Willa: Hey Lisha. This week I was wondering if we could talk a bit about the song “Destiny.” To be honest, it’s perplexed me for a long time. But I recently had an idea that opened up a new way of interpreting it, and I wanted to run it by you to see what you think.
What’s puzzled me about “Destiny” is the way it keeps switching genre. It starts off sounding like a country song, but then it gets funkier in the choruses and toward the end it sounds much more futuristic. You can really hear that around 3:20 minutes in: there’s a passage that sounds like a sonic “lift-off” and then at 3:30 it goes into a brief interlude of what I guess you would call “space music,” kind of like what you hear on the radio show Hearts of Space. I feel sure Michael Jackson was switching genres like this for a reason – to create a shift in mood or convey an idea – but what exactly? I’ve pondered this for a long time.
Lisha: Willa, I’m glad you brought it up because I’ve been perplexed by this song as well. If you were to add Clint Black or Reba McEntire’s twangy Southern vocals to “Destiny,” nothing would be out of place. The intro and the verses of this song would fit into any mainstream country music programming. However, by the first chorus, things start getting really urban and funky, and the rest of the song is consistent with 1970s pop/rock and R&B. And even though I hadn’t noticed it before, you’re right, there is that section after the final vocal improv that ends with some new-agey electronic sounds and feedback, almost like the ambient sonic explorations on the Hearts of Space radio show!
Willa: Yes, it’s a real smorgasbord of genres. There’s pop, rock, and R&B as you say, and even a strong hint of disco.
Lisha: Yes, especially some of the string and electronic sounds suggest disco to me in spots as well.
Willa: So the question I keep asking myself is why? Why would Michael Jackson begin a song with acoustic guitar and a bit of twang in his voice, probably the most “country” of any of his songs – his published songs, anyway – and end with synthesizer and a much more futuristic sound?
“Destiny” happened to come on the car stereo the other day, and as I was listening to it an idea struck me. Michael Jackson and his brothers repeatedly said that their mother loves country and western songs and raised them with that music. For example, in Moonwalk he writes, “My first memories are of her holding me and singing songs like ‘You Are My Sunshine’ and ‘Cotton Fields.’” And they’ve also said they started off singing together as a group by singing country songs around the house. I think Marlon and Jackie Jackson talk about that in Spike Lee’s Off the Wall documentary. So I wonder if in some ways “Destiny” charts the Jacksons musical journey, beginning with a country sound but then moving in a new, more futuristic direction?
Lisha: What a fascinating idea, Willa. While the lyrics talk about searching to “find my destiny,” it’s accompanied by music that strongly resembles the Jacksons’ own musical journey. Maybe that’s part of the plan!
Willa: Yes, that’s what I’m wondering. And you’re right, the lyrics themselves suggest the idea of a journey or quest, like when he sings, “I do dream of distant places / Where I don’t know now, but it’s destiny.” And we can interpret that as a physical or spiritual journey, or more specifically as an artistic journey.
Lisha: I really think you are onto something. The songwriting credits include all five brothers who were in the group at that time. It’s reasonable to think they might have wanted to reflect on their own musical heritage and a sense of destiny by creating a song that illustrates their journey musically. Of course, even if that wasn’t their intention, your observation still holds true. It would be hard to deny that the song makes use of the very different musical styles – styles that the family was immersed in and that are generally considered to be worlds apart, both musically and culturally.
Willa: It really does. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another song like it – meaning one that begins with country and then shifts so dramatically to other forms.
Lisha: I can’t really think of a similar move either. Mainstream country music has had strong elements of rock for some time, but that is achieved by blurring genres together, rather than just placing them side-by-side as in “Destiny.” In fact, Country Music Television’s Chet Flippo has said: “Many fans of ’70s rock have discovered that today’s mainstream country is ’70s rock.” He claims genre distinctions are not as rigid as they used to be, which means genre is not the effective marketing tool it used to be either. Today’s listeners just aren’t as loyal to one style over another, as in the past.
Willa: That’s interesting. I’d need to think about that some more, but I think he might be right. But while “blurring genres together” isn’t uncommon, that isn’t what’s happening in “Destiny,” as you pointed out, Lisha. The intro and verses are distinctly “country” so they really sound like traditional country music, and then he’s “placing them side-by-side,” as you say, with other genres in the choruses.
That’s really unusual, but juxtaposing genres in this way is something Michael Jackson experimented with more than once, as you noted in a brilliant analysis of “Black or White” a few years ago:
[T]he white rap section in Black or White uses black hip hop, but runs it through a white perspective, Bill Bottrell’s feel good lyrics and performance. The previous section, “I am tired of this devil” uses white hard rock and heavy metal but runs it through a black perspective and the frustration of racial injustice. He is deliberately confusing musical codes here, attempting to integrate all these perspectives into a single view in a very trans-ethnic way (the way he uses his body). He is autonomously choosing the perspectives he wishes to use, ingeniously expressing the Black or White theme in the song.
I’m still blown away by this! And by the paper you wrote building on these ideas. I think it’s the most insightful analysis I’ve ever read about the musical structure of “Black or White.” It’s so fascinating how he juxtaposes genres to make a statement about race, and that raises another way to approach “Destiny.” After all, country music is coded “white” just as much as hard rock is – maybe even more so. So maybe he’s subtly saying something about racial divisions in “Destiny” also?
Lisha: Thank you so much for your kindness! And I think you’re right about “Destiny.” What I found so fascinating about “Black or White” is that the lyrical content is supported by running musical commentary as well. “Destiny” strikes me as an early expression of that same idea.
Willa: Yes, it seems that way to me too.
Lisha: What is so striking to me about them both is that the rigid boundary between genres is observed, but then that boundary is dealt with by just ignoring it. It’s as if there’s nothing unusual about writing a country song, and then switching to an entirely different genre for the chorus! And even when you listen to the intro to “Destiny” in the context of the album, the country feel is strangely not out of place though I’m not exactly sure why. It doesn’t jar you into thinking, what the heck is going on? It just kind of happens.
It’s the same move in “Black or White,” when the bridge suddenly has eight bars of hard rock/heavy metal, and then it’s followed by eight bars of hip-hop rap. The seamless way the transitions are made, you almost don’t notice it.
Willa: Yes, it fits, even though when you stop to think about it, it’s not clear why. How does he do that? He makes those huge transitions so effortlessly, they seem natural, as if there’s nothing the least bit unusual about jumping genres like this. And I just want to say again that your analysis of race and genre in “Black or White” is so interesting! I’ve thought about it a lot the past couple of years, and it’s just so brilliant what he’s doing there. And I think “Destiny” could be an early experiment in using genre to subtly talk about race, just like he does in “Black or White.”
In the US, genre is divided pretty rigidly along racial lines – for example, country music is labeled as “white,” as if it’s somehow off-limits to black artists and audiences. Michael Jackson alludes to the racial biases surrounding country music in Moonwalk. After saying that his mother liked to sing country songs like “Cotton Fields,” he goes on to say,
Even though she had lived in Indiana for some time, my mother grew up in Alabama, and in that part of the country it was just as common for black people to be raised with country and western music on the radio as it was for them to hear spirituals in church. She likes Willie Nelson to this day.
So he’s using his mother as an example to show that, even though country music tends to be seen as exclusively white, that isn’t really true.
Lisha: You know, the fact that we’re even talking about music in racialized terms demonstrates how strongly music will reflect the society it was created in. What better proof of a divided nation could there be than the fact that American music codes so strongly along black and white racial lines?
Willa: That’s true, Lisha, and it’s a really important point. Musical genre – or how we think about genre – reflects the history of segregation in the US. University of Rochester music professor John Covach offers a series of free online classes through Coursera, and he talked about this in one of his History of Rock classes. He said that Billboard magazine began as a trade journal, and the Billboard charts originated as a way of letting jukebox companies know which records to put in which jukeboxes. The country charts told them which songs were popular with young white rural listeners, so they should put those records in jukeboxes in rural white hangouts. The pop charts told them which records to put in jukeboxes in urban and suburban white areas, and the R&B charts told them which records to put in jukeboxes in black areas. The assumption was that those audiences had very different tastes and didn’t intermingle much, so the jukeboxes serving those audiences each needed their own separate list.
Since that time Billboard has expanded the R&B chart (the “black” chart) to include hip-hop, and they’ve added some new categories (rock, Latin, electronic dance music) but actually this just reinforces that kind of segregated thinking: that whites want pop, rock, and country; blacks want R&B and hip-hop; and now Latin Americans want Latin music.
Lisha: Yes, segregation was the law of the land when Billboard began compiling data in order to better understand how people buy music. It makes sense that marketing people would be very interested in correlating genre and race. But I think genre is a really tricky subject for many reasons.
Willa: It really is. For example, Billboard compiles separate lists for different genres, but R&B and hip-hop are lumped together into one chart. From what I can tell, R&B and hip-hop have very little in common musically, but they have been grouped together for marketing purposes because they are both seen as black or “race music” as Billboard used to call it. So the assumption is that R&B and hip-hop appeal to the same audience or market share simply because they have both been racialized as black, but that’s a big assumption to make.
Lisha: It is. And musicians, musicologists and marketing departments often use the same terms in very different ways, so it creates a lot of confusion.
Willa: That’s true. “Folk” or “funk” or “punk” or any of those labels don’t necessarily mean the same thing to musicologists and the general public, to marketers and the musicians themselves.
Lisha: Exactly. This reminds me of the time in 1963 when a song called “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs hit #1 on the Billboard R&B chart. Because R&B gets used as a marketing term for black music that appeals to black audiences, when you listen to how hilariously white “Sugar Shack” is, it’s hard to believe it once topped the R&B charts! Billboard mysteriously didn’t publish another R&B chart for over a year after this happened, presumably so they could rethink their approach.
I guess my point is that defining genres and demographics is not that straightforward. But we can make some broad generalizations about who consumes what music, and I think that is exactly what “Destiny” is commenting on: musical styles that we recognize as belonging or appealing to different groups.
Willa: Or have been perceived as appealing to different groups, though those perceptions may not be true.
Lisha: Yes, “Destiny” seems to challenge those perceptions.
Willa: I agree. Dave Marsh talks about this in Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream, referring specifically to how country music has traditionally – and wrongly – been seen as exclusively “white.” Marsh raises some important issues about this, but unfortunately it’s part of a rant where he chastises Michael Jackson for not knowing much about music history. Seriously.
Lisha: Oh please! All right, go ahead. Let’s hear it.
Willa: Ok, prepare yourself. It’s long, condescending, and incredibly irritating. This is what Marsh says, and keep in mind that he’s writing this directly to Michael Jackson, in an open letter addressed to “Michael”:
To understand how today’s music really developed, you have to know what Berry Gordy learned from writing for Jackie Wilson; what Jackie Wilson learned from Roy Brown and Al Jolson; where what they all learned came from: the heart of American racial conflict. You have to know that just as the Beatles and Rolling Stones built a musical edifice from the foundation established by Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Elvis, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, and Little Richard – black and white performers, but mostly black ones – so did Chuck Berry come up with his style by drawing upon the jump blues of Louis Jordan and and the nasal country harmonies of Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers’ “Ida Red” and Little Richard draw upon the great gospel shouting of Marion Williams and the Ward Singers and the flamboyant costuming and pianistics of Liberace; and Bob Dylan forge his style from Roy Acuff and Robert Johnson, Ma Rainey and Woody Guthrie. And that Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” was a black man and that Nat Cole had to have spent a lot of time listening to Bing Crosby … and that your own grandfather, a black man in Arkansas, where his skin color was an excuse and opportunity for humiliation and degradation all the livelong day, nevertheless tuned in “hillbilly” radio programs not out of perversity but because that music was “his” as much as it was “theirs.” That is, because buried somewhere deep in American cultural memory is the story of your own rise and fall from grace told over and over and over again as a continuing multiracial passion play. And without knowing where your music came from – not from magic and dreams alone, as you’ve been known to claim, but from hundreds of years of such interminglings and attempts to separate and segregate them – you will never, ever be able to make sense of what has happened to yourself.
Lisha: Wow. There is so much going on there I hardly know where to start as far as trying to untangle Marsh’s superior attitude and selective amnesia. It’s revealing that he considers, in all seriousness, that there’s a black American anywhere on the planet who has failed to notice “today’s music really developed” from “the heart of American racial conflict.” That’s funny enough without accusing Michael Jackson of it!
Willa: Oh absolutely. I mean, just think of Michael Jackson’s background. He toured on the “chitlin’ circuit” while still in grade school with some of the biggest names of the day: the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the O’Jays, Sam & Dave, and many others. He played the Regal Theater in Chicago and the Apollo in Harlem. He watched wide-eyed from the wings as his heroes James Brown and Jackie Wilson performed on stage. He talked with Etta James in her dressing room, and lived for a time with Diana Ross. He was groomed by Bobby Taylor and Berry Gordy, and sat in the studio obsessively watching Gordy and Stevie Wonder and others mix an album. He danced with the Nicholas Brothers and Jeffrey Daniels and Michael Peters, and danced on Soul Train and at Studio 54. He worked with Gamble & Huff and Quincy Jones, as well as some of the best songwriters, session musicians, sound engineers, vocalists, dancers, and other performers in the business.
I mean, just think about the amazing life he lived, learning about the history of American performing arts from the people who knew it best – and not just as an eyewitness but as a fellow artist. He didn’t just research the history of performance in America; he lived it.
But Marsh never seems to consider that with this incredibly rich artistic background, steeped as it was in the traditions of previous generations (vaudeville, country, soul, R&B), coming of age at Motown (“the Sound of Young America”) and continuing on through pop, funk, and disco, Michael Jackson might know some aspects of music and entertainment history much more fully and more intimately than he (Marsh) does. It’s unbelievably patronizing.
Lisha: Well said, Willa. To challenge Michael Jackson’s knowledge of the racial divide in music or the industry shows what a naive position Marsh is coming from. He manages to overlook just about everything that Michael Jackson brings to the table, which is a pretty massive blind spot.
Lisha: Interestingly, Marsh’s book was published in 1985, seven years after Destiny. According to Marsh’s own account, he wrote the book in response to Michael Jackson’s breathtaking success in the 1980s, including his “triumph over apartheid broadcasting.” It’s revealing that Marsh specifically cites Michael Jackson’s breach of the racial divide while setting up his book-length rant.
Willa: Yes, that’s true. He praises a few individual songs on Thriller, especially “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” and notes that the album as a whole “crossed over” and appealed to white audiences on a scale that no album ever had before. But then he harshly condemns it precisely because of its crossover appeal, claiming it sells out in a way that harkens back to blackface minstrelsy. Lifting quotes from Robert C. Toll’s Blacking Up and applying them to Michael Jackson and Thriller, Marsh writes,
Why did they [white listeners] find Thriller so attractive? I’d say because both you and your album let them see what they expected, a “lazy, pretentious, frivolous, improvident, irresponsible and immature” black “who loved to entertain whites.” Now Michael, I know you aren’t improvident – you have lots of money. Maybe you aren’t lazy when the chips are down, but intellectually you are a sloth. You go ahead and deny meeting the other standards. There’s no way I can.
Lisha: Wow. I’m sorry, but that really crosses the line from harsh critique to a racially motivated personal attack.
Willa: It feels that way to me too. And by equating Michael Jackson with minstrel show stereotypes and condemning him as a black performer “who loved to entertain whites,” Marsh places him – and in fact all successful black “crossover” artists – in an ironic double bind, as if the mere fact of their ability to entrance white audiences is prima facie evidence that they have sold out their race.
Lisha: That’s a brilliant observation, Willa. I get the feeling that what Marsh ultimately wants is for Michael Jackson to stay on his side of the color line. He put an awful lot of energy into writing a book that attempts to put Michael Jackson back in his place. At least that’s what I take from it.
Willa: Yes, I think you’re right, in the sense that Marsh wants him to “be black” and stay black, but it’s more complicated than that. He actually wants Michael Jackson to be a kind of Moses figure who will lead America out of its racist past and bring about racial healing, and he expresses a mournful dismay that he apparently isn’t Moses and isn’t trying to be. As Marsh says,
Chances are, even if you’d wanted to do it, you could not have crossed an army over into the Promised Land with you. But you could have gotten them to wade in the water.
It’s really manipulative what he’s doing. We could do an entire post on Dave Marsh.
Lisha: Great idea! I think we should devote an entire post to Dave Marsh. His book is such an important document for understanding the fierce backlash Michael Jackson had to face.
Willa: It really is. However, as provoking as Marsh is, he does make an important point in that long passage I quoted earlier when he says that “your own grandfather, a black man in Arkansas, … tuned in ‘hillbilly’ radio programs not out of perversity but because that music was ‘his’ as much as it was “theirs.’” In other words, he’s saying that country music belongs to black audiences just as much as it belongs to whites. That seems to be exactly what Michael Jackson was getting at in Moonwalk when he said, “my mother grew up in Alabama, and in that part of the country it was just as common for black people to be raised with country and western music on the radio as it was for them to hear spirituals in church.”
So maybe one way of interpreting that country-sounding intro to “Destiny” is to see it as reclaiming that heritage.
Lisha: Yes, I think you’re right and that is so important to emphasize. Country music is also called the “white man’s blues” because it too owes a debt to black musicians from the Mississippi Delta. And misconceptions about the origins of rock and roll are abundant, thanks to Elvis Presley and other white artists who covered this music early on. The true architects and pioneers of rock and roll were black musicians coming out of the R&B tradition, like Little Richard for example, who was also influenced by the country music that surrounded him. “Destiny” seems to be questioning why music is still coded black or white at all.
Willa: I agree, and that’s a really interesting way to think about “Destiny,” Lisha. So by placing the genres side by side as he does, maybe he’s emphasizing their similarities and common history.
Lisha: Well at least in theory, it stands to reason that all forms of American music should be a part of our musical heritage as Americans. But as you said earlier, Willa, country music is “somehow off-limits to blacks.” And whites have repeatedly rejected or felt threatened by black music, even while appropriating it as their own.
Record producer Don Was did this amazing project called Rhythm, Country and Blues back in 1994, which addressed the issue of race and genre by focusing on the surprising commonalities between black R&B and white country music. He made some amazing recordings with country and R&B artists working together, and he did it so convincingly that you begin to question how different these genres really are. There is a wonderful documentary film about this project, and I think the segment with Little Richard and country star Tanya Tucker is especially relevant to our discussion. It starts at about 25:00 in:
Wouldn’t “Destiny” be a perfect song to receive the Don Was treatment? It so beautifully illustrates how American music has been racialized and divided, but then really makes you question why that has to be, if you stop long enough to think about it!
Willa: Wow, that is fascinating, Lisha! I remember when that album came out, but I’d never seen the documentary before – didn’t even know it existed. I loved listening to all the duets again!
Lisha: I did too! Aren’t they amazing?
Willa: They really are! What a treat to hear Aaron Neville and Trisha Yearwood sing “I Fall to Pieces” or Clint Black and the Pointer Sisters sing “Chain of Fools” or Gladys Knight and Vince Gill sing “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” or Natalie Cole and Reba McEntire sing “Since I Fell for You” or Marty Stuart and the Staple Singers sing “The Weight.” I’d forgotten how great the music on that album is, and it really shows how the separation between genres – especially between “black” music and “white” music – is “just an illusion / Wrought by the magical lens of / Perception,” to quote a very wise person. We tend to hear Little Richard and Tanya Turner as very different – as belonging to completely different musical spheres – because we’ve been trained to perceive them that way. But our conditioning fools us. They really aren’t that different. And what a wonderful way of showing that, Lisha.
Lisha: I’m glad you thought so. Willa, do you remember the interview Michael Jackson gave John Pidgeon in 1980, the one where Janet sits in and repeats the questions back to him?
Willa: Oh yes. I love that interview.
Lisha: I do too. I wanted to go back and read that again, because it was done just a couple of years after Destiny was released. Here are some excerpts that I thought were especially interesting in this context:
I hate to say it’s a category – pop, jazz. I don’t like that. It’s music. It’s wonder to the ear and that’s what counts. If you can move a person through music, that’s what makes me feel good. That’s what I enjoy about it…
I think secretly and privately, I mean really deep within, there’s a destiny, for me, and just for me to stay on that track and follow it…
Call it disco, call it anything … it’s music. … That is the ugly thing about man – they categorize too much. They get a little bit too racial about things when it should all be together. That’s why you hear us talk about the peacock a lot, because the peacock is the only bird of all the bird family that integrates every color into one.
And that’s our main goal in music, is to integrate every race into one, through music, and we’re doing that. If you go to our concerts you see every race out there, and they’re all waving hands and they’re holding hands and they’re smiling and they’re dancing. And that to me is accomplishing everything. That’s the biggest reward for me, more than money, is to bring those people together and do that. That’s what makes me feel good. You see the kids out there dancing, as well as the grownups and the grandparents. All colors. And that’s what’s great. That’s what keeps me going.
So according to Michael Jackson, integrating race through music was his “main goal.” It’s not just a happy accident that his music ends up so effectively addressing the racial divide. It’s by design. His thought process seems to be, What would happen if these musical categories began to drop? Can artists steer the culture by addressing these issues in their work? What better place to do this kind of cultural work than the music industry – an industry that is already set up to deliver artistic product to a mass audience?
Willa: Wow, Lisha. Those are really important questions. So if we approach “Destiny” from this perspective, then the way it juxtaposes different genres could really be seen as a political statement.
Lisha: Yes, I think so. It also strikes me as a deeply spiritual position, too, as you said earlier. Looking again at what Michael Jackson told John Pidgeon, “I think secretly and privately, I mean really deep within, there’s a destiny, for me…”
In this part of the interview, Michael Jackson was specifically talking about having a vision for how he wanted to push music performance and composition forward in very visual and dramatic way. When I thought about this more, the peacock illustration on the back cover of the Destiny album came to mind.
Michael Jackson said the peacock is “the only bird of all the bird family that integrates every color into one.” So the peacock is used as a visual symbol on the album of integrating all colors through music. The peacock is also featured on the back of the Triumph album, and a peacock feather floats upwards towards the sky at the end of the short film Can You Feel It, followed by a display of peacock feathers imposed on an image of the planet.
Willa: Yes, I was just thinking about that! And Can You Feel It really advances the idea of bringing people together through art, as Joie and I talked about in a post a while back. So it seems significant that the image of the peacock would appear in both Destiny and Can You Feel It.
Lisha: It does to me too. It’s a visual symbol that sums up the spiritual values or philosophy of the music.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha, and it just goes to show how “Destiny” begins as a country song but ends up being so much more.
Lisha: Something else I noticed about “Destiny” is how consistent the thematic content is with the genre of country music. I’m even tempted to think of it as a country song that strays into other musical territory, rather than think of it as a Jacksons’ song that simply tacks on a country section. The lyrics deal with some very familiar themes in country music such as longing for “the simple life,” a desire to get away from the city, a cautious attitude about excessive materialism, a stubborn but highly-valued sense of individualism. I think this holds true for the entire song, but these lines in particular strike me as typical of the country music genre:
And I’ve tasted the city life and it’s not for me…
If it’s the rich life I don’t want it,
Happiness ain’t always material things…
Give me the simple life…
Let me be me
C’mon, let me feel free…
Nobody can change my mind
Willa: That’s true, Lisha. There’s also the idea of constantly moving on, which is a common feature of country music also. For example, the cowboy, alone on the range, is a very old motif – or more recently, the country singer or the gambler moving from one honky tonk to another, playing a night or two and then traveling on. We see something similar in “Destiny,” such as the urge to “up and fly away so fancy free” or the repeated lines “I’m getting away from here / Let me be free / Let me be me.” In fact, the entire song focuses on a quest that may take him around the world as he searches for his destiny.
You know, it would be really easy to interpret this search for his “destiny” as a longing for success – wealth, accolades, a penthouse in the city – but as you pointed out earlier, Lisha, the lyrics contradict that. In the lyrics you just quoted, he emphasizes that “Happiness ain’t always material things.” So while commercial success may be part of his destiny, that doesn’t seem to be his main goal. He’s talking about something deeper and more spiritual when he refers to finding his destiny.
Lisha: That’s an excellent point. It’s clear that the character in this song is not motivated by success in terms of material gain. His motivation is something much bigger: a desire to fulfill his own destiny. He follows his own moral compass and sense of purpose.
Willa: Yes, and the idea of defining success on your own terms is part of the country music tradition also. Success may be a good paycheck, but more often it’s the satisfaction of living life on your own terms, free from constraints. You don’t need a penthouse to be happy – just a pickup truck and the love of a good woman. I’m oversimplifying of course, but that’s the general idea …
Lisha: I’m not sure you can oversimplify when it comes to satisfaction and pickup trucks in country music!
Willa: That’s funny, Lisha. But you’re right that “Destiny” evokes a lot of themes frequently heard in country music, so maybe the country flavor in the intro was also used to help convey those thematic ideas. In fact, you may be right in looking at it more as “a country song that strays into other musical territory” instead of “a Jacksons’ song that simply tacks on a country section.”
Well thank you, Lisha, for another fun conversation! I learn so much every time I talk to you.
Lisha: It’s always great to hear your ideas and talk about Michael Jackson’s work! I loved revisiting this song.
Willa: I did too. I also wanted to let everyone know about a conversation you and your friend, historian Roberta Meek, recently had with Elizabeth Amisu and Karin Merx of the Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies. Here’s a link to the podcast, which is a fascinating look at Michael Jackson and Prince. Joe Vogel recently published an article about Michael Jackson and Prince also, and Raven Woods republished a 2011 post about them on her AllForLoveBlog, with an updated ending. It’s an important topic.
Lisha: Thanks for mentioning the podcast, Willa. We had a wonderful time putting that together. I understand Part 2 of the conversation goes up June 7th, so stay tuned.
Willa: Wonderful! I’m really looking forward to it.
Willa: In late 2011, the Michael Jackson Academia Project posted two videos to YouTube analyzing Black or White and They Don’t Care about Us. Joie and I both thought they were interesting and well constructed – in fact, we liked them so much we published a quick post promoting them, even though we were both on Christmas vacation at the time. These videos were followed in February 2012 by two videos on the HIStory album, and again Joie and I thought they were thought provoking and well produced, and we encouraged others to watch them.
We also added the Academia Project videos to our Reading Room, providing recommendations and links, and we have kept them there ever since, even after the videos themselves were removed from YouTube for copyright infringement (something I strongly disagree with, by the way – those videos were analyzing Michael Jackson’s work, not pirating it, so I believe they should have been allowed to stay up under US copyright provisions for Fair Use). We hoped the copyright issues would be resolved and the videos would be republished.
In general, we believed the Academia Project was working to increase understanding of Michael Jackson and his art, and we wanted to support them. And I would like to continue to support them in producing positive work.
However, two days ago we received a pingback from the Academia Project website. They had just published a post accusing Joe Vogel of plagiarizing their work. I was very concerned by this because plagiarism is one of the most serious professional offenses that can be leveled against an academic – it can ruin reputations and careers – and those accusations did not square with my own experiences and observations from working with Joe. We have done several posts together over the past four years, including a post last April on the article at the center of the Academia Project accusations. I also read and provided comments on the first chapter of his dissertation, which later became that article. During the time I’ve known him, I have found him to be conscientious in recognizing the contributions of others who have gone before him, and generous in acknowledging them and expressing his gratitude for their work.
So I was deeply troubled by the allegations. I went to the Academia Project website and looked at their claims, and I found them to be without merit. Specifically, I came to the following conclusions:
First, academic writers must be scrupulous about attributing unique research data, ideas, perspectives, and turns of phrase to the people who originally collected or developed them. However, information that is considered to be common knowledge does not have to be cited. For example, if I wrote that Michael Jackson was from Gary, Indiana, I would not need to cite a source for that. And much of what the Academia Project is claiming as their unique contribution I consider to be common knowledge.
For example, the Academia Project notes that their video on Black or White includes this statement:
On 14 November 1991 the music video for Michael Jackson’s new single, ‘Black or White’, was premiered. The film was the most anticipated music video of all time and was televised simultaneously on MTV, VH1, BET, Fox and on channels around the world.
And they point out that Joe Vogel’s article includes this statement: “Michael Jackson’s 11-minute short film, Black or White, was the most watched music video premiere in television history.” This information is widely known – it has been reported numerous times, in many different sources, for more than 20 years. As such, I believe this qualifies as common knowledge.
Second, when documenting prior work, academic researchers try to cite the original source of an idea – and the Academia Project is not the original source for many of the ideas they are claiming as their own. For example, they point to this statement in their November 2011 video:
As the ‘Black or White’ video progresses, Michael sings “I ain’t scared of no sheets’ while bursting through imagery of a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning rally.
The ‘sheets’ referred to are the white hooded robes of the hate group.
They claim it is the source for this statement in Joe Vogel’s 2015 article: “The sheets Jackson refers to, of course, are the sheets of the Ku Klux Klan.” To me, this is a fairly obvious interpretation and doesn’t need to be cited. (In fact, I mentioned that the “sheets” referred to the Ku Klux Klan in M Poetica, published six months before the Academia Project videos, and I did not cite anyone.) However, Joe wrote of this connection in Man in the Music, which was published before the Academia Project videos were posted. Here’s what he says, in an image from page 159 of his book:
Again, I think the reference to the Ku Klux Klan is common knowledge and that Joe doesn’t need to cite anyone. However, if he did decide to include a citation, the Academia Project would not be the original source. I would need to do some research to find out who was, but I know Eric Lott mentioned it in “The Aesthetic Ante: Pleasure, Pop Culture, and the Middle Passage” – an academic article published in the spring of 1994 – and Armond White mentioned it even earlier, in a newspaper article that I believe was published soon after the video’s premiere in 1991.
Third, while the Academia Project’s videos and Joe Vogel’s article share some similar background information, those areas of overlap are only a tiny fraction of the overall scope of Joe’s article. For example, while the Academia Project focuses primarily on the political history of race and the civil rights movement, Joe takes a more theoretical approach and looks at the constructedness of race. He also focuses on constructions of gender, as his title suggests: “I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets: Re-screening Black Masculinity in Michael Jackson’s Black or White.” Gender isn’t addressed in the Academia Project video.
Finally, it is certainly possible and even likely for people working in similar areas, studying similar texts, to draw similar conclusions. For example, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz both developed the branch of mathematics called calculus at approximately the same time, working independently of one another and using very different notation. In another example, Samuel Johnson and Voltaire published remarkably similar novels (Rasselas and Candide) at the same time, though they lived in separate countries and wrote in different languages. Johnson himself remarked that if their books hadn’t been published simultaneously, neither author would have been able to counter the charge of plagiarizing the other.
My point is that as Michael Jackson’s stature continues to grow, the field of Jackson studies will inevitably become more crowded, with more and more people publishing analysis and posting opinions of his work. So there is bound to be some stepping on toes and jostling of elbows. However, while we may find that we disagree on some things – even strenuously disagree – it is imperative that we treat one another with respect and generosity of spirit.
I have seen too many instances of passionate fans allowing their passion to threaten or destroy something positive. The Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC) was a wonderful resource for disseminating information and sharing ideas. However, it was destroyed in large part by rival factions who could not settle their differences. And I was very disheartened to read a news article last week that a memorial in Germany may be dismantled because of ongoing disagreements between fan groups. This does not honor Michael Jackson’s legacy.
I would like to end by letting Joe respond to the Academia Project claims in his own words, from a post he published yesterday:
To be clear: My article on “Black or White” is not in any way derived from this fan’s videos, blogs, or other commentary. It is, however, indebted, to the scholars and critics I mention in my piece …
Over the years, I have interacted with numerous scholars, journalists and critics doing great work on Michael Jackson. They are overwhelmingly wonderful, generous, and civil, even when there are disagreements. I have had similar experiences with most Michael Jackson fans and fan groups.
It is my continued hope that those engaged in … attacks will instead focus on more positive ways to productively engage with Michael Jackson’s life and work.
His full post is available here.
Willa: This week I am so happy to be joined once again by our longtime friend, Joe Vogel. Or actually, I should say Dr. Joe Vogel – you’ve accomplished a lot since the last time we talked with you! What all have you been up to, Joe?
Joe: Hi Willa. It’s great to talk again. I’ve been so busy lately, but every time I check in with Dancing With the Elephant some great new discussion is going on. You and Joie do such a fantastic job of exploring different facets of Michael Jackson’s creative work and life.
As far as what I’ve been up to … As you noted, I recently finished my PhD at the University of Rochester. I’m now working on a book on James Baldwin that focuses on his cultural and media criticism in the 1980s.
Willa: Oh, interesting! I knew you frequently posted things about James Baldwin on your blog, but I didn’t realize you were writing a book about him.
Joe: Yes, it’s an outgrowth of one of my dissertation chapters. Once I began really digging into Baldwin’s work, I was amazed by his prescience. His work is still so relevant to the world we live in today.
I’ve also written a few new MJ-related things, some of which have already been published (an entry on Thriller for the Library of Congress and the liner notes for Xscape), and some of which will be published in the near future (an entry on Michael Jackson for Scribner’s encyclopedia, America in the World, 1776-present, and the article we will be discussing today, “I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets: Re-screening Black Masculinity in Michael Jackson’s Black or White,” which just recently came out in the Journal of Popular Music Studies).
Willa: And I’ve really been looking forward to talking with you about it. There are so many aspects of your article that fascinated or surprised me. For example, you see Black or White as pushing back against a long history of racism in the film industry, and you begin your article by reviewing some of that history – and to be honest, I was shocked by it.
As you point out, Hollywood’s first film, as we think of films today, was D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation – a movie that glorified the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, it was originally titled The Clansman. As you say in your article,
It ushered in a new art form – the motion picture – that transformed the entertainment industry. … Birth became the most profitable film of its time – and possibly of all time, adjusted for inflation. It was the first film to cost over $100 thousand dollars to make, the first to have a musical score, the first to be shown at the White House, the first to be viewed by the Supreme Court and members of congress, and the first to be viewed by millions of ordinary Americans. It was America’s original blockbuster.
So Birth of a Nation had a huge impact on America’s new film industry – in fact, it helped shape our ideas about what a film is or should be – but it also helped shape popular notions of race. And you see Black or White as taking on both of these issues, right? – as challenging the dual-headed hydra of racism and the film industry in the US?
Joe: Exactly. Ralph Ellison described Birth of a Nation as having “forged the twin screen image of the Negro as bestial rapist and grinning, eye-rolling clown.” It was hugely powerful and influential, not just in the South, but in the North, and in Los Angeles, where it premiered to a standing ovation.
Willa: Yes, in fact the turning point of the film is the murder of a black man accused of attempting to rape a white women, and the fear of miscegenation and black men as “bestial rapists” runs throughout it, from beginning to end. For example, the film ends with the double wedding of two white couples – a brother and sister from the North marry a brother and sister from the South – and what unites them, what unites whites from the North and South after the bitterness of the Civil War, is fear of black men.
Joe: Michael Jackson was so knowledgeable about the history of film that I just found it interesting that, given his biggest platform in 1991, an estimated 500 million viewers around the world, he decides to use this fledgling new medium – the short music film, a medium he pioneered as much as D.W. Griffith did the long motion picture – to challenge and replace Griffith’s mythology about black masculinity and race more broadly.
Willa: Yes, as you write in your article,
D.W. Griffith himself acknowledged that one crucial purpose of the film “was to create a feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially white women, against colored men.”
As you go on to write, Griffith does this by exaggerating racial differences and creating “a world of stark contrasts.” As you point out,
Black characters are mostly whites in blackface, making them appear darker and more uniformly black than the diverse range of skin tones of actual African-Americans. They are also more often presented in shadows with manic and animalistic expressions. The white protagonists, meanwhile, possess a glowing, radiant aura that highlights their whiteness and inherent nobility.
Michael Jackson challenges this “world of stark contrasts” throughout his short film by offering a much more complex and integrative view of humanity, and this challenge begins with the ironic title, Black or White. There is very little in Black or White that is either all black or all white.
Joe: Exactly. Throughout the song and video he is constantly complicating our understandings of these categories, and carefully juxtaposing or balancing tensions. It undercuts the central premise of Griffith’s film: the fallacy of racial purity (and by extension, white supremacy).
Willa: Oh, I agree. For example, while Griffith presents an almost cartoonish depiction of racial differences by using white actors in blackface, Michael Jackson gives us African tribesmen whose faces have been painted with both black and white facepaint, so their faces are a collage of black and white. This is an important scene – it’s when the music of Black or White begins, and it’s when Michael Jackson makes his first appearance in the film. It seems significant to me that when we first see him, he’s dancing with these men. So his face, which complicates and resists simplistic definitions of race, is first seen amid these tribesmen, whose faces are works of art combining black and white in creative ways.
Later, there’s the famous morphing sequence, where the face of an American Indian man morphs into the face of a black woman, then a white woman, then a black man, then an East Indian woman, and so on. To me both of these scenes – the black-and-white painted faces of the tribesmen and the morphing faces sequence – are an artistic expression of “the fallacy of racial purity,” as you just said.
Biologically, there’s no such thing as race – there is no genetic binary with “black” on one side and “white” on the other. It’s a cultural concept rather than a biological reality. Humanity is a vast spectrum of physical characteristics – skin tones, facial features, hair types – and we’ve had ideas about racial divisions artificially imposed onto us. As you say in your article,
“Being a color,” Jackson suggests, is not a universal essence; it is an identity fashioned through imagination, history, narrative, and myth; it is a trope and a positioning within concentric communities.
That’s such an important point, I think, and part of what Michael Jackson is suggesting in these two scenes of the tribesmen and the morphing faces. The importance of these two scenes is emphasized by their strategic placement in the film – they bookend the central section of Black or White. It seems to me that Black or White consists of three sections: the prologue in suburbia before the music begins, the main part where the song is played, and the epilogue or “panther dance” after the music ends. And it’s significant, I think, that the main part begins with the tribesmen and ends with the morphing faces.
Joe: These are great observations. And, of course, all of this new, complex racial storytelling is being relayed, presumably, for a traditional white suburban family. The prologue, as you describe it, is about white insularity and dysfunction, particularly between the father and son. The white patriarch (played by George Wendt) is angry, on the surface, because his son (played by Macaulay Culkin) is playing music too loud.
But the point Michael Jackson is making here seems to go much deeper. The rage from the father is about ignorance. He doesn’t understand his son, or his son’s music, or his son’s heroes. His worldview is narrow, provincial, outdated – which is why his son literally blasts him out of the house, and why the father lands, recliner and all, in Africa, the cradle of civilization, where his “re-education” begins.
Willa: Yes, and significantly, one of his son’s heroes is Michael Jackson – his father knocks his poster down when he storms into his son’s room. There’s a similar scene at the very end of the video, as you point out in your article, with Homer Simpson grabbing the remote and turning off the TV, where his son Bart has been watching Black or White – specifically, the panther dance. So the video is framed by these two scenes of an angry, repressive, white father trying to limit his son’s exposure to popular culture – specifically, pop culture as mediated by a black artist, Michael Jackson.
This seems to be an accurate reflection of the times since, as you say in your article, Black or White was released at a time of intense white male anger. Advances in civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights “eroded male dominance in the home and workplace,” as you say, and led to the rise of a predominantly white “men’s movement.” I thought it was very interesting that the most popular book of 1991, the year Black or White was released, was Robert Bly’s Iron John, which as you point out was “a book that sought to make sense of and rehabilitate broken men by restoring their inner ‘wildman’ or ‘warrior within.’”
I remember how popular Bly’s book and the “men’s movement” was back then. Men would gather in the woods to build huge bonfires and bang on drums and shed the supposedly emasculating influence of civilization. I hadn’t thought about all that in terms of Michael Jackson before, but it’s another fascinating historical context for interpreting Black or White – especially the scene you’re talking about, Joe, where a suburban man sitting in a recliner is blasted back to Africa and then sees Michael Jackson dancing with tribesmen.
In some ways, this seems to be exactly what Bly was proposing – for men to go back to their primal origins and reconnect with the “warrior within.” But Michael Jackson deviates from Bly’s script by dancing with Thai women, and then a group of Plains Indians, including a little girl. Next he dances with an East Indian woman and a group of Russian men. So Michael Jackson’s message seems very different than Bly’s.
Joe: Right. Part of what makes Bly’s project misguided, in my opinion, is that it assumes that there is a universal essence to all men, and by extension, a universal prescription to the so-called “masculinity crisis.” He doesn’t acknowledge difference and diversity among men, as Michael Jackson so often does. But as you say, it’s another fascinating historical context that indicates that masculinity was perceived as being in crisis.
In fact, another context I ended up cutting is the role of hip hop. So much of hip hop at the time, particularly gangsta rap, was about projecting hypermasculine power. Being a real man precluded being gay or queer or soft, or treating women with respect, or being involved in interracial relationships.
So Michael’s song and video, in this context, directly challenged the prevailing discourse in hip hop and also in hard rock/metal. While hip hop was often singled out, metal was often just as misogynistic and homophobic.
Willa: It really was.
Joe: These genres were so influential among young people in the late 80s/early 1990s. It’s no accident Michael incorporated them both into Black or White, but reimagined their “messaging.”
Willa: That’s interesting, Joe. And these contexts are important because you see Black or White not only as a critique of racism, which is how it’s usually interpreted, but also as a critique of gender – as engaging with repressive cultural narratives of what it means to be a man, specifically what it means to be a black man, and creating a “re-vision of black masculinity.” As you write in your article,
A “pattern” existed, Jackson recognized, in how black men were represented in American media. … In cinema, of course, the pattern Jackson refers to was largely introduced with Birth of a Nation.
A different but equally restrictive “pattern” was perpetuated by Bly’s “man’s movement,” and by hip hop and heavy metal as you say. And you see Black or White as directly challenging those patterns and offering a new vision, a “re-vision” as you put it, of both race and gender. Is that right?
Joe: Yes, in an interview around the time of his trial Michael Jackson spoke about the Jack Johnson story. He was keenly aware of America’s fears about black men, specifically about black male sexuality. That’s really the central fear in Birth of a Nation: the prospect of black men defiling white female purity. The director, D.W. Griffith, makes no qualms about this. As you mentioned earlier, he speaks of wanting to elicit an “abhorrence” of miscegenation and interracial marriage. This fear goes back to slavery and continues in tragedies like the deaths of Emmett Till and Yusef Hawkins. (Keep in mind, in 1958 only 4% of Americans approved of black-white marriages. By 1991, the number had risen to 48%, but that’s still less than half of America.)
So this is the mythology Michael Jackson is challenging in Black or White. From the lyric, “‘Boy, is that girl with you?’ / ‘Yes, we’re one and the same,’” to the scene in which Michael walks through a burning cross, shouting “I ain’t scared of no sheets!,” to the morphing scene, which undercuts the very notion of racial purity, to the panther coda, which, in my opinion, is one of the boldest, most defiant moments in film history – certainly in a music video.
Willa: Oh, I agree.
Joe: One of the things I find so fascinating about this moment in the short film is that he symbolically takes over as the auteur – the white director (John Landis) is dethroned. It’s an amazing moment given the history of film, and how overwhelmingly it has been dominated by white men. And the fact was, John Landis really did oppose what Michael was doing in the panther scene, as did Sony executives. Recently, an outtake surfaced on YouTube that shows a bit of this.
Michael insists that Landis is the one thinking “dirty,” not him. It’s actually pretty funny. But this film, and especially the panther segment, represent Michael Jackson’s artistic vision, his choices. He knew the risks, and he knew what he wanted to achieve. The sheer intelligence of the short film testifies to that – the black panther sneaking off the set, the complete shift in tone, lighting, setting – the juxtapositions and tensions, given what we witnessed in the “official cut.” It’s remarkable.
Willa: It really is. And thank you so much for sharing that behind-the-scenes clip! I hadn’t seen that before, but it’s very telling, isn’t it? Watching that clip, it’s obvious that John Landis really didn’t understand what Michael Jackson was doing or why it was so important. And like you, I think it’s significant that, in the video, John Landis’ role symbolically ends after the morphing sequence, and the rest of the video – the panther dance – is presented as Michael Jackson’s own.
It reminds me of Liberian Girl, a video that begins with a Hollywood-style depiction of colonial Africa, complete with missionary … but then suddenly everything shifts. We hear Malcolm-Jamal Warner (a black actor) say, “I’m afraid to open any doors around here” – and isn’t that an interesting comment? Then Whoopi Goldberg (a black actress) asks, “Who’s directing this?” The camera cuts to Steven Spielberg (a white director) sitting in the director’s chair, but he’s not in control – he’s bored and waiting.
Then Rosanna Arquette (a white actress) asks Jasmine Guy (a black actress) “Do you know what we’re supposed to be doing?” Jasmine Guy answers with, “All I know is that Michael called me. I guess when he gets here, he’ll let me know what we’re supposed to do” – implying that Michael Jackson is really the one in charge. That’s borne out at the very end of the video when we finally see him … and surprisingly, he’s in the cameraman’s chair. So he’s the one who’s been controlling the camera, and he’s the one calling the shots – not the white guy sitting in the director’s chair, glancing at his watch and waiting for someone to tell him what to do. So despite the expectations raised by its intro, Liberian Girl is not another white depiction of Afro-colonialism. It’s something else entirely. It’s about a talented young black man seizing control of what appears in millions of homes around the world, but it’s all done in such a fun, light-hearted, subtle way that no one seemed to realize what he was doing.
I think the message of the John Landis scene in Black or White is similar. John Landis may be the director, but he’s not in charge. He’s really just an employee who’s helping Michael Jackson convey his vision without understanding what that vision is. John Landis himself makes that very clear in the behind-the-scenes clip you posted, Joe. At about 1:45 in, he turns to the camera and says, “I didn’t choreograph this. I’m just shooting.” He’s completely disassociating himself from everything that appears on screen during the panther dance.
Joe: Exactly. There are quotes in my article in which he says similar things – basically, that he is a hired hand for this video. Not even out of modesty, really, but because he wants to distance himself from what Michael is doing.
Willa: Yes, it seems that way to me too. He seems very uncomfortable with the panther dance portion of the video. And that makes sense because, as you said, that’s when “the white director (John Landis) is dethroned.” And Michael Jackson is not just defying the role of the white director but, even more importantly, the long history of Hollywood representations of black men and black culture. I think it’s very significant in this context that the climax of the panther dance, to my mind anyway, is the fall of the sign for the Royal Arms Hotel, which explodes in a spray of flying sparks. This is about black resistance to “Royal Arms” and that kind of colonial ideology, and to a film industry that is steeped in that racist, colonial worldview.
One important principle of that worldview is the prohibition against miscegenation, as you point out in your article. But this prohibition isn’t a legal rule enforced by the courts, as it was in the past. Instead, it’s become internalized and is now enforced through the feelings of white women who look at a black man and feel disgust or revulsion, or the feelings of white men who witness a white woman with a black man and react with intense anger.
This new kind of postcolonial racism – “to create a feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially white women, against colored men,” as D.W. Griffith said – has been at the heart of the American film industry since its inception. And it’s what Michael Jackson is taking on in the panther dance, especially, as you show so well in your analysis of Birth of a Nation and Black or White.
Joe: Well, I tried anyway. It’s a fascinating short film, and like so much of Michael Jackson’s work, it rewards deep dives. In fact, now having talked to you about it, there is more I would like to incorporate into my article!
Willa: Oh, I know what you mean – it takes a village to fully understand a Michael Jackson work! I’ve been thinking about Black or White for years, but even so, your article opened up whole new vistas for looking at this incredible film. And once you really dive into it, you just see more and more and it’s hard to stop.
Joe: But I guess it’s probably for the best. I had to cut about 6-7,000 words as it was. That’s the nature of an academic article, and really, publishing in general. But I have no doubt this short film will continue to be written about in fresh and compelling ways. As Susan Fast points out in her amazing 33⅓ book on Dangerous, no song or video of Jackson’s has received more scholarly attention. It began with Armond White’s phenomenal article in 1991 for The City Sun, and has continued over the years, especially since Jackson’s death in 2009. My article has been in the works for a few years now (it was the first chapter I wrote for my dissertation), so it’s exciting to finally see it published!
Willa: It really is, especially since your article helps reveal just how truly revolutionary and powerful Black or White was at the time, a few months after the Rodney King beating was captured on videotape, and how powerful it remains to this day … even though the original, 11-minute version is hard to find. Though maybe that’s why it’s so hard to find – it’s just too potent for Vevo!
So your article is now out and available?
Joe: Yes, the article is now published in the March 27.1 edition of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Unfortunately, it is quite expensive at the moment to view in full. I would love to make it free obviously, but copyright won’t allow it for now. Susan Fast wrote a great explanation on her blog recently, explaining the academic publishing process, which like many other industries, is still trying to figure out how to operate and make content accessible in the digital era.
Willa: Yes, as Susan explains, academic journals are time consuming to create – that’s why articles are so expensive. It’s not about profit. Authors of academic papers don’t earn anything from publishing them, and we don’t hold the copyrights. So, for example, I wanted to repost my “Monsters, Witches, Ghosts” article here at Dancing with the Elephant, but I couldn’t – I was asked to post a summary instead, with a link to the full article. Fortunately, most university libraries carry the Journal of Popular Music Studies, so those who live near a college or university can probably access your article for free there.
I also wanted to remind everyone that we have a link to your Library of Congress entry on Thriller available in our Reading Room, but I haven’t had a chance to talk with you about it. So this article was written for the Library of Congress and placed on the National Register, is that right?
Joe: Right, I was invited to do a short piece on Thriller, which was a real honor. The Registry now includes about 400 recordings. Each of these recordings was chosen by the Librarian of Congress, with input from the National Recording Preservation Board, because they were deemed so vital to the history of America – aesthetically, culturally or historically – that they demand permanent archiving in the nation’s library. The registry has been reaching out to scholars and music critics to flesh out their website with a variety of scholarly essays on each of the 400 titles on the Registry, each of which are about 1,000 words. So people that love music history should check out some of the other essays as well – I’ve read several and they’re great reads.
Willa: They really are. I was just reading the entry for “Blue Moon of Kentucky” by Bill Monroe, the creator of bluegrass, and interestingly enough it begins by comparing him to D.W. Griffith:
Like Martha Graham and, arguably, D.W. Griffith, what he created during his lifetime would go on to become an entire genre of art, a language, a vocabulary in which hundreds of other artists would create in its wake.
So just as Martha Graham created modern dance, and D.W. Griffith – through Birth of a Nation – created the modern film, Bill Monroe created the genre of bluegrass. Here’s a full list of essays on the Register, and a list of recordings.
Well, thank you so much for joining me, Joe! It’s always such a pleasure to talk with you.
Joe: Thank you, Willa. It’s always great to talk to you. And give my best to Joie!
Willa: I will!
Willa: This week I’m so excited to be joined by Harriet Manning, the author of a fascinating new book, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask, which was published recently by Ashgate Press, and Lisha McDuff, a professional musician and musicologist who wrote her dissertation on Black or White, approaching it in part as an example of “whiteface minstrelsy – or a reverse blackface minstrel performance.” Lisha shared some of her ideas about Black or White in a fascinating post with us last year. Thank you both for joining me!
Harriet: Hello. Thank you for having me.
Lisha: Thank you, Willa! It’s always a pleasure.
Willa: Oh, it’s always a joy talking with you, Lisha. And Harriet, there are so many interesting ideas in your book to talk about! But before we dive in, I’m curious to know how you first became interested in Michael Jackson, and in blackface minstrelsy. And then, how did you come to put them together?
Harriet: It started when I was learning blackface minstrelsy (the white theatrical parody of black dance, music and gesture). I was intrigued by the fact that despite its longevity (the tradition defined dominant pop culture throughout the 1800s in the U.K. and U.S.) it is considered long gone and its history is not widely known. I wondered how something so big could just disappear and pondered upon what form it might take today, when political correctness would no longer tolerate “blacking up.”
I did not know much about Michael Jackson but I got thinking: what if here was the legacy of blackface? I started studying the dance moves and the black stereotypes of the tradition and saw how Michael Jackson used these. A wonderful treasure trove opened: I had found the roots not only of MJ’s dance but also a mode by which to understand him and the various troubles he had to face.
Lisha: Harriet, that is so fascinating and I must say it’s been an eye-opening experience reading your book – not only for understanding how blackface minstrelsy is reflected in Michael Jackson’s work, but for understanding the minstrel show as “the first sellable pop form” of music. I think I’m just beginning to comprehend how prevalent this form of entertainment was at one time. So much of popular music can be traced back to blackface minstrelsy and I don’t think I was fully aware of that before.
Willa: I wasn’t either. I had no idea it was so incredibly popular, and for so long. Its popularity fluctuated, of course, but it held sway for over a century.
Lisha: That’s pretty incredible when you think about it – it’s such a huge cultural blindspot. As you were saying, Harriet, despite the minstrel show’s mass appeal in the 1800s, blackface parody seemed to vanish and it seems that most of us don’t have a clue as to how popular it once was. Was there a particular event that caused the British and American public to suddenly become aware of how offensive blackface parody was? What happened that caused such a dramatic shift in consciousness?
Harriet: The tradition became increasingly self-conscious in the mid-1800s with the lead up to the Civil War and then the abolition of slavery in the U.S. It fell out of vogue as its publics became uneasy with its racial content. The blackface mask then just became a stage convention and the overt racist material was removed. Then the mask itself disappeared.
Lisha: Interesting, since much of the same racist content still persists, but in a more subtle form. I’m so curious about what got you interested into really digging into this and uncovering even more about blackface minstrelsy?
Harriet: Blackface minstrelsy was part of a Black Music course I was doing for my music degree. I was really shocked by it. People need to know about it.
Willa: I agree. We do need to know about it, in part because we still see its influence today. On rare occasions we’ll see modern performers in blackface, like in Neil Diamond’s 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer. I can still remember how shocking that felt at the time, seeing Neil Diamond in blackface. And in the Do You Really Want to Hurt Me video by Culture Club, Boy George correlates the prejudice he’s been experiencing with racial prejudice, and there are pews of silent witnesses in blackface. Here’s a clip:
Lisha: Blackface is a really interesting choice in that clip, Willa, used very effectively as an “in your face” way of expressing how irrational and unconscious prejudice is.
Harriet: Do you read Boy George as equating racial prejudice with a sexual one?
Willa: I do. How about you, Lisha?
Lisha: Yes, I do. I’ve noticed that in a lot of discourse regarding gay rights, racial prejudice is used as a way to show how people have historically felt justified in discriminating against others, only to have their beliefs later exposed as terribly foolish and uncivilized. For example, it wasn’t so long ago that there were laws on the books restricting interracial marriage, just as today we still see laws restricting the rights of same sex couples.
Willa: That’s true, though I don’t know that civil rights leaders have always appreciated having their movement correlated with the LGBT movement. But there are a lot of parallels, as you say, and I think Boy George is subtly suggesting that in Do You Really Want to Hurt Me.
He’s on trial – we’re not sure why, but it seems to be because he expresses his sexuality in unconventional ways, or maybe it’s just because he’s different more generally. And the people judging him – the “jury of his peers” – is comprised of people in blackface acting in ways that enact the white stereotypes of blacks that were a staple of blackface minstrelsy. So he seems to be saying that, just as the dominant white population imposed their fears and prejudices onto blacks through blackface, the dominant straight population is now imposing its fears and prejudices onto him. And he’s doing it in a very “in your face” way, as you say, Lisha.
Lisha: Pun intended. It’s interesting how Boy George is looking backwards historically in this video, at a 1936 night club and a 1957 health club in London, as if re-examining old attitudes about race, gender and sexuality that need to be updated.
Harriet: Indeed blackface minstrelsy historically explored issues of sexuality and gender “under the mask” essentially because race and sexuality are profoundly aligned by their reliance on a “norm” (white and straight) and a different “Other” (black and gay).
Willa: I didn’t know that before – that the blackface tradition parodied gender and sexuality as well as race – and was very intrigued by that aspect of your book, Harriet. I’d really like to talk more about that today.
Lisha: I’m intrigued by this too. It really helped me understand how relevant the early minstrel shows are to Michael Jackson’s work.
But there is a fairly recent example of blackface I wanted to mention because I found it so surprising – a comedy act called “The Jackson Jive” that aired on the Australian variety show Hey Hey It’s Saturday in October 2009. Unbelievably, this act was performed as a “song and dance tribute” to Michael Jackson following his death.
The performers and the host of the show seem completely unaware that this type of blackface parody could come across as offensive – not even the YouTube poster appears to have a problem with it! However, Harry Connick Jr., who was a guest on the program that night, said he would never have appeared on the show had he known such an act would be included. From my own (American) perspective, it’s shocking that anyone would find this kind of ridicule to be an acceptable form of entertainment.
Harriet: Absolutely. Also, what I noticed was that as the presenter invites Harry Connick Jr. to express his grievances, it apparently needs to be explained why: because the skit could be considered offensive “in his [Harry Connick’s] country.” This implies that it is only America’s “problem” in a comment that then functions to get the show “off the hook.” Seriously not happy with that at all.
Willa: That’s a good point, Harriet. And Australia does have a long history of racism – just look at how the Aborigines have been treated – though their history is very different than ours. They didn’t have the institution of slavery that existed in the U.S. for centuries, but there were slaves in Australia and they do have a tradition of racism.
Lisha: No doubt about it. But one of the interesting things to me about this clip is how it demonstrates the geographical nature of racism. I think Harry Connick Jr. is right – this skit would have been perceived in a totally different way in the U.S. In fact, I don’t believe “The Jackson Jive” skit would air in the U.S. at all. I just can’t imagine any American broadcaster airing a blackface comedy act that ridicules race in this way. It’s not something I think Americans would tolerate, maybe because blackface parody is such a painful part of our history.
Harriet: It would never have aired in the U.K., either. I do admire Harry Connick Jr.’s explanation as to why he is offended. It reminds me of the problem with the golliwog (the manifestation of the blackface minstrel character with full moon eyes, wide smile, and woolly wig). The golliwog’s defenders say it is harmless, fun, and cute, but its history (rooted in racial ridicule) makes it none of these.
The clip makes me think of the 2004 Eminem video Just Lose It (discussed in my book), which provides another example of this sort of lazy racism (and in the form of a more overt contemporary “blackface” performance).
Willa: I like the way you express that, Harriet – “lazy racism.” That’s an excellent way to describe both of these. I hadn’t seen that “Jackson Jive” clip before, Lisha, and it’s thoroughly depressing. It’s especially troubling that they are performing “Can You Feel It” in blackface since that song is explicitly about overcoming racial prejudices, as Joie and I talked about in a post last August. It’s just horrifying to see this – and as you point out, Harriet, there’s an insinuation that if you find it offensive, it’s your problem.
As I remember, there was a similar feeling about the Eminem video when it came out – that if you were offended, you just didn’t have a good sense of humor and it was your problem. And it played fairly regularly on MTV, which is just as shocking as the “Jackson Jive” skit airing in Australia. Here’s a link to Eminem’s Just Lose It, though I want to warn readers that it’s really disturbing:
Lisha: The Eminem video is about as offensive as it gets, to my way of thinking. If Americans are tempted to claim the moral high ground for political correctness and for not tolerating a literal “blacking up,” then this video puts it all back into perspective. Harriet, you’ve pointed out that Eminem continues the tradition of minstrelsy with this white version of hip hop, parodying Michael Jackson in a way that is “in keeping with the harshest white portrayals of black men in traditional minstrelsy.” That’s even putting it mildly, don’t you think?
Harriet: It is, Lisha, yes. We should know better now, especially Eminem, who built his whole identity around his alliance with black artists. Eminem also went out his way to deny there was a problem with the video, which makes it even worse.
Willa: It really does. I hope these performers, including Eminem, evolve to a point where they are thoroughly ashamed of themselves someday. But this kind of overt reenactment or reference to blackface is fairly rare now, isn’t it?
Harriet: Overt references to blackface are rare, yes. This is for two reasons: firstly, because it is all too often a history “better off forgotten,” and secondly because, as the application of the mask has became increasingly socially unacceptable, it has been forced underground to become more subtle.
Willa: But while subtle, it can still have a powerful effect, as you discuss in your book. In fact, you suggest that the blackface tradition has had a pervasive influence on our perceptions of racial differences that is still very much alive today. For example, you point out that for a full century, blackface performers promoted a stereotypical view of blacks as violent and oversexed, with a secret longing to be white and to dress like upper-class whites – and this was generally presented in comic ways through the figures of the black dandy and the ignorant slave, Jim Crow.
And we still see those stereotypes today. Black men, especially, are all too often portrayed as violent and sexually aggressive, a prejudice that has significant legal and cultural implications. It may be one reason the police and public were predisposed to believe the 1993 allegations against Michael Jackson, despite all the evidence.
And white commentators often accuse Michael Jackson, and even Barack Obama, of being “too white” or “not black enough.” What they’re really saying is that Michael Jackson and Barack Obama don’t fit their stereotypical ideas of what it means to be black – stereotypes that were forged or at least deeply reinforced during the decades of blackface minstrelsy.
Harriet: Yes, blackface minstrelsy’s constructions of blackness, including the idea of black male hyper-sexuality, profoundly inform ways of thinking today. I don’t think it was any coincidence Michael Jackson courted accusations and persecutions for inappropriate (read “dangerous” and “uncontainable”) sexual activity. Black stereotypes today are all rooted in minstrelsy: blacks as mad, bad, and dangerous is today’s version of the most popular blackface character, Jim Crow, who was uncouth, unpredictable, and untrustworthy. This is a fundamental and direct legacy.
There are other ways blackface minstrelsy continues in contemporary pop culture as well, and not least in the form of the white appropriation of black music, dance, and gesture, usually without credit and in “whiteface.” But the legacy continues underground in another way: in the work and self-presentation of black performers.
Willa: Which as you point out in your book, is a very complicated performance – black artists “performing” their race for white audiences. And as you point out, that continues today in the violence, misogyny, and hyper-sexuality of much of hip hop.
Harriet: Yes, historically, black performers were denied access to the blackface minstrel stage until well after its heyday (after the Civil War). When they were finally allowed to present themselves in minstrelsy, they too wore the mask and played into the stereotypes of the tradition: black performers seemingly “gave in” in an apparent act of self-ridicule and disgust.
However, it has been suggested that there was much more to it than that, that black entertainers were actually working a double parody that said “if this is what you want me to be then this is what I will be” and they played to hitherto unseen extremes. So, it would seem they performed, sometimes or always, with a wink in the eye to in fact undermine the tradition’s racist constructions, and black audiences knew this (while whites tended to miss it).
Willa: This is such an important idea, and one of the most fascinating aspects of your book, I thought. And we see Michael Jackson overtly expressing this idea of “if this is what you want me to be then this is what I will be” in “Is It Scary,” for example, where he repeatedly sings, “I’m gonna be / Exactly what you wanna see.”
Harriet: Exactly. Another example is the whole Wacko image, much of which (in its early days at least) was generated by Michael Jackson himself. Mad, bad, and dangerous is what he repeatedly “told” us he was, not only in his music but also in his life. Looking at Michael Jackson, and indeed, hip hop acts, in this framework becomes really insightful.
Lisha: You know Harriet, that is absolutely incredible when you think about the lighthearted and fun part of the mad or “Wacko image” that MJ himself supposedly promoted (Bubbles and the hyperbaric chamber) and the fact that he put out two albums that are actually titled Bad and Dangerous!
Willa: I hadn’t thought of that, Lisha! You know, the first place I know of that phrase being used is Lady Caroline Lamb’s 1812 description of Lord Byron as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” so it’s been around a long time. And interestingly, Byron and the other Romantic poets fostered that bad boy reputation, encouraging the public to see them in that way, just as Michael Jackson did to some extent. But I hadn’t linked that to the titles of the Bad and Dangerous albums before. That’s interesting.
Lisha: It’s also an interesting strategy for dealing with the child star/teen idol image that has been so difficult for adult performers to shed.
Harriet, you go into some detail about Michael Jackson putting on the blackface mask (I’m thinking hyper-sexualized, hyper-criminalized, rather than a literal blackface) using the panther dance in Black or White as an excellent example, a song that explicitly deals with race. I’ve always been intrigued by how Michael Jackson morphs out of the black panther to find a fedora hanging on the gate next to a pool of light, similar to what we see in live performances of “Billie Jean.” He then puts on the hat and steps into the “spotlight” to “perform” his race, gender, and sexuality. This scene always evoked blackface minstrelsy to me and I think you have identified precisely why this is so. But there is also something that feels radically different about it, too. Do you feel this as well?
Harriet: Yes, Lisha. The panther dance to Black or White is a good example of Michael Jackson playing the blackface minstrel character of “mad, bad, and dangerous.” He runs amok throwing trashcans, smashing windows, and acting out the animalist characteristics of the wildcat. Michael Jackson gives us (the white audience and music industry) exactly what we want, meaning white-created ideas of black masculinity.
However, what is different is that it comes after a happy vision of racial harmony (the main video in which “it don’t matter if you’re black or white”) making the performance of “mad, bad, and dangerous” an angry critique. It is a critique in its sheer extremity. It is a double parody.
The fact that Michael Jackson was condemned for the video and forced to issue a public apology shows how, as an audience, we cannot cope with the reality of its message.
Willa: I agree, and the panther dance is still excluded from the “official” Black or White video on Vevo, so apparently we still can’t cope with the power of his message, more than 20 years later.
What was most interesting to me in the Black or White section of your book, Harriet, was how you identify specific elements of the panther dance that you see as directly evoking and reworking the tradition of blackface minstrelsy – for example, his splayed-leg stance when he’s dancing on top of the car. Before I read your book, I didn’t realize that posture came straight out of blackface, and it seems significant to me that we see it in Black or White – which is a direct protest against racial stereotypes – and nowhere else in his work. I was really struck by that, and I think it’s important to nail down some of those details.
So in addition to the obvious “blacking up” of the color of the skin, what are other significant characteristics of blackface? What I mean is, are there certain gestures or dance moves or costumes that, when you see them, you immediately think of blackface minstrelsy?
Harriet: Yes, Willa, there are certain “blackface” gestures, and Michael Jackson embodies them all. The staple moves that made up the dances of blackface parody (dance was central to the performance as it reinforced the idea of black bodiliness) are all those of Michael Jackson’s own dance: angulated limbs with knee bends; spins and turns; toe stands (emphasizing the heel, as well as the toe, as slaves were traditionally portrayed as having large, flapping feet); sliding movements; and the crucifixion pose (originally down on one knee, arms outstretched in a visualization of black servitude).
Of note, in later blackface minstrelsy – when black performers took to the stage – white gloves would often be worn (made famous by Al Jolson in the movie The Jazz Singer) along with ankle cut pants and brimmed hat.
Lisha: Utterly fascinating. This opens up a whole other dimension to Michael Jackson for me.
Willa: And for me as well. For example, I had always assumed Michael Jackson adopted the white glove and the short pants with white socks to call attention to the movements of his feet and hands while dancing – and I still think that’s a large part of it. But then I think about Fred Astaire in blackface in “Bojangles of Harlem,” as Lisha and I talked about in a post a few weeks ago, with his cartoonishly large white gloves and the white spats on his shoes, and I wonder if there’s more going on as well – if Michael Jackson is reworking the blackface tradition as you suggest, Harriet.
If we look at the white glove and white socks that way, it’s remarkable that while that costume was designed to portray blacks as buffoons – as objects of mockery and scorn – Michael Jackson reclaimed that costume and made it elegant. Just think of how beautiful he looked at Motown 25. But he’s wearing the costume of blackface: the “white gloves … ankle cut pants and brimmed hat,” as you described it, Harriet. That’s an incredible transformation of how we “read” that costume.
Willa: It really is – it’s mind-boggling! I know we’ve all seen the Motown 25 performance a thousand times before but here’s a clip, and just look at how beautiful and elegant he is:
Wow. What a powerful act of reclamation and transformation.
Lisha: Stunning. And think of how often this iconic look has been admired and emulated all over the world.
Willa: And rightfully so! He’s completely redefined what that costume means and made it part of something many performers – including white performers – can only aspire to.
It’s also fascinating that you link the “crucifixion pose,” as you call it, Harriet, with supplication and “a visualization of black servitude” – I’m thinking of Al Jolson’s outstretched arms in The Jazz Singer – especially since many of Michael Jackson’s critics have interpreted that gesture in the opposite way, as evidence that he saw himself as the Messiah. So again, when we read him through the lens of the blackface tradition, it leads us to a radically different interpretation.
Harriet: This is it! What you say, Willa, lies at the heart of my reading of Michael Jackson and his genius and how, I believe, we should attempt to understand him.
Like the traditional blackface mask – through negotiations of racial, sexual, and gendered identities – Michael Jackson was amazingly clever at being readable in multiple ways and, furthermore, not just in multiple ways but in notoriously contradictory ones. This was a key reason for his enormous popularity (he could speak or “sing” to the individual and be what they wanted him to be). However, at the same time, it also allowed his downfall, providing fodder for his detractors. The “crucifixion” pose visualizes this: it was at once an image of black servitude and megalomania. The altered pallor of his face, his “mask,” also symbolizes this: his critics read it as black self-loathing but was it not rather a utopian vision of racelessness (“white” as not Caucasian at all but colorless)?
Traditionally denied to black performers, the blackface mask was reclaimed by Michael Jackson. In fact, he turned it inside out. Together with his lyrical and rhetorical calls for brotherhood, he completely obliterated it. No contemporary performer has ever come near to this.
So, that Michael Jackson danced out the dance moves of the traditional minstrel show really is just the start!
Lisha: Once again, I have to say I am absolutely amazed. Just when you think you might be on the way towards grasping the depth and breadth of Michael Jackson’s work, something like this comes along and blows your mind all over again.
Harriet, how common is it to see these dance moves and gestures in contemporary song and dance? For example, Willa and I talked earlier about Michael Jackson’s connection to Fred Astaire, and how often Astaire is cited in Michael Jackson’s work. But what is rarely mentioned is how much Astaire and the entire Hollywood musical genre owe to black dancers, including those who performed in the early minstrel shows.
Harriet: Blackface moves and gestures appear a lot, from tap dance to hip hop.
Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly took many black cultural gestures and ideas but never formally acknowledged this in tune with the entire production of the Hollywood musical genre, in which black performers were denied a part. This repeats the process of blackface minstrelsy: the denial of black self-representation but the white luxury to play with it. That Michael Jackson continually fought with criticism and condemnation for his self-representation, from his skin color and facial features to his angry panther characterization, also repeats this painful process.
Willa: I agree. It still astonishes me that white commentators feel they have a right to define what it means to be black, and then try to impose their definitions onto him. To me, that is the very essence of blackface – whites imposing black stereotypes onto blacks – so in that sense, the blackface tradition is still very much alive.
Lisha: So true. I’m thinking the “African warrior” scene in Black or White has a lot to say about white-created black stereotypes, when Michael Jackson makes his very first appearance ever with such light, “white” looking skin. In contrast to the other ethnic dance scenes in Black or White – which feature traditional dancers wearing their own authentic regalia – the black “African” dancers are dressed in obvious stage makeup and film costumes. They dance in a Broadway/Hollywood style of dance and their faces are smeared with white ash and painted in highly-stylized tribal designs. I see this scene as a parody of African-American dancers “whiting up” for the camera, performing their “African” heritage according to needs and expectations of a primarily white audience and white film industry. You could even think of African-American performers “whiting up” for the camera as Michael Jackson’s own “tribe” – the whiteface not used as a black parody of whites, but as an expression of the reality that black performers have tailored their “African-ness” to suit white sensibilities. In this way, the scene for me has much in common with the panther dance.
Willa: That’s so interesting, Lisha. I’d never thought about that until I read your dissertation. It’s interesting to think that they are “performing” black, especially since they’re then revealed to be on a Hollywood set, not in Africa. It reminds me of something James Brown said in a 1973 Jet magazine interview that Charles Thomson recommended and Destiny tracked down and shared with us last week:
I know I can act. All Blacks can act. The only reason we survive today is because we’ve had to act a certain way for the white man. Too many performers accept roles to act in movies when in truth they’re not allowed to act at all.
As you pointed out, Lisha, the “African” dancers in Black and White enact this “performance” of race that James Brown is talking about, and it’s also a very interesting reworking of the blackface tradition, on many different levels.
However, as you point out in your book, Harriet, blackface minstrelsy wasn’t simply a forum for promoting racial stereotypes and ridiculing black men and women, but actually a complicated brew of contradictory impulses. For example, in describing white appropriation of black gestures and dance moves, you say it was motivated by both “love” and “theft” – in other words, an appreciation for black expression as well as an impulse to steal it.
Lisha: “Love” and quite a bit of literal “theft”! Many whites have become quite wealthy exploiting black, musical, intellectual property.
Willa: That’s true, from blackface on through jazz and rock and now hip hop. And this “theft” not only enriches whites but also erases the achievements of black artists from public awareness. Joe Vogel talks about this in “The Misunderstood Power of Michael Jackson’s Music“:
The King of Jazz, for white critics, wasn’t Louis Armstrong, it was Paul Whiteman; the King of Swing wasn’t Duke Ellington, it was Benny Goodman; the King of Rock wasn’t Chuck Berry or Little Richard, it was Elvis Presley.
And there were also complicated forces at work, psychologically, in this dual motivation of “love” and “theft.” As you point out, Harriet, minstrelsy mocked black men while also providing white men with a way to express and work through a sublimated “envy,” which was a fascinating idea to me – especially since Michael Jackson himself suggested a number of times that the backlash against him was motivated by jealousy.
For example, in your discussion of the “wench,” a white male enactment of black female stereotypes popular on the minstrel stage, you write that minstrelsy “showcased a bold and very public appreciation for the black male body in which cross-racial identification, including the envy of a supposed unsurpassed potency, lurked.” As you point out, this “presumed sexual potency” was very threatening “at a time when physical ‘manliness’ was especially important to white male working-class self-respect.”
So blackface minstrelsy certainly allowed white men to propagate hurtful stereotypes about what it means to be black, but it was much more complicated than that. For one thing, it also allowed those same white male performers and audiences to work through what it means to be white and male.
Harriet: Exactly, and this is where is gets very complicated. Recent documentation of the blackface tradition has brought to the fore the “love” that it also could have been seen to embody. These accounts argue minstrelsy was a way by which white men and woman could in fact secretly indulge and be close to blackness in a society in which this was otherwise condemned. Linked to this are theories arguing for (cross-racial) homosexual expression, in the transvestite “wench” stereotype particularly.
What is really most important here, though, is to understand that the blackface mask had the capacity to be inherently contradictory, and that Michael Jackson lived up to that.
Lisha: I find this kind of subterfuge in Michael Jackson’s work so delightful and nothing less than brilliant. I’m thinking about the film Ghosts, Harriet, and how you have interpreted some of the issues he addresses in this work.
Harriet: Ghosts (to which I devote a chapter in my book) is a masterpiece of turning ideas upside down, and documents in its narrative all of the racial stuff, dance, and imagery we have talked about. Through the film’s story of a scary “Maestro” character (played by Michael Jackson) being run out of town by villagers (who in turn get spooked by the Maestro and his “family” through dance and play), Ghosts embodies key issues we have noted: racism in the ridicule of the “Other” or the “different”; dance moves steeped in minstrel gesture; the process of the performer “giving others what they want to see” yet at the same time critiquing and undermining it through extremity of exaggeration.
But Ghosts also theatricalizes the mutilating impact that all this stuff must have had, and continues to have, on black performers. This comes in a powerful section near the end of the narrative. After the confirmation that the Maestro’s guests (despite having been “treated” to an awesome display of dance and song) still demand he leave town, the Maestro admits defeat and surrenders. With the aid of computerized special effects, we witness the disintegration of the Maestro. In an uncomfortable scene we watch the disappearance of Michael Jackson as he pounds first his fists and then his face into the ground so that he crumbles away until there is nothing left of him but dust.
Is this not what we saw in Michael Jackson’s real life too? An adherence to the performance of the constructions and traditions of blackface minstrelsy – to the blackface mask – that in the end was devastational, and the world just stood back and watched?
Willa: Yes, though in Ghosts the Maestro’s self-destruction is revealed to be an illusion – a performance designed to bring about important changes in the emotions and perceptions of the villagers. So once again – as in the blackface tradition – Michael Jackson is providing his audience with the stereotypes they’ve come to believe, and then exploding those stereotypes.
Harriet: Sure thing. Again, Michael Jackson turns our perceptions upside down; he turns the tables. Unlike the Maestro, however, not even Michael Jackson had the power and genius in “real” life to come back from the dead.
Lisha: Or maybe he did! For a sizable number of new fans, like myself, Michael Jackson’s work suddenly came to life in 2009, almost like a resurrection.
Willa: And he predicts that in Ghosts as well. After the Maestro dies, he comes back to life as a huge stone statue – a living work of art.
Harriet: Interestingly, it wasn’t long, back in June 2009, before rumors circulated that he wasn’t dead at all and that his death was a hoax.
Lisha: Yes, a very small handful of people said that, yet the media is so anxious to attach that to Michael Jackson fans in general. I’ve actually read quite a few news stories portraying Jackson fans as mad, bad, and dangerous – even suggesting that if Michael Jackson fans get angry, people should fear for their lives! Maybe the media and the public need the fans to play this role now that Michael Jackson is gone?
Willa: That’s an interesting take on that, Lisha. It’s true many media outlets seem determined to portray his fans as Wacko, but I hadn’t thought of it that way before – that now we’re filling the role of Other that he once filled.
Harriet: I wonder if it is rather a last ditch attempt to regulate Michael Jackson. Meaning, if his fans are understood as being hysterical or insane then his success and genius – his cultural and racial work – can be undermined and history rewritten. This relives the central process of blackface minstrelsy, whereby the black performing figure is molded and used by others and others’ needs; and, as was unfortunately the case with Michael, at the cost of the performer’s selfhood at best; his life at worst.
Lisha: I have a sinking feeling you might be right about that.
Willa: Hmmm. I don’t know – I think he subverted that in important ways, and reasserted his selfhood in ways we don’t yet fully understand. What I mean is, I think he resisted and rewrote the cultural narratives being imposed on him, just as he rewrote the meaning of the costume of blackface minstrelsy.
I feel like I’m not expressing myself very well, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t see his life as tragic. It’s certainly true that terrible things happened to him, but he fought back in creative and incredible ways. It’s like, if a promising athlete is paralyzed and spends the rest of his or her life on the couch imagining what might have been, that’s tragic. But if they somehow manage to achieve wonderful things despite their disability, then it isn’t tragic. Just the opposite. It’s inspirational. That’s how I see Michael Jackson – tragic things happened to him, but he responded in ways that continue to amaze and inspire me.
Lisha: No argument there!
Willa: So Harriet, I had one last question for you. Your book is fascinating and I’d love for all Michael Jackson fans to be able to read it, but it’s pretty expensive – as academic books often are. I just looked on Amazon and it’s $90 for the hardback, and even the Kindle edition is $70. That’s pretty steep. I think publishers price academic books so high because they generally don’t sell very many copies, so they need to charge more to cover their costs, and because they’re thinking most copies will be bought by university libraries where multiple readers will have access to them. I’m worried though that fans who don’t have access to a university library and can’t afford to buy it won’t be able to read it. Is there a less expensive way for fans to gain access to your book?
Harriet: My publisher has agreed to consider paperbacks next summer if sales are strong. In the meantime, a 50 percent discount is available for fans. Just go to http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781409455103 and use this promotional code at checkout: A13IEC50. Fans can see more of the book and its illustrations at www.facebook.com/michaeljacksonblackfacemask.
Willa: You have some wonderful illustrations in your book and on your Facebook page, including photos from the shooting of Say Say Say where Michael Jackson seems to be evoking the tradition of blackface minstrelsy, as Joie and I talked about a little bit in a post last fall. He’s wearing a kind of variation of the blackface mask, but more clown-like and with painted tears in his eyes, which for me transforms the meaning of the mask from something burlesque – a comedy – to something much more somber and heart-felt – a tragedy.
Lisha: Well, it will probably come as no surprise to anyone that my favorite illustrations are the ones focusing on Black or White, since I am already on record as considering it one of the finest works of art of the 20th century! There are some really fascinating illustrations from the early minstrel shows in your book – juxtaposed with screen shots from the panther dance – that are of tremendous value to anyone interested in seriously studying Michael Jackson’s work. Harriet, your contribution to the already impressive body of scholarly literature on Michael Jackson, especially in regard to Black or White, is very significant indeed.
Willa: I agree, and I hope you publish your dissertation someday as well, Lisha. We need more Michael Jackson scholarship! Thank you both for the work you have done, and for joining me to talk about it. It’s been fascinating.
Willa: You know, Lisha, I’ve been trying to learn more about Fred Astaire because he was such an important inspiration for Michael Jackson. We see his influence in some of his dance moves and choreography, of course, and in some of his costumes, like his famous fedora. We see direct influences in the videos for Smooth Criminal and You Rock My World, and the lyrics to “Dangerous.” And we can see it more subtly in other places as well.
Michael Jackson always spoke of Fred Astaire with the utmost respect. For example, in a questionnaire he filled out in 1977, when he was only 18, he was asked which entertainers he admired most. His response was Fred Astaire and Stevie Wonder. And after he died, Kobe Bryant repeatedly mentioned how Michael Jackson encouraged him to go back and watch Astaire’s movies – like in this press conference and in a Time magazine article, “Remembering Michael”:
Beyond the genius of what he was, he was just a genuinely, genuinely nice person. He got me hooked on movies that I would normally never watch. Fred Astaire movies. All the old classics. … He was just a genuinely nice person who was exceptionally bright, exceptionally bright, and driven and talented. You mix those things together, man, you have Michael Jackson.
So I’ve been trying to watch as many Fred Astaire movies as I can, and last spring I happened to stumble across one called Ziegfeld Follies. It isn’t a movie with a plot like we generally think of. Rather it’s a series of song and dance numbers interspersed with comedy skits, like the original Ziegfeld shows that ran on Broadway for more than 25 years. And one of those numbers in particular completely captured my attention – in fact, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since. It’s called “Limehouse Blues.” Here’s a clip:
Lisha: Wow, I have to say that’s really a beautiful Broadway/Hollywood style production number, but seeing Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer made up as Asian characters is pretty wild, isn’t it? I immediately thought of another film, Tony Randall’s 1964 movie 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, in which Randall assumes the role of 7 different mythic characters, including an ancient Chinese wise man, Dr. Lao, who claims to be 7,322 years old.
Did you know at one time Michael Jackson was under contract to remake the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao?
Willa: No, I didn’t!
Lisha: According to Captain EO producer/screenwriter Rusty Lemorande, it was just before the Evan Chandler scandal hit and unfortunately the project was scrapped due to the false allegations. That’s pretty disappointing, to say the least.
Willa: Oh, it’s heartbreaking. It really shows what an immediate and devastating effect those allegations had on his career. And it makes me feel so angry and powerless to think Evan Chandler plotted that all out and got exactly what he wanted, just as he predicted in those phone conversations with David Schwartz before the scandal broke – importantly, at a time when Jordan Chandler was saying he hadn’t been molested:
I will get everything I want, and they will be totally – they will be destroyed forever. They will be destroyed. June is gonna lose Jordy. She will have no right to ever see him again.… Michael, the career will be over.
And he was right – everything he predicted came true. He got “everything I want,” meaning the money he was after, June lost custody of her son, and Michael Jackson’s career was destroyed. In addition to the terrible blow to him personally, just think of how frustrating that must have been for him as an artist.
Lisha: Yes, for him as an artist and for us as an audience. We were all robbed. But while Michael Jackson’s career was damaged, it was far from “destroyed forever,” as Evan Chandler had planned. That’s pretty remarkable when you think about it. Anyone else most likely would have been ruined. In the end, Evan Chandler only succeeded in destroying himself, his family, and many, but not all, of Michael Jackson’s artistic and charitable projects. There were no winners in his vicious scheme.
Willa: That’s true. We all lost. Michael Jackson still produced some amazing work, even though his career was irreparably damaged, but I do wonder what he might have accomplished if those allegations had never happened.
Lisha: Thinking about the Dr. Lao movie, I can imagine Michael Jackson would have been wonderful in that role. And I have no doubt he would have enjoyed the challenge of taking on those 7 characters – Medusa, Pan, Merlin, Apollonius, The Serpent, The Abominable Snowman and the magical Dr. Lao.
Willa: Yes, kind of like the multiple characters he plays in Ghosts.
Lisha: Exactly. Jackson was also committed at that time to remaking a 1938 James Cagney film, Angels with Dirty Faces. I find it interesting that all of these films include the concept of different “faces.”
Willa: That is intriguing, isn’t it? Especially since the idea of changing faces was such an important and recurrent motif in his art, from videos like Who Is It and Black or White to his own changing face.
So what do you think of Fred Astaire’s changing face in “Limehouse Blues”? Or more broadly, his playing the role of a Chinese immigrant? I have a conditioned reflex to be wary of any Western portrayal of the East as appropriation – or as Orientalism in the Edward Said sense, meaning an attempt to portray Eastern and middle-Eastern people and culture as exotic, mysterious, alluring but dangerous, and essentially unknowable. And I see that to some degree in “Limehouse Blues.” But at the same time, I actually think it’s attempting to do just the opposite. I’m really struck by the tenderness and humanity in Astaire’s portrayal of this character, and how we are encouraged to see the events that happen from his point of view. He isn’t a mysterious and unknowable cypher – he’s a sympathetic member of the human race with desires and frustrations we can all understand.
Lisha: Well, I guess I’m still kind of on the fence with this. My knee jerk reaction is that it’s a bit offensive in the way it oversimplifies Chinese culture. I hear it immediately in the musical introduction, with the gong and traditional symphonic instruments playing a five-note scale to suggest Asian culture in a very Broadway show style of writing. You can hear the same sounds in the Dr. Lao trailer as well; it’s the typical formula for instantly depicting the Far East through the musical score. Then we see Fred Astaire made up with slanted eyes, wearing traditional Chinese clothes and shoes, which is a little disconcerting. But, I also wonder if I have been cued to judge it that way.
I mean, isn’t this sort of the whole point of drama? To act out something for the audience from another time and place and to play the role of someone you are not? And aren’t simple cues needed to some extent to achieve that, such as costuming, make-up, “ethnic” instruments and musical scales?
Willa: Those are all really good questions, Lisha. Michael Jackson said a number of times that pretending to be “someone you are not,” as you say, was what he loved most about acting. And isn’t that what empathy is, really? Putting yourself in someone else’s position and trying to imagine things from their perspective?
Lisha: I believe that it is. But what are the limits to how far you can go with this kind of oversimplification of culture before it starts getting really offensive?
Willa: Exactly. Or before you start imposing your own values and beliefs onto another culture….
Lisha: I agree with you that Astaire’s character invites the viewer to see events from his point of view and attempts to illustrate the commonality of human experience, rather than simply emphasizing difference. So, it may not be entirely fair to just dismiss this scene because it engages some of these stereotypes as a kind of cultural shorthand.
I’m thinking there is a real difference between intentional and unintentional uses of stereotypes. For example, in the opening of You Rock My World, there is an overt use of Chinese stereotypes – the restaurant, the rickshaw, the karate chop, etc. It leaves little room for doubt that the scene is intentionally invoking over-the-top racial stereotypes in order to make a point. In “Limehouse Blues” I’m not convinced there is much awareness of how problematic stereotypes can be. The scene is set in Limehouse, the Chinatown district of London, and the opening lyrics get my attention right away: “In Limehouse, where Orientals love to play / in Limehouse, where you can can hear the flutes all day.” Apparently the lyrics were cleaned up a bit from the original song, which included the line “learn from those Chinkies, those real China blues,” as in this 1934 recording by the Mills Brothers:
Willa: Well, you’re right, Lisha, those lyrics are offensive, especially in the 1934 version – though as you point out, those lyrics were left out of the film. But there are a lot of stereotypes on display in the film too, as you described so well. Still, I’m reluctant to simply dismiss this performance as offensive and walk away. Like you, I’m really conflicted about it. And part of that, for me, is because I see so many connections to the panther dance in Black or White, and that’s led me to view “Limehouse Blues” in a different way, through the lens of Black or White.
You know, some of the most scornful criticism of Black or White when it first came out was because Michael Jackson still called himself black but appears white. For example, the Saturday Night Live character Queen Shenequa asked, “Black or White? If it doesn’t matter, then why are you so white?” But to me, his crossing of racial boundaries is one of the most brilliant aspects of that video. So why does it seem offensive, or at least problematic, when Fred Astaire crosses the boundary from white to Asian, but not when Michael Jackson crosses from black to white?
I agree with you that part of it comes from the awareness of the creators. Michael Jackson seems very aware of the implications of what he’s doing in Black or White, while it’s not so clear that Fred Astaire understood those implications in “Limehouse Blues.” I also wonder if another reason is because of how they’re positioned. In the U.S., where both films were made, white is the dominant culture and black and Chinese are considered minority cultures. So when Fred Astaire, a white man, appears Chinese it feels like appropriation, but when Michael Jackson, a black man, appears white it feels like resistance – or at worst assimilation.
Lisha: Absolutely. I thought it was hilarious a few years back when some American Indian students at the University of Northern Colorado decided to re-name the basketball team “The Fightin’ Whities.” They chose a stereotypical white man as their new mascot and even changed their fight song to “Ever thang is gonna be, all White.”
Willa: Really? That is too funny!
Lisha: I thought that was a brilliant and very humorous way of calling attention to how offensive it is when the dominant culture appropriates a minority culture, like when American sports teams choose names like the “Redskins,” or the “Indians.” That really makes me angry, but I don’t have the same reaction to white stereotypes.
But now you’ve really got me curious about the connection between “Limehouse Blues” and the panther dance. I have to admit, I don’t see a clear connection.
Willa: Hmmm … Well, now I’m going to have to think a minute. It’s one of those things I just sort of intuitively felt, so I’m not sure how well I can give reasons and put it into words …
I do remember that the first time I watched “Limehouse Blues,” I was immediately struck by the set – the darkened street with the lamppost and the row of shop fronts with big plate-glass windows. In fact, my first reaction was to wonder if it was the same set where the panther dance was filmed. You know, MGM used to have a huge backlot of permanent structures that were used over and over again in different movies, and I wondered if “Limehouse Blues,” Singin’ in the Rain, and the panther dance were all filmed on the same location. They weren’t – if you look carefully, the style of the lampposts and the shape of the windows are a little different in all three – but the overall mood of these sets is very similar, I think.
Here’s a screen capture from “Limehouse Blues.” Doesn’t that look like the set for the panther dance – and for the signature Singin’ in the Rain number as well?
Lisha: Definitely has a similar feel to it. And I see what you mean that it’s not an exact quote, as in other Fred Astaire films that Michael Jackson cited more directly, like The Band Wagon, which he references in Smooth Criminal, You Rock My World and “Dangerous.” It’s a little more subtle than that.
Willa: Exactly. It’s like when the new VW Beetle came out – the designers said they weren’t trying to create an exact replica of the original Beetle, just something “evocative” of it. That’s how the Black or White set is. It’s not an exact duplicate, but it certainly evokes the set of “Limehouse Blues.”
Lisha: That’s a good way of describing it.
Willa: They also have a similar narrative structure. Usually when a movie includes a fantasy sequence, it’s just a brief interruption in the flow of “real life.” The movie will begin in real life, then switch to a quick daydream, and then return to real life. But in “Limehouse Blues,” we follow the main character on the streets of Limehouse for about 7 minutes; then he’s shot and loses consciousness, and we jump to the dream ballet for about 5 minutes; and then he comes to just long enough to see the woman he loves reject the fan he was holding when he was shot, and he loses consciousness again. So the daydream lasts nearly as long as the “real life” sequence, and the main character never reenters his former life.
Black or White has a much more complicated structure, but if we take a big picture view it’s pretty similar. We have a series of vignettes engaging with the real world that goes for about 7 minutes. Then a panther walks downstairs – into the unconscious? I think you suggested that in an earlier post, Lisha. He morphs into Michael Jackson at precisely the 7-minute mark, and then the panther dance begins. It lasts for about 4 minutes, and then we jump to Bart Simpson and the film ends. So as in “Limehouse Blues,” we never see the main character reenter the real world, which is very unusual.
Lisha: Wow, that is interesting. It makes me think about the other short film Michael Jackson made with John Landis, Thriller. At the very end, when Michael Jackson comforts his girlfriend and offers to take her home, it appears that the dream world has finally been broken and we are now watching the action from the perspective of “real life.” But then he turns around and looks into the camera, and suddenly, there are those werewolf eyes again. So when the film ends on that still shot, we know the dream isn’t over yet.
Willa: Oh, interesting! I hadn’t thought about that.
Lisha: And I’ve never noticed that the panther morphs into Michael Jackson right at the 7-minute mark in the film. That is fascinating, since the number 7 is also a recurring theme in his work, such as the “777” armband he wears in the HIStory teaser, not to mention the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao film he was interested in remaking. And as the black panther walks down those stairs and morphs into Michael Jackson, I do feel like he has just walked into the deep recesses of Michael Jackson’s unconscious mind.
Willa: I agree. And then another parallel is the scene where Michael Jackson’s character picks up a trash can and throws it though the store window. That’s usually seen as a reference to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, but there’s a very similar scene in “Limehouse Blues” as well. Interestingly, in Do the Right Thing, a black character breaks the window of a white-owned business (an Italian pizzeria) but in “Limehouse Blues,” a white character breaks the window of a Chinese business.
One very important similarity, I think, is how we as viewers are positioned. In all three films, we are not in the “white” position. In Black or White and Do the Right Thing, we are on the outside in the “black” position, watching the window break from the point of view of the person breaking it. Here’s a clip from Do the Right Thing:
And in “Limehouse Blues,” we are on the inside, in the “Chinese” position. We as an audience are inside the store, looking out the window and watching the white thugs break the glass toward us.
And actually, I guess that brings me around again to the main reason why I’m conflicted but not offended by “Limehouse Blues.” Usually in a film by a white production team, we are encouraged to see things from a white perspective, and to see whites as sympathetic figures – heroic, honest, virtuous – while minorities are portrayed as either not virtuous or simply as background characters, at best a comic sidekick. But in “Limehouse Blues,” the Chinese character is portrayed in very sympathetic ways, I think, and the white characters are thugs. And we’re encouraged to see things from his point of view. That’s a complete reversal from what we usually see.
Lisha: You are so right about that, Willa. And it’s not very common to see white men criminalized in that way either, unless it’s kind of a glorified thing, like Prohibition era gangsters or white collar crime.
Willa: That’s true.
Lisha: I guess the most obvious and striking similarity between “Limehouse Blues” and Black or White, for me, is a kind of racial cross dressing that happens in them both. As you’ve said, the criticism Michael Jackson faced was that he suddenly appeared white, not black, in that film.
I’m also thinking about something else you said earlier: “when Fred Astaire, a white man, appears Chinese it feels like appropriation, but when Michael Jackson, a black man, appears white it feels like resistance – or at worst assimilation.” As we know, Michael Jackson mastered the art of crossover long before Black or White, meaning he learned to make performance choices that appealed to multiple markets. Since market categories are often divided along racial lines, black performers have had to appeal to white sensibilities in order to reach a mass audience.
I think there are some great examples of Michael Jackson’s crossover talent in the early television series he did, and many of those performances demonstrate his fondness for Fred Astaire Hollywood-style production numbers. Here’s a number from The Jacksons variety show that begins with a lamppost/cityscape scene similar to what we see in the panther dance, “Limehouse Blues” and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain, a film the panther dance is often compared to. It also has many elements from The Band Wagon and Top Hat, and features the song “Get Happy” that Judy Garland sang in Summer Stock.
Willa: That is such a great example, Lisha! It really shows how well versed he was in the big song and dance numbers from the heyday of Hollywood musicals, doesn’t it? And from a very young age. Even the costumes – the white suit and white fedora with a black band, and the red dress with black gloves up past the elbows – are straight out “Girl Hunt Ballet,” Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s big number in The Band Wagon. Here’s a clip:
Lisha: It looks like a lot of The Jacksons variety show clip came straight out of that film. But, I also see a couple of things in Michael Jackson’s performance that could possibly elaborate on his connection to Fred Astaire. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend an outstanding presentation at Columbia College in Chicago by dance historians Bonnie Brooks and Raquel Monroe, titled “The Postmodern Genius of Michael Jackson.” They described Michael Jackson’s dance performances as a virtual history of dance and highlighted how he had synthesized so many disparate influences in such a seamless and original way, it could only be called “genius.” One of the most intriguing clips they used to illustrate this was a performance by the Nicholas Brothers from the film Stormy Weather. In The Jacksons clip above (starting around 2:25) I noticed the staircase, the ramp and the splits at the end, are quite similar to the end of the Nicholas Brothers performance:
Willa: Oh, and the spins as well! Wow, Lisha, when you put them side by side, you really can see those influences. And according to Fayard Nicholas, Fred Astaire told him, “That is the greatest dance number I’ve ever seen on film.” (Here’s a link to the Fayard Nicholas interview. That comment is near the end – about 7 minutes in.)
You know, one thing that strikes me about all this, Lisha, is that Stormy Weather is loosely based on the life of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the elegant but expressive dancer who helped pioneer dance and choreography for film. For example, he danced with Shirley Temple in a series of very popular films in the 1930s – and incidentally, I believe that was the first time a black man had ever danced with a white woman, or actually a young white girl, on either stage or film. The Nicholas Brothers pay tribute to Robinson in Stormy Weather, and Fred Astaire pays tribute to him in The Band Wagon (which mentions him by name) and in a very problematic number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” from the film Swing Time. So Bill Robinson influenced both the Nicholas Brothers and Fred Astaire, and then they greatly influenced Michael Jackson who, as you said, encompassed “a virtual history of dance.”
Lisha: It seems Bill Robinson was a major influence for all these artists. Fred Astaire’s work is based, at least in part, on the black tap dance tradition, as Brenda Dixon Gottschild notes in Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era. We know Michael Jackson was influenced by the black tap dance tradition as well – he even danced with the Nicholas Brothers in 1977 and possibly studied with them, too:
So the question is, who is appropriating whose culture in all these examples? Tap dance has roots in both European and African American traditions. Much has been said about Michael Jackson borrowing from Fred Astaire and Hollywood musicals, but little is said about how much white performers owe to black dancers such as Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers.
Willa: That’s an excellent point, Lisha. So when Michael Jackson quotes Fred Astaire in his dancing, is he pointing back to a white or black tradition? The answer to that is pretty complicated, as you suggest.
Lisha: At the same time that Hollywood marginalized black performers, it also capitalized on their talents. Anthropologist Elizabeth Chin wrote an incredible essay for the Journal of Popular Music Studies titled “Michael Jackson’s Panther Dance: Double Consciousness and the Uncanny Business of Performing While Black.” She sees a direct connection between Stormy Weather and Michael Jackson’s panther dance in this regard, as a dream ballet that represents “part of a continuing struggle on the part of African American artists to present their work on their own terms.”
Willa: Chin’s article is fascinating, especially the way she looks at the dream ballet, which she believes originated with Stormy Weather and perhaps reached its fullest expression in the panther dance. She sees the dream ballet as a place where black artists could break out of white stereotypes to some degree and express their own dreams and their own perspective – though as Chin acknowledges, this was tempered by the fact that those dreams and perspectives had to be made palatable to a white audience.
But I’m not sure Jackson did temper his dreams and his anger in the panther dance – at least not sufficiently for some white sensibilities, which is one reason it caused such an uproar when it first aired.
Lisha: I agree with you on that. When Michael Jackson puts on his hat and steps into the “spotlight” to perform a hyper-sexualized, hyper-criminalized tap dance, he is “performing” his race and gender in a very complex way that I believe exposes the beliefs, perceptions and expectations of white audiences. Again he embodies the lyric from “Is It Scary,” “I’m gonna be, exactly what you want to see.” As he acts out the dominant culture’s nightmarish perceptions of black men as hyper-sexualized criminals and entertainers, he also expresses his anger towards those beliefs and expectations. The dance is incredibly beautiful, but it’s also extremely intense and uncomfortable. “Shattering” is the word American studies professor Eric Lott used to describe the dance.
Willa: That’s a good description.
Lisha: But I think Chin makes an excellent point when she contrasts Gene Kelly’s “jaunty puddle splashing” in Singin’ in the Rain with “the stomping and screaming Jackson” in the panther dance. The black dreamscape is interpreted as taking back territory that white dancers appropriated from black tappers, something I think Kelly might be acknowledging in his performance with the Nicholas Brothers in The Pirate:
Willa: That’s a great clip, Lisha! And I agree that Gene Kelly seems to be paying homage to the Nicholas Brothers, specifically, as well as the black dance tradition in general – a tradition that both he and Fred Astaire drew from extensively in their work.
And that reminds me once again of that very problematic number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” that Astaire apparently performed as a tribute to Bill Robinson. What’s most disturbing about it is that he performs in blackface, and this is not in some obscure film no one ever saw. It’s from Swing Time, which many critics, including Roger Ebert, see as the best of his collaborations with Ginger Rodgers. I couldn’t find a clip of the entire number, but here it is in two pieces:
I remember the first time I saw this. I was stunned, and so disappointed he had done it. It feels deeply offensive, viewing it nearly 80 years after it was filmed, and I can’t shake that feeling. And I wonder what it felt like for Michael Jackson to see this, knowing how much he admired Fred Astaire?
Lisha: That scene is painful to watch, for sure.
Willa: It really is. But you know, if we look at this clip more carefully, there are some very interesting details that may complicate how we interpret it – especially those silhouettes that dance behind him in the second clip. Those silhouettes seem to represent the black dancers who have gone before him – specifically Bill Robinson, the “Bojangles” mentioned in the title – and those silhouettes are larger than he is. In fact, they tower over him, which makes sense psychologically. After all, our mentors can intimidate us as well as inspire us.
Those silhouettes also seem to be better dancers than he is (though of course, he’s dancing both parts). In fact, at one point he struggles to keep up with them. Later he proves he’s learned well and is a capable dancer – in fact, ultimately he seems to out-dance them. But ironically, even that can be read as a sign of how over-awed he is by them. It reminds me of Harold Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence,” where he talks about how artists tend to undervalue their immediate predecessors simply to give themselves a little breathing room. The fact that Fred Astaire felt the need to prove himself in competition with those figures from the past reveals just how much they loomed over his imagination.
It’s also interesting to consider who’s foregrounded in this number. Fred Astaire is out front so it would seem to be him, but for me anyway, I can’t take my eyes off those silhouettes, and they’re actually leading the choreography for much of it. So if we look at this number as a reflection of Fred Astaire’s mind, there’s a lot going on in this performance – much more than we may think at first glance.
Lisha: Wow, that really is interesting and gives a lot of credence to the idea that this could be seen as a heartfelt tribute to Bill Robinson, despite the fact that the blackface issue is about as deeply disappointing as it gets. Just like “Limehouse Blues,” it is hard to dismiss the number entirely, as much as it seems we should. If you look at the live performances of “Smooth Criminal” from the Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory world tours, it’s pretty clear that Michael Jackson himself gives a nod to this scene. He uses those silhouettes himself, possibly inserting himself symbolically into the history of dance, and paying tribute back to Astaire.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Lisha! And a very interesting way of interpreting this. You’re right, he does use those silhouettes a lot – on tour, as you say, and in the You Rock My World video, and in a very interesting and nuanced performance of “Dangerous” at the 1995 MTV awards. Here’s a clip:
Lisha: I don’t know that I had ever really thought about those silhouettes in this performance before, or how they were borrowed from both Smooth Criminal and Fred Astaire. What’s so interesting to me about this is that I usually think about this performance in reference to Judy Garland’s “Get Happy” in Summer Stock:
But now that you mention it, he has synthesized this performance with so many Fred Astaire quotes, you could see it either way.
Willa: Wow, Lisha, that’s incredible! There really are strong similarities to “Get Happy,” aren’t there? Especially in the intro. I hadn’t connected that – too focused on Fred Astaire, I guess. Astaire is referenced throughout the MTV “Dangerous” performance – from the lyrics and spoken lines that directly quote the “Girl Hunt Ballet” number in The Band Wagon; to the allusions to Smooth Criminal, as you mentioned earlier, Lisha, which is Michael Jackson’s artistic response to “Girl Hunt Ballet”; to those large silhouettes about 4:15 minutes in.
Like the silhouettes in “Bojangles of Harlem,” they move independently of Michael Jackson as he dances in front of them. But while those silhouettes seem to challenge Fred Astaire and even rebel against him, the silhouettes behind Michael Jackson nod approvingly and seem to support and encourage him. To me, that suggests he felt much more connected and aligned with his predecessors – more at peace with them – than Fred Astaire did.
Lisha: It seems many great Michael Jackson moments can be traced back to Fred Astaire, like the ceiling dance in Ghosts, which reminds me of “You’re All the World to Me” from Royal Wedding:
Fred Astaire’s kicking and shattering glass in “One for My Baby” from The Sky’s the Limit suggests to me the glass-shattering kicks in One More Chance or the sound effects in the opening of “Jam” to begin the Dangerous album:
Willa: Oh interesting, Lisha! I’d never made those connections before.
Lisha: Michael Jackson clearly admired and emulated Fred Astaire, so talk about feeling conflicted! Seeing Astaire in blackface in the Bojangles number is an intensely uncomfortable experience, much more so than seeing him portray a Chinese character. It would take a very lengthy and intense discussion to unpack all the reasons why that is so.
Willa: I agree absolutely. I feel so conflicted about that number, even kind of shameful watching it, but at the same time I think it’s an important discussion to have. And fortunately, there’s an expert on the subject who’s willing to join us and help us talk through all this.
Harriet Manning has just published a book, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask, that explores some of these issues we’ve been grappling with today. So far I’ve only read the first two chapters, but what I’ve read is fascinating, and it presents a very different way of seeing both the blackface tradition – which was extremely popular in both the US and the UK for more than a century – as well as Michael Jackson in relation to that tradition. And Harriet has very kindly agreed to talk with us about it. So I hope you’ll join us again, Lisha, as we explore this uncomfortable topic a little bit further.
Lisha: I would love to! Harriet’s book sounds fascinating, and she is just the kind of expert we need on this subject. I’m really looking forward to reading her book, and really digging into the subject even more. As a human family, we still have a lot of healing to do on this issue.Special Note:
The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. is currently featuring an exhibition, “Dancing the Dream,” that celebrates American dancers who have harnessed America’s diversity and dynamism into dance styles that define the national experience, culture, and identity. The exhibit is named for Michael Jackson’s 1992 book of poetry, stories, and essays and will run through July 13, 2014. It includes a holographic poster of Jackson and photographs of Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers. Here’s a link to an article about the exhibit.
Willa: So Joie, a few weeks ago we talked about how Michael Jackson seemed to see a connection between his creative life and his spiritual life, something we’ve talked about a couple times before. But you know, he also saw a connection between his creativity, his spirituality, and the physicality of his body, especially his body’s movements as a dancer. He seemed to feel a deep connection between spiritual energy, creative energy, and physical energy, including sexual energy.
All of this has me wondering – how is sex and sexual energy represented in Michael Jackson’s work, what does it mean, and does it perhaps mean different things at different times? For example, what does it mean when he sings about sex in “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough” or “Give In to Me” or “Superfly Sister” or “Break of Dawn”? What does it mean when he zips his fly during the panther dance in Black or White? And what does it mean, exactly, when he’s dancing and grabs his crotch?
Joie: Hmm. All very good questions, Willa. But you know, I seem to remember Michael telling Oprah that he really didn’t think about it when he was dancing and that the whole crotch grab thing just sort of happened on its own and meant nothing. I think he said he was just a slave to the rhythm or something.
Willa: Well, I think that’s true, Joie, but I don’t think it’s the whole truth. I think sometimes he’d be dancing and get really absorbed in the music and, Bam! He’d punctuate a dance sequence with a crotch grab, kind of like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. But I also think that sometimes he’d decide he liked that exclamation point and deliberately make it part of the choreography.
So, for example, we have that hilarious dance rehearsal in This Is It where two middle-aged women are teaching a group of young male dancers proper crotch-grabbing technique, and I have to say, that whole scene just cracks me up. First there is the Russian ballet instructor, Irina Brecher, explaining how the movements they’re doing compare with Baryshnikov’s:
“I saw you! You were going like this. What it this? That’s Russian! This is Russian. So Baryshnikov does it like this, and you guys are doing like this. Same thing.”
Then the assistant choreographer, Stacy Walker, helps them perfect their technique. She says, “One more time,” and they all do a crotch grab in unison. And they’re all so earnest – it just makes me laugh. Then she demonstrates proper crotch-grabbing movements while saying,
“We’re straight up and down now, right? I don’t think it’s anything except hand moving…. I think that’s smoother, you know what I mean? I mean, I have nothing to move….”
That is such a funny scene! I get such a kick out of it, but I also love seeing how trusting and respectful these talented young dancers are toward these older women. It’s really wonderful.
So this funny little scene shows us several important things: that the crotch grab was a deliberate part of the choreography, that it really wasn’t sexual in a traditional sense (and Michael Jackson always said it wasn’t), and that it certainly wasn’t a way to show dominance over women. After all, those two women were the instructors! And they were handling it in a very fun, lighthearted way.
Joie: Well, I find it very funny that we are having a discussion about crotch grabbing!
Willa: Oh c’mon, Joie. This is a very academic discussion!
Joie: Uh huh. But I have to say I agree with you, Willa. I believe that he did like ‘the exclamation point’ of the crotch grab and it really did become sort of his signature move – or one of his signature moves because, we all know, there are several.
Willa: That’s true. Like there’s that move called the Moonwalk that got a bit of attention….
Joie: Yeah. Or the twisting leg kick. But he really is synonymous with the crotch grab now. Whenever we see another singer or dancer execute that move, our minds will immediately, and forever, associate that with Michael Jackson.
But you said something that I find really interesting. You said the crotch grab wasn’t sexual and that Michael always maintained that it wasn’t sexual. The reason I find this statement interesting is because I think most people just always assumed the complete opposite. I think to most of the world, the reason the crotch grab was so controversial or provocative was precisely because they projected a sexual connotation onto it that Michael never intended for it to have.
Willa: Well, now you have me thinking, Joie – what did I mean when I said it wasn’t sexual? Hmmm … Now that I think about it, that seems too absolute because obviously there are sexual connotations, but I guess I meant it doesn’t seem erotic to me, like he isn’t using it to evoke a sexual feeling or suggest a sexual situation – not like, say, that long undulating crotch grab in the “Billie Jean” segment of This Is It. Oh my. Now, that is sexual. So he certainly knew how to do it in a suggestive way if he wanted to, but he never did that on stage, ever. That scene in This Is It was strictly a fun thing for the enjoyment of the cast and crew at the rehearsal, especially those young dancers. He never did anything like that in a real performance.
Instead, it was almost always just a quick exclamation mark, as we said earlier, and it seemed to me to express an artistic impulse rather than a sexual urge, though it’s hard to completely separate that out since he seemed to feel a strong connection between creativity and sexual energy. We talked about that a little bit with Give In to Me last April.
But there’s another element to it too, which is that the crotch grab always kind of struck me as something of a political statement as well, especially when he defiantly continued doing it despite all the controversy. You know, he was a very sexy black man – a sex idol, even – in a country that’s very uncomfortable with sexual black men, and I think he felt a lot of pressure to restrain his sexuality because of that. And in that sense, the crotch grab always kind of felt to me like a way for him to reclaim his sexuality and his own body, in a way. It’s like he’s calling attention to the fact that, not only does he have a beautiful, talented, amazing body, but it’s a sexual body as well.
Joie: I think you may be on to something, Willa. It could also have been a way for him to sort of flip off the world. I don’t mean to be crass here but, grabbing the crotch was never really seen as a nice gesture. In fact, long before Michael ever adopted it and turned it into a signature dance move, a guy grabbing his crotch was seen as either an insult (if it was directed toward another man) or a very lewd gesture (if it was directed toward a woman). So your suggestion that it could have been sort of political really fits here. It could definitely be considered a defiant, ‘up yours’ type of gesture.
Willa: Wow, that’s true, Joie. It’s funny but I never thought about that before, but you’re right, it definitely could be interpreted that way. And he did express those impulses every so often, as we see in Scream. And there’s that line in Shaquille O’Neal’s rap in “2Bad”:
Grab my crotch, twist my knee, then I’m through Mike’s bad. I’m bad. Are you?
“2Bad” as a whole is a declaration that he won’t be broken or bowed – “I’m standin’ though you’re kickin’ me” – and that line in particular is a pretty defiant statement.
Joie: That is a defiant statement, Willa. In fact, the whole song is pretty defiant, you’re right. But I wonder if we can go back to your original question if we can. You asked what does it mean when Michael sings about sex in his songs and how is that sexual energy expressed in his work? So, obviously I’m thinking you have some thoughts on this?
Willa: I don’t know that I really have thoughts, or any firm conclusions – just a lot of questions. I see sex represented so many different ways in his work, and I wonder how it all fits together. Like, what do you make of the sexual references in the panther dance? That whole section is a strong protest against racism, but it includes some pretty explicit sexual gestures – more explicit than critics were used to seeing from Michael Jackson, that’s for sure. There was a lot of criticism about that when Black or White first aired. Here was a song that a lot of critics interpreted as being about racial harmony, and suddenly in the panther dance section Michael Jackson is breaking glass, zipping his fly, and grabbing his crotch pretty explicitly. Why is that there? How do you interpret that?
Joie: Well, I’m honestly not sure about how to interpret it. But you’re correct in saying that it was much more explicit than critics were used to seeing from him, and sometimes I think that was the intended purpose. Perhaps it was done simply to shake things up a little bit. If you think about it, it was done at a time when Michael was going through some changes. He had broken away from his long and successful association with Quincy Jones and he was taking the reins of producing by himself and he was eager to try new things, new producers, new sounds. And the resulting album, Dangerous, really has a much edgier feel because of it. So maybe he simply wanted to do something edgy. And let’s face it, that panther dance is certainly edgy.
But also, I want to point out the fact that those racial slurs that are written on the car and the building in the panther dance weren’t actually in the original version that first aired to millions of people around the world. Those were added in after the initial hoopla over the “disturbing violence and simulating masturbation.” So, I’ve never really held the belief that that section of the video was meant to be a protest against racism. Maybe it was but, it doesn’t feel that way to me. How do you interpret it?
Willa: Really? Wow, I’m surprised, Joie. To me, adding in those slogans didn’t change the meaning at all, just clarified what was already there. I mean, the title of the song is “Black or White,” and the lyrics are all about standing up to racial prejudices – he even references the KKK specifically when he sings, “I ain’t scared of no sheets.” So when he added in the KKK and neo-Nazi and Aryan Nation-type graffiti, it felt right to me and just seemed to fit right in. How do you see it?
Joie: Well, that’s true, it does fit right in. But, I don’t know; I guess I’ve just always looked at it as an afterthought, a way to simply try and clean up the controversy. But what you just said makes a lot of sense too, that it was done as a way to sort of clarify the artist’s intentions. You’re probably right.
Willa: Well, it’s pretty ambiguous. There’s breaking glass throughout Black or White, beginning with the crashing poster and exploding windows in the opening sequence, so the violence of the breaking glass could mean many different things. In fact, the entire panther dance is pretty ambiguous, with so many intriguing elements and so many different ways to approach and interpret them.
It begins with the panther walking down into a basement, just like Michael Jackson’s character does before the first dance sequence in You Rock My World, and in both cases there’s a suggestion that we’re going into subterranean territory both literally and figuratively as well, into the subconscious. He transforms back into a human, and is immediately caught in a spotlight. For me, it doesn’t feel so much like the spotlight of a stage as the spotlight of a prison or an interrogation, and the bars on the windows and over the doorway reinforce that idea. But he strikes a pose in that spotlight nonetheless, with one hand on his crotch. Then he straightens up, stands tall, and a cat jumps out of a garbage can, which is interesting since Michael Jackson is frequently linked to cats symbolically. He was just a panther, after all.
So the cat’s out of the bag, or out of the can, and it feels like some aspect of Michael Jackson himself has been released. He pulls his shirt back like a gunslinger about to enter a duel with the town marshal, and an eerie wind blows past him that seems to suggest he’s entering an alternate space and time. (For example, a similar wind blows past him when he opens the door to Club 30s in Smooth Criminal, a wind that transports him back to Dem Bones Cafe of The Band Wagon.) He begins a dance routine that evokes a long history of dance in the U.S., then he and the panther yowl in unison, and that’s when he begins the segment that had critics in an uproar.
Joie: I like the way you put that, Willa. That some aspect of Michael Jackson himself has been released. And I think you just hit on exactly what it is that I feel whenever I watch the panther dance. You asked me how I interpret it, and you were surprised when I said that I have never ascribed any sort of racial protest to it. But I think you just touched on the reason why. Because to me, it just feels like Michael unchained and free. It is a very passionate, expressive dance sequence in which we are given the pleasure of watching one of the greatest dancers in the world just … let … go! We are treated to four blissful, astounding (and yes, erotic) minutes of Michael Jackson doing what only Michael Jackson can. And to me … there is nothing racially motivated about it. It is beautiful, it is celebratory, it is alive! It is the Eternal Dance of Creation that he talks about over and over again in Dancing the Dream, and it is pure joy to witness!
Willa: Oh I agree with that, Joie! But I also think it’s especially significant because of who he was and the cultural position he occupied.
We live in a very strange age where we as a culture are both over-sexed and overly repressed. It’s a bizarre combination. And I think Michael Jackson felt that much more intensely than most of us because of his unique position as the first black teen idol – a sex symbol who clearly aroused desire in white women, black women, women of many races. That was a potentially explosive situation, and he had to be very careful about how he presented himself in public. He was obviously very sexy on stage, but off stage he made sure that people – white people in particular – felt he was “safe,” asexual. In fact, I remember a Saturday Night Live skit years ago where Eddie Murphy pulled the pants off a Michael Jackson doll and used that as proof that he was literally asexual – without sex organs.
The panther dance feels like a dramatic departure from all that. He’s reclaiming his sexuality – he is black, beautiful, and sexual – but that doesn’t mean he plans to spend a lot of time with groupies. In other words, resisting sexual repression doesn’t seem to mean advocating a life of one-night stands. As he sings in “Superfly Sister,”
Push it in Stick it out That ain’t what it’s all about
So he isn’t talking about mindless sex. As we’ve talked about a couple of times before, he seems to see sexuality as much more than just a physical act. Instead, he seems to be saying that we need to reclaim our sexuality as part of our whole being, so that our sexuality isn’t something that only appears behind closed doors but is integrated with who we are as a person – creatively, emotionally, psychologically.
So to me, when looking at how sexuality is represented in the panther dance, the most significant part isn’t the “release” sequence that got critics in an uproar – though that’s important – but the “integration” sequence that happens immediately after. He’s standing on the sidewalk with that ethereal wind blowing, and the camera zooms past him four times as he repeatedly pushes his hands from his heart to his groin, visually joining them, integrating them.
Joie: Well, that’s an interesting interpretation, Willa. And it seems to me that our ideas are not that far off from each other. You seem to see the panther dance as a bold statement on reclaiming our sexuality. While to me, the panther dance is a very sexually charged, incredible dance sequence. One that Michael Jackson seems to delight in performing. Dancing just for the pure joy of dancing.
Willa: Well, actually, I see reclaiming his sexuality is just one aspect of it – to me, it’s really about reclaiming the entirety of himself and his body, including his sexuality. But I love what you just said, Joie, and I think you’re right, we’re not that far apart, and I think you put your finger right on the central point – it’s joy.
I think that, in the panther dance, we see Michael Jackson pushing back against all the cultural narratives that have been imposed on him and his body – ideas about what it means to be a man (or woman), what it means to be black (or white), what it means to be normal (or abnormal), what it means to cool (or uncool), what it means to be desirable (or not desirable), what it means to be lovable (or unlovable) – a human being worthy (or unworthy) of love. He pushes back so hard he shatters the confining narratives written on his body, just like he shatters the ugly confining narratives written on the glass.
And what we find when we break through all those labels and prejudices and false ideologies is something so simple yet so profound – a person fully inhabiting his body, and finding joy in that. As you said so beautifully, Joie, “It is beautiful, it is celebratory, it is alive! It is the Eternal Dance of Creation.”
Willa: This week Joie and I are excited and honored to be joined by Dr. Susan Fast, Professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University and Director of their graduate program in Gender Studies and Feminist Research. And, in addition to all that, you’re a musicologist and study popular music as well. Is that right?
Susan: Studying popular music is really the main thing that I do!
Willa: Really? Well, then we definitely want to have a nice, long chat with you!
Susan: Well, I want to begin by thanking you both for inviting me to be part of the rich conversation about Michael Jackson that you have on this blog. I’m so glad that there are, increasingly, spaces devoted to the serious discussion of his work and cultural impact.
Joie: Yes, so are we. It’s way overdue.
Willa: That’s true, Joie. And Susan, you’ve done so much interesting work with Michael Jackson’s music and stage performances. There’s “Difference That Exceeded Understanding: Remembering Michael Jackson, 1958-2009,” a popular article in our Reading Room, and the recently published “Michael Jackson’s Queer Musical Belongings.” You also co-edited the special Michael Jackson issue of Popular Music and Society that came out a few months ago, and you’re currently working on a book about the Dangerous album, which will be published by Bloomsbury Press next year, right?
Susan: Yes, I’m really thrilled to be able to write a book on Dangerous as part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, in which an entire book is devoted to the study of a single album. Remarkably, there is no book in that series about any of Michael Jackson’s records! You can go here to see which albums have been written about, and which books are forthcoming.
Willa: That’s really exciting!
Joie: It is exciting. And again, it’s long overdue. Susan, here’s a question for you, and it’s one that I know really puzzles and frustrates so many fans. Why do you believe there haven’t been more publications of serious study of the work and artistry of Michael Jackson?
Susan: This is quite puzzling, Joie. I remember looking for scholarly work right after his death and I was stunned at how little there was; it was one of the things that made me want to write about him. There is a little bit from the 1980’s and early 90’s – a wonderful article on “Thriller” by Kobena Mercer, a chapter of a book called Invisibility Blues by Michelle Wallace, and one in Michael Eric Dyson’s book Reflecting Black, etc. And then there was Margo Jefferson’s rich book On Michael Jackson from 2006. (Joe Vogel has a good bibliography on his website.) But considering what an important cultural figure Michael was, it’s a pitifully small amount, and some of it isn’t all that sound in terms of scholarship. Scholars of popular music have been much more interested in MJ’s contemporaries, Prince and Madonna, because they saw there a more radical questioning of gender and, in the case of Prince, racial norms.
My sense is that MJ’s lack of irony played a key role in scholars’ disinterest in his work; this is a perpetual problem in popular music studies: one is just not hip if one is playing it straight. He was not considered oppositional enough, in a counter or subcultural way – at least not on the surface of much of his work.
I also think that the accusations of child molestation played a role in scholars staying away from him as a research subject. There have only been a few scholarly articles that have taken up the accusations, and then not particularly well. This is beginning to change; unfortunately it took his death to make it happen.
Willa: It’s terribly unfortunate. And I agree the lack of irony in his work was a big factor – one that hasn’t been examined nearly enough. The postmodern aesthetic tends toward irony, and since his work is so earnest and sincere, it was seen by many as simplistic and harkening back to an earlier, outdated and discredited point of view. However, as you and other critics are starting to reveal, his work is far from simple. And if one of the goals of postmodernism is to expose the constructedness of our beliefs and perceptions – in part by undermining binary oppositions such as black/white, masculine/feminine, gay/straight – then Michael Jackson wasn’t just in touch with the times but at the forefront, pushing the envelope.
I also wonder if another factor was his refusal to interpret his work for us. He always resisted attempts to draw him out about what his work meant, and many critics took that as a sign that it didn’t mean anything – or if it did, it was purely unintentional. Here’s a quote from Randy Taraborrelli, and while I know he’s not really a critic, it expresses a feeling shared by many critics, I think.
Even if [Michael Jackson’s publicists] could fathom a way to promote him as an accessible human artist with goals that were artistic instead of just commercial, it would never work. No one would believe it; Michael simply wasn’t that way and didn’t even know how to act that way.
Michael has always been myopic in his thinking about the music business: how many records are being bought by the fans? How long does it take to get to number one? How many records are sold? For Michael, commercialism is key, and he doesn’t understand any artist who doesn’t get that. …
For instance, Michael has never been a fan of Madonna, a woman who has managed to combine commerciality with artistic vision because, from the start, she has had something she wants to communicate with her music and, usually, a clear-eyed vision as to how to go about it. She gives interviews; she has a point of view. Other than lamenting about his lost childhood and his victimization at the hands of the media, Michael has never had much of a public viewpoint about anything. He’s not what one would call articulate, not by any stretch of the imagination.
I shouldn’t pick on Taraborrelli because he isn’t a critic and for the most part doesn’t pretend to be, but this just makes me crazy. Thank goodness there are critics and academics and musicologists like you, Susan, who are starting to lead us to a deeper understanding of Michael Jackson’s work, and just how complex and meaningful it really is.
Susan: Same with your work, Willa, which is also giving us new ways to think about his work and life. You’re so right: Michael’s reluctance to give interviews and really talk about his work left the door wide open for critics to dismiss or misconstrue it – although Prince doesn’t talk about his work much either and there hasn’t been the same problem, I think because there isn’t the same kind of cultural and artistic illegibility and confusion as there is with MJ.
Willa: That’s another reason pioneering work like yours is so important. It not only provides insights into his music and performances, but also legitimizes the serious study of his art and helps frame his work in new ways.
So I wanted to ask you about the title of your most recent article. Generally when we hear the word “queer,” it brings to mind sexual orientation as well as a specific political stance. Basically, it means gay and proud, and opposed to any attempt to cast shame onto anyone’s sexual orientation. But that isn’t what your article is about. It’s a wonderfully insightful analysis of how Michael Jackson incorporates and juxtaposes and plays with and off of different genres in his music and concert performances. So what does the word “queer” mean to you in terms of his work, and why did you choose that title for your article?
Susan: I chose to situate Michael’s genre-crossing in terms of queerness in order to, hopefully, shine a new light on the powerful cultural politics of his work. I’m not the only one to have used this frame to think about MJ – there are two other recent articles and one older one that look at him through this lens, but in ways very different from my approach. Queerness is not only about subverting, and thereby questioning, norms, but about the creation of ambiguity, of de-stablizing binaries, especially around gender and sexuality. It’s meant to be an empowering idea in that it gets us away from the notion that our identities need to be pigeon-holed into tidy, rigid categories. An important queer theorist, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, put it this way: queer is “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning” when someone’s gender, sexuality, or race can’t be made to “add up” in the way we’re used to, or isn’t stable.
Willa: That’s a wonderful definition, and very applicable to Michael Jackson.
Susan: Queerness often refers to sexuality, but it has also been used more broadly – in my article I also talk about race, and others have used the term to refer to the “non-normal” more broadly, although this can have the effect of diluting the concept. So … I’m not interested in MJ’s private life at all in this essay, but rather in the way he played with gender, sexuality, and race in his work in order to make us think about these categories and in order to subvert them, mess them up, and shift normal power relations in the process.
Willa: And we definitely see that urge to subvert categories and in that way “shift normal power relations” running throughout his work – in his music, dance, fashion, films, stage performances, and even public perceptions of his own body. And in your article you take a really detailed look at how this “queering” of established categories and genres functions in his music and live performances, especially.
Susan: Yes, that was my goal. Everyone knows how skillful he was at combining elements of pop, rock, soul, R&B, Tin Pan Alley and later hip hop in his work; his ability to cross genres is partly what made his music accessible to a wide audience. That’s a story that’s often been told about him. What I wanted to examine is what that “crossover” really looks like in particular songs and performances of those songs. Musical genres are deeply connected to ideas of social belonging, of ideas we have about race, gender, sexuality, class and so on. We already understand this in the well-known narrative about MJ and genre: his inclusion of elements of pop and rock made his music reach into the white mainstream, while the music of his idol, James Brown, remained deeply connected to black musical forms and didn’t have the same crossover appeal. When one begins to cross musical genres, one recognizes these categories more forcefully: they become denaturalized, and what gets called “normal” comes into question.
Joie: Susan, I love what you just said about musical genres being deeply connected to our ideas of social belonging and the ideas we have about race. I think that’s so unfortunate, but it is also so very true. I can think of so many instances where a person was harassed or just made to feel really uncomfortable because of the type of music he or she liked to listen to, and it was all because it just didn’t fit into the racial “norm.” Black kids aren’t supposed to like rock or country, and white kids are ridiculed and made fun of everyday for having an affinity for rap and hip hop. It just doesn’t make sense; music should be universal. And I have always believed that striving for that was one of Michael Jackson’s goals.
Susan: Yes, I agree, but on the positive side, music gives us such a powerful way to feel connected to others, to feel a sense of belonging when we might otherwise feel socially isolated; feeling part of a social scene organized around genre is one way that that happens. We could also think of genre as a way of celebrating difference. And it’s certainly a means through which artists cultivate their audience, which makes MJ’s successful crossing of generic boundaries all the more interesting. I think his musical virtuosity is what made that possible; people sometimes write about his genre-crossing as a brilliant marketing ploy: sure, but there aren’t many artists who can pull off moving so easily among very disparate musical genres convincingly.
Joie: Well, I agree with you that music is a great way to feel connected to and accepted by others, but I believe strongly that we shouldn’t allow it to close us off from other genres either. I believe that Michael was constantly trying to educate us – on so many different subjects – and I think this is one of his lessons. And you’re right, there aren’t many other artists out there who could move between genres so convincingly.
Susan: I recently watched his 1989 performance at the Sammy Davis Jr. TV special, a song he wrote for that occasion called “You Were There,” which could have come right out of a Broadway musical, and tried to reconcile this with, for example, a song like “Jam,” or “Give Into Me.” He internalized generic codes so that somehow he was as convincing as a rock star as he was a Broadway or soul singer. And I agree with you, Joie, exploiting this incredible skill was probably an extension of MJ’s desire to blur, or queer, all kinds of boundaries.
In my essay on MJ’s queer musical belongings, I look at a lot of different songs, but one of my favorite examples is the live performance of “Working Day and Night” from the 1992 Bucharest concert.
Here’s a song that first appears on what is often considered to be the finest disco album ever made, Off the Wall, transformed from its glossy production values into quite a raunchy R&B/funk number (by punching up the groove, emphasizing the slap bass part and, especially, through MJ’s gritty vocals – completely transformed from the album version). In live performance this song really ends up being quite the homage to James!
So MJ has already messed with genre and, in the process, social relations here, by highlighting the black roots of disco in soul and funk, a connection that often got lost as disco entered the mainstream in the late 1970’s. The part of this performance that truly blows my mind, however, is Jennifer Batten’s metal guitar solo. What on earth is this doing in the middle of “Working Day and Night?”
Willa: That is so interesting, Susan, and you know, looking back at that clip I see exactly what you’re saying – that guitar solo really is quite a disruption – but I never thought about it until I read your article. The guitar solo sounded perfectly “natural” to me, so I didn’t question it. And in talking to you, Susan, I feel like I have to put that word “natural” in quotation marks because as you point out so well, he’s really calling into question so many things we tend to think of as “natural.”
But you’re right. That guitar solo is like a sudden intrusion of “white male” rock by a female guitarist into the middle of a black R&B/funk/disco song – just a classic Michael Jackson situation!
Susan: It does seem “natural” at first because both the hard-driving funk groove and the metal guitar solo are high-energy, but when you start to take it apart, it’s pretty camp and queer! Of course it could be argued that the guitar solo adds to the spectacle of the performance – it’s near the end of the show and MJ clearly wanted to ramp the energy up – but this could have been done without creating such genre dissonance. What’s interesting is that musically, Batten’s guitar solo is never really integrated into the rest of the performance: it’s left as a disturbance, a generic dissonance – that’s partly what makes it queer. The loose ends aren’t neatly tied up. Metal (the white genre) “serves” the larger R&B/funk (black) genre.
MJ liked to queer rock music in particular: it’s a genre of music that really (even still) belongs to white men, who control so many things in our culture. He was clearly aware of rock’s cultural power and turned it on its head. First, he chooses one of the only women guitarists in the 80s and 90s who is a heavy metal virtuoso; Batten is an excellent guitarist, but so are plenty of men: why choose a woman, when you know that it’s unusual, unless you want to point to how unusual it is?
Clearly MJ was interested in questioning genre expectations in this respect. And he was going to do it again in the This Is It concerts, for which he chose Orianthi Panagaris, another blonde, white, woman rock guitarist. MJ dressed Batten up to parody the typical rock guitar god (and the look was his idea); although other musicians in his band wore costumes, none of them were as camp as Jennifer. He wanted to point to the genre of rock/metal in a particular way, a way that, I suggest signifies his control over it. So he makes sure that rock’s whiteness is represented in the figure of the metal guitar player (Batten is one of the very few white musicians in his touring band, and in this show, the only one who takes center stage with him, representing the genre of rock music), but subverts genre expectations by choosing a woman. Brilliant!
Joie: Susan, it is so fascinating to go back and watch the footage of that performance keeping in mind your comments here. And really, all of his live performances where Jennifer Batten was featured very prominently. You’re correct in saying that she was always the only member of his band that he routinely presented center stage during performances. And as Willa and I have learned during the course of this blog, Michael rarely did anything without having a very good reason for it.
Willa: That’s true, Joie – it does seem like this was a deliberate artistic decision on his part because we see it repeatedly in his work. Lisha McDuff described a similar inversion and disruption of genres in the post we did with her about the Black or White video.
“I am tired of this devil” is sung to the hard rock and heavy metal styles that have been overwhelmingly consumed by white audiences. … But they are not coming from the viewpoint of the white musical style being offered. The lyrics are coming from a black perspective of frustration and the horror of racial injustice, even invoking an image of the KKK with a reference to “sheets” …
The next section is hip hop rap, a black musical style, but the rap lyrics are unmistakably white in tone and perspective … This rap section flies at a completely different altitude than we might expect. The message is uplifting and inspirational, and in the short film it is lip synced by Macaulay Culkin, the same white child who appears in the opening drama. Instead of appearing in a lily white suburb as he does earlier, the child is now in an urban melting pot and his clothing and mannerisms register black.
So in the Black or White video as well as the “Working Day or Night” concert performance – and Susan, I love your analysis of that – he’s inverting the norms of white male rock so it becomes very self-referential and kind of a critique of itself, and he’s doing it in both a musical and visual way, as you say.
Susan: That’s a very perceptive analysis of “Black or White,” one that made me go and read the entire blog you did with Lisha. Her reading of the song and video is terrific – it begins to get at how complicated MJ’s music is and how we need to dig beneath the surface to really understand it.
In the issue of Popular Music and Society that I co-edited, there’s an article by musicologist David Brackett in which he talks about “Black or White” and his analysis moves in the same direction as Lisha’s. One of the points he makes is that the main guitar riff sounds remarkably similar to the Rolling Stones’ song “Soul Survivor,” off of Exile on Main Street.
The riff incorporates, generally, sounds that are central to Keith Richards’ rhythm guitar style. David’s point is that Michael chose what has become an archetypal rock riff, from an album that is central to the rock canon: it’s not some random “rock-like” sound, but one that goes to the heart of white blues rock; it’s also an interesting re-appropriation of blues-based white rock by a black musician. Touché, Michael!
What makes this even more interesting is that this guitar riff is combined with a bass guitar part that comes out of the R&B/funk tradition, rather than the straight-ahead rock bass part that is used in “Soul Survivor” (or other Stones’ songs). So from the very beginning of the song, two generic, racialized and gendered worlds are brought together.
Willa: And he does something similar in the Bucharest performance of “Working Day or Night,” right? There’s a very funky bass guitar solo right before Jennifer Batten’s hard rock guitar solo.
Susan: Yes, that’s right: Don Boyette, his touring bassist, takes centre stage for a slap bass solo, but it’s not nearly as lengthy or developed as Batten’s solo, and there are no theatrics associated with it. Boyette just comes to centre stage and plays.
Willa: You talk about those theatrics quite a bit in your article, pointing out how important the onstage visual drama between Michael Jackson and Jennifer Batten is to the meaning of the performance. I was so intrigued by that.
Susan: The interaction between MJ and Batten during the solo is fascinating. It’s quite complex – there’s an awful lot going on. But one of the things that’s striking is that MJ seems to control the performance. Batten follows him back and forth across the stage and when he’s watching her play, it sometimes appears that he is conjuring the sounds out of her guitar himself. Often in rock performances, the relationship between singer and guitar player is quite different: the guitarist (the virtuoso) controls the performance. My reading of this performance is that Batten stands in for hegemonic, or controlling, white power, albeit queerly because of her gender, and that MJ ends up mostly controlling that power. A pretty significant social statement.
Willa: That is such a fascinating interpretation!
Joie: It really is. I’m blown away! I had never thought of it in this way before but it makes so much sense knowing what we do about the way he liked to blur the lines.
Susan: Yes, and while I’ve mentioned the racial politics here, it’s also pretty interesting to consider what’s happening in terms of gender. Batten’s appearance points in a complicated way both to the feminization we see in glam rockers of the 80’s and earlier 90’s and the understanding that these were generally not female bodies: so we get all the expected “hard” and aggressive moves associated with rock from Batten. At the same time, there is MJ’s quite complicated gendered body playing against this. He is androgynous, somewhat feminized, but still performs traditional masculinity through some of his moves, and the fact that he’s in control of Batten’s performance. While many of these kinds of exchanges between singers and guitarists in rock bands have an erotic element to them, I don’t see that in the performance here. MJ was certainly capable of creating eroticized spectacle on stage (think of some of those steamy encounters with Sheryl Crow or Siedah Garrett during performances of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” for example), but that was not the intent here.
I think this is one of many instances where MJ queered all kinds of normative social and musical relations. Willa, your analysis of “Ben” in your book, M Poetica, including the pictures you offer of MJ with rats on his shoulder and his pet snake draped over him can similarly be thought of as queering human/animal relations, of rethinking ideas of kinship, for example.
Willa: That’s an interesting way to look at that, Susan, and it’s significant in that context that the animals he’s holding aren’t traditional pets. Just the opposite – they’re animals that are viewed with fear and loathing by many people. It wouldn’t be “queering” the human/animal relationship in the same way if he were holding a cat or dog or riding a horse. And of course we see this again in his very public relationship with Bubbles.
Susan: Exactly. These are examples of what can be called queer kinship; whatever might have been going on in his private life, the vision of family that he presented as part of his public self included children (some his own, some not), animals, and various adults, like Elizabeth Taylor. He eschewed the normative nuclear family structure, creating instead a more and less fluid chosen family consisting of both humans of various generations, as well as non-humans. There has been a lot of interesting scholarly work done on the role of the nuclear family as a primary means of structuring power – patriarchal power, for one, but also integral to such things as the smooth running of capitalism. Queer kinship threatens patriarchy as well as all kinds of other power structures.
Joie: Now I find that truly fascinating because I believe we are increasingly seeing this ‘queer kinship’ becoming the norm in our society. More and more, people are creating their own versions of what we know as the nuclear family. And yet, Michael Jackson was severely criticized and ridiculed for such behavior.
Willa: He really was. In fact, while he resisted social normalization on so many fronts – norms of what it means to be black, to be a man, to be straight, to be a pop artist, to be a father figure – it was this last transgression that proved intolerable. As threatening as they were, those other transgressions could still be accepted more easily than his defiance of the traditional family unit. Even people who concede that the evidence shows he was not guilty of abusing children still see something damning in his creating familial relationships with children who were not related to him. It shows just how deeply engrained the idea of the nuclear family is. Of all the boundaries he crossed, that was the line that could not be crossed. And as you said so well, Susan, the nuclear family plays an important cultural role – politically, legally, psychologically – in “structuring power.” No wonder that transgression was so threatening.
Susan: Absolutely. Judith (Jack) Halberstam has written beautifully about time, space and normativity, citing, for example, reproductive time – the biological clock for women – and the “bougeois rules of respectability and scheduling for married couples” and how these have become not only normalized, but naturalized and desirable. She talks about how everyday time gets regulated – when to eat, sleep, play, for children, etc. – and how this gets tied to normative morality (I think of MJ’s sleepovers with a bunch of kids here and how many normative lines this crossed). She also talks about the time of inheritance, meaning how generational wealth, including both goods and morals, pass through the family – so if you aren’t part of a traditional one, heaven help you – and how this also connects the family to the history of the nation and forward to the nation’s future (the book is In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives). MJ transgressed these rules about family, space and time in almost every way. I think the narrative that we constantly hear about how his children could not possibly be his biological offspring is partly a way of striking back at his threat to the normative family unit, along with a general desire to emasculate him whenever possible.
Halberstam and other queer theorists claim the queering of space and time for the LGBTQ community and it’s tricky to talk about queerness – as I do in my article and as we’ve done in this blog – in a context that isn’t explicitly queer in terms of sexual orientation, although other musicologists have done so (for a wonderful example, see Freya Jarman-Iven’s book Queer Voices: Technologies, Vocalities and the Musical Flaw). There’s the risk that the political potential of the term could be watered down and re-appropriated for straight culture. But I actually don’t think it’s inappropriate to talk about MJ in these terms, because he so messed with heteronormativity and with race and left the reading of his work and life so open and unsettled. I’ve never really understood why he hasn’t been claimed by the queer community, although I suspect that his more-or-less insistence that he was straight, as well as the accusations and trial tempered enthusiasm for this.
Willa: This is such an important issue, Susan, and I’m so glad you raised it. I’ve asked myself a similar question many times. If ever there was a champion of difference it was Michel Jackson, so why didn’t the groups who’ve traditionally advocated tolerance for difference support him when he was under attack? He had no constituency other than his fans – which, granted, is a lot of people, but it’s not a political constituency. So why didn’t certain political advocacy groups support him?
I think partly it’s because the accusations were so ugly that many saw him as a tainted messenger, and that “tempered enthusiasm” as you say. But I wonder if there isn’t another reason also, which is that tolerance for difference, at least as a political stance, has itself been normalized, and Michael Jackson refused to express his difference in proper ways. While we like to believe we’ve moved beyond the White male stereotypes of the past, they still exist and have been joined by stereotypes of diversity that in many ways are just as constraining. For example, Black kids are supposed to show pride in their race by identifying with the approved genres for their demographic and “aren’t supposed to like rock or country,” as you pointed out earlier, Joie. And “queer,” which by definition should be a celebration of difference, has been politically codified as well.
You express this so well in your “Difference that Exceeded Understanding” article, Susan, when you write,
Michael Jackson’s subjectivity off the stage was disquieting … racial, gendered, able-bodied/disabled, child/teenager/adult, adult man who loved children, father/mother. These differences were impenetrable, uncontainable, and they created enormous anxiety. Please be black, Michael, or white, or gay or straight, father or mother, father to children, not a child yourself, so we at least know how to direct our liberal (in)tolerance. And try not to confuse all the codes simultaneously.
I love this quote, and I think it really gets to the heart of why he wasn’t supported by those who traditionally support the disenfranchised – namely liberals.
Susan: We desperately want categories in order to make sense of the world; there’s safety in being able to say someone is this or that. It bothered many people that this was not possible with MJ. And that’s exactly why I think “queer” is a productive way to think of him (partly because it names the confusion – very unqueer!). Queer is a process, a constant becoming (of something else); by its definition, as musicologist Freya Jarman argues, it cannot be and does not want to be contained. It is “anti-normal.”
Joie: I like that. “Anti-normal.” What a great way to put that!
Susan, thank you again, so much for taking the time to sit and chat with us. Willa and I really appreciate it and we had so much fun talking to you. We hope that you’ll join us again some time!
Susan: And thanks again for inviting me to blog with you! It was really a pleasure.
Joie: This week, Willa and I are thrilled to be joined once again by Lisha McDuff, a professional musician who many of you know as Ultravioletrae in the comments section. She’s joining us to talk about Black or White, a song and video that hold special meaning for her.
Willa: So Lisha, back in February you made a fascinating comment about Michael Jackson’s complex approach to song composition and used Black or White as an example. Here’s what you said:
[T]he white rap section in Black or White uses black hip hop, but runs it through a white perspective, Bill Bottrell’s feel good lyrics and performance. The previous section, “I am tired of this devil” uses white hard rock and heavy metal but runs it through a black perspective and the frustration of racial injustice. He is deliberately confusing musical codes here, attempting to integrate all these perspectives into a single view in a very trans-ethnic way (the way he uses his body). He is autonomously choosing the perspectives he wishes to use, ingeniously expressing the Black or White theme in the song.
I’m so intrigued by this, and would really love to dive into this a little deeper so I understand it better. Can you explain in more detail what you hear going on in these two sections?
Lisha: These two sections in Black or White have revealed so much to me, not only about how brilliant and meticulously crafted this song is, but also about Michael Jackson as a musician, a composer, and all around force for good on the planet. It is such a thrilling concept: Black or White presents a literal “black or white” musical perspective. At any given point in the song, a simultaneous “black or white” musical idea is being offered to the listener in a way that embraces and honors both traditions. It suggests going beyond our false distinctions and ethnic boundaries. But at the same time, the song addresses some very serious issues and really challenges the listener on a more subtle level. There is a lot going on in the song and in the film, and it’s easy to be fooled by its deceptive simplicity.
At first, I was just curious about the song’s structure. There are two “middle 8” sections in the song, which just means there are two sections in the middle of the song that are each 8 bars long. The function of a “middle 8” is to introduce a new and interesting musical idea that sets up the return of the final verse and chorus. I’m talking about the “I am tired of this devil” and the “white rap” sections. While there are no hard and fast rules in song structure, it is more standard to have only one “middle 8” section, not two.
Willa: And we usually call that “middle 8” the bridge, right? But this isn’t just a long bridge – a “middle 16,” as it were. It’s actually two separate bridges juxtaposed in a very sophisticated and interesting way. Is that an accurate way of seeing this?
Lisha: Yes, that’s right. These sections function as a bridge back to the final verse and chorus, and they are significantly different from each other and the rest of the song. When I looked to see if I could understand why there were two sections like this, I began to realize there was a deliberate attempt to confuse the musical codes associated with “black or white” musical styles. This ingenious idea so beautifully expresses the lyrics and the visual images we see in the short film. The music itself expresses the message of the song: “it don’t matter if you’re black or white.”
“I am tired of this devil” is sung to the hard rock and heavy metal styles that have been overwhelmingly consumed by white audiences. According to the principal collaborator on Black or White, Bill Bottrell, Michael was very specific about this section, even composing the exact heavy metal guitar solo he wanted by singing every rhythm, note, and chord to Bottrell. The musical feeling here abruptly turns very dark, and the lyrics are direct and to the point. But they are not coming from the viewpoint of the white musical style being offered. The lyrics are coming from a black perspective of frustration and the horror of racial injustice, even invoking an image of the KKK with a reference to “sheets”:
I am tired of this devil I am tired of this stuff I am tired of this business Go when the going gets rough I ain’t scared of your brother I ain’t scared of no sheets I ain’t scared of nobody Girl, when the going gets mean
The next section is hip hop rap, a black musical style, but the rap lyrics are unmistakably white in tone and perspective – they were written and performed by Bill Bottrell. This rap section flies at a completely different altitude than we might expect. The message is uplifting and inspirational, and in the short film it is lip synced by Macaulay Culkin, the same white child who appears in the opening drama. Instead of appearing in a lily white suburb as he does earlier, the child is now in an urban melting pot and his clothing and mannerisms register black:
Protection for gangs, clubs and nations Causing grief in human relations It’s a turf war on a global scale I’d rather hear both sides of the tale You see it’s not about races, just places Faces, where your blood comes from Is where your space is I’ve seen the bright get duller I’m not gonna spend my life being a color
Joie: Lisha, I have to say that I just love talking to you about Michael’s work because you always bring such a unique perspective to the conversation. As Willa said the last time we spoke with you, it’s like you’re granting us entrance into a world that we can’t enter on our own, not being trained musicians as you are. This whole discussion of the two middle 8 sections in Black or White is completely fascinating to me, and so much more sophisticated and complex than you would expect a “pop” star to be.
Lisha: It really is very clever, isn’t it? We’re lucky to have a first hand account of how this record was created from an interview Bill Bottrell did for Sound on Sound in 2004. It seems that the use of “black or white” perspectives was an idea Michael had all along, starting with his choice of Bottrell as a co-producer for Black or White. Bottrell explained:
“As a co-producer, Michael was always prepared to listen and put his trust in me, but he was also a sort of guide all the time. He knew why I was there and, among all the songs he was recording, what he needed from me. I was an influence that he didn’t otherwise have. I was the rock guy and also the country guy, which nobody else was.”
Bottrell was selected to co-produce Black or White for the very reason that he would bring this rock/country perspective to the song. So from the very beginning, a “black or white” musical idea was beginning to take shape. Bottrell describes this song as having a Southern rock feel, achieved through his interpretation of the music Michael composed. He plays the famous guitar riff and many other parts throughout the song. Interestingly enough, it was Bottrell who had the idea to insert a rap section in the middle, not Michael. This led Michael to suggest placing a heavy metal section right next to it, side by side. However, I don’t believe Michael ever fully revealed his idea for these two middle sections to Bottrell.
The rap section was the very last part of the song to be completed after months and months of difficult, tedious and time consuming work. And while there were some serious rappers coming into the studio to work on other songs for the Dangerous album, Michael didn’t ask any of them to perform on Black or White. Bottrell couldn’t really figure out why, as he explains:
“All the time I kept telling Michael that we had to have a rap, and he brought in rappers like LL Cool J and the Notorious BIG who were performing on other songs. Somehow, I didn’t have access to them for ‘Black Or White’, and it was getting later and later and I wanted the song to be done. So, one day I wrote the rap — I woke up in the morning and, before my first cup of coffee, I began writing down what I was hearing, because the song had been in my head for about eight months by that time and it was an obsession to try and fill that last gap.”
Bottrell decided to go ahead and do a mock up of the rap section when something very unexpected happened, the birth of “LTB”:
“It seems kind of random, but it’s as if he [Michael] makes things happen through omission. There’s nobody else, and it’s as if he knows that’s what you’re up against and challenges you to do it. For my part, I didn’t think much of white rap, so I brought in Bryan Loren to rap my words and he did change some of the rhythms, but he was not comfortable being a rapper. As a result, I performed it the same day after Bryan left, did several versions, fixed one, played it for Michael the next day and he went ‘Ohhh, I love it Bill, I love it. That should be the one.’ I kept saying ‘No, we’ve got to get a real rapper,’ but as soon as he heard my performance he was committed to it and wouldn’t consider using anybody else.”
If you’ve ever looked at the credits on this song and wondered, who is “LTB”? Now you know!
Willa: That story just cracks me up! As you showed so well, Lisha, he really needed a “white” rap for this section to balance the “black” rock, so he simply makes all these incredible rappers coming in and out of the studio unavailable for this particular song. As Bottrell says, “Somehow, I didn’t have access to them for ‘Black Or White.'” Finally, he’s kinda forced to do it himself. That whole situation is too funny – I can just picture Michael Jackson telling him, “Ohhh, I love it Bill, I love it.” I think Bottrell is right – he really does “make things happen through omission” – and it’s pretty astute of Bottrell to pick up on that.
Lisha: I could laugh about it all day – I find that so hilarious. And it is just such a great example of how Michael used multiple perspectives as a compositional technique in this song. Genius. There is no better way to capture a certain perspective than to just utilize someone who is genuinely approaching music from that perspective.
Willa: That’s a really interesting way to look at this, Lisha. So, to begin expanding out to the other sections of the film, the intro section is set in a “lily white suburb,” as you say, with an Archie Bunker-like father who is throning it over his family from his recliner. The mother is completely silent as long as he’s in the house – and once he’s gone, she just worries about how upset he’ll be when he gets home. It is so stereotypically white and patriarchal.
Joie: That’s a very amusing assessment, Willa.
Willa: It is funny, isn’t it? I think there’s a lot of humor in Black or White, though it’s subtle and often overlooked. So the son is upstairs listening to loud rock music, which is generally coded as white also, just like the setting, but he has a poster of Michael Jackson hanging on the back of his door, so already there’s a bit of ambiguity. The father stomps upstairs and demands he “turn that noise off!” then slams the door. The poster falls to the floor, the glass shatters – the first of many scenes of shattering glass in this video – and it just feels to me like Michael Jackson has been released by the shattering glass. He’s no longer safely encased in the poster behind the door. He’s now been let loose, like a genie from his bottle.
The boy responds to his father’s demands with a blast of sound from his electric guitar – a mode of defiance that is generally coded as “white” – but ironically, that blast of sound shatters the windows of this insulated white suburban home and sends the father flying back to Africa and the origins of music, including ultimately hard rock and heavy metal. So it subtly forces us to question how we label and situate this music. After landing in Africa, the father observes Michael Jackson dancing with tribesman in traditional dress and body ornamentation, but they’re dancing to rock music, which again is generally coded as white. But this particular music was written by Michael Jackson, and is now forming the soundtrack for people around the world – Africa, India, North America, Russia – to engage with him in their traditional dance. So that “white” label is really being complicated and undermined on many different fronts.
Joie: As usual, Willa, your observations are brilliant and dead on! And listening to your take on the opening shots of this video really highlights just how calculating and methodical Michael was about every aspect of this project – both the song and the short film. He obviously had a vision and a message … a mission, if you will, for this particular song and video, and it’s really interesting to dissect it and decipher what that message is.
Lisha: You’re absolutely right, Joie, it’s not just a song – it’s a mission! And I really love what you said, Willa, about Michael Jackson being released from that shattered poster frame like a genie from his bottle. He comes in as such a powerful musical force when the song begins and we start to see the African landscape. The guitar introduces the strong musical motif, that famous 2 bar hook that repeats throughout the song. Underneath the guitar and the accompanying rock rhythms, you hear this light percussion with an African feel, things like cowbells and shakers. These percussive African-sounding instruments traditionally suggest the feeling of community and a continuous invitation to dance. As you point out, the short film extends that invitation out to the whole world.
According to musicologist Susan McClary’s book Conventional Wisdom, “one of the most important facts about culture of the last hundred years” is “that the innovations of African Americans have become the dominant force in music around the globe.” The short film really emphasizes this point. But it also emphasizes another point each time the camera pulls away from these traditional dance scenes. The sound stage is revealed, the artifice of the scene is exposed. We have to ask ourselves the question, is this the way it really is? Do we really dance together in harmony all over the world?
The way the sounds are layered and placed in the song tells a “black or white” story too. The white dominant culture is sonically represented by the overpowering guitar hook, but the African feel of the percussion underneath it is steady and understated, always inviting us to dance together in community.
Willa: Those kind of details are so interesting to me, Lisha, and I love your reading of this. It reinforces the idea once again that the central themes of Black or White are being expressed on so many fronts – through the lyrics and dance and visuals, but also through the music itself and how the music is structured.
Lisha: It is endlessly fascinating to think about the way the music itself gets used as part of the literal meaning in this song. One of the best examples is after Michael sings in the first verse “we’re one in the same.” Suddenly the guitar hook stops and all the musical focus is now on the down beat or the one. Beat one now carries a literal meaning of unity and oneness. “Now, I believe in miracles, and a miracle has happened tonight.” It happens again in the chorus when we hear: “If you’re thinkin’ about my baby it don’t matter if you’re black or white.” The emphasis on beat one is a sonic statement to remind us “we are one in the same.” Brilliant!
Joie: Now that’s really interesting, Lisha. Of course, we all focus on beat one as we listen to the song – as was probably Michael’s intention. But I never realized that beat one was a musical representation of our oneness. Of our unity. That is truly fascinating to me!
Let’s move on to the ending section of the short film, the part usually referred to as the panther dance. Almost from the moment the video was released on November 14, 1991, it was mired in controversy because of the suggestive way Michael danced and touched himself during the piece, as well as the uncharacteristic violence he portrayed. It was so controversial that many TV stations would only play the shortened version of the video, removing the panther dance sequence all together.
The interesting thing here to me is that, as Willa has pointed out many times in other conversations, when it came to his art, Michael usually had a very specific reason for everything he did. He knew that the public, and the ratings machine, were practically salivating at the thought of his next video. Since the colossal success of Thriller and the resulting videos for that album, Michael’s short films were debuted with all the drama of a major Hollywood release. People would mark the date on their calendars and gather around their TV sets with baited breath to watch a new Michael Jackson video, and Black or White was no exception. It was first broadcast on MTV, VH1, BET and Fox (giving that network its highest Nielsen ratings ever). It also premiered simultaneously in 27 countries around the world with an audience of over 500 million viewers – the most ever to watch a music video!
So Michael orchestrated this massive audience to sit and watch, knowing that what he was about to do would not only stir up controversy but would also be talked about for years to come! And I believe that’s exactly what he wanted from the panther dance – to create so much controversy that it would be assured that this song/video and its message could never be ignored or overlooked.
Lisha: I have to say that as I go back and look at what was going on for Michael Jackson in 1991, the release of this video seems as carefully orchestrated as the song itself. In June of that year, there was quite a stir when Madonna very publicly criticized Michael Jackson saying he needed a complete makeover. I actually remember this news item even though I wasn’t a fan at that time. Now I wonder if Michael didn’t recruit Madonna himself to make this statement because it got so much publicity! After all, they had been seeing quite a bit of each other that year. Two of Madonna’s dancers claimed to be in contact with the Jackson camp and said “we intend to get rid of the boots and buckles and glitter … We want to give him an updated street look that’s very what’s-happening-in-New-York-today.” This prompted Michael’s spokesman, Bob Jones, to release a statement denying their involvement, and he said something I find quite fascinating: “He [Michael] had a different look for each of his albums by his choice. Absolutely no one determines which direction Mr. Jackson goes.”
Willa: Wow, that is interesting, isn’t it? It states pretty clearly that “his look” – meaning the appearance of his face, his body, his hair, his clothing – was part of his art, and he hints at that in the film as well. There’s the morphing faces scene, which is so interesting, and then at the end of that section the director, John Landis, steps into the frame of the film (once again disrupting the illusion of reality and emphasizing the constructedness of this film, as you mentioned earlier, Lisha) and says to the actress, “That was perfect. How do you do that?” It’s a joke, of course, but the implication is that they aren’t using special effects to morph between different people of different races and genders; rather they’re simply filming one person as s/he morphs between race and gender. And of course, Michael Jackson himself morphed across race and gender lines, and a lot of people wondered, “How do you do that?” This is echoed immediately afterwards when the panther appears and then morphs into Michael Jackson. So there’s a lot of morphing going on – across race, across gender, even across species.
Lisha: I had never gotten that joke before. That is hysterical!
Willa: Isn’t it funny? I love that line.
Lisha: I do too, and what an insight into this piece and his entire body of work. When I go back and look at the physical images Michael released for the previous album, Bad, and even the photos of his outings with Madonna earlier in 1991, I see what we call “a person of color.” However, in this short film, what I see signifies white in my mind. I honestly think, and I am not exaggerating in any way, that this is arguably the most significant artistic creation of our time. This song and the physical image of the artist coming together in this way … I just don’t know what to say … I am awestruck by this kind of genius.
Willa: I agree wholeheartedly. He just blows me away. And it’s so interesting how what you were just saying about his body kind of echoes what you were saying earlier about the middle 8 sections, where he takes a white music genre – hard rock – and runs it through a black perspective, and takes a black genre – hip hop – and runs it through a white perspective. By this point in his career his appearance may have registered as white, but he still vigorously claimed his black identity. So just as he was “deliberately confusing the musical codes” in those middle 8 sections, as you described so well, he seems to be deliberately confusing racial codes – specifically the signifiers written on his body – and challenges how we read and interpret his face and body.
And we see that again in the panther dance that you were just talking about, Joie. His face does seem to register as white in the earlier sections of the video, as you mentioned, Lisha, but his racial “coding” is more ambiguous during the panther dance. For example, when he kneels in the puddle and rips his shirt open, I wouldn’t say his face and body in that scene can be easily classified as either black or white. But the message is definitely from a black perspective. It’s a strong protest against white imperialism, colonialism, racism, and oppression.
Lisha: Those agonizing cries and yells in this scene are so expressive – you can feel centuries of pent up anger and frustration in his vocals that point to just that. Words and literal meanings just aren’t necessary. You understand from the voice and the visual symbols what is being communicated. And I think there is something more ambiguous going on here musically too. Many have described the panther dance as being a silent dance without musical accompaniment, but I really hear this differently. I hear a complex layering of sound that feels more like an avant-garde composition, exploring the musical value of all kinds of things like glass breaking, wind, and water splashing. It feels like much more than just a soundscape. Over the recorded dance steps you can hear these very rhythmic, sharp, crisp aspirants or little whispers that function like a percussion instrument to hold the music together and keep the beat steady. Other “mouth percussion” sounds are there too, like “cha,” “sss,” “hew,” and popping sounds with the lips. It’s possible that this alternative musical expression is another form of protest as well.
Willa: Wow! That is fascinating!
Lisha: The ending panther dance coda is a little masterpiece of its own, and it creates such a perfect bookend for the song. The opening drama with its white suburban setting creates one bookend and the black panther dance set in the city streets creates the other. Perfect symmetry. We have this “black or white” song, co-produced through “black or white” perspectives, with its “black or white” middle sections, placed between these two “black or white” bookends. There doesn’t seem to be anything here that hasn’t been thought out to the “nth” degree to communicate the message of the song, including the artist himself!
Joie: Which goes back to what I was saying before about how he always had very specific, very calculated reasons for doing everything he did. When it came to his art, he really was very methodical and deliberate in his choices and his decisions. Remarkable!
Joie: Willa, last week we talked about the Ghosts short film and that got me thinking about the dance sequence in that video. You know, for so many years, Michael’s name has been synonymous with dance, and he has long been recognized as one of the greatest dancers of our time. I believe we would have to search long and hard to find someone – anyone – who would take issue with that statement. Even people who don’t consider themselves to be fans seem to have no trouble admitting that. In fact, he was the first figure from the world of rock and roll to be inducted into the prestigious National Dance Hall of Fame in 2010.
Willa: Really? How do you know all this, Joie? You’re just amazing. But no, I didn’t know about that. That is impressive.
Joie: Yeah, it is really impressive. Especially since the honor is usually reserved for classically trained dancers from the world of ballet and modern dance. The list of inductees includes names like George Balanchine, Martha Graham and Bronislava Nijinska as well as Fred Astaire and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
I think one of the reasons so many people acknowledge his dance talent is because he always used his short films to showcase that amazing ability, and I really love the big dance sequence in the Ghosts short film. Even though it’s the storyline and the dialogue that really drive this video, the dance sequence, to me, is really just as important. From the very beginning where he introduces the invading villagers to his “family” of ghosts, to the very menacing charge against the Mayor, to the almost angelic conclusion where the ghosts float from the ceiling in reverence. I think it’s one of the most complex dance sequences we’ve ever seen in a Michael Jackson video and I love how he used the background music to sort of shift the mood of the dance throughout – from lighthearted circus-feel entertainment, to very threatening, to almost ethereal. It’s just so much fun to sit and watch; I love to pop in this video and really immerse myself in it.
Willa: Oh, I agree! The dance sequences are fascinating and you’re right – they really propel us through a wide range of emotions. I wish I knew more about dance so I could be more aware of what’s happening and have a better understanding of what he’s doing and why. He had three choreographers, including Travis Payne, working with him and the other dancers on this movie, but the credits say, “All Dance Sequences Conceived and Staged by Michael Jackson.” And you can definitely feel his guiding vision in these dance sequences – they embody through physical movement some of the central themes of the film. And that first dance, with all those ghosts and ghouls dancing behind him, feels so different from any other dance sequence he ever did.
You know, he really liked to develop each dance so that it precisely fit what he was trying to convey in that particular piece. In a 1999 MTV interview, he described how he and Michael Peters choreographed the big dance sequence with the zombies in Thriller:
“It was a delicate thing to work on,” he says, because zombies move in such a stiff, unnatural way – they clomp around on their undead legs and can scarcely walk. As he says, “I remember my original approach was, How do you make zombies and monsters dance without it being comical?” He approached that problem by imaginatively putting himself in the body of a zombie and working through it that way. As he says, “I got in the room with Michael Peters, and he and I together kind of imagined how these zombies should move.”
And they solved the problem brilliantly. When you watch the big dance sequence in Thriller, it feels so right you don’t even think about how difficult it must have been to choreograph a dance for undead legs. He and the other zombies really move, so it’s fun to watch, but there are some distinctive gestures that vividly convey the idea that these are rigid, corpse-like bodies.
Joie: And, you know, it’s not something that most people would think about. But asking the question, “how do you make zombies dance without it being comical,” is really what made him such a brilliant talent – that attention to detail is incredible. He approached everything he did with that same obsessive attention to detail. It’s really astounding to think about! I just love when he says that he would even go so far as to show up for rehearsals with Michael Peters wearing monster makeup in order to get into character, to make it easier to envision just how these undead creatures would move and dance. That dedication to detail is key.
Willa: I agree. I think it’s subtle details like that, along with the ability to imaginatively put yourself in the emotional and physical space of your character, that sets apart great dancers, great actors, great artists. I remember reading an article one time about Baryshnikov when he was very young. He was dancing the role of a toy, I think it was, who comes to life, but he was acting listless on stage. His instructor stopped the music and asked if there was something wrong, and he said no, he just hadn’t come to life yet. I love that! He was dragging around on stage because he was completely immersed in that role and imagining what it would be like to inhabit a wooden mechanical body and not yet have a living body. How would your arms and legs move if they weren’t alive yet?
Michael Jackson had that same imaginative capacity to genuinely inhabit a character and move in a way that suggested he really was a zombie or a gangster or a mayor forced to dance against his will. He describes dancing as the Mayor in “The Making of Ghosts,” about 6½ minutes in:
Joie: You know what I love about that clip, Willa, is the fact that, even though he is being interviewed about his new video, he stays completely in character because of all the makeup and conducts the interview as the Mayor – with the voice, the attitude and everything! So funny.
Willa: I love that too! And then he starts to jerk and move, and it really feels like something inside him is yanking his muscles and compelling him to dance. And then he really gets into it and starts to groove, but there’s still that resistance the Mayor has to the dance. It’s just amazing to hear him talk through what’s happening as he does it, and so fun to watch him pull it off.
I see something similar but a little more complicated happening in the big dance sequence in Ghosts. He’s creating a dance that’s appropriate for these characters – for ghosts and ghouls – but he’s also creating a dance that carries out an important thematic function by evoking the grotesque. He suggests the grotesque in many different ways throughout Ghosts: in the contortions of his face when he first confronts the villagers, in the laughing fool with his jingling three-pointed hat, in the irreverent ghouls who challenge the Mayor, in the upside-down dancing on the ceiling. And he also evokes it through the dance steps themselves. There’s lots of splayed legs, and these skittery spider-like jumps and sidewinder movements that we’ve never seen him do before.
Joie: You’re right, there are lots of really different, menacing, even almost sinister moves in this one. In Thriller, even though they were portraying dancing undead zombies, the feel of the dance was still sort of lighthearted, soft-horror. But in Ghosts, the entire dance sequence feels much darker and more frightening because of the unique choreography.
Willa: I hadn’t thought about that, but it is kind of unsettling, isn’t it, just because it is so different from any dance I can think of. I don’t remember ever seeing a dancer move their body in quite that way before. And you know, while you see people from around the world doing so many distinctive Michael Jackson dance moves, you don’t see them doing those splayed-leg movements from Ghosts. I’ve never seen those moves outside this film, and maybe that’s also because they are so unnervingly different.
There is so much going on in this film, and in the dance sequences, and there are some subtle gestures that really jump out at me in interesting ways. For example, he begins the first dance sequence by calling up all these ghouls to dance with him and then wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. He uses that same gesture in Bad after calling up the imaginary gang members/artists to back him up in the big dance sequence there. And the Macaulay Culkin character does the same thing in the intro to Black or White, just before blasting the electric guitar so loud he sends his father flying back to Africa and the origins of music and dance.
That small gesture seems to carry the same meaning in all three cases. In all three, a rather powerless solitary figure is confronted with the threat of violence, and in all three he stands up to that threat and counters it with art: with music and dance. It’s almost like Michael Jackson is creating his own vocabulary of gesture, so when we see him wipe his mouth with the back of his hand in Ghosts, we feel the echoes of those prior films and kind of know what’s coming.
Joie: “His own vocabulary of gesture.” I like that!
Willa: You know what I mean, right? It’s just so fascinating to me what he’s doing – how he uses subtle gestures like that to signify a very specific concept, but in an unspoken way. He does something similar to begin the skeleton dance. As we were talking about last week, the villagers have very conflicted feelings about the Maestro – they aren’t sure if they can trust him or not – so he reflects that back at them by making himself unfamiliar, a skeleton, but then dances in a very fun, familiar way that draws them to him.
Interestingly, he begins the skeleton dance by jerking up his right shoulder – and that is exactly how he began the zombie dance in Thriller. And he’s dealing with a similar situation in both films. In Thriller, he’s addressing people’s very conflicted feelings about him as our first black teen idol. The United States was and is a racist country with oppressive taboos against inter-racial relationships – especially in the early 1980s when Thriller was made – and suddenly millions of teenage girls of all races were fainting at his concerts and affirming that he was sexually desirable. So he was really challenging those taboos, and a lot of people felt very unsettled about that. He responded to those conflicted emotions just as he does in Ghosts: he makes himself unfamiliar – a zombie – so he reflects those emotions back at us, but then dances in a way that’s unmistakably Michael Jackson and draws us in to him.
Joie: Ok, you have officially blown me away here! I never made that connection between the skeleton dance in Ghosts and the zombie dance in Thriller before. But you are right; he does begin both dances the exact same way, in order to remind us that he is still the same person. Wow!
Willa: Isn’t it fascinating? He just knocks me out, over and over again – he’s just breathtakingly brilliant. Every time I experience his work, I feel awed by it all over again.
Joie: Willa, that is a statement that I think so many of us can agree with. It never fails to astound me that, no matter how many times I listen to his music or watch one of his short films or watch a concert performance, I always discover something new that I had never heard or experienced before. It’s just amazing to me.
Willa: Oh, I know! And it’s so interesting to me how he conveyed meaning through so many different avenues simultaneously. For example, he conveys so much through that gesture of jerking up his right shoulder or wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, and importantly, those gestures are nonverbal. I wonder if that’s one reason his work was so popular around the world – because even if you didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand the lyrics, you could still understand the central ideas because he was able to convey meaning in so many other ways.
And he didn’t just use gesture to convey concepts and emotions. He used them to convey personality details as well that brought his characters vividly to life. In a wonderful comment Nina posted a couple weeks ago, she describes how he was able to “sketch a character” through a few subtle gestures:
As some of the most skilled artist/draftspeople could sketch a character in an attitude or pose with just a few simple lines – so that we become privy to an essence the figure’s demeanor and personality – Michael could perform such a character “sketch” through movement alone. It’s gestural economy at its finest … you can recognize the “character” at once.
Nina goes on to say,
he can strike the attitude of a louche sort of fellow who runs a comb through his hair in “Billie Jean,” a gangster in “Smooth Criminal,” and a different [gangster] in “You Rock My World,” and so on. Each of these characters is composed of a few basic elements that are familiar throughout his repertoire. But these elements are rearranged and sequenced in a different way for each “number,” with variations throughout. It’s no wonder that, as a mime, he’d been going to perform with Marcel Marceau. And in film study, we’d consider Michael’s distinctive style that runs throughout his body of work the mark of an “auteur.”
Nina’s descriptions of his “gestural economy” are so interesting, and I absolutely agree about his ability to “sketch a character … with just a few simple lines,” so the “essence” of that character comes to life for us. So in Ghosts, for example, he isn’t just performing the dance of a generic Mayor forced to move against his will. He’s performing as a Mayor with a distinctive personality and specific desires and biases and beliefs, including a desperate need to be in control at all times. And those individualizing characteristics are conveyed to us through simple gestures, such as that abrupt gesture with his hands when his body begins to move. He’s losing control of his legs and then his hips as his body begins to dance, but he’s trying to reassure the villagers that he’s still in control – of the situation, of the Maestro, of them, of his own body.
Joie: Willa, I love the comment you used from Nina. I agree with what she says about the “elements being rearranged and sequenced in a different way for each number.” This is really true and we can see this in various performances throughout his career. One of my absolute favorites is the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards performance. His entire opening number is incredible. He performs a medley of “Don’t Stop,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Scream,” “Beat It,” “Black or White,” and “Billie Jean,” with a little help from his friend, Slash.
But it’s the full-length rendition of “Dangerous” that really makes this performance something special. He’s not even singing live here but, you quickly forgive and forget about it because the dance is so spectacular! Even now, nearly 20 years later, I can’t watch it without getting goosebumps. The way he moves is just so totally beyond anyone else; it’s like he’s made of rubber. His body bends and twists and moves in ways that regular people’s just don’t. There have been, and I’m sure there will continue to be, many imitators but, the simple fact is that nobody else moves like that! Slash once made this observation:
“The thing about Michael is he’s hands down one of the most professional, most talented performers I have ever worked with. All the brouhaha aside, when it comes down to it, you can have 60 choreographed dancers up there and you know which one Michael is.”
I just love this quote because Slash is absolutely right; you can always pick Michael out when he’s on stage with other singers and dancers. He just moves differently than anyone else. And I especially love that this quote came from Slash – someone you wouldn’t normally think would pay attention to the dancing, you know?
Willa: And what he says is absolutely true. When Michael Jackson is dancing with a group, you simply can’t take your eyes off him. Even in the group dance in The Way You Make Me Feel when all you can see are silhouettes of the dancers, you know which one is him and you can’t help watching him.
And of course, he also received praise from professionals who do pay close attention to dancing – people like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Debbie Allen, and Michael Flatley, as Jacksonaktak noted in a comment a couple months ago. I love this quote she cited from Baryshnikov, saying,
What Baryshnikov remembers most about Jackson, he said, was “… his simple, bouncy walk across the stage, that was what was most beautiful and arresting, swinging his hips, kicking his heel forward. That’s to me what he is: that superior confidence in his body as a dancer. You wanted to say, ‘Wow, this guy, what a cat; he can really move in his own way.’”
As soon as I read this, I could picture that “simple, bouncy walk” so well. I love that walk, and it’s so distinctively Michael Jackson. We see snippets of it throughout the MTV medley you love so much, Joie. He also performs it as the skeleton in Ghosts, and even as a skeleton, it is so distinctively him. It’s just so joyful and carefree, and as Baryshnikov says, it reflects “that superior confidence in his body as a dancer.”
Joie: Yeah, that is a great quote from Baryshnikov and, you’re right. He did receive a lot of praise from many in the dance community. From the highly acclaimed and regarded all the way to the neophyte just trying to catch a break – like all those young dancers at the beginning of the This Is It film. You know, during an interview on The Making of Thriller, Michael Peters talks about how Michael had never taken a formal dance lesson in his life and yet, there he was in the dance rehearsals with all of these classically trained dancers who had been studying dance for years, and he was not simply holding his own with them, but he was actually out-dancing them. “It’s just something you’re born with,” Peters said. “It’s just in him.”
Joie: Last week, we began a discussion about Michael’s frequent use of an on-screen audience in many of his short films, and how he used this on-screen audience to convey a certain mood or to model behavior in the video that he wanted us – the off-screen audience – to emulate. And during our discussion, Willa and I were surprised to find that there was so much ground to cover on this topic. So much, in fact, that we had no choice but to do it in two posts.
So this week, we want to continue by picking up where we left off with our conversation about how Michael often breaks the illusion of reality in his videos, as we pointed out he does at the end of Beat It. The dancers are doing their thing while the gang members watch and then the camera pans back to reveal that they are actually on a stage and we hear the roar of the unseen on-screen audience, which makes it clear that this has been a performance.
Willa: That’s true, Joie, and he does that a lot in his work, even when there isn’t an on-screen audience. He likes to draw us in – immerse us in a story or an experience – and then remind us that it’s a performance. Black or White may be the best example. He’s constantly breaking the illusion of reality in that video: after almost every scene he reveals that he’s been performing on a soundstage. And at the big break in the middle – before the panther dance begins – he pans back to show us the film crew, and the director stepping into the frame to talk with the actress who was performing for us. We’re never allowed to forget that this is a performance.
He’s even more explicit about emphasizing he’s a performer in Remember the Time. In fact, the plot of this video focuses on the interactions between a performer and his audience. An Egyptian royal couple is bored and eager for entertainment, but they’re ruthless in passing judgment on those who try to please them. One poor entertainer is beheaded; another is thrown to the lions. So clearly, if you’re to survive as a performer, you have to please your audience. Michael Jackson’s character succeeds in pleasing the queen – and as he frequently does in his work, he presents the relationship between him and his audience, the queen, as a love affair. But while the queen is pleased, the king is not. In fact, he turns against Michael Jackson’s character precisely because the queen is so taken with him. Clearly, the life of a performer is not an easy one.
Joie: That’s interesting, Willa. I never really think about Remember the Time in terms of an on-screen audience but I guess it does apply. The king and queen are watching several performers, looking for someone to entertain them, so they are indeed the audience here!
Willa: They really are, and they aren’t a very loving audience either – at least, not entirely. His relationship with this on-screen audience is pretty complicated, just as his relationship with the public was really complicated. We have two different elements of his audience – represented by the king and queen – reacting in very different ways to his performance, and each is motivated by a complex mix of emotions. The queen is bored and falls for him simply because his performance amuses her, but she’s capricious. She could easily change her mind. The king is initially drawn to his performance also, but then he observes how the queen is responding and turns against him.
And of course, something very similar happened off screen with the general public as well. Michael Jackson first appeared as this cute little bundle of energy singing and dancing with the Jackson 5, and a lot of people became caught up in the sheer delight of that. And then his fame grew and grew with Off the Wall and of course Thriller, and a large segment of the population became completely infatuated with him – like the queen does. But at the same time, the critics began to turn against him – just like the king – and the haters began to appear, along with people who were just too cool to like someone that popular.
I don’t know if you have friends like this, Joie, but I know people who are constantly gushing about some new undiscovered talent, and then turning against them when they get too popular. I have friends who loved REM when they were playing little clubs in Athens, Georgia, but lost interest as soon as they became a big name. They loved Bruce Springsteen when he was a scrawny kid from New Jersey but shook their heads and said he’d “sold out” somehow when he muscled up and became recognized as the voice of the working class.
Joie: Yeah, I know people like that. One in particular who just loved the band Journey when they weren’t very successful. But the minute they hired Steve Perry to be their lead singer and the group suddenly started turning out hits, he didn’t like them anymore. They were too popular, too “commercial.” I don’t understand that at all.
Willa: I don’t really understand that either – performers are just as talented after they become popular as they were before – but I see this same story playing out over and over again: with Charlie Chaplin and Elvis and Barbra Streisand and The Beatles, and now Justin Bieber. And I see Michael Jackson exploring that phenomenon in Remember the Time. So he’s doing something a little different with his on-screen audience this time. He isn’t modeling how he wants us to react. Instead, he’s reflecting our emotions back at us so we’re forced to look at them and think about them, at some level of consciousness.
Joie: Hmm. I never would have made that connection or thought of it in that way. But, like I said, I hadn’t ever thought about Remember the Time as having an on-screen audience before now so, that really floors me. You’ve just given me a whole new way of thinking about this short film.
But, you know, there are a couple of other videos that I never really thought about as having an on-screen audience before. One of those is You Rock My World. But I guess you could say that the club patrons and the managers of the club are his audience in that one. After all, he does take it upon himself to get up on the stage in that video. They haven’t asked him to perform. In fact, the club managers look like they want to kill him the minute he enters the establishment, so they don’t want him on the stage. But he gets up there and gives an impromptu performance anyway.
Willa: That’s interesting, Joie, and it connects back to Remember the Time in really interesting ways. I hadn’t thought about those two videos together like that before, but there are some striking parallels between them. As we talked about last fall, the club managers and club owner in You Rock My World seem to represent the managers and CEO of Sony, while the patrons – especially the love interest in the green dress – seem to represent the public. And both of these groups are watching him as he performs.
So, as in Remember the Time, he has a split audience. The love interest is drawn to the performer, just like the queen in Remember the Time, and the club managers feel very threatened by that, just like the king. The club managers act like they own her, and when they see she’s drawn to his performance, they begin bullying him and taunting him, saying, “That’s it? That’s all you got? That ain’t nothin.’ You ain’t nothin.’ C’mon, big man, show me all you got.” And that highlights an important difference between these two videos. While the king seems to respect his talent, even though he’s threatened by it, the club owner and club managers don’t – which is pretty telling if they really do represent Sony management at that time.
Joie: Those are eye-opening observations, Willa. I had never drawn those parallels between these two videos before.
Willa: I hadn’t either, until you mentioned You Rock My World while Remember the Time was still on my mind. But I can see now why one reminded you of the other because, in terms of the on-screen audience, they really are very similar.
Joie: Yeah, it’s interesting how my mind made that connection on a subconscious level, isn’t it? You know, another video I never really thought about in terms of an on-screen audience before reading M Poetica and our subsequent conversations is The Way You Make Me Feel but, you explain how the group of guys talking on the street corner and even the group of girls across the street are all watching the protagonist as he tries to get the object of his affection to talk to him. They all become his audience, as well as his cheering section.
Willa: Oh, The Way You Make Me Feel is just fascinating to me! There is so much going on in that video. And you’re right, the people on the street are cheering him on as he woos this beautiful young woman, but they’re also judging him as well. It’s really interesting how he sets that all up. And then once he starts to connect with this woman and care for her, he’s pretty uncomfortable having all those eyes watching him as he tries to develop a relationship with her. It’s all so public, and he wants some privacy. As he sings, “Ain’t nobody’s business but mine and My Baby’s.” So in this case, he includes an on-screen audience that performs several different functions, and one is to show how intrusive it feels to have an audience when you’re wanting a private moment.
Joie: It does feel very intrusive at times, even for us – the off-screen audience – as we watch him try to woo the girl. We sort of breathe a little bit easier when he’s finally able to maneuver her onto a somewhat private porch so they can sit and be alone. But it’s short-lived because she quickly runs away from him again. And then there’s the tension we feel when he joins his friends in the shadows and does this very primal dance for her and there’s a little bit of awkwardness because, again, it is so not private when it really should be.
Willa: I agree – I really get the sense that he wants his relationship with her to be intimate and private, so he disappears. And then when she begins searching for him, that on-screen audience isn’t just awkward. It’s threatening. We see a series of male faces staring right at us – he’s placed us in her position so we’re experiencing what she experiences – and all those male faces are staring straight at us. It’s very unsettling, I think. Even the policeman’s face feels threatening.
Joie: And then we – the off-screen audience – breathe a collective sigh of relief at the end when she envelops him in her arms.
Willa: Exactly. And I think it’s significant that the on-screen audience is gone by then.
Joie: Oh, I never made that connection before. You’re right! This is a really interesting use of the on-screen audience, I think, because he’s using them to fuel the tension throughout the film.
Willa: Oh, I like that! I hadn’t thought of it quite that way, Joie, but I think you’re right – I think the on-screen audience does “fuel the tension” in this video.
Joie: By contrast, in another short film, Say, Say, Say, with Paul McCartney, he uses the on-screen audience in just the opposite way – to promote a feeling of light-heartedness.
In this video, there are several different instances of an on-screen audience and each of them sort of fosters this feeling of goodwill or light-heartedness. The first one is the crowd of on-lookers who are obviously being scammed by the “Mac and Jack” miracle potion. Only they don’t know they’re being scammed, so all they feel is happy and excited about this new product. The second on-screen audience we see here is the group of children and workers at the orphanage who benefit from that miracle potion scam. Our main characters jump out of the truck and “Mac” and his wife – the adults, taking care of business – hand over the money to the workers of the orphanage, while “Jack” – Michael’s character – immediately gathers up the children; they follow him as soon as he hops off the truck, like he’s the pied piper. The workers are delighted with the money, of course, while the children are delighted with “Jack’s” presence; he entertains them, balancing on the fence, dancing around for them. At the end of his little display for the children, he even takes a bow – to point out that it’s been a performance. Then they jump back onto the truck as quickly as they arrived and move on.
The final on-screen audience we see in this video is the crowd sitting in the saloon, watching the “Mac and Jack” Vaudeville Show. That show is full of such fun and humor that the watching crowd can’t help but be amused by their antics and we – the off-screen audience – likewise, can’t help but smile as we watch it all.
Willa: Wow, Joie, I hadn’t thought about all the different audiences but you’re right, and the entertainers modify their performance for each audience. With the townspeople at the beginning, they’re mostly con artists – putting on a performance to bilk them of their money. With the kids, it’s pure performance, the sheer joy of entertaining. And with the Vaudeville crowd at the end, it’s a mix – they’re performing on stage, but they’re still presented as hucksters and hustlers. When the police come in and things start looking a little dodgy, they start a small fire as a distraction and then escape out the back.
Joie: That’s true, they never let us forget that this is a small band of con-artists who need to keep moving.
Willa: They really are. They’re fooling their audience as well as entertaining them. And this idea of the performer as a type of huckster has me thinking about Who Is It again. As we talked about a couple weeks ago, in that film he seems to parallel the experiences of this high-priced call girl and con artist with his life as a performer, and we definitely see that parallel here too – the entertainer as a kind of hustler and con artist. And he conveys that idea through the on-screen audience.
And then there’s Ghosts. That is such an amazing film in so many ways, and the on-screen audience is at the absolute center of that film. It’s very psychological, and to me, the central conflict of the film is actually happening inside the on-screen audience’s heads.
Joie: I agree, it is psychological but I don’t think it’s happening inside their heads. I think it’s real for them; they really are seeing these ghosts climbing the walls and dancing on the ceiling and the Mayor really is temporarily possessed by the Maestro and then runs screaming through a window when he just can’t take the “strangeness” any longer.
Willa: Oh, I see what you’re saying. I didn’t explain myself very well – that isn’t what I meant. I agree that the ghosts “really” are there, and the villagers really are experiencing them. What I meant was that, in a lot of films, the plot focuses on some sort of external conflict, like crossing a frozen tundra with sled dogs, or pulling off a bank heist, or fighting the evil Empire, or something like that. But in this film, there’s very little going on, in that sense. A group of people stand in a room and stare at each other. What kind of plot is that?
But there’s actually a lot going on in this film. It’s just that the conflict is all interior – the conflict is inside the villagers’ minds – and the resolution of that conflict is occurring inside their minds as well. There aren’t any sled dogs, but this film traces a journey just as difficult as the Iditarod in some ways. It begins with a group of scared villagers with burning torches invading the home of an artist, the Maestro. The villagers are from a place called Normal Valley, and they’re scared of the Maestro because he doesn’t fit their definition of “normal.” And they want to drive him out of town because of that fear.
So the plot of the film traces the Maestro’s attempts to change their thoughts and feelings about him. And he succeeds, but he does it in an interesting way. He doesn’t reassure them that he’s normal and really one of them. Just the opposite. He responds by becoming even more freakish and then altering their emotional response to things that aren’t normal – that seem different or strange or freakish to them.
I have to say, everything about this film fascinates me: how he represents their psychological journey, how he brings it about, how he resolves it – but not completely – at the end. There’s still a lot of uncertainty, even at the end. And the on-screen audience is central to all that. And we as an off-screen audience are watching them and tracking their thought processes as they take this psychological journey so, in a way, we take that psychological journey with them. It’s just fascinating to me.
Joie: Oh, I see what you’re saying. And you’re right, the on-screen audience is totally central to that film, the whole plot hinges on them.
But you know, of course, the ultimate on-screen audience is the one in the video for One More Chance, which we discussed at length back in the fall. That video really puts the presence of the on-screen audience to interesting use, placing them on the stage while he pleads with them for just “one more chance at love.”
As you pointed out in that discussion, at the end of the video he’s left the room but the audience is still up on the stage. This visual suggests to the off-screen audience that there’s nothing left for him to do now. His work is done and it’s up to us now. We’re the ones who have to carry on in his absence and do what we can to preserve his legacy and help “make these mysteries unfold.”
You know, Willa, the fact that this turned out to be Michael’s final video is really sort of bittersweet when we understand the purpose of that on-screen audience and the final shot of the short film. It becomes very emotional for me personally.
Willa: I know exactly what you mean, Joie. It’s emotional for me too, but it’s also really motivating as well. “Bittersweet” is a good description.
I’m really committed to changing the conversation about Michael Jackson, and sometimes I just get overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. It’s like trying to push water upstream with your hands. This river of negative commentary is all flowing in the opposite direction, and it’s like, How can we possibly fight all that? But I honestly believe that, with all of us working together, we can begin to channel that water in a different direction. I already sense a major shift happening, and I’m so inspired by seeing all these different people around the world working hard to make a difference. And I’m inspired by you, Joie. I’m so impressed with all the work you’ve done for so many years. You’ve really kept the faith a long time. And I’m motivated by the One More Chance video as well. When I get discouraged, I watch it and think, He’s left the room but we haven’t. We’re still here. It’s up to us now.