The Magic of Studio 54

Willa:  This week Joie and I are very happy to be joined by our friend, Eleanor Bowman. Eleanor joined us a few weeks ago for a fascinating look at Michael Jackson’s environmental works, and how she believes he’s challenging our notions of a mind/body split as well as reconfiguring our relationship with nature. Since then, Eleanor has been researching what she sees as an important but largely overlooked period in Michael Jackson’s artistic development: the late 1970s, when he and La Toya Jackson were living in New York, he was working on The Wiz, and he was spending a lot of time at Studio 54. Eleanor, thanks so much for joining us!

Eleanor:  Hi Willa. Thanks to you and Joie for inviting me.

Joie:  We’re excited to have you.

Willa:  So Eleanor, I love the interview you shared of Michael Jackson at Studio 54, talking with Jane Pauley about what made Studio 54 special and different from any other club:

Eleanor:  Isn’t that interview great!  His innocence and sweetness and kindness and sincerity are so “out there.” Probably one of the last unguarded interviews he ever did.

Willa:  He seems so earnest, doesn’t he? Like he’s trying really hard to explain to Jane Pauley how he sees things and feels about things, but she isn’t quite getting it.

Eleanor:  Right. One of the funny things about this interview is that Pauley seems amazed at MJ’s seemingly innocent enjoyment of Studio 54, which was notorious for sex and drugs – but he just wasn’t “going there” in the interview. He wanted to focus on other things – on the magic and fun and the freedom. I think Pauley didn’t really understand that Michael’s childhood touring experiences – sharing rooms with his older, sexually active brothers and opening for strip shows – had pretty much inured him to being shocked by anything (except, of course, cruelty and hate). I think she couldn’t understand that the innocent he appeared to be could take what he wanted and needed from the Studio 54 experience and leave the rest alone.

Joie:  Why don’t you explain Studio 54, Eleanor, for those who aren’t aware of what it was exactly.

Eleanor:  I’d be happy to, Joie. Studio 54 was a legendary Manhattan disco – the brainchild of a couple of young guys, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. It was so famous that it defined New York night life in the late 70’s and early 80’s. People came from all over the world to join the crowds outside its doors, hoping to get in. Rubell and Schrager apparently had hit on the perfect recipe for providing a place where the glamorous – celebrities and non-celebrities alike – could mix and mingle and dance, and live out their fantasies (which for some meant being able to openly indulge in sex and drugs). And, it was probably the last place I would expect to find the shy, retiring Michael Jackson. Yet, there he was, along with Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Andy Warhol, Cher, Brooke Shields, Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, Mick Jagger, Bianca Jagger, Steven Tyler, Caroline Kennedy, Maria Shriver, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Tatum O’Neil. Here are some pictures:

Studio 54Studio 54 pic 3Studio 54 pic 1

He was even rumored to DJ with Truman Capote….

Willa:  Wow, Michael Jackson and Truman Capote DJing together? Wouldn’t you love to know what they played? And how they decided? And what they said into the mic? And what they said to each other?

Eleanor:  I can’t even begin to imagine it – talk about an odd couple. But, from the number of times Michael shows up in photos of Studio 54 and the enthusiasm he displays in the Pauley interview, I think he must have been having a good time. This is one of the few periods in his life where we can see him relaxed and enjoying himself in a social situation. After his megastardom kicked in, this type of experience was no longer available to him.

Joie:  It’s interesting to think of it that way, isn’t it? And it is almost strange, as a fan, to see him so relaxed in a social setting because we didn’t see that very many times during his life.

Eleanor:  Yes, I know. But I’m so happy that at least he had that brief window of time where he could enjoy a relatively normal life – normal at least for MJ.

Willa:  So why do you see this as such an important time period for him? And how does Studio 54 figure into that?

Eleanor:  Well, this was the time (1977-79) when Michael was not only entering adulthood, but also transitioning from the lead singer of the Jackson 5 and The Jacksons to Michael Jackson, megastar. During this time his physical appearance and personal style also were undergoing a significant change, which I think mirrored the psychological changes he was going through and which are reflected in the photos and video clips taken of him at Studio 54. Right before your eyes you can see the excited wide-eyed nineteen-year-old Michael Jackson with the big ‘fro in the interview with Jane Pauley morph into the sophisticated young man in sports jacket, ascot, and Jheri curl, celebrating his 21st birthday.

Studio 54 - 21st birthday

I think he had a very clear idea of who he was and what he was capable of. As I was working on this post, I came across this interesting piece of information:  in 1979, when Michael was 21, he wrote a note to himself, declaring exactly how he intended to transform himself – from the child star that he had been to the adult megastar he would become. He declared that he wanted to be magic:

“MJ will be my new name,” he wrote. “No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a whole new look. I should be a totally different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang ABC, I Want You Back.’ I should be a new, incredible actor/singer/dancer that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a masterer. I will be better than every great actor roped into one.”

He knew where he was going, but he needed a vision.  And along came Studio 54 – at just the right time. At Studio 54 it was all laid out in front of him, to pick and choose what he could use. I think Studio 54 gave him permission – and the tools – to act out his fantasies in terms of his appearance and his art – influencing his music videos, his creation of Neverland, and his live performances. He not only wanted to be the best – at everything – he wanted to be spectacular. He wanted to be magic – and he had seen magic and fantasy worlds created before his eyes at Studio 54.

Willa:  This idea of creating “magic” and “fantasy worlds,” as you call it, Eleanor, sounds very Michael Jackson, doesn’t it? I can see how that would capture his imagination, and it really doesn’t seem to be the nightclub scene that he was after. As he says in the interview, “I’ve been to a lot of discotheques and I don’t like them,” but he says “I like the atmosphere at Studio 54.” And when Jane Pauley questions him about why Studio 54 seems different, he says, “I don’t know – the feeling, the excitement, the props coming down, the balcony. It’s just exciting, honestly.” So it does seem to be that feeling of magic and fantasy that he was after.

How did Studio 54 create that sense of “magic”?

Eleanor:  Well, for one thing Rubell and Schrager hired Broadway set designers to create moveable sets, and they spent up to $20,000 a night to transform the cavernous space of Studio 54 into different fantasy worlds. For a New Year’s Eve party, four tons of glitter were dumped in a four-inch layer on the floor. Schrager described the experience as like “standing on stardust.” The lavish set-like decorations invited guests to dress up in costumes and become part of the show.

Michael saw how much people – even celebrities – seemed to hunger and long for escape – how they came night after night to escape into the magical world Rubell and Shrager created. He saw how people – through costumes and make up – could create incredible illusions; how transvestite men could become extravagantly beautiful women. Adding all this to his experience doing The Wiz, with its own elaborate sets (The World Trade Center was the set for the Emerald City. Isn’t that fascinating!), Studio 54 opened his eyes not only to the techniques of creating fantasy, but to how much people craved it.

It is this theatricality, this magic, that Michael focuses on in the Jane Pauley interview – and his description of how he experiences Studio 54 really got my attention. It reminded me so much of what Michael said, 30 years later, at the conclusion of This Is It when he tells the young singers and dancers that the show is a great adventure: “we just want to give them experiences, escapism, take them to places they’ve never been before, show them talent like they’ve never seen before.” And, it was Schrager’s and Rubell’s ability to do just that that contributed to Studio 54’s incredible success.

Joie:  Eleanor, I think that’s fascinating! Honestly, I had never wondered where Michael first fell in love with this sense of magic and theatricality that was always so present in his solo work but, you are probably absolutely correct in saying that it most likely began with Studio 54 and the time he spent there. Amazing! And how many times throughout his career did we hear him talk about that escapism that people craved so much. He said it over and over, that he just wanted to make people happy and give them that escapism that they desired.

Eleanor:  Right, Joie. And maybe it had something to do with that period of time when he came of age. You know, the Manhattan of the 70’s was very different from the Manhattan of today. Like most inner cities of that time, it was crumbling and crime ridden – a place where it was not just the rich and famous who craved escapism and found it in music. At night, the parks were filled with young people – mainly black – dancing to music pulsating from boomboxes wired up to lamp posts – and orchestrated by neighborhood DJ’s. Here’s a link to a short video about those times:

No matter where Michael Jackson looked, people rich and poor, white and black were looking for magic, for escape and finding it in music and dance – often his. Whether he was traveling the black streets of Manhattan and Queens (where The Wiz production studios were) or enjoying the privileged white world of Studio 54, he saw the power of music and dance – especially the power it had to provide not only an escape, but an ecstatic experience. But, he also saw the desperation in this need for escape, a desperation which often degenerated into sex and drugs (and sometimes violence) – whether in the parks or the disco. And he watched as excess quickly destroyed Studio 54 – its drugged-out proprietors stuffing walls and ceiling with cash until they were finally hauled off to jail for tax evasion – and the magic ended.

As Willa points out in M Poetica, I think he was coming to see music and dance as an alternative and safer means of escape  – an alternative to indiscriminate sex and drugs and street violence. As a member of the Jackson 5 and the Jacksons, he knew his music could make people happy, bring joy to their lives. I love seeing video clips of him as a teenager engaging with the audience, getting them to sing along. But I think as he matured and became more and more aware of the terrible problems in the world, he also wanted to be an agent of change – and his experience at Studio 54 and in 70’s NYC not only deepened this desire, but provided him with both the psychological insights and the technical know-how to achieve his goals.

Willa:  That’s a really interesting way to look at that, Eleanor, because for many people, Studio 54 didn’t represent fantasy and theatricality so much as the epitome of 70s excess, especially indiscriminate sex and drug use. So Studio 54 was kind of like a huge circus tent of human desire, in many different forms – from sex and drugs to escapism and magic. And it’s interesting to think of a young Michael Jackson wandering around in there, observing what humans desire most, how it expresses itself, and what the implications and consequences are of indulging those desires.

Eleanor:  “A huge circus tent of human desire.” What a great image.  And I love to think of him there, enjoying himself, yet detached. Soaking it all up, taking it all in, absorbing it, to be transformed into his own unique creations by his astonishing and awesome artistic vision. He truly was a magician. He was magic.

Willa:  Oh, he was definitely a magician!  I think we all can agree about that.

So thank you again for joining us, Eleanor. We really enjoyed it. Joie and I also wanted to announce that we won’t be publishing new posts from June 25th to August 29th. (It’s like our own 10-week version of Lent.) However, like last year we’ll be be posting summer reruns each week of some of our favorite posts. We hope this will give us a chance to revisit some of those posts and talk about them in more depth, and maybe explore areas we didn’t discuss the first time around. We’re also hoping to use this time to update the Reading Room, so if you have any suggestions for articles we should add, please let us know.

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 June 12, 2013, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Fascinating take on MJ’s first steps onto his own Yellow Brick Road!

    Eleanor and Willa, thank you very much for yet another glimpse into the astonishing complexity that was (and still is) Michael Jackson. So many layers in his art, so many layers to the man. Please keep those glimpses comin’…

    • Thanks, Chris. I’ve been pretty demoralized by the events of the past couple months, so thanks a lot for the encouragement. I really appreciate it. It’s at times like these that we need to keep each other strong…

    • I’m glad you liked it, Chris. Studying the Studio 54 photographs and videos gave me a new understanding of MJ — especially that incredibly important period in his life.

  2. There are great documentaries out there Studio 54 and disco. Thanks for your interesting take, Eleanor. I also feel like this moment in time for MIchael was transformative and set the pace for the rest of his career.

    Interesting also that Studio 54 seems to represent the end of an era regarding the disco era, and in some ways the time represented an end of an era for Michael as well. The exclusivity of Studio 54 with their velvet rope was totally against the inclusivity of disco and dance music in NYC at that time that accepted any and all and that usually meant black, latino, poor and gay. As you mentioned, it also represented probably one of the last times Michael was able to be so accessible.

    Great post considering recent events.

    • Thanks, Destiny. And, considering recent events, I think it is so important to focus on Michael’s art — and to let him speak for himself — through his art. When all is said and done, MJ, through his art, will have the last word. And what a word it is!

    • “The exclusivity of Studio 54 with their velvet rope was totally against the inclusivity of disco and dance music in NYC at that time that accepted any and all, and that usually meant black, latino, poor and gay.”

      That’s such an important point, Destiny. There’s been some very interesting work done on the intensity of the backlash against disco, and a lot of that extreme dislike seems to have been fueled by homophobia and prejudice. It came to be a battle between rock (which presented itself as rebellious against the system, but in an entitled way – the rebellion of young white males) and disco (which was actually much more threatening than rock, since it challenged notions of gender, race, sexuality). On the surface, disco may just have seemed like a big party – and it was! – but its “inclusivity,” as you call it, made it very threatening as well.

      It’s interesting to then think about how Studio 54 fits into all that. This was disco for the elite, and the “exclusivity” of the “velvet rope,” as you put it so well, was part of Studio 54’s charm. That’s really interesting – I’m going to have to think about that a while. …

  3. Outstanding work ladies, as always! A very big thank you to Eleanor for solving the mystery of Studio 54. This is something that always puzzled me, now I think I get it. It really does fall in line with his thinking, doesn’t it? Creating spectacle, magic and fantasy worlds.

    It reminded me of something in Frank Cascio’s book, when MJ was asked to create something new and exciting for Las Vegas. Frank said it took MJ about 2 seconds to come up with the idea of the dancing waters for the Bellagio hotel. I love this – because it’s such silliness and fun, spectacle and magic. Maybe like the fun side of Studio 54.

    Was delighted that they have added an MJ tune to their repertoire, very fitting. They even have the moonwalking dancing waters. Hope this provides a little relief from the heaviness a lot of us are feeling.

    • Ultravioletrae, what fun! So Michael was behind the dancing waters! Interesting. He is everywhere. I think I can see his body undulating in the mist.

      Thanks for posting this clip.

      • Oops, sorry I made a mistake saying Frank wrote about this in his book! Actually, it was in an interview with MJ Data Bank – I believe the interviewer is Richard Lecocq. I thought this was a really interesting interview:

  4. Thanks, all, for your observations here. Wow, was this water spectacle timed for “Billie Jean”? That’s amazing. I find myself again wishing that Michael had been able, eventually, to direct films, as he’d wanted to.

    A funny coincidence: I’ve just this week been reading some articles and beginning to read some books about Disco—a genre I never particularly liked when it was happening. For me, things often become a lot more interesting as they age!

    By many accounts, the denizens of Studio 54 were overwhelmed and inspired by the spectacular ambiance, which Michael was a part of. A lot of what went on there, of course, was X-rated—which may have been part of the bedazzlement, too.

    Here’s one thing I’ve read about the club, from a book called:
    “The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night”
    Anthony Haden-Guest


    “The balconies were halfway up the metamorphosed theater and quondam TV studios. On either side, people furtively sidles into the infamous unisexual bathrooms, not necessarily to pee. Eneath was the dance floor, pulsating with the beat of disco, which is very close to that of the human heartbeat, where dancers, washed in the surf of sound, dapples and splashed by light, shed the dull gravitational tug of quotidian life, and lost themselves in what was at once a voyeuristic jostle, like a fairground, and a domain of the self-absorbed, like a ballet for prima donnas only.

    “Over the dance floor, tubes studded with light bulbs, Flash Gordon style, were rising and descending and, higher yet, the spoon made its rhythmic journeys to the insatiable nose of the Man in the Moon, discharging a fizz of light. [Antonia] De Portago says the club was thronged with he Studio menagerie that night. She cannot remember the precise cast list, but it certainly must have included heavy squads of toffs in tuxedos and evening dresses; plenty of pretty preppy girls and boys; Studio employees, the waiters and busboys, bouncing around bare-chested in sneakers and gym shorts; and, of course, the camera bait.

    “The camera bait—those whose pictures showed up in the Post, the News, People, and magazines worldwide—would certainly, that evening, have included themselves. Also, other famous faces, and these wouldn’t have been just predictables, like Truman Capote, Rudolf Nureyev, and the starlet of the moment, but beings who looked truly out of context as though they had winged in from a different movie, like a Republican senator in a heavy gray suit, or Andre and Giant’ or an English duke; or the Reverend Sun Moon plus entourage; or Moshe Dayan; or Fred Astaire in a tux; or Vladimir Horowitz, who would have been capering around on the dance floor, protecting those valuable eardrums with wads of cotton.

    “Film would have been expended too on the fashion models and demi-señoritas who could be counted upon to pop a perky nipple as they threw themselves into choreographed frenzies on the dance floor; also those who had themselves painted silver, or gold, or costumes as pharaohs, cucumbers, or Angels of Death; to say nothing of such Studio-famous characters as Rollerena, supposedly a prim Wall Streeter by day, a dreamboat by night in a wedding dress and roller skates; and the man who danced with the lifelike marionette; and Miriam, the woman (by day a substitute teacher) in the see-through wedding-dress; and the septuagenarian party girl, Disco Sally. Finally, there would have been, as always, a handful of souls who felt that the sight of their naked genitalia should be a source of wonder and delight.

    “The dance floor was a former stage. Grouped around it were puffy banquettes. Beneath the balconies was the main bar, which was pickup central. Ignored by most was a discreet door in the wall that opened onto the stairs that led to the VIP room in the basement. Above were the bleachers, the circle when the place had been a theater, now upholstered, according to gossip, in a material that could be hosed down daily. Just gossip, but it was not unusual to spot clubgoers enjoying a personal moment, possibly with somebody previously unknown to them. David Hamilton, the photographer, says: ‘You would look around and you’d see somebody’s back. And then you’d see little toes twinkling behind their ears.’

    “De Portago’s group sat as though embedded in Lucite. ‘We were just sitting there for hours on end. For some reason we stayed at that little table for hours,’ she says. And at one point I said, ‘oh, this will always last! This will never be over. This is too incredibly bizarre and pushed to the extreme!’

    “And they were all saying, ‘Yes! It’s probably going to be like this always.’

    “We had a whole conversation about this. It was very odd. At that moment we could see it as if we were observing the scene from another planet. We could see a mini-cosmos of what was going on.

    “And I said, ‘Oh, this will never end! This is too wonderful.’ It was so intense. Oh, so intense. It can never go down from this plateau.’ “

    • That’s such an interesting description, Nina, especially the way it emphasizes not only the joyful hedonism of Studio 54, but how that ties in with the spectacle of Studio 54 – it’s hedonism very aware of itself and on display, not only within its own walls, but in the pages of “the Post, the News, People, and magazines worldwide.” I keep thinking of those pictures of Bianca Jagger riding on a white horse through the throngs of people. (And it’s fun to think of Fred Astaire there in a tuxedo, isn’t it? Always so debonair.)

    • Hi Nina, Thanks for adding to the disco/Studio 54 lore.

      I love the final words of your quote: “And I said, ‘Oh, this will never end! This is too wonderful.’ It was so intense. Oh, so intense. It can never go down from this plateau.

      And, yet it did. And then Michael Jackson arrived on the scene (where he had always been). There is music, and then there is Michael Jackson.

  5. It does seem extraordinary, Eleanor and Willa, that Michael says Steve Rubell is one of his favorite people because he’s “genuine, and for real, and honest, and I like that in people.” Though I have no idea what Jane Pauley’s feelings might have been, I don’t think that’s quite the sort of stuff any interviewer would expect from a well-known star who frequented Studio 54 in 1977!

    These kinds of earnest statements are what we’ve grown to expect with Michael, and it’s not out of character for him. ,Nonetheless, this clip makes me feel (as I often do from other footage of Michael during that period, notably his appearances on “Soul Train” where he’s being interviewed by Don Cornelius), that I just wish I could reach into the TV screen and offer this “babe in the woods” some much-needed protection! He doesn’t know WHAT he’s in for….

    But this is just one of Michael’s several (or many) faces, I think. Is he himself “genuine” and “for real” in his earnest naiveté? Is it an act—or does it matter? If so, it’s been cultivated through so many years of appearing in front of microphones and cameras that it HAS genuinely become part of who he is—or who he shaped and sculpted himself to become, given the challenges that he knew were upon him.

    They were challenges he took on, too. Thanks also, Eleanor, for posting what’s been called his “Manifesto,” which was among the booty that was filmed in the “60 Minutes” show that was aired on TV recently. It strikes me as more of a mission statement than anything.

    Here’s the “60 Minutes” segment, on CBS, “Michael Jackson’s Lucrative Legacy”:

    Somehow, the determination and single-mindedness he shows in note both *does *and does not jive with the wide-eyed earnestness we see in these appearances, that was for many commentators a source of disbelief and suspicion. To see an example of some journalists’ doubt about Michael’s veracity, we find here two different writers’ views of Michael’s celebrated affect of naivete. You all may have seen this already: a clip of a program on “Michaelmania” that was produced by a Boston television station in 1984, probably before the Victory Tour got underway. The YouTube material is posted in three parts.

    Part 1:

    One of the first scenes shows part of the Providence concert of the Jacksons 1981 Triumph Tour (which, by the way, I’d give my life savings to see the entirety of)! In Michael’s post-“Off the Wall /Triumph” period, as we can maybe glean from this performance of “Can You Feel It,” shows us how Michael develops the magic he aimed for in his statement. The Plus, the “Can You Feel It” video—which he had a major hand in writing and producing—-seems to literalize his wish to command the kind of power this magicianship would bestow upon him.

    A circus tent of human desire! Indeed. Thanks so much for this 1977 flashback, too. It’s just where my head happens to be at these days, too—reminiscing about my own journeys through music, club life in NY, and now, an even more intense journey through the lfie and work of Michael Jackson—who, curiously enough, doesn’t get much mention in the Disco literature (as far as I’ve read up to now, anyway). I’ve recently read an article about what happened subsequently in New York. Beginning in the early 1980s, the real estate boom, rising gentrification, Reagan’s neoliberal gentrification and other economic factors pretty much put the kibosh on club life, as the smaller clubs, anyway, saw their rents soaring and were priced out of Manhattan.

    • Nina, I really think you have zeroed in on the enigma that was Michael:

      “These kinds of earnest statements are what we’ve grown to expect with Michael, and it’s not out of character for him. …..Is he himself “genuine” and “for real” in his earnest naiveté? Is it an act—or does it matter?”

      “Somehow, the determination and single-mindedness he shows in [the] note both *does *and does not jive with the wide-eyed earnestness we see in these appearances, that was for many commentators a source of disbelief and suspicion.”

      Given the fact that he was able to achieve exactly what he set forth in his manifesto, it was not naive. But I think Michael at 18 or so was naive about the way the white world worked.
      But I think his experience at the grammies when Off the Wall was ghettoized in the r & b category began to open his eyes.

      I see his time at Studio 54 as his education. Here he was surrounded by the biggest names in entertainment, entertainment veterans, who, in a relaxed atmosphere were sharing their stories and their thoughts. And all he had to do was to be smart enough to listen and learn and know what had value for him. And, at the end of the day, he figured he could outperform them all. I think it helped him get an accurate read of his own talent and his own genius– I think it gave him even more confidence in his own abilities.

      As to his innocence, I think it arose from wisdom, rather than ignorance. It was a deliberate innocence, a choice to be innocent, he consciously chose not to be sucked into the world of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. I think he had seen too much in his brief life to be seduced by that stuff. Also, I think MJ got high on his art, on creating and making music. Who needs drugs when that kind of high is available?

      Thanks for the videos. They are so interesting. I can’t believe how Branca’s interviewer keeps trying to slime Michael — don’t/won’t they ever give up? — and I loved Branca’s response that the Michael he knew was an honorable man.

    • Hi Nina. Just had a chance to watch the “Michael Mania” videos – wow, what a time capsule! Thanks a lot for sharing those. It is fascinating to hear the origins of the debate about who is Michael Jackson, really, even then – in 1984 – though of course it would all take a much more sinister turn after 1993. But as you pointed out, journalists were already questioning, Was he really that clean cut and innocent? Was he really what he seemed? Or was he a shrewd marketer of his image? And there’s another unasked question that I think is even more interesting: Was he orchestrating his image for artistic reasons?

      For example, a number of people mention his unprecedented crossover appeal – one calls him a rather typical “disco dandy” who nevertheless appealed to hard rock listeners. Was that crossover appeal related to his unique pubic image?

      btw, thanks also for posting the 60 Minutes segment. Here’s a 60 Minutes behind-the-scenes look at his warehouses, and it talks a little more explicitly about his “manifesto”:

  6. aldebaranredstar

    Big thanks to you, Eleanor, and to Willa and Joie, and all commenters–this is a great subject and so interesting in terms of MJ’s transformation– and his love of dance, magic, spectacle, and sound–the beat (see last link to discussing the sound system as state-of-the-art technology at Studio 54 and the dicso clubs).

    Ultravioletrae–I LOVE the dancing waters to Billie Jean! Thank you! What a treat to see and know it was MJ’s idea.

    Great info as always, Nina. Thanks. Looking forward to watching the ’84 yt vid you posted about MJ’s naivete and yet his determination. I agree it is a mission statement.

    I re-read parts of Moonwalk recently, and that focus on goals, setting them and meeting them, is so very apparent. He also talks about the importance of wishing, and he made a wish as the sun set–he said he believed in wishing.

    “I believe in wishes and in a person’s ability to make a wish come true. A wish is more than a wish, it’s a goal.” he goes on to say “Often people don’t see what I see. They have too much doubt.” “We don’t use our minds to full capacity. Your mind is powerful enough to help you attain whatever you want.”

    MJ was also v. impressed by Freddie Mercury and his showmanship. Apparently, Freddie was going to record with MJ, maybe for one of the Thriller songs, but got fed up when MJ insisted on having Louis the Llama there in the studio!! Of course, they did record State of Shock together. One of the articles mentions Sylvester–a gay black disco singer–he was so amazing. Good to remember all this and its impact on MJ.

    MJ on disco (from Moonwalk): “Disco music had its detractors, but to us it seemed our rite of passage into the adukt world”– very interesting! He then goes on to talk about Dancing Machine and the Robot.

    “Responsible for installing the sound systems at Studio 54 as well as the Paradise Garage, a Loft-style private party located in a gargantuan parking garage on King Street, bass innovator Richard Long vacuumed up a significant portion of the technical work. The engineer described Studio 54 as his “best calling card” in an interview with Billboard, yet he also made a point of taking clients with a purist bent (including the future owners of the Zanzibar in New Jersey) to the Garage, an evolving sonic laboratory and the ultimate showcase for his work.”

    • OK, so after reading The Guardian article, “How Disco Changed Music Forever” (thanks for the link!) I had to check out “C is for Cookie” from Sesame Street Fever. Here it is:

  7. aldebaranredstar

    Sylvester’s ‘You Make Me Feel” with disco club shots!

    • Hi Aldebaran. It’s so interesting to think about how different music genres – rock, folk, hip hop, disco, country, classical, R&B, soul, jazz – tend to have their own culture and ethos as well. Rock music is young white male rebellion again their wealthy white “fathers” – a rebellion that secretly yearns for a privileged place within the patriarchal system it seems to reject. Hip hop is a type of rebellion also, but very different from rock, and coming from a different place. The spirit of hip hop is urban and black and tends to be more inclusive than rock (though it can be misogynistic and homophobic), but it also seems to yearn for a privileged place within the system it’s critiquing.

      Disco is different. It’s not overtly rebellious, but beneath the party atmosphere it’s much more threatening to the status quo than rock or hip hop. As Destiny mentioned earlier, the ethos of disco was one of “inclusivity … that accepted any and all and that usually meant black, latino, poor and gay.” And I really see that in the Sylvester video you posted. On the surface it’s just a lightweight party song, but he’s really challenging established notions of race, gender, sexuality, age, class, ethnicity. No wonder disco sparked such a violent backlash!

  8. Just came across a promo for a film out in selected cities in the US and Canada this weekend:

    • Thanks for the heads-up, Destiny. This looks really intriguing – and it’s so interesting to me how disco is being talked about in such different ways now, compared with during the backlash or even in its heyday. My memory is that, at its best, rock was seen as rebellious, “authentic,” the true voice of a generation, while even at its best, disco was seen merely as party music – very simple, with a repetitive bass line and not much happening in the lyrics. But now that we’re getting a little distance from disco, and starting to look a little more closely at what drove the backlash, especially, it seems like disco is starting to get a lot more respect. …

  9. Thanks so much, Destiny and Willa. I’ve been reading up on the history of Disco lately, in books and journal articles. It seems that a lot of people who write about music and popular culture now consider Disco a serious intervention into the all-white, straight, masculinist redoubt of “proper” rock ‘n’ roll. In this view, Disco became a site of protest and solidarity, where gay people, blacks, Latinos, and women could find emotional release and expression through music and dance in ways that the white rock “establishment” may not have provided a space for.

    Wow….this is sure a much different view than the way I was seeing things in 1979! I’m really grateful for the opportunity to revise the way I’ve thought about a LOT of things since I became interested in MJ. To name one example, the idea of “high” vs. “popular” art (which you’ve discussed here, Willa), and some of the attendant notions of authenticity vs. artificiality in art and music remain a lingering bone of contention for music writers, and an enduring source of fascination for me personally, since I’ve devoted nearly my whole adult life to the making of (and polemicizing for) experimental and avant-garde film. (I’ve begun writing about some of this stuff in relation to Michael.)

    I don’t know if this film will make it to a theater near me, but I downloaded it from iTunes (as a rental). It’s also being released as a DVD in September.

    I also recommend, on YouTube, a program put out by the BBC: “When Disco Ruled the World.”

  10. Book coming out about the dark side of Studio 54 by one of its owners. “Fleischman said that Michael Jackson used the DJ booth to dance away from the crowd, and Halston used it to do drugs out of sight.”

  1. Pingback: - La Magia dello "Studio 54" By Willa&Joie -

  2. Pingback: – La Magia dello “Studio 54” – By Willa &amp Joie – ONLYMICHAELJACKSON

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