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HIStory Teaser, Part 2: The Great Dictator

Willa:  This week Eleanor Bowman and I are continuing our discussion of the film Michael Jackson made to promote his HIStory album. As we talked about in our last post, the HIStory teaser caused quite a stir when it first aired, in large part because it appears to be modeled after the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. And as we talked about last time, there are in fact some interesting and important connections between those two films.

However, there’s another film that serves as an important intermediary between the two: Charlie Chaplin’s daring masterpiece, The Great Dictator. This film satirizes Triumph of the Will and other propaganda films like it, and in doing so deftly opposes and undermines Nazi ideology. And the HIStory teaser subtly references The Great Dictator, which profoundly complicates and shifts the meaning of HIStory, I think.

That’s what we’d like to talk about this week: the connections between Triumph of the Will, The Great Dictator, and the HIStory teaser, and how those connections influence how we interpret HIStory. Eleanor, thank you so much for joining me again to continue this discussion!

Eleanor:  Hi Willa. Thank you for the invitation. There’s nothing I’d rather do than think about and write about Michael Jackson, except of course listen to his music. To tell you the truth, I am still having trouble grasping not only the breadth and depth of MJ’s understanding and knowledge of world history and film history (when did he have time to figure all this out???), but also the incredible artistic facility with which he weaves together all this history in HIStory to fill this brief, brief film with so much meaning.

As we have been working on these posts, I have come to see HIStory as a complex collage of film references, each loaded with emotional power and packed with historical information. And all put together to tell Michael Jackson’s own story, his side of the story – the story of a powerful black artist who rises to fame in a dominant white society – by situating himself and his experience in a much broader context, providing insights into his personal experience as well as into the experiences of everyone ensnared in a system that is designed to elevate one group at the expense of another. HIStory really is a history lesson, a lesson in Michael Jackson, and a lesson in compassion – one that I have found absolutely fascinating, and I hope others will as well.

On the personal level, HIStory is a rebuttal to THEIRstory, the lies that were told over and over by the press and which took root in the public psyche. These lies were an example of what Hitler called “the big lie,” a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” And similar to the terrible lies that Hitler told to discredit the Jews in Nazi Germany.

With HIStory, Michael Jackson defends himself by taking aim at the system that has just put him through hell. And he used both The Great Dictator and Triumph of the Will to accomplish his aim. MJ uses images associated with Triumph to liken the culture that has attempted to destroy him to Nazi Germany, and references the plot and theme of The Great Dictator not only to expose the evils of what Triumph celebrates, but also to offer an alternative vision, mapped to The Great Dictator’s famous final speech.

Willa:  That’s an interesting overview, Eleanor. Thank you.

Eleanor: You are welcome.

Willa: So if we approach these three films chronologically, I suppose we should begin by comparing Triumph of the Will, which came out in 1934, with The Great Dictator, which came out in 1940. First, The Great Dictator is a satire, so while Adolf Hitler is presented as noble and almost superhuman in the first film, Charlie Chaplin portrays him as arrogant and incompetent – the inept Adenoid Hynkel. To further undermine the mythic aura surrounding Hitler, Chaplin calls him the Phooey, rather than the Führer. Likewise, Hitler’s cabinet ministers Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels are transformed in Chaplin’s film into the bumbling Herr Herring and Herr Garbitsch (pronounced “Garbage”).

Eleanor: And interestingly, The Great Dictator followed on the heels of another satire of Hitler’s Germany starring MJ’s favorite comedy trio, the Three Stooges.

Willa: That’s right – their short film, You Nazty Spy. There’s a new book out about Hollywood’s response – or rather, lack of response – to the rise of fascism in Germany. I haven’t read it yet, but according to this article, it cites “the Three Stooges as among the very first in the cinema to expose Nazi Germany for what it was.” The Great Dictator, a feature-length film, came out later the same year.

So the mood of The Great Dictator is very different from Triumph of the Will, but so is the perspective and point of view. Everything in Triumph is on a vast scale – huge crowds, hundreds of thousands of troops, monumental  architecture – and the Nazi leaders are presented exteriorly, if that makes sense. What I mean is, the way the camera is angled we’re almost always looking up at them, as if they are statues on a pedestal, or gods on Mount Olympus. There’s no attempt to get inside their heads and show their thoughts and feelings. In fact, we aren’t supposed to see their humanity. Instead, they’re presented as almost mythic, godlike figures.

Eleanor: Right. Riefenstahl is using every trick of the trade to present the Nazis as the Übermenschen or “Supermen.”

Willa: Exactly. By contrast, The Great Dictator – like all of Chaplin’s films – is very much on a human scale, and it shows the poignancy of everyday human life, especially the lives of those living in a Jewish ghetto targeted by the authorities. This is emphasized by the fact that Chaplin plays two roles: that of dictator Hynkel issuing impulsive decrees, and that of a Jewish barber whose life is turned upside down by those decrees. We keep switching back and forth between scenes of Hynkel and scenes of the barber, so we see very clearly how the grandiose, unthinking, unfeeling, fascist beliefs of the dictator affect the lives of the barber and his friends, as well as their entire community.

So while these films address a similar topic – the impact of fascist ideology on a country’s future and identity, its sense of itself – the perspective, the mood, and ultimately the meaning of these two films could not be more different.

Eleanor:  Right. And, thinking about these films chronologically, a lot happened between 1934, when Triumph was made, and 1940, when The Great Dictator was made, and between 1940 and the end of WWII, to change their meaning and significance.

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, Eleanor.

Eleanor:  For example, in 1934, Hitler and the Nazis were being praised for giving Germany hope after their defeat in WWI, and for being a bulwark against communism, so the Riefenstahl film was lauded and applauded. By 1940, however, the war in Europe had broken out and Germany was beginning to make a lot of people very nervous. As a result, the tide of world opinion was beginning to change, and the same film was being viewed with a great deal of skepticism, as a propaganda tool of a very questionable regime.

To draw attention to the Nazi threat and undermine Hitler’s power and charisma, Chaplin made The Great Dictator, which premiered in NYC in October of 1940, a year before the U.S. entered WWII. Referencing the imagery Riefenstahl used to pump Hitler up, he used it to ridicule his grandiosity, to cut him down to size. Calling on his formidable talent for comedy, he exposed a far from funny situation.

Today, I think most people would look on using satire to critique the Nazis as inappropriate, at best. However, we have to remember that, in 1940, the full extent of Hitler’s insanity was not known and the “final solution” had not been fully implemented. In later years, Chaplin himself said “he would not have made the film had he known about the actual horrors of the Nazi concentration camps at the time.”

Willa: And that’s a very important point. Looking back, The Great Dictator may seem callous to us today, as if it’s trivializing a tragedy. But the atrocities of the concentration camps, for example, weren’t known in 1940 – and in fact, the worst atrocities hadn’t occurred yet, as you say. They happened late in the war.

U.S. attitudes toward what was happening overseas were really complicated at this time. The U.S. wouldn’t officially enter the war until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, though we were providing weapons, money, and other aid to the Allies in 1940. In fact, the only peacetime draft in our nation’s history began in September 1940, a month before The Great Dictator was released. So the U.S. was preparing for war but was not actively involved in it yet – and was very reluctant to get involved after the carnage of World War I.

So I agree, Eleanor. To understand and appreciate The Great Dictator, it’s important to consider the historical context of when it was made – a time of great indecision in the U.S. as we watched the war overseas engulf country after country, and when the full horror of the Holocaust hadn’t unfolded yet.

Eleanor: Right, Willa. And, just as the revelations of WWII changed the way we emotionally respond to The Great Dictator, it completely reversed the way Triumph was meant to be viewed. Triumph had come to symbolize death camps and genocide – not the greatness of the Third Reich. And to complicate our discussion of HIStory and its use of these films, the years between 1940 and 1994 again changed the significance of these two films – radically.

By 1994, when HIStory was made, generations of filmmakers had used Riefenstahl-like imagery as a sort of shorthand to reference both Nazi atrocities and the arrogance underlying them, which is why we instantly recoil from its imagery when it appears in HIStory. In using this imagery, HIStory called on the deep and often unconscious emotions it arouses and coupled them with the mechanism of “guilt by association” to expose the evils of racism in our own American culture, and oppression in general. And by 1994, The Great Dictator was remembered not so much for its satire of the Nazi regime, but for the role the film played in Chaplin’s fall from grace, a fall that paralleled Michael Jackson’s.

Willa: That’s a very good point, Eleanor. And since Michael Jackson appears to have been very knowledgeable about Charlie Chaplin, studying his films and his life for decades, and even visiting his family in Switzerland, he almost certainly would have known how The Great Dictator contributed to turning the tide of public opinion against him.

Eleanor: Yes, I think that’s an assumption we can safely make.

The Great Dictator got Chaplin in a lot of hot water for a number of reasons. At first because, even as late as 1940, Hitler had supporters in the U.S. who did not appreciate The Great Dictator’s anti-fascist message. Later, as communism became the bête noire, being anti-fascist was viewed as being pro-communist – so even though Chaplin vehemently “denied being a communist, instead calling himself a ‘peacemonger,’” his reputation took a serious hit.

But, I have come to believe that his real “crime” was his internationalism, his vision of global harmony, and his criticism of nationalism in general, which he expressed in The Great Dictator.

Willa:  That’s another very important point, Eleanor – and another connection to Michael Jackson. As he told Rabbi Boteach in The Michael Jackson Tapes, “I feel like a person of the world. I can’t take sides. That’s why I hate saying, ‘I am an American.’ For that reason.”

Eleanor: That is so interesting, Willa. Michael Jackson’s global reach certainly attests to the fact that people all over the world responded – and continue to respond – to him as “one of us.” But, unfortunately, this kind of internationalism – or anti-nationalism – can result in being accused of being “unAmerican.” Which is what happened to Chaplin.

Willa: Yes, it did – and during the hysteria of McCarthyism, when that was a very serious charge.

Eleanor: As a result of The Great Dictator, specifically its final speech where Chaplin voices his own personal views, he came under attack, and by 1947 a movement was underway to drive him out of the country. Representative John E. Rankin of Mississippi told Congress in June 1947:

His very life in Hollywood is detrimental to the moral fabric of America. [If he is deported] … his loathsome pictures can be kept from before the eyes of the American youth. He should be deported and gotten rid of at once.

Chaplin’s demonization was aided and abetted with tabloid stories and legal charges of sexual immorality which very effectively destroyed his reputation and his credibility, to the point that when he left the U.S. for Europe in 1956, his visa to re-enter the country was revoked.

Willa: Which is just unbelievable considering his stature and his contributions to film and culture. And “demonization” is the right word, as Chaplin himself was fully aware. Karin Merx, one of the founders of the Michael Jackson Academic Studies website, recently told me an interesting story. Charlie Chaplin went for a sitting with photographer Richard Avedon just before leaving the U.S. for good. At the end of the sitting, he asked to do one more shot … and then faced the camera with his fingers poking out from his head, like devil horns. Here’s a documentary Karin shared with me where Richard Avedon talks about that (about 39:20 minutes in):

(Interestingly, just before he tells the Chaplin story, Avedon talks about photographing the Duke and Duchess of Windsor who, as you mentioned in our last post, Eleanor, were very supportive of Hitler. Avedon says he used to see them gambling in Nice, and he expresses the opinion that “they loved dogs, a lot more than they loved Jews.”)

Fifty years later, Michael Jackson was being demonized in a way remarkably similar to Chaplin. And in response, he struck the exact same pose for photographers at the Santa Maria Courthouse, as mentioned in an article by BBC News. Here are those “devilish” photos of Charlie Chaplin and Michael Jackson:

devilish photos of CC and MJ

Eleanor:  Wow, that is so fascinating. When you think about it, it is no wonder that MJ identified with Charlie Chaplin. There are so many parallels. I have even heard that Michael Jackson identified so closely with Chaplin that he once said, “I sometimes feel like I am him.”

Willa: Yes, he said that in an interview as part of the documentary, Michael Jackson’s Private Home Movies, which also includes a wonderful clip of him dressed as the Little Tramp and twitching his moustache, as Chaplin often did. Here’s a fan-made video for “Smile” that includes several photos of a Chaplinesque Michael Jackson, as well as screen captures from the Private Home Movies documentary:

These photos were taken from two different photo sessions, one early in his solo career and one late, so you can tell he admired Chaplin for a long time – for his entire career, basically – and identified with him too, as you said.

Eleanor: Yes, and sketches of Chaplin which MJ did when he was a child suggest that he had been interested in Chaplin from an early age, possibly because of Chaplin’s extraordinary ability as a silent film star to communicate without words, using the language of the body – just as MJ did.  (Here are a couple of links to Chaplin sketches. The first is to the sketch that was featured on Antiques Road Show. The second is to a Pinterest page of MJ’s drawings of many subjects, including Chaplin.)

But I also like to think it was because, even at an early age, an extraordinarily sensitive and empathetic Michael Jackson, deeply moved by the injustice he saw in the world, was drawn to Chaplin’s vision of peace and harmony. And referencing The Great Dictator to tell MJ’s story, HIStory brings to mind the startling parallels between MJ’s life and Chaplin’s.

Both Chaplin and Michael Jackson had a vision of global harmony; both realized that their visions required global change; both understood that global change depended on global communication; and, as it so happens, both excelled at global communication – Chaplin through the development of a powerful body language that he used with great success as a silent film star, and Jackson through the language of music and dance. And, as both were great artists who were also superstars with a global audience, they had the power to touch and change hearts and minds – all over the world.

As Chaplin says in The Great Dictator, playing the part of the Jewish barber, but speaking his own mind and reflecting the actual situation,

Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.

And, as a result of their views, both became the object of vicious attacks, because of their commitment to global harmony, their skill at global communication which could actually bring about global change, and their star power represented a serious threat to those committed to hierarchy and nationalism, rather than democracy and internationalism.

Willa: Yes, I agree completely, Eleanor.

Eleanor: So, Willa, it seems to me that referencing The Great Dictator – specifically its final speech – in HIStory at this particular time of his life, Michael Jackson identifies his own demonization at the hands of the press and his unjust, and brutal, treatment at the hands of the law with Chaplin’s, and suggests that the allegations of sexual impropriety leveled at both himself and Chaplin were tools of a society which feared the political power of the artist to inspire actions that would bring about much-needed social change, a power Michael Jackson possessed (and still possesses) in spades.

And significantly, their commitment to global peace and understanding is symbolized by the international language Esperanto, which puts in an appearance in both HIStory and The Great Dictator. HIStory opens to the sound of words spoken in Esperanto, while The Great Dictator features Esperanto as the language on the signs in its scenes of the Jewish ghetto.

Willa:  Yes, that seems significant to me also. We talked about Esperanto a little bit in a post about this time last year, and provided a brief history:

Esperanto was invented in the late 1800s using elements of many different languages to help promote global peace and understanding. Specifically, it was created by L.L. Zamenhof to provide a neutral means of communication that bridged divisions of language, nationality, and ethnicity.

So it truly is an “international language,” as you said, Eleanor, with a mission of “global peace and understanding.”

Eleanor:  Right. And HIStory both puts it front and center and hides it in plain sight. I’m sure most people viewing HIStory (like those who see The Great Dictator), not recognizing the language or understanding the words, completely miss the significance – or just fail to notice its presence altogether.

However, thanks to a great discussion that you referred to above with guest contributor and Esperanto expert, Bjørn Bojesen, readers of Dancing with the Elephant not only were alerted to its use in HIStory (and history), but discovered the meaning of the words. (Also, in re-reading that post, I saw that Bjørn had noted in the comment section that Esperanto was used in The Great Dictator.)

HIStory’s opening words, spoken in Esperanto, translated into English, say “Different nations of the world build this sculpture in the name of  global motherhood and love and the healing power of music.” The words, spoken in Esperanto, not only reference the use of Esperanto in the The Great Dictator, but echo the sentiments in The Great Dictator’s final speech. And both the language and the words point to Michael Jackson’s own belief in the importance of global communication as a condition of creating global harmony, specifically his belief in music as a means of bringing the different nations of the world together in peace and L.O.V.E.

In researching the international language Esperanto, whose name, not co-incidentally, means “hope,” I have come to believe that it – and the internationalism it represents – is key to understanding HIStory.

In the post on Esperanto, the question was raised as to why MJ would use a language so few understand to open the film and introduce its theme. (The same question could be used about Chaplin’s use of Esperanto in The Great Dictator.) I think one of the main reasons was to arouse our curiosity – to prod us to identify the language and discover the meaning of the words. Because seeking answers to those questions leads us to find answers to larger questions.

For example, digging deeper into the history of Esperanto, it turns out that the use of Esperanto in both HIStory and The Great Dictator not only associates MJ with CC, but links both with the Esperantists in Germany and Russia, whose pacifist and internationalist tendencies were seen as subversive by both Hitler and Stalin and who were brutally punished and even executed.

In his work, Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler specifically mentioned Esperanto as an example of a language that could be used by an international Jewish conspiracy once they achieved world domination. Esperantists were killed during the Holocaust, with [Esperanto creator] Zamenhof’s family in particular singled out for murder…. Esperanto was forbidden in 1936. … [In] 1937, Stalin … denounced Esperanto as “the language of spies” and had Esperantists exiled or executed. The use of Esperanto was effectively banned until 1956.

Willa: Oh heavens, Eleanor. I had no idea. So those Esperanto words and symbols in the HIStory teaser really do carry a powerful message – a message that radically alters interpretation of the totalitarian images that dominate that film. I can see now why you said that “Esperanto … and the internationalism it represents, is key to understanding HIStory.” I’m starting to agree with you.

Eleanor:  Well, that’s good to know!  So, opening the film with words spoken in Esperanto, Michael Jackson lays claim to his own “dangerous” internationalist leanings, and reveals the danger his leanings put him in, identifying the source of his troubles as a culture that, because it considered him and his views as a serious threat, represented a serious threat to him – a threat that HIStory suggests, through the use of the notorious fascist imagery, is still present, lurking in the shadows. (“We’re talkin’ danger, we’re talkin’ danger, baby!”)

In the opening scene of the film, the blank screen and the words in Esperanto are accompanied by and juxtaposed to the staccato beat of jackboots, followed by the images of boots on the ground and a stone falcon – the turul – an ancient Hungarian symbol. (HIStory was filmed in Budapest. More on that later.) Then, an American swat team comes into view. Seemingly menacing and aggressive, they march toward the audience, rising from the bottom of the screen, à la Patton in the film of the same name. The scene then immediately shifts to images of workers ladling out rivers of molten metal, reminiscent of Soviet propaganda films illustrating Soviet industrial muscle.

Given who Michael Jackson was and what he stood for, opening an MJ film with imperialist and totalitarian imagery is jarring and indicates that there is more here than meets the eye, that something very interesting is going on – something that becomes a lot clearer once you recognize and understand the significance of HIStory’s use of Esperanto and understand the meaning of the words. For the words explain that these workers do not represent the workers of a totalitarian regime. Rather, they represent the different nations of the world who have come together to build a monument to a man who has dedicated his art to promoting world peace.

In addition to the statue, they have also forged a gigantic star that is yet another reference to Esperanto. For, as I learned in researching Esperanto, the star is the symbol for Esperanto, its points representing the five continents Europe, America, Asia, Oceania, Africa. A minute or so later, we see that the star of Esperanto also adorns MJ’s uniform – a star of peace worn by a pop star of peace.

Willa: That is so interesting, and reminds me of two important images from Triumph of the Will. The central scene in the film – the iconic one almost every filmmaker references when visually quoting that film, where Hitler is addressing hundreds of thousands of troops aligned before him in precise formation – that scene begins with a still shot looking up at an enormous iron eagle, a symbol of Nazi Germany. Then as the camera pans down, we see it is sitting atop a huge swastika inscribed within a circle.

By contrast, HIStory opens with a still shot looking up at the Hungarian turul or falcon. From what I’ve been able to gather, this is a complicated symbol representing different, even contradictory things to different people. But Wikipedia is a fairly middle-of-the-road source, and here’s what they say about it:

The turul is the most important bird in the origin myth of the Magyars (Hungarian people). It is a divine messenger, and perches on top of the tree of life along with the other spirits of unborn children in the form of birds.

And then we see workers forging a huge Esperanto star inscribed within a circle. So through these images, HIStory appropriates symbols of fascism and totalitarianism from Triumph and then subverts them, completely refiguring them.

Here are screen captures looking up at the iron eagle in Triumph of the Will, and at the turul in HIStory:

iron eagle and turul

And then here are screen captures of the enormous swastika within a circle from Triumph of the Will, and the Esperanto star within a circle from HIStory.

swastika and star 2

Both the swastika and the star are dark against a pale blue background, with a glowing light shining through openings in the giant sculptures from behind. And if you look carefully, you can see workers dwarfed by the star (in fact, a welder is sitting on one arm of the star – you can see the sparks from his blowtorch) so it must be enormous, even bigger than the encircled swastika it evokes and replaces.

Eleanor: Wow, Willa, those images are amazing and demonstrate Michael Jackson’s attention to detail and his deep understanding of the power of symbolism. Contrasting the Esperanto star with the swastika, and the star’s meaning with other, more traditional, meanings of the five-pointed star – the Soviet military machine or the badge of law enforcement or the stars that decorate an American army general’s uniform – and associating it with the pop star Michael Jackson, HIStory contrasts HIStory’s message and HIStory’s hero with traditional military legends and heroes. In HIStory, Michael Jackson offers us a vision of a world where human energy will no longer be poured into building tools of domination to serve the interests of empires and nations, but used to forge a new global community.

HIStory’s opening frames are followed by images of a vast army, its leader’s identity unknown, but tantalizingly hinted at by shots of his legs, sheathed in his signature thigh-high boots, which finally reach his beautiful face, revealing the leader of this army to be none other than Michael Jackson.

Although in HIStory, MJ never speaks or sings or dances, his face and body communicate plenty, and what they communicate to me is very similar to the words spoken by Chaplin, in the character of the barber:

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone, if possible – Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

Here’s a link to the complete text.

Willa: That speech is incredible – many call it the greatest speech in American cinema. I would encourage everyone to watch The Great Dictator in its entirety, if they haven’t seen it already (it’s available on YouTube, in segments – here’s a link to the first one), but certainly everyone should watch Chaplin’s final speech. It’s especially striking coming as it does after the speech by Herr Garbitsch, where he says:

Victory shall come to the worthy. Today, democracy, liberty, and equality are words to fool the people. No nation can progress with such ideas. They stand in the way of action. Therefore, we frankly abolish them. In the future, each man will serve the interests of the state with absolute obedience. Let him who refuses beware.

The rights of citizenship will be taken away from all Jews and other non-Aryans. They are inferior, and therefore enemies of the state. It is the duty of all true Aryans to hate and despise them. …

And then Chaplin, in the dual role of the Jewish barber disguised as the dictator (it’s a case of mistaken identity), rises and gives his speech advocating love among all people that you quoted earlier:

I should like to help everyone, if possible – Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.

Here is the final section of The Great Dictator, which includes both Garbitsch’s speech and Chaplin’s powerfully moving response:

Eleanor:  Thanks for these clips, Willa. Actually seeing these speeches delivered on film is a lot more powerful than just reading the words on the page.

Willa: I agree. And in this final clip we can also see the way The Great Dictator visually evokes the monumental scale of Triumph of the Will. Chaplin reenacts Hitler’s arrival by motorcade that begins Triumph, and also the intimidating monuments to power and the long columns of troops – something the HIStory teaser will re-create as well. Here are screen captures from Triumph, The Great Dictator, and HIStory, and you can easily see the similarities – namely, the gigantic emblem of the power of the state in the background of all three, and the seemingly endless sea of troops in the foreground.

Here’s a scene from Triumph of the Will:

Triumph - troops 2

The Great Dictator:

Great Dictator - troops

and the HIStory trailer:

HIStory - troops

Through images like these, The Great Dictator (and HIStory as well) captures the expansive scope of Triumph of the Will. But then it alternates these imperialist images with scenes of Jewish citizens oppressed and even murdered by their own government – by soldiers carrying out the dictates of the fascist regime.

Eleanor: Right. Although The Great Dictator was a satire, it dealt with deep pain and very explosive issues. Just as HIStory does. And, just like The Great Dictator, HIStory skated close to the edge in a number of ways. In a brilliant act of artistic economy, HIStory uses Riefenstahl’s imagery to reference both the Nazi horror show and The Great Dictator in order to situate Michael Jackson both historically and personally.

As this insightful post at MJJJusticeProject puts it,

Like his hero Charlie Chaplin before him, Jackson referenced the visuals of Triumph of The Will in an effort to completely corrupt the sentiment. Where Chaplin had satirised the film in his Oscar-nominated The Great Dictator, Jackson referenced the film in order to celebrate the victims of the Nazi regime and deride the mindset of those that still supported fascist beliefs.

Willa: That is a wonderful post that puts the HIStory trailer in historical context, and also places it within the context of the HIStory album – the album it was made to promote.

Eleanor: Placing Michael Jackson in the midst of Riefenstahl-like pomp and circumstance, where we would expect to find a dictatorial military leader (like Adolf Hitler) not a peace-loving pop star, the HIStory teaser evokes the scene in The Great Dictator where the gentle Jewish barber becomes a stand-in for the thinly-disguised Hitler character. Associating Jackson with the Jewish barber, while alluding to Nazi Germany, HIStory parallels the black experience with the Jewish experience – the black ghetto with the Jewish ghetto – and the treatment of Jews with the treatment of blacks in America.

Willa: That’s an interesting way to look at this, Eleanor – that Michael Jackson in the unexpected role of dictator parallels the Jewish barber’s experience in The Great Dictator, where he finds himself unexpectedly thrust into the role of dictator. Though one difference is that the barber looks very uncomfortable in that role, as if he really were thrust in that role against his will, while Michael Jackson doesn’t. He looks assured and confident in HIStory.

Eleanor: Well, Willa, to clarify, I don’t see Michael Jackson in the role of a dictator, but as replacing a dictator. Striding along at the head of his troops, he occupies the position where we would expect to find a dictatorial leader. But instead, we find Michael Jackson, a man who stands for the opposite of dictatorship. A man, who like the barber “does not want to be an emperor. That’s not [his] business. [He doesn’t] want to rule or conquer anyone.”

But, I agree with you that MJ is at ease, while the barber is anything but. But, after all, they were both being true to character: the barber wasn’t accustomed to being in the limelight, while Jackson, although not a political figure, was.

Willa:  That’s true.

Eleanor:  But, I am glad you brought up how MJ looks in those brief moments when we see him, because I have been wanting to mention his beautiful smile again. I think his smile is a visual representation of Chaplin’s song, “Smile,” which concluded the HIStory album – his radiance covering his pain, the type of pain that Chaplin was familiar with.

But getting back to the scene of Michael and the troops, I think it maps directly to another section of Chaplin’s closing speech in The Great Dictator. In fact, I see the speech as a kind of playbook for HIStory:

Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you, enslave you – who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!

As the leader of rank on rank of uniformed and uniform robotic soldiers, MJ provides an alternative to military leaders, the “brutes … who regiment [their] lives.” As a different kind of hero, he empathizes with all those who have been conscripted to do the work of the state, losing their humanity in the process. As the leader of these men, he identifies with them, rather than the regimes they represent, illustrating a greatness of heart that blames a system that, to quote Chaplin, “makes men torture and imprison innocent people” – not the people themselves. Torturers and tortured alike are caught in the evil web of empire.

Willa:  That’s an important point, Eleanor. It is significant, I think, that Chaplin addresses this part of his speech to the soldiers carrying out the dictator’s repressive orders, and appeals to their humanity. He doesn’t deny the harm they’ve done – he shows them harassing and even murdering civilians. But even so, he doesn’t demonize them. Rather, he implies that the soldiers are being victimized too by leaders “who despise you, enslave you … treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder.”

And as you say, Michael Jackson doesn’t seem to feel animosity toward soldiers or the police either, meaning the people on the ground carrying out orders. In fact, he aligns himself with them.

Eleanor:  Yes. That very eloquent salute to his troops conveys that message – feelings of empathy and respect, rather than animosity or hate, even for those who are tasked with carrying out the will of the oppressors.

Willa: Yes. As Susan Woodward pointed out to me in an email, after that enormous statue is uncovered we can see an emblem on one arm – it’s a patch with the word “POLICE” in bold letters beneath an Esperanto star.

Eleanor: Thanks to Susan. I hadn’t noticed that – need to go back and take a look.

Willa: I hadn’t noticed it either, but it’s an important detail, I think. Michael Jackson’s experiences with the Santa Barbara police, especially those carrying out the strip search, easily could have led him to feel animosity toward the police in general. But that isn’t the impression I get from HIStory. What he’s expressing is more complicated than that.

To be honest, it feels to me like an act of appropriation. Just as white singers and musicians have appropriated “black” music from jazz to hip hop and recast it through a white perspective, in HIStory Michael Jackson seems to be appropriating images of white authority (and what better example of race-based authoritarianism than Nazi Germany?) and recasting it through a multi-national Esperanto perspective. Or maybe a better analogy is the way groups like Queer Nation or a lot of young black hip hop artists have appropriated disparaging words that have been hurled at them in the past – words like “nigger” and “queer” – and now wear them as a badge of honor, and so drain them of their power to hurt them.

Eleanor:  Yes, an act of appropriation and transformation. Imperial and nationalistic power structures assume that conquering the other is a survival strategy of human nature, rather than a survival strategy adopted by human cultures. And they have assumed that he who is in possession of the technologies of domination have the upper hand. And yet our technologies – agricultural, industrial, military – are backfiring on us, creating a world that may in the not too distant future be uninhabitable for all of us, just as it has been made uninhabitable by war for some of us even now.

As Chaplin put it,

Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….

Although we tout free will as a pre-eminently human characteristic, somehow we don’t seem to believe that we actually have the will to change the way we interact with each other, collectively or individually. But I think that Michael Jackson disagreed with that notion. I think that he believed that humans are capable of profound change, and he believed art was instrumental to that change, and he believed in himself and his art as a means of bringing about change at a fundamental level – imagining a very different “triumph of the will.”

Contrasting himself with the usual iron-fisted tyrant, Michael Jackson emphasizes the differences between his values, the values of an African-American artist who believes art can heal the world, and the values that lead to oppression, pointing out the evils of the system, while having compassion for those caught in it.

Willa:  That’s a beautiful summary, Eleanor. Thank you, and thanks also for joining me again to try to better understand this complex film. We’ll conclude this discussion in our next post when we consider some other significant references in HIStory.

Also, I wanted to let everyone know that the Library of Congress recently published an article by Joe Vogel about the Thriller album. We’ve added it to the Reading Room, so you can access it there, or you can jump to it directly via this link.

Eleanor:  That’s good to know. Thanks for making it available on Dancing.  And I look forward to working with you on the final part of this series.

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Summer Rewind 2014: ¡Porque Soy Malo, Soy Malo!

The following conversation was originally posted on October 24, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Willa:  Last spring, longtime contributor Bjørn Bojesen shared his version of “Bili Ĝin,” which is an Esperanto translation of “Billie Jean.” That led to a behind-the-scenes discussion of Michael Jackson and foreign languages, with Joie, Bjørn, and me all brainstorming about songs or short films where he sang or incorporated words in a language other than his native English. This was such an interesting topic for us we decided to take the discussion online and talk about it in a post. Thanks for joining us, Bjørn, and for sharing “Bili Ĝin” with us!

So Esperanto is actually a good place to start this discussion since it’s such a Michael Jackson kind of concept. As I understand it, Esperanto was invented in the late 1800s using elements of many different languages to help promote global peace and understanding. Specifically, it was created by L.L. Zamenhof to provide a neutral means of communication that bridged divisions of language, nationality, and ethnicity. I can see how this would appeal to Michael Jackson since crossing boundaries and healing divisions is something he did throughout his career. And as you recently mentioned, Bjørn, he incorporated an Esperanto passage in the promo film for HIStory. Is that right?

Bjørn: Yes, that’s correct. At the very start, right before the soldiers come marching in with their heavy boots, an unseen man shouts out a declaration in Esperanto. Take a look:

In the YouTube video, there are some glitches in the subtitles, but the anonymous person’s message goes like this: “Diversaj nacioj de la mondo” (Different nations of the world) / “konstruas ĉi tiun skulptaĵon” (build this sculpture) / “en la nomo de tutmonda patrineco kaj amo” (in the name of global motherhood and love) / “kaj la kuraca forto de muziko” (and the healing power of music). A few seconds later, one of the smelters also shouts in Esperanto: “Venu ĉi tien!” (Come over here!)

The promo created quite a stir in the Esperanto community when it aired. Why would MJ use a snippet of Esperanto? I have no idea whether he actually spoke Esperanto, but I guess he scripted the lines (in English): “in the name of global motherhood and love, and the healing power of music.” Doesn’t this sound very MJ to you? I mean, just the idea of a universal motherhood instead of the usual brotherhood…

Willa:  It really does. It sounds “very MJ,” as you say, and it’s also interesting how those words undercut the visuals. What follows those words is a show of military force, with goose-stepping soldiers evocative of Nazi military demonstrations. So there’s a strong tension between the Esperanto words, which describe the statue they’re building as a tribute to “global motherhood and love,” and the accompanying images, which place the statue in a military context.

Bjørn: Yes, but this tension only exists if you understand the words!  99.8 percent of the viewers would have no clue what the voice actor was saying. So, why didn’t MJ simply let the man speak his lines in English?

Willa:  Well, that’s a good point, Bjørn – and I have to admit, I’m one of the 99.8 percent!

Joie:  As am I. You know, Bjørn, I find this fascinating and I’m also really surprised by it. I had no idea those words were spoken in Esperanto. I don’t ever remember hearing that at the time of the video’s release. I just remember all the controversy over the film itself being declared hateful and narcissistic. But you ask an interesting question … why didn’t he simply use a language that was more easily recognizable to the masses? Even if he didn’t use English, he still could have used Russian or Spanish or even Japanese. Any other language that more people would hear and immediately recognize. But instead, he chose Esperanto. And Willa and I are of the belief that he rarely did anything artistic without a very precise reason for it. So I am intrigued.

Bjørn:  I think you’re touching on something important, Joie, when you talk about a language that’s “more easily recognizable to the masses”! This is exactly why many upper-class art aficionados can’t stand Michael Jackson – they think he’s just feeding “the masses” with stuff they can easily digest. But I think MJ had a perfect understanding of this balance between being accessible and being esoteric. By dropping such small hard-to-get references – like his basing the You Are Not Alone video on the painting Daybreak by Maxfield Parrish – Michael Jackson added interpretational depth to his art. By the way, wasn’t it the MJ Academia Project that first revealed that the HIStory promo video is essentially a spoof of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 Hitler propaganda film, Triumph of the Will?

Willa:  I think so … at least, that’s the first place I heard it.

Bjørn:  With that in mind, it’s interesting to note that the initiator of Esperanto, Zamenhof, was a Jew…

I also think MJ is reflecting on his own use of language. His mother tongue happens to be English – which since World War II has functioned as a second language for huge parts of the world. The English language helps MJ get his message across to the masses, but at the same time it gives native English-speakers like him a communicational advantage (while others have to search for words, you can just keep talking).

Esperanto is the wannabe international language with the potential to put speakers of different mother tongues on a more equal footing. Say all the countries of the UN decided to make Esperanto a global second language, and began teaching it in every classroom on the globe. That would give people from any culture a basic tool for communication – but it would also mean that native English-speakers would have to “make a little space.” So, in this promo video, MJ is somehow endorsing the idea of Esperanto. By letting the language “guest star,” he questions the status quo (using native languages for international communication). I guess you could call it an artistic discussion about language and power.

Willa:  That’s a really interesting way to look at that, Bjørn. And we could push that idea of challenging “language and power” even further if we consider that English as a “global” language began with British imperialism and colonialism. As the British Empire spread around the world, so did English culture and language, with many indigenous people encouraged or even forced to give up their native language and use English instead. And of course, racism in the United States is a direct result of British colonialism and the slave trade. So in that sense, English can be seen as a language of oppression – the language of those colonizing and displacing indigenous people around the world.

So getting back to the HIStory teaser, it’s interesting that in the visuals he’s strongly pushing back against efforts to silence him and “put him in his place” following the false allegations of 1993, and in the Esperanto spoken parts he’s pushing back against English, the language that to some degree silenced his ancestors and tried to keep them in their place.

Joie:  Wow. Really interesting way of looking at that, Willa!

Bjørn: Yes, I agree, Joie, I hadn’t thought about it like that either! So, if the HIStory teaser is a kind of rebuttal – to Nazism and colonialism and the extinction of native languages caused by English and other “big tongues” – couldn’t Liberian Girl be seen as an attempt to recover what was lost? Even if the song’s intro is in Swahili, which is an East African language, and most of MJ’s forebears probably came from West Africa…

Joie:  Ah! Very clever thinking, Bjørn! We could almost say the same thing about the coda at the end of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.'” The Cameroonian chant, “Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah.”

Willa:  Wow, you guys, that is so interesting! I really like the idea of approaching those two from this perspective. You know, both of them seem to address the issue of representation and interpretation – or misinterpretation – to some degree, and in both the use of an African language signals a major shift in the mood of the song/video. In “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” he talks about how the media distorts meaning – like in these lyrics, for example:

I took My Baby to the doctor
With a fever, but nothing he found
By the time this hit the street
They said she had a breakdown

Most of the song is pretty edgy and fearful, and that’s all in English. But then the Cameroon part starts, and suddenly this edgy, trippy song shifts and becomes joyful and triumphant. It’s a very dramatic shift in mood.

There’s a similar shift in the Liberian Girl video. It begins in black and white, with an eerie, sustained, high-pitched note vibrating in the background as the camera pans around what seems to be a British colony in Africa. A waiter walks out of the Cafe Afrique, we see workers in African dress, and then a white missionary in European clothes with a rosary and clerical collar. The camera follows the missionary until he walks behind a beautiful black woman; then the camera stops on her. She looks up and speaks directly to the camera in Swahili, and suddenly everything changes. The black-and-white tone gives way to vibrant color, and we discover we’re not in colonial Africa but modern day Hollywood, in a studio filled with glittering celebrities.

One of the things that’s most interesting about this, in terms of language and colonialism, is that Liberia is an African nation founded and, in effect, re-colonized by free blacks and escaped slaves from the U.S. in the 1800s – people whose ancestry was African but who no longer had a home country to return to. And its official language is English, the only language this diaspora of people had in common. So it’s almost like the English language was re-colonized, just as the nation-state of Liberia was – the language of the colonizer was reclaimed and reappropriated by the colonized.

And we see that idea suggested in Liberian Girl as well. All the celebrities are milling around and Whoopi Goldberg asks, “Who’s directing this?” The camera cuts to Steven Speilberg sitting in a director’s chair, implying he’s the director, but he’s looking at his watch and he’s no more in control than anyone else. Then at the end of the video we discover who’s really been calling the shots: Michael Jackson, behind the camera. So he has reclaimed the Liberian Girl video as his own, just as the former slaves from America reclaimed Liberia and English as their own.

Bjørn: Well, the problem with this interpretation, Willa, is that Liberia was already inhabited when the African-Americans founded it! Just like Israel was already inhabited by Arabs when it was founded as a place where Jews could live in peace. To my understanding, today the “original” Liberians – talking various African languages – are second-class (or at least less fortunate) citizens in a state dominated by English-speaking “American” Liberians (with ancestors ultimately hailing from many parts of Africa, not just Liberia).

I don’t know a lot about Liberia, and I can sympathize with the idea of the ex-slaves reclaiming “English as their own” (after all, who doesn’t love his mother tongue?) But I do think that Jackson’s use of African languages in these songs reflect a longing for the uncolonized past, maybe even for a romantic Africa that never really existed (or, perhaps, for a “garden of Eden” that could come into existence in the future!) As the linguist Ben Zimmer pointed out on his blog the day after MJ had died, the chant in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” was heavily inspired by a line from “Soul Makossa” by the Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango. (Dibango sued MJ for plagiarism, but they reached an agreement out of court.) Here’s “Soul Makossa”:

Dibango sings “ma ma ko, ma ma sa, ma ko ma ko sa,” which is in his native language, Duala. So, MJ’s chant isn’t really in any African language – but so close that is certainly sounds African. In the same way, he uses Swahili (from East Africa) as a symbol of (idealized) Africanness, even if the actual Liberia is in West Africa, far away from the places where people speak Swahili… So, for me, the use of African languages in these songs are really more about a “longing for paradise on earth” as it was before colonization, and as it could become once again.

Willa:  I think that’s a very important point, Bjørn – that he’s referring more to an idea than an actual place. After all, after the shift in Liberian Girl, we aren’t in Liberia; we’re on a movie set in Hollywood, so he’s clearly demonstrating that the opening scene wasn’t really a scene from the actual nation of Liberia, but a Hollywood depiction of “exotic Africa.” The challenge for us, then, is to figure out what idea, exactly, he’s trying to get across when he sings with longing about a girl from Liberia.

It’s interesting in this context to think about the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when Harriet Beecher Stowe sends Eliza, George, and the other escaped slaves to Liberia. For her, it represented a place where they could be safe and free, and where their son Harry could grow and thrive. For her, it truly meant a “paradise on earth,” as you said, Bjørn, but it also reveals a despair about her own country. Stowe didn’t think it was possible for them to ever be truly free in the United States, or even Canada, so she had to send them to Liberia to ensure their freedom.

But I don’t think Michael Jackson ever did give up on the United States – though he had good reason to, and he chose not to live here after the 2005 trial. And I think Liberia, as a concept, means something different for him than it did for Stowe.

Bjørn:  That’s really interesting! I guess I’ll have to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin some day. Stowe’s “Liberia,” as you describe it, reminds me of Bob Marley and the other Rastafarians, who saw Ethiopia as a Promised Land. The name Liberia, which comes from the same Latin root as “liberty,” roughly translates as “the land of the free.” I once made an Esperanto translation of “Liberian Girl,” where the ethymology really shines through: Liberianin’  means “Liberian girl” as well as “girl from the country of freedom.”

Willa:  Really? You translated “Liberian Girl” also? That’s wonderful!  And I love the alternate meaning of “girl from the country of freedom.”

Bjørn:  The rainforest sounds at the beginning of the song (a prequel to “Earth Song”?) could indicate that MJ used “Liberia” as a metaphor for Paradise. Now, “Paradise Girl,” that’s a little spooky, if you think about it. But I’ve always thought this song wasn’t about “Liberia” at all, but rather about a girl who’s very far away from the singer. Like MJ’s (extreme!) version of “Distant Lover,” if you know that Marvin Gaye song!

Okay, let’s get back to the language question. Why does Michael Jackson’s Liberian girl, whoever she is, speak in Swahili? Is that just to add some exotic spice, or what do you think?

Joie:  Well now that is a really good question, Bjørn. And while I really enjoy picking apart a song or a short film and trying to analyze it and discern its true meaning, I also sometimes think that maybe a cigar is just a cigar. What would be wrong with adding in Swahili, or any other foreign language for that matter, for the sole purpose of adding a little exotic spice to your creation? Maybe he simply thought it sounded cool.

Willa:  You’re right, Joie, it does sound cool, and it perfectly fits that space in the song. We know he was fascinated by sounds – found sounds, manufactured sounds, the sounds of nature, the sounds of the city, the sound of words – so it’s very possible he chose those phrases simply based on their sounds and rhythms.

But I’m still intrigued by the fact that both “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” and Liberian Girl focus on American pop culture and the entertainment industry, and how certain things are represented or misrepresented within that industry. And both include an African phrase that serves as an important pivot point – one that changes the whole mood of the work. That seems significant to me. But what does it mean?

As you mentioned, Bjørn, “Liberia” shares the same Latin root as “liberty.” As I understand it, the name “Liberia” was chosen to emphasize that this new nation was envisioned as a place where former slaves could find peace and liberty. So it seems significant that Michael Jackson evokes Liberia, but more as an idea than a physical place, as you suggested earlier. And to me, that’s reinforced by the fact that he incorporates Swahili, but it’s Swahili that has become unmoored from its native country and is now being used in a Hollywood video that to some extent critiques Hollywood.

The lyrics to Liberian Girl suggest something similar when he says their romance is “just like in the movies”:

With two lovers in a scene
And she says, “Do you love me?”
And he says so endlessly,
“I love you, Liberian Girl”

So their romance is presented as something of a fantasy, something that’s been scripted by Hollywood. In all of these cases, it’s like he’s both evoking a fantasy and critiquing it at the same time, and looking at where it comes from. For example, in Liberian Girl he’s evoking the exotic while questioning what it means to be labeled as exotic.

Joie:  That is a very interesting interpretation, Willa! Sometimes you really do blow me away with how your mind works. It’s fascinating!

Willa:  Thanks, Joie, though I might be totally missing the boat with this one – it’s pretty subtle what he’s doing. It’s just so interesting to me that he begins Liberian Girl with a classic scene of “exotic Africa,” then reveals it’s all just a Hollywood fabrication, and then suggests that the real exotica is Hollywood itself. And the Swahili phrase is the turning point where our perceptions are flipped inside out.

Joie:  Do either of you know what that Swahili phrase means? I would be very interested to know what she’s saying in the opening of the song.

Bjørn:  According to the album booklet, it means “I love you too – I want you too – my love.” (Google Translate seems to agree, although it renders mpenziwe as ”lover”.)

Joie:  Huh. I don’t think I ever knew that before. I’ve always simply wondered at the meaning. I can’t believe it was in the album booklet all this time and I never noticed.

Bjørn:  No worries, Joie, an album’s booklet is often the last thing I study too!  But you know what? It just struck me there’s an interesting semantic evolution going on in this song: It starts with rainforest sounds that don’t have any particular meaning to the average listener (but who knows what the animals are really saying?) Then it progresses to a line spoken in Swahili, which to the vast audience is just as meaningless as the sound of a bird. Then, at last, Michael Jackson starts to sing in English, and because we understand the language, all of a sudden we don’t hear his words as ”sounds” any more, but as meaningful pieces of information… Perhaps Jackson added Swahili just to emphasize that the meaning we assign to words really is arbitrary, and that we might as well be in a situation where Swahili carried the information, and English was some unintelligible but exotic spice, just like the language of the forest, or even the sound of instruments…

Willa:  Wow, that is fascinating, Bjørn! And if we interpret the opening that way – as examining how we make meaning – that progression of sounds is paralleled in the visuals as well. As you say, the sounds gradually become more intelligible as we move from bird song (something we don’t understand and can never understand) to Swahili (something most of us don’t understand at first but can if we put a little effort into it) to English (which for most Americans is our native language). And the visuals begin with the Cafe Afrique sign, then pan out to the Casablanca-like scene, and then keep panning out to show the Hollywood set. So as we telescope out, the images become more familiar – closer to home, in a way – and our understanding of what we’re seeing shifts and gradually becomes more clear:  we’re watching a film being made.

Bjørn:  This film, as you say, is being referenced to in the lyrics as well: “Just like in the movies… With two lovers in a scene…” So maybe the chief function of the Swahili phrase is to underscore the very otherworldliness of this cinematic fantasy, much like the Elvish phrases in the Lord of the Rings movies or the Na’vi dialogue in Avatar. Yes I know, Swahili is a living language spoken by real people. But still, hardly anyone in Liberia speaks Swahili!  As pointed out earlier, Swahili is an East African language. Its native speakers live along the Kenya-Tanzania coastline.

What’s intriguing about Swahili, however, is that it’s become a truly international language in much of Eastern Africa!  Millions of people in Congo, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya use Swahili to get their messages across a multitude of linguistic boundaries. It is, indeed, the closest we get to an African “Esperanto.”

Willa:  Really?  I didn’t know that.

Joie:  Neither did I.

Willa:  That’s fascinating to think about it as “an African ‘Esperanto.'”

Bjørn:  If we look at it like that, the openings of “Liberian Girl” and the HIStory teaser are very similar: Something is being said by a non-MJ person in a cross-cultural language, before MJ himself enters the stage and reassures his English-speaking listeners that they’re not wholly “lost in translation”!

“Stranger in Moscow,” interestingly, takes the opposite approach. Here MJ’s loudly sung English-language lyrics are followed by another man whispering in the lingua franca of the Cold War Communist world: Russian.

Willa:  Wow, Bjørn, that is so interesting! And to me, it feels like the Russian in “Stranger in Moscow” functions in a very different way as well. It reinforces the edgy, unsettled mood of the song, as well as the theme of alienation from his home country.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa. “Stranger in Moscow” has always been one of my favorites and I think it’s because it is such a beautifully constructed song. But you’re right, the use of Russian in the song really heightens the sense of loneliness, isolation and despair that he’s trying to convey here. The alienation as you put it. Whenever I listen to this song, I actually get the sense that his sole reason for using Russian here is to make us feel those negative emotions more fully.

Willa:  It feels that way to me too, Joie, and that feeling intensifies once we learn what those Russian words mean: “Why have you come from the West? Confess! To steal the great achievements of the people, the accomplishments of the workers…”

Joie:  Yes. It’s very intimidating, isn’t it? Imagine being a stranger in a strange land, detained by these scary officials and having those questions barked at you over and over again!

Willa:  Or to bring it a little closer to home, imagine the police asking you, Why are you so kind and generous with children? Confess!  It’s to lure them in so you can abuse them …

What I mean is, it wasn’t just the KGB who interrogated people in intimidating ways – the Santa Barbara police investigators did the same thing, and not just to Michael Jackson but to young children as well. They interrogated Jason Francia over and over again when he was only 12 years old. As he said later, “They made me come up with stuff. They kept pushing. I wanted to hit them in the head.” Like the stereotypical image of the KGB, they were determined to wring a confession from him.

And I think that’s the idea Michael Jackson is trying to get at here. He’s not pointing a finger at the Soviets – he’s pointing a finger at us, and saying in some ways we are as much of a police state as Cold War Russia. And the shock of that realization has made him feel like a stranger in his own country.

Bjørn:  That’s fascinating, Joie and Willa. I hadn’t thought about it like that. Both “Stranger in Moscow” and “Liberian Girl” mention specific locations in their titles, which is a very unusual thing for MJ to do. (Most of his titles are quite unspecific – just think about “A place with no name”!) And both songs use great regional languages to create a specific mood. I’m not exactly a connoisseur of Jackson’s short films, but I have remarked a couple of times that Russians have commented that the scenes in Stranger in Moscow look nothing like Moscow at all.

Willa:  That’s true. You can tell from the street signs and the close-up of the American quarter that it was filmed in the U.S. And that seems very deliberate – he wants us to know he’s really in the U.S. though he feels like he’s in a strange land.

Bjørn:  So, I wonder if MJ is using Moscow and Russian in a metaphorical way, just like he uses Liberia and Swahili to evoke a dreamlike vision of Africa. Thanks to the Cold War, Russian must sound like a very alien language to many Americans. And Moscow must still be the very ”eye of the tiger” to some folks! (Poor Russian MJ fans!)

So, without demonizing too much here, we might say that while Jackson uses Swahili as a paradisaical or “angelic” language, Russian, as used by the KGB agent, does duty as the language of his demons…

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, Bjørn!  Or maybe the Russian is evoking a frightening unknown. In other words, it’s not so much that Russian is “the language of his demons,” but that Americans once demonized it because we didn’t understand it and were afraid of it. I have friends a little older than I am who remember the Bay of Pigs, and the school drills for what to do if the Soviets attacked with nuclear bombs. And the main feeling they remember is the uncertainty – the fear of something powerful that you don’t understand, that can attack at any time without warning. I can certainly understand how Michael Jackson might feel that way about the Santa Barbara police …

Joie:  Wow. That’s really deep, Willa. And Bjørn, I love what you said about the “angelic” language and the “demon” language. I think it’s clear that both languages were used in very different ways to convey two very different realms of emotion, and that is very fascinating.

Bjørn:  Yes, it is! And just as the languages help the music paint these emotional landscapes, the music also influences the way we – as non-speakers – perceive these foreign languages. Personally, I find Russian quite a beautiful language, with all its mushy sounds. And, importantly, it is whispered, as if the KGB agent is telling a secret. If we hadn’t just heard MJ’s lament, we might have thought it was a lover whispering something to his beloved, much like the Swahili girl in “Liberian Girl.” And this makes it all the more frightening – it’s like a cold embrace, followed by a stab.

Willa:  Wow, that’s a fascinating way to look at that, Bjørn – and pretty chilling too.

Bjørn:  So, in “Liberian Girl,” “Stranger in Moscow,” and the HIStory teaser, Michael Jackson uses bits of foreign languages to help create a mood or atmosphere. And the languages he uses have all – at some point in history – been rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication:  Swahili, Esperanto, Russian. Furthermore, the pieces seem to highlight different aspects of foreignness:  the exotic and alluring (Swahili), the unfamiliar and strange (Esperanto), the threatening and repulsing (Russian).

Willa:  And there’s another song that fits this pattern also:  “They Don’t Care about Us.” It begins with a woman saying “Michael, eles não ligam pra gente,” which is Portuguese for “Michael, they don’t care about us.” As you said of Swahili, Esperanto, and Russian, Bjørn, Portuguese is another language that has “at some point in history – been rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication.” Like England, Portugal was a powerful nation during the colonial era, and as a result, Portuguese is the official language of countries around the world, from Europe to South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Joie:  That’s very true, Willa. You know I think most people just think about Portuguese being spoken in Brazil and, of course, Portugal. But it’s actually the official language of many African nations, like Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bissau, and others. And, as you said, even in Southeast Asia. It’s interesting to think of it as “rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication,” because it really did at one point.

Willa:  And still does in some regions – like I didn’t realize it was so widespread in Africa. That’s interesting, Joie. And to get back to what you were saying, Bjørn, about the different emotional effect of each of these languages, the Portugese lines at the beginning of “They Don’t Care about Us” have always struck me as sorrowful, in an almost maternal way – like the sorrow of a mother who cares deeply for her children and has seen too many of them come to harm.

Bjørn: You opened up my eyes here, Willa and Joie! I have to confess I’ve never heard that Portuguese part before. I gave the song another listen, and couldn’t hear it – but then it occurred to me that it had to be in the video! I’m a great fan of Michael Jackson’s music, but a lot of his films I haven’t watched in their entirety. So, I went to YouTube, and heard that phrase spoken for the first time.

I wonder, though, to what extent Portuguese is being used to create an emotional effect, and to what extent it’s being used to evoke an idea of “Brazil” – after all, the film does take part in real-world Brazil (not a fantasy “Liberia”), where Portuguese is spoken as the main language.

Willa:  That’s a good point.

Bjørn:  But if we look at the emotions, I do agree with you, Willa, that it sounds like a caring mother speaking to her son. By the way, those people who like blaming MJ for having a “Jesus complex,” should take an extra look… In the exact same moment as the Brazilian mother figure says the name “Michael,” the camera pans to the famous Rio statue of Christ the Redeemer…

Willa:  Oh heavens, Bjørn!  You’re just trying to stir up trouble, aren’t you?

Bjørn: Well, yes and no, Willa. This being an academic discussion, I don’t think I’d do the readers any favor by censoring what I see! It’s a fact that the name and the statue appear at the same time, and I’d like to think it’s intentional. But okay, let’s save the interpretation of that for an ”MJ and religious symbolism” post!

So, in the four “foreign language songs” we’ve looked at so far, we’ve got an Esperanto-speaking worker, a Swahili-speaking lover, a Russian-speaking agent and a Brazilian-speaking mother… MJ himself, however, still sings in his native English. The foreign culture remains inaccessible and different. Interestingly, on a couple of occasions he did cross the border, so to speak. I’m of course thinking about the versions he did of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” in two of the world’s great international languages:  Spanish and French… What do you think about them?

Willa:  Well, my first reaction is that I love them – they are both exquisitely beautiful, I think. And it’s interesting for me to hear a Michael Jackson song the way non-English speakers must usually hear them – where the meaning comes not so much from the words he is singing but from the expressiveness of his voice.

Joie:  That’s an great point, Willa, one that I don’t often ponder. But it’s interesting to think about how non-English speakers perceive Michael’s music. Especially since his music is so very beloved all over the world. But you’re right that they must experience it much differently than native English speakers do.

You know I went through a similar phenomenon back in my teen years when I had a huge crush on the guys of the Puerto Rican boy band, Menudo. They would release albums in both Spanish and English, and oddly enough, I found that I really loved those Spanish speaking songs, even though my Spanish has never been all that great. To this day, I often find myself singing them.

Bjørn:  When I discovered Michael Jackson’s music as a child, I hardly understood anything he was singing. I just liked the sound of it! So I can certainly follow you there… “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” isn’t among my favorite MJ songs, but I agree it’s nice to hear him sing in Spanish (which I understand) and French (which I don’t really understand). Why did he choose this particular song, do you think? I mean, if it was to promote the Bad album in Spanish- and French-speaking countries, he could have handed the translators the song ”Bad”… (I just hear it: ¡Porque soy malo, soy malo!)

Willa:  That’s great, Bjørn! I’ll be thinking about that next time I hear, “Because I’m bad, I’m bad …”

So I don’t know why he chose “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” but it’s a beautiful song and it’s a duet – one of his few duets – and that would allow him to interact with someone while he was singing, someone fluent in Spanish or French. Maybe that’s part of why he chose this one. I don’t know about Spanish, but he did speak passable French. In fact, in the 1980s he was interviewed in French by a Montreal reporter, and he answered in French. And he loved Paris – he even named his daughter Paris. And of course he always liked to bridge boundaries, as we discussed at the beginning with Esperanto.

So thank you so much for joining us, Bjørn, and for adding a European, multilingual perspective!  We always love talking with you, and hope you’ll join us again soon.

¡Porque Soy Malo, Soy Malo!

Willa:  Last spring, longtime contributor Bjørn Bojesen shared his version of “Bili Ĝin,” which is an Esperanto translation of “Billie Jean.” That led to a behind-the-scenes discussion of Michael Jackson and foreign languages, with Joie, Bjørn, and me all brainstorming about songs or short films where he sang or incorporated words in a language other than his native English. This was such an interesting topic for us we decided to take the discussion online and talk about it in a post. Thanks for joining us, Bjørn, and for sharing “Bili Ĝin” with us!

So Esperanto is actually a good place to start this discussion since it’s such a Michael Jackson kind of concept. As I understand it, Esperanto was invented in the late 1800s using elements of many different languages to help promote global peace and understanding. Specifically, it was created by L.L. Zamenhof to provide a neutral means of communication that bridged divisions of language, nationality, and ethnicity. I can see how this would appeal to Michael Jackson since crossing boundaries and healing divisions is something he did throughout his career. And as you recently mentioned, Bjørn, he incorporated an Esperanto passage in the promo film for HIStory. Is that right?

Bjørn: Yes, that’s correct. At the very start, right before the soldiers come marching in with their heavy boots, an unseen man shouts out a declaration in Esperanto. Take a look:

In the YouTube video, there are some glitches in the subtitles, but the anonymous person’s message goes like this: “Diversaj nacioj de la mondo” (Different nations of the world) / “konstruas ĉi tiun skulptaĵon” (build this sculpture) / “en la nomo de tutmonda patrineco kaj amo” (in the name of global motherhood and love) / “kaj la kuraca forto de muziko” (and the healing power of music). A few seconds later, one of the smelters also shouts in Esperanto: “Venu ĉi tien!” (Come over here!)

The promo created quite a stir in the Esperanto community when it aired. Why would MJ use a snippet of Esperanto? I have no idea whether he actually spoke Esperanto, but I guess he scripted the lines (in English): “in the name of global motherhood and love, and the healing power of music.” Doesn’t this sound very MJ to you? I mean, just the idea of a universal motherhood instead of the usual brotherhood…

Willa:  It really does. It sounds “very MJ,” as you say, and it’s also interesting how those words undercut the visuals. What follows those words is a show of military force, with goose-stepping soldiers evocative of Nazi military demonstrations. So there’s a strong tension between the Esperanto words, which describe the statue they’re building as a tribute to “global motherhood and love,” and the accompanying images, which place the statue in a military context.

Bjørn: Yes, but this tension only exists if you understand the words!  99.8 percent of the viewers would have no clue what the voice actor was saying. So, why didn’t MJ simply let the man speak his lines in English?

Willa:  Well, that’s a good point, Bjørn – and I have to admit, I’m one of the 99.8 percent!

Joie:  As am I. You know, Bjørn, I find this fascinating and I’m also really surprised by it. I had no idea those words were spoken in Esperanto. I don’t ever remember hearing that at the time of the video’s release. I just remember all the controversy over the film itself being declared hateful and narcissistic. But you ask an interesting question … why didn’t he simply use a language that was more easily recognizable to the masses? Even if he didn’t use English, he still could have used Russian or Spanish or even Japanese. Any other language that more people would hear and immediately recognize. But instead, he chose Esperanto. And Willa and I are of the belief that he rarely did anything artistic without a very precise reason for it. So I am intrigued.

Bjørn:  I think you’re touching on something important, Joie, when you talk about a language that’s “more easily recognizable to the masses”! This is exactly why many upper-class art aficionados can’t stand Michael Jackson – they think he’s just feeding “the masses” with stuff they can easily digest. But I think MJ had a perfect understanding of this balance between being accessible and being esoteric. By dropping such small hard-to-get references – like his basing the You Are Not Alone video on the painting Daybreak by Maxfield Parrish – Michael Jackson added interpretational depth to his art. By the way, wasn’t it the MJ Academia Project that first revealed that the HIStory promo video is essentially a spoof of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 Hitler propaganda film, Triumph of the Will?

Willa:  I think so … at least, that’s the first place I heard it.

Bjørn:  With that in mind, it’s interesting to note that the initiator of Esperanto, Zamenhof, was a Jew…

I also think MJ is reflecting on his own use of language. His mother tongue happens to be English – which since World War II has functioned as a second language for huge parts of the world. The English language helps MJ get his message across to the masses, but at the same time it gives native English-speakers like him a communicational advantage (while others have to search for words, you can just keep talking).

Esperanto is the wannabe international language with the potential to put speakers of different mother tongues on a more equal footing. Say all the countries of the UN decided to make Esperanto a global second language, and began teaching it in every classroom on the globe. That would give people from any culture a basic tool for communication – but it would also mean that native English-speakers would have to “make a little space.” So, in this promo video, MJ is somehow endorsing the idea of Esperanto. By letting the language “guest star,” he questions the status quo (using native languages for international communication). I guess you could call it an artistic discussion about language and power.

Willa:  That’s a really interesting way to look at that, Bjørn. And we could push that idea of challenging “language and power” even further if we consider that English as a “global” language began with British imperialism and colonialism. As the British Empire spread around the world, so did English culture and language, with many indigenous people encouraged or even forced to give up their native language and use English instead. And of course, racism in the United States is a direct result of British colonialism and the slave trade. So in that sense, English can be seen as a language of oppression – the language of those colonizing and displacing indigenous people around the world.

So getting back to the HIStory teaser, it’s interesting that in the visuals he’s strongly pushing back against efforts to silence him and “put him in his place” following the false allegations of 1993, and in the Esperanto spoken parts he’s pushing back against English, the language that to some degree silenced his ancestors and tried to keep them in their place.

Joie:  Wow. Really interesting way of looking at that, Willa!

Bjørn: Yes, I agree, Joie, I hadn’t thought about it like that either! So, if the HIStory teaser is a kind of rebuttal – to Nazism and colonialism and the extinction of native languages caused by English and other “big tongues” – couldn’t Liberian Girl be seen as an attempt to recover what was lost? Even if the song’s intro is in Swahili, which is an East African language, and most of MJ’s forebears probably came from West Africa…

Joie:  Ah! Very clever thinking, Bjørn! We could almost say the same thing about the coda at the end of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.'” The Cameroonian chant, “Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah.”

Willa:  Wow, you guys, that is so interesting! I really like the idea of approaching those two from this perspective. You know, both of them seem to address the issue of representation and interpretation – or misinterpretation – to some degree, and in both the use of an African language signals a major shift in the mood of the song/video. In “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” he talks about how the media distorts meaning – like in these lyrics, for example:

I took My Baby to the doctor
With a fever, but nothing he found
By the time this hit the street
They said she had a breakdown

Most of the song is pretty edgy and fearful, and that’s all in English. But then the Cameroon part starts, and suddenly this edgy, trippy song shifts and becomes joyful and triumphant. It’s a very dramatic shift in mood.

There’s a similar shift in the Liberian Girl video. It begins in black and white, with an eerie, sustained, high-pitched note vibrating in the background as the camera pans around what seems to be a British colony in Africa. A waiter walks out of the Cafe Afrique, we see workers in African dress, and then a white missionary in European clothes with a rosary and clerical collar. The camera follows the missionary until he walks behind a beautiful black woman; then the camera stops on her. She looks up and speaks directly to the camera in Swahili, and suddenly everything changes. The black-and-white tone gives way to vibrant color, and we discover we’re not in colonial Africa but modern day Hollywood, in a studio filled with glittering celebrities.

One of the things that’s most interesting about this, in terms of language and colonialism, is that Liberia is an African nation founded and, in effect, re-colonized by free blacks and escaped slaves from the U.S. in the 1800s – people whose ancestry was African but who no longer had a home country to return to. And its official language is English, the only language this diaspora of people had in common. So it’s almost like the English language was re-colonized, just as the nation-state of Liberia was – the language of the colonizer was reclaimed and reappropriated by the colonized.

And we see that idea suggested in Liberian Girl as well. All the celebrities are milling around and Whoopi Goldberg asks, “Who’s directing this?” The camera cuts to Steven Speilberg sitting in a director’s chair, implying he’s the director, but he’s looking at his watch and he’s no more in control than anyone else. Then at the end of the video we discover who’s really been calling the shots: Michael Jackson, behind the camera. So he has reclaimed the Liberian Girl video as his own, just as the former slaves from America reclaimed Liberia and English as their own.

Bjørn: Well, the problem with this interpretation, Willa, is that Liberia was already inhabited when the African-Americans founded it! Just like Israel was already inhabited by Arabs when it was founded as a place where Jews could live in peace. To my understanding, today the “original” Liberians – talking various African languages – are second-class (or at least less fortunate) citizens in a state dominated by English-speaking “American” Liberians (with ancestors ultimately hailing from many parts of Africa, not just Liberia).

I don’t know a lot about Liberia, and I can sympathize with the idea of the ex-slaves reclaiming “English as their own” (after all, who doesn’t love his mother tongue?) But I do think that Jackson’s use of African languages in these songs reflect a longing for the uncolonized past, maybe even for a romantic Africa that never really existed (or, perhaps, for a “garden of Eden” that could come into existence in the future!) As the linguist Ben Zimmer pointed out on his blog the day after MJ had died, the chant in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” was heavily inspired by a line from “Soul Makossa” by the Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango. (Dibango sued MJ for plagiarism, but they reached an agreement out of court.) Here’s “Soul Makossa”:

Dibango sings “ma ma ko, ma ma sa, ma ko ma ko sa,” which is in his native language, Duala. So, MJ’s chant isn’t really in any African language – but so close that is certainly sounds African. In the same way, he uses Swahili (from East Africa) as a symbol of (idealized) Africanness, even if the actual Liberia is in West Africa, far away from the places where people speak Swahili… So, for me, the use of African languages in these songs are really more about a “longing for paradise on earth” as it was before colonization, and as it could become once again.

Willa:  I think that’s a very important point, Bjørn – that he’s referring more to an idea than an actual place. After all, after the shift in Liberian Girl, we aren’t in Liberia; we’re on a movie set in Hollywood, so he’s clearly demonstrating that the opening scene wasn’t really a scene from the actual nation of Liberia, but a Hollywood depiction of “exotic Africa.” The challenge for us, then, is to figure out what idea, exactly, he’s trying to get across when he sings with longing about a girl from Liberia.

It’s interesting in this context to think about the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when Harriet Beecher Stowe sends Eliza, George, and the other escaped slaves to Liberia. For her, it represented a place where they could be safe and free, and where their son Harry could grow and thrive. For her, it truly meant a “paradise on earth,” as you said, Bjørn, but it also reveals a despair about her own country. Stowe didn’t think it was possible for them to ever be truly free in the United States, or even Canada, so she had to send them to Liberia to ensure their freedom.

But I don’t think Michael Jackson ever did give up on the United States – though he had good reason to, and he chose not to live here after the 2005 trial. And I think Liberia, as a concept, means something different for him than it did for Stowe.

Bjørn:  That’s really interesting! I guess I’ll have to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin some day. Stowe’s “Liberia,” as you describe it, reminds me of Bob Marley and the other Rastafarians, who saw Ethiopia as a Promised Land. The name Liberia, which comes from the same Latin root as “liberty,” roughly translates as “the land of the free.” I once made an Esperanto translation of “Liberian Girl,” where the ethymology really shines through: Liberianin’  means “Liberian girl” as well as “girl from the country of freedom.”

Willa:  Really? You translated “Liberian Girl” also? That’s wonderful!  And I love the alternate meaning of “girl from the country of freedom.”

Bjørn:  The rainforest sounds at the beginning of the song (a prequel to “Earth Song”?) could indicate that MJ used “Liberia” as a metaphor for Paradise. Now, “Paradise Girl,” that’s a little spooky, if you think about it. But I’ve always thought this song wasn’t about “Liberia” at all, but rather about a girl who’s very far away from the singer. Like MJ’s (extreme!) version of “Distant Lover,” if you know that Marvin Gaye song!

Okay, let’s get back to the language question. Why does Michael Jackson’s Liberian girl, whoever she is, speak in Swahili? Is that just to add some exotic spice, or what do you think?

Joie:  Well now that is a really good question, Bjørn. And while I really enjoy picking apart a song or a short film and trying to analyze it and discern its true meaning, I also sometimes think that maybe a cigar is just a cigar. What would be wrong with adding in Swahili, or any other foreign language for that matter, for the sole purpose of adding a little exotic spice to your creation? Maybe he simply thought it sounded cool.

Willa:  You’re right, Joie, it does sound cool, and it perfectly fits that space in the song. We know he was fascinated by sounds – found sounds, manufactured sounds, the sounds of nature, the sounds of the city, the sound of words – so it’s very possible he chose those phrases simply based on their sounds and rhythms.

But I’m still intrigued by the fact that both “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” and Liberian Girl focus on American pop culture and the entertainment industry, and how certain things are represented or misrepresented within that industry. And both include an African phrase that serves as an important pivot point – one that changes the whole mood of the work. That seems significant to me. But what does it mean?

As you mentioned, Bjørn, “Liberia” shares the same Latin root as “liberty.” As I understand it, the name “Liberia” was chosen to emphasize that this new nation was envisioned as a place where former slaves could find peace and liberty. So it seems significant that Michael Jackson evokes Liberia, but more as an idea than a physical place, as you suggested earlier. And to me, that’s reinforced by the fact that he incorporates Swahili, but it’s Swahili that has become unmoored from its native country and is now being used in a Hollywood video that to some extent critiques Hollywood.

The lyrics to Liberian Girl suggest something similar when he says their romance is “just like in the movies”:

With two lovers in a scene
And she says, “Do you love me?”
And he says so endlessly,
“I love you, Liberian Girl”

So their romance is presented as something of a fantasy, something that’s been scripted by Hollywood. In all of these cases, it’s like he’s both evoking a fantasy and critiquing it at the same time, and looking at where it comes from. For example, in Liberian Girl he’s evoking the exotic while questioning what it means to be labeled as exotic.

Joie:  That is a very interesting interpretation, Willa! Sometimes you really do blow me away with how your mind works. It’s fascinating!

Willa:  Thanks, Joie, though I might be totally missing the boat with this one – it’s pretty subtle what he’s doing. It’s just so interesting to me that he begins Liberian Girl with a classic scene of “exotic Africa,” then reveals it’s all just a Hollywood fabrication, and then suggests that the real exotica is Hollywood itself. And the Swahili phrase is the turning point where our perceptions are flipped inside out.

Joie:  Do either of you know what that Swahili phrase means? I would be very interested to know what she’s saying in the opening of the song.

Bjørn:  According to the album booklet, it means “I love you too – I want you too – my love.” (Google Translate seems to agree, although it renders mpenziwe as ”lover”.)

Joie:  Huh. I don’t think I ever knew that before. I’ve always simply wondered at the meaning. I can’t believe it was in the album booklet all this time and I never noticed.

Bjørn:  No worries, Joie, an album’s booklet is often the last thing I study too!  But you know what? It just struck me there’s an interesting semantic evolution going on in this song: It starts with rainforest sounds that don’t have any particular meaning to the average listener (but who knows what the animals are really saying?) Then it progresses to a line spoken in Swahili, which to the vast audience is just as meaningless as the sound of a bird. Then, at last, Michael Jackson starts to sing in English, and because we understand the language, all of a sudden we don’t hear his words as ”sounds” any more, but as meaningful pieces of information… Perhaps Jackson added Swahili just to emphasize that the meaning we assign to words really is arbitrary, and that we might as well be in a situation where Swahili carried the information, and English was some unintelligible but exotic spice, just like the language of the forest, or even the sound of instruments…

Willa:  Wow, that is fascinating, Bjørn! And if we interpret the opening that way – as examining how we make meaning – that progression of sounds is paralleled in the visuals as well. As you say, the sounds gradually become more intelligible as we move from bird song (something we don’t understand and can never understand) to Swahili (something most of us don’t understand at first but can if we put a little effort into it) to English (which for most Americans is our native language). And the visuals begin with the Cafe Afrique sign, then pan out to the Casablanca-like scene, and then keep panning out to show the Hollywood set. So as we telescope out, the images become more familiar – closer to home, in a way – and our understanding of what we’re seeing shifts and gradually becomes more clear:  we’re watching a film being made.

Bjørn:  This film, as you say, is being referenced to in the lyrics as well: “Just like in the movies… With two lovers in a scene…” So maybe the chief function of the Swahili phrase is to underscore the very otherworldliness of this cinematic fantasy, much like the Elvish phrases in the Lord of the Rings movies or the Na’vi dialogue in Avatar. Yes I know, Swahili is a living language spoken by real people. But still, hardly anyone in Liberia speaks Swahili!  As pointed out earlier, Swahili is an East African language. Its native speakers live along the Kenya-Tanzania coastline.

What’s intriguing about Swahili, however, is that it’s become a truly international language in much of Eastern Africa!  Millions of people in Congo, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya use Swahili to get their messages across a multitude of linguistic boundaries. It is, indeed, the closest we get to an African “Esperanto.”

Willa:  Really?  I didn’t know that.

Joie:  Neither did I.

Willa:  That’s fascinating to think about it as “an African ‘Esperanto.'”

Bjørn:  If we look at it like that, the openings of “Liberian Girl” and the HIStory teaser are very similar: Something is being said by a non-MJ person in a cross-cultural language, before MJ himself enters the stage and reassures his English-speaking listeners that they’re not wholly “lost in translation”!

“Stranger in Moscow,” interestingly, takes the opposite approach. Here MJ’s loudly sung English-language lyrics are followed by another man whispering in the lingua franca of the Cold War Communist world: Russian.

Willa:  Wow, Bjørn, that is so interesting! And to me, it feels like the Russian in “Stranger in Moscow” functions in a very different way as well. It reinforces the edgy, unsettled mood of the song, as well as the theme of alienation from his home country.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa. “Stranger in Moscow” has always been one of my favorites and I think it’s because it is such a beautifully constructed song. But you’re right, the use of Russian in the song really heightens the sense of loneliness, isolation and despair that he’s trying to convey here. The alienation as you put it. Whenever I listen to this song, I actually get the sense that his sole reason for using Russian here is to make us feel those negative emotions more fully.

Willa:  It feels that way to me too, Joie, and that feeling intensifies once we learn what those Russian words mean: “Why have you come from the West? Confess! To steal the great achievements of the people, the accomplishments of the workers…”

Joie:  Yes. It’s very intimidating, isn’t it? Imagine being a stranger in a strange land, detained by these scary officials and having those questions barked at you over and over again!

Willa:  Or to bring it a little closer to home, imagine the police asking you, Why are you so kind and generous with children? Confess!  It’s to lure them in so you can abuse them …

What I mean is, it wasn’t just the KGB who interrogated people in intimidating ways – the Santa Barbara police investigators did the same thing, and not just to Michael Jackson but to young children as well. They interrogated Jason Francia over and over again when he was only 12 years old. As he said later, “They made me come up with stuff. They kept pushing. I wanted to hit them in the head.” Like the stereotypical image of the KGB, they were determined to wring a confession from him.

And I think that’s the idea Michael Jackson is trying to get at here. He’s not pointing a finger at the Soviets – he’s pointing a finger at us, and saying in some ways we are as much of a police state as Cold War Russia. And the shock of that realization has made him feel like a stranger in his own country.

Bjørn:  That’s fascinating, Joie and Willa. I hadn’t thought about it like that. Both “Stranger in Moscow” and “Liberian Girl” mention specific locations in their titles, which is a very unusual thing for MJ to do. (Most of his titles are quite unspecific – just think about “A place with no name”!) And both songs use great regional languages to create a specific mood. I’m not exactly a connoisseur of Jackson’s short films, but I have remarked a couple of times that Russians have commented that the scenes in Stranger in Moscow look nothing like Moscow at all.

Willa:  That’s true. You can tell from the street signs and the close-up of the American quarter that it was filmed in the U.S. And that seems very deliberate – he wants us to know he’s really in the U.S. though he feels like he’s in a strange land.

Bjørn:  So, I wonder if MJ is using Moscow and Russian in a metaphorical way, just like he uses Liberia and Swahili to evoke a dreamlike vision of Africa. Thanks to the Cold War, Russian must sound like a very alien language to many Americans. And Moscow must still be the very ”eye of the tiger” to some folks! (Poor Russian MJ fans!)

So, without demonizing too much here, we might say that while Jackson uses Swahili as a paradisaical or “angelic” language, Russian, as used by the KGB agent, does duty as the language of his demons…

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, Bjørn!  Or maybe the Russian is evoking a frightening unknown. In other words, it’s not so much that Russian is “the language of his demons,” but that Americans once demonized it because we didn’t understand it and were afraid of it. I have friends a little older than I am who remember the Bay of Pigs, and the school drills for what to do if the Soviets attacked with nuclear bombs. And the main feeling they remember is the uncertainty – the fear of something powerful that you don’t understand, that can attack at any time without warning. I can certainly understand how Michael Jackson might feel that way about the Santa Barbara police …

Joie:  Wow. That’s really deep, Willa. And Bjørn, I love what you said about the “angelic” language and the “demon” language. I think it’s clear that both languages were used in very different ways to convey two very different realms of emotion, and that is very fascinating.

Bjørn:  Yes, it is! And just as the languages help the music paint these emotional landscapes, the music also influences the way we – as non-speakers – perceive these foreign languages. Personally, I find Russian quite a beautiful language, with all its mushy sounds. And, importantly, it is whispered, as if the KGB agent is telling a secret. If we hadn’t just heard MJ’s lament, we might have thought it was a lover whispering something to his beloved, much like the Swahili girl in “Liberian Girl.” And this makes it all the more frightening – it’s like a cold embrace, followed by a stab.

Willa:  Wow, that’s a fascinating way to look at that, Bjørn – and pretty chilling too.

Bjørn:  So, in “Liberian Girl,” “Stranger in Moscow,” and the HIStory teaser, Michael Jackson uses bits of foreign languages to help create a mood or atmosphere. And the languages he uses have all – at some point in history – been rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication:  Swahili, Esperanto, Russian. Furthermore, the pieces seem to highlight different aspects of foreignness:  the exotic and alluring (Swahili), the unfamiliar and strange (Esperanto), the threatening and repulsing (Russian).

Willa:  And there’s another song that fits this pattern also:  “They Don’t Care about Us.” It begins with a woman saying “Michael, eles não ligam pra gente,” which is Portuguese for “Michael, they don’t care about us.” As you said of Swahili, Esperanto, and Russian, Bjørn, Portuguese is another language that has “at some point in history – been rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication.” Like England, Portugal was a powerful nation during the colonial era, and as a result, Portuguese is the official language of countries around the world, from Europe to South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Joie:  That’s very true, Willa. You know I think most people just think about Portuguese being spoken in Brazil and, of course, Portugal. But it’s actually the official language of many African nations, like Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bissau, and others. And, as you said, even in Southeast Asia. It’s interesting to think of it as “rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication,” because it really did at one point.

Willa:  And still does in some regions – like I didn’t realize it was so widespread in Africa. That’s interesting, Joie. And to get back to what you were saying, Bjørn, about the different emotional effect of each of these languages, the Portugese lines at the beginning of “They Don’t Care about Us” have always struck me as sorrowful, in an almost maternal way – like the sorrow of a mother who cares deeply for her children and has seen too many of them come to harm.

Bjørn: You opened up my eyes here, Willa and Joie! I have to confess I’ve never heard that Portuguese part before. I gave the song another listen, and couldn’t hear it – but then it occurred to me that it had to be in the video! I’m a great fan of Michael Jackson’s music, but a lot of his films I haven’t watched in their entirety. So, I went to YouTube, and heard that phrase spoken for the first time.

I wonder, though, to what extent Portuguese is being used to create an emotional effect, and to what extent it’s being used to evoke an idea of “Brazil” – after all, the film does take part in real-world Brazil (not a fantasy “Liberia”), where Portuguese is spoken as the main language.

Willa:  That’s a good point.

Bjørn:  But if we look at the emotions, I do agree with you, Willa, that it sounds like a caring mother speaking to her son. By the way, those people who like blaming MJ for having a “Jesus complex,” should take an extra look… In the exact same moment as the Brazilian mother figure says the name “Michael,” the camera pans to the famous Rio statue of Christ the Redeemer…

Willa:  Oh heavens, Bjørn!  You’re just trying to stir up trouble, aren’t you?

Bjørn: Well, yes and no, Willa. This being an academic discussion, I don’t think I’d do the readers any favor by censoring what I see! It’s a fact that the name and the statue appear at the same time, and I’d like to think it’s intentional. But okay, let’s save the interpretation of that for an ”MJ and religious symbolism” post!

So, in the four “foreign language songs” we’ve looked at so far, we’ve got an Esperanto-speaking worker, a Swahili-speaking lover, a Russian-speaking agent and a Brazilian-speaking mother… MJ himself, however, still sings in his native English. The foreign culture remains inaccessible and different. Interestingly, on a couple of occasions he did cross the border, so to speak. I’m of course thinking about the versions he did of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” in two of the world’s great international languages:  Spanish and French… What do you think about them?

Willa:  Well, my first reaction is that I love them – they are both exquisitely beautiful, I think. And it’s interesting for me to hear a Michael Jackson song the way non-English speakers must usually hear them – where the meaning comes not so much from the words he is singing but from the expressiveness of his voice.

Joie:  That’s an great point, Willa, one that I don’t often ponder. But it’s interesting to think about how non-English speakers perceive Michael’s music. Especially since his music is so very beloved all over the world. But you’re right that they must experience it much differently than native English speakers do.

You know I went through a similar phenomenon back in my teen years when I had a huge crush on the guys of the Puerto Rican boy band, Menudo. They would release albums in both Spanish and English, and oddly enough, I found that I really loved those Spanish speaking songs, even though my Spanish has never been all that great. To this day, I often find myself singing them.

Bjørn:  When I discovered Michael Jackson’s music as a child, I hardly understood anything he was singing. I just liked the sound of it! So I can certainly follow you there… “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” isn’t among my favorite MJ songs, but I agree it’s nice to hear him sing in Spanish (which I understand) and French (which I don’t really understand). Why did he choose this particular song, do you think? I mean, if it was to promote the Bad album in Spanish- and French-speaking countries, he could have handed the translators the song ”Bad”… (I just hear it: ¡Porque soy malo, soy malo!)

Willa:  That’s great, Bjørn! I’ll be thinking about that next time I hear, “Because I’m bad, I’m bad …”

So I don’t know why he chose “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” but it’s a beautiful song and it’s a duet – one of his few duets – and that would allow him to interact with someone while he was singing, someone fluent in Spanish or French. Maybe that’s part of why he chose this one. I don’t know about Spanish, but he did speak passable French. In fact, in the 1980s he was interviewed in French by a Montreal reporter, and he answered in French. And he loved Paris – he even named his daughter Paris. And of course he always liked to bridge boundaries, as we discussed at the beginning with Esperanto.

So thank you so much for joining us, Bjørn, and for adding a European, multilingual perspective!  We always love talking with you, and hope you’ll join us again soon.