Lessons in HIStory

Willa: Last week Joie, Lisha, and I were talking about “HIStory,” and after we finished I mentioned that I’d been looking for the video to “Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson,” a remix of “HIStory,” for a really long time. This video was supposedly produced and released in 1997, but while I’d seen references to it (like here in Wikipedia), I’d never seen the video itself, though I’d been looking for it off and on for several years.

Joie has a big deadline looming so wasn’t able to join us again, but Lisha, who is like a super sleuth when it comes to all things Michael Jackson, took on the challenge and found it that very afternoon! And right there on YouTube! I was stunned. Here’s the video that I looked for for so long and never found:

It’s unclear how involved Michael Jackson was in the production of this video, but it’s a fascinating piece, and I’m delighted to finally get to see it. Thank you so much for taking on the challenge, Lisha! So were you able to find much background info about this video? Like when and where it was produced, and who was involved?

Lisha: I found it rather curious that there wasn’t much information available at all on this video. To my knowledge, it was never released on any compilation of Michael Jackson’s work.

Willa:  I think you’re right, and it’s not on Vevo either with his other “official” videos. You wouldn’t think a Michael Jackson video would be so hard to find …

Lisha:  Many will recognize this as a remix of the song “HIStory,” produced for Michael Jackson’s 1997 album Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix. That album featured eight remixes of songs from his previous album, HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1 (2005). The official title of the remix featured in the video is “HIStory (Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson).”

I was able to find out a little more information about it, thanks to Gary Crocker, one of the co-founders of the site MaxJax: HIStory Continues. It was produced in July 1997 and directed by Jim Gable, the same director who made one of my all-time favorite MJ documentaries, Michael Jackson: The One (2004), which features some great interviews with Quincy Jones, Dick Clark, Beyoncé, Pharrell Williams, Savion Glover, Missy Elliott, Wyclef Jean, and many more.

Willa:  Oh, I love that documentary too. And you’re right, it has some wonderful interviews.

Lisha:  Gable also received a producer credit on the Michael Jackson’s Vision box set (2010) and was the restoration director for the Michael Jackson Live at Wembley DVD, recorded in 1988 and included with the Anniversary Edition of the Bad 25 album (2012). Steve Reiss produced the video for “HIStory (Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson)” and I discovered he was also the visual effects supervisor on Jam back in 1992.

I would assume Michael Jackson was involved to some degree in making this video because at the very least he would have had to approve the use of his previous work. The video includes clips from more than a dozen of his short films, as well as footage from the Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory world tours.

Willa: That’s a good point, though I have no idea who owns the rights to what. Maybe Sony could have moved ahead with it without his permission…?

Lisha: I wouldn’t know for sure either without reading the contracts, but it would really surprise me if Sony had the right to produce this video without his approval, since Michael Jackson was pretty savvy about his copyrights. At any rate, I really enjoyed it and thought it was unusual that I haven’t heard more fan discussion about it.

Willa: I do too, or any discussion at all about it, really.

Lisha: The concept is rather interesting. You know, we could get into a very heavy philosophical discussion about this in relation to time and the way it collapses the past, present, and future into a single view. Reminds me very much of a film I just saw based on a Marvel Comics storyline, X-Men: Days of Future Past. I remembered reading once that Michael Jackson was quite a fan of the X-Men comics and he expressed an interest in playing the role of Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men films.

Willa: Really? Wow, that’s fascinating – and that would have been a great role for him! Though I also like what Patrick Stewart did with it. And I can see how the X-Men movies would appeal to him since the “mutants,” mostly teenagers with superpowers, encounter terrible prejudice because they’re different, and are forced to hide their amazing abilities to fit in with the fearful “normal” people around them.

Lisha: I think it would have been a perfect role for Michael Jackson, and I consider it a real tragedy he didn’t get to play the part or fulfill his dream of developing the Marvel catalog himself. So I can’t help relating the X-Men: Days of Future Past to the concept of Michael Jackson’s HIStory: Past, Present and Future. Both deal with how these three divisions of time – the past, present, and future – are constantly intermingling and interacting with each other. The video for “Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson” illustrates this so well.

Willa: It really does, and it makes sense since we are always viewing the past and the future through the lens of the present. So while we tend to think of them as distinct, in reality they are always “collapsed” together in a way this video suggests in several different ways. For example, it really cracks me up about 2 minutes into the video when we see Michael Jackson do the moonwalk, followed immediately by Neil Armstrong doing his “moonwalk” – the original one, where he’s bouncing along the surface of the moon.

Lisha: I love that moment in the video!

Willa: I do too! And then a lot of the dancers, who seem to be dancing in the future, are mimicking Michael Jackson’s dance moves. So Michael Jackson did his moonwalk and kind of appropriated it. I mean, when you hear the word “moonwalk,” who do you think of first – Michael Jackson or Neil Armstrong? In the 1970s, it would have been Armstrong, no question, but I bet most people today would say Michael Jackson. And now these dancers from the future are appropriating him – they’re doing his dance moves and making them their own. In fact, frequently there’s a kind of double vision where we see the dancers performing the exact same moves that Michael Jackson is performing on the huge screens behind and around them, though it just occurs in flashes – not a sustained choreography.

Lisha: I noticed that too, especially with the Beat It choreography. It looks really great. And it is pretty amusing to see those two historic moonwalk clips next to each other. Just for fun, I googled “moonwalk” and the results I got were Michael Jackson, not Neil Armstrong! Too funny. I also searched “first moonwalk” and Motown 25 popped up, not Apollo 11.

Willa: Really? Well, there you go … empirical proof that when it comes to the moonwalk, Michael Jackson owns it!

Lisha: The audio clip of Neil Armstrong’s first moonwalk in the original song is pretty intriguing: “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It comes at the very end of the song, almost as an afterthought, and I assume it is included not only as a reference to Apollo 11, but as a reference to Michael Jackson’s famous dance as well. The video captures this perfectly and shows how one event influenced the other.

Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Lisha. I never thought about that before – that when Armstrong says those words at the end of “HIStory,” he’s literally getting ready to do the “moonwalk.” That’s funny!

Lisha: It is! There’s another really funny moment in the video that makes me laugh every time, and it just screams Michael Jackson humor to me. It’s when you hear the lyric “Keep moving, moving / Keep, keep, keep-keep moving” (1:32) – and there is a guy on some kind of flying bicycle contraption that goes crashing into the pavement. Sorry, but that’s really hilarious in a slapstick sort of way!

Willa: It is, like something from a Keystone Cops or Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin movie, or even the Three Stooges, and we know how much Michael Jackson loved those movies.

Lisha: Yes, I get the feeling Michael Jackson loved slapstick in general.

There is another audio clip at the end of the original song that I also interpret as having a similar self-referential, double meaning as the Apollo 11/Michael Jackson moonwalk. That’s the clip of Senator Edward Kennedy eulogizing his brother Robert F. Kennedy in 1968: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.” Apparently both Robert F. Kennedy and his brother John F. Kennedy were fond of this quote attributed to the playwright George Bernard Shaw. Because Michael Jackson described himself as a “visionary”  on more than one occasion, I interpret this as a self-reference as well as a reference to the Kennedys.

Willa: I do too, and as inspiration for all of us.

Lisha: Yes, it is. I also noticed that earlier in the song, the birthdate of John F. Kennedy is cited, so there are references to three influential members of the Kennedy family: Senator Edward Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy. All three were known not just for their family’s wealth but also for their political ambition, their strong commitment to equal rights, and the dream of achieving racial equality in the U.S.

Willa: That’s true, and as we mentioned briefly last week, the fight for racial equality in the U.S. is one of the themes running throughout “HIStory,” especially in the audio clips and the list of dates, and in the lyrics as well.

Lisha: I think it is the most inspiring aspect of the song and album, and makes the strongest case for why history matters so much today and in the future.

Willa: I agree. And I love the double movement about 1:45 minutes into the video where Michael Jackson raises his fist in the panther dance, and then Desmond Tutu raises his fist.

Lisha: Good spot, Willa. And it’s like POW! Right on the first beat of the measure. Nice editing work!

Willa:  Oh, you’re right! I hadn’t noticed that before. There’s even kind of a POW sound, like from a cartoon. And it happens again about 2:25 in when the protagonist of Scream punches his fist at us, POW.

Lisha: Or even earlier with the guitar smash from Scream at 1:25! It happens every 4 measures or every 16 beats. It’s interesting to see how they time those with the video.

But I was also thinking about how the whole idea of remixing music makes a point about how the past can interact with the present and future. The remix itself is taking something from the past and introducing it into the present, just as the dancers in the video are interacting with the earlier short films.

Willa: That’s a really good point, Lisha.

Lisha: But the woman in the video experiencing the song through her virtual reality goggles illustrates how the past and present will also resonate in the future. It reminds me of the French philosophers, Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze, who theorize that time cannot be measured by a clock. A more accurate conception of time would be the experience of present moment as influenced by memories of the past and our desires for the future. I think I see what they are getting at, don’t you?

Willa: I think so. And not only is the present “influenced by memories of the past,” as you said, but our memories of the past are influenced by the present also. So the past – or rather, our understanding of the past – is constantly shifting as current experiences change how we view the past.

Lisha: I think you’re absolutely right about that.

Willa: I went to a talk by Maxine Hong Kingston several years ago – quite a few years ago, actually – and she talked about her brother, who is a Vietnam War veteran, and more generally about how we all tend to deal with painful memories from the past. She said there are some stories that are just too painful to tell, and there are basically two ways to deal with that. We can either bury those stories and try to forget them, so they remain painful but locked away, or we can engage in some form of talk therapy – either with an actual therapist or with friends, or even in our own minds. She said the point of talk therapy is to tell and retell a painful story over and over and over again, gradually shifting it over time, until finally we have a story we can live with. And she kept emphasizing that we are constantly retelling the past, reshaping it to fit what we need it to be now, in the present.

Lisha: Isn’t that what history is? Those stories we tell over and over again as a group, “reshaping it to fit what we need it to be now, in the present”? And isn’t the whole point of interacting with the past an effort to create a better future?

Willa: Well, that’s interesting, Lisha. I’ll have to think about that … but my first reaction is that you’re right.

Lisha: Well it does get complicated. As lighthearted and fun as this video is in many ways, it doesn’t hesitate to point out that revisiting history isn’t always a terribly pleasant thing to do. There are a number of references to war, conflict, senseless divisions between people, pollution, and destruction of the earth. The original song portrays these two poles very effectively with all the crowd cheering and excitement when recounting some of our greatest achievements, while at the same giving us plenty of reminders that there is an awful lot from the past (and present) we cannot be so proud of: racism, discrimination, the struggle for human rights and equality. I noticed that during the audio clip from an early Michael Jackson interview, there is also a badly warped record of a military band playing “America the Beautiful.” As the pitch bends from the degradation of the record, it gives a subtle suggestion that not everything about America is so beautiful.

Willa: Yes, I’ve noticed that too, and think it’s a very significant part of “HIStory.” A very young Michael Jackson is saying, “Whatever I sing, that’s what I really mean. Like if I’m singing a song, I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it.” He sounds so sincere and earnest, but in the background there’s a scratching sound like a needle dragging across the record, and then a kind of warped version of “America the Beautiful,” like you said. The music is very patriotic, but as you pointed out, the distortions subtly undercut that, so there’s both the ideal and the suggestion that we aren’t living up to the ideal.

Lisha: Beautifully said.

Willa: It’s especially significant if you consider that those distortions are happening as an immensely talented young black boy is speaking those words within a predominantly white culture where the odds are stacked strongly against him, and then consider what our flawed prosecutorial system did to him when he grew up, with complicity by the press and the public. We still live in a very racist country that is far from living up to its ideals.

Lisha: No doubt. It’s painful to think about what Michael Jackson had to endure and realize that, for the most part, the public has no way of knowing what really happened unless they do extensive research on their own. And I am afraid for how this story will be told in the future and how history will repeat itself until we face it and learn from it.

For example, I remember when I was a kid, absolutely no one had a problem historicizing Christopher Columbus as the great and wonderful explorer who “discovered” America. Talk about a story we tell ourselves when real truth is too painful or too inconvenient to deal with! How different would things be now if we had just owned up to the truth about slavery and genocide a long time ago?

Willa: That’s a good question. And you’re right – we do tend to tell the story of Columbus very differently now than our teachers did even 40 years ago, when you and I were kids, and that reflects as much about the time period in which they were speaking as it does about Christopher Columbus.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, we as a culture emphasized the glory of that trip across the Atlantic and the courage of Columbus and other explorers sailing into the unknown. And that makes sense – we were preparing to go to the moon! Neil Armstrong did his moonwalk in 1969. We needed to glorify explorers in the 60s.

We tell that story in much more complicated ways today, focusing as much on what was lost through colonization as what was gained. And that reflects our cultural priorities today.

Lisha: Yes, I’m sure that’s true, but funny, I don’t remember ever hearing about Matthew Henson, the great Arctic explorer mentioned in “HIStory,” who happens to be black.

Willa: That’s a good point. Some people, and some groups of people, were definitely much more celebrated than others, and still are.

Lisha: I can get pretty agitated thinking about this, because when choosing who and what to historicize, some things are glossed right over in order to celebrate certain select achievements. There are still so many blind spots and issues that remain unresolved – so many lessons from history yet to be learned.

Willa: I agree. It’s a lot easier to celebrate the exciting moments of history than to face and learn from the painful parts.

Lisha: I decided to make a list of all the historical events cited in the original version of “HIStory” and put them in chronological order to see if I could get a sense of why these events were chosen and how they might relate to the lyrical content of the song. Here’s what I came up with and I have to say, it’s quite a list for a six-and-a-half-minute song:

“Monday, March 26, 1827” The death of Beethoven
“February 11, 1847 Thomas Edison is born”
“January 18, 1858 Daniel Hale Williams is born”
“November 19, 1863 Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg address”
“April 9, 1865 The Civil War ends”
“December 30, 1865 Rudyard Kipling is born”
“August 8, 1866 Matthew Henson is born”
1877 Thomas Edison invents the phonograph
“October 28, 1886 The Statue of Liberty is dedicated”
“December 5, 1901 Walt Disney is born”
“December 7, 1903 The Wright Brothers first flight”
1906 The first promotional recording is made
“May 29, 1917 John F. Kennedy is born”
“January 31, 1919 Jackie Robinson is born”
“November 2, 1920 The first commercial radio station opens”
May 21, 1927 Charles Lindbergh’s first nonstop flight from NY to Paris
“September 1928 The discovery of penicillin”
“January 15, 1929 Martin Luther King is born”
“November 28, 1929 Berry Gordy is born”
“October 9, 1940 John Lennon is born”
October 13, 1940 Princess Elizabeth’s wartime speech to the children of England
“January 17, 1942 Muhammad Ali is born as Cassius Clay”
“October 14, 1947 Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier”
“July 17, 1955 Disneyland opens”
“December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks refuses to give her bus seat to a white passenger”
“July 17, 1959” The death of Billie Holiday
“April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight”
August 28, 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech
“February 9, 1964 The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan show”
February 25, 1964 Muhammad Ali defeats Sonny Liston, proclaiming “I am the greatest”
June 28, 1964 Malcolm X pledges to bring about freedom “by any means necessary”
June 8, 1968 Senator Edward Kennedy eulogizes his brother, Robert F. Kennedy
December 21, 1968 Apollo 8 manned space flight
“July 20, 1969 Astronauts first land on the moon”
1970 Michael Jackson interview: “I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it.”
April 8, 1974 Henry Aaron breaks home run record
“April 12, 1981 The first Shuttle flight”
“November 10, 1989 The Berlin Wall comes down”

Willa: Wow, you’re right, Lisha! That is quite a list! Thanks for putting this all together – that really took some work. And when you look at it this way, there are a number of intertwining threads that really jump out, aren’t there? Like the history of air travel – there’s the Wright brother’s first flight in 1903, Lindbergh’s first flight across the Atlantic in 1927, Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in 1947, Yuri Gagarin’s trip to outer space in 1961, the Apollo 8 manned space flight in 1968, the moon landing in 1969, and the first space shuttle flight in 1981. There are similar threads for sports, and the arts, and the fight for racial equality.

Lisha: Yes. I see a thread emerging that has to do with the history of recorded music starting with the death of Beethoven in 1827 (as in Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”), the invention of the phonograph recording in 1877, the first commercial radio station in 1920, the birth of Berry Gordy in 1929, the birth of John Lennon in 1940, a very fruitful musical dialogue between the U.S. and England represented by Elizabeth’s 1940 speech and the Beatles’ performance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. The next musical reference is a 1970 interview with Michael Jackson from right around the same time the Jackson 5 appeared on the Ed Sullivan show and began dominating the record charts with four #1 hits for Motown Records.

I’ve read many times that Michael Jackson was quite the history buff so I would imagine these dates were chosen with a great deal of care. I can definitely see that these threads relate to each other as well, having to do with erasing divisions and false boundaries. For example, look at all those milestones in aviation achievement. Air travel is a development that has required us to build systems based on international cooperation and organization. Anglo-American popular music and its global distribution systems are another development that continues to break down boundaries between people and nations. Medical discoveries such as penicillin and Daniel Hale Williams’ surgical advances benefit only a few unless we have distribution systems and ways of sharing information that make them available to more and more people. (By the way, Stevie Wonder’s “Black Man” also pays tribute to Williams.)

Willa: That’s true – a lot of these dates have to do with breaking barriers in some way. And as we mentioned last week, Thomas Edison’s invention of sound recording and transmission technologies helped break boundaries of time as well as space. Billie Holiday died before I was born – the date she died, July 17, 1959, is on your list – but because of audio-visual recordings, I can go to YouTube and hear her voice sing “Strange Fruit” and see the pain and anger in her face as she sings it, and feel moved by her performance.

We see that process of people “feeling” an experience across time and space in the Tony Moran video also. The spectator with the space goggles isn’t really at the dance club, but she experiences the sounds and visuals as if she were there. And in fact, the video allows us to experience her experience, but also see “through” it at the same time, if that makes sense.

Lisha: It really does.

Willa: We see her walking around inside the dance club and interacting with other dancers, but we also see that she’s actually sitting at home in her space lounger, waving her arms in an empty room. So even though she’s not physically at the dance club, she is immersed in the sensations of that time and place and she experiences it as if she were there – just as I experience Billie Holiday’s performance as if I were there more than a half century ago.

Lisha: Yes, it is as if she has stepped into the scene and is interacting with music that is not of her own time and place, just like you are able to do with “Strange Fruit.”

Willa: Exactly. And now Michael Jackson is gone, but those dancers from the future are surrounded by repeated images of him on the screens all around them, and the way he moves his body on screen is reenacted in how they move their bodies on the dance floor. And the woman with the space goggles is watching both the dancers and Michael Jackson, and we watch her and them as well as her experiencing them. There are layers of surveillance throughout this video, and we are the ultimate spectators – unless someone is watching us!

Lisha: I suppose in this day and age that is not only possible, but probable!

This brings me to something that I have wanted to ask you about Willa, that has to do with the word “history” and playing with third person perspective by using the spelling “HIStory” or HIS-story. The lyrics start with “He got kicked in the back / He say that he needed that…” I’m wondering exactly who does “he” refer to? So often we think about the HIStory album as a response to the false allegations Michael Jackson faced in 1993, but like just about everything else Michael Jackson, there is more than one way to look at it. In this case, it seems the events of “history” and “HIStory” are related to each other.

Have you seen this video on Thomas Mesereau and Susan Yu’s website? It’s another gem I found thanks to my pal at MaxJax:

The video was produced by MJJsource, Michael Jackson’s own website:

Willa: Wow, Lisha, I hadn’t seen either of these before. That’s awesome! And I agree with the video – June 13, 2005, was an important day in history.

Lisha: It certainly is to my way of thinking. I noticed that June 13th was compared with three other important dates: the birth of Dr. King, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the day Nelson Mandela was freed from prison.

Willa: Oh, that’s interesting. I think Michael Jackson was very aware of his place in history – aware that, because he was such an important cultural figure, for black America especially, everything he did had social implications beyond himself. So June 13, 2005, isn’t just a day when our judicial system – a system built on “a jury of one’s peers” in part to help protect citizens from overzealous prosecution – worked properly for one person. It’s also a day when the most successful entertainer of all time, an emblem of black achievement and pride, was publicly vindicated after being falsely accused and persecuted by the police and the press for more than a decade – though the press, of course, didn’t interpret the jury’s decision that way.

Lisha: Unfortunately for us all, they did not. When the jury acquitted Michael Jackson on all 14 charges, rejecting every single thing the prosecutors were alleging, in my mind that also means the media was found guilty for the careless way they covered the case. With few exceptions, the press utterly failed in their duty to take a more critical look at what the prosecutors were saying. No wonder it was so hard for them to accept the verdict.

Willa: I agree completely. What a travesty of justice in the media, on a day when justice was finally enacted in the courts.

But you asked about pronouns. I have to say, I am so intrigued by Michael Jackson’s use of pronouns. It’s so fascinating to me, and the use of third person pronouns at the beginning of “HIStory” ties in beautifully with this dual perspective of the individual and collective significance of June 13, 2005, and the events surrounding it. The first person pronoun “I” is specific to the person speaking – it signifies the speaker’s unique situation. But as you pointed out, Lisha, “HIStory” begins with lyrics that describe Michael Jackson’s emotional experience pretty accurately, but spoken in third person: “He got kicked in the back / He say that he needed that….”

To me, that conveys Michael Jackson’s specific situation while universalizing it at the same time. We could fill in that “he” slot with many different names from history, especially black public figures such as Jack Johnson, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Muhammad Ali, even Tiger Woods. As Michael Jackson himself said in a 2005 interview with Jesse Jackson, “there has been kind of a pattern among black luminaries in this country” – a pattern where they are “kicked in the back” at the height of their fame. Joie and I talked about that in a post a few months ago.

Lisha: Your post with Joie really had a big impact on me. So did Charles Thomson’s outstanding piece comparing Michael Jackson’s FBI files to the Jack Johnson and Chuck Berry cases. That was like an arrow in the head – it’s really shocking stuff.

Willa: It is shocking, very shocking. According to Charles, the Mann Act was explicitly conceived with racist intent – namely, to bring down Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion and a very flamboyant figure who did not conform to social expectations. As Charles told Joie and me in a post a while back, “The Mann Act is an inherently racist law which was widely used after its introduction to punish black men who consorted with white women.”

It was also used against Chuck Berry – he went to prison because of it. Carl Perkins said he “never saw a man so changed.” According to Perkins, “He had been an easygoing guy before, the kinda guy who’d jam in dressing rooms, sit and swap licks and jokes.” But afterwards “he was cold, real distant and bitter.”

And District Attorney Tom Sneddon encouraged the FBI to use it against Michael Jackson as well.

Lisha: Absolutely unbelievable.

Willa: It really is. And actually, this clash between racist politics and black celebrities brings up another point I wanted to mention about “HIStory” and Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson – the way they give entertainment and sports figures equal footing with political figures. I think this is so important, but easy to overlook.

In general, there are two competing visions of history. The traditional view is that history reflects the actions of a few bold men – people like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and George Washington. Then in contrast to this “top-down” view of history, there’s a “bottom-up” view which says that change starts with the people, and then successful leaders simply follow and act on the public mood. This is what Margaret Mead was talking about when she said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” (By the way, this puts Barack Obama in an interesting position since he is the President, but he began his career as a community organizer and successfully drew on his “bottom-up” grassroots organizing skills to get elected. So he belongs in both camps.)

Michael Jackson seems to have a very interesting take on all this that draws on both of these views but suggests a third approach – one that gives prominence to artists and other pop culture figures. In this view, the public mood brings about political change, but pop culture helps shape the public mood. For example, Abraham Lincoln was obviously an important figure in leading the U.S. through the Civil War and bringing about an end to slavery. But Harriet Beecher Stowe and her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, may have played an even larger role since they galvanized public opinion against slavery, and arguably sparked the Civil War. Lincoln himself credited Stowe’s influence the first time he met her, saying, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.”

So while political figures and events are important in changing the course of history, perhaps the real power lies with those who can lead the public to think or feel about important issues in a new way – in other words, artists. Michael Jackson suggests this repeatedly in his work.

Lisha: Well said – governments have always feared the power of art for this reason. Look at the album cover for HIStory and the promotional campaign to introduce that album. Many people didn’t know what to make of these giant statues of Michael Jackson. We don’t think twice about a statue of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or George Washington but a popular black artist daring to appropriate this imagery just blew people’s minds because it shattered the concepts attached to these images.

Willa: I think you’re exactly right. It’s assumed that statues are for one of those few bold political leaders, not for popular artists and celebrities.

Lisha: Well maybe Beethoven is ok, but not Michael Jackson! I’m thinking of the bust of Beethoven that sits on top of Schroeder’s piano in the Peanuts cartoons.

Willa: Oh, I love that bust of Beethoven on Schroeder’s piano! But he’s a classical composer, not a popular artist, and even Beethoven gets cut off at the neck!

Lisha: I think statues of the big four: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, are fairly common in the Western world and they are often depicted pretty much the same way we would see Alexander, Caesar, or Washington. Haydn is also included at times in this handful of god-like composers. But only a few of the great dead whites get this kind of treatment and it’s an interesting point that the most popular statue of a composer is the bust. I had a small set of them on my piano when I was a child!

Willa: No wonder you like Schroeder and his bust of Beethoven so much! And it’s true – there may be busts of the major composers, or revered authors like Shakespeare and Milton. But when have we ever seen an artist, especially a popular artist, depicted in the glorious ways political leaders are? Off the top of my head, I can only think of the HIStory statues, as you mentioned, or the portraits Michael Jackson commissioned for himself, like this one astride a horse a la King Phillip II:

mj as king philip IILisha: I adore that painting and all of the artwork Michael Jackson commissioned that places him in the European art tradition. Talk about a clever way of collapsing past, present, and future.

And don’t forget there’s the issue of the HIStory teaser, the promotional film that was inspired by Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda, Triumph of the Will. It is the perfect example of how well the Nazis understood the power of art and how they exploited Riefenstahl’s talent to their political advantage. Michael Jackson disrupted the power of that historic imagery by inserting himself into it, transforming it into a force for good, just as his hero Charlie Chaplin did in The Great Dictator.

Willa: Oh absolutely. It reflects a very sophisticated understanding of how the power of art intersects with the power of persuasion – rhetorical and emotional – and how that relates to political power. This is something Michael Jackson mentioned in interviews, like in his discussions of Hitler with Rabbi Boteach. And even early in his career, in a 1980 interview with Sylvia Chase, he said this about the effect his concerts have on his audience:

When they’re all holding hands and everybody’s rocking, and all colors of people are there, all races, it’s the most wonderful thing. Politicians can’t even do that.

We see this idea reflected throughout Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson as well. For example, we see images of President Kennedy and civil rights marches, but we also see clips from the panther dance in Black or White, and They Don’t Care about Us, and Earth Song, and Scream. These videos have shaped history as well – particularly addressing racial prejudice and inequality – and they will continue to influence public opinion as new generations discover them.

Lisha: That’s exactly it!

Willa: And there’s something really subtle as well. About 2:55 minutes into the video we see the woman with the space goggles imaginatively walking around inside the dance club, and the DJ invites her to come up and join him.

Lisha: I noticed that too. From her position in virtual reality she has entered the scene as if she is in actual reality. So there is this blurring of the virtual (past memory and future desire) and the actual (present moment).

Willa: Oh, that’s an interesting way to interpret that, Lisha! It’s like the DJ is inviting her to cross the boundary between “virtual” reality and “actual” reality.

Then at 2:58 we see a clip of Michael Jackson looking very sexy in Don’t Stop til You Get Enough, which is important if you think about what the U.S. was like in 1979 when that video came out. He was a black sex symbol who appealed to women of all races. We tend to forget just how radical that was. This is kind of underscored by what’s happening in the video. We suddenly jump back to the woman (who is white) and the DJ (who is black), and at 3:00 we see him helping her into the DJ booth with him. At 3:09 we see Michael Jackson looking incredibly hot in In the Closet, one of his steamiest videos ever, and at 3:30 there’s a quick clip of Rock with You. And talk about sexy – you should hear Joie talk about that video. Oh my!

Lisha: I’m sure that’s pretty entertaining!

Willa: Oh, I promise, you will never look at that video the same way again!

Lisha: I fully intend to ask her about that! And I noticed one of the other females in that scene is not too happy to see the new girl catch the DJ’s eye.

Willa: Really? I missed that.

Lisha: It’s at 3:02, the girl with the third eye.

Willa: I’ll have to look for that. It’s true she’s getting pretty friendly with that DJ. In fact, by 3:35 she has her hands all over him. But at 3:36 we suddenly shift perspective and are reminded that she’s not really at the dance club. We see her in her empty room with her space goggles on, and she’s running her hands along an invisible person who isn’t really there. This is all happening in a virtual place – a place created by art, Michael Jackson’s art – and those images on screen are leading this young white woman to imaginatively experience desire for a black man. That is truly radical, or was in 1979. And to quote a very wise young man, “Politicians can’t even do that.” Politicians can’t change our feelings and shape our desires the way artists can.

Lisha: I also get the feeling that this is a time and place where you do not have to examine someone’s skin pigmentation to determine whether or not you like them. It’s like we’re imagining a space where humanity has gotten beyond all that insanity.

Willa: Oh, that’s a really good point, Lisha. So just as this young woman is experiencing an alternate reality through art, so are we – one where racial differences don’t matter when forming relationships.

There’s also one more subtle thing I wanted to point out. It’s a line in the lyrics of “HIStory” where he sings, “She say this face that you see / Is destined for history.” I think the shifts in how people perceive Michael Jackson’s face was perhaps the most important cultural phenomenon of the late 20th Century, radically changing how people think about and experience racial differences and other differences that divide us. In that sense, I think he had the most important face in history. What other face has caused such turmoil, or such deep-seated change in cultural perceptions and beliefs? So I definitely agree that “this face that you see / Is destined for history.”

Lisha: Once again, Willa, you have absolutely blown me away.

Willa: I know what you mean. He blows me away on a regular basis …

Lisha: You know, it’s one thing to spot some beautiful water lilies and paint them in pretty colors on a giant canvas (no offense to Monet fans), but it’s quite another to take a devastating illness like vitiligo and create an artistic statement that will have an impact upon generations to come. It gives new meaning to the words “Every day create your history.”

Willa: It really does.

So before we go, I also wanted to let everyone know about a new book that just came out this week, Otherness and Power: Michael Jackson and His Media Critics. It’s by Susan Woodward, a clinical social worker with training and experience as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. In her book, she analyzes some of the most virulent writing against Michael Jackson and reaches a fascinating conclusion – that it’s motivated at least in part by fear of his “extraordinary power.” Here’s what she says:

Two reasons have typically been given by Jackson fans for the negative media responses to Jackson: racism and deep discomfort with his “otherness,” meaning his supposed eccentricities and his fluid identity signifiers. While these reasons have seemed to me to be obviously true, I had the persistent feeling that there was something else going on. After studying hostile writings about Jackson I began to see that there was another factor to which journalists were reacting, with distrust or even fear: a perception of extraordinary power.

She goes on to say that “the power they feel … derived from not just his fame and wealth but also from his otherness,” which is ironic since he was harshly criticized for his otherness. I’m really intrigued by this – that while many critics treated his difference (his “eccentric oddities,” as he called them) with contempt and ridicule, Woodward suggests they also feared it as one source of his power. I’ve only had a chance to read the first few pages, but it sounds like a fascinating approach to a really complicated and important question – namely, why so many journalists, and others as well, reacted to Michael Jackson the way they did.

Lisha: That sounds incredible, Willa. I really look forward to reading it. Thanks so much for letting us know about it.

Willa: Yes, it’s definitely on my summer reading list. Well, thanks for joining me, Lisha. I always learn so much from you!

Lisha: Thank you, Willa. That was quite a HIStory lesson.

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About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on June 5, 2014, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Hi, Willa and Lisha–Thanks once again for a fascinating and full discussion which I will re-read and re-read! That book on MJ’s media critics sounds great, too.

    Just a quick response re the date of June 13–according to Wikipedia, Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster prison on Feb 11, 1990 (I remembered that date Feb 11 b/c it’s my birthday and I was so happy he was released!), and the Berlin Wall came down November 9, 1989. (Here’s the Wikipedia quote: “Leaving Victor Verster on 11 February, Mandela held Winnie’s hand in front of amassed crowds and press; the event was broadcast live across the world.”)

    BTW, re the remix, do you know what the word is that’s repeated and starts the song–I can never figure it out–sounds like it starts with a ‘p’? I never knew there was a video for the remix–good to find this out.

    • Hi stephenson!

      You’re right, there is a discrepancy between the dates in “HIStory,” which cites “November 10, 1989” as the day “The Berlin Wall comes down,” and in the MJJsource video, which cites the date as “11/9/89.”

      And I noticed that Nelson Mandela isn’t mentioned at all in the original song, but he is rather prominent in the video for “Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson” and in the MJJsource video – which also gives the date “2/11/90” as the day “Nelson Mandela is freed.” (how lucky are you to have been born Feb. 11th, a great day in history!)

      I’m not sure at all what those lyrics are in the beginning of the edit you posted, but it sounds like cut and paste to me. Maybe “new force of, new attitude”? That’s just a wild guess. I don’t know.

      Hoping Chris Kohler may weigh in on that!

  2. Whoops–this is the version of the remix I am used to hearing–it has the opening word I have trouble deciphering.

    • Midnite Boomer

      It sounds to me like “no force of.” As in, no force of nature.

      • Yes, Midnite Boomer, I read in a comment on the video I posted above that the words are indeed “No force of ….” They are taken from the lines in the song: ‘No force of nature can break/Your will to self-motivate.” Wow–I have been perplexed about those introductory words for ages!!

      • You have both totally convinced me, I also think it’s “no force of.” It’s interesting both June Elizabeth and I heard an “oo” sound as in “new” on the first word. But now that I’ve re-listened, I think you’re exactly right. “No force of…” it is.

        Then next line is possibly “you are the king”? As in “you are the king of the hill” ? (or kill, depending on how that sounds to you).

    • stephenson, I can’t stop replaying this. What an excellent video! Let us know if you have more info on it.

      • Hi, Lisha–yes, it’s a phenomenal video–great editing and I got hooked on it too! I played it full screen–what a delight! I stumbled across it when I wanted to find the opening words I was having trouble with. Yes, if I find out anything about it I’ll let you know. The ‘Keep Moving’ line that’s repeated in the song is wonderfully highlighted in the video–and of course it’s a good way to look at MJ’s ethos, too. It is the title for Armond White’s book too. “Don’t let no one get you down/ Keep moving to higher ground.”

        What I hear in the song after ‘no force of’ is “You are the kingdom.” (Re the line “you are the king of the hill,” I think it has to be ‘hill’ not ‘kill’ b/c of the way MJ viewed war and killing, but the aspirated consonants are so aspirated and full of passion that I can see where people might hear ‘kill.’)

        • Excellent point about aspirated vs. voiced and gutteral consonants. I have the same question about “Keep vying until / You are the king of..” Sometimes I hear it as “flying” and other times it sounds like “vying.”

          I’m going to guess the sampled lyrics in the opening are “No force of / You are the king / King of.” But it seems just about anything is possible in the studio.

  3. Midnite Boomer

    Wow! Willa and Lisha, thanks once again for an informative and stimulating discussion.
    Some years ago, I stumbled across a piece of work called “Degenerate Music” which is a collection of music suppressed by the Third Reich. You and your readers might be interested. It’s on Amazon. Banning and burning books has the same effect: the attempt to suppress ideas.

    Thanks for the info on Woodward’s book; I have to absolutely agree that it was Michael’s power that resulted in the “powers that be” trying to bring him down. I think we are only beginning to understand the nature of that power. The arts are truly the most important contribution that anyone can make: they are the force that changes culture, and ultimately, History. Michael knew that. He knew he had power, and he only used it for good. And he left us such powerful works that we will be studying them for a long time.

  4. June Elizabeth

    Tony Moran HIStory Lesson remix is on the Blood on the Dancefloor Album CD, so I listened for the first time in quite a while and I think those first couple words repeated over and over might be “new boss of” as in “new boss of a new island kingdom”. Just my take. Sometimes deciphering the words is very challenging.

    Thank you for taking on the HIStory era, in my opinion, Michael’s most thought provoking and inspirational.

    • “…the HIStory era, in my opinion, Michael’s most thought provoking and inspirational.”

      Thanks for your comments June Elizabeth! You know, I’ve never understood why some people claim the “Thriller” or “Bad” era as Michael Jackson’s peak. Yes, those albums are brilliant, no doubt, but it seems to me his work just got more and more interesting as he went along. Kind of baffles me that it is not more immediately apparent how rich and complex the “HIStory” is. I find it way more interesting than the Jackson/Jones trilogy that is often cited as his musical peak.

  5. Hi Midnite Boomer,

    I don’t know if this is the same one you were thinking of, but here is a documentary about a project Decca records did on the “degenerate music” of the Third Reich. It’s a fascinating topic, but chilling:

    And I just have to add how bizarre and inexplicable it is that the Nazis revered Bach so much, as depicted in this scene in “Schindler’s List”:

    • Midnite Boomer

      Oh thank you Ultravioletrae, for that great documentary! I had not seen it. Chilling indeed. And its message goes right along with the discussion about Michael’s “otherness” which is the excuse the Nazis used to suppress the art, and in some cases to murder the artists.

      Here is what I was thinking of:
      http://www.amazon.com/Music-Survives-Degenerate-Suppressed-Third/dp/B0000042FG/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1401990192&sr=1-1&keywords=Degenerate+music

      • That looks really interesting, Midnite. I noticed it also includes “a 40 min. vid. documentary of how & why these composers were labelled degenerate by Nazis.” I’d like to check it out. Thanks for posting.

        I agree with you that Michael Jackson’s Otherness would have been intolerable to the Nazis, another reason he may have so consistently defied the realm of “normalcy.” I’ve read he was quite the student of this era in history.

      • I agree – that’s such an interesting documentary, Lisha. And isn’t it ironic that many of those “degenerate” composers who were forced out of Germany (the ones who survived) found their way to Hollywood, and found work composing “popular” art – namely, soundtracks for this new medium of film – and most likely had a far greater cultural influence than their “high art” compositions would have had. Feels like poetic justice …

  6. Lisha: I wanted to send you a copy of The Remix Manifesto. Not a “purchase” sort of thing, just a blog article… but a bit long for me to post here.

    If you’d like an email, let me know where. I’m at kohler_chris@yahoo.com.

  7. Thanks Willa and Lisha for another fascinating look back into history!

    I’ve seen a lot of amateur videos that use remixes of MJ’s music, but curiously managed to miss the two you feature here (to Tony Moran’s remix).

    The one Stephenson points out, with a full version of the remix behind it, obviously concentrates on Michael Jackson’s own history… and does a bang-up job of it, too! Really excellent pin-point editing, and a bewildering montage of high-quality clips from concerts, short films, and everyplace else. Really well made.

    (I would love to sponsor a contest to see which of your readers were able to identify the sources of every single shot edited into that video!)

    The other video, with the shorter version of the remix, is quite interesting too. I’m glad you were able to dig up some info on it, Lisha. Even without that info it seemed obvious that the video was professionally made and edited. As it played I noticed the MTV Base logo in the corner of the image, so apparently it saw airtime in Europe.

    Here’s what Wikipedia says: “MTV Base is a 24-hour music and general entertainment channel from Viacom International Media Networks Europe. The channel focuses primarily on music from the world of R’n’B, hiphop, reggae, soul and urban. The MTV Base brand first launched in the United Kingdom and in Ireland on July 1, 1999, later launching in other European territories such as the Netherlands and Germany.” Since then it has also gone into Africa and to the French-speaking territories.

    Once again, the U.S. lost out!

    The video does, as you say, compress past, present and future in an interesting way. The setting is in a “futuristic” club that could easily fit right in on the Las Vegas Strip, right now.
    Virtual reality is in development in a serious way and if one reads the headlines lately, the Star Trek universe “Holodeck” will be available to us any day now (and personally I can’t wait!). But what was the director trying to say here?

    The collision that strikes me while watching this video is between the very hedonistic setting and participants, and the intense, personal, socially conscious lyrics which MJ is earnestly pumping out over the dance-tempo rendition of one of his anthem songs. It’s an odd combination, and makes me very curious as to WHY this video was produced. I do have at least one theory…

    However – one must follow the money somewhat anytime remixes are concerned. Historically the first remixes created were aimed at getting the artists’ music played in the dance clubs, to increase exposure and sell more records. An artist like Michael who made many anthem songs and very popular ballads in addition to danceable tracks created a special challenge for remixers, but at the end of the day the hope is always that even at dance tempo, more than the music will stay with the club generation and they will be led back to the original versions of the songs — and to his over-arching message as well.

    • “The collision that strikes me while watching this video is between the very hedonistic setting and participants, and the intense, personal, socially conscious lyrics which MJ is earnestly pumping out over the dance-tempo rendition of one of his anthem songs. It’s an odd combination, and makes me very curious as to WHY this video was produced. I do have at least one theory…”

      Hi Chris. I was struck by that also – that this video couples “intense, personal, socially conscious lyrics” with “hedonistic” images and a throbbing dance beat. “It’s an odd combination,” as you say. I have a half-formed theory about that, and I’m wondering what your theory is …

      • My first thought while watching that video was of a rather pragmatic nature: I thought “Oh, perhaps this was simply an experiment on Sony’s part, to mount a short film on a remix, that’s a first…” — and that precipitated the thought that perhaps Sony was being even more pragmatic than that and had actually realized there might eventually be a need for such an approach SANS Michael in the flesh!

        Their big money-making machine was certainly showing some wear and tear from the constant media barrage, his health had suffered, his marriage had ended… and the push-pull contest between the need to release music on contract schedule vs. the artist’s need for perfectionism had begun to intensify, and would continue to intensify I think, through the hybrid album Blood on the Dance Floor… and surely into Invincible, where the discord eventually resulted in the Cry short film also being made without MJ’s participation.

        So they made this experimental video on a popular remix, which perhaps could have been done without his direct authorization (I have no idea what the terms of his contract said about remixes in general…), not concentrating too heavily on the story as HE would certainly have done, but still putting some bucks behind it to have a flashy modern feel, with a dash of the slightly detached coolness of the short film for BOTDF… Just the thing to attract those hedonistic club-goers. And then it was released only in Europe, another curiosity…

        (I wonder where this video falls in terms of filming dates re the BOTDF short film?)

        And of course I may very likely be WAY up the wrong tree…

        • That’s interesting, Chris. When Lisha and I were talking about whether Sony may have made the Tony Moran video without Michael Jackson’s involvement, I immediately thought of Cry also, since apparently it was made without his approval. But then I started thinking about this video (btw, you can click on the little YouTube symbol at the bottom to see it full size):

          It’s a remix video for Blood on the Dance Floor, and it was directed by Vince Patterson, who also did the original video. In fact, they seem to have been filmed simultaneously. According to Joie, “this one is said to have been done with a handheld 8mm camera and then purposely overexposed for the grainy result. The story is that Michael loved it but Sony was not pleased and rejected it.”

          So apparently he was involved in creating a remix video once before, but it was never released. And I’m wondering if he was involved in the Tony Moran one also. As Lisha was saying, the more I look at it, the more I see little Michael Jackson-type details. It would be interesting to learn more about it.

          • Thank you Willa and Joie – I had completely forgotten about the “alternative” BOTDF short film! (I know, how could I, right?)

            It’s easy to see why MJ liked it a lot – it has a much grainier texture as you say, a grittier feel, and definitely a more “art house film” feel to it than the original. Maybe a more “European” feel. (MJ was a transplant in many ways after all.) I was happy to see less of the knife and more sensuality, too!

            In terms of production costs and the tricky realities of getting Michael to show up for rehearsals and filming commitments, I think the two films had to have been shot simultaneously, and this one might even borrow some outtakes from the other one.

            Definitely set to an “official” BOTDF remix – sounds like “TM’s Switchblade Edit” with part of “TM’s Switchblade Mix” attached. I’m always pleased to see some hard evidence that MJ liked options and remixes were certainly part of his customary options.

          • “It’s easy to see why MJ liked it a lot – it has a much grainier texture as you say, a grittier feel, and definitely a more ‘art house film’ feel to it than the original.”

            Hi Chris. I agree, and actually find this remix video much more enjoyable than the original. But I don’t know that he particularly wanted the original to be enjoyable. I think there’s a powerful message in “Blood on the Dance Floor,” just as there is in “HIStory,” and I don’t feel that message as strongly in the remix. So I appreciate both the original and the remix, but in very different ways: the remix is fun and makes me feel good, while the original really makes me stop and think….

  8. There is an book about MJ remixes coming out late June 2014 http://mj101.squarespace.com/mj-101-remixes/

    • There is indeed an ebook being released on the subject of the 20 remixes he feels are MJ’s best. I haven’t been able to find out much about the author but I will definitely be reading the ebook. I hope I already own the tracks he chooses! 😉

  9. This is just such an incredibly brilliant post, followed by incredibly brilliant comments. I am going to spend the rest of the afternoon looking at the videos. I think I am beginning to understand MJ’s use of the Riefenstahl-style military imagery and the huge statue, both of which have puzzled me, so much better. And, the portraits, which I had seen as whimsical more than anything else, have taken on a new, and very serious, meaning.

    How did he do it? How could anyone be this amazing???

    Dorothy Sayers (of Lord Peter Wimsey fame) was also a theologian and aesthetician and she wrote a book called “Mind of the Maker” where she compared the creative artist to the creative trinitarian god, who, for her, exemplified the perfect balance of idea, energy, and power. Michael Jackson exemplifies that perfection for me.

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