Summer Rewind 2013, Week 4: Anything for Money

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on October 31, 2012. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Anything for Money

Joie: So, Willa, I’m sure you heard the news about the big Jackson family feud a couple of months ago. Unfortunately it was pretty difficult to avoid; every day it seemed there was a new wrinkle and you couldn’t really get away from it. And it just seemed to get uglier and uglier with each passing day as it became clear that the motivating factor was money. Anger and resentment over the terms of Michael Jackson’s will. And, oddly enough, all that has me thinking about the song “Money,” from the HIStory album.

He never made a short film for this particular song and I’ve always thought it’s such a shame because I would have loved to have seen what he could have come up with for it. It’s one of those songs that really makes you think. One that makes you grab the liner notes and hunker down until you’ve deciphered every word he’s saying. And it has some really fascinating lyrics.

Willa: Wow, Joie! I can’t even believe you’re going there. That’s not just dancing with elephants – more like dancing with cobras. To be honest, I tried not to get caught up in it but it’s hard not to peek sometimes, and sorting out all those conflicting rumors and accusations and hard feelings just seems like negotiating a snake pit to me. It’s complicated even more by the fact that there are so many different sides to it and it’s all so public, and it was plenty complicated enough to begin with.

Anyway, I’m not sure if the main motivation is money or creative control. I tend to think it’s more about wanting to participate in creative decisions – but of course, his songs and his films and his name are all worth a lot of money, so even that’s not a clear distinction. It just seems really, really complicated to me, and I’m very sorry everything became so heated and so public, and people got their feelings hurt.

But I’d love to talk about “Money,” and you’re right – it is fascinating.

Joie: Well, I wasn’t trying to step into a snake pit! And I don’t want to ‘go there,’ as you put it, because you’re right. It is like dancing with cobras, and ultimately, it’s really none of our business anyway.

But it does bring to mind that particular song for me and that’s what I want to focus on.

Willa: I’d love to. And I didn’t mean to be dramatic. I just get really uncomfortable talking about artists’ private lives, though it’s kind of hard to avoid with Michael Jackson because public and private get so tangled up sometimes. Like, I really don’t think we can understand his later work if we don’t know what happened in 1993, but some of that is intensely personal. So how much should be considered public, and how much private? It’s really hard to figure out where to draw that line sometimes. And it’s hard to talk about “Money” without mentioning 1993 also.

Joie: I agree with you. You can’t talk about “Money” without mentioning the events of 1993. Those allegations are at the heart of the song, I think. “Money” was included on the HIStory album, which was released in 1995, just two years after the extortion attempt and the subsequent allegations that ultimately changed his life. In fact, so many of the songs on that album do cover the events of 1993 because he actually used that album to vent his frustrations about the way he was treated – by Evan Chandler, by the police, by the public and by the media. I believe it’s the most personal, honest album in his entire catalog.

Willa: I agree – it’s very personal – but in a way that universalizes his emotions. For example, you can feel his anger on “They Don’t Care about Us,” but it draws on the biased police treatment he’s experienced and then extends that anger beyond his own experiences, so it becomes a commentary on many types of injustice. So it feels personal, but with larger social implications as well.

And even though there are some angry, painful songs on this album – and rightfully so considering the experiences he’d been through – there are also some exquisitely beautiful songs, like “Stranger in Moscow,” “Earth Song,” “You Are Not Alone,” and “Smile.” So it seems like he was in a really interesting place when he put the HIStory album together.

Joie: You know, he was in an interesting place. He had just lived through one of the most difficult periods of his life, his career was in jeopardy, and he had fallen in love and just gotten married. That’s quite a jumble of emotions for anyone to go through in such a short period of time. And he was doing it all in the public eye on top of that so, he had both the media and the public perception to deal with as well. So, you’re right. HIStory is a complex album for all of those reasons. In fact, in his book, Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson, Joe Vogel describes it this way:

“HIStory is Michael Jackson’s most personal album. From the impassioned rage of “Scream” to the pained vulnerability of “Childhood,” the record was, in Jackson’s words, ‘a musical book.’ It encompassed all the turbulent emotions and struggles of the previous few years: it was his journal, his canvas, his rebuttal.”

Willa: Absolutely, and we can really see that in “Money.” It’s a very strong “rebuttal,” as Joe says, to the 1993 accusations. In fact, it’s a counter-accusation, saying in no uncertain terms that he is innocent and those accusing him – meaning Evan Chandler and Blanca Francia and Tom Sneddon, as well as the tabloids and mainstream press who perpetuated and magnified the hysteria – are the ones who are guilty. And their crimes are “lust, gluttony, and greed.”

Joie: I agree with you completely, Willa. The song opens with an ominous, almost sinister chant from Michael proclaiming all the horrifying things that people will do for money: “Lie for it / Spy for it / Kill for it / Die for it.” And he spits the words out as if the thought completely disgusts him. Then he goes on to say,

So you call it trust
But I say it’s just
In the devil’s game
Of greed and lust
They don’t care
They’d do me for the money
They don’t care
They use me for the money

I think it would pretty simplistic of us to believe that this song is merely an unflattering critique of greed and materialism. In fact, I think it’s fairly clear from these opening lines who ‘they’ are and how he feels about them.

Willa: I agree, it’s a really strong indictment. But then he makes that classic Michael Jackson move we see in him so often where he suddenly flips the narrative, adopts the persona of those he’s critiquing, and begins speaking from their point of view:

I’ll never betray or deceive you my friend but
If you show me the cash
Then I will take it
If you tell me to cry
Then I will fake it
If you give me a hand
Then I will shake it
You will do anything for money

And then he breaks to the chorus, which pushes this reversal even further:

Anything (anything)
Anything for money
I’d lie for you
Would die for you
Even sell my soul to the devil

So suddenly he’s speaking from their perspective, even going so far as to say he would “sell my soul to the devil.” And the “you” he’s talking to seems to be money itself. If you didn’t know who the “you” was, you might think this was a love song, and these lines were a vow a man was pledging to his lover: I’d do anything for you, “I’d lie for you,” “die for you.”

But this is no love song. Just the opposite. He goes on to suggest that romance can’t compete with greed – so even if a woman were involved, she’d be sold out soon enough if the price were right:

You don’t care
You’d do her for the money
Say it’s fair
You’d sue her for the money

So the beloved he’s swearing loyalty to isn’t a woman but Money itself, and the effect of that personification is really chilling.

Joie: It is chilling. It’s actually a very frightening song if you just sit and really listen to it. The lyrics are not for the fainthearted, and his eerie delivery of those lyrics is somewhat disquieting. And once again, without paying at least a little attention to the details of the events of 1993, I don’t believe one can fully appreciate the message of this song. And unfortunately, that message is that many people worship money and value it above all else.

In the second verse, he makes this accusation plain, asking where our loyalties and priorities are:

Where do your loyalties lie?
Is that your alibi?
I don’t think so

Willa: Oh, that is such an important verse, Joie, and I agree, it clearly connects with the events of 1993. Insurance companies don’t protect their profits by upholding truth and justice, but by minimizing risk – and letting the Chandler civil case go to trial would have been a huge risk for them, financially. Michael Jackson wanted to fight, but his insurance company wanted him to settle, and so did his own lawyers because it’s always much safer to settle than go to court. So he wasn’t just fighting Evan Chandler but the people on his own team, and you can feel his outrage about that throughout this song, especially in a few pointed references, like that one, Joie.

Joie: I agree completely. And it was a pretty bold move for him to put that in a song, I thought. And then he goes on to say this:

Want your pot of gold?
Need the Midas touch?
Bet you’d sell your soul
‘Cause your God is such
You don’t care
You kill for the money
Do or dare
The thrill for the money

I think he’s clearly accusing the masses of worshiping money here, and near the end of the song, he begins a chant of “money makes the world go around” that punctuates his point.

Willa: I don’t know, Joie. I’m not sure he’s accusing all of us of worshiping money. I mean, there are some places where he definitely implies that, like the beginning of the final verse:

You say you wouldn’t do it
For all the money in the world?
I don’t think so
If you show me the man
Then I will sell him

He’s implying pretty strongly here that everyone has a price – “If you show me the man / Then I will sell him” – and no one is exempt from that. So I see what you’re saying, Joie, and I definitely think this song has implications for all of us. But the “you” in this song – the person or thing he’s addressing – is very interesting and complicated, and shifts around constantly.

Joie: It is complicated. In fact, I think it may be one of his most complicated songs because, as you said, the “you” does constantly shift. In one voice, he’s clearly pointing his finger and saying “you would do anything for money.” But in the next breath he’s taken on the persona of the “you” and saying he’d “even sell my soul to the devil.” And you know, I believe that ambiguity is exactly what he was going for here. He wanted us to question the “you” in this song. Because questioning the “you” also makes us question what our own feelings and thoughts about money are. Would we do “anything for money” as the chorus states? And does money make the world go around? I believe Michael was trying to prompt us to ask ourselves these hard questions.

Willa: Wow, that’s a really interesting take on that, Joie. I like that interpretation. So it’s like he’s adopting multiple personas so we as an audience have to look at it from all those different points of view and to some degree adopt those subject positions as well, and some of those subject positions aren’t very comfortable. Like, if we sing along with the car stereo – which I tend to do a lot – we find ourselves singing the words, “Anything for money / I’d lie for you / Would die for you / Even sell my soul to the devil,” and what does it feel like to sing that? What happens mentally and emotionally when we sing those lyrics?

Joie: Oh, my God, such good questions, Willa. What does it feel like when we sing those lyrics? I personally wouldn’t know because that line bothers me on a spiritual level. And, as a result, I have never sung those words before. Whenever I’m listening to this song and I’m singing along, I am very aware of that line and usually I end up replacing the word “my” with “your” when I’m singing along to this one. If I don’t do that, then I just avoid singing that line completely. And it’s really interesting to me that I do that, but I just always have.

Willa: That is interesting, Joie, and I think it underscores just how much this song challenges us to question our own actions and values – to the point of making us pretty uncomfortable in some places. I do sing along, but I’m very aware of that line too, and it always pulls me up short.

So it sounds like we both have a powerful reaction to this song, and I think that was intentional – I think he wanted to shake us up and force us to take a hard look at ourselves. This song puts us in some really weird subject positions where we have to ask ourselves a lot of hard questions, as you say. Like “If you show me the cash / Then I will take it.” Every time I sing that out loud I wonder, is that true? Would I? Would I take “the cash” if someone offered it to me? And under what circumstances?

Joie: I know what you mean, Willa. I have the same thought process whenever I listen to this song too. And I think you’re right, that was intentional. And it just proves to me, once again, how intentional he always was in his art and how brilliant he was.

Willa: Oh, he was breathtakingly brilliant – and courageous as well, with that distinctive courage of a true artist. For one thing, he didn’t always try to please his audience. Sometimes he really shook us up and challenged us and made us uncomfortable, like he does in “Money” or “Little Susie” or the You Rock My World video. But that discomfort is never gratuitous. When we take a closer look, we find it serves an important artistic function and often leads us to see ourselves and our world a little differently.

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 10, 2013, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Just a bit of news: I found this interview with Susan Fast, whose book on “Dangerous” will be published by the 33 1/3 series in 2014:

    • Hi Nina. Thanks so much for sharing this interview! Susan Fast always has such interesting things to say, and I’m really looking forward to her Dangerous book. (btw, this will be the first book about Michael Jackson’s work ever published by a university press. It’s shocking that nothing has been published until now – absolutely stunning.) I was especially intrigued by this comment:

      I’ve spent my entire career trying to figure out how to write productively about musical sound, in a way that … connects the sound of the music to significant cultural ideas. If the primary meanings of music came through the lyrics, why would we need the music? Musical sound carries cultural meaning.

      This is such a difficult task – to talk about sound, to try to describe sounds in words and identify how those sounds convey meaning or evoke an emotional response, and what exactly that meaning and those responses are – but it’s so important, especially with an artist like Michael Jackson. I’m really curious to see how Dr. Fast approaches this, and discover what she hears in Dangerous and how she interprets it. Especially since she focuses on the “cultural meaning” of his work, which is so revolutionary and important, I think.

  2. Yes, I too look forward to the book, and I think her approach is really important.

    The special MJ issue of the “Journal of Popular Music and Society” that Susan Fast and Stan Hawkins co-edited (I think it’s called “Musical Subjectivities”) also has a number of articles that specifically describe musical sound in some of Michael’s songs. Much of it goes over my head, and there are technical discussions (some writers even include musical scores for study) that I wish I understood better. But this is an example of the kind of scholarship that’s underway, and I that I hope we see more of.

    Other than that, there are edited anthologies—but I don’t know offhand of a single-author book on Michael Jackson, published by a university press.

    I’m still at work on some kind of gigantic bibliography, so I’ll let you know!

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