected me tremenduosly as a human being when History came out. I didn’t even understand how much back then. If we all thought of each each other as someone worthy of love before judging them, how much difference would that make.

        I don’t remember which interview it was, where Michael said he wouldn’t change anything about his life because his pain and his lost childhood made him that sensitive to the pain of others, especially children. Anyone remember which interview or book it was?

        • Hi Gennie —

          I don’t remember that quote, but I do remember that he said that even though his childhood was painful, he wouldn’t change it, because it was part of his becoming who he was, and that although his father was hard on him, without him, MJ and the Jackson 5 would never have happened.

          As to the issue of “unmanliness,” what struck me “this time around” when I listened to Childhood and also watched the video, was that we often think of MJ’s embrace of the feminine as challenging stereotypical manliness, but his honoring of childhood, his acknowledgement of the child within the man and the longing a man can have for his childhood, also challenged stereotypes of manliness. I realized that I have integrated and accepted his embrace of the feminine as enhancing his appeal as a man — at least to me, it makes him more sexually attractive, as it shows his appreciation of the feminine. But, I had not integrated the idea of childlikeness into an idea of manliness. Traditionally, it is OK for a woman to be childlike — it is even considered to be attractive, but it is not OK for a man.

          I may have said this in a previous post, can’t remember, but our culture has a really odd and conflicted relationship to childhood and children. We give lip service to the idea that we treasure children, but when you look at the statistics, the poor in this country are made up primarily of children and their mothers. The reaction to the terrible shooting last week is interesting in that it seems that the shooting of children in a the suburban northeast finally gets the national attention — when poor children are shot every day and these shootings are ignored. I once read a book by a Jungian analyst, Nathan Schwartz Salant that claimed that the US is a narcissistic society and that because we envy our children their youth and futures, we cannot love them.

          Anyway, MJ, as usual, augured in and hit a national nerve.

          And, as a man who embraced and honored the feminine and his inner child, he was expanding our concept of what it means to be a man.

          • It is interesting that you say it is more accepting for women to be childlike – to me it seems the other way around 🙂 maybe we are talking about different stereotypes, but men tend to be more spontaneous, into playing games for fun (like sports and computer games) and into fantasy things. And women seem to be more serious and rational and don’t want to mess up their outfit and hair by playing 🙂 I know I’m generalizing like crazy but like Michael said “some guys play golf and I like to climb trees”.

            As for integrating manliness and childlikeness – have you seen any guy with a flu? Haha I couldn’t resist 😉

            “Nathan Schwartz Salant that claimed that the US is a narcissistic society and that because we envy our children their youth and futures, we cannot love them.”

            Wow that’s really messed up, isn’t it! I think our cultures have an issue with being so insecure about everything that we automatically defensively attack everything else just to validate it.

      • Eleanor, I too posted of my dis-comfort with the song, but not so much because Michael’s mourning is offensive. It’s the actually pain he exudes because of the mourning that touches something in me.

  18. wow there is so much to comment on here now that I am back, and all of it so insightful and thought provoking. I watched the short film a couple of times before responding, so that I could see where all your comments fit in.

    I hadn’t noticed the part where Michael sings the word “fly” and the boy is doing just that, but I did notice there is a part in the middle where he is singing “Before you judge me” where the little black boy is shown alone in his boat, and then he goes on to sing “try had to love me”, as if pointing out that he is that little black boy. So much to see thanks to this blog that I hadn’t ‘seen’ before – thank you all. I had noticed the cats, being a cat lover, but didn’t quite understand the connection, though I know cats are highly intuitive and often other worldly. I also felt how he was sitting in a lush forest and yet alone on a rock, and can see now how that relates to his life of, in a way having all that lushness and yet being a bit remote from it and not able to enjoy it and wishing he could. I loved the comment about living in a ‘moving cage’ – that is just so exactly it, and how he had to live his life. Thank goodness he did have this wonderful gift of imagination. It is, of course, always hard, to have to accept that often great art comes from great suffering, and it is so often the case as we see with so many other artists. However, I am thinking of when Smokey Robinson was saying on the David Gest DVD, of how amazed he was that Michael could sing his own song when he was only a little boy with such feeling and couldn’t have possibly felt the kind of emotions expressed in his voice when singing it, and I seem to remember Quincy Jones saying something similar. Also if you listen to Bill Withers singing Ain’t No Sunshine, and then young Michael’s version, he gives so much more expression to it than Bill does. I therefore think, that with or without suffering, Michael’s talent would have found a way to be expressed and that it would have still moved the world, and no way would he have remained a steel worker in Gary – cosmic choreography certainly had a much greater destiny mapped out for him. For a good while, I did feel that it was very sad that so much of Michael’s art was an expression of all the hurt and sadness he felt, but am reminded of Randy Taborrelli saying that although much of Michael’s life and what happened to him was tragic, in no way does he see Michael’s life that way. I now agree that it is rather much more an expression of triumph over adversity, and what a wonderful message that it in its own right.

    One comment that also grabbed me, was about Michael not writing the usual songs about romance and sex and suchlike, because I noticed that right from the beginning of my journey with him. I sooo liked, and like, his songs because they are not the run of the mill bubblegum stuff that is popular and just entertains and will fade fast, but the fact that so many of them have messages that are important, and that certainly wasn’t lost on me being an older person who has lived a full life. I have gained so much more in my understanding of those messages, and am so delighted that others are now looking at Michael’s work with those eyes too and pointing it out to the world. Thank you fellow bloggers.

    Sorry this is a bit long, but I didn’t want to have to go backwards and forward to answer each person’s comments, that would have taken even longer!

    Happy holidays everyone.

  19. And I must add, even when Michael wrote ‘love songs’ a la In The Closet, which I have just listened to, they were no ordinary love songs either were they?

    Which takes me to the History Gold Pants – there you go ladies, my Xmas gift to you ha ha – I was fascinated to read in Michael Bush’s book that they were Levi’s covered in chrome – only Michael!!

    Meanwhile somewhat off the topic ( sorry that I do this so often, but this blog is my only way to chat to other fans in US), does anyone know where I could get a copy of Aphrodite Jones’ book “Conspiracy”? I have looked on but nothing there cos I suppose it was self-published?

    • “Which takes me to the History Gold Pants … I was fascinated to read in Michael Bush’s book that they were Levi’s covered in chrome – only Michael!!”

      Really?!! I’m astonished. They seemed so fluid when he was dancing in them. As Fred Astaire said, What a mover – he could even make chrome flow like water …

      So Caro, that was a lovely Christmas present. Thank you! Merry Christmas Eve to you, and very happy holidays to everyone.

  20. I just thought about the reason, why Michael used floating boats in this video…I’m not an english native speaker, but I found this in an urban dictionary:

    “whatever floats your boat”
    This is a phrase that often means whatever “soothes your soul” or whatever “works best” Aka- Whatever you feel like doing.

    So maybe this is an explanation why there are floating boats…representing his dreams, wishes and the adventures of the childhood, these are things, that “soothe his soul”…even if he couldn’t do them as a child…

  21. Hi Gennie —

    I think you are absolutely right about men continuing to play games into adulthood in a way that women don’t, but what I meant was that, from a romantic standpoint, it is more attractive for a woman to be helpless and childlike than for a man to be. This may be changing, but when I was young, women pretended to a childlike vulnerability to attract men.

    Also, I am distinguishing between childishness and childlikeness.

  22. I recently discovered Michael singing the Drummer Boy on Youtube with his marvellous boy’s voice. I was deeply moved, I couldn’t receive a better Christmas gift. Merry Christmas to all of you who allow this blog have the character of a symposium!

  23. I soooo agree with Jacksonaktak – there can absolutely be no comparison between Michael and Elvis!! really how could there be!! or anyone else come to that – no-one achieved so much, and contributed so much to his art and to society and this planet. Michael really was, and is, imcomparable.

    Happy Christmas everyone, and happy holidays.

  24. I’d like to thank you Aldebaranredstar, both on my behalf and that of other innumerable fans for the tribute included, that strengthens our commitment to doing justice for Michael. The quotes therein are just great, so is the one by Margaret Mead whose books I read on antropology as an undergraduate, fine memories rejuvenated.

    A great, peaceful New Year to all of you, less misery and torment for our world!

  25. aldebaranredstar

    Thanks so much for you sweet words, Gihan.I love this tribute from the MJ Tribute Portrait folks and am glad you liked it too. It does, as you said so well, ‘strengthen our commitment to doing justice for Michael.’ There is so much misinformation and it feels good to take steps, even small one in conversations here and there, to let people know how they were misled about this wonderful man and great soul.


    I am writing in this blog, because I can’t open the latest one Under The Covers. I am told the page is missing or removed ????????????????? most distressing – is anyone else having this problem? I can open any other item on the latest news section, but not this blog?????

  27. Hi Caro,

    I just read both Under The Covers and Searching for that Wonder in My Youth, by clicking on the December archives link. Hope it’s working for you now! Always look forward to reading your comments.

  28. Thank you Gennie and Willa and others for this article about Michael´s” have you seen my childhood”.And for for noting Michael´s words :You have to have that tragedy,that pain to pull from. ….This shows how Michael was able to convert severe pain and suffering to art.The video to that song is dreamlike, and like dreams there is something disconcerting to it, as mentioned by some commentators.The boats floating to me convey time.
    The time of his childhood floating by while he sits alone in that forest,
    a beatiful but dark and lonely forest: he was a true artist..There are many people with an awful childhood, few can convert it to something incredible, ie art, like Michael did.

Tell us what you think...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: