Joie: So, Willa, for the past two weeks, we have looked at two out of the three Michael Jackson works that you say sort of form The Trilogy of his aesthetic – “Ben” and Thriller. This week, let’s go over the final work in that trilogy – Ghosts – and talk about how it fits in and how all three of them seem to deal with this complicated issue of crossing the boundaries that separate us. As we all know, this is a subject that Michael dealt with often in his career and, for you, this idea of The Trilogy is very important because of it, right?
Willa: It really is, partly because each of these works is so important individually, and partly because looking at them together allows us to see the progression of his ideas.
In “Ben,” which was recorded in January of 1972, Michael Jackson adopts the role of a young boy who becomes friends with a rat. Most humans see rats as disgusting, as “other,” so this friendship is a socially transgressive act. In other words, “Ben” is the story of an improper friendship. But it presents this relationship as so special and beautiful that it challenges us to alter our perceptions about this unconventional friendship. Importantly, though, while the boy and the rat cross social boundaries, they’re external boundaries. What I mean is they cross the boundary between them by becoming friends, but the boy remains a boy and the rat remains a rat.
Twelve years later, in December of 1983, Michael Jackson released the Thriller video, and it expands the ideas of “Ben” in crucially important ways. Once again, Michael Jackson is a young man crossing socially prohibited boundaries, but this time those boundaries are within himself. He becomes a werewolf, which blurs the boundary between man and animal, and then becomes a zombie, which blurs the boundary between living and dead. So Thriller isn’t about an “improper” friendship but about an “improper” person whose identity is constantly in flux. So it internalizes the crossing of those boundaries and alters how we perceive and respond to this unconventional person, as well as how we perceive and maybe express the prohibited boundaries we feel within ourselves.
What’s especially interesting about Thriller, though, is how it reworks the emotions of this issue. Basically, Thriller tells us that crossing boundaries isn’t scary – it’s fun! It’s thrilling, in fact. Look at the many Michael characters on screen. Which one do you want to be? The repressed Michael at the beginning who’s trying very hard to be a proper person, or the free-spirited Michael who’s cutting loose and dancing with zombies? As you said so well last week, Joie, he’s “inhabiting those differences” he feels within himself – he’s embracing the many different aspects of his personality, including the scary or shameful parts we’re told to keep hidden – and he’s having a blast! Just look at him dance, and look at his face at the end when he turns and fixes us with those freaky cat eyes. He’s beaming! He couldn’t be happier. Thriller handles this all so skillfully and effortlessly that we don’t realize what a radical psychological shift this is, but I believe Thriller functions at a deep psychological level to challenge some of our most primal fears about difference, about “other,” and neutralize them. And it’s brilliant.
Thirteen years later, in 1996, Michael Jackson created Ghosts and took another quantum leap forward. This time he’s approaching the issue in a theoretical way and suggesting specific ways in which art can help us overcome the boundaries between us. In other words, Ghosts isn’t just a work of art. It’s meta-art – it’s art about art – and in it we see evidence of Michael Jackson creating a new poetics.
Joie: You know, Willa, that’s something you say often – that Michael was creating a new poetics. Can you explain what you mean in very simple terms for those who may not understand what it is you’re trying to say?
Willa: That’s a really good question, Joie. There are many different definitions, actually, but what I mean is that he’s creating a new philosophy of art, or a new paradigm for conceptualizing art – a new theoretical framework for understanding what art is, how it functions, and what it has the potential to accomplish. You know, if we go back and look at the major artists in history – artists like da Vinci, Michelangelo, Vermeer, Monet, van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol – they didn’t just create important works of art. They also altered our definition of art, and that’s what Michael Jackson is doing. He’s creating exquisite works of art, but he’s also redefining what art is and expanding our ideas about what is possible through art. And that’s why he’s the most important artist of our time.
Joie: Ok, so let’s talk about what’s going on in Ghosts and why you feel it’s part of The Trilogy. You say that Ghosts is art about art, but how does it fit in with this theme of crossing the boundaries that keep us separated?
Willa: Well, as we’ve talked about before, Ghosts is the story of an artist – a Maestro – who’s under attack by the provincial townspeople of Normal Valley. They’re scared of him because he’s so unnervingly different – they think he’s a “freak,” a “weirdo” – so they approach his home with torches in hand, determined to drive him away. But something unexpected happens: the Maestro engages them in a series of artistic experiences, and through those artistic experiences not only changes how they feel about him, but how they feel about difference more generally.
So Ghosts is functioning on several levels at once. On one level, it’s pure entertainment and engaging us in an interesting story. At another level, it’s creating a parable for what was actually happening to Michael Jackson himself in real life, and explaining how he plans to respond as an artist to the threats against him by Tom Sneddon and others. And at another level, it’s art talking about art and demonstrating how art can change perceptions and bring about significant social change – just like it changes the perceptions and attitudes of the residents of Normal Valley.
Joie: That is really very interesting, Willa. You know, I’ve said this before but, I really feel like I need to say it again. Before you asked me to read M Poetica and give you my opinion on it, I never really thought about Michael’s work on such a deep artistic level before. And I know now that it was because I didn’t really have the tools or the knowledge to do so. But I really feel like you have taught me so much about art and about how to interpret art, and I’m really grateful for that. Its allowed me to really examine Michael’s work in a way I never really had before.
Willa: Well, believe me, Joie, I know exactly how you feel. I enjoyed Thriller for years simply as a very entertaining video. In fact, I still enjoy it that way, and that’s perfectly ok. In the 1999 MTV interview we cited last week, Michael Jackson is asked what makes a good music video, and his first response is, “In my opinion, it has to be completely entertaining.” And he succeeded: his work in general, and Thriller in particular, is wonderfully entertaining.
But as much as I appreciated Thriller simply as entertainment, I increasingly felt there was a lot more going on – but I just couldn’t get my mind around it somehow. I could feel that something significant was happening, but I couldn’t explain it, not even to myself. It wasn’t until I started studying Ghosts that something clicked for me. As I mentioned earlier, Ghosts isn’t just a work of art – it’s also art talking about art, and exploring specific ways that art can change people’s minds about difference and bring about social change. And as I studied that and thought about it, I suddenly realized that the specific processes he’s describing in Ghosts are happening in Thriller. So basically, Ghosts gave me the tools I needed to interpret Thriller in a whole new way. For me, Ghosts opened up a new avenue for thinking about art, and that new view allowed me to see Thriller in ways I never had before.
So Michael Jackson isn’t just creating a new type of art that functions in a new way, which is amazing enough. He’s also providing us with the theoretical apparatus we need to interpret this new kind of art. And Joie, it just blows me away. As an artist, he’s phenomenally intelligent and phenomenally creative – just off-the-charts brilliant – and I think we’re only beginning to realize the depths of his work and the tremendous implications of what he’s showing us.
Joie: Well, I agree completely that he is ‘off-the-charts brilliant’ as you put it. I don’t think anyone would dispute that. And I have to say that, I really love your observation that Ghosts is ‘art talking about art.’ That’s not only a really profound statement to make but, it was also a very profound, very bold move for Michael Jackson to make. Create a video – a work of art – that talks about art and the ways we can use it to educate and to change people’s minds about the social injustices surrounding us. That’s amazing stuff!
Willa: It really is. And in Ghosts, we see him directly addressing a very specific question about art and the power of art: How can an artist use art to change people’s minds about those they reject as different, especially when their antipathy is based on false narratives and unfounded prejudices?
As I mentioned earlier, Ghosts begins with the residents of Normal Valley approaching the Maestro’s home, intent on driving him out because they think he’s monstrous, a “freak.” And their emotions at that moment are pretty complicated: they fear him, but they’re also excited and empowered by the idea of driving him out.
As we discussed in a post about Ghosts a few weeks ago, the Maestro responds to the townspeople with a two-phase process. First he takes on their fears and desires and reflects those emotions back at them: he appears to them in a mask, so gives them the monster they want him to be. But then he lowers the mask and reveals it’s just an illusion. That’s the second phase. And this quick double movement of first inflating their fears and desires and then deflating them provides a type of catharsis, and helps neutralize the emotions they are projecting onto him.
But the Mayor doesn’t want those fears neutralized. His goal is just the opposite – he wants to whip up those emotions and keep the townspeople in a state of fear and agitation. So he begins building his case against the Maestro: that he’s a “freak,” a scary unknown, a monster who’s infecting the town’s children with mysterious ghost stories. In response, the Maestro once again evokes that two-phase movement of embodying and inflating the emotions they’re projecting onto him and then deflating them. First, he distorts his face, making it grotesque and scary. Here are a couple of screen captures:
Then he rips his face off altogether so there’s nothing but a laughing skull. But importantly, after the townspeople have fully experienced those emotions they were projecting onto him, he cracks the skull, reveals his true face, and shows it’s all just an illusion.
Then he enacts this two-phase process a third time, but it’s a little different this time around because their emotions have changed, so the emotions they’re projecting onto him have changed. They aren’t as afraid of him as they were before – in fact, they’re starting to enjoy him and his “freakish” troupe of dancers – but they’re still unsure of him and still want him to leave, though they’re conflicted about it. So he enacts those emotions for them: he destroys himself and turns to dust before their eyes. But then he reappears and once again shows it was just an illusion. So repeatedly we see him embodying and even exaggerating the fears and desires the townspeople are projecting onto him, and then diffusing them.
Joie: I think it’s really interesting that he repeats this process over and over again throughout this short film. That lets me know that he was really trying to make a point. There’s something that he wants us to really get … some idea that he wants us to really grasp and understand. Otherwise why keep repeating yourself?
Willa: It feels that way to me too. He enacts this double movement three times in Ghosts, one right after the other – in fact, that’s basically the plot of Ghosts, that series of three double movements – which tells me this is really significant. Importantly, that’s exactly what he’s doing in Thriller as well, as we talked about last week. In fact, the plot of Thriller is also a series of three double movements – or rather two and a half since the last one ends unresolved – and if we look at what was happening in 1983, the plot of Thriller makes perfect sense. In the early 1980s, he was our nation’s first Black teen idol, which was both titillating and monstrous to a lot of people. So he responds by becoming a monster onscreen – a werewolf, a zombie, an unknown creature with cat eyes – but then neutralizes those emotions by showing us “It’s only a movie.”
And I believe he responded to the media hysteria surrounding the false molestation allegations the same way. Through the illusion of plastic surgery, he made himself monstrous in the public mind. But it’s just an illusion. He’s merely reflecting what the public is projecting onto him, as he explains very clearly in “Is It Scary”:
I’m gonna be Exactly what you wanna see It’s you who’s taunting me Because you’re wanting me To be the stranger in the night Am I amusing you Or just confusing you? Am I the beast you visualized? And if you wanna see Eccentric oddities I’ll be grotesque before your eyes Let them all materialize. … So did you come to me To see your fantasies Performed before your very eyes? A haunting ghostly treat The ghoulish trickery And spirits dancing in the night? But if you came to see The truth, the purity It’s here inside a lonely heart So let the performance start So tell me, Is that realism for you, baby? Am I scary for you?
The plastic surgery scandal was, in fact, a type of performance art, but it was an entirely new kind of art unlike any we’ve ever seen before. It was “realism” on a scale we’ve never experienced before. It’s such a new kind of art it’s hard to recognize it at first, but it’s a work of art with a very specific purpose and function – to rewrite a false cultural narrative and provide catharsis for the emotions driving that false narrative. It’s breathtaking in its sheer audacity, but once we get our minds around it, we realize it’s built on sound principles of art and psychology – and the intersection of art and psychology, especially group psychology, is a primary focus of Michael Jackson’s aesthetic. In other words, it’s perfectly aligned with the artistic principles he’s establishing in Ghosts and throughout his work.
And Joie, I can’t say emphatically enough how important and radical this work is. In M Poetica I said that I see his face as his masterpiece, and I believe that strongly. I love his voice and his music and his dancing and his films – you know how much I love them – but his face, and the illusions he conducted through his face, points the way to a new kind of art that has the potential to challenge some of our most entrenched cultural narratives and rewrite those narratives. And that is truly revolutionary.
Joie: Willa, I love the way you put that: “It’s breathtaking in its sheer audacity.” That is such a true statement when it comes to anything having to do with Michael Jackson. I think that sentence pretty much sums up his entire career and persona. He was “breathtaking in his sheer audacity!”
Joie: So Willa, last week we began a discussion about something you call The Trilogy, and it has to do with the way you relate to three of Michael Jackson’s works – “Ben,” Thriller, and Ghosts – and how you feel that they all fit together in some way and sort of form Michael Jackson’s aesthetic. Last week we concentrated on the song “Ben” and what a powerful message of acceptance that song carries. This week, I was hoping we could take a look at the Thriller short film and talk about how it fits into this idea of The Trilogy for you.
Willa: Well, as we’ve talked about before, I see challenging the differences that divide us as a primary focus of Michael Jackson’s art and life. He was driven by a vision of all of us united as one people, despite divisions of race, gender, nationality, sexuality, age, religion, disability, or any other differences used to segregate people into separate camps. We see this in song after song, video after video, as well as in interviews and speeches and the charities he supported. However, for me, there are three works in particular that shine like beacons and really challenge the artificial boundaries that divide us, and those three are “Ben,” Thriller, and Ghosts.
Joie: That’s really interesting, Willa, because as I said last week, I have never looked at the Thriller short film as addressing ‘the artificial boundaries,’ as you put it or the differences between us all. I’m really interested to hear how you see this.
Willa: Well, it’s subtly handled – in fact, it’s almost like he’s transmitting his message in a preconscious way – but all three of these works breach the boundaries between us in new and compelling ways, and I especially see that in Thriller.
As we all know, both Thriller and Ghosts play off of the horror movie genre. But interestingly, when Alex Colletti asked Michael Jackson, “Were you a fan of horror movies?” in a 1999 MTV interview, he replied,
Believe it or not, I’m afraid to watch scary movies. Honestly, I don’t quite like to watch them very much. I never thought I’d be involved in making that sort of thing.
And evoking horror doesn’t seem to be his objective in these two short films. There seems to be something else going on.
If we look carefully at Thriller, we discover that it’s a very specific type of horror movie. It isn’t about mutant spiders or snakes, or an enormous ape climbing the Empire State building, or dinosaurs brought back to life through their DNA. It’s not about an especially lethal tornado or tidal wave or an asteroid about to hit the Earth. It’s not about extra-terrestrial aliens intent on world domination, or a mysterious infection sweeping the population. It’s not about a homicidal maniac with a chain saw or a rifle or an unquenchable taste for his fellow humans. It’s not about an ancient prediction that the world will end in two weeks, or the start of World War III, or nuclear holocaust, or environmental collapse. It’s not even a monster movie in the same way as Godzilla or Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Joie: Well, you make a really good point here but, now I’m afraid you have me wanting to curl up on the couch with some DVDs and a big bowl of popcorn!
Willa: That’s funny! We should have a movie night sometime, though I’m warning you – I’m a wimp when it comes to scary movies. But if we look closely at Thriller, we discover it’s a very specific kind of horror movie: it’s the story of a cute teenage boy who crosses boundaries. First he crosses the boundary between wolf and man, but he doesn’t cross that boundary completely. He doesn’t become a wolf. Instead, he stops midway and comes to inhabit this intermediate space where he is both wolf and man. He becomes a wolfman, a werewolf. Later he confuses the boundary between the living and the dead, and again comes to inhabit this weird in-between space where he is both living and dead. He becomes one of the undead, a zombie.
Joie: Ok. I think I see where you’re going with this. Basically, what you’re saying is that you feel Michael Jackson’s character in Thriller is sort of symbolic of embracing the differences between us that we talked about last week when looking at the song “Ben.” In the Thriller video, his character is inhabiting those differences and purposely crossing those boundaries.
Willa: Exactly. That’s exactly where I was heading, and you’re right – it ties in beautifully with “Ben” and expands the ideas he was singing about in that song. But I think there’s a lot more going on as well.
Julia Kristeva is a literary theorist who’s also a psychoanalyst, and she believes that humans feel a deep psychological threat when certain kinds of boundaries are blurred or challenged or transgressed in some way. As she describes in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, we create our identity and define who we are by creating boundaries between what is us and what is not us, so anything that threatens to break down those boundaries also threatens us with dissolution – it threatens our identity at the most fundamental psychological level. For example, she says that’s why we feel such disgust toward human waste, because it has crossed the boundary between inside the body and outside the body, between us and not-us, and forced us to realize that those boundaries are more permeable than we’d like them to be, and that threatens us at a deep, primal level.
Joie: Now that is really interesting! I’ve never heard of her before but, I’d like to read that book. It sounds fascinating.
Willa: Oh, it is fascinating, and it’s really led me to see this issue of crossing boundaries in a very different way – not just as a social/political issue, but as a powerful psychological issue. She also talks about corpses, and why they are so horrifying to us:
If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel, “I” is expelled. The border has become an object. How can I be without border?
So Kristeva sees our revulsion for corpses as the most extreme example of the primal fear that threatens to overwhelm us when the boundaries between us and not-us fail. As she says, “How can I be without border?” It threatens our very existence, psychologically. It threatens who we are, the “I” that I establish as myself. And I think this explains why corpses figure so prominently in two of Michael Jackson’s most important works, even though he didn’t like horror movies. It’s because he’s directly confronting our deepest fears of the dissolution of those boundaries at their most primal level.
Aldebaran provided a fascinating example of this deep-seated fear of transgressing boundaries in a comment a couple of weeks ago, when she talked about an article in The Guardian. As Aldebaran described it, the article is
about a bi-racial family and they had twins – one twin was born Black and the other White. Interestingly, it was the White twin who got bullied in school, so much that his parents took him out. It is a very interesting article about the racial barriers in place. The kids bullied the White twin b/c they thought he was really Black yet appeared White – sort of like MJ and the dancer Arthur Wright. In school the teachers wanted the White twin to draw himself as Black – it was unreal.
If we look at this situation through the lens of Kristeva’s ideas, the actions of the school bullies make perfect sense. They didn’t bully the “Black” twin because he looked Black, he stayed within his proper category, and therefore didn’t threaten their identity. He was “safely” Black. But the other twin had the same parents and the same genetic background and therefore was signified as “Black” by the other kids and even the teachers, but he looked White. Apparently, blurring this boundary between Black and White presented a deep psychological threat to those school kids because he looked like he was one of them but they felt he was not one of them. They reacted to that threat by reinforcing the boundary between them and him – in other words, they bullied him to state very clearly to him (and themselves) that he was not-them.
And of course, as Aldebaran points out, this is “sort of like MJ.” He challenged racial boundaries even before he developed vitiligo, and he blurred many other boundaries as well. And that provoked a violent backlash, just like the backlash against the White-Black twin.
Joie: Well, that is very true; he did. And, I guess we could make the argument that Kristeva’s theories could apply to racism in all its forms – that “us vs. them” mentality or thought process that always gets us into trouble.
Willa: That’s true, or to anti-Semitism, or misogyny, or homophobia, or xenophobia, or any of the prejudices that divide us. And how do we as a culture break out of that? There is no logical reason why those boundaries have been drawn the way they have – there’s nothing real or true or natural about those boundaries – but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and don’t pack a lot of psychological power. I think that is the problem Thriller is tackling. We could spend months exploring this more fully, but I think Thriller functions at a deep psychological level by directly confronting the fear and horror we feel toward anything – or anyone – who transgresses the boundaries we use to define ourselves.
For example, at the time Thriller was made, Michael Jackson was becoming recognized as a sex symbol of the same magnitude as Elvis or the Beatles or Frank Sinatra. It was unheard of for a Black man to be in that position, in part because the United States is a deeply racist country with strong prohibitions against sexual attraction between Black men and White women. One element of that racism is a centuries-old cultural narrative that Black men are oversexed, that they can’t control their animal urges, that they are in fact rapists. Statistically, a White woman is much more likely to be raped by her (White) boyfriend than by a (Black) stranger on the street, and that message is being conveyed more accurately now. But in the early 1980s, when Thriller was released, it was still very common for young White women to be warned not to walk alone, especially in unfamiliar places, because they could be attacked by a (Black) assailant.
So what does it mean to be a Black male sex symbol in a country that signifies Black men as unable to control their sexual urges? That’s a incredibly complicated situation to be in, and that’s one of the issues Michael Jackson confronts in Thriller. The film begins with a teenage boy and girl out on a date. Importantly, the boy’s name is Michael, so there’s an identification between the character on screen and Michael Jackson himself, and that’s significant. It wouldn’t work quite the same way if his name were William or Gregory.
This teenage couple is in a car and they run out of gas – a familiar ploy for “parking” or making out, so we’re in a sexual situation – and suddenly we are confronted with our worst fears. This rather repressed young Black man loses control of himself, he can’t control his animal urges, he becomes unrecognizable, and he assaults his girlfriend. It’s like a rape scene: she’s lying on her back in fear, he’s looming over her, and he attacks her. We don’t see it but we hear it, and we see the reactions of the audience watching this scene, including the boyfriend and girlfriend, who are now positioned in the movie theater with the audience. She can’t take it and walks out, and he follows her and tells her, “It’s only a movie.”
Joie: Wow, Willa. You know, I had never looked at that scene as mirroring a rape scenario before but, you’re absolutely right; it does play out that way, doesn’t it? Now I feel silly for never picking up on that before!
Willa: Well it’s very subtly handled, and we can interpret this intro section of Thriller many ways, but one way is to see it as directly challenging the racist cultural narrative that Black men cannot control their sexual urges. And it does so brilliantly through a two-phase process. First, it exaggerates this myth, inflating it until its huge and fills our minds, so we as a nation are forced to come face to face with our worst fears. And then it explodes that myth and shows us it’s just an illusion. Our fears are just a myth, a false cultural narrative – or as Michael tells us, “It’s only a movie.”
But I want to emphasize that this is merely one way to interpret Thriller, and to be honest, I don’t particularly like this interpretation. It’s too specific, and feels too restrictive to me. Those elements are definitely in there, so I think this is a valid interpretation, but to me Thriller is about much more than that. It’s addressing difference more generally, and it is functioning at a deep psychological, almost preconscious level. And what it’s saying – amazingly enough – is that crossing boundaries isn’t scary. It’s fun! That to me is the message of Thriller, and what an incredible message it is! It’s taking all those fears and flipping them upside down and inside out.
Thriller is an amazing work of art. Everything about it – the way the narrative is structured, the way the two central characters reappear again and again, the way it draws on and connects the legend of the werewolf and the zombie, the way it incorporates song and dance into the narrative – every detail is stunning and perfect. It’s truly a brilliant work of art, but it’s also a work of art that brought about profound cultural changes, and we’re just beginning to look at that in an in-depth way. And I think we’re far from understanding it.
Joie: I think you’re right about that; we are very far from understanding most of what Michael was trying to teach us through his art. You know, according to Merriam-Webster, one of the definitions of the word prophet is: one gifted with more than ordinary spiritual and moral insight; especially: an inspired poet. I think that definition could easily be describing Michael Jackson.
Willa: Oh, I love that! “An inspired poet” – what a great description!
Joie: It is nice, isn’t it? And as I’ve said before, I truly believe that each short film had a message or a lesson hidden in there somewhere and it was usually a lesson about how we should be treating one another with love and respect. I believe that was his mission and his purpose here on this Earth and he completed that mission to the very best of his ability. The rest is up to us now.
On a side note – Willa and I have come across a clip of the Adair Lion video, Ben. So, as promised, we have now updated last week’s post with the new link so, be sure to go back and check it out!
Willa: So Joie, as Michael Jackson and his collaborators were preparing for the This Is It concerts in London, they created some film segments to be shown on that huge screen behind the stage during the performances of “Bad / They Don’t Care about Us,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Earth Song,” and “Thriller / Ghosts / Threatened.” Kenny Ortega included those films, or parts of them, in the movie, This Is It, and they’re very interesting – like little vignettes or short stories within the larger film.
I’m really intrigued by those short films and how they were going to be incorporated into the concerts. I’m especially intrigued by this one moment in This Is It, just as “Thriller” is about to segue into “Ghosts,” where we see Michael Jackson dancing to “Thriller,” then see a film clip of a rat climbing on an iron fence, and then see one of those huge ghost puppets that were going to be carried throughout the audience during “Ghosts.”
That moment is so interesting to me because, if I had to identify the works that best illustrate Michael Jackson’s aesthetic, I would have to say “Ben,” Thriller, and Ghosts. I find myself returning to these three works again and again when trying to clarify for myself Michael Jackson’s ideas, and his strategies for conveying those ideas. To me, they are the trilogy at the center of his belief system and his aesthetic. And for one brief moment in This Is It, they seem to come together – almost as if they are clasping hands.
Joie: Ok, Willa, I have to be honest and say that you have me a little baffled here. Please explain what you mean about ‘the trilogy’ because, I’m having difficulty understanding how these three works connect for you because, to me – on the surface anyway – the song “Ben” has very little to do with the Thriller and Ghosts short films.
Willa: Well, for me, Michael Jackson was always very interested in “difference” – how we designate it, how we perceive it, and how we respond to it. Because he was Black and because the U.S. is so fixated on race, we tend to interpret his work in terms of racial prejudice – and it’s true that challenging racist ideas and biases was very important to him. But I think he was also talking about difference more generally, and working toward overcoming boundaries of difference based on race, age, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, disability, height, weight, wealth, social status, or even just a vague sense that someone is “weird” or “freakish” or uncomfortably odd in some way.
And I definitely see this in “Ben” – this impulse to question how we perceive and designate difference, and to challenge the prejudices that often result from that. After all, “Ben” is a story about a rat who is despised by most people simply because he’s a rat. But he’s befriended by a boy who is able to see beyond those prejudices and love him for who he is inside. As the boy sings,
Ben, most people would turn you away I don’t listen to a word they say They don’t see you as I do I wish they would try to I’m sure they’d think again If they had a friend like Ben
There have been other works that have tried to turn rats and mice into appealing characters – for example, Stuart Little, or Ratty in Wind in the Willows, or Ralph in Beverly Cleary’s The Mouse and the Motorcycle stories, or Mrs. Tittlemouse in the Beatrix Potter stories.
Joie: Or Mrs. Fribsy and The Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brian. I love that book!
Willa: Oh, that’s a great example! Or more recently, there’s Ratatouille or The Tale of Despereau. But what’s interesting is that in all of these works, these characters are made acceptable by making them less rodent-like and more human – in other words, by making them more “normal” from our point of view. They wear human clothes. They pilot a boat or ride a motorcycle. They live in human-like houses and cook human-like food and do human-like chores. Here’s a picture of Mrs. Tittlemouse:
But “Ben” is very different. The boy knows that Ben is a rat, knows that he is marked as different because of that, but loves him just the way he is. In all those other works, there’s this very strong impulse to make these little rodents cute and appealing and more “normal” – more human. But that impulse is entirely absent from “Ben.” The boy doesn’t seem to feel the need to change Ben to make him more acceptable. He doesn’t dress him up in doll clothes or give him a toy motorcycle to ride or humanize him in any way. It’s much simpler than that. He loves Ben, Ben loves him, and that’s it.
Joie: Ok, I see what you’re saying. And you’re right; he doesn’t attempt to humanize the rat at all. In fact, it’s just the opposite. As you said, he knows that Ben is a rat and that he’s “different.” But he’s not afraid of or intimidated by those differences. Instead, he embraces the differences and loves Ben anyway. It’s a lesson that we can all learn from – love and tolerance. Even though we’re all different doesn’t mean we can’t still treat one another with decency and respect.
Willa: Exactly, and I love the way you put that: “he embraces the differences.” He’s not saying differences don’t exist. They do – we’re all wonderfully different. Instead, he’s saying that those kinds of surface differences shouldn’t determine how we respond to each other and feel about each other. He knows Ben is a rat but he also knows his heart, and that’s what’s important. He’s still able to “see” him and genuinely know him, and love him. So instead of trying to make Ben acceptable by trying to change him and make him “normal,” he challenges us to overcome our prejudices and accept Ben the way he is. As he sings, “They don’t see you as I do / I wish they would try to.”
Joie: It makes me think about a video I recently came across by rapper Adair Lion. The song is called “Ben” and, even though he is addressing homosexuality, the song’s message could be talking about racism, sexism, or any other form of prejudice. He samples Michael Jackson’s “Ben” quite a bit in the song and I think that Michael probably would have loved it. Here’s the video:
Willa: Oh heavens, Joie, what a wonderful video! Thanks for sharing that. And you’re right, Adair Lion is talking about homophobia but he also parallels it with racism and other forms of prejudice – like when the white girl goes to kiss him and the other white girl stops her and gets pretty violent about it. And he makes those connections explicit in the rap when he says:
I guess him over there He chose to be Black And her Asian And them White And those god-awful gays Chose to live that life
So he’s talking about specific forms of prejudice, but by paralleling them he’s also talking about difference more generally, and that’s very Michael Jackson – and very appropriate to the message of “Ben,” I think.
I’m also really drawn to the scenes of the little girl trying to spend the birthday money her two fathers gave her. It’s a $3 bill, and the woman at the ice cream store rejects her funny money and refuses to serve her an ice cream cone, and the woman at the toy store rejects it as well and refuses to sell her a doll. But then she comes to the taco stand where Adair Lion’s character is working, and his buddy is surprised by the $3 bill but accepts it – he not only sells her a lollypop but gives her two extra ones. It’s a simple straightforward message, but very moving.
And then the video ends with this powerful postscript:
Coincidentally, Ben is the name of someone I’ve never met – my dad So why would I ever judge someone who’s trying to be two Of what I never had?
As you know, Joie, “Ben” is very special to me, and to be perfectly honest I was pretty reluctant to watch this video because the original means so much to me. I guess I was worried he’d misappropriate it or trivialize it somehow. But actually it made me cry. I’m not sure why it affected me so much – maybe because I was about the same age as that little girl the first time I heard “Ben” – but also because this video feels so heart-felt and sincere.
Joie: It is a pretty compelling video; you’re right. And the fact that he has sampled Michael Jackson’s “Ben” only serves to make it that much more powerful since that song is all about seeing past the differences in all of us.
You know, Willa, the sweet sentiment in Michael Jackson’s voice as he sings that song is so overwhelmingly pure and real. And I wonder sometimes if – at only 14 years old – he understood what a huge message that song carried. It certainly feels very heartfelt when you listen to it. The song was written by Don Black and composed by Walter Scharf, and was the theme song for the 1972 film, Ben (the sequel to the 1971 movie Willard, about a killer rat). It was originally intended for young Donny Osmond but he was on tour and unavailable at the time. So, Michael was actually the second choice to record the song – which just confounds me because, as wonderful as Donny Osmond is, I just can’t imagine anyone else but Michael singing it.
Willa: Oh, I know, and apparently Michael Jackson couldn’t either! In an interview with Life After 50 a few months ago, Donny Osmond says he told him that “Ben” was originally written for him, and Michael Jackson said, “Get out of here!” He couldn’t believe it, and I can’t either. “Ben” and Michael Jackson are so connected in my mind.
And you can tell “Ben” was very important to him. You can hear it in his voice, and by how often he returned to it. He sang it in concerts for years, and he included it on almost all of his compilation albums, including The Best of Michael Jackson, Anthology, Number Ones, The Ultimate Collection, and The Essential Michael Jackson.
Joie: That’s true; he did return to it again and again.
Willa: He really did. And as a child he even adopted some pet rats. Here’s a picture:
Perhaps most importantly is how the themes of “Ben” recur in his later work – not just confronting prejudice against difference, but linking that prejudice to perception. In “Ben” he sings, “They don’t see you as I do.” In “Can You Feel It,” he sings,
Can you see what’s going down? Open up your mind … ‘Cause, we’re all the same Yes, the blood inside my veins is inside of you
In “Another Part of Me” he asks, “Can’t you see / You’re just another part of me?” Repeatedly he tells us that prejudice against difference is simply a matter of perception, or rather a culturally produced misperception. Those prejudices aren’t real and natural – children aren’t born with them – they’re just part of our social “conditioning.” And I think we see him challenging this misperception most dramatically in the changing color of his skin. He proved in a way that cannot be denied that, regardless of race, we are all connected. We are all gloriously different, unique individuals, but we are all one people. As he says, “Yes, the blood inside of me is inside of you.”
Joie: Willa, I think that’s a wonderful observation, and I agree completely. I think the message of “Ben” was obviously very important to him. As you pointed out, he would return to this message, in various forms, many times all throughout his career. It might even be fair to say that the message of this song helped to shape the man he became – the songs he wrote about unity and acceptance, the humanitarian causes he chose to support, the humble, loving way he lived his life. I think “Ben” probably had a very profound effect on him.
Willa: You know, that’s interesting because I’ve wondered about that a lot – about what exactly “Ben” meant to him – and I think you’re right. I think “Ben” probably did have a profound effect on him, or maybe it gave him a way to express something he already felt. I know he felt a lot of sympathy for Ben – you can tell that simply by listening to his voice as he sings the lyrics – but I wonder if he identified with him as well. After all, Ben isn’t accepted simply because he’s seen as different, and that’s something Michael Jackson struggled with too. Even as they idolized him, people still treated him as uncomfortably different.
In a 1980 interview with 20/20, his mother tells reporter Sylvia Chase,
“Wherever he goes, everybody’s coming out to see Michael Jackson – you know, want to look at him and see what he looks like – and he said he feels like an animal in a cage.”
When Sylvia Chase asks him about this, he says, “I do, all the time. Well, I shouldn’t say all the time, but I get embarrassed easily. … Being around, you know, everyday people and stuff, I feel strange. I do.” She follows up by saying, “There are some people who believe that, having always been on stage, you’ve never had to deal with the real world.” He replies,
“That’s true in a lot of ways. That’s true in one way. But it’s hard to in my position. I try to sometimes, but people won’t deal with me in that way because they see me differently. They won’t talk to me like they will a next-door neighbor.”
So as he says, people don’t interact with him in a casual, typical way “because they see me differently.” And if he felt that way in 1980 – before Thriller, before vitiligo, before the 1993 allegations and the 2005 trial and the screaming headlines about Wacko Jacko – imagine how he felt later on.
Joie: You’re absolutely right; his isolation only grew as his fame grew. I’m certain that he probably did feel very much ‘like an animal in a cage.’
Willa: Oh, it’s just unimaginable what he had to endure. And there’s another connection between Ben and Michael Jackson that I’ve been thinking about for quite a while now but still haven’t reached any firm conclusions about, and that’s the reasons why they were seen as so strange. And while I’m still trying to figure this out, I think a lot of it has to do with cultural taboos against crossing certain boundaries.
Think about it – why are rats so abhorrent to so many people? I think it’s because they cross boundaries, or rather live in that weird in-between place where two distinct categories overlap. After all, when we think about rats, we don’t generally think about them living in the woods or in meadows or along streams. Instead, we think of them living in sewer pipes and garbage dumps and the basements of tenement buildings or dilapidated houses. In other words, we think of them living at the margins of civilization in places that are neither completely wild nor completely civilized. They exist in this weird no man’s land that blurs the boundary between what’s wild and what’s civilized. We tend to want to keep those ideals distinct and separate, but rats blur the boundary and threaten our notions of both civilization and wilderness – and it’s that threat that makes them abhorrent.
And in many ways, Michael Jackson did the same thing. He lived in that no man’s land between Black and White, masculine and feminine, gay and straight, upper class and lower class, liberal and conservative, child and adult, Christian and Jewish and Islamic and Buddhist, soul and blues and disco and rock, singer and dancer and filmmaker and philosopher. He challenged so many artificial, culturally constructed boundaries. And he didn’t just cross those boundaries. He lived in the in-between space where those categories uncomfortably overlap, and demonstrated that those boundaries are artificial constructs. And that was very threatening to a lot of people, especially those who want to keep those categories clearly defined and separate.
Joie: Ok, Willa. That was yet another ‘Wow’ moment for me! You have just connected the dots and drawn all the parallels between Michael Jackson and the subject of the song “Ben,” and it makes total, perfect sense. And you’re right; people are typically freaked out by rats and it is because we tend to think of them as living on the fringe of society. But rats are actually really cool. Most people are usually very stunned to learn that rats make really good pets. In fact, rats make better pets than mice because they don’t tend to bite like mice will. They are very intelligent, social animals that can be easily tamed and most owners compare the companionship to that of a dog!
So, next week, we will continue this discussion of what Willa calls ‘the trilogy’ with a look at the Thriller short film. And, I have to say, Willa, I’m still not seeing how “Ben” relates to the Thriller and Ghosts short films for you. Maybe I can see the Ghosts video somewhat, as that one really is all about being different. But I guess I just don’t think of the Thriller video in those terms at all. Yes, Michael Jackson’s character in that one is constantly changing from a teenage boy to a werewolf to a zombie and back again but, I just don’t think of this video as being about our “differences.” But, we’ll discuss that next week.