Blog Archives

Summer Rewind 2014: Important Dates in HIStory

The following conversation was originally posted on May 22, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

We also wanted to give a reminder that Veronica Bassil’s new book, That Wonder in My Youth: Michael Jackson and Childhood, will be available for free tomorrow through September 2. Here’s a link.

Joie: Today, Willa and I are joined by our good friend, and frequent contributor, Lisha McDuff, and we’re talking about the title track of Michael’s HIStory album. More specifically, we’re talking about a certain aspect of that title track. Thanks for joining us again, Lisha!

Lisha: Thanks so much for having me!

Joie: Ok, ladies, here’s a question that I know we’ve all thought about many, many times, and I would be willing to bet that just about every Michael Jackson fan has pondered at least a dozen times while listening to this multi-layered song. What do all of those dates at the beginning and the ending of “HIStory” mean, and do they have some personal significance for Michael beyond their obvious significance to the rest of the world?

Willa: I think they have tremendous significance. For example, there are two dates set off by themselves at the beginning of the track – all the other dates come at the end. And as you pointed out, Lisha, when we first started kicking around the idea of doing a post on “HIStory,” those two have special significance.

Lisha: Exactly so. The first words spoken in the song are “Monday, March 26, 1827,” and “November 28, 1929.” Although it is never spelled out what these dates specifically reference, I find it interesting that these happen to be two important dates in music history: the death of Ludwig van Beethoven and the birth of Berry Gordy, Jr.

Willa: So do I. Putting those two dates together the way he did suggests Michael Jackson saw a connection or correlation between these two men. We don’t tend to think of them together, but Michael Jackson had tremendous admiration for both of them, and they both had a huge impact on music history. More specifically, they were both important transitional figures in the history of music.

I think most people would agree that Beethoven was one of the greatest classical composers, if not the greatest. But he also helped usher in the Romantic period in music. You know much more about this than I do, Lisha, but he helped bring about the shift from Classicism to Romanticism, right?

Lisha: That’s absolutely right. Beethoven seemed to have one foot in the Classical era and the other in the Romantic era of Western music at the same time. He is considered the bridge between these two periods.

Willa: And as the founder of Motown, Berry Gordy was also a transitional figure. He led the way in integrating “black” music into the “white” mainstream in a way that was extremely popular with both blacks and whites. And that changed the face of music in America and around the world.

Lisha: Berry Gordy essentially redefined pop by insisting it was just as black as it was white and this appealed to a very broad audience. Gordy’s impact is felt not only in American popular culture, but all over the world, as you said. He is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in all of recorded music.

I have to say, citing these dates at the top of the song is such an interesting choice, we could probably focus our entire discussion on those two dates alone!

Joie: I agree.

Willa: Me too.

Lisha: I also suspect these dates have been highlighted not only for what each of these men contributed, but also for how their contributions have been historicized.

There is no question that Beethoven is commonly thought of as one of the most important composers in all of music history, if not the most important. How we think about Beethoven is fundamental to our concept of what a composer is, what a musical work is, what intellectual property is, and what a musical genius is. The history of Western music in many ways revolves around the Beethoven paradigm and the Austro-German musical canon. It’s the Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms history of music we’ve all been taught in some form or another.

But scholars are increasingly challenging this. Does it really make any sense that musical genius could be isolated to specific time periods in Austria and Germany? And what exactly is musical genius anyway? The time has come to think a little more critically about it, and I’m guessing Michael Jackson thought quite a bit about this when he highlighted the death of Beethoven and the birth of Berry Gordy at the beginning of the song. I think we’ve all been cued to take Beethoven terribly seriously, but we usually don’t think about popular music or non-European composers in the same way.

Willa: I agree completely. In general, critics tend to maintain a strict division between “high art” composers like Beethoven and “popular” music producers like Berry Gordy, and it’s almost heresy to mention them in the same breath. But Michael Jackson repeatedly challenged that division between high art and popular art, and this is one more great example of that.

It’s also really interesting, Lisha, that you seem to see the reference to “Monday, March 26, 1827” not only in terms of Beethoven’s death, but also as representing the “death” of the canon. Is that right? In classical music, as well as other “high art” forms such as literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, or even relatively new forms like film, the canon tends to be dominated by dead white men, as the saying goes. So in that sense, by juxtaposing the date of Beethoven’s death and Berry Gordy’s birth, Michael Jackson is also suggesting the “death” of one way of thinking about music – which privileges a small group of men from Germany and Austria, as you said – and ushering in the “birth” of a new way of thinking about music.

Lisha: Yes, I believe that Michael Jackson is highlighting a new paradigm and inviting us to think about popular music and American musical achievement in a much more serious way. But, believe it or not, the idolization of the great “dead white men” in music history is a more recent phenomenon (historically speaking, that is – 19th and 20th century) that essentially revolves around our reverence for Beethoven. In many ways Beethoven’s death represents the birth, not the death, of the musical canon. So perhaps Jackson is suggesting that the death of the canon is best represented by the birth of Berry Gordy.

Willa: Oh, interesting!

Lisha: The whole idea of musical genius (commonly conceptualized as the solitary, autonomous, slightly mad composer, touched by the heavens, who remains true to his art by resisting political pressures or economic considerations) is more or less based on how we historicize Beethoven. Earlier composers, like Bach and Mozart, were employed by the church or the court, and their music was created primarily to satisfy the needs of their employers and to express their views and ideals.

But Beethoven challenged this and felt artists should be much more autonomous and free from any interference or worldly demands. As a result of his influence, the role of the composer was elevated and composers were ultimately given much more status, recognition, and control of their work. Musicians became very focused serving the composer’s vision and the great “musical work,” a concept that has been attributed to Beethoven.

It’s interesting that in the liner notes of “HIStory,” a credit is given for a sample taken from the children’s film Beethoven Lives Upstairs. To be honest, I have never found the sample in the track. I don’t know if I just keep missing it or if it was possibly omitted in a subsequent revision, but I’m interested in how this film relates to “HIStory.”

Willa: Well, the bells tolling in the background at the very beginning of the film remind me of the bells tolling in the background as Beethoven’s date of death and Berry Gordy’s date of birth are spoken in “HIStory.” Could that be it?

Lisha: Hmmm. In the beginning of the film I hear church bells ringing, and in “HIStory” I hear orchestral chimes. So, I don’t think they are the same instruments or the same sample. But now that you mention it, it is really interesting how similar the pacing of the bells and chimes are. That’s a very astute observation, Willa. I also noticed that the first words spoken in both the film and the song are “Monday, March 26, 1827.” Of all the dates mentioned in “HIStory,” I do believe this is the only one that also includes the day of the week (“Monday”). The rhythm and pacing of the voiceovers sounds pretty much identical to me. I’m getting the feeling that this film is a bigger inspiration for the track than I thought.

Watching the film, I was amazed by how precisely it reinforces the Beethoven paradigm and the myth of the composer as a god-like musical genius who can also be very peculiar, difficult, a bit mad, and terribly misunderstood. The film doesn’t miss a single cliché really. But it might be next to impossible to find a film on classical music that doesn’t historicize the composer this way. I’m thinking of Amadeus for example.

I don’t know if either of you have had a chance to see Motown The Musical, the new Broadway show written by Berry Gordy, but it’s a fabulous production that allows Gordy himself to historicize his own work. Far from expressing any desire to remain free of commercial, economic forces or other worldly demands, Gordy says that he envisioned Motown as a music company that would mimic the auto industry’s assembly line model of production. He recently explained this in a fascinating interview with the Chicago Sun-Times theatre critic, Hedy Weiss:

Willa: Wow, that really is very different from the Beethoven model, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not at all the solitary artist working obsessively alone on his magnum opus as you described, Lisha. In fact, it’s almost the total opposite.

You know, what this reminds me of is Andy Warhol, another artist who incorporated assembly-line production methods to create art, especially his screenprints – art that also questioned the divide between high art and commercial art, as we talked about in a post last fall.

Lisha: It is fascinating to me that these artists who lived and worked in a fiercely capitalistic society found themselves embracing this model, either as a critique or an expression of their own time, place, and life conditions. Remember that the songwriter/producer/arranger team behind the early Jackson 5 hits was Berry Gordy, Freddie Perren, Fonce Mizell, and Deke Richards and they were all credited for their work as simply The Corporation.

Willa: Oh, that’s right! And Andy Warhol called his studio The Factory. That’s really interesting that what Berry Gordy was doing in music, Andy Warhol was paralleling in visual art.

But getting back to the differences between the Beethoven and Berry Gordy approach – I’m trying to think where to position Michael Jackson in terms of these two models, and as with so many things, he doesn’t seem to belong strictly in either camp. As he mentioned many times in interviews, the inspiration and ideas for his songs often came to him when he was alone with his tape recorder. But when it came time to develop his ideas into songs for an album, he followed a much more collaborative approach to music production – more like the Berry Gordy model.

Lisha: Yes, that’s true, but he often worked in the conception stage with other musicians and songwriters as well. It is a highly collaborative approach that reimagines the role of the composer. The genre of rock takes quite a different approach and places a very high value on performers who author their own music, more like the Beethoven paradigm. But in the pop/Motown model (also in the Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building tradition), the songwriter primarily serves the performer and producer’s needs. In this model, I would say it is actually the performer whose importance is elevated.

However, Michael Jackson could be in a league of his own due to the fact he was so highly accomplished as a performer, singer, dancer, producer, songwriter, arranger, lyricist, musician, choreographer, film director, stage director, lighting and costume designer, businessman and marketing genius … I could keep going, but you get the idea. Of course David Bowie, Madonna, and Prince are examples of other multi-talented artists who also worked this way. But, when you look at how deeply Jackson understood all these disciplines and the way he orchestrated all these elements to work together, it does suggests he was the solitary genius behind a truly impressive body of work.

Willa: I would agree with that!

Lisha: It’s also true Jackson became very wealthy and powerful early in life so he was freed from subsistence needs or worries that his art would not be funded. Yet, he often seemed to measure his success as an artist in terms of units sold. My guess is that he believed his impact and reach were directly related to strong sales and aggressive commercialism.

Joie: Wow, you guys! You know, the two of you together are really fascinating to listen to sometimes. Have I ever told you that? This is already a completely engrossing conversation and we just got started!

Willa, I love what you said about it being the “death” of a very old and tired way of thinking about music – and truly great music – which privileges a small group of dead white men. And, as Lisha put so well, “Does it really make any sense that musical genius could be isolated to specific time periods in Germany and Austria?” So, I think we’re all in agreement that Michael did in fact have some very deliberate reasons for opening the song with these two dates.

Now I’m interested to know about the other dates at the end of the song. And maybe it’s a little weird that we’re focusing only on those dates in this conversation instead of talking about the lyrics or the actual song itself, but to me the dates have always been the most intriguing aspect of this song. Every time I listen to it, I always turn up the volume at the end so that I can try and decipher another date or two. It can become a very obsessive exercise. Have either of you ever counted them? Do we know how many dates there are? Willa, you started an actual list of all those dates, didn’t you?

Willa: Yes I did, but it’s pretty rough, with big gaps in some of them – and I’m sure I’m missing others altogether. I have a really hard time hearing some of them.

Joie: Yes, so do I.

Lisha: I’ll admit I really had a hard time with this, too. But in struggling with it, I think I discovered a trick for listening to all those dates. With a little practice and a good set of headphones, it’s possible to hear the entire segment clearly without missing any of the dates mentioned.

The spoken dates at the end of the song have been organized into four different threads that are staggered and layered on top of each other. The secret to hearing them all is to concentrate only on one thread at a time without getting distracted by competing sounds. It really helps to focus on the location of the sound as well. For example, the first thread begins in the top portion of the sound field, slightly to the right of center. It starts just after the final chord of the song (5:41) and sounds like:

February 11, 1847 Thomas Edison is born
December 30, 1865 Rudyard Kipling is born
December 7, 1903 The Wright Brothers first flight
January 15, 1929 Martin Luther King is born
October 14, 1947 Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier
February 9, 1964 The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan show
November 10, 1989 The Berlin Wall comes down

Now go back (5:42) and try to isolate the second thread, which is located in the left channel of your headphones:

January 18, 1858 Daniel Hale Williams is born
August 8, 1866 Matthew Henson is born
May 29, 1917 John F. Kennedy is born
September 1928 The discovery of penicillin
January 17, 1942 Muhammad Ali is born as Cassius Clay
April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight
April 12, 1981 The first Shuttle flight

The third thread is located on the right (5:43):

November 19, 1863 Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg address
December 5, 1901 Walt Disney is born
November 2, 1920 The first commercial radio station opens
October 9, 1940 John Lennon is born
July 17, 1955 Disneyland opens
July 20, 1969 Astronauts first land on the moon

Finally, listen once again to the top portion of the soundfield, but this time it is slightly to the left of center (5:44). You should hear:

April 9, 1865 The Civil War ends
October 28, 1886 The Statue of Liberty is dedicated
January 31, 1919 Jackie Robinson is born
November 28, 1929 Berry Gordy is born
December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks refuses to give her bus seat to a white passenger

Joie: Oh. My. Gosh. You have just cracked this code wide open! I have never been able to hear all of that in its entirety before, but now that I’ve gone back and listened with your notes in front of me, it’s all right there – like a long unsolvable puzzle has just been made crystal clear! That is amazing! I am thoroughly impressed. Both with your listening skills, and with your earphones!

Willa: Me too! I bow before you, Lisha. I can tell you have those incredible musician’s ears – your list is way better than mine!

Lisha: You guys are too funny! But it is thanks to Bruce Swedien’s brilliant engineering work that this segment is so beautifully organized.

Willa: That’s true, but still … some of these I hadn’t heard at all, like “the discovery of penicillin” and “Disneyland opens.” And there’s the second mention of Berry Gordy’s birthday. I didn’t realize that date was spoken twice, at the beginning and ending of “HIStory.” That tells me that, to Michael Jackson, this was a very significant date.

Lisha: Very significant indeed. I believe the importance of Gordy’s musical contribution is reinforced throughout the song. Probably the biggest difference between the Beethoven and Motown paradigm is that one compositional form is written while the other is based on recorded music. Popular music takes such a different approach to music that musicologists are having to rethink how to analyze, interpret, and historicize it. This new approach is often referred to as the “new musicology,” and it is a radically interdisciplinary field of research.

In “HIStory,” I believe Michael Jackson is pointing towards this shift between written and recorded music with those two dates at the top of the song and the track illustrates this quite well musically. It includes music from the classical and instrumental band repertoire, but there is also a lot of studio and technical wizardry involved. There are also two very important events in recording history that have been included towards the end of the track (6:10). The first of these is a historical clip of the first promotional recording ever made in 1906:

I am the Edison phonograph, created by the great wizard of the New World to delight those who would have melody or be amused.

Layered over this is a second clip of Thomas Edison himself, recalling the first words he spoke to create the world’s first phonograph recording in 1877:

Mary had a little lamb
It’s fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go

Believe it or not, Edison made his first recording in 1877, just 50 years after the death of Beethoven.

Willa: Seriously? Edison’s first phonograph recording was only 50 years after Beethoven? I never would have guessed that. It’s funny how our perceptions of time can telescope in and out. Like I was reading something the other day about how the Beatles “invasion” of America 50 years ago is actually closer in time to World War I than it is to us today. That stunned me.

Lisha: It’s really disorienting, isn’t it? Somehow I thought there were bigger gaps between these events as well.

Willa: Oh I know, and I think Edison and his phonograph have a lot to do with that. What I mean is that I think video and sound recordings compress our perceptions of history. We can “see” the Beatles performing on Ed Sullivan and experience it for ourselves, so it feels close in time to us. Beethoven lived before that recording technology was invented, so we will never experience him in the same way – never hear his actual voice, never see his body move. So in that sense he feels “prehistoric” to us, meaning he existed before recorded history – before history could be captured in sound and video recordings.

Lisha: Interesting, and I agree completely. Recordings keep these events much closer in our memories.

Willa: Exactly. The Beatles played on Ed Sullivan 50 years ago, but for me they also played there yesterday, which is the last time I experienced that performance. I saw them on Ed Sullivan just yesterday. Mentally I know it happened 50 years ago, but emotionally it feels really familiar to me, even though I was too young to experience when it originally happened.

So that’s another reason Edison and his phonograph would be important in a song about “history.” They’ve profoundly changed how we perceive and experience history.

Lisha: Great point as always, Willa.

Willa: Thanks, but I’m sorry, Lisha. I interrupted you in mid thought. You were talking about the huge shift from written music to recorded music, and how you think “HIStory” not only suggests that shift but also kind of reenacts it in how the song is structured, with passages of classical music at the beginning and audio clips of Edison and his phonograph at the end. That is such a fascinating idea, especially when you think of the huge impact audio recording has had on music – not only on how it’s distributed, but how it’s conceptualized and created. I’d really like to get back to that, if we could.

Michael Jackson, especially, used music technology as a “compositional tool,” as you pointed out in some fascinating comments to a post Joie and I did a long time ago with Joe Vogel and Charles Thomson. As you said in one comment under your pen name, Ultravioletrae,

I have no doubt if Jackson needed music notation he would have used it, but his own method of recording on multi tracks was far more efficient and desirable than pencil and paper or music notation software. Reading and writing in musical notation would have been a tremendous liability for a musician like him. As an example, he worked with complex, subtle rhythms that can’t be accurately notated, only approximated.

Before I began talking with you about all this, I tended to think of recording music as part of the distribution process – something musicians did to capture their music in a format where it could be shared with others. But you’ve helped me see that recording has become far more than that. It’s now an integral part of composing and creating music, but in a very different way than the Beethoven model.

Lisha: The whole idea of the great “musical work” as an exclusively written compositional form is most likely a direct result of the Beethoven myth and how we have elevated the status of (dead, white, male) composers. It’s hard to let go of this image of the composer because it has become so ingrained in the culture. But music is an aural phenomenon, so it makes an awful lot of sense to use the technology we have available to store musical information in an aural format.

When recorded music first began, the goal was to simply replicate a live performance as accurately and realistically as possible. But there were a couple of game-changing events that essentially changed all that. The first was guitarist Les Paul’s innovations in multi-track recordings, which allowed Paul to layer sound in a very creative and imaginative ways. As Bruce Swedien once told Sound On Sound’s Richard Buskin:

The first time I really got excited about pop music was when I discovered that it was possible to use my imagination. That had come with a record that I myself didn’t work on, Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “How High the Moon.” Up to that point the goal of music recording had been to capture an unaltered acoustic event, reproducing the music of big bands as if you were in the best seat in the house. It left no room for imagination, but when I heard “How High the Moon,” which did not have one natural sound in it, I thought, “Damn, there’s hope!”

Think about the imaginative way all those dates in “HIStory” are staggered and layered over each other. That is a great example of Michael Jackson and Bruce Swedien’s imaginative use of the recording studio as a compositional format, made possible by Les Paul’s inventive approach to recording.

Another milestone in recording history happened in 1967 when the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album Rolling Stone named “the greatest album of all time.” After retiring from touring in 1966, the Beatles turned their attention to the recording studio and racked up an unheard of 700 hours in the studio to make Sgt. Pepper. The album pushed the limits of multi-tracking and the recording technology so far that the recording process itself came to be recognized as a compositional format. With no plans to return to the stage, the recording itself became the “musical work.” Any attempt to perform it live would be understood as a replica of the recording, a 180-degree flip from the original use of recording technology.

“HIStory” includes the written music paradigm with an orchestral performance of “The Great Gate of Kiev” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, followed by several examples of American military-style band music. In these examples, musicians perform from printed music and attempt to recreate the composer’s intentions down to the most minute detail. The way this music was conceived, created, and performed revolves around the concept of the written “musical work,” which has been set in stone through the printed score.

But in recorded music, the role of the composer is reconceived when the “musical work” is a sound recording that also contains significant contributions from the performers, producers, and engineers.

Willa: That’s fascinating, Lisha, and it really is a very different way of thinking about a piece of music, isn’t it? In the classical model, you have the ideal vision of the piece as imagined by the composer and “set in stone” in his manuscript, as you said, and the goal of everyone after that is to try to stay true to that ideal.

The new model is not only more collaborative, as you said, but also much more fluid – perhaps too fluid, as we’ve seen with all the remixes lately – where songs are kind of a perpetual work in progress. I think it was Brad Sundberg who said that Michael Jackson would sometimes continue to make small modifications to his songs even after an album had been released, so one Dangerous album might have a slightly different version of “Black or White” than another one that came out just a few months earlier. And even songs where there is a fairly “definitive” version, like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” or “Billie Jean,” are sampled and integrated into new songs by other artists, so we can hear snippets or song shadows of them on the radio in different settings, leading us to think about them in new ways.

In other words, what I’m trying to get at is that in the new model, songs are not “set in stone” at all – they are constantly shape shifting.

Lisha: Yes, that’s definitely true, and this has created a lot of confusion in the area of intellectual property and determining who has the right to profit from a recording. But when you think about how much more sound information is contained in a musical recording as opposed to a sheet of printed music, in many ways the opposite is true. For example, I know far more about what Michael Jackson wanted “Billie Jean” to sound like than I know about what Beethoven wanted his music to sound like.

Willa: Well, that’s true, Lisha! Interesting – so music is more fixed in some ways, and more fluid in others.

Lisha: I also think classical music is not as fixed as most of us imagine. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition which is featured at the beginning of “HIStory,” is a piece of music that has been reorchestrated numerous times. The version we hear on the recording is actually an arrangement or “remix” by Maurice Ravel! And over the years, musicians change their thinking about how composers like Beethoven should be performed, and debate the merits of many different performances.

But no one has to guess what Michael Jackson wanted to hear – we have a definitive record of it. And what would be the point in trying to replicate his recordings anyway? The record company is happy to manufacture as many copies as anyone would like to buy.

Willa: That’s certainly true. So this paradigm shift in how music is composed – from a model of a lone composer writing notes on paper to a very different model of a team of musicians and sound engineers working in a studio – that shift was facilitated by new technology, like Edison’s phonograph. But also by new production models, like Berry Gordy developed at Motown and Michael Jackson experienced from a young age. So if we look at “HIStory” the way you’re suggesting, Lisha, it makes perfect sense that Michael Jackson would place Beethoven, Edison, and Gordy in such prominent positions.

Lisha: It makes a lot of sense. Especially because the old paradigm currently still exists along with the new. It really hasn’t gone anywhere yet, though we see more and more signs of its decay. As far as I can tell, there is always a period of overlap between musical eras. It’s not that easy to define when one ends and the next one begins. I think it’s important to think about how we have historicized the past and how we will historicize our present moment in the future. After all, the concept of the album is HIStory: Past, Present and Future. I think  Jackson could be advocating that as we historicize great music in the future, we don’t fall into the trap of preferencing “dead white men.” I concur!

Joie: Wow, you know, I’ve never thought about “HIStory” in terms of music before, if that makes any sense. I’ve always just thought about all those dates, and the enormity and importance of the game-changing, history-making events they represent.

But what you’re saying, Lisha, is that Michael actually used the song itself not only to highlight those history-making events, but also to make us aware of this great shift from the Classical music paradigm to the “new musicology,” as it were. And what better way of doing that than by pointing repeatedly to Berry Gordy, a man who took that new musicology and pretty much created a whole new genre and style of music. Ask almost anyone around the world and they can probably tell you what the Motown Sound is and who created it.

Willa: That’s true, Joie, and he created an appreciation for “black music” around the world as well, and then helped break it out of that fairly segregated category, so black music and black artists became much more integrated into popular music generally.

And of course, we see that in Michael Jackson as well. He won one Grammy for Off the Wall: Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. R&B traditionally means “black music,” so he basically won an award for best “black music.” He was extremely upset about that and vowed his next album wouldn’t be ghettoized like that … and of course, his next album swept the Grammys. Thriller didn’t just win Best Album of the Year, it won six other Grammys as well. And it’s the biggest-selling album of all time, around the world, to many different races of people.

That leads into another important aspect of “HIStory” – that it also pays tribute to black artists, politicians, sports heroes, and other figures and shows the huge impact they’ve had on history – not just black history but human history. The roll call of important dates includes the birthdays of Martin Luther King, Daniel Hale Williams and Matthew Henson (I didn’t know who they were – I had to look them up), Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, as well as the day “Rosa Parks refuses to give her bus seat to a white passenger.” And the audio clips that form the sound “collages,” as you called them, Lisha, commemorate Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record, Muhammad Ali proclaiming he is “the greatest of all time,” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Often black pioneers and historical events are relegated to “black history,” but Michael Jackson placed them front and center in his list of important dates, demonstrating that he sees them as a very important part of our history – the shared history of all of us. Anyone who thinks Michael Jackson forgot his roots or didn’t feel pride in his race needs to pay closer attention to “HIStory.”

Joie: Oh, don’t even go there, Willa! That is a whole other conversation that we could, and probably should, have someday. But you’re absolutely right in saying it.

Well, Willa and I want to thank Lisha again for joining us today. It’s always an interesting and thought-provoking conversation when you’re here! We also want to encourage readers to check out Lisha’s lyrics and sound collages in the Lyrics Library.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa:  Really?  I didn’t know that.

Joie:  Neither did I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa:  That’s a good point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons in HIStory

Willa: Last week Joie, Lisha, and I were talking about “HIStory,” and after we finished I mentioned that I’d been looking for the video to “Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson,” a remix of “HIStory,” for a really long time. This video was supposedly produced and released in 1997, but while I’d seen references to it (like here in Wikipedia), I’d never seen the video itself, though I’d been looking for it off and on for several years.

Joie has a big deadline looming so wasn’t able to join us again, but Lisha, who is like a super sleuth when it comes to all things Michael Jackson, took on the challenge and found it that very afternoon! And right there on YouTube! I was stunned. Here’s the video that I looked for for so long and never found:

It’s unclear how involved Michael Jackson was in the production of this video, but it’s a fascinating piece, and I’m delighted to finally get to see it. Thank you so much for taking on the challenge, Lisha! So were you able to find much background info about this video? Like when and where it was produced, and who was involved?

Lisha: I found it rather curious that there wasn’t much information available at all on this video. To my knowledge, it was never released on any compilation of Michael Jackson’s work.

Willa:  I think you’re right, and it’s not on Vevo either with his other “official” videos. You wouldn’t think a Michael Jackson video would be so hard to find …

Lisha:  Many will recognize this as a remix of the song “HIStory,” produced for Michael Jackson’s 1997 album Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix. That album featured eight remixes of songs from his previous album, HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1 (2005). The official title of the remix featured in the video is “HIStory (Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson).”

I was able to find out a little more information about it, thanks to Gary Crocker, one of the co-founders of the site MaxJax: HIStory Continues. It was produced in July 1997 and directed by Jim Gable, the same director who made one of my all-time favorite MJ documentaries, Michael Jackson: The One (2004), which features some great interviews with Quincy Jones, Dick Clark, Beyoncé, Pharrell Williams, Savion Glover, Missy Elliott, Wyclef Jean, and many more.

Willa:  Oh, I love that documentary too. And you’re right, it has some wonderful interviews.

Lisha:  Gable also received a producer credit on the Michael Jackson’s Vision box set (2010) and was the restoration director for the Michael Jackson Live at Wembley DVD, recorded in 1988 and included with the Anniversary Edition of the Bad 25 album (2012). Steve Reiss produced the video for “HIStory (Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson)” and I discovered he was also the visual effects supervisor on Jam back in 1992.

I would assume Michael Jackson was involved to some degree in making this video because at the very least he would have had to approve the use of his previous work. The video includes clips from more than a dozen of his short films, as well as footage from the Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory world tours.

Willa: That’s a good point, though I have no idea who owns the rights to what. Maybe Sony could have moved ahead with it without his permission…?

Lisha: I wouldn’t know for sure either without reading the contracts, but it would really surprise me if Sony had the right to produce this video without his approval, since Michael Jackson was pretty savvy about his copyrights. At any rate, I really enjoyed it and thought it was unusual that I haven’t heard more fan discussion about it.

Willa: I do too, or any discussion at all about it, really.

Lisha: The concept is rather interesting. You know, we could get into a very heavy philosophical discussion about this in relation to time and the way it collapses the past, present, and future into a single view. Reminds me very much of a film I just saw based on a Marvel Comics storyline, X-Men: Days of Future Past. I remembered reading once that Michael Jackson was quite a fan of the X-Men comics and he expressed an interest in playing the role of Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men films.

Willa: Really? Wow, that’s fascinating – and that would have been a great role for him! Though I also like what Patrick Stewart did with it. And I can see how the X-Men movies would appeal to him since the “mutants,” mostly teenagers with superpowers, encounter terrible prejudice because they’re different, and are forced to hide their amazing abilities to fit in with the fearful “normal” people around them.

Lisha: I think it would have been a perfect role for Michael Jackson, and I consider it a real tragedy he didn’t get to play the part or fulfill his dream of developing the Marvel catalog himself. So I can’t help relating the X-Men: Days of Future Past to the concept of Michael Jackson’s HIStory: Past, Present and Future. Both deal with how these three divisions of time – the past, present, and future – are constantly intermingling and interacting with each other. The video for “Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson” illustrates this so well.

Willa: It really does, and it makes sense since we are always viewing the past and the future through the lens of the present. So while we tend to think of them as distinct, in reality they are always “collapsed” together in a way this video suggests in several different ways. For example, it really cracks me up about 2 minutes into the video when we see Michael Jackson do the moonwalk, followed immediately by Neil Armstrong doing his “moonwalk” – the original one, where he’s bouncing along the surface of the moon.

Lisha: I love that moment in the video!

Willa: I do too! And then a lot of the dancers, who seem to be dancing in the future, are mimicking Michael Jackson’s dance moves. So Michael Jackson did his moonwalk and kind of appropriated it. I mean, when you hear the word “moonwalk,” who do you think of first – Michael Jackson or Neil Armstrong? In the 1970s, it would have been Armstrong, no question, but I bet most people today would say Michael Jackson. And now these dancers from the future are appropriating him – they’re doing his dance moves and making them their own. In fact, frequently there’s a kind of double vision where we see the dancers performing the exact same moves that Michael Jackson is performing on the huge screens behind and around them, though it just occurs in flashes – not a sustained choreography.

Lisha: I noticed that too, especially with the Beat It choreography. It looks really great. And it is pretty amusing to see those two historic moonwalk clips next to each other. Just for fun, I googled “moonwalk” and the results I got were Michael Jackson, not Neil Armstrong! Too funny. I also searched “first moonwalk” and Motown 25 popped up, not Apollo 11.

Willa: Really? Well, there you go … empirical proof that when it comes to the moonwalk, Michael Jackson owns it!

Lisha: The audio clip of Neil Armstrong’s first moonwalk in the original song is pretty intriguing: “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It comes at the very end of the song, almost as an afterthought, and I assume it is included not only as a reference to Apollo 11, but as a reference to Michael Jackson’s famous dance as well. The video captures this perfectly and shows how one event influenced the other.

Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Lisha. I never thought about that before – that when Armstrong says those words at the end of “HIStory,” he’s literally getting ready to do the “moonwalk.” That’s funny!

Lisha: It is! There’s another really funny moment in the video that makes me laugh every time, and it just screams Michael Jackson humor to me. It’s when you hear the lyric “Keep moving, moving / Keep, keep, keep-keep moving” (1:32) – and there is a guy on some kind of flying bicycle contraption that goes crashing into the pavement. Sorry, but that’s really hilarious in a slapstick sort of way!

Willa: It is, like something from a Keystone Cops or Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin movie, or even the Three Stooges, and we know how much Michael Jackson loved those movies.

Lisha: Yes, I get the feeling Michael Jackson loved slapstick in general.

There is another audio clip at the end of the original song that I also interpret as having a similar self-referential, double meaning as the Apollo 11/Michael Jackson moonwalk. That’s the clip of Senator Edward Kennedy eulogizing his brother Robert F. Kennedy in 1968: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.” Apparently both Robert F. Kennedy and his brother John F. Kennedy were fond of this quote attributed to the playwright George Bernard Shaw. Because Michael Jackson described himself as a “visionary”  on more than one occasion, I interpret this as a self-reference as well as a reference to the Kennedys.

Willa: I do too, and as inspiration for all of us.

Lisha: Yes, it is. I also noticed that earlier in the song, the birthdate of John F. Kennedy is cited, so there are references to three influential members of the Kennedy family: Senator Edward Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy. All three were known not just for their family’s wealth but also for their political ambition, their strong commitment to equal rights, and the dream of achieving racial equality in the U.S.

Willa: That’s true, and as we mentioned briefly last week, the fight for racial equality in the U.S. is one of the themes running throughout “HIStory,” especially in the audio clips and the list of dates, and in the lyrics as well.

Lisha: I think it is the most inspiring aspect of the song and album, and makes the strongest case for why history matters so much today and in the future.

Willa: I agree. And I love the double movement about 1:45 minutes into the video where Michael Jackson raises his fist in the panther dance, and then Desmond Tutu raises his fist.

Lisha: Good spot, Willa. And it’s like POW! Right on the first beat of the measure. Nice editing work!

Willa:  Oh, you’re right! I hadn’t noticed that before. There’s even kind of a POW sound, like from a cartoon. And it happens again about 2:25 in when the protagonist of Scream punches his fist at us, POW.

Lisha: Or even earlier with the guitar smash from Scream at 1:25! It happens every 4 measures or every 16 beats. It’s interesting to see how they time those with the video.

But I was also thinking about how the whole idea of remixing music makes a point about how the past can interact with the present and future. The remix itself is taking something from the past and introducing it into the present, just as the dancers in the video are interacting with the earlier short films.

Willa: That’s a really good point, Lisha.

Lisha: But the woman in the video experiencing the song through her virtual reality goggles illustrates how the past and present will also resonate in the future. It reminds me of the French philosophers, Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze, who theorize that time cannot be measured by a clock. A more accurate conception of time would be the experience of present moment as influenced by memories of the past and our desires for the future. I think I see what they are getting at, don’t you?

Willa: I think so. And not only is the present “influenced by memories of the past,” as you said, but our memories of the past are influenced by the present also. So the past – or rather, our understanding of the past – is constantly shifting as current experiences change how we view the past.

Lisha: I think you’re absolutely right about that.

Willa: I went to a talk by Maxine Hong Kingston several years ago – quite a few years ago, actually – and she talked about her brother, who is a Vietnam War veteran, and more generally about how we all tend to deal with painful memories from the past. She said there are some stories that are just too painful to tell, and there are basically two ways to deal with that. We can either bury those stories and try to forget them, so they remain painful but locked away, or we can engage in some form of talk therapy – either with an actual therapist or with friends, or even in our own minds. She said the point of talk therapy is to tell and retell a painful story over and over and over again, gradually shifting it over time, until finally we have a story we can live with. And she kept emphasizing that we are constantly retelling the past, reshaping it to fit what we need it to be now, in the present.

Lisha: Isn’t that what history is? Those stories we tell over and over again as a group, “reshaping it to fit what we need it to be now, in the present”? And isn’t the whole point of interacting with the past an effort to create a better future?

Willa: Well, that’s interesting, Lisha. I’ll have to think about that … but my first reaction is that you’re right.

Lisha: Well it does get complicated. As lighthearted and fun as this video is in many ways, it doesn’t hesitate to point out that revisiting history isn’t always a terribly pleasant thing to do. There are a number of references to war, conflict, senseless divisions between people, pollution, and destruction of the earth. The original song portrays these two poles very effectively with all the crowd cheering and excitement when recounting some of our greatest achievements, while at the same giving us plenty of reminders that there is an awful lot from the past (and present) we cannot be so proud of: racism, discrimination, the struggle for human rights and equality. I noticed that during the audio clip from an early Michael Jackson interview, there is also a badly warped record of a military band playing “America the Beautiful.” As the pitch bends from the degradation of the record, it gives a subtle suggestion that not everything about America is so beautiful.

Willa: Yes, I’ve noticed that too, and think it’s a very significant part of “HIStory.” A very young Michael Jackson is saying, “Whatever I sing, that’s what I really mean. Like if I’m singing a song, I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it.” He sounds so sincere and earnest, but in the background there’s a scratching sound like a needle dragging across the record, and then a kind of warped version of “America the Beautiful,” like you said. The music is very patriotic, but as you pointed out, the distortions subtly undercut that, so there’s both the ideal and the suggestion that we aren’t living up to the ideal.

Lisha: Beautifully said.

Willa: It’s especially significant if you consider that those distortions are happening as an immensely talented young black boy is speaking those words within a predominantly white culture where the odds are stacked strongly against him, and then consider what our flawed prosecutorial system did to him when he grew up, with complicity by the press and the public. We still live in a very racist country that is far from living up to its ideals.

Lisha: No doubt. It’s painful to think about what Michael Jackson had to endure and realize that, for the most part, the public has no way of knowing what really happened unless they do extensive research on their own. And I am afraid for how this story will be told in the future and how history will repeat itself until we face it and learn from it.

For example, I remember when I was a kid, absolutely no one had a problem historicizing Christopher Columbus as the great and wonderful explorer who “discovered” America. Talk about a story we tell ourselves when real truth is too painful or too inconvenient to deal with! How different would things be now if we had just owned up to the truth about slavery and genocide a long time ago?

Willa: That’s a good question. And you’re right – we do tend to tell the story of Columbus very differently now than our teachers did even 40 years ago, when you and I were kids, and that reflects as much about the time period in which they were speaking as it does about Christopher Columbus.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, we as a culture emphasized the glory of that trip across the Atlantic and the courage of Columbus and other explorers sailing into the unknown. And that makes sense – we were preparing to go to the moon! Neil Armstrong did his moonwalk in 1969. We needed to glorify explorers in the 60s.

We tell that story in much more complicated ways today, focusing as much on what was lost through colonization as what was gained. And that reflects our cultural priorities today.

Lisha: Yes, I’m sure that’s true, but funny, I don’t remember ever hearing about Matthew Henson, the great Arctic explorer mentioned in “HIStory,” who happens to be black.

Willa: That’s a good point. Some people, and some groups of people, were definitely much more celebrated than others, and still are.

Lisha: I can get pretty agitated thinking about this, because when choosing who and what to historicize, some things are glossed right over in order to celebrate certain select achievements. There are still so many blind spots and issues that remain unresolved – so many lessons from history yet to be learned.

Willa: I agree. It’s a lot easier to celebrate the exciting moments of history than to face and learn from the painful parts.

Lisha: I decided to make a list of all the historical events cited in the original version of “HIStory” and put them in chronological order to see if I could get a sense of why these events were chosen and how they might relate to the lyrical content of the song. Here’s what I came up with and I have to say, it’s quite a list for a six-and-a-half-minute song:

“Monday, March 26, 1827” The death of Beethoven
“February 11, 1847 Thomas Edison is born”
“January 18, 1858 Daniel Hale Williams is born”
“November 19, 1863 Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg address”
“April 9, 1865 The Civil War ends”
“December 30, 1865 Rudyard Kipling is born”
“August 8, 1866 Matthew Henson is born”
1877 Thomas Edison invents the phonograph
“October 28, 1886 The Statue of Liberty is dedicated”
“December 5, 1901 Walt Disney is born”
“December 7, 1903 The Wright Brothers first flight”
1906 The first promotional recording is made
“May 29, 1917 John F. Kennedy is born”
“January 31, 1919 Jackie Robinson is born”
“November 2, 1920 The first commercial radio station opens”
May 21, 1927 Charles Lindbergh’s first nonstop flight from NY to Paris
“September 1928 The discovery of penicillin”
“January 15, 1929 Martin Luther King is born”
“November 28, 1929 Berry Gordy is born”
“October 9, 1940 John Lennon is born”
October 13, 1940 Princess Elizabeth’s wartime speech to the children of England
“January 17, 1942 Muhammad Ali is born as Cassius Clay”
“October 14, 1947 Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier”
“July 17, 1955 Disneyland opens”
“December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks refuses to give her bus seat to a white passenger”
“July 17, 1959” The death of Billie Holiday
“April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight”
August 28, 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech
“February 9, 1964 The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan show”
February 25, 1964 Muhammad Ali defeats Sonny Liston, proclaiming “I am the greatest”
June 28, 1964 Malcolm X pledges to bring about freedom “by any means necessary”
June 8, 1968 Senator Edward Kennedy eulogizes his brother, Robert F. Kennedy
December 21, 1968 Apollo 8 manned space flight
“July 20, 1969 Astronauts first land on the moon”
1970 Michael Jackson interview: “I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it.”
April 8, 1974 Henry Aaron breaks home run record
“April 12, 1981 The first Shuttle flight”
“November 10, 1989 The Berlin Wall comes down”

Willa: Wow, you’re right, Lisha! That is quite a list! Thanks for putting this all together – that really took some work. And when you look at it this way, there are a number of intertwining threads that really jump out, aren’t there? Like the history of air travel – there’s the Wright brother’s first flight in 1903, Lindbergh’s first flight across the Atlantic in 1927, Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in 1947, Yuri Gagarin’s trip to outer space in 1961, the Apollo 8 manned space flight in 1968, the moon landing in 1969, and the first space shuttle flight in 1981. There are similar threads for sports, and the arts, and the fight for racial equality.

Lisha: Yes. I see a thread emerging that has to do with the history of recorded music starting with the death of Beethoven in 1827 (as in Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”), the invention of the phonograph recording in 1877, the first commercial radio station in 1920, the birth of Berry Gordy in 1929, the birth of John Lennon in 1940, a very fruitful musical dialogue between the U.S. and England represented by Elizabeth’s 1940 speech and the Beatles’ performance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. The next musical reference is a 1970 interview with Michael Jackson from right around the same time the Jackson 5 appeared on the Ed Sullivan show and began dominating the record charts with four #1 hits for Motown Records.

I’ve read many times that Michael Jackson was quite the history buff so I would imagine these dates were chosen with a great deal of care. I can definitely see that these threads relate to each other as well, having to do with erasing divisions and false boundaries. For example, look at all those milestones in aviation achievement. Air travel is a development that has required us to build systems based on international cooperation and organization. Anglo-American popular music and its global distribution systems are another development that continues to break down boundaries between people and nations. Medical discoveries such as penicillin and Daniel Hale Williams’ surgical advances benefit only a few unless we have distribution systems and ways of sharing information that make them available to more and more people. (By the way, Stevie Wonder’s “Black Man” also pays tribute to Williams.)

Willa: That’s true – a lot of these dates have to do with breaking barriers in some way. And as we mentioned last week, Thomas Edison’s invention of sound recording and transmission technologies helped break boundaries of time as well as space. Billie Holiday died before I was born – the date she died, July 17, 1959, is on your list – but because of audio-visual recordings, I can go to YouTube and hear her voice sing “Strange Fruit” and see the pain and anger in her face as she sings it, and feel moved by her performance.

We see that process of people “feeling” an experience across time and space in the Tony Moran video also. The spectator with the space goggles isn’t really at the dance club, but she experiences the sounds and visuals as if she were there. And in fact, the video allows us to experience her experience, but also see “through” it at the same time, if that makes sense.

Lisha: It really does.

Willa: We see her walking around inside the dance club and interacting with other dancers, but we also see that she’s actually sitting at home in her space lounger, waving her arms in an empty room. So even though she’s not physically at the dance club, she is immersed in the sensations of that time and place and she experiences it as if she were there – just as I experience Billie Holiday’s performance as if I were there more than a half century ago.

Lisha: Yes, it is as if she has stepped into the scene and is interacting with music that is not of her own time and place, just like you are able to do with “Strange Fruit.”

Willa: Exactly. And now Michael Jackson is gone, but those dancers from the future are surrounded by repeated images of him on the screens all around them, and the way he moves his body on screen is reenacted in how they move their bodies on the dance floor. And the woman with the space goggles is watching both the dancers and Michael Jackson, and we watch her and them as well as her experiencing them. There are layers of surveillance throughout this video, and we are the ultimate spectators – unless someone is watching us!

Lisha: I suppose in this day and age that is not only possible, but probable!

This brings me to something that I have wanted to ask you about Willa, that has to do with the word “history” and playing with third person perspective by using the spelling “HIStory” or HIS-story. The lyrics start with “He got kicked in the back / He say that he needed that…” I’m wondering exactly who does “he” refer to? So often we think about the HIStory album as a response to the false allegations Michael Jackson faced in 1993, but like just about everything else Michael Jackson, there is more than one way to look at it. In this case, it seems the events of “history” and “HIStory” are related to each other.

Have you seen this video on Thomas Mesereau and Susan Yu’s website? It’s another gem I found thanks to my pal at MaxJax:

The video was produced by MJJsource, Michael Jackson’s own website:

Willa: Wow, Lisha, I hadn’t seen either of these before. That’s awesome! And I agree with the video – June 13, 2005, was an important day in history.

Lisha: It certainly is to my way of thinking. I noticed that June 13th was compared with three other important dates: the birth of Dr. King, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the day Nelson Mandela was freed from prison.

Willa: Oh, that’s interesting. I think Michael Jackson was very aware of his place in history – aware that, because he was such an important cultural figure, for black America especially, everything he did had social implications beyond himself. So June 13, 2005, isn’t just a day when our judicial system – a system built on “a jury of one’s peers” in part to help protect citizens from overzealous prosecution – worked properly for one person. It’s also a day when the most successful entertainer of all time, an emblem of black achievement and pride, was publicly vindicated after being falsely accused and persecuted by the police and the press for more than a decade – though the press, of course, didn’t interpret the jury’s decision that way.

Lisha: Unfortunately for us all, they did not. When the jury acquitted Michael Jackson on all 14 charges, rejecting every single thing the prosecutors were alleging, in my mind that also means the media was found guilty for the careless way they covered the case. With few exceptions, the press utterly failed in their duty to take a more critical look at what the prosecutors were saying. No wonder it was so hard for them to accept the verdict.

Willa: I agree completely. What a travesty of justice in the media, on a day when justice was finally enacted in the courts.

But you asked about pronouns. I have to say, I am so intrigued by Michael Jackson’s use of pronouns. It’s so fascinating to me, and the use of third person pronouns at the beginning of “HIStory” ties in beautifully with this dual perspective of the individual and collective significance of June 13, 2005, and the events surrounding it. The first person pronoun “I” is specific to the person speaking – it signifies the speaker’s unique situation. But as you pointed out, Lisha, “HIStory” begins with lyrics that describe Michael Jackson’s emotional experience pretty accurately, but spoken in third person: “He got kicked in the back / He say that he needed that….”

To me, that conveys Michael Jackson’s specific situation while universalizing it at the same time. We could fill in that “he” slot with many different names from history, especially black public figures such as Jack Johnson, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Muhammad Ali, even Tiger Woods. As Michael Jackson himself said in a 2005 interview with Jesse Jackson, “there has been kind of a pattern among black luminaries in this country” – a pattern where they are “kicked in the back” at the height of their fame. Joie and I talked about that in a post a few months ago.

Lisha: Your post with Joie really had a big impact on me. So did Charles Thomson’s outstanding piece comparing Michael Jackson’s FBI files to the Jack Johnson and Chuck Berry cases. That was like an arrow in the head – it’s really shocking stuff.

Willa: It is shocking, very shocking. According to Charles, the Mann Act was explicitly conceived with racist intent – namely, to bring down Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion and a very flamboyant figure who did not conform to social expectations. As Charles told Joie and me in a post a while back, “The Mann Act is an inherently racist law which was widely used after its introduction to punish black men who consorted with white women.”

It was also used against Chuck Berry – he went to prison because of it. Carl Perkins said he “never saw a man so changed.” According to Perkins, “He had been an easygoing guy before, the kinda guy who’d jam in dressing rooms, sit and swap licks and jokes.” But afterwards “he was cold, real distant and bitter.”

And District Attorney Tom Sneddon encouraged the FBI to use it against Michael Jackson as well.

Lisha: Absolutely unbelievable.

Willa: It really is. And actually, this clash between racist politics and black celebrities brings up another point I wanted to mention about “HIStory” and Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson – the way they give entertainment and sports figures equal footing with political figures. I think this is so important, but easy to overlook.

In general, there are two competing visions of history. The traditional view is that history reflects the actions of a few bold men – people like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and George Washington. Then in contrast to this “top-down” view of history, there’s a “bottom-up” view which says that change starts with the people, and then successful leaders simply follow and act on the public mood. This is what Margaret Mead was talking about when she said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” (By the way, this puts Barack Obama in an interesting position since he is the President, but he began his career as a community organizer and successfully drew on his “bottom-up” grassroots organizing skills to get elected. So he belongs in both camps.)

Michael Jackson seems to have a very interesting take on all this that draws on both of these views but suggests a third approach – one that gives prominence to artists and other pop culture figures. In this view, the public mood brings about political change, but pop culture helps shape the public mood. For example, Abraham Lincoln was obviously an important figure in leading the U.S. through the Civil War and bringing about an end to slavery. But Harriet Beecher Stowe and her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, may have played an even larger role since they galvanized public opinion against slavery, and arguably sparked the Civil War. Lincoln himself credited Stowe’s influence the first time he met her, saying, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.”

So while political figures and events are important in changing the course of history, perhaps the real power lies with those who can lead the public to think or feel about important issues in a new way – in other words, artists. Michael Jackson suggests this repeatedly in his work.

Lisha: Well said – governments have always feared the power of art for this reason. Look at the album cover for HIStory and the promotional campaign to introduce that album. Many people didn’t know what to make of these giant statues of Michael Jackson. We don’t think twice about a statue of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or George Washington but a popular black artist daring to appropriate this imagery just blew people’s minds because it shattered the concepts attached to these images.

Willa: I think you’re exactly right. It’s assumed that statues are for one of those few bold political leaders, not for popular artists and celebrities.

Lisha: Well maybe Beethoven is ok, but not Michael Jackson! I’m thinking of the bust of Beethoven that sits on top of Schroeder’s piano in the Peanuts cartoons.

Willa: Oh, I love that bust of Beethoven on Schroeder’s piano! But he’s a classical composer, not a popular artist, and even Beethoven gets cut off at the neck!

Lisha: I think statues of the big four: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, are fairly common in the Western world and they are often depicted pretty much the same way we would see Alexander, Caesar, or Washington. Haydn is also included at times in this handful of god-like composers. But only a few of the great dead whites get this kind of treatment and it’s an interesting point that the most popular statue of a composer is the bust. I had a small set of them on my piano when I was a child!

Willa: No wonder you like Schroeder and his bust of Beethoven so much! And it’s true – there may be busts of the major composers, or revered authors like Shakespeare and Milton. But when have we ever seen an artist, especially a popular artist, depicted in the glorious ways political leaders are? Off the top of my head, I can only think of the HIStory statues, as you mentioned, or the portraits Michael Jackson commissioned for himself, like this one astride a horse a la King Phillip II:

mj as king philip IILisha: I adore that painting and all of the artwork Michael Jackson commissioned that places him in the European art tradition. Talk about a clever way of collapsing past, present, and future.

And don’t forget there’s the issue of the HIStory teaser, the promotional film that was inspired by Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda, Triumph of the Will. It is the perfect example of how well the Nazis understood the power of art and how they exploited Riefenstahl’s talent to their political advantage. Michael Jackson disrupted the power of that historic imagery by inserting himself into it, transforming it into a force for good, just as his hero Charlie Chaplin did in The Great Dictator.

Willa: Oh absolutely. It reflects a very sophisticated understanding of how the power of art intersects with the power of persuasion – rhetorical and emotional – and how that relates to political power. This is something Michael Jackson mentioned in interviews, like in his discussions of Hitler with Rabbi Boteach. And even early in his career, in a 1980 interview with Sylvia Chase, he said this about the effect his concerts have on his audience:

When they’re all holding hands and everybody’s rocking, and all colors of people are there, all races, it’s the most wonderful thing. Politicians can’t even do that.

We see this idea reflected throughout Tony Moran’s HIStory Lesson as well. For example, we see images of President Kennedy and civil rights marches, but we also see clips from the panther dance in Black or White, and They Don’t Care about Us, and Earth Song, and Scream. These videos have shaped history as well – particularly addressing racial prejudice and inequality – and they will continue to influence public opinion as new generations discover them.

Lisha: That’s exactly it!

Willa: And there’s something really subtle as well. About 2:55 minutes into the video we see the woman with the space goggles imaginatively walking around inside the dance club, and the DJ invites her to come up and join him.

Lisha: I noticed that too. From her position in virtual reality she has entered the scene as if she is in actual reality. So there is this blurring of the virtual (past memory and future desire) and the actual (present moment).

Willa: Oh, that’s an interesting way to interpret that, Lisha! It’s like the DJ is inviting her to cross the boundary between “virtual” reality and “actual” reality.

Then at 2:58 we see a clip of Michael Jackson looking very sexy in Don’t Stop til You Get Enough, which is important if you think about what the U.S. was like in 1979 when that video came out. He was a black sex symbol who appealed to women of all races. We tend to forget just how radical that was. This is kind of underscored by what’s happening in the video. We suddenly jump back to the woman (who is white) and the DJ (who is black), and at 3:00 we see him helping her into the DJ booth with him. At 3:09 we see Michael Jackson looking incredibly hot in In the Closet, one of his steamiest videos ever, and at 3:30 there’s a quick clip of Rock with You. And talk about sexy – you should hear Joie talk about that video. Oh my!

Lisha: I’m sure that’s pretty entertaining!

Willa: Oh, I promise, you will never look at that video the same way again!

Lisha: I fully intend to ask her about that! And I noticed one of the other females in that scene is not too happy to see the new girl catch the DJ’s eye.

Willa: Really? I missed that.

Lisha: It’s at 3:02, the girl with the third eye.

Willa: I’ll have to look for that. It’s true she’s getting pretty friendly with that DJ. In fact, by 3:35 she has her hands all over him. But at 3:36 we suddenly shift perspective and are reminded that she’s not really at the dance club. We see her in her empty room with her space goggles on, and she’s running her hands along an invisible person who isn’t really there. This is all happening in a virtual place – a place created by art, Michael Jackson’s art – and those images on screen are leading this young white woman to imaginatively experience desire for a black man. That is truly radical, or was in 1979. And to quote a very wise young man, “Politicians can’t even do that.” Politicians can’t change our feelings and shape our desires the way artists can.

Lisha: I also get the feeling that this is a time and place where you do not have to examine someone’s skin pigmentation to determine whether or not you like them. It’s like we’re imagining a space where humanity has gotten beyond all that insanity.

Willa: Oh, that’s a really good point, Lisha. So just as this young woman is experiencing an alternate reality through art, so are we – one where racial differences don’t matter when forming relationships.

There’s also one more subtle thing I wanted to point out. It’s a line in the lyrics of “HIStory” where he sings, “She say this face that you see / Is destined for history.” I think the shifts in how people perceive Michael Jackson’s face was perhaps the most important cultural phenomenon of the late 20th Century, radically changing how people think about and experience racial differences and other differences that divide us. In that sense, I think he had the most important face in history. What other face has caused such turmoil, or such deep-seated change in cultural perceptions and beliefs? So I definitely agree that “this face that you see / Is destined for history.”

Lisha: Once again, Willa, you have absolutely blown me away.

Willa: I know what you mean. He blows me away on a regular basis …

Lisha: You know, it’s one thing to spot some beautiful water lilies and paint them in pretty colors on a giant canvas (no offense to Monet fans), but it’s quite another to take a devastating illness like vitiligo and create an artistic statement that will have an impact upon generations to come. It gives new meaning to the words “Every day create your history.”

Willa: It really does.

So before we go, I also wanted to let everyone know about a new book that just came out this week, Otherness and Power: Michael Jackson and His Media Critics. It’s by Susan Woodward, a clinical social worker with training and experience as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. In her book, she analyzes some of the most virulent writing against Michael Jackson and reaches a fascinating conclusion – that it’s motivated at least in part by fear of his “extraordinary power.” Here’s what she says:

Two reasons have typically been given by Jackson fans for the negative media responses to Jackson: racism and deep discomfort with his “otherness,” meaning his supposed eccentricities and his fluid identity signifiers. While these reasons have seemed to me to be obviously true, I had the persistent feeling that there was something else going on. After studying hostile writings about Jackson I began to see that there was another factor to which journalists were reacting, with distrust or even fear: a perception of extraordinary power.

She goes on to say that “the power they feel … derived from not just his fame and wealth but also from his otherness,” which is ironic since he was harshly criticized for his otherness. I’m really intrigued by this – that while many critics treated his difference (his “eccentric oddities,” as he called them) with contempt and ridicule, Woodward suggests they also feared it as one source of his power. I’ve only had a chance to read the first few pages, but it sounds like a fascinating approach to a really complicated and important question – namely, why so many journalists, and others as well, reacted to Michael Jackson the way they did.

Lisha: That sounds incredible, Willa. I really look forward to reading it. Thanks so much for letting us know about it.

Willa: Yes, it’s definitely on my summer reading list. Well, thanks for joining me, Lisha. I always learn so much from you!

Lisha: Thank you, Willa. That was quite a HIStory lesson.

Important Dates in HIStory

Joie: Today, Willa and I are joined by our good friend, and frequent contributor, Lisha McDuff, and we’re talking about the title track of Michael’s HIStory album. More specifically, we’re talking about a certain aspect of that title track. Thanks for joining us again, Lisha!

Lisha: Thanks so much for having me!

Joie: Ok, ladies, here’s a question that I know we’ve all thought about many, many times, and I would be willing to bet that just about every Michael Jackson fan has pondered at least a dozen times while listening to this multi-layered song. What do all of those dates at the beginning and the ending of “HIStory” mean, and do they have some personal significance for Michael beyond their obvious significance to the rest of the world?

Willa: I think they have tremendous significance. For example, there are two dates set off by themselves at the beginning of the track – all the other dates come at the end. And as you pointed out, Lisha, when we first started kicking around the idea of doing a post on “HIStory,” those two have special significance.

Lisha: Exactly so. The first words spoken in the song are “Monday, March 26, 1827,” and “November 28, 1929.” Although it is never spelled out what these dates specifically reference, I find it interesting that these happen to be two important dates in music history: the death of Ludwig van Beethoven and the birth of Berry Gordy, Jr.

Willa: So do I. Putting those two dates together the way he did suggests Michael Jackson saw a connection or correlation between these two men. We don’t tend to think of them together, but Michael Jackson had tremendous admiration for both of them, and they both had a huge impact on music history. More specifically, they were both important transitional figures in the history of music.

I think most people would agree that Beethoven was one of the greatest classical composers, if not the greatest. But he also helped usher in the Romantic period in music. You know much more about this than I do, Lisha, but he helped bring about the shift from Classicism to Romanticism, right?

Lisha: That’s absolutely right. Beethoven seemed to have one foot in the Classical era and the other in the Romantic era of Western music at the same time. He is considered the bridge between these two periods.

Willa: And as the founder of Motown, Berry Gordy was also a transitional figure. He led the way in integrating “black” music into the “white” mainstream in a way that was extremely popular with both blacks and whites. And that changed the face of music in America and around the world.

Lisha: Berry Gordy essentially redefined pop by insisting it was just as black as it was white and this appealed to a very broad audience. Gordy’s impact is felt not only in American popular culture, but all over the world, as you said. He is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in all of recorded music.

I have to say, citing these dates at the top of the song is such an interesting choice, we could probably focus our entire discussion on those two dates alone!

Joie: I agree.

Willa: Me too.

Lisha: I also suspect these dates have been highlighted not only for what each of these men contributed, but also for how their contributions have been historicized.

There is no question that Beethoven is commonly thought of as one of the most important composers in all of music history, if not the most important. How we think about Beethoven is fundamental to our concept of what a composer is, what a musical work is, what intellectual property is, and what a musical genius is. The history of Western music in many ways revolves around the Beethoven paradigm and the Austro-German musical canon. It’s the Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms history of music we’ve all been taught in some form or another.

But scholars are increasingly challenging this. Does it really make any sense that musical genius could be isolated to specific time periods in Austria and Germany? And what exactly is musical genius anyway? The time has come to think a little more critically about it, and I’m guessing Michael Jackson thought quite a bit about this when he highlighted the death of Beethoven and the birth of Berry Gordy at the beginning of the song. I think we’ve all been cued to take Beethoven terribly seriously, but we usually don’t think about popular music or non-European composers in the same way.

Willa: I agree completely. In general, critics tend to maintain a strict division between “high art” composers like Beethoven and “popular” music producers like Berry Gordy, and it’s almost heresy to mention them in the same breath. But Michael Jackson repeatedly challenged that division between high art and popular art, and this is one more great example of that.

It’s also really interesting, Lisha, that you seem to see the reference to “Monday, March 26, 1827” not only in terms of Beethoven’s death, but also as representing the “death” of the canon. Is that right? In classical music, as well as other “high art” forms such as literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, or even relatively new forms like film, the canon tends to be dominated by dead white men, as the saying goes. So in that sense, by juxtaposing the date of Beethoven’s death and Berry Gordy’s birth, Michael Jackson is also suggesting the “death” of one way of thinking about music – which privileges a small group of men from Germany and Austria, as you said – and ushering in the “birth” of a new way of thinking about music.

Lisha: Yes, I believe that Michael Jackson is highlighting a new paradigm and inviting us to think about popular music and American musical achievement in a much more serious way. But, believe it or not, the idolization of the great “dead white men” in music history is a more recent phenomenon (historically speaking, that is – 19th and 20th century) that essentially revolves around our reverence for Beethoven. In many ways Beethoven’s death represents the birth, not the death, of the musical canon. So perhaps Jackson is suggesting that the death of the canon is best represented by the birth of Berry Gordy.

Willa: Oh, interesting!

Lisha: The whole idea of musical genius (commonly conceptualized as the solitary, autonomous, slightly mad composer, touched by the heavens, who remains true to his art by resisting political pressures or economic considerations) is more or less based on how we historicize Beethoven. Earlier composers, like Bach and Mozart, were employed by the church or the court, and their music was created primarily to satisfy the needs of their employers and to express their views and ideals.

But Beethoven challenged this and felt artists should be much more autonomous and free from any interference or worldly demands. As a result of his influence, the role of the composer was elevated and composers were ultimately given much more status, recognition, and control of their work. Musicians became very focused serving the composer’s vision and the great “musical work,” a concept that has been attributed to Beethoven.

It’s interesting that in the liner notes of “HIStory,” a credit is given for a sample taken from the children’s film Beethoven Lives Upstairs. To be honest, I have never found the sample in the track. I don’t know if I just keep missing it or if it was possibly omitted in a subsequent revision, but I’m interested in how this film relates to “HIStory.”

Willa: Well, the bells tolling in the background at the very beginning of the film remind me of the bells tolling in the background as Beethoven’s date of death and Berry Gordy’s date of birth are spoken in “HIStory.” Could that be it?

Lisha: Hmmm. In the beginning of the film I hear church bells ringing, and in “HIStory” I hear orchestral chimes. So, I don’t think they are the same instruments or the same sample. But now that you mention it, it is really interesting how similar the pacing of the bells and chimes are. That’s a very astute observation, Willa. I also noticed that the first words spoken in both the film and the song are “Monday, March 26, 1827.” Of all the dates mentioned in “HIStory,” I do believe this is the only one that also includes the day of the week (“Monday”). The rhythm and pacing of the voiceovers sounds pretty much identical to me. I’m getting the feeling that this film is a bigger inspiration for the track than I thought.

Watching the film, I was amazed by how precisely it reinforces the Beethoven paradigm and the myth of the composer as a god-like musical genius who can also be very peculiar, difficult, a bit mad, and terribly misunderstood. The film doesn’t miss a single cliché really. But it might be next to impossible to find a film on classical music that doesn’t historicize the composer this way. I’m thinking of Amadeus for example.

I don’t know if either of you have had a chance to see Motown The Musical, the new Broadway show written by Berry Gordy, but it’s a fabulous production that allows Gordy himself to historicize his own work. Far from expressing any desire to remain free of commercial, economic forces or other worldly demands, Gordy says that he envisioned Motown as a music company that would mimic the auto industry’s assembly line model of production. He recently explained this in a fascinating interview with the Chicago Sun-Times theatre critic, Hedy Weiss:

Willa: Wow, that really is very different from the Beethoven model, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not at all the solitary artist working obsessively alone on his magnum opus as you described, Lisha. In fact, it’s almost the total opposite.

You know, what this reminds me of is Andy Warhol, another artist who incorporated assembly-line production methods to create art, especially his screenprints – art that also questioned the divide between high art and commercial art, as we talked about in a post last fall.

Lisha: It is fascinating to me that these artists who lived and worked in a fiercely capitalistic society found themselves embracing this model, either as a critique or an expression of their own time, place, and life conditions. Remember that the songwriter/producer/arranger team behind the early Jackson 5 hits was Berry Gordy, Freddie Perren, Fonce Mizell, and Deke Richards and they were all credited for their work as simply The Corporation.

Willa: Oh, that’s right! And Andy Warhol called his studio The Factory. That’s really interesting that what Berry Gordy was doing in music, Andy Warhol was paralleling in visual art.

But getting back to the differences between the Beethoven and Berry Gordy approach – I’m trying to think where to position Michael Jackson in terms of these two models, and as with so many things, he doesn’t seem to belong strictly in either camp. As he mentioned many times in interviews, the inspiration and ideas for his songs often came to him when he was alone with his tape recorder. But when it came time to develop his ideas into songs for an album, he followed a much more collaborative approach to music production – more like the Berry Gordy model.

Lisha: Yes, that’s true, but he often worked in the conception stage with other musicians and songwriters as well. It is a highly collaborative approach that reimagines the role of the composer. The genre of rock takes quite a different approach and places a very high value on performers who author their own music, more like the Beethoven paradigm. But in the pop/Motown model (also in the Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building tradition), the songwriter primarily serves the performer and producer’s needs. In this model, I would say it is actually the performer whose importance is elevated.

However, Michael Jackson could be in a league of his own due to the fact he was so highly accomplished as a performer, singer, dancer, producer, songwriter, arranger, lyricist, musician, choreographer, film director, stage director, lighting and costume designer, businessman and marketing genius … I could keep going, but you get the idea. Of course David Bowie, Madonna, and Prince are examples of other multi-talented artists who also worked this way. But, when you look at how deeply Jackson understood all these disciplines and the way he orchestrated all these elements to work together, it does suggests he was the solitary genius behind a truly impressive body of work.

Willa: I would agree with that!

Lisha: It’s also true Jackson became very wealthy and powerful early in life so he was freed from subsistence needs or worries that his art would not be funded. Yet, he often seemed to measure his success as an artist in terms of units sold. My guess is that he believed his impact and reach were directly related to strong sales and aggressive commercialism.

Joie: Wow, you guys! You know, the two of you together are really fascinating to listen to sometimes. Have I ever told you that? This is already a completely engrossing conversation and we just got started!

Willa, I love what you said about it being the “death” of a very old and tired way of thinking about music – and truly great music – which privileges a small group of dead white men. And, as Lisha put so well, “Does it really make any sense that musical genius could be isolated to specific time periods in Germany and Austria?” So, I think we’re all in agreement that Michael did in fact have some very deliberate reasons for opening the song with these two dates.

Now I’m interested to know about the other dates at the end of the song. And maybe it’s a little weird that we’re focusing only on those dates in this conversation instead of talking about the lyrics or the actual song itself, but to me the dates have always been the most intriguing aspect of this song. Every time I listen to it, I always turn up the volume at the end so that I can try and decipher another date or two. It can become a very obsessive exercise. Have either of you ever counted them? Do we know how many dates there are? Willa, you started an actual list of all those dates, didn’t you?

Willa: Yes I did, but it’s pretty rough, with big gaps in some of them – and I’m sure I’m missing others altogether. I have a really hard time hearing some of them.

Joie: Yes, so do I.

Lisha: I’ll admit I really had a hard time with this, too. But in struggling with it, I think I discovered a trick for listening to all those dates. With a little practice and a good set of headphones, it’s possible to hear the entire segment clearly without missing any of the dates mentioned.

The spoken dates at the end of the song have been organized into four different threads that are staggered and layered on top of each other. The secret to hearing them all is to concentrate only on one thread at a time without getting distracted by competing sounds. It really helps to focus on the location of the sound as well. For example, the first thread begins in the top portion of the sound field, slightly to the right of center. It starts just after the final chord of the song (5:41) and sounds like:

February 11, 1847 Thomas Edison is born
December 30, 1865 Rudyard Kipling is born
December 7, 1903 The Wright Brothers first flight
January 15, 1929 Martin Luther King is born
October 14, 1947 Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier
February 9, 1964 The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan show
November 10, 1989 The Berlin Wall comes down

Now go back (5:42) and try to isolate the second thread, which is located in the left channel of your headphones:

January 18, 1858 Daniel Hale Williams is born
August 8, 1866 Matthew Henson is born
May 29, 1917 John F. Kennedy is born
September 1928 The discovery of penicillin
January 17, 1942 Muhammad Ali is born as Cassius Clay
April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight
April 12, 1981 The first Shuttle flight

The third thread is located on the right (5:43):

November 19, 1863 Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg address
December 5, 1901 Walt Disney is born
November 2, 1920 The first commercial radio station opens
October 9, 1940 John Lennon is born
July 17, 1955 Disneyland opens
July 20, 1969 Astronauts first land on the moon

Finally, listen once again to the top portion of the soundfield, but this time it is slightly to the left of center (5:44). You should hear:

April 9, 1865 The Civil War ends
October 28, 1886 The Statue of Liberty is dedicated
January 31, 1919 Jackie Robinson is born
November 28, 1929 Berry Gordy is born
December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks refuses to give her bus seat to a white passenger

Joie: Oh. My. Gosh. You have just cracked this code wide open! I have never been able to hear all of that in its entirety before, but now that I’ve gone back and listened with your notes in front of me, it’s all right there – like a long unsolvable puzzle has just been made crystal clear! That is amazing! I am thoroughly impressed. Both with your listening skills, and with your earphones!

Willa: Me too! I bow before you, Lisha. I can tell you have those incredible musician’s ears – your list is way better than mine!

Lisha: You guys are too funny! But it is thanks to Bruce Swedien’s brilliant engineering work that this segment is so beautifully organized.

Willa: That’s true, but still … some of these I hadn’t heard at all, like “the discovery of penicillin” and “Disneyland opens.” And there’s the second mention of Berry Gordy’s birthday. I didn’t realize that date was spoken twice, at the beginning and ending of “HIStory.” That tells me that, to Michael Jackson, this was a very significant date.

Lisha: Very significant indeed. I believe the importance of Gordy’s musical contribution is reinforced throughout the song. Probably the biggest difference between the Beethoven and Motown paradigm is that one compositional form is written while the other is based on recorded music. Popular music takes such a different approach to music that musicologists are having to rethink how to analyze, interpret, and historicize it. This new approach is often referred to as the “new musicology,” and it is a radically interdisciplinary field of research.

In “HIStory,” I believe Michael Jackson is pointing towards this shift between written and recorded music with those two dates at the top of the song and the track illustrates this quite well musically. It includes music from the classical and instrumental band repertoire, but there is also a lot of studio and technical wizardry involved. There are also two very important events in recording history that have been included towards the end of the track (6:10). The first of these is a historical clip of the first promotional recording ever made in 1906:

I am the Edison phonograph, created by the great wizard of the New World to delight those who would have melody or be amused.

Layered over this is a second clip of Thomas Edison himself, recalling the first words he spoke to create the world’s first phonograph recording in 1877:

Mary had a little lamb
It’s fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go

Believe it or not, Edison made his first recording in 1877, just 50 years after the death of Beethoven.

Willa: Seriously? Edison’s first phonograph recording was only 50 years after Beethoven? I never would have guessed that. It’s funny how our perceptions of time can telescope in and out. Like I was reading something the other day about how the Beatles “invasion” of America 50 years ago is actually closer in time to World War I than it is to us today. That stunned me.

Lisha: It’s really disorienting, isn’t it? Somehow I thought there were bigger gaps between these events as well.

Willa: Oh I know, and I think Edison and his phonograph have a lot to do with that. What I mean is that I think video and sound recordings compress our perceptions of history. We can “see” the Beatles performing on Ed Sullivan and experience it for ourselves, so it feels close in time to us. Beethoven lived before that recording technology was invented, so we will never experience him in the same way – never hear his actual voice, never see his body move. So in that sense he feels “prehistoric” to us, meaning he existed before recorded history – before history could be captured in sound and video recordings.

Lisha: Interesting, and I agree completely. Recordings keep these events much closer in our memories.

Willa: Exactly. The Beatles played on Ed Sullivan 50 years ago, but for me they also played there yesterday, which is the last time I experienced that performance. I saw them on Ed Sullivan just yesterday. Mentally I know it happened 50 years ago, but emotionally it feels really familiar to me, even though I was too young to experience when it originally happened.

So that’s another reason Edison and his phonograph would be important in a song about “history.” They’ve profoundly changed how we perceive and experience history.

Lisha: Great point as always, Willa.

Willa: Thanks, but I’m sorry, Lisha. I interrupted you in mid thought. You were talking about the huge shift from written music to recorded music, and how you think “HIStory” not only suggests that shift but also kind of reenacts it in how the song is structured, with passages of classical music at the beginning and audio clips of Edison and his phonograph at the end. That is such a fascinating idea, especially when you think of the huge impact audio recording has had on music – not only on how it’s distributed, but how it’s conceptualized and created. I’d really like to get back to that, if we could.

Michael Jackson, especially, used music technology as a “compositional tool,” as you pointed out in some fascinating comments to a post Joie and I did a long time ago with Joe Vogel and Charles Thomson. As you said in one comment under your pen name, Ultravioletrae,

I have no doubt if Jackson needed music notation he would have used it, but his own method of recording on multi tracks was far more efficient and desirable than pencil and paper or music notation software. Reading and writing in musical notation would have been a tremendous liability for a musician like him. As an example, he worked with complex, subtle rhythms that can’t be accurately notated, only approximated.

Before I began talking with you about all this, I tended to think of recording music as part of the distribution process – something musicians did to capture their music in a format where it could be shared with others. But you’ve helped me see that recording has become far more than that. It’s now an integral part of composing and creating music, but in a very different way than the Beethoven model.

Lisha: The whole idea of the great “musical work” as an exclusively written compositional form is most likely a direct result of the Beethoven myth and how we have elevated the status of (dead, white, male) composers. It’s hard to let go of this image of the composer because it has become so ingrained in the culture. But music is an aural phenomenon, so it makes an awful lot of sense to use the technology we have available to store musical information in an aural format.

When recorded music first began, the goal was to simply replicate a live performance as accurately and realistically as possible. But there were a couple of game-changing events that essentially changed all that. The first was guitarist Les Paul’s innovations in multi-track recordings, which allowed Paul to layer sound in a very creative and imaginative ways. As Bruce Swedien once told Sound On Sound’s Richard Buskin:

The first time I really got excited about pop music was when I discovered that it was possible to use my imagination. That had come with a record that I myself didn’t work on, Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “How High the Moon.” Up to that point the goal of music recording had been to capture an unaltered acoustic event, reproducing the music of big bands as if you were in the best seat in the house. It left no room for imagination, but when I heard “How High the Moon,” which did not have one natural sound in it, I thought, “Damn, there’s hope!”

Think about the imaginative way all those dates in “HIStory” are staggered and layered over each other. That is a great example of Michael Jackson and Bruce Swedien’s imaginative use of the recording studio as a compositional format, made possible by Les Paul’s inventive approach to recording.

Another milestone in recording history happened in 1967 when the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album Rolling Stone named “the greatest album of all time.” After retiring from touring in 1966, the Beatles turned their attention to the recording studio and racked up an unheard of 700 hours in the studio to make Sgt. Pepper. The album pushed the limits of multi-tracking and the recording technology so far that the recording process itself came to be recognized as a compositional format. With no plans to return to the stage, the recording itself became the “musical work.” Any attempt to perform it live would be understood as a replica of the recording, a 180-degree flip from the original use of recording technology.

“HIStory” includes the written music paradigm with an orchestral performance of “The Great Gate of Kiev” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, followed by several examples of American military-style band music. In these examples, musicians perform from printed music and attempt to recreate the composer’s intentions down to the most minute detail. The way this music was conceived, created, and performed revolves around the concept of the written “musical work,” which has been set in stone through the printed score.

But in recorded music, the role of the composer is reconceived when the “musical work” is a sound recording that also contains significant contributions from the performers, producers, and engineers.

Willa: That’s fascinating, Lisha, and it really is a very different way of thinking about a piece of music, isn’t it? In the classical model, you have the ideal vision of the piece as imagined by the composer and “set in stone” in his manuscript, as you said, and the goal of everyone after that is to try to stay true to that ideal.

The new model is not only more collaborative, as you said, but also much more fluid – perhaps too fluid, as we’ve seen with all the remixes lately – where songs are kind of a perpetual work in progress. I think it was Brad Sundberg who said that Michael Jackson would sometimes continue to make small modifications to his songs even after an album had been released, so one Dangerous album might have a slightly different version of “Black or White” than another one that came out just a few months earlier. And even songs where there is a fairly “definitive” version, like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” or “Billie Jean,” are sampled and integrated into new songs by other artists, so we can hear snippets or song shadows of them on the radio in different settings, leading us to think about them in new ways.

In other words, what I’m trying to get at is that in the new model, songs are not “set in stone” at all – they are constantly shape shifting.

Lisha: Yes, that’s definitely true, and this has created a lot of confusion in the area of intellectual property and determining who has the right to profit from a recording. But when you think about how much more sound information is contained in a musical recording as opposed to a sheet of printed music, in many ways the opposite is true. For example, I know far more about what Michael Jackson wanted “Billie Jean” to sound like than I know about what Beethoven wanted his music to sound like.

Willa: Well, that’s true, Lisha! Interesting – so music is more fixed in some ways, and more fluid in others.

Lisha: I also think classical music is not as fixed as most of us imagine. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition which is featured at the beginning of “HIStory,” is a piece of music that has been reorchestrated numerous times. The version we hear on the recording is actually an arrangement or “remix” by Maurice Ravel! And over the years, musicians change their thinking about how composers like Beethoven should be performed, and debate the merits of many different performances.

But no one has to guess what Michael Jackson wanted to hear – we have a definitive record of it. And what would be the point in trying to replicate his recordings anyway? The record company is happy to manufacture as many copies as anyone would like to buy.

Willa: That’s certainly true. So this paradigm shift in how music is composed – from a model of a lone composer writing notes on paper to a very different model of a team of musicians and sound engineers working in a studio – that shift was facilitated by new technology, like Edison’s phonograph. But also by new production models, like Berry Gordy developed at Motown and Michael Jackson experienced from a young age. So if we look at “HIStory” the way you’re suggesting, Lisha, it makes perfect sense that Michael Jackson would place Beethoven, Edison, and Gordy in such prominent positions.

Lisha: It makes a lot of sense. Especially because the old paradigm currently still exists along with the new. It really hasn’t gone anywhere yet, though we see more and more signs of its decay. As far as I can tell, there is always a period of overlap between musical eras. It’s not that easy to define when one ends and the next one begins. I think it’s important to think about how we have historicized the past and how we will historicize our present moment in the future. After all, the concept of the album is HIStory: Past, Present and Future. I think  Jackson could be advocating that as we historicize great music in the future, we don’t fall into the trap of preferencing “dead white men.” I concur!

Joie: Wow, you know, I’ve never thought about “HIStory” in terms of music before, if that makes any sense. I’ve always just thought about all those dates, and the enormity and importance of the game-changing, history-making events they represent.

But what you’re saying, Lisha, is that Michael actually used the song itself not only to highlight those history-making events, but also to make us aware of this great shift from the Classical music paradigm to the “new musicology,” as it were. And what better way of doing that than by pointing repeatedly to Berry Gordy, a man who took that new musicology and pretty much created a whole new genre and style of music. Ask almost anyone around the world and they can probably tell you what the Motown Sound is and who created it.

Willa: That’s true, Joie, and he created an appreciation for “black music” around the world as well, and then helped break it out of that fairly segregated category, so black music and black artists became much more integrated into popular music generally.

And of course, we see that in Michael Jackson as well. He won one Grammy for Off the Wall: Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. R&B traditionally means “black music,” so he basically won an award for best “black music.” He was extremely upset about that and vowed his next album wouldn’t be ghettoized like that … and of course, his next album swept the Grammys. Thriller didn’t just win Best Album of the Year, it won six other Grammys as well. And it’s the biggest-selling album of all time, around the world, to many different races of people.

That leads into another important aspect of “HIStory” – that it also pays tribute to black artists, politicians, sports heroes, and other figures and shows the huge impact they’ve had on history – not just black history but human history. The roll call of important dates includes the birthdays of Martin Luther King, Daniel Hale Williams and Matthew Henson (I didn’t know who they were – I had to look them up), Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, as well as the day “Rosa Parks refuses to give her bus seat to a white passenger.” And the audio clips that form the sound “collages,” as you called them, Lisha, commemorate Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record, Muhammad Ali proclaiming he is “the greatest of all time,” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Often black pioneers and historical events are relegated to “black history,” but Michael Jackson placed them front and center in his list of important dates, demonstrating that he sees them as a very important part of our history – the shared history of all of us. Anyone who thinks Michael Jackson forgot his roots or didn’t feel pride in his race needs to pay closer attention to “HIStory.”

Joie: Oh, don’t even go there, Willa! That is a whole other conversation that we could, and probably should, have someday. But you’re absolutely right in saying it.

Well, Willa and I want to thank Lisha again for joining us today. It’s always an interesting and thought-provoking conversation when you’re here! We also want to encourage readers to check out Lisha’s lyrics and sound collages in the Lyrics Library.

¡Porque Soy Malo, Soy Malo!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa:  Really?  I didn’t know that.

Joie:  Neither did I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa:  That’s a good point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Rewind 2013, Week 4: Anything for Money

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on October 31, 2012. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Anything for Money

Joie: So, Willa, I’m sure you heard the news about the big Jackson family feud a couple of months ago. Unfortunately it was pretty difficult to avoid; every day it seemed there was a new wrinkle and you couldn’t really get away from it. And it just seemed to get uglier and uglier with each passing day as it became clear that the motivating factor was money. Anger and resentment over the terms of Michael Jackson’s will. And, oddly enough, all that has me thinking about the song “Money,” from the HIStory album.

He never made a short film for this particular song and I’ve always thought it’s such a shame because I would have loved to have seen what he could have come up with for it. It’s one of those songs that really makes you think. One that makes you grab the liner notes and hunker down until you’ve deciphered every word he’s saying. And it has some really fascinating lyrics.

Willa: Wow, Joie! I can’t even believe you’re going there. That’s not just dancing with elephants – more like dancing with cobras. To be honest, I tried not to get caught up in it but it’s hard not to peek sometimes, and sorting out all those conflicting rumors and accusations and hard feelings just seems like negotiating a snake pit to me. It’s complicated even more by the fact that there are so many different sides to it and it’s all so public, and it was plenty complicated enough to begin with.

Anyway, I’m not sure if the main motivation is money or creative control. I tend to think it’s more about wanting to participate in creative decisions – but of course, his songs and his films and his name are all worth a lot of money, so even that’s not a clear distinction. It just seems really, really complicated to me, and I’m very sorry everything became so heated and so public, and people got their feelings hurt.

But I’d love to talk about “Money,” and you’re right – it is fascinating.

Joie: Well, I wasn’t trying to step into a snake pit! And I don’t want to ‘go there,’ as you put it, because you’re right. It is like dancing with cobras, and ultimately, it’s really none of our business anyway.

But it does bring to mind that particular song for me and that’s what I want to focus on.

Willa: I’d love to. And I didn’t mean to be dramatic. I just get really uncomfortable talking about artists’ private lives, though it’s kind of hard to avoid with Michael Jackson because public and private get so tangled up sometimes. Like, I really don’t think we can understand his later work if we don’t know what happened in 1993, but some of that is intensely personal. So how much should be considered public, and how much private? It’s really hard to figure out where to draw that line sometimes. And it’s hard to talk about “Money” without mentioning 1993 also.

Joie: I agree with you. You can’t talk about “Money” without mentioning the events of 1993. Those allegations are at the heart of the song, I think. “Money” was included on the HIStory album, which was released in 1995, just two years after the extortion attempt and the subsequent allegations that ultimately changed his life. In fact, so many of the songs on that album do cover the events of 1993 because he actually used that album to vent his frustrations about the way he was treated – by Evan Chandler, by the police, by the public and by the media. I believe it’s the most personal, honest album in his entire catalog.

Willa: I agree – it’s very personal – but in a way that universalizes his emotions. For example, you can feel his anger on “They Don’t Care about Us,” but it draws on the biased police treatment he’s experienced and then extends that anger beyond his own experiences, so it becomes a commentary on many types of injustice. So it feels personal, but with larger social implications as well.

And even though there are some angry, painful songs on this album – and rightfully so considering the experiences he’d been through – there are also some exquisitely beautiful songs, like “Stranger in Moscow,” “Earth Song,” “You Are Not Alone,” and “Smile.” So it seems like he was in a really interesting place when he put the HIStory album together.

Joie: You know, he was in an interesting place. He had just lived through one of the most difficult periods of his life, his career was in jeopardy, and he had fallen in love and just gotten married. That’s quite a jumble of emotions for anyone to go through in such a short period of time. And he was doing it all in the public eye on top of that so, he had both the media and the public perception to deal with as well. So, you’re right. HIStory is a complex album for all of those reasons. In fact, in his book, Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson, Joe Vogel describes it this way:

“HIStory is Michael Jackson’s most personal album. From the impassioned rage of “Scream” to the pained vulnerability of “Childhood,” the record was, in Jackson’s words, ‘a musical book.’ It encompassed all the turbulent emotions and struggles of the previous few years: it was his journal, his canvas, his rebuttal.”

Willa: Absolutely, and we can really see that in “Money.” It’s a very strong “rebuttal,” as Joe says, to the 1993 accusations. In fact, it’s a counter-accusation, saying in no uncertain terms that he is innocent and those accusing him – meaning Evan Chandler and Blanca Francia and Tom Sneddon, as well as the tabloids and mainstream press who perpetuated and magnified the hysteria – are the ones who are guilty. And their crimes are “lust, gluttony, and greed.”

Joie: I agree with you completely, Willa. The song opens with an ominous, almost sinister chant from Michael proclaiming all the horrifying things that people will do for money: “Lie for it / Spy for it / Kill for it / Die for it.” And he spits the words out as if the thought completely disgusts him. Then he goes on to say,

So you call it trust
But I say it’s just
In the devil’s game
Of greed and lust
 
They don’t care
They’d do me for the money
They don’t care
They use me for the money

I think it would pretty simplistic of us to believe that this song is merely an unflattering critique of greed and materialism. In fact, I think it’s fairly clear from these opening lines who ‘they’ are and how he feels about them.

Willa: I agree, it’s a really strong indictment. But then he makes that classic Michael Jackson move we see in him so often where he suddenly flips the narrative, adopts the persona of those he’s critiquing, and begins speaking from their point of view:

I’ll never betray or deceive you my friend but
If you show me the cash
Then I will take it
If you tell me to cry
Then I will fake it
If you give me a hand
Then I will shake it
You will do anything for money

And then he breaks to the chorus, which pushes this reversal even further:

Anything (anything)
Anything for money
I’d lie for you
Would die for you
Even sell my soul to the devil

So suddenly he’s speaking from their perspective, even going so far as to say he would “sell my soul to the devil.” And the “you” he’s talking to seems to be money itself. If you didn’t know who the “you” was, you might think this was a love song, and these lines were a vow a man was pledging to his lover: I’d do anything for you, “I’d lie for you,” “die for you.”

But this is no love song. Just the opposite. He goes on to suggest that romance can’t compete with greed – so even if a woman were involved, she’d be sold out soon enough if the price were right:

You don’t care
You’d do her for the money
Say it’s fair
You’d sue her for the money

So the beloved he’s swearing loyalty to isn’t a woman but Money itself, and the effect of that personification is really chilling.

Joie: It is chilling. It’s actually a very frightening song if you just sit and really listen to it. The lyrics are not for the fainthearted, and his eerie delivery of those lyrics is somewhat disquieting. And once again, without paying at least a little attention to the details of the events of 1993, I don’t believe one can fully appreciate the message of this song. And unfortunately, that message is that many people worship money and value it above all else.

In the second verse, he makes this accusation plain, asking where our loyalties and priorities are:

Insurance?
Where do your loyalties lie?
Is that your alibi?
I don’t think so

Willa: Oh, that is such an important verse, Joie, and I agree, it clearly connects with the events of 1993. Insurance companies don’t protect their profits by upholding truth and justice, but by minimizing risk – and letting the Chandler civil case go to trial would have been a huge risk for them, financially. Michael Jackson wanted to fight, but his insurance company wanted him to settle, and so did his own lawyers because it’s always much safer to settle than go to court. So he wasn’t just fighting Evan Chandler but the people on his own team, and you can feel his outrage about that throughout this song, especially in a few pointed references, like that one, Joie.

Joie: I agree completely. And it was a pretty bold move for him to put that in a song, I thought. And then he goes on to say this:

Want your pot of gold?
Need the Midas touch?
Bet you’d sell your soul
‘Cause your God is such
 
You don’t care
You kill for the money
Do or dare
The thrill for the money

I think he’s clearly accusing the masses of worshiping money here, and near the end of the song, he begins a chant of “money makes the world go around” that punctuates his point.

Willa: I don’t know, Joie. I’m not sure he’s accusing all of us of worshiping money. I mean, there are some places where he definitely implies that, like the beginning of the final verse:

You say you wouldn’t do it
For all the money in the world?
I don’t think so
If you show me the man
Then I will sell him

He’s implying pretty strongly here that everyone has a price – “If you show me the man / Then I will sell him” – and no one is exempt from that. So I see what you’re saying, Joie, and I definitely think this song has implications for all of us. But the “you” in this song – the person or thing he’s addressing – is very interesting and complicated, and shifts around constantly.

Joie: It is complicated. In fact, I think it may be one of his most complicated songs because, as you said, the “you” does constantly shift. In one voice, he’s clearly pointing his finger and saying “you would do anything for money.” But in the next breath he’s taken on the persona of the “you” and saying he’d “even sell my soul to the devil.” And you know, I believe that ambiguity is exactly what he was going for here. He wanted us to question the “you” in this song. Because questioning the “you” also makes us question what our own feelings and thoughts about money are. Would we do “anything for money” as the chorus states? And does money make the world go around? I believe Michael was trying to prompt us to ask ourselves these hard questions.

Willa: Wow, that’s a really interesting take on that, Joie. I like that interpretation. So it’s like he’s adopting multiple personas so we as an audience have to look at it from all those different points of view and to some degree adopt those subject positions as well, and some of those subject positions aren’t very comfortable. Like, if we sing along with the car stereo – which I tend to do a lot – we find ourselves singing the words, “Anything for money / I’d lie for you / Would die for you / Even sell my soul to the devil,” and what does it feel like to sing that? What happens mentally and emotionally when we sing those lyrics?

Joie: Oh, my God, such good questions, Willa. What does it feel like when we sing those lyrics? I personally wouldn’t know because that line bothers me on a spiritual level. And, as a result, I have never sung those words before. Whenever I’m listening to this song and I’m singing along, I am very aware of that line and usually I end up replacing the word “my” with “your” when I’m singing along to this one. If I don’t do that, then I just avoid singing that line completely. And it’s really interesting to me that I do that, but I just always have.

Willa: That is interesting, Joie, and I think it underscores just how much this song challenges us to question our own actions and values – to the point of making us pretty uncomfortable in some places. I do sing along, but I’m very aware of that line too, and it always pulls me up short.

So it sounds like we both have a powerful reaction to this song, and I think that was intentional – I think he wanted to shake us up and force us to take a hard look at ourselves. This song puts us in some really weird subject positions where we have to ask ourselves a lot of hard questions, as you say. Like “If you show me the cash / Then I will take it.” Every time I sing that out loud I wonder, is that true? Would I? Would I take “the cash” if someone offered it to me? And under what circumstances?

Joie: I know what you mean, Willa. I have the same thought process whenever I listen to this song too. And I think you’re right, that was intentional. And it just proves to me, once again, how intentional he always was in his art and how brilliant he was.

Willa: Oh, he was breathtakingly brilliant – and courageous as well, with that distinctive courage of a true artist. For one thing, he didn’t always try to please his audience. Sometimes he really shook us up and challenged us and made us uncomfortable, like he does in “Money” or “Little Susie” or the You Rock My World video. But that discomfort is never gratuitous. When we take a closer look, we find it serves an important artistic function and often leads us to see ourselves and our world a little differently.

Anything For Money

Joie:  So, Willa, I’m sure you heard the news about the big Jackson family feud a couple of months ago. Unfortunately it was pretty difficult to avoid; every day it seemed there was a new wrinkle and you couldn’t really get away from it. And it just seemed to get uglier and uglier with each passing day as it became clear that the motivating factor was money. Anger and resentment over the terms of Michael Jackson’s will. And, oddly enough, all that has me thinking about the song “Money,” from the HIStory album.

He never made a short film for this particular song and I’ve always thought it’s such a shame because I would have loved to have seen what he could have come up with for it. It’s one of those songs that really makes you think. One that makes you grab the liner notes and hunker down until you’ve deciphered every word he’s saying. And it has some really fascinating lyrics.

Willa:  Wow, Joie!  I can’t even believe you’re going there. That’s not just dancing with elephants – more like dancing with cobras. To be honest, I tried not to get caught up in it but it’s hard not to peek sometimes, and sorting out all those conflicting rumors and accusations and hard feelings just seems like negotiating a snake pit to me. It’s complicated even more by the fact that there are so many different sides to it and it’s all so public, and it was plenty complicated enough to begin with.

Anyway, I’m not sure if the main motivation is money or creative control. I tend to think it’s more about wanting to participate in creative decisions – but of course, his songs and his films and his name are all worth a lot of money, so even that’s not a clear distinction. It just seems really, really complicated to me, and I’m very sorry everything became so heated and so public, and people got their feelings hurt.

But I’d love to talk about “Money,” and you’re right – it is fascinating.

Joie:  Well, I wasn’t trying to step into a snake pit! And I don’t want to ‘go there,’ as you put it, because you’re right. It is like dancing with cobras, and ultimately, it’s really none of our business anyway.

But it does bring to mind that particular song for me and that’s what I want to focus on.

Willa:  I’d love to. And I didn’t mean to be dramatic. I just get really uncomfortable talking about artists’ private lives, though it’s kind of hard to avoid with Michael Jackson because public and private get so tangled up sometimes. Like, I really don’t think we can understand his later work if we don’t know what happened in 1993, but some of that is intensely personal. So how much should be considered public, and how much private? It’s really hard to figure out where to draw that line sometimes. And it’s hard to talk about “Money” without mentioning 1993 also.

Joie:  I agree with you. You can’t talk about “Money” without mentioning the events of 1993. Those allegations are at the heart of the song, I think. “Money” was included on the HIStory album, which was released in 1995, just two years after the extortion attempt and the subsequent allegations that ultimately changed his life. In fact, so many of the songs on that album do cover the events of 1993 because he actually used that album to vent his frustrations about the way he was treated – by Evan Chandler, by the police, by the public and by the media. I believe it’s the most personal, honest album in his entire catalog.

Willa:  I agree – it’s very personal – but in a way that universalizes his emotions. For example, you can feel his anger on “They Don’t Care about Us,” but it draws on the biased police treatment he’s experienced and then extends that anger beyond his own experiences, so it becomes a commentary on many types of injustice. So it feels personal, but with larger social implications as well.

And even though there are some angry, painful songs on this album – and rightfully so considering the experiences he’d been through – there are also some exquisitely beautiful songs, like “Stranger in Moscow,” “Earth Song,” “You Are Not Alone,” and “Smile.” So it seems like he was in a really interesting place when he put the HIStory album together.

Joie:  You know, he was in an interesting place. He had just lived through one of the most difficult periods of his life, his career was in jeopardy, and he had fallen in love and just gotten married. That’s quite a jumble of emotions for anyone to go through in such a short period of time. And he was doing it all in the public eye on top of that so, he had both the media and the public perception to deal with as well. So, you’re right. HIStory is a complex album for all of those reasons. In fact, in his book, Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson, Joe Vogel describes it this way:

“HIStory is Michael Jackson’s most personal album. From the impassioned rage of “Scream” to the pained vulnerability of “Childhood,” the record was, in Jackson’s words, ‘a musical book.’ It encompassed all the turbulent emotions and struggles of the previous few years: it was his journal, his canvas, his rebuttal.”

Willa:  Absolutely, and we can really see that in “Money.” It’s a very strong “rebuttal,” as Joe says, to the 1993 accusations. In fact, it’s a counter-accusation, saying in no uncertain terms that he is innocent and those accusing him – meaning Evan Chandler and Blanca Francia and Tom Sneddon, as well as the tabloids and mainstream press who perpetuated and magnified the hysteria – are the ones who are guilty. And their crimes are “lust, gluttony, and greed.”

Joie:  I agree with you completely, Willa. The song opens with an ominous, almost sinister chant from Michael proclaiming all the horrifying things that people will do for money:  “Lie for it / Spy for it / Kill for it / Die for it.” And he spits the words out as if the thought completely disgusts him. Then he goes on to say,

So you call it trust
But I say it’s just
In the devil’s game
Of greed and lust
 
They don’t care
They’d do me for the money
They don’t care
They use me for the money

I think it would pretty simplistic of us to believe that this song is merely an unflattering critique of greed and materialism. In fact, I think it’s fairly clear from these opening lines who ‘they’ are and how he feels about them.

Willa:  I agree, it’s a really strong indictment. But then he makes that classic Michael Jackson move we see in him so often where he suddenly flips the narrative, adopts the persona of those he’s critiquing, and begins speaking from their point of view:

I’ll never betray or deceive you my friend but
If you show me the cash
Then I will take it
If you tell me to cry
Then I will fake it
If you give me a hand
Then I will shake it
You will do anything for money

And then he breaks to the chorus, which pushes this reversal even further:

Anything (anything)
Anything for money
I’d lie for you
Would die for you
Even sell my soul to the devil

So suddenly he’s speaking from their perspective, even going so far as to say he would “sell my soul to the devil.” And the “you” he’s talking to seems to be money itself. If you didn’t know who the “you” was, you might think this was a love song, and these lines were a vow a man was pledging to his lover: I’d do anything for you, “I’d lie for you,” “die for you.”

But this is no love song. Just the opposite. He goes on to suggest that romance can’t compete with greed – so even if a woman were involved, she’d be sold out soon enough if the price were right:

You don’t care
You’d do her for the money
Say it’s fair
You’d sue her for the money

So the beloved he’s swearing loyalty to isn’t a woman but Money itself, and the effect of that personification is really chilling.

Joie:  It is chilling. It’s actually a very frightening song if you just sit and really listen to it. The lyrics are not for the fainthearted, and his eerie delivery of those lyrics is somewhat disquieting. And once again, without paying at least a little attention to the details of the events of 1993, I don’t believe one can fully appreciate the message of this song. And unfortunately, that message is that many people worship money and value it above all else.

In the second verse, he makes this accusation plain, asking where our loyalties and priorities are:

Insurance?
Where do your loyalties lie?
Is that your alibi?
I don’t think so

Willa:  Oh, that is such an important verse, Joie, and I agree, it clearly connects with the events of 1993. Insurance companies don’t protect their profits by upholding truth and justice, but by minimizing risk – and letting the Chandler civil case go to trial would have been a huge risk for them, financially. Michael Jackson wanted to fight, but his insurance company wanted him to settle, and so did his own lawyers because it’s always much safer to settle than go to court. So he wasn’t just fighting Evan Chandler but the people on his own team, and you can feel his outrage about that throughout this song, especially in a few pointed references, like that one, Joie.

Joie:  I agree completely. And it was a pretty bold move for him to put that in a song, I thought. And then he goes on to say this:

Want your pot of gold?
Need the Midas touch?
Bet you’d sell your soul
‘Cause your God is such
 
You don’t care
You kill for the money
Do or dare
The thrill for the money  

I think he’s clearly accusing the masses of worshiping money here, and near the end of the song, he begins a chant of “money makes the world go around” that punctuates his point.

Willa:  I don’t know, Joie. I’m not sure he’s accusing all of us of worshiping money. I mean, there are some places where he definitely implies that, like the beginning of the final verse:

You say you wouldn’t do it
For all the money in the world?
I don’t think so
If you show me the man
Then I will sell him

He’s implying pretty strongly here that everyone has a price – “If you show me the man / Then I will sell him” – and no one is exempt from that. So I see what you’re saying, Joie, and I definitely think this song has implications for all of us. But the “you” in this song – the person or thing he’s addressing – is very interesting and complicated, and shifts around constantly.

Joie:  It is complicated. In fact, I think it may be one of his most complicated songs because, as you said, the “you” does constantly shift. In one voice, he’s clearly pointing his finger and saying “you would do anything for money.” But in the next breath he’s taken on the persona of the “you” and saying he’d “even sell my soul to the devil.” And you know, I believe that ambiguity is exactly what he was going for here. He wanted us to question the “you” in this song. Because questioning the “you” also makes us question what our own feelings and thoughts about money are. Would we do “anything for money” as the chorus states? And does money make the world go around? I believe Michael was trying to prompt us to ask ourselves these hard questions.

Willa:  Wow, that’s a really interesting take on that, Joie. I like that interpretation. So it’s like he’s adopting multiple personas so we as an audience have to look at it from all those different points of view and to some degree adopt those subject positions as well, and some of those subject positions aren’t very comfortable. Like, if we sing along with the car stereo – which I tend to do a lot – we find ourselves singing the words, “Anything for money / I’d lie for you / Would die for you / Even sell my soul to the devil,” and what does it feel like to sing that? What happens mentally and emotionally when we sing those lyrics?

Joie:  Oh, my God, such good questions, Willa. What does it feel like when we sing those lyrics? I personally wouldn’t know because that line bothers me on a spiritual level. And, as a result, I have never sung those words before. Whenever I’m listening to this song and I’m singing along, I am very aware of that line and usually I end up replacing the word “my” with “your” when I’m singing along to this one. If I don’t do that, then I just avoid singing that line completely. And it’s really interesting to me that I do that, but I just always have.

Willa:  That is interesting, Joie, and I think it underscores just how much this song challenges us to question our own actions and values – to the point of making us pretty uncomfortable in some places. I do sing along, but I’m very aware of that line too, and it always pulls me up short.

So it sounds like we both have a powerful reaction to this song, and I think that was intentional – I think he wanted to shake us up and force us to take a hard look at ourselves. This song puts us in some really weird subject positions where we have to ask ourselves a lot of hard questions, as you say. Like “If you show me the cash / Then I will take it.” Every time I sing that out loud I wonder, is that true? Would I? Would I take “the cash” if someone offered it to me? And under what circumstances?

Joie:  I know what you mean, Willa. I have the same thought process whenever I listen to this song too. And I think you’re right, that was intentional. And it just proves to me, once again, how intentional he always was in his art and how brilliant he was.

Willa:  Oh, he was breathtakingly brilliant – and courageous as well, with that distinctive courage of a true artist. For one thing, he didn’t always try to please his audience. Sometimes he really shook us up and challenged us and made us uncomfortable, like he does in “Money” or “Little Susie” or the You Rock My World video. But that discomfort is never gratuitous. When we take a closer look, we find it serves an important artistic function and often leads us to see ourselves and our world a little differently.

Roundtable: the MJ Academia Project

Willa:  A few weeks ago, Joie and I had a fascinating conversation with author Joe Vogel and investigative reporter Charles Thomson about Michael Jackson as a songwriter. That conversation focused on the musical aspects of his songwriting, so we decided to meet again to talk about Michael Jackson as a lyricist. However, when we sat down to talk, our discussion immediately took a left turn and developed in ways none of us had expected, but was very interesting to all of us. Here’s the discussion that followed …

*      *      *

Charles:  Have you been watching the Michael Jackson Academia Project videos? They’re magnificent. Joe spoke in the last session about how Michael’s lyrics weren’t always as great as his compositions, but those videos make a very strong argument that his lyrics were actually a lot more insightful and astute than people gave him credit for – especially on the HIStory album.

Joe:  The HIStory album, I’ve argued for years, contains some of MJ’s boldest and strongest work. It’s both his most personal album and his most political. I should clarify, since you mentioned his lyrics:  my case isn’t that Jackson’s lyrics aren’t “as great as his compositions.”  My argument is that his lyrics are augmented by their vocal delivery, supplemented by his non-verbal vocalizations, and enhanced by how they are performed and represented visually. So I think for the many critics who dismiss Jackson as a songwriter, these aspects of his artistry/creative expression need to be taken into account.

Now, regarding the MJAP videos, there are definitely things I like about what they’re doing. They take MJ’s work seriously, which is a good thing, and provide close readings of his work (I’d actually never heard the capitalist tycoon names mentioned in “Money”). They’re also quite well-made. However, for all the research that has clearly gone into them they do some things that are a bit confusing for an “academia project.” For example, they don’t attach their names to their work and from what I understand, aren’t affiliated with a university or academic organization. They also don’t cite sources that have already published the same information/interpretation in their videos, which is very important if it is going to be taken seriously outside the MJ fan community.

Joie:  I have to say that I agree with Joe on this point. I don’t understand why whoever is behind the MJAP videos seems reluctant to reveal themselves. It’s almost as if they’re hiding and I think Joe is correct in saying that they can’t really hope to be taken seriously outside of the MJ fan community if they’re unwilling to stand behind their work. Right now the videos, as great as they are, are really just preaching to the choir, so to speak.

Joe:  Also, I think in certain ways they lack context and nuance. For example, they make it seem like MJ was deeply entrenched in the Black Power movement of the 60s/70s. In one of the videos they imply that MJ was a member of, or in allegiance with the Black Panther Party; in another they quote Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam and a figure with an ideology far different than Michael’s. MJ believed deeply in social justice and equality, but never advocated Black supremacy, anti-semitism, or violence.

Willa:  That’s really interesting, Joe, because I don’t think those videos are saying that, and I don’t react to them that way at all. Maybe if the dominant narrative in the media was that Michael Jackson was an angry Black man, then I might agree that they portray him as too radical. But that isn’t the case. The dominant media image is that he was a deeply troubled Black man who was ashamed of his race – a shockingly false image. So I think they provide a much-needed counterweight.

Joe:  I think there’s some merit to that, Willa. Certainly there have been serious misunderstandings and false narratives about Jackson’s racial heritage and how that informs his identity and work. But for me, the counterweight shouldn’t be to present him as an ideologue who is aligned with Farrakhan and the Black Panthers. It should be to present him as a complex African American artist who refused to be boxed in, who constantly challenged, provoked and inspired us with his work. In certain ways, I feel the MJAP videos do that, and in certain ways they feel a bit simplistic and reductive to me.

Willa:  Wow, Joe, my response was just the opposite. I thought it was really interesting that the Academia Project showed the connections with Black Panther symbology and included the clip of Louis Farrakhan precisely because they are so different, or are perceived as being so ideologically different, from Michael Jackson.

In other words, Louis Farrakhan and Michael Jackson are two important cultural figures typically placed at opposite ends of the spectrum:  Farrakhan is portrayed as deeply divisive, a separatist, while Michael Jackson is portrayed as such an integrationist he actually wanted to be White. It’s a horrible distortion of who he was, but it’s out there. So to me, suggesting common ground between them really forces people to question their preconceived ideas about both. But showing they share some common ground doesn’t mean they’re identical. I can’t imagine anyone mistaking Michael Jackson for Louis Farrakhan. I just don’t see that.

Charles:  I think that if you listen to a song like “They Don’t Care About Us,” Michael discusses race in a clear ‘them and us’ sense. It’s right there in the title. He is juxtaposing ‘us’ – the subordinates – with ‘they’ – the establishment. He makes clear that the ‘us’ are racial minorities through other lyrics in the track. “Black man, blackmail / Throw  the brother in jail.” “I’m tired of being a victim of shame / You’re throwing me in a class with a bad name.” The use of the police radio message about the young Black man killed by police in a case of mistaken identity reinforces this position.

Then you look at the two videos which accompanied the song. The prison version shows the inmates to be almost unanimously Black. There are images of the KKK. In the Brazil version, he goosesteps and gives a Nazi salute. He stands on a balcony delivering a song based in part on Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream speech.’ There is little room for any interpretation besides that Jackson is railing against racism and identifying himself as a Black man and therefore a victim.

He reiterated this belief quite often in later years. There was the summit with Al Sharpton in 2002, where he slammed the music industry for ripping off Black artists and the media for attributing their innovations to their White contemporaries. Then there was the Jesse Jackson interview where he spoke very eloquently about the Jack Johnson story and compared himself to other Black luminaries who had been targeted by the establishment.

At the very least, I’d say Michael Jackson demonstrated conflicting ideologies on race. On the one hand, he spoke often about being ‘colour blind’ or wanting people of all races to come together. On the other, a lot of his music and his public speeches and interviews after the 1993 allegations demonstrated a deep belief that racism was very much alive and that he was a victim of it. He seemed to become more ‘militant’ after the 1993 allegations. His music spoke of police brutality, being targeted by the FBI, his prosecutor being aligned with the KKK, the media ‘lying to shame the race’. During his trial and even at the This Is It concert announcement, he would give the Black power salute. He surrounded himself with the Nation of Islam – led by Farrakhan.

I think it’s very difficult to dismiss the MJAP’s conclusions on this basis. I would also disagree with the comment that they don’t reference their work. Most of it seems to come from books, which they name explicitly in the videos.

Joe:  I’ll explain what I mean by not referencing their work. If they say that MJ’s Earth Song video was inspired by a Soviet propaganda film that looks somewhat similar, as a researcher, I just want to be able to look at where they discovered that information. Did it come from an interview? Did they have access to his archives? Or is it an educated guess based on other information? (The Triumph of the Will connection is more obvious.)

Charles:  The similarities are so striking that I’d be floored if it turned out it wasn’t an influence. Michael is dead now so it’s most likely we’ll never know for sure, but if the Earth Song video and concert performances weren’t based on that Soviet film, it’s one eerie coincidence.

Joe:  There are some striking similarities, but I’d say it’s about 50/50. Michael had a huge video archive and a personal archivist though, so it would certainly be possible to try to verify something like that.

One more example about citing:  much of what they explore in “Black or White” has been written about before (by Armond White, myself and others). So it would be customary in academia to credit ideas that have already been established so you aren’t charged with plagiarism. Of course, if these videos are primarily intended as “fan videos” these criticisms are less relevant.

Now let me go back, Charles, to the point you made about MJ engaging with race/racism:  I don’t disagree with the fact that Jackson became more politically radical and outspoken in his later career. There is no question that he was fighting against institutional racism and oppression/injustice in general. Where I disagree with MJAP (and you) is in the literalness of interpretation. For example, I see him morphing into a black panther as symbolic, not that he was secretly attending Black Panther meetings and sending out discrete codes to a specific political group. Similarly, with “They Don’t Care About Us,” I think he is identifying with the oppressed and speaking truth to power regardless of skin color or nationality. It is radical, but it has nothing to do with Nation of Islam or Louis Farrakhan (a man known for being racist, homophobic, anti-semitic, and many believe, partially responsible for the assassination of Malcolm X).

Like I said at the top, I think there is a lot to like about these videos – I think they have a lot of potential – but especially to reach outside the fan base (if that’s the goal) I think they could benefit from some nuance.

Joie:  Again, I completely agree with Joe here; I think the first MJAP video took a huge leap in suggesting that Michael was a member of, or at least in total support of both the Black Panther Party and Mr. Farrakhan simply because he morphed into a panther at the end of the “Black or White” video. And in “They Don’t Care About Us,” he is definitely “identifying with the oppressed,” as Joe put it, but ‘the oppressed’ come in many colors. As Willa and I discussed in our conversation about “They Don’t Care About Us,” this song/short film(s) is not simply a Black or White issue. It’s dealing with much more than that – poverty, the abuse of human rights, and yes, racism. And he did become much more outspoken on issues of race after 1993 and I agree that he felt very much victimized by the system. How could he not? But I don’t believe that it reveals some hidden connection to the Nation of Islam or Louis Farrakhan.

Willa:  But are these videos saying that? I don’t think so. They include a clip of Farrakhan on the Arsenio Hall show saying, “Michael is becoming politically mature. And he wants to use his political maturity, along with his wealth, to aid his people.” That’s it. To me, that shows that Louis Farrakhan has an opinion – a positive opinion – about Michael Jackson’s work and activism, but it doesn’t suggest anything more than that.

And I don’t think they are suggesting “he was secretly attending Black Panther meetings,” as you mentioned, Joe, or anything like that. I didn’t get that from the videos at all. To me, Michael Jackson’s work is this incredible tapestry that weaves together threads from many different sources. And the first Academia Project video highlights some of the Black Panther imagery in his work and traces a few of those threads. I thought that was fascinating, and it helped me appreciate a part of the tapestry I hadn’t focused on before. But I never thought they were saying he was literally a Black Panther. I just don’t see that.

Joie:  No, I’m not saying these videos are suggesting that. I don’t think that. I’m simply disagreeing with Charles’ assessment that the MJAP’s conclusions on this matter are difficult to dismiss.

That said, I do agree that the videos are really wonderful in their own way. They are very well researched and well thought out. Whoever is behind them has obviously put a great deal of time and effort into creating them and they could have a lot of potential if they were reaching the right people. Right now, they are limited to making the rounds of the MJ fan community, which is fine as there are still a lot of fans out there – especially the new fans – who maybe aren’t aware of the extent of what Michael went through and how biased the media coverage was. But in order to be really effective in changing the conversation about him, the videos need to reach a wider, more mainstream audience.

Joe:  These are very good points, Joie. I think, what I hope at least, are my constructive criticisms stem from exactly what you’re talking about:  becoming more credible so they can reach a broader audience. In fact, I think this third video they did was by far their best effort. So let me go back quickly to something Willa said. You mentioned that the Farrakhan quote is interesting because it speaks positively about Michael’s work and activism. I actually agree (mostly) with what Farrakhan is saying in this clip. But for me, again, it’s about credibility. Using Farrakhan to establish a point will actually work the opposite direction for 99% of people.

With the Black Panther stuff, I would personally just like to see more nuanced interpretation so its taken seriously in an academic context. I think they provide much more compelling interpretation when they write about how Jackson is reversing certain symbolism to opposite ends (a la the HIStory teaser and Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will).

Joie:  I agree completely with what you just said about Farrakhan and credibility. The fact is, the very sight of him turns a lot of people off and using him to establish a point or to try and persuade others to your point of view is risky and could be counterproductive.

Willa:  He is really polarizing, and I understand what you and Joe are saying, Joie. But as I said before, I think it’s really interesting and worthwhile to juxtapose Michael Jackson and Louis Farrakhan precisely because they are so different. It’s like seeing Michael Jackson on the steps of the White House with Ronald Reagan. My response is always, Wow, what a contrast! Yet they shared some common ground. That image doesn’t lead me to assume that Michael Jackson is a closet conservative and secretly funneling money to the Republican Party. Not at all. And I don’t think that about Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam either.

It’s true that Louis Farrakhan has said some things I strongly disagree with. So did Ronald Reagan, for that matter. But I don’t think the answer is to try to stuff Farrakhan in a box in the closet and pretend he doesn’t exist. Instead, I think he should be one of a collage of people who supported Michael Jackson in some way. I think it’s incredible that one person appealed to both Ronald Reagan and Louis Farrakhan, Nelson Mandela and Elizabeth Taylor, fans from the U.S. to Japan, Africa to Ireland. That’s wonderful to me.

Charles:  I don’t think the MJAP videos in any way imply that Michael Jackson was secretly attending Black Panther meetings or anything of that nature. I think they just demonstrate that his work, even prior to the allegations, was laced with political and racial commentary which was completely ignored by the critics.

Willa:  Exactly.

Charles:  I agree that using Farrakhan as a source is not going to win anybody over because the man has shown himself repeatedly to be a racist and a loon. I remember being very alarmed a while back to see fans passing around an hour or more of Farrakhan ‘preaching’ about Michael Jackson in church. During the sermon, he interpreted “They Don’t Care About Us” as a targeted assault on Jewish people and praised Michael for having the balls to express his anti-Semitic beliefs. But Farrakhan is just one of many sources used to support the point being made by the MJAP creators and I certainly agree with him that Michael Jackson’s treatment was at least partly racially motivated. If the whole thing hinged on Farrakhan, it’d be another matter – but that’s not the case.

I also disagree that the lyrics to TDCAU aren’t about any specific race. The line, “Black man, blackmail (black male) / Throw  the brother in jail” is pretty blunt, especially in tandem with the police radio message at the beginning of the track and comments throughout the rest of the album, such as “In the hood / Frame him if you could… In the black / Stab him in the back / In the face / To lie and shame the race.”

Willa:  But in the videos – the prison version, especially – the visuals complicate those lyrics. Most of the prisoners are Black, but some are White or American Indian or some other minority. Most of the guards are White, but several are Black. And I’m really struck by the fact that when he gets angry and shoves aside a guard’s billy club, that guard is Black. What that says to me is that while he’s fighting racism, as you say, it’s institutional racism, and he opposes anyone who supports that institutional racism, regardless of whether that individual is White or Black. He’s evaluating people by their beliefs and actions, not their skin color, and that’s a message he consistently expressed throughout his life.

There are also newsreel-type visuals of some fairly horrific violence – so horrific MTV refused to show this version before 9 at night. And while many of those scenes focus on images of the Ku Klux Klan or White-on-Black racial violence, there are also scenes of a White truck driver being severely beaten by young Black men during the Rodney King riots. And some of the most graphic scenes are war footage from Southeast Asia. So again, he’s fighting racism, but not in a simplistic Black versus White sort of way.

And I don’t think the lyrics are a simplistic Black versus White either. Here are those notorious lyrics that were so badly misinterpreted by a few outspoken people like Stephen Spielberg and Louis Farrakhan (speaking of strange bedfellows):

Beat me, hate me
You can never break me
Will me, thrill me
You can never kill me
 
Jew  me, sue me
Everybody do me
Kick me, kike me
Don’t you black or white me

He’s clearly fighting anti-Semitism in these lyrics, I believe, which is why it’s so galling that he was charged with anti-Semitism because of them. So this isn’t just about race. And when identifying leaders in the fight for justice, he says, “if Roosevelt was living / He wouldn’t let this be.” The next time he sings this verse, he replaces “Roosevelt” with “Martin Luther,” suggesting that the torch of civil rights was carried and passed on by many hands, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt as well as Martin Luther King, Jr.

So I think it’s an oversimplification to reduce this work down to simply Us versus Them. As Michael Jackson himself says, “Don’t you black or white me.”

Joe:  Exactly, Willa. This is what I think is so important:  Michael’s creative life and work, to me, is about getting beyond these air-tight oppositions. He always provides these shifting tensions. He was constantly pushing his audience, even in his protest songs, to consider the various faces cruelty, bigotry and injustice can take. He wasn’t calling for “black power” to replace “white power.” That’s the way the Bush’s and Farrakhan’s see the world. Us versus them. White versus Black. Christians versus Muslims. It’s more complex than that. Malcolm X began to realize that in his final years; MLK knew it; Michael Jackson knew it. He knew the history of White supremacy in America. He also knew about other forms of bigotry and cruelty, whether because of appearance, gender, sexuality, class, religion, illness or any other difference. But he fought such discrimination with rich, complex, syncretic art, not ideological dogma.

Joie:  And Willa and I just want to point out that you can find a link to the MJ Academia Project videos in our Reading Room. But for now, you can just click here.

Welcome to Heartbreak Hotel

Willa:  We first meet My Baby in “Heartbreak Hotel” (or “This Place Hotel”), which Michael Jackson wrote and recorded for The Jacksons’ 1980 Triumph album. And it seems to have been an important song for him: he performed it with his brothers on the Triumph and Victory tours, and it was the only Jacksons’ song he sang throughout his Bad tour.

“Heartbreak Hotel” begins with a reference to a traumatic loss that happened “Ten years ago on this day”:

Live in sin
Ten years ago on this day my heart was yearning
I promised I would never ever be returning
Where My Baby broke my heart and left me yearning

Importantly, “ten years ago” is when Michael Jackson first became a public figure on the national stage: “I Want You Back” became the Jackson 5’s first number one hit in 1970.

The protagonist and My Baby enter Heartbreak Hotel together. It’s a public place where they encounter a crowd of “faces staring.” And while the staring people are strangers, they seem to know him: “they smiled with eyes that looked as if they knew me.” But they don’t really know him, and he doesn’t know them. It’s a pretty accurate description of the life of a celebrity. This stanza ends with Jackson singing, “This is scaring me.”

He and My Baby walk upstairs together and enter his hotel room, but two women are there already. One of them approaches him and says, “This is the place / You said to meet you right here at noon.” It’s not true, but My Baby believes her – believes this stranger is his lover – and Jackson sings, “Hope is dead.” He goes on to describe how My Baby is hurt because she doesn’t understand the situation, but ends with “Someone’s evil to hurt my soul.” So this lie not only hurts My Baby; it also hurts “my soul.” The two are so closely connected, it’s as if My Baby is his soul. The stanza ends with these lines:

This is scaring me
Then the man next door had told
He’s been here in tears for fifteen years
This is scaring me

Who is this man? Could it possibly be Elvis? After all, Elvis begins his song “Heartbreak Hotel” (which was his first number one hit) with the lines:

Since My Baby left me
I found a new  place to dwell
It’s down at the end of Lonely Street
At Heartbreak Hotel

So apparently Elvis lives there. Now Michael Jackson has checked into the room next door, and he’s in the same position Elvis was in for years.

This “man next door” says “He’s been here in tears for fifteen years,” so since 1965 – right when Elvis’ career began its decline, and his celebrity began to take an ugly turn. Elvis was the King in the late 1950s and early ’60s, but then the British Invasion took place from 1964 to 1966. Suddenly, the Beatles and Rolling Stones were climbing the pop charts, and Elvis was increasingly seen as outdated and irrelevant, even an object of ridicule.

So in these two very different songs with the same name, Elvis and Michael Jackson describe a situation that’s emotionally devastating to them. However, while Elvis is clearly singing about a romantic loss, Jackson’s song is much more complicated, and much more ambiguous. Is it just a shattered romance, or more than that? Jackson’s “Heartbreak Hotel” ends with these lines:

Someone’s stabbing my heart
This is Heartbreak Hotel
Ten years ago today
Hurting my mind
You break My Baby’s heart
This is Heartbreak Hotel
Just welcome to the scene

“Welcome to the scene” is a pretty odd ending for a song about lost love. So again, there seems to be more going on than just an ill-fated romance. And once again, he and My Baby are conflated: his heart is hurt, her heart is hurt, his mind is hurt. They share the same pain. He’s feeling what she’s feeling, as if she were a part of him.
 
Joie:  Wow! Not sure I would have made the obvious Elvis connection here but, I’ve got to say, it makes a crazy kind of sense.

Willa:  I know. It does sound kind of crazy, doesn’t it? I wasn’t expecting to go off on an Elvis tangent, and obviously “the man next door” could mean many different things, but suddenly that idea popped into my head and I went with it, just to see where it took me. I think any interpretation – even a crazy-sounding interpretation – is valid as long as it can be adequately supported by evidence from the text, and there’s quite a bit of evidence to support this. And it does make a lot of sense if you see this song as talking about celebrity, which was a very important theme for Michael Jackson.

Joie:  Well, I’ll go with that for a minute and say that, if this was intentional on Michael’s part, it’s actually brilliant. However, when The Jacksons made the decision to change the name of the song to “This Place Hotel,” Michael did say that he was not familiar with Elvis’ song. So, while I agree that the imagery of both songs work very well together, I’m skeptical that there is any real connection between the two.
 
But I love what you have to say about My Baby possibly representing his own soul. And that line towards the end where he says “Hurting my mind.” It’s like My Baby represents him: his psyche. His mind, his heart, his soul – the inner self that he keeps protected from public view. As I said last week, Michael sings about My Baby as if she is someone who is very important to him and has been in his life for a very long time, and I think this notion that she is symbolic of his own inner being carries a lot of weight. In “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” Michael says,

 
Someone’s always tryin’
To start My Baby cryin’
Talking, squealing, lying
Saying you just want to be startin’ somethin’

 
If we look at this verse in these terms, it’s very easy to see how My Baby could be a euphemism for his inner self. Someone’s always trying to hurt him. He goes on to sing,

 
Billie Jean is always talkin’
When nobody else is talkin’
Telling lies and rubbing shoulders
So they called her mouth a motor

 
Sticking with this theory we can argue that Billie Jean – and all of the other “bad girls” who come his way – represents his public life and all the baggage that comes with it (the lies, the media, the paparazzi, etc.).

Willa:  I agree, and I really like that quotation you cited. “Billie Jean is always talkin'” – just like the media is always talking. From a very young age, Michael Jackson faced constant commentary and speculation about his private life. And the media’s mouth isn’t just “a motor.” It’s an industry.  
 
Joie:  An industry he would end up battling for the rest of his career. But we’ll talk more about that next time when we take a closer look at the “bad girls” in this threesome.

Willa:  Right. And this three-way conflict between My Baby, the intrusive women who hurt her, and the protagonist who finds himself caught between the two continues to evolve – just as Michael Jackson’s relationship with the media evolved. We see this scenario of My Baby being hurt by an aggressive, dishonest woman recurring again and again: for example, in “Billie Jean” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” on Thriller, in “Dirty Diana” from Bad, and in the title track to Dangerous. And then she disappears. My Baby isn’t mentioned once on his HIStory album, which was his first album after the 1993 molestation allegations. It’s like his public life has become so toxic she’s completely hidden from view now.

Or maybe not. Maybe she does appear, but in an unexpected way, and in an unexpected place – in the video to a song he didn’t write, “You Are Not Alone.” The song opens with a story of lost love:

 
Another day has gone
I’m still all alone
How  could this be
You’re not here with me
You never said goodbye
Someone tell me why
Did you have to go
And leave my world so cold

However, the video opens with a crowd of reporters and photographers pressing in on him as he walks by with his head bowed. It’s the exact same situation he sang about repeatedly in earlier albums: these intrusive people are claiming to know him and telling lies about him, and My Baby has left him. Only this time he’s telling that story through visual cues.

He’s devastated, heartbroken, feeling so sad and alone. Then he hears a voice. We don’t know whose voice it is, but it “whispers” to him, and this is what it tells him:

You are not alone
I am here with you
Though you’re far away
I am here to stay

You are not alone
I am here with you
Though we’re far apart
You’re always in my heart
But you are not alone

Whose voice is this? The lyrics don’t say, but once again there are visual cues. The scene of walking before a sea of aggressive reporters alternates with another scene, far removed from the media: it’s the setting of Maxfield Parrish’s Daybreak, a beautiful painting of serenity and rebirth. He’s happy, and sharing an intimate moment with a woman.

And it’s not just any woman. It’s his wife, Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis Presley. When Elvis’ public life was falling apart and he was a target of criticism and even ridicule by the press, he had a little girl who stood by him and brought some joy into his life. Now Michael Jackson is in the same position Elvis was in before. And that little girl has grown up and married him, and she’s standing by him through one of the worst periods of his life and bringing some joy into his life. I’m pretty uncomfortable talking about all this because these are real people, and I try very hard to stay out of an artist’s private life as much as possible. But these real people also symbolize certain things, and the symbolism of that image with Lisa Marie Presley is so powerful to me.
 
Joie:  Well, I absolutely agree with you that the still small voice in “You Are Not Alone” is definitely that of My Baby. But I can’t agree that it has anything to do with Lisa Marie Presley in the literal sense. In the abstract as a visual cue, yes definitely. The recreation of Daybreak for this video was an inspired choice in my opinion as it expertly captures the intimate, private place that Michael is trying to take us to here, and the use of his wife as the visual portrayal of My Baby makes perfect sense to me. After all, if My Baby were a real person, she would certainly be the person who was closest to him and knew him intimately – as a wife does.
 
However, he repeatedly says that “something whispers in his ear.” Not someone, something. That still small voice. His very soul. His inner self. That part of him that he has nurtured and tried so hard to protect over the years and keep pure. Away from all of the “bad girls” and the bad media that have threatened My Baby for so long. And what does that voice say to him? “You are not alone.” Even though he may feel like the loneliest person on the face of the earth – which is the feeling all those shots of him standing alone in front of the beautiful nature scenes and onstage in the deserted theater are meant to evoke – he is not alone. He still has his soul and it’s intact and strong. It may be a little bruised and banged up but, it is still there. And he can still feel it, calling to him, telling him that what he has just been through was a nightmare but, he got through it and he came out the other side and there is still hope for a bright future.

Even though Michael didn’t write this particular song, I believe that the lyrics must have spoken to him on some level and perhaps they expressed something – some emotion or idea – that he could relate to and identify with. And I think that something was My Baby.

Willa:  Joie, that’s beautiful. I was groping forward, trying to get at what that recurring scene symbolized and why it was so moving for me, and just not getting there. And you beautifully captured in words that feeling I have when I watch this video. I do think it’s significant that the woman in this scene is Lisa Marie Presley. It wouldn’t have the same depth of meaning if it were just any actress from a casting call who didn’t have her history. But I love the way you brought our discussion back to the idea of My Baby as representing a part of himself – as something that will always be there for him, whether it’s his soul or his heart or his muse. As you describe so well, this video is an affirmation that there is something inside that will sustain him, regardless of what threatens him in the outside world. 

We’ll conclude this series on My Baby next week when we look more closely at what some of those threats are.

Joie:  And don’t forget to weigh in on our discussion and let us know what you think about My Baby. You can comment here or on our Facebook page.