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The Trilogy: They Don’t See You As I Do

Willa:  So Joie, as Michael Jackson and his collaborators were preparing for the This Is It concerts in London, they created some film segments to be shown on that huge screen behind the stage during the performances of “Bad / They Don’t Care about Us,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Earth Song,” and “Thriller / Ghosts / Threatened.” Kenny Ortega included those films, or parts of them, in the movie, This Is It, and they’re very interesting – like little vignettes or short stories within the larger film.

I’m really intrigued by those short films and how they were going to be incorporated into the concerts. I’m especially intrigued by this one moment in This Is It, just as “Thriller” is about to segue into “Ghosts,” where we see Michael Jackson dancing to “Thriller,” then see a film clip of a rat climbing on an iron fence, and then see one of those huge ghost puppets that were going to be carried throughout the audience during “Ghosts.”

That moment is so interesting to me because, if I had to identify the works that best illustrate Michael Jackson’s aesthetic, I would have to say “Ben,” Thriller, and Ghosts. I find myself returning to these three works again and again when trying to clarify for myself Michael Jackson’s ideas, and his strategies for conveying those ideas. To me, they are the trilogy at the center of his belief system and his aesthetic. And for one brief moment in This Is It, they seem to come together – almost as if they are clasping hands.

Joie:  Ok, Willa, I have to be honest and say that you have me a little baffled here. Please explain what you mean about ‘the trilogy’ because, I’m having difficulty understanding how these three works connect for you because, to me – on the surface anyway – the song “Ben” has very little to do with the Thriller and Ghosts short films.

Willa:  Well, for me, Michael Jackson was always very interested in “difference” – how we designate it, how we perceive it, and how we respond to it. Because he was Black and because the U.S. is so fixated on race, we tend to interpret his work in terms of racial prejudice – and it’s true that challenging racist ideas and biases was very important to him. But I think he was also talking about difference more generally, and working toward overcoming boundaries of difference based on race, age, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, disability, height, weight, wealth, social status, or even just a vague sense that someone is “weird” or “freakish” or uncomfortably odd in some way.

And I definitely see this in “Ben” – this impulse to question how we perceive and designate difference, and to challenge the prejudices that often result from that. After all, “Ben” is a story about a rat who is despised by most people simply because he’s a rat.  But he’s befriended by a boy who is able to see beyond those prejudices and love him for who he is inside. As the boy sings,

Ben, most people would turn you away
I don’t listen to a word they say
They don’t see you as I do
I wish they would try to
I’m sure they’d think again
If they had a friend like Ben

There have been other works that have tried to turn rats and mice into appealing characters – for example, Stuart Little, or Ratty in Wind in the Willows, or Ralph in Beverly Cleary’s The Mouse and the Motorcycle stories, or Mrs. Tittlemouse in the Beatrix Potter stories.

Joie:  Or Mrs. Fribsy and The Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brian. I love that book!

Willa:  Oh, that’s a great example! Or more recently, there’s Ratatouille or The Tale of Despereau. But what’s interesting is that in all of these works, these characters are made acceptable by making them less rodent-like and more human – in other words, by making them more “normal” from our point of view. They wear human clothes. They pilot a boat or ride a motorcycle. They live in human-like houses and cook human-like food and do human-like chores. Here’s a picture of Mrs. Tittlemouse:

But “Ben” is very different. The boy knows that Ben is a rat, knows that he is marked as different because of that, but loves him just the way he is. In all those other works, there’s this very strong impulse to make these little rodents cute and appealing and more “normal” – more human. But that impulse is entirely absent from “Ben.” The boy doesn’t seem to feel the need to change Ben to make him more acceptable. He doesn’t dress him up in doll clothes or give him a toy motorcycle to ride or humanize him in any way. It’s much simpler than that. He loves Ben, Ben loves him, and that’s it.

Joie:  Ok, I see what you’re saying. And you’re right; he doesn’t attempt to humanize the rat at all. In fact, it’s just the opposite. As you said, he knows that Ben is a rat and that he’s “different.” But he’s not afraid of or intimidated by those differences. Instead, he embraces the differences and loves Ben anyway. It’s a lesson that we can all learn from – love and tolerance. Even though we’re all different doesn’t mean we can’t still treat one another with decency and respect.

Willa:  Exactly, and I love the way you put that: “he embraces the differences.” He’s not saying differences don’t exist. They do – we’re all wonderfully different. Instead, he’s saying that those kinds of surface differences shouldn’t determine how we respond to each other and feel about each other. He knows Ben is a rat but he also knows his heart, and that’s what’s important. He’s still able to “see” him and genuinely know him, and love him. So instead of trying to make Ben acceptable by trying to change him and make him “normal,” he challenges us to overcome our prejudices and accept Ben the way he is. As he sings, “They don’t see you as I do / I wish they would try to.”

Joie:  It makes me think about a video I recently came across by rapper Adair Lion. The song is called “Ben” and, even though he is addressing homosexuality, the song’s message could be talking about racism, sexism, or any other form of prejudice. He samples Michael Jackson’s “Ben” quite a bit in the song and I think that Michael probably would have loved it. Here’s the video:

Willa:  Oh heavens, Joie, what a wonderful video! Thanks for sharing that. And you’re right, Adair Lion is talking about homophobia but he also parallels it with racism and other forms of prejudice – like when the white girl goes to kiss him and the other white girl stops her and gets pretty violent about it. And he makes those connections explicit in the rap when he says:

I guess him over there
He chose to be Black
And her Asian
And them White
And those god-awful gays
Chose to live that life

So he’s talking about specific forms of prejudice, but by paralleling them he’s also talking about difference more generally, and that’s very Michael Jackson – and very appropriate to the message of “Ben,” I think.

I’m also really drawn to the scenes of the little girl trying to spend the birthday money her two fathers gave her. It’s a $3 bill, and the woman at the ice cream store rejects her funny money and refuses to serve her an ice cream cone, and the woman at the toy store rejects it as well and refuses to sell her a doll. But then she comes to the taco stand where Adair Lion’s character is working, and his buddy is surprised by the $3 bill but accepts it – he not only sells her a lollypop but gives her two extra ones. It’s a simple straightforward message, but very moving.

And then the video ends with this powerful postscript:

Coincidentally, Ben is the name of someone I’ve never met – my dad
So why would I ever judge someone who’s trying to be two
Of what I never had?

As you know, Joie, “Ben” is very special to me, and to be perfectly honest I was pretty reluctant to watch this video because the original means so much to me. I guess I was worried he’d misappropriate it or trivialize it somehow. But actually it made me cry. I’m not sure why it affected me so much – maybe because I was about the same age as that little girl the first time I heard “Ben” – but also because this video feels so heart-felt and sincere.

Joie:  It is a pretty compelling video; you’re right. And the fact that he has sampled Michael Jackson’s “Ben” only serves to make it that much more powerful since that song is all about seeing past the differences in all of us.

You know, Willa, the sweet sentiment in Michael Jackson’s voice as he sings that song is so overwhelmingly pure and real. And I wonder sometimes if – at only 14 years old – he understood what a huge message that song carried. It certainly feels very heartfelt when you listen to it. The song was written by Don Black and composed by Walter Scharf, and was the theme song for the 1972 film, Ben (the sequel to the 1971 movie Willard, about a killer rat). It was originally intended for young Donny Osmond but he was on tour and unavailable at the time. So, Michael was actually the second choice to record the song – which just confounds me because, as wonderful as Donny Osmond is, I just can’t imagine anyone else but Michael singing it.

Willa:  Oh, I know, and apparently Michael Jackson couldn’t either! In an interview with Life After 50 a few months ago, Donny Osmond says he told him that “Ben” was originally written for him, and Michael Jackson said, “Get out of here!” He couldn’t believe it, and I can’t either. “Ben” and Michael Jackson are so connected in my mind.

And you can tell “Ben” was very important to him. You can hear it in his voice, and by how often he returned to it. He sang it in concerts for years, and he included it on almost all of his compilation albums, including The Best of Michael Jackson, Anthology, Number Ones, The Ultimate Collection, and The Essential Michael Jackson.

Joie:  That’s true; he did return to it again and again.

Willa:  He really did. And as a child he even adopted some pet rats. Here’s a picture:

Perhaps most importantly is how the themes of “Ben” recur in his later work – not just confronting prejudice against difference, but linking that prejudice to perception. In “Ben” he sings, “They don’t see you as I do.” In “Can You Feel It,” he sings,

Can you see what’s going down?
Open up your mind …
‘Cause, we’re all the same
Yes, the blood inside my veins is inside of you

In “Another Part of Me” he asks, “Can’t you see / You’re just another part of me?” Repeatedly he tells us that prejudice against difference is simply a matter of perception, or rather a culturally produced misperception. Those prejudices aren’t real and natural – children aren’t born with them – they’re just part of our social “conditioning.” And I think we see him challenging this misperception most dramatically in the changing color of his skin. He proved in a way that cannot be denied that, regardless of race, we are all connected. We are all gloriously different, unique individuals, but we are all one people. As he says, “Yes, the blood inside of me is inside of you.”

Joie:  Willa, I think that’s a wonderful observation, and I agree completely. I think the message of “Ben” was obviously very important to him. As you pointed out, he would return to this message, in various forms, many times all throughout his career. It might even be fair to say that the message of this song helped to shape the man he became – the songs he wrote about unity and acceptance, the humanitarian causes he chose to support, the humble, loving way he lived his life. I think “Ben” probably had a very profound effect on him.

Willa:  You know, that’s interesting because I’ve wondered about that a lot – about what exactly “Ben” meant to him – and I think you’re right. I think “Ben” probably did have a profound effect on him, or maybe it gave him a way to express something he already felt. I know he felt a lot of sympathy for Ben – you can tell that simply by listening to his voice as he sings the lyrics – but I wonder if he identified with him as well. After all, Ben isn’t accepted simply because he’s seen as different, and that’s something Michael Jackson struggled with too. Even as they idolized him, people still treated him as uncomfortably different.

In a 1980 interview with 20/20, his mother tells reporter Sylvia Chase,

“Wherever he goes, everybody’s coming out to see Michael Jackson – you know, want to look at him and see what he looks like – and he said he feels like an animal in a cage.”

When Sylvia Chase asks him about this, he says, “I do, all the time. Well, I shouldn’t say all the time, but I get embarrassed easily. … Being around, you know, everyday people and stuff, I feel strange. I do.” She follows up by saying, “There are some people who believe that, having always been on stage, you’ve never had to deal with the real world.” He replies,

“That’s true in a lot of ways. That’s true in one way. But it’s hard to in my position. I try to sometimes, but people won’t deal with me in that way because they see me differently. They won’t talk to me like they will a next-door neighbor.”

So as he says, people don’t interact with him in a casual, typical way “because they see me differently.” And if he felt that way in 1980 – before Thriller, before vitiligo, before the 1993 allegations and the 2005 trial and the screaming headlines about Wacko Jacko – imagine how he felt later on.

Joie:  You’re absolutely right; his isolation only grew as his fame grew. I’m certain that he probably did feel very much ‘like an animal in a cage.’

Willa:  Oh, it’s just unimaginable what he had to endure. And there’s another connection between Ben and Michael Jackson that I’ve been thinking about for quite a while now but still haven’t reached any firm conclusions about, and that’s the reasons why they were seen as so strange. And while I’m still trying to figure this out, I think a lot of it has to do with cultural taboos against crossing certain boundaries.

Think about it – why are rats so abhorrent to so many people? I think it’s because they cross boundaries, or rather live in that weird in-between place where two distinct categories overlap. After all, when we think about rats, we don’t generally think about them living in the woods or in meadows or along streams. Instead, we think of them living in sewer pipes and garbage dumps and the basements of tenement buildings or dilapidated houses. In other words, we think of them living at the margins of civilization in places that are neither completely wild nor completely civilized. They exist in this weird no man’s land that blurs the boundary between what’s wild and what’s civilized. We tend to want to keep those ideals distinct and separate, but rats blur the boundary and threaten our notions of both civilization and wilderness – and it’s that threat that makes them abhorrent.

And in many ways, Michael Jackson did the same thing. He lived in that no man’s land between Black and White, masculine and feminine, gay and straight, upper class and lower class, liberal and conservative, child and adult, Christian and Jewish and Islamic and Buddhist, soul and blues and disco and rock, singer and dancer and filmmaker and philosopher. He challenged so many artificial, culturally constructed boundaries. And he didn’t just cross those boundaries. He lived in the in-between space where those categories uncomfortably overlap, and demonstrated that those boundaries are artificial constructs. And that was very threatening to a lot of people, especially those who want to keep those categories clearly defined and separate.

Joie:  Ok, Willa. That was yet another ‘Wow’ moment for me! You have just connected the dots and drawn all the parallels between Michael Jackson and the subject of the song “Ben,” and it makes total, perfect sense. And you’re right; people are typically freaked out by rats and it is because we tend to think of them as living on the fringe of society. But rats are actually really cool. Most people are usually very stunned to learn that rats make really good pets. In fact, rats make better pets than mice because they don’t tend to bite like mice will. They are very intelligent, social animals that can be easily tamed and most owners compare the companionship to that of a dog!

So, next week, we will continue this discussion of what Willa calls ‘the trilogy’ with a look at the Thriller short film. And, I have to say, Willa, I’m still not seeing how “Ben” relates to the Thriller and Ghosts short films for you. Maybe I can see the Ghosts video somewhat, as that one really is all about being different. But I guess I just don’t think of the Thriller video in those terms at all. Yes, Michael Jackson’s character in that one is constantly changing from a teenage boy to a werewolf to a zombie and back again but, I just don’t think of this video as being about our “differences.” But, we’ll discuss that next week.