Michael Jackson, Leonard Bernstein, and the Artist’s Role in a Chaotic World

Lisha: Hey Willa! It’s been a long time since we’ve talked.

Willa: Yes, it has, and an awful lot has happened since then.

Lisha:  So true. Here in the US, it feels like a luxury to think about anything other than the news of the day – we have so much political turmoil going on. But I recently saw something that really spoke to me and I wanted to see if it resonated for you, too.

It’s a quote by the conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein, published in the Boston Globe on July 5, 1970. It was taken from remarks he made at the Tanglewood Music Festival, addressing the “artist’s role in a chaotic world”:

It is the artists of this world, the feelers and thinkers, who will ultimately save us, who can articulate, educate, defy, insist, sing, and shout the big dreams. Only the artists can turn the “not-yet” into reality.

Willa:  Thank you for sharing this, Lisha! I love everything about this quote – especially that bold opening line of “It is the artists of the world … who will ultimately save us.”

When I read about all the injustice and violence around the world, and about increasing intolerance here in the US, and when I think about how rapidly climate change is happening, and about the recent political changes that indicate we’ll not only respond too slowly in coming years but may actually start moving back in the wrong direction, I do wonder if we’ll be able to save ourselves and the other inhabitants of this planet.

Lisha: It’s a dangerous time, for sure.

Willa: It feels that way, doesn’t it? – like we’re on the edge of a precipice. But if there’s a chance, it lies with artists.

Lisha: Yes! Artists play such an important role in showing us where we are and where we need to go. They are the leading edge of what we’re capable of imagining and creating and becoming.

Willa:  Exactly! Very well stated, Lisha. As Bernstein said, “Only the artists can turn the ‘not-yet’ into reality.” I really believe that. Before you can “make that change,” to quote another visionary artist, you first have to be able to visualize that change. And then you have to make people care enough to bring it about.

Those two acts – of imagining a new way of being and of making people care enough to enact that vision – may be the two most important and most difficult steps in bringing about social change. And those talents lie uniquely with artists: the ability to visualize the “not-yet” and to make people care.

Lisha:  That’s it, really. And I think we can point to very concrete examples of this in both Leonard Bernstein and Michael Jackson’s work.

Leonard Bernstein was one of the first to take a very broad view of American music, wanting to understand what makes some music sound “American,” in such a way that all Americans could identify with it. As a result, he was among the first to challenge the high/low art divide in American music and to explore the racial politics buried within it. It’s a position he never backed away from throughout his entire career.

Willa:  That’s interesting, Lisha. We’ve talked several times about how Michael Jackson blurred the boundary between high art and popular art, along with other artists like Andy Warhol, Fred Astaire, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, even Walt Disney to some extent. And you’re right – Bernstein worked to bridge that divide also.

Lisha:  Yes. Bernstein seemed just as comfortable in the symphonic world as he was in musical theatre and film, even nightclubs for that matter! As a composer and conductor, he interrogated the boundary between “serious” and “popular” music, and he refused to segregate musical styles, using music as a form of civic engagement. He was also a very dynamic performer. So it’s no surprise to me that he was a huge fan of Michael Jackson.

Author Jonathan Cott, who got the last substantive interview with Bernstein over a dinner in his home, described Bernstein’s admiration for Michael Jackson this way:

Above all, in every aspect of his life and work, Bernstein was a boundless enthusiast. In the course of my dinner conversation with him, he informed me that the word “enthusiasm” was derived from the Greek adjective ‘entheos’, meaning “having the god within,” with its attendant sense of ‘living without aging,’ as did the gods on Mount Olympus.

One of my favorite Bernstein stories that perfectly exemplifies and highlights his enthusiastic disposition tells of the occasion when the conductor invited the then twenty-eight-year-old Michael Jackson – another age defying musical “god” whom Bernstein wildly admired – to attend a concert he was leading with the New York Philharmonic in 1996 at Los Angeles’s Royce Hall. Jackson was bowled over by Bernstein’s hyperkinetic performance, and during the intermission he went backstage to pay tribute to his fellow musical potentate. The hyper-appreciative Bernstein then wrapped both his arms around Jackson, lifted him up and kissed him on the lips. Landing back on the terra firma, the breathless singer found himself only able to ask the conductor, “Do you always use the same baton?”

Here’s a photo that I believe is from their backstage meeting in Royce Hall, August 1986:

Willa: That’s a wonderful story, Lisha! I love the image of Bernstein scooping Michael Jackson up in a big embrace. I’m always struck by how other talented and creative people seemed to recognize him as a kindred spirit, like Baryshnikov talking about his dancing.

It’s funny to think of Michael Jackson being star-struck, but I’ve read about other instances where he felt overwhelmed meeting someone he admired, so I guess it really did happen sometimes.

Lisha: Yes, it does seem funny, since Michael Jackson was obviously a much bigger star. And it’s hilarious that he responded to Bernstein’s enthusiastic greeting by asking about the baton!

Willa: It really is, and it reminds me of something David Michael Frank told Joe Vogel. Frank was working with Michael Jackson on a classical album in the spring of 2009 – this was on top of everything else Michael Jackson had going on in the months before he died, with rehearsals starting for This Is It also.

Frank talked to Joe Vogel about it later, and he mentioned Bernstein’s batons:

I hope one day his family will decide to record this music as a tribute, and show the world the depth of his artistry. … I told Michael I was going to use one of Leonard Bernstein’s batons I had bought at an auction when we did the recording. I knew he would have gotten a big kick out of that.

Lisha:  Wow! How cool is that?

Willa:  Wouldn’t that be wonderful if it came to pass? I’d love to see a video of Frank using one of Bernstein’s batons to conduct an orchestra playing Michael Jackson’s classical music.

Lisha: Or even better, maybe someday we will hear it live!

Willa:  That would be an experience! According to a post by David Pack, who arranged a meeting between Bernstein and Michael Jackson, the admiration went both directions. Pack wrote that Bernstein was in Los Angeles in 1986 a few days before his birthday, and Pack asked him what he would like to do to celebrate: “Without missing a beat, Leonard said, ‘I want to meet Michael Jackson.’” Unfortunately, I think the original post has been taken down, but here’s a repost on Reflections on the Dance that tells the story of that evening.

Lisha: That is such a captivating story. I would love to know what Leonard Bernstein and Michael Jackson discussed that evening!

Willa: I would too!

Lisha: I’m guessing this dinner party happened on the same evening Michael Jackson attended the New York Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles because I noticed Michael Jackson is wearing the same clothing in all the photos. Bernstein is wearing a tux in the above photo, but more casual clothing at the dinner. Conductors typically change after a concert and don’t wear their tuxes out of the concert hall, so I think there’s a good chance this dinner happened right after the concert.

Willa: Oh, I bet you’re right, Lisha. Good detective work! It makes sense that Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones would have dinner with Bernstein after meeting him backstage.

Lisha: Yes, and it sounds like Bernstein hoped this meeting might lead to them working together. According to Pack, “Leonard wanted to introduce Michael to classical music and maybe inspire Michael toward a collaboration of classical and pop music.” I wonder if they realized no introduction was necessary when it came to Michael Jackson and classical music? As Jermaine Jackson tells in his book, You Are Not Alone:

Michael viewed music as a “science” as well as a feeling. From the moment we moved into Bowmont Drive [1972], he started to study composition. He strove to understand the make-up of someone’s song in the same way a scientist set out to understand a person’s DNA. Together we tuned into any classical station we could find on the radio, listening to the structure of a piece of music and “seeing” what color, mood and emotion each instrument would create … he loved so many classical pieces, how they started slowly with the strings, swelled into something dramatic or racing, then calmed again. This structure – the A-B-A form – was something we constantly dissected. And this classical inspiration runs as a thread through so much of his music… (p. 129)

In fact, according to Michael Jackson’s own words, the Thriller album (released four years prior to his meeting with Bernstein) is based on Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Talk about counter-intuitive!

Willa:  Yes, Susan Fast talked about that in a post a few years ago. I was really surprised by that, but after Susan explained it it made a lot of sense.

Lisha: Yes, she always has a way of making complicated ideas seem crystal clear!

And there is another interesting influence. I think most everyone who has spent some time with the short film Beat It can see a lot of Bernstein’s West Side Story in Michael Jackson’s work.

Willa: Yes, director Bob Giraldi has denied there’s any connection, but I’ve found that Michael Jackson’s directors often seem to have a pretty superficial understanding of his films. And it seems doubtful to me that West Side Story wasn’t an inspiration for Beat It, whether Giraldi realizes it or not – there are just too many connections.

Lisha: I agree. I don’t doubt Giraldi’s account of what happened, but I don’t think it necessarily rules out West Side Story as an influence either.

Willa: Yes, that’s a good way to put it, Lisha. I think you’re right.

Lisha: Michael Jackson knew the history of popular music, theatre, and film well. Really well. Many consider West Side Story to be the pinnacle of the genre, so I find it hard to believe it escaped his attention. There are just too many connections between Beat It and West Side Story to simply dismiss them as coincidence.

Willa: I agree. For example, the first words you hear in West Side Story, repeated at intervals as the gangs collide, is “Beat it!” Also, the way the gangs walk in unison in West Side Story, clicking their fingers as they walk – we see clear echoes of that repeatedly in Beat It. And actually, the whole idea of a musical about overcoming gang violence – that lies at the heart of both works. So it seems pretty likely to me that West Side Story was in Michael Jackson’s mind to some extent as he was creating Beat It.

Lisha: Those are brilliant observations, Willa! And by the way, anyone who hasn’t read your analysis of Beat It in M Poetica is truly missing out. You so convincingly show how artists interact with previous works by connecting the dots between Beat It, West Side Story and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Michael Jackson updates previous incarnations of the story by envisioning a world where strong group identification isn’t based on ethnic or family ties, as it is in the works that preceded him.

The Eddie Van Halen guitar solo plopped into the middle of the song illustrates this point musically, as it strongly codes white in a tune that would otherwise be pigeonholed as black music. And at the very end of Beat It, the camera pulls away to break the fourth wall between the viewer and the performance. Assuming everyone is paying attention, it becomes explicit that this is a vision of the world as it could be, rather than a naïve remark about how the world really is.

Willa: That’s a really important observation, Lisha – one that critics who call Beat It naïve have clearly missed.

Lisha: Envisioning a more peaceful, colorblind society through music on stage and screen also strikes me as a Bernsteinian move. It strongly echoes Bernstein’s first Broadway show, On the Town, written in 1944 at the height of World War II, in collaboration with three other Jewish artists: Jerome Robbins (whose choreography shows up in Michael Jackson’s work), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (the screenwriters for two very important Michael Jackson influences: The Band Wagon and Singin’ In The Rain).

Willa: Interesting! There are more connections between Bernstein and Michael Jackson, creatively, than I realized.

Lisha: Yes, and I find it very intriguing. Especially when you consider how revolutionary the show On the Town was in its day. It was the first Broadway musical written by a symphonic composer, and it was the first show to cast actors in an integrated, colorblind way. African American actors played a variety of roles right alongside their white counterparts, appearing as typical New Yorkers, sailors, and pedestrians – something that hadn’t really happened before. There was an interracial chorus performing hand-holding dances. Everett Lee conducted the orchestra, making him the first African American musical director on Broadway.

But perhaps the most revolutionary casting decision was for the lead female role, which featured the Japanese-American dancer, Sono Osato, as the ultimate “all-American” beauty, Ivy Smith. That was a truly radical move at that time, considering Osato’s father was one of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans interned during the war.

Here’s a picture of Sono Osato and John Battles in On the Town, from Carol J. Oja’s Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War:

And here’s a picture of the original Broadway cast of On the Town in 1944:

Willa: Wow, thanks for the insights about On the Town, Lisha!  It really sounds like a Michael Jackson kind of production, doesn’t it?  I mean, think of how he transformed the all-white nightclub in The Band Wagon into the multi-ethnic clientele of Smooth Criminal or You Rock My World.

Lisha: Yes, it does resemble the creative philosophy of Michael Jackson. And I’m so glad you mentioned You Rock My World, Willa, because that’s another strong Leonard Bernstein connection. Bernstein wrote the music for the film On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando, which is alluded to throughout You Rock My World, including a cameo appearance by Brando himself.

Willa: That’s right! I hadn’t put all that together, Lisha, but that’s another important connection … and a really interesting one. Thanks for connecting the dots.

And I’m still intrigued by your description of On the Town. It sounds like it was an early forerunner of the kind of boundary-crossing sensibility we see throughout Michael Jackson’s work – and at a time when interracial relationships were far less accepted. In fact, there were anti-miscegenation laws in many states in 1944.

Lisha: Yes and don’t forget this was happening during World War II, when America was fighting for human rights and freedom abroad, despite obvious shortcomings here at home.

Willa: That’s right, and when fear of “foreigners” was at a peak, especially against Japanese-Americans. I was really struck by what you said earlier, Lisha, that the father of the lead actress was one of the thousands taken from their homes and forced to live in camps during the war.

Lisha: I had to take a moment to really let that sink in, especially in relation to our current moment. In 1944, as Japanese-Americans were being carted off and placed in internment camps, a group of young Jewish artists responded by constructing a new beauty icon: Japanese-American Sono Osato as the fresh-faced, all-American girl next door.

Willa: Yes, it’s a creative way of speaking truth to power.

Lisha: For sure. From a 2017 perspective, when you look at those photos of the original On the Town cast, you wouldn’t have a clue anything radical was going on unless someone told you the history of the show. There’s absolutely nothing there that seems out of the ordinary to our 21st century eyes. But in 1944, it wasn’t what audiences expected to see at all.

One indication of how truly radical the show was is that when MGM released a film version five years later, the racial politics were removed, in very disturbing ways, I might add. And most of Bernstein’s music was removed as well – all but three songs and the ballet. The producers thought it was too symphonic, so they assumed audiences wouldn’t like or understand it.

Willa: Really? Even though Bernstein was seen as one of the greatest composer/conductors of the 20th century? I have to say, stories like this make me crazy – it reminds me of what happened to the panther dance segment of Black or White. You would think that when an artist of Bernstein’s stature, or Michael Jackson’s, released a revolutionary new work, there would be a certain level of trust in their judgment, and a hesitation in condemning it too quickly. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Lisha: Yes, it’s really hard to take. I recommend watching the MGM version of On the Town sometime, just to see for yourself how awful the new music is and how horrible the racialized nightclub scenes really are! And why? It cost them a lot of money to substitute poor quality for the original!

Willa:  Wow, Lisha, it’s pretty ironic when you look at it that way …

Lisha:  But perhaps that’s what happens when artists get too many steps ahead of the culture: not everyone gets it. Michael Jackson seemed to be aware of this. I suspect that’s the reason he backed down and issued an apology for the panther dance. If you push too far too fast, the message doesn’t get across.

That’s one of the most interesting things about Bernstein and the original production of On the Town. It doesn’t necessarily hit you over the head with overt political statements – the show simply imagines the world as it could be, which has always been the purview of the arts. As musicologist Carol Oja writes in her essay “Bernstein’s Musicals: Reflections of Their Time,” Bernstein was

someone whose music had the kind of political orientation that was worth following. But the political messages in Bernstein’s shows were rarely confrontational or didactic … Rather, the politics emerged through the overall ethos of the show …

This strikes me as the approach Michael Jackson brings to many of his songs and short films.

Willa: Yes, we could list many of his films as examples, or even something as subtle as “The Girl is Mine.” There isn’t a single mention of race anywhere in the song, but if you recognize Paul McCartney’s voice and Michael Jackson’s voice – as pretty much everyone did in 1983 – then you know that a black man and a white man are singing about going out with the same woman, and debating which of them she likes better. That was a radical scenario in 1983.

Lisha: You’re right. As embarrassing as it is to admit, that was a radical scenario back in 1983. But the song approached the topic in such a non-confrontational way, I’ll bet many didn’t notice the political implications as they cheerfully absorbed the message and sang along.

Willa: You may be right, Lisha – especially for young listeners. And I think you’re raising a crucial point about art not being too preachy or confrontational.

I’ve been thinking a lot about social change the past few months, and how it actually happens. We know that overcoming racism and other kinds of intolerance was very important to Michael Jackson – there’s ample evidence of that – and he always advocated for a more just society. But at the same time, he never made people who held racist beliefs feel dumb or unenlightened or evil. I think that’s really important for us to keep in mind, for the pragmatic reason that it simply doesn’t work. You can’t change people’s hearts and minds by telling them they’re ignorant. In fact, sometimes I think it has the opposite effect of actually hardening people in their positions.

What does seem to work is art. As you said of On the Town, “It was … the first show to cast actors in an integrated, colorblind way” – something Michael Jackson did repeatedly as well and talked about a number of times, saying he hired talent, not color.

Lisha:  With Michael Jackson, there was always that idea of radical inclusivity. As he told Rolling Stone in a 1984 interview,

I happen to be colorblind; I don’t hire color, I hire competence…. Racism is not my motto. One day, I strongly expect every color to love as one family.

Willa: Yes, exactly, and that refusal to abide by social norms of the time, especially in terms of race, was a revolutionary stance for both Bernstein and Michael Jackson. After all, many radio stations refused to play “The Girl is Mine” because of the implied interracial dating … not to mention the audacity of a black man telling a white man (a Beatle, no less!) that she prefers him.

But as radical as this was in 1983, he handles it with a light touch. I think this kind of art that subtly challenges the boundaries of what’s acceptable has taken a leading role in changing popular opinions about race and interracial relationships.

An example of how much social mores have changed is audiences’ reactions – or nonreactions – to the new Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, which in subtle ways has “cast actors in an integrated, colorblind way,” as you said earlier about On the Town. There are a number of characters who have been turned into household objects by an evil enchantment, and they yearn to touch the face of their loved ones but can’t because they’re locked into those inanimate forms – as a piano or dresser or candelabra or whatever. At the end, the spell is broken and those characters we’ve already come to care about revert to human form, and they include two interracial couples. In fact, Beauty and the Beast includes the first two instances of interracial kissing in a Disney film … and almost nothing has been said about that, positively or negatively.

Interracial relationships have become so mainstream they’re even in Disney movies, and they’re pretty much passing without notice. I think in a lot of ways we can attribute that change to visionary artists like Bernstein and Michael Jackson.

Lisha: I agree with you, Willa. It matters when a Leonard Bernstein or Jerome Robbins put together a hand-holding dance chorus that allows people to see and feel what racial equality is about. It matters when Michael Jackson builds a giant bridge onstage and he helps us think through climate change as a problem that requires everyone’s participation, regardless of affiliation, because it’s a crisis that cannot be solved by any one nation or any one group. Our only hope of averting disaster lies in our willingness to collaborate as one. And it’s a failure of the imagination not to foresee how disastrous the outcome could be, if we don’t act now.

Willa: Yes, beautifully said, Lisha. And as Bernstein said in that statement you quoted at the beginning of this post, it is artists who will lead the way.

Lisha: Before we go, I’d like to share the second part of that quote, on turning “the ‘not-yet’ into reality”:

How do you do it? Find out what you can do well, uniquely well, and then do it for all you’re worth. And I don’t mean “doing your own thing” in the hip sense. That’s passivity, that’s dropping out, that’s not doing anything. I’m talking about doing, which means serving your community, whether it’s a tiny town or six continents.

Willa: That’s really inspiring, Lisha.

Lisha: I think so too, Willa. It feels like we need our Bernsteins and Michael Jacksons now more than ever!

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 April 12, 2017, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. Just wa t to say welcome back ladies. Oh how i have missed you!!! Wonderful post which i will comment on more when i have reread & digested it.

  2. So happy to see your post in my email this morning. So refreshing to read about “something else.” Thanks!

    Artists do hold the key to social change and MJ’s influence is so powerful that it is still working, continuing to bring joy to new and old fans, and it is present in the work of other artists and in the hearts and minds of children.

    I was visiting with my grandchildren last week and showing two of the boys (3 and 6) the video of MJs super bowl performance and they loved it and were chanting “Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson” and dancing around the room, and their faces were lit up with smiles and ….. well, it gave me hope.

    He and his art certainly changed my life. He rocked my world.

    • Hi Eleanor,

      Yes, what a relief these days to read “something else”! What an intense experience we’ve had these past few months. Couldn’t have even imagined it before.

      That’s so sweet about your grandchildren, and heartwarming! Glad to know you are taking their MJ education seriously.

      And I’m glad we have this framework to be able to analyze how art and society works. It really helps.

    • Mine too Eleanor. Soooo great to have this blog back. Missed my MJ friends

  3. So happy you have not vanished off the face of the earth. Missed this blog immensely.

  4. Great to hear your voices!
    Thanks for another good discussion!

  5. Am so glad you are back. So much to discuss am going to split it into several comments as using phone not laptop.
    The initial quote by Bernstein so insightful and so true. I think the truly great artists remain in our consciousness for that very reason, and why LB and MJ are the Mozarts of the future. When the world is on the edge of a precipice (and it has been many times before) their messages remind us to ‘make a change’ amd somehow we do and we go on.

    Loved that MJ was so overwhelmed he could only ask about LBs baton. Remimded me of the Oprah interview when he said he wanted people to be more interested in his art than his personal life! Am sure that many artists who undersrood his art saw him as a kindred spirit – that goes for his most ardent fans too…..

    • The question about the baton really jumped at me too, Caro. It sounds like Michael Jackson’s never-ending quest to absorb new information. Conductors have all kinds of different baton techniques, sometimes they even put the baton down on the music stand and use their bare hands, if they feel they get more control of a specific passage that way. So I guess it shouldn’t surprise us that Michael Jackson noticed the baton and wanted to know more about basic baton technique.

  6. Thank you for the fresh discussion and inspiring Bernstein quote! I always thought of the girl in ”The Girl Is Mine” was black, which would make Michael Jackson’s claim that she prefers him over McCartney less scandalous, wouldn’t it? But of course, that’s up to the listener’s imagination; either way, the song flirts with interracial dating… In MJ’s illustration for the song, the girl doesn’t look racially defined (I still see her as African-American, but it may just be me): http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/thriller/images/9/96/Thegirlismine.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20110821063351

    Interestingly, when updating the song for the Thriller 30th anniversary edition, he chose to collaborate with will.i.am – thus entirely changing the racial implications of the song, perhaps to show that we’ve moved way past 1983? Now it’s a rapper battling against a pop singer for a woman who might be of any race (unless she’s still the girl from the 1983 edition!)

    • That’s so interesting about illustration for the song. You’re right! McCartney and Michael Jackson are clearly identified, but every character is drawn in such a way that they are racially ambiguous. I hadn’t really noticed or thought about it before and now I’m amazed.

  7. And Frank also indirectly gave us the answer to Jackson’s question to Bernstein – he indeed had more than one baton! 🙂

  8. I feel MJ treated everything he did as a science as he was such a perfectionist. Remember how he had Prince watching films with the sound off so he could understand other aspects. I would love to hear his classical work, and yes conducted with LBs baton. I always think of the last bit of Stranger in Moscow as a piece of classical music it is so beautiful.

    It is obvious in his work that MJ was influenced by everything he experienced, but of course he always took it that one step further. He also had many collaborators who brought their 2 cents worth into the mix. It took me several viewings until i realised the significance of the end of Beat It. More tomorrow …..

  9. MJ was always personally colour-blind. Michael Beardon confirmed that on the This is It DVD. However, very much not so when it came to discrimination of people of colour. He cared very much about that and i remember from a previous blog on the dance sequence at the end of Black or White the intention was to further highlight this in dance as well as the words of the song. I feel he was condemned for this because so many people either didn’t understand or were afraid of what they did understand. Until your blog i really didn’t understand either but it deeply moved me when i first saw it for reasons i still can’t quite explain. He was simply way ahead of his time and most of his audience!! The Girl Is Mine is another example of this colour-blindness for MJ but making others think about it.

    • @Caro, I think you’re absolutely right that MJ was colour-blind in the sense that he didn’t think that some persons (or indeed living beings) were more valuable than others. However, I also think he was always acutely aware of perceptions of race and gender – what upset so many people is that he refused to accept common hierarchies, treating everyone, from Princess Diana to the smallest child, with the same reverence. This created a lot of fury, from white and black Americans alike. Once Jesse Jackson even requested a meeting with Michael, because Jesse took offence that MJ at that time had few black employees. (I’ve seen some really harsh reactions from African-American commentators to the line ”It Doesn’t Matter If You’re Black or White” – something like ”you’re African-American, Michael, so Black should matter more to you!”) But MJ didn’t listen ”to a word they say” – sometimes he had mixed teams, sometimes he had an all-white team (look at the photo of the HIStory team), sometimes he had an all-black team (look at photos from the Brunei show). In a way I think MJ was creating a kind of post-racial ”performance theatre” which made many people feel uneasy because it revealed the arbitrariness of our categorizations (guess Willa says it better in her book!) 🙂 Please take another look at his drawing for TGIM. Does McCartney look ”white”? Does MJ look ”black”? What about the woman? http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/thriller/images/9/96/Thegirlismine.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20110821063351

      • Absolutely Bjorn. No colour in the faces in the drawing – if anything they are all white but certainly alll the same. I believe his concern was more about racial discrimimation than skin colour but i suppose it is hard to separate the two!! Remember when he was also accused of being anti-semetic? How ridiculous was that also! As we have said many times MJ was misunderstood, different and therefore someone to be feared by many, as have been many before him. I am so glad that to a large extent i do understand him and consider that a huge blessnig in my life which he has certainly changed for the better.

        • @Caro – yes, indeed, the accusations of anti-semitism were really strange, especially considering his Jewish friends (Spielberg etc.) It’s like being ”pro-everybody” is too radical a concept for most people – you need to be anti-something (Anti-American, Anti-Muslim etc.) When MJ said he loved every ”race” and found truth in every religion, a lot of people thought he was lying. And maybe he too had weak moments when he wasn’t capable of loving everybody (after all, he was only human) the same. Still, I think he was trying to create a mindset for the future, a vision of life where we don’t turn our frustrations and our rage against other human beings.

  10. I remember years ago seeing a film called Snow Falling on Cedars where there were lines of Japanese-Americans waiting to go into camps. Very unsettling.

    I love the way MJ has a way of unsettling people without us even knowing it as you said. Who else has us rocking out to songs about abortion or vampires or even racism. What a genius.

    • There has been a lot of discourse here lately about the WWII Japanese-American internment camps – a very dark chapter in American history – in relation to proposed immigration reforms, deportations and travel restrictions. It’s extremely unsettling.

      “I can’t believe this is the land from which I came.” Wish MJ were here.

  11. Thank you for this, and for re-appearing after a long pause!! I was starting to worry! So a big ‘Welcome Back” and looking forward to more posts down the line.

    I agree artists are pioneers who do point the way. With their imaginative and creative works, they help us move forward, and Michael certainly did that brilliantly over and over in his work and his life. I think his main focus was personal change–the “Man in the Mirror” concept for us to “make that change” on an individual level. Otherwise, if we do make an effort to come together in a larger group, there will be many problems of agreement on a deeper level than sloganeering or a surface kind of group think. If change has not penetrated into one’s individual psyche, IMHO it becomes hard to be, on a practical and moral level, a leader for social change, or even an effective supporter of social change. Michael certainly showed how he was able to ‘walk the talk.’

    Thanks too for your focus here on his interest in and love of classical music. As far as his creative work showing a continuum with classical music, I think we see his fascination with and brilliant use of stringed instruments relatively early on in his solo career, for example in “Billie Jean.”

    • Hi Stephenson. Thank you for the Welcome Back – it feels good to be back!

      That’s an interesting point that Michael Jackson’s “main focus was on personal change.” It’s true that he seemed to make a point of staying above the fray in terms of political affiliation, appearing with presidents Reagan and Bush as well as Carter and Clinton. There were some issues that he definitely spoke out about – racism, war and other types of violence, even hot button political issues like abortion and AIDS – but he tended to speak about them through his art rather than political speeches.

      So he did take a political stance on occasion, but I agree that he tended to focus on personal change. Though I also think he felt that personal change could have far-reaching implications – that political change tends to happen one heart at a time, and the best way for him to help bring about that change was through his art.

      Thanks for your insights.

      • Yes–thanks for your comment, Willa: “he felt that personal change could have far-reaching implications – that political change tends to happen one heart at a time, and the best way for him to help bring about that change was through his art.” I agree so much–“one heart at a time.”

        As far as seeking to manifest change through his art, I think this is an important connection to understand how he combined various media (visual art, writing, Neverland itself, music, poetry, film, dance, etc, including his own artistic persona) to seed and nurture that change as much as possible. I have recently been interested in the thoughts of Camille Paglia on the issue of the importance of supporting the arts in basic eduction, especially art history. In her book “Glittering Images,” she writes:

        “The only road to freedom is self-education in art. Art is not a luxury for any advanced civilization; it is a necessity, without which creative intelligence will wither and die. Even in economically troubled times, support for the arts should be a national imperative. Dance, for example, requires funding not only to secure safe, roomy rehearsal space but to preserve the indispensable continuity of the teacher-student link. American culture has become unbalanced by its obsession with the blood sport of politics, a voracious vortex consuming everything in its path. History shows that, both for individuals and nations, political power is transient. America’s true legacy is its ideal of liberty, which has inspired insurgencies around the world. Politicians and partisans of both the Right and the Left must recognize that art too is a voice of liberty, requiring nurture without intrusion. Art unites the spiritual and material realms. In an age of alluring, magical machines, a society that forgets art risks losing its soul.”

        Michael expressed some similar thoughts, quoting the Michelangelo lines: “I know the creator will go. But his work survives. That is why to escape death I attempt to bind my soul to my work.” In his guidance to fans, like “If you want to know me, listen to my music. The love is there and will not die,” he pointed to his life-long commitment to his art as his way to reach out and spark change around the globe. I read so many comments about how he reached people in a personal, heart-centered way. Maybe it was that wonderful voice, that seemed to reach our ears as if he were singing or speaking to us personally.

        • Hi stephenson. Thank you for the interesting ideas about the importance of art – that among other things, “a society that forgets art risks losing its soul.”

          I recently watched the film The Monuments Men about a troop of art historians who were tasked with finding and protecting art during World War II. The film was set up like an action adventure movie, but it still raised some very interesting points about the function of art. Specifically, it talked about how Hitler deliberately tried to deprive defeated nations of their cultural history by stealing and, in extreme cases, destroying their greatest works of art.

          It’s coming at a similar idea from a different direction – that a society that loses its art has had its soul, its very identity, violently ripped away.

  12. Apropos of Bernstein, who was an iconic figure during my childhood (I fondly remember his “Concerts for Young People” and his lectures on music on public TV): here’s a quote of his I came across recently:

    “To teach is to believe in continuing. To share with you critical feelings about the past, to try to describe and assess the present – these actions by their very nature imply a firm belief in a future.”

    —Leonard Bernstein
    The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard, 1973

  13. Miss you guys—please come back!!

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