Fred Astaire, “Bojangles,” and “the Real Limehouse Blues”

Willa:  You know, Lisha, I’ve been trying to learn more about Fred Astaire because he was such an important inspiration for Michael Jackson. We see his influence in some of his dance moves and choreography, of course, and in some of his costumes, like his famous fedora. We see direct influences in the videos for Smooth Criminal and You Rock My World, and the lyrics to “Dangerous.” And we can see it more subtly in other places as well.

Michael Jackson always spoke of Fred Astaire with the utmost respect. For example, in a questionnaire he filled out in 1977, when he was only 18, he was asked which entertainers he admired most. His response was Fred Astaire and Stevie Wonder. And after he died, Kobe Bryant repeatedly mentioned how Michael Jackson encouraged him to go back and watch Astaire’s movies – like in this press conference and in a Time magazine article, “Remembering Michael”:

Beyond the genius of what he was, he was just a genuinely, genuinely nice person. He got me hooked on movies that I would normally never watch. Fred Astaire movies. All the old classics. … He was just a genuinely nice person who was exceptionally bright, exceptionally bright, and driven and talented. You mix those things together, man, you have Michael Jackson.

So I’ve been trying to watch as many Fred Astaire movies as I can, and last spring I happened to stumble across one called Ziegfeld Follies. It isn’t a movie with a plot like we generally think of. Rather it’s a series of song and dance numbers interspersed with comedy skits, like the original Ziegfeld shows that ran on Broadway for more than 25 years. And one of those numbers in particular completely captured my attention – in fact, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since. It’s called “Limehouse Blues.” Here’s a clip:

Lisha:  Wow, I have to say that’s really a beautiful Broadway/Hollywood style production number, but seeing Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer made up as Asian characters is pretty wild, isn’t it? I immediately thought of another film, Tony Randall’s 1964 movie 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, in which Randall assumes the role of 7 different mythic characters, including an ancient Chinese wise man, Dr. Lao, who claims to be 7,322 years old.

Did you know at one time Michael Jackson was under contract to remake the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao?

Willa:  No, I didn’t!

Lisha:  According to Captain EO producer/screenwriter Rusty Lemorande, it was just before the Evan Chandler scandal hit and unfortunately the project was scrapped due to the false allegations. That’s pretty disappointing, to say the least.

Willa:  Oh, it’s heartbreaking. It really shows what an immediate and devastating effect those allegations had on his career. And it makes me feel so angry and powerless to think Evan Chandler plotted that all out and got exactly what he wanted, just as he predicted in those phone conversations with David Schwartz before the scandal broke – importantly, at a time when Jordan Chandler was saying he hadn’t been molested:

I will get everything I want, and they will be totally – they will be destroyed forever. They will be destroyed. June is gonna lose Jordy. She will have no right to ever see him again.… Michael, the career will be over.

And he was right – everything he predicted came true. He got “everything I want,” meaning the money he was after, June lost custody of her son, and Michael Jackson’s career was destroyed. In addition to the terrible blow to him personally, just think of how frustrating that must have been for him as an artist.

Lisha:  Yes, for him as an artist and for us as an audience. We were all robbed. But while Michael Jackson’s career was damaged, it was far from “destroyed forever,” as Evan Chandler had planned. That’s pretty remarkable when you think about it. Anyone else most likely would have been ruined. In the end, Evan Chandler only succeeded in destroying himself, his family, and many, but not all, of Michael Jackson’s artistic and charitable projects. There were no winners in his vicious scheme.

Willa:  That’s true. We all lost. Michael Jackson still produced some amazing work, even though his career was irreparably damaged, but I do wonder what he might have accomplished if those allegations had never happened.

Lisha:  Thinking about the Dr. Lao movie, I can imagine Michael Jackson would have been wonderful in that role. And I have no doubt he would have enjoyed the challenge of taking on those 7 characters – Medusa, Pan, Merlin, Apollonius, The Serpent, The Abominable Snowman and the magical Dr. Lao.

Willa:  Yes, kind of like the multiple characters he plays in Ghosts.

Lisha:  Exactly. Jackson was also committed at that time to remaking a 1938 James Cagney film, Angels with Dirty Faces. I find it interesting that all of these films include the concept of different “faces.”

Willa:  That is intriguing, isn’t it? Especially since the idea of changing faces was such an important and recurrent motif in his art, from videos like Who Is It and Black or White to his own changing face.

So what do you think of Fred Astaire’s changing face in “Limehouse Blues”? Or more broadly, his playing the role of a Chinese immigrant? I have a conditioned reflex to be wary of any Western portrayal of the East as appropriation – or as Orientalism in the Edward Said sense, meaning an attempt to portray Eastern and middle-Eastern people and culture as exotic, mysterious, alluring but dangerous, and essentially unknowable. And I see that to some degree in “Limehouse Blues.” But at the same time, I actually think it’s attempting to do just the opposite. I’m really struck by the tenderness and humanity in Astaire’s portrayal of this character, and how we are encouraged to see the events that happen from his point of view. He isn’t a mysterious and unknowable cypher – he’s a sympathetic member of the human race with desires and frustrations we can all understand.

Lisha:  Well, I guess I’m still kind of on the fence with this. My knee jerk reaction is that it’s a bit offensive in the way it oversimplifies Chinese culture. I hear it immediately in the musical introduction, with the gong and traditional symphonic instruments playing a five-note scale to suggest Asian culture in a very Broadway show style of writing. You can hear the same sounds in the Dr. Lao trailer as well; it’s the typical formula for instantly depicting the Far East through the musical score. Then we see Fred Astaire made up with slanted eyes, wearing traditional Chinese clothes and shoes, which is a little disconcerting. But, I also wonder if I have been cued to judge it that way.

I mean, isn’t this sort of the whole point of drama? To act out something for the audience from another time and place and to play the role of someone you are not? And aren’t simple cues needed to some extent to achieve that, such as costuming, make-up, “ethnic” instruments and musical scales?

Willa:  Those are all really good questions, Lisha. Michael Jackson said a number of times that pretending to be “someone you are not,” as you say, was what he loved most about acting. And isn’t that what empathy is, really? Putting yourself in someone else’s position and trying to imagine things from their perspective?

Lisha:  I believe that it is. But what are the limits to how far you can go with this kind of oversimplification of culture before it starts getting really offensive?

Willa:  Exactly. Or before you start imposing your own values and beliefs onto another culture….

Lisha:  I agree with you that Astaire’s character invites the viewer to see events from his point of view and attempts to illustrate the commonality of human experience, rather than simply emphasizing difference. So, it may not be entirely fair to just dismiss this scene because it engages some of these stereotypes as a kind of cultural shorthand.

I’m thinking there is a real difference between intentional and unintentional uses of stereotypes. For example, in the opening of You Rock My World, there is an overt use of Chinese stereotypes – the restaurant, the rickshaw, the karate chop, etc. It leaves little room for doubt that the scene is intentionally invoking over-the-top racial stereotypes in order to make a point. In “Limehouse Blues” I’m not convinced there is much awareness of how problematic stereotypes can be. The scene is set in Limehouse, the Chinatown district of London, and the opening lyrics get my attention right away: “In Limehouse, where Orientals love to play / in Limehouse, where you can can hear the flutes all day.” Apparently the lyrics were cleaned up a bit from the original song, which included the line “learn from those Chinkies, those real China blues,” as in this 1934 recording by the Mills Brothers:

Willa:  Well, you’re right, Lisha, those lyrics are offensive, especially in the 1934 version – though as you point out, those lyrics were left out of the film. But there are a lot of stereotypes on display in the film too, as you described so well. Still, I’m reluctant to simply dismiss this performance as offensive and walk away. Like you, I’m really conflicted about it. And part of that, for me, is because I see so many connections to the panther dance in Black or White, and that’s led me to view “Limehouse Blues” in a different way, through the lens of Black or White.

You know, some of the most scornful criticism of Black or White when it first came out was because Michael Jackson still called himself black but appears white. For example, the Saturday Night Live character Queen Shenequa asked, “Black or White? If it doesn’t matter, then why are you so white?” But to me, his crossing of racial boundaries is one of the most brilliant aspects of that video. So why does it seem offensive, or at least problematic, when Fred Astaire crosses the boundary from white to Asian, but not when Michael Jackson crosses from black to white?

I agree with you that part of it comes from the awareness of the creators. Michael Jackson seems very aware of the implications of what he’s doing in Black or White, while it’s not so clear that Fred Astaire understood those implications in “Limehouse Blues.” I also wonder if another reason is because of how they’re positioned. In the U.S., where both films were made, white is the dominant culture and black and Chinese are considered minority cultures. So when Fred Astaire, a white man, appears Chinese it feels like appropriation, but when Michael Jackson, a black man, appears white it feels like resistance – or at worst assimilation.

Lisha:  Absolutely. I thought it was hilarious a few years back when some American Indian students at the University of Northern Colorado decided to re-name the basketball team “The Fightin’ Whities.” They chose a stereotypical white man as their new mascot and even changed their fight song to “Ever thang is gonna be, all White.”

Willa:  Really? That is too funny!

Lisha:   I thought that was a brilliant and very humorous way of calling attention to how offensive it is when the dominant culture appropriates a minority culture, like when American sports teams choose names like the “Redskins,” or the “Indians.” That really makes me angry, but I don’t have the same reaction to white stereotypes.

But now you’ve really got me curious about the connection between “Limehouse Blues” and the panther dance. I have to admit, I don’t see a clear connection.

Willa:  Hmmm … Well, now I’m going to have to think a minute. It’s one of those things I just sort of intuitively felt, so I’m not sure how well I can give reasons and put it into words …

I do remember that the first time I watched “Limehouse Blues,” I was immediately struck by the set – the darkened street with the lamppost and the row of shop fronts with big plate-glass windows. In fact, my first reaction was to wonder if it was the same set where the panther dance was filmed. You know, MGM used to have a huge backlot of permanent structures that were used over and over again in different movies, and I wondered if “Limehouse Blues,” Singin’ in the Rain, and the panther dance were all filmed on the same location. They weren’t – if you look carefully, the style of the lampposts and the shape of the windows are a little different in all three – but the overall mood of these sets is very similar, I think.

Limehouse Blues

Here’s a screen capture from “Limehouse Blues.” Doesn’t that look like the set for the panther dance – and for the signature Singin’ in the Rain number as well?

Lisha:  Definitely has a similar feel to it. And I see what you mean that it’s not an exact quote, as in other Fred Astaire films that Michael Jackson cited more directly, like The Band Wagon, which he references in Smooth Criminal, You Rock My World and “Dangerous.” It’s a little more subtle than that.

Willa:  Exactly. It’s like when the new VW Beetle came out – the designers said they weren’t trying to create an exact replica of the original Beetle, just something “evocative” of it. That’s how the Black or White set is. It’s not an exact duplicate, but it certainly evokes the set of “Limehouse Blues.”

Lisha:  That’s a good way of describing it.

Willa:  They also have a similar narrative structure. Usually when a movie includes a fantasy sequence, it’s just a brief interruption in the flow of “real life.” The movie will begin in real life, then switch to a quick daydream, and then return to real life. But in “Limehouse Blues,” we follow the main character on the streets of Limehouse for about 7 minutes; then he’s shot and loses consciousness, and we jump to the dream ballet for about 5 minutes; and then he comes to just long enough to see the woman he loves reject the fan he was holding when he was shot, and he loses consciousness again. So the daydream lasts nearly as long as the “real life” sequence, and the main character never reenters his former life.

Black or White has a much more complicated structure, but if we take a big picture view it’s pretty similar. We have a series of vignettes engaging with the real world that goes for about 7 minutes. Then a panther walks downstairs – into the unconscious? I think you suggested that in an earlier post, Lisha. He morphs into Michael Jackson at precisely the 7-minute mark, and then the panther dance begins. It lasts for about 4 minutes, and then we jump to Bart Simpson and the film ends. So as in “Limehouse Blues,” we never see the main character reenter the real world, which is very unusual.

Lisha:  Wow, that is interesting. It makes me think about the other short film Michael Jackson made with John Landis, Thriller. At the very end, when Michael Jackson comforts his girlfriend and offers to take her home, it appears that the dream world has finally been broken and we are now watching the action from the perspective of “real life.” But then he turns around and looks into the camera, and suddenly, there are those werewolf eyes again. So when the film ends on that still shot, we know the dream isn’t over yet.

Willa:  Oh, interesting! I hadn’t thought about that.

Lisha:  And I’ve never noticed that the panther morphs into Michael Jackson right at the 7-minute mark in the film. That is fascinating, since the number 7 is also a recurring theme in his work, such as the “777” armband he wears in the HIStory teaser, not to mention the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao film he was interested in remaking. And as the black panther walks down those stairs and morphs into Michael Jackson, I do feel like he has just walked into the deep recesses of Michael Jackson’s unconscious mind.

Willa:  I agree. And then another parallel is the scene where Michael Jackson’s character picks up a trash can and throws it though the store window. That’s usually seen as a reference to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, but there’s a very similar scene in “Limehouse Blues” as well. Interestingly, in Do the Right Thing, a black character breaks the window of a white-owned business (an Italian pizzeria) but in “Limehouse Blues,” a white character breaks the window of a Chinese business.

One very important similarity, I think, is how we as viewers are positioned. In all three films, we are not in the “white” position. In Black or White and Do the Right Thing, we are on the outside in the “black” position, watching the window break from the point of view of the person breaking it. Here’s a clip from Do the Right Thing:

And in “Limehouse Blues,” we are on the inside, in the “Chinese” position. We as an audience are inside the store, looking out the window and watching the white thugs break the glass toward us.

And actually, I guess that brings me around again to the main reason why I’m conflicted but not offended by “Limehouse Blues.” Usually in a film by a white production team, we are encouraged to see things from a white perspective, and to see whites as sympathetic figures – heroic, honest, virtuous – while minorities are portrayed as either not virtuous or simply as background characters, at best a comic sidekick. But in “Limehouse Blues,” the Chinese character is portrayed in very sympathetic ways, I think, and the white characters are thugs. And we’re encouraged to see things from his point of view. That’s a complete reversal from what we usually see.

Lisha:  You are so right about that, Willa. And it’s not very common to see white men criminalized in that way either, unless it’s kind of a glorified thing, like Prohibition era gangsters or white collar crime.

Willa:  That’s true.

Lisha:  I guess the most obvious and striking similarity between “Limehouse Blues” and Black or White, for me, is a kind of racial cross dressing that happens in them both. As you’ve said, the criticism Michael Jackson faced was that he suddenly appeared white, not black, in that film.

I’m also thinking about something else you said earlier: “when Fred Astaire, a white man, appears Chinese it feels like appropriation, but when Michael Jackson, a black man, appears white it feels like resistance – or at worst assimilation.” As we know, Michael Jackson mastered the art of crossover long before Black or White, meaning he learned to make performance choices that appealed to multiple markets. Since market categories are often divided along racial lines, black performers have had to appeal to white sensibilities in order to reach a mass audience.

I think there are some great examples of Michael Jackson’s crossover talent in the early television series he did, and many of those performances demonstrate his fondness for Fred Astaire Hollywood-style production numbers. Here’s a number from The Jacksons variety show that begins with a lamppost/cityscape scene similar to what we see in the panther dance, “Limehouse Blues” and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain, a film the panther dance is often compared to. It also has many elements from The Band Wagon and Top Hat, and features the song “Get Happy” that Judy Garland sang in Summer Stock.

Willa:  That is such a great example, Lisha! It really shows how well versed he was in the big song and dance numbers from the heyday of Hollywood musicals, doesn’t it? And from a very young age. Even the costumes – the white suit and white fedora with a black band, and the red dress with black gloves up past the elbows – are straight out “Girl Hunt Ballet,” Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s big number in The Band Wagon. Here’s a clip:

Lisha: It looks like a lot of The Jacksons variety show clip came straight out of that film. But, I also see a couple of things in Michael Jackson’s performance that could possibly elaborate on his connection to Fred Astaire. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend an outstanding presentation at Columbia College in Chicago by dance historians Bonnie Brooks and Raquel Monroe, titled “The Postmodern Genius of Michael Jackson.” They described Michael Jackson’s dance performances as a virtual history of dance and highlighted how he had synthesized so many disparate influences in such a seamless and original way, it could only be called “genius.” One of the most intriguing clips they used to illustrate this was a performance by the Nicholas Brothers from the film Stormy Weather. In The Jacksons clip above (starting around 2:25) I noticed the staircase, the ramp and the splits at the end, are quite similar to the end of the Nicholas Brothers performance:

Willa:  Oh, and the spins as well!  Wow, Lisha, when you put them side by side, you really can see those influences. And according to Fayard Nicholas, Fred Astaire told him, “That is the greatest dance number I’ve ever seen on film.” (Here’s a link to the Fayard Nicholas interview. That comment is near the end – about 7 minutes in.)

You know, one thing that strikes me about all this, Lisha, is that Stormy Weather is loosely based on the life of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the elegant but expressive dancer who helped pioneer dance and choreography for film. For example, he danced with Shirley Temple in a series of very popular films in the 1930s – and incidentally, I believe that was the first time a black man had ever danced with a white woman, or actually a young white girl, on either stage or film. The Nicholas Brothers pay tribute to Robinson in Stormy Weather, and Fred Astaire pays tribute to him in The Band Wagon (which mentions him by name) and in a very problematic number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” from the film Swing Time. So Bill Robinson influenced both the Nicholas Brothers and Fred Astaire, and then they greatly influenced Michael Jackson who, as you said, encompassed “a virtual history of dance.”

Lisha:  It seems Bill Robinson was a major influence for all these artists. Fred Astaire’s work is based, at least in part, on the black tap dance tradition, as Brenda Dixon Gottschild notes in Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era. We know Michael Jackson was influenced by the black tap dance tradition as well – he even danced with the Nicholas Brothers in 1977 and possibly studied with them, too:

So the question is, who is appropriating whose culture in all these examples? Tap dance has roots in both European and African American traditions. Much has been said about Michael Jackson borrowing from Fred Astaire and Hollywood musicals, but little is said about how much white performers owe to black dancers such as Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers.

Willa:  That’s an excellent point, Lisha. So when Michael Jackson quotes Fred Astaire in his dancing, is he pointing back to a white or black tradition? The answer to that is pretty complicated, as you suggest.

Lisha:  At the same time that Hollywood marginalized black performers, it also capitalized on their talents. Anthropologist Elizabeth Chin wrote an incredible essay for the Journal of Popular Music Studies titled “Michael Jackson’s Panther Dance: Double Consciousness and the Uncanny Business of Performing While Black.” She sees a direct connection between Stormy Weather and Michael Jackson’s panther dance in this regard, as a dream ballet that represents “part of a continuing struggle on the part of African American artists to present their work on their own terms.”

Willa:  Chin’s article is fascinating, especially the way she looks at the dream ballet, which she believes originated with Stormy Weather and perhaps reached its fullest expression in the panther dance. She sees the dream ballet as a place where black artists could break out of white stereotypes to some degree and express their own dreams and their own perspective – though as Chin acknowledges, this was tempered by the fact that those dreams and perspectives had to be made palatable to a white audience.

But I’m not sure Jackson did temper his dreams and his anger in the panther dance – at least not sufficiently for some white sensibilities, which is one reason it caused such an uproar when it first aired.

Lisha:  I agree with you on that. When Michael Jackson puts on his hat and steps into the “spotlight” to perform a hyper-sexualized, hyper-criminalized tap dance, he is “performing” his race and gender in a very complex way that I believe exposes the beliefs, perceptions and expectations of white audiences. Again he embodies the lyric from “Is It Scary,” “I’m gonna be, exactly what you want to see.” As he acts out the dominant culture’s nightmarish perceptions of black men as hyper-sexualized criminals and entertainers, he also expresses his anger towards those beliefs and expectations. The dance is incredibly beautiful, but it’s also extremely intense and uncomfortable. “Shattering” is the word American studies professor Eric Lott used to describe the dance.

Willa:  That’s a good description.

Lisha:  But I think Chin makes an excellent point when she contrasts Gene Kelly’s “jaunty puddle splashing” in Singin’ in the Rain with “the stomping and screaming Jackson” in the panther dance. The black dreamscape is interpreted as taking back territory that white dancers appropriated from black tappers, something I think Kelly might be acknowledging in his performance with the Nicholas Brothers in The Pirate:

Willa:  That’s a great clip, Lisha!  And I agree that Gene Kelly seems to be paying homage to the Nicholas Brothers, specifically, as well as the black dance tradition in general – a tradition that both he and Fred Astaire drew from extensively in their work.

And that reminds me once again of that very problematic number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” that Astaire apparently performed as a tribute to Bill Robinson. What’s most disturbing about it is that he performs in blackface, and this is not in some obscure film no one ever saw. It’s from Swing Time, which many critics, including Roger Ebert, see as the best of his collaborations with Ginger Rodgers. I couldn’t find a clip of the entire number, but here it is in two pieces:

I remember the first time I saw this. I was stunned, and so disappointed he had done it. It feels deeply offensive, viewing it nearly 80 years after it was filmed, and I can’t shake that feeling. And I wonder what it felt like for Michael Jackson to see this, knowing how much he admired Fred Astaire?

Lisha:  That scene is painful to watch, for sure.

Willa:  It really is. But you know, if we look at this clip more carefully, there are some very interesting details that may complicate how we interpret it – especially those silhouettes that dance behind him in the second clip. Those silhouettes seem to represent the black dancers who have gone before him – specifically Bill Robinson, the “Bojangles” mentioned in the title – and those silhouettes are larger than he is. In fact, they tower over him, which makes sense psychologically. After all, our mentors can intimidate us as well as inspire us.

Those silhouettes also seem to be better dancers than he is (though of course, he’s dancing both parts). In fact, at one point he struggles to keep up with them. Later he proves he’s learned well and is a capable dancer – in fact, ultimately he seems to out-dance them. But ironically, even that can be read as a sign of how over-awed he is by them. It reminds me of Harold Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence,” where he talks about how artists tend to undervalue their immediate predecessors simply to give themselves a little breathing room. The fact that Fred Astaire felt the need to prove himself in competition with those figures from the past reveals just how much they loomed over his imagination.

It’s also interesting to consider who’s foregrounded in this number. Fred Astaire is out front so it would seem to be him, but for me anyway, I can’t take my eyes off those silhouettes, and they’re actually leading the choreography for much of it. So if we look at this number as a reflection of Fred Astaire’s mind, there’s a lot going on in this performance – much more than we may think at first glance.

Lisha:  Wow, that really is interesting and gives a lot of credence to the idea that this could be seen as a heartfelt tribute to Bill Robinson, despite the fact that the blackface issue is about as deeply disappointing as it gets. Just like “Limehouse Blues,” it is hard to dismiss the number entirely, as much as it seems we should. If you look at the live performances of “Smooth Criminal” from the Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory world tours, it’s pretty clear that Michael Jackson himself gives a nod to this scene. He uses those silhouettes himself, possibly inserting himself symbolically into the history of dance, and paying tribute back to Astaire.

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Lisha!  And a very interesting way of interpreting this. You’re right, he does use those silhouettes a lot – on tour, as you say, and in the You Rock My World video, and in a very interesting and nuanced performance of “Dangerous” at the 1995 MTV awards. Here’s a clip:

Lisha:  I don’t know that I had ever really thought about those silhouettes in this performance before, or how they were borrowed from both Smooth Criminal and Fred Astaire. What’s so interesting to me about this is that I usually think about this performance in reference to Judy Garland’s “Get Happy” in Summer Stock:

But now that you mention it, he has synthesized this performance with so many Fred Astaire quotes, you could see it either way.

Willa:  Wow, Lisha, that’s incredible! There really are strong similarities to “Get Happy,” aren’t there?  Especially in the intro. I hadn’t connected that – too focused on Fred Astaire, I guess. Astaire is referenced throughout the MTV “Dangerous” performance – from the lyrics and spoken lines that directly quote the “Girl Hunt Ballet” number in The Band Wagon; to the allusions to Smooth Criminal, as you mentioned earlier, Lisha, which is Michael Jackson’s artistic response to “Girl Hunt Ballet”; to those large silhouettes about 4:15 minutes in.

Like the silhouettes in “Bojangles of Harlem,” they move independently of Michael Jackson as he dances in front of them. But while those silhouettes seem to challenge Fred Astaire and even rebel against him, the silhouettes behind Michael Jackson nod approvingly and seem to support and encourage him. To me, that suggests he felt much more connected and aligned with his predecessors – more at peace with them – than Fred Astaire did.

Lisha:  It seems many great Michael Jackson moments can be traced back to Fred Astaire, like the ceiling dance in Ghosts, which reminds me of “You’re All the World to Me” from Royal Wedding:

Fred Astaire’s kicking and shattering glass in “One for My Baby” from The Sky’s the Limit suggests to me the glass-shattering kicks in One More Chance or the sound effects in the opening of “Jam” to begin the Dangerous album:

Willa:  Oh interesting, Lisha!  I’d never made those connections before.

Lisha:  Michael Jackson clearly admired and emulated Fred Astaire, so talk about feeling conflicted!  Seeing Astaire in blackface in the Bojangles number is an intensely uncomfortable experience, much more so than seeing him portray a Chinese character. It would take a very lengthy and intense discussion to unpack all the reasons why that is so.

Willa:  I agree absolutely. I feel so conflicted about that number, even kind of shameful watching it, but at the same time I think it’s an important discussion to have. And fortunately, there’s an expert on the subject who’s willing to join us and help us talk through all this.

Harriet Manning has just published a book, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask, that explores some of these issues we’ve been grappling with today. So far I’ve only read the first two chapters, but what I’ve read is fascinating, and it presents a very different way of seeing both the blackface tradition – which was extremely popular in both the US and the UK for more than a century – as well as Michael Jackson in relation to that tradition. And Harriet has very kindly agreed to talk with us about it.  So I hope you’ll join us again, Lisha, as we explore this uncomfortable topic a little bit further.

Lisha:  I would love to!  Harriet’s book sounds fascinating, and she is just the kind of expert we need on this subject. I’m really looking forward to reading her book, and really digging into the subject even more. As a human family, we still have a lot of healing to do on this issue.

Special Note:

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. is currently featuring an exhibition, “Dancing the Dream,” that celebrates American dancers who have harnessed America’s diversity and dynamism into dance styles that define the national experience, culture, and identity. The exhibit is named for  Michael Jackson’s 1992 book of poetry, stories, and essays and will run through July 13, 2014. It includes a holographic poster of Jackson and photographs of Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers.  Here’s a link to an article about the exhibit.

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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 November 7, 2013, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 56 Comments.

  1. I just finished Willa’s book, M Poetica, and I loved every word of it. It is so beautifully and intelligently written and offers so much food for thought about Michael’s artistry. I am so happy to have found this blog now so I can continue to be in on the conversation with Willa and her blogging partner Joie! So fun! These two have been Michael fans since childhood, but I didn’t discover Michael, truly, until his death when his spirit and the truth of him seemed to wash over me quite unexpectedly. What a shame that in all those years of his music being the soundtrack of my life, I never was aware of this man’s incredible spirit. He was always there, but I was busy with my life and took his presence for granted. I feel blessed to know it now though, and it truly has added so much richness to my already very rich life. I am not someone who needs to have idols, but this world is blessed with some pretty incredible spirits who come to bring the world their love and to light the way for humanity, and Michael was definitely that. To me, more than anything, he was a great teacher.
    So thank you for continuing the discussion! I look forward to future posts.

  2. What a wonderful post. Can’t wait to sit in front of the computer this weekend and watch all the videos. Thank you all!

  3. i grew up watching old Fred Astaire movies on tv, and was fascinated by his dancing. This is a very interesting post – i had known of the astaire/jackson connections from Girl Hunt Ballet, but not some of the others. As far as the blackface Astaire, I really feel that he meant no harm. it was meant as a tribute. we know that Astaire admired MJ, and was not a racist.

    i noticed how Astaire’s white socks caught the light in the Limehouse Blues video. Maybe where MJ got his white socks idea.

    • “i noticed how Astaire’s white socks caught the light in the Limehouse Blues video. Maybe where MJ got his white socks idea.”

      That’s funny, Sandra – I was watching Bill Robinson in “The Sand Dance” from Stormy Weather and had a similar thought. Here’s a clip, and just look at all those short black pants and white socks! Very Michael Jackson. …

  4. Here is a provocative thought: could we say that Michael was performing in “whiteface” in his later years? He did so out of necessity, because of vitiligo, but nevertheless he made a conscious decision to wear makeup to even out his skin color. An “in your face” answer to blackface performers of earlier times?

    • “could we say that Michael was performing in “whiteface” in his later years? … An ‘in your face’ answer to blackface performers of earlier times?”

      That’s a really interesting question, Sandra – one I’ve been pondering to some extent also. There’s something about that “Dangerous” performance at the 1995 MTV awards that really reminds me of “Bojangles of Harlem.” It’s something about those gloves, I think – the big, cartoonish, white gloves Astaire wears in “Bojangles” (almost like Mickey Mouse gloves) and the big, cartoonish, red gloves the dancers with Michael Jackson wear in “Dangerous” (making his hands look very white by contrast) – as well as those huge silhouettes behind them that kind of look like shadows but move independently of the dancer supposedly casting the shadows.

      And if we look at “Bojangles of Harlem” and the MTV version of “Dangerous” side by side, it’s interesting that in one Fred Astaire, a white dancer, is performing in “blackface” in a tribute to a black dancer (Bill Robinson) and in the other, Michael Jackson, a black dancer, is performing in “whiteface” in a tribute to a white dancer (Fred Astaire).

      But of course, neither performance is simply a tribute – there’s a long history of oppression and resistance, appropriation and appreciation, that makes this all very complicated. On the one hand, it’s very “in your face” as you say. On the other, Michael Jackson genuinely admired the dancers, white and black, who had gone before him, including Fred Astaire.

      (It’s interesting in this context that Fred Astaire called Michael Jackson the morning after his classic performance of “Billie Jean” at the Motown 25th celebration – the performance where he unveiled the moonwalk for the first time – and not only told him he was “a hell of a mover” but also said he was “an angry dancer,” and then said “so am I.”)

  5. Brilliant post as ever, but like Destiny I need time to go through all the clips. However, I did sneak a look at the MJ clips which I had never seen before, and now for the first time really really appreciate just how one hell of a dancer he was – had no idea he could tap so well having never seen the variety shows (which I hope also to remedy over the weekend if they are available on Youtube).

    I have always loved the Dangerous routine and often watch all the Youtube clips of it in a session to compare them, and just love the Korean one. Have also always loved the panther dance, though for a long while I didn’t understand it intellectually, but didn’t have to to know that it touched something very deep within me. However, I am glad to have this blog and M Poetica to put all of MJ’s work into context, and I learn more and more with every post.

    I had no idea that MJ had so many plans for movies, and am sooo sad that they did not come about because of that wackjob Chandler!!!! I think MJ is a wonderful actor – one can see it just watching him in the short films on MJ’s Vision set, and the different parts he took in each one, not to mention so many other places. Am reminded of the skit he did with Diana Ross when he was what 12 or so? The whole thing is a hoot, but particularly love where he is trying to hang up his coat and can’t reach and eventually throws it down – the expression he conveys with just that short part!!

    More when I have gone through all those wonderful clips.

    Thanks again

  6. What a wonderful post! It feels like exploring Michael’s spirit and the “anatomy of his art” as he once called it in the Oprah interview. Thank you so much, Ladies!

    The clip from “Limehouse Blues” also reminds me of “The way you make me feel” with Astair following the “pretty baby with the high heels on”. He certainly is the good guy, truly in love with her (and I’m sure he would be working from 9 to 5 to buy her that fan in order to keep her satisfied) but he doesn’t have a chance. She doesn’t notice him at all. Actually she’s with that rude rich man at the end. Now it seems to me that Michael is developing that Astair character in TWYMMF as if to explain to him (and the audience) how he would do it: Watch me get that girl! The message being that you don’t have to change your character to win the girl but your behavior. Act like that rude man, meaning don’t be afraid to catch her attention somehow. At least feelings can’t be seen. But be sure she doesn’t really want that kind of rude character being her man. This is all wrong!! So it seems to be one of those brilliant “retelling the story moments” I love so much about his work.

    • Wow, Julie, I hadn’t thought about TWYMMF in relation to this, but it is interesting how it depicts the urban environment and how men use money to compete with each other for romantic partners. Also, I think it’s interesting to compare the urban environments over time, to see what they reveal about the time and place they were made. Another example I thought of is Wyclef Jean’s “We Trying to Stay Alive,” which to me strongly references both TWYMMF and “Beat It,” which is quoted in the dance duel at the end.

  7. Astaire The Artist, Even in Blackface
    By ALASTAIR MACAULAY
    Published: January 27, 2011
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/30/arts/dance/30astaire.html?_r=0

    HOW should we react today to “Bojangles of Harlem,” the extended solo in the 1936 film “Swing Time” in which Fred Astaire, then at the height of his fame, wears blackface to evoke the African-American dancer Bill Robinson? No pat answer occurs.

    The opening image is a coarse Robinson caricature: gigantic shoe soles are upended to show a thick-lipped black face, topped by a derby and above a dotted bow tie. Then the women of a chorus tug the shoes apart to reveal giant trousered legs — at the end of which sits Astaire. The women bear those legs away. Astaire bursts forth, dancing.

    What follows, though, is no traditional blackface number. For one thing, his white lips and eyes aren’t enlarged with makeup, unlike, say, Al Jolson’s in “The Jazz Singer.” In “Bojangles of Harlem,” Astaire is far less like a cartoon than that sole-face suggested. For another, after the chorus dances in alternating black and white costumes as if to make a point about race, Astaire builds rhythmic complexity to peak upon peak of glory in the last three minutes.

    On the occasion of the reissues of the two most indispensable books about Astaire, it’s worth taking another look at “Bojangles.” Though blackface certainly often expressed racist sentiment — I shudder to recall the TV “Black-and-White Minstrel Show” of my youth — it was often used subversively. Here Astaire is subverting racist caricature to celebrate the black tradition of tap dance. His is not a specific imitation of Robinson: Astaire’s torso moves a great deal, whereas Robinson’s deportment was far more upright. In fact, there were black tap dancers whom Astaire admired much more than Robinson: notably John W. Bubbles, whom he found truly great. But Robinson, thanks to his movies with Shirley Temple (“Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” and more), was the most famous black tap dancer in the world; this “Bojangles” song congratulated his achievement.

    “Swing Time” was released in 1936. That same year, “Gone With the Wind” was published, with its sympathetic treatment of the Ku Klux Klan, and Josephine Baker returned to America, partnered by white men in a Balanchine number, only to be ostracized by several white co-stars and censured by the New York critics. In view of those white American attitudes toward blacks in this era, the nature of Astaire’s tribute in “Bojangles” becomes much clearer. He and the chorus begin with a gestural motif, waving their hands in their air, palms facing the audience, in a strikingly specific jazz reference.

    One person who posted a YouTube clip of “Bojangles” prefaced it with the comment “Please read this before crying ‘Racist!’ ” But even if you remain bothered by its blackface aspect, “Bojangles” should be watched time and again, because it’s one of Astaire’s most rhythmically imaginative solos.

    No performer in dance is more refreshing than Astaire. And no better companions to his art exist than the two reissues from the Educational Publisher: “The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book” by Arlene Croce (originally from 1972) and “Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films” by John Mueller (1985).

    Ms. Croce’s book is a marvel of economy, eloquence, historical grasp and feeling. While Astaire was always hailed as a great dancer, it was largely Ms. Croce who drew attention to his greatness as a choreographer and the expressive qualities of his duets with Rogers. On the counterrhythms of Astaire’s “Bojangles,” she comments, “The man who has been called the Mozart of dancers here turns Stravinskian.”

    Of the Astaire books that have followed hers, Mr. Mueller’s stands as the most definitive. Surveying all 31 of Astaire’s dance films, with a rich supply of photographs, it is a model of scrutiny and research. I derive much of my own contextual information about “Bojangles” and more from it.

    Today the pre-eminence of black tap dancers is indisputable. That’s excellent, but it’s regrettable that Astaire and other white tappers are sometimes omitted from pantheons of tap dancers, as happened in the 1995 tap-history show “Bring In ’da Noise, Bring In ’da Funk.” Recently, I was dismayed when an editor said she didn’t think of Astaire as a tap dancer.

    Sure, Astaire’s dancing went way beyond tap — like so many virtuosos, white or black, he resisted categorization — but what he’s doing in “Bojangles” and many other solos sure as hell ain’t ballroom. In 1981, on the occasion of his American Film Institute lifetime achievement award, he recalled how he’d “beat the floor to a pulp.” He remains a surpassing tap stylist for many reasons: the way he incorporated his upper body into the movement; his collaborations with George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and other composers; and the duets in which he used tap as romantic expression.

    Here I draw attention to the 21 movies without Ginger Rogers in which Astaire dances, alone or with others: they include several of the most astounding dances ever made. Irksomely, some of the best still have not materialized on DVD or on-demand. So thank Heaven for YouTube. There at least you can find his great solos in “Nice Work if You Can Get It” (from “A Damsel in Distress,” 1937) and “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” (from “The Sky’s the Limit,” 1943). No two numbers better show how Astaire went on extending his art beyond the heights of his work with Rogers.

    “Nice Work” is one of the rare but dazzling examples in which he managed to capture the dance in one unbroken take. As if that weren’t challenge enough, it’s also the dance in which Astaire chooses extreme spatial constriction — and makes himself a percussionist, too. He dances in the narrow arc created by a drum set, and those drums — which he plays both with sticks and his jumping or kicking feet — become part of the soundscape.

    As Mr. Mueller remarks, the dance is also “a visual treat” — with Astaire’s limbs moving in different directions in unpredictable sequences. One of its best movements, near the beginning, comes when Astaire “seems to let the sound of a cow bell ripple through his body.” (The ripple passes upward, and fast.)

    “Damsel” in general and “Nice Work” in particular extend an idea that was already a winner in “Top Hat”: Astaire is the subversive American whose gunfire-like feet and jazzy rhythms undermine the well-ordered politeness of English high society. (They remind me of Balanchine’s wicked explanation of about why he was probably not dignified enough to have settled in England: there, “if you are awake, it is already vulgar.”)

    Talk about subversive! Astaire’s face in “Nice Work” is a wide-eyed bubble — you really can see here why he had often been compared to Mickey Mouse — and his carriage is sometimes the epitome of ballroom elegance. Yet his whole body is merrily lashing out every which way.

    What was subversive in the 1930s became abrasive or explosive in the 1940s. That’s when he took percussiveness in his solos to new extremes. And he found characterizations to match. In “One for My Baby,” he — formerly so bright and sweet — has turned dark and bitter. During his tap dance, he breaks glasses and shatters a mirror by hurling a stool at it — but this ferocity seems directed at himself. One of his three “drunk” dances of that era, this is an expressive high point of his career — and therefore of all dance history. Its force remains shocking.

    • Great research Sandra! I really enjoyed this article and am very interested in those book recommendations, I put them on my ‘wish list’. The “Nice Work” example he cited is just amazing, isn’t it? http://youtu.be/yTH9VwACh7o

      There was one thing, though, that jumped out at me. Alastair Macaulay writes that “it’s regrettable that Astaire and other white tappers are sometimes omitted from pantheons of tap dancers, as happened in the 1995 tap-history show “Bring In ’da Noise, Bring In ’da Funk.” This struck me as evidence of the blindspot that still persists in when acknowledging how much white performers owe to black dance. “Bring In ‘da Noise” was a Broadway show that depicted black history through the tradition of black tap. I don’t believe Astaire belongs in the history of black tap, rather, it’s the other way around. I think he owes a debt to the black performers his work is based on. And if we are correct in interpreting the “Bojangles” number as a tribute to Bill Robinson, I think Astaire himself is acknowledging this.

      • I agree with you, ultravioletrae, Astaire learned from the black tap tradition, not the other way around. One of the books I looked at quoted Robinson as saying that Astaire paid him a few hundred dollars to teach him some tap steps. Robinson said that Astaire’s feet weren’t fast enough!

    • Thank you so much, Sandra for all the precious extra information! Never had heard of John Bubbles before, but now I know where Michael’s moonwalking chimp got his name from! 😀

      • Wow, Julie! I had heard of John Bubbles, but never made the connection to Bubbles the chimpanzee. I bet you’re right!

      • Why would MJ name his chimp after a black guy John Bubbles? I know MJ was no where in being racist but why name a chimp after a black guy? Please respond. Thank you.

  8. http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/89304|89307/Behind-the-Camera-4-30-.html
    During rehearsals for the “Bojangles of Harlem” sequence, Hermes Pan noticed that three light sources were creating a group of Fred Astaire shadows dancing in perfect sync, and got the idea for the special effects shots in the dance. Astaire was filmed in silhouette, then tripled. The dance proper was then filmed against a process screen and combined with the shadow footage optically by RKO effects chief Vernon Walker. The effect was by no means perfect, however, as there is some “bleeding” of the image. the process screen shows through Astaire’s hair at several points.

    • When I was researching the shadow dancing, at one point I came across a YouTube clip of Pan describing this and now I can’t find it! But maybe someone else has come across it? This strikes me as such a good illustration of how the creative process works. A germ of idea comes, sometimes purely through accident, and then it gets developed into something much more elaborate. It’s such a wonderful effect, also reminds me of Duke Ellington’s 1927 Black and Tan Fantasy (5:40): http://youtu.be/oy4CL2L0ono

  9. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-swing-time-1936
    Another brilliant sequence is Astaire’s solo, the “Bojangles of Harlem” number. Enlightened sensibilities are jarred by the sight of Astaire in blackface, but the Cinebooks essay calls this “perhaps the only blackface number on film which doesn’t make one squirm today. His skin made up as an African American rather than a minstrel-show caricature of one, Astaire dances an obvious tribute to the great Bill Robinson.”

    The number includes a famous sequence in which Astaire dances in front of three back-projected shadows of himself. The four figures are all in perfect sync for most of the way, until the joke is revealed when one of the shadows breaks out of sync, and eventually all three exit–unable to keep up with him. How did he do this? The three background silhouettes have identical movements, and Astaire mirrors them so well they seem to be his shadows, but apparently he simply timed his live performance so well it mirrored the back projection. Such technical discipline is awesome.

    • “The three background silhouettes have identical movements, and Astaire mirrors them so well they seem to be his shadows, but apparently he simply timed his live performance so well it mirrored the back projection. Such technical discipline is awesome.”

      Wow, Sandra, thanks for all the links and sources. Like Lisha/Ultravioletrae, I’ve added the book recommendations from the NY Times article to my reading list. Fred Astaire’s technical virtuosity and his elegance and flair and his simple joy in dancing are so magnetic, it’s hard not to get pulled into his performances every time he dances on screen. I think that’s one reason “Bojangles of Harlem” gives such a jolt. For me, anyway, it’s so troubling I can’t get swept by in it – it forces me to step back and think about it.

      It’s interesting how the articles you cite focus as much on our reaction to “Bojangles of Harlem” as the performance itself. It’s so disruptive it forces us to take a sort of “reader response” approach to interpreting it. Those articles also try to fathom Fred Astaire’s intent in creating it, which is unusual as well. But there are so many contradictory elements – some respectful of Bill Robinson, some not – that I can see how critics get pulled into trying to analyze that.

  10. more about that book you mentioned
    Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask

    Harriet J. Manning, Newcastle University, UK
    Series : Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series

    Blackface minstrelsy, the nineteenth-century performance practice in which ideas and images of blackness were constructed and theatricalized by and for whites, continues to permeate contemporary popular music and its audience. Harriet J. Manning argues that this legacy is nowhere more evident than with Michael Jackson in whom minstrelsy’s gestures and tropes are embedded.

    During the nineteenth century, blackface minstrelsy held together a multitude of meanings and when black entertainers took to the stage this complexity was compounded: minstrelsy became an arena in which black stereotypes were at once enforced and critiqued. This body of contradiction behind the blackface mask provides an effective approach to try and understand Jackson, a cultural figure about whom more questions than answers have been generated. Symbolized by his own whiteface mask, Jackson was at once ‘raced’ and raceless and this ambiguity allowed him to serve a whole host of others’ needs – a function of the mask that has run long and deep through its tortuous history. Indeed, Manning argues that minstrelsy’s assumptions and uses have been fundamental to the troubles and controversies with which Jackson was beset.

  11. I was looking at more clips of astaire, and he did a lot of dances with props. http://youtu.be/8rxRCSI7ZXY
    Can you think of any props that michael used, other than his fedora, to dance with? I know he used a top hat and cane in his teen years on the tv show, but what about later on?

    • Good question! I really can’t think of any good examples other than Billie Jean, with the stool, the suitcase, the jacket, hat and sequined glove. Am I missing any?

      • 1. MJ used the ball and chain while dancing with the elephant man in Leave Me Alone video
        2. he used a firecracker during his stage show, can’t remember which number
        3. in Dirty Diana video, the microphone stand is handled rather erotically 🙂

      • Michael’s props? One thinks that there were many, but of course most of them were costumes or part of costumes, but in many ways they were props that no-one else used. There was the Thriller mask of course on stage, and the firecracker tucked into his belt was during the BAD tour and very obvious in the Wembley DVD. There were also the plasters on three of his fingers, and the carpal tunnel armbrace, which was a necessity and not a fashion statement (even though he turned it into one!!) as we know from the autopsy that he had operations on both wrists for CTS. The wonderful belts that Michael Bush and Denis Thompson made for him, and steel capped and heeled shoes, and those wonderful saberton boots, that fasinate me for some reason, that he wore when he met President Reagan. Then there were the armbands on his jackets, and all the glitter and badges – not strictly props but very much associated with Michael on stage or at award ceremonies, so kind of props?? And as you said, The Glove, The Socks, the hat, and the preferred red shirts when “off duty”.

        I remember hearing Michael say in an interview that when they were making the film for We Are The World he wanted to start with his socks and pan up, because what other celebrity would be recognised just by his socks!! Good point!!!

        • Caro, I was thinking of items he actually danced with, not just wore. Props that he put in motion like dance partners and interacted with during the dance.

          I thought of another “prop”: how about the way he manipulated Michael Jordan at the end of Jam? Placing his feet, crawling all over him, etc.

    • Hi Sandra. Here’s a clip of Michael Jackson dancing with a cane, though it’s clear this is a tribute to an earlier time in dance theater. I can’t think of a case of him dancing “with” a prop (like Fred Astaire routinely did) in a concert or video, with the possible exception of the microphone stand as you point out – “in Dirty Diana video, the microphone stand is handled rather erotically.” That is too funny! Here’s the clip with the cane:

      • thank you so much for this clip Willa which I have never seen before. Gosh what a dancer hey? just imagine having the chance to trip the light fantastic with Michael mmmmm…. towards the end of the routine his dance is almost balletic as he leaves the floor – wonderful.

        Gosh there is so much out there in terms of videos of Michael that I have yet to tap, and I am always very grateful when any visitor to hithis blog puts them on as I really have no idea where to start.

  12. Astaire has big gloves on during the bojangles number, as you noted. There are taps in those gloves, used for percussion during the song.

  13. Lisha and Willa — and Sandra!

    Thanks so much for all this wonderful information. I have so enjoyed reading what you have to say and watching the videos. You are doing such a great service in deepening the understanding of Michael Jackson’s art. This is just amazing! I have leaned so much.

    I really have no problem with Fred Astaire in black face, because his performance is so clearly a tribute to Bill Robinson — and I think the opening scene with the long long legs is really a send up of black face, an acknowledgement of the implied ridicule in black face, but meant to show that what follows is the opposite.

    I also have no problem with Astaire as a “Chinaman.” Again, no disrespect of anything Chinese is implied, even unconsciously. He is just trying to evoke an exotic setting — make his story a little more interesting — and he does.

    As to MJ’s white face, I have never seen Michael as ever ever ever trying to be white. In fact, I have always thought that his white face points up the fact that being black is cultural, not racial, and that culture is more than skin deep.

    As Clifford Geertz says ( I, too, am a Geertz fan) —

    [C]ulture, rather than being added on … to a finished or virtually finished [human] animal, was ingredient, and centrally ingredient, in the production of that animal itself; ….a cultureless human being would probably turn out to be….a wholly mindless and consequently unworkable monstrosity. (Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, 1973, pp. 47, 68).

    To me, Michael Jackson makes this point over and over. He is deeply and authentically black. And he celebrates blackness just as he celebrates other cultures and other peoples. He is all about diversity, not homogeneity.

    What he appropriated from Astaire for his own use, and transformed to serve his own ends, he appropriated because it was good, not because it was white. (Did he get the short film idea from Astaire?)

    He was a cross-over artist because he was so good; his greatness gives him universal appeal.

  14. “So when Michael Jackson quotes Fred Astaire in his dancing, is he pointing back to a white or black tradition? The answer to that is pretty complicated, as you suggest.”
    Or……. it’s just pretty easy: “‘Cause if you’re thinkin’ ’bout my baby it don’t matter if you’re black or white”! 😉

  15. Wow, so you’re not even going to respond to my question. It’s been over a month and no one answered my question. I thought that’s what the comment section was for, to ask questions with responses. You replied to everyone else. Guess you’re going to just ignore me. One day you will have a question and no one will reply to you, then you’ll see how it feel. I think you guys are very rude for ignoring me.

    • Hi Kate,

      So sorry! I wasn’t ignoring your question, but I think I approached it as food for thought, since it’s a really complicated question: “Why would MJ name his chimp after a black guy John Bubbles? I know MJ was no where in being racist but why name a chimp after a black guy?”

      Not sure I really have a good response. It initially struck me as homage to John Bubbles, but, you raise an excellent point – with all the discussion about the racist orgins of “Jacko” and a long history of white supremacists demeaning African Americans as monkeys – interpreting the name “Bubbles” as homage to a great dancer could be way too simplistic. What do you think?

      We know MJ dearly loved his pet animals, so I doubt he would necessarily consider it an insult to name a pet after a human. So perhaps by embracing and emphasizing a racist stereotype like this, he made an attempt to neutralize it? I’m not sure.

      It would be interesting to think about this in relation to academic theories that fall under the umbrella of “Posthumanism”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posthumanism

      • More specifically: Philosophical posthumanism

        Philosopher Ted Schatzki suggests there are two varieties of posthumanism of the philosophical kind:[12]

        One, which he calls ‘objectivism’, tries to counter the overemphasis of the subjective or intersubjective that pervades humanism, and emphasises the role of the nonhuman agents, whether they be animals and plants, or computers or other things.[12]

        A second prioritizes practices, especially social practices, over individuals (or individual subjects) which, they say, constitute the individual.[12]

        There may be a third kind of posthumanism, propounded by the philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd. Though he did not label it as ‘posthumanism’, he made an extensive and penetrating immanent critique of Humanism, and then constructed a philosophy that presupposed neither Humanist, nor Scholastic, nor Greek thought but started with a different religious ground motive.[13] Dooyeweerd prioritized law and meaningfulness as that which enables humanity and all else to exist, behave, live, occur, etc. “Meaning is the being of all that has been created,” Dooyeweerd wrote, “and the nature even of our selfhood.”[14] Both human and nonhuman alike function subject to a common ‘law-side’, which is diverse, composed of a number of distinct law-spheres or aspects.[15] The temporal being of both human and non-human is multi-aspectual; for example, both plants and humans are bodies, functioning in the biotic aspect, and both computers and humans function in the formative and lingual aspect, but humans function in the aesthetic, juridical, ethical and faith aspects too. The Dooyeweerdian version is able to incorporate and integrate both the objectivist version and the practices version, because it allows nonhuman agents their own subject-functioning in various aspects and places emphasis on aspectual functioning.[16]

        • These are really intriguing ideas, Lisha. Thanks for looking it up!

          There’s also a piece that Susan Fast wrote for the blog “The Conversation” in November, 2014, “Michael Jackson: Posthuman.” She writes:

          “Cary Wolfe, an English Professor and author of the book “What is Posthumanism?,” writes that we are “fundamentally prosthetic creatures,” that we rely on entities outside the self – other humans, animals, technology – in order to function and thrive.
          In other words: the boundaries of our bodies and intellect are not as firm and finite as we want to believe.

          “Posthumanism also argues for the dismantling of the hierarchy that puts humans – largely because of our ability to “reason” – above other forms of life and technology.

          “Both of these ideas were central to Michael Jackson’s life and art.”

          You can find Susan Fast’s article here:

          https://theconversation.com/michael-jackson-posthuman-33351

          • Oh thank you for posting this Nina! I love this article even more each time I read it. That’s exactly what was needed here. 🙂

        • Ok. I thought you were ignoring me, because I asked a question, and even said “Please respond, but no on responded. I’m sorry. Thanks for the response.

          Anyway, what do you mean by “with all the discussion about the racist origins of “Jacko” and a long history of white supremacists demeaning African Americans as monkeys – interpreting the name “Bubbles” as homage to a great dancer could be way too simplistic”. Are you saying that he would never try to name his chimp after a black man seeing how there is racism against blacks?

          Also, what do you mean by “So perhaps by embracing and emphasizing a racist stereotype like this, he made an attempt to neutralize it”? Are you saying that MJ was embracing blacks being called monkeys but neutralized it in a positive way? I don’t believe that’s true.

          I’ve done some research yesterday, and come to find out that MJ was in no way trying to name his monkey Bubbles after a black man because not only did he name his monkey Bubbles after a person (John Bubbles), but he named his ram after the guy who played “Mr. Tibbs”. He also named his giraffe after a basketball player named Kareem Abdul Jabbar. And MJ named all these pets with Thriller before the vitiligo, so it’s no surprise that he identified with black celebrities to give to his pets. And let’s not forget that MJ got Bubbles in 1983, before he was called “Jacko”, MJ was called “Jacko” beginning in 1987. So as said before, MJ was just simply named his pet animals after celebrities he liked or admired.

          Plus you know that MJ had two pet deer named “Prince” and “Princess” right?, in which MJ named his children these names, Prince and Paris. And yes, I know Paris’s name is not Princess, but at first it was going to be until Debbie Rowe not to name her that. This is what Debbie said in a 2008 interview: “Paris was conceived in Paris, that’s how she got her name. Michael wanted to call her Princess, but I thought that was stupid.” ~ Debbie Rowe. And here’s the source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-513206/My-life-mother-Michael-Jacksons-children-Debbie-Rowe.html

          Also, if you look at MJ’s Private Home Movies from 2003, there’s footage of him speaking about his friend Veronique and her husband, this older couple, where they were getting on some rides at Neverland, and they had this dog with them, which was Liz Taylor’s dog name “Blanket”. MJ said “And there’s Liz’s dog, Blanket”. It seems MJ may have named his son Bigi Jackson “Blanket” after Liz dog. MJ named his two older children Prince and Paris after his two pet deer, and possibly named his youngest child Blanket after Liz Taylor’s dog “Blanket”.

          So it looks like MJ wanted to give names to his pets that were celebrity names, that’s all, even naming his kids after pets. He was in no way trying to be racist with naming Bubbles after John Bubbles, because as said earlier, he named other pets of his after celebrities as well, such as his ram named “Mr. Tibbs” after the guy who played in the movie “Call Me Mr. Tibbs”. And his giraffe Jabbar, after the basketball play Kareem Abdul Jabbar. He just gave his pets names after people he admired or liked. Like you said, MJ loved bubbles, he said he was crazy about monkeys, so it’s no surprise that he named his monkey Bubbles after someone he admired, just as he named his ram and giraffe after celebrities as well. And there’s probably more animals he named after celebrities that we don’t know about.

          And surprisingly other celebrities also named their pets after other celebrities, as well. Nick Jonas named his dogs after Elvis Presley and Elvis Costello, as well as many other celebrities who also named their pets after other celebrities. Source: http://www.teen.com/2015/08/13/celebrities/celebrities-who-named-their-pets-after-other-famous-stars/#5 And I notice most of these celebrities name their pets after celebrities of their own race, because that’s who they can identify with more, which is understandable.

          And in this article https://good.barkpost.com/life/liz-taylor-and-her-love-for-dogs/ It says: “As you may recall, even Charlotte (Kristin Davis) on “Sex and The City” named her King Charles Spaniel after the acclaimed actress!”

          Plus Elvis named his pet after his co-star: “Elvis wasn’t so fond of cats, although stray that turned up on the Graceland grounds would be found new homes. He did reputedly have a pet cat called “Wendell,” named after his co-star in his movie Loving You, Wendell Corey”. Source: http://www.neatorama.com/2011/06/12/elvis-presley-and-his-animals/ Including naming his horse “Star Trek” after the show “Star Trek” because he loved the show so much. Source http://home.nzcity.co.nz/news/article.aspx?id=253733

          So MJ was not the only one who named his animals after celebrities everyone has before and after him. In fact, MJ may have got this from the others before him. So, I guess I was wrong of what I thought before. That’s why it’s good to do research before being judgmental. And thank you so much for responding. God bless.

          • Hi Kate,

            Thanks for engaging with us! I really appreciate it.

            You’ve provided some great support for the idea that the name “Bubbles” could simply be a heartfelt homage to another famous dancer, John Bubbles. That certainly makes sense to me. And my first impulse is to go with that.

            But here’s an article explaining the horrifying racist history of black Americans being caricatured as monkeys, which greatly complicates the naming a pet chimp after a famous African American dancer: http://www.historyonthenet.com/authentichistory/diversity/african/3-coon/6-monkey/ Joe Vogel touched on this history and the MJ moniker “Jacko”, which has been associated with the caricature: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/09/how-michael-jackson-made-bad/262162/

            I think it’s highly unlikely, next to impossible actually, that Michael Jackson *wasn’t* aware of this racist history. So my question is: was he making an artistic statement by making Bubbles a highly visible public figure that he wanted to be associated with? There’s a lot to think about there. I think it’s possible that by playing with this image, he was also diluting its power. That’s why I felt your question was so interesting – and so complicated!

            Hope that makes sense.

  16. Well, I have to disagree. It’s not complicated at all, but very understandable. I never said that MJ was not aware of the name “Jacko” meaning monkey, in fact I believe he was aware of the meaning of the word “Jacko” meaning monkey. But the thing is, is that MJ was not called “Jacko” when he named Bubbles. MJ named Bubbles in 1983, a time way before they started calling him “Jacko”. They started calling MJ “Jacko” in 1987, and that’s because MJ always with the monkey all the time during the Bad era. With Thriller, you would never see MJ with his pet Bubbles in public.

    Just as MJ was never called “Jacko” in 1980 during the “Off the Wall” era, neither was he called “Jacko” during the “Thriller” era. Everyone knows that Michael Jackson was never called “Jacko” during the “Thriller” era, in which again was the time when he named Bubbles. They begin calling MJ Jacko in 1987, during the Bad era. So naming his pet monkey Bubbles after John Bubbles was just out of admiration for John. Also, MJ named his pet ram “Mr. Tibbs” after the actor Mr. Tibbs. He also named his giraffe after Karen Abdul Jabber. It’s very clear that MJ simply named his pets after celebrities just like everyone else did. Nick Jonas named his dogs after Elvis Presley and Elvis Costello, as well as many other celebrities who also named their pets after other celebrities. Source: http://www.teen.com/2015/08/13/celebrities/celebrities-who-named-their-pets-after-other-famous-stars/#5 And I notice most of these celebrities name their pets after celebrities of their own race, because that’s who they can identify with more, which is understandable.

    Elvis also named his pets after celebrities. Elvis named his pet after his co-star: “Elvis wasn’t so fond of cats, although stray that turned up on the Graceland grounds would be found new homes. He did reputedly have a pet cat called “Wendell,” named after his co-star in his movie Loving You, Wendell Corey”. Source: http://www.neatorama.com/2011/06/12/elvis-presley-and-his-animals/

    Elvis also name his horse “Star Trek” after the show “Star Trek” because he loved the show so much. Source http://home.nzcity.co.nz/news/article.aspx?id=253733

    And lets not forget that Elvis had many animals just like Elvis did. Elvis also had a pet monkey. Elvis acquired his first monkey, a spider monkey called “Jayhew” back in 1956, to liven up his home. His best known pet was a very fresh, mischievous chimpanzee called “Scatter”, in which MJ’s most known pet was Bubbles, a chimpanzee as well. And I’m sure MJ got the idea of having many animals and a chimp because Elvis did.

    It’s very clear that MJ named his pets after celebrities just as Elvis and many other stars did, it is as simple as that, nothing complicated about that, but very understandable. Fact.

  17. Hmmm. Is it a WordPress issue?

  18. (PART 1) Again, I disagree. MJ was not first called “Wack Jacko” beginning in 1985 by the British Tabloids. Joe Vogel is incorrect. Notice how he has no resource of this. I’ve seen plenty of article stories who get their years mixed up, and this is just one of them. And everything Vogal mentions in regards to MJ being called “Jacko” is in reference of MJ wanting the Elephant Man’s bones, him sleeping in the oxygen champer, etc., which were all rumors steaming from 1987 during the Bad era. And notice how MJ would tour in European areas beginning with the Bad era, this is one of the reasons why the British tabloids were able call him “Wacko Jacko”. MJ never toured in European areas as much with Thriller, if not at all.

    Plus it’s also common sense, there were no reasons to call MJ “Wacko Jacko” in 1985 because he did not do eccentric things in 1985, such as take his pet Bubbles with him everywhere, nor wanted to try out to see what an oxygen chamber was like, nor was interested in the character of the Elephant Man in 1985, nor had Neverland, etc., this all happened in 1987 during the Bad era, except for Neverland which he has in 1988, still being the Bad era, which is why the British tabloids gave him the nickname “Wacko Jacko”. I mean you can’t give someone a name “Wacko Jacko” unless this person was doing eccentric things, which he did not do at all in 1985, but in 1987 on up, fact. Joe Vogel claims MJ got the nickname “Wacko Jacko” beginning in 1985, but yet has absolutely no resource to back up his claim, that’s because he’s lying or just made a simply mistake as many articles do.

    And even if MJ was nicknamed “Wacko Jacko” in 1985, MJ got his pet Bubbles in the early year of 1983, still a time before he was named “Wacko Jacko”, so whatever way it’s put MJ did not name his pet monkey Bubbles after John Bubbles because he was called “Jacko”, because MJ had Bubbles before he was called “Jacko”. MJ named his other pets after celebrities too. MJ named his ram “Mr. Tibbs” after the actor who played in the movie “Mr. Tibbs”. He also named his giraffe name “Jabbar” after the basketball player Kareem Abdul Jabbar. It’s obvious that MJ just named his pets after celebrities that he liked or admired just as Elvis named his cat “Wendall” after his co-star in his movie Loving You, Wendall Corey. Source: http://www.neatorama.com/2011/06/12/elvis-presley-and-his-animals/

  19. (PART 2) And Elvis also named his horse after the movie “Star-Trek” because he liked the movie so much. Source: http://home.nzcity.co.nz/news/article.aspx?id=253733

    And there’s so many other celebrities who also named their pets after other celebrities. Again, Nick Jonas named his dogs after Elvis Presley and Elvis Costello, as well as many other celebrities who also named their pets after other celebrities. Source: http://www.teen.com/2015/08/13/celebrities/celebrities-who-named-their-pets-after-other-famous-stars/#5 And I notice most of these celebrities name their pets after celebrities of their own race, because that’s who they can identify with more, which is understandable.
    It’s very clear that MJ simply named his pets after other celebrities he liked and admired just as other celebrities did with their pets.

  20. (PART 3) And about Bubbles being the most well known out of all the other monkeys he had because Bubbles was his first monkey he ever got, of course he would bring him everywhere with him, it was obviously his favorite monkey.

    It’s just like with MJ favorite Parrot name “Rikki”. We all have favorites: “Rikki the Parrot. Amazon parrot Rikki was given favoritism by his owner, a cohabitant in Jackson’s mansion instead of squawking in the separated aviary. Source: http://www.wideopenpets.com/whatever-happened-michael-jacksons-animals-neverland/

    It’s was also like this with MJ’s pet snake “Muscles”, MJ had many snakes, but yet only took “Muscles” with him just as he only took Bubbles with him even though he had other pet monkeys. And gave only favoritism to his pet Parrot Rikki over the other parrots he had. As said before, MJ had favorites, everyone does.

    Elvis Presley’s most known pet was a Chimpanzee as well: “His best known pet was a very fresh, mischievous chimpanzee called “Scatter”. Source: http://www.neatorama.com/2011/06/12/elvis-presley-and-his-animals/ Here’s a picture of Elvis and his most known animal, a Chimpanzee named “Scatter”: http://uploads.neatorama.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/ElvisWithScatter.jpg Seems very familiar doesn’t it? Michael Jackson had a chimpanzee name Bubbles just like Elvis had a chimpanzee name Scatter. I’m sure MJ got this idea from Elvis. I do not think at all that this was a coincidence.

  21. (PART4) Another reason why MJ hung out with Bubbles a lot, he said it was a great distraction for him. This is what Michael said in his “Moonwalk” book:

    “I’m crazy about monkeys, especially chimps. My chimp Bubbles is a constant delight. I really enjoy taking him with me on trips or excursions. He’s a wonderful distraction and a great pet”. ~ Michael Jackson.

    Bubbles was a great distraction of what? I believe MJ was going through a rough time in his life during this time because he lost someone dear to him that I do not care to get into for peace’s sake. MJ’s pet Bubbles was a distraction helped him cope with the loss of something he held dear. People even said MJ tried to get Bubbles to talk and he would confide in him, which is probably not true. But if it were true, I don’t see nothing wrong with trying to talk and confide with your animals about your problems, I know many people who do it, such as talking to their talk for comfort while going through difficult times. If you want to see how bad MJ was doing in 1987 regarding someone he lost, just go listen to his song “I’m So Blue” that was suppose to be on his “Bad” album: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1cdtLkB-CbA It’s very understandable that MJ would need Bubbles for a distraction.

    Anyway, I have to disagree with you on this. You said you agree with me, but you are in total disagreement based on all of what you said. And we are all entitled to our own opinion. So yeah, lets just agree to disagree.

  22. Sorry about the typos, lol.

  23. You’re welcome 🙂

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