Search Results for history Teaser
Willa: Last week Joie, Lisha, and I were talking about “HIStory,” and after we finished I mentioned that I’d been looking for the video to “Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson,” a remix of “HIStory,” for a really long time. This video was supposedly produced and released in 1997, but while I’d seen references to it (like here in Wikipedia), I’d never seen the video itself, though I’d been looking for it off and on for several years.
Joie has a big deadline looming so wasn’t able to join us again, but Lisha, who is like a super sleuth when it comes to all things Michael Jackson, took on the challenge and found it that very afternoon! And right there on YouTube! I was stunned. Here’s the video that I looked for for so long and never found:
It’s unclear how involved Michael Jackson was in the production of this video, but it’s a fascinating piece, and I’m delighted to finally get to see it. Thank you so much for taking on the challenge, Lisha! So were you able to find much background info about this video? Like when and where it was produced, and who was involved?
Lisha: I found it rather curious that there wasn’t much information available at all on this video. To my knowledge, it was never released on any compilation of Michael Jackson’s work.
Willa: I think you’re right, and it’s not on Vevo either with his other “official” videos. You wouldn’t think a Michael Jackson video would be so hard to find …
Lisha: Many will recognize this as a remix of the song “HIStory,” produced for Michael Jackson’s 1997 album Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix. That album featured eight remixes of songs from his previous album, HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1 (2005). The official title of the remix featured in the video is “HIStory (Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson).”
I was able to find out a little more information about it, thanks to Gary Crocker, one of the co-founders of the site MaxJax: HIStory Continues. It was produced in July 1997 and directed by Jim Gable, the same director who made one of my all-time favorite MJ documentaries, Michael Jackson: The One (2004), which features some great interviews with Quincy Jones, Dick Clark, Beyoncé, Pharrell Williams, Savion Glover, Missy Elliott, Wyclef Jean, and many more.
Willa: Oh, I love that documentary too. And you’re right, it has some wonderful interviews.
Lisha: Gable also received a producer credit on the Michael Jackson’s Vision box set (2010) and was the restoration director for the Michael Jackson Live at Wembley DVD, recorded in 1988 and included with the Anniversary Edition of the Bad 25 album (2012). Steve Reiss produced the video for “HIStory (Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson)” and I discovered he was also the visual effects supervisor on Jam back in 1992.
I would assume Michael Jackson was involved to some degree in making this video because at the very least he would have had to approve the use of his previous work. The video includes clips from more than a dozen of his short films, as well as footage from the Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory world tours.
Willa: That’s a good point, though I have no idea who owns the rights to what. Maybe Sony could have moved ahead with it without his permission…?
Lisha: I wouldn’t know for sure either without reading the contracts, but it would really surprise me if Sony had the right to produce this video without his approval, since Michael Jackson was pretty savvy about his copyrights. At any rate, I really enjoyed it and thought it was unusual that I haven’t heard more fan discussion about it.
Willa: I do too, or any discussion at all about it, really.
Lisha: The concept is rather interesting. You know, we could get into a very heavy philosophical discussion about this in relation to time and the way it collapses the past, present, and future into a single view. Reminds me very much of a film I just saw based on a Marvel Comics storyline, X-Men: Days of Future Past. I remembered reading once that Michael Jackson was quite a fan of the X-Men comics and he expressed an interest in playing the role of Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men films.
Willa: Really? Wow, that’s fascinating – and that would have been a great role for him! Though I also like what Patrick Stewart did with it. And I can see how the X-Men movies would appeal to him since the “mutants,” mostly teenagers with superpowers, encounter terrible prejudice because they’re different, and are forced to hide their amazing abilities to fit in with the fearful “normal” people around them.
Lisha: I think it would have been a perfect role for Michael Jackson, and I consider it a real tragedy he didn’t get to play the part or fulfill his dream of developing the Marvel catalog himself. So I can’t help relating the X-Men: Days of Future Past to the concept of Michael Jackson’s HIStory: Past, Present and Future. Both deal with how these three divisions of time – the past, present, and future – are constantly intermingling and interacting with each other. The video for “Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson” illustrates this so well.
Willa: It really does, and it makes sense since we are always viewing the past and the future through the lens of the present. So while we tend to think of them as distinct, in reality they are always “collapsed” together in a way this video suggests in several different ways. For example, it really cracks me up about 2 minutes into the video when we see Michael Jackson do the moonwalk, followed immediately by Neil Armstrong doing his “moonwalk” – the original one, where he’s bouncing along the surface of the moon.
Lisha: I love that moment in the video!
Willa: I do too! And then a lot of the dancers, who seem to be dancing in the future, are mimicking Michael Jackson’s dance moves. So Michael Jackson did his moonwalk and kind of appropriated it. I mean, when you hear the word “moonwalk,” who do you think of first – Michael Jackson or Neil Armstrong? In the 1970s, it would have been Armstrong, no question, but I bet most people today would say Michael Jackson. And now these dancers from the future are appropriating him – they’re doing his dance moves and making them their own. In fact, frequently there’s a kind of double vision where we see the dancers performing the exact same moves that Michael Jackson is performing on the huge screens behind and around them, though it just occurs in flashes – not a sustained choreography.
Lisha: I noticed that too, especially with the Beat It choreography. It looks really great. And it is pretty amusing to see those two historic moonwalk clips next to each other. Just for fun, I googled “moonwalk” and the results I got were Michael Jackson, not Neil Armstrong! Too funny. I also searched “first moonwalk” and Motown 25 popped up, not Apollo 11.
Willa: Really? Well, there you go … empirical proof that when it comes to the moonwalk, Michael Jackson owns it!
Lisha: The audio clip of Neil Armstrong’s first moonwalk in the original song is pretty intriguing: “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It comes at the very end of the song, almost as an afterthought, and I assume it is included not only as a reference to Apollo 11, but as a reference to Michael Jackson’s famous dance as well. The video captures this perfectly and shows how one event influenced the other.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Lisha. I never thought about that before – that when Armstrong says those words at the end of “HIStory,” he’s literally getting ready to do the “moonwalk.” That’s funny!
Lisha: It is! There’s another really funny moment in the video that makes me laugh every time, and it just screams Michael Jackson humor to me. It’s when you hear the lyric “Keep moving, moving / Keep, keep, keep-keep moving” (1:32) – and there is a guy on some kind of flying bicycle contraption that goes crashing into the pavement. Sorry, but that’s really hilarious in a slapstick sort of way!
Willa: It is, like something from a Keystone Cops or Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin movie, or even the Three Stooges, and we know how much Michael Jackson loved those movies.
Lisha: Yes, I get the feeling Michael Jackson loved slapstick in general.
There is another audio clip at the end of the original song that I also interpret as having a similar self-referential, double meaning as the Apollo 11/Michael Jackson moonwalk. That’s the clip of Senator Edward Kennedy eulogizing his brother Robert F. Kennedy in 1968: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.” Apparently both Robert F. Kennedy and his brother John F. Kennedy were fond of this quote attributed to the playwright George Bernard Shaw. Because Michael Jackson described himself as a “visionary” on more than one occasion, I interpret this as a self-reference as well as a reference to the Kennedys.
Willa: I do too, and as inspiration for all of us.
Lisha: Yes, it is. I also noticed that earlier in the song, the birthdate of John F. Kennedy is cited, so there are references to three influential members of the Kennedy family: Senator Edward Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy. All three were known not just for their family’s wealth but also for their political ambition, their strong commitment to equal rights, and the dream of achieving racial equality in the U.S.
Willa: That’s true, and as we mentioned briefly last week, the fight for racial equality in the U.S. is one of the themes running throughout “HIStory,” especially in the audio clips and the list of dates, and in the lyrics as well.
Lisha: I think it is the most inspiring aspect of the song and album, and makes the strongest case for why history matters so much today and in the future.
Willa: I agree. And I love the double movement about 1:45 minutes into the video where Michael Jackson raises his fist in the panther dance, and then Desmond Tutu raises his fist.
Lisha: Good spot, Willa. And it’s like POW! Right on the first beat of the measure. Nice editing work!
Willa: Oh, you’re right! I hadn’t noticed that before. There’s even kind of a POW sound, like from a cartoon. And it happens again about 2:25 in when the protagonist of Scream punches his fist at us, POW.
Lisha: Or even earlier with the guitar smash from Scream at 1:25! It happens every 4 measures or every 16 beats. It’s interesting to see how they time those with the video.
But I was also thinking about how the whole idea of remixing music makes a point about how the past can interact with the present and future. The remix itself is taking something from the past and introducing it into the present, just as the dancers in the video are interacting with the earlier short films.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Lisha.
Lisha: But the woman in the video experiencing the song through her virtual reality goggles illustrates how the past and present will also resonate in the future. It reminds me of the French philosophers, Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze, who theorize that time cannot be measured by a clock. A more accurate conception of time would be the experience of present moment as influenced by memories of the past and our desires for the future. I think I see what they are getting at, don’t you?
Willa: I think so. And not only is the present “influenced by memories of the past,” as you said, but our memories of the past are influenced by the present also. So the past – or rather, our understanding of the past – is constantly shifting as current experiences change how we view the past.
Lisha: I think you’re absolutely right about that.
Willa: I went to a talk by Maxine Hong Kingston several years ago – quite a few years ago, actually – and she talked about her brother, who is a Vietnam War veteran, and more generally about how we all tend to deal with painful memories from the past. She said there are some stories that are just too painful to tell, and there are basically two ways to deal with that. We can either bury those stories and try to forget them, so they remain painful but locked away, or we can engage in some form of talk therapy – either with an actual therapist or with friends, or even in our own minds. She said the point of talk therapy is to tell and retell a painful story over and over and over again, gradually shifting it over time, until finally we have a story we can live with. And she kept emphasizing that we are constantly retelling the past, reshaping it to fit what we need it to be now, in the present.
Lisha: Isn’t that what history is? Those stories we tell over and over again as a group, “reshaping it to fit what we need it to be now, in the present”? And isn’t the whole point of interacting with the past an effort to create a better future?
Willa: Well, that’s interesting, Lisha. I’ll have to think about that … but my first reaction is that you’re right.
Lisha: Well it does get complicated. As lighthearted and fun as this video is in many ways, it doesn’t hesitate to point out that revisiting history isn’t always a terribly pleasant thing to do. There are a number of references to war, conflict, senseless divisions between people, pollution, and destruction of the earth. The original song portrays these two poles very effectively with all the crowd cheering and excitement when recounting some of our greatest achievements, while at the same giving us plenty of reminders that there is an awful lot from the past (and present) we cannot be so proud of: racism, discrimination, the struggle for human rights and equality. I noticed that during the audio clip from an early Michael Jackson interview, there is also a badly warped record of a military band playing “America the Beautiful.” As the pitch bends from the degradation of the record, it gives a subtle suggestion that not everything about America is so beautiful.
Willa: Yes, I’ve noticed that too, and think it’s a very significant part of “HIStory.” A very young Michael Jackson is saying, “Whatever I sing, that’s what I really mean. Like if I’m singing a song, I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it.” He sounds so sincere and earnest, but in the background there’s a scratching sound like a needle dragging across the record, and then a kind of warped version of “America the Beautiful,” like you said. The music is very patriotic, but as you pointed out, the distortions subtly undercut that, so there’s both the ideal and the suggestion that we aren’t living up to the ideal.
Lisha: Beautifully said.
Willa: It’s especially significant if you consider that those distortions are happening as an immensely talented young black boy is speaking those words within a predominantly white culture where the odds are stacked strongly against him, and then consider what our flawed prosecutorial system did to him when he grew up, with complicity by the press and the public. We still live in a very racist country that is far from living up to its ideals.
Lisha: No doubt. It’s painful to think about what Michael Jackson had to endure and realize that, for the most part, the public has no way of knowing what really happened unless they do extensive research on their own. And I am afraid for how this story will be told in the future and how history will repeat itself until we face it and learn from it.
For example, I remember when I was a kid, absolutely no one had a problem historicizing Christopher Columbus as the great and wonderful explorer who “discovered” America. Talk about a story we tell ourselves when real truth is too painful or too inconvenient to deal with! How different would things be now if we had just owned up to the truth about slavery and genocide a long time ago?
Willa: That’s a good question. And you’re right – we do tend to tell the story of Columbus very differently now than our teachers did even 40 years ago, when you and I were kids, and that reflects as much about the time period in which they were speaking as it does about Christopher Columbus.
When I was growing up in the 1960s, we as a culture emphasized the glory of that trip across the Atlantic and the courage of Columbus and other explorers sailing into the unknown. And that makes sense – we were preparing to go to the moon! Neil Armstrong did his moonwalk in 1969. We needed to glorify explorers in the 60s.
We tell that story in much more complicated ways today, focusing as much on what was lost through colonization as what was gained. And that reflects our cultural priorities today.
Lisha: Yes, I’m sure that’s true, but funny, I don’t remember ever hearing about Matthew Henson, the great Arctic explorer mentioned in “HIStory,” who happens to be black.
Willa: That’s a good point. Some people, and some groups of people, were definitely much more celebrated than others, and still are.
Lisha: I can get pretty agitated thinking about this, because when choosing who and what to historicize, some things are glossed right over in order to celebrate certain select achievements. There are still so many blind spots and issues that remain unresolved – so many lessons from history yet to be learned.
Willa: I agree. It’s a lot easier to celebrate the exciting moments of history than to face and learn from the painful parts.
Lisha: I decided to make a list of all the historical events cited in the original version of “HIStory” and put them in chronological order to see if I could get a sense of why these events were chosen and how they might relate to the lyrical content of the song. Here’s what I came up with and I have to say, it’s quite a list for a six-and-a-half-minute song:
“Monday, March 26, 1827” The death of Beethoven
“February 11, 1847 Thomas Edison is born”
“January 18, 1858 Daniel Hale Williams is born”
“November 19, 1863 Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg address”
“April 9, 1865 The Civil War ends”
“December 30, 1865 Rudyard Kipling is born”
“August 8, 1866 Matthew Henson is born”
1877 Thomas Edison invents the phonograph
“October 28, 1886 The Statue of Liberty is dedicated”
“December 5, 1901 Walt Disney is born”
“December 7, 1903 The Wright Brothers first flight”
1906 The first promotional recording is made
“May 29, 1917 John F. Kennedy is born”
“January 31, 1919 Jackie Robinson is born”
“November 2, 1920 The first commercial radio station opens”
May 21, 1927 Charles Lindbergh’s first nonstop flight from NY to Paris
“September 1928 The discovery of penicillin”
“January 15, 1929 Martin Luther King is born”
“November 28, 1929 Berry Gordy is born”
“October 9, 1940 John Lennon is born”
October 13, 1940 Princess Elizabeth’s wartime speech to the children of England
“January 17, 1942 Muhammad Ali is born as Cassius Clay”
“October 14, 1947 Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier”
“July 17, 1955 Disneyland opens”
“December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks refuses to give her bus seat to a white passenger”
“July 17, 1959” The death of Billie Holiday
“April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight”
August 28, 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech
“February 9, 1964 The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan show”
February 25, 1964 Muhammad Ali defeats Sonny Liston, proclaiming “I am the greatest”
June 28, 1964 Malcolm X pledges to bring about freedom “by any means necessary”
June 8, 1968 Senator Edward Kennedy eulogizes his brother, Robert F. Kennedy
December 21, 1968 Apollo 8 manned space flight
“July 20, 1969 Astronauts first land on the moon”
1970 Michael Jackson interview: “I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it.”
April 8, 1974 Henry Aaron breaks home run record
“April 12, 1981 The first Shuttle flight”
“November 10, 1989 The Berlin Wall comes down”
Willa: Wow, you’re right, Lisha! That is quite a list! Thanks for putting this all together – that really took some work. And when you look at it this way, there are a number of intertwining threads that really jump out, aren’t there? Like the history of air travel – there’s the Wright brother’s first flight in 1903, Lindbergh’s first flight across the Atlantic in 1927, Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in 1947, Yuri Gagarin’s trip to outer space in 1961, the Apollo 8 manned space flight in 1968, the moon landing in 1969, and the first space shuttle flight in 1981. There are similar threads for sports, and the arts, and the fight for racial equality.
Lisha: Yes. I see a thread emerging that has to do with the history of recorded music starting with the death of Beethoven in 1827 (as in Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”), the invention of the phonograph recording in 1877, the first commercial radio station in 1920, the birth of Berry Gordy in 1929, the birth of John Lennon in 1940, a very fruitful musical dialogue between the U.S. and England represented by Elizabeth’s 1940 speech and the Beatles’ performance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. The next musical reference is a 1970 interview with Michael Jackson from right around the same time the Jackson 5 appeared on the Ed Sullivan show and began dominating the record charts with four #1 hits for Motown Records.
I’ve read many times that Michael Jackson was quite the history buff so I would imagine these dates were chosen with a great deal of care. I can definitely see that these threads relate to each other as well, having to do with erasing divisions and false boundaries. For example, look at all those milestones in aviation achievement. Air travel is a development that has required us to build systems based on international cooperation and organization. Anglo-American popular music and its global distribution systems are another development that continues to break down boundaries between people and nations. Medical discoveries such as penicillin and Daniel Hale Williams’ surgical advances benefit only a few unless we have distribution systems and ways of sharing information that make them available to more and more people. (By the way, Stevie Wonder’s “Black Man” also pays tribute to Williams.)
Willa: That’s true – a lot of these dates have to do with breaking barriers in some way. And as we mentioned last week, Thomas Edison’s invention of sound recording and transmission technologies helped break boundaries of time as well as space. Billie Holiday died before I was born – the date she died, July 17, 1959, is on your list – but because of audio-visual recordings, I can go to YouTube and hear her voice sing “Strange Fruit” and see the pain and anger in her face as she sings it, and feel moved by her performance.
We see that process of people “feeling” an experience across time and space in the Tony Moran video also. The spectator with the space goggles isn’t really at the dance club, but she experiences the sounds and visuals as if she were there. And in fact, the video allows us to experience her experience, but also see “through” it at the same time, if that makes sense.
Lisha: It really does.
Willa: We see her walking around inside the dance club and interacting with other dancers, but we also see that she’s actually sitting at home in her space lounger, waving her arms in an empty room. So even though she’s not physically at the dance club, she is immersed in the sensations of that time and place and she experiences it as if she were there – just as I experience Billie Holiday’s performance as if I were there more than a half century ago.
Lisha: Yes, it is as if she has stepped into the scene and is interacting with music that is not of her own time and place, just like you are able to do with “Strange Fruit.”
Willa: Exactly. And now Michael Jackson is gone, but those dancers from the future are surrounded by repeated images of him on the screens all around them, and the way he moves his body on screen is reenacted in how they move their bodies on the dance floor. And the woman with the space goggles is watching both the dancers and Michael Jackson, and we watch her and them as well as her experiencing them. There are layers of surveillance throughout this video, and we are the ultimate spectators – unless someone is watching us!
Lisha: I suppose in this day and age that is not only possible, but probable!
This brings me to something that I have wanted to ask you about Willa, that has to do with the word “history” and playing with third person perspective by using the spelling “HIStory” or HIS-story. The lyrics start with “He got kicked in the back / He say that he needed that…” I’m wondering exactly who does “he” refer to? So often we think about the HIStory album as a response to the false allegations Michael Jackson faced in 1993, but like just about everything else Michael Jackson, there is more than one way to look at it. In this case, it seems the events of “history” and “HIStory” are related to each other.
Have you seen this video on Thomas Mesereau and Susan Yu’s website? It’s another gem I found thanks to my pal at MaxJax:
The video was produced by MJJsource, Michael Jackson’s own website:
Willa: Wow, Lisha, I hadn’t seen either of these before. That’s awesome! And I agree with the video – June 13, 2005, was an important day in history.
Lisha: It certainly is to my way of thinking. I noticed that June 13th was compared with three other important dates: the birth of Dr. King, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the day Nelson Mandela was freed from prison.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting. I think Michael Jackson was very aware of his place in history – aware that, because he was such an important cultural figure, for black America especially, everything he did had social implications beyond himself. So June 13, 2005, isn’t just a day when our judicial system – a system built on “a jury of one’s peers” in part to help protect citizens from overzealous prosecution – worked properly for one person. It’s also a day when the most successful entertainer of all time, an emblem of black achievement and pride, was publicly vindicated after being falsely accused and persecuted by the police and the press for more than a decade – though the press, of course, didn’t interpret the jury’s decision that way.
Lisha: Unfortunately for us all, they did not. When the jury acquitted Michael Jackson on all 14 charges, rejecting every single thing the prosecutors were alleging, in my mind that also means the media was found guilty for the careless way they covered the case. With few exceptions, the press utterly failed in their duty to take a more critical look at what the prosecutors were saying. No wonder it was so hard for them to accept the verdict.
Willa: I agree completely. What a travesty of justice in the media, on a day when justice was finally enacted in the courts.
But you asked about pronouns. I have to say, I am so intrigued by Michael Jackson’s use of pronouns. It’s so fascinating to me, and the use of third person pronouns at the beginning of “HIStory” ties in beautifully with this dual perspective of the individual and collective significance of June 13, 2005, and the events surrounding it. The first person pronoun “I” is specific to the person speaking – it signifies the speaker’s unique situation. But as you pointed out, Lisha, “HIStory” begins with lyrics that describe Michael Jackson’s emotional experience pretty accurately, but spoken in third person: “He got kicked in the back / He say that he needed that….”
To me, that conveys Michael Jackson’s specific situation while universalizing it at the same time. We could fill in that “he” slot with many different names from history, especially black public figures such as Jack Johnson, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Muhammad Ali, even Tiger Woods. As Michael Jackson himself said in a 2005 interview with Jesse Jackson, “there has been kind of a pattern among black luminaries in this country” – a pattern where they are “kicked in the back” at the height of their fame. Joie and I talked about that in a post a few months ago.
Lisha: Your post with Joie really had a big impact on me. So did Charles Thomson’s outstanding piece comparing Michael Jackson’s FBI files to the Jack Johnson and Chuck Berry cases. That was like an arrow in the head – it’s really shocking stuff.
Willa: It is shocking, very shocking. According to Charles, the Mann Act was explicitly conceived with racist intent – namely, to bring down Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion and a very flamboyant figure who did not conform to social expectations. As Charles told Joie and me in a post a while back, “The Mann Act is an inherently racist law which was widely used after its introduction to punish black men who consorted with white women.”
It was also used against Chuck Berry – he went to prison because of it. Carl Perkins said he “never saw a man so changed.” According to Perkins, “He had been an easygoing guy before, the kinda guy who’d jam in dressing rooms, sit and swap licks and jokes.” But afterwards “he was cold, real distant and bitter.”
And District Attorney Tom Sneddon encouraged the FBI to use it against Michael Jackson as well.
Lisha: Absolutely unbelievable.
Willa: It really is. And actually, this clash between racist politics and black celebrities brings up another point I wanted to mention about “HIStory” and Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson – the way they give entertainment and sports figures equal footing with political figures. I think this is so important, but easy to overlook.
In general, there are two competing visions of history. The traditional view is that history reflects the actions of a few bold men – people like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and George Washington. Then in contrast to this “top-down” view of history, there’s a “bottom-up” view which says that change starts with the people, and then successful leaders simply follow and act on the public mood. This is what Margaret Mead was talking about when she said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” (By the way, this puts Barack Obama in an interesting position since he is the President, but he began his career as a community organizer and successfully drew on his “bottom-up” grassroots organizing skills to get elected. So he belongs in both camps.)
Michael Jackson seems to have a very interesting take on all this that draws on both of these views but suggests a third approach – one that gives prominence to artists and other pop culture figures. In this view, the public mood brings about political change, but pop culture helps shape the public mood. For example, Abraham Lincoln was obviously an important figure in leading the U.S. through the Civil War and bringing about an end to slavery. But Harriet Beecher Stowe and her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, may have played an even larger role since they galvanized public opinion against slavery, and arguably sparked the Civil War. Lincoln himself credited Stowe’s influence the first time he met her, saying, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.”
So while political figures and events are important in changing the course of history, perhaps the real power lies with those who can lead the public to think or feel about important issues in a new way – in other words, artists. Michael Jackson suggests this repeatedly in his work.
Lisha: Well said – governments have always feared the power of art for this reason. Look at the album cover for HIStory and the promotional campaign to introduce that album. Many people didn’t know what to make of these giant statues of Michael Jackson. We don’t think twice about a statue of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or George Washington but a popular black artist daring to appropriate this imagery just blew people’s minds because it shattered the concepts attached to these images.
Willa: I think you’re exactly right. It’s assumed that statues are for one of those few bold political leaders, not for popular artists and celebrities.
Lisha: Well maybe Beethoven is ok, but not Michael Jackson! I’m thinking of the bust of Beethoven that sits on top of Schroeder’s piano in the Peanuts cartoons.
Willa: Oh, I love that bust of Beethoven on Schroeder’s piano! But he’s a classical composer, not a popular artist, and even Beethoven gets cut off at the neck!
Lisha: I think statues of the big four: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, are fairly common in the Western world and they are often depicted pretty much the same way we would see Alexander, Caesar, or Washington. Haydn is also included at times in this handful of god-like composers. But only a few of the great dead whites get this kind of treatment and it’s an interesting point that the most popular statue of a composer is the bust. I had a small set of them on my piano when I was a child!
Willa: No wonder you like Schroeder and his bust of Beethoven so much! And it’s true – there may be busts of the major composers, or revered authors like Shakespeare and Milton. But when have we ever seen an artist, especially a popular artist, depicted in the glorious ways political leaders are? Off the top of my head, I can only think of the HIStory statues, as you mentioned, or the portraits Michael Jackson commissioned for himself, like this one astride a horse a la King Phillip II:
And don’t forget there’s the issue of the HIStory teaser, the promotional film that was inspired by Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda, Triumph of the Will. It is the perfect example of how well the Nazis understood the power of art and how they exploited Riefenstahl’s talent to their political advantage. Michael Jackson disrupted the power of that historic imagery by inserting himself into it, transforming it into a force for good, just as his hero Charlie Chaplin did in The Great Dictator.
Willa: Oh absolutely. It reflects a very sophisticated understanding of how the power of art intersects with the power of persuasion – rhetorical and emotional – and how that relates to political power. This is something Michael Jackson mentioned in interviews, like in his discussions of Hitler with Rabbi Boteach. And even early in his career, in a 1980 interview with Sylvia Chase, he said this about the effect his concerts have on his audience:
When they’re all holding hands and everybody’s rocking, and all colors of people are there, all races, it’s the most wonderful thing. Politicians can’t even do that.
We see this idea reflected throughout Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson as well. For example, we see images of President Kennedy and civil rights marches, but we also see clips from the panther dance in Black or White, and They Don’t Care about Us, and Earth Song, and Scream. These videos have shaped history as well – particularly addressing racial prejudice and inequality – and they will continue to influence public opinion as new generations discover them.
Lisha: That’s exactly it!
Willa: And there’s something really subtle as well. About 2:55 minutes into the video we see the woman with the space goggles imaginatively walking around inside the dance club, and the DJ invites her to come up and join him.
Lisha: I noticed that too. From her position in virtual reality she has entered the scene as if she is in actual reality. So there is this blurring of the virtual (past memory and future desire) and the actual (present moment).
Willa: Oh, that’s an interesting way to interpret that, Lisha! It’s like the DJ is inviting her to cross the boundary between “virtual” reality and “actual” reality.
Then at 2:58 we see a clip of Michael Jackson looking very sexy in Don’t Stop til You Get Enough, which is important if you think about what the U.S. was like in 1979 when that video came out. He was a black sex symbol who appealed to women of all races. We tend to forget just how radical that was. This is kind of underscored by what’s happening in the video. We suddenly jump back to the woman (who is white) and the DJ (who is black), and at 3:00 we see him helping her into the DJ booth with him. At 3:09 we see Michael Jackson looking incredibly hot in In the Closet, one of his steamiest videos ever, and at 3:30 there’s a quick clip of Rock with You. And talk about sexy – you should hear Joie talk about that video. Oh my!
Lisha: I’m sure that’s pretty entertaining!
Willa: Oh, I promise, you will never look at that video the same way again!
Lisha: I fully intend to ask her about that! And I noticed one of the other females in that scene is not too happy to see the new girl catch the DJ’s eye.
Willa: Really? I missed that.
Lisha: It’s at 3:02, the girl with the third eye.
Willa: I’ll have to look for that. It’s true she’s getting pretty friendly with that DJ. In fact, by 3:35 she has her hands all over him. But at 3:36 we suddenly shift perspective and are reminded that she’s not really at the dance club. We see her in her empty room with her space goggles on, and she’s running her hands along an invisible person who isn’t really there. This is all happening in a virtual place – a place created by art, Michael Jackson’s art – and those images on screen are leading this young white woman to imaginatively experience desire for a black man. That is truly radical, or was in 1979. And to quote a very wise young man, “Politicians can’t even do that.” Politicians can’t change our feelings and shape our desires the way artists can.
Lisha: I also get the feeling that this is a time and place where you do not have to examine someone’s skin pigmentation to determine whether or not you like them. It’s like we’re imagining a space where humanity has gotten beyond all that insanity.
Willa: Oh, that’s a really good point, Lisha. So just as this young woman is experiencing an alternate reality through art, so are we – one where racial differences don’t matter when forming relationships.
There’s also one more subtle thing I wanted to point out. It’s a line in the lyrics of “HIStory” where he sings, “She say this face that you see / Is destined for history.” I think the shifts in how people perceive Michael Jackson’s face was perhaps the most important cultural phenomenon of the late 20th Century, radically changing how people think about and experience racial differences and other differences that divide us. In that sense, I think he had the most important face in history. What other face has caused such turmoil, or such deep-seated change in cultural perceptions and beliefs? So I definitely agree that “this face that you see / Is destined for history.”
Lisha: Once again, Willa, you have absolutely blown me away.
Willa: I know what you mean. He blows me away on a regular basis …
Lisha: You know, it’s one thing to spot some beautiful water lilies and paint them in pretty colors on a giant canvas (no offense to Monet fans), but it’s quite another to take a devastating illness like vitiligo and create an artistic statement that will have an impact upon generations to come. It gives new meaning to the words “Every day create your history.”
Willa: It really does.
So before we go, I also wanted to let everyone know about a new book that just came out this week, Otherness and Power: Michael Jackson and His Media Critics. It’s by Susan Woodward, a clinical social worker with training and experience as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. In her book, she analyzes some of the most virulent writing against Michael Jackson and reaches a fascinating conclusion – that it’s motivated at least in part by fear of his “extraordinary power.” Here’s what she says:
Two reasons have typically been given by Jackson fans for the negative media responses to Jackson: racism and deep discomfort with his “otherness,” meaning his supposed eccentricities and his fluid identity signifiers. While these reasons have seemed to me to be obviously true, I had the persistent feeling that there was something else going on. After studying hostile writings about Jackson I began to see that there was another factor to which journalists were reacting, with distrust or even fear: a perception of extraordinary power.
She goes on to say that “the power they feel … derived from not just his fame and wealth but also from his otherness,” which is ironic since he was harshly criticized for his otherness. I’m really intrigued by this – that while many critics treated his difference (his “eccentric oddities,” as he called them) with contempt and ridicule, Woodward suggests they also feared it as one source of his power. I’ve only had a chance to read the first few pages, but it sounds like a fascinating approach to a really complicated and important question – namely, why so many journalists, and others as well, reacted to Michael Jackson the way they did.
Lisha: That sounds incredible, Willa. I really look forward to reading it. Thanks so much for letting us know about it.
Willa: Yes, it’s definitely on my summer reading list. Well, thanks for joining me, Lisha. I always learn so much from you!
Lisha: Thank you, Willa. That was quite a HIStory lesson.
Willa: So Lisha, I’ve been reading a fascinating book called Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier. Douglass was a freed slave and a tireless abolitionist, and he promoted his political goals in many different ways.
One way was through his ongoing relationship with America’s presidents, beginning with Abraham Lincoln and continuing through the next seven presidents. He met them all, from Lincoln to Harrison, until his death in 1895.
Another was his use of photography and his public image to challenge how white people saw black people. This was especially important after the Civil War, since so many white Americans had been trained for generations to see slaves as less than human. Douglass believed photography had the power to force whites to recognize the humanity of others, and lead whites to see and feel in new ways.
For example, Douglass was a supporter of Hiram Revels, America’s first black senator. While viewing Revels’ portrait, Douglass said, “Whatever may be the prejudices of those who look upon it, they will be compelled to admit the Mississippi senator is a man.”
I’d love for us to talk sometime about Frederick Douglass and how he used his public image to bring about social change. There are some fascinating connections to Michael Jackson, I think.
Lisha: That does sound fascinating, Willa! I suspect a good discussion of Frederick Douglass would go a long way in explaining the significance of Michael Jackson’s work.
Willa: I do too, especially the way he used his celebrity and his evolving public persona.
But for now, I thought Douglass might be a useful starting point to begin talking about Michael Jackson, photography, his public image, and the American presidency. …
Lisha: Well, yes. Because just like Frederick Douglass, Michael Jackson understood the subversive power of imagery, and this is especially interesting and meaningful when we look at how he interacted with the U.S. presidency.
Willa: Absolutely. For example, Douglass attended Lincoln’s inauguration – in fact, he was one of the first if not the first black man photographed as a guest of an American president. Here is a historic photo of Lincoln’s second inauguration, with Lincoln standing at the podium and Douglass circled in red.
Douglass was always very careful to carry himself in a very somber, dignified way in public, and that comes through in this image, I think – even as distant and chaotic as it is.
Lisha: Whoa! That photo is amazing. I had no idea it even existed. Now juxtapose that 1865 photo with this 1984 photo of Michael Jackson stepping out on the White House lawn with President and Mrs. Reagan:
Willa: That is fascinating, Lisha! It’s so incredible to put these two photos together like this, and think that Michael Jackson was standing where Frederick Douglass stood 120 years earlier. So many things changed in those 120 years, between Frederick Douglass at the White House with Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War, and Michael Jackson at the White House with Ronald Reagan as one of the most successful and influential men in America.
These two images serve as such interesting bookends to that long expanse of time, and both document a powerful cultural moment, I think. And Michael Jackson carries it off perfectly, with solemn dignity – just like Douglass. In fact, he has an almost regal bearing.
Lisha: Yes, I agree. And there is just so much information packed into this photograph: the flashy military pageantry, show business glitz and the trademark white glove – a proud, young, fabulously wealthy African American man outshining the leader of the free world! Michael Jackson had just toppled the music industry when this photo was taken, and he rattled many old, demeaning stereotypes at the same time.
Willa: Yes, very well stated, Lisha. And I’m also struck by Michael Jackson’s upright carriage, with Reagan turning in toward him in an almost deferential way. All together, this adds up to an image that conveys an unexpected visual message. If you didn’t know who these figures were, you’d probably think Michael Jackson was the reigning political leader and Reagan an aide!
Lisha: Exactly. It is a bold display of power, no doubt. President Reagan even joked to the unusually large crowd that day about how badly upstaged he was, saying: “We haven’t see this many people since we left China! Just think, you all came to see me.”
Willa: That’s funny! But jokes carry a lot of truth sometimes. …
Lisha: Clearly, Michael Jackson was commanding all the attention, which must have been an unusual feeling for a President and First Lady. One reporter said: “A head of state has never attracted so much attention, so much security and so much excitement,” as Michael Jackson did in Washington, D.C. that day.
Willa: Which is really interesting, if you think about it. After all, we’re increasingly becoming a celebrity culture, and in that environment, attention is power. As a result, power is shifting from the political realm as it’s traditionally been understood to the cultural/media/entertainment realm. At the same time, politics is becoming infused with celebrity. Reagan himself was an important figure in that transition, repurposing celebrity as a kind of political power. He was a former actor and very skilled at using the camera for political ends.
Lisha: Yes, many cultural critics have commented on how Ronald Reagan, as a television actor turned head of state, speaks to the affective nature of power in our society.
Willa: It really does. But even with Reagan’s position and charisma, Michael Jackson still upstaged him, which seems significant.
Lisha: Very significant, indeed. One Reagan aide, John G. Roberts, now Chief Justice of the United States, expressed concern over “the obsequious attitude of some members of the White House staff toward Mr. Jackson’s attendants.” Roberts even shot down a proposed letter from the President to Michael Jackson, warning: “The Office of Presidential Correspondence is not yet an adjunct of Michael Jackson’s PR firm.” It must have gotten dangerously close for White House counsel to issue a memo about it!
Willa: Wow, Lisha! I remember reading about those memos a few years ago, but had completely forgotten about them. And you’re right – for future Chief Justice Roberts to write a memo like that in defense of the American presidency says a lot.
Presidents have considerable political power, obviously. But Michael Jackson understood that artists, entertainers, and celebrities have the ability to shift people’s opinions and attitudes – he mentioned this a number of times – and politicians generally feel the need to follow public opinion. So in that sense, popular artists are sometimes able to lead the leaders. Michael Jackson’s “soft power” at this time was enormous, and in that sense maybe even surpassed Reagan’s.
But I want to get back to something you mentioned earlier, Lisha, about the “flashy military pageantry” surrounding this meeting between Michael Jackson and Reagan. I really think you’re onto something, and I see it in Michael Jackson’s 1990 White House meeting with George H.W. Bush also. Here’s an AP photo of that visit:
Again there’s the very upright carriage, the somewhat deferential politician at his side, and just look at that jacket! The sense of military pageantry you pointed out, Lisha, is so pervasive in these images with Reagan and Bush. These photos seem to be documenting a visit from a British royal rather than a musician.
Lisha: I must admit, this is one of my all-time favorite regal Michael Jackson moments. I remember seeing this British-style military jacket on display at the Getty Images Gallery in London, back in 2012. The jacket is truly spectacular in terms of design, the quality of the workmanship and the exquisite detail. Pictures really don’t do it justice.
Michael Bush commented that after he had finished making this costume, Michael Jackson saw it and pointed to the left side, saying he would like something added there. More specifically, he said he wanted something added “that shouldn’t be there.” So Bush placed a flashy rhinestone broach on the chest, right where one might expect to see a badge or medal on a military jacket like this:
Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha. I hadn’t heard that story before.
Lisha: I was fascinated by this because it really struck me as a symbol of exactly what we’re talking about here – the soft political power of art, which, by the way, governments have feared for centuries. By visually mixing up the symbols of state power with show business glitz – including a flashy, feminine broach exactly where one might expect to see a badge or another symbol of masculine authority – Michael Jackson creates a subtle but powerful message about the artist’s power and authority to influence the masses.
Willa: What an interesting way to interpret that! And what a great example of Michael Jackson evoking military pageantry – in this case, the medals of honor generally displayed on the left chest of a career military man – but then making a subtle change that profoundly alters it.
Lisha: Yes, it really is clever. Military pageantry has historically been an important component of power, and the British are particularly adept at it. For example, when the British occupied India they were vastly outnumbered, but one way they maintained control was through elaborate military displays and coronations that created a strong perception of power. Here is a photo King George V and Queen Mary at the Delhi Durbar ceremony in 1911:
Willa: Wow! That’s a fascinating concept, Lisha, and an amazing image illustrating it! You can really see the trappings of power on full display here. And for me it also highlights how much theater is involved in creating that sense of power and pageantry. There’s the staging and set design, the elaborate costumes, the choreographed processions, the scripted lines …
Lisha: Yes, exactly. It includes all the elements of good theater.
Willa: It really does. There’s also a feeling of theater about Michael Jackson’s White House visits with Reagan and Bush, and I wonder if that’s how he saw those meetings – as theater, as a performance.
Lisha: This comes across as spectacular theater to me! And it’s no accident. Michael Jackson studied military pageantry and theatrics through films like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, which documents Adolph Hitler’s use of pageantry – something he riffed on in the HIStory teaser.
Willa: That’s true. I talked with our friend Eleanor Bowman about that in a series of posts a couple years ago.
Lisha: Yes, that was such a fantastic series. And there are other clues, like the military uniform pictured in the HIStory album liner notes. This uniform was customized for Michael Jackson by one of the oldest and best military tailors in London:
The tailcoat by Gieves and Hawkes has been described as “one of the finest examples of Hand & Lock hand embroidery” in the world. So it’s fascinating that one of the finest British military uniforms in existence doesn’t belong to the British armed forces or the royal family. It belongs to Michael Jackson.
Willa: That’s pretty ironic, isn’t it?
Lisha: Yes. And it certainly suggests Michael Jackson thought very carefully about how power can be exercised through art, imagery, costumes, and theatrics.
Willa: It really does. We know he studied British royalty, and their “art, imagery, costumes, and theatrics,” as you put it. Michael Bush mentions this repeatedly in his book, The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson. And Michael Jackson did seem to connect that kind of pageantry with political power. For example, early in his book Bush writes,
Michael was infatuated with British heredity and military history. One of Michael’s favorite quotes came from an unexpected source: “It is with such baubles that men are led.” Napoleon had said these words to indicate the significance of the medals with which he regaled his soldiers. When we toured in Europe, Michael made it his business to visit castles and ancient cities, where he was mesmerized by museum portraits of kings and queens. He would stare at them along the walls of Buckingham Palace, Tower of London, or the Houses of Parliament, absorbing it all – the glitz, the glamour, the medals and honors, the larger-than-life ways these royals and commanders were portrayed. Michael was fascinated by all of it. (8)
Lisha: That’s a great quote! In fact, the final Tompkins & Bush design for Michael Jackson shows this quite well. I really think they got this design right, in how beautifully it sums up his life’s work:
Willa: Yes, I think so too – especially the jacket, which Michael Bush says was Michael Jackson’s favorite design. It really is a wonderful reinterpretation that combines a very “masculine” military cut with “feminine” pearls and brooch, as you mentioned earlier. I have to say, it was very moving to read Michael Bush’s account of dressing Michael Jackson in this jacket before his funeral.
Lisha: I thought so, too. And I really can’t imagine a more perfect suit for Michael Jackson.
You know, I hate to interrupt such a serious thought with this, but talking about clothing and badges as an expression of power makes me think about the time John Lennon wore a bus prefect badge to a press interview, perhaps as a fashion statement, or a way of interrogating the whole idea of what a badge really means. When asked about it (here at 1:38), he said so matter-of-factly that he was wearing a bus driver’s badge, and that it meant he was “in charge of a bus”! I thought that was such an artistic way of pointing out how people find ways of expressing their power and authority.
Similarly, Elvis Presley was also fascinated by clothing, badges and displays of authority.
Willa: Yes, I’ve heard that too. In fact, it was in quest of a badge that he requested a meeting with Richard Nixon in December 1970. Here’s a picture of them shaking hands in the Oval Office of the White House:
Lisha: Oh, that is such fascinating image! Look at how similar his belt is to some of the belts Michael Jackson wore! I’m so glad you thought of this photo, Willa. Can you believe that this photograph is the most requested item in the National Archives, which also includes the U.S. Constitution?
Willa: Really? I didn’t know that. You know, this photo was kept hidden for a long time because Elvis didn’t want it released. According to an article in Smithsonian magazine, Elvis initiated the meeting because he wanted a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. (They claim he thought it would help him get through Customs when he was carrying things he shouldn’t be carrying, like guns and drugs.)
So this suggests a very different understanding of power than Michael Jackson’s iconic meetings with Reagan and Bush. Elvis asked to meet Nixon because he saw the president as a powerful person who could give him something he wanted. It’s a more traditional way of viewing power, kind of like a subject approaching the throne and requesting a special dispensation from the king.
Lisha: Yes, that’s right, and it’s my understanding that Nixon did authorize Elvis to have the BNDD badge that he wanted. But when Michael Jackson met President Reagan, the power dynamic was the other was around, as you suggest. Instead of Michael Jackson seeking a meeting with the President, it was the Reagan administration that contacted Michael Jackson, because Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole wanted permission to use the song “Beat It” in a public service announcement. According to Randy Taraborrelli, Michael Jackson initially wasn’t interested, but changed his mind after the White House agreed to stage an award ceremony in his honor.
Willa: Yes, and if that’s true, it suggests he very deliberately thought about the ceremonial aspect of this moment, just like the British royals staging their imperial pageantry during the colonial period in India, as you mentioned earlier, Lisha.
Just as importantly, Elvis didn’t want his pictures with the president to be made public, but Michael Jackson did. In fact, for him, creating and disseminating those visual images seems to be the main point. He seems to have been very aware of how he would appear on camera, and how these images would play out in public. He realized it was those images, not some sort of Special Agent’s badge, that would convey power.
Lisha: You’re right. The staging of the White House ceremony was the payoff for Michael Jackson, but that wasn’t the case with Elvis. In fact, we might not even have the Elvis/Nixon photo if it weren’t for the White House photographers who meticulously document the President’s daily schedule. Since it’s impossible to know in advance which presidential moments will someday be of historical importance, photographers pretty much capture everything. President Obama told National Geographic this takes some getting used to – the fact that all day, every day, the President is constantly being photographed. He talks about it in this documentary about White House photographer, Pete Souza, around 4:30:
Willa: Thanks for sharing that video link, Lisha. I hadn’t seen that before, and I was really struck by President Obama’s words when he said,
It’s actually a very difficult thing for anybody who occupies this office to be under that kind of constant observation.
I imagine that’s true, and that “constant observation” is something Michael Jackson had to deal with his entire adult life. But it also made him very camera savvy, so when a moment like his meeting with Reagan or Bush came along, he knew what to do to create a dramatic image that told the story he wanted to tell.
Lisha: I thought the very same thing – that constant observation the President has to endure is very much like what Michael Jackson experienced every time he stepped out in public. But I think Michael Jackson learned to use this as a form of gesamtkunstwerk, or one aspect of a more a total work of art.
Willa: I agree. I strongly believe he used his celebrity as a new genre of art. And I also believe that in his White House visits, Michael Jackson was deliberately setting the stage for the kind of “pageantry” you were describing earlier, Lisha.
So looking at the very different ways power is conveyed in Elvis’s meeting with Nixon (where power is transmitted individually through a Special Agent’s badge) and Michael Jackson’s meetings with Reagan and Bush (where power is transmitted globally through iconic imagery), it’s interesting to consider another meeting of a musician with a president….
Two years after Nixon met with Elvis, he met with James Brown, and the photos are very similar to the Elvis photos. In fact, they’re standing and shaking hands in the exact same spot. Here’s a picture:
Once again, the power dynamic is really interesting. Apparently, Nixon’s people sought out James Brown, just as Reagan’s people later contacted Michael Jackson, and they asked him for his support. James Brown had a lot of respect for Nixon, and eventually endorsed him during his reelection campaign. Here’s a video clip of that:
James Brown was harshly criticized for this endorsement, as you can imagine. But the more he was criticised, the more vocal he became in support of Nixon.
Lisha: Like Elvis, James Brown genuinely admired Nixon and appreciated his position on issues that were important to him. So like many artists do, he lent his celebrity and cultural clout towards helping Nixon’s political campaign. But that is something I don’t recall Michael Jackson ever doing.
Willa: No, he never did. He saw art as more powerful than politics – he said that on more than one occasion – and he chose to express his ideas, his beliefs and emotions, through his art.
Lisha: Yes, it seems quite deliberate. And it reminds me of what James Brown says in this interview about being a countryman, rather than a partisan. I really love how he expresses this.
Willa: I do too.
Lisha: I’m also really struck by how his philosophy describes Michael Jackson. After being decorated by two consecutive Republican administrations, Michael Jackson once again played a significant role in the next Democratic administration, performing for President Bill Clinton’s inauguration.
Willa: That’s right, and he also connected with Jimmy Carter after he left office. In fact, Jimmy Carter visited Neverland. We’ll talk about that more in our next post when we continue to look at Michael Jackson and the American presidency.
Lisha: To be continued!
Willa: A few weeks ago, professor and filmmaker Nina Fonoroff joined me to talk about Billie Jean and Michael Jackson’s use of film noir. Here’s a link to that post. But we soon discovered there was so much to say, we were only able to get part way through! So Nina has graciously agreed to join me again to continue our discussion of this fascinating short film. It’s wonderful to talk with you again, Nina!
Nina: Thanks, Willa! I’m glad to be back.
Willa: So last time we ended at the chorus, and as you said, “the image fades out as we enter a new chapter: Michael is going to sing and dance.” So let’s begin with that new chapter, about 1:50 minutes into the video.
Interestingly, this section begins with another “photograph.” This time it’s a vertical rectangle – a full-body shot, one of the few in Billie Jean. It has a thin white edge outlining it (like a photograph) and it’s against a black background, just like before. So in that way it kind of visually announces “a new chapter,” as you called it, just as the horizontal “photographs” announced the first chapter at the beginning of the video.
Nina: Yes, this is a decisive moment for many reasons. For one thing, this is the first time we see him singing synchronously (albeit to “playback,” or a pre-recorded audio source).
Willa: And that’s an interesting point, Nina. Many music videos are presented as if they are an intimate live performance, with the focus on letting us as an audience watch a performer sing his or her songs. But those kinds of scenes are rare in Billie Jean. Rarely do we see him sing.
Nina: Plus, we see him and hear him “speak” simultaneously – in sync. This is more akin to our experience of ordinary character dialogue in a feature film, but with some important differences: he is singing, and through the song he is telling us the “backstory” of the ever-unfolding drama:
For forty days and for forty nights the law was on her side
But who can stand when she’s in demand, her schemes and plans
’Cause we danced on the floor in the round
By the way, I’ve always wondered about this seemingly Biblical reference to “forty days and forty nights.”
Willa: I have too! It reminds me of the story of Noah, where it rained for “forty days and forty nights.”
Nina: Perhaps he imagined his character being inundated in some way, but we will never know. It’ll have to stand as one of the many things that will be up for interpretation until the end of time!
Anyway, as you describe it, Willa, there are some interesting visual effects going on throughout this performance, which were done in post-production. The sequence begins with the freeze-frame of Michael in a pose, within a vertical rectangle. Then, we see various shots of him in motion in full frame, as well as segmented into two and three images, vertically and sometimes horizontally: diptychs and triptychs, where the screen is divided into various rectangular parts and then reassembled. Michael is shown in various stages of his dance, moving his arms, pulling up his collar, spinning, standing on his toes – only to be broken up again.
This rendering of his performance makes it look as if we’re seeing him from different vantage points simultaneously; though at times there’s also duplication of the same frozen (or moving) image in each rectangle.
Here’s one “diptych”:
This layout reveals something I hadn’t noticed before: Michael begins dancing in his pink shirt, and later puts his jacket on. At the beginning he carries the jacket, but at a later moment he seamlessly slips into it: it becomes part and parcel of the dance. (How could I have failed to notice this before, for all the times I’ve watched this film?) It shows us how adept he was at incorporating parts of his clothing into the general flow of his choreography. And then, in the subsequent stage performances of Billie Jean – from Motown 25 on – he made even more dramatic uses of articles of clothing and accessories, as you and Raven pointed out in a post a few weeks ago.
Willa: Yes, we kind of catch him in the act of slipping it on in that diptych you just mentioned, about 2 minutes into the video. Usually a diptych or triptych consists of paintings or photographs, so the images are still. But here, the images are moving – or rather, they alternate being in motion. The left one freezes while the right one moves, then the right one freezes while the left one moves. And in one of those short snippets of movement, we see him slip on his jacket as part of the choreography, as you say.
Nina: Wow, this is making me wish I could just see Michael run through the performance as a whole, without editing or fragmentation.
We know that many people, including Michael Jackson himself, felt that his dancing owed a lot to the style Fred Astaire developed many decades ago. But in his films from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, Astaire never liked for his dance sequences to be broken up through editing and different camera positions. Mostly, he and Ginger Rogers (or another dance partner) were framed in very wide shots, on a track that would follow their movements from right to left, and from foreground to background, without interruption.
Willa: Yes, I’ve read that also – that he was very meticulous about how his dance numbers were filmed. He wanted each one to be captured in one long take by just one camera, which means that he and his partner had to be perfect throughout the entire dance, from beginning to end.
Nina: It was vitally important to Astaire that his dances be presented in “real time” – in real-life duration – so that his consummate skills as a dancer could be showcased without being compromised by any evident manipulation or “cheating”!
But we know that standards and tastes have shifted tremendously since the 1930s. In the early 1980s, music videos, TV commercials, and even many experimental films reveled in montage aesthetics – with very fast cuts, quick inserts, and spatial fragmentation of all kinds. So Michael’s short films followed the cinematic trend of the times, regardless of the excellence of his dancing, or the way he or anyone else felt it needed to be portrayed. It’s likely that his dance sequences in all these films were done with multiple takes, parts of which were edited together. Yet I don’t think it necessarily bothers us when, for example, we see Michael’s spinning feet in the coda of Black or White before he falls to his knees – and it looks like an “extra” spin might have been added in!
Even so, we sometimes yearn for the feeling of the “real” – the live performance. I know I do. I think that’s why it amazes us to see footage of his concerts, or the Motown 25 TV special. Although multiple cameras were used in these settings, we can still be fairly confident that Michael really did spin that many times, or that he really did moonwalk, live, before a screaming audience. There’s a perceived authenticity – and therefore, magic – in the live performances that’s more muted in the films. This may be one reason why Michael chose to save his moonwalk for the Motown 25 broadcast, where it would have the most impact and seem the most credible.
Willa: That’s an interesting point, Nina. I hadn’t thought about that before, but it makes a lot of sense. And it’s true there’s very little moonwalking in any of his videos – that was something he reserved for his live performances.
Nina: That’s true, come to think of it – except in Captain EO, where he briefly moonwalks to “We are Here to Change the World”! Another consideration is that the moonwalk, while known as a “signature” (or characteristic) MJ move, really only properly “belonged” to the young rake in “Billie Jean.” In no other song or video did he play that particular character. Anyway, it’s fascinating to see the evolution of his ideas through one of his performances. It’s like listening to an early demo of some of his songs, even though this film for Billie Jean was never any kind of work-in-progress: it was a fully realized, completed piece of work, the first incarnation of the song’s visual display.
Last time, Willa, we were saying that the images of the film cover more story events, or provide more (and different) information than the lyrics do. It’s often said that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” I don’t take this to mean that images are superior to language: just that they’re numerically more … fecund, we might say, replete with vastly more “signifiers.” All the more so when we’re dealing with moving pictures – which, in a five-minute film, might contain some 7,500 individual still frames, moving rapidly by. This richness alone provides an opportunity for the stars and directors of music videos, like Michael Jackson and Steve Barron, to depart from a literal representation of the lyrics.
For music videos as a whole, any lyrics can be treated with a great deal of artistic license, and Billie Jean is no exception. Mostly, we are asked to deal with visual information that may be at odds with, or even at times contradicts, what we are being told by Michael as he sings (narrates) the story. Even so, there are a few moments in the film when an image does seem to illustrate the verbal concept.
Willa: Yes, there are – and there are moments where the images correspond to the lyrics, but with an interesting twist. One of my favorites is when the lyrics tell us that My Baby is looking at a photo of Billie Jean’s baby boy and crying because “his eyes were like mine.” In the video, as soon as we hear those words we find ourselves looking at a close-up image of Michael Jackson’s eyes (and what gorgeous eyes they are!) and maybe imagining a baby with similar features …
Nina: That’s interesting, Willa: it’s one of the few moments in the film that’s close to illustrative. Michael’s eyes are presented in a kind of horizontal strip, or ribbon that’s been cut out from the whole picture, and divides the screen. We’re being asked to imagine the baby’s eyes and consider Michael’s eyes at the same time. And when Michael sings “she’s just a girl that claims that I am the one,” we see first his mouth, and then his thumbs (pointing to himself), also singled out as a horizontal strip, before being blended (dissolved) back into the whole image.
Willa: That’s true. So in our last post we talked about how the lyrics and the visuals tell somewhat different stories – or give a different perspective on the same story. But in these fragmented images, there are brief moments where the lyrics and visuals seem to converge.
Nina: We were puzzled, weren’t we, about why the choice was made to fragment the image in this way – and whose decision it was?
Willa: I think we did puzzle over that a bit, yes. Though in a way, those fragmented images of him make sense to me. There’s a detective trying to “capture” Michael Jackson’s character on film, but never quite succeeding. He never quite gets him – only fragments, like the ones we see.
And Steve Barron can never quite capture him either. In the dance sequence you were talking about, Nina, Steve Barron is trying to capture his dancing on film, which is like trying to catch a genii in a bottle. You simply can’t do it – not fully. You can catch some beautiful fleeting images, but it’s never the full experience. And to me, those beautiful fragments of his dance express that.
Nina: That’s a great point, Willa. It’s like an unfolding sequence of still photographs, and even a way of compiling them into an album. The freeze frames are an attempt to seize Michael’s movements – literally, to “arrest” him. Your idea about the desire to capture the genii through a camera really does align the trenchcoat-wearing “shamus” with the director himself!
Some further implications arise from this, I think – namely, about the paparazzi’s activities and the different ways a star’s image can be constructed through these promotional technologies – for good or ill.
Willa: Yes, I agree completely. In fact, one way to read the character in the trenchcoat is to see him as reporter or newspaper photographer rather than a detective. In fact, that’s how I tend to see him – as an old-fashioned paparazzo. And those photograph-type images we see in Billie Jean reinforce that, I think.
Nina: In fact, I like your idea better than the explanation that Steve Barron has offered. As Barron tells it, Michael Jackson was prepared to dance right away, without rehearsal. They decided to shoot at once. Neither Barron nor the crew knew exactly what Michael planned to do for his dance, so it was going to come as a surprise to them.
Rolling playback. The awesome sound of Billie Jean fills the studio for the first time.
That hypnotic beat. Those breathless vocals.
I pull the 16mm Arriflex camera onto my shoulder, press my eye to the eye-piece. Through the lens I see Michael standing on the sidewalk set, gently moving one leg in rhythm to the beat of the track, holding, static, waiting for the verse to finish, for the bridge into the chorus to kick in.
Now it does. And so does he.
And how does he?
With a staggeringly different energy running through his veins now. He engages my camera. Staring straight down the barrel of the lens. He is singing and dancing. Is that dancing? This is not like any dancing I have ever seen. This is out of this world. That is extraordinary. The world is going to see that and stop. The world is going to watch this and hold their breath. I know because right now I can’t breathe. And adrenalin running through my veins is heating up the camera I am glued to. And it’s literally steaming up the lens I’m looking through. But through the mist I can still make out Michael as he rises up on his toes, as he spins, and twists with the reflexes of a cat. With the skill of Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly and every one who has ever moved. Now he’s even improvising. He’s incorporating his trepidation into his moves. He certainly didn’t practice this in front of the mirror. He’s playing with the way the poor electrician in the corner of the studio is trying to keep up. He’s playing with the way the paving lights up, merging it with the speed and invention of his dance. He is stunning. He is brilliant. He is Michael Jackson.
Cut. Cut. Wow. Wow.
That’s quite a story.
Willa: I agree! “Cut. Cut. Wow. Wow.”
Nina: I have to say that, as a filmmaker, I’m fuming with envy! I’ve often shot on 16mm film, and I’ve used Arriflex cameras (albeit lower-end ones than what they’re using here). And while I’ve filmed some exciting subjects and had those “wow wow” moments, my lens never steamed up the way Barron’s did!
Barron’s rationale for fracturing the images – as best he remembers it – was to “jazz things up.” By his account, he probably hadn’t given much thought to how it would connect with the story. A few weeks ago, the MJJC blog posted a Q & A session they’d conducted with Barron, whose memoir Egg n Chips & Billie Jean was published this past November. Folks had a chance to write in their questions, and one person asked Barron if he had a funny memory of the time he’d spent with Michael.
Yeah – I mean, obviously it was a long time ago now, but I’m using a moment I can remember kind of amusing, was in the post-production. He came into the edit suite when we were cutting the video back in London after having filmed it in LA. … And we had done the center section of the dancing piece, where there were the three split screens of Michael. … As he looked through it, Michael said “I prefer the one on the right”, and he was talking about them as if the split screens had been put up as multiple choice for what we were going to choose as we went. … So it was quite funny that, you know, it was just a misinterpretation of what this process and what was going on in this cutting room. … I quickly told him, “Well, that’s what we’re going to do. That’s how it’s going to look. And you’re going to get three of you on screen at the same time.” So, that was a funny moment.
But as I said, I like your interpretation, Willa! I think we agree that readers and viewers can productively form their own meanings as they encounter works of art. There is no one definitive answer, not even the one the artist provides. As I see it, a work of art is a living, breathing entity. If it’s powerful enough, and if it can physically survive to be presented and promoted to future audiences, it’s sure to steam up the lenses of those people in ways the artist had never anticipated.
Willa: I really like the way you put that, Nina. And I agree that Michael Jackson may be steaming up the lenses of viewers for generations to come!
Nina: I’m also struck by Barron’s account of how Michael was “incorporating his trepidation into his moves.” It’s fascinating.
Willa: It really is. And of course, that trepidation also fits the emotions of the character he’s playing, so it works on both levels. But watching this sequence with Barron’s words in mind, I can see what he means.
Nina: The way he moves in this piece, and also the business with the black jacket, might mark the beginning of Michael’s journey as a dancer and choreographer who sought to embody a distinct character through each song he performed. With “Billie Jean,” as you and Raven pointed out in the previous post, he would go on to refine this character through his Motown 25 performance and all the subsequent stage performances he did while on tour, offering more detail through props and gestures – and of course, the moonwalk.
It’s acting, it’s pantomime, it’s a quick sketch, a drawing, an impersonation, a characterization: all these things. To me, it’s always amazing to observe how Michael Jackson draws with his body as he dances.
Willa: Yes, absolutely.
Nina: His poses can be like hieroglyphs, forming a lexicon of their own. He can be bold, hesitant, torn apart by contradictions (as in Billie Jean) exuding confidence or trepidation (or even both simultaneously), as the song’s content demands or as the mood strikes him.
It may be no accident, then, that Barron was so excited for the opportunity to use “techniques from the early days of cinema,” as he says in Egg n Chips & Billie Jean. It turns out that Michael was like a silent film star and mime: “more like a beauty queen from a movie scene,” as it were. Rudolph Valentino, who was widely celebrated in the 1920s as a great film actor (and as a screen idol and sex symbol), had nothing on Michael!
Willa: I agree!
Nina: Barron mentions that the background was painted on a glass surface. Here are some production stills that can show us how shallow the studio actually was, and how the illusion of the city beyond, in deep space, was created by this painting on glass which (I’m guessing) was backlit. Look at the scaffold on the left, and how close it is to the painted backdrop. And in the color image, you can see the seam where the floor meets the painted glass wall.
Then we come to that part of the verse where Michael sings:
So take my strong advice
Just remember to always think twice
(Do think twice, do think twice)
At this point, there’s a cut from the whole series of eye-level shots of Michael dancing on the sidewalk. We are presented with a more distant view of Michael in the same setting, but here the camera is positioned slightly above him, and he is dwarfed by an enormous billboard, with the “long ribbon of pavement” still behind him. He stands at the foot of the billboard and looks up at it; we see an image in closeup of two young women. The image on the billboard shifts twice, with just a slight change in the women’s position, so we have three different images – like snapshots – seemingly projected on the billboard as a kind of tableau vivant. Today these would have been selfies.
Willa: That’s funny, Nina, but you’re right – they are like selfies of two women out at a club. And while their identity is ambiguous in the film, Michael Jackson said in a 1999 MTV interview that one of the women was Billie Jean:
Steve Barron – he just had all these different, and I thought wonderful ideas – but I let him go with it. The only part I wrote in the piece was, I said, “I just want a section.” I said, “Give me a section here I can dance a little,” because he said no dancing in the whole piece. He said, “no dancing.” I said, “just give me one little moment.” So that whole section where you see this long street and this billboard of these two girls, one of them is Billie Jean and I’m dancing – that’s the only part I contributed.
I have to say, I’m really suspicious that this dance sequence was all he contributed to Billie Jean. I really question that.
Nina: It is interesting to consider Michael’s recollection of this, although I don’t think it was Steve Barron’s idea to not allow Michael to dance. It was – if I remember reading correctly – a decision that was made by the brass at CBS Records, who were financing the production. (How wrong could they have been?)
So take my strong advice
Just remember to always think twice
(do think twice, do think twice)
We might think of this billboard not as a regular billboard, but “more like a movie screen.” For one thing, it’s too low, big, and close to be a billboard like the ones we see on the highway. We can mostly disregard those billboards as we drive past; but this is a projection surface that neither we, nor Michael, can easily ignore. It’s in our face.
Willa: And in his face, as you say. Also, the images shift, which is “more like a movie scene” than a billboard as well. So there’s something interesting going on with this billboard. It’s almost like it’s reflecting his thoughts, which are almost obsessively focused on two women – Billie Jean and My Baby – who seem to be the two women on the billboard.
Nina: Without getting too much into Freud’s theories of dream interpretation (and the dream’s role in bringing repressed material to conscious light), we might imagine the screen as a repository, or slideshow, of Michael’s memories – some of which depict scenes he likely never wants to revisit. By this mechanism, Billie Jean – a woman who, we presume, Michael probably never wants to see again – can insinuate herself in his psyche and make her way back into his life, the better to torment him with “her schemes and plans.”
Willa: Hmm … that’s interesting. Though I don’t know that he never wants to see her again. He definitely doesn’t want to be trapped by her, but he seems torn to me, conflicted, even after all he’s been through …
Nina: That may be true, Willa. Maybe his “fear and loathing” is commingled with a kind of residual desire. It’s a compulsion he cannot escape: another condition Freud would describe as “repetition compulsion.” Against his better judgment, Michael cannot let go of the memory that haunts him, and feels compelled to return to the scene of his trauma. On this screen, he sees flashes and fragments of half-remembered events, images that are both terrifying and irresistible. Maybe – to again put it in Freudian terms – the contents of his unconscious mind have come back to rear their ugly heads.
As he spins in front of the billboard, he places his hands for a brief instant over his ears, as if he’s hearing something he’d rather not.
Willa: That’s true.
Nina: On another note, Michael had his own “schemes and plans” for this film: in particular, an idea for a dramatic and choreographic adventure that never came to pass. In Egg n Chips & Billie Jean, Barron begins this part of his first-person account with a quote from Michael:
“I had another idea, Steve.” Now he’s talking – I think I sit up a little. “If another store on the street was some kind of tailor’s store, making clothes, and measuring people. Then they have some mannequins in the window, then when I walk past, the mannequins jump out of the window and they dance with me.”
That’s brilliant. That’s genius. A group of mannequins dancing in sync along the street, led by Michael Jackson. I love that idea. That idea makes the whole idea more special, takes it onto another level.
“‘That’s a great idea, Michael.’ I’ll get straight on that. We’re shooting in two days so I need to let the crew know about Michael’s fucking great new idea. A choreographed group dance. In sync. That’ll be very cool. Kinda like West Side Story. Very cool. Buzzing.”
But when Barron brought the idea to his higher-ups, they estimated that it would increase the entire budget by about $5,000. His bosses at CBS had stipulated that they were only authorized to spend $50,000, and not a penny more. (Barron felt terrible. He had been excited about the concept, and he also didn’t want to let Michael down.) In the event, Michael called him just hours before they were scheduled to begin shooting, and told him that he didn’t want to use the mannequins after all.
Willa: And I think he was right. A big dance number works well in Beat It and Thriller, but I don’t think it would fit the more intimate mood of Billie Jean.
This story also suggests that Michael Jackson was involved in developing concepts and making decisions about Billie Jean – after all, he came up with the idea of the dancing mannequins, and then he rejected it.
Nina: In lieu of the dancing mannequins and the tailor shop, here’s what we see in this view of the street:
Interestingly, Michael once revealed to an interviewer that he had a collection of mannequins at his house at Hayvenhurst. He said that they served him as a means by which he could “accompany” himself. So they could provide “company” for him if he was lonely; but they might also have served him as “accompaniment” – fellow travelers – in his musical and dance adventures.
Willa: That is interesting. I’ve wondered if his mannequins took on the roles of characters that he could imaginatively interact with when creating his songs and films. For example, I wonder if one of his mannequins is Billie Jean? …
Nina: In a comment to our last post, Raven considered the use of black-and-white and color images used in the same film. She mentioned that The Wizard of Oz, too, uses black-and-white to depict Dorothy’s daily life on the farm in Kansas. Once Dorothy arrives in Oz, however, the film switches to color.
Filmmakers will often play around with a combination of black-and-white and color sequences. Sometimes it’s done in a schematic way, where the black-and-white sequences will designate the everyday reality of a character, while the color images are reserved for dream sequences or hallucinations, or vice versa. In more experimental film work that’s less narratively based (like the films I’ve made), the choices might be less guided by a narrative conception of space, time, and locale.
Speaking of The Wizard of Oz (still a powerful and resonant film after all these decades) it comes to my mind strongly whenever I watch the Billie Jean short film: for an entirely different set of reasons, largely “irrational.” The similarities between the two films have almost nothing at all to do with the storyline of either one. It’s purely a matter of visual association. Quite simply, the felt connection between the two films grows, for me, out of the way some of their images look and feel.
There’s one particularly memorable shot in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, as the four characters (Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion) approach the distant spectacle of the Emerald City, with a field of poppies before them.
Then, in the The Wiz (which, as we know, stars Michael Jackson and Diana Ross), we have another conception of the Yellow Brick Road as an approach to the distant city – which looks something like Manhattan:
When I see the cityscape of Billie Jean, it strikes me as a kind of anti-Oz, or Oz in reverse. We get the same impression of deep space, with a character in the immediate foreground and the city some distance behind him. In this image, although it’s hard to see the perspective with as much clarity, we can nevertheless see the same kind of prospect, with a city in the distance.
Also, the color scheme in Billie Jean stands in sharp contrast to the “yellow brick road” scenes from those other films: here, it’s pink/mauve/magenta instead of green or yellowish. And instead of a yellow brick road or a field of poppies leading our eye inexorably toward a future that we hope will be brighter, we see a gray ribbon of dull sidewalk stretching out behind Michael as he dances: the “long pavement leading from the city,” as Barron calls it. In the middle-ground, there’s nothing but a big, dark, ominous void.
Willa: That’s fascinating, Nina! They really are very similar, visually, aren’t they? – but reversed as you say. You can see the “ribbon of dull sidewalk” extending into the distance behind him, like an ominous counterpart of the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz. And he’s walking away from that city behind him, rather than toward it.
Nina: Yes, Willa. The composition of this image was of course never designed to look anything like what we see in those earlier films, and I’m pretty sure that the pristine, sparkling cleanliness of the Emerald City wouldn’t have been part of the sensibility of Billie Jean and its planned scenario. The city behind Michael in Billie Jean seems only meant as a rough sketch, not a detailed representation. But the “lay of the land” here, as in his other films, implies a sense of time that is revealed through space, in deep perspective, with a city in the distant background. In no other film of Michael’s that I recall is space treated as such a large expanse of landscape or cityscape.
In Billie Jean, in contrast to those other films, the urban space is a setting that reveals the protagonist’s almost obsessive anxiety about events that occurred in the past, instead of his hopes for the future – or even, for that matter, his ability to enjoy the present. And he inhabits that space in an ambivalent way. The way he frequently looks around him, as he ambles down the street, seems to signal that this neighborhood is not his home, and that he’s not necessarily comfortable or safe there. He’s something of a stranger, despite his seeming nonchalance and devil-may-care posturing.
Willa: Yes, though he seems confident as well – and that’s actually a common feature in a lot of his videos: he both belongs and doesn’t belong to the situation he finds himself in. We see that in Beat It and Bad and The Way You Make Me Feel and In the Closet and Stranger in Moscow and Ghosts and a host of other short films. I’m just naming these off the top of my head – I’m sure there are a lot more. And in each case he moves with confidence, as if he knows the area thoroughly, but yet there’s something different about him that sets him apart, as if he doesn’t really belong there or isn’t really a part of that world. I definitely feel that in Billie Jean – and that threatening cityscape in the background really heightens the feeling.
Nina: I think it’s true, Willa – he both belongs and doesn’t belong, everywhere he goes. Here, he is (to quote his poem “Planet Earth” in Dancing the Dream), “a capricious anomaly in a sea of space.”
In Billie Jean and other short films, he simply disappears at the end, or else he moves off in isolation from others whom he had temporarily befriended or danced with. The larger community he had stumbled upon cannot (or will not) incorporate him, in the long run, into its own body politic. He seems “unassimilable.” Yet his irreducible alienation is drawn very differently from one film to another.
There are the films where he undergoes a radical transformation of his physical person – Thriller and Ghosts come immediately to mind, but there’s also Remember the Time, the coda of Black or White, and Speed Demon, among others. In other short films, like Beat It, Bad, and The Way You Make Me Feel, his social role within a group of peers shifts dramatically, to the benefit of the group. No matter the details, he is shown to initiate a group activity – or ritual – where he can inspire and lead others. But in the end, he himself can’t enjoy the fruit of his own labors, the advantages of what he has created: he must depart. And tragically, this is to some extent the real-life story of Michael Jackson’s last days and weeks as he rehearsed for This Is It at the Staples Center in 2009.
Willa: Yes it is, and it’s also the story of Peter Pan to some extent. No wonder he identified with him so strongly …
Nina: Yes. And the distant city is a painted backdrop whose basic shapes you can make out, but whose details are obscure. We wonder what’s out there. Has Michael come from that other part of the city – possibly the “other side of the tracks” – to this other neighborhood, with its menswear shop, camera store, and “Ronald’s Drugs”? We might even note a subtext about urban gentrification here, since it had become a matter of public concern even in 1982. Why not?
Willa: There does seem to be a class or economic difference between him and this place he finds himself wandering in. He has money in his pocket (which he shares with the panhandler) and he has dapper clothes, but Billie Jean lives in a small walk-up apartment in a place where winos sleep on the street, where neighbors are crowded together, and a woman with her hair in curlers keeps watch as he climbs the stairs to Billie Jean’s room.
Nina: But it sounds like a description of the way I lived in Manhattan … in 1982! That very year, I moved into a sublet. It was a walk-up apartment in a run down tenement building, whose leaseholder (unbeknownst to me at the time) was a rich heiress. This was on the Lower East Side, considered a “slum” neighborhood by many at the time, though up-and-coming. Homeless people living on the street were ubiquitous, and it wasn’t uncommon to see some well-dressed young people, getting out of the clubs late one Saturday night, giving them money. Trust-fund babies “slumming it,” working and middle-class artists, clubgoers, struggling Dominican and Puerto Rican families, homeless people of every description – all could be found in and around one single apartment building. This was New York City in the early ’80s, as I experienced it. So in that way, the whole setting of Billie Jean – through its art direction and the styling of its main character – is, although highly stylized even to the point of expressionism, somewhat true-to-life for me!
Willa: And of course, Michael Jackson was living in New York City just a few years earlier, during filming of The Wiz. So maybe he drew on similar associations …
Nina: But to get back to the plight of our isolated hero-protagonist: he cannot eagerly rush toward a place with a sense of hope – as do the characters in The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz. As opposed to those who dance happily down the Yellow Brick Road toward an imaginary utopian future, the Mauve City – which Michael is never seen entering or leaving – seems distinctly like a dystopian space. Newspaper and other debris is blowing around in the wind, reminiscent of the street on which Michael performs the Coda of the Black or White film. Between Michael and the distant neighborhood in the Mauve City – the “long pavement leading from the city,” as Barron called it – we see only a dark, dreary, empty cavity, undoubtedly more toxic than the field of poppies that (temporarily) incapacitated the four heroes in The Wizard of Oz.
I’ve been dwelling at length on the mise-en-scène because in Billie Jean as well Michael Jackson’s other films, it’s so lushly descriptive and atmospheric in myriad ways: more like a dream. The details of these scenes not only form a backdrop for the character Michael Jackson is to play; they also refer to so many stories, histories, and images that exist outside of the film’s own immediate narrative. Willa, you and Eleanor Bowen drew this out so vividly in your fascinating three-part series on the HIStory teaser. And even with a film like Billie Jean, seemingly less steeped in overt political and historical references (or at least less self-consciously so), we can still find many associative links that are not purely personal, but also serve as collective, cultural touchstones. These yield themselves up when we watch the films, whether they were put there intentionally by Michael Jackson and his collaborators, or not.
Also, I often think of most narrative films (conventional ones, anyway) as vast mechanisms for regulating our perceptions of time and space. And all three films – The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz, and Billie Jean – are no exceptions. In distinctive ways, all are involved with the spatialization of time.
In The Wizard of Oz, for instance, the characters are searching for “home.” They eagerly run toward their imagined future, concretized in the shining, immaculate city. The use of deep-focus cinematography and its depiction of deep space perspective in these shots – made possible by certain kinds of lenses – also implies that these characters have access to a future, just as long as they stay the course on the Yellow Brick Road.
Willa: Oh interesting, Nina. So the Emerald City is distant but visible in The Wizard of Oz – and in The Wiz as well – just as their (hopeful, promising) future is distant but visible, or visualizable, as well?
Nina: Yes, Willa, that’s a great point. Both are distant in space and time. In The Wizard of Oz, the distant, shining city itself is only important to the protagonists because of who resides there: the Wizard, whom they expect will deliver them to their respective homes. He will transport Dorothy to where she rightfully belongs; he will restore the Scarecrow’s and Woodman’s missing organs; and he will endow the Lion with a character trait that’s considered “proper” to his species, but that the poor animal has apparently been missing all his life.
In all these ways, these characters longed-for homecomings signal a return to normalcy, to an imagined stability, to the “proper” order of things following their time in exile. By moving spatially toward the future (at the end of the yellow brick road, or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow), they hope to return to their respective pasts, where something that they have lost will be restored to them. Dorothy, at least, has a home to return to – we’ve seen it. And so her story unfolds as a quest to get back to the Kansas of her memory.
But instead of depicting a rush forward as a means of returning “home,” the story of Billie Jean is about running away – a painful, yet necessary retreat from the unmanageability of optimism. This retreat will inevitably put the character at odds with his fellows, “out of step” with them.
Willa: So Dorothy and Scarecrow and the others aren’t moving toward the future so much as the past – or a future that reclaims the past. But Michael Jackson’s character is trying to escape the past – specifically, the entanglements of Billie Jean. So again, Billie Jean evokes The Wizard of Oz, but then reverses it. Interesting!
Nina: Yes. In fact, the thematic strands of Michael’s songs, considered together with his public statements, seem laden with the irreversibly damaging effects of time. There is no going back in time to heal those wounds, and there will be no possibility of returning to a place called “home,” which for Michael Jackson would mean the redemption of his lost childhood.
Willa: Though while he may realize it’s not possible to go back “to a place called ‘home,’” as you say, the longing to go back – to somehow find that “place called ‘home’” and reclaim his lost childhood – is certainly there. That longing runs throughout his work.
Nina: Indeed, it’s one his major themes – in fact, probably the most important theme of his entire oeuvre. So the film for Billie Jean “frames” a young man who resolutely turns his back on the Mauve City he has recently left (Sodom and Gomorrah?) rather than facing it. For him, it is a place that will forever haunt him, tarnished by ill-omened memories and associations. Michael seems destined for permanent exile: although he’s clearly not indigent, he is, in effect, as “homeless” as the homeless man he encounters and helps, and to whom he brings his magical largesse in the form of a spinning coin.
Willa: Oh, that’s an interesting connection, Nina.
Nina: A few years earlier, Michael Jackson had sung (and therefore “narrated” in the first person) a song he co-wrote with his brothers for 1978’s Destiny album, “Bless His Soul”:
Sometimes I cry ’cause I’m confused
Is this a fact of being used?
There is no life for me at all
Cause I give myself at beck and call
Poignantly, through his magical skills, our hero seems to have the power to help others but not himself, and this is also an allegorical tale that, sadly, touches upon many elements of Michael Jackson’s own biography. He seems to have irrevocably lost or sacrificed something he can never retrieve. And so there is nothing for him to happily run toward, no apparent redemption for what ails him, in all his mysterious alienation and difference. Unable to look to anyone else to “save” him (even Lisa Marie tried to do it, and couldn’t), he must be his own Wizard, as well as his own Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Dorothy.
And so, the song’s essential tragedy, as it’s presented here, is manifested not only in its music and lyrics, but also – especially – in the very mise en scène of its filmed adaptation. A sense of anxiety pervades the whole, even at times rupturing the film’s somewhat cartoonish aesthetic. And I find it interesting that many critics who have dwelt (perhaps unfairly) on the “paranoia” they see creeping into Michael’s later music – especially from the HIStory album forward – have noted that the themes of being hunted, haunted, preyed upon, exploited, and besieged, began as early as 1982 with Billie Jean.
Willa: Yes, they have – and without much compassion or understanding for where those feelings “of being hunted, haunted, preyed upon, exploited, and besieged” came from. It wasn’t paranoia – it was his life.
Nina: Despite the pleasure we may take in Michael himself, who “gifts” us with his astonishing performances, his beauty, and his acts of generosity (not to mention the cute pink shirt and red bow tie), the unease we feel for him is abiding. It’s inscribed in the film’s visual and sensory structure: its colors, its spaces, its nooks and crannies, and even the aroma of its streets – which we come to know, intuitively, through all our senses.
By the way, it’s worth checking out Salman Rushdie’s book on The Wizard of Oz (BFI Film Classics), where he explored themes of childhood, exile, and the impossibility – for any of us – to ever return to our “home sweet home.”
Willa: I will. And, Nina, I’m speechless. I have never thought about Billie Jean this way before. I’ve watched it countless times over the past 30 years, but you have opened my eyes to an entirely new way of seeing and experiencing this film. Thank you so much for joining me!
Nina: And thank you so much, Willa, for providing the opportunity!
Note: Just as this post was about to go up, we received word that Judge Mitchell Beckloff dismissed Wade Robson’s late creditor’s claim against the Michael Jackson Estate. A second Robson case is still pending. Here’s an article from My News LA.
Willa: This week I am very happy to be joined by Susan Woodward, a psychoanalytically trained clinical social worker. She’s also the author of Otherness and Power: Michael Jackson and His Media Critics, a book that provides important insights into the extremely harsh criticism that came to dominate media coverage of Michael Jackson and his work. Instead of simply ignoring or discounting this criticism, as many of us tend to do, Susan has dived right into the worst of it to try to uncover what motivates it. And what she’s found is fascinating!
Susan, thank you so much for joining me to talk about your research and analysis.
Susan: Willa, I am so honored to be invited to talk to you about Michael Jackson. I must note that your book M Poetica was an important inspiration for my book. I really admired the way you waded into the morass of some of the hot-button criticisms – plastic surgery, changing skin color, allegations of child abuse – and calmly, intelligently addressed them. I think that Jackson fans tend to shrink in horror from the most severe critics, and the critics see the fans as fanatics, but you were able to walk the middle ground of being a Jackson defender who was willing to look at the criticisms and deal with them even-handedly and effectively.
Willa: Thank you, Susan. I really appreciate that, and I think your work is so interesting and important. Instead of reacting against that harsh criticism Michael Jackson faced, or simply ignoring it as many of us tend to do, you’ve really tried to understand it. And one of the things you discovered while researching this is that, ironically, the cultural critics who were the most severe when writing about him also seem to believe that he possessed tremendous power. I was really surprised by that.
Susan: I was quite surprised as well.
Willa: So I’m curious, how did you first notice this? And what drew you to this research to begin with?
Susan: After Michael Jackson died I became interested in reading everything I could find about him. Along the way, I read some pretty hateful stuff, which I found increasingly puzzling, and even shocking, as I learned more about him. I’m a clinical social worker, so I’m always interested in what motivates people, and I wondered where all this vitriol came from. There were the child abuse allegations, but they were highly questionable accusations that were never proven, and there were abundant reasons to conclude that those allegations could not be true. And I eventually found that the allegations seemed to have little to do with the hatred that was leveled at him.
Willa: I agree. For example, Woody Allen has been accused of child sexual abuse also, but there hasn’t been the rush to judgment that there was with Michael Jackson, and there hasn’t been the extreme hysteria and antipathy that Michael Jackson faced. So there seems to be something more going on there. It’s almost like the abuse allegations gave people an excuse for expressing strong negative feelings about him that were already bubbling underground.
Susan: Yes. And at the time of the first allegations, in 1993, since he had already endured nearly a decade of inaccurate, exaggerated tabloid stories painting him as “bizarre,” the public was primed to believe that his “bizarreness” could extend to child abuse.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Susan. As Michael Jackson himself said in a speech when receiving a Grammy Legend Award, “I wasn’t aware that the world thought I was so weird and bizarre.” That was on February 24, 1993, a couple months before he met Evan Chandler. Then the allegations hit the newspapers in August, so it appears the press and the public were indeed “primed,” as you say, to see him as “weird and bizarre” – and perhaps guilty as well because of that.
Susan: Oh, yes. I think that the negative press he got had terrible consequences for him. I wanted to understand more about where that hostility came from.
Susan Fast, in her essay “Difference that Exceeded Understanding” (one of the best titles ever), pointed out that much of the hostility toward him was due to racism and a deep-seated discomfort with his “difference,” meaning the ways in which he was unreadable and unclassifiable. His signifiers for race, gender, age, and sexuality were hard to interpret and confusing to many. I call that difference his “otherness.” Although I don’t share in that discomfort with his otherness, at least I could understand that it might motivate some to criticize him. But I just had this nagging feeling that there was something else in the mix that I couldn’t identify.
So I kept reading. As I was reading a particularly hateful, long chapter of The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson, one of the three works I analyze in my book, I began to notice that the author, amidst the vitriol, kept referring to Michael Jackson as a king or divine being and using other highly elevated descriptions. Often these terms were used sarcastically, but among the 23 authors included in the book, they all used that sort of language in describing him, along with a roughly equal number of disparaging and hateful terms. When I went back to look at the rest of Resistible Demise and then the other two works that I include in my book, I saw that there was an assumption that he was an extraordinarily powerful person.
And I mean a power that is quite different from the power that any famous, wealthy person would be perceived as having, and unprecedented for a musician. The critics I looked at for my book see him as a royal person or as having almost supernatural power. I cannot think of another figure in popular culture who was seen this way. But at the same time these critics just tear him apart for having those very qualities.
The three works I chose to analyze are Dave Marsh’s 1985 book Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream, Maureen Orth’s 2003 Vanity Fair article “Losing His Grip,” and The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson, a collection of 23 essays published about six months after Michael Jackson died. I chose these particular works because they were each overviews of his life and work, rather than addressing just a particular event, and they were all harshly critical, even sometimes quite hateful.
Willa: Yes, though they’re very different, as you point out. In your book you show that, while they are all reacting very negatively to his supposed power, they didn’t all see his power the same way or react against it for the same reasons. For example, Dave Marsh seemed to think Michael Jackson had the power to heal racial divisions, and was deeply disappointed that he wasn’t using that power the way he wanted him to. And I have to say, there’s just something too ironic about a white man criticizing a black man for not doing enough to end racism – especially when that man is Michael Jackson, who has done more than anyone in recent memory to end help prejudice of all kinds, including racism.
Susan: Yes, well put! Marsh says that initially he was a Jackson fan who saw him as almost a messiah figure, someone who could lead America, and maybe even the world, into a new era free of racial, sexual, and political divisions. Marsh writes quite eloquently about that feeling.
Willa: He really does. And in an odd way he’s still a Michael Jackson fan because he sees such tremendous potential in him – not just musically but culturally and spiritually. And he keeps imposing his expectations onto him, the hopes of a white man looking for a powerful black figure to solve the complex problem of racism. For example, here’s a quote from near the end of Marsh’s book:
Michael Jackson is one thing before he is a singer or a success or a star or anything else. He is a black person in America. As a result, he set some old chains to clanking, stirred some ancient ghosts, incited some venerable dreams.
The ghosts of slavery and racism are four hundred years old but their power is fresh and strong. The dreams he incited are equally old – the fantastic hope that we can somehow be brought together long enough to lay those ghosts to rest.
Throughout his book, Marsh expresses tremendous respect for Michael Jackson’s musical talent, but also a longing for him to become a Moses-type cultural figure who will lead America out of racism. And that longing is coupled with a disgust that he isn’t Moses – that he isn’t fulfilling Marsh’s fantasy of who he wants him to be.
Susan: That is a very powerful passage from Trapped. It’s such a shame that Marsh couldn’t see how Michael Jackson’s otherness, which he criticizes so harshly, was the very reason that Marsh and others could project onto him “that fantastic hope.”
Willa: That’s a very good point, Susan. The real irony is that Michael Jackson actually was combatting the roots of racism – and much more effectively than anything Dave Marsh proposes – but he was doing it at a deep, almost subconscious level that Dave Marsh can’t comprehend. But instead of trying to understand what Michael Jackson is doing, Marsh attacks him for what he isn’t doing.
Susan: He should have cherished that otherness.
Willa: I agree. And then there’s Maureen Orth, who wrote some of the most sordid, inflammatory articles ever published about Michael Jackson. She felt he had tremendous power also, but it was the power to manipulate and even control people. So while Marsh believed he had a positive power that he was squandering, Orth believed he had a negative power that he was using all too well.
Susan: Yes, Maureen Orth really seems to be in the grips of that fear of Jackson’s otherness. You get the feeling that she thinks that he was so dangerous that he deserved to be driven to the ends of the earth. While she seems to fear his otherness, she also seems to feel that his otherness was exactly what gave him the power to manipulate others.
Willa: That’s really interesting, and something I hadn’t noticed before I read your book. She definitely seems to fear his difference, as you say – to the point of hysteria. For example, in her article she claims that Michael Jackson paid a Mali witchdoctor $150,000 to conduct a voodoo ceremony in Switzerland, and that as part of that ceremony he “ritually sacrificed” 42 cows. She actually published that in Vanity Fair. I think it goes without saying that that’s ridiculous – it makes no sense, and from what I can tell it has absolutely no basis in fact.
Some friends in Germany contacted the Federal Office of Agriculture (FOAG) in Switzerland for me, and the FOAG told them they have no evidence that anything like that ever happened. The FOAG tracks every cow in Switzerland from the time it’s born until it’s slaughtered and processed – they can tell you exactly which cow or cows are included in every package of beef sold in Switzerland – and they have no records of missing cows, no evidence of anything like this.
Susan: That is one masterful feat of fact checking!
Willa: It really is. I’m so grateful to them for doing that. But even without the FOAG, this story should strike any reasonable person as extremely improbable. For one thing, it goes against everything Michael Jackson stood for. But also, I just don’t think you could hide something like that. Cows are huge – around 1,000 pounds – so 42 cows would weigh about 20 tons. How could you hide 20 tons of dead cows? Where would you put them? How would you move them? You can’t just stick them in the trunk of your car. And yet the most obsessively surveilled man in history somehow did this, and no one knows anything about it? That just doesn’t seem possible. But Orth blindly accepts this wild story and reports it as true without any fact checking, as far as I can tell.
Susan: I found that little fact checking seemed to have been done for many of the things she said in that article. I have to say that I had a lot of fun doing the fact checking that should have been done before publication – and easily finding several glaring errors. She really seemed to want to believe what suited her about Michael Jackson. Along the same lines, she cites numerous sources for the article, but almost all of them are either anonymous, have some obvious motive to want to say bad things about him, or are people (such as plastic surgeons) who had no connection to him.
Willa: That’s true. The question is why she accepted such an outrageous story as true, and I think it’s because she was predisposed to believe it – she saw him as so completely Other that she thought he was capable of anything.
Susan: I certainly agree. I think that it’s significant that she begins her article with this unbelievable voodoo scenario. This story presents him as racially other, foolishly wasteful of large sums of money, and indifferent to the lives of others, in this case animals. Certainly it primes the gullible reader to believe that he was capable of anything.
Willa: It really does. And then there are the many critics in The Resistible Demise. Unfortunately, I haven’t read this collection of essays, but you show that these writers – and again, these are all music and cultural critics who are writing very negatively about him – expressed a belief that he had an almost supernatural power, which is very surprising. That is so unexpected. And while analyzing that you introduced two terms I hadn’t heard before: “angelism” and “beastialism.” Could you explain these a bit?
Susan: The term “angelism” was coined in the 1940s by Jacques Maritain, a French philosopher. Angelism is the erroneous view of humans as being primarily of a divine nature, purely spirit and intellect. Angelism does not refer specifically to angels, by the way. The opposite, and equally erroneous view, is that of beastialism, that humans are only motivated by bodily, selfish concerns, such as greed, lust, envy. These views are erroneous because, of course, we are all driven by some combination of both angelism and beastialism. Michael Jackson came to be seen by many as an angelistic being, someone who seemed to be free of the normal human categories of race, gender, and age. And he was seen by many as beastial, someone who was physically decaying and morally corrupt.
Willa: These are such useful concepts for understanding reactions to Michael Jackson, I think. I hadn’t heard these terms before, but after reading your book and learning about these ideas, I’ve been seeing this angelism/beastialism split applied to him constantly, both by those praising him and those criticizing him.
Susan: Yes, once you’re aware of that angelism/beastialism split, you just see it in so much of how he was viewed.
Willa: You really do. And you know, it’s really interesting how these categories tie in with Eleanor Bowman’s ideas of transcendence, as she talked about with us in a post a while back. Transcendence views some humans primarily in terms of mind – they aim to “transcend” the limits of their bodies – while other humans are seen primarily as bodies. These two categories seem to map pretty directly onto the divisions you’re talking about, with angelism viewing humans primarily in terms of mind – “purely spirit and intellect,” as you said – while beastialism views humans primarily in terms of the body, and its needs and desires. Is that right?
Susan: I would agree with you. The transcendent worldview involves seeing spirit as separate from matter, and matter as inferior to spirit. It’s a polarized way of perceiving reality, very much like the extreme poles of angelism and beastialism. Michael Jackson’s critics used the beastial end of the transcendent spectrum to debase him, to compensate for the angelistic, much more flattering view of him.
Willa: Yes, but while the angelistic view tends to be more positive, it’s just as unrealistic and can be just as problematic. Eleanor sees Michael Jackson as challenging that division, and offering a new vision – one of immanence – where mind and body are fully integrated, indivisible. But the critics you researched seem to fall into that transcendental view of separating mind from body, and see him strictly as one or the other. So what are some examples of critics viewing Michael Jackson through the lens of angelism? And of beastialism?
Susan: The Resistible Demise (I still don’t know what that title means) is very fertile ground for examples of angelistic and beastialistic views of Michael Jackson. Many of the words used on both sides of that polarity were so extraordinary that I included lists of them in my book. For example, on the beastial side, authors of the essays use words and phrases such as “freakish,” “inhuman,” “precious weirdo girl-man,” “not unlike Darth Vader – a degenerating husk of pale flesh kept barely alive by a complex mediating machinery,” “Zombie Jackson,” “auto-castrated asexual,” “creature of absolute soulessness,” “monster,” “genuine beast of the apocalypse,” and “biotic component going mad.” I could go on. There are hundreds of examples in Resistible Demise. Note that many of these terms focus on the body and make an assumption of decay, moral corruption, and insanity – the very opposite of the angelistic view.
Willa: Yes, they do. And in fact, much of the harshest criticism of Michael Jackson focuses on the idea that he somehow corrupted the integrity of the body, like the repeated fallacy that he’d had so much plastic surgery his nose disintegrated. And actually, the allegations of sexual abuse or perversion are another form of bodily corruption, and so are the claims of extensive drug abuse. So this criticism really does focus on a sense of bodily corruption.
Susan: And the angelistic terms used in Resistible Demise are equally extreme and see him as divorced from his body, a creature of pure spirit: “god,” “a creature of youth and lightness whose performance defies emotional gravity,” “otherworldly,” “an angel who fell to earth,” “beyond human law,” “invading savior,” “gravity-defying,” “archangel,” “unearthly,” “uncanny,” and “not matter.” As with the beastial terms, Resistible Demise contains hundreds of similar examples of angelistic terms, in addition to the many references to him as a kingly figure. And this is in a book that is harshly critical.
Willa: Even his dancing is used as an example, which is so ironic. I mean, dancing is the most embodied of all art forms. Yet because he could do things with his body few others could do, he was portrayed as disembodied: “a creature of youth and lightness whose performance defies emotional gravity,” as you quoted before.
Susan: One of the things that comes to my mind when I read these angelistic and beastial terms is, Do the authors really think they were describing an actual human being? You can easily see that both views are erroneous. It’s hard to imagine the sort of decrepit being of the beastial view. But it’s equally difficult to imagine that Michael Jackson was really a divine being. I know, however, that there are people who are absolutely convinced of one view or the other.
There were many reasons that so many came to see Michael Jackson in an angelistic light. Anyone who reads much about him learns that he wanted to give his audience a “magical” experience, and a person who appears to be magical also appears to be an angelistic being. There are abundant examples of magical transformations in the short films he made of his songs. In Remember the Time he appears out of swirling sand and then disappears into the swirling sand. In Black or White he moves effortlessly between scenes of performing with dancers from different cultures, then transforms from a panther to himself, and ends by becoming the panther again. In Smooth Criminal, Bad, and Beat It, his dancing transforms the mood and actions of the people around him. In Billie Jean he lights up the sidewalk as he steps on it.
Willa: Yes, and there’s a suggestion that he transforms into a tiger.
Susan: In the version of You are Not Alone that appears on the DVD collection HIStory on Film, Volume II he appears as an literal angel.
Of course, the degree and range of his talents were positively awe-inspiring and certainly could be seen as beyond the scope of a mere mortal. I have a theory that his dancing did more than his other talents to enhance the view that he was not quite of this earth. I couldn’t substantiate that theory, unfortunately, so I didn’t include it in my book, but I know that every single time I’ve watched him perform my immediate reaction is to feel overwhelming delight and almost a sense of shock that someone could move the way he did. You pointed out that dancing is the most embodied of all art forms. That fact that he could take take a physically strenuous act and appear to do it with ease and with such fluid grace, in a way that stands out even when he performed with other highly accomplished dancers, is certainly “magic.”
Willa: It certainly seems that way, doesn’t it? He told Randy Taraborrelli in the late 1990s that his dancing was hard work, physically:
When I go on stage, people expect a lot. They want the dancing, they want the spins, and all. But I don’t know how much longer I can do it. I don’t know when it’ll just not be possible.
So he was human. But for the audience, watching him dance sure feels magical, doesn’t it?
Susan: It certainly does. And the personal qualities that made him seem “other” to so many people were another major reason that he was perceived angelistically. In Resistible Demise, he is called a “postmodern dream of becoming something new,” “raceless and all races,” and “liberated from mere flesh, destiny, fixed roles of race and sex.” The very unreadabilty of his race, gender, age, and sexuality gave him a shape-shifter aura and made him appear to have left mere mortal life and its limits behind.
Willa: Yes, though that’s just a projection. What I mean is, the issue wasn’t his body so much as what other people projected onto his body, and how they interpreted it. He clearly had a gender and an age, for example. He just didn’t fit preconceived ideas about how his age and gender were supposed to define him.
Susan: Yes, that’s what’s so fascinating about all of this: it’s really just projection.
We’ve been talking about how Michael Jackson was described in words, but there are visual representations of him as an angelistic or beastial being. Some of them are subtle, like this one.
This photograph was taken in approximately 1995, during the era of the HIStory album. His face is very pale, seems almost lit from within, obscuring all facial features except for his eyes, lips and, to a lesser extent, nose. One can’t get a sense of facial structure, such as cheekbones, or detail, such as facial hair. And he appears to be almost perfectly androgenous. This photograph is reminiscent of Italian Renaissance portraits, so it’s even hard to say what time he belongs to. In short, he appears as a somewhat otherworldly being who is free of the bonds of gender, time, and maybe even human flesh. Willa, in your book M Poetica you used the word “ethereal” to describe these luminous, pale images of him during this period, and I think that’s the perfect word.
This next image, however, is a literal, florid example of an angelistic representation.
Willa: Wow, there’s no denying that’s angelistic, is there?
Susan: Yes, it’s really over the top. By the way, if you google “Michael Jackson angel” you’ll find dozens of images of him as a literal angel. This one, however, is probably the most accomplished. I need not comment on what makes this an angelistic representation.
This image works because the Archangel is Michael Jackson and not someone else. Imagine, say, Mick Jagger or Prince as the Archangel. I don’t think that would make the same kind of sense.
Willa: No it wouldn’t, and that’s a really important point, Susan. I read an article once about political gaffes, and why some get a lot of airplay – like Dan Quayle misspelling “tomatoes,” or George Bush not knowing what a grocery store checkout scanner was, or Sarah Palin saying she could see Russia from her house – and others don’t. And the answer was that the gaffes that go viral are the ones that tap into preconceived ideas the public already has about that person – that Dan Quayle wasn’t educated enough to be vice-president, that George Bush was completely out of touch with the everyday world of middle-class Americans, that Sarah Palin tended to believe what she wanted to believe.
If that’s true, it implies there was already a preconceived idea that Michael Jackson was “angelic” in a way that bad boy rockers like Mick Jagger and Prince definitely aren’t. But Michael Jackson was also demonized in the press and public imagination. It’s so interesting that those two contradictory images existed side by side.
Susan: Well, I don’t think that “angelic” is quite the right word. “Angelic” usually means sweet. You could certainly characterize the first image we discussed that way, because in it he appears to have an otherworldly saintliness. But the image of Archangel Michael Jackson isn’t sweet. He is a being powerful enough to subdue Satan, and although his pose is still, he is stepping on Satan and a sword is dropped at his feet, suggesting that a violent struggle had taken place just moments before. And the Archangel’s power is echoed by the stormy skies, dark ocean and craggy rocks behind him. He uses his power for good, but it is a power to be feared.
Willa: That’s interesting, Susan, and reminds me of a YouTube video about Saint Michael the Archangel that Stephenson shared in a comment a few weeks ago:
As you were saying, Saint Michael is an angel but he’s not “angelic” in the usual sense. He’s powerful. And as you said, “He uses his power for good, but it is a power to be feared.”
Susan: And I think that it’s the power represented in this Archangel image that was so disturbing to his critics. The more mildly angelistic Michael Jackson that we see in that first image probably would have been kicked around by critics, but not in the way that the more powerful, threateningly angelistic Michael Jackson was.
And in case anyone thinks that this Archangel image is just an anomaly, please take another look at the angelistic terms I quoted above from Resistible Demise. Those terms were just a random sampling, but there are many, many more used – by very harsh critics – throughout that book that could be applied to this image of the Archangel.
Willa: And this brings up another idea from your book that I found really fascinating: the phenomenon of “flipping.” Could you explain this a bit?
Susan: The contradictory views of angelism and beastialism can sometimes be two sides of the same coin. In some people, especially those with personality disorders, there is a strong tendency to “split,” that is to see everything in terms of extremes of over-idealization and devaluation: all good/all bad, all black/all white. This is said to originate in early childhood as the child begins to make judgments in these simple and extreme terms. Most of us eventually learn to see and appreciate the gray areas, the nuances. By the way, almost anyone who is feeling really angry about something will revert temporarily to that all good/all bad way of seeing.
This splitting, however, is not necessarily stable. The split can “flip,” meaning that something that had been seen as all good can suddenly seem all bad. That often happens after a disappointment that may seem of little consequence to others but seems like a major betrayal to someone who sees the world in such polarized terms. The flip can go in the other direction too, from all bad to all good.
While I certainly don’t want to draw any conclusions about Dave Marsh’s personality, he writes in Trapped about exactly that sort of sudden and extreme reversal of his feeling for Michael Jackson, after experiencing “hairline” (Marsh’s term) cracks in his idealization of Jackson.
Willa: That is so interesting, and I think it’s a really useful and perceptive way of trying to understand the sudden reversal of feeling experienced by Dave Marsh, and maybe others as well. What I mean is, Marsh’s sudden shift also seems emblematic of what happened among critics as a whole. When Michael Jackson was an up-and-coming superstar, the next big thing, it was like he could do no wrong. But once he achieved that goal and was on the top of the peak, perceptions of him changed radically – they “flipped,” as you say – and suddenly he couldn’t do anything right.
So it’s interesting to look at Dave Marsh not only as an individual critic, but also as representing a whole class of critics who “flipped” at about the same time he did, and through him gain some insights into why that may have happened.
Susan: I agree. We have to thank Dave Marsh for being so open about his feelings! I suspect that envy also played a big role in the feelings of Marsh and many of Michael Jackson’s critics, although that’s difficult to prove.
Willa: I agree. Michael Jackson himself seemed to think that envy – in particular, racial envy – was a primary motivation for many of those criticizing him. Joie and I talked about that in a post last February.
Susan: The splitting and the flipping of the split are projections, of course. All I am really talking about here are others’ projections of who Michael Jackson was. Dave Marsh certainly did a tremendous amount of research for Trapped, but his interpretation of what he learned seems to me to be devoid of nuance, as if he had a hidden axe to grind. And none of the other writers I analyzed in my book bothered to do what I would call serious research. They’re projecting, assigning to Michael Jackson qualities that correspond to deep fears and hopes in the one doing the projecting. It’s fascinating that one person could evoke such polarized, strong responses in others.
Willa: Yes it is. I think that’s part of his power as a performer – that people looked at him and saw a reflection of their deepest fears and desires. So it’s ironic that you also see it as the source of a lot of his troubles.
Susan: And here is another projection of who Michael Jackson was. As you note in your book, Willa, the press loved to publish photographs of Michael Jackson that made him appear to have had more plastic surgery than he actually had. This photograph, which was clearly doctored, was published in the Daily Mirror in 1992.
The photograph was accompanied by an article that claimed that he had had so much plastic surgery that his face was hideously disfigured. He sued the Mirror for libel, and the suit was settled in 1998 after the Mirror’s doctors examined his unmade-up face and then issued an admission that they were wrong and an apology.
Willa: I’m glad you mentioned this incident, Susan, because it’s important evidence that the plastic surgery rumors were wildly exaggerated, yet it doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should. Here’s what a BBC article said about it:
At the High Court in London, Mirror Group Newspapers and the paper’s former editor Richard Stott acknowledged that Michael Jackson was neither hideously disfigured nor scarred.
Mr Jackson’s solicitor, Marcus Barclay, … told the court: “Representatives of The Mirror have since met directly with the plaintiff and have seen with their own eyes that the photographs … do not accurately represent the plaintiff’s appearance.…”
Susan: While this seems like a happy ending, it did nothing to dispel years of rumors that he was grotesquely disfigured by plastic surgery, rumors that were still being repeated years later by Maureen Orth and many of the authors of Resistible Demise.
Willa: And that’s something we see often with him also – that rumors about him receive excessive and unwarranted attention, while follow-up articles debunking those rumors receive almost no attention.
Susan: Yes, it’s clearly so difficult to undo the damage of negative stories once they’re out in the world.
Dave Marsh sarcastically called Michael Jackson “the most special guy in the world.” I think this one statement, sarcasm aside, does a lot to explain the situation Michael Jackson found himself in. Since the 1960s, our society has moved, however imperfectly, towards accepting previously marginalized racial and ethnic groups, and we are now struggling with accepting same-sex marriage and learning to understand transsexual people. But Michael Jackson was in a category all by himself, which is why I think the hatred towards him was so unbridled. In other words, there was no standard of political correctness to reign in critics and make them rethink their reactions. All of the authors I analyzed knew that openly racist opinions were not acceptable, so few of those sorts of opinions are in evidence in their writings. But it was not unacceptable, apparently, to severely criticize Michael Jackson for changing his skin color, acting childlike, and being sexually ambiguous.
This is why I care so much about how Michael Jackson was treated. The negative response he got says so much about the often unquestioning way we react to people who are perceived to be “other” and how quick we are to accept the received wisdom about marginalized people, even if, as in Michael Jackson’s case, the marginalized person happens to also be extremely famous.
Willa: I agree completely. My son is in high school, and there’s a lot of emphasis right now on preventing bullying, especially of kids who are different. Yet apparently it is still acceptable for tabloids to bully and cyberbully celebrities. I see pictures and headlines in the tabloids sometimes and think, if a high school student posted something like that about a classmate, they’d be suspended – and they should be. That kind of bullying behavior is not ok. Yet it is tolerated in the tabloids and even the mainstream press on occasion. It sometimes feels to me that Michael Jackson was bullied to death – that he died as a result of decades of bullying by the press.
Susan: I couldn’t agree more with everything you just said. There are a lot of things I could say about that, but let me just note that none of the writers that I analyzed in my book were tabloid writers. It’s shocking that so much hatred was spewed at him from people who write as if they were offering good reporting and thoughtful analysis. And it is disappointing that so much of the public accepted lies and distortions as the truth. I can’t tell you how many times I have had conversations about Michael Jackson that consist mainly of my trying to correct the other person’s misconceptions about him.
I’m hoping that one day we can all come to a much more rational understanding of who Michael Jackson was. Colby Tanner, a co-author of Remember the Time, recently wrote an insightful article for Slate called “The Radical Notion of Michael Jackson’s Humanity.” In it he addresses the issue of how little attempt has been made to understand Michael Jackson, although he comes at it from a different angle from the one I take.
Willa: It is a wonderful, thought-provoking article that really questions the “beastial” vision of Michael Jackson portrayed in the press. As he says, “The idea of Michael Jackson as a human being remains a radical notion.”
Susan: In a way, this brings me back to Eleanor Bowman’s transcendence / immanence ideas. I think that it is so much more interesting to try to understand Michael Jackson as a human being, one capable of such tremendous artistic achievement and with such highly intriguing personal qualities. I have to admit that I am very drawn into the angelistic view of him, although I know intellectually that that is a fallacy. I’m always trying to move past that transcendent view to the immanent view, to find the flesh and blood person who was capable of making others feel that he was a semi-divine being or a physically, morally decaying monster. For that reason, I find accounts of people who actually knew him well to be absolutely fascinating.
Willa: I agree – I really enjoy stories that show his “human” side also. For example, I have a friend who was a visiting professor at UC Santa Barbara for a while, and she became friends with an elderly woman who owns a shop in town. Her friend was alone in her shop one day when Michael Jackson came in and made a small purchase. Her friend has arthritis and was a little nervous, I think, and she was fumbling with the coins and taking a long time getting the right change out of the drawer. But instead of getting frustrated or angry about that, Michael Jackson just waited patiently and then started singing “Hot Cross Buns.” Do you know that song? It’s an old nursery rhyme:
Hot cross buns
Hot cross buns
One a penny, two a penny
Hot cross buns
What a wonderful way to handle that situation. I love that story!
Susan: That is such a charming story. And I find it so much more interesting than lurid accounts of voodoo rituals or of his supposedly decaying nose. This story is so minor and incidental, but it says something about his character, who he really was. Thanks for sharing that.
Willa: And thank you for talking with me today. I learned so much from your book, Susan, and really enjoyed having the chance to talk with you about it.
Susan: Thank you so much for inviting me to have this discussion, Willa.
Willa: Oh, it’s been a pleasure! I also wanted to let everyone know about an opinion piece by D.B. Anderson in yesterday’s Baltimore Sun. It draws important connections between Michael Jackson and recent protests against police brutality toward black citizens in the U.S. As Anderson says, “Michael Jackson was never afraid to put himself out there for the truth as he saw it.” But as Anderson goes on to say, he paid a terrible price:
What happened to Jackson for his politics was so much worse than losing sales. For in speaking truth to power, Jackson made himself a target, and he took a pounding. The worst shots at him were taken by a white district attorney in California who pursued him relentlessly for 12 years and charged him with heinous crimes that were utterly disproved at trial.
No one ever seems to connect the dots: A very vocal, very influential, very wealthy black man was taken down by a white prosecutor on trumped-up charges.
This is the first time I know of that a major newspaper has allowed the police handling of the allegations against Michael Jackson to be presented in this way: as a backlash to the very real threat he posed to existing power structures. Here’s a link to Anderson’s essay. We’ve also added it to the Reading Room.
The following conversation was originally posted on October 24, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
Willa: Last spring, longtime contributor Bjørn Bojesen shared his version of “Bili Ĝin,” which is an Esperanto translation of “Billie Jean.” That led to a behind-the-scenes discussion of Michael Jackson and foreign languages, with Joie, Bjørn, and me all brainstorming about songs or short films where he sang or incorporated words in a language other than his native English. This was such an interesting topic for us we decided to take the discussion online and talk about it in a post. Thanks for joining us, Bjørn, and for sharing “Bili Ĝin” with us!
So Esperanto is actually a good place to start this discussion since it’s such a Michael Jackson kind of concept. As I understand it, Esperanto was invented in the late 1800s using elements of many different languages to help promote global peace and understanding. Specifically, it was created by L.L. Zamenhof to provide a neutral means of communication that bridged divisions of language, nationality, and ethnicity. I can see how this would appeal to Michael Jackson since crossing boundaries and healing divisions is something he did throughout his career. And as you recently mentioned, Bjørn, he incorporated an Esperanto passage in the promo film for HIStory. Is that right?
Bjørn: Yes, that’s correct. At the very start, right before the soldiers come marching in with their heavy boots, an unseen man shouts out a declaration in Esperanto. Take a look:
In the YouTube video, there are some glitches in the subtitles, but the anonymous person’s message goes like this: “Diversaj nacioj de la mondo” (Different nations of the world) / “konstruas ĉi tiun skulptaĵon” (build this sculpture) / “en la nomo de tutmonda patrineco kaj amo” (in the name of global motherhood and love) / “kaj la kuraca forto de muziko” (and the healing power of music). A few seconds later, one of the smelters also shouts in Esperanto: “Venu ĉi tien!” (Come over here!)
The promo created quite a stir in the Esperanto community when it aired. Why would MJ use a snippet of Esperanto? I have no idea whether he actually spoke Esperanto, but I guess he scripted the lines (in English): “in the name of global motherhood and love, and the healing power of music.” Doesn’t this sound very MJ to you? I mean, just the idea of a universal motherhood instead of the usual brotherhood…
Willa: It really does. It sounds “very MJ,” as you say, and it’s also interesting how those words undercut the visuals. What follows those words is a show of military force, with goose-stepping soldiers evocative of Nazi military demonstrations. So there’s a strong tension between the Esperanto words, which describe the statue they’re building as a tribute to “global motherhood and love,” and the accompanying images, which place the statue in a military context.
Bjørn: Yes, but this tension only exists if you understand the words! 99.8 percent of the viewers would have no clue what the voice actor was saying. So, why didn’t MJ simply let the man speak his lines in English?
Willa: Well, that’s a good point, Bjørn – and I have to admit, I’m one of the 99.8 percent!
Joie: As am I. You know, Bjørn, I find this fascinating and I’m also really surprised by it. I had no idea those words were spoken in Esperanto. I don’t ever remember hearing that at the time of the video’s release. I just remember all the controversy over the film itself being declared hateful and narcissistic. But you ask an interesting question … why didn’t he simply use a language that was more easily recognizable to the masses? Even if he didn’t use English, he still could have used Russian or Spanish or even Japanese. Any other language that more people would hear and immediately recognize. But instead, he chose Esperanto. And Willa and I are of the belief that he rarely did anything artistic without a very precise reason for it. So I am intrigued.
Bjørn: I think you’re touching on something important, Joie, when you talk about a language that’s “more easily recognizable to the masses”! This is exactly why many upper-class art aficionados can’t stand Michael Jackson – they think he’s just feeding “the masses” with stuff they can easily digest. But I think MJ had a perfect understanding of this balance between being accessible and being esoteric. By dropping such small hard-to-get references – like his basing the You Are Not Alone video on the painting Daybreak by Maxfield Parrish – Michael Jackson added interpretational depth to his art. By the way, wasn’t it the MJ Academia Project that first revealed that the HIStory promo video is essentially a spoof of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 Hitler propaganda film, Triumph of the Will?
Willa: I think so … at least, that’s the first place I heard it.
Bjørn: With that in mind, it’s interesting to note that the initiator of Esperanto, Zamenhof, was a Jew…
I also think MJ is reflecting on his own use of language. His mother tongue happens to be English – which since World War II has functioned as a second language for huge parts of the world. The English language helps MJ get his message across to the masses, but at the same time it gives native English-speakers like him a communicational advantage (while others have to search for words, you can just keep talking).
Esperanto is the wannabe international language with the potential to put speakers of different mother tongues on a more equal footing. Say all the countries of the UN decided to make Esperanto a global second language, and began teaching it in every classroom on the globe. That would give people from any culture a basic tool for communication – but it would also mean that native English-speakers would have to “make a little space.” So, in this promo video, MJ is somehow endorsing the idea of Esperanto. By letting the language “guest star,” he questions the status quo (using native languages for international communication). I guess you could call it an artistic discussion about language and power.
Willa: That’s a really interesting way to look at that, Bjørn. And we could push that idea of challenging “language and power” even further if we consider that English as a “global” language began with British imperialism and colonialism. As the British Empire spread around the world, so did English culture and language, with many indigenous people encouraged or even forced to give up their native language and use English instead. And of course, racism in the United States is a direct result of British colonialism and the slave trade. So in that sense, English can be seen as a language of oppression – the language of those colonizing and displacing indigenous people around the world.
So getting back to the HIStory teaser, it’s interesting that in the visuals he’s strongly pushing back against efforts to silence him and “put him in his place” following the false allegations of 1993, and in the Esperanto spoken parts he’s pushing back against English, the language that to some degree silenced his ancestors and tried to keep them in their place.
Joie: Wow. Really interesting way of looking at that, Willa!
Bjørn: Yes, I agree, Joie, I hadn’t thought about it like that either! So, if the HIStory teaser is a kind of rebuttal – to Nazism and colonialism and the extinction of native languages caused by English and other “big tongues” – couldn’t Liberian Girl be seen as an attempt to recover what was lost? Even if the song’s intro is in Swahili, which is an East African language, and most of MJ’s forebears probably came from West Africa…
Joie: Ah! Very clever thinking, Bjørn! We could almost say the same thing about the coda at the end of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.'” The Cameroonian chant, “Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah.”
Willa: Wow, you guys, that is so interesting! I really like the idea of approaching those two from this perspective. You know, both of them seem to address the issue of representation and interpretation – or misinterpretation – to some degree, and in both the use of an African language signals a major shift in the mood of the song/video. In “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” he talks about how the media distorts meaning – like in these lyrics, for example:
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
Most of the song is pretty edgy and fearful, and that’s all in English. But then the Cameroon part starts, and suddenly this edgy, trippy song shifts and becomes joyful and triumphant. It’s a very dramatic shift in mood.
There’s a similar shift in the Liberian Girl video. It begins in black and white, with an eerie, sustained, high-pitched note vibrating in the background as the camera pans around what seems to be a British colony in Africa. A waiter walks out of the Cafe Afrique, we see workers in African dress, and then a white missionary in European clothes with a rosary and clerical collar. The camera follows the missionary until he walks behind a beautiful black woman; then the camera stops on her. She looks up and speaks directly to the camera in Swahili, and suddenly everything changes. The black-and-white tone gives way to vibrant color, and we discover we’re not in colonial Africa but modern day Hollywood, in a studio filled with glittering celebrities.
One of the things that’s most interesting about this, in terms of language and colonialism, is that Liberia is an African nation founded and, in effect, re-colonized by free blacks and escaped slaves from the U.S. in the 1800s – people whose ancestry was African but who no longer had a home country to return to. And its official language is English, the only language this diaspora of people had in common. So it’s almost like the English language was re-colonized, just as the nation-state of Liberia was – the language of the colonizer was reclaimed and reappropriated by the colonized.
And we see that idea suggested in Liberian Girl as well. All the celebrities are milling around and Whoopi Goldberg asks, “Who’s directing this?” The camera cuts to Steven Speilberg sitting in a director’s chair, implying he’s the director, but he’s looking at his watch and he’s no more in control than anyone else. Then at the end of the video we discover who’s really been calling the shots: Michael Jackson, behind the camera. So he has reclaimed the Liberian Girl video as his own, just as the former slaves from America reclaimed Liberia and English as their own.
Bjørn: Well, the problem with this interpretation, Willa, is that Liberia was already inhabited when the African-Americans founded it! Just like Israel was already inhabited by Arabs when it was founded as a place where Jews could live in peace. To my understanding, today the “original” Liberians – talking various African languages – are second-class (or at least less fortunate) citizens in a state dominated by English-speaking “American” Liberians (with ancestors ultimately hailing from many parts of Africa, not just Liberia).
I don’t know a lot about Liberia, and I can sympathize with the idea of the ex-slaves reclaiming “English as their own” (after all, who doesn’t love his mother tongue?) But I do think that Jackson’s use of African languages in these songs reflect a longing for the uncolonized past, maybe even for a romantic Africa that never really existed (or, perhaps, for a “garden of Eden” that could come into existence in the future!) As the linguist Ben Zimmer pointed out on his blog the day after MJ had died, the chant in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” was heavily inspired by a line from “Soul Makossa” by the Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango. (Dibango sued MJ for plagiarism, but they reached an agreement out of court.) Here’s “Soul Makossa”:
Dibango sings “ma ma ko, ma ma sa, ma ko ma ko sa,” which is in his native language, Duala. So, MJ’s chant isn’t really in any African language – but so close that is certainly sounds African. In the same way, he uses Swahili (from East Africa) as a symbol of (idealized) Africanness, even if the actual Liberia is in West Africa, far away from the places where people speak Swahili… So, for me, the use of African languages in these songs are really more about a “longing for paradise on earth” as it was before colonization, and as it could become once again.
Willa: I think that’s a very important point, Bjørn – that he’s referring more to an idea than an actual place. After all, after the shift in Liberian Girl, we aren’t in Liberia; we’re on a movie set in Hollywood, so he’s clearly demonstrating that the opening scene wasn’t really a scene from the actual nation of Liberia, but a Hollywood depiction of “exotic Africa.” The challenge for us, then, is to figure out what idea, exactly, he’s trying to get across when he sings with longing about a girl from Liberia.
It’s interesting in this context to think about the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when Harriet Beecher Stowe sends Eliza, George, and the other escaped slaves to Liberia. For her, it represented a place where they could be safe and free, and where their son Harry could grow and thrive. For her, it truly meant a “paradise on earth,” as you said, Bjørn, but it also reveals a despair about her own country. Stowe didn’t think it was possible for them to ever be truly free in the United States, or even Canada, so she had to send them to Liberia to ensure their freedom.
But I don’t think Michael Jackson ever did give up on the United States – though he had good reason to, and he chose not to live here after the 2005 trial. And I think Liberia, as a concept, means something different for him than it did for Stowe.
Bjørn: That’s really interesting! I guess I’ll have to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin some day. Stowe’s “Liberia,” as you describe it, reminds me of Bob Marley and the other Rastafarians, who saw Ethiopia as a Promised Land. The name Liberia, which comes from the same Latin root as “liberty,” roughly translates as “the land of the free.” I once made an Esperanto translation of “Liberian Girl,” where the ethymology really shines through: Liberianin’ means “Liberian girl” as well as “girl from the country of freedom.”
Willa: Really? You translated “Liberian Girl” also? That’s wonderful! And I love the alternate meaning of “girl from the country of freedom.”
Bjørn: The rainforest sounds at the beginning of the song (a prequel to “Earth Song”?) could indicate that MJ used “Liberia” as a metaphor for Paradise. Now, “Paradise Girl,” that’s a little spooky, if you think about it. But I’ve always thought this song wasn’t about “Liberia” at all, but rather about a girl who’s very far away from the singer. Like MJ’s (extreme!) version of “Distant Lover,” if you know that Marvin Gaye song!
Okay, let’s get back to the language question. Why does Michael Jackson’s Liberian girl, whoever she is, speak in Swahili? Is that just to add some exotic spice, or what do you think?
Joie: Well now that is a really good question, Bjørn. And while I really enjoy picking apart a song or a short film and trying to analyze it and discern its true meaning, I also sometimes think that maybe a cigar is just a cigar. What would be wrong with adding in Swahili, or any other foreign language for that matter, for the sole purpose of adding a little exotic spice to your creation? Maybe he simply thought it sounded cool.
Willa: You’re right, Joie, it does sound cool, and it perfectly fits that space in the song. We know he was fascinated by sounds – found sounds, manufactured sounds, the sounds of nature, the sounds of the city, the sound of words – so it’s very possible he chose those phrases simply based on their sounds and rhythms.
But I’m still intrigued by the fact that both “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” and Liberian Girl focus on American pop culture and the entertainment industry, and how certain things are represented or misrepresented within that industry. And both include an African phrase that serves as an important pivot point – one that changes the whole mood of the work. That seems significant to me. But what does it mean?
As you mentioned, Bjørn, “Liberia” shares the same Latin root as “liberty.” As I understand it, the name “Liberia” was chosen to emphasize that this new nation was envisioned as a place where former slaves could find peace and liberty. So it seems significant that Michael Jackson evokes Liberia, but more as an idea than a physical place, as you suggested earlier. And to me, that’s reinforced by the fact that he incorporates Swahili, but it’s Swahili that has become unmoored from its native country and is now being used in a Hollywood video that to some extent critiques Hollywood.
The lyrics to Liberian Girl suggest something similar when he says their romance is “just like in the movies”:
With two lovers in a scene
And she says, “Do you love me?”
And he says so endlessly,
“I love you, Liberian Girl”
So their romance is presented as something of a fantasy, something that’s been scripted by Hollywood. In all of these cases, it’s like he’s both evoking a fantasy and critiquing it at the same time, and looking at where it comes from. For example, in Liberian Girl he’s evoking the exotic while questioning what it means to be labeled as exotic.
Joie: That is a very interesting interpretation, Willa! Sometimes you really do blow me away with how your mind works. It’s fascinating!
Willa: Thanks, Joie, though I might be totally missing the boat with this one – it’s pretty subtle what he’s doing. It’s just so interesting to me that he begins Liberian Girl with a classic scene of “exotic Africa,” then reveals it’s all just a Hollywood fabrication, and then suggests that the real exotica is Hollywood itself. And the Swahili phrase is the turning point where our perceptions are flipped inside out.
Joie: Do either of you know what that Swahili phrase means? I would be very interested to know what she’s saying in the opening of the song.
Bjørn: According to the album booklet, it means “I love you too – I want you too – my love.” (Google Translate seems to agree, although it renders mpenziwe as ”lover”.)
Joie: Huh. I don’t think I ever knew that before. I’ve always simply wondered at the meaning. I can’t believe it was in the album booklet all this time and I never noticed.
Bjørn: No worries, Joie, an album’s booklet is often the last thing I study too! But you know what? It just struck me there’s an interesting semantic evolution going on in this song: It starts with rainforest sounds that don’t have any particular meaning to the average listener (but who knows what the animals are really saying?) Then it progresses to a line spoken in Swahili, which to the vast audience is just as meaningless as the sound of a bird. Then, at last, Michael Jackson starts to sing in English, and because we understand the language, all of a sudden we don’t hear his words as ”sounds” any more, but as meaningful pieces of information… Perhaps Jackson added Swahili just to emphasize that the meaning we assign to words really is arbitrary, and that we might as well be in a situation where Swahili carried the information, and English was some unintelligible but exotic spice, just like the language of the forest, or even the sound of instruments…
Willa: Wow, that is fascinating, Bjørn! And if we interpret the opening that way – as examining how we make meaning – that progression of sounds is paralleled in the visuals as well. As you say, the sounds gradually become more intelligible as we move from bird song (something we don’t understand and can never understand) to Swahili (something most of us don’t understand at first but can if we put a little effort into it) to English (which for most Americans is our native language). And the visuals begin with the Cafe Afrique sign, then pan out to the Casablanca-like scene, and then keep panning out to show the Hollywood set. So as we telescope out, the images become more familiar – closer to home, in a way – and our understanding of what we’re seeing shifts and gradually becomes more clear: we’re watching a film being made.
Bjørn: This film, as you say, is being referenced to in the lyrics as well: “Just like in the movies… With two lovers in a scene…” So maybe the chief function of the Swahili phrase is to underscore the very otherworldliness of this cinematic fantasy, much like the Elvish phrases in the Lord of the Rings movies or the Na’vi dialogue in Avatar. Yes I know, Swahili is a living language spoken by real people. But still, hardly anyone in Liberia speaks Swahili! As pointed out earlier, Swahili is an East African language. Its native speakers live along the Kenya-Tanzania coastline.
What’s intriguing about Swahili, however, is that it’s become a truly international language in much of Eastern Africa! Millions of people in Congo, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya use Swahili to get their messages across a multitude of linguistic boundaries. It is, indeed, the closest we get to an African “Esperanto.”
Willa: Really? I didn’t know that.
Joie: Neither did I.
Willa: That’s fascinating to think about it as “an African ‘Esperanto.'”
Bjørn: If we look at it like that, the openings of “Liberian Girl” and the HIStory teaser are very similar: Something is being said by a non-MJ person in a cross-cultural language, before MJ himself enters the stage and reassures his English-speaking listeners that they’re not wholly “lost in translation”!
“Stranger in Moscow,” interestingly, takes the opposite approach. Here MJ’s loudly sung English-language lyrics are followed by another man whispering in the lingua franca of the Cold War Communist world: Russian.
Willa: Wow, Bjørn, that is so interesting! And to me, it feels like the Russian in “Stranger in Moscow” functions in a very different way as well. It reinforces the edgy, unsettled mood of the song, as well as the theme of alienation from his home country.
Joie: I agree with you, Willa. “Stranger in Moscow” has always been one of my favorites and I think it’s because it is such a beautifully constructed song. But you’re right, the use of Russian in the song really heightens the sense of loneliness, isolation and despair that he’s trying to convey here. The alienation as you put it. Whenever I listen to this song, I actually get the sense that his sole reason for using Russian here is to make us feel those negative emotions more fully.
Willa: It feels that way to me too, Joie, and that feeling intensifies once we learn what those Russian words mean: “Why have you come from the West? Confess! To steal the great achievements of the people, the accomplishments of the workers…”
Joie: Yes. It’s very intimidating, isn’t it? Imagine being a stranger in a strange land, detained by these scary officials and having those questions barked at you over and over again!
Willa: Or to bring it a little closer to home, imagine the police asking you, Why are you so kind and generous with children? Confess! It’s to lure them in so you can abuse them …
What I mean is, it wasn’t just the KGB who interrogated people in intimidating ways – the Santa Barbara police investigators did the same thing, and not just to Michael Jackson but to young children as well. They interrogated Jason Francia over and over again when he was only 12 years old. As he said later, “They made me come up with stuff. They kept pushing. I wanted to hit them in the head.” Like the stereotypical image of the KGB, they were determined to wring a confession from him.
And I think that’s the idea Michael Jackson is trying to get at here. He’s not pointing a finger at the Soviets – he’s pointing a finger at us, and saying in some ways we are as much of a police state as Cold War Russia. And the shock of that realization has made him feel like a stranger in his own country.
Bjørn: That’s fascinating, Joie and Willa. I hadn’t thought about it like that. Both “Stranger in Moscow” and “Liberian Girl” mention specific locations in their titles, which is a very unusual thing for MJ to do. (Most of his titles are quite unspecific – just think about “A place with no name”!) And both songs use great regional languages to create a specific mood. I’m not exactly a connoisseur of Jackson’s short films, but I have remarked a couple of times that Russians have commented that the scenes in Stranger in Moscow look nothing like Moscow at all.
Willa: That’s true. You can tell from the street signs and the close-up of the American quarter that it was filmed in the U.S. And that seems very deliberate – he wants us to know he’s really in the U.S. though he feels like he’s in a strange land.
Bjørn: So, I wonder if MJ is using Moscow and Russian in a metaphorical way, just like he uses Liberia and Swahili to evoke a dreamlike vision of Africa. Thanks to the Cold War, Russian must sound like a very alien language to many Americans. And Moscow must still be the very ”eye of the tiger” to some folks! (Poor Russian MJ fans!)
So, without demonizing too much here, we might say that while Jackson uses Swahili as a paradisaical or “angelic” language, Russian, as used by the KGB agent, does duty as the language of his demons…
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Bjørn! Or maybe the Russian is evoking a frightening unknown. In other words, it’s not so much that Russian is “the language of his demons,” but that Americans once demonized it because we didn’t understand it and were afraid of it. I have friends a little older than I am who remember the Bay of Pigs, and the school drills for what to do if the Soviets attacked with nuclear bombs. And the main feeling they remember is the uncertainty – the fear of something powerful that you don’t understand, that can attack at any time without warning. I can certainly understand how Michael Jackson might feel that way about the Santa Barbara police …
Joie: Wow. That’s really deep, Willa. And Bjørn, I love what you said about the “angelic” language and the “demon” language. I think it’s clear that both languages were used in very different ways to convey two very different realms of emotion, and that is very fascinating.
Bjørn: Yes, it is! And just as the languages help the music paint these emotional landscapes, the music also influences the way we – as non-speakers – perceive these foreign languages. Personally, I find Russian quite a beautiful language, with all its mushy sounds. And, importantly, it is whispered, as if the KGB agent is telling a secret. If we hadn’t just heard MJ’s lament, we might have thought it was a lover whispering something to his beloved, much like the Swahili girl in “Liberian Girl.” And this makes it all the more frightening – it’s like a cold embrace, followed by a stab.
Willa: Wow, that’s a fascinating way to look at that, Bjørn – and pretty chilling too.
Bjørn: So, in “Liberian Girl,” “Stranger in Moscow,” and the HIStory teaser, Michael Jackson uses bits of foreign languages to help create a mood or atmosphere. And the languages he uses have all – at some point in history – been rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication: Swahili, Esperanto, Russian. Furthermore, the pieces seem to highlight different aspects of foreignness: the exotic and alluring (Swahili), the unfamiliar and strange (Esperanto), the threatening and repulsing (Russian).
Willa: And there’s another song that fits this pattern also: “They Don’t Care about Us.” It begins with a woman saying “Michael, eles não ligam pra gente,” which is Portuguese for “Michael, they don’t care about us.” As you said of Swahili, Esperanto, and Russian, Bjørn, Portuguese is another language that has “at some point in history – been rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication.” Like England, Portugal was a powerful nation during the colonial era, and as a result, Portuguese is the official language of countries around the world, from Europe to South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
Joie: That’s very true, Willa. You know I think most people just think about Portuguese being spoken in Brazil and, of course, Portugal. But it’s actually the official language of many African nations, like Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bissau, and others. And, as you said, even in Southeast Asia. It’s interesting to think of it as “rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication,” because it really did at one point.
Willa: And still does in some regions – like I didn’t realize it was so widespread in Africa. That’s interesting, Joie. And to get back to what you were saying, Bjørn, about the different emotional effect of each of these languages, the Portugese lines at the beginning of “They Don’t Care about Us” have always struck me as sorrowful, in an almost maternal way – like the sorrow of a mother who cares deeply for her children and has seen too many of them come to harm.
Bjørn: You opened up my eyes here, Willa and Joie! I have to confess I’ve never heard that Portuguese part before. I gave the song another listen, and couldn’t hear it – but then it occurred to me that it had to be in the video! I’m a great fan of Michael Jackson’s music, but a lot of his films I haven’t watched in their entirety. So, I went to YouTube, and heard that phrase spoken for the first time.
I wonder, though, to what extent Portuguese is being used to create an emotional effect, and to what extent it’s being used to evoke an idea of “Brazil” – after all, the film does take part in real-world Brazil (not a fantasy “Liberia”), where Portuguese is spoken as the main language.
Willa: That’s a good point.
Bjørn: But if we look at the emotions, I do agree with you, Willa, that it sounds like a caring mother speaking to her son. By the way, those people who like blaming MJ for having a “Jesus complex,” should take an extra look… In the exact same moment as the Brazilian mother figure says the name “Michael,” the camera pans to the famous Rio statue of Christ the Redeemer…
Willa: Oh heavens, Bjørn! You’re just trying to stir up trouble, aren’t you?
Bjørn: Well, yes and no, Willa. This being an academic discussion, I don’t think I’d do the readers any favor by censoring what I see! It’s a fact that the name and the statue appear at the same time, and I’d like to think it’s intentional. But okay, let’s save the interpretation of that for an ”MJ and religious symbolism” post!
So, in the four “foreign language songs” we’ve looked at so far, we’ve got an Esperanto-speaking worker, a Swahili-speaking lover, a Russian-speaking agent and a Brazilian-speaking mother… MJ himself, however, still sings in his native English. The foreign culture remains inaccessible and different. Interestingly, on a couple of occasions he did cross the border, so to speak. I’m of course thinking about the versions he did of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” in two of the world’s great international languages: Spanish and French… What do you think about them?
Willa: Well, my first reaction is that I love them – they are both exquisitely beautiful, I think. And it’s interesting for me to hear a Michael Jackson song the way non-English speakers must usually hear them – where the meaning comes not so much from the words he is singing but from the expressiveness of his voice.
Joie: That’s an great point, Willa, one that I don’t often ponder. But it’s interesting to think about how non-English speakers perceive Michael’s music. Especially since his music is so very beloved all over the world. But you’re right that they must experience it much differently than native English speakers do.
You know I went through a similar phenomenon back in my teen years when I had a huge crush on the guys of the Puerto Rican boy band, Menudo. They would release albums in both Spanish and English, and oddly enough, I found that I really loved those Spanish speaking songs, even though my Spanish has never been all that great. To this day, I often find myself singing them.
Bjørn: When I discovered Michael Jackson’s music as a child, I hardly understood anything he was singing. I just liked the sound of it! So I can certainly follow you there… “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” isn’t among my favorite MJ songs, but I agree it’s nice to hear him sing in Spanish (which I understand) and French (which I don’t really understand). Why did he choose this particular song, do you think? I mean, if it was to promote the Bad album in Spanish- and French-speaking countries, he could have handed the translators the song ”Bad”… (I just hear it: ¡Porque soy malo, soy malo!)
Willa: That’s great, Bjørn! I’ll be thinking about that next time I hear, “Because I’m bad, I’m bad …”
So I don’t know why he chose “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” but it’s a beautiful song and it’s a duet – one of his few duets – and that would allow him to interact with someone while he was singing, someone fluent in Spanish or French. Maybe that’s part of why he chose this one. I don’t know about Spanish, but he did speak passable French. In fact, in the 1980s he was interviewed in French by a Montreal reporter, and he answered in French. And he loved Paris – he even named his daughter Paris. And of course he always liked to bridge boundaries, as we discussed at the beginning with Esperanto.
So thank you so much for joining us, Bjørn, and for adding a European, multilingual perspective! We always love talking with you, and hope you’ll join us again soon.
Willa: A few weeks ago, Lisha McDuff and Harriet Manning joined me for a very interesting discussion about Harriet’s new book, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask. In fact, it was so interesting we couldn’t stop! We continued our discussion through email even after the post went up, and in the course of those emails Harriet suggested a fascinating idea:
Perhaps, because racial identity by appearance is still so fundamental to our perception of others, racial facial features (in Michael Jackson’s case, skin colour and nose shape) are processed by our brains as being “bigger,” more all-encompassing than they actually are. So, even when a face has otherwise not changed much, if these particular features – these strong racial signs – are altered, the perception is that the whole face has radically changed, when in fact it has not.
Lisha and I were both blown away by this, and now we’re all itching to talk about it. Harriet, I really think you’re onto something important here. Thank you both so much for reconvening to talk this over!
Harriet: You are very welcome, Willa, but it was born out of all our thoughts, so a group effort!
Willa: You know, this idea reminds me of a book I read a long time ago – like 25 years ago, so I may not be remembering it exactly right – but I was totally fascinated by it. It’s called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. According to Edwards, most adults can’t draw very well, but it isn’t a skill problem – meaning, an inability to draw lines on paper. It’s a perception problem. Her theory is that most adults have the skills we need to be able to draw very well, but ironically our knowledge of the world gets in the way.
For example, she says if you give an adult a photograph and ask them to draw that image, most draw something pretty amateurish and not very accurate. But if you turn the same photograph upside down and ask them to draw it, they do much better. In fact, most can draw it fairly well.
Lisha: I read that same book many years ago too, Willa, and that’s exactly the way I remember it as well. I always wished I had a little more time to spend on the drawing exercises in the book. Apparently the drawing isn’t really the difficult part. It’s the seeing that is really hard to do.
Willa: Exactly! She says the problem is that most of us don’t really look at the world around us – or in this case, the image on the photograph. We look just long enough to label it – oh, that’s a face or a chair or a cat – and then we try to draw our idea of what a face or chair or cat looks like. We think we’re drawing what we see, but we aren’t. We’re drawing what’s in our mind’s eye instead.
But most of us don’t have a mental image of what an upside-down face or chair or cat looks like, so when we try to draw the image that way, we’re forced to actually look at what’s in front of us and draw the shapes and lines the way they actually appear on the photograph. So our ability to sketch the image on paper is much better – sometimes astonishingly better.
Lisha: Amazing, isn’t it?
Willa: It really is, and like you I’d love to spend some time working through her exercises. Anyway, I wonder if something similar was happening with public perceptions of Michael Jackson’s face. We tend to look at a face just long enough to categorize it – oh, that face is black/white/Asian, young/old, male/female, handsome/not handsome – and then once we’ve categorized it we don’t really look at it anymore. We think we are, but we aren’t. We’re just looking at it long enough to label it. And as you pointed out, Harriet, some signifiers are more important than others in determining those labels: for example, the color of your skin, the shape of your eyes and nose, the color and texture of your hair, the length of your eyelashes, the color of your lips.
Harriet: Yes, “important” because dominant culture (from which we take our cues) has defined certain features as such in its constructions of race and gender.
Willa: That’s an important point, Harriet. They are just social constructs – or social “conditioning” as Michael Jackson would say. But even though they’re “just” constructs, they’re still very powerful. We can see how powerful they are by looking at how people read and respond to Michael Jackson’s face.
When he was young, people would look at his face just long enough to label it (young, black, male) and then would only see the labels, not his actual face – which as Betty Edwards suggests is fairly typical. But when he began altering some of the signifiers we use to determine those labels, people would think “young,” “black,” “male,” but his face didn’t really fit those labels anymore. It set up a dissonance between what we saw and the labels we had stored in our heads. So as you suggested in your email, Harriet, this caused people to think his face had radically changed when it hadn’t. It was actually the way we interpret his face that had changed, not his face itself.
Lisha: That was certainly true for me back in the 80s as a non-fan. I remember when photos from the Victory tour hit the newsstands, it was really hard to believe that was actually Michael Jackson – he looked like a totally different person to me. I had to really study the photos to see it was him, especially since I had missed the Off The Wall era. The shape of his nose and his skin color had changed a bit – no doubt about it – but what I remember most is how the new, thinner eyebrows threw me. I don’t think I could rectify the image of a good looking black male with feminine, old-fashioned Hollywood arched eyebrows and makeup. At the time it was fashionable for women to have full eyebrows and very natural looking faces, like Brooke Shields. So, it was startling and confusing to see this. It was amazing how these details changed the way I interpreted his entire face – to the point he was unrecognizable.
This is what Michael Jackson looked like in my mind’s eye back in the early 80s, and this is what he looked like in Victory tour photos:
Willa: Those are great examples, Lisha, and I know what you mean. I’ve experienced that too – of doing something of a double take when he came out with a new look, like for Thriller or Bad or Dangerous or HIStory … It seems like he unveiled a new look for each album. And sometimes it was a radically different look, altering his image at a more fundamental level than just a new hairstyle – a level that really challenged the mental image I had of him.
And maybe, as you suggested, Harriet, those shifts in the image we had in our mind’s eye is what led people to believe he’d had far more plastic surgery than he’d actually had.
Harriet: I think his changes in image also revealed how business-savvy he was, too. He was a kind of recurrent reinvention, which worked to keep him “new,” fresh and exciting.
Lisha: Yes, for sure. At the time I think I assumed it was all about marketing but I don’t think that way anymore.
Willa: That’s a good point – it did capture a lot of attention and keep him “fresh and exciting,” as you said, Harriet. But like you, Lisha, I think there was a lot more going on as well.
Just as a mental experiment, I’ve been playing around with two photos that illustrate this issue of “seeing” and “labeling” very well, I think. I really like these two photos because they look very similar to me, but we tend to interpret them very differently. The first one – from 1987 – registers fairly clearly as “black” and “male,” while the other – from 2003 – is more ambiguous. What I mean is, if you don’t know who it is, it’s harder to figure out how to label it. Here are those two photos:
And here are black-and-white xeroxed images of the same photos:
In the black-and-white xeroxes, you can’t see the difference in skin tone, or the red lipstick in the later image, so the racial and gender signifiers don’t stand out so much. What you do see – much more clearly, I think – are the basic lines of his face, and those are unchanged.
Harriet: What an excellent experiment, Willa. Thinking this over and studying these images, I have become very aware of the parts that makeup and hairstyle play also, plus that of the camera. Willa, you go into the latter quite a bit in “Re-Reading Michael Jackson,” don’t you? Makeup, hairstyle and camera angle (and linked to all of these, the context in which a photograph is taken) massively affect an image of a face. Here in the UK (and in the US too, I am sure) there is a tabloid trend for juxtaposing two hyper-different images of someone famous, such as an image taken at a red carpet event versus a caught-in-the-street paparazzi shot. Google Images comes up with these comparison shots a lot, too. The trick (and that is exactly what it is) illustrates very well the huge effects on imagery of makeup and hairstyling, photography and context.
But furthermore, in the case of Michael Jackson – amidst the attention given to his plastic surgery and skin change – the role played by more “regular” physical processes affecting appearance, such as weight change and aging, have been continually denied. Weight change, for example, drastically alters someone’s face especially if, like Michael Jackson, they are of a slight build; then, even a very minimal weight change up or down can have a big effect, especially in the face. If you compare images of Michael Jackson in 2001 around the release of Invincible (and his protests against Sony bosses) with 2009 This Is It rehearsal photos, weight change plays a big part in the difference. Here is an example photograph from each era respectively:
The two images you select, Willa, visualize (to my eye at least) the effects less of plastic surgery than weight change and/or that of the work of the camera. I’m sure everyone will have noticed how sometimes, when an image is moved or played about with (quite often when trying to resize it) its proportions can change? This can make a face quite slim or really quite rounded in comparison to its original. The later photo of yours, Willa, looks like it might have been subject to this.
Willa: Really? Because to me the proportions and lines of his face look exactly the same in both photos. That’s why I like them so much. He’s 15 years older in the later photo, and the hollows of his cheeks have become a little more pronounced, but other than that the basic structure of his face looks exactly the same to me. The only differences are surface signifiers such as lipstick and false eyelashes.
Lisha: Yes, I agree with you, Willa. I think the basic structure of the face looks the same though we tend to focus on the differences. With Michael Jackson you have to look very closely and very deliberately to see the actual structure of the face because the surface signifiers somehow really take over.
Harriet: So I guess we are highlighting our own argument: that impressions or readings of an image can be variable, even polar opposite, and (in my case but not so much yours, Willa) based on certain features over fundamental structure. However, the more pronounced “hollows of his cheeks” you do note, Willa, are signs of weight loss and/or aging I would say, in which case his whole face would likely have been a little slimmer at the time the second photo was taken.
Lisha: He does look slimmer in the second photo through the cheeks, which could be due to weight loss, aging, or even medication used to treat skin and scalp issues. I can see a tiny difference in his overbite that might be the result of cosmetic dentistry. But the interesting thing to me is that I think we’re pretty used to absorbing some changes in the appearance of entertainers and performers, including surgical procedures, that aren’t magnified like they are here. You don’t have to go beyond the Jackson family to look for some good examples this. We sort of accept their beauty and fabulousness and don’t comment too much about the changes they have made.
But with Michael Jackson, this is not the case. His changing appearance caused so much confusion and produced some very strong reactions and assumptions. Still does.
Harriet: Yes, and there were a whole host of reasons for this. I would put part of our resistance to his “change” down to the amazing longevity of his career that started at such a young age. This meant that he was forced to contend with an inescapable ever-present pictorial past of himself as distinctly black-skinned and boyish. Subconsciously, I would argue, we always perceive Michael Jackson in relation to these early images, which continue to float around in the media, continue to have cultural currency, and yet provide nothing but an outdated mode by which to try and “read” him. This, I think, further fuels the common perception that Michael Jackson’s face altered in a way that needed explanation through excessive plastic surgery more than was ever actually indicated.
In addition to Michael Jackson’s ever-present pictorial past, I wonder whether his highly distinctive choreographic and iconic self-repetition also worked to highlight his physical change.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Harriet. So for example, every time he performed “Billie Jean” it was compared to his iconic performance at Motown 25?
Harriet: That’s exactly what I mean, yes. It’s a bit like if two woman wear the same dress: we suddenly focus in on their differences not their similarities. The same process works in mimicry more broadly, as with the many Michael Jackson impersonators.
Lisha: I wonder if that could be a part of it and I agree that we compare Michael Jackson against his own past. I also think we subconsciously judge his appearance against a huge number of images we have previously identified as things like “young,” “entertainer,” “black,” or “male.”
Here’s another piece of photographic evidence that was highly persuasive to me – an image taken from a rehearsal for This Is It. This photo convinced me that my eyes play tricks on me when I look at Michael Jackson.
The shadows across his face obscure his skin tone and makeup here, sort of like those black and white xeroxes do. I was struck by how differently I see his features in this photo compared with the way I usually interpret them. His eyes, nose, and mouth all register as much more “African” to me, though many assume he surgically altered his face to look more “white” or “female.”
Harriet: I guess if we were to apply our own thesis, though, this photo would rather exemplify the “interfering” roles played by camera, lights and makeup (or rather “non makeup”)?
Lisha: Yes, that’s true, but it’s a rare opportunity to observe what happens when some of the most common techniques are absent. My understanding is that this image was captured for documentation/study purposes only, not for promotional use. It’s one of the very few photos where I cannot see the effects of makeup contouring (strategic use of light and dark shades of makeup), special poses or “attitude” for the camera, flash photography or other strong lighting on the face.
Willa: Yes, and those poses or “attitudes,” as you called them, have a powerful effect. You can really tell when he is adopting the pose of Michael Jackson, icon, and when he isn’t.
Lisha: Yes, there is no doubt he knew how to work the camera!
This keeps reminding me of one of my all-time favorite TED talks, which was presented by neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor a few years back. Dr. Taylor gives a brilliant explanation of how each side of the brain functions, and I think it really supports and expands on what we are talking about here. She says the function of the right brain is to perceive sensory information in the present moment (possibly even well enough to draw it as Betty Edwards says), while the left brain methodically categorizes all that information, kind of like a serial processor on the computer. While the right brain is busy collecting information, the left brain is analyzing and interpreting it in order to project out possibilities for the future.
Michael Jackson so forcefully disrupted how we perceive, analyze and interpret his appearance, I think it’s important to grasp how this works. It’s worth watching Dr. Taylor’s talk and consider why Michael Jackson might have been cuing us to step to the right of our left brain.
Willa: Wow, Lisha, that is fascinating! It’s like the two sides of our brains represent two completely different ways of understanding the world. As Dr. Taylor points out, the right side is more sensory, while the left side is more analytical. The right side is focused on the present moment, while the left is constantly making comparisons with the past and projecting out into the future, as you mentioned. The right is more about feeling, while the left is trying to capture what we feel and express those emotions through language. In fact, the “mind chatter” our brains tend to constantly engage in comes from the left side of our brains, according the Dr. Taylor.
It was really interesting to hear her talk about her stroke, which was in her left hemisphere and how, ironically, she felt an unexpected sense of euphoria as it was happening. It’s like her right side was momentarily released from the constraints of her left side, and it reveled in that freedom.
She also said that, during her stroke, she couldn’t distinguish her own boundaries, which was very interesting to me. She couldn’t tell where “she” ended and the rest of the world began, so in a very literal sense she experienced the phenomenon of “you’re just another part of me.”
Lisha: Yes, Dr. Taylor goes into detail about this in her book, My Stroke of Insight. I thought it was a fascinating read. She also talks about a fact we all accept as scientifically true – that our bodies are made up of about 70 percent water – and she claims this is also quite literally true. Once the part of your brain shuts down that interprets the body as a separate, solid mass, you can actually perceive the body as a liquid and experience that as a part of your ordinary reality.
Willa: Wow, that’s fascinating! I’d love to experience that somehow – without having a stroke, of course …
Lisha: Me too! She said she really liked knowing her body was liquid and it was one of the last parts of her brain to heal from the stroke. According to Dr. Taylor, “you’re just another part of me” is not just a philosophy, it is a scientific truth. Perception is everything – which begs the question – what’s really out there?
Harriet: “What’s really out there?” We need to come back to this!
Willa: That is the question, isn’t it? And can we ever know what’s really out there? Philosophers have debated that for centuries.
So in terms of what we’ve been talking about with perceptions of Michael Jackson, the right hemisphere of the brain is trying to gather in all the sensory input available at any given moment – it’s trying to collect “what’s really out there” – while the left is trying to make sense of it. It’s categorizing and labeling that input, and putting it within a historical context. That ties in exactly with what Betty Edwards says in her book, though she emphasizes that our left side also prioritizes and filters what we look at, and therefore what we see.
That leads to another reason why Michael Jackson’s face was so misinterpreted: our perceptions were strongly influenced by the constant narrative of plastic surgery that was repeated again and again in both the tabloids and mainstream press. That narrative shaped the mental and cultural filters through which we saw his face, and those filters are really powerful. It gets back once again to what Michael Jackson called our cultural “conditioning.” We were “conditioned” to see the effects of plastic surgery whenever we looked at him, and so we did.
Harriet: Absolutely, and I think that’s why it’s important to consider the role of the stereotype here, for in the realm of identity formation (which is where we are in grappling with “reading Michael Jackson’s face”), it is the stereotype that largely creates this conflict between the two interpreting parts of our brain. In understanding Others, the stereotype is deployed: built on previous “knowledge” and imagery, it “makes sense” of a person by, as you say, Willa, categorizing, labeling, and contextualizing. Meanwhile, though, the other side of our brain knows that to a large extent this is all just a construction, a fiction, and that there is other “matter” (parts of a person) left undiscovered and unexplained. Because this “matter” is more difficult, less instant in interpretation, we leave it out.
Willa: Wow, that’s really interesting, Harriet.
Harriet: Not only did Michael Jackson have to contend with pervasive stereotypes of masculinity and blackness, he had to contend with the stereotype of the Hollywood plastic surgery addict that generated once his face began to change. By this, he provides a wonderful example of someone (an “Other”) onto whom multiple stereotypes were projected but none of them fitted. He therefore generated lots of this remaining “matter” that our brains couldn’t quickly make sense of, and this “stuff” just got left behind in our reading of him. It just got submerged and forgotten (or in some cases, was maybe not even ever acknowledged).
Lisha: I think you’ve just hit the nail on the head. The multiple stereotypes we tried to project onto him just wouldn’t fit. There were too many labels and categories being disrupted all at once. We lacked a quick, easy explanation that could make sense of this.
Harriet: Totally, and the result is really quite confounding. My own brain, for example, is constantly battling between two visions and two readings: Michael Jackson radically changed aesthetically, and Michael Jackson didn’t really change aesthetically much at all. And this conflict continues despite the close observations we have made here, which point toward the latter.
Lisha: You’re touching on something that I find in many aspects of Michael Jackson’s work, Harriet, when you say Michael Jackson appears to have both changed and not changed aesthetically. I’ve noticed Michael Jackson is not an “either/or” type of guy – he’s a “both/and” proposition. If you’re looking closely, his face appears to have both radically changed and stayed the same over the years.
I decided to take a look at the psychology literature to see if I could find some research that would support what we’re talking about here in terms of perception and how the brain could potentially misinterpret visual information. I’m really amazed by what I am finding, especially in the area of facial perception and race. Apparently facial perception is a rather complex brain function – it isn’t nearly as straightforward as you might think. Belief and expectation radically alter what people actually see. This is something that has been studied for years.
For example, there was a study in 2003 by Eberhardt, Dasgupta, and Banasynski titled “Believing Is Seeing: The Effects of Racial Labels and Implicit Beliefs on Face Perception.” Researchers morphed head shots together until they had an ambiguous photo that 50 percent of respondents identified as a “black male,” while the other 50 percent identified the exact same photo as that of a “white male.” The photo was given to another group who were then asked to draw the photo. Each copy of the photo was randomly labeled either “black” or “white.”
Participants were told that they would receive a nice monetary bonus if the next group could correctly identify the photo from their drawing of it. But despite the incentive for making an accurate drawing, the “black” and “white” labels altered what participants drew and their drawings were consistent with their beliefs about the labels. This study was summarized by Adam Alter in an article that appeared in Psychology Today magazine titled “Why It’s Dangerous to Label People: Why labeling a person ‘black,’ ‘rich,’ or ‘smart’ makes it so.” Here is one of the photos used in the study and two drawings of the same photo:
Harriet: Lisha, this article is so in tune with what we have discussed.
Willa: It really is!
Harriet: This is the nub:
The people we label as “black,” “white,” “rich,” poor,” smart,” and “simple,” seem blacker, whiter, richer, poorer, smarter, and simpler merely because we’ve labeled them so.
Of course, as a society we like labels because they help us to apparently understand the world around us and our place in relation to it. As the subtitle of the article puts it, with them we are constantly “decision making.” Michael Jackson shook up decision making in so many ways it was almost like society couldn’t cope with it, so we over-compensated in defining him, as in the extensive plastic surgery narrative / imagery that was so strongly projected that we all came to believe it. I personally think we need to take from Michael Jackson’s cues and look towards a utopian way of Being without “decision making” though this might be a big ask …
As you put it, Lisha, labels are largely about “either/or”; that is, they are often structured as an oppositional binary (black/white, man/woman young/old etc). But Michael Jackson blew this out the water by being a “both/and proposition”: Michael was black and white, young and old, and (in many ways) man and woman, and this quality is visualized in his face, which “appears to have both radically changed and stayed the same over the years.”
Lisha: It’s as if he didn’t cross boundaries – he inhabited them. And it’s much easier to believe these changes were achieved through plastic surgery than it is to consider our own psychological lapses in perception.
Willa: That’s interesting, Lisha. I hadn’t thought about it that way before – that we prefer to believe the difference is out there, in him, there rather than in us, in our own minds.
Harriet: The “both/and proposition” that is visualized in Michael’s face, and the complexity of perception and identity more broadly, makes me think of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit doodle in Philosophical Investigations. The doodle, which many will recognize, depicts at once the outlined images of a duck and a rabbit, and therefore also their continual oscillations.
This doodle has been applied (I’m thinking here by W.T. Lhamon Jr. in his wonderful book Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop) to illustrate how two identities can be held together, can be variably seen either together or separately or even with the exclusion of the other but all the while together in a kind of “third.” This is Michael Jackson all over to my mind and what I understand to be at the core of his attraction. He could be anyone and everyone. Michael Jackson was not about strict definition or separation but about crossing and merging and bringing us altogether, label-free, as one.
Willa: Or as three-in-one. That’s really interesting, Harriet. So it’s not a process of becoming one by shedding or denying our differences – a oneness of homogeneity – but by developing a more complex understanding of identity, of the multiplicity of identity.
Harriet: That’s it, yes, in which “difference” becomes less absolute and all-encompassing.
Willa: To be honest, I’m still kind of blown away by what you were talking about earlier, Harriet – about stereotypes and how half our brain applies those kinds of labels to help us quickly identify and categorize sensory input, while the other half realizes those labels aren’t true – that it’s “all a fiction and that there is other ‘matter’ (parts of a person) left undiscovered or unexplained,” as you said. That’s such an interesting idea, and I wonder if this kind of double knowledge – with half our brains (the more accessible part) thinking one thing while the other half (less accessible) secretly knowing it’s not true – helps explain something that’s been a big mystery to me.
Before Michael Jackson died, it seemed that most people believed he was utterly corrupt: a pedophile, a drug addict, a plastic surgery addict, a man who used his fame and his wealth to twist other people – especially the parents of young boys – into doing whatever he wanted. But the moment he died, there was this outpouring of grief, and public opinion shifted dramatically. That doesn’t make any sense to me. Why would so many people grieve so deeply and feel such tenderness for an utterly debauched rock star? I can understand how people might change their minds gradually as more sympathetic information began to emerge, but it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t gradual. It was instantaneous. Why would people feel such a profound sense of loss if they genuinely believed he was “a monster,” as he himself describes it? I just can’t understand that, and I’ve puzzled about it a long time.
I wonder if this sort of double knowledge you’re talking about, Harriet, helps explain it. I wonder if, at one level of consciousness, people saw the tabloid headlines and heard the innuendo and seemed to accept those horrible labels that were being forced onto him. They threw him into “a class with a bad name,” as he says in “They Don’t Care about Us.” But at a deeper level, they knew it wasn’t true, knew it was just a fiction, knew those monstrous labels didn’t fit him. So when he died, that deeper knowledge led to a grief that couldn’t be explained.
Harriet: That is intriguing and very insightful, Willa. In other words, death allows us to finally “feel” without (social) restriction. It is like the death of a person rids us of the limitations imposed on us by a society fearful of difference, of the “matter” that cannot be explained by labels, which, deep down, each one of us knows is really there.
Lisha: I absolutely believe this is true. One of my favorite research projects is to log onto the “Toys R Us” mega-store website and search their merchandise using the search term “Michael Jackson.” They offer dozens of Michael Jackson products for children – puzzles, games, toys, child-size glitter gloves, etc. If as a culture we really believed Michael Jackson was “an utterly debauched rock star” who committed crimes against children, would we be mass producing these products?
Willa: That’s an excellent question, Lisha. And would there be so many CDs of Michael Jackson songs performed as lullabies to play for your children as they go to sleep? I just did a quick search on Amazon and there are five different CDs of Michael Jackson lullabies. Would Amazon really be selling Michael Jackson bedtime music for children if people genuinely believed he was a pedophile? I don’t think so.
Lisha: I actually started a collection of Michael Jackson baby CDs to illustrate this very point – if Michael Jackson is safe enough for your baby’s nursery, then Michael Jackson is safe, end of story!
Harriet: I agree, but I can’t help but wonder if it is also about seeing a market (the mothers of young children) and exploiting it. After all, when there is a fortune to be made anything can happen, as Michael Jackson himself knew only too well.
Willa: Yes, but would the mothers of young children be buying if they really thought he was a child molester?
Lisha: And would the demand for these products be high enough to mass produce them for a giant mega-store chain like “Toys R Us”?
Harriet: Maybe I am being too skeptical, but a large tranche of the demographic of Michael Jackson fans will be mothers of a child-bearing or rearing age, don’t you think?
Lisha: It’s a good question and I don’t really know for sure. Those of us in Michael Jackson’s age bracket (age 55) are more likely to buy these for grandchildren rather than our own kids, so maybe there are at least two strong markets there – mothers and grandmothers.
Harriet: I wanted to return to something that is just so fundamental to “reading Michael Jackson’s face,” and that is what you touched on earlier, Lisha, that “perception is everything, which begs the question – what’s really out there?” As philosophers have explored and identified at length, nothing is really “out there” because it is all filtered by our own individual interpretation. That is, there is actually no “true” reality and no “truth.” It seems to me that in Michael Jackson’s face we see this impossibility of grasping at reality, at “truth.” Not only do we all seem to read Michael Jackson in very different ways, some of us also read him differently within our own minds at different times (sometimes he has changed aesthetically and sometimes he has not).
I’m sure people can recall the collection of promo shots released ahead of Michael Jackson’s appearance on Oprah Winfrey back in 1993. This is one of them:
From the commentary I have found it seems this image (and the decision to “black out” Michael’s face), was quite widely read as a marketing ploy used to entice viewers by playing on the cultural fascination with Michael Jackson’s face. However, I wonder if there was actually more going on. The decision to “black out” the detail of Michael’s face could be read as a very public recognition on his part of the issue we have raised in this discussion: the huge problem we have with the (mis)interpretation of visual information and especially that relating to identity.
Perhaps Michael Jackson is saying here: “People will see what they want to see anyway.” It could be his resignation to this or, more likely I would say, a way by which he was inviting us to think very seriously about how we saw, or didn’t see, his face.
Willa: I agree. It reminds me of the Invincible album cover, where instead of being “blacked out” his face has been “whited out” to the point where the details of his face have been lost. So as you say, in both cases we are left to fill in the image for ourselves. As he sings in “Is It Scary,” “I’m gonna be exactly what you wanna see.”
Harriet: A face is like a mirror: it can reflect back at us (it “mirrors”) what we want, hope or expect to see, rather than reflect what is really there. This photo perhaps argues this. So, to read Michael Jackson’s face we need rather to read ourselves. I’m reminded here of the phenomenon “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” which shifts the power away from the subject towards the spectator in the creation of visual image, meaning, and significance. I go into this in the conclusion of my book and consider it paramount in discussion of Michael Jackson, whose ambiguity – his “both/and proposition” – allowed this interpretative process in a very elaborate way.
Lisha: It’s absolutely true. With this is mind, we should have another look at the HIStory teaser, one of Michael Jackson’s most misunderstood works. His first appearance in this film (1:14) is quite possibly my all time favorite Michael Jackson image for all the reasons we have talked about here. We’re not just looking at Michael Jackson, we’re confronting our own psychological projections and seeing who we believe he is.
Harriet: And there it is. Brilliant.
Willa: It really is. He continually reflects our projections back at us in ways that utterly amaze me.
So before we wrap up I wanted to mention a couple of things. I’m sure everyone is very curious to know more about the new album, Xscape, scheduled to come out in May. Damien Shields has an interesting post describing each of the songs predicted to be on it.
And there’s a new book coming out the end of June that ties in with the ideas we’ve been talking about today in fascinating ways. It’s by Lorena Turner, a photographer and sociologist who contributes to the conversation here sometimes, and it’s called The Michael Jacksons. I’ve only read a few chapters, but I’m really intrigued by what I’ve seen so far.
It looks at Michael Jackson impersonators not only in terms of how they interpret and reenact and memorialize Michael Jackson himself, but how they continue his legacy of “performing” race and gender in fluid ways. Lorena quotes J.Martin Favor that “Race is theatrical – it is an outward spectacle – rather than being anything internal or essential,” and looks at how Michael Jackson and his impersonators “perform” his/their identity. I’m really looking forward to seeing how she develops these ideas. Here’s a link with more information, as well as a gallery of some of her photos.
Harriet: I am really excited about Lorena’s book, not least because it is closely linked to my own work. I mean by this that we could understand Michael Jackson impersonation as being part of the theatrical tradition of blackface minstrelsy, a tradition that was built on (cross-racial) impersonation – performers “putting on” and “taking off” an Other’s body. Despite the minstrel show’s racism for which it is best known, the tradition could at times in its long history articulate cross-racial admiration and alliance (“love”). This reminds me of Michael Jackson impersonators who are so dedicated to and passionate about their subject. Depending on their individual skin color, Michael Jackson impersonators even “black up” or “white up.” I understand Lorena plans to include a chapter on the history of blackface impersonation.
Willa: Yes, I think that’s true. She mentions blackface minstrelsy in the pages I read, and also looks at the history of black artists performing for white audiences, from minstrelsy through Motown.
Lisha: Sounds fascinating!
Willa: It really does. So thank you both so much for joining me! It’s always such a pleasure to talk with you.
Willa: You know, Lisha, I’ve been trying to learn more about Fred Astaire because he was such an important inspiration for Michael Jackson. We see his influence in some of his dance moves and choreography, of course, and in some of his costumes, like his famous fedora. We see direct influences in the videos for Smooth Criminal and You Rock My World, and the lyrics to “Dangerous.” And we can see it more subtly in other places as well.
Michael Jackson always spoke of Fred Astaire with the utmost respect. For example, in a questionnaire he filled out in 1977, when he was only 18, he was asked which entertainers he admired most. His response was Fred Astaire and Stevie Wonder. And after he died, Kobe Bryant repeatedly mentioned how Michael Jackson encouraged him to go back and watch Astaire’s movies – like in this press conference and in a Time magazine article, “Remembering Michael”:
Beyond the genius of what he was, he was just a genuinely, genuinely nice person. He got me hooked on movies that I would normally never watch. Fred Astaire movies. All the old classics. … He was just a genuinely nice person who was exceptionally bright, exceptionally bright, and driven and talented. You mix those things together, man, you have Michael Jackson.
So I’ve been trying to watch as many Fred Astaire movies as I can, and last spring I happened to stumble across one called Ziegfeld Follies. It isn’t a movie with a plot like we generally think of. Rather it’s a series of song and dance numbers interspersed with comedy skits, like the original Ziegfeld shows that ran on Broadway for more than 25 years. And one of those numbers in particular completely captured my attention – in fact, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since. It’s called “Limehouse Blues.” Here’s a clip:
Lisha: Wow, I have to say that’s really a beautiful Broadway/Hollywood style production number, but seeing Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer made up as Asian characters is pretty wild, isn’t it? I immediately thought of another film, Tony Randall’s 1964 movie 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, in which Randall assumes the role of 7 different mythic characters, including an ancient Chinese wise man, Dr. Lao, who claims to be 7,322 years old.
Did you know at one time Michael Jackson was under contract to remake the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao?
Willa: No, I didn’t!
Lisha: According to Captain EO producer/screenwriter Rusty Lemorande, it was just before the Evan Chandler scandal hit and unfortunately the project was scrapped due to the false allegations. That’s pretty disappointing, to say the least.
Willa: Oh, it’s heartbreaking. It really shows what an immediate and devastating effect those allegations had on his career. And it makes me feel so angry and powerless to think Evan Chandler plotted that all out and got exactly what he wanted, just as he predicted in those phone conversations with David Schwartz before the scandal broke – importantly, at a time when Jordan Chandler was saying he hadn’t been molested:
I will get everything I want, and they will be totally – they will be destroyed forever. They will be destroyed. June is gonna lose Jordy. She will have no right to ever see him again.… Michael, the career will be over.
And he was right – everything he predicted came true. He got “everything I want,” meaning the money he was after, June lost custody of her son, and Michael Jackson’s career was destroyed. In addition to the terrible blow to him personally, just think of how frustrating that must have been for him as an artist.
Lisha: Yes, for him as an artist and for us as an audience. We were all robbed. But while Michael Jackson’s career was damaged, it was far from “destroyed forever,” as Evan Chandler had planned. That’s pretty remarkable when you think about it. Anyone else most likely would have been ruined. In the end, Evan Chandler only succeeded in destroying himself, his family, and many, but not all, of Michael Jackson’s artistic and charitable projects. There were no winners in his vicious scheme.
Willa: That’s true. We all lost. Michael Jackson still produced some amazing work, even though his career was irreparably damaged, but I do wonder what he might have accomplished if those allegations had never happened.
Lisha: Thinking about the Dr. Lao movie, I can imagine Michael Jackson would have been wonderful in that role. And I have no doubt he would have enjoyed the challenge of taking on those 7 characters – Medusa, Pan, Merlin, Apollonius, The Serpent, The Abominable Snowman and the magical Dr. Lao.
Willa: Yes, kind of like the multiple characters he plays in Ghosts.
Lisha: Exactly. Jackson was also committed at that time to remaking a 1938 James Cagney film, Angels with Dirty Faces. I find it interesting that all of these films include the concept of different “faces.”
Willa: That is intriguing, isn’t it? Especially since the idea of changing faces was such an important and recurrent motif in his art, from videos like Who Is It and Black or White to his own changing face.
So what do you think of Fred Astaire’s changing face in “Limehouse Blues”? Or more broadly, his playing the role of a Chinese immigrant? I have a conditioned reflex to be wary of any Western portrayal of the East as appropriation – or as Orientalism in the Edward Said sense, meaning an attempt to portray Eastern and middle-Eastern people and culture as exotic, mysterious, alluring but dangerous, and essentially unknowable. And I see that to some degree in “Limehouse Blues.” But at the same time, I actually think it’s attempting to do just the opposite. I’m really struck by the tenderness and humanity in Astaire’s portrayal of this character, and how we are encouraged to see the events that happen from his point of view. He isn’t a mysterious and unknowable cypher – he’s a sympathetic member of the human race with desires and frustrations we can all understand.
Lisha: Well, I guess I’m still kind of on the fence with this. My knee jerk reaction is that it’s a bit offensive in the way it oversimplifies Chinese culture. I hear it immediately in the musical introduction, with the gong and traditional symphonic instruments playing a five-note scale to suggest Asian culture in a very Broadway show style of writing. You can hear the same sounds in the Dr. Lao trailer as well; it’s the typical formula for instantly depicting the Far East through the musical score. Then we see Fred Astaire made up with slanted eyes, wearing traditional Chinese clothes and shoes, which is a little disconcerting. But, I also wonder if I have been cued to judge it that way.
I mean, isn’t this sort of the whole point of drama? To act out something for the audience from another time and place and to play the role of someone you are not? And aren’t simple cues needed to some extent to achieve that, such as costuming, make-up, “ethnic” instruments and musical scales?
Willa: Those are all really good questions, Lisha. Michael Jackson said a number of times that pretending to be “someone you are not,” as you say, was what he loved most about acting. And isn’t that what empathy is, really? Putting yourself in someone else’s position and trying to imagine things from their perspective?
Lisha: I believe that it is. But what are the limits to how far you can go with this kind of oversimplification of culture before it starts getting really offensive?
Willa: Exactly. Or before you start imposing your own values and beliefs onto another culture….
Lisha: I agree with you that Astaire’s character invites the viewer to see events from his point of view and attempts to illustrate the commonality of human experience, rather than simply emphasizing difference. So, it may not be entirely fair to just dismiss this scene because it engages some of these stereotypes as a kind of cultural shorthand.
I’m thinking there is a real difference between intentional and unintentional uses of stereotypes. For example, in the opening of You Rock My World, there is an overt use of Chinese stereotypes – the restaurant, the rickshaw, the karate chop, etc. It leaves little room for doubt that the scene is intentionally invoking over-the-top racial stereotypes in order to make a point. In “Limehouse Blues” I’m not convinced there is much awareness of how problematic stereotypes can be. The scene is set in Limehouse, the Chinatown district of London, and the opening lyrics get my attention right away: “In Limehouse, where Orientals love to play / in Limehouse, where you can can hear the flutes all day.” Apparently the lyrics were cleaned up a bit from the original song, which included the line “learn from those Chinkies, those real China blues,” as in this 1934 recording by the Mills Brothers:
Willa: Well, you’re right, Lisha, those lyrics are offensive, especially in the 1934 version – though as you point out, those lyrics were left out of the film. But there are a lot of stereotypes on display in the film too, as you described so well. Still, I’m reluctant to simply dismiss this performance as offensive and walk away. Like you, I’m really conflicted about it. And part of that, for me, is because I see so many connections to the panther dance in Black or White, and that’s led me to view “Limehouse Blues” in a different way, through the lens of Black or White.
You know, some of the most scornful criticism of Black or White when it first came out was because Michael Jackson still called himself black but appears white. For example, the Saturday Night Live character Queen Shenequa asked, “Black or White? If it doesn’t matter, then why are you so white?” But to me, his crossing of racial boundaries is one of the most brilliant aspects of that video. So why does it seem offensive, or at least problematic, when Fred Astaire crosses the boundary from white to Asian, but not when Michael Jackson crosses from black to white?
I agree with you that part of it comes from the awareness of the creators. Michael Jackson seems very aware of the implications of what he’s doing in Black or White, while it’s not so clear that Fred Astaire understood those implications in “Limehouse Blues.” I also wonder if another reason is because of how they’re positioned. In the U.S., where both films were made, white is the dominant culture and black and Chinese are considered minority cultures. So when Fred Astaire, a white man, appears Chinese it feels like appropriation, but when Michael Jackson, a black man, appears white it feels like resistance – or at worst assimilation.
Lisha: Absolutely. I thought it was hilarious a few years back when some American Indian students at the University of Northern Colorado decided to re-name the basketball team “The Fightin’ Whities.” They chose a stereotypical white man as their new mascot and even changed their fight song to “Ever thang is gonna be, all White.”
Willa: Really? That is too funny!
Lisha: I thought that was a brilliant and very humorous way of calling attention to how offensive it is when the dominant culture appropriates a minority culture, like when American sports teams choose names like the “Redskins,” or the “Indians.” That really makes me angry, but I don’t have the same reaction to white stereotypes.
But now you’ve really got me curious about the connection between “Limehouse Blues” and the panther dance. I have to admit, I don’t see a clear connection.
Willa: Hmmm … Well, now I’m going to have to think a minute. It’s one of those things I just sort of intuitively felt, so I’m not sure how well I can give reasons and put it into words …
I do remember that the first time I watched “Limehouse Blues,” I was immediately struck by the set – the darkened street with the lamppost and the row of shop fronts with big plate-glass windows. In fact, my first reaction was to wonder if it was the same set where the panther dance was filmed. You know, MGM used to have a huge backlot of permanent structures that were used over and over again in different movies, and I wondered if “Limehouse Blues,” Singin’ in the Rain, and the panther dance were all filmed on the same location. They weren’t – if you look carefully, the style of the lampposts and the shape of the windows are a little different in all three – but the overall mood of these sets is very similar, I think.
Here’s a screen capture from “Limehouse Blues.” Doesn’t that look like the set for the panther dance – and for the signature Singin’ in the Rain number as well?
Lisha: Definitely has a similar feel to it. And I see what you mean that it’s not an exact quote, as in other Fred Astaire films that Michael Jackson cited more directly, like The Band Wagon, which he references in Smooth Criminal, You Rock My World and “Dangerous.” It’s a little more subtle than that.
Willa: Exactly. It’s like when the new VW Beetle came out – the designers said they weren’t trying to create an exact replica of the original Beetle, just something “evocative” of it. That’s how the Black or White set is. It’s not an exact duplicate, but it certainly evokes the set of “Limehouse Blues.”
Lisha: That’s a good way of describing it.
Willa: They also have a similar narrative structure. Usually when a movie includes a fantasy sequence, it’s just a brief interruption in the flow of “real life.” The movie will begin in real life, then switch to a quick daydream, and then return to real life. But in “Limehouse Blues,” we follow the main character on the streets of Limehouse for about 7 minutes; then he’s shot and loses consciousness, and we jump to the dream ballet for about 5 minutes; and then he comes to just long enough to see the woman he loves reject the fan he was holding when he was shot, and he loses consciousness again. So the daydream lasts nearly as long as the “real life” sequence, and the main character never reenters his former life.
Black or White has a much more complicated structure, but if we take a big picture view it’s pretty similar. We have a series of vignettes engaging with the real world that goes for about 7 minutes. Then a panther walks downstairs – into the unconscious? I think you suggested that in an earlier post, Lisha. He morphs into Michael Jackson at precisely the 7-minute mark, and then the panther dance begins. It lasts for about 4 minutes, and then we jump to Bart Simpson and the film ends. So as in “Limehouse Blues,” we never see the main character reenter the real world, which is very unusual.
Lisha: Wow, that is interesting. It makes me think about the other short film Michael Jackson made with John Landis, Thriller. At the very end, when Michael Jackson comforts his girlfriend and offers to take her home, it appears that the dream world has finally been broken and we are now watching the action from the perspective of “real life.” But then he turns around and looks into the camera, and suddenly, there are those werewolf eyes again. So when the film ends on that still shot, we know the dream isn’t over yet.
Willa: Oh, interesting! I hadn’t thought about that.
Lisha: And I’ve never noticed that the panther morphs into Michael Jackson right at the 7-minute mark in the film. That is fascinating, since the number 7 is also a recurring theme in his work, such as the “777” armband he wears in the HIStory teaser, not to mention the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao film he was interested in remaking. And as the black panther walks down those stairs and morphs into Michael Jackson, I do feel like he has just walked into the deep recesses of Michael Jackson’s unconscious mind.
Willa: I agree. And then another parallel is the scene where Michael Jackson’s character picks up a trash can and throws it though the store window. That’s usually seen as a reference to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, but there’s a very similar scene in “Limehouse Blues” as well. Interestingly, in Do the Right Thing, a black character breaks the window of a white-owned business (an Italian pizzeria) but in “Limehouse Blues,” a white character breaks the window of a Chinese business.
One very important similarity, I think, is how we as viewers are positioned. In all three films, we are not in the “white” position. In Black or White and Do the Right Thing, we are on the outside in the “black” position, watching the window break from the point of view of the person breaking it. Here’s a clip from Do the Right Thing:
And in “Limehouse Blues,” we are on the inside, in the “Chinese” position. We as an audience are inside the store, looking out the window and watching the white thugs break the glass toward us.
And actually, I guess that brings me around again to the main reason why I’m conflicted but not offended by “Limehouse Blues.” Usually in a film by a white production team, we are encouraged to see things from a white perspective, and to see whites as sympathetic figures – heroic, honest, virtuous – while minorities are portrayed as either not virtuous or simply as background characters, at best a comic sidekick. But in “Limehouse Blues,” the Chinese character is portrayed in very sympathetic ways, I think, and the white characters are thugs. And we’re encouraged to see things from his point of view. That’s a complete reversal from what we usually see.
Lisha: You are so right about that, Willa. And it’s not very common to see white men criminalized in that way either, unless it’s kind of a glorified thing, like Prohibition era gangsters or white collar crime.
Willa: That’s true.
Lisha: I guess the most obvious and striking similarity between “Limehouse Blues” and Black or White, for me, is a kind of racial cross dressing that happens in them both. As you’ve said, the criticism Michael Jackson faced was that he suddenly appeared white, not black, in that film.
I’m also thinking about something else you said earlier: “when Fred Astaire, a white man, appears Chinese it feels like appropriation, but when Michael Jackson, a black man, appears white it feels like resistance – or at worst assimilation.” As we know, Michael Jackson mastered the art of crossover long before Black or White, meaning he learned to make performance choices that appealed to multiple markets. Since market categories are often divided along racial lines, black performers have had to appeal to white sensibilities in order to reach a mass audience.
I think there are some great examples of Michael Jackson’s crossover talent in the early television series he did, and many of those performances demonstrate his fondness for Fred Astaire Hollywood-style production numbers. Here’s a number from The Jacksons variety show that begins with a lamppost/cityscape scene similar to what we see in the panther dance, “Limehouse Blues” and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain, a film the panther dance is often compared to. It also has many elements from The Band Wagon and Top Hat, and features the song “Get Happy” that Judy Garland sang in Summer Stock.
Willa: That is such a great example, Lisha! It really shows how well versed he was in the big song and dance numbers from the heyday of Hollywood musicals, doesn’t it? And from a very young age. Even the costumes – the white suit and white fedora with a black band, and the red dress with black gloves up past the elbows – are straight out “Girl Hunt Ballet,” Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s big number in The Band Wagon. Here’s a clip:
Lisha: It looks like a lot of The Jacksons variety show clip came straight out of that film. But, I also see a couple of things in Michael Jackson’s performance that could possibly elaborate on his connection to Fred Astaire. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend an outstanding presentation at Columbia College in Chicago by dance historians Bonnie Brooks and Raquel Monroe, titled “The Postmodern Genius of Michael Jackson.” They described Michael Jackson’s dance performances as a virtual history of dance and highlighted how he had synthesized so many disparate influences in such a seamless and original way, it could only be called “genius.” One of the most intriguing clips they used to illustrate this was a performance by the Nicholas Brothers from the film Stormy Weather. In The Jacksons clip above (starting around 2:25) I noticed the staircase, the ramp and the splits at the end, are quite similar to the end of the Nicholas Brothers performance:
Willa: Oh, and the spins as well! Wow, Lisha, when you put them side by side, you really can see those influences. And according to Fayard Nicholas, Fred Astaire told him, “That is the greatest dance number I’ve ever seen on film.” (Here’s a link to the Fayard Nicholas interview. That comment is near the end – about 7 minutes in.)
You know, one thing that strikes me about all this, Lisha, is that Stormy Weather is loosely based on the life of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the elegant but expressive dancer who helped pioneer dance and choreography for film. For example, he danced with Shirley Temple in a series of very popular films in the 1930s – and incidentally, I believe that was the first time a black man had ever danced with a white woman, or actually a young white girl, on either stage or film. The Nicholas Brothers pay tribute to Robinson in Stormy Weather, and Fred Astaire pays tribute to him in The Band Wagon (which mentions him by name) and in a very problematic number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” from the film Swing Time. So Bill Robinson influenced both the Nicholas Brothers and Fred Astaire, and then they greatly influenced Michael Jackson who, as you said, encompassed “a virtual history of dance.”
Lisha: It seems Bill Robinson was a major influence for all these artists. Fred Astaire’s work is based, at least in part, on the black tap dance tradition, as Brenda Dixon Gottschild notes in Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era. We know Michael Jackson was influenced by the black tap dance tradition as well – he even danced with the Nicholas Brothers in 1977 and possibly studied with them, too:
So the question is, who is appropriating whose culture in all these examples? Tap dance has roots in both European and African American traditions. Much has been said about Michael Jackson borrowing from Fred Astaire and Hollywood musicals, but little is said about how much white performers owe to black dancers such as Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers.
Willa: That’s an excellent point, Lisha. So when Michael Jackson quotes Fred Astaire in his dancing, is he pointing back to a white or black tradition? The answer to that is pretty complicated, as you suggest.
Lisha: At the same time that Hollywood marginalized black performers, it also capitalized on their talents. Anthropologist Elizabeth Chin wrote an incredible essay for the Journal of Popular Music Studies titled “Michael Jackson’s Panther Dance: Double Consciousness and the Uncanny Business of Performing While Black.” She sees a direct connection between Stormy Weather and Michael Jackson’s panther dance in this regard, as a dream ballet that represents “part of a continuing struggle on the part of African American artists to present their work on their own terms.”
Willa: Chin’s article is fascinating, especially the way she looks at the dream ballet, which she believes originated with Stormy Weather and perhaps reached its fullest expression in the panther dance. She sees the dream ballet as a place where black artists could break out of white stereotypes to some degree and express their own dreams and their own perspective – though as Chin acknowledges, this was tempered by the fact that those dreams and perspectives had to be made palatable to a white audience.
But I’m not sure Jackson did temper his dreams and his anger in the panther dance – at least not sufficiently for some white sensibilities, which is one reason it caused such an uproar when it first aired.
Lisha: I agree with you on that. When Michael Jackson puts on his hat and steps into the “spotlight” to perform a hyper-sexualized, hyper-criminalized tap dance, he is “performing” his race and gender in a very complex way that I believe exposes the beliefs, perceptions and expectations of white audiences. Again he embodies the lyric from “Is It Scary,” “I’m gonna be, exactly what you want to see.” As he acts out the dominant culture’s nightmarish perceptions of black men as hyper-sexualized criminals and entertainers, he also expresses his anger towards those beliefs and expectations. The dance is incredibly beautiful, but it’s also extremely intense and uncomfortable. “Shattering” is the word American studies professor Eric Lott used to describe the dance.
Willa: That’s a good description.
Lisha: But I think Chin makes an excellent point when she contrasts Gene Kelly’s “jaunty puddle splashing” in Singin’ in the Rain with “the stomping and screaming Jackson” in the panther dance. The black dreamscape is interpreted as taking back territory that white dancers appropriated from black tappers, something I think Kelly might be acknowledging in his performance with the Nicholas Brothers in The Pirate:
Willa: That’s a great clip, Lisha! And I agree that Gene Kelly seems to be paying homage to the Nicholas Brothers, specifically, as well as the black dance tradition in general – a tradition that both he and Fred Astaire drew from extensively in their work.
And that reminds me once again of that very problematic number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” that Astaire apparently performed as a tribute to Bill Robinson. What’s most disturbing about it is that he performs in blackface, and this is not in some obscure film no one ever saw. It’s from Swing Time, which many critics, including Roger Ebert, see as the best of his collaborations with Ginger Rodgers. I couldn’t find a clip of the entire number, but here it is in two pieces:
I remember the first time I saw this. I was stunned, and so disappointed he had done it. It feels deeply offensive, viewing it nearly 80 years after it was filmed, and I can’t shake that feeling. And I wonder what it felt like for Michael Jackson to see this, knowing how much he admired Fred Astaire?
Lisha: That scene is painful to watch, for sure.
Willa: It really is. But you know, if we look at this clip more carefully, there are some very interesting details that may complicate how we interpret it – especially those silhouettes that dance behind him in the second clip. Those silhouettes seem to represent the black dancers who have gone before him – specifically Bill Robinson, the “Bojangles” mentioned in the title – and those silhouettes are larger than he is. In fact, they tower over him, which makes sense psychologically. After all, our mentors can intimidate us as well as inspire us.
Those silhouettes also seem to be better dancers than he is (though of course, he’s dancing both parts). In fact, at one point he struggles to keep up with them. Later he proves he’s learned well and is a capable dancer – in fact, ultimately he seems to out-dance them. But ironically, even that can be read as a sign of how over-awed he is by them. It reminds me of Harold Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence,” where he talks about how artists tend to undervalue their immediate predecessors simply to give themselves a little breathing room. The fact that Fred Astaire felt the need to prove himself in competition with those figures from the past reveals just how much they loomed over his imagination.
It’s also interesting to consider who’s foregrounded in this number. Fred Astaire is out front so it would seem to be him, but for me anyway, I can’t take my eyes off those silhouettes, and they’re actually leading the choreography for much of it. So if we look at this number as a reflection of Fred Astaire’s mind, there’s a lot going on in this performance – much more than we may think at first glance.
Lisha: Wow, that really is interesting and gives a lot of credence to the idea that this could be seen as a heartfelt tribute to Bill Robinson, despite the fact that the blackface issue is about as deeply disappointing as it gets. Just like “Limehouse Blues,” it is hard to dismiss the number entirely, as much as it seems we should. If you look at the live performances of “Smooth Criminal” from the Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory world tours, it’s pretty clear that Michael Jackson himself gives a nod to this scene. He uses those silhouettes himself, possibly inserting himself symbolically into the history of dance, and paying tribute back to Astaire.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Lisha! And a very interesting way of interpreting this. You’re right, he does use those silhouettes a lot – on tour, as you say, and in the You Rock My World video, and in a very interesting and nuanced performance of “Dangerous” at the 1995 MTV awards. Here’s a clip:
Lisha: I don’t know that I had ever really thought about those silhouettes in this performance before, or how they were borrowed from both Smooth Criminal and Fred Astaire. What’s so interesting to me about this is that I usually think about this performance in reference to Judy Garland’s “Get Happy” in Summer Stock:
But now that you mention it, he has synthesized this performance with so many Fred Astaire quotes, you could see it either way.
Willa: Wow, Lisha, that’s incredible! There really are strong similarities to “Get Happy,” aren’t there? Especially in the intro. I hadn’t connected that – too focused on Fred Astaire, I guess. Astaire is referenced throughout the MTV “Dangerous” performance – from the lyrics and spoken lines that directly quote the “Girl Hunt Ballet” number in The Band Wagon; to the allusions to Smooth Criminal, as you mentioned earlier, Lisha, which is Michael Jackson’s artistic response to “Girl Hunt Ballet”; to those large silhouettes about 4:15 minutes in.
Like the silhouettes in “Bojangles of Harlem,” they move independently of Michael Jackson as he dances in front of them. But while those silhouettes seem to challenge Fred Astaire and even rebel against him, the silhouettes behind Michael Jackson nod approvingly and seem to support and encourage him. To me, that suggests he felt much more connected and aligned with his predecessors – more at peace with them – than Fred Astaire did.
Lisha: It seems many great Michael Jackson moments can be traced back to Fred Astaire, like the ceiling dance in Ghosts, which reminds me of “You’re All the World to Me” from Royal Wedding:
Fred Astaire’s kicking and shattering glass in “One for My Baby” from The Sky’s the Limit suggests to me the glass-shattering kicks in One More Chance or the sound effects in the opening of “Jam” to begin the Dangerous album:
Willa: Oh interesting, Lisha! I’d never made those connections before.
Lisha: Michael Jackson clearly admired and emulated Fred Astaire, so talk about feeling conflicted! Seeing Astaire in blackface in the Bojangles number is an intensely uncomfortable experience, much more so than seeing him portray a Chinese character. It would take a very lengthy and intense discussion to unpack all the reasons why that is so.
Willa: I agree absolutely. I feel so conflicted about that number, even kind of shameful watching it, but at the same time I think it’s an important discussion to have. And fortunately, there’s an expert on the subject who’s willing to join us and help us talk through all this.
Harriet Manning has just published a book, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask, that explores some of these issues we’ve been grappling with today. So far I’ve only read the first two chapters, but what I’ve read is fascinating, and it presents a very different way of seeing both the blackface tradition – which was extremely popular in both the US and the UK for more than a century – as well as Michael Jackson in relation to that tradition. And Harriet has very kindly agreed to talk with us about it. So I hope you’ll join us again, Lisha, as we explore this uncomfortable topic a little bit further.
Lisha: I would love to! Harriet’s book sounds fascinating, and she is just the kind of expert we need on this subject. I’m really looking forward to reading her book, and really digging into the subject even more. As a human family, we still have a lot of healing to do on this issue.Special Note:
The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. is currently featuring an exhibition, “Dancing the Dream,” that celebrates American dancers who have harnessed America’s diversity and dynamism into dance styles that define the national experience, culture, and identity. The exhibit is named for Michael Jackson’s 1992 book of poetry, stories, and essays and will run through July 13, 2014. It includes a holographic poster of Jackson and photographs of Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers. Here’s a link to an article about the exhibit.