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The Jackson 5 at the 1970 World Series

Willa:  In honor of the rollercoaster of a World Series that just ended last night, Lisha and I would like to share a clip of the Jackson 5 singing the national anthem to open the 1970 World Series. An interesting side note is that the 1970 series was the first to include a black umpire, Emmett Ashford. Six years later, the Jacksons invited Ashford to join them in a guest appearance on their television variety show, The Jacksons. Here’s the clip:

Summer Rewind 2013, Week 3: I’ll Be There

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on October 17, 2012. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Let Me Fill Your Heart with Joy and Laughter

Willa: You know, Joie, Michael Jackson’s short films can really take you places – just the full gamut of emotions. Like Thriller has this intriguing mix of fear and desire and repression and release: it’s like he’s holding himself in through the first part, and when he finally breaks loose and starts singing and dancing, it’s exhilarating! And just think about all the different emotions in the Billie Jean video, or The Way You Make Me Feel, or Bad, or Who Is It, or Stranger in Moscow, or Earth Song, or Ghosts, or You Rock My World, or …

Joie: Ok, ok. I get your point! There are a lot of short films and a whole lot of emotions.

Willa: Oops. Sorry! Didn’t mean to get carried away. But you know what I mean. Everything he touched is so nuanced and fascinating – even a Pepsi commercial. I’m thinking about the “I’ll Be There” video duet between the younger and older Michael Jackson:

And it’s a Pepsi commercial, for Pete’s sake. But it evokes so many different emotions.

Joie: Oh, I couldn’t agree with you more on that, Willa. I just love that commercial. I only wish it were an actual video of the entire song because it’s way too short. And you’re right, it does stir up a lot of emotions. For long-time fans especially, I think this one can get pretty poignant.

Willa: Oh, it is so poignant – that’s the perfect word for it. You know, I’ve been thinking about “I’ll Be There” a lot lately, ever since Kris, Eleanor, and Nina posted comments about the connections to “Will You Be There.” I was so intrigued by that. In fact, we talked about it a little bit a few weeks ago – about “I’ll Be There,” “You Were There,” and “Will You Be There” – and I’ve been thinking about the I’ll Be There duet ever since. It’s so moving, and while it’s more subtle than “Childhood,” for example, it stirs up so many emotions.

You know, I think what’s so captivating about this video is that we see the older Michael Jackson interacting with the younger Michael Jackson in ways that completely contradict the dominant narrative in the media. The pop psychology that many critics forced onto him in later years was that his older self literally embodied a rejection of his younger self: that as he grew older he rejected his race and his father and his whole family actually, and Motown and all his old friends and the people who helped him along he way, and his life as a child star, and that he even rejected his own body – that he rejected his face and his afro and the color of his skin. He rejected more and more and more until he became completely isolated and paranoid and living a Howard Hughes-type existence.

Joie: Yes. That is the story that the media, and many critics it would seem, would like for us to believe.

Willa: It really does seem that way, doesn’t it? It’s like they all fell in line behind that one narrative and kept repeating it over and over again. And I never believed it. It’s true that his feelings about his childhood were complicated, and so were his feelings about his father and his family. I mean, let’s face it – his whole life was complicated. But there were obviously a lot of different emotions at work, and it’s a gross over-simplification – and completely wrong, I think – to reduce it all down to “he hated his childhood and now he hates his father and his family and himself.”

Joie: I couldn’t agree with you more, Willa. And I, for one, am so tired of hearing that Michael Jackson hated himself. I don’t believe that anyone so full of self-loathing could be so compassionate toward his fellow man. If anything I would think that someone who hated himself that much would have very little, if no regard at all for others. That argument just doesn’t make sense to me.

Willa: Me either, and it doesn’t feel right either. When I listen to his songs or watch his videos, I simply don’t experience flashes of hatred or self-loathing. It’s just not there. But it’s true there are a lot of mixed emotions sometimes, especially about his childhood, and we can see some of that complexity in the I’ll Be There video duet – especially in how his older self relates to and responds to those images of his younger self.

What strikes me most when watching this video is the strong emotional pull he still feels toward his younger self. There’s a lot of affection in this video for his younger self, I think, and sympathy as well, and I get the feeling he wishes he could protect him somehow. There’s a very melancholy mood in this video, and I wonder if he’s thinking about all the things his younger self had already been through and would have to face in the years ahead. Maybe that’s where that melancholia comes from, and what makes this such a bittersweet video to watch.

Joie: Again, I agree with you completely. It does have a very bittersweet feel about it and you do get the sense that he is thinking about all of the things that young boy has already gone through as well as all of the challenges he’s going to have to face in the future. He knows the difficult obstacles that boy is going to have to overcome and he knows how hard those times are going to be for him. Yet, at the same time, he still seems so hopeful in this clip.

Willa: He really does, doesn’t he? And reassured when his younger self finally starts to sing. It’s like his older self can’t really get into the song until his younger self fully emerges and begins singing too. But once he’s there, the two join together in song and he – his older self and younger self both – seem so joyful and … complete, if that makes sense.

That feeling that he can’t really express himself fully until his younger self joins him is so powerful to me, especially when I think of all the times he talked about the connections between childhood and creativity. It’s like he needs the presence of his younger self to be an artist – he isn’t complete as an artist without him.

Joie: That’s really true, Willa. And it makes me think of that old quote by Picasso, I think it was, where he said that “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once you grow up.” And it seems that Michael figured out that the way to do that – to remain an artist once you grow up – is to stay connected to that magic of childhood. As he himself once said:

“One of my favorite pastimes is being with children, talking to them and playing with them. Children know a lot of secrets [about the world] and it’s difficult to get them to tell. Children are incredible. They go through a brilliant phase, but then when they reach a certain age, they lose it. My most creative moments have almost always come when I’m with children. When I’m with them, the music comes to me as easily as breathing.”

The fact that he felt his most creative when surrounded by children I think says a lot about how important that childlike wonder was to him. And, as you said, you can really feel that in the I’ll Be There commercial when he’s singing with his younger self.

Willa: That’s such an important point, Joie. And you know, that makes me wonder if maybe there’s another way to interpret “I’ll Be There,” that beautiful song he sang as a child – not as a promise to a girlfriend or to us as an audience, but as a promise to himself. He will be there for himself. He will protect and preserve the childlike part of himself and stay true to himself, and he will always be there for himself. When his older self is sitting at the piano and senses the presence of his younger self, and then the two join together in song, it like he’s telling us he kept that promise: his younger self is still very present and alive in him, and expresses himself through him.

Joie: Oh, wow. Willa, that was inspired. I never looked at it like that before and I actually got goosebumps just now! That makes so much sense. What a wonderful way to interpret that song.

Willa: It is beautiful, isn’t it? I hadn’t looked at it that way before either until you quoted those wonderful lines about children and creativity. Hearing those words, “When I’m with them, the music comes to me as easily as breathing,” it suddenly struck me that we see that idea enacted in the video duet. He’s sitting at the piano singing in a quiet, hesitant way, and then the music “comes to him” at the precise moment a child appears. But in this case, that child is himself – his younger self.

Joie: It is a beautiful thought, Willa. But, as is always the case with Michael Jackson, this wonderful little clip was not without its share of controversy. This was Michael’s final commercial for Pepsi. You know, they had enjoyed a great partnership for many years. Starting in 1983, they had a very lucrative and mutually beneficial association. But all that ended, of course, in 1993.

This commercial was filmed in 1992 and it aired outside the US in 1993. It was actually never shown in the United States at all. But the controversy came about because it was reported by the New York Post that Michael insisted a White child portray his younger self in the commercial. Now, I have no idea if the child actor in this commercial was actually White or not because his face is never really shown up close so, it doesn’t matter anyway. The old footage of the Jackson 5 used during the commercial gets the point across whether the actor is White or Black. So, I never really understood what the big deal was here.

Willa: Yeah, I really don’t know much about that either. My understanding is that they had an open audition for young dancers, and the best dancer was White – he really had the Jackson 5 moves down, apparently. And I can certainly see Michael Jackson “insisting” that the best dancer be hired, regardless of race – that’s perfectly in keeping with his beliefs and what we know about him. And I can certainly see how the New York Post would try to generate a controversy about that. That’s perfectly in keeping with what we know about them too.

But as you say, none of that really registers when you watch the video, which is so heartfelt and beautiful. And it’s really moving listening to the lyrics as a conversation between his younger self and his older self. His older self sings, “I have faith in all you do,” and his younger self responds, “Just let me fill your heart with joy and laughter.” It’s perfect. And then they both make a pledge to one another: “I’ll be there.” Beautiful.

Joie: It is beautiful, Willa. And honestly, I believe this was just a case of the media creating a controversy about Michael Jackson when there really was none. As you said, it was all about hiring the best dancer regardless of race because the actual race of the actor in the commercial is impossible to discern anyway.

And the bottom line is that, it is such a sweet, heartfelt video clip that perfectly captures Michael Jackson’s heart and his spirit. And it is just such a joy to watch.

Let Me Fill Your Heart With Joy and Laughter

Willa:  You know, Joie, Michael Jackson’s short films can really take you places – just the full gamut of emotions. Like Thriller has this intriguing mix of fear and desire and repression and release:  it’s like he’s holding himself in through the first part, and when he finally breaks loose and starts singing and dancing, it’s exhilarating! And just think about all the different emotions in the Billie Jean video, or The Way You Make Me Feel, or Bad, or Who Is It, or Stranger in Moscow, or Earth Song, or Ghosts, or You Rock My World, or …

Joie:  Ok, ok. I get your point! There are a lot of short films and a whole lot of emotions.

Willa:  Oops. Sorry!  Didn’t mean to get carried away. But you know what I mean. Everything he touched is so nuanced and fascinating – even a Pepsi commercial.  I’m thinking about the “I’ll Be There” video duet between the younger and older Michael Jackson:

And it’s a Pepsi commercial, for Pete’s sake. But it evokes so many different emotions.

Joie:  Oh, I couldn’t agree with you more on that, Willa. I just love that commercial. I only wish it were an actual video of the entire song because it’s way too short. And you’re right, it does stir up a lot of emotions. For long-time fans especially, I think this one can get pretty poignant.

Willa:  Oh, it is so poignant – that’s the perfect word for it. You know, I’ve been thinking about “I’ll Be There” a lot lately, ever since Kris, Eleanor, and Nina posted comments about the connections to “Will You Be There.” I was so intrigued by that. In fact, we talked about it a little bit a few weeks ago – about “I’ll Be There,” “You Were There,” and “Will You Be There” – and I’ve been thinking about the I’ll Be There duet ever since. It’s so moving, and while it’s more subtle than “Childhood,” for example, it stirs up so many emotions.

You know, I think what’s so captivating about this video is that we see the older Michael Jackson interacting with the younger Michael Jackson in ways that completely contradict the dominant narrative in the media. The pop psychology that many critics forced onto him in later years was that his older self literally embodied a rejection of his younger self:  that as he grew older he rejected his race and his father and his whole family actually, and Motown and all his old friends and the people who helped him along he way, and his life as a child star, and that he even rejected his own body – that he rejected his face and his afro and the color of his skin. He rejected more and more and more until he became completely isolated and paranoid and living a Howard Hughes-type existence.

Joie:  Yes. That is the story that the media, and many critics it would seem, would like for us to believe.

Willa:  It really does seem that way, doesn’t it? It’s like they all fell in line behind that one narrative and kept repeating it over and over again. And I never believed it. It’s true that his feelings about his childhood were complicated, and so were his feelings about his father and his family. I mean, let’s face it – his whole life was complicated. But there were obviously a lot of different emotions at work, and it’s a gross over-simplification – and completely wrong, I think – to reduce it all down to “he hated his childhood and now he hates his father and his family and himself.”

Joie:  I couldn’t agree with you more, Willa. And I, for one, am so tired of hearing that Michael Jackson hated himself. I don’t believe that anyone so full of self-loathing could be so compassionate toward his fellow man. If anything I would think that someone who hated himself that much would have very little, if no regard at all for others. That argument just doesn’t make sense to me.

Willa:  Me either, and it doesn’t feel right either. When I listen to his songs or watch his videos, I simply don’t experience flashes of hatred or self-loathing. It’s just not there. But it’s true there are a lot of mixed emotions sometimes, especially about his childhood, and we can see some of that complexity in the I’ll Be There video duet – especially in how his older self relates to and responds to those images of his younger self.

What strikes me most when watching this video is the strong emotional pull he still feels toward his younger self. There’s a lot of affection in this video for his younger self, I think, and sympathy as well, and I get the feeling he wishes he could protect him somehow. There’s a very melancholy mood in this video, and I wonder if he’s thinking about all the things his younger self had already been through and would have to face in the years ahead. Maybe that’s where that melancholia comes from, and what makes this such a bittersweet video to watch.

Joie:  Again, I agree with you completely. It does have a very bittersweet feel about it and you do get the sense that he is thinking about all of the things that young boy has already gone through as well as all of the challenges he’s going to have to face in the future. He knows the difficult obstacles that boy is going to have to overcome and he knows how hard those times are going to be for him. Yet, at the same time, he still seems so hopeful in this clip.

Willa:  He really does, doesn’t he? And reassured when his younger self finally starts to sing. It’s like his older self can’t really get into the song until his younger self fully emerges and begins singing too. But once he’s there, the two join together in song and he – his older self and younger self both – seem so joyful and … complete, if that makes sense.

That feeling that he can’t really express himself fully until his younger self joins him is so powerful to me, especially when I think of all the times he talked about the connections between childhood and creativity. It’s like he needs the presence of his younger self to be an artist – he isn’t complete as an artist without him.

Joie:  That’s really true, Willa. And it makes me think of that old quote by Picasso, I think it was, where he said that “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once you grow up.” And it seems that Michael figured out that the way to do that – to remain an artist once you grow up – is to stay connected to that magic of childhood. As he himself once said:

“One of my favorite pastimes is being with children, talking to them and playing with them. Children know a lot of secrets [about the world] and it’s difficult to get them to tell. Children are incredible. They go through a brilliant phase, but then when they reach a certain age, they lose it. My most creative moments have almost always come when I’m with children. When I’m with them, the music comes to me as easily as breathing.”

The fact that he felt his most creative when surrounded by children I think says a lot about how important that childlike wonder was to him. And, as you said, you can really feel that in the I’ll Be There commercial when he’s singing with his younger self.

Willa:  That’s such an important point, Joie. And you know, that makes me wonder if maybe there’s another way to interpret “I’ll Be There,” that beautiful song he sang as a child – not as a promise to a girlfriend or to us as an audience, but as a promise to himself. He will be there for himself. He will protect and preserve the childlike part of himself and stay true to himself, and he will always be there for himself. When his older self is sitting at the piano and senses the presence of his younger self, and then the two join together in song, it like he’s telling us he kept that promise:  his younger self is still very present and alive in him, and expresses himself through him.

Joie:  Oh, wow. Willa, that was inspired. I never looked at it like that before and I actually got goosebumps just now! That makes so much sense. What a wonderful way to interpret that song.

Willa:  It is beautiful, isn’t it? I hadn’t looked at it that way before either until you quoted those wonderful lines about children and creativity. Hearing those words, “When I’m with them, the music comes to me as easily as breathing,” it suddenly struck me that we see that idea enacted in the video duet. He’s sitting at the piano singing in a quiet, hesitant way, and then the music “comes to him” at the precise moment a child appears. But in this case, that child is himself – his younger self.

Joie:  It is a beautiful thought, Willa. But, as is always the case with Michael Jackson, this wonderful little clip was not without its share of controversy. This was Michael’s final commercial for Pepsi. You know, they had enjoyed a great partnership for many years. Starting in 1983, they had a very lucrative and mutually beneficial association. But all that ended, of course, in 1993.

This commercial was filmed in 1992 and it aired outside the US in 1993. It was actually never shown in the United States at all. But the controversy came about because it was reported by the New York Post that Michael insisted a White child portray his younger self in the commercial. Now, I have no idea if the child actor in this commercial was actually White or not because his face is never really shown up close so, it doesn’t matter anyway. The old footage of the Jackson 5 used during the commercial gets the point across whether the actor is White or Black. So, I never really understood what the big deal was here.

Willa:  Yeah, I really don’t know much about that either. My understanding is that they had an open audition for young dancers, and the best dancer was White – he really had the Jackson 5 moves down, apparently. And I can certainly see Michael Jackson “insisting” that the best dancer be hired, regardless of race – that’s perfectly in keeping with his beliefs and what we know about him. And I can certainly see how the New York Post would try to generate a controversy about that. That’s perfectly in keeping with what we know about them too.

But as you say, none of that really registers when you watch the video, which is so heartfelt and beautiful. And it’s really moving listening to the lyrics as a conversation between his younger self and his older self. His older self sings, “I have faith in all you do,” and his younger self responds, “Just let me fill your heart with joy and laughter.” It’s perfect. And then they both make a pledge to one another: “I’ll be there.” Beautiful.

Joie:  It is beautiful, Willa. And honestly, I believe this was just a case of the media creating a controversy about Michael Jackson when there really was none. As you said, it was all about hiring the best dancer regardless of race because the actual race of the actor in the commercial is impossible to discern anyway.

And the bottom line is that, it is such a sweet, heartfelt video clip that perfectly captures Michael Jackson’s heart and his spirit. And it is just such a joy to watch.

Why Dance with an Elephant?

Joie:  So, “Dancing With the Elephant.” Pretty strange title for a blog about Michael Jackson, huh? Well, not really. Not once you understand where my friend and I are coming from and how this blog came to be.

My name is Joie Collins and I am one of the dedicated individuals who helps run the MJFC (Michael Jackson Fan Club) website. Needless to say, I’m a huge Michael fan and have been since I was a very small child watching the Jackson 5 perform on Soul Train. I’ve been doing what I do for MJFC for a long time and I love it! I get great satisfaction out of overseeing the website’s News page and answering the website’s business mail. Recently, I’ve had the great pleasure of getting to know Dr. Willa Stillwater when I agreed to read her new book, M Poetica, and give her my honest, gut-reaction from a fan’s point of view.

I’m not sure she knew exactly what she was asking of me at the time. As you know, we MJ fans tend to take our opinions very seriously! And, as you may have guessed, my “honest, gut-reaction” sparked an immediate, heated debate! Willa and I went back and forth and back and forth over various topics and points covered in her book. I would tell her all the things I loved about it, but I also pulled no punches in telling her what I hated about it. And she would counter with all the reasons why she had written it the way she had written it and I would explain to her why I felt the way I did and why most fans would agree with me. This went on for a couple of weeks, and finally she and I began to understand that we had hit on something special.

What we realized is that, during our debates, we actually had some pretty interesting discussions about Michael Jackson, his art and his music. We were talking openly and honestly, having real, in-depth conversations about the work of the greatest entertainer of all time. And even when we were disagreeing (which happened a fair amount of the time), we both always came away from the conversation with an enlightened point of view, and a new way of looking at the King of Pop than we had previously. So we thought… what if we continued the conversation on a larger scale? And what if we invited all of you to witness that conversation and even take part in it yourselves?

Still doesn’t explain the name though, right? Well, we wanted a name that spoke to both of us and also had relevant meaning to Michael himself. We all know how deeply Michael felt about the majestic elephant. He loved them! Gypsy and Babar were among his favorite animals at his Neverland Valley Ranch zoo. He even wrote a beautiful essay about elephants in his book, Dancing the Dream called “So the Elephants March.” In it, he talks about the lessons that elephants have been trying for centuries to teach man. He writes, “But the elephants’ most important message is in their movement. For they know that to live is to move. Dawn after dawn, age after age, the herds march on, one great mass of life that never falls down, an unstoppable force of peace.” I think that last part describes Michael pretty well. “An unstoppable force of peace.” In many ways, that’s what he himself was.

For me, not only are elephants amazing animals, but they also symbolize a “touchy subject.” A difficult conversation that people may wish to avoid. For example, I’m a Black American (I don’t like the term “African” American because neither I, nor my parents, nor my grandparents – or even my great-grandparents for that matter – have ever been to Africa) and my husband is White. He and I often talk about different racial issues and it’s wonderful because we can do so in a very open and honest way without the fear of offending anyone or hurting each other’s feelings. We’ve been married for 10 and a half years now and we often interact with one another’s families – all of whom have always been very supportive of our relationship. During our conversations about the differences between Black families and White families, one of the things I often say to my husband is that, in my experience, White families sometimes tend to want to avoid “the elephant in the room,” preferring to dodge the uncomfortable topics of conversation, while Black families tend to draw as much attention to the awkward topic as possible, often wrapping Christmas lights around that elephant and setting up big flashing arrows pointing right to it! It’s a generalization, of course, but you get what I mean. The point is, sometimes people (of all races) don’t really know how to tackle the uncomfortable topics, so instead they “avoid the elephant in the room.”

Well, I think we can all agree that when it comes to Michael Jackson there are a lot of uncomfortable topics that might come up. Even in a blog that focuses on his art. And Willa and I are not going to avoid those elephants. Instead, we’ve decided to dance with them!

Willa:  Joie, I love your description of the elephant in the room! I just love it. It creates this little movie in my mind of a bunch of people sitting in a room with an elephant no one invited, and everyone is feeling uncomfortable and awkward and no one knows what to do. Finally someone walks right up to the elephant, welcomes him, and invites him to dance – and they all find out he’s not so scary after all. Suddenly, that awkward situation becomes much more comfortable, and maybe even turns into a party. I just love that image of dancing with the elephant!

I also think it’s crucially important to openly acknowledge the elephant in the room when trying to interpret Michael Jackson since confronting painful issues, especially racial prejudice, was so central to his work – from relatively straightforward anthems like “Black or White” to more complicated things like the changing color of his skin. I don’t think you can understand him and what he was doing and how incredibly important it is if you exclude race from the picture, or marginalize it off to the side somewhere. Confronting prejudice in one form or another was at the heart of almost everything he did, both as an artist and as a cultural figure.

Because we aren’t honestly acknowledging the elephant in the room, I don’t think we’ve even begun to realize the deep, tectonic shifts he helped bring about. I’m White and I grew up in the South, in a very racist place. Yet, as a teenager, my definition of the ultimate in sexiness was Michael Jackson, a young Black man. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. And there were millions of girls around the world who felt the same way I did. There’s a whole generation of us whose ideas about race and sexuality – about what’s sexy and what isn’t – were shaped by him. That’s huge. He was a teen idol, our first Black teen idol, and the implications of that are deep and powerful and profound, but no one’s really talking about that, or what it means culturally.

You know, every time he ripped his shirt on stage, like in Dirty Diana or Come Together, and showed us his dark chest and how beautiful and sexy it was, he was challenging how White America, especially, “read” his body. But he did it in such an interesting way. He was beautiful and sexy, but he was always a genuine person too – in part, I think, because he had the courage to let himself be vulnerable, and let us see that side of him too. He wasn’t just a Chippendale guy. He was sexy, but he never became just a glossy sex object because we could always see the humanity in him. I look at him in Dirty Diana up on stage with his bare chest and shoulders, and he’s so sexy I can hardly stand it, but he also looks so vulnerable. I don’t know whether to faint or make him some soup.

Joie:  Faint or make him soup! I love the way you put things sometimes!

Willa: Well, you know what I mean!  You just feel the urge to take care of him sometimes, and I think that vulnerability was really important also. This was during the 1980s, when the inner cities were erupting in gang violence and the dominant narrative in the media was that young Black men were scary and alien and dangerous. We kept getting told that – in news reports and movies and even commercials – but then there’s Michael Jackson, and he’s almost single-handedly pushing back against that dominant narrative and offering a very different vision. He was a young Black man, but he was sweet and funny and smart and sexy and vulnerable. He gave us an alternate image of what it means to be a young Black man in America, and for me, his vision always seemed more honest and human and believable than that scary stereotype.

Joie: Well, I agree with you completely. He did give us an alternative image of what it means to be a young Black man in America and, to this day, Black Americans take pride in that. And I could go off on a whole different tangent here, but before I do that, why don’t you explain what the title means to you.

Willa:  So “Dancing with the Elephant” speaks to me about art and interpretation. To me, interpretation isn’t about passively observing a work of art, but about actively engaging with it, “dancing” with it, opening yourself up to it, and becoming emotionally invested in it.

It also reminds me of a folktale I love about six blind men trying to understand and describe an elephant. The first approaches the elephant and happens to touch his trunk. He feels the elephant’s trunk, realizes how strong yet flexible it is, and announces that an elephant is like a huge snake – like a python or boa constrictor. The second blind man steps forward and touches one of the elephant’s legs. He feels all around, noting the round shape and how sturdy it is, and says, no, an elephant is more like a column or pillar. The third comes forward and encounters the elephant’s side. He spreads his hands along the vast breadth of the elephant’s side and says they are both wrong: an elephant is like a wall. Then the fourth steps forward, happens to catch the elephant’s tail, and says, no, an elephant is like a rope. The fifth feels his ear waving back and forth and says an elephant is like a fan. The sixth feels his tusk and says an elephant is like a spear.

Each of the blind men is providing an accurate description of that aspect of the elephant he happened to encounter and experience for himself, but none of them comprehends the entire animal. They only perceive bits and pieces. Only by sharing their experiences and combining their ideas will they ever be able to develop some understanding of an elephant and begin to fully appreciate what a truly magnificent animal it is.

I love this story of the six blind men, and think it’s especially important to compare notes and share our perceptions and experiences when trying to understand something as complicated and subjective as a work of art, especially with an artist as experimental as Michael Jackson who pushed so many boundaries and challenged so many preconceived ideas and accepted beliefs.

For example, Joie and I really went back and forth and around and around about how we interpret the changing color of Michael Jackson’s skin. She wasn’t kidding when she talked about our heated debates. I saw it as a brilliant artistic decision that profoundly influenced how White America, especially, experiences racial differences. Joie saw it as a wrenching emotional decision that he struggled with for years. My discussions with Joie haven’t fundamentally altered my interpretation, but they’ve influenced me tremendously. Her ideas have deepened and complicated my understanding of this aspect of his work and actually made it much more powerful and meaningful to me by helping me understand just how difficult this decision must have been for him, and how very painful it must have been to be so misunderstood.

Joie:  So, with this blog, Willa and I hope to have some really in-depth conversations about Michael Jackson’s art and his cultural impact. We intend for this to be a weekly blog, so come back next week and we’ll get the conversation started.

Willa:  Our goal is to have a substantive discussion where we can all share ideas and even disagree sometimes, but in a respectful way that leads to a deeper understanding of his work. If you would like to contact us with questions or future blog topics, our email address is dancing.with.the.elephant@gmail.com.

Joie:  And you can also check us out on Facebook and give us your own take on our discussion. Tell us what you think. We want to hear it!