Summer Rewind 2013, Week 3: I’ll Be There

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on October 17, 2012. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Let Me Fill Your Heart with Joy and Laughter

Willa: You know, Joie, Michael Jackson’s short films can really take you places – just the full gamut of emotions. Like Thriller has this intriguing mix of fear and desire and repression and release: it’s like he’s holding himself in through the first part, and when he finally breaks loose and starts singing and dancing, it’s exhilarating! And just think about all the different emotions in the Billie Jean video, or The Way You Make Me Feel, or Bad, or Who Is It, or Stranger in Moscow, or Earth Song, or Ghosts, or You Rock My World, or …

Joie: Ok, ok. I get your point! There are a lot of short films and a whole lot of emotions.

Willa: Oops. Sorry! Didn’t mean to get carried away. But you know what I mean. Everything he touched is so nuanced and fascinating – even a Pepsi commercial. I’m thinking about the “I’ll Be There” video duet between the younger and older Michael Jackson:

And it’s a Pepsi commercial, for Pete’s sake. But it evokes so many different emotions.

Joie: Oh, I couldn’t agree with you more on that, Willa. I just love that commercial. I only wish it were an actual video of the entire song because it’s way too short. And you’re right, it does stir up a lot of emotions. For long-time fans especially, I think this one can get pretty poignant.

Willa: Oh, it is so poignant – that’s the perfect word for it. You know, I’ve been thinking about “I’ll Be There” a lot lately, ever since Kris, Eleanor, and Nina posted comments about the connections to “Will You Be There.” I was so intrigued by that. In fact, we talked about it a little bit a few weeks ago – about “I’ll Be There,” “You Were There,” and “Will You Be There” – and I’ve been thinking about the I’ll Be There duet ever since. It’s so moving, and while it’s more subtle than “Childhood,” for example, it stirs up so many emotions.

You know, I think what’s so captivating about this video is that we see the older Michael Jackson interacting with the younger Michael Jackson in ways that completely contradict the dominant narrative in the media. The pop psychology that many critics forced onto him in later years was that his older self literally embodied a rejection of his younger self: that as he grew older he rejected his race and his father and his whole family actually, and Motown and all his old friends and the people who helped him along he way, and his life as a child star, and that he even rejected his own body – that he rejected his face and his afro and the color of his skin. He rejected more and more and more until he became completely isolated and paranoid and living a Howard Hughes-type existence.

Joie: Yes. That is the story that the media, and many critics it would seem, would like for us to believe.

Willa: It really does seem that way, doesn’t it? It’s like they all fell in line behind that one narrative and kept repeating it over and over again. And I never believed it. It’s true that his feelings about his childhood were complicated, and so were his feelings about his father and his family. I mean, let’s face it – his whole life was complicated. But there were obviously a lot of different emotions at work, and it’s a gross over-simplification – and completely wrong, I think – to reduce it all down to “he hated his childhood and now he hates his father and his family and himself.”

Joie: I couldn’t agree with you more, Willa. And I, for one, am so tired of hearing that Michael Jackson hated himself. I don’t believe that anyone so full of self-loathing could be so compassionate toward his fellow man. If anything I would think that someone who hated himself that much would have very little, if no regard at all for others. That argument just doesn’t make sense to me.

Willa: Me either, and it doesn’t feel right either. When I listen to his songs or watch his videos, I simply don’t experience flashes of hatred or self-loathing. It’s just not there. But it’s true there are a lot of mixed emotions sometimes, especially about his childhood, and we can see some of that complexity in the I’ll Be There video duet – especially in how his older self relates to and responds to those images of his younger self.

What strikes me most when watching this video is the strong emotional pull he still feels toward his younger self. There’s a lot of affection in this video for his younger self, I think, and sympathy as well, and I get the feeling he wishes he could protect him somehow. There’s a very melancholy mood in this video, and I wonder if he’s thinking about all the things his younger self had already been through and would have to face in the years ahead. Maybe that’s where that melancholia comes from, and what makes this such a bittersweet video to watch.

Joie: Again, I agree with you completely. It does have a very bittersweet feel about it and you do get the sense that he is thinking about all of the things that young boy has already gone through as well as all of the challenges he’s going to have to face in the future. He knows the difficult obstacles that boy is going to have to overcome and he knows how hard those times are going to be for him. Yet, at the same time, he still seems so hopeful in this clip.

Willa: He really does, doesn’t he? And reassured when his younger self finally starts to sing. It’s like his older self can’t really get into the song until his younger self fully emerges and begins singing too. But once he’s there, the two join together in song and he – his older self and younger self both – seem so joyful and … complete, if that makes sense.

That feeling that he can’t really express himself fully until his younger self joins him is so powerful to me, especially when I think of all the times he talked about the connections between childhood and creativity. It’s like he needs the presence of his younger self to be an artist – he isn’t complete as an artist without him.

Joie: That’s really true, Willa. And it makes me think of that old quote by Picasso, I think it was, where he said that “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once you grow up.” And it seems that Michael figured out that the way to do that – to remain an artist once you grow up – is to stay connected to that magic of childhood. As he himself once said:

“One of my favorite pastimes is being with children, talking to them and playing with them. Children know a lot of secrets [about the world] and it’s difficult to get them to tell. Children are incredible. They go through a brilliant phase, but then when they reach a certain age, they lose it. My most creative moments have almost always come when I’m with children. When I’m with them, the music comes to me as easily as breathing.”

The fact that he felt his most creative when surrounded by children I think says a lot about how important that childlike wonder was to him. And, as you said, you can really feel that in the I’ll Be There commercial when he’s singing with his younger self.

Willa: That’s such an important point, Joie. And you know, that makes me wonder if maybe there’s another way to interpret “I’ll Be There,” that beautiful song he sang as a child – not as a promise to a girlfriend or to us as an audience, but as a promise to himself. He will be there for himself. He will protect and preserve the childlike part of himself and stay true to himself, and he will always be there for himself. When his older self is sitting at the piano and senses the presence of his younger self, and then the two join together in song, it like he’s telling us he kept that promise: his younger self is still very present and alive in him, and expresses himself through him.

Joie: Oh, wow. Willa, that was inspired. I never looked at it like that before and I actually got goosebumps just now! That makes so much sense. What a wonderful way to interpret that song.

Willa: It is beautiful, isn’t it? I hadn’t looked at it that way before either until you quoted those wonderful lines about children and creativity. Hearing those words, “When I’m with them, the music comes to me as easily as breathing,” it suddenly struck me that we see that idea enacted in the video duet. He’s sitting at the piano singing in a quiet, hesitant way, and then the music “comes to him” at the precise moment a child appears. But in this case, that child is himself – his younger self.

Joie: It is a beautiful thought, Willa. But, as is always the case with Michael Jackson, this wonderful little clip was not without its share of controversy. This was Michael’s final commercial for Pepsi. You know, they had enjoyed a great partnership for many years. Starting in 1983, they had a very lucrative and mutually beneficial association. But all that ended, of course, in 1993.

This commercial was filmed in 1992 and it aired outside the US in 1993. It was actually never shown in the United States at all. But the controversy came about because it was reported by the New York Post that Michael insisted a White child portray his younger self in the commercial. Now, I have no idea if the child actor in this commercial was actually White or not because his face is never really shown up close so, it doesn’t matter anyway. The old footage of the Jackson 5 used during the commercial gets the point across whether the actor is White or Black. So, I never really understood what the big deal was here.

Willa: Yeah, I really don’t know much about that either. My understanding is that they had an open audition for young dancers, and the best dancer was White – he really had the Jackson 5 moves down, apparently. And I can certainly see Michael Jackson “insisting” that the best dancer be hired, regardless of race – that’s perfectly in keeping with his beliefs and what we know about him. And I can certainly see how the New York Post would try to generate a controversy about that. That’s perfectly in keeping with what we know about them too.

But as you say, none of that really registers when you watch the video, which is so heartfelt and beautiful. And it’s really moving listening to the lyrics as a conversation between his younger self and his older self. His older self sings, “I have faith in all you do,” and his younger self responds, “Just let me fill your heart with joy and laughter.” It’s perfect. And then they both make a pledge to one another: “I’ll be there.” Beautiful.

Joie: It is beautiful, Willa. And honestly, I believe this was just a case of the media creating a controversy about Michael Jackson when there really was none. As you said, it was all about hiring the best dancer regardless of race because the actual race of the actor in the commercial is impossible to discern anyway.

And the bottom line is that, it is such a sweet, heartfelt video clip that perfectly captures Michael Jackson’s heart and his spirit. And it is just such a joy to watch.

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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 July 3, 2013, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. I just loved this bit Willa – He will protect and preserve the childlike part of himself and stay true to himself, and he will always be there for himself. When his older self is sitting at the piano and senses the presence of his younger self, and then the two join together in song, it like he’s telling us he kept that promise: his younger self is still very present and alive in him, and expresses himself through him.

    because I think Michael did just that. I love the way he looks at his younger self and turns back to the piano smiling – don’t think it’s melancholy at all.

    I remember in an interview – ? with Oprah – where he said that he wouldn’t change anything about his life. Yes there were hard times but there had been ‘wonderment’ too he said. He did indeed have a difficult life, one that would have driven many people over the edge, but I believe that if he got the chance to look back on it, Michael would think that overall it was a good life and one well lived – that is certainly how I think about him, and why he is my hero and I am so inspired by him.

    I also don’t believe Michael loathed himself at all, or else he would have hidden away from cameras and not been so visible, and certainly not done the private home movies video, plus so much more. He knew he had an exceptional talent and he wanted to share that with the world, and leave a legacy for future generations – not the act of someone who hated himself surely?

    Finally, it is Michael’s Mayan 13 moon birthday today. He is a blue cosmic night which is so him for me – Cosmic =Transcend, Endure, Presence and Night = Dream, Abundance, Intuition. Happy Mayan birthday Michael.

  2. aldebaranredstar

    Hey, guys–free book on MJ’s short films–the top 20 from A. Healy’s perspective. Lots of great photos too. Good discussion of Stranger in Moscow IMO. Wish he had included Childhood–oh, well.

    http://mj101.squarespace.com/mj-101-tsf/

  3. Thanks so much, Aldebaran! I’ve downloaded it, but for some reason couldn’t save it or print it out. Oh, well. Great photos! I look forward to reading it.

  4. Caro Attwell

    I am really really sad to read that this fan club is closing down. It has been my mainstay for reliable info about Michael, as someone who does not live in America, and this blog has bought me so much pleasure as well as invaluable information. I have also enjoyed reading all the info on the other blogs associated with the site, and I do hope that I will still be able to access them.

    I want to thank you all for your contributions over the last 3 years – I have learned so much more about Michael because of you all.

    Facing the inevitable, can anyone please recommend another fan club that I can go to to give such unbiased and fair info on Michael?

    Thanks guys and all the best to everyone. Gosh, I am going to miss you all.

    • aldebaranredstar

      Caro–Hi, there–what do you mean? What fan club is closing down? Where did you read this? Please don’t be sad–if you are talking about this blog, yes, things have indeed slowed down re the comments, but since Willa and Joie are on summer rewind, that’s to be expected. I think this is a hard time for MJ fans due to all the muck that is resurfacing recently. I recently went to a seminar in NYC with Brad Sunderberg who recounted some experiences with MJ while he worked with him in the studio. Brad was an engineer involved with Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory. A blog that has an account of this seminar online is:

      http://www.innermichael.com

    • Hi Caro. I don’t think dancing with the elephant is closing down. At least I certainly hope not.

      Comments have slowed, but I have been caught up in so much personal stuff that I just haven’t had the time or energy — and that’s probably true of a lot of people this time of year.

      So, don’t go away. I enjoy your participation.

    • Hi Caro. Nina’s right – MJFC is closing down (and that was a very difficult decision for Joie and the others, one they’ve been struggling with for a long time). But we aren’t – at least, not for a while anyway. There are still way too many things to talk about, and lots of new areas to explore!

      I do think it’s good to take the summer off and recharge our batteries – especially this summer. But we look forward to starting up again with new posts on August 29th.

      • phew what a relief. I went to bed under a very heavy cloud, and woke up to the sun again this morning thanks to you guys. Thank you all for responding.

        I found this blog through the Michael Jackson fan club, and always accessed it through the club site. In my blogging ignorance I had no idea that Dancing with the Elephant, All For Love, Vindicating Michael, and Joe and Charles were available through Google, so I thought when the fan club shut down, there would go my links. Now you know why I was in such a brown funk ha ha.

        What a blessed relief to find that i can still get them all through Google, and even more to find that this particular blog will continue……………………. and to learn a new lesson about blogs to boot!!

        I fully understand that you guys need a summer break, but I really thought it was a permanant break!!

        More anon.

  5. Caro, I think you mean MJFC that’s closing.

    Aldebaranredstar… what a fantastic opportunity! I wish I’d had a chance to be there. It sounds wonderful.

    • Aldebaran and Nina, thanks so much for the links! And you were there in person, Aldebaran? Please share! I’d love to know more about it.

  6. Hi, Caro–Glad you are feeling better!!

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