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But I Loved It Cause It’s Dangerous

Willa: This spring we’ve been talking quite a bit about “Billie Jean,” both the song and the video. Raven Woods joined me in March for a post about Michael Jackson’s concert performances of “Billie Jean.” Then Nina Fonoroff joined me in April for a post about the initial scenes of the Billie Jean video and how they draw on film noir. Nina and I continued that discussion two weeks ago in a post that focused on the “second chapter” of the video and how it evokes and reverses The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz, both visually and thematically.

However, in addition to being a song and a video, Billie Jean is also a character – a woman who tries to ensnare the protagonist by claiming he’s the father of her son – and the prototype for a recurring figure in Michael Jackson’s work. She’s a femme fatale, a “dangerous” seductress who leaves chaos in her wake. And that’s what Raven and I will be focusing on today. Thank you so much for joining me again, Raven!

Raven: Thank you again for inviting me. It’s always exciting to talk about one of my favorite subjects – Michael Jackson and his women, or at least, the mythical pantheon of female characters who dominate his work.

Many of them are quite well known to us – Billie Jean and Dirty Diana would come instantly to most minds. Others, like Susie from “Blood on the Dance Floor,” are perhaps not as well known outside the hardcore fan base but are perhaps even more lethal. Then there are the many nameless women who managed to wreck their own particular brand of havoc, such as the title characters of “Dangerous” and “Heartbreaker” and the seductress of “In the Closet” who threatens the stability of a married man’s life and home. Whether it is very well known tracks like “Billie Jean” and “Dirty Diana” or lesser known tracks like “Chicago,” in which a married woman manages to entangle a naive and basically decent man in her web of deceit, the femme fatale was certainly a recurring motif throughout Michael’s body of work.

Willa: She really was. There are subtle differences between them – for example, the scheming woman who lies about him in “Heartbreak Hotel” doesn’t have the aura, the same power to entrap men’s minds, as Dirty Diana or the femme fatale in “Dangerous,” though all three of them tell a manipulative kind of lie that hurts My Baby and drives her away. And there’s a kind of sorrow surrounding the adulterous wife and mother in “Chicago” that we don’t see in his other femme fatale songs. But despite their differences, these women nevertheless share important characteristics and function in similar ways, and they appear again and again, as you say, Raven.

Raven: The big question this raises is Why? I think it is a question worth addressing, especially given that the sheer number of such femme fatale characters who have populated his songs have given rise, perhaps, to some unfair criticisms of Michael’s personal character. For starters, these songs haven’t exactly alleviated the beliefs in certain quarters that Michael had a misogynistic streak in him. And that is certainly something I would like to address, while at the same time remaining ever respectful of the fact that when we are talking about art, we must always take care to differentiate the artist from the person.

Willa: Yes, that’s a very important point that his critics sometimes forget. And we also need to differentiate the characters he portrays from the artist and the person as well. The protagonist of “Billie Jean” or “Heartbreak Hotel” or “Who Is It” or “Chicago” is a fictional character, not Michael Jackson.

Raven: Interpreting – or trying to interpret – motifs that occur repeatedly throughout an artist’s body of work has always been a fascinating study to me, anyway. As a literature teacher, this is a subject that often comes up in my classes, though unfortunately the somewhat rushed pace of a typical semester (where many different writers and works are to be covered) doesn’t always allow the leisure time to study any one particular author’s work in depth. But sometimes it is very apparent, even from comparing and contrasting two to three works, how some writers are obsessed with certain themes – themes they feel compelled to keep returning to over and over.

And it is not a tendency limited to writers by any means, but seems to run the full spectrum of art, from music, painting and film to sculpture and architecture. We might ask why, for example, was F. Scott Fitzgerald so obsessed with characters who are trying to recapture some elusive ideal from their past? Of course, if we understand even a little of the man’s life, we know why this theme was so important to him. Similarly, in turning to pop music, we might ask why is Prince so concerned with images of the apocalypse in his songs? What was Kurt Cobain’s obsession with dolls, fetuses, and bleach? (References to all three crop up repeatedly in his songs). Why did snakes and lizards feature so prominently in Jim Morrison’s lyrics? Why did Hendrix’s songs feature so many references to both astral and aquatic themes and out of body experiences?

Often when these kinds of discussions come up in class, we have to agree that no one, not even the best critics and scholars, can ever really probe into an artist’s mind to arrive at some definitive answer.

Willa: That’s true. We can’t even probe the depths of our own psyches, so how can we ever presume to know what’s happening in an artist’s mind?

Raven: Even the artists themselves may often find that they are returning to these themes subconsciously, perhaps not even aware of how often they are reoccurring. The best we can say is that these kinds of recurring themes are almost always an indicator of something the artist is trying to work through (again, whether consciously or subconsciously) and this is because the act of creating art is in itself a therapeutic process.

Clearly, Michael had somewhat of an obsession with femme fatales – even (we might daresay) a love/hate relationship with them.

Willa: Or a love/hate relationship with what they represent, which leads to a very different type of interpretation. For example, in one of our very first posts, Joie and I talked about these “bad girls,” and Joie said something that just blew me away. She suggested that maybe these seductive but threatening women represent the allure of fame:

Could these women possibly represent another side of his own psyche? Perhaps the part of him that courted fame, the side of him that was drawn to entertaining and creating and being on stage. That part of him that loved being in front of a camera or onstage performing in front of 80,000 people. Is it possible that these “dangerous” women represent fame itself and that Michael Jackson often felt seduced by it? Compelled to go off with her instead of going home to My Baby. Compelled to pursue his career instead of nurturing that secret part of himself that he tried to keep safely hidden away from the limelight.

When Joie said this, it hit me like a thunderbolt and gave me a whole new way of interpreting these women. This love triangle we see over and over in his work, with the main character torn between My Baby (quiet, domestic, the “good” woman who loves him) and a femme fatale (very public, very visible, wild, sensuous, unpredictable – the “dangerous” woman who lures him “into her web of sin”), can be seen as conflicting parts of his own personality.

As he repeatedly said, he was actually very shy and rather fearful of fame and all the attention it brings. He also said he liked to spend quiet evenings at home and didn’t really go in for nightclubs and the party scene – just like My Baby. But at the same time, he loved performing before an audience, loved the energy and excitement – and maybe even the danger – of being on stage. And one way to approach this ongoing conflict between My Baby and the femme fatale is to see it as reflecting and working through this internal conflict between those two sides of his personality.

So I tend to interpret these women much more symbolically now, but that doesn’t mean other interpretations aren’t there and aren’t valid. I mean, it’s true these songs are populated by a series of seductive, dangerous women, and there are many ways to interpret that …

Raven: That is an interesting interpretation. If one were to ask any woman in Michael’s life – Lisa Marie Presley being a prime example – which came first in his life, she would probably tell you very quickly that his work and career came before anything else. Michael said many times that he was “married” to his work, and it seemed to become a way of explaining why real-life relationships were so hard for him to sustain. If we consider that his work was put ahead of most relationships in his life, then we can also pretty safely add to that mix the seduction of fame and all that his fame represented for him.

I think he may have always, to some degree, felt a measure of guilt about the fact that he could not entirely rise above that seduction. For example, after watching the clip of Michael’s particularly moving Brunei performance of “Earth Song,” one of my students astutely observed that Michael had a higher calling than performing. She believed he could have worked for God and saved souls, but instead made the conscious decision to remain a secular entertainer instead. And it did seem sometimes that Michael was torn between two dual sides of his nature – the one that wanted to heal the world, and the one that loved being in the spotlight and adored by screaming throngs. The former satisfied the altruistic aspect of himself – that higher ideal of himself that he aspired to – while the latter was a kind of immediate gratification that validated both his ego and the desire to feel loved.

I believe this was at least part of what he meant in his piece “That One in the Mirror” from Dancing the Dream. Initially he describes the experience of looking in the mirror as looking at an alter ego version of himself who is detached from the world’s suffering and actually quite content to remain so. He ends the fourth paragraph of that piece by admitting that maybe all of the world’s problems are hopeless to solve, but “that one in the mirror” assures him that “you and I will survive. At least, we’re doing all right.” Michael then writes of his alter ego reflection:

He sees problems “out there” to be solved. Maybe they will be; maybe they won’t. He’ll get along. But I don’t feel that way …

Eventually, of course, the dualities are merged and “that one in the mirror” begins to fade away. The ideal (the compassionate soul who cares about the plight of the world) trumps self-gratification.

But what’s interesting to me about this piece is not so much the outcome, but the fact that he introduces and honestly acknowledges this kind of dual conflict between his alter egos. I love it because this is Michael honestly acknowledging the side of him that is very human – after all, if we are totally honest with ourselves, aren’t we all more concerned with our own well-being and gratification than the suffering of humans on the other side of the world whose names we will never know, or of animals whose suffering will never directly affect us? And it was that very human side of Michael that loved the instant gratification he got from performing and the adulation of fame.

Willa: That’s really interesting, Raven, and it reminds me of another piece from Dancing the Dream that I’ve struggled with how to interpret. It’s called “Two Birds,” and one bird sings with a voice “like crystal from the sky while the other bird keeps silent.” One is beautiful and highly visible – it glows with “light on its silver feathers” – while the other remains invisible. One is celebrated while the other is ignored. And we can interpret this invisible bird as someone he loves, someone the world knows nothing about, but we can also interpret it as part of himself – as “my soul,” as he calls it. As he says in the concluding lines,

It’s easy to guess which bird I am, but they’ll never find you. Unless …

Unless they already know a love that never interferes, that watches from beyond, that breathes free in the invisible air. Sweet bird, my soul, your silence is so precious. How long will it be before the world hears your song in mine?

Oh, that is a day I hunger for!

I go back and forth on how to interpret this. On the one hand, we can read it like a love letter to someone who quietly supports and sustains him. But it’s also possible to interpret “Two Birds” as representing two parts of his own psyche – one quiet and hidden, the other famous and successful – just like My Baby and the string of dangerous women he sings about in song after song.

Raven: You have me very intrigued with this! I dug out my copy of Dancing the Dream to re-read “Two Birds.” I have noticed that these themes of duality between body and soul, or the dualities between alter ego versions of himself, seem to be quite prominent throughout the book. In looking up “Two Birds” I also ran across “The Elusive Shadow” in which he describes his soul as a stranger he has never allowed himself to know. “Your music I did not hear,” he says. “Two Birds” seems like a continuation of that theme, although in reading it I also get a sense of “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” As you may recall, that song is written from the perspective of someone who has a lot of glory, and is paying homage to the “invisible” friend who was always there, unrecognized and unsung in the background, lending the support that made it possible for the other to fly.

This poem could have possibly been Michael’s homage to such a friend, but Michael tended to be pretty straightforward when paying tribute to his friends and I believe he would have provided a clue to the person’s identity had that been the case. After all, there was certainly nothing cryptic or especially metaphoric about his poem “Mother” or the piece titled “Ryan White.”

Willa: That’s true.

Raven: And given that the entire book is really about a man’s journey of self discovery, it lends even more credence to the interpretation of “Two Birds” as a conversation with his soul. It reminds me of Walt Whitman’s conversation with his soul in Part 5 of “Song of Myself” in which the separateness of his body and soul are resolved through an erotic encounter. In the edition of Dancing the Dream that I have, “Two Birds” is accompanied by a beautiful photo from the climactic moment of his “Will You Be There” performance when the angel swoops down and wraps him in her wings. I interpret that as the protection of a guardian angel, or God’s love enveloping him and holding him up. If we assume that photo was chosen deliberately to accompany “Two Birds,” it could give a possible clue to the interpretation, as perhaps his guardian angel or spirit who sustains him.

Willa: Oh, that’s a good point, Raven. I hadn’t put those together, but you’re right – when you look at it that way, that photo does suggest that the invisible bird is his inner self.

Raven: Of course, the conclusion that Michael eventually comes to in “That One in the Mirror” is that the two halves of himself need not be mutually exclusive, and I think this was also the same peace he eventually made with his own internal conflict regarding Fame vs. Selflessness. To go back to what my student said, although it was a very good point, who’s to say that Michael wasn’t fulfilling his calling to God by performing and using the very gifts that God gave him in order to reach out to millions?

Willa: Exactly. He was able to spread his vision of a more peaceful world, a more just world, through his art. His art was his calling.

Raven: His fame gave him the greatest platform imaginable for that purpose, as well as providing the wealth that made it possible for him to go forth with much of his charity work. And even if he did not, perhaps, strictly speaking, give up the allure of fame and secular entertaining to become Mother Teresa, he still found a way to merge these dualities within himself and to solve his internal conflict in a way that, I believe, eventually gave him peace with himself and his chosen path.

But to tie this back to our subject of femme fatales and the interpretation of these women as representations of fame, I definitely agree in the sense that these women represent the idea of something that is very alluring but forbidden – a temptation that holds a very strong sway over the male protagonist in these songs.

Willa: Yes, exactly. And that “something that is very alluring but forbidden” could be sex, but it could also be fame, or material success, or some other temptation.

Raven: We know that close on the heels of these sentiments comes guilt. And guilt is really the driving factor of all of these songs. Most of them (with a few exceptions that I hope we’ll get to cover) come down to a very simplistic moral tale of Seduction (Evil) vs. Overcoming (Good), with “good” often represented as “My Baby,” the girl who is waiting at home. What is interesting, however, is the fact that “Good” very seldom triumphs in these songs. The protagonist, being a man of flesh and blood, is almost always lured into these relationships, and thus the cycle begins – momentary gratification followed by the plunge into darkness and self-castigation, or “the wages of sin.”

Willa: That’s a really good point, Raven, and I think that’s part of what gives Michael Jackson’s songs their emotional complexity. The protagonist of these songs is not a simple “good” man ensnared by an “evil” woman. It’s much more complicated than that. He’s drawn to these threatening women – in fact, he’s drawn to them precisely because they’re so threatening. As he sings in “Dangerous”:

Her mouth was smoother than oil
But her inner spirit and words
Were as sharp as a two-edged sword
But I loved it ’cause it’s dangerous

So he sees very clearly what kind of woman this is – that she’s “bad” and “dangerous” – but that’s preciously what attracts him. And repeatedly we find that he isn’t battling her so much as the part of himself that’s drawn to her, that’s drawn to this kind of dangerous, intoxicating passion. That’s a really important distinction. So these femme fatale songs aren’t so much a story of good versus evil, but rather a psychological story about his own conflicting desires.

Raven: This is another aspect of Michael’s femme fatale songs that I find quite interesting. Other male pop singers also write and sing songs about seductive women, but more often, the songs are all about the celebration and even glorification of the seductress/vixen. An immediate example that comes to mind is Michael’s own arch rival, Prince, who brought us many sexy variations of the femme fatale in his own works. (I especially love direct comparisons of Prince’s and Michael’s two most famous groupie songs, “Darling Nikki” and “Dirty Diana,” respectively).

But from “Little Red Corvette” to “Darling Nikki,” sex with these women is almost always an ends to its own means, even when the girls seem to have the upper hand, as is certainly the case with both “Little Red Corvette” and “Darling Nikki.” There is none of the kind of self-castigation for the protagonist that comes with Michael’s songs. And clearly, this is for one simple reason – the protagonist in Prince’s songs, for example, feels no guilt about the encounter. He had a great time, living out every male’s fantasy, and other than being a little worse for wear and tear, obviously enjoyed the experience enough to celebrate it in song.

This is a far cry from Michael’s “forty days and nights” worth of penitence and torture over what most guys would consider a mere fling.

Willa: That’s a really good point, Raven, and you’re right – the protagonist of these two Prince songs seems to have a great time with very little guilt or angst or anything but satisfaction. But I think you can make the case that Prince felt more conflicted than it seems.

For example, I haven’t watched his movie Purple Rain in about 30 years, but I just looked up the “Darling Nikki” scenes from Purple Rain, and it’s surprisingly similar to what you might find in a Michael Jackson song. Prince’s character is on stage singing about the “sex fiend” Little Nikki, who seduces him – and as you say, Raven, the protagonist of the song feels very little remorse about that. But as he sings this song, he’s being watched by Appollonia, the “good woman” who loves him – a woman very similar to My Baby. She begins to cry and leaves the nightclub, and when he realizes he’s hurt her, he abruptly walks off stage and storms around his dressing room. Here’s a link.

So there’s a difference between the song as it’s written and how it functions in Purple Rain, where it creates a situation remarkably similar to My Baby and the dangerous women who threaten her and drive her away. Though maybe Appollonia is upset because she thinks he’s accusing her of being a “sex fiend” like Little Nikki. I’m not sure about that.

Raven: Yes, and as we have discussed before, songs can take on many additional layers of meaning as they evolve from track to video and live performance, or in this case, to film. I know that Prince wrote the album Purple Rain as a soundtrack to the film, but I don’t know if the songs came first or if he already had the storyline for the film in mind. (I suspect he did.) When his character “The Kid” performs the song “Darling Nikki” in the film, it’s clearly intended, as you said, to hurt Appollonia because he knows she’s in the audience.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the film, also, so I can’t remember exactly what had transpired between the two characters before then, but I do recall this – his entire intention with that performance was to humiliate her and to spite the audience in general. (As you can clearly see, everyone is quite uncomfortable and put off by the performance.) When Appollonia leaves, he calls out for Nikki to “come back,” which does make it sound like “Darling Nikki” might have been her all along. And as you pointed out, even though the performance was clearly done out of spite, he regrets his actions afterward, so that is the guilt factor coming in.

Willa: Yes, but even so, to me it doesn’t seem to have the complexity of so many of Michael Jackson’s songs. This isn’t a psychological study. What I mean is, the main character may feel guilty, but he isn’t exploring his own mind and his own conflicting impulses as so many of Michael Jackson’s protagonists do.

Raven: Interestingly, it was said that Michael walked out on Purple Rain and when asked why, he reportedly said that he didn’t like the way Prince treated women. I don’t know if that is true, however, or just an urban myth. Their rivalry was always more of a press invention than anything else. But if you actually compare Prince’s sex or femme fatale songs to Michael’s, I would say the ones in Michael’s songs are often much more demonized. “Dirty Diana,” for example, is more than just a groupie. She is portrayed almost as a soul stealer. The same could be said for “Billie Jean” but I think with “Dirty Diana” it is even more graphic.

In going back and watching the original video of “Dirty Diana” I can see a lot of elements that lend credence to all of these interpretations. Diana seems to be both a literal woman who is a seducer and soul stealer (the protagonist knows he is supposed to go home to his wife or girlfriend) but could also be a metaphor for the seduction of fame itself.

At the video’s beginning, we see two events happening simultaneously: a guy is going onstage, walking into a lone spotlight to perform before an audience, and a girl with wickedly long, sexy legs is getting out of a limo and walking towards the backstage door. That first note sets up a very ominous tone, and we see her throughout the video only in shadow. The video will then continuously cut back and forth between the performer onstage and the gradually encroaching Diana. The moment when the protagonist steps onstage is also very reminiscent of the moment in “Billie Jean” when he steps into the lone spotlight and becomes “the one” in the round, but here, perhaps because it’s more of a rock song, the emphasis is on performing rather than dancing. But it seems to be the same concept, more or less.

Also, as in most of his “Billie Jean” performances, he wears a combination of black and white. Michael liked this color combination; he used it a lot. In short films like Black or White the meaning behind the color symbolism of his clothes was quite obvious. But he also liked to use this color combination in “Billie Jean” and “Dirty Diana” and it may represent the duality of someone who is in battle with the pure/ideal side of his nature on the one hand, and the darker, corrupt side of himself that he seems to be battling.

Willa: That’s interesting, Raven. I hadn’t noticed that before.

Raven: To carry that analogy further, he also always wore a black-and-white color combination when singing “Will You Be There,” which is also, in many ways, a song about a protagonist’s battle with his own humanity vs. some imposed “ideal” purity of spirit:

But they told me
A man should be faithful
And walk when not able
But I’m only human

In “Billie Jean,” black is usually the dominant color, with white usually providing a mere contrast via his undershirt, socks, and the stripes of the jogging pants. But in “Dirty Diana” it is the opposite. White is the dominant color via the full, flowing shirt he wears, and when he steps into the spotlight, it gives him an almost angelic appearance. This is contrasted sharply with the ominous, shapely legs in shadow, creeping ever closer. (Sadly, Lisa Dean, the woman whose legs were made famous in that video, lost her battle with cancer in 2010.)

The fact that “Dirty Diana” focuses so prominently on a woman’s body part was not unusual for the 80s. This was, after all, a very sexist era and most of the metal videos of the day – which “Dirty Diana” is obviously parodying – would routinely feature a vixen’s sexy legs or other body part, and not much else. Both with Dirty Diana and those videos, it’s a kind of dehumanization intended to reduce the female to little more than a body part.

But there is a decided difference in the way this dehumanization is presented in most of the 80s metal videos as compared to Dirty Diana. Whereas in most of the videos from that era, the dehumanization of females to a mere body part was all done in cheesy fun (it was just part of the culture, and the girls were always shown as having as much fun with it as the guys) in Dirty Diana there is a striking difference. Again, in most of the metal videos from the era, it was obvious that it was all in good fun and the guys obviously adored the girls (even as they exploited them) but in Dirty Diana the dehumanization of Diana seems intended to both keep her at a distance and to demonize her in some respects. Thus, while some girls might have identified with typical groupies (“Look how much fun she’s having; I want that, too!”) Dirty Diana is not someone that either male or female viewers could ever get too close to, or identify with. There’s no face to put with her, and this intensifies the idea of her as something both mysterious and ominously evil – something not quite of this world. Even the lyrics make it clear that she’s not someone who is there to have fun. She is the equivalent of a psychic vampire or succubus, someone who is there to take your soul and to leave you among the damned.

There is that great, climactic moment as the song approaches its bridge (here it occurs at about 2:47) where Michael drops to his knees as if in prayer. The moment is suspended for several seconds (he doesn’t rise to his feet until he begins singing the next verse) so obviously, it was intended to have an impact on the viewer. Michael liked these kinds of theatrics in his performances; we know that. However, he seldom threw in such theatrics without some purpose that could be applied to the interpretation of the song. Here it seems to be, as I said, very much a gesture of prayer, as if the protagonist is aware of Diana’s ever-approaching presence and is praying for the strength of spirit to be able to resist.

There is also something of the sacrificial lamb in that pose, as if he knows he is ultimately going to be sacrificed at the altar of Diana. But as the song and performance enter the final stages, and Michael’s vocal delivery intensifies to match the intensity of the struggle, it’s obvious he is going to be on the losing end of this battle.

Willa: That’s so interesting, Raven. I tend to interpret “Dirty Diana” a little differently than you do. For example, I don’t see her as evil but as very human – a woman who wants a different life and will do whatever it takes to get that life:

She waits at backstage doors
For those who have prestige
Who promise fortune and fame
A life that’s so carefree
She’s saying, That’s ok
Hey baby, do what you want
I’ll be your night loving thing
I’ll be the freak you can taunt
And I don’t care what you say
I want to go too far
I’ll be your everything
If you make me a star

In some ways, I feel a lot of sympathy for this woman who’s trapped in the life of a groupie because she craves fame so desperately – something Michael Jackson himself seemed to understand.

And as Joie mentioned in that post a long time ago, this is another case where My Baby is the quiet domestic good woman, while Dirty Diana is a femme fatale who seems to represent a lust for fame and stardom. So I tend to interpret her more symbolically, and the fact that we don’t see her face supports that. She’s a symbol of a drive or an emotion – a very human emotion – rather than an individual person.

Raven: I find a lot of elements here that do support Joie’s interpretation as well. For example, this entire video is set up as a showcase performance piece. We never actually see a man and a woman interacting or engaging. What we see is one man, on a stage, in a spotlight, with his band and the adoring audience in front of him. This could well represent the idea of fame and its seduction.

Willa: Yes, I agree.

Raven: His girl wants him at home (the normal life) and a part of him wants to be able to give her that part of himself, but he seems to doubt if it is ever going to be possible. The allure and seduction of fame have too big of a grip on him.

Even if we take the song literally (let’s say it really is just the story of a groupie) the interpretation still works because, for male performers, groupies and women like Dirty Diana go with the territory. In other words, part of the price of fame is selling your soul and accepting the things that come with it that will corrupt you. Dirty Diana and Fame could well simply be two sides of the same coin for this guy, as he may find the distinction increasingly blurred in his mind.

The ending of the video has been the subject of much critical debate and scrutiny. The last thing we see is the performer (Michael) running offstage, hoping to escape in the waiting limo. But when he opens the door, “she” is waiting inside for him. That ominous pause where he simply freezes – the expression on his face an inscrutable blank that is neither totally surprise, joy, or dread – is hands down one of the greatest and yet most cryptic endings of the entire history of music videos. The only thing we can really interpret about that moment is that the performer seems to recognize that his soul is irretrievably lost from this moment, and there is no going back. And again, whether we interpret the song as a cautionary tale about sex and the wages of sin, or as a metaphor for the seduction of fame, both make sense. What we’re left with is a protagonist who knows he’s entrapped.

Willa: Hmmm. That’s interesting, Raven. Again, I interpret this scene a little differently. To me, this is a moment of conflict – the moment when he has to decide if he will get in the car with her or not. He’s been singing about this decision for four minutes, and now it’s arrived. So what will he choose? Will he go home to My Baby, or will he go off with Dirty Diana? And to me, that’s still very much up in the air.

Raven: I guess for me I don’t see it so much as a debate for him at that point as it is a foregone conclusion. But again, it may depend on how literally one is interpreting the song – whether it is a tale of conflict over a seduction, or something deeper. But he did leave that ending very ambiguous for a reason, obviously, and that reason is to keep us guessing. I don’t know; I may be reading too much into it, but I’ve always found it one of the darkest of Michael’s femme fatale songs.

But something interesting about Michael’s “sex” songs is the very clear distinction and progression we see moving from the 80s into the 90s. Although when we say “sex” songs I think we have to distinguish those, certainly, from romance songs. In his great ballad “Lady of My Life,” for example, this is obviously an intimate relationship but one gets the feeling that the female partner is definitely one of his romanticized ideals, probably a very classy young woman, one who is closer to “My Baby.”

I would also put “Rock with You” in that category as well. He is obviously singing about making love, but it’s very much in the vein of what Susan Fast calls his “soul man” persona, where everything is very sweet, very tender, very romantic. There aren’t very many songs from this era where sex and/or the femme fatale as an object of sexual desire is celebrated in and of itself, and of course, when such women did present themselves, it was almost always in the form of a cautionary tale.

“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” may be one of the earliest exceptions, a song that seems to joyously and simply celebrate the sex act, but even here, it becomes a bit of a cautionary tale. In the spoken intro, Michael is asking his partner whether they should continue because “the force, it has a lot of power.” So again, even though it is certainly a much lighter and more joyous track than “Dirty Diana,” it’s that same sense of struggling to resist yielding to a temptation that, once given in to, will ultimately ensnare you and from which there will be no escape. However, Michael himself argued (in part to appease Katherine) that “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” wasn’t necessarily about sex. “The force” could be whatever one interpreted it to be. But it is still, basically, the idea of something bigger than one’s self that acquires a certain kind of power over you. In this case, it’s simply that giving in just happens to feel good and provides joy rather than self-castigation.

However, it really isn’t until the 90s and the Dangerous era that we really begin to see a shift, with Michael seemingly willing to write or perform songs that could simply celebrate sexuality, groupies, and sexy women without the need for a moral consequence or self-castigation.

I am sure that breaking away from the Jehovah’s Witness had much to do with liberating his views sexually. Of course, as some have pointed out, the Jacksons were never exactly strict Jehovah’s Witnesses, anyway, but we do know that Michael struggled harder than his siblings to try to maintain his faith. He truly tried to believe in the doctrines for most of his life, even when he was sometimes confused by them, and this struggle did bleed into his lyrics. The break, therefore, must have felt like a tremendous weight being lifted and, as some have attested, the impact was evident in his personal life as well, allowing him to have a new openness about his own sexuality that had before been mostly denied or repressed. Not surprisingly, this also carried over into his songwriting, and perhaps plays a huge part in why Dangerous became his sexiest and most adult album to date.

Willa: Yes, though even in his later songs, it stays complicated. For example, “Dangerous” is not the free-wheeling “Little Red Corvette,” as you mentioned earlier.

Raven: Speaking of Prince, it seems to me one of those great ironies of pop music is that, just as Prince was becoming more religious and evangelical in his songs (reflecting his own, personal spirituality) Michael’s trajectory was going the opposite direction – becoming funkier, dirtier, and a “bad boy” who could – on occasion at least – sing the praises of a dirty vixen as well as the next guy.

While tracks like “In the Closet” do seem to continue his typical femme fatale trope (though in subtly different ways), other tracks like “She Drives Me Wild” present a protagonist who shows no shame in lusting after a woman who is presented as pure sex. And one of my all-time favorite tracks from the Dangerous sessions – an outtake that didn’t make the album – is a song called “She Got It.”

Most people who hear this track recognize immediately that it has a very distinct, Prince-like sound (perhaps this was Michael attempting to out-Prince Prince!) but whatever the case, I think it does represent an important progression for Michael personally. The girl is clearly one of his typical femme fatales in many respects …

Willa: Yes. For example, like so many of his femme fatales, she craves with fame. As he sings, “She wants to be a movie star / She’d sell on TV.” And there’s still some internal conflict. For example, the title tells us “She’s Got It,” but the chorus undercuts that by repeatedly telling us, “She don’t like it / And the boy don’t want it.”

Raven: But here the subject matter is dealt with in a humorous, light fashion (reminiscent of a group of guys getting together to joke about groupies) and the protagonist clearly enjoys enumerating her assets without shame or guilt.

Willa: That’s true.

Raven: This girl clearly isn’t a romantic ideal; she isn’t even particularly a sexual ideal (the description makes her seem almost like a pig-ish caricature) but she’s clearly a good-time gal who has the protagonist sprung, even when he feebly protests “she’s too much for me.”

I call this a progression even though I know some fans might look at a song like “She Got It” and call it it a kind of regression. For example, some might argue that Michael’s vision on songs like “Billie Jean” and “Dirty Diana” was much more artistically mature than what we get here, with a song like “She Got It,” and I certainly wouldn’t argue that point. But I think it’s an interesting artistic progression for Michael in that he seems to finally feel comfortable, flirty, and free enough to allow himself to write and perform these kinds of songs – again, without the need to insert a moral compass or to turn them into a cautionary tale. However, that didn’t mean he was finished with writing cautionary tales – far from it, in fact, as “Blood on the Dance Floor” would prove.

Willa: Or “Heartbreaker,” or “Black Widow” from the Cascio tracks, if you believe those songs are his, or numerous other songs. This is a figure that runs the entire length of his career, and thank you so much, Raven, for joining me to talk about this complicated, intriguing, but difficult to interpret character!

Raven: Thank you, Willa! Always a pleasure to be a part of Dancing with the Elephant.

Celebrating Bad: Presenting the Music Visually

Joie:  So Willa, everyone knows that Thriller is the biggest-selling album of all time. But did you know that for a short while, Bad was actually the second biggest-selling album of all time?

Willa:  Really?  No, I didn’t know that.

Joie:  To this day, in fact, it is still regarded as one of the best-selling albums ever made – I think it’s like number six on the worldwide list – and until Katy Perry tied the record with her album Teenage Dream, it was the first and only album to spawn five number one singles.

Willa:  I did know that, and it’s amazing – especially for an album many saw as under-performing in terms of record sales. It shows just how high the bar was set for the follow-up album to Thriller.

Joie:  That record stood unmatched for 23 years! And what I love most about this album is that Michael penned over 80% of it himself – nine out of the 11 tracks on the album were written by him.

So, I guess what I’m getting at here is that, even though for many people, Thriller is often seen as the pinnacle of Michael Jackson’s success (and commercially, that is certainly true), it is actually the follow-up album, Bad, where we begin to see the artist really stretch his wings and grow artistically, emotionally, creatively, and politically.

Willa:  That’s really interesting, Joie, and something Quincy Jones has suggested also. As he says in the first additional track on the Bad, Special Edition album, “I could just see him growing as an artist and understanding production and all that stuff.” So here’s a question I want to ask Quincy Jones every time I hear that, but I’m going to put you on the spot and ask you instead: what do you see as the major signs of growth between Thriller and Bad?

Joie:  Well, first of all, what I just pointed out. The fact that he wrote the majority of the songs on it. With his first two adult solo efforts, Off the Wall and Thriller, that wasn’t the case. He only wrote three of the songs on Off the Wall and four on Thriller. So I think that shows major growth and maturity, both artistically and creatively.

Willa:  That’s true, and we can see that in the number of videos he made also. He made three each for Off the Wall and Thriller, but he made eight for Bad – nine if you count “Leave Me Alone” – and nine for Dangerous, so Bad seems to have been an important turning point for him that way too.

Joie:  Also, the things he’s writing about. The subject matter of the songs on Bad show a lot of maturity and growth as well.

Willa:  I suppose, though “Billie Jean” is so emotionally complex, and there’s a lot of depth in “Beat It,” and “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Workin’ Day and Night” as well. So it’s not like his previous songs were simplistic.

Joie:  Well, that’s very true. Simplistic is not a word I would use to describe his writing. But, I don’t know. The Bad album just seems a little more “grown up” to me than his previous two adult efforts.

Willa:  And more uniquely “him” because he did write so many of the songs himself, as you mentioned earlier. You know, the story you always hear about Bad is that he put tremendous pressure on himself to top Thriller, and I’m sure those kinds of pressures were there to some degree. Creating a follow-up to Thriller would be intimidating, I’m sure.

Joie:  Oh, no doubt about it. I can’t imagine what that kind of pressure must be like.

Willa:  Oh, I know!  But listening to this album, it doesn’t feel like it’s coming from a place of anxiety and insecurity. He sounds very sure of himself, with a message he feels compelled to share and the confidence to share it. I wonder if that’s part of what you’re feeling, Joie, when you say that, for you, this is the album where he really comes into his own.

Joie:  You could be onto something there, Willa. He does seem to have a certain level of self-confidence and even cockiness on this album so, maybe that is what I’m reacting to. And, you know, when I think about this album, it’s really difficult for me to choose the one stand-out track that sets this CD apart or makes it great because really, every song is a masterpiece all by itself.

Willa:  I know what you mean, and I wonder if that’s because of all the videos. You know, in Moonwalk he talks about the videos he made for the Thriller album and emphasizes that they weren’t just tacked on after the fact as a marketing tool. They were part of his vision from the beginning. As he says,

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

And Bad is where he really achieves that goal of presenting his songs “as visually as possible.” Except for the two duets, he made a video for every song on the album, and I think that contributes to that feeling you’re talking about, Joie, that “every song is a masterpiece.” Because each song has its own video, each one feels like a fully realized, multi-sensory work of art.

You know, even when I’m not watching the videos themselves, like when I’m listening to Bad on the car stereo, I’m still visualizing those images. They’re just an integral part of each song for me now.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa; they do feel like an “integral part of each song” and it is almost impossible not to visualize the short film when listening to the songs themselves. And I’m sure that was probably very intentional on his part, as that quote you cited from Moonwalk points out. And, as you said earlier, he also made nine videos for his following album, Dangerous and eight for the HIStory album so, I believe presenting the music “as visually as possible” was something that was very important to him and something that he was committed to doing.

Willa:  I agree. It really feels to me like he achieved the fullest expression of his art through his videos. That’s where it all comes together: the music, the dance, that incredible voice, the visual cues, the backstory and narrative – or as he described the structure of his videos, the beginning and the middle and the ending of what he’s trying to convey.

Joie:  I agree. And it really makes you think about his great love of films. Sometimes I believe his videos are so amazing because of his love for film. How many times did he talk about the power of film and being able to take an audience anywhere you wanted them to go, all through film. And many times, that’s what his videos do – they transport you momentarily to a different place. A place of his choosing. It’s no wonder he wanted them referred to as ‘short films’ instead of videos.

And just thinking about that fact makes me really angry that he was hindered from doing the same with Invincible. I love that album so much, and I would have loved to have seen what videos he could have come up with for it. But you’re right, Bad is the first album where he achieves this goal of presenting the music as visually as possible and because of that, his name really became sort of synonymous with music videos.

It’s an interesting concept that no one else was really doing at the time. You know, most artists were just using the music video as a sort of promotional tool and the resulting videos had very little to do with the song itself. But Michael changed all that; he ‘flipped the script’ as the saying goes. Suddenly music videos weren’t just some abstract add on but, they were a way to actually bring the song to life.

Willa:  And not always in ways you expect – like who would ever listen to “Liberian Girl” and imagine the video he created for it? Or “The Way You Make Me Feel”? Or “Speed Demon”? Or “Bad” or “Smooth Criminal” or “Dirty Diana”? Actually, the Dirty Diana video probably enacts the lyrics more closely than the others:  as he sings about a performer being approached by a groupie, we discover that he really is a performer being approached by a groupie.

But even it heightens and complicates the lyrics in interesting ways. In fact, there are some very interesting details in Dirty Diana. For example, he’s singing about this love triangle between himself, My Baby, and Diana. Diana just wants him, or her idea of him as a famous rock star, and she doesn’t really care if she hurts him or My Baby. At one point he sings that he’s talking on the phone with My Baby, and Diana says into the phone, “He’s not coming back because he’s sleeping with me.” That is such a moment of betrayal – just imagine how painful that moment must be for him and My Baby – yet the concert crowd roars when he sings that. The audience goes nuts. And it’s interesting – the roar of the crowd at that moment isn’t on the album; it’s only in the video.

What the crowd’s reaction says pretty clearly is that they aren’t listening to this song from My Baby’s point of view, or even his point of view, but from Diana’s – and really, that makes perfect sense because they are like Diana. They want him too, just like Diana does. We see that in the video when he rips his shirt open. The crowd really goes wild then. He’s an object of desire, and they fantasize about fulfilling that desire, regardless of the consequences for him or his private life.

And actually, that seems to be the position he wants the audience to be in – he wants us to desire him when he’s on stage, and he wants us to align ourselves with Diana. We see that in the lyrics, where he encourages us to sympathize with her and see things from her point of view. So the audience is positioned with her, which makes sense. But then at the end of the video he does that classic Michael Jackson move we see in so many of his videos where he suddenly shifts the perspective. We follow him as he comes offstage, he opens the door of his car, and there’s a very unsettling power chord as he sees there’s a woman waiting for him inside.

Joie:  That’s a very sharp observation, Willa. I never made that connection between the roar of the crowd and the audience’s point of view in this video before. Interesting.

Willa:  Oh, it’s so interesting – what he does with point of view is just fascinating to me, and he plays with it constantly, in such complicated ways. Like when the perspective shifts in Dirty Diana, suddenly everything takes on a very different character. This isn’t the typical rock star/groupie fantasy we see played out in so many music videos. This is the fantasy giving way to realism, and suddenly our perspective shifts and we’re forced to consider the situation more from his point of view – and his point of view is really complicated. It’s always complicated. He never lets us off with a simple answer.

So there’s a beautiful young woman sitting in his car wanting to have sex with him, and on the one hand, that’s a nice problem to have. I mean, really, things could be worse. But on the other hand, he doesn’t know her, doesn’t know anything about her – doesn’t know if she’s kind or cruel or nutty as a fruitcake – and he’s just described in the lyrics how a woman like this has the potential to hurt him and My Baby. So it’s complicated.

Joie:  It is complicated. And, as we talked about last summer during the My Baby series, Dirty Diana perfectly highlights that complicated, often strange issue of celebrity and fame. And it’s also a perfect example of presenting the music “as visually as possible.” As you stated earlier, many of the short films tell a much different story than we would expect when simply listening to the song itself; but that’s not the case with Dirty Diana. Here the short film mirrors the song very closely – so the song itself really does come alive before our very eyes. If that’s not presenting the music visually, I don’t know what is!

Summer Rewind, Week 1: My Baby

NOTE:  The My Baby series was originally posted last August on the 14th, 20th and 27th. You can see the original posts and comments here.

Thinking About My Baby

Willa:  As Joie mentioned last week, the idea for this blog grew out of a long series of emails we were exchanging back and forth. We were having a wonderful time sharing ideas and comparing notes about Michael Jackson’s work, and we each really enjoyed talking with someone who knew his work and cared about it as much as we did. One thing she and I discovered over the course of our emails is that we’re both fascinated by My Baby, and have been for a long time.

Joie:  You all know who she is; you have heard Michael sing about her for years. She is presumably the girl of his dreams, the woman who knows him and loves him and truly cares about him. She’s also the woman who is constantly hurt time and time again by other devious, “bad girls” who throw themselves into Michael’s orbit like in “Billie Jean,” “Dirty Diana,” and “Dangerous.”

Willa:  She’s a very important figure in Michael Jackson’s work, appearing on album after album, from Triumph and Thriller in the early 1980s to Invincible in 2001. And, as Joie says, she’s almost always hurt or threatened in some way. In fact, we often see her walking away in tears.

Joie:  What draws my attention to her, I guess, is the fact that Michael sings about her as if she is someone who has been in his life for a long time. Even though her appearance on the songs I just mentioned – and others – is usually brief, we get the feeling that she is incredibly important to him. He loves her and he clearly wants to protect her from the ‘wicked women,’ he sings about in “Heartbreak Hotel,” (a.k.a. This Place Hotel). We see him constantly fretting over the fact that she will be hurt somehow by the “bad girls” and that they will drive her away from him.

Someone’s always tryin’  
to start My Baby cryin.’  
Talking, squealing, lying,  
saying you just want to be startin’ somethin.’

It’s almost as if he’s describing a relationship that has seen its share of ups and downs. They’ve been through this sort of thing before and My Baby always ends up hurt. At least, in the early years of their relationship – in the 1980s and ’90s. But by 2001’s “Heaven Can Wait,” it’s clearly a much different relationship. Here we see that My Baby not only loves him and cares about him, but now she trusts him too; she has faith in him. Their relationship is solid and no one can come between them anymore. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with and it’s the greatest love affair either of them has ever experienced. He loves her so deeply that he doesn’t want to leave her for an instant – not even for heaven!

Oh no, can’t be without My Baby.  
Won’t go, without her I’ll go crazy.  
Oh no, guess Heaven will be waiting.

It’s really interesting to me that their union changes over time. The way he writes about her grows and matures over the years just as if it were a real relationship. We see the initial infatuation in songs like “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and “Streetwalker,” and we watch it grow and blossom in songs like “Black or White,” and “Fly Away.” And then we see the culmination of their love on the beautiful “Heaven Can Wait.”

Willa:  As Joie says, in his early albums, she’s threatened by another woman. My Baby seems to be a private person who knows and cares about the protagonist, though she avoids the limelight and seems somewhat uncomfortable with his fame. He loves her and tries to protect her, but she’s repeatedly hurt by another woman who wants to push her out and take her place. This second woman doesn’t really know him or care about him, but she’s much bolder than My Baby and is actually attracted to fame, the protagonist’s fame – in fact, she’s something of an adventurer. The protagonist recognizes all that and distrusts her. Yet at the same time, he finds himself strangely drawn to this other, bolder woman.

Joie:  And his relationship with this other woman is just as interesting as his relationship with My Baby. It’s almost like you can’t have one without the other. Like they are two halves of the same coin, so to speak.

Willa:  I agree. The recurring conflict between these women is very interesting. There’s obviously something very important going on here – something Michael Jackson explored and wrestled with for years. I think that’s one reason I started seeing My Baby as representing more than just a romantic relationship. To me, My Baby and the other woman seem to represent his shy side versus his public side, or his private life versus his public life, with the intrusions of the media and intense public interest in him threatening to destroy his private life, just as that bold other woman threatens to drive away My Baby.

Or these two women could represent his muse – the woman of myth who has quietly inspired artists’ creativity for centuries – and the audience and critics who kept demanding that he create another Thriller and just wanted him to sing “Billie Jean” over and over again for the rest of his life. But it’s not an either/or situation. While I see these other interpretations, I still see My Baby as a woman who knows him and cares for him, and provides for him emotionally as well.

Welcome to Heartbreak Hotel

Willa:  We first meet My Baby in “Heartbreak Hotel” (or “This Place Hotel”), which Michael Jackson wrote and recorded for The Jacksons’ 1980 Triumph album. And it seems to have been an important song for him: he performed it with his brothers on the Triumph and Victory tours, and it was the only Jacksons’ song he sang throughout his Bad tour.

“Heartbreak Hotel” begins with a reference to a traumatic loss that happened “Ten years ago on this day”:

Live in sin  
Ten years ago on this day my heart was yearning  
I promised I would never ever be returning  
Where My Baby broke my heart and left me yearning

Importantly, “ten years ago” is when Michael Jackson first became a public figure on the national stage: “I Want You Back” became the Jackson 5’s first number one hit in 1970.

The protagonist and My Baby enter Heartbreak Hotel together. It’s a public place where they encounter a crowd of “faces staring.” And while the staring people are strangers, they seem to know him: “they smiled with eyes that looked as if they knew me.” But they don’t really know him, and he doesn’t know them. It’s a pretty accurate description of the life of a celebrity. This stanza ends with Jackson singing, “This is scaring me.”

He and My Baby walk upstairs together and enter his hotel room, but two women are there already. One of them approaches him and says, “This is the place / You said to meet you right here at noon.” It’s not true, but My Baby believes her – believes this stranger is his lover – and Jackson sings, “Hope is dead.” He goes on to describe how My Baby is hurt because she doesn’t understand the situation, but ends with “Someone’s evil to hurt my soul.” So this lie not only hurts My Baby; it also hurts “my soul.” The two are so closely connected, it’s as if My Baby is his soul. The stanza ends with these lines:

This is scaring me  
Then the man next door had told  
He’s been here in tears for fifteen years  
This is scaring me

Who is this man? Could it possibly be Elvis? After all, Elvis begins his song “Heartbreak Hotel” (which was his first number one hit) with the lines:

Since My Baby left me  
I found a new  place to dwell
 It’s down at the end of Lonely Street  
At Heartbreak Hotel

So apparently Elvis lives there. Now Michael Jackson has checked into the room next door, and he’s in the same position Elvis was in for years.

This “man next door” says “He’s been here in tears for fifteen years,” so since 1965 – right when Elvis’ career began its decline, and his celebrity began to take an ugly turn. Elvis was the King in the late 1950s and early ’60s, but then the British Invasion took place from 1964 to 1966. Suddenly, the Beatles and Rolling Stones were climbing the pop charts, and Elvis was increasingly seen as outdated and irrelevant, even an object of ridicule.

So in these two very different songs with the same name, Elvis and Michael Jackson describe a situation that’s emotionally devastating to them. However, while Elvis is clearly singing about a romantic loss, Jackson’s song is much more complicated, and much more ambiguous. Is it just a shattered romance, or more than that? Jackson’s “Heartbreak Hotel” ends with these lines:

Someone’s stabbing my heart  
This is Heartbreak Hotel  
Ten years ago today  
Hurting my mind  
You break My Baby’s heart  
This is Heartbreak Hotel  
Just welcome to the scene

“Welcome to the scene” is a pretty odd ending for a song about lost love. So again, there seems to be more going on than just an ill-fated romance. And once again, he and My Baby are conflated: his heart is hurt, her heart is hurt, his mind is hurt. They share the same pain. He’s feeling what she’s feeling, as if she were a part of him.

Joie:  Wow! Not sure I would have made the obvious Elvis connection here but, I’ve got to say, it makes a crazy kind of sense.

Willa:  I know. It does sound kind of crazy, doesn’t it? I wasn’t expecting to go off on an Elvis tangent, and obviously “the man next door” could mean many different things, but suddenly that idea popped into my head and I went with it, just to see where it took me. I think any interpretation – even a crazy-sounding interpretation – is valid as long as it can be adequately supported by evidence from the text, and there’s quite a bit of evidence to support this. And it does make a lot of sense if you see this song as talking about celebrity, which was a very important theme for Michael Jackson.

Joie:  Well, I’ll go with that for a minute and say that, if this was intentional on Michael’s part, it’s actually brilliant. However, when The Jacksons made the decision to change the name of the song to “This Place Hotel,” Michael did say that he was not familiar with Elvis’ song. So, while I agree that the imagery of both songs work very well together, I’m skeptical that there is any real connection between the two.

But I love what you have to say about My Baby possibly representing his own soul. And that line towards the end where he says “Hurting my mind.” It’s like My Baby represents him: his psyche. His mind, his heart, his soul – the inner self that he keeps protected from public view. As I said last week, Michael sings about My Baby as if she is someone who is very important to him and has been in his life for a very long time, and I think this notion that she is symbolic of his own inner being carries a lot of weight. In “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” Michael says,

Someone’s always tryin’  
To start My Baby cryin’  
Talking, squealing, lying  
Saying you just want to be startin’ somethin’

If we look at this verse in these terms, it’s very easy to see how My Baby could be a euphemism for his inner self. Someone’s always trying to hurt him. He goes on to sing,

Billie Jean is always talkin’  
When nobody else is talkin’  
Telling lies and rubbing shoulders  
So they called her mouth a motor

Sticking with this theory we can argue that Billie Jean – and all of the other “bad girls” who come his way – represents his public life and all the baggage that comes with it (the lies, the media, the paparazzi, etc.).

Willa:  I agree, and I really like that quotation you cited. “Billie Jean is always talkin’” – just like the media is always talking. From a very young age, Michael Jackson faced constant commentary and speculation about his private life. And the media’s mouth isn’t just “a motor.” It’s an industry.

Joie:  An industry he would end up battling for the rest of his career. But we’ll talk more about that next time when we take a closer look at the “bad girls” in this threesome.

Willa:  Right. And this three-way conflict between My Baby, the intrusive women who hurt her, and the protagonist who finds himself caught between the two continues to evolve – just as Michael Jackson’s relationship with the media evolved. We see this scenario of My Baby being hurt by an aggressive, dishonest woman recurring again and again: for example, in “Billie Jean” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” on Thriller, in “Dirty Diana” from Bad, and in the title track to Dangerous. And then she disappears. My Baby isn’t mentioned once on his HIStory album, which was his first album after the 1993 molestation allegations. It’s like his public life has become so toxic she’s completely hidden from view now.

Or maybe not. Maybe she does appear, but in an unexpected way, and in an unexpected place – in the video to a song he didn’t write, “You Are Not Alone.” The song opens with a story of lost love:

Another day has gone  
I’m still all alone  
How could this be  
You’re not here with me
 
You never said goodbye  
Someone tell me why  
Did you have to go  
And leave my world so cold

However, the video opens with a crowd of reporters and photographers pressing in on him as he walks by with his head bowed. It’s the exact same situation he sang about repeatedly in earlier albums: these intrusive people are claiming to know him and telling lies about him, and My Baby has left him. Only this time he’s telling that story through visual cues.

He’s devastated, heartbroken, feeling so sad and alone. Then he hears a voice. We don’t know whose voice it is, but it “whispers” to him, and this is what it tells him:

You are not alone  
I am here with you  
Though you’re far away  
I am here to stay
 
You are not alone  
I am here with you  
Though we’re far apart  
You’re always in my heart  
But you are not alone

Whose voice is this? The lyrics don’t say, but once again there are visual cues. The scene of walking before a sea of aggressive reporters alternates with another scene, far removed from the media: it’s the setting of Maxfield Parrish’s Daybreak, a beautiful painting of serenity and rebirth. He’s happy, and sharing an intimate moment with a woman.

And it’s not just any woman. It’s his wife, Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis Presley. When Elvis’ public life was falling apart and he was a target of criticism and even ridicule by the press, he had a little girl who stood by him and brought some joy into his life. Now Michael Jackson is in the same position Elvis was in before. And that little girl has grown up and married him, and she’s standing by him through one of the worst periods of his life and bringing some joy into his life.

I’m pretty uncomfortable talking about all this because these are real people, and I try very hard to stay out of an artist’s private life as much as possible. But these real people also symbolize certain things, and the symbolism of that image with Lisa Marie Presley is so powerful to me.

Joie:  Well, I absolutely agree with you that the still small voice in “You Are Not Alone” is definitely that of My Baby. But I can’t agree that it has anything to do with Lisa Marie Presley in the literal sense. In the abstract as a visual cue, yes definitely. The recreation of Daybreak for this video was an inspired choice in my opinion as it expertly captures the intimate, private place that Michael is trying to take us to here, and the use of his wife as the visual portrayal of My Baby makes perfect sense to me. After all, if My Baby were a real person, she would certainly be the person who was closest to him and knew him intimately – as a wife does.

However, he repeatedly says that “something whispers in his ear.” Not someone, something. That still small voice. His very soul. His inner self. That part of him that he has nurtured and tried so hard to protect over the years and keep pure. Away from all of the “bad girls” and the bad media that have threatened My Baby for so long. And what does that voice say to him? “You are not alone.” Even though he may feel like the loneliest person on the face of the earth – which is the feeling all those shots of him standing alone in front of the beautiful nature scenes and onstage in the deserted theater are meant to evoke – he is not alone. He still has his soul and it’s intact and strong. It may be a little bruised and banged up but, it is still there. And he can still feel it, calling to him, telling him that what he has just been through was a nightmare but, he got through it and he came out the other side and there is still hope for a bright future.

Even though Michael didn’t write this particular song, I believe that the lyrics must have spoken to him on some level and perhaps they expressed something – some emotion or idea – that he could relate to and identify with. And I think that something was My Baby.

Willa:  Joie, that’s beautiful. I was groping forward, trying to get at what that recurring scene symbolized and why it was so moving for me, and just not getting there. And you beautifully captured in words that feeling I have when I watch this video. I do think it’s significant that the woman in this scene is Lisa Marie Presley. It wouldn’t have the same depth of meaning if it were just any actress from a casting call who didn’t have her history. But I love the way you brought our discussion back to the idea of My Baby as representing a part of himself – as something that will always be there for him, whether it’s his soul or his heart or his muse. As you describe so well, this video is an affirmation that there is something inside that will sustain him, regardless of what threatens him in the outside world.

A Touch, a Kiss, a Whisper of Love

You’ll never make me stay  
So take your weight off of me  
I know your every move  
So won’t you just let me be
  
I’ve been here times before  
But I was too blind to see  
That you seduce every man  
This time you won’t seduce me

Joie:  With these words begin the game of seduction that is “Dirty Diana.” And it’s apparently one they’ve been playing for some time. He knows her “every move,” he’s “been here times before.” But this time it’s different. This time he’s finally opened his eyes and he sees her now for what she really is, and he doesn’t want to go through it again.

She’s saying that’s ok  
Hey baby do what you please  
I have the stuff that you want  
I am the thing that you need
  
She looked me deep in the eyes  
She’s touchin’ me so to start  
She says there’s no turnin’ back  
She trapped me in her heart

She wants him and she’s not willing to take no for an answer. So she taunts him, telling him that she knows exactly what he wants and what he needs. Then she touches him suggestively and says, “there’s no turnin’ back.” He’s been trapped by this beautiful, ruthless seductress and he’s torn. On one side there’s My Baby, the woman he loves and has waiting for him at home. But standing right in front of him is this wicked temptress, telling him that she’s ready and willing. He wants to be faithful. But he’s also strangely drawn to this other woman. She’s wild and exciting and unpredictable and he likes that. But he also likes the fact that My Baby is in his life, someone who knows him and loves him and cares about him. He feels this same dilemma in “Dangerous”:

She came at me in sections  
With the eyes of desire  
I fell trapped into her web of sin
 
A touch, a kiss  
A whisper of love
I was at the point of no return

Once again, he feels trapped. But this time, it’s a little darker. The first time, he sings, “She trapped me in her heart.” The second time, he is “trapped into her web of sin.” The Bad album was released in 1988 when Michael was still a relatively young, inexperienced man but Dangerous is released a few years later in 1991, and few years can make a whole lot of difference. So in 1988, he was a little bit naive and then caught completely by surprise when Diana grabs the phone out of his hand and tells My Baby that he’s not coming home “because he’s sleeping with me.” But in 1991, he’s not so naive anymore and he knows exactly what he’s getting into.

Her mouth was  
Smoother than oil  
But her inner spirit  
Is as sharp as  
A two-edged sword  
But I loved it
‘Cause it’s dangerous

He knows it’s wrong. He knows he shouldn’t. But he can’t help himself; he’s inexplicably drawn to her. But who is she really? And if we continue to see My Baby as representing a part of his psyche or his inner self, then who exactly are these other women who constantly threaten her and try to come between them? Could these women possibly represent another side of his own psyche? Perhaps the part of him that courted fame, the side of him that was drawn to entertaining and creating and being on stage. That part of him that loved being in front of a camera or onstage performing in front of 80,000 people. Is it possible that these “dangerous” women represent fame itself and that Michael Jackson often felt seduced by it? Compelled to go off with her instead of going home to My Baby. Compelled to pursue his career instead of nurturing that secret part of himself that he tried to keep safely hidden away from the limelight.

Fame is the dream of many,  the hope of millions. But it always comes at a price and often, those who find it end up wishing that it was different. Fame is wild and exciting and unpredictable – just like the temptress in both “Dirty Diana” and “Dangerous.” But fame can also be brutal and unkind and hurtful to those who get in its way. Just ask My Baby.

Willa:  Wow, Joie. You’ve officially blown me away. I had never considered the possibility that these seductive, threatening women were fame itself, or that part of himself that was drawn to fame. But now that you say that, it makes perfect sense. It never made sense to me that he would be attracted to a cruel person, to someone whose “inner spirit is as sharp as a two-edged sword.” But fame is cruel, and he knows it, but still he’s drawn to it. That makes perfect sense. It also explains why he can’t escape it – why these seductive women reappear again and again, album after album, threatening My Baby. He can’t escape it because it’s also a part of him, just as My Baby is – the part of himself that’s drawn to fame.

It also explains why this complicated love triangle that has entangled him for years suddenly disappears after the false accusations came out in 1993, and he discovered just how cruel fame could be. That was such a searing experience for him that fame no longer attracts him. The spell has been broken, and now he sees fame for what it truly is. He still recognizes and respects its power – maybe more so than before – but he’s no longer naively drawn to it, and he doesn’t let it threaten My Baby.

Joie:  No, he doesn’t let it threaten My Baby anymore. It’s like from that point (1993) on, he goes to much greater efforts to keep the two apart, and he makes a conscious decision to focus on My Baby – or his private life. He gets married and tries to start a family. It doesn’t work the first time but, he keeps trying. He becomes a father. He takes active steps to build a happy private life, to nurture My Baby a little bit.

And I never thought about it before either! For years, I always thought that the threatening women were referring to the media, the tabloids, the paparazzi, etc. It wasn’t until writing this blog and focusing on “Dirty Diana” and “Dangerous” that it hit me like a lightning bolt. Fame is the bold, threatening presence in this threesome. I think it all makes so much sense now.

Willa:  I agree, and I’m so intrigued by this idea. I really want to go back and listen to those earlier songs again with this interpretation in mind, and see if it sheds new light on that ongoing conflict between the protagonist, My Baby, and the women who threaten her. But this conflict abruptly disappears after 1993. After the horror of that experience, he no longer lets the allure of fame threaten My Baby. She’s still somewhat fragile and in need of protection, but the threats are different now.

We’re introduced to one of those threats in “Ghosts,” the first song to reference My Baby after the 1993 scandal erupted. As the video makes clear, he’s addressing a threatening figure – a figure many critics saw as representing District Attorney Tom Sneddon, the man who led the investigation against Jackson. The protagonist is standing up to this figure and demanding answers, repeatedly asking him,

And who gave you the right to shake my family?  
And who gave you the right to shake My Baby?  
She needs me  
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?

So once again My Baby is at risk, but this time it isn’t a seductress who hurts her. It’s the police. And this time the protagonist isn’t torn by conflicting impulses. He knows whose side he’s on, and he’s doing everything he can to defend and protect her. He’s clearly addressing an authority figure in this scene, and importantly, he’s challenging the very basis of his authority. As he repeatedly asks this man, “who gave you the right . . . ?” Why do you have this authority, this power to “shake” another person’s life? Where does this authority come from? What gives you the right to treat other people this way?

This line of questioning is repeated three times over the course of “Ghosts,” but the third time it’s extended and a new question is subtly added in the midst of the other questions:

And who gave you the right to shake my family?  
And who gave you the right to shake My Baby?  
She needs me  
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?
And who gave you the right to take intrusion,  
To see me?  
And who gave you the right to shake my family?  
And who gave you the right to shake My Baby?  
She needs me  
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?

This new question is “Who gave you the right to take intrusion / To see me?” I think this is clearly a reference to the strip search that was conducted on December 20, 1993 – a procedure ordered by Tom Sneddon – where the most intimate parts of Michael Jackson’s body were photographed and videotaped by the police.

My sense is that he experienced that strip search as a rape – a police-authorized rape – and I don’t use that word lightly. For example, in “They Don’t Care about Us,” he says, “I am the victim of police brutality. . . . You’re raping me of my pride.” And in “Privacy” he references “that cold winter night” when “my pride was snatched away.” The immediate context suggests he’s talking about the death of Princess Diana while being chased by paparazzi, but she died in August. The strip search occurred in December. And if we look at the wider context of those lyrics, we see that he repeatedly juxtaposes his experiences and hers.

I’m not sure it’s possible to overstate how deeply the events of 1993 impacted Michael Jackson. His world view shifts in profound ways after that time, and one of those shifts is in the way he viewed institutions of power, such as the police or the press. He was always very concerned about injustice and discrimination, but before 1993 his focus was on occasional injustices that occurred within those institutions. After 1993, his focus is on the institutions themselves, and what gives them the right to invade the most intimate aspects of a person’s life – the place where My Baby dwells.

Joie:  Willa, I completely agree with you that he experienced the strip search as a rape and was deeply affected by it. It’s like after the events of 1993 and that whole battle, he is a different person in terms of his relationship with his fame. And I think you were right when you said that My Baby is still fragile and in need of protection but that the threats to her are different now. In fact, the threats to her seem to have turned a little bit sinister after the allegations. Just listening to the lyrics of “Ghosts” makes that clear. And the lyrics of “Heaven Can Wait” are somewhat sinister as well, and also slightly sad.

You’re beautiful  
Each moment spent with you is simply wonderful  
This love I have for you girl, it’s incredible  
I don’t know what I’d do, if I can’t be with you  
The world could not go on so every night I pray
  
If the Lord should come for me before I wake  
I wouldn’t wanna go if I can’t see your face  
Can’t hold you close  
What good would Heaven be  
If the angels came for me I’d tell them no

On the surface, it’s a beautiful song about how he loves this woman – My Baby – so much that he doesn’t want to leave her for anything. Not even for Heaven. But if My Baby represents his private life that he has worked so hard to build and maintain – a life that now includes his precious children who he adores – then this song suddenly takes on new meaning. And if we continue our theory that the threat to My Baby is fame itself, then these lyrics are like a foreshadowing. Almost as if he has resigned himself to the fact that, ultimately, his fame will be the reason for his demise and he feels powerless to overcome that. At the end of the song he begs, “Just leave us alone. Please leave us alone.” It’s a futile attempt and he knows it, but he has to try anyway. His babies – My Baby – are at stake now.

Willa:  Joie, I agree with you for the most part, except that I see him feeling much more empowered than you do. He’s been severely tested now. Really, he’s been to hell and back. And he survived, with his soul, his psyche, his inner being intact. It was horrible – no one should have to go through the years of misery he endured – but he survived. He knows nothing can separate him from My Baby without his permission. And now he’s challenging Death itself to divide him from that innermost part of himself. As he sings in the final stanza, he refuses to go without her:

Oh no, can’t be without My Baby
Won’t go, without her I’ll go crazy
Oh no, guess Heaven will be waiting

He knows his own strength now. He may lose everything else – he can’t control fate – but he won’t lose My Baby: his soul, his psyche, his self-knowledge, his creativity.

Joie:  No, don’t misunderstand me. What I’m saying is that his plea, “Just leave us alone,” is futile. He knows that, no matter how much he begs, fame (or death, or the media, or Sneddon) is never going to leave him alone. All of those threats to My Baby are never truly going away. But I agree with you that he is empowered. As I said, he is a much different person after the events of 1993, and in many ways he is much stronger and much wiser than he ever was before. And he’s also much more at peace. It’s like My Baby is his anchor and he finally realizes that and respects it and he’ll do anything to protect it.

I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me, Part 1

Willa:  As we’ve talked about many times, Joie, Michael Jackson wasn’t just an amazing artist – the most important artist of our time, I believe. He was also a transformational cultural figure whose art brought about deep cultural changes. Through his art, he was able to revise some of our most entrenched cultural narratives, especially narratives about racial differences, and profoundly influence how we as a people respond to those narratives. So, as an artist, he wasn’t just expressing himself creatively. He was also very focused on how his art impacted his audience.

All of this has me thinking about the number of times he incorporates an on-screen audience into his videos. Sometimes that audience participates – most famously when the two feuding gangs join the big ensemble dance in Beat It. Other times, they simply watch, like the gang members in Bad, or the villagers in Ghosts, or the club managers in You Rock My World. Either way, I’m struck by the number of times he positions us as an audience so that we are, in effect, watching him perform over the shoulder of an on-screen audience.

Joie:  You’re right, Willa; it is a formula that he uses often. But I’m struck by what you just said about the Bad video. The gang members, or dancers, are actively participating. But it’s the three so-called “friends” who are standing there watching. I guess I just don’t view them as gang members but rather as young punks who think they’re bad. Wanna-be thugs.

Willa:  That’s interesting, Joie. I never really thought about that before, but you’re right. I don’t think of the dancers as gang members. I think of them as dancers, imaginary dancers. The whole dance sequence happens in his imagination. But I do tend to think of the three friends planning the robbery as gang members – in fact, I often refer to them that way – but you’re right, they aren’t. They’re just “young punks who think they’re bad,” as you say.

And that’s a really important distinction because the whole point of Bad is to redefine what it means to be “bad,” which is exactly what those three friends are struggling with. Does it mean being respected because you’re tough – “wanna-be thugs,” as you called them? Or can you be “bad” in a different way, and be respected for other reasons? This is the pivotal issue at the center of Bad, and it’s an excellent example of Michael Jackson using his art to rewrite a cultural narrative. And I believe the presence of those three friends as the on-screen audience is crucial to conveying that idea.

Earlier in the film, we see the three friends trying to force their definition of “bad” onto the main character, Daryl. He starts to go along with it, even though he knows it’s wrong, because he wants their respect. But then there’s the big dance sequence where he shares with them a new definition of “bad.” He reveals to them that he’s an artist – an incredible singer and dancer who can both challenge and move people through his art. His friends watch all this and then clasp hands with him.

That handshake is the climax of the film, I think, because that’s the moment when his friends make the crucial decision to accept his redefinition. So he’s found an entirely new way to gain the respect of his peers – not by being tough and committing petty crimes, but by developing and expressing his talents and creativity. And I believe that on-screen audience is modeling the response he wants from us as an audience as well. He wants us to accept his redefinition too, just as the on-screen audience does.

Joie:  I agree; he does want the on-screen audience to model the behavior he expects of the off-screen audience. It’s classic Michael Jackson really. In most of his short films I believe his goal was always to try and teach us something. If you think about it, in almost every video there was a message or a lesson hidden in there somewhere, and it’s our job as the audience to try and figure out what that lesson or message is. And in the videos that have an on-screen audience, we can usually figure out what the lesson is by watching the response of the on-screen audience.

Willa:  That’s a really interesting take on that, Joie. So the on-screen audience can be seen as an interpretive tool too, helping us figure out the meaning of the video. That’s really interesting.

Joie:  It is interesting, isn’t it? You know, Willa, my favorite videos with an on-screen audience are the ones that incorporate concert footage:  Give In to Me, Dirty Diana, and Come Together. They are three of my favorites and I think it’s because Michael was always so electrifying to watch onstage anyway. So these videos where it’s sort of a “staged” concert performance are really interesting to watch for me. It’s like he’s walking a very thin line between all-out performance and playing a scripted character. I find that fascinating. I also think it’s really interesting that these concert videos are among his sexiest, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that he was always very naturally sexual on stage.

Willa:  Oh, I’d agree with that! And that’s an interesting distinction between the footage from his live concerts and the concerts that were “staged” as part of a video. I hadn’t thought of that before. But while it’s more subtle, you can make a pretty strong case that his concert videos have an important political message as well – a message that is reinforced once again by the on-screen audience. As we’ve talked about before, he was a sex symbol – the first Black teen idol – at a time when Black men weren’t supposed to be sexual in public. They were supposed to repress that part of themselves. And wow, did he challenge that one!

And once again, that on-screen audience – which includes a lot of screaming, fainting, crying women of all races – models for us how we should react. We shouldn’t feel shocked or upset or threatened by a sexy young Black man ripping his shirt open in front of us. We should set aside the racist prejudices of the past and just appreciate that beautiful body for the wonder that it is. And we did! All of us – Black, White, Asian, all races. He completely rewrote that cultural narrative. Just as importantly, he revised the emotional response both women and men had to that cultural narrative.

Joie:  I agree. And that also goes back to what I was just saying about there usually being a message or a lesson hidden in every short film. And you just pointed out, I think, the main lesson of all those performance videos – breaking through those racial prejudices and rewriting that particular cultural narrative.

You know, Willa, I wonder, do you think other artists – mainly today’s popular music artists – ever focus on how their music and videos, or even their image, will impact not only their audience but the world around them? Because I think Michael was very much aware of that and I believe he actively focused on it, as you said earlier. But with a lot of today’s artists, I don’t get that feeling.

Willa:  Oh, I don’t know. I think some younger artists are very passionate about social change, whether explicitly – like Will.i.am’s Yes We Can video supporting Barack Obama during the last presidential campaign – or more subtly, like Lady Gaga’s Born This Way video. I know you and I disagree about that one, but I see her video as a direct descendant of Can You Feel It, both visually and thematically. Both are fighting the many manifestations of prejudice, but while Can You Feel It focuses on racism, Born This Way focuses on homophobia and the deep prejudices surrounding sexuality.

Joie:  Well, you’re right; we do completely disagree about that video, and I guess I walked right into that one. But Lady Gaga and Will.i.am aside, I see a lot of popular artists out there right now who I just don’t think give any real thought to how their music impacts the world. I don’t want to offend anybody so, I won’t point out the obvious ones that spring to my mind … but you get what I’m saying, right?

Willa:  I guess so, though you know a lot more about current music than I do. A lot more. I’m pretty out of the loop with that. But artists develop over time, so with young artists especially, I guess I like to just wait and see what happens. Michael Jackson became more overtly political, I guess you’d call it, over time, and they might do that as well. And while I love works like Earth Song that are both moving and meaningful, I can still appreciate a good performance like Rock With You just for his music and his voice and his dancing – and I know you and I agree about that video!

Joie:  Oh man, just mentioning that video distracts me in ways you wouldn’t believe! The only other video that affects me that way is Blood on the Dance Floor, but I’m getting way off topic here!

You know another thing I love about the performance videos or concert films is the roar of the crowd. It’s so different from watching actual concert footage. Like in Another Part of Me, the shots of the crowd are much more candid and “real” because we’re watching an actual audience experience a real Michael Jackson concert. In the other three performance videos – Give In to Me, Dirty Diana and Come Together – the audience’s experience is much less authentic, much more scripted, but still every bit as interesting for the off-screen audience to watch. But what all four of these concert films have in common is that awesome roar of the crowd. I think it’s really interesting that all four of these videos ends essentially the same way. No matter what’s happening on the screen, the cheering crowd can be heard above everything at the end. The only exception is Give In to Me when the roar of the crowd fades into the drumming rhythm of the song at the tail end.

Willa:  That’s an interesting point, and we leave Give In to Me with a very different feeling because of it, I think – kind of eerie and unsettling in some ways. You know, talking about the roar of the crowd at the end of these videos reminds me that Beat It ends the same way. We don’t tend to think of Beat It as a concert film because it has a narrative:  it tells a story, and we get caught up in the story and tend to forget that it’s a performance for an audience. But at the very end of the video, when the conflict has been resolved and all the gang members are dancing, the camera pans back and we see they’re on a stage, and we hear an audience cheering and clapping.

Joie:  That’s true, Willa. I hadn’t thought of that but, you’re right. We don’t actually see the on-screen audience here but we do hear them at the very end of the video. Really interesting perspective to end on, don’t you think?

Willa:  It’s very interesting, I think, because it recasts what we’ve just seen. This wasn’t meant to be interpreted as a scene from real life – a misinterpretation many critics fell into when they called it “naive” and “unrealistic” – but as a staged performance, and that alters how we tend to interpret it. The story we’ve witnessed isn’t meant to be seen as realistic or live action but as a story – a morality tale – purposely created for us, and the people we’ve been watching aren’t gang members but dancers and artists. By ending the video this way with an audience responding to their performance, he’s emphasizing that this is a work of art and asking us to think about it as a work of art, with a purpose and a message, as you mentioned earlier.

Joie:  Except that the people we’ve been watching are real gang members; don’t forget that.

Willa:  Oh, that’s right!

Joie:  It’s true that there were about 20 professional dancers but, many of those featured prominently in the video, and certainly all of the extras in the background watching the “fight” going on, were actual members of both the Crips and the Bloods – two infamous, rival Los Angeles street gangs, and the video was shot on location on LA’s skid row for even more authenticity. So although this particular fight may have been a “performance” created purposely for us, they were in a way, reenacting a very real conflict that these two gangs had probably been engaged in for many, many years. I find that really interesting, like perhaps that knowledge is part of the message or the hidden lesson in this short film. By using the roar of the unseen audience at the end, he is forcing us to see this as a performance, as you say. But by using the real gang members in their natural habitat, so to speak, he is also forcing us to realize that these kinds of conflicts do actually happen in “real life” in cities all across the country.

Willa:  That’s an excellent point – it’s like he really is modeling on screen something he’d like to see happen off screen, for both those of us watching this performance as well as the gang members participating in it. Those gang members really were working with opposing gang members to create this film, so that enacts the message of the film on yet another level.

Joie:  That’s really true, and these two rival gangs actually called a temporary truce in their conflict so they could participate in the filming of this video. In fact, the video’s director, Bob Giraldi, once said in an interview that he thought the idea of using real gang members was insane but Michael was adamant about it and was always looking for ways to foster peace. So he obviously wanted to use this short film to show these gang members that fighting wasn’t the only way and that they could work together if they really wanted to. I think that’s genius.

Willa:  It really is, and I especially feel that after reading that interview. That’s fascinating. I hadn’t read that before, but I loved the part where the interviewer asks, “How did you cast the real gang members?” and Bob Giraldi says,

It was Michael. He went out and he got ’em through, I guess, the LAPD’s gang squad and he convinced them that, with enough police presence, this would be a smart and charitable thing to do; get them there to like each other and hang with each other for two days doing the video. I didn’t like the idea because it was hard enough to direct actors and dancers, let alone hoods.

Can you imagine being in trouble with the LAPD’s gang squad and not sure what’s going to happen next, and then have someone walk in and ask if you want to be in a Michael Jackson video? How surreal would that be? It’s also a very Michael Jackson-type scenario to have gang members playing actors who are playing gang members. We see those funny kinds of loop-de-loop twists throughout his work, especially with notions of identity. And it’s also very common for him to break the illusion of reality, like he does at the end of Beat It, and show us it’s all been a performance.

Joie:  You’re right, Willa; this is something we see from him on more than one occasion. And next week we’ll look at a few more examples of this trick in his work.

Willa:  That’s right. We’ll continue on and see how he uses an on-screen audience in some of his later videos. It is a narrative device that he uses often in his work, as you say, but I think it’s more than that too. As we see in these videos with an on-screen audience, his work isn’t just art. It’s meta-art. It’s art about art. His work is very self-reflective – that’s one of the things that’s so fascinating about it – and through his videos, especially, he’s talking about the function of art and its ability to influence an audience, and maybe lead them (and us) to see things in a different way. I believe Michael Jackson wasn’t just creating art; he was creating a new poetics, meaning a new theory of art as a means of altering perceptions and bringing about sweeping social change. And we can see him modeling this process through his on-screen audiences.

A Touch, a Kiss, a Whisper of Love…

You’ll never make me stay
So take your weight off of me
I know your every move
So won’t you just let me be
I’ve been here times before
But I was too blind to see
That you seduce every man
This time you won’t seduce me

Joie:  With these words begin the game of seduction that is “Dirty Diana.” And it’s apparently one they’ve been playing for some time. He knows her “every move,” he’s “been here times before.” But this time it’s different. This time he’s finally opened his eyes and he sees her now for what she really is, and he doesn’t want to go through it again.

She’s saying that’s ok
Hey baby do what you please
I have the stuff that you want
I am the thing that you need
She looked me deep in the eyes
She’s touchin’ me so to start
She says there’s no turnin’ back
She trapped me in her heart

She wants him and she’s not willing to take no for an answer. So she taunts him, telling him that she knows exactly what he wants and what he needs. Then she touches him suggestively and says, “there’s no turnin’ back.” He’s been trapped by this beautiful, ruthless seductress and he’s torn. On one side there’s My Baby, the woman he loves and has waiting for him at home. But standing right in front of him is this wicked temptress, telling him that she’s ready and willing. He wants to be faithful. But he’s also strangely drawn to this other woman. She’s wild and exciting and unpredictable and he likes that. But he also likes the fact that My Baby is in his life, someone who knows him and loves him and cares about him. He feels this same dilemma in “Dangerous”:

She came at me in sections
With the eyes of desire
I fell trapped into her
Web of sin
A touch, a kiss
A whisper of love
I was at the point
Of no return

Once again, he feels trapped. But this time, it’s a little darker. The first time, he sings, “She trapped me in her heart.” The second time, he is “trapped into her web of sin.” The Bad album was released in 1988 when Michael was still a relatively young, inexperienced man but Dangerous is released a few years later in 1991, and few years can make a whole lot of difference. So in 1988, he was a little bit naive and then caught completely by surprise when Diana grabs the phone out of his hand and tells My Baby that he’s not coming home “because he’s sleeping with me.” But in 1991, he’s not so naive anymore and he knows exactly what he’s getting into.

Her mouth was
Smoother than oil
But her inner spirit
Is as sharp as
A two-edged sword
But I loved it
‘Cause it’s dangerous

He knows it’s wrong. He knows he shouldn’t. But he can’t help himself; he’s inexplicably drawn to her. But who is she really? And if we continue to see My Baby as representing a part of his psyche or his inner self, then who exactly are these other women who constantly threaten her and try to come between them? Could these women possibly represent another side of his own psyche? Perhaps the part of him that courted fame, the side of him that was drawn to entertaining and creating and being on stage. That part of him that loved being in front of a camera or onstage performing in front of 80,000 people. Is it possible that these “dangerous” women represent fame itself and that Michael Jackson often felt seduced by it? Compelled to go off with her instead of going home to My Baby. Compelled to pursue his career instead of nurturing that secret part of himself that he tried to keep safely hidden away from the limelight.

Fame is the dream of many,  the hope of millions. But it always comes at a price and often, those who find it end up wishing that it was different. Fame is wild and exciting and unpredictable – just like the temptress in both “Dirty Diana” and “Dangerous.” But fame can also be brutal and unkind and hurtful to those who get in its way. Just ask My Baby.

Willa:  Wow, Joie. You’ve officially blown me away. I had never considered the possibility that these seductive, threatening women were fame itself, or that part of himself that was drawn to fame. But now that you say that, it makes perfect sense. I’ve never understood why he would be attracted to a cruel person, to someone whose “inner spirit is as sharp as a two-edged sword.” But fame is cruel, and he knows it, but still he’s drawn to it. That makes perfect sense. It also explains why he can’t escape it – why these seductive women reappear again and again, album after album, threatening My Baby. He can’t escape it because it’s also a part of him, just as My Baby is – the part of himself that’s drawn to fame.

It also explains why this complicated love triangle that has entangled him for years suddenly disappears after the false accusations came out in 1993, and he discovered just how cruel fame could be. That was such a searing experience for him that fame no longer attracts him. The spell has been broken, and now he sees fame for what it truly is. He still recognizes and respects its power – maybe more so than before – but he’s no longer naively drawn to it, and he doesn’t let it threaten My Baby.

Joie:  No, he doesn’t let it threaten My Baby anymore. It’s like from that point (1993) on, he goes to much greater efforts to keep the two apart, and he makes a conscious decision to focus on My Baby – or his private life. He gets married and tries to start a family. It doesn’t work the first time but, he keeps trying. He becomes a father. He takes active steps to build a happy private life, to nurture My Baby a little bit.

And I never thought about it before either! For years, I always thought that the threatening women were referring to the media, the tabloids, the paparazzi, etc. It wasn’t until writing this blog and focusing on “Dirty Diana” and “Dangerous” that it hit me like a lightning bolt. Fame is the bold, threatening presence in this threesome. I think it all makes so much sense now.

Willa:  I agree, and I’m so intrigued by this idea. I really want to go back and listen to those earlier songs again with this interpretation in mind, and see if it sheds new light on that ongoing conflict between the protagonist, My Baby, and the women who threaten her. But this conflict abruptly disappears after 1993. After the horror of that experience, he no longer lets the allure of fame threaten My Baby. She’s still somewhat fragile and in need of protection, but the threats are different now.

We’re introduced to one of those threats in “Ghosts,” the first song to reference My Baby after the 1993 scandal erupted. As the video makes clear, he’s addressing a threatening figure – a figure many critics saw as representing District Attorney Tom Sneddon, the man who led the investigation against Jackson. The protagonist is standing up to this figure and demanding answers, repeatedly asking him,

And who gave you the right to shake my family?
And who gave you the right to shake My Baby?
She needs me
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?

So once again My Baby is at risk, but this time it isn’t a seductress who hurts her. It’s the police. And this time the protagonist isn’t torn by conflicting impulses. He knows whose side he’s on, and he’s doing everything he can to defend and protect her. He’s clearly addressing an authority figure in this scene, and importantly, he’s challenging the very basis of his authority. As he repeatedly asks this man, “who gave you the right . . . ?” Why do you have this authority, this power to “shake” another person’s life? Where does this authority come from? What gives you the right to treat other people this way?

This line of questioning is repeated three times over the course of “Ghosts,” but the third time it’s extended and a new question is subtly added in the midst of the other questions:

And who gave you the right to shake my family?
And who gave you the right to shake My Baby?
She needs me
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?
And who gave you the right to take intrusion,
To see me?
And who gave you the right to shake my family?
And who gave you the right to shake My Baby?
She needs me
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?

This new question is “Who gave you the right to take intrusion / To see me?” I think this is clearly a reference to the strip search that was conducted on December 20, 1993 – a procedure ordered by Tom Sneddon – where the most intimate parts of Michael Jackson’s body were photographed and videotaped by the police.

My sense is that he experienced that strip search as a rape – a police-authorized rape – and I don’t use that word lightly. For example, in “They Don’t Care about Us,” he says, “I am the victim of police brutality. . . . You’re raping me of my pride.” And in “Privacy” he references “that cold winter night” when “my pride was snatched away.” The immediate context suggests he’s talking about the death of Princess Diana while being chased by paparazzi, but she died in August. The strip search occurred in December. And if we look at the wider context of those lyrics, we see that he repeatedly juxtaposes his experiences and hers.

I’m not sure it’s possible to overstate how deeply the events of 1993 impacted Michael Jackson. His world view shifts in profound ways after that time, and one of those shifts is in the way he viewed institutions of power, such as the police or the press. He was always very concerned about injustice and discrimination, but before 1993 his focus was on occasional injustices that occurred within those institutions. After 1993, his focus is on the institutions themselves, and what gives them the right to invade the most intimate aspects of a person’s life – the place where My Baby dwells.

Joie:  Willa, I completely agree with you that he experienced the strip search as a rape and was deeply affected by it. It’s like after the events of 1993 and that whole battle, he is a different person in terms of his relationship with his fame. And I think you were right when you said that My Baby is still fragile and in need of protection but that the threats to her are different now. In fact, the threats to her seem to have turned a little bit sinister after the allegations. Just listening to the lyrics of “Ghosts” makes that clear. And the lyrics of “Heaven Can Wait” are somewhat sinister as well, and also slightly sad.

You’re beautiful
Each moment spent with you is simply wonderful
This love I have for you girl, it’s incredible
I don’t know what I’d do, if I can’t be with you
The world could not go on so every night I pray
If the Lord should come for me before I wake
I wouldn’t wanna go if I can’t see your face
Can’t hold you close
What good would Heaven be
If the angels came for me I’d tell them no

On the surface, it’s a beautiful song about how he loves this woman – My Baby – so much that he doesn’t want to leave her for anything. Not even for Heaven. But if My Baby represents his private life that he has worked so hard to build and maintain – a life that now includes his precious children who he adores – then this song suddenly takes on new meaning. And if we continue our theory that the threat to My Baby is fame itself, then these lyrics are like a foreshadowing. Almost as if he has resigned himself to the fact that, ultimately, his fame will be the reason for his demise and he feels powerless to overcome that. At the end of the song he begs, “Just leave us alone. Please leave us alone.” It’s a futile attempt and he knows it, but he has to try anyway. His babies – My Baby – are at stake now.

Willa:  Joie, I agree with you for the most part, except that I see him feeling much more empowered than you do. He’s been severely tested now. Really, he’s been to hell and back. And he survived, with his soul, his psyche, his inner being intact. It was horrible – no one should have to go through the years of misery he endured – but he survived. He knows nothing can separate him from My Baby without his permission. And now he’s challenging Death itself to divide him from that innermost part of himself. As he sings in the final stanza, he refuses to go without her:

Oh no, can’t be without My Baby
Won’t go, without her I’ll go crazy
Oh no, guess Heaven will be waiting

He knows his own strength now. He may lose everything else – he can’t control fate – but he won’t lose My Baby: his soul, his psyche, his self-knowledge, his creativity.

Joie:  No, don’t misunderstand me. What I’m saying is that his plea, “Just leave us alone,” is futile. He knows that, no matter how much he begs, fame (or death, or the media, or Sneddon) is never going to leave him alone. All of those threats to My Baby are never truly going away. But I agree with you that he is empowered. As I said, he is a much different person after the events of 1993, and in many ways he is much stronger and much wiser than he ever was before. And he’s also much more at peace. It’s like My Baby is his anchor and he finally realizes that and respects it and he’ll do anything to protect it.

Thinking about My Baby

Willa:  As Joie mentioned last week, the idea for this blog grew out of a long series of emails we were exchanging back and forth. We were having a wonderful time sharing ideas and comparing notes about Michael Jackson’s work, and we each really enjoyed talking with someone who knew his work and cared about it as much as we did. One thing she and I discovered over the course of our emails is that we’re both fascinated by My Baby, and have been for a long time.

Joie:  You all know who she is; you have heard Michael sing about her for years. She is presumably the girl of his dreams, the woman who knows him and loves him and truly cares about him. She’s also the woman who is constantly hurt time and time again by other devious, “bad girls” who throw themselves into Michael’s orbit like in “Billie Jean,” “Dirty Diana,” and “Dangerous.”

Willa:  She’s a very important figure in Michael Jackson’s work, appearing on album after album, from Triumph and Thriller in the early 1980s to Invincible in 2001. And, as Joie says, she’s almost always hurt or threatened in some way. In fact, we often see her walking away in tears.

Joie:  What draws my attention to her, I guess, is the fact that Michael sings about her as if she is someone who has been in his life for a long time. Even though her appearance on the songs I just mentioned – and others – is usually brief, we get the feeling that she is incredibly important to him. He loves her and he clearly wants to protect her from the ‘wicked women,’ he sings about in “Heartbreak Hotel,” (a.k.a. This Place Hotel). We see him constantly fretting over the fact that she will be hurt somehow by the “bad girls” and that they will drive her away from him.

Someone’s always tryin’
to start My Baby cryin.’
Talking, squealing, lying,
saying you just want to be startin’ somethin.’


It’s almost as if he’s describing a relationship that has seen its share of ups and downs. They’ve been through this sort of thing before and My Baby always ends up hurt. At least, in the early years of their relationship – in the 1980s and ’90s. But by 2001’s “Heaven Can Wait,” it’s clearly a much different relationship. Here we see that My Baby not only loves him and cares about him, but now she trusts him too; she has faith in him. Their relationship is solid and no one can come between them anymore. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with and it’s the greatest love affair either of them has ever experienced. He loves her so deeply that he doesn’t want to leave her for an instant – not even for heaven!

Oh no, can’t be without My Baby.
Won’t go, without her I’ll go crazy.
Oh no, guess Heaven will be waiting.

It’s really interesting to me that their union changes over time. The way he writes about her grows and matures over the years just as if it were a real relationship. We see the initial infatuation in songs like “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and “Streetwalker,” and we watch it grow and blossom in songs like “Black or White,” and “Fly Away.” And then we see the culmination of their love on the beautiful “Heaven Can Wait.”

Willa:  As Joie says, in his early albums, she’s threatened by another woman. My Baby seems to be a private person who knows and cares about the protagonist, though she avoids the limelight and seems somewhat uncomfortable with his fame. He loves her and tries to protect her, but she’s repeatedly hurt by another woman who wants to push her out and take her place. This second woman doesn’t really know him or care about him, but she’s much bolder than My Baby and is actually attracted to fame, the protagonist’s fame – in fact, she’s something of an adventurer. The protagonist recognizes all that and distrusts her. Yet at the same time, he finds himself strangely drawn to this other, bolder woman.

Joie:  And his relationship with this other woman is just as interesting as his relationship with My Baby. It’s almost like you can’t have one without the other. Like they are two halves of the same coin, so to speak.

Willa:  I agree. The recurring conflict between these women is very interesting. There’s obviously something very important going on here – something Michael Jackson explored and wrestled with for years. I think that’s one reason I started seeing My Baby as representing more than just a romantic relationship. To me, My Baby and the other woman seem to represent his shy side versus his public side, or his private life versus his public life, with the intrusions of the media and intense public interest in him threatening to destroy his private life, just as that bold other woman threatens to drive away My Baby. Or these two women could represent his muse – the woman of myth who has quietly inspired artists’ creativity for centuries – and the audience and critics who kept demanding that he create another Thriller and just wanted him to sing “Billie Jean” over and over again for the rest of his life. But it’s not an either/or situation. While I see these other interpretations, I still see My Baby as a woman who knows him and cares for him, and provides for him emotionally as well.

Joie:  My Baby is fascinating on so many levels and when Willa and I discovered that we were both very interested in her – and her nemesis – we were really surprised. I think it was then that we really started to talk in earnest about doing a blog together because we were curious as to whether or not we were the only two people out there who had ever wondered about this particular topic. So, we intend to look at My Baby more closely in the coming weeks. Our plan is to look in depth at different songs in which she is featured and talk about what/who she is and what Michael was trying to tell us through her.

Willa:  And again, our goal with this blog is to create a place where a community of people can come together and share their interpretations of Michael Jackson’s work and what it has meant to them at different times – because interpretations do evolve over time. And it’s ok if we disagree – even passionately disagree – as long as we’re respectful about it. To be honest, I disagree with myself sometimes!  Sometimes I see My Baby as a person, sometimes I see her as symbolic, and lots of times I see her as both. And I love that ambiguity. To me, that’s one of the things that makes Michael Jackson’s work so rich – that it can mean so many different things at different times to different people. So let us know what you think, and what My Baby means to you. We’d love to hear from you, either here or on our Facebook page.

Why Dance with an Elephant?

Joie:  So, “Dancing With the Elephant.” Pretty strange title for a blog about Michael Jackson, huh? Well, not really. Not once you understand where my friend and I are coming from and how this blog came to be.

My name is Joie Collins and I am one of the dedicated individuals who helps run the MJFC (Michael Jackson Fan Club) website. Needless to say, I’m a huge Michael fan and have been since I was a very small child watching the Jackson 5 perform on Soul Train. I’ve been doing what I do for MJFC for a long time and I love it! I get great satisfaction out of overseeing the website’s News page and answering the website’s business mail. Recently, I’ve had the great pleasure of getting to know Dr. Willa Stillwater when I agreed to read her new book, M Poetica, and give her my honest, gut-reaction from a fan’s point of view.

I’m not sure she knew exactly what she was asking of me at the time. As you know, we MJ fans tend to take our opinions very seriously! And, as you may have guessed, my “honest, gut-reaction” sparked an immediate, heated debate! Willa and I went back and forth and back and forth over various topics and points covered in her book. I would tell her all the things I loved about it, but I also pulled no punches in telling her what I hated about it. And she would counter with all the reasons why she had written it the way she had written it and I would explain to her why I felt the way I did and why most fans would agree with me. This went on for a couple of weeks, and finally she and I began to understand that we had hit on something special.

What we realized is that, during our debates, we actually had some pretty interesting discussions about Michael Jackson, his art and his music. We were talking openly and honestly, having real, in-depth conversations about the work of the greatest entertainer of all time. And even when we were disagreeing (which happened a fair amount of the time), we both always came away from the conversation with an enlightened point of view, and a new way of looking at the King of Pop than we had previously. So we thought… what if we continued the conversation on a larger scale? And what if we invited all of you to witness that conversation and even take part in it yourselves?

Still doesn’t explain the name though, right? Well, we wanted a name that spoke to both of us and also had relevant meaning to Michael himself. We all know how deeply Michael felt about the majestic elephant. He loved them! Gypsy and Babar were among his favorite animals at his Neverland Valley Ranch zoo. He even wrote a beautiful essay about elephants in his book, Dancing the Dream called “So the Elephants March.” In it, he talks about the lessons that elephants have been trying for centuries to teach man. He writes, “But the elephants’ most important message is in their movement. For they know that to live is to move. Dawn after dawn, age after age, the herds march on, one great mass of life that never falls down, an unstoppable force of peace.” I think that last part describes Michael pretty well. “An unstoppable force of peace.” In many ways, that’s what he himself was.

For me, not only are elephants amazing animals, but they also symbolize a “touchy subject.” A difficult conversation that people may wish to avoid. For example, I’m a Black American (I don’t like the term “African” American because neither I, nor my parents, nor my grandparents – or even my great-grandparents for that matter – have ever been to Africa) and my husband is White. He and I often talk about different racial issues and it’s wonderful because we can do so in a very open and honest way without the fear of offending anyone or hurting each other’s feelings. We’ve been married for 10 and a half years now and we often interact with one another’s families – all of whom have always been very supportive of our relationship. During our conversations about the differences between Black families and White families, one of the things I often say to my husband is that, in my experience, White families sometimes tend to want to avoid “the elephant in the room,” preferring to dodge the uncomfortable topics of conversation, while Black families tend to draw as much attention to the awkward topic as possible, often wrapping Christmas lights around that elephant and setting up big flashing arrows pointing right to it! It’s a generalization, of course, but you get what I mean. The point is, sometimes people (of all races) don’t really know how to tackle the uncomfortable topics, so instead they “avoid the elephant in the room.”

Well, I think we can all agree that when it comes to Michael Jackson there are a lot of uncomfortable topics that might come up. Even in a blog that focuses on his art. And Willa and I are not going to avoid those elephants. Instead, we’ve decided to dance with them!

Willa:  Joie, I love your description of the elephant in the room! I just love it. It creates this little movie in my mind of a bunch of people sitting in a room with an elephant no one invited, and everyone is feeling uncomfortable and awkward and no one knows what to do. Finally someone walks right up to the elephant, welcomes him, and invites him to dance – and they all find out he’s not so scary after all. Suddenly, that awkward situation becomes much more comfortable, and maybe even turns into a party. I just love that image of dancing with the elephant!

I also think it’s crucially important to openly acknowledge the elephant in the room when trying to interpret Michael Jackson since confronting painful issues, especially racial prejudice, was so central to his work – from relatively straightforward anthems like “Black or White” to more complicated things like the changing color of his skin. I don’t think you can understand him and what he was doing and how incredibly important it is if you exclude race from the picture, or marginalize it off to the side somewhere. Confronting prejudice in one form or another was at the heart of almost everything he did, both as an artist and as a cultural figure.

Because we aren’t honestly acknowledging the elephant in the room, I don’t think we’ve even begun to realize the deep, tectonic shifts he helped bring about. I’m White and I grew up in the South, in a very racist place. Yet, as a teenager, my definition of the ultimate in sexiness was Michael Jackson, a young Black man. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. And there were millions of girls around the world who felt the same way I did. There’s a whole generation of us whose ideas about race and sexuality – about what’s sexy and what isn’t – were shaped by him. That’s huge. He was a teen idol, our first Black teen idol, and the implications of that are deep and powerful and profound, but no one’s really talking about that, or what it means culturally.

You know, every time he ripped his shirt on stage, like in Dirty Diana or Come Together, and showed us his dark chest and how beautiful and sexy it was, he was challenging how White America, especially, “read” his body. But he did it in such an interesting way. He was beautiful and sexy, but he was always a genuine person too – in part, I think, because he had the courage to let himself be vulnerable, and let us see that side of him too. He wasn’t just a Chippendale guy. He was sexy, but he never became just a glossy sex object because we could always see the humanity in him. I look at him in Dirty Diana up on stage with his bare chest and shoulders, and he’s so sexy I can hardly stand it, but he also looks so vulnerable. I don’t know whether to faint or make him some soup.

Joie:  Faint or make him soup! I love the way you put things sometimes!

Willa: Well, you know what I mean!  You just feel the urge to take care of him sometimes, and I think that vulnerability was really important also. This was during the 1980s, when the inner cities were erupting in gang violence and the dominant narrative in the media was that young Black men were scary and alien and dangerous. We kept getting told that – in news reports and movies and even commercials – but then there’s Michael Jackson, and he’s almost single-handedly pushing back against that dominant narrative and offering a very different vision. He was a young Black man, but he was sweet and funny and smart and sexy and vulnerable. He gave us an alternate image of what it means to be a young Black man in America, and for me, his vision always seemed more honest and human and believable than that scary stereotype.

Joie: Well, I agree with you completely. He did give us an alternative image of what it means to be a young Black man in America and, to this day, Black Americans take pride in that. And I could go off on a whole different tangent here, but before I do that, why don’t you explain what the title means to you.

Willa:  So “Dancing with the Elephant” speaks to me about art and interpretation. To me, interpretation isn’t about passively observing a work of art, but about actively engaging with it, “dancing” with it, opening yourself up to it, and becoming emotionally invested in it.

It also reminds me of a folktale I love about six blind men trying to understand and describe an elephant. The first approaches the elephant and happens to touch his trunk. He feels the elephant’s trunk, realizes how strong yet flexible it is, and announces that an elephant is like a huge snake – like a python or boa constrictor. The second blind man steps forward and touches one of the elephant’s legs. He feels all around, noting the round shape and how sturdy it is, and says, no, an elephant is more like a column or pillar. The third comes forward and encounters the elephant’s side. He spreads his hands along the vast breadth of the elephant’s side and says they are both wrong: an elephant is like a wall. Then the fourth steps forward, happens to catch the elephant’s tail, and says, no, an elephant is like a rope. The fifth feels his ear waving back and forth and says an elephant is like a fan. The sixth feels his tusk and says an elephant is like a spear.

Each of the blind men is providing an accurate description of that aspect of the elephant he happened to encounter and experience for himself, but none of them comprehends the entire animal. They only perceive bits and pieces. Only by sharing their experiences and combining their ideas will they ever be able to develop some understanding of an elephant and begin to fully appreciate what a truly magnificent animal it is.

I love this story of the six blind men, and think it’s especially important to compare notes and share our perceptions and experiences when trying to understand something as complicated and subjective as a work of art, especially with an artist as experimental as Michael Jackson who pushed so many boundaries and challenged so many preconceived ideas and accepted beliefs.

For example, Joie and I really went back and forth and around and around about how we interpret the changing color of Michael Jackson’s skin. She wasn’t kidding when she talked about our heated debates. I saw it as a brilliant artistic decision that profoundly influenced how White America, especially, experiences racial differences. Joie saw it as a wrenching emotional decision that he struggled with for years. My discussions with Joie haven’t fundamentally altered my interpretation, but they’ve influenced me tremendously. Her ideas have deepened and complicated my understanding of this aspect of his work and actually made it much more powerful and meaningful to me by helping me understand just how difficult this decision must have been for him, and how very painful it must have been to be so misunderstood.

Joie:  So, with this blog, Willa and I hope to have some really in-depth conversations about Michael Jackson’s art and his cultural impact. We intend for this to be a weekly blog, so come back next week and we’ll get the conversation started.

Willa:  Our goal is to have a substantive discussion where we can all share ideas and even disagree sometimes, but in a respectful way that leads to a deeper understanding of his work. If you would like to contact us with questions or future blog topics, our email address is dancing.with.the.elephant@gmail.com.

Joie:  And you can also check us out on Facebook and give us your own take on our discussion. Tell us what you think. We want to hear it!