Willa: Joie, I know we’ve tended to stay away from breaking news and sensationalized stories, with good reason. It’s all too easy to get caught up on the rollercoaster of rumor and innuendo and pseudo news, and lose sight of the big picture. In general, I think it’s much better to focus on Michael Jackson’s art and let the sensationalism wear itself out.
Joie: I couldn’t agree more.
Willa: But one interesting aspect of Michael Jackson’s art is that he wrestled with complex issues like mass media, public perception, and prejudice, and the complicated interconnections between them. And something happened last week that really underscored that for me. Wade Robson’s lawyer, Henry Gradstein, said in a prepared statement that “Michael Jackson was a monster, and in their hearts every normal person knows it.”
Joie, how many times did Michael Jackson warn us about this – about “normal people” becoming fearful of those who are different, and imagining they’re “monsters” because of that fear? That’s the central plot of Ghosts. (I can actually close my eyes and imagine the Mayor saying Gradstein’s words during that long speech when he’s confronting the Maestro: “We have a nice normal town, normal people, normal kids. We don’t need freaks like you. …”) He addresses that fear in Thriller as well – in fact, it provides the psychological underpinnings of that short film. Thriller “works” because it taps into that fear. And that’s exactly what he’s talking about in “Is It Scary,” “Threatened,” and “Monster” as well.
Joie: You know, Willa, it’s still so shocking to me that people feel that way about him. I mean, it’s one thing to jump on the bandwagon and badmouth someone when everybody else seems to be doing it too. But to attack someone after they’re gone in such a vicious manner … I was just really shocked when I read that quote last week. In fact, I think I still am.
But to get back to what you just said, you’re absolutely right. Michael addressed this very topic over and over and over again. It’s almost as if it was constantly at the forefront of his mind and his imagination. And if you think about it, I’m sure it probably was. I mean, after all, it was a subject he just couldn’t seem to get away from. It was, quite literally, “the story of his life.” And I just think it’s so sad. When you first proposed this topic for this week’s post, the lyrics to “Monster” came immediately to my mind, and I just felt so tired. Do you know what I mean?
Willa: Oh, I do. I know exactly what you mean. …
Joie: Like I actually took a deep, sad breath and I just felt so exhausted. If I felt that way, can you imagine how he must have felt when he wrote these words:
Monster He’s a monster He’s an animal
We hear that short refrain over and over again in the song, and it just breaks my heart. He goes on to say:
Why are they never satisfied with all you give? You give them your all They’re watching you fall And they eat your soul like a vegetable
Don’t you ever wonder what that felt like to him? How lonely and miserable that must have been? I don’t know that there has ever been a more miserable soul on this planet than Michael Jackson’s. Which is truly heartbreaking when you think about the immense amount of talent he possessed and the staggering numbers of people that he brought happiness to. And yet, he himself was this miserable, tragic, sad, sad creature.
Willa: Well, yes and no. I mean, Michael Jackson endured a level of public vilification few of us can even imagine. I mean, it’s literally unimaginable to me – beyond my capacity to comprehend what he went through. But I think he also experienced a kind of joy few of us can imagine either – the joy of creative ecstasy as we talked about a little bit with Give In to Me last spring. So I guess I feel he had higher highs as well as lower lows.
But I do know what you’re saying, Joie, and I think those lyrics you quoted are really important, especially that last line, “they eat your soul like a vegetable.” One reason that jumps out at me is because it echoes words he wrote much earlier in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” where he repeatedly sings these lines at the end of each chorus:
You’re a vegetable (You’re a vegetable) Still they hate you (You’re a vegetable) You’re just a buffet (You’re a vegetable) They eat off of you (You’re a vegetable)
This song was written in the mid-1970s and “Monster” was written in the mid-2000s, sometime after the 2005 trial – that’s a 30-year time span – yet both songs express a similar idea using the same metaphor: that the press feeds off him (“they eat your soul”) just like the zombies in a horror movie feed off the souls of the living.
So there’s this interesting reversal where the mass media is portraying him as a “monster,” but he’s saying they are the true monsters. He’s alive – vibrantly alive – with the exuberant vitality of a dancer and creative artist, but their souls are dead – they have no creative spark animating them – and so they try to feed off him. He makes that reversal explicit the last couple of times he sings the chorus you quoted earlier, when he reverses the meaning by adding interstitial lines:
Monster (Why you haunting me?) He’s a monster (Why are you stalking me?) He’s an animal (Why’d you do it? Why’d you? Why you stalking me?)
Joie: Willa, I think that’s a wonderful interpretation of “Monster” and I love what you just said, comparing the press to flesh-eating zombies that can’t wait to feed off of Michael Jackson’s creativity and vitality. It’s a beautiful assessment of the situation.
Willa: It is fascinating how he sets that up and then flips it around, isn’t it? And that idea that the tabloids are feeding off him reminds me of those threatening teeth in Leave Me Alone that we talked about last fall. Those chomping teeth form the bass line of Leave Me Alone, which is an extended look at media excess that links modern tabloids with exploitative freak shows of the past. So again he’s suggesting that the press wants to feed off him, and the sound of those teeth throughout the video reinforces that.
Joie: What’s really interesting to me, Willa, is how, in one corner, you’ve got the press, who keep repeatedly referring to him as a monster, and all of the “talking heads” from all of the news outlets (be it tabloid or mainstream) join in on the charge. But then in the other corner, there’s Michael himself, pointing back at the press and stating very clearly for all who will listen, that he’s not the monster … they are! It almost feels like that episode of the old Twilight Zone series where the people in a diner all know very clearly that there is an alien/monster among them. Only no one is really quite sure exactly who the real monster is and they’re all accusing each other! Remember that episode?
Willa: No, I don’t think I ever saw that one, but it sounds really interesting. And thinking of The Twilight Zone reminds me of “Threatened,” with its posthumous Rod Serling intro:
Tonight’s story is somewhat unique and calls for a different kind of introduction. A monster had arrived in the village. The major ingredient of any recipe for fear is the unknown, and this person or thing is soon to be met. He knows every thought. He can feel every emotion. Oh yes, I did forget something, didn’t I? I forgot to introduce you to the monster.
And then we hear Michael Jackson’s voice – he’s the monster Rod Serling was talking about. So we’re in the unusual position of hearing the story from the monster’s point of view.
And that reminds me of one of the first monster stories, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. In the original novel, Mary Shelley casts Frankenstein’s monster as an intelligent, sensitive soul who’s abused and mistreated because his appearance is so frightening. In fact, in some ways the people he meets are the true monsters because they’re so vicious to him. So the question is, who’s the real monster in this situation?
That’s a question Michael Jackson raised many times. For example, in “Is It Scary” he says, “It’s you who’s haunting me / Because you’re wanting me / To be the stranger in the night.” And he concludes with this fairly blunt assessment:
I’m tired of being abused You know you’re scaring me too I see the evil is you Is it scary for you, baby?
In other words, the “evil” that people fear is coming from their own minds. They’re imposing their fears onto him, and he’s just a mirror reflecting their own thoughts and fears back at them:
Can the heart reveal the proof Like a mirror reveals the truth? See the evil one is you
Joie: Yeah, that song is just so telling. And really, if you just sit and listen to them, most of the “scary” songs are very telling, deeply personal glimpses into what his life must have felt like to him. And you know, Willa, whenever I let myself dwell on it, I just cannot imagine living with that level of scrutiny every single day of my life, and still being able to function. And ultimately, I guess the argument could be made that he wasn’t able to function that way for very long.
Willa: Oh, it’s just unbelievable what his life must have been like, but we can kind of get a glimpse of it through these “monster” songs and films because one thing he’s trying to do in these works is show us what it feels like to be in that position – to be the object of everyone fears.
You know, Michael Jackson had an incredible habit of empathy. We see it in his work as well as interviews. Whenever he’s trying to understand a situation, his first impulse is almost always to immediately look at it from the other person’s point of view. We see that over and over again, like in “Dirty Diana” where a groupie is trying to manipulate him, but instead of simply rejecting her, or using her and walking away as many rock stars would do, he tries to understand her by looking at things from her perspective. He does something similar in his “scary” songs where he doesn’t just push back against the attacks, but also tries to get inside the mind of his attackers and understand why they are treating him like a monster. (And by the way, this habit of empathy is one reason I’m so sure he would never molest a child, in addition to all the evidence. If you have that habit of empathy, you can’t abuse someone because you’re too aware of how that abuse must feel to them.) And he also encourages us to try to see things from his perspective as well.
So one way of interpreting his “monster” works is to see them as an artistic way for him to work through these issues and explore why the police, the press, and the public were so insistent on seeing him as a monster – and there are important cultural and psychological reasons for why that keeps happening. As he tells us in “Threatened,” “I’m not a ghost from Hell / but I’ve got a spell on you.” He is the Other, the “monster,” the embodiment of difference that both fascinates and frightens us – that is the “spell” he has on the public imagination – but he’s an Other who seems to know us all too well:
You’re fearing me ’Cause you know I’m a beast … I’m the living dead The dark thoughts in your head I heard just what you said That’s why you’ve got to be threatened by me
So we fear that he’s a “beast” but an extremely intelligent beast, a beast who knows “the dark thoughts in your head” and can move us emotionally and psychologically in ways we don’t fully understand – and what could be more frightening than that? That’s why he tells us “You should be watching me / You should feel threatened,” because he represents our worst fears.
But that’s not really who he is – he’s not really a monster – it’s just a reflection of our own minds. We’re simply giving vent to all our deepest fears by projecting them onto him.
Joie: And the ugly truth is that he made such an easy target of himself. He made it almost effortless for those doing the venting to project that madness onto him. But he always turned the other cheek with such dignity and grace, never lowering himself to their standards, never lashing out in anger. Not really the actions of a monster, huh?
Joie: So, Willa, for the past two weeks, we have looked at two out of the three Michael Jackson works that you say sort of form The Trilogy of his aesthetic – “Ben” and Thriller. This week, let’s go over the final work in that trilogy – Ghosts – and talk about how it fits in and how all three of them seem to deal with this complicated issue of crossing the boundaries that separate us. As we all know, this is a subject that Michael dealt with often in his career and, for you, this idea of The Trilogy is very important because of it, right?
Willa: It really is, partly because each of these works is so important individually, and partly because looking at them together allows us to see the progression of his ideas.
In “Ben,” which was recorded in January of 1972, Michael Jackson adopts the role of a young boy who becomes friends with a rat. Most humans see rats as disgusting, as “other,” so this friendship is a socially transgressive act. In other words, “Ben” is the story of an improper friendship. But it presents this relationship as so special and beautiful that it challenges us to alter our perceptions about this unconventional friendship. Importantly, though, while the boy and the rat cross social boundaries, they’re external boundaries. What I mean is they cross the boundary between them by becoming friends, but the boy remains a boy and the rat remains a rat.
Twelve years later, in December of 1983, Michael Jackson released the Thriller video, and it expands the ideas of “Ben” in crucially important ways. Once again, Michael Jackson is a young man crossing socially prohibited boundaries, but this time those boundaries are within himself. He becomes a werewolf, which blurs the boundary between man and animal, and then becomes a zombie, which blurs the boundary between living and dead. So Thriller isn’t about an “improper” friendship but about an “improper” person whose identity is constantly in flux. So it internalizes the crossing of those boundaries and alters how we perceive and respond to this unconventional person, as well as how we perceive and maybe express the prohibited boundaries we feel within ourselves.
What’s especially interesting about Thriller, though, is how it reworks the emotions of this issue. Basically, Thriller tells us that crossing boundaries isn’t scary – it’s fun! It’s thrilling, in fact. Look at the many Michael characters on screen. Which one do you want to be? The repressed Michael at the beginning who’s trying very hard to be a proper person, or the free-spirited Michael who’s cutting loose and dancing with zombies? As you said so well last week, Joie, he’s “inhabiting those differences” he feels within himself – he’s embracing the many different aspects of his personality, including the scary or shameful parts we’re told to keep hidden – and he’s having a blast! Just look at him dance, and look at his face at the end when he turns and fixes us with those freaky cat eyes. He’s beaming! He couldn’t be happier. Thriller handles this all so skillfully and effortlessly that we don’t realize what a radical psychological shift this is, but I believe Thriller functions at a deep psychological level to challenge some of our most primal fears about difference, about “other,” and neutralize them. And it’s brilliant.
Thirteen years later, in 1996, Michael Jackson created Ghosts and took another quantum leap forward. This time he’s approaching the issue in a theoretical way and suggesting specific ways in which art can help us overcome the boundaries between us. In other words, Ghosts isn’t just a work of art. It’s meta-art – it’s art about art – and in it we see evidence of Michael Jackson creating a new poetics.
Joie: You know, Willa, that’s something you say often – that Michael was creating a new poetics. Can you explain what you mean in very simple terms for those who may not understand what it is you’re trying to say?
Willa: That’s a really good question, Joie. There are many different definitions, actually, but what I mean is that he’s creating a new philosophy of art, or a new paradigm for conceptualizing art – a new theoretical framework for understanding what art is, how it functions, and what it has the potential to accomplish. You know, if we go back and look at the major artists in history – artists like da Vinci, Michelangelo, Vermeer, Monet, van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol – they didn’t just create important works of art. They also altered our definition of art, and that’s what Michael Jackson is doing. He’s creating exquisite works of art, but he’s also redefining what art is and expanding our ideas about what is possible through art. And that’s why he’s the most important artist of our time.
Joie: Ok, so let’s talk about what’s going on in Ghosts and why you feel it’s part of The Trilogy. You say that Ghosts is art about art, but how does it fit in with this theme of crossing the boundaries that keep us separated?
Willa: Well, as we’ve talked about before, Ghosts is the story of an artist – a Maestro – who’s under attack by the provincial townspeople of Normal Valley. They’re scared of him because he’s so unnervingly different – they think he’s a “freak,” a “weirdo” – so they approach his home with torches in hand, determined to drive him away. But something unexpected happens: the Maestro engages them in a series of artistic experiences, and through those artistic experiences not only changes how they feel about him, but how they feel about difference more generally.
So Ghosts is functioning on several levels at once. On one level, it’s pure entertainment and engaging us in an interesting story. At another level, it’s creating a parable for what was actually happening to Michael Jackson himself in real life, and explaining how he plans to respond as an artist to the threats against him by Tom Sneddon and others. And at another level, it’s art talking about art and demonstrating how art can change perceptions and bring about significant social change – just like it changes the perceptions and attitudes of the residents of Normal Valley.
Joie: That is really very interesting, Willa. You know, I’ve said this before but, I really feel like I need to say it again. Before you asked me to read M Poetica and give you my opinion on it, I never really thought about Michael’s work on such a deep artistic level before. And I know now that it was because I didn’t really have the tools or the knowledge to do so. But I really feel like you have taught me so much about art and about how to interpret art, and I’m really grateful for that. Its allowed me to really examine Michael’s work in a way I never really had before.
Willa: Well, believe me, Joie, I know exactly how you feel. I enjoyed Thriller for years simply as a very entertaining video. In fact, I still enjoy it that way, and that’s perfectly ok. In the 1999 MTV interview we cited last week, Michael Jackson is asked what makes a good music video, and his first response is, “In my opinion, it has to be completely entertaining.” And he succeeded: his work in general, and Thriller in particular, is wonderfully entertaining.
But as much as I appreciated Thriller simply as entertainment, I increasingly felt there was a lot more going on – but I just couldn’t get my mind around it somehow. I could feel that something significant was happening, but I couldn’t explain it, not even to myself. It wasn’t until I started studying Ghosts that something clicked for me. As I mentioned earlier, Ghosts isn’t just a work of art – it’s also art talking about art, and exploring specific ways that art can change people’s minds about difference and bring about social change. And as I studied that and thought about it, I suddenly realized that the specific processes he’s describing in Ghosts are happening in Thriller. So basically, Ghosts gave me the tools I needed to interpret Thriller in a whole new way. For me, Ghosts opened up a new avenue for thinking about art, and that new view allowed me to see Thriller in ways I never had before.
So Michael Jackson isn’t just creating a new type of art that functions in a new way, which is amazing enough. He’s also providing us with the theoretical apparatus we need to interpret this new kind of art. And Joie, it just blows me away. As an artist, he’s phenomenally intelligent and phenomenally creative – just off-the-charts brilliant – and I think we’re only beginning to realize the depths of his work and the tremendous implications of what he’s showing us.
Joie: Well, I agree completely that he is ‘off-the-charts brilliant’ as you put it. I don’t think anyone would dispute that. And I have to say that, I really love your observation that Ghosts is ‘art talking about art.’ That’s not only a really profound statement to make but, it was also a very profound, very bold move for Michael Jackson to make. Create a video – a work of art – that talks about art and the ways we can use it to educate and to change people’s minds about the social injustices surrounding us. That’s amazing stuff!
Willa: It really is. And in Ghosts, we see him directly addressing a very specific question about art and the power of art: How can an artist use art to change people’s minds about those they reject as different, especially when their antipathy is based on false narratives and unfounded prejudices?
As I mentioned earlier, Ghosts begins with the residents of Normal Valley approaching the Maestro’s home, intent on driving him out because they think he’s monstrous, a “freak.” And their emotions at that moment are pretty complicated: they fear him, but they’re also excited and empowered by the idea of driving him out.
As we discussed in a post about Ghosts a few weeks ago, the Maestro responds to the townspeople with a two-phase process. First he takes on their fears and desires and reflects those emotions back at them: he appears to them in a mask, so gives them the monster they want him to be. But then he lowers the mask and reveals it’s just an illusion. That’s the second phase. And this quick double movement of first inflating their fears and desires and then deflating them provides a type of catharsis, and helps neutralize the emotions they are projecting onto him.
But the Mayor doesn’t want those fears neutralized. His goal is just the opposite – he wants to whip up those emotions and keep the townspeople in a state of fear and agitation. So he begins building his case against the Maestro: that he’s a “freak,” a scary unknown, a monster who’s infecting the town’s children with mysterious ghost stories. In response, the Maestro once again evokes that two-phase movement of embodying and inflating the emotions they’re projecting onto him and then deflating them. First, he distorts his face, making it grotesque and scary. Here are a couple of screen captures:
Then he rips his face off altogether so there’s nothing but a laughing skull. But importantly, after the townspeople have fully experienced those emotions they were projecting onto him, he cracks the skull, reveals his true face, and shows it’s all just an illusion.
Then he enacts this two-phase process a third time, but it’s a little different this time around because their emotions have changed, so the emotions they’re projecting onto him have changed. They aren’t as afraid of him as they were before – in fact, they’re starting to enjoy him and his “freakish” troupe of dancers – but they’re still unsure of him and still want him to leave, though they’re conflicted about it. So he enacts those emotions for them: he destroys himself and turns to dust before their eyes. But then he reappears and once again shows it was just an illusion. So repeatedly we see him embodying and even exaggerating the fears and desires the townspeople are projecting onto him, and then diffusing them.
Joie: I think it’s really interesting that he repeats this process over and over again throughout this short film. That lets me know that he was really trying to make a point. There’s something that he wants us to really get … some idea that he wants us to really grasp and understand. Otherwise why keep repeating yourself?
Willa: It feels that way to me too. He enacts this double movement three times in Ghosts, one right after the other – in fact, that’s basically the plot of Ghosts, that series of three double movements – which tells me this is really significant. Importantly, that’s exactly what he’s doing in Thriller as well, as we talked about last week. In fact, the plot of Thriller is also a series of three double movements – or rather two and a half since the last one ends unresolved – and if we look at what was happening in 1983, the plot of Thriller makes perfect sense. In the early 1980s, he was our nation’s first Black teen idol, which was both titillating and monstrous to a lot of people. So he responds by becoming a monster onscreen – a werewolf, a zombie, an unknown creature with cat eyes – but then neutralizes those emotions by showing us “It’s only a movie.”
And I believe he responded to the media hysteria surrounding the false molestation allegations the same way. Through the illusion of plastic surgery, he made himself monstrous in the public mind. But it’s just an illusion. He’s merely reflecting what the public is projecting onto him, as he explains very clearly in “Is It Scary”:
I’m gonna be Exactly what you wanna see It’s you who’s taunting me Because you’re wanting me To be the stranger in the night Am I amusing you Or just confusing you? Am I the beast you visualized? And if you wanna see Eccentric oddities I’ll be grotesque before your eyes Let them all materialize. … So did you come to me To see your fantasies Performed before your very eyes? A haunting ghostly treat The ghoulish trickery And spirits dancing in the night? But if you came to see The truth, the purity It’s here inside a lonely heart So let the performance start So tell me, Is that realism for you, baby? Am I scary for you?
The plastic surgery scandal was, in fact, a type of performance art, but it was an entirely new kind of art unlike any we’ve ever seen before. It was “realism” on a scale we’ve never experienced before. It’s such a new kind of art it’s hard to recognize it at first, but it’s a work of art with a very specific purpose and function – to rewrite a false cultural narrative and provide catharsis for the emotions driving that false narrative. It’s breathtaking in its sheer audacity, but once we get our minds around it, we realize it’s built on sound principles of art and psychology – and the intersection of art and psychology, especially group psychology, is a primary focus of Michael Jackson’s aesthetic. In other words, it’s perfectly aligned with the artistic principles he’s establishing in Ghosts and throughout his work.
And Joie, I can’t say emphatically enough how important and radical this work is. In M Poetica I said that I see his face as his masterpiece, and I believe that strongly. I love his voice and his music and his dancing and his films – you know how much I love them – but his face, and the illusions he conducted through his face, points the way to a new kind of art that has the potential to challenge some of our most entrenched cultural narratives and rewrite those narratives. And that is truly revolutionary.
Joie: Willa, I love the way you put that: “It’s breathtaking in its sheer audacity.” That is such a true statement when it comes to anything having to do with Michael Jackson. I think that sentence pretty much sums up his entire career and persona. He was “breathtaking in his sheer audacity!”
Willa: So a recent article, “Who Is Peter Pan,” in The New York Review of Books mentions Michael Jackson’s identification with Peter Pan, and it rather nonchalantly drops this little bombshell:
Occasionally, young boys slept over in Jackson’s mansion; he was twice accused of having abused them, but never convicted. Today, the consensus seems to be that he was innocent.
Joie, I know I should be thrilled that people are finally coming to their senses, and I am. But I have to admit, I’ve been storming around ever since I read that, muttering to anyone who will listen about the fickleness of public opinion. When he died, the overwhelming “consensus” was that he was guilty. If he wasn’t guilty of molestation exactly, though most people thought he was, he was suspiciously weird and almost certainly guilty of something. Now, three years later, “the consensus seems to be that he was innocent.” Why the change? No significant new evidence has emerged. There is no logical reason for people to have changed their minds, but they have. Millions of people have changed their minds. Why?
Joie: I don’t know, Willa, but I understand exactly why you’re upset about it. It’s very distressing to know that this beautiful man, who only ever had love in his heart and compassion for his fellow man, was so tortured and ridiculed and falsely accused during his life. But now, in death, so many of those who were doing the maligning seem to have changed their tune. Now, when it’s much too late.
Willa: I know. I just keep feeling this deep regret that the change couldn’t have come about while he was still alive. But the most vexing part of all this is that it couldn’t have, because his death is what triggered the change. There’s no logical reason for public opinion to shift just now. People aren’t changing their minds because of startling new evidence. The only difference between now and three years ago is that he’s gone. He had to die before public sentiment could change. And for me, one of the most distressing aspects of all this is that he knew it – he knew he had to die before people’s attitudes would change. He told us so in Ghosts.
Ghosts is such a fascinating short film in so many ways. In M Poetica I said it was like a seminar on art theory, and it is. We could use it as a springboard to get into some really fascinating theory, like Lewis Hyde’s ideas about trickster figures, or Elaine Scarry’s ideas about the body, or Julia Kristeva’s ideas about the abject, or Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas about carnival and the power of the grotesque to disrupt and defy authoritarian power structures. That’s one of the core ideas of Ghosts. We could spend months just talking about this one short film.
But we can also look at Ghosts as an artistic response to the 1993 allegations and scandal, and that’s the approach I wanted to take this week. There is so much in Ghosts that directly corresponds to what happened in 1993, and the media firestorm that followed.
Joie: You’re right, Willa. Both the song and the short film are virtually all about the events surrounding the extortion attempt of 1993, and it’s not even hidden; it’s all right there on the surface. All anyone has to do is simply pay close attention, starting with the three songs he chose to spotlight in the short film itself – “Is It Scary,” “Ghosts,” and “2Bad.”
Willa: It’s true – all three of those songs deal very explicitly with the 1993 allegations – and the plot of Ghosts reinforces that. It opens with a mob of angry villagers invading the home of an artist, a Maestro. He’s become friends with some of the village children and has been telling them ghost stories, and the villagers think that’s inappropriate. As one mom from the village tells him, “Aren’t you ashamed? Young people are impressionable.”
And of course, that precisely parallels what was happening in real life: he was an artist who developed close friendships with children, and a lot of people thought that was inappropriate. And they responded by obtaining a search warrant and invading his home.
Joie: You know, Willa, it really is very difficult to watch Ghosts and not see the parallels to his real life. If you had been paying attention to what was going on in his life at all – and let’s face it, the world couldn’t help but pay attention because the news media was obsessed with “the scandal” – you don’t have to wonder where he got his inspiration for the storyline. It mirrors exactly what happened to him, and I think it’s wonderful that he chose to channel his frustrations in such a creative way. And I think that says a lot about his character that he was willing to put his personal pain on display in order to try and educate the rest of us.
Willa: I agree, Joie. I think he was working through a lot of emotions as he created and developed this film. But he was also helping us as an audience work through our emotions as well. As an artist deeply committed to social change, he didn’t just express his feelings through his work. He was also very interested in how his work influenced us as an audience and how it helped us work through our feelings – how it evoked and redirected our emotions and altered our perceptions, as we talked about in the on-screen audience posts a couple weeks ago. And the way he approaches that in Ghosts is fascinating.
When the villagers invade the Maestro’s home, the first thing he does is appear to them in a frightening mask: instead of seeing his face, the villagers see a skull. They gasp and retreat from him in horror. But as soon as they back off, he drops the mask and reveals it’s just a disguise. The villagers then breathe a sigh of relief, start to relax, and reapproach him in a more friendly way.
It’s very interesting what’s just happened, both dramatically and psychologically. The villagers have invaded his home, which is a very aggressive act, but he immediately flips that dynamic so they are the ones feeling threatened – not him – and then he removes that threat, so they actually feel kind of grateful to him. Importantly, the villagers have invaded his home because they see him as a kind of monster – the kind who would hurt children – and he responds by appearing to them as a monster. So through the mask he evokes the precise emotions they already feel about him. But then he reveals it’s just an illusion: he’s not a monster. So there’s a very quick up-and-down movement of crisis and release that functions on several different levels.
Joie: Hmm. I never really examined that before, but you’re right. The villagers have invaded his home – they are the ones who are threatening him. But even before they actually enter the house, they are made to feel very frightened and apprehensive. They haven’t even met him yet, but they already feel afraid of him; it’s all in their minds!
Willa: Exactly, and he reflects those emotions back at them through the mask, but then undoes them in a way. So through the mask, he encourages the villagers to vent their emotions and then subtly reconfigures those emotions.
The Maestro and the villagers begin to talk, and as they talk the Mayor gradually builds a case against the Maestro. He says, “We have a nice normal town, normal people, normal kids. We don’t need freaks like you telling them ghost stories.” He then becomes more aggressive, saying, “You’re weird, you’re strange, and I don’t like you. You’re scaring these kids, living up here all alone.” He even begins to threaten the Maestro, saying, “Back to the circus, you freak. And do yourself a favor, OK? Don’t force us get rough with you because we will, if we have to.” Finally, he gives him an ultimatum, saying, “Are you going to leave, or am I going to have to hurt you?”
Joie: That’s very interesting, Willa, particularly in terms of the language he uses in the dialogue between the Mayor and the Maestro. As you pointed out, the Mayor’s words are very specific. “We have a nice normal town, normal people, normal kids.” And, of course, that was always the main accusation leveled against Michael himself – he wasn’t “normal.” He was called “weird” and “strange.” Many people thought of him as a “freak.” So, it’s very telling that these are the words Michael would choose to use for this particular exchange. It makes me think of Joe Vogel’s article, “Am I the Beast You Visualized: The Cultural Abuse of Michael Jackson,” which we talked about back in November, where Joe referred to all of those hurtful words as “slurs.”
Willa: That’s a really important point, Joie, and I think you’re right. I think he chose those words very deliberately. As you say, they are exactly the words that were used against him so often in the later years of his life. So what’s happening on screen is precisely reflecting what’s happening to him in real life off screen. Just as the mask reflected the villagers’ emotions back at them, his word choices reflect our emotions back at us.
Importantly, the Maestro responds to this aggression exactly as he did before, only more intensely this time: he distorts his face beyond recognition and then rips it off altogether, so once again his face appears as just a skull. Once again the villagers retreat from him in terror, just as they did before. And once again, as soon as they back off, he restores his face and reveals it’s just an illusion, exactly as he did before. So once again there’s that very quick up-and-down movement of crisis and release that gives vent to the villagers’ emotions by evoking their fears and reflecting them back at them, and then resolving those fears by showing it’s just an illusion.
Joie: The message here is very clear, I think. He’s pointing out the parallels between the Maestro character and his own personal life. So, by showing that it’s just an illusion, as you say, he’s telling us very clearly that all the perceived “weirdness” surrounding his personal life is also just an illusion, and what we – the public and the media – think we see, isn’t actually the real story.
Willa: I think so too, though there’s also a lot going on psychologically as well. We see that when he repeats that same up-and-down movement of crisis and release a third time. It’s even more extreme this time – instead of his face becoming a skull, his entire body becomes a skeleton – but the villagers reactions are rather different this time around, so there’s been a psychological shift. They’re surprised but they aren’t terrified, and they don’t retreat this time. They stay and watch what he has to show them, and when the skeleton begins to dance, they smile and enjoy his performance. In other words, they aren’t having such a fearful response to the “strange” and the “weird” as they were before. They’re still wary, but they’re becoming a little more accepting of difference.
And then he repeats this up-and-down pattern of crisis and release a fourth and final time, and this is the most intense of all: he destroys himself. He asks them, “So, do you still want me to go?” Many of the villagers, the children especially, shake their heads no, but the Mayor affirms, “Yes! Yes!” So the Maestro says, “Fine. I’ll go.” He drops down and smashes his hands into the floor, then his arms, and then his face. His nose drops off, his entire face disintegrates, his body turns to dust, and an unearthly wind blows it away.
The villagers are horrified, but for a completely different reason than before: not because they’re scared of him, but because they’ve started to feel a connection to him and are horrified that he’s destroying himself. So their feelings over the course of the film have undergone a complete reversal. He’s left, so he’s done what they said they wanted him to do, what they invaded his home to force him to do. But by this point they no longer want him to leave, and as soon as he’s gone they feel a sense of loss and want him back.
Joie: Just like what we’re seeing now that he’s no longer here with us. Wow. That’s very compelling, Willa. So you believe he understood that both he and his art would only be truly appreciated after his death?
Willa: I do. But I also think there’s more going on than that. I’m still struggling to figure this out and articulate it for myself, but I keep coming back to these lines from “Is It Scary”:
I’m gonna be Exactly what you wanna see It’s you who’s taunting me Because you’re wanting me To be the stranger in the night Am I amusing you? Or just confusing you? Am I the beast you visualized? And if you wanna see eccentric oddities I’ll be grotesque before your eyes Let them all materialize … So tell me Is that realism for you, baby? Am I scary for you?
You know, after he died, a lot of commentators expressed surprise that there was such an outpouring of grief for him considering all the years of scandal and controversy – of “eccentric oddities,” as Michael Jackson calls them in “Is It Scary.” But I’m starting to believe just the opposite: that the public outpouring of grief wouldn’t have been possible without all those years of “eccentric oddities.” Those eccentric oddities performed a crucial function – they provided a series of mini-dramas of crisis and release – just like that repeated up-and-down movement in Ghosts. As in Ghosts, those eccentric oddities allowed us to vent our emotions about him following the molestation accusations and encouraged us to work through them. So when he died, we’d already dealt with a lot of those negative emotions, and once he was really gone it was revealed to us that those negative emotions were an illusion – as The New York Review of Books article says, “Today, the consensus seems to be that he was innocent” – and we were brought back to our true feelings, which is how much he meant to us.
Joie: That’s a fascinating take on all this, Willa. I’ve never looked at it in this way before.
Willa: You know, I’m still working my way through this, and I could be completely wrong about this, but it feels to me that something very significant was happening through those “eccentric oddities,” both culturally and psychologically, and I think Ghosts is the key to understanding it. He had a very sophisticated aesthetic – I’m convinced his work functioned at deep psychological levels – and he was dealing with some very difficult issues of group psychology after the 1993 scandal broke. Basically, he was dealing with mass hysteria and the fear of the unfamiliar, just like the Maestro, and he responded in a way that directly addressed that group hysteria.
His response may not seem logical at first, but the subconscious mind isn’t logical – or rather, it has a logic of its own that differs from the logic of the conscious mind – and I believe that, through his “eccentric oddities,” he’s speaking directly to the subconscious mind. As he tells us in Ghosts, those repeated mini-dramas of crisis and release had a very specific psychological effect, and they were deliberately created to produce that psychological effect. In “Is It Scary” he tells us very explicitly what he intends to do: “I’m gonna be exactly what you wanna see” and “If you wanna see eccentric oddities, I’ll be grotesque before your eyes.”
Joie: I agree with you about the deliberateness of his art, Willa, and I really do believe the three songs featured in the short film (“Ghosts,” “Is It Scary,” and “2Bad”) were chosen very deliberately. I think you and I could probably spend an entire blog – maybe even two – just talking about those three songs in detail and how they relate both to the film and to what was going on in his life at the time.
You know, since we have been working on this blog, I have come to understand that there really wasn’t much about Michael Jackson’s art that was not done deliberately. He usually had a very calculated reason for everything he did and it just leaves me in awe. Wouldn’t you love to be able to get inside the mind of a truly great artist … just to try to understand their passion and fire for their art? That thought is so fascinating to me for some reason and I would just have loved to talk with him about his art. I can’t believe that so many journalists, like Bashir for instance, wasted the precious time they were granted with him by talking about such trivial things like his skin color and his perceived odd behavior. What a colossal waste of an opportunity!
Willa: Oh I know! That’s what strikes me most about the Bashir documentary as well – that he was given this incredible opportunity and completely squandered it. Imagine if you could go back in time and talk to Van Gogh for eight months and learn more – maybe not about how to interpret specific works, since artists tend to be very reluctant to limit their work to just one interpretation – but about his worldview and how his art fit within that worldview. What an amazing opportunity that would be. And Bashir was given that opportunity and completely wasted it. And the really sad thing is that Bashir has fed his mind on a diet of scandal for so long he doesn’t even seem to realize there’s a bigger world out there. Michael Jackson is wrestling with complex issues of social justice and perception and how we make meaning, as well as art’s ability to profoundly influence how we perceive and make sense of the world, and Bashir spends the entire eight months asking tabloid-type questions. It’s just stunning.
Fortunately, Michael Jackson left a lot of clues to help guide us in developing ways to approach his work and understand his worldview. And as we see in Ghosts, there is so much to discover and explore.
Willa: This week we’re celebrating Halloween with one of Michael Jackson’s “scary” songs. And I have to admit, I was pretty excited when Joie suggested we talk about “Is It Scary” because it’s one of my favorites.
Joie: It’s one of my favorites too. So, the first time I heard “Is It Scary,” I was immediately struck by how sad it was and I actually cried. I remember hitting the repeat button several times and pouring over the liner notes, trying to make sure that I had heard Michael’s words correctly because, to me, this song is just so telling and so completely heartbreaking. All you have to do is listen to the lyrics to get a very real sense of what kind of pain he must have been in.
I’m gonna be exactly what you wanna see
It’s you who’s taunting me
Because you’re wanting me
To be the stranger in the night
Am I amusing you
Or just confusing you
Am I the beast you visualized
And if you wanna see
I’ll be grotesque before your eyes
Let them all materialize
It makes you wonder what kind of toll it must take on a person. Always being seen as some kind of freak or monster. Always hearing that the entire world thinks you’re strange and weird and bizarre. Constantly having a very vile label attached to your name and being seen as public enemy number one. What does that feel like? How do you cope with that? How much does that hurt? Michael Jackson knew the answers to those questions. And the first time I listened to “Is It Scary,” I got the feeling he wanted the rest of the world to know those answers too. Just for a few minutes, to put themselves in his place and feel what he must have felt.
But he didn’t just want us to put ourselves in his place for a while. He wanted us to take a look at ourselves and try to wrap our heads around the fact that he is not the oddity in this freak show – we are! We’re the ones who keep putting those ugly labels on him. We’re the ones who, for some reason, need him to play the role of the monster in our imagined horror movie. We’re the ones with the sick minds who insist that he has done very inappropriate things with inappropriate people. We – not the fans, of course but, the rest of the world – have tried and convicted him for something he never even thought about doing. All because he “seemed” weird.
Willa: Joie, I feel the exact same way about this song. I don’t think we can begin to imagine how horrible those 1993 allegations were for him. The pain of those allegations are a constant presence in his later work. We saw that in Invincible last month. The pain of those allegations is just beneath the surface of every single song on that album. He can’t get past it, can’t escape it. It’s just a constant ache. And we see it so clearly in “Is It Scary,” which was written, recorded, and released in the years immediately after those allegations came out. His voice is so beautiful and so expressive on this song, and when he sings these lyrics, you just want to bow your head and cry:
So did you come to me
To see your fantasies
Performed before your very eyes
A haunting ghostly treat
The ghoulish trickery
And spirits dancing in the night
But if you came to see
The truth the purity
It’s here inside a lonely heart
So let the performance start
But there’s something else going on here also. He isn’t just expressing the pain he’s feeling because of those allegations. He’s also telling us how he’s going to respond to them.
As he says in the lyrics you cited, Joie, “I’m gonna be / Exactly what you wanna see.” In other words, if people are going to insist he’s a monster, then he’s going to become one – he’s going to fulfill their “fantasies” and give them what they want. As he says, “you’re wanting me / To be the stranger in the night.” The tabloid press, especially, and much of the public are “wanting” to see him as a pedophile (a “stranger in the night”) even though the evidence clearly contradicts it. The facts don’t matter, though, because this isn’t about reason or logic. It’s about mass hysteria – the same kind of mass hysteria that led us to attack Iraq, a sovereign nation, for no reason. We tend to think we’ve progressed since the days of the Salem witch trials, but I don’t think we have. We just vent our fears in different ways now. And he’s caught in the midst of this hysteria and he’s the target of all that mindless fear, and he’s trying to deal with it. He and his lawyers tried to fight those allegations by citing the evidence, and it made no difference at all. In fact, it just seemed to blow things up bigger, if possible, and make things worse. So now he’s developed an artistic response. As he tells us, “if you wanna see / Eccentric oddities / I’ll be grotesque before your eyes / Let them all materialize.”
Joie: I think you’re absolutely right, Willa, and I think the lyrics are so self-explanatory. All you have to do is pay attention to what it is he’s saying here and you’ll see it. He’s telling us very plainly exactly what he’s about to do next. You know, it’s almost like a defiant teenager who’s rebelling against his parents: ‘Oh, you think I’m acting out now? Well, just you wait.’ It’s a very strange tendency we have as humans to respond to personal attacks in this almost self-sabotaging way. It’s as if Michael was saying ‘So, you want to think of me as a freak show? Well, hold on tight, ’cause I’ll show you a freak show!’ It’s a point he illustrates so well in the Ghosts short film when confronted by the town Mayor.
Willa: Hold on tight is right! It was a pretty wild ride after that, especially the plastic surgery scandal, or the story printed in Vanity Fair that he paid a Mali witchdoctor $150,000 to sacrifice 42 cows and put a curse on Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. That’s crazy. I can’t believe they actually printed that.
Joie: I can’t believe they printed such a ridiculous story either. You know, sometimes I think the crazier the press got, the more it only served to make THEM look foolish, not Michael. And the fact that the public believed it just floors me. It’s no wonder he decided to “be exactly what you wanna see.” He must have felt like he couldn’t win.
Willa: And Joie, I imagine part of that was defiance. He definitely had a strong streak of defiance in his character – I don’t think he could have survived everything he faced without it – so that could be one reason why he decided to be “what you wanna see” and become the monster the press and the public wanted him to be.
But I think there’s something else going on here too, something critically important. And to understand that, I think it helps to step back for a moment and look at his other “monster” works: Thriller, Ghosts, “Threatened,” “Monster.” Repeatedly, we see him taking on the role of the monster, but these aren’t horror stories in the conventional sense. For one thing, they aren’t very scary. A conventional horror story plunges us into a frightening situation and encourages us to become immersed in feeling the full terror of that situation, but he doesn’t. He touches on it, then pulls back and shows us it’s an illusion, then touches on it again and pulls back again. We see this same structure in all of these works. He doesn’t really want to scare us. That’s not what these are about. As he said in a 1999 MTV interview when asked if he liked horror movies,
“Believe it or not, I’m afraid to watch scary movies. Honestly, I don’t quite like to watch them very much. I never thought I’d be involved in making that sort of thing.”
But he didn’t really make “that sort of thing,” because these aren’t really horror stories. But what are they?
To understand that, I think it helps to go back even further – in fact, more than 2,000 years – and look at Aristotle’s theories about art. In Ars Poetica, Aristotle says that one function of art – especially tragedy – is to bring about catharsis, meaning the purging of base emotions such as fear. I think that’s what Michael Jackson is doing in his “monster” works. He’s not encouraging us to feel base emotions. In fact, he’s doing just the opposite – he’s purging us of those emotions. In Thriller, he’s attempting to purge us of a specific type of racial prejudice – the fear many people felt for him as a very sexy Black man, a sex symbol even, and our first Black teen idol. And in Ghosts, “Threatened,” “Monster,” and “Is It Scary,” he’s trying to purge us of that horrible mob mentality that erupted in the hysteria of the 1993 allegations.
Joie: Well, Willa, I have not read Aristotle since my college philosophy class so, I really can’t comment much on that. But, I do understand the idea of catharsis and purging those base emotions and cleansing and healing the psyche. So, I think this makes a lot of sense.
Willa: You know, I’m still trying to figure this out myself, but I see something really different happening in these works, and in the “eccentric oddities” that dominated the media after the release of “Is It Scary.” I think he’s creating a new type of art – in fact, I think you could make the case that he’s creating an entirely new genre of art – and it just fascinates me. And if I haven’t mentioned it in a while, let me say once again that I think Michael Jackson was brilliant – just knock your socks off, bug your eyes out, blow your mind brilliant.
Joie: I know what you mean; it is really unbelievable at times when you think about just how brilliant he was. Almost scary brilliant, actually, and I have never been able to understand those people who just don’t get it. Like, I know that I am a hard-core fan but, it just flabbergasts me to know that there are people out there who don’t think that Michael Jackson is the single most fascinatingly creative person ever to walk the earth. I am just so bewildered by that knowledge – like, how is that even possible? Why isn’t everyone as crazy about him as I am? I just don’t understand.
Willa: Joie, that is so funny because I’ve asked myself some of those exact same questions. Why are they so threatened by him, and why do they condemn him so harshly? Can’t they see how amazing and important his work is? Don’t they get it? I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot lately – about why Michael Jackson’s fans see him so differently than everyone else does – and I’ve decided the answer is very simple: it’s because we love him. And if you look at someone with compassion, you simply see them differently than if you don’t.
I was at the grocery store a few months ago and there was an elderly woman several people ahead of me in line. She was pretty slow and disorganized and was answering the check-out person’s questions in kind of an abrupt, almost rude way, and you could tell the check-out person was getting pretty annoyed with her, and so were the other people in line. But I’d worked with that woman and her husband on a community project, and while I didn’t know her well, I did know that her son had just died the week before after a long battle with cancer. When I was leaving the grocery store, I noticed she was standing at the entrance looking kind of lost and fumbling for her keys so I went over and said hi, and Joie, you could tell that she was just barely holding it together. That trip to the grocery store was about the limit of what she could do right then. And just knowing a little something about her history and what she was going through and seeing her with compassion led me to interpret her words and actions in a really different way than the other people behind her in line.
I think the same thing is true of Michael Jackson and how various people saw him. Those of us who knew his music and his ideas – knew how committed he was to social change, and how important children were for him, both personally and in terms of social change – had a much better understanding of what he must have been going through after the 1993 allegations came out, and that led us to see him with sympathy and interpret him in a much more compassionate way. And when you look at him and the situation he was in from that perspective, it all looks very different from the harsh, condemning criticism you read in the papers.
Joie: It’s really very sad when you think about it that way, you know? To realize that so many of our day-to-day conflicts could be resolved, or even totally eliminated, if we would all just have a little bit more compassion with one another and look at each other with a little bit of love first instead of always immediately reacting with annoyance. And the really sad part is, that’s a lesson Michael had been trying to teach us for so many years. Wow. That just blew my mind a little bit. Thanks for sharing that story, Willa.
But, getting back to “Is It Scary,” what makes this song especially heartbreaking for me, are these lyrics at the very end:
I’m tired of being abused
You know you’re scaring me too
I think the evil is you
Is that scary for you, baby
These last few lines just make me want to cry. You can hear all of his emotions at the end of this song – frustration, rage, anger, sadness. Especially when coupled with his mournful cries of “Don’t wanna talk about it / I don’t wanna talk about it” that immediately precede this last verse. It’s almost difficult to listen to and I feel like, if every person on the planet would really listen to this song and take it in and really digest it, then maybe the world would finally understand him a little bit better and realize all they had put him through.
I know. It’s a pipe dream. But, a girl can hope.
Willa: I agree. This song just seems to be a pure expression of all the emotions he was going through after the 1993 allegations came out. And it amazes me that in the midst of the pain of those allegations, at a time when I personally would want nothing more than to hide under the covers and cry, he was able to distance himself a bit, think through what was happening at a cultural level, and create an artistic response. That just astonishes me, on many different levels, and creates this whole mix of emotions – everything from admiration for what he accomplished to a deep sorrow for everything he had to go through, and for everything we’ve lost.
Joie: I know. It is truly amazing to think about. How anyone could have the courage to hold their head up day after day in his situation… it is just amazing to me and I think he was one of the bravest people ever. Can you imagine being in his shoes and going through the public humiliation that he did, every single day? And in the midst of it all, to still be able to work and write and create truly compelling art and keep presenting it to a world that had turned on you. He’s just incredible to me.
Willa: Well, we can both certainly agree on that.