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Wishing Them Home

Willa: Hi Lisha! Welcome back! Did you have a good summer?

Lisha:  Excellent! Busy as always. How about you, Willa?

Willa: It was a lot of fun, but bittersweet. I just dropped my son off at college – in fact, his first day of class was Michael Jackson’s birthday. And while I’m really happy and excited for him, I’m going to miss him a lot! He’s great fun to be with and talk with, and I just can’t imagine not having him here.

But as we were walking into the registration building, I heard a song playing on the sound system, so quietly you could barely hear it. In fact, I wondered at first if I was imagining it. But it was definitely there, quietly playing behind all the bustle: “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough.” And it just gave me a little reassuring nudge that my son was right where he needed to be.

Lisha: That’s amazing! I love it when Michael Jackson shows up at just the right time. And how serendipitous that your son’s first day of college was on Michael Jackson’s birthday! No doubt you are really going to miss him this year, Willa. That will be a huge adjustment – so prepare yourself for the empty nest syndrome!

Willa: Oh, I know! In fact, a friend whose daughter just graduated suggested we start an Empty Nest Club. I think that’s a great idea.

Anyway, in a funny way, all of this has me thinking about “The Lost Children,” one of those neglected songs from the Invincible album that never seemed to get much attention. On the surface, it’s a song about children who’ve run away from home or been abducted – the “missing children” you see on posters sometimes. We took a ferry this summer from Washington state over to Vancouver Island, and as we entered into Canada the wall of the Customs office was covered with posters of missing children. It was heartbreaking – all those parents looking for their lost children.

Lisha: Can you even imagine living through such a nightmare?

Willa: No, I can’t. I really can’t.

Lisha: Michael Jackson empathized so strongly with these families. It’s inspiring to know that he offered a song, reminding us to keep them in our thoughts and prayers at the very least. The thought of a missing child is so overwhelming, it’s easy to block that out and not let yourself go there. Maybe that’s why it strikes me as such an unusual subject for a song.

Willa: I agree. It’s rare to hear a song about something as tragic as a missing child, and maybe that’s because it’s just too frightening and painful to think about, as you say. I can really understand that. But Michael Jackson frequently – and courageously, I think – broached difficult topics like this.

But he also tended to create multi-layered works that could be interpreted many different ways, and I see that with “The Lost Children” also. While the main focus of this song is definitely on children who have been abducted or for some other reason are “missing” from their homes, it also makes me think about children like the “lost boys” in Peter Pan who never really had a home: kids like my father who grew up in an orphanage, or kids who’ve had to grow up on the streets or bouncing from one place to another. These kids never had the kind of family life Michael Jackson sings about in “The Lost Children”:

Home with their fathers
Snug close and warm
Loving their mothers

Some children never had that, and simply don’t have a home to go back to.

Lisha: You’re so right. Of course there are children who live in beautiful homes with their parents, but they still lack the safety and emotional security depicted in this verse.

Willa: That’s a good point, Lisha. They may have a family and a physical house, but if there is physical or emotional abuse or simply coldness, it may not feel like much of a home. In fact, a lot of kids who run away do so to escape abuse, as Michael Jackson sang about in “Do You Know Where Your Children Are.”

Lisha: An excellent point. I am also thinking about children lost in early adult responsibility – like children working in show business – an issue Michael Jackson flagged throughout his entire adult life.

Willa: That’s true. He talked about that often, and sang about it in “Childhood.”

Lisha: Another good point!

Willa: But you know, there are other ways to interpret this song as well. While I think raising awareness about missing children was Michael Jackson’s primary motivation in writing this song, there are some interesting details that point toward other, less obvious interpretations as well.

Lisha: It’s always in the details, isn’t it?

Willa: It really is – especially with Michael Jackson. And one of those details is that throughout “The Lost Children” he repeatedly samples a Twilight Zone episode called “Kick the Can.” It’s most noticeable near the end, beginning around the 3:25 mark, but you can also hear it at 0:55, 1:45, 2:45, and 3:00. And thinking about this song in relation to “Kick the Can” leads to a very different interpretation of the song as a whole.

Lisha: Whoa, are you kidding me? I have to confess I am one of the ones guilty of neglecting this song! I totally missed the Twilight Zone credit on this track. I knew Michael Jackson’s oldest son, Prince, gets a credit for some of the dialogue. So I guess I assumed all the children’s voices were recorded specifically for the track. Now that I see The Twilight Zone credit, it opens up up a whole new world when approaching this song, doesn’t it?

Willa: It really does.

Lisha: Hey Willa, do you remember reading Darlene Craviotto’s book, An Agoraphobic’s Guide to Hollywood: How Michael Jackson Got Me Out of the House?

Willa: Yes! In fact, I read it because you suggested it, Lisha. You said there were parts of it that were pretty troubling, but it had some really interesting insights too. After you said that I just had to read it and, boy, you were right on both counts.

Lisha: It’s true that some of the author’s conclusions are rather disturbing and not well thought out, in my opinion. But at the same time, some of her stories are totally captivating. For example, she recalls several conversations she had with Michael Jackson about “Kick the Can,” which was in relation to a film project they were working on together.

In 1990, Craviotto was hired by Steven Spielberg to write the screenplay for a new musical version of Peter Pan, starring Michael Jackson. Unfortunately, the film was never made. Instead, Spielberg went on to release Hook with Robin Williams, a film that never lived up to its hype critically or at the box office.

However, Craviotto’s first-hand account of working with Michael Jackson is really magical at times, especially when she describes their one-on-one meetings. Because their discussions were typically recorded for study purposes, she seems to relate exactly what was said.

Michael Jackson was deeply involved in the creative process for Peter Pan. And he insisted that Craviotto watch “Kick the Can” to better understand his vision for the film. Here are some excerpts from the book:

“There’s a good movie you gotta see!” Michael says, excitedly. “It was on ‘The Twilight Zone.’ It has so much heart! And it reminds me of Peter. Called ‘Kick the Can.’ Gotta see it! Next time we meet, I’m showing you.” He laughs at the thought of it, brimming over with enthusiasm. “It has heart about it! That should be Peter!” …

“You’re gonna like it!” He beams. “It’s got heart!” he shouts. “You gotta see it!” He lowers his voice and says slowly, “It’s wonderful!” Snapping his fingers for effect, “It has in it what Peter should have.” …

“When I saw it, I loved it! And I thought, ‘This is me! This is me! This is me!’”

Michael Jackson was just so enthusiastic about this episode of The Twilight Zone! I got the feeling he strongly identified with the main character and felt his role was essential for understanding Peter Pan as well.

Willa: That’s interesting, Lisha. I agree he loved “Kick the Can,” but I actually interpreted this a little differently. To me, he was saying he really liked the feeling of “Kick the Can” and thought it was a good example of the kind of emotional response he wanted to create with Peter Pan. And he wanted Craviotto to see it so she could try to create a similar feeling in her screenplay. At least, that’s how I read it.

Lisha: Well, maybe that’s right. I could be reading way more into this than is actually there. But hearing how insistent he was that Craviotto watch The Twilight Zone before starting work on Peter Pan, I really got the idea there was a connection between the two.

Willa: Well, that’s a good point, Lisha. And it’s interesting that in those conversations Craviotto quoted, he kept saying that “Kick the Can” has “heart.” As I remember, she also included several conversations where he worried about Spielberg’s “heart” – specifically, whether he had the “heart” to make the kind of Peter Pan movie Michael Jackson wanted to make.

Lisha: Craviotto says that even though Michael Jackson was a huge fan of Steven Spielberg, he had serious reservations about whether or not Spielberg was the right director for Peter Pan. Spielberg had remade “Kick the Can” for the 1983 film Twilight Zone: The Movie, which left a big question in Michael Jackson’s mind. He felt there was something essential missing from that film that would be crucial to their retelling of Peter Pan. He even brought Craviotto up to Neverland Ranch so they could watch both versions of “Kick the Can” and discuss them.

Willa: Yes, I remember that! So maybe you’re right, Lisha – maybe he was suggesting a connection between Peter Pan and “Kick the Can.” You’re starting to convince me …

Anyway, back when I read Craviotto’s book, I was really intrigued about why he was so smitten with “Kick the Can.” So I went to the local library and found a copy of the original TV version and watched it, and I see what he means. There’s something very tender about it – a feeling that’s lost in Spielberg’s remake, which is kind of manic and has a harshness to it that isn’t in the original.

Lisha: I agree. The original develops the main character in the story so beautifully. You get a glimpse into his psychological makeup and genuinely care about his perspective. The Spielberg version, however, doesn’t really get into this kind of character development and uses a more controversial story device instead. It doesn’t work nearly as well, to my way of thinking. At any rate, it’s a wonderful exercise to compare the two versions, just as Michael Jackson suggested.

Willa: Yes, it is. And when you do that, you notice the remake has other problems as well. But the main problem, as Michael Jackson said, is that it lacks the “heart” of the original.

Lisha: I agree.

Willa: So as I was watching the original version, I was struck by these repeated scenes where children are playing the game Kick the Can (which I loved when I was a kid, by the way, especially at twilight – it’s just a perfect kid’s game). Each of those scenes begins with a boy counting off, like this: “…, 85, 90, 95, 100.  Ready or not, here I come! … Last one into the forest is a rotten apple!” That sounded so familiar to me, and then I realized it was in “The Lost Children.” In fact, Michael Jackson repeatedly samples these scenes from “Kick the Can” so they become a recurring motif in the background soundscape of “The Lost Children.”

Lisha: Now that I’m aware of The Twilight Zone samples in “The Lost Children,” they feel like such a prominent part of the song. I think I dismissed them before as a background layer that simply added a nice touch. You know, a song about lost children that includes a sonic memory of happy children playing without a care in the world. But now, I hear this a little differently and I’m starting to think “Kick the Can” should be required viewing before listening to this song!

Willa: It really adds a whole other dimension to the experience of listening to it, doesn’t it?

Lisha: Unbelievably so.

Willa: Especially when you know the plot of the story. The main character is an elderly man named Charles Whitley, who is living at Sunnyvale Rest Home for the Aged, along with his childhood friend, Ben, and many other elderly residents. Charles doesn’t want to be there, and he becomes convinced they all feel old because they’re acting old. After watching the children play, he tells Ben, “It’s almost as though playing Kick the Can keeps them young.” And later he says, “Maybe the fountain of youth isn’t a fountain at all. Maybe it’s a way of looking at things – a way of thinking.”

He becomes convinced that playing will help them all feel young again, so one night he encourages them to go outside and play Kick the Can, like they did when they were children. He describes that liberating feeling of play in such a wonderful way that many of them become caught up in the moment and go outside and play with him, but Ben refuses.

Lisha: Ben just doesn’t get it, does he? He warns Charles that these crazy ideas put him in danger of being diagnosed senile, which would greatly restrict his personal freedoms in the home.

Willa: Yes. In fact, he’d been threatened with that.

Lisha: True, but even so, Charles still tries to convince the others that play is the magical force that holds “the secret of youth.” He begs them to play Kick the Can and suggests they hold the empty can in their hands while contemplating the value of childhood play:

“Look! Think! Feel! Here, hold it! Doesn’t that wake some sleeping part of you?”

Willa: That’s such a wonderful scene! And it’s so Michael Jackson. I can see why he loved it.

Lisha: To my way of thinking, that entire episode has Michael Jackson written all over it!

Willa: It really does. Later on, Ben hears a group of children outside playing Kick the Can, even though it’s late at night. He goes outside with the facility supervisor, who chases the children away, but Ben recognizes one of the children as Charles – he’s become a boy again. Ben suddenly realizes that all the residents who went outside to play have reverted back to childhood, and he begs Charles to let him join them, but it’s too late. Charles runs away and Ben is left sitting on the porch alone, holding the can.

Lisha: The magic worked! At least in that spooky Twilight Zone kind of way, which might actually suggest that Mr. Whitley made his final transition. But this is also where I feel like there is a connection between lost childhood in “Kick the Can” and the “lost boys” in Peter Pan. Both stories depict a magical, idyllic realm where carefree youth is honored, valued and preserved. It is more of a metaphorical, magical place than an actual geographical location, as you suggested earlier. When we think of “The Lost Children” this way, it starts to get pretty interesting. We could even add “Childhood” to the mix here as well.

Willa: Yes, I agree. Looking at “The Lost Children” through the lens of “Kick the Can” expands the idea of “lost children” to include “lost childhood” – to adults who’ve lost the connection to that magical time when they were a child. And of course, that’s a central idea in Peter Pan as well, and his band of “lost boys,” though they’re “lost” in a different way.

But there’s an important difference between “The Lost Children” and “Childhood.” “The Lost Children” really focuses on the importance of the family as a whole, of the family being together, and it considers the parents of lost children as well as the children themselves.

Lisha: Wow, you’re right. I had never thought about that before.

Willa: It’s interesting, isn’t it? In that sense, it’s kind of like “Do You Know Where Your Children Are,” which begins with a mother reading a note from her missing daughter, and then shifts to the daughter’s story. For example, Michael Jackson begins “The Lost Children” with these lines:

We pray for our fathers
Pray for our mothers
Wishing our families well

And then in the bridge he sings those words I quoted earlier, but there’s more to it than that. Here’s the full bridge:

Home with their fathers
Snug close and warm
Loving their mothers
I see the door simply wide open
But no one can find thee

In these final two lines, Michael Jackson creates an image of a door standing open, waiting for a child to return home, which is a very important image, I think.

Lisha: The door is like the symbolic threshold that divides the “real” world from the magical, mythic realm. Just like the retirement home door in “Kick the Can.”

Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Lisha! It also reminds me of Peter Pan. In the third chapter of the book, Peter teaches Wendy, John, and Michael how to fly, and they go soaring out of the nursery window just moments before their parents and Nana rush in to stop them. And while we spend most of our time following their adventures with Peter and the lost boys, J.M. Barrie also reminds us of how much Mr. and Mrs. Darling miss their children. They sleep in the nursery in hopes they will return someday, and as their mother says, “The window must always be left open for them, always, always.”

Lisha: Yes, that window is also a symbolic threshold, like the doors we were just discussing, and it is central to the entire story.

Willa: It really is. In Chapter 11, when Wendy and her brothers are feeling a little homesick, she describes the warm reunion they’ll have if they return home, and she emphasizes the open window waiting for them: “‘See, dear brothers,’ says Wendy, pointing upwards, ‘there is the window still standing open.’” She finishes by saying, “So up they flew to their mummy and daddy; and pen cannot describe the happy scene.”

This “sublime faith in a mother’s love” comforts her brothers and all the lost boys, but not Peter:

But there was one there who knew better; and when Wendy finished he uttered a hollow groan.

“What is it, Peter?” she cried, running to him. …

“Long ago,” he said, “I thought like you that my mother would always keep the window open for me; so I stayed away for moons and moons and moons, and then flew back; but the window was barred, for mother had forgotten all about me, and there was another little boy sleeping in my bed.”

Barrie then says, “I’m not sure that this was true, but Peter thought it was true; and it scared them.”

Lisha: Wow. That is scary. And really dark. It’s about a deep longing to return home. But home is a place that has been lost somehow, and there’s no guarantee the way back will ever appear again.

Willa: I think so too. You know, Michael Jackson loved Peter Pan, but he didn’t see it as a lighthearted kid’s story. It was tragic for him. Jane Fonda says he cried when he talked about it. And a lot of it has to do not only with a lost childhood, but also a lost sense of home – of a sheltered place to return after playtime where you are loved and safe and cared for, and free to be a child.

Lisha: That is so sad. These stories are really, really dark. And they completely change how I hear “The Lost Children.” I’m reminded of something else Michael Jackson said to Darlene Craviotto about Peter Pan:

“We’re playing into that part of everyone … The child,” he tells me. “The same thing that ‘E.T.’ did. And the ‘Wizard of Oz.’ That’s what I want to continue to have, that reality. It’s fantasy, but still … fantasy is reality. It becomes real … Even though it’s fantasy, it’s real! It’s inside of everyone!”

So what are the main ideas in E.T. and Wizard of Oz? “Phone home.” “There’s no place like home.”

Willa:  You’re right! I never thought about that before!

Lisha: And Peter tries to fly home. Charles Whitley longs to go home with his son and is psychologically shattered when he learns he can’t. And what about Prince Jackson’s voice at the end of “The Lost Children”?

“It’s getting dark. I think we’d better go home now.”

So what is meant by the mythic return home? What is the place inside of everyone where fantasy and reality meet?

Willa: Those are all really good questions, Lisha. Children need to be free to play and explore – both literally in real forests, and in the “forest” of their imagination – but they also need to be able to come home. It’s like “home” is this mythic place, and we need to know there’s a door there, open for us, waiting for us, “always, always,” as Mrs. Darling said. Even as we begin to explore and go out into the world, we need to know that door is still open to welcome us back home if we need it. Maybe that’s why I’ve been thinking about this song as my son goes off to college.

Lisha: Yes, there’s a deep-seated need to know the way back to the safety and security of home, even when off on an exciting adventure. And that seems true for everyone, except Peter!

Willa, I really hope your son has a wonderful and adventurous first year of college. Here’s to wishing him well, and wishing him home.

Willa: Thanks, Lisha! He sounds quiet but happy, so I think he’s transitioning well, and he’ll be coming home at Thanksgiving. So I just need to be patient until then and keep the door “wide open.”

So here are a couple of quick notes before we go. The Smithsonian’s newest facility – the National Museum of African American History and Culture – is opening soon, on September 24th. And they just announced on Monday, Michael Jackson’s birthday, that one of the inaugural exhibits will be a collection of costumes he wore during the Victory tour.  Here’s a link to an article about it.

Also, Raven Woods published two in-depth posts this summer in The Huffington Post about media coverage of Michael Jackson, and we wanted make sure you all knew about them. The first provides a reality check on the media hysteria earlier this summer about alleged child pornography at Neverland. The second discusses recent media coverage of Conrad Murray and his new book about Michael Jackson.

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Scared of the Moon

Willa:  This week I am thrilled to be talking about “Scared of the Moon” with Raven Woods. Raven has an MA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing, and she teaches writing and literature courses at Alabama A&M University and Calhoun Community College. She’s also a freelance journalist and writer, and teaches seminars on Michael Jackson’s music and cultural importance.

She’s also the creator of AllForLoveBlog, which was the first site Joie and I added to our blogroll when we started Dancing with the Elephant. It’s a favorite for both of us, and it’s still the first place I turn whenever there’s breaking news in the Michael Jackson universe. I know I will find important information, thoughtful analysis, and a community of voices sharing ideas. In addition to current events, AllforLove also provides fabulous, rarely seen photos (that’s another reason I check in frequently!), important historical information, and insights into Michael Jackson’s music, dancing, and videos.

Thank you so much for joining me, Raven!

Raven:  Thank you so much for inviting me. And I would like to return the compliment by saying that I think Dancing with the Elephant is one of the best blogs for anyone who is interested in Michael’s art foremost.

Willa:  Thank you, Raven. I really appreciate that. Coming from you, that means a lot!

So I’m excited to talk with you about “Scared of the Moon” and I don’t mean to get us off track, but I was very intrigued by something you said in a recent post:

It was during the Dangerous era that Michael seemed to solidify the concept for his live performances which often began with the “masculine” (he would come on tough, as a persona who was very masculine, angular, and hard, with military-esque trappings) and, over the course of the performance, would evolve to a more feeling, flowing, ethereal “feminine” persona (a transition that, like the Dangerous album’s concept, usually transpired with the performance of “Heal the World,” “Will You Be There” and the other spiritual “message” songs).

Michael’s onstage persona during the first half of his Dangerous tour performances was always somewhat distant and cold; he would often wear a perpetual sneer. The moves are often blatantly sexual (a lot of crotch grabbing, etc). By the time the metamorphosis is complete, he is smiling, interacting with children onstage; the fencing shirt replaced by a flowing white shirt that accentuates his ethereal quality. His dance moves have become fluid and graceful, rather than angular and hard.

I had never noticed that before, Raven, but you’re right – his concerts from Dangerous on did tend to begin with a hard-edged “masculine” persona and move toward a softer, more “feminine” persona. We see it all the way up to This Is It, which documents his plans for the 2009 London concerts. Apparently, those concerts were going to begin with him in a spacesuit and then move to something called “The Drill,” a very militaristic performance of “Bad” and “They Don’t Care about Us,” before moving to softer songs like “Earth Song.”

Raven: Yes, This Is It, from all indications, was going to be a continuation of that formula. I think he liked that arc. It seemed to suit his artistic vision.

Willa: I agree. And we see a similar movement in his later albums as well, as you pointed out with Dangerous. HIStory begins in a rather in-your-face way with “Scream” and “They Don’t Care about Us,” but ends with the much softer “Smile.” And Invincible begins with the hard-driving trio of “Unbreakable,” “Heartbreaker,” and “Invincible” but concludes with softer songs like “The Lost Children” and “Whatever Happens,” though it does add a little edge at the very end with “Threatened.”

I had never noticed that structure before, but now that you’ve pointed it out, Raven, I keep seeing it, like in his performance at the MTV 10th anniversary celebration in 1991, or his Superbowl performance in 1993, or his performance at the 1995 MTV awards, or his 30th anniversary concerts at Madison Square Garden in 2001.

That movement from a hard, even militaristic opening to a much softer conclusion seems very significant, especially since he returns to it so often. And how wonderful that he enacts it during the halftime show at the Superbowl!

Raven: Oh yes, that Superbowl finale with “Heal The World’ has to be, hands down, one of the greatest moments in live TV.

Willa:  Absolutely!

Raven: As you know, I have been doing a very in-depth review of Susan Fast’s book Dangerous and that was why the topic came up, because she aptly points out how this arc forms the central concept of the Dangerous album. This seems to have been where the pattern begun, and from there, it became a kind of blueprint, almost, for all the albums and tours that followed.

As always when discussing and analyzing art, of course, it is hard to say how much of this was intentional, conscious choice and how much of it may have simply evolved organically and subconsciously. I know this because, as a writer, I often don’t see certain themes or emerging patterns in my own work until I’ve written them and have had time to step back and reflect on them – or until someone points them out. But once I am aware of them, I know they were not entirely accidental. Rather, they are the result of things buried in my subconscious that are being worked through.

But for sure, Michael was well aware (keenly aware, I am sure!) of the overall flow of his albums and performances; how the flow of one track to another, for example, impacts the listener (or the performance) and sets the overall tone and mood. He definitely liked the idea of taking listeners on a journey, and the arc was part of that journey. Susan Fast refers to it as Michael’s desire to create utopianism, and I don’t think that is a far-fetched concept. It seemed to permeate most everything he did, at least from Dangerous forward.

Willa: I agree, though I’d never noticed that arc before you – inspired by Susan – pointed it out. But I’m really intrigued by it now. For one thing, it provides a very different way of interpreting his use of military imagery – not as something he was advocating, but as something that would later be transformed into something softer and more nurturing.

So getting back to “Scared of the Moon,” what started this conversation was something you said in a comment a while back where you compared “Scared of the Moon” to “Childhood”:

“Scared of The Moon” … is a song about childhood from a very different, and darker, perspective. In that song, he addresses how we carry the traumas and fears of childhood into adulthood; how the traumas and scars of our childhoods shape even our adult selves.… I have heard that he wrote the song for Brooke Shields, but much of it seems autobiographical for Michael, also.… In both cases, they shared a fear of a parent who was a mystery to them. In both cases, the parent they feared was also the dominant parent who controlled much of their destiny.

So it seemed that, while acknowledging childhood as a kind of ideal state, he was also acknowledging that it can be a scary time as well, when one is haunted by inexplicable fears and the inability to be in control.…

Michael understood that childhood is both our happiest, most wondrous years but at the same time, because of that very innocence and the ability to perceive things so much deeper – can also be the source of our greatest pain, traumas, and fear.

Raven, I was really struck by everything you said. I love “Scared of the Moon” – it’s a truly beautiful song – but it’s very unsettling as well. Partly, that’s because of the subject matter, a child threatened by nameless fears, but also because it seems so contrary to how he usually talked about childhood. Your comment perfectly captures the ambivalence I feel whenever I listen to this haunting song, and helps explain why it’s so disturbing as well as exquisitely beautiful.

Raven: Exactly. Although it certainly is a very beautiful song melodiously, it is also one of his darker songs about childhood, though perhaps not as dark as “Little Susie,” which was about the murder of a child.

Willa:  That’s true. There’s also “The Lost Children” and “Hollywood Tonight” – they’re both pretty dark as well – and “Do You Know Where Your Children Are.” That’s a very troubling song. It’s about a young girl who’s trying to escape an abusive stepfather, and the lyrics are pretty explicit about that: “she is tired of stepdaddy using her / Saying that he’ll buy her things, while sexually abusing her.” So she runs away to Hollywood, but ends up “selling her body” just to survive. In the end, she’s arrested for prostitution, even though “she’s only 12 years old” – and Michael Jackson just sounds heartbroken as he sings those words, as if he can hardly bear it.

So even though he frequently spoke up for children and repeatedly emphasized the importance of childhood, he didn’t hesitate to show the harsh realities many children face.

Raven: Your reference to “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” got me to thinking about how the subject of child prostitution has been handled in other pop songs. One example that leaps immediately to mind is the Nick Gilder classic “Hot Child in the City” (a song I remember well from my teen years) about a 15-year-old runaway who has turned to prostitution,

What’s interesting about this song is that, just as what Michael is doing with “Scared of the Moon” Gilder uses a deceptively poppy, sweet melody to cloak what is actually a very dark subject.

I remember when this song was a huge hit and it was largely because when young people my age were listening to it, we were hearing its catchy hook and not really paying much attention to the words – or if we did, we just took it as a song about a pretty girl catching boys’ eyes as she walks down the street (not exactly new subject matter in rock’n’roll; songs like Roy Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman” had been playing on that motif for years). I don’t think anyone really caught on that this song was about a kid who is selling her body and is being preyed upon by an older guy (the narrator of the song who says “we’ll talk about love”) or if we did think about it, we just kind of brushed it off – after all, it was a much less politically correct era in terms of underaged sex. I also have a very vivid memory of a video to the song that depicted a child wearing a wig and an oversized, adult evening gown, walking the streets. But again, because the song’s hook was so catchy, I suppose we could argue that it belied the very dark reality of its subject matter – or that it somehow made the dark subject matter more palatable, which perhaps was the idea.

In the case of “Do You Know Where Your Children Are,” though it has a catchy riff, it’s a somewhat ominous and gritty riff, preparing us for the reality of the song’s subject matter. The effect he achieves with “The Lost Children” is similar. Here the intent is not so much to create a dark mood, but rather, one of sadness and heartbreak. It’s a prayer that all of the “lost children” will somehow find their way, and the music intensifies that sadness and longing.

That is what makes “Scared of the Moon” even more puzzling to me; it’s as if the lyrics and melody do not “fit.” Yet we know the master’s skilled hands and ear are at work, and what he is achieving with this song must be purposeful.

Willa: Yes, I agree – and actually, the fact that they don’t “fit” heightens the eeriness of the song. It underscores the feeling that something is dreadfully wrong below the beautiful surface.

Raven:  As you know, so much of Michael’s body of work was about trying to either recapture or maintain the innocence of childhood. In the song “Childhood” he is advocating that, as adults, we should look within our hearts and ask ourselves if we have seen our childhood – the idea being that, if we can recognize our inner child, it can pave the way for a healthier adulthood.

But in “Scared of the Moon” it is the opposite, a recognition that it is also the scars and traumas of childhood that shape us as adults. It is a recognition that childhood, in addition to being a magical time of innocence and wonder, can also be a scary and frightening time. For sure, it is the period that most shapes and defines who we become as adults – for better or worse. The very reason that childhood tragedies strike such a resonant chord with us – when we hear of children being murdered, beaten to death, starved, sexually abused, or caught in the crossfires of violence – is because this is supposed to be the most innocent, carefree time of their lives. If a child can’t be innocent, happy, or carefree during the first decade or so of their lives, then when on earth is that going to be possible for them? The answer is never. Once the damage is done, it’s for life.

I have often wondered if this was the reason Michael deliberately chose such a deceptively sweet, wistful melody to pair with lyrics that are, by contrast, so dark and tinged with fear. The song’s luscious arrangement gives it the quality of a lullaby, but just as we are settling in too comfortably, we realize that this is not a comfortable place we are being taken to.

Willa:  That’s an interesting way to interpret that, Raven. It’s like the “sweet, wistful melody,” as you called it, evokes images of childhood the way it’s supposed to be, while the lyrics evoke a very different reality. And part of the tension of the song is the contrast between the two.

Raven: Exactly. And in something like “Little Susie,” for example, he goes with an intentionally Gothic sound that fits the theme of the song. There is no ambiguity regarding the place that the song is going to take us.

Through the years, “Scared of the Moon” has given rise to many interpretations, largely because the moon can be said to symbolize so many things. Because the moon is associated with night, it can symbolize the terrors of darkness. The song’s protagonist is a female child (as we know, he claimed to have written the song for his friend Brooke Shields) who lies in fear of unnamed terrors in the dark. But interestingly, the moon – even though it is providing “beams of light” – is no source of comfort in that darkness. Indeed, it seems to be the source of her fear.

Willa:  And that’s a really important point, I think. It’s not unusual for kids to be scared of the dark, but generally the moon is seen as reassuring, almost like a friend in the darkness. I’m thinking of children’s stories like “Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown:

And there’s a wonderful story my son loved when he was little called “Owl and the Moon” by Arnold Lobel:

In both of these stories, the moon is a kind of companion who stays with you in the dark, so you don’t feel so alone. But that isn’t the situation in “Scared of the Moon,” so again there’s a sharp contrast between what we expect and what the song actually says – like the contrast between the melody and the lyrics that you described earlier.

Raven:  I’ve heard speculations that it is a song about childhood sexual abuse, but I’m not sure what I make of those interpretations or their validity. It could be possible.

Willa:  Yes, I’ve heard that also, and it makes sense – it makes her fears understandable. And childhood sexual abuse was an important issue for him and something he did address in his songs, like in “Do You Know Where Your Children Are,” as we mentioned earlier.

So I think that’s a perfectly valid interpretation, but I tend to see this song as more ambiguous than that, more open-ended. It’s almost like he’s trying to describe those nameless fears many children have, that are so terrifying in part because they’re nameless – because children can’t label them and analyze them, and in that way drain them of their power.

Raven: But also, the term “lunacy” is often one associated with mental illness. This would seem to be borne out by the song’s lines:

The feeling of terror
She felt as a youth
Has turned from a fantasy
Into a truth
The moon is the enemy
Twisting her soul
And taking its fearful toll
Scared of the moon

But now there are others
Who sit in their room
And wait for the sunlight
To brighten their gloom
Together they gather
Their lunacy shared
But knowing just why they’re scared
Scared of the moon

The key phrase seems to me to be “their lunacy shared” which could refer to a group of people in an institution (or it could just refer collectively to every individual with a scarred childhood that has carried over into adulthood). Either way, it seems that the fears are still there. As adults, they are better able to hide those fears in light of day, and they now understand the reasons behind them. But that knowledge doesn’t make the fears any less potent.

Willa:  Those verses are really perplexing, aren’t they? And I see what you mean – I get the impression of a mental asylum also. And that goes back to a very old idea that the moon could cause a kind of temporary madness that would then fade as the moon faded from sight. In fact, the words “lunacy” and “lunatic” come from “luna,” the Latin word for “moon,” which is also where the word “lunar” comes from in phrases like “lunar eclipse” or “lunar month.”

We see this ancient idea acted out in Thriller when the Michael character transforms into a werewolf or werecat. He doesn’t just undergo physical changes but mental changes as well. As he begins to transform, he tells his girlfriend, “Run away!” because he can feel the madness coming on and knows that soon he won’t be able to control his actions. And he can’t. After he’s fully transformed, he chases and attacks her.

So interpreting this section of “Scared of the Moon” as a type of madness or mental illness brought on by the moon seems valid to me, but I wonder if it could be interpreted more metaphorically also. I mean, Michael Jackson was so linked to the moon. His signature dance was called the “moonwalk,” which is also the title of his biography. His only feature length film was Moonwalker, with the moon appearing as a very important symbol of change and creativity, even magic. We see this idea in the Childhood video also, where the moon seems to represent imagination and creativity – specifically, the intense imagination of childhood. Joie and I talked about that a little bit in a post a while back.

He expresses this idea in Dancing the Dream also, like in the opening paragraphs of “Dance of Life”:

I cannot escape the moon. Its soft beams push aside the curtains at night. I don’t even have to see it – a cool blue energy falls across my bed and I am up. I race down the dark hall and swing open the door, not to leave home but to go back to it. “Moon, I’m here!” I shout.

“Good,” she replies. “Now give us a little dance.”

But my body has started moving long before she says anything. When did it start? I can’t remember – my body has always been moving. Since childhood I have reacted to the moon this way, as her favorite lunatic …

That word “lunatic” takes us back to the idea of a kind of madness evoked by the moon, but he doesn’t use it in a negative way. Just the opposite. It’s a wonderful madness that the moon inspires in him – a kind of creative ecstasy. And it’s clearly something he cherishes.

The fact that the moon is generally such a positive image in Michael Jackson’s work, used repeatedly to represent imagination and creativity, is another reason “Scared of the Moon” is so unsettling to me. It just feels wrong to hear a Michael Jackson song where the moon is “the enemy.” And that makes me wonder if we can interpret this a different way.

For example, maybe the main character in “Scared of the Moon” is someone who’s scared of her own imagination, scared of letting herself go and expressing herself creatively. So something that should be nurturing to her (the moon, her imagination, her own artistic nature) has become frightening to her.

Raven:  It is interesting to compare Michael’s “Scared of the Moon” to “I’m Open,” a track from Pearl Jam’s 1996 album No Code. This is the only song I have found that comes similarly close to Michael’s message in “Scared of the Moon.” Note the lyrics spoken in the song’s opening monologue:

A man lies in his bed, in a room with no door
He waits hoping for a presence, something, anything, to enter
After spending half his life searching, he still felt as blank
As the ceiling at which he’s staring
He’s alive, but feels absolutely nothing
So, is he?
When he was six he believed that the moon overhead followed him
By nine he had deciphered the illusion, trading magic for fact
No trade-backs…
So this is what it’s like to be an adult
If he only knew now what he knew then.

Willa: Oh, that’s really interesting, Raven. So in this song we see a man who’s completely lost touch with the moon – and also with his emotions and his inner life. “He’s alive, but feels absolutely nothing.” He had that connection when he was a child, when “he believed that the moon overhead followed him.” But then he traded “magic for fact” and lost that connection.

So like the main character in “Scared of the Moon,” he seems to be repressing parts of himself that should bring him joy. But while the things she’s repressing seem to terrify her, he feels nothing at all. He’s “as blank as the ceiling at which he’s staring.”

Raven: With the main character in the Pearl Jam song, it seems to be more of a case of lost innocence. He’s lost the magic of childhood. It is the idea of something being irretrievably lost once we are an adult and have, as he says, “deciphered the illusion.” Now that you have pointed this out, I am thinking that, thematically, this is actually closer to what Michael was stating in “Childhood.” And, also, in the video for that song we see children in a boat gliding towards the moon.

Willa: Oh, that’s a good point. Like his character in Childhood wistfully watching as children sail away on their imagination, the main character in “I’m Open” wistfully remembers his own childhood, and wishes “he only knew now what he knew then.”

This is an idea Michael Jackson frequently mentioned – that children have a deep knowledge that adults have lost. As he said in an interview when he was only 22,

One of my favorite pastimes is being with children, talking to them and playing with them.  Children know a lot of secrets [about the world] and it’s difficult to get them to tell.  Children are incredible.  They go through a brilliant phase, but then when they reach a certain age, they lose it.  My most creative moments have almost always come when I’m with children.  When I’m with them, the music comes to me as easily as breathing.

So in this one small comment, he’s expressing some really profound ideas: that children have knowledge of the world that adults lack, and that this knowledge is linked to creativity.

Raven:  Yes, and you know, there has been so much said about how we are never so close to our spiritual natures as when we are children. This was what William Wordsworth meant in “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” and his famous line that the child is “Father of the Man.” His entire point of that rather lengthy piece is that we are born with all our inherent qualities of divinity, grace, and perception.

Children, as we know, are much more perceptive of the spiritual and natural world, as well as much more receptive of it. Children, for example, often display psychic abilities which they tend to lose with age – for example, the ability to see auras, or ghosts. I have read many accounts where adults will recall that, as children, they once saw someone’s aura. Often, adults have childhood memories (sometimes comforting; sometimes frightening) of commuting with the spirit world. But unless an individual is especially sensitive, they tend to lose this gift with age. It’s as if we lose something of our spiritual selves the minute the world takes over and consumes our bodies and minds, as what happens in adulthood. Part of what we lose as adults is the ability to sense magic and wonder in the world. Everything now has a rational explanation. For many kids, it may be a comfort to get older and realize there is no monster hiding under the bed, but the trade-off is in realizing that, likewise, Santa Claus and the tooth fairy are not real, either. In most of his songs about childhood, Michael was usually lamenting the loss of that childhood innocence and wonder. But here he seems to be singing about another childhood rite of passage, and that is the fear of unknown and inexplicable terrors.

As you said, Michael used the moon symbolically throughout much of his career as something that was associated with magic and the imagination. In the Pearl Jam song, the moon is somewhat serving this same function – it represents something wondrous and magical, as compared to the emptiness and mundaneness of adulthood. I think that the characters in both songs may be experiencing some sort of trauma. Mental illness can produce terror in some (such as hallucinations, or flashbacks to past traumatic events) or it can also produce complete inertia and numbness.

In the case of “Scared of the Moon” I am not quite sure if the moon is intended to merely symbolize her terrors, or if it is, literally, the thing that she fears.

Willa:  Yes, I wonder about that also.

Raven: Judging from the lyrics, I would register to guess that in childhood, the moon was the literal source of her fear (as children often fear things irrationally); in adulthood, she may no longer fear the moon itself, but she fears what it represents symbolically. It stands for all those inexplicable fears of childhood.

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting. So instead of seeing it as an either-or question, you interpret it one way when she’s younger and the other way when she’s older. I hadn’t thought about that, but it makes a lot of sense.

Raven: In “I’m Open” it seems that the character has withdrawn emotionally from the world. That, too, can be a defense mechanism against trauma, but it does seem that in childhood, at least, the moon was a friend and a comfort, much like “Goodnight Moon” and “Owl and the Moon.” In that regard, it does differ markedly from “Scared of the Moon” where Michael even explicitly sings, “The moon is the enemy / twisting her soul.”

It is interesting in the fact that it seems so very opposite of Michael’s own feelings about the moon, which he always expressed as something that was, for him personally, something very benevolent. But then again, if he did intend for this to be a song about his friend Brooke Shields, perhaps we have to be careful about trying to project too much of “Michael” into it. As I am always reminding my students, we have to make the distinction between author, narrator, and character – or in this case, lyricist and character – and not assume they are automatically one and the same. In all likelihood, this was a very personal song between Michael and Brooke, which may have had something to do with why it went unreleased for so long. It could have been that Michael was not entirely comfortable with releasing something he had written for a friend that was so intensely personal. It would be interesting to know what Brooke’s thoughts on the song are.

I know that Brooke had a very troubled childhood. She not only began working at an even younger age than Michael, but also had to deal with an alcoholic mother. I believe I mentioned in my blog comment (the one that sparked this conversation) that in her recent People magazine interview she said that the only time she ever saw her mother sober was early in the morning before she went to school. Her mother would be drunk by the time she got home again, and her drunkenness only progressed into the evening and nights. Reading between the lines, it seems like the only time she felt safe, secure, and sure of her mother’s love was in those early morning hours, when the day was fresh. It seems that she lived in fear of darkness descending; as the day wore on, her mother became a bigger terror.

Willa:  That’s a really interesting way to interpret that, Raven. It’s almost like, as the moon rises, her mother’s demons come out through her binge drinking. So if we apply that to the character in “Scared of the Moon,” maybe her fear of the moon is actually her fear of what could happen if her mother loses control.

Raven:  I would imagine that she and Michael probably had many deep conversations about these fears. And, of course, they had common ground, for Michael spent most of his childhood in fear of Joseph.

I am sure you remember the story Michael recounted about the time Joseph scared them all half to death by putting on a frightening mask and coming in through their bedroom window. Joe said that it was to prove a point – to “scare” them into closing and locking their bedroom window at night, rather than leaving it open for any prowler to climb through. But if that was his intent, his child “psychology” backfired horribly. Michael said the incident caused him to be afraid of the dark and to have nightmares about being kidnapped for years afterward.

Michael respected his father, but as we know, he also feared him. “He can just give you a LOOK,” he said, and I know he was telling the truth because, from what little time I was around Joe in 2010, I got “the look” and realized if I had been a child, this man would have terrified me. I was an adult and shaking in my shoes because when Joe gives you “the look” as Michael put it, it can make you feel like a gnat! (But to set the record straight, I saw many sides of Joe that weekend, including when he sat behind me and struggled not to shed any tears during a tribute, so this is not to judge him, but only to reinforce what Michael said). To be honest, I never felt closer to Michael – or more empathy for him – than I did at that moment, standing before the man who made him (literally and figuratively, I suppose) and having those steel blue-gray eyes pierce my soul.

Willa:  So Raven, now you have me terribly curious. When was this? And what were the circumstances? How did you end up spending a weekend with Michael Jackson’s father? And why on earth did he give you “the look”!

Raven: This was in Gary, Indiana, during Michael’s birthday weekend in 2010. Joe was a guest of the Fanvention that year. I had a media pass which gave me access to a lot of the events where he was attending. I half suspect that I got “The Look” because I was wearing a media badge. I recall that when I got close enough to him to ask a question, he just glanced down toward my badge and scowled, ignoring me like he didn’t even hear me (this, I have since learned, is a coping strategy that the entire family seems to have for avoiding the press or questions they don’t want to answer). So I didn’t actually talk to him that weekend, but I was in the same room with him quite a bit – more than enough to observe him. I probably should add that I could have interviewed him if I hadn’t blown my chance! I was told I could meet with him in the hotel restaurant, which was called The Star Cafe. But I misheard and went to the Starbucks instead!

Willa:  Oh no!

Raven:  By the time I figured out I was in the wrong place – and that she actually meant The Star Cafe which was right across from the Starbucks – it was too late. So I’ll never know if Joe and I might have gotten past our initial awkward encounter.

My experience with Katherine two years later was similar. I was in the same room with her, but never actually got face time. I had been told before I left that an interview might be possible, but once I got there, was informed that Katherine wasn’t going to do any press. Still, I treasure those experiences because I got to be around both of Michael’s parents and it afforded me a good opportunity to really observe both of them. And I can say that both of them are exactly as their children have described them! No exaggerations.

Willa:  Wow, that’s amazing. I can’t imagine being in the same room with either of them. You know, there are a thousand questions I’d love to ask them, but if I actually saw them in person, I wonder if I’d really be able to ask …

Raven: Yes, and the toughest part is that you never really know what kinds of questions are totally off limits. You can choose to play it safe and ask the generic kinds of questions that you know will only net the same ol’ answers, or you can take the gamble of asking the really juicy questions that you really want to know – but which are apt to get you completely iced out. I usually start with a few “safe” questions to feel the subject out; if they seem comfortable, I may go for the tougher ones. But it also depends on how much time has been allotted.

I would say, however, that although Joe has a much crustier exterior, he actually seems to be the more amiable of the two. Katherine is much more reserved; she is very shy and doesn’t really enjoy doing press, and seems very embarrassed to have too much attention focused on her. She will usually prefer to sit in an inconspicuous corner in the back of the room, avoiding the fanfare as much as possible. Joe, on the other hand, seems to enjoy meeting the fans and the adulation – unless you cross him in some way, which I apparently did without even realizing it.

But to steer this back to the point, Michael did have a deep-rooted fear of his father. All of the Jackson children did, and as a result, they came to dread evenings and nights when they knew he would be home. Whatever the deep rooted, underlying causes, a fear of the darkness and of night did seem to plague Michael into adulthood, although it was not consistent. For example, he loved taking nighttime walks around Neverland. By his own account, he would often go out at night to sit in The Giving Tree. He seemed to be at peace with his infamous insomnia when not under the pressure of touring – in fact, he took advantage of those dark hours to engage in some of his most intense creativity. (I am just the opposite. I have to do my most intense creative thinking in the mornings, and am usually “braindead” by night!) But Michael was very much a night owl who seemed, on the one hand, to welcome the dark hours.

On the other hand, however, it seemed he also sought ways to avoid it as much as possible: Keeping a light on all night, for example (and often, what fitful sleep he did get was beneath a glaring light) and a distraction such as TV or a computer – these are all, to some degree, means of avoidance, a kind of artificial environment that simulates daytime comforts as a way of postponing or avoiding absolute darkness. I understand completely, because it is the same reason why I immediately turn on the TV when I check into a hotel room if I am alone (oddly enough, I don’t indulge this habit if I am with someone). It’s a way of creating an artificial comfort zone, so we don’t feel so alone. I sense that Michael had these fears of being alone in total darkness.

Willa:  That’s really interesting, Raven. So it’s like, for him personally, the moon and nighttime in general played a fascinating double role, as a time of creative inspiration but also fear. But in his previous work – meaning his songs and poems and videos before “Scared of the Moon” – he’d only expressed the positive role the moon played for him, as muse and creative spark. So maybe “Scared of the Moon” is balancing that out by presenting the other side, and expressing hidden fears that he hadn’t expressed before – a time of night terrors where the moon is “the enemy.”

Raven: I had another interesting revelation on this topic last week when I assigned one of my classes to read “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I am sure you are probably familiar with the story, but for those who don’t know, it is a story Gilman wrote in 1892 about a woman with postpartum depression who is confined by her well-meaning but controlling husband, who is a physician, to the “bed rest” cure. The “cure” backfires, however, because her confinement slowly drives her insane. With nothing better or more fulfilling to do day in and night out, she starts to obsess over the patterns in the hideous, yellow wallpaper that decorates her room. Eventually, she starts to hallucinate and imagines that within the wallpaper’s patterns she sees women, trapped like herself, within it. This irrational fear and obsession starts to eat away at her sanity. Eventually, she starts to dread her nights alone with the wallpaper worst of all:

There is one marked peculiarity about this paper, a thing nobody seems to notice but myself, and that is that it changes as the light changes.

When the sun shoots in through the east window – I always watch for that first long, straight line – it changes so quickly that I can never quite believe it.

That is why I watch it always.

By moonlight – the moon shines in all night when there is a moon – I wouldn’t know it was the same paper.

At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it as plain as can be.

I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman.

By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still. It is so puzzling. It keeps me quiet by the hour.

It does not take astute readers long, however, to learn that the narrator and the woman “behind the pattern” are one and the same. This passage, likewise, bears a striking similarity to the girl Michael is singing about in “Scared of the Moon.” In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator likewise becomes “scared of the moon” because she starts to dread when the moon’s light will play on her mind and eye, transforming the pattern of the wallpaper into the bars of her own prison. It is, of course, the illusion she fears, rather than the moon itself. But again, it is that idea of the moon as the thing that is synonymous with nighttime fears and all which we suppress in light of day.

Willa:  That’s a fascinating connection, Raven. Those lines you quoted really remind me of the opening lines of “Scared of the Moon”:

Alone she lays waiting
Surrounded by gloom
Invaded by shadows
Painting the room
The light from the window
Cuts through the air
And pins the child lying there
Scared of the moon

And another similarity is that both are told in a way that’s very sympathetic toward the main character. The woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is also the narrator and she seems so trustworthy, so reasonable, that it comes as a terrible shock to learn that she has apparently slipped into madness – pushed there by being locked in isolation day after day.

And we really sympathize with the girl in “Scared of the Moon” also, who may be suffering from a type of “lunacy” also. Mental illness is frightening, so we may try to distance ourselves from people who suffer from it. But both Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Michael Jackson encourage us to identify with their characters, and experience the fears they experience. That’s interesting. Thank you for sharing that, Raven, and thank you so much for joining me!

Raven: My pleasure. Thank you again for inviting me.

Willa:  Oh, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.

I also wanted to add a quick note following up on our last post. Vanity Fair has removed a number of Maureen Orth’s articles – including “Losing His Grip” and “Neverland’s Lost Boys” – from their website. So thank you sincerely to everyone who contacted them. It seems to have made a difference. I hope Vanity Fair will now do the right thing and print a correction or retraction. I think journalistic ethics and integrity, as well as common decency, demand it.

Here We Go a-Michaeling

Willa:  Happy holidays, everyone! For our first Christmas here at Dancing with the Elephant, Joie and I wanted to do something special so we wrote a post about Michael Jackson and his ideas about childhood and creativity. Then the following year, we did a Christmas post about his song, “Childhood,” and the beautiful video he made for it.

We’d like to continue that tradition this year by talking with Veronica Bassil about her warm and insightful book, That Wonder in My Youth: Michael Jackson and Childhood. Veronica has a Ph.D. in English and American literature, and this is actually her third book about Michael Jackson. She’s also the author of Michael Jackson’s Love for Planet Earth and Thinking Twice about Billie Jean.

Thank you so much for joining us again, Veronica!

Joie:  Welcome, Veronica. You’ve been busy!

Veronica:  Yes, you’re right, Joie – I have. I feel as if I have been Michaeling pretty much nonstop since he left us in 2009. And it’s been great to share that journey with you both and your wonderful blog participants. I’ve learned so much from these discussions. I feel as if we have all been together on this “great adventure,” exploring the various dimensions of MJ’s art and in the process building a better, fuller, and more accurate understanding of who he was and what he was communicating.

So I am very happy to join you now to discuss That Wonder in My Youth, which incidentally I noticed was the title for one of your previous posts. I think it’s such a haunting and powerful line from MJ’s “Childhood” – “I’m searching for that wonder in my youth.”

Joie:  It is an interesting line, isn’t it? So I’ve been wondering, what was it that made you want to write about this aspect of Michael’s life? Can you tell us a little about what drew you to focus on his childhood?

Veronica: Sure, Joie, I’d be glad to. I considered that removing the encrustations of media disinformation that had constructed a false picture of who MJ was and what his art was about was critical to revealing his true stature as an artist and a person.

For example, in terms of his music, he was to a large extent portrayed as just a lightweight pop star, and then later as a has-been lightweight pop star, when he is in reality a powerful musical innovator, poet, and philosopher (by this I mean a visionary thinker on the deepest level). He is a modern-day Socrates who questioned and challenged the status quo, the beliefs of “Normal Valley.” His challenges provoked discomfort, and like Socrates, he became a thorn in the side of those who wanted to maintain existing social norms and beliefs. Interestingly, Socrates was also accused of corrupting the young and put on trial. Found guilty, he was sentenced to death as an old man in his 80s.

MJ’s work to focus our attention on the plight of children worldwide was distorted or disregarded. Instead of investigating our real-world commitment to children, many found it easier to attack the messenger and criticize his very being.

In an effort to correct this false media persona, my first book discussed MJ’s passionate environmentalism, which I saw (as did others, Joe Vogel especially) as central to his work. Then the allegations of course were and sadly still are a huge stumbling block that keeps people from appreciating him and his art. So that was my second book, using the accusations in “Billie Jean” as an access point. In this recent book, I tackled the third major stumbling block when it comes to MJ – namely, his views on children and childhood, including his own experiences as a child.

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, Veronica. I’ve read all three of your books and enjoyed them individually, but hadn’t put that together – that each one is addressing a “major stumbling block” to understanding and appreciating Michael Jackson and his work.

Veronica:  Thanks so much, Willa, for reading my work! Yes, the three books tie together. MJ has been so profoundly misunderstood and misinterpreted, and his effort to focus the world’s attention on the need to care about children and learn from them, seeing them as teachers and guides, is at the top of the list. His philosophy grew out of his own childhood experiences, which he saw as deprived of the normal pleasures and carefree days of childhood, and this gave him insight into the sufferings and neglect of children worldwide.

By the way, I have been reading the book Michael Jackson, Inc. by Forbes writer Zack O’Malley Greenburg, and he says that in 1966 (when MJ was 7 or 8), he was doing 5 sets a night, 6 nights a week, on top of going to school and rehearsing! That is so amazing.

Willa: Really? I had no idea. I mean, I knew he and his brothers worked very hard to succeed – were forced to work hard to succeed – but that’s really troubling that a second grader would be working that much. I’ve read Greenburg’s book also, but somehow that went right past me – or maybe I just didn’t stop to think about what it meant. He really didn’t have time to experience childhood in a normal sense, did he?

Veronica: No, he didn’t, and I think even we, his fans, don’t fully grasp what that kind of childhood work was like and how it affected him.

Willa:  Yes, and I’m afraid I’m one of those people. I try to understand, but just when I think I’m starting to get a good picture of what his life was like as a child star, growing up with that extreme level of fame and hard work and harsh discipline from his father, I hear something like that and realize, no, I still don’t get it. I still have no concept of what it was like for him.…

Veronica:  MJ talked about it quite a lot – for example, in his autobiography Moonwalk – and he makes this point again in “Childhood” when he sings about “the painful youth I’ve had.” But I think it’s easy to underplay or discount it, perhaps because his experience is incomprehensible in that it is so far from our own.

In terms of MJ’s awareness of the plight of children in general, I’ve been reading Losing Our Way, an important book recently published by former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, and he talks about how the USA was for a time number 1 in child poverty of all industrialized countries. It is now number 2 after Romania.

Willa:  That’s shocking. I didn’t know that.

Veronica:  Yes, it is scandalously shocking. One in 5 children (23 percent) in our nation live in poverty today.

Joie:  I’m actually aware of that statistic, and it is shocking.

Veronica:  Yes, Joie, I agree. Herbert also writes that since the recession of 2008, billions upon billions of dollars have been cut from our public school budgets. This means eliminating or curtailing supposedly “nonessential” programs that are actually vital, such as music, art, band, foreign languages, sports, and early childhood education programs. This lack of care and nurture of children is what MJ wanted to draw our attention to on a worldwide scale, as well as his focus on the enormous value of children, how they can show us a new way. As he says so wonderfully in his Grammy Legend Award speech of 1993:

The magic, the wonder, the mystery, and the innocence of a child’s heart are the seeds of creativity that will heal the world. I really believe that. What we need to learn from children isn’t childish. Being with them connects us to the deeper wisdom of life, which is ever present and only asks to be lived. They know the way to solutions that lie waiting to be recognized within our own hearts.

I absolutely love this speech, and his reference to “a child’s heart” is so important. Incidentally, the Immortal version of “Childhood” includes 2 passages. Here’s a link to the full speech:

Willa:  I agree – what he is saying in this speech is crucially important, and I think this is one way critics really misunderstood what he was saying. When he talked about wanting to retain the childlike part of himself, critics tended to interpret that as meaning he was reluctant to grow up and be a responsible adult. But that wasn’t what he was saying at all. He felt very responsible about trying to help solve the many problems that face our world.

And this is the critically important part: he felt that connecting with the creativity and “deeper wisdom” of childhood would help us solve those problems. Susan Fast talks about this in her Dangerous book:

In the collection of short films that accompanies Dangerous, Jackson says in a preamble to “Heal the World”: “Being with [children] connects us to the deep wisdom of life, the simple goodness shines straight from their hearts.”

Many conventional ideas about childhood link it to the future through the belief that children enter the world as empty vessels, that there is, therefore, an opportunity – or obligation – to educate them, “fill” them, shape them, in order that they will hopefully produce a “better” future … that they will fulfill the dreams of their parents, and that they will carry on family lines.

But Jackson rarely talks or sings about children in this conventional way … For him, there was a utopian impulse in children not because they represent the future, the hopes and dreams of adults, the continuation of a “normal” progression of time and family, but because their honesty, simplicity and innocence center adults, bring us back to feeling, to good affect; “now, when the world is so confused and its problems so complicated,” he says in the same preamble, “we need our children more than ever.”

So as Susan emphasizes, Michael Jackson isn’t saying that we can create a better future by molding children into better people – into the people we want them to be. Just the opposite. He’s saying that when we spend time with children, it “connects us to the deep wisdom of life” and makes us better people.

We really see this in the Heal the World video, where we see children playing in war-torn areas around the world as soldiers watch, and then the soldiers throw down their rifles. And we see it more subtly in the Jam video, where he juxtaposes images of children playing, dancing, making music against images of urban poverty. Importantly, he explicitly talks about solving the world’s problems in the lyrics of “Jam,” like in these opening lines:

Nation to nation
All the world must come together
Face the problems that we see
Then maybe somehow we can work it out

And in the chorus he goes on to say that the way to solve these problems is to “jam” – meaning to play like children, to connect creatively with one another and find innovative solutions. So he seemed to see this childlike wonder and playfulness as a powerful force for social change, and thought it was very important for adults to reconnect to the childlike parts of themselves to tap into this creative force. As he says in the passage Susan quoted, “now, when the world is so confused and its problems so complicated, we need our children more than ever.”

Veronica: Amen to that, Willa! I agree with what you just said so well and with what Susan Fast wrote. The word “center” here is very important: “their honesty, simplicity and innocence center adults, bring us back to feeling.” This is one place where we can see MJ as a philosopher. When he talks about the “playfulness of life” and the “deeper wisdom of life” in the Grammy speech, what is he really telling us? We need to look closely at this speech, which is a condensed form of insights that are reflected elsewhere – for example, in the Heal the World introduction, in Dancing the Dream, and maybe throughout his entire work.

Here I’d like to quote from a wonderful book, The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer. In the final chapters, he talks about the Tao of Lao-tzu and the Tao te Ching. The Tao (pronounced “dow”) is translated as “the Way,” a way of balance, or being at the center of extremes, also called The Middle Way. Singer uses the example of a pendulum that will, when pushed, swing one way to one extreme and then back again to the other extreme to the same degree. Eventually it will come to center, to a balance point, where it rests. Singer also uses the analogy of sailing, where the balance point of the energies is more complicated because it involves the wind, the sail, the rudder, and the tautness with which sailor holds the ropes.

He suggests that our entire planet lives within a balance of energies known as “The Way” and that if we humans can stop going from one extreme to the other and find the center, we can reach our full potential.

First you have to realize that since everything has its yin and yang, everything has its own balance point. It is the harmony of all these balance points, woven together, that forms the Tao. This overall balance maintains its equilibrium as it moves through time and space. Its power is phenomenal.

If you want to imagine the power of the Tao, examine how much energy is wasted swinging sideways. Suppose you want to go from point A to point B, but instead of walking there directly, you move from side to side like a sine wave. That would take you a long time, and you would waste a lot of energy…. When you spend your energy trying to maintain the extremes, nothing goes forward. You get stuck in a rut. The more extreme you are, the less forward movement there is…. In the Tao of sailing, the balance point is not static; it’s a dynamic equilibrium. You move from balance point to balance point, from center to center. You can’t have any concepts or preferences; you have to let the forces move you.

In the Way, nothing is personal. You are merely an instrument in the hands of the forces, participating in the harmony of balance. You must reach the point where your whole interest lies in the balance and not in any personal preference for how things should be.

How does this relate to MJ and his feelings about children? Children, MJ believed, were fully present to life – they were in effect living the Tao, the Way. He expressed some of these ideas regarding what might be called philosophical Taoism before, for instance, in 1983:

In this interview at Hayvenhurst, Michael describes his creative inspirations and how he “plays off of life”:

You can feel the energy, everything around you. You can feel it. The energy from the moon, or the plants, everything around you. It’s wonderful.

I mean, nature, animals, and all those things, are very inspirational to my work. I play off of those things, and children, and it stimulates ideas, creates all kind of things. I just can’t tell you. I think the majority of my success is from these sources. Some people say, “Well, go into detail.” But it’s hard. You really can’t. It’s just the whole world. You just play off of life.

I think it’s the same for what inspires painters, sculptures, and people of the arts. It’s the whole world, though. It’s magic.

Willa: That’s a wonderful description of his creative process! And it really does go hand in hand with Singer’s description of “dynamic equilibrium,” doesn’t it? – where, he encourages us to be in tune with “the energy, everything around you,” as Michael Jackson describes it.

Veronica: Singer writes about moving in sync with the forces of the Way. He compares the Tao to the eye of a hurricane, a balance point of forces that swirl around it. The forces of movement outside and the balance inside are part of this centering. MJ spoke about the need to “keep moving” – to keep growing, evolving, and creating – and he repeatedly advised musicians to let the music create itself. He said if I try and write a hit song, nothing will happen – I have to let it “drop into my lap.”

When I create my music, I feel like an instrument of nature. I wonder what delight nature must feel when we open our hearts and express our God-given talents. The sound of approval rose across the universe and the whole world abounds in magic. Wonder fills our hearts for what we have glimpsed for an instant: the playfulness of life….

MJ calls himself “an instrument of nature” – echoing the idea he expressed before about “playing off of life.” In both passages, he appears to be speaking about the Way, the balance, the harmony of life that children are more in tune with, when he speaks about “the deeper wisdom of life” and the “playfulness of life.”

Here we come back to that key word “wonder,” one that appears so significantly in the line in “Childhood.” Wonder, mystery, magic, creativity, a child’s heart, nature – all these seem connected to something MJ called “the playfulness of life” and that he saw as a gift that children had to offer our “wounded world.”

Willa:  Yes, that phrase “the playfulness of life” is interesting, isn’t it? And the fact that he attaches such importance to it – to this spirit of play. We don’t usually think of play as important, but repeatedly we see him linking this spirit of playfulness with creativity and a sense of personal well-being – and with global well-being as well.

Veronica: The importance of play in our lives, from children to adults, is undervalued. In my research I came across the work of Dr. Stuart Brown, co-founder of the National Institute for Play, who affirms that play is as biologically essential as sleep or dreams, and equally necessary for adults and children. Play is a universal language of higher intelligence species and is important for neurological and social development. Play promotes memory, stress management, and resiliency, and is one of the Rights of the Child adopted by the U.N.

In the USA, maybe because of the strong influence of the Puritan work ethic, we are just way too serious! We need to play more, and MJ promoted this in his own life – for example, in the creation of Neverland and in the way he brought children and children’s issues to the forefront, perhaps more than any other performer has ever done. Dr. Brown also says that we must incorporate play into our lives fully, and realize that the opposite of play is not work but depression.

Willa: Wow, that’s really interesting. I never looked at it that way. Maybe instead of prescribing anti-depressants, doctors should encourage their patients to play more!

Veronica: Sounds good to me! In so many ways, our lives are impoverished by a lack of play.

But seeing the problem, as MJ sings in the lines from “Jam” you quoted, Willa, is what we tend to avoid, because it’s sometimes painful to see “what’s going on” (to quote Marvin Gaye), and the corporate mass media is an all-too-willing vehicle to distract us (via consumerism, celebrity gossip, scandals, and so on). MJ, however, was not afraid to “speak truth to power.” In the Grammy speech he goes on to connect worldwide problems, such as wars, terrorism, and incarceration, with the fact that “children have had their childhood stolen from them.”

Willa:  Yes, and this is another critically important point, I think. Michael Jackson not only tells us that reconnecting with childhood can help solve the world’s problems but, on the flip side, that many of those problems directly result from a loss of childhood, as you say.

Veronica: Yes, absolutely. MJ had made the same point earlier in “On Children of the World” from Dancing the Dream:

We have to heal our wounded world. The chaos, despair, and senseless destruction we see today are a result of the alienation that people feel from each other and their environment. Often this alienation has its roots in an emotionally deprived childhood. Children have had their childhood stolen from them. A child’s mind needs the nourishment of mystery, magic, wonder, and excitement. I want my work to help people rediscover the child that’s hiding in them.

Willa: I’m so glad you shared this quote, Veronica, because this is the crux of the issue, isn’t it? We live in a “wounded world” because “of the alienation people feel from each other and their environment.” I think that’s exactly it.

And as he says, “Often this alienation has its roots in an emotionally deprived childhood.” Or this alienation can appear in adults who may have had happy childhoods but have lost the “deeper knowledge” they had as children. In fact, often we find ourselves encouraged to cast aside that “deeper knowledge” as childish, and focus on adult concerns like earning money, building a career, being respectable.

Veronica: This is so true, Willa. In terms of Singer’s analysis, we go to an extreme and lose the balance point. This “senseless destruction” and alienation cause great pain. Too many of us have some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from not being nurtured or encouraged enough as children or from feeling pressured by social norms to abandon our childlike values, like spontaneity, creativity, magic, open-heartedness, as we grow up. Michael wanted to recast our social and personal tendency to disregard children into a deep respect and appreciation for what they have to offer.

It’s interesting that an artist so extraordinarily gifted himself would be disregarded in the same way children are often disregarded. There is an irony in that, while asking us to see children and their gifts more clearly, he himself was misperceived precisely for his very playfulness in his personal life and in his art.

Willa:  I agree.

Veronica: To get back to the song “Childhood,” it is so poignant to me when MJ sings,

No one understands me
They view it as such strange eccentricities…
‘Cause I keep kidding around
Like a child, but pardon me …

He was actually modelling for us the values he wanted to see. It’s interesting too that in “Childhood,” he gets really animated and excited when singing about play:

Have you seen my childhood?
I’m searching for that wonder in my youth
Like pirates in adventurous dreams,
Of conquest and kings on the throne …

Have you seen my childhood?
I’m searching for that wonder in my youth
Like fantastical stories to share
The dreams I would dare, watch me fly …

The fact that we, as adults, often no longer experience play, adventurous dreams, and wonder was something MJ spoke about a lot, particularly in conversations with Schmuley Boteach. (He refers to a book on childlike values that he was working on with Boteach in his Oxford Union Speech of 2001. Boteach published these conversations in Honoring Child Spirit, a book I might not have read but someone I respect recommended it, so I took a look and discovered a lot of valuable discussion there.)

MJ reveals to Boteach how much he thinks adults have shut down and lost the natural playfulness and creativity that they once had as children. He even persuaded Boteach to climb a tree with him and sit in its branches to recapture those lost feelings!

MJ: The world is gift-wrapped for them [children] and everything is a new experience and they know it is all out there waiting for them and all these different categories of fun, a wonderful fantastical mission to take. Why do they [adults] lose it? Why does it go away? You felt that way, you remember feeling that way. Can you go back to that place?

SB: The only time I felt like that again is when I was with you watching Toy Story on Thanksgiving, and at Neverland, when we went to the tree that morning. We climbed up and spent a full hour there, just hanging out. And I have to say, it was pretty liberating. Two grown men, hanging out in a tree house. It was memorable.

MJ: Isn’t that wonderful? Everybody should have that experience and never feel that I am too old to climb a tree.

Willa: And he invited Martin Bashir to have that same experience. Near the beginning of Living with Michael Jackson, he climbs his “Giving Tree” and encourages Bashir to climb with him. Here’s a clip:

It’s interesting that in talking to Bashir, he explicitly links the childlike joy of climbing the tree with his creativity. As he tells Bashir, “I’ve written so many of my songs in this tree. I wrote ‘Heal the World’ in this tree, ‘Will You Be There,’ ‘Black or White,’ ‘Childhood.’”

As he climbs he calls down to Bashir, “Aren’t you coming?” but Bashir says, “No way.” He’s intrigued, though, and does end up climbing a short way, but then stops – either because he’s worried about falling, or worried he’ll look ridiculous on camera. Later, when they’re both back on the ground, Bashir quizzes him about it in a somewhat mocking way, and then in voiceover asks, “So how had this singing and dancing genius arrived in this surreal place that is his life today?”

So Bashir doesn’t understand what Michael Jackson is saying – and more importantly, he doesn’t seem to want to understand. He wants to look down at him from the privileged position of a respectable adult and criticize him.

Veronica: Thanks for this comparison, Willa. What a contrast between MJ and Bashir here! Bashir had closed down to childlike value to a huge degree and had become a stultifying, judgmental adult. That was what was truly “surreal.” MJ looks so peaceful and happy sitting up high in his “Giving Tree.”

Willa:  Though he also seems a little self-conscious to me, like he knows Bashir is judging him.

Joie:  You know the truly interesting part in all of this? At least, to me anyway … is the fact that he understood that no one was taking him seriously, and that no one was going to take him seriously in this endeavor. He even addressed it in “Childhood” when he sang the simple words,

Before you judge me
Try hard to love me

He knew that people were going to listen to that song and roll their eyes in a sort of, “Oh, he’s at it again” attitude.

Veronica: Yes, that’s a good point – he sure did perceive and anticipate that judgmental criticism. But the next line of the song is an instruction (these lines are in the imperative, or command, form) to “Look within your heart, then ask / Have you seen my childhood?” I think MJ took a heart-centered approach and tried to speak to people on that level and ask them to respond on that level. And look at the fans and how much they responded to that. When he says in This Is It, “Love is important,” he knew that love was the way to reach people on the deepest levels.

Here is another snippet from Honoring Child Spirit:

SB: You are very successful, so you can afford to forgive people and remain childlike. “But me?” someone can say, “I live in a trailer park. How can I forgive people? Life is bitter for me. G-d has let me down. I have no time for my children. I am a single mother with two jobs to support my kids.” What would you say to someone who says, “Come on, Michael. This is not realistic. You want to be like Peter Pan? You want to take me to this fantasy land called Neverland. Get real. I can’t go to fantasy land. I have children to support. My husband beats me.” What would you say to someone like that?

MJ: I would think they should try to find the truth about the power of love, and the way that I think it should be done, without sounding selfish, the way I have discovered what real bliss is. I think if they even gave it a chance they would feel it.

Willa:  That is so interesting! I haven’t read this book but I looked up this passage in Google Books, and here he’s specifically talking about “a childlike way of being,” right? So he seems to be saying that maintaining those childlike qualities within ourselves not only can help solve problems on a global scale, but on a personal level as well. As he tells Rabbi Boteach, it can lead to “real bliss.”

Veronica: Yes, it’s in the chapter called “Love and Guidance,” where MJ and Boteach discuss loving children and guiding them, and learning from them too. MJ says, “They are my teachers. I watch them and I learn. It’s important for us to try and be like them and imitate them. They are golden.” In another place he says, “They are the sunshine of the world.”

Joie:  Here’s a question that I’m fond of asking during these types of discussions. Do you think, ladies, that the public at large will ever “get it”? Will they ever open themselves up and receive the message that he tried so hard to impart? Because I have to be honest and say that, sadly, I don’t think they will. I always wonder if the tide will ever turn where Michael is concerned. If he will ever be seen as the truly remarkable artist, thinker, and visionary that he was, or if his image and his legacy are tarnished forever. And I’m actually an optimist in my everyday life, but about this, I’m just not sure anymore.

Veronica: Well, I think the general public, and by that I mean people who are not MJ fans and advocates, are lacking a true picture of who MJ was. They are lacking information. They have been fed lies from the tabloids for decades. Remember how MJ called it junk food? They have been eating all that junk food and don’t have the real nourishment that would come from eating healthy food – meaning true information.

Recently, I gave a talk at a gallery about my book. I was a bit worried that some media-indoctrinated people would show up and harass me, but luckily, it was my friends who came. But few of my friends have read my books, and they don’t know much about MJ either. During the talk, one person commented that Michael had “mutilated” his face. I recognized that this came from the relentless tabloid-type stories (for instance, see Susan Woodward’s reference to the Daily Mirror article that MJ sued them over), but I stayed calm and just said, “Well, plenty of women love ‘mature Mike’ and if you go on YouTube you can find videos about that.” I also referred to This Is It, which some people had seen. And I kept going. This same person just sent me an email, which I quote, unedited:

Thanks for sending this beautiful video [a link to the Childhood video]. Veronica, I have a new perception of who Michael was and an understanding of what happened to him that, perhaps, explains his actions. His is a very sad story …

Thanks again. Your presentation was far more enjoyable than what I expected. At first I wanted to come because I was interested but, primarily, because I wanted to be there for you. After hearing your talk, I was very glad I attended because I learned so much!

So many misperceptions about MJ can’t be changed in a short talk, but we can open up fissures in the biases that people have absorbed from the media. As MJ advocates spread their knowledge outside the fan community more and more, it slowly ripples out.

I remember when, in the early 90’s,  Bill Moyers asked Oren Lyons, the Onondaga Faith-Keeper of the Iroquois nation, if the Native American tradition was basically finished in the modern world, and Oren replied (I am paraphrasing here),  “As long as there is one person to talk and one person to listen, the stories will continue.” That is so hopeful – and true.

In my opinion, it is on this fundamental level of person to person, heart to heart, where deep change occurs. Yes, there is a lot of doubt and skepticism out there, but with true information, people can learn. And the other hopeful thing is of course MJ’s music: “If you want to know me, listen to my music. The love is stored there and will not die.”

Willa:  That’s beautiful!  I hadn’t heard that before: “The love is stored there and will not die.” So he must have believed that his image would be redeemed someday, and that his ideas might spark significant change in the future.

Veronica: In my talk, I emphasized the reasonableness of MJ’s thinking – namely, that if we want a better world, we have to take better care of our children. We have to love and value them, nurture them, and learn from them. We have to honor them and listen to them. I read some passages from the beautiful conclusion to MJ’s Oxford Union speech – here is a link to that speech:

Someone commented afterwards how impressed she was with his “intelligence and articulateness.” Well, this is no surprise to us, but it is for people who have been told lies for decades. I remember being shocked after MJ’s passing when Larry King asked someone, “Was Michael Jackson intelligent?” I mean, it blew my  mind that he even had to ask that question! We have our work cut out for us, but I think people are becoming more receptive to MJ’s messages, particularly on subjects like children and the environment. He was so advanced in his thinking, light-years ahead, and we are starting to catch up at last.

Willa:  Yes, I think so too, and I strongly believe that someday he will be seen as the most important artist of our time. And that day may not be too far away. I mean, perceptions of him seem to have changed dramatically since he died, and they’re continuing to evolve as people like your friends, Veronica, learn more about him. Thank you for sharing that story. We just need to keep “Michaeling,” as you say, until everyone “gets it,” as you put it, Joie.

Joie:  Well, that’s all for this post, and we want to thank Veronica for joining us. Willa and I also want to thank you for your continued support over the last three years.

As some of you may remember, when we began this blog it was a weekly feature, and we were so overwhelmed with all the love you guys heaped on us. We were truly surprised at the reception we received, and we quickly came to recognize what an awesome platform we had built for exploring new and thought-provoking ideas about the way Michael Jackson’s art is perceived. But after that first year, we also realized that in order to do it justice we couldn’t keep up the weekly schedule and still bring you the quality posts we wanted to. So we switched to posting on a bi-weekly schedule, and that worked well for us for a time. However, as the circumstances of our lives change, we need to acknowledge that this blog needs to adapt to fit our changing lives.

So we have decided to take a more laid-back approach and post when the inspiration strikes. We have some fun and interesting topics lined up for the coming year, and we still hope to post fairly frequently – we will just have a less structured posting schedule. We hope you understand, and we look forward to your continued support in the new year. Thanks again!

Willa: Yes, and thank you, Veronica, for joining us for this special holiday post. We really appreciate it, and hope you have a warm and wonderful Christmas today, and a very happy new year.

Veronica: It was my honor and pleasure to be with you, and I look forward to more great discussions ahead. Happy holidays to you!

Summer Rewind 2013, Week 6: Childhood

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on December 12, 2012. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Searching for that Wonder in My Youth

Willa: So Joie, last year at the holidays we did a special post about Michael Jackson’s close connection with childhood and its links to creativity. Now it’s getting to be holiday season again, and I was thinking it would be fun to talk about childhood again.

Joie: It would be fun to talk about childhood again, Willa. And you know, that’s one song/video that we have never really talked about before. I almost don’t know where to begin. I’m kind of excited!

Willa: Oh, “Childhood”? You’re right, we’ve quoted lyrics from it several times, but we haven’t really talked about it in depth. It’s funny – it’s another Michael Jackson song that makes people really uncomfortable, and I’m not exactly sure why. It isn’t angry, like the You Rock My World video. It doesn’t force us to confront “the dark thoughts in your head” like “Threatened” or “Money.” It doesn’t challenge us with difficult social problems like “The Lost Children,” or painful stories like “Little Susie.” It’s just a beautiful song with a beautiful video, but it really bothers some people. I think some non-fans are bothered because they think he isn’t sincere, but I think some fans are bothered because it’s too sincere.

Joie: That’s interesting, Willa, and I can see your point. This song does make some people uncomfortable. And it’s not angry or scary or dark, as you say. But it is sort of ‘in your face,’ in much the same way as those other songs you mentioned. But in a very different, very personal way.

You know, I have been with non-fans when this song has come on and the feeling I get is that it really tends to stop them in their tracks and make them think. They listen to his words and they really think about what it is that he’s asking them to do:

Before you judge me
Try hard to love me
Look within your heart, then ask …
Have you seen my childhood?

And his delivery of this song is so simple and heartfelt, that I think one can’t help but be affected by it – at least for a few fleeting moments – whether you’re a fan or not.

Willa: I think that’s true, Joie, but I also think it’s so heartfelt it’s disconcerting for some listeners. You know, when Dr. Susan Fast joined us a few weeks ago, she mentioned Michael Jackson’s lack of irony, and Eleanor wrote a very interesting response about that:

I have thought about this so much. Michael is not “cool,” he is too hot, he is sincere, he is earnest, he feels deeply the words that he sings. The impact of his work is not cerebral, but visceral. We hear his heartbeat, we feel his heartbeat – he makes us aware of the rhythm of the tide in our own bodies. He is the best at expressing and evoking powerful emotion – and that is what sets him apart – and that is the difference between a great artist and a clever artist. He is not above his topic, commenting on it, he is in it, he is part of it – he is part of “us” in “they don’t care about us.”

It is only after getting a little distance from the emotional impact that one can begin to appreciate the incredible artistry and genius that went into his work. Cerebral artists are so often directing the attention to themselves – “oh, what a clever boy/girl am I” – they are cool observers, outside of and above the fray – but Michael directs the attention to the issue itself – in earth song, in they don’t care about us, etc.

He is not cynical, he wants to heal the world – and, in spite of all, he believes that the world can be healed. He believes in love – not sentimentality. He believes in a deep connection between human beings and he is tapping into that sense of connection. Cerebral artists are often saying “I am not part of this scene, and, if you appreciate my work, you can pat yourself on the shoulder because it means that you, too, are somehow superior.” This is not Michael’s message.

That’s a long quote, but it beautifully expresses some really important ideas, I think. As Eleanor makes clear, irony gives us emotional distance from a topic – a little breathing room – and Michael Jackson doesn’t do that. He does use subtle humor in videos like Beat It, Thriller, Black or White, and Ghosts to lighten the mood, but he doesn’t give us the emotional distance that irony provides. The closest he comes to irony is Leave Me Alone, I think, but that’s unusual for him. In general, he doesn’t let us look at issues dispassionately, from a safe distance. And in works like “Childhood,” especially, I think a lot of listeners would be more comfortable if he did.

But I think Eleanor is expressing something true and important when she says, “He is the best at expressing and evoking powerful emotion – and that is what sets him apart – and that is the difference between a great artist and a clever artist.”

Joie: That is a very interesting quote from Eleanor, Willa, and she’s right. He is the best at expressing and evoking powerful emotion. No one does it better; and I think that’s because he always felt things so deeply himself. In fact, our friend Joe Vogel, writes about this in his book, Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus:

Most people read or watch the news casually, passively. They become numb to the horrifying images and stories projected on the screen. Yet such stories frequently moved Jackson to tears. He internalized them and felt physical pain. When people told him to simply enjoy his own good fortune, he got angry. He believed completely in John Donne’s philosophy that “no man is an island.”

“[For the average person],” he explained, “he sees problems ‘out there’ to be solved … But I don’t feel that way – those problems aren’t ‘out there,’ really. I feel them inside me. A child crying in Ethiopia, a seagull struggling pathetically in an oil spill … a teenage soldier trembling with terror when he hears the planes fly over: Aren’t these happening in me when I see and hear about them?”

Willa: What a great quote, Joie! And when he says, “those problems aren’t ‘out there,’ really. I feel them inside me,” you know it’s true because, through his art, he shares those feelings and we feel them inside ourselves as well. When we listen to songs like “Earth Song” or “They Don’t Care about Us” or “Speechless” or “Childhood,” we feel the pain and anger and joy, the sense of injustice or sense of wonder he’s feeling. That’s what totally captured me when I first heard “Ben” 40 years ago, and it still captivates and moves me.

Joie: Exactly! But I like what you just said about Michael not allowing us to look at issues dispassionately. That is a very true statement. He was never one to beat around the bush in his work, and opted instead for a much more ‘in your face’ approach. And you’re right when you say that with this song in particular – because it is so very personal – that approach probably made most people very uncomfortable. We don’t usually expect our entertainers to open up a vein right in front of us, but that’s exactly what “Childhood” does. Especially in these lyrics:

No one understands me
They view it as such strange eccentricities
‘Cause I keep kidding around
Like a child, but pardon me
 
People say I’m not okay
‘Cause I love such elementary things
It’s been my fate to compensate,
For the Childhood I’ve never known

Willa: Wow, that’s a vivid way to describe that, Joie, but I think you’re right – we don’t expect artists to “open up a vein right in front of us,” as you said so well, and it does feel that way. It’s like he’s in deep mourning for “the Childhood / I’ve never known.”

It also feels like he’s trying to answer those who criticize him for “compensating” for his lost childhood, as he put it, and encourage them to try to understand how he feels. And really, what a painful situation that must be, when your deepest hurt is bandied about and criticized in the press.

But, you know, what strikes me when watching the video is that, while the song’s lyrics are intensely personal, the video isn’t. This is another one of those cases where the video expands and complicates the ideas expressed in the song. Listening to this song, we would expect the video to contain footage from 2300 Jackson Street and long hours in the studio at Motown, and maybe scenes from the Jackson 5 on The Ed Sullivan Show. But the video isn’t about his childhood – at least not directly – or even a fictional character’s childhood. It’s more subtle and more complicated than that: it’s about imagination, and about childhood as a time of heightened imagination.

Joie: You know, I was thinking the exact same thing. The video isn’t at all what one would think it would be. And it’s like he purposely went in the opposite direction here, instead of showing us little glimpses into his own imperfect childhood, which is what we would expect. And I think he probably did this simply because the song itself is so personal.

Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Joie. I hadn’t thought about it that way, and that makes a lot of sense. But I also think he’s trying to express a complex idea that’s very important to him.

In the video we see Michael Jackson sitting alone in a forest, while a flotilla of sailboats full of children sails through the sky overhead. He can see them, but he can’t join them. He remains on the ground. A boy walks up and stands near him, and he sees the children in the sailboats also. One of the children in the boats – an older boy – reaches out his hand, inviting him to join them, and the boy on the ground floats up and climbs on board. But Michael Jackson stays on the ground. He wants to join them – you can sense how desperately he wants to join them – but he can’t, either because he hasn’t been invited, or because he’s outgrown that phase, or because he’s been scarred by the hardships of his life. We don’t know why.

He’s not in a bad place – he’s in a lush, beautiful forest, which is important because he also linked trees to imagination. I’m thinking about his imagination tree at Neverland, where he says he wrote many of his songs. So he’s in a place of imagination and creativity – adult creativity – but its different from the experience the children are having in the sailboats above him. He longs to be in the sailboats but he can’t get there. Unlike the boy who floated up so effortlessly, he’s earthbound.

Joie: That’s a beautiful summation of the video, Willa. And I think you’re right. He obviously wants to join the children desperately but, he isn’t able to. And, like you said, we can interpret that in many ways – he wasn’t invited, he’s outgrown that phase, he’s been scarred by life’s hardships. But it could also be that he isn’t able to join them, not because of any of those factors, but because of “us.” Or maybe more accurately, “them.” I’m not talking about the children, but the people who have criticized him over the years for that compensating that he’s been doing. Perhaps he can’t float up to join the children in the sailboats because he’s weighted down by all the negativity and speculation about the way he lived his life and his closeness to children and his desire and many efforts to hang on to that childlike wonder that was so special and important to him.

Willa: Wow, Joie, I hadn’t thought about that either, but you’re right – he had to be much more careful about interacting with children after the allegations came out, and he also became more self-aware and maybe more self-conscious about his “strange eccentricities,” as he sings in the lyrics you quoted earlier: “People say I’m not okay / ‘Cause I love such elementary things.” So maybe that “negativity” did play a part, as you say.

Joie: And as you said, it’s obvious that he desperately wants to join them, but he’s sad and sort of heartbroken that he isn’t able to.

Willa: Which is odd, because he was so incredibly creative and had such a vivid imagination, even as an adult. If the boats represent being carried away by your imagination, then it seems obvious he should be on board – after all, they’re sailing to the moon, and he’s the Moonwalker! But that isn’t where he positions himself. He places himself on the ground, looking up with longing as they sail by, and I wonder what it is exactly that he thinks he’s missing?

Maybe it isn’t just how imaginative children are, but how fully they enter into the world of imagination. I can remember getting completely lost in books as a kid. I’d get so absorbed in a story that I’d completely tune out everything around me, and when I did “come to,” sometimes I’d discover that the rest of the class was halfway through a spelling test or something like that, and I’d have to scramble to try to catch up. I was completely out of it when I was deep in a book – it really did feel like I was in another world – and it was always disorienting to come back to consciousness in this world. It was just a jolt to suddenly find myself in a world of spelling tests and math quizzes, when I’d been engaging in all sorts of adventures with the characters of a book.

Joie: That is so true, Willa. Children do tend to immerse themselves fully when they play. I can remember being on the playground during recess with my best friend. We must have been in the third or fourth grade at the time, I think. And we were so absorbed in the imaginary world we had created that we didn’t hear the bell ring. And suddenly we look up and our class is nowhere to be seen. They had all gone back inside about twenty minutes before!

Willa: Oh no! Something like that happened to me too and it was really embarrassing, so I know exactly what you mean, Joie. But it’s funny, that doesn’t seem to happen to me so much anymore. I still go off in daydreams sometimes – like I was driving down the highway a couple years ago, and suddenly “woke up” and realized I’d been driving with my head in the clouds and was about 10 miles past my turnoff. So it still happens occasionally, but not so much. Like I love books, but I don’t get so completely absorbed anymore, and I don’t tune out the real world like I once did. Even while reading a great book, I stay aware that I need to pick up my son from swim team practice in 20 minutes, or start supper or fold laundry or whatever, and I don’t get “carried away” in my imagination as fully as I did when I was younger.

So maybe that’s what he’s talking about? Because he had such a fertile imagination even as an adult, and was still intensely creative – far more creative than the average person – and he had to know that.

Joie: Yep, I agree. And as adults, we just have so many responsibilities and other priorities, you know? I mean, as children, our only priority is to figure out the world and we actively search for ways to make that learning process fun. It’s just the nature of a child. But as adults, we don’t always have that luxury because there are so many other things weighing us down, pulling on our time. So maybe that’s why he stays firmly on the ground as all the children float away above him to the moon in the sailboats. Like most adults, he just doesn’t have the time to float away on his imagination anymore.

Willa: That’s a really good point, Joie, and maybe that’s another reason why he felt he didn’t really have a childhood – because he carried the responsibilities of an adult even as a child. His family pretty much became financially dependent on him when he was 10 years old. Just think about that. And there were people at Motown whose jobs were devoted to him, and dependent on him. If he failed to please an audience, they lost their jobs, and he knew that. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a child.

Also if he fell while playing and hurt himself and couldn’t dance, it had big consequences, and he knew that too. So he had to be very careful, even while playing. And his day was so scheduled he wasn’t really free to play or “float away on his imagination,” as you said, even then.

So maybe that’s part of how he compensated as an adult – by giving himself permission to climb trees (how risky!) and have water balloon fights and play with abandon, in a way he couldn’t as a child. And by giving himself time to just float and daydream.

Joie: And maybe that’s the message of this short film, Willa. You know how I like to believe that there is a hidden message or a lesson in every Michael Jackson video?

Willa: Yeah?

Joie: Well, maybe that lesson here is that we – adults – need to try and remember what it’s like to get carried away by our imaginations every once in a while. To remember that childlike wonder that’s still there inside each and every one of us, just waiting for the chance to get lost in a book … floating away in a sailboat to the moon.

Willa: Oh, I really like that interpretation, Joie! It feels very true to his vision, I think, and it reminds me of this wonderful final shot of the sailboats:

untitled

I love this image – it’s so beautiful, I think – and there’s so much to see in it. The final boat is piloted by a young black boy who keeps his hand very seriously on the tiller, and he really catches my attention for some reason. For one thing, the first time we see him (about 2 minutes into the video) he has a very worried look on his face. None of the other kids seems anxious at all, but he does. Also, he’s alone in his boat while most of the children are in groups of two or three.

But actually, he isn’t alone. He has two cats with him, and he pets them for reassurance. And while that may just be coincidental – after all, one of the other kids has a dog – cats tend to represent something very specific in Michael Jackson’s videos: when he feels the need to escape, he disappears and a cat appears. For example, when a reporter closes in on Michael Jackson’s character in Billie Jean, he disappears and a tiger appears. When the king’s guards have him surrounded in Remember the Time, he turns into a swirling pile of sand and blows away, and then a cat comes and stands where that transformation took place. When he is feeling oppressed by racism in Black or White, he transforms into a black panther. Because that is such a common motif in his videos, it seems significant to me that this fearful young boy has two cats accompanying him, giving him comfort. So maybe Michael Jackson himself can’t join him in the sailboat, but his totem animal can?

Joie: Wow! That’s an interesting observation, Willa. I’ve never noticed that before but, I think you may be on to something there.

Willa: It does seem significant, doesn’t it? Maybe it isn’t, but it feels significant to me. And then the children are all sailing to the moon, which is metaphorically linked to Michael Jackson as well – in titles like Moonwalk and Moonwalker, obviously, but also more subtly in key scenes in Moonwalker, and in Dancing the Dream as well. In “Dance of Life,” the moon comforts him, like a mother, but also inspires him and encourages him to dance, like a muse.

So while we don’t see Michael Jackson in embodied form in this beautiful final shot of the sailboats floating to the moon, we hear his music and sense his spirit and influence throughout.

Joie: You’re right, Willa, we do ‘sense his spirit thoughout.’ Both in the short film and in the song itself. And, in fact, we ‘sense his spirit’ a lot … in everything he did. It’s in every song and video, every dance routine and live performance. You can feel it in every poem and reflection between the pages of Dancing the Dream. His spirit can be felt in every project he ever presented to the world.

So, Willa and I want to take a moment and say thank you for all of your continuing support, and we want to wish each and every one of you a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukka, Happy Kwansa and our best wishes for a wonderful New Year. Happy Holidays to one and all!

Searching for that Wonder in My Youth

Willa:  So Joie, last year at the holidays we did a special post about Michael Jackson’s close connection with childhood and its links to creativity. Now it’s getting to be holiday season again, and I was thinking it would be fun to talk about childhood again.

Joie:  It would be fun to talk about childhood again, Willa. And you know, that’s one song/video that we have never really talked about before. I almost don’t know where to begin. I’m kind of excited!

Willa:  Oh, “Childhood”? You’re right, we’ve quoted lyrics from it several times, but we haven’t really talked about it in depth. It’s funny – it’s another Michael Jackson song that makes people really uncomfortable, and I’m not exactly sure why. It isn’t angry, like the You Rock My World video. It doesn’t force us to confront “the dark thoughts in your head” like “Threatened” or “Money.” It doesn’t challenge us with difficult social problems like “The Lost Children,” or painful stories like “Little Susie.” It’s just a beautiful song with a beautiful video, but it really bothers some people. I think some non-fans are bothered because they think he isn’t sincere, but I think some fans are bothered because it’s too sincere.

Joie:  That’s interesting, Willa, and I can see your point. This song does make some people uncomfortable. And it’s not angry or scary or dark, as you say. But it is sort of ‘in your face,’ in much the same way as those other songs you mentioned. But in a very different, very personal way.

You know, I have been with non-fans when this song has come on and the feeling I get is that it really tends to stop them in their tracks and make them think. They listen to his words and they really think about what it is that he’s asking them to do:

Before you judge me
Try hard to love me
Look within your heart, then ask …
Have you seen my childhood?

And his delivery of this song is so simple and heartfelt, that I think one can’t help but be affected by it – at least for a few fleeting moments – whether you’re a fan or not.

Willa:  I think that’s true, Joie, but I also think it’s so heartfelt it’s disconcerting for some listeners. You know, when Dr. Susan Fast joined us a few weeks ago, she mentioned Michael Jackson’s lack of irony, and Eleanor wrote a very interesting response about that:

I have thought about this so much. Michael is not “cool,” he is too hot, he is sincere, he is earnest, he feels deeply the words that he sings. The impact of his work is not cerebral, but visceral. We hear his heartbeat, we feel his heartbeat – he makes us aware of the rhythm of the tide in our own bodies. He is the best at expressing and evoking powerful emotion – and that is what sets him apart – and that is the difference between a great artist and a clever artist. He is not above his topic, commenting on it, he is in it, he is part of it – he is part of “us” in “they don’t care about us.”

It is only after getting a little distance from the emotional impact that one can begin to appreciate the incredible artistry and genius that went into his work. Cerebral artists are so often directing the attention to themselves – “oh, what a clever boy/girl am I” – they are cool observers, outside of and above the fray – but Michael directs the attention to the issue itself – in earth song, in they don’t care about us, etc.

He is not cynical, he wants to heal the world – and, in spite of all, he believes that the world can be healed. He believes in love – not sentimentality. He believes in a deep connection between human beings and he is tapping into that sense of connection. Cerebral artists are often saying “I am not part of this scene, and, if you appreciate my work, you can pat yourself on the shoulder because it means that you, too, are somehow superior.” This is not Michael’s message.

That’s a long quote, but it beautifully expresses some really important ideas, I think. As Eleanor makes clear, irony gives us emotional distance from a topic – a little breathing room – and Michael Jackson doesn’t do that. He does use subtle humor in videos like Beat It, Thriller, Black or White, and Ghosts to lighten the mood, but he doesn’t give us the emotional distance that irony provides. The closest he comes to irony is Leave Me Alone, I think, but that’s unusual for him. In general, he doesn’t let us look at issues dispassionately, from a safe distance. And in works like “Childhood,” especially, I think a lot of listeners would be more comfortable if he did.

But I think Eleanor is expressing something true and important when she says, “He is the best at expressing and evoking powerful emotion – and that is what sets him apart – and that is the difference between a great artist and a clever artist.”

Joie:  That is a very interesting quote from Eleanor, Willa, and she’s right. He is the best at expressing and evoking powerful emotion. No one does it better; and I think that’s because he always felt things so deeply himself. In fact, our friend Joe Vogel, writes about this in his book, Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus:

Most people read or watch the news casually, passively. They become numb to the horrifying images and stories projected on the screen. Yet such stories frequently moved Jackson to tears. He internalized them and felt physical pain. When people told him to simply enjoy his own good fortune, he got angry. He believed completely in John Donne’s philosophy that “no man is an island.” 

“[For the average person],” he explained, “he sees problems ‘out there’ to be solved … But I don’t feel that way – those problems aren’t ‘out there,’ really. I feel them inside me. A child crying in Ethiopia, a seagull struggling pathetically in an oil spill … a teenage soldier trembling with terror when he hears the planes fly over: Aren’t these happening in me when I see and hear about them?”

Willa:  What a great quote, Joie! And when he says, “those problems aren’t ‘out there,’ really. I feel them inside me,” you know it’s true because, through his art, he shares those feelings and we feel them inside ourselves as well. When we listen to songs like “Earth Song” or “They Don’t Care about Us” or “Speechless” or “Childhood,” we feel the pain and anger and joy, the sense of injustice or sense of wonder he’s feeling. That’s what totally captured me when I first heard “Ben” 40 years ago, and it still captivates and moves me.

Joie:  Exactly! But I like what you just said about Michael not allowing us to look at issues dispassionately. That is a very true statement. He was never one to beat around the bush in his work, and opted instead for a much more ‘in your face’ approach. And you’re right when you say that with this song in particular – because it is so very personal – that approach probably made most people very uncomfortable. We don’t usually expect our entertainers to open up a vein right in front of us, but that’s exactly what “Childhood” does. Especially in these lyrics:

No one understands me
They view it as such strange eccentricities
‘Cause I keep kidding around
Like a child, but pardon me
 
People say I’m not okay
‘Cause I love such elementary things
It’s been my fate to compensate,
For the Childhood I’ve never known

Willa:  Wow, that’s a vivid way to describe that, Joie, but I think you’re right – we don’t expect artists to “open up a vein right in front of us,” as you said so well, and it does feel that way. It’s like he’s in deep mourning for “the Childhood / I’ve never known.”

It also feels like he’s trying to answer those who criticize him for “compensating” for his lost childhood, as he put it, and encourage them to try to understand how he feels. And really, what a painful situation that must be, when your deepest hurt is bandied about and criticized in the press.

But, you know, what strikes me when watching the video is that, while the song’s lyrics are intensely personal, the video isn’t. This is another one of those cases where the video expands and complicates the ideas expressed in the song. Listening to this song, we would expect the video to contain footage from 2300 Jackson Street and long hours in the studio at Motown, and maybe scenes from the Jackson 5 on The Ed Sullivan Show. But the video isn’t about his childhood – at least not directly – or even a fictional character’s childhood. It’s more subtle and more complicated than that:  it’s about imagination, and about childhood as a time of heightened imagination.

Joie:  You know, I was thinking the exact same thing. The video isn’t at all what one would think it would be. And it’s like he purposely went in the opposite direction here, instead of showing us little glimpses into his own imperfect childhood, which is what we would expect. And I think he probably did this simply because the song itself is so personal.

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, Joie. I hadn’t thought about it that way, and that makes a lot of sense. But I also think he’s trying to express a complex idea that’s very important to him.

In the video we see Michael Jackson sitting alone in a forest, while a flotilla of sailboats full of children sails through the sky overhead. He can see them, but he can’t join them. He remains on the ground. A boy walks up and stands near him, and he sees the children in the sailboats also. One of the children in the boats – an older boy – reaches out his hand, inviting him to join them, and the boy on the ground floats up and climbs on board. But Michael Jackson stays on the ground. He wants to join them – you can sense how desperately he wants to join them – but he can’t, either because he hasn’t been invited, or because he’s outgrown that phase, or because he’s been scarred by the hardships of his life. We don’t know why.

He’s not in a bad place – he’s in a lush, beautiful forest, which is important because he also linked trees to imagination. I’m thinking about his imagination tree at Neverland, where he says he wrote many of his songs. So he’s in a place of imagination and creativity – adult creativity – but its different from the experience the children are having in the sailboats above him. He longs to be in the sailboats but he can’t get there. Unlike the boy who floated up so effortlessly, he’s earthbound.

Joie:  That’s a beautiful summation of the video, Willa. And I think you’re right. He obviously wants to join the children desperately but, he isn’t able to. And, like you said, we can interpret that in many ways – he wasn’t invited, he’s outgrown that phase, he’s been scarred by life’s hardships. But it could also be that he isn’t able to join them, not because of any of those factors, but because of “us.” Or maybe more accurately, “them.” I’m not talking about the children, but the people who have criticized him over the years for that compensating that he’s been doing. Perhaps he can’t float up to join the children in the sailboats because he’s weighted down by all the negativity and speculation about the way he lived his life and his closeness to children and his desire and many efforts to hang on to that childlike wonder that was so special and important to him.

Willa:  Wow, Joie, I hadn’t thought about that either, but you’re right – he had to be much more careful about interacting with children after the allegations came out, and he also became more self-aware and maybe more self-conscious about his “strange eccentricities,” as he sings in the lyrics you quoted earlier:  “People say I’m not okay / ‘Cause I love such elementary things.” So maybe that “negativity” did play a part, as you say.

Joie:  And as you said, it’s obvious that he desperately wants to join them, but he’s sad and sort of heartbroken that he isn’t able to.

Willa:  Which is odd, because he was so incredibly creative and had such a vivid imagination, even as an adult. If the boats represent being carried away by your imagination, then it seems obvious he should be on board – after all, they’re sailing to the moon, and he’s the Moonwalker!  But that isn’t where he positions himself. He places himself on the ground, looking up with longing as they sail by, and I wonder what it is exactly that he thinks he’s missing?

Maybe it isn’t just how imaginative children are, but how fully they enter into the world of imagination. I can remember getting completely lost in books as a kid. I’d get so absorbed in a story that I’d completely tune out everything around me, and when I did “come to,” sometimes I’d discover that the rest of the class was halfway through a spelling test or something like that, and I’d have to scramble to try to catch up. I was completely out of it when I was deep in a book – it really did feel like I was in another world – and it was always disorienting to come back to consciousness in this world. It was just a jolt to suddenly find myself in a world of spelling tests and math quizzes, when I’d been engaging in all sorts of adventures with the characters of a book.

Joie:  That is so true, Willa. Children do tend to immerse themselves fully when they play. I can remember being on the playground during recess with my best friend. We must have been in the third or fourth grade at the time, I think. And we were so absorbed in the imaginary world we had created that we didn’t hear the bell ring. And suddenly we look up and our class is nowhere to be seen. They had all gone back inside about twenty minutes before!

Willa:  Oh no!  Something like that happened to me too and it was really embarrassing, so I know exactly what you mean, Joie. But it’s funny, that doesn’t seem to happen to me so much anymore. I still go off in daydreams sometimes – like I was driving down the highway a couple years ago, and suddenly “woke up” and realized I’d been driving with my head in the clouds and was about 10 miles past my turnoff. So it still happens occasionally, but not so much. Like I love books, but I don’t get so completely absorbed anymore, and I don’t tune out the real world like I once did. Even while reading a great book, I stay aware that I need to pick up my son from swim team practice in 20 minutes, or start supper or fold laundry or whatever, and I don’t get “carried away” in my imagination as fully as I did when I was younger.

So maybe that’s what he’s talking about? Because he had such a fertile imagination even as an adult, and was still intensely creative – far more creative than the average person – and he had to know that.

Joie:  Yep, I agree. And as adults, we just have so many responsibilities and other priorities, you know? I mean, as children, our only priority is to figure out the world and we actively search for ways to make that learning process fun. It’s just the nature of a child. But as adults, we don’t always have that luxury because there are so many other things weighing us down, pulling on our time. So maybe that’s why he stays firmly on the ground as all the children float away above him to the moon in the sailboats. Like most adults, he just doesn’t have the time to float away on his imagination anymore.

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Joie, and maybe that’s another reason why he felt he didn’t really have a childhood – because he carried the responsibilities of an adult even as a child. His family pretty much became financially dependent on him when he was 10 years old. Just think about that. And there were people at Motown whose jobs were devoted to him, and dependent on him. If he failed to please an audience, they lost their jobs, and he knew that. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a child.

Also if he fell while playing and hurt himself and couldn’t dance, it had big consequences, and he knew that too. So he had to be very careful, even while playing. And his day was so scheduled he wasn’t really free to play or “float away on his imagination,” as you said, even then.

So maybe that’s part of how he compensated as an adult – by giving himself permission to climb trees (how risky!) and have water balloon fights and play with abandon, in a way he couldn’t as a child. And by giving himself time to just float and daydream.

Joie:  And maybe that’s the message of this short film, Willa. You know how I like to believe that there is a hidden message or a lesson in every Michael Jackson video?

Willa:  Yeah?

Joie:  Well, maybe that lesson here is that we – adults – need to try and remember what it’s like to get carried away by our imaginations every once in a while. To remember that childlike wonder that’s still there inside each and every one of us, just waiting for the chance to get lost in a book … floating away in a sailboat to the moon.

Willa:  Oh, I really like that interpretation, Joie!  It feels very true to his vision, I think, and it reminds me of this wonderful final shot of the sailboats:

untitled

I love this image – it’s so beautiful, I think – and there’s so much to see in it. The final boat is piloted by a young black boy who keeps his hand very seriously on the tiller, and he really catches my attention for some reason. For one thing, the first time we see him (about 2 minutes into the video) he has a very worried look on his face. None of the other kids seems anxious at all, but he does. Also, he’s alone in his boat while most of the children are in groups of two or three.

But actually, he isn’t alone. He has two cats with him, and he pets them for reassurance. And while that may just be coincidental – after all, one of the other kids has a dog – cats tend to represent something very specific in Michael Jackson’s videos:  when he feels the need to escape, he disappears and a cat appears. For example, when a reporter closes in on Michael Jackson’s character in Billie Jean, he disappears and a tiger appears. When the king’s guards have him surrounded in Remember the Time, he turns into a swirling pile of sand and blows away, and then a cat comes and stands where that transformation took place. When he is feeling oppressed by racism in Black or White, he transforms into a black panther. Because that is such a common motif in his videos, it seems significant to me that this fearful young boy has two cats accompanying him, giving him comfort. So maybe Michael Jackson himself can’t join him in the sailboat, but his totem animal can?

Joie:  Wow! That’s an interesting observation, Willa. I’ve never noticed that before but, I think you may be on to something there.

Willa:  It does seem significant, doesn’t it?  Maybe it isn’t, but it feels significant to me. And then the children are all sailing to the moon, which is metaphorically linked to Michael Jackson as well – in titles like Moonwalk and Moonwalker, obviously, but also more subtly in key scenes in Moonwalker, and in Dancing the Dream as well. In “Dance of Life,” the moon comforts him, like a mother, but also inspires him and encourages him to dance, like a muse.

So while we don’t see Michael Jackson in embodied form in this beautiful final shot of the sailboats floating to the moon, we hear his music and sense his spirit and influence throughout.

Joie:  You’re right, Willa, we do ‘sense his spirit thoughout.’ Both in the short film and in the song itself. And, in fact, we ‘sense his spirit’ a lot … in everything he did. It’s in every song and video, every dance routine and live performance. You can feel it in every poem and reflection between the pages of Dancing the Dream. His spirit can be felt in every project he ever presented to the world.

So, Willa and I want to take a moment and say thank you for all of your continuing support, and we want to wish each and every one of you a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukka, Happy Kwansa and our best wishes for a wonderful New Year. Happy Holidays to one and all!

Willa:  I would also like to ask a big favor. I’m hoping to publish a second edition of M Poetica with bibliographic notes and web links, and some images and information that weren’t available when it was first published in 2011. I’d also like to fix as many errors and typos as possible, so if you’ve read M Poetica and noticed mistakes, I’d love to hear from you. Just send your corrections to dancing.with.the.elephant@gmail.com. Thank you!

Please Harken to My Message

Joie:  So this week, in celebration of the Christmas season, Willa and I wanted to continue our discussion of childhood and what it meant to Michael. And I know we’ve all heard many times all of the very impassioned speeches that Michael gave over the years about childhood and the importance of protecting that precious time in our children’s lives. But I’d like to start this post with a quote from Michael that I have always found simply enchanting.

“One of my favorite pastimes is being with children, talking to them and playing with them. Children know a lot of secrets [about the world] and it’s difficult to get them to tell. Children are incredible. They go through a brilliant phase, but then when they reach a certain age, they lose it. My most creative moments have almost always come when I’m with children. When I’m with them, the music comes to me as easily as breathing.”

I love what Michael says here about how children go through a brilliant phase and they know a lot of secrets about the world. I think he’s so right! As I mentioned last week, I’ve never been blessed with children but, I do have several nieces and nephews that I adore, three of whom I lived in the same house with from the time they were born until the youngest was about 8 or 9. And when they were little, they were just the most fun to be around. They are all adults now but, I still have very vivid memories of things they said that were just so wise and simple or very creative things that they did that just made you sit back and say, ‘Wow.’ So, I understand exactly what Michael is talking about here and it just makes me smile every time I read that quote.

Willa:  Joie, I absolutely love that quotation as well, and I’m so glad you started off with it. I think it really gets to the heart of what Michael Jackson kept trying to tell us about childhood. It really is a special time, and children do know secrets about the world that many of us adults seem to have forgotten.

Children are just amazing, and they look at the world in such different ways than adults tend to.  My son had to do a freewriting assignment at school a couple weeks ago, and the teacher didn’t give them any direction about it.  She just said, ‘Write a short story as fast as you can, starting … Now.’ So they all started writing without time to plan or think, just write.  My son came home and was telling me about it, and he said he thought about this funny postcard that’s been in his room for a while, of a disgruntled cat wearing a melon helmet:

Joie:  Oh my gosh! That picture is adorable!

Willa:  Isn’t it funny? So he wrote his short story about that, but what threw me for a loop is that he told it from the point of view of the melon. He said he’d been wondering what it would be like to be sitting in a nice field, soaking up the sun, when suddenly someone comes along, grabs you, scoops your insides out, and stuffs you on the head of a rather annoyed cat. He cracked himself up telling me about it, and he thoroughly cracked me up. Who would ever think of such a thing? But kids think sideways all the time.

As adults, we’re pretty much trained to look at the world in certain ways, but kids haven’t been – at least not nearly to the extent we have. To use Michael Jackson’s terminology, they aren’t as “conditioned” as we are, so their minds are flexible enough to look at the world in amazing ways that most adults just don’t seem able to do any more.

Joie:  That’s really sad but, very true. As Michael said in that quote I used earlier, children “go through a brilliant phase, but then when they reach a certain age, they lose it.” And he’s right; it does seem that we all lose something when we leave childhood behind. As if that mystical, magical connection to light and innocence that we’re all born with gets broken somehow.

Willa:  I love the way he put that – children do “go through a brilliant phase.” But we “lose it” as we grow older and become “conditioned,” and we lose a lot of our innate creativity as well.

A couple weeks ago, I was watching a PBS documentary called Journey of the Universe by Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, and near the end of the documentary Swimme said something fascinating. He suggested that the rise of human civilization may be linked to childhood. Humans have a very extended childhood: it takes around 20 years for a human infant to reach full maturity, far longer than other species. (Elephants are another exception – it takes around 16 years for an elephant to reach maturity – but that’s a rarity in the animal world.) And Swimme suggested that our long childhood may be one key reason why humans were able to develop civilization.

I was so intrigued I went to the library and picked up Swimme and Tucker’s book, and the theory is that most animal behavior is guided by “instinctual responses.” However, for some reason, humans as a species underwent a profound change so that instead of slavishly following instinctual responses, early humans developed “behavioral flexibility.” As Swimme and Tucker write, “a new  kind of consciousness was entering existence, one that was freer and more exploratory.” But where did this behavioral flexibility come from?

Swimme and Tucker suggest it came from children, and humans’ extended period of childhood:

“For [children], behavior is open-ended in a way that is rarer in adults. This youthful behavior is readily distinguishable from the serious adult concerns of survival or sexual reproduction. Certainly some of their youthful behavior can be understood as preparation and practice for their later lives. But much of it is without any direct relationship to adult behavior. In a word, what often occupies their consciousness is play. They leap and twist; they explore the world with their eyes; they taste the world with their mouths; they enter into many kinds of relationships out of sheer curiosity. With their play they are discovering the exuberance of being alive.”

Swimme and Tucker go on to suggest that this playfulness of children may have led to nothing less than the rise of human civilization, as well as our artistic sensibility:

“It was this relative freedom from instinctual behavior … that enabled us to become profoundly captivated by so many things – by fire, sunrise, ocean waves, erotic intensities, the death of a friend, the birth of a child. … They [the early humans] viewed life through new eyes. Instead of simply responding, they also reflected. They tasted the very essence of what it means to be alive. With the emergence of the human, the universe created a space where depths of feeling could be concentrated and wondered over.”

In other words, Swimme and Tucker believe the imagination and “behavioral flexibility” of childhood led to a new “superabundant consciousness” as well as a wealth of creativity – a level of creativity powerful enough to spark the rise of human civilization.

I think Michael Jackson was keenly aware of these deep connections between childhood and creativity. As he says in the Immortal version of “Childhood,” in spoken segments interspersed with the lyrics, “The magic, the wonder, the mystery, and the innocence of a child’s heart are the seeds of creativity that will heal the world. I really believe that.” Unlike most adults, he cultivated those “seeds of creativity” throughout his life and never lost them, and he maintained a wonderful childlike inventiveness and flexibility in his work, but it’s coupled with a mature awareness of the very real pain of human suffering. And the two together – the childlike vision with the mature understanding – gives his work tremendous range and depth.

Joie:  You’re so right, Willa. Michael was very aware of the deep connection between childhood and creativity – as many great artists are. I believe it was Picasso who once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once you grow up.” Well perhaps the key to that problem is finding a way to maintain that connection to the magic of childhood, and no one did that better than Michael. He had this amazing personality trait that not many others possess. That incredible, innocent sense of childlike wonder! It just seemed to flow from him like water from a fountain and it’s one of the things that made him so very special.

It’s also one of the things that made his work so special. He really gave us glimpses of that childlike wonder on songs like “Childhood,” “Heal the World,” “Gone Too Soon,” and “Another Part of Me.” Even on several unreleased songs like “Carousel” and “Monkey Business” and “Scared of the Moon.” That endearing playful quality that was always right there just beneath the surface. You could see it in his eyes every time he smiled and it just melted your heart. And it wasn’t an act, it was genuine and sincere. But I think the general public and the press really tried to make it into something weird and unnatural and that always angered me. They would pretty much come right out and say ‘well, there has to be something wrong with a man who prefers to see only the good in people and tries to look at the world with childhood sensibilities.’ Never once did any of them consider that Michael may have been on to something with his desire to hold on to that connection to childhood. They just thought he was, at best, very eccentric and, at worse, very scary. But it was something that was very important to him. That connection was like his lifeline; it was a source of great strength for him.

You know, in March 2001 Michael was a guest lecturer at Oxford Union at Oxford University in the UK. And during his lecture, he talked about how important that connection really was to him. He strongly believed that connection to childhood could heal many of our world’s problems:

“Please harken to my message, because what I have to tell you tonight can bring healing to humanity and healing to our planet. Through the grace of God, I have been fortunate to have achieved many of my artistic and professional aspirations, realized early in my lifetime. But these, friends, are accomplishments, and accomplishments alone are not synonymous with who I am. Indeed, the cheery five-year-old who belted out “Rockin’ Robin” and “Ben” to adoring crowds was not indicative of the boy behind the smile.

Tonight, I come before you less as an icon of pop – whatever that means anyway – and more as an icon of a generation. A generation that no longer knows what it means to be children. All of us are products of our childhood. But I am the product of a lack of a childhood; an absence of that precious and wondrous age when we frolic playfully without a care in the world, basking in the adoration of parents and relatives, where our biggest concern is studying for that big spelling test come Monday morning…. 

And it’s not just the kids who are suffering. It’s the parents as well. For the more we cultivate little adults in kids’ bodies, the more removed we ourselves become from our own childlike qualities. And there is so much about being a child that is worth retaining in adult life!”  

I just love reading that entire speech; it really shows exactly what was in Michael’s heart in terms of his love for children. The whole speech is based on his belief that the connection to childhood is the primary ingredient to love. And without that connection, we can’t fully express our love to others. As he tells us,

“Love, ladies and gentlemen, is the human family’s most precious legacy, its richest bequest, its golden inheritance. And it is a treasure that is handed down from one generation to another….  But if you don’t have that memory of being loved, you are condemned to search the world for something to fill you up. But no matter how much money you make or how famous you become, you will still feel empty. What you are really searching for is unconditional love, unqualified acceptance.”

The speech he gave that night was really quite revealing. He spoke about the emotional neglect of the children of today and the emotional neglect in his own childhood. And he got pretty emotional as he talked about forgiving his father because he didn’t want his own children to judge him too harshly one day for the choices he made in raising them.

“The strain and tension that exists in my relationship with my own father is well documented. My father is a tough man…. [He] had great difficulty showing me affection. He never really told me he loved me and he never really complimented me either. If I did a great show, he would tell me it was a good show. And if I did an OK show, he would say nothing….  My father was a managerial genius and my brothers and I owe our professional success, in no small measure, to the forceful way that he pushed us. He trained me as a showman and under his guidance I couldn’t miss a step. But what I really wanted was a Dad. I wanted a father who showed me love. And my father never did that….

But now I am a father myself, and one day I was thinking about my own children, Prince and Paris and how I wanted them to think of me when they grow  up….  And at that moment I pray that my children will give me the benefit of the doubt. That they will say to themselves, “Our daddy did the best he could, given the unique circumstances that he faced. He may not have been perfect, but he was a warm and decent man, who tried to give us all the love in the world.” I hope that they will always focus on the positive things, on the sacrifices I willingly made for them, and not criticize the things they had to give up, or the errors I’ve made, and will certainly continue to make, in raising them. For we have all been someone’s child, and we know that despite the very best of plans and efforts, mistakes will always occur. That’s just being human.

And when I think about this, of how I hope that my children will not judge me unkindly, and will forgive my shortcomings, I am forced to think of my own father. And despite my earlier denials, I am forced to admit that he must have loved me. He did love me, and I know that….  So tonight, rather than focusing on what my father didn’t do, I want to focus on all the things he did do and on his own personal challenges. I want to stop judging him.”

Willa:  Joie, that is so beautiful, and so heartbreakingly honest. And it’s a wonderful example of how Michael Jackson somehow miraculously combined a childlike vision of the world with a mature understanding. His words in that speech are not childish by any means – they are the words of a mature man who has experienced a lot of pain in his life. But that maturity is coupled with a childlike resilience, as well as a childlike yearning to love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven. Children seem to forgive so easily – they don’t become obsessed with the bitterness of the past the way adults often do – and that is another important lesson we need to learn from children.

Importantly, Michael Jackson didn’t just apply the lessons of childhood to his own life, but to the global possibilities of unlocking the secrets and creativity of childhood.  As he says in another except from “Childhood” on the Immortal album, “What we need to learn from children isn’t childish. They know the way to solutions that lie waiting to be recognized within our own hearts.”

I see this as the message of Jam as well. In the lyrics, he tells us we’re often hesitant to help each other because we’ve “been conditioned by the system.” But through the visuals of Jam, we see images of children – and adults – at play. They’re leaping, jumping rope, dancing, playing basketball. It’s this spirit of play, and the tremendous creativity we can access through play, that may one day help us solve the seemingly intractable problems we as a global community must face. As Michael Jackson sings in the opening lyrics,

Nation to Nation
All the world must come together
Face the problems that we see
Then maybe somehow we can work it out

In Journey of the Universe, Swimme and Tucker challenge us to imagine a utopian world where adults retain the wonder and imagination of children – not childish but childlike:

What if we could one day bring forth a species that could dwell in flexibility and resilience? What if, after a million years of mammalian existence, there appeared a species that could remain spontaneous, curious, astonished, compelled to try everything? What would happen then?

I think this is precisely the kind of world Michael Jackson envisioned – a world of love and creativity, where we are all artists and where we all retain our childlike wonder. And he tried to share this vision with us throughout his life and his work.

Joie: I think you’re right, Willa and I think he tried to tell us that in the lyrics to “Childhood” when he sang,

“Have you seen my childhood? I’m searching for the world that I come from. ‘Cause I’ve been looking around in the lost and found of my heart. No one understands me. They view it as strange eccentricities. ‘Cause I keep kidding around like a child, but pardon me.”

I think he once said in an interview that “Childhood” was one of the most autobiographical songs he’d ever written and if you listen to the words, it’s easy to understand why.

Well, Willa and I will be taking the next week off in order to enjoy the holiday so, this will be the final post of the year. But we will be back on January 5 with a brand new post!

 

Have You Seen My Childhood?

Joie:  This past weekend, Willa and I met up in Las Vegas to take in the Cirque du Soleil IMMORTAL show and, while we were there we couldn’t help thinking about Michael’s children, each of us for our own reasons. The kids were on my mind because they had made headlines recently when they saw the show, and Willa was thinking about them because Vegas is where Martin Bashir met them and filmed them for his infamous “documentary.” And before going to Vegas, we had already decided that we wanted to talk about Michael’s ideas about childhood for our Christmas post – it just seemed fitting somehow. So this week, since we were already thinking about children, and Michael’s children in particular, we wanted to share our thoughts on the subject.

Willa:  This is a really hard topic for us, though, because it is so very important to both of us to respect his children’s privacy. At the same time, childhood – and his own lost childhood, in particular – was a very important issue for him, and we can gain insights into what childhood means to him through his role as a parent. So this week we’re kind of walking a tightrope and trying to talk about this in a way that lets us elucidate some of these ideas without being too personal or invasive.

Joie:  That’s so funny, Willa. You said we’re walking on a tightrope and all I can picture is you and me and three baby elephants up on a tightrope, attempting to dance with each other! I just love that image; how cute! But, in all seriousness, it is very important to respect their privacy for many reasons. Mostly because that’s what Michael would have wanted.

Willa:  So I don’t want to go too much into personal matters, but there’s a scene in Martin Bashir’s documentary where he tells us we’re going to meet Michael Jackson’s children, and to be honest, as soon as I heard that I just dreaded the idea. I was streaming the interview in on YouTube, and I actually clicked the Pause button so I could get some water and prepare myself for it. From what we see of Bashir in the documentary, he is incredibly judgmental (that ceiling is “tacky,” that vase is too expensive, your lips look “very different” from when you were younger, and on and on). He can’t seem to observe anything without judging it, often in rather superficial ways, so you know what this meeting is going to be like. He’s going to pass judgment on these young children (you’re so pretty and handsome, your hair is so blond, you don’t look much like your daddy) and they’re going to feel self-conscious and awkward and weird, and I just dreaded it. I hate it when kids are put in uncomfortable situations like that, and to be honest, I was disappointed in Michael Jackson for allowing it. I thought it was a really bad decision.

Joie:  I was disappointed in him too, for the entire “documentary.” I just don’t understand how he could have been so taken in by that sleaze bag and allowed him such access to his life, to his children….  it just turns my stomach now when I think about how it all played out and, of course, what that whole association with Bashir eventually led to.

Willa:  The whole documentary is really hard to watch, and if I hadn’t been writing the book and felt like I needed to watch it, I wouldn’t have made it through – especially when Bashir announces he’s going to film his children. I really had to step away for a minute then. So I went and drank some water, came back to my computer, clicked the Play button, and watched with trepidation as Bashir met Michael Jackson’s two older children, who were about 3 and 4 years old at the time.

But it didn’t turn out at all the way I expected. There was a surprise:  the children were wearing masks. Bashir says to Prince, “That’s a really great mask” (a value judgment, of course – Bashir is so judgmental) and Prince replies in an excited voice, “It’s a butterfly!” and they have this discussion about Prince’s mask. To me, what’s most striking about this scene is that Prince seems perfectly comfortable talking to Bashir. He doesn’t seem embarrassed or self-conscious at all because Bashir isn’t passing judgments on him and his appearance, but on the mask he’s wearing. I watched that scene and thought, Michael Jackson was the wisest parent those kids could possibly have had for the very public life they were born into.

A lot of commentators have been talking about how centered and grounded his children are, typically adding that celebrity kids are rarely as well-adjusted as they are. And it seems obvious to me that this strong sense of self didn’t happen by accident. Rather, they had a thoughtful father who knew what it was like to grow up in a white hot spotlight, and he protected them as best he could. And I personally think those masks were one of the kindest things he ever did for his kids. Those masks protected their identities from kidnappers, but even more importantly, they protected their psyches from the intrusive comments of insensitive people like Martin Bashir.

Joie:  You know, Willa, I am so happy you brought that up because this is something that I have felt for a very long time. The general public – and the media for sure – always tried to make that such a weird, bizarre thing. Some even went so far as to call it cruel of Michael to force his children to wear masks or veils over their faces in public.

Willa:  Though his kids have said they thought it was fun, and enjoyed trying out different masks.

Joie:  That’s true, they did find it fun when they were little. But to me it was always the smartest, most compassionate thing he ever could have done for them. You mentioned that the masks protected the children’s identities from kidnappers – and that was the explanation originally given by both Michael and Debbie when the children were very young. But knowing that Michael usually had a very sane and logical reason for every perceived crazy thing he did, I always suspected there was more to it than that.

In essence, Michael was completely aware that his children were in danger of living their lives in a fishbowl like he did, simply because he was their father. So in order to give them some tiny semblance of normalcy, he covered their faces when they went out in public with him. And this was a brilliant move because whenever the children ventured out in public without him – which they frequently did with the nanny – they didn’t wear masks. There was no need to because no one knew they were his children! Michael understood that it would be difficult for the paparazzi to stalk his kids if they didn’t know what his kids looked like, so he made sure that they didn’t! And everyone got so caught up in the “bizarre” way these children were being raised and they questioned Michael’s parenting abilities. But meanwhile, no one ever saw a snapshot of Prince or Paris on the cover of some tabloid when they were little, did they? I mean, did the world really need to know what 3-year-old Suri Cruise was wearing or who Shilo Jolie-Pitt played with on her playdate? Give me a break! There was a certain brilliance to Michael’s madness when it came to protecting his children’s privacy and I thought it was an amazingly smart thing to do. It wasn’t until people began paying attention to the nanny and watching for her to be out with her charges that pics of their faces began to trickle out, and even then it was sporadic at best.

And I love what you said about commentators taking note of how grounded and centered Michael’s children are and I agree with you completely. That doesn’t happen by accident. Children have to be taught how to be respectful and polite and Michael really did that. Since his death, we’ve heard report after report from various people about how truly unspoiled Prince, Paris and Blanket are and that says a great deal about Michael’s parenting skills. You know, in his book, Frank Cascio talks a lot about how Michael went out of his way to be a ‘hands on’ father and raise his children right – even, at times, sending the nanny away in order to take care of them all on his own. It was obviously very important to him.

Willa:  I agree. He approached parenthood in a very considered and thoughtful way, just as he approached most things he did. You know, Michael Jackson had an incredibly expressive voice with an amazing range and timbre and texture, but there are other singers with beautiful voices. He was also a wonderful dancer who inspired a whole generation of young dancers, but again, there are other dancers who can move their bodies somewhat the way he moved his. He was an innovative and intelligent filmmaker, but while others may not have the same vision he had, there are other intelligent, innovative filmmakers.

But for me, what sets Michael Jackson apart from every other artist is his tremendous empathy for those without a voice (and as Julie commented several weeks ago, “Children have always been the most voiceless and marginalized human beings in every culture around the world”) and his immense emotional intelligence. He could touch an audience in ways no one else could because he had deep psychological insights into the workings of the human heart and mind. And we see this emotional intelligence in the thoughtful way he raised his children.

I’m going to go off on a tangent for a minute, but I think it’s important. There was a French psychoanalyst and theorist named Jacques Lacan who developed a new model of human psychological development. His ideas are pretty complicated and I’m not a Lacan scholar by any means, but as I understand it, one aspect of his model is that our personalities are formed by a series of losses.

The first is the loss of the mother, or other primary caregiver. When we’re first born, our world is undifferentiated, without borders or boundaries. We don’t know that we are a person – we don’t know where “I” as a person ends and “you” as a person begin – we simply experience the world as a fog of sensory inputs:  I’m warm, I’m cold, I’m hungry, I’m fed, I’m wet, I’m dry, I’m content, I’m discontent. Except there is no “I” – just sensation.

Gradually the infant becomes aware that his or her mother is a separate being, a separate entity. That’s a profound moment in the child’s development and helps initiate the infant’s sense of identity. But it’s also a huge loss because if your mother is separate from you, that also means she can go away and leave you. So this loss creates anxiety as well as identity.

The second big loss is the loss of a unified sense of self, though it’s complicated since the sense of self is still being formed. But as I understand it, Lacan suggests that around 6 to 18 months of age, a baby first enters the mirror stage. This mirror can be a literal mirror or it can be the gaze of the mother or father or caregiver, but in many different subtle ways, babies this age become aware of themselves as reflected in mirrors and in the faces and minds of those around them, and this creates tremendous joy as well as anxiety, and a different level of consciousness.

This process begins in infancy and extends throughout our lives to some degree, and Lacan suggests that the “gaze” and our awareness of how we appear to other people is very significant in our psychological development. My son is 13, and I can see a new self-consciousness in him that wasn’t there when he was younger. A friend his age was always a very confident little girl, but now she’s going through an awkward phase where she’s painfully self-conscious. In fact, it seems that a lot of the gawkiness of teenagers isn’t just their changing bodies but their growing awareness that other people are looking at them. It’s like they are developing a double consciousness – a growing sense of how others see them as compared to how they see and experience themselves. As with the loss of the mother, this loss of a unified sense of self is very painful, but it’s a loss that helps create identity as well as anxiety.

Joie:  That’s all very interesting, Willa. And it certainly explains that awkward stage we all go through as pre-teens and teenagers. I remember my own young-adulthood and how difficult that time was. I was all legs and arms back then and not exactly part of the ‘in’ crowd. Yikes! And it makes me think about Michael and how difficult that time was for him too with his acne. He said that during that time in his life he actually stopped looking in mirrors because he hated the way he looked. But if we look at this according to Lacan’s model, Michael probably also hated the way he felt others saw him, not just the way he saw himself. I know that for me, this was certainly the case.

Willa:  Oh boy, Joie, I know what you mean about “all legs and arms.” My mom actually started calling me “Grace” for a while because I could hardly walk across a room without tripping over my own feet, and I went from being one of the best gymnasts on my gymnastics team to one of the worst. There’s a reason Olympic gymnasts tend to be 12 years old. I just couldn’t seem to keep track of all these long arms and legs I was suddenly supposed to use. And imagine what it must have been like for Michael Jackson, to have to sing and dance on stage with all those people watching his every move. Talk about being hyper aware of a public “gaze” – he was the object of worldwide attention at a terribly self-conscious life stage. That had to be an incredibly difficult time for him, on many different levels.

So I’ve been thinking about all this a lot lately, especially in terms of Lacan’s ideas of the “gaze” and the huge impact it has on our sense of self, because I think for child stars like Michael Jackson or Elizabeth Taylor or Shirley Temple or Emmanuel Lewis or Liza Minnelli or Jane Fonda or Tatum O’Neal or Brooke Shields or Sean Lennon or Macaulay Culkin or a lot of the child stars Michael Jackson befriended over his life, this process happens far too quickly and far too intensely, and it’s extremely painful. Child stars don’t just see themselves reflected in mirrors but on movie screens and tabloid photos – not just reflected in the eyes of parents and grandparents who love them, but also in the eyes of snarky critics who may dislike them or audiences who may grow tired of them and turn against them.

Macaulay Culkin talked about the pressures of being a child star in an interview about his close relationship with Michael Jackson:

“I can describe our friendship and I can explain Michael’s bond with children, but no matter what I say, you can never understand. Unless you have been through what Michael and I have been through, you just can’t comprehend what it’s like… We understood each other because we’ve both been there.”

I think this intense pressure and intense awareness of the public “gaze” is a large part of what Michael Jackson was talking about when he said he lost his childhood. It’s not just that he didn’t have time to play, but that to some degree he lost his ability to play – to experience life in a carefree way without constantly wondering what other people thought of him – and once you become self-conscious like that, you can never truly shake it. It’s a one-way street, and child stars are forced to experience it too early and too intensely. Remember, Michael Jackson began performing at 5 and had a Motown contract by 10, and Motown groomed him and his brothers very thoroughly, telling them to always act properly because the public was always watching them, and drilling them with lessons on how to speak and dress and behave so the public would perceive them in a positive way and like them.

As an adult Michael Jackson said he loved being with children because they didn’t judge him, either positively or negatively. They just accepted him and played with him, and he could lose that painful self-awareness for a time. When he was with children, he could regain some approximation of that experience of childhood that he lost way too soon. And I think he fiercely tried to protect his children from losing their childhoods the same way he lost his.

Joie:  I think you’re right; he did try extremely hard to give his children the carefree childhood he missed out on, and that process of self-awareness does happen way too quickly and too harshly for child stars.

You know, Paris has been in the news a lot the past two weeks because it’s been announced that she’s landed her first film role in a movie called Lundon’s Bridge and the Three Keys. And every time I post a new piece of news to the MJFC website about it, I can’t help but think about Michael and wonder how he would feel about his only little girl, his baby that he tried so hard to protect from the harshness of the entertainment industry, suddenly stepping so blindly into that spotlight at such a young age. I know that he would be so proud of all of her accomplishments; but I also think that part of him would just cringe at the thought.

Willa:  I know what you mean, Joie, though I remember he specifically said at some point that he wouldn’t push his children to become performers, but if it were something they wanted to do, he would let them. It’s always so difficult as parents to find that balance between protecting your kids and supporting them as they stretch themselves and try new things. You hate to see them get hurt, but if you never let them run the risk of failure, then they’ll never learn what they’re truly capable of and they’ll never reach their full potential. So you have to let children push themselves to the limits of what they can do – and maybe push too far and fail sometimes – but you also want to protect them and do everything you can to help them succeed. It’s just a constant negotiation. And I imagine it’s all the more difficult with celebrity children because their successes and failures are so public, and the stakes so much higher.

Joie:  Yes, that was during his interview with Barbara Walters right after the death of Princess Diana that he made that comment. And he also said during that interview that he would make very certain that his children understood exactly what they were in for if they decided to go down that road. Only he’s not here anymore to help guide them and advise them and that thought just makes me very sad for so many reasons.

But, I understand what you’re saying about it being a constant negotiation. I’ve never raised children but, I can imagine how your heart would simply bleed for them as you watched them work and strive and struggle toward some goal, whatever that goal may be. And Paris is such a beautiful girl and she seems like a very smart, very capable young lady to me. And she appears to have inherited her Daddy’s charisma and charm so, I’m sure she’ll do very well. And again, I know Michael would be incredibly proud of her.