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HIStory Teaser, Part 3: a New Kind of Hero

Willa:  This week Eleanor Bowman and I conclude our three-part series on the short film Michael Jackson created to promote his HIStory album. In Part 1 of this series, we focused on its most obvious influence, the one critics at the time tended to focus on: the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. In Part 2 we looked at a more subtle but even more significant influence: Charlie Chaplin’s satirical film, The Great Dictator. And today we’re considering other works and historical references in the HIStory teaser.

Thanks for joining me again, Eleanor! I’ve learned so much from our discussions about HIStory.

Eleanor:  Thanks for extending the invitation, Willa. I’ve learned a lot, too. In my continuing quest to understand HIStory, I have discovered allusions to three more films, which open yet more doors to new worlds of meaning.

Willa:  Yes, and there’s one more we haven’t figured out yet …

Eleanor: At least!

Willa: There’s also the location where HIStory was filmed – Heroes’ Square in Budapest – which from what you’ve told me is very significant. I’d like to talk with you about that today also.

Eleanor: Right, HIStory’s setting, Budapest, Hungary, in 1994, was anything but random.

Thinking about it, that powerful image of the unveiling of the statue of MJ in HIStory’s final scene seems emblematic of HIStory’s use of references and allusions to unveil the nature and aspirations of this remarkable man. But the more I study this film, the more I get the feeling we have only scratched the surface.

Willa:  I agree. So I guess the best place to begin is by identifying those other references. In addition to Triumph of the Will and The Great Dictator, what other films do you see referenced in HIStory?

Eleanor:  Would you believe the teasers for Terminator 2, The Hunt for Red October, and Apocalypse Now – as well as the movies themselves?

Full disclaimer, Willa. I would never have made the first two connections without a comment that I found on the Film Score Monthly site from KonstantinosZ. So, many thanks to KonstatinosZ, wherever you are. As for Apocalypse Now, which was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who also directed Captain EO, it was the helicopters that tipped me off.

Willa:  That’s so interesting, Eleanor – and so unexpected! Michael Jackson really did pull inspiration from just about everywhere, didn’t he? High culture, pop culture, paintings, movies, children’s stories, poems, cartoons, symphonies, tap dancing, hip hop, pantomime, ballet … the list just goes on and on. But why these particular films? What’s the connection?

Eleanor: Well, superficially they seem very different, but all three are about the madness of war.

Willa: That’s true, and they’re all about a specific kind of war – a global war, or a war with global implications. Apocalypse Now is set in Vietnam, a former French colony, during the Vietnam War, when Southest Asia became the chessboard for the playing out of Cold War ambitions between the US on one side and the Soviet Union and China on the other. The Hunt for Red October is also set during the Cold War, focusing specifically on military tensions between the US and USSR. And Terminator 2 involves time travel from a horrific future where humans and machines are fighting each other for global and even interstellar control. The goal is to alter the present to avoid that terrible future. And of course Triumph of the Will and The Great Dictator are also addressing the spread of an ideology with global implications, with Triumph promoting it and The Great Dictator fighting it – an ideology that ultimately resulted in World War II.

So all five movies referenced in HIStory are engaging with the horror of global war and global empire-building.

Eleanor: Yes, all focus on some aspect of war or nationalism – and reveal our fascination with it.

Willa: That’s true – we do seem fascinated as well as horrified by it. I’m especially intrigued by the inclusion of Terminator 2 and The Hunt for Red October. Michael Jackson directly quotes music from both of them in the first half of the HIStory teaser, and includes subtler allusions as well.

Referencing these two movies in particular is so unexpected, but thinking about it, there are some very interesting parallels between them. Both films are about an object of intense fear that threatens global annihilation of humankind. In Terminator 2, a cyborg assassin has been sent back from the future to find the future leader of the humans at war with the machines they created. And in Red October, a Soviet submarine captain is piloting a nuclear-armed submarine toward US waters – a situation that could trigger World War III.

But – and this is the crucial part – as it turns out, both are actually trying to prevent global war and preserve and protect humankind. While the cyborg was trying to kill his human target in the first Terminator movie, in Terminator 2 he’s been given a new mission and is now devoted to protecting his target.

Eleanor: Right. In the original Terminator movie, the terminator is sent back from the future by Skynet, the computer network that launched a nuclear holocaust to wipe out humanity. Returning to the pre-nuclear holocaust past, he is tasked with killing the woman who would become the mother of John Connor – the man who leads the post-nuclear holocaust survivors in their resistance to Skynet – thereby preventing his birth and the resistance. But the terminator failed, and John Connor was born.

In Terminator 2, the terminator has been rebuilt by the resistance fighters themselves, who send him back to the pre-nuclear holocaust past reprogrammed to protect the child, John Connor. Back in the past, he is rewired with the ability to learn by John’s mother, and his mission expands to include destroying Skynet, thus preventing the nuclear holocaust altogether. He not only saves the boy, but changes the future and saves humanity.

Willa: Exactly. That’s a great summary, Eleanor. And the submarine captain in Red October is trying to defect and share new technology with the US, so the delicate Cold War equilibrium between east and west will remain in balance. So in both of these films, someone who is initially seen as a terrible threat to humankind is actually working toward its salvation.

And that’s exactly Michael Jackson’s position, isn’t it? Many people saw him as very threatening – a “beast,” a “monster,” “the living dead,” and “your worst nightmare,” as he says in “Threatened” – though he was actually working to “heal the world.”

And that’s kind of how the HIStory promo film functions as well. At first glance, it feels really uncomfortable and intimidating. Michael Jackson leading an army? What?! But if we can tamp down our fear and animosity long enough to explore deeper, we start to see things differently.…

Eleanor:  I really like that, Willa. We need to have enough faith in MJ to overcome our initial discomfort with HIStory, because making the effort to understand it will deepen our understanding of him and his story.

Willa:  I agree. At least, I know that exploring all these different references has transformed how I interpret and respond to HIStory. And actually, transforming interpretation is an important element of both of those movies as well.

What I mean is, The Hunt for Red October is an action-adventure movie, but the real suspense comes from trying to decide if the Americans should trust the Soviet captain or not. Is he trying to defect, or is he planning to launch a nuclear weapon at a major US city? Is he a savior or a villain? A renegade hero breaking with his leadership and his past, or a Soviet pawn? Or maybe he’s a “madman,” as the president’s National Security Adviser calls him, who wants to kill himself following his wife’s suicide and has decided to take the whole world out with him. How should they interpret him and what he’s doing? And how should we as an audience interpret what’s happening? Figuring out how to interpret his actions is the critical question at the heart of the movie.

And interpretation – specifically, trying to figure out who or what we can trust – is at the heart of Terminator 2 also. We learn fairly early on that the terminator is trying to protect John Connor, but he’s protecting him against another cyborg made of liquid metal who’s a shape-shifter. This other cyborg can appear in any guise – as a policeman, a little girl, John’s mother, or even inanimate objects.

Eleanor:  Right. And the visual effects you mention, which are an integral part of the story, represented a major “breakthrough in computer-generated imagery.” I think that’s one of the things that drew MJ to this movie. Although many see technology in opposition to art, Michael Jackson (and James Cameron, the director of Terminator 2) viewed technology as a powerful means of artistic expression.

Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Eleanor. It’s true that Michael Jackson was very interested in new technology and in general was quick to embrace it. That’s a good point.

So in both Terminator 2 and Red October, we’re constantly asking ourselves, Can we trust what we see? Are people (and things) really as they appear to be? How can we be sure we’re interpreting everything correctly? And of course, Michael Jackson was a shape-shifter as well, and a lot of people weren’t sure how to interpret him either or if he could be trusted.

Eleanor:  That’s true, Willa. In these two films, there’s a whole lot of shape shifting goin’ on. In Terminator 2, the bad guy’s shape shifting is on the outside. Inside he remains absolutely true to his original mission. On the other hand, the terminator and the sub captain never shift shapes, they look the same way they always have on the outside, but their missions change radically. In alluding to these films, HIStory tells us that Michael Jackson may have changed on the outside, but remains true to his mission to heal the world through music. We can trust him absolutely. But it is also telling us that when the chips are down, people are capable of profound psychological change.

Willa: That’s an interesting way to look at that, Eleanor. It’s also true that the films themselves are constantly shape-shifting as our interpretations of them and what’s happening changes. And interpretations of Michael Jackson were constantly shifting also – just look at how quickly things changed after he died.

Eleanor: Yes, which sadly proves his point that people can change, in this case, almost overnight. But unfortunately for him, it was too late. It took something as terrible and tragic as his death to shock a lot of people – including me, I regret to confess – into recognizing what a treasure he was, the magnitude of our loss, and the cruel injustice that had been done to him. Which then led me to begin to investigate what our treatment of him reveals about us.

And it may take the impending destruction of the planet and everything on it to force us to recognize and change the self-destructive cultural beliefs we hold about human nature and collective survival. However, through its many allusions, HIStory expresses MJ’s belief that people are capable of making changes to their core values, just as the terminator does by having Sarah Connor open his head (open his mind?), remove the CPU, and flip the switch, allowing him to learn, to expand his vision and his mission!

Willa: I think maybe I need one of those switches …

Eleanor:  Right, I love that image. Would that it were so easy for us to open our minds to new ways of being!  But the good news is that different human societies in different times and places have held very different cultural values, which shows us that human cultural beliefs are not hardwired. Let’s just hope that, like the sub captain and the terminator, our culture will opt for survival – and make some deep changes in our belief systems, even and especially where notions of power and hierarchy are concerned. Through his art, Michael Jackson was trying to show us the way.

Willa: That’s a beautiful way of interpreting that, Eleanor. So I was thinking, we should probably back up a bit and identify where all these references are in HIStory, and how they’re used.

Eleanor:  Good idea. In our previous post, we discussed the fact that HIStory opens with no images, only a blank screen and the words spoken in Esperanto, which link HIStory and Michael Jackson’s story to The Great Dictator and its star/director, Charlie Chaplin, and to the theme of internationalism. And although HIStory’s first allusion is to be found in what we hear rather than what we see, even the blank screen serves a purpose, focusing our attention on the words. And come to think about it, Apocalypse Now also opens with a blank screen and just the sound of a helicopter, a symbol of war rather than peace.

Willa: That’s really interesting, Eleanor. That is similar to the opening of HIStory, though HIStory’s intro is more ambiguous. We hear a man shouting but we don’t know why, and unless we speak Esperanto – and most of us don’t – we don’t know what he’s saying.

Eleanor: Yes, and he doesn’t sound very peaceful.

Willa: No, he doesn’t.

Eleanor: In the rest of the film, the references, both historic and cinematic, are to be found in HIStory’s sights and its sounds – the sounds providing a commentary on what we are seeing – a non-verbal and sometimes oblique narration. For example, in HIStory, the first image we see is the statue of the turul, Hungary’s “state bird,” representing Hungarian nationalism. And the sounds we hear following the words spoken in Esperanto are the militaristic sounds of jackboots.

Willa: So giving it a somewhat threatening feeling – kind of like the sound of helicopters at the beginning of Apocalypse Now, as you just mentioned?

Eleanor: Yes. In these opening frames, HIStory is contextualizing Michael Jackson’s history within the framework of Hungary’s history, which is emblematic of the history of imperial conquest in general. And given that Esperanto is so closely followed by the sound of jackboots, it appears that Michael Jackson’s story – and his view of the world – is to be told through contrasting sights and sounds, and the juxtaposition of peace and war.

Willa: That’s really interesting, Eleanor. It is true that the “sights and sounds” don’t seem to go together. As Bjørn Bojesen translated for us in a post last year, the man shouting in Esperanto is talking of “global motherhood and love and the healing power of music,” while the images are militaristic and scary. So once we know what the Esperanto words mean, it is a powerful “juxtaposition of peace and war,” as you say.

Eleanor: Right. Next, there is the scene of workers building what appears to be an enormous statue, accompanied by loud and threatening industrial sounds – the hissing of molten metal and banging of hammers, calling to mind the scene in the Terminator 2 teaser, where the cyborg is being rebuilt and reprogrammed with his new mission.

Willa: Yes, and in the background there’s the very repetitious, industrial-sounding music that plays during confrontation scenes in Terminator 2. You can hear it in this clip:

It’s especially noticeable from 35 to 50 seconds in. You can hear that exact same groaning, repetitious, industrial-type music in the HIStory teaser from about 15 to 40 seconds in.

Eleanor: And then, as those sights and sounds fade into images of troops dressed in the uniforms of the Red army, HIStory’s soundtrack shifts into “Hymn to Red October,” the music from the film The Hunt for Red October, bringing to mind not only the film, but themes associated with the Soviet Union and the terrors of the Cold War.

Willa: Yes, and this is a very important reference, I think. Here’s a link to “Hymn to Red October” that includes the lyrics in both Russian and English:

These lyrics take us inside the mind of a soldier or sailor, who may spend months at a time far away from home. Here’s a translation of the Russian lyrics we hear in HIStory:

Cold, hard, empty
Light that has left me
How could I know that you would die?
Farewell again, our dear land
So hard for us to imagine it is real and not a dream
Motherland, native home
Farewell, our Motherland

The opening lines seem to refer to the sub captain’s backstory. His wife committed suicide during his last deployment (“How could I know that you would die?”) though, as he says, he spent so much time at sea “I widowed her the day I married her.” Now he’s going to sea again, and having very conflicted feelings about that.

But then the pronouns shift from “me” to “us,” and the lines that follow seem to express the feelings of sailors and soldiers more generally as they leave to spend months away from home (“Farewell again, our dear land / So hard for us to imagine it is real and not a dream”). So as we talked about in last week’s post, while Michael Jackson (like Chaplin before him) is ultimately critiquing war and imperialism, he’s not demonizing the soldiers and sailors who carry out orders from above. Instead, he seems to sympathize with them and the complicated situations they find themselves in, and these lyrics reflect that.

Eleanor: Thanks for finding those lyrics, Willa. And I agree completely with your interpretation.

Willa: You can hear this music playing through much of the first half of the HIStory trailer, beginning about 40 seconds in, with the music from Terminator 2 merging directly into “Hymn for Red October.”

And as you mentioned, Eleanor, this is another case where the “sights and sounds” don’t quite match up – or rather, the sounds complicate the visuals. On the surface, we see soldiers marching triumphantly toward Heroes’ Square, but the Russian lyrics give us a sadder, more human, and more nuanced view of what those soldiers may be feeling.

By the way, this music was composed by Basil Poledouris, who also scored the soundtrack for the first two Free Willy movies. And of course, Michael Jackson was involved in both of those as well – he wrote and performed “Will You Be There,” which became the theme song for the first movie, and then “Childhood,” which was used in the second one. These movies came out in 1993 and 1995, right around the time HIStory was being made, so it seems there were a number of connections between Michael Jackson and Basil Poledouris in the mid-1990s.

Eleanor: I didn’t know that. That is so interesting.

Willa: It is, isn’t it? So getting back to what you were saying about Terminator 2, I searched for trailers and there were several different ones made. In fact, the Director’s Cut DVD includes eight different trailers – it was a well-publicized movie!  But this seems to be the primary one, and also the one closest to HIStory. Is this the one you’re talking about, Eleanor?

Eleanor: Yes, that’s the one. Beginning about 1:03 are the scenes of the terminator being rebuilt. The terminator is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who became identified with the lines, “I’ll be back,” which he first spoke in the original Terminator movie. In that film, he gets everything but the kitchen sink thrown at him, but as the Terminator 2 teaser shows, he survives to fight another day. He’s back!

If that’s not a clue to Michael Jackson’s frame of mind when he was making HIStory, I don’t know what is! The teaser as well as the film itself, which came out in 1991, just prior to the escalation of attacks on Michael Jackson, help tell MJ’s story. I think an absolutely furious and outraged Michael Jackson, by referencing Terminator 2 in HIStory, was making the statement that he was not going to let anyone get him down. He was coming back in a big way.

Willa:  Oh that’s funny, Eleanor! So like the terminator, he was saying, “I’ll be back”?

Eleanor:  Right. And there’s some other really interesting stuff going on in Terminator 2 relative to Michael Jackson and his story. For example, the narrator says, “Once he was programmed to destroy the future, now his mission is to protect it; his loyalty is to a child….” And then “the Arnold” says, “Trust me,” another line he made famous. No wonder MJ referenced this teaser – and, through the teaser, the movie, which is about protecting the future and a child – at this time in his life. He couldn’t have found a better in-your-face, back-at-you response to the allegations of child abuse. And as a result of the allegations, trust had become a huge issue for him.

Willa: Wow, it’s true that when you look at it that way – that while the terminator is seen as a threat, he’s actually “protecting the future and a child” – it makes a lot of sense that Michael Jackson would reference this movie. And the line “Trust me” also gets back to the issue of interpretation we mentioned earlier. Can we really trust someone (a cyborg, a Soviet submarine captain, a shape-shifting pop star) who in some ways is so threatening to the world as we know it?

Eleanor:  Yes, and through this association, MJ is proclaiming loudly, Yes, you can trust me. Yes, you can trust my music. Remember, “I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it.” Much of the power of his music resides in the raw truth of his emotions, his extraordinary ability to musically express truths that come from a deep, deep place within him and touch a correspondingly deep place within us. Truths that are liberating to some and threatening to others. Which is why the mainstream was throwing “everything but the kitchen sink” at him – to discredit him and take away his power.

Willa: It’s also interesting that in the trailer they are welding together the metal skeleton of a cyborg that will become the terminator. It seems very reminiscent of those scenes in HIStory where they are pouring molten metal and welding together the enormous statue and Esperanto star.

Eleanor:  Yes, the reference to the terminator rebuilding scene fits perfectly, doesn’t it? The terminator is coming back to save humankind, (from itself, really, as humans created Skynet and its cyborg minions that are out to destroy them). And Michael’s artistic return with the HIStory album, maybe his most political album to date, emphasized and reinforced his commitment to healing a world that was and is badly out of joint – saving us from ourselves.

Also, I think it is interesting that this allusion associates MJ with a robot, given his famous robotic dance moves. Did you know that the word “robot,” which was coined by a Czech playwright, comes from the Czech word “robotnik,” which itself was derived from the word for forced labor and an older Slavic term for slave, and was used to refer to peasants in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (remember, HIStory was filmed in Hungary) who revolted against rich landowners in the late 19th century? Whew!

Willa: No, I had no idea.

Eleanor: Well, I didn’t either. So much history contained in a single word! And from my experience researching HIStory, I am positive that MJ was aware of all of it. In associating MJ – or his statue – with a robot, HIStory is associating the enslavement of African-Americans with the forced labor of the peasants in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, at the same time, HIStory touches on ideas of liberation and change from a robot-like existence.

HIStory’s reference to Terminator 2 tells us that Michael Jackson is back. And just as the terminator tells us to trust him, HIStory is asking us to trust MJ’s interpretation of events, rather than THEIRstory of his life.

But in referencing Terminator 2, HIStory is also telling us something about ourselves – that in spite of the fact that humans seem to be caught in a self-destructing loop of war after war, we are capable of change, that real change is possible. As Sarah Connor says at the end of Terminator 2, “If a machine, a terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.”

Willa:  That’s a really important point, I think, and it reminds me of another connection between Terminator 2, The Hunt for Red October, and HIStory … and actually The Great Dictator as well: they all center on a new kind of hero. The hero of Terminator 2 isn’t John Connor or even Sarah Connor, though they both do courageous things. It’s the terminator, a cyborg assassin that has been reprogrammed to preserve human life. Talk about an unconventional hero!

And in some ways, The Hunt for Red October is even more unconventional. It actually has two heroes: a Soviet submarine captain and an American naval analyst for the CIA. The captain wants to defect and share new technology with the west, and when the Soviet leadership realizes this, they order their navy to sink his sub rather than let it fall into enemy hands. They also tell their American counterparts that he is a rogue and dangerous, and ask the US military to attack his ship – and most of the Americans are only too happy to oblige …

Eleanor:  “Rogue and dangerous,” like “armed and dangerous”! That reminds me so much of the scene in Terminator 2 where Sarah and John and the terminator are blowing up the computer company to short-circuit Skynet and prevent the coming nuclear holocaust. The police are warned that they are “armed and dangerous.” When, if anything, it is the police who, armed to the teeth and sent to destroy the terminator, are dangerous. As in the plot of The Hunt for Red October, if the “good guys” (the US military or the police) kill off the “bad guys” (the Russian sub captain or the terminator) well, then, it is curtains for us. So Michael is saying, You know, they are pointing fingers at me, saying I am the threat, I am dangerous, when I am only trying to heal the world and prevent a disaster that will come if we do not change our ways.

Willa: That’s true – both films really challenge conventional ideas about “good guys” and “bad guys,” don’t they? And in both a traditional bad guy ultimately turns out to be a hero.

Even more unconventionally, in Red October the outcome of the movie ultimately comes down to empathy, the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes – even if they’re from a very different background – and imaginatively see the world the way they do. Action-adventure movies don’t generally place a high value on empathy, but it’s at the core of Red October. The CIA analyst has studied the sub captain and even met him once, and he seems to understand him and what’s important to him. Even more importantly, the analyst has an empathetic personality and is able to put himself in the sub captain’s position and intuit his motives and future actions. Because of this extraordinary ability to empathize, he interprets the sub captain’s actions very differently than the others: not as an attack, but as assistance.

Eleanor: Just as Sarah and John understand the terminator – and as Michael Jackson’s fans understood/understand MJ.

Willa: That’s true, Eleanor. Michael Jackson’s fans in particular see him very differently than most people because we empathize with him and try to see things from his perspective. That’s a good point.

So in Red October these two very different men from two very different cultures both defy conventional wisdom and their own leadership. They take a huge leap of faith, meet in a neutral place in the Atlantic Ocean, and reach an understanding. So what makes them heroes isn’t daring actions in battle. Rather, it’s having empathy and understanding one another, having the courage to trust someone very different from you, and having the wisdom to avoid war – which is exactly what Charlie Chaplin is advocating in his powerfully moving speech at the end of The Great Dictator. And of course, that’s another film with an unconventional hero: a shy, sensitive barber thrust against his will onto the world stage, who is then able to use that position to condemn fascism and avert war.

Thinking about it, empathy can profoundly affect how we interpret HIStory as well. On the surface, it feels scary and threatening, the work of a megalomaniac – “the most boldly vain-glorious self-deification a pop singer ever undertook with a straight face,” as Diane Sawyer quoted one critic. But if we approach it with empathy for Michael Jackson, for what happened to him in 1993, the year before HIStory was made, and for what he tried to accomplish throughout his career, and if we look more closely and carefully at what’s actually going on in HIStory – at the meaning of the Esperanto words at the beginning and the Russian lyrics soon after, at the many references to The Great Dictator and other films as well as Triumph of the Will – we begin to interpret things very differently, just like the CIA analyst does in Hunt for Red October. Michael Jackson isn’t advocating fascism or “self-deification” as Diane Sawyer implied. Instead, he’s trying to alter our beliefs and perceptions and bring about deep cultural change.

Eleanor: Exactly. And from everything I have learned about Michael Jackson and what drove him, I believe that he was convinced that we humans were capable of making the changes necessary to save ourselves – that we are not irredeemably locked into the cultural patterns that drive us to make war and despoil the earth.

As John Connor says in Terminator 2, just before he and his mom and the terminator change the future by destroying the computer technology that, if it continues to exist, will cause the holocaust, “The future’s not written. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.” Which, of course is the message of Michael Jackson’s lyrics in the song, “HIStory”:

Every day create your history
Every path you take you’re leaving your legacy ….
All nations sing
Let’s harmonize all around the world

In song after song, Michael Jackson returned to the theme of change leading to global harmony. He believed that humans have the power to change ourselves – to create our own history, to refuse to let the past determine our future.

Willa: That’s true – this idea runs throughout his life and his work. In “Much Too Soon,” which was written in the early 80s, I believe, he sings these lines, which I just love:

I hope to make a change now for the better
Never letting fate control my soul

And in the “Earth Song” segment of This Is It, recorded just a day or two before he died, he says this:

The time has come. This is it. People are always saying, “They’ll take care of it. The government’ll … Don’t worry, they’ll …” They who? It starts with us. It’s us, or else it’ll never be done.

Throughout his career until the very end of his life, he was encouraging us to take control of our own destiny, to create our own history, to “Heal the World.”

Eleanor:  And he saw music as a means of bringing about that change – because of its power to touch our emotions. To tell you the truth, Willa, without Michael Jackson and his strong belief in the power of music, and especially his music, to change human nature (or what we take for it) and set us on a new path, I think by now I would have lost all hope.

I believe that Michael Jackson himself represents a new version of humanity, a new model of the fully human, a new kind of hero, who inspires us to make peace not war. By associating the statue with the reprogrammed cyborg, HIStory is saying that Michael Jackson’s all about revolution, but a revolution within, in thinking and feeling – but most especially feeling – not a military action. And he deeply believed in the power of art to touch our hearts and create the empathy which you talked about earlier as a means of bringing about change.

Willa: Yes, repeatedly through his art he encouraged us to “create your history,” as you say, and he also thought it was important to know our history. There are many historical references in both HIStory (the album) and “HIStory” (the song), as Lisha, Joie, and I talked about in a post last spring. And there are important historical references in the HIStory promo film also, especially its setting. I know you’ve done some research about that, Eleanor. Would you like to talk about what you’ve found?

Eleanor: Yes, Willa. If nothing else, HIStory proves that MJ had a much better grasp of history than most of us do (as I keep saying, just researching HIStory has been a history lesson for me), and that he was a big proponent of the idea that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Setting HIStory in Budapest, Hungary, in 1994, following Hungary’s long period of domination by the Soviets, and using imagery associated with the Soviet Union, links Michael Jackson’s recent personal history, the history of African-Americans in the United States, and the history of oppressed peoples in general to the history of the Hungarian people, who under Soviet domination were “tortured, tried, and imprisoned in concentration camps or interned as slave labour on collective farms where many died.”

And, to make sure we see the connection, HIStory’s marching soldiers wear the uniform of the Soviet Union, and their destination is Budapest’s Heroes’ Square, which is centered around Hungary’s Millennium Monument, erected in 1896 (when Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire) to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the foundation of the Hungarian state in 896.

Significantly, although the Millennium Monument occupies the central position in Heroes’ Square, the square is architecturally defined by the Museum of Fine Arts and the Palace of Arts, bringing together the themes of art and heroism – a heroic art? the artist as hero? – juxtaposed with reminders of empire.

Willa:  Oh, I like that, Eleanor! – the idea of “the artist as hero,” a different kind of hero. And we see this idea visually represented by the towering statue of Michael Jackson himself in HIStory.

Heroes’ Square is a place filled with statues to commemorate military and political heroes, and in HIStory we’re watching the addition of a new statue – one that towers over all the others. But it’s a statue of a new kind of hero. He’s not a military or political leader, someone who leads armies to change geographical lines on a map. Rather, he’s a powerful artist who changes the way we think, and encourages us to empathize with people around the world from very different cultures and ethnicities. So this statue truly represents “the artist as hero,” as you say.

Eleanor: Layering “Hymn to Red October” over images of troops dressed in Soviet uniforms also brings to mind two October revolutions associated with “the reds”:  the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution, that overthrew the tsarist empire in Russia and brought the soviets to power, and the failed 1956 Hungarian revolution against the Soviets, who had been in control of Hungary since WWII – a revolution which played “a role in the downfall of the Soviet Union decades later.” His point being that historically one revolution is generally followed by another and so on. The pattern never ends.

Willa: That’s an interesting interpretation, Eleanor. And the October Revolution in Russia is referenced in the lyrics to “Hymn to Red October”:

Sail on fearlessly
Pride of the northern seas
Hope of the Revolution
You are the burst of faith of the people
In October, in October
We report our victories to you, our Revolution
In October, in October
And to the heritage left by you for us

Eleanor: Leading a new kind of army (us, his fans?), whose rifles (arms) are “bandaged” in white (like his arm is bandaged?), marching into Budapest’s Heroes’ Square which is festooned with banners, opening his “not-iron” fist to throw kisses, Michael Jackson represents a hero of a new age, whose goal is to end the cycle of conquest/revolution/conquest – and to provide a new image of a new humanity capable of working together for the well-being of all.

I wish I knew Russian, but I don’t, so I don’t know what the banners or the bands on the uniforms say.

Willa: Actually, I tried to translate the message on the banners using Google Translate and Babelfish and didn’t have much luck – it doesn’t seem to be a recognizable word. Then I asked Bjørn, our resident European languages expert, about it and about the soldiers’ armbands, and his reply was fascinating:

I don’t think the soldiers’ armbands have Cyrillic (Russian) letters on them. They look like runes. It was probably inspired by the Nazis’ SS logo. I’ve been looking around a bit, and I don’t find the characters in any runic alphabet. I guess they were invented for the film. The three visible armbands look like variations of this pattern:

armband runes cropped

They may be readable or not.

So while there are suggestions that the soldiers are Russian, as you say, or maybe German or even American, they aren’t clearly labeled.

So maybe we’re supposed to interpret them more generically than strictly Russian? The “invented” armbands seem to suggest that. And as Arcadio Coslov wrote in a comment last week:

Military Parades are held in Russia, France, Germany, China and USA. It’s part of military culture generally. The flitter that rains down on the parade for example is typical US-American.

So according to Arcadio and Bjørn, there are mixed signals about the nationality of these soldiers. Michael Jackson seems to be combining Russian-style uniforms with a Nazi-style armband and an American-style military parade to complicate how we “read” this army.

And the more I think about it, the more this makes sense to me – that the nationality of the soldiers would intentionally be left ambiguous, with an “invented” language on their armbands, rather than words or symbols that would clearly link them to a particular country.

Eleanor:  Well, the soldiers were actually hired from the UK because no Hungarian would put on a Soviet army uniform – an interesting fact from an article filled with interesting facts.

Willa:  Wow, that is interesting! They really went to a lot of trouble to make sure the soldiers were wearing Soviet uniforms, didn’t they? As the translation of the article says,

Michael … has invested $5 million U.S. of his own fortune to run this movie which promises to be spectacular. Some hundreds of young Hungarians had the pleasure of working as extras in the video, but all of them wanted to play members of the peace.

The Hungarian extras refused to wear the uniform of soldiers of the Red Army to recreate a similar sequence to the triumphal march that rallied the troops of Hitler at the beginning of the Second World War. They therefore have to use the services of a British recruitment agency to hire real soldiers. They arrived with 100 Royal Marines and some paratroopers. These soldiers have received a fee of $135 U.S. per day, plus stay in four star hotels and enjoy, of course, a free trip. It will cost to hire those soldiers, about U.S. $150,000.

Michael Jackson must have thought it was very important for the soldiers to wear Soviet uniforms to go to all that trouble and expense. So maybe we are supposed to see them as Soviet soldiers. That’s really interesting, Eleanor.

Then, following those scenes of Michael Jackson with the marching soldiers, we have an odd intermediary section. I don’t quite know what to call it – if this were a song, I’d call it a bridge. The mood is very different all of a sudden, very chaotic and fearful. Suddenly it’s night time and a car is burning, helicopters are swooping overhead, explosions are going off, people are screaming and either running or cowering in fear … in other words, it’s a scene of chaos and turmoil, which is so different from the extreme order and precision of the scenes that come before it.

Eleanor: Yes. And here HIStory is quoting the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, with the helicopters appearing, black against the red sun – a scene very closely identified with that film.

Willa:  I agree. I hadn’t made that connection until you mentioned it, but now that you’ve pointed it out, it does feel like a direct visual quotation, doesn’t it? Here are screen captures from the helicopter scenes in Apocalypse Now and HIStory, and they’re remarkably similar.


Eleanor:  Apocalypse Now is a film about the horrors and insanity of war in general, and specifically the Vietnam war where America “lost its innocence,” where Americans learned on the six o’clock news that we too were capable of atrocities, and where thousands upon thousands of young men, doing their patriotic duty, were caught in a gigantic war machine that, if it didn’t take take their lives, it chewed them up and spit them out, broken physically, mentally, and morally.

The people running in panic  at the sight of HIStory’s helicopters are like the terrified Vietnamese school children and fishermen running for cover from the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now – just before the missiles hit and their world explodes. War’s innocent victims. Again, the good guys are the bad guys and vice versa.

And, given that HIStory also quotes Riefenstahl and the Nazis, it is interesting that the helicopters in Apocalypse Now are outfitted with loudspeakers blasting Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” as they come in for the kill.  No matter what side we are on, we are all victims of insane nationalistic political systems that result in war over and over.

Willa: Those are such interesting connections, Eleanor, with important implications for how we interpret HIStory, I think. For many Americans, the Vietnam War is a shameful episode that has come to symbolize military excess without a clear mission. Young US soldiers – many of them in their late teens or early 20s – were dropped in a foreign land where it wasn’t always clear who was a civilian and who was a combatant, and then set loose in confusing and hostile circumstances without clear guidance. It was devastating to the Vietnamese and to the young Americans who were sent there.

Even if we don’t catch the reference to Apocalypse Now – and I didn’t – it’s still clear that this scene in HIStory is depicting panicked citizens in fear of the military. This is such a contradictory message to the adoring crowds welcoming the military, led by Michael Jackson, that we see in the first section. So again, he juxtaposes contradictory images to complicate the meaning.

You know, as frightening and unsettling as this odd little entr’acte is, I think it’s one of the most important scenes in HIStory and serves a very important function. It powerfully undermines and complicates the Riefenstahl-type imagery that came before it – imagery that idealizes the military – and forces us to imagine that same army being turned against us. In effect, it shows that the fearsome might of a strong military can be a threat as well as protection.

Eleanor: Yes, I agree with you about this scene’s importance.  And perhaps this scene explains why MJ was insistent on the Soviet uniforms. Given their recent experience with the Soviet Union, it would make sense to depict the Hungarian people as “gun shy” – as wary and ready to panic at the first sign of what appears to be aggression from an army wearing the uniforms of the country that had so recently been their oppressor. Have they really changed? Are these really good guys? Can we trust them?

Willa:  That’s a good point, Eleanor. And Budapest is the perfect spot to illustrate how threatening powerful armies can be. I visited a friend in Budapest in the summer of 1991, I think it was, and we actually stood in Heroes’ Square as she told me some of her country’s history. And I was shocked by it – they were occupied by one group or another for hundreds of years, most recently the Soviet Union.

And while I’m sure things have changed a lot since 1991, when I was there the physical evidence of World War II was still very visible – for example, in mortar scars on buildings. That wasn’t true in any other European nation I visited that summer, but in Hungary reminders of World War II were still very noticeable. It seems appropriate then that since HIStory draws so much imagery from World War II – specifically Triumph of the Will – that it would be filmed in a place where the effects of that war were still so present.

Importantly, those mortar scars came from Allied – namely, Soviet – bombing since Hungary was part of the Axis (who Americans see as the bad guys in World War II) and the USSR joined with the Allies (who Americans see as the good guys). So when Americans see a WWII-era scene of Soviet soldiers marching into Hungary, like in HIStory, we should identify with the Soviets – after all, we were on the same side in World War II.

But in the helicopter scene, especially, it seems to me that we as an audience tend to sympathize with the Hungarian (Axis) civilians under threat from the Soviet (Allied) troops. Talk about mixing up the good guys and the bad guys! The Soviets would then occupy Hungary for decades following World War II, as you mentioned earlier, Eleanor, using brutal measures to repress dissent and rebellion – further complicating any simplistic notions we may have about good guys and bad guys.

That’s one reason it’s so interesting and significant that Michael Jackson, an American, would film HIStory in Hungary using imagery from World War II. The Hungarians were our enemies in that war and the Soviets were our allies, but that’s not how it feels watching this film. So he’s flipping our perceptions and emotions inside out.

Eleanor: Hmmm… Willa, that’s interesting, because I don’t see MJ so much as an American but as a citizen of the world, and I don’t see HIStory as being set in WWII, but in 1994. And in 1994, the recently defunct USSR would have been viewed as the enemy by both Hungarians and Americans. Which makes it doubly weird – and complicated – that MJ would be leading such an army in Budapest.

Do you really see it set in WWII?

Willa:  That’s a good question, Eleanor. The short answer is no, but the Riefenstahl imagery and other historical allusions make it more complicated than that.

I guess I see HIStory as set in the present but strongly evoking the past, so there are persistent echoes of World War II and the Soviet occupation running throughout it. It’s almost a type of double vision, with images of the past – the long lines of troops from Triumph of the Will and The Great Dictator, the monument to power in the background – coexisting with crowds dressed in contemporary clothes. So there’s the Hungary that fought against the USSR (and indirectly the US) in World War II, and the Hungary that suffered under Soviet occupation for decades following that war, existing as ghost images alongside the Hungary of 1994, when the film was made.

How do you see it?

Eleanor: I see HIStory set in a country whose people are still so traumatized by the Soviet occupation that they wouldn’t wear Soviet uniforms even for a film. So when the helicopters appear in the movie, their terror is believable, associated with the recent occupation. In 1994, they are not Axis civilians, but Hungarians recently liberated and still none too trustful of Russians, even make-believe ones. And I don’t see the audience for this film as necessarily American.

Willa:  I agree. That’s one reason I think it’s so interesting an American made it – because it’s not a typical American point of view. Just the opposite. I mean, how many times have we seen an American leading a Soviet army? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before, ever. It’s another one of those juxtapositions of discordant images that you were talking about earlier, Eleanor. They’re the bad guys, we’re the good guys – that’s the typical view – so why is he there with them? It is interesting to think about how an American audience would react to that, emotionally and psychologically, but I don’t think Americans are the only audience, by any means.

And I just have to say that what he’s doing here is really complicated and hard to figure out. I’m still struggling with it.…

Eleanor: Well, it’s no wonder. Michael Jackson took on a terrifically complicated (there’s that word again) task with HIStory, and compressed a tremendous amount of  information into a very short film. But, I feel like we’ve come a long way toward better understanding it.

Willa: I do too.

Eleanor: And returning to your point about WWII, I agree that it is helpful to think about the HIStory helicopter scene not only as alluding to the Vietnam war, but also as layered over the memory of a battle that took place many years ago, when Hungary was America’s enemy, not its friend. I think that what MJ is saying in HIStory is that, no matter who’s in power, power structures based on the principle of divide and conquer will never bring justice, but just ensure the continuation of injustice, and that war never brings peace but only more war. The players may change, but the pattern doesn’t. The constantly shifting interpretation of who’s good and who’s bad calls into question the ethics of war in general.

And it fits in with our previous Chaplin discussion – where those who were anti-fascist (therefore good) during WWII, were transformed into communists (bad) during the Cold War, just a few short years later.

So, in light of these themes of constantly shifting sands, Budapest does seem especially fitting as HIStory’s locale.

Willa: Yes, I think so too.

Eleanor: And although the Hungarians were at peace in 1994, the world was not. In fact, there was a particularly brutal war going on, not too many miles distant, in Bosnia.

Willa: That’s true. I hadn’t thought about that.

Eleanor: And that was a war that was so complicated that I have never really been able to figure it out.

But HIStory soon makes it clear that the appearance of helicopters does not signal the commencement of a military attack, but a celebration. A celebration of the unveiling of the statue forged in this new hero’s honor – a hero whose mission is to deliver us from this never-ending cycle.

But Willa, from this point forward, HIStory’s allusions elude me. And given what great clues are to be found in HIStory’s soundtrack, as well as the sights, I am sure I am missing a great deal of what is going on here.

Willa:  I agree. I’ve really been trying to figure out where the music comes from that we hear during the unveiling of the statue, but haven’t been able to track it down – and like you, I have a feeling it’s significant. I thought it might be from The Hunt for Red October soundtrack – maybe something other than the theme song – but I listened to the entire score and didn’t hear that particular piece of music. Then I thought it might be from Carmina Burana, a similar-sounding work that Michael Jackson loved and used on his Dangerous tour. But I listened to a performance on YouTube (the opening piece, “O Fortuna,” will probably sound very familiar to Michael Jackson fans) and it isn’t there either. I also tried searching for song credits for HIStory (the promo film, not the album) and did other research – even emailed an orchestrator who may have worked on it – but haven’t identified it yet.

So Eleanor, I agree this music seems important, but I don’t know what it is. It may be from Hunt for Red October or other music by Basil Poledouris – it sounds like it – but I don’t know.

Eleanor: Well, Willa. I guess we are just going to have to wing it.

HIStory’s final scenes have a futuristic, sci-fi feel – completely different from the earlier part of the film, which is dominated by the past, architecturally, historically, cinematically. And HIStory uses CGI to completely transform Heroes’ Square. Just before dark falls, we see that the tall column which is part of the Millennium Monument has been removed from its central position in the square and replicated.

Willa: And this is an important detail, I think. That tall Millennium Column is topped by an archangel, so in the digitally modified Heroes’ Square that we see in HIStory, the long central avenue is now lined with archangels, as we can see in this screen capture:

archangels - HIStory

This seems significant in light of Michael Jackson’s symbolic association with the archangel Michael, as stephenson pointed out in a comment a few weeks ago. Stephenson mentioned “the role of Michael the Archangel in scripture and legends as the leader of God’s army of angels,” and suggests this is another way to interpret the scene in HIStory where “Michael” is leading an army. In this light, it seems significant that a series of columns, each topped with an archangel, surrounds and frames the scene.

Eleanor:  Yes, I am sure that this archangel, who it turns out is Gabriel, is significant, especially since in one scene the statue of MJ is seen through his wings. But the significance does not seem clear cut. On the one hand, Gabriel plays a significant part in Hungarian legend, offering the crown of Hungary to its first king, St. Stephen. So Gabriel’s position atop the Millennium Monument deepens its symbolic meaning in terms of the history of the Hungarian people.

Removing Gabriel and the column – and what the column plus the archangel represent – from the center of things, symbolically marginalizes the imperial message, which makes sense in terms of HIStory’s anti-imperial message.

However, as you point out, the column with Gabriel atop it has not been removed from the scene altogether but, thanks to CGI, has been copied, and its copies now surround the square. And Gabriel, even apart from Hungarian legend, is known as the announcer of big news, having to do with beginnings and endings. So his replicated presence surrounding the square indicates that momentous things are about to happen – something big is to be revealed.

Willa: Oh, I like that interpretation, Eleanor. Something very big is about to be revealed, both literally and figuratively …

Eleanor: In place of the Millennium Monument, in the center of Heroes’ Square stands a gigantic statue, wrapped and bound, and the mood of the crowd shifts from celebration to anticipation. As the klieg lights come on, they illuminate the statue and a man, dressed in military garb, clinging to the side, setting an explosive charge. Expressions change from wonder to anxiety. What is going on? Is he going to blow up the statue?

Once he has rappelled down the side of the statue and is safely away, the distinguished-looking old man (symbolizing the imperial past) signals the military officer (symbolizing military authority), who flips down the cool scope-like lens of his glasses (which symbolize military technology), gets the statue in the cross hairs, and gives the final command to the man in charge of the detonator (who symbolizes those who do the bidding of imperial/military authority), who plunges the lever and sets off the explosion (symbolizing a military attack).

To everyone’s great relief, the statue remains standing. It is the bonds that burst dramatically apart, allowing the wraps to billow slowly to the ground, unveiling the statue of Michael Jackson, standing impossibly tall. Representing his art, his legacy, it is a monument to a man who, through his person and his art, explodes the old myths that have created the mindset that results in war after war. A monument to a man whose art carries and releases a new energy, driving us to work with, not against, each other. A monument to a new millennium, ushering in a new age, based on the power of art, not military might, to create a global society where people no longer need to live in fear of each other.

Willa: That’s a fascinating way to interpret this scene, Eleanor. Like you, I think it’s especially important that the new central statue commemorates an artist rather than a political or military leader, suggesting the creation of a new ideology and a new world order – “one based on the power of art, not military might,” as you say.

Eleanor: And in this final scene, HIStory presents art co-opting all the symbols of empire and employing them in the service of art. HIStory transforms technology from a means of keeping people in chains, to a means of liberating them – an instrument of peace, not war.

Technology can contribute to the making of a work of art, and it can carry it to every part of the globe. So it is fitting that, in HIStory, technology is the means used to reveal a statue representing Michael Jackson’s artistic legacy. Which reminds me of Charlie Chaplin’s focus on technology as a uniter, not a divider, in the final speech in The Great Dictator:

The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all. …

You, the people have the power – the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.

Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world ….

Willa: I’m so glad you brought us back to Chaplin’s speech, Eleanor. In many ways, it serves as kind of a blueprint for HIStory, and you’re right, Chaplin talks at length about the power of technology for good as well as evil – for peace as well as war, to unite us as well as divide us.

Eleanor: Just as the explosive charges are set, using the latest and greatest technology, and then triggered, releasing the statue from its bonds, so technology will release the full power of art on the world to heal the world.

Once the statue is unveiled, the helicopters continue to buzz around it like dragonflies, the crowd erupts in cries of joy, and the fireworks begin.

In HIStory’s final frames – the camera focuses on the face of  the statue, its expression pensive, an expression frequently seen on the face of Michael Jackson. He knows we can change our destiny. But is he wondering if we can change the future before it is too late?

Willa: A critically important question that he asked many times, in many different ways. I’m thinking again of the words he spoke in the “Earth Song” segment of This Is It, and of the words he spoke near the end of the film when he’s encouraging the other musicians and dancers to “give your all”:

We’re putting love back into the world to remind the world that love is important. Love is important, to love each other. We’re all one. That’s the message – and to take care of the planet. We have four years to get it right or else it’s irreversible, the damage we’ve done.

It’s been more than four years since he spoke those words …

Eleanor, thank you so much for joining me! We’ve covered an awful lot of ground in these three posts about the HIStory teaser, and I deeply appreciate all the information and insights you’ve shared about this complex and disconcerting short film. You’ve really opened my eyes to new ways of seeing and interpreting it, and given us all a lot to think about.

Eleanor: Thank you, Willa, for inviting me and giving me the opportunity to delve into HIStory’s mysteries. And happy Thanksgiving to you and all your readers. I’m especially thankful for Michael and his music.

Willa:  Thank you, and happy Thanksgiving to you as well.

I also wanted to add a quick note that Susan Fast has just published a fascinating article about Michael Jackson and “posthumanism.” Here’s a link.

HIStory Teaser, Part 2: The Great Dictator

Willa:  This week Eleanor Bowman and I are continuing our discussion of the film Michael Jackson made to promote his HIStory album. As we talked about in our last post, the HIStory teaser caused quite a stir when it first aired, in large part because it appears to be modeled after the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. And as we talked about last time, there are in fact some interesting and important connections between those two films.

However, there’s another film that serves as an important intermediary between the two: Charlie Chaplin’s daring masterpiece, The Great Dictator. This film satirizes Triumph of the Will and other propaganda films like it, and in doing so deftly opposes and undermines Nazi ideology. And the HIStory teaser subtly references The Great Dictator, which profoundly complicates and shifts the meaning of HIStory, I think.

That’s what we’d like to talk about this week: the connections between Triumph of the Will, The Great Dictator, and the HIStory teaser, and how those connections influence how we interpret HIStory. Eleanor, thank you so much for joining me again to continue this discussion!

Eleanor:  Hi Willa. Thank you for the invitation. There’s nothing I’d rather do than think about and write about Michael Jackson, except of course listen to his music. To tell you the truth, I am still having trouble grasping not only the breadth and depth of MJ’s understanding and knowledge of world history and film history (when did he have time to figure all this out???), but also the incredible artistic facility with which he weaves together all this history in HIStory to fill this brief, brief film with so much meaning.

As we have been working on these posts, I have come to see HIStory as a complex collage of film references, each loaded with emotional power and packed with historical information. And all put together to tell Michael Jackson’s own story, his side of the story – the story of a powerful black artist who rises to fame in a dominant white society – by situating himself and his experience in a much broader context, providing insights into his personal experience as well as into the experiences of everyone ensnared in a system that is designed to elevate one group at the expense of another. HIStory really is a history lesson, a lesson in Michael Jackson, and a lesson in compassion – one that I have found absolutely fascinating, and I hope others will as well.

On the personal level, HIStory is a rebuttal to THEIRstory, the lies that were told over and over by the press and which took root in the public psyche. These lies were an example of what Hitler called “the big lie,” a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” And similar to the terrible lies that Hitler told to discredit the Jews in Nazi Germany.

With HIStory, Michael Jackson defends himself by taking aim at the system that has just put him through hell. And he used both The Great Dictator and Triumph of the Will to accomplish his aim. MJ uses images associated with Triumph to liken the culture that has attempted to destroy him to Nazi Germany, and references the plot and theme of The Great Dictator not only to expose the evils of what Triumph celebrates, but also to offer an alternative vision, mapped to The Great Dictator’s famous final speech.

Willa:  That’s an interesting overview, Eleanor. Thank you.

Eleanor: You are welcome.

Willa: So if we approach these three films chronologically, I suppose we should begin by comparing Triumph of the Will, which came out in 1934, with The Great Dictator, which came out in 1940. First, The Great Dictator is a satire, so while Adolf Hitler is presented as noble and almost superhuman in the first film, Charlie Chaplin portrays him as arrogant and incompetent – the inept Adenoid Hynkel. To further undermine the mythic aura surrounding Hitler, Chaplin calls him the Phooey, rather than the Führer. Likewise, Hitler’s cabinet ministers Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels are transformed in Chaplin’s film into the bumbling Herr Herring and Herr Garbitsch (pronounced “Garbage”).

Eleanor: And interestingly, The Great Dictator followed on the heels of another satire of Hitler’s Germany starring MJ’s favorite comedy trio, the Three Stooges.

Willa: That’s right – their short film, You Nazty Spy. There’s a new book out about Hollywood’s response – or rather, lack of response – to the rise of fascism in Germany. I haven’t read it yet, but according to this article, it cites “the Three Stooges as among the very first in the cinema to expose Nazi Germany for what it was.” The Great Dictator, a feature-length film, came out later the same year.

So the mood of The Great Dictator is very different from Triumph of the Will, but so is the perspective and point of view. Everything in Triumph is on a vast scale – huge crowds, hundreds of thousands of troops, monumental  architecture – and the Nazi leaders are presented exteriorly, if that makes sense. What I mean is, the way the camera is angled we’re almost always looking up at them, as if they are statues on a pedestal, or gods on Mount Olympus. There’s no attempt to get inside their heads and show their thoughts and feelings. In fact, we aren’t supposed to see their humanity. Instead, they’re presented as almost mythic, godlike figures.

Eleanor: Right. Riefenstahl is using every trick of the trade to present the Nazis as the Übermenschen or “Supermen.”

Willa: Exactly. By contrast, The Great Dictator – like all of Chaplin’s films – is very much on a human scale, and it shows the poignancy of everyday human life, especially the lives of those living in a Jewish ghetto targeted by the authorities. This is emphasized by the fact that Chaplin plays two roles: that of dictator Hynkel issuing impulsive decrees, and that of a Jewish barber whose life is turned upside down by those decrees. We keep switching back and forth between scenes of Hynkel and scenes of the barber, so we see very clearly how the grandiose, unthinking, unfeeling, fascist beliefs of the dictator affect the lives of the barber and his friends, as well as their entire community.

So while these films address a similar topic – the impact of fascist ideology on a country’s future and identity, its sense of itself – the perspective, the mood, and ultimately the meaning of these two films could not be more different.

Eleanor:  Right. And, thinking about these films chronologically, a lot happened between 1934, when Triumph was made, and 1940, when The Great Dictator was made, and between 1940 and the end of WWII, to change their meaning and significance.

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, Eleanor.

Eleanor:  For example, in 1934, Hitler and the Nazis were being praised for giving Germany hope after their defeat in WWI, and for being a bulwark against communism, so the Riefenstahl film was lauded and applauded. By 1940, however, the war in Europe had broken out and Germany was beginning to make a lot of people very nervous. As a result, the tide of world opinion was beginning to change, and the same film was being viewed with a great deal of skepticism, as a propaganda tool of a very questionable regime.

To draw attention to the Nazi threat and undermine Hitler’s power and charisma, Chaplin made The Great Dictator, which premiered in NYC in October of 1940, a year before the U.S. entered WWII. Referencing the imagery Riefenstahl used to pump Hitler up, he used it to ridicule his grandiosity, to cut him down to size. Calling on his formidable talent for comedy, he exposed a far from funny situation.

Today, I think most people would look on using satire to critique the Nazis as inappropriate, at best. However, we have to remember that, in 1940, the full extent of Hitler’s insanity was not known and the “final solution” had not been fully implemented. In later years, Chaplin himself said “he would not have made the film had he known about the actual horrors of the Nazi concentration camps at the time.”

Willa: And that’s a very important point. Looking back, The Great Dictator may seem callous to us today, as if it’s trivializing a tragedy. But the atrocities of the concentration camps, for example, weren’t known in 1940 – and in fact, the worst atrocities hadn’t occurred yet, as you say. They happened late in the war.

U.S. attitudes toward what was happening overseas were really complicated at this time. The U.S. wouldn’t officially enter the war until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, though we were providing weapons, money, and other aid to the Allies in 1940. In fact, the only peacetime draft in our nation’s history began in September 1940, a month before The Great Dictator was released. So the U.S. was preparing for war but was not actively involved in it yet – and was very reluctant to get involved after the carnage of World War I.

So I agree, Eleanor. To understand and appreciate The Great Dictator, it’s important to consider the historical context of when it was made – a time of great indecision in the U.S. as we watched the war overseas engulf country after country, and when the full horror of the Holocaust hadn’t unfolded yet.

Eleanor: Right, Willa. And, just as the revelations of WWII changed the way we emotionally respond to The Great Dictator, it completely reversed the way Triumph was meant to be viewed. Triumph had come to symbolize death camps and genocide – not the greatness of the Third Reich. And to complicate our discussion of HIStory and its use of these films, the years between 1940 and 1994 again changed the significance of these two films – radically.

By 1994, when HIStory was made, generations of filmmakers had used Riefenstahl-like imagery as a sort of shorthand to reference both Nazi atrocities and the arrogance underlying them, which is why we instantly recoil from its imagery when it appears in HIStory. In using this imagery, HIStory called on the deep and often unconscious emotions it arouses and coupled them with the mechanism of “guilt by association” to expose the evils of racism in our own American culture, and oppression in general. And by 1994, The Great Dictator was remembered not so much for its satire of the Nazi regime, but for the role the film played in Chaplin’s fall from grace, a fall that paralleled Michael Jackson’s.

Willa: That’s a very good point, Eleanor. And since Michael Jackson appears to have been very knowledgeable about Charlie Chaplin, studying his films and his life for decades, and even visiting his family in Switzerland, he almost certainly would have known how The Great Dictator contributed to turning the tide of public opinion against him.

Eleanor: Yes, I think that’s an assumption we can safely make.

The Great Dictator got Chaplin in a lot of hot water for a number of reasons. At first because, even as late as 1940, Hitler had supporters in the U.S. who did not appreciate The Great Dictator’s anti-fascist message. Later, as communism became the bête noire, being anti-fascist was viewed as being pro-communist – so even though Chaplin vehemently “denied being a communist, instead calling himself a ‘peacemonger,’” his reputation took a serious hit.

But, I have come to believe that his real “crime” was his internationalism, his vision of global harmony, and his criticism of nationalism in general, which he expressed in The Great Dictator.

Willa:  That’s another very important point, Eleanor – and another connection to Michael Jackson. As he told Rabbi Boteach in The Michael Jackson Tapes, “I feel like a person of the world. I can’t take sides. That’s why I hate saying, ‘I am an American.’ For that reason.”

Eleanor: That is so interesting, Willa. Michael Jackson’s global reach certainly attests to the fact that people all over the world responded – and continue to respond – to him as “one of us.” But, unfortunately, this kind of internationalism – or anti-nationalism – can result in being accused of being “unAmerican.” Which is what happened to Chaplin.

Willa: Yes, it did – and during the hysteria of McCarthyism, when that was a very serious charge.

Eleanor: As a result of The Great Dictator, specifically its final speech where Chaplin voices his own personal views, he came under attack, and by 1947 a movement was underway to drive him out of the country. Representative John E. Rankin of Mississippi told Congress in June 1947:

His very life in Hollywood is detrimental to the moral fabric of America. [If he is deported] … his loathsome pictures can be kept from before the eyes of the American youth. He should be deported and gotten rid of at once.

Chaplin’s demonization was aided and abetted with tabloid stories and legal charges of sexual immorality which very effectively destroyed his reputation and his credibility, to the point that when he left the U.S. for Europe in 1956, his visa to re-enter the country was revoked.

Willa: Which is just unbelievable considering his stature and his contributions to film and culture. And “demonization” is the right word, as Chaplin himself was fully aware. Karin Merx, one of the founders of the Michael Jackson Academic Studies website, recently told me an interesting story. Charlie Chaplin went for a sitting with photographer Richard Avedon just before leaving the U.S. for good. At the end of the sitting, he asked to do one more shot … and then faced the camera with his fingers poking out from his head, like devil horns. Here’s a documentary Karin shared with me where Richard Avedon talks about that (about 39:20 minutes in):

(Interestingly, just before he tells the Chaplin story, Avedon talks about photographing the Duke and Duchess of Windsor who, as you mentioned in our last post, Eleanor, were very supportive of Hitler. Avedon says he used to see them gambling in Nice, and he expresses the opinion that “they loved dogs, a lot more than they loved Jews.”)

Fifty years later, Michael Jackson was being demonized in a way remarkably similar to Chaplin. And in response, he struck the exact same pose for photographers at the Santa Maria Courthouse, as mentioned in an article by BBC News. Here are those “devilish” photos of Charlie Chaplin and Michael Jackson:

devilish photos of CC and MJ

Eleanor:  Wow, that is so fascinating. When you think about it, it is no wonder that MJ identified with Charlie Chaplin. There are so many parallels. I have even heard that Michael Jackson identified so closely with Chaplin that he once said, “I sometimes feel like I am him.”

Willa: Yes, he said that in an interview as part of the documentary, Michael Jackson’s Private Home Movies, which also includes a wonderful clip of him dressed as the Little Tramp and twitching his moustache, as Chaplin often did. Here’s a fan-made video for “Smile” that includes several photos of a Chaplinesque Michael Jackson, as well as screen captures from the Private Home Movies documentary:

These photos were taken from two different photo sessions, one early in his solo career and one late, so you can tell he admired Chaplin for a long time – for his entire career, basically – and identified with him too, as you said.

Eleanor: Yes, and sketches of Chaplin which MJ did when he was a child suggest that he had been interested in Chaplin from an early age, possibly because of Chaplin’s extraordinary ability as a silent film star to communicate without words, using the language of the body – just as MJ did.  (Here are a couple of links to Chaplin sketches. The first is to the sketch that was featured on Antiques Road Show. The second is to a Pinterest page of MJ’s drawings of many subjects, including Chaplin.)

But I also like to think it was because, even at an early age, an extraordinarily sensitive and empathetic Michael Jackson, deeply moved by the injustice he saw in the world, was drawn to Chaplin’s vision of peace and harmony. And referencing The Great Dictator to tell MJ’s story, HIStory brings to mind the startling parallels between MJ’s life and Chaplin’s.

Both Chaplin and Michael Jackson had a vision of global harmony; both realized that their visions required global change; both understood that global change depended on global communication; and, as it so happens, both excelled at global communication – Chaplin through the development of a powerful body language that he used with great success as a silent film star, and Jackson through the language of music and dance. And, as both were great artists who were also superstars with a global audience, they had the power to touch and change hearts and minds – all over the world.

As Chaplin says in The Great Dictator, playing the part of the Jewish barber, but speaking his own mind and reflecting the actual situation,

Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.

And, as a result of their views, both became the object of vicious attacks, because of their commitment to global harmony, their skill at global communication which could actually bring about global change, and their star power represented a serious threat to those committed to hierarchy and nationalism, rather than democracy and internationalism.

Willa: Yes, I agree completely, Eleanor.

Eleanor: So, Willa, it seems to me that referencing The Great Dictator – specifically its final speech – in HIStory at this particular time of his life, Michael Jackson identifies his own demonization at the hands of the press and his unjust, and brutal, treatment at the hands of the law with Chaplin’s, and suggests that the allegations of sexual impropriety leveled at both himself and Chaplin were tools of a society which feared the political power of the artist to inspire actions that would bring about much-needed social change, a power Michael Jackson possessed (and still possesses) in spades.

And significantly, their commitment to global peace and understanding is symbolized by the international language Esperanto, which puts in an appearance in both HIStory and The Great Dictator. HIStory opens to the sound of words spoken in Esperanto, while The Great Dictator features Esperanto as the language on the signs in its scenes of the Jewish ghetto.

Willa:  Yes, that seems significant to me also. We talked about Esperanto a little bit in a post about this time last year, and provided a brief history:

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.

So it truly is an “international language,” as you said, Eleanor, with a mission of “global peace and understanding.”

Eleanor:  Right. And HIStory both puts it front and center and hides it in plain sight. I’m sure most people viewing HIStory (like those who see The Great Dictator), not recognizing the language or understanding the words, completely miss the significance – or just fail to notice its presence altogether.

However, thanks to a great discussion that you referred to above with guest contributor and Esperanto expert, Bjørn Bojesen, readers of Dancing with the Elephant not only were alerted to its use in HIStory (and history), but discovered the meaning of the words. (Also, in re-reading that post, I saw that Bjørn had noted in the comment section that Esperanto was used in The Great Dictator.)

HIStory’s opening words, spoken in Esperanto, translated into English, say “Different nations of the world build this sculpture in the name of  global motherhood and love and the healing power of music.” The words, spoken in Esperanto, not only reference the use of Esperanto in the The Great Dictator, but echo the sentiments in The Great Dictator’s final speech. And both the language and the words point to Michael Jackson’s own belief in the importance of global communication as a condition of creating global harmony, specifically his belief in music as a means of bringing the different nations of the world together in peace and L.O.V.E.

In researching the international language Esperanto, whose name, not co-incidentally, means “hope,” I have come to believe that it – and the internationalism it represents – is key to understanding HIStory.

In the post on Esperanto, the question was raised as to why MJ would use a language so few understand to open the film and introduce its theme. (The same question could be used about Chaplin’s use of Esperanto in The Great Dictator.) I think one of the main reasons was to arouse our curiosity – to prod us to identify the language and discover the meaning of the words. Because seeking answers to those questions leads us to find answers to larger questions.

For example, digging deeper into the history of Esperanto, it turns out that the use of Esperanto in both HIStory and The Great Dictator not only associates MJ with CC, but links both with the Esperantists in Germany and Russia, whose pacifist and internationalist tendencies were seen as subversive by both Hitler and Stalin and who were brutally punished and even executed.

In his work, Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler specifically mentioned Esperanto as an example of a language that could be used by an international Jewish conspiracy once they achieved world domination. Esperantists were killed during the Holocaust, with [Esperanto creator] Zamenhof’s family in particular singled out for murder…. Esperanto was forbidden in 1936. … [In] 1937, Stalin … denounced Esperanto as “the language of spies” and had Esperantists exiled or executed. The use of Esperanto was effectively banned until 1956.

Willa: Oh heavens, Eleanor. I had no idea. So those Esperanto words and symbols in the HIStory teaser really do carry a powerful message – a message that radically alters interpretation of the totalitarian images that dominate that film. I can see now why you said that “Esperanto … and the internationalism it represents, is key to understanding HIStory.” I’m starting to agree with you.

Eleanor:  Well, that’s good to know!  So, opening the film with words spoken in Esperanto, Michael Jackson lays claim to his own “dangerous” internationalist leanings, and reveals the danger his leanings put him in, identifying the source of his troubles as a culture that, because it considered him and his views as a serious threat, represented a serious threat to him – a threat that HIStory suggests, through the use of the notorious fascist imagery, is still present, lurking in the shadows. (“We’re talkin’ danger, we’re talkin’ danger, baby!”)

In the opening scene of the film, the blank screen and the words in Esperanto are accompanied by and juxtaposed to the staccato beat of jackboots, followed by the images of boots on the ground and a stone falcon – the turul – an ancient Hungarian symbol. (HIStory was filmed in Budapest. More on that later.) Then, an American swat team comes into view. Seemingly menacing and aggressive, they march toward the audience, rising from the bottom of the screen, à la Patton in the film of the same name. The scene then immediately shifts to images of workers ladling out rivers of molten metal, reminiscent of Soviet propaganda films illustrating Soviet industrial muscle.

Given who Michael Jackson was and what he stood for, opening an MJ film with imperialist and totalitarian imagery is jarring and indicates that there is more here than meets the eye, that something very interesting is going on – something that becomes a lot clearer once you recognize and understand the significance of HIStory’s use of Esperanto and understand the meaning of the words. For the words explain that these workers do not represent the workers of a totalitarian regime. Rather, they represent the different nations of the world who have come together to build a monument to a man who has dedicated his art to promoting world peace.

In addition to the statue, they have also forged a gigantic star that is yet another reference to Esperanto. For, as I learned in researching Esperanto, the star is the symbol for Esperanto, its points representing the five continents Europe, America, Asia, Oceania, Africa. A minute or so later, we see that the star of Esperanto also adorns MJ’s uniform – a star of peace worn by a pop star of peace.

Willa: That is so interesting, and reminds me of two important images from Triumph of the Will. The central scene in the film – the iconic one almost every filmmaker references when visually quoting that film, where Hitler is addressing hundreds of thousands of troops aligned before him in precise formation – that scene begins with a still shot looking up at an enormous iron eagle, a symbol of Nazi Germany. Then as the camera pans down, we see it is sitting atop a huge swastika inscribed within a circle.

By contrast, HIStory opens with a still shot looking up at the Hungarian turul or falcon. From what I’ve been able to gather, this is a complicated symbol representing different, even contradictory things to different people. But Wikipedia is a fairly middle-of-the-road source, and here’s what they say about it:

The turul is the most important bird in the origin myth of the Magyars (Hungarian people). It is a divine messenger, and perches on top of the tree of life along with the other spirits of unborn children in the form of birds.

And then we see workers forging a huge Esperanto star inscribed within a circle. So through these images, HIStory appropriates symbols of fascism and totalitarianism from Triumph and then subverts them, completely refiguring them.

Here are screen captures looking up at the iron eagle in Triumph of the Will, and at the turul in HIStory:

iron eagle and turul

And then here are screen captures of the enormous swastika within a circle from Triumph of the Will, and the Esperanto star within a circle from HIStory.

swastika and star 2

Both the swastika and the star are dark against a pale blue background, with a glowing light shining through openings in the giant sculptures from behind. And if you look carefully, you can see workers dwarfed by the star (in fact, a welder is sitting on one arm of the star – you can see the sparks from his blowtorch) so it must be enormous, even bigger than the encircled swastika it evokes and replaces.

Eleanor: Wow, Willa, those images are amazing and demonstrate Michael Jackson’s attention to detail and his deep understanding of the power of symbolism. Contrasting the Esperanto star with the swastika, and the star’s meaning with other, more traditional, meanings of the five-pointed star – the Soviet military machine or the badge of law enforcement or the stars that decorate an American army general’s uniform – and associating it with the pop star Michael Jackson, HIStory contrasts HIStory’s message and HIStory’s hero with traditional military legends and heroes. In HIStory, Michael Jackson offers us a vision of a world where human energy will no longer be poured into building tools of domination to serve the interests of empires and nations, but used to forge a new global community.

HIStory’s opening frames are followed by images of a vast army, its leader’s identity unknown, but tantalizingly hinted at by shots of his legs, sheathed in his signature thigh-high boots, which finally reach his beautiful face, revealing the leader of this army to be none other than Michael Jackson.

Although in HIStory, MJ never speaks or sings or dances, his face and body communicate plenty, and what they communicate to me is very similar to the words spoken by Chaplin, in the character of the barber:

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone, if possible – Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

Here’s a link to the complete text.

Willa: That speech is incredible – many call it the greatest speech in American cinema. I would encourage everyone to watch The Great Dictator in its entirety, if they haven’t seen it already (it’s available on YouTube, in segments – here’s a link to the first one), but certainly everyone should watch Chaplin’s final speech. It’s especially striking coming as it does after the speech by Herr Garbitsch, where he says:

Victory shall come to the worthy. Today, democracy, liberty, and equality are words to fool the people. No nation can progress with such ideas. They stand in the way of action. Therefore, we frankly abolish them. In the future, each man will serve the interests of the state with absolute obedience. Let him who refuses beware.

The rights of citizenship will be taken away from all Jews and other non-Aryans. They are inferior, and therefore enemies of the state. It is the duty of all true Aryans to hate and despise them. …

And then Chaplin, in the dual role of the Jewish barber disguised as the dictator (it’s a case of mistaken identity), rises and gives his speech advocating love among all people that you quoted earlier:

I should like to help everyone, if possible – Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.

Here is the final section of The Great Dictator, which includes both Garbitsch’s speech and Chaplin’s powerfully moving response:

Eleanor:  Thanks for these clips, Willa. Actually seeing these speeches delivered on film is a lot more powerful than just reading the words on the page.

Willa: I agree. And in this final clip we can also see the way The Great Dictator visually evokes the monumental scale of Triumph of the Will. Chaplin reenacts Hitler’s arrival by motorcade that begins Triumph, and also the intimidating monuments to power and the long columns of troops – something the HIStory teaser will re-create as well. Here are screen captures from Triumph, The Great Dictator, and HIStory, and you can easily see the similarities – namely, the gigantic emblem of the power of the state in the background of all three, and the seemingly endless sea of troops in the foreground.

Here’s a scene from Triumph of the Will:

Triumph - troops 2

The Great Dictator:

Great Dictator - troops

and the HIStory trailer:

HIStory - troops

Through images like these, The Great Dictator (and HIStory as well) captures the expansive scope of Triumph of the Will. But then it alternates these imperialist images with scenes of Jewish citizens oppressed and even murdered by their own government – by soldiers carrying out the dictates of the fascist regime.

Eleanor: Right. Although The Great Dictator was a satire, it dealt with deep pain and very explosive issues. Just as HIStory does. And, just like The Great Dictator, HIStory skated close to the edge in a number of ways. In a brilliant act of artistic economy, HIStory uses Riefenstahl’s imagery to reference both the Nazi horror show and The Great Dictator in order to situate Michael Jackson both historically and personally.

As this insightful post at MJJJusticeProject puts it,

Like his hero Charlie Chaplin before him, Jackson referenced the visuals of Triumph of The Will in an effort to completely corrupt the sentiment. Where Chaplin had satirised the film in his Oscar-nominated The Great Dictator, Jackson referenced the film in order to celebrate the victims of the Nazi regime and deride the mindset of those that still supported fascist beliefs.

Willa: That is a wonderful post that puts the HIStory trailer in historical context, and also places it within the context of the HIStory album – the album it was made to promote.

Eleanor: Placing Michael Jackson in the midst of Riefenstahl-like pomp and circumstance, where we would expect to find a dictatorial military leader (like Adolf Hitler) not a peace-loving pop star, the HIStory teaser evokes the scene in The Great Dictator where the gentle Jewish barber becomes a stand-in for the thinly-disguised Hitler character. Associating Jackson with the Jewish barber, while alluding to Nazi Germany, HIStory parallels the black experience with the Jewish experience – the black ghetto with the Jewish ghetto – and the treatment of Jews with the treatment of blacks in America.

Willa: That’s an interesting way to look at this, Eleanor – that Michael Jackson in the unexpected role of dictator parallels the Jewish barber’s experience in The Great Dictator, where he finds himself unexpectedly thrust into the role of dictator. Though one difference is that the barber looks very uncomfortable in that role, as if he really were thrust in that role against his will, while Michael Jackson doesn’t. He looks assured and confident in HIStory.

Eleanor: Well, Willa, to clarify, I don’t see Michael Jackson in the role of a dictator, but as replacing a dictator. Striding along at the head of his troops, he occupies the position where we would expect to find a dictatorial leader. But instead, we find Michael Jackson, a man who stands for the opposite of dictatorship. A man, who like the barber “does not want to be an emperor. That’s not [his] business. [He doesn’t] want to rule or conquer anyone.”

But, I agree with you that MJ is at ease, while the barber is anything but. But, after all, they were both being true to character: the barber wasn’t accustomed to being in the limelight, while Jackson, although not a political figure, was.

Willa:  That’s true.

Eleanor:  But, I am glad you brought up how MJ looks in those brief moments when we see him, because I have been wanting to mention his beautiful smile again. I think his smile is a visual representation of Chaplin’s song, “Smile,” which concluded the HIStory album – his radiance covering his pain, the type of pain that Chaplin was familiar with.

But getting back to the scene of Michael and the troops, I think it maps directly to another section of Chaplin’s closing speech in The Great Dictator. In fact, I see the speech as a kind of playbook for HIStory:

Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you, enslave you – who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!

As the leader of rank on rank of uniformed and uniform robotic soldiers, MJ provides an alternative to military leaders, the “brutes … who regiment [their] lives.” As a different kind of hero, he empathizes with all those who have been conscripted to do the work of the state, losing their humanity in the process. As the leader of these men, he identifies with them, rather than the regimes they represent, illustrating a greatness of heart that blames a system that, to quote Chaplin, “makes men torture and imprison innocent people” – not the people themselves. Torturers and tortured alike are caught in the evil web of empire.

Willa:  That’s an important point, Eleanor. It is significant, I think, that Chaplin addresses this part of his speech to the soldiers carrying out the dictator’s repressive orders, and appeals to their humanity. He doesn’t deny the harm they’ve done – he shows them harassing and even murdering civilians. But even so, he doesn’t demonize them. Rather, he implies that the soldiers are being victimized too by leaders “who despise you, enslave you … treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder.”

And as you say, Michael Jackson doesn’t seem to feel animosity toward soldiers or the police either, meaning the people on the ground carrying out orders. In fact, he aligns himself with them.

Eleanor:  Yes. That very eloquent salute to his troops conveys that message – feelings of empathy and respect, rather than animosity or hate, even for those who are tasked with carrying out the will of the oppressors.

Willa: Yes. As Susan Woodward pointed out to me in an email, after that enormous statue is uncovered we can see an emblem on one arm – it’s a patch with the word “POLICE” in bold letters beneath an Esperanto star.

Eleanor: Thanks to Susan. I hadn’t noticed that – need to go back and take a look.

Willa: I hadn’t noticed it either, but it’s an important detail, I think. Michael Jackson’s experiences with the Santa Barbara police, especially those carrying out the strip search, easily could have led him to feel animosity toward the police in general. But that isn’t the impression I get from HIStory. What he’s expressing is more complicated than that.

To be honest, it feels to me like an act of appropriation. Just as white singers and musicians have appropriated “black” music from jazz to hip hop and recast it through a white perspective, in HIStory Michael Jackson seems to be appropriating images of white authority (and what better example of race-based authoritarianism than Nazi Germany?) and recasting it through a multi-national Esperanto perspective. Or maybe a better analogy is the way groups like Queer Nation or a lot of young black hip hop artists have appropriated disparaging words that have been hurled at them in the past – words like “nigger” and “queer” – and now wear them as a badge of honor, and so drain them of their power to hurt them.

Eleanor:  Yes, an act of appropriation and transformation. Imperial and nationalistic power structures assume that conquering the other is a survival strategy of human nature, rather than a survival strategy adopted by human cultures. And they have assumed that he who is in possession of the technologies of domination have the upper hand. And yet our technologies – agricultural, industrial, military – are backfiring on us, creating a world that may in the not too distant future be uninhabitable for all of us, just as it has been made uninhabitable by war for some of us even now.

As Chaplin put it,

Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….

Although we tout free will as a pre-eminently human characteristic, somehow we don’t seem to believe that we actually have the will to change the way we interact with each other, collectively or individually. But I think that Michael Jackson disagreed with that notion. I think that he believed that humans are capable of profound change, and he believed art was instrumental to that change, and he believed in himself and his art as a means of bringing about change at a fundamental level – imagining a very different “triumph of the will.”

Contrasting himself with the usual iron-fisted tyrant, Michael Jackson emphasizes the differences between his values, the values of an African-American artist who believes art can heal the world, and the values that lead to oppression, pointing out the evils of the system, while having compassion for those caught in it.

Willa:  That’s a beautiful summary, Eleanor. Thank you, and thanks also for joining me again to try to better understand this complex film. We’ll conclude this discussion in our next post when we consider some other significant references in HIStory.

Also, I wanted to let everyone know that the Library of Congress recently published an article by Joe Vogel about the Thriller album. We’ve added it to the Reading Room, so you can access it there, or you can jump to it directly via this link.

Eleanor:  That’s good to know. Thanks for making it available on Dancing.  And I look forward to working with you on the final part of this series.

HIStory Teaser, Part 1: Triumph of the Will

Willa:  Probably the one work by Michael Jackson that perplexes me the most is the promotional video for his HIStory album, commonly referred to as the “HIStory teaser.” It’s loosely based on Helene “Leni” Riefenstahl’s 1934 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, which is such an unlikely source of inspiration for a Michael Jackson video – in fact, I can’t imagine a less likely source! I’ve thought about this promo film for years, trying to understand it, but never arriving at a completely satisfactory answer. I’m always left with the nagging feeling that there’s something important happening with this film that I’m just not seeing.

So I was very intrigued when our friend Eleanor Bowman told me she’d been doing historical research for her three-book series, The Algorithm of Desire, and that her research had given her new insights into this unsettling film. Thank you so much for joining me, Eleanor! I’m really eager to hear what you’ve been discovering.

Eleanor:  Hi Willa. Thanks for inviting me to join this wonderful, ongoing – and much needed – conversation about Michael Jackson. It is always a pleasure, and I learn so much.

You are not the only one who has been perplexed by the HIStory teaser. In fact, I found it really troubling. Looked at superficially, it seems to provide proof positive that MJ was a megalomaniac.

Willa: Which is how many critics interpreted it. Diane Sawyer quotes one of those critics in her 1995 interview with Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley:

The critics have said that it’s “the most boldly vain-glorious self-deification a pop singer ever undertook with a straight face.”

(This part of the interview is about 21 minutes in.) She also questions him about the military imagery in a way that suggests he’s promoting Nazi ideology, which he denies. Diane Sawyer then shows the film and makes it pretty clear afterwards that she agrees with what those critics have been saying.

Eleanor: Which is no surprise. Neither the critics nor the media ever seemed to “get” MJ. For example, to believe he did it “with a straight face,” as Diane Sawyer suggests, is to miss the point of the film entirely. Such an interpretation makes no sense at all in terms of who MJ was and what he stood for.

However, the question remains, how does the HIStory teaser make sense, given what we know about MJ? Because, you can be sure it does. HIStory, like the man whose story it is, is a mystery, but a mystery with the clues laid out for us, often in plain sight. I have found that those things that seem to make no sense on the surface often point to an underlying, but hidden, logic, if you dig deep enough.

Willa: Yes, I’ve found that too. And sometimes the films that perplexed me the most, and were even kind of off-putting at first – like Smooth Criminal and You Rock My World – are really powerful once I’ve found a key for interpreting them.

Eleanor:  Right. And the HIStory teaser is no exception. Although billed as a teaser for the HIStory album, the HIStory teaser is a work of art in and of itself.  It tells Michael Jackson’s story – his story, his side of the distorted and misbegotten story that was being told about him at the time; and, as the word “HIStory” suggests, it shows how Michael Jackson’s own personal story, and his situation, fits into a larger history and is even emblematic of that history. So, the film references in HIStory, including Triumph of the Will, are there because he believed they were relevant to, and would give us an understanding of, his situation.

Just as “Dangerous is Michael Jackson’s “coming of age album,” as Susan Fast says in her book, Dangerous, HIStory – the film and the album – fleshes out who he was in context, the context of his own life as a visionary and an artist, the context of the African-American experience, and the context of imperial culture. It is a damning political critique, an astute cultural analysis, and a powerful personal declaration, revealing heretofore hidden complexities, hidden reservoirs of knowledge, hidden depths.

As you and other contributors to your site have often pointed out, Willa, Michael Jackson’s incongruities frequently make us uncomfortable. And, to me, the most incongruous incongruity of all is his appearance in the HIStory teaser surrounded by the trappings of the most vicious, the most oppressive, military dictatorships in recent history. The juxtaposition of MJ with these images questions our notions of who he is, what he’s about. (“What was he thinking?!”)  No doubt about it, HIStory is risky. But Michael Jackson was a risk taker …

Willa: Yes, I agree. It’s one of his defining characteristics as an artist, I think.

Eleanor:  But, Michael Jackson was never unconscious of what he was about, so he must have thought the HIStory teaser was worth the risk, given what he was up against. He needed a way to get through to people, and with HIStory he found it. HIStory challenges us – it gets our attention – it makes us uncomfortable enough, or mystified enough, to look beneath the surface.

Willa: And according to the Diane Sawyer interview, that was his goal. As he tells her, “I wanted to get everyone’s attention.”

Eleanor:  Well, he certainly got mine! And keeping the faith and reading between the frames as I studied this film gave me a deeper understanding of the man he was and the visionary he is, as well as a greater appreciation of the magnitude of the challenges he faced. Lastly, I see it as proof of his indomitable spirit and his enduring hope for the future.

Having been the object of a vilification campaign that would have flattened anyone else, brutalized by the police, and hounded and harassed by the prosecutor of Santa Barbara County – attacks that on the surface made no sense whatsoever given the lack of evidence against him and the mountain of evidence for him – he analyzed them in terms of the history of the culture to discover what was really behind them. HIStory gives us the results of that analysis. In HIStory, Michael Jackson turns the tables on his accusers, criminalizing the society that was seeking to criminalize him.

Using imagery associated with the evils of empire, but juxtaposing that imagery with images of a man whose deepest desire was to heal the world, HIStory contrasts Michael Jackson’s values with the values of the people acting against him and exposes the origins of those values. Presenting a new kind – a new species – of cultural hero, HIStory makes a compelling argument that the vicious attacks on Michael Jackson arose from the fear that, in his person and his art, he undermined all the assumptions that prop up an imperialist society, a society whose functioning depends on dividing, not uniting, frequently on the basis of race.

HIStory reveals the nature of the attacks on Michael Jackson as political and cultural, the take-no-prisoners approach, itself, proof of his political and cultural power and the magnitude of the threat he represented – and continues to represent – to the status quo – a power and a threat that Susan Woodward recognizes and analyzes in her very interesting book, Otherness and Power: Michael Jackson and His Media Critics.

Willa: I learned a lot from Susan’s book as well. In fact, she’ll be joining me soon in a post about it. But getting back to what you were saying about HIStory, it’s true that it was the first album to come out after the 1993 allegations broke, and the HIStory teaser kicked off the release of that album. And wow … he made it very clear he was not going to be shamed into silence by everything that was being said about him, and by what the police and press had put him through. The HIStory film is boldly defiant. That much is certain.

But it’s interesting that you also see it as directly challenging the “political and cultural” ideology behind it all – not just the allegations themselves, but the way those allegations tapped into pre-existing prejudices and unleashed the cultural fury that followed. I’m really curious to learn more about that.

Eleanor: Well, Willa, as it happens, I am happy to share my thoughts. As you mentioned, while working on my book this summer – and thinking about the relationship of empire to racism, specifically the role imperial cultural values played in the treatment of Michael Jackson – the “imperial” images from the HIStory teaser kept coming to mind.

My book deals in general with the power of myth to shape a society’s way of life, and specifically with the power of the creation myth in Genesis to shape and maintain the imperial way of life through instilling belief in a disembodied God who transcends matter. Genesis removes God, and the sacred, from nature and the material world, elevates him above it, puts him in charge, and creates humanity in his image, creating a transcendent worldview and value system based on division and hierarchy, dividing humanity from nature and mind from body.

Throughout the history of the Christian West, empire after empire has used this worldview to identify a select group or race or nation as those most perfectly “made in God’s image,” and defined them as the “fully human,” elevating them above everyone else, placing them in control, and associating them with mind rather than matter. Those who are controlled, rather than controlling, are defined in terms of body, mindless body. They are generally consigned to doing the less culturally valuable, physical work, and identified as less than fully human – if human at all. For example, in the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, section 2), the slaves were assigned only ⅗ the value of a free person.

Willa: We talked with you about the connections between this ideology of “transcendence” and how it leads to misogyny and racism in a post a while back. In that post, you discussed how “transcendence” is the central concept of Judeo-Christian culture, and suggested that Michael Jackson was literally embodying a new ideology, one of “immanence.” It was so fascinating – one of those conversations that really changed how I see the world. You also explained the dire consequences of this ideology of transcendence, both for humans and the environment.

Eleanor:  Yes, to me, Michael Jackson’s cultural significance lies in the fact that he is the avatar of immanence. Representing an alternative to the transcendent worldview, he also is the embodiment of anti-imperialistic values. So it is fascinating to me that in HIStory, he references Triumph of the Will, which was possibly the most effective piece of imperialist propaganda ever created.

I had always assumed that Triumph was filmed when the Nazi regime was at the peak of its power and that it was a straightforward documentary of an important Nazi gathering. But, actually, as you point out, it was filmed early on, in 1934, and the gathering was organized specifically for the film. So Riefenstahl was not documenting reality but constructing it, providing the visual images that would not only reflect the Nazi worldview, but create it. Riefenstahl was creating the myth that would create and sustain Nazi Germany.

Willa:  Wow, Eleanor, that is fascinating.

Eleanor: According to an article written shortly after her death in 2003, “No documentation of National Socialism today is released without pictures from this film, no other film has formed our visual impression of what National Socialism was, as much as this film.”

Willa:  This so interesting, and actually it ties in with something I’ve been very interested in for a long time – the power of art not only to reflect reality, but to create a new reality.

For example, two very important trends happened simultaneously in the 18th Century: the rise of a new social class that hadn’t existed before (the middle class) and the rise of a new art form that hadn’t existed before (the novel). In Desire and Domestic Fiction: a Political History of the Novel, Nancy Armstrong suggests that this new literary form didn’t just reflect the interests of this new social class, which is how scholars have tended to look at their intertwined history, but that the novel actually helped create the middle class. Armstrong argues that the novel created a new kind of social awareness where people were judged not by their social standing but by their “qualities of mind,” and that this new awareness created the ideological basis for social mobility, and therefore the middle class.

This is the exact same process you’re talking about with Triumph of the Will. It doesn’t document broad public acceptance of Nazi ideology so much as provide a vision of what a Nazi triumph might look like, and in that way helped to make it come true.

I see something very similar with Michael Jackson. Throughout his work, he isn’t just creating powerful art – though he is doing that – but also a new cultural awareness that makes social change possible. He shows us how our current social structures have failed, especially for those who have been excluded or rendered powerless by them, and suggests new cultural possibilities.

Eleanor:  Exactly. He is, as you say, creating “a new cultural awareness that makes social change possible.” Michael Jackson, like Riefenstahl, understood the power of art, in this case, film, to shape and influence how we see the world. Referencing Riefenstahl in his film, HIStory, he announces that he, too, is a myth maker, but he is creating a new myth to create a new reality. And, instead of celebrating and setting the stage for yet another empire and “deifying” himself, as the media and critics thought (see the Diane Sawyer quote above), his myth takes issue with the very idea that some are more equal than others and shatters the imperialistic myth altogether.

He knew that, for most people, HIStory’s Riefenstahl-like imagery – the monumental architecture, the broad expanses of boulevard and city square, rank upon rank of men marching in lockstep – calls to mind Nazi atrocities, not imperial glory, and he had faith that his fans, if not the critics and the media, knew the difference between what Michael Jackson stood for and what Adolf Hitler stood for.

Interestingly, as an African-American musician, MJ represented a group whom the Nazis despised as much as they did the Jews. Listening to “degenerate” African-American music (at that time, jazz) was prohibited by the Nazis and punishable by imprisonment or even death as part of their drive to purify the so-called Aryan race and culture. Here’s a really interesting article that deals with the Nazi’s fear and loathing of jazz, explaining that “in Nazi occupied Europe, … jazz was suppressed; … it bore the stigma of impurity, innovation, passion… all qualities totalitarians frown on (even anti-fascist theorist Theodor Adorno had a serious beef with jazz).”

Willa: This is a very important topic – something I knew nothing about until Midnight Boomer and Ultravioletrae discussed it in comments last June. I’d really like to discuss this in depth. Maybe we could all get together and do a post about it sometime …

So in the HIStory teaser, you see Michael Jackson both evoking and rewriting the narrative of empire and imperialism?

Eleanor: Yes. Costuming the soldiers in the uniforms of the Soviet Union, HIStory puts another nail in the imperial coffin, bringing back memories of the gulag and the KGB (“was doggin’ me”). Adding an American swat team, notorious in African-American neighborhoods for battering in doors and asking questions later, HIStory ups the ante, bringing the evils of empire up close and personal.

Associating Soviet totalitarianism and the American police state (coming soon to your neighborhood) with Nazi fascism, HIStory associates all three with imperial oppression, past and present. Adding Michael Jackson, a black artist with a remarkable vision and a great heart, and his history – both personal and racial – to the mix, HIStory offers hope for the future while reminding us of the past – including his.

Willa: And we know from his other work that this issue of empire is an important one to him. Repeatedly we see him subtly evoking our colonial past, and opposing the lingering consequences of colonialism and imperialism. For example, we’ve talked about that a bit in posts about the short films for Black or White, They Don’t Care About Us, and Liberian Girl. And this longtime concern with the ongoing effects of imperialism is a very important context for approaching the HIStory teaser, I think.

So you believe that, in HIStory, he extends that ongoing concern with empire to include fascism and other authoritarian social structures? That’s really interesting – and it helps explain why he would draw on Triumph of the Will as a model.

To be honest, I’d never watched that film before, but I found the entire thing on YouTube. (Just about everything is on YouTube!) Here’s a link:

I have to say, knowing what we know about how everything went terribly wrong with the Nazi movement, I approached this film with dread …

Eleanor: Before doing this post, I hadn’t seen it either, Willa, only snippets. And I felt the same way. In fact, I even approached HIStory with dread.

Willa: Triumph is very unsettling, as you said earlier. And that fascist imagery is another reason I was so reluctant to watch it. But it wasn’t at all what I expected. And in fact, there were some aspects of it that directly tie in with Michael Jackson in surprising ways.

For example, the film emphasizes that Hitler envisions Nazism as a youth-based movement. Hitler gives five very short speeches over the course of the film, and perhaps his best speech is addressed to what looks like a sea of 12-year-old boys. (This scene starts about 45 minutes in). Here’s what he tells them:

We want to be one people. And you, my youth, are to be this people. We want to see no more class divisions. You must not let this grow up amongst you.

So he’s directing his message to children, pre-teens, and his emphasis is that they are all “one people” – a very Michael Jackson sort of concept. Hitler goes on to say,

And I know this cannot be otherwise because you are the flesh of our flesh, and the blood of our blood. And in your young heads burns the same spirit that rules us. You cannot be other than united with us.

These words – “you are the flesh of our flesh, and the blood of our blood” – really caught my attention, for a couple of reasons. For one, while Hitler is saying that they are “one people” without “class divisions,” he did not in any way believe that all humans or even all Germans were “one people.” Just the opposite. He wanted to maintain absolute divisions between some groups of people, such as Jews and Gentiles, blacks and whites, heterosexuals and homosexuals, the able-bodied and those with disabilities, especially those with genetic disabilities.

He subtly alludes to this in his final speech in the film when he says, “the divisions of the past have been replaced by a high standard leading the nation. We carry the best blood and we know this.” So this issue of blood is a very important one for Hitler because he uses it to promote his ideas of racial purity.

Eleanor:  Yes, knowing what we know, these words make my own blood run cold. Hitler is not talking about just any blood, but “the best blood” – the blood of “our people,” who were created by God.

Nothing will come from nothing if it is not grounded on a greater order. This order was not given to us by an earthly superior. It was given to us by God who created our people.

In these words, Hitler references the first creation story in Genesis to buttress his own ambition, claiming that the social and political order imposed by the Nazis – fascism – comes from God, and that the German people (at least some of them) are made in God’s image, the image of omnipotent and omniscient and transcendent mind. Or as Riefenstahl puts it in the case of Hitler and the Nazis, in terms of “the will.”

Although born a Catholic, Hitler himself was not a believer, but the majority of the German people were. So to legitimize his own agenda, he contextualizes his own views within the framework of Christian belief.  Based on studying this film (and what I know in general about Hitler) it appears to me that he is marketing the Germans and the Nazi party and his own ambitions as representing the purest expression of divine will.

Willa: So is that where the title Triumph of the Will comes from? I’ve been wondering what that title meant …

Eleanor: Well, Willa, I am only guessing. But, will is a manifestation of mind and God’s will, as in “thy will be done,” is an important Christian concept which is pretty widely known. It is also highly probable that the term “will” is a reference to the title of Schopenhauer’s book, The World as Will and Idea. (In German, both titles use the same word for “will.”) As a great mythmaker, Riefenstahl is probably making a number of unconscious and conscious associations – getting as much mileage as possible out of a single word – just as MJ, through multiple associations, is getting tremendous mileage out of a four-minute film. Triumph is Riefenstahl’s rendering of Hitler’s version of the myth of transcendence. Hitler’s will, the will of the German people, and the German people themselves, are mythologized by Riefenstahl as the triumph of God’s will, but what we are really witnessing is the triumph of Hitler’s will.

Those who exercise their will to control others – the master race – are viewed as naturally and essentially superior to those identified with the body, providing a rationale for the systematic dehumanization, exploitation, abuse, and even eradication (in the case of the Nazis) of other peoples, especially people of other races. In Hitler’s world, only the Aryans, only those who carry the “best blood,” were viewed as fully human – all others were seen as vermin, something to be exterminated.

Willa: It’s really horrifying how this idea of pure blood or “best blood” was used to justify racism and genocide. But then looking at Michael Jackson, it’s fascinating that the image of blood is very important for him as well, for the exact opposite reason: to deny racial divisions and other artificial boundaries between us. It’s almost like a metaphor for what he’s doing throughout the HIStory film – he’s taking a cultural narrative propounded by Hitler and completely reversing it.

In Michael Jackson’s vision, blood is one element that unites us. All of us – all races, all religions, all nationalities – we all have blood in our veins. We all bleed when we’re wounded. Our human blood is one of the things that signifies us all as “one people” – truly one people. Michael Jackson beautifully expresses this in “Can You Feel It” when he sings, “We’re all the same / Yes, the blood inside of me is inside of you … Yes, the blood inside my veins is inside of you.”

Eleanor: Yes, he not only denies the validity of the concept that some are more human than others, he redefines what it means to be human in terms of connection, rather than separation, putting mind back in body and humanity in nature. His vision not only erases divisions, it is all encompassing. Expressed in “Planet Earth,” it extends the idea of blood kinship beyond the human, to all life throughout all time, when he says,

In my veins I’ve felt the mystery
Of corridors of time, books of history
Life songs of ages throbbing in my blood
Have danced the rhythm of the tide and flood

Unlike Hitler, who uses blood to symbolize a mind and spirit (and will) unique to the German people (“you are … the blood of our blood … united with us. In your young heads burns the same spirit that rules us”), Michael Jackson uses blood to symbolize the life force which is common to us all. All life, including humanity, is an expression of the sacred power within nature which pulses through our bodies and our veins.

His role in the HIStory teaser is to offer an alternative to the dominant and dominating paradigm and discredit it at the same time. By juxtaposing images of himself – a man who has demonstrated his “humanity” repeatedly – to images of empire, specifically those empires that have ghetto-ized (and worse) the oppressed peoples that he as a black man represents, HIStory exposes the imperial idea of the “fully human” as inhumane, as cruel and corrupt, promoting death instead of life.

In Michael Jackson’s world, no one is more “fully” human than anyone else.  No one is essentially more – or less – valuable based on race or sex or religion or nationality. In Michael Jackson’s world, the desire for kinship and connection and empathy replaces the drive to separate and achieve superiority. Compassion replaces control.

If one’s deepest desire is to join the select club of the fully human, as defined by imperial values, then that desire affirms those values, and the existing order. But if you reject the club and everything it stands for, and you have the power of Michael Jackson, then you could bring the whole power structure down. Which is why he was so dangerous.

Willa:  Yes, but his “power” is an interesting one because he derives his power in large part from desire – from our desire for him and for what he represents, his vision of the future. And this is going to sound really outrageous at first, so bear with me while I explain, but this is another important parallel between Hitler and Michael Jackson, between Triumph of the Will and the HIStory promo film.

I was really surprised by Triumph of the Will because it wasn’t the long speech justifying Nazi values that I was expecting. In fact, it doesn’t go into much detail at all about Nazi ideology, and Hitler’s speeches are very short – mostly 2 or 3 minutes long. The final speech is by far the longest, but even it’s only about 9 minutes. It’s a propaganda film, but swaying an audience through rhetoric doesn’t seem to be the point. Instead, the goal of the film seems to be to create desire – specifically, desire for Hitler and for a vibrant, healthy, strong Germany.

Triumph of the Will begins with 20 minutes of music and images – no dialogue. Twenty minutes is a really long time in a film, especially one that’s less than two hours long. And we see very little of Hitler himself in those first 20 minutes. Instead we see an aerial view of the beautiful architecture of Nuremberg (we as an audience are flying into Nuremberg as Hitler is) and still from the air, we also see massive numbers of troops, columns of troops – like in the HIStory film – marching to the place where Hitler will speak.

Then we see his plane land – there’s a quick glimpse of him descending the steps of the plane – and then we follow his motorcade into town. But we see much more footage of the crowd and their enthusiastic reception of him than we do of Hitler himself.

The point of all this is to build anticipation, to whet desire, and the HIStory film begins the exact same way. In the first half we see troops marching toward the center of town and steelworkers preparing for his arrival. We also see screaming fans, excited children, fainting women. But we see very little of Michael Jackson himself. We don’t even see his face until halfway through this first part, and even then it’s only brief glimpses.

So the first half of the HIStory film precisely parallels the first 20 minutes of Triumph of the Will. Both of these films are building anticipation, creating desire – and it’s a very similar kind of desire. It’s almost a type of romantic love, or even sexual ecstasy. That’s another reason that line “you are the flesh of our flesh, and the blood of our blood” really jumped out at me.

In the Bible, in Genesis, Adam tells Eve that she is “flesh of my flesh,” and this line is often repeated at wedding ceremonies. So when Hitler speaks these words, he is subtly implying that his relationship with his audience is like the bond between a man and a woman. And repeatedly in his songs and films, Michael Jackson implies the same thing – that his relationship with his audience is like a love affair. That idea is reinforced in the many crowd shots in both Triumph of the Will and the HIStory teaser, especially the shots of fainting women, swooning as if in a state of ecstasy.

Eleanor: You are right. Riefenstahl herself was in love with him, and I guess all of Germany fell in love with him – and he had admirers outside of Germany, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. I was really shocked when I ran across this article on the Express website, published in 2009, which claimed that “The former British monarch told the journalist it would be tragic for the world if the Nazi ­dictator were overthrown. Hitler was not just the right and logical leader of the German people, the Duke insisted, he was also a great man.”

Willa: Wow, that entire article is shocking. I knew he supported Hitler at one time, but I thought that was early on – before the war. I didn’t realize it continued during the war, and even included passing information to the Germans and trying to sway Roosevelt against helping Great Britain. If this is true, it’s very fortunate that he abdicated the throne. I’m going to have to learn more about this …

But I think Riefenstahl’s relationship with Hitler was complicated. I recently read an interview where Quincy Jones describes having lunch with her, and he implies she was rather critical of the Nazi leadership, including Hitler, and said they were all addicted to cocaine. (Jones goes on to say that cocaine “closes down any fear or problem with violence,” which is interesting, especially in connection with the Nazi leadership.)

But of course, Quincy Jones met Riefenstahl long after World War II had ended, and the full horror of what had happened had been exposed. Her feelings were probably very different when she made the film in 1934, before the concentration camps and other atrocities had happened – back when Hitler appeared like a kind of savior promising a new beginning for Germany.

Eleanor: I read that article, too. Isn’t it interesting that Quincy Jones met Leni Riefenstahl?

Willa:  It really is.

Eleanor: In that article, he says he was a big fan. I wonder if MJ learned about Triumph from him. I had assumed it was through his interest in Chaplin. But, maybe not …

Willa:  I had the exact same reaction. It certainly adds another dimension to Michael Jackson’s use of Triumph in the HIStory teaser, doesn’t it?

Eleanor:  As you say, that meeting took place long after the events of World War II. At the time she was making Triumph she said,

To me Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He is really faultless, so simple yet so filled with manly power… He is really beautiful, he is wise. Radiance streams from him. All the great men of Germany – Friedrich, Nietzsche, Bismarck – have all had faults. Hitler’s followers are not spotless. Only he is pure.

To me, these are the words of a woman in love. So if Riefenstahl’s feelings are any indication of how people felt about Hitler, desire was a component to his appeal.

But comparing Michael to Hitler in this way is still almost more than I can handle. That’s how toxic this stuff is. That’s why what Michael did in HIStory was so risky.

Willa: I know what you mean. Comparing Michael Jackson to Hitler just feels wrong, on so many levels. Their beliefs, perceptions, vision for the future, emotional response to suffering – everything about them seems diametrically opposed. But Michael Jackson himself drew the comparison in his conversations with Rabbi Boteach, which were published in 2009 as The Michael Jackson Tapes. When talking with Rabbi Boteach about Hitler and the Holocaust, he was clearly horrified:

When I found out the count of how many children in the Holocaust alone died… [starts to break down]. What man can do something like that? I don’t understand. It doesn’t matter what race it is. I don’t get it. I don’t understand at all. I really don’t. What kind of conditioning… I don’t understand that kind of thing. Does someone condition you to hate that much? Is it possible that they could do that to your heart?

(By the way, the parenthetical note that he “starts to break down” while speaking of the Holocaust is Rabbi Boteach’s.) So Michael Jackson is completely opposed to Nazi ideology. Of course.

Eleanor: Of course. It is beyond me how anyone could believe otherwise.  But I guess they did, which is why they were willing to believe that the lyrics “kike me,” etc. in “They Don’t Care About Us” were anti-Semitic (further proof of his “Nazi leanings,” no doubt), when he was speaking for the Jews, not against them. The critics and the media and those who have invested and succeeded in the existing system are its gatekeepers. To defuse his power, they denied it, ridiculing him as an uppity, empty-headed pop star making a fool of himself by puffing himself up and identifying himself with imperial power, when he was clearly critiquing it, as an ideology of hate.

Willa: It is “an ideology of hate.” As he told Boteach, “Does someone condition you to hate that much?” And this ideology of hate is completely antithetical to everything he stands for and believes in.

But as his conversation with Rabbi Boteach continues, he goes on to say this:

Hitler was a genius orator. He was [able] to make that many people turn and change and hate. He had to be a showman and he was. Before he could speak, he would pause, drink a bit of water, and then he would clear his throat, and look around. It was what an entertainer would do trying to work out how to play his audience.

Eleanor: OMG, Willa. I will never be able to look at MJ, standing stock still for a full minute or so and then slowly taking off his Ray-Bans, in the same way again!

Willa: Well, I don’t think Hitler invented that strategy of delaying his “performance” to build anticipation, but he certainly used it very effectively – and so did Michael Jackson. It’s very unsettling to think about, but it’s true.

So it’s completely wrong to suggest Michael Jackson was a Nazi sympathizer as some critics have done, in part because of those passages from Rabbi Boteach’s book. In fact, Rabbi Boteach himself has repeatedly defended Michael Jackson and said the people accusing him are misinterpreting those passages – for example, in a Huffington Post article in November 2009, and another article a couple years later in May 2012.

But while it’s wrong to call Michael Jackson a Nazi sympathizer – far from it, he represents just the opposite – nevertheless, he understood the power of a compelling performer to sway an audience, either for good or evil, and it’s fascinating that that’s how he sees Hitler: as “a genius orator,” “a showman,” and a performer. Rabbi Boteach asks him about this, just to clarify:

Are you the opposite of Hitler? God gave you this phenomenal charisma and while he [Hitler] brought out the beast in man, you want to bring out some of that innocence and goodness in man.

Michael Jackson agrees with Boteach’s assessment, saying “I believe that.”

Eleanor:  Yes, from an early age, he believed he had a special role to play, a destiny. And, I believe that as well.

Willa: I don’t know if it was destiny or not, but he certainly became an incredibly powerful cultural figure – one who literally changed the world.

So it’s important to separate out Hitler’s skill as a propagandist from his ideology. Michael Jackson apparently felt nothing but horror for Hitler’s message, but expressed a grudging admiration for his charisma and his ability to convey that message. Hitler used his talents to promote prejudice and hatred – and in the HIStory film, Michael Jackson is appropriating some of his techniques to promote “love,” as he told Diane Sawyer. Or rather desire. I think it’s more about desire actually, but desire is closely aligned with love.

Eleanor:  Yes, and desire is clearly linked to charisma, although charisma remains a mystery, but a mystery MJ was very interested in understanding.

Charisma is more than a matter of technique. It is tied to the power of the message – and the messenger – to tap into deep and collectively-held emotions, to satisfy deeply felt needs and longings – as you say, desires – the deepest being those associated with survival. Hitler aroused desire in the German people, appealing to their drive to survive, by convincing them that their survival depended on him, and that, under his leadership, they would not only survive but rise again out of the ashes of WWI.

Willa:  That is such an important point, Eleanor, and highlights another important parallel between Triumph of the Will and the HIStory teaser: they were both filmed at a time of deep humiliation and presumed defeat. Triumph begins with these lines written across the screen:

5 September 1934
20 years after the outbreak of the World War
16 years after the start of the German suffering
19 months after the start of Germany’s rebirth
Adolf Hitler flew once again to Nuremberg to hold a military display

(This is a translation – the actual words are written in German.) So the film places itself within the context of Germany’s defeat in World War I and the crippling economic conditions that followed, which was truly a time of great “suffering” in Germany. And Michael Jackson created the HIStory film in 1995 following the false allegations of child sexual abuse, which was a time of great suffering for him. People around the world were twisting his message and calling him a child molester.

But despite this suffering and humiliation, both films announce that they will not be defeated, they will not be shamed. Michael Jackson will not allow others to put their labels onto him – he will define himself – and so will Germany. They will both rise again, on their own terms. As the text at the beginning of Triumph says, this film is documenting and celebrating “the start of Germany’s rebirth.”

Eleanor:  However, Hitler’s vision was not just a vision of rebirth, but a vision of conquest, a vision in which a reborn Germany proved their superiority to all others, and we know where that led.

Willa: Yes, absolutely. That’s why watching that film now, knowing what happened soon after, is so chilling.

Eleanor: And Riefenstahl’s film was very important in creating the desire to see his vision fulfilled – in making the connection between Hitler’s vision and their survival, in showing Hitler as their hero, their salvation. And the desire created, as you say is “almost a type of romantic love, or even sexual ecstasy.”

Collective survival, the survival of a people or a nation, involves more than relationships to other peoples and the land. It also involves sexual relationships which ensure survival from one generation to the next. So, appealing to the drive to survive also arouses sexual desire. And, it is very possible that Hitler used a phrase like “flesh of my flesh” – and Riefenstahl highlighted it in her film – as a deliberate reference to Adam and Eve and sexual love.

So Triumph can be read as a sexual display of sorts. The imagery in Triumph is all about dominance and power and strength, in other words, macho-ness. Think of all those images at the beginning of beautiful young males, emerging half dressed into the early morning mist. Associating images of male beauty with images of political and military strength associates military prowess with sexual prowess.

Willa:  That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about that before, but it’s true that Triumph is filled with images of male power in many different forms …

Eleanor: And as you say, HIStory, like Triumph, builds anticipation and whets sexual desire. Just as we see very little of Hitler in the opening sequences of Triumph, we see very little of MJ. As a matter of fact, we don’t see much of MJ at all, but what we do see of him is really interesting. Before that great shot of his beautiful smiling face, we see his sexy boots and his skin-tight pants. We see him walking – and how he walks! That graceful swagger, the utter confidence.

And just before he salutes, a salute that conveys feelings of empathy and respect for his troops, and leaves the scene altogether, the camera focuses on … his crotch!  A very different kind of, but very effective, male display. Maleness, like humanity, embodied in Michael Jackson, has nothing to do with conquest, and desire for him has nothing to do with the desire to be conquered (à la the romance novels known as “bodice rippers”).


To bring about radical change, to dig up the roots of empire, which he saw as threatening the survival of the planet and the human species – especially one particular member of the human species, himself – Michael Jackson had to use the power of his art to create a new paradigm of survival – a new algorithm of desire.

Willa:  Which is the title of your book series. So we’ve kind of come full circle …

Eleanor: Yes, how did that happen? The algorithm of desire defines the terms of collective survival – from day to day and from one generation to the next. Empires have based survival, both kinds, on the idea of “divide and conquer.”

To bring about radical change, Michael Jackson had to de-link the drive to survive – which drives our interactions with other lands and other peoples, as well as sexual desire – from ideas of separation and control, which meant that he had to redefine the erotic, which I believe he did. Through the power of his art to reach deeply into and touch our emotions, he created new associations. He rewired our brains. He changed what turns people on. A lot for one slim young man to take on – and accomplish.

Willa: Yes, it is. But redefining the erotic is something he successfully achieved throughout his career. I mean, he was the first black teen idol – an object of desire for millions of teenagers around the world: white, black, Asian, all races. That in itself is a powerful redefinition of the erotic.

And he was sexy in a very different way than most of his predecessors. He was incredibly hot, but not in a macho way. He redefined what it means for a man to be sexy.

Eleanor: Yes, she said yes….

Willa: Ha! That’s funny. So you believe that one thing he’s doing in the HIStory promo film is breaking the symbolic linkage between military might and sexual virility, between empire and machismo?

Eleanor: Exactly. What a great way to put it!  And what better way to discredit empire than by referencing the most notorious example of the paradigm of transcendence in recent memory, Nazi Germany. And what better way to reference Nazi Germany than by using the techniques of Triumph of the Will, which displayed both Hitler’s oratory and Riefenstahl’s art, and exploit them to forward his own agenda.

As we have discussed, HIStory was filmed at a very difficult time in Michael’s life. But, looked at more broadly. Michael Jackson appeared on the world stage at a time when people were losing faith in the old solutions and were desperately seeking something new. He knew that the tide was turning, and “the tide, when taken at the full, leads on to fortune” – so, he took it.

HIStory offers us the vision of a new kind of hero, one who is committed to compassion rather than conquest. The power of his art touches us so deeply it changes our lives – opening our hearts and our eyes, making us feel and see things differently, moving us to dance the dance of life, not death.

Willa:  And this idea of a “new kind of hero” is something we also see in Charlie Chaplin’s brilliant satirical film, The Great Dictator, which also works off of and against Triumph of the Will and served as an important influence for the HIStory teaser. That’s what we’ll focus on when we continue this discussion in a second post.

In the meantime, thank you, Eleanor, for joining me. You’ve certainly given us a lot to think about!

Lessons in HIStory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisha: I love that moment in the video!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisha: Beautifully said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisha: It really does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisha: Absolutely unbelievable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisha: That’s exactly it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa: Really? I missed that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa: It really does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Presidential Politics, Part 2: Michael Jackson and “Soft Power”

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!


More Like a Movie Scene, part 2

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.

MJ in Billie JeanInterestingly, 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”:

Billie Jean still--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.

Barron writes:

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.

Barron replied:

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.

King of Pop Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson Music Videos

Billie Jean production still-color

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:

Michael Jackson Music Videos

Michael Jackson Music Videos

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.

Emerald City-Wizard of Oz

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:

Yellow Brick Road-The Wiz

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.

Billie Jean- _long pavement leading from the city_ 1

Billie Jean-_long pavement leading from the city_ 2

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.

Michael Jackson’s Otherness and Power

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.

Earth Song portrait - croppedThis 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.

2009 painting by David LaChapelle This is Archangel Michael: And No Message Could Have Been Any Clearer by artist David LaChapelle. It’s one of three images he made of Michael Jackson in a series he calls American Jesus.

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.

1992 June - Daily Mail coverSusan: 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.

Summer Rewind 2014: ¡Porque Soy Malo, Soy Malo!

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.

Can a Mirror Reveal the Truth?

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:

01 open shirt and Victory tour

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:

03 comparison color

And here are black-and-white xeroxed images of the same photos:

04 comparison b&w sketch

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:

05 06 Invincible TII

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.

07 2009 - This Is It - Smooth Criminal croppedThe 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:

08 face sketches - black and white

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.

09 duckrab scannedThis 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:

10 1993 - MJ and Oprah croppedFrom 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.

Fred Astaire, “Bojangles,” and “the Real Limehouse Blues”

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.

Limehouse Blues

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.