Willa: This week Lisha and I are very happy to be joined by Brad Sundberg, a recording engineer who worked with Michael Jackson for twenty years – is that right, Brad?
Brad: Oh yeah, right around twenty years, on and off, between various projects.
Willa: And you were the technical director for Dangerous, History, and Blood on the Dance Floor?
Brad: Well, really just Dangerous and History. I worked on some of the tracks for Blood – I was one of the engineers on several of those projects.
Willa: Ok, and then you also were a sound engineer at Neverland and worked on a lot of different projects there, right?
Brad: Yeah, I built most of the systems at the ranch and I worked on a bunch of his videos. So if it involved music or some sort of, you know, light control or something, I was probably involved.
Lisha: You also did the sound design at Neverland, correct?
Brad: I did the sound design. I stripped the wires. I pulled them through tubes. I carried speakers and ladders. I did it all – me and a small crew.
Willa: And you’ve also taken an active role in educating people about Michael Jackson as an artist. In fact you’re organizing something called MJU, or Michael Jackson University, that’s coming up in June. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about MJU and what it’s about.
Brad: Sure. Thank you both for having me back. It’s always great to chat with you guys.
Willa: Oh, it’s great to have you here!
Lisha: Thank you so much for joining us, Brad!
Brad: We just launched our website – or a new website, I should say – and in the process of doing that I was kind of given the task of counting all the seminars and events that we’ve hosted and where we’ve been. And we’ve done something like 75 live events to this point, in about 12 countries, and hosted somewhere around 2,400 guests. I’m pretty proud of that and I’m really pleased with our guests and the events that we’ve come up with.
So this summer we wanted to do something bigger, different … dare I say, something that no one’s ever really done before. We decided to call it MJU, and we want it to cover a pretty extensive portion of Michael’s professional life, starting at Off the Wall and going through Thriller, Bad, Dangerous, and so on all the way to This Is It.
I’m pretty fortunate in that I know so many of those guys – Ed Cherney, Matt Forger, Jerry Hey, Brian Vibberts, Brad Buxer. And so we just started making some phone calls. I started calling guys. I sent emails, smoke signals, whatever it would take to see if I can get these guys interested in all of us essentially being in one place at one time. Well, it’s too many guys for one day, so we broke it up into a four-day event that we’re going to be doing on June 20th, 21st, 22nd, and 23rd at SIR studios in Hollywood.
June 20th, the first day, which is a Monday, is going to be kind of my solo show. That’s going to be the newest version of In the Studio with MJ and we’re going to spend a good bit of time talking about Neverland, and kind of the latest incarnation of my seminar, if you will. We’ve added quite a few new songs, some new material that we tried in Europe this past January, and it went really well. So the first day is going to be In the Studio with MJ.
Day Two we’re going to dig into what I call the early years. And that’s going to be where we’re going to go all the way back to Off the Wall and I’ve got Ed Cherney coming in. Ed was basically me several years before. He was Bruce Swedien’s assistant engineer.
Willa: Oh interesting.
Brad: I find it interesting sometimes to talk to the people behind the scenes because they are a bit more, you know, they were there but they weren’t really the star of the show. So Ed was there with Michael at a really cool time. I mean that was Michael’s first project with Quincy and Bruce and that team.
Ed’s going to be opening up Day Two, and we’re going to dig straight into Off the Wall. Then from there, we’re going to bring Matt Forger in and start talking about Thriller. Matt was the assistant engineer on Thriller. Matt actually recorded the Eddie Van Halen solo on “Beat It” and pieced that whole thing together.
Willa: Oh really!
Brad: Matt’s got some great stories. Matt is the sweetest, kindest man. I love Matt, absolutely think the world of him. So then Matt went on to do Captain EO. So he did that alone with Michael. We’ve done an entire seminar just on Captain EO. Lisha, were you here for that?
Lisha: Oh my god, it was incredible. Just incredible.
Brad: You’re so kind.
Lisha: No, I’m a huge fan of Captain EO, and not nearly enough has been written about it. Just in the history of the music video in general, it has not gotten its due. Hearing Matt Forger recall how it all came together was an amazing experience. I just loved it.
Brad: You’re very kind, thank you. We need to do another one.
Willa: Now you did that at Disney World, and you all actually saw the 4D version of Captain EO a couple of times, right?
Brad: Yeah, we knew that it was going to end, and Disney would never really say when the last day was. They finally did, but I was getting nervous that they were going to pull the plug on it. So I flew Matt out, and we had a good group. Yes, we did that here at Epcot. We did the seminar at – where were we? Stark Lake Studios? Do you remember, Lisha? I think it was at Stark Lake.
Lisha: Yes, that’s right, and then we spent the next day at Disney.
Brad: I think we saw EO three or four times – something like that.
So anyway, we’ll have Matt, and somewhere I’ve got a working copy of Captain EO – kind of a production print. So we might watch part of that. Then, all on that same day, we’ll jump into the Bad album. Matt was very involved in the pre-production of the Bad album, and so he recorded a whole lot of those early versions. And then Bruce and Quincy took it from there, and did kind of the final production on that album.
Willa: Now, when you say pre-production, do you mean creating the demos so they can decide if they want to move forward with that song? Or what does pre-production involve?
Matt: Well, in Michael Jackson world, it’s much bigger than for a lot of artists. Michael had his own studio – at Hayvenhurst, I should say – you know, his home. And so Matt Forger and Bill Bottrell and Brent Averill spent a lot of time at Hayvenhurst, in essence recording a good chunk of the Bad album: “Smooth Criminal,” “Liberian Girl,” “Bad,” “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Most of those songs were done before the album even started.
There’s all kinds of forums and goofy talk about this stuff where sometimes they’re referred to as the B Team, and I just think that’s tacky and uncalled for. These are Michael’s guys, and they did a really beautiful job. But Bruce and Quincy wanted to take it up even another notch, so some of those songs were re-recorded. But the melody is in – the core, the heart of those songs was done by these guys.
So we’ll have Matt there, and of course I was very involved with the Bad album. So we’ll be talking about that. And that’s Day Two.
I don’t know what time we’re going to crawl out of there that night, but Day Three we’re going to go in a whole different direction. We’re going to start talking about Michael’s short films, and the tours. I’ve got a guy by the name of Brick Price, and Brick is an old, old dear friend. See Michael had all these – you know, Michael was complicated, and he had friends in the film industry, he had artists, and just people – like he’d hang out with the Imagineers at Disney. Brick was one of these guys. I think he came from the Star Trek world. And Brick is really good at building spaceships, and so I know Brick was involved in Captain EO. But then he was very involved in Moonwalker, and I believe Brick was also involved in Ghosts.
Willa: Oh really!
Brad: Yeah, I could be wrong, but I know he was very involved in Moonwalker. I’ve got some other friends from Ghosts and I haven’t even reached out to them yet.
But Brick has some stuff up his sleeves. I don’t know what he’s going to bring. I mean he built like the Captain EO sets and all that stuff. He’s got some crazy stuff in his collection, and it’s just in a warehouse. So he’s kind of excited to, you know, pull it out and blow the dust off it and let us see it. He’s got some photos of Michael that have just never been seen. And he’s very protective of that stuff. And he’s just a good guy. He was with us at the ranch and did a lot of the visuals up there. His kids ran around the ranch like they owned the place. He was really good friends with Michael.
So we’re going to start Wednesday with Brick. And I don’t know how I’m going to stop, but at some point I’ve got to stop that and then we’re going to shift into the tours. At that point, my plan is to have Brad Buxer and Michael Prince. And there are other people I’ve reached out to, and they may or may not surprise us. I don’t know.
But we’re going to spend a good bit of time talking about what it was like to tour with Michael Jackson. That’s something I haven’t really dug into too deep in my seminars because I didn’t tour with him. I would do all what’s called the tour pre-production, where we would get the band trained on new songs. I wasn’t involved in any of the visuals on the tours but I was involved in the music. We’d have to change the tempo of songs, change the key – things like that.
Willa: And why would you need to do that?
Brad: Well, Michael liked shows to be fast and exciting. Most artists do this, especially pop musicians. You know, if you listen to the old Jackson song, “You’ve got me working, working day and night” – listen to the album speed, and then watch one of the videos where he does it live, it’s just ridiculously fast. So he wants the audience feeling that energy. He wants the really fast tempo that’s fun to dance to. And then we would pitch it way down so he could actually sing it, because you can’t sing at that key night after night. So we’d want to get it down into a register that he was comfortable singing at.
Willa: Oh interesting. I thought you were going to say just the opposite – that you would slow it down so he could conserve energy on a long tour and not wear himself out.
Brad: Oh no! No, he wanted the tempo to be just outrageously fast for all of those songs, and then we’d pitch them way down. So we’d work with the band, and that’s where Brad Buxer really comes in, taking Michael’s ideas musically and turning them into something that’s going to be fun for the band to play and for an audience to enjoy.
Willa: So if he would sing at the pitch that it was on the album, night after night, that would strain his voice?
Brad: Yeah. If you’re going to sing live, you want to pitch it down to a lower register. It’s just easier to sing. It’s pretty hard to hit those high notes night after night – that’s going to blow your voice out.
Willa: Oh interesting. I didn’t know that.
Brad: But some of the stuff that Buxer and I have talked about before is just, you know, things that I find interesting. I don’t know, maybe I’m just a weirdo but I’ve been to so many of the shows that, yeah, it’s kind of fun what goes on on stage, but I’m always curious about backstage, and how they traveled. The European tours where they had these giant Russian jets – Brad has told me about those, and that stuff’s just crazy.
They would have three stages. Michael would be on one stage on a Tuesday. The crew would be at the previous stage that same day, breaking it down in a previous city. And there would be another crew in a third city, setting the next stage up.
Willa: Oh, so they would leap frog?
Brad: Exactly. And the logistics of that – I love that kind of stuff – just to coordinate all of that activity. They actually had a baker that traveled on the crew with them, so every day they’d have fresh bread, fresh pies. Who does that?!
I love that kind of stuff. So we’re going to dig into the tours, on stage and backstage, on that Wednesday. And then if we have any strength left at all, we’re going to come back on Thursday and dig into the later years. And more than likely that’ll be Dangerous, HIStory, Invincible. And then all the way through the Vegas years, and the Apollo Theater, and the Dubai show, and the Clinton – what was it? The Democratic National Convention whatever it was.
Willa: Oh, the inauguration?
Brad: No, I think it was a Clinton gala or something.
Lisha: Yeah, he actually did both.
Brad: Ok. And then we’ll take it all the way to, you know – it’s like I sometimes say, the story doesn’t really have a happy ending, but we’ll talk about This Is It. Brad Prince was with Michael that last night, and you know, I think it’s a good story for people to hear.
So that’s MJU. We’re kind of taking my seminar and just blowing it up over four days. And I’m bringing in the people that were there. And I could go on and on and on. There’s plenty more people I’d like to bring in in the future.
Willa: It sounds like it could go on for four months. I mean, that’s a semester’s worth of material you’re covering.
Brad: There’s actually one guy I inadvertently overlooked, and that’s Jerry Hey. Jerry’s going to be there on Day Two, the early years. Jerry is a sweet, sweet, remarkably talented man. Jerry was the lead horn player for Seawind, and he went on to build what’s called the Seawind Horns in L.A. And these guys played on all of Michael’s records – the horn section – and Quincy’s, and all over town they played.
But Jerry also was very involved in a lot of the vocal arrangements and background melodies and all that, and he’s just a funny guy. He’s another piece to the puzzle that people may not sit up and go, Oh wow, Jerry Hey’s going to be there. But you don’t want to miss Jerry. He has so much knowledge, and Michael loved Jerry so much. I haven’t really hung with Jerry in years. Jerry had a little bit of a health crisis this past summer, and thankfully he’s doing well. But I’m really, really excited to have Jerry with us on Day Two.
And then Day Four we’ve got Brian Vibberts and Rob Hoffman, who both were with us on the HIStory projects and stayed with Michael beyond that. So you know – let’s see, what more can I give? We’ve really pulled out all the stops, and I’m really excited about this.
Lisha: Wow, it sounds absolutely amazing.
Willa: It does, and I also think it’s really important. There have there been more than a few critics – and I think this is changing somewhat – but there have been quite a few people who have made it sound like Michael Jackson was a very talented singer and dancer, but that basically he was just a performer. That he didn’t have a vision. It was really Quincy Jones’ vision or Berry Gordy’s vision, and Michael Jackson was just performing. They were really the people creating the art.
Willa: And I think your seminars have really countered that and shown that Michael Jackson was very active in the studio and an artist in the fullest sense of the word.
Brad: And he was smart. I mean, to surround yourself with people that you trust. You’re in essence kind of putting your career into their hands and saying, That was great, now where are we going to go next? That takes a lot of guts. And so he would surround himself with good people – some would stick around for a while, some would kind of come and go.
You know, I think if there’s one thing you’re going to see in people that I use in my seminars, but also people that really worked with Michael for long term, they’re just good people. And they’re approachable. And they’re funny. And they might be a little bit eccentric, but they bring something to the table that Michael knew. And Michael loved that. He loved having a variety of people around him. We just didn’t have a lot of crazy egos in the studio with Michael. I think people see that in my seminars – that we just don’t have egomaniacs. Michael just didn’t work well with people like that. So they’re really cool guys, and I’m pretty proud and pleased that they’re willing to kind of go on this journey with me.
Willa: It sounds fabulous.
Brad: So buy your tickets! Get on my website and buy a ticket. It’s the biggest facility – well, we had a big facility in Tokyo – but this is probably the biggest facility that we’ve used in the States. It’s a big room where people are going to be able to stretch out, and the sound system there is unbelievable. It’s really going to be a special event.
Willa: So how many people can that studio hold?
Brad: I’m told that we can do about 100, maybe 120 – something like that.
Willa: So it will still be really intimate?
Brad: Oh yeah. We’re not talking thousands. No, it’ll certainly be comfortable. And it’s a funky dark studio that people like. I do these all over the place, and some places are so clean and pristine that it’s a little boring. I kind of like something that’s got a little more grit to it. This is a place that just has years of history. So I hope people will consider coming.
Willa: And you’ll be bringing your tapes and pictures and stories?
Brad: We’ll be bringing all kinds of stuff. I haven’t really publicly announced this yet, but tentatively we’ve got a really heavy collector – I don’t want to mention his name – but he’s offered to come and bring some crazy, you know, one of the original gloves, several of the jackets. He just has a remarkable collection. And he’s offered to come in and set that up. People aren’t going to be able to try on jackets or anything, but you know.
And then at night, we’re kind of kicking around the idea of having a Moonwalker night, and just some fun extra things that we might put together. We’re putting our heart and soul into it, and I think it’s really going to be a cool event.
Willa: It sounds very fun!
Brad: So June 20th through 23rd, in Hollywood, California.
Lisha: If anyone would like more information, check out Brad’s beautiful new website. Even if you can’t go to the seminar, you’ll definitely want to spend some time looking around on this site. There’s lots of great information on Brad’s In the Studio with Michael Jackson Facebook page, too.
Thanks again, Brad, for giving us a sneak peek of MJU!
Willa: Yes, thanks so much for talking with us! And we’ll continue our conversation soon, when we talk about Neverland.
Brad: Thank you both!
Lisha: In a previous post we talked about the evolution of Michael Jackson’s Ghosts, from an unfinished cross-promotional short film for Addams Family Values to a 38-minute musical masterpiece, which curiously, never received a proper release. Both films depict a small town Mayor leading an angry mob as they attempt to force the local “weirdo” out of his home and out of town. Unfortunately, the storyline hits terribly close to home when we consider what actually happened in Michael Jackson’s life.
Willa: It really does. It’s almost like he could predict what would happen.
Lisha: Eerily so. After years of being harassed by law enforcement and vilified by the media, “an angry mob” from the Sheriff’s Department raided Michael Jackson’s home and attempted to prosecute him based on flimsy “evidence” that frankly, strains credulity. When the facts were presented in a court of law, Michael Jackson was fully exonerated – suggesting the case should never have been brought in the first place.
But even after vindication, Michael Jackson was informed that he was still in danger of malicious prosecution. Despite his wealth, fame, and proven innocence, Michael Jackson abandoned his home and fled the country.
Willa, I know we’re all troubled by what happened in this case, but the more I think about it, the more deeply troubled I am. I’m just not ok with any government authority forcing an innocent man and his family out of their home and out of town. And it greatly disturbs me that this was accomplished in lockstep with the infotainment industry. Journalists are supposed to question authority and investigate abuses of power, not join in the mob mentality!
Willa: Exactly. That’s why the news media is sometimes called the Fourth Estate. We have a government of three branches or “estates” – the presidency, the congress, and the Supreme Court – that are supposed to provide checks and balances on one another, and then the news media is another avenue of checks and balances. That’s where the term Fourth Estate comes from. But what happens when the media fails to provide that review, and instead only adds momentum to abuses of power? It’s really frightening to think about.
Lisha: It’s terrifying. It is crucial in a democracy that the media investigate all branches of government. When they don’t, we have reason to be alarmed. But to be honest, I’m not sure the media or the prosecution has fully understood their actions in the Michael Jackson case.
Willa: Or the implications of their actions.
Lisha: Yes, and I don’t think the general public has stopped to consider what a slippery slope this is either.
Willa: I agree.
Lisha: So I’d like to dig deeper and try to put Michael Jackson’s expulsion from Neverland into some kind of historical context, in an effort to shed light on how something like this could happen in the “land of the free.” Specifically, I’d like to talk about racial politics in the US and the history of banishment that has occurred in African American communities all across the country.
I recently came across a 2007 documentary film titled Banished, directed and narrated by Marco Williams. It really got me thinking about the painful history of banishment in the US and how this history echoes in Michael Jackson’s exodus from Neverland. For anyone who is interested in watching the film, here’s a link:
Willa: We should probably warn everyone that the documentary is about 90 minutes long, but if you can find the time to watch it, it’s well worth it. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, Lisha, ever since you shared it with me.
Lisha: Me either, Willa. It’s hard to shake.
Willa: It really is, and it shows there has been a recurring pattern in the US, ever since the Civil War ended slavery as a legal institution, of resentful whites destroying successful black communities and confiscating their property. It generally begins with false accusations against a black man – that he has committed rape or some form of sexual assault against a white woman. Then a white mob gathers, and he is either lynched or threatened with lynching. The violence spreads, other black residents are advised to leave their homes if they want to save their lives, and almost everything they own is lost. The pattern is remarkably similar each time, and there are surprising similarities to the Michael Jackson case.
Lisha: Shockingly so. Especially when you consider that almost every case of banishment begins with an unproven allegation of sexual violence.
Willa: Exactly, but that accusation is just a justification for destroying or confiscating black property, which is the real motive.
What we see over and over again is black homeowners, black business owners, and entire black communities forced to flee at a moment’s notice, leaving almost all of their possessions behind. This is especially troubling since I read a study one time that said it generally takes an immigrant family to the US five generations to collect enough assets to be considered comfortably middle class, meaning secure enough where one tragic event like a house fire or the death of a breadwinner won’t send the entire family back into poverty. So if a community loses its property and all of its material assets, it is impoverished not just now but for generations.
Lisha: I agree that the consequences are far-reaching, for the families who have been displaced and for the entire community. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that the law actually supported this process. After victims were terrorized and forced to leave their homes, their property was often taken from them, legally, through laws of adverse possession.
While the specific legalities may be different in Michael Jackson’s expulsion from Neverland, the overall contour is identical: someone in the dominant culture is allowed to decide who can or cannot occupy a certain space – regardless of its rightful ownership – and the actions taken to gain control of that space are mysteriously never questioned or fully examined. In the end, black property and wealth are lost, and someone in the dominant culture takes possession of property that was legally purchased by another.
Willa: Yes, in many cases false accusations of sexual misconduct ultimately led to a legal transfer of property, as you say, Lisha. And the individuals who committed violence against black property owners were almost never held accountable for their actions.
Lisha: That’s exactly right. And we’re not just talking loss of property, but loss of life as well. Many, many African American men lost their lives this way. This is a horrific part of our past that I don’t believe has been honorably resolved. In fact, I believe this history lingers on, but in more subtle ways. For example, in a 2003 CNN interview, Jermaine Jackson called his brother’s arrest “nothing but a modern-day lynching” and I’m inclined to agree with him. While I certainly don’t want to minimize the heinous murders that occurred by comparing them to a case that ended in a fair trial and 14 not-guilty verdicts, I agree with Jermaine Jackson that this violent history still plays out in less obvious forms.
Thomas Mesereau gave an interview to Charles Thomson, Jamon Bull, and Q of the MJ Cast on Vindication Day, June 13, 2015, the tenth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s exoneration in court. As Mesereau has stated before, he strongly urged Michael Jackson to leave his home and never return, warning him that he could never be safe there again (about 1:13:17 minutes into the interview):
Bull: Following the verdict, did Michael make it clear to you that he wanted to leave the United States so soon and head to the Middle East?
Mesereau: Not in the least … When I first got into the case and met the prosecutors and met the sheriffs, and went to the evidence locker to examine evidence they had seized and planned to use in the trial, I had a very distinct feeling they were just on top of the world. They were about to embark on the world’s most covered trial. They felt there was no way they could lose it. They were feeling like movie stars and feeling no pain. …
And I remember watching some of these police officers, these sheriffs, as they were doing a second search [of Neverland]. And you know some of them were like, touching his artwork. It was almost a demonic sort of look on their faces like we’ve got the great Michael Jackson under our control. He might be the great Michael Jackson with all this wealth and fame but we control him. And I had a distinct feeling the cruelty and the abuse he could be subjected to if convicted and incarcerated might have been monumental. I mean to me it was like a death penalty case. …
I told [Michael Jackson] to leave Neverland and not return. And he seemed a bit shocked at what I said. … I said he can’t live in peace there ever again. They have ruined it. I didn’t know where he was going to go. I did not know he was going to the Middle East until he started calling our office from the Middle East. But I strongly urged that he leave and not return. I said, you know, many things in life have a time and a place. Neverland has run its course. You will not be safe there. You know you can’t go through one of these things again.
So Michael Jackson abandoned Neverland, fearing what prosecutors would do to him and his family.
Willa: Wow, Lisha, I hadn’t heard this interview before. Thank you for sharing it. Mesereau’s description of the police at Neverland is just chilling, especially the part about them “touching his artwork” and seeming eager to have “the great Michael Jackson under our control.” It’s horrifying to think about what the police could have done, or what could have happened to him in prison. As Mesereau said, “I had a distinct feeling the cruelty and the abuse he could be subjected to if convicted and incarcerated might have been monumental.” Looking at it this way, I think he was right to treat Michael Jackson’s trial like a death penalty case.
Lisha: I agree. This was no trivial matter. It’s quite clear to me that what happened to Michael Jackson was an act of violence and that he was forced to leave his home in terror. While the violence may take a different form than we’ve historically seen with lynchings, shootings and banishment, nonetheless, violence and terror were inflicted on Michael Jackson. The end result is that he was forced to flee his home and he nearly lost his freedom and his family too. He also suffered tremendous financial losses. By 2008, the AP reported that “Michael Jackson has given up title to his Neverland ranch, transferring the deed to a company he partly controls.”
So as we know, Michael Jackson did lose control of Neverland and it is now for sale. I’ve heard speculation that his Estate may not profit at all from the sale, depending on the final purchase price. Personally, I’m not willing to entertain any theory that Michael Jackson’s complicated debt structure was the cause of this loss, without first taking into account the untold millions that law enforcement and the media cost him.
Willa: Exactly. Blaming the loss of Neverland on his rising debts misses the point, which is that the false allegations against him severely damaged his career and his income, causing him to go into debt. As the article you just cited says, “Jackson has struggled to pay his debts since his financial empire began to crumble following his arrest in 2003.” Actually, the problem began much earlier, with the 1993 allegations.
So as in the three cases studied in the Banished documentary, racial jealousy and false claims of sexual misconduct against a successful black man led to loss of property. It’s tragic, especially when you think of how much he loved Neverland, and how hard he worked to make it a special place where he could feel safe from prying eyes.
Lisha: It is tragic. And there is a direct causal link between the false allegations, the official response to them, and the loss of income and property sustained. Many of the losses can be calculated quite precisely in cold hard cash, like the canceled endorsement deals and movie offers. But Michael Jackson’s home and livelihood were so much more than just a place to live and a way to earn a living.
Willa: Yes, Neverland was much more than a home, and his art was so much more than a source of income. It was his life. It really is heartbreaking.
Lisha: It is.
Willa: But it’s heartbreaking when anyone loses their home. And when we look at this through a historical lens, it becomes very clear that this is part of a larger pattern.
Lisha: I agree. It’s a larger pattern of violence attempts to disguise the intolerance at its root.
Willa: Absolutely. I recently found another documentary called The Night Tulsa Burned and it focuses on one specific case of banishment: the Tulsa, Oklahoma, race riot of 1921, which left as many as 300 people dead and 8,000 people homeless. According to a 2011 features article in The New York Times, it “may be the deadliest occurrence of racial violence in United States history.” Here’s a link to that documentary, which is about 45 minutes long:
Lisha: I’m so glad you shared this, Willa, because for me, the Tulsa riot shows so clearly why even in 2016, we are still fighting for racial justice and “Black Lives Matter.”
Historian Jelani Cobb recently pointed out in a New Yorker article that although the Tulsa race riot was one of the worst incidents of domestic terrorism in US history, it is rarely referred to that way:
The F.B.I. Web page on the [Oklahoma City] Murrah bombing lists it as “the worst act of homegrown terrorism in the nation’s history.” That designation overlooks the Tulsa riots of 1921, in which a white mob, enraged by a spurious allegation that a black teen-ager had attempted to assault a young white woman, was deputized and given carte blanche to attack the city’s prosperous black Greenwood section, resulting in as many as three hundred black fatalities. From one perspective, the Murrah bombing was the worst act of domestic terrorism in our history, but, as the descendants of the Greenwood survivors know, it was likely not even the worst incident in Oklahoma’s history.
Cobb makes a very important point: loss of black life is often diminished or forgotten when the dominant white culture historicizes the past. A big reason for this in the Tulsa case is that law enforcement and the media actually participated in the violence. A local newspaper put out false, inflammatory information to incite the riot, and law enforcement stood by and watched as approximately 300 black Tulsans were murdered. Believe it or not, the National Guard took over 6,000 black citizens into custody while their homes and businesses were being destroyed. And no one was ever arrested or prosecuted for the terrorism that happened that day.
Willa: Yes. It sounds unbelievable but that’s exactly what happened. In fact, the more you learn about the details of the riot, the more outrageous it becomes. Apparently a black teenager, Dick Rowland, who worked at a shoeshine stand in downtown Tulsa, was entering an elevator so he could visit one of the few bathrooms that was available to blacks in that segregated city. It seems he tripped as he entered the elevator and fell against the young white elevator operator, Sarah Page. He was accused of assaulting Page and arrested, but she refused to press charges, and many prominent white businessmen came to his defense, saying that wasn’t in his nature.
However, rumors of the incident spread, and that afternoon The Tulsa Tribune published an inflammatory article that accused Rowland of either rape or attempted rape. That evening, a mob of about 2,000 whites gathered at the courthouse, and violence erupted. The police resisted the mob and protected Rowland from lynching, but they didn’t arrest the white men who were leading the mob. Instead, they arrested thousands of black men, as you say, Lisha, and put them in detention centers, leaving their homes and businesses defenseless.
White men with torches then swept through the Greenwood district of Tulsa, setting fire to black homes and businesses. In the documentary, one riot survivor, George Monroe, describes what happened this way:
I will always remember four men coming in our house with torches. My mother saw them coming and she put the four of we children under the bed. And from under the bed we could see them walking to the curtains and setting fire to the curtains to set our house on fire.
I find this image of the white mob descending on Greenwood with flaming torches in hand eerily evocative of the opening scenes of Ghosts.
Lisha: Exactly! I do too. Monroe’s childhood memory is just so horrific. Like the story in Ghosts, the mob didn’t enter Greenwood looking for a criminal (they knew Rowland was already in custody). The mob went to Greenwood to force people out who they believed were different from them, despite the fact they were on their own property and legally entitled to the same rights and protections everyone else had.
Willa: That’s a very important point, Lisha – Rowland was in jail when the mob descended on Greenwood. That really underscores the fact that the false allegations against Rowland were just an excuse. That’s not what the riot was really about. The true motivation was racial jealousy.
Before the riot, the Greenwood district was one of the wealthiest black communities in the US – an area so prosperous Booker T. Washington called it Negro Wall Street. In the economic expansion of the late 1910s and early 1920s – a period known as the “Roaring Twenties” because it was such a boom time, financially – many businessmen became very wealthy, including black businessmen. And as historian Scott Ellsworth notes in the documentary, “For some white people, a black person with any wealth, then as well as today, is something that created jealousy.” So as black wealth increased, race riots broke out across the nation. As Ellsworth goes on to say,
The important thing to remember about race riots during this period is that they are characterized by whites invading black communities … attacking black businesses, attacking black homes.
So the allegations of sexual misconduct were simply a pretext, a way to justify white aggression against black property owners, when the real motivation was racial jealousy and a blatant land grab.
Lisha: Yes, that is the pattern. When black success occurs, economic jealousy, unproven allegations, and white-on-black violence follows. The false accusations of rape are even more infuriating if we look at the very real problem of white-on-black sexual violence that has occurred all throughout US history.
Willa: Yes, that’s a painful legacy with roots deep in our history. The rape of black women by white slave owners was a common practice for centuries before the Civil War. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, a US President and the author of the Declaration of Independence, had children by one of his slaves – a woman who was herself the (black) daughter of his (white) father-in-law, so his wife’s half-sister. It seems to have been tacitly accepted that white men should have access to black women’s bodies.
However, black men were prohibited from white women’s bodies, even through marriage. Miscegenation was illegal in many states until the Supreme Court finally struck down those laws in 1967. The merest hint of sexual relations between a black man and a white woman, even if it were consensual, remained an inflammatory issue, and many black celebrities were targeted because of this, as if (white) authorities were making an example of them. We see this with Jack Johnson, Chuck Berry, Malcolm X, and many others.
Michael Jackson talked about this in a 2005 interview with Jesse Jackson:
The Jack Johnson story … called Unforgivable Blackness. It’s an amazing story about this man from 1910 who was the heavyweight champion of the world, and thrust into a society that didn’t want to accept his position and his lifestyle. And what they put him through. And how they changed laws to imprison the man, to put him away behind bars, just to get him some kind of way.
Jack Johnson’s unacceptable “position and lifestyle” that Michael Jackson mentions include his title as heavyweight champion of the world, his flamboyant displays of wealth, and his numerous relationships with white women, including three marriages. Because of his success and his defiance of racial expectations, he was targeted by white authorities and sent to prison under the Mann Act. That’s what Michael Jackson was referring to when he said “they changed laws to imprison the man.”
Lisha: Yes, apparently the Mann Act was originally intended to prevent women from being lured into interstate prostitution. The law had to be bent considerably in order to prosecute Jack Johnson. Legally, it’s hard to believe it was used to send him to prison.
Willa: Yes, and that same law was later used to imprison Chuck Berry. There was an attempt to use it against Michael Jackson as well, as Charles Thomson talked about in a post with Joie and me about Michael Jackson’s recently released FBI files. As Charles said, the files reveal that “Tom Sneddon, the DA pursuing Jackson, tried to get the FBI to prosecute Jackson under the Mann Act.”
Lisha: I don’t know how much clearer the connection could be between black success and government persecution, really.
Willa: Yes. Michael Jackson himself clearly saw his case as part of a long history of white authorities targeting successful black figures. For example, when Jesse Jackson asked him, “How are you handling it?,” he replied,
I’m handling it by using other people in the past who have gone through this sort of thing. Mandela’s story has given me a lot of strength – what he’s gone through. The Jack Johnson story … And Muhammad Ali’s story … All these stories that I can go back in history and read about give me strength.
Lisha: It stands to reason that black celebrities are especially vulnerable to this kind of attack, precisely because of their wealth and success. This is especially true of those who refuse to fit the mold of the “model minority,” such as Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jackson. Ali publicly stated that he strongly related to the Jack Johnson story. It’s unsurprising that Michael Jackson identified with both their stories as well.
Here’s something that has been bugging me for a while that I’ve really wanted to talk to you about – it’s Bill Maher’s response to the Jesse Jackson interview you just mentioned. In the past, I’ve considered Bill Maher to be one of our smartest comedians. But have you seen this clip of him belittling Michael Jackson while trying to get Rev. Jackson to denounce his interview with him? It’s disturbing to me how this commentary generates so much laughter:
Willa: I agree the audience’s laughter is very troubling, and so is Bill Maher’s handling of this. I mean, they laugh because he cues them to laugh. But it’s interesting to look at what Maher is saying. He begins by telling Jesse Jackson,
He [Michael Jackson] compared himself this week to Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, and Nelson Mandela. Now, as a civil rights leader who has really, really faced the battlements – I mean, you were there with Martin Luther King when he was shot, you marched, I mean, you faced the firehoses – this has gotta bother you. …
This must upset you when people take this when it’s really not a racial issue.
So Bill Maher seems to think that racism was something that happened in Alabama in 1965, not something that was still happening in California in 2003. The police response to Martin Luther King is clearly racism to Maher, but he doesn’t see how the police handling of the Michael Jackson case also fits a pattern of racism.
But I thought Jesse Jackson’s response to Maher was brilliant:
We all love Nelson Mandela tonight. For 27 years we saw him as a terrorist. We’ve loved him since 1990 [when he was released from prison]. We all love Dr. King today. He was killed as one of America’s most hated men with a target on his back. We all love Jack Johnson now. He was locked out of the ring because of his race.
And so the point is, whether you are Jack Johnson or Paul Robeson or Martin King or Mandela, seemingly when blacks hit very high spots they are in the line of fire. Michael perceives himself to be in that line, and that’s the basis of his statement.
Lisha: I agree with you, Willa, Rev. Jackson nailed it. His response is nothing less than brilliant.
Willa: It really is. First, it puts Michael Jackson’s statement within a historical context that shows there is in fact a pattern of targeting successful black cultural and political leaders. As Jesse Jackson says, “when blacks hit very high spots they are in the line of fire.”
Even more importantly, to my mind, is Jesse Jackson’s point that Nelson Mandela was not a beloved figure when he was in prison, Martin Luther King was not beloved when he was leading marches and pressuring Lyndon Johnson, and Jack Johnson was not beloved when he was challenging the supremacy of the white race in and out of the boxing ring. These figures are treated as respected icons now, when they are gone and no longer a threat, but that’s not how they were treated when they were standing up and challenging white authority. They were harshly criticized and even ridiculed at the time, and so was Michael Jackson.
Lisha: Well said. I’m so glad that Rev. Jackson tactfully pointed out that although Maher can cite some significant events in the past, he still suffers from historical amnesia. He doesn’t see how the past reverberates in the events unfolding right before him.
I was especially interested in how Rev. Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg and Dr. West’s responses differed from Bill Maher and Alec Baldwin. Jackson, Goldberg and West are reluctant to assume the police allegations and media reports are correct, and they don’t seem to find a lot of pleasure in joking about them. Although West is not yet convinced of how grave Michael Jackson’s situation is, he expresses concern that he be given a fair trial. He does not automatically assume that will happen. Maher and Baldwin, on the other hand, take the law enforcement and media narratives at face value and they seem quite entertained by the idea that Michael Jackson got arrested. This effectively divides the conversation across racial lines.
Both Maher and Baldwin indicate they believe Michael Jackson is guilty of something, no proof necessary, and that the charges against him are in no way related to racial persecution. Again, it bothers me that they both find it so humorous, especially after Rev. Jackson just explained that Michael Jackson was denied dignity and due process.
Maher: But is that because he’s black? Really? If this was country singer Alan Jackson sleeping with young boys…?
Baldwin: …You’re at your home and you are inconceivably wealthy. And someone comes into your home and you give them the booze and you’re watching the internet porn and you’re doing this. Then that guy runs out the door and he sues you for trying to do something. You got everything coming to you that you deserve because you’re an idiot that you would put yourself in that position. He’s a dumbass that he put himself in that position.
Their statements assume the following unproven “facts”: (1) sleeping with boys, (2) giving them booze, and (3) watching internet porn. Yet when you look at the evidence, it’s clear these aren’t facts at all. It’s revealing that these assumptions are made by the two white panelists, while everyone else has a “not so fast” attitude in accepting the prosecution/media version of events. When we look at the history of racism in this country, it’s not hard to figure out why people of color don’t automatically assume prosecutors and the media are telling the truth.
Willa: That’s true. I also thought Jesse Jackson raised a very important point when he said that how we see Nelson Mandela now, and Martin Luther King and Jack Johnson now, is very different than how they were seen at the time. History isn’t fixed – it’s constantly being rewritten.
That’s why it’s so important that Michael Jackson’s supporters raise these issues, and keep raising them, until the allegations against him are seen in their proper context. The story of Michael Jackson’s life is still being written, as Toni Bowers addressed so well in a recent article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and it’s up to those of us who care to help write that history.
Lisha: I agree. Michael Jackson fans play an important role by interrogating the media and the government’s response to him. It’s important to keep talking!
Lisha: In a previous post with Elizabeth Amisu and Karin Merx, we began discussing the late David Bowie as an important influence in Michael Jackson’s work. Specifically, we mentioned the theme of isolation and alienation in Bowie’s 1969 music video Space Oddity, and how strongly it echoes in Michael and Janet Jackson’s 1995 short film, Scream.
With the news of David Bowie’s recent passing, we wanted to take another look at some of the connections between him and Michael Jackson. Willa is off this week, but not to worry! She will be back soon. Elizabeth’s upcoming book, The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife, features a fascinating comparison between Michael Jackson and David Bowie. So I’m really excited to welcome Eliza and Karin back to discuss this more!
Elizabeth: Hello again, Lisha. I’m so pleased to be back for a post on the late great Bowie. I was so sad to hear the news. But he has left a great legacy behind.
Lisha: He really has, and it’s wonderful to have you both here to talk about it. Thank you, Elizabeth and Karin.
Karin: Hello, Lisha, nice to be back for a Bowie post. All the great ones seem to go way too early.
Lisha: That does seem true, doesn’t it?
I was wondering if either of you happened to catch the David Bowie exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013. It was a fascinating collection of artifacts from David Bowie’s own archives simply titled: David Bowie Is. I understand the exhibit is touring internationally now. I have to say, it’s one of the most beautiful museum exhibits I have ever seen, featuring these magnificent multimedia displays of Bowie’s work:
As I was walking through the exhibit, I couldn’t help noticing a lot of Jackson/Bowie connections, although I hadn’t really considered it much before. Just curious if either of you had the same experience.
Elizabeth: Hey Lisha, I’m glad you brought this up. I spend a lot of time at the V & A for my research so I caught glimpses. I also perused the book, David Bowie Is, and it’s really something special… So many comparisons and connections between the two. What kept striking me is how Bowie’s influence and his uniqueness is really regarded by the British “establishment” while Jackson is often only begrudgingly tolerated. I thought, I understand exactly why the V & A would host this, but in the same breath, an exhibition on Jackson would be equally wonderful.
Lisha: You read my mind! David Bowie is taken up as a “serious” artist, worthy of a major exhibit at one of the world’s finest museums, while Michael Jackson still gets a fair amount of the wacko treatment and worse. I wonder how David Bowie was so successful in constructing his image as an important avant-garde artist?
Karin: I thought about that, Lisha, and I think it has to do with several factors, including cultural. First of all, when Bowie started his Ziggy Stardust in 1972, it was based on Glam Rock (glitter, high heel boots, etc. – typical British) and lots of teenagers felt drawn to it. It was a way they could express themselves and be accepted. But I don’t think that Bowie was as such tolerated in America. So there we already have a cultural difference.
Lisha: I do get the feeling that David Bowie’s impact in Britain was quite different than in America, although he enjoyed tremendous popularity in the US as well. What else might account for this?
Karin: Pop music, I think, is more a British invention than it was an American. And if you know that a lot of the popular music in America has its roots in black music and was taken over by white groups, then there is already a significant difference. Both, by the way, had their cultural revolution in the sixties and the beginning of the seventies – all a reflection from the second World War, although the US was fighting for equal rights for black people, and had their own war in Vietnam. There were a lot of artists in Europe that demonstrated against that war.
Lisha: You bring up a good point. There’s been a very productive musical dialogue between Britain and the US for some time, with musical innovations traveling back and forth. Of course this includes British Pop and American R&B, which were hugely influential for both artists.
But for some reason I don’t remember Bowie receiving such strong push back in the US, the way Michael Jackson did. Am I wrong about that?
Karin: Umm…wasn’t it Bowie who said he was bisexual in the US? Being controversial just because? That certainly did not fall into good soil …
Lisha: You’re right, that would certainly invite controversy! No doubt about it, especially in the 1970s. But as I reflect on David Bowie’s work, one of the things I admire is how effective he was at leading societal attitudes. He wasn’t so many steps ahead that you couldn’t read what he was doing and follow along. For example, there have been some wonderful stories recently about how effective he was at addressing social prejudice towards the LGBT community. I think it’s an important part of his legacy.
Elizabeth: You’re so right, Lisha. I watched an interview with him where he said that discussions about his sexual orientation really affected his ability to be as successful as he wanted to in the States.
Elizabeth: Jackson also had a lot of rumours about his sexuality. I wonder why that often seems to be the first questionable subject when a maverick appears in the industry.
Lisha: That’s an extremely important question. Refusing to conform to social constructions of heteronormativity is often considered very problematic, and we’ve seen a number of popular musicians challenge this in a very productive way. But when rumors of sexuality combine with other factors, such as racial politics, things can really get ugly. Michael Jackson faced backlash that I don’t think any other artist has had to deal with.
For example, I don’t recall anyone challenging David Bowie about his one blue eye. No one called it weird, claimed he surgically altered his eye, or made comments about eye color and racial identity. It was just accepted he had an eye injury and that was that. His blue eye read as edgy and cool.
Elizabeth: That is SO TRUE! Bowie’s eyes were seen as obviously having a serious medical reason, another thing that made him unique and special and enigmatic. However, the dominant narrative about Jackson altering himself (starting in the 1980s) quickly became the go-to answer for everything about his physical changes. It is unfair in a lot of ways.
Lisha: Incredibly so.
Elizabeth: Also, it seems that eye colour is not nearly as contentious as skin colour. Due to the legacy of racial stereotyping and eugenics, ethnicity has so much added cultural value. Some of which is so deeply ingrained that we don’t even know where exactly it stems from.
Lisha: I agree. And society could choose to categorize people by eye color, but for whatever reason we don’t, except perhaps to praise the beauty of blue eyes. Of course that raises a very troubling question: why should one eye color be valued more than another? It’s a problematic notion that no doubt carries a lot of historical baggage.
Here’s a photo of Bowie playing up the difference in his eyes:
I find it fascinating that Michael Jackson also experimented with different eye colors for the cover of the Invincible album:
Here’s another photo by Arno Bani that was considered for the cover of Invincible:
Elizabeth: Yes, Lisha. I’m so glad you introduced Invincible into this discussion because it’s so often overlooked. Invincible is possibly Jackson’s most avant-garde album. It wasn’t really designed to be a people pleaser so much as an artistic expression of Jackson’s own making. The cover and the illumination of the right eye (the viewer’s left) is particularly interesting. Again, it is unexplained but I always draw attention to the pixelation of this eye indicates Jackson is becoming digital, on the cusp of a digital age, and that digital sound is really evident in songs like 2000 Watts. Also, there is the adage, ‘the eyes are the window to the soul’. Hence why on the cover of Dangerous we look into Jackson’s eyes and are confronted with an explosion of all these images which proliferate around them.
Lisha: The single pixelated eye found on back of the album reinforces your points quite well. That’s a wonderful connection you make between the digital cover art and digital sound of the recording! I agree it’s an album that deserves much more attention.
Thinking about all this just made me flash on another Bowie move, which is the bright red Ziggy Stardust hairstyle that’s been called “A Radical Red Revolution.” Suzi Ronson was the hairstylist behind the look, and she said that Bowie wanted to do something different from the typical long hair in rock music. So she cut his hair short and dyed it bright red to create a look that was antithetical to rock at that time.
Last summer I was doing some research and was surprised to learn that red hair is commonly stigmatized, especially in Britain, where it is associated with Irish and Scottish descent. It got me to thinking about how David Bowie’s red hair reads as super glam rock cool and really busts through this social prejudice, whether it intends to or not.
Red hair is also part of a familiar comedy routine – the classic clown character – which has been interpreted as a parody based on prejudice towards the Irish and Scottish. According to The Racial Slur Database:
Not used so much as a racial slur, however, the classic clown is based on a stereotyped image of Irish people: bushy red hair, a large red nose (from excessive drinking), and colorful clothes often with plaids, and often with a great many patches to represent that the Irish were poor and could not buy themselves new clothes. With excessive plaid is a Scottish variation.
Getting back to Michael Jackson, there is considerable overlap in the history of clowning and blackface minstrelsy, both of which feature comical characters with painted faces and bushy wigs. Willa and I talked with Harriet Manning a while back about her work on blackface minstrelsy, and she very convincingly showed how Michael Jackson engaged with these demeaning stereotypes while effectively turning them inside out.
So I think we can draw a connection between Michael Jackson and David Bowie as artists who have engaged with deeply ingrained stereotypes and their historical representation. They’ve done important cultural work by pushing back against social prejudices that have been perpetuated through the entertainment industry. Most of this work flies under the radar of public awareness. As you said, Elizabeth, these stereotypes have become so deeply ingrained, we often have no idea where they came from.
In regard to the response it generated, what are other explanations for why Michael Jackson and David Bowie were treated so differently in the press?
Karin: Bowie did not disappear from the public, unlike Michael Jackson after his massive Thriller success. That gave the press all the space to create their own stories. And Bowie developed all his personas, created with 27 studio albums, whereas Michael’s personas were, probably because of his absence most of the time, created by the press (the monster) and fans (the angel) etc. Furthermore, Michael could have created tons of albums, but only made about 6. I think that if you can follow an artist and his development, and here Bowie and his personas, the combination, theatre/pop-music, it is like following the development of an artist, who is then taken seriously and accepted as an artist.
Lisha: I agree that the amount of effort, time and money that went into Michael Jackson’s mature work meant there were not going to be a lot of albums to promote. And musically, I think this is one of the biggest differences between the two: Bowie’s music feels spontaneous and almost improvised, while Jackson’s music is unbelievably detailed, highly polished and lavishly produced.
Elizabeth: I agree with you both. We can underestimate the sheer complexity of the recording process, and the quality vs. quantity argument is always very relevant. However, the rate of output of one album every four years is a relatively slow output. On the 2001 Special Edition of Bad, there are some lovely interviews with Quincy Jones and he talks about having to make final cuts with Jackson. It seems like an arduous process. In the music industry the longer one is away, the more releases are produced in the interim, the more publicity dissipates, and the more work it is to make the next album a success.
Lisha: That’s a great point, although many artists worry about overexposure as well. It must be like walking a tightrope to get it just right!
As you’ve both mentioned, Michael Jackson’s inaccessibility probably did lead to negative publicity. Sony executive Dan Beck talked about this in a recent interview:
A lot of people in the media were unhappy with Michael because he didn’t talk to them and Frank DiLeo [Jackson’s manager] essentially kept him away from the press, I think with good reason because Michael only had so much to say and he also was a very vulnerable guy. He wasn’t media savvy in the way of sitting down with a journalist and really having that engaging conversation. He was just too much in a bubble.
Frank kept him away, so with all the success that he had there were some media people who were very frustrated that they couldn’t talk to him. So, when things started to crack and there were more odd entities in his life, it started to turn negative.
Karin: But it was also Dileo who – together with Jackson – made up that weird hyperbaric chamber story, which gained Jackson a lot of negativity. And I read somewhere that Jackson liked the mystique of not being too much on TV or in the public eye.
Elizabeth: Do we know this for sure? In Man in the Music Joe Vogel writes:
[H]e cultivated a persona that kept people guessing (and talking). He liked the idea of being mysterious and elusive. He was fascinated with masks, costumes, and metamorphosis. Around this time, he even began to embrace and perpetuate the public perception of his strangeness and eccentricity. (106)
Lisha: I wonder if all of the above is true. If DiLeo planted the hyperbaric chamber story, I think there’s an argument to be made that it backfired. I’m curious if that might be one reason they decided to stay away from the press altogether. But then again, Bowie and others got away with doing and saying many strange and eccentric things, yet didn’t suffer too much for it!
At least for some period of time, it seems Michael Jackson had a deliberate strategy to avoid interviews. I was intrigued by this revealing personal note he wrote in his copy of the book, The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene:
“No more talking. Silence is more powerful.”
Here’s a screenshot of Michael Jackson’s handwritten note from Bonham’s website, the auction house that sold his annotated copy of the book:
Elizabeth: Ah, so interesting. It’s this balance between being seen and being a spectacle. The magic is the reveal. To hold back the representation of self until the reveal.
Lisha: I agree! There is so much dramatic tension in this.
Elizabeth: However, “when the media didn’t cooperate with his [Jackson’s] game and turned malicious,” to quote Joe Vogel again, we began to see a very ugly side of Jackson’s representation by the press. The press constructed Wacko Jacko out of the vacuum constructed from this disappearing act. It’s this persona which, coupled with the Monster Persona, seems to be keeping Jackson out of the V & A. Bowie didn’t have the same level of absence in his appearance, so much more about his performance was a performance, whereas Jackson’s “entire life would be performance art,” as Vogel says, “a way to turn the tables on an intrusive media and public that felt they owned him… they were subject to his directions and imagination” (106).
Lisha: I have often wondered why so many journalists felt they were entitled to have access to Michael Jackson. That’s really troubling to me actually, like a display of their power. It obviously spiraled out of control when law enforcement decided to join in the game.
There’s something else I’m curious about, and Karin, I thought you would be well positioned to answer this. The British sociomusicologist Simon Frith, who is one of the key figures in popular music studies, wrote a book in 1987 titled Art Into Pop. Frith argues very persuasively about how the British art education system influenced popular music and its reception. For example, experimental jazz became quite fashionable after it was taken up by art students who deemed it art school chic. It gained social and cultural capital that it previously lacked. So I’ve been thinking about how visual artists function as cultural gatekeepers in popular music, influencing what can be accepted as “cool.”
Do you see this influence in popular music? How much of Bowie’s reception is based on his legibility as art school chic?
Karin: Oh, Lisha, I absolutely think Frith is right. And also what he writes about the blurred boundaries between the so called “High” and “Low” art. These blurring lines were to be found in all kind of art forms. Designers became artists and vice versa, artists played music, created bands, ended up in music, and it is not so strange to see theatrical forms mixed into the performances. In Holland also, lots of art students had bands and one of them, Fay Lofsky, is a trained visual artist who ended up in music, making all kind of experimental sounds, instruments, etc.
I definitely think that a part of Bowie’s reception is based on his legibility as art school chic, which I think is very European. Difficult to describe, but I also believe that the artists who took on popular music, “messed” with it as much as they did with visual art – the “everything is possible” way of thinking. And even though I think Jackson was one of the first and most experimental sound designers of his time, it never came across as such. We know now, but he polished his complex compositions in a way that his music was/is for everyone. Bowie is more niche and therefore may also be considered more avant-garde.
Lisha: That’s a great observation that a niche market often translates into “cool.” I’ve noticed that as well. And I’m also amazed there is so little attention given to how detailed, complex, and experimental Michael Jackson’s recordings are. They are commonly understood as simplistic, which must have to do with perception, since it doesn’t accurately describe the recordings themselves.
Karin: I think, Lisha, that has also to do with the commerce. Michael Jackson was incredibly commercial, or maybe we should say he was a bestselling artist, and somehow people think that those two do not go well together, commerce and art. But there are/were very rich, very well selling great artists, like Basquiat for instance in the beginning of the eighties, and there are equally very good artists that do or did not sell well or not at all. That has nothing to do with whether their art is good or bad. That whole idea is connected with some silly romantic thought that artists should be or are poor. In short, the overall perception is that commercial works cannot be products of high standard art, and that’s how Jackson’s work was treated.
Lisha: You’re so right that there is a very stubborn, rigid cultural idea out there that says commercially successful music cannot be of high artistic value. Yet, as Susan Fast points out in her book on the Dangerous album, certain rock musicians are curiously exempt from this rule! Very suspicious, indeed.
David Bowie gave an interview to National Public Radio’s Terry Gross in 2003, and in it I think it gives us a clue about the relationship of visual art to popular music. Curious to hear your take on it:
Some of us were failed artists, or reluctant artists. The choices were either, for most Brit musicians at that point, painting or making music, and I think we opted for music. One, because it was more exciting, and two, because you can actually earn a living at it.
But I think we brought a lot of our aesthetic sensibilities to it, in terms of we wanted to manufacture a new kind of vocabulary, a new kind of currency. And so, the so-called “gender-bending,” the picking up of maybe aspects of the avant-garde, and aspects, for me personally, things like the Kabuki theater in Japan, and German expressionist movies, and poetry by Baudelaire, and it’s so long ago now — everything from Presley to Edith Piaf went into this mix of this hybridization, this pluralism about what, in fact, rock music was and could become . . .
It was a pudding, you know? It really was a pudding. It was a pudding of new ideas, and we were terribly excited, and I think we took it on our shoulders that we were creating the 21st century in 1971. That was the idea. And we wanted to just blast everything in the past.
Karin: Yeah, and to come back on the difference in culture, this is definitely one of them. Not to downplay American history, but what Bowie says here is very European.
Lisha: I so agree with you!
Karin: It also came right after the “democratisation wave” that kept most parts of Europe very busy at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies. Artists worked conceptually, which meant that they created controversial work or as Bowie mentions, “we wanted to just blast everything in the past.” That brought also the more improvised feel with it as you mentioned before. Jackson was more into creating perfection, to the extent that, even though he composed many songs, just a few were carefully selected for his album. I saw a little footage after Bowie passed away that showed Bowie on the floor of his studio with a pair of scissors cutting up text that obviously became a lyric for one of his songs – so a massive difference in the creative process. He also did not spend as much on a record as Jackson did.
Lisha: I found this short clip of Bowie demonstrating his “cut-ups” technique:
Karin: Brilliant! Lisha, that to me is what I wrote before, about the visual artist messing with (pop) music, and therefore I believe the influence art had in this music. It’s kind of creating a collage but then for lyrics of a song – sort of a Matisse way of creating a new colorful picture, but now creating “colorful” lyrics. Brian Eno (Roxy Music) had the same background and way of creating, and it was definitely an influence in pop music.
Lisha: That’s such a good point. I think we can see how Bowie used these artistic concepts and how it enhanced his image as art school chic.
Karin: It is by the way interesting to read that Bowie did not like performing that much, where Michael always tried to create the biggest show on earth. So Bowie is more for a niche audience than Jackson, and that gives this “avant-garde” feel.
Lisha: Yes, and isn’t it interesting that Bowie managed to retain his avant-garde appeal, even after his act became very big business?
I’ve been thinking a lot about how David Bowie and Michael Jackson were both strong visual artists themselves. To my eye, Bowie’s artwork expresses a more dystopian vision of the future and conforms to an avant-garde chic aesthetic, while Michael Jackson takes a very different approach, more towards a fantasy and utopian impulse. I wonder if we can relate this to their musical ideas as well.
For example, Willa and Joie wrote a wonderful blog on “Will You Be There,” and they described how Michael Jackson quotes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the intro to the song, using it like a hymn to express a utopian vision of brotherhood. It sets up the song by first suggesting a vision of the world as it could be.
As early as 1972, Bowie also used portions of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as an introduction for his live Ziggy Stardust shows. The recording he used is a synthesizer version by Wendy Carlos, which was featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film Clockwork Orange. However, Beethoven’s music was used both in the film and in Bowie’s show to express a nightmarish, dystopian vision of the future, quite the opposite from how Michael Jackson used the same work. David Bowie described his Ziggy Stardust concept to William S. Burroughs in Rolling Stone:
The time is five years to go before the end of the earth . . . Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, ’cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news . . . It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite . . . they take bits of Ziggy . . . they tear him to pieces onstage during the song “Rock and Roll Suicide” . . .
I think this demonstrates how David Bowie and Michael Jackson were both particularly adept at musical hybridization, utilizing elements as disparate as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in popular music. But it’s interesting to note how they used the very same technique and the same music to express very different ideas. The connection is quite compelling and reveals their difference at the same time.
Another very interesting connection that comes to mind is that they were both a part of the glamorous Studio 54 scene in New York in the 1970s, although once again, their participation might be viewed in very different ways.
Elizabeth: It’s a strange one, Lisha. You’re right. Raven Woods talks about this in a recent post at All For Love Blog: “It was even reported that they had danced together at Studio 54, when Michael supposedly taught David how to do ‘The Robot’!”
Most of the final section of The Dangerous Philosophies is about how Jackson receives different treatment from other artists and why that is. The first thing we have to recognise is that Jackson was a child star. Immediately, that sets him apart from everyone else.
Lisha: Yes. Not only was Michael Jackson a child star, he was a teen idol and the lead singer of a group that is still described as a “boy band,” to make matters worse. Just this past September, Rolling Stone named “I Want You Back” as the “Greatest Boy Band” song ever. Talk about a back-handed compliment! I can’t find any evidence to suggest the Jackson 5 were produced any differently from all the other spectacular Motown acts, so I really have trouble with defining the Jackson 5 as a “boy band.” It’s also pretty clear that the Jackson 5 appealed to adult audiences, even in the early days, thus the late night club dates Michael Jackson worked while still attending elementary school. I don’t believe the Jackson 5 were ever exclusively a youth act, nor did they exclusively appeal to females.
Elizabeth: Yep. It’s true. But sometimes we underestimate the power of the boy band on the collective social consciousness. I recently caught MTV doing a feature on One Direction, and I didn’t realize they were so successful. I also remember when Take That split, people were crying. The Jackson 5 were the genesis of all this global adoration and mass hysteria, and the hold that has makes it so difficult for someone like Jackson to be able to change physically and artistically right before his public.
Lisha: There is just so much social baggage that goes along with being a teen idol and there is no doubt Michael Jackson suffered as a result. I noticed in that even in the new Spike Lee documentary, there is a lot of anxiety about whether or not Michael Jackson was “adult” enough. For anyone who’s interested, here’s a quick overview of the topic from Dr. Robin James: “If You Hate Justin Bieber, Patriarchy Wins.”
Eliza, would you like to say a little more about the Bowie/Jackson comparison in your upcoming book?
Elizabeth: The chapter in my book which discusses Bowie and Jackson is “Horcruxes: Michael (Split Seven Ways) Jackson.” I also compare Jackson to Johann Sebastian Bach, Stevie Wonder and four other artists. I really tried to find a new way of talking about Jackson because he’s so unique. One of the most challenging things is to come up with a language for how we relate to him as audiences and spectators. Jackson is superlative. One of the ways I try and explore this is through metaphor.
Lisha: Wow, that does sound fascinating. What a counterintuitive group of artists to compare! I am so looking forward to reading your book. By the way, what exactly is a horcrux? It sounds like something spooky from a Harry Potter movie!
Elizabeth: I’m really so excited for you to read it. It’s been a labor of love for two years. A “horcrux” is from a Potter movie. It’s a way to cheat death by putting pieces of a soul into objects. For a fuller explanation (and pretty pictures) see: Pottermore. I like this metaphor for Michael Jackson, especially in terms of looking at him from new perspectives. If you look at Jackson through the prism of another artist it becomes easier to articulate who and what he signifies. I also really like the image of a prism because through it white light is revealed to be many colours. Jackson, for me, is like that. I always find more than I was looking for when I look in different way.
Lisha: That sounds like a perfect metaphor. I’m always amazed by how many lenses it takes to view Michael Jackson’s work. Like I was saying earlier, I didn’t really think about David Bowie as a major Michael Jackson influence until I saw the V & A exhibit in London. Then it seemed like such an obvious connection I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before.
Elizabeth: That’s what happened to me. Every time I found a new person to compare Jackson to I found more connections. I was really inspired by Willa’s book and how she deconstructed the appearance of Warhol in the Scream short film: another horcrux. Jackson met Warhol on several occasions and Bowie played Warhol in a film. There’s a great powerful connection there.
Lisha: For all we know, the three of them were hanging out together at Studio 54! Willa’s analysis is really inspiring, I agree. We also started to tackle a Warhol/Jackson comparison a little while back. Like everything Michael Jackson, there’s so much more to explore.
I wonder how much is known about any possible interaction between Michael Jackson and David Bowie? In Molly Meldrum’s tribute to Bowie written shortly after his death, he reports that Michael Jackson was “a major David Bowie fan.” I had not heard that before, but I must say I’m not surprised in the least.
Elizabeth: I don’t know that much about Jackson and Bowie’s interactions on a personal level, but artistically, they share a wonderful sense of style, enigmatic persona-creation, showmanship and definitely, the power of androgynous self-representation.
Karin: I don’t know how much interaction there was between the two, but if you know Bowie and his artistic life, you can at least see a lot of similarities. Apart from the way they often provoked the world with their music, both also were very good actors. If you know the film Basquiat by artist Julian Schnabel, Bowie plays Andy Warhol, very well.
So, we know about Warhol and Jackson, they met and have a lot in common, and the same goes for Bowie and Jackson, as Elizabeth writes, the androgynous self-representation, showmanship etc. It is interesting to me that the three somewhere meet, and with somewhere I mean the way all three had the ability to cultivate a persona. Warhol kind of started this, Bowie took it and used it throughout his career and Jackson did the same. All three were exploiting the boundaries between the artist and their art. However, I think the relation between Jackson and Bowie or Warhol is not that clear at first hand for a lot of people.
Elizabeth: But that’s because Jackson has only really started meriting serious academic discussion posthumously. So when we start with something simple like Ziggy Stardust, the stage character Bowie created, with (like Harry Potter) a lightning bolt on his face. He lands on stage, an alien from mars, a spectre. Jackson did the same in the HIStory tour. He landed in a spacecraft in a gold and silver spacesuit.
Lisha: I think this points to one of the most important connections between two: the sheer theatricality of their performances. As popular music scholar John Covach recently noted, there were a number of rock musicians back in the 60s and 70s bringing strong theatrical elements into their work, but Bowie seemed to really take it to another level.
Elizabeth: He completely does. Also, if we think about Glam Rock, it’s all about the show. Making it bigger and more outlandish than ever. I read in David Bowie: Style that he went to learn stagecraft and stage design and then he started to incorporate a lot of what he learned into his productions.
Lisha: I can definitely see how this must have influenced Michael Jackson. Bowie even said that as young musician, he dreamed of writing for musical theatre:
I really wanted to write musicals. That’s what I wanted to do more than anything else. And because I like rock music, I kind of moved into that sphere, somehow thinking that somewhere along the line I’d be able to put the two together. And I suppose I very nearly did with the Ziggy character … My point was I wanted to rewrite how rock music was perceived and I thought that I could do some kind of vehicle involving rock musicals and presenting rock and characters and storyline in a completely different fashion.
Elizabeth: Bowie really understood that a performer is far more than the music. They are a character within their viewers’ minds. The world of the celebrity is often so distant from their experience that they might as well be aliens. Bowie wielded the power of a persona so expertly, Ziggy Stardust became entirely separate from him.
Lisha: Raven Wood’s wonderful post you mentioned really gets into this. Michael Jackson and David Bowie are both incredibly theatrical musicians and performers, but the major difference is that Bowie’s alter egos were perfectly legible as theatrical roles, while Michael Jackson’s were not. As John Covach said, “Michael Jackson was still Michael Jackson.” I think that’s a crucially important distinction.
To prove the point, we don’t need to look any further than Jarvis Cocker’s disruption of “Earth Song” at the 1996 Brit Awards. Cocker told The Guardian’s Lucy Siegle in 2012 that he protested this performance because he objected to Michael Jackson “pretending to be Christ.” Siegle writes:
Does [Cocker] feel remorse for that stage invasion incident at the Brits in 1996 now that he’s engaged with the Arctic and other environmental issues? After all, Michael Jackson was merely giving an epic performance of “Earth Song,” presumably directing our attention to the strife of the planet. “Well, and pretending to be Christ,” says Jarvis, only slightly rolling his eyes. “It is a right good song, obviously.”
The same year Jarvis Cocker gave the above interview to The Guardian, he praised Bowie’s use of alter egos in a BBC special titled David Bowie & the Story of Ziggy Stardust, showing a great deal of reverence for Bowie’s theatrical roles.
While I’m not at all convinced Michael Jackson was “pretending to be Christ” at the Brit Awards, I would be curious to hear Cocker’s take on other actors who have played the role. For example, David Bowie played the role of Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ. He did a very powerful scene opposite Willem Dafoe as Christ. Is Cocker similarly offended?
What about Bowie’s 1999 album cover ‘hours. . .’?
According to Nicholas Pegg, David Bowie confirmed the cover photo was inspired by Michelangelo’s La Pieta, a sculpture of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Christ. I’d love to know Cocker’s thoughts on Bowie as both the Virgin Mary and Christ!
And what about David Bowie “pretending to be Christ” in his 2013 video The Next Day?
I noticed Cocker didn’t seem to object at all in the interviews he gave following the video’s release.
Elizabeth: You’ve hit the nail on the head, Lisha. Bowie was clearly playing different roles but Jackson left us with ambiguity because, being “Michael Jackson” was the role. There’s a vacuum between person and persona. In my essay, “‘Throwing Stones to Hide Your Hands’: The Mortal Persona of Michael Jackson,” I deconstruct these personas. There’s a fissuring of Jackson’s reception which makes it difficult for us to come to the kind of agreement needed to legitimise him in art and culture. Everyone is looking at the same artist and seeing something different.
Lisha: This is an excellent point. There is still no consensus on Michael Jackson and I think there is a segment of society that wants to punish him for his transgressions. Your excellent article compares Michael Jackson’s reception to a biblical stoning. Doesn’t Jarvis Cocker’s protest reflect this punishing attitude as well?
Elizabeth: That is entirely true. Unfortunately, because of the ways in which Jackson bucked the trend and crossed boundaries, he becomes the scapegoat for a lot of society’s neuroses. I recently read a wonderful essay by a student, Maya Curry, called “But Did We Have a Good Time? An Examination of the Media Massacre of Michael Jackson.” It won an award in 2010. There was almost a sense of glee in the way in which Jackson was hounded on every front. Primarily by the press but also by stalkers and admirers. Germaine Greer wrote this in her obituary for him in The Guardian. It brings to mind the Shakespeare quote, “here’s much to do with hate, but more with love” (Romeo and Juliet 1.1.165). The stoning was part and parcel of everyone who made him, the press, the public and even the overwhelming adoration he endured which made it impossible to go anywhere anonymously.
Lisha: Wow, that’s really it! And thank you so much for mentioning Curry’s essay. You’ve given us so much to think about in terms of Michael Jackson’s reception and how David Bowie made parallel moves to a very different effect.
There’s just so much more to say about the connections between Bowie and Jackson, especially how they both created music with such strong visual elements. So in closing, maybe we should let some imagery do the talking. Thank you so much Elizabeth and Karin for joining me and for such a wonderful discussion!
Lisha: This week, Willa and I are delighted to be joined by dance scholar Elizabeth June Bergman. For the past five years Elizabeth’s fascination with Michael Jackson has produced a small body of research in MJ Dance Studies. She is currently furthering her work on Jackson as a doctoral student in the Dance Studies program at Temple University. Elizabeth also holds an MFA in dance performance from the University of Iowa (2009). She has taught a range of dance and somatic forms including yoga, ballet, modern, and improvisation as well as dance history and theory courses.
Last fall, I caught up with Elizabeth at the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association conference, where she gave a fascinating presentation titled “Allusions, Citations, and Cultural Literacy: Michael Jackson’s Choreographic Versioning.” We had such a wonderful conversation about MJ and “choreographic versioning” that I can’t wait to talk about it more with her today! Welcome, Elizabeth.
Willa: Yes, thanks so much for joining us, Elizabeth. I’m very excited to hear about your work.
Elizabeth: Thank you so much for having me. I am a longtime follower of Dancing with the Elephant and am so honored to join the conversation. I’ve been presenting short papers on Michael Jackson’s dance work at academic conferences since 2012 and am now relishing the mentorship and organizational structure that a doctoral program contributes to my expanding project on Jackson as a dancer and dancemaker.
Lisha: That’s so wonderful to hear. I had a look at your impressive list of academic research on Michael Jackson and I have to say, I think you are doing really important work. Of all the pressing research that needs to be done on Michael Jackson, this is probably at the top of list, in my opinion.
Willa: I agree. There’s a growing body of research on Michael Jackson’s music, short films, and even his persona, but it seems like the scholarship on his dance is lagging behind. So the kind of analysis you’re doing, Elizabeth, is really important, I think.
Lisha: So to get started, would you like to explain a little bit about what you mean by the term “choreographic versioning”?
Elizabeth: Yes, “choreographic versioning” is the term I’ve recently been using to frame Jackson’s citations and homages to entertainers and artists such as James Brown, Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, etc. I was prompted to write about this last spring after reading some user comments on this YouTube “mash up” video of Bob Fosse performing as The Snake in 1974’s The Little Prince set to MJ’s Billie Jean:
Lisha: That is such an exquisite performance! I’ve read many times that Michael Jackson was quite the fan of this film. While I definitely see some very Jacksonesque movement there, I don’t know exactly how to put my finger on it.
Willa: I agree. There are some poses that seem like exact “quotations,” like this one 2:54 minutes in:
We’ve all seen Michael Jackson strike a similar pose in “Billie Jean.” Here’s a video that places some of those iconic poses side by side:
There’s also his costume. Fosse’s black hat (though it’s a bowler, not a fedora) and his white spats covered in glittery rhinestones against the black pants and shoes – that all seems very similar to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” wardrobe.
But more than the specific poses or the costume, there’s something about the way Bob Fosse moves, and the way he inhabits his body – the way he fully extends his arms, for example, or bends his knees, or shuffles his feet. There’s even a bit of a moonwalk beginning at 4:20 in the video you shared, Elizabeth. But I don’t know how to really explain the resemblance.
Elizabeth: Willa, your observations are incredibly perceptive! It is tricky to articulate exactly which of Fosse’s specific qualities and movements influenced Jackson since Jackson’s style was so hybridized, but I see an elegant angularity, instances of outstretched arms and rhythmic isolated accentuations of neck, shoulders, head, and pelvis, the series of backwards shuffling steps you mentioned, certain akimbo poses, and of course the jauntily tipped hat and glove-covered jazz hands in Fosse’s Snake choreography as being part of what Jackson might have intentionally borrowed.
Willa: The “jazz hands”! Yes, I know exactly what you mean.
Elizabeth: Of course, Fosse was also inspired by Astaire, so some of those attributes I just mentioned could easily reflect back to Astaire and his influences. The video made its point however: Jackson was clearly influenced by Fosse’s style and movement vocabulary. This was not news: Jackson was vocal about his interest in Fosse’s work. Here’s a screen grab I found on the internet from the Bad 25 documentary (at about 1:23:43) of a note penned by Jackson:
Willa: Wow, that’s wonderful! I don’t remember seeing that note before, but it shows that Michael Jackson was very conscientious about “study[ing] the greats” and choosing specific traditions and choreography to create certain moods or feelings. For example, he said in this 1999 MTV interview that he thought the zombie dance in Thriller should start with “a jazzy step” to create the right mood. And the note you shared, Elizabeth, shows he knew exactly where to look for inspiration for the Smooth Criminal choreography.
I’ve often read that he was a “natural” or “intuitive” dancer, which is true to some extent, I think – even Michael Jackson himself suggested that dancing required something innate, something you’re born with. But it overlooks the fact that he was also a scholar of dance and very deliberately drew inspiration from some of the best: James Brown, Fred Astaire, Jackie Wilson, Bob Fosse, even Marcel Marceau.
Elizabeth: Jackson was incredibly gifted as a mover and musician, especially in terms of rhythmic acuity. But as you point out, he was an astute student! Coming from a dance background myself, I find the term “natural” with regards to dance somewhat problematic, especially when considering the historical baggage thrust upon black dancers in the United States. Any kind of dancing is learned, whether in a social or familial setting or via a student-teacher or mentoring relationship.
I think my hesitance about framing Jackson’s dancing this way stems from my understanding of how saying something is “natural” potentially denies the labor and intelligence required for learning and mastering. It’s true Jackson didn’t grow up attending what is typically viewed as “formal” dance classes and that he did talk about dancing as requiring something innate, but my point in troubling these terms is meant to highlight his incredible acts of labor and the keen intelligence that he brought into learning dance techniques – either by mimicking the moves of James Brown he saw on TV as a child or the time he spent in the studio with, say, Bruno “Pop n Taco” Falcon or any of the other dancer/choreographers he worked with over the years.
But I digress! We were talking about Jackson’s “choreographic versioning,” which I’ll explain in more detail in a moment. It was not just the YouTube video of Jackson/Fosse that started my thinking on this, but it was the title of another YouTube video featuring the same The Little Prince footage, “Michael Jackson’s Famed Style and Moves are Fosse Knock-offs,” that got under my skin.
Lisha: I have to say, that title bothers me as well.
Elizabeth: Right?! The YouTube user who posted and titled the video doesn’t necessarily have a nuanced understanding of the history of racial politics in American entertainment and popular culture. I understand Bob Fosse to be part of the tradition of American popular and theatrical dance of borrowing, riffing on, and appropriating movements from vernacular dances as well as other theatrical artists. In his performance and choreographic career, Fosse riffed on his predecessors in popular entertainment as well as borrowed from social dances of various eras.
Lisha: That’s so true. You know Willa and I were talking about this in a post not too long ago about Fred Astaire and Michael Jackson Because artists are constantly interacting with each other’s work, at some point in time you have to wonder, who is appropriating who?
Elizabeth: Exactly. I really appreciated the way you and Willa tackled the troubling history of racial stereotypes in the Hollywood musical in that blog and Astaire’s participation in what is viewed now as extremely offensive. Cultural borrowing is not one directional, but who gets credit and who gains capital is often unfortunately based on racial politics.
Willa: That’s a really important point, Elizabeth. Joe Vogel wrote about this phenomenon in terms of music in an article in The Atlantic a couple years ago:
The cultural gatekeepers not only failed to initially recognize the legitimacy of these new musical styles and forms, they also tended to overlook or reduce the achievements of the African-American men and women who pioneered them. The King of Jazz, for white critics, wasn’t Louis Armstrong, it was Paul Whiteman; the King of Swing wasn’t Duke Ellington, it was Benny Goodman; the King of Rock wasn’t Chuck Berry or Little Richard, it was Elvis Presley.
Elizabeth: Great reference, Willa. I respect Joe Vogel’s work on Jackson so much and what he says about American music definitely applies to American social and popular dance, although the “original authors” of these dances were typically communities and not specific individuals: the Charleston, the Lindy Hop, the Twist, hip hop, etc are all examples of social dance forms that have been capitalized upon by white artists. This issue has been the subject of various scholarly studies on popular dance in America – in fact, I’ve just finished reading a recently published book by dance scholar Anthea Kraut that deals explicitly with issues of ownership in dance. The chapter “‘Stealing Steps’ and Signature Moves” from Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance looks at methods of “borrowing,” formal innovation, and giving credit in jazz tap and other dance forms that coalesced in black communities.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting. So it’s borrowing from a community of dancers, not one identifiable person who could be cited and maybe compensated?
Elizabeth: Absolutely – and doesn’t that make it trickier! The famous husband and wife dance duo Irene and Vernon Castle are a prime example of how cultural appropriation occurs from collectively authored “folk” sources: they took ragtime and other social dances that arose from black communities, altered them to appeal to a white audience, and made a whole performing and teaching career out of it. (Coincidentally, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers played them in the 1939 movie The Story of Irene and Vernon Castle.) I’ve been influenced by Brenda Dixon-Gottschild’s work on what she calls the “invisibilization” of Africanist aesthetics and contributions in American performance, which refers to uncredited influences, both communal and individual.
For these reasons, it’s important to remember that racial dynamics play a huge role in who gets credit and who gets famous. Fosse’s style is recognizable and distinctive and I’m not denying his immense talent as a choreographer and his contributions to jazz and American musical theater, nor accusing him of cultural appropriation. He gave credit where credit was due: Fosse’s first performing duo was called “The Riff Brothers” in homage to the incredibly talented African American jazz tap team The Nicholas Brothers. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the Dancing with the Elephant readers have seen Fayard and Harold Nicholas perform alongside the Jackson siblings on The Jackson’s Variety Show:
But generally Fosse and Astaire are the better known household names, in part due to their privileged status as white artists. Therefore, the title of the YouTube video that accused Jackson of “ripping off” Fosse brought up a lot of questions for me about aesthetic and cultural values, about the history of racism and cultural appropriation in American entertainment in general.
Lisha: It is really troubling when we can observe how consistently this seems to cut across racial lines. It’s just not a two-way street when it comes to acknowledging the hugely influential, pioneering African American artists. We’ve heard so much about Michael Jackson borrowing from Fred Astaire, but little to nothing on how indebted Fred Astaire is to black dancers before him.
Elizabeth: Totally. Given this history, I feel it’s important to ground Jackson’s dance work in black diasporic aesthetic and semantic theories.
Lisha: I agree.
Willa: So do I, and I think that’s something Michael Jackson himself tried to do. When acknowledging his mentors, he almost always mentioned both black and white figures from the past, and implied there was a long history of borrowing between them. It’s interesting in this context that one of Fred Astaire’s mentors was a black dancer, John W. Sublett, who went by the stage name John W. Bubbles. I’ve heard it suggested that Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee, Bubbles, was named in honor of Sublett, who had such a large (though rarely acknowledged) influence on Fred Astaire.
Elizabeth: I’ve been doing some reading on Astaire and was just wondering that myself earlier this week!
Lisha: Wow, I didn’t know that! What an interesting thought.
Willa: It’s an intriguing possibility, isn’t it? And it’s hard to believe it was just coincidence, given Michael Jackson’s knowledge of dance, and Fred Astaire in particular.
So here’s a wonderful video that includes side-by-side comparisons of Michael Jackson with many different mentors in dance, including John W. Sublett, Bill Bailey, Eleanor Powell, and especially James Brown and Fred Astaire:
Lisha: That’s a fabulous comparison, Willa. I especially love the shadow dancing segment. It’s amazing to see those clips side-by-side.
Willa: It really is.
Lisha: Elizabeth, when we talked earlier, you mentioned that you were originally using the term “choreographic curation” to describe Michael Jackson’s encyclopedic knowledge of dance, instead of the concept of “versioning.” What is the basic difference and where does the term “versioning” come from?
Elizabeth: Prompted by a preliminary discussion of this project with dance scholar Sherril Dodds, I moved away from “curation” which connotes museums and Europeanist “high art” and took a deeper look at how various forms of African American cultural expression have been theorized. Many writers note the historical reflexivity, citational riffing, and intertextual nature of black creative practices and have conceived of these practices by various terms, but I borrowed the specific term “versioning” from dance scholar Thomas F. DeFrantz, who defines versioning as “the generational reworking of aesthetic ideals” or “a way to tell an old tale new.”
Willa: That sounds like a great way to think about the “borrowing” that happens among dancers.
Elizabeth: Absolutely! “Versioning” struck me as a useful term for what Jackson does with quotations of specific artists and his incorporation of various social or vernacular dance styles. DeFrantz himself borrows this term from cultural theorist Dick Hebdige’s 1987 work on Caribbean music, Cut ’n’ Mix. Hebdige claims that the basis of all Afro-American and Caribbean music has this principle of borrowing at its core, and he directly addresses the Eurocentric critical tendency to denigrate the practices of repetition and revision found in these forms.
Of course, many American genres that emerged from the nexus of black and white cultural forms – dance in musical theater being my case in point – feature riffing, pastiche, or versioning as part of their traditions. It’s my intention that the term “choreographic versioning” contextualizes Jackson’s homages and quotations as being part of a black diasporic tradition of expression and exposes the cultural biases that inform accusations of plagiarism or unoriginality expressed towards Jackson’s use of other artists’ work. My short response to the poster of the YouTube video that bothered me is that “ripping off” is not the same as “riffing on.”
Willa: That’s a great way of expressing that, Elizabeth!
Lisha: It is! Can I steal that line from you?
Elizabeth: Ha! Of course!
Willa: And it reminds me of the controversy that erupted after Steve Knopper’s biography came out about Michael Jackson “stealing” the moonwalk and not giving proper credit to those who’d gone before him. D.B. Anderson discusses this in her review of Knopper’s book. This controversy seems to miss the point of how artistic traditions work, and how artists of all kinds – painters, sculptors, playwrights, poets, musicians, and dancers – have always built on the work that has gone before them. And this doesn’t happen just within the African-American community, but throughout art history. Shakespeare wouldn’t be Shakespeare if he hadn’t borrowed so heavily from his predecessors.
Elizabeth: I agree, the idea of the artist as some sort of wholly innovative original genius is a total myth. No one creates in a vacuum; any art is a dialogue of ideas and variations on existing forms. Jackson was a master at this. I do have to say, however, that I just submitted a conference presentation proposal that, if accepted, will force me to work through the complexities of Jackson giving so much public credit to Astaire, Brown, etc, and the relative anonymity of the dancers and choreographers he worked with (outside of the music video and commercial dance industry especially.) This could, in part, be explained by industry practices – choreographers have not been historically high on the list of acknowledgements. You only need to look at IMDB for choreography credits to realize this.
Regarding the Knopper controversy, if the intention behind calling attention to the somewhat haphazard and vague credit that Jackson did give the actual dancers who taught him the moonwalk is meant to discredit Jackson as “original,” I’d say that it was a poor strategy given our discussion about the nature of borrowing in American social and popular dance and the fact that Jackson always gave credit to another source (however vague) for the move itself.
Willa: Yes he did, though he was “vague,” as you say, and Megan Pugh offers an interesting interpretation of why in her new book, American Dancing from the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk. Pugh notes that Michael Jackson was given lessons in how to do the “backslide” by Soul Train dancers Casper Candidate, Jeffrey Daniel, and Damita Jo Freeman (who was such an impressive dancer that Pugh speculates she may have been the inspiration for “Dancing Machine”) but he didn’t reveal that to the press:
[W]hen interviewers asked Michael Jackson about how he learned to moonwalk, he gave them a different origin story. He said he picked it up from “these black children in the ghettos,” who “have the most phenomenal rhythm of anybody on the Earth. … Just riding through Harlem in the late 70s and early 80s, … I would see these kids doing these, uh sliding backwards kinda like an illusion dancing.” He took “a mental movie of it,” went home, and started practicing.
Jackson was not simply hiding his sources. He was emphasizing that he didn’t need teaching: he could pick anything up on his own. He was also presenting himself as a conduit of black culture, New York’s in particular. It was a bid for authenticity, an attempt to tap into the street culture of America’s most famous black neighborhood.
So while he acknowledged that he didn’t invent the moonwalk, as you pointed out, Elizabeth, he didn’t cite his specific teachers, and Pugh seems to think it was to give himself some street cred “at a time when hip hop, which did come out of New York streets, was threatening to outshine his own work.”
Elizabeth: I don’t completely discount Megan Pugh’s read on this because I think the commercial context Jackson operated within has to be considered as an influence on his work. I argued in an unpublished conference paper that Bad capitalized on the “edgy” associations of street culture of the late 80s, but in the same paper I recognized that Jackson and his creative team’s intentions were to call attention to the larger social problems that provoke inner city crime and gang violence, much akin to West Side Story. Motivated by empathy and a desire for social justice, but complicated by the mechanics of capitalism perhaps?
We’re seeing this same argument play out in the discourse around Beyonce’s Formation video. I think we should remain vigilant towards parties who want to diminish or draw attention away from the political and social messages at the heart of these activist-artists’ work even while it’s important to consider the economic context these radical statements are made. Any analysis of Jackson’s work has to grapple with a great deal of complexity and sometimes seeming contradictions, but I am personally committed to shifting the popular narrative around his life to a meaningful discussion on his incredible body of work, as I know both of you are. Thank god for this blog and the thinkers that contribute their voices in this endeavor.
In a similar vein, I’ve claimed elsewhere that Jackson’s versioning on Astaire and Brown’s dance moves and theatrical styles was a strategic positioning of himself amongst the entertainment greats. The relatively unknown dancers who taught him the moonwalk did not have the cultural capital that Jackson’s famous idols did (although Jeffrey Daniel was a known Soul Train dancer and member of the disco group Shalamar, which was assembled by Soul Train’s Don Cornelius, and of course Daniel later appeared in several of Jackson’s short films and co-choreographed Bad with Gregg Burge). However, as I mentioned before, it has not been the American entertainment industry’s practice to foreground the labor of the choreographers and dancers.
There are so many nuances and complexities in Jackson’s work and creative process, the topic of “credit-giving” being just one of them, and one that could also be attributed to the media’s general disinterest in the behind-the-scenes artists rather than Jackson’s actions. As many fans will know, there are notable interventions into the entertainment industry’s “tradition” of under-acknowledging choreographic and danced labor: for example, the terrific 2013 documentary on Vincent Paterson, a long-time choreographic collaborator with Jackson, by Swedish filmmaker Kristi Grunditz called The Man Behind the Throne, brings Paterson’s work with Jackson and Madonna center stage.
Willa: That’s a really important point, Elizabeth. In general, choreographers have not been given the credit they deserve, or the money they deserve either – and neither have dancers. But apparently Michael Jackson did try to make things a little more equitable. In her book, Megan Pugh says she had a private conversation with Paterson where he said “that Jackson put his dancers in ‘Smooth Criminal’ on an SAG (Screen Actors Guild) contract to guarantee them the same union wages actors were paid.”
He also included credits at the end of many of his short films – something artists rarely did in their videos – and he made sure to credit choreographers as well as directors and producers and screenwriters. For example, the credits for Thriller include this frame:
He even gives Michael Peters top billing. The credits for You Rock My World include this:
The Talauegas aren’t exactly household names – they certainly don’t have the star power of Fred Astaire or even Hermes Pan – but Michael Jackson is conscientious about giving them their due. And the credits for Moonwalker begin with Smooth Criminal and include this:
So while Michael Jackson may not have mentioned Jeffrey Daniel by name when asked how he learned the moonwalk, he did go further than most artists in giving Daniel credit for his work.
Elizabeth: Thank you for including the screengrabs of these credits, Willa! You’re right, it’s so important to note that Jackson’s very public acknowledgement in these instances complicates an easy narrative in which Jackson didn’t give credit where credit was due in the case of the moonwalk. All the choreographers Jackson worked with speak incredibly highly of him as an artist and individual, which points to the amount of respect he extended to them in working situations. It follows that he would attempt to give them the same amount of protection afforded union actors.
The particular instance of the moonwalk may be an example of a missed opportunity to credit the specific dancers who taught him the step, but I’m personally okay with accepting that Michael Jackson was a complex and contradictory person. I don’t feel that acknowledging any elisions he made in representing his creative process in the media necessarily diminishes or detracts from his legacy as a creative genius. It’s like saying Martin Luther King Jr.’s incredibly powerful social justice messages are compromised by his personal history of infidelity. We somehow have the desire to have our heroes be unblemished by complexity, which sets us up for disappointment and disillusionment. For me, that Jackson was a complex, changing, and flawed human like the rest of us makes his creative work – and his artistic message of love and compassion – so much more inspiring.
Lisha: And as you’ve so convincingly argued, it’s more complicated than one might think to quickly and accurately explain to a journalist where a dance movement might have originated from! There’s not always a simple answer.
Elizabeth, I know you’ve also approached Michael Jackson’s work through the theoretical lens of “kinesthetic empathy,” and I think this concept could be really useful in understanding Michael Jackson’s work. Would you like to explain a little about “kinesthetic empathy”?
Elizabeth: I’d love to try! Basically, kinesthetic empathy is the idea that in watching another body move you understand something of that body’s experience because of your own embodied knowledge. Very simplistically put, I can understand that someone is feeling a certain way because I have my own embodied experience with the positions, actions, or energetics of their body that express that particular emotion.
Willa: Wow, that’s fascinating, Elizabeth! A very important book for me, one that really changed how I see the world, is The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry. It’s a fascinating work and hard to describe in just a few words, and I’m sure I won’t do it justice, but part of her argument is that the body’s physicality is our most important touchstone for what’s real and what isn’t – it’s so crucial to our understanding of what’s real that it’s used to lend reality to things that may seem insubstantial, like ideologies. For example, the outcome of a war is made real through the scars of wounded soldiers and the bodies of those who were killed.
Yet in many ways that physicality that is so central to our concept of reality is inexpressible, especially the experience of pain. That’s one reason the body can be used to substantiate something separate from itself – even something hostile to itself, like war. We can be sitting right beside someone with a splitting headache and not realize it, and even if they try to describe it to us, it’s hard for them to express in words exactly what that pain feels like. Doctors have long struggled with this. Even more than that, extreme pain breaks down language, reducing the sufferer to inarticulate cries and moans. In that sense, Scarry claims we are each locked in our own physicality – an interior experience of our own body – that we can’t express.
So it’s really interesting to think about how some aspects of the body’s interior experience might be communicated in ways other than words – that if I stand in the rain with my arms outstretched, for example, I can experience some of the same physical sensations Michael Jackson experienced while making Stranger in Moscow, and maybe begin to understand “how does it feel” – at least in a physical sense.
Elizabeth: I love that you mention that beautiful moment in Stranger in Moscow because it’s absolutely one of the videos that I’ve thought about in relation to the idea (despite the fact it’s not very “dancey”). I want to read Scarry’s book on the failure of language to express subjective pain because although I’m fascinated and hopeful of the notion of “fellow-feeling” as being part of combating racism, sexism, bigotry, etc, I have major doubts that it’s possible to completely empathize physically either. Because of course my embodied experience is different than your embodied experience!
For this reason, the notion of kinesthetic empathy is a debated topic in dance studies. The notion was first propounded by dance critic John Martin in the 1930s by the various terms “kinesthetic sympathy,” “metakinesis,” and “inner mimicry.” Martin’s concept of how this aesthetic body-to-body understanding functions did not account for cultural, racial, gendered, degrees of able-bodiedness or any kind of difference. Dance scholar Susan Leigh Foster published a book in 2011 on the subject which troubled these essentialist underpinnings of the theory of kinesthetic empathy. As I mentioned earlier, any kind of physical habit is learned, whether it be socially inscripted or learned in a more formal pedagogical context, so it follows that different cultures and communities will have different “archives” of embodied knowledge that actually mean different things.
Willa: That makes a lot of sense, Elizabeth. Different habits lead to the development of different muscles and different muscle memory, which has a big impact on how we experience movement. This is kind of a weird example, but I lived in Southeast Asia for a while, where it was not uncommon for the top of the “toilet” to be down on the floor. Islamic women, even elderly Islamic women, apparently had no trouble at all with the deep knee bends and balance needed to use those toilets – after all, they’d been using them all their lives. But many ex-pat Americans and Europeans had a lot of trouble with them. I personally would have liked a grab bar to hang on to!
So I imagine a 50-year-old Michael Jackson doing a dance step he’d done all his life – like that James Brown shuffle he performs so flawlessly in his Motown audition when he was 10 years old, and that we see him performing in concert throughout his life – would have a very different experience than a 50-year-old who was trying it for the first time.
Elizabeth: Exactly! (And two great examples, Willa.) It follows that our embodied experience extends to how we perceive and relate to someone else moving. There was an inter-institutional group from the UK that researched and reported on the theory of kinesthetic empathy in a multimodal project called “Watching Dance.” They found that audience members’ reactions were indeed colored by their experience and knowledge of the different dance forms included in their study.
I’m a very capable dancer in the forms I’ve spent years studying, but have pretty much failed in my brief attempts to master the moonwalk or any popping and locking techniques. I can’t imagine what it feels like in my body when I see another person doing any technique based on percussive isolations like popping and locking in the same way that I can relate to a ballet dancer in a space-consuming leap through the air. Watching any dancing I’m not personally versed in definitely creates an embodied response, but I don’t “feel” or relate to them in the same way. Ultimately, the idea of kinesthetic empathy is one limited by cultural and social inscription – what someone has spent time learning – but despite this I still think kinesthetic empathy is worth considering in relation to Jackson’s works that posit altruism as a way to bridge social division and prejudice.
I’m currently beginning to work through how certain examples of Jackson’s work implicitly engage this notion and how perceiving, feeling bodies are implicated in his call for altruism and social justice. How might kinesthetic empathy relate to the larger notion of empathy, and how might this incite moral action?
Willa: Those are some really intriguing and important questions.
Elizabeth: I think so! Jackson’s message of social justice often calls upon empathetic and altruistic responses to others in need. So what in art could compel people to care about others’ suffering or pain, and how do our own physical and somatic experiences shape our ability to react and relate to others? I think that Jackson’s mere posing of the question is powerful. As you quoted earlier, Willa, “how does it feel?” Of course Jackson’s lyrics ask this question in a number of ways, but as a dance scholar convinced of the potency of performance, a performative, bodily enactment of the question is what most interests me.
Lisha: What you’re both saying is utterly fascinating to me as a musician. Strictly judging from my own experience, I would translate this into sound as well. There’s no doubt in my mind that some musicians are more empathic than others. They somehow tune-in to what they hear around them and blend with other musicians in a way that makes it seem like there is only one instrument in the room. It’s an incredible feeling to work with players who can do this, and it’s something I clearly recognize in Michael Jackson.
A perfect example is “State of Shock” with Mick Jagger. Michael Jackson blends his voice into Jagger’s so completely in that recording it’s almost as if it’s one voice. Another example I know many will appreciate is “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” At times, it’s difficult to know where Siedah Garrett’s voice stops and Michael Jackson’s begins. It’s pretty remarkable.
Willa: It really is, and it’s interesting to think of that ability as a function of empathy.
Elizabeth: I love that you brought up musical empathy, Lisha, because of course musicality is rooted in the body and muscle memory.
Lisha: That’s my sense of it, too.
Elizabeth: Musicality, like the ability to move “well,” is both a “gift” that comes easier to some people than others as well as something learned and honed through continual effort and labor. Like language, dance and music express the worldview and values of the cultures in which they are created and practiced. As I’m working through this project I’ve realized I need to look into scholarship on music and empathy or sound and empathy, especially as they relate to cross-cultural communication or miscommunication.
Lisha: I’m interested in knowing more about this as well. I’m especially interested in the question you posed earlier: “how do our own physical and somatic experiences shape our ability to react and relate to others?” You must keep us posted on your research and come back to share your findings.
Elizabeth: I definitely will. This conversation has been so inspiring! It has also productively shifted some of my thinking around the topic of Jackson’s “giving credit.” You’re both so knowledgeable about everything Michael Jackson and I can’t thank you both enough for this rich and thought-provoking discussion. I’ll definitely cite your invaluable contributions to the evolution of my thought on these topics in all the forums they are aired.
Lisha: Thank you, Elizabeth!
Willa: Yes, thank you so much for joining us, Elizabeth. I love your way of looking at the artistic tradition as “riffing on” not “ripping off” the artists who’ve gone before! And I’m so intrigued by the idea of kinesthetic empathy.
I also wanted to let everyone know that a new article by Toni Bowers was just published this morning by the Los Angeles Review of Books. It begins with a review of Steve Knopper’s new biography but becomes so much more, and it ties in with some of the things we’ve been talking about today. For example, Toni points out that “Those incredible dance steps, after all, did not perfect themselves. Jackson did it, arduously.” Here’s a link to Toni’s article.
Willa: Last April Nina Fonoroff joined me for an interesting discussion about Billie Jean and Michael Jackson’s use of film noir. After that post went up, Elizabeth Amisu posted a couple of comments here and here about “neo-noir” in both Billie Jean and especially Who Is It. I was very intrigued by this since I’d never even heard of neo-noir, so I began talking with Elizabeth about it, and she very generously provided me with some introductory reading to help bring me up to speed – though I’m still very much a neophyte.
So today, Lisha and I are excited to be joined by both Elizabeth and Karin Merx to talk about neo-noir and how it can provide new ways of seeing and thinking about Who Is It, Billie Jean, Smooth Criminal, and other short films. Elizabeth is a lecturer of English Literature and Film Studies, and her ongoing academic research focuses on “high-status representations of black people” in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Her book, The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife, is being published by Praeger in August. Karin is both an academic and a classically trained musician, and she is currently completing her doctoral research in Art History. Last year she published an essay on Michael Jackson’s Stranger in Moscow. Together, Elizabeth and Karin co-founded and co-edit the Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies, which is a wonderful resource for anyone wanting to learn more about Michael Jackson’s art.
Thank you so much for joining us, Elizabeth and Karin! I’m really eager to learn more about neo-noir and how you see it functioning in Michael Jackson’s short films.
Elizabeth: Thank you very much for having us here on Dancing with the Elephant, Willa. It’s a real pleasure to have this conversation with you.
Karin: Thank you, Willa, for having us.
Willa: Oh, I really appreciate the chance to talk with both of you and learn more about this! So what exactly is neo-noir? I know from my conversations with Nina that noir can be really difficult to define. So how do you identify neo-noir when you see it, and how is it different from noir?
Elizabeth: That’s a very good place to start, Willa, because noir forces us to really question the way we define genre in the first place. It includes titles like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, and a whole series of Hollywood films released between 1941 and 1958, whose dark subject matter and cinematic style reflected the negative mood during and after World War II. Noir has easily recognisable and distinctive visual and thematic features, such as a striking use of silhouettes, low-key lighting, femme fatales, confessional voiceovers and dangerous urban landscapes.
Neo-noir, however, emerged in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and it comes in lots of forms, from modern-day attempts at pure noir films, to science-fiction and thrillers. A few key titles are The Usual Suspects, Blade Runner, L.A. Confidential, Se7en, Sin City, and one of my particular favourites, Drive. However, one of the most humorous places to see a noir-style pastiche is the American Dad episode, Star Trek.
Willa: Wow, Elizabeth, that list covers a really broad range. It sounds like neo-noir can be even more difficult to pin down than noir itself …
Elizabeth: Yep, you are so right. It’s that slipperiness of the term which causes so much debate. However, I think that’s what makes noir so fun for discussion. There is never a simple or straightforward answer. One cool thing about noir-style is that it translates across other genres, so Blade Runner is science-fiction, Se7en is a crime thriller, and The Usual Suspects is more of a mystery.
Lisha: Whoa. Hold up for a second here, because I’ll admit that when it comes to film noir, I still think of the instantly recognizable black-and-white Hollywood movie formula with all the cigarette smoking and a private detective in a snap-brim hat tracking down a bunch of shady characters. So can you tell us just a little more about the issues that make noir so difficult to pin down as a genre or style?
Elizabeth: You have a point, Lisha. For a lot of people noir is superficial, but for others noir’s heart lies in its themes rather than the visuals. The word does, however, mean “black film” and it actually grew out of the German Expressionism movement. The films were initially dark because of low-budget requirements.
In Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder (Willa and Nina’s discussion on Billie Jean featured it) the real darkness was found in the idea that the nicest guy in the world, Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray), found himself moving down a path of destruction. There’s a line he says, “I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.” He loses himself entirely because he thinks he can commit murder and get away with it.
That loss of self is very noir. So it’s the head-game, the psychological downfall, which always makes a noir film so compelling.
Lisha: Why do you think noir has been so irresistible for generations of filmmakers to copy as neo-noir? What accounts for its long-lasting appeal?
Elizabeth: That’s hard to say. It’s definitely true that the noir movement ended before the sixties. It just didn’t chime with the popularity of free love and liberation. However, when there’s a significant downturn, political intrigue, war and espionage, noir-style and noir-themes show up time and again.
Karin: Styles or tendencies are often revisited by artists, hence the word “neo,” from “neos” meaning “young” in the Greek. So we have words like “neo-expressionism.”
Elizabeth: Of course everyone knows the character Neo from the film, The Matrix. He is the “one,” the young saviour.
Willa: That’s interesting. So it sounds like filmmakers – and audiences too – are drawn to noir and neo-noir when they’re feeling anxious, like during a war or recession or other social unrest.
Lisha: It’s as if social events dictate when artistic themes become relevant again.
Karin: Yes, Willa and Lisha, artists are sensitive to what happens in society, and often use the general dissatisfaction with what is going on in their art. Sometimes even ahead of time.
Willa: Like when the panther dance in Black or White seemed to anticipate the Rodney King riots, as Joe Vogel pointed out in his article, “I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets: Re-screening Black Masculinity in Michael Jackson’s Black or White.”
Lisha: Great example, Willa.
Elizabeth: Also, a noir-style film can be quite compelling on a relatively low budget, which also makes them quite appealing for filmmakers. We are now a far more complex and savvy film-going audience, so a traditional noir film may not appeal to viewers as much as a sexy nostalgic homage (a respectful and admiring nod) to the past, as in L.A. Confidential.
Lisha: That’s true. Movie-goers have come to expect extremely high production values. Although I suspect some of the old films noirs still enjoy some popularity by intersecting with our notion of the “classic.”
Eliza, you also mentioned the term “noir-style pastiche,” so I’m wondering how we might define the term “pastiche.”
Elizabeth: A pastiche is how we term a work of art that is mostly an imitation of another. One film that always ends up in pastiche is the epic film, Spartacus, with people saying, “I am Spartacus!” A pastiche is usually a celebration rather than a mocking of source material. Imitation for comic effect is parody.
Lisha: That’s a good point to keep in mind, that imitation can take many forms – from a nostalgic homage to a parody or spoof. So would you say neo-noir is roughly equivalent to noir-style pastiche? Or does pastiche require a recognizable intertextual reference to a specific work?
Elizabeth: Yes, it would be very apt to refer to neo-noir as film noir in pastiche. Several neo-noir films reference quite specific works but that is not necessary to term a work a pastiche.
Karin: I agree, Elizabeth. Also pastiche is more something we use in postmodernism, by way of using elements we all recognise but put in another context.
Lisha: A tricky example might be Michael Jackson’s engagement with film noir in This Is It. In his Smooth Criminal vignette, he doesn’t imitate the genre as much as he literally inserts himself into noir classics like Gilda and The Big Sleep. Here’s a link:
Elizabeth: It’s so interesting that you say this, Lisha, because I was writing about this in my final edit of my book this morning. I dedicate an entire chapter to Jackson’s use of fashion, and in it I write about how he really made himself part of HIStory by integrating his image into that of classic Hollywood cinema. There’s something so warm and sumptuous about 1930s to 1950s cinema and it’s so clear from Smooth Criminal that this was his intention, to place himself within a classic era in the minds of his viewers.
Willa: Yes, I agree, though it’s also interesting to think about what might have attracted him in terms of the themes of Gilda and The Big Sleep, where nothing is as it seems and we’re never sure who we can trust.
Eliza: I didn’t even think of that. You are so right, Willa. That theme of “trust” is one of the most overarching themes in Jackson’s work, don’t you think? I thought of the moment in Smooth Criminal when the man with the pinstripe suit tries to stab him in the back.
Willa: Wow, what an incredible image! And this screen shot does look very noir, especially when frozen in time like this.
Lisha: It really does. Even though the film is in color, it still manages to capture the shadowy chiaroscuro lighting associated with black and white noir.
And that’s a perfect example, Eliza, on the theme of “trust.” It’s as if Michael Jackson’s character has grown eyes in the back of his head from having to constantly watch his back. Now that you mention it, I do think “trust” is an important overarching theme in Michael Jackson’s work. I’m surprised I hadn’t thought about it before.
Willa, didn’t you identify “Annie, are you ok?” as sort of anti-noir, in that it is a gesture of care and concern for the female character, Annie, rather than an assumption that she is a dangerous femme fatale who needs to be killed off by the heroic male protagonist? In this example, Michael Jackson engages with the film noir theme of distrust, while sharply departing from it at the same time.
Willa: Yes, so this is another kind of imitation – neither homage nor parody, but evoking a classic work from the past in order to rewrite it.
Lisha: That is such a fascinating and inspiring idea. I noticed another gendered anti-noir move in Smooth Criminal, in the instrumental break, when we see a beautiful female jazz saxophone player on the bandstand.
Musically speaking, jazz saxophone is the apotheosis of all noir cliches, and it strongly codes male. In film noir, the saxophone is typically heard when a sexy female appears on screen, as a sort of male cat call. In Smooth Criminal we never actually hear a saxophone – there’s no saxophone in the song – but we see a sax player onstage as a visual imitation of noir. However, it isn’t one of the boys in the band as we might expect. It’s a beautiful female musician looking somewhat glamorous in her fancy dress.
This strikes me as going against the way jazz saxophone is generically used in film noir. The image of a female saxophone player both engages our memory of film noir and disrupts it at the same time.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha. It’s kind of similar to how he used Jennifer Batten and Orianthi in concert to both evoke and disrupt our ideas about hard rock guitarists.
Lisha: That’s exactly what I was thinking!
Of course many fans understand Smooth Criminal as a specific intertextual reference to “Girl Hunt Ballet,” the play-within-a-movie from Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon. I think most Michael Jackson insiders would rightly point to Smooth Criminal as a heart-felt homage to Fred Astaire.
Willa: Yes, and one of the first things Fred Astaire’s character says in “Girl Hunt” is “Somewhere in a furnished room a guy was practicing on a horn. It was a lonesome sound. It crawled on my spine.” Which could evoke an image of a saxophone …
Lisha: You’re so right, Willa! That scene highlights what an important element jazz is in classic film noir. Although I do believe it is a trumpet player in that scene, not a sax player, if I remember correctly.
Willa: Oh, you’re right. I should know better than to trust my memory! I just watched that opening scene again, and we do hear a trumpet playing in the background, and even catch a glimpse of it through an open window. Here’s a clip of “Girl Hunt Ballet,” and the trumpet appears about a minute in:
Lisha: The Band Wagon is pretty interesting in and of itself, because I think we could interpret “Girl Hunt Ballet” as a noir-style pastiche, even though it was made in 1953, during the same time period classic films noirs were still being made.
So I wonder if pastiche plays an important role in genre formation itself, since pastiche identifies the specific elements that are needed for a successful imitation?
Willa: Wow, that’s a really interesting idea, Lisha! It reminds me of Lorena Turner’s work with Michael Jackson impersonators, and how they lead us to a better understanding of Michael Jackson’s iconography. What exactly is needed to “be” Michael Jackson? Through the impersonators Lorena photographed, it becomes clear that you really don’t need to physically look like Michael Jackson, his face and body – you simply need a glove, a fedora, and a distinctive pose, for example, or maybe a red leather jacket with a strong V cut.
So those “imitators” help us identify what is essential about Michael Jackson’s star text, just as you suggest that pastiche (like neo-noir) helps us identify what is essential to a given genre (like noir).
Lisha: Exactly! Perhaps we should think of Smooth Criminal as a noir pastiche of a noir pastiche?
Willa: Wow. So you’re saying that neo-noir is a pastiche of noir, and Smooth Criminal is a pastiche of neo-noir, so it’s a noir pastiche of a noir pastiche? Do I have that right?
Lisha: Too funny! Yes, I think I just suggested something crazy like that.
Willa: Ok, I’m really going to have to think about that … but it does sound like the kind of loop-de-loop reference that Michael Jackson loved …
So a director who is frequently mentioned in discussions of neo-noir is David Fincher, who directed Michael Jackson’s Who Is It video in 1993. For complicated reasons that aren’t very clear, there were actually two videos made for Who Is It. Joie talked about this a little bit in a post we did a couple years ago. The second version is simply a montage of concert and video clips, but for some reason it seems to be the “official” one – for example, it’s the one that was released in the US when the song debuted, and it’s the version available on the Michael Jackson channel of Vevo.
So the David Fincher version has not been widely viewed and can be a little difficult to find online, but here’s an HD version of it on YouTube:
Elizabeth: It’s relevant that the Who Is It short film included in the Dangerous Short Films anthology was the one Fincher directed.
Willa: That’s true, and it’s in the Vision boxed set also, so it has some degree of official acceptance. That’s a good point, Elizabeth.
So I love this short film, and it does have a very noir-ish feel to it, doesn’t it? What are some specific visual elements you see in Who Is It that help create that noir-type mood or feeling?
Elizabeth: It uses many of the specific visual elements Fincher used in his feature films in the following years – Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999) and much later, The Social Network (2010) – such as the repeated use of low-key lighting throughout the sequences to create an ominous tone and a sense of foreboding. Fincher also uses stark white light, as in the scene towards the end with the female character weeping, or he uses very muted lighting, where fluorescent bulbs don’t really illuminate the corners of the space.
Willa: Yes, and that’s pretty unusual, isn’t it? For example, here’s a screen capture from about 5:20 minutes, when the female lead is at the gate and the manager character won’t let her in. You can see that the edges of the shot are dark and uneven, as if the picture field weren’t fully exposed.
There are also scenes where the light is coming from below, which is pretty unsettling. We’re used to light coming from above, like sunlight, and we rarely see faces, especially, lit from below, unless it’s a 50s-style horror movie. Here’s a screen capture from about 4:20 minutes in with the light shining up from under the character’s faces:
It really makes them look eerie and artificial, like store mannequins.
Elizabeth: The store mannequins, oh yes. Nice observation, Willa. And that whole idea links to this sense of being plastic and fake, not quite real. We can’t quite trust what they say because, although they seem human, they aren’t. And this extends to the words they say and the theme of the song. In terms of the lighting, I really enjoy the fact that the light seems drowned out by the encroaching darkness.
And of course, there are so many shots where only half of a face is illuminated, giving us a sense that the characters are being duplicitous and untrustworthy. Isn’t that what Who is It is all about? Who can we trust? Who has betrayed us?
Willa: Exactly. And you’re right, there are numerous shots where a face is only partially lit, suggesting we don’t see that person completely – not their face, their motives, or their character. So even something as subtle as lighting reinforces the meaning of the film and the lyrics. Who can we trust?, as you say. And it isn’t just the shape-shifting female lead, the one who goes by so many different names (Alex, Diana, Celeste, Eve, … ). All of the characters are pretty shadowy – both psychologically and visually. It’s not clear that we can trust anyone.
Elizabeth: You’re right, Willa. And what you’ve highlighted is how amazing Michael Jackson was when it comes to linking across his mediums – song complements short film complements costume and so on and so forth. What is also quite clear is that there is an exchange of money going on for sexual services, which makes the nameless female lead into a literal “object” of desire.
Lisha: You know, the money for sex is something I find confusing in this film. When I see the world of rarefied luxury and helicopter travel depicted here, I’m thinking extremely high stakes. The wardrobe and makeup artists employed to execute these spectacular acts of duplicity evoke the world of espionage, corporate or national security, and figures in the hundreds of millions or billions. The level of intrigue seems to go way beyond the mere sexual encounter, although that is clearly one aspect of the betrayal and psychological torture going on. What do you think?
Elizabeth: Oooh Lisha, that is a cool point. You are very right that what seems to be at stake is far more than sex.
Willa: I agree. It does seem to be more like very high stakes espionage.
Elizabeth: The Second World War was famed for its duplicitous female agents, using their womanly wiles to tempt secrets out of the (predominantly male) opposition. However, I also find it quite interesting that the character of the high-end sex-worker has a value far higher than the average viewer might expect. This is a character who obviously serves very wealthy clients and tends to their every whim.
Either way, it’s a particularly dark theme. I like to think of Michael as the femme fatale himself. Two authors have discussed this in some depth: Susan Fast in Bloomsbury’s Dangerous, and Marjorie Garber in Vested Interests. Both wrote on Jackson’s crossing of the male-female binary. In one interview Karen Faye, Jackson’s personal makeup artist, stated he didn’t accept these binaries at all. He built his aesthetics (identification of beauty) on a level that went beyond masculine/feminine.
Karin: I agree, Elizabeth. I think he built his aesthetics way beyond the binary of male/female. He always thought of human beings as being all the same.
Elizabeth: And we all have feminine and masculine qualities. It really is two halves of a whole. Notions of femininity and masculinity are really constructed by society and ideologies which have no basis in biology or reality. They are obstacles we put in our own way and MJ wasn’t interested in them. But bringing it back to the theme of neo-noir is the idea of binaries too, because the femme fatale is dangerous because of her unrestrained sexuality and her ambiguous morals.
Karin: This ambiguity is what we see so well in Who Is It.
Elizabeth: You are so correct, Karin. This is another link to Billie Jean and is found in the shots below, again the bed becomes a place of intrigue. There are physical and nonphysical exchanges here that we (as an audience) are not privy to. So we must decide for ourselves what is going on, and this heightens the mystery.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Elizabeth, and this scene is evocative of the bed scene in Billie Jean, isn’t it?
Elizabeth: Yes it is, Willa. It also shows us how MJ references his own work. Other specific visual elements that Fincher often uses are found within the city itself, and I love how, in his work, the city is often given its own personality.
In Who Is It the city is presented as a golden otherworldly labyrinth that Jackson is separated/protected from by a glass wall. He is distanced from the society in which he lives, much like all of Fincher’s subsequent neo-noir protagonists. There are angel statues on the cover of the Dangerous album and they appear again in the city, bringing to mind the City of Angels, Los Angeles, which is ironic, of course, because “all that glitters (see the shot below) is not gold.”
Lisha: That is such a beautiful screen shot, Eliza. I’m wondering why I’ve never zeroed in on that before. He is in a major urban area, enjoying all the economic advantages the city has to offer, yet he is so completely isolated and alienated at the same time. The paradox is communicated by a sheet of glass.
Willa: Yes, and we see that same motif repeated in Stranger in Moscow. That film opens with a shot of a man seen through the glass of his apartment window, eating his supper from a can. Then we cut to a scene of a sad-looking woman in a coffee shop, but again we’re looking at her through a glass wall. And then there’s that wonderful scene about 3:05 minutes in where the man in his apartment sees the kids outside running through the rain, and then reaches up and touches the glass. Here’s a screen capture:
Lisha: That is such a strong image.
Willa: I agree. I love that moment, and think the glass imagery here functions like the glass wall in Who Is It. As you said, Elizabeth, this character “is within society but separated from it.” But I think this character begins to regret his isolation after seeing the kids run through the puddles, and that’s when he makes the decision to go outside and stand in the rain, and begin to experience life more fully.
Elizabeth: Oh yes, and only if he leaves his glass prison, can he hope to begin to communicate with those around him.
Karin: The difference with Stranger in Moscow is that it is not Michael behind a window that separates him from society, but the black man and the sad woman who play a role in the short film. Michael is walking the dark gritty streets of “Moscow” and, as I analyzed in my essay “From Throne to Wilderness: Michael Jackson’s ‘Stranger in Moscow’ and the Foucauldian Outlaw,” I believe he is separated but also separates himself from society in a different way. To me, he is also not part of the five people who are clearly abandoned from the so-called “normal” world. Michael seems to be separated by his “glowing face,” a face we can also see in the black and white sequence in the short film Bad.
Stranger in Moscow has this very estranged, alienated mood. The loneliness is dripping from the screen and is emphasised by the slow motion, which is not typical for noir but definitely for neo-noir. I think it is mainly the mood in Stranger in Moscow that is very neo-noir.
Lisha: I didn’t realize slow motion was characteristic of neo-noir, Karin. I’m fascinated by how the sense of alienation in Stranger is depicted through two distinct temporalities happening at once. Michael Jackson was filmed in front of a blue screen singing and walking very slowly on a treadmill, which was later added to the slow motion background. So as he sings in real time with the music, everyone and everything else is moving in slow motion, like some kind of separate, alternate reality.
Willa: Yes, that’s a very important observation, Lisha. It’s so interesting how slow motion is used in Stranger in Moscow. When we look at the city directly, everyone and everything moves at normal speed. But when it’s implied that we’re looking at the city from the perspective of one of the isolated people – the woman sitting alone in the coffee shop, or the homeless man lying by the sidewalk, or the teenager watching other kids play ball, or the man eating supper from a can, or the businessman watching pigeons, or even Michael Jackson himself – the world suddenly appears to be moving very slowly. Even the raindrops fall in slow motion.
Lisha: Wow, Willa, that’s exactly it. The slow motion is the perspective of those who are not participating in the normal rhythms of the city.
Willa: Exactly. Or who do participate to some degree, like the man with the pigeons or the woman in the coffee shop – both of them are wearing business suits – but who still feel disconnected from those rhythms. At least, that’s how it seems to me.
For example, we see pedestrians walking by the coffee shop, and they’re walking at normal speed. But then the scene shifts and we see the lonely woman watching the pedestrians, and now they seem to be moving in slow motion. So when we’re looking at them through her eyes, as it were, they’re moving in this oddly decelerated way. But she herself isn’t – she’s still moving at normal speed.
That difference in film speed creates a dislocation between those isolated people and the pedestrians who pass them by, and that disconnect is very effective at emphasizing just how detached they are from the world around them. As you write in your article, Karin,
On the one hand, the slow motion has the function of magnifying emotion, and on the other hand it shows two distinct worlds and the distance between those two worlds.
I agree completely. It also seems to be trying to capture or re-create the sensory experience of depression – of what it feels like to be in a bustling world when you are depressed and out of sync with everyone around you.
Lisha: It’s such a powerful visual depiction of “How does it feel, when you’re alone and it’s cold outside?”
Willa: I agree.
Lisha: And it allows us to inhabit the perspective of those five characters you mentioned, Karin, who are “clearly abandoned from the so-called ‘normal’ world.”
Getting back to what you said earlier, I’ve always been fascinated by the choices Michael Jackson made in this film to achieve such a glowing, colorless look for his face.
Karin: Yes, Lisha, it is as if he wants to disappear into the mass, the streets and the people walking around him.
Elizabeth: I agree wholeheartedly. It’s particularly interesting when we look at Michael’s use of his face and the concept of “masquing” and “masque” culture. This is an extended metaphor about identity in many neo-noir films, and one that Michael uses to articulate his relationship with his audience. They always seem to be wondering “who is he?”
Willa: Which refers us back again to Who Is It. Masques are a recurring theme in that film as well – from the oddly blank face we see rising beneath the white blotter on the desk or pushing out from behind the white wall, to the disguises worn by the Alex/Diana/Celeste/Eve character as she shifts identities, to the more subtle subterfuges of other characters as they decide what to reveal and what to keep hidden. We don’t truly know anyone in that film, not even Michael Jackson’s character, though the song accompanying the film is written from his point of view. So while we may be inside his mind to some extent, he is still somewhat distant and unknowable.
Elizabeth: Notions about identity are at the forefront of neo-noir films, especially in terms of being an individual in a society. No one is exempt from feeling alienated from others, and without our connection to others, how do we know that we are alive?
Karin: In the article “Eighties Noir: The Dissenting Voice in Reagan’s America” in The Journal of Popular Film and Television, Robert Arnett writes about the “face mask motif” that “furthers the analogy between the undercover plot device and ’80s visual media obsession.” In your article “Bad (1987),” Elizabeth, you write about the extreme close up in the black and white part and refer to it as act of defiance.
It is interesting to see how Michael used his own face, which was seen by the public as a mask, as “an act of defiance” in Bad because there was so much speculation in the tabloid media about his face. The mask as described by Arnett is “revered and experienced as a veritable apparition of the mythical being it represents.” However, in Bad, he does not represent himself as a mythical being but as himself in a “look at me, this is who I am” kind of way.
In Stranger in Moscow his “mask” is referring to him as a simple human being who walks the streets of Moscow. However, his glowing face-mask distinguishes him from all the other faces around him, which gives it this mythical representation, as if he has no connection to others anymore.
Willa: Yes, and that sense of alienation from society seems very noirish. As Nina said,
So many noir films convey a story about the way characters struggle with both internal and external forces to maintain their moral integrity in a fundamentally corrupt world.
That’s a good description of both Who Is It and Stranger in Moscow – and Bad also, as you mentioned, Karin. There’s a similar theme in Smooth Criminal, You Rock My World, Give In to Me, and others as well. In all of these films, the world is “fundamentally corrupt,” and Michael Jackson’s character must figure out how to negotiate that corruption without becoming tainted himself.
You know, I hadn’t really thought about it before, but that’s a recurring theme in Michael Jackson’s work, isn’t it? For example, if I think about his early videos, meaning the three videos from the Thriller album, that’s precisely what Beat It and Billie Jean are about – an innocent young man negotiating a corrupt world. But then Thriller complicates that. We’re never sure about the main character, Michael – about whether he’s innocent or not. He’s constantly shifting back and forth between a sweet, guileless teenage boy and a monster/zombie, between an innocent and the very epitome of corruption.
Elizabeth: Now we’re really taking it to another level: Jackson’s use of complex innocence and corruption themes is an entire theme in itself. The ambiguity, or what one could call the liminality of innocence, is what Jackson negotiates, don’t you think? The notions we have of the innocent and who is innocent. It comes up again and again. He never gives us a truly straight answer. In Smooth Criminal he is good but he commits violence throughout the sequences, in Thriller he’s the heartthrob and the zombie, and in Bad he is the innocent schoolboy and “bad” as he starts a dance-fight in a subway.
Lisha: And doesn’t that lead us right back to the issue of perspective? I feel like this is especially clear in Thriller, if we think about how we can experience the character “Michael” through his girlfriend’s eyes. As she is overwhelmed by the excitement of being in love, she sees and experiences a “thrill-her” date with her handsome new boyfriend. When she begins to fear where all this might take her, she sees and experiences a scary creature from a “thriller” horror film.
The girlfriend’s experience is dependent upon what she brings to the table at any particular moment in time. When she looks at the world through the perspective of love, she sees beauty. When she looks at the world through fear, she sees a monster.
Willa: Wow, that is so interesting, Lisha! As many times as I’ve watched Thriller, I’ve never thought about it that way before.
Lisha: Isn’t that a perfect reflection of how we collectively experience Michael Jackson? He is an angel or a devil, innocent or guilty, depending on what the viewer brings to the table. This ambiguity forces us to question the whole concept of reality, showing us how perception trumps what is “really there.”
Willa: Yes, that’s a really important connection. And I agree, Elizabeth, that he does seem to be exploring the grey areas between guilt and innocence – “the liminality of innocence,” as you called it – and I love those examples you gave. He may be positioned in the hero role in Smooth Criminal, but he commits numerous acts of violence, as you say. And in Billie Jean, he may not be the father of the child whose “eyes looked like mine,” but he did go to her room and something – we’re not sure what – “happened much too soon.” That ambiguity occurs throughout Michael Jackson’s work.
Elizabeth: However, one short film which is definitely not ambiguous is Scream, and it’s one we should definitely mention before closing because it has a lot of noir-esque features (including a heightened mood of alienation). It is set in the vacuum of space and “in space, no one can hear you scream.” Putting Michael and Janet in this off-world environment really heightens the connection between alienation and celebrity/fame.
Karin: Yes, they surrounded themselves with art, which is often qualified as higher status and more distanced from people. So the art with which they surround themselves in their spacecraft world can also be seen as an alienating aspect.
Elizabeth: Not only do they surround themselves with art, they also attempt things on their own or in a pair that would usually be done in a group, such as playing sports, playing music. What we see in Scream is more escapism, a self-imposed exile. These are two characters in exile, and they have been put as far from their fellow human beings as possible. They can only connect through screens and other conduits. We get a sense that they are trying desperately to amuse themselves and all of it is in vain. The up-tempo beat of the song contradicts sharply with this.
Lisha: Wow, Elizabeth! Never in a million years would I thought of Scream in terms of neo-noir, but there it is! Mind blown.
Willa: I agree. I wouldn’t have thought of Scream as neo-noir either, but it makes so much sense now that you say that, Elizabeth. All the elements we’ve been talking about, from visual elements like high-contrast lighting to thematic elements like isolation and the difficulty of being an innocent individual confronted by a corrupt society – they’re all there, aren’t they?
Elizabeth: Yes they are, Willa, Lisha. It’s one of those things that strikes you in a really uncanny way – that Scream which is free from all the stereotypes of noir is in fact very clearly neo-noir and dealing with so many of those ideas. Don’t you think that the space location serves to heighten the noir-ness of Scream?
Lisha: Most definitely. And with the sad news of David Bowie’s passing, I can’t help relating Scream to Bowie’s 1969 Space Oddity.
Bowie’s character “Major Tom,” was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowie said he strongly identified with its sense of isolation and alienation. I definitely see a lot of this work in Scream.
Willa: You know, we should talk about that sometime. There are a lot of connections there to Michael Jackson, as you say. Elizabeth, Karin – would you like to join us in that discussion?
Elizabeth: I would love to join you guys for a Bowie post. Can’t wait.
Karin: Yes, of course. I love Bowie and have listened to his music, and read a lot about him. So I’d be excited for that.
Willa: Wonderful! And thank you both so much for educating us about neo-noir! It really opened my eyes and allowed me to see some of his films in ways I never had before. I really value that, so thank you sincerely.
I’d also like to let everyone know that our friend Toni Bowers has an article about Michael Jackson and biography coming out soon in the Los Angeles Review of Books – next Tuesday, I believe. I’ll post a link as soon as it goes up, but you may want to keep a lookout for it.
Willa: Happy Holidays! As many of you know, Joie and I started this blog more than four years ago as a place to have in-depth discussions about “Michael Jackson, his art, and social change.” It’s been fascinating talking with you all about these ideas – I have learned so much the past four years. Michael Jackson’s full body of work – his music, dancing, lyrics and poetry, his concerts, short films and other visual art, his creative process and innovative production methods, his public persona, his costumes, his face and body, and above all his overarching aesthetic and deeply held beliefs about social justice and the power of art to bring about change – these are all so rich in meaning it really does take a village to even begin to grasp it all, and I sincerely appreciate everything you all have shared.
About a year ago Joie decided to devote herself fully to a new career, and since then she hasn’t been participating here at the blog. I’m very excited for her but I miss her terribly. To be honest, my first impulse was to retire this space, but Joie convinced me to keep it going. However, I’ve really struggled since she left, as many of you have probably noticed. I’ve been joined by some wonderful guests this year – Raven Woods, Eleanor Bowman, Joe Vogel, Nina Fonoroff, D.B. Anderson, Marie Plasse, Toni Bowers – and I deeply appreciate their involvement and support. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our conversations. However, this blog was conceived as a partnership, and it works best when there are two of us fully committed to it, week after week, post after post. And I’m starting to realize that I just don’t enjoy doing it on my own. Running the blog with Joie was a blast. Doing it by myself is not.
After a year of feeling kind of lost and overwhelmed, I decided I really need another partner to keep this blog vibrant and functioning well. So I asked Lisha McDuff if she would be willing to take that on, and I’m so grateful and happy that she has agreed. As many of you know from past conversations, Lisha is extremely knowledgeable about music and the entertainment industry in general, and about Michael Jackson in particular. She’s a classically trained musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and major touring productions like Wicked and Phantom of the Opera. Three years ago she decided to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and go back to school, and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director.
Lisha, thank you so much for joining me! I can’t tell you how grateful I am. And how fun that you’ve been working with Susan on Michael Jackson! What could be better than that?
Lisha: No kidding! Talk about some serious brain power. Susan Fast is everything a popular music scholar should be, in my opinion.
Willa: Oh, I agree! I love her work. She blows me away with her insights and depth of knowledge time after time. You’re both so knowledgeable about music and have such fascinating ideas – how wonderful that you’re working together! I know how busy you are right now, so I felt kind of guilty even asking, but I am so excited and relieved and happy to have you here as my new writing and blogging partner. Thank you sincerely from the bottom of my heart for accepting.
Lisha: Honestly, I’m thrilled you asked, Willa. I have gained so much from your work, especially your conversations with Joie and all the other amazing contributors here. Every post has been like a roller-coaster ride for me, so I’m excited for the opportunity to participate on a regular basis. Before we get started though, there is something I’d really like to say: I miss Joie’s contributions terribly as well! I’m sure we all do.
Willa: Oh, I miss her every post. But we keep in touch and she seems really happy in her new career, so I think it’s been a good move for her. And maybe we can convince her to come join us sometimes …
Lisha: I certainly hope so!
Willa: So today we’re going to look at the evolution of the 40-minute short film, Ghosts. Lisha, this all began when you found a clip of an early version of Ghosts, which was filmed in 1993. Here’s a link:
Thank you so much for sharing this! You’ve been trying to track this down for quite a while, right?
Lisha: Yes, I have been curious about this early footage for years now. I’d heard rumblings about it and I’d seen a few screenshots here and there, but I never had any luck in finding a way to view it. I just couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it had been posted to YouTube.
Willa: Oh, it’s fascinating! I was so excited when you told me you’d found it. There are quite a few demos available of Michael Jackson’s songs where we can see how his ideas progressed, but it’s rare to have a demo version, as it were, of one of his videos. And how wonderful that it’s Ghosts, which is so complex. It’s so interesting to have this opportunity to peek inside his thought process as he was developing it.
Lisha: Definitely. And after speculating about it for so long, it’s incredibly satisfying to finally get to see it.
Willa: It really is! So as I understand it, this early version was shot in 1993 as a promo piece for the feature-length film, Addams Family Values. But work on it abruptly stopped when the Chandler scandal broke and Paramount decided they no longer wanted Michael Jackson’s help promoting their film. Then the project resumed in 1996 as a stand-alone project, separate from Addams Family Values. Is that right?
Lisha: Yes, according to an interview with the original director, Mick Garris, that’s exactly what happened. A couple of weeks into the shoot, false claims generated by Evan Chandler began circulating in the media and, sadly, the project had to be scrapped. When the work finally resumed, Garris was no longer available so Stan Winston was asked to direct the final version.
At the time, few had any way of knowing it was Evan Chandler who should have been under investigation and Michael Jackson who needed police protection from him. Neither the police nor the press seemed interested in investigating that possibility. As a result, the damages sustained by Michael Jackson were very, very high – personally, professionally, and financially.
Viewing this early version of Ghosts, I began to realize I had assumed this was going to be some sort of cameo appearance for Michael Jackson in Addams Family Values. Now I am thinking it was intended as a Michael Jackson short film that would double as cross-promotion for the motion picture. If true, it’s an interesting idea from an artistic and marketing point of view. I can’t really think of a parallel move, but surely someone else has done this.
Willa, can you think of another music video that has also served as cross-promotion for a major motion picture or entertainment product like this?
Willa: Hmmm … Now that you mention it, no I can’t. I know there’s been a lot of cross-pollination between movies and popular songs before. Just look at the James Bond movies, which have featured theme songs by Paul McCartney, Carly Simon, Adele, and others. And some of the biggest-selling albums of all time have been soundtracks – for The Bodyguard, Dirty Dancing, Saturday Night Fever, Titanic, South Pacific, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, … The list goes on and on. So there’s a long history of the music industry and film industry promoting one another. But off the top of my head, I can’t think of another case where a music video has been created to promote a film.
Lisha: Those are all great examples, and you’re right there has always been a strong synergy between music and film. Popular songs are often featured in motion pictures, and movie songs frequently become hits. Many don’t realize the musical short is as old as sound-film and television itself. They were produced and widely distributed long before MTV.
But for some reason I just can’t think of another music video that includes characters from another current movie or project. The only Ghosts/Addams Family comparison I can come up with is the Black or White short film, which ends with a clip of The Simpsons.
Willa: Yes, but I think that Simpsons clip is there for thematic reasons, not to promote the show. What I mean is, I think it’s significant that Black or White begins and ends with a white boy (Macauley Culkin and Bart Simpson) dancing to Michael Jackson’s music, and then rebelling against his father when he tries to shut the music down.
Lisha: That’s true. Although The Simpsons are funny-looking lemon-yellow cartoon characters, their language and behavior codes white. That’s an important point that Susan Fast makes in her book on the Dangerous album – that the Black or White short film is literally framed by whiteness.
And I totally agree that The Simpsons clip in Black or White functions independently of any possible marketing strategy. But at the same time, I can’t help noticing its promotional value, which would have given the series massive global exposure via a Michael Jackson short film. Now I’m curious as to whether or not that ending was monetized in some way.
Willa: That’s an interesting question. I have no idea. Michael Jackson did participate in a Simpsons episode, though that wasn’t confirmed until years later, but I don’t think he was paid for it.
Lisha: I wouldn’t know, but there are some interesting possibilities there, for sure.
Willa: That’s true. And the draft version of Ghosts does have quite a few references to the Addams Family, like Thing (the disembodied hand) skittering around, and the sudden appearance near the end of the Addams children: Wednesday, Pugsley, and Pubert. They aren’t in the final version. By the way, here’s a link to the final, for comparison purposes:
Lisha: No matter how often I’ve watched this film, and I’ve seen it quite a few times, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. It’s so brilliant on so many levels. It’s hard to understand some of the reviews that characterize it as a “huge flop.”
Willa: I think a lot of critics don’t like it because it draws on the aesthetic of the grotesque, which is alien territory to a lot of people. It’s an ancient form that’s disruptive to the status quo, and it makes people feel unsettled and uncomfortable – especially people in power. That’s its function, to unsettle things. But a lot of people don’t like that feeling, and feel threatened by it. And perhaps they should feel threatened. It can be very powerful.
So my sense is that a lot of critics don’t like Ghosts because it’s so different, it makes them uncomfortable, and they don’t understand it – just like a lot of the villagers in Ghosts don’t like the Maestro because he’s so different, he makes them uncomfortable, and they don’t understand him … at least, not at the beginning. It’s another one of those loop-de-loop situations where Michael Jackson’s art reflects and predicts what will happen in real life. We see that happening over and over again with Michael Jackson, and Ghosts is a great example. He almost seemed to predict the future with that film, in a number of ways.
Lisha: You are so right. Ghosts is a powerful film that both reflects and predicts “what will happen in real life” – eerily so. And your point is well taken about the aesthetic of the grotesque and how fiercely it challenges the status quo. Ghosts is also a brutally honest work of art. Michael Jackson lets us in on the fact he’s known all along what we’ve been saying about his artistry, his face, his weirdness, his childlike innocence. Now that we have this early version available to study, I’m even more fascinated by some of the issues it raises.
Willa: So am I. And it’s really interesting to compare the two versions to see the development of his ideas. Some changes are obvious, like when the Maestro disappears at the end of the 1993 version. Of course, that version is incomplete, so it could be his return was planned but just wasn’t filmed yet when work was suspended. Still, it’s unsettling to see the Maestro disappear and not come back. At the end of the 1996 version, he definitely returns and is even stronger than before – he’s been accepted by the villagers and it’s the Mayor who’s disappeared.
That brings up another important difference: the actor who plays the Mayor in the original version is not Michael Jackson. The original Mayor does turn up a couple times in the final version though. Here he is at 1:32 minutes, entering the Maestro’s home:
Lisha: Good eye, Willa! I hadn’t seen that, but you’re right. That cut appears to have been lifted directly from the original.
Willa: Yes, instead of reshooting everything in 1996, they reused a lot of the footage from 1993 – like this shot of the original Mayor, which you don’t notice if you aren’t looking for him. At least I never noticed him before. A lot of the special effects sequences are the same also.
Lisha: I have to say, overall, I was surprised by how similar the unfinished rough cut is to the final version directed by Stan Winston. I had imagined there would be more drastic differences, but much of it looks remarkably similar.
Willa: That’s true. There are some significant differences, but the overall structure was pretty much there in 1993, and many of the scenes are very similar, as you say. But even so, sometimes subtle changes shift the feeling of what we’re seeing and how we respond to it. For example, both films feature the “Welcome to Normal Valley” sign in the opening scenes using the exact same footage. But the background music has changed and that affects our emotional response to the sign, even though the visuals are the same.
Lisha: The musical score in the finished product is very well done, I think. It adds so much to the dramatic impact of the film. I noticed a comment on YouTube claiming the 1993 rough cut has temporary music only, taken from other films. I don’t know if that’s true or not, the music and sound effects are well synchronized already, but it also makes sense. I wouldn’t expect the musical score to be added until after the film editing was complete.
Willa: That’s an interesting point, Lisha. I really don’t know how that typically works. For music videos, which were Michael Jackson’s forte and where he served his apprenticeship and learned his craft as a filmmaker, I assume the music would come first. But for a feature-length film, I imagine you’re right and the visuals come first and the music comes later. For something like Ghosts, which lies somewhere between a feature film and a video, I simply don’t know.
Lisha: I think you’ve got it, Willa. For the musical numbers, the music is produced first and played back at the film shoot so the performers can synchronize their movement with the music. For the dramatic scenes, the music and sound effects are added later, so they can be synchronized to the visuals.
Brad Sundberg just gave an interesting interview where he described working on the Ghosts film shoot. It’s a pretty entertaining story, as is the entire interview. Skip to 1:00:30 for the part about Ghosts and how loud Michael Jackson wanted the playback!
Willa: That’s funny! Especially his description of their struggles to get enough volume in the huge space they were using for filming. He said they built an “enormous sound system” and had speakers the size of “two refrigerators side by side – two American refrigerators.”
Lisha: Yes, and don’t confuse those enormous speakers with the size of a small Asian or European refrigerator! Sounds like they were going for the “Are You Nuts!?!” volume levels.
Willa: Could be! By the way, I noticed Brad mentioned “Ghosts” and “Is It Scary” together, and that reminds me of something Debbie Rowe said during the AEG trial. She said that, originally, “Ghosts” and “Is It Scary” were one song, but later it was divided and developed into two songs. After she said that, I noticed some interesting connections between them – like they both begin with the lines, “There’s a ghost out in the hall / There’s a ghoul beneath the bed.” They also come one after the other on the Blood on the Dance Floor album, and there’s an interesting parallelism between them in Ghosts. The Maestro turns into a skeleton and dances to “Is It Scary.” Later the skeleton turns into the Monster Maestro, enters the Mayor, and then he dances to “Ghosts” in a way that feels reminiscent of the skeleton dance.
Lisha: Wow, that’s really interesting. For some reason I don’t remember that from the AEG trial, but now I want to go back and re-read it. And I think that’s absolutely right, that “Ghosts” and “Is It Scary” are just two different versions of the same song. Don’t you think so?
Willa: They are very similar – in fact, I used to get them confused when I’d listen to them on my car stereo. I thought I was just being a scatterbrain, but maybe there’s a reason I confused them! If you’re able to track down Debbie Rowe’s testimony, I’d love to look it over. I know I was really struck by what she said, but I’m just going by memory, and my memory’s not the best …
Lisha: Gee, I can relate to that! Ok, Willa, here we go – found a link to Rowe’s testimony.
Willa: Thanks for tracking that down, Lisha. So here’s what Debbie Rowe said:
I remember “Ghost” was split in half, for some reason, or “Do you think it’s scary.” It was originally going to be called “Ghost,” and then it was “Is It Scary.”
That is so interesting. I’d really like to look into that some more …
Lisha: I would too.
Willa: Anyway, like you I love the music in the final version and strongly prefer it to the music in the original – not just Michael Jackson’s songs (of course!) but also the background music, and the feeling it creates.
I also prefer the scenes of the villagers marching toward the Maestro’s mansion in the final film. In the 1993 version, those scenes are in color and the villagers are individualized. We see their faces and hear their voices. The final version uses footage from that same shoot, including some of the exact same scenes, but the film has been rendered black-and-white in the final version, and it’s been edited so it’s much more abstract. We know the townspeople are upset and angry, but for the most part we don’t see their faces or hear their voices except as a murmur behind the music. So what we see in the final version isn’t so much specific people anymore, but more an abstract idea of an angry mob.
Lisha: That’s a really great point and I think you’re right. Those small details make it a little more vague, which better illustrates the mob mentality that is so central to the story.
Willa: I think so too. The problem isn’t these specific people so much as the phenomenon of fear and intolerance leading to mob violence, and the final version conveys that much better, I think.
There’s a similar shift in the dialogue. In the draft version, things tend to be spelled out in rather explicit, straightforward terms. But the final tends to be more subtle and more nuanced. For example, in the draft version the villagers begin to chant, “Come out where we can see you. Come out where we can see you.” That’s been dropped in the final. Instead, we simply see them looking for the Maestro. We also see that they’re both eager to find him and kind of fearful about it too. That kind of emotional complexity is conveyed much better in the final, I think.
Lisha: It is definitely more subtle. In the original, I feel like the demand for the Maestro to leave town is quite explicit. It’s very clear that the townspeople have entered the Maestro’s mansion for the specific purpose of running him off. In the final version, the mayor similarly states “we want you out of town,” but it’s more vague as to whether or not that is simply his wish or if that is what the townspeople had hoped to achieve by going there.
Willa: That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought about that before, but I think you’re right – and that’s an important change. Again, it makes the story more subtle and more universal, and also opens it up to multiple interpretations.
There’s a similar shift in the setting, meaning how the Maestro’s mansion is conceptualized and presented. In the original 1993 version, there are several shots of the exterior of the house, like this one, which stays on screen for a fairly long time:
Here’s another exterior view, this time from closer in:
And here’s another, closer still. If you look closely, you can see the left window in the door has been broken by one of the villagers. We don’t see them engaging in that kind of violence in the final version, though the potential for mob violence is definitely there.
Shots like these present the Maestro’s mansion as a specific, physical place. But almost all of these exterior shots have been removed from the final version. Instead, the house is presented in a more abstract way. We only have two brief glimpses of the entire house – one at the beginning behind the title block, and the other 44 seconds in, when lightning illuminates the house for just an instant. So our sense of the Maestro’s house is more impressionistic than in the 1993 version. To me it feels more like a memory or an imagined place than a real place.
This is reinforced by the shot immediately after, at 45 seconds in, of the sign identifying this as Someplace Else – not 4641 Hayvenhurst Avenue or Westlake Studios, but Someplace Else.
Lisha: I think that sign is hilarious: “Someplace Else.”
Willa: I do too. Here’s a screen capture of it, with a flaming torch passing by:
The effect of all this is to make the Maestro’s mansion feel more like a mythic space, a space located in our own imaginations, rather than an actual physical place. It’s subtle but very well done, I think.
Lisha: It reminds me of the jump from black-and-white to color in The Wizard of Oz, signaling the move into the imaginary or mythic realm.
Willa: Yes, and that jump to color happens in Ghosts also – the film switches from black-and-white to subdued color when we enter “the imaginary or mythic realm” of the Maestro. That’s a great way to put it, Lisha.
It’s in this realm that the Maestro engages and ultimately alters the villager’s hostile feelings toward him, but in unexpected ways: with the help of special effects, he stretches his eyes and mouth to grotesque proportions, or rips his face off altogether so there’s nothing but a laughing skull, or pounds himself to dust on the stone floor. For the most part, these scenes are pretty similar in the two versions. In fact, many of the special effects sequences are identical. Interestingly, Stan Winston, who acted as the director in 1996, as you mentioned earlier, was in charge of special effects in 1993, so those sequences are his. He created them.
Lisha: That would certainly explain why they look so similar!
Willa: Yes, it does. But again there are some significant changes. Some new special effects sequences have been added in the later version, like the dancing skeleton, and the Monster Maestro, and the huge face filling the doorway. And a few have been deleted, like the one where they can’t get through a locked door, and suddenly one of the villagers starts gagging and coughs up the key.
Lisha: I noticed another interesting sequence from the early version that was later omitted. It’s the black-out at around 3:50, when the mayor lights some matches to see where they are going. Suddenly we see torches on the wall that begin to fire up on their own, and they appear to be held by human arms coming out the walls. This scene is strikingly similar to one in Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête, or Beauty and the Beast. Here’s a trailer that shows the human wall sconces at about 30 seconds in:
Willa: I had the exact same feeling! Those light fixtures made of living human arms are very evocative of Cocteau’s film, aren’t they? In fact, I see a lot of connections between Cocteau and Michael Jackson. I wonder why that detail was removed from the final version?
Lisha: Good question. I see some connections as well and really like the reference.
Willa: I do too. I also like the fact that when the Maestro first appears in the original, he’s among the villagers – he’s one of them.
Lisha: I thought that was fascinating – how the Maestro disguises himself among the crowd, hiding in plain sight. It reminds me of how Michael Jackson reportedly went out in public wearing various disguises. I wonder how many people have been standing next to Michael Jackson at some point in their lives and never known it.
Willa: That’s an interesting connection, Lisha. I hadn’t thought of that. I just like the implication that he is one of the villagers, part of the community, not someone separate.
Lisha: Yes. And that is really spelled out in the final version where Michael Jackson plays the roles of both the Mayor and the Maestro.
Willa: Oh interesting, Lisha. I hadn’t thought of it that way. It’s true that in some ways he seems more connected to the villagers in the final version. For example, when he begins to interact with the villagers in the 1993 draft version, he seems pretty fearful of them, and hurt – emotionally hurt – by their animosity toward him. And I imagine that’s a pretty accurate reflection of his emotions in 1993, just as the Chandler schemes were unfolding.
Lisha: I would agree.
Willa: But his interactions with the villagers in the final version feel different to me. He seems much more comfortable with them, and more confident. It’s like he thoroughly understands the villagers and what motivates them, knows how to change their minds, and that knowledge helps him maintain total control of the situation. He’s the Maestro, and he knows his power. That’s the feeling I get from the final version – not so much in the draft version.
Lisha: Although in the original, the Maestro displays considerable power over the villagers as well, like when he signals the doors to magically close, preventing his “guests” from leaving the room.
Willa: That’s true.
Lisha: But I agree that the power he wields is more apparent in the final version.
Willa: It seems that way to me, and not just his magic powers but his bearing and facial expressions – his confidence in his abilities as an artist to touch people’s hearts and change their minds.
Another very important “lost” scene is the children’s response after the Maestro turns to dust. In the 1993 draft version, the children immediately rush to him and begin shaping the dust back into human form – creating fingers, making him whole – until he is restored. So in a very literal way, the children re-create him and bring him back to life in the original version.
Lisha: Their concern, innocence and sheer delight in his imagination and playfulness sparks the power that reanimates the Maestro.
Willa: That’s a great way to interpret it, Lisha! I really like this sequence, but it isn’t in the final version. Instead, the Maestro is restored to life in a very different way. And actually, while I love the idea of the children bringing him back to life, I think the final version works better.
While the children don’t bring him back to life in the final version, they are more vocal about protecting him and more involved in the discussions among the villagers. For example, as everyone is standing at the gate looking in, before they enter the Maestro’s home, one boy says, “Why don’t we just leave him alone?” and another says, “He hasn’t hurt anybody. Can’t we just go?” But then the brother of the second boy blames him, saying, “It’s your fault, jerk. You just couldn’t keep your mouth shut.” None of that is in the original version.
Lisha: This scene really jumped out at me as I rewatched my VCD copy of the film. (YouTube quality doesn’t really do it justice!) In the opening dialogue you described, the mother also whacks her kid on the head and says “you did the right thing.” The dissonance between her whack on the head and her reassurance of the child is confusing and unsettling.
One of the most interesting and important things about Ghosts is how it can be interpreted as an artistic response to the false accusations made against Michael Jackson in 1993. But I wonder if there is any possibility that the original concept for Ghosts predates Evan Chandler’s extortion scheme, given the amount of time it takes to put a film together and the fact that the media construction of Michael Jackson as a “weirdo” from “Someplace Else” was already firmly in place.
Willa: That’s a really good question, Lisha. The accusations became public in August but private negotiations had been going on for quite a while before that, so it’s not clear how much Michael Jackson knew before work on Ghosts began. I think Chandler says he first confronted him about his “suspicions” before Memorial Day weekend of 1993, so that would have been in May, probably. Then the phone conversation David Schwartz taped – the one where Evan Chandler says he’s hired a lawyer, “the nastiest son of a bitch I could find,” that “it could be a massacre if I don’t get what I want,” and that “everything is going according to a certain plan that isn’t just mine” – that all happened on July 8th, and Michael Jackson was given a copy of the tape soon after. The dental visit where Chandler put Jordan under sedation and asked him questions was July 16th, which is so backwards: the fact that Chandler hired a lawyer before his son had even agreed to the allegations says a lot about where those allegations originated. And then the scandal broke in late August.
Lisha: You’re so right about the timeline. Both Raymond Chandler and Geraldine Hughes claim that Evan Chandler hired attorney Barry Rothman in June 1993. Just like the Arvizo case, the timeline makes no sense whatsoever.
Willa: No, it doesn’t – or rather, it makes sense only if you realize that the allegations began with the parents and not with the children. Simply looking at the chronology of events of both cases tells a lot.
Lisha: It’s shocking, really.
Willa: It really is. How could the police and the press miss something so obvious?
Lisha: You got me. Motivated reasoning? That’s my best guess.
Willa: I think you’re right. But anyway, by the time the scandal became public, Chandler had already been negotiating for weeks, trying to get a $20 million deal in exchange for his silence. So I suspect the way things went is that Michael Jackson was asked to do a song and promotional video for Addams Family Values in early 1993, before there was a problem with the Chandlers. But then things started getting ugly with Evan Chandler – in private – right around the time he started developing the plot and ideas. And then the scandal broke publicly two weeks after they started filming.
Does that sound plausible to you, Lisha, or not really? I honestly don’t know how long it would take for the screenplay and everything to come together once they started working on it. You have a lot more insight into that side of things than I do.
Lisha: Michael Jackson was certainly aware of what Evan Chandler was up to well before they began filming, so yes, it is definitely plausible. But I also think analyzing the story as a response to negative media portrayals holds up either way – before or after Chandler. 1993 was the year that Michael Jackson began defending himself against all kinds of unfair media characterizations that had turned really mean and nasty. I mean, looking back, how crazy is it that he had to go on primetime television in February of 1993 to tell Oprah he was a gentleman, who suffered from vitiligo, and did not sleep in a hyperbaric chamber? In hindsight, why was that so necessary?
In some ways, it would be interesting if Ghosts was initially conceived before the Chandler extortion plot. What I’m trying to say is, there were already a lot of mean-spirited media portrayals going on before Evan Chandler and Barry Rothman implemented their “plan.” And there is no doubt in my mind that the reason many people fell for the false accusations is that they intersected with the negative media portrayals already in circulation.
Willa: I agree. By the way, here’s an article by Stephen King, who worked on the Ghosts screenplay, where he describes Michael Jackson’s initial concept for the short film. Interestingly, it seems that King himself interpreted the concept one way before the scandal broke – as a response to anti-Rock & Roll feelings – and another way after the scandal:
The core story he described to me that day was about a mob of angry townspeople – buttoned-down suburbanites, not torch-carrying peasants – who want the “weirdo” who lives in the nearby castle to leave town. Because, they say, he’s a bad influence on their children. I associated that with the view parents held toward rock & roll when I was growing up, and still held toward the odder artists of the breed, like Ozzy Osbourne and Marilyn Manson (who in 1995 would release an album called Smells Like Children). I didn’t know that rumors about Jackson and child abuse had begun to circulate.
I also thought it was significant that Stephen King says Michael Jackson told him the “core story” before he began writing the screenplay. So the initial concept was definitely Michael Jackson’s. King also says the final screenplay “had wandered a far distance from my original script.” So while Stephen King is generally credited with the story, I think Michael Jackson was at least equally involved, from beginning to end.
Lisha: That’s an excellent point and just what we needed to know – that the story began with Michael Jackson and evolved over this specific time period.
By the way, I’d like to know how it is that Michael Jackson got constructed as the Rock & Roll “weirdo,” with the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and Marilyn Manson around? That would be really funny if I didn’t sense something so ugly behind it all. At the same time Michael Jackson was pigeonholed as a “pop” artist, and therefore ineligible for the cultural status given to serious rock musicians, he was also the ultimate Rock & Roll “weirdo.” That doesn’t add up.
To my way of thinking, the vilification of Michael Jackson occurred long before Evan Chandler got dollar signs in his eyes. Chandler and Rothman simply capitalized on the hysteria that already existed.
Willa: I think you’re right.
Lisha: Garris, who initially met Michael Jackson on the set of Thriller, was asked if he thought Michael Jackson was just being playful with all of this “monster” imagery. Ultimately, he didn’t think the response was very funny either:
He was very playful with that image, though as the press got meaner, he was definitely hurt by it, and pulled back and became more reclusive.
Willa: Yes. And this is kind of off topic, but how interesting that Garris was involved in Thriller, playing the role of one of the zombies, and then ended up as the director for the 1993 filming of Ghosts. That’s amazing! He’s like the Forrest Gump of Michael Jackson videos …
Lisha: Pretty wild. Small world, isn’t it?
Willa: It really is. And it’s true the media attacks on Michael Jackson began long before the allegations. Just look at the Leave Me Alone video, which was released in 1989 – four years before the Chandler allegations.
Lisha: I read an interesting article by media scholar John Nguyet Erni, who studied these negative portrayals and argued that “if Michael Jackson’s troubles preceded the scandal, it is critical for us to understand the source of those troubles and their discursive life, especially in the media.” In his May 2009 article published in Critical Studies in Mass Communication, Erni cites cultural critic Michele Wallace, who questioned the breadth of the Michael Jackson controversy early on. In 1989, Wallace noted the abundance of media criticism directed toward Michael Jackson and pointed out how it totally lacked a focus:
Where does this controversy focus its attention? Is it on his videos, his music, his wealth, his fame, his sexuality, his race, his lifestyle, his aesthetics, his unwillingness to be interviewed, his family, his plastic surgery, his skin lightening, or is it some ineffable combination of any or all of the above? What, at this moment, at the peak of his career, is he being attacked and criticized [for] on all sides?
These are complicated questions, but it seems obvious that the false allegations provided a target or a resting place for all of these free-floating anxieties.
Willa: I agree, and how prescient that Wallace was raising these questions in 1989. But as Wallace asks, Why? What gives rise to this criticism? And later, in 1993, what was it exactly that made the public – white Americans, especially – predisposed to believe those allegations, regardless of the evidence? It’s like, once again, the chronology is reversed. Looking back at media coverage of Michael Jackson in the 1980s and 90s, it’s not true that the allegations came out and then people turned against him, though that’s the narrative that’s been repeated over and over about him. Instead, there was significant uneasiness toward him before the scandal, and then the allegations simply validated that unease.
Lisha: You’re right. There is a resilient narrative out there that goes something like: The public greatly admired Michael Jackson’s talent from the time he was a small child. But due to the perils of success, he lost touch with reality and began acting out in tragic ways. Some are still blinded by his celebrity and talent which causes them to irrationally reject all negative information about him, primarily jurors and fans.
Yet there is ample evidence to suggest people wanted to believe just about anything negative about Michael Jackson, regardless of the evidence, especially when it involved a lot of condemnation and ridicule. You know, I think Susan Fast really nailed it when she described the Michael Jackson controversy as “difference that exceeded understanding.”
Willa: I agree.
Lisha: Willa, in your journal article for Popular Musicology Online, you discuss how Ghosts addresses our fear of difference at the level of “sensation and affect,” a place where unowned cultural biases can overwhelm and distort judgment and sound reasoning:
Drawing on his own case history as a guide, Jackson uses Ghosts to map out an artistic approach for attacking cultural biases not only in an intellectual way but at a deep psychological level – in a place of sensation and affect, a place resistant to evidence and reason, a place where our most primal fears, prejudices, and desires hold sway. Significantly, this is also the place where hysteria arises.
For example, in the 1993 film, Michael Jackson first appears at approximately 6:20, as the mayor and the townspeople are hysterically confronting the Maestro. They claim the Maestro scares their children, but these are the very same children who smile warmly at him, giggle a lot, and are clearly delighted by his antics:
Maestro: Here I am. What do you want?
Mayor: We want you out of town! You don’t fit in here!
Townswoman: You’re not like us!
Maestro: Why do I have to be?
Townsman: You’re not like anybody. You’re weird! These kids think you’re scary. (The mayor’s son shrugs his shoulders, as if he has no idea why he is saying this.)
Maestro: I’m scary? (pauses, looks at the boy) Son, do you think I’m scary?
Mayor’s son: (shakes his head “no,” but the mayor ventriloquizes his head up and down to indicate “yes”)
Mayor: You bet you’re scary! You’re a weirdo and we want you out of town.
Willa: This is such an important scene, especially when the Mayor grabs the boy’s head and forces him to nod “yes” when he was really nodding “no.” A similar example occurs 1:40 minutes in, when the Mayor’s son tells him, “Daddy, I’m scared.” He replies, “Sure you are. It’s a scary place.” But his son says, “No, I’m scared of them,” and nods toward the villagers with their flaming torches. Then he asks, “What’s going to happen?” That’s what scares him – the villagers’ aggression – not the Maestro.
Lisha: Yes! The kids are clearly confused and disturbed by all this hysteria and intolerance.
Willa: Exactly. Repeatedly we see that the children respond in a very different way than the adults do – specifically, they’re much more open and welcoming of difference. But the adults don’t seem to realize this. Instead, they project their emotions onto their children, and then use that as justification for their intolerant actions.
That scene you mentioned, Lisha, of the Mayor “ventriloquizing” his son shows this very clearly. The boy isn’t scared of the Maestro – the Mayor is. But he says his son is scared so he can justify his attempts to drive the Maestro from his home. This is all spelled out pretty explicitly in the 1993 version. It’s central to the final version also, but it’s handled more subtly.
Lisha: Yes, I agree, the psychological projection is depicted even clearer in the earlier version which brings up another point Erni makes in his study of the media scandal. There is language in the illegally leaked copies of Jordan Chandler’s “witness testimony” that exhibits an obvious ventriloquism. Jordan Chandler’s complaint contains a lot of specialized language that a detective or a therapist might use, which is not the language of a young teenager. Erni discusses “the confluent forces that accumulate around the testimony, forces that ventriloquize the teenager’s sexual knowledge and memory, voices that speak for him – and therefore without him.”
Willa: This is such an important point.
Lisha: It is. And as you mentioned earlier, much of the action and dialogue in Ghosts is so prophetic and insightful. I mean, isn’t this exactly what happened to Michael Jackson in reality?
Willa: Yes, it is. Ghosts provides such an interesting window into his perceptions of what was happening and why – as well as what was about to happen. He was uncannily accurate in predicting what would happen in the future.
Lisha: When the hysterical mayor cries: “You’re a weirdo and we want you out of town!” it suggests to me that as early as 1993 Michael Jackson knew there were some who literally wanted him gone for no other reason than he was a “weirdo” and not like anyone else. He wouldn’t actually have to leave his home for another 12 years, but in fact, this did happen. You and D.B. Anderson were just discussing this in terms of racial politics:
D.B.: … this type of attack just fits with everything else we have seen from the white male heterosexual press. It is necessary to diminish someone else only if you are trying to establish or maintain your own dominance. If that person happens to be an extraordinarily potent black man…
Willa: … then there’s an impulse to trivialize his accomplishments. Yes, I agree.
D.B.: Or throw him in jail.
Willa: Or publicly humiliate him and drive him from his home.
It’s worth giving this some serious thought. Driving Michael Jackson out of his home was precisely what happened as a result of the false allegations – allegations that were originally manufactured by parents, police, therapists, and/or the press, and later ventriloquized through children. I don’t need to remind a Michael Jackson fan that to this day there is not one single instance of a child spontaneously making a criminal accusation against Michael Jackson. Not one. They all follow some kind of bizarre timeline where parents, police, therapists, lawyers, and/or Martin Bashir create a claim – which is later ventriloquized as “witness testimony.”
Willa: Absolutely. To my mind, the clearest example is the Jason Francia case. His mother goes on a celebrity news show, Hard Copy, and says her son may have been molested by Michael Jackson – and she does this before talking to a guidance counsellor or psychologist about her concerns, or even talking to her son about it. As a mom, that just boggles my mind. Her first step is to say something like that on a nationally broadcast television show before she’s even discussed it with her 12-year-old son? That goes against all my instincts as a mom.
Lisha: It’s unreal.
Willa: It really is – just unbelievable. So the police question her son about it and he says no, nothing happened. But they keep pushing him to say something did happen until he finally tells them, “If he really did touch, it was in the arcade.” This is such a clear case of the “ventriloquism” you pointed out in the 1993 version, Lisha. The boy shakes his head no, but the Mayor grabs his head and forces him to nod yes. That’s it exactly – a perfect description of the Chandlers and the Francias.
Lisha: That gets us into another troubling aspect of the media scandal Erni identified, which is the commodification of “witness testimony.” Accusations against Michael Jackson were bought and sold for years and it was big business. Even today we could debate whether or not there is still a market for accusations against Michael Jackson.
And what is the end result of all this? Michael Jackson suffered millions and millions in damages and was driven out of town by the Sheriff. I know I’m repeating myself, but this was the 1990s and 2000s, not the wild west! So it bears repeating: despite being exonerated in a court of law, Michael Jackson was driven out of his own home and out of his community. And not just any home. From what I understand, to call Neverland a home misses the point entirely, according to those lucky enough to have been there.
What D.B. Anderson mentioned in the previous post about cultural dominance is consistent with everything I know about how the social hierarchy works. Cultural dominance (for example white, male, heterosexual positions of power) is often maintained through the most everyday, ordinary things we take for granted. Images in the press or in popular culture often work to solidify (or sometimes challenge) the dominance of one group over another. Oftentimes we so thoroughly accept what the culture considers “normal” that we don’t even think to question our own beliefs about it. It’s simply the way things are.
Willa: Exactly. It’s so “normal” we can’t even see it, or imagine a different way.
Lisha: Yes. That’s why interrogating what is “normal” is so crucially important to understanding how society works. I think that’s one reason scholars have been interested in studying Michael Jackson and the way he seems to challenge normativity at every turn. These challenges have intersected with the very mechanisms of control, such as law enforcement and the media, which often speak in one voice when it comes to Michael Jackson.
Willa: That’s a really important point, Lisha, and it lies at the heart of Ghosts, doesn’t it? I mean, that’s precisely what this film is about. The residents of Normal Valley feel threatened by the Maestro because, like Michael Jackson, “he seems to challenge normativity at every turn,” as you say. And they respond by trying to reassert their control (over their children, over their town and who is allowed to live there) and reestablish the normalcy that has been disrupted by the Maestro by invading his home and trying to drive him out of town.
And of course, that’s true of Michael Jackson in real life as well, with the police and the media acting like the residents of Normal Valley to maintain the established social order by forcing him out – not just out of Neverland but out of the country.
Lisha: Well said. As an American citizen, it’s so troubling to me that this happened at all, but especially in my own lifetime.
Michael Jackson posed a threat to normativity that wasn’t just a lofty statement attached to a work of art. It was a very real threat to the established order, and we can find a mountain of evidence to corroborate how the culture worked very hard to contain him.
Willa, you have described Michael Jackson’s Ghosts as a new kind of art – one that isn’t necessarily confined to artwork itself, but art that is also located in our everyday lives through social discourse and other kinds of media we consume:
Through this new kind of art, Jackson captured the cultural narratives that were being imposed on him – narratives of race, of gender, of sexuality, of criminality, of celebrity and monstrous excess – inflated them to grotesque proportions, and then reflected those narratives back at us, forcing us to confront and grapple with them, and maybe reconsider them. This new genre is mediated through the tabloids and celebrity television shows and even the mainstream press, and it includes the many “eccentric oddities” (to borrow a phrase from “Is It Scary”) that came to define Jackson in the public mind.
Willa: Yes, I strongly believe that. Ghosts functions at several different levels at once. On one level, it is itself a fascinating work of art. But on another level it’s art talking about art – specifically, how art (an expanded definition of art that includes his public persona and the popular press) can bring about social change.
Lisha: You’ve definitely convinced me.
Willa: Part of what Michael Jackson was trying to address in his promo piece for Addams Family Values – the work that became Ghosts – were all the suspicions directed at him. Which makes it all the more disappointing what happened after Paramount severed ties with him. Not only did they no longer want him promoting their film, but they added a scene to Addams Family Values that played right into those allegations. Here’s a clip:
So instead of challenging the suspicions and discomfort felt toward him, as Michael Jackson intended, it did just the opposite and reinforced them.
Lisha: Wow. So there it is – everything we’ve been talking about in one 15-second clip. That gag would have worked just as well in February 1993 – at the time of the Oprah interview and several months before the accusations were made – as it did in November 1993, when Addams Family Values was released.
Willa: Though it definitely gained currency after the allegations became public …
Lisha: Making it very clear what the public was being cued to do: be very afraid of Michael Jackson!
Willa: Yes. It’s shocking to see his message of tolerance supplanted by this …
Lisha: … a message of total intolerance.
Willa: Yes, it feels that way to me too.
Well, there’s so much more to talk about with Ghosts, but we should probably wrap it up for today. Again, thank you so much for joining me, Lisha! – both today and in the weeks to come. I am so happy to have you here with me. What a wonderful way to start the new year!
Willa: Two of the most recent biographies of Michael Jackson were written by writers for Rolling Stone magazine – namely, Randall Sullivan and Steve Knopper. Both authors conducted extensive research, including hundreds of interviews with people who knew and worked with Michael Jackson, and both authors seem to believe they’ve written a fairly positive portrait of him. For example, both say that after looking at all the evidence, they are convinced he was innocent of the molestation allegations. Yet many fans were disappointed by their books.
D.B. Anderson and I were talking about this recently, after she published a review of Knopper’s book, and she pointed out that this has been a long-running problem at Rolling Stone. So this week we are looking back at Rolling Stone‘s coverage of Michael Jackson to see if we can uncover some of the root causes behind their mixed reporting on him. And maybe that can help us understand some of the resentment and ambivalence toward him in the mainstream media as well.
Thank you so much for joining me, D.B.! This is a very important topic, I think.
D.B.: Nice to be with you again, Willa! It’s enlightening to shift the focus away from Michael and instead look at the cultural, political, and economic factors that influence the media ecosystem. These influences go far beyond just one publication, but Rolling Stone magazine is an interesting case for several reasons.
When we were talking about Genius, you remarked that it was “amazingly thin, mostly just adding a few new details to a story that’s been told a hundred times already,” and I agree. We wondered about publishing houses and what value they think they are adding to the conversation. Increasingly, I’m focused on what you said in M Poetica about how things get storified:
Once a narrative has been accepted, our minds shape our perceptions to fit that narrative to such an extent that we no longer see what’s right in front of us. We don’t even feel doubt.
Does this explain why these authors, editors and publishers feel that they created positive portraits? I’m thinking it does.
Maybe if you work in publishing (or have more patience than I), these two books are considered brave and remarkable because they assert that Michael was probably innocent. From that point of view, maybe they represent progress.
Willa: Yes, and actually, I think they do represent progress. I’ve noticed that Knopper’s book has been getting some very positive reviews, mainly from readers who don’t know much about Michael Jackson, so Knopper is helping to reach people outside the fanbase. That’s important.
He’s also been outspoken in saying that Michael Jackson was innocent – for example, in this interview in The Denver Post where he says, “I didn’t expect to be so thoroughly convinced of his innocence on child molestation charges.” Randall Sullivan made similar statements after his book came out, and to me, that’s huge. That writers like Sullivan and Knopper are reviewing the evidence – and in Sullivan’s case collecting quite a bit of new evidence – and concluding that Michael Jackson was innocent is very significant and should be applauded by fans. Each of these books is an important step toward vindicating him.
One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that Knopper has been much more emphatic about asserting his innocence in interviews than he is in the book, where he merely writes, “All evidence points to no – although sleeping in bed with children and boasting of it on international television did not qualify him for the Celebrity Judgment Hall of Fame.” I don’t know if his editors at Scribner reined him in, or if he reined himself in, but it would be refreshing if his book were as outspoken as he seems to be.
D.B.: You’re exactly right, the book isn’t as warm and positive as his interviews. I find that sentence you just quoted to be dismissive and problematic. It is laid at Michael’s feet for having bad judgment. If Trayvon Martin had only submitted to George Zimmerman he wouldn’t be dead. No. Michael said that on national TV because he had nothing to hide. “He had a fair trial,” wrote Knopper. No mention that having a trial in the first place was profoundly wrong, and completely insane.
Willa: It really was. I recently talked with Tom Mesereau (which was fascinating – what an incredible mind) and he put me in contact with his lead investigator, Scott Ross. Mr. Ross spent hundreds of hours tracking down evidence, interviewing leads, and basically conducting the investigation the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office should have conducted. And that was his point exactly: it was a travesty the case ever went to trial.
Scott Ross has 37 years of experience, and during that time he’s really had to deal with the dark side of human nature – like investigating the Laci Peterson murder. To be honest, I expected someone with his background to be pretty jaded and skeptical of anyone’s innocence. But he was adamant that Michael Jackson had done nothing wrong. As he said, “Nothing happened. It never should have gone to trial. It should have been thrown out during discovery.”
D.B.: You spoke with Mesereau? That’s fantastic. I admire him for his integrity and continued willingness to speak on Michael’s behalf. But there you go: Ross conducted the investigation that the DA should have done. And apparently, others are still going to have to do the writing that journalists should have done.
Willa: Exactly, and Mesereau thinks Randall Sullivan has done precisely that. When I talked with him, he strongly supported Sullivan and felt fans should support him also. For example, he said Sullivan had uncovered evidence that the Santa Barbara DA’s office began investigating Michael Jackson on drug charges as soon as the Arvizo trial was over. That’s very important information. It suggests the police really were targeting him, and were not unbiased in their handling of the allegations against him. It also suggests Michael Jackson was right to leave Neverland – that his exile wasn’t a sign of paranoia, as quite a few articles have implied, but of wisdom. He was wise to leave his home when he did, and Mesereau said he strongly advised him to leave.
My feelings toward Sullivan’s book are more mixed than Mesereau’s, but I really value the information he gathered. I quoted Sullivan a number of times in my “Monsters, Witches, Ghosts” article because he provides new and important evidence that simply isn’t available anywhere else.
D.B.: Sullivan’s book does have some good information in it, particularly around the trial, and I am aware that Mesereau endorses it, which means something. I have a copy of Sullivan’s book and refer back to it sometimes. It is really a shame that he got sloppy with his sources on other topics because it hurt his credibility. Did you know, the missing nose at autopsy story actually was written by another Rolling Stone writer first?
Willa: No I didn’t. I remember reading that article, but didn’t remember that part. I know Fox News promoted that rumor quite a bit – that he didn’t have a real nose, and had come to the hospital with a prosthetic nose but the morgue lost it – until Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeon, Steven Hoefflin, came forward and said it wasn’t true. And the autopsy report, which came out several months later, supports Hoefflin. It’s troubling that Rolling Stone was spreading that rumor also.
D.B.: Claire Hoffman at Rolling Stone published the autopsy lie on August 6, 2009. Then it was regurgitated around the world. Fox News website shows they got it from the New York Post, and the Post was quoting Rolling Stone. For his book, Sullivan probably relied on the previous Rolling Stone report and got burned because by then, the autopsy itself had been released and disproved all of it. It wasn’t cross-checked.
There is a systemic issue at Rolling Stone. They published the original missing nose story, which you quote in your book, in 1995. The myth-making that goes on over there is just unacceptable. Now they imply Michael somehow stole the Moonwalk. There is no excuse for this. It’s a pattern with them: Jackson didn’t earn his place fair and square. These are narratives designed to appeal to their white male audience, but they are not truth.
My review puts the two book excerpts side by side because I saw an example of a deliberate content strategy by the two magazines. It was interesting to me on that level, and also I thought people could freely read the excerpt and decide if my review felt accurate or not. Yet the two books are very different. Genius disturbs me a lot more than Untouchable, frankly.
When I said “someone else is going to have to write it” I did not mean the trial, which Sullivan did do. I meant the story of how the press contributed to his being charged in the first place. There isn’t much self-reflection. I don’t see them recognizing and destroying their own myths and biases. I see them trying to shoehorn new data into an old mold.
Willa: That’s a very good point, D.B. I see what you’re saying, and I agree with you. Long before the allegations were made, the reporting on Michael Jackson had created a climate of suspicion about him, that there was simply something wrong about him. So when the allegations hit, many people were predisposed to believe he was guilty of something – if not molestation, then something – just being odd, maybe. And then, of course, a type of hysteria developed, and the reporting tended to be not very insightful or self-reflective at all after that, as you say. Publications didn’t want to look at how they may have contributed to the hysteria, and they still don’t.
But I also think that change is going to come incrementally, and these books are important first steps – albeit baby steps – toward shifting the narrative about what happened to Michael Jackson. It’s important to get the big picture about systemic racism in the U.S. – especially the deeply ingrained narrative of black men as sexual predators – and how that contributed to police and public perceptions of the allegations against Michael Jackson. That’s very important. But that type of deep reappraisal will take some historical distance, I think, and the widespread realization that he was in fact innocent. And I’m encouraged that things are already moving in that direction, as we see in these two books. Attitudes have changed more quickly since his death than I would have expected.
D.B.: Really? You are much more tolerant than I, Willa! I’m not inclined to be grateful for tardy conclusions that he was innocent the entire time unless accompanied by some expression of horror that it happened at all.
You may be right that this book represents a crack in the foundation. But it’s a foundation built by the press themselves. To misquote Princess Diana: “There were three of us in this marriage – Michael, the press, and the police.” Come on, you know? It’s just not that complicated. It really isn’t. There are millions of people who knew that Michael was innocent the entire time, and that the case was malicious. “Fair trial” – those words made me want to throw the book across the room.
Willa: It was fair in the sense that he was found innocent of all charges – not that he was made to go through it.
D.B.: Precisely. Did the justice system work? Absolutely not. It should never have gone to trial, as Ross said. And the media is directly responsible for it. They own this. You can’t blame it all on Sneddon. He was influenced by them. He believed their narrative. Mesereau is not wrong but he’s just not focused on this part. There was lots of post-trial coverage about how the jurors got it wrong and were swayed by Michael’s celebrity. This shouldn’t get lost.
Willa: That’s true.
D.B.: What really bothers me about Genius is this. It starts out with a prologue about racism, but still manages to impugn Michael when it tries to separate him from an important aspect of black culture, the street dance. Still manages to avoid discussing prosecutorial misconduct or the viciousness of the press. This is not intellectually consistent. This is not self-aware. This is maybe even pandering, giving lip service. I’m sorry, but I call bullshit.
To paraphrase the prologue: There was racism in Gary during the first six years of Michael’s life and therefore he became egomaniacal and that’s why he built that weird HIStory statue. It’s worse than not bringing up racism at all. This is mockery.
I want to be clear that I’m not attacking the author personally. But he is part of a system, the book is part of a system, which includes the publisher’s marketing department. Maybe Scribner tried to turn the book into something it isn’t and Knopper didn’t have control over that. I am not telling anyone to buy or not buy books; I read them all. I’m just sharing my response.
There are many factors operating in the system: a historical white-male-centered perspective, a profit motive, and institutional self-justification. When Genius debuted last month and was getting a lot of press, Bill Whitfield (who struggled to get coverage of Remember The Time, which he wrote with Javon Beard and Tanner Colby), tweeted the following:
The national media has not publicized RTT because they would owe Mr. Jackson and his fans an apology. https://t.co/RPnErzt4gj—
Bill Whitfield (@MJBODYGUARDS) October 21, 2015
Willa: Thanks for sharing this, D.B. I hadn’t seen it before, and I have to say, I think there’s a lot of truth to what he’s saying …
D.B.: Remember The Time is chock full of new, never-before-heard information.
Willa: Yes, and it presents a very different portrait of him, as caring, intelligent, playful – very different than the wacko narrative that was so dominant the last two decades of his life.
D.B.: It really does. It deserved a much bigger splash than it got. So why is Genius getting so much play? You can’t avoid noticing that the press is much happier to promote a book by one of their own – one that doesn’t require them to consider their own accountability.
The history re-writing has begun, but according to Genius, Jackson is still a liar and “the weirdest pop star in history.” The original premise hasn’t changed one iota. No thank you.
Willa: And you believe much of that bias can be traced back to Rolling Stone magazine, right?
D.B.: During the period of time when I was struggling to understand my conflicted response to the latest book, I did wonder, just what exactly is the deal with Rolling Stone as an institution? The prejudice seems so baked in. So many untrue stories, and two books by writers from that magazine. No wait – three books, counting Dave Marsh. This is a publication focused on music, so you would expect more from them than a tabloid or a regular newspaper. Yet, their coverage has been some of the worst.
Rolling Stone was founded by Jann Wenner in 1967 in San Francisco and it was identified with the hippies counterculture of the sixties. It has been criticized by others for having a generational bias towards musicians of the 1960s and 1970s, for example, they panned Nirvana and rap.
Douglas Wolk wrote in the Seattle Times in 2006:
The basic DNA of popular-music criticism came from the people who wrote for Rolling Stone and Creem in the ’60s and ’70s. They were the first to write about pop interestingly and at length; they loved rock of that pop-historical moment’s Beatles/Stones/Dylan school more than anything else; and their language and perspective and taste have been internalized by pretty much everybody.
Wolk references this 2004 article by Kelefa Sanneh that explains a particular way of writing about music, “rockism”:
Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video….
Rockism isn’t unrelated to older, more familiar prejudices — that’s part of why it’s so powerful, and so worth arguing about….could it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world? Like the anti-disco backlash of 25 years ago, the current rockist consensus seems to reflect not just an idea of how music should be made but also an idea about who should be making it.
Quite a mic drop, isn’t it?
Willa: It really is, and it provides a fascinating lens for looking at all this, doesn’t it? I think there definitely is a “rockist” bias that “means idolizing the authentic old legend,” with strong emphasis on the word “authentic” – meaning “straight, white men” with guitars who spend their lives on the road, singing songs they wrote themselves on a napkin in some shabby diner, and who make very little money doing it. This notion of authenticity is very important to the bastions of rockism.
D.B.: Lol. What an outstanding description. You left out the roach clips and the girls in every town, but otherwise perfect.
Willa: Ha! That’s funny. Thanks, D.B. But while I agree there’s a rockist bias, it’s not altogether true that Rolling Stone has shown unwavering loyalty to the “Beatles/Stones/Dylan school.” I’m a little older than you are, and I can remember when John Lennon was considered an embarrassment. Like Michael Jackson, he was too idealistic (meaning too naïve, too simplistic) and too uncool, and it made people uncomfortable. There was also a suspicion that he had become too wealthy and may have sold out. Do you remember the stories about Yoko Ono investing in dairy cows and selling a bull for a quarter-million dollars, or something crazy like that? It was big news for a while. And I need to double-check this, but I seem to remember a completely false Rolling Stone article published a year or so before Lennon died that implied he’d become a chubby real estate developer in Florida.
Rolling Stone even had their doubts about Bob Dylan, especially after he became a born-again Christian. I think that caused a lot of angst over at Rolling Stone. That just isn’t what the rockists wanted their heroes to be.
So I agree there has been a strong “rockism” bias at Rolling Stone, and they’ve tended to see themselves as cultural gatekeepers, but it’s more in support of an ideal than specific people, I think. They want their rock heroes to fit a certain mold. And if a revered figure like Bob Dylan doesn’t measure up – someone who helped shape their notions of what an authentic artist should be – what are they going to think of Michael Jackson, who wore lipstick and danced brilliantly (most rock stars don’t dance – maybe a little shuffle, but not dancing), whose concerts were an extravaganza, who made short films that defy the supremacy of music over image, who worked collaboratively and challenged preconceived notions about authenticity and individuality? He simply didn’t fit the rockist model, and he refused to limit himself to their expectations.
D.B.: Yes, that’s true. It’s an ideal they are after. Keeping the 1960s hippie dream alive, or something. They gave Lennon a very hard time when he dropped out, around 1975, to become a househusband and raise Sean. That was unheard of back then, and very threatening to their masculinity, I believe. Dave Marsh was a Rolling Stone writer who castigated Lennon in an open letter for failing to perform his duties to the world. The same author wrote a book about Michael in 1985 called Trapped: Michael Jackson and The Crossover Dream. Here is a quote from that one, on why Michael has failed his people:
It’s the difference between Jackie Robinson, whose personal emancipation within the world of baseball inspired not only black Americans but the whole country, and Michael Jackson, whose triumphs in the world of popular music were so private that they were ultimately never shared with anyone and as a result, curdled, turned sour and evaporated into a sickly residue of their original potential.
There must have been a big sale on weed that week. I mean, seriously. Where do you start.
Willa: Yes, I’ve read Marsh’s book, and it’s written from the perspective of a betrayed idealist. He thinks Michael Jackson has the potential to be a Moses figure who can lead Americans, black and white, out of the swamp of racism and onto higher ground. And he is outraged that Michael Jackson isn’t fulfilling his (Marsh’s) fantasies. There’s never any suggestion that maybe Marsh himself should or could do something to help end racism – just condemnation of Michael Jackson for not doing more.
D.B.: Well, if there was ever a clear cut example of white privilege, this is it. White man gonna tell the black boy how to fix the white man’s problem. It’s weird, Marsh actually wasn’t wrong about Michael’s potential. I have seen so many people commenting that they are amazed how “woke” Michael was. Yet, Marsh is beating Michael up, and this even before he released Bad.
Willa: Yes, he doesn’t seem to understand or appreciate what Michael Jackson was accomplishing – through his art, as in Beat It, or through his position as a globally recognized cultural figure, or through his very being – and instead rebuked him for what he was not. It’s the same phenomenon you were talking about before, D.B., but measuring Michael Jackson against a messiah-type ideal rather than a rockist ideal. It’s interesting to look back through Rolling Stone and see where that impulse comes from.
D.B.: Just mind blowing. Marsh even blames Michael for the negative press he received in the very pages of his own employer, Rolling Stone. That’s how it works: blame the victim. If only Trayvon had listened to George.
It’s interesting, Rolling Stone has recently made available an archive of all their covers. And I think you can see the rockism happen, visually, when you look back at the covers of Michael. Not even the articles, just the covers. There were two of Michael in 1983; the first was an interview done before Thriller became dominant and the second was a commentary on MTV. This would have been two years before Marsh’s book. The second cover is where the rockism really starts to become obvious:
Many things about this cover stand out. First, it’s cartoonish – the only non-photograph cover of 1983. Second, the subhead: “The Selling Out of Rock & Roll.”
There is a poignant subtext having to do with John Lennon being absent. This was published only three years after Lennon was murdered. And what you see is Michael Jackson literally inhabiting Lennon’s “rightful place” next to Paul McCartney (as the rockists would have seen it). Even though the Beatles had broken up long before Lennon died, this would have been painful.
Willa: That’s a fascinating way to interpret this, D.B. I really think you’re on to something, though I think the story is a little more complicated than that. It’s true that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were beloved by Rolling Stone, and by millions of fans around the world. But then things got ugly, the Beatles broke up, people took sides, McCartney was unfairly cast as a light-weight, Lennon was unfairly cast as someone who’d lost his way, Yoko Ono was treated abominably. It was terrible …
D.B.: I do remember parts of the controversy. McCartney had already written “Silly Love Songs” by this point, in answer to that criticism:
Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs
And what’s wrong with that?
I’d like to know
‘Cause here I go again
D.B.: And the drama about Yoko was intense. She was accused of breaking up the Beatles (it wasn’t true) and the vitriol that was hurled her way was astonishing. She and John left the U.K. because the British tabloids were so absolutely hideous towards her. They moved to New York, but it didn’t stop. In 1969 Esquire ran a story called “John Rennon’s Excrusive Gloupie.” These rockists were brutal racists and misogynists. John and Yoko “dropped out” for about five years, until 1980.
Willa: Yes, they did, and then Double Fantasy came out – Lennon’s first album in years – and it was amazing, alternating tracks by Lennon and Ono. To be honest, a lot of critics weren’t quite sure what to make of it. Then three weeks later John Lennon was gone, murdered, and I can still remember that night – how my friends and I just couldn’t take it in.
After that a kind of nostalgia set in that sort of swept the complexities and complications under the rug and replaced them with hazy, idealized memories of Lennon and McCartney. And then, suddenly, right in the midst of that nostalgia, here’s a cover of Rolling Stone, with Michael Jackson in John Lennon’s “rightful place,” as you say, and a headline about “The selling out of rock & roll.” That’s really significant – I think you’re right, D.B.
D.B.: It is so interesting to look through the archives with the perspective of time. Back then, everyone was traumatized. Lennon was cut down right at his comeback, just as Michael was. That very day he was killed, John and Yoko had posed with Annie Leibowitz for a Rolling Stone cover. The same day.
So you can empathize with the difficulty that Rolling Stone would have been having at seeing anyone in John’s place. Who, this black kid? Who used to do Alpha-Bits commercials? Similar to how we might respond to anyone daring to step into Michael’s place, as Michael Arceneaux expresses in a this piece for VH1: “Let’s Stop Comparing The Weeknd, Chris Brown, + Anyone Else To Michael Jackson.”
But Rolling Stone was also predisposed to be generally hateful anyway. And they had not got their heads around the difference between mourning and the rockist worldview. So right here at this moment in 1983, when he is on top of the world, you see Michael being thrown into the Paul box that existed at that time, classified as a slick, commercial, non-serious artist.
Willa: Yes, and that’s evident in the article itself. It’s mostly about MTV, but everyone even remotely associated with MTV is tainted. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the Rolling Stone writer, Steven Levy, privileges music over all else, and sees videos simply as marketing. As he writes, “After watching hours and days of MTV, it’s tough to avoid the conclusion that rock & roll has been replaced by commercials.” So while I see Michael Jackson as an incredible multimedia artist whose films were amazing and a crucially important part of his art – perhaps the place where his art reaches its fullest expression – Levy looks at those videos and sees nothing but “commercials.” And he sees the artists who participate in creating videos as sell-outs – one of the worst labels a rockist can slap on a musician.
D.B.: I think this is where Rolling Stone and others completely went off track, because Michael was a socially conscious artist in the best Lennon tradition.
D.B.: You know, every time there is a Playlist for Peace after a tragedy, Jackson and Lennon are always on it together.
Willa: That’s true.
D.B.: This has all got me thinking a lot about Michael’s relationship with Yoko and Sean. I wonder if it is a more significant factor than we realized in how Michael was viewed, personally and symbolically. We knew that there was resentment among the rockists around buying the Beatles catalog, but it’s likely much deeper and more emotional than that.
And Michael himself: what did the relationship mean to him personally? Did he relate to the unfair treatment she’d received? Yoko and Sean were the first mother-son combo that he was close to, right? Was Michael inspired artistically by Yoko, the way John was? McCartney has given Yoko the credit for John’s peace song period – “Imagine,” “Give Peace a Chance,” “War Is Over.” Did Michael promise Yoko he would carry on for John?
Willa: Those are interesting questions, D.B. I don’t know how to answer them, but I do think Michael Jackson wanted to help Sean Lennon after his father died and took on something of a fatherly or big brotherly role with him. They spent a lot of time together for several years, and I’m struck by the concluding scenes of Moonwalker. Sean plays a street kid named “Sean” (that seems significant) who is befriended by the main character “Michael.” Near the end of the movie Michael tells Sean, “I want to show you something special,” then goes onstage and performs a John Lennon song: “Come Together.”
To me, it seems he’s showing Sean that his father’s work is important, that it’s respected by other artists, and that his music lives on even though he himself is gone. That’s a pretty powerful message for a “commercial.”
D.B.: Oh I had forgotten they used their real names.
Willa: Yes, and they are the only two characters who did.
D.B.: This is sounding more like the personal promise I wondered about. Michael’s performance of “Come Together” was also included in a 1990 broadcast called Lennon: A Tribute. And of course later Michael combined “Come Together” with “D.S.” in performance, which is connected thematically, because Lennon had been a target of the Nixon administration and was also investigated by the FBI. The INS even tried to deport Lennon.
Willa: That’s true. I hadn’t connected “Come Together”/“D.S.” with the FBI investigations of Lennon and the deportation attempt (which is so reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin) but you’re right. It all fits, doesn’t it?
D.B.: It certainly seems to. It seems like classic Michael; there is always a reason for what he does. And Yoko wanted Michael to have the catalog, even over herself and Paul. That says a lot about her trust in him. I’d guess it made Michael more of a target to the rockists, given that he was associating with this woman who was hated. Not just that he got the catalog, but did it with her blessing.
Willa: Yes, Randy Taraborrelli quotes a November 1990 interview where Yoko Ono said this about the acquisition:
Businessmen who aren’t artists themselves wouldn’t have the consideration Michael has. He loves the songs. He’s very caring. There could be a lot of arguments and stalemates if Paul and I owned it together. Neither Paul nor I needed that. If Paul got the songs, people would have said, “Paul finally got John.” And if I got them, they’d say, “Oh, the dragon lady strikes again.”
So she has been supportive of his ownership of the songs. But there have been a lot of snide comments about it among white critics, especially, implying that Michael Jackson did something sneaky, something that wasn’t quite cricket in buying the songs of a fellow artist.
D.B.: Yes. There it is again. Everything Michael does is somehow illegitimate. So, let me ask a question … if the cover shows discomfort with Michael in John’s “rightful place” next to McCartney, and we know people were upset about Michael owning Lennon-McCartney songs, then how might the rockists have felt about Michael taking John’s “rightful place” next to John’s wife and son?
You see where I am going with this? It could get very nasty….
Willa: Yes, and it did get nasty. You know, it’s interesting, D.B. I never connected this back to John Lennon before, but in reading coverage of the 1993 allegations, I’ve frequently been struck by the feeling that writers accused Michael Jackson not so much of molestation – though of course that suspicion was always there in the background – but of stealing a white man’s son, a white man’s family, away from him.
D.B.: Yes they did! I had forgotten! In the beginning it was only – Michael is taking this man’s son. Oh my goodness. Oh. wow.
Willa: Yes, and there are strong racial overtones in the media’s handling of his own children also – that they are not legitimately his, but instead belong to some as-yet-unknown white father: maybe Mark Lester, maybe Arnold Klein, maybe Marlon Brando. I honestly believe the paternity of his kids is only an issue because of race. The underlying narrative seems to be that he was a black man raising “white” children, and that wasn’t a legitimate role for him. It wasn’t his “rightful place,” to use that phrase once again.
D.B.: Right. Knopper does go after the children in Genius, too. I am paraphrasing, but he says only Jackson’s family think the children are his, and that’s just because they come with money attached. I agree with you; this type of attack just fits with everything else we have seen from the white male heterosexual press. It is necessary to diminish someone else only if you are trying to establish or maintain your own dominance. If that person happens to be an extraordinarily potent black man…
Willa: … then there’s an impulse to trivialize his accomplishments. Yes, I agree.
D.B.: Or throw him in jail.
Willa: Or publicly humiliate him and drive him from his home.
This reminds me of something else in Levy’s Rolling Stone article. Levy begins by providing important evidence of MTV’s exclusion of black artists, which I found really interesting, and he specifically talks about the struggle to get Billie Jean on the MTV playlist. But then later he singles out Michael Jackson as a prime example of MTV. So according to Levy, Michael Jackson is both excluded from and epitomizes MTV – both an outsider and the ultimate insider. That doesn’t make sense.
D.B.: Maybe they were just throwing anything that would stick. But you’re right, it’s very conflicted. Levy says MTV should have expected criticism for not playing black artists because the channel was behaving like a place “where Reagan’s values are honored more than John Lennon’s.” But then there is a sidebar story: “Jackson and McCartney’s Supervideo: Say What?”
Willa: Yes, which is basically a conversation with director Bob Giraldi on whether or not videos are “advertisements.” So we’re back again to the rockist obsession with not selling out.
On a little side note, I was in California last week and visited the Union Hotel in Los Alamos, where some scenes from Say Say Say were filmed. Here’s the bedroom where they shot the shaving scene:
And the pool table, though it’s been moved to a different room:
Here’s the bar where Michael Jackson’s character sees LaToya’s character (notice all the money stuck to the ceiling):
And the swinging doors where they leave the bar:
And here are the back stairs they run down to escape from the police:
D.B.: Oh I am so jealous. No fair, lol. How did you feel being in those rooms?
Willa: Well, I hate to gloat, but it was fabulous! It’s a beautiful building from the 1880s, and I absolutely loved it. And if you look closely in this picture, you can see the Rolling Stone magazine cover we’ve been talking about. They have it in a glass case:
D.B.: I’m so happy you had the opportunity to go.
Willa: So am I! It was really fun. Well, thank you so much for joining me, D.B. As always, you’ve given me a lot to think about. I gain so much from our conversations.
D.B.: Thank you so much for inviting me, Willa. It’s always a pleasure and this has been fascinating.
Willa: I recently heard from our friend Marie Plasse that she and Joe Vogel are helping Brad Sundberg organize a seminar in Boston, with special guests Brad Buxer and Michael Prince. Joe and Marie will be on hand as well.
Lisha McDuff and I had a wonderful conversation with Brad back in January of last year after his seminar in Toronto. A few weeks later, Eleanor Bowman, Veronica Bassil, and Sylvia Martin joined Lisha and me for a post about his Captain EO seminar in Orlando, Florida. Brad’s seminars include stories and sound recordings from his days working with Michael Jackson, as well as insights into his recording process.
The venue for the Boston seminar hasn’t been selected yet, but the date is Saturday, December 5, and tickets are already on sale. Here’s a link for more information, and here are a couple of posters Brad has created for the event.
There was nothing left of the guy, nothing at all – except a bone, a rag, a hank of hair. The guy had been trying to tell me something … but what?
– The Band Wagon (1953)
Willa: A few months ago I was joined by Nina Fonoroff, who is both a professor of cinematic arts and an independent filmmaker. We did a post about the first section of Billie Jean, and also talked about how Michael Jackson drew inspiration from the Fred Astaire movie The Band Wagon, and from film noir more generally. Then a few weeks later Nina joined me for a second post about the middle section of Billie Jean, and Nina suggested fascinating visual connections to The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz. Today we are continuing this discussion by looking at the concluding scenes of Billie Jean and some potential visual allusions in that section of the film.
Thank you so much for joining me, Nina!
Nina: Thank you, Willa! I’m hoping we’ll find a new wrinkle in the “case” of Billie Jean (the film).
Willa: Oh, I always discover something new whenever I talk with you!
So last time we looked at Michael Jackson’s iconic dance sequence in the middle of Billie Jean, with the bleak ribbon of road stretching behind him to the foreboding “Mauve City” in the background. As you described so well, it’s like the antithesis of the shining “Emerald City” we see glistening at the end Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz, which of course featured Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow. I’m still very intrigued by that, and by your discussion of how those visual landscapes function within each film.
So that’s where we left off last time. The “Mauve City” dance sequence begins at about the 1:50 minute mark and extends to about 3:25, but about 2:45 minutes in we begin to transition into the final section of the film. First we cut to a view of Billie Jean’s bedroom – the first time we’ve seen it – and that’s followed by a series of snapshot-type images of her room. They’re kind of awkwardly framed, and almost look like something a paparazzo or intruder might take.
And then we immediately jump to the detective out on the street picking up a tiger-print rag. It’s the same rag Michael Jackson’s character pulled from his pocket in the opening scenes and used to wipe his shoe. And as we’ve talked about before, this is another connection to The Band Wagon, right?
Nina: Yes, it looks like a direct homage to the musical The Band Wagon, and specifically to a song-and-dance number within it, the “Girl Hunt Ballet,” which we’ve mentioned before. In this play-within-the-movie, Fred Astaire, who plays a character named Tony Hunter in the larger movie, and who stars in this sequence, begins his narration:
The city was asleep. The joints were closed, the rats, the hoods, and the killers were in their holes. I hate killers. My name is Rod Riley. I’m a detective. Somewhere, some guy in a furnished room was practicing his horn. It was a lonesome sound. It crawled on my spine. I’d just finished a tough case, I was ready to hit the sack….
All of the well-worn tropes of the noir genre are present here: in the images, the sounds, the music, the feelings Astaire’s character mentions (lonesomeness, having personal vendettas – “I hate killers”) and his attitude of guarded nonchalance as he lights his cigarette. Later in the scene, another man appears in a trenchcoat and hat. We see him from a low angle as he emerges out of a thick fog and walks toward Riley. After picking a bottle up from the street and examining it, the strange man disappears, literally, in a flame and a cloud of smoke. And this is where Riley says,
There was nothing left of the guy! Nothing at all – except a bone, a rag, a hank of hair. The guy had been trying to tell me something. But what?
The detective is left with an enigma which compels him to pursue the disappearing man, while also falling prey to the femme fatale (played by Cyd Charisse), who doubles as a hapless victim whom Riley wants to protect until she betrays him. The whole “Girl Hunt Ballet” is an affectionate parody of the film noir genre at its apogee in the 1950s.
And in Billie Jean, too, we find many of the same elements: enigmatic characters, mysteries, clues, pursuits, deceptions, and reversals. These are deeply, if subtly, present in the story, the lyrics, the sounds, and the varied images of the short film as a whole – and many of our own responses, as we watch and listen to it.
First, there are a few different pursuits going on in Billie Jean. There’s the detective’s pursuit of his elusive prey, a disappearing man, Michael – though Michael is clearly no “killer.”
Then, Michael is the narrator of the story as well as the star of the show. Through his demeanor, his lyrics, and the whole story and setting of Billie Jean (song and film), Michael is an enigma to himself. He must consider why he has done the things he has done, that have caused him such remorse. One of his aims may be to attain self-knowledge – which I believe is what the song is ultimately about.
Finally, there’s our own perplexity, as we sort out the scattered clues that Michael Jackson himself – as our object of pursuit, our enigma, and our hero – has left behind. Aren’t we continually “going after” this man in our search for what he was “trying to tell us”? As fans, we have ourselves become detectives.
Willa: That’s an interesting way of looking at this, Nina. And those layers of mystery seem to telescope within one another. What I mean is, the private detective – if that’s what he is – really doesn’t seem that interested in what happened or whether the main character is guilty or not. He just wants to catch him on film in a compromising position. That’s his job and he’s trying to do it.
Then we as an audience are a little closer in. We do care about the main character and we do want to know what happened and why, so we’re trying to piece together “the scattered clues,” as you say. We have “become detectives” as we try to construct a narrative that makes sense.
And then there’s the main character himself, who’s even closer in – so much so that in some ways the story of Billie Jean all seems to be playing out inside his own head. It’s like he’s obsessively retelling the story over and over again in his mind, as people tend to do after a traumatic event. I mean, how many times does he repeat the line “Billie Jean is not my lover” or “The kid is not my son”? It’s almost like he’s trying to convince himself that he isn’t culpable somehow. Even if he isn’t legally obligated to provide for her baby, there seems to be an emotional connection to the child whose “eyes looked like mine,” and he seems to be working through that as he replays the story of Billie Jean over and over again.
Nina: That’s a great point, Willa. There’s a persistent disavowal of his relationship with this particular woman and child through the chorus, which carries the song’s main theme.
In the last part of the film, we hear the instrumental break with its punchy guitar riff, as the film cuts to another space. We are no longer beside the huge billboard on the ribbon of sidewalk. Between two dilapidated brick buildings, we are with Michael in an enclosed stairwell that has a somewhat claustrophobic feel.
Willa: Which seems to be a fairly accurate reflection of his psychological state at that point.
Nina: I think so, Willa. Through the lyrics especially, he has already given us a good idea of how he was entrapped or enclosed – with seemingly no way out – by “schemes and plans” that are not of his own making.
A window prominently shows us a neighbor – a woman sitting at a table right next to the window of the adjoining building, with a red phone before her. We see several quick inserted shots, where Michael spins in this small space. His “heeeeess,” which periodically interrupt the guitar riff, are precisely timed to each of his spins.
Willa: Oh, you’re right! I hadn’t noticed that before.
Nina: I don’t know whether it was planned in advance or created in the editing process, but that kind of synchronous moment recalls the one earlier in the film, when Michael’s footfalls on the lit-up squares were timed to the rhythm of the song. It’s a powerful editing device.
And the image of the woman in the window, as seen from outside, distinctly reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 film, Rear Window. Here are a couple of movie posters:
In Rear Window, L. B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is a professional news photographer who’s temporarily disabled; he’s in a wheelchair with a broken leg, an injury he sustained on his last assignment. Since he has too much time on his hands and is more or less in an immobilized condition, he cuts his boredom and entertains himself by spying on his neighbors, whose activities across the courtyard he can readily view through his apartment’s big picture window – which functions, for him, as a kind of movie screen. Here’s his view of a newlywed couple:
And the courtyard at dusk:
Willa: Interesting! This image of the courtyard, especially, is very evocative of Billie Jean, isn’t it? It’s the same sort of dead-end alley where Michael Jackson’s character goes to climb the steps to Billie Jean’s room.
And here’s a screen capture of the scene you were just describing of the older woman with the red phone seen through the window – the woman who later calls the police:
That could easily be a frame from Rear Window, couldn’t it?
Nina: Yes, they both evoke a very similar atmosphere and a sense of illicit looking – even though this window is closer to us than the neighbors’ windows in Rear Window, which are clear across Jeffries’ courtyard, maybe a hundred feet away.
Willa: Yes, there’s a strong feeling of intimacy in Billie Jean, and maybe that sense of intimacy, even in public spaces, is part of what makes this seem like a psychological journey – that we are inside his mind as much as inhabiting a physical space.
Nina: Yes, Willa. To name one thing, he draws his story from memory, and how can anyone gainsay that? We must identify with him, subjectively. Because he narrates, and because we see so many lingering closeups on his face (and no one else’s), because we share his emotional life on these levels, and because, as Michael Jackson, he comes to the whole scenario with the kind of star power that “needs no introduction,” we can develop very strong bonds of identification with his character, even if this character’s life situation is in no way comparable to ours.
Willa: That’s true.
Nina: Yet Michael’s gesture to the woman on the other side of the window, with her red phone and table fan, wearing something on her head that looks something like a shower cap, gives me a moment of discomfort. It’s as if some contract regarding privacy has been breached, because our sense of decorum in a city requires that a pedestrian and a resident – on opposite sides of a window – not acknowledge each other. By gesturing this “shush” to a stranger in her own apartment, Michael leads us to a different kind of space where conspiracy and secrecy replaces anonymity and invisibility. He is asking her not to “give him away” or reveal his presence there. According to some established social conventions, when you live in a congested city, there ought to be an implicit agreement to maintain an illusion of privacy. When you pass by an open window on the street, for instance, you are not to look in. Even if you spot a person “parading around naked” (as the saying goes), and even if some kind of sexual encounter is taking place, you are to keep walking and pretend you haven’t seen anything. (Even if they were to witness a violent crime taking place in an apartment, many people prefer just to keep their noses clean and walk past as if nothing had happened.)
But many breaches of personal space and privacy occur all the time, beyond anyone’s control. You may sense at times that you’re living in a fishbowl where constant surveillance is your daily lot, while at the same time you are chafing under the anonymity that city life often imposes, which can provide a kind of shelter from constant monitoring but at the same time denies you the fame and notoriety you may desperately want! Those contradictions, I think, formed a large part of Michael Jackson’s life. And both Billie Jean and Rear Window are largely about blurring the distinctions between the public and the private.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Nina. And it’s true that the boundary between public and private was a fraught one for Michael Jackson – one he was constantly trying to negotiate as he dealt with that odd mix of isolation and exposure brought on by celebrity. So it’s interesting to see how that boundary between public and private is breached and redrawn in both of these films.
Nina: Yes, and it’s also telling that the staging of these stories required a sealed, private environment: both films were shot on a film set (an enclosed, controlled space), and not on location.
Jeffries is housebound, and he is increasingly fascinated by the activities he sees. He can enjoy a sense of power through his ability to control other people by narrativizing them: he makes up stories and even invents nicknames for them. First with a pair of binoculars, and then the long telephoto lens of a camera he uses for his professional work, he concocts fantasies about his neighbors’ lives as he peers into their curtainless windows. He finally becomes an amateur detective himself: his prosthetic “eyes” allow him to discover a possible murder and cover-up as he stares, transfixed, at the windows across the courtyard. The following stills show us Jeffries and the apparatuses he uses:
And then “reverse” shots that disclose his point of view, such as this shot of Mr. and Mrs Thorward:
And this one of Mr. Thorwald, a potential murderer:
And this one of a neighbor he calls “Miss Lonelyhearts”:
Willa: And again, these images are evocative of Billie Jean. For example, in this last movie still, there’s the dark brick wall outside and the well-lit space inside so that, ironically, what’s inside is more visible than what’s outside – just like the apartment of the woman with the red phone in Billie Jean. We can barely make out the bushes, gutter pipe, and iron railing outside, but we can see every detail of “Miss Lonelyhearts” preparing a romantic table for two.
So in some ways, Jeffries is like us as we “narrativize” the images we see in Billie Jean and try to form them into a story. But in other ways, he’s more like the detective character. He’s a photographer and he intrudes into other people’s private lives – just like the detective in Billie Jean – without their knowing it.
Nina: Yes, that’s true, I think – Jeffries combines both kinds of obsessive looking. What he’s up to seems sleazy, and several people in his life urge him to stop his near-obsessive spying (including his girlfriend, who at one point tells him his behavior is “diseased”). As it turns out, however, he is vindicated in the end, since his spying was instrumental in uncovering a criminal act.
Willa: He’s vindicated because his “looking” allows him to bring a murderer to justice?
Nina: Well … He starts out “spying” as a distraction, to pass the time. But then he discovers something untoward happening in an apartment across the courtyard. I won’t give away too much here, but everyone should really see this film! It’s one of the classics of the “suspense thriller” genre, which Hitchcock was especially known for.
Willa: You’re really making me want to see it again, Nina. To be honest, I haven’t watched it since I was a teenager (about 40 years ago!) so a lot of the plot details are pretty fuzzy. I do remember having contradictory feelings about Jimmy Stewart’s character, and agreeing with Grace Kelly’s character about his obsessive watching.
Nina: Rear Window has been very thoroughly studied by film critics and scholars for decades now because it so perfectly illustrates how our own physical and psychological state as film spectators are akin to Jeffries’, and especially when we view films on the big screen at the theater. We are more or less immobilized in our seats, as he is in his wheelchair, and we’re peering into a world that’s displayed before us, gazing at a screen that reveals people in their most private moments: moments that maybe we’re not “supposed” to be seeing. By all rights, we should be embarrassed by this “guilty pleasure,” but of course that’s the whole appeal of the film spectacle. Why would we give up a position where we have the distinct privilege of seeing everything that’s going on through an omniscient camera? We never get that chance in real life!
And so, it can be said that we become voyeurs every time we see a movie, just as L.B. Jeffries, watching his window as if it were a movie “screen,” is a classic voyeur in Rear Window.
Willa: Oh, interesting! And of course, that plays out at both levels in Billie Jean as well. There are the repeated scenes of voyeurism within the film, as you’ve been pointing out (the detective with his camera obviously, but also the main character himself looking at the panhandler, or looking at the woman with the red phone, or looking at Billie Jean lying in her bed) and also outside the film, as we as an audience watch the video and piece together the clues we’re given into a story.
Nina: That’s true, Willa. And yet, maybe because Billie Jean is a music video, or because it’s short (as music videos tend to be), or because it’s Michael Jackson, this main character’s mode of voyeurism seems somehow less sinister, because he’s looking at things without the intermediary of binoculars, a camera, or (usually) a window. The people he sees can see him, too.
Still, it turns out that Billie Jean’s way of telling a story and revealing information is almost as cagey as Michael Jackson himself could sometimes be! There’s allusion and implication, rather than disclosure of facts (but isn’t that’s what many works of art are about, anyway; since they’re built on metaphor)? But while most films noir assure us that we will learn the “answer” to the puzzle in due time, in Billie Jean (as in the ongoing saga of Michael Jackson’s life), while more disclosures are promised, and while we eagerly await the definitive “solution” to a riddle or mystery, the answer, of course, never arrives.
But in the end, as we watch Billie Jean – and as we regard Michael Jackson with the kind of fascination reserved for larger-than-life figures – we (or, speaking for myself here, I) am again left with a set of vexing questions about Michael himself. I’m revisiting these questions for the umpteenth time, knowing that I will never find an answer, but compelled by the process of investigation itself. Like Rod Riley and his mysterious disappearing man, I ask again and again, “the guy was trying to tell me something. But what?” I think many of us feel this way. We’re MJ sleuths.
There are many parallels, I think, between Rear Window and Billie Jean, on the thematic as well as the visual level. For one thing, there is a tradition in cinema where photography is a major motif, and photographers play a pivotal role in solving crimes … or in committing them. Here I’m thinking of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), where a fashion photographer becomes a reluctant hero-detective; or Peeping Tom, a psychological thriller (1960) by British director Michael Powell, where an amateur-style movie camera assists a young man’s killing spree.
I’m also thinking of photography’s role in divorce cases (based on some old-school detective work) where the goings-on of “cheating” husbands and wives can be recorded as evidence. Here I’m thinking of Maurice Chevalier’s role as a Parisian detective in Love in the Afternoon, with Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper, from 1957, which is also the stuff of Hollywood romantic comedies from the 1930s through the 1960s. And so, what immediately came to my mind when I first started thinking about Billie Jean, was that the lyrics alone might imply a paternity suit; and a few music critics I’ve read believe that’s where things are heading in the story of Billie Jean as retold by Michael, the “narrator.”
Willa: I think so too – especially with the lines, “For forty days and forty nights / The law was on her side.” That implies there’s a lawsuit involved in her “claims that I am the one” who fathered her son. So maybe the detective has been hired to support her claims.
Nina: Yes, It would seem so, Willa; at least that’s a good possibility. It seems cryptic – but again, prescient in terms of Michael Jackson’s legal battles.
You also had an intriguing idea last time we posted, Willa, about how the man in the trenchcoat may be a detective (in the old-fashioned film noir sense), and also a more present-day kind of paparazzo. That made me think more about Michael’s many real-life encounters (pleasant and not) with photographers. And of course this bears directly on Billie Jean, as well as the first few moments of You Are Not Alone, where we see an intense display of flashbulbs going off as Michael walks slowly past a huge crowd of reporters, while singing, “Another day is gone / I’m still all alone.” An ordinary day for Michael Jackson is a day in which thousands – or tens of thousands – of photographs have been taken of him. “All in a day’s work.”
Willa: Yes. We see depictions of paparazzi in Speed Demon also, and as in Billie Jean, it ends with them getting hauled off to jail by the police. But that doesn’t mean the police are on Michael Jackson’s side – they may help him at times, but they’re a potential threat also, and so he tries to elude them as well. So there’s a constant three-way tension between him, the photographers who pursue him, and the police.
Nina: Yes, Willa, now that you mention it, his tormenters in Speed Demon are carted away by the police, while Michael goes free, thanks to his power to transform (or “disappear”) himself.
And speaking of the representation of paparazzi in more recent films, I recent came across an article by Aurore Fossard-De Almeida, “The Paparazzo on Screen: The Construction of a Contemporary Myth.” According to Fossard-De Almeida, those who practice within this relatively new profession are pure products of contemporary tabloid culture. Unlike the classic detectives of old, like Sam Spade, or Philip Marlowe, or the one-off “Rod Riley” (quasi-heroes who had smarts, integrity, and charm underneath their gruff exteriors), these guys are thoroughly despicable characters with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. They have no interest in seeing justice served.
Detectives’ work serves to uphold the law and establish “truth and justice”; therefore they have the moral high ground, even with their cold personalities and unscrupulous methods. Paparazzi’s only function in society, however, is to make a great deal of money by selling their bounty to publications whose main appeal is to the baser instincts of a public obsessed with celebrities and their downfall. Either way, this pursuer cannot be caught looking. In Billie Jean, the detective skitters around in the street, runs around corners, flattens himself against buildings. He must not be detected; and so he tries to make himself invisible, just as Michael has done, but without Michael’s superlative magical powers.
His success lies in apprehending or photographing his suspect/subject without attracting his or her notice. He should be able to watch the person while remaining out of range of any reciprocal watching: that’s his whole currency. As an amateur “sleuth,” L.B. Jeffries has to maintain his own invisibility; it’s also the key characteristic of the classic voyeur. So the detective, in his role as a paparazzo, becomes a voyeur. Michael Jackson also stands at the window of an apartment (Billie Jean’s room, we assume), looking in. He is also a voyeur, but of a less sinister kind. As the focus of our sympathy and identification (and, for many, desire), and as the object of our collective “gaze,” we might admit that “he was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene.” His distinct advantage – the ability to become invisible – is one key to his numinous beauty: in some way, we might regard him as a disembodied, pure spirit.
Willa: Which would answer in an unexpected way the central question of the song. A spirit can’t father a child since it takes a body to reproduce a body. So if it’s true that he’s disembodied, then it must also be true that “Billie Jean is not my lover.” And this interpretation is supported by the scene where he climbs into her bed and then disappears – the sheet falls flat as he dematerializes.
But he isn’t purely spirit, I don’t think. At times he seems very embodied! To me, it seems more accurate to say that he’s ever-changing – like a conjurer he can seemingly shift at will and make himself invisible or immaterial. There are also times when he’s both – when he’s invisible yet seems to have material weight – like the two scenes near the end when he isn’t visible but yet the pavers light up under his weight. So in those final scenes, he is both present and absent – material yet invisible.
Nina: Yes, I think that’s true, Willa: a conjurer is a good way to put it. And an invisible man can still have a tangible body, and even impregnate somebody: I’m sure Gothic fiction is filled with such strange occurrences!
Willa: Yes, and so is Greek and Roman mythology, and the New Testament of the Bible. I mean, that’s the miracle of the immaculate conception …
Nina: At another level, Michael’s actions in the film hint at some intangibles that, in many ways, echo his life. In Billie Jean he can “dematerialize” in order to shield himself from the prying eyes of either the law, the detective, neighbor, the photographer, but he also excelled – across his whole body of work – in making the invisible visible.
Ever since he started performing as a child, his presence as a visible force in an industry that thrives on both intense exposure (the “star system”) and secrecy, enabled him to bring some hidden practices to light. His own sacrifices to an industry that created and destroyed him served as an allegory about what happens to other children who take on the burden of too much responsibility at too young an age. The exploitation of child labor was a consistent theme of his, central to the ways he narrated his life in interviews, etc. Perhaps the ways he exposed this issue and others, was the “crime” for which he paid; some people may have feared that he was about to “blow the whistle.” But, to paraphrase Riley’s question: “blow the whistle” on what?
Willa: That’s an interesting point, Nina. He also forced us to confront some of our most intractable social problems – racism, misogyny, child abuse, war and police brutality, hunger and neglect, and other “invisible” crimes – and in doing so made them highly visible, as you say. For example, his mere presence in Dona Marta in the Brazil version of They Don’t Care about Us brought global attention and improved conditions there. As Claudia Silva of Rio’s office of tourism told Rolling Stone,
This process to make Dona Marta better started with Michael Jackson. … There are no drug dealers anymore, and there’s a massive social project. But all the attention started with Michael Jackson.
We see subtle hints of him making the invisible visible as he climbs the steps to Billie Jean’s room. Each tread lights up as he steps on it, and the letters of the vertical “HOTEL” sign illuminate one by one as he rises to their height. So his mere presence makes them highly visible.
Nina: I agree, Willa: the work he did in Brazil, for example, kind of gives new meaning to the expression, “shedding light.” And he did shed light on some realities that some highly placed people would probably rather stay covered.
Besides The Band Wagon, Billie Jean pays a more-or-less direct homage to another musical by Vincente Minnelli: An American in Paris, with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron (1950).
I became aware of this because in September 2009, the University of California at Berkeley held a one-day conference called Michael Jackson: Critical Reflections on a Life and a Phenomenon. One presentation, by Ph.D. student Megan Pugh (“Who’s Bad?: Michael Jackson’s Movements”), pointed to a strong visual comparison between the sequence in Billie Jean where each stairstep lights up, and a musical number called “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” that appears in An American in Paris. (The stairway sequence begins at 1:00):
The song was written by George Gershwin (who in fact wrote all the music in An American in Paris), and was first recorded by the “King of Jazz,” Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, in 1922:
All you preachers
Who delight in panning the dancing teachers
Let me tell you there are a lot of features
Of the dance that carry you through
The gates of Heaven
To be always sitting around in sadness
When you could be learning the steps of gladness
You’ll be happy when you can do
Just six or seven
You’ll find it nice
The quickest way to paradise
When you practice
Here’s the thing to know
Simply say as you go…
I’ll build a stairway to Paradise
With a new step every day
I’m gonna get there at any price
Stand aside, I’m on my way!
I’ve got the blues
And up above it’s so fair. Shoes
Go on and carry me there
I’ll build a stairway to Paradise
With a new step every day
And another verse:
Dance with Maud the countess, or just plain Lizzy
Dance until you’re blue in the face and dizzy
When you’ve learned to dance in your sleep
You’re sure to win out
This is kind of the obverse of Michael’s simultaneous singing and dancing in Billie Jean, where he tells us how risky it can be to “dance on the floor in the round.” (“So take my strong advice / Just remember to always think twice.”)
People often frequent dance clubs when they’ve “got the blues”; they go in the hopes that dancing will help them transform their ill mood into something rosier. So much pop music, through the ages, has brought out the possibility of cheering up, of “losing your blues” through dancing. Of course, Michael Jackson himself often sang these kinds of songs as lead singer of the Jackson 5 and The Jacksons, as well as in his adult solo career. There’s “Keep on Dancing” from The Jacksons first album in 1976, with Michael singing lead:
Dancing, girl, will make you happy
And happy is what you want to be
Dancing fast, just spinning around
Dancing slow when you get down
Keep on dancing … let the music take your mind
Keep on dancing … and have a real, real good time
Keep on dancing … why don’t you get up on the floor
Keep on dancing … ’til you can’t dance no more
“Enjoy Yourself,” from the same album, is another example, with Michael singing lead:
You, sitting over there, staring into space
While people are dancing, dancing all over the place
You shouldn’t worry about things you can’t control
Come on girl, while the night is young
Why don’t we mix the place up and go! Whoooo!
By all rights, Michael’s wingtip shoes should have “carried him” away from his blues when he first met Billie Jean on the dance floor. Interestingly, the idea of dancing as a way to escape your woes, has turned to its opposite with the Thriller album in 1983, where “dancing” may result in misery. Some shift has taken place, even since 1979’s “Off the Wall” where dancing is still a harmless pastime that’s connected with achieving happiness (“Rock With You,” “Get on the Floor,” “Off the Wall,” and “Burn This Disco Out”).
What has happened, I wonder? We can blame it on the boogie, but it would seem that dancing itself can no longer be seen as a straightforward matter, and can be read as a euphemism for a sexual encounter: in this instance having unexpected, tragic results. On the album, “Billie Jean” and even “Wanna Be Startin Something” (“you’re a vegetable, they eat off you, you’re a buffet”), are the two tracks that several writers believe to have marked the initial stages of a “paranoid” tendency in Michael’s songwriting: and in their view, this tendency would become more prominent in his later albums.
And so, in Michael’s fateful encounter with Billie Jean – a girl he apparently picked up and casually bedded after meeting her for the first time at a club – dancing didn’t remove his unhappiness, but deepened it. Throughout the film, his demeanor is somewhat despondent: he sighs, frowns, and sings lyrics about how he rues the day he and Billie Jean first “danced.” Nevertheless he is about to reenact, before our eyes, the same error that initially brought him to this regrettable state, as he spins in Billie Jean’s garbage-strewn, graffiti-ridden stairwell.
Willa: Hmmm … That’s really interesting, Nina. I’m not sure that the main character “bedded” Billie Jean – I think that’s left pretty indeterminate, with contradictory clues – but it is true dancing has taken a sinister turn in “Billie Jean” that we haven’t seen before. I’m quickly running through Michael Jackson’s albums in my mind, trying to think of other songs where dancing leads to misery. There’s “Blood on the Dance Floor,” of course – but in many ways that song feels to me like a retelling of “Billie Jean,” so it makes sense they would share that connection.
Nina: Yes, that’s a good point; I also wonder if any other songwriter has written such a tale of woe about dancing.
Michael’s ascension of the back-alley staircase in this “slum” dwelling (as we might describe it) of course contrasts hugely with George Guétary’s opulent fantasy staircase, with its glamorous showgirls and ornate candelabras. Michael’s character will surely not “win out,” nor will he find any stairway to “paradise” or “heaven” (Led Zeppelin) through his dancing – only his divided self, a guilty conscience, and a compulsion to return to the sordid scene of his “downfall.” Instead of finding (or building) paradise, he seems to fear he’ll be sent in the opposite direction. But he dances and goes upstairs anyway.
As Megan Pugh observes,
Jackson zooms between a longing for the dreamworld of Hollywood Musicals – where you can solve problems by putting on a show, where boy gets girl, and where everything ties up neatly – and the realizations that such dreams may not be attainable. For in the end, Jackson almost always ends up alone.
As he lights up each step, the neon sign “HOTEL” is also lit, one letter at a time. This HOTEL sign became a regular feature of Michael Jackson’s concerts, when he performed as a silhouette behind a screen that accentuated the sharpness of his moves. It was used as an introduction that preceded either “Smooth Criminal” or “Heartbreak Hotel” on the Bad tour.
Willa: Wow, that’s fascinating, Nina! Here’s a clip of “Smooth Criminal” from Wembley Stadium in 1988, and we can clearly see the neon “HOTEL” sign with the red letters arranged vertically. It’s just like in Billie Jean, but I hadn’t made that connection before.
As it says in the voiceover,
My footsteps broke the silence of the predawn hours, as I drifted down Baker Street past shop windows, barred against the perils of the night. Up ahead a neon sign emerged from the fog. The letters glowed red hot, in that way I knew so well, branding a message into my mind, a single word: “hotel.”
So he draws our attention to this “red hot” hotel sign both visually and aurally, suggesting it’s an important element for him.
Nina: Yes: and thanks, Willa! I’ve often wondered what was being said there, but I never heard the words on a good sound system. So here we have an idea of the “red hot” letters branding our protagonist’s mind – like a mental stigmata – along with certain “perils of the night,” and his musings that he knew these red letters “so well.”
By this account, then, our hero seems to be taking us on an imaginary journey to the “red light district” of the city, where his memory reveals his repeated visits to a certain house of ill-repute.
“The House of the Rising Sun,” a song that was recorded by just about everybody, was made most famous by The Animals in the 1960s. Here are some lyrics that are used in another version, recorded by a woman:
There is a house in New Orleans
They call the rising sun
It’s been the ruin of a many a poor girl
And me, oh god are one
If I had listened like mama said
I would not be here today
But being so young and foolish too
That a gambler led me astray
Again, we have a mother whose advice to her child went unheeded, as it did in Billie Jean:
And mother always told me
Be careful who you love
Be careful what you do
’Cause the lie becomes the truth
The many recorded versions of “House of the Rising Sun” reveal the song’s storied history, where the “house” is sometimes (most obviously) a bordello in New Orleans, a women’s prison, or a nightclub that serves as a gambling den, among other kinds of places. Nowhere in “Billie Jean” do we have the sense that she is a prostitute, but there are some common themes in those lyrics, such as giving in to temptation, experiencing remorse, and being “led astray” by an unscrupulous lover.
This places the story of “Billie Jean” in a folk-blues-country tradition, where there are so many songs that impart this message: you disregard your mother’s wisdom at your own peril. Another example is “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane,” of which countless versions have been recorded, many with different lyrics and in different musical styles.
Hand me down my walking cane
Hand me down my walking cane
Oh hand me down my walking cane,
I’m gonna leave on the midnight train
My sins they have overtaken me.
If I had listened to what mama said
If I had listened to what mama said
If I had listened to what Mama said
I’d be sleepin in a feather bed
My sins they have overtaken me
I’m sure there are many, many other examples.
Willa: Yes, there really are. One that immediately springs to mind is the old Merle Haggard song “Mama Tried,” with this attention-grabbing chorus:
I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole
No one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried
Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied
That leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried
Nina: Oh yes, that song was in the back of my mind, but I couldn’t quite place it! Thanks for reminding me, Willa. Michael Jackson clearly absorbed and understood these songs and their themes, whether or not he consciously inscribed them into his lyrics. In some ways, we might say that he re-wrote some traditional songs in ways that could later be recognized as the timeless folk songs of a new generation. (Although it’ll be a LONG time before his compositions pass into the public domain!)
As for the vertical “HOTEL” sign, here’s one that’s beautifully photographed in black-and-white with window reflections:
This still is from the 1946 noir film, Murder, My Sweet, directed by Edward Dmytryk. Here, Dick Powell (an actor and singer who is best known for his roles, a decade earlier, in a series of depression-era musicals) – appears as hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe. It’s possible that Michael Jackson, or Steve Barron, or another person involved in the production of Billie Jean, drew from this image – which had been “branded” indelibly into their mind.
As we were saying in an earlier post, according to AMC Filmsite commentator Tim Dirks on the film noir genre, these films often featured
an oppressive atmosphere of menace, pessimism, anxiety, suspicion that anything can go wrong, dingy realism, futility, fatalism, defeat and entrapment.… The protagonists in film noir were normally driven by their past or by human weakness to repeat former mistakes.
Michael’s predicament in Billie Jean readily fits several of these elements. As we’ve discussed before, he implies that he was driven by “human weakness.”
People always told me be careful what you do
Don’t go around breaking young girls’ hearts
But she came and stood right by me
Just the smell of sweet perfume
This happened much too soon
She called me to her room
Here, his “Human Nature” is among the qualities that elicits our sympathy. This is also where “voice-over” narration – a prominent characteristic of so many noir films – becomes important in the ways we identify with the main character. The voice of the hard-boiled detective, often delivered with a studied coldness and cynicism (and parodied by Fred Astaire as Rod Riley in “Girl Hunt Ballet”), has become part of the mythological fabric of American popular culture. And this man is almost always talking about events that have occurred in the past. His portentous tone of voice signals an anxiety about even more fearsome events yet to come, including the possibility of facing danger, even death. Like our protagonist in Billie Jean, he becomes the focal point of our identification.
We identify with him, first and foremost, because his voice fills our ears, and his story fills our psyche. But the noir antihero is also someone whose distance and detachment we can almost palpably feel – not necessarily because his life or his values are so different from ours, but because we’re hearing him describe a world that exists only his head, and that he cannot share.
Willa: Interesting. And that’s precisely the feeling we were describing earlier with Billie Jean, though it’s achieved in a different way. Michael Jackson’s character is not a tough, not a “hard-boiled detective,” and he doesn’t tell us the story in a voice of “studied coldness and cynicism,” as you described.
Nina: True, and certainly by the ‘80s, these archetypes were long overdue for another update! (The image of these kinds of men had already altered somewhat in the ‘60s and ‘70s.) In the 1980s, the kind of hard-boiled masculinity that’s apparent in Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, and other classic movie detectives was due for a complete overhaul.
New or old, though, these figures seem unapproachable on an emotional level, although at times they reveal a vulnerability that goes to the heart of their humanity. In any case, our desire to share their knowledge – to learn what they know, so that we, too, can become active participants in their criminal investigation – exerts such a strong hold on our imagination that it almost compels us to identify with them. (This goes for L.B. Jeffries in Rear Window too, though not so much for the “detective” in Billie Jean, who doesn’t know anything as far as I can tell!)
But, like Michael Jackson’s other performances, Billie Jean puts a tear, or rip, in that mythological fabric where we find the kind of masculinity that the noir detectives and action have shared, seemingly forever, in American cinema.
Willa: Yes, and he seemed to actively play off that 50s style masculinity – the figure of man as a stoic loner – by adopting the suit and fedora of men of that era, but displaying emotions and a sensitivity toward others that they rarely showed.
Nina: Yes, in the film this display of emotion comes through partly because he sings and dances, which are things that imply passion, vulnerability, and emotion. As writer Jonathan Lethem writes in his essay “The Fly in the Ointment,”
there’s something about a voice that’s personal, that its issuer remains profoundly stuck inside, like the particular odor of shape of their body. … Summoned through belly, hammered into final form by tongue and lips, voice is a kind of audible kiss, a blurted confession, a soul-burp. … How helplessly candid! How appalling!
I also think part of Michael’s more sensitive persona came about because 1980s pop culture generally featured less convention and more free-play with the styles of gender expression. Joe Vogel’s article in the Journal of Popular Culture, published this June (“Freaks in the Reagan Era: James Baldwin, the New Pop Cinema, and the American Ideal of Manhood”) speaks to this very phenomenon. He points out the ways Michael Jackson, along with Prince, Madonna, Boy George, David Bowie, and Grace Jones “openly experimented with and transgressed gender expectations.”
I see Michael’s suit and fedora as accouterments, theatrical props that were meant to provide a fairly self-conscious reference to these earlier (1940s-50s) film styles. At least a few of Michael’s films, from Billie Jean to Thriller to You Rock My World, were outright genre parodies. His character in Smooth Criminal was a 1987 “re-do” of Fred Astaire’s Rod Riley (from 1953), and the two film segments share the same feeling of self-conscious parody. In fact, The Band Wagon was made at the same time that some “genuine” noir films were still being turned out by the Hollywood studios. Strangely, both the parody and the “real deal” could coexist in the film world of the 1950s.
But from at least the 1980s until today, the signifiers of the noir-type film have shifted dramatically. (Recent decades have seen the rise of “neo noir” films, as Elizabeth pointed out in a comment on Part 1). Unless the more recent films are meant as a strict parody of the earlier noir style, all those trenchcoats, fedoras, two-toned wingtip shoes (or spats, as in Smooth Criminal), and voiceovers of the hard-boiled tough guy – including the ’40s slang expressions he uses – are a thing of the past, and have a kind of “camp” value when used today. Even Billie Jean, in 1983, was “camping” on those old styles. Of course, the hyper-masculine characteristics of those “hard-boiled” figures persist; but their tone has shifted, and they’ve been updated with different clothing, voices, inflections, etc.
Because the detective in Billie Jean is, for our purposes, useless as a figure of identification on any level, Michael’s character functions as both the detective and the criminal. This makes him doubly alone. It’s no accident that he’s framed by himself in almost every shot. Here, where he’s leaning against the lamppost, oblivious to the detective, is one of the only moments where the two men are framed together in the shot:
And because the detective who has taken on this “case” is an incompetent buffoon, Michael is left to investigate himself, since investigation itself is a formal requirement of the genre.
Willa: That’s a fascinating way of seeing this, Nina! – that he is, in a way, investigating himself. He does seem to be interrogating himself in the lyrics …
Nina: Yes, the vehemence with which he defends his honor, seems at some point to turn around and become a self-interrogation. And I don’t know how, in the first place, they came up with idea of the noir style for the design of this film. Someone (probably Steve Barron, or he and Michael together) had to assess the song with an eye toward what kind of scenario would be most suitable. If you decide to use all the well-known elements of a noir/detective movie, then it follows that there has to be some kind of investigation!
When he arrives at the top landing, we see Michael framed as though he were looking through a window, observing whatever he views inside the room (we presume). Then the detective who has been pursuing him appears below. He is about to follow Michael upstairs, when the woman with the red phone, still sitting in the window, places a call. We don’t yet know who she calls, or why. But now it appears that Michael can move through walls, as we see him standing inside the room he was surveying from outside, just a moment ago – the same room where, in a few flashes, we earlier saw the four-poster brass bed and the curtains hung around it.
As an aside, here’s an endearing anecdote I found by Raquel Pena, the young woman who played Billie Jean all those years ago. She is interviewed by a blogger named Marc Tyler Nobleman:
Q: How was it to work with Michael Jackson? What was he like?
A: He was fantastic! I have worked with a lot of celebrities, and he was hands down, without hesitation, the sweetest, kindest person I had ever met and worked with…… He had such a playful, kidlike spirit. There were several sets designed for the different vignettes and I remember Michael would do funny things…like he’d sort of disappear into the maze and then pop out of nowhere and “boo” whoever was walking by (he got me more than once). He was working and serious one minute and then goofing around and just having fun with everyone the next.
Last scene of the video, I had to lie down in the bed (it was actually a wooden board with a sheet over it). They wanted to give the illusion that the body in the bed was Billie Jean. I remember looking up and Michael was staring down at me, and I was like, “OMG, Michael Jackson is jumping in under the sheet with me!”
At one point during the day, Michael pulled me aside and said, “You know you’re Billie Jean, right”—more as a statement than a question. He was trying to be serious, but he had that MJ grin … he was playing with me again. I found out later that he and his brothers used to call the zillions of groupies that were always after them a “billie jean” after an incident with one crazy groupie in particular who was really named Billie Jean.
Willa: Thanks for sharing that, Nina! I love her description that “he was hands down, without hesitation, the sweetest, kindest person I had ever met” and that “He had such a playful, kidlike spirit.” I can believe that!
Nina: Yes, it’s consistent with so many other testimonials we’ve heard, about how easy it was to work with Michael.
In the classic noir films, the criminal never gets away with their crime (as per the Production Code, which we discussed in an earlier post). But in the real world, we can fairly predict how these events will unfold, at least about one aspect of the situation. The detective climbs the staircase, as we’d seen Michael do moments earlier. Presumably the two would meet at the top landing. In any American city today, if a neighbor calls the police to report a disturbance, and if that disturbance turns out to involve a black man and a white one, then it probably won’t go very well for the black man – no matter how good-looking or well-dressed he may be.
Willa: Though by the time the police arrive, Michael Jackson’s character is gone, right? He dematerializes under the sheets on Billie Jean’s bed. So when the police arrive, all they see is a man with a camera taking a picture of a woman alone in her bedroom. They never see Michael Jackson’s character.
Nina: That’s right, Willa. When Michael slips under the sheets of the bed alongside Billie Jean, who is entirely covered by the sheet, he lights up the whole bed. He is fully clothed, which is probably disappointing to some of us. (All that fuss, and he doesn’t even so much as take off his shoes!) Meanwhile, the detective stands outside the window with his camera raised to his eye, while Michael vanishes, leaving a sleeping Billie Jean under the sheet. So at this point, the detective/photographer may well be perceived as a kind of “pervert” – a prowler, exhibitionist, or pornographer. At any rate, he’s clearly up to no good.
Here, a kind of realism, based on what we know about the world today, is turned on its head. The police nab the white “detective,” not the black “suspect.” The implication is that not only has an innocent man been allowed to escape, but the detective/paparazzo, a thoroughly shady character who elicits none of our sympathy, will probably be nailed for something.
Billie Jean’s narrative produces themes of false prosecution and an innocent man accused, in ways that seem remarkably prescient in light of later developments in Michael Jackson’s life.
Willa: Yes, that’s something Veronica Bassil explores in depth in her book, Thinking Twice about Billie Jean.
Nina: Yes, and it’s strange to consider that an artist might be able to foretell the events of their future – at least the basic outlines of what may occur later in their life. It’s as though they had a nightmare, and some version of it actually came true.
But for fans, too, the film’s outcome defies social reality in a way that may make it a dream of wish-fulfillment (Michael survives and his tormentor is punished). I imagine this would be especially true for people who followed Michael’s legal battles closely in the last years of his life. As the 1990s and 2000s wore on, the legions of corrupt and opportunistic tabloid writers and photographers – who impaired Michael Jackson’s reputation and hampered his freedom in many ways – caused heartache for those fans who have wanted to hold people like Martin Bashir, Diane Dimond, Maureen Orth, and even Oprah Winfrey accountable for their unfair treatment of him.
In Billie Jean, the two cops apprehend the detective at the top of the staircase, causing him to drop his camera. They lead him down the stairs, undoubtedly over protestations of his innocence (we imagine). In this improbable scenario, Michael has narrowly escaped arrest (or worse), but only by dint of his ability to disappear.
Consistently throughout his body of work in film, Michael Jackson plays characters who pass for “normal,” yet can transform themselves to escape detection. In Thriller, Ghosts, Remember the Time, Speed Demon, and other of his short films, Michael stands in for embodied physicality: a person who is transformed into creatures made variously of papier maché, clay, metal, fur, plastic, bone, ectoplasm, dead (or maimed) flesh, and even nothing: or at least nothing that can be seen. Again, “There was nothing left of the guy! Nothing at all!”
Yet there’s also a contradiction in the star’s life, where Michael Jackson’s own hypervisibility, from the time he was a very young child, required that he invent a number of disguises. There were undoubtedly times when he wished he could disappear. There’s a tragic irony that I imagine would apply to many well-recognized stars: Michael was seen by everyone, and no one. If anything, his hypervisibility ensured that he would remain profoundly unseen.
Here are the opening paragraphs of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel, The Invisible Man (1952):
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is it though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.
Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a biochemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality….
Willa: I’m so glad you brought in that quote, Nina, because it really gets to the heart of this idea of invisibility in terms of race – specifically the invisibility of black men. It’s always seemed to me that Michael Jackson is referencing these lines directly in the lyrics of “They Don’t Care about Us”:
Tell me what has become of my rights
Am I invisible because you ignore me?
Your proclamation promised me free liberty
I’m tired of being the victim of shame
They’re throwing me in a class with a bad name
I can’t believe this is the land from which I came
You know I really do hate to say
The government don’t wanna see
But if Roosevelt was living
He wouldn’t let this be
Especially the lines “Am I invisible because you ignore me?” and “The government don’t want to see” seem like a direct reference to Ralph Ellison’s “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” And his invisibility is an important element in Billie Jean, Speed Demon, Remember the Time, and Ghosts, as you pointed out earlier, Nina. But in all of those instances, he uses it to his advantage, as you said, while Ellison is protesting his invisibility. The key seems to be control, being able to appear invisible or visible – even highly visible – as needed.
Nina: I agree, Willa. And thanks for these lyrics – it had slipped my mind that Michael had used the idea of invisibility here. I’m sure he would have wanted to stage his own disappearances, and to control how and when his “episodes” of invisibility would take place.
In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recently-published memoir, we read about the death of Coates’ Howard University friend, Prince Jones. In his twenties, and the son of a black woman who worked her way up from poverty in the south to become a physician, Jones was pursued across several states by the police and eventually shot by an officer – although he bore no resemblance to the man they were actually looking for.
Then very recently, this news story broke: James Blake, a retired tennis star, who was mistaken for another man. He is leaning against a structure and apparently minding his own business, when he is abruptly tackled and brought down by an assailant, a plainclothes officer with the New York Police Department.
Willa: Wow, the image of James Blake leaning against the column of the hotel is reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s character leaning against the lamppost in Billie Jean, isn’t it?
Nina: Yes, and this is another case of a striking misrecognition. The plainclothes cop was looking for someone else. It would seem that the fact of having dark skin is enough to make a person hypervisible, as well as invisible (as Ralph Ellison describes it). As I mentioned earlier, about city dwellers walking past a window and pretending not to have seen anything (even violent activity), we note here that all the passers-by are “keeping their nose clean” and minding their own business.
Also, we’re confronted with the fallibility of the photographic image when it’s used as a way of identifying a suspect. According to an article by Shaun King about the James Blake case: “Not only was tennis star James Blake innocent, so was the other black man NYPD said he looked like.” Here’s Blake’s testimony:
I was standing there doing nothing — not running, not resisting, in fact smiling,” Mr. Blake said, explaining that he thought the man might have been an old friend. Then, he said, the officer “picked me up and body slammed me and put me on the ground and told me to turn over and shut my mouth, and put the cuffs on me.
As we contemplate what happened to James Blake, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and so many others at the hands of the police, we may recognize that the device of making oneself invisible for the purpose of sheer survival may not be such a pressing concern for those who are visibly white. Racial profiling is one direct consequence of the hypervisibility of dark-skinned people in this country; and for Michael Jackson, it was also a consequence of his extreme fame.
But for Michael, in another sense, invisibility and hypervisibility are flip sides of a coin. By being seen too much, by being ubiquitous, he was profoundly unseen. That motif of invisibility that we see across a number of his films, was perhaps his way of reflecting upon the ways prosecutors, the press, and the public are very quick to attribute wrongdoing to a person who is both widely seen, and also unseen in specific ways: that is, mistaken for another, misperceived, misrepresented, and falsely accused.
Also, Michael does a lot of looking. Throughout Billie Jean, we observe his calm, steady gaze, and we look at him looking at things.
Willa: That’s true. Except for the scenes where he’s dancing, he seems pretty contemplative throughout Billie Jean – and often he’s contemplating something that gives an indication of what he’s thinking.
Nina: If not the very content of his thoughts, then at least a sense that he’s lost in thought. Once we glean what the song is about, though, it all fits together: he’s preoccupied with this problem he’s telling us he has to face.
A few months ago, you and Joe Vogel were discussing D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film, Birth of a Nation. In that film we see very few closeups of the black characters (actually played by white actors in blackface). A closeup is one device that film (as opposed to live theater) affords us: a glimpse into the character’s state of mind. Even in a more distant shot we can sometimes see the actors’ expression and the direction of their gaze. Often the closeup will be followed by a “reverse shot” – the character is looking at something, and the film quickly edits to what he or she is looking at. In Billie Jean, this occurs when Michael first sees the homeless man who was partly hidden behind a garbage can, and also when he is wiping his shoe.
This is a very powerful cinematic device, and it’s so common that we probably take it for granted most of the time; yet it’s what glues us to the character’s point of view. Following from this, we develop a strong bond of identification with any character whose eyes we see through, whose voice we hear, whose inner life we can discern, through the film’s images and its sound – including dialogue, narration, or something else we can associate with that character.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Nina. It’s true that seeing something through the eyes of another person is a powerful way of creating a feeling of intimacy and identification. In fact, it’s the very basis of empathy.
Nina: Yes, exactly, Willa. Billie Jean establishes Michael’s eyes: closeups of his face, shots of him looking around him as he strolls down the street. We know his moods. He can be agitated (when singing and dancing), reflective and absorbed (when walking), and perhaps sad (when standing, and not singing). The agitation we feel through him, when he’s singing and dancing on the ribbon of sidewalk, is of course a function of his remarkable skill at physically interpreting any song through his voice and body, with just enough exaggeration; that’s the power of his performance style.
Following from your conversation with Joe, then, we can see that almost from the beginning of mainstream American cinema, we have rarely been afforded the chance to perceive the world through the eyes and ears of a nonwhite character, taking on their point of view. And at the time Billie Jean was made, early in 1983, there really would have been no major roles for someone like Michael, much as he aspired to branch out into film acting.
Since most Hollywood films (then and now) are made for white audiences, it may not surprise us to consider that white characters’ interiority – that is, their subjective point of view – will be prominent in the way the story is told. Black, Latino, Native, and Asian characters will assume their places as pure spectacle; only recently has this started changing. (The representation of women, of any race, has of course been discussed by feminist and other film scholars for decades now: it’s a huge issue, best left for another time.) In any case, in Billie Jean, we’re privy to a whole range of the character’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories – all of which are yoked to a black body. In some ways, it’s more personal than either Thriller or Beat It. Not until the Bad film do we have another such character study.
Willa: Though Beat It does have quite a few shots that seem to reveal the main character’s “interiority,” as you say – especially in the first half of the film. In fact, there’s one shot at the end of the pool hall sequence where we’re drawn so close to his face that his breath practically fogs up the camera lens …
Nina: True, but as I see it, he’s singing at that moment – not brooding, and not looking around. The essential thing about the closeup as a glimpse of a character’s interior state is that we see his gaze, and also what it is he’s looking at. That is, we should see his point of view. The face expresses the mood, but we must also look at the world through his eyes.
Willa: Oh, I see what you’re saying.
Nina: If he’s right in our face it’s more a self-conscious moment, as if he is breaking the “fourth wall” so to speak, by directly addressing the camera, and therefore, us. In this and other ways, Michael in Beat It is positioned as a “natural” part of a group. Although “different from other guys,” he’s a social creature in Beat It, while in Billie Jean he comes across as somewhat antisocial: an inveterate loner. In the end of Beat It, he even dances with the group; while in Billie Jean, he dances strictly alone.
Upon leaving Billie Jean’s room he’s invisible. We see his traces, however, as the pavement lights up under his feet on the sidewalk where he first appeared. The billboard reappears to the right of the sidewalk, this time with an image of the brass bed where Michael lately was – the display may be a haunting reminder of the memory that he wishes he could forget.
Willa: Nina! In all the hundreds of times that I’ve watched Billie Jean, I’ve never noticed that before! My eyes were always drawn to the rapidly moving trail of lighted tiles on the left side of the screen. But you’re right, at about 4:27 the billboard appears on the right side of the screen, and it’s now showing a view of Billie Jean’s bed. Here’s a screen capture:
Wow! Very interesting. So that reinforces the interpretation from our first post that the billboard seems to illuminate his thoughts or memories of Billie Jean.
Nina: True: it implies that wherever he goes, he may be haunted by this recurring image – it can spring up in front of him at any time. Our traumas are projected on a public surface for all the world to see. What a nightmare.
In the last few moments of the film, we see the two cops leading their “nabbed” detective down the street, and the formerly homeless man crosses their path, arm in arm with a woman (a date, we assume). Meanwhile, the uncanny presence of the “invisible man” is felt as successive tiles light up, marking his progress down the sidewalk. The tiger-print rag has reappeared on the sidewalk, and the large yellow cat enters the frame and appears to take it away, as the tiles continue to show Michael’s invisible (but perhaps felt) presence. The song and the image fade out.
Willa: Hmmm … that’s interesting, Nina. I’ve always interpreted that final scene a little differently – that the detective drops the tiger-print rag and then, once he’s gone, it magically turns into a tiger. So the tiger eludes him, just as Michael Jackson’s character eludes him – in fact, I feel in some ways that the tiger is Michael Jackson. Both are shape-shifters who use their supernatural ability to escape the detective, the police, the paparazzi … anyone who’s stalking them.
Nina: As I saw it, the “tiger” in Billie Jean seems to turn around and go back in the direction it came from – offscreen – while the tiles that light up continue moving forward. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to consider that the animal, like Michael, is a shape-shifter! Michael’s magic somehow rubbed off on him.
A word about the role of the paparazzi in “Michael’s” (and Michael Jackson’s) life. In Billie Jean, Michael is being photographed surreptitiously by the detective, which collapses the function of the paparazzi into that of law enforcement. I once read a sequence of articles about Michael Jackson that had been published in The Washington Post from 1982 to 1986. As early as 1984, and at the pinnacle of his success, I saw that there were already some signs that Michael Jackson would soon go from being the darling of the music world and a hero, to a figure of ridicule and derision.
This became the pattern for his life, as the Billie Jean film seems to oddly (and sadly) foretell. Even before the charges were first brought in 1993, the sentiment at large was that Michael’s celebrity – now linked to all things that are bizarre and over-the-top – had within it the seeds of criminality. That being the case, his only recourse would be to disappear: to remove himself from the prying gaze of the photographers and the public.
A photograph is itself “a lie [that] becomes the truth,” especially in its uses in the tabloid press, and elsewhere in the media. In Billie Jean, even when Michael shows up on the street leaning against a lamppost, the shot that comes out of that Polaroid Autofocus 660 camera in the store window reveals nothing of him, no sign that he had ever been there. “There was nothing left of the guy! Nothing at all!”
I continue to hope for more (and better) monitoring of those who represent the most powerful state in history, and whose actions make a mockery of the principles of American justice that have been loudly touted, and not carried out. The corruption that has existed within US political culture is something that traditional and present-day noir films could only hint at. Today, the police force is often equipped with dash cams or miniature recording devices. Hidden cameras in banks, retail stores, and streets are set up to monitor people, often without being detected, and certainly without permission. Yet at the same time, civilians are using iPhone and their own dashcam videos to ensure that the surveillors – who represent the state – can themselves be subject to surveillance, even by amateurs.
Willa: Yes, it’s like the panopticon is becoming a reality …
Nina: The panopticon (as conceived by 18th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham) was to be a way that one guard could monitor inmates in a prison, and they wouldn’t know they were being monitored. According to Wikipedia:
Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behaviour constantly.
So, we are back to the idea of the voyeur again, as in Rear Window; only this time, the apartment dwellers across Jeffries’s courtyard know that they are being watched – they just don’t know when! But this model definitely adheres to the existing, one-way power structure, and not its reverse. The guard can watch the prisoners, but they cannot watch him. And if Michael Jackson was watched by “everyone,” who could he watch?
Again, Ralph Ellison’s protagonist in The Invisible Man, who narrates in the first-person (like the classic film noir detective, and like Michael Jackson’s character in Billie Jean), is able to describe the perceptions others have of him. In effect, by holding up a mirror to those who claim to “see” him, he reverses the customary social pattern, debunking the idea that human perception is a simple one-way dynamic. There is, he says,
a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality….
Many of Michael’s adherents are inclined to do battle – with the media, with the public, and with each other – to ensure that the “truth” of Michael Jackson comes out (as if there were any unsullied, pristine “truth” to be found). But my feeling is that we’d be better advised to look into our “inner eyes,” those eyes that are capable of looking both inward and outward. Michael Jackson’s quest for self-knowledge in this regard may parallel our own.
As Michael Jackson memorably sang, with lyrics by Siedah Garrett, “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.”
Or to put it another way: in Rear Window, Stella, the insurance company nurse (played by Thelma Ritter) who takes care of the temporarily disabled L.B. Jeffries, remarks upon his habit of spying on his neighbors: “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.”
Willa: In late 2011, the Michael Jackson Academia Project posted two videos to YouTube analyzing Black or White and They Don’t Care about Us. Joie and I both thought they were interesting and well constructed – in fact, we liked them so much we published a quick post promoting them, even though we were both on Christmas vacation at the time. These videos were followed in February 2012 by two videos on the HIStory album, and again Joie and I thought they were thought provoking and well produced, and we encouraged others to watch them.
We also added the Academia Project videos to our Reading Room, providing recommendations and links, and we have kept them there ever since, even after the videos themselves were removed from YouTube for copyright infringement (something I strongly disagree with, by the way – those videos were analyzing Michael Jackson’s work, not pirating it, so I believe they should have been allowed to stay up under US copyright provisions for Fair Use). We hoped the copyright issues would be resolved and the videos would be republished.
In general, we believed the Academia Project was working to increase understanding of Michael Jackson and his art, and we wanted to support them. And I would like to continue to support them in producing positive work.
However, two days ago we received a pingback from the Academia Project website. They had just published a post accusing Joe Vogel of plagiarizing their work. I was very concerned by this because plagiarism is one of the most serious professional offenses that can be leveled against an academic – it can ruin reputations and careers – and those accusations did not square with my own experiences and observations from working with Joe. We have done several posts together over the past four years, including a post last April on the article at the center of the Academia Project accusations. I also read and provided comments on the first chapter of his dissertation, which later became that article. During the time I’ve known him, I have found him to be conscientious in recognizing the contributions of others who have gone before him, and generous in acknowledging them and expressing his gratitude for their work.
So I was deeply troubled by the allegations. I went to the Academia Project website and looked at their claims, and I found them to be without merit. Specifically, I came to the following conclusions:
First, academic writers must be scrupulous about attributing unique research data, ideas, perspectives, and turns of phrase to the people who originally collected or developed them. However, information that is considered to be common knowledge does not have to be cited. For example, if I wrote that Michael Jackson was from Gary, Indiana, I would not need to cite a source for that. And much of what the Academia Project is claiming as their unique contribution I consider to be common knowledge.
For example, the Academia Project notes that their video on Black or White includes this statement:
On 14 November 1991 the music video for Michael Jackson’s new single, ‘Black or White’, was premiered. The film was the most anticipated music video of all time and was televised simultaneously on MTV, VH1, BET, Fox and on channels around the world.
And they point out that Joe Vogel’s article includes this statement: “Michael Jackson’s 11-minute short film, Black or White, was the most watched music video premiere in television history.” This information is widely known – it has been reported numerous times, in many different sources, for more than 20 years. As such, I believe this qualifies as common knowledge.
Second, when documenting prior work, academic researchers try to cite the original source of an idea – and the Academia Project is not the original source for many of the ideas they are claiming as their own. For example, they point to this statement in their November 2011 video:
As the ‘Black or White’ video progresses, Michael sings “I ain’t scared of no sheets’ while bursting through imagery of a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning rally.
The ‘sheets’ referred to are the white hooded robes of the hate group.
They claim it is the source for this statement in Joe Vogel’s 2015 article: “The sheets Jackson refers to, of course, are the sheets of the Ku Klux Klan.” To me, this is a fairly obvious interpretation and doesn’t need to be cited. (In fact, I mentioned that the “sheets” referred to the Ku Klux Klan in M Poetica, published six months before the Academia Project videos, and I did not cite anyone.) However, Joe wrote of this connection in Man in the Music, which was published before the Academia Project videos were posted. Here’s what he says, in an image from page 159 of his book:
Again, I think the reference to the Ku Klux Klan is common knowledge and that Joe doesn’t need to cite anyone. However, if he did decide to include a citation, the Academia Project would not be the original source. I would need to do some research to find out who was, but I know Eric Lott mentioned it in “The Aesthetic Ante: Pleasure, Pop Culture, and the Middle Passage” – an academic article published in the spring of 1994 – and Armond White mentioned it even earlier, in a newspaper article that I believe was published soon after the video’s premiere in 1991.
Third, while the Academia Project’s videos and Joe Vogel’s article share some similar background information, those areas of overlap are only a tiny fraction of the overall scope of Joe’s article. For example, while the Academia Project focuses primarily on the political history of race and the civil rights movement, Joe takes a more theoretical approach and looks at the constructedness of race. He also focuses on constructions of gender, as his title suggests: “I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets: Re-screening Black Masculinity in Michael Jackson’s Black or White.” Gender isn’t addressed in the Academia Project video.
Finally, it is certainly possible and even likely for people working in similar areas, studying similar texts, to draw similar conclusions. For example, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz both developed the branch of mathematics called calculus at approximately the same time, working independently of one another and using very different notation. In another example, Samuel Johnson and Voltaire published remarkably similar novels (Rasselas and Candide) at the same time, though they lived in separate countries and wrote in different languages. Johnson himself remarked that if their books hadn’t been published simultaneously, neither author would have been able to counter the charge of plagiarizing the other.
My point is that as Michael Jackson’s stature continues to grow, the field of Jackson studies will inevitably become more crowded, with more and more people publishing analysis and posting opinions of his work. So there is bound to be some stepping on toes and jostling of elbows. However, while we may find that we disagree on some things – even strenuously disagree – it is imperative that we treat one another with respect and generosity of spirit.
I have seen too many instances of passionate fans allowing their passion to threaten or destroy something positive. The Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC) was a wonderful resource for disseminating information and sharing ideas. However, it was destroyed in large part by rival factions who could not settle their differences. And I was very disheartened to read a news article last week that a memorial in Germany may be dismantled because of ongoing disagreements between fan groups. This does not honor Michael Jackson’s legacy.
I would like to end by letting Joe respond to the Academia Project claims in his own words, from a post he published yesterday:
To be clear: My article on “Black or White” is not in any way derived from this fan’s videos, blogs, or other commentary. It is, however, indebted, to the scholars and critics I mention in my piece …
Over the years, I have interacted with numerous scholars, journalists and critics doing great work on Michael Jackson. They are overwhelmingly wonderful, generous, and civil, even when there are disagreements. I have had similar experiences with most Michael Jackson fans and fan groups.
It is my continued hope that those engaged in … attacks will instead focus on more positive ways to productively engage with Michael Jackson’s life and work.
His full post is available here.