The Humanity Mix
Joie: So, Willa, you and I talked recently about the recurring theme of cheating death in some of Michael’s work. And interestingly, that got me thinking about all of the other recurring themes we normally see from him. You know, he really did seem to have this certain set of subject matter that he would visit again and again, and if we look closely, we easily begin to see the pattern.
Honestly, if you think about it, Michael’s entire catalog can really be sort of divided up into certain boxes or themes. So many of his songs work so well together. In fact – and I know that I can’t be the only one out there who does this – but on my mp3 player and on my computer, all of my MJ playlists are sectioned off into these little theme boxes, and I give them names like ‘The Scary Mix,’ or ‘The Love Mix’ or ‘The Tabloid Mix’ or ‘The Humanity Mix.’ And I bet without me even telling you, you can figure out for yourself which of his songs I’ve placed into each of these playlists.
Willa: And don’t forget the Environmental songs and Global Issues songs and Children and Childhood songs – or do you include those with the Humanity Mix?
Joie: Oh, those aren’t all of my MJ playlists, I only mentioned four! And I actually have many songs in more than one playlist. But do you get what I’m saying about the recurring themes in Michael’s music?
Willa: Sure, it’s fun to group songs like that.
Joie: Yes, it is fun, but there’s more to it than that. I often wonder why Michael keeps touching on these certain themes. I mean, some of them make perfect sense to me. Like the songs I have in my ‘Humanity Mix.’ Songs like “We Are the World,” and “Heal the World,” and “Earth Song,” etc. Those make sense to me because we all know how much Michael loved this Earth and his fellow man.
But then there are the songs in my ‘Scary Mix’ that I can’t explain so easily. You know, songs like “Smooth Criminal,” and “Threatened,” and “Torture.” And, of course, “Thriller.” And I remember watching an interview Michael did for MTV and they were talking about the Thriller short film. Michael tells the interviewer that he never thought he would be involved in making such a thing because he is afraid to watch horror movies. But yet, he has become sort of synonymous with scary songs and videos like Thriller and Ghosts. That’s fascinating to me for some reason.
Willa: Oh, I know the interview you’re talking about, Joie. It’s one of my favorites – the 1999 MTV interview by Alex Colletti. Here’s a clip, and the part you’re talking about is around 3:30 minutes in:
As he says, “Believe it or not, I’m afraid to watch scary movies. … I never thought I’d be involved in making that sort of thing, but I am.” And you’re right, Joie – it is fascinating to think about why he spent so much time and energy on “that sort of thing.” As we know, he was very contemplative about his art and generally had important artistic reasons for approaching things the way he did, though sometimes those reasons aren’t obvious at first. So what was so compelling for him about the horror genre?
Joie: That’s one of my favorite interviews too, Willa. And I wonder if what he found so compelling about it was the fact that he got to transform into a monster. I mean, we know that he loved stage makeup and theatrics and special effects so, maybe that had something to do with it.
Willa: I think you’re right that he really loved disguises and enjoyed transforming into someone or something else. Just think of all the times he transforms on film – in Thriller and Moonwalker and Ghosts, among others. And apparently he enjoyed being the Scarecrow so much during filming of The Wiz that he was reluctant to transform back, and even wore his costume home a couple times!
But I think there was a lot more going on also. As we’ve talked about different times – with Thriller, “Threatened,” “Is It Scary,” Ghosts, and others – he seemed to have profound artistic reasons for evoking the horror drama. I’m still trying to figure all this out, but it seems to me it has something to do with a psychological notion called “affect,” which is a place where psychology, reason, emotions, and physical sensations all come together and interact.
For example, in the 1970s and 80s, America was in the midst of a terrible crime wave – an epidemic of violent crime – centered in the inner cities. There are complex social, political, and economic reasons for why that all happened, but the media pretty much ignored those reasons and simply focused on portraying young black men as violent criminals. But the 1970s and 80s were also a time when Michael Jackson was extremely popular, so he was in a very complicated position – he was a young black man who was celebrated in the media and loved by millions of white Americans, while other young black men were demonized in the press and treated with suspicion and fear. I think he felt that disconnect and wanted to address it.
So imagine you’re a young white woman walking down a city street in the 1980s and you see a young black man walking toward you. Because of all the scary stories you’ve been hearing in the media – like the gang rape and brutal beating of the Central Park jogger, a story that received extensive media attention across the U.S. – you might react to the sight of that young man differently than if you saw a white man or an Asian man or a woman walking toward you. You might look at him and think about the Central Park jogger and some of those other stories you’ve been hearing, and you might feel a sense of uncertainty or even fear.
Or you might not consciously think about anything at all, but still look at that young black man and immediately experience a quickened pulse and a vague sense of uneasiness without knowing why. That’s “affect” – when stimuli cause an immediate psychological, emotional, and physical reaction in us before we’ve even had time to think about it. And it’s extremely difficult to change our affective response to things because it’s pre-verbal and pre-cognitive. It’s a response that happens so fast and so instinctively we can’t control it. But that doesn’t mean it’s natural. It’s created by our social “conditioning” living in a racist culture – and that word “conditioning” is one Michael Jackson himself used.
As I said, I’m still working all this out, but because he was a black artist who celebrated his difference, the media and even the general public tended to see him as Other, even a monster, as we talked about last week. And I think in his “scary” films he was taking on a monumental task – he was attempting to undo our social conditioning and alter our affective response to certain stimuli, specifically differences of race and gender and other differences we have been conditioned to perceive as threatening in some deep psychological way.
Joie: I think that’s all very interesting, Willa. And I agree with everything you’ve just said. And I think you may have hit on the exact notion I’m trying to get at. You see, for years now, I’ve been wondering about these different reoccurring themes in Michael Jackson’s music and trying to figure out a reason why. Why does he keep touching on certain themes over and over and over again? And I think the reason is really very simple. He had something to say. He had a message he wanted to get out. A lesson he was trying to teach. Wisdom he felt compelled to impart.
If you think about it, all of his “scary” songs and films have the same general message. As you pointed out, he was taking on a monumental task by attempting to help undo our conditioning and alter affect. Well, in all of his “humanity” songs, he had the same general message as well – be good to each other. It sounds like such a simple thing, and something you wouldn’t think we would need someone to remind us of. But, of course, we do. Because we forget sometimes to treat one other with kindness and respect and love. And that was a message that Michael felt very strongly about. All you have to do is listen to songs like “Will You Be There,” “Heal the World,” and “Little Susie” to know that’s true. Even “They Don’t Care About Us” carries the same basic message.
Willa: That’s true, Joie, and as he tells us in This Is It, he was trying to share an important environmental message as well. We see that especially in Earth Song and Dancing the Dream. Just as he was trying to change our response to our social environment through his “scary” films, he was trying to change our relationship with our natural environment through Earth Song and Dancing the Dream.
Joie: And “Planet Earth” as well. You know, Willa, I think you would be shocked to see all of the songs that I have grouped together in my “Humanity Mix.” Because I don’t just place his solo works in these playlists of mine, I go all the way back to the beginning. So, in my “Humanity” playlist, I also have songs like, “With a Child’s Heart” and “If’n I was God,” from his Jackson 5 days, as well as “Show You the Way to Go” and “Can You Feel It” from the Jacksons era, and so many others that would probably blow your mind. In fact, there are a total of 45 songs on my “Humanity Mix” playlist, and that includes early stuff, solo stuff, and rare & unreleased stuff. It even includes his duet with Eddie Murphy, “Whatsupwitu.”
Willa: Oh, I’d love to see what you have on your Humanity playlist, or all of your playlists actually. …
Joie: I guess the point I’m trying to make is that these little compartments didn’t just begin with Michael’s solo work. These messages of hope and love and humanity are something that began as a child for him. If you go back and listen to all of the early material, you’ll see what I mean. It’s all still right there, and his later solo work is really just a bigger and bolder expression of the sentiments he was trying to convey even as a child.
Willa: Yes, though he also expanded into some new areas as well, areas those early songs didn’t address, like the issue of celebrity and predatory tabloids. And it’s important to remember that he didn’t write those early songs – he wasn’t allowed to write his own material at Motown. But you’re right, it is interesting to listen to those songs he sang when he was a pre-teen and teenager – songs like “Ben” and “I’ll Be There” and “Music and Me” and see early signs of subjects he would address in more detail later on.
Joie: Exactly. And I always wonder how much those earlier songs, that he didn’t write, influenced his belief system later in life. I mean, I understand what you just said about the “paranoid” songs, and it makes sense that he would expand and branch out into new areas as he matured, and those songs were a very personal topic for him. But I just wonder about all those songs about humanity and loving one another. Was that a message that he took to heart as a young child because of all of the songs he sang with his brothers, or was that deep and abiding love for his fellow man already in him from the start?
Willa: That’s an excellent question, Joie. As he said in an early interview while still just a child, “Whatever I sing, that’s what I really mean. Like if I’m singing a song, I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it.” And he placed that quote at the beginning of “HIStory” (you can hear it about 30 seconds in) so apparently it was very important to him. He wanted us to know that, even as a child, songs were meaningful to him. He obviously enjoyed what he was doing, but it was more than just the joy of singing. As he said, “I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it” – a trait he carried throughout his life.
Joie: Yes! Good point, Willa. I had forgotten about that quote!
Willa: It’s wonderful, isn’t it? So I think he had an uncanny wisdom and strong beliefs even as a child. But I also think he learned a lot from those early songs – about songwriting and conveying ideas to an audience, and about predicting how an audience will react.
You know, some people (like Quincy Jones and Dick Clark) thought he was crazy for recording “Ben,” a song about a friendship with a rat, and for continuing to perform it year after year. But audiences really responded to it in a way that doesn’t make logical sense when just looking at the subject matter from a PR point of view. However, “Ben” makes a lot of sense psychologically – just like his later horror films make sense psychologically, as we were talking about earlier – and I wonder if “Ben” helped him develop an understanding for how that process works, for how he could use his art to address deep cultural/psychological issues in a pre-cognitive way.
I also wonder if “Ben” helped give him the confidence to address those really uncomfortable issues he tackled later in his career, like racism and abuse and teen pregnancy. In other words, I wonder if he would have created “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” or “Billie Jean” or “Little Susie” or Thriller or Black or White or They Don’t Care about Us or Earth Song or Ghosts – or made them in such an edgy way – if he hadn’t learned from “Ben” that he could really challenge an audience, even make an audience uncomfortable to some extent, and they’d respond to that challenge in complicated ways.
Joie: You know what, Willa? I don’t think “Ben” is on my “Humanity Mix” playlist. I’m going to go add it right now.