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In My Veins I’ve Felt the Mystery

Willa:  One of the things I love most about the community that has developed here at the website is the wide range of perspectives different readers bring to the discussion – fans, artists, academics, and professionals from many different fields and many different cultural backgrounds, all sharing a love of Michael Jackson’s work as well as your insights into what made him and his work so important and so compelling. I love that fascinating mosaic of different perspectives, and I’ve learned so much over the past 18 months from the comments you all have shared.

This week Joie and I wanted to talk about Michael Jackson’s spirituality and how that’s reflected in his work. We’ve touched on this before – for example, in posts about “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough” and Dancing the Dream last spring. However, this week we wanted to explore this idea in a more in-depth way. And fortunately, someone in our community has a lot of ideas to share about that!

Unfortunately, Joie wasn’t able to join us this week – she’s working on an exciting personal project. But I’m thrilled that Eleanor Bowman, a regular contributor to the site, has agreed to step in. Eleanor worked with Costa Rica’s National Institute for Biodiversity in the early 1990s and, in her words, became “more and more concerned about the negative impact of our way of life on the rest of nature, and more and more puzzled as to why these concerns were not more widely shared when it was so obvious we were hurtling toward disaster.” She began to wonder if our religious beliefs played a role in shaping our attitudes toward nature, and she entered divinity school to explore that question. She received a Master’s degree in Theological Studies, and her graduate research focused on how notions of spiritual transcendence have shaped western culture’s relationship to nature. She is currently working on a book that addresses these issues – Beyond Transcendence: Seeking a Sustainable Relationship with Nature.

Importantly, Eleanor sees Michael Jackson as embodying a very different spiritual model – one of immanence rather than transcendence – that might lead us to see our relationship with nature in a different way. I am so intrigued by that! Thank you so much for joining us, Eleanor!

Eleanor:  Hi Willa.  Thank you so much for inviting me to participate in your ongoing discussions about Michael Jackson, his life and his art. In addition to providing your visitors with interesting insights and information, your blog has created a warm and caring community, an expression of MJ’s L.O.V.E. – which I am grateful to be a part of.

Willa:  I’m very grateful for that community also, and think it’s a real testament to the power of Michael Jackson’s work – especially that his work is meaningful to people from such diverse backgrounds. For example, your appreciation of Michael Jackson seems to be strongly influenced by your knowledge of theology, which I know very little about. That’s one reason I’m especially eager to hear your ideas!

So before we talk about how you situate Michael Jackson’s spirituality in terms of these two models, I was wondering if we could start by clarifying what exactly you mean by transcendence and immanence. How would you describe these two models?  How are they different, and why is that difference important?

Eleanor:  Before I address your question concerning immanence and transcendence, I have to say that I have a little trouble talking about Michael Jackson’s spirituality as the term “spirituality” is becoming a foreign concept to me, and MJ is the last person in the world I would describe as spiritual – much less as having a “spirituality.”

Willa:  Really?  Wow, I’m surprised!  Why do you say that, Eleanor?  I’m wondering if maybe I didn’t express myself well, or didn’t ask the question the right way.

Eleanor:  No, no. It’s not that. My reaction relates to my own idiosyncratic problems with the concept of transcendence and how it relates to the idea of spirituality. But, in no way am I “dissing” MJ. As anyone who has been reading my comments knows, I am one of MJ’s biggest admirers.

Willa:  Yes, I know – that’s one reason I’m so confused right now.

Eleanor:  Understandably. Because most people associate being a spiritual person with being a good person and MJ was demonstrably a very good person as well as a great artist. That being said, I admire MJ because of his “embodiment” – his materiality – rather than his spirituality. And, I think, by addressing your question and clarifying what I mean by transcendence (another word with very positive cultural associations) and contrasting it to immanence, I can also explain my problems with associating spirituality with Michael Jackson.

When I use the terms “transcendent” and “immanent,” I use them as descriptors for a worldview and value system. A transcendent worldview and value system divides spirit from matter and locates the sacred or ultimate value outside the material world, in spirit, draining nature and the earth of value, which is why, with my environmental concerns, I have come to view transcendence as sinister and the term “spirit” with suspicion.

Analyzing western culture in terms of transcendence provides an explanation as to why we, as a culture, have adopted such an exploitative attitude toward nature and the material world.  And, “transcendent exploitation” doesn’t stop with nature.  Along the same lines, we also think of mind as properly separate from the body, and we assign value to the mind, rather than the body.

Willa:  That’s true, Eleanor. It reminds me of something Thomas Edison once said. He was a notorious workaholic who spent long hours every day in the lab, and a reporter once asked him what he did for exercise. Edison replied that the only thing he used his body for was to carry his mind from place to place.

Eleanor:  Exactly! I’ve never heard that, but it fits perfectly.

Willa:  It really highlights the mind/body split, doesn’t it? And I think a lot of people share that idea – not only that the mind and body are separate, but that the mind is what’s important, and the body is just an imperfect vessel for holding and transporting the mind.

Eleanor:   Right. With an emphasis on imperfect! And they privilege those things and people associated with the mind over those associated with the body and nature. For example, they/we view reason as separate from and superior to emotion, and humanity (homo sapiens, the wise species) as separate from and superior to (a mindless) nature. By extension, any association with physicality, with the body, with nature – with matter – results in the devaluation of specific types of people and specific types of work.

Willa:  I agree, which is one reason women, racial minorities, and lower class workers have historically been devalued, to use your term – because historically they’ve been associated with physical labor, especially labor that involves daily care for the body, things like cooking and feeding the body, making clothes and keeping the body warm and clean, nursing the body and tending to its wounds and disabilities, changing diapers and caring for the bodies of children or the elderly or the infirm. Those people in a more privileged position – generally meaning upper class, white, and male – have historically been associated with the life of the mind, and with work that is as far removed as possible from actual human bodies.

Eleanor:  I know. So frustrating and so unfair. Because when you really think about it, this work is some of the most valuable on the planet; it is critical to survival. So, from my point of view transcendence is hazardous to the health of the planet and all its inhabitants. Which is why I am wary of using the term “spirit,” as it seems to reinforce the idea of a binary reality in which nature and those associated with nature and the body are devoid of value.

Willa:  That’s interesting, Eleanor. And I’m starting to see the problem with my question, and why you said Michael Jackson was “the last person in the world I would describe as spiritual,” though that still kind of shocks me.

Eleanor:  Well, naturally, it is shocking. It goes against the grain of everything we have been taught to believe in and value. But I think MJ in his life and art, epitomizes and personifies and promotes the immanent worldview – which is why his work is so shocking, so electrifying! He is truly radical. He radically changes our perception of reality. As an artist and as a person, he embodies a new worldview and value system: he, himself, is the materialization of a sacred energy. He is “the Avatar of Immanence.” He is “His Immanence” Michael Jackson.

Willa:  As opposed to His Eminence, the Cardinal of New York or Chicago, where “eminence” emphasizes that these figures are separate from us and above us. That’s a wonderful title, Eleanor, and I love this view of Michael Jackson as integrating mind and body, and restoring value to the material, natural, physical world.

Eleanor:  Well, I am pretty attached to it myself. And, as was pointed out in the discussion of MJ’s crotch grabs in “That Ain’t What It’s All About,” we can also add the integration of sexuality into what it means to be fully human, as opposed to looking on sexuality as an indicator of some sort of human failing. It is this perfect integration, his immanence, that gives his work so much authenticity, which gives his art its incredible emotional power, which distinguishes him from all other dancers on a stage.

In contrast to transcendence, immanence refers to a worldview which finds the sacred and value within matter. In an immanent reality, the term “spirit” has no meaning, because value and the sacred are now understood as being part and parcel of matter, specifically of nature and the body. There is no line dividing mind from body, reason from emotion, humanity from nature, no value system that automatically assigns value to humans over nature or whites over blacks or men over women or mental professions over physical labor. Immanence knocks the legs out from under racism and sexism – and the assumption that humans have the right to exploit nature.

To me, in everything he was and did, MJ represents this worldview, this new truth. And, it is the truth of his work which gives it so much beauty. For the first time in my life, watching Michael Jackson, I understood what Keats meant when he said,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Willa:  Or when Emily Dickinson wrote, “I died for beauty,” and the person in the adjoining tomb responds,

“And I for truth – the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.

Eleanor:  Yes. Exactly. And, his beautiful truth, his true beauty, is an expression of deep and true emotions, bravely revealed in his music, his dance, his art. He gives a true assessment of the world we live in and its imbalance and shows us the way to restore the balance which our world – and worldview – has lost: he puts value back in matter and nature and the body and women and people of color and everything and everybody our culture has stripped of value. And, as has been noted on this blog, he paid a high price for his steadfastness.

Willa:  Yes, he did.

Eleanor:  For me, Earth Song says it all. It is so amazing. The night after he died, as I you-tubed one MJ video after another, I discovered Earth Song. I was stunned. In this one work, he expressed what I had been trying to say for years …. and much more. For me, it is the most radical of all his works for it is nothing less than an indictment of the transcendent worldview and value system.

In a few deft phrases, he sketches the outlines of our global tragedy, expressing deep sorrow for the damage we ourselves are doing to the earth – a sorrow mixed with a compassion for a people who have only recently become conscious of the consequences of their own self-destructive actions, actions which somehow seem to be beyond their control to do anything about. And, as in so much of his work, there is the mixture of heart-broken sadness and anguished anger. In the complexity of its lyrics and music, it conveys a deep sense of betrayal that is very personal.

In Earth Song, MJ addresses none other than the conventional Judea-Christian God – transcendent spirit itself – the “you” who betrayed his only son, who (almost) betrayed Abraham, and whose worldview/ value system  is betraying us. He calls on the transcendent god to acknowledge the mess the world is in – the mess a transcendent worldview and value system are largely responsible for.

What about sunrise?
What about rain?
What about all the things
That you said we were to gain?
What about killing fields?
Is there a time?
What about all the things
That you said was yours and mine?
Did you ever stop to notice
All the blood we’ve shed before?
Did you ever stop to notice
The crying Earth the weeping shores?
What have we done to the world?
Look what we’ve done.
What about all the peace
That you pledged your only son?
What about flowering fields?
Is there a time?
What about all the dreams
That you said was yours and mine?
Did you ever stop to notice
All the children dead from war?
Did you ever stop to notice
The crying Earth the weeping shores?

Willa:  That’s so interesting, Eleanor. I’ve always interpreted these lines rather differently – not as questions directed toward God, the Christian God, but as questions directed toward us and our ancestors. After all, our ancestors are the ones who developed and passed on the worldview that nature is simply something to be exploited to satisfy our own wants. They created the industrial revolution. They clear-cut forests. They hunted animals to extinction. In other words, they gave us the very destructive legacy that we are fulfilling today.

But listening to those lyrics you just cited with your ideas in mind, one line really jumped out at me:  “What about all the peace / That you pledged your only son?” That really does suggest that he is addressing God – specifically, God the Father – doesn’t it?

Eleanor:  Well, the first time I heard it, it did to me (and still does). And really knocked me out. At last, someone else, Michael Jackson, no less, seemed to “get it.” And seemed to understand and express all the complex emotions I felt. IN ONE SONG. For so many years, I believed in transcendence … and then suddenly one day I didn’t. And my overwhelming feeling was one of betrayal. I saw that in trying to be a good person and do the right thing, I was actually acting against the best interests of the planet and of myself as a woman – and society at large. And, at that moment I also lost whatever faith I had left in the JC God, because to me, as a symbol and a character in a book, the JC God represented that which no longer worked for the well-being of all. It was both a terrible and a liberating moment. I went to divinity school, in part, to see if I was correct in my assessment or, if not, if I could salvage some vestiges of my Christian faith, but, no one ever was able “to reconcile the ways of God” to nature or woman – or me. And, I came out more convinced than ever that I was on the right track (but I went to a very liberal divinity school).

To me, Earth Song is both a lament and an accusation. Michael Jackson’s lament is not only for what we are inflicting on nature, but for what we are doing to each other and what those in power are doing to the less empowered.

Hey, what about yesterday?
(What about us?)
What about the seas?
(What about us?)
The heavens are falling down
(What about us?)
I can’t even breathe
(What about us?)
What about apathy?
(What about us?)
I need you
(What about us?)
What about nature’s worth?
It’s our planet’s womb
(What about us?)
What about animals?
(What about it?)
We’ve turned kingdoms to dust
(What about us?)
What about elephants?
(What about us?)
Have we lost their trust?
(What about us?)
What about crying whales?
(What about us?)
We’re ravaging the seas
(What about us?)
What about forest trails
Burnt despite our pleas?
(What about us?)
What about the holy land
(What about it?)
Torn apart by creed?
(What about us?)
What about the common man?
(What about us?)
Can’t we set him free?….

By so tightly weaving his concerns for earth, nature, and humanity into a single thread – the themes of environmental degradation and man’s inhumanity to man, our wars on nature and each other – he is saying that these two tragedies are related, that they arise from a single source – the transcendent god of the Judeo-Christian tradition, whose worldview and value system led his only son to the cross, whose worldview and value system brought Abraham to the brink of disaster, and whose worldview and value system are destroying the planet and leading us toward self-destruction. Earth Song is both an acknowledgement of the dire situation we find ourselves in and a recognition that we have all been betrayed.

And, when he cries out “What about us?” he identifies not only himself, but all of us, his listeners, with the disempowered and dispossessed.

Willa:  I agree – he’s forcing us to acknowledge their concerns and asking us to care about those concerns. In other words, he’s giving voice to the voiceless – “the disempowered and dispossessed,” to borrow your words – including animals as well as oppressed people. And again I’m struck by the references to Abraham (“What about Abraham?”) and “the holy land / Torn apart by creed,” which support your interpretation.

The reference to Abraham is especially interesting since, as I remember the story, God comes to Abraham and asks him to sacrifice his son, Isaac – in other words, he asks him to choose between his physical, material, embodied son and a spiritual, disembodied God. Abraham chooses the spiritual over the physical and builds an altar for killing his son, though God stays his hand at the last minute. Abraham has proven himself – he made the right choice – so God allows his son to live. I can see how the story of Abraham would be very troubling to Michael Jackson on many different levels, and it ties in very closely with your interpretation of “Earth Song.”

Eleanor:  Yes. I think the story of Abraham is difficult for many people to live with – especially MJ.

Although there is so much anger and pain in Earth Song, there is also hope, but this hope really is only revealed in the film, which shows Michael singing the earth and nature back to life.  I love watching this, because, truly, I believe his music, his art, his very being reveal and express a new way of looking at things – a new worldview and value system – that can accomplish just that. If we let nature speak to us, if we can open our hearts, I think she will show us the way, for I believe, deep within every human, nature has planted a drive which drives us toward collective survival, and when a way of life is operating against our survival, we will instinctively react and seek to right our course.

Willa:  I love that section of Earth Song also, and that’s a wonderful way to describe it, Eleanor – he truly is “singing the earth and nature back to life.” I think it’s especially important that this section undoes the destruction we witnessed in the first half of the video – the cut tree rights itself and once again becomes part of the forest canopy, the elephant regrows her tusks and comes back to life, the dead civilian opens his eyes. And something very specific seems to bring about the shift between the destruction we witness in the first half and the healing and reawakening we see in the second half – it’s all the people pushing their hands down into the dirt, reconnecting themselves with the physicality of the earth.

Eleanor:  I had forgotten that bit. So perfect. So significant. No doubt about it, he was a genius.

This new way of seeing things is clearly set forth in “Planet Earth,” which comes from a different emotional place altogether, but addresses the same issues. Michael Jackson references the traditional western philosophical view of matter (a view of nature refined and espoused by Enlightenment thinkers) when he asks if the earth, the material world is

a cloud of dust
A minor globe, about to bust
A piece of metal bound to rust
A speck of matter in a mindless void
A lonely spaceship, a large asteroid

Cold as a rock without a hue
Held together with a bit of glue

and simply and directly refutes it:  “Something tells me this isn’t true.”

In “Planet Earth,” MJ celebrates earth’s innate value and claims his own, deep connection and oneness with the earth, and his debt to nature. Contrary to traditional belief, the human race Michael Jackson belongs to is not separate from and superior to nature, but an integral part of nature. I really love the following lines:

In my veins I’ve felt the mystery
Of corridors of time, books of history
Life songs of ages throbbing in my blood
Have danced the rhythm of the tide and flood
Your misty clouds, your electric storm
Were turbulent tempests in my own form  … 

And, he establishes and models a new relationship to nature – that of the lover to the beloved, rather than the owner to the owned or the master to the slave. In “Planet Earth,” Michael Jackson loves and cherishes the earth.

Do you care, have you a part
In the deepest emotions of my own heart
Tender with breezes caressing and whole
Alive with music, haunting my soul.
Planet Earth, gentle and blue
With all my heart, I love you.

Willa:  I love those lines also, and you’re right – he entirely reframes our relationship with nature and the material world. I see that throughout Dancing the Dream, where he repeatedly locates the spiritual within the material, and finds a sense of wonder and enlightenment within the physical world, not above it. (And I’m sorry about that word “spiritual” – I can’t seem to avoid it!) Even the preface suggests this idea:

Consciousness expresses itself through creation. This world we live in is the dance of the creator. Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on. On many an occasion when I’m dancing, I’ve felt touched by something sacred. In those moments, I’ve felt my spirit soar and become one with everything that exists. I become the stars and the moon. I become the lover and the beloved. I become the victor and the vanquished, I become the master and the slave. I become the singer and the song. I become the knower and the known. I keep on dancing and then, it is the eternal dance of creation. The creator and creation merge in one wholeness of joy.

I keep on dancing and dancing … and dancing, until there is only … the dance.

I’m especially struck by the line, “On many an occasion when I’m dancing, I’ve felt touched by something sacred.” Reading those lines in terms of what you’ve been saying, Eleanor, it seems significant that he connects a heightened spirituality, the “sacred,” with a heightened physicality, with “dancing.” The sacred isn’t something that transcends the physical body, but something he accesses through the physical body.

Eleanor:  Yes, that is a theme he comes back to a lot. And, thanks for bringing this quote to my attention. As a relatively new fan of MJ’s, I’m afraid I still have a way to go in my Michael Jackson studies – but again, it fits so perfectly and reinforces my belief that he was very “consciously” trying to create a radically new way of looking at the world. … I love his saying that consciousness is within creation, in other words that matter has mind. Every time I look out my window or go for a walk, I wonder how anyone could ever doubt it – with each leaf knowing exactly how to position itself to get the most sun, with the roots of trees heading directly for my septic system for water, with my geese – not so silly – carefully teaching the goslings to swim and walking in a protective phalanx around them, my mare knowing so perfectly how to mother (how I wish my own mother had known as much) watching over her foal, high-tailing it and kicking up her heels in the sunlight. I don’t know about you, but I want to feel part of all this life – this energy – this consciousness within nature – not separate from the “one wholeness of joy.”

Willa:  I agree. He creates a longing in his work to participate in “the eternal dance of creation” that we can see all around us, once we look at nature with deep appreciation for what it is and not just for how we can use it – for example, to appreciate a meadow or a forest for the wonder that they are and not just as a potential homesite or lumber to be exploited.

I’m also struck by the lines in the preface where he once again subverts all these hierarchical relationships – “the victor and the vanquished,” “the master and the slave,” “the knower and the known” – and connects the sacred with the lower sphere as well as the upper.

Eleanor:  Yes, I guess it’s more surprising to me that he includes the “upper.” (Note how even our mental imagery is affected by the transcendent worldview.) In writing about Earth Song, I was reminded again that he seems not to blame those “on top” for the problems the world faces, but the system itself. We are all caught up in this system. And transcendence drives us all to rise to the top and seize control. By its very “nature,” it creates hierarchical relationships, so it is MJ’s goal to subvert them. And, he is not just subverting relationships, but the energy that drives us to create these relationships – the drive that energizes our culture. He wants to align the energy that drives human societies with the energy that drives nature. And, he himself is an example of someone really connected, really plugged in. I think it is this energy that he calls L.O.V.E. In the new global village, we can no longer afford to work against each other; survival depends on working for the well-being of all. And ALL means all life, not just human life (excluding mosquitoes and fire ants, of course).

Willa:  Though I have a feeling he would include mosquitoes and fire ants as well! He sang a beautiful song about a rat, after all – it’s one of my favorite songs.

Thank you again for joining me, Eleanor. It’s been so interesting! You’ve really opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about these ideas of body, mind, and spirit (that problematic word again, “spirit”). Now I’m wanting to watch Earth Song and read Dancing the Dream again with these thoughts in mind, and I love that. I love it when someone gives me a new path for entering into a work and seeing it in a different way. Thank you, Eleanor.


Happy Birthday, Michael: You Made Them Care

Willa:  Hi Joie. So we’re back!  Did you have a good summer?

Joie:  Yeah, it was nice. We didn’t take a real vacation or anything but we did spend a couple of great weekends up at the Lake.

Willa:  Oh, that sounds nice! I know how much you love the lake. I spent a lot of my summer camping and hiking with teenagers and pre-teens, which was a blast, and Joie, I just have to tell you this story. I was in Mesa Verde, which is such an amazing place with these beautiful 700-year-old cliff-dwellings. There’s something very restful and peaceful, and very spiritual about those dwellings.

Anyway, the second day I was driving along the top of a mesa with “Earth Song” playing on the stereo, and it was a gorgeous morning and just seemed so perfect. And then I looked to my left and saw four wild mustangs running along beside us! We went along side by side for quite a while, but gradually they came closer and closer so I slowed down, and one of them ran in front of me, spun around, and then stood there tossing his head up and down. It was magnificent! Later I talked to one of the guides, and he said there are about 150 wild horses in Mesa Verde but they usually stay down in the canyons grazing. But every so often they’ll come up onto the mesa tops. It was so incredible! Now I think about those wild horses every time I hear “Earth Song.”

Joie:  Wow! Oh, I bet that was beautiful, Willa. So, how loud was your car stereo? Maybe they could hear “Earth Song” and they liked it!

Willa:  I don’t know if they heard it, but someone did. I had three kids with me – a 16-year-old up front and a 14-year-old and 12-year-old in back. The 14- and 12-year-old were pretty excited, but the 16-year-old stayed expressionless the entire time – he seems to be going through a “cool” phase. But the next day, he came up to me and asked, “What was that song you were playing yesterday? The one that goes like this …” and then he sang the long “ah, ah, ah” section of “Earth Song” note for note – you know, the part in the video where everyone is digging their hands into the earth. I was blown away. So even though he didn’t show much emotion at the time, I think he got it. Something happened, anyway.

So today would have been Michael Jackson’s 54th birthday and I was trying to think of a meaningful way to commemorate that. So I started wondering what Michael Jackson himself would do to remember the birthday of a person he admired, and that reminded me of the song he wrote and performed for Sammy Davis, Jr., for his 60th birthday:

He only performed it that one time and it rarely gets mentioned, but it’s so moving. The lyrics are really powerful, and the look on Sammy Davis’ face as watches Michael Jackson sing those words … You can tell how much it means to him.

Joie:  That’s true, Willa; from the look on his face, you can tell he is just so moved by Michael’s words. And really, when you listen to it, it’s not difficult to understand why. It is a very emotional and personal message Michael is conveying in this song. And you can really feel his depth of emotion as he’s performing this special song for one of his idols. Those words he’s singing obviously mean a lot to him. It’s quite moving.

Willa:  It really is, and it’s also a very stylized performance, if that makes sense – it almost seems like a performance from another era. It’s like he isn’t just paying tribute to Sammy Davis, Jr., through his lyrics, but through these very stylized gestures as well. He also incorporates iconic poses that are distinctively his own, but they seems perfectly in sync with what’s gone before, so it’s like he’s demonstrating through his performance how his movements fit within this tradition of dance and gesture that’s gone before him.

Joie:  Oh, I agree with you; I think a lot of his movements during this performance are very reminiscent of Sammy Davis Jr. and the way he moved. So, you’re right, it’s like he’s paying tribute through the song itself, but also through his movements.

You know, Willa, I haven’t listened to this song in a while but, do you know what strikes me as I watch that clip now? I can’t help but think about all the young artists out there now who are suddenly looking to Michael and citing him as one of their greatest influences. Artists like Justin Bieber and Chris Brown and others. They all look to Michael as one of their heroes just like Michael looked to Sammy Davis and James Brown and Jackie Wilson.

Willa:  I see what you mean, Joie. The tradition is continuing on in a powerful way through this new generation of artists, and Michael Jackson played a very important part in furthering that tradition – he carried the baton a long way! But I also think there’s something very special that Sammy Davis, Jr., and Michael Jackson share in common, and that’s how they both broke through racial barriers – and paid a big price for doing that. As Michael Jackson sings so movingly,

You were there, before we came
You took the hurt, you took the shame
They built the walls to block your way
You beat them down, you won the day
It wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair
You taught them all, you made them care
Yes, you were there, and thanks to you,
There’s now a door we all walk through
And we are here, for all to see
To be the best that we can be
Yes, I am here
‘Cause you were there  

I think he’s singing pretty explicitly about the racism Sammy Davis, Jr., confronted. “It wasn’t right” and “it wasn’t fair,” as Michael Jackson sings, but he endured it. “You took the hurt, you took the shame.” And because of that, “thanks to you / There’s now a door we all walk through.” I think that “we” he’s talking about in these lines is specifically black artists whose lives and careers were a little bit easier because Sammy Davis, Jr., broke ground for them.

Joie:  Yes, I agree with you totally. And I also believe that there are many Black artists out there now who feel the exact same way about Michael Jackson. After all, if it hadn’t been for him and the racial barrier he knocked down at MTV, for example, there would be hundreds of other Black artists who may have never had their videos included in rotation on that station. Likewise, if it hadn’t been for Michael’s amazing cross-over success with the Thriller album, there could be hundreds of Black artists today who may never have tasted similar success.

Willa:  I think that’s really true and really important, Joie, and I hope they’re able to draw strength from Michael Jackson’s life and career the way he seemed to draw strength from the stories of those who went before him. You know, when things were so bad for him after the molestation allegations came out and during the battles with Sony and the 2005 trial, he cited the struggles of those who’d gone before him, and seemed to gain comfort and strength from those stories.

And that makes me think about the title of this song. You know, last spring we talked about “Will You Be There,” and Kris, Eleanor, and Nina had a very interesting and very moving conversation in the comments section about the special symbolic connection between “I’ll Be There” and “Will You Be There.” As Kris wrote,

we have this child who starts out touching us with the purest, most angelic voice, telling us “I’ll Be There,” “just call my name, I’ll be there to comfort you,” etc. And he grows into this man who finds himself really honestly asking “will you be there for me,” and so sadly, it often seemed the answer was no. The two sides of that coin and the truth they tell about his life are very poignant for me.

I know what Kris means – it’s very poignant for me too. But I’ve been thinking lately that maybe there’s a third song in this series:  “You Were There.”

I’ve been thinking lately that there was a small group who was always there to encourage him and give him strength and courage when he needed it, and it included people like Sammy Davis, Jr., James Brown, Chuck Berry, Jack Johnson, Mohammad Ali, Jesse Jackson, and Nelson Mandela – in other words, the black artists and fighters and political figures who had gone before him, who had walked that path before him, and experienced the same kinds of prejudice and persecution and ridicule he faced. Looking at that list, it’s pretty shocking how many were either imprisoned or threatened with imprisonment through no fault of their own – they were simply too powerful to be endured – and I think Michael Jackson drew strength from that knowledge.

Joie:  Hmm. That’s an interesting thought, Willa. The idea that this song forms a sort of trilogy with the other two songs Kris, Eleanor, and Nina were discussing. In fact, I’d be really interested to hear their thoughts on your assessment – so ladies, if you’re reading, please weigh in.

You know, Willa, I think the best part about this song is that it’s just so sincere and heartfelt. It really is just a sweet little song, don’t you think? I mean, it was never recorded and never offered for sale or download as far as I know. Michael only performed it that one time that I know of and yet, I think most fans – even a lot of the new fans – have been aware of it for quite some time. I believe that’s because it’s always been sort of a “fan favorite” and so it’s been passed around from fan to fan. Sort of like when news of something really great spreads via word-of-mouth rather than by conventional promotion. I think that says a lot for this sweet little song.

Willa:  I agree, it’s beautiful, though I think it’s a pretty pointed critique of racism – which is surprising in such “a sweet little song,” as you say. As with so much of his work, we can interpret it and respond to it on many different levels.

Joie:  That’s very true and it is a “pretty pointed critique of racism” – as you say. But it’s also just really sweet and sincere as he sings a love song of appreciation and thanks to one of his idols. Either way you look at it, it is a very powerful, unassuming little song.

Willa:  And a wonderful birthday present to one of his idols.

So you know, Joie, this is Michael Jackson’s birthday, but it’s kind of ours too – our first post was in August of last year. And Joie, I just wanted to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed our chats. You are so fun to work with, and so knowledgeable about everything MJ! I’m constantly amazed by how much information you have at your fingertips, and all the history you have in your head.

Joie:  That’s funny, Willa. Maybe that’s why my head feels so crowded all the time; it’s all the MJ stats floating around up there! But seriously, I’ve enjoyed our conversations too. I have learned so much from talking with you. It’s been a very interesting year.

Willa:  It really has been. So happy first birthday, Joie! And thank you so much for making this such a wonderful experience.

Joie:  Happy Anniversary, Willa!

Visualizing Sound

Willa:  This week Joie and I are thrilled to be joined by Lisha McDuff, a classically trained, full-time, career musician with over 25 years of working experience – though actually, Lisha has been joining us for quite a while now. Many of you know her already as Ultravioletrae.

Lisha, we’re so excited to have you join us and share your insights about Michael Jackson’s work as one professional musician listening to another. I’ve been so intrigued by your comments in the past – especially how you’re able to share what you’re hearing and make it accessible to those of us without formal training in music. It’s like it allows me to peek into a world I don’t know how to enter on my own. So thank you very much for joining us!

In one of your comments, you mentioned that you weren’t really a Michael Jackson fan until you saw This Is It, but then you were so blown away by what you saw that you became an ardent supporter and began studying his work. So I’m curious: what exactly did you see that impressed you so much?

Lisha:  I don’t know that I’ll ever stop talking about the day I decided to see This Is It. It just totally captured me the way great art has the ability to do. From Michael’s first appearance in the film through the ending credits, I was caught in the moment, totally fixed on what I was seeing and hearing. I didn’t care about anything I had ever done, or what I needed to do in the future. It took my breath away. For me, that’s what great art does. It allows you to enter a timeless realm, where your mind has to stop its incessant activity and you can do nothing else but contemplate the beauty of what’s in front of you. I think that is what Michael meant when he said he wanted to create “escapism.” It’s that magic moment, when a great painting, literature, film, whatever it is, stops you dead in your tracks, takes you out of your ordinary perception, and arrests your mind with something beautiful and fascinating.

Willa:  What a wonderful image! And a great description of that special feeling when art completely enraptures you. So “that magic moment,” as you call it, happens when you’re completely mesmerized and absorbed in the present moment. I love that.

Lisha:  I can remember the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas talking about this when he described how he distinguishes a truly great musical performance from an ordinary one. He said that listening to music gives the mind a chance to daydream and wander, but a great musician will never allow this to happen. A truly great musician will command your full and undivided attention, and your mind will not stray even for a second. You must hear every note. This Is It was seeing a master at work. It was riveting.

Joie:  I have heard from so many people – most of them not fans in the traditional sense before viewing the film – who expressed similar reactions after watching him in action in This Is It.

Lisha:  It’s surprising how many of us new fans are out there. Why weren’t we paying attention sooner? Imagine not knowing much about Michael Jackson and then plopping yourself down in a movie theater and getting hit with it all at once. It’s pretty overwhelming.

Initially, I was so struck by how creative and free everything I saw and heard was. Some of the first images in the film are things like Michael in the orange jeans and the shiny jacket doing the sideways Moonwalk across the stage, singing “you’re a vegetable” while grasping in the air with his hands, and turning into a robot. He was like an endless fountain of creativity, taking inspiration from such a vast range of influences, from 70’s dance music to Marcel Marceau. It was like nothing I usually think of as pop, rock, soul, or even song and dance for that matter. I mean, what other musician would even dream of using a mime as inspiration for their work? A mime is totally silent!

You just couldn’t tell what was coming next from Michael. He might decide to do a dance using nothing but his back and shoulders, or he might drop to the floor and wiggle his feet in the air. He might use an achingly beautiful flute solo, or the voice of Dr. King, or he might use a car horn – you just didn’t know. He sang soft, gentle melodies a capella and then did some serious rock n roll. Whatever came next, it was always a complete surprise, nothing you could have predicted or expected. And it was always just the exact right thing for that musical moment.

Watching him interact with his musicians was a jaw dropping experience, like hearing him sing a line he wanted brought out while beat boxing the accompanying rhythm! I love this clip from the film:

His comments were so astute I knew Alex Al wasn’t exaggerating when he said you can’t fool Michael – you’d better come in knowing your part. I’d be willing to bet every musician there had the feeling that Michael was listening only to them. Ears like that are rare, the musicianship even rarer.

Willa:  So what does that mean exactly?

Lisha:  I mean that there aren’t a lot of people on the planet who can come into a rehearsal and really hear everything that’s going on all at once, identify where the problems are, and know exactly how to fix it. That’s what I mean about having great ears.

Joie:  And when you think about the fact that he hadn’t prepared for the stage in over twelve years, that ability to hear everything all at once really is amazing. You would expect him to be sorely out of practice or something but, that clearly wasn’t the case.

Lisha:  But Michael wasn’t simply cleaning things up, he was shaping things, adding musical tension and interest to everything he did. In that first instruction where he beat boxed the rhythm and the guitar line, he was balancing and blending the sound. He knew that line needed to come out and knew it was so crucial to the overall musical feel. A small detail like that can make a huge difference in how effective a performance is. It was so impressive how he listened and responded to what he heard. He was addressing the kinds of details that most composers and performers leave up to the arrangers, the music director and the musicians. I was really surprised at the level of interaction – he was taking what his musicians could do to a whole new level, and they knew it. Here’s another revealing clip that just popped up on YouTube:

Willa:  That’s a wonderful clip, Lisha, and it really shows just how involved he was with the background vocalists, the musicians, the music director.

Lisha:  Astonishingly, Michael also seemed to have that hyper-awareness with other aspects of the show: the dancing, the lighting, the filmmaking, the special effects, etc. Who can forget the moment he took over the bulldozer scene in “Earth Song,” directing the use of silence as the bulldozer closed its jaws? You could feel your heart cracking open with the timing of the next cue for the piano solo. Extraordinary. Michael Bearden, the music director, said on his fan page something like a jolt of electricity passed through him at that moment.

Willa:  I can believe it! I love that scene, and it’s another moment where you really see his influence. The musicians are playing as the bulldozer closes, following the director’s – Kenny Ortega’s – direction. But Michael Jackson is waving him and them down. He wants the music to stop before then, while the bulldozer’s jaws are still open. As he explains to them, “The value would be greater if you let it rumble – let it stay open – let it close in silence.”

Joie:  I agree, that is a powerful scene. And I also love the scene where they’re rehearsing Smooth Criminal and after the film portion, Michael turns around and stands motionless for a moment, and Kenny Ortega thinks they’ve gotten their wires crossed and misunderstood when the music is supposed to kick in. But Michael is “sizzling” and waiting for just the right dramatic moment to give the cue to his drummer. Kenny then points out that Michael won’t be able to see the screen behind him change from the marquee to a shot of the city if he does it this way, and Michael says simply, “I gotta feel that. I’ll feel it on the screen behind me.” I love that! He won’t see the screen change behind him, but he’ll feel it! It’s as if every fiber of his being is completely in tune with every aspect of “the performance.” He’ll be able to feel when the screen changes just like he’ll be able to feel the exact right moment to cue the drums. Amazing!

Lisha:  I was amazed by that moment in Smooth Criminal too. And how poetic of Michael to describe himself as “sizzling!” Bearden was funny, sort of imitating Michael by telling Ortega that the band didn’t miss their cue, they were waiting because “he’s sizzling.” I got the feeling that everything Michael did or said had artistic flair – it’s just the way his mind worked.

Of all the things I saw that day, the thing that really left me down for the count was what I felt he was doing with music conceptually. I still don’t think I’ve got my head around it. It’s the way he merges multiple styles of music/dance/art with his own multiple intelligences: composing, performing, producing, directing, choreographing, filmmaking, staging, imagineering, his emotional depth, compassion, universal spirituality. He is approaching music from so many disciplines, and with so much depth, history, social and psychological insight. All of it collides with these giant mythic concepts, like the infinite 4D army in They Don’t Care About Us, suggesting the epic battle between good and evil. I gasped at this, recalling the iconic pictures of his military style wardrobe, realizing he has been exploring the powerful role music plays in swaying the hearts and minds of people for years. He’s used this image and concept in many different ways.

I felt he was even exploring the boundaries of space and time with his 4D concept and time bending. He jumps out of the 3D films and onto the stage. He takes you into the future with Light Man, then he jumps back in time into the old classic movies.

Willa:  Oh, Light Man is such an interesting image, especially in terms of “time bending.” He looks futuristic, but important scenes from our political and cultural history are playing across the surface of his body and the sphere he’s holding. So we are witnessing history on this shiny futuristic surface – it’s superimposing collective memories of our past onto this vision of the future.

Kenny Ortega said that Michael Jackson connected Light Man gazing at that sphere with Hamlet gazing at the skull during his “Alas, poor Yorick” speech. I love that, and it adds yet another layer of meaning to that image. And then Light Man opens and Michael Jackson jumps out onto the stage.

And then he extends his reach beyond the stage as well. He planned to break down the “fourth wall” between the performers and the audience with the huge puppets moving among the audience during the “Thriller / Ghosts / Threatened” segment. I was also really struck by how the bullets in the Smooth Criminal 3D film fly out at the audience. He frequently tried to lead us as an audience to sympathize with those who are vulnerable, and in this case he positions us so the bullets are flying right at us as well as him so we really experience what a vulnerable position he’s in, and feel the threat against him.

Lisha:  I love your take on Light Man, Willa, and yes, I also felt he was using space in such an incredibly meaningful way. This is something I am totally fascinated by. Have you ever noticed this happens in his recorded music? Not long after I saw the film I read Bruce Swedien’s book In The Studio with Michael Jackson. Swedien talks about music as sonic sculpture, how he likes to make the soundfield multi-dimensional. For Swedien to be satisfied with sound, it must have the proportions of left, center, right, and depth. This was a real eye opener to me when I started paying attention to the way the sounds are localized in Michael’s recordings.

For example, when you listen to the intro to “Thriller,” the footsteps will walk right out of your right speaker, across the room or your desk, and right back into your left speaker. They don’t just pan right and left. They walk. If you’re wearing headphones, they will walk right through your head!

Joie:  Oh, my God! I cannot tell you how many times I have marveled at how those footsteps seem to walk through my head when I listen to “Thriller” with my headphones on! That is simply amazing and I always wonder, how did they do that?! Because you’re right, the sound doesn’t just pan from the right speaker to the left – it literally walks across the room!

Lisha:  I love to listen to “Thriller” in my car because of the clever way the sound gets sent around the space. Like in the Vincent Price rap section, Michael ad libs between the rap verses, singing “I’m gonna thrill her tonight,” which I hear in the front of my car. But from a distance as if in the back seat I hear “hee hee hee…” and “thriller, thriller baby…” like it is coming from behind me! It sounds like Michael Jackson is in the back seat of my car doing his ad libs!

Willa:  That’s funny!

Lisha:  What a hilarious musical joke when you consider the horror film genre he is spoofing.

Willa:  Oh, I hadn’t thought about that. So you don’t just have Michael Jackson in the backseat – you actually have a monster back there … right … behind … you. That is funny!

Lisha:  Are you scared yet? I feel like I’ve entered the Michael Jackson dream world, symbolized by the first sound you hear, the squeaky door opening, and the last sound, the door closing shut. You’re being taken into a space in your imagination that exists just for that song. You can see how the talent and imagination of the composer, performer, engineer and producer have to work together to create an effect like that.

Joie:  Lisha, I could not agree with you more about the sonic sculpture thing. And as I think about each album, there are just so many examples of “sonic sculptures” throughout his work. The ones that immediately jump to mind for me are, “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Dangerous,” “History,” “Ghosts,” and “Heartbreaker.” And that’s just picking one song from each album but honestly, every single song on each album can be described this way. As a sonic sculpture – a three-dimensional work of art that will live on forever.

Lisha:  They truly are works of art and I love every one of your examples, Joie. I even love this game music he created – and don’t forget to listen with headphones:

Joie:  The game music is incredible.

Willa:  It definitely shows a different side of him, doesn’t it? Though it’s not what I would have expected you to pick, Lisha, as a classically trained musician.

Joie:  Willa, it’s interesting you would say that because, when I listen to that game music, I can’t help but wonder about the classical album he was working on when he died. I would give just about anything to hear that music. Talk about sonic sculpture! Can you imagine what that music must sound like?

Willa:  Oh, I know! I really hope the Estate releases it sometime in some form or other because I’d love to hear it. And this idea of sonic sculpture is fascinating, especially the way it merges the senses – almost like a type of synesthesia. It’s like visualizing sound.

Joie:  I love the way you put that, Willa. “Visualizing sound.” That’s very poetic.

Willa:  It’s a fascinating idea, isn’t it? And this idea of sonic sculpture kind of captures something I’ve felt in his music for a long time but didn’t know how to express. For me, his music has always been very visual, but I just assumed that was because of his videos, and the imagery of his lyrics. To me, his videos seem so integral to his artistic vision. As he says in Moonwalk,

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

So the videos weren’t just something he tacked on later as a marketing tool. From the very beginning, he planned to incorporate film as part of how we experienced that album, “to present this music … visually.” And those visual elements are integral to how we experience Thriller, I think. I can’t think of any of those three songs without imagining the videos as well.

But this concept of “sonic sculpture” adds a whole other way of thinking about this. It’s like his music itself is visual in some ways – it’s three dimensional and occupies three-dimensional space, and I don’t usually think of sound doing that.

Lisha:  I had never thought of music as three dimensional in quite this way before either. I still find it mind blowing. Classical music explores the spatialization of sound – other music and popular recordings do as well – but this seems different to me somehow. I’m not sure I even know how to quantify it. In the ancient architecture of South India, known as Vaastu, architecture is defined as “frozen music.” One of the concepts of Vaastu is “rhythm-bound space.” The way Michael conceives of music as architecture reminds me of these concepts in Vaastu. He merges visuals/movement/space with music in a way that leaves one indistinguishable from the other. It’s not music with dance and visuals – it’s somehow structured as one single thing. I can’t hear the music without associating it with the sensation of movement and the visual, artistic, spatial concepts. I think this is really critical to understanding Michael as a composer and as a musician.

Willa:  That’s just fascinating, Lisha, and it really expands not only how I think about Michael Jackson’s music, but music in general. Wow, I’m really going to have to ponder this for a while!

And I wonder how this idea of music as spatial and visual ties back in with his videos. I visualize his videos every time I listen to his songs – the songs and videos are so interconnected for me, and there’s a lot of emotional slippage between them. I don’t know if that makes sense but, for example, for a long time I didn’t like the You Rock My World video. In fact, it made me really uncomfortable. It’s pretty angry and I didn’t understand where that anger was coming from or who it was directed against, and it always left me feeling so frustrated and unsettled that I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like all those uncomfortable emotions it aroused in me. And I didn’t like the song either because of that – because all those unsettled emotions spilled over from the video. But after Joie and I talked about You Rock My World last fall and really explored everything that was going on in that video, I came to appreciate it so much more and now I like it a lot. And I like the song much more now also. That’s what I meant by “emotional slippage” between his songs and videos – the emotions of one color the other.

But even in the songs without videos, he paints such vivid pictures sometimes that I actually visualize the woman sitting at the kitchen table in “Much Too Soon,” or the patient lying on the examining table in “Morphine,” listening to the doctor explain what’s going to happen as the drug flows into his veins.

Joie:  I know exactly what you mean, Willa; I do that too. In fact, for some of his songs that don’t have an accompanying video, I have actually conjured up an entire short film in my head. And every time I hear the songs – “Money,” “Unbreakable,” and “2000 Watts,” for example – those images that my imagination created play in my mind, simply because he has painted such a vivid picture with his words.

Willa:  Now I want to see your mental movies, Joie! That’s so interesting. Another good one is “Human Nature” – his voice is so expressive you can really picture the main character, feeling restless and intensely alive and full of energy, just longing to be out in the night air, walking the city streets.

Lisha:  Yes, I’ve made a lot of short films in my mind too! Like “Human Nature,” which I shot looking into a high-rise apartment window, but then you turn and look outside and see the fire escape and street scenes of New York.

Willa:  That’s wonderful! What a cinemagraphic way of visualizing it. I can really picture that.

Lisha:  “Human Nature” was another remarkable scene in This Is It. I couldn’t believe that rehearsal, how he created so much musical tension just with his voice and his movement, no accompaniment at all, totally solo. It made a strong impression on me visually as well because I remember looking at his body and fashion sense and I thought to myself, wow, this man gave everything he had to his art, even his own body was used. He held nothing back, including every cell of his body – he gave it all. This struck me as astonishing new territory, that an artist would use their own body to make art. He was like a living, breathing piece of sculpture. I’ve seen people customize their bodies with tattoos or piercings, but never anything like this. I was fascinated by his physical beauty and what it said to me, combined with my own memory of him as a child star, a teenager, the Thriller icon, and the many images I had seen in the media over the years.

Willa:  I know what you mean, Lisha. Even the color of his skin was part of his art, and it feels to me like an entirely new kind of art, a new genre of art – it creates meaning in a way that’s very different from a piercing or tattoo, I think, though there are connections. They are all “rewriting” the body to some extent, but Michael Jackson is also rewriting the cultural narratives that have been inscribed on his body in a way I’ve never seen before. So the way he’s rewriting his body carries enormous cultural implications for how we read and interpret signifiers of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and ultimately identity.

Lisha:  I believe Michael Jackson does mark an entirely new chapter in music and art.  Think how powerful all of this is when you consider how it is being aimed at the masses, the entire globe, the inclusion of everyone, even the planet itself. I remember seeing the intro to “Earth Song” for the first time in This Is It, realizing he had been playing with his audience all along as he revealed the true meaning of his show. This Is It isn’t “the final curtain call” or the “it” place to be.  This Is It is our marching orders:  time is running out to avoid a global catastrophe. He was using his musical artistic ability to reach the masses and heal the world.  I thought, what event in all of art even comes close to this?

Joie:  Lisha, I love what you just said about Michael’s music being aimed at the entire globe. It made me remember something that Akon once said about him in an interview. He said,

“He’s incredible. He’s a genius. Just to be in the same room [with him], I felt everything I wanted to accomplish in life has been achieved….That aura … that’s how incredible that aura is….The way he thinks … some artists think regional, some think national, I was thinking international. He thinks planets! It’s on another level!”

I always find it fascinating to learn that his music industry peers, and the younger generation of music artists who are influenced by him, find him just as mind-blowing as the fans do. And I love this quote from Akon because it illustrates so well what you were just saying about appealing to the masses. It also highlights another point you just made when you said “what event in art even comes close to this?” As Akon said, Michael didn’t think small. “He thinks planets!”

Lisha:  Isn’t it true? I think Akon was right. There is something so expansive about the way Michael thinks and conceives of art. I’m also trying to think of someone else who has had that kind of reach, and I’m stumped. Is there another historical figure who has reached around the globe the way Michael Jackson has? I’m no historian, but I really can’t think of one.

Joie:  I can’t think of one either, Lisha, and I’ve tried for many years.

Willa:  He did have a very different way of conceptualizing art, didn’t he? Not just the global reach of his art, but the way he envisions art. I honestly believe he was creating a new poetics, an entirely new philosophy of art.

So I wanted to circle back to his musicianship for just a moment, if we could. When Joie and I talked with Joe Vogel and Charles Thomson a few weeks ago about Michael Jackson as a songwriter, we talked quite a bit about the many collaborators he worked with in the studio, and how they deserve at least some of the credit for what we hear when we listen to one of his albums. But we disagreed about what that means in terms of his musicianship and his songwriting. For example, Charles felt he had far less autonomy as a songwriter because he brought other musicians into the studio, while Joie and I tended to think he was still the composer of his songs and the guiding vision for his albums, and still had a lot of control over what happened in the studio. So as a professional musician who’s worked collaboratively with other musicians, what are your thoughts about this?

Lisha:  Well, from my viewpoint, I think there is a paradigm shift going on that makes this difficult to see. Because great music will always reflect the reality of the time and place it was created, whether it intends to or not. For example, Michael Jackson lived in a country that values technology, material prosperity, and global commerce. So it’s no accident that his music strongly reflects these values. It is technologically advanced, lavishly produced, and commercially successful on a global scale.

Willa:  Wow, I’d never thought about that before.

Lisha:  He also lived in a time and place where it was becoming clear that human beings must develop the capacity to value each other’s perspectives and work together effectively. This was critically important as we moved into a global economy and began working to save the planet’s resources and viability. And that is exactly how I would sum up Michael’s creative process – as the ability to value multiple perspectives, working to fuse them together seamlessly in a way that benefits and enhances every part of the whole. I don’t think for a second that it diminishes his musicianship. On the contrary, I think it is his genius.

Another way to look at this is through The Beatles. I am religiously in love with their work, and I especially admire Paul McCartney. I get a kick out of reading the liner notes on his solo albums and seeing him credited as the bass player, the drummer, the lead guitar player, the keyboard player, the lead vocalist, and the background vocalists as well. Pretty amazing, DIY records! What can’t this man do? I love his solo albums. But at the end of the day, I have to admit, none of the work that The Beatles did as solo artists comes close to what they produced synergistically as The Beatles. You can really hear and understand the value of their working together – the proof is in the pudding as they say. I think it’s clear that musical synergy was a part of their genius.

Willa:  What a great analogy! And I certainly don’t think that working together as The Beatles diminished the musical accomplishments of any of them:  Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, or Starr.

Lisha:  Not at all, it brought out their best work. That is how Kenny Ortega summed up Michael’s philosophy for This Is It – he wanted to gather the best people he could find and challenge them to work together to go beyond anything they had done before.

So I’ve asked myself the question, What work done by Michael’s collaborators on their own can hold up next to a Michael Jackson album? Even the Michael album, which contains a great deal of Michael’s work, cannot stand the test of a Michael Jackson album! Only the man himself could pull that off. Without Michael Jackson guiding the vision and polishing every last detail to perfection, I’m afraid there are no more Michael Jackson albums.

Joie:  So does that mean you agree then with, who is very much against posthumous albums of previously unreleased music?

Lisha:  Not at all. scared the living daylights out of me when he said he considered destroying some of the tracks he and Michael were working on! I can’t say strongly enough how important it is to preserve and archive everything EXACTLY as Michael left it, including things that were meant for the trash can. Future musicologists will need to have access to all of this. As long as that is done first, I hope the Estate releases everything that has any commercial value at all. It won’t be the exquisitely crafted works of art that Michael created no matter who does the final production work, but it will be a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a genius and his creative process. I would love to be able to hear every last bit of it, even whole albums of snippets and unfinished songs. I think most artists would die for something as good as what Michael Jackson throws away!

Roundtable: the MJ Academia Project

Willa:  A few weeks ago, Joie and I had a fascinating conversation with author Joe Vogel and investigative reporter Charles Thomson about Michael Jackson as a songwriter. That conversation focused on the musical aspects of his songwriting, so we decided to meet again to talk about Michael Jackson as a lyricist. However, when we sat down to talk, our discussion immediately took a left turn and developed in ways none of us had expected, but was very interesting to all of us. Here’s the discussion that followed …

*      *      *

Charles:  Have you been watching the Michael Jackson Academia Project videos? They’re magnificent. Joe spoke in the last session about how Michael’s lyrics weren’t always as great as his compositions, but those videos make a very strong argument that his lyrics were actually a lot more insightful and astute than people gave him credit for – especially on the HIStory album.

Joe:  The HIStory album, I’ve argued for years, contains some of MJ’s boldest and strongest work. It’s both his most personal album and his most political. I should clarify, since you mentioned his lyrics:  my case isn’t that Jackson’s lyrics aren’t “as great as his compositions.”  My argument is that his lyrics are augmented by their vocal delivery, supplemented by his non-verbal vocalizations, and enhanced by how they are performed and represented visually. So I think for the many critics who dismiss Jackson as a songwriter, these aspects of his artistry/creative expression need to be taken into account.

Now, regarding the MJAP videos, there are definitely things I like about what they’re doing. They take MJ’s work seriously, which is a good thing, and provide close readings of his work (I’d actually never heard the capitalist tycoon names mentioned in “Money”). They’re also quite well-made. However, for all the research that has clearly gone into them they do some things that are a bit confusing for an “academia project.” For example, they don’t attach their names to their work and from what I understand, aren’t affiliated with a university or academic organization. They also don’t cite sources that have already published the same information/interpretation in their videos, which is very important if it is going to be taken seriously outside the MJ fan community.

Joie:  I have to say that I agree with Joe on this point. I don’t understand why whoever is behind the MJAP videos seems reluctant to reveal themselves. It’s almost as if they’re hiding and I think Joe is correct in saying that they can’t really hope to be taken seriously outside of the MJ fan community if they’re unwilling to stand behind their work. Right now the videos, as great as they are, are really just preaching to the choir, so to speak.

Joe:  Also, I think in certain ways they lack context and nuance. For example, they make it seem like MJ was deeply entrenched in the Black Power movement of the 60s/70s. In one of the videos they imply that MJ was a member of, or in allegiance with the Black Panther Party; in another they quote Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam and a figure with an ideology far different than Michael’s. MJ believed deeply in social justice and equality, but never advocated Black supremacy, anti-semitism, or violence.

Willa:  That’s really interesting, Joe, because I don’t think those videos are saying that, and I don’t react to them that way at all. Maybe if the dominant narrative in the media was that Michael Jackson was an angry Black man, then I might agree that they portray him as too radical. But that isn’t the case. The dominant media image is that he was a deeply troubled Black man who was ashamed of his race – a shockingly false image. So I think they provide a much-needed counterweight.

Joe:  I think there’s some merit to that, Willa. Certainly there have been serious misunderstandings and false narratives about Jackson’s racial heritage and how that informs his identity and work. But for me, the counterweight shouldn’t be to present him as an ideologue who is aligned with Farrakhan and the Black Panthers. It should be to present him as a complex African American artist who refused to be boxed in, who constantly challenged, provoked and inspired us with his work. In certain ways, I feel the MJAP videos do that, and in certain ways they feel a bit simplistic and reductive to me.

Willa:  Wow, Joe, my response was just the opposite. I thought it was really interesting that the Academia Project showed the connections with Black Panther symbology and included the clip of Louis Farrakhan precisely because they are so different, or are perceived as being so ideologically different, from Michael Jackson.

In other words, Louis Farrakhan and Michael Jackson are two important cultural figures typically placed at opposite ends of the spectrum:  Farrakhan is portrayed as deeply divisive, a separatist, while Michael Jackson is portrayed as such an integrationist he actually wanted to be White. It’s a horrible distortion of who he was, but it’s out there. So to me, suggesting common ground between them really forces people to question their preconceived ideas about both. But showing they share some common ground doesn’t mean they’re identical. I can’t imagine anyone mistaking Michael Jackson for Louis Farrakhan. I just don’t see that.

Charles:  I think that if you listen to a song like “They Don’t Care About Us,” Michael discusses race in a clear ‘them and us’ sense. It’s right there in the title. He is juxtaposing ‘us’ – the subordinates – with ‘they’ – the establishment. He makes clear that the ‘us’ are racial minorities through other lyrics in the track. “Black man, blackmail / Throw  the brother in jail.” “I’m tired of being a victim of shame / You’re throwing me in a class with a bad name.” The use of the police radio message about the young Black man killed by police in a case of mistaken identity reinforces this position.

Then you look at the two videos which accompanied the song. The prison version shows the inmates to be almost unanimously Black. There are images of the KKK. In the Brazil version, he goosesteps and gives a Nazi salute. He stands on a balcony delivering a song based in part on Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream speech.’ There is little room for any interpretation besides that Jackson is railing against racism and identifying himself as a Black man and therefore a victim.

He reiterated this belief quite often in later years. There was the summit with Al Sharpton in 2002, where he slammed the music industry for ripping off Black artists and the media for attributing their innovations to their White contemporaries. Then there was the Jesse Jackson interview where he spoke very eloquently about the Jack Johnson story and compared himself to other Black luminaries who had been targeted by the establishment.

At the very least, I’d say Michael Jackson demonstrated conflicting ideologies on race. On the one hand, he spoke often about being ‘colour blind’ or wanting people of all races to come together. On the other, a lot of his music and his public speeches and interviews after the 1993 allegations demonstrated a deep belief that racism was very much alive and that he was a victim of it. He seemed to become more ‘militant’ after the 1993 allegations. His music spoke of police brutality, being targeted by the FBI, his prosecutor being aligned with the KKK, the media ‘lying to shame the race’. During his trial and even at the This Is It concert announcement, he would give the Black power salute. He surrounded himself with the Nation of Islam – led by Farrakhan.

I think it’s very difficult to dismiss the MJAP’s conclusions on this basis. I would also disagree with the comment that they don’t reference their work. Most of it seems to come from books, which they name explicitly in the videos.

Joe:  I’ll explain what I mean by not referencing their work. If they say that MJ’s Earth Song video was inspired by a Soviet propaganda film that looks somewhat similar, as a researcher, I just want to be able to look at where they discovered that information. Did it come from an interview? Did they have access to his archives? Or is it an educated guess based on other information? (The Triumph of the Will connection is more obvious.)

Charles:  The similarities are so striking that I’d be floored if it turned out it wasn’t an influence. Michael is dead now so it’s most likely we’ll never know for sure, but if the Earth Song video and concert performances weren’t based on that Soviet film, it’s one eerie coincidence.

Joe:  There are some striking similarities, but I’d say it’s about 50/50. Michael had a huge video archive and a personal archivist though, so it would certainly be possible to try to verify something like that.

One more example about citing:  much of what they explore in “Black or White” has been written about before (by Armond White, myself and others). So it would be customary in academia to credit ideas that have already been established so you aren’t charged with plagiarism. Of course, if these videos are primarily intended as “fan videos” these criticisms are less relevant.

Now let me go back, Charles, to the point you made about MJ engaging with race/racism:  I don’t disagree with the fact that Jackson became more politically radical and outspoken in his later career. There is no question that he was fighting against institutional racism and oppression/injustice in general. Where I disagree with MJAP (and you) is in the literalness of interpretation. For example, I see him morphing into a black panther as symbolic, not that he was secretly attending Black Panther meetings and sending out discrete codes to a specific political group. Similarly, with “They Don’t Care About Us,” I think he is identifying with the oppressed and speaking truth to power regardless of skin color or nationality. It is radical, but it has nothing to do with Nation of Islam or Louis Farrakhan (a man known for being racist, homophobic, anti-semitic, and many believe, partially responsible for the assassination of Malcolm X).

Like I said at the top, I think there is a lot to like about these videos – I think they have a lot of potential – but especially to reach outside the fan base (if that’s the goal) I think they could benefit from some nuance.

Joie:  Again, I completely agree with Joe here; I think the first MJAP video took a huge leap in suggesting that Michael was a member of, or at least in total support of both the Black Panther Party and Mr. Farrakhan simply because he morphed into a panther at the end of the “Black or White” video. And in “They Don’t Care About Us,” he is definitely “identifying with the oppressed,” as Joe put it, but ‘the oppressed’ come in many colors. As Willa and I discussed in our conversation about “They Don’t Care About Us,” this song/short film(s) is not simply a Black or White issue. It’s dealing with much more than that – poverty, the abuse of human rights, and yes, racism. And he did become much more outspoken on issues of race after 1993 and I agree that he felt very much victimized by the system. How could he not? But I don’t believe that it reveals some hidden connection to the Nation of Islam or Louis Farrakhan.

Willa:  But are these videos saying that? I don’t think so. They include a clip of Farrakhan on the Arsenio Hall show saying, “Michael is becoming politically mature. And he wants to use his political maturity, along with his wealth, to aid his people.” That’s it. To me, that shows that Louis Farrakhan has an opinion – a positive opinion – about Michael Jackson’s work and activism, but it doesn’t suggest anything more than that.

And I don’t think they are suggesting “he was secretly attending Black Panther meetings,” as you mentioned, Joe, or anything like that. I didn’t get that from the videos at all. To me, Michael Jackson’s work is this incredible tapestry that weaves together threads from many different sources. And the first Academia Project video highlights some of the Black Panther imagery in his work and traces a few of those threads. I thought that was fascinating, and it helped me appreciate a part of the tapestry I hadn’t focused on before. But I never thought they were saying he was literally a Black Panther. I just don’t see that.

Joie:  No, I’m not saying these videos are suggesting that. I don’t think that. I’m simply disagreeing with Charles’ assessment that the MJAP’s conclusions on this matter are difficult to dismiss.

That said, I do agree that the videos are really wonderful in their own way. They are very well researched and well thought out. Whoever is behind them has obviously put a great deal of time and effort into creating them and they could have a lot of potential if they were reaching the right people. Right now, they are limited to making the rounds of the MJ fan community, which is fine as there are still a lot of fans out there – especially the new fans – who maybe aren’t aware of the extent of what Michael went through and how biased the media coverage was. But in order to be really effective in changing the conversation about him, the videos need to reach a wider, more mainstream audience.

Joe:  These are very good points, Joie. I think, what I hope at least, are my constructive criticisms stem from exactly what you’re talking about:  becoming more credible so they can reach a broader audience. In fact, I think this third video they did was by far their best effort. So let me go back quickly to something Willa said. You mentioned that the Farrakhan quote is interesting because it speaks positively about Michael’s work and activism. I actually agree (mostly) with what Farrakhan is saying in this clip. But for me, again, it’s about credibility. Using Farrakhan to establish a point will actually work the opposite direction for 99% of people.

With the Black Panther stuff, I would personally just like to see more nuanced interpretation so its taken seriously in an academic context. I think they provide much more compelling interpretation when they write about how Jackson is reversing certain symbolism to opposite ends (a la the HIStory teaser and Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will).

Joie:  I agree completely with what you just said about Farrakhan and credibility. The fact is, the very sight of him turns a lot of people off and using him to establish a point or to try and persuade others to your point of view is risky and could be counterproductive.

Willa:  He is really polarizing, and I understand what you and Joe are saying, Joie. But as I said before, I think it’s really interesting and worthwhile to juxtapose Michael Jackson and Louis Farrakhan precisely because they are so different. It’s like seeing Michael Jackson on the steps of the White House with Ronald Reagan. My response is always, Wow, what a contrast! Yet they shared some common ground. That image doesn’t lead me to assume that Michael Jackson is a closet conservative and secretly funneling money to the Republican Party. Not at all. And I don’t think that about Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam either.

It’s true that Louis Farrakhan has said some things I strongly disagree with. So did Ronald Reagan, for that matter. But I don’t think the answer is to try to stuff Farrakhan in a box in the closet and pretend he doesn’t exist. Instead, I think he should be one of a collage of people who supported Michael Jackson in some way. I think it’s incredible that one person appealed to both Ronald Reagan and Louis Farrakhan, Nelson Mandela and Elizabeth Taylor, fans from the U.S. to Japan, Africa to Ireland. That’s wonderful to me.

Charles:  I don’t think the MJAP videos in any way imply that Michael Jackson was secretly attending Black Panther meetings or anything of that nature. I think they just demonstrate that his work, even prior to the allegations, was laced with political and racial commentary which was completely ignored by the critics.

Willa:  Exactly.

Charles:  I agree that using Farrakhan as a source is not going to win anybody over because the man has shown himself repeatedly to be a racist and a loon. I remember being very alarmed a while back to see fans passing around an hour or more of Farrakhan ‘preaching’ about Michael Jackson in church. During the sermon, he interpreted “They Don’t Care About Us” as a targeted assault on Jewish people and praised Michael for having the balls to express his anti-Semitic beliefs. But Farrakhan is just one of many sources used to support the point being made by the MJAP creators and I certainly agree with him that Michael Jackson’s treatment was at least partly racially motivated. If the whole thing hinged on Farrakhan, it’d be another matter – but that’s not the case.

I also disagree that the lyrics to TDCAU aren’t about any specific race. The line, “Black man, blackmail (black male) / Throw  the brother in jail” is pretty blunt, especially in tandem with the police radio message at the beginning of the track and comments throughout the rest of the album, such as “In the hood / Frame him if you could… In the black / Stab him in the back / In the face / To lie and shame the race.”

Willa:  But in the videos – the prison version, especially – the visuals complicate those lyrics. Most of the prisoners are Black, but some are White or American Indian or some other minority. Most of the guards are White, but several are Black. And I’m really struck by the fact that when he gets angry and shoves aside a guard’s billy club, that guard is Black. What that says to me is that while he’s fighting racism, as you say, it’s institutional racism, and he opposes anyone who supports that institutional racism, regardless of whether that individual is White or Black. He’s evaluating people by their beliefs and actions, not their skin color, and that’s a message he consistently expressed throughout his life.

There are also newsreel-type visuals of some fairly horrific violence – so horrific MTV refused to show this version before 9 at night. And while many of those scenes focus on images of the Ku Klux Klan or White-on-Black racial violence, there are also scenes of a White truck driver being severely beaten by young Black men during the Rodney King riots. And some of the most graphic scenes are war footage from Southeast Asia. So again, he’s fighting racism, but not in a simplistic Black versus White sort of way.

And I don’t think the lyrics are a simplistic Black versus White either. Here are those notorious lyrics that were so badly misinterpreted by a few outspoken people like Stephen Spielberg and Louis Farrakhan (speaking of strange bedfellows):

Beat me, hate me
You can never break me
Will me, thrill me
You can never kill me
Jew  me, sue me
Everybody do me
Kick me, kike me
Don’t you black or white me

He’s clearly fighting anti-Semitism in these lyrics, I believe, which is why it’s so galling that he was charged with anti-Semitism because of them. So this isn’t just about race. And when identifying leaders in the fight for justice, he says, “if Roosevelt was living / He wouldn’t let this be.” The next time he sings this verse, he replaces “Roosevelt” with “Martin Luther,” suggesting that the torch of civil rights was carried and passed on by many hands, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt as well as Martin Luther King, Jr.

So I think it’s an oversimplification to reduce this work down to simply Us versus Them. As Michael Jackson himself says, “Don’t you black or white me.”

Joe:  Exactly, Willa. This is what I think is so important:  Michael’s creative life and work, to me, is about getting beyond these air-tight oppositions. He always provides these shifting tensions. He was constantly pushing his audience, even in his protest songs, to consider the various faces cruelty, bigotry and injustice can take. He wasn’t calling for “black power” to replace “white power.” That’s the way the Bush’s and Farrakhan’s see the world. Us versus them. White versus Black. Christians versus Muslims. It’s more complex than that. Malcolm X began to realize that in his final years; MLK knew it; Michael Jackson knew it. He knew the history of White supremacy in America. He also knew about other forms of bigotry and cruelty, whether because of appearance, gender, sexuality, class, religion, illness or any other difference. But he fought such discrimination with rich, complex, syncretic art, not ideological dogma.

Joie:  And Willa and I just want to point out that you can find a link to the MJ Academia Project videos in our Reading Room. But for now, you can just click here.

A Chat with Joe Vogel about Earth Song

Joie:  Willa and I are very happy to be joined by Joe Vogel this week. As you all know, his much-anticipated book Man in the Music will be released on November 1st, and now he’s just about to release a print version of his eBook, Earth Song. Thank you for joining us Joe!
Ok, here’s what I would like to know. Why did you choose to single out “Earth Song” and write a separate piece on it? Do you have a special affinity for the song yourself, or did you simply become intrigued by Michael’s process – or obsession – with the song as you were researching for Man in the Music?

Joe:  I’ve always loved “Earth Song.” The power and majesty and passion of the song always just struck a deep chord with me. When I was working on Man in the Music, though, I was listening to all of MJ’s work so closely that many songs made new impressions. “Earth Song” was one of them. The more I learned about it and the more I listened, the more convinced I became that this was Michael’s most important song. It encompassed so much. The call and response with the choir, to me, is one of the most powerful moments in the history of music. Yet there was so little recognition for the song among critics. Very little had been written about it that wasn’t condescending and dismissive. So I wanted to somehow write about it in a way that would communicate its power – and I was excited about the prospect of really being able to zoom in on one song and do all the interviews and research with that kind of focus and depth.

Willa:  I loved that! The level of detail you provide is wonderful, and I love the way your book provides insights both into “Earth Song” and into Michael Jackson’s creative process as well. You begin your book by discussing how our world is in peril, and with descriptions of him experiencing that peril as an almost physical, wordless pain – and then you show him beginning to channel and shape and express those profound feelings into music. Can you tell us more about this process, and some key moments for how “Earth Song” came to be what we experience today?

Joe:  Sure. I think, first of all, the process of “Earth Song” provides a great window into how Michael operated as an artist. That’s what made it so much fun to write. You start making connections, putting pieces together. For example, I spoke with Matt Forger about this original concept of “Earth Song” as a trilogy (with an orchestral part, the song, and a spoken poem); after learning that, I returned to Bill Bottrell to figure out who the composer was that Michael was collaborating with and what it sounded like; Bill led me to Jorge del Barrio, who I subsequently learned worked with Michael on songs like “Who Is It” and “Morphine” as well. Through del Barrio I learned some wonderful insights about the concept/feel Michael was aiming for and how it transformed. So you speak to different people and all kinds of new connections emerge:  new details, new angles. And you learn how carefully and thoughtfully Michael went about his work.
In interviews, Michael tended to be really vague about his creative process, but what Earth Song reveals is how obsessed he was with every detail of his work from inception all the way to the final mix. He surrounded himself with great talent, but it was his creative vision and perfectionism that drove his projects.

Willa:  You just highlighted something that really struck me when reading your book. You show that he was very knowledgeable and involved in the actual mechanics of creating “Earth Song” – that he was involved in every stage of the process. But in interviews he did tend to be vague about that, as you say, and kind of distanced himself from that aspect somewhat, focusing more on inspiration and being receptive to the song itself.  He said in a number of interviews that the music just came to him and “fell in his lap.” You write in your book that he often told himself to “Let the music create itself,” and you tie this back to a quotation from John Lennon that he kept on display as a reminder to himself while working on “Earth Song”:

 “When the real music comes to me,” it read, “the music of the spheres, the music that surpasseth understanding – that has nothing to do with me, ’cause I’m just the channel. The only joy for me is for it to be given to me, and to transcribe it like a medium…. Those moments are what I live for.” 

When I read this section of your book, I immediately thought of the Romantics. If we look at drafts of their poems, they did revise them and were in fact very knowledgeable and involved in the craft of creating poetry. They were skilled wordsmiths. But like Michael Jackson, they were reluctant to talk about that. They preferred to talk about creating poetry as an act of inspiration rather than craftsmanship, and tended to say they were merely scribes – writing down the words that some creative impulse larger than themselves expressed through them – rather than creators, which is an idea Michael Jackson frequently expressed. In fact, he kind of struggled to explain that during his deposition for the 1994 plagiarism case for “Dangerous,” saying that he did write all of his songs, but in a way he didn’t – they just came to him.

I know you’ve studied the Romantics, so you know a lot more about this than I do. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about this Romantic ideal of the artist as merely a receptive channel for creativity to flow through, rather than a creator, and how that’s reflected two centuries later in John Lennon and Michael Jackson.

Joe:  A common metaphor in Romantic poetry is the Aeolian harp: When the wind blows, the music comes. You don’t force it. You wait for it.

Willa:  That’s beautiful.

Joe:  Michael believed strongly in that principle. That being said, Michael was without question a craftsman. He rarely released work in raw form. Another metaphor he liked to use to illustrate his creative process is Michelangelo’s philosophy that inside every piece of marble or stone is a “sleeping form.” His job as an artist, then, was to chip away, sculpt, polish, until he “freed” what was latent. So it requires a great deal of work. You might have a vision of what it should look like, but you have to be in tune throughout the process and you have to work hard to realize it.

Willa:  What a wonderful image! I love that idea of the “sleeping form,” and it really clarifies how creativity requires both inspiration and craftsmanship. The idea of the song reveals itself to you and creates itself, as Michael Jackson liked to say, yet it requires the skill and dedication of a craftsman to free it.

Joie:  Joe, in your book you talk about the absurdity of the fact that “Earth Song” was never released as a single in the U.S. even though Michael’s previous U.S. single, “You Are Not Alone,” debuted at number one. And yet, in other parts of the world, “Earth Song” was not only released as a single but went to number one in 15 countries. I agree with you when you say that decision was pretty telling – that the ‘powers that be’ didn’t feel the land of excess would tolerate a song with such an ‘in-your-face’ look at the human condition. But, I believe that decision was a huge mistake. I think, had it been released here, it would have done very well. Despite the dismissive reviews it received, it is a difficult song to ignore and I think it would have gotten significant radio play if it had been offered to the stations. 
Joe:  You could be right. It’s hard to know. On the one hand, Michael’s popularity had waned in the U.S. because of the 1993 allegations. But his first two singles reached the Top 5. It’s odd how quickly Sony seemed to bail on the album after that in terms of singles. It would have been nice to at least see the song given a chance with American audiences.

Joie:  I love the way you compared “Earth Song” to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” saying that they both ask the listener to care for the world we have rather than dreaming of an afterlife. But can you talk a little bit about your statement that “Imagine” is more palatable to the average music listener than “Earth Song” is?

Joe:  Well, “Imagine” is an absolutely beautiful song that also happens to be quite subversive. Because it is so pleasant to listen to, and evokes such nostalgia, however, many people don’t really catch on to what it’s actually saying. It calls for revolution, but plays amicably in dentist’s offices and department stores. So some of its impact can be blunted in that way. When it plays at Times Square on New Year’s Eve, it serves as a kind of feel-good anthem. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think “Man in the Mirror” is very similar in terms of tone and psychological effect. But “Earth Song” is different. It has a different urgency and intensity to it. Imagine “Earth Song” blaring out of the speakers at full blast on New Year’s. Better yet, imagine Michael performing it. Audiences would probably be stunned. The song wasn’t designed to make people feel good; it was designed to prick people’s consciences, to wake people up.

Joie:  Which only makes me wonder all the more how it might have been received had it been given proper promotion and radio play in the U.S.

Willa:  And if it didn’t do well here, that would say something important too, since it did do well in many other countries.

Joe:  Great, prophetic art is often neglected or misunderstood in its time. There are so many examples of this, from Blake to Van Gogh to Tchaikovsky to Picasso. Michael was a student of history and art and he understood this. He was confident that the work he created would hold up over time. “Earth Song” is a song that was, and continues to be, massively popular throughout the world. But ultimately it was a song that was going against the grain — so the resistance, from corporate executives, critics and other gatekeepers, makes sense. 
Joie:  Well, thank you for joining us and talking about “Earth Song.”
Joe:  Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure and I’m really pleased with the whole idea of Dancing with the Elephant as a space for thoughtful discussions on Michael Jackson.
Joie:  Thanks. Willa and I have been having a great time with it! I’m curious, now that the release date for Man in the Music is just around the corner and Earth Song is also on its way to being published in book form, what’s next for Joe Vogel? Do you have any plans for book signings coming up or other appearances?
Joe:  I’m working with my agent and publicist on all of the promotional plans for Man in the Music and I should have a clearer sense in the next few weeks. It’s going to be busy, but I’m excited for people to finally read what I spent all these years working on.
Joie:  Well, I pretty much devoured the advanced reading copy you gave to MJFC so, I know the fans are going to love it. It really is a wonderful book! Any new writing projects you’re currently working on?
Joe: Ummm…. I always have a bunch of projects in progress. I can’t say yet which ones will materialize. Man in the Music and Earth Song could be it for me in terms of Michael Jackson books. But we’ll see. There are a lot of practical considerations that make it difficult, but it’s hard to resist if/when the wind blows.

Willa:  Well, we’ve really enjoyed talking with you. And if anyone reading would like to join in the conversation, Joe will be dropping in on the comments page this week, so you can post questions or comments for him there.