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Celebrating Bad: Presenting the Music Visually

Joie:  So Willa, everyone knows that Thriller is the biggest-selling album of all time. But did you know that for a short while, Bad was actually the second biggest-selling album of all time?

Willa:  Really?  No, I didn’t know that.

Joie:  To this day, in fact, it is still regarded as one of the best-selling albums ever made – I think it’s like number six on the worldwide list – and until Katy Perry tied the record with her album Teenage Dream, it was the first and only album to spawn five number one singles.

Willa:  I did know that, and it’s amazing – especially for an album many saw as under-performing in terms of record sales. It shows just how high the bar was set for the follow-up album to Thriller.

Joie:  That record stood unmatched for 23 years! And what I love most about this album is that Michael penned over 80% of it himself – nine out of the 11 tracks on the album were written by him.

So, I guess what I’m getting at here is that, even though for many people, Thriller is often seen as the pinnacle of Michael Jackson’s success (and commercially, that is certainly true), it is actually the follow-up album, Bad, where we begin to see the artist really stretch his wings and grow artistically, emotionally, creatively, and politically.

Willa:  That’s really interesting, Joie, and something Quincy Jones has suggested also. As he says in the first additional track on the Bad, Special Edition album, “I could just see him growing as an artist and understanding production and all that stuff.” So here’s a question I want to ask Quincy Jones every time I hear that, but I’m going to put you on the spot and ask you instead: what do you see as the major signs of growth between Thriller and Bad?

Joie:  Well, first of all, what I just pointed out. The fact that he wrote the majority of the songs on it. With his first two adult solo efforts, Off the Wall and Thriller, that wasn’t the case. He only wrote three of the songs on Off the Wall and four on Thriller. So I think that shows major growth and maturity, both artistically and creatively.

Willa:  That’s true, and we can see that in the number of videos he made also. He made three each for Off the Wall and Thriller, but he made eight for Bad – nine if you count “Leave Me Alone” – and nine for Dangerous, so Bad seems to have been an important turning point for him that way too.

Joie:  Also, the things he’s writing about. The subject matter of the songs on Bad show a lot of maturity and growth as well.

Willa:  I suppose, though “Billie Jean” is so emotionally complex, and there’s a lot of depth in “Beat It,” and “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Workin’ Day and Night” as well. So it’s not like his previous songs were simplistic.

Joie:  Well, that’s very true. Simplistic is not a word I would use to describe his writing. But, I don’t know. The Bad album just seems a little more “grown up” to me than his previous two adult efforts.

Willa:  And more uniquely “him” because he did write so many of the songs himself, as you mentioned earlier. You know, the story you always hear about Bad is that he put tremendous pressure on himself to top Thriller, and I’m sure those kinds of pressures were there to some degree. Creating a follow-up to Thriller would be intimidating, I’m sure.

Joie:  Oh, no doubt about it. I can’t imagine what that kind of pressure must be like.

Willa:  Oh, I know!  But listening to this album, it doesn’t feel like it’s coming from a place of anxiety and insecurity. He sounds very sure of himself, with a message he feels compelled to share and the confidence to share it. I wonder if that’s part of what you’re feeling, Joie, when you say that, for you, this is the album where he really comes into his own.

Joie:  You could be onto something there, Willa. He does seem to have a certain level of self-confidence and even cockiness on this album so, maybe that is what I’m reacting to. And, you know, when I think about this album, it’s really difficult for me to choose the one stand-out track that sets this CD apart or makes it great because really, every song is a masterpiece all by itself.

Willa:  I know what you mean, and I wonder if that’s because of all the videos. You know, in Moonwalk he talks about the videos he made for the Thriller album and emphasizes that they weren’t just tacked on after the fact as a marketing tool. They were part of his vision from the beginning. As he says,

The three videos that came out of Thriller – “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” – were all part of my original concept for the album. I was determined to present this music as visually as possible.

And Bad is where he really achieves that goal of presenting his songs “as visually as possible.” Except for the two duets, he made a video for every song on the album, and I think that contributes to that feeling you’re talking about, Joie, that “every song is a masterpiece.” Because each song has its own video, each one feels like a fully realized, multi-sensory work of art.

You know, even when I’m not watching the videos themselves, like when I’m listening to Bad on the car stereo, I’m still visualizing those images. They’re just an integral part of each song for me now.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa; they do feel like an “integral part of each song” and it is almost impossible not to visualize the short film when listening to the songs themselves. And I’m sure that was probably very intentional on his part, as that quote you cited from Moonwalk points out. And, as you said earlier, he also made nine videos for his following album, Dangerous and eight for the HIStory album so, I believe presenting the music “as visually as possible” was something that was very important to him and something that he was committed to doing.

Willa:  I agree. It really feels to me like he achieved the fullest expression of his art through his videos. That’s where it all comes together: the music, the dance, that incredible voice, the visual cues, the backstory and narrative – or as he described the structure of his videos, the beginning and the middle and the ending of what he’s trying to convey.

Joie:  I agree. And it really makes you think about his great love of films. Sometimes I believe his videos are so amazing because of his love for film. How many times did he talk about the power of film and being able to take an audience anywhere you wanted them to go, all through film. And many times, that’s what his videos do – they transport you momentarily to a different place. A place of his choosing. It’s no wonder he wanted them referred to as ‘short films’ instead of videos.

And just thinking about that fact makes me really angry that he was hindered from doing the same with Invincible. I love that album so much, and I would have loved to have seen what videos he could have come up with for it. But you’re right, Bad is the first album where he achieves this goal of presenting the music as visually as possible and because of that, his name really became sort of synonymous with music videos.

It’s an interesting concept that no one else was really doing at the time. You know, most artists were just using the music video as a sort of promotional tool and the resulting videos had very little to do with the song itself. But Michael changed all that; he ‘flipped the script’ as the saying goes. Suddenly music videos weren’t just some abstract add on but, they were a way to actually bring the song to life.

Willa:  And not always in ways you expect – like who would ever listen to “Liberian Girl” and imagine the video he created for it? Or “The Way You Make Me Feel”? Or “Speed Demon”? Or “Bad” or “Smooth Criminal” or “Dirty Diana”? Actually, the Dirty Diana video probably enacts the lyrics more closely than the others:  as he sings about a performer being approached by a groupie, we discover that he really is a performer being approached by a groupie.

But even it heightens and complicates the lyrics in interesting ways. In fact, there are some very interesting details in Dirty Diana. For example, he’s singing about this love triangle between himself, My Baby, and Diana. Diana just wants him, or her idea of him as a famous rock star, and she doesn’t really care if she hurts him or My Baby. At one point he sings that he’s talking on the phone with My Baby, and Diana says into the phone, “He’s not coming back because he’s sleeping with me.” That is such a moment of betrayal – just imagine how painful that moment must be for him and My Baby – yet the concert crowd roars when he sings that. The audience goes nuts. And it’s interesting – the roar of the crowd at that moment isn’t on the album; it’s only in the video.

What the crowd’s reaction says pretty clearly is that they aren’t listening to this song from My Baby’s point of view, or even his point of view, but from Diana’s – and really, that makes perfect sense because they are like Diana. They want him too, just like Diana does. We see that in the video when he rips his shirt open. The crowd really goes wild then. He’s an object of desire, and they fantasize about fulfilling that desire, regardless of the consequences for him or his private life.

And actually, that seems to be the position he wants the audience to be in – he wants us to desire him when he’s on stage, and he wants us to align ourselves with Diana. We see that in the lyrics, where he encourages us to sympathize with her and see things from her point of view. So the audience is positioned with her, which makes sense. But then at the end of the video he does that classic Michael Jackson move we see in so many of his videos where he suddenly shifts the perspective. We follow him as he comes offstage, he opens the door of his car, and there’s a very unsettling power chord as he sees there’s a woman waiting for him inside.

Joie:  That’s a very sharp observation, Willa. I never made that connection between the roar of the crowd and the audience’s point of view in this video before. Interesting.

Willa:  Oh, it’s so interesting – what he does with point of view is just fascinating to me, and he plays with it constantly, in such complicated ways. Like when the perspective shifts in Dirty Diana, suddenly everything takes on a very different character. This isn’t the typical rock star/groupie fantasy we see played out in so many music videos. This is the fantasy giving way to realism, and suddenly our perspective shifts and we’re forced to consider the situation more from his point of view – and his point of view is really complicated. It’s always complicated. He never lets us off with a simple answer.

So there’s a beautiful young woman sitting in his car wanting to have sex with him, and on the one hand, that’s a nice problem to have. I mean, really, things could be worse. But on the other hand, he doesn’t know her, doesn’t know anything about her – doesn’t know if she’s kind or cruel or nutty as a fruitcake – and he’s just described in the lyrics how a woman like this has the potential to hurt him and My Baby. So it’s complicated.

Joie:  It is complicated. And, as we talked about last summer during the My Baby series, Dirty Diana perfectly highlights that complicated, often strange issue of celebrity and fame. And it’s also a perfect example of presenting the music “as visually as possible.” As you stated earlier, many of the short films tell a much different story than we would expect when simply listening to the song itself; but that’s not the case with Dirty Diana. Here the short film mirrors the song very closely – so the song itself really does come alive before our very eyes. If that’s not presenting the music visually, I don’t know what is!

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Celebrating Bad: You Wanna Be a Man

Willa:  So Joie, last June we began talking about the Bad short film and video cut, but we didn’t really get a chance to look at them in depth. It seems like we’d just started chatting when we had to quit, and there’s so much more to talk about!

Joie:  I agree, Willa. It just never felt like we got into the video itself, did it?

Willa:  It really didn’t. We started talking about how there really wasn’t a forum for the full 16-minute version of Bad to be seen, which is an important issue.

Joie:  It is an important issue and I got sidetracked by my disdain for the “reality” format that killed my MTV, and I’m sorry about that. I’ll try to stay on topic this time.

Willa:  Well, sometimes those side trips can be pretty rewarding, but I would like for us to get a chance to burrow in to the film itself, so this week I was hoping we could pick up where we left off a couple months ago.

You know, it really does seem like every time I watch one of Michael Jackson’s short films I see something new, or feel echoes of something I hadn’t felt before, or see a connection I hadn’t really noticed before. And the last time I watched Bad I was really struck by the fact that his character in this film doesn’t have anyone he can truly depend on and trust. We hear the voice of his mother (spoken by Roberta Flack) and she sounds like a warm person and a loving parent, but she’s at work and unavailable. We never see her. He seems to interact and get along well with the other kids at his prep school, but there doesn’t seem to be any real depth of friendship there. He does seem to feel a connection with his friends back in his old neighborhood, but they’re pressuring him hard to prove he’s one of them, so he can’t depend on them either.

In fact, the only person he genuinely connects with in the entire film is the nameless fellow on the train. Like Daryl (and Michael Jackson himself) he’s positioned between two worlds – and this is portrayed literally, as they are riding a train from a rather unfamiliar new life back to the life they grew up in. So both of them are physically and symbolically between two worlds. This fellow on the train seems to understand what Daryl is going through – that patronizing show of acceptance from other students who don’t really accept him – because he’s experienced it himself. He asks Daryl, “How many guys proud of you?” Daryl counts in his head, then says, “Three.” “Shoot,” the other guy says, “Four guys proud of me.”

But that moment of connection lasts only a moment and then he’s gone. Interestingly, when we first see that other guy, he seems threatening. He’s watching Daryl through slitty eyes, and Daryl feels uncomfortable and turns away. So it’s a relief when we realize we can trust this guy … maybe. At least he seems like someone we can trust, but can we really? So in some ways it only heightens this feeling of doubt and alienation, and this sense that there’s no one he can really rely on.

Joie:  You are so right about that, Willa. In the beginning, it does seem like this guy on the train is someone very threatening and for a few minutes we don’t really know which way this is going to go. There is a heightened sense of anxiety because of it. Then, by the time he gets off the train, the two have clearly made a connection – as you say – even though it is fleeting. And what I find interesting is that, as he exits, he tells Daryl to “be the man.” It’s like he’s encouraging him to stand up for himself and what he believes in and not be swayed by peer pressure. It’s sort of foreboding in a way, like he’s preparing him for what’s to come.

Willa:  Joie, that is so interesting! I never looked at it that way. I always saw that line as a response to the prep school experience they’ve both had, and this idea that they’re being groomed to enter a life of privilege and “be the man.” But you’re right – it also foreshadows the test he’s about to face in his old neighborhood, which in many ways is set up as a test of his manhood. And that reminds me of the lyrics to “Beat It,” which in many ways serves as a prologue to Bad:

Don’t wanna be a boy, you wanna be a man
You wanna stay alive, better do what you can

Here too he’s talking about being “a man,” but in this context he’s obviously talking about dealing with gangs. But it’s complicated – does being a man mean you have to hurt people, or be hurt yourself?  He raises that question pretty directly in Beat It:

You better run, you better do what you can
Don’t wanna see no blood, don’t be a macho man
You wanna be tough, better do what you can
So beat it, but you wanna be bad

So while he understands “you wanna be a man,” he advises “don’t be a macho man” – though he then ends this verse by acknowledging “you wanna be bad.” So in both of these short films, he seems to be questioning what it means to be bad and be a man – and developing his own unique answers.

Joie:  And in doing so, he’s forcing others to think about those questions as well.

Willa:  Exactly.

Joie:  What does it mean to be bad? To be a man? By bringing those questions up, he’s attempting to educate us through his art – something he does so well. And when thinking about the lyrics to “Bad,” it’s almost like he’s telling young men everywhere that their ideas of what it means to be a man are all wrong, as he sings:

Your talk is cheap
You’re not a man
You’re throwing stones
To hide your hands

You know, it’s like the old expression your grandmother would sometimes say when you misbehaved – “don’t throw stones and then hide your hands!” Of course, as a kid, you never really understood what that meant; at least, I didn’t. It wasn’t until this song came out that I bothered to look it up and find out. Basically, it means to start some kind of trouble or mischief and then not take responsibility for it when the consequences start rolling in. And unfortunately, there is quite a lot of that going on in our society – it’s always someone else’s fault. So Michael Jackson was addressing that in “Bad” and saying, that’s not what a real man would do.

Willa:  You know, Joie, I always get so much out of our conversations. I’d never heard that expression before. I thought the “throwing stones” line was a reference to the Bible story where a crowd is gathering to stone a woman for committing adultery, but Jesus stops them and says, “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.” In other words, we shouldn’t “throw stones” – we should focus on improving our own behavior instead of criticizing the behavior of others. But then I didn’t understand what the “hide your hands” part meant. But what you’re saying about “don’t throw stones and then hide your hands” makes a lot of sense. That is so interesting.

Joie:  It is interesting, isn’t it? One of those old expressions that don’t make a whole lot of sense until you really stop and think about them. Of course, some of them, I never figure out. Like “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” What the heck does that mean, anyway? It drives me crazy!  But, I’m not getting sidetracked this time; I promise!

Willa:  OK, I’ll be good too and not ask what on earth “naked as a jaybird” means. Birds aren’t naked….

But anyway, it really does seem to me that he’s proposing a new definition of “bad” in this film, and through that a new definition of manhood. At first he tells his friends, “You wanna see who’s bad?” and agrees to help with the robbery. He’s going along with their definition of “bad.” But then he changes his mind and gives them (and us) a different definition – and presents us with two examples of this new definition.

One is very subtle – so subtle it’s easy to miss. It’s in the Wanted poster in the subway station. Big letters at the bottom of the poster tell us this man is “BAD” – and the man in the mugshot is Martin Scorsese, the director of Bad. The poster goes on to tell us he’s “Guilty of Sacrilege.” Scorsese was working on his film The Last Temptation of Christ at about that time, and he would come under intense criticism for it, for being sacrilegious. So he seems to be telling us that Martin Scorsese is “bad” because he’s an artist who challenges social norms.

Ironically, the other example is easy to miss for the exact opposite reason, because it’s so pervasive – it’s Michael Jackson himself. He repeatedly sings, “I’m bad,” and he is, but not because he’s tough or violent. Instead, he’s bad because he’s an artist, and an artist of a certain type – an artist who forces us to see ourselves and our world in a different way. In other words, he’s bad in the same way Martin Scorsese is.

Michael Jackson seems to be saying in this film that acting mean, carrying a gun, selling drugs, robbing an old man, hurting people – those things don’t make you “bad.” Instead, it’s developing your talents, specifically artistic talents, and then using those talents to effect important change in the world, in people’s perceptions and emotions. Michael Jackson and Martin Scorsese are respected around the world because they’re artists, with the unique courage of artists. They’re incredibly talented and creative, and in Michael Jackson’s case especially, they have the courage to present an alternate vision of how life can be lived.

And that reminds me of what you were just saying about throwing stones and then hiding your hands, and how that means to stir things up and then pretend you didn’t do it. You know, artists and gang members do have something very important in common:  they’re both transgressive, meaning they both challenge the established social order. But while gang members do it in a negative way and then “hide their hands,” artists do it in a positive way and take responsibility and even pride in their “transgressions.” They show their hands.

Joie:  That’s a very interesting analogy, Willa. I would never have thought those two things – artists and gang members – are alike in any way but, you make a great point.

Willa:  They do seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, don’t they? But they both push the limits of what’s socially acceptable, and sometimes motivate change. But while gang members tend to bring about negative change – more violence, more police, more repression, more jails – artists can sometimes bring about positive change. And I think the difference is that violence makes people fearful and reactionary, so they close their minds, while art can help open people’s minds to new ways of seeing and experiencing the world.

Joie:  Really interesting comparison. But, you know, speaking of gang members … there is something about this video that I have always found fascinating, and that’s the fact that the entire film is shot in black and white while the dance sequence with the gang members is in vibrant technicolor.

Maybe I should pause here and say that you and I talked a bit last spring about exactly who are the “gang members” in this particular short film, and I stated that I didn’t look upon Daryl’s three so-called friends as gang members but as wanna-be thugs. So, when I say “gang members,” I am referring to the dancers, not the friends.

Willa:  Though they’re a very different kind of gang – a “gang” of dancers, of artists, which circles back to that connection between artists and outlaws we were just talking about. I hadn’t thought of the dancers in Bad quite that way until just now , but they’re kind of embodying the conflation of those two categories. They are a “gang” of artists – they’re outlaw artists – so doubly transgressive.

Joie:  Oh, you’re right. Hadn’t thought of that. But I just love the way that portion of the short film is set apart from the rest of the video by the vibrant color and I always wonder, what was Michael (or Scorsese) trying to convey with that distinction? What message is hidden in that artistic decision? Could it be perhaps that the misery of the lives of the three wanna-be thugs is reflected in the bleak, dismal black and white, and that Michael is showing them through the dance sequence how vibrant and alive they could be if they left their world of violence and misery behind? Or perhaps that’s too simplistic and I’m reading too much into it.

Willa:  Oh no, I don’t think you’re reading too much into it, Joie – not at all. It must be important because he repeats that same shift in Ghosts.

Joie:  Oh, that’s right; he does make that transition in Ghosts as well!

Willa:  He does. We see the fearful villagers and the vengeful mayor creeping toward the Maestro’s castle in black and white, and then a door opens and they see a room suffused with color, and that’s the space of the Maestro. And I think your interpretation of this shift in Bad works equally well for both films. As you said, “the misery of the lives of the three wanna-be thugs,” and the villagers in Ghosts, as well, “is reflected in the bleak, dismal black and white.” And as you say, “Michael is showing them through the dance sequence how vibrant and alive they could be if they left their world of violence and misery behind.” I think that’s a beautiful way to interpret both films.

Another way to approach this is to look back at the most famous example of a film that shifts between color and black and white: The Wizard of Oz. The scenes in Kansas are all shot in black and white, and the scenes in Oz are in color. Michael Jackson was well aware of that shift, and talked about it with Rabbi Boteach when describing how he designed the drive up to Neverland, beginning with the very plain and simple gates:

I was gonna have people swing them open and really kind of have them funky and tattered, just so psychologically you really feel like you’re coming to a ranch, so that when you go around the bend I want it to change to Technicolor, like The Wizard of Oz does.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s “real” world of Kansas is black and white, but the world of her imagination – the world of Oz – is in color. And the same is true of Bad as well: the black and white scenes are “real,” and the color scenes are Daryl’s imagination.

Joie:  Willa, that’s fascinating. I hadn’t thought of that before. The color scenes are happening in Daryl’s imagination, so they are in Technicolor! That makes so much sense now.

Willa:  Yeah, but it doesn’t work for Ghosts, where all the scenes – both the color and the black and white – are “real.” There the shift seems to mean something different. The color scenes are “real,” but it’s a reality heightened and made vibrant by the creativity of a powerful artist – which is closer to your interpretation, Joie. And I wonder if that isn’t closer to what Michael Jackson had in mind for Bad as well. As in Ghosts, when we’re in the color scenes, we know we’re in the presence of an amazing artist.

So as with a lot of his work, Bad seems to be another example of meta-art – of art talking about art, including the importance of art and the role of the artist. And he seems to be saying that art can bring personal fulfillment as well as social change – that through art we too can shift from a dull, grey, monotonous world of black and white to a world of glorious color.

Joie:  That’s a nice thought, Willa.

Summer Rewind Series, Week 7: In The Closet

NOTE: The following conversation was originally posted on January 11, 2012. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

This Passion Burns Inside of Me

Willa:  This week Joie and I are looking at In the Closet. To be honest, this wasn’t the post we meant to write – we were planning to take a historical look at race and sexuality and then position Michael Jackson within that historical context. But as we started discussing that we got into such a lively debate about In the Closet that we decided to take a detour.

However, we’re taking a little different approach this time. As the title tells us, In the Closet is about a taboo relationship. But it’s not taboo because of sexual orientation – this is a story about a man and a woman – so there must be some other reason. But why? Why is this a forbidden love? While talking about that, Joie and I discussed four different answers to that question – each interesting in its own way, each supported by lyrics and visual cues, and each leading to a very different interpretation of the video as a whole.

One interpretation is that it’s taboo because of race. The video features two characters negotiating the terms of their relationship, and those characters are played by Naomi Campbell, a beautiful Black model, and Michael Jackson. Because we know his background and because he calls himself Black, we tend to think of him as Black and assume he’s playing a Black character.

But he doesn’t look Black in this video. He looks Mediterranean, an interpretation reinforced by the Spanish architecture, and the Spanish dancers, and the fact that he’s wearing a wedding ring on his right hand rather than his left, as is customary in Spain. So we have a rather Victor/Victoria type situation where Michael Jackson is a Black actor portraying a White man involved in a taboo relationship with a Black woman. (And I have to say, who else but Michael Jackson would think up a scenario like this? And who else could play it half so well? He’s just endlessly fascinating to me….)

What makes this relationship so taboo is the issue of marriage. While White men have traditionally slept with Black women, by force if necessary, they haven’t married Black women. They’ve married proper White women. Marriage between a White man and a Black woman is as radical in its way as sex between a Black man and a White woman. And I think that’s the taboo Michael Jackson tackles in In the Closet.

Joie:  Willa, I have to say that I never thought of this video in this way before. I have never looked at In the Closet as a song about race at all. To me the lyrics are very clearly all about sex. Forbidden sex, to be more exact. And, as you say, we tend to think of Michael as a Black man – because he is – so, I’ve never viewed him in this video as portraying a White man.

Willa:  I’m really glad you brought that up, Joie, because I want to be very clear about this. I’m not in any way suggesting that, as a person, Michael Jackson wasn’t Black or tried to deny his Black heritage. I don’t believe that at all. I’m simply saying that, as an actor, I don’t think he should be restricted to Black roles, and I don’t think we should assume that all his characters are Black. I love the Kenneth Branagh version of Much Ado about Nothing, which has Denzel Washington playing a White character, Don Pedro. Interestingly enough, Don Pedro is Spanish – a Spanish nobleman – and this film came out in 1993, a year after In the Closet.

Joie:  Oh, I love that movie too! It’s really fun, isn’t it? And I’m a sucker for Shakespeare! But I know you’re not suggesting that Michael wasn’t Black. I just find your take on this video really surprising. And quite clever. But anyway, Michael often wore a ring on his right ring finger so, again, I never thought much of that. Not that I’m disagreeing with your interpretation; I do find it fascinating. I’m just saying I’ve never viewed it in this way before. Very interesting.

Willa:  And I’m certainly not saying this is the only way of interpreting it, but I do think it’s a possibility and a valid approach. There are several visual cues that suggest it, though they’re subtle. The video opens with a shot of the ring:  Michael Jackson’s character is walking with his hands in his back pockets, and the hand with the ring is toward the camera. Importantly, Naomi Campbell’s character isn’t wearing a ring, so symbolically this tells us that he is more committed to their relationship than she is – but maybe not. While he’s more committed in some ways, he wants to keep their relationship a secret, and she doesn’t. As she tells him in the opening monologue, “Don’t hide our love.” She’s not thinking marriage; she just wants a normal relationship.

He is thinking marriage. This isn’t Thomas Jefferson having as many as six children with a slave, Sally Hemings, and never acknowledging her. (In a secret codicil to his will, Jefferson freed her children but not her. She remained a slave her entire life.) This seems very different, though he still feels driven to “hide our love.” In other words, this modern 20th Century man is still wrestling with the fallout of our nation’s long, painful racial/sexual/cultural history – a history that extends back before we were even a country, and includes at least one of our founding fathers and the author of the Declaration of Independence.

I believe this is the taboo Michael Jackson’s character is struggling against. He wants a real life together. He’s wearing a ring. He evokes the image of women dancing, as at a wedding. And he takes her to a house – not a restaurant or a bar or a dance club, but to a domestic place where they could start a life together. But the house isn’t in a community; it’s completely isolated, out in the desert. He wants marriage, but that means transgressing a strong cultural taboo, and he’s not ready to take that step. So he holds his hand up to his face, shows her the wedding ring, and asks her to “take a vow” with him. But instead of a vow of marriage, he says, “For now / let’s take a vow / to keep it in the closet.”  

Joie:  Well, like I said, I find your interpretation fascinating, and it is valid. But I believe you may be over-thinking it a little bit. Maybe she is not wearing a wedding ring NOT because she isn’t thinking marriage, but simply because she isn’t his wife. Maybe the reason he wants to keep their relationship a secret – taking her to a house that’s completely isolated, far away from prying eyes – is because she is his mistress. Hence, the forbidden sex. He wants to be free to love her publicly but he’s simply not able to because he’s already married to someone else. After all, he tells us in the opening lines,

She’s just a lover who gets me by
It worth the giving, it’s worth the try
You cannot cleave it, put it in the furnace
You cannot wet it, you cannot burn it  

In the Bible – a book we know Michael read frequently – it tells us in Genesis 2:24, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” According to Merriam-Webster, the word cleave means ‘to adhere firmly and closely or loyally and unwaveringly.’ So the lyrics are telling us that this man is married but he’s involved in a taboo relationship with another woman. He “cannot cleave it” because he’s already vowed to “cleave” to someone else. Then he goes on to say,

It’s just a feeling, you have to soothe it
You can’t neglect it, you can’t abuse it
It’s just desire, you cannot waste it  
But if you want it, then won’t you taste it  

He’s telling us here that he is consumed by lust and the desire for a woman who is not his wife. And he’s apparently willing to risk an awful lot to satisfy his desires, as he tells us,

If you can get it, it’s worth a try
I really want it, I can’t deny
It’s just desire, I really love it
‘Cause if it’s aching, you have to rub it  

He even adds in the little mischievous “Dare me?” all throughout the song. He knows what he’s doing is risky and that he could be caught at any moment.

I believe this interpretation is supported by the video as well. As you pointed out, he takes her to a secluded love nest where there’s less chance they’ll be spotted by anyone who knows either of them. There are several prominent shots of the ring that he’s wearing and she is not. And then there are the shots of him dancing with his back against the wall and on the threshold – neither out nor in – because he’s not free to make a real commitment to her.

I love your interpretation; it has given me a whole new way of thinking about this video. But I tend to believe that both the song and the short film are not addressing race so much as they are adultery. Romanticizing the idea of forbidden sex. “The truth of lust, woman to man.”  

Willa:  Joie, I love your analysis of this, and I absolutely agree it’s a valid interpretation of In the Closet. And I’m intrigued by that word “cleave” now. I just assumed it meant its more common definition, which is to split something apart, like with a cleaver. I hadn’t thought about the Biblical connotations of that word before, and how traditionally it has referred to marriage. But to me, while this reinforces the idea that this video is about a forbidden love – one that hasn’t been consecrated in marriage – it doesn’t identify why it’s forbidden. It could be because he’s already married, but it could also be because of race. To me, this supports either interpretation.

Joie:  Really? See, I disagree. I think the word “cleave” says it all. He’s definitely married and the woman he has the hots for is definitely not his wife. Otherwise, I don’t think Michael would have used such an unusual word. He was trying to convey a message and tell a story and he chose this word specifically to spell it out for us. The whole rest of that first verse – “put it in the furnace / you cannot wet it / you cannot burn it” – also has Biblical connotations so, I think he was really trying to paint a specific picture with those opening lines.

Willa:  That is so interesting, Joie – it conjures up images of hell and damnation that I had never associated with those lyrics before. And that actually suggests a third interpretation, and a third reason for why this relationship is taboo:  because he sees this woman as a temptress. After all, she is clearly a sexual being, and seems pretty knowledgeable about sex and desire.

There’s a centuries-old belief that respectable women don’t feel sexual desire, and in the 19th Century, especially, this led many men – and women too – to divide women into two distinct categories:  respectable women (who weren’t sexual) and sexual women (who weren’t respectable). As Edith Wharton wrote in The Age of Innocence when describing the beliefs of upper class young men in the 1880s, there was a culturally recognized abyss “between the women one loved and respected and those one enjoyed – and pitied.”  She goes on to write that, “In this view they were sedulously abetted by their mothers, aunts and other elderly female relatives.”

While these rigid and repressive attitudes have softened considerably, they haven’t disappeared by any means – and Naomi Campbell’s character in this video is openly sexual and very comfortable with her sexuality. The male lead obviously feels a strong attraction for her, but is she the kind of woman you bring home for pot roast with the parents? And I keep thinking about those Spanish women dancers in their traditional dress. They’ll dance at his wedding if he marries the right kind of woman, but will they dance at his wedding if he marries her – a very sexual woman?

Looking at In the Closet this way, maybe “the truth of lust, woman to man,” is that women do feel sexual desire, and shouldn’t be judged for that. We don’t insist that respectable men deny their sexuality and live the life of a monk, so why demand that of women?

Joie:  That is an interesting point, Willa. And as I sat watching this video over and over again in preparation for this post, a fourth interpretation occurred to me and it sort of ties in to what you were just saying about the sexual attitudes of the 1880s. You’re correct in saying that those attitudes have not completely disappeared. And it could be that this song – and the video – are simply about the joy of sex itself. Perhaps he’s not married and the forbidden nature of the song is simply because sex itself is the taboo here. We’re all supposed to be “proper” individuals, and sex outside of marriage is unthinkable and wrong. Maybe that’s why it feels so exciting and forbidden for him. In the chorus of the song he sings joyously,

There’s something about you, baby
That makes me want to give it to you    
I swear there’s something about you, baby
That makes me want…  

He knows that he shouldn’t feel this way; he’s not supposed to. Society – and the Bible – tells him it’s wrong. But he can’t help himself. He’s human and he has human desires. And so does she. But in his exuberance he makes sure to remind her,

Just promise me that whatever we say
Or whatever we do to each other
For now, we’ll make a vow  to just
Keep it in the closet  

It has to be a secret because what they’re doing is so wrong, or at the very least, completely inappropriate.

Willa:  That is so intriguing, Joie, and it makes a lot of sense. Michael Jackson was very aware of the complicated nature of sex. It can be a tender expression of love and intimacy, as we see in songs like “Break of Dawn.” But it can also be used for manipulation, ambition, or revenge, as we see in songs like “Billie Jean,” or it can simply satisfy mindless physical appetites, as we see in songs like “Superfly Sister.” And his songs do have an allegorical feeling to them sometimes, so I think an allegorical interpretation like this is perfectly appropriate and in keeping with his artistic vision.

I remember when we were talking about My Baby several months ago, and we were trying to figure out why the protagonist kept being attracted to these “bad girls” who repeatedly hurt both him and My Baby. It happens again and again, in songs like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Dirty Diana” and “Dangerous.” You suggested that maybe those women represented fame – that’s why he was so attracted to them and couldn’t just walk away and leave them alone – and, for me, that opened up a whole new way of looking at those songs. I think about it every time I hear them. And I think there could be a similar allegorical element here.

Joie:  I agree. And many of his songs do feel very allegorical at times. But you know, I am just flabbergasted at the fact that we were able to come up with so many different ways of interpreting both the lyrics and and the short film for this song. Before we began talking about it, I never realized that there were so many layers here! It’s actually very deep and complex and I find myself wondering if the concept for the short film came as he was writing the lyrics or if it developed later, because they just seem so intertwined to me. Really fascinating.

Willa:  That’s a really good question. I’d love to know that too. In Moonwalk, he says,

The three videos that came out of  Thriller – “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” – were all part of my original concept for the album. I was determined to present this music as visually as possible.  

So it sounds like some of the visual elements are percolating in his mind from the beginning. But I think he also lets things develop during the storyboarding sessions and throughout production, as he goes on to talk about:

I felt “Beat It” should be interpreted literally, the way it was written, one gang against another on tough urban streets. It had to be rough. That’s what “Beat It” was about.

When I got back to L.A., I saw Bob Giraldi’s demo reel and knew that he was the director I wanted for “Beat It.” I loved the way he told a story in his work, so I talked with him about “Beat It.” We went over things, my ideas and his ideas, and that’s how  it was created. We played with the storyboard and molded it and created it.  

So as with his work in the studio producing songs, he seems to have a vision of what he wants to convey (“I felt ‘Beat It’ should be interpreted literally, like it was written”) but then he’s able to evoke the best from his collaborators and lets things develop throughout the process, drawing on their ideas and expertise as well.

And I agree with you, Joie. In the Closet is so interesting on so many levels – artistically, culturally, psychologically. Whatever the reason, Michael Jackson portrays a deeply conflicted character in this video. He feels tremendous desire for this woman obviously, and he wants to do the right thing and marry her, but he can’t – either because he’s already married, or because he can’t quite find the courage to defy cultural taboos, or because she represents the dangerous embodiment of sex itself.

The choreography and cinematography emphasize his internal conflict. As you mentioned earlier, Joie, we see shots of him dancing with his back to the wall, literally, and we see numerous shots of him in doorways – neither in nor out, as you said. Perhaps the most striking sequences are the wonderful silhouettes where he’s dancing at the threshold. This again refers back to marriage since the groom traditionally carries the bride across the threshold to begin their new life together. But he can’t do that for some reason, so he dances in the doorway instead – unable to make an official declaration of marriage but unable to walk away.

The video ends with him shutting the door and shutting himself inside the house, telling us visually that, for now, he’s determined to keep this relationship “in the closet.”

Joie:  But Willa and I would love to know what you think on this one. If you have an interpretation for In The Closet that differs from the four that we’ve explored here, please let us know; we’d love to hear it!

Because Your Words Just Aren’t Enough

Willa:  So Joie, we’ve talked quite a bit about Michael Jackson as a songwriter – for example, in posts with Joe Vogel and Charles Thomson and Lisha McDuff. But those conversations have focused primarily on his music and his skills as a composer. We haven’t really talked about Michael Jackson as a lyricist, and one thing I love about Michael Jackson’s songwriting is his ability to plunge us into a compelling dramatic moment with just a few simple brushstrokes. A famous example is the chorus of “Billie Jean”:

Billie Jean is not my lover
She’s just a girl who says I am the one
But the kid is not my son

In just three lines he sketches a surprisingly rich narrative: characters, dramatic tension and plot details, and the suggestion of a theme running throughout his work about the intersection of power and desire. It’s just elegant to me how it conveys so much so simply.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa. He had the remarkable ability to paint the most vivid picture with only a few words. I like this example from “Smooth Criminal”:

As he came in through the window
Was the sound of a crescendo
He came into her apartment
Left the blood stains on the carpet

With just the first two lines you know immediately that something is not right. A man has smashed someone’s window and climbed in. Then with the following two lines, you know he’s in the apartment of a defenseless woman and you’re afraid for her safety. He’s set up an entire storyline in just four short brushstrokes, as you called them. I find this ability to paint such a vivid picture with just a few words really incredible. It’s a talent that not everyone has.

Willa:  Oh, “Smooth Criminal” is a great example! There is so much going on in that song – and the video that contains it, and the film that contains them both – but it’s all incorporated so skillfully it feels like a simple little song. But that apparent simplicity is deceptive. This is actually one of his more complicated works, both in its emotional complexity and its narrative structure.

For example, there are actually four distinct “voices” woven together to form the narrative. Michael Jackson sings all four, but they each represent a different point of view – and he sings each of them very differently to convey that. The main “voice” is the narrator who’s telling us the story. He’s the one who sings those dramatic opening lines you quoted above. Then there’s something of a Greek chorus reacting to that narrative, with Michael Jackson’s simply one of many voices. They are the ones who sing the repeated lines of “Annie, are you OK? / Will you tell us that you’re OK?”

Then two more voices appear after the break. There’s the Smooth Criminal himself, and Michael Jackson sings his lines with this really gruff voice (“Daggone it, Baby!”). And then there’s this other character singing, “I don’t know! / I don’t know! / I don’t know why!” We don’t really know who this is, but Michael Jackson sings those lines with a high, trembling, beautiful voice – it’s really haunting. And while we don’t know for sure who this character is, I’ve always felt that it was Annie’s spirit, singing from beyond the grave.

Joie:  That’s a really interesting observation, Willa. I never looked at “Smooth Criminal” that way until you brought it up. It’s a fascinating idea.

Willa:  Well, it’s not clear who this mysterious voice belongs to, and I think that ambiguity is intentional so I’m reluctant to say, yes, it’s definitely Annie. But that’s how it feels to me, and that may be one reason why I like the Glee version of “Smooth Criminal” so much – because it makes explicit something that, to me, is already implicitly there in the original. I’ve always felt that when Michael Jackson sings “I don’t know why!” he’s singing it as a female character, and that whole section feels like a collage of male and female voices juxtaposed against one another. So when I heard the Glee version with the dueling male and female voices, it just felt right to me.

Joie:  You know, I recently read an article online called “Why Prince Still Matters,” and in the opening paragraph the author makes the statement that while Michael Jackson was the only performer “who could compete with and even outshine Prince as a singer, dancer and charismatic performer,” he simply could never compete with Prince as a songwriter. I read that and became instantly frustrated – as usual. It’s an argument we hear over and over again from critics, and it’s something we touched on back during our conversation with Joe and Charles about MJ as a songwriter, but it’s an argument I completely disagree with and simply don’t understand.

Willa:  I don’t really understand it either, but maybe it has something to do with how we define poetic language. You know, for the most part, we want the language of prose to be invisible – we want it to convey an idea without the words getting in the way. But poetic language is different – it’s language that calls attention to itself. When we hear poetic language, we don’t just think about the ideas and emotions, but the words used to convey them. And for the most part, Michael Jackson’s words don’t call attention to themselves.

But if we look carefully at his lyrics, we find that he’s very skillful in his word choices and has a poetic awareness of words. For example, he likes to engage in word play, which can be an important feature of poetry, but his word play often conveys a thematic meaning as well. A good example is “Beat It.” I love the way he redefines the title words over the course of the song. In the first verse, “Beat It!” means to scram, or run away in fear:

They told him don’t you ever come around here
Don’t wanna see your face, you better disappear …
So beat it. Just beat it.

Then he uses that word “beat” again, but this time it has a different meaning – one of violence. As he sings,

They’ll kick you, then they’ll beat you
Then they’ll tell you it’s fair
So beat it. But you wanna be bad

So in this section, he introduces a new meaning of “beat” (“they’ll beat you”) but then immediately evokes the previous meaning (“So beat it”). So he wants both definitions to be in play simultaneously. Then of course, there’s a third definition of “beat,” which is the beat of music – and importantly, it’s music that resolves the violence between the gangs. So in this sense, to “beat it” means to create a rhythm, like beating a drum. And finally, there’s a fourth definition of “beat,” which is to be victorious. For example, if someone is diagnosed with cancer and overcomes it, we say they “beat it” – they “beat” the cancer. To me, this is the predominant meaning that’s evoked in the circular, repeated chorus at the end: “Showin’ how funky strong is your fight … Just beat it.”

So those words have undergone a complete revolution. The main character is no longer being told to get lost, to “beat it.” Instead, he’s emerged victorious over gang violence through the power of his music – he’s “beat it” by showing how “funky strong” he is – but it’s a different kind of strength. It isn’t the violent force of the gangs, but the “funky” power of the artist. But while the meaning of the words “Beat It” change dramatically over the course of the song, we still hear the echoes of those alternate definitions as well, which gives that repeated chorus at the end tremendous depth.

Joie:  Willa, I agree with you that he was very skillful in his word choices and possessed a poetic awareness of words. As I pointed out back during our post on In the Closet,  I think Michael was very deliberate about the words he chose to use in his lyrics in order to paint a certain picture or convey a certain message, and “In the Closet” is a great example of that.

Willa:  Oh, even the title is a great example. He’s taken a commonly used euphemism for gay men or lesbian women who keep their relationships and orientation hidden from public view, and shifted the meaning of those words by linking them to a different type of secret relationship.

Joie:  Another great example is “Best of Joy” from the posthumous Michael album. From the very first word he utters in that song I am filled with a sense of reverence and peace and unconditional love, and I truly believe that’s the message he was trying to convey with that song. I just love these lyrics:

I am your joy
Your best of joy
I am the moonlight
You are the spring
Our love’s a sacred thing
You know I always will love you
I am forever  

It doesn’t get much more poetic than that! That song takes my breath away and leaves me in tears every single time I listen to it.

Another really great example is “Speechless.” The lyrics to that song are simply beautiful:

Helpless and hopeless, that’s how I feel inside
Nothing’s real, but all is possible if God is on my side
When I’m with you I’m in light, but I cannot be found
It’s as though I am standing in the place called Hallowed ground
 
Speechless, speechless, that’s how you make me feel
Though I’m with you I am far away and nothing is for real
I’d go anywhere and do anything just to touch your face
There’s no mountain high I cannot climb
I’m humbled in your grace

Willa:  I agree. I especially love the cadence of his words – how they tumble and flow – and he sings it so beautifully. But you know what’s interesting is that, ironically, this song is about his inability to express himself and put his thoughts and feelings into words.  As he sings,

I have not the words here to explain
Gone is the grace for expressions of passion

So despite the eloquence of his words, he still feels “speechless” to express the full scope of his feelings.

Joie:  And yet, he’s constantly accused of mediocrity as a songwriter.

Willa:  Really? I knew his songwriting tended to be overlooked. People often rave about his singing and dancing, but not his songwriting. But I didn’t know they actually called it mediocre. That doesn’t make sense to me.

Joie:  I just don’t get it. I mean, even in “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough,” which was the first hit he ever wrote, the ‘eloquence of his words,’ as you put it, is astounding. The man is talking about something so base and simple as sexual desire, yet he does it in such a subtle and poetic way that the fact he’s talking about sex is almost overlooked.

Willa:  Oh, you know how I feel about “Don’t Stop”! But talking about “Speechless” reminds me of another, very special aspect of his songwriting. You know, what perhaps draws me most to Michael Jackson’s songs and makes them so compelling for me is the way he gives voice to the voiceless – to those who are “speechless” and have traditionally been excluded from public discourse. We see that over and over in his work. “Beat It!” and “Bad” give a voice to young Black men growing up in the inner city, struggling to avoid gang violence and simply stay alive (“You have to show them that you’re really not scared”). “Smooth Criminal” gives voice to a young woman murdered in her apartment, as well as to those who care about her (“Annie, are you OK?”). “Dirty Diana” gives voice to both a rock star and a groupie in almost equal measure (“I’ll be your everything if you make me a star”). “Morphine” gives voice to a drug addict (“I’m going down, baby”). And “Earth Song” gives voice to all those – both human and nonhuman – who have been denied a voice (“What about us?”). That concern for those without a voice, and his insistence that their voice matters, was a defining characteristic of his songwriting, I think, and one that resonated with listeners around the world.

Joie:  Hmm. You’re right, Willa. Giving voice to the voiceless was like a reoccurring theme in his music and he used his careful word choices wonderfully in order to do this.

But, I guess the real issue with this for me is that, I just don’t understand how critics can totally ignore the fact that Michael has written some of the most iconic songs in our history and yet, they still refuse to acknowledge him as a songwriter of any great merit. That just doesn’t compute to me. And I wonder if the bottom line here is that it’s simply more of the same back-handed treatment that he endured in other aspects of his life and career. ‘He’s different, he’s strange, he’s weird so, we’ll just shut him down and minimalize all of his efforts across the board.’

Willa:  I don’t know. I could speculate about a lot of different reasons why critics might have reacted this way, but it would just be speculation. I really don’t know. But it is interesting to me how the fans, the critics, and the public at large tend to respond to him so differently, and I wonder if it’s a function of emotional engagement. You know, Michael Jackson can really take you places if you let him, but you have to be willing to let him take you there.

I get the impression that a lot of times, critics approach artists – not just Michael Jackson but all artists – with a wary attitude. It’s like they’re standing there with their arms crossed going, “OK, buddy, show me what you can do. Try to impress me.” And if you approach him that way, you may be blown away by the incredible range of his voice or the fluidity of his dance moves – the kinds of obvious things the critics tend to acknowledge – but you’re going to miss all the depth and complexity and emotional power of his work. To see and feel those aspects of his work, you really have to engage with it, and explore what’s happening, and let yourself be drawn into it emotionally. And most critics just weren’t willing to do that. And his fans were.

It kind of gets back to what we’ve said before – we see him differently because we love him. With an artist as complicated and challenging as he is, I’m not sure it’s possible to even begin to understand him or appreciate him unless you love him and “give into” him. And we do.

I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me, Part 1

Willa:  As we’ve talked about many times, Joie, Michael Jackson wasn’t just an amazing artist – the most important artist of our time, I believe. He was also a transformational cultural figure whose art brought about deep cultural changes. Through his art, he was able to revise some of our most entrenched cultural narratives, especially narratives about racial differences, and profoundly influence how we as a people respond to those narratives. So, as an artist, he wasn’t just expressing himself creatively. He was also very focused on how his art impacted his audience.

All of this has me thinking about the number of times he incorporates an on-screen audience into his videos. Sometimes that audience participates – most famously when the two feuding gangs join the big ensemble dance in Beat It. Other times, they simply watch, like the gang members in Bad, or the villagers in Ghosts, or the club managers in You Rock My World. Either way, I’m struck by the number of times he positions us as an audience so that we are, in effect, watching him perform over the shoulder of an on-screen audience.

Joie:  You’re right, Willa; it is a formula that he uses often. But I’m struck by what you just said about the Bad video. The gang members, or dancers, are actively participating. But it’s the three so-called “friends” who are standing there watching. I guess I just don’t view them as gang members but rather as young punks who think they’re bad. Wanna-be thugs.

Willa:  That’s interesting, Joie. I never really thought about that before, but you’re right. I don’t think of the dancers as gang members. I think of them as dancers, imaginary dancers. The whole dance sequence happens in his imagination. But I do tend to think of the three friends planning the robbery as gang members – in fact, I often refer to them that way – but you’re right, they aren’t. They’re just “young punks who think they’re bad,” as you say.

And that’s a really important distinction because the whole point of Bad is to redefine what it means to be “bad,” which is exactly what those three friends are struggling with. Does it mean being respected because you’re tough – “wanna-be thugs,” as you called them? Or can you be “bad” in a different way, and be respected for other reasons? This is the pivotal issue at the center of Bad, and it’s an excellent example of Michael Jackson using his art to rewrite a cultural narrative. And I believe the presence of those three friends as the on-screen audience is crucial to conveying that idea.

Earlier in the film, we see the three friends trying to force their definition of “bad” onto the main character, Daryl. He starts to go along with it, even though he knows it’s wrong, because he wants their respect. But then there’s the big dance sequence where he shares with them a new definition of “bad.” He reveals to them that he’s an artist – an incredible singer and dancer who can both challenge and move people through his art. His friends watch all this and then clasp hands with him.

That handshake is the climax of the film, I think, because that’s the moment when his friends make the crucial decision to accept his redefinition. So he’s found an entirely new way to gain the respect of his peers – not by being tough and committing petty crimes, but by developing and expressing his talents and creativity. And I believe that on-screen audience is modeling the response he wants from us as an audience as well. He wants us to accept his redefinition too, just as the on-screen audience does.

Joie:  I agree; he does want the on-screen audience to model the behavior he expects of the off-screen audience. It’s classic Michael Jackson really. In most of his short films I believe his goal was always to try and teach us something. If you think about it, in almost every video there was a message or a lesson hidden in there somewhere, and it’s our job as the audience to try and figure out what that lesson or message is. And in the videos that have an on-screen audience, we can usually figure out what the lesson is by watching the response of the on-screen audience.

Willa:  That’s a really interesting take on that, Joie. So the on-screen audience can be seen as an interpretive tool too, helping us figure out the meaning of the video. That’s really interesting.

Joie:  It is interesting, isn’t it? You know, Willa, my favorite videos with an on-screen audience are the ones that incorporate concert footage:  Give In to Me, Dirty Diana, and Come Together. They are three of my favorites and I think it’s because Michael was always so electrifying to watch onstage anyway. So these videos where it’s sort of a “staged” concert performance are really interesting to watch for me. It’s like he’s walking a very thin line between all-out performance and playing a scripted character. I find that fascinating. I also think it’s really interesting that these concert videos are among his sexiest, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that he was always very naturally sexual on stage.

Willa:  Oh, I’d agree with that! And that’s an interesting distinction between the footage from his live concerts and the concerts that were “staged” as part of a video. I hadn’t thought of that before. But while it’s more subtle, you can make a pretty strong case that his concert videos have an important political message as well – a message that is reinforced once again by the on-screen audience. As we’ve talked about before, he was a sex symbol – the first Black teen idol – at a time when Black men weren’t supposed to be sexual in public. They were supposed to repress that part of themselves. And wow, did he challenge that one!

And once again, that on-screen audience – which includes a lot of screaming, fainting, crying women of all races – models for us how we should react. We shouldn’t feel shocked or upset or threatened by a sexy young Black man ripping his shirt open in front of us. We should set aside the racist prejudices of the past and just appreciate that beautiful body for the wonder that it is. And we did! All of us – Black, White, Asian, all races. He completely rewrote that cultural narrative. Just as importantly, he revised the emotional response both women and men had to that cultural narrative.

Joie:  I agree. And that also goes back to what I was just saying about there usually being a message or a lesson hidden in every short film. And you just pointed out, I think, the main lesson of all those performance videos – breaking through those racial prejudices and rewriting that particular cultural narrative.

You know, Willa, I wonder, do you think other artists – mainly today’s popular music artists – ever focus on how their music and videos, or even their image, will impact not only their audience but the world around them? Because I think Michael was very much aware of that and I believe he actively focused on it, as you said earlier. But with a lot of today’s artists, I don’t get that feeling.

Willa:  Oh, I don’t know. I think some younger artists are very passionate about social change, whether explicitly – like Will.i.am’s Yes We Can video supporting Barack Obama during the last presidential campaign – or more subtly, like Lady Gaga’s Born This Way video. I know you and I disagree about that one, but I see her video as a direct descendant of Can You Feel It, both visually and thematically. Both are fighting the many manifestations of prejudice, but while Can You Feel It focuses on racism, Born This Way focuses on homophobia and the deep prejudices surrounding sexuality.

Joie:  Well, you’re right; we do completely disagree about that video, and I guess I walked right into that one. But Lady Gaga and Will.i.am aside, I see a lot of popular artists out there right now who I just don’t think give any real thought to how their music impacts the world. I don’t want to offend anybody so, I won’t point out the obvious ones that spring to my mind … but you get what I’m saying, right?

Willa:  I guess so, though you know a lot more about current music than I do. A lot more. I’m pretty out of the loop with that. But artists develop over time, so with young artists especially, I guess I like to just wait and see what happens. Michael Jackson became more overtly political, I guess you’d call it, over time, and they might do that as well. And while I love works like Earth Song that are both moving and meaningful, I can still appreciate a good performance like Rock With You just for his music and his voice and his dancing – and I know you and I agree about that video!

Joie:  Oh man, just mentioning that video distracts me in ways you wouldn’t believe! The only other video that affects me that way is Blood on the Dance Floor, but I’m getting way off topic here!

You know another thing I love about the performance videos or concert films is the roar of the crowd. It’s so different from watching actual concert footage. Like in Another Part of Me, the shots of the crowd are much more candid and “real” because we’re watching an actual audience experience a real Michael Jackson concert. In the other three performance videos – Give In to Me, Dirty Diana and Come Together – the audience’s experience is much less authentic, much more scripted, but still every bit as interesting for the off-screen audience to watch. But what all four of these concert films have in common is that awesome roar of the crowd. I think it’s really interesting that all four of these videos ends essentially the same way. No matter what’s happening on the screen, the cheering crowd can be heard above everything at the end. The only exception is Give In to Me when the roar of the crowd fades into the drumming rhythm of the song at the tail end.

Willa:  That’s an interesting point, and we leave Give In to Me with a very different feeling because of it, I think – kind of eerie and unsettling in some ways. You know, talking about the roar of the crowd at the end of these videos reminds me that Beat It ends the same way. We don’t tend to think of Beat It as a concert film because it has a narrative:  it tells a story, and we get caught up in the story and tend to forget that it’s a performance for an audience. But at the very end of the video, when the conflict has been resolved and all the gang members are dancing, the camera pans back and we see they’re on a stage, and we hear an audience cheering and clapping.

Joie:  That’s true, Willa. I hadn’t thought of that but, you’re right. We don’t actually see the on-screen audience here but we do hear them at the very end of the video. Really interesting perspective to end on, don’t you think?

Willa:  It’s very interesting, I think, because it recasts what we’ve just seen. This wasn’t meant to be interpreted as a scene from real life – a misinterpretation many critics fell into when they called it “naive” and “unrealistic” – but as a staged performance, and that alters how we tend to interpret it. The story we’ve witnessed isn’t meant to be seen as realistic or live action but as a story – a morality tale – purposely created for us, and the people we’ve been watching aren’t gang members but dancers and artists. By ending the video this way with an audience responding to their performance, he’s emphasizing that this is a work of art and asking us to think about it as a work of art, with a purpose and a message, as you mentioned earlier.

Joie:  Except that the people we’ve been watching are real gang members; don’t forget that.

Willa:  Oh, that’s right!

Joie:  It’s true that there were about 20 professional dancers but, many of those featured prominently in the video, and certainly all of the extras in the background watching the “fight” going on, were actual members of both the Crips and the Bloods – two infamous, rival Los Angeles street gangs, and the video was shot on location on LA’s skid row for even more authenticity. So although this particular fight may have been a “performance” created purposely for us, they were in a way, reenacting a very real conflict that these two gangs had probably been engaged in for many, many years. I find that really interesting, like perhaps that knowledge is part of the message or the hidden lesson in this short film. By using the roar of the unseen audience at the end, he is forcing us to see this as a performance, as you say. But by using the real gang members in their natural habitat, so to speak, he is also forcing us to realize that these kinds of conflicts do actually happen in “real life” in cities all across the country.

Willa:  That’s an excellent point – it’s like he really is modeling on screen something he’d like to see happen off screen, for both those of us watching this performance as well as the gang members participating in it. Those gang members really were working with opposing gang members to create this film, so that enacts the message of the film on yet another level.

Joie:  That’s really true, and these two rival gangs actually called a temporary truce in their conflict so they could participate in the filming of this video. In fact, the video’s director, Bob Giraldi, once said in an interview that he thought the idea of using real gang members was insane but Michael was adamant about it and was always looking for ways to foster peace. So he obviously wanted to use this short film to show these gang members that fighting wasn’t the only way and that they could work together if they really wanted to. I think that’s genius.

Willa:  It really is, and I especially feel that after reading that interview. That’s fascinating. I hadn’t read that before, but I loved the part where the interviewer asks, “How did you cast the real gang members?” and Bob Giraldi says,

It was Michael. He went out and he got ’em through, I guess, the LAPD’s gang squad and he convinced them that, with enough police presence, this would be a smart and charitable thing to do; get them there to like each other and hang with each other for two days doing the video. I didn’t like the idea because it was hard enough to direct actors and dancers, let alone hoods.

Can you imagine being in trouble with the LAPD’s gang squad and not sure what’s going to happen next, and then have someone walk in and ask if you want to be in a Michael Jackson video? How surreal would that be? It’s also a very Michael Jackson-type scenario to have gang members playing actors who are playing gang members. We see those funny kinds of loop-de-loop twists throughout his work, especially with notions of identity. And it’s also very common for him to break the illusion of reality, like he does at the end of Beat It, and show us it’s all been a performance.

Joie:  You’re right, Willa; this is something we see from him on more than one occasion. And next week we’ll look at a few more examples of this trick in his work.

Willa:  That’s right. We’ll continue on and see how he uses an on-screen audience in some of his later videos. It is a narrative device that he uses often in his work, as you say, but I think it’s more than that too. As we see in these videos with an on-screen audience, his work isn’t just art. It’s meta-art. It’s art about art. His work is very self-reflective – that’s one of the things that’s so fascinating about it – and through his videos, especially, he’s talking about the function of art and its ability to influence an audience, and maybe lead them (and us) to see things in a different way. I believe Michael Jackson wasn’t just creating art; he was creating a new poetics, meaning a new theory of art as a means of altering perceptions and bringing about sweeping social change. And we can see him modeling this process through his on-screen audiences.

This Passion Burns Inside of Me

Willa:  This week Joie and I are looking at In the Closet. To be honest, this wasn’t the post we meant to write – we were planning to take a historical look at race and sexuality and then position Michael Jackson within that historical context. But as we started discussing that we got into such a lively debate about In the Closet that we decided to take a detour.

However, we’re taking a little different approach this time. As the title tells us, In the Closet is about a taboo relationship. But it’s not taboo because of sexual orientation – this is a story about a man and a woman – so there must be some other reason. But why? Why is this a forbidden love? While talking about that, Joie and I discussed four different answers to that question – each interesting in its own way, each supported by lyrics and visual cues, and each leading to a very different interpretation of the video as a whole.

One interpretation is that it’s taboo because of race. The video features two characters negotiating the terms of their relationship, and those characters are played by Naomi Campbell, a beautiful Black model, and Michael Jackson. Because we know his background and because he calls himself Black, we tend to think of him as Black and assume he’s playing a Black character.

But he doesn’t look Black in this video. He looks Mediterranean, an interpretation reinforced by the Spanish architecture, and the Spanish dancers, and the fact that he’s wearing a wedding ring on his right hand rather than his left, as is customary in Spain. So we have a rather Victor/Victoria type situation where Michael Jackson is a Black actor portraying a White man involved in a taboo relationship with a Black woman. (And I have to say, who else but Michael Jackson would think up a scenario like this? And who else could play it half so well? He’s just endlessly fascinating to me….)

What makes this relationship so taboo is the issue of marriage. While White men have traditionally slept with Black women, by force if necessary, they haven’t married Black women. They’ve married proper White women. Marriage between a White man and a Black woman is as radical in its way as sex between a Black man and a White woman. And I think that’s the taboo Michael Jackson tackles in In the Closet.

Joie:  Willa, I have to say that I never thought of this video in this way before. I have never looked at In the Closet as a song about race at all. To me the lyrics are very clearly all about sex. Forbidden sex, to be more exact. And, as you say, we tend to think of Michael as a Black man – because he is – so, I’ve never viewed him in this video as portraying a White man.

Willa:  I’m really glad you brought that up, Joie, because I want to be very clear about this. I’m not in any way suggesting that, as a person, Michael Jackson wasn’t Black or tried to deny his Black heritage. I don’t believe that at all. I’m simply saying that, as an actor, I don’t think he should be restricted to Black roles, and I don’t think we should assume that all his characters are Black. I love the Kenneth Branagh version of Much Ado about Nothing, which has Denzel Washington playing a White character, Don Pedro. Interestingly enough, Don Pedro is Spanish – a Spanish nobleman – and this film came out in 1993, a year after In the Closet.

Joie:  Oh, I love that movie too! It’s really fun, isn’t it? And I’m a sucker for Shakespeare! But I know you’re not suggesting that Michael wasn’t Black. I just find your take on this video really surprising. And quite clever. But anyway, Michael often wore a ring on his right ring finger so, again, I never thought much of that. Not that I’m disagreeing with your interpretation; I do find it fascinating. I’m just saying I’ve never viewed it in this way before. Very interesting.

Willa:  And I’m certainly not saying this is the only way of interpreting it, but I do think it’s a possibility and a valid approach. There are several visual cues that suggest it, though they’re subtle. The video opens with a shot of the ring:  Michael Jackson’s character is walking with his hands in his back pockets, and the hand with the ring is toward the camera. Importantly, Naomi Campbell’s character isn’t wearing a ring, so symbolically this tells us that he is more committed to their relationship than she is – but maybe not. While he’s more committed in some ways, he wants to keep their relationship a secret, and she doesn’t. As she tells him in the opening monologue, “Don’t hide our love.” She’s not thinking marriage; she just wants a normal relationship.

He is thinking marriage. This isn’t Thomas Jefferson having as many as six children with a slave, Sally Hemings, and never acknowledging her. (In a secret codicil to his will, Jefferson freed her children but not her. She remained a slave her entire life.) This seems very different, though he still feels driven to “hide our love.” In other words, this modern 20th Century man is still wrestling with the fallout of our nation’s long, painful racial/sexual/cultural history – a history that extends back before we were even a country, and includes at least one of our founding fathers and the author of the Declaration of Independence.

I believe this is the taboo Michael Jackson’s character is struggling against. He wants a real life together. He’s wearing a ring. He evokes the image of women dancing, as at a wedding. And he takes her to a house – not a restaurant or a bar or a dance club, but to a domestic place where they could start a life together. But the house isn’t in a community; it’s completely isolated, out in the desert. He wants marriage, but that means transgressing a strong cultural taboo, and he’s not ready to take that step. So he holds his hand up to his face, shows her the wedding ring, and asks her to “take a vow” with him. But instead of a vow of marriage, he says, “For now / let’s take a vow / to keep it in the closet.”

Joie:  Well, like I said, I find your interpretation fascinating, and it is valid. But I believe you may be over-thinking it a little bit. Maybe she is not wearing a wedding ring NOT because she isn’t thinking marriage, but simply because she isn’t his wife. Maybe the reason he wants to keep their relationship a secret – taking her to a house that’s completely isolated, far away from prying eyes – is because she is his mistress. Hence, the forbidden sex. He wants to be free to love her publicly but he’s simply not able to because he’s already married to someone else. After all, he tells us in the opening lines,

She’s just a lover who gets me by
It worth the giving, it’s worth the try
You cannot cleave it, put it in the furnace
You cannot wet it, you cannot burn it

In the Bible – a book we know Michael read frequently – it tells us in Genesis 2:24, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” According to Merriam-Webster, the word cleave means ‘to adhere firmly and closely or loyally and unwaveringly.’ So the lyrics are telling us that this man is married but he’s involved in a taboo relationship with another woman. He “cannot cleave it” because he’s already vowed to “cleave” to someone else. Then he goes on to say,

 It’s just a feeling, you have to soothe it
You can’t neglect it, you can’t abuse it
It’s just desire, you cannot waste it
But if you want it, then won’t you taste it

He’s telling us here that he is consumed by lust and the desire for a woman who is not his wife. And he’s apparently willing to risk an awful lot to satisfy his desires, as he tells us,

If you can get it, it’s worth a try
I really want it, I can’t deny
It’s just desire, I really love it
‘Cause if it’s aching, you have to rub it

He even adds in the little mischievous “Dare me?” all throughout the song. He knows what he’s doing is risky and that he could be caught at any moment.

I believe this interpretation is supported by the video as well. As you pointed out, he takes her to a secluded love nest where there’s less chance they’ll be spotted by anyone who knows either of them. There are several prominent shots of the ring that he’s wearing and she is not. And then there are the shots of him dancing with his back against the wall and on the threshold – neither out nor in – because he’s not free to make a real commitment to her.

I love your interpretation; it has given me a whole new way of thinking about this video. But I tend to believe that both the song and the short film are not addressing race so much as they are adultery. Romanticizing the idea of forbidden sex. “The truth of lust, woman to man.”

Willa:  Joie, I love your analysis of this, and I absolutely agree it’s a valid interpretation of In the Closet. And I’m intrigued by that word “cleave” now. I just assumed it meant its more common definition, which is to split something apart, like with a cleaver. I hadn’t thought about the Biblical connotations of that word before, and how traditionally it has referred to marriage. But to me, while this reinforces the idea that this video is about a forbidden love – one that hasn’t been consecrated in marriage – it doesn’t identify why it’s forbidden. It could be because he’s already married, but it could also be because of race. To me, this supports either interpretation.

Joie:  Really? See, I disagree. I think the word “cleave” says it all. He’s definitely married and the woman he has the hots for is definitely not his wife. Otherwise, I don’t think Michael would have used such an unusual word. He was trying to convey a message and tell a story and he chose this word specifically to spell it out for us. The whole rest of that first verse – “put it in the furnace / you cannot wet it / you cannot burn it” – also has Biblical connotations so, I think he was really trying to paint a specific picture with those opening lines.

Willa:  That is so interesting, Joie – it conjures up images of hell and damnation that I had never associated with those lyrics before. And that actually suggests a third interpretation, and a third reason for why this relationship is taboo:  because he sees this woman as a temptress. After all, she is clearly a sexual being, and seems pretty knowledgeable about sex and desire.

There’s a centuries-old belief that respectable women don’t feel sexual desire, and in the 19th Century, especially, this led many men – and women too – to divide women into two distinct categories:  respectable women (who weren’t sexual) and sexual women (who weren’t respectable). As Edith Wharton wrote in The Age of Innocence when describing the beliefs of upper class young men in the 1880s, there was a culturally recognized abyss “between the women one loved and respected and those one enjoyed – and pitied.”  She goes on to write that, “In this view they were sedulously abetted by their mothers, aunts and other elderly female relatives.

While these rigid and repressive attitudes have softened considerably, they haven’t disappeared by any means – and Naomi Campbell’s character in this video is openly sexual and very comfortable with her sexuality. The male lead obviously feels a strong attraction for her, but is she the kind of woman you bring home for pot roast with the parents? And I keep thinking about those Spanish women dancers in their traditional dress. They’ll dance at his wedding if he marries the right kind of woman, but will they dance at his wedding if he marries her – a very sexual woman?

Looking at In the Closet this way, maybe “the truth of lust, woman to man,” is that women do feel sexual desire, and shouldn’t be judged for that. We don’t insist that respectable men deny their sexuality and live the life of a monk, so why demand that of women?

Joie:  That is an interesting point, Willa. And as I sat watching this video over and over again in preparation for this post, a fourth interpretation occurred to me and it sort of ties in to what you were just saying about the sexual attitudes of the 1880s. You’re correct in saying that those attitudes have not completely disappeared. And it could be that this song – and the video – are simply about the joy of sex itself. Perhaps he’s not married and the forbidden nature of the song is simply because sex itself is the taboo here. We’re all supposed to be “proper” individuals, and sex outside of marriage is unthinkable and wrong. Maybe that’s why it feels so exciting and forbidden for him. In the chorus of the song he sings joyously,

There’s something about you, baby
That makes me want to give it to you
 I swear there’s something about you, baby
That makes me want…

He knows that he shouldn’t feel this way; he’s not supposed to. Society – and the Bible – tells him it’s wrong. But he can’t help himself. He’s human and he has human desires. And so does she. But in his exuberance he makes sure to remind her,

Just promise me that whatever we say
Or whatever we do to each other
For now, we’ll make a vow  to just
Keep it in the closet 

It has to be a secret because what they’re doing is so wrong, or at the very least, completely inappropriate.

Willa:  That is so intriguing, Joie, and it makes a lot of sense. Michael Jackson was very aware of the complicated nature of sex. It can be a tender expression of love and intimacy, as we see in songs like “Break of Dawn.” But it can also be used for manipulation, ambition, or revenge, as we see in songs like “Billie Jean,” or it can simply satisfy mindless physical appetites, as we see in songs like “Superfly Sister.” And his songs do have an allegorical feeling to them sometimes, so I think an allegorical interpretation like this is perfectly appropriate and in keeping with his artistic vision.

I remember when we were talking about My Baby several months ago, and we were trying to figure out why the protagonist kept being attracted to these “bad girls” who repeatedly hurt both him and My Baby. It happens again and again, in songs like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Dirty Diana” and “Dangerous.” You suggested that maybe those women represented fame – that’s why he was so attracted to them and couldn’t just walk away and leave them alone – and, for me, that opened up a whole new way of looking at those songs. I think about it every time I hear them. And I think there could be a similar allegorical element here.

Joie:  I agree. And many of his songs do feel very allegorical at times. But you know, I am just flabbergasted at the fact that we were able to come up with so many different ways of interpreting both the lyrics and and the short film for this song. Before we began talking about it, I never realized that there were so many layers here! It’s actually very deep and complex and I find myself wondering if the concept for the short film came as he was writing the lyrics or if it developed later, because they just seem so intertwined to me. Really fascinating.

Willa:  That’s a really good question. I’d love to know that too. In Moonwalk, he says,

The three videos that came out of  Thriller – “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” – were all part of my original concept for the album. I was determined to present this music as visually as possible.

So it sounds like some of the visual elements are percolating in his mind from the beginning. But I think he also lets things develop during the storyboarding sessions and throughout production, as he goes on to talk about:

I felt “Beat It” should be interpreted literally, the way it was written, one gang against another on tough urban streets. It had to be rough. That’s what “Beat It” was about.

When I got back to L.A., I saw Bob Giraldi’s demo reel and knew that he was the director I wanted for “Beat It.” I loved the way he told a story in his work, so I talked with him about “Beat It.” We went over things, my ideas and his ideas, and that’s how  it was created. We played with the storyboard and molded it and created it.

So as with his work in the studio producing songs, he seems to have a vision of what he wants to convey (“I felt ‘Beat It’ should be interpreted literally, like it was written”) but then he’s able to evoke the best from his collaborators and lets things develop throughout the process, drawing on their ideas and expertise as well.

And I agree with you, Joie. In the Closet is so interesting on so many levels – artistically, culturally, psychologically. Whatever the reason, Michael Jackson portrays a deeply conflicted character in this video. He feels tremendous desire for this woman obviously, and he wants to do the right thing and marry her, but he can’t – either because he’s already married, or because he can’t quite find the courage to defy cultural taboos, or because she represents the dangerous embodiment of sex itself.

The choreography and cinematography emphasize his internal conflict. As you mentioned earlier, Joie, we see shots of him dancing with his back to the wall, literally, and we see numerous shots of him in doorways – neither in nor out, as you said. Perhaps the most striking sequences are the wonderful silhouettes where he’s dancing at the threshold. This again refers back to marriage since the groom traditionally carries the bride across the threshold to begin their new life together. But he can’t do that for some reason, so he dances in the doorway instead – unable to make an official declaration of marriage but unable to walk away.

The video ends with him shutting the door and shutting himself inside the house, telling us visually that, for now, he’s determined to keep this relationship “in the closet.”

Joie:  But Willa and I would love to know what you think on this one. If you have an interpretation for In The Closet that differs from the four that we’ve explored here, please let us know; we’d love to hear it!