If the Angels Came for Me, I’d Tell Them No

Willa:  Joie, a few weeks ago we were talking about “Best of Joy,” and you quoted some lines from Dylan Thomas:

Though lovers be lost, love shall not
And death shall have no dominion

I’ve been thinking about those lines ever since because we see this idea of “death shall have no dominion” a number of times in Michael Jackson’s work – perhaps most explicitly in “Heaven Can Wait,” but also when he seemingly dies but then returns in Moonwalker and Ghosts.

Joie:  That’s true, Willa. It is a theme that we see more than once from him – in both songs and short films.

Willa:  And not just from him, Joie, but many major artists, and I think it’s because death is probably the most difficult concept humans have to face. I read an article a long time ago where the author said he felt the real distinction between humans and other animals is the terrible knowledge that we’re all going to die. As he said, all animals die but humans are the only animals that know it. Or we assume we’re the only animals that know it. Elephants will sometimes visit the bones of their ancestors, and handle them in an almost reverent way. Does that mean they understand the concept of death? Do they know they’re going to die?

Joie:  You know, I am a firm believer that animals know a lot more than we as humans will ever comprehend. I believe that some are more intuitive than others – like the majestic elephant – and they know things and understand things about our world. Much more than humans will ever give them credit for.

Willa:  Oh I agree, and think it’s a huge mistake to assume that since we don’t know the depth of an animal’s thoughts and emotions, they don’t have profound thoughts and emotions. When one of my dogs died of bone cancer several years ago, the other went into deep mourning for a long time and never forgot his friend. If I mentioned his friend’s name in conversation, even years later, he’d look up and watch me very closely.

But the point I’m trying to make is that we all carry the terrible burden of knowing we’re going to die someday, and so are all the people we care about. And one function of art is to help us deal with our deepest emotions, like the fear of death and the grief of losing someone we love. Poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, musicians – artists in many different forms – have struggled for centuries to somehow come to grips with that terrible, terrible knowledge. How do you face life when you know you’re going to die? How do you let yourself love someone fully and deeply when you know they’re going to die? How do you have children when you know they will die someday and pass on this legacy of death? Does life become bitter for us, or does it seem all the more sweet and precious because of that constant threat of death?

Joie:  Wow. Those are heavy questions, Willa. But you’re right … artists have struggled with that knowledge for centuries and have used it to fuel some of the greatest artistic works of all time.

Willa:  They really have, and they’ve come up with a wide range of responses, though some are a lot more popular than others. For example, there’s the famous Thomas Herrick poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” where he advises “the Virgins” to go ahead and have a good time while they can:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

Herrick published this poem in the 1600s, and this “carpe diem” philosophy of “have fun now while you’re young and full of life” is expressed in poetry written more than 2,000 years ago. And it’s still very popular today – especially with musicians, it seems. You hear it on the radio all the time, like in the Kesha song with the repeated refrain, “Let’s make the most of the night / Like we’re gonna die young.”

Joie:  Ok, I see what you’re saying, Willa. It is a very popular topic with musicians. But getting back to your question of ‘does life become bitter for us or does it seem all the more sweet and precious’ because of this constant threat of death … I think the answer to that lies with the individual. Some people are inevitably going to lean toward the bitter option. But I like to think that, for most of us, we tend to embrace the latter idea of life becoming more sweet and precious because of this knowledge. And I think what you said about some artists’ responses being more popular than others reflects that.

Willa: Yes, but artists can also lead us to think about these ideas in new ways. Like I just heard a song on the radio called “Carry On,” and it had these lyrics:

So I met up with some friends at the edge of the night
At a bar off 75
And we talked and talked about how our parents will die
All our neighbors and wives
But I like to think I can cheat it all
To make up for the times I’ve been cheated on

So what the band, Fun, seems to be saying with these lyrics is that they want to believe they can “cheat” death and in that way compensate for times when they’ve felt “cheated on” by life. You know, I’ve never thought about things in quite that way before.

An even better example, I think, is Michael Jackson’s “Be Not Always.” It’s a song about war (“Mothers cry, babies die / Helplessly in arms / While rockets fly”) and racism (“How can we claim to stand for peace / When the races are in strife / Destroying life?”) and poverty (“To have nothing / To dream something / Then lose hoping …”). In other words, this song addresses some of our biggest societal problems – problems so big and so complicated we tend to think of them as eternal and unsolvable. But Michael Jackson is begging us to stop thinking that way. He’s telling us these problems don’t have to be eternal … and shame on us if they are:

Be not always
But if always
Bow our heads in shame
Please, be not always
‘Cause if always
Bow our heads in blame
‘Cause time has made promises
Just promises

This is the chorus, and he sings it twice with a slight variation between them. The first time he sings it, he ends with “Time has made promises / Just promises,” and to me, what he seems to be saying is that these problems are difficult but not everlasting. Time is what’s eternal, and “time has made promises” that we can solve these problems if we keep working at them. But as he goes on to say, time gives us “just promises.” Those promises won’t come true unless we work for them – and we must. In fact, we should “bow our heads in shame” if we don’t keep striving against them until we’ve solved them.

But then he sings the chorus a second time, and this time around he changes that final line. This time he sings, “Time has made promises / Death promises.” Joie, that line just gives me chills, but it’s also strangely inspiring. He’s revised what he told us before, and now his message is much darker. What he seems to be saying is that, really, the only thing Time promises us for certain is that we’re all going to die. Time makes “death promises.” And because of that – because Time will surely bring death to each of us someday – we need to strive with everything we have to preserve the preciousness of all life.

Joie:  I see what you’re saying, Willa. But I have to be honest with you and admit that I really don’t care for that particular song. I understand the importance of the message behind it, but the song itself is so depressing and morbid in tone and feeling. And I understand why the critics at the time were really left scratching their heads when the Victory album came out. Their question was, what is this song of such gloom and doom doing on an album that is supposed to be a victorious celebration? It just didn’t fit, and I remember reading somewhere back then that the brothers weren’t very happy with Michael’s choice of song either.

But I’m getting slightly off topic here. You are right in your assertion that this song points out, rather bluntly, that the only thing Time really promises to us is death.

Willa:  But so does the Kesha song, and no one seems to think it’s morbid. And to me, if a song is going to remind me of my own mortality, I’d much rather it be a beautiful ballad like “Be Not Always” than a flippant pop song. And the Thomas Herrick / Kesha idea that we’re all going to die so we should just party like there’s no tomorrow quite frankly isn’t very inspiring to me. In fact, it makes life seem pretty pointless. To me, Michael Jackson’s approach in “Be Not Always” is much more uplifting. It makes me feel like I should try to live in a meaningful way precisely because life is so short and so precious.

And actually, in one of those funny little moments of synchronicity, our friend Lisha McDuff just sent me a wonderful 10-minute short film called The Empathic Civilization that touches on this very topic. It’s based on a speech by economist and writer Jeremy Rifkin. Here’s a link:

I love this film, and two things especially jump out at me. First, scientists in Italy have found that mammals are “soft wired” to feel empathy – especially humans and primates, probably elephants, and maybe dogs and dolphins. And secondly, that our empathetic development takes a huge leap forward – an “existential leap” – when we realize that we’re going to die someday, and so is every other living thing on this planet. It’s precisely that painful knowledge that leads us to care deeply for other people we may not even have met. And to me, this is exactly the idea Michael Jackson is getting at in “Be Not Always.”

Joie:  That is such an interesting video to watch, Willa. The animation really holds your attention and illustrates the “lesson” the narrator is giving.

But I disagree with your assertion that “Be Not Always” is more uplifting than Kesha’s “Die Young.” I’m not a fan of the song by any means but, all it’s really saying is ‘hey, let’s go out and have a good time tonight.’ “Be Not Always,” on the other hand is talking about some really heavy, overwhelmingly depressing subject matter. And his delivery of it, while poignant, heartbreaking and thought-provoking, is so raw. It’s almost too painful to listen to. For me, anyway. I’m sorry to be so negative here. You know that I can count the number of Michael Jackson songs that I really don’t like on one hand, but this song just happens to be one of them. In fact … I honestly can’t think of another one right now. This may actually be the only one.

Willa:  Wow, that’s interesting, Joie. We have such similar reactions to so many of Michael Jackson’s works, it always kind of shocks me when we see things differently. And I guess we see “Be Not Always” very differently. To me, it’s a lot like Stranger in Moscow, where he’s taking a painful situation and turning it into something beautiful and meaningful. I love it when he does that. To me, that’s Michael Jackson at his best.

Joie:  Well, I agree with that statement, Willa. That is Michael Jackson at his best. But I just don’t see that happening here. To me, “Be Not Always” just takes a painful situation and makes it more morbid. And I’ll admit that I’m probably just not “getting it,” but the message is totally lost on me because I can’t get past how depressing it is. And I know this is going to sound extremely shallow of me, but I can’t listen to a song that’s only going to depress me.

You know, we talked about “Little Susie” a few weeks ago, and to me that song is a great example of Michael taking a painful situation and turning it into something beautiful, as you said. And yet, even though the subject matter is sad and depressing, the lyrics are beautiful. The music itself is breathtaking. The song grabs a hold of me from the very beginning and draws me in, making me care about this poor, neglected, dead little girl.

“Be Not Always” doesn’t do that for me. Instead of being drawn in, I am repelled. There’s nothing for me to grab onto – the lyrics are distressing, the music is bleak, the mood is hopeless. At the end of the song I feel empty, not uplifted.

Willa:  Joie, I’m just astonished. To me, “Little Susie” is far more depressing than “Be Not Always.” And the melody and his voice are so beautiful, and so is the instrumentation – just a simple acoustic guitar accompanying him throughout the entire song. It’s like his own version of MJ Unplugged, something we don’t get to hear very often.

Joie:  Wow. I can’t believe you find “Little Susie” more depressing than “Be Not Always.” I’m actually equally astonished, Willa. And I find our differences in opinion on this one so interesting. I don’t know that we’ve ever had such a huge gap in our feelings about a song before, do you?

Willa:  No, I think you’re right. We’ve disagreed about how we interpret different aspects of certain songs or videos, but I can’t remember us ever having such completely opposite reactions before. I feel like I need to listen to “Be Not Always” again with your words in mind to see if I can try to hear it the way you do, because I respond so differently.

But to get back to the theme of death, he actually touches on it fairly often, in different ways. Sometimes he addresses it more directly, like in “Gone Too Soon,” the song he dedicated to Ryan White. And sometimes he’s much more subtle. For example, it’s part of the backstory for the Bad short film, and contributes to the sense of threat and foreboding we feel in that film, I think.

Joie:  Oh, I agree, it is a theme that he touched on often and in varying degrees.

Willa:  It is, and what I really wanted to talk about were the “death shall have no dominion” ones. For example, in Moonwalker, the main character, Michael, is surrounded by armed soldiers with seemingly no escape. He transforms into an armed robot and begins fighting back – though interestingly, his most powerful weapon seems to be his voice, crying in pain. He then transforms into a spaceship and tries to escape, but is shot down and seems to be destroyed. But when the evil Mr. Lideo threatens the children, the spaceship returns and destroys Mr. Lideo and his entire operation instead – and again, even though he is now a spaceship and not human, we hear his voice, crying in pain. And again, his voice seems to be what makes him so powerful.

Then he begins to fly off into space, but a shooting star suddenly appears. We see a shooting star repeatedly in Moonwalker, and it’s somehow linked with the Michael character and with magic – it seems to call out the magic that’s within him. But this time the shooting star collides with the spaceship, there’s a big explosion, and he’s gone. The children miss him, and even start to question whether that magic exists – as Katie says, “It’s not a lucky star.” But then she says, “I wish he would come back,” and he does. So he seemingly dies not once but twice, and then against all odds he reappears and there’s a happy reunion.

Ghosts has a somewhat similar structure, but with some major differences also. Once again his character, the nameless Maestro, is under attack, but this time it’s not by a criminal mastermind and his thugs – it’s by the Mayor and townspeople where he lives. And they aren’t attacking him because they harbor evil ambitions, but because they’re frightened and want to make that fear go away. So his goal is different. He isn’t trying to defeat the villagers but connect with them and dissipate that fear. And as in Moonwalker, his voice – actually, the evocative power of both his singing and dancing – is his most powerful weapon.

However, the Mayor still wants him to leave, so the Maestro destroys himself – pounding himself to dust, which then blows away. After he’s gone, the children miss him, and even the townspeople who were trying to drive him out of town feel regret for what’s happened. And it’s after that change of heart that he returns.

Joie:  Oh, I see what you’re saying, Willa. It’s as if he’s repeating that theme of “death shall have no dominion” in each of those short films by returning just when everyone starts to believe that he really is gone. You know, it’s a subject he addresses head on in the song “Heaven Can Wait.” And of course, much more subtly in “Best of Joy,” as we talked about a few weeks ago.

Willa:  Exactly, but it seems to function a little differently here. He doesn’t seem to be trying to say something about death, so much as using death as an artistic device for psychological and artistic reasons. What I mean is, he’s using the presumed death and reappearance of these two protagonists to create a specific emotional effect in the audience.

In both of these films, the protagonist is under attack and undergoes a deep personal trauma – one we as an audience experience also through our identification with him. In Moonwalker, we witness Michael’s powerlessness as Mr. Lideo hits and threatens Katie, and then kicks and beats him when he tries to help her. In Ghosts we hear the Mayor threaten and ridicule the Maestro and stir the villagers against him, and then we watch the Maestro brutally destroy himself in front of our very eyes.

These are both very traumatic events. When Michael and the Maestro “die,” it draws out all the painful emotions evoked by those traumas: grief, fear, compassion, anger, outrage. It’s like a snakebite kit pulling venom from a wound. And then when Michael and the Maestro return, all of those emotions are washed away, and we’re left with a feeling of relief and renewal. So taken together, this double movement of death and reappearance provide us with catharsis – almost like a Reset button for rebooting our emotions so we aren’t stuck with the trauma of what we’ve experienced.

Joie:  That’s a very interesting way of looking at that, Willa. I’m not sure I would have thought of it in that way before but, I like the way you put that.

Willa:  Well, there are many different ways to interpret these two films, and this is only one approach. But it’s very interesting to me to think about how his character’s death and reappearance in these films affect us as an audience. The extreme emotional whiplash we experience when he dies and comes back to life seems to bring about a kind of psychological cleansing – a purging of the deep trauma we endured before this final crisis. And using art to purge an audience of uncomfortable emotions and bring about a feeling of rebirth or renewal is precisely what Aristotle meant by the word “catharsis.”

It’s a very old concept – more than 2,000 years old – and we tend to think we’ve changed a lot in those 2,000 years. But while daily life for humans has changed tremendously since then, human nature apparently hasn’t, and this process of catharsis still powerfully moves us as an audience, even today.

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 May 2, 2013, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 42 Comments.

  1. Ohhhh boy…
    The timing on this discussion sure punched a few of my buttons.

    Thinking about Moonwalker, Ghosts and Be Not Always in this manner reminds me that behind MJ’s facade of “oh, it’s just escapism, just light entertainment” and simmering quietly just below MJ’s seemingly childlike and sunny personality, there was a very profound and wise old soul who had an uncanny way of firing that symbolic shooting star right through our brains and into our hearts.

    There are very few things that can directly contact the open, unfiltered faith and trust we had as children, the belief we had in magic, the belief that we can and should indeed fly, the belief that death can be surmounted and fear of the unknown must bow to Right and Light…

    Michael Jackson could do it and still does it.

    I’ve always felt that MJ’s entire depiction of The Mayor in “Ghosts” had to have been a major personal catharsis for him; to revel in and personify all those things that had been said to and about him so endlessly and heartlessly for so long… And the colossal irony of playing dual roles and saying those things (“Freak! Freaky boy!”) to – himself! – as The Maestro, a fabulous construct of his own favorite attributes and points of view… To then magically “invade” the body and soul of his detractor and cause him to dance to a very different drummer… That film succeeded on so many levels, it’s scary. I cloud up and rain every time he shatters his face upon the dance floor even though I know it’s another of Maestro’s conjurer’s tricks.

    However – the moment late in Moonwalker when Michael reappears out of the gloom and fog, the most familiar and widely-recognized silhouette on the planet… that moment goes so much deeper somehow. It isn’t conjuring, it’s spiritual somehow. As if to almost say: “It’s so easy – all you have to do is ask.. and believe.” The power of that small moment never diminishes.

    Thanks Willa and Joie, glad you brought it up.

    • Chris Kohler says, “As if to say: “It’s so easy – all you have to do is ask… and believe.”

      Michael emerging from the fog after a child wishes he’d come back.

      The Maestro reappearing after the villagers have a change of heart.

      Both remind me of the lyrics, “Just call me name and I’ll be there” from the song I’ll Be There. Interesting how the idea seems to have an early seed and how it blossomed.

      • “‘It’s so easy – all you have to do is ask.. and believe.’ The power of that small moment never diminishes.”

        I agree, and it really does get back to the power of belief, as you said so well, Chris:

        There are very few things that can directly contact the open, unfiltered faith and trust we had as children, the belief we had in magic, the belief that we can and should indeed fly, the belief that death can be surmounted and fear of the unknown must bow to Right and Light…

        I think that’s one reason his death is so hard to accept, coming as it did with him still under a cloud of suspicion, harassed by police and the media. That isn’t how the story is supposed to end. The fear and anger people felt for him – based on “fear of the unknown” and fear of those who are different – “must bow to Right and Light,” as you said. He’s supposed to be exonerated. He’s not supposed to die that way. It’s so painful not only because it’s always hard to lose someone, but because it violates the story we want to believe, the story we believed so fervently as children, that truth will always win out, and fear must “bow” to the truth. Imagine how Moonwalker would have felt if the shooting star hit the spaceship, there was a big explosion, the children started to question whether magic really exists – and then the credits started rolling. Or if the Maestro destroyed himself in Ghosts, the Mayor said “Let’s go,” and the villagers all just went home and left an empty mansion. That’s not how the story is supposed to end.

        Yensid98, this reminds me of “I’ll Be There” also. In fact, I think about that song a lot, and the line you cited: “Just call my name / And I’ll be there.” It feels to me that every time we post something to the blogsite, we’re calling his name. Every time anyone publishes a post or an article or a YouTube video, they’re calling his name. And it feels like, gradually, more and more people are calling his name…

    • Ghosts is one of my favorite works by Michael. They really NEED to release it on DVD/Blue-Ray! Because they are both horror stories the comparation to Thriller was inevitable, but in my opinion Ghosts is so much more than Thriller.

  2. aldebaranredstar

    Great post and subject! About elephants being aware of death, Barbara Kaufman had a wonderful post on her blog innermichael recently about how a man known as “the Elephant Whisperer,” who had written 3 books on elephants and was a strong advocate for elephants died. Lawrence Anthony died and in 2 days, 31 elephants led by 2 matriarchs showed up at his house to pay their respects. They knew.


  3. aldebaranredstar

    Whoops, re The Elephant Whisperer: “The title refers not to the human who one would nominally assume be the whisperer. Instead, the title refers to the elephants themselves who use deep supersonic rumbles to whisper with each other and any human who possesses the ability to resonate with them.”

  4. Caro Attwell

    Now we are back in my territory at last!! Willa said ” To me, it’s a lot like Stranger in Moscow, where he’s taking a painful situation and turning it into something beautiful and meaningful. I love it when he does that. To me, that’s Michael Jackson at his best.”

    I couldn’t agree more Willa (sorry Joie). Next to Speechless and Stranger in Moscow this is my 3rd favorite song. I didn’t know anything about it until your Destiny blog, when I started investigating The Jacksons as a group, cos before I had been focused solely on Michael, for which I make no apologies ha ha. Have purchased Destiny and Triumph and now will have to get Victory, if only for this song which I just must have!!!!!

    I understand that Michael wrote it with Marlon, and for a while I wasn’t sure what they meant by “Be not always” but that didn’t matter one iota. Your blog has filled in the gaps, as always. I think it is just stunningly beautiful, and stunningly beautifully performed by Michael. Like you Willa I find it totally uplifting, deeply moving and inspiring, and to think he was only just 20 or so when it was written. Many people have asked, and I ask again, how on earth does Michael know about such things? but then of course his talent is heavenly, so he didn’t need to know, just feel and get it out of him – amazing. I also find Little Susie rather depressing, but again it is such a beautiful song beautifully sung that one gets past that.

    Haven’t read all the blog yet, but wanted to get this off my chest so far. More later no doubt ……………………….

  5. Caro Attwell

    Willa said ” this double movement of death and reappearance provide us with catharsis – almost like a Reset button for rebooting our emotions so we aren’t stuck with the trauma of what we’ve experienced.”

    That is it, and Michael did it so many times in his songs and short films, and not just ones that dealthovertly with death or going away.

    I feel very like that at the moment, with all this Katherine vs AEG trial. Thank goodness I don’t live in USA so am not bombarded with tabloid reports of it, and am only getting my info from this fan club site, cos I know it will be balanced and kind. I feel very very heavy hearted, as if Michael is going on trial yet again, and it is making me feel very sad indeed. Even though I missed his actual death, not being a fan then, (or perhaps because I missed it) it feels inside of me that he is dying all over again, just as I felt during the CM trial, and I really wish that he could reappear, but this time I really know now that he won’t!! No catharsis for me yet! No ‘lucky star’ per se, but I am lucky to have the inspiration of this star called Michael in my life, and there is much consolation in that. Sorry, got a bit morbid there myself, but………………….

  6. Hi Willa and Joie —

    Thanks so much for this post. An event in my life has had me focused on these exact thoughts the past week — the see-sawing back and forth between the two attitudes toward death you mention. So I am very grateful for this post. Nice to be reminded that I am not the only one…And you do a wonderful job of capturing exactly the two sides of death.

    I’m not familiar with Be Not Always, but, like Caro, have become interested in the Jacksons through this blog and am going to download their albums. And, like Caro, I also thought of the current trial.

    I believe that it is MJ’s awareness of death and the great joy he got from life that gives his music such deepness and complexity — its joy and compassion. He said in an interview that he never wanted to die, that he wanted to live forever — and through his music he will. Because he put so much of himself in his music — in every way. His voice, his breath, his heartbeat, his emotions, his intellect, his deepest beliefs — and in his films, his body, his kinetic energy — and he will live on in us and generations to come.

    You said “Poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, musicians – artists in many different forms – have struggled for centuries to somehow come to grips with that terrible, terrible knowledge. ” Yes, and I think the terrible knowledge is part of what drives them to create works that will outlive them. Through their art, they achieve immortality. And, so is Michael. More later…

    Thanks again.

  7. I’ve always felt that Michael has been extremely aware of death. When one looks at his videos and body of work in its entirety, it can only be the worked someone who daydreamed about their future legacy. Personally, I was only a toddler when the ‘Ghosts’ film came out, but I do remember crying when the Meastro smashed his skull against the tile floor. In fact, just thinking about it puts a knot in my throat.

    You guys made a great point, Michael had this excellent ability to turn his pain into beauty- intertwining his being (mortal) with his music (immortal) rendering him eternal and timeless. This may probably why his fans have always associated the offstage MJ with the onstage MJ- he was never an ‘off duty’ entertainer. He was entertainment personified. I don’t think any other musician has tied their essence and adventures to their music so tightly before. Seems to be something more often done by poets and painters.

  8. You know, you have brought up so many interesting things in this post. And, as I mentioned, it is very timely for me and what I am thinking about personally and in my book.
    Right now, I am having a lot of fun analyzing Genesis’ second creation story from an ecofeminist standpoint, and I have been puzzling over the whole issue of the significance of eating from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Your post touches on the idea, that Joie questions, that what separated humans from non-humans is the knowledge of our death. And, I agree with Joie that I’m not sure we can with such certainty make such claims any more. That being said, it seems that that is the knowledge of good and evil that Genesis is talking about.

    According to Genesis, when humans fell (as in the Fall) they fell from a state of nature into self-awareness — a really mixed message as the fall marks the rise of the human species — a species made in the image of the disembodied god/self aware mind. And, interestingly, self-awareness made them especially aware of their bodies, of which they became ashamed — and led to women suffering in childbirth and men having to spend their lives toiling away, unlike non-human animals who appear to give birth pretty painlessly and who do not have to work (unless domesticated) in the way that humans do.

    After the Fall, the body was something to be ashamed of, it was the enemy, it caused pain, it had to work to be fed, and it died!

    I get such a different message from Michael. Such joy in embodiment, even in the face of all the physical and emotional pain he suffered. His body was his musical instrument, his canvas, his performance.

    And, with all the animals he befriended — and Willa’s beloved Ben — he seems to be saying we have a deep connection with the animal world, we are all one.

    I’m not trying to say that he didn’t fear death like the rest of us, but I do think he related to his body and to the non-human animal world, and to nature in a non-traditional way.

    Well, wandering all over with this, but… Michael’s love of nature and the body and all those who are associated with nature and the body was reflected in his art — and through his art he gave cultural value — which, actually, makes his grief more profound — he grieved for the loss of all life, but it also makes his joy in it more joyous.

    • Caro Attwell

      Your last paragraph says it all for me Eleanor -:’he grieved for the loss of all life, but it also makes his joy in it more joyous’ – he certainly did and inspires us to do the same.

    • Wow, Eleanor, that’s so interesting, linking the Biblical fall (sparked by eating an apple from the Tree of Knowledge) with increased self-awareness – of death, of good and evil, of our bodies (especially the nakedness and vulnerability of our bodies).

      And Michael Jackson does seem to have a complicated relationship with those Biblical stories, especially later in his life and career. I don’t know that he ever fully rejected them, but we do see evidence that he began questioning them pretty vigorously. For example, I’ve been listening to Blood on the Dance Floor lately, and was struck by these lines from “Superfly Sister”:

      Susie like to agitate
      Get the boy and make him wait
      Mother preaching Abraham
      Brothers they don’t give a damn

      The feeling I get from these lyrics is that he can see these different points of view, but doesn’t particularly agree with any of them – not even with the “Mother preaching Abraham.”

      I’m wandering around a bit myself, but in a lot of ways these lines remind me of the famous bridge in “Billie Jean” – mainly the way the protagonist is torn between what his mother is telling him and what he’s seeing and hearing from others:

      People always told me
      Be careful what you do
      Don’t go around breaking young girls’ hearts
      And mother always told me
      Be careful who you love
      Be careful what you do
      ‘Cause the lie becomes the truth

      So even as early as “Billie Jean,” he was feeling ambivalent about the lessons that were being handed down to him.

  9. Midnite Boomer

    Thank you for a very thought-provoking post, Willa and Joie.
    You seemed to start to make a point about the voice, and somehow (to me) never seemed to finish the thought. The voice always survives. Michael knew this, and communicated it to us many ways. We have to take care that the voice we use is one of love. Don’t know if you’re familiar with the song “The Eternal Light.” It’s a J5 or Jacksons song, and I thought of it while reading your post. While we will die, love is eternal.

    Also, (and I dislike being a fact-checker here!) Michael did not write “Gone too Soon.” It was written by Larry Grossman and Buz Kohan, and had been sung by Dionne Warwick.

    • “The voice always survives. Michael knew this, and communicated it to us many ways. We have to take care that the voice we use is one of love.”

      I agree completely, Midnight Boomer. This should always be our goal. Even when passionately involved in debating those who disagree with us, we should always try to speak with love, compassion, and respect. And you’re right, we need to explore the idea of the voice more fully – specifically, that “the voice always survives,” as you said so well.

      btw, I hadn’t listened to “The Eternal Light” in ages, so just did a quick youtube search and found this link, and it has some great photos and video in the background, including a teenaged Michael Jackson sparring with Muhammad Ali!

  10. Thanks for another thought provoking post, ladies. The Empathic Civilization short film was so great that I had to share it on my facebook page.

    Little correction: Michael did not write Gone Too Soon. Per Wikipedia,It was written and composed by Larry Grossman and Buz Kohan. Dionne Warwick first performed the song in 1983 as a dedication to Janis Joplin and Karen Carpenter. Here is Dionne singing it:

    @aldebaranredstar, thanks for the link about elephants

    • aldebaranredstar

      You’re welcome, Destiny. I checked out the author Lawrence Anthony–he was a real animal lover who went to Iraq in the middle of the invasion to try and save the animals trapped in the Zoo, which had been one of the better zoos. He wrote a book called Babylon’s Ark, about how he, the Iraqis and with help from US soldiers managed to get the zoo back up and how hard it was to find food and water in all that chaos. He had a private park in Africa and had a herd of wild elephants in the park that he communicated with. I want to read his books–sounds like a great guy.

    • Midnight Boomer and Destiny. Thanks for the fact checking! I really appreciate it. Just edited the post to say “the song he dedicated to Ryan White,” rather than “the song he wrote for Ryan White.” And thanks for the video, Destiny. It was interesting to hear how Dionne Warwick sang it, and the images they showed in the background while she sang.

  11. aldebaranredstar

    Re the death-rebirth or disappearance-reappearance phenomenon and how belief or wishing sparks the reappearance, I am thinking of Tinkerbell in Peter Pan. Captain Hook puts poison in the water and Tinkerbell drinks it b/c she doesn’t want Peter to drink it and die. Then she falls into deathlike illness, and Peter runs around (in the play) asking us to “believe in fairies” and when we say we do, Tinkerbell comes back to life (remember she has an inner light that shines to indicate her life and her happiness). Just wondering since MJ was such a fan of Barrie’s Peter Pan (and Disney) if this is part of what’s going on??

  12. aldebaranredstar

    What I mean about the Peter Pan/Tinkerbell refererence is that MJ wanted us to believe in him and understand him (before you judge me, try hard to love me, the painful youth I’ve had), instead of criticizing him, and he wanted us to keep the magic and innocence of childhood alive and believe in it (I do believe in fairies), and not be cynical and negative.

    Dodi Fayed was the executive producer of the ’91 version of Peter Pan (Hook) and in 2003 his dad was the executive producer of the Peter Pan movie with Jeremy Sumpter, dedicated to his deceased son, and b/c of that film, the film Finding Neverland about the life of Barrie (with Johhny Depp) was delayed one year b/c the PP movie had the rights at the time and refused permission to have both films released in 03. Since MJ was a friend of Mohammed al Fayed, I bet they talked about Peter Pan. The 03 movie has the pirate ship sailing across the moon, as in MJ’s Childhood video.

    Joe Vogel says that “Childhood, like Neverland, is a constructed reality, a fantasy.” As MJ sings, “I’m searching for the world that I come from,” b/c he didn’t have a childhood, so it becomes, as Joe says, “an irrecoverable abstraction.” “As in SIM he is homeless, between world, an alien.” This is perhaps why MJ liked the idea that he WAS an alien, appearing in HIStory on stage emerging from a spaceship (like Captain EO) and leaving by flying away. We see the alien/spaceship idea in Moonwalker too, and in the Scream video.

    • Wow, Aldebaran, that is so interesting! Talk about synchronicity. I was just listening to the E.T. Storybook, which I’d never heard before, and thinking about how much it tied in to this week’s post because empathy is such an important theme in E.T.

      At one point, Elliot cuts his finger and E.T. sympathizes with his pain, reaches over and touches the wound, and heals it. As that is happening in the foreground, we hear Elliot’s mother reading a bedtime story to his sister in the background. And what she’s reading is precisely that part of Peter Pan where Tinkerbell drinks the poison and dies, and then all the children of the world who believe in fairies clap their hands. And because of their belief, she comes back to life. Here’s a link, with the Tinkerbell scene about 7 minutes in:

      Later E.T. seemingly dies, and Elliot says, “You must be dead because I don’t know how to feel. I can’t feel anything anymore.” (There’s a lot of this entangling of emotions, especially between Elliot and E.T. It’s more than just empathy – they don’t just understand each other’s feelings, they actually experience them. So when E.T. “dies,” Elliot’s emotions shut down also.)

      But then Elliot says, “I’ll believe in you all my life, every day” and E.T. comes back to life – just as the children clapped to show they believed in fairies, and Tinkerbell came back to life. Here’s a link, with the death scenes beginning about 5 minutes in:

      • Caro Attwell

        OMG Willa. I have waited years to hear this, and had no idea that it was now on Youtube!!1 Thank you so much. have listened to all of it and flooded with tears of joy and sadness as ever with so much of Michaels work!!! Loved and cried over ET when the movie came out, and Michael’s rendition is just magical all over again. I really do hope that someday someone will put it on a cd again so that we can all listen, but perhaps that willl cheapen the original collectors items outs there – pity.

      • aldebaranredstar

        Beautiful, Willa, thanks so much! Now I want to watch E.T. again and find out more about MJ’s involvement in it. Did he write the storybook? It’s so interesting the repetition of the Tinkerbell episode and good for you for catching it in the background and, yes, E.T. goes through the same death and rebirth.

        Jaksonaktak referred to the resurrection of Christ in her post as well as Greek and Roman tales about dying and resurrected gods. This is idea is also found in nature and I think humans observed this and it gave inspiration to them. For example, there is the caterpillar that disappears into a chrysalis or cocoon and then emerges seemingly from death into a moth or butterfly. The idea of humans returning after being in a coffin appears in fairy tales like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty.

        The most dramatic disappearance and return, though, is the bear that hibernates during the winter and never eats or drinks during that hibernation period, but then emerges in the spring, as if returned from the dead. There were a lot of ceremonies about bears, for ex. during weddings, in Old Europe. There is a wonderful book on the significance of the bear to human culture called The Sacred Paw. It is an eye-opener. The bear goes into hibernation during a snow storm so it can’t be tracked to its den. The bear can stand and walk on 2 feet like a human and there are lots of other parallels. Could this life cycle be an inspiration for death and rebirth, as well as what MJ said about the return of nature in the spring (thanks, all4michael!).

        • Hi Aldebaranredstar. My sense is that the Tinkerbell segment is a clip from the E.T. film, and I don’t think Michael Jackson was involved in that, but like you I’d like to watch it again and see how that scene is used. The Storybook definitely creates a parallel between the Tinkerbell story, E.T. healing Elliot’s finger, and Elliot helping draw E.T. back to life though his belief in him. Does that same parallel exist in the film? I don’t know, but I’m really curious about it.

  13. Be Not Always is my favorite song on Victory and one of my favorite MJ/Jacksons songs. I like it that the music is so simple (like Willa said, it’s like an Unplugged performance – I would have loved to see Michael perform it in an acoustic concert), yet Michael can convey such deep feelings in his vocals. The focus is fully on his vocals and I think that’s what I love in it the most – because he was such a great vocalist. I especially love the bridge part: “Mothers cry, babies die…” I don’t feel disturbed by the song’s pessimistic/depressed tone. The world IS a depressing place from many aspects, in my opinion. There are moments of joy and laughter, but ultimately there is more pain and suffering and injustice and selfishness and ultimately we will all die, as well as the whole Earth and the Sun and the Universe will die (well, the latter is disputed, but the first two is almost certain). Maybe I’m just a pessimist/cynic but that’s how I see it. That “mothers cry, babies die” as the rest of the depressing pictures in the song are a reality of our world, as far as I see it and in my view Michael is just being empathic about all that suffering in this song.

    Re: “death shall have no dominion”/Ghosts/Moonwalker: I think since humans are aware of their own mortality there is this yearning for eternal life in them. And that’s how and why religions were born, in my opinion. And several religions had dying and then resurrected gods, where defeating death was considered the ultimate victory and triumph. Jesus is the most known example in the Western world, but there were similar stories of dying and resurrected gods, defeating death in Greek and Roman and other mythology before Jesus. It seems to be an eternal and universal yearning of mankind.

    • “I think since humans are aware of their own mortality there is this yearning for eternal life in them. And that’s how and why religions were born, in my opinion.”

      I agree, Jacksonaktak, and think this is one of the many ways in which art and religion are parallel responses to the same impulse – they comfort us and challenge us and help us confront some of life’s most difficult questions.

      But they’re also so intertwined it’s difficult to separate them out. What we tend to think of as the religious experience is created in large part by art – by literature (the Bible or other sacred texts), architecture (a mosque, a cathedral), poetry, drama, and of course music (Gregorian chants, simple hymns, soaring organ music). Likewise, art draws extensively on religious motifs, themes, narratives, and archetypes. To me, it’s almost like different forms of art and different forms of religious expression are all parallel paths as we search to answer these troubling questions.

  14. Caro Attwell

    Thanks so much for the link to The Empathic Civilization. I thought it was brilliant and also emailed the link to 15 friends to look at. Seems there is hope after all Eleanor! I can just see Michael nodding in agreement if he could have seen it also.

    There was just one thing that Jeremy said a number of times that I would disagree with, and that is that we only get one life. 2 or 3 billion Buddhists, Hindus and others who believe in reincarnation, as I do, would not agree with that statement, but that does not mean that we must not live each lifetime responsibly taking care of our “sweetheart”.

    For all the world I cannot be pessimistic as Jacksonaktak, and for all his clear insights and deep deep caring for our planet, I don’t think Michael was either. For me the message in his lyrics, poems, essays and music is full of hope and encouragement, despite the odds. I believe he wanted us to be motivated by hope as he was in That One In The Mirror and never ever give up trying.

    On the subject of ‘death shall have no dominion’, in Dance of Life Michael writes –

    “So what does a star do after it quits shining?” I ask myself. “Maybe it dies.”
    “Oh no” a voice in my head says. “A star can never die. It just turns into a smile and melts back into the cosmic music, the dance of life.”

    Of course, one can read star to mean two things here as I think Michael intended, but either way that doesn’t sound like the voice of a pessimist to me!!!

    • I think people’s moods change, fluctuate. Sometimes we are optimistic, sometimes pessimistic. And I think that was the case with Michael as well. He had hopeful, optimistic songs, but he had some pessimistic songs (and moods) as well. And not only towards the end of his life. Early songs, like That’s What You Get (For Being Polite), are not very optimistic.

      And towards the end of his life unfortunately his life experiences strengthened the pessimistic side. This is what Talitha, a “follower fan” wrote on Twitter a couple of days ago:

      “Talitha ‏@talithafluttrby 6m michael told me in late 08 that he’d lost his faith in the goodness of mankind. now i have too
      it was a spiritual conversation. it made me v sad at the time but now i understand fully why he felt that way
      attacking, degrading n destroying michael in the name of greed. is thr no end to the betrayal? i understand now y he loved us SO much”

      It makes me very sad, but I’m not surprised that he lost his faith in the goodness of mankind. He had every reason to.

      • “Talitha ‏@talithafluttrby 6m michael told me in late 08 that he’d lost his faith in the goodness of mankind. now i have too
        it was a spiritual conversation. it made me v sad at the time but now i understand fully why he felt that way
        attacking, degrading n destroying michael in the name of greed. is thr no end to the betrayal? i understand now y he loved us SO much”

        Wasn’t Michael totally right? *Sigh*

    • Hi Caro —

      Just to clarify …

      I don’t think there is no hope — only that there is no hope if we don’t make necessary changes — and MJ was all about making that change. And I see Michael as a change agent — and I believe in him as a change agent, so I do have hope. A lot of hope in fact. He gives me hope. In the present tense!

      • Caro Attwell

        So glad to read your reply Eleanor. I believe that hope was a large part of Michael’s message to us, and although he was really really challenged at times in his life – and that is a British understatement!! – I don’t think he ever really lost hope, or else he would not have gone back to US after being overseas after the trail, nor would he have been planning This Is It as a comeback. To me those events both feel like a resurrection, as he would not be beaten down, but rose up again and again – “I’m still standing while you kicking me”!! Ja, he had hope and so must we as we make the necessary changes he wanted as you say.

  15. I love Be not always, but for me it sounds kinda unfinished. Would like to hear it with the orchestration like Earth Song has.

  16. Michael made some interesting remarks about death, rebirth and immortality in „The Michael Jackson Tapes“:

    MJ: See, why can’t we be like trees? That come, you know, they lose their leaves in winter, and come back as beautiful all over again in spring, you know? It’s a sence of immortality to them, and the bible says man was meant for immortality. But through sin and all this, we get death.
    I would love to come back as a child, that never grows old, like Peter Pan. I wish, I wish I could believe that that’s true, that I keep coming back. I hope that’s true, I would like to believe that, Shmuley.

    Boteach: In recarnation? You keep on beeing reincarnated as a baby?

    MJ: Yeah, even though our, my religion (the Jehovas Witnesses Church) talks against it, that there’s no such thing as reincarnation…When you die, the soul dies and it’s like this couch, the dead, you know? But there is the promise of resurrection and all that.

    Boteach: But for the Hindus, they believe you come back.

    MJ: I’d like to believe that, and I like what the Egyptians and the Africans do, how the bury their dead..I’d like to see, we would all like to see, what’s on the other side. Don’t we?

  17. aldebaranredstar

    Hi, Everyone,

    I wanted to say Happy Mother’s Day to Willa and Joie and all of you! And also Happy Mother’s Day to our beautiful mother planet that gives her gifts so freely: Planet Earth!

    And I wanted to let you know about my ebook on Amazon–it’s called Thinking Twice About Billie Jean.

    Many blessings!

  18. Thanks for yet another top-notch post!

    I love ”Be Now Always” too. And, talking about its message as something other than ”party now die later”, we mustn’t forget ”Off the wall”. Of course, it wasn’t written by Michael, and probably intended to be a feel-good party song, but these lines strike me as being quite ”Kesha-ish”:

    Better do it now before you get too old
    ‘Cause we’re the party people night and day
    Livin’ crazy that’s the only way

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