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The Force, It’s Got a Lot of Power

Willa:  Last week, Joie and I treated ourselves to a really fun look back at Off the Wall. So of course I had to listen to “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough” over and over again – strictly for research purposes only, I promise! It had nothing whatsoever to do with that amazing low voice that interjects in the middle of the line throughout the first and second verses….

Joie:  Yeah, whatever you need to tell yourself, my friend.

Willa:  Well, you know, just trying to make us look professional – keeping up appearances and all that. Which isn’t easy to do with my brain full of hot lyrics from one of his steamiest songs ever, as you so kindly quoted last week: “I’m melting (I’m melting now) like hot candle wax.” Yi yi yi.

So anyway, I was listening to “Don’t Stop” over and over again for professional reasons, and also listened to the demo version he recorded at home with Randy and Janet. And it’s truly amazing – you can hear how fully developed that song was before he even brought it in to Quincy Jones. All the major elements are already there. But there is one very noticeable difference between the original demo and the recorded version. In the demo, he sings this couplet throughout the song:

Keep on with your heart, don’t stop
Don’t stop til you get enough

But by the time the recorded version was released, he’d made a small but notable change:

Keep on with the force, don’t stop
Don’t stop til you get enough

So that started me wondering – what does he mean by “the force”?

Joie:  Willa, that is a really interesting observation. And because I am a little bit of a science fiction geek, I feel compelled to point out the obvious here and say that this album came out in the summer of 1979 and, just two years earlier in ’77, one of the greatest films of all time was released – Star Wars!

Willa:  You know, I was hesitant to make that leap, but I was kind of thinking the same thing. What do you make of that?

Joie:  Well, Star Wars was an immediate classic. People were so obsessed with this film that even the technical crew who worked on it were routinely asked for their autographs. I can remember going to see this movie for the first time. I was about eight years old and I went to the movie with my best friend Deron and his dad.

Willa:  You were eight? I was in high school. I keep forgetting how young you are.

Joie:  Aww, you say the sweetest things! But honestly though, when I look back on it, it really seems like I was older than that but, I started doing the math and yeah … I was only eight – about to turn nine! Which makes sense because I was 11 when Off the Wall came out.

But anyway, when we pulled into the theater parking lot, there was literally a line of people wrapped around the building. And they were all there to see Star Wars! It was unreal. That was the first time I had ever seen anything like that.

Star Wars was a real cultural phenomenon. It broke all box office records at the time and it remains one of the most successful films ever. I mean, it was huge! So, after its release you had people all over the country – probably all over the world – quoting lines from the movie, saying things like, “help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope,” and “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” and – oh, and this is the big one – “may The Force be with you.” People everywhere were suddenly talking about “The Force.” And if you ask someone – anyone – who was alive when the original Star Wars movie came out about “The Force,” they would know exactly what you meant.

So … I’m just going to go out on a limb here and suggest that maybe “the force” that Michael is talking about in “Don’t Stop” has something to do, at least in the abstract, with “The Force” that George Lucas envisioned in the Star Wars saga. In the movie, Jedi master, Ben ‘Obi-Wan’ Kenobi describes The Force in this way:

“Well, The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”

This idea that The Force is an energy field created by all living things, and binding us all together as one, is a concept that I can see Michael embracing. It’s sort of an extension of the message that he had already been singing about for years. If you think about it, it’s the same message from Can You Feel It, where he points out that we are all the same; we are all connected. “Yes the blood inside of me is inside of you.”

Willa:  Joie, I love the direction you took this, and I agree, when you look at it this way there are so many connections to Michael Jackson. He’s not talking about grabbing a light saber and fighting the Empire, of course. But if we look at it “in the abstract,” as you say, there do seem to be a lot of parallels between George Lucas’ ideas of the Force as “an energy field created by all living things” that “binds the galaxy together,” and Michael Jackson’s ideas about an “eternal dance of creation.”

In fact, this idea of an “eternal dance” that connects us to each other, to all living things, and to the cosmos is one of the central themes of Michael Jackson’s 1992 book of poetry and essays, Dancing the Dream, as he writes in the preface:

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

To me, this idea that he can “become one with everything that exists” is very similar to Ben Kenobi’s description of the Force as something that “surrounds us and penetrates us,” as you quoted above. And it’s very important, I think, that he achieves this state through dance. It’s “when I’m dancing” that he joins “the eternal dance of creation,” and that’s when, he says, “The creator and creation merge into one wholeness of joy.”  

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa, it is one of the central themes of Dancing the Dream, this notion that we are all connected. And he mentions that eternal “Dance of Creation” several times in the book. In “Heaven is Here,” one of the poems from that book, he says:

Come, let us dance
The Dance of Creation
Let us celebrate
The Joy of Life  

This idea that we are all connected was obviously very important to him as he writes about it over and over again. Later in that same poem, he goes on to say:

You are the Sun
You are the Moon
You are the wildflower in bloom
You are the Life-throb
That pulsates, dances
From a speck of dust
To the most distant star
 
And you and I
Were never separate
It’s an illusion
Wrought by the magical lens of
Perception
 

So, he’s telling us that everything – all life, all living creatures, the plants, the dust even – everything is connected.

Willa:  I’m so glad you quoted this poem, Joie, because it’s one of my favorites from Dancing the Dream, and it really highlights the connections between us all. And as we see in the last stanza you quoted, it also connects this with the faulty nature of perception, which is another central belief for both Michael Jackson and George Lucas.

There’s a wonderful scene in Star Wars where Luke is first learning to use The Force. He’s trying out the light saber Ben gave him but he’s having trouble so, ironically, Ben blocks his vision. Ben then tells him,

“I suggest you try it again, Luke. But this time let go of your conscious self and act on instinct.”

Luke protests, “But … I can’t even see. How am I supposed to fight?”

Ben replies, “Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them. Stretch out with your feelings.”

We see this idea that “Your eyes can deceive you” repeated throughout Michael Jackson’s work as well, from videos like Who Is It  to the passages you quoted from “Heaven is Here.” In this poem, he tells us that the belief that we are separate is wrong, a misperception – or as he says, “an illusion / Wrought by the magical lens of / Perception.” If we follow Ben’s advice to “let go of your conscious self” and “stretch out with your feelings,” we realize that “you and I / Were never separate / It’s an illusion,” as Michael Jackson tells us.

Joie:  We are all one with each other and the universe. And interestingly, this is an idea that we tend to think of as a tenet of Buddhism or Hinduism or some other eastern religion. It sounds sort of “new agey” or “metaphysical” but, it actually has really sound principles behind it. It’s a prevailing notion in the realm of faith healing and also in the world of science as this video from Symphony of Science points out:

As Neil deGrasse Tyson says in the video,

We are all connected
To each other, biologically
To the earth, chemically
To the rest of the universe, atomically

Willa:  My son and I love Neil deGrasse Tyson! He has a PhD in astrophysics from Columbia University, but he combines that strong background in science with a poetic sensibility, so he can explain the chemistry of the cosmos in both clear scientific and beautifully poetic ways. As Tyson tells us in his Origins series, our bodies are composed of chemical elements like carbon, oxygen, and iron, and as he explains, those elements were forged in the fiery interior of stars. So literally, “We are all stardust,” as Tyson tells us, with “carbon in our bodies, iron in our blood, calcium in our bones. Every last atom was formed in a star.”

This really connects with Michael Jackson’s ideas that you quoted earlier, Joie, from “Heaven is Here”:

You are the Life-throb
That pulsates, dances
From a speck of dust
To the most distant star

And importantly, as this poem emphasizes, for Michael Jackson this is a dynamic process that encompasses our movement as well as our substance. So not only are we formed of “stardust,” as Neil deGrasse Tyson says, but we are part of a “Dance of Creation” that connects our actions with the rhythms of the universe.

We see this in his ideas about songwriting as well. As Joe Vogel emphasizes in Man in the Music, Michael Jackson believed you had to “let the music create itself.” And when Joe talked with us last fall,  he linked that to how the Romantics described artistic inspiration:

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

Michael believed strongly in that principle. … Another metaphor he liked to use to illustrate his creative process is Michelangelo’s philosophy that inside every piece of marble or stone is a “sleeping form.” His job as an artist, then, was to chip away, sculpt, polish, until he “freed” what was latent. So it requires a great deal of work. You might have a vision of what it should look like, but you have to be in tune throughout the process and you have to work hard to realize it.”

This reminds me again of that scene in Star Wars where Luke is first learning to use The Force by trying out his light saber with his eyes covered. Ben tells him:

“Remember, a Jedi can feel The Force flowing through him.”

“You mean, it controls your actions?” Luke asks.

“Partially, but it also obeys your commands,” Ben says.

So Michael Jackson felt you should let creativity flow through you unimpeded, just as Ben says that “a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.” But still, an artist isn’t passive in the creative process – not at all. As Joe says, “You might have a vision of what it should look like, but you have to be in tune throughout the process and you have to work hard to realize it.” Or as Luke and Ben say in their conversation about the Force, it both “controls your actions” as well as “obeys your commands.”

Joie:  You know, Willa, what you just said here makes me think of all the times we heard Michael talk about writing music. How many times did we hear him say things like, “don’t write the song, let the song write itself,” or “I just step into it.” I love that essay from Dancing the Dream called “How I Make Music” where he says,

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

This is very similar to the Jedi master’s instruction to “feel The Force flowing through him.”

Willa:  I agree, and that is such a beautiful image of “stepping into” the music. But you know, the more we talk about this, the more I see some very real differences between George Lucas’ ideas and Michael Jackson’s. For one thing, the Jedi experience The Force primarily as a spiritual feeling, but with Michael Jackson, it’s much more than that. It’s very physical also. He feels most connected to it when he’s dancing – it is literally “a Dance of Creation” – and in “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough,” he suggests it’s tied in with sexual energy as well.

And this brings us back to that line you quoted last week, Joie: “I melting (I’m melting now) like hot candle wax.” As you know, that line has been getting me hot and bothered for 30 years now, and I’ve really been thinking about that a lot the past couple of weeks and trying to figure out why.

One thing that strikes me is that it’s radically different from how guys usually talk about sex. Women might melt, but guys don’t. I’ve heard guys use a lot of different metaphors when singing about sex, and no matter what genre you listen to – rock or hip hop or blues or even folk songs – there’s no melting. Definitely no melting. It seems like they’re all trying to be Sir Lancelot.

Joie:  You know, my brother is a very macho sort of guy – I’m talking 6’1″, 200 lbs. of pure muscle. And he lifts weights and works out a lot so, he’s quite imposing. However, he’s also very sensitive, kind of like Michael. And he’s also a Virgo, astrologically speaking – also like Michael. And when he’s in love, he can be very mushy. I have heard him talk about melting, believe it or not. So I think maybe men do melt. It’s just that the majority of them don’t want to advertise that fact because it’s not usually thought of as a macho thing to do.

Willa:  I’m so glad you mentioned that, Joie, because I know there are compassionate, sensitive, gentle men in the world. I know that’s true from my own household. But I’m talking about something very specific:  the way male sexuality is represented – and misrepresented – in popular music. Female sexuality is misrepresented as well. Based on popular music, you’d think all women were either completely passive to the point of invisibility or take-charge vixens in mini skirts. There’s no middle ground, and I know that’s not true. And male sexuality tends to be represented in song in pretty rigid, even aggressive ways.

And then in the midst of all this hard, unyielding hyper-masculinity, here’s Michael Jackson “melting like hot candle wax,” and it’s so erotic I still catch my breath every time I hear it. It’s such a different way of expressing male sexuality. But it also feels so natural. The mood of “Don’t Stop” is playful and joyous and exuberant, as well as wonderfully sexy and relaxed – just a natural expression of his personality.

I have to say, this image of him melting with passion is incredibly evocative to me. It’s like his autonomous self is melting and he’s merging with the one he loves:  physically, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically. That’s just so beautiful to me, and it ties in very strongly with his ideas about “the Dance of Creation.” His sexuality isn’t compartmentalized to something that only happens behind closed doors. It’s an essential part of who he is, and so his sexuality naturally manifests itself through his music and dance and everything he does. So I think that, for him, this “Dance of Creation” is both spiritual – a philosophical belief and a powerful creative force – as well as very physical.

Joie:  Wow. Ok, Willa, all this talk about how erotic that “melting” line is … is really … distracting. Hey, is it just me or have we both been … distracted … a lot lately?

Willa:  No, I think you’re right. Maybe it’s spring fever.

Joie:  Maybe it’s Michael fever. Anyway, I agree with you that in “Don’t Stop” he is suggesting that The Force is tied in with sexual energy, but I also think he’s suggesting more than that as well. Twice in the song he says this:

So let love (oh, let love)
Take us through the hours
I won’t be complainin’
‘Cause this is love power

That ‘love power’ as he calls it, is actually the very thing that the Jedi master is describing to his student. It is that energy “that binds the galaxy together,” that “something sacred” that Michael feels touched by when he’s dancing. The ‘love power’ is The Force! So, while it is a very physical phenomenon for Michael, I believe it is first and foremost very spiritual for him. As Michael himself once told us about songwriting,

“It’s the most spiritual thing in the world. When it comes, it comes with all the accompaniments – the strings, the bass, the drums, the lyrics. And you’re just the medium through which it comes, the channel. Sometimes I feel guilty putting my name on songs, ‘written by MJ,’ because it’s as if the heavens have done it already.”

And he echoes this spiritual component to songwriting in another of his essays from Dancing the Dream called simply, “God.”

“For me the form God takes is not the most important thing. What’s most important is the essence. My songs and dances are outlines for Him to come in and fill. I hold out the form, She puts in the sweetness.”

And in this same essay, he also repeats that central theme of everything being connected, and the creator and the creation merging “into one wholeness of joy” as he says,

“But for me the sweetest contact with God has no form. I close my eyes, look within, and enter a deep soft silence. The infinity of God’s creation embraces me. We are one.”

Again, we are one. We are all connected. “The creator and creation merge into one wholeness of joy.” With that statement, he could be referring to himself as the creator, and the creation is the song, or the dance, or the performance, etc. And I’m sure he probably did feel that way. But I also get the sense that he was definitely referring to God as the creator, and the creation is the earth, and the heavens, and humankind – all those living things that are connected and bound together by the force. “This world we live in is the dance of the creator.”

Willa:  Joie, that’s beautiful, and it wonderfully expresses that idea that Michael Jackson shared with us so often, through music and dance, through poetry and spoken words, through his actions and beliefs, through his very being. As you say, “We are one. We are all connected.” We are all part of the Dance of Creation. What a simple yet powerful message.

So something really fun is happening next week:  Joe Vogel and Charles Thomson are joining us for a roundtable discussion about Michael Jackson as a songwriter. Joie and I are really looking forward to it, so be sure to check back again next week. We’ve also added a few things to the Reading Room including those wonderful videos from the MJ Academia Project, several really insightful articles by Charles about media coverage of Michael Jackson, and a wonderful new article by Joe, “The Misunderstood Power of Michael Jackson’s Music,” so you may want to go visit and browse around a bit.