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Dangerous Talk with Susan Fast

Willa:  This week I am thrilled to be joined once again by Dr. Susan Fast, whose new book on the Dangerous album will be coming out September 25 from Bloomsbury Press. I just want to say up front that I’ve read this book twice now, and I’m still staggered by it. For the first time we have a detailed, in-depth analysis of one of Michael Jackson’s albums, and it’s amazing – it reveals how he conveys meaning through every layer of musical creation and performance. Some sections I’ve read numerous times, going through sentence by sentence with my headphones on, trying to catch all the details and nuances of meaning Susan identifies. I was quite simply blown away by it.

Susan, your book is such a treasure trove of ideas, as well as new ways of listening and thinking about his music. There’s so much I want to talk with you about! Thank you so much for joining me.

Susan:  Thanks for having me back to Dancing With the Elephant, Willa. It’s such a pleasure to exchange ideas with you again. Sorry that Joie can’t be with us this time around.

Willa:  Me too. Joie is starting a new career, which is exciting, but it’s keeping her really busy.

Susan:  Very exciting; I wish her the best of luck! And thanks for your incredibly generous comments about the book and for being so helpful when I was writing it:  you read through drafts of every chapter (some more than once I think) and made such thoughtful suggestions, which have certainly made the book stronger. And it helped make the writing process feel less lonely which, as you well know, it often is.

Willa:  Oh, I thoroughly enjoyed it! And I love the fact that you focus on Dangerous, which tends to get a lot less attention than Off the Wall or Thriller. Most critics seem to think those two albums were the high points of Michael Jackson’s artistic output, and it was all downhill from there. I don’t know how many times I’ve read that …

Susan:  Yes, I point to several critiques like that in the book and they keep coming; the 35th anniversary of the release of Off the Wall just passed and Mark Anthony Neal wrote an essay that called it Jackson’s “signature achievement.” It’s a brilliant album, but all of Jackson’s albums are brilliant. As I’ve thought about it more, I actually don’t know how his albums can be compared; they’re like apples and oranges, each conceived of and framed in a unique way. I think we need to get away from putting them in a hierarchy that, in my opinion, is at least partly based upon nostalgia for the young(er) Jackson – for many complicated reasons.

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Susan, and we could easily do an entire post just exploring those “complicated reasons.” I think a lot of it is nostalgia, as you say – both for the younger Michael Jackson and for our own younger selves, for the people we were when we first heard those early albums – as well as a reluctance to see him as a grown man and a mature artist.

And part of that, I think, is a deep discomfort among whites with the image of the “angry black man.” That image carries a lot of emotional weight, especially in the US, and I think a lot of people were very troubled by the idea that the sweet-faced Michael Jackson we’d watched grow up before our eyes – a celebrated success story and a symbol of integration and racial harmony – could become an “angry black man.”

But we do see flashes of anger in his later albums. And he is certainly speaking with a mature voice, as you emphasize in your book. I was interested that you see Dangerous as a significant milestone in that progression. In fact, you begin your book with the defiant claim that “Dangerous is Michael Jackson’s coming of age album.” I love that! – in part because it boldly contradicts the conventional wisdom that Dangerous was simply another stage in his decline.

Susan:  The decline narrative is so misguided, in my opinion, but as you say, it depends on what you’re looking for and what your experience has been with Jackson’s music. I’ve loved the Dangerous album for so long and have always thought of it as an immensely significant artistic statement. Having the opportunity to spend so much time with it was an amazing experience; I’m grateful that the editors at 33⅓ thought it was a worthwhile project. And I’m really thrilled that they’ve chosen to make this book, the only one on Jackson in the series, the 100th volume. I’m sure this was partly an accident having to do with individual authors’ deadlines, but it warms my heart to know that such an important artist will occupy that significant milestone spot.

The series – each book is devoted to a single album – doesn’t prescribe how records should be interpreted, there’s no formula for the books – indeed, some volumes don’t talk much about individual songs or how they’re structured. But in part because I’m a musicologist, and in part because there’s been so little written about how Michael Jackson’s songs work, I really wanted to focus on that, always keeping in mind, of course, that the way musicians organize sound is inextricably bound up with the social. Musical sound doesn’t transcend time and place; it comes from somewhere, helps define that somewhere.

Willa:  Yes, I love the way you explore the “anatomy” of his songs, as he called it on more than one occasion, and also provide important historical contexts for approaching Dangerous. For example, before taking an in-depth look at his songs of passion and desire, you take on the “pathologizing [of] Jackson’s sexuality,” as you put it. I think that discussion is incredibly important, especially since you are the first critic I’ve read to validate what so many fans have been saying for years: that he was unbelievably hot! Obviously! And not just in the 80s, but throughout his life. It felt so liberating to me to read that. It was like, Yes! Finally! Here’s a critic who really gets it – who understands the power of his music and his performance and the sheer presence of his body on many different levels.

Susan:  The denial by so many critics of Jackson’s sexuality, or – more often – the relegation of his electrifying sexual presence to a performance – in other words, put on when he was on stage, but not “real” (whatever that means) – is something I felt compelled to address, especially because sex and lust are themes featured so prominently on this record. The thing the critics miss is that it makes absolutely no difference whether or not the person Jackson was on stage carried over to his life off stage; acting is powerful, we’re moved by good actors, they make us believe in the moment of the performance and perhaps long afterwards. Jackson did that.

Willa:  That’s very true. He did.

Susan:  Beyond that, I don’t see the incongruity between his commanding, aggressive, sexy onstage self and his quiet, shy offstage self as problematic in the way that so many critics do. It’s only a problem if we think in binaries; Michael Jackson was much too complex for that kind of thinking.

Willa:  Yes, and as you point out in your book, that intriguing contrast of the bold onstage presence with the shy offstage demeanor was itself very sexy for a lot of women, myself included.

There were also important cultural and historical reasons for him to be cautious in how he presented himself offstage, especially with white women. Eleanor Bowman, who contributes here sometimes, recently sent a link to an NPR piece about Billy Eckstine, one of the first black artists to cross over to a white audience. To be honest, I’d never heard of him before but his biographer, Cary Ginell, told NPR that at one time “Eckstine’s popularity rivaled Frank Sinatra’s.” However, his career was derailed overnight by a photo in LIFE magazine:

“The profile featured a photograph of Eckstine coming out of a nightclub in New York City, and being mobbed by white teenage girls,” Ginell says. “If you look at the photograph, it looks very innocuous and very innocent. It’s actually what America should be like, with no racial tension, no racial separation – just honest love and happiness between the races. But America wasn’t ready for that in 1950. White America did not want Billy Eckstine dating their daughters.”

Eckstine’s crossover career abruptly ended with that one photograph: “Eckstine continued to record and perform, but white disc jockeys would not play his records.” And it’s almost like he was erased from public memory – at least, white memory. But Michael Jackson was a well-read student of history, especially black history, and I’m sure he would have known about the backlash experienced by public figures before him who had been perceived as too friendly with white women – people like Jack Johnson and Chuck Berry and Billy Eckstine.

Susan:  What a tragic story this is. My overarching point in the book on Dangerous is that the politicized and sexualized adult persona that Jackson revealed on that album and the short films that went with it were incredibly threatening. And as you say, I think he knew that he had to be careful, given stories like Eckstine’s and many others, which is why that soft, sweet, off-stage public persona was so important. At the same time, he really pushed the envelope – dating high-profile white women, for example. I do address this in the book. For a long time he maintained a delicate balance, but eventually, when he started presenting a more adult, sexualized self in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this balance was thrown off. His performances couldn’t be so easily dismissed.

And what’s so interesting to me is that many critics and others could not, would not, and still cannot see him as an adult – don’t believe him as one – and I think this is one of the reasons why he is so often vilified or infantilized. Witness the recent tabloid story in which unnamed maids who supposedly worked at Neverland reported that they witnessed him “peeing” in his house and threatening to throw “animal poop snowballs” at the help; this is a very particular kind of denigration – including the kiddy language used – that strips Jackson of his adulthood. We could say it strips him of a lot of other things – dignity, the ability to be taken seriously, perhaps his humanity …

Willa:  I agree! It denies his humanity in a very literal sense: peeing on the floor and throwing feces is something an ape would do, an animal would do, not a human. When I heard those stories, I immediately thought of the chorus of “Monster”:

Monster
(He’s like an animal)
He’s a monster
(Just like an animal)
He’s an animal

I think he really understood this impulse by certain segments of the population to characterize him as a monster, an animal, a bogeyman, an Other, and he forced us to acknowledge it.

Susan:  Yes, for sure. But I think the use of the childish language points very specifically to the desire to relegate him to prepubescence, to childhood – in a bad way, not the way he would have embraced! In his insightful analysis of the short film for “Black or White,” Eric Lott says that at the beginning of the panther dance “something so extraordinary happened at this moment that the video’s initial audiences couldn’t take it in.”

Willa:  I agree!

Susan:  Me too. Elizabeth Chin elaborates on this by saying that many found the panther dance “unintelligible” in the way that encounters with the unfamiliar often are; she uses Freud’s concept of the uncanny, “the recognition of a truth that has been suppressed,” to help articulate what happened for many viewers at this moment. I think this can be said about Jackson in general, especially as he got older and started to challenge his audience more profoundly around social issues. Critics and some of his audience couldn’t take it in, couldn’t see what he was saying, or doing.

Willa:  That’s true. And that’s an excellent way of describing much of his later work, isn’t it? – that he was forcing us, at some level of consciousness, to acknowledge “a truth that has been suppressed”? And the panther dance is an incredible example of that. More than 20 years later, we’re still trying to uncover the “truth” of that performance – we’re still stunned by it and can’t take it all in, to paraphrase Lott.

So Susan, reading your book I was repeatedly blown away by your insightful analysis of the “anatomy” or musical structure of specific songs, as well as the album as a whole. One thing that immediately caught my attention is how you see the overall structure of Dangerous as being like a book with “chapters,” or clusters of songs exploring a related theme. In fact, you use a similar structure in your book, so your book mirrors Dangerous, chapter by chapter.

Susan:  Yes, I hear Dangerous as a concept album; the concept is loose, but it’s there. Of course the songs can be listened to and appreciated individually, but I think Jackson was going for something bigger, more cohesive, an over-arching narrative. It’s a strikingly different approach than the one he used on Thriller or Bad which – at least as far as I can hear – don’t have this kind of narrative cohesiveness. This is why we need to start thinking about each album individually, paying attention to its particular contours, themes, ideas.

Interestingly, he said in his interview with Ebony in December 2007 (and he said a similar thing elsewhere many times) that the approach to Thriller was to make it an album of hit singles. In his words:

If you take an album like Nutcracker Suite [by the classical composer Tchaikovsky], every song is a killer, every one. So I said to myself, ‘why can’t there be a pop album where every …’ People used to do an album where you’d get one good song and the rest were like B-sides. They’d call them ‘album songs’ – and I would say to myself ‘Why can’t every one be like a hit song? Why can’t every song be so great that people would want to buy it if you could release it as a single?’ So I always tried to strive for that. That was my purpose for the next album [Thriller].

(Here’s a link, and this quote begins at 3:38.) His use of Tchaikovsky as an example is so interesting to me: what pop musician models commercial success on a record of classical music?? But Tchaikovsky’s idea wasn’t far off from Jackson’s. The Nutcracker ballet was long, complicated, and required a lot of resources to mount; why not create a “greatest hits” suite that could be performed as a concert piece? I think it’s also interesting that there are eight pieces in the Nutcracker Suite, most of them quite short – the whole thing is about 25 minutes long. I can’t help but draw a parallel to the structure of Thriller: nine songs, about 42 minutes of music.

Willa:  Wow, that’s a really interesting way to interpret that quote. (By the way, here are YouTube links to the full score of The Nutcracker  and to the Suite.) You know, I’ve seen the ballet many times, and certain parts of the score are really popular – it seems like everywhere you go at Christmas you hear the music for the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy playing in the background, and it was also included in Disney’s Fantasia. (Just for fun, here’s a link to that too.) But I don’t think I’ve ever just listened to the music to The Nutcracker all the way through, separate from the ballet, and I never thought about the Suite like an album. That’s so interesting, especially when you put it side by side with Thriller

Susan:  Yes, that was Tchaikovsky’s aim in creating the Suite: he wanted the piece performed more often, realized it couldn’t be because of the length and cost of mounting it, and so pulled what he thought were the “greatest hits” from it and created the Suite.

But back to Thriller, the length is average for a pop album, but it’s a small number of songs, really, the smallest number of any of his solo records. And, as we know, just about every song on Thriller was a hit single. My sense is that people take this as the way he thought about putting albums together in general, but I don’t believe this is true (in fact if you look at the above quote carefully, you’ll see that he’s referring specifically to Thriller). Thriller is a very particular and uncharacteristic instance of concision from an artist who liked to be expansive.

In a May 1992 interview with Ebony, one of the questions the interviewer asked was what the “concept” for Dangerous was; I think it’s quite a striking question for the very reason that Jackson’s albums had not been particularly “conceptual” up to that point: what made the interviewer think there was a concept? The cover art work? Something about the music? In any case, in his answer Jackson again pointed to Nutcracker, but here his thinking about it was very different:

I wanted to do an album that was like Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. So that in a thousand years from now, people would still be listening to it. Something that would live forever. I would like to see children and teenagers and parents and all races all over the world, hundreds and hundreds of years from now, still pulling out songs from that album and dissecting it. I want it to live.

Well, the dissecting has begun! I have to admit that while I’d read this interview before, I didn’t remember this quote until after I’d finished writing the book: what a shame. But I feel somewhat vindicated now in thinking that Jackson did, indeed, have an overarching concept for this record, that he was not thinking in terms of hit singles (or not exclusively or primarily), but of a series of interconnected songs, laid out in a particular order, that tell us a story. And a pretty complex story, too, one that he saw as requiring a lot of analysis to unravel (the idea that an artist wants his work dissected is pretty thrilling for someone like me).

The way I see it, that story is about very big ideas: it’s about examining and challenging the state of the contemporary world with energy and resilience and allowing oneself to get lost in all the complexities of love (and lust!), of feeling hopeful, invigorated … and then being deeply, deeply, betrayed and wounded, not just by love, but by everyone and everything. From my perspective, he never completely recovers from that sense of betrayal on this record, though he does do a lot of serious soul searching. The songs are grouped, allowing ideas to be explored in considerable depth, examined through different musical and lyrical lenses.

Willa:  Yes, that was so interesting to me. I’d never thought about his albums like that before – that they include groupings of related songs, like chapters in a book, and that they move us through a sequence of emotional experiences, like a novel does. But now that you’ve pointed out that structure in Dangerous, I see it in HIStory and Invincible as well.

For example, Invincible begins with three painful songs about a disastrous relationship with an uncaring woman: she’s trying to hurt him, she doesn’t understand him, she rejects him without giving him a chance to explain or win her over. And interestingly, that reflects his relationship with the public right then: the press (and the police as well) really were out to get him, people didn’t understand him, and they rejected his later albums and wouldn’t give them – or him – a chance.

Those songs are then followed by a series of five songs where he’s imagining scenes of genuine love – and pretty steamy sexual passion also. It’s like he’s trying to imaginatively conjure up the love and desire that was denied him in the first three songs.

Susan: Yes, those two groupings are certainly there on Invincible. He seemed to want to explore a theme through more than one song, in back-to-back tracks, in these later albums. Look at something from more than one angle.

Willa:  Exactly.

Susan:  Another narrative strategy on a later album that I’ve been struck by is his decision to end HIStory with “Smile.” After all that anger and venom, all that commentary on social injustices both personal and broadly cultural, delivered through some of the most aggressive grooves he ever created, he ends the album with that tragic ballad and its directive to “smile though your heart is breaking” (which his must have been); it’s very powerful.

Willa:  It really is, especially when you consider that “Smile” was written by Charlie Chaplin, whose life story parallels Michael Jackson’s in significant ways. Chaplin was immensely popular in the 1920s and 30s, but then was falsely accused of fathering a child out of wedlock. There was a very public trial, and a paternity test proved he was not the father. But he was found guilty anyway, both in court and in the press, and the public turned against him. He spent the rest of his life in exile, something of a social pariah.

Given that context, I imagine “Smile” spoke to Michael Jackson in a very powerful way. And since HIStory in some respects is a response to the allegations against him, it makes sense that he would end the album with “Smile.” He rarely included cover songs on his albums, but he made an exception for “Smile” – it was that important to him.

Susan:  Precisely. The point about cover songs is really significant. As you say, he didn’t really do them. The only other cover that appears on his solo albums is “Come Together” on Bad.  I’ve always been intrigued by that choice as well.

Willa:  I have too! He also places “Come Together” in a very prominent spot at the end of Moonwalker, and as Frank Delio has said, that movie was very important to him – he put a lot of time and energy, and his own money, into making it. So it feels like there’s something going on with “Come Together” – something important. Maybe we can do another post on that sometime and try to figure it out.

Susan:  Great idea!

Willa:  So it’s really fascinating to look at his later albums as made up of “chapters” of songs – and that structure seems to begin with Dangerous. As you pointed out with the two Nutcracker Suite quotes (and how interesting that he referred to it twice, in such different ways!) he doesn’t seem to have used this approach with his earlier albums. Thriller is more a collection of hit singles, as you said. But with Dangerous, he seems to be taking listeners on an emotional journey as we progress through the album – which suggests that something is lost when we listen to these songs in Shuffle mode on our iPods.

Susan:  Or we just have a different kind of experience, which is fine too. I like looking at formal structures, though, and I think it’s interesting to view the album as a whole. “Jam,” for example, serves as a kind of overture on Dangerous (“it ain’t too much to Jam.” Now let me show you how it’s done for the next thirteen songs). I’m also struck by structural details, for example the first time we hear Jackson on Dangerous it’s through his breath – before he starts to sing – at the beginning of “Jam”; this aggressive use of breath returns in the last song on the album, “Dangerous,” in effect bringing the record full circle. I don’t think a detail like this is coincidental; when you listen to his music with your ears open you start to hear how intricately constructed it is, how nuanced.

Willa:  Yes, and I feel like you’ve been opening my ears! There are motifs running throughout this album that I hadn’t really noticed or thought about before, like the use of his breath, or the recurring sound of breaking glass, or the visual image of the globe that appears repeatedly in the videos for this album (in Jam, Heal the World, Black or White, Will You Be There) as well as occupying a central position on the album cover. And as you point out in your book, the meaning of these motifs seems to evolve over the course of the album.

For example, the breaking glass gains new meaning once you’ve seen all the breaking glass in the panther dance of Black or White – specifically, it can be read as expressing anger at racial injustice. And once you’ve made that connection, it’s very interesting to then go back and listen to the other instances of breaking glass and see how that affects the meaning there as well. For example, I think there’s a racial component to In the Closet, as Joie and I discussed in a post a while back, and we hear breaking glass at significant moments in that song and video. And the album as a whole begins with the sound of breaking glass, so what does that tell us about the album we’re about to hear?

Susan:  Indeed. What. The “non-musical” sounds on this album are really important to take into account – they help shape the narrative. The sound of breaking glass recurs in various places, as you say, and I think its meaning is multiple and complex. But one of the ways that I interpret the sound as it’s used at the beginning of the record is as a metaphor for a broken world.

Willa:  Oh, that makes a lot of sense, Susan. And it really fits with the recurring image of the globe, and the feeling that he’s focusing on “very big ideas” on this album, as you said earlier.

There are also some recurring musical techniques you identify in your book that I found really intriguing as well. For example, you point out that both “Jam” and “In the Closet” include a bass line in the chorus but not in the verses – a pronounced absence, if that makes sense. And that creates a very unsettled feeling in the verses, as you point out – like we’re dangling over a void with no ground beneath us. I love that image because it describes so perfectly my uneasiness when listening to “Jam” – something I feel rather intensely but had never really thought about before or traced back to its origins, and certainly never associated with the lack of bass. And that unsettled feeling fits the meaning of the lyrics because in both songs the verses are describing a problem: a broken world, a romantic conflict.

The bass then appears in the chorus, which as you point out in the book provides a feeling of reassurance – like, Whew! Now we’re back on solid ground! And that reinforces the meaning of the lyrics also since the chorus suggests a solution. In “Jam,” he tells us the solution to a broken world is to “jam” – to come together as a community and make music together, both literally and symbolically. So the ideas and emotions expressed in the lyrics are reinforced in sophisticated ways by the music.

Susan:  Yes, this is a great example of how musical sounds map onto social ideas. How does it make us feel when that grounding bassline isn’t there? How does the keyboard part that nearly mirrors the vocal line – but an octave higher and with a timbre that makes us feel tense – contribute to the sense of anxiousness in this song? Not to mention Jackson’s brilliant vocal in the verses, which is rushed: he’s constantly ahead of the beat – on purpose of course (this is really hard to do consistently, by the way).

Willa:  I love the way you put that, Susan: “how musical sounds map onto social ideas.” To me, that’s really the essence of what’s so fascinating about your book. I don’t know enough about music to uncover that on my own – to figure out how specific musical details translate into creating meaning and emotion. I don’t even hear a lot of those details until you point them out, and then, Wow! It’s like I’m hearing elements of these songs for the first time – like that high unsettling keyboard line in “Jam” that you just mentioned. I hear it so clearly now since I read your book, but don’t remember ever hearing it before. So it opens up an entirely new aspect of his brilliance that’s closed to me without help from you or Lisha or others with your expertise.

Susan:  I hope it’s useful to think about these things. When people say that Jackson was a perfectionist, it’s details like this that they’re talking about (along with lyrics, his dancing – which I don’t have the skills to say much about – etc.):  the choice of a particular instrument or timbre, the placement of a breath, the decision to create a song in a particular genre, or to add an unsettling sound somewhere (one of the most intriguing examples of this last idea – to me at least – is the percussive sound heard after the last iteration of the chorus in “They Don’t Really Care About Us,” just before the guitar comes back in – at about 4:15. It’s just sonically interesting in and of itself, but why the dissonance at that point, why the new timbre that hasn’t been heard before in the song?). Some of these ideas came from his producers, I’m sure, but he OK’d them. The point is, he understood and appreciated the power of the musical detail. To say the least.

Willa:  Absolutely. Well, it feels like we’ve really only talked in detail about the first chapter of your book – there’s so much more to discuss and explore! I hope you’ll join us again sometime. It’s always so fun to talk with you.

Susan:  Yes … and we elaborated on what’s in that first chapter in some interesting ways! Thanks for the opportunity to explore these ideas with you; I’d be happy to join you again.

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Summer Rewind Series, Week 7: In The Closet

NOTE: The following conversation was originally posted on January 11, 2012. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

This Passion Burns Inside of Me

Willa:  This week Joie and I are looking at In the Closet. To be honest, this wasn’t the post we meant to write – we were planning to take a historical look at race and sexuality and then position Michael Jackson within that historical context. But as we started discussing that we got into such a lively debate about In the Closet that we decided to take a detour.

However, we’re taking a little different approach this time. As the title tells us, In the Closet is about a taboo relationship. But it’s not taboo because of sexual orientation – this is a story about a man and a woman – so there must be some other reason. But why? Why is this a forbidden love? While talking about that, Joie and I discussed four different answers to that question – each interesting in its own way, each supported by lyrics and visual cues, and each leading to a very different interpretation of the video as a whole.

One interpretation is that it’s taboo because of race. The video features two characters negotiating the terms of their relationship, and those characters are played by Naomi Campbell, a beautiful Black model, and Michael Jackson. Because we know his background and because he calls himself Black, we tend to think of him as Black and assume he’s playing a Black character.

But he doesn’t look Black in this video. He looks Mediterranean, an interpretation reinforced by the Spanish architecture, and the Spanish dancers, and the fact that he’s wearing a wedding ring on his right hand rather than his left, as is customary in Spain. So we have a rather Victor/Victoria type situation where Michael Jackson is a Black actor portraying a White man involved in a taboo relationship with a Black woman. (And I have to say, who else but Michael Jackson would think up a scenario like this? And who else could play it half so well? He’s just endlessly fascinating to me….)

What makes this relationship so taboo is the issue of marriage. While White men have traditionally slept with Black women, by force if necessary, they haven’t married Black women. They’ve married proper White women. Marriage between a White man and a Black woman is as radical in its way as sex between a Black man and a White woman. And I think that’s the taboo Michael Jackson tackles in In the Closet.

Joie:  Willa, I have to say that I never thought of this video in this way before. I have never looked at In the Closet as a song about race at all. To me the lyrics are very clearly all about sex. Forbidden sex, to be more exact. And, as you say, we tend to think of Michael as a Black man – because he is – so, I’ve never viewed him in this video as portraying a White man.

Willa:  I’m really glad you brought that up, Joie, because I want to be very clear about this. I’m not in any way suggesting that, as a person, Michael Jackson wasn’t Black or tried to deny his Black heritage. I don’t believe that at all. I’m simply saying that, as an actor, I don’t think he should be restricted to Black roles, and I don’t think we should assume that all his characters are Black. I love the Kenneth Branagh version of Much Ado about Nothing, which has Denzel Washington playing a White character, Don Pedro. Interestingly enough, Don Pedro is Spanish – a Spanish nobleman – and this film came out in 1993, a year after In the Closet.

Joie:  Oh, I love that movie too! It’s really fun, isn’t it? And I’m a sucker for Shakespeare! But I know you’re not suggesting that Michael wasn’t Black. I just find your take on this video really surprising. And quite clever. But anyway, Michael often wore a ring on his right ring finger so, again, I never thought much of that. Not that I’m disagreeing with your interpretation; I do find it fascinating. I’m just saying I’ve never viewed it in this way before. Very interesting.

Willa:  And I’m certainly not saying this is the only way of interpreting it, but I do think it’s a possibility and a valid approach. There are several visual cues that suggest it, though they’re subtle. The video opens with a shot of the ring:  Michael Jackson’s character is walking with his hands in his back pockets, and the hand with the ring is toward the camera. Importantly, Naomi Campbell’s character isn’t wearing a ring, so symbolically this tells us that he is more committed to their relationship than she is – but maybe not. While he’s more committed in some ways, he wants to keep their relationship a secret, and she doesn’t. As she tells him in the opening monologue, “Don’t hide our love.” She’s not thinking marriage; she just wants a normal relationship.

He is thinking marriage. This isn’t Thomas Jefferson having as many as six children with a slave, Sally Hemings, and never acknowledging her. (In a secret codicil to his will, Jefferson freed her children but not her. She remained a slave her entire life.) This seems very different, though he still feels driven to “hide our love.” In other words, this modern 20th Century man is still wrestling with the fallout of our nation’s long, painful racial/sexual/cultural history – a history that extends back before we were even a country, and includes at least one of our founding fathers and the author of the Declaration of Independence.

I believe this is the taboo Michael Jackson’s character is struggling against. He wants a real life together. He’s wearing a ring. He evokes the image of women dancing, as at a wedding. And he takes her to a house – not a restaurant or a bar or a dance club, but to a domestic place where they could start a life together. But the house isn’t in a community; it’s completely isolated, out in the desert. He wants marriage, but that means transgressing a strong cultural taboo, and he’s not ready to take that step. So he holds his hand up to his face, shows her the wedding ring, and asks her to “take a vow” with him. But instead of a vow of marriage, he says, “For now / let’s take a vow / to keep it in the closet.”  

Joie:  Well, like I said, I find your interpretation fascinating, and it is valid. But I believe you may be over-thinking it a little bit. Maybe she is not wearing a wedding ring NOT because she isn’t thinking marriage, but simply because she isn’t his wife. Maybe the reason he wants to keep their relationship a secret – taking her to a house that’s completely isolated, far away from prying eyes – is because she is his mistress. Hence, the forbidden sex. He wants to be free to love her publicly but he’s simply not able to because he’s already married to someone else. After all, he tells us in the opening lines,

She’s just a lover who gets me by
It worth the giving, it’s worth the try
You cannot cleave it, put it in the furnace
You cannot wet it, you cannot burn it  

In the Bible – a book we know Michael read frequently – it tells us in Genesis 2:24, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” According to Merriam-Webster, the word cleave means ‘to adhere firmly and closely or loyally and unwaveringly.’ So the lyrics are telling us that this man is married but he’s involved in a taboo relationship with another woman. He “cannot cleave it” because he’s already vowed to “cleave” to someone else. Then he goes on to say,

It’s just a feeling, you have to soothe it
You can’t neglect it, you can’t abuse it
It’s just desire, you cannot waste it  
But if you want it, then won’t you taste it  

He’s telling us here that he is consumed by lust and the desire for a woman who is not his wife. And he’s apparently willing to risk an awful lot to satisfy his desires, as he tells us,

If you can get it, it’s worth a try
I really want it, I can’t deny
It’s just desire, I really love it
‘Cause if it’s aching, you have to rub it  

He even adds in the little mischievous “Dare me?” all throughout the song. He knows what he’s doing is risky and that he could be caught at any moment.

I believe this interpretation is supported by the video as well. As you pointed out, he takes her to a secluded love nest where there’s less chance they’ll be spotted by anyone who knows either of them. There are several prominent shots of the ring that he’s wearing and she is not. And then there are the shots of him dancing with his back against the wall and on the threshold – neither out nor in – because he’s not free to make a real commitment to her.

I love your interpretation; it has given me a whole new way of thinking about this video. But I tend to believe that both the song and the short film are not addressing race so much as they are adultery. Romanticizing the idea of forbidden sex. “The truth of lust, woman to man.”  

Willa:  Joie, I love your analysis of this, and I absolutely agree it’s a valid interpretation of In the Closet. And I’m intrigued by that word “cleave” now. I just assumed it meant its more common definition, which is to split something apart, like with a cleaver. I hadn’t thought about the Biblical connotations of that word before, and how traditionally it has referred to marriage. But to me, while this reinforces the idea that this video is about a forbidden love – one that hasn’t been consecrated in marriage – it doesn’t identify why it’s forbidden. It could be because he’s already married, but it could also be because of race. To me, this supports either interpretation.

Joie:  Really? See, I disagree. I think the word “cleave” says it all. He’s definitely married and the woman he has the hots for is definitely not his wife. Otherwise, I don’t think Michael would have used such an unusual word. He was trying to convey a message and tell a story and he chose this word specifically to spell it out for us. The whole rest of that first verse – “put it in the furnace / you cannot wet it / you cannot burn it” – also has Biblical connotations so, I think he was really trying to paint a specific picture with those opening lines.

Willa:  That is so interesting, Joie – it conjures up images of hell and damnation that I had never associated with those lyrics before. And that actually suggests a third interpretation, and a third reason for why this relationship is taboo:  because he sees this woman as a temptress. After all, she is clearly a sexual being, and seems pretty knowledgeable about sex and desire.

There’s a centuries-old belief that respectable women don’t feel sexual desire, and in the 19th Century, especially, this led many men – and women too – to divide women into two distinct categories:  respectable women (who weren’t sexual) and sexual women (who weren’t respectable). As Edith Wharton wrote in The Age of Innocence when describing the beliefs of upper class young men in the 1880s, there was a culturally recognized abyss “between the women one loved and respected and those one enjoyed – and pitied.”  She goes on to write that, “In this view they were sedulously abetted by their mothers, aunts and other elderly female relatives.”

While these rigid and repressive attitudes have softened considerably, they haven’t disappeared by any means – and Naomi Campbell’s character in this video is openly sexual and very comfortable with her sexuality. The male lead obviously feels a strong attraction for her, but is she the kind of woman you bring home for pot roast with the parents? And I keep thinking about those Spanish women dancers in their traditional dress. They’ll dance at his wedding if he marries the right kind of woman, but will they dance at his wedding if he marries her – a very sexual woman?

Looking at In the Closet this way, maybe “the truth of lust, woman to man,” is that women do feel sexual desire, and shouldn’t be judged for that. We don’t insist that respectable men deny their sexuality and live the life of a monk, so why demand that of women?

Joie:  That is an interesting point, Willa. And as I sat watching this video over and over again in preparation for this post, a fourth interpretation occurred to me and it sort of ties in to what you were just saying about the sexual attitudes of the 1880s. You’re correct in saying that those attitudes have not completely disappeared. And it could be that this song – and the video – are simply about the joy of sex itself. Perhaps he’s not married and the forbidden nature of the song is simply because sex itself is the taboo here. We’re all supposed to be “proper” individuals, and sex outside of marriage is unthinkable and wrong. Maybe that’s why it feels so exciting and forbidden for him. In the chorus of the song he sings joyously,

There’s something about you, baby
That makes me want to give it to you    
I swear there’s something about you, baby
That makes me want…  

He knows that he shouldn’t feel this way; he’s not supposed to. Society – and the Bible – tells him it’s wrong. But he can’t help himself. He’s human and he has human desires. And so does she. But in his exuberance he makes sure to remind her,

Just promise me that whatever we say
Or whatever we do to each other
For now, we’ll make a vow  to just
Keep it in the closet  

It has to be a secret because what they’re doing is so wrong, or at the very least, completely inappropriate.

Willa:  That is so intriguing, Joie, and it makes a lot of sense. Michael Jackson was very aware of the complicated nature of sex. It can be a tender expression of love and intimacy, as we see in songs like “Break of Dawn.” But it can also be used for manipulation, ambition, or revenge, as we see in songs like “Billie Jean,” or it can simply satisfy mindless physical appetites, as we see in songs like “Superfly Sister.” And his songs do have an allegorical feeling to them sometimes, so I think an allegorical interpretation like this is perfectly appropriate and in keeping with his artistic vision.

I remember when we were talking about My Baby several months ago, and we were trying to figure out why the protagonist kept being attracted to these “bad girls” who repeatedly hurt both him and My Baby. It happens again and again, in songs like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Dirty Diana” and “Dangerous.” You suggested that maybe those women represented fame – that’s why he was so attracted to them and couldn’t just walk away and leave them alone – and, for me, that opened up a whole new way of looking at those songs. I think about it every time I hear them. And I think there could be a similar allegorical element here.

Joie:  I agree. And many of his songs do feel very allegorical at times. But you know, I am just flabbergasted at the fact that we were able to come up with so many different ways of interpreting both the lyrics and and the short film for this song. Before we began talking about it, I never realized that there were so many layers here! It’s actually very deep and complex and I find myself wondering if the concept for the short film came as he was writing the lyrics or if it developed later, because they just seem so intertwined to me. Really fascinating.

Willa:  That’s a really good question. I’d love to know that too. In Moonwalk, he says,

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

So it sounds like some of the visual elements are percolating in his mind from the beginning. But I think he also lets things develop during the storyboarding sessions and throughout production, as he goes on to talk about:

I felt “Beat It” should be interpreted literally, the way it was written, one gang against another on tough urban streets. It had to be rough. That’s what “Beat It” was about.

When I got back to L.A., I saw Bob Giraldi’s demo reel and knew that he was the director I wanted for “Beat It.” I loved the way he told a story in his work, so I talked with him about “Beat It.” We went over things, my ideas and his ideas, and that’s how  it was created. We played with the storyboard and molded it and created it.  

So as with his work in the studio producing songs, he seems to have a vision of what he wants to convey (“I felt ‘Beat It’ should be interpreted literally, like it was written”) but then he’s able to evoke the best from his collaborators and lets things develop throughout the process, drawing on their ideas and expertise as well.

And I agree with you, Joie. In the Closet is so interesting on so many levels – artistically, culturally, psychologically. Whatever the reason, Michael Jackson portrays a deeply conflicted character in this video. He feels tremendous desire for this woman obviously, and he wants to do the right thing and marry her, but he can’t – either because he’s already married, or because he can’t quite find the courage to defy cultural taboos, or because she represents the dangerous embodiment of sex itself.

The choreography and cinematography emphasize his internal conflict. As you mentioned earlier, Joie, we see shots of him dancing with his back to the wall, literally, and we see numerous shots of him in doorways – neither in nor out, as you said. Perhaps the most striking sequences are the wonderful silhouettes where he’s dancing at the threshold. This again refers back to marriage since the groom traditionally carries the bride across the threshold to begin their new life together. But he can’t do that for some reason, so he dances in the doorway instead – unable to make an official declaration of marriage but unable to walk away.

The video ends with him shutting the door and shutting himself inside the house, telling us visually that, for now, he’s determined to keep this relationship “in the closet.”

Joie:  But Willa and I would love to know what you think on this one. If you have an interpretation for In The Closet that differs from the four that we’ve explored here, please let us know; we’d love to hear it!

Gotta Leave That Nine to Five Up On the Shelf

Joie:  So ever since our blog post about Michael’s sex appeal, I’ve been thinking a lot about Off the Wall and what a truly amazing album it is. I think I mentioned back during the sex appeal post that this particular album is very special to me because it was released just as I was hitting puberty, and it really transformed the way I thought about Michael Jackson. I always loved him, even as a very small child. But that album really changed everything for me. It was like my ‘coming of age’ moment. And I’m not just speaking in the traditional sense although, I shared with you how it brought about my sexual awakening, so to speak. But I mean in other ways as well. For instance, that’s when I really discovered my love of music.

Music was always a part of my childhood. Growing up, I remember music as being a constant, comforting presence in our household – almost like another family member. The radio or the stereo was always on. Both my parents were huge music lovers, all of my siblings loved music, and they were all older than me so, I was never in control of what we listened to. So, as a result, I grew up with sort of an eclectic mix of genres floating around in my head. We listened to everything it seemed – Blues, Motown, country, rock, funk, disco, pop, old school rap – even gospel. And to this day, I still have really vast and varied musical tastes. But when Off the Wall came out, it was like an epiphany for me. Even though I owned a million Jackson 5 albums and every Jacksons album, when Off the Wall came out, it was like I finally understood that music was essential to my well-being and that Michael Jackson in particular was like healing water for me; he was like my lifeline or my sanity.

I’m sure this isn’t coming out at all like I want it to and I probably sound crazy but, it was a very significant moment in my life and Off the Wall had everything to do with that. But interestingly, it wasn’t until years and years later, after I had gained more emotional maturity and really felt grounded in both my love for and my knowledge of music, that I began to really take in what this record had to offer and began to appreciate this album on its own merits and not just on my childhood sentimental attachments to it. And what I discovered is that this album is truly wonderful from start to finish.

Willa:  Joie, that doesn’t sound crazy at all. It really helps me understand the emotional feeling you get when listening to this album, and I think you’re zeroing in on something really important that’s often overlooked, which is the emotional power of Michael Jackson’s work.

It’s interesting – I approached this album from the opposite direction you did, but ended up in a similar place. When you suggested we write about Off the Wall, I went back and started listening to the album as a whole, which honestly, I haven’t done in quite a while. I usually listen to a shuffle of Michael Jackson’s songs, so while I’m listening to the Off the Wall songs quite a bit, I’m not listening to them as an album.

Joie:  That’s really funny because I do the exact same thing.

Willa:  It’s interesting how technology has changed the way we listen to music, isn’t it? To me, it felt really good to go back and listen to these songs as an album, the way he intended when he was putting it together. But while you went back and listened to it through the memories of what it meant to you as a teenage girl, I was very aware that I was listening to it as a middle-aged woman. And, Joie, I am so middle-aged I can hardly believe it. Somehow I’ve turned into the classic can’t-find-my-glasses, can’t-remember-what-I-went-downstairs-to-get, can’t-remember-what-day-it-is middle-aged person. Seriously, I shock myself daily. I started to put on my glasses this morning and discovered I was already wearing glasses. Heavens.

Joie:  Willa, you crack me up sometimes!

Willa:  Anyway, enough about my foggy old brain. I just have to say that going back and listening to this album this week was an absolute blast. I’m 50 years old, but this album plunged me into the psychic space of a 20-year-old, and that was so much fun for me. It’s such an exuberant album, for one thing, with that incredible energy and confidence of 20-year-olds, but it also captures that unsettling feeling that everything you do and every decision you make is so momentous. He’s really tackling some big subjects on this album – work and play, sex and romance, thinking about the future and enjoying the present moment – and those are the very subjects that tend to dominate the mind of a 20-year-old. Who am I going to be? What kind of person am I going to be? What kind of future do I want to have?

For me, listening to this album just immersed me in that whole experience of being 20, which is such a time of exploration and high energy and high drama. Things are much calmer for me now, and I’m glad, but it’s fun to mentally time travel back and remember that life phase sometimes.

Listening to this album as a whole also made me realize how unified it is. A common criticism that’s lodged against his albums is that they’re too eclectic – just a random mix of songs without a unifying theme or style holding them together. And it’s true he liked to experiment with different genres of music, different rhythms and syncopated beats, different sounds, including found sounds. But there’s a psychological and emotional unity to his albums that’s very evocative and compelling to me.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa. I’ve always been so puzzled by that criticism that Michael’s albums are too random because, to me, all anyone has to do is simply listen. But you can’t just listen with your ears; you also have to listen with your heart. And, if you do that, the unifying themes that most critics want to see in an album are all right there. And they’re never buried; it’s not like you have to go searching for it. It’s all right there just below the surface if they would only listen.

Willa:  I love the way you put that, Joie – “you also have to listen with your heart.” I really believe that’s true, on several levels. To really experience his music, you have to open yourself up to it emotionally. His music can really take you places, if you let it, but you have to be willing to let it take you there. And to begin to understand the full power of his music, I think we have to try to understand what it’s doing emotionally.

You know, we spent the month of October looking back at the Invincible album, which was released at a time when the public was turning against him and refusing to listen to what he had to say. And the painful emotions of that moment in his life completely suffuse that album. In song after song, the narrator is trying to reach out and create a relationship with a woman, or repair a relationship that’s broken or in crisis, but she won’t listen to him, won’t give him a chance. And so he finds himself inarticulate and unable to make things right – “I just can’t find the right thing to say,” as he sings in “Don’t Walk Away.” We see this same scenario repeated over and over again on this album, from the thundering “Heartbreaker” and “Invincible” to the achingly beautiful “Don’t Walk Away” and “Whatever Happens.” And that not only creates a mood of sorrow and loss on this album – of miscommunication and missed opportunities and unfulfilled dreams – it also creates a kind of mind-meld where we as listeners are immersed in his emotional space for a while, and actually experience his emotional suffering to some degree.

I see a similar type of psychological and emotional unity in Off the Wall, and feel that same sense of being immersed in his emotional space for a while. But in this album, he’s a young man poised at the edge of adulthood, and he perfectly captures that mix of exhilaration and confusion we feel at that time.

Joie:  I agree, and there’s also a certain level of exuberance and cockiness on this album as well, which are other traits that most twenty-somethings have in common. They are standing at the brink with their lives stretched out in front of them and the possibilities are endless! The sky is the limit and that’s the feeling you get when you listen to this album. It’s young and fresh and happy and unencumbered by the stresses of life.

He sounds like he’s having the best time recording these songs. I love the way he laughs near the end of “Get on the Floor.”

Willa:  I do too!

Joie:  It’s as if he just cannot contain his joy and it is priceless! This album puts a smile on my face, from the opening beats of “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” to the closing chords of “Burn This Disco Out.” I love the romantic imagery of “Girlfriend,” I love the carefree message of “Off the Wall,” I love the sensual melody of “I Can’t Help It.” I even love the palpable heartbreak of “She’s Out of My Life.”

Even “Working Day and Night,” which is about a man who’s working his butt off every single day to try and keep his girl happy, is just so much fun to listen to. You get the sense that even though he’s complaining about it, he really doesn’t mind all that much.

Willa:  You know, I’m glad you mentioned that because I’ve been thinking a lot about “Working Day and Night.” It’s one of three songs he wrote for this album, and it’s really interesting, especially these lyrics:

You say that working
Is what a man’s supposed to do
And I say it ain’t right
If I can’t give sweet love to you
 
I’m tired of thinking
Of what my life’s supposed to be

The narrator is a young man “working day and night” just to please his girlfriend, but then he’s so busy he doesn’t get to spend time with her. So he’s caught in this ironic situation, and he’s frustrated and complaining about it, as you say.

But maybe it’s not his girlfriend’s fault. Maybe he just thinks that’s what she wants because he’s been told “that working is what a man’s supposed to do.” Interestingly, he returns to this same situation 22 years later in “Whatever Happens,” but in this later song he looks at the situation from her perspective as well as his. And this time he makes it clear that this couple really doesn’t understand each other very well:

He’s working day and night, thinks he’ll make her happy
Forgetting all the dreams that he had…
 
She tries to explain, “It’s you that makes me happy”
Whatever, whatever, whatever

So this actually describes a pretty complicated situation – one that’s especially important to a 20-year-old with a long career stretched out before him. A lot of people get trapped by this:  they’re working incredibly hard so they can afford the good things in life, but then they don’t have time to enjoy life and enjoy those good things. I get the sense that he’s using these scenes between a man and a woman as a metaphor to dramatize and try to understand that dynamic and avoid getting caught up in the rat race. As he sings in “Working Day and Night,” “You say that working / Is what a man’s supposed to do / And I say it ain’t right.”  

Joie:  Willa, I love the way you’ve compared “Working Day and Night” to “Whatever Happens.” It’s really interesting. And the funny thing is that I also found myself comparing “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” to his later work as well. I just love these lyrics:

Lovely, is the feelin’ now
Fever, temperatures risin’ now…
So get closer (closer now) to my body now
Just love me, ’til you don’t know  how…  
 
Touch me, and I feel on fire
Ain’t nothin,’ like a love desire
I’m melting (I’m melting now) like hot candle wax
Sensation (ah sensation) lovely where we’re at

Willa:  Joie, that’s wicked! Truly wicked.

Joie:  I’m sorry; I don’t mean to torture you! I’m just trying to make a point here. You know, “Don’t Stop” is another one of the three songs he wrote on this album and, to me, these lyrics suggest that this song is, once again, all about the joy of sex and sexual desire. And, as we pointed out a few weeks ago in our discussion of “In the Closet,” it’s a theme he would return to several years later. And what strikes me most about “Don’t Stop” is that Michael was always accused of being somewhat “soft” in comparison to the raunchy personas and lyrical content of other popular artists. But yet, he could write a song that’s very clearly all about sex and deliver it in such a subtle manner that it feels romantic and sensual and classy instead of raunchy and sleazy. He still gets the point across and he does it in a respectful, sexy way.

Willa:  I’d say he gets the point across! “I’m melting like hot candle wax” – wow. I may be 50, but that line still makes me blush – especially when people go springing it on me unexpectedly. And then he comes in with that low voice – “I’m melting now” – and … oh my. It definitely creates a mood….

Joie:  Willa, you blush so easily. Just like Michael. And it’s fascinating to me that a man who could write such passionate lyrics could be so bashful. That trait only made him sexier!

But seriously, I personally think that his knack for writing such sensual material and doing it in such a subtle way is a real testament to his ability and acumen as a songwriter – which is something else he’s never really been given proper credit for. But that’s a discussion for another time.

The point is, when I listen to this album, I get the feeling that Off the Wall wasn’t just my ‘coming of age’ moment; it was Michael’s coming of age moment as well. In many ways it was sort of his big debut to the world, even though he had already been entertaining us for many years before this album’s release. This was his big moment to show the world that he wasn’t that cute little kid with the chubby cheeks anymore; he was all grown up and fully prepared to show us all exactly what he could do. He was discovering his skills as a songwriter and stretching his skills as a dancer and really coming into his own. And because of all that, Off the Wall is one of the greatest gems in his vast catalog of work.

This Passion Burns Inside of Me

Willa:  This week Joie and I are looking at In the Closet. To be honest, this wasn’t the post we meant to write – we were planning to take a historical look at race and sexuality and then position Michael Jackson within that historical context. But as we started discussing that we got into such a lively debate about In the Closet that we decided to take a detour.

However, we’re taking a little different approach this time. As the title tells us, In the Closet is about a taboo relationship. But it’s not taboo because of sexual orientation – this is a story about a man and a woman – so there must be some other reason. But why? Why is this a forbidden love? While talking about that, Joie and I discussed four different answers to that question – each interesting in its own way, each supported by lyrics and visual cues, and each leading to a very different interpretation of the video as a whole.

One interpretation is that it’s taboo because of race. The video features two characters negotiating the terms of their relationship, and those characters are played by Naomi Campbell, a beautiful Black model, and Michael Jackson. Because we know his background and because he calls himself Black, we tend to think of him as Black and assume he’s playing a Black character.

But he doesn’t look Black in this video. He looks Mediterranean, an interpretation reinforced by the Spanish architecture, and the Spanish dancers, and the fact that he’s wearing a wedding ring on his right hand rather than his left, as is customary in Spain. So we have a rather Victor/Victoria type situation where Michael Jackson is a Black actor portraying a White man involved in a taboo relationship with a Black woman. (And I have to say, who else but Michael Jackson would think up a scenario like this? And who else could play it half so well? He’s just endlessly fascinating to me….)

What makes this relationship so taboo is the issue of marriage. While White men have traditionally slept with Black women, by force if necessary, they haven’t married Black women. They’ve married proper White women. Marriage between a White man and a Black woman is as radical in its way as sex between a Black man and a White woman. And I think that’s the taboo Michael Jackson tackles in In the Closet.

Joie:  Willa, I have to say that I never thought of this video in this way before. I have never looked at In the Closet as a song about race at all. To me the lyrics are very clearly all about sex. Forbidden sex, to be more exact. And, as you say, we tend to think of Michael as a Black man – because he is – so, I’ve never viewed him in this video as portraying a White man.

Willa:  I’m really glad you brought that up, Joie, because I want to be very clear about this. I’m not in any way suggesting that, as a person, Michael Jackson wasn’t Black or tried to deny his Black heritage. I don’t believe that at all. I’m simply saying that, as an actor, I don’t think he should be restricted to Black roles, and I don’t think we should assume that all his characters are Black. I love the Kenneth Branagh version of Much Ado about Nothing, which has Denzel Washington playing a White character, Don Pedro. Interestingly enough, Don Pedro is Spanish – a Spanish nobleman – and this film came out in 1993, a year after In the Closet.

Joie:  Oh, I love that movie too! It’s really fun, isn’t it? And I’m a sucker for Shakespeare! But I know you’re not suggesting that Michael wasn’t Black. I just find your take on this video really surprising. And quite clever. But anyway, Michael often wore a ring on his right ring finger so, again, I never thought much of that. Not that I’m disagreeing with your interpretation; I do find it fascinating. I’m just saying I’ve never viewed it in this way before. Very interesting.

Willa:  And I’m certainly not saying this is the only way of interpreting it, but I do think it’s a possibility and a valid approach. There are several visual cues that suggest it, though they’re subtle. The video opens with a shot of the ring:  Michael Jackson’s character is walking with his hands in his back pockets, and the hand with the ring is toward the camera. Importantly, Naomi Campbell’s character isn’t wearing a ring, so symbolically this tells us that he is more committed to their relationship than she is – but maybe not. While he’s more committed in some ways, he wants to keep their relationship a secret, and she doesn’t. As she tells him in the opening monologue, “Don’t hide our love.” She’s not thinking marriage; she just wants a normal relationship.

He is thinking marriage. This isn’t Thomas Jefferson having as many as six children with a slave, Sally Hemings, and never acknowledging her. (In a secret codicil to his will, Jefferson freed her children but not her. She remained a slave her entire life.) This seems very different, though he still feels driven to “hide our love.” In other words, this modern 20th Century man is still wrestling with the fallout of our nation’s long, painful racial/sexual/cultural history – a history that extends back before we were even a country, and includes at least one of our founding fathers and the author of the Declaration of Independence.

I believe this is the taboo Michael Jackson’s character is struggling against. He wants a real life together. He’s wearing a ring. He evokes the image of women dancing, as at a wedding. And he takes her to a house – not a restaurant or a bar or a dance club, but to a domestic place where they could start a life together. But the house isn’t in a community; it’s completely isolated, out in the desert. He wants marriage, but that means transgressing a strong cultural taboo, and he’s not ready to take that step. So he holds his hand up to his face, shows her the wedding ring, and asks her to “take a vow” with him. But instead of a vow of marriage, he says, “For now / let’s take a vow / to keep it in the closet.”

Joie:  Well, like I said, I find your interpretation fascinating, and it is valid. But I believe you may be over-thinking it a little bit. Maybe she is not wearing a wedding ring NOT because she isn’t thinking marriage, but simply because she isn’t his wife. Maybe the reason he wants to keep their relationship a secret – taking her to a house that’s completely isolated, far away from prying eyes – is because she is his mistress. Hence, the forbidden sex. He wants to be free to love her publicly but he’s simply not able to because he’s already married to someone else. After all, he tells us in the opening lines,

She’s just a lover who gets me by
It worth the giving, it’s worth the try
You cannot cleave it, put it in the furnace
You cannot wet it, you cannot burn it

In the Bible – a book we know Michael read frequently – it tells us in Genesis 2:24, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” According to Merriam-Webster, the word cleave means ‘to adhere firmly and closely or loyally and unwaveringly.’ So the lyrics are telling us that this man is married but he’s involved in a taboo relationship with another woman. He “cannot cleave it” because he’s already vowed to “cleave” to someone else. Then he goes on to say,

 It’s just a feeling, you have to soothe it
You can’t neglect it, you can’t abuse it
It’s just desire, you cannot waste it
But if you want it, then won’t you taste it

He’s telling us here that he is consumed by lust and the desire for a woman who is not his wife. And he’s apparently willing to risk an awful lot to satisfy his desires, as he tells us,

If you can get it, it’s worth a try
I really want it, I can’t deny
It’s just desire, I really love it
‘Cause if it’s aching, you have to rub it

He even adds in the little mischievous “Dare me?” all throughout the song. He knows what he’s doing is risky and that he could be caught at any moment.

I believe this interpretation is supported by the video as well. As you pointed out, he takes her to a secluded love nest where there’s less chance they’ll be spotted by anyone who knows either of them. There are several prominent shots of the ring that he’s wearing and she is not. And then there are the shots of him dancing with his back against the wall and on the threshold – neither out nor in – because he’s not free to make a real commitment to her.

I love your interpretation; it has given me a whole new way of thinking about this video. But I tend to believe that both the song and the short film are not addressing race so much as they are adultery. Romanticizing the idea of forbidden sex. “The truth of lust, woman to man.”

Willa:  Joie, I love your analysis of this, and I absolutely agree it’s a valid interpretation of In the Closet. And I’m intrigued by that word “cleave” now. I just assumed it meant its more common definition, which is to split something apart, like with a cleaver. I hadn’t thought about the Biblical connotations of that word before, and how traditionally it has referred to marriage. But to me, while this reinforces the idea that this video is about a forbidden love – one that hasn’t been consecrated in marriage – it doesn’t identify why it’s forbidden. It could be because he’s already married, but it could also be because of race. To me, this supports either interpretation.

Joie:  Really? See, I disagree. I think the word “cleave” says it all. He’s definitely married and the woman he has the hots for is definitely not his wife. Otherwise, I don’t think Michael would have used such an unusual word. He was trying to convey a message and tell a story and he chose this word specifically to spell it out for us. The whole rest of that first verse – “put it in the furnace / you cannot wet it / you cannot burn it” – also has Biblical connotations so, I think he was really trying to paint a specific picture with those opening lines.

Willa:  That is so interesting, Joie – it conjures up images of hell and damnation that I had never associated with those lyrics before. And that actually suggests a third interpretation, and a third reason for why this relationship is taboo:  because he sees this woman as a temptress. After all, she is clearly a sexual being, and seems pretty knowledgeable about sex and desire.

There’s a centuries-old belief that respectable women don’t feel sexual desire, and in the 19th Century, especially, this led many men – and women too – to divide women into two distinct categories:  respectable women (who weren’t sexual) and sexual women (who weren’t respectable). As Edith Wharton wrote in The Age of Innocence when describing the beliefs of upper class young men in the 1880s, there was a culturally recognized abyss “between the women one loved and respected and those one enjoyed – and pitied.”  She goes on to write that, “In this view they were sedulously abetted by their mothers, aunts and other elderly female relatives.

While these rigid and repressive attitudes have softened considerably, they haven’t disappeared by any means – and Naomi Campbell’s character in this video is openly sexual and very comfortable with her sexuality. The male lead obviously feels a strong attraction for her, but is she the kind of woman you bring home for pot roast with the parents? And I keep thinking about those Spanish women dancers in their traditional dress. They’ll dance at his wedding if he marries the right kind of woman, but will they dance at his wedding if he marries her – a very sexual woman?

Looking at In the Closet this way, maybe “the truth of lust, woman to man,” is that women do feel sexual desire, and shouldn’t be judged for that. We don’t insist that respectable men deny their sexuality and live the life of a monk, so why demand that of women?

Joie:  That is an interesting point, Willa. And as I sat watching this video over and over again in preparation for this post, a fourth interpretation occurred to me and it sort of ties in to what you were just saying about the sexual attitudes of the 1880s. You’re correct in saying that those attitudes have not completely disappeared. And it could be that this song – and the video – are simply about the joy of sex itself. Perhaps he’s not married and the forbidden nature of the song is simply because sex itself is the taboo here. We’re all supposed to be “proper” individuals, and sex outside of marriage is unthinkable and wrong. Maybe that’s why it feels so exciting and forbidden for him. In the chorus of the song he sings joyously,

There’s something about you, baby
That makes me want to give it to you
 I swear there’s something about you, baby
That makes me want…

He knows that he shouldn’t feel this way; he’s not supposed to. Society – and the Bible – tells him it’s wrong. But he can’t help himself. He’s human and he has human desires. And so does she. But in his exuberance he makes sure to remind her,

Just promise me that whatever we say
Or whatever we do to each other
For now, we’ll make a vow  to just
Keep it in the closet 

It has to be a secret because what they’re doing is so wrong, or at the very least, completely inappropriate.

Willa:  That is so intriguing, Joie, and it makes a lot of sense. Michael Jackson was very aware of the complicated nature of sex. It can be a tender expression of love and intimacy, as we see in songs like “Break of Dawn.” But it can also be used for manipulation, ambition, or revenge, as we see in songs like “Billie Jean,” or it can simply satisfy mindless physical appetites, as we see in songs like “Superfly Sister.” And his songs do have an allegorical feeling to them sometimes, so I think an allegorical interpretation like this is perfectly appropriate and in keeping with his artistic vision.

I remember when we were talking about My Baby several months ago, and we were trying to figure out why the protagonist kept being attracted to these “bad girls” who repeatedly hurt both him and My Baby. It happens again and again, in songs like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Dirty Diana” and “Dangerous.” You suggested that maybe those women represented fame – that’s why he was so attracted to them and couldn’t just walk away and leave them alone – and, for me, that opened up a whole new way of looking at those songs. I think about it every time I hear them. And I think there could be a similar allegorical element here.

Joie:  I agree. And many of his songs do feel very allegorical at times. But you know, I am just flabbergasted at the fact that we were able to come up with so many different ways of interpreting both the lyrics and and the short film for this song. Before we began talking about it, I never realized that there were so many layers here! It’s actually very deep and complex and I find myself wondering if the concept for the short film came as he was writing the lyrics or if it developed later, because they just seem so intertwined to me. Really fascinating.

Willa:  That’s a really good question. I’d love to know that too. In Moonwalk, he says,

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

So it sounds like some of the visual elements are percolating in his mind from the beginning. But I think he also lets things develop during the storyboarding sessions and throughout production, as he goes on to talk about:

I felt “Beat It” should be interpreted literally, the way it was written, one gang against another on tough urban streets. It had to be rough. That’s what “Beat It” was about.

When I got back to L.A., I saw Bob Giraldi’s demo reel and knew that he was the director I wanted for “Beat It.” I loved the way he told a story in his work, so I talked with him about “Beat It.” We went over things, my ideas and his ideas, and that’s how  it was created. We played with the storyboard and molded it and created it.

So as with his work in the studio producing songs, he seems to have a vision of what he wants to convey (“I felt ‘Beat It’ should be interpreted literally, like it was written”) but then he’s able to evoke the best from his collaborators and lets things develop throughout the process, drawing on their ideas and expertise as well.

And I agree with you, Joie. In the Closet is so interesting on so many levels – artistically, culturally, psychologically. Whatever the reason, Michael Jackson portrays a deeply conflicted character in this video. He feels tremendous desire for this woman obviously, and he wants to do the right thing and marry her, but he can’t – either because he’s already married, or because he can’t quite find the courage to defy cultural taboos, or because she represents the dangerous embodiment of sex itself.

The choreography and cinematography emphasize his internal conflict. As you mentioned earlier, Joie, we see shots of him dancing with his back to the wall, literally, and we see numerous shots of him in doorways – neither in nor out, as you said. Perhaps the most striking sequences are the wonderful silhouettes where he’s dancing at the threshold. This again refers back to marriage since the groom traditionally carries the bride across the threshold to begin their new life together. But he can’t do that for some reason, so he dances in the doorway instead – unable to make an official declaration of marriage but unable to walk away.

The video ends with him shutting the door and shutting himself inside the house, telling us visually that, for now, he’s determined to keep this relationship “in the closet.”

Joie:  But Willa and I would love to know what you think on this one. If you have an interpretation for In The Closet that differs from the four that we’ve explored here, please let us know; we’d love to hear it!