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Under the Covers

Joie:  You know, Willa, I’ve been thinking a lot about the different covers of Michael Jackson’s albums. I love album cover art in general, I think a lot of times the artwork really captures either the attitude of the band or the particular mood that the band or artist is trying to convey with the record. For example, (and I’m really about to show my age here) the Ohio Players were known just as much for their provocative, erotic album covers as they were for their classic ’70s funk music. It’s a good example of the album art reflecting the attitude of the band.



And likewise, rock group Aerosmith has had many different types of album covers over the years and each one, I think, nicely reflects the particular mood the band is trying to convey with the record itself. Like the cover for their 1989 album, Pump. The image is of two old pickup trucks stacked on top of one another. But if you just glance at that image, the intended message is very clear as the album’s lyrical content is full of lots of sex and drug references.


Willa:  That’s funny! You know, I saw a fender bender ages ago where one VW Beetle went up on the back of another VW Beetle, and it was just like that – so suggestive you almost felt like you should avert your eyes. It looked like two hippos mating. I was riding into high school with some friends, and we almost rear-ended another car laughing about it. It was too funny.

Joie:  It is funny, isn’t it? So Aerosmith! Anyway, as you know, I have all of Michael’s albums in album frames and they hang on one of the walls in my house. I have them grouped all together so, they make a big impression when you see them, it’s actually pretty cool. But in looking at them, I am always struck by how different they each are. I think he’s one of those artists who used the cover art to convey a certain message according to the content of the album itself – almost like an extension of the music itself. You look at the covers and you get a pretty good idea of what you are about to hear.

Willa:  That’s really interesting, Joie. I think you’re right – he did use the cover art to give an indication of what was inside – but I think he also used the cover art to convey an idea about himself and where he was at as an artist. For example, he’s wearing a suit in the cover photos for Off the Wall and Thriller, and of course those were the two albums where he was trying to establish himself as a solo artist. Through the cover art he’s sending us subtle cues that he has matured as an artist and is now ready to stand on his own, and wearing a suit helps convey that.

But as you say, the cover art also tells us something about how he wants us to approach the music inside. To me, the suit says he wants us to take this music seriously. Generally, when we see someone wearing a suit on an album cover, it’s an orchestra conductor, not a rock star. So he’s sending a very different message than he would if he were wearing blue jeans or a glittery jumpsuit.

Joie:   You’re right, nothing says ‘take me seriously, I’m a grown up’ better than a suit and tie.

Willa:  Exactly. And he wants us to take his music seriously too, like an orchestral recording. At the same time, we don’t generally see an orchestra conductor lounging on the floor, gazing at us with sultry bedroom eyes, like Michael Jackson does on the Thriller cover!  And on Off the Wall, he’s smiling, his hands are positioned in a fun playful way, and he’s got that jaunty bowtie. So it seems to me there’s this interesting double message on both album covers. He wants us to take this music seriously, but also relax with it and enjoy it and have fun with it at the same time.

Joie:  Willa, I couldn’t agree with you more. Especially with the Off the Wall cover. It’s as if he’s saying “Yes, I’m a grown up now so this music is a little different than what you’re used to hearing from me, but it’s okay because we’re going to have some fun with it.” The way his hands are positioned, it’s almost like he’s telling us “Don’t panic! It’s still me, I promise.” That’s the feeling I get when I look at that album cover and I can’t help but smile.

And with Thriller, it’s like he’s got on the suit so that we recognize that it’s still him. But this time, he’s not wearing the tie, he’s wearing a sexy, stylish shirt with his suit and he’s lying on the floor with that ‘come hither’ expression on his face. It’s like he wants us to know that it’s still just him (don’t panic), but this album is a little bit more grown up, and a little bit darker in theme, than the last one.

Willa:  I see what you’re saying, Joie, and I agree he’s a little more grown up, but I wouldn’t say the Thriller cover feels darker to me. It’s definitely more serious though, and more sensual too. But then you open it up and there he is smiling with the tiger cub, so we get that playful feeling again as soon as we open the album.

And you know, while the Off the Wall cover has a fun feeling to it, there are interesting details that add visual complexity, giving it some somber undertones as well as exuberant highlights. His hands are partly restricted by his pockets, but it’s like they’re breaking loose of that restriction in this playful, excited way. He has his back against a brick wall, but with his name and the album title superimposed on the bricks in fun graffiti-style writing, so again suggesting a restriction as well as subtly defying that restriction. And there’s the edge of a poster showing – not much, just enough to give us a glimpse of blue sky and clouds juxtaposed against the brick background. So there are these repeated suggestions of restriction and escape.

Joie:  Hmm? I never thought about restriction and escape before when I look at this cover but, I see where you’re coming from. And personally, I have always wondered what the rest of that poster looks like, haven’t you?

Willa:  I have! But that’s such a classic Michael Jackson touch to give us just a glimpse of it – a bit of a teaser to get us wondering what it’s about and thinking beyond the cover itself. To me the clouds suggest fantasy – an escape into daydreams – especially against that brick background. It’s kind of like the scene in Bad that we’ve talked about a couple times already this fall – you know, the big dance sequence where Daryl escapes his bleak inner city life into the full-color fantasy world of dance and art. To me they have a very similar feeling.

That brings us to the Bad album cover – and wow, talk about restriction! He’s just covered in buckles and zippers and snaps, and what looks like some sort of medieval chastity belt hanging from his waist, or maybe miniature handcuffs. What is that thing?

Joie:  I don’t know but, it looks uncomfortable.

Willa:  It does, doesn’t it? But his jacket is undone and both shirts are open at the neck, so again there’s a suggestion of both confinement and liberation. And we see that spelled out in the two videos that evoke that costume:  Bad and Speed Demon. In both, his character is feeling trapped by the circumstances of his life – one by poverty and violence, and the other by celebrity and the obsessive media and fans – but both characters find a way to escape those restrictions, at least in their imagination.

Joie:  Huh, I never thought about it that way, Willa. That’s very interesting. And you’re right, he is wearing that outfit in both short films.

You know, I have a confession to make. I never liked the Bad cover. In fact, of all of his album covers, this is my least favorite. I just hate all those buckles and zippers and belts. He looks so confined and contained. So uncomfortable, and I just want to get him out of all that.

Willa:  I bet you do …

Joie:  Very funny. But you know what I mean. I want to free him so he can breathe! He just looks so uncomfortable all the time in that get up!

Willa:  Apparently, he was uncomfortable. I read a review of Spike Lee’s documentary that quoted Michael Jackson saying of that outfit, “I wish I could [move]. I feel so limited. This stuff is so tight on me.” (btw, wasn’t the documentary fabulous? I loved it! I wish ABC had shown the entire thing, though. I kept waiting to hear that line and never did.)

Joie:  Well, I think his discomfort showed on that cover. And I’m assuming that the look was meant to make him appear tough – or “bad,” if you will. But to me, that cover picture just has the opposite effect. I hate the stark white background and the bright red of the album title in the graffiti lettering.

To me, this cover was so unimaginative, and I think sometimes about the different pictures that have long been rumored to have been considered for the cover of Bad. Like the pic where his face is covered by the black lace. I love that picture but, I understand why they nixed the idea of using it for the cover if the goal was to make him appear tough.

MJLace Bad album

Willa:  Well, to be honest, I prefer the black lace photo also, and wish they’d gone with it – and apparently that was his first choice too. But I think the Bad cover is still pretty interesting, precisely because it implies he’s “bad” while at the same time having “the opposite effect,” as you say. It’s such an interesting mix of masculine and feminine, tough and delicate, macho man and pretty boy. And as we talked about a few weeks ago, he’s really challenging what it means to be a man in the Bad short film. So in that sense, it’s a great example of what you said earlier about artists using “cover art to convey a certain message according to the content of the album itself – almost like an extension of the music itself.”

Joie:  Hmm. Well, when you put it that way, I suppose it does make sense. Doesn’t make me like it any more, though. So, do you have a favorite MJ album cover, Willa?

Willa:  No, not really. I love Off the Wall and Thriller, in part because I have such strong memories of listening to them over and over again as a teenager and young adult. So there’s a lot of nostalgia there. But I really like the Invincible cover too, especially in connection with the Dangerous cover and the other covers and how they all interact with one another. In fact, I think it’s that interaction that I like best.

Joie:  For me, and you might find this strange, but my favorite MJ album cover is HIStory. I’m not sure why, exactly, since Michael isn’t even on the cover – it’s just the statue of him. But I think it has something to do with the colors of the clouds in the background and I love that large MJ symbol that’s just barely visible, behind the words. And I love the way the camera has shot the statue from below, as if we’re looking up at it. It gives the statue a very regal, imposing quality. And again, it gives a real sense of what we are about to hear on the record itself.

Willa:  It really does. To me, that statue is such a symbol of defiance, with its clenched fists and square shoulders and determined expression, and so is the MJ symbol behind the lettering – subtle, as you say, but in-your-face defiant – and that’s a pretty good description of the album as well. Just think about the new songs from that album: “Scream,” “They Don’t Care about Us,” “Stranger in Moscow,” “This Time Around,” “Earth Song,” … Disk Two really kicks off with one defiant track after another, but beautifully so. I love the progression of “Stranger in Moscow” to “This Time Around” to “Earth Song.” I play that triad a lot.

Joie:  I like the way you put that, Willa. The statue is a symbol of defiance and maybe that’s why I love that album cover so much. It is so Michael!

But I want to get back to something else you said earlier. You said that you love the way all of the covers interact with one another. Can we talk about your take on how the covers interact?

Willa:  Well, as you know, I think Michael Jackson’s face was his greatest, most important work of art. I think the way he orchestrated our shifting perceptions of his face challenged our ideas about race and gender, sexuality and subjectivity, at such a deep, fundamental level. So it’s fascinating to me to look at his album covers in progression and see how he represents his face in each one. They’re like snapshots of a work in progress.

As we talked about already, in Off the Wall he’s showing us a new mature face – he’s no longer the kid he was on Got To Be There or even Forever, Michael. Then with Thriller he’s taking it a bit farther and giving us the face of a sex symbol – a sex symbol who appeals to girls of all races, which was pretty radical in the 1980s.

And then Bad seems like a big leap to me, artistically. He’s beginning to manipulate how we interpret his face – specifically, how his face registers signifiers of race, gender, and sexuality. His face appears much lighter on Bad, and more feminine, but at the same time he still identifies himself as black and he’s still a very sexy man, as millions of fans can attest. So he’s playing with those signifiers in a way that makes us question how we use them to designate identity.

And then Dangerous seems like another huge leap. Now he seems to be suggesting that identity – at least, his identity as a celebrity – is a social construct. All we see of his face are his eyes, so there’s the suggestion of a real person in there somewhere, behind the show business facade. But when we look beyond that facade in the center of the album cover image, what we see is a gray steaming factory of pipes and boilers. The implication is that there’s an industry at work constructing and maintaining his public identity, and we can only catch a glimpse of the real person hidden behind all that.

Joie:  I like the way you put that, Willa. ‘An industry at work constructing and maintaining his public identity.’ I agree with you completely. And I also believe that we could probably spend an entire post talking solely about the Dangerous album cover; there is just so much going on in that one. I love to just sit and look at it sometimes. It’s one of those pictures where you’re almost certain to see something new every time you look at it.

Willa:  It really is. Like I was reading P.T. Barnum’s autobiography a few years ago, and suddenly the portrait of P.T. Barnum with Tom Thumb standing on his head just jumped out at me from the Dangerous cover. I’d never paid much attention to it before, but suddenly that seemed very significant. You know, many people consider P.T. Barnum the greatest showman in American history, and according to Randy Taraborrelli’s biography, Michael Jackson really admired that – even going so far as to give Frank DeLio and John Branca a copy of Barnum’s book back in 1984, telling them,

“This is going to be my Bible and I want it to be yours. I want my whole career to be the greatest show on earth.” 

We see a lot of that showmanship on display on the Dangerous album – it’s very reminiscent of the Leave Me Alone video that way.

Joie:  That’s true, it is. And I love that quote you just used. Michael’s fascination with P.T. Barnum is really on display in the Dangerous album cover.

Willa:  It really is. But at the same time, in the very center of the Dangerous cover he pulls back the curtain and shows us the industry at work creating that show business illusion, in a way that P.T. Barnum never would, I don’t think. And that disruption of the illusion is something we see frequently in Michael Jackson’s work, like at the end of the Beat It video where the camera pulls back and shows us the gang members have been dancing on a stage, not really rumbling on the streets. So he breaks the illusion at the end and shows us the drama we’ve just witnessed was all an artistic performance. he does something similar in Black or White, where he frequently breaks the illusion of reality by showing us the backstage props and rigging, or by having the director step into the frame. Or Liberian Girl, where he appears from behind the camera at the end and shows us it was all just a grand illusion – but in a sense, that rupturing of the illusion is just another illusion. He wasn’t really the cameraman for Liberian Girl (though he certainly controlled what we saw to a large extent) and that shot of him behind the camera was just as staged as the rest of the video.

I get that same loop-de-loop sense of “this is an illusion; no, this is the illusion; no really, this the illusion” when I look at the Dangerous cover, especially that peek into the behind-the-scenes factory at the center of the cover art. And what’s especially interesting to me is that the title, “Dangerous,” arches over the gateway into this grey mechanized space. So it’s like he’s telling us that entering this space is what’s “dangerous,” and we can interpret that many different ways: that it’s dangerous to become part of the Hollywood machinery, that it’s dangerous to try to see behind the illusion, that it’s dangerous to negotiate that space in search of some unmediated reality because we can never really get there.

Joie:  That is really fascinating, Willa. Honestly, I just get lost in that cover whenever I sit and really look at it because there’s so much going on in it. I have the same sort of reaction to the Blood on the Dance Floor cover as well. There is just so much to look at in that one! I love the checkered dance floor he’s standing on, and I love the way the blood red color of his suit stands out against the rest of the cover. And the city skyline in the background fascinates me because the clouds behind it sort of mirrors what the skyline is doing.

Willa:  Wow, that is really interesting, Joie! I hadn’t noticed that before but you’re right – the clouds on the sides, especially, echo the building shapes and create something of a fantasy cityscape made of clouds. And that ties in with what we were just saying about the Dangerous cover. I can see why you react in similar ways to both of them, because they’re really similar in some ways – like they both play with the idea of what’s real and what isn’t. For example, have you noticed how the checkered dance floor is kind of transparent, like water? You can see through it to the skyscrapers and city streets below. So what’s real, in this scene? the dance floor? the cityscape beneath it? the cloudscape above it? all of them? none of them?

To me, this album cover has kind of an Alice in Wonderland feeling, maybe because of the way it blends fantasy and reality, but it also evokes the idea of repression and escape that we talked about earlier. He has bracelets on both wrists that look like chains, but they aren’t able to hold him down – his hands are clenched in fists, and he’s dancing up above the city skyline. He’s also huge, like the statue in HIStory – much bigger than the skyscrapers he’s dancing above. And then there are those incredible clouds. We don’t just see a sliver of clouds, like on the Off the Wall cover. Now clouds are dominating the scene, and they’re in the shape of city buildings, as you mentioned, Joie, so they aren’t just natural clouds. They’re a mix of nature and imagination. A city of clouds is forming above the city below. I’m so intrigued by that now.

Joie:   You know, I’ve heard several different people throw an Illuminati spin on this cover – the same way they do with the Dangerous cover.

Willa:  Really? What do they say? You know, I’d never even heard of the Illuminati until you told me about them.

Joie:  Well, according to the theories, there are all sorts of Illuminati symbols – as well as clues about 9/11 – hidden in plain sight on this cover. For instance, the black and white checkered dance floor is representative of the floors used in the secret lodges of the Free Masons, who are supposedly behind the Illuminati. The blood red color of his suit is supposed to be representative of actual blood, so that whole picture of him in the red suit on the checkered floor is a sort of code for the ritual blood sacrifices of the Free Masons.

Also, you mentioned the transparency of the floor. Well, that is supposedly symbolic of the phrase “as above, so below.” It’s apparently a belief system of the Illuminati, and also Satanic worship as well. But beneath the transparent floor, to the right, you can see the pyramid image that is supposed to be really prominent in all Illuminati symbolism.

Now, for the 9/11 connection. And, you have to keep in mind that this album was released a few years before 9/11 happened, but the theory is that the Illuminati are fond of showing the rest of us what’s going to happen, long before it actually does. So, if you look at the position of his arms, if the cover were the face of a clock, his left arm is in the 9 position while his right arm is pointing to the 11. Also, the skyline is supposed to be representative of New York, but the Twin Towers are not there. And the clouds that you and I love so much that are mirroring that skyline? Well, interspersed with the buildings, if you look closely, are the shapes of bodies. Some of those tall buildings actually look more like bodies and they’re supposed to be representative of the souls that were taken when those buildings collapsed.

There’s a lot more but, those are just some of the more obvious ones. It’s all extremely interesting when you begin researching it but, it can quickly become obsessive and even quite scary if you let yourself believe it. I’m not saying that I do, and I’m not discounting it either. But I do agree that the Blood on the Dance Floor cover is truly fascinating and captivating to look at and study.

Willa:  Wow, Joie, that is wild!  But I’m confused – they aren’t saying Michael Jackson was somehow involved in the attack on the World Trade Center, are they? I mean, that’s crazy. Or are they saying that someone snuck symbols onto his album covers without his knowledge? I’m completely confused.

Joie:  No, they’re not saying he was involved. I guess I should have begun by explaining the Illuminati. In the simplest of terms, they are a supposed secret society whose main objective is to bring about a New World Order, and they recruit various members of pop culture to assist them in their task. If you believe the theories, the Illuminati basically run Hollywood and have a huge presence in the music industry, and there are various Illuminati/Free Mason/occult symbols that EVERY artist is obligated to incorporate into things like videos and album covers, whether they want to or not, because the Illuminati can make you or break you. The only reason anyone becomes a celebrity is because the Illuminati “allows” them to.

The theory where Michael Jackson is concerned, is that he refused to be one of their recruits and even began speaking out against the Illuminati in the later years of his life, in different songs and interviews, and was subsequently murdered by them as a result. Tupac Shakur was supposedly murdered by the Illuminati for the exact same reason.

It’s really interesting to research, Willa. Just do a quick Google search sometime, or better yet, go to YouTube and punch in ‘Illuminati Music Industry,’ or even ‘Michael Jackson Tupac Illuminati,’ and see what comes up.

Willa:  Hmmm, sounds like The da Vinci Code. I’ll look into it if you want me to, Joie, but I have to say, I am extremely skeptical – especially if they’re suggesting that Hollywood decisionmakers were in cahoots with al Qaeda. That makes no sense to me at all. There could hardly be two groups with more divergent world views. I can’t believe they’d see eye to eye on much of anything, much less work together to bring about a shared vision of a new world. That just doesn’t make sense to me.

And you know, coincidences happen all the time. Like when we went to Las Vegas last year to see Immortal, we stayed at the Luxor, which is shaped like a pyramid and has a laser beam shooting out the top, “illuminating” the desert sky. But that doesn’t mean we belong to a secret group of Illuminati. It was just a coincidence.

Joie:  Well, I think you’re missing the point a little bit, Willa. No one is saying that Hollywood decisionmakers were in cahoots with al Qaeda at all. In fact – if you believe the Illuminati theories – the whole al Qaeda story is simply what “they” want you to believe because the threat of outside terrorism draws attention away from what’s actually going on. But you’re right, on one level it does sound very much like The da Vinci Code.

Willa:  Hmmm. Well, I need to just hush up til I’ve done a little research because I know absolutely nothing about any of this, but I have to say, I’m skeptical – extremely skeptical. So what do you think of the Invincible album cover? I like it a lot. What do you think?

Joie:  Well, for the longest time, I wasn’t fond of the Invincible cover at all, even though it is probably my favorite MJ album. But then, once I read M Poetica, I started to look at that cover in an entirely different light.

Willa:  You know, I started writing M Poetica not too long after he died, and I was just in a state of grief, as so many of us were. And I was really overwhelmed by this idea that, even though he had just died, he’d actually been disappearing for a long time. His persona was everywhere you looked, but he himself – meaning the real person, the real Michael Jackson, the artist behind the public persona – was disappearing from view, and had been for a long time – you know, like we just talked about with the Dangerous cover. It’s like that line in the rap part of “Unbreakable” where he talks about “disappearing acts … Copperfield material.” And it seemed to me that we could see that idea represented in the cover art. On the front cover, his face is completely whited out, and even his features are fading. Only his right eye and eyebrow are inked in. Then on the back cover, all we see are that right eye and eyebrow, but now they’re pale and pixelated, and they’re fading away also. So it’s like we’re watching him disappear right before our eyes.

But then I read a post on MJJ-777 that has me thinking about the Invincible cover again, and considering other ways to interpret it. According to the MJJ-777 post, he wanted his face on the cover art to be golden, like the child in this Albert Watson portrait:


Joie:  That is so interesting, Willa. I had never read that post before.

Willa:  I hadn’t either, but I’m so intrigued by it, and I love the Watson photo. It’s so beautiful, and the child’s face all in gold looks like a work of art – like the King Tut mask, or the sarcophagus that Michael Jackson loved so much in the Bashir documentary. And it has me thinking once again about his face as a work of art.I haven’t abandoned my previous interpretation – I see it both ways. In fact, I think they fit together pretty well. As public representations of his face and image became more and more of a work of art, he himself disappeared.

This interpretation of the Invincible cover as representing his face as a work of art is reinforced by the fact that five versions of the cover were released – four with a different background color, as well as the white one – and that’s reminiscent of the four Andy Warhol portraits of Michael Jackson, each with a different background color. So in that way, the Invincible cover evokes the Warhol portraits, where his face, his image, unquestionably became a work of art, by one of the most influential artists of the last century.

Joie:  That’s true, Willa, they do evoke Warhol. And you know, there are a few rare Invincible CDs floating around out there where the cover contains an image of all four background colors, so it really does look like a Warhol portrait. If you can find them, they go for a pretty penny.

Willa:  Really? I didn’t know that. You know, one of the Warhol portraits of Michael Jackson – the one on the yellow background – is in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. If you get a chance, you should go see it. It’s really cool seeing it in person.

Joie:  Well, this is probably going to sound funny but, I just can’t believe that we managed to talk about all of the album covers in one post. I mean … there are so many fascinating things to talk about with each one of them and I am just amazed that we managed to do it without breaking it up into two posts because, we really could go on forever with a couple of them. I’m sort of proud of our restraint, aren’t you?

Willa:  That’s funny, Joie!  Especially since we were just speaking of restriction and escape. … But you’re right – each of these album covers could fill a blog post on its own. So now that we’ve finished reining ourselves in, maybe we should treat ourselves with a little escapism and go look at clouds. What do you think?

Joie:  Oh! That one looks like a bunny!