Summer Rewind 2013, Week 2: Leave Me Alone

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on September 26, 2012. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Celebrating Bad: Leave Me Alone

Willa: So this week we’re wrapping up our month-long celebration of Bad, but that doesn’t mean we’re leaving it behind. I imagine we’ll be talking quite a bit about Bad and Bad 25, and the additional tracks, and the concert DVD, and the Spike Lee documentary as well. There are a lot of exciting things to discuss!

But this week we’re concluding our celebration with a look at Leave Me Alone, which is one of Michael Jackson’s sharpest and most pointed critiques of celebrity media – all contained in a fun and very entertaining video. And you know, Joie, one of the first things that jumps out at me are all the images of confinement we see in the video. Aldebaranredstar talked about the theme of entrapment in a comment about Dirty Diana a couple weeks ago, and we definitely see that here as well. Both he and Bubbles are portrayed with a ball and chain clamped to their ankles, and chains on their wrists. We also see a Lilliputian figure driving in a stake with ropes to hold him down, and we later discover an entire theme park has been built on his reclining body. More subtly, we see him encased in tabloid photographs, and in a dollar bill.

But importantly, he subverts all these efforts to constrain and define him. Those static images of him aren’t static at all – they move and sing, like the portraits in a Harry Potter movie. He dances with the ball and chain, so it becomes nothing more than a stage prop in a Vaudeville act. And ultimately he breaks free from the fun house industry that has built itself on him and his body.

Joie: Willa, I think it’s very interesting that you just referred to the amusement park that is restraining him as a “fun house industry,” because that is a really telling metaphor for fame and the business of being a celebrity. And I have always thought the Leave Me Alone video was just brilliant because of that image at the very end when we discover that all of the scenes we’ve just witnessed are ultimately a part of this giant amusement park – or “fun house” – that the media presumably has built around Michael Jackson. That was just a genius idea and so perfect for the concept of a video for this particular song.

Willa: I agree. It beautifully captures in a visual way how an entire industry built itself on him – and if you think about it, that’s really true.

Joie: It is true. In fact, I think an argument could be made that the current state of things, with the media feeling entitled to every aspect of a star’s personal life, began with their treatment of Michael Jackson.

Willa: Well, I don’t know. I mean, it seems like there have been people like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons since the early days of the movie industry – or at least its adolescence – and they could make life pretty miserable for celebrities. You definitely didn’t want to have them on your trail if you were a gay actor in the 1950s. And really, the tabloid press has been part of American life since before we were a nation. In fact, it’s been suggested that the American revolution might not have happened if there hadn’t been pamphleteers stirring things up. And some of the early political attacks were shocking – scandalous stories of corruption and debauchery and illegitimate children with no basis in fact.

Joie: Well, that may all be true, Willa but, I believe the media’s treatment of Michael Jackson hit an all time low and paved the way for the extremely intrusive, bully-style aggressive paparazzi that everyone loves so much. And I think that in the Leave Me Alone short film, Michael makes it pretty clear how he felt about the media’s behavior.

Willa: I see what you’re saying, Joie – I really do – but you know, even that is problematic. I mean, when he was creating this video, he obviously wanted to express his feelings about the tabloid press and what it felt like to be the subject of so much public scrutiny and speculation. And if he truly hated it, you’d think he’d depict it in unequivocally horrible ways – like being tortured by the Inquisition, or grilled during the McCarthy hearings, or nibbled to death by ants, or chased by savage hyenas, or stung by a swarm of killer bees, or something agonizing like that.

But he doesn’t. He depicts it as a ride through an amusement park, with sideshows and a carnivalesque atmosphere. And here’s the kicker – Michael Jackson loved amusement parks and sideshows and carnivals. He really admired P.T. Barnum (there’s a picture of him on the cover of the Dangerous album) and Barnum specialized in whipping up public interest in human and animal oddities and “freak shows” – precisely the kind of sideshow attractions we see throughout Leave Me Alone.

And really, the mood of this video isn’t one of anger or resentment. He seems more amused than angry, and incredulous that people would actually believe such crazy things. He’s smiling through much of the video as he rides past all these exhibits – in fact, he smiles more in this video than any other video I can think of. At one point he actually breaks out in laughter, which gives us a clue to the question he asks repeatedly in the lyrics: “Who’s laughin’, baby?” Apparently the correct answer is Michael Jackson himself. The tabloids are trying to turn him into an object of ridicule, but he’s the one laughing.

Joie: That’s true, Willa. He is smiling a lot in this video, although I think he actually smiles more in the Speed Demon short film.

Willa: Oh, you’re right! And interestingly, that video talks about celebrity also – about being pursued by obsessive fans.

Joie: Yes it does, but we’re getting a little bit off topic. I agree with you that his critique of the media in this video is very subtly done and he masks it well with the whole ‘fun house’ approach. But I believe that his disdain for the media is actually hidden in plain view here. You’re right that he loved amusement parks, they were one of his most favorite things in the world, and his admiration of P.T. Barnum is well known. But I think it’s very telling that he places himself as the subject of all of the attractions and “freak show” oddities that he rides past. And while those fun house attractions are meant to poke fun at some of the most persistent – and most ridiculous – tabloid rumors about his life, his message is pretty clear, I think. In his book, Man in the Music, Joe Vogel tells us:

“For years, the press – mainstream and tabloid alike – fed on Michael Jackson like no other pop star in history. ‘Leave Me Alone’ is his expression of exasperation at a media and public that had grown insatiable.”

And, in fact, in an interview about the song itself, Michael said this:

“I’m sending a simple message here: Leave me alone. The song is about a relationship between a guy and a girl, but what I’m really saying to people who are bothering me is, ‘leave me alone!'”

I don’t think you can get much clearer than that.

Willa: That’s true, and I think it’s significant that one of the tabloids is named The Intruder. I also think it’s very interesting that in that interview he explicitly links the lyrics “about a relationship between a guy and a girl” with his relationship “to people who are bothering me,” such as reporters and the paparazzi. That’s a pattern we see in many of his songs and something we’ve talked about quite a bit in the past, but I’d never heard Michael Jackson himself discuss that connection before. That’s really interesting.

But Joie, I also love what you just said about how “he places himself as the subject of all of the attractions and ‘freak show’ oddities that he rides past.” That is such an important point, I think. He positions himself as the “freak” in the “freak show” and exaggerates that to outrageous proportions, with one of the tabloid headlines screaming, “Jackson’s 3rd Eye Starts Sunglass Fad” and another, “Michael and Diana Same Person!”

Joie: I’ll bet he had fun coming up with those headlines!

Willa: Oh, I bet he did too! But his response to all that is interesting. He doesn’t deny those stories – they’re too ridiculous to bother with – and he certainly doesn’t try to convince us he’s normal. Instead, he celebrates difference, as he always does. So it seems to me there’s an interesting double message here. On the one hand, he doesn’t like being called a freak (which brings to mind that confrontation between the Mayor and the Maestro in Ghosts) but at the same time, he seems to be saying it’s ok to be different and kind of celebrating freakishness.

Joie: Yes, I would agree with that. And I think it’s a message he tried to get across to us often. It’s in many of his songs and videos if you think about it.

Willa: It really is – ever since “Ben,” which as you know holds a very special place for me. But all of this reminds me of P.T. Barnum again. There are people who, through no fault of their own, are treated like freaks – because of their height or their weight or their pigmentation or some other physical attribute. It’s completely unfair, and generally it’s considered polite to pretend there’s no difference, while secretly feeling that there is. But Barnum didn’t do the polite thing. He hired people who were in this position and put them on display, but he also treated them as people. Tom Thumb was his most famous “discovery,” and the two became close friends and toured Europe together – and became celebrities together.

This is all very problematic, but I do think it’s important that Barnum insisted on the humanity of every person, including people who were often treated as outcasts in their own communities. As he said in a passionate speech to the Connecticut state senate, as they were debating the rights of freed slaves following the Civil War,

“A human soul … is not to be trifled with. It may inhabit the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hotentot—it is still an immortal spirit.”

I see that insistence on the humanity of all people, including people unfairly labeled as freaks, continuing on in Michael Jackson – except in this case, the person on display is himself. Or rather, he’s in a double position: he’s the object of the spectacle, but he’s also witnessing it and commenting on it at the same time.

Joie: Hmm. I see what you’re saying and I agree with you, Willa. Barnum did insist on their humanity, and that makes me think about that old Ebony/Jet interview that took place shortly after the release of the Bad album. The journalist asks Michael about his fondness for John Merrick, the Elephant Man, and he says that his favorite part of that film is where Merrick shouts, “Leave me alone! I am not an animal. I’m a human being!” What I love about that part of the interview is that, before the interviewer can even get the words out, Michael has already quoted the very part that the interviewer is talking about. And what a quote it is! Not only is it perfect for this discussion we’re having, but it could also describe Michael himself.

Willa: It really could – and it’s so interesting that it begins with the title of this video – “Leave me alone!” – and that Merrick is the one shouting it. That’s fascinating. I wonder if that’s where the title came from?

Joie: The title of the song? I don’t know; that’s an interesting question. And it is fascinating, isn’t it? In that interview, Michael tells his interviewer that he identifies with John Merrick: “I feel a closeness to [him],” he says. You know, the media always tried to make that something weird but, in actuality, it’s a very compassionate thing to have a fondness for John Merrick.

Willa: I agree.

Joie: In fact, long before that rumor of Michael wanting to buy the Elephant Man’s bones, I developed my own fondness for John Merrick. I don’t see how anyone could watch that movie and not become fond of him. Or, at the very least, have a little bit of compassion for the man. He was – as he said – a human being! And I think it was such a bold and fun move for Michael to highlight that particular rumor in the Leave Me Alone short film the way he does, dancing with the Elephant Man’s bones. I think that is just hilarious!

Willa: Oh, it’s wonderful! It’s such a funny, bizarre, Vaudeville, carnivalesque scene – who would ever dream up something like that? But it’s also significant, I think, that he and the Elephant Man’s bones are dancing side by side. That gets back to what you were saying earlier, Joie, about how he positions himself in this video as one of the spectacles. I think it’s very important that he and the Elephant Man are both on display, dancing the same movements in tandem, so are clearly presented as equals in that scene. It’s like he’s created a visual representation of what he told the interviewer – of the connection he feels to the Elephant Man.

And importantly, Merrick tried to make people understand how painful it was to be in that position – always on display, always treated as different – by shouting, “Leave me alone! I am not an animal. I’m a human being!” as you quoted earlier. And I think that’s exactly what Michael Jackson is telling us in this video as well. He’s occupying a double position – as spectacle and as observer of the spectacle – and he’s encouraging us as an audience to consider this situation from both of those perspectives and consider what that must feel like for him.

Joie: It’s very brilliant really. And you’re right. Who would ever think of that concept but Michael Jackson? The video was directed by Jim Blashfield and it actually won a Grammy in 1988 for Best Music Video Short Form. It also won an MTV Video Music Award for Best Special Effects in a Video. And, as always, I wonder just how much of the concept was the director and how much was Michael. He told an MTV interviewer in 1999 that he was always very involved in the conception process, and Joe Vogel tells us in Man in the Music that Blashfield directed “with input from Jackson.”

Willa: Oh, I think he was very involved. If he had one or two exceptional videos to his name, then you might think it was just the work of the director. But when you consider that he made one exceptional film after another, with around 30 different directors, and the only common element was him – well, then at some point you have to conclude that the true guiding presence behind his work was Michael Jackson himself.

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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 26, 2013, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Midnite Boomer

    Thanks for the re-wind, Willa and Joie. I went back and read the comments from the earlier post, and then watched LMA again. One thing I noticed that hasn’t been mentioned, is that we see “large” Michael in “parts” from early on…we see a hand and then a torso, and then a foot. Seems to me as if he is saying, you’re not getting the whole story, only parts!
    Also, the film opens by showing what appears to me, as one of those old diners that was fashioned from a trailer, and which were usually considered to be “trashy” places to eat. Are we being told that we are about to enter a “trashy” atmosphere?
    Thanks again for helping us all to think hard about Michael’s art.

    • “we see ‘large’ Michael in ‘parts’ from early on … we see a hand and then a torso, and then a foot. Seems to me as if he is saying, you’re not getting the whole story, only parts!”

      Hi Midnite Boomer. That’s interesting. You know, it seems to me that so much of Leave Me Alone is about representation – specifically, how he’s represented in the media (as a spectacle, as a sideshow, as somehow not quite fully human, like the Elephant Man). So your ideas about him being seen only in “parts” makes a lot of sense. (And speaking of parts, don’t forget the scene where his nose is dancing with a scalpel!)

      btw, the “diner” at the beginning looks more like a camping trailer to me – but a high-tech trailer, with a satellite dish and air conditioning, and a Wurlitzer-type facade over the door. For some reason, it’s always made me think of the trailers movie stars hang out in while onsite filming a movie, which would tie in with the theme of celebrity. But the idea of a “trashy” diner works too.

    • aldebaranredstar

      Good point, Midnite Boomer, and yet at the end when he stands up, having broken the bonds holding him down (a la Gulliver), he is shown full figure. This seems to make the point that outside the false media depictions he is a complete ‘Whole” person.

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