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I am the One who will Dance on the Floor in the Round

Willa:  A few weeks ago, Raven Woods joined me for a fascinating discussion of “Scared of the Moon,” but we began with a short discussion of Michael Jackson’s concerts and how they were structured. Specifically, we talked about how his performances from the Dangerous tour on tended to follow an arc that began with him appearing in a rather militaristic, authoritarian persona but ended with a much softer, more nurturing persona. That arc was punctuated by a series of set pieces that he performed in an almost ritualized way: “Beat It,” “Thriller,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Smooth Criminal,” and especially “Billie Jean.”

Today, Raven is joining me again to talk about “Billie Jean” as one of the signature pieces of a Michael Jackson concert. Thank you so much for talking with me, Raven!

Raven: Thanks for inviting me back! This discussion is actually quite timely, considering that as I’m typing this, Motown 25 has recently been re-broadcast on PBS in its entirety for the first time in over thirty years. As we all know, this special was a historic moment in that it marked the first public performance of “Billie Jean” and the first of what would become a classic staple of Michael Jackson’s live performances.

Willa: Wasn’t that incredible? Watching the full Motown 25 broadcast was like witnessing the birth of a cultural phenomenon, one that would reverberate throughout his concerts and the culture at large for decades.

Raven: That performance really was incredible. I watched the Motown special last Sunday. For starters, I was really interested in seeing the program in its entirety because I don’t think I watched it in its entirety even back in ’83. I was so young then, and like most teens/young adults, not prone to sitting around in front of the TV – especially if I had a date!  My grandmother watched it, but I only remembered seeing bits and pieces of it during the original broadcast, as I was too busy that night coming in and out of the house. So I was really interested to watch it again and to catch some of the other performances, as well as Michael’s. Marvin Gaye was just astounding, and probably would have stolen the show that night – if it hadn’t been for Michael, of course!

Willa: I was really struck by Marvin Gaye’s performance also, and how heartfelt it was. He truly wanted to open everyone’s eyes to “What’s Going On.” Another thing that struck me was that Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson’s performances felt the quietest in some ways, yet ironically they were also the most powerful. It’s kind of hard to describe, but they had a quiet intensity that is still palpable, 30 years later.

Raven: I have to say I didn’t think it was possible to fall in love with Michael all over again, but I did watching that performance! I think that, through the years, I had gotten a little blasé about the original Motown 25 “Billie Jean” performance. Sure, it was the first time, and an iconic moment in TV history, but over the years I had seen so many “Billie Jean” performances that I thought were better. After seeing the piece evolve as it did throughout his Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory tours, it seemed odd to go back to Motown 25 and realize that his moonwalk was actually quite short, and you can visibly see him lose his balance on the en pointe. Michael himself was very upset about that afterwards, thinking his entire performance was ruined!

Willa: Yes, I remember reading about that. In fact, I think he said he felt like crying afterwards because he fell back and didn’t stay up on his toes as long as he wanted. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine he could be dissatisfied with that performance!

Raven:  That’s true. He only started to feel better about it after Fred Astaire called and complimented him. But in watching the whole show, and putting myself back in that moment, I realized anew why this performance was so magical and special. No one had ever seen these moves performed before, so there was no gauge by which to measure how flawlessly or smoothly he executed them. From the moment Michael stepped on that stage, you could feel the palpable electricity. He was young, vibrant, and on fire – ready to prove himself to the world.

Willa:  You know, Lubov Fadeeva, a professional dancer and choreographer, talks about this in her wonderful article, “Michael Jackson: The Dancer of the Dream.” Here’s what she says:

It is obvious to me that his performance at Motown 25 in 1983 is different than all his later concert versions of “Billie Jean” in many ways. It is not yet perfect, and the moonwalk isn’t performed as smoothly as in its later versions. Perhaps the floor was not slippery enough. Still, the emotional charge of the dance is so electrifying that it has never been matched by anything.

In the end of the Motown 25 performance, when Michael stops and looks into the audience … I don’t know how to describe the expression in his eyes, but I understand all of it. It is the kind of moment when a couple of minutes can change everything. … I always watch this performance and think that Michael was passing an exam there. He didn’t even have a spotlight. Just a performer on stage. But somehow it looks more spectacular than expensive shows with special effects.

I think Fadeeva captures this perfectly. His performance at Motown 25 may not have been as technically proficient as some of his later performances, where years of practicing the moonwalk, for example, enabled him to smoothly glide the entire length of the stage. But still, that “Billie Jean” performance was just “so electrifying,” as Fadeeva says.

Raven:  Fadeeva nailed it perfectly! That’s exactly what I was trying to say. And although the piece did evolve somewhat through the years, Michael never really deviated drastically from this original performance of the song. All of the symbolic elements that would become identifiable with the piece and with the performance were already there.

Willa:  That’s true.

Raven:  Something that has occurred to me is that, anytime we are discussing and analyzing a Michael Jackson song, there are at least three separate, distinct elements that must be considered – the recording, the short film (i.e., the video), and the live performance.

Willa:  Yes, and some have a longer-format film also. I’m thinking of the 16-minute version of Bad, and the 40-minute version of Smooth Criminal from Moonwalker. And then there’s the 38-minute film Michael Jackson’s Ghosts as well.

And there’s another element we may want to consider also, which is the lyrics as poetry. He actually published “Heal the World” and “Will You Be There?” as poems in Dancing the Dream, but many of his other songs can be viewed this way also. I’ve often thought when reading his lyrics that they scan like poetry. So you’re right, Raven – with many of his songs there are different forms of audio and visual performance interacting dynamically to create meaning.

Raven:  Although this may be true to some degree with many artists, especially those from the video age onward, I find it is probably more true in the case of Michael Jackson than anyone else, for I know of no other artist who so successfully merged all of those aspects of performance – the auditory and visual – in the seamless way that he did. Thus, to this day, it is almost impossible to discuss a Michael Jackson track without the associations of its accompanying visual imagery. It is almost impossible, for example, to discuss the track “Thriller” without also merging the discussion with that track’s iconic video, or to discuss any aspect of “Black or White” as a track without also bringing in those important thematic elements from the “Panther Dance” sequence of the video.

Willa:  Oh, I agree. I can’t listen to any of his songs that have videos without seeing those visual images play in my head. And I think they are so connected because he conceived of them that way. His videos weren’t just something he whipped up after the fact to market his songs – they were part of his vision from the beginning. As he says in Moonwalk,

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

So apparently he was already thinking about the videos for these songs as he was creating the album, and I think he achieved his goal of “present[ing] this music as visually as possible.” Listening to those tracks is a surprisingly visual experience, as you said, Raven.

Raven:  Yes. It seemed that Michael, moreso than any other music artist of his time, was always thinking on at least three layers with every song he recorded. Through the art of visual imagery, he was able to add additional layers of theme and symbolism to the songs that the audio tracks alone could never convey. And on yet another level, his live performances allowed him to evolve the pieces even further. Contrary to popular belief, his live performance pieces were never simply recreations of his iconic video performances. In some cases, of course, they did not deviate much (the choreography of “Beat It,” for example, remained consistently close to the video version) but what we were more apt to see were reworkings and re-stylizations of these numbers.

Willa: Yes, and sometimes the stage performances seem very different from the videos. I’m thinking specifically of “The Way You Make Me Feel,” which always feels so light and upbeat in his concert performances … but no one would ever describe the video that way. It’s much darker and grittier than the stage versions. So even though he often evoked the video on stage through his wardrobe – a loose blue shirt over a tight white T-shirt, and a white tie belt – the mood and the meaning is very different, I think.

Raven: Absolutely. And I think it goes back, again, to the idea that he was always sort of re-visualizing the concepts of his songs. He knew that what worked on the small screen might not necessarily translate well to the performance stage, and vice versa. I always liked the way he re-worked “The Way You Make Me Feel” with the slowed down, do-wop intro. I remember when This Is It came out, some reviews mentioned Michael’s “new” re-working of “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Obviously, they weren’t very familiar with Michael’s live performances. I thought, He’s been doing “The Way You Make Me Feel” like that for years!

Once Michael found something that worked for him, he tended to stick with it for many years – his live performance motto seemed to be, “Don’t fix what isn’t broken!” But as we know, the best of Michael Jackson’s set pieces usually weren’t mere performances, in the way we think of entertainers simply getting onstage and singing or performing to a song. Michael’s numbers literally became theatrical performance pieces, with as much emphasis on the narrative storylines of the numbers (as well as use of symbolic imagery) as on the singing and dancing.

Willa:  Oh, I agree!

Raven:  Much has been written about the song “Billie Jean” and there has also been much written about the video. But other than Veronica Bassil’s excellent book Thinking Twice about Billie Jean, I don’t think there has really been much in the way of interpreting his live performance routine of “Billie Jean” or analyzing its symbolic implications.

Willa:  You know, what struck me most about Veronica’s book is that she shows how the lyrics anticipate the 1993 abuse allegations. After all, “Billie Jean” is a song about false allegations of sexual misconduct, and how he is constantly under surveillance. In the video this is depicted by the photographer who shadows him, following him to Billie Jean’s apartment and trying to catch him in a compromising position.

But that feeling of constant surveillance is there in the opening lines of the lyrics as well, in all “the eyes” watching him and the fact that he is dancing “in the round.” That arrangement isn’t nearly as popular now, but at the height of disco in the late 1970s, it was fairly common to have the audience surrounding a lighted, elevated stage, so spectators were watching from all sides and every angle. It was even common back then to have dinner theaters “in the round,” where plays would be acted out on a raised platform with the audience seated at tables all around the stage. This means that, for the performers, there was no backstage to retreat to, no side that wasn’t hidden from the audience, and no way to step out of the stoplight or retreat from the audience’s gaze. Performers were entirely exposed.

Raven: Yes, and you know that has to be a scary feeling. I believe that Michael possibly became even more conscious of this symbolic element of the song as time wore on and his performance of it evolved (and possibly as he felt more and more that he was losing control of certain aspects of his life). The round spotlight which he steps into becomes a much more important part of the performance as time goes on.

Willa: Yes, it does.

Raven: For him, this seemed to emphasize the idea of being a lone figure in “the round.” And whereas at the Motown 25 performance, he comes out as very confident from the beginning, by the time of the Munich performance in 1997, and the Madison Square performance, he comes out looking a little lost, almost bewildered – at least until he puts on the magic symbols of jacket, glove, and hat.

Willa: That’s an interesting interpretation, Raven. In his later concert performances, he usually began “Billie Jean” on a darkened stage, with a blinding spotlight aimed straight down forming a round pool of light, as you say. And I think you’re right – that light became or defined his stage “in the round.” And then he would step into that spotlight, as you say, and it’s so harsh and glaring it’s almost like stepping into a prison searchlight. So he was literally performing “in the round” harsh glare of a spotlight – just as he did, metaphorically, throughout his life, from childhood on.

Raven: Coincidentally, we are embarking on this discussion just as I am scheduled to begin a unit on symbolism in class next week, and I had been considering the possibility of using clips of Michael’s “Billie Jean” performance to discuss the concept.

Willa:  Oh interesting!

Raven:  I am only hesitant because they will also be looking at “Black or White” and “Earth Song” in a few weeks and I don’t want to totally burn them out on MJ, lol! But as so often happens, these discussions seem to arise at just the right moment, when my thoughts are already channeling in that direction. In the process of trying to make this decision, I have been looking at a lot of live “Billie Jean” clips in the past few days. Regardless of whether I ultimately decide to include them in the symbolism unit, it has given me a good opportunity to really assess both how the piece evolved through the years, as well as an opportunity to take a fresh look at how Michael used symbolism in the piece to create a definite story arc.

Willa:  Wow, I wish I could sit in on your class …

Raven: Thank you! I guess it’s one of the perks of my job. I get to incorporate so much of what I love into it.

But getting back to “Billie Jean,” virtually everything about that performance, from the choice of clothing and colors, the placement of the spotlight, to the props used – the glove, the jacket, and perhaps, most importantly, the fedora – all played a symbolic role in the performance. It was really the beginning of many trademark Michael Jackson “looks,” including the single glove and fedora. And though he had sported the white socks and black loafers, paired with high water pants before, in “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” it was here that the look really became formalized as a permanent and iconic fixture of the Michael Jackson “brand.”

Willa: They really did. He used the high pants, white socks, and black loafers often after Motown 25 – in fact, they literally became his trademark. I’m thinking of this logo for MJJ Productions:

logo for MJJ ProductionsRaven: Yes. And in that logo, especially, he is using the en pointe stance, which became an iconic image for him. To my knowledge, however, I think that “Billie Jean” was the only performance where he used that particular pose.

Willa:  You know, I think you’re right.… I hadn’t thought about that before, but I think you’re right – I think it was a strictly “Billie Jean” move. That’s interesting.

Raven:  A lot of people don’t realize that Michael had certain dance moves that were only reserved for certain numbers. Both the moonwalk and en pointe are uniquely associated with “Billie Jean.” (There are brief shots of each in the Jam video as well, but even there, they are clearly not part of the choreography of that particular number. Rather, they seemed to be serving the purpose of cultural allusions – iconic MJ dance moves that everyone would instantly recognize.) And though Michael did variations of the moonwalk step in other numbers, the famous backwards glide was reserved exclusively for “Billie Jean.”

Willa: That’s true, and the black glittery jacket was reserved solely for “Billie Jean” also. Just as a white suit with a dark armband was reserved for “Smooth Criminal,” or a red leather jacket with grey shoulder patches meant “Beat It,” or a red leather jacket with a deep black V from his shoulders to his waist meant “Thriller,” a black glittery jacket meant “Billie Jean.” With the addition of a black fedora and a white sequined glove, the costume was complete.

Raven: “Billie Jean” was also one of the few numbers he did in concert where he always made sure he was in the full costume. During the Dangerous tour, for example, he would usually simply toss the “Smooth Criminal” jacket on over the gold leotard. In this way, he created a lot of hybrids of his iconic looks. There was a very practical reason for this, of course. It saved time! It would have been impossible for him to do a full costume change with every number, so the idea was to layer pieces that could work together, gradually adding and taking off pieces as the show progressed. Therefore, it was easy to make the transition into “Smooth Criminal,” for example, simply by adding the iconic white jacket, armband, and white fedora. Those pieces were symbolic enough to carry the number; it didn’t matter if he didn’t have on the full suit. But with “Billie Jean” he always took the time to do a full, complete costume change.

Willa: It’s also interesting that in his later performances, getting into costume – and into character – was itself an important part of the show, as you mentioned earlier. Here’s a clip of his “Billie Jean” performance from his 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden:

Notice how he plays with the audience as he slowly pulls out the black glittery jacket, then the fedora, and then … dramatic pause … the glove. And the roar from the crowd grows louder as each piece appears, so by the time he’s fully in costume, they’re on their feet and clapping wildly. It’s like the act of becoming that character is part of the performance.

Raven: It is amazing, isn’t it? All they have to do is see those iconic items come out, and they start to go wild because they know what’s coming! So, as you said, getting into the character becomes a part of the ritual for the audience. A good place to start might be in looking at the origin of the “Billie Jean” persona, or character. It was clear early on that Michael was not so much performing here, as enacting a role. It was a unique character that he created specifically for this number. The character was an interesting blend of both “Mack Daddy” cool on the one hand, and a quirky, whimsical geek on the other. The transformation, or metamorphosis, was usually precipitated by plopping the fedora on his head. At that moment, the geek would disappear, replaced by the cocky and confident “Mack Daddy” persona.

It was obvious that the roots of this character came from Michael’s adoration of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Here, for example, if we compare Michael’s improv segment of “Billie Jean” to Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character, we can see that there are obvious parallels:

Willa: Yes, and while some of that is the costume, a lot of it is more abstract than that – a certain jauntiness mixed with pathos that really comes through for both of them.

Raven: And in this clip of Buster Keaton we can, no doubt, see some of the origins of Michael’s improvisations with his fedora as a kind of virility symbol (note how Keaton’s character transforms from geek to suave whenever a “cool” hat is placed on his head!):

And, of course, it has already been well noted that Michael’s famous Smooth Criminal lean owes a lot to Buster Keaton’s move in College, which Michael had no doubt seen:

Years later, Johnny Depp, who, like Michael, admired Keaton and Chaplin and brought elements of them to his own performances, blended the characteristics of both to create the character of Sam in 1993’s Benny & Joon.

Depp’s “hat trick,” as seen here, will look familiar to anyone who has watched Michael Jackson’s live “Billie Jean” performances. Go back, for example to the Bucharest “Billie Jean” performance posted above and look at how Michael similarly “plays” with his hat beginning at about the 5:54 mark, as if it is something live that is taunting and teasing him, or as if he can somehow cast a spell over it!

In later years, Michael would make this parallel even more blatantly obvious. For example, by the time of the HIStory tour, he introduced a new element to the performance which consisted of his “Little Geek” character walking onstage carrying a shaving case, looking rather lost and bewildered, as if he doesn’t quite know where he is or what he’s supposed to do. Again, this is a routine that obviously has deep roots in the pathos of the Chaplinesque and Keatonesque personas he so admired. At this point, the performance has very much of a vaudeville feel to it, and Michael is clearly and intentionally evoking those echoes.

Willa:  I agree completely. Even the case itself feels worn and antiquated, like it’s from an earlier era. It’s pretty distinctive – tan with two brown leather straps wrapping around it – and he uses this same style of case for years, up through his Madison Square Garden performances. It’s interesting because in Say Say Say, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney play a pair of vaudeville performers, and they each carry that exact same style of case: tan with two brown leather straps. Here’s a clip, and you can see those suitcases starting at about 4:20 minutes in:

So Michael Jackson clearly associated that particular case with vaudeville, and I think it’s part of what gives his later “Billie Jean” performances “a vaudeville feel,” as you said, Raven.

But more than that, his body language and the way he timidly shuffles across stage, as you mentioned; his simple clothes, suggesting someone who’s down on his luck; the way he slowly pulls his props from a suitcase – these all harken back to vaudeville.

Raven: Oh, yes, absolutely. I was also just thinking that there seemed to be a definite element of miming incorporated into his “Billie Jean” persona. We know that Michael very much admired the art of miming and frequently worked elements of mime into his dance routines. “The Box” is one such example. In this video of him practicing in the studio, it is the move he performs at about the 1:00 mark:

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a performance and persona so indebted to vaudeville and silent film comedians like Chaplin and Keaton would also contain elements of mime. Chaplin and Keaton were both heavily influenced by mime artists themselves. Here is a passage excerpted from the Wikipedia page on mimes:

The restrictions of early motion picture technology meant that stories had to be told with minimal dialogue, which was largely restricted to intertitles. This often demanded a highly stylized form of physical acting largely derived from the stage. Thus, mime played an important role in films prior to advent of talkies (films with sound or speech). The mimetic style of film acting was used to great effect in German Expressionist film.

Silent film comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton learned the craft of mime in the theatre, but through film, they would have a profound influence on mimes working in live theatre decades after their deaths. Indeed, Chaplin may be the most well-documented mime in history.

Willa:  Oh, that’s really interesting, Raven! I’d never connected mime with silent films before, but now that you mention it, it makes perfect sense. And I really see those elements reflected in Michael Jackson’s concert performances also.

For example, Rembert Browne wrote a wonderful analysis of Michael Jackson’s performances of “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Man in the Mirror” at the 1988 Grammys. Here’s a video of that performance:

As Rembert Browne points out, Michael Jackson is creating a fully realized character in the opening moments he’s on stage – a character Browne calls “Tough Guy Mike”:

“Tough Guy Mike” is an incredible creature, less because it was so opposite of his actual personality, and more because of how he moved his limbs as Tough Guy Mike. Every step became an aggravated kick, everything was to be pointed to, and his neck roll became the sassiest thing ever captured on camera.

As Browne says, he creates this character through his body language, and also through mime-like gestures. As Browne points out, at about 1:10 in we see “Tough Guy Mike mime-smoking a fake cigarette and blowing out fake smoke.” Then he “put[s] out the imaginary cigarette with his foot.” Through these subtle gestures, Michael Jackson gives us important clues about who this character is – just as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Marcel Marceau did through their silent gestures long before him.

Raven:  “Tough Guy Mike” is an excellent interpretation of that persona! The only difference, I think, is that we don’t actually “see” the transformation in the same way that we do with “Billie Jean,” or at least the later incarnations of it. In “Billie Jean” the symbols actually instigate the change.

Willa: Oh, I see what you’re saying. As you mentioned before, it’s when he puts on his fedora that he magically transforms into his “Billie Jean” character. So his hat brings about a change in him, in who he’s portraying on stage.

Raven: As we have already discussed, hats were important props for these silent film comedians, as well as for mimes, and also many vaudeville performers. The white glove, also, is something that has roots in mime art (though not necessarily a single glove to my knowledge). However, I think that Michael probably took many of his ideas, especially those relating to color schemes, from mime artists. White and black were traditionally colors often used by mimes.

In the original “Billie Jean” video Michael wore a dark suit over a bold pink shirt with a red bow tie. That was a look significantly different from the one that came to be associated with his live “Billie Jean” performances, and again, it’s one of the few instances I can think of (perhaps the only instance) where his performance attire and persona was completely different from the video version. I think it is because he took the whole performance in such a very different direction for Motown 25 that he must have known, from that point going forward, that this was the way the song had to be performed live. The video for “Billie Jean” seemed to be one of the few instances where his choreography was actually worked out after the fact.

When he did Motown 25, he still had not completely perfected the idea of using the black-and-white color contrast, and this was probably largely due to the fact that he had only recently come up with the routine and had to work with what was available for him at the time. According to most accounts, the famous sequin jacket he wore that night came from Katherine’s closet. As the old saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers so he ended up with a purple-ish sequin jacket. However, we can see that he had already worked out how he would incorporate all three symbolic objects – the hat, the glove, and sequined jacket – into the routine. It would just be a matter of how he perfected those uses through the years.

Those primary colors, black and white, both have strong ties to mime art. Michael also mimicked the age-old mime trick of using the color white to direct an audience’s eyes to whatever body part he wanted them to focus on. He learned, for example, that wearing a white glove, or wearing white tape on his fingertips, would direct the audience’s eyes to his hand gestures, and hand gestures, as we know, were very important for Michael. I really believe that this is the origin of his single, white glove. I never really bought the oft-rumored theory that it was to hide vitiligo spots on his hands. (I believe he had vitiligo, of course; I just don’t believe it was the reason for the glove.) I believe he was thinking from an artistic standpoint about what each of these things would help him accomplish on a huge stage.

Willa:  That’s interesting. I tend to think it was both – that it helped him deal with his vitiligo and was an important artistic decision.

And that’s interesting about white gloves being an important part of both vaudeville and mime. It reminds me that white gloves were also an important feature of blackface minstrelsy. Here’s a clip of Fred Astaire performing in blackface in the movie Swing Time, and it’s hard to miss his large white gloves:

In fact, the last thing we see is Astaire walking off stage, waving his hand in a floppy sort of way that draws even more attention to the oversized white glove he’s wearing.

Raven:  That’s interesting. And we know that Michael would have been familiar with Swing Time. He studied everything Astaire ever did! I was also recently watching a documentary on Oscar Wilde and it was mentioned there that Wilde came up with the idea of wearing white gloves during his American tour in 1882. Wilde, like Michael, was as much of a showman as he was a writer (and his number one talent was the ability to sell himself!) and it was said that he liked the way it looked when he could stick a white gloved hand from his carriage window to wave to the crowd! I couldn’t help but think of Michael when they mentioned that.

But a glove is also something a criminal wears at the scene of their crime, in order to prevent leaving incriminating fingerprints. It would be interesting to know if Michael was playing on this idea to some degree, since the song is about a man being accused. I don’t know – that might be a stretch but it’s something interesting to think about.

Something else I’ve noticed about his live “Billie Jean” performances is that, as he jumps into the spotlight and plops the hat onto his head, a transformation takes place. In later incarnations of the performance, he jumps into the spotlight almost as a kind of symbolic “plunging in.” There is hesitancy and even a bit of fearfulness (he is still in the mode of the shy, geeky, and somewhat lost/bewildered character) and then, instantaneously, he plunges in, the bass kicks in, and the metamorphosis is complete. He starts with a series of hip thrusts, indicating a shift to masculine and virile energy. (A favorite, somewhat off-color joke of mine is that he must be acting out he how he got himself in trouble with this “Billie Jean” in the first place!) Whatever the case, the moves and gestures were clearly purposeful. If there was any doubt that these moves were intended to be interpreted as sexual gestures, Michael forever laid those to rest with his very playful and bawdy exaggeration of those moves in his This Is It rehearsal performance of “Billie Jean”:

Willa:  Oh, I agree! That rehearsal performance is much more overtly sexual and “bawdy,” as you say, than anything he ever did during a concert – especially near the end. But he sure knew his audience – those young dancers watching him rehearse just loved it! And I love watching them watching him. In fact, that’s one of my favorite scenes from from This Is It – he seems to be having a great time, and really connecting, through dance, with those young dancers.

But that scene also brings out important elements of the character he’s portraying – elements that are usually presented much more subtly but still add complexity to that character. For example, he begins his Motown 25 performance and many of his later “Billie Jean” performances by pulling out an imaginary comb and slicking his hair back on both sides. This is very much a mime-type gesture, as you mentioned earlier.

Raven: I love that gesture! It invokes a very cool, 50s kind of vibe to the performance … James Dean, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando from “The Wild One”!

Willa:  I love it too!  It has a very 50s kind of feel to me also, and it reminds me of “Tough Guy Mike” smoking his imaginary cigarette at the beginning of the 1988 Grammy performance, and then stubbing it out with his foot. In both cases, these little gestures give us important insights into the character he’s playing. His “Billie Jean” character may be young and vulnerable, and he may still have his mother’s advice echoing in his head – “Be careful who you love … ” – but that little gesture of slicking back his hair tells us that he also sees himself as something of a ladies’ man.

Raven:  But even as he moves into this aspect of the performance, he would often still retain elements of his “Little Tramp”-like character. Something I have often noticed – and one of the most endearing traits of these performances – is that he didn’t seem to be trying too hard to make them “too” perfect or “too” polished. For example, we can see when he is fighting with a particularly stubborn jacket flap that doesn’t fall exactly as it’s supposed to; he can often be seen adjusting his hat during the performance to keep it from falling off or to keep it at the angle he desires. When we consider what a perfectionist he was in his performances, we can only guess that all of these little flaws and “rough spots” of the performances were, in themselves, part of the act, or at least part of the persona.

It seems he didn’t want polish or perfection in these performances so much as desiring to retain an aura of childlike playfulness and quirkiness. It was just enough endearing quirkiness, enough pathos to keep a leash on the machismo aspect of the performance. And it was wonderfully ingenious, because it kept the machismo aspect of the character just slightly off center, so that we weren’t entirely sure just how seriously we were supposed to take this transformed persona.

Willa: Oh, that’s an interesting way to look at that, Raven – and it’s a very Chaplinesque touch, as you say. It adds a touch of pathos to this young man who’s trying so hard to be suave and debonair, and not quite succeeding – but ironically he’s all the more endearing because of that.

Raven: It’s rather like watching a little kid who has suddenly been transported into an adult body, or like Frosty the Snowman when he first puts on his “magic hat” and becomes animated. He doesn’t seem quite sure what to do with himself or with his new power and abilities. We can see him kind of growing into the persona the same way an awkward and gangly adolescent has to “grow into” their new body.

Willa:  Exactly! That’s how it feels to me also, though I’d never been able to really articulate that before, and that’s one reason this character is so intriguing and appealing, I think.

Well, Raven, thank you so much for joining me again! I thoroughly enjoyed it, but there’s still so much more to say about his “Billie Jean” performances. Maybe you can join me again sometime, and we can continue this discussion?

Raven: I would love that! Thanks again for another great conversation.

Willa:  Oh, it’s always a pleasure talking with you.

I also wanted to let everyone know that Australian journalist and blogger Damien Shields has a new book out, Xscape Origins: the Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind. Charles Thomson posted a review this morning on The Huffington Post, and it’s interesting – while Charles has been very open about his opposition to posthumous tracks in general, and has been rather scathing in his comments about the Xscape album in particular, his review of Xscape Origins is surprisingly positive.

According to Charles, Shields was motivated by a feeling that the promotion for Xscape focused too much on the “contemporized” tracks and the producers who worked on them, and that “Jackson’s own vision and process was almost completely overlooked.” So he set about learning more. As Charles writes,

Determined to right this perceived wrong, Shields flew to America to interview a number of Jackson’s original collaborators, including songwriters, studio engineers and producers. In his book he presents a comprehensive back story for each track. The result is a revealing and exciting insight into the working habits of pop’s most reclusive star.

 

HIStory Teaser, Part 2: The Great Dictator

Willa:  This week Eleanor Bowman and I are continuing our discussion of the film Michael Jackson made to promote his HIStory album. As we talked about in our last post, the HIStory teaser caused quite a stir when it first aired, in large part because it appears to be modeled after the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. And as we talked about last time, there are in fact some interesting and important connections between those two films.

However, there’s another film that serves as an important intermediary between the two: Charlie Chaplin’s daring masterpiece, The Great Dictator. This film satirizes Triumph of the Will and other propaganda films like it, and in doing so deftly opposes and undermines Nazi ideology. And the HIStory teaser subtly references The Great Dictator, which profoundly complicates and shifts the meaning of HIStory, I think.

That’s what we’d like to talk about this week: the connections between Triumph of the Will, The Great Dictator, and the HIStory teaser, and how those connections influence how we interpret HIStory. Eleanor, thank you so much for joining me again to continue this discussion!

Eleanor:  Hi Willa. Thank you for the invitation. There’s nothing I’d rather do than think about and write about Michael Jackson, except of course listen to his music. To tell you the truth, I am still having trouble grasping not only the breadth and depth of MJ’s understanding and knowledge of world history and film history (when did he have time to figure all this out???), but also the incredible artistic facility with which he weaves together all this history in HIStory to fill this brief, brief film with so much meaning.

As we have been working on these posts, I have come to see HIStory as a complex collage of film references, each loaded with emotional power and packed with historical information. And all put together to tell Michael Jackson’s own story, his side of the story – the story of a powerful black artist who rises to fame in a dominant white society – by situating himself and his experience in a much broader context, providing insights into his personal experience as well as into the experiences of everyone ensnared in a system that is designed to elevate one group at the expense of another. HIStory really is a history lesson, a lesson in Michael Jackson, and a lesson in compassion – one that I have found absolutely fascinating, and I hope others will as well.

On the personal level, HIStory is a rebuttal to THEIRstory, the lies that were told over and over by the press and which took root in the public psyche. These lies were an example of what Hitler called “the big lie,” a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” And similar to the terrible lies that Hitler told to discredit the Jews in Nazi Germany.

With HIStory, Michael Jackson defends himself by taking aim at the system that has just put him through hell. And he used both The Great Dictator and Triumph of the Will to accomplish his aim. MJ uses images associated with Triumph to liken the culture that has attempted to destroy him to Nazi Germany, and references the plot and theme of The Great Dictator not only to expose the evils of what Triumph celebrates, but also to offer an alternative vision, mapped to The Great Dictator’s famous final speech.

Willa:  That’s an interesting overview, Eleanor. Thank you.

Eleanor: You are welcome.

Willa: So if we approach these three films chronologically, I suppose we should begin by comparing Triumph of the Will, which came out in 1934, with The Great Dictator, which came out in 1940. First, The Great Dictator is a satire, so while Adolf Hitler is presented as noble and almost superhuman in the first film, Charlie Chaplin portrays him as arrogant and incompetent – the inept Adenoid Hynkel. To further undermine the mythic aura surrounding Hitler, Chaplin calls him the Phooey, rather than the Führer. Likewise, Hitler’s cabinet ministers Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels are transformed in Chaplin’s film into the bumbling Herr Herring and Herr Garbitsch (pronounced “Garbage”).

Eleanor: And interestingly, The Great Dictator followed on the heels of another satire of Hitler’s Germany starring MJ’s favorite comedy trio, the Three Stooges.

Willa: That’s right – their short film, You Nazty Spy. There’s a new book out about Hollywood’s response – or rather, lack of response – to the rise of fascism in Germany. I haven’t read it yet, but according to this article, it cites “the Three Stooges as among the very first in the cinema to expose Nazi Germany for what it was.” The Great Dictator, a feature-length film, came out later the same year.

So the mood of The Great Dictator is very different from Triumph of the Will, but so is the perspective and point of view. Everything in Triumph is on a vast scale – huge crowds, hundreds of thousands of troops, monumental  architecture – and the Nazi leaders are presented exteriorly, if that makes sense. What I mean is, the way the camera is angled we’re almost always looking up at them, as if they are statues on a pedestal, or gods on Mount Olympus. There’s no attempt to get inside their heads and show their thoughts and feelings. In fact, we aren’t supposed to see their humanity. Instead, they’re presented as almost mythic, godlike figures.

Eleanor: Right. Riefenstahl is using every trick of the trade to present the Nazis as the Übermenschen or “Supermen.”

Willa: Exactly. By contrast, The Great Dictator – like all of Chaplin’s films – is very much on a human scale, and it shows the poignancy of everyday human life, especially the lives of those living in a Jewish ghetto targeted by the authorities. This is emphasized by the fact that Chaplin plays two roles: that of dictator Hynkel issuing impulsive decrees, and that of a Jewish barber whose life is turned upside down by those decrees. We keep switching back and forth between scenes of Hynkel and scenes of the barber, so we see very clearly how the grandiose, unthinking, unfeeling, fascist beliefs of the dictator affect the lives of the barber and his friends, as well as their entire community.

So while these films address a similar topic – the impact of fascist ideology on a country’s future and identity, its sense of itself – the perspective, the mood, and ultimately the meaning of these two films could not be more different.

Eleanor:  Right. And, thinking about these films chronologically, a lot happened between 1934, when Triumph was made, and 1940, when The Great Dictator was made, and between 1940 and the end of WWII, to change their meaning and significance.

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, Eleanor.

Eleanor:  For example, in 1934, Hitler and the Nazis were being praised for giving Germany hope after their defeat in WWI, and for being a bulwark against communism, so the Riefenstahl film was lauded and applauded. By 1940, however, the war in Europe had broken out and Germany was beginning to make a lot of people very nervous. As a result, the tide of world opinion was beginning to change, and the same film was being viewed with a great deal of skepticism, as a propaganda tool of a very questionable regime.

To draw attention to the Nazi threat and undermine Hitler’s power and charisma, Chaplin made The Great Dictator, which premiered in NYC in October of 1940, a year before the U.S. entered WWII. Referencing the imagery Riefenstahl used to pump Hitler up, he used it to ridicule his grandiosity, to cut him down to size. Calling on his formidable talent for comedy, he exposed a far from funny situation.

Today, I think most people would look on using satire to critique the Nazis as inappropriate, at best. However, we have to remember that, in 1940, the full extent of Hitler’s insanity was not known and the “final solution” had not been fully implemented. In later years, Chaplin himself said “he would not have made the film had he known about the actual horrors of the Nazi concentration camps at the time.”

Willa: And that’s a very important point. Looking back, The Great Dictator may seem callous to us today, as if it’s trivializing a tragedy. But the atrocities of the concentration camps, for example, weren’t known in 1940 – and in fact, the worst atrocities hadn’t occurred yet, as you say. They happened late in the war.

U.S. attitudes toward what was happening overseas were really complicated at this time. The U.S. wouldn’t officially enter the war until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, though we were providing weapons, money, and other aid to the Allies in 1940. In fact, the only peacetime draft in our nation’s history began in September 1940, a month before The Great Dictator was released. So the U.S. was preparing for war but was not actively involved in it yet – and was very reluctant to get involved after the carnage of World War I.

So I agree, Eleanor. To understand and appreciate The Great Dictator, it’s important to consider the historical context of when it was made – a time of great indecision in the U.S. as we watched the war overseas engulf country after country, and when the full horror of the Holocaust hadn’t unfolded yet.

Eleanor: Right, Willa. And, just as the revelations of WWII changed the way we emotionally respond to The Great Dictator, it completely reversed the way Triumph was meant to be viewed. Triumph had come to symbolize death camps and genocide – not the greatness of the Third Reich. And to complicate our discussion of HIStory and its use of these films, the years between 1940 and 1994 again changed the significance of these two films – radically.

By 1994, when HIStory was made, generations of filmmakers had used Riefenstahl-like imagery as a sort of shorthand to reference both Nazi atrocities and the arrogance underlying them, which is why we instantly recoil from its imagery when it appears in HIStory. In using this imagery, HIStory called on the deep and often unconscious emotions it arouses and coupled them with the mechanism of “guilt by association” to expose the evils of racism in our own American culture, and oppression in general. And by 1994, The Great Dictator was remembered not so much for its satire of the Nazi regime, but for the role the film played in Chaplin’s fall from grace, a fall that paralleled Michael Jackson’s.

Willa: That’s a very good point, Eleanor. And since Michael Jackson appears to have been very knowledgeable about Charlie Chaplin, studying his films and his life for decades, and even visiting his family in Switzerland, he almost certainly would have known how The Great Dictator contributed to turning the tide of public opinion against him.

Eleanor: Yes, I think that’s an assumption we can safely make.

The Great Dictator got Chaplin in a lot of hot water for a number of reasons. At first because, even as late as 1940, Hitler had supporters in the U.S. who did not appreciate The Great Dictator’s anti-fascist message. Later, as communism became the bête noire, being anti-fascist was viewed as being pro-communist – so even though Chaplin vehemently “denied being a communist, instead calling himself a ‘peacemonger,’” his reputation took a serious hit.

But, I have come to believe that his real “crime” was his internationalism, his vision of global harmony, and his criticism of nationalism in general, which he expressed in The Great Dictator.

Willa:  That’s another very important point, Eleanor – and another connection to Michael Jackson. As he told Rabbi Boteach in The Michael Jackson Tapes, “I feel like a person of the world. I can’t take sides. That’s why I hate saying, ‘I am an American.’ For that reason.”

Eleanor: That is so interesting, Willa. Michael Jackson’s global reach certainly attests to the fact that people all over the world responded – and continue to respond – to him as “one of us.” But, unfortunately, this kind of internationalism – or anti-nationalism – can result in being accused of being “unAmerican.” Which is what happened to Chaplin.

Willa: Yes, it did – and during the hysteria of McCarthyism, when that was a very serious charge.

Eleanor: As a result of The Great Dictator, specifically its final speech where Chaplin voices his own personal views, he came under attack, and by 1947 a movement was underway to drive him out of the country. Representative John E. Rankin of Mississippi told Congress in June 1947:

His very life in Hollywood is detrimental to the moral fabric of America. [If he is deported] … his loathsome pictures can be kept from before the eyes of the American youth. He should be deported and gotten rid of at once.

Chaplin’s demonization was aided and abetted with tabloid stories and legal charges of sexual immorality which very effectively destroyed his reputation and his credibility, to the point that when he left the U.S. for Europe in 1956, his visa to re-enter the country was revoked.

Willa: Which is just unbelievable considering his stature and his contributions to film and culture. And “demonization” is the right word, as Chaplin himself was fully aware. Karin Merx, one of the founders of the Michael Jackson Academic Studies website, recently told me an interesting story. Charlie Chaplin went for a sitting with photographer Richard Avedon just before leaving the U.S. for good. At the end of the sitting, he asked to do one more shot … and then faced the camera with his fingers poking out from his head, like devil horns. Here’s a documentary Karin shared with me where Richard Avedon talks about that (about 39:20 minutes in):

(Interestingly, just before he tells the Chaplin story, Avedon talks about photographing the Duke and Duchess of Windsor who, as you mentioned in our last post, Eleanor, were very supportive of Hitler. Avedon says he used to see them gambling in Nice, and he expresses the opinion that “they loved dogs, a lot more than they loved Jews.”)

Fifty years later, Michael Jackson was being demonized in a way remarkably similar to Chaplin. And in response, he struck the exact same pose for photographers at the Santa Maria Courthouse, as mentioned in an article by BBC News. Here are those “devilish” photos of Charlie Chaplin and Michael Jackson:

devilish photos of CC and MJ

Eleanor:  Wow, that is so fascinating. When you think about it, it is no wonder that MJ identified with Charlie Chaplin. There are so many parallels. I have even heard that Michael Jackson identified so closely with Chaplin that he once said, “I sometimes feel like I am him.”

Willa: Yes, he said that in an interview as part of the documentary, Michael Jackson’s Private Home Movies, which also includes a wonderful clip of him dressed as the Little Tramp and twitching his moustache, as Chaplin often did. Here’s a fan-made video for “Smile” that includes several photos of a Chaplinesque Michael Jackson, as well as screen captures from the Private Home Movies documentary:

These photos were taken from two different photo sessions, one early in his solo career and one late, so you can tell he admired Chaplin for a long time – for his entire career, basically – and identified with him too, as you said.

Eleanor: Yes, and sketches of Chaplin which MJ did when he was a child suggest that he had been interested in Chaplin from an early age, possibly because of Chaplin’s extraordinary ability as a silent film star to communicate without words, using the language of the body – just as MJ did.  (Here are a couple of links to Chaplin sketches. The first is to the sketch that was featured on Antiques Road Show. The second is to a Pinterest page of MJ’s drawings of many subjects, including Chaplin.)

But I also like to think it was because, even at an early age, an extraordinarily sensitive and empathetic Michael Jackson, deeply moved by the injustice he saw in the world, was drawn to Chaplin’s vision of peace and harmony. And referencing The Great Dictator to tell MJ’s story, HIStory brings to mind the startling parallels between MJ’s life and Chaplin’s.

Both Chaplin and Michael Jackson had a vision of global harmony; both realized that their visions required global change; both understood that global change depended on global communication; and, as it so happens, both excelled at global communication – Chaplin through the development of a powerful body language that he used with great success as a silent film star, and Jackson through the language of music and dance. And, as both were great artists who were also superstars with a global audience, they had the power to touch and change hearts and minds – all over the world.

As Chaplin says in The Great Dictator, playing the part of the Jewish barber, but speaking his own mind and reflecting the actual situation,

Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.

And, as a result of their views, both became the object of vicious attacks, because of their commitment to global harmony, their skill at global communication which could actually bring about global change, and their star power represented a serious threat to those committed to hierarchy and nationalism, rather than democracy and internationalism.

Willa: Yes, I agree completely, Eleanor.

Eleanor: So, Willa, it seems to me that referencing The Great Dictator – specifically its final speech – in HIStory at this particular time of his life, Michael Jackson identifies his own demonization at the hands of the press and his unjust, and brutal, treatment at the hands of the law with Chaplin’s, and suggests that the allegations of sexual impropriety leveled at both himself and Chaplin were tools of a society which feared the political power of the artist to inspire actions that would bring about much-needed social change, a power Michael Jackson possessed (and still possesses) in spades.

And significantly, their commitment to global peace and understanding is symbolized by the international language Esperanto, which puts in an appearance in both HIStory and The Great Dictator. HIStory opens to the sound of words spoken in Esperanto, while The Great Dictator features Esperanto as the language on the signs in its scenes of the Jewish ghetto.

Willa:  Yes, that seems significant to me also. We talked about Esperanto a little bit in a post about this time last year, and provided a brief history:

Esperanto was invented in the late 1800s using elements of many different languages to help promote global peace and understanding. Specifically, it was created by L.L. Zamenhof to provide a neutral means of communication that bridged divisions of language, nationality, and ethnicity.

So it truly is an “international language,” as you said, Eleanor, with a mission of “global peace and understanding.”

Eleanor:  Right. And HIStory both puts it front and center and hides it in plain sight. I’m sure most people viewing HIStory (like those who see The Great Dictator), not recognizing the language or understanding the words, completely miss the significance – or just fail to notice its presence altogether.

However, thanks to a great discussion that you referred to above with guest contributor and Esperanto expert, Bjørn Bojesen, readers of Dancing with the Elephant not only were alerted to its use in HIStory (and history), but discovered the meaning of the words. (Also, in re-reading that post, I saw that Bjørn had noted in the comment section that Esperanto was used in The Great Dictator.)

HIStory’s opening words, spoken in Esperanto, translated into English, say “Different nations of the world build this sculpture in the name of  global motherhood and love and the healing power of music.” The words, spoken in Esperanto, not only reference the use of Esperanto in the The Great Dictator, but echo the sentiments in The Great Dictator’s final speech. And both the language and the words point to Michael Jackson’s own belief in the importance of global communication as a condition of creating global harmony, specifically his belief in music as a means of bringing the different nations of the world together in peace and L.O.V.E.

In researching the international language Esperanto, whose name, not co-incidentally, means “hope,” I have come to believe that it – and the internationalism it represents – is key to understanding HIStory.

In the post on Esperanto, the question was raised as to why MJ would use a language so few understand to open the film and introduce its theme. (The same question could be used about Chaplin’s use of Esperanto in The Great Dictator.) I think one of the main reasons was to arouse our curiosity – to prod us to identify the language and discover the meaning of the words. Because seeking answers to those questions leads us to find answers to larger questions.

For example, digging deeper into the history of Esperanto, it turns out that the use of Esperanto in both HIStory and The Great Dictator not only associates MJ with CC, but links both with the Esperantists in Germany and Russia, whose pacifist and internationalist tendencies were seen as subversive by both Hitler and Stalin and who were brutally punished and even executed.

In his work, Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler specifically mentioned Esperanto as an example of a language that could be used by an international Jewish conspiracy once they achieved world domination. Esperantists were killed during the Holocaust, with [Esperanto creator] Zamenhof’s family in particular singled out for murder…. Esperanto was forbidden in 1936. … [In] 1937, Stalin … denounced Esperanto as “the language of spies” and had Esperantists exiled or executed. The use of Esperanto was effectively banned until 1956.

Willa: Oh heavens, Eleanor. I had no idea. So those Esperanto words and symbols in the HIStory teaser really do carry a powerful message – a message that radically alters interpretation of the totalitarian images that dominate that film. I can see now why you said that “Esperanto … and the internationalism it represents, is key to understanding HIStory.” I’m starting to agree with you.

Eleanor:  Well, that’s good to know!  So, opening the film with words spoken in Esperanto, Michael Jackson lays claim to his own “dangerous” internationalist leanings, and reveals the danger his leanings put him in, identifying the source of his troubles as a culture that, because it considered him and his views as a serious threat, represented a serious threat to him – a threat that HIStory suggests, through the use of the notorious fascist imagery, is still present, lurking in the shadows. (“We’re talkin’ danger, we’re talkin’ danger, baby!”)

In the opening scene of the film, the blank screen and the words in Esperanto are accompanied by and juxtaposed to the staccato beat of jackboots, followed by the images of boots on the ground and a stone falcon – the turul – an ancient Hungarian symbol. (HIStory was filmed in Budapest. More on that later.) Then, an American swat team comes into view. Seemingly menacing and aggressive, they march toward the audience, rising from the bottom of the screen, à la Patton in the film of the same name. The scene then immediately shifts to images of workers ladling out rivers of molten metal, reminiscent of Soviet propaganda films illustrating Soviet industrial muscle.

Given who Michael Jackson was and what he stood for, opening an MJ film with imperialist and totalitarian imagery is jarring and indicates that there is more here than meets the eye, that something very interesting is going on – something that becomes a lot clearer once you recognize and understand the significance of HIStory’s use of Esperanto and understand the meaning of the words. For the words explain that these workers do not represent the workers of a totalitarian regime. Rather, they represent the different nations of the world who have come together to build a monument to a man who has dedicated his art to promoting world peace.

In addition to the statue, they have also forged a gigantic star that is yet another reference to Esperanto. For, as I learned in researching Esperanto, the star is the symbol for Esperanto, its points representing the five continents Europe, America, Asia, Oceania, Africa. A minute or so later, we see that the star of Esperanto also adorns MJ’s uniform – a star of peace worn by a pop star of peace.

Willa: That is so interesting, and reminds me of two important images from Triumph of the Will. The central scene in the film – the iconic one almost every filmmaker references when visually quoting that film, where Hitler is addressing hundreds of thousands of troops aligned before him in precise formation – that scene begins with a still shot looking up at an enormous iron eagle, a symbol of Nazi Germany. Then as the camera pans down, we see it is sitting atop a huge swastika inscribed within a circle.

By contrast, HIStory opens with a still shot looking up at the Hungarian turul or falcon. From what I’ve been able to gather, this is a complicated symbol representing different, even contradictory things to different people. But Wikipedia is a fairly middle-of-the-road source, and here’s what they say about it:

The turul is the most important bird in the origin myth of the Magyars (Hungarian people). It is a divine messenger, and perches on top of the tree of life along with the other spirits of unborn children in the form of birds.

And then we see workers forging a huge Esperanto star inscribed within a circle. So through these images, HIStory appropriates symbols of fascism and totalitarianism from Triumph and then subverts them, completely refiguring them.

Here are screen captures looking up at the iron eagle in Triumph of the Will, and at the turul in HIStory:

iron eagle and turul

And then here are screen captures of the enormous swastika within a circle from Triumph of the Will, and the Esperanto star within a circle from HIStory.

swastika and star 2

Both the swastika and the star are dark against a pale blue background, with a glowing light shining through openings in the giant sculptures from behind. And if you look carefully, you can see workers dwarfed by the star (in fact, a welder is sitting on one arm of the star – you can see the sparks from his blowtorch) so it must be enormous, even bigger than the encircled swastika it evokes and replaces.

Eleanor: Wow, Willa, those images are amazing and demonstrate Michael Jackson’s attention to detail and his deep understanding of the power of symbolism. Contrasting the Esperanto star with the swastika, and the star’s meaning with other, more traditional, meanings of the five-pointed star – the Soviet military machine or the badge of law enforcement or the stars that decorate an American army general’s uniform – and associating it with the pop star Michael Jackson, HIStory contrasts HIStory’s message and HIStory’s hero with traditional military legends and heroes. In HIStory, Michael Jackson offers us a vision of a world where human energy will no longer be poured into building tools of domination to serve the interests of empires and nations, but used to forge a new global community.

HIStory’s opening frames are followed by images of a vast army, its leader’s identity unknown, but tantalizingly hinted at by shots of his legs, sheathed in his signature thigh-high boots, which finally reach his beautiful face, revealing the leader of this army to be none other than Michael Jackson.

Although in HIStory, MJ never speaks or sings or dances, his face and body communicate plenty, and what they communicate to me is very similar to the words spoken by Chaplin, in the character of the barber:

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone, if possible – Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

Here’s a link to the complete text.

Willa: That speech is incredible – many call it the greatest speech in American cinema. I would encourage everyone to watch The Great Dictator in its entirety, if they haven’t seen it already (it’s available on YouTube, in segments – here’s a link to the first one), but certainly everyone should watch Chaplin’s final speech. It’s especially striking coming as it does after the speech by Herr Garbitsch, where he says:

Victory shall come to the worthy. Today, democracy, liberty, and equality are words to fool the people. No nation can progress with such ideas. They stand in the way of action. Therefore, we frankly abolish them. In the future, each man will serve the interests of the state with absolute obedience. Let him who refuses beware.

The rights of citizenship will be taken away from all Jews and other non-Aryans. They are inferior, and therefore enemies of the state. It is the duty of all true Aryans to hate and despise them. …

And then Chaplin, in the dual role of the Jewish barber disguised as the dictator (it’s a case of mistaken identity), rises and gives his speech advocating love among all people that you quoted earlier:

I should like to help everyone, if possible – Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.

Here is the final section of The Great Dictator, which includes both Garbitsch’s speech and Chaplin’s powerfully moving response:

Eleanor:  Thanks for these clips, Willa. Actually seeing these speeches delivered on film is a lot more powerful than just reading the words on the page.

Willa: I agree. And in this final clip we can also see the way The Great Dictator visually evokes the monumental scale of Triumph of the Will. Chaplin reenacts Hitler’s arrival by motorcade that begins Triumph, and also the intimidating monuments to power and the long columns of troops – something the HIStory teaser will re-create as well. Here are screen captures from Triumph, The Great Dictator, and HIStory, and you can easily see the similarities – namely, the gigantic emblem of the power of the state in the background of all three, and the seemingly endless sea of troops in the foreground.

Here’s a scene from Triumph of the Will:

Triumph - troops 2

The Great Dictator:

Great Dictator - troops

and the HIStory trailer:

HIStory - troops

Through images like these, The Great Dictator (and HIStory as well) captures the expansive scope of Triumph of the Will. But then it alternates these imperialist images with scenes of Jewish citizens oppressed and even murdered by their own government – by soldiers carrying out the dictates of the fascist regime.

Eleanor: Right. Although The Great Dictator was a satire, it dealt with deep pain and very explosive issues. Just as HIStory does. And, just like The Great Dictator, HIStory skated close to the edge in a number of ways. In a brilliant act of artistic economy, HIStory uses Riefenstahl’s imagery to reference both the Nazi horror show and The Great Dictator in order to situate Michael Jackson both historically and personally.

As this insightful post at MJJJusticeProject puts it,

Like his hero Charlie Chaplin before him, Jackson referenced the visuals of Triumph of The Will in an effort to completely corrupt the sentiment. Where Chaplin had satirised the film in his Oscar-nominated The Great Dictator, Jackson referenced the film in order to celebrate the victims of the Nazi regime and deride the mindset of those that still supported fascist beliefs.

Willa: That is a wonderful post that puts the HIStory trailer in historical context, and also places it within the context of the HIStory album – the album it was made to promote.

Eleanor: Placing Michael Jackson in the midst of Riefenstahl-like pomp and circumstance, where we would expect to find a dictatorial military leader (like Adolf Hitler) not a peace-loving pop star, the HIStory teaser evokes the scene in The Great Dictator where the gentle Jewish barber becomes a stand-in for the thinly-disguised Hitler character. Associating Jackson with the Jewish barber, while alluding to Nazi Germany, HIStory parallels the black experience with the Jewish experience – the black ghetto with the Jewish ghetto – and the treatment of Jews with the treatment of blacks in America.

Willa: That’s an interesting way to look at this, Eleanor – that Michael Jackson in the unexpected role of dictator parallels the Jewish barber’s experience in The Great Dictator, where he finds himself unexpectedly thrust into the role of dictator. Though one difference is that the barber looks very uncomfortable in that role, as if he really were thrust in that role against his will, while Michael Jackson doesn’t. He looks assured and confident in HIStory.

Eleanor: Well, Willa, to clarify, I don’t see Michael Jackson in the role of a dictator, but as replacing a dictator. Striding along at the head of his troops, he occupies the position where we would expect to find a dictatorial leader. But instead, we find Michael Jackson, a man who stands for the opposite of dictatorship. A man, who like the barber “does not want to be an emperor. That’s not [his] business. [He doesn’t] want to rule or conquer anyone.”

But, I agree with you that MJ is at ease, while the barber is anything but. But, after all, they were both being true to character: the barber wasn’t accustomed to being in the limelight, while Jackson, although not a political figure, was.

Willa:  That’s true.

Eleanor:  But, I am glad you brought up how MJ looks in those brief moments when we see him, because I have been wanting to mention his beautiful smile again. I think his smile is a visual representation of Chaplin’s song, “Smile,” which concluded the HIStory album – his radiance covering his pain, the type of pain that Chaplin was familiar with.

But getting back to the scene of Michael and the troops, I think it maps directly to another section of Chaplin’s closing speech in The Great Dictator. In fact, I see the speech as a kind of playbook for HIStory:

Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you, enslave you – who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!

As the leader of rank on rank of uniformed and uniform robotic soldiers, MJ provides an alternative to military leaders, the “brutes … who regiment [their] lives.” As a different kind of hero, he empathizes with all those who have been conscripted to do the work of the state, losing their humanity in the process. As the leader of these men, he identifies with them, rather than the regimes they represent, illustrating a greatness of heart that blames a system that, to quote Chaplin, “makes men torture and imprison innocent people” – not the people themselves. Torturers and tortured alike are caught in the evil web of empire.

Willa:  That’s an important point, Eleanor. It is significant, I think, that Chaplin addresses this part of his speech to the soldiers carrying out the dictator’s repressive orders, and appeals to their humanity. He doesn’t deny the harm they’ve done – he shows them harassing and even murdering civilians. But even so, he doesn’t demonize them. Rather, he implies that the soldiers are being victimized too by leaders “who despise you, enslave you … treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder.”

And as you say, Michael Jackson doesn’t seem to feel animosity toward soldiers or the police either, meaning the people on the ground carrying out orders. In fact, he aligns himself with them.

Eleanor:  Yes. That very eloquent salute to his troops conveys that message – feelings of empathy and respect, rather than animosity or hate, even for those who are tasked with carrying out the will of the oppressors.

Willa: Yes. As Susan Woodward pointed out to me in an email, after that enormous statue is uncovered we can see an emblem on one arm – it’s a patch with the word “POLICE” in bold letters beneath an Esperanto star.

Eleanor: Thanks to Susan. I hadn’t noticed that – need to go back and take a look.

Willa: I hadn’t noticed it either, but it’s an important detail, I think. Michael Jackson’s experiences with the Santa Barbara police, especially those carrying out the strip search, easily could have led him to feel animosity toward the police in general. But that isn’t the impression I get from HIStory. What he’s expressing is more complicated than that.

To be honest, it feels to me like an act of appropriation. Just as white singers and musicians have appropriated “black” music from jazz to hip hop and recast it through a white perspective, in HIStory Michael Jackson seems to be appropriating images of white authority (and what better example of race-based authoritarianism than Nazi Germany?) and recasting it through a multi-national Esperanto perspective. Or maybe a better analogy is the way groups like Queer Nation or a lot of young black hip hop artists have appropriated disparaging words that have been hurled at them in the past – words like “nigger” and “queer” – and now wear them as a badge of honor, and so drain them of their power to hurt them.

Eleanor:  Yes, an act of appropriation and transformation. Imperial and nationalistic power structures assume that conquering the other is a survival strategy of human nature, rather than a survival strategy adopted by human cultures. And they have assumed that he who is in possession of the technologies of domination have the upper hand. And yet our technologies – agricultural, industrial, military – are backfiring on us, creating a world that may in the not too distant future be uninhabitable for all of us, just as it has been made uninhabitable by war for some of us even now.

As Chaplin put it,

Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….

Although we tout free will as a pre-eminently human characteristic, somehow we don’t seem to believe that we actually have the will to change the way we interact with each other, collectively or individually. But I think that Michael Jackson disagreed with that notion. I think that he believed that humans are capable of profound change, and he believed art was instrumental to that change, and he believed in himself and his art as a means of bringing about change at a fundamental level – imagining a very different “triumph of the will.”

Contrasting himself with the usual iron-fisted tyrant, Michael Jackson emphasizes the differences between his values, the values of an African-American artist who believes art can heal the world, and the values that lead to oppression, pointing out the evils of the system, while having compassion for those caught in it.

Willa:  That’s a beautiful summary, Eleanor. Thank you, and thanks also for joining me again to try to better understand this complex film. We’ll conclude this discussion in our next post when we consider some other significant references in HIStory.

Also, I wanted to let everyone know that the Library of Congress recently published an article by Joe Vogel about the Thriller album. We’ve added it to the Reading Room, so you can access it there, or you can jump to it directly via this link.

Eleanor:  That’s good to know. Thanks for making it available on Dancing.  And I look forward to working with you on the final part of this series.