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A Tour of Neverland with Brad Sundberg, Part 2

Lisha: In Part 1 of our tour through Neverland Valley Ranch, Brad Sundberg gave us a detailed look at the first third of Michael Jackson’s incredible home, including the guard gate, the magical “ornate gate,” the train stations, the pastures, the water features, the guest villas, and the main house. Neverland guests would usually drive a mile or so onto the property to reach the ornate gate. From there, they could park their cars and walk through that gate, boarding a train that transported them to the next section of the property. This meant most guests would bypass the main residence altogether. Is that right, Brad?

Brad: Yes, most people wouldn’t go into the main house. That was really Michael’s private home. But VIP guests would certainly stay there, and if he wanted to bring his friends in there, that was for him to do whatever he wanted.

But then you keep going to that second third, the middle section, and that was the amusement park. And that’s what people have seen all the aerial photos of. I’ve had guests at my seminars who went there on special days. They got to go to the park. So if you were going to go to Neverland as a guest, that’s probably what you were going to see.

That’s where the theater was – that big beautiful theater on the left side of the valley.

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And it really was a valley. Going back to my surfboard analogy, it would be like laying a surfboard down and having hills on either side of it. You just didn’t go up into those hills that much, unless you had a motorcycle or a horse or something. Most of the activity was down in the valley.

The bulk of our work was building all the music and all the systems for the park. We had a small stage there, where you could have a barbershop quartet or something. We had the Zipper and the bumper cars and the Ferris wheel and the carousel, and it just seemed like it was never going to stop. He would add one ride, and a month later he’d call me and say he’d bought another ride, and could I start coming up with some ideas for it.

Lisha: So he would call and talk to you in terms of what you were going to do with the rides musically, right?

Brad: Yeah, or I would go up there and we would have a meeting in his library, or he loved to have meetings in the castle. And he’d roll some plans out and start talking about what’s coming next. He was very specific.

It was kind of a cool relationship where he would – and it certainly was not just with me, I think Tony would say something very similar, or different people who worked up there – he would kind of tell us what he wanted to do, but then he wanted our ideas. You know, could we do this? Or what do you think of this? It wasn’t a dictatorship, by any means. Like I say, if you’re going to work with Michael, you’ve got to bring something to the table. You can’t just kind of sit there and wait for orders. You’ve got to contribute some ideas.

Willa: So he wanted your ideas about what kinds of sounds to provide? Or how to provide them? Or … ?

Brad: Well, I’ll give you a goofy example. Michael wanted music everywhere. Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. He did not want a place on that ranch where it would just be quiet. So he came to me one day and said “I bought a Ferris wheel.” I said, “Of course you did. Why wouldn’t you?” And he said, “I want music on the Ferris wheel.”

Well, I’m a guy. I understand geometry and electronics and physics, and all these things make perfect sense to me. So I’m thinking about a Ferris wheel, and you’re picturing a wheel that’s turning. And then on that wheel there are 16 little wheels that are all turning. But you can’t get wire anywhere, because after two rotations the wire is twisted up and it’s going to break.

Willa: Oh! I didn’t think about that.

Brad: So, I don’t want to bore you with too much stuff. But with lights and things like that, you can have big pieces of copper and brushes that get the power across to the next set of wheels. But music is a whole different animal. It gets really tricky trying to have stereo speakers and wires.

So we came up with this whole complicated scheme of having a battery pack in each car, and a radio receiver and an amplifier and speakers, and then we would transmit music up to each car. And I designed the whole thing for him, and I said I can do this. But I said, good grief, Michael, the cost of this, and having to charge batteries and all the headache involved. I said, just let people take a breath! Let them just get to the top of the wheel and they can see the park, they can hear everything, they can hear kids laughing. We don’t have to flood them with more music.

And luckily, he agreed, because I didn’t want to build that. I was just like, this is the craziest thing I’ve ever designed. And it would have worked! I had a pretty good design. But, the point being, that he would listen. It was really nice when I could edit once in a while and say, just because we can doesn’t mean we should. So he was good about that. He gave me a tremendous amount of freedom.

And I’m actually going to elaborate on one point. I was a kid! I mean, I’m five years younger than Michael, and we build Neverland when I was in my 20s and into my 30s for the bulk of that work. So I’m working with him and Bruce in the studio, you know, for weeks and weeks and months and months. And then, once a project is done, he’s yanking me up there, and we’re building stuff up there. And this is Michael Jackson! He could have hired the best audio company in L.A. He could have flown people in from Berlin if he wanted. And the fact that he let me do it, and he trusted me, to this day it really humbles me, and it means so much to me.

I didn’t get rich. I was too dumb! I was charging a fair price but I was learning. He let me learn at Neverland, and that’s something I’ll never forget. He gave me a tremendous amount of freedom, and in return I gave blood, sweat, and tears. There’s not a single project that I did at Neverland that I wasn’t proud of. We really, really gave everything we had at that ranch. And I wasn’t the only one. But I’ve always been really proud of the fact that he trusted me that much. So, I’ll get off my soapbox but…

Lisha: I can definitely see why he valued you so much.

Brad: It’s something that I value to this day.

So, all through the ranch – and we’ll get to the zoo in a few minutes – but everything I’ve been describing to you, there’s always music. And Michael would hand-pick, well, he hand-picked probably 80 percent of the music. He had a playlist, and he would call me and say ok, I want you to make a CD, and I want this song and this song and this song.

And then he would repeat himself. He loved the song “Carol Anne’s Theme” from Poltergeist. It’s kind of haunting and beautiful. So he wanted “Carol Anne’s Theme” to play twice – not twice in a row, but he’d do “Carol Anne’s Theme,” and like then “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, and then some Debussy, and then he’d want “Carol Anne’s Theme” again. And I’d say, Michael, we just did that. We just played that song 9 minutes ago. And he’d say, No, but it’s so beautiful I want it again. And you couldn’t argue with him!  It made no sense, but it worked!

And you’d hear music everywhere. You’d get on the trains, and there he gave me a little more freedom. I could kind of play what I wanted, but it was always classical. We never had Michael music. That was absolutely forbidden.

Lisha: Here’s the playlist Brad shared with us at his seminar and on Facebook:

Neverland playlist from Brad Sundberg

Brad: Now in the later years, I’m told that people would go there after 2004, 2003, 2005, and they’ve told me it was Michael music everywhere, which is a little disappointing because that’s never what he wanted. He was so clear about the fact that he did not want his music played anywhere on the ranch.

So you’d just have this wash of music, and you didn’t know where it was coming from. It was just everywhere.

Willa: So was it the same playlist playing everywhere you went? Or would like different rides at the amusement park have different music?

Brad: Yeah, the rides were different. So as you’re walking or on a train or something, it’s the same lush beautiful music. But then on every ride we had very specific music just for that ride. And he would pick almost all of that music. So we would have to build these enormous sound systems. And I’m a carnival junkie. I love carnivals. I love Disneyland. We had annual passes to Disneyland before it was cool. So I love that kind of stuff. So yeah, the carousel, for example – on that one he would want Janet. That was when Rhythm Nation was huge. So we had a couple of Janet songs that we played on the carousel.

On the Zipper, which was his favorite ride … Do you know what the Zipper is?

Lisha:  Yeah, do you, Willa?

Willa:  Isn’t it kind of like a double Ferris wheel, but it flips you upside down?

Brad:  Yeah, it’s just the craziest, most awesome ride. That was his favorite ride, the Zipper, and for whatever reason he loved the song, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes. And good grief, everybody who would ride that ride would have to hear that song over and over and over again. It didn’t really make sense, but it was Michael! And you just had to accept it. This is what he likes.

I think in a certain way, he was very … um, what word am I looking for? Not predictable, but he liked routine. I haven’t really thought about this before, but I think there was something about, I’m on the Zipper so I’m going to hear “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” And that’s just what it was. You didn’t change it. You didn’t adjust it. It’s what he wanted.

Willa: Earlier you said something that was so fascinating. You said that going through the security gate and driving up past the sagebrush and going through the ornate gate – you said it was like the introduction to a song. And now it almost seems like, with the amusement park, you’re kind of getting some of the verses, the different verses of the song.

Brad: Yeah. I don’t want to try to get too poetic on it or anything. But Neverland really did have kind of a beginning, middle, and end, like a song. In the beginning you had the ornate gate, this “where am I?” moment, this beautiful entrance.

And then you’d get to the theme park, and that was just craziness: the superslide and the bumper cars and the Sea Dragon and music pounding from everywhere. And the theater was right there, and it was big and dramatic and bold.

And then maybe later in the day you’d go up to the zoo. And the zoo was much more soothing. So yeah in a sense, it was almost like an intro, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, fade-out.

Willa: Oh, that’s fascinating! That’s really fascinating.

Brad: Michael loved drama. You could experience Neverland in a full day, and at the end of the day you’re up petting a giraffe and feeding a duck or something, and it’s calm again. It’s very, very soothing.

So yeah. Whether it’s was by design or by accident – I kind of lean toward design – it really worked out to be a unique experience for a lot of people.

Lisha: That is fascinating, and how it would unfold in a certain way, a kind of calculated way.

Brad: Yes. Now having said that, we had plenty of screw-ups! We would try anything. He wanted to do these goofy, you know, like at Disneyworld, the little autopia cars? Little go-karts basically. Well, we had this elaborate go-kart track that ran up the side of the mountain over by the superslide. And it was beautiful! I mean it was paved, and I have no idea the amount of time and money that was put into building this go-kart track. This was not some little figure 8. This was legit – up the side of a mountain and under the trees. It was beautiful!

And the stupid cars weren’t strong enough to take people up the side of the hill, especially the adults, and people would be out pushing the cars!  I’m not sure why we didn’t get bigger engines, but I think at that point they’d spent so much money that they had to cut their losses. So they moved the go-karts down to a flat track behind the theater. It wasn’t nearly as cool, but at least they didn’t have to have people out of their cars pushing them.

Willa: As a mom, I think having kids driving cars with big engines might be a safety issue!

Brad: Yeah, there were a lot of things that you just kind of had to bite your bottom lip and go “I hope nobody dies on this thing!” But, uh…

Willa: Oh no!

Brad: I’m kind of kidding! But you’ve probably seen pictures of the superslide. The slide was hysterical. It’s one of those big, yellow… I think it had four lanes or something like that.

Well, for Michael, nothing can ever be normal. It has to be, just crank it up to level eleven. So they found some Teflon spray or something. I don’t know if they got the stuff from NASA or where it came from. But you’d sit in a gunny sack, and they’d spray the sack with this spray … and it was terrifying! I mean I love any of this stuff, but you would go so fast you’d go airborne over those bumps and think you were going to break your back and be paralyzed! And Michael would just laugh until he’d almost pee his pants. Especially for someone like me who, you know, I’m not a small guy. And I would go down that thing, it seemed like 90 miles an hour, just bouncing from hill to hill.

Willa: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh!

Brad: It’s like, you’re going to kill somebody! Or another one was the bumper cars. I loved the bumper cars. And we’ve been pretty fortunate. We travel quite a bit, and so we’ve been in Europe several times. And I’m sorry, I’m a weirdo. I still, if there’s a theme park within 40 miles, I’m going to go to it. That’s just how I am. I could care less about a museum, but get me to a theme park.

And so we were at Tivoli, which was one of Michael’s favorite parks, in Copenhagen. This was just a couple of years ago, after Michael had passed. They had bumper cars there and it was the weirdest thing, because I was like thrown back to Neverland.

In Europe, and I’m not trying to stereotype, but there are just very different standards than in the US. I mean, it’s full speed ahead, smashing into people and thinking you’re about to knock your teeth out, where in the US everything is safety related and OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] regulated and everybody has to be safe.

Well, Michael didn’t really have a whole lot of OSHA going on up there. So his bumper cars were outrageously fast. They would just go. You’d think you were going to kill yourself! Then we’d fill that tent with smoke and black lights and strobe lights, and then a huge sound system. We had Joe Santriani – that was usually the sound track in there – and then these bumper cars would just go full speed ahead. And the same thing: Michael would just die laughing! It was, I hate to say it, but it was borderline dangerous. But it was so much fun you just didn’t care.

So I can’t talk about every single ride, but the other thing that I thought was really cool in the theme park was the castle. I don’t know if people have seen pictures of it. If you go way back, I’ve got some really cool pictures of the park when it was being built, and it used to be a tree house. Michael used to go up and watch people from the tree house, and it was cool but it wasn’t that big a deal.

Well, we had so much equipment coming in that we had to have a place for all of our power and our racks and amps and everything. So we decided to build a room on the bottom of the treehouse. Well, once again this is Michael Jackson, and you can’t do anything normal. So somehow that quickly escalated into the castle.

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And so nobody ever got to go into the bottom of the castle because it was just an equipment room, and that’s where we kept all of our gear. But there was a big deck up on the side of the castle. And then above that, to one side was an office. And it was a really cool room that Michael could have meetings in. We’d sit up there and talk about rides that were going to come in. Or if he had to make a phone call or something, he could run up there. There’s no cell service at Neverland, and back then cell phones were pretty crude anyway. So it was just kind of a place where he could stay connected. You know, if he had some VIPs and they just wanted to get away, they could have lunch in the castle or something. It was just so unique and so different – a really, really beautiful little piece of architecture.

Then all through the park were the Disney animated butterflies, and the elephant that at night would kind of spray water in the air, but it wasn’t water. It was just lights.

And that’s another thing. During the day, the park was fun. It was an amusement park like nobody’s backyard anywhere. But at night, we would light that place up with, I don’t know if it would be millions, but tens of thousands of little twinkling lights in the trees.

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In fact, I swear this is true. I shouldn’t swear, but I believe this is true. There’s these gigantic oak trees all through Neverland. All through the park I should say.

Willa: They’re the trees you see in the Say, Say, Say video, right? It was filmed there.

Brad: Was it?

Willa: Yes. So those big oak trees you see in the Say, Say, Say video, that’s at Neverland.

Brad: Ok. Well, those were covered, and I mean covered, with little twinkling lights – you know, the little tiny lights. And each tree had what’s called a 200-amp service. And now your music people just went to sleep when I say that, but that’s the equivalent of a normal size house in America. A normal size house gets 200 amps of electricity. That’s how much power those goofy trees needed for all the lights in them.

Lisha: That’s per tree?

Brad: That’s what I’m told. You know, I don’t want to take a lie detector test. But it was just enormous power that was feeding that ranch.

But that’s where all the lights came from. We didn’t have any street lights. It was all either lights in trees or lights from the amusement park, and that was it. And at night … I’ve been to some beautiful places, but Neverland at night ranks up so high. When it was in its prime and the rides were going, and the music was going, and it was lit up, I would pretty much put it right up with being in the middle of Disneyland, or Paris. It was really, really, really a magical place.

Willa: It sounds beautiful.

Lisha: A lot of the things that we’re talking about, such as the train system, and the park, and the flowers, and the clocks, and things like that, remind me so much of Walt Disney. And we know that Michael Jackson was a huge admirer of Walt Disney, who continually blurred the line between reality and fantasy with art and animation, until he finally built Disneyland. And the idea of Disneyland was that you were going to step into these fantasy worlds that he had previously created through art.

Brad: Stories, yes.

Lisha: It sounds like to me that Michael Jackson’s Neverland is so similar, and I’m just wondering about your take on that. You know Disneyland very well and you’ve also actually been on the ranch and know that very well too. But was there some kind of fundamental difference between those places?

Brad: Well let’s see. At Disneyland you’ve got 70,000 people on a crowded day, and at Neverland there were a couple hundred – that would be one difference! I mean, they were different experiences, obviously. Neverland was breathtakingly remarkable for somebody’s backyard. Yeah, it wasn’t Disneyland, but for being able to step out in your pajamas and go out to that park was just – and I’m not saying I did that – but that experience was unlike anything else.

Michael knew that I loved Disneyland and I’ve been a Disney fan my whole life. Brace yourself for something really syrupy, but I even proposed to my wife on the steamboat to Disneyland.

Willa: Oh, really!

Brad: Yeah, actually that was the same year that I met Michael. So we kind of had our little Disney connection. We never went to Disneyland together. We always talked about it, but for him to go was such an ordeal. So he would always ask me about it, and what was new, and what he should go see.

So yeah. Neverland – there were certainly, I guess you’d call them nods or tributes to Disney all over the place. And vice versa. I mean the Imagineers did more work than I really knew about at Neverland, like the animated figurines. When you went inside the theater, there were the two dioramas. One of them was Pinocchio, and the other one was Cinderella. And you’d push a button and these things would come to life – there were lights and music and motion and everything. And I believe those came from the Imagineers. I think Michael commissioned those to be built. So yeah, there was no shortage of nods to Disney.

Willa: I just found this video clip of the Pinocchio diorama, filmed when it was scheduled to go up for auction. I’m afraid the video quality isn’t very high, but it gives an idea of what happened when you pushed the button:

Lisha: That’s so interesting! I found a photo of the Cinderella diorama, which depicts the moment the Fairy Godmother turns Cinderella’s rags into a beautiful ballgown.

Cinderella diorama 3

So both of these displays are focused on transformation: the moment when Pinocchio is magically transformed from a puppet into a real boy, and when Cinderella is transformed from a household servant into a princess.

Willa: That’s a fascinating observation, Lisha! – especially since transformations were such a recurring theme in Michael Jackson’s work. For example, I noticed there’s a small scene from the Smooth Criminal segment of Moonwalker tucked into a corner of the Pinocchio diorama, which I imagine the Imagineers added as a little surprise. It seems a little out of place here, but at the same time it’s kind of appropriate since Moonwalker is full of transformations. For example, the main character, Michael, transforms into a sports car, and a robot, and a space ship, and there are psychological transformations as well. (By the way, there are also a lot of tarantulas in Moonwalker, which reminds me of what you were saying earlier, Brad, about the tarantulas on Figueroa Mountain Road.)

Lisha: Brad, do you remember how Michael Jackson felt about his own image being added to the Pinocchio diorama?

Brad:  My recollection is that Michael did not like the Smooth Criminal in the diorama, as he had very few images of himself in the public areas of Neverland.

Another thing you said that I kind of thought about for a second, about how at Disneyland you would step into the stories or the movies. You know, Michael could have done kind of a Michael Jacksonland where the bumper cars would – you know, I’m just talking completely silly – but we could have themed things, like the Thriller bumper cars or something, and had “Thriller” playing and a bunch of zombies.

He would never in a million years have done something like that. Nor would I have suggested it. That’s not what he wanted. He wanted something that kids would love and appreciate, as well as adults. If anything, there was almost a noticeable absence of anything Michael Jackson at Neverland, except Michael. Does that make sense?

Lisha:  Absolutely.

Willa: It seems like he was really trying to create this fantasy experience, and the fantasies he drew on are all kind of nostalgic kid stories, like the teepee village, and cowboys – you said the people at the zoo dressed like cowboys – and the steam engine. They’re all evoking nostalgic kid’s stories and imagination games that boys, especially, used to play in the past.

Brad: Well, if there was one theme all through Neverland, it was Peter Pan. Obviously it’s called Neverland, so there is clue number one. It’s funny – I wrote a post on Facebook about this several months ago. You know, people send me pictures, and I’ve got a pretty amazing collection of pictures now from Neverland that people have shared with me. And I was going through a bunch of them one day, and there was a picture that just stopped me in my tracks.

Out behind the house there was kind of an office. And in that office, kind of looking out at the barbecue area on the back side of the house, was this Peter Pan figure. It was probably 24 inches tall, maybe 30 inches tall – something like that. And whenever I walked by it, I would always notice it. It didn’t move. There was nothing special about it. It was just this cool figurine of Peter with his hands on his hips and his little goofy hat and everything, just kind of proudly looking out at the backyard and the barbecue area.

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And it always was just like, you know what? That is the coolest thing. And even though Michael’s got Rolls Royces and a steam train and everything you can imagine, there was something about that Peter Pan that just struck me. That may have been my favorite little part of the ranch. Because it was him. I mean Michael saw himself as Peter Pan. We didn’t talk about it. I mean, I don’t want to make it sound nutty. But you know Michael just had that Peter Pan connection.

When somebody sent me that picture, it just put a little bit of a lump in my throat because it was just a really cool memory from Neverland.

Willa: The teepee village is another Peter Pan reference. I mean, there’s a teepee village in Peter Pan – that’s part of the story.

Brad: Oh yeah. And in the big train station, up in the ceiling of the station, was this kind of a flying, it wasn’t full motion, but it was Peter Pan and a couple of the other characters. They were kind of suspended up there on string or rods or something. So they were flying above you when you walked into the train station.

Willa: Oh cool! I was just looking at an interesting post that had images of Peter Pan and Tinkerbell battling Captain Hook at Neverland. Were these up in the rafters of the train station?

captain hook and peter pan in rafters of train station 2

captain hook statue in train station

Brad: Yes, great photos! There was something I was going to mention about the big train station a few minutes ago. Michael would have huge groups of guests, especially if his whole family came up. The ranch house itself was pretty funny because I think it only had four bedrooms, maybe five. There weren’t that many rooms. And there were only like five guest houses. Well, his family is huge, and then he’s going to have friends and different people. So [Brad] Buxer told me that they would actually have people sleep in the train station.

Willa: Really?

Brad: Oh, they’d sleep everywhere! They’d sleep in the theater – they’d be all over the place. But the train station was really just supposed to be a train station. There was never any forethought of needing beds in there. So I don’t know if they’d sleep on air mattresses or something. But there was no bathroom! And so Buxer talks about … I don’t know if it was the brothers, Tito or whoever – you know, if you wake up in the middle of the night you’d have to walk all the way down to the house to use the bathroom. Nobody ever thought about, gee, you might want to put a bathroom in here because people might sleep here. It was just supposed to be, come in, get some candy, and get on the train.

But Michael lived there, man, and that was his house. It was not a little stopover!

Willa: And the train station – that’s something he added, right? It wasn’t part of Sycamore Valley Ranch when he bought it?

Brad: Correct. The first time I went – I always get, you know, little giggles from some of my guests in the seminars when I talk about this – but my very first job at Neverland was putting music in the bedroom, in his room. So I put big speakers on either side of his bed, and I was pulling cables and built this cool little system in the bedroom.

And there was really not a whole lot else there. I mean there was the main house, and then there were the pastures way in the back. I don’t know when the theater was built, but I think he built that soon after he bought the place. I didn’t build the theater. Lee Tucker from Warner Studios built that. But then I wound up doing just about all the other projects.

So to kind of get to the third section – when you’re finally done with the park, usually guests could jump on the train, either the big train or the little train, and then go up to the zoo. Or you could walk up there. In fact, as the park kept growing, it kept getting closer and closer to the zoo. So if you go back to my surfboard analogy, the top of that middle circle started creeping up towards the far one, which was the zoo.

So then you get up to the zoo. The petting zoo was really cool. Everything was beautiful. I mean, it was manicured like nobody’s business. People were sweeping and cleaning. The petting zoo was one of the later additions. We didn’t have that for the first few years. In the early years, I think it was just… The elephants were pretty early. Kimba the lion was pretty early. Most guests didn’t get to see Kimba. Kimba was kind of kept up the hill a little bit because he was so mad at life!

Willa:  Oh no!

Brad:  He was just not a friendly animal. But if you went to the ranch early in the morning or right around sunset, that’s when Kimba was going to get fed. And that animal would roar, and it would scare you to death!  I mean, you could hear that roar two miles away. It was just this beautiful, angry, cool roar.

I don’t want to make it sound like like he was mistreated in any way because he wasn’t, but he was just not soft and cuddly, “come play with me.” I mean, he was just a … He was tough. So we kind of kept him a little further away from the kids, because you didn’t want to terrify them.

But we had the horse barn. We had the snake barn. That was another just complete work of art, in a weird way.

Lisha: The snake barn?

Brad: Yeah, the reptile barn they called it. It was right across the street. Now you’re way up in the zoo. And this is where the fire department is. Neverland always had, I believe, two full-time firefighters in the fire station. That was required by the county, if I’m not mistaken. Right across the road from them was the horse barn, and then the snake barn.

You’d go into the snake barn, and the first room was all of these cages. It’s funny how I think about this stuff, because the first room was kind of not that impressive. You’d go in and it was full of terrariums – almost like going to a science fair or something. And it’s kind of cool – it’s like, ok, there’s a lizard and there’s a snake and there’s hissing cockroaches. It was kind of like, yeah ok, I’m good. Let’s get out of here.

But then you go through a second set of doors – I never really thought about this before – and all the sudden you’re in a different place.

Willa: You know, it kind of reminds me of what you were saying earlier about going through the first gates and it’s not that impressive. But then you go through the ornate gates and, Wow! Now you’re in a different world.

Brad: Yeah! I swear, I’m not making this up! But I’ve never really thought about it before. I always kind of thought the first room was kind of like, yawn, whatever. But that was where you were welcomed. And we had these little – we called them spiels – which is like a little 30-second recording, you know, just like at Disneyland: keep your hands and arms inside the car at all times, permanecer sentado, por favor!

In this room, you’d walk in, and I recorded one of the the animal trainers. His name was Brock, not to be confused with Brick [Price], but Brock. We had Brick and Brock! And Brock just had this beautiful deep bass voice, you know, “Welcome to…” I can’t even do it – I don’t have a voice that deep. But it would be something like, “Welcome to the reptile barn. In this room we hope to teach you about unique creatures from all over the world. Please don’t tap on the cages.”

Willa:  Here’s an audio clip of that spiel that I found in a post on your Facebook page.

Brad: Yeah, and then you’d go through a second set of doors, and there was this dark, really cool hallway. It was just a long hallway all the way to the end of the barn. And then on either side of the hallway were these beautiful glass terrariums, and that’s not even the right word. These were enclosures. I mean, they were probably six feet wide, something like that, and I don’t know, three or four feet deep by five feet tall. I mean, they were big. And for some of the big snakes, they were even bigger than that. That’s where we had the rattlesnakes and the cobras and the reticulated python and Madonna, the albino python. And they were beautiful! 

Lisha:  Here’s a picture of “Madonna”:

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Brad: I think they had one full-time snake handler, and at least one or two assistants. Now we’re not at the science fair anymore. Now we’re in a full blown, almost like a Sea World type environment. Those enclosures were beautiful – hand-painted, with water. They were really, really something to see. And then each enclosure would have its own little narrative telling a little 30-second story about that snake and where it came from.

But then Michael wanted to … Actually, I think this was my idea. I said, “Can I have a little bit of fun in here?” And he’s like, “Yeah, whatever you want to do.” So I put these hidden speakers all through the length of the hallway, down by people’s feet. It was kind of dark in there, and we had crickets sounds, and it was kind of … not creepy, but it was very authentic. And I did some recording in my front yard, of all places. I had ivy in my front yard instead of grass, so I pulled a cooler – like an Igloo cooler with a rope on it – I pulled it across the ivy and recorded that sound. Then I put that onto a play-back chip.

And about every nine or ten minutes people would be in the snake barn, and they’d be looking at snakes and kind of looking around. Then they’d hear this rustling at the far end of the hallway, and it would just go whizzing by them, down the hall of speakers. And they would jump and think some stupid snake had escaped from a pen! Michael would just die laughing! He thought it was the funniest thing.

So you know, it was all those little details that … there’s just no way the guests could take all that in one day. We put so many surprises and cool little treats up there that you really could explore it for a long, long time.

Next to that was the alligators. And then you’d go a little bit further, and it was the chimps – huge, huge chimp enclosure. And then the elephants. I tell people in my seminars that the only time I got yelled at at Neverland was when I put my hand in the elephant cage.

Willa: Oh!

Brad: You know, it’s common sense. But they’re big, beautiful animals and I wanted to pet it. And man, this trainer came and she tore my head off! She said never, ever, ever, put your hand between a steel fence and an elephant! Because they don’t know. I mean, they’re just going to lean 4,000 pounds against your hand, and now you’ve got a waffle for a hand! So I learned, don’t ever do that.

Another thing that I thought was a really nice touch was Michael had those beautiful giraffes. I’ve never really been around giraffes. Who has? It’s just not something that we encounter very often in L.A.! But he put in this deck. You’d go up like two flights of stairs, and then they had these big buckets of feed up there. And so now you’re literally eye to eye with these beautiful animals, and you’re feeding them. Any chance I got – you know, if I was going to be working up there for a day – almost without fail I’d make a buzz up to see the giraffes before I went home. They’re such beautiful, gentle giants. And to actually have them kind of push their big heads against your chest while you’re feeding them … Really, really cool stuff.

Willa:  Wow!

Brad: So I mean, it goes on and on and on. But, you know …

Now let’s say that I missed my ride, and I got left at the giraffe pen and had to get myself back to the ornate gate. If I had to guess, I’d say you’re going to be walking for the better part of 45 minutes. If you just, you know, put your head down and started walking. It was huge. You just didn’t really walk around Neverland. You’d walk around the area that you were in. But that’s why they had the trains and the golf carts, and I’ve seen pictures where they had trams. Because it was too big to walk it. I don’t think people understand how big it was.

Lisha: And we’re just talking about the part of the property that was developed, right? I mean, the majority of the property was not developed, is that correct?

Brad:  Yeah. I found some pictures – you know, like aerial photos – that show how big it was because, yeah, it went way up the sides of the mountains on either side.

Lisha: Here are the aerial photos from Sotheby’s Sycamore Valley Ranch website:

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Brad: At the very, very far end of the ranch – past the giraffes and everything – was the train barn.  And I don’t think anybody really went there. There was nothing to see. But that’s where the little train would go at night for repairs and things like that. And that was about as far back as the ranch was developed.

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And then after that you’d need a motorcycle or a horse or an ATV or something to keep going, exploring Michael’s land. So a big, big piece of property.

Lisha: How much of the property would you say was developed?

Brad: You know, I just don’t know how far it went. But I suppose if I had to guess, maybe it would be a quarter to a third, something like that. But a lot of it would just be, I mean, Michael had little gazebos, I want to say he had two or three gazebos up on the hills. And he was a goofball! I mean he would take his golf cart or his … What do you call those three-wheeled things that are so ridiculously dangerous? Maybe he rode a quad. I think he rode a quad.

Lisha: Ok.

Brad: Yeah, he would take those things up to his gazebos. He loved to be up there with a pair of binoculars, and he’d be watching people build stuff and workmen and the gardeners. And even there – it was the weirdest thing – there was a gazebo that was way above the park, and I don’t know how they even got power up there but they got electricity up there. And sure enough, man, he wanted music up there! And I’m like, Michael, no one’s ever going to come up here. “No, but I have to have music. I have to have my music!” So there we’d be, hauling speakers up the side of a mountain. I mean there were paths. And almost anywhere that you’d go – I mean, not on the horse trails – but any place that he would go or guests might go, there would almost have to be music playing.

There was kind of a joke whenever he would leave the ranch. You know, almost everyone at the ranch had a radio, and when Michael was on the ranch he was always referred to as “the owner.” They didn’t say, you know, Michael Jackson’s on property. There would just be an announcement, “The owner will be here in five minutes.” And it kind of means, you know, everybody be on your best behavior. When Michael would leave the ranch, security at the last gate would announce, “The owner has left the ranch.” And then there would be this yelling from the gardeners, “Shut the music off! Please, shut the music off!” You can only listen to Debussy and The Sound of Music so many times, and you just can’t take it anymore!

Willa: That’s funny!

Brad: So when he was gone, they would shut the music off. But man, when he was there, it had to be on!

Lisha: Interesting!

Brad: So that’s my little virtual tour of Neverland.

Lisha: Wow, that’s fascinating. Thank you so much, Brad! That’s really incredible.

Willa: It really is! And I’m so intrigued with this idea that visiting Neverland was like moving through a song. I’m really going to have to think about that some more.

Brad:  Yeah.

Lisha: I agree. You’ve given us so much to explore and think about.

Brad:  So any final thoughts or questions?

Willa: Well, we would love to include some pictures to illustrate some of the things you’ve been talking about. I know you have some pictures on your website, and there are a lot of pictures of Neverland online. Are there any specific things you’d recommend we include pictures of?

Brad: Well, everyone has seen pictures of the park. But I would say the carousel was kind of Michael’s crown jewel. Each one of those horses and animals was, I believe, hand carved. Those were really, really beautiful pieces of art. And then David Nordahl was one of Michael’s artists, and I believe David hand painted almost all of those animals.

Willa: Oh really? I didn’t know that.

Brad:  So the carousel is definitely something that people should see. You know, there’s pictures of the superslide and the old go-kart track. I’ve never found a picture of the reptile barn. Man, if one of your readers happens to have a picture of that, that would be a real treat. I have searched and searched trying to find one, and just can’t.

Willa: OK, we’ll be sure to pass that along. And thank you again for joining us!

Lisha: Yes, thank you once again, Brad, for being so generous with your time and knowledge.

Brad:  Thank you both. Have an awesome evening!

Willa:  So following up on Brad’s suggestion, here’s a YouTube video of the carousel at Neverland that focuses on the artwork on the horses and other animals:

During our chat with Brad, he mentioned the incredible attention to detail throughout Neverland, and you can really see that in the artwork on the carousel animals.

Lisha: Yes. I’m reminded of some of my favorite photos on the Terrastories website, from the article “Inside Neverland Ranch“:

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Another great resource is Rob Swinson’s book, Maker of Dreams: Creating Michael Jackson’s Neverland Valley Park, which has many detailed photographs of the carousel at Neverland, as well as a lot of information about how the park was created. Here’s a teaser photo from the 25th Anniversary of Neverland Valley Amusement Park Facebook page.

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According to Swinson, this is “a photo of the ‘Butterfly Cherub Horse’ with flowers woven into the mane that Robert Nolan Hall, Chance Rides Inc., personally custom sculptured, decorated and painted for Michael as his very own special gift. It was totally unknown to Michael at the time of delivery that it existed on his new 50′ Grand Carousel as one of the 60 different menagerie animals and horses.”

Swinson’s book also acknowledges Oliver “Brick” Price, of WonderWorks in Canoga Park, California, as an important member of the “Dream Team” who helped make Neverland a reality. Brick Price will be one of the special guests speaking at Brad’s MJU seminar next month. I hear this is something not to be missed!

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Summer Rewind 2014: The King of Pop and the Pope of Pop

The following conversation was originally posted on September 26, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

In other news, Elizabeth Amisu and Karin Merx are about to launch a new website, michaeljacksonstudies.org, that they envision as an “online centre of academic studies regarding MJ.” It’s a wonderful idea, and could become a very useful resource for those interested in a deeper understanding of Michael Jackson’s work.

Willa:  A few weeks ago our friend Lisha McDuff sent us a link to a documentary about the biggest pop star of his time, and it was so fascinating to me – especially the way he redefined art to include areas we don’t typically think of as art, like his fame, his public persona, his speaking voice, and even his face.

However, as the documentary makes clear, in a way he was forced to make his face part of his art because he suffered from auto-immune disorders that attacked the pigment of his skin. In the documentary, there are photos that show large white patches on his cheek and neck where the pigment has been destroyed. People who knew him later in life say his skin was unnaturally white, and he sometimes wore makeup that made it even whiter.

He was also very self-conscious about his nose – he thought it was too “bulbous” – and he almost certainly had plastic surgery to make it smaller and thinner.  And he was known to wear god-awful wigs that he intentionally “damaged” himself, whacking at the front with scissors and dying the bottom layers a dark brown, while leaving the top layers white or silvery blonde.

Of course I’m talking about the Pope of Pop, Andy Warhol – an artist Michael Jackson met several times and pays homage to in his Scream video. Lisha, thank you so much for sharing that documentary, Andy Warhol: The Complete Picture, and for joining me to talk about it!

Lisha:  It’s such a privilege to talk with you again, Willa, especially about the connections between Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson. Ever since I read your book and your brilliant analysis of Andy Warhol’s self-portrait in Scream, I’ve been fascinated by the connection between the two and the way both artists dared to challenge and redefine the boundaries of art. In your book, you wrote:

While Warhol forced us to look at Campbell soup cans and think about our relationship with consumer culture in a new way, Jackson forced us to look at him – the little boy we’d loved since childhood who grew up into something unexpected – and challenged our assumptions about identity and race, gender and sexuality.

That is especially interesting when you think about how Michael Jackson must have understood himself to be a trademarked product early on in life; he developed a star persona at such a very young age.

Willa:  That’s a good point, Lisha. Motown not only produced music but also thoroughly groomed their artists, giving them lessons in speech, etiquette, fashion, demeanor – how to eat and drink in public, how to walk and talk, how to give interviews in a way that presented an appealing persona to a large crossover audience. And for Michael Jackson, those lessons started at a very young age, when he was only 10 years old.

Lisha:  I’ve often wondered what it must have been like – learning to create a star persona that was even younger than his actual age.  And what was it like for him to watch that star persona depicted as a cartoon character every Saturday morning on television? There are very few people in the world who could relate to that – developing a sense of self while learning to craft a public persona at the same time.

So I never imagined how many striking similarities there were in the lives of Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson until I watched this documentary. I realized that both men grew up in steel towns, Pittsburgh and Gary, because their fathers were steel workers. They were teased about their noses growing up and they suffered from medical conditions that destroyed their skin pigment and caused early hair loss. They became shy and soft spoken. And as adults, both men responded in such an unexpected and wildly imaginative way, it has captured the public’s attention ever since – by creating a larger-than-life celebrity persona – using glasses, wigs, light skin and a re-sculpted nose. You could easily argue that Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson’s greatest works of art are: Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson.

Willa:  I agree, Lisha. When we think of art, we’re used to thinking about music, dance, painting, fiction, drama, poetry, sculpture, film, and all the other easily recognizable genres of artistic expression. But Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson didn’t just create incredible works of art – they also challenged how we define art. And perhaps their most important and experimental work hasn’t even been recognized as art, and that’s their innovative work with the art of celebrity and mass media, including the creation of a public persona, as you say, that captures and reconfigures the public imagination in important ways.

And that interest in celebrity seems to have started at a young age for both of them. Warhol became obsessed with celebrities, starting a scrapbook of photos and autographs while still in elementary school. One of his prized possessions was a signed photograph from Shirley Temple addressed “To Andrew Warhola.” And of course, Michael Jackson later became fascinated by Shirley Temple as well, though for him it wasn’t just admiration. Because she was a child star and suffered some of the same experiences he had, he identified with her and seemed to feel a deep connection with her. Later they became friends, and he describes their first meeting in a very emotional way – like two survivors reuniting after a tragedy.

The Warhol documentary talks about his celebrity scrapbook, including the Shirley Temple photograph, about 8 minutes in.  Here’s a link to the full documentary, Andy Warhol: The Complete Picture, though it’s a bit spicy in places – people with children probably shouldn’t watch it with them in the room:

The discussion of Warhol’s face and public image – especially his visual image – begins about 12 minutes in, and picks up again around an hour in. And here’s an extra treat: there’s an image of Michael Jackson on the cover of Warhol’s Interview magazine at 1:13:20.

[Note: Unfortunately, this link no longer functions. Here’s a new link, though the times are a little different. For example, the picture of Michael Jackson on the cover of Interview is at 2:10:25.]

Lisha:  The influence of Shirley Temple on both of these artists is stunning to me. In Victor Bokris’ biography of Andy Warhol, he describes just how much Warhol truly idolized Shirley Temple. She inspired his basic philosophy of life: “work all the time, make it into a game, and maintain your sense of humour.” Warhol even took dance lessons to emulate her, and it was in reference to Shirley Temple that he famously said: “I never wanted to be a painter; I wanted to be a tap dancer.”

Willa:  That’s so interesting, Lisha. I’d heard that quote before, but I thought he was joking!

Lisha:  According to his nephew, James Warhola, Warhol privately maintained that kind of child-like spirit throughout his life. Warhola wrote a children’s book titled Uncle Andy’s, which describes Warhol’s home as a giant amusement park full of carousel horses, antiques and all kinds of “neat” art. Sounds a lot like Neverland to me!

Willa:  It really does, doesn’t it?

Lisha:  I think it’s safe to assume Shirley Temple and that child-like spirit influenced how both these artists viewed celebrity as well. As Crispin Glover says in the documentary, “There are certain people in history that you can just put a few things together and that’s the person, like Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, or Groucho Marx.” You can easily see what he means. A stove pipe hat and beard = Lincoln. Nose spectacles and mustache = Roosevelt.  A mustache, wire-rimmed glasses, and cigar = Groucho. Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson are most definitely that way.

With Andy Warhol, the light skin and the silver wigs immediately come to mind. Matt Wribican, a curator at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, said that the wigs were something Warhol began to formally think of as art, and he actually framed some of them for that reason. Ultra Violet, a Warhol “superstar” from The Factory days, described how Warhol was creating a new mythology through his art – the mythology of Hollywood and the American Dream. Prosperity, glamor, and celebrity were a big part of Warhol’s art, and his own celebrity persona could be interpreted as an extension of that.

With Michael Jackson, we think of the unprecedented fame, the hair and sunglasses; the sequined glove and the fedora, the signature dance moves, the “hee-hee” and “aeow”! That’s the cliched pop star image of Michael Jackson, anyway.

Willa:  That’s true, and it’s fascinating to really think about how those symbols function, and how powerful they are. For example, my son decided to dress up as Michael Jackson for Halloween a few years ago, so he put on a black fedora, a black jacket and pants, and white socks. I suggested he make his hair dark as well, but he said no, that wasn’t necessary – and he was right. My son went around the neighborhood as a blond-haired, blue-eyed Michael Jackson, and everyone immediately knew who he was. He didn’t have to look like Michael Jackson – he just needed to tap into that iconography Michael Jackson had created for himself. Those symbols overrode everything else so completely, my neighbors looked at a little blond boy and immediately thought “Michael Jackson.” And my son understood that at 12 years old – better than I did, actually.

Lisha:  Isn’t it interesting that it seems to work for all ages, races, ethnicities and body types, boys and girls as well? As long as you have some combination of those symbols, it is immediately recognizable. And come to think of it, there isn’t just one group of symbols that identifies Michael Jackson either. A retro 1980s club in my neighborhood invites people to come dressed as their “favorite Michael Jackson.” Think of the possibilities.

Willa:  That’s awesome! And you’re right – there’s different symbology for different decades. A red leather jacket evokes a different era than a white T-shirt and black pants.

Lisha:  Yes, for different eras and for different characters and songs, too.  There are just so many of them: the armband, the surgical mask, the hair falling across the face, the glitzy military jackets, the arm brace, the glitter socks and black loafers … symbols that refer back to Michael Jackson and the whole “Michael Jackson” mythology.  For example, the red leather jacket in Thriller or Beat It, and the white suit and hat in Smooth Criminal are symbols that were intended only for those specific songs and short films.  And they became so inextricably attached to the music, it became necessary to include them in live performances as well.  These symbols help form the characters that make up the whole “Michael Jackson” mythology.

I remember reading an interview once with David Nordahl, one of Michael Jackson’s portrait painters, who talked about the contrast between Michael Jackson and “Michael Jackson,” the celebrity.  Jackson didn’t like to sit for his portraits, so Nordahl painted from photographs. Believe it or not, he said it was difficult to get a good photograph of Michael Jackson unless he was “being Michael.” To an artist’s eye, Michael Jackson and “Michael Jackson” even photographed differently.

Willa:  Wow, Lisha, that is fascinating! And I think I know exactly what Nordahl is talking about. I’ve looked at thousands of Michael Jackson photographs, including a lot of candids, and it’s true – you can really tell when he’s “being Michael,” and when he isn’t. It’s like he strikes a pose, turns on the high beams or something, and transforms. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is that distinguishes Michael Jackson from “Michael Jackson,” but you can sure feel it when you see it.

Lisha:  To a great extent, you could say that all stars have carefully constructed personae and masks they use to create a public image. The music and film industries study these images very carefully because the celebrity/star system is crucial to how they market their products. But in the case of Michael Jackson, I feel like there is a lot more to it. Has there ever been a star persona that was so complex and radically changing as Michael Jackson’s? I believe there is a far more serious artist at work here who, like Warhol, is not at war with celebrity, mass media, or commerce. In fact, I believe he saw it both as art and as a delivery system for his art.

Willa:  I don’t know, Lisha. I see what you’re saying, and I agree wholeheartedly that he was a very sophisticated choreographer of celebrity and the media, both to deliver his art and as an element of his art. In some ways, the mass media became part of his palette for creating his art, and I think that is so important and revolutionary. I really want to dive into that idea more deeply during our discussion today.

But at the same time, I do think there were times when he was “at war” with the mass media. You know, Warhol basically felt that all publicity was good. Regardless of whether the media was praising you or criticizing you, it was all good as long as they were still talking about you. As he said, “Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.”

But I think Michael Jackson would complicate that, in part because of his experiences with racial prejudice and other prejudices, in part because of the molestation scandals, and in part because of some frightening experiences with uncontrollable mobs of people when he was a child. I think those experiences gave him a deep awareness – maybe even a fear – of mass hysteria and that mob mentality that can take over sometimes. And when the media is portraying you in ways that are completely counter to your core beliefs, and in ways that feed a type of mass hysteria based on ignorance and prejudice, I think he would strongly disagree with Warhol.

Lisha:  I have to say you’re making some excellent points. And there’s no doubt that being a celebrated and powerful young black man dominating the entertainment industry is a very complicated situation to be in, bringing out all kinds of ignorance and prejudice.

Willa:  Exactly, and those are complications Warhol never had to confront, or maybe even consider.

Lisha:  But didn’t Warhol experience a lot of prejudice in his life, too?  At a time when the white, male, heterosexual art world frowned on his appearance, his sexuality, and his success as a commercial artist?

Willa:  Well, that’s a very good point, Lisha. Warhol did face resistance and prejudice from “the white, male, heterosexual art world” – and that world was pretty macho and homophobic, especially in the 1950s when he was starting out. I guess I was thinking about their public personae, specifically their faces as a provocative form of art. Warhol changed the shape of his nose, lightened his skin (in part to even out his skin tone from loss of pigmentation), wore wigs – and that public face challenged social norms and became an important part of his art, as we were discussing earlier. But it didn’t set off the firestorm that resulted when Michael Jackson did the exact same thing.

The color of your skin, the shape of your nose, and the color and texture of your hair have all been designated as racial signifiers, so when Michael Jackson dared to alter those signifiers, he was entering a cultural no man’s land. That simply wasn’t an issue for Warhol – that’s what I meant by “complications Warhol never had to confront, or maybe even consider.” Warhol’s changing appearance was noticed and commented on, but it didn’t set off the wave of hostility generated by Michael Jackson’s changing appearance, with accusations that he hated his race or had betrayed his race, or was brazenly attempting to “be white.”

Lisha:  I think that’s exactly right. There was a much different reaction to Jackson’s appearance than there ever was to the same changes in Warhol, which generated so much hostility towards Jackson.  But, even so, I still have to wonder – was Michael Jackson truly at war with celebrity and the media in general, or was he attempting to update and correct flaws in the system?

Willa:  That’s an excellent question …

Lisha:  Like Warhol, I think Michael Jackson was actually interested in some P.T. Barnum-style controversy, but there is an element in this that is beyond the celebrity’s control. One false allegation, fictitious scandal or unfair prejudice can ruin everything an artist has worked for their whole lives, through no fault of their own. We know the mob mentality is very real. Personally, I am very proud of the Michael Jackson fans who continue to challenge the media and expose some of the disastrous consequences created by the intersection of profit, news, and entertainment. I think Michael Jackson wanted to cooperate with the star system and use it to do good things, but he did not hesitate to point out where things went dangerously wrong, which again became part of his art.

Willa:  I see what you’re saying, Lisha, and that’s an excellent way of framing this, I think: that he both used the celebrity media in some ways and critiqued it in others, and in fact used it to critique itself. And I agree that Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson both engaged with and choreographed their celebrity in new and fascinating ways – ways that suggest their celebrity itself was an important part of their art – and I’d like to get back to what you said earlier about David Nordahl and the distinction he makes, and others have made as well, between Michael Jackson and “Michael Jackson.”

For example, I’m reminded of something Bruce Swedien mentions in his book, In the Studio with Michael Jackson. He worked with Michael Jackson for 30 years, and he and his wife Bea knew him – meaning the gentle-artist-working-in-the-studio side of him – very well. But then he’d step on stage, transform into “Michael Jackson,” and just blow them away. Swedien says, “Bea and I have traveled with Michael to his concerts, all over the world, [and] we have often thought that we don’t know Michael Jackson, the performer, that amazing person on stage.” They were like two completely separate beings.

Lisha:  People who saw that say it was truly astonishing.  In My Friend Michael, Frank Cascio fondly remembers going to his first Michael Jackson concert, when he actually had to ask his father, “Is that the same Michael Jackson who comes to the house?”  The onstage transformation was so complete.

Willa:  Oh, I imagine it was astonishing! And then, of course, there’s the “Michael Jackson” who existed in the media, and that’s a completely distinct entity as well. And in some ways it’s the most interesting of all, because it is such a deliberate creation. As you mentioned earlier, Lisha, it’s far more than presenting a positive image to the public. Instead, he seems to be exploring the constructedness of identity, and challenging the way we “read” identity based on physical cues, especially cues of race and gender. That’s something we see to some extent in Andy Warhol as well, like in the photographs in the documentary where he’s wearing lipstick and eyeshadow, so adopting signifiers normally associated with women, though still clearly a man. Here’s one image:

genderbending 1Lisha:  That certainly challenges the white, male, heterosexual art world’s notion of who can be revered as a great artist, doesn’t it?

Willa:  It really does. But what perhaps defines our identity most of all is our voice, and Warhol even had a separate public and private speaking voice – something that’s frequently been said of Michael Jackson as well. I was very surprised to hear Warhol’s voice talking to his brother on the phone (about an hour and a half into the documentary) because it’s so different from the slow, banal public voice we’re used to hearing.

We don’t know much about Warhol, the person behind the public persona – he’s a shadowy figure that we, the public, rarely saw. He was a devout Catholic who went to mass every week, a shy workaholic, and an innovative artist completely dedicated to his craft. But his public persona is very different: crassly materialistic, flippant, ironic, affectless, detached – an observer who drifted through the studio watching others create his work for him. In a couple of interviews, he said he wasn’t involved in creating his art anymore and wasn’t sure who was doing it – maybe his mother, maybe the cleaning lady. That’s a fabrication, of course, but that’s the image Warhol very deliberately created for himself.

And then Michael Jackson takes that to a whole new level …

Lisha:  Sorry, I have to take a minute and recover from the thought of Andy Warhol telling the press that he wasn’t sure who was creating all that artwork, but possibly his mom or the cleaning lady were doing it. That’s about the funniest thing I’ve ever heard!

Willa:  Isn’t that hysterical? He really was very funny …

Lisha:  Though I have heard that Mrs. Warhola did actually sign some of Andy Warhol’s artwork for him – he just loved her handwriting. In fact, she is credited with creating this 1957 album cover with her son, for The Story of Moondog by Louis Hardin. It reminds me of Michael Jackson’s collaboration with his mother, Katherine Jackson, who contributed the shuffle rhythm in “The Way You Make Me Feel.”

Willa:  Oh, really? I hadn’t heard that, about either of them. Though if it’s true that Andy Warhol’s mom did that album cover, she really did have wonderful handwriting.

And I guess we shouldn’t laugh too hard when Warhol implies he wasn’t creating his art himself because there’s an element of truth to it. What I mean is, Warhol didn’t create all of his prints himself. He was very involved throughout the process – designing them, specifying production details, reviewing them all – but he didn’t craft them all with his own hands. We don’t expect Calvin Klein, for example, to stitch every Klein garment – if he designs it, that’s sufficient to legitimately put his name on it. Yet there is an expectation that an artist will craft all of his artwork himself. Warhol challenged that, even calling his studio The Factory, and this is another area where he merged commercial art with high art to create not just new works, but a new aesthetic. And that new aesthetic is reflected in his persona as well.

Lisha:  Exactly. This was an excellent point that Dennis Hopper brought out in the documentary and he’s absolutely right. We tend to forget that all the great European masters had other painters working in their studios under the artist’s direction. It’s not like a single artist got up on the scaffolding and painted the Sistine Chapel.  But there is such a powerful cultural myth in circulation – that of the tortured artist all alone in their garret, working away on a great masterpiece while refusing to “sell out” for their art – as in Puccini’s famous opera La Boheme. In reality, I believe that is a notion of 19th century Romanticism more than an accurate reflection of the creative process. But once you tune in to that story line, you can see how prevalent it is.

Willa:  That’s an interesting point, Lisha, and we see that bias toward the “solitary genius” even now in critical responses to Prince and Michael Jackson, for example. Prince is seen as the solitary genius alone in his studio, playing most of the instruments on his albums himself, while Michael Jackson was much more collaborative and perceived as more of a commercial artist. His thinking seemed to be that, if a musician dedicated to an instrument could play it better than he could, why not bring in the best?

Lisha:  Being a musician, I would certainly agree with that!  But, the myth of the solitary mad genius is such a cherished cultural icon that, in a lot of ways, I think we’re still having Beethoven-mania!

Like Warhol, Michael Jackson took the idea of working in collaboration to the extreme. On Dangerous, for example, the first album Jackson served as executive producer for, he had 3 production teams working simultaneously in 3 different studios for about 18 months to create the finished product. I don’t know if we’ll ever see those kind of production values again. The people who worked on the recordings talk about the unbelievable attention to detail that went into them, and the willingness of everyone involved to go all the way to create the best result humanly possible.

And though Jackson could be famously controlling of every detail, he was also very flexible in allowing creative input to come from anywhere within the system. For example, Bruce Swedien, a recording engineer, gets a writing credit on “Jam.” Bill Bottrell, a producer/engineer, created the rap and many of the rock/country instrumentals on “Black or White.”

So Michael Jackson was receptive to the ideas and talent around him, and he really used this to his advantage. Warhol seemed to have this ability as well – receiving help, ideas, and inspiration from many different sources. Apparently it was an art dealer, Muriel Latow, who suggested he should consider painting something as everyday and ordinary as a can of soup – the rest is history.

And I was surprised to learn that Andy Warhol actually did eat Campbell’s soup every day of his life; it wasn’t all postmodern irony and a critique of consumer culture as I had thought. His mother always had Campbell’s soup for him when he was a child, and it really seemed to mean a lot to him – warmth, nourishment, a mother’s love. He was painting his reality, and I see those paintings differently when I understand that about him, as opposed to his cool, detached celebrity persona.

Willa:  Oh, I agree – I’ve always been struck by what a feeling of comfort I get from his Campbell’s soup paintings. They’re often interpreted as an ironic statement, as you say, and I can see that intellectually, but that isn’t how they feel to me emotionally. There’s a real feeling of warmth and reassurance there. It’s like he’s saying that the comfort people once found in the familiar icons of the Catholic church – the paintings of the Virgin Mary, for example – they now get from the familiar icons of consumer culture, like Campbell’s soup cans. So while artists in past centuries painted and sculpted religious iconography, his focus is on the new consumer iconography. It’s a brilliant insight.

Lisha:  It truly is a brilliant insight, the marriage of the precious and the everyday. That’s something we see in every aspect of Michael Jackson’s work, from the high production values he brings to the devalued genre of pop, to the exquisitely made, hand-beaded couture jackets he wears with t-shirts and Levi’s 501 jeans. Creating art and myth through his celebrity persona is just another good example.

And as you were saying earlier, Willa, Michael Jackson takes the idea of the celebrity persona to a whole new level. I don’t even see how you could make an argument against it. I’m sure you’ve seen the 60 Minutes interview with Karen Langford, Michael Jackson’s archivist, when she displays some of his early writing which is now called the “MJ Manifesto.” It was Michael Jackson’s stated goal that “MJ” be a completely different person, a whole new character that he had big plans and ambitions for.

Willa:  That’s funny, Lisha – I’ve been thinking about the manifesto also. Here’s what he wrote:

MJ will be my new name. No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a whole new look. I should be a tottally different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang “ABC,” “I Want You Back.” I should be a new, incredible actor/singer/dancer that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a masterer. I will be better than every great actor roped into one.

And you’re right. It really does show how deliberate he was in thinking about and creating this new persona, this “whole new character” of MJ, doesn’t it?

Lisha:  Every album had a new one. I’ll never forget the shock and awe of standing in the grocery store checkout line in 1984 searching for a photo of Michael Jackson, since that is about all anyone was talking about in those days, and when I couldn’t find it, somebody had to explain to me that I was already looking at a photo of Michael Jackson. It totally blew my mind as I tried to rectify the earlier Michael Jackson image I knew with the Thriller/Victory tour image I saw. Of course no one could even imagine what was yet to come. He morphed again and again, to the racially ambiguous character in Bad, to the boundary-crossing Black or White character on Dangerous, to the colorless alien “Other” in Scream for the HIStory album.

Willa:  Which raises an important point – that the personae Warhol and Michael Jackson created weren’t necessarily intended to be appealing. They were much more complicated and provocative than that. As the narrator asks near the beginning of the documentary,

But who was Andy Warhol? On his journey from Andrew Warhola, he would not only change his name but also customize his personality to create a mechanical, factory-produced brand name that would embody the celebrity and consumer culture of the times.

That “mechanical, factory-produced” aspect of his “brand” was not especially attractive, at least not in the traditional sense. And neither were his wigs, for example, or his crassly materialistic public persona. But his wigs, his persona, and his brand aren’t judged by traditional standards of beauty or appeal because it’s understood that they were part of his art, and so they have to be interpreted in more complex ways, like art.

And I think this is one way a lot of critics have really misunderstood Michael Jackson. It is generally assumed that in his later career, he was trying to produce something attractive, something appealing to a mass audience, and failing. But if we look at the lyrics to “Is It Scary,” for example, we see that he was doing something much more complicated and interesting than that. Among other things, he was forcing us to confront our own prejudices – prejudices the press and public were trying to impose on his face and body because he was signified as “black,” as “male,” as a “pop star” or “just a pop star” – and later, horribly, as a “freak” and a “monster.”

So how does it change our perceptions if we begin to look at Michael Jackson’s public persona as an artistic creation, like we do with Andy Warhol? And how do we interpret it if we approach it that way?

Lisha:  Well, I think it would have been a much easier path for Michael Jackson had he initially made his private medical conditions public, broken the myth, and explained the changes in his appearance. He could have become an advocate for those like him who suffer from vitiligo and lupus, raising awareness of these diseases. I don’t think he would have had to take the relentless media bashing and persecution that he did, if that was his goal.

But instead of benefiting just a few, I think Jackson saw a much bigger opportunity that still has tremendous cultural resonance today.

Willa:  I agree absolutely. I don’t think we’ve even begun to measure the impact his changing face – as a work of art – has had on us psychologically, as individuals, and culturally, as a global society.

Lisha:  It’s true. Dr. Sherrow Pinder, a Multicultural and Gender Studies professor at California State University at Chico, has argued that as Jackson challenged the notion of “natural bodies and fixed identities as prearranged and controlled,” he had to be “culturally resisted, restricted, or worse, punished and humiliated in order for society to safeguard the realm of normality.”

Willa:  Absolutely, and the intensity of that backlash is an important indicator of just how profound and threatening this was – his transgression of a “fixed identity,” as Pinder calls it, based on traditional notions of race, gender, and sexuality. Michael Jackson challenged them all by “rewriting” his body, thereby complicating how identity is read through the body.

Lisha:  Media all over the world continue to speculate and fabricate stories about “Michael Jackson,” often disregarding factual information that has been available for some time. The media fiction almost always follows some variation of the “wacko,” “freak” or “monstrous figure” narrative, reflecting more about society’s need to “normalize” him than it ever did about Michael Jackson. And Jackson became so acutely aware of his function as a mirror of collective thought that he began exploiting it for artistic purposes, as in “Is It Scary” (“I’m gonna be exactly what you want to see / It’s you whose haunting me, because you’re wanting me to be the stranger in the night”) and “Threatened” (“I’m the living dead, the dark thoughts in your head / I heard just what you said, that’s why you’ve got to be threatened by me”).

Willa:  And we see that idea enacted literally in Ghosts when the Maestro enters the Mayor’s body, holds a mirror to his face, and forces him to witness his own inner “freakishness.” That freakishness the Mayor detests isn’t in the Maestro – it’s in himself.

Lisha:  That is such a brilliant scene – demonstrating his true mastery of the phenomenon.

And yet another mythic, artistic creation of “Michael Jackson” was ready to “Heal the World,” imagining a new empathic civilization into being. One of his most impressive feats was to magically strip away the color of his skin to physically demonstrate once and for all “it don’t matter if you’re black or white.”  When it became clear some still didn’t get the message, he took it a step further and became colorless – literally colorless. Scream and Stranger in Moscow demonstrate this so clearly.

Willa:  And it’s fairly clear that was a deliberate decision. Both videos were filmed in black and white with overly bright lights on his face to wash out the color, even gradations of color.

Lisha:  Absolutely. To me, it is obvious that this is the work of a brilliant and game changing artist. I hate to admit that it wasn’t until after Michael Jackson’s death that I finally looked at his work and realized what a new kind of art it was – imaginative and exquisitely crafted music full of sonic innovations and so-called “high art” aesthetics, synthesized with imagery and myth, delivered to the masses through the devalued genre of pop and the celebrity star system. But it was so much more – exploding off the stage and screen into our social discourses and everyday lives, encouraging us to go beyond our confused and violent past.

And although I wasn’t paying attention at the time, I came to realize how powerfully affected I was by Michael Jackson, without even knowing it. From 1969 to 2009, Michael Jackson was a constant presence, and I don’t believe you can overestimate the impact he made. Judging from the intense media coverage of his death, I wasn’t the only one who suddenly wondered what it was going to be like to live in a Michael Jackson-less world.

Willa:  Oh, I agree. I believe Michael Jackson profoundly altered our perceptions, our emotions, and our affective responses to differences of race, gender, sexuality, religion, family relationships – stereotypes of all kinds – though we may not realize it yet. As you said, we were “powerfully affected … without even knowing it.” And I believe he also revolutionized our ideas about art, though he was so far ahead of his time we don’t realize it yet. Some of it we still don’t even recognize as art!  We were in the midst of a gripping artistic experience without even knowing it.

It’s going to take a long time for art criticism and interpretation to catch up with him, I think, and begin to comprehend the enormous impact he’s had, both in terms of art and how we conceptualize art, and in terms of the deep cultural shifts he helped bring about. And that’s another way to evaluate an artist – by the depth and extent of their influence.

Near the end of the documentary, the narrator describes how Warhol’s influence is a constant presence in contemporary life, and then asks, “How can we miss you if you won’t go away?” You could ask the same question of Michael Jackson. He legacy is everywhere – from direct artistic influences on music, dance, film, fashion, to more subtle but perhaps more important cultural influences, such as how we read and interpret gender and racial differences.

Lisha:  You know, that’s just the thing. Michael Jackson is everywhere you look. And do we really understand why he continues to have such an impact? The entertainment industry is full of crazy antics, plastic surgery, glam rockers wearing make-up, gender bending and so on. Rita Hayworth is a good example of a performer who “whitened up” her Hispanic ethnicity to become the glamorous “Gilda” onscreen. So why is everyone still tripping on Michael Jackson? I think it will take a while to understand all this. Until then, we’ll keep “dancing with the elephant.”

The King of Pop and the Pope of Pop

Willa:  A few weeks ago our friend Lisha McDuff sent us a link to a documentary about the biggest pop star of his time, and it was so fascinating to me – especially the way he redefined art to include areas we don’t typically think of as art, like his fame, his public persona, his speaking voice, and even his face.

However, as the documentary makes clear, in a way he was forced to make his face part of his art because he suffered from auto-immune disorders that attacked the pigment of his skin. In the documentary, there are photos that show large white patches on his cheek and neck where the pigment has been destroyed. People who knew him later in life say his skin was unnaturally white, and he sometimes wore makeup that made it even whiter.

He was also very self-conscious about his nose – he thought it was too “bulbous” – and he almost certainly had plastic surgery to make it smaller and thinner.  And he was known to wear god-awful wigs that he intentionally “damaged” himself, whacking at the front with scissors and dying the bottom layers a dark brown, while leaving the top layers white or silvery blonde.

Of course I’m talking about the Pope of Pop, Andy Warhol – an artist Michael Jackson met several times and pays homage to in his Scream video. Lisha, thank you so much for sharing that documentary, Andy Warhol: The Complete Picture, and for joining me to talk about it!

Lisha:  It’s such a privilege to talk with you again, Willa, especially about the connections between Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson. Ever since I read your book and your brilliant analysis of Andy Warhol’s self-portrait in Scream, I’ve been fascinated by the connection between the two and the way both artists dared to challenge and redefine the boundaries of art. In your book, you wrote:

While Warhol forced us to look at Campbell soup cans and think about our relationship with consumer culture in a new way, Jackson forced us to look at him – the little boy we’d loved since childhood who grew up into something unexpected – and challenged our assumptions about identity and race, gender and sexuality.

That is especially interesting when you think about how Michael Jackson must have understood himself to be a trademarked product early on in life; he developed a star persona at such a very young age.

Willa:  That’s a good point, Lisha. Motown not only produced music but also thoroughly groomed their artists, giving them lessons in speech, etiquette, fashion, demeanor – how to eat and drink in public, how to walk and talk, how to give interviews in a way that presented an appealing persona to a large crossover audience. And for Michael Jackson, those lessons started at a very young age, when he was only 10 years old.

Lisha:  I’ve often wondered what it must have been like – learning to create a star persona that was even younger than his actual age.  And what was it like for him to watch that star persona depicted as a cartoon character every Saturday morning on television? There are very few people in the world who could relate to that – developing a sense of self while learning to craft a public persona at the same time.

So I never imagined how many striking similarities there were in the lives of Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson until I watched this documentary. I realized that both men grew up in steel towns, Pittsburgh and Gary, because their fathers were steel workers. They were teased about their noses growing up and they suffered from medical conditions that destroyed their skin pigment and caused early hair loss. They became shy and soft spoken. And as adults, both men responded in such an unexpected and wildly imaginative way, it has captured the public’s attention ever since – by creating a larger-than-life celebrity persona – using glasses, wigs, light skin and a re-sculpted nose. You could easily argue that Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson’s greatest works of art are: Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson.

Willa:  I agree, Lisha. When we think of art, we’re used to thinking about music, dance, painting, fiction, drama, poetry, sculpture, film, and all the other easily recognizable genres of artistic expression. But Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson didn’t just create incredible works of art – they also challenged how we define art. And perhaps their most important and experimental work hasn’t even been recognized as art, and that’s their innovative work with the art of celebrity and mass media, including the creation of a public persona, as you say, that captures and reconfigures the public imagination in important ways.

And that interest in celebrity seems to have started at a young age for both of them. Warhol became obsessed with celebrities, starting a scrapbook of photos and autographs while still in elementary school. One of his prized possessions was a signed photograph from Shirley Temple addressed “To Andrew Warhola.” And of course, Michael Jackson later became fascinated by Shirley Temple as well, though for him it wasn’t just admiration. Because she was a child star and suffered some of the same experiences he had, he identified with her and seemed to feel a deep connection with her. Later they became friends, and he describes their first meeting in a very emotional way – like two survivors reuniting after a tragedy.

The Warhol documentary talks about his celebrity scrapbook, including the Shirley Temple photograph, about 8 minutes in.  Here’s a link to the full documentary, Andy Warhol: The Complete Picture, though it’s a bit spicy in places – people with children probably shouldn’t watch it with them in the room:

The discussion of Warhol’s face and public image – especially his visual image – begins about 12 minutes in, and picks up again around an hour in. And here’s an extra treat: there’s an image of Michael Jackson on the cover of Warhol’s Interview magazine at 1:13:20.

Lisha:  The influence of Shirley Temple on both of these artists is stunning to me. In Victor Bokris’ biography of Andy Warhol, he describes just how much Warhol truly idolized Shirley Temple. She inspired his basic philosophy of life: “work all the time, make it into a game, and maintain your sense of humour.” Warhol even took dance lessons to emulate her, and it was in reference to Shirley Temple that he famously said: “I never wanted to be a painter; I wanted to be a tap dancer.”

Willa:  That’s so interesting, Lisha. I’d heard that quote before, but I thought he was joking!

Lisha:  According to his nephew, James Warhola, Warhol privately maintained that kind of child-like spirit throughout his life. Warhola wrote a children’s book titled Uncle Andy’s, which describes Warhol’s home as a giant amusement park full of carousel horses, antiques and all kinds of “neat” art. Sounds a lot like Neverland to me!

Willa:  It really does, doesn’t it?

Lisha:  I think it’s safe to assume Shirley Temple and that child-like spirit influenced how both these artists viewed celebrity as well. As Crispin Glover says in the documentary, “There are certain people in history that you can just put a few things together and that’s the person, like Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, or Groucho Marx.” You can easily see what he means. A stove pipe hat and beard = Lincoln. Nose spectacles and mustache = Roosevelt.  A mustache, wire-rimmed glasses, and cigar = Groucho. Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson are most definitely that way.

With Andy Warhol, the light skin and the silver wigs immediately come to mind. Matt Wribican, a curator at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, said that the wigs were something Warhol began to formally think of as art, and he actually framed some of them for that reason. Ultra Violet, a Warhol “superstar” from The Factory days, described how Warhol was creating a new mythology through his art – the mythology of Hollywood and the American Dream. Prosperity, glamor, and celebrity were a big part of Warhol’s art, and his own celebrity persona could be interpreted as an extension of that.

With Michael Jackson, we think of the unprecedented fame, the hair and sunglasses; the sequined glove and the fedora, the signature dance moves, the “hee-hee” and “aeow”! That’s the cliched pop star image of Michael Jackson, anyway.

Willa:  That’s true, and it’s fascinating to really think about how those symbols function, and how powerful they are. For example, my son decided to dress up as Michael Jackson for Halloween a few years ago, so he put on a black fedora, a black jacket and pants, and white socks. I suggested he make his hair dark as well, but he said no, that wasn’t necessary – and he was right. My son went around the neighborhood as a blond-haired, blue-eyed Michael Jackson, and everyone immediately knew who he was. He didn’t have to look like Michael Jackson – he just needed to tap into that iconography Michael Jackson had created for himself. Those symbols overrode everything else so completely, my neighbors looked at a little blond boy and immediately thought “Michael Jackson.” And my son understood that at 12 years old – better than I did, actually.

Lisha:  Isn’t it interesting that it seems to work for all ages, races, ethnicities and body types, boys and girls as well? As long as you have some combination of those symbols, it is immediately recognizable. And come to think of it, there isn’t just one group of symbols that identifies Michael Jackson either. A retro 1980s club in my neighborhood invites people to come dressed as their “favorite Michael Jackson.” Think of the possibilities.

Willa:  That’s awesome! And you’re right – there’s different symbology for different decades. A red leather jacket evokes a different era than a white T-shirt and black pants.

Lisha:  Yes, for different eras and for different characters and songs, too.  There are just so many of them: the armband, the surgical mask, the hair falling across the face, the glitzy military jackets, the arm brace, the glitter socks and black loafers … symbols that refer back to Michael Jackson and the whole “Michael Jackson” mythology.  For example, the red leather jacket in Thriller or Beat It, and the white suit and hat in Smooth Criminal are symbols that were intended only for those specific songs and short films.  And they became so inextricably attached to the music, it became necessary to include them in live performances as well.  These symbols help form the characters that make up the whole “Michael Jackson” mythology.

I remember reading an interview once with David Nordahl, one of Michael Jackson’s portrait painters, who talked about the contrast between Michael Jackson and “Michael Jackson,” the celebrity.  Jackson didn’t like to sit for his portraits, so Nordahl painted from photographs. Believe it or not, he said it was difficult to get a good photograph of Michael Jackson unless he was “being Michael.” To an artist’s eye, Michael Jackson and “Michael Jackson” even photographed differently.

Willa:  Wow, Lisha, that is fascinating! And I think I know exactly what Nordahl is talking about. I’ve looked at thousands of Michael Jackson photographs, including a lot of candids, and it’s true – you can really tell when he’s “being Michael,” and when he isn’t. It’s like he strikes a pose, turns on the high beams or something, and transforms. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is that distinguishes Michael Jackson from “Michael Jackson,” but you can sure feel it when you see it.

Lisha:  To a great extent, you could say that all stars have carefully constructed personae and masks they use to create a public image. The music and film industries study these images very carefully because the celebrity/star system is crucial to how they market their products. But in the case of Michael Jackson, I feel like there is a lot more to it. Has there ever been a star persona that was so complex and radically changing as Michael Jackson’s? I believe there is a far more serious artist at work here who, like Warhol, is not at war with celebrity, mass media, or commerce. In fact, I believe he saw it both as art and as a delivery system for his art.

Willa:  I don’t know, Lisha. I see what you’re saying, and I agree wholeheartedly that he was a very sophisticated choreographer of celebrity and the media, both to deliver his art and as an element of his art. In some ways, the mass media became part of his palette for creating his art, and I think that is so important and revolutionary. I really want to dive into that idea more deeply during our discussion today.

But at the same time, I do think there were times when he was “at war” with the mass media. You know, Warhol basically felt that all publicity was good. Regardless of whether the media was praising you or criticizing you, it was all good as long as they were still talking about you. As he said, “Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.”

But I think Michael Jackson would complicate that, in part because of his experiences with racial prejudice and other prejudices, in part because of the molestation scandals, and in part because of some frightening experiences with uncontrollable mobs of people when he was a child. I think those experiences gave him a deep awareness – maybe even a fear – of mass hysteria and that mob mentality that can take over sometimes. And when the media is portraying you in ways that are completely counter to your core beliefs, and in ways that feed a type of mass hysteria based on ignorance and prejudice, I think he would strongly disagree with Warhol.

Lisha:  I have to say you’re making some excellent points. And there’s no doubt that being a celebrated and powerful young black man dominating the entertainment industry is a very complicated situation to be in, bringing out all kinds of ignorance and prejudice.

Willa:  Exactly, and those are complications Warhol never had to confront, or maybe even consider.

Lisha:  But didn’t Warhol experience a lot of prejudice in his life, too?  At a time when the white, male, heterosexual art world frowned on his appearance, his sexuality, and his success as a commercial artist?

Willa:  Well, that’s a very good point, Lisha. Warhol did face resistance and prejudice from “the white, male, heterosexual art world” – and that world was pretty macho and homophobic, especially in the 1950s when he was starting out. I guess I was thinking about their public personae, specifically their faces as a provocative form of art. Warhol changed the shape of his nose, lightened his skin (in part to even out his skin tone from loss of pigmentation), wore wigs – and that public face challenged social norms and became an important part of his art, as we were discussing earlier. But it didn’t set off the firestorm that resulted when Michael Jackson did the exact same thing.

The color of your skin, the shape of your nose, and the color and texture of your hair have all been designated as racial signifiers, so when Michael Jackson dared to alter those signifiers, he was entering a cultural no man’s land. That simply wasn’t an issue for Warhol – that’s what I meant by “complications Warhol never had to confront, or maybe even consider.” Warhol’s changing appearance was noticed and commented on, but it didn’t set off the wave of hostility generated by Michael Jackson’s changing appearance, with accusations that he hated his race or had betrayed his race, or was brazenly attempting to “be white.”

Lisha:  I think that’s exactly right. There was a much different reaction to Jackson’s appearance than there ever was to the same changes in Warhol, which generated so much hostility towards Jackson.  But, even so, I still have to wonder – was Michael Jackson truly at war with celebrity and the media in general, or was he attempting to update and correct flaws in the system?

Willa:  That’s an excellent question …

Lisha:  Like Warhol, I think Michael Jackson was actually interested in some P.T. Barnum-style controversy, but there is an element in this that is beyond the celebrity’s control. One false allegation, fictitious scandal or unfair prejudice can ruin everything an artist has worked for their whole lives, through no fault of their own. We know the mob mentality is very real. Personally, I am very proud of the Michael Jackson fans who continue to challenge the media and expose some of the disastrous consequences created by the intersection of profit, news, and entertainment. I think Michael Jackson wanted to cooperate with the star system and use it to do good things, but he did not hesitate to point out where things went dangerously wrong, which again became part of his art.

Willa:  I see what you’re saying, Lisha, and that’s an excellent way of framing this, I think: that he both used the celebrity media in some ways and critiqued it in others, and in fact used it to critique itself. And I agree that Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson both engaged with and choreographed their celebrity in new and fascinating ways – ways that suggest their celebrity itself was an important part of their art – and I’d like to get back to what you said earlier about David Nordahl and the distinction he makes, and others have made as well, between Michael Jackson and “Michael Jackson.”

For example, I’m reminded of something Bruce Swedien mentions in his book, In the Studio with Michael Jackson. He worked with Michael Jackson for 30 years, and he and his wife Bea knew him – meaning the gentle-artist-working-in-the-studio side of him – very well. But then he’d step on stage, transform into “Michael Jackson,” and just blow them away. Swedien says, “Bea and I have traveled with Michael to his concerts, all over the world, [and] we have often thought that we don’t know Michael Jackson, the performer, that amazing person on stage.” They were like two completely separate beings.

Lisha:  People who saw that say it was truly astonishing.  In My Friend Michael, Frank Cascio fondly remembers going to his first Michael Jackson concert, when he actually had to ask his father, “Is that the same Michael Jackson who comes to the house?”  The onstage transformation was so complete.

Willa:  Oh, I imagine it was astonishing! And then, of course, there’s the “Michael Jackson” who existed in the media, and that’s a completely distinct entity as well. And in some ways it’s the most interesting of all, because it is such a deliberate creation. As you mentioned earlier, Lisha, it’s far more than presenting a positive image to the public. Instead, he seems to be exploring the constructedness of identity, and challenging the way we “read” identity based on physical cues, especially cues of race and gender. That’s something we see to some extent in Andy Warhol as well, like in the photographs in the documentary where he’s wearing lipstick and eyeshadow, so adopting signifiers normally associated with women, though still clearly a man. Here’s one image:

genderbending 1Lisha:  That certainly challenges the white, male, heterosexual art world’s notion of who can be revered as a great artist, doesn’t it?

Willa:  It really does. But what perhaps defines our identity most of all is our voice, and Warhol even had a separate public and private speaking voice – something that’s frequently been said of Michael Jackson as well. I was very surprised to hear Warhol’s voice talking to his brother on the phone (about an hour and a half into the documentary) because it’s so different from the slow, banal public voice we’re used to hearing.

We don’t know much about Warhol, the person behind the public persona – he’s a shadowy figure that we, the public, rarely saw. He was a devout Catholic who went to mass every week, a shy workaholic, and an innovative artist completely dedicated to his craft. But his public persona is very different: crassly materialistic, flippant, ironic, affectless, detached – an observer who drifted through the studio watching others create his work for him. In a couple of interviews, he said he wasn’t involved in creating his art anymore and wasn’t sure who was doing it – maybe his mother, maybe the cleaning lady. That’s a fabrication, of course, but that’s the image Warhol very deliberately created for himself.

And then Michael Jackson takes that to a whole new level …

Lisha:  Sorry, I have to take a minute and recover from the thought of Andy Warhol telling the press that he wasn’t sure who was creating all that artwork, but possibly his mom or the cleaning lady were doing it. That’s about the funniest thing I’ve ever heard!

Willa:  Isn’t that hysterical? He really was very funny …

Lisha:  Though I have heard that Mrs. Warhola did actually sign some of Andy Warhol’s artwork for him – he just loved her handwriting. In fact, she is credited with creating this 1957 album cover with her son, for The Story of Moondog by Louis Hardin. It reminds me of Michael Jackson’s collaboration with his mother, Katherine Jackson, who contributed the shuffle rhythm in “The Way You Make Me Feel.”

Willa:  Oh, really? I hadn’t heard that, about either of them. Though if it’s true that Andy Warhol’s mom did that album cover, she really did have wonderful handwriting.

And I guess we shouldn’t laugh too hard when Warhol implies he wasn’t creating his art himself because there’s an element of truth to it. What I mean is, Warhol didn’t create all of his prints himself. He was very involved throughout the process – designing them, specifying production details, reviewing them all – but he didn’t craft them all with his own hands. We don’t expect Calvin Klein, for example, to stitch every Klein garment – if he designs it, that’s sufficient to legitimately put his name on it. Yet there is an expectation that an artist will craft all of his artwork himself. Warhol challenged that, even calling his studio The Factory, and this is another area where he merged commercial art with high art to create not just new works, but a new aesthetic. And that new aesthetic is reflected in his persona as well.

Lisha:  Exactly. This was an excellent point that Dennis Hopper brought out in the documentary and he’s absolutely right. We tend to forget that all the great European masters had other painters working in their studios under the artist’s direction. It’s not like a single artist got up on the scaffolding and painted the Sistine Chapel.  But there is such a powerful cultural myth in circulation – that of the tortured artist all alone in their garret, working away on a great masterpiece while refusing to “sell out” for their art – as in Puccini’s famous opera La Boheme. In reality, I believe that is a notion of 19th century Romanticism more than an accurate reflection of the creative process. But once you tune in to that story line, you can see how prevalent it is.

Willa:  That’s an interesting point, Lisha, and we see that bias toward the “solitary genius” even now in critical responses to Prince and Michael Jackson, for example. Prince is seen as the solitary genius alone in his studio, playing most of the instruments on his albums himself, while Michael Jackson was much more collaborative and perceived as more of a commercial artist. His thinking seemed to be that, if a musician dedicated to an instrument could play it better than he could, why not bring in the best?

Lisha:  Being a musician, I would certainly agree with that!  But, the myth of the solitary mad genius is such a cherished cultural icon that, in a lot of ways, I think we’re still having Beethoven-mania!

Like Warhol, Michael Jackson took the idea of working in collaboration to the extreme. On Dangerous, for example, the first album Jackson served as executive producer for, he had 3 production teams working simultaneously in 3 different studios for about 18 months to create the finished product. I don’t know if we’ll ever see those kind of production values again. The people who worked on the recordings talk about the unbelievable attention to detail that went into them, and the willingness of everyone involved to go all the way to create the best result humanly possible.

And though Jackson could be famously controlling of every detail, he was also very flexible in allowing creative input to come from anywhere within the system. For example, Bruce Swedien, a recording engineer, gets a writing credit on “Jam.” Bill Bottrell, a producer/engineer, created the rap and many of the rock/country instrumentals on “Black or White.”

So Michael Jackson was receptive to the ideas and talent around him, and he really used this to his advantage. Warhol seemed to have this ability as well – receiving help, ideas, and inspiration from many different sources. Apparently it was an art dealer, Muriel Latow, who suggested he should consider painting something as everyday and ordinary as a can of soup – the rest is history.

And I was surprised to learn that Andy Warhol actually did eat Campbell’s soup every day of his life; it wasn’t all postmodern irony and a critique of consumer culture as I had thought. His mother always had Campbell’s soup for him when he was a child, and it really seemed to mean a lot to him – warmth, nourishment, a mother’s love. He was painting his reality, and I see those paintings differently when I understand that about him, as opposed to his cool, detached celebrity persona.

Willa:  Oh, I agree – I’ve always been struck by what a feeling of comfort I get from his Campbell’s soup paintings. They’re often interpreted as an ironic statement, as you say, and I can see that intellectually, but that isn’t how they feel to me emotionally. There’s a real feeling of warmth and reassurance there. It’s like he’s saying that the comfort people once found in the familiar icons of the Catholic church – the paintings of the Virgin Mary, for example – they now get from the familiar icons of consumer culture, like Campbell’s soup cans. So while artists in past centuries painted and sculpted religious iconography, his focus is on the new consumer iconography. It’s a brilliant insight.

Lisha:  It truly is a brilliant insight, the marriage of the precious and the everyday. That’s something we see in every aspect of Michael Jackson’s work, from the high production values he brings to the devalued genre of pop, to the exquisitely made, hand-beaded couture jackets he wears with t-shirts and Levi’s 501 jeans. Creating art and myth through his celebrity persona is just another good example.

And as you were saying earlier, Willa, Michael Jackson takes the idea of the celebrity persona to a whole new level. I don’t even see how you could make an argument against it. I’m sure you’ve seen the 60 Minutes interview with Karen Langford, Michael Jackson’s archivist, when she displays some of his early writing which is now called the “MJ Manifesto.” It was Michael Jackson’s stated goal that “MJ” be a completely different person, a whole new character that he had big plans and ambitions for.

Willa:  That’s funny, Lisha – I’ve been thinking about the manifesto also. Here’s what he wrote:

MJ will be my new name. No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a whole new look. I should be a tottally different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang “ABC,” “I Want You Back.” I should be a new, incredible actor/singer/dancer that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a masterer. I will be better than every great actor roped into one.

And you’re right. It really does show how deliberate he was in thinking about and creating this new persona, this “whole new character” of MJ, doesn’t it?

Lisha:  Every album had a new one. I’ll never forget the shock and awe of standing in the grocery store checkout line in 1984 searching for a photo of Michael Jackson, since that is about all anyone was talking about in those days, and when I couldn’t find it, somebody had to explain to me that I was already looking at a photo of Michael Jackson. It totally blew my mind as I tried to rectify the earlier Michael Jackson image I knew with the Thriller/Victory tour image I saw. Of course no one could even imagine what was yet to come. He morphed again and again, to the racially ambiguous character in Bad, to the boundary-crossing Black or White character on Dangerous, to the colorless alien “Other” in Scream for the HIStory album.

Willa:  Which raises an important point – that the personae Warhol and Michael Jackson created weren’t necessarily intended to be appealing. They were much more complicated and provocative than that. As the narrator asks near the beginning of the documentary,

But who was Andy Warhol? On his journey from Andrew Warhola, he would not only change his name but also customize his personality to create a mechanical, factory-produced brand name that would embody the celebrity and consumer culture of the times.

That “mechanical, factory-produced” aspect of his “brand” was not especially attractive, at least not in the traditional sense. And neither were his wigs, for example, or his crassly materialistic public persona. But his wigs, his persona, and his brand aren’t judged by traditional standards of beauty or appeal because it’s understood that they were part of his art, and so they have to be interpreted in more complex ways, like art.

And I think this is one way a lot of critics have really misunderstood Michael Jackson. It is generally assumed that in his later career, he was trying to produce something attractive, something appealing to a mass audience, and failing. But if we look at the lyrics to “Is It Scary,” for example, we see that he was doing something much more complicated and interesting than that. Among other things, he was forcing us to confront our own prejudices – prejudices the press and public were trying to impose on his face and body because he was signified as “black,” as “male,” as a “pop star” or “just a pop star” – and later, horribly, as a “freak” and a “monster.”

So how does it change our perceptions if we begin to look at Michael Jackson’s public persona as an artistic creation, like we do with Andy Warhol? And how do we interpret it if we approach it that way?

Lisha:  Well, I think it would have been a much easier path for Michael Jackson had he initially made his private medical conditions public, broken the myth, and explained the changes in his appearance. He could have become an advocate for those like him who suffer from vitiligo and lupus, raising awareness of these diseases. I don’t think he would have had to take the relentless media bashing and persecution that he did, if that was his goal.

But instead of benefiting just a few, I think Jackson saw a much bigger opportunity that still has tremendous cultural resonance today.

Willa:  I agree absolutely. I don’t think we’ve even begun to measure the impact his changing face – as a work of art – has had on us psychologically, as individuals, and culturally, as a global society.

Lisha:  It’s true. Dr. Sherrow Pinder, a Multicultural and Gender Studies professor at California State University at Chico, has argued that as Jackson challenged the notion of “natural bodies and fixed identities as prearranged and controlled,” he had to be “culturally resisted, restricted, or worse, punished and humiliated in order for society to safeguard the realm of normality.”

Willa:  Absolutely, and the intensity of that backlash is an important indicator of just how profound and threatening this was – his transgression of a “fixed identity,” as Pinder calls it, based on traditional notions of race, gender, and sexuality. Michael Jackson challenged them all by “rewriting” his body, thereby complicating how identity is read through the body.

Lisha:  Media all over the world continue to speculate and fabricate stories about “Michael Jackson,” often disregarding factual information that has been available for some time. The media fiction almost always follows some variation of the “wacko,” “freak” or “monstrous figure” narrative, reflecting more about society’s need to “normalize” him than it ever did about Michael Jackson. And Jackson became so acutely aware of his function as a mirror of collective thought that he began exploiting it for artistic purposes, as in “Is It Scary” (“I’m gonna be exactly what you want to see / It’s you whose haunting me, because you’re wanting me to be the stranger in the night”) and “Threatened” (“I’m the living dead, the dark thoughts in your head / I heard just what you said, that’s why you’ve got to be threatened by me”).

Willa:  And we see that idea enacted literally in Ghosts when the Maestro enters the Mayor’s body, holds a mirror to his face, and forces him to witness his own inner “freakishness.” That freakishness the Mayor detests isn’t in the Maestro – it’s in himself.

Lisha:  That is such a brilliant scene – demonstrating his true mastery of the phenomenon.

And yet another mythic, artistic creation of “Michael Jackson” was ready to “Heal the World,” imagining a new empathic civilization into being. One of his most impressive feats was to magically strip away the color of his skin to physically demonstrate once and for all “it don’t matter if you’re black or white.”  When it became clear some still didn’t get the message, he took it a step further and became colorless – literally colorless. Scream and Stranger in Moscow demonstrate this so clearly.

Willa:  And it’s fairly clear that was a deliberate decision. Both videos were filmed in black and white with overly bright lights on his face to wash out the color, even gradations of color.

Lisha:  Absolutely. To me, it is obvious that this is the work of a brilliant and game changing artist. I hate to admit that it wasn’t until after Michael Jackson’s death that I finally looked at his work and realized what a new kind of art it was – imaginative and exquisitely crafted music full of sonic innovations and so-called “high art” aesthetics, synthesized with imagery and myth, delivered to the masses through the devalued genre of pop and the celebrity star system. But it was so much more – exploding off the stage and screen into our social discourses and everyday lives, encouraging us to go beyond our confused and violent past.

And although I wasn’t paying attention at the time, I came to realize how powerfully affected I was by Michael Jackson, without even knowing it. From 1969 to 2009, Michael Jackson was a constant presence, and I don’t believe you can overestimate the impact he made. Judging from the intense media coverage of his death, I wasn’t the only one who suddenly wondered what it was going to be like to live in a Michael Jackson-less world.

Willa:  Oh, I agree. I believe Michael Jackson profoundly altered our perceptions, our emotions, and our affective responses to differences of race, gender, sexuality, religion, family relationships – stereotypes of all kinds – though we may not realize it yet. As you said, we were “powerfully affected … without even knowing it.” And I believe he also revolutionized our ideas about art, though he was so far ahead of his time we don’t realize it yet. Some of it we still don’t even recognize as art!  We were in the midst of a gripping artistic experience without even knowing it.

It’s going to take a long time for art criticism and interpretation to catch up with him, I think, and begin to comprehend the enormous impact he’s had, both in terms of art and how we conceptualize art, and in terms of the deep cultural shifts he helped bring about. And that’s another way to evaluate an artist – by the depth and extent of their influence.

Near the end of the documentary, the narrator describes how Warhol’s influence is a constant presence in contemporary life, and then asks, “How can we miss you if you won’t go away?” You could ask the same question of Michael Jackson. He legacy is everywhere – from direct artistic influences on music, dance, film, fashion, to more subtle but perhaps more important cultural influences, such as how we read and interpret gender and racial differences.

Lisha:  You know, that’s just the thing. Michael Jackson is everywhere you look. And do we really understand why he continues to have such an impact? The entertainment industry is full of crazy antics, plastic surgery, glam rockers wearing make-up, gender bending and so on. Rita Hayworth is a good example of a performer who “whitened up” her Hispanic ethnicity to become the glamorous “Gilda” onscreen. So why is everyone still tripping on Michael Jackson? I think it will take a while to understand all this. Until then, we’ll keep “dancing with the elephant.”