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A Conversation with Really, Really Brad Sundberg

Willa: This week Lisha McDuff and I are so honored to be joined by Brad Sundberg, who worked with Michael Jackson for nearly two decades. He served as Technical Director on the Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory albums, and helped design the sound system at Neverland. While working on Bad, Michael Jackson gave him the nickname Really, Really Brad, as in “I’m Brad, I’m Brad, I’m Really, Really Brad.” That cracks me up!

Over the past year Brad has been offering seminars in the U.S., Canada, and Europe to share his insights as well as sound recordings from his work with Michael Jackson. Several of our friends and contributors – Lisha, Susan Fast, and Joe Vogel – attended his recent seminar in Toronto, and from everything I’ve heard it was incredible! Lisha asked Brad if he’d like to talk with us, and he said yes. Brad, thank you so much for joining us!

Brad: Thanks Willa, great to be able to hang out with you and Lisha.

Willa: I’m eager to hear more about your seminar, In the Studio with Michael Jackson. And I understand you’re planning a very special one at Walt Disney World about recording Captain EO. Is that right?

Brad: The seminars are a lot of fun, and I think this will be my 10th one! Each one is a little different, sometimes I add or remove segments as time dictates. Back in 1984 I first met Michael at Westlake Studios where he was recording Captain EO with Matt Forger. Matt and I have remained friends over the years and have worked together on countless Michael projects. Disney has strongly hinted that EO will be closing in 2014, so I thought it would be fun to bring Matt out to Orlando and do a seminar with Matt, with a strong emphasis on the Captain EO project. To make it even more fun we will do one full day in the studio for the seminar (with “Family Friday” dinner included!), then attendees will have the option to meet up with us at Epcot the next day to watch EO a few times together, ask more questions, and hang out in the park all day. I think it is going to be an amazing weekend for MJ fans.

Lisha: I’d say that’s an understatement! The seminar I attended in Toronto was truly incredible, plus I don’t think nearly enough has been said or written about Captain EO, so this is something I wouldn’t want to miss. Watching Captain EO at Disney’s Epcot Center is a totally different experience than seeing the film any other way, right? Not only was Captain EO the first film to include 4D effects (it is a 3D film that includes special effects inside the theater as well), it was also the first surround-sound film ever made.

Brad: That is correct! I was talking with Matt Forger several months ago, and we were talking about EO. I was a runner (get food, vacuum, roll cables, etc.) at Westlake in ’84/’85, when Matt was recording Captain EO. Disney actually developed a true-digital surround-sound system just for EO. Matt had to replicate how the theater would sound in the studio, so he had speakers all around the room, cables everywhere … it was awesome! But it allowed him to mix the music so it still sounds like Michael, but it also fills those giant theaters that Disney built.

Lisha: I’ve always wondered how that was initially planned and worked out, so I’m really anxious to hear more from Matt Forger about this. I did have the opportunity to see the film at Disney a while back and I remember there were speakers all around the theater, even in the back of the house behind the audience. Captain EO is historically important for a number of reasons, I think, especially in how it conceptualizes sound and the 4D effects. It must been have a thrill, Brad, to have witnessed all this being put together.

Brad: Here’s a funny side-note: my wife and I have always been Disney fans, and we would often go to Disneyland on Sunday nights for dinner. We were there on the Captain EO opening weekend, along with half of Los Angeles, and it was fun to see something I had been a very small part of in the studio take over Disneyland! We still have our original t-shirts, geeky as that may sound. And yes, the theater does have some Disney “4D” effects in it that make the experience far more immersive than seeing it on a computer screen. Plus the theater sound systems were originally tuned by Matt, so they sound amazing.

Lisha: I don’t think that sounds geeky at all! I’m sure you’re glad you hung onto to those original t-shirts – that’s such a great memory. And I agree that the sound system is amazing, plus I love all the special theatrical effects as well.

For example, I remember there are cables under each seat that create movement that is synchronized with the film. When the spaceship does its crash landing you can actually feel the impact of the crash in your seat. Another great effect is that there are tiny fans and misters installed in the seat backs, so when Hooter makes his elephant sounds, you get a little blast of air and mist right in your face, as if it’s coming right from his trunk!

Willa: That’s funny!

Lisha:  It is! There are lots of special lighting effects too coming from every imaginable direction, even from under the seats, and a sparkling disco ball effect that happens when the “Supreme Leader” is transformed into a beautiful goddess. On the big screen there are lots of details that you can’t see watching it any other way, like the small colorful lights that ornament Michael Jackson’s electrified costume.

I thought the surround-sound effects were really fun, too. I especially remember the battle scene and the sound of laser gunfire moving rapidly throughout the theater. I could hear it zoom overhead from the back of the theater all the way to the front, immersing the viewer into the action of the film.

I’m afraid once Captain EO closes at Disney, there won’t be a way to experience the film as it was originally intended by its creators, Michael Jackson, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola, one of the most stellar creative teams ever assembled! This could really be the last chance to get to experience it.

Willa: Wow, Lisha. You’re making me feel like I really need to get down there before it closes. I haven’t seen Captain EO since, hmmm … 1986, I think, at Epcot Center. And I remember the seats jolting and vibrating but I don’t remember any mist from Hooter’s trunk! And I don’t remember that soundscape you’re describing so vividly – I can tell you’re a musician! I just remember that the sound and visual and physical effects were all pretty incredible.

Brad: Captain EO is unlike any sci-fi movie or music video (short film) ever created. It was a huge budget (for the time), and the talent pool is pretty remarkable. Yes, the costumes and hairstyles scream 80’s!! But it was the 80’s, and it was fun. I can’t say, nor do I know for certain when the attraction will close, but the rumors are growing that its days are numbered, so I would rather do an event now than wish I had in a few months.

Lisha: I understand the budget for this film was unprecedented. At a cost of $30 million for a 17-minute film, that comes to $1.76 million per minute! It’s the most expensive film per minute ever made, and it was a major undertaking for Disney, Lucas, Coppola, and Michael Jackson. As you said, Brad, half of Los Angeles turned up for the premiere!

For the fans who never had the opportunity to see Michael Jackson perform live, the 4D film experience might be as close as it gets, don’t you think?

Brad: Sadly, I suppose that is true. Did either of you ever get a chance to see him live?

Lisha: No, unfortunately! I’m one of the new fans. Several people have said it’s impossible to know what it was like to see Michael Jackson perform live unless you actually experienced it for yourself. How about you, Willa? That’s something I’ve wanted to ask you. Did you ever get to see Michael Jackson perform live?

Willa: No I didn’t, and for the opposite reason. I’ve felt a strong connection to Michael Jackson since I was really young, in elementary school, and it just felt so intensely personal I couldn’t imagine seeing him in a stadium with thousands of screaming people. And he never did a concert anywhere near where I happened to be at the time – I’m sure if he had, I wouldn’t have been able to resist. But still … I should have gone anyway. It’s hard to explain, but the first concert I ever saw was Aerosmith – a friend talked me into it and it was really fun, but pretty overwhelming for me – and I just couldn’t picture seeing Michael Jackson that way. It just didn’t feel right. I really regret it now though.

Lisha: Oh, me too. I really regret it – what was I thinking?

Willa: How about you, Brad? I imagine you were able to see him a few times. …

Brad: Can I tell you a quick story or two? When I was still in college in 1984 the Victory tour tickets went on sale in LA at Dodger Stadium. I really wanted to go, but you had to buy tickets in clusters for four in sort of a lotto set-up. It was complicated and expensive, and I just didn’t make it. Fast forward just four years to 1988, and I was watching the show with my wife from backstage at Madison Square Garden!

Willa: Wow!

Brad: Now here’s the crazy thing – I had worked with and been around Michael extensively on EO and Bad, but I had never seen him on a stage. It was electrifying – it was like I knew him, but at the same time I had no idea who he was.

Willa: You know, I’ve heard several people say that, like Bruce Swedien and Frank Cascio, and I’m so curious about it. That must have been amazing to see him transform from his off-screen self to his on-screen self.

Brad: I was fortunate to see him perform many times on the Bad, Dangerous and HIStory tours, as well as during his rehearsals with the band and dancers. During one show in Paris in ’97 during the HIStory tour, my daughter Amanda (7 at the time) was on stage with several other kids during “Heal The World.”

Willa: Oh, that’s wonderful!

Lisha: Incredible.

Brad: That was fun to see. But my favorite tour story was backstage during the Bad tour, at MSG NYC. Pepsi was the sponsor, and they had a “VIP Lounge” backstage. My wife Debbie and I were roaming around backstage, and I ducked into a bathroom. On the way out, headed back to the stage, I walked into the “VIP Lounge” to grab a Pepsi. There was only one other person in there: super-model Christie Brinkley! I said hi and we chatted very briefly, and I said I hoped she would enjoy the show, and walked out. Deb was waiting for me a short distance away, and she started laughing as soon as she saw me. I kept walking, and she laughed harder. I was dragging about 6 feet of toilet paper on my shoe. I told her who I had just met, and she laughed all the harder! OK, I’m getting off topic, and I’m embarrassing myself… what was the question again?

Lisha: Ok, I’m crying with laughter. Sorry, but that’s really hysterical! I hope that everyone is getting a sense of how much fun it is to hear you tell these stories!

Willa: That is funny! So I know very little about how musical films are made. Which generally comes first – filming or recording? What I mean is, with Captain EO were the songs recorded first, and then Michael Jackson sang to match them during filming? Or did the filming come first, and then he sang the songs to match the film? And at what point did you become involved in the Captain EO project?

Brad: That’s a great question, and the truth is somewhere in the middle. The music is recorded first, but sometimes the music needs to be edited to fit a certain scene. He was lip-syncing on film to the music Matt recorded in the studio. Captain EO was (to the best of my memory) in very early production when I started working at Westlake.

Willa: And what does that mean, “very early production”? I really do know very little about all this. Were the storyline, characters, songs, dialogue, choreography all pretty much set, or were details still being worked out?

Brad: I don’t know for certain, because we were only working on the music. Having been around many productions, my assumption is that most of the story had been written, but ad-libs and last-minute changes generally come in to play.

Willa: That’s interesting. And how involved was Michael Jackson in those last-minute changes and other decisions? Was he focused pretty exclusively on performing, or did he also have ideas about how he wanted the final piece to look or sound?

Brad: I know that Michael loved being around film productions. He loved to watch and learn the process from the pros. Knowing him, I would imagine he was very focused on his performance, and likely trusted the production team. After all, it’s hard to go wrong with Francis Coppola and George Lucas.

Lisha: Brad, can you tell us how you started doing your seminars, and what someone can expect if they would like to attend one?

Brad: Great question. The very short version of a long story is that I was approached by some French MJ fans to share my stories with them nearly two years ago. I flew to Paris for a few days in the summer of 2012, and we had a group of about 12 in a studio. I brought loads of tapes and it was somewhat disorganized but a lot of fun. I would grab a tape, play an old mix, and tell some memories I had about it.

Willa: Oh, that sounds fabulous! What an incredible experience.

Brad: They really enjoyed it, and I thought I would try it again in New York the following spring. I did two seminars there, but I added some video, and made it a bit more chronological in terms of my years working with Michael. Those seminars also went very well, and pretty soon I was doing them in Orlando, then Paris, Stockholm, Toronto, and now back in Orlando on February 8th.

Michael had a unique connection with many people, through his music, his dance, his benevolence, his humor, and maybe his pain. I didn’t walk in his shoes, nor was I his best friend – but I loved working with him, and I am proud to be able to call him a friend. I can still hear his laugh, I can still see his excitement over a great mix in the studio, or a new ride at the ranch. He was like no one you have ever met before. He was Michael – and if I can give people a sense of what it was like to be around him, that makes me happy.

Willa: That sounds wonderful. Everyone I’ve talked to who’s been to one of your seminars, Brad, just raves about it. For example, Stephenson went to one in New York and sent us an email about it with lots of interesting details and good comments, like this one:

He played parts of a 2 hour recording of MJ and Bill Bottrell creating Give In to Me – it was so amazing because the song – the music and lyrics – slowly emerged from the experimental sounds of Bill’s guitar and MJ’s singing, and you could hear it taking form piece by piece. WOW!!!!!

And just the incredible sound quality alone of your seminars … I’ve been told it’s like you’re hearing his music – I mean, really hearing it – for the first time. Following that with Captain EO at Epcot Center, with the full sensory experience as it was originally envisioned, is an added bonus.

Brad: Rumor has it that Disney is going to close Captain EO after an amazing run, so I reached out to Matt Forger and asked if he would join me for a seminar with a section specifically on Captain EO and Thriller. He agreed, so it will be a pretty special day.

As to what to expect, that’s a hard one. I go into each seminar with a bare-bones flow, and just see where it goes. Sometimes we spend a bit more time on Bad, or we dig deeper into Dangerous. I like to keep it fairly loose and not overly structured. There are certain moments that have been written about, and attenders really want to experience those, but I like it when someone comes and has no idea what to expect. I had one guest who brought her husband, who you would not describe as a mega-fan. He was a really cool guy, and it meant so much to me that he said he really enjoyed the day. I like to think that learning about Michael’s working style, and the group of amazing people in the studio could be of interest to a lot of people who may not think they are MJ fans. Having said that, I have certainly met some incredible fans who are so appreciative of what I am doing.

Willa: Oh, it sounds fabulous, and I would love to learn more about his working style and creative process! As I understand it, he composed most of his songs by capturing ideas with a tape recorder – is that right? He’d sing the melody, the harmonies, even sounds approximating drums or strings or horns or guitar licks to indicate how he wanted the instrumentation to sound. So he’d bring that into the studio, and then what? What’s the process for turning his ideas on a tape recorder into a song on an album?

Brad: We would sometimes give Michael a tape recorder, but keep in mind – Michael would lose something within 45 seconds of giving it to him. Seriously. It was more common for him to call Matt (or one of the team) and meet at a studio. We might bring John Barnes or Michael Boddicker to help get the track put together. Michael would sing the melody line, and the rhythm parts, and we would start putting it together in a sequencer. Other times he would simply sing the parts right to tape, and we would replace his voice with instruments later.

Willa: That’s so interesting! Lisha speculated that he did that – sang parts that were later replaced by instruments – in a post we did a few weeks ago. Lisha, you were right!

Lisha: I am so fascinated by how that worked!

Brad: He would also love to collaborate with other songwriters like Siedah Garret or Bill Bottrell on some songs. Once the song was past the demo stage, we would start bringing more musicians in to really take it to a new level. During my years with Michael, we never used digital pitch correction on his voice. He sang every note, every line, every part. I go into great detail about that process in the seminar.

Lisha: You mentioned in Toronto that Bruce Swedien’s secret for getting a great lead vocal is to just choose the right mic and record it properly in the first place! I’m not sure if people realize how closely you got to work with Bruce Swedien.

Brad: Oh man, Bruce is a dear friend and my mentor. My years with Michael would not have happened without Bruce, period. In 1986 I was working sessions at Westlake, and Bruce and I were becoming friends. I think he saw promise in me and asked if I wanted to sit in for the recording of Michael’s new album. Can you imagine?? I jumped at the chance!

Lisha: Unreal!

Brad: During the day I would work on Taco Bell commercials (“Run for the Border!”), and at night I would watch Michael sing “Man in the Mirror” or “Smooth Criminal.”

Willa: Wow, that’s a contrast!

Brad: It was nothing short of amazing. When the album was released, Bruce’s assistant Craig went a different direction, and I became Bruce’s assistant (“Technical Director”) for nearly a decade. Next came Quincy’s Back on the Block, then Michael’s Dangerous and HIStory. The crazy thing is that each of those projects took sometimes two years or more when you factor in all of the production time, remixes, dance mixes, video mixes, on and on. Bruce is a master, is the master of his craft. His humor puts everyone at ease, but his ability to record and mix music, to create a sonic soundscape is beyond compare. There is no one like Bruce, and I am grateful for all that he has taught me.

Lisha: I read your interview in Bruce Swedien’s new book, The Bruce Swedien Recording Method, and I thought you really nailed it when you said, “when Bruce finishes a mix it actually leaves the speakers – it floats in front of you and all around you.” It’s just a magical experience listening to what Bruce Swedien can do with sound.

We all know there is a lot of technical know-how that goes into being a great sound/recording engineer, but I’m not sure it’s really understood how much artistry and just plain old good musicianship is required as well. For instance, at your seminar, Brad, I noticed that as you were speaking to the group, you were constantly listening and adjusting the way your voice sounded through the speakers. You reached over several times and made tiny changes that produced the most gorgeous quality of sound. It struck me as similar to the way a good musician listens and adjusts to what they are hearing.

Willa: That’s interesting!

Brad: Wow, Lisha, you were really paying attention! I drive my girls nuts because I will adjust the EQ in their cars, or make sonic adjustments when we are watching TV or a movie at home. I have even walked out of a movie theater during a movie because the sound was so bad.

Lisha: Occupational hazard! You also told a fascinating story about working with Bruce Swedien under less than ideal circumstances, and how you watched in amazement as he found a way to make it work. It really convinced me that the equipment and all the technical wizardry involved in recording is secondary to the artistry of the person running it.

Brad: I was working with Bruce one time in a home studio in LA. It was far from our typical pristine places like Record One or Hit Factory. It was a console in a living room with couches and lamps and typical residential surroundings. Nothing wrong with that, but not quite what we were used to.

Lisha: That’s putting it mildly!

Brad: Anyway, Bruce does a mix on this older console that gave me chills – it still does. It was so transparent and punchy, it didn’t match the place where it was born. Like going to Dairy Queen and getting a perfect rack of lamb chops and great bottle of wine. Bruce brings a level of talent to any room that no equipment, software, or gadget can replicate. God blessed Bruce with an amazing set of ears, and the talent to create sounds in a class all of their own.

Lisha: Speaking to a group of students at Full Sail University, Bruce Swedien said something that really stopped me dead in my tracks. In a very emphatic tone of voice he said: “The first thing I want to tell you is – no matter how good a song is, or how accomplished the musicians playing it are, a poorly done recording and mix of that song will leave you cold.” Here’s a clip:

What a dramatic statement to make! And I think he’s right. At the end of the day, the musicianship displayed by the recording/sound engineers is at least as important as any other musical element in a song. You and your colleagues played such a vitally important role in creating some of the finest records ever produced. It was truly a collaborative effort, and I feel like Michael Jackson understood that in a big way.

Brad: In no way is this meant to sound arrogant, but it is hard to describe how amazing it was to be in the same room with Quincy Jones, Bruce Swedien, Rod Temperton, Bill Bottrell, David Foster, Teddy Riley, Greg Phillinganes, Steve Porcaro, Siedah Garrett, Michael Boddicker, John Robinson, David Williams, Paulinho De Costa … The list goes on and on. Amazingly talented people, all working together, pooling those talents to make Michael’s records as musical, creative, and sonically incredible as possible.

It took an artist like Michael to bring that type of production army together. I hear things in those albums that bring back countless memories – but overshadowing everything was a love for what we were doing, and a love for who we were working for. I think Michael knew that, because he would work just a little bit harder than any of us. I don’t live in the past, but I was so blessed to be a part of something bigger than I could have imagined, and I am thankful to have been a small part of it.

Lisha: I just want to say that although you are very humble and self-effacing, Brad, no one should be fooled! It was apparent to me from watching you work that there’s a reason you got to be in the room with the greats. I can see that you strive for excellence in all that you do – in the seminars, in the studio, and at Neverland Ranch. I really think I understand why Michael Jackson valued and trusted you so much.

Willa: And I’m glad you’re sharing your memories of working with Michael Jackson and that incredibly talented team of musicians and recording artists, both through your seminars and with us today. It’s been really wonderful to hear you talk about it!

So I know Lisha is planning to attend your February 8th seminar in Orlando. If others want to come too, or want to find out about other seminars, how can they sign up or get more information?

Brad: February 8th in Orlando is going to be an amazing day. I haven’t seen Matt in years, so having him in the same room, sharing his stories and memories is going to be awesome. We will cover Thriller, Captain EO, Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory, plus a few surprises. It all takes place in a beautiful studio in Orlando, and I will bring my Westlake speakers. These are the exact same speakers Bruce used to mix Dangerous and HIStory. You will hear the music and mixes exactly the same as Michael did.

Additionally, I am bringing my catering rock star, Linda, back to prepare an amazing meal just like we used to have on “Family Fridays,” where Michael would encourage us to bring our families to the studio for a couple hours of laughter, stories, and great food.

Tickets are available here. There’s also more info on my website and Facebook page. I look forward to meeting new friends, and sharing an amazing day together.

Lisha: I can’t wait! See you there.

When You Wish upon a Star

Joie:  So, Willa, I was cruising through YouTube, as I sometimes do, and I came across some video footage that I hadn’t seen in a while. And it was so completely adorable it just made me smile. Then it made me laugh. And before I knew it, it actually had me in tears. But, while they were tears of sorrow for the amazing man that we lost, they were also tears of joy and wonder that we even had him at all. Tears of gratitude that he walked this earth and we were allowed to witness the simple love and happiness he brought with him.

The video that brought on these feelings is an old clip of a Disney special, televised for Disneyland’s 25th Anniversary:

In the clip, a very young Michael Jackson sings a Disney medley that includes “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “Ease On Down the Road.” The special was filmed in 1980, at a time when Michael had the world on a string, so to speak. He had just made his feature film debut in The Wiz, he and his brothers were enjoying success with the Triumph album, and he himself was riding the crest of solo superstardom with Off the Wall. So to see him slow down and take part in a celebration for the happiest place on earth was really a special treat. And I think it says a lot about how much Disney meant to him that he would take the time to celebrate with them.

Willa:  It is fun to watch this clip and see him so young and exuberant. But I’m surprised that he’s singing “Ease on Down the Road” during a Disney celebration. The Wiz wasn’t a Disney film, was it? It reminds me of when he sang “Billie Jean,” a song he recorded for Epic, during a Motown celebration. I get the impression he didn’t like being told what he could and couldn’t sing!  But regardless of who owns the rights to what, I love hearing him sing those songs.

Joie:  Well, like I said, it was a time when the name Michael Jackson carried a whole lot of weight in the music and entertainment industries. He could really do no wrong in the early 1980s so, if he said he wanted to sing a certain song, I don’t think there were going to be too many people who were going to try to tell him no.

But getting back to the clip itself, you know I just think there’s something so innocent and sweet about it. When I watch it, I get extremely nostalgic for a time that will never come again. It takes me back to my childhood in a way. Back to a time when there were no problems and the world made sense. Everything in life was easy, and Michael Jackson was your friend. Not the enemy. It’s a period of history (my history anyway) that I will always cherish and look back on with great fondness.

You know, Willa … I can vividly remember sitting down in front of the television set with my family and watching that entire special when it originally aired back in 1980.

Willa:  That’s funny, Joie. I keep forgetting you’re a lot younger than I am!  I was in college in 1980 with no television set, so I didn’t see that special and I’ve never seen this clip before.

Joie:  Oh, my gosh!  Really?  You’ve never seen it before now?  Oh, well now I’m really curious … what do you think of it?  Does it evoke any certain feelings for you?

Willa:  It does, a lot of feelings. Even though I don’t have the specific memories you have of watching it when it first came out, it still takes me back in time – but more back to his past than mine. Like you I love seeing him so young and happy, and it just fills me with dread to think about what lies ahead. It’s very bittersweet watching this knowing what he was going to have to face in the years to come. It’s kind of like seeing a snapshot of a happy family taken before a tragedy strikes. You look at those smiling faces and wish you could just go back in time somehow and change a few little incidents so things turned out differently. Like if Michael Jackson’s van hadn’t broken down that day, he wouldn’t have met Jordan Chandler or Evan Chandler.

Joie:  Oh, I know what you mean. And it’s odd to think about, isn’t it? You know, we have all watched some movie or TV show where the premise is that the hero goes back in time – maybe for a few days, or maybe even for an hour – and attempts to change the past in order to change the future. It makes for great entertainment. But it really does make you think. What if we really could go back and change just one thing? Just one moment in time. That one incident – his van breaking down on Wilshire Blvd. that day – changed the trajectory of his entire life. And unfortunately, not for the better.

Willa:  That’s true, though in some ways those terrible experiences pushed him to develop some of his greatest, most important art. So I wonder sometimes – if he had a chance to go back and change that one little thing, so his van didn’t break down that day and the allegations never happened, would he? Or did he learn some things through those horrible experiences that he needed to know? I wonder about that a lot, actually….

Another thing that strikes me watching this Disney clip is that he seems kind of self-conscious in a way we don’t usually see in him, except in interviews. Usually when he’s performing, he’s so absorbed in the moment he doesn’t seem embarrassed or self-conscious at all. But then he’s usually performing on stage for a big audience that’s feeding him a lot of energy, or he’s in a studio interacting with other actors, or he’s singing quietly to himself, like in Stranger in Moscow. But in this clip, he’s performing for a big audience, but they’re all out in TV land. They aren’t there with him. The only people there watching, presumably, are the camera crew, and they’re busy filming and doing their jobs – they aren’t giving him the energy he needs to get in the zone. So part of me wishes this had been set up a little differently, like with a live audience or something, so he felt more comfortable.

Joie:  That’s an interesting observation, Willa. I hadn’t thought of that before. But you’re right, he does seem very self-conscious and inhibited here. Plus he’s dancing and interacting with a bunch of heavily costumed Disney characters, and that had to be at least a tiny bit awkward I would think.

Willa:  That’s true! I hadn’t thought about that.

Joie:  But it’s still a really sweet clip.

Willa:  It is. You know, his performance is also in a very different style or genre than usual. He’s not in “rock star” mode, like in Dirty Diana or Give In to Me or Come Together. And he’s not doing James Brown soul moves, which were like second nature to him – he’d been doing James Brown’s spins and shuffles since he was 5 years old. And for the most part he’s not doing the Motown moves he perfected with the Jackson 5 either, through he does break into a few at the end of the clip.

Instead, this performance refers back to a much earlier time in musical theater – to the days of Ethel Merman, Al Jolson, and Jimmy Durante, when performers belted out songs with big, dramatic, very stylized hand gestures. Actually, you know what this performance reminds me of? The birthday tribute he did for Sammy Davis, Jr. Here’s a link:

Do you see what I’m saying about the style of his performance? To me, it feels kind of old fashioned in a way, just like the Disney clip. In both of these performances, he’s evoking a much earlier time in the history of musical performance – back to the 1930s. But then he ends the Sammy Davis, Jr., tribute with a crotch grab – a very stylized crotch grab. I don’t think Al Jolson ever did that!

Joie:  No! I don’t think he ever did, Willa. I swear, you are too funny! But I agree with you about the style of this performance. It does harken back to a much earlier and simpler time. And I think that adds to the sense of innocence that I feel when I watch it. It’s also a very appropriate style of performance for Disney.

Willa:  That’s true. It is.

Joie:  And that may ultimately be why he chose to perform this number the way he did. After all, Disney is the happiest place on earth. A place for children of all ages, and one of Michael Jackson’s all time favorite things.

Willa:  That’s true too – he spent a lot of time at Disneyland. And actually, it’s interesting to think about all the Disney connections – like, the very first song on the Jackson 5’s very first album is “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” the theme song to Disney’s Song of the South, which was later adopted as the theme song for the Wonderful World of Disney. I didn’t see the Disney special that has such happy memories for you, Joie, but I do remember watching the Wonderful World of Disney almost every Sunday night for years, and seeing the bluebird land on Uncle Remus’ shoulder as he sang that song. And then there’s Captain EO. I took my younger brother to see Captain EO at Walt Disney World not too long after it opened at Epcot Center. Did you get a chance to see it, Joie?

Joie:  I did. That was an experience, actually seeing it at Disney, wasn’t it?

Willa:  It was. In fact, I think that was the first 3D movie I’d ever seen because I can remember being blown away by the 3D effects. How about you? What do you remember?

Joie:  Well, I saw it at Disney World, and I just remember being really caught up in all the excitement. You could feel it even as you were standing in that long, winding line waiting to get in. Everyone was just so excited and eager to see it. And I remember coming out of the venue and getting right back in line to wait almost an hour to see it again. And we weren’t the only ones doing that!

Willa:  Did you really? That’s funny!  My reactions were a little more mixed, actually. To be honest, I didn’t like the ending, and while I see it a little differently now, I still have reservations about it. I was an ardent young feminist in 1986 – still am, actually, though a bit grayer now – and it really bothered me that there’s this powerful, creative, active woman who’s portrayed as evil, and at the end she’s transformed into a completely silent, completely passive, statue of a woman who’s seen as good.

We see that same narrative structure so many times, especially in Disney movies. Like in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, there’s this powerful stepmother using all sorts of wildly creative magic, and we’re told she’s vain and evil – the prototypical Evil Stepmother. And of course, at the end of the story she’s displaced as queen and replaced by passive, helpless, domestic Snow White, and we’re told she’s good. And she is good – I like Snow White – but why does the powerful queen have to be evil? We see that same structure in Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid – even 101 Dalmations, with vain and evil Cruela deVil trying to kill the puppies to make herself a fur coat.

But what’s most interesting to me now is that, in Captain EO, the “evil” characters – the queen and her henchmen – aren’t destroyed, as evil characters generally are. Instead, they’re transformed, and what brings about that transformation is art – specifically, music and dance. And that’s an idea we see over and over again in Michael Jackson’s work, from Beat It and Can You Feel It in his early years all the way through to probably its fullest expression in Ghosts. Over and over again, we see him telling us that art can lead us to see ourselves differently and bring about spiritual awakening and deep social change. And we see that to some degree in Captain EO as well. As Captain EO tells the queen, she’s “very beautiful within, but without the key to unlock it.” Music and dance provide that key, and transform the queen as well as her guards, changing them from soldiers into dancers.

Joie:  Wow, Willa! I knew that you had strong opinions on feminism, but I didn’t know that you felt so strongly about those fairy tales. I tend to straddle the fence on that particular argument. I can clearly see the feminist side of it, and it does concern me that those are the stories we’re expected to teach our little girls. But at the same time, I have always been a staunch and hopeless romantic. I love those fairy tales, and part of me truly loves the idea that “someday my prince will come,” and that happily ever afters are really out there.

Willa:  Joie!  You can be a feminist and still be a romantic!  Why can’t there be a powerful queen in a Disney movie who’s portrayed as good? as powerfully, actively, creatively good?  And why can’t a special someone fall in love with her because she’s so powerfully, actively good?  What’s wrong with that story?  And why doesn’t that story ever get told?

Joie:  Because it’s a Disney movie that’s been dumbed down for small children, and whoever makes those decisions obviously believes that children wouldn’t understand good vs. evil unless you have those very clear lines drawn. But children are really smart – smarter than most adults give them credit for – and I think they could understand a powerful queen who’s portrayed as good.

But you also have to remember that most of those stories like Snow White and Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, they were all made at a time when the woman was expected to stay at home and be passive and domestic. That was good. Back then, a woman in a position of power and not being very domestic or maternal was seen as very, very bad. So they also reflect the time period they were created in.

But getting to what you said about the evil queen and her henchmen not being destroyed … this is very interesting to me. I never thought about it before but, you’re absolutely right. We do normally see the evil doers completely destroyed at the end of the story – whether it’s a fairy tale or an action movie we’re watching. But here, that’s not the case at all. The bad guys are instead transformed into good, caring people.

Willa:  And that’s really important, I think. Sometimes those “evil” characters are killed in terrible ways. For example, in the Grimm’s Fairy Tales story of “Snow White” – one of the first published versions, if not the first – the evil queen is given a pair of glowing red iron shoes that have been heated in a fire, and she’s forced to dance in them until she dies. Isn’t that a horrible image – of someone forced to dance in red hot shoes until she dies?  It kind of reminds me of “Slave to the Rhythm,” a little bit.

But the story ends very differently in Captain EO. Instead of the queen being killed and having Snow White take her place, she’s transformed into Snow White, meaning a Snow White sort of character.

Joie:  Hmm. Interesting observation, Willa. I would never of thought of it in that way.

Willa:  Well, it gets back to the idea of cultural narratives that we’ve talked about before. There are certain stories – like the story of the evil stepmother, a powerful evil woman – that get told over and over again. For example, there are more than 700 different versions of “Cinderella” from around the world, and they’ve been passed down from one generation to the next for centuries. And that’s not even counting all the other witches and mean queens and evil stepmothers in thousands of other stories, from Chinese folktales to Shakespeare to Cruela deVil. But they all share the same feature of a powerful, even magical, evil woman, and together those stories form a cultural narrative.

And then there are other stories that rarely if ever get told at all, like the story of the powerful, creative, magical good woman. That story is not part of our cultural heritage. In fact, it’s almost nonexistent. And that’s important because our cultural narratives hardwire our brains. They create our collective memory and cultural psychology, they shape our perceptions, and they form our beliefs. How we feel about women – motherly women, powerful women, intelligent women – reflects our cultural narratives.

Joie:  Cultural narratives are a fascinating topic, Willa, and they play a very important role in all of our lives. As you said, they hardwire our brains. And the truly interesting thing to me is that most people have no clue that it’s even happening. We often hear the phrase, “well that’s just the way things are.” But most people don’t understand that things are the way they are because of those old cultural narratives. Very interesting.

Willa:  It is very interesting, and very important too because we tend to believe things that fit our cultural narratives. For example, in 1993 a white man (Evan Chandler) falsely accused a black man (Michael Jackson) of committing a sex crime against a vulnerable white person (Jordan Chandler). And despite all the evidence, the police, the press, and the public tended to believe the white man and not believe the black man. There are a lot of reasons for why that happened, but I think the main reason is that it aligns with our cultural narratives – to the stories we as a culture have told ourselves for centuries.

And I believe Michael Jackson was engaged in a project to rewrite our cultural narratives, especially as they influence how we perceive race and gender and other differences between us. We see that again and again in his work – this insistence on telling stories from a very different perspective, often the perspective of those whose voices have been excluded. And we even see that happening a little bit in Captain EO, in how he transforms the powerful queen and her guards instead of destroying them.