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Michael Jackson and “Choreographic Versioning”

Lisha: This week, Willa and I are delighted to be joined by dance scholar Elizabeth June Bergman. For the past five years Elizabeth’s fascination with Michael Jackson has produced a small body of research in MJ Dance Studies. She is currently furthering her work on Jackson as a doctoral student in the Dance Studies program at Temple University. Elizabeth also holds an MFA in dance performance from the University of Iowa (2009). She has taught a range of dance and somatic forms including yoga, ballet, modern, and improvisation as well as dance history and theory courses.

Last fall, I caught up with Elizabeth at the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association conference, where she gave a fascinating presentation titled “Allusions, Citations, and Cultural Literacy: Michael Jackson’s Choreographic Versioning.” We had such a wonderful conversation about MJ and “choreographic versioning” that I can’t wait to talk about it more with her today! Welcome, Elizabeth.

Willa:  Yes, thanks so much for joining us, Elizabeth. I’m very excited to hear about your work.

Elizabeth:  Thank you so much for having me. I am a longtime follower of Dancing with the Elephant and am so honored to join the conversation. I’ve been presenting short papers on Michael Jackson’s dance work at academic conferences since 2012 and am now relishing the mentorship and organizational structure that a doctoral program contributes to my expanding project on Jackson as a dancer and dancemaker.

Lisha:  That’s so wonderful to hear. I had a look at your impressive list of academic research on Michael Jackson and I have to say, I think you are doing really important work. Of all the pressing research that needs to be done on Michael Jackson, this is probably at the top of list, in my opinion.

Willa:  I agree. There’s a growing body of research on Michael Jackson’s music, short films, and even his persona, but it seems like the scholarship on his dance is lagging behind. So the kind of analysis you’re doing, Elizabeth, is really important, I think.

Lisha:  So to get started, would you like to explain a little bit about what you mean by the term “choreographic versioning”?

Elizabeth: Yes, “choreographic versioning” is the term I’ve recently been using to frame Jackson’s citations and homages to entertainers and artists such as James Brown, Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, etc. I was prompted to write about this last spring after reading some user comments on this YouTube “mash up” video of Bob Fosse performing as The Snake in 1974’s The Little Prince set to MJ’s Billie Jean:

Lisha: That is such an exquisite performance! I’ve read many times that Michael Jackson was quite the fan of this film. While I definitely see some very Jacksonesque movement there, I don’t know exactly how to put my finger on it.

Willa:  I agree. There are some poses that seem like exact “quotations,” like this one 2:54 minutes in:

Fosse 254

We’ve all seen Michael Jackson strike a similar pose in “Billie Jean.” Here’s a video that places some of those iconic poses side by side:

There’s also his costume. Fosse’s black hat (though it’s a bowler, not a fedora) and his white spats covered in glittery rhinestones against the black pants and shoes – that all seems very similar to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” wardrobe.

But more than the specific poses or the costume, there’s something about the way Bob Fosse moves, and the way he inhabits his body – the way he fully extends his arms, for example, or bends his knees, or shuffles his feet. There’s even a bit of a moonwalk beginning at 4:20 in the video you shared, Elizabeth. But I don’t know how to really explain the resemblance.

Elizabeth: Willa, your observations are incredibly perceptive! It is tricky to articulate exactly which of Fosse’s specific qualities and movements influenced Jackson since Jackson’s style was so hybridized, but I see an elegant angularity, instances of outstretched arms and rhythmic isolated accentuations of neck, shoulders, head, and pelvis, the series of backwards shuffling steps you mentioned, certain akimbo poses, and of course the jauntily tipped hat and glove-covered jazz hands in Fosse’s Snake choreography as being part of what Jackson might have intentionally borrowed.

Willa: The “jazz hands”! Yes, I know exactly what you mean.

Elizabeth: Of course, Fosse was also inspired by Astaire, so some of those attributes I just mentioned could easily reflect back to Astaire and his influences. The video made its point however: Jackson was clearly influenced by Fosse’s style and movement vocabulary. This was not news: Jackson was vocal about his interest in Fosse’s work. Here’s a screen grab I found on the internet from the Bad 25 documentary (at about 1:23:43) of a note penned by Jackson:

MJ handwritten note to study the greats

Willa: Wow, that’s wonderful! I don’t remember seeing that note before, but it shows that Michael Jackson was very conscientious about “study[ing] the greats” and choosing specific traditions and choreography to create certain moods or feelings. For example, he said in this 1999 MTV interview that he thought the zombie dance in Thriller should start with “a jazzy step” to create the right mood. And the note you shared, Elizabeth, shows he knew exactly where to look for inspiration for the Smooth Criminal choreography.

I’ve often read that he was a “natural” or “intuitive” dancer, which is true to some extent, I think – even Michael Jackson himself suggested that dancing required something innate, something you’re born with. But it overlooks the fact that he was also a scholar of dance and very deliberately drew inspiration from some of the best: James Brown, Fred Astaire, Jackie Wilson, Bob Fosse, even Marcel Marceau.

Elizabeth: Jackson was incredibly gifted as a mover and musician, especially in terms of rhythmic acuity. But as you point out, he was an astute student! Coming from a dance background myself, I find the term “natural” with regards to dance somewhat problematic, especially when considering the historical baggage thrust upon black dancers in the United States. Any kind of dancing is learned, whether in a social or familial setting or via a student-teacher or mentoring relationship.

I think my hesitance about framing Jackson’s dancing this way stems from my understanding of how saying something is “natural” potentially denies the labor and intelligence required for learning and mastering. It’s true Jackson didn’t grow up attending what is typically viewed as “formal” dance classes and that he did talk about dancing as requiring something innate, but my point in troubling these terms is meant to highlight his incredible acts of labor and the keen intelligence that he brought into learning dance techniques – either by mimicking the moves of James Brown he saw on TV as a child or the time he spent in the studio with, say, Bruno “Pop n Taco” Falcon or any of the other dancer/choreographers he worked with over the years.

But I digress! We were talking about Jackson’s “choreographic versioning,” which I’ll explain in more detail in a moment. It was not just the YouTube video of Jackson/Fosse that started my thinking on this, but it was the title of another YouTube video featuring the same The Little Prince footage, “Michael Jackson’s Famed Style and Moves are Fosse Knock-offs,” that got under my skin.

Lisha: I have to say, that title bothers me as well.

Elizabeth: Right?! The YouTube user who posted and titled the video doesn’t necessarily have a nuanced understanding of the history of racial politics in American entertainment and popular culture. I understand Bob Fosse to be part of the tradition of American popular and theatrical dance of borrowing, riffing on, and appropriating movements from vernacular dances as well as other theatrical artists. In his performance and choreographic career, Fosse riffed on his predecessors in popular entertainment as well as borrowed from social dances of various eras.

Lisha: That’s so true. You know Willa and I were talking about this in a post not too long ago about Fred Astaire and Michael Jackson  Because artists are constantly interacting with each other’s work, at some point in time you have to wonder, who is appropriating who?

Elizabeth: Exactly. I really appreciated the way you and Willa tackled the troubling history of racial stereotypes in the Hollywood musical in that blog and Astaire’s participation in what is viewed now as extremely offensive. Cultural borrowing is not one directional, but who gets credit and who gains capital is often unfortunately based on racial politics.

Willa: That’s a really important point, Elizabeth. Joe Vogel wrote about this phenomenon in terms of music in an article in The Atlantic a couple years ago:

The cultural gatekeepers not only failed to initially recognize the legitimacy of these new musical styles and forms, they also tended to overlook or reduce the achievements of the African-American men and women who pioneered them. The King of Jazz, for white critics, wasn’t Louis Armstrong, it was Paul Whiteman; the King of Swing wasn’t Duke Ellington, it was Benny Goodman; the King of Rock wasn’t Chuck Berry or Little Richard, it was Elvis Presley.

Elizabeth: Great reference, Willa. I respect Joe Vogel’s work on Jackson so much and what he says about American music definitely applies to American social and popular dance, although the “original authors” of these dances were typically communities and not specific individuals: the Charleston, the Lindy Hop, the Twist, hip hop, etc are all examples of social dance forms that have been capitalized upon by white artists. This issue has been the subject of various scholarly studies on popular dance in America – in fact, I’ve just finished reading a recently published book by dance scholar Anthea Kraut that deals explicitly with issues of ownership in dance. The chapter “‘Stealing Steps’ and Signature Moves” from Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance looks at methods of “borrowing,” formal innovation, and giving credit in jazz tap and other dance forms that coalesced in black communities.

Willa: Oh, that’s interesting. So it’s borrowing from a community of dancers, not one identifiable person who could be cited and maybe compensated?

Elizabeth: Absolutely – and doesn’t that make it trickier! The famous husband and wife dance duo Irene and Vernon Castle are a prime example of how cultural appropriation occurs from collectively authored “folk” sources: they took ragtime and other social dances that arose from black communities, altered them to appeal to a white audience, and made a whole performing and teaching career out of it. (Coincidentally, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers played them in the 1939 movie The Story of Irene and Vernon Castle.) I’ve been influenced by Brenda Dixon-Gottschild’s work on what she calls the “invisibilization” of Africanist aesthetics and contributions in American performance, which refers to uncredited influences, both communal and individual.

For these reasons, it’s important to remember that racial dynamics play a huge role in who gets credit and who gets famous. Fosse’s style is recognizable and distinctive and I’m not denying his immense talent as a choreographer and his contributions to jazz and American musical theater, nor accusing him of cultural appropriation. He gave credit where credit was due: Fosse’s first performing duo was called “The Riff Brothers” in homage to the incredibly talented African American jazz tap team The Nicholas Brothers. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the Dancing with the Elephant readers have seen Fayard and Harold Nicholas perform alongside the Jackson siblings on The Jackson’s Variety Show:

But generally Fosse and Astaire are the better known household names, in part due to their privileged status as white artists. Therefore, the title of the YouTube video that accused Jackson of “ripping off” Fosse brought up a lot of questions for me about aesthetic and cultural values, about the history of racism and cultural appropriation in American entertainment in general.

Lisha: It is really troubling when we can observe how consistently this seems to cut across racial lines. It’s just not a two-way street when it comes to acknowledging the hugely influential, pioneering African American artists. We’ve heard so much about Michael Jackson borrowing from Fred Astaire, but little to nothing on how indebted Fred Astaire is to black dancers before him.

Elizabeth: Totally. Given this history, I feel it’s important to ground Jackson’s dance work in black diasporic aesthetic and semantic theories.

Lisha: I agree.

Willa: So do I, and I think that’s something Michael Jackson himself tried to do. When acknowledging his mentors, he almost always mentioned both black and white figures from the past, and implied there was a long history of borrowing between them. It’s interesting in this context that one of Fred Astaire’s mentors was a black dancer, John W. Sublett, who went by the stage name John W. Bubbles. I’ve heard it suggested that Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee, Bubbles, was named in honor of Sublett, who had such a large (though rarely acknowledged) influence on Fred Astaire.

Elizabeth: I’ve been doing some reading on Astaire and was just wondering that myself earlier this week!

Lisha: Wow, I didn’t know that! What an interesting thought.

Willa:  It’s an intriguing possibility, isn’t it? And it’s hard to believe it was just coincidence, given Michael Jackson’s knowledge of dance, and Fred Astaire in particular.

So here’s a wonderful video that includes side-by-side comparisons of Michael Jackson with many different mentors in dance, including John W. Sublett, Bill Bailey, Eleanor Powell, and especially James Brown and Fred Astaire:

Lisha: That’s a fabulous comparison, Willa. I especially love the shadow dancing segment. It’s amazing to see those clips side-by-side.

Willa: It really is.

Lisha: Elizabeth, when we talked earlier, you mentioned that you were originally using the term “choreographic curation” to describe Michael Jackson’s encyclopedic knowledge of dance, instead of the concept of “versioning.” What is the basic difference and where does the term “versioning” come from?

Elizabeth: Prompted by a preliminary discussion of this project with dance scholar Sherril Dodds, I moved away from “curation” which connotes museums and Europeanist “high art” and took a deeper look at how various forms of African American cultural expression have been theorized. Many writers note the historical reflexivity, citational riffing, and intertextual nature of black creative practices and have conceived of these practices by various terms, but I borrowed the specific term “versioning” from dance scholar Thomas F. DeFrantz, who defines versioning as “the generational reworking of aesthetic ideals” or “a way to tell an old tale new.”

Willa: That sounds like a great way to think about the “borrowing” that happens among dancers.

Elizabeth: Absolutely! “Versioning” struck me as a useful term for what Jackson does with quotations of specific artists and his incorporation of various social or vernacular dance styles. DeFrantz himself borrows this term from cultural theorist Dick Hebdige’s 1987 work on Caribbean music, Cut ’n’ Mix. Hebdige claims that the basis of all Afro-American and Caribbean music has this principle of borrowing at its core, and he directly addresses the Eurocentric critical tendency to denigrate the practices of repetition and revision found in these forms.

Of course, many American genres that emerged from the nexus of black and white cultural forms – dance in musical theater being my case in point – feature riffing, pastiche, or versioning as part of their traditions. It’s my intention that the term “choreographic versioning” contextualizes Jackson’s homages and quotations as being part of a black diasporic tradition of expression and exposes the cultural biases that inform accusations of plagiarism or unoriginality expressed towards Jackson’s use of other artists’ work. My short response to the poster of the YouTube video that bothered me is that “ripping off” is not the same as “riffing on.”

Willa:  That’s a great way of expressing that, Elizabeth!

Lisha: It is! Can I steal that line from you?

Elizabeth: Ha! Of course!

Willa: And it reminds me of the controversy that erupted after Steve Knopper’s biography came out about Michael Jackson “stealing” the moonwalk and not giving proper credit to those who’d gone before him. D.B. Anderson discusses this in her review of Knopper’s book. This controversy seems to miss the point of how artistic traditions work, and how artists of all kinds – painters, sculptors, playwrights, poets, musicians, and dancers – have always built on the work that has gone before them. And this doesn’t happen just within the African-American community, but throughout art history. Shakespeare wouldn’t be Shakespeare if he hadn’t borrowed so heavily from his predecessors.

Elizabeth: I agree, the idea of the artist as some sort of wholly innovative original genius is a total myth. No one creates in a vacuum; any art is a dialogue of ideas and variations on existing forms. Jackson was a master at this. I do have to say, however, that I just submitted a conference presentation proposal that, if accepted, will force me to work through the complexities of Jackson giving so much public credit to Astaire, Brown, etc, and the relative anonymity of the dancers and choreographers he worked with (outside of the music video and commercial dance industry especially.) This could, in part, be explained by industry practices – choreographers have not been historically high on the list of acknowledgements. You only need to look at IMDB for choreography credits to realize this.

Regarding the Knopper controversy, if the intention behind calling attention to the somewhat haphazard and vague credit that Jackson did give the actual dancers who taught him the moonwalk is meant to discredit Jackson as “original,” I’d say that it was a poor strategy given our discussion about the nature of borrowing in American social and popular dance and the fact that Jackson always gave credit to another source (however vague) for the move itself.

Willa: Yes he did, though he was “vague,” as you say, and Megan Pugh offers an interesting interpretation of why in her new book, American Dancing from the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk. Pugh notes that Michael Jackson was given lessons in how to do the “backslide” by Soul Train dancers Casper Candidate, Jeffrey Daniel, and Damita Jo Freeman (who was such an impressive dancer that Pugh speculates she may have been the inspiration for “Dancing Machine”) but he didn’t reveal that to the press:

[W]hen interviewers asked Michael Jackson about how he learned to moonwalk, he gave them a different origin story. He said he picked it up from “these black children in the ghettos,” who “have the most phenomenal rhythm of anybody on the Earth. … Just riding through Harlem in the late 70s and early 80s, … I would see these kids doing these, uh sliding backwards kinda like an illusion dancing.” He took “a mental movie of it,” went home, and started practicing.

Jackson was not simply hiding his sources. He was emphasizing that he didn’t need teaching: he could pick anything up on his own. He was also presenting himself as a conduit of black culture, New York’s in particular. It was a bid for authenticity, an attempt to tap into the street culture of America’s most famous black neighborhood.

So while he acknowledged that he didn’t invent the moonwalk, as you pointed out, Elizabeth, he didn’t cite his specific teachers, and Pugh seems to think it was to give himself some street cred “at a time when hip hop, which did come out of New York streets, was threatening to outshine his own work.”

Elizabeth: I don’t completely discount Megan Pugh’s read on this because I think the commercial context Jackson operated within has to be considered as an influence on his work. I argued in an unpublished conference paper that Bad capitalized on the “edgy” associations of street culture of the late 80s, but in the same paper I recognized that Jackson and his creative team’s intentions were to call attention to the larger social problems that provoke inner city crime and gang violence, much akin to West Side Story. Motivated by empathy and a desire for social justice, but complicated by the mechanics of capitalism perhaps?

We’re seeing this same argument play out in the discourse around Beyonce’s Formation video. I think we should remain vigilant towards parties who want to diminish or draw attention away from the political and social messages at the heart of these activist-artists’ work even while it’s important to consider the economic context these radical statements are made. Any analysis of Jackson’s work has to grapple with a great deal of complexity and sometimes seeming contradictions, but I am personally committed to shifting the popular narrative around his life to a meaningful discussion on his incredible body of work, as I know both of you are. Thank god for this blog and the thinkers that contribute their voices in this endeavor.

In a similar vein, I’ve claimed elsewhere that Jackson’s versioning on Astaire and Brown’s dance moves and theatrical styles was a strategic positioning of himself amongst the entertainment greats. The relatively unknown dancers who taught him the moonwalk did not have the cultural capital that Jackson’s famous idols did (although Jeffrey Daniel was a known Soul Train dancer and member of the disco group Shalamar, which was assembled by Soul Train’s Don Cornelius, and of course Daniel later appeared in several of Jackson’s short films and co-choreographed Bad with Gregg Burge). However, as I mentioned before, it has not been the American entertainment industry’s practice to foreground the labor of the choreographers and dancers.

There are so many nuances and complexities in Jackson’s work and creative process, the topic of “credit-giving” being just one of them, and one that could also be attributed to the media’s general disinterest in the behind-the-scenes artists rather than Jackson’s actions. As many fans will know, there are notable interventions into the entertainment industry’s “tradition” of under-acknowledging choreographic and danced labor: for example, the terrific 2013 documentary on Vincent Paterson, a long-time choreographic collaborator with Jackson, by Swedish filmmaker Kristi Grunditz called The Man Behind the Throne, brings Paterson’s work with Jackson and Madonna center stage.

Willa: That’s a really important point, Elizabeth. In general, choreographers have not been given the credit they deserve, or the money they deserve either – and neither have dancers. But apparently Michael Jackson did try to make things a little more equitable. In her book, Megan Pugh says she had a private conversation with Paterson where he said “that Jackson put his dancers in ‘Smooth Criminal’ on an SAG (Screen Actors Guild) contract to guarantee them the same union wages actors were paid.”

He also included credits at the end of many of his short films – something artists rarely did in their videos – and he made sure to credit choreographers as well as directors and producers and screenwriters. For example, the credits for Thriller include this frame:

credits - Thriller

He even gives Michael Peters top billing. The credits for You Rock My World include this:

credits - YRMW

The Talauegas aren’t exactly household names – they certainly don’t have the star power of Fred Astaire or even Hermes Pan – but Michael Jackson is conscientious about giving them their due. And the credits for Moonwalker begin with Smooth Criminal and include this:

credits - Smooth Criminal

So while Michael Jackson may not have mentioned Jeffrey Daniel by name when asked how he learned the moonwalk, he did go further than most artists in giving Daniel credit for his work.

Elizabeth: Thank you for including the screengrabs of these credits, Willa! You’re right, it’s so important to note that Jackson’s very public acknowledgement in these instances complicates an easy narrative in which Jackson didn’t give credit where credit was due in the case of the moonwalk. All the choreographers Jackson worked with speak incredibly highly of him as an artist and individual, which points to the amount of respect he extended to them in working situations. It follows that he would attempt to give them the same amount of protection afforded union actors.

The particular instance of the moonwalk may be an example of a missed opportunity to credit the specific dancers who taught him the step, but I’m personally okay with accepting that Michael Jackson was a complex and contradictory person. I don’t feel that acknowledging any elisions he made in representing his creative process in the media necessarily diminishes or detracts from his legacy as a creative genius. It’s like saying Martin Luther King Jr.’s incredibly powerful social justice messages are compromised by his personal history of infidelity. We somehow have the desire to have our heroes be unblemished by complexity, which sets us up for disappointment and disillusionment. For me, that Jackson was a complex, changing, and flawed human like the rest of us makes his creative work – and his artistic message of love and compassion – so much more inspiring.

Lisha: And as you’ve so convincingly argued, it’s more complicated than one might think to quickly and accurately explain to a journalist where a dance movement might have originated from! There’s not always a simple answer.

Elizabeth, I know you’ve also approached Michael Jackson’s work through the theoretical lens of “kinesthetic empathy,” and I think this concept could be really useful in understanding Michael Jackson’s work. Would you like to explain a little about “kinesthetic empathy”?

Elizabeth: I’d love to try! Basically, kinesthetic empathy is the idea that in watching another body move you understand something of that body’s experience because of your own embodied knowledge. Very simplistically put, I can understand that someone is feeling a certain way because I have my own embodied experience with the positions, actions, or energetics of their body that express that particular emotion.

Willa: Wow, that’s fascinating, Elizabeth! A very important book for me, one that really changed how I see the world, is The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry. It’s a fascinating work and hard to describe in just a few words, and I’m sure I won’t do it justice, but part of her argument is that the body’s physicality is our most important touchstone for what’s real and what isn’t – it’s so crucial to our understanding of what’s real that it’s used to lend reality to things that may seem insubstantial, like ideologies. For example, the outcome of a war is made real through the scars of wounded soldiers and the bodies of those who were killed.

Yet in many ways that physicality that is so central to our concept of reality is inexpressible, especially the experience of pain. That’s one reason the body can be used to substantiate something separate from itself – even something hostile to itself, like war. We can be sitting right beside someone with a splitting headache and not realize it, and even if they try to describe it to us, it’s hard for them to express in words exactly what that pain feels like. Doctors have long struggled with this. Even more than that, extreme pain breaks down language, reducing the sufferer to inarticulate cries and moans. In that sense, Scarry claims we are each locked in our own physicality – an interior experience of our own body – that we can’t express.

So it’s really interesting to think about how some aspects of the body’s interior experience might be communicated in ways other than words – that if I stand in the rain with my arms outstretched, for example, I can experience some of the same physical sensations Michael Jackson experienced while making Stranger in Moscow, and maybe begin to understand “how does it feel” – at least in a physical sense.

Elizabeth: I love that you mention that beautiful moment in Stranger in Moscow because it’s absolutely one of the videos that I’ve thought about in relation to the idea (despite the fact it’s not very “dancey”). I want to read Scarry’s book on the failure of language to express subjective pain because although I’m fascinated and hopeful of the notion of “fellow-feeling” as being part of combating racism, sexism, bigotry, etc, I have major doubts that it’s possible to completely empathize physically either. Because of course my embodied experience is different than your embodied experience!

For this reason, the notion of kinesthetic empathy is a debated topic in dance studies. The notion was first propounded by dance critic John Martin in the 1930s by the various terms “kinesthetic sympathy,” “metakinesis,” and “inner mimicry.” Martin’s concept of how this aesthetic body-to-body understanding functions did not account for cultural, racial, gendered, degrees of able-bodiedness or any kind of difference. Dance scholar Susan Leigh Foster published a book in 2011 on the subject which troubled these essentialist underpinnings of the theory of kinesthetic empathy.  As I mentioned earlier, any kind of physical habit is learned, whether it be socially inscripted or learned in a more formal pedagogical context, so it follows that different cultures and communities will have different “archives” of embodied knowledge that actually mean different things.

Willa: That makes a lot of sense, Elizabeth. Different habits lead to the development of different muscles and different muscle memory, which has a big impact on how we experience movement. This is kind of a weird example, but I lived in Southeast Asia for a while, where it was not uncommon for the top of the “toilet” to be down on the floor. Islamic women, even elderly Islamic women, apparently had no trouble at all with the deep knee bends and balance needed to use those toilets – after all, they’d been using them all their lives. But many ex-pat Americans and Europeans had a lot of trouble with them. I personally would have liked a grab bar to hang on to!

So I imagine a 50-year-old Michael Jackson doing a dance step he’d done all his life – like that James Brown shuffle he performs so flawlessly in his Motown audition when he was 10 years old, and that we see him performing in concert throughout his life – would have a very different experience than a 50-year-old who was trying it for the first time.

Elizabeth: Exactly! (And two great examples, Willa.) It follows that our embodied experience extends to how we perceive and relate to someone else moving. There was an inter-institutional group from the UK that researched and reported on the theory of kinesthetic empathy in a multimodal project called “Watching Dance.” They found that audience members’ reactions were indeed colored by their experience and knowledge of the different dance forms included in their study.

I’m a very capable dancer in the forms I’ve spent years studying, but have pretty much failed in my brief attempts to master the moonwalk or any popping and locking techniques. I can’t imagine what it feels like in my body when I see another person doing any technique based on percussive isolations like popping and locking in the same way that I can relate to a ballet dancer in a space-consuming leap through the air. Watching any dancing I’m not personally versed in definitely creates an embodied response, but I don’t “feel” or relate to them in the same way. Ultimately, the idea of kinesthetic empathy is one limited by cultural and social inscription – what someone has spent time learning – but despite this I still think kinesthetic empathy is worth considering in relation to Jackson’s works that posit altruism as a way to bridge social division and prejudice.

I’m currently beginning to work through how certain examples of Jackson’s work implicitly engage this notion and how perceiving, feeling bodies are implicated in his call for altruism and social justice. How might kinesthetic empathy relate to the larger notion of empathy, and how might this incite moral action?

Willa: Those are some really intriguing and important questions.

Elizabeth: I think so! Jackson’s message of social justice often calls upon empathetic and altruistic responses to others in need. So what in art could compel people to care about others’ suffering or pain, and how do our own physical and somatic experiences shape our ability to react and relate to others? I think that Jackson’s mere posing of the question is powerful. As you quoted earlier, Willa, “how does it feel?” Of course Jackson’s lyrics ask this question in a number of ways, but as a dance scholar convinced of the potency of performance, a performative, bodily enactment of the question is what most interests me.

Lisha: What you’re both saying is utterly fascinating to me as a musician. Strictly judging from my own experience, I would translate this into sound as well. There’s no doubt in my mind that some musicians are more empathic than others. They somehow tune-in to what they hear around them and blend with other musicians in a way that makes it seem like there is only one instrument in the room. It’s an incredible feeling to work with players who can do this, and it’s something I clearly recognize in Michael Jackson.

A perfect example is “State of Shock” with Mick Jagger. Michael Jackson blends his voice into Jagger’s so completely in that recording it’s almost as if it’s one voice. Another example I know many will appreciate is “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” At times, it’s difficult to know where Siedah Garrett’s voice stops and Michael Jackson’s begins. It’s pretty remarkable.

Willa: It really is, and it’s interesting to think of that ability as a function of empathy.

Elizabeth: I love that you brought up musical empathy, Lisha, because of course musicality is rooted in the body and muscle memory.

Lisha: That’s my sense of it, too.

Elizabeth: Musicality, like the ability to move “well,” is both a “gift” that comes easier to some people than others as well as something learned and honed through continual effort and labor. Like language, dance and music express the worldview and values of the cultures in which they are created and practiced. As I’m working through this project I’ve realized I need to look into scholarship on music and empathy or sound and empathy, especially as they relate to cross-cultural communication or miscommunication.

Lisha: I’m interested in knowing more about this as well. I’m especially interested in the question you posed earlier: “how do our own physical and somatic experiences shape our ability to react and relate to others?” You must keep us posted on your research and come back to share your findings.

Elizabeth: I definitely will. This conversation has been so inspiring! It has also productively shifted some of my thinking around the topic of Jackson’s “giving credit.” You’re both so knowledgeable about everything Michael Jackson and I can’t thank you both enough for this rich and thought-provoking discussion. I’ll definitely cite your invaluable contributions to the evolution of my thought on these topics in all the forums they are aired.

Lisha: Thank you, Elizabeth!

Willa: Yes, thank you so much for joining us, Elizabeth. I love your way of looking at the artistic tradition as “riffing on” not “ripping off” the artists who’ve gone before! And I’m so intrigued by the idea of kinesthetic empathy.

I also wanted to let everyone know that a new article by Toni Bowers was just published this morning by the Los Angeles Review of Books. It begins with a review of Steve Knopper’s new biography but becomes so much more, and it ties in with some of the things we’ve been talking about today. For example, Toni points out that “Those incredible dance steps, after all, did not perfect themselves. Jackson did it, arduously.” Here’s a link to Toni’s article.

 

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I am the One who will Dance on the Floor in the Round

Willa:  A few weeks ago, Raven Woods joined me for a fascinating discussion of “Scared of the Moon,” but we began with a short discussion of Michael Jackson’s concerts and how they were structured. Specifically, we talked about how his performances from the Dangerous tour on tended to follow an arc that began with him appearing in a rather militaristic, authoritarian persona but ended with a much softer, more nurturing persona. That arc was punctuated by a series of set pieces that he performed in an almost ritualized way: “Beat It,” “Thriller,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Smooth Criminal,” and especially “Billie Jean.”

Today, Raven is joining me again to talk about “Billie Jean” as one of the signature pieces of a Michael Jackson concert. Thank you so much for talking with me, Raven!

Raven: Thanks for inviting me back! This discussion is actually quite timely, considering that as I’m typing this, Motown 25 has recently been re-broadcast on PBS in its entirety for the first time in over thirty years. As we all know, this special was a historic moment in that it marked the first public performance of “Billie Jean” and the first of what would become a classic staple of Michael Jackson’s live performances.

Willa: Wasn’t that incredible? Watching the full Motown 25 broadcast was like witnessing the birth of a cultural phenomenon, one that would reverberate throughout his concerts and the culture at large for decades.

Raven: That performance really was incredible. I watched the Motown special last Sunday. For starters, I was really interested in seeing the program in its entirety because I don’t think I watched it in its entirety even back in ’83. I was so young then, and like most teens/young adults, not prone to sitting around in front of the TV – especially if I had a date!  My grandmother watched it, but I only remembered seeing bits and pieces of it during the original broadcast, as I was too busy that night coming in and out of the house. So I was really interested to watch it again and to catch some of the other performances, as well as Michael’s. Marvin Gaye was just astounding, and probably would have stolen the show that night – if it hadn’t been for Michael, of course!

Willa: I was really struck by Marvin Gaye’s performance also, and how heartfelt it was. He truly wanted to open everyone’s eyes to “What’s Going On.” Another thing that struck me was that Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson’s performances felt the quietest in some ways, yet ironically they were also the most powerful. It’s kind of hard to describe, but they had a quiet intensity that is still palpable, 30 years later.

Raven: I have to say I didn’t think it was possible to fall in love with Michael all over again, but I did watching that performance! I think that, through the years, I had gotten a little blasé about the original Motown 25 “Billie Jean” performance. Sure, it was the first time, and an iconic moment in TV history, but over the years I had seen so many “Billie Jean” performances that I thought were better. After seeing the piece evolve as it did throughout his Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory tours, it seemed odd to go back to Motown 25 and realize that his moonwalk was actually quite short, and you can visibly see him lose his balance on the en pointe. Michael himself was very upset about that afterwards, thinking his entire performance was ruined!

Willa: Yes, I remember reading about that. In fact, I think he said he felt like crying afterwards because he fell back and didn’t stay up on his toes as long as he wanted. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine he could be dissatisfied with that performance!

Raven:  That’s true. He only started to feel better about it after Fred Astaire called and complimented him. But in watching the whole show, and putting myself back in that moment, I realized anew why this performance was so magical and special. No one had ever seen these moves performed before, so there was no gauge by which to measure how flawlessly or smoothly he executed them. From the moment Michael stepped on that stage, you could feel the palpable electricity. He was young, vibrant, and on fire – ready to prove himself to the world.

Willa:  You know, Lubov Fadeeva, a professional dancer and choreographer, talks about this in her wonderful article, “Michael Jackson: The Dancer of the Dream.” Here’s what she says:

It is obvious to me that his performance at Motown 25 in 1983 is different than all his later concert versions of “Billie Jean” in many ways. It is not yet perfect, and the moonwalk isn’t performed as smoothly as in its later versions. Perhaps the floor was not slippery enough. Still, the emotional charge of the dance is so electrifying that it has never been matched by anything.

In the end of the Motown 25 performance, when Michael stops and looks into the audience … I don’t know how to describe the expression in his eyes, but I understand all of it. It is the kind of moment when a couple of minutes can change everything. … I always watch this performance and think that Michael was passing an exam there. He didn’t even have a spotlight. Just a performer on stage. But somehow it looks more spectacular than expensive shows with special effects.

I think Fadeeva captures this perfectly. His performance at Motown 25 may not have been as technically proficient as some of his later performances, where years of practicing the moonwalk, for example, enabled him to smoothly glide the entire length of the stage. But still, that “Billie Jean” performance was just “so electrifying,” as Fadeeva says.

Raven:  Fadeeva nailed it perfectly! That’s exactly what I was trying to say. And although the piece did evolve somewhat through the years, Michael never really deviated drastically from this original performance of the song. All of the symbolic elements that would become identifiable with the piece and with the performance were already there.

Willa:  That’s true.

Raven:  Something that has occurred to me is that, anytime we are discussing and analyzing a Michael Jackson song, there are at least three separate, distinct elements that must be considered – the recording, the short film (i.e., the video), and the live performance.

Willa:  Yes, and some have a longer-format film also. I’m thinking of the 16-minute version of Bad, and the 40-minute version of Smooth Criminal from Moonwalker. And then there’s the 38-minute film Michael Jackson’s Ghosts as well.

And there’s another element we may want to consider also, which is the lyrics as poetry. He actually published “Heal the World” and “Will You Be There?” as poems in Dancing the Dream, but many of his other songs can be viewed this way also. I’ve often thought when reading his lyrics that they scan like poetry. So you’re right, Raven – with many of his songs there are different forms of audio and visual performance interacting dynamically to create meaning.

Raven:  Although this may be true to some degree with many artists, especially those from the video age onward, I find it is probably more true in the case of Michael Jackson than anyone else, for I know of no other artist who so successfully merged all of those aspects of performance – the auditory and visual – in the seamless way that he did. Thus, to this day, it is almost impossible to discuss a Michael Jackson track without the associations of its accompanying visual imagery. It is almost impossible, for example, to discuss the track “Thriller” without also merging the discussion with that track’s iconic video, or to discuss any aspect of “Black or White” as a track without also bringing in those important thematic elements from the “Panther Dance” sequence of the video.

Willa:  Oh, I agree. I can’t listen to any of his songs that have videos without seeing those visual images play in my head. And I think they are so connected because he conceived of them that way. His videos weren’t just something he whipped up after the fact to market his songs – they were part of his vision from the beginning. As he says in Moonwalk,

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

So apparently he was already thinking about the videos for these songs as he was creating the album, and I think he achieved his goal of “present[ing] this music as visually as possible.” Listening to those tracks is a surprisingly visual experience, as you said, Raven.

Raven:  Yes. It seemed that Michael, moreso than any other music artist of his time, was always thinking on at least three layers with every song he recorded. Through the art of visual imagery, he was able to add additional layers of theme and symbolism to the songs that the audio tracks alone could never convey. And on yet another level, his live performances allowed him to evolve the pieces even further. Contrary to popular belief, his live performance pieces were never simply recreations of his iconic video performances. In some cases, of course, they did not deviate much (the choreography of “Beat It,” for example, remained consistently close to the video version) but what we were more apt to see were reworkings and re-stylizations of these numbers.

Willa: Yes, and sometimes the stage performances seem very different from the videos. I’m thinking specifically of “The Way You Make Me Feel,” which always feels so light and upbeat in his concert performances … but no one would ever describe the video that way. It’s much darker and grittier than the stage versions. So even though he often evoked the video on stage through his wardrobe – a loose blue shirt over a tight white T-shirt, and a white tie belt – the mood and the meaning is very different, I think.

Raven: Absolutely. And I think it goes back, again, to the idea that he was always sort of re-visualizing the concepts of his songs. He knew that what worked on the small screen might not necessarily translate well to the performance stage, and vice versa. I always liked the way he re-worked “The Way You Make Me Feel” with the slowed down, do-wop intro. I remember when This Is It came out, some reviews mentioned Michael’s “new” re-working of “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Obviously, they weren’t very familiar with Michael’s live performances. I thought, He’s been doing “The Way You Make Me Feel” like that for years!

Once Michael found something that worked for him, he tended to stick with it for many years – his live performance motto seemed to be, “Don’t fix what isn’t broken!” But as we know, the best of Michael Jackson’s set pieces usually weren’t mere performances, in the way we think of entertainers simply getting onstage and singing or performing to a song. Michael’s numbers literally became theatrical performance pieces, with as much emphasis on the narrative storylines of the numbers (as well as use of symbolic imagery) as on the singing and dancing.

Willa:  Oh, I agree!

Raven:  Much has been written about the song “Billie Jean” and there has also been much written about the video. But other than Veronica Bassil’s excellent book Thinking Twice about Billie Jean, I don’t think there has really been much in the way of interpreting his live performance routine of “Billie Jean” or analyzing its symbolic implications.

Willa:  You know, what struck me most about Veronica’s book is that she shows how the lyrics anticipate the 1993 abuse allegations. After all, “Billie Jean” is a song about false allegations of sexual misconduct, and how he is constantly under surveillance. In the video this is depicted by the photographer who shadows him, following him to Billie Jean’s apartment and trying to catch him in a compromising position.

But that feeling of constant surveillance is there in the opening lines of the lyrics as well, in all “the eyes” watching him and the fact that he is dancing “in the round.” That arrangement isn’t nearly as popular now, but at the height of disco in the late 1970s, it was fairly common to have the audience surrounding a lighted, elevated stage, so spectators were watching from all sides and every angle. It was even common back then to have dinner theaters “in the round,” where plays would be acted out on a raised platform with the audience seated at tables all around the stage. This means that, for the performers, there was no backstage to retreat to, no side that wasn’t hidden from the audience, and no way to step out of the stoplight or retreat from the audience’s gaze. Performers were entirely exposed.

Raven: Yes, and you know that has to be a scary feeling. I believe that Michael possibly became even more conscious of this symbolic element of the song as time wore on and his performance of it evolved (and possibly as he felt more and more that he was losing control of certain aspects of his life). The round spotlight which he steps into becomes a much more important part of the performance as time goes on.

Willa: Yes, it does.

Raven: For him, this seemed to emphasize the idea of being a lone figure in “the round.” And whereas at the Motown 25 performance, he comes out as very confident from the beginning, by the time of the Munich performance in 1997, and the Madison Square performance, he comes out looking a little lost, almost bewildered – at least until he puts on the magic symbols of jacket, glove, and hat.

Willa: That’s an interesting interpretation, Raven. In his later concert performances, he usually began “Billie Jean” on a darkened stage, with a blinding spotlight aimed straight down forming a round pool of light, as you say. And I think you’re right – that light became or defined his stage “in the round.” And then he would step into that spotlight, as you say, and it’s so harsh and glaring it’s almost like stepping into a prison searchlight. So he was literally performing “in the round” harsh glare of a spotlight – just as he did, metaphorically, throughout his life, from childhood on.

Raven: Coincidentally, we are embarking on this discussion just as I am scheduled to begin a unit on symbolism in class next week, and I had been considering the possibility of using clips of Michael’s “Billie Jean” performance to discuss the concept.

Willa:  Oh interesting!

Raven:  I am only hesitant because they will also be looking at “Black or White” and “Earth Song” in a few weeks and I don’t want to totally burn them out on MJ, lol! But as so often happens, these discussions seem to arise at just the right moment, when my thoughts are already channeling in that direction. In the process of trying to make this decision, I have been looking at a lot of live “Billie Jean” clips in the past few days. Regardless of whether I ultimately decide to include them in the symbolism unit, it has given me a good opportunity to really assess both how the piece evolved through the years, as well as an opportunity to take a fresh look at how Michael used symbolism in the piece to create a definite story arc.

Willa:  Wow, I wish I could sit in on your class …

Raven: Thank you! I guess it’s one of the perks of my job. I get to incorporate so much of what I love into it.

But getting back to “Billie Jean,” virtually everything about that performance, from the choice of clothing and colors, the placement of the spotlight, to the props used – the glove, the jacket, and perhaps, most importantly, the fedora – all played a symbolic role in the performance. It was really the beginning of many trademark Michael Jackson “looks,” including the single glove and fedora. And though he had sported the white socks and black loafers, paired with high water pants before, in “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” it was here that the look really became formalized as a permanent and iconic fixture of the Michael Jackson “brand.”

Willa: They really did. He used the high pants, white socks, and black loafers often after Motown 25 – in fact, they literally became his trademark. I’m thinking of this logo for MJJ Productions:

logo for MJJ ProductionsRaven: Yes. And in that logo, especially, he is using the en pointe stance, which became an iconic image for him. To my knowledge, however, I think that “Billie Jean” was the only performance where he used that particular pose.

Willa:  You know, I think you’re right.… I hadn’t thought about that before, but I think you’re right – I think it was a strictly “Billie Jean” move. That’s interesting.

Raven:  A lot of people don’t realize that Michael had certain dance moves that were only reserved for certain numbers. Both the moonwalk and en pointe are uniquely associated with “Billie Jean.” (There are brief shots of each in the Jam video as well, but even there, they are clearly not part of the choreography of that particular number. Rather, they seemed to be serving the purpose of cultural allusions – iconic MJ dance moves that everyone would instantly recognize.) And though Michael did variations of the moonwalk step in other numbers, the famous backwards glide was reserved exclusively for “Billie Jean.”

Willa: That’s true, and the black glittery jacket was reserved solely for “Billie Jean” also. Just as a white suit with a dark armband was reserved for “Smooth Criminal,” or a red leather jacket with grey shoulder patches meant “Beat It,” or a red leather jacket with a deep black V from his shoulders to his waist meant “Thriller,” a black glittery jacket meant “Billie Jean.” With the addition of a black fedora and a white sequined glove, the costume was complete.

Raven: “Billie Jean” was also one of the few numbers he did in concert where he always made sure he was in the full costume. During the Dangerous tour, for example, he would usually simply toss the “Smooth Criminal” jacket on over the gold leotard. In this way, he created a lot of hybrids of his iconic looks. There was a very practical reason for this, of course. It saved time! It would have been impossible for him to do a full costume change with every number, so the idea was to layer pieces that could work together, gradually adding and taking off pieces as the show progressed. Therefore, it was easy to make the transition into “Smooth Criminal,” for example, simply by adding the iconic white jacket, armband, and white fedora. Those pieces were symbolic enough to carry the number; it didn’t matter if he didn’t have on the full suit. But with “Billie Jean” he always took the time to do a full, complete costume change.

Willa: It’s also interesting that in his later performances, getting into costume – and into character – was itself an important part of the show, as you mentioned earlier. Here’s a clip of his “Billie Jean” performance from his 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden:

Notice how he plays with the audience as he slowly pulls out the black glittery jacket, then the fedora, and then … dramatic pause … the glove. And the roar from the crowd grows louder as each piece appears, so by the time he’s fully in costume, they’re on their feet and clapping wildly. It’s like the act of becoming that character is part of the performance.

Raven: It is amazing, isn’t it? All they have to do is see those iconic items come out, and they start to go wild because they know what’s coming! So, as you said, getting into the character becomes a part of the ritual for the audience. A good place to start might be in looking at the origin of the “Billie Jean” persona, or character. It was clear early on that Michael was not so much performing here, as enacting a role. It was a unique character that he created specifically for this number. The character was an interesting blend of both “Mack Daddy” cool on the one hand, and a quirky, whimsical geek on the other. The transformation, or metamorphosis, was usually precipitated by plopping the fedora on his head. At that moment, the geek would disappear, replaced by the cocky and confident “Mack Daddy” persona.

It was obvious that the roots of this character came from Michael’s adoration of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Here, for example, if we compare Michael’s improv segment of “Billie Jean” to Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character, we can see that there are obvious parallels:

Willa: Yes, and while some of that is the costume, a lot of it is more abstract than that – a certain jauntiness mixed with pathos that really comes through for both of them.

Raven: And in this clip of Buster Keaton we can, no doubt, see some of the origins of Michael’s improvisations with his fedora as a kind of virility symbol (note how Keaton’s character transforms from geek to suave whenever a “cool” hat is placed on his head!):

And, of course, it has already been well noted that Michael’s famous Smooth Criminal lean owes a lot to Buster Keaton’s move in College, which Michael had no doubt seen:

Years later, Johnny Depp, who, like Michael, admired Keaton and Chaplin and brought elements of them to his own performances, blended the characteristics of both to create the character of Sam in 1993’s Benny & Joon.

Depp’s “hat trick,” as seen here, will look familiar to anyone who has watched Michael Jackson’s live “Billie Jean” performances. Go back, for example to the Bucharest “Billie Jean” performance posted above and look at how Michael similarly “plays” with his hat beginning at about the 5:54 mark, as if it is something live that is taunting and teasing him, or as if he can somehow cast a spell over it!

In later years, Michael would make this parallel even more blatantly obvious. For example, by the time of the HIStory tour, he introduced a new element to the performance which consisted of his “Little Geek” character walking onstage carrying a shaving case, looking rather lost and bewildered, as if he doesn’t quite know where he is or what he’s supposed to do. Again, this is a routine that obviously has deep roots in the pathos of the Chaplinesque and Keatonesque personas he so admired. At this point, the performance has very much of a vaudeville feel to it, and Michael is clearly and intentionally evoking those echoes.

Willa:  I agree completely. Even the case itself feels worn and antiquated, like it’s from an earlier era. It’s pretty distinctive – tan with two brown leather straps wrapping around it – and he uses this same style of case for years, up through his Madison Square Garden performances. It’s interesting because in Say Say Say, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney play a pair of vaudeville performers, and they each carry that exact same style of case: tan with two brown leather straps. Here’s a clip, and you can see those suitcases starting at about 4:20 minutes in:

So Michael Jackson clearly associated that particular case with vaudeville, and I think it’s part of what gives his later “Billie Jean” performances “a vaudeville feel,” as you said, Raven.

But more than that, his body language and the way he timidly shuffles across stage, as you mentioned; his simple clothes, suggesting someone who’s down on his luck; the way he slowly pulls his props from a suitcase – these all harken back to vaudeville.

Raven: Oh, yes, absolutely. I was also just thinking that there seemed to be a definite element of miming incorporated into his “Billie Jean” persona. We know that Michael very much admired the art of miming and frequently worked elements of mime into his dance routines. “The Box” is one such example. In this video of him practicing in the studio, it is the move he performs at about the 1:00 mark:

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a performance and persona so indebted to vaudeville and silent film comedians like Chaplin and Keaton would also contain elements of mime. Chaplin and Keaton were both heavily influenced by mime artists themselves. Here is a passage excerpted from the Wikipedia page on mimes:

The restrictions of early motion picture technology meant that stories had to be told with minimal dialogue, which was largely restricted to intertitles. This often demanded a highly stylized form of physical acting largely derived from the stage. Thus, mime played an important role in films prior to advent of talkies (films with sound or speech). The mimetic style of film acting was used to great effect in German Expressionist film.

Silent film comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton learned the craft of mime in the theatre, but through film, they would have a profound influence on mimes working in live theatre decades after their deaths. Indeed, Chaplin may be the most well-documented mime in history.

Willa:  Oh, that’s really interesting, Raven! I’d never connected mime with silent films before, but now that you mention it, it makes perfect sense. And I really see those elements reflected in Michael Jackson’s concert performances also.

For example, Rembert Browne wrote a wonderful analysis of Michael Jackson’s performances of “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Man in the Mirror” at the 1988 Grammys. Here’s a video of that performance:

As Rembert Browne points out, Michael Jackson is creating a fully realized character in the opening moments he’s on stage – a character Browne calls “Tough Guy Mike”:

“Tough Guy Mike” is an incredible creature, less because it was so opposite of his actual personality, and more because of how he moved his limbs as Tough Guy Mike. Every step became an aggravated kick, everything was to be pointed to, and his neck roll became the sassiest thing ever captured on camera.

As Browne says, he creates this character through his body language, and also through mime-like gestures. As Browne points out, at about 1:10 in we see “Tough Guy Mike mime-smoking a fake cigarette and blowing out fake smoke.” Then he “put[s] out the imaginary cigarette with his foot.” Through these subtle gestures, Michael Jackson gives us important clues about who this character is – just as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Marcel Marceau did through their silent gestures long before him.

Raven:  “Tough Guy Mike” is an excellent interpretation of that persona! The only difference, I think, is that we don’t actually “see” the transformation in the same way that we do with “Billie Jean,” or at least the later incarnations of it. In “Billie Jean” the symbols actually instigate the change.

Willa: Oh, I see what you’re saying. As you mentioned before, it’s when he puts on his fedora that he magically transforms into his “Billie Jean” character. So his hat brings about a change in him, in who he’s portraying on stage.

Raven: As we have already discussed, hats were important props for these silent film comedians, as well as for mimes, and also many vaudeville performers. The white glove, also, is something that has roots in mime art (though not necessarily a single glove to my knowledge). However, I think that Michael probably took many of his ideas, especially those relating to color schemes, from mime artists. White and black were traditionally colors often used by mimes.

In the original “Billie Jean” video Michael wore a dark suit over a bold pink shirt with a red bow tie. That was a look significantly different from the one that came to be associated with his live “Billie Jean” performances, and again, it’s one of the few instances I can think of (perhaps the only instance) where his performance attire and persona was completely different from the video version. I think it is because he took the whole performance in such a very different direction for Motown 25 that he must have known, from that point going forward, that this was the way the song had to be performed live. The video for “Billie Jean” seemed to be one of the few instances where his choreography was actually worked out after the fact.

When he did Motown 25, he still had not completely perfected the idea of using the black-and-white color contrast, and this was probably largely due to the fact that he had only recently come up with the routine and had to work with what was available for him at the time. According to most accounts, the famous sequin jacket he wore that night came from Katherine’s closet. As the old saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers so he ended up with a purple-ish sequin jacket. However, we can see that he had already worked out how he would incorporate all three symbolic objects – the hat, the glove, and sequined jacket – into the routine. It would just be a matter of how he perfected those uses through the years.

Those primary colors, black and white, both have strong ties to mime art. Michael also mimicked the age-old mime trick of using the color white to direct an audience’s eyes to whatever body part he wanted them to focus on. He learned, for example, that wearing a white glove, or wearing white tape on his fingertips, would direct the audience’s eyes to his hand gestures, and hand gestures, as we know, were very important for Michael. I really believe that this is the origin of his single, white glove. I never really bought the oft-rumored theory that it was to hide vitiligo spots on his hands. (I believe he had vitiligo, of course; I just don’t believe it was the reason for the glove.) I believe he was thinking from an artistic standpoint about what each of these things would help him accomplish on a huge stage.

Willa:  That’s interesting. I tend to think it was both – that it helped him deal with his vitiligo and was an important artistic decision.

And that’s interesting about white gloves being an important part of both vaudeville and mime. It reminds me that white gloves were also an important feature of blackface minstrelsy. Here’s a clip of Fred Astaire performing in blackface in the movie Swing Time, and it’s hard to miss his large white gloves:

In fact, the last thing we see is Astaire walking off stage, waving his hand in a floppy sort of way that draws even more attention to the oversized white glove he’s wearing.

Raven:  That’s interesting. And we know that Michael would have been familiar with Swing Time. He studied everything Astaire ever did! I was also recently watching a documentary on Oscar Wilde and it was mentioned there that Wilde came up with the idea of wearing white gloves during his American tour in 1882. Wilde, like Michael, was as much of a showman as he was a writer (and his number one talent was the ability to sell himself!) and it was said that he liked the way it looked when he could stick a white gloved hand from his carriage window to wave to the crowd! I couldn’t help but think of Michael when they mentioned that.

But a glove is also something a criminal wears at the scene of their crime, in order to prevent leaving incriminating fingerprints. It would be interesting to know if Michael was playing on this idea to some degree, since the song is about a man being accused. I don’t know – that might be a stretch but it’s something interesting to think about.

Something else I’ve noticed about his live “Billie Jean” performances is that, as he jumps into the spotlight and plops the hat onto his head, a transformation takes place. In later incarnations of the performance, he jumps into the spotlight almost as a kind of symbolic “plunging in.” There is hesitancy and even a bit of fearfulness (he is still in the mode of the shy, geeky, and somewhat lost/bewildered character) and then, instantaneously, he plunges in, the bass kicks in, and the metamorphosis is complete. He starts with a series of hip thrusts, indicating a shift to masculine and virile energy. (A favorite, somewhat off-color joke of mine is that he must be acting out he how he got himself in trouble with this “Billie Jean” in the first place!) Whatever the case, the moves and gestures were clearly purposeful. If there was any doubt that these moves were intended to be interpreted as sexual gestures, Michael forever laid those to rest with his very playful and bawdy exaggeration of those moves in his This Is It rehearsal performance of “Billie Jean”:

Willa:  Oh, I agree! That rehearsal performance is much more overtly sexual and “bawdy,” as you say, than anything he ever did during a concert – especially near the end. But he sure knew his audience – those young dancers watching him rehearse just loved it! And I love watching them watching him. In fact, that’s one of my favorite scenes from from This Is It – he seems to be having a great time, and really connecting, through dance, with those young dancers.

But that scene also brings out important elements of the character he’s portraying – elements that are usually presented much more subtly but still add complexity to that character. For example, he begins his Motown 25 performance and many of his later “Billie Jean” performances by pulling out an imaginary comb and slicking his hair back on both sides. This is very much a mime-type gesture, as you mentioned earlier.

Raven: I love that gesture! It invokes a very cool, 50s kind of vibe to the performance … James Dean, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando from “The Wild One”!

Willa:  I love it too!  It has a very 50s kind of feel to me also, and it reminds me of “Tough Guy Mike” smoking his imaginary cigarette at the beginning of the 1988 Grammy performance, and then stubbing it out with his foot. In both cases, these little gestures give us important insights into the character he’s playing. His “Billie Jean” character may be young and vulnerable, and he may still have his mother’s advice echoing in his head – “Be careful who you love … ” – but that little gesture of slicking back his hair tells us that he also sees himself as something of a ladies’ man.

Raven:  But even as he moves into this aspect of the performance, he would often still retain elements of his “Little Tramp”-like character. Something I have often noticed – and one of the most endearing traits of these performances – is that he didn’t seem to be trying too hard to make them “too” perfect or “too” polished. For example, we can see when he is fighting with a particularly stubborn jacket flap that doesn’t fall exactly as it’s supposed to; he can often be seen adjusting his hat during the performance to keep it from falling off or to keep it at the angle he desires. When we consider what a perfectionist he was in his performances, we can only guess that all of these little flaws and “rough spots” of the performances were, in themselves, part of the act, or at least part of the persona.

It seems he didn’t want polish or perfection in these performances so much as desiring to retain an aura of childlike playfulness and quirkiness. It was just enough endearing quirkiness, enough pathos to keep a leash on the machismo aspect of the performance. And it was wonderfully ingenious, because it kept the machismo aspect of the character just slightly off center, so that we weren’t entirely sure just how seriously we were supposed to take this transformed persona.

Willa: Oh, that’s an interesting way to look at that, Raven – and it’s a very Chaplinesque touch, as you say. It adds a touch of pathos to this young man who’s trying so hard to be suave and debonair, and not quite succeeding – but ironically he’s all the more endearing because of that.

Raven: It’s rather like watching a little kid who has suddenly been transported into an adult body, or like Frosty the Snowman when he first puts on his “magic hat” and becomes animated. He doesn’t seem quite sure what to do with himself or with his new power and abilities. We can see him kind of growing into the persona the same way an awkward and gangly adolescent has to “grow into” their new body.

Willa:  Exactly! That’s how it feels to me also, though I’d never been able to really articulate that before, and that’s one reason this character is so intriguing and appealing, I think.

Well, Raven, thank you so much for joining me again! I thoroughly enjoyed it, but there’s still so much more to say about his “Billie Jean” performances. Maybe you can join me again sometime, and we can continue this discussion?

Raven: I would love that! Thanks again for another great conversation.

Willa:  Oh, it’s always a pleasure talking with you.

I also wanted to let everyone know that Australian journalist and blogger Damien Shields has a new book out, Xscape Origins: the Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind. Charles Thomson posted a review this morning on The Huffington Post, and it’s interesting – while Charles has been very open about his opposition to posthumous tracks in general, and has been rather scathing in his comments about the Xscape album in particular, his review of Xscape Origins is surprisingly positive.

According to Charles, Shields was motivated by a feeling that the promotion for Xscape focused too much on the “contemporized” tracks and the producers who worked on them, and that “Jackson’s own vision and process was almost completely overlooked.” So he set about learning more. As Charles writes,

Determined to right this perceived wrong, Shields flew to America to interview a number of Jackson’s original collaborators, including songwriters, studio engineers and producers. In his book he presents a comprehensive back story for each track. The result is a revealing and exciting insight into the working habits of pop’s most reclusive star.

 

Fred Astaire, “Bojangles,” and “the Real Limehouse Blues”

Willa:  You know, Lisha, I’ve been trying to learn more about Fred Astaire because he was such an important inspiration for Michael Jackson. We see his influence in some of his dance moves and choreography, of course, and in some of his costumes, like his famous fedora. We see direct influences in the videos for Smooth Criminal and You Rock My World, and the lyrics to “Dangerous.” And we can see it more subtly in other places as well.

Michael Jackson always spoke of Fred Astaire with the utmost respect. For example, in a questionnaire he filled out in 1977, when he was only 18, he was asked which entertainers he admired most. His response was Fred Astaire and Stevie Wonder. And after he died, Kobe Bryant repeatedly mentioned how Michael Jackson encouraged him to go back and watch Astaire’s movies – like in this press conference and in a Time magazine article, “Remembering Michael”:

Beyond the genius of what he was, he was just a genuinely, genuinely nice person. He got me hooked on movies that I would normally never watch. Fred Astaire movies. All the old classics. … He was just a genuinely nice person who was exceptionally bright, exceptionally bright, and driven and talented. You mix those things together, man, you have Michael Jackson.

So I’ve been trying to watch as many Fred Astaire movies as I can, and last spring I happened to stumble across one called Ziegfeld Follies. It isn’t a movie with a plot like we generally think of. Rather it’s a series of song and dance numbers interspersed with comedy skits, like the original Ziegfeld shows that ran on Broadway for more than 25 years. And one of those numbers in particular completely captured my attention – in fact, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since. It’s called “Limehouse Blues.” Here’s a clip:

Lisha:  Wow, I have to say that’s really a beautiful Broadway/Hollywood style production number, but seeing Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer made up as Asian characters is pretty wild, isn’t it? I immediately thought of another film, Tony Randall’s 1964 movie 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, in which Randall assumes the role of 7 different mythic characters, including an ancient Chinese wise man, Dr. Lao, who claims to be 7,322 years old.

Did you know at one time Michael Jackson was under contract to remake the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao?

Willa:  No, I didn’t!

Lisha:  According to Captain EO producer/screenwriter Rusty Lemorande, it was just before the Evan Chandler scandal hit and unfortunately the project was scrapped due to the false allegations. That’s pretty disappointing, to say the least.

Willa:  Oh, it’s heartbreaking. It really shows what an immediate and devastating effect those allegations had on his career. And it makes me feel so angry and powerless to think Evan Chandler plotted that all out and got exactly what he wanted, just as he predicted in those phone conversations with David Schwartz before the scandal broke – importantly, at a time when Jordan Chandler was saying he hadn’t been molested:

I will get everything I want, and they will be totally – they will be destroyed forever. They will be destroyed. June is gonna lose Jordy. She will have no right to ever see him again.… Michael, the career will be over.

And he was right – everything he predicted came true. He got “everything I want,” meaning the money he was after, June lost custody of her son, and Michael Jackson’s career was destroyed. In addition to the terrible blow to him personally, just think of how frustrating that must have been for him as an artist.

Lisha:  Yes, for him as an artist and for us as an audience. We were all robbed. But while Michael Jackson’s career was damaged, it was far from “destroyed forever,” as Evan Chandler had planned. That’s pretty remarkable when you think about it. Anyone else most likely would have been ruined. In the end, Evan Chandler only succeeded in destroying himself, his family, and many, but not all, of Michael Jackson’s artistic and charitable projects. There were no winners in his vicious scheme.

Willa:  That’s true. We all lost. Michael Jackson still produced some amazing work, even though his career was irreparably damaged, but I do wonder what he might have accomplished if those allegations had never happened.

Lisha:  Thinking about the Dr. Lao movie, I can imagine Michael Jackson would have been wonderful in that role. And I have no doubt he would have enjoyed the challenge of taking on those 7 characters – Medusa, Pan, Merlin, Apollonius, The Serpent, The Abominable Snowman and the magical Dr. Lao.

Willa:  Yes, kind of like the multiple characters he plays in Ghosts.

Lisha:  Exactly. Jackson was also committed at that time to remaking a 1938 James Cagney film, Angels with Dirty Faces. I find it interesting that all of these films include the concept of different “faces.”

Willa:  That is intriguing, isn’t it? Especially since the idea of changing faces was such an important and recurrent motif in his art, from videos like Who Is It and Black or White to his own changing face.

So what do you think of Fred Astaire’s changing face in “Limehouse Blues”? Or more broadly, his playing the role of a Chinese immigrant? I have a conditioned reflex to be wary of any Western portrayal of the East as appropriation – or as Orientalism in the Edward Said sense, meaning an attempt to portray Eastern and middle-Eastern people and culture as exotic, mysterious, alluring but dangerous, and essentially unknowable. And I see that to some degree in “Limehouse Blues.” But at the same time, I actually think it’s attempting to do just the opposite. I’m really struck by the tenderness and humanity in Astaire’s portrayal of this character, and how we are encouraged to see the events that happen from his point of view. He isn’t a mysterious and unknowable cypher – he’s a sympathetic member of the human race with desires and frustrations we can all understand.

Lisha:  Well, I guess I’m still kind of on the fence with this. My knee jerk reaction is that it’s a bit offensive in the way it oversimplifies Chinese culture. I hear it immediately in the musical introduction, with the gong and traditional symphonic instruments playing a five-note scale to suggest Asian culture in a very Broadway show style of writing. You can hear the same sounds in the Dr. Lao trailer as well; it’s the typical formula for instantly depicting the Far East through the musical score. Then we see Fred Astaire made up with slanted eyes, wearing traditional Chinese clothes and shoes, which is a little disconcerting. But, I also wonder if I have been cued to judge it that way.

I mean, isn’t this sort of the whole point of drama? To act out something for the audience from another time and place and to play the role of someone you are not? And aren’t simple cues needed to some extent to achieve that, such as costuming, make-up, “ethnic” instruments and musical scales?

Willa:  Those are all really good questions, Lisha. Michael Jackson said a number of times that pretending to be “someone you are not,” as you say, was what he loved most about acting. And isn’t that what empathy is, really? Putting yourself in someone else’s position and trying to imagine things from their perspective?

Lisha:  I believe that it is. But what are the limits to how far you can go with this kind of oversimplification of culture before it starts getting really offensive?

Willa:  Exactly. Or before you start imposing your own values and beliefs onto another culture….

Lisha:  I agree with you that Astaire’s character invites the viewer to see events from his point of view and attempts to illustrate the commonality of human experience, rather than simply emphasizing difference. So, it may not be entirely fair to just dismiss this scene because it engages some of these stereotypes as a kind of cultural shorthand.

I’m thinking there is a real difference between intentional and unintentional uses of stereotypes. For example, in the opening of You Rock My World, there is an overt use of Chinese stereotypes – the restaurant, the rickshaw, the karate chop, etc. It leaves little room for doubt that the scene is intentionally invoking over-the-top racial stereotypes in order to make a point. In “Limehouse Blues” I’m not convinced there is much awareness of how problematic stereotypes can be. The scene is set in Limehouse, the Chinatown district of London, and the opening lyrics get my attention right away: “In Limehouse, where Orientals love to play / in Limehouse, where you can can hear the flutes all day.” Apparently the lyrics were cleaned up a bit from the original song, which included the line “learn from those Chinkies, those real China blues,” as in this 1934 recording by the Mills Brothers:

Willa:  Well, you’re right, Lisha, those lyrics are offensive, especially in the 1934 version – though as you point out, those lyrics were left out of the film. But there are a lot of stereotypes on display in the film too, as you described so well. Still, I’m reluctant to simply dismiss this performance as offensive and walk away. Like you, I’m really conflicted about it. And part of that, for me, is because I see so many connections to the panther dance in Black or White, and that’s led me to view “Limehouse Blues” in a different way, through the lens of Black or White.

You know, some of the most scornful criticism of Black or White when it first came out was because Michael Jackson still called himself black but appears white. For example, the Saturday Night Live character Queen Shenequa asked, “Black or White? If it doesn’t matter, then why are you so white?” But to me, his crossing of racial boundaries is one of the most brilliant aspects of that video. So why does it seem offensive, or at least problematic, when Fred Astaire crosses the boundary from white to Asian, but not when Michael Jackson crosses from black to white?

I agree with you that part of it comes from the awareness of the creators. Michael Jackson seems very aware of the implications of what he’s doing in Black or White, while it’s not so clear that Fred Astaire understood those implications in “Limehouse Blues.” I also wonder if another reason is because of how they’re positioned. In the U.S., where both films were made, white is the dominant culture and black and Chinese are considered minority cultures. So when Fred Astaire, a white man, appears Chinese it feels like appropriation, but when Michael Jackson, a black man, appears white it feels like resistance – or at worst assimilation.

Lisha:  Absolutely. I thought it was hilarious a few years back when some American Indian students at the University of Northern Colorado decided to re-name the basketball team “The Fightin’ Whities.” They chose a stereotypical white man as their new mascot and even changed their fight song to “Ever thang is gonna be, all White.”

Willa:  Really? That is too funny!

Lisha:   I thought that was a brilliant and very humorous way of calling attention to how offensive it is when the dominant culture appropriates a minority culture, like when American sports teams choose names like the “Redskins,” or the “Indians.” That really makes me angry, but I don’t have the same reaction to white stereotypes.

But now you’ve really got me curious about the connection between “Limehouse Blues” and the panther dance. I have to admit, I don’t see a clear connection.

Willa:  Hmmm … Well, now I’m going to have to think a minute. It’s one of those things I just sort of intuitively felt, so I’m not sure how well I can give reasons and put it into words …

I do remember that the first time I watched “Limehouse Blues,” I was immediately struck by the set – the darkened street with the lamppost and the row of shop fronts with big plate-glass windows. In fact, my first reaction was to wonder if it was the same set where the panther dance was filmed. You know, MGM used to have a huge backlot of permanent structures that were used over and over again in different movies, and I wondered if “Limehouse Blues,” Singin’ in the Rain, and the panther dance were all filmed on the same location. They weren’t – if you look carefully, the style of the lampposts and the shape of the windows are a little different in all three – but the overall mood of these sets is very similar, I think.

Limehouse Blues

Here’s a screen capture from “Limehouse Blues.” Doesn’t that look like the set for the panther dance – and for the signature Singin’ in the Rain number as well?

Lisha:  Definitely has a similar feel to it. And I see what you mean that it’s not an exact quote, as in other Fred Astaire films that Michael Jackson cited more directly, like The Band Wagon, which he references in Smooth Criminal, You Rock My World and “Dangerous.” It’s a little more subtle than that.

Willa:  Exactly. It’s like when the new VW Beetle came out – the designers said they weren’t trying to create an exact replica of the original Beetle, just something “evocative” of it. That’s how the Black or White set is. It’s not an exact duplicate, but it certainly evokes the set of “Limehouse Blues.”

Lisha:  That’s a good way of describing it.

Willa:  They also have a similar narrative structure. Usually when a movie includes a fantasy sequence, it’s just a brief interruption in the flow of “real life.” The movie will begin in real life, then switch to a quick daydream, and then return to real life. But in “Limehouse Blues,” we follow the main character on the streets of Limehouse for about 7 minutes; then he’s shot and loses consciousness, and we jump to the dream ballet for about 5 minutes; and then he comes to just long enough to see the woman he loves reject the fan he was holding when he was shot, and he loses consciousness again. So the daydream lasts nearly as long as the “real life” sequence, and the main character never reenters his former life.

Black or White has a much more complicated structure, but if we take a big picture view it’s pretty similar. We have a series of vignettes engaging with the real world that goes for about 7 minutes. Then a panther walks downstairs – into the unconscious? I think you suggested that in an earlier post, Lisha. He morphs into Michael Jackson at precisely the 7-minute mark, and then the panther dance begins. It lasts for about 4 minutes, and then we jump to Bart Simpson and the film ends. So as in “Limehouse Blues,” we never see the main character reenter the real world, which is very unusual.

Lisha:  Wow, that is interesting. It makes me think about the other short film Michael Jackson made with John Landis, Thriller. At the very end, when Michael Jackson comforts his girlfriend and offers to take her home, it appears that the dream world has finally been broken and we are now watching the action from the perspective of “real life.” But then he turns around and looks into the camera, and suddenly, there are those werewolf eyes again. So when the film ends on that still shot, we know the dream isn’t over yet.

Willa:  Oh, interesting! I hadn’t thought about that.

Lisha:  And I’ve never noticed that the panther morphs into Michael Jackson right at the 7-minute mark in the film. That is fascinating, since the number 7 is also a recurring theme in his work, such as the “777” armband he wears in the HIStory teaser, not to mention the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao film he was interested in remaking. And as the black panther walks down those stairs and morphs into Michael Jackson, I do feel like he has just walked into the deep recesses of Michael Jackson’s unconscious mind.

Willa:  I agree. And then another parallel is the scene where Michael Jackson’s character picks up a trash can and throws it though the store window. That’s usually seen as a reference to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, but there’s a very similar scene in “Limehouse Blues” as well. Interestingly, in Do the Right Thing, a black character breaks the window of a white-owned business (an Italian pizzeria) but in “Limehouse Blues,” a white character breaks the window of a Chinese business.

One very important similarity, I think, is how we as viewers are positioned. In all three films, we are not in the “white” position. In Black or White and Do the Right Thing, we are on the outside in the “black” position, watching the window break from the point of view of the person breaking it. Here’s a clip from Do the Right Thing:

And in “Limehouse Blues,” we are on the inside, in the “Chinese” position. We as an audience are inside the store, looking out the window and watching the white thugs break the glass toward us.

And actually, I guess that brings me around again to the main reason why I’m conflicted but not offended by “Limehouse Blues.” Usually in a film by a white production team, we are encouraged to see things from a white perspective, and to see whites as sympathetic figures – heroic, honest, virtuous – while minorities are portrayed as either not virtuous or simply as background characters, at best a comic sidekick. But in “Limehouse Blues,” the Chinese character is portrayed in very sympathetic ways, I think, and the white characters are thugs. And we’re encouraged to see things from his point of view. That’s a complete reversal from what we usually see.

Lisha:  You are so right about that, Willa. And it’s not very common to see white men criminalized in that way either, unless it’s kind of a glorified thing, like Prohibition era gangsters or white collar crime.

Willa:  That’s true.

Lisha:  I guess the most obvious and striking similarity between “Limehouse Blues” and Black or White, for me, is a kind of racial cross dressing that happens in them both. As you’ve said, the criticism Michael Jackson faced was that he suddenly appeared white, not black, in that film.

I’m also thinking about something else you said earlier: “when Fred Astaire, a white man, appears Chinese it feels like appropriation, but when Michael Jackson, a black man, appears white it feels like resistance – or at worst assimilation.” As we know, Michael Jackson mastered the art of crossover long before Black or White, meaning he learned to make performance choices that appealed to multiple markets. Since market categories are often divided along racial lines, black performers have had to appeal to white sensibilities in order to reach a mass audience.

I think there are some great examples of Michael Jackson’s crossover talent in the early television series he did, and many of those performances demonstrate his fondness for Fred Astaire Hollywood-style production numbers. Here’s a number from The Jacksons variety show that begins with a lamppost/cityscape scene similar to what we see in the panther dance, “Limehouse Blues” and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain, a film the panther dance is often compared to. It also has many elements from The Band Wagon and Top Hat, and features the song “Get Happy” that Judy Garland sang in Summer Stock.

Willa:  That is such a great example, Lisha! It really shows how well versed he was in the big song and dance numbers from the heyday of Hollywood musicals, doesn’t it? And from a very young age. Even the costumes – the white suit and white fedora with a black band, and the red dress with black gloves up past the elbows – are straight out “Girl Hunt Ballet,” Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s big number in The Band Wagon. Here’s a clip:

Lisha: It looks like a lot of The Jacksons variety show clip came straight out of that film. But, I also see a couple of things in Michael Jackson’s performance that could possibly elaborate on his connection to Fred Astaire. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend an outstanding presentation at Columbia College in Chicago by dance historians Bonnie Brooks and Raquel Monroe, titled “The Postmodern Genius of Michael Jackson.” They described Michael Jackson’s dance performances as a virtual history of dance and highlighted how he had synthesized so many disparate influences in such a seamless and original way, it could only be called “genius.” One of the most intriguing clips they used to illustrate this was a performance by the Nicholas Brothers from the film Stormy Weather. In The Jacksons clip above (starting around 2:25) I noticed the staircase, the ramp and the splits at the end, are quite similar to the end of the Nicholas Brothers performance:

Willa:  Oh, and the spins as well!  Wow, Lisha, when you put them side by side, you really can see those influences. And according to Fayard Nicholas, Fred Astaire told him, “That is the greatest dance number I’ve ever seen on film.” (Here’s a link to the Fayard Nicholas interview. That comment is near the end – about 7 minutes in.)

You know, one thing that strikes me about all this, Lisha, is that Stormy Weather is loosely based on the life of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the elegant but expressive dancer who helped pioneer dance and choreography for film. For example, he danced with Shirley Temple in a series of very popular films in the 1930s – and incidentally, I believe that was the first time a black man had ever danced with a white woman, or actually a young white girl, on either stage or film. The Nicholas Brothers pay tribute to Robinson in Stormy Weather, and Fred Astaire pays tribute to him in The Band Wagon (which mentions him by name) and in a very problematic number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” from the film Swing Time. So Bill Robinson influenced both the Nicholas Brothers and Fred Astaire, and then they greatly influenced Michael Jackson who, as you said, encompassed “a virtual history of dance.”

Lisha:  It seems Bill Robinson was a major influence for all these artists. Fred Astaire’s work is based, at least in part, on the black tap dance tradition, as Brenda Dixon Gottschild notes in Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era. We know Michael Jackson was influenced by the black tap dance tradition as well – he even danced with the Nicholas Brothers in 1977 and possibly studied with them, too:

So the question is, who is appropriating whose culture in all these examples? Tap dance has roots in both European and African American traditions. Much has been said about Michael Jackson borrowing from Fred Astaire and Hollywood musicals, but little is said about how much white performers owe to black dancers such as Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers.

Willa:  That’s an excellent point, Lisha. So when Michael Jackson quotes Fred Astaire in his dancing, is he pointing back to a white or black tradition? The answer to that is pretty complicated, as you suggest.

Lisha:  At the same time that Hollywood marginalized black performers, it also capitalized on their talents. Anthropologist Elizabeth Chin wrote an incredible essay for the Journal of Popular Music Studies titled “Michael Jackson’s Panther Dance: Double Consciousness and the Uncanny Business of Performing While Black.” She sees a direct connection between Stormy Weather and Michael Jackson’s panther dance in this regard, as a dream ballet that represents “part of a continuing struggle on the part of African American artists to present their work on their own terms.”

Willa:  Chin’s article is fascinating, especially the way she looks at the dream ballet, which she believes originated with Stormy Weather and perhaps reached its fullest expression in the panther dance. She sees the dream ballet as a place where black artists could break out of white stereotypes to some degree and express their own dreams and their own perspective – though as Chin acknowledges, this was tempered by the fact that those dreams and perspectives had to be made palatable to a white audience.

But I’m not sure Jackson did temper his dreams and his anger in the panther dance – at least not sufficiently for some white sensibilities, which is one reason it caused such an uproar when it first aired.

Lisha:  I agree with you on that. When Michael Jackson puts on his hat and steps into the “spotlight” to perform a hyper-sexualized, hyper-criminalized tap dance, he is “performing” his race and gender in a very complex way that I believe exposes the beliefs, perceptions and expectations of white audiences. Again he embodies the lyric from “Is It Scary,” “I’m gonna be, exactly what you want to see.” As he acts out the dominant culture’s nightmarish perceptions of black men as hyper-sexualized criminals and entertainers, he also expresses his anger towards those beliefs and expectations. The dance is incredibly beautiful, but it’s also extremely intense and uncomfortable. “Shattering” is the word American studies professor Eric Lott used to describe the dance.

Willa:  That’s a good description.

Lisha:  But I think Chin makes an excellent point when she contrasts Gene Kelly’s “jaunty puddle splashing” in Singin’ in the Rain with “the stomping and screaming Jackson” in the panther dance. The black dreamscape is interpreted as taking back territory that white dancers appropriated from black tappers, something I think Kelly might be acknowledging in his performance with the Nicholas Brothers in The Pirate:

Willa:  That’s a great clip, Lisha!  And I agree that Gene Kelly seems to be paying homage to the Nicholas Brothers, specifically, as well as the black dance tradition in general – a tradition that both he and Fred Astaire drew from extensively in their work.

And that reminds me once again of that very problematic number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” that Astaire apparently performed as a tribute to Bill Robinson. What’s most disturbing about it is that he performs in blackface, and this is not in some obscure film no one ever saw. It’s from Swing Time, which many critics, including Roger Ebert, see as the best of his collaborations with Ginger Rodgers. I couldn’t find a clip of the entire number, but here it is in two pieces:

I remember the first time I saw this. I was stunned, and so disappointed he had done it. It feels deeply offensive, viewing it nearly 80 years after it was filmed, and I can’t shake that feeling. And I wonder what it felt like for Michael Jackson to see this, knowing how much he admired Fred Astaire?

Lisha:  That scene is painful to watch, for sure.

Willa:  It really is. But you know, if we look at this clip more carefully, there are some very interesting details that may complicate how we interpret it – especially those silhouettes that dance behind him in the second clip. Those silhouettes seem to represent the black dancers who have gone before him – specifically Bill Robinson, the “Bojangles” mentioned in the title – and those silhouettes are larger than he is. In fact, they tower over him, which makes sense psychologically. After all, our mentors can intimidate us as well as inspire us.

Those silhouettes also seem to be better dancers than he is (though of course, he’s dancing both parts). In fact, at one point he struggles to keep up with them. Later he proves he’s learned well and is a capable dancer – in fact, ultimately he seems to out-dance them. But ironically, even that can be read as a sign of how over-awed he is by them. It reminds me of Harold Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence,” where he talks about how artists tend to undervalue their immediate predecessors simply to give themselves a little breathing room. The fact that Fred Astaire felt the need to prove himself in competition with those figures from the past reveals just how much they loomed over his imagination.

It’s also interesting to consider who’s foregrounded in this number. Fred Astaire is out front so it would seem to be him, but for me anyway, I can’t take my eyes off those silhouettes, and they’re actually leading the choreography for much of it. So if we look at this number as a reflection of Fred Astaire’s mind, there’s a lot going on in this performance – much more than we may think at first glance.

Lisha:  Wow, that really is interesting and gives a lot of credence to the idea that this could be seen as a heartfelt tribute to Bill Robinson, despite the fact that the blackface issue is about as deeply disappointing as it gets. Just like “Limehouse Blues,” it is hard to dismiss the number entirely, as much as it seems we should. If you look at the live performances of “Smooth Criminal” from the Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory world tours, it’s pretty clear that Michael Jackson himself gives a nod to this scene. He uses those silhouettes himself, possibly inserting himself symbolically into the history of dance, and paying tribute back to Astaire.

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Lisha!  And a very interesting way of interpreting this. You’re right, he does use those silhouettes a lot – on tour, as you say, and in the You Rock My World video, and in a very interesting and nuanced performance of “Dangerous” at the 1995 MTV awards. Here’s a clip:

Lisha:  I don’t know that I had ever really thought about those silhouettes in this performance before, or how they were borrowed from both Smooth Criminal and Fred Astaire. What’s so interesting to me about this is that I usually think about this performance in reference to Judy Garland’s “Get Happy” in Summer Stock:

But now that you mention it, he has synthesized this performance with so many Fred Astaire quotes, you could see it either way.

Willa:  Wow, Lisha, that’s incredible! There really are strong similarities to “Get Happy,” aren’t there?  Especially in the intro. I hadn’t connected that – too focused on Fred Astaire, I guess. Astaire is referenced throughout the MTV “Dangerous” performance – from the lyrics and spoken lines that directly quote the “Girl Hunt Ballet” number in The Band Wagon; to the allusions to Smooth Criminal, as you mentioned earlier, Lisha, which is Michael Jackson’s artistic response to “Girl Hunt Ballet”; to those large silhouettes about 4:15 minutes in.

Like the silhouettes in “Bojangles of Harlem,” they move independently of Michael Jackson as he dances in front of them. But while those silhouettes seem to challenge Fred Astaire and even rebel against him, the silhouettes behind Michael Jackson nod approvingly and seem to support and encourage him. To me, that suggests he felt much more connected and aligned with his predecessors – more at peace with them – than Fred Astaire did.

Lisha:  It seems many great Michael Jackson moments can be traced back to Fred Astaire, like the ceiling dance in Ghosts, which reminds me of “You’re All the World to Me” from Royal Wedding:

Fred Astaire’s kicking and shattering glass in “One for My Baby” from The Sky’s the Limit suggests to me the glass-shattering kicks in One More Chance or the sound effects in the opening of “Jam” to begin the Dangerous album:

Willa:  Oh interesting, Lisha!  I’d never made those connections before.

Lisha:  Michael Jackson clearly admired and emulated Fred Astaire, so talk about feeling conflicted!  Seeing Astaire in blackface in the Bojangles number is an intensely uncomfortable experience, much more so than seeing him portray a Chinese character. It would take a very lengthy and intense discussion to unpack all the reasons why that is so.

Willa:  I agree absolutely. I feel so conflicted about that number, even kind of shameful watching it, but at the same time I think it’s an important discussion to have. And fortunately, there’s an expert on the subject who’s willing to join us and help us talk through all this.

Harriet Manning has just published a book, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask, that explores some of these issues we’ve been grappling with today. So far I’ve only read the first two chapters, but what I’ve read is fascinating, and it presents a very different way of seeing both the blackface tradition – which was extremely popular in both the US and the UK for more than a century – as well as Michael Jackson in relation to that tradition. And Harriet has very kindly agreed to talk with us about it.  So I hope you’ll join us again, Lisha, as we explore this uncomfortable topic a little bit further.

Lisha:  I would love to!  Harriet’s book sounds fascinating, and she is just the kind of expert we need on this subject. I’m really looking forward to reading her book, and really digging into the subject even more. As a human family, we still have a lot of healing to do on this issue.

Special Note:

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. is currently featuring an exhibition, “Dancing the Dream,” that celebrates American dancers who have harnessed America’s diversity and dynamism into dance styles that define the national experience, culture, and identity. The exhibit is named for  Michael Jackson’s 1992 book of poetry, stories, and essays and will run through July 13, 2014. It includes a holographic poster of Jackson and photographs of Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers.  Here’s a link to an article about the exhibit.

Summer Rewind 2013, Week 5: Moonwalker

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on November 28, 2012. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

The Moon is Walking

Willa: You know, Joie, we’ve been chatting for over a year now and still haven’t talked about Moonwalker, Michael Jackson’s only full-length film, which is kind of shocking.

Joie: It is shocking, isn’t it? And it never even crossed our minds until fairly recently.

Willa: Well, actually, it’s been in the back of my mind for a while now, just bubbling away, but it just never felt quite ready somehow.

Joie: I think we were sort of dancing around it because we just weren’t sure which way to come at it, you know?

Willa: You could be right. There’s so much to talk about, it’s kind of overwhelming! But this week I was hoping we could begin looking at Moonwalker, and I think a good place to start is its structure.

When Moonwalker first came out it was generally well received, but it was criticized for not having a central plot running through the entire movie. The primary criticism was that it felt like a bunch of videos stuck together, rather than a feature-length film. And it’s true that Moonwalker is structured as a series of short segments. In other words, it’s more like a book of poems than a novel, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a cohesive structure. For example, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is a collection of poems, but it still has a highly complex structure, and so does Moonwalker. However, like Leaves of Grass it’s structured thematically, rather than relying on a central plot.

Joie: That’s an interesting analogy, Willa – comparing Moonwalker to Leaves of Grass in terms of structure.

Willa: Well, I just think it’s odd that critics seem to assume every feature-length film has to be structured like a novel. There are a lot of different ways to express ideas and emotions through film – like Koyaanisqatsi by Philip Glass. It doesn’t have a plot or characters or dialogue, but it still communicates a powerful message – and it does so using a structure that’s appropriate to the ideas and emotions it’s trying to convey.

A useful way to approach this, I think, and begin thinking about the structure of Moonwalker in a different way – not as “lacking” a plot but as striving for something different – is to compare it with The Band Wagon, a 1953 film Michael Jackson loved starring Fred Astaire and directed by Vincente Minnelli (Liza Minnelli’s father). The Band Wagon does have something of a plot, which in a fascinating loop-de-loop way is the story of its own creation, but that plot is really just a device for showcasing the talents of the main character, Tony Hunter. As one of the on-screen playwrights describes it, it has “just enough plot to make him do lots of gay and varied numbers.” Structurally, The Band Wagon is primarily a series of shorts that are related thematically, just like Moonwalker. And in fact, Moonwalker can be interpreted as an artistic response to The Band Wagon, with the individual segments correlating in interesting ways.

Joie: I know you talk a lot about The Band Wagon in your book, Willa, and I found it all very fascinating. But I’ve never actually seen the whole movie. I’ve seen bits and pieces of it but, I’ve never sat and watched the entire film from start to finish.

Willa: Oh Joie, you’ve gotta see it! You know, I hadn’t seen it either before I started working on the book, but I was having a really hard time figuring out what was going on in Smooth Criminal. It’s like I could feel all these contradictory emotions I couldn’t explain and couldn’t understand. So I went looking for clues in The Band Wagon since it was a major inspiration for Smooth Criminal, and that sent me back to Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury. And really, looking at those three together as a progression opened up Smooth Criminal for me in ways I never could have predicted. I see it in a completely different way now that simply wasn’t available to me before.

So you simply have to see The Band Wagon, Joie. It’s really fun – I think you’ll eat it up – and I bet you’ll see lots of connections to Moonwalker. There are so many fun little references like costumes and props and dance moves, and the two films are structured in similar ways as well.

The Band Wagon opens at an auction of some of “Tony Hunter’s Personal Effects, as Used in His Starring Roles.” His iconic cane, top hat, and white gloves (two, not one) are up for sale, but no one is bidding. At his peak, Hunter had a string of hit Broadway musicals and Hollywood films, but he hasn’t had a hit in years and the public has lost interest in him. We then meet Hunter himself as he overhears passengers on a train talk about how “he was good 12 or 15 years ago, but the columnists … say he’s through.”

Finally he arrives in New York, and he’s pleasantly surprised when a flock of reporters gathers in the train station to ask him questions. However, they abandon him as soon as their real target, Ava Gardner, appears. Hunter then breaks into a sad rendition of “By Myself” as he walks quietly through the train station.

The repeated message of these opening scenes is that Hunter was once harassed by his celebrity – by the crush of fans and reporters and photographers that accompanies fame – but ironically, now he’s tormented by their absence. It’s a sure sign that his career is in serious decline, for one thing, and he knows it – and so do the fans and reporters.

Joie: That’s interesting, Willa. Especially when contrasted with the opening scenes from Moonwalker. The movie opens, of course, with concert footage of Michael performing “Man in the Mirror.” And those concert shots are interspersed with famous, and infamous, shots throughout history with lots of politicians and humanitarians and starving children and such. And we also see lots of shots of fans in the audience screaming and fainting and going nuts as they watch him up on stage.

And then, when the song comes to a close, we suddenly hear various audio clips of scenes throughout his lifetime: being introduced with his brothers as the Jackson 5 on the Ed Sullivan show, a song being announced on the radio, building a shrine to Elizabeth Taylor in his home, being admitted to the hospital when his hair caught fire on the set of the Pepsi commercial, Thriller being listed as the biggest-selling album of all time, becoming the first artist to generate six number one singles off one album. We even hear President Ronald Reagan’s voice commending him on his great success.

And we hear all of this as a camera pans around what is presumably a dressing room or a bedroom and we see sparkly costumes, the sequined glove, old home photos and such sitting next to Grammy Awards and MTV Awards, and pictures of him with Diana Ross and Quincy Jones. Even an adorable shot of baby Michael sitting on a couch, and the intended message is clear – this life of celebrity, fame and music is all this person has ever known. In fact, the very next song we hear is “Music and Me,” a poignant reminder that Michael Jackson and music have indeed been together a very long time.

Willa: That’s interesting, Joie. I hadn’t thought about that quite that way before. I was aware of the focus on his celebrity, but didn’t think about the fact that it spanned so much of his life, beginning in childhood – that “this life of celebrity, fame and music is all this person has ever known,” as you said.

Joie: It is interesting, isn’t it? It’s almost the exact opposite situation from the one Tony Hunter finds himself in on that train. Michael’s career, though it began a very long time ago, is still in full swing and he’s still harassed with the ‘crush of fans and reporters and photographers that accompanies fame,’ as you said earlier.

Willa: That’s true. So he’s in a very different stage of his career than Tony Hunter, and while The Band Wagon shows us the problems an artist faces when his career is in decline, Moonwalker shows us there are problems when he’s at his peak as well. He explores that more fully in the Speed Demon and Leave Me Alone segments that follow the opening section. We talked about both of those in September – specifically how he’s exploring the complicated issue of fame, and how that’s been a wonderful opportunity for him but a difficult burden as well.

And I’m very interested in what you just said about the opening montage of “famous, and infamous, shots throughout history,” as you put it. By beginning that way, Moonwalker places art in a very different context than The Band Wagon does. It’s implying that this isn’t just about Michael Jackson as a person, entertainer, and cultural icon. There are other issues at stake – issues of global importance that can make a real difference in people’s lives.

Joie: That’s very true, Willa. And I think perhaps the message here is that music can have a real impact on those issues of global importance. Or maybe that the artist making the music – since he is so connected to his audience – has the power to impact those global issues. Using the power of art as a means of social change.

Willa: I agree, and of course we know he felt very strongly about the power of art to not only bring people together, but also challenge our perceptions and beliefs and lead us to see things in a different way. So in this section, he’s really raising some important philosophical questions about the function of art. And there’s a direct correlation to that in The Band Wagon also – for example, in its signature number, “That’s Entertainment”:

As we can see very clearly in this clip, the primary issue is high art versus popular art, and as Nina pointed out in a comment a few weeks ago, there were specific historical, cultural, and even political reasons for why that was such an important topic back then:

Film scholar Rick Altman, who wrote a very helpful book (“The American Film Musical”), … writes that one of the social functions of musicals is to articulate some ways by which millions of Americans, many of whom were European immigrants in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s – when the genre was in its heyday – could know themselves AS Americans, and establish a sense of national identity and solidarity. So a number of binary oppositions are set up in the narrative, in order to achieve this. In the “show musical” (a major subgenre), the opposition between “high” and “low” culture is often key to the whole story. Films like “The Band Wagon” set up a contrast – and competition – between forms that emanate from the European classical tradition (like ballet, modern “art” dance, symphony orchestra, string quartet, etc.) vs. things like American popular forms like swing, jazz, pop, and show tunes themselves! In this way, “The Band Wagon” (and even more, “Singin’ in the Rain”) become a kind of advertisement for Hollywood and American show business itself. Of course, good ol’ American knowhow wins out at the end….

So as Nina points out, the “key to the whole story” of The Band Wagon – and many other musicals of that era – is this competition between (American) popular entertainment and (European) high art. Of course, this disconnect between pop art and high art is something Michael Jackson faced as well. His work was misinterpreted and horribly undervalued by critics, I think, because it was seen as “just” entertainment, so they failed to see the artistry of his work.

Joie: I love that comment from Nina!

Willa: Isn’t it great?

Joie: It really does underscore the issue of high art vs. popular, or low, art. And you’re right. Michael Jackson faced this issue constantly during his career and his work was often criticized as being “just” entertainment, or too commercial, if you will. But in Moonwalker – and not just in that opening segment but, throughout the whole film really – he seems to be focusing on using his art to attempt to bring about that change he sings of in “Man in the Mirror.”

Willa: He really does – we see that from the opening shots of Moonwalker to the haunting rendition of “The Moon is Walking” by Ladysmith Black Mambazo during the closing credits. He’s much more interested in exploring the cultural functions of art, and how art can be used to effect deep cultural shifts in how we perceive and interact with one another. As you said so well, Joie, “Using the power of art as a means of social change.” We see that idea repeated throughout Moonwalker – for example in “Badder,” which is all about kids using the power of art to stand up to gangs.

Joie: That is a really interesting section of Moonwalker, Willa. That whole “Badder” section. I think most people really love that part because it’s so not what you expect when the camera pans up from the silver-tipped boots, all the way over the buckles and belts costume, up to the face. It’s a little bit of a shock seeing that cute little boy staring back at you. But the interesting part to me is that they then recreate the entire Bad video using this cast of amazing child dancers.

You know, I’ve always thought it was really cute and fun to watch. But, since talking to you, I have come to realize that almost every artistic thing Michael did, he did it for a specific reason. So that makes me wonder … what is really going on in this “Badder” section? What’s the message or the lesson here?

Willa: Well, that’s always a complicated question, but one way to approach it is by comparing it with what’s going on in The Band Wagon, because once again there’s a direct correlation. While the “Badder” section of Moonwalker has child actors dressed up as adults, and singing and dancing as adults, the “Triplets” number in The Band Wagon has adult actors dressed up as babies, singing and dancing as babies. But if we look at the lyrics, we see they aren’t really like babies at all:

We do everything alike
We look alike
We dress alike
We walk alike
We talk alike
And what is more
We hate each other very much
We hate our folks …
How I wish I had a gun
A wittle gun
It would be fun
To shoot the other two
And be only one

It’s a funny segment but surprisingly violent, and actually the humor comes from the irony of these little lisping toddlers (“A wittle gun”) harboring such bloody thoughts about their siblings. Here’s a video clip:

So “Triplets” takes a situation we tend to think of as very safe and domestic – three babies in highchairs – injects it with an unexpected note of violence, and explores the comic aspects of that. But of course, by the time Michael Jackson created Moonwalker, the world had changed. Many neighborhoods were erupting in gang violence, children were getting caught in the crossfire, and the idea of children thinking bloody thoughts wasn’t funny any more. So he’s approaching the issue of children and violence in a very different, and much more serious way.

Joie: I have to say, Willa, it is a little bit startling to me to watch that “Triplets” clip because the words of their little song are so very violent. It’s odd really, and I think that’s because of what you just said. The world was a very different place back when The Band Wagon was made and this kind of joke wasn’t looked at in the same way it is today. Very interesting.

Willa: It is, isn’t it? There’s a similar relation between “Girl Hunt Ballet” and Smooth Criminal, which are the penultimate numbers of The Band Wagon and Moonwalker. “Girl Hunt Ballet” ends with Fred Astaire’s character shooting and killing the woman he said he wanted to care for and protect, which is pretty shocking. Here’s a video clip.

But what’s really shocking if you stop and think about it is that this number is a comedy – just like the murderous infants in “Triplets.” And again, Michael Jackson reworks that, making it darker, more serious, and more complicated by encouraging us to care about the murdered woman. As he asks over and over again, “Annie, are you ok?”

We could spend a month just talking about the many parallels and contrasts between “Girl Hunt Ballet” and Smooth Criminal, but Nina shared a clip a few weeks ago that highlights some of those connections – not only to Smooth Criminal but also You Rock My World and “Dangerous.” And there’s a subtle reference in Billie Jean as well.

Joie: That is so interesting, Willa. You know, before we began talking, I never knew that Michael had taken so much inspiration from The Band Wagon before. In fact, I love old movies and musicals but, I never even paid much attention to all the similarities before you started pointing them out to me. And now that you have, it is just fascinating!

Willa: Isn’t it? It’s so amazing to me how he drew inspiration from so many sources – and not just in a superficial way, but in a way that makes you realize just how knowledgeable and engaged he was with all these different genres. Not long after he died, Kobe Bryant talked a number of times about how Michael Jackson turned him on to classics like Fred Astaire movies and other big Hollywood musicals. Here’s a clip from a press conference:

And when you really look at those movies and compare them to Michael Jackson’s work, you see how deeply they influenced him. Nina has commented about this a number of times – like here when comparing Say, Say, Say to Singing in the Rain.

Joie: That’s very insightful. I never would have made that comparison before.

Willa: Oh, I’ve learned a lot from Nina’s comments. You know, she’s a filmmaker and artist (she’s made some really interesting Michael Jackson collages) as well as a professor of film studies, and she just seems to have a wealth of knowledge about filmmaking and film history at her fingertips.

That brings us to the finale of each. The Band Wagon ends with an emotional reprise of “That’s Entertainment.” So the final message of The Band Wagon seems to be that Tony Hunter’s career may have been in decline, but he’s still a star, still a talented entertainer, loved and respected by his peers – and that includes his costar, a classically trained “high art” ballerina who has fallen in love with him. So on several different levels, the finale reinforces the message that entertainment, meaning popular art, reigns supreme over high art.

Joie: Well, the final message I get from Moonwalker is that popular art, and perhaps music in particular, is universal. It has the capacity to draw people together – people from all walks of life, all nationalities, all races, all ages, and all economic ends of the spectrum. And the final song I think illustrates that message well. It’s Michael’s rendition of the Beatles’ “Come Together,” and it’s perfect. A rock song written by the incomparable Lennon and McCartney and sung to perfection by the biggest entertainer in the world, who just happens to be a Black man. Come together, indeed.

Willa: That’s interesting, Joie. The title kind of says it all, doesn’t it?

Joie: You know, it really does. And so does the title “That’s Entertainment.”

Willa: That’s true! They both summarize the central theme of the film in the title of the last song. How interesting!

And then Moonwalker adds a little lagniappe by giving us Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing “The Moon is Walking” during the final credits. I just love the mood of that song and the way they perform it, and I love the way the background images shift back and forth between scenes from Smooth Criminal and the singers of Ladysmith Black Mambazo in period costumes, as if they were part of Smooth Criminal as well. And I love the repeated refrain, “Come and see, the moon is dancing.” To me it feels like they’re testifying.

You know, Michael Jackson’s character is so connected to the moon in this film (after all, the title is Moonwalker) that, for me personally, that line feels like a testament to the power of art – his art. He probably didn’t mean it that way – he probably just liked the synchronicity of the words “Moonwalker” and “The Moon is Walking.” But that’s what I think of when I hear “Come along, my brother / Come along, my sister / Come and see, the moon is dancing.” They’re testifying to the power of his art.

The Moon is Walking

Willa:  You know, Joie, we’ve been chatting for over a year now and still haven’t talked about Moonwalker, Michael Jackson’s only full-length film, which is kind of shocking.

Joie:  It is shocking, isn’t it? And it never even crossed our minds until fairly recently.

Willa:  Well, actually, it’s been in the back of my mind for a while now, just bubbling away, but it just never felt quite ready somehow.

Joie:  I think we were sort of dancing around it because we just weren’t sure which way to come at it, you know?

Willa:  You could be right. There’s so much to talk about, it’s kind of overwhelming!  But this week I was hoping we could begin looking at Moonwalker, and I think a good place to start is its structure.

When Moonwalker first came out it was generally well received, but it was criticized for not having a central plot running through the entire movie. The primary criticism was that it felt like a bunch of videos stuck together, rather than a feature-length film. And it’s true that Moonwalker is structured as a series of short segments. In other words, it’s more like a book of poems than a novel, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a cohesive structure. For example, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is a collection of poems, but it still has a highly complex structure, and so does Moonwalker. However, like Leaves of Grass it’s structured thematically, rather than relying on a central plot.

Joie:  That’s an interesting analogy, Willa – comparing Moonwalker to Leaves of Grass in terms of structure.

Willa:  Well, I just think it’s odd that critics seem to assume every feature-length film has to be structured like a novel. There are a lot of different ways to express ideas and emotions through film – like Koyaanisqatsi by Philip Glass. It doesn’t have a plot or characters or dialogue, but it still communicates a powerful message – and it does so using a structure that’s appropriate to the ideas and emotions it’s trying to convey.

A useful way to approach this, I think, and begin thinking about the structure of Moonwalker in a different way – not as “lacking” a plot but as striving for something different – is to compare it with The Band Wagon, a 1953 film Michael Jackson loved starring Fred Astaire and directed by Vincente Minnelli (Liza Minnelli’s father). The Band Wagon does have something of a plot, which in a fascinating loop-de-loop way is the story of its own creation, but that plot is really just a device for showcasing the talents of the main character, Tony Hunter. As one of the on-screen playwrights describes it, it has “just enough plot to make him do lots of gay and varied numbers.” Structurally, The Band Wagon is primarily a series of shorts that are related thematically, just like Moonwalker. And in fact, Moonwalker can be interpreted as an artistic response to The Band Wagon, with the individual segments correlating in interesting ways.

Joie:  I know you talk a lot about The Band Wagon in your book, Willa, and I found it all very fascinating. But I’ve never actually seen the whole movie. I’ve seen bits and pieces of it but, I’ve never sat and watched the entire film from start to finish.

Willa:  Oh Joie, you’ve gotta see it!  You know, I hadn’t seen it either before I started working on the book, but I was having a really hard time figuring out what was going on in Smooth Criminal. It’s like I could feel all these contradictory emotions I couldn’t explain and couldn’t understand. So I went looking for clues in The Band Wagon since it was a major inspiration for Smooth Criminal, and that sent me back to Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury. And really, looking at those three together as a progression opened up Smooth Criminal for me in ways I never could have predicted. I see it in a completely different way now that simply wasn’t available to me before.

So you simply have to see The Band Wagon, Joie. It’s really fun – I think you’ll eat it up – and I bet you’ll see lots of connections to Moonwalker. There are so many fun little references like costumes and props and dance moves, and the two films are structured in similar ways as well.

The Band Wagon opens at an auction of some of “Tony Hunter’s Personal Effects, as Used in His Starring Roles.” His iconic cane, top hat, and white gloves (two, not one) are up for sale, but no one is bidding. At his peak, Hunter had a string of hit Broadway musicals and Hollywood films, but he hasn’t had a hit in years and the public has lost interest in him. We then meet Hunter himself as he overhears passengers on a train talk about how “he was good 12 or 15 years ago, but the columnists … say he’s through.”

Finally he arrives in New York, and he’s pleasantly surprised when a flock of reporters gathers in the train station to ask him questions. However, they abandon him as soon as their real target, Ava Gardner, appears. Hunter then breaks into a sad rendition of “By Myself” as he walks quietly through the train station.

The repeated message of these opening scenes is that Hunter was once harassed by his celebrity – by the crush of fans and reporters and photographers that accompanies fame – but ironically, now he’s tormented by their absence. It’s a sure sign that his career is in serious decline, for one thing, and he knows it – and so do the fans and reporters.

Joie:  That’s interesting, Willa. Especially when contrasted with the opening scenes from Moonwalker. The movie opens, of course, with concert footage of Michael performing “Man in the Mirror.” And those concert shots are interspersed with famous, and infamous, shots throughout history with lots of politicians and humanitarians and starving children and such. And we also see lots of shots of fans in the audience screaming and fainting and going nuts as they watch him up on stage.

And then, when the song comes to a close, we suddenly hear various audio clips of scenes throughout his lifetime: being introduced with his brothers as the Jackson 5 on the Ed Sullivan show, a song being announced on the radio, building a shrine to Elizabeth Taylor in his home, being admitted to the hospital when his hair caught fire on the set of the Pepsi commercial, Thriller being listed as the biggest-selling album of all time, becoming the first artist to generate six number one singles off one album. We even hear President Ronald Reagan’s voice commending him on his great success.

And we hear all of this as a camera pans around what is presumably a dressing room or a bedroom and we see sparkly costumes, the sequined glove, old home photos and such sitting next to Grammy Awards and MTV Awards, and pictures of him with Diana Ross and Quincy Jones. Even an adorable shot of baby Michael sitting on a couch, and the intended message is clear – this life of celebrity, fame and music is all this person has ever known. In fact, the very next song we hear is “Music and Me,” a poignant reminder that Michael Jackson and music have indeed been together a very long time.

Willa:  That’s interesting, Joie. I hadn’t thought about that quite that way before. I was aware of the focus on his celebrity, but didn’t think about the fact that it spanned so much of his life, beginning in childhood – that “this life of celebrity, fame and music is all this person has ever known,” as you said.

Joie:  It is interesting, isn’t it? It’s almost the exact opposite situation from the one Tony Hunter finds himself in on that train. Michael’s career, though it began a very long time ago, is still in full swing and he’s still harassed with the ‘crush of fans and reporters and photographers that accompanies fame,’ as you said earlier.

Willa:  That’s true. So he’s in a very different stage of his career than Tony Hunter, and while The Band Wagon shows us the problems an artist faces when his career is in decline, Moonwalker shows us there are problems when he’s at his peak as well. He explores that more fully in the Speed Demon and Leave Me Alone segments that follow the opening section. We talked about both of those in September – specifically how he’s exploring the complicated issue of fame, and how that’s been a wonderful opportunity for him but a difficult burden as well.

And I’m very interested in what you just said about the opening montage of “famous, and infamous, shots throughout history,” as you put it. By beginning that way, Moonwalker places art in a very different context than The Band Wagon does. It’s implying that this isn’t just about Michael Jackson as a person, entertainer, and cultural icon. There are other issues at stake – issues of global importance that can make a real difference in people’s lives.

Joie:  That’s very true, Willa. And I think perhaps the message here is that music can have a real impact on those issues of global importance. Or maybe that the artist making the music – since he is so connected to his audience – has the power to impact those global issues. Using the power of art as a means of social change.

Willa:  I agree, and of course we know he felt very strongly about the power of art to not only bring people together, but also challenge our perceptions and beliefs and lead us to see things in a different way. So in this section, he’s really raising some important philosophical questions about the function of art. And there’s a direct correlation to that in The Band Wagon also – for example, in its signature number, “That’s Entertainment”:

As we can see very clearly in this clip, the primary issue is high art versus popular art, and as Nina pointed out in a comment a few weeks ago, there were specific historical, cultural, and even political reasons for why that was such an important topic back then:

Film scholar Rick Altman, who wrote a very helpful book (“The American Film Musical”), … writes that one of the social functions of musicals is to articulate some ways by which millions of Americans, many of whom were European immigrants in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s – when the genre was in its heyday – could know themselves AS Americans, and establish a sense of national identity and solidarity. So a number of binary oppositions are set up in the narrative, in order to achieve this. In the “show musical” (a major subgenre), the opposition between “high” and “low” culture is often key to the whole story. Films like “The Band Wagon” set up a contrast – and competition – between forms that emanate from the European classical tradition (like ballet, modern “art” dance, symphony orchestra, string quartet, etc.) vs. things like American popular forms like swing, jazz, pop, and show tunes themselves! In this way, “The Band Wagon” (and even more, “Singin’ in the Rain”) become a kind of advertisement for Hollywood and American show business itself. Of course, good ol’ American knowhow wins out at the end….

So as Nina points out, the “key to the whole story” of The Band Wagon – and many other musicals of that era – is this competition between (American) popular entertainment and (European) high art. Of course, this disconnect between pop art and high art is something Michael Jackson faced as well. His work was misinterpreted and horribly undervalued by critics, I think, because it was seen as “just” entertainment, so they failed to see the artistry of his work.

Joie:  I love that comment from Nina!

Willa:  Isn’t it great?

Joie:  It really does underscore the issue of high art vs. popular, or low, art. And you’re right. Michael Jackson faced this issue constantly during his career and his work was often criticized as being “just” entertainment, or too commercial, if you will. But in Moonwalker – and not just in that opening segment but, throughout the whole film really – he seems to be focusing on using his art to attempt to bring about that change he sings of in “Man in the Mirror.”

Willa:  He really does –  we see that from the opening shots of Moonwalker to the haunting rendition of “The Moon is Walking” by Ladysmith Black Mambazo during the closing credits. He’s much more interested in exploring the cultural functions of art, and how art can be used to effect deep cultural shifts in how we perceive and interact with one another. As you said so well, Joie, “Using the power of art as a means of social change.” We see that idea repeated throughout Moonwalker – for example in “Badder,” which is all about kids using the power of art to stand up to gangs.

Joie:  That is a really interesting section of Moonwalker, Willa. That whole “Badder” section. I think most people really love that part because it’s so not what you expect when the camera pans up from the silver-tipped boots, all the way over the buckles and belts costume, up to the face. It’s a little bit of a shock seeing that cute little boy staring back at you. But the interesting part to me is that they then recreate the entire Bad video using this cast of amazing child dancers.

You know, I’ve always thought it was really cute and fun to watch. But, since talking to you, I have come to realize that almost every artistic thing Michael did, he did it for a specific reason. So that makes me wonder … what is really going on in this “Badder” section? What’s the message or the lesson here?

Willa:  Well, that’s always a complicated question, but one way to approach it is by comparing it with what’s going on in The Band Wagon, because once again there’s a direct correlation. While the “Badder” section of Moonwalker has child actors dressed up as adults, and singing and dancing as adults, the “Triplets” number in The Band Wagon has adult actors dressed up as babies, singing and dancing as babies. But if we look at the lyrics, we see they aren’t really like babies at all:

We do everything alike
We look alike
We dress alike
We walk alike
We talk alike
And what is more
We hate each other very much
We hate our folks …
How I wish I had a gun
A wittle gun
It would be fun
To shoot the other two
And be only one

It’s a funny segment but surprisingly violent, and actually the humor comes from the irony of these little lisping toddlers (“A wittle gun”) harboring such bloody thoughts about their siblings. Here’s a video clip:

So “Triplets” takes a situation we tend to think of as very safe and domestic – three babies in highchairs – injects it with an unexpected note of violence, and explores the comic aspects of that. But of course, by the time Michael Jackson created Moonwalker, the world had changed. Many neighborhoods were erupting in gang violence, children were getting caught in the crossfire, and the idea of children thinking bloody thoughts wasn’t funny any more. So he’s approaching the issue of children and violence in a very different, and much more serious way.

Joie:  I have to say, Willa, it is a little bit startling to me to watch that “Triplets” clip because the words of their little song are so very violent. It’s odd really, and I think that’s because of what you just said. The world was a very different place back when The Band Wagon was made and this kind of joke wasn’t looked at in the same way it is today. Very interesting.

Willa:  It is, isn’t it? There’s a similar relation between “Girl Hunt Ballet” and Smooth Criminal, which are the penultimate numbers of The Band Wagon and Moonwalker. “Girl Hunt Ballet” ends with Fred Astaire’s character shooting and killing the woman he said he wanted to care for and protect, which is pretty shocking. Here’s a video clip.

But what’s really shocking if you stop and think about it is that this number is a comedy – just like the murderous infants in “Triplets.” And again, Michael Jackson reworks that, making it darker, more serious, and more complicated by encouraging us to care about the murdered woman. As he asks over and over again, “Annie, are you ok?”

We could spend a month just talking about the many parallels and contrasts between “Girl Hunt Ballet” and Smooth Criminal, but Nina shared a clip a few weeks ago that highlights some of those connections – not only to Smooth Criminal but also You Rock My World and “Dangerous.” And there’s a subtle reference in Billie Jean as well.

Joie:  That is so interesting, Willa. You know, before we began talking, I never knew that Michael had taken so much inspiration from The Band Wagon before. In fact, I love old movies and musicals but, I never even paid much attention to all the similarities before you started pointing them out to me. And now that you have, it is just fascinating!

Willa:  Isn’t it? It’s so amazing to me how he drew inspiration from so many sources – and not just in a superficial way, but in a way that makes you realize just how knowledgeable and engaged he was with all these different genres. Not long after he died, Kobe Bryant talked a number of times about how Michael Jackson turned him on to classics like Fred Astaire movies and other big Hollywood musicals. Here’s a clip from a press conference:

And when you really look at those movies and compare them to Michael Jackson’s work, you see how deeply they influenced him. Nina has commented about this a number of times – like here when comparing Say, Say, Say to Singing in the Rain.

Joie:  That’s very insightful. I never would have made that comparison before.

Willa:  Oh, I’ve learned a lot from Nina’s comments. You know, she’s a filmmaker and artist (she’s made some really interesting Michael Jackson collages) as well as a professor of film studies, and she just seems to have a wealth of knowledge about filmmaking and film history at her fingertips.

That brings us to the finale of each. The Band Wagon ends with an emotional reprise of “That’s Entertainment.” So the final message of The Band Wagon seems to be that Tony Hunter’s career may have been in decline, but he’s still a star, still a talented entertainer, loved and respected by his peers – and that includes his costar, a classically trained “high art” ballerina who has fallen in love with him. So on several different levels, the finale reinforces the message that entertainment, meaning popular art, reigns supreme over high art.

Joie:  Well, the final message I get from Moonwalker is that popular art, and perhaps music in particular, is universal. It has the capacity to draw people together – people from all walks of life, all nationalities, all races, all ages, and all economic ends of the spectrum. And the final song I think illustrates that message well. It’s Michael’s rendition of the Beatles’ “Come Together,” and it’s perfect. A rock song written by the incomparable Lennon and McCartney and sung to perfection by the biggest entertainer in the world, who just happens to be a Black man. Come together, indeed.

Willa:  That’s interesting, Joie. The title kind of says it all, doesn’t it?

Joie:  You know, it really does. And so does the title “That’s Entertainment.”

Willa:  That’s true! They both summarize the central theme of the film in the title of the last song. How interesting!

And then Moonwalker adds a little lagniappe by giving us Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing “The Moon is Walking” during the final credits. I just love the mood of that song and the way they perform it, and I love the way the background images shift back and forth between scenes from Smooth Criminal and the singers of Ladysmith Black Mambazo in period costumes, as if they were part of Smooth Criminal as well. And I love the repeated refrain, “Come and see, the moon is dancing.” To me it feels like they’re testifying.

You know, Michael Jackson’s character is so connected to the moon in this film (after all, the title is Moonwalker) that, for me personally, that line feels like a testament to the power of art – his art. He probably didn’t mean it that way – he probably just liked the synchronicity of the words “Moonwalker” and “The Moon is Walking.” But that’s what I think of when I hear “Come along, my brother / Come along, my sister / Come and see, the moon is dancing.” They’re testifying to the power of his art.