Willa: Hello everyone. Part 4 of the series has just been published! This final essay takes a close look at Michael Jackson’s Ghosts, considering it not only as a fascinating film but also as a psychological exploration of the allegations against him, as well as a guide to his aesthetic. It then uses Ghosts as a jumping off point to suggest a radically new genre of art he created in response to the allegations – a type of art so revolutionary we don’t yet even recognize it as art. Here’s a link to Part 4.
Thank you so much to all of you who have provided feedback and shared your ideas and knowledge so generously over the years. Michael Jackson’s work is so rich, with so much to explore, that it truly takes a village to wrap your mind around it. The virtual village that sprang up here has been so helpful and supportive, and I sincerely appreciate that.
I hope you all are feeling safe and content, healthy and strong.
Lisha: In a previous post we talked about the evolution of Michael Jackson’s Ghosts, from an unfinished cross-promotional short film for Addams Family Values to a 38-minute musical masterpiece, which curiously, never received a proper release. Both films depict a small town Mayor leading an angry mob as they attempt to force the local “weirdo” out of his home and out of town. Unfortunately, the storyline hits terribly close to home when we consider what actually happened in Michael Jackson’s life.
Willa: It really does. It’s almost like he could predict what would happen.
Lisha: Eerily so. After years of being harassed by law enforcement and vilified by the media, “an angry mob” from the Sheriff’s Department raided Michael Jackson’s home and attempted to prosecute him based on flimsy “evidence” that frankly, strains credulity. When the facts were presented in a court of law, Michael Jackson was fully exonerated – suggesting the case should never have been brought in the first place.
But even after vindication, Michael Jackson was informed that he was still in danger of malicious prosecution. Despite his wealth, fame, and proven innocence, Michael Jackson abandoned his home and fled the country.
Willa, I know we’re all troubled by what happened in this case, but the more I think about it, the more deeply troubled I am. I’m just not ok with any government authority forcing an innocent man and his family out of their home and out of town. And it greatly disturbs me that this was accomplished in lockstep with the infotainment industry. Journalists are supposed to question authority and investigate abuses of power, not join in the mob mentality!
Willa: Exactly. That’s why the news media is sometimes called the Fourth Estate. We have a government of three branches or “estates” – the presidency, the congress, and the Supreme Court – that are supposed to provide checks and balances on one another, and then the news media is another avenue of checks and balances. That’s where the term Fourth Estate comes from. But what happens when the media fails to provide that review, and instead only adds momentum to abuses of power? It’s really frightening to think about.
Lisha: It’s terrifying. It is crucial in a democracy that the media investigate all branches of government. When they don’t, we have reason to be alarmed. But to be honest, I’m not sure the media or the prosecution has fully understood their actions in the Michael Jackson case.
Willa: Or the implications of their actions.
Lisha: Yes, and I don’t think the general public has stopped to consider what a slippery slope this is either.
Willa: I agree.
Lisha: So I’d like to dig deeper and try to put Michael Jackson’s expulsion from Neverland into some kind of historical context, in an effort to shed light on how something like this could happen in the “land of the free.” Specifically, I’d like to talk about racial politics in the US and the history of banishment that has occurred in African American communities all across the country.
I recently came across a 2007 documentary film titled Banished, directed and narrated by Marco Williams. It really got me thinking about the painful history of banishment in the US and how this history echoes in Michael Jackson’s exodus from Neverland. For anyone who is interested in watching the film, here’s a link:
Willa: We should probably warn everyone that the documentary is about 90 minutes long, but if you can find the time to watch it, it’s well worth it. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, Lisha, ever since you shared it with me.
Lisha: Me either, Willa. It’s hard to shake.
Willa: It really is, and it shows there has been a recurring pattern in the US, ever since the Civil War ended slavery as a legal institution, of resentful whites destroying successful black communities and confiscating their property. It generally begins with false accusations against a black man – that he has committed rape or some form of sexual assault against a white woman. Then a white mob gathers, and he is either lynched or threatened with lynching. The violence spreads, other black residents are advised to leave their homes if they want to save their lives, and almost everything they own is lost. The pattern is remarkably similar each time, and there are surprising similarities to the Michael Jackson case.
Lisha: Shockingly so. Especially when you consider that almost every case of banishment begins with an unproven allegation of sexual violence.
Willa: Exactly, but that accusation is just a justification for destroying or confiscating black property, which is the real motive.
What we see over and over again is black homeowners, black business owners, and entire black communities forced to flee at a moment’s notice, leaving almost all of their possessions behind. This is especially troubling since I read a study one time that said it generally takes an immigrant family to the US five generations to collect enough assets to be considered comfortably middle class, meaning secure enough where one tragic event like a house fire or the death of a breadwinner won’t send the entire family back into poverty. So if a community loses its property and all of its material assets, it is impoverished not just now but for generations.
Lisha: I agree that the consequences are far-reaching, for the families who have been displaced and for the entire community. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that the law actually supported this process. After victims were terrorized and forced to leave their homes, their property was often taken from them, legally, through laws of adverse possession.
While the specific legalities may be different in Michael Jackson’s expulsion from Neverland, the overall contour is identical: someone in the dominant culture is allowed to decide who can or cannot occupy a certain space – regardless of its rightful ownership – and the actions taken to gain control of that space are mysteriously never questioned or fully examined. In the end, black property and wealth are lost, and someone in the dominant culture takes possession of property that was legally purchased by another.
Willa: Yes, in many cases false accusations of sexual misconduct ultimately led to a legal transfer of property, as you say, Lisha. And the individuals who committed violence against black property owners were almost never held accountable for their actions.
Lisha: That’s exactly right. And we’re not just talking loss of property, but loss of life as well. Many, many African American men lost their lives this way. This is a horrific part of our past that I don’t believe has been honorably resolved. In fact, I believe this history lingers on, but in more subtle ways. For example, in a 2003 CNN interview, Jermaine Jackson called his brother’s arrest “nothing but a modern-day lynching” and I’m inclined to agree with him. While I certainly don’t want to minimize the heinous murders that occurred by comparing them to a case that ended in a fair trial and 14 not-guilty verdicts, I agree with Jermaine Jackson that this violent history still plays out in less obvious forms.
Thomas Mesereau gave an interview to Charles Thomson, Jamon Bull, and Q of the MJ Cast on Vindication Day, June 13, 2015, the tenth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s exoneration in court. As Mesereau has stated before, he strongly urged Michael Jackson to leave his home and never return, warning him that he could never be safe there again (about 1:13:17 minutes into the interview):
Bull: Following the verdict, did Michael make it clear to you that he wanted to leave the United States so soon and head to the Middle East?
Mesereau: Not in the least … When I first got into the case and met the prosecutors and met the sheriffs, and went to the evidence locker to examine evidence they had seized and planned to use in the trial, I had a very distinct feeling they were just on top of the world. They were about to embark on the world’s most covered trial. They felt there was no way they could lose it. They were feeling like movie stars and feeling no pain. …
And I remember watching some of these police officers, these sheriffs, as they were doing a second search [of Neverland]. And you know some of them were like, touching his artwork. It was almost a demonic sort of look on their faces like we’ve got the great Michael Jackson under our control. He might be the great Michael Jackson with all this wealth and fame but we control him. And I had a distinct feeling the cruelty and the abuse he could be subjected to if convicted and incarcerated might have been monumental. I mean to me it was like a death penalty case. …
I told [Michael Jackson] to leave Neverland and not return. And he seemed a bit shocked at what I said. … I said he can’t live in peace there ever again. They have ruined it. I didn’t know where he was going to go. I did not know he was going to the Middle East until he started calling our office from the Middle East. But I strongly urged that he leave and not return. I said, you know, many things in life have a time and a place. Neverland has run its course. You will not be safe there. You know you can’t go through one of these things again.
So Michael Jackson abandoned Neverland, fearing what prosecutors would do to him and his family.
Willa: Wow, Lisha, I hadn’t heard this interview before. Thank you for sharing it. Mesereau’s description of the police at Neverland is just chilling, especially the part about them “touching his artwork” and seeming eager to have “the great Michael Jackson under our control.” It’s horrifying to think about what the police could have done, or what could have happened to him in prison. As Mesereau said, “I had a distinct feeling the cruelty and the abuse he could be subjected to if convicted and incarcerated might have been monumental.” Looking at it this way, I think he was right to treat Michael Jackson’s trial like a death penalty case.
Lisha: I agree. This was no trivial matter. It’s quite clear to me that what happened to Michael Jackson was an act of violence and that he was forced to leave his home in terror. While the violence may take a different form than we’ve historically seen with lynchings, shootings and banishment, nonetheless, violence and terror were inflicted on Michael Jackson. The end result is that he was forced to flee his home and he nearly lost his freedom and his family too. He also suffered tremendous financial losses. By 2008, the AP reported that “Michael Jackson has given up title to his Neverland ranch, transferring the deed to a company he partly controls.”
So as we know, Michael Jackson did lose control of Neverland and it is now for sale. I’ve heard speculation that his Estate may not profit at all from the sale, depending on the final purchase price. Personally, I’m not willing to entertain any theory that Michael Jackson’s complicated debt structure was the cause of this loss, without first taking into account the untold millions that law enforcement and the media cost him.
Willa: Exactly. Blaming the loss of Neverland on his rising debts misses the point, which is that the false allegations against him severely damaged his career and his income, causing him to go into debt. As the article you just cited says, “Jackson has struggled to pay his debts since his financial empire began to crumble following his arrest in 2003.” Actually, the problem began much earlier, with the 1993 allegations.
So as in the three cases studied in the Banished documentary, racial jealousy and false claims of sexual misconduct against a successful black man led to loss of property. It’s tragic, especially when you think of how much he loved Neverland, and how hard he worked to make it a special place where he could feel safe from prying eyes.
Lisha: It is tragic. And there is a direct causal link between the false allegations, the official response to them, and the loss of income and property sustained. Many of the losses can be calculated quite precisely in cold hard cash, like the canceled endorsement deals and movie offers. But Michael Jackson’s home and livelihood were so much more than just a place to live and a way to earn a living.
Willa: Yes, Neverland was much more than a home, and his art was so much more than a source of income. It was his life. It really is heartbreaking.
Lisha: It is.
Willa: But it’s heartbreaking when anyone loses their home. And when we look at this through a historical lens, it becomes very clear that this is part of a larger pattern.
Lisha: I agree. It’s a larger pattern of violence attempts to disguise the intolerance at its root.
Willa: Absolutely. I recently found another documentary called The Night Tulsa Burned and it focuses on one specific case of banishment: the Tulsa, Oklahoma, race riot of 1921, which left as many as 300 people dead and 8,000 people homeless. According to a 2011 features article in The New York Times, it “may be the deadliest occurrence of racial violence in United States history.” Here’s a link to that documentary, which is about 45 minutes long:
Lisha: I’m so glad you shared this, Willa, because for me, the Tulsa riot shows so clearly why even in 2016, we are still fighting for racial justice and “Black Lives Matter.”
Historian Jelani Cobb recently pointed out in a New Yorker article that although the Tulsa race riot was one of the worst incidents of domestic terrorism in US history, it is rarely referred to that way:
The F.B.I. Web page on the [Oklahoma City] Murrah bombing lists it as “the worst act of homegrown terrorism in the nation’s history.” That designation overlooks the Tulsa riots of 1921, in which a white mob, enraged by a spurious allegation that a black teen-ager had attempted to assault a young white woman, was deputized and given carte blanche to attack the city’s prosperous black Greenwood section, resulting in as many as three hundred black fatalities. From one perspective, the Murrah bombing was the worst act of domestic terrorism in our history, but, as the descendants of the Greenwood survivors know, it was likely not even the worst incident in Oklahoma’s history.
Cobb makes a very important point: loss of black life is often diminished or forgotten when the dominant white culture historicizes the past. A big reason for this in the Tulsa case is that law enforcement and the media actually participated in the violence. A local newspaper put out false, inflammatory information to incite the riot, and law enforcement stood by and watched as approximately 300 black Tulsans were murdered. Believe it or not, the National Guard took over 6,000 black citizens into custody while their homes and businesses were being destroyed. And no one was ever arrested or prosecuted for the terrorism that happened that day.
Willa: Yes. It sounds unbelievable but that’s exactly what happened. In fact, the more you learn about the details of the riot, the more outrageous it becomes. Apparently a black teenager, Dick Rowland, who worked at a shoeshine stand in downtown Tulsa, was entering an elevator so he could visit one of the few bathrooms that was available to blacks in that segregated city. It seems he tripped as he entered the elevator and fell against the young white elevator operator, Sarah Page. He was accused of assaulting Page and arrested, but she refused to press charges, and many prominent white businessmen came to his defense, saying that wasn’t in his nature.
However, rumors of the incident spread, and that afternoon The Tulsa Tribune published an inflammatory article that accused Rowland of either rape or attempted rape. That evening, a mob of about 2,000 whites gathered at the courthouse, and violence erupted. The police resisted the mob and protected Rowland from lynching, but they didn’t arrest the white men who were leading the mob. Instead, they arrested thousands of black men, as you say, Lisha, and put them in detention centers, leaving their homes and businesses defenseless.
White men with torches then swept through the Greenwood district of Tulsa, setting fire to black homes and businesses. In the documentary, one riot survivor, George Monroe, describes what happened this way:
I will always remember four men coming in our house with torches. My mother saw them coming and she put the four of we children under the bed. And from under the bed we could see them walking to the curtains and setting fire to the curtains to set our house on fire.
I find this image of the white mob descending on Greenwood with flaming torches in hand eerily evocative of the opening scenes of Ghosts.
Lisha: Exactly! I do too. Monroe’s childhood memory is just so horrific. Like the story in Ghosts, the mob didn’t enter Greenwood looking for a criminal (they knew Rowland was already in custody). The mob went to Greenwood to force people out who they believed were different from them, despite the fact they were on their own property and legally entitled to the same rights and protections everyone else had.
Willa: That’s a very important point, Lisha – Rowland was in jail when the mob descended on Greenwood. That really underscores the fact that the false allegations against Rowland were just an excuse. That’s not what the riot was really about. The true motivation was racial jealousy.
Before the riot, the Greenwood district was one of the wealthiest black communities in the US – an area so prosperous Booker T. Washington called it Negro Wall Street. In the economic expansion of the late 1910s and early 1920s – a period known as the “Roaring Twenties” because it was such a boom time, financially – many businessmen became very wealthy, including black businessmen. And as historian Scott Ellsworth notes in the documentary, “For some white people, a black person with any wealth, then as well as today, is something that created jealousy.” So as black wealth increased, race riots broke out across the nation. As Ellsworth goes on to say,
The important thing to remember about race riots during this period is that they are characterized by whites invading black communities … attacking black businesses, attacking black homes.
So the allegations of sexual misconduct were simply a pretext, a way to justify white aggression against black property owners, when the real motivation was racial jealousy and a blatant land grab.
Lisha: Yes, that is the pattern. When black success occurs, economic jealousy, unproven allegations, and white-on-black violence follows. The false accusations of rape are even more infuriating if we look at the very real problem of white-on-black sexual violence that has occurred all throughout US history.
Willa: Yes, that’s a painful legacy with roots deep in our history. The rape of black women by white slave owners was a common practice for centuries before the Civil War. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, a US President and the author of the Declaration of Independence, had children by one of his slaves – a woman who was herself the (black) daughter of his (white) father-in-law, so his wife’s half-sister. It seems to have been tacitly accepted that white men should have access to black women’s bodies.
However, black men were prohibited from white women’s bodies, even through marriage. Miscegenation was illegal in many states until the Supreme Court finally struck down those laws in 1967. The merest hint of sexual relations between a black man and a white woman, even if it were consensual, remained an inflammatory issue, and many black celebrities were targeted because of this, as if (white) authorities were making an example of them. We see this with Jack Johnson, Chuck Berry, Malcolm X, and many others.
Michael Jackson talked about this in a 2005 interview with Jesse Jackson:
The Jack Johnson story … called Unforgivable Blackness. It’s an amazing story about this man from 1910 who was the heavyweight champion of the world, and thrust into a society that didn’t want to accept his position and his lifestyle. And what they put him through. And how they changed laws to imprison the man, to put him away behind bars, just to get him some kind of way.
Jack Johnson’s unacceptable “position and lifestyle” that Michael Jackson mentions include his title as heavyweight champion of the world, his flamboyant displays of wealth, and his numerous relationships with white women, including three marriages. Because of his success and his defiance of racial expectations, he was targeted by white authorities and sent to prison under the Mann Act. That’s what Michael Jackson was referring to when he said “they changed laws to imprison the man.”
Lisha: Yes, apparently the Mann Act was originally intended to prevent women from being lured into interstate prostitution. The law had to be bent considerably in order to prosecute Jack Johnson. Legally, it’s hard to believe it was used to send him to prison.
Willa: Yes, and that same law was later used to imprison Chuck Berry. There was an attempt to use it against Michael Jackson as well, as Charles Thomson talked about in a post with Joie and me about Michael Jackson’s recently released FBI files. As Charles said, the files reveal that “Tom Sneddon, the DA pursuing Jackson, tried to get the FBI to prosecute Jackson under the Mann Act.”
Lisha: I don’t know how much clearer the connection could be between black success and government persecution, really.
Willa: Yes. Michael Jackson himself clearly saw his case as part of a long history of white authorities targeting successful black figures. For example, when Jesse Jackson asked him, “How are you handling it?,” he replied,
I’m handling it by using other people in the past who have gone through this sort of thing. Mandela’s story has given me a lot of strength – what he’s gone through. The Jack Johnson story … And Muhammad Ali’s story … All these stories that I can go back in history and read about give me strength.
Lisha: It stands to reason that black celebrities are especially vulnerable to this kind of attack, precisely because of their wealth and success. This is especially true of those who refuse to fit the mold of the “model minority,” such as Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jackson. Ali publicly stated that he strongly related to the Jack Johnson story. It’s unsurprising that Michael Jackson identified with both their stories as well.
Here’s something that has been bugging me for a while that I’ve really wanted to talk to you about – it’s Bill Maher’s response to the Jesse Jackson interview you just mentioned. In the past, I’ve considered Bill Maher to be one of our smartest comedians. But have you seen this clip of him belittling Michael Jackson while trying to get Rev. Jackson to denounce his interview with him? It’s disturbing to me how this commentary generates so much laughter:
Willa: I agree the audience’s laughter is very troubling, and so is Bill Maher’s handling of this. I mean, they laugh because he cues them to laugh. But it’s interesting to look at what Maher is saying. He begins by telling Jesse Jackson,
He [Michael Jackson] compared himself this week to Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, and Nelson Mandela. Now, as a civil rights leader who has really, really faced the battlements – I mean, you were there with Martin Luther King when he was shot, you marched, I mean, you faced the firehoses – this has gotta bother you. …
This must upset you when people take this when it’s really not a racial issue.
So Bill Maher seems to think that racism was something that happened in Alabama in 1965, not something that was still happening in California in 2003. The police response to Martin Luther King is clearly racism to Maher, but he doesn’t see how the police handling of the Michael Jackson case also fits a pattern of racism.
But I thought Jesse Jackson’s response to Maher was brilliant:
We all love Nelson Mandela tonight. For 27 years we saw him as a terrorist. We’ve loved him since 1990 [when he was released from prison]. We all love Dr. King today. He was killed as one of America’s most hated men with a target on his back. We all love Jack Johnson now. He was locked out of the ring because of his race.
And so the point is, whether you are Jack Johnson or Paul Robeson or Martin King or Mandela, seemingly when blacks hit very high spots they are in the line of fire. Michael perceives himself to be in that line, and that’s the basis of his statement.
Lisha: I agree with you, Willa, Rev. Jackson nailed it. His response is nothing less than brilliant.
Willa: It really is. First, it puts Michael Jackson’s statement within a historical context that shows there is in fact a pattern of targeting successful black cultural and political leaders. As Jesse Jackson says, “when blacks hit very high spots they are in the line of fire.”
Even more importantly, to my mind, is Jesse Jackson’s point that Nelson Mandela was not a beloved figure when he was in prison, Martin Luther King was not beloved when he was leading marches and pressuring Lyndon Johnson, and Jack Johnson was not beloved when he was challenging the supremacy of the white race in and out of the boxing ring. These figures are treated as respected icons now, when they are gone and no longer a threat, but that’s not how they were treated when they were standing up and challenging white authority. They were harshly criticized and even ridiculed at the time, and so was Michael Jackson.
Lisha: Well said. I’m so glad that Rev. Jackson tactfully pointed out that although Maher can cite some significant events in the past, he still suffers from historical amnesia. He doesn’t see how the past reverberates in the events unfolding right before him.
I was especially interested in how Rev. Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg and Dr. West’s responses differed from Bill Maher and Alec Baldwin. Jackson, Goldberg and West are reluctant to assume the police allegations and media reports are correct, and they don’t seem to find a lot of pleasure in joking about them. Although West is not yet convinced of how grave Michael Jackson’s situation is, he expresses concern that he be given a fair trial. He does not automatically assume that will happen. Maher and Baldwin, on the other hand, take the law enforcement and media narratives at face value and they seem quite entertained by the idea that Michael Jackson got arrested. This effectively divides the conversation across racial lines.
Both Maher and Baldwin indicate they believe Michael Jackson is guilty of something, no proof necessary, and that the charges against him are in no way related to racial persecution. Again, it bothers me that they both find it so humorous, especially after Rev. Jackson just explained that Michael Jackson was denied dignity and due process.
Maher: But is that because he’s black? Really? If this was country singer Alan Jackson sleeping with young boys…?
Baldwin: …You’re at your home and you are inconceivably wealthy. And someone comes into your home and you give them the booze and you’re watching the internet porn and you’re doing this. Then that guy runs out the door and he sues you for trying to do something. You got everything coming to you that you deserve because you’re an idiot that you would put yourself in that position. He’s a dumbass that he put himself in that position.
Their statements assume the following unproven “facts”: (1) sleeping with boys, (2) giving them booze, and (3) watching internet porn. Yet when you look at the evidence, it’s clear these aren’t facts at all. It’s revealing that these assumptions are made by the two white panelists, while everyone else has a “not so fast” attitude in accepting the prosecution/media version of events. When we look at the history of racism in this country, it’s not hard to figure out why people of color don’t automatically assume prosecutors and the media are telling the truth.
Willa: That’s true. I also thought Jesse Jackson raised a very important point when he said that how we see Nelson Mandela now, and Martin Luther King and Jack Johnson now, is very different than how they were seen at the time. History isn’t fixed – it’s constantly being rewritten.
That’s why it’s so important that Michael Jackson’s supporters raise these issues, and keep raising them, until the allegations against him are seen in their proper context. The story of Michael Jackson’s life is still being written, as Toni Bowers addressed so well in a recent article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and it’s up to those of us who care to help write that history.
Lisha: I agree. Michael Jackson fans play an important role by interrogating the media and the government’s response to him. It’s important to keep talking!
Willa: Happy Holidays! As many of you know, Joie and I started this blog more than four years ago as a place to have in-depth discussions about “Michael Jackson, his art, and social change.” It’s been fascinating talking with you all about these ideas – I have learned so much the past four years. Michael Jackson’s full body of work – his music, dancing, lyrics and poetry, his concerts, short films and other visual art, his creative process and innovative production methods, his public persona, his costumes, his face and body, and above all his overarching aesthetic and deeply held beliefs about social justice and the power of art to bring about change – these are all so rich in meaning it really does take a village to even begin to grasp it all, and I sincerely appreciate everything you all have shared.
About a year ago Joie decided to devote herself fully to a new career, and since then she hasn’t been participating here at the blog. I’m very excited for her but I miss her terribly. To be honest, my first impulse was to retire this space, but Joie convinced me to keep it going. However, I’ve really struggled since she left, as many of you have probably noticed. I’ve been joined by some wonderful guests this year – Raven Woods, Eleanor Bowman, Joe Vogel, Nina Fonoroff, D.B. Anderson, Marie Plasse, Toni Bowers – and I deeply appreciate their involvement and support. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our conversations. However, this blog was conceived as a partnership, and it works best when there are two of us fully committed to it, week after week, post after post. And I’m starting to realize that I just don’t enjoy doing it on my own. Running the blog with Joie was a blast. Doing it by myself is not.
After a year of feeling kind of lost and overwhelmed, I decided I really need another partner to keep this blog vibrant and functioning well. So I asked Lisha McDuff if she would be willing to take that on, and I’m so grateful and happy that she has agreed. As many of you know from past conversations, Lisha is extremely knowledgeable about music and the entertainment industry in general, and about Michael Jackson in particular. She’s a classically trained musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and major touring productions like Wicked and Phantom of the Opera. Three years ago she decided to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and go back to school, and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director.
Lisha, thank you so much for joining me! I can’t tell you how grateful I am. And how fun that you’ve been working with Susan on Michael Jackson! What could be better than that?
Lisha: No kidding! Talk about some serious brain power. Susan Fast is everything a popular music scholar should be, in my opinion.
Willa: Oh, I agree! I love her work. She blows me away with her insights and depth of knowledge time after time. You’re both so knowledgeable about music and have such fascinating ideas – how wonderful that you’re working together! I know how busy you are right now, so I felt kind of guilty even asking, but I am so excited and relieved and happy to have you here as my new writing and blogging partner. Thank you sincerely from the bottom of my heart for accepting.
Lisha: Honestly, I’m thrilled you asked, Willa. I have gained so much from your work, especially your conversations with Joie and all the other amazing contributors here. Every post has been like a roller-coaster ride for me, so I’m excited for the opportunity to participate on a regular basis. Before we get started though, there is something I’d really like to say: I miss Joie’s contributions terribly as well! I’m sure we all do.
Willa: Oh, I miss her every post. But we keep in touch and she seems really happy in her new career, so I think it’s been a good move for her. And maybe we can convince her to come join us sometimes …
Lisha: I certainly hope so!
Willa: So today we’re going to look at the evolution of the 40-minute short film, Ghosts. Lisha, this all began when you found a clip of an early version of Ghosts, which was filmed in 1993. Here’s a link:
Thank you so much for sharing this! You’ve been trying to track this down for quite a while, right?
Lisha: Yes, I have been curious about this early footage for years now. I’d heard rumblings about it and I’d seen a few screenshots here and there, but I never had any luck in finding a way to view it. I just couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it had been posted to YouTube.
Willa: Oh, it’s fascinating! I was so excited when you told me you’d found it. There are quite a few demos available of Michael Jackson’s songs where we can see how his ideas progressed, but it’s rare to have a demo version, as it were, of one of his videos. And how wonderful that it’s Ghosts, which is so complex. It’s so interesting to have this opportunity to peek inside his thought process as he was developing it.
Lisha: Definitely. And after speculating about it for so long, it’s incredibly satisfying to finally get to see it.
Willa: It really is! So as I understand it, this early version was shot in 1993 as a promo piece for the feature-length film, Addams Family Values. But work on it abruptly stopped when the Chandler scandal broke and Paramount decided they no longer wanted Michael Jackson’s help promoting their film. Then the project resumed in 1996 as a stand-alone project, separate from Addams Family Values. Is that right?
Lisha: Yes, according to an interview with the original director, Mick Garris, that’s exactly what happened. A couple of weeks into the shoot, false claims generated by Evan Chandler began circulating in the media and, sadly, the project had to be scrapped. When the work finally resumed, Garris was no longer available so Stan Winston was asked to direct the final version.
At the time, few had any way of knowing it was Evan Chandler who should have been under investigation and Michael Jackson who needed police protection from him. Neither the police nor the press seemed interested in investigating that possibility. As a result, the damages sustained by Michael Jackson were very, very high – personally, professionally, and financially.
Viewing this early version of Ghosts, I began to realize I had assumed this was going to be some sort of cameo appearance for Michael Jackson in Addams Family Values. Now I am thinking it was intended as a Michael Jackson short film that would double as cross-promotion for the motion picture. If true, it’s an interesting idea from an artistic and marketing point of view. I can’t really think of a parallel move, but surely someone else has done this.
Willa, can you think of another music video that has also served as cross-promotion for a major motion picture or entertainment product like this?
Willa: Hmmm … Now that you mention it, no I can’t. I know there’s been a lot of cross-pollination between movies and popular songs before. Just look at the James Bond movies, which have featured theme songs by Paul McCartney, Carly Simon, Adele, and others. And some of the biggest-selling albums of all time have been soundtracks – for The Bodyguard, Dirty Dancing, Saturday Night Fever, Titanic, South Pacific, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, … The list goes on and on. So there’s a long history of the music industry and film industry promoting one another. But off the top of my head, I can’t think of another case where a music video has been created to promote a film.
Lisha: Those are all great examples, and you’re right there has always been a strong synergy between music and film. Popular songs are often featured in motion pictures, and movie songs frequently become hits. Many don’t realize the musical short is as old as sound-film and television itself. They were produced and widely distributed long before MTV.
But for some reason I just can’t think of another music video that includes characters from another current movie or project. The only Ghosts/Addams Family comparison I can come up with is the Black or White short film, which ends with a clip of The Simpsons.
Willa: Yes, but I think that Simpsons clip is there for thematic reasons, not to promote the show. What I mean is, I think it’s significant that Black or White begins and ends with a white boy (Macauley Culkin and Bart Simpson) dancing to Michael Jackson’s music, and then rebelling against his father when he tries to shut the music down.
Lisha: That’s true. Although The Simpsons are funny-looking lemon-yellow cartoon characters, their language and behavior codes white. That’s an important point that Susan Fast makes in her book on the Dangerous album – that the Black or White short film is literally framed by whiteness.
And I totally agree that The Simpsons clip in Black or White functions independently of any possible marketing strategy. But at the same time, I can’t help noticing its promotional value, which would have given the series massive global exposure via a Michael Jackson short film. Now I’m curious as to whether or not that ending was monetized in some way.
Willa: That’s an interesting question. I have no idea. Michael Jackson did participate in a Simpsons episode, though that wasn’t confirmed until years later, but I don’t think he was paid for it.
Lisha: I wouldn’t know, but there are some interesting possibilities there, for sure.
Willa: That’s true. And the draft version of Ghosts does have quite a few references to the Addams Family, like Thing (the disembodied hand) skittering around, and the sudden appearance near the end of the Addams children: Wednesday, Pugsley, and Pubert. They aren’t in the final version. By the way, here’s a link to the final, for comparison purposes:
Lisha: No matter how often I’ve watched this film, and I’ve seen it quite a few times, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. It’s so brilliant on so many levels. It’s hard to understand some of the reviews that characterize it as a “huge flop.”
Willa: I think a lot of critics don’t like it because it draws on the aesthetic of the grotesque, which is alien territory to a lot of people. It’s an ancient form that’s disruptive to the status quo, and it makes people feel unsettled and uncomfortable – especially people in power. That’s its function, to unsettle things. But a lot of people don’t like that feeling, and feel threatened by it. And perhaps they should feel threatened. It can be very powerful.
So my sense is that a lot of critics don’t like Ghosts because it’s so different, it makes them uncomfortable, and they don’t understand it – just like a lot of the villagers in Ghosts don’t like the Maestro because he’s so different, he makes them uncomfortable, and they don’t understand him … at least, not at the beginning. It’s another one of those loop-de-loop situations where Michael Jackson’s art reflects and predicts what will happen in real life. We see that happening over and over again with Michael Jackson, and Ghosts is a great example. He almost seemed to predict the future with that film, in a number of ways.
Lisha: You are so right. Ghosts is a powerful film that both reflects and predicts “what will happen in real life” – eerily so. And your point is well taken about the aesthetic of the grotesque and how fiercely it challenges the status quo. Ghosts is also a brutally honest work of art. Michael Jackson lets us in on the fact he’s known all along what we’ve been saying about his artistry, his face, his weirdness, his childlike innocence. Now that we have this early version available to study, I’m even more fascinated by some of the issues it raises.
Willa: So am I. And it’s really interesting to compare the two versions to see the development of his ideas. Some changes are obvious, like when the Maestro disappears at the end of the 1993 version. Of course, that version is incomplete, so it could be his return was planned but just wasn’t filmed yet when work was suspended. Still, it’s unsettling to see the Maestro disappear and not come back. At the end of the 1996 version, he definitely returns and is even stronger than before – he’s been accepted by the villagers and it’s the Mayor who’s disappeared.
That brings up another important difference: the actor who plays the Mayor in the original version is not Michael Jackson. The original Mayor does turn up a couple times in the final version though. Here he is at 1:32 minutes, entering the Maestro’s home:
Lisha: Good eye, Willa! I hadn’t seen that, but you’re right. That cut appears to have been lifted directly from the original.
Willa: Yes, instead of reshooting everything in 1996, they reused a lot of the footage from 1993 – like this shot of the original Mayor, which you don’t notice if you aren’t looking for him. At least I never noticed him before. A lot of the special effects sequences are the same also.
Lisha: I have to say, overall, I was surprised by how similar the unfinished rough cut is to the final version directed by Stan Winston. I had imagined there would be more drastic differences, but much of it looks remarkably similar.
Willa: That’s true. There are some significant differences, but the overall structure was pretty much there in 1993, and many of the scenes are very similar, as you say. But even so, sometimes subtle changes shift the feeling of what we’re seeing and how we respond to it. For example, both films feature the “Welcome to Normal Valley” sign in the opening scenes using the exact same footage. But the background music has changed and that affects our emotional response to the sign, even though the visuals are the same.
Lisha: The musical score in the finished product is very well done, I think. It adds so much to the dramatic impact of the film. I noticed a comment on YouTube claiming the 1993 rough cut has temporary music only, taken from other films. I don’t know if that’s true or not, the music and sound effects are well synchronized already, but it also makes sense. I wouldn’t expect the musical score to be added until after the film editing was complete.
Willa: That’s an interesting point, Lisha. I really don’t know how that typically works. For music videos, which were Michael Jackson’s forte and where he served his apprenticeship and learned his craft as a filmmaker, I assume the music would come first. But for a feature-length film, I imagine you’re right and the visuals come first and the music comes later. For something like Ghosts, which lies somewhere between a feature film and a video, I simply don’t know.
Lisha: I think you’ve got it, Willa. For the musical numbers, the music is produced first and played back at the film shoot so the performers can synchronize their movement with the music. For the dramatic scenes, the music and sound effects are added later, so they can be synchronized to the visuals.
Brad Sundberg just gave an interesting interview where he described working on the Ghosts film shoot. It’s a pretty entertaining story, as is the entire interview. Skip to 1:00:30 for the part about Ghosts and how loud Michael Jackson wanted the playback!
Willa: That’s funny! Especially his description of their struggles to get enough volume in the huge space they were using for filming. He said they built an “enormous sound system” and had speakers the size of “two refrigerators side by side – two American refrigerators.”
Lisha: Yes, and don’t confuse those enormous speakers with the size of a small Asian or European refrigerator! Sounds like they were going for the “Are You Nuts!?!” volume levels.
Willa: Could be! By the way, I noticed Brad mentioned “Ghosts” and “Is It Scary” together, and that reminds me of something Debbie Rowe said during the AEG trial. She said that, originally, “Ghosts” and “Is It Scary” were one song, but later it was divided and developed into two songs. After she said that, I noticed some interesting connections between them – like they both begin with the lines, “There’s a ghost out in the hall / There’s a ghoul beneath the bed.” They also come one after the other on the Blood on the Dance Floor album, and there’s an interesting parallelism between them in Ghosts. The Maestro turns into a skeleton and dances to “Is It Scary.” Later the skeleton turns into the Monster Maestro, enters the Mayor, and then he dances to “Ghosts” in a way that feels reminiscent of the skeleton dance.
Lisha: Wow, that’s really interesting. For some reason I don’t remember that from the AEG trial, but now I want to go back and re-read it. And I think that’s absolutely right, that “Ghosts” and “Is It Scary” are just two different versions of the same song. Don’t you think so?
Willa: They are very similar – in fact, I used to get them confused when I’d listen to them on my car stereo. I thought I was just being a scatterbrain, but maybe there’s a reason I confused them! If you’re able to track down Debbie Rowe’s testimony, I’d love to look it over. I know I was really struck by what she said, but I’m just going by memory, and my memory’s not the best …
Lisha: Gee, I can relate to that! Ok, Willa, here we go – found a link to Rowe’s testimony.
Willa: Thanks for tracking that down, Lisha. So here’s what Debbie Rowe said:
I remember “Ghost” was split in half, for some reason, or “Do you think it’s scary.” It was originally going to be called “Ghost,” and then it was “Is It Scary.”
That is so interesting. I’d really like to look into that some more …
Lisha: I would too.
Willa: Anyway, like you I love the music in the final version and strongly prefer it to the music in the original – not just Michael Jackson’s songs (of course!) but also the background music, and the feeling it creates.
I also prefer the scenes of the villagers marching toward the Maestro’s mansion in the final film. In the 1993 version, those scenes are in color and the villagers are individualized. We see their faces and hear their voices. The final version uses footage from that same shoot, including some of the exact same scenes, but the film has been rendered black-and-white in the final version, and it’s been edited so it’s much more abstract. We know the townspeople are upset and angry, but for the most part we don’t see their faces or hear their voices except as a murmur behind the music. So what we see in the final version isn’t so much specific people anymore, but more an abstract idea of an angry mob.
Lisha: That’s a really great point and I think you’re right. Those small details make it a little more vague, which better illustrates the mob mentality that is so central to the story.
Willa: I think so too. The problem isn’t these specific people so much as the phenomenon of fear and intolerance leading to mob violence, and the final version conveys that much better, I think.
There’s a similar shift in the dialogue. In the draft version, things tend to be spelled out in rather explicit, straightforward terms. But the final tends to be more subtle and more nuanced. For example, in the draft version the villagers begin to chant, “Come out where we can see you. Come out where we can see you.” That’s been dropped in the final. Instead, we simply see them looking for the Maestro. We also see that they’re both eager to find him and kind of fearful about it too. That kind of emotional complexity is conveyed much better in the final, I think.
Lisha: It is definitely more subtle. In the original, I feel like the demand for the Maestro to leave town is quite explicit. It’s very clear that the townspeople have entered the Maestro’s mansion for the specific purpose of running him off. In the final version, the mayor similarly states “we want you out of town,” but it’s more vague as to whether or not that is simply his wish or if that is what the townspeople had hoped to achieve by going there.
Willa: That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought about that before, but I think you’re right – and that’s an important change. Again, it makes the story more subtle and more universal, and also opens it up to multiple interpretations.
There’s a similar shift in the setting, meaning how the Maestro’s mansion is conceptualized and presented. In the original 1993 version, there are several shots of the exterior of the house, like this one, which stays on screen for a fairly long time:
Here’s another exterior view, this time from closer in:
And here’s another, closer still. If you look closely, you can see the left window in the door has been broken by one of the villagers. We don’t see them engaging in that kind of violence in the final version, though the potential for mob violence is definitely there.
Shots like these present the Maestro’s mansion as a specific, physical place. But almost all of these exterior shots have been removed from the final version. Instead, the house is presented in a more abstract way. We only have two brief glimpses of the entire house – one at the beginning behind the title block, and the other 44 seconds in, when lightning illuminates the house for just an instant. So our sense of the Maestro’s house is more impressionistic than in the 1993 version. To me it feels more like a memory or an imagined place than a real place.
This is reinforced by the shot immediately after, at 45 seconds in, of the sign identifying this as Someplace Else – not 4641 Hayvenhurst Avenue or Westlake Studios, but Someplace Else.
Lisha: I think that sign is hilarious: “Someplace Else.”
Willa: I do too. Here’s a screen capture of it, with a flaming torch passing by:
The effect of all this is to make the Maestro’s mansion feel more like a mythic space, a space located in our own imaginations, rather than an actual physical place. It’s subtle but very well done, I think.
Lisha: It reminds me of the jump from black-and-white to color in The Wizard of Oz, signaling the move into the imaginary or mythic realm.
Willa: Yes, and that jump to color happens in Ghosts also – the film switches from black-and-white to subdued color when we enter “the imaginary or mythic realm” of the Maestro. That’s a great way to put it, Lisha.
It’s in this realm that the Maestro engages and ultimately alters the villager’s hostile feelings toward him, but in unexpected ways: with the help of special effects, he stretches his eyes and mouth to grotesque proportions, or rips his face off altogether so there’s nothing but a laughing skull, or pounds himself to dust on the stone floor. For the most part, these scenes are pretty similar in the two versions. In fact, many of the special effects sequences are identical. Interestingly, Stan Winston, who acted as the director in 1996, as you mentioned earlier, was in charge of special effects in 1993, so those sequences are his. He created them.
Lisha: That would certainly explain why they look so similar!
Willa: Yes, it does. But again there are some significant changes. Some new special effects sequences have been added in the later version, like the dancing skeleton, and the Monster Maestro, and the huge face filling the doorway. And a few have been deleted, like the one where they can’t get through a locked door, and suddenly one of the villagers starts gagging and coughs up the key.
Lisha: I noticed another interesting sequence from the early version that was later omitted. It’s the black-out at around 3:50, when the mayor lights some matches to see where they are going. Suddenly we see torches on the wall that begin to fire up on their own, and they appear to be held by human arms coming out the walls. This scene is strikingly similar to one in Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête, or Beauty and the Beast. Here’s a trailer that shows the human wall sconces at about 30 seconds in:
Willa: I had the exact same feeling! Those light fixtures made of living human arms are very evocative of Cocteau’s film, aren’t they? In fact, I see a lot of connections between Cocteau and Michael Jackson. I wonder why that detail was removed from the final version?
Lisha: Good question. I see some connections as well and really like the reference.
Willa: I do too. I also like the fact that when the Maestro first appears in the original, he’s among the villagers – he’s one of them.
Lisha: I thought that was fascinating – how the Maestro disguises himself among the crowd, hiding in plain sight. It reminds me of how Michael Jackson reportedly went out in public wearing various disguises. I wonder how many people have been standing next to Michael Jackson at some point in their lives and never known it.
Willa: That’s an interesting connection, Lisha. I hadn’t thought of that. I just like the implication that he is one of the villagers, part of the community, not someone separate.
Lisha: Yes. And that is really spelled out in the final version where Michael Jackson plays the roles of both the Mayor and the Maestro.
Willa: Oh interesting, Lisha. I hadn’t thought of it that way. It’s true that in some ways he seems more connected to the villagers in the final version. For example, when he begins to interact with the villagers in the 1993 draft version, he seems pretty fearful of them, and hurt – emotionally hurt – by their animosity toward him. And I imagine that’s a pretty accurate reflection of his emotions in 1993, just as the Chandler schemes were unfolding.
Lisha: I would agree.
Willa: But his interactions with the villagers in the final version feel different to me. He seems much more comfortable with them, and more confident. It’s like he thoroughly understands the villagers and what motivates them, knows how to change their minds, and that knowledge helps him maintain total control of the situation. He’s the Maestro, and he knows his power. That’s the feeling I get from the final version – not so much in the draft version.
Lisha: Although in the original, the Maestro displays considerable power over the villagers as well, like when he signals the doors to magically close, preventing his “guests” from leaving the room.
Willa: That’s true.
Lisha: But I agree that the power he wields is more apparent in the final version.
Willa: It seems that way to me, and not just his magic powers but his bearing and facial expressions – his confidence in his abilities as an artist to touch people’s hearts and change their minds.
Another very important “lost” scene is the children’s response after the Maestro turns to dust. In the 1993 draft version, the children immediately rush to him and begin shaping the dust back into human form – creating fingers, making him whole – until he is restored. So in a very literal way, the children re-create him and bring him back to life in the original version.
Lisha: Their concern, innocence and sheer delight in his imagination and playfulness sparks the power that reanimates the Maestro.
Willa: That’s a great way to interpret it, Lisha! I really like this sequence, but it isn’t in the final version. Instead, the Maestro is restored to life in a very different way. And actually, while I love the idea of the children bringing him back to life, I think the final version works better.
While the children don’t bring him back to life in the final version, they are more vocal about protecting him and more involved in the discussions among the villagers. For example, as everyone is standing at the gate looking in, before they enter the Maestro’s home, one boy says, “Why don’t we just leave him alone?” and another says, “He hasn’t hurt anybody. Can’t we just go?” But then the brother of the second boy blames him, saying, “It’s your fault, jerk. You just couldn’t keep your mouth shut.” None of that is in the original version.
Lisha: This scene really jumped out at me as I rewatched my VCD copy of the film. (YouTube quality doesn’t really do it justice!) In the opening dialogue you described, the mother also whacks her kid on the head and says “you did the right thing.” The dissonance between her whack on the head and her reassurance of the child is confusing and unsettling.
One of the most interesting and important things about Ghosts is how it can be interpreted as an artistic response to the false accusations made against Michael Jackson in 1993. But I wonder if there is any possibility that the original concept for Ghosts predates Evan Chandler’s extortion scheme, given the amount of time it takes to put a film together and the fact that the media construction of Michael Jackson as a “weirdo” from “Someplace Else” was already firmly in place.
Willa: That’s a really good question, Lisha. The accusations became public in August but private negotiations had been going on for quite a while before that, so it’s not clear how much Michael Jackson knew before work on Ghosts began. I think Chandler says he first confronted him about his “suspicions” before Memorial Day weekend of 1993, so that would have been in May, probably. Then the phone conversation David Schwartz taped – the one where Evan Chandler says he’s hired a lawyer, “the nastiest son of a bitch I could find,” that “it could be a massacre if I don’t get what I want,” and that “everything is going according to a certain plan that isn’t just mine” – that all happened on July 8th, and Michael Jackson was given a copy of the tape soon after. The dental visit where Chandler put Jordan under sedation and asked him questions was July 16th, which is so backwards: the fact that Chandler hired a lawyer before his son had even agreed to the allegations says a lot about where those allegations originated. And then the scandal broke in late August.
Lisha: You’re so right about the timeline. Both Raymond Chandler and Geraldine Hughes claim that Evan Chandler hired attorney Barry Rothman in June 1993. Just like the Arvizo case, the timeline makes no sense whatsoever.
Willa: No, it doesn’t – or rather, it makes sense only if you realize that the allegations began with the parents and not with the children. Simply looking at the chronology of events of both cases tells a lot.
Lisha: It’s shocking, really.
Willa: It really is. How could the police and the press miss something so obvious?
Lisha: You got me. Motivated reasoning? That’s my best guess.
Willa: I think you’re right. But anyway, by the time the scandal became public, Chandler had already been negotiating for weeks, trying to get a $20 million deal in exchange for his silence. So I suspect the way things went is that Michael Jackson was asked to do a song and promotional video for Addams Family Values in early 1993, before there was a problem with the Chandlers. But then things started getting ugly with Evan Chandler – in private – right around the time he started developing the plot and ideas. And then the scandal broke publicly two weeks after they started filming.
Does that sound plausible to you, Lisha, or not really? I honestly don’t know how long it would take for the screenplay and everything to come together once they started working on it. You have a lot more insight into that side of things than I do.
Lisha: Michael Jackson was certainly aware of what Evan Chandler was up to well before they began filming, so yes, it is definitely plausible. But I also think analyzing the story as a response to negative media portrayals holds up either way – before or after Chandler. 1993 was the year that Michael Jackson began defending himself against all kinds of unfair media characterizations that had turned really mean and nasty. I mean, looking back, how crazy is it that he had to go on primetime television in February of 1993 to tell Oprah he was a gentleman, who suffered from vitiligo, and did not sleep in a hyperbaric chamber? In hindsight, why was that so necessary?
In some ways, it would be interesting if Ghosts was initially conceived before the Chandler extortion plot. What I’m trying to say is, there were already a lot of mean-spirited media portrayals going on before Evan Chandler and Barry Rothman implemented their “plan.” And there is no doubt in my mind that the reason many people fell for the false accusations is that they intersected with the negative media portrayals already in circulation.
Willa: I agree. By the way, here’s an article by Stephen King, who worked on the Ghosts screenplay, where he describes Michael Jackson’s initial concept for the short film. Interestingly, it seems that King himself interpreted the concept one way before the scandal broke – as a response to anti-Rock & Roll feelings – and another way after the scandal:
The core story he described to me that day was about a mob of angry townspeople – buttoned-down suburbanites, not torch-carrying peasants – who want the “weirdo” who lives in the nearby castle to leave town. Because, they say, he’s a bad influence on their children. I associated that with the view parents held toward rock & roll when I was growing up, and still held toward the odder artists of the breed, like Ozzy Osbourne and Marilyn Manson (who in 1995 would release an album called Smells Like Children). I didn’t know that rumors about Jackson and child abuse had begun to circulate.
I also thought it was significant that Stephen King says Michael Jackson told him the “core story” before he began writing the screenplay. So the initial concept was definitely Michael Jackson’s. King also says the final screenplay “had wandered a far distance from my original script.” So while Stephen King is generally credited with the story, I think Michael Jackson was at least equally involved, from beginning to end.
Lisha: That’s an excellent point and just what we needed to know – that the story began with Michael Jackson and evolved over this specific time period.
By the way, I’d like to know how it is that Michael Jackson got constructed as the Rock & Roll “weirdo,” with the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and Marilyn Manson around? That would be really funny if I didn’t sense something so ugly behind it all. At the same time Michael Jackson was pigeonholed as a “pop” artist, and therefore ineligible for the cultural status given to serious rock musicians, he was also the ultimate Rock & Roll “weirdo.” That doesn’t add up.
To my way of thinking, the vilification of Michael Jackson occurred long before Evan Chandler got dollar signs in his eyes. Chandler and Rothman simply capitalized on the hysteria that already existed.
Willa: I think you’re right.
Lisha: Garris, who initially met Michael Jackson on the set of Thriller, was asked if he thought Michael Jackson was just being playful with all of this “monster” imagery. Ultimately, he didn’t think the response was very funny either:
He was very playful with that image, though as the press got meaner, he was definitely hurt by it, and pulled back and became more reclusive.
Willa: Yes. And this is kind of off topic, but how interesting that Garris was involved in Thriller, playing the role of one of the zombies, and then ended up as the director for the 1993 filming of Ghosts. That’s amazing! He’s like the Forrest Gump of Michael Jackson videos …
Lisha: Pretty wild. Small world, isn’t it?
Willa: It really is. And it’s true the media attacks on Michael Jackson began long before the allegations. Just look at the Leave Me Alone video, which was released in 1989 – four years before the Chandler allegations.
Lisha: I read an interesting article by media scholar John Nguyet Erni, who studied these negative portrayals and argued that “if Michael Jackson’s troubles preceded the scandal, it is critical for us to understand the source of those troubles and their discursive life, especially in the media.” In his May 2009 article published in Critical Studies in Mass Communication, Erni cites cultural critic Michele Wallace, who questioned the breadth of the Michael Jackson controversy early on. In 1989, Wallace noted the abundance of media criticism directed toward Michael Jackson and pointed out how it totally lacked a focus:
Where does this controversy focus its attention? Is it on his videos, his music, his wealth, his fame, his sexuality, his race, his lifestyle, his aesthetics, his unwillingness to be interviewed, his family, his plastic surgery, his skin lightening, or is it some ineffable combination of any or all of the above? What, at this moment, at the peak of his career, is he being attacked and criticized [for] on all sides?
These are complicated questions, but it seems obvious that the false allegations provided a target or a resting place for all of these free-floating anxieties.
Willa: I agree, and how prescient that Wallace was raising these questions in 1989. But as Wallace asks, Why? What gives rise to this criticism? And later, in 1993, what was it exactly that made the public – white Americans, especially – predisposed to believe those allegations, regardless of the evidence? It’s like, once again, the chronology is reversed. Looking back at media coverage of Michael Jackson in the 1980s and 90s, it’s not true that the allegations came out and then people turned against him, though that’s the narrative that’s been repeated over and over about him. Instead, there was significant uneasiness toward him before the scandal, and then the allegations simply validated that unease.
Lisha: You’re right. There is a resilient narrative out there that goes something like: The public greatly admired Michael Jackson’s talent from the time he was a small child. But due to the perils of success, he lost touch with reality and began acting out in tragic ways. Some are still blinded by his celebrity and talent which causes them to irrationally reject all negative information about him, primarily jurors and fans.
Yet there is ample evidence to suggest people wanted to believe just about anything negative about Michael Jackson, regardless of the evidence, especially when it involved a lot of condemnation and ridicule. You know, I think Susan Fast really nailed it when she described the Michael Jackson controversy as “difference that exceeded understanding.”
Willa: I agree.
Lisha: Willa, in your journal article for Popular Musicology Online, you discuss how Ghosts addresses our fear of difference at the level of “sensation and affect,” a place where unowned cultural biases can overwhelm and distort judgment and sound reasoning:
Drawing on his own case history as a guide, Jackson uses Ghosts to map out an artistic approach for attacking cultural biases not only in an intellectual way but at a deep psychological level – in a place of sensation and affect, a place resistant to evidence and reason, a place where our most primal fears, prejudices, and desires hold sway. Significantly, this is also the place where hysteria arises.
For example, in the 1993 film, Michael Jackson first appears at approximately 6:20, as the mayor and the townspeople are hysterically confronting the Maestro. They claim the Maestro scares their children, but these are the very same children who smile warmly at him, giggle a lot, and are clearly delighted by his antics:
Maestro: Here I am. What do you want?
Mayor: We want you out of town! You don’t fit in here!
Townswoman: You’re not like us!
Maestro: Why do I have to be?
Townsman: You’re not like anybody. You’re weird! These kids think you’re scary. (The mayor’s son shrugs his shoulders, as if he has no idea why he is saying this.)
Maestro: I’m scary? (pauses, looks at the boy) Son, do you think I’m scary?
Mayor’s son: (shakes his head “no,” but the mayor ventriloquizes his head up and down to indicate “yes”)
Mayor: You bet you’re scary! You’re a weirdo and we want you out of town.
Willa: This is such an important scene, especially when the Mayor grabs the boy’s head and forces him to nod “yes” when he was really nodding “no.” A similar example occurs 1:40 minutes in, when the Mayor’s son tells him, “Daddy, I’m scared.” He replies, “Sure you are. It’s a scary place.” But his son says, “No, I’m scared of them,” and nods toward the villagers with their flaming torches. Then he asks, “What’s going to happen?” That’s what scares him – the villagers’ aggression – not the Maestro.
Lisha: Yes! The kids are clearly confused and disturbed by all this hysteria and intolerance.
Willa: Exactly. Repeatedly we see that the children respond in a very different way than the adults do – specifically, they’re much more open and welcoming of difference. But the adults don’t seem to realize this. Instead, they project their emotions onto their children, and then use that as justification for their intolerant actions.
That scene you mentioned, Lisha, of the Mayor “ventriloquizing” his son shows this very clearly. The boy isn’t scared of the Maestro – the Mayor is. But he says his son is scared so he can justify his attempts to drive the Maestro from his home. This is all spelled out pretty explicitly in the 1993 version. It’s central to the final version also, but it’s handled more subtly.
Lisha: Yes, I agree, the psychological projection is depicted even clearer in the earlier version which brings up another point Erni makes in his study of the media scandal. There is language in the illegally leaked copies of Jordan Chandler’s “witness testimony” that exhibits an obvious ventriloquism. Jordan Chandler’s complaint contains a lot of specialized language that a detective or a therapist might use, which is not the language of a young teenager. Erni discusses “the confluent forces that accumulate around the testimony, forces that ventriloquize the teenager’s sexual knowledge and memory, voices that speak for him – and therefore without him.”
Willa: This is such an important point.
Lisha: It is. And as you mentioned earlier, much of the action and dialogue in Ghosts is so prophetic and insightful. I mean, isn’t this exactly what happened to Michael Jackson in reality?
Willa: Yes, it is. Ghosts provides such an interesting window into his perceptions of what was happening and why – as well as what was about to happen. He was uncannily accurate in predicting what would happen in the future.
Lisha: When the hysterical mayor cries: “You’re a weirdo and we want you out of town!” it suggests to me that as early as 1993 Michael Jackson knew there were some who literally wanted him gone for no other reason than he was a “weirdo” and not like anyone else. He wouldn’t actually have to leave his home for another 12 years, but in fact, this did happen. You and D.B. Anderson were just discussing this in terms of racial politics:
D.B.: … this type of attack just fits with everything else we have seen from the white male heterosexual press. It is necessary to diminish someone else only if you are trying to establish or maintain your own dominance. If that person happens to be an extraordinarily potent black man…
Willa: … then there’s an impulse to trivialize his accomplishments. Yes, I agree.
D.B.: Or throw him in jail.
Willa: Or publicly humiliate him and drive him from his home.
It’s worth giving this some serious thought. Driving Michael Jackson out of his home was precisely what happened as a result of the false allegations – allegations that were originally manufactured by parents, police, therapists, and/or the press, and later ventriloquized through children. I don’t need to remind a Michael Jackson fan that to this day there is not one single instance of a child spontaneously making a criminal accusation against Michael Jackson. Not one. They all follow some kind of bizarre timeline where parents, police, therapists, lawyers, and/or Martin Bashir create a claim – which is later ventriloquized as “witness testimony.”
Willa: Absolutely. To my mind, the clearest example is the Jason Francia case. His mother goes on a celebrity news show, Hard Copy, and says her son may have been molested by Michael Jackson – and she does this before talking to a guidance counsellor or psychologist about her concerns, or even talking to her son about it. As a mom, that just boggles my mind. Her first step is to say something like that on a nationally broadcast television show before she’s even discussed it with her 12-year-old son? That goes against all my instincts as a mom.
Lisha: It’s unreal.
Willa: It really is – just unbelievable. So the police question her son about it and he says no, nothing happened. But they keep pushing him to say something did happen until he finally tells them, “If he really did touch, it was in the arcade.” This is such a clear case of the “ventriloquism” you pointed out in the 1993 version, Lisha. The boy shakes his head no, but the Mayor grabs his head and forces him to nod yes. That’s it exactly – a perfect description of the Chandlers and the Francias.
Lisha: That gets us into another troubling aspect of the media scandal Erni identified, which is the commodification of “witness testimony.” Accusations against Michael Jackson were bought and sold for years and it was big business. Even today we could debate whether or not there is still a market for accusations against Michael Jackson.
And what is the end result of all this? Michael Jackson suffered millions and millions in damages and was driven out of town by the Sheriff. I know I’m repeating myself, but this was the 1990s and 2000s, not the wild west! So it bears repeating: despite being exonerated in a court of law, Michael Jackson was driven out of his own home and out of his community. And not just any home. From what I understand, to call Neverland a home misses the point entirely, according to those lucky enough to have been there.
What D.B. Anderson mentioned in the previous post about cultural dominance is consistent with everything I know about how the social hierarchy works. Cultural dominance (for example white, male, heterosexual positions of power) is often maintained through the most everyday, ordinary things we take for granted. Images in the press or in popular culture often work to solidify (or sometimes challenge) the dominance of one group over another. Oftentimes we so thoroughly accept what the culture considers “normal” that we don’t even think to question our own beliefs about it. It’s simply the way things are.
Willa: Exactly. It’s so “normal” we can’t even see it, or imagine a different way.
Lisha: Yes. That’s why interrogating what is “normal” is so crucially important to understanding how society works. I think that’s one reason scholars have been interested in studying Michael Jackson and the way he seems to challenge normativity at every turn. These challenges have intersected with the very mechanisms of control, such as law enforcement and the media, which often speak in one voice when it comes to Michael Jackson.
Willa: That’s a really important point, Lisha, and it lies at the heart of Ghosts, doesn’t it? I mean, that’s precisely what this film is about. The residents of Normal Valley feel threatened by the Maestro because, like Michael Jackson, “he seems to challenge normativity at every turn,” as you say. And they respond by trying to reassert their control (over their children, over their town and who is allowed to live there) and reestablish the normalcy that has been disrupted by the Maestro by invading his home and trying to drive him out of town.
And of course, that’s true of Michael Jackson in real life as well, with the police and the media acting like the residents of Normal Valley to maintain the established social order by forcing him out – not just out of Neverland but out of the country.
Lisha: Well said. As an American citizen, it’s so troubling to me that this happened at all, but especially in my own lifetime.
Michael Jackson posed a threat to normativity that wasn’t just a lofty statement attached to a work of art. It was a very real threat to the established order, and we can find a mountain of evidence to corroborate how the culture worked very hard to contain him.
Willa, you have described Michael Jackson’s Ghosts as a new kind of art – one that isn’t necessarily confined to artwork itself, but art that is also located in our everyday lives through social discourse and other kinds of media we consume:
Through this new kind of art, Jackson captured the cultural narratives that were being imposed on him – narratives of race, of gender, of sexuality, of criminality, of celebrity and monstrous excess – inflated them to grotesque proportions, and then reflected those narratives back at us, forcing us to confront and grapple with them, and maybe reconsider them. This new genre is mediated through the tabloids and celebrity television shows and even the mainstream press, and it includes the many “eccentric oddities” (to borrow a phrase from “Is It Scary”) that came to define Jackson in the public mind.
Willa: Yes, I strongly believe that. Ghosts functions at several different levels at once. On one level, it is itself a fascinating work of art. But on another level it’s art talking about art – specifically, how art (an expanded definition of art that includes his public persona and the popular press) can bring about social change.
Lisha: You’ve definitely convinced me.
Willa: Part of what Michael Jackson was trying to address in his promo piece for Addams Family Values – the work that became Ghosts – were all the suspicions directed at him. Which makes it all the more disappointing what happened after Paramount severed ties with him. Not only did they no longer want him promoting their film, but they added a scene to Addams Family Values that played right into those allegations. Here’s a clip:
So instead of challenging the suspicions and discomfort felt toward him, as Michael Jackson intended, it did just the opposite and reinforced them.
Lisha: Wow. So there it is – everything we’ve been talking about in one 15-second clip. That gag would have worked just as well in February 1993 – at the time of the Oprah interview and several months before the accusations were made – as it did in November 1993, when Addams Family Values was released.
Willa: Though it definitely gained currency after the allegations became public …
Lisha: Making it very clear what the public was being cued to do: be very afraid of Michael Jackson!
Willa: Yes. It’s shocking to see his message of tolerance supplanted by this …
Lisha: … a message of total intolerance.
Willa: Yes, it feels that way to me too.
Well, there’s so much more to talk about with Ghosts, but we should probably wrap it up for today. Again, thank you so much for joining me, Lisha! – both today and in the weeks to come. I am so happy to have you here with me. What a wonderful way to start the new year!
Note: Michael Jackson’s Ghosts was never officially released outside of Asia so is not widely available. If you don’t have a copy, here’s a link to a high-definition version available on YouTube:
Also, while much of the information in the “Monsters” section of this article is already very familiar to fans, this is the first time a balanced review of the evidence has appeared in an academic journal, and it has rarely been reported in the mainstream media. We think it’s very important that this information be made available to the general public as well as Michael Jackson’s supporters, so if you have ideas about ways to share this article with readers who may or may not be fans, please feel free to do so.
Willa: So this week Joie and I wanted to talk about a song that’s a favorite for both of us: “Whatever Happens” from the Invincible album. I was so glad you suggested it, Joie, because I absolutely love this song.
Joie: Now that’s really funny to me, Willa, because I remember you suggesting this song, not me. And when you did, I was really happy because it’s been one of my favorites from the start.
Willa: Really? I suggested it? Wow, Joie, I’m sorry – I have this middle-aged brain and it’s not always super reliable. I was sure you’d suggested it, and I remember being excited about it.… Anyway, I think I’ve told you this before, but after Michael Jackson died I played this song a lot. For some reason, it was really comforting to me, just hearing that beautiful voice sing, “Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand.”
Joie: Actually, I don’t think I knew that, but I can understand it perfectly.
Willa: Yeah, it’s like it conveyed something I really needed to hear right then. But I loved it even before he died. It tells a complicated story that isn’t resolved at the end, so it’s bittersweet, as many of his songs are. And you know, one thing that’s interesting about this song is that, in it, we see the intersection of two important themes for Michael Jackson. The first is the problem of communication between men and women, which runs throughout his songwriting – especially on the Invincible album. We talked about that a little bit during our month-long celebration of Invincible. And the other is the problem of work, and how crushing it can be to the spirit to work in an unfulfilling job.
Joie: Ok, first I want to say that I loved that month-long celebration of Invincible so much. Those posts are still some of my most favorite that we’ve ever done, and I know it’s because I just completely adore that album from start to finish!
But enough gushing … because you just said something that sort of puzzles me. I never think about the theme of working an unfulfilling job as a Michael Jackson staple. I’m probably going to be smacking my head in a moment, but besides “Working Day and Night” I can’t think of any song where this theme has played a major part, so please explain.
Willa: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a staple – it’s not something he focuses on in song after song, like he does with some other themes. But he does touch on it every so often, and he focuses on it pretty extensively in “Working Day and Night,” like you said, and in “Keep Your Head Up.” As he sings in the opening verse:
She’s working two jobs, keeping alive
She works in a restaurant night and day
She waits her life away
She wipes her tears away
It’s part of “Slave to the Rhythm” also, though there’s more going on than that. The main character isn’t just working in an unfulfilling job during the day. When she comes home at night she’s also slaving away for an unappreciative husband. And it’s central to “Whatever Happens,” of course.
Joie: Ok, I see what you mean now, and you’re right, it is a theme he touches on more than once.
Willa: And over a long period of time. “Working Day and Night” was released in 1979 and “Whatever Happens” in 2001. That’s more than two decades.
But you know, it’s really interesting to compare these two songs because they’re both addressing a similar scenario – a man toiling away in a dead-end job because of the woman he loves – but they couldn’t be more different. In “Working Day and Night,” his girlfriend is encouraging to him to put in the hours on that job because she wants his money. But the situation in “Whatever Happens” is much more subtle and much more complicated than that.
Joie: I agree that the situation in “Whatever Happens” is much more complicated than the high-maintenance girlfriend in “Working Day and Night.”
In “Whatever Happens” we are introduced to a couple in love – presumably a husband and wife – who obviously love and care very deeply about one another, but they are in the middle of a crisis of some type. And although we are never told exactly what the conflict is between them, we know immediately that it’s a pretty serious issue, as he sings in the opening verse:
He gives another smile
Tries to understand her side
To show that he cares
She can’t stay in the room
With everything that’s been going on
“Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand”
So right off the bat, he tells us that the man is trying very hard to understand her side of things, but the woman is so upset about the situation that she can’t even stay in the same room and discuss it. But at the same time, she begs him not to let go of her hand, no matter what.
Willa: What a terrible situation! And you’re right, Joie – she’s “so upset … she can’t even stay in the room to discuss it.” You know, as many times as I’ve listened to that song, I never got that before. But you’re right, she leaves the room when he tries to talk to her – and that’s really important because, whatever the crisis is, the real problem is that they can’t seem to talk about it. We see that in the second verse also:
“Everything will be all right,”
He assures her
But she doesn’t hear a word that he says
Afraid what they’ve been doing’s not right
He doesn’t know what to say
So he prays,
“Whatever, whatever, whatever
Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand”
So he tries to talk to her – tries to tell her “Everything will be all right” – but she either can’t or won’t listen to him: “she doesn’t hear a word that he says.” So by the end of the verse he seems to give up. Instead of talking to her, he’s praying.
They both really care about one another, obviously, and they don’t want to break up. The first verse ends with her saying “don’t let go of my hand,” as you said, Joie, and the second verse ends with him praying the exact same words. And by the end, in the ad libs, Michael Jackson is singing, “I said, yeah, don’t you let go, baby.” So the pronouns shift from “she says” to “he prays” to “I said.” I swear, someone could write a book simply about his use of pronouns, and how he’s constantly shifting point of view.
So we look at this situation from her perspective and his perspective, and they both truly want to be together, but you can just feel them tearing apart. It’s really tragic. Neither one wants it – we can see that very clearly – but they don’t seem to know how to stop it.
Joie: It does seem like a very heartbreaking song on some level, doesn’t it? And in the third verse we see that theme of working a dead-end job that you mentioned before when he says:
He’s working day and night
Thinks he’ll make her happy
Forgetting all the dreams that he had
He doesn’t realize
It’s not the end of the world
It doesn’t have to be that bad
She tries to explain,
“It’s you that makes me happy”
So here is where we see the main difference between this song and “Working Day and Night,” because unlike the girl who only wants his money, the woman in this song isn’t interested in the things the man’s money can buy her. Instead, she keeps trying to tell him that he is what makes her happy, not the money or the things, just being with him. But he doesn’t seem to understand this, and instead he’s focused on spending all of his time working to buy those “things” when he could be focusing on following the dreams he once had, and on the love that they presumably once shared.
Willa: Yes, though is he working just to buy extravagant things, or does his paycheck pay the rent? or the mortgage? or buy clothes for the kids? Just making ends meet can be really overwhelming when you’re on a tight budget – so overwhelming it’s hard to remember your dreams. And Michael Jackson seemed very aware of that fact – that, ironically, sometimes it’s the ones we love most who end up trapping us in an unfulfilling life. For example, he sings this in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”:
If you can’t feed your baby
Then don’t have a baby
And don’t think maybe
If you can’t feed your baby
You’ll be always trying
To stop that child from crying
Hustling, stealing, lying
Now baby’s slowly dying
So he’s telling this person that, if she has a baby she isn’t able to care for financially – at least not yet, not at this point in her life – then she could become trapped in a life of “hustling, stealing, lying” to try to support her child. We don’t know, but it could be kind of a similar situation in “Whatever Happens.” It could be the man in the story is giving up his dreams and working in a boring job because they really need the money.
Joie: Well, that’s certainly true, Willa. And I know from experience that men tend to internalize that kind of thing, and carry it around like they have the entire world sitting on their shoulders. They let it become their whole existence until they’re just crushed by the depression and the stress of trying to make ends meet. And I think you’re right, I believe that is what’s going on in this song, at least in part. And I feel like I identify with the woman in this song. I understand what she’s going through, trying to make him understand that worrying about the money – or lack thereof – is no way to live. They still have each other. They could still find a way to pursue their dreams and focus on the love they share, instead of always obsessing over the lack of money. It gets frustrating trying to keep a man in a positive frame of mind when money is extremely tight.
In fact, now that I think about it … I’m seeing that first verse a lot differently. When he says,
She can’t stay in the room
With everything that’s been going on
Before I said that she was so upset that she couldn’t even stay in the room and discuss their problems. But now, looking at this song in a new light, I think she can’t stay in the room not because she’s upset, but because she’s frustrated and angry. She feels like she’s beating her head against a brick wall trying to make him understand that their money problems are “not the end of the world.” And I think this interpretation is supported by that third verse you mentioned earlier.
Willa: Wow, Joie, that’s a really interesting way of approaching this – that it’s highlighting a cultural difference between men and women, and “that men tend to internalize that kind of thing, and carry it around like they have the entire world sitting on their shoulders.” That really jumped out at me when you said that because it ties in with something he expresses in “Working Day and Night”:
You say that working
Is what a man’s supposed to do
But I say it ain’t right
If I can’t give sweet love to you
I’m tired of thinking
Of what my life’s supposed to be
So he’s questioning that expectation that men are supposed to bury themselves in work and be the providers – which is a terrible burden, especially if they’re stuck in a job they don’t like. But many men do it because, as he says, “working / Is what a man’s supposed to do.”
Joie: It is a terrible burden, Willa. I’m sure we can all relate to working a job that we hated at some point in our lives. If we’re lucky, that happens at the start of our adult lives when we’re young, and then we go on to discover what it is that we really love to do and are able to transition into a job that we enjoy. But for many people it doesn’t always happen that way, and it’s unfortunate. And it can cause some really distressing issues in our personal lives. In fact, it could even be detrimental to our health, both physically and emotionally.
Willa: That’s true, or even change our personalities to some extent. Our dreams are a big part of us, of who we are. They help define us. If we give up our dreams, we lose that part of ourselves, and it changes us.
Joie: That’s very true, Willa.
Willa: So the woman in “Whatever Happens,” she obviously loves this man – a man who had dreams – but now he’s giving up those dreams, so he’s not quite the same person she fell in love with. But he’s making that sacrifice for her, or thinks he is. As the narrator sings in the last verse you quoted, Joie, “He’s working day and night / Thinks he’ll make her happy / Forgetting all the dreams that he had.” But she doesn’t want him to give up his dreams.
Joie: No, she doesn’t. And she keeps trying to explain that to him, but he’s not getting it because all he can see are their money issues.
Willa: It does seem that way, doesn’t it? Though the song begins with the lines “He gives another smile / Tries to understand her side / To show that he cares,” as you quoted earlier. So he’s trying to see things from her perspective. But he doesn’t seem able to, and she doesn’t understand him either – can’t even listen to him – so they’re both really frustrated.
It’s a really complicated situation, and you can genuinely feel for both sides. This is not a simple story of a good guy and an uncaring woman taking advantage of him, which seems to be the situation in “Working Day and Night,” or a good woman and an uncaring man taking her for granted, which is what we see in “Slave to the Rhythm.” Rather, it’s a much more complicated story that explores all the conflicting emotions of two people who love each other deeply and want what’s best for the person they love – they truly want to make each other happy – but they can’t understand each other, can’t even see what the other person really wants and needs. So they’re pulling against each other and struggling to resolve it without tearing themselves apart.
You know, Joie, actually, thinking about all this … I’m thinking maybe you’re right – maybe I did suggest this song. I know I was thinking about it quite a bit while we were doing our last post on “Someone Put Your Hand Out” – specifically, when we were talking about that line that refers to “handicapped emotions.” There were quite a few people – even people who seemed to genuinely like Michael Jackson – who suggested he was in a state of arrested development. Specifically, they seemed to think that because he maintained a childlike wonder, he never matured psychologically beyond the level of a child.
For example, here’s an interview with John Landis, and it’s obvious he feels great affection for Michael Jackson. But he also says he was like “an incredibly gifted 10 year old” and that he was “emotionally stunted”:
I have such mixed reactions watching this. I have some good feelings for him because he clearly cared about Michael Jackson and is very upset that he’s gone, but I’m also just stunned at some of the things he says. I mean, John Landis is known for creating adolescent comedies like Animal House and American Werewolf in London, and there are some funny scenes, but have you seen Kentucky Fried Movie? I hate to be critical, but my goodness … talk about juvenile …
Joie: I don’t know, Willa, I think it’s a really nice interview. I think we get to see John just being John, and I love the fact that he gets emotional and doesn’t try to hide it or explain it away. He talks about Michael wearing his heart on his sleeve, and yet here he is wiping tears because his friend is gone.
Willa: That’s true.
Joie: And yes, I have seen Kentucky Fried Movie, and Animal House, both of which I find very juvenile. But I’ve always loved An American Werewolf, so I understand what you’re saying, but I think what he’s getting at is that Michael wasn’t so much “juvenile” as he was “childlike.” You know there’s a difference between movies with juvenile humor and movies with childlike charm. One is very immature jokes with sexual connotations while the other is sweet, innocent fun and adventure. So when he calls Michael a “really talented 10 year old,” to me he’s saying that Michael had a very “childlike” nature and thought process.
Willa: Yes, but he also says he was “emotionally stunted” and “had all kinds of issues.” I haven’t seen all of John Landis’ movies by any means, but as far as I know he never created anything as emotionally complex as “Whatever Happens.” I mean, he’s a professional filmmaker, but has he ever made a film with the emotional depth or nuance of Billie Jean or Smooth Criminal or Stranger in Moscow? Or what about the profound psychological insights of Ghosts – or Thriller, for that matter? He directed Thriller, but whenever he talks about it he doesn’t seem to realize it’s anything more than a cheesy monster movie. And yet he describes Michael Jackson as a “gifted 10 year old.” How is that possible, that the man who created Kentucky Fried Movie calls the man who created “Whatever Happens” – a poignant, exquisite song that explores the heartbreak of two adults struggling through painful, difficult emotions – “emotionally stunted”? That just feels completely backwards to me.
Joie: Well, I haven’t seen all of his films either, but I have seen several. And while I agree completely that we wouldn’t normally think of someone who is labeled as “emotionally stunted” as being able to create works so emotionally complex as “Whatever Happens,” “Billie Jean” or “Stranger in Moscow,” I would argue that John Landis is actually brilliant at what he does. You know, everybody thinks that comedy is easy and horror always gets a bad rap … but there is actually a great deal of skill and mastery needed to scare people half to death or make them laugh, and do both in really intelligent – or juvenile – ways. I mean, they may not have been Oscar contenders, but John Landis is responsible for some of the most iconic films in our culture. You named two of them: Animal House and An American Werewolf in London. But there are others too, like The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, and Coming to America. All five of those films are beloved by millions of people.
And, Willa … I stand by what I said in our last post on “Someone Put Your Hand Out.” I believe that Michael did have what he himself called “handicapped emotions” in that song. I believe that he was able to express himself so beautifully in song, with lyrics that were poignant and full of complex emotional depth and “profound psychological insights.” But I also believe that on some level, at the very core of who he was, Michael was, if not “emotionally stunted,” emotionally handicapped.
You have to think about how he grew up. He had a childhood that not many of us could ever truly comprehend. He was never allowed to really play or interact with other children his age because he was always working. Always being groomed to think about work, to think about how he was perceived by the audience, and how to make the performance better. That was his life from age three. He didn’t learn things like how to properly interact with others his age. He didn’t learn the normal social cues that other children learn at the various life stages. Willa, there is a reason why he never had a “normal” courtship or married life with either of his two wives, and there are lots of quotes out there from people who believe that Michael was sort of an asexual being. Well, I can’t speak on that, but I do believe that he was simply unable to express that kind of real feeling or emotion unless it was in a song, or in a video, or on a stage. I believe that unless it had to do with a performance, it just wasn’t in his repertoire. The performance was his life. His life was the performance. So, in that sense, I think the term “emotionally stunted” is accurate.
Willa: Wow, Joie, I’m astonished. I guess this is one of those areas where we’re just going to have to agree to disagree, because I disagree completely. I have a lot of friends who are not coupled up in long-term relationships, and there is absolutely nothing “emotionally handicapped” about them. Things just didn’t work out that way for them, or they chose not to live that way. But I disagree that says anything about them psychologically, and I also disagree with the assumption that if people aren’t coupled up then that’s evidence there’s something wrong with them.
In fact, I think that assumption is really dangerous, and one of the biases Michael Jackson had to fight against. I think a lot of people assumed there was something wrong with him, and that maybe he really was a pedophile, simply because he wasn’t married or have a long-term girlfriend. And I think he understood that. As the Mayor tells the Maestro in Ghosts, “You’re weird, you’re strange, and I don’t like you. You’re scaring these kids, living up here all alone.” I think the Mayor is simply echoing what a lot of people were saying about Michael Jackson back then – that he was “weird” and “strange” and scary simply because he lived alone.
By the way, it’s interesting how the Maestro responds to the Mayor in Ghosts. He says, “I’m not alone” and then brings a host of fantasy people to life, so the townspeople can see the figures who have been populating his imagination. In other words, he’s not alone because of his art, and his life is full because of his art.
Joie: I think you’re misunderstanding me. I’m not saying that because he wasn’t in a long-term relationship that something must have been wrong with him. In fact, I shouldn’t have even brought up his romantic relationships at all, but I was attempting to illustrate my point. A point which you ignored completely in your rush to defend how he lived his life. But you’re right in saying it’s dangerous to make assumptions about a person’s psychological makeup by looking at their relationship status – and that’s not what I was doing. I’m sorry if it came off that way.
Willa: I’m sorry, Joie. I guess I did misunderstand you. I should have asked you to clarify, rather than jumping in and preaching you a sermon. I’m sorry about that.
Joie: Well, that’s ok. But the point I was trying to make is that Michael didn’t grow up like other kids. He didn’t spend time with other kids his age – at any age! Besides his brothers, he was always in the company of adults, talking about adult things like work and how to do the work better, and how to become the best at it. He never had a chance to learn all of the subtle, nuanced social cues that most 5 year olds learn from other 5 year olds. Or the ones that 8 year olds learn from other 8 year olds. Or the ones that 12 year olds learn from other 12 year olds, and so on, and so on, and so on. So, in that sense, he was emotionally, and socially, stunted.
Willa: Well, I think I have a better idea now of what you mean, Joie, and you’re right – I don’t think anyone else has ever had a childhood like he had. Not only was he a child star, but he was put in the difficult role of being a representative of black America when he was only 10 years old. If he did something wrong, it wasn’t just damaging to him and his reputation – it also reflected badly on an entire race of people. That’s a huge additional pressure – something Shirley Temple and Elizabeth Taylor and Justin Bieber never had to think about. That pressure only intensified as their success – the success of the Jackson 5 and him personally – grew, and he had a very controlling father who was determined his sons weren’t going to mess up. As you said, Joie, it’s hard to even imagine what that was like – what his childhood was like. But while I agree he had an extremely difficult childhood, and it must have had an effect on him, I still disagree that he was left “emotionally stunted” because of all that.
Joie: Well, that’s ok too. It’s ok to disagree about things. But I think something you just said sort makes my point for me. In talking about Ghosts, you said, “He says, ‘I’m not alone’ and then brings a host of fantasy people to life, so the townspeople can see the figures who have been populating his imagination. In other words, he’s not alone because of his art, and his life is full because of his art.” This is exactly what I meant when I said that the performance was his life, and his life was the performance. That’s what it was all about for him, and yes, he lived a beautiful and fulfilled life because of it. But, Willa … someone who lives their life completely inside their own imagination is by definition socially – and therefore emotionally – stunted to some degree.
Willa: I think I see what you’re saying, and I agree that in a lot of ways “the performance was his life, and his life was the performance,” as you said. Especially after the 1993 allegations, his life and his art became intertwined in ways that are hard to untangle. But I don’t think he lived his life entirely in his imagination. His imagination enriched his life – and ours as well – but it didn’t replace his life. That wasn’t what I meant when I quoted that scene from Ghosts.
I think that, because of his art, Michael Jackson had a rich, full, rewarding life – he had a kind of emotional self-sufficiency that we aren’t really used to – but he also repeatedly emphasized the connections between us, and how important it is to honor those connections. That’s a different way of being in the world – one that I find both intriguing and inspiring.
It seems to me that a lot of times people are kind of desperate to couple up because they’re lonely or because there’s an emptiness in their lives, and they think sharing their life with someone else will make that loneliness and emptiness go away. We like the romance story where two incomplete people meet and complete each other – where two halves come together and, between them, form a whole – and where everything else is sacrificed to the ideal of romantic love. But ironically, I think this can actually lead us to be “emotionally stunted,” to use John Landis’ words, because in that model we only learn to be half of a whole, not a fulfilled, self-realized person on our own. We see that a little bit in “Whatever Happens,” where this man is limiting himself and sacrificing his dreams to be what he thinks the woman he loves wants him to be.
On the other hand, in America, especially, we have the story of the rugged individual – the loner, the cowboy, the tough-as-nails private investigator – who doesn’t need anyone, and doesn’t really connect with anyone. That’s subtly suggested in “Whatever Happens” also, by the genre of this song. The beginning, especially, sounds like a western. I can easily imagine that intro being used as the soundtrack to a Clint Eastwood movie – one where the mysterious hero rides into town alone, rescues a girl (who inevitably falls in love with him, and just as inevitably dies), gets rid of the bad guys, and then rides off alone.
Those are two competing cultural narratives, and most people pick one or the other. They’re either the rugged individualist or the hopeless romantic. But Michael Jackson is subtly critiquing both of those models, I think – not just here but repeatedly in his art – and he seems to be working toward a different model. It’s one where we find fulfillment within ourselves – something he found through his art – but where we still care deeply for others and value the connections between us.
Joie: Well, I disagree with some of what you’ve said here about romantic love, but mostly I disagree that the man in “Whatever Happens” is limiting himself and sacrificing his dreams to be what he thinks his woman wants him to be. I think he’s limiting himself and sacrificing his dreams because he feels he has no choice financially. He has a family to provide for, and being emotionally stunted by romantic love has nothing to do with that. I’m also not sure I agree that most people choose one or the other between those two cultural narratives you just described. I think it’s possible for a person to be both. But I understand what you’re getting at where Michael is concerned.
Willa: Well, you’re right that I’m talking about these as models, so they’re an extreme. As with any model, few people fit them entirely. Few people are a Clint Eastwood character – the self-reliant individual who doesn’t need anyone, and doesn’t want anyone dependent on them. And on the other hand, few live the romantic ideal we see on screen so often where a person is really only half of a couple, and their sole source of happiness comes from the love they share with their romantic partner.
But I do think that, in general, people tend to see themselves as one or the other – as an autonomous individual or as defined in large part by their relationships. And as with so many dichotomies, Michael Jackson seems to be suggesting a different way. He’s not dependent on others for fulfilment – he finds that within himself through his art. But then he shares that with others, and the connections he feels through his art – to his audience, to the long line of performers who came before him, to the deep rhythms of the cosmos that he talks about in Dancing the Dream – are integral to who he is. As the song says, “You’re Just Another Part of Me.”
So before we go, I wanted to mention a new book that just came out – or actually, Book One of a trilogy. It’s The Algorithm of Desire by Eleanor Bowman, a regular contributor here. In fact, she discussed some of the ideas she was working on for her book in a post with us last spring. To quote Eleanor,
Book One … investigates the role of creation myths in the construction of a society’s perception of reality, how creation myths program a society’s views and values of the world, and how a culture’s worldview and value system promote, or threaten, collective survival.
Eleanor’s ideas are fascinating, and Book Three of her trilogy focuses on Michael Jackson. As she says, he “not only understood the predicament we find ourselves in, but showed us how to ‘heal the world.’” I’m really looking forward to that.
Book One of the trilogy is available now through Amazon, and Eleanor is offering it for free from May 8th through 12th.
Willa: So Joie, on a number of occasions when asked about the scandals that surrounded him, and the way the media turned against him and really vilified him in later years, Michael Jackson suggested that one cause was jealousy. And I always interpreted that to mean that certain individuals (like Evan Chandler) were jealous of him, and that’s certainly true.
But then Lisha McDuff, Harriet Manning, and I did a post a few weeks ago about blackface minstrelsy and how it was motivated in part by envy – racial envy. And then the other day I was listening to a 2002 phone interview with Steve Harvey, a black comedian and radio host, and I was really struck by the fact that when Michael Jackson talked with him about jealousy, he said “us” – not “me” but “us,” that people are jealous of “us” – and I think that “us” means successful black entertainers.
It’s funny – that one little word opened my eyes to a completely different way of interpreting what he’d been saying all those years. It seems to me now that he’s not talking so much about personal jealousy, though of course that’s part of it, but about racial jealousy – the jealousy of whites against successful blacks. As he tells Steve Harvey,
They hate to see us grow and build and build, and there’s nothing wrong with that [with growing]. They can and it’s ok. What can I do but reinforce the talent that God gave me? That’s all I want to do, is share the love and gift of entertainment. That’s all I want to do. I don’t want to hurt anybody.
Here’s the interview, and the part about jealousy starts about 8 minutes in:
Joie: I had forgotten all about this Steve Harvey interview, Willa. And speaking as a Black American, I agree that he’s talking about race when he makes his jealousy statement.
You know, this is actually an issue that many black people have struggled with and talked about among themselves for many, many years. Michael’s statement that, “They hate to see us grow and build” is a very real phenomenon in our society, and it has been going on since the birth of our nation. Or rather, I should say, since the end of slavery in our nation. And he wasn’t just talking about successful black entertainers. He was talking about any Black American who has found great success in whatever field they happen to work in, whether they’re famous or not. In fact, I believe that it’s one of the prevailing factors for all the backlash President Obama has seen during his time in office.
Willa: I agree. Part of the backlash – against Michael Jackson and Obama as well – is caused by racial prejudice, I think, but I hadn’t thought about it before in terms of jealousy – racial jealousy. That’s interesting, and it’s also interesting that Michael Jackson’s words seem pretty obvious to you and not so obvious to me. I wonder if that’s intentional, and it gets back to the idea of “language and power” that we talked about with Bjørn in a post a while ago – that Michael Jackson is using language in a subtle way so that it means different things to different listeners.
You know, if we look at his exact words, he’s speaking in a pretty indirect way. He never says the words “black” or “white,” and actually never mentions race at all. But still, if a listener is familiar with that ongoing conversation that you’re talking about, Joie – one “that many black people have struggled with and talked about among themselves for many, many years,” as you say – then his words are obvious, but if a listener isn’t aware of that context, then that just goes right past them. So I wonder if he’s speaking in a careful way with two distinct audiences in mind – specifically, if he’s talking in a way that immediately resonates with blacks, but doesn’t alarm or offend whites because we don’t really get what he’s saying.
Joie: It’s interesting to me that you think that, Willa. That he’s talking in some sort of code or something in order to connect with the black audience but not alarm or offend the white audience. Because to me – and probably to any other black person listening to this interview – he’s not speaking in a careful way at all. In fact, when I listen to this interview, I hear him speaking in a very relaxed, very open way. He’s not being cautious and careful with what he says because he knows that there’s no reason to. He’s speaking to another black entertainer, and his two black co-hosts, on a radio show geared toward a black audience. He obviously felt very comfortable with his surroundings in that moment. And he obviously knew that he was among people of a similar background (the Black American experience) who would understand immediately what he was talking about. So there was no need to speak “in a very careful way with two distinct audiences in mind.” So, I’m saying that I don’t think he was purposely talking in code or anything.
Willa: Well, that’s true, Joie – he does sound relaxed and comfortable. But still, a lot of things are left unsaid, like the words “black” and “white.” It’s like there are gaps between his words. And he’s not just speaking to a black audience – radio waves go out to everyone – and whether it’s intentional on his part or not, I think different listeners interpret his words very differently. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say they fill in the gaps differently.
There’s a similar situation in the song “Ghosts,” which was written after the 1993 allegations and strip search. Here’s the chorus:
And who gave you the right to scare my family?
And who gave you the right to scare my baby?
She needs me
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?
And who gave you the right to take intrusion
To see me?
And who gave you the right to shake my family?
And who gave you the right to hurt my baby?
She needs me
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?
You put a knife in my back
Shot an arrow in me
Tell me are you the ghost of jealousy?
A sucking ghost of jealousy?
He’s talking about the false accusations and the strip search (“who gave you the right to take intrusion / To see me?”) as well as the scandals that followed, and once again he suggests the real motivation behind them is “jealousy.” He never mentions race, and I never interpreted it that way – as racial jealousy. I thought he was just saying that Evan Chandler and Tom Sneddon and Diane Dimond and all those other figures working so hard to bring him down were envious of him and his success. But now I’m wondering if I was misunderstanding him – that he was talking specifically about racial jealousy – something Harriet mentioned was part of blackface minstrelsy, and a much larger cultural narrative as well, for more than a century.
Joie: Ok, I guess I see where you’re going with this. And when I think about it, there were no accusers or “other figures working so hard to bring him down” as you say that I can think of who were black. So, maybe you’re on to something.
Willa: Well, that’s true – none of the people working hardest to smear him were black, unless you count Stacy Brown. Just as importantly, it’s very interesting how different people reacted whenever he suggested – however indirectly – that the scandals plaguing him were tinged with racism or racial jealousy.
For example, in a 2005 interview with Jesse Jackson, Michael Jackson said that the public persecution he faced “has been kind of a pattern among black luminaries in this country.” When Jesse Jackson asks him, “How are you handling it?” he replies,
I’m handling it by using other people in the past who have gone through this sort of thing. Mandela’s story has given me a lot of strength – what he’s gone through. The Jack Johnson story … called Unforgivable Blackness. It’s an amazing story about this man from 1910 who was the heavyweight champion of the world, and thrust into a society that didn’t want to accept his position and his lifestyle. And what they put him through. And how they changed laws to imprison the man, to put him away behind bars just to get him some kind of way. And Muhammad Ali’s story … All these stories that I can go back in history and read about give me strength.
Here’s a link and the discussion of race starts about 4:15 in. It’s an astute reading of his situation, I think, and places the false allegations against him – and the police and public response to those allegations – within a context of other successful black pioneers who have been targeted by the authorities.
However, his words caused outrage, as well as some pretty snide remarks. In an opinion piece in The Los Angeles Times, a white academic, Elaine Showalter, wrote this:
Although he has tried to present himself as a target of racist envy and malice, comparing himself to Nelson Mandela (the ace of race cards) in an interview with that swiftest of spiritual ambulance-chasers, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jackson’s race is as indeterminate and ambiguous as his sexuality.
Elaine Showalter was a groundbreaking feminist scholar in the 1980s – I read some of her work back then and had a lot of respect for her – and I can’t believe she of all people would be so oblivious and write something so simplistic and so snootily patriarchal. This is really troubling, I think, in many different ways – not the least being her assumption that, because his skin is no longer dark, he’s somehow disqualified from talking about race or pointing out the racism that surrounds him.
Joie: Yes, that remark is incredible, isn’t it? And you just want to ask her, you know … if she had suddenly found herself with a disease … let’s say breast cancer for instance, and had to have both her breasts removed, would she suddenly not be a woman anymore?
Willa: Wow, Joie. That’s a powerful question. I never thought of it like that before …
Joie: Or if there was a disease out there that caused a white person’s pigment to darken, would she no longer be allowed to identify herself as Caucasian? I mean, she’s not just saying he’s disqualified from pointing out the racism that surrounds him. She is saying that he no longer has the right to identify with the black race. That he no longer has the right to call himself a Black American. Her very comment is incredibly racist on so many levels.
Willa: That is really interesting, Joie. When you reverse the situation, it really highlights just how much she’s talking from a privileged position, doesn’t it? Why does a white person feel she has a right to decide if a black person is black enough to suit her? That isn’t just incredibly offensive, it’s nonsensical. I can’t imagine a black person ever saying that about a white person.
I mean, picture a person with two white parents who grew up in a white community, as Michael Jackson did with two black parents in a black neighborhood in Gary. And then try to imagine some sort of circumstance where a black person would say that person wasn’t white enough to speak from a white perspective. I just don’t think it would ever happen, and it wouldn’t make sense if it did because we don’t have a cultural history of blacks forcing whites to meet their expectations of whiteness. But we have a very long history of whites forcing blacks to fit white definitions of blackness, as Lisha and Harriet and I talked about.
But I shouldn’t oversimplify this. It wasn’t just whites who reacted badly to the Steve Harvey interview. An opinion piece by Sinclere Lee in Black News Weekly was just as snarky:
If Michael Jackson is guilty of anything and should go to jail, for, it’s when he compared himself to Nelson Mandela. I know Nelson Mandela! I met Nelson Mandela when he came to Washington! Nelson Mandela is one of the greatest freedom fighters in the world! Nelson Mandela spent 27-years in prison to free the Blacks in South Africa, and you can’t do a day in jail! Michael, don’t believe that shit Jesse Jackson is telling you, you are no Nelson Mandela!
Joie: And to me, this is a ridiculous statement because Michael Jackson, and Jesse Jackson for that matter, both knew Nelson Mandela personally as well. Michael didn’t simply “meet” the man when he came to Washington. He knew Mandela very well. He and Mandela were actually very close friends for many, many years.
And Michael wasn’t comparing himself to Mandela in that comment. He was saying that he uses Mandela’s story as a source of inspiration to deal with the blatant racism he was experiencing. There is a huge difference.
Willa: I agree completely, Joie. And what can possibly be wrong with saying that Nelson Mandela inspired him?
But while this article is just as bad as the Showalter piece in some ways, there’s an important difference, I think. While Lee criticizes Michael Jackson for comparing himself to Mandela (which he doesn’t do, as you pointed out), she doesn’t scoff at the idea that racism is involved, the way Showalter does.
Joie: That’s true, she doesn’t. In fact, she never even veers off in that direction. Her main focus is simply the fact that she was personally offended by the thought that Michael was comparing himself to such a great freedom fighter.
Willa: Exactly. And I think that difference is subtle but important. Elaine Showalter seems to think it’s ludicrous to suggest that racism played a role in determining how Michael Jackson was treated by the police and the press (while I think it’s incredibly simplistic to assume racism wasn’t involved) but Sinclere Lee doesn’t make such a naive assumption. While a white academic may think racism played no part in it, Lee knows better.
Joie: That is interesting, isn’t it? You know, Willa, sometimes I wonder if you could take a poll now that everything is over and done with and Michael is no longer with us … how many people today, white and black, would admit that race played a factor in how he was treated by the press and the police? You know, now that we’ve all gotten a little distance and perspective. I wonder what people think today. Does that make sense?
Willa: It does, and that’s another really interesting question, Joie. My sense is that feelings about Michael Jackson have softened a lot since he died, and people are much more likely to see him as innocent now that he’s gone. We talked about that in a post last spring. But I don’t think people in general – and white people in particular – are ready to acknowledge what a huge influence race and racism had on how the allegations were perceived by the police, the media, and the public. The idea of racial prejudice, and especially racial envy, makes whites very uncomfortable, I think, and most whites don’t want to even consider it. But the more I think about this, the more I think Michael Jackson was absolutely right, and racial jealousy was at the heart of it.
I mean, it’s very interesting to really look at what people are actually saying at different points, and how they’re saying it. Look at what Evan Chandler tells him the last time they meet. He points his finger at him and shouts, “You’re going down, Michael. You’re going down.” The implication seems to be that Michael Jackson has risen too high, and now Evan Chandler is determined to take him down.
Randy Taraborrelli expresses a similar idea in his biography. Based on Chandler’s accusations, the police conduct a strip search, and here’s how Taraborrelli leads into his description of what had to be a humiliating and truly horrible experience:
The bottom line is that Michael has done whatever he wanted to do for most of his life, living in a world of privilege and entitlement simply because of who he is. … However, in December of 1993 Michael was about to experience, if just for one day, what it might be like to live in the real world, where people often have to do things they may not necessarily want to do.
This passage is so shocking to me. You would think Taraborrelli’s focus would be on the evidence, and whether the strip search confirms or contradicts Chandler’s accusations – supposedly that’s the point of it, after all – but it isn’t. Taraborrelli is much more focused on the psychological impact of the strip search, and the effect it will have on how Michael Jackson sees himself and positions himself in the world. Taraborrelli seems very critical of Michael Jackson “living in a world of privilege and entitlement,” and now the strip search is going to bring him back down to “the real world,” and Taraborrelli speaks approvingly of that. He seems to think it’s appropriate that Michael Jackson will be brought down, “if just for one day.” And it really feels to me that Taraborrelli’s words express quite a bit of jealousy.
Joie: Well, you know how I feel about Taraborrelli, and I believe that there are several spots in that book where he comes off as jealous of his subject. So, I agree with you completely on that statement.
Willa: But is it jealousy because of his wealth and his celebrity? Or is it racial jealousy? Or is it a combination of both – is he jealous that a black man, especially, has been so successful? I really wonder about that, especially since both he and Evan Chandler talk specifically about the need to bring Michael Jackson “down.”
That language and imagery of bringing him down reminds me of a horrifying scene in Uncle Tom’s Cabin that we talked about in a very painful post a long time ago. Rosa, a beautiful young slave, a teenager, tries on a dress belonging to her owner, Maria. Maria walks in and sees her wearing it, becomes furious, and sends Rosa to the whipping house. Here’s Maria’s explanation for why she orders such an extreme punishment for such a trivial offense:
She has all her life presumed on her delicacy, and her good looks, and her lady-like airs, till she forgets who she is; – and I’ll give her one lesson that will bring her down, I fancy!
So Maria isn’t angry so much because of the dress, but because it’s a sign that Rosa “forgets who she is” – that she is a young black woman, and a slave. Maria feels very threatened by that, especially since in many ways Rosa is more truly “lady-like” in her looks and bearing than Maria is. So Maria intends to shame her and remind her of “who she is,” and scorch it into her memory so severely she’ll never forget again. In other words, Maria wants to bring about a psychological change in Rosa, and “give her one lesson that will bring her down, I fancy!”
It seems to me that’s exactly what Taraborrelli is talking about with the strip search – that it will cause a psychological change in Michael Jackson that will “bring him down” from his “world of privilege and entitlement.” And it’s what Evan Chandler is talking about when he points his finger and shouts, “You’re going down, Michael. You’re going down.” And I think it’s what Michael Jackson himself is referring to in “Morphine” when he sings, “I’m going down, baby.” He’s being brought down by the same impulse that brought down Rosa more than 150 years ago.
Joie: That’s an interesting comparison, Willa. And one you’re probably right about. But, I guess what I’m getting at is, I wonder if people’s attitudes about the whole situation … and really about his whole life … I wonder if their attitudes are truly shifting and softening, or if it’s simply a case of “don’t speak ill of the dead.” Do you know what I mean?
Willa: I do, but I don’t know the answer. And I’m not sure people themselves know why their feelings have changed, or how deeply they’ve changed. Or what truly motivated their feelings against him to begin with. I mean, maybe feelings have softened because he’s gone, and because there’s no reason to feel threatened or jealous of him any longer.
Joie: I don’t know. I’m not even sure why it matters or why that question sort of haunts me. I guess I just feel like here was this special, beautiful, talented, loving man who only wanted to make the world happy, and he was ridiculed and persecuted and hated for it. That bothers me.
Willa: This week I’m so excited to be joined by Harriet Manning, the author of a fascinating new book, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask, which was published recently by Ashgate Press, and Lisha McDuff, a professional musician and musicologist who wrote her dissertation on Black or White, approaching it in part as an example of “whiteface minstrelsy – or a reverse blackface minstrel performance.” Lisha shared some of her ideas about Black or White in a fascinating post with us last year. Thank you both for joining me!
Harriet: Hello. Thank you for having me.
Lisha: Thank you, Willa! It’s always a pleasure.
Willa: Oh, it’s always a joy talking with you, Lisha. And Harriet, there are so many interesting ideas in your book to talk about! But before we dive in, I’m curious to know how you first became interested in Michael Jackson, and in blackface minstrelsy. And then, how did you come to put them together?
Harriet: It started when I was learning blackface minstrelsy (the white theatrical parody of black dance, music and gesture). I was intrigued by the fact that despite its longevity (the tradition defined dominant pop culture throughout the 1800s in the U.K. and U.S.) it is considered long gone and its history is not widely known. I wondered how something so big could just disappear and pondered upon what form it might take today, when political correctness would no longer tolerate “blacking up.”
I did not know much about Michael Jackson but I got thinking: what if here was the legacy of blackface? I started studying the dance moves and the black stereotypes of the tradition and saw how Michael Jackson used these. A wonderful treasure trove opened: I had found the roots not only of MJ’s dance but also a mode by which to understand him and the various troubles he had to face.
Lisha: Harriet, that is so fascinating and I must say it’s been an eye-opening experience reading your book – not only for understanding how blackface minstrelsy is reflected in Michael Jackson’s work, but for understanding the minstrel show as “the first sellable pop form” of music. I think I’m just beginning to comprehend how prevalent this form of entertainment was at one time. So much of popular music can be traced back to blackface minstrelsy and I don’t think I was fully aware of that before.
Willa: I wasn’t either. I had no idea it was so incredibly popular, and for so long. Its popularity fluctuated, of course, but it held sway for over a century.
Lisha: That’s pretty incredible when you think about it – it’s such a huge cultural blindspot. As you were saying, Harriet, despite the minstrel show’s mass appeal in the 1800s, blackface parody seemed to vanish and it seems that most of us don’t have a clue as to how popular it once was. Was there a particular event that caused the British and American public to suddenly become aware of how offensive blackface parody was? What happened that caused such a dramatic shift in consciousness?
Harriet: The tradition became increasingly self-conscious in the mid-1800s with the lead up to the Civil War and then the abolition of slavery in the U.S. It fell out of vogue as its publics became uneasy with its racial content. The blackface mask then just became a stage convention and the overt racist material was removed. Then the mask itself disappeared.
Lisha: Interesting, since much of the same racist content still persists, but in a more subtle form. I’m so curious about what got you interested into really digging into this and uncovering even more about blackface minstrelsy?
Harriet: Blackface minstrelsy was part of a Black Music course I was doing for my music degree. I was really shocked by it. People need to know about it.
Willa: I agree. We do need to know about it, in part because we still see its influence today. On rare occasions we’ll see modern performers in blackface, like in Neil Diamond’s 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer. I can still remember how shocking that felt at the time, seeing Neil Diamond in blackface. And in the Do You Really Want to Hurt Me video by Culture Club, Boy George correlates the prejudice he’s been experiencing with racial prejudice, and there are pews of silent witnesses in blackface. Here’s a clip:
Lisha: Blackface is a really interesting choice in that clip, Willa, used very effectively as an “in your face” way of expressing how irrational and unconscious prejudice is.
Harriet: Do you read Boy George as equating racial prejudice with a sexual one?
Willa: I do. How about you, Lisha?
Lisha: Yes, I do. I’ve noticed that in a lot of discourse regarding gay rights, racial prejudice is used as a way to show how people have historically felt justified in discriminating against others, only to have their beliefs later exposed as terribly foolish and uncivilized. For example, it wasn’t so long ago that there were laws on the books restricting interracial marriage, just as today we still see laws restricting the rights of same sex couples.
Willa: That’s true, though I don’t know that civil rights leaders have always appreciated having their movement correlated with the LGBT movement. But there are a lot of parallels, as you say, and I think Boy George is subtly suggesting that in Do You Really Want to Hurt Me.
He’s on trial – we’re not sure why, but it seems to be because he expresses his sexuality in unconventional ways, or maybe it’s just because he’s different more generally. And the people judging him – the “jury of his peers” – is comprised of people in blackface acting in ways that enact the white stereotypes of blacks that were a staple of blackface minstrelsy. So he seems to be saying that, just as the dominant white population imposed their fears and prejudices onto blacks through blackface, the dominant straight population is now imposing its fears and prejudices onto him. And he’s doing it in a very “in your face” way, as you say, Lisha.
Lisha: Pun intended. It’s interesting how Boy George is looking backwards historically in this video, at a 1936 night club and a 1957 health club in London, as if re-examining old attitudes about race, gender and sexuality that need to be updated.
Harriet: Indeed blackface minstrelsy historically explored issues of sexuality and gender “under the mask” essentially because race and sexuality are profoundly aligned by their reliance on a “norm” (white and straight) and a different “Other” (black and gay).
Willa: I didn’t know that before – that the blackface tradition parodied gender and sexuality as well as race – and was very intrigued by that aspect of your book, Harriet. I’d really like to talk more about that today.
Lisha: I’m intrigued by this too. It really helped me understand how relevant the early minstrel shows are to Michael Jackson’s work.
But there is a fairly recent example of blackface I wanted to mention because I found it so surprising – a comedy act called “The Jackson Jive” that aired on the Australian variety show Hey Hey It’s Saturday in October 2009. Unbelievably, this act was performed as a “song and dance tribute” to Michael Jackson following his death.
The performers and the host of the show seem completely unaware that this type of blackface parody could come across as offensive – not even the YouTube poster appears to have a problem with it! However, Harry Connick Jr., who was a guest on the program that night, said he would never have appeared on the show had he known such an act would be included. From my own (American) perspective, it’s shocking that anyone would find this kind of ridicule to be an acceptable form of entertainment.
Harriet: Absolutely. Also, what I noticed was that as the presenter invites Harry Connick Jr. to express his grievances, it apparently needs to be explained why: because the skit could be considered offensive “in his [Harry Connick’s] country.” This implies that it is only America’s “problem” in a comment that then functions to get the show “off the hook.” Seriously not happy with that at all.
Willa: That’s a good point, Harriet. And Australia does have a long history of racism – just look at how the Aborigines have been treated – though their history is very different than ours. They didn’t have the institution of slavery that existed in the U.S. for centuries, but there were slaves in Australia and they do have a tradition of racism.
Lisha: No doubt about it. But one of the interesting things to me about this clip is how it demonstrates the geographical nature of racism. I think Harry Connick Jr. is right – this skit would have been perceived in a totally different way in the U.S. In fact, I don’t believe “The Jackson Jive” skit would air in the U.S. at all. I just can’t imagine any American broadcaster airing a blackface comedy act that ridicules race in this way. It’s not something I think Americans would tolerate, maybe because blackface parody is such a painful part of our history.
Harriet: It would never have aired in the U.K., either. I do admire Harry Connick Jr.’s explanation as to why he is offended. It reminds me of the problem with the golliwog (the manifestation of the blackface minstrel character with full moon eyes, wide smile, and woolly wig). The golliwog’s defenders say it is harmless, fun, and cute, but its history (rooted in racial ridicule) makes it none of these.
The clip makes me think of the 2004 Eminem video Just Lose It (discussed in my book), which provides another example of this sort of lazy racism (and in the form of a more overt contemporary “blackface” performance).
Willa: I like the way you express that, Harriet – “lazy racism.” That’s an excellent way to describe both of these. I hadn’t seen that “Jackson Jive” clip before, Lisha, and it’s thoroughly depressing. It’s especially troubling that they are performing “Can You Feel It” in blackface since that song is explicitly about overcoming racial prejudices, as Joie and I talked about in a post last August. It’s just horrifying to see this – and as you point out, Harriet, there’s an insinuation that if you find it offensive, it’s your problem.
As I remember, there was a similar feeling about the Eminem video when it came out – that if you were offended, you just didn’t have a good sense of humor and it was your problem. And it played fairly regularly on MTV, which is just as shocking as the “Jackson Jive” skit airing in Australia. Here’s a link to Eminem’s Just Lose It, though I want to warn readers that it’s really disturbing:
Lisha: The Eminem video is about as offensive as it gets, to my way of thinking. If Americans are tempted to claim the moral high ground for political correctness and for not tolerating a literal “blacking up,” then this video puts it all back into perspective. Harriet, you’ve pointed out that Eminem continues the tradition of minstrelsy with this white version of hip hop, parodying Michael Jackson in a way that is “in keeping with the harshest white portrayals of black men in traditional minstrelsy.” That’s even putting it mildly, don’t you think?
Harriet: It is, Lisha, yes. We should know better now, especially Eminem, who built his whole identity around his alliance with black artists. Eminem also went out his way to deny there was a problem with the video, which makes it even worse.
Willa: It really does. I hope these performers, including Eminem, evolve to a point where they are thoroughly ashamed of themselves someday. But this kind of overt reenactment or reference to blackface is fairly rare now, isn’t it?
Harriet: Overt references to blackface are rare, yes. This is for two reasons: firstly, because it is all too often a history “better off forgotten,” and secondly because, as the application of the mask has became increasingly socially unacceptable, it has been forced underground to become more subtle.
Willa: But while subtle, it can still have a powerful effect, as you discuss in your book. In fact, you suggest that the blackface tradition has had a pervasive influence on our perceptions of racial differences that is still very much alive today. For example, you point out that for a full century, blackface performers promoted a stereotypical view of blacks as violent and oversexed, with a secret longing to be white and to dress like upper-class whites – and this was generally presented in comic ways through the figures of the black dandy and the ignorant slave, Jim Crow.
And we still see those stereotypes today. Black men, especially, are all too often portrayed as violent and sexually aggressive, a prejudice that has significant legal and cultural implications. It may be one reason the police and public were predisposed to believe the 1993 allegations against Michael Jackson, despite all the evidence.
And white commentators often accuse Michael Jackson, and even Barack Obama, of being “too white” or “not black enough.” What they’re really saying is that Michael Jackson and Barack Obama don’t fit their stereotypical ideas of what it means to be black – stereotypes that were forged or at least deeply reinforced during the decades of blackface minstrelsy.
Harriet: Yes, blackface minstrelsy’s constructions of blackness, including the idea of black male hyper-sexuality, profoundly inform ways of thinking today. I don’t think it was any coincidence Michael Jackson courted accusations and persecutions for inappropriate (read “dangerous” and “uncontainable”) sexual activity. Black stereotypes today are all rooted in minstrelsy: blacks as mad, bad, and dangerous is today’s version of the most popular blackface character, Jim Crow, who was uncouth, unpredictable, and untrustworthy. This is a fundamental and direct legacy.
There are other ways blackface minstrelsy continues in contemporary pop culture as well, and not least in the form of the white appropriation of black music, dance, and gesture, usually without credit and in “whiteface.” But the legacy continues underground in another way: in the work and self-presentation of black performers.
Willa: Which as you point out in your book, is a very complicated performance – black artists “performing” their race for white audiences. And as you point out, that continues today in the violence, misogyny, and hyper-sexuality of much of hip hop.
Harriet: Yes, historically, black performers were denied access to the blackface minstrel stage until well after its heyday (after the Civil War). When they were finally allowed to present themselves in minstrelsy, they too wore the mask and played into the stereotypes of the tradition: black performers seemingly “gave in” in an apparent act of self-ridicule and disgust.
However, it has been suggested that there was much more to it than that, that black entertainers were actually working a double parody that said “if this is what you want me to be then this is what I will be” and they played to hitherto unseen extremes. So, it would seem they performed, sometimes or always, with a wink in the eye to in fact undermine the tradition’s racist constructions, and black audiences knew this (while whites tended to miss it).
Willa: This is such an important idea, and one of the most fascinating aspects of your book, I thought. And we see Michael Jackson overtly expressing this idea of “if this is what you want me to be then this is what I will be” in “Is It Scary,” for example, where he repeatedly sings, “I’m gonna be / Exactly what you wanna see.”
Harriet: Exactly. Another example is the whole Wacko image, much of which (in its early days at least) was generated by Michael Jackson himself. Mad, bad, and dangerous is what he repeatedly “told” us he was, not only in his music but also in his life. Looking at Michael Jackson, and indeed, hip hop acts, in this framework becomes really insightful.
Lisha: You know Harriet, that is absolutely incredible when you think about the lighthearted and fun part of the mad or “Wacko image” that MJ himself supposedly promoted (Bubbles and the hyperbaric chamber) and the fact that he put out two albums that are actually titled Bad and Dangerous!
Willa: I hadn’t thought of that, Lisha! You know, the first place I know of that phrase being used is Lady Caroline Lamb’s 1812 description of Lord Byron as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” so it’s been around a long time. And interestingly, Byron and the other Romantic poets fostered that bad boy reputation, encouraging the public to see them in that way, just as Michael Jackson did to some extent. But I hadn’t linked that to the titles of the Bad and Dangerous albums before. That’s interesting.
Lisha: It’s also an interesting strategy for dealing with the child star/teen idol image that has been so difficult for adult performers to shed.
Harriet, you go into some detail about Michael Jackson putting on the blackface mask (I’m thinking hyper-sexualized, hyper-criminalized, rather than a literal blackface) using the panther dance in Black or White as an excellent example, a song that explicitly deals with race. I’ve always been intrigued by how Michael Jackson morphs out of the black panther to find a fedora hanging on the gate next to a pool of light, similar to what we see in live performances of “Billie Jean.” He then puts on the hat and steps into the “spotlight” to “perform” his race, gender, and sexuality. This scene always evoked blackface minstrelsy to me and I think you have identified precisely why this is so. But there is also something that feels radically different about it, too. Do you feel this as well?
Harriet: Yes, Lisha. The panther dance to Black or White is a good example of Michael Jackson playing the blackface minstrel character of “mad, bad, and dangerous.” He runs amok throwing trashcans, smashing windows, and acting out the animalist characteristics of the wildcat. Michael Jackson gives us (the white audience and music industry) exactly what we want, meaning white-created ideas of black masculinity.
However, what is different is that it comes after a happy vision of racial harmony (the main video in which “it don’t matter if you’re black or white”) making the performance of “mad, bad, and dangerous” an angry critique. It is a critique in its sheer extremity. It is a double parody.
The fact that Michael Jackson was condemned for the video and forced to issue a public apology shows how, as an audience, we cannot cope with the reality of its message.
Willa: I agree, and the panther dance is still excluded from the “official” Black or White video on Vevo, so apparently we still can’t cope with the power of his message, more than 20 years later.
What was most interesting to me in the Black or White section of your book, Harriet, was how you identify specific elements of the panther dance that you see as directly evoking and reworking the tradition of blackface minstrelsy – for example, his splayed-leg stance when he’s dancing on top of the car. Before I read your book, I didn’t realize that posture came straight out of blackface, and it seems significant to me that we see it in Black or White – which is a direct protest against racial stereotypes – and nowhere else in his work. I was really struck by that, and I think it’s important to nail down some of those details.
So in addition to the obvious “blacking up” of the color of the skin, what are other significant characteristics of blackface? What I mean is, are there certain gestures or dance moves or costumes that, when you see them, you immediately think of blackface minstrelsy?
Harriet: Yes, Willa, there are certain “blackface” gestures, and Michael Jackson embodies them all. The staple moves that made up the dances of blackface parody (dance was central to the performance as it reinforced the idea of black bodiliness) are all those of Michael Jackson’s own dance: angulated limbs with knee bends; spins and turns; toe stands (emphasizing the heel, as well as the toe, as slaves were traditionally portrayed as having large, flapping feet); sliding movements; and the crucifixion pose (originally down on one knee, arms outstretched in a visualization of black servitude).
Of note, in later blackface minstrelsy – when black performers took to the stage – white gloves would often be worn (made famous by Al Jolson in the movie The Jazz Singer) along with ankle cut pants and brimmed hat.
Lisha: Utterly fascinating. This opens up a whole other dimension to Michael Jackson for me.
Willa: And for me as well. For example, I had always assumed Michael Jackson adopted the white glove and the short pants with white socks to call attention to the movements of his feet and hands while dancing – and I still think that’s a large part of it. But then I think about Fred Astaire in blackface in “Bojangles of Harlem,” as Lisha and I talked about in a post a few weeks ago, with his cartoonishly large white gloves and the white spats on his shoes, and I wonder if there’s more going on as well – if Michael Jackson is reworking the blackface tradition as you suggest, Harriet.
If we look at the white glove and white socks that way, it’s remarkable that while that costume was designed to portray blacks as buffoons – as objects of mockery and scorn – Michael Jackson reclaimed that costume and made it elegant. Just think of how beautiful he looked at Motown 25. But he’s wearing the costume of blackface: the “white gloves … ankle cut pants and brimmed hat,” as you described it, Harriet. That’s an incredible transformation of how we “read” that costume.
Willa: It really is – it’s mind-boggling! I know we’ve all seen the Motown 25 performance a thousand times before but here’s a clip, and just look at how beautiful and elegant he is:
Wow. What a powerful act of reclamation and transformation.
Lisha: Stunning. And think of how often this iconic look has been admired and emulated all over the world.
Willa: And rightfully so! He’s completely redefined what that costume means and made it part of something many performers – including white performers – can only aspire to.
It’s also fascinating that you link the “crucifixion pose,” as you call it, Harriet, with supplication and “a visualization of black servitude” – I’m thinking of Al Jolson’s outstretched arms in The Jazz Singer – especially since many of Michael Jackson’s critics have interpreted that gesture in the opposite way, as evidence that he saw himself as the Messiah. So again, when we read him through the lens of the blackface tradition, it leads us to a radically different interpretation.
Harriet: This is it! What you say, Willa, lies at the heart of my reading of Michael Jackson and his genius and how, I believe, we should attempt to understand him.
Like the traditional blackface mask – through negotiations of racial, sexual, and gendered identities – Michael Jackson was amazingly clever at being readable in multiple ways and, furthermore, not just in multiple ways but in notoriously contradictory ones. This was a key reason for his enormous popularity (he could speak or “sing” to the individual and be what they wanted him to be). However, at the same time, it also allowed his downfall, providing fodder for his detractors. The “crucifixion” pose visualizes this: it was at once an image of black servitude and megalomania. The altered pallor of his face, his “mask,” also symbolizes this: his critics read it as black self-loathing but was it not rather a utopian vision of racelessness (“white” as not Caucasian at all but colorless)?
Traditionally denied to black performers, the blackface mask was reclaimed by Michael Jackson. In fact, he turned it inside out. Together with his lyrical and rhetorical calls for brotherhood, he completely obliterated it. No contemporary performer has ever come near to this.
So, that Michael Jackson danced out the dance moves of the traditional minstrel show really is just the start!
Lisha: Once again, I have to say I am absolutely amazed. Just when you think you might be on the way towards grasping the depth and breadth of Michael Jackson’s work, something like this comes along and blows your mind all over again.
Harriet, how common is it to see these dance moves and gestures in contemporary song and dance? For example, Willa and I talked earlier about Michael Jackson’s connection to Fred Astaire, and how often Astaire is cited in Michael Jackson’s work. But what is rarely mentioned is how much Astaire and the entire Hollywood musical genre owe to black dancers, including those who performed in the early minstrel shows.
Harriet: Blackface moves and gestures appear a lot, from tap dance to hip hop.
Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly took many black cultural gestures and ideas but never formally acknowledged this in tune with the entire production of the Hollywood musical genre, in which black performers were denied a part. This repeats the process of blackface minstrelsy: the denial of black self-representation but the white luxury to play with it. That Michael Jackson continually fought with criticism and condemnation for his self-representation, from his skin color and facial features to his angry panther characterization, also repeats this painful process.
Willa: I agree. It still astonishes me that white commentators feel they have a right to define what it means to be black, and then try to impose their definitions onto him. To me, that is the very essence of blackface – whites imposing black stereotypes onto blacks – so in that sense, the blackface tradition is still very much alive.
Lisha: So true. I’m thinking the “African warrior” scene in Black or White has a lot to say about white-created black stereotypes, when Michael Jackson makes his very first appearance ever with such light, “white” looking skin. In contrast to the other ethnic dance scenes in Black or White – which feature traditional dancers wearing their own authentic regalia – the black “African” dancers are dressed in obvious stage makeup and film costumes. They dance in a Broadway/Hollywood style of dance and their faces are smeared with white ash and painted in highly-stylized tribal designs. I see this scene as a parody of African-American dancers “whiting up” for the camera, performing their “African” heritage according to needs and expectations of a primarily white audience and white film industry. You could even think of African-American performers “whiting up” for the camera as Michael Jackson’s own “tribe” – the whiteface not used as a black parody of whites, but as an expression of the reality that black performers have tailored their “African-ness” to suit white sensibilities. In this way, the scene for me has much in common with the panther dance.
Willa: That’s so interesting, Lisha. I’d never thought about that until I read your dissertation. It’s interesting to think that they are “performing” black, especially since they’re then revealed to be on a Hollywood set, not in Africa. It reminds me of something James Brown said in a 1973 Jet magazine interview that Charles Thomson recommended and Destiny tracked down and shared with us last week:
I know I can act. All Blacks can act. The only reason we survive today is because we’ve had to act a certain way for the white man. Too many performers accept roles to act in movies when in truth they’re not allowed to act at all.
As you pointed out, Lisha, the “African” dancers in Black and White enact this “performance” of race that James Brown is talking about, and it’s also a very interesting reworking of the blackface tradition, on many different levels.
However, as you point out in your book, Harriet, blackface minstrelsy wasn’t simply a forum for promoting racial stereotypes and ridiculing black men and women, but actually a complicated brew of contradictory impulses. For example, in describing white appropriation of black gestures and dance moves, you say it was motivated by both “love” and “theft” – in other words, an appreciation for black expression as well as an impulse to steal it.
Lisha: “Love” and quite a bit of literal “theft”! Many whites have become quite wealthy exploiting black, musical, intellectual property.
Willa: That’s true, from blackface on through jazz and rock and now hip hop. And this “theft” not only enriches whites but also erases the achievements of black artists from public awareness. Joe Vogel talks about this in “The Misunderstood Power of Michael Jackson’s Music“:
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.
And there were also complicated forces at work, psychologically, in this dual motivation of “love” and “theft.” As you point out, Harriet, minstrelsy mocked black men while also providing white men with a way to express and work through a sublimated “envy,” which was a fascinating idea to me – especially since Michael Jackson himself suggested a number of times that the backlash against him was motivated by jealousy.
For example, in your discussion of the “wench,” a white male enactment of black female stereotypes popular on the minstrel stage, you write that minstrelsy “showcased a bold and very public appreciation for the black male body in which cross-racial identification, including the envy of a supposed unsurpassed potency, lurked.” As you point out, this “presumed sexual potency” was very threatening “at a time when physical ‘manliness’ was especially important to white male working-class self-respect.”
So blackface minstrelsy certainly allowed white men to propagate hurtful stereotypes about what it means to be black, but it was much more complicated than that. For one thing, it also allowed those same white male performers and audiences to work through what it means to be white and male.
Harriet: Exactly, and this is where is gets very complicated. Recent documentation of the blackface tradition has brought to the fore the “love” that it also could have been seen to embody. These accounts argue minstrelsy was a way by which white men and woman could in fact secretly indulge and be close to blackness in a society in which this was otherwise condemned. Linked to this are theories arguing for (cross-racial) homosexual expression, in the transvestite “wench” stereotype particularly.
What is really most important here, though, is to understand that the blackface mask had the capacity to be inherently contradictory, and that Michael Jackson lived up to that.
Lisha: I find this kind of subterfuge in Michael Jackson’s work so delightful and nothing less than brilliant. I’m thinking about the film Ghosts, Harriet, and how you have interpreted some of the issues he addresses in this work.
Harriet: Ghosts (to which I devote a chapter in my book) is a masterpiece of turning ideas upside down, and documents in its narrative all of the racial stuff, dance, and imagery we have talked about. Through the film’s story of a scary “Maestro” character (played by Michael Jackson) being run out of town by villagers (who in turn get spooked by the Maestro and his “family” through dance and play), Ghosts embodies key issues we have noted: racism in the ridicule of the “Other” or the “different”; dance moves steeped in minstrel gesture; the process of the performer “giving others what they want to see” yet at the same time critiquing and undermining it through extremity of exaggeration.
But Ghosts also theatricalizes the mutilating impact that all this stuff must have had, and continues to have, on black performers. This comes in a powerful section near the end of the narrative. After the confirmation that the Maestro’s guests (despite having been “treated” to an awesome display of dance and song) still demand he leave town, the Maestro admits defeat and surrenders. With the aid of computerized special effects, we witness the disintegration of the Maestro. In an uncomfortable scene we watch the disappearance of Michael Jackson as he pounds first his fists and then his face into the ground so that he crumbles away until there is nothing left of him but dust.
Is this not what we saw in Michael Jackson’s real life too? An adherence to the performance of the constructions and traditions of blackface minstrelsy – to the blackface mask – that in the end was devastational, and the world just stood back and watched?
Willa: Yes, though in Ghosts the Maestro’s self-destruction is revealed to be an illusion – a performance designed to bring about important changes in the emotions and perceptions of the villagers. So once again – as in the blackface tradition – Michael Jackson is providing his audience with the stereotypes they’ve come to believe, and then exploding those stereotypes.
Harriet: Sure thing. Again, Michael Jackson turns our perceptions upside down; he turns the tables. Unlike the Maestro, however, not even Michael Jackson had the power and genius in “real” life to come back from the dead.
Lisha: Or maybe he did! For a sizable number of new fans, like myself, Michael Jackson’s work suddenly came to life in 2009, almost like a resurrection.
Willa: And he predicts that in Ghosts as well. After the Maestro dies, he comes back to life as a huge stone statue – a living work of art.
Harriet: Interestingly, it wasn’t long, back in June 2009, before rumors circulated that he wasn’t dead at all and that his death was a hoax.
Lisha: Yes, a very small handful of people said that, yet the media is so anxious to attach that to Michael Jackson fans in general. I’ve actually read quite a few news stories portraying Jackson fans as mad, bad, and dangerous – even suggesting that if Michael Jackson fans get angry, people should fear for their lives! Maybe the media and the public need the fans to play this role now that Michael Jackson is gone?
Willa: That’s an interesting take on that, Lisha. It’s true many media outlets seem determined to portray his fans as Wacko, but I hadn’t thought of it that way before – that now we’re filling the role of Other that he once filled.
Harriet: I wonder if it is rather a last ditch attempt to regulate Michael Jackson. Meaning, if his fans are understood as being hysterical or insane then his success and genius – his cultural and racial work – can be undermined and history rewritten. This relives the central process of blackface minstrelsy, whereby the black performing figure is molded and used by others and others’ needs; and, as was unfortunately the case with Michael, at the cost of the performer’s selfhood at best; his life at worst.
Lisha: I have a sinking feeling you might be right about that.
Willa: Hmmm. I don’t know – I think he subverted that in important ways, and reasserted his selfhood in ways we don’t yet fully understand. What I mean is, I think he resisted and rewrote the cultural narratives being imposed on him, just as he rewrote the meaning of the costume of blackface minstrelsy.
I feel like I’m not expressing myself very well, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t see his life as tragic. It’s certainly true that terrible things happened to him, but he fought back in creative and incredible ways. It’s like, if a promising athlete is paralyzed and spends the rest of his or her life on the couch imagining what might have been, that’s tragic. But if they somehow manage to achieve wonderful things despite their disability, then it isn’t tragic. Just the opposite. It’s inspirational. That’s how I see Michael Jackson – tragic things happened to him, but he responded in ways that continue to amaze and inspire me.
Lisha: No argument there!
Willa: So Harriet, I had one last question for you. Your book is fascinating and I’d love for all Michael Jackson fans to be able to read it, but it’s pretty expensive – as academic books often are. I just looked on Amazon and it’s $90 for the hardback, and even the Kindle edition is $70. That’s pretty steep. I think publishers price academic books so high because they generally don’t sell very many copies, so they need to charge more to cover their costs, and because they’re thinking most copies will be bought by university libraries where multiple readers will have access to them. I’m worried though that fans who don’t have access to a university library and can’t afford to buy it won’t be able to read it. Is there a less expensive way for fans to gain access to your book?
Harriet: My publisher has agreed to consider paperbacks next summer if sales are strong. In the meantime, a 50 percent discount is available for fans. Just go to http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781409455103 and use this promotional code at checkout: A13IEC50. Fans can see more of the book and its illustrations at www.facebook.com/michaeljacksonblackfacemask.
Willa: You have some wonderful illustrations in your book and on your Facebook page, including photos from the shooting of Say Say Say where Michael Jackson seems to be evoking the tradition of blackface minstrelsy, as Joie and I talked about a little bit in a post last fall. He’s wearing a kind of variation of the blackface mask, but more clown-like and with painted tears in his eyes, which for me transforms the meaning of the mask from something burlesque – a comedy – to something much more somber and heart-felt – a tragedy.
Lisha: Well, it will probably come as no surprise to anyone that my favorite illustrations are the ones focusing on Black or White, since I am already on record as considering it one of the finest works of art of the 20th century! There are some really fascinating illustrations from the early minstrel shows in your book – juxtaposed with screen shots from the panther dance – that are of tremendous value to anyone interested in seriously studying Michael Jackson’s work. Harriet, your contribution to the already impressive body of scholarly literature on Michael Jackson, especially in regard to Black or White, is very significant indeed.
Willa: I agree, and I hope you publish your dissertation someday as well, Lisha. We need more Michael Jackson scholarship! Thank you both for the work you have done, and for joining me to talk about it. It’s been fascinating.
NOTE: The following conversation was originally posted on September 19, 2012. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
Celebrating Bad: Speed Demon
Willa: So Joie, you’d think I’d have learned by now never to label any of Michael Jackson’s videos as “just entertainment.” I thought that about You Rock My World – that it was “just entertainment” – but after talking with you about it last fall I’ve come to see it as a very pointed critique of the music industry. I thought that about In the Closet, but after talking with you about it last January I’ve come to see it as a fascinating look at taboo relationships. At different times I’ve thought it about Thriller, and Smooth Criminal, and Scream, but later came to see those three as some of his most important works. And I’ve thought it about Speed Demon, but now I’m starting to wonder if I haven’t been overlooking something important in that video as well.
It seems to me there are two major themes running through the nine Bad videos. First, there’s the extremely complicated issue of violence, poverty, and criminality, especially as it presents itself in the inner city. We see this theme in the videos for Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, Man in the Mirror, Smooth Criminal, and Speed Demon. Then there’s the complicated issue of celebrity and fame, as we see in Dirty Diana, Leave Me Alone, Liberian Girl, Another Part of Me, and Speed Demon. So Speed Demon – that cute, quirky, inoffensive little claymation video – is the place where those two major themes intersect.
Joie: Willa, I have to say, you have me intrigued now because I don’t think of Speed Demon in terms of “violence, poverty and criminality,” as you put it.
Willa: Well, he has a light touch. You wouldn’t think someone could make an enjoyable video about some of our worst and most complicated social ills, but he did – over and over again.
Joie: Well, yes. That’s true; he did. But, I’m not sure I see that going on in Speed Demon. And I also never would have thought about Liberian Girl or Another Part of Me as commentaries on celebrity and fame so, I’m interested to see where you’re going with this.
Willa: I know what you mean, Joie. I would have said the same thing just a few days ago. Speed Demon especially seems to have more in common with Wallace & Gromit than Beat It, at least on the surface.
Joie: Wallace & Gromit. That’s funny!
Willa: Well, you know what I’m saying – it’s claymation! But remember a couple weeks ago when you asked me what I saw as the major themes of Bad?
Willa: Well, I’d never thought about that before, so I started listening to the songs and watching the videos with that question in mind, and as I was doing that these two very disparate themes started to emerge, especially in the videos. I mean, think about it: is there a video anywhere with more celebrities than Liberian Girl? It’s nothing but celebrities. And suddenly there’s Michael Jackson behind the scenes laughing, which seems like such an interesting statement all in itself!
And look at the opening of Another Part of Me and how it focuses on his complicated relationship with his fame – how he both enjoys it but seeks refuge from it, and how he uses it to convey his “message” – a message he states very clearly in the chorus:
We’re sending out a major love And this is our message to you The planets are lining up We’re bringing brighter days They’re all in line waiting for you Can’t you see? You’re just another part of me
So he’s on a mission to send “major love” out into the world, and he uses his art and his celebrity to help him accomplish that. But this isn’t an easy issue – his celebrity both empowers him and isolates him. And as usual, he presents these ideas in subtle but sophisticated ways in the video.
Joie: Hmm. That is very interesting, Willa. I see your point. And what you’re saying makes a lot of sense. I guess, now that you mention it, I have been thinking of both Liberian Girl and Another Part of Me as purely entertainment. And you’re right – that is something that we should never do when it comes to Michael Jackson.
Willa: We really shouldn’t. It’s easy to fall into that because his work is so entertaining, but there are always so many layers to his work, and a lot of times there are really interesting things happening if we just look. Like it’s easy to dismiss Speed Demon as just a cartoon, but it addresses his complicated relationship with his celebrity as well. It opens with him being chased by some over-eager fans, and they’re pretty rude and obnoxious.
Joie: Oh, they are incredibly rude and obnoxious! And it makes me kind of sad to think that he may have encountered that often, you know? That fans were ever that thoughtless and unkind to him. In fact, I have a hard time thinking of them as fans; to me, they’re more like an angry mob that’s out to get him. They even seem to be quite angry at him as they chase him around the movie set and out onto the open road. And the longer they chase him, the angrier they seem to become.
Willa: They really do. You know, it’s presented as this fun chase sequence – and he does seem to enjoy it – but all the same, there is something threatening about it and he really doesn’t want them to catch him. And I think he did have to deal with obnoxious fans sometimes. He talked about it in a 1978 phone interview with Lisa Robinson. She asked him, “do you still like meeting your fans?” and he said,
I enjoy all that sometimes, seeing people who love me, or buy my records. I think it’s fun, and I enjoy meeting my fans and I think it’s important. But sometimes people think you owe your life to them; they have a bad attitude – like, ‘I made you who you are.’ That may be true – but not that one person. Sometimes you have to say to them, If the music wasn’t good, you wouldn’t have bought it. Because some of them think they actually own you. Someone will say, “Sit down,” “Sign this,” or “Can I have your autograph?” and I’ll say, “Yes, do you have a pen?” And they say, “No, go get one.” Honestly. I’m not exaggerating. But I just try to deal with it.
And remember, this was in 1978 – three years before Thriller came out.
Joie: Yes, I remember that interview and it is really sad when you think about it. And again, I have a difficult time thinking of those people as fans. I guess I just have a different idea of what that word means. “Fan.” You know, oftentimes that word has such a negative connotation to it. Especially with regard to Michael Jackson fans. But I’ve been in the fan community a long time and I know Michael Jackson fans to be some of the nicest, most respectful people I’ve ever met, so that’s difficult for me to reconcile. But, I’m certain from his point of view there were times when the attention probably became extremely rude or even threatening. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live with that kind of attention 24/7.
But I was really more referring to the video itself – not his real life. In the short film, the “fans” who are chasing him sort of become this angry mob that seems like they’re out to get him. And it’s not clear what they intend to do with him if they catch up to him. Do they want to hurt him or do they simply want his autograph? It’s difficult to tell by the snarls on their faces. It’s no wonder he’s trying to get away from them!
Willa: I think you’re exactly right, Joie – they are like a “mob,” meaning they’re gripped by that weird mob mentality that takes over sometimes, and I think Michael Jackson had seen how dangerous that could be and was scared of it. We see that fear of the mob in the intro to Ghosts. And he said in a number of interviews that being mobbed “hurts.” That people go crazy and start pulling your hair and twisting your arms, and it really hurts. Apparently, the first time the Jackson 5 went to England, a mob scene broke out at the airport and he could have been killed. He was wearing a scarf, and one girl grabbed one end and another grabbed the other end, and they were both pulling as hard as they could. The scarf was tightening around his neck, and he couldn’t breathe and couldn’t loosen it, and his brothers had to rescue him. What a scary story!
So you’re right – it’s hard to predict what a mob will do, and it’s not clear at all what the mob chasing him in Speed Demon will do if they catch him.
Joie: But luckily, they don’t get that chance because they all end up getting stopped for speeding and causing a pile-up of sorts. The last we see of them, they’re all being taken away in a police wagon as Michael speeds away, finally free to breathe now that the mob that was chasing him is gone. He heads out to the open road and stops for a few minutes to discard the costume he used to escape his pursuers, then finds himself in the middle of a dance-off when that costume comes to life and issues a challenge.
But I have to say, Willa, that while I agree that the complicated issues of celebrity and fame are definitely present in this short film, I’m still not really seeing the issues of ‘violence, poverty and criminality’ in Speed Demon that you mentioned at the beginning of this discussion.
Willa: Well, think about those repeated lines from the police: “Pull over, boy, and get your ticket right.” There’s so much sheer joy of flight in Speed Demon, just the exhilaration of speed and escaping all the pressures being put on him. But then near the end a trooper gives him a ticket. In fact, there are policemen throughout this video, and a lot of times they’re chasing him too. So while it’s a policeman who puts those obsessive fans in jail and kind of rescues him from the mob, as you just described, another policeman shows up and treats him like a criminal.
You know, what really started me thinking differently about Speed Demon was the MJ Academia Project videos. Unfortunately, the people who posted those videos have taken them down and they aren’t available at the moment, which is disappointing. I’d really like to watch them again and link to them right now. I hope they repost them. But anyway, in one of their videos they talk about how Michael Jackson repeatedly uses the word “boy” in a number of songs and videos as a code word for how black men have been treated by the criminal justice system in the U.S., and they specifically mention Speed Demon. I’d never thought of Speed Demon like that – as anything more than a cartoon, actually – but I started listening to it differently after that. And one thing I realized is that the video really softens the message of the song. If you can somehow block the video images out of your mind while listening to it, it feels much grittier than when your mind is full of Michael Jackson in a dancing competition with Spike, the claymation rabbit (which I love, by the way).
So, as he does so many times with so many different subjects, he shows how complicated human relationships can be. He loves his fans, but feels threatened by them when they turn into a mob. He feels protected by the police, especially when the mob is carted off to the police station, but he also knows the police can turn on him at any minute and criminalize him. And this was filmed in 1988, before he’d really experienced just how biased and abusive the police could be.
Joie: Well, I agree with you, the video does really soften the message of the song. And I wonder if he did that intentionally, seeing as how this video was part of the movie, Moonwalker – which is really sort of a kid’s movie with a feel-good theme to it. But, as we talked about last week, this is one of those short films where the visual he presents us with is much different than what we conjure up in our minds when merely listening to the song itself.
Willa: That’s true, though we need to be careful about viewing Moonwalker as just entertainment also. It does have a fun, “feel-good” mood through most of it, but there’s a lot of very interesting things going on in that movie. We should talk about that sometime. I can’t believe we’ve been chatting about Michael Jackson’s work for a year now and still haven’t talked about Moonwalker.
But getting back to Speed Demon, we really see that structure of a fun entertaining film overlying a serious message here too. In some ways, he seems to be exploring the role of artists in society, and how artists and police are kind of at cross purposes. The police tend to want everyone to follow the rules and behave in conventional ways, even if that has nothing to do with legality, and artists are constantly challenging those conventions. We see that conflict between the police and the artist with the “sheriff” from the western movie early in the video. He starts chasing Michael Jackson and calls out to him in this really patronizing way, “Hey, Songbird.” And then at the end the trooper gives him the ticket, saying, “I need your autograph right here.” Importantly, the ticket isn’t for speeding. It’s for dancing.
Joie: Well, in the trooper’s defense, Willa, it was a clearly marked No Dancing zone!
Willa: That’s true! And you notice he’s a very law-abiding citizen. He doesn’t dance after the trooper points to that funny sign telling him he’s not supposed to, though you know he disagrees with it.
But you know, while this is all handled in a very light, entertaining way, it’s addressing some really complex ideas as well. The policeman is trying to rein him in and prevent him from dancing, from expressing his art, and even treats him as a criminal, or at least a law-breaker, because of his dancing. And this ties back to what we talked about a couple weeks ago with the Bad short film. As we said then, artists and criminals actually have something in common: they both challenge social norms. They do it in very different ways – one legally to improve our cultural awareness, and one illegally and often destructively – but sometimes that distinction becomes blurred and artists are treated as criminals. And Michael Jackson was very aware of that, as he shows us in Speed Demon and Bad, and perhaps most explicitly in Ghosts. Remember, the “crime” he’s accused of in Ghosts is being an artist, a teller of ghost stories, and too outrageously different.
And I think this criminalization of artists played out in very real ways in how the police (and the press and the public) interpreted the allegations against him in 1993 and 2003. It’s like there was this idea that he was willing to transgress social norms – by singing and dancing, by challenging gender and racial boundaries, by representing the Other, as Joe Vogel described a few weeks ago – so some people seemed to think that maybe he was willing to transgress legal and moral boundaries as well and do illegal, immoral things.
Joie: I think that’s a very interesting point, Willa. And maybe a very simplistic way of describing that is the old saying ‘judging a book by its cover.’ Because he looked “strange” or “freaky” to some, then perhaps he was more likely to be a criminal than someone who looked sweet and innocent. Actress Winona Ryder comes to mind. Who would have ever imagined she would behave like a common criminal? After all, she looked so “normal.”
Willa: I don’t really know much about the Winona Ryder case, except that it got a lot of attention in the press – far more than shoplifting charges usually get. But this criminalization of artists has a long history. Think about the McCarthy trials, and how many artists’ careers were destroyed by them. And William Tyndale, who may have been the greatest English poet of all time. Most of the King James Bible was written by Tyndale, and you can make the case that Shakespeare wouldn’t have been Shakespeare without him – even the cadence of his language reflects Tyndale. And Tyndale was burned at the stake.
And I always wonder how many of the women, and men too, condemned as witches during the Salem witch trials had an artist’s sensibility. They were definitely people who didn’t fit in, and were seen as “strange” or “freaky,” as you just said. Many were independent women who didn’t marry and lived unconventional lives. And this is interesting: one of the first people accused during the trials was a slave named Tituba who liked to tell children stories, just like the Maestro in Ghosts.
Joie: That’s a really interesting point, Willa. And you’re probably right about that, many of them probably were artists in some form, or at the very least, free thinkers – also like the Maestro in Ghosts. But I think what you’re trying to get at is that, even though on the surface it’s a cute little claymation video, Speed Demon is anything but childish or simplistic.
Willa: Exactly. Or maybe what I’m trying to say is that it works on both levels. It’s a fun, cartoon-like film that kids enjoy, but there are some complicated ideas for adults to grapple with as well.
Willa: Joie, I know we’ve tended to stay away from breaking news and sensationalized stories, with good reason. It’s all too easy to get caught up on the rollercoaster of rumor and innuendo and pseudo news, and lose sight of the big picture. In general, I think it’s much better to focus on Michael Jackson’s art and let the sensationalism wear itself out.
Joie: I couldn’t agree more.
Willa: But one interesting aspect of Michael Jackson’s art is that he wrestled with complex issues like mass media, public perception, and prejudice, and the complicated interconnections between them. And something happened last week that really underscored that for me. Wade Robson’s lawyer, Henry Gradstein, said in a prepared statement that “Michael Jackson was a monster, and in their hearts every normal person knows it.”
Joie, how many times did Michael Jackson warn us about this – about “normal people” becoming fearful of those who are different, and imagining they’re “monsters” because of that fear? That’s the central plot of Ghosts. (I can actually close my eyes and imagine the Mayor saying Gradstein’s words during that long speech when he’s confronting the Maestro: “We have a nice normal town, normal people, normal kids. We don’t need freaks like you. …”) He addresses that fear in Thriller as well – in fact, it provides the psychological underpinnings of that short film. Thriller “works” because it taps into that fear. And that’s exactly what he’s talking about in “Is It Scary,” “Threatened,” and “Monster” as well.
Joie: You know, Willa, it’s still so shocking to me that people feel that way about him. I mean, it’s one thing to jump on the bandwagon and badmouth someone when everybody else seems to be doing it too. But to attack someone after they’re gone in such a vicious manner … I was just really shocked when I read that quote last week. In fact, I think I still am.
But to get back to what you just said, you’re absolutely right. Michael addressed this very topic over and over and over again. It’s almost as if it was constantly at the forefront of his mind and his imagination. And if you think about it, I’m sure it probably was. I mean, after all, it was a subject he just couldn’t seem to get away from. It was, quite literally, “the story of his life.” And I just think it’s so sad. When you first proposed this topic for this week’s post, the lyrics to “Monster” came immediately to my mind, and I just felt so tired. Do you know what I mean?
Willa: Oh, I do. I know exactly what you mean. …
Joie: Like I actually took a deep, sad breath and I just felt so exhausted. If I felt that way, can you imagine how he must have felt when he wrote these words:
Monster He’s a monster He’s an animal
We hear that short refrain over and over again in the song, and it just breaks my heart. He goes on to say:
Why are they never satisfied with all you give? You give them your all They’re watching you fall And they eat your soul like a vegetable
Don’t you ever wonder what that felt like to him? How lonely and miserable that must have been? I don’t know that there has ever been a more miserable soul on this planet than Michael Jackson’s. Which is truly heartbreaking when you think about the immense amount of talent he possessed and the staggering numbers of people that he brought happiness to. And yet, he himself was this miserable, tragic, sad, sad creature.
Willa: Well, yes and no. I mean, Michael Jackson endured a level of public vilification few of us can even imagine. I mean, it’s literally unimaginable to me – beyond my capacity to comprehend what he went through. But I think he also experienced a kind of joy few of us can imagine either – the joy of creative ecstasy as we talked about a little bit with Give In to Me last spring. So I guess I feel he had higher highs as well as lower lows.
But I do know what you’re saying, Joie, and I think those lyrics you quoted are really important, especially that last line, “they eat your soul like a vegetable.” One reason that jumps out at me is because it echoes words he wrote much earlier in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” where he repeatedly sings these lines at the end of each chorus:
You’re a vegetable (You’re a vegetable) Still they hate you (You’re a vegetable) You’re just a buffet (You’re a vegetable) They eat off of you (You’re a vegetable)
This song was written in the mid-1970s and “Monster” was written in the mid-2000s, sometime after the 2005 trial – that’s a 30-year time span – yet both songs express a similar idea using the same metaphor: that the press feeds off him (“they eat your soul”) just like the zombies in a horror movie feed off the souls of the living.
So there’s this interesting reversal where the mass media is portraying him as a “monster,” but he’s saying they are the true monsters. He’s alive – vibrantly alive – with the exuberant vitality of a dancer and creative artist, but their souls are dead – they have no creative spark animating them – and so they try to feed off him. He makes that reversal explicit the last couple of times he sings the chorus you quoted earlier, when he reverses the meaning by adding interstitial lines:
Monster (Why you haunting me?) He’s a monster (Why are you stalking me?) He’s an animal (Why’d you do it? Why’d you? Why you stalking me?)
Joie: Willa, I think that’s a wonderful interpretation of “Monster” and I love what you just said, comparing the press to flesh-eating zombies that can’t wait to feed off of Michael Jackson’s creativity and vitality. It’s a beautiful assessment of the situation.
Willa: It is fascinating how he sets that up and then flips it around, isn’t it? And that idea that the tabloids are feeding off him reminds me of those threatening teeth in Leave Me Alone that we talked about last fall. Those chomping teeth form the bass line of Leave Me Alone, which is an extended look at media excess that links modern tabloids with exploitative freak shows of the past. So again he’s suggesting that the press wants to feed off him, and the sound of those teeth throughout the video reinforces that.
Joie: What’s really interesting to me, Willa, is how, in one corner, you’ve got the press, who keep repeatedly referring to him as a monster, and all of the “talking heads” from all of the news outlets (be it tabloid or mainstream) join in on the charge. But then in the other corner, there’s Michael himself, pointing back at the press and stating very clearly for all who will listen, that he’s not the monster … they are! It almost feels like that episode of the old Twilight Zone series where the people in a diner all know very clearly that there is an alien/monster among them. Only no one is really quite sure exactly who the real monster is and they’re all accusing each other! Remember that episode?
Willa: No, I don’t think I ever saw that one, but it sounds really interesting. And thinking of The Twilight Zone reminds me of “Threatened,” with its posthumous Rod Serling intro:
Tonight’s story is somewhat unique and calls for a different kind of introduction. A monster had arrived in the village. The major ingredient of any recipe for fear is the unknown, and this person or thing is soon to be met. He knows every thought. He can feel every emotion. Oh yes, I did forget something, didn’t I? I forgot to introduce you to the monster.
And then we hear Michael Jackson’s voice – he’s the monster Rod Serling was talking about. So we’re in the unusual position of hearing the story from the monster’s point of view.
And that reminds me of one of the first monster stories, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. In the original novel, Mary Shelley casts Frankenstein’s monster as an intelligent, sensitive soul who’s abused and mistreated because his appearance is so frightening. In fact, in some ways the people he meets are the true monsters because they’re so vicious to him. So the question is, who’s the real monster in this situation?
That’s a question Michael Jackson raised many times. For example, in “Is It Scary” he says, “It’s you who’s haunting me / Because you’re wanting me / To be the stranger in the night.” And he concludes with this fairly blunt assessment:
I’m tired of being abused You know you’re scaring me too I see the evil is you Is it scary for you, baby?
In other words, the “evil” that people fear is coming from their own minds. They’re imposing their fears onto him, and he’s just a mirror reflecting their own thoughts and fears back at them:
Can the heart reveal the proof Like a mirror reveals the truth? See the evil one is you
Joie: Yeah, that song is just so telling. And really, if you just sit and listen to them, most of the “scary” songs are very telling, deeply personal glimpses into what his life must have felt like to him. And you know, Willa, whenever I let myself dwell on it, I just cannot imagine living with that level of scrutiny every single day of my life, and still being able to function. And ultimately, I guess the argument could be made that he wasn’t able to function that way for very long.
Willa: Oh, it’s just unbelievable what his life must have been like, but we can kind of get a glimpse of it through these “monster” songs and films because one thing he’s trying to do in these works is show us what it feels like to be in that position – to be the object of everyone fears.
You know, Michael Jackson had an incredible habit of empathy. We see it in his work as well as interviews. Whenever he’s trying to understand a situation, his first impulse is almost always to immediately look at it from the other person’s point of view. We see that over and over again, like in “Dirty Diana” where a groupie is trying to manipulate him, but instead of simply rejecting her, or using her and walking away as many rock stars would do, he tries to understand her by looking at things from her perspective. He does something similar in his “scary” songs where he doesn’t just push back against the attacks, but also tries to get inside the mind of his attackers and understand why they are treating him like a monster. (And by the way, this habit of empathy is one reason I’m so sure he would never molest a child, in addition to all the evidence. If you have that habit of empathy, you can’t abuse someone because you’re too aware of how that abuse must feel to them.) And he also encourages us to try to see things from his perspective as well.
So one way of interpreting his “monster” works is to see them as an artistic way for him to work through these issues and explore why the police, the press, and the public were so insistent on seeing him as a monster – and there are important cultural and psychological reasons for why that keeps happening. As he tells us in “Threatened,” “I’m not a ghost from Hell / but I’ve got a spell on you.” He is the Other, the “monster,” the embodiment of difference that both fascinates and frightens us – that is the “spell” he has on the public imagination – but he’s an Other who seems to know us all too well:
You’re fearing me ’Cause you know I’m a beast … I’m the living dead The dark thoughts in your head I heard just what you said That’s why you’ve got to be threatened by me
So we fear that he’s a “beast” but an extremely intelligent beast, a beast who knows “the dark thoughts in your head” and can move us emotionally and psychologically in ways we don’t fully understand – and what could be more frightening than that? That’s why he tells us “You should be watching me / You should feel threatened,” because he represents our worst fears.
But that’s not really who he is – he’s not really a monster – it’s just a reflection of our own minds. We’re simply giving vent to all our deepest fears by projecting them onto him.
Joie: And the ugly truth is that he made such an easy target of himself. He made it almost effortless for those doing the venting to project that madness onto him. But he always turned the other cheek with such dignity and grace, never lowering himself to their standards, never lashing out in anger. Not really the actions of a monster, huh?
Willa: Joie, a few weeks ago we were talking about “Best of Joy,” and you quoted some lines from Dylan Thomas:
Though lovers be lost, love shall not
And death shall have no dominion
I’ve been thinking about those lines ever since because we see this idea of “death shall have no dominion” a number of times in Michael Jackson’s work – perhaps most explicitly in “Heaven Can Wait,” but also when he seemingly dies but then returns in Moonwalker and Ghosts.
Joie: That’s true, Willa. It is a theme that we see more than once from him – in both songs and short films.
Willa: And not just from him, Joie, but many major artists, and I think it’s because death is probably the most difficult concept humans have to face. I read an article a long time ago where the author said he felt the real distinction between humans and other animals is the terrible knowledge that we’re all going to die. As he said, all animals die but humans are the only animals that know it. Or we assume we’re the only animals that know it. Elephants will sometimes visit the bones of their ancestors, and handle them in an almost reverent way. Does that mean they understand the concept of death? Do they know they’re going to die?
Joie: You know, I am a firm believer that animals know a lot more than we as humans will ever comprehend. I believe that some are more intuitive than others – like the majestic elephant – and they know things and understand things about our world. Much more than humans will ever give them credit for.
Willa: Oh I agree, and think it’s a huge mistake to assume that since we don’t know the depth of an animal’s thoughts and emotions, they don’t have profound thoughts and emotions. When one of my dogs died of bone cancer several years ago, the other went into deep mourning for a long time and never forgot his friend. If I mentioned his friend’s name in conversation, even years later, he’d look up and watch me very closely.
But the point I’m trying to make is that we all carry the terrible burden of knowing we’re going to die someday, and so are all the people we care about. And one function of art is to help us deal with our deepest emotions, like the fear of death and the grief of losing someone we love. Poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, musicians – artists in many different forms – have struggled for centuries to somehow come to grips with that terrible, terrible knowledge. How do you face life when you know you’re going to die? How do you let yourself love someone fully and deeply when you know they’re going to die? How do you have children when you know they will die someday and pass on this legacy of death? Does life become bitter for us, or does it seem all the more sweet and precious because of that constant threat of death?
Joie: Wow. Those are heavy questions, Willa. But you’re right … artists have struggled with that knowledge for centuries and have used it to fuel some of the greatest artistic works of all time.
Willa: They really have, and they’ve come up with a wide range of responses, though some are a lot more popular than others. For example, there’s the famous Thomas Herrick poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” where he advises “the Virgins” to go ahead and have a good time while they can:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
Herrick published this poem in the 1600s, and this “carpe diem” philosophy of “have fun now while you’re young and full of life” is expressed in poetry written more than 2,000 years ago. And it’s still very popular today – especially with musicians, it seems. You hear it on the radio all the time, like in the Kesha song with the repeated refrain, “Let’s make the most of the night / Like we’re gonna die young.”
Joie: Ok, I see what you’re saying, Willa. It is a very popular topic with musicians. But getting back to your question of ‘does life become bitter for us or does it seem all the more sweet and precious’ because of this constant threat of death … I think the answer to that lies with the individual. Some people are inevitably going to lean toward the bitter option. But I like to think that, for most of us, we tend to embrace the latter idea of life becoming more sweet and precious because of this knowledge. And I think what you said about some artists’ responses being more popular than others reflects that.
Willa: Yes, but artists can also lead us to think about these ideas in new ways. Like I just heard a song on the radio called “Carry On,” and it had these lyrics:
So I met up with some friends at the edge of the night
At a bar off 75
And we talked and talked about how our parents will die
All our neighbors and wives
But I like to think I can cheat it all
To make up for the times I’ve been cheated on
So what the band, Fun, seems to be saying with these lyrics is that they want to believe they can “cheat” death and in that way compensate for times when they’ve felt “cheated on” by life. You know, I’ve never thought about things in quite that way before.
An even better example, I think, is Michael Jackson’s “Be Not Always.” It’s a song about war (“Mothers cry, babies die / Helplessly in arms / While rockets fly”) and racism (“How can we claim to stand for peace / When the races are in strife / Destroying life?”) and poverty (“To have nothing / To dream something / Then lose hoping …”). In other words, this song addresses some of our biggest societal problems – problems so big and so complicated we tend to think of them as eternal and unsolvable. But Michael Jackson is begging us to stop thinking that way. He’s telling us these problems don’t have to be eternal … and shame on us if they are:
Be not always
But if always
Bow our heads in shame
Please, be not always
‘Cause if always
Bow our heads in blame
‘Cause time has made promises
This is the chorus, and he sings it twice with a slight variation between them. The first time he sings it, he ends with “Time has made promises / Just promises,” and to me, what he seems to be saying is that these problems are difficult but not everlasting. Time is what’s eternal, and “time has made promises” that we can solve these problems if we keep working at them. But as he goes on to say, time gives us “just promises.” Those promises won’t come true unless we work for them – and we must. In fact, we should “bow our heads in shame” if we don’t keep striving against them until we’ve solved them.
But then he sings the chorus a second time, and this time around he changes that final line. This time he sings, “Time has made promises / Death promises.” Joie, that line just gives me chills, but it’s also strangely inspiring. He’s revised what he told us before, and now his message is much darker. What he seems to be saying is that, really, the only thing Time promises us for certain is that we’re all going to die. Time makes “death promises.” And because of that – because Time will surely bring death to each of us someday – we need to strive with everything we have to preserve the preciousness of all life.
Joie: I see what you’re saying, Willa. But I have to be honest with you and admit that I really don’t care for that particular song. I understand the importance of the message behind it, but the song itself is so depressing and morbid in tone and feeling. And I understand why the critics at the time were really left scratching their heads when the Victory album came out. Their question was, what is this song of such gloom and doom doing on an album that is supposed to be a victorious celebration? It just didn’t fit, and I remember reading somewhere back then that the brothers weren’t very happy with Michael’s choice of song either.
But I’m getting slightly off topic here. You are right in your assertion that this song points out, rather bluntly, that the only thing Time really promises to us is death.
Willa: But so does the Kesha song, and no one seems to think it’s morbid. And to me, if a song is going to remind me of my own mortality, I’d much rather it be a beautiful ballad like “Be Not Always” than a flippant pop song. And the Thomas Herrick / Kesha idea that we’re all going to die so we should just party like there’s no tomorrow quite frankly isn’t very inspiring to me. In fact, it makes life seem pretty pointless. To me, Michael Jackson’s approach in “Be Not Always” is much more uplifting. It makes me feel like I should try to live in a meaningful way precisely because life is so short and so precious.
And actually, in one of those funny little moments of synchronicity, our friend Lisha McDuff just sent me a wonderful 10-minute short film called The Empathic Civilization that touches on this very topic. It’s based on a speech by economist and writer Jeremy Rifkin. Here’s a link:
I love this film, and two things especially jump out at me. First, scientists in Italy have found that mammals are “soft wired” to feel empathy – especially humans and primates, probably elephants, and maybe dogs and dolphins. And secondly, that our empathetic development takes a huge leap forward – an “existential leap” – when we realize that we’re going to die someday, and so is every other living thing on this planet. It’s precisely that painful knowledge that leads us to care deeply for other people we may not even have met. And to me, this is exactly the idea Michael Jackson is getting at in “Be Not Always.”
Joie: That is such an interesting video to watch, Willa. The animation really holds your attention and illustrates the “lesson” the narrator is giving.
But I disagree with your assertion that “Be Not Always” is more uplifting than Kesha’s “Die Young.” I’m not a fan of the song by any means but, all it’s really saying is ‘hey, let’s go out and have a good time tonight.’ “Be Not Always,” on the other hand is talking about some really heavy, overwhelmingly depressing subject matter. And his delivery of it, while poignant, heartbreaking and thought-provoking, is so raw. It’s almost too painful to listen to. For me, anyway. I’m sorry to be so negative here. You know that I can count the number of Michael Jackson songs that I really don’t like on one hand, but this song just happens to be one of them. In fact … I honestly can’t think of another one right now. This may actually be the only one.
Willa: Wow, that’s interesting, Joie. We have such similar reactions to so many of Michael Jackson’s works, it always kind of shocks me when we see things differently. And I guess we see “Be Not Always” very differently. To me, it’s a lot like Stranger in Moscow, where he’s taking a painful situation and turning it into something beautiful and meaningful. I love it when he does that. To me, that’s Michael Jackson at his best.
Joie: Well, I agree with that statement, Willa. That is Michael Jackson at his best. But I just don’t see that happening here. To me, “Be Not Always” just takes a painful situation and makes it more morbid. And I’ll admit that I’m probably just not “getting it,” but the message is totally lost on me because I can’t get past how depressing it is. And I know this is going to sound extremely shallow of me, but I can’t listen to a song that’s only going to depress me.
You know, we talked about “Little Susie” a few weeks ago, and to me that song is a great example of Michael taking a painful situation and turning it into something beautiful, as you said. And yet, even though the subject matter is sad and depressing, the lyrics are beautiful. The music itself is breathtaking. The song grabs a hold of me from the very beginning and draws me in, making me care about this poor, neglected, dead little girl.
“Be Not Always” doesn’t do that for me. Instead of being drawn in, I am repelled. There’s nothing for me to grab onto – the lyrics are distressing, the music is bleak, the mood is hopeless. At the end of the song I feel empty, not uplifted.
Willa: Joie, I’m just astonished. To me, “Little Susie” is far more depressing than “Be Not Always.” And the melody and his voice are so beautiful, and so is the instrumentation – just a simple acoustic guitar accompanying him throughout the entire song. It’s like his own version of MJ Unplugged, something we don’t get to hear very often.
Joie: Wow. I can’t believe you find “Little Susie” more depressing than “Be Not Always.” I’m actually equally astonished, Willa. And I find our differences in opinion on this one so interesting. I don’t know that we’ve ever had such a huge gap in our feelings about a song before, do you?
Willa: No, I think you’re right. We’ve disagreed about how we interpret different aspects of certain songs or videos, but I can’t remember us ever having such completely opposite reactions before. I feel like I need to listen to “Be Not Always” again with your words in mind to see if I can try to hear it the way you do, because I respond so differently.
But to get back to the theme of death, he actually touches on it fairly often, in different ways. Sometimes he addresses it more directly, like in “Gone Too Soon,” the song he dedicated to Ryan White. And sometimes he’s much more subtle. For example, it’s part of the backstory for the Bad short film, and contributes to the sense of threat and foreboding we feel in that film, I think.
Joie: Oh, I agree, it is a theme that he touched on often and in varying degrees.
Willa: It is, and what I really wanted to talk about were the “death shall have no dominion” ones. For example, in Moonwalker, the main character, Michael, is surrounded by armed soldiers with seemingly no escape. He transforms into an armed robot and begins fighting back – though interestingly, his most powerful weapon seems to be his voice, crying in pain. He then transforms into a spaceship and tries to escape, but is shot down and seems to be destroyed. But when the evil Mr. Lideo threatens the children, the spaceship returns and destroys Mr. Lideo and his entire operation instead – and again, even though he is now a spaceship and not human, we hear his voice, crying in pain. And again, his voice seems to be what makes him so powerful.
Then he begins to fly off into space, but a shooting star suddenly appears. We see a shooting star repeatedly in Moonwalker, and it’s somehow linked with the Michael character and with magic – it seems to call out the magic that’s within him. But this time the shooting star collides with the spaceship, there’s a big explosion, and he’s gone. The children miss him, and even start to question whether that magic exists – as Katie says, “It’s not a lucky star.” But then she says, “I wish he would come back,” and he does. So he seemingly dies not once but twice, and then against all odds he reappears and there’s a happy reunion.
Ghosts has a somewhat similar structure, but with some major differences also. Once again his character, the nameless Maestro, is under attack, but this time it’s not by a criminal mastermind and his thugs – it’s by the Mayor and townspeople where he lives. And they aren’t attacking him because they harbor evil ambitions, but because they’re frightened and want to make that fear go away. So his goal is different. He isn’t trying to defeat the villagers but connect with them and dissipate that fear. And as in Moonwalker, his voice – actually, the evocative power of both his singing and dancing – is his most powerful weapon.
However, the Mayor still wants him to leave, so the Maestro destroys himself – pounding himself to dust, which then blows away. After he’s gone, the children miss him, and even the townspeople who were trying to drive him out of town feel regret for what’s happened. And it’s after that change of heart that he returns.
Joie: Oh, I see what you’re saying, Willa. It’s as if he’s repeating that theme of “death shall have no dominion” in each of those short films by returning just when everyone starts to believe that he really is gone. You know, it’s a subject he addresses head on in the song “Heaven Can Wait.” And of course, much more subtly in “Best of Joy,” as we talked about a few weeks ago.
Willa: Exactly, but it seems to function a little differently here. He doesn’t seem to be trying to say something about death, so much as using death as an artistic device for psychological and artistic reasons. What I mean is, he’s using the presumed death and reappearance of these two protagonists to create a specific emotional effect in the audience.
In both of these films, the protagonist is under attack and undergoes a deep personal trauma – one we as an audience experience also through our identification with him. In Moonwalker, we witness Michael’s powerlessness as Mr. Lideo hits and threatens Katie, and then kicks and beats him when he tries to help her. In Ghosts we hear the Mayor threaten and ridicule the Maestro and stir the villagers against him, and then we watch the Maestro brutally destroy himself in front of our very eyes.
These are both very traumatic events. When Michael and the Maestro “die,” it draws out all the painful emotions evoked by those traumas: grief, fear, compassion, anger, outrage. It’s like a snakebite kit pulling venom from a wound. And then when Michael and the Maestro return, all of those emotions are washed away, and we’re left with a feeling of relief and renewal. So taken together, this double movement of death and reappearance provide us with catharsis – almost like a Reset button for rebooting our emotions so we aren’t stuck with the trauma of what we’ve experienced.
Joie: That’s a very interesting way of looking at that, Willa. I’m not sure I would have thought of it in that way before but, I like the way you put that.
Willa: Well, there are many different ways to interpret these two films, and this is only one approach. But it’s very interesting to me to think about how his character’s death and reappearance in these films affect us as an audience. The extreme emotional whiplash we experience when he dies and comes back to life seems to bring about a kind of psychological cleansing – a purging of the deep trauma we endured before this final crisis. And using art to purge an audience of uncomfortable emotions and bring about a feeling of rebirth or renewal is precisely what Aristotle meant by the word “catharsis.”
It’s a very old concept – more than 2,000 years old – and we tend to think we’ve changed a lot in those 2,000 years. But while daily life for humans has changed tremendously since then, human nature apparently hasn’t, and this process of catharsis still powerfully moves us as an audience, even today.