Willa: Happy holidays, everyone! For our first Christmas here at Dancing with the Elephant, Joie and I wanted to do something special so we wrote a post about Michael Jackson and his ideas about childhood and creativity. Then the following year, we did a Christmas post about his song, “Childhood,” and the beautiful video he made for it.
We’d like to continue that tradition this year by talking with Veronica Bassil about her warm and insightful book, That Wonder in My Youth: Michael Jackson and Childhood. Veronica has a Ph.D. in English and American literature, and this is actually her third book about Michael Jackson. She’s also the author of Michael Jackson’s Love for Planet Earth and Thinking Twice about Billie Jean.
Thank you so much for joining us again, Veronica!
Joie: Welcome, Veronica. You’ve been busy!
Veronica: Yes, you’re right, Joie – I have. I feel as if I have been Michaeling pretty much nonstop since he left us in 2009. And it’s been great to share that journey with you both and your wonderful blog participants. I’ve learned so much from these discussions. I feel as if we have all been together on this “great adventure,” exploring the various dimensions of MJ’s art and in the process building a better, fuller, and more accurate understanding of who he was and what he was communicating.
So I am very happy to join you now to discuss That Wonder in My Youth, which incidentally I noticed was the title for one of your previous posts. I think it’s such a haunting and powerful line from MJ’s “Childhood” – “I’m searching for that wonder in my youth.”
Joie: It is an interesting line, isn’t it? So I’ve been wondering, what was it that made you want to write about this aspect of Michael’s life? Can you tell us a little about what drew you to focus on his childhood?
Veronica: Sure, Joie, I’d be glad to. I considered that removing the encrustations of media disinformation that had constructed a false picture of who MJ was and what his art was about was critical to revealing his true stature as an artist and a person.
For example, in terms of his music, he was to a large extent portrayed as just a lightweight pop star, and then later as a has-been lightweight pop star, when he is in reality a powerful musical innovator, poet, and philosopher (by this I mean a visionary thinker on the deepest level). He is a modern-day Socrates who questioned and challenged the status quo, the beliefs of “Normal Valley.” His challenges provoked discomfort, and like Socrates, he became a thorn in the side of those who wanted to maintain existing social norms and beliefs. Interestingly, Socrates was also accused of corrupting the young and put on trial. Found guilty, he was sentenced to death as an old man in his 80s.
MJ’s work to focus our attention on the plight of children worldwide was distorted or disregarded. Instead of investigating our real-world commitment to children, many found it easier to attack the messenger and criticize his very being.
In an effort to correct this false media persona, my first book discussed MJ’s passionate environmentalism, which I saw (as did others, Joe Vogel especially) as central to his work. Then the allegations of course were and sadly still are a huge stumbling block that keeps people from appreciating him and his art. So that was my second book, using the accusations in “Billie Jean” as an access point. In this recent book, I tackled the third major stumbling block when it comes to MJ – namely, his views on children and childhood, including his own experiences as a child.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Veronica. I’ve read all three of your books and enjoyed them individually, but hadn’t put that together – that each one is addressing a “major stumbling block” to understanding and appreciating Michael Jackson and his work.
Veronica: Thanks so much, Willa, for reading my work! Yes, the three books tie together. MJ has been so profoundly misunderstood and misinterpreted, and his effort to focus the world’s attention on the need to care about children and learn from them, seeing them as teachers and guides, is at the top of the list. His philosophy grew out of his own childhood experiences, which he saw as deprived of the normal pleasures and carefree days of childhood, and this gave him insight into the sufferings and neglect of children worldwide.
By the way, I have been reading the book Michael Jackson, Inc. by Forbes writer Zack O’Malley Greenburg, and he says that in 1966 (when MJ was 7 or 8), he was doing 5 sets a night, 6 nights a week, on top of going to school and rehearsing! That is so amazing.
Willa: Really? I had no idea. I mean, I knew he and his brothers worked very hard to succeed – were forced to work hard to succeed – but that’s really troubling that a second grader would be working that much. I’ve read Greenburg’s book also, but somehow that went right past me – or maybe I just didn’t stop to think about what it meant. He really didn’t have time to experience childhood in a normal sense, did he?
Veronica: No, he didn’t, and I think even we, his fans, don’t fully grasp what that kind of childhood work was like and how it affected him.
Willa: Yes, and I’m afraid I’m one of those people. I try to understand, but just when I think I’m starting to get a good picture of what his life was like as a child star, growing up with that extreme level of fame and hard work and harsh discipline from his father, I hear something like that and realize, no, I still don’t get it. I still have no concept of what it was like for him.…
Veronica: MJ talked about it quite a lot – for example, in his autobiography Moonwalk – and he makes this point again in “Childhood” when he sings about “the painful youth I’ve had.” But I think it’s easy to underplay or discount it, perhaps because his experience is incomprehensible in that it is so far from our own.
In terms of MJ’s awareness of the plight of children in general, I’ve been reading Losing Our Way, an important book recently published by former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, and he talks about how the USA was for a time number 1 in child poverty of all industrialized countries. It is now number 2 after Romania.
Willa: That’s shocking. I didn’t know that.
Veronica: Yes, it is scandalously shocking. One in 5 children (23 percent) in our nation live in poverty today.
Joie: I’m actually aware of that statistic, and it is shocking.
Veronica: Yes, Joie, I agree. Herbert also writes that since the recession of 2008, billions upon billions of dollars have been cut from our public school budgets. This means eliminating or curtailing supposedly “nonessential” programs that are actually vital, such as music, art, band, foreign languages, sports, and early childhood education programs. This lack of care and nurture of children is what MJ wanted to draw our attention to on a worldwide scale, as well as his focus on the enormous value of children, how they can show us a new way. As he says so wonderfully in his Grammy Legend Award speech of 1993:
The magic, the wonder, the mystery, and the innocence of a child’s heart are the seeds of creativity that will heal the world. I really believe that. What we need to learn from children isn’t childish. Being with them connects us to the deeper wisdom of life, which is ever present and only asks to be lived. They know the way to solutions that lie waiting to be recognized within our own hearts.
I absolutely love this speech, and his reference to “a child’s heart” is so important. Incidentally, the Immortal version of “Childhood” includes 2 passages. Here’s a link to the full speech:
Willa: I agree – what he is saying in this speech is crucially important, and I think this is one way critics really misunderstood what he was saying. When he talked about wanting to retain the childlike part of himself, critics tended to interpret that as meaning he was reluctant to grow up and be a responsible adult. But that wasn’t what he was saying at all. He felt very responsible about trying to help solve the many problems that face our world.
And this is the critically important part: he felt that connecting with the creativity and “deeper wisdom” of childhood would help us solve those problems. Susan Fast talks about this in her Dangerous book:
In the collection of short films that accompanies Dangerous, Jackson says in a preamble to “Heal the World”: “Being with [children] connects us to the deep wisdom of life, the simple goodness shines straight from their hearts.”
Many conventional ideas about childhood link it to the future through the belief that children enter the world as empty vessels, that there is, therefore, an opportunity – or obligation – to educate them, “fill” them, shape them, in order that they will hopefully produce a “better” future … that they will fulfill the dreams of their parents, and that they will carry on family lines.
But Jackson rarely talks or sings about children in this conventional way … For him, there was a utopian impulse in children not because they represent the future, the hopes and dreams of adults, the continuation of a “normal” progression of time and family, but because their honesty, simplicity and innocence center adults, bring us back to feeling, to good affect; “now, when the world is so confused and its problems so complicated,” he says in the same preamble, “we need our children more than ever.”
So as Susan emphasizes, Michael Jackson isn’t saying that we can create a better future by molding children into better people – into the people we want them to be. Just the opposite. He’s saying that when we spend time with children, it “connects us to the deep wisdom of life” and makes us better people.
We really see this in the Heal the World video, where we see children playing in war-torn areas around the world as soldiers watch, and then the soldiers throw down their rifles. And we see it more subtly in the Jam video, where he juxtaposes images of children playing, dancing, making music against images of urban poverty. Importantly, he explicitly talks about solving the world’s problems in the lyrics of “Jam,” like in these opening lines:
Nation to nation
All the world must come together
Face the problems that we see
Then maybe somehow we can work it out
And in the chorus he goes on to say that the way to solve these problems is to “jam” – meaning to play like children, to connect creatively with one another and find innovative solutions. So he seemed to see this childlike wonder and playfulness as a powerful force for social change, and thought it was very important for adults to reconnect to the childlike parts of themselves to tap into this creative force. As he says in the passage Susan quoted, “now, when the world is so confused and its problems so complicated, we need our children more than ever.”
Veronica: Amen to that, Willa! I agree with what you just said so well and with what Susan Fast wrote. The word “center” here is very important: “their honesty, simplicity and innocence center adults, bring us back to feeling.” This is one place where we can see MJ as a philosopher. When he talks about the “playfulness of life” and the “deeper wisdom of life” in the Grammy speech, what is he really telling us? We need to look closely at this speech, which is a condensed form of insights that are reflected elsewhere – for example, in the Heal the World introduction, in Dancing the Dream, and maybe throughout his entire work.
Here I’d like to quote from a wonderful book, The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer. In the final chapters, he talks about the Tao of Lao-tzu and the Tao te Ching. The Tao (pronounced “dow”) is translated as “the Way,” a way of balance, or being at the center of extremes, also called The Middle Way. Singer uses the example of a pendulum that will, when pushed, swing one way to one extreme and then back again to the other extreme to the same degree. Eventually it will come to center, to a balance point, where it rests. Singer also uses the analogy of sailing, where the balance point of the energies is more complicated because it involves the wind, the sail, the rudder, and the tautness with which sailor holds the ropes.
He suggests that our entire planet lives within a balance of energies known as “The Way” and that if we humans can stop going from one extreme to the other and find the center, we can reach our full potential.
First you have to realize that since everything has its yin and yang, everything has its own balance point. It is the harmony of all these balance points, woven together, that forms the Tao. This overall balance maintains its equilibrium as it moves through time and space. Its power is phenomenal.
If you want to imagine the power of the Tao, examine how much energy is wasted swinging sideways. Suppose you want to go from point A to point B, but instead of walking there directly, you move from side to side like a sine wave. That would take you a long time, and you would waste a lot of energy…. When you spend your energy trying to maintain the extremes, nothing goes forward. You get stuck in a rut. The more extreme you are, the less forward movement there is…. In the Tao of sailing, the balance point is not static; it’s a dynamic equilibrium. You move from balance point to balance point, from center to center. You can’t have any concepts or preferences; you have to let the forces move you.
In the Way, nothing is personal. You are merely an instrument in the hands of the forces, participating in the harmony of balance. You must reach the point where your whole interest lies in the balance and not in any personal preference for how things should be.
How does this relate to MJ and his feelings about children? Children, MJ believed, were fully present to life – they were in effect living the Tao, the Way. He expressed some of these ideas regarding what might be called philosophical Taoism before, for instance, in 1983:
In this interview at Hayvenhurst, Michael describes his creative inspirations and how he “plays off of life”:
You can feel the energy, everything around you. You can feel it. The energy from the moon, or the plants, everything around you. It’s wonderful.
I mean, nature, animals, and all those things, are very inspirational to my work. I play off of those things, and children, and it stimulates ideas, creates all kind of things. I just can’t tell you. I think the majority of my success is from these sources. Some people say, “Well, go into detail.” But it’s hard. You really can’t. It’s just the whole world. You just play off of life.
I think it’s the same for what inspires painters, sculptures, and people of the arts. It’s the whole world, though. It’s magic.
Willa: That’s a wonderful description of his creative process! And it really does go hand in hand with Singer’s description of “dynamic equilibrium,” doesn’t it? – where, he encourages us to be in tune with “the energy, everything around you,” as Michael Jackson describes it.
Veronica: Singer writes about moving in sync with the forces of the Way. He compares the Tao to the eye of a hurricane, a balance point of forces that swirl around it. The forces of movement outside and the balance inside are part of this centering. MJ spoke about the need to “keep moving” – to keep growing, evolving, and creating – and he repeatedly advised musicians to let the music create itself. He said if I try and write a hit song, nothing will happen – I have to let it “drop into my lap.”
When I create my music, I feel like an instrument of nature. I wonder what delight nature must feel when we open our hearts and express our God-given talents. The sound of approval rose across the universe and the whole world abounds in magic. Wonder fills our hearts for what we have glimpsed for an instant: the playfulness of life….
MJ calls himself “an instrument of nature” – echoing the idea he expressed before about “playing off of life.” In both passages, he appears to be speaking about the Way, the balance, the harmony of life that children are more in tune with, when he speaks about “the deeper wisdom of life” and the “playfulness of life.”
Here we come back to that key word “wonder,” one that appears so significantly in the line in “Childhood.” Wonder, mystery, magic, creativity, a child’s heart, nature – all these seem connected to something MJ called “the playfulness of life” and that he saw as a gift that children had to offer our “wounded world.”
Willa: Yes, that phrase “the playfulness of life” is interesting, isn’t it? And the fact that he attaches such importance to it – to this spirit of play. We don’t usually think of play as important, but repeatedly we see him linking this spirit of playfulness with creativity and a sense of personal well-being – and with global well-being as well.
Veronica: The importance of play in our lives, from children to adults, is undervalued. In my research I came across the work of Dr. Stuart Brown, co-founder of the National Institute for Play, who affirms that play is as biologically essential as sleep or dreams, and equally necessary for adults and children. Play is a universal language of higher intelligence species and is important for neurological and social development. Play promotes memory, stress management, and resiliency, and is one of the Rights of the Child adopted by the U.N.
In the USA, maybe because of the strong influence of the Puritan work ethic, we are just way too serious! We need to play more, and MJ promoted this in his own life – for example, in the creation of Neverland and in the way he brought children and children’s issues to the forefront, perhaps more than any other performer has ever done. Dr. Brown also says that we must incorporate play into our lives fully, and realize that the opposite of play is not work but depression.
Willa: Wow, that’s really interesting. I never looked at it that way. Maybe instead of prescribing anti-depressants, doctors should encourage their patients to play more!
Veronica: Sounds good to me! In so many ways, our lives are impoverished by a lack of play.
But seeing the problem, as MJ sings in the lines from “Jam” you quoted, Willa, is what we tend to avoid, because it’s sometimes painful to see “what’s going on” (to quote Marvin Gaye), and the corporate mass media is an all-too-willing vehicle to distract us (via consumerism, celebrity gossip, scandals, and so on). MJ, however, was not afraid to “speak truth to power.” In the Grammy speech he goes on to connect worldwide problems, such as wars, terrorism, and incarceration, with the fact that “children have had their childhood stolen from them.”
Willa: Yes, and this is another critically important point, I think. Michael Jackson not only tells us that reconnecting with childhood can help solve the world’s problems but, on the flip side, that many of those problems directly result from a loss of childhood, as you say.
Veronica: Yes, absolutely. MJ had made the same point earlier in “On Children of the World” from Dancing the Dream:
We have to heal our wounded world. The chaos, despair, and senseless destruction we see today are a result of the alienation that people feel from each other and their environment. Often this alienation has its roots in an emotionally deprived childhood. Children have had their childhood stolen from them. A child’s mind needs the nourishment of mystery, magic, wonder, and excitement. I want my work to help people rediscover the child that’s hiding in them.
Willa: I’m so glad you shared this quote, Veronica, because this is the crux of the issue, isn’t it? We live in a “wounded world” because “of the alienation people feel from each other and their environment.” I think that’s exactly it.
And as he says, “Often this alienation has its roots in an emotionally deprived childhood.” Or this alienation can appear in adults who may have had happy childhoods but have lost the “deeper knowledge” they had as children. In fact, often we find ourselves encouraged to cast aside that “deeper knowledge” as childish, and focus on adult concerns like earning money, building a career, being respectable.
Veronica: This is so true, Willa. In terms of Singer’s analysis, we go to an extreme and lose the balance point. This “senseless destruction” and alienation cause great pain. Too many of us have some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from not being nurtured or encouraged enough as children or from feeling pressured by social norms to abandon our childlike values, like spontaneity, creativity, magic, open-heartedness, as we grow up. Michael wanted to recast our social and personal tendency to disregard children into a deep respect and appreciation for what they have to offer.
It’s interesting that an artist so extraordinarily gifted himself would be disregarded in the same way children are often disregarded. There is an irony in that, while asking us to see children and their gifts more clearly, he himself was misperceived precisely for his very playfulness in his personal life and in his art.
Willa: I agree.
Veronica: To get back to the song “Childhood,” it is so poignant to me when MJ sings,
No one understands me
They view it as such strange eccentricities…
‘Cause I keep kidding around
Like a child, but pardon me …
He was actually modelling for us the values he wanted to see. It’s interesting too that in “Childhood,” he gets really animated and excited when singing about play:
Have you seen my childhood?
I’m searching for that wonder in my youth
Like pirates in adventurous dreams,
Of conquest and kings on the throne …
Have you seen my childhood?
I’m searching for that wonder in my youth
Like fantastical stories to share
The dreams I would dare, watch me fly …
The fact that we, as adults, often no longer experience play, adventurous dreams, and wonder was something MJ spoke about a lot, particularly in conversations with Schmuley Boteach. (He refers to a book on childlike values that he was working on with Boteach in his Oxford Union Speech of 2001. Boteach published these conversations in Honoring Child Spirit, a book I might not have read but someone I respect recommended it, so I took a look and discovered a lot of valuable discussion there.)
MJ reveals to Boteach how much he thinks adults have shut down and lost the natural playfulness and creativity that they once had as children. He even persuaded Boteach to climb a tree with him and sit in its branches to recapture those lost feelings!
MJ: The world is gift-wrapped for them [children] and everything is a new experience and they know it is all out there waiting for them and all these different categories of fun, a wonderful fantastical mission to take. Why do they [adults] lose it? Why does it go away? You felt that way, you remember feeling that way. Can you go back to that place?
SB: The only time I felt like that again is when I was with you watching Toy Story on Thanksgiving, and at Neverland, when we went to the tree that morning. We climbed up and spent a full hour there, just hanging out. And I have to say, it was pretty liberating. Two grown men, hanging out in a tree house. It was memorable.
MJ: Isn’t that wonderful? Everybody should have that experience and never feel that I am too old to climb a tree.
Willa: And he invited Martin Bashir to have that same experience. Near the beginning of Living with Michael Jackson, he climbs his “Giving Tree” and encourages Bashir to climb with him. Here’s a clip:
It’s interesting that in talking to Bashir, he explicitly links the childlike joy of climbing the tree with his creativity. As he tells Bashir, “I’ve written so many of my songs in this tree. I wrote ‘Heal the World’ in this tree, ‘Will You Be There,’ ‘Black or White,’ ‘Childhood.’”
As he climbs he calls down to Bashir, “Aren’t you coming?” but Bashir says, “No way.” He’s intrigued, though, and does end up climbing a short way, but then stops – either because he’s worried about falling, or worried he’ll look ridiculous on camera. Later, when they’re both back on the ground, Bashir quizzes him about it in a somewhat mocking way, and then in voiceover asks, “So how had this singing and dancing genius arrived in this surreal place that is his life today?”
So Bashir doesn’t understand what Michael Jackson is saying – and more importantly, he doesn’t seem to want to understand. He wants to look down at him from the privileged position of a respectable adult and criticize him.
Veronica: Thanks for this comparison, Willa. What a contrast between MJ and Bashir here! Bashir had closed down to childlike value to a huge degree and had become a stultifying, judgmental adult. That was what was truly “surreal.” MJ looks so peaceful and happy sitting up high in his “Giving Tree.”
Willa: Though he also seems a little self-conscious to me, like he knows Bashir is judging him.
Joie: You know the truly interesting part in all of this? At least, to me anyway … is the fact that he understood that no one was taking him seriously, and that no one was going to take him seriously in this endeavor. He even addressed it in “Childhood” when he sang the simple words,
Before you judge me
Try hard to love me
He knew that people were going to listen to that song and roll their eyes in a sort of, “Oh, he’s at it again” attitude.
Veronica: Yes, that’s a good point – he sure did perceive and anticipate that judgmental criticism. But the next line of the song is an instruction (these lines are in the imperative, or command, form) to “Look within your heart, then ask / Have you seen my childhood?” I think MJ took a heart-centered approach and tried to speak to people on that level and ask them to respond on that level. And look at the fans and how much they responded to that. When he says in This Is It, “Love is important,” he knew that love was the way to reach people on the deepest levels.
Here is another snippet from Honoring Child Spirit:
SB: You are very successful, so you can afford to forgive people and remain childlike. “But me?” someone can say, “I live in a trailer park. How can I forgive people? Life is bitter for me. G-d has let me down. I have no time for my children. I am a single mother with two jobs to support my kids.” What would you say to someone who says, “Come on, Michael. This is not realistic. You want to be like Peter Pan? You want to take me to this fantasy land called Neverland. Get real. I can’t go to fantasy land. I have children to support. My husband beats me.” What would you say to someone like that?
MJ: I would think they should try to find the truth about the power of love, and the way that I think it should be done, without sounding selfish, the way I have discovered what real bliss is. I think if they even gave it a chance they would feel it.
Willa: That is so interesting! I haven’t read this book but I looked up this passage in Google Books, and here he’s specifically talking about “a childlike way of being,” right? So he seems to be saying that maintaining those childlike qualities within ourselves not only can help solve problems on a global scale, but on a personal level as well. As he tells Rabbi Boteach, it can lead to “real bliss.”
Veronica: Yes, it’s in the chapter called “Love and Guidance,” where MJ and Boteach discuss loving children and guiding them, and learning from them too. MJ says, “They are my teachers. I watch them and I learn. It’s important for us to try and be like them and imitate them. They are golden.” In another place he says, “They are the sunshine of the world.”
Joie: Here’s a question that I’m fond of asking during these types of discussions. Do you think, ladies, that the public at large will ever “get it”? Will they ever open themselves up and receive the message that he tried so hard to impart? Because I have to be honest and say that, sadly, I don’t think they will. I always wonder if the tide will ever turn where Michael is concerned. If he will ever be seen as the truly remarkable artist, thinker, and visionary that he was, or if his image and his legacy are tarnished forever. And I’m actually an optimist in my everyday life, but about this, I’m just not sure anymore.
Veronica: Well, I think the general public, and by that I mean people who are not MJ fans and advocates, are lacking a true picture of who MJ was. They are lacking information. They have been fed lies from the tabloids for decades. Remember how MJ called it junk food? They have been eating all that junk food and don’t have the real nourishment that would come from eating healthy food – meaning true information.
Recently, I gave a talk at a gallery about my book. I was a bit worried that some media-indoctrinated people would show up and harass me, but luckily, it was my friends who came. But few of my friends have read my books, and they don’t know much about MJ either. During the talk, one person commented that Michael had “mutilated” his face. I recognized that this came from the relentless tabloid-type stories (for instance, see Susan Woodward’s reference to the Daily Mirror article that MJ sued them over), but I stayed calm and just said, “Well, plenty of women love ‘mature Mike’ and if you go on YouTube you can find videos about that.” I also referred to This Is It, which some people had seen. And I kept going. This same person just sent me an email, which I quote, unedited:
Thanks for sending this beautiful video [a link to the Childhood video]. Veronica, I have a new perception of who Michael was and an understanding of what happened to him that, perhaps, explains his actions. His is a very sad story …
Thanks again. Your presentation was far more enjoyable than what I expected. At first I wanted to come because I was interested but, primarily, because I wanted to be there for you. After hearing your talk, I was very glad I attended because I learned so much!
So many misperceptions about MJ can’t be changed in a short talk, but we can open up fissures in the biases that people have absorbed from the media. As MJ advocates spread their knowledge outside the fan community more and more, it slowly ripples out.
I remember when, in the early 90’s, Bill Moyers asked Oren Lyons, the Onondaga Faith-Keeper of the Iroquois nation, if the Native American tradition was basically finished in the modern world, and Oren replied (I am paraphrasing here), “As long as there is one person to talk and one person to listen, the stories will continue.” That is so hopeful – and true.
In my opinion, it is on this fundamental level of person to person, heart to heart, where deep change occurs. Yes, there is a lot of doubt and skepticism out there, but with true information, people can learn. And the other hopeful thing is of course MJ’s music: “If you want to know me, listen to my music. The love is stored there and will not die.”
Willa: That’s beautiful! I hadn’t heard that before: “The love is stored there and will not die.” So he must have believed that his image would be redeemed someday, and that his ideas might spark significant change in the future.
Veronica: In my talk, I emphasized the reasonableness of MJ’s thinking – namely, that if we want a better world, we have to take better care of our children. We have to love and value them, nurture them, and learn from them. We have to honor them and listen to them. I read some passages from the beautiful conclusion to MJ’s Oxford Union speech – here is a link to that speech:
Someone commented afterwards how impressed she was with his “intelligence and articulateness.” Well, this is no surprise to us, but it is for people who have been told lies for decades. I remember being shocked after MJ’s passing when Larry King asked someone, “Was Michael Jackson intelligent?” I mean, it blew my mind that he even had to ask that question! We have our work cut out for us, but I think people are becoming more receptive to MJ’s messages, particularly on subjects like children and the environment. He was so advanced in his thinking, light-years ahead, and we are starting to catch up at last.
Willa: Yes, I think so too, and I strongly believe that someday he will be seen as the most important artist of our time. And that day may not be too far away. I mean, perceptions of him seem to have changed dramatically since he died, and they’re continuing to evolve as people like your friends, Veronica, learn more about him. Thank you for sharing that story. We just need to keep “Michaeling,” as you say, until everyone “gets it,” as you put it, Joie.
Joie: Well, that’s all for this post, and we want to thank Veronica for joining us. Willa and I also want to thank you for your continued support over the last three years.
As some of you may remember, when we began this blog it was a weekly feature, and we were so overwhelmed with all the love you guys heaped on us. We were truly surprised at the reception we received, and we quickly came to recognize what an awesome platform we had built for exploring new and thought-provoking ideas about the way Michael Jackson’s art is perceived. But after that first year, we also realized that in order to do it justice we couldn’t keep up the weekly schedule and still bring you the quality posts we wanted to. So we switched to posting on a bi-weekly schedule, and that worked well for us for a time. However, as the circumstances of our lives change, we need to acknowledge that this blog needs to adapt to fit our changing lives.
So we have decided to take a more laid-back approach and post when the inspiration strikes. We have some fun and interesting topics lined up for the coming year, and we still hope to post fairly frequently – we will just have a less structured posting schedule. We hope you understand, and we look forward to your continued support in the new year. Thanks again!
Willa: Yes, and thank you, Veronica, for joining us for this special holiday post. We really appreciate it, and hope you have a warm and wonderful Christmas today, and a very happy new year.
Veronica: It was my honor and pleasure to be with you, and I look forward to more great discussions ahead. Happy holidays to you!
Willa: You know, Joie, one of the things I love most about Michael Jackson’s work is its emotional complexity. Real life experiences and emotions are rarely simple – we rarely feel pure love or pure anger or pure relief or pure joy. Instead, we generally feel a mix of emotions, and his work captures that so beautifully. Often, his songs will plunk us down in a situation, and then lead us through the full range of emotions we might feel in that situation.
A perfect example is “Chicago,” a song from the recently released Xscape album. In it, Michael Jackson adopts the role of a man who’s unwittingly had an affair with a married woman. Now he’s discovered the truth, and he’s singing about how that feels to him – so there’s hurt and anger and a deep sense of betrayal.
But as the song progresses, we discover that he’s singing this song to his lover’s husband. As he says, “She tried to live a double life / Loving me while she was still your wife.” So there are a lot of other emotions as well: guilt, shame, regret, and this need to try to explain what happened and justify his actions.
But he’s also replaying their entire relationship in his head – the song begins with memories of how they first met. So we experience that initial attraction also, and the tenderness and longing he once felt for her.
So he’s immersed in a jumble of conflicting emotions, and working through all that is really complicated for him – and for us as we feel those emotions through him.
Joie: You know, Willa, I’m happy you wanted to talk about this song, because I love it, for many reasons! And getting right into it, I agree with everything you just said about all of his feelings of guilt, shame and regret. But I get the sense that he’s not so much trying to explain what happened as he is attempting to warn the husband about his traitorous wife. His words actually sound very much like an accusation, like he’s telling the husband, She did it once, she’ll do it again! This is what he says:
She lied to you, lied to me
‘Cause she was loving me, loving me
Then he goes on to say this:
She tried to live a double life
Loving me while she was still your wife
She thought that loving me was cool
With you at work and the kids at school
Those words are very inflammatory, and they’re sung with such anger and bitterness. He’s clearly very hurt, and now it’s as if he’s lashing out, attempting to hurt her in turn by telling her husband all about their torrid affair.
Willa: Wow, Joie, I’m surprised it feels that way to you because I don’t get that feeling – that he’s trying to retaliate or hurt her in some way. He does tell her husband, “You should know that I’m holding her to blame,” so he is definitely holding her responsible for what happened, and he is obviously very hurt by it, but I don’t think he’s trying to lash out at her, as you put it. Rather, I think he’s explaining to her husband (and maybe to himself as well) that he’s “not that kind of man” – the kind who would sneak around and have an affair with a married women. As he tells her husband,
I didn’t know she was already spoken for
‘Cause I’m not that kind of man
Swear that I would have never looked her way
Now I feel so much shame
You know, some men would actually feel a sort of triumph in this situation, like they had put one over on her husband. But the person singing this song isn’t like that. There’s something kind of old-fashioned about him – even the words “I didn’t know she was already spoken for” are old fashioned. People don’t usually say someone is “spoken for” anymore.
And you know, an old-fashioned way for him to respond to this situation would be to act gallant – to say it was all my fault, not hers. But gallantry can be another type of lie also, and he refuses to do that. He insists on honesty. So he’s not going to soften things and delude himself that maybe she did love him, and he’s not going to make excuses for her either. He’s going to face the situation squarely, and truthfully acknowledge what happened.
But he also seems kind of shy or unsure of himself. As he says in the opening verse, “I was surprised to see / That a woman like that was really into me.” This kind of reminds me of the opening verse of “Billie Jean” where the protagonist is proud she has chosen him to dance with her. As he says, “Every head turned with eyes that dreamed of being the one / Who will dance on the floor” with Billie Jean. And actually, these songs are pretty similar in some ways. In both cases, a rather shy young man is drawn into a false relationship with a woman who isn’t at all who she seems to be.
So anyway, what I’m trying to say is that “Chicago” is a song about a man who’s had an affair with a married woman, but he isn’t some sneaky, sleazy Lothario bragging about his exploits. Just the opposite. He seems to be a very earnest young man who wanted a real relationship, and maybe wanted to be a father to her children – the children she told him she was struggling to raise on her own. But everything he thought he knew about her has turned out to be false – she already has a husband, her children already have a father, and he’s just an unwelcome intruder into their domestic situation. Now he realizes that – that “she had a family,” as he says in the closing line of the song – and as he says, “Now I feel so much shame.”
Joie: Yes, but as you pointed out in your opening, Willa, real life emotions and experiences are rarely simple. It’s rare that we feel pure love or pure anger or pure anything. And while I agree with you completely that he’s incredibly remorseful and sincere in his shame – he’s clearly owning his own guilt – I still believe that he also feels a measure of anger and bitterness toward her now. As you said, he tells her husband that he’s “holding her to blame.”
But he doesn’t just say this once. He keeps repeating the refrain throughout the entire second half of the song. In fact, those words, “Holding her to blame,” completely replace the refrain he’s been repeating in the first half of the song, “She was loving me; she was wanting me.”
Willa: Wow, that’s really interesting, isn’t it? I hadn’t picked up on that, Joie, but you’re right. There are vocal lines running in the background – I wish I knew musical terminology better, but it’s almost like a countermelody in the background while the main melody is telling the story in the foreground. And you’re right – before the bridge that countermelody alternates between “she was loving me” and “she was wanting me” – those are the only two lines we hear – but after the bridge he begins to sing “holding her to blame” over and over. That seems really significant.
Joie: Yes. It’s a very subtle change, but now he’s “holding her to blame” for everything that happened, and the bitterness of those four little words are palpable and heartbreaking. This man is broken and hurt and lashing out at the woman he thought loved him.
You know, in a lot of ways, this song reminds me of “Who is it.” I get the same sense of bitterness and hurt from both songs, especially when I think about these words:
And she promised me forever
And a day we’d live as one
We made our vows
We’d live a life anew
And she promised me in secret
That she’d love me for all time
It was a promise so untrue
Tell me what will I do?
It’s the same sort of betrayal going on here, and it brings up the same sense of a heartbroken, confused man left wondering what the heck just happened to the life and the future he thought he was building with the woman he loved.
Willa: That’s a good point, Joie, and I think comparing these two songs is really useful. There are some important parallels – like in both cases he was imagining a life together but then realizes it was all in his imagination. She isn’t the person he thought she was, and they will never have the life together that he envisioned. And in both songs, that makes him question what’s real and what isn’t. We really see that in the video for “Who Is It.” And he sings this in “Chicago”:
Her words seemed so sincere
When I held her near
She would tell me how she feels
If felt so real to me
So his world really has flipped upside-down with these revelations. Not only is he feeling sad that the relationship is over, but also deeply betrayed and unsure about what’s “real” and what isn’t, what’s true and what isn’t. And will he be able to know what’s true or real in the future, if he has another relationship?
Joie: That’s a very good point, Willa. He probably is second guessing himself now, wondering if he will have the street smarts to know or discern the real truth in the future – if he’s even brave enough to venture into a real relationship going forward after this.
Willa: Yes, and that state of confusion is really captured by the fact that he uses two very distinct voices in this song, kind of like we talked about with “Morphine” in a post with Lisha McDuff last spring. More than that, he alternates between those voices in singing two very different verse forms – a soft one and an angry one – with two different melodies. At least that’s how it seems to me. What I mean is, I don’t think this song has a chorus, which is unusual. Instead of verses and a chorus, which is a typical structure, it shifts between two distinct verse forms that are juxtaposed against each other.
The song – and I’m talking about the demo version – opens with slow, dreamy, kind of mystical music, and then a wistful voice describes how they met, two lonely people on their way to Chicago. This is the first verse form and the first melody, and it perfectly matches the mood of the music, with long, lyrical lines and a sort of hazy, dreamlike quality.
This beautiful quiet voice continues throughout the first verse, but then suddenly an angry voice slams in for the second verse with a very different tempo and rhythm. This second verse form is very different from the first, with short, sharp phrases – almost staccato – and by the end he’s almost screaming as he says “she lied to you, lied to me.”
Joie: Yes. That’s the anger and bitterness I keep referring to – that angry voice that’s lashing out at this deceitful woman and warning her husband.
Willa: And you’re right, Joie – that voice is very angry. I’m just not sure he’s trying to retaliate and hurt her too. He seems conflicted, and again that’s expressed through the music as well as the lyrics. That second verse ends, the angry voice stops, and the quiet wistful voice returns singing the first melody. We’re back to the first verse form – the slow, languid, beautiful one – and he tells us how happy he was with her, and how good it felt to be with her. As he says, “she had to be / An angel sent from heaven just for me.”
But just as abruptly, this soft verse ends and the angry voice storms in again, and this time it lasts for two full verses. So he’s alternating between the forms – one soft, one angry – but it feels like anger is starting to win, that anger is starting to take over this song. He repeats the verse he sang before – that “she said she didn’t have no man” – but now extends it to a second verse, telling us (and her husband) “She tried to live a double life / Loving me while she was still your wife.”
By this point, he seems completely consumed with anger. But while it may appear that way on the surface, his feelings are actually more complicated than that because, as you pointed out, he’s singing different words and a different melody in the background. The first melody – the softer one – is continuing behind the second one (that’s what I meant by a countermelody) and as you said, the words he’s singing are “she was loving me” and “she was wanting me.” And that beautiful, mystical instrumentation we hear throughout the first form is running through the background also.
So the foreground voice and the background voice are singing in very different ways and expressing very different emotions. That’s so interesting, and it seems to suggest that he’s in deep conflict – that despite his anger at what she’s done, there’s still this strong undercurrent of softness toward her and longing for what he thought they had together.
Then there’s a short bridge that’s mostly instrumental, but we hear him whisper a painful “Why?” and then he sings “Oh, I need her love.” It’s really heartbreaking.
And then we’re back to the alternating verse forms, and it ends with three repetitions of that confused state where the loud angry voice is in the foreground, proclaiming “she lied to you, lied to me,” while that beautiful wistful voice and mystical music continue to flow in the background.
Joie: Yes, but now, after that heartbreaking bridge, that beautiful wistful voice isn’t singing “she was loving me, she was wanting me.” Instead it’s singing “holding her to blame,” over and over.
Willa: That’s true.
Joie: I love the way you broke the song down there – that was very accurate, I think. And, you know, the more we talk about this song, the more I agree completely with what you said at the beginning of this conversation – that this song is a perfect depiction of human emotions and how we rarely feel only love or only anger or only anything. In every human experience there are a myriad of emotions, both good and bad, that come along for the ride. It’s just how we’re made, I think.
Willa: I agree, and I admire the way Michael Jackson’s songs reflect that. He doesn’t try to simplify everything down and make it all seem nice and tidy. Instead, he acknowledges how complicated and messy our emotions can be – how high and low and even contradictory they can be, all at the same time.
Joie: It’s “human nature” … no pun intended!
Willa: Wow, that’s so funny you should say that, Joie! I was just thinking about “Human Nature.” You know, that’s another song that seems to be about adultery – a lot of critics interpret it that way. And if it is, then in that song the protagonist is all for it. As the song says, “If this town is just an apple / Then let me take a bite.” So in “Human Nature” – which Michael Jackson didn’t write, and we should probably keep that in mind – the protagonist wants to fully immerse himself in all of life’s experiences, including sexual experiences, and there’s kind of a celebration of that – of taking risks and defying social norms.
The situation is completely different in “Chicago.” The protagonist is filled with guilt and shame, hurt and anger, and that brings me back to the unusual fact that this song is addressed to his lover’s husband – not to her or us or even himself, but to her husband. That’s so unexpected and interesting. He’s feeling “so much shame,” as he says, and he seems to want to confess, to get it all out, and the person he’s confessing to – really pouring his heart and soul out to – is her husband.
That’s so intriguing to me, and I wonder if it’s because her husband is the authority figure in this situation. He’s the father of this family, but there seems to be more to it than that, and I wonder if he represents The Father, meaning the generic idea of The Father – patriarchy, God the Father, the rule of law and the Ten Commandments. “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
Joie: Mmm, I don’t know about all that, Willa. I think you might be reading too much into it. I think the husband is just the husband. You know, these kinds of adulterous situations unfortunately happen quite a bit in our society, and I think telling the husband, or the wife, probably happens a lot too, and it’s got nothing to do with confessing to The Father or anyone else. In fact, a lot of times I think it’s done in an attempt to “free” the adulterer from their spouse so the “confessor” can finally have them outright.
Willa: Well, that’s an interesting idea, Joie, and it’s true the protagonist seems conflicted about the relationship ending. He did love her. But at the same time, he seems pretty clear that it’s over. I don’t think he has any intention of any sort of relationship with her, especially now that he knows who she is and what she did – that she lied to him and misled him, and “tried to live a double life.”
And maybe I am reading too much into the husband/father, but it seems to me that the protagonist isn’t just feeling emotional pain that the relationship is over, but also a sense that he has done something morally wrong – he’s had an affair with a married woman, a woman with children and a family. I keep thinking about the verse after the bridge where he sings,
I didn’t know she was already spoken for
‘Cause I’m not that kind of man
Swear that I would’ve never looked her way
Now I feel so much shame
And all things have to change
You should know that I’m holding her blame
So she hasn’t just hurt him emotionally. He also seems to feel that she’s led him astray, led him into sin. It’s almost biblical – Eve tempting Adam with the forbidden apple. And now, like Adam, he’s feeling a deep sense of shame, and confessing to The Father what he has done – what she, like Eve, led him to do.
Joie: Well, it’s an interesting interpretation, Willa, but I’m not sure I agree with it.
Willa: Well, to be honest, I’m not sure I agree with it either. I’m just kind of thinking out loud as I try to work this out. It does feel to me that the protagonist is in a terrible place, emotionally and spiritually. He feels betrayed and angry, but also that he’s done something wrong. So he confesses, but the person he confesses to is her husband. And in a way that makes sense because her husband has been hurt by all this too.
So maybe I need to come at this a different way. It seems to me that, early in his life, Michael Jackson was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, a strict religion with a lot of rules – no Christmas celebrations, no birthday parties, plus a lot more – so he grew up with a strict moral code based on rules. But that seems to have changed as he grew older. I’m thinking of that wonderful verse in “Jam”:
She prays to God, to Buddha
Then she sings a Talmud song
Confusions contradict the self
Do we know right from wrong?
I just want you to recognize me in the temple
You can’t hurt me
I found peace within myself
I love this verse – it’s both beautifully written and so profound – and he seems to be suggesting nothing less than a new kind of morality, one that isn’t based on following religious doctrine but on developing and following our own inner moral compass. “Do we know right from wrong?” It’s also based on people and the connections between us – “I just want you to recognize me in the temple.” So it isn’t the temple that’s important, or even the type of temple – Christian, Buddhist, Jewish – but the people within it and our ability to connect with one another and recognize the humanity within each other.
In other words, he’s talking about an earthly morality, not a heavenly one. And in that sense, it seems significant that the protagonist of “Chicago” confesses, not to God, but to a fellow human – a human he unintentionally hurt, her husband.
Joie: It is interesting to think about and make those parallels from his personal life. And you may be on to something with your speculations, who knows? But that’s always the fun of looking at these songs, and even the videos and live performances, so closely and trying to discern the true meanings behind them.
Willa: This week I am thrilled to be joined once again by Dr. Susan Fast, whose new book on the Dangerous album will be coming out September 25 from Bloomsbury Press. I just want to say up front that I’ve read this book twice now, and I’m still staggered by it. For the first time we have a detailed, in-depth analysis of one of Michael Jackson’s albums, and it’s amazing – it reveals how he conveys meaning through every layer of musical creation and performance. Some sections I’ve read numerous times, going through sentence by sentence with my headphones on, trying to catch all the details and nuances of meaning Susan identifies. I was quite simply blown away by it.
Susan, your book is such a treasure trove of ideas, as well as new ways of listening and thinking about his music. There’s so much I want to talk with you about! Thank you so much for joining me.
Susan: Thanks for having me back to Dancing With the Elephant, Willa. It’s such a pleasure to exchange ideas with you again. Sorry that Joie can’t be with us this time around.
Willa: Me too. Joie is starting a new career, which is exciting, but it’s keeping her really busy.
Susan: Very exciting; I wish her the best of luck! And thanks for your incredibly generous comments about the book and for being so helpful when I was writing it: you read through drafts of every chapter (some more than once I think) and made such thoughtful suggestions, which have certainly made the book stronger. And it helped make the writing process feel less lonely which, as you well know, it often is.
Willa: Oh, I thoroughly enjoyed it! And I love the fact that you focus on Dangerous, which tends to get a lot less attention than Off the Wall or Thriller. Most critics seem to think those two albums were the high points of Michael Jackson’s artistic output, and it was all downhill from there. I don’t know how many times I’ve read that …
Susan: Yes, I point to several critiques like that in the book and they keep coming; the 35th anniversary of the release of Off the Wall just passed and Mark Anthony Neal wrote an essay that called it Jackson’s “signature achievement.” It’s a brilliant album, but all of Jackson’s albums are brilliant. As I’ve thought about it more, I actually don’t know how his albums can be compared; they’re like apples and oranges, each conceived of and framed in a unique way. I think we need to get away from putting them in a hierarchy that, in my opinion, is at least partly based upon nostalgia for the young(er) Jackson – for many complicated reasons.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Susan, and we could easily do an entire post just exploring those “complicated reasons.” I think a lot of it is nostalgia, as you say – both for the younger Michael Jackson and for our own younger selves, for the people we were when we first heard those early albums – as well as a reluctance to see him as a grown man and a mature artist.
And part of that, I think, is a deep discomfort among whites with the image of the “angry black man.” That image carries a lot of emotional weight, especially in the US, and I think a lot of people were very troubled by the idea that the sweet-faced Michael Jackson we’d watched grow up before our eyes – a celebrated success story and a symbol of integration and racial harmony – could become an “angry black man.”
But we do see flashes of anger in his later albums. And he is certainly speaking with a mature voice, as you emphasize in your book. I was interested that you see Dangerous as a significant milestone in that progression. In fact, you begin your book with the defiant claim that “Dangerous is Michael Jackson’s coming of age album.” I love that! – in part because it boldly contradicts the conventional wisdom that Dangerous was simply another stage in his decline.
Susan: The decline narrative is so misguided, in my opinion, but as you say, it depends on what you’re looking for and what your experience has been with Jackson’s music. I’ve loved the Dangerous album for so long and have always thought of it as an immensely significant artistic statement. Having the opportunity to spend so much time with it was an amazing experience; I’m grateful that the editors at 33⅓ thought it was a worthwhile project. And I’m really thrilled that they’ve chosen to make this book, the only one on Jackson in the series, the 100th volume. I’m sure this was partly an accident having to do with individual authors’ deadlines, but it warms my heart to know that such an important artist will occupy that significant milestone spot.
The series – each book is devoted to a single album – doesn’t prescribe how records should be interpreted, there’s no formula for the books – indeed, some volumes don’t talk much about individual songs or how they’re structured. But in part because I’m a musicologist, and in part because there’s been so little written about how Michael Jackson’s songs work, I really wanted to focus on that, always keeping in mind, of course, that the way musicians organize sound is inextricably bound up with the social. Musical sound doesn’t transcend time and place; it comes from somewhere, helps define that somewhere.
Willa: Yes, I love the way you explore the “anatomy” of his songs, as he called it on more than one occasion, and also provide important historical contexts for approaching Dangerous. For example, before taking an in-depth look at his songs of passion and desire, you take on the “pathologizing [of] Jackson’s sexuality,” as you put it. I think that discussion is incredibly important, especially since you are the first critic I’ve read to validate what so many fans have been saying for years: that he was unbelievably hot! Obviously! And not just in the 80s, but throughout his life. It felt so liberating to me to read that. It was like, Yes! Finally! Here’s a critic who really gets it – who understands the power of his music and his performance and the sheer presence of his body on many different levels.
Susan: The denial by so many critics of Jackson’s sexuality, or – more often – the relegation of his electrifying sexual presence to a performance – in other words, put on when he was on stage, but not “real” (whatever that means) – is something I felt compelled to address, especially because sex and lust are themes featured so prominently on this record. The thing the critics miss is that it makes absolutely no difference whether or not the person Jackson was on stage carried over to his life off stage; acting is powerful, we’re moved by good actors, they make us believe in the moment of the performance and perhaps long afterwards. Jackson did that.
Willa: That’s very true. He did.
Susan: Beyond that, I don’t see the incongruity between his commanding, aggressive, sexy onstage self and his quiet, shy offstage self as problematic in the way that so many critics do. It’s only a problem if we think in binaries; Michael Jackson was much too complex for that kind of thinking.
Willa: Yes, and as you point out in your book, that intriguing contrast of the bold onstage presence with the shy offstage demeanor was itself very sexy for a lot of women, myself included.
There were also important cultural and historical reasons for him to be cautious in how he presented himself offstage, especially with white women. Eleanor Bowman, who contributes here sometimes, recently sent a link to an NPR piece about Billy Eckstine, one of the first black artists to cross over to a white audience. To be honest, I’d never heard of him before but his biographer, Cary Ginell, told NPR that at one time “Eckstine’s popularity rivaled Frank Sinatra’s.” However, his career was derailed overnight by a photo in LIFE magazine:
“The profile featured a photograph of Eckstine coming out of a nightclub in New York City, and being mobbed by white teenage girls,” Ginell says. “If you look at the photograph, it looks very innocuous and very innocent. It’s actually what America should be like, with no racial tension, no racial separation – just honest love and happiness between the races. But America wasn’t ready for that in 1950. White America did not want Billy Eckstine dating their daughters.”
Eckstine’s crossover career abruptly ended with that one photograph: “Eckstine continued to record and perform, but white disc jockeys would not play his records.” And it’s almost like he was erased from public memory – at least, white memory. But Michael Jackson was a well-read student of history, especially black history, and I’m sure he would have known about the backlash experienced by public figures before him who had been perceived as too friendly with white women – people like Jack Johnson and Chuck Berry and Billy Eckstine.
Susan: What a tragic story this is. My overarching point in the book on Dangerous is that the politicized and sexualized adult persona that Jackson revealed on that album and the short films that went with it were incredibly threatening. And as you say, I think he knew that he had to be careful, given stories like Eckstine’s and many others, which is why that soft, sweet, off-stage public persona was so important. At the same time, he really pushed the envelope – dating high-profile white women, for example. I do address this in the book. For a long time he maintained a delicate balance, but eventually, when he started presenting a more adult, sexualized self in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this balance was thrown off. His performances couldn’t be so easily dismissed.
And what’s so interesting to me is that many critics and others could not, would not, and still cannot see him as an adult – don’t believe him as one – and I think this is one of the reasons why he is so often vilified or infantilized. Witness the recent tabloid story in which unnamed maids who supposedly worked at Neverland reported that they witnessed him “peeing” in his house and threatening to throw “animal poop snowballs” at the help; this is a very particular kind of denigration – including the kiddy language used – that strips Jackson of his adulthood. We could say it strips him of a lot of other things – dignity, the ability to be taken seriously, perhaps his humanity …
Willa: I agree! It denies his humanity in a very literal sense: peeing on the floor and throwing feces is something an ape would do, an animal would do, not a human. When I heard those stories, I immediately thought of the chorus of “Monster”:
(He’s like an animal)
He’s a monster
(Just like an animal)
He’s an animal
I think he really understood this impulse by certain segments of the population to characterize him as a monster, an animal, a bogeyman, an Other, and he forced us to acknowledge it.
Susan: Yes, for sure. But I think the use of the childish language points very specifically to the desire to relegate him to prepubescence, to childhood – in a bad way, not the way he would have embraced! In his insightful analysis of the short film for “Black or White,” Eric Lott says that at the beginning of the panther dance “something so extraordinary happened at this moment that the video’s initial audiences couldn’t take it in.”
Willa: I agree!
Susan: Me too. Elizabeth Chin elaborates on this by saying that many found the panther dance “unintelligible” in the way that encounters with the unfamiliar often are; she uses Freud’s concept of the uncanny, “the recognition of a truth that has been suppressed,” to help articulate what happened for many viewers at this moment. I think this can be said about Jackson in general, especially as he got older and started to challenge his audience more profoundly around social issues. Critics and some of his audience couldn’t take it in, couldn’t see what he was saying, or doing.
Willa: That’s true. And that’s an excellent way of describing much of his later work, isn’t it? – that he was forcing us, at some level of consciousness, to acknowledge “a truth that has been suppressed”? And the panther dance is an incredible example of that. More than 20 years later, we’re still trying to uncover the “truth” of that performance – we’re still stunned by it and can’t take it all in, to paraphrase Lott.
So Susan, reading your book I was repeatedly blown away by your insightful analysis of the “anatomy” or musical structure of specific songs, as well as the album as a whole. One thing that immediately caught my attention is how you see the overall structure of Dangerous as being like a book with “chapters,” or clusters of songs exploring a related theme. In fact, you use a similar structure in your book, so your book mirrors Dangerous, chapter by chapter.
Susan: Yes, I hear Dangerous as a concept album; the concept is loose, but it’s there. Of course the songs can be listened to and appreciated individually, but I think Jackson was going for something bigger, more cohesive, an over-arching narrative. It’s a strikingly different approach than the one he used on Thriller or Bad which – at least as far as I can hear – don’t have this kind of narrative cohesiveness. This is why we need to start thinking about each album individually, paying attention to its particular contours, themes, ideas.
Interestingly, he said in his interview with Ebony in December 2007 (and he said a similar thing elsewhere many times) that the approach to Thriller was to make it an album of hit singles. In his words:
If you take an album like Nutcracker Suite [by the classical composer Tchaikovsky], every song is a killer, every one. So I said to myself, ‘why can’t there be a pop album where every …’ People used to do an album where you’d get one good song and the rest were like B-sides. They’d call them ‘album songs’ – and I would say to myself ‘Why can’t every one be like a hit song? Why can’t every song be so great that people would want to buy it if you could release it as a single?’ So I always tried to strive for that. That was my purpose for the next album [Thriller].
(Here’s a link, and this quote begins at 3:38.) His use of Tchaikovsky as an example is so interesting to me: what pop musician models commercial success on a record of classical music?? But Tchaikovsky’s idea wasn’t far off from Jackson’s. The Nutcracker ballet was long, complicated, and required a lot of resources to mount; why not create a “greatest hits” suite that could be performed as a concert piece? I think it’s also interesting that there are eight pieces in the Nutcracker Suite, most of them quite short – the whole thing is about 25 minutes long. I can’t help but draw a parallel to the structure of Thriller: nine songs, about 42 minutes of music.
Willa: Wow, that’s a really interesting way to interpret that quote. (By the way, here are YouTube links to the full score of The Nutcracker and to the Suite.) You know, I’ve seen the ballet many times, and certain parts of the score are really popular – it seems like everywhere you go at Christmas you hear the music for the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy playing in the background, and it was also included in Disney’s Fantasia. (Just for fun, here’s a link to that too.) But I don’t think I’ve ever just listened to the music to The Nutcracker all the way through, separate from the ballet, and I never thought about the Suite like an album. That’s so interesting, especially when you put it side by side with Thriller …
Susan: Yes, that was Tchaikovsky’s aim in creating the Suite: he wanted the piece performed more often, realized it couldn’t be because of the length and cost of mounting it, and so pulled what he thought were the “greatest hits” from it and created the Suite.
But back to Thriller, the length is average for a pop album, but it’s a small number of songs, really, the smallest number of any of his solo records. And, as we know, just about every song on Thriller was a hit single. My sense is that people take this as the way he thought about putting albums together in general, but I don’t believe this is true (in fact if you look at the above quote carefully, you’ll see that he’s referring specifically to Thriller). Thriller is a very particular and uncharacteristic instance of concision from an artist who liked to be expansive.
In a May 1992 interview with Ebony, one of the questions the interviewer asked was what the “concept” for Dangerous was; I think it’s quite a striking question for the very reason that Jackson’s albums had not been particularly “conceptual” up to that point: what made the interviewer think there was a concept? The cover art work? Something about the music? In any case, in his answer Jackson again pointed to Nutcracker, but here his thinking about it was very different:
I wanted to do an album that was like Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. So that in a thousand years from now, people would still be listening to it. Something that would live forever. I would like to see children and teenagers and parents and all races all over the world, hundreds and hundreds of years from now, still pulling out songs from that album and dissecting it. I want it to live.
Well, the dissecting has begun! I have to admit that while I’d read this interview before, I didn’t remember this quote until after I’d finished writing the book: what a shame. But I feel somewhat vindicated now in thinking that Jackson did, indeed, have an overarching concept for this record, that he was not thinking in terms of hit singles (or not exclusively or primarily), but of a series of interconnected songs, laid out in a particular order, that tell us a story. And a pretty complex story, too, one that he saw as requiring a lot of analysis to unravel (the idea that an artist wants his work dissected is pretty thrilling for someone like me).
The way I see it, that story is about very big ideas: it’s about examining and challenging the state of the contemporary world with energy and resilience and allowing oneself to get lost in all the complexities of love (and lust!), of feeling hopeful, invigorated … and then being deeply, deeply, betrayed and wounded, not just by love, but by everyone and everything. From my perspective, he never completely recovers from that sense of betrayal on this record, though he does do a lot of serious soul searching. The songs are grouped, allowing ideas to be explored in considerable depth, examined through different musical and lyrical lenses.
Willa: Yes, that was so interesting to me. I’d never thought about his albums like that before – that they include groupings of related songs, like chapters in a book, and that they move us through a sequence of emotional experiences, like a novel does. But now that you’ve pointed out that structure in Dangerous, I see it in HIStory and Invincible as well.
For example, Invincible begins with three painful songs about a disastrous relationship with an uncaring woman: she’s trying to hurt him, she doesn’t understand him, she rejects him without giving him a chance to explain or win her over. And interestingly, that reflects his relationship with the public right then: the press (and the police as well) really were out to get him, people didn’t understand him, and they rejected his later albums and wouldn’t give them – or him – a chance.
Those songs are then followed by a series of five songs where he’s imagining scenes of genuine love – and pretty steamy sexual passion also. It’s like he’s trying to imaginatively conjure up the love and desire that was denied him in the first three songs.
Susan: Yes, those two groupings are certainly there on Invincible. He seemed to want to explore a theme through more than one song, in back-to-back tracks, in these later albums. Look at something from more than one angle.
Susan: Another narrative strategy on a later album that I’ve been struck by is his decision to end HIStory with “Smile.” After all that anger and venom, all that commentary on social injustices both personal and broadly cultural, delivered through some of the most aggressive grooves he ever created, he ends the album with that tragic ballad and its directive to “smile though your heart is breaking” (which his must have been); it’s very powerful.
Willa: It really is, especially when you consider that “Smile” was written by Charlie Chaplin, whose life story parallels Michael Jackson’s in significant ways. Chaplin was immensely popular in the 1920s and 30s, but then was falsely accused of fathering a child out of wedlock. There was a very public trial, and a paternity test proved he was not the father. But he was found guilty anyway, both in court and in the press, and the public turned against him. He spent the rest of his life in exile, something of a social pariah.
Given that context, I imagine “Smile” spoke to Michael Jackson in a very powerful way. And since HIStory in some respects is a response to the allegations against him, it makes sense that he would end the album with “Smile.” He rarely included cover songs on his albums, but he made an exception for “Smile” – it was that important to him.
Susan: Precisely. The point about cover songs is really significant. As you say, he didn’t really do them. The only other cover that appears on his solo albums is “Come Together” on Bad. I’ve always been intrigued by that choice as well.
Willa: I have too! He also places “Come Together” in a very prominent spot at the end of Moonwalker, and as Frank Delio has said, that movie was very important to him – he put a lot of time and energy, and his own money, into making it. So it feels like there’s something going on with “Come Together” – something important. Maybe we can do another post on that sometime and try to figure it out.
Susan: Great idea!
Willa: So it’s really fascinating to look at his later albums as made up of “chapters” of songs – and that structure seems to begin with Dangerous. As you pointed out with the two Nutcracker Suite quotes (and how interesting that he referred to it twice, in such different ways!) he doesn’t seem to have used this approach with his earlier albums. Thriller is more a collection of hit singles, as you said. But with Dangerous, he seems to be taking listeners on an emotional journey as we progress through the album – which suggests that something is lost when we listen to these songs in Shuffle mode on our iPods.
Susan: Or we just have a different kind of experience, which is fine too. I like looking at formal structures, though, and I think it’s interesting to view the album as a whole. “Jam,” for example, serves as a kind of overture on Dangerous (“it ain’t too much to Jam.” Now let me show you how it’s done for the next thirteen songs). I’m also struck by structural details, for example the first time we hear Jackson on Dangerous it’s through his breath – before he starts to sing – at the beginning of “Jam”; this aggressive use of breath returns in the last song on the album, “Dangerous,” in effect bringing the record full circle. I don’t think a detail like this is coincidental; when you listen to his music with your ears open you start to hear how intricately constructed it is, how nuanced.
Willa: Yes, and I feel like you’ve been opening my ears! There are motifs running throughout this album that I hadn’t really noticed or thought about before, like the use of his breath, or the recurring sound of breaking glass, or the visual image of the globe that appears repeatedly in the videos for this album (in Jam, Heal the World, Black or White, Will You Be There) as well as occupying a central position on the album cover. And as you point out in your book, the meaning of these motifs seems to evolve over the course of the album.
For example, the breaking glass gains new meaning once you’ve seen all the breaking glass in the panther dance of Black or White – specifically, it can be read as expressing anger at racial injustice. And once you’ve made that connection, it’s very interesting to then go back and listen to the other instances of breaking glass and see how that affects the meaning there as well. For example, I think there’s a racial component to In the Closet, as Joie and I discussed in a post a while back, and we hear breaking glass at significant moments in that song and video. And the album as a whole begins with the sound of breaking glass, so what does that tell us about the album we’re about to hear?
Susan: Indeed. What. The “non-musical” sounds on this album are really important to take into account – they help shape the narrative. The sound of breaking glass recurs in various places, as you say, and I think its meaning is multiple and complex. But one of the ways that I interpret the sound as it’s used at the beginning of the record is as a metaphor for a broken world.
Willa: Oh, that makes a lot of sense, Susan. And it really fits with the recurring image of the globe, and the feeling that he’s focusing on “very big ideas” on this album, as you said earlier.
There are also some recurring musical techniques you identify in your book that I found really intriguing as well. For example, you point out that both “Jam” and “In the Closet” include a bass line in the chorus but not in the verses – a pronounced absence, if that makes sense. And that creates a very unsettled feeling in the verses, as you point out – like we’re dangling over a void with no ground beneath us. I love that image because it describes so perfectly my uneasiness when listening to “Jam” – something I feel rather intensely but had never really thought about before or traced back to its origins, and certainly never associated with the lack of bass. And that unsettled feeling fits the meaning of the lyrics because in both songs the verses are describing a problem: a broken world, a romantic conflict.
The bass then appears in the chorus, which as you point out in the book provides a feeling of reassurance – like, Whew! Now we’re back on solid ground! And that reinforces the meaning of the lyrics also since the chorus suggests a solution. In “Jam,” he tells us the solution to a broken world is to “jam” – to come together as a community and make music together, both literally and symbolically. So the ideas and emotions expressed in the lyrics are reinforced in sophisticated ways by the music.
Susan: Yes, this is a great example of how musical sounds map onto social ideas. How does it make us feel when that grounding bassline isn’t there? How does the keyboard part that nearly mirrors the vocal line – but an octave higher and with a timbre that makes us feel tense – contribute to the sense of anxiousness in this song? Not to mention Jackson’s brilliant vocal in the verses, which is rushed: he’s constantly ahead of the beat – on purpose of course (this is really hard to do consistently, by the way).
Willa: I love the way you put that, Susan: “how musical sounds map onto social ideas.” To me, that’s really the essence of what’s so fascinating about your book. I don’t know enough about music to uncover that on my own – to figure out how specific musical details translate into creating meaning and emotion. I don’t even hear a lot of those details until you point them out, and then, Wow! It’s like I’m hearing elements of these songs for the first time – like that high unsettling keyboard line in “Jam” that you just mentioned. I hear it so clearly now since I read your book, but don’t remember ever hearing it before. So it opens up an entirely new aspect of his brilliance that’s closed to me without help from you or Lisha or others with your expertise.
Susan: I hope it’s useful to think about these things. When people say that Jackson was a perfectionist, it’s details like this that they’re talking about (along with lyrics, his dancing – which I don’t have the skills to say much about – etc.): the choice of a particular instrument or timbre, the placement of a breath, the decision to create a song in a particular genre, or to add an unsettling sound somewhere (one of the most intriguing examples of this last idea – to me at least – is the percussive sound heard after the last iteration of the chorus in “They Don’t Really Care About Us,” just before the guitar comes back in – at about 4:15. It’s just sonically interesting in and of itself, but why the dissonance at that point, why the new timbre that hasn’t been heard before in the song?). Some of these ideas came from his producers, I’m sure, but he OK’d them. The point is, he understood and appreciated the power of the musical detail. To say the least.
Willa: Absolutely. Well, it feels like we’ve really only talked in detail about the first chapter of your book – there’s so much more to discuss and explore! I hope you’ll join us again sometime. It’s always so fun to talk with you.
Susan: Yes … and we elaborated on what’s in that first chapter in some interesting ways! Thanks for the opportunity to explore these ideas with you; I’d be happy to join you again.