Changing the Subject: I, Me, You, Us

Willa:  One of the most intriguing features of Michael Jackson’s lyrics, I think, is the way he frequently shifts subject positions, looking at a story from one point of view, then another, and then another. This is something Joie and I have touched on a number of times – for example, in posts about “Morphine,” “Whatever Happens,” “Money,” “Threatened,” “Dirty Diana,” “Best of Joy,” “Monster,” and the Who Is It video – but we’ve never done a post that focuses specifically on his use of multiple voices. So I was very excited when Marie Plasse wrote this comment a few weeks ago:

I think that one of the most generally misunderstood or overlooked features of Michael’s art is the way he was able to occupy different characters in his lyrics and how … he expressed and explored aspects of his own psychic divisions and struggles. (It was perhaps a willful misunderstanding of this aspect of Michael’s art that precipitated, at least in part, the controversy over the lyrics of “They Don’t Care About Us.”)

This past fall I taught a full semester college-level course on Michael Jackson (“Reading the King of Pop as Cultural Text”) and one of the things the class found most surprising (but initially most difficult to do) was close-reading his lyrics and following the shifting perspectives. The complexities and the rapid shifts are really fascinating.

Marie is a professor of English at Merrimack College, and I’m very excited to talk with her about this aspect of Michael Jackson’s aesthetic that has intrigued me for so long. Thank you so much for joining me, Marie!

Marie:  Thanks very much for inviting me, Willa. I’ve followed Dancing with the Elephant for a long time and have learned so much from your posts and the comments that readers send. I haven’t always had time to join in the comments as much as I would like, so I’m really happy to have this opportunity to talk with you.

Willa:  Oh, so am I! And I’m so glad to finally have the chance to talk in depth about Michael Jackson’s use of multiple points of view. This is a recurring feature of his art, and a very important part of his aesthetic, I think – and personally, it’s something that has attracted me to his work for a long time. So I’m eager to find out more about how he uses it and how it functions.

Marie:  I agree, Willa. Michael’s work as a lyricist is as complex as it is moving, and it’s so often overlooked as a key feature of his aesthetic. This might be because, as Joe Vogel points out in Man in the Music, Michael’s work as a songwriter is “much different from that of a traditional singer-songwriter like Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan” where the lyrics are much more “out front.” Joe goes on to suggest that Michael’s lyrics tend to get overlooked because they are only one of “several media to consider” amidst the music, short films, and dancing that are so prominently featured in his work.

But looking carefully at the lyrics on their own, and especially at their multiple points of view, reveals that Michael writes with great complexity and deep insight. I’ve gone back and reread all those posts you mentioned above in which you and Joie have talked about this quality of shifting perspectives and subject positions in Michael’s songwriting. I think you’ve already covered a lot of ground on this and opened up a lot of intriguing ideas about the possible meanings of the songs. So instead of offering my own close readings of certain lyrics, or at least before doing any of that, I thought I would try to think a bit further into this notion of multiple perspectives and voices to see where it might lead in a more general way.

Willa:  OK, that sounds really interesting.

Marie:  Reflecting on Michael’s use of multiple voices and shifting perspectives in his songs makes me think about his fervent interest in storytelling, which he talks about on the very first page of Moonwalk. His emphasis there is on how storytelling can move an audience and “take them anywhere emotionally” and on how it has the power to “move their souls and transform them.” He goes on to muse about “how the great writers must feel, knowing they have that power” and confesses that he has “always wanted to be able to do that.” He says he feels that he “could do it” and would like to develop his storytelling skills.

Just before this reflective section on storytelling ends and Michael swings into the beginnings of his own life story in the chapter, he mentions that songwriting uses the same skills as those of the great storytellers he admires, but in a much shorter format in which “the story is a sketch. It’s quicksilver.” Of course, we all know that by the time he wrote Moonwalk, Michael was already a masterful storyteller and his skills in this art only got better and better as time went on!  He does “move [our] souls and transform them” very powerfully in his songs, short films, and performances, often using a multi-media approach that is much more complex than the traditional storytelling around the fire that he seems to admire so much as he opens the first chapter of Moonwalk.

Willa:  That’s true. And I think you’ve raised a really important point in talking about how he conceptualized songwriting as storytelling. I was just reading Damien Shields’ book, Xscape Origins, and Cory Rooney talked to Damien about how important storytelling was in creating “Chicago”:

When working on the lyrics for the track, Rooney took inspiration from a conversation he’d recently had with one of Jackson’s collaborative partners – prolific songwriter Carole Bayer Sager – who urged him to write a song that tells a story. “[Michael] loves to tell a tale,” Bayer Sager told Rooney, so putting that advice into practice, Rooney went about writing a story for Jackson.

Rooney then passed that advice on to Rodney Jerkins, one of the authors of “Xscape”:

Rodney called me up and said, “Cory, we’re still confused. We don’t know what to write about. We don’t know what to do.” … So I told him, “Well, I got a little tip from Carole Bayer Sager. She told me that Michael is a storyteller. She said Michael loves to tell stories in his music. If you listen to ‘Billie Jean,’ it’s a story. If you listen to ‘Thriller,’ it’s a story. If you listen to ‘Beat It,’ it’s a story. He loves to tell a tale.”

So Carole Bayer Sager and Cory Rooney both confirm exactly what you’re saying, Marie – that Michael Jackson “loves to tell a tale.”

Marie:  That’s a great connection, Willa. Thanks for reminding us about those passages in Damien’s book (which I thought was terrific, by the way. Thank you, Damien, for your wonderful work!). They really do underscore that Michael saw himself as a storyteller. And in order to have that power to move and transform an audience that he refers to in Moonwalk, a good storyteller definitely needs to be a master at crafting the point(s) of view from which the story is told, and to have the capacity to inhabit and express the experience of the story from those different perspectives (and the characters that they belong to).

Michael’s songwriting certainly displays his mastery of these essential aspects of good storytelling. As you’ve pointed out in so many different posts, he’s able to see his subject matter from many different perspectives and to shift in and out of those perspectives in interesting and meaningful ways. This is true across the full range of his work and, perhaps most interestingly, even within individual songs. He sees and he makes us see from all sorts of different angles and he occupies and places us in many different subject positions.

Willa:  Yes, he really does. And often these subject positions and perspectives are ones that have rarely been considered before by mainstream culture. What I mean is, he frequently takes us inside the minds of outsiders – like the drug addict in “Morphine,” or the groupie in “Dirty Diana,” or the neighbor who has been labeled a “freak” and “weirdo” in Ghosts – and shows us the world from their perspective.

Marie:  Absolutely, Willa. Clearly, the multiple subject positions and perspectives are in service of Michael’s larger mission of calling attention to the experiences of those who are “othered” or forgotten by mainstream society and who suffer for it. By shifting the perspective so often to these marginalized ones, he pushes us out of what may be our own relatively comfortable positions and makes us see through the eyes of the “other.”

And while we can easily agree that these features of Michael’s art are clearly those of a master storyteller, I would also venture to associate them with yet another literary tradition. Since I study and teach plays as part of my work as a literature professor, the multiple and shifting perspectives we’re talking about also make me think about what I would call Michael’s remarkably theatrical imagination. The way he tackles his subject matter through storytelling that imagines situations from different points of view and allows many different voices to speak reminds me of the special qualities of dramatic texts, where there is no single narrative voice, but rather the multiple voices of the various characters speaking directly to the reader or audience member in the theater.

Willa:  Oh, that’s really interesting, Marie!  It’s true that his songs often feel “theatrical” to me, and I think partly that’s because he tends to approach his songs visually, if that makes sense. For example, in Moonwalk he says,

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.

But I think you’re right – they also feel theatrical because they often sound like snippets of dialogue from a play, with interspersed lines spoken by different characters. I hadn’t thought about that before, but I think you’re really on to something.

Marie:  What you say about his visual approach makes a lot of sense to me, Willa. I think that this visual approach to the songs in the short films is always what comes to mind first because the films have become so inextricably fused to the songs. And as we know, the songs lend themselves so well to the fully realized theatrical treatment that Michael gives them in the short films, where the different perspectives and characters in the song lyrics literally come alive in the embodied performances of the actors and the specific cinematic choices that structure the way the films are shot.

As we also know, Michael was meticulous in crafting the aesthetic and technical choices that governed his short films and live performances, working as a director rather than just the star. I remember seeing a number of comments from him on just how important camera angles – the very mechanism that creates perspective and point of view in film – were to him. I can’t recall specifically where I read this, but I seem to remember something that quoted him discussing the famous Motown 25 performance of “Billie Jean,” for example, where he explained that he designed exactly how his solo song should be presented through camera angles.

Willa:  Yes, I remember reading that too. And you can actually see him controlling the camera angle in this video of the Jacksons’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At about 14:45 minutes in, he pauses in his prepared comments and says, “I don’t like that angle. I like this one” and motions to the camera straight in front of him. Here’s that clip:

Marie:  That’s a great example, too, Willa!  He really was determined to control the perspectives from which the television audience saw not only his performances but also his public appearances at award ceremonies.

Willa:  Yes, he was!  We don’t normally think of something like this as a “performance,” but he did, and he was staging and directing it even as he was participating in it.

Marie:  Exactly!  That’s a great way to put it, Willa.  And there’s also the endearing story of how he taught his son Prince about film by watching movies with the sound turned off so they could analyze each shot visually.

Willa:  Yes, I was really struck by that story also.

Marie:  So the visual connection you made, Willa, falls nicely into place as one of the many things we know about Michael and his work that indicate that he thought deeply about the issue of perspective and the significance of multiple and shifting points of view, whether those were conveyed through song lyrics alone, through the complex visualizations of his songs that he created in the short films, or even in public appearances like the one at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But it seems that in all this the song lyrics themselves have not been given the full discussion that they deserve.

Willa:  No, they haven’t.

Marie:  Their complexity, especially their multiple perspectives, really carries a lot of significance, and I do think that they work in similar fashion to dramatic texts. In order to understand the story that a play tells, we have to follow each character’s perspective and listen to each character’s voice carefully. Unlike in conventional narrative fiction, a play text isn’t dominated by a single narrator who controls our perspective and interprets events for us. It’s through the interaction of many different perspectives and voices unfolding over time that the play delivers its message and overall effect. And since it’s set up this way, there is a certain openness to a play that leaves a lot of room for individual interpretation.

Willa:  And possibly misinterpretation, as you mentioned earlier about the uproar surrounding the lyrics to “They Don’t Care about Us.” Part of the confusion was that many critics didn’t seem to realize that when Michael Jackson sang “Jew me, sue me / Everybody do me / Kick me, kike me / Don’t you black or white me,” he was adopting the subject position of a Jewish person in the first three lines, and a black person in the fourth line. Both Jews and blacks have experienced the kind of slurs he’s addressing in these lines, and through these lines he’s showing solidarity with Jews – which is the exact opposite of the intolerance he was accused of. As Michael Jackson himself said in response to the scandal:

The idea that these lyrics could be deemed objectionable is extremely hurtful to me, and misleading. The song in fact is about the pain of prejudice and hate and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems. I am the voice of the accused and the attacked. I am the voice of everyone. I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the black man, I am the white man. I am not the one who was attacking. It is about the injustices to young people and how the system can wrongfully accuse them. I am angry and outraged that I could be so misinterpreted.

So as you were saying, Marie, he adopts different personae at different moments in this song – just like the roles in a play. As he says, “I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the black man, I am the white man.” Those are the different characters in this “play.”

So if we approach this song like a play, as I think you’re suggesting, Marie, and if we consider that the lines “Jew me, sue me” and “Kick me, kike me” are being spoken by character – a Jewish character who is protesting the prejudice against him – then the scandal makes no sense. It suddenly becomes very clear that Michael Jackson is denouncing anti-Semitism, not engaging in it – just as he said.

Marie:  That’s a great example, Willa, and a really great way of explaining the danger of misinterpretation that opens up when multiple voices and perspectives are put out there with no overarching narrative voice to explain what’s going on. These lyrics, like play texts, require us to navigate among all the different perspectives we’re given and to make our own decisions about how we understand the subject matter. And this navigation can be pretty tricky in something as compressed as a song where, as Michael pointed out, “the story is a sketch. It’s quicksilver.” The controversy that erupted about “They Don’t Care About Us” clearly demonstrates the great risk for misinterpretation that comes along with the “multi-vocal” mode he used to sketch the story in this song.

But of course that controversy also underscored the disappointing and misguided lack of understanding among mainstream critics of Michael’s lyrical abilities, among their other problems. They just didn’t expect and weren’t receptive to the complexity that is clearly there. Armond White’s brilliant discussion of the HIStory album in Chapters 10 and 11 of his book, Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles, addresses some of the larger issues at play in this controversy very well, connecting the critics’ misreading of the song’s lyrics to what he sees as white journalists’ habitual “denial of the complexity in Black artistry.” I think that White’s arguments about how the lyrics to “They Don’t Care About Us” work and about what drove that awful controversy are spot on.

Willa:  I agree, though there may have been some corporate intrigue going on as well, as D.B. Anderson discusses in “Sony Hack Re-ignites Questions about Michael Jackson’s Banned Song.”

Marie:  Yes, there’s probably a tangled web there, Willa, though from what I understand, critic Bernard Weinraub was not married to Amy Pascal, the Sony executive, until 1997, and his scathing New York Times review of “They Don’t Care About Us” appeared in 1995. Still, it appears that tensions between Michael and Sony existed even then, so it’s hard to know exactly what motivated that review.

But looking at it purely in relation to our discussion of lyrics, it seems clear that Weinraub didn’t read the so-called slurs in context and missed Michael’s intended purpose, which was to speak from the position of those being attacked. However, I also think that part of what makes those lyrics a lightning rod for the charges that Weinraub and others made is that since the words need to follow the staccato rhythm that drives the verses of the song, they are fairly elliptical, meaning that some key connecting ideas are left out in order to achieve that rhythm.

Willa:  Oh, that’s an interesting point, Marie.

Marie:  The lyrics in the verses of this song are really minimalist – they attempt to convey a complex set of observations and feelings in a really compressed way. In part, the compression is required by the medium: songs are short, so it wouldn’t work to go into long discourses.

But the shape of the verses and the way they spit out their words in a very truncated, staccato fashion is also part of the intended message and effect. The prejudice, hatred, oppression, and abuse that Michael rails against in the song do hit and bash, literally and metaphorically, and that’s what the pounding rhythm of these words conveys, along with Michael’s own disgust and frustration with these circumstances. The first verse sets the tone, offering a general picture of a world gone mad:

Dead head
Gone bad
In the suite
On the news
Dog food
Bang bang
Shot dead
Gone mad

The second verse is a bit more challenging to understand, as the first-person narrator takes on the shifting subject positions that we’ve been talking about:

Beat me
Hate me
You can never
Break me
Will me
Thrill me
You can never
Kill me
Jew me
Sue me
Do me
Kick me
Kike me
Don’t you
Black or white me

Clearly, Michael is alluding to his own recent tribulations here in lines like “Beat me / Hate me / You can never / Break me,” “Sue me,” and “Don’t you / Black or white me.”  And “thrill me,” which at first seems out of place in this string of negative action verbs (“beat,” “hate,” “kill,” “kick,” etc.), also links the speaker here very directly with Michael Jackson, in an obvious allusion to “Thriller.”

Willa:  Yes, I think so too.

Marie:  But while we might first associate “thrill me” with “Thriller” or with something more generally positive, as in the colloquial usage “I’m thrilled to be talking with you here, Willa,” the word “thrilled” can also refer to excitement of a more negative or scary sort, like the fear we might feel at a horror movie. And read in the context of the “will me” which precedes it, “thrill me” might well be alluding to the terror Michael felt as the force (or “will”) of his accusers, the criminal justice system, and the media pressed in on him. So Michael is packing this one word with a lot of meaning: it’s a blatant, even defiant, allusion to his own phenomenal success with “Thriller” and to his reputation as a thrilling performer, but it also falls in line with the more negative actions that are stacked up in these lyrics. All together, though, Michael can be pretty easily understood to be saying something like, “Go ahead, do your worst, but you’ll never defeat me.” That’s clear.

But beginning with “Jew me” in line 9, the point of view shifts radically, as Michael starts speaking in the voice of a Jewish person who is the target of anti-Semitic slurs, making that person speak in that same “go ahead, do your worst” mode that he used in the earlier lyric. Here, the Jewish person seems to be saying, “Go ahead, call me those awful names, but you’ll never defeat me,” very much parallel to the mode of expression that was used in the lyrics a few lines earlier.

Willa:  I agree.

Marie:  But again, the actual expression here is elliptical and relies on the listener to recognize the parallel. And the lyrics don’t stick with this Jewish person’s point of view for long. Michael very quickly mixes in language that seemingly shifts the point of view back to his own personal situation, with “Sue me.” Then he switches back to the perspective of the Jewish person targeted by the anti-Semitic slur with “Kike me” and quickly follows that with a return to something that would be read as more directly related to himself, “Don’t you / Black or white me.”

If a listener is not following the shifting perspectives carefully, or if they are not even aware that this technique is being used, as seems to be the case with so many critics, then it would be pretty easy to decide that there is only one narrative point of view here and that the voice of the narrator is always Michael Jackson, speaking about his own personal situation and expressing his own point of view. As an English professor, I can’t help but be frustrated at the fact that the critics were making one of the most elementary mistakes you can make when reading literature, which is to confuse the speaker of the piece with the author.

Willa:  Yes, it almost seems like a willful misreading of what he was saying.

Marie:  Exactly. It’s not just that these critics are bad students of literature! There were many reasons for the media’s “misreading” of these lines. By the time this song was released in 1995, the general practice of attacking and ridiculing Michael was well established, fueled by complicated social and political energies that are now finally being carefully explored by many good scholars, journalists, and bloggers.

But if we look with attention at what is actually there in the words of the lyrics, we can see that by shifting the point of view so quickly, Michael is rapidly stepping in and out of different roles with the same kind of agility that he steps in and out of the choreographed group dances in his performances. He speaks for himself and about his own specific situation, and then he puts himself in someone else’s shoes and speaks their troubles, too. The effect of all this shifting is to erase the distinction between himself and others, to express solidarity and understanding in relation to those who are oppressed in different ways, and by doing so, to define really carefully the “us” that is the subject of the song and the focus of the chorus.

Willa:  Yes, that’s a beautiful way of explaining this, Marie. And this ability “to erase the distinction between himself and others,” as you say, and “express solidarity … to those who are oppressed in different ways” is made very clear in the videos for the song, especially the original video – the one that’s become known as the “prison version.”

For example, in this screen capture, we see him in handcuffs with his hand positioned like a gun and his finger to his head, as if he’s about to be shot – and on the TV screen behind him, we see a prisoner of war in handcuffs who is about to be shot. In fact, this prisoner is shot as we watch, which is shocking and horrifying. And as this is happening, Michael Jackson sings “Bang, bang / Shot dead / Everybody gone bad.” So through the lyrics and these dual images, he makes a direct and visceral connection between himself and this anonymous prisoner.

they dont care about us prison version 1

By juxtaposing numerous images such as these, he links racial injustice in the US with war in Southeast Asia and hunger in Africa and political oppression in China and urban poverty in Brazil. In other words, he isn’t simply protesting the injustices he’s facing from a racially biased criminal justice system here in the US. He’s also linking that injustice with political, economic, and military oppression around the world.

Marie:  Good point, Willa, and another terrific example. I think what you’re identifying when you say that the film makes clear that the perspective offered goes beyond Michael’s personal one reflects precisely the way a particular “production” of a play script works to clarify the words on the page by actually dramatizing the situation and embodying the different perspectives from which the characters speak. The particular creative choices that a production demands typically serve to specify and clarify those “open” or ambiguous elements that a written script presents.

So while the “They Don’t Care About Us” song lyrics alone might leave room for the kind of misinterpretation you mentioned earlier, the “prison version” makes it clear that the “me” who is speaking in the second verse of the song can be generalized to encompass all those who have been oppressed by hatred and violence, as in the example from the screen capture above. What we get in the film is a clearer and visually rich version of what the song lyrics tell us in much more elliptical terms, namely that Michael deliberately identifies with these many different oppressed individuals as part of an “us,” rather than as a more distant “them.” To me, this is emblematic of the often misunderstood beauty and power of the HIStory album as a whole. Michael’s personal anger and frustration extend beyond the personal to encompass much more than that.

Willa:  I agree, and that’s part of what makes him such a powerful artist, I think.

Marie:  Yes, absolutely. But in the lyrics to individual songs like “They Don’t Care About Us,” all this unfolds very fast (as Michael said, songs are “quicksilver”), and without clear markers to clarify who is speaking, as one would find in an actual play text where the speeches are preceded by the speaking characters’ names. The complexity of what Michael is doing here is easy to miss if you’re not paying attention or if, as I think many of the critics were, you’re responding with a pre-ordained agenda in place.

Willa:  Exactly.

Marie:  But to move on a bit from “They Don’t Care About Us” and take this playwriting angle I’ve suggested a step further, we might say that one way to think about the multiple perspectives and voices Michael creates in his songs is to note that they are often used to set up explorations that are structured as powerful conflicts (between individuals or ideas). Conflict is a key element of the storytelling that goes on in plays (and many other forms of literature as well), and it’s one of the basic ways that these texts keep us interested. We get invested in the struggle, we want to see what the terms of it are, we might identify with a certain character within it, and we want to see what happens in the end.

Willa:  Oh, absolutely – either conflicts in personal relationships, like we see in “Billie Jean” or “In the Closet” or “Whatever Happens,” or between groups of people, as in “Beat It” or “Bad.” Or an individual fighting authority, as in “Ghosts” or “This Time Around.” Or internal conflicts, as in “Will You Be There” or “Stranger in Moscow.” Or large cultural conflicts as in “Earth Song” or “Black or White” or “HIStory” or “Be Not Always” or even “Little Susie.” That’s a really important point, Marie. A lot of his songs are driven by powerful conflicts, as you say – though often in complex ways where the protagonist sympathizes with the antagonist to some degree, so it’s rarely a simple “us” versus “them” situation.

Marie:  That’s a really good survey of the different kinds of conflicts Michael lays out in his songs, Willa, and I love how you can pull those titles together so quickly!  It’s so much fun to talk with you about this topic!  And yes, I agree that while many songs start off with clearly drawn conflicts, they end up complicating those basic oppositions, but we can see very clearly even in songs that remain starkly polarized how he evokes both sides really powerfully and is able to deftly sketch out what’s at stake in the conflict by invoking the shifting subject positions we’ve been talking about.

Willa:  Yes, it’s really remarkable.

Marie:  In “Scream,” for example, where it’s clear in the first part of the first verse that he’s expressing his opposition to the abuse he suffered from the press and the culture at large after the 1993 allegations (“Tired of injustice, tired of the schemes . . . as jacked as it sounds, the whole system sucks”), he follows up in the second part of the first verse with a more detailed invocation of the conflict, using the “you” pronoun in opposition to “me,” “mine,” and “I”:

You tell me I’m wrong
Then you better prove you’re right
You’re sellin’ out souls but
I care about mine
I’ve got to get stronger
And I won’t give up the fight

The rapid oscillation of the pronouns here makes me think about how spectators’ eyes move back and forth as they watch a tennis match between opposing players. The back and forth between the perspectives of the “I” and the “you” reads at first like a verbal argument (“You tell me I’m wrong / Then you better prove you’re right”), but the same opposing pronoun structure is used to ramp up the stakes of the conflict really quickly in the next couple of lines: “You’re sellin’ out souls but / I care about mine.” Now the apparent argument about who’s right or wrong takes on much larger proportions, with the “you” attached to the evil-sounding act of “sellin’ out souls” (which works both metaphorically as a way of describing terrible betrayal in economic/religious terms, and more literally in connection with the greed that was involved in the efforts to destroy Michael) and the “I” declaring how important his soul is to him and vowing to get stronger so as to keep up “the fight.” In just a few lines, the really high-stakes conflict has been sketched out for us.

Willa:  It really has. And it’s made all the more intense because of the very real conflicts he was facing, conflicts that can lead us to fill in the “you” position in different ways – as referring to the media, the police, the judicial system more generally, the music industry, the insurance industry, the specific accusers, the general public, and so on. The ambiguity of that unspecified “you” lets us fill in that slot with a multitude of characters who were complicit in “selling out souls.”

Marie:  That’s a great insight, Willa. I think you’re right about how that “unspecified you” works as an open slot that can be filled in with a number of different characters. And in typical Michael fashion, things get even more complicated in the chorus, where the second person “you” references shift really quickly as the lines move forward:

With such confusions
Don’t it make you wanna scream?
(Make you wanna scream)
Your bash abusin’
Victimize within the scheme
You try to cope with every lie they scrutinize
Somebody please have mercy
‘Cause I just can’t take it

Here, as in other songs, the “you” is ambiguous, and expansively so.

Willa:  Yes, and I like the way you put that, Marie. It’s an “expansive” you that can stretch to encompass all of us listening to his words.

Marie:  Yes, it addresses us directly and urges us to join in and identify with the speaker in his indignant question (“don’t it make you wanna scream?”) but it also sounds like he is addressing himself, as if he is suddenly on the outside looking in and asking himself about what the circumstances make him feel, just to double check on the accuracy of his feelings, or perhaps to give himself temporary relief from occupying the besieged position of “I” in this scenario. And the call and response from the background vocal that repeats “make you wanna scream” suggests yet another perspective, from a chorus that is echoing this idea, as if to confirm that yes, all this does make you wanna scream.

In the next two lines, the perspective referenced by the second-person pronoun “your” seems to shift dramatically, to those victimizers who are perpetrating all the things that make “you” and the speaker himself want to scream: “Your bash abusin’ / Victimize within the scheme.” Then in the following line, we’re back into the perspective of the previous “you” who is reacting to all this: “You try to cope with every lie they scrutinize.”

And finally, the last two lines of the chorus land squarely in the first-person, pleading, “Somebody please have mercy / ’Cause I just can’t take it,” and the rest of the chorus expands this plea into a more aggressive demand to “Stop pressurin’ me,” with the first-person objective pronoun “me” repeated eight times, once in every line, so that it’s painfully clear who is experiencing all the pressure! The effect of all this for me – the shifting perspectives described by the quick pronoun shifts – is that I feel like my head is being spun around! Trying to follow the perspectives creates for me a version of the “confusion” that the speaker is describing and makes me able to imagine just a tiny bit of what it must have felt like to be in the whirlwind of abuse that Michael went through.

Willa:  That’s a great description, Marie! And maybe this “confusion” also works to complicate the distinction between the heroes and the villains. Because there are so many shifts in perspective, the “you” is accused of “bash abusin’ / Victimize within the scheme” but is also asked, “Don’t it make you wanna scream?” as you say. So maybe the villains are pressured by the system too?  Maybe it makes them want to scream also?  And maybe we need to look at our own complicity in the system and change our own ways also?

Marie:  I like that reading very much, Willa!  It goes along with the idea from the first verse where Michael says, “The whole system sucks.” So it would make sense that the villains are caught up in it in ways that are harmful to them as well, whether they admit it or not. Your point about our own complicity in the system is interesting, too. We know from songs like “Tabloid Junkie” that Michael doesn’t let us off the hook either, as he reminds us of the role we might play in the system, specifically through the consumption of tabloids: “And you don’t have to read it / And you don’t have to eat it / To buy it is to feed it . . . And you don’t go and buy it / And they won’t glorify it / To read it sanctifies it.”

Willa:  Exactly. That’s a great connection, Marie.

Marie:  It’s also really interesting, too, that since “Scream” was recorded as a duet with Janet, the speaker who utters “I” literally shifts as each of them sings their assigned part. Janet’s sharing the lead vocal with Michael is a solid act of support for her brother (even before she appeared with him in the short film). When she sings as “I,” she’s singing from his perspective in all the “confusion” and also joining in his opposition to it.

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, and a really important point, Marie. I hadn’t thought about that before, but you’re right. And again, the ideas expressed in the lyrics are reinforced by the video, where Janet and Michael Jackson are repeatedly pictured as almost mirror images of one another, identically dressed and reflecting each other’s feelings and facial expressions. Here are some screen captures:

Scream - dancing Michael and JanetScream - angry Michael and JanetScream - hugging Michael and Janet

So unlike a play, where one actor would typically play one character while the other plays a different character – for example, where one might play the victim while the other takes on the role of victimizer – in Scream it’s like they take turns playing the same character. That’s really interesting, Marie.

Marie:  Exactly, Willa. And as they take turns playing the same character, I think that what we see, particularly in Janet’s willingness and ability to take on the role of the victim in “Scream,” is a clearer, more easily understood version of what Michael does on his own in so many songs where he himself takes turns playing all the characters, as in “They Don’t Care About Us.” In Janet’s case, it’s clear that she empathizes with her brother and can understand deeply what he’s going through. She shares and can give voice to his anger and frustration, not only because she’s his sister and she loves him, but because as a famous artist she’s also in the public eye and knows what it’s like to be subject to the abuses of “the system.” (And just think, “Scream” was recorded long before the infamous 2004 Superbowl “wardrobe malfunction” that blew up into such a nightmare for Janet.)

Thinking about Janet’s role in “Scream” also reminds me of that great moment at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards when the Scream short film won the award for Best Dance Video. When she went up to accept the award with Michael, Janet appeared in a cropped t-shirt that said “Pervert 2” on the back!

Pervert 2 shirt

Willa:  I was just thinking about that! As you were describing so well how she shoulders some of his burden in “Scream” by stepping into his subject position and speaking from his perspective – “giv[ing] voice to his anger and frustration,” as you said – I suddenly flashed on her in the “Pervert 2” t-shirt. That really was a powerful act of solidarity.

Marie:  I love how, by choosing to wear this shirt at such a widely viewed event, Janet performs a really cheeky extension of her identification with Michael in the song and the film, as if to say, “Well, if my brother is a pervert, then so am I!” Here’s a link to the awards telecast. Janet appears in the shirt right around 1:15.

The larger point here, though, is that Michael’s skill at incorporating different subject positions and points of view in his song lyrics allows him to convey so many complex and important messages in the space of the “quicksilver sketch” that the song medium requires. As Janet did with Michael in “Scream,” Michael is able to forge strong connections to the “others” that he invokes through the shifting points of view in many different songs. It’s not always about this same level of empathy that Janet displays in “Scream,” but it does suggest how important it is for him to present many different perspectives and voices. And it’s significant that he chooses not to just describe them in the third person (“he did this” or “she feels that”) but to speak “as if” he himself were these other individuals, as he does in “They Don’t Care About Us.”

Willa:  I agree, and in doing so he immerses us as listeners in those subject positions as well – not only in “Scream” and “They Don’t Care about Us” but in many other songs also.

Marie:  To me that demonstrates a remarkable spirit of openness, generosity, community, and heartfelt interest in people and situations beyond himself – all those qualities that we recognize and admire in Michael.

Willa:  Yes, absolutely, and a lifelong habit of empathy that led him to reach out emotionally and try to consider a situation from many different perspectives, even perspectives in opposition to his own.

Marie:  And just like Shakespeare and his contemporaries who worked so masterfully within the confines of the conventional fourteen-line, rhymed sonnet form, what he does is remarkable to me precisely because he’s working in such a compressed form with so many of its own constraints – song lyrics can’t be too long, they need to work with the musical rhythms and pitches of the song, they need to be pronounceable for the singer, in most cases they need to rhyme, etc.

And while it may sound crazy, I mean to draw the Shakespeare analogy here very deliberately. I specialize in Shakespeare, so he’s always on my mind and I can’t help but make the connection. But more importantly, I think that Michael’s lyrics are overlooked or misunderstood (as they were with “They Don’t Care About Us”) in part because people in general, and especially certain critics, are often reluctant to think of pop song lyrics as complex forms of language that spring from poetic impulses that are not that different from Shakespeare’s or those of any other venerated poet.

Willa:  I agree completely – though coming from you, as a Shakespeare scholar, that means a lot!

Marie:  As we’ve said, going back to the commentary I mentioned earlier from Joe Vogel, with Michael’s work there are so many other “channels” of expression to pay attention to – the music, the dance, the films, the live concerts – in short, the full spectacle that comprises the incredibly compelling pop phenomenon known as “Michael Jackson” – that the complexity of the lyrics alone is often overlooked.  (And this is even putting aside the additional effects of all the controversies and tabloid distortions that played into how Michael was viewed from the mid-1980s onward.) But I also think that there’s a certain elitism that comes into play that’s connected to the divide that still persists in some people’s minds between so-called “high culture” and “low culture” or “pop culture.”

Willa:  Absolutely, and it’s really curious how that line is drawn. Of course, for some critics no pop music is high culture. But even for those who concede some ground to popular music, the distinction often feels arbitrary. For example, for some reason U2 is generally regarded as high brow and the Beach Boys are not, even though the Beach Boys were much more experimental musically, incorporating complex arrangements and harmonies and pioneering new recording techniques that changed the course of music history.

That’s just an example, but my point is that the division between “high” and “low” art often doesn’t make much sense, and seems to depend more on some academic “cool” factor rather than artistic merit.

Marie:  The Beach Boys example is a great one, Willa. I recently saw Love and Mercy, the new film about Brian Wilson, and learned so much from it about how complex and innovative Wilson’s music was. A lot of recent academic work has critiqued that “high/low culture” divide and there are many music and cultural critics who don’t let it stop them from taking the work of popular artists seriously. (Serious considerations of hip-hop, for example, have been under way for a long time now, as evidenced not only in the music press, but in academia, where we see specialized journals, books, courses, and even college-level majors and minors in hip-hop studies.)

But as we know, Willa, as an artist whose popularity was (and still is) unprecedented around the world, Michael was often mistakenly pigeon-holed as just an “entertainer” focused mainly on mainstream commercial success as shown in record and ticket sales, rather than being viewed as a serious artist whose keen intelligence, sharp social insight, and nuanced emotional understanding got expressed in the language of his lyrics as well as in all the other media he used.

Willa:  Absolutely. You expressed my feelings exactly, Marie, though much more elegantly than I could. And it continues to mystify me how critics could have overlooked and undervalued his work for so long.

Marie:  It is hard to fathom, for sure. But working on this post has made me see even more clearly that there really have been a bunch of different obstacles preventing the kind of careful consideration and appreciation of Michael’s lyrics that we’re trying to do here. And I think we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what there is to say about how Michael’s lyrics use shifting subject positions, Willa!

Willa:  I agree, and thank you so much for joining me, Marie, to try to gain a better understand of all this. You’ve given me a lot to think about, and I really appreciate your insights into the “quicksilver” quality of his songwriting – of his ability to not only tell a story but sketch out a miniature drama in his songs. I’m really intrigued by that, and want to ponder that some more. Thank you for sharing your ideas!

Marie:  It’s been a pleasure, Willa. Thanks again for coming up with this topic and inviting me to think about it with you!

About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

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

Posted on July 23, 2015, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 37 Comments.

  1. D.B. Anderson

    Thank you for this illuminating article.

    I would like to respond to Marie’s comment about the marriage date of Pascal & Weinraub not lining up with the TDCAU controversy. It was never my argument in my Kinja article that Pascal had involvement in the media firestorm that Weinraub started. Pascal’s leaked emails, however, showed instances of Weinraub using or claiming to use his Hollywood connections order to influence New York Times coverage of a story.

    This disclosure led me to discover Weinraub’s farewell column for the New York Times, in which he confessed to & expressed regret for improperly favoring his friend David Geffen.

    David Geffen was a major figure in Michael’s business affairs, was in partnership with Spielberg, and had handpicked Michael’s manager Sandy Gallin. That none of them would go on record supporting Michael is telling, and I raise the question of Weinraub’s objectivity in his review, in light of his personal connections to these people and admitted use of his media influence to do favors for friends.

    • Hi D.B. Thanks for clarifying, and for all your research. Most of what I know about this issue is because of your article.

      I do want to point out that while David Geffen and Steven Spielberg were deafeningly silent (I was especially disappointed in Spielberg’s reaction), Sandy Gallin did support him, though perhaps not as much as he could have. Here’s a quote from Weinraub’s article:

      When asked yesterday about the lyrics of “They Don’t Care About Us,” Sandy Gallin, Mr. Jackson’s manager, said in an interview that they should be taken in context. “When I heard those lyrics, I thought they were brilliant,” he said. “He’s saying, stop labeling people, stop degrading people, stop calling them names. The song is about not being prejudiced. To take two lines out of context is unfair.”

    • Hi D. B.,

      Sorry for taking a while to reply to your comment. I’ve been preparing for and then traveling for a vacation. Now that I’m settled, I wanted to thank your for your comment.
      I did understand that you weren’t saying in your Kinja piece that Pascal had been involved in the media debacle that Weinraub’s article ignited. My apologies if my comment in the blog seemed to misrepresent your point. I know that it was a larger and more complex web of possible influence you were outlining. Thanks, also, for your wonderful “Messenger King” piece in the Baltimore Sun. It appeared just after my MJ course finished up this past fall. We had talked a lot in the class about the Brown and Garner cases and about how TDCAU had become an anthem for #BlackLivesMatter. I sent the article to my students because I wanted them to see the powerful way you underscored MJ’s courage and commitment to speaking the truth. Best of luck with the great work you’re doing. I look forward to reading more!

  2. Another brilliant article, girls! I am constantly reassured that we MJ fans are a ‘cut above’ in that somehow we managed to be objective and sympathetic at the same time as all the controversies surround Michael when he was here with us. We managed to see him as a storyteller in addition to the dancer, the singer, the songwriter etc. Very unfortunate others couldn’t see that.

  3. Thanks, Willa and Marie for a great discussion of MJ’s use of multiple identities and changing pronouns to express very complex ideas and feelings. I agree with everything you said, and I love Marie’s comparison of MJ’s poetic genius to Shakespeare, which reminds me of musicians who compare his musical genius to Bach’s. He’s one of the greats, no doubt about it, if not the greatest!

    Several posts ago, I was responding to a comment about MJ as a lyricist and I said he was no Cole Porter. And, especially because of this post, which so eloquently defends and explains MJ’s eloquence, I want to amend that. Because I agree that his lyrics are wonderfully complex. I think what I meant was that his goal in his lyrics was not cleverness or wit, although he often was both clever and witty, his goal was not to communicate with the intellect, but with the emotions, to reach the intellect through the emotions. And, I believe that his lyrics, when he wrote them, came last and had to fit the feeling tone which was established by the beat and the music, and given that they were often so complex, they had to be really compressed, which was so challenging as you point out, but a challenge he brilliantly met.. And, as you point out, his songwriting genius was never recognized or appreciated because he was black and his genre was pop. But, you know, when I am trying to figure out his sometimes less than obvious meanings, I often feel like I am dealing with the complexities of a TS Eliot or Wallace Stevens. And, I have also thought that the key to understanding lies in the emotion he is conveying. Which is why I have never understood how anyone could misinterpret They Don’t Care About Us. Like you, I believe that particular misunderstanding was deliberate.

    Another song, I’ve been thinking about lately, and which proves your point about multiple identities is Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ — and it is also a song about conflict, and a song that tells a story.

  4. you really know to put an argument on jackson’s songwritting abilities,almost half of his best lyrics are in HIStory album, (huge fan of that album) , perhaps one of the main reason why he is not credited as say prince, is perhaps because he had way too many collaborations, like he only wrote a a few songs by himself.but im intrigued by your statements that he was a unique songwritter, maybe critics were not familiar enough to what he was doing.

  5. Phew! What a great read! As always, I’m blown away by your insights and those of your guest.

    Thanks for mentioning “Be Not Always”. I didn’t realize I’d missed another stunning song so relevant to the escalating attacks against people of color in this country, and the general economic, political and military devastation we are seeing across the world.

    I’m also grateful for the deeper explanation of what was happening in “They Don’t Care About US,” and that reference to the video. It will be so helpful to point people to this discussion.

  6. Fantastic post! Thank you, Marie, for walking us through such a focused analysis of how the texts are constructed. Re TDCAU, I thought this comment was particularly incisive: “However, I also think that part of what makes those lyrics a lightning rod for the charges that Weinraub and others made is that since the words need to follow the staccato rhythm that drives the verses of the song, they are fairly elliptical, meaning that some key connecting ideas are left out in order to achieve that rhythm.” This hits the nail on the head, I think. As you say, the minimalism serves the musical composition, but it can lead to some confusion, willful and genuine. In all, I really liked how you demonstrated the totality of perspectives Michael Jackson compiled over and over (and, as you also pointed out, how without that “overarching narrative voice to explain,” that can also lead to confusion). His intentionality in being so inclusive, yet at the same time quite specific in his critiques, is truly unique. Thanks again!

    • Hi SJM, thanks for your kind words. I’m so glad you enjoyed our post! I think the potential for confusion you picked up on is always there whenever a writer sends language out into the world, but that gets even more complicated, as we see in TDCAU, when the language must also serve the music. The more I consider MJ’s lyrics, the more fascinated I become. Thanks for thinking along with Willa and me about this topic!

  7. Hi Willa and Marie,

    I was inspired by your post and wanted to follow up on the use of shifting identities and changing pronouns in Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ because he’s all over the place in that song. A few examples —

    Singing as himself, he tells us that no matter what he does, they, the white media, misinterpret it, generally maliciously.

    “I took my baby to the doctor

    With a fever, but nothing he found
    By the time this hit the street

    They said she had a breakdown…

    Then, still himself, he addresses the hypocritical white media as “you” —

    You love to pretend that you’re good

    When you’re always up to no good…

    Then, still himself, but speaking in the voice of those who dish out so much garbage, he tells us how he feels (the “you” is MJ and all those who are dehumanized and exploited, the “they is the white media), that his whole life is being cannibalized, by a media who will do anything for money. To them, he is a commodity, a vegetable to be exploited for their gain.

    “You’re a vegetable, you’re a vegetable

    Still they hate you, you’re a vegetable
You’re just a buffet, you’re a vegetable

    They eat off of you, you’re a vegetable…

    And the pain is thunder (yeah, yeah)”

    And, he also assumes the identity of a judgmental white culture,shaking its finger at black women, linking the unjust attitudes toward himself to racist attitudes. If you can’t feed your baby, then don’t have a baby (If it were only that simple!)

    “If you can’t feed your baby (yeah, yeah)

    Then don’t have a baby (yeah, yeah)

    And don’t think maybe (yeah, yeah)
If you can’t feed your baby (yeah, yeah)

    You’ll be always tryin’

    To stop that child from cryin’

    Hustlin’, stealin’, lyin’

    Now baby’s slowly dyin’, ”

    And as himself, a proud black man, he addresses those, like him, who are on the receiving end of injustice and racial prejudice, and tells them to be proud of their African American heritage, ending with a reference to a Cameroonian song “Soul Makossa.”

    “Lift your head up high

    And scream out to the world

    I know I am someone
And let the truth unfurl

    No one can hurt you now
Because you know what’s true

    Yes, I believe in me

    So you believe in you

    “Help me sing it, ma ma se

    Ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa

    Ma ma se, ma ma sa,
Ma ma coo sa

    • never knew the last lines were about race, i thought he was talking about ‘unwanted pregnancies’ to quote joe vogel

    • Why assume the “baby” lines are representative of judgmental white culture? Black culture is just as judgmental regarding people, women and men, who have babies that they can’t afford. When you consider that Michael fed and supported several of his brothers’ children, and even a few cousins, those lines take on even more weight.

      • So, VC… Do you think the “baby lines” are expressing criticism on his part or sympathy?

        • I definitely believe it’s criticism. Michael would not allow his brothers’ children to go without, but I’m sure he would have preferred that it not be necessary. Joe Jackson is vilified by many fans, but he worked long and hard to provide for his family, even harvesting field crops during lay offs from his regular job. Michael seemed to have inherited that trait.

    • Hi Eleanor! I agree that “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” is a really intriguing song when it comes to shifting points of view. I enjoyed your analysis. I hadn’t thought about the lines about the media as directed specifically towards white media before (though the media is definitely white-dominated). I guess I can’t help seeing the media critique in this song in the context of the later media-related songs where we don’t seem to get any really explicit designation of race in connection with the media that he’s targeting (as far as I can remember).

      I may be wrong about this, but my sense of “the media” or “the tabloids” as he presents them in songs like “Tabloid Junkie” and “Privacy” seems monolithic, almost faceless and machine-like. But again, that interpretation does elide the fact that the media that went after Michael was largely white (though not exclusively). I really love the comic version of the “media machine” that appears in Claymation form in “Speed Demon.” The posse of reporters and photographers who chase Michael there move as an interconnected mass of bodies whose grotesqueness is as funny as it is scary. Later on, as we know, his depictions of the media were much more bitter and cutting. It’s interesting, though, that as far back as “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” the portrayal of the media is quite disturbing and sinister, especially with the “vegetable” and “buffet” references alluding as they do to cannibalism!

      I also had not thought about the “if you can’t feed your baby, then don’t have a baby” lines as being spoken from the point of view of a judgmental white culture. I’ve always tended to think of those lines as direct commentary from Michael himself, but I see your interpretation as valid as well. As we said in the post, there’s room for multiple interpretations of the lyrics Michael writes in so many instances, and I really like how the possibilities multiply
      as different people read them and interpret them!

      I wonder what you make of what I think of as some of the most cryptic MJ lyrics of all (from Startin’ Somethin’):

      Too high to get over (yeah, yeah)
      Too low to get under (yeah, yeah)
      You’re stuck in the middle
      And the pain is thunder.

      I love these lines, but I’ve always struggled to interpret them!

      • The “too high”, “too low” theme appears in a number of traditional African American songs. It’s also in the song Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, which was their entry to Motown. It was a hit, originally recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and a bigger hit when covered by Diana Ross and the Supreme with the Temptations.

        But “the pain is thunder” line is, as far as I know, original with Michael. I don’t have a clue what that’s about, either.

        • i think its kind of belittling michael’s art when we are saying WSS is only about media, i think its the jacksonian version of come together, with all the ‘they”ll eat you , you are a vegitable’ refering to the predatory nature of society as a whole, and in the end of the song, he sings proudly ‘ i know i am someone so let the truth unfold’, and then comes the soul makusa sampling- here i think, as one critic pointed out he is linking himself to a community, thus the message of the song, similar to come together is -unity.

      • Love your reference to the Claymation posse of reporters in SD, Marie, as being both comic and grotesque in their mechanical facelessness. They are not really people but cameras, and their jerky movements correlate to the clicks of the camera shutters. From the perspective of a person who constantly had camera lenses thrust at him, what Michael saw was not a person as we would see them normally, but instead a being hidden behind a machine. It is similar in some ways to a person hiding behind a weapon, such as a rifle or large gun. And we do use the same word ‘shoot’ when we refer to using a gun or a camera. Thanks for a very interesting discussion.

        • Hi Indigenous,

          I really like the way you put it: “From the perspective of a person who constantly had camera lenses thrust at him, what Michael saw was not a person as we would see them normally, but instead a being hidden behind a machine.” I think that the commentary on the media that runs through Michael’s work, or, more specifically, the commentary on what it’s like to be pursued by the media, represents one of the most astute and compelling analyses we have of celebrity culture. Some critics complained that Michael was harping too much about the same thing in the songs he wrote about the media, but I think that he presents many different and important perspectives on it, ranging from the comic/grotesque camera posse in SD to the much less playful perspectives in “Tabloid Junkie,” “Privacy,” “Monster,” and “Breaking News.” Re: the analogy to shooting and weapons that you made, Michael compares the words of the tabloid press to weapons in both “Breaking News” and “Tabloid Junkie.”

          • Yes, Marie, he sings, ‘you write the words to destroy like it’s a weapon’ in BN, and I love his play on ‘Breaking News’ as a a means of ‘breaking the news,’ thus drawing attention to the loss of integrity and honesty in ‘news’ reporting, when it is merely lies and slander passed off as ‘news.’ Also love the shots of him throwing a punch at the camera outside the trial and at various times covering the lens with his hand.

      • Hi Marie and VC. I agree that the lines “Too high to get over / Too low to get under / You’re stuck in the middle / And the pain is thunder” are “some of the most cryptic MJ lyrics of all,” as you said Marie. And thanks for the historical context, VC.

        Since the rest of the song is about the hardships he faces as a celebrity, I tend to interpret these lines from that perspective. Because of his stature, some people tended to see him as a god, but he wasn’t a god – he was a flesh-and-blood human being. But he was excluded from the fellowship of humans because he was seen as more than human, as he explains in this Sylvia Chase interview, recorded right around the time “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” was recorded. (The Chase interview was recorded in 1980, and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” was recorded twice – in 1978 and 1982.) As he says about 6 minutes in, “Being around everyday people, I feel strange.” And then later, about 7 minutes in, he says, “People won’t deal with me in that way because they see me differently. They won’t talk to me like they will their next door neighbor.” Here’s that interview:

        So the way I interpret those lines is that he can’t connect with the gods because they’re “too high” and he’s not a god, and he can’t connect with humans because they’re “too low” and he’s seen as super-human. So instead he’s “stuck in the middle / And the pain is thunder.” But I realize this is a pretty idiosyncratic interpretation!

  8. Hi Marie and VC —

    You know, I also read those “baby lines” as Michael speaking and as judgmental (sort of a Bill Cosby-esque laying down the law!!??), but that reading had never made any sense to me within the overall context of the song, which is about being on the receiving end of malicious gossip and a malicious and deliberate misreading of the facts — or within the context of MJ’s sympathy for the plight of women and girls – as in “Slave to the Rhythm” and “Keep Your Head Up,” and “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” Or, within the context of his personality, his deep compassion for people who are “stuck in the middle.” That is who are confined by the limitations of the “single story.” And to be caught in this one-dimensional rendering of who you are would be extremely painful — the pain would feel like thunder.

    What I mean by the single story is expressed in this great ted talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche —

    She is my current enthusiasm. Based on the number of YouTube interviews with her, I may be a little late to the party. But, I am finishing up her third novel, “Americanah,” which I highly recommend. And, her first two “Purple Hibiscus” and “Half A Yellow Sun” are also just wonderful and each is completely different from the other. But “Americanah” takes place largely in the US and is, among many other things, a Nigerian woman’s take on race in the US and, well…. it is fascinating.

    But back to Michael and the different readings, Michael’s ambiguity is deliberate and a part of his genius, but his lyrics are never nonsense, they always make sense — and the emotion of the song generally is the key to the meaning of the lyrics. For me, reading the lines about the baby as critical seems emotionally out of tune with the rest of the song. And, “Now baby’s slowly dyin'” is sung with such heartbreaking sadness that I have wondered if the baby referred to is the young woman whose life has been destroyed because, “Just don’t have the baby” was not really an option — for any number of reasons, none of which are included in “the single story.”

  9. Regarding Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, I’ve read that Michael wrote the song about the constant bickering between his various sisters-in-law and his sister Latoya when they were all living together at Hayvenhurst. (Sorry, I don’t recall where I read that.) And of course Michael did not always get along with his brothers, and he resented the emotional blackmail that pressured him into projects with them because they needed the money. Maybe “they eat off you, you’re a vegetable” refers to that as well.

    The full term, “you just wanna be startin’ somethin'”, is a complaint, a comeback. It means you don’t really have a valid point, you just want to be quarrelsome. It’s similar to the saying, “don’t start no mess, won’t be no mess” – you are the problem, not I.

    I don’t know why, but I always assumed that the “if you can’t feed a baby” lines were critical of men who don’t provide for their families, not women.

    • Hi, VC, I read about the ‘constant bickering’ you mention in Latoya’s first book, where she discusses it in detail. I think your interpretation that ‘if you can’t feed the baby, then don’t have a baby ‘ is directed at Michael’s brothers makes sense. He was footing the bills at Hayvenhurst while being pressured for family reunions and tours when he wanted to be ‘someone ‘ on his own and forge his own artistic direction .

      • Would nt it be cynical to tell his millionaire brothers to not have children and at the same time send food to people in Africa who by those standards would not even qualify to have children? Wouldnt he send them condoms instead? If he did foot their bills, he had a choice to not do it. And why would strangers have a problem with him footing his families bill and not that he was footing the bill for many unrelated families. I may be wrong , but even if he had disagreements with his brothers I dont think he would drag children into it.
        This is one of Taraborellis fabrications that certain fans selectively adopted because it fits their narrative of Michaels family.

  10. Thank you for these great post again! I teach story telling and often talk about differences between play and novel but never thought about how much more room for interpretation there is in a play and why. Very fascinating.
    You mentioned how important camera/angles/perspective were for Michael and embedded that video example. I thought of another example immediately: the world premiere of “Earth Song” at the german show “Wetten Dass”.
    At about minute 3:30 you can see how Michael corrects one of the camera men by grabbing his camera and directing it where he wants. I love that moment. 🙂

    • Hi Karla,

      Thanks so much for your kind words! I’m glad you enjoyed the post! And thanks for that great example of Michael directing the camera angle on “Wetten Dass.” That clip reminded me of this one in which Michael playfully takes over the camera from one of the onstage photographers during the “Dangerous” tour.

      As in the “Wetten Dass” show, Michael is interested here in turning the camera on the audience. To me, this suggests many things, including Michael’s love of playing with the audience, but perhaps most significantly, a desire on his part to make the audience a part of the total performance. Michael always seems interested in recording the reactions of his audiences and making those part of the show, as we see in so many of his professionally filmed concerts. (He takes this even further in the “One More Chance” short film in which the audience occupies the stage while Michael performs on tables and in other spots in the space normally reserved for the audience. There was a great discussion of this film here on Dancing with the Elephant:

      In addition to the idea of Michael’s interest in controlling camera angles, the clip you mentioned, Karla, and the one from the “Dangerous” concert I mentioned above (along with that famous final shot in the “Liberian Girl” short film!), point oretty clearly to Michael’s larger interest in film-making. In fact, he seems to have been fascinated with cameras from a young age, judging from the many still photos of him taking photos or holding cameras of various sorts when he was young. And there is also this clip that surfaced not long ago of him using a mirror to test out a new camera, apparently in 1993.

      Thanks again for your comment!

  11. (Thread was getting too tiny so will continue here.) I wanted to agree with you, Marie, about Michael’s ‘compelling’ and powerful analysis of celebrity culture, and also with your observation that his attack on tabloid media runs through his work. The media put him in its crosshairs and he returned the favor in spades. Of course, the media can ‘t handle criticism, although happy to dish it out, and whined that he was overreacting. I love how A. White describes the media as ‘soulless’ and as ‘blood hounds.’ Michael’s song Xscape, where he shows himself escaping from a prison cell (he’s gone!’) is such a poignant commentary on the life — the ‘problem world’–he was forced to into. ‘I can’t take this kind of shit no more!’

  12. For those not familiar with Michaels discography or new fans, reference to the songs Keep your head up, Monster and Breaking news especially on a blog that takes an academic approach to Michaels work , imo should be accompanied by a disclaimer that there is serious doubt about the authentity of the tracks. Not by random people but by people who are in a position to know because they worked with Michael in different capacities, some were also at a listening session of the tracks and none of them has an incentive other than to (pre)serve and protect Michaels artistic legacy, as opposed to those whose motives are only money driven.
    These are 3 of 10 songs that Cascio/Porte registered after Michael died that were .
    released on the first postumous album. The details if not deleted, can be found on most MJ sites. Because of the themes people were misled to believe they are Michaels, but the majority of fans, many people who worked with him for decades including his brothers and nephews, the MJE co-executor who is occupied with the music side of his estate (and who also produced his work), many conoisseurs and even Teddy Riley who worked on some of the songs had to admit something was wrong. The reason is that among many oddities like the strange vocals, there is literally nothing, no history, no stories, no handwritten notes, no messages, no humming on voicemails, no harddisc, no trace whatsoever that connects Michael Jackson to these songs or the lyrics. Unlike any other songsnippet that he ever wrote, sang, produced or participated in in his 40 years carreer. Michael did not release as many albums as other artists, but the songs that were released under his supervision are all classic masterpieces. To someone like myself it feels like an insult to Michaels legacy to refer to the Cascio songs as Michaels while the man has the most amazing discography you could imagine. Last but not least , in the hand written notes found in Michaels room when he died, he had a list of songs he was working on and nowhere does he even mention any of the 10 Cascio songs. The list can be found here.

    By 2009 he was also done with the media theme.The songs on his handwritten note were of a completely different nature. Why would he revisit the same old theme again, when his mindset in 2007/2009 – the time Cascio claims the songs were recorded- was to leave that episode behind, get his life together, a home for his children and some peace of mind.

    The Cascio songs are subject to a class action, a lawsuit filed by a fan for ‘violation of consumers legal remedies, unfair competition and fraud.” Sony and the MJE administrators thankfully and wisely have no plans to release the 7 remaining tracks.
    Noone would refer to a painting as Van Goghs or a composition as Beethovens if there was the slightest doubt about its authenticity . Michaels work deserves the same protection.

    • Thank you, Sina. I agree wholeheartedly. I LOVE this blog, but I too feel like it’s an insult to Michael as an artist to refer to those bad songs and that horrible singing as his. Sorry for being harsh, but it is a subject that makes me very upset.

      BTW, there are 12 Cascio songs:

      All I Need
      All Right
      Black Widow
      Burn 2Nite
      Fall In Love
      Keep Your Head Up
      Ready 2 Win
      Soldier Boy
      Breaking News

      They all sound horrible with someone struggling hard through them to try to sound like Michael but failing big time.

      • You are welcome Jacksonaktak. I am not even talking about how they sound, which is a matter of taste.
        Some people love the songs even if they acknowledge that they are questionable.
        What upsets me most is when people say to get over it.

        • I am bothered by how they sound because when you play all 12 of them, one after another it’s a torture to even listen to them. Just incredibly BAD singing. IMO it’s insulting to Michael to say that he would have been capable of such horrible struggle singing and through 12 songs at that. Never in his life he sang that bad, not even on his worst day. Not before, not after these tracks and I don’t know why we should believe that in the Cascios’s basement he somehow forgot how to sing and he suddenly started to sound like a goat. Cascio defenders tried to say it must be his age, but then he sounded his old self again on Best of Joy, Hollywood Tonight or during This Is It rehearsals – so no, he did not lose his singing talent with age, those latter recordings and This Is It prove that.

          And of course it only makes it more suspicious when the Cascios cannot provide a single evidence for the authenticity of these songs. No different takes, outtakes, nothing. Supposedly the hard drive got destroyed and there was another version of an excuse when Eddie said Michael asked him to destroy all the outtakes, and different takes and demos because he was so satisfied with the result. Never in his career did Michael ask anyone such a thing when he was satisfied with a song. That was not his method of work. We still have the demos to all of his great songs like Billie Jean or Beat It and so on – he never destroyed any of those and those are significantly better songs than the Cascio songs, so I cannot see what would make Michael so satisfied about those Cascio songs. Just weird excuses after weird excuses as to why there is not a single evidence to support the authenticity even just one of these 12 songs.

          I think sometimes impersonators can fool people who do not have such trained ears in listening to Michael’s music. There are some “convincing” impersonators (you can check them out on YouTube) – at least to the untrained ears, but I think veteran fans easily spot the difference. They are never as great, flexible singers as Michael. They just try hard to mimic his tone, but their actual singing is never anywhere near as good as Michael’s.

  13. Incredibly insightful post, Marie and Willa.


  1. Pingback: Das Subjekt ändern: Ich, Du, Mich, Uns | all4michael

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