I am the One who will Dance on the Floor in the Round

Willa:  A few weeks ago, Raven Woods joined me for a fascinating discussion of “Scared of the Moon,” but we began with a short discussion of Michael Jackson’s concerts and how they were structured. Specifically, we talked about how his performances from the Dangerous tour on tended to follow an arc that began with him appearing in a rather militaristic, authoritarian persona but ended with a much softer, more nurturing persona. That arc was punctuated by a series of set pieces that he performed in an almost ritualized way: “Beat It,” “Thriller,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Smooth Criminal,” and especially “Billie Jean.”

Today, Raven is joining me again to talk about “Billie Jean” as one of the signature pieces of a Michael Jackson concert. Thank you so much for talking with me, Raven!

Raven: Thanks for inviting me back! This discussion is actually quite timely, considering that as I’m typing this, Motown 25 has recently been re-broadcast on PBS in its entirety for the first time in over thirty years. As we all know, this special was a historic moment in that it marked the first public performance of “Billie Jean” and the first of what would become a classic staple of Michael Jackson’s live performances.

Willa: Wasn’t that incredible? Watching the full Motown 25 broadcast was like witnessing the birth of a cultural phenomenon, one that would reverberate throughout his concerts and the culture at large for decades.

Raven: That performance really was incredible. I watched the Motown special last Sunday. For starters, I was really interested in seeing the program in its entirety because I don’t think I watched it in its entirety even back in ’83. I was so young then, and like most teens/young adults, not prone to sitting around in front of the TV – especially if I had a date!  My grandmother watched it, but I only remembered seeing bits and pieces of it during the original broadcast, as I was too busy that night coming in and out of the house. So I was really interested to watch it again and to catch some of the other performances, as well as Michael’s. Marvin Gaye was just astounding, and probably would have stolen the show that night – if it hadn’t been for Michael, of course!

Willa: I was really struck by Marvin Gaye’s performance also, and how heartfelt it was. He truly wanted to open everyone’s eyes to “What’s Going On.” Another thing that struck me was that Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson’s performances felt the quietest in some ways, yet ironically they were also the most powerful. It’s kind of hard to describe, but they had a quiet intensity that is still palpable, 30 years later.

Raven: I have to say I didn’t think it was possible to fall in love with Michael all over again, but I did watching that performance! I think that, through the years, I had gotten a little blasé about the original Motown 25 “Billie Jean” performance. Sure, it was the first time, and an iconic moment in TV history, but over the years I had seen so many “Billie Jean” performances that I thought were better. After seeing the piece evolve as it did throughout his Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory tours, it seemed odd to go back to Motown 25 and realize that his moonwalk was actually quite short, and you can visibly see him lose his balance on the en pointe. Michael himself was very upset about that afterwards, thinking his entire performance was ruined!

Willa: Yes, I remember reading about that. In fact, I think he said he felt like crying afterwards because he fell back and didn’t stay up on his toes as long as he wanted. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine he could be dissatisfied with that performance!

Raven:  That’s true. He only started to feel better about it after Fred Astaire called and complimented him. But in watching the whole show, and putting myself back in that moment, I realized anew why this performance was so magical and special. No one had ever seen these moves performed before, so there was no gauge by which to measure how flawlessly or smoothly he executed them. From the moment Michael stepped on that stage, you could feel the palpable electricity. He was young, vibrant, and on fire – ready to prove himself to the world.

Willa:  You know, Lubov Fadeeva, a professional dancer and choreographer, talks about this in her wonderful article, “Michael Jackson: The Dancer of the Dream.” Here’s what she says:

It is obvious to me that his performance at Motown 25 in 1983 is different than all his later concert versions of “Billie Jean” in many ways. It is not yet perfect, and the moonwalk isn’t performed as smoothly as in its later versions. Perhaps the floor was not slippery enough. Still, the emotional charge of the dance is so electrifying that it has never been matched by anything.

In the end of the Motown 25 performance, when Michael stops and looks into the audience … I don’t know how to describe the expression in his eyes, but I understand all of it. It is the kind of moment when a couple of minutes can change everything. … I always watch this performance and think that Michael was passing an exam there. He didn’t even have a spotlight. Just a performer on stage. But somehow it looks more spectacular than expensive shows with special effects.

I think Fadeeva captures this perfectly. His performance at Motown 25 may not have been as technically proficient as some of his later performances, where years of practicing the moonwalk, for example, enabled him to smoothly glide the entire length of the stage. But still, that “Billie Jean” performance was just “so electrifying,” as Fadeeva says.

Raven:  Fadeeva nailed it perfectly! That’s exactly what I was trying to say. And although the piece did evolve somewhat through the years, Michael never really deviated drastically from this original performance of the song. All of the symbolic elements that would become identifiable with the piece and with the performance were already there.

Willa:  That’s true.

Raven:  Something that has occurred to me is that, anytime we are discussing and analyzing a Michael Jackson song, there are at least three separate, distinct elements that must be considered – the recording, the short film (i.e., the video), and the live performance.

Willa:  Yes, and some have a longer-format film also. I’m thinking of the 16-minute version of Bad, and the 40-minute version of Smooth Criminal from Moonwalker. And then there’s the 38-minute film Michael Jackson’s Ghosts as well.

And there’s another element we may want to consider also, which is the lyrics as poetry. He actually published “Heal the World” and “Will You Be There?” as poems in Dancing the Dream, but many of his other songs can be viewed this way also. I’ve often thought when reading his lyrics that they scan like poetry. So you’re right, Raven – with many of his songs there are different forms of audio and visual performance interacting dynamically to create meaning.

Raven:  Although this may be true to some degree with many artists, especially those from the video age onward, I find it is probably more true in the case of Michael Jackson than anyone else, for I know of no other artist who so successfully merged all of those aspects of performance – the auditory and visual – in the seamless way that he did. Thus, to this day, it is almost impossible to discuss a Michael Jackson track without the associations of its accompanying visual imagery. It is almost impossible, for example, to discuss the track “Thriller” without also merging the discussion with that track’s iconic video, or to discuss any aspect of “Black or White” as a track without also bringing in those important thematic elements from the “Panther Dance” sequence of the video.

Willa:  Oh, I agree. I can’t listen to any of his songs that have videos without seeing those visual images play in my head. And I think they are so connected because he conceived of them that way. His videos weren’t just something he whipped up after the fact to market his songs – they were part of his vision from the beginning. As he says in Moonwalk,

The three videos that came out of Thriller – “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” – were all part of my original concept for the album. I was determined to present this music as visually as possible.

So apparently he was already thinking about the videos for these songs as he was creating the album, and I think he achieved his goal of “present[ing] this music as visually as possible.” Listening to those tracks is a surprisingly visual experience, as you said, Raven.

Raven:  Yes. It seemed that Michael, moreso than any other music artist of his time, was always thinking on at least three layers with every song he recorded. Through the art of visual imagery, he was able to add additional layers of theme and symbolism to the songs that the audio tracks alone could never convey. And on yet another level, his live performances allowed him to evolve the pieces even further. Contrary to popular belief, his live performance pieces were never simply recreations of his iconic video performances. In some cases, of course, they did not deviate much (the choreography of “Beat It,” for example, remained consistently close to the video version) but what we were more apt to see were reworkings and re-stylizations of these numbers.

Willa: Yes, and sometimes the stage performances seem very different from the videos. I’m thinking specifically of “The Way You Make Me Feel,” which always feels so light and upbeat in his concert performances … but no one would ever describe the video that way. It’s much darker and grittier than the stage versions. So even though he often evoked the video on stage through his wardrobe – a loose blue shirt over a tight white T-shirt, and a white tie belt – the mood and the meaning is very different, I think.

Raven: Absolutely. And I think it goes back, again, to the idea that he was always sort of re-visualizing the concepts of his songs. He knew that what worked on the small screen might not necessarily translate well to the performance stage, and vice versa. I always liked the way he re-worked “The Way You Make Me Feel” with the slowed down, do-wop intro. I remember when This Is It came out, some reviews mentioned Michael’s “new” re-working of “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Obviously, they weren’t very familiar with Michael’s live performances. I thought, He’s been doing “The Way You Make Me Feel” like that for years!

Once Michael found something that worked for him, he tended to stick with it for many years – his live performance motto seemed to be, “Don’t fix what isn’t broken!” But as we know, the best of Michael Jackson’s set pieces usually weren’t mere performances, in the way we think of entertainers simply getting onstage and singing or performing to a song. Michael’s numbers literally became theatrical performance pieces, with as much emphasis on the narrative storylines of the numbers (as well as use of symbolic imagery) as on the singing and dancing.

Willa:  Oh, I agree!

Raven:  Much has been written about the song “Billie Jean” and there has also been much written about the video. But other than Veronica Bassil’s excellent book Thinking Twice about Billie Jean, I don’t think there has really been much in the way of interpreting his live performance routine of “Billie Jean” or analyzing its symbolic implications.

Willa:  You know, what struck me most about Veronica’s book is that she shows how the lyrics anticipate the 1993 abuse allegations. After all, “Billie Jean” is a song about false allegations of sexual misconduct, and how he is constantly under surveillance. In the video this is depicted by the photographer who shadows him, following him to Billie Jean’s apartment and trying to catch him in a compromising position.

But that feeling of constant surveillance is there in the opening lines of the lyrics as well, in all “the eyes” watching him and the fact that he is dancing “in the round.” That arrangement isn’t nearly as popular now, but at the height of disco in the late 1970s, it was fairly common to have the audience surrounding a lighted, elevated stage, so spectators were watching from all sides and every angle. It was even common back then to have dinner theaters “in the round,” where plays would be acted out on a raised platform with the audience seated at tables all around the stage. This means that, for the performers, there was no backstage to retreat to, no side that wasn’t hidden from the audience, and no way to step out of the stoplight or retreat from the audience’s gaze. Performers were entirely exposed.

Raven: Yes, and you know that has to be a scary feeling. I believe that Michael possibly became even more conscious of this symbolic element of the song as time wore on and his performance of it evolved (and possibly as he felt more and more that he was losing control of certain aspects of his life). The round spotlight which he steps into becomes a much more important part of the performance as time goes on.

Willa: Yes, it does.

Raven: For him, this seemed to emphasize the idea of being a lone figure in “the round.” And whereas at the Motown 25 performance, he comes out as very confident from the beginning, by the time of the Munich performance in 1997, and the Madison Square performance, he comes out looking a little lost, almost bewildered – at least until he puts on the magic symbols of jacket, glove, and hat.

Willa: That’s an interesting interpretation, Raven. In his later concert performances, he usually began “Billie Jean” on a darkened stage, with a blinding spotlight aimed straight down forming a round pool of light, as you say. And I think you’re right – that light became or defined his stage “in the round.” And then he would step into that spotlight, as you say, and it’s so harsh and glaring it’s almost like stepping into a prison searchlight. So he was literally performing “in the round” harsh glare of a spotlight – just as he did, metaphorically, throughout his life, from childhood on.

Raven: Coincidentally, we are embarking on this discussion just as I am scheduled to begin a unit on symbolism in class next week, and I had been considering the possibility of using clips of Michael’s “Billie Jean” performance to discuss the concept.

Willa:  Oh interesting!

Raven:  I am only hesitant because they will also be looking at “Black or White” and “Earth Song” in a few weeks and I don’t want to totally burn them out on MJ, lol! But as so often happens, these discussions seem to arise at just the right moment, when my thoughts are already channeling in that direction. In the process of trying to make this decision, I have been looking at a lot of live “Billie Jean” clips in the past few days. Regardless of whether I ultimately decide to include them in the symbolism unit, it has given me a good opportunity to really assess both how the piece evolved through the years, as well as an opportunity to take a fresh look at how Michael used symbolism in the piece to create a definite story arc.

Willa:  Wow, I wish I could sit in on your class …

Raven: Thank you! I guess it’s one of the perks of my job. I get to incorporate so much of what I love into it.

But getting back to “Billie Jean,” virtually everything about that performance, from the choice of clothing and colors, the placement of the spotlight, to the props used – the glove, the jacket, and perhaps, most importantly, the fedora – all played a symbolic role in the performance. It was really the beginning of many trademark Michael Jackson “looks,” including the single glove and fedora. And though he had sported the white socks and black loafers, paired with high water pants before, in “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” it was here that the look really became formalized as a permanent and iconic fixture of the Michael Jackson “brand.”

Willa: They really did. He used the high pants, white socks, and black loafers often after Motown 25 – in fact, they literally became his trademark. I’m thinking of this logo for MJJ Productions:

logo for MJJ ProductionsRaven: Yes. And in that logo, especially, he is using the en pointe stance, which became an iconic image for him. To my knowledge, however, I think that “Billie Jean” was the only performance where he used that particular pose.

Willa:  You know, I think you’re right.… I hadn’t thought about that before, but I think you’re right – I think it was a strictly “Billie Jean” move. That’s interesting.

Raven:  A lot of people don’t realize that Michael had certain dance moves that were only reserved for certain numbers. Both the moonwalk and en pointe are uniquely associated with “Billie Jean.” (There are brief shots of each in the Jam video as well, but even there, they are clearly not part of the choreography of that particular number. Rather, they seemed to be serving the purpose of cultural allusions – iconic MJ dance moves that everyone would instantly recognize.) And though Michael did variations of the moonwalk step in other numbers, the famous backwards glide was reserved exclusively for “Billie Jean.”

Willa: That’s true, and the black glittery jacket was reserved solely for “Billie Jean” also. Just as a white suit with a dark armband was reserved for “Smooth Criminal,” or a red leather jacket with grey shoulder patches meant “Beat It,” or a red leather jacket with a deep black V from his shoulders to his waist meant “Thriller,” a black glittery jacket meant “Billie Jean.” With the addition of a black fedora and a white sequined glove, the costume was complete.

Raven: “Billie Jean” was also one of the few numbers he did in concert where he always made sure he was in the full costume. During the Dangerous tour, for example, he would usually simply toss the “Smooth Criminal” jacket on over the gold leotard. In this way, he created a lot of hybrids of his iconic looks. There was a very practical reason for this, of course. It saved time! It would have been impossible for him to do a full costume change with every number, so the idea was to layer pieces that could work together, gradually adding and taking off pieces as the show progressed. Therefore, it was easy to make the transition into “Smooth Criminal,” for example, simply by adding the iconic white jacket, armband, and white fedora. Those pieces were symbolic enough to carry the number; it didn’t matter if he didn’t have on the full suit. But with “Billie Jean” he always took the time to do a full, complete costume change.

Willa: It’s also interesting that in his later performances, getting into costume – and into character – was itself an important part of the show, as you mentioned earlier. Here’s a clip of his “Billie Jean” performance from his 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden:

Notice how he plays with the audience as he slowly pulls out the black glittery jacket, then the fedora, and then … dramatic pause … the glove. And the roar from the crowd grows louder as each piece appears, so by the time he’s fully in costume, they’re on their feet and clapping wildly. It’s like the act of becoming that character is part of the performance.

Raven: It is amazing, isn’t it? All they have to do is see those iconic items come out, and they start to go wild because they know what’s coming! So, as you said, getting into the character becomes a part of the ritual for the audience. A good place to start might be in looking at the origin of the “Billie Jean” persona, or character. It was clear early on that Michael was not so much performing here, as enacting a role. It was a unique character that he created specifically for this number. The character was an interesting blend of both “Mack Daddy” cool on the one hand, and a quirky, whimsical geek on the other. The transformation, or metamorphosis, was usually precipitated by plopping the fedora on his head. At that moment, the geek would disappear, replaced by the cocky and confident “Mack Daddy” persona.

It was obvious that the roots of this character came from Michael’s adoration of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Here, for example, if we compare Michael’s improv segment of “Billie Jean” to Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character, we can see that there are obvious parallels:

Willa: Yes, and while some of that is the costume, a lot of it is more abstract than that – a certain jauntiness mixed with pathos that really comes through for both of them.

Raven: And in this clip of Buster Keaton we can, no doubt, see some of the origins of Michael’s improvisations with his fedora as a kind of virility symbol (note how Keaton’s character transforms from geek to suave whenever a “cool” hat is placed on his head!):

And, of course, it has already been well noted that Michael’s famous Smooth Criminal lean owes a lot to Buster Keaton’s move in College, which Michael had no doubt seen:

Years later, Johnny Depp, who, like Michael, admired Keaton and Chaplin and brought elements of them to his own performances, blended the characteristics of both to create the character of Sam in 1993’s Benny & Joon.

Depp’s “hat trick,” as seen here, will look familiar to anyone who has watched Michael Jackson’s live “Billie Jean” performances. Go back, for example to the Bucharest “Billie Jean” performance posted above and look at how Michael similarly “plays” with his hat beginning at about the 5:54 mark, as if it is something live that is taunting and teasing him, or as if he can somehow cast a spell over it!

In later years, Michael would make this parallel even more blatantly obvious. For example, by the time of the HIStory tour, he introduced a new element to the performance which consisted of his “Little Geek” character walking onstage carrying a shaving case, looking rather lost and bewildered, as if he doesn’t quite know where he is or what he’s supposed to do. Again, this is a routine that obviously has deep roots in the pathos of the Chaplinesque and Keatonesque personas he so admired. At this point, the performance has very much of a vaudeville feel to it, and Michael is clearly and intentionally evoking those echoes.

Willa:  I agree completely. Even the case itself feels worn and antiquated, like it’s from an earlier era. It’s pretty distinctive – tan with two brown leather straps wrapping around it – and he uses this same style of case for years, up through his Madison Square Garden performances. It’s interesting because in Say Say Say, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney play a pair of vaudeville performers, and they each carry that exact same style of case: tan with two brown leather straps. Here’s a clip, and you can see those suitcases starting at about 4:20 minutes in:

So Michael Jackson clearly associated that particular case with vaudeville, and I think it’s part of what gives his later “Billie Jean” performances “a vaudeville feel,” as you said, Raven.

But more than that, his body language and the way he timidly shuffles across stage, as you mentioned; his simple clothes, suggesting someone who’s down on his luck; the way he slowly pulls his props from a suitcase – these all harken back to vaudeville.

Raven: Oh, yes, absolutely. I was also just thinking that there seemed to be a definite element of miming incorporated into his “Billie Jean” persona. We know that Michael very much admired the art of miming and frequently worked elements of mime into his dance routines. “The Box” is one such example. In this video of him practicing in the studio, it is the move he performs at about the 1:00 mark:

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a performance and persona so indebted to vaudeville and silent film comedians like Chaplin and Keaton would also contain elements of mime. Chaplin and Keaton were both heavily influenced by mime artists themselves. Here is a passage excerpted from the Wikipedia page on mimes:

The restrictions of early motion picture technology meant that stories had to be told with minimal dialogue, which was largely restricted to intertitles. This often demanded a highly stylized form of physical acting largely derived from the stage. Thus, mime played an important role in films prior to advent of talkies (films with sound or speech). The mimetic style of film acting was used to great effect in German Expressionist film.

Silent film comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton learned the craft of mime in the theatre, but through film, they would have a profound influence on mimes working in live theatre decades after their deaths. Indeed, Chaplin may be the most well-documented mime in history.

Willa:  Oh, that’s really interesting, Raven! I’d never connected mime with silent films before, but now that you mention it, it makes perfect sense. And I really see those elements reflected in Michael Jackson’s concert performances also.

For example, Rembert Browne wrote a wonderful analysis of Michael Jackson’s performances of “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Man in the Mirror” at the 1988 Grammys. Here’s a video of that performance:

As Rembert Browne points out, Michael Jackson is creating a fully realized character in the opening moments he’s on stage – a character Browne calls “Tough Guy Mike”:

“Tough Guy Mike” is an incredible creature, less because it was so opposite of his actual personality, and more because of how he moved his limbs as Tough Guy Mike. Every step became an aggravated kick, everything was to be pointed to, and his neck roll became the sassiest thing ever captured on camera.

As Browne says, he creates this character through his body language, and also through mime-like gestures. As Browne points out, at about 1:10 in we see “Tough Guy Mike mime-smoking a fake cigarette and blowing out fake smoke.” Then he “put[s] out the imaginary cigarette with his foot.” Through these subtle gestures, Michael Jackson gives us important clues about who this character is – just as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Marcel Marceau did through their silent gestures long before him.

Raven:  “Tough Guy Mike” is an excellent interpretation of that persona! The only difference, I think, is that we don’t actually “see” the transformation in the same way that we do with “Billie Jean,” or at least the later incarnations of it. In “Billie Jean” the symbols actually instigate the change.

Willa: Oh, I see what you’re saying. As you mentioned before, it’s when he puts on his fedora that he magically transforms into his “Billie Jean” character. So his hat brings about a change in him, in who he’s portraying on stage.

Raven: As we have already discussed, hats were important props for these silent film comedians, as well as for mimes, and also many vaudeville performers. The white glove, also, is something that has roots in mime art (though not necessarily a single glove to my knowledge). However, I think that Michael probably took many of his ideas, especially those relating to color schemes, from mime artists. White and black were traditionally colors often used by mimes.

In the original “Billie Jean” video Michael wore a dark suit over a bold pink shirt with a red bow tie. That was a look significantly different from the one that came to be associated with his live “Billie Jean” performances, and again, it’s one of the few instances I can think of (perhaps the only instance) where his performance attire and persona was completely different from the video version. I think it is because he took the whole performance in such a very different direction for Motown 25 that he must have known, from that point going forward, that this was the way the song had to be performed live. The video for “Billie Jean” seemed to be one of the few instances where his choreography was actually worked out after the fact.

When he did Motown 25, he still had not completely perfected the idea of using the black-and-white color contrast, and this was probably largely due to the fact that he had only recently come up with the routine and had to work with what was available for him at the time. According to most accounts, the famous sequin jacket he wore that night came from Katherine’s closet. As the old saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers so he ended up with a purple-ish sequin jacket. However, we can see that he had already worked out how he would incorporate all three symbolic objects – the hat, the glove, and sequined jacket – into the routine. It would just be a matter of how he perfected those uses through the years.

Those primary colors, black and white, both have strong ties to mime art. Michael also mimicked the age-old mime trick of using the color white to direct an audience’s eyes to whatever body part he wanted them to focus on. He learned, for example, that wearing a white glove, or wearing white tape on his fingertips, would direct the audience’s eyes to his hand gestures, and hand gestures, as we know, were very important for Michael. I really believe that this is the origin of his single, white glove. I never really bought the oft-rumored theory that it was to hide vitiligo spots on his hands. (I believe he had vitiligo, of course; I just don’t believe it was the reason for the glove.) I believe he was thinking from an artistic standpoint about what each of these things would help him accomplish on a huge stage.

Willa:  That’s interesting. I tend to think it was both – that it helped him deal with his vitiligo and was an important artistic decision.

And that’s interesting about white gloves being an important part of both vaudeville and mime. It reminds me that white gloves were also an important feature of blackface minstrelsy. Here’s a clip of Fred Astaire performing in blackface in the movie Swing Time, and it’s hard to miss his large white gloves:

In fact, the last thing we see is Astaire walking off stage, waving his hand in a floppy sort of way that draws even more attention to the oversized white glove he’s wearing.

Raven:  That’s interesting. And we know that Michael would have been familiar with Swing Time. He studied everything Astaire ever did! I was also recently watching a documentary on Oscar Wilde and it was mentioned there that Wilde came up with the idea of wearing white gloves during his American tour in 1882. Wilde, like Michael, was as much of a showman as he was a writer (and his number one talent was the ability to sell himself!) and it was said that he liked the way it looked when he could stick a white gloved hand from his carriage window to wave to the crowd! I couldn’t help but think of Michael when they mentioned that.

But a glove is also something a criminal wears at the scene of their crime, in order to prevent leaving incriminating fingerprints. It would be interesting to know if Michael was playing on this idea to some degree, since the song is about a man being accused. I don’t know – that might be a stretch but it’s something interesting to think about.

Something else I’ve noticed about his live “Billie Jean” performances is that, as he jumps into the spotlight and plops the hat onto his head, a transformation takes place. In later incarnations of the performance, he jumps into the spotlight almost as a kind of symbolic “plunging in.” There is hesitancy and even a bit of fearfulness (he is still in the mode of the shy, geeky, and somewhat lost/bewildered character) and then, instantaneously, he plunges in, the bass kicks in, and the metamorphosis is complete. He starts with a series of hip thrusts, indicating a shift to masculine and virile energy. (A favorite, somewhat off-color joke of mine is that he must be acting out he how he got himself in trouble with this “Billie Jean” in the first place!) Whatever the case, the moves and gestures were clearly purposeful. If there was any doubt that these moves were intended to be interpreted as sexual gestures, Michael forever laid those to rest with his very playful and bawdy exaggeration of those moves in his This Is It rehearsal performance of “Billie Jean”:

Willa:  Oh, I agree! That rehearsal performance is much more overtly sexual and “bawdy,” as you say, than anything he ever did during a concert – especially near the end. But he sure knew his audience – those young dancers watching him rehearse just loved it! And I love watching them watching him. In fact, that’s one of my favorite scenes from from This Is It – he seems to be having a great time, and really connecting, through dance, with those young dancers.

But that scene also brings out important elements of the character he’s portraying – elements that are usually presented much more subtly but still add complexity to that character. For example, he begins his Motown 25 performance and many of his later “Billie Jean” performances by pulling out an imaginary comb and slicking his hair back on both sides. This is very much a mime-type gesture, as you mentioned earlier.

Raven: I love that gesture! It invokes a very cool, 50s kind of vibe to the performance … James Dean, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando from “The Wild One”!

Willa:  I love it too!  It has a very 50s kind of feel to me also, and it reminds me of “Tough Guy Mike” smoking his imaginary cigarette at the beginning of the 1988 Grammy performance, and then stubbing it out with his foot. In both cases, these little gestures give us important insights into the character he’s playing. His “Billie Jean” character may be young and vulnerable, and he may still have his mother’s advice echoing in his head – “Be careful who you love … ” – but that little gesture of slicking back his hair tells us that he also sees himself as something of a ladies’ man.

Raven:  But even as he moves into this aspect of the performance, he would often still retain elements of his “Little Tramp”-like character. Something I have often noticed – and one of the most endearing traits of these performances – is that he didn’t seem to be trying too hard to make them “too” perfect or “too” polished. For example, we can see when he is fighting with a particularly stubborn jacket flap that doesn’t fall exactly as it’s supposed to; he can often be seen adjusting his hat during the performance to keep it from falling off or to keep it at the angle he desires. When we consider what a perfectionist he was in his performances, we can only guess that all of these little flaws and “rough spots” of the performances were, in themselves, part of the act, or at least part of the persona.

It seems he didn’t want polish or perfection in these performances so much as desiring to retain an aura of childlike playfulness and quirkiness. It was just enough endearing quirkiness, enough pathos to keep a leash on the machismo aspect of the performance. And it was wonderfully ingenious, because it kept the machismo aspect of the character just slightly off center, so that we weren’t entirely sure just how seriously we were supposed to take this transformed persona.

Willa: Oh, that’s an interesting way to look at that, Raven – and it’s a very Chaplinesque touch, as you say. It adds a touch of pathos to this young man who’s trying so hard to be suave and debonair, and not quite succeeding – but ironically he’s all the more endearing because of that.

Raven: It’s rather like watching a little kid who has suddenly been transported into an adult body, or like Frosty the Snowman when he first puts on his “magic hat” and becomes animated. He doesn’t seem quite sure what to do with himself or with his new power and abilities. We can see him kind of growing into the persona the same way an awkward and gangly adolescent has to “grow into” their new body.

Willa:  Exactly! That’s how it feels to me also, though I’d never been able to really articulate that before, and that’s one reason this character is so intriguing and appealing, I think.

Well, Raven, thank you so much for joining me again! I thoroughly enjoyed it, but there’s still so much more to say about his “Billie Jean” performances. Maybe you can join me again sometime, and we can continue this discussion?

Raven: I would love that! Thanks again for another great conversation.

Willa:  Oh, it’s always a pleasure talking with you.

I also wanted to let everyone know that Australian journalist and blogger Damien Shields has a new book out, Xscape Origins: the Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind. Charles Thomson posted a review this morning on The Huffington Post, and it’s interesting – while Charles has been very open about his opposition to posthumous tracks in general, and has been rather scathing in his comments about the Xscape album in particular, his review of Xscape Origins is surprisingly positive.

According to Charles, Shields was motivated by a feeling that the promotion for Xscape focused too much on the “contemporized” tracks and the producers who worked on them, and that “Jackson’s own vision and process was almost completely overlooked.” So he set about learning more. As Charles writes,

Determined to right this perceived wrong, Shields flew to America to interview a number of Jackson’s original collaborators, including songwriters, studio engineers and producers. In his book he presents a comprehensive back story for each track. The result is a revealing and exciting insight into the working habits of pop’s most reclusive star.



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 March 19, 2015, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. The fedora is central to Billie Jean, so I looked up some history about the hat. I found this fascinating article:

    “To understand the fedora’s appeal, you have to go back to its origin as a costume piece in the 1882 play Fédora. Sex-symbol actress Sarah Bernhardt sported the hat in her title role, and on its debut the fedora became the new “in” fashion among young women. But saying the fedora started as “a woman’s hat” ignores one crucial aspect – from the start the fedora represented assertiveness and more than a hint of masculinity. Sarah Bernhard liked to wear men’s clothing, and she alternately scandalized and titillated Victorian audiences by playing male roles like Hamlet and, in a particularly incendiary production, Judas Iscariot. (In this version, Judas betrayed Jesus because he’d “stolen” Mary Magdalene, who was the lover of both Judas and Pontius Pilate. Seriously, read up on Sarah Bernhardt, she’s awesome.) Due to the fedora’s linking with a public figure who was assertive, sexually liberated and took on masculine roles, the women’s rights movement adopted it as a symbol and from there it spread to women in general. It finally ended up as a hat of, after an advertising push, men in cold weather climates who needed a hat to keep the rain off them. From there the style became ubiquitous, but is especially associated with film stars like Humphrey Bogart and Frank Sinatra, and gangsters, who appreciated that the hat could withstand the elements while obscuring their faces. In other words, the hat went from being a symbol of coopted masculinity, to one simply considered masculine. While phased out of everyday fashion by the 1960s, it remained a staple of period films like Indiana Jones and a testosterone-boosting accessory for celebrities like Johnny Depp and Michel Jackson who don’t fit the traditional masculine mold.

    In other words, ever since its inception the fedora has been a symbol, though originally an inverted symbol, of what it means to be male. Men who wear fedoras tend to see it as a callback to an older age of style, but it’s also a way to engage in fashion without appearing fussy – a reaction to an upbringing that more often than not told them that caring about their appearance or dressing in nice clothes made them seem a derogatory “gay.” This coincided with looser trends in men’s fashion through the ’80s and ’90s – decades where being a “suit” became another derogatory term, and dressing down connoted authenticity. While men in 1950s and 60s TV shows dressed impeccably, by the ’80s the fashion-inept husband became a running gag. Meanwhile, office dress standards fell across most professions as Baby Boomers took the helm, to the point that even traditionally conservative professions like lawyers and news anchors stopped wearing ties. Casual dress might’ve led to comfortable work environments, but it also raised a generation of men who felt uncomfortable around fashion – now that’s changing.”

    • Interesting! I love fedoras. My father had some nice ones, and I now have them. I love to wear a fedora — has a certain rakish feel. Now I understand why.

    • Wow, sfaikus, that’s fascinating! I had no idea the fedora had such an interesting history. And how intriguing that it was made famous by a woman (I really do need to learn more about Sarah Bernhardt) and then adopted by the early women’s movement, before becoming “a testosterone-boosting accessory.” Wow.

    • Thanks for supplying that fascinating bit of history. I was aware, of course, of Sarah Barnhardt as an actress who challenged gender norms but didn’t know about her unique history with the fedora.

  2. Raven said –

    “I have to say I didn’t think it was possible to fall in love with Michael all over again, but I did watching that performance! ”

    Me, too! Wasn’t he wonderful!

    • Yes. For years, I had gotten a little blase’ with the fact that critics were always praising this performance as the highlight of Michael’s career (as if it were all downhill from there) but when you watch it again-I mean, REALLY put yourself in that moment, forgetting all that came before or after, you realize what an electrifying and magical moment it truly was. Imagine a generation who still mostly thinks of Michael as just the kid who fronted The Jackson 5-and now he has come on the world’s stage, oozing adult sex appeal; performing steps that defied gravity. You go back in time with that moment and you realize anew why the whole world was so captivated with Michael Jackson after that night.

  3. Yes, watching Motown 25 was like falling in love with him all over again. Thank you for your blog, ladies. They always leave me with something new to think about!

  4. Wonderful post, ladies.
    Concerning the glove and vitiligo, I can’t seem to locate the video of her actually saying this, but here is an article that quotes Cicely Tyson re the glove:

    • Thank you for sharing that article, Diana. I hadn’t heard about that interview before, but if Cicely Tyson is remembering correctly, the white glove was both an important design element and a response to vitiligo. As with so many things regarding Michael Jackson, the answer isn’t either-or – it’s both at the same time.

    • Thanks for the link. To me, the idea of Michael having come up with the idea of the glove to hide vitiligo has always seemed more in the realm of urban myth since I haven’t been able to find anything concrete that supports the idea but we have to remember that Michael was also a master at using misfortune to very creative ends. Onstage, hand gestures became a very important part of his performance but we can imagine if he was self-conscious about vitiligo spots, he would have wanted to deflect as much attention from his hands as possible. This seems like an impossible conundrum. How does one both draw attention TO his hands while, at the same time, hiding them? Obviously, the glove would have been the perfect solution. Also, yesterday afternoon I was very casually looking through one of my MJ tribute magazines from a few years ago and came across an interesting photo. It was a mid to late 1970’s era photo of Michael with his brothers. I will see if I can find it online anywhere and link to it. But in that photo, you could clearly see white patches on his fingers. I looked to see if any similar discoloration appeared on his brothers’ hands (Randy was sitting nearby in an almost identical pose to Michael’s, so if it had been a trick of lighting, I’m sure it would have been noticeable on both their hands). But, no, the discoloration was only visible on Michael’s hands. It also appeared that the discoloration was much more prominent on his left hand, indicating that the disease may have advanced more on his left hand at this stage than the right. It’s the first truly clear photo I’ve seen from this era that shows his skin with white discoloration. I’ll see if I can find it.

      • CORRECTION: I just went back and looked at the photo again. The discoloration is actually much more advanced on his RIGHT hand; it’s just that on his left, it is mostly on the outside whereas on the right hand, it seems to be more advanced on the underside of his hand as well as the tips and fingers. I still haven’t had any luck locating the photo online. Obviously, if you try to google images of The Jacksons, hundreds of images come up so it would take a lot of wading through. Some of you, however, may know the pic I’m talking about. It shows Michael and Randy sitting on white platforms, with Jackie, Tito and Marlon posed behind them. They are all wearing vests and jeans with musical notes and instruments patched on them, and white shoes. It looks to be from about 1975 or 1976, which is interesting because if I’m seeing what I think I am seeing, it would mean he was showing signs of the onset of vitiligo as young as seventeen or so. Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to have been any attempt to hide or conceal it here.

      • Hi Raven –

        When I first became interested in MJ, which was after he died, I immediately thought that the glove was a creative way of dealing with vitiligo. And then I read about the Cicely Tyson comment, and then I believe I heard her say the same thing on Tavis Smiley. So, to me, it just makes sense and fits so well with the way he dealt with life in general. Embrace it and love it.

        Also, I read or heard in some interview that one of the reasons for the fedora was that after his scalp was burned and when he was going through those terrible and painful procedures which involved placing a balloon under his scalp to stretch the skin and cover the bald spot, he wore the fedora to hide the bulge.

        When you think of everything he had to deal with…. and how he dealt with it….

        • Yes Eleanor positive thinking at its best.

          I noticed when I could eventually stomach reading the autopsy report that Michael had also had operations for carpal tunnel syndrome, so am convinced that the surgical arm guard he wore during Black or White and that era wasn’t a fashion statement as people said, but an actual necessity after the operation. Plus of course the face masks when he had dental work. Only Michael hey?

          Just watched Ninas clip and yes he does look like a fountain pen – had forgotten that move, but can never forget the short film version of Dirty Diana, it was just too spectacular a move.

          He certainly did live life “in the round”, but what a life it was. I was talking to someone over the weekend who I don’t know terribly well, who surprised me by speaking about him in really glowing terms, but then said it was a shame about his ‘troubled life’. By the time I had finished with her, his troubled life had turned from tragedy to triumph – so nice when one can do that for our dear Michael!!

  5. Thank you Willa and Raven for this amazing post of yours! your detailed analysis of michael’s creating process is really in tune with what a friend of mine has always said about michael’s music that is how it is difficult to separate the vocal interpretation from the dancing performance.They are so strictly interrelated.
    As for the fedora it seemed that it became very familiar with Michael often wearing it also off stage. I can’t help remembering Michael’s performance as a kid playing Sinatra while wearing a fedora and a raincoat. He was so cute!
    Having the opportunity to listen to tracks Michael recorded and were not included in his albums, is like discovering a painting a great painter considerd minor during his/her lifetime nevertheless not lacking interest for us contemporaries. It is like a little lost gem coming to life.

    • Interesting. Also, when you see that early performance of him playing Sinatra, you can so obviously see much of his “Off The Wall” era look already coming into play. This was probably where he began to formulate a lot of his ideas about how to emulate icons like Sinatra and how to work bits and pieces of their looks and their style into his own brand.

  6. HI Willa and Raven I saved this blog until this afternoon so that I could go through the whole thing and watch all the clips at the same time. ! and a half hours later I feel as if I have been through a master class on the master by two very able teachers. Thank you both – it was wonderful.

    I had never thought before that so many of the iconic Michael features like the glove, sparkly socks, moonwalk, en pointe dance move and the fedora were almost exclusively Billie Jean. I find that just so amazing. I loved watching the various clips, and although Bucharest wins hands down, I just love the impromptu This Is It ‘performance’. Raven I loved your ‘off-colour’ joke about the pelvic thrusts acting how he got into trouble with Billie Jean in the first place lol!!! I found Veronica’s book very interesting also.

    The only other place that I can remember the en pointe dance move so clearly, is in the Dirty Diana short film when he goes up on his toes and then bends backwards in front of Steve playing the guitar. Each time I watch it, and even pause the film on that spot, I marvel at how he didn’t fall backwards – fantastic agility.

    Please do another one together sometime – it is so nice having you both in the same blog. Like Willa I would love to be a student in your class Raven. I hope those young people know how lucky they are!!

    • Speaking of the pelvic thrusts, the way I somewhat interpret his performance story arc is that he starts off as this mild mannered, little geeky character, what with the pathos of this persona who seems very steeped in vaudeville and silent film era performers. Through the magic of his symbolic items-the hat, glove, and jacket-he transforms into a cool and suave “sex machine” (which he mimes with the pelvic thrusts; the combing and slicking back of his hair, etc) which leads to the encounter with the beautiful and seductive Billie Jean-but also to the source of his troubles, since we know how that encounter turns out. However, it’s also not that clearcut because throughout the performance, Michael seems to go “in and out” of these characters somewhat randomly. There is a point in the Bucharest performance where he actually seems to regress and has to “reclaim” his power and virility. The fedora, always lost at some point during the performance, has to be put back on his head again, which kicks off a sort of “Phase 2” of the performance (the first phase being the straight performance of the song; the second an extended improvised section where he simply dances to the drum beats).

    • Oh man, Caro – how could I have forgotten that move in Dirty Diana?! It’s incredible – like a wave of energy starts at his toes and rolls up his body, practically lifting him off the ground. I know exactly the moment you’re talking about – just amazing, like gravity can’t quite keep a grip on him. I love that move – in fact, I’m going to have to go watch Dirty Diana right now …

      • So I’ve been thinking about this, and it’s interesting to me that the only time he performs that en pointe move in concert is during “Billie Jean” and, on rare occasions, “Dirty Diana.” As a lot of critics have pointed out, those two songs are pretty similar thematically, with the title character of each song attracted to him because of his celebrity, and each out to capture him in some way – or at least capture a little of his star dust. In fact, a number of critics have described “Dirty Diana” as the Bad version of “Billie Jean.” So it’s interesting that these two songs are linked by this very particular dance movement as well as by the title characters and the subject matter, almost like a quotation he’s performing physically.

        It reminds me of the moment in Ghosts when he doing the call and response and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, which always feels to me like he’s quoting the call-and-response scene in Bad where he does the exact same thing. It’s like he uses these “quotations” to link scenes that may seem different on the surface, but that he sees as connected. In Ghosts he’s confronting a “gang” of villagers led by the mayor, in Bad he’s confronting a gang of would-be street criminal, so these scenarios may seem different – the Ghosts gang is more “respectable,” for one thing, since it’s led by the mayor – but they’re actually very similar, and that little movement of his hand subtly draws our attention to that.

  7. Yep! Here’s a clip from the Wembley performance (1988), where he begins “Dirty Diana'” en pointe. Commingled with more balletic grace, he brings his knee up in a series of “jerky” upward movements, still with toes pointed. (Perversely, I find the whole thing reminiscent of a fountain pen!) It’s remarkable.

  8. WOW–Fantastic discussion, Raven and Willa–I really enjoyed this! Loved the points about the transformation from one character–one who wanders on stage rather hesitantly, vaudevillian suitcase in tow–to one who puts on the jacket, hat, and glove, and morphs into “Tough Guy Mike.’ (or from geek to stud).

    Interesting that the en pointe occurs in the BJ short film as if it is the standout move, but then gets replaced by the moonwalk in Motown 25. Love the en pointe references in the Speed Demon video too–“get your ticket right”–although the song was never performed on stage.)

    Looking forward to more discussions of Michael’s signature BJ performances. The references to mime, vaudeville, minstrelry are intriguing. Thanks so much for this fascinating post.

    • Wow, you guys are GOOD! If I ever need research help, I’m going to post it here because, together, you all have an encyclopedic knowledge of Michael Jackson and his work …

      So stephenson, you’re right. As soon as you mentioned Speed Demon I remembered the no dancing sign near the end that has his en pointe logo with a red slash through it. Here’s a link:

      But I just watched Speed Demon again and you’re right – he actually performs it during the dance competition with Spike the rabbit. Spike does it first and then he does it even better – like it’s the ultimate dance move. Thanks for sharing that.

      • Hi, Willa–thanks for that screen shot of the “no dancing” sign.

        I also remembered that the MJ Immortal Cirque show’s final image on the jumbotron was a photo of MJ en pointe in his BJ costume (but without the fedora). I took a photo of it b/c I loved the way they lit up the entire image, making it all sparkly and glowing. It was a great way to end the show–very impressive and evocative of his magic.

  9. P.S. I think using a ‘spy hat’ in his performance was an idea he had back during the more youthful J5 days. In Moonwalk he says he wanted to use this type of hat as part of the performance and then throw it out to the audience, but no one thought it was a good idea and he didn’t get the ok. Fulfilling this idea at Motown 25 must have felt good.

    I agree re Raven and Willa’s comments about MJ’s distinctive ‘look’ in his performances and videos, and the ‘look’ for Billie Jean just suits him so well–the classy yet sexy look–and the fedora is a big part of this ensemble.

  10. Thanks Willa and Raven—I’ve been thinking about this idea of “theater in the round,” as you mentioned. I never knew what that might have meant! For some reason, it conjured for me an image of people dancing in a circle (!)

    I can now see the element of surveillance that this lyric points to, and it makes a lot of sense. As you mentioned, Willa, it’s like a prison searchlight—or the design of the “Panopticon,” a form of architecture from which there’s indeed no escape from the prying gaze of the watchman—or, even more ominously, the camera as a direct conduit to the public: everywhere, all the time. Wikipedia:

    “The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The concept of the design is to allow a single watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behaviour constantly.”

    It’s interesting, too, to think about the hat as a special amulet, or object with magical properties that instantly transforms and activates the character in “Billie Jean.” Other doublings: the mild-mannered student, Darryl, becomes a badass singer/dancer in “Bad.” It’s like the Clark Kent/Superman trope, and some form of it is probably deeply lodged in our fantasy lives, from when we were children— if only we could remember! A more powerful, effective version of ourselves.

    When I saw the “Michael Jackson: ONE” show in Las Vegas, I noted the very first image (or event) that took place on the stage: the sparkly glove, the hat, a loafer (or maybe two), and an inverted barstool. These objects were floating around in an indeterminate, dark space, rear-projected in a 3-D effect, on a scrim at the proscenium. It was a great way to set up anticipation of all the numbers, episodes, vignettes that were to follow!

    I’m sure this has been posted before, but there’s also a fedora perched jauntily on Judy Garland, in this number from Summer Stock (“Get Happy”):

    On another note: look at the way the men “slide” toward Judy on their knees, and then extend their hands up, toward her.

    When Michael performs “Get Happy” in 1977 on “The Jacksons” (which I’m sure we’ve all seen), he also readjusts his hat; and the four “chorines”—the women in red sequined costumes—also “slide” toward Michael and reach up toward him.

  11. The MJ “Get Happy” clip:

  12. The gloves weren’t for vitiligo or the patchy spots from bleaching cream. It was actually to draw attention to his dance moves (which would include his hands). His costume guy Michael Bush talks about this.

Tell us what you think...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: