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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa:  It really does, doesn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa:  That’s an excellent question …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The King of Pop and the Pope of Pop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa:  It really does, doesn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa:  That’s an excellent question …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Rewind 2013, Week 8: Stranger in Moscow

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on January 23, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Wandering in the Rain

Willa: So Joie, whenever I’m talking to someone about Michael Jackson’s videos, eventually I know they’re going to ask me the dreaded question – which one is my favorite? And that’s so hard for me to answer. It’s kind of like asking a grandmother which grandchild is her favorite. As any grandma will tell you, you love them all! And if you don’t feel as connected to some as others, maybe it’s because you simply don’t know them as well.

For example, You Rock My World made me very uncomfortable for a long time – it was a difficult child for me to warm up to. But after we talked about it a couple of times – in November and December 2011 – I came to see so many fascinating things in it that I hadn’t seen before, and came to understand it much better, and now I truly love it and enjoy watching it.

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that I don’t have a favorite Michael Jackson video – I really do love them all – but I have to admit that Stranger in Moscow holds a very special place for me. For one thing, it’s so beautiful: the ideas, the images, his amazing voice. I love everything about it.

Joie: I love this video too. To me, it is just visually stunning. I love to sit and really watch the special effects in this one; I always sit sort of mesmerized whenever it’s on. It’s very hypnotic in a way. You know, my cousin once said to me, ‘don’t watch that video, it’s so depressing!’ And I understand where she’s coming from, but I just couldn’t believe she said that because, to me, this video is just beautiful. A real feast for the eyes.

Willa: It really is, though I can see what your cousin was saying too. It seems to me he’s trying to convey his emotional state at that time, in the months immediately following the 1993 allegations, and that was a horrible time for him. As he tells us in the lyrics, he was “feeling insane,” like he’d had an “Armageddon of the brain.” It seems to me he’s encouraging us to imaginatively experience what he’s been going through to try to understand what that situation would be like – to sympathize with the Other, as he does in so much of his work. So the chorus is primarily the line “How does it feel” repeated over and over again:

How does it feel?
(How does it feel?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
(How does it feel now?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel
When you’re alone and cold inside,
Like a stranger in Moscow?

 

It seems pretty clear that he’s urging us to put ourselves in his position – as someone falsely accused of a terrible crime, and condemned for it around the world so there’s no escape from it. How would that feel? What would that situation be like?

Frank Cascio talks about this in his book, My Friend Michael: An Ordinary Friendship with an Extraordinary Man, and he quotes him as saying:

“I don’t think you realize … I have the whole world thinking I’m a child molester. You don’t know what it feels like to be falsely accused, to be called ‘Wacko Jacko.’ Day in and day out, I have to get up on that stage and perform, pretending everything is perfect. I give everything I have, I give the performance that everyone wants to see. Meanwhile, my character and reputation are under constant attack. When I step off that stage, people look at me as if I were a criminal.”

I don’t think we can even begin to comprehend what that was like for him, day after day, year after year, without let-up. We can try to understand it, but I don’t think we ever really can. But in Stranger in Moscow, he’s trying to give us a glimpse of what that experience was like for him.

And that’s important on a personal level – just as one human trying to understand another human – but it’s also important on a cultural level because over his career he became the human embodiment of Difference, of Otherness. So in a way, this video is asking the exact same question “Ben” asked 40 years ago: do we have the emotional capacity to sympathize with someone excluded and ridiculed and feared because he is marked as different? Can we see this situation from the outsider’s point of view? And “how does it feel” when we do that?

Joie: That’s a really compelling question, Willa. Can we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and look at their world from their perspective? We can certainly try, if our hearts and minds are in the right place, but you know, it’s not always an easy thing for some people to do. But it was almost like Michael understood that this was a difficult task for most people and so, he kept trying over and over to show us, through different songs, what that experience was like for him. In fact, you and I talked about it in depth back in the fall of 2011 when we discussed “Is It Scary.” And I said at the end of that post that I felt he had to be one of the bravest people ever to have the courage to hold his head up day after day in that situation and still be able to create the most beautiful, profound art and present it to a world that had turned on him. It’s just incredible to me.

Willa: Oh, I agree wholeheartedly. It took tremendous courage and self-reliance – and self-knowledge as well. He knew who he was, and he had the inner strength to believe in himself even after the world had turned against him. But it still must have been tremendously painful, and I think he’s exploring that in the opening scenes of Stranger in Moscow.

Joie: You know, Willa, I agree with you. This short film really does set a particular mood, right from the opening shots. But the song itself sets a certain mood as well, and I believe this is one of the rare videos where the images on the screen portray the song perfectly. Like “Dirty Diana.”

Willa: That’s an interesting point, Joie. Some of his videos really do go off in a different direction – like, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the Leave Me Alone video from listening to the song. But some are much closer, and with “Stranger in Moscow” there really are some direct correlations between what’s being said in the song and what’s happening on screen. For example, he sings “a beggar boy called my name” and suddenly the scene shifts to some street kids playing baseball. Then at the next interlude we hear a boy shout “Michael!” and see some kids running by. So in many ways the video enacts the lyrics of the song.

But I think this video also clarifies the song in important ways. For example, a number of critics called this song “paranoid” because he mentions the Kremlin and Stalin and says the “KGB was doggin’ me.” But as the video makes clear, he’s speaking in a metaphorical way. He feels like a “stranger in Moscow,” but the video is clearly set in the United States: the cars, the coffeeshop, the street signs, the phone booth are all American, and when the passerby flips a quarter to the homeless man on the street, it’s an American quarter. So he’s in the United States, his native country, but it’s become so alien to him that, emotionally, he feels like he’s living in a foreign country. That’s what it means to me when he says, “I’m living lonely, baby / Like a stranger in Moscow.” It reminds me of that line in “They Don’t Care about Us” where he says, “I can’t believe this is the land from which I came.” His home country has become so alien and unrecognizable to him, it no longer feels like home.

And it’s very important to realize that he isn’t the only person “living lonely” in this video. We also see other people in pain and somehow removed from the flow of life. This is visually represented by showing some of the suffering people behind glass – like the sad woman in the coffeeshop, seen through a glass wall, and the lonely man in his apartment, seen through his apartment window. It’s therefore significant, symbolically, when the glass breaks, and it’s significant that it’s children at play that break it.

To me, children are a subtle but crucially important presence in this video, in part because they bring about a shift in what’s happening. In fact, I see the street kids playing baseball and breaking the window as the climax of the film. You know, there’s this common misconception that the climax of a movie or novel is the most exciting part, but technically that isn’t what the word “climax” means when you’re analyzing literature or film. Instead, the climax is the turning point, the moment that determines the outcome of the story. Sometimes it’s exciting, but often it’s not – often it’s a quiet moment when the hero or heroine makes a fateful decision that determines which path he or she will follow, and how the story will ultimately end. For example, the climax of Star Wars isn’t the big battle scene at the end when Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star. It’s the sad scene much earlier when he discovers his aunt and uncle have been killed, and he decides to go with Ben and fight the Dark Side. That’s the turning point of Star Wars. And to me, the turning point, or climax, of Stranger in Moscow is when the street kids break the glass.

Joie: That’s very interesting, Willa. And I like what you said about the climax of a story or a film often being a quiet moment when a decision is made.

But I want to talk about what you just said about the people in pain in this video. You said that they are all somehow removed from the flow of life, and that’s really true. But I think all those shots of them seen through the glass walls or the windows are also meant to evoke a feeling of isolation and despair. That’s really the feeling that Michael Jackson is trying to get at in the song, I think.

How does it feel?
(How does it feel now?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel
When you’re alone and cold inside

Each of the people – the lonely man in his apartment, the sad woman in the coffeeshop, even the homeless man lying on the street and the teenaged boy watching the other kids play ball – they’re all very isolated and in some form of despair. And each time I watch this video, I always want to know more of the story, you know? Why isn’t the teenage boy playing ball with the other kids? What has that woman in the coffeeshop so upset? Why is that man shut up in his apartment all alone, and what’s the homeless man’s story? We know why Michael is feeling like a stranger in Moscow, but what about the rest of them?

Willa: That’s a really good point, Joie, and I think our inability to truly know what they’re going through, how they’re feeling and why they’re responding that way, just adds to the sense of isolation. We don’t know what they’re experiencing, we don’t know their pain, and that inability to truly understand the suffering of others is an important element of this video, I think. They’re “living lonely” too, just like he is, and that isolation adds to the pain. So once again we’re back to the central question: “How does it feel?”

Joie: And that is such an important point, Willa. They are “living lonely,” just like he is. And that makes us think about ourselves in a way. Unless we actively reach out to others and share our burdens, we’re all living just as lonely as those people in this short film. And that sense of isolation does add to the pain and the emotional suffering. And even sometimes when we’re surrounded by people who care about us, it’s still possible to feel as though you’re “living lonely.”

Willa: That’s true, Joie, and an important point as well. And sometimes when we’re hurting, we isolate ourselves. It’s like we need some alone time to recover and get our equilibrium back, but removing ourselves like that can cause problems as well.

Joie: You know, Willa, the end of this video sort of puzzles me. It never has before but, now that you and I are talking about it, I’m beginning to think about it in ways I never have. At the end of this one, all of those lonely, anguished people see the rain coming down and they go out and embrace it. They let go of their feelings of isolation for a brief moment and stand beneath the flow and let the rain wash over them. Nothing is resolved. But yet, they each seem to be soothed in some way by the action.

That’s not exactly how I would have expected this one to end. You would think that with the subject matter of this film, in the ending we would see all those isolated people finding one another and coming together. Or maybe joining family and friends so that they’re not so isolated any longer. But that’s not what happens here. What do you make of that?

Willa: That’s such a hard question. This is a really ambiguous video – one of his most ambiguous, I think. (That might be another reason I like it so much!) So it’s possible to interpret the ending many different ways, but he does offer some important clues. For example, before those suffering people step out into the rain, we see and hear children running in the rain. The man in his apartment hears their excited shouts, looks down through his window, and sees them and others running across the street. Then he reaches up, touches his window, and ultimately leaves his apartment and stands in the rain. The way this sequence is structured suggests it’s the children who inspired him to do that.

We see Michael Jackson inspired by the children as well. He’s sheltering himself under an awning when the children run past him, splashing through the puddles, and then he steps out into the rain. This is a really long sequence, with scenes of the children running in the rain repeatedly interspliced with scenes of Michael Jackson watching them run by, and of the other sad adults as well. There’s a distant shot of the children in the rain, then Michael Jackson watching them and singing “How does it feel?,” then a long clip of the children closer up, a quick shot of Michael Jackson again singing “How does it feel?,” another long slow-motion clip of the children closer still, the man in his apartment running his hand along the glass of his window as we hear “How does it feel?,” the homeless man reaching his hand out into the rain, Michael Jackson in the background with the children running by in front of him, the homeless man drenched with rain and his face uplifted, Michael Jackson and the children all on screen together, a back view of the children splashing through the rain, the businessman in the rain, a back view of Michael Jackson stepping into the rain, the homeless man, the business man, Michael Jackson, around and around and around.

I love this sequence and the way these images are interwoven. It’s very skillfully done, and again it reinforces the idea that children are a subtle but crucially important part of the story. And Joie, you’ll like this – in the final shot of the children, they’re holding hands.

But this raises another complicated question: what does the rain represent?

Joie: Now that is a really interesting question, Willa! What does the rain represent? You know, there are actually many, many possible answers to that question. Rain is a vital resource; it’s extremely important for life. It nurtures humans, animals and crops. Without it, we couldn’t survive. And in regions where not much rain falls, it can be symbolic of life and rebirth.

Rain can also be representative of blessings pouring down from heaven, and also of curses. In fact, according to the Bible, Noah built that ark for a reason, right? And it had never rained on the Earth before that time so, no wonder all the people thought Noah was completely crazy. Water fall from the sky? Yeah, right!

But I think in today’s modern world, rain often symbolizes tears and sadness and depression. But it also, a lot of times, is symbolic of an emotional cleansing or healing. And sometimes it even connotes an air of romance! So the possibilities are truly endless, Willa.

Willa: Wow, that’s a wonderful list, Joie! And you’re right, the rain can mean many different things. In fact, I think the meaning of the rain shifts over the course of the video, which is perhaps the main reason this video is so powerful to me. At the beginning, the rain seems to represent “tears and sadness and depression,” as you mentioned, Joie. As he sings in the opening verse,

I was wandering in the rain
Mask of life, feelin’ insane
Swift and sudden fall from grace
Sunny days seem far away
Kremlin’s shadow belittlin’ me
Stalin’s tomb won’t let me be
On and on and on it came
Wish the rain would just let me

So he clearly seems to be equating sunshine with happiness (“Sunny days seem far away”) and rain with the emotional torment he’s been going through (“On and on and on it came / Wish the rain would just let me be.”)

But then he sees the children running through the rain, and he begins to think differently about it. Those children inspire him to step out from under the awning and stop avoiding the rain, and he actually immerses himself in it – in fully experiencing the rain. He holds his arms out, throws his head back, and stands with his mouth open, drinking it in. That final scene with his face upturned and his mouth open, catching raindrops, always reminds me of someone taking communion. But the rain is also pouring down on his entire body, like a baptism, and he seems to experience it that way. So it feels to me at the end that the rain has become something physically and spiritually nurturing for him, “an emotional cleansing or healing,” as you put it so beautifully, Joie.

Joie: I agree with you, Willa; I think the meaning of the rain does change throughout the course of the short film, and we see that not only in Michael Jackson’s behavior but in the behavior of the others as well. The woman in the coffee shop, the old man in his apartment, the teenaged boy watching the other kids play ball. Even the homeless man on the street. They all decide to stand beneath the flow of the rain and allow that emotional cleansing or healing to wash over them.

Willa: That’s true, the meaning of the rain has changed for all of them – they all seem to gain spiritual renewal from the rain – and that’s a crucially important point. I’m so glad you brought that up, Joie. They all experience and benefit from that shift in the meaning of the rain, and that’s so moving for me, emotionally, and so fascinating, thematically.

You know, rain is just water droplets from the sky. It doesn’t “mean” anything, intrinsically, but we humans have invested it with tremendous meaning, and we have for centuries. Just like the color of our skin doesn’t mean anything, of itself, or the shape of our eyes, or a river between two regions designated as separate countries, or a multi-colored cloth waving on a flagpole, or a black piece of cloth worn on the head, or the length of our hair, or the style of our clothes, or the accent of our speech, or thousands of other signifiers. But we have imposed meaning on those arbitrary signs and made them carry meanings – including meanings that can be very harmful to us.

Importantly, we have the power to change those meanings – and Michael Jackson knew how to do it. I can’t emphasize enough how important that is. I think that, throughout his career, Michael Jackson was very focused on questioning and altering the connotative meaning, often negative meaning, carried by certain signifiers – just as he shifts the meaning of the rain in this video.

In fact, for me, Stranger in Moscow enacts in microcosm the central project of his entire career: to alter how we interpret and emotionally respond to arbitrary physical signs, just as he alters how the suffering people in Stranger in Moscow interpret and emotionally respond to the rain – from something negative that further isolates and oppresses them, to something positive that nourishes and revitalizes them. So to me, Stranger in Moscow has become a metaphor of his life’s work. This is what Michael Jackson’s work means to me, and this is why it’s so important and so powerful to me.

Actually, I’m going to push this even further. This isn’t just a metaphor for how I see Michael Jackson’s art, but how I have come to see art in general. Art has the power to significantly alter how we perceive and experience and make sense of our world – for example, to shift the meaning of the rain, or the meaning of our skin color, or our gender, or our nationality, or the accent of our voices, or a multitude of other signs – and I now see this as art’s highest purpose. And Joie, I came to that idea through Michael Jackson. He has revolutionized my ideas, not only about art, but how we as individuals experience our world. Those ideas are all represented for me by Stranger in Moscow and how he shifts the meaning of the rain.

Joie: That’s a very interesting idea, Willa. It certainly gives us a lot to think about. But whatever the meaning of the rain, or the significance of all those signifiers you just mentioned … Stranger in Moscow is one of Michael Jackson’s most profound short films. I think we can both agree on that point.

Wandering in the Rain

Willa:  So Joie, whenever I’m talking to someone about Michael Jackson’s videos, eventually I know they’re going to ask me the dreaded question – which one is my favorite? And that’s so hard for me to answer. It’s kind of like asking a grandmother which grandchild is her favorite. As any grandma will tell you, you love them all! And if you don’t feel as connected to some as others, maybe it’s because you simply don’t know them as well.

For example, You Rock My World made me very uncomfortable for a long time – it was a difficult child for me to warm up to. But after we talked about it a couple of times – in November and December 2011 – I came to see so many fascinating things in it that I hadn’t seen before, and came to understand it much better, and now I truly love it and enjoy watching it.

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that I don’t have a favorite Michael Jackson video – I really do love them all – but I have to admit that Stranger in Moscow holds a very special place for me. For one thing, it’s so beautiful:  the ideas, the images, his amazing voice. I love everything about it.

Joie:  I love this video too. To me, it is just visually stunning. I love to sit and really watch the special effects in this one; I always sit sort of mesmerized whenever it’s on. It’s very hypnotic in a way. You know, my cousin once said to me, ‘don’t watch that video, it’s so depressing!’ And I understand where she’s coming from, but I just couldn’t believe she said that because, to me, this video is just beautiful. A real feast for the eyes.

Willa:  It really is, though I can see what your cousin was saying too. It seems to me he’s trying to convey his emotional state at that time, in the months immediately following the 1993 allegations, and that was a horrible time for him. As he tells us in the lyrics, he was “feeling insane,” like he’d had an “Armageddon of the brain.” It seems to me he’s encouraging us to imaginatively experience what he’s been going through to try to understand what that situation would be like – to sympathize with the Other, as he does in so much of his work. So the chorus is primarily the line “How does it feel” repeated over and over again:

How does it feel?
(How does it feel?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
(How does it feel now?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel
When you’re alone and cold inside,
Like a stranger in Moscow?

 

It seems pretty clear that he’s urging us to put ourselves in his position – as someone falsely accused of a terrible crime, and condemned for it around the world so there’s no escape from it. How would that feel? What would that situation be like?

Frank Cascio talks about this in his book, My Friend Michael: An Ordinary Friendship with an Extraordinary Man, and he quotes him as saying:

“I don’t think you realize … I have the whole world thinking I’m a child molester. You don’t know what it feels like to be falsely accused, to be called ‘Wacko Jacko.’ Day in and day out, I have to get up on that stage and perform, pretending everything is perfect. I give everything I have, I give the performance that everyone wants to see. Meanwhile, my character and reputation are under constant attack. When I step off that stage, people look at me as if I were a criminal.”

I don’t think we can even begin to comprehend what that was like for him, day after day, year after year, without let-up. We can try to understand it, but I don’t think we ever really can. But in Stranger in Moscow, he’s trying to give us a glimpse of what that experience was like for him.

And that’s important on a personal level – just as one human trying to understand another human – but it’s also important on a cultural level because over his career he became the human embodiment of Difference, of Otherness. So in a way, this video is asking the exact same question “Ben” asked 40 years ago: do we have the emotional capacity to sympathize with someone excluded and ridiculed and feared because he is marked as different? Can we see this situation from the outsider’s point of view? And “how does it feel” when we do that?

Joie:  That’s a really compelling question, Willa. Can we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and look at their world from their perspective? We can certainly try, if our hearts and minds are in the right place, but you know, it’s not always an easy thing for some people to do. But it was almost like Michael understood that this was a difficult task for most people and so, he kept trying over and over to show us, through different songs, what that experience was like for him. In fact, you and I talked about it in depth back in the fall of 2011 when we discussed “Is It Scary.” And I said at the end of that post that I felt he had to be one of the bravest people ever to have the courage to hold his head up day after day in that situation and still be able to create the most beautiful, profound art and present it to a world that had turned on him. It’s just incredible to me.

Willa:  Oh, I agree wholeheartedly. It took tremendous courage and self-reliance – and self-knowledge as well. He knew who he was, and he had the inner strength to believe in himself even after the world had turned against him. But it still must have been tremendously painful, and I think he’s exploring that in the opening scenes of Stranger in Moscow.

Joie:  You know, Willa, I agree with you. This short film really does set a particular mood, right from the opening shots. But the song itself sets a certain mood as well, and I believe this is one of the rare videos where the images on the screen portray the song perfectly. Like “Dirty Diana.”

Willa:  That’s an interesting point, Joie. Some of his videos really do go off in a different direction – like, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the Leave Me Alone video from listening to the song. But some are much closer, and with “Stranger in Moscow” there really are some direct correlations between what’s being said in the song and what’s happening on screen. For example, he sings “a beggar boy called my name” and suddenly the scene shifts to some street kids playing baseball. Then at the next interlude we hear a boy shout “Michael!” and see some kids running by. So in many ways the video enacts the lyrics of the song.

But I think this video also clarifies the song in important ways. For example, a number of critics called this song “paranoid” because he mentions the Kremlin and Stalin and says the “KGB was doggin’ me.” But as the video makes clear, he’s speaking in a metaphorical way. He feels like a “stranger in Moscow,” but the video is clearly set in the United States: the cars, the coffeeshop, the street signs, the phone booth are all American, and when the passerby flips a quarter to the homeless man on the street, it’s an American quarter. So he’s in the United States, his native country, but it’s become so alien to him that, emotionally, he feels like he’s living in a foreign country. That’s what it means to me when he says, “I’m living lonely, baby / Like a stranger in Moscow.” It reminds me of that line in “They Don’t Care about Us” where he says, “I can’t believe this is the land from which I came.” His home country has become so alien and unrecognizable to him, it no longer feels like home.

And it’s very important to realize that he isn’t the only person “living lonely” in this video.  We also see other people in pain and somehow removed from the flow of life. This is visually represented by showing some of the suffering people behind glass – like the sad woman in the coffeeshop, seen through a glass wall, and the lonely man in his apartment, seen through his apartment window. It’s therefore significant, symbolically, when the glass breaks, and it’s significant that it’s children at play that break it.

To me, children are a subtle but crucially important presence in this video, in part because they bring about a shift in what’s happening. In fact, I see the street kids playing baseball and breaking the window as the climax of the film. You know, there’s this common misconception that the climax of a movie or novel is the most exciting part, but technically that isn’t what the word “climax” means when you’re analyzing literature or film. Instead, the climax is the turning point, the moment that determines the outcome of the story. Sometimes it’s exciting, but often it’s not – often it’s a quiet moment when the hero or heroine makes a fateful decision that determines which path he or she will follow, and how the story will ultimately end. For example, the climax of Star Wars isn’t the big battle scene at the end when Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star. It’s the sad scene much earlier when he discovers his aunt and uncle have been killed, and he decides to go with Ben and fight the Dark Side. That’s the turning point of Star Wars. And to me, the turning point, or climax, of Stranger in Moscow is when the street kids break the glass.

Joie:  That’s very interesting, Willa. And I like what you said about the climax of a story or a film often being a quiet moment when a decision is made.

But I want to talk about what you just said about the people in pain in this video. You said that they are all somehow removed from the flow of life, and that’s really true. But I think all those shots of them seen through the glass walls or the windows are also meant to evoke a feeling of isolation and despair. That’s really the feeling that Michael Jackson is trying to get at in the song, I think.

How does it feel?
(How does it feel now?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel
When you’re alone and cold inside

Each of the people – the lonely man in his apartment, the sad woman in the coffeeshop, even the homeless man lying on the street and the teenaged boy watching the other kids play ball – they’re all very isolated and in some form of despair. And each time I watch this video, I always want to know more of the story, you know? Why isn’t the teenage boy playing ball with the other kids? What has that woman in the coffeeshop so upset? Why is that man shut up in his apartment all alone, and what’s the homeless man’s story? We know why Michael is feeling like a stranger in Moscow, but what about the rest of them?

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Joie, and I think our inability to truly know what they’re going through, how they’re feeling and why they’re responding that way, just adds to the sense of isolation. We don’t know what they’re experiencing, we don’t know their pain, and that inability to truly understand the suffering of others is an important element of this video, I think. They’re “living lonely” too, just like he is, and that isolation adds to the pain. So once again we’re back to the central question: “How does it feel?”

Joie:  And that is such an important point, Willa. They are “living lonely,” just like he is. And that makes us think about ourselves in a way. Unless we actively reach out to others and share our burdens, we’re all living just as lonely as those people in this short film. And that sense of isolation does add to the pain and the emotional suffering. And even sometimes when we’re surrounded by people who care about us, it’s still possible to feel as though you’re “living lonely.”

Willa:  That’s true, Joie, and an important point as well. And sometimes when we’re hurting, we isolate ourselves. It’s like we need some alone time to recover and get our equilibrium back, but removing ourselves like that can cause problems as well.

Joie:  You know, Willa, the end of this video sort of puzzles me. It never has before but, now that you and I are talking about it, I’m beginning to think about it in ways I never have. At the end of this one, all of those lonely, anguished people see the rain coming down and they go out and embrace it. They let go of their feelings of isolation for a brief moment and stand beneath the flow and let the rain wash over them. Nothing is resolved. But yet, they each seem to be soothed in some way by the action.

That’s not exactly how I would have expected this one to end. You would think that with the subject matter of this film, in the ending we would see all those isolated people finding one another and coming together. Or maybe joining family and friends so that they’re not so isolated any longer. But that’s not what happens here. What do you make of that?

Willa:  That’s such a hard question. This is a really ambiguous video – one of his most ambiguous, I think. (That might be another reason I like it so much!) So it’s possible to interpret the ending many different ways, but he does offer some important clues. For example, before those suffering people step out into the rain, we see and hear children running in the rain. The man in his apartment hears their excited shouts, looks down through his window, and sees them and others running across the street. Then he reaches up, touches his window, and ultimately leaves his apartment and stands in the rain. The way this sequence is structured suggests it’s the children who inspired him to do that.

We see Michael Jackson inspired by the children as well. He’s sheltering himself under an awning when the children run past him, splashing through the puddles, and then he steps out into the rain. This is a really long sequence, with scenes of the children running in the rain repeatedly interspliced with scenes of Michael Jackson watching them run by, and of the other sad adults as well. There’s a distant shot of the children in the rain, then Michael Jackson watching them and singing “How does it feel?,” then a long clip of the children closer up, a quick shot of Michael Jackson again singing “How does it feel?,” another long slow-motion clip of the children closer still, the man in his apartment running his hand along the glass of his window as we hear “How does it feel?,” the homeless man reaching his hand out into the rain, Michael Jackson in the background with the children running by in front of him, the homeless man drenched with rain and his face uplifted, Michael Jackson and the children all on screen together, a back view of the children splashing through the rain, the businessman in the rain, a back view of Michael Jackson stepping into the rain, the homeless man, the business man, Michael Jackson, around and around and around.

I love this sequence and the way these images are interwoven. It’s very skillfully done, and again it reinforces the idea that children are a subtle but crucially important part of the story. And Joie, you’ll like this – in the final shot of the children, they’re holding hands.

But this raises another complicated question: what does the rain represent?

Joie:  Now that is a really interesting question, Willa!  What does the rain represent? You know, there are actually many, many possible answers to that question. Rain is a vital resource; it’s extremely important for life. It nurtures humans, animals and crops. Without it, we couldn’t survive. And in regions where not much rain falls, it can be symbolic of life and rebirth.

Rain can also be representative of blessings pouring down from heaven, and also of curses. In fact, according to the Bible, Noah built that ark for a reason, right? And it had never rained on the Earth before that time so, no wonder all the people thought Noah was completely crazy. Water fall from the sky? Yeah, right!

But I think in today’s modern world, rain often symbolizes tears and sadness and depression. But it also, a lot of times, is symbolic of an emotional cleansing or healing. And sometimes it even connotes an air of romance! So the possibilities are truly endless, Willa.

Willa:  Wow, that’s a wonderful list, Joie! And you’re right, the rain can mean many different things. In fact, I think the meaning of the rain shifts over the course of the video, which is perhaps the main reason this video is so powerful to me. At the beginning, the rain seems to represent “tears and sadness and depression,” as you mentioned, Joie.  As he sings in the opening verse,

I was wandering in the rain
Mask of life, feelin’ insane
Swift and sudden fall from grace
Sunny days seem far away
Kremlin’s shadow belittlin’ me
Stalin’s tomb won’t let me be
On and on and on it came
Wish the rain would just let me

So he clearly seems to be equating sunshine with happiness (“Sunny days seem far away”) and rain with the emotional torment he’s been going through (“On and on and on it came / Wish the rain would just let me be.”)

But then he sees the children running through the rain, and he begins to think differently about it. Those children inspire him to step out from under the awning and stop avoiding the rain, and he actually immerses himself in it – in fully experiencing the rain. He holds his arms out, throws his head back, and stands with his mouth open, drinking it in. That final scene with his face upturned and his mouth open, catching raindrops, always reminds me of someone taking communion. But the rain is also pouring down on his entire body, like a baptism, and he seems to experience it that way. So it feels to me at the end that the rain has become something physically and spiritually nurturing for him, “an emotional cleansing or healing,” as you put it so beautifully, Joie.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa; I think the meaning of the rain does change throughout the course of the short film, and we see that not only in Michael Jackson’s behavior but in the behavior of the others as well. The woman in the coffee shop, the old man in his apartment, the teenaged boy watching the other kids play ball. Even the homeless man on the street. They all decide to stand beneath the flow of the rain and allow that emotional cleansing or healing to wash over them.

Willa:  That’s true, the meaning of the rain has changed for all of them – they all seem to gain spiritual renewal from the rain – and that’s a crucially important point. I’m so glad you brought that up, Joie. They all experience and benefit from that shift in the meaning of the rain, and that’s so moving for me, emotionally, and so fascinating, thematically.

You know, rain is just water droplets from the sky. It doesn’t “mean” anything, intrinsically, but we humans have invested it with tremendous meaning, and we have for centuries. Just like the color of our skin doesn’t mean anything, of itself, or the shape of our eyes, or a river between two regions designated as separate countries, or a multi-colored cloth waving on a flagpole, or a black piece of cloth worn on the head, or the length of our hair, or the style of our clothes, or the accent of our speech, or thousands of other signifiers. But we have imposed meaning on those arbitrary signs and made them carry meanings – including meanings that can be very harmful to us.

Importantly, we have the power to change those meanings – and Michael Jackson knew how to do it. I can’t emphasize enough how important that is. I think that, throughout his career, Michael Jackson was very focused on questioning and altering the connotative meaning, often negative meaning, carried by certain signifiers – just as he shifts the meaning of the rain in this video.

In fact, for me, Stranger in Moscow enacts in microcosm the central project of his entire career: to alter how we interpret and emotionally respond to arbitrary physical signs, just as he alters how the suffering people in Stranger in Moscow interpret and emotionally respond to the rain – from something negative that further isolates and oppresses them, to something positive that nourishes and revitalizes them. So to me, Stranger in Moscow has become a metaphor of his life’s work. This is what Michael Jackson’s work means to me, and this is why it’s so important and so powerful to me.

Actually, I’m going to push this even further. This isn’t just a metaphor for how I see Michael Jackson’s art, but how I have come to see art in general. Art has the power to significantly alter how we perceive and experience and make sense of our world – for example, to shift the meaning of the rain, or the meaning of our skin color, or our gender, or our nationality, or the accent of our voices, or a multitude of other signs – and I now see this as art’s highest purpose. And Joie, I came to that idea through Michael Jackson. He has revolutionized my ideas, not only about art, but how we as individuals experience our world. Those ideas are all represented for me by Stranger in Moscow and how he shifts the meaning of the rain.

Joie:  That’s a very interesting idea, Willa. It certainly gives us a lot to think about. But whatever the meaning of the rain, or the significance of all those signifiers you just mentioned … Stranger in Moscow is one of Michael Jackson’s most profound short films. I think we can both agree on that point.

Man in the Music: Joe Vogel’s Masterpiece

Joie:  Earlier this month, something truly wonderful happened. An event that I had been waiting anxiously for, for several months. Author Joe Vogel’s long-awaited book, Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson was being released on November 1st and I had gotten the great pleasure of interviewing Joe for MJFC back in May. But even long before our interview, I was so excited about this book and I really pushed for an interview with him because I knew it was going to be something special.

I had been a casual fan of Joe’s for some time and I had read many of his articles about Michael Jackson on the Huffington Post. What I liked about Joe’s writing was that I always came away from one of his articles with the sense that he was a lot like me – just a student of pop culture who happened to be a Michael Jackson fan. His insights were really fresh and inspired and I found his writing style sort of ‘down-to-earth’ and real, and reading one of his articles was always a treat for me. So, when I first heard about this book, I was crazy excited about it for two reasons:  first, like I said, I was a fan. And second, it had never been done before. This is a book whose time had not only come, but was LONG overdue! And I knew that if anyone could do this book justice, it would be Joe Vogel; so I was extremely excited. In fact, after Joe granted me the interview for MJFC, I think I may have become sort of a mini-stalker, repeatedly asking him if there was anything I or MJFC could do to help promote the book. He may actually be a little bit afraid of me right now; I’m like a Man in the Music groupie.

Willa:  I don’t know, Joie. Joe seems pretty steady to me. I think it might take more than a Man in the Music groupie to rattle him…. But seriously, I know what you mean – I love Joe’s book as well, especially the level of detail he provides about how every song of every album was meticulously created.

But the part I love most was entirely unexpected and, for me, a wonderful reaffirmation of the strength of Michael Jackson’s creative spirit:  it was the very different look it provides of his creative life in his later years, particularly after the 2005 trial. Joe’s book completely contradicts the prevailing view of this period of his life. The narrative that has been repeated over and over depicts a man so hounded and harassed he was unable to stay in one place for more than a few weeks, unable to trust anyone, unable to work – just simply too hassled and distracted to create.

But Joe’s book paints an entirely different portrait of this later period of his life. What we see in Joe’s book is an extremely gifted, creative, and dedicated artist deeply engaged with a network of artists around the world, working collaboratively to produce exceptional work. In fact, Joe suggests that this later period was arguably the most productive of his life, even though very little of this work was released to the public.

Joie, I don’t know if this makes sense or not, but reading that part of Joe’s book made me so happy – it’s like I felt this load of grief lifting off me as I read it that I hadn’t even realized was there. I guess we all deal with grief in different ways, and for some fans, Dr. Murray’s conviction was able to bring about some sort of resolution, but that didn’t help me at all. I think in some ways I started writing M Poetica out of a need to try to deal with it. I think Michael Jackson’s work is so incredible, but nothing I was reading in the mainstream media even remotely corresponded with how I felt about him and his music and his visual art and what they meant to me, and that lack of appreciation added another layer of tragedy to the situation. So I started writing about how I saw things, and it did help me work through the sorrow of it all. But nothing has helped me as much as “The Final Years” section of Joe’s book.

To me, Michael Jackson’s creativity was the guiding principle of his life. People betrayed him over and over again, but that creative spirit never did. It was always there for him, nurturing and sustaining him. He said in numerous interviews that he was most happy when he was creating and performing, and that he was most comfortable in a studio or on stage, expressing that creative energy and letting it flow through him. That’s why all those reports of a person too harassed and distraught to create were so troubling to me. But Joe’s book gave me the reassurance I needed that, even after the 2005 trial and all the other horrors of those later years, that creative spirit was still there for him and stronger than ever.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that he was still very much engaged in the act of creating beautiful music even then. And you’re right, we do all grieve in different ways so, it makes perfect sense to me that this section of Joe’s book would be sort of cathartic for you. I found it reassuring as well. Joe tells us that, not only was Michael in good spirits during that time but, he was also determined and excited about the work he was producing. I only wish that we could hear some of the music he was working on during that time, especially the classical album!

Willa:  I agree. You know, I had heard rumors that he was trying his hand at composing classical music, but I had no idea he was so involved with that, or had a work so near completion. According to Joe’s book, all the parts for all the different instruments are pretty much worked out – it just needs to be recorded. Composer David Michael Frank, who was collaborating on the project, talked to Joe about it:

“I hope one day his family will decide to record this music as a tribute,” Frank concluded, “and show the world the depth of his artistry…. I told Michael I was going to use one of Leonard Bernstein’s batons I had bought at auction when we did the recording. I knew he would have gotten a big kick out of that.”

I hope they do too. I would love to hear it. And can you imagine if David Michael Frank conducted the orchestra holding one of Leonard Bernstein’s batons with a white sequined glove? What a wonderful metaphor that would be, and a great image as well.

Joie:  I agree. I’m a fan of classical music myself and I think I would give just about anything to hear the classical music Michael composed; I would love that so much!

But getting back to what you were saying about his creative spirit, Michael himself often said that he never stopped working; no matter what was going on in his life, he never stopped creating. And I just love this quote from recording engineer Matt Forger from Man in the Music. He said,

“With Michael, he never stopped creating. He wasn’t an artist who said, ‘Oh I’ve got an album coming up, I better start writing songs.’ The songs were constantly flowing from him, and if it wasn’t a song it was a poem, it was an idea for a story or a short film… It was a constant creative process.”

So it was as if life itself was a constant creative process for him and I find that fascinating!

Willa:  Absolutely, and Joe really emphasizes that in his book, like with this example:

“According to Quincy Jones, Jackson was ‘writing music like a machine’ during this period. He had begun composing songs as soon as Off the Wall was finished. In fact, Thriller‘s first track, ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,’ had been written and recorded during the Off the Wall sessions.”

Joe italicizes “during,” as if he can’t quite believe it. It’s like the songs are coming in such a torrent he’s starting work on Thriller while still recording Off the Wall.

Joie:  I wonder if all great artists exist this way, where the art – whether its music or painting or poetry or whatever – just seems to pour out of them. I’m fascinated by that thought.

But, for me, what makes Joe’s book so special is the fact that it goes into such delicious detail for every single song of each album. Even giving info on many songs that were left off the albums. It’s almost like he’s giving you the chance to go into the studio and sit quietly by, watching as the entire album takes shape, as if you’re right there watching Michael work! That’s the feeling I get every time I open it up and begin to read. There has never been another book out there like it. It’s not merely a critique of Michael’s work; it’s more like a novel, a reference guide, a history text and a critical assessment all rolled into one. There is SO much information here, just a wealth of musical knowledge and insight into the creative mind and character of the greatest entertainer that ever lived. This book is incredible! And I love the fact that it never once strays into that uncomfortable territory of sensationalism and tabloid fodder that most other authors can never seem to resist when talking about Michael Jackson. But Joe never goes there; he remains completely professional and true to the subject – which is examining Michael’s craft.

Willa:  I know what you mean about feeling like you’re peeking inside the studio as he’s working, and discovering what that environment was like. I’ve never been in a recording studio so that was entirely new territory for me, and it was so interesting. For one thing, I never realized just how many people are involved in making an album. It may be one person’s vision – and Joe makes clear that every track of every album was a reflection of Michael Jackson’s own artistic vision  – but it really is a huge collaborative effort. And for me, that explodes another myth, which is that Michael Jackson was isolated and alone for most of his life, disconnected from the world around him. Obviously his fame had a huge impact on his life, but all that seems to drop away in the studio. He had many warm, strong, enduring relationships with people he worked with on song after song for years, even decades.

Joie:  You’re right, it is a real collaborative effort, and what was astonishing for me to learn is how technical it all is. I’ve never been in a recording studio either and I was surprised to learn how involved Michael really was with the whole process. You know, he didn’t just go into the studio and sing the lyrics and then let everyone else do the rest. He was totally hands on throughout the entire process from start to finish, and he really knew exactly what he wanted from each person working with him, and what he wanted the final product to sound like. Here’s another quote from Man in the Music, this time from long-time collaborator, Bill Bottrell. He said,

“He has precise musical instincts. He has an entire record in his head and he tries to make people deliver it to him. Sometimes those people surprise him and augment what he hears, but really his job is to extract from musicians and producers and engineers what he hears when he wakes up in the morning.”

Willa:  And sometimes he takes matters into his own hands. I remember hearing an interview with him one time where he said he worked on the bass line of “Billie Jean” for a solid week. He said that distinctive bass line is so important to the mood of that song – it’s like the foundation everything else is built on – so he worked and worked on it to get it just right.

Joie:  I also think it’s really interesting that Michael always had this great love of sounds. He said many times that he just loved discovering new sounds and taking random sounds and putting them under the microscope and manipulating them and dissecting them. He obviously had a great ear for sound and in Man in the Music, Joe tells us that he even created an entire song out of sounds. Before reading this book I never knew that “She Drives Me Wild” was made up entirely from random street sounds! Joe tells us,

“‘She Drives Me Wild’ further extends this interest [in using everyday sounds to create compelling music]…. In place of traditional instruments, Jackson develops an entire rhythm track from car horns, engines, sirens, slamming doors, and other ‘noises’ from the street. ‘Even the bass is a  car horn,’ says Teddy Riley.”

Willa:  Isn’t that amazing?  I had to go back and listen to “She Drives Me Wild” after reading that. I was really struck by this ongoing focus on found sounds too, especially since Ultravioletrae had posted comments about that very topic recently, especially the use of animal sounds and industrial sounds. As she wrote about “Unbreakable,”

Many MJ songs feature the sound of air, wind, breath as percussion or sound scape or expressive vocalization. At the bridge in “Unbreakable” we hear the artificial sound of gasping for air through an oxygen mask as if on life support. Chilling. And in the very opening intro sound scape, we hear the purr of an engine moving around in sonic space but layered on top is the sound of a cat purr, cat being another common symbol throughout his work…. This happens all throughout the work. What is the sonic message?

I’m really intrigued by this now and think it would be really fun to look at it in more depth sometime – at how he used different found sounds over the years, and the different soundscapes he created with them, and the ideas and emotions he was conveying with those sounds.

And this wasn’t a passing interest for him. On album after album, he says he wants to create “sounds the ear has never heard” before. I think Joe has that idea quoted three different times from three different sources working on three different albums. It was like a career-long mantra for Michael Jackson – to push the envelope and create entirely new sounds and new ways of engaging with music.

Joie:  You know, Willa, I just finished reading another new book that was released recently by Michael’s long-time friend, Frank Cascio, and he actually talks a little about Michael’s obsession with finding new sounds too. Cascio says that when Michael was working on Invincible, he urged producer Rodney Jerkins to “Hit on random rocks or toys. Put a bunch of glass in a bag, add a mic to it, and throw it around.” He goes on to say,

“I had seen Michael play around with this kind of sound creation himself…. Once, we put a mic in a bag with rocks, toys and some small pieces of metal, taped it to the outside of a DAT machine cushioned in bubble wrap, and threw the whole contraption down the stairs. Michael then proceeded to take all the sounds from inside that bag, put them across a keyboard, mix them, and tune them. On Invincible, you can hear those one-of-a-kind sounds on “Invincible,” “Heartbreaker,” “Unbreakable,” and “Threatened.”

This is something that Man in the Music hits on as well, as Joe tells us that the “wildly ricocheting beats and sounds” on the song “Heartbreaker” feels like “a mad scientist” has gotten loose in the studio. Then he goes on to quote Michael, who said,

“A lot of the sounds on the album aren’t sounds from keyboards…. We go out and make our own sounds. We hit on things, we beat on things, so nobody can duplicate what we do. We make them with our own hands, we find things and we create things. And that’s the most important thing, to be a pioneer. To be an innovator.”

So, it was not a passing fancy for him; it was more like a life-long obsession. In fact, I believe that in his own book, Dancing the Dream, Michael talks about how he hears music in everything, in every part of nature. He writes,

“People ask me how I make music. I tell them I just step into it. It’s like stepping into a river and joining the flow. Every moment in the river has its song. So I stay in the moment and listen…. As long as I can listen to the moment, I’ll always have music.”

To me, this says that Michael had the ability to hear music in absolutely everything – a car horn, the crunch of leaves in the fall, the sound of the wind rustling through the trees, even a baby’s cry or his children’s laughter. I bet, if we could ask him right now, he would tell us that this was true.

Willa:  I think you’re right, Joie, and I think he tried hard to share that with us so that we could begin hearing the music of the world around us as well – both the natural world, as Joe describes so well in the “lush production” of “Break of Dawn”  (“It is as natural and beautiful as the birdsong that unobtrusively appears throughout the track”) and the man-made world, as we hear in that pounding opening trilogy of Invincible.

Joe’s book also shows that sometimes he incorporated these found sounds as is, and sometimes he experimented with them in the studio to push the envelope even further. As Michael Jackson himself says,

“I like to take sounds and put them under the microscope and just talk about how we can manipulate the character of it.”

And he didn’t just innovate in the studio. He was also constantly thinking about how to use new technology to share his music and ideas with his audience. In the 1980s, this new technology was MTV and the music video. In the 2000s, it was the Internet and music streaming and, according to Joe, he had a plan worked out for how to harness that technology to promote his next album, especially since he couldn’t count on Sony to promote it for him:

“He also had a unique plan in store for the new music’s release…. [H]is vision was to finish many of the tracks while his concerts were going in London and release them one-by-one as singles, not as a full album. It was a brilliant idea. Jackson, as always, was keenly attuned to the music industry and felt this was the ideal way to disseminate his music in the age of digital downloading. He also realized that with the publicity generated by his ongoing stay at the biggest venue in the world, the anticipation for each new song would be huge. Rather than give critics a chance to immediately dismiss his new album as a flop, he’d outsmart them by having hit single after hit single.”

Joie:  Yeah, I read that and was amazed. What an incredibly brilliant idea that was! Especially since he was sort of a “free agent” at that time, the biggest artist in the world without a record deal.

Willa, this book of Joe’s is really the greatest comprehensive work on Michael Jackson’s solo career that we have ever seen. Honestly, I can’t think of any other book out there that rivals it. The only one that even comes close is Adrian Grant’s Michael Jackson: The Visual Documentary, which many fans refer to as ‘the Bible’ because it’s so all-encompassing. But that book, though incredible, is completely different from Man in the Music because it doesn’t solely focus on Michael’s art or even attempt to look at it in any real or meaningful way; it’s merely a reference guide. There is also Cadman and Halstead’s Michael Jackson: For the Record, which is a wonderful book with lots of great information on chart placings and such for each song – beginning in the early Motown days – but again, it doesn’t really go into the extreme detail that Joe does. It’s also strictly a reference guide, whereas Man in the Music is so much more than that. So, actually, in terms of providing an in-depth look at Michael’s adult solo work – the creation of each song on each album and the possible meanings behind them – Joe’s book really has no equal. It’s just amazing. You know, I am so devoted to this book that I intend to ‘Pay Michael Forward’ for Christmas this year. Everyone on my list is getting a copy!