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Michael Jackson, Leonard Bernstein, and the Artist’s Role in a Chaotic World

Lisha: Hey Willa! It’s been a long time since we’ve talked.

Willa: Yes, it has, and an awful lot has happened since then.

Lisha:  So true. Here in the US, it feels like a luxury to think about anything other than the news of the day – we have so much political turmoil going on. But I recently saw something that really spoke to me and I wanted to see if it resonated for you, too.

It’s a quote by the conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein, published in the Boston Globe on July 5, 1970. It was taken from remarks he made at the Tanglewood Music Festival, addressing the “artist’s role in a chaotic world”:

It is the artists of this world, the feelers and thinkers, who will ultimately save us, who can articulate, educate, defy, insist, sing, and shout the big dreams. Only the artists can turn the “not-yet” into reality.

Willa:  Thank you for sharing this, Lisha! I love everything about this quote – especially that bold opening line of “It is the artists of the world … who will ultimately save us.”

When I read about all the injustice and violence around the world, and about increasing intolerance here in the US, and when I think about how rapidly climate change is happening, and about the recent political changes that indicate we’ll not only respond too slowly in coming years but may actually start moving back in the wrong direction, I do wonder if we’ll be able to save ourselves and the other inhabitants of this planet.

Lisha: It’s a dangerous time, for sure.

Willa: It feels that way, doesn’t it? – like we’re on the edge of a precipice. But if there’s a chance, it lies with artists.

Lisha: Yes! Artists play such an important role in showing us where we are and where we need to go. They are the leading edge of what we’re capable of imagining and creating and becoming.

Willa:  Exactly! Very well stated, Lisha. As Bernstein said, “Only the artists can turn the ‘not-yet’ into reality.” I really believe that. Before you can “make that change,” to quote another visionary artist, you first have to be able to visualize that change. And then you have to make people care enough to bring it about.

Those two acts – of imagining a new way of being and of making people care enough to enact that vision – may be the two most important and most difficult steps in bringing about social change. And those talents lie uniquely with artists: the ability to visualize the “not-yet” and to make people care.

Lisha:  That’s it, really. And I think we can point to very concrete examples of this in both Leonard Bernstein and Michael Jackson’s work.

Leonard Bernstein was one of the first to take a very broad view of American music, wanting to understand what makes some music sound “American,” in such a way that all Americans could identify with it. As a result, he was among the first to challenge the high/low art divide in American music and to explore the racial politics buried within it. It’s a position he never backed away from throughout his entire career.

Willa:  That’s interesting, Lisha. We’ve talked several times about how Michael Jackson blurred the boundary between high art and popular art, along with other artists like Andy Warhol, Fred Astaire, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, even Walt Disney to some extent. And you’re right – Bernstein worked to bridge that divide also.

Lisha:  Yes. Bernstein seemed just as comfortable in the symphonic world as he was in musical theatre and film, even nightclubs for that matter! As a composer and conductor, he interrogated the boundary between “serious” and “popular” music, and he refused to segregate musical styles, using music as a form of civic engagement. He was also a very dynamic performer. So it’s no surprise to me that he was a huge fan of Michael Jackson.

Author Jonathan Cott, who got the last substantive interview with Bernstein over a dinner in his home, described Bernstein’s admiration for Michael Jackson this way:

Above all, in every aspect of his life and work, Bernstein was a boundless enthusiast. In the course of my dinner conversation with him, he informed me that the word “enthusiasm” was derived from the Greek adjective ‘entheos’, meaning “having the god within,” with its attendant sense of ‘living without aging,’ as did the gods on Mount Olympus.

One of my favorite Bernstein stories that perfectly exemplifies and highlights his enthusiastic disposition tells of the occasion when the conductor invited the then twenty-eight-year-old Michael Jackson – another age defying musical “god” whom Bernstein wildly admired – to attend a concert he was leading with the New York Philharmonic in 1996 at Los Angeles’s Royce Hall. Jackson was bowled over by Bernstein’s hyperkinetic performance, and during the intermission he went backstage to pay tribute to his fellow musical potentate. The hyper-appreciative Bernstein then wrapped both his arms around Jackson, lifted him up and kissed him on the lips. Landing back on the terra firma, the breathless singer found himself only able to ask the conductor, “Do you always use the same baton?”

Here’s a photo that I believe is from their backstage meeting in Royce Hall, August 1986:

Willa: That’s a wonderful story, Lisha! I love the image of Bernstein scooping Michael Jackson up in a big embrace. I’m always struck by how other talented and creative people seemed to recognize him as a kindred spirit, like Baryshnikov talking about his dancing.

It’s funny to think of Michael Jackson being star-struck, but I’ve read about other instances where he felt overwhelmed meeting someone he admired, so I guess it really did happen sometimes.

Lisha: Yes, it does seem funny, since Michael Jackson was obviously a much bigger star. And it’s hilarious that he responded to Bernstein’s enthusiastic greeting by asking about the baton!

Willa: It really is, and it reminds me of something David Michael Frank told Joe Vogel. Frank was working with Michael Jackson on a classical album in the spring of 2009 – this was on top of everything else Michael Jackson had going on in the months before he died, with rehearsals starting for This Is It also.

Frank talked to Joe Vogel about it later, and he mentioned Bernstein’s batons:

I hope one day his family will decide to record this music as a tribute, and show the world the depth of his artistry. … I told Michael I was going to use one of Leonard Bernstein’s batons I had bought at an auction when we did the recording. I knew he would have gotten a big kick out of that.

Lisha:  Wow! How cool is that?

Willa:  Wouldn’t that be wonderful if it came to pass? I’d love to see a video of Frank using one of Bernstein’s batons to conduct an orchestra playing Michael Jackson’s classical music.

Lisha: Or even better, maybe someday we will hear it live!

Willa:  That would be an experience! According to a post by David Pack, who arranged a meeting between Bernstein and Michael Jackson, the admiration went both directions. Pack wrote that Bernstein was in Los Angeles in 1986 a few days before his birthday, and Pack asked him what he would like to do to celebrate: “Without missing a beat, Leonard said, ‘I want to meet Michael Jackson.’” Unfortunately, I think the original post has been taken down, but here’s a repost on Reflections on the Dance that tells the story of that evening.

Lisha: That is such a captivating story. I would love to know what Leonard Bernstein and Michael Jackson discussed that evening!

Willa: I would too!

Lisha: I’m guessing this dinner party happened on the same evening Michael Jackson attended the New York Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles because I noticed Michael Jackson is wearing the same clothing in all the photos. Bernstein is wearing a tux in the above photo, but more casual clothing at the dinner. Conductors typically change after a concert and don’t wear their tuxes out of the concert hall, so I think there’s a good chance this dinner happened right after the concert.

Willa: Oh, I bet you’re right, Lisha. Good detective work! It makes sense that Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones would have dinner with Bernstein after meeting him backstage.

Lisha: Yes, and it sounds like Bernstein hoped this meeting might lead to them working together. According to Pack, “Leonard wanted to introduce Michael to classical music and maybe inspire Michael toward a collaboration of classical and pop music.” I wonder if they realized no introduction was necessary when it came to Michael Jackson and classical music? As Jermaine Jackson tells in his book, You Are Not Alone:

Michael viewed music as a “science” as well as a feeling. From the moment we moved into Bowmont Drive [1972], he started to study composition. He strove to understand the make-up of someone’s song in the same way a scientist set out to understand a person’s DNA. Together we tuned into any classical station we could find on the radio, listening to the structure of a piece of music and “seeing” what color, mood and emotion each instrument would create … he loved so many classical pieces, how they started slowly with the strings, swelled into something dramatic or racing, then calmed again. This structure – the A-B-A form – was something we constantly dissected. And this classical inspiration runs as a thread through so much of his music… (p. 129)

In fact, according to Michael Jackson’s own words, the Thriller album (released four years prior to his meeting with Bernstein) is based on Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Talk about counter-intuitive!

Willa:  Yes, Susan Fast talked about that in a post a few years ago. I was really surprised by that, but after Susan explained it it made a lot of sense.

Lisha: Yes, she always has a way of making complicated ideas seem crystal clear!

And there is another interesting influence. I think most everyone who has spent some time with the short film Beat It can see a lot of Bernstein’s West Side Story in Michael Jackson’s work.

Willa: Yes, director Bob Giraldi has denied there’s any connection, but I’ve found that Michael Jackson’s directors often seem to have a pretty superficial understanding of his films. And it seems doubtful to me that West Side Story wasn’t an inspiration for Beat It, whether Giraldi realizes it or not – there are just too many connections.

Lisha: I agree. I don’t doubt Giraldi’s account of what happened, but I don’t think it necessarily rules out West Side Story as an influence either.

Willa: Yes, that’s a good way to put it, Lisha. I think you’re right.

Lisha: Michael Jackson knew the history of popular music, theatre, and film well. Really well. Many consider West Side Story to be the pinnacle of the genre, so I find it hard to believe it escaped his attention. There are just too many connections between Beat It and West Side Story to simply dismiss them as coincidence.

Willa: I agree. For example, the first words you hear in West Side Story, repeated at intervals as the gangs collide, is “Beat it!” Also, the way the gangs walk in unison in West Side Story, clicking their fingers as they walk – we see clear echoes of that repeatedly in Beat It. And actually, the whole idea of a musical about overcoming gang violence – that lies at the heart of both works. So it seems pretty likely to me that West Side Story was in Michael Jackson’s mind to some extent as he was creating Beat It.

Lisha: Those are brilliant observations, Willa! And by the way, anyone who hasn’t read your analysis of Beat It in M Poetica is truly missing out. You so convincingly show how artists interact with previous works by connecting the dots between Beat It, West Side Story and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Michael Jackson updates previous incarnations of the story by envisioning a world where strong group identification isn’t based on ethnic or family ties, as it is in the works that preceded him.

The Eddie Van Halen guitar solo plopped into the middle of the song illustrates this point musically, as it strongly codes white in a tune that would otherwise be pigeonholed as black music. And at the very end of Beat It, the camera pulls away to break the fourth wall between the viewer and the performance. Assuming everyone is paying attention, it becomes explicit that this is a vision of the world as it could be, rather than a naïve remark about how the world really is.

Willa: That’s a really important observation, Lisha – one that critics who call Beat It naïve have clearly missed.

Lisha: Envisioning a more peaceful, colorblind society through music on stage and screen also strikes me as a Bernsteinian move. It strongly echoes Bernstein’s first Broadway show, On the Town, written in 1944 at the height of World War II, in collaboration with three other Jewish artists: Jerome Robbins (whose choreography shows up in Michael Jackson’s work), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (the screenwriters for two very important Michael Jackson influences: The Band Wagon and Singin’ In The Rain).

Willa: Interesting! There are more connections between Bernstein and Michael Jackson, creatively, than I realized.

Lisha: Yes, and I find it very intriguing. Especially when you consider how revolutionary the show On the Town was in its day. It was the first Broadway musical written by a symphonic composer, and it was the first show to cast actors in an integrated, colorblind way. African American actors played a variety of roles right alongside their white counterparts, appearing as typical New Yorkers, sailors, and pedestrians – something that hadn’t really happened before. There was an interracial chorus performing hand-holding dances. Everett Lee conducted the orchestra, making him the first African American musical director on Broadway.

But perhaps the most revolutionary casting decision was for the lead female role, which featured the Japanese-American dancer, Sono Osato, as the ultimate “all-American” beauty, Ivy Smith. That was a truly radical move at that time, considering Osato’s father was one of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans interned during the war.

Here’s a picture of Sono Osato and John Battles in On the Town, from Carol J. Oja’s Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War:

And here’s a picture of the original Broadway cast of On the Town in 1944:

Willa: Wow, thanks for the insights about On the Town, Lisha!  It really sounds like a Michael Jackson kind of production, doesn’t it?  I mean, think of how he transformed the all-white nightclub in The Band Wagon into the multi-ethnic clientele of Smooth Criminal or You Rock My World.

Lisha: Yes, it does resemble the creative philosophy of Michael Jackson. And I’m so glad you mentioned You Rock My World, Willa, because that’s another strong Leonard Bernstein connection. Bernstein wrote the music for the film On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando, which is alluded to throughout You Rock My World, including a cameo appearance by Brando himself.

Willa: That’s right! I hadn’t put all that together, Lisha, but that’s another important connection … and a really interesting one. Thanks for connecting the dots.

And I’m still intrigued by your description of On the Town. It sounds like it was an early forerunner of the kind of boundary-crossing sensibility we see throughout Michael Jackson’s work – and at a time when interracial relationships were far less accepted. In fact, there were anti-miscegenation laws in many states in 1944.

Lisha: Yes and don’t forget this was happening during World War II, when America was fighting for human rights and freedom abroad, despite obvious shortcomings here at home.

Willa: That’s right, and when fear of “foreigners” was at a peak, especially against Japanese-Americans. I was really struck by what you said earlier, Lisha, that the father of the lead actress was one of the thousands taken from their homes and forced to live in camps during the war.

Lisha: I had to take a moment to really let that sink in, especially in relation to our current moment. In 1944, as Japanese-Americans were being carted off and placed in internment camps, a group of young Jewish artists responded by constructing a new beauty icon: Japanese-American Sono Osato as the fresh-faced, all-American girl next door.

Willa: Yes, it’s a creative way of speaking truth to power.

Lisha: For sure. From a 2017 perspective, when you look at those photos of the original On the Town cast, you wouldn’t have a clue anything radical was going on unless someone told you the history of the show. There’s absolutely nothing there that seems out of the ordinary to our 21st century eyes. But in 1944, it wasn’t what audiences expected to see at all.

One indication of how truly radical the show was is that when MGM released a film version five years later, the racial politics were removed, in very disturbing ways, I might add. And most of Bernstein’s music was removed as well – all but three songs and the ballet. The producers thought it was too symphonic, so they assumed audiences wouldn’t like or understand it.

Willa: Really? Even though Bernstein was seen as one of the greatest composer/conductors of the 20th century? I have to say, stories like this make me crazy – it reminds me of what happened to the panther dance segment of Black or White. You would think that when an artist of Bernstein’s stature, or Michael Jackson’s, released a revolutionary new work, there would be a certain level of trust in their judgment, and a hesitation in condemning it too quickly. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Lisha: Yes, it’s really hard to take. I recommend watching the MGM version of On the Town sometime, just to see for yourself how awful the new music is and how horrible the racialized nightclub scenes really are! And why? It cost them a lot of money to substitute poor quality for the original!

Willa:  Wow, Lisha, it’s pretty ironic when you look at it that way …

Lisha:  But perhaps that’s what happens when artists get too many steps ahead of the culture: not everyone gets it. Michael Jackson seemed to be aware of this. I suspect that’s the reason he backed down and issued an apology for the panther dance. If you push too far too fast, the message doesn’t get across.

That’s one of the most interesting things about Bernstein and the original production of On the Town. It doesn’t necessarily hit you over the head with overt political statements – the show simply imagines the world as it could be, which has always been the purview of the arts. As musicologist Carol Oja writes in her essay “Bernstein’s Musicals: Reflections of Their Time,” Bernstein was

someone whose music had the kind of political orientation that was worth following. But the political messages in Bernstein’s shows were rarely confrontational or didactic … Rather, the politics emerged through the overall ethos of the show …

This strikes me as the approach Michael Jackson brings to many of his songs and short films.

Willa: Yes, we could list many of his films as examples, or even something as subtle as “The Girl is Mine.” There isn’t a single mention of race anywhere in the song, but if you recognize Paul McCartney’s voice and Michael Jackson’s voice – as pretty much everyone did in 1983 – then you know that a black man and a white man are singing about going out with the same woman, and debating which of them she likes better. That was a radical scenario in 1983.

Lisha: You’re right. As embarrassing as it is to admit, that was a radical scenario back in 1983. But the song approached the topic in such a non-confrontational way, I’ll bet many didn’t notice the political implications as they cheerfully absorbed the message and sang along.

Willa: You may be right, Lisha – especially for young listeners. And I think you’re raising a crucial point about art not being too preachy or confrontational.

I’ve been thinking a lot about social change the past few months, and how it actually happens. We know that overcoming racism and other kinds of intolerance was very important to Michael Jackson – there’s ample evidence of that – and he always advocated for a more just society. But at the same time, he never made people who held racist beliefs feel dumb or unenlightened or evil. I think that’s really important for us to keep in mind, for the pragmatic reason that it simply doesn’t work. You can’t change people’s hearts and minds by telling them they’re ignorant. In fact, sometimes I think it has the opposite effect of actually hardening people in their positions.

What does seem to work is art. As you said of On the Town, “It was … the first show to cast actors in an integrated, colorblind way” – something Michael Jackson did repeatedly as well and talked about a number of times, saying he hired talent, not color.

Lisha:  With Michael Jackson, there was always that idea of radical inclusivity. As he told Rolling Stone in a 1984 interview,

I happen to be colorblind; I don’t hire color, I hire competence…. Racism is not my motto. One day, I strongly expect every color to love as one family.

Willa: Yes, exactly, and that refusal to abide by social norms of the time, especially in terms of race, was a revolutionary stance for both Bernstein and Michael Jackson. After all, many radio stations refused to play “The Girl is Mine” because of the implied interracial dating … not to mention the audacity of a black man telling a white man (a Beatle, no less!) that she prefers him.

But as radical as this was in 1983, he handles it with a light touch. I think this kind of art that subtly challenges the boundaries of what’s acceptable has taken a leading role in changing popular opinions about race and interracial relationships.

An example of how much social mores have changed is audiences’ reactions – or nonreactions – to the new Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, which in subtle ways has “cast actors in an integrated, colorblind way,” as you said earlier about On the Town. There are a number of characters who have been turned into household objects by an evil enchantment, and they yearn to touch the face of their loved ones but can’t because they’re locked into those inanimate forms – as a piano or dresser or candelabra or whatever. At the end, the spell is broken and those characters we’ve already come to care about revert to human form, and they include two interracial couples. In fact, Beauty and the Beast includes the first two instances of interracial kissing in a Disney film … and almost nothing has been said about that, positively or negatively.

Interracial relationships have become so mainstream they’re even in Disney movies, and they’re pretty much passing without notice. I think in a lot of ways we can attribute that change to visionary artists like Bernstein and Michael Jackson.

Lisha: I agree with you, Willa. It matters when a Leonard Bernstein or Jerome Robbins put together a hand-holding dance chorus that allows people to see and feel what racial equality is about. It matters when Michael Jackson builds a giant bridge onstage and he helps us think through climate change as a problem that requires everyone’s participation, regardless of affiliation, because it’s a crisis that cannot be solved by any one nation or any one group. Our only hope of averting disaster lies in our willingness to collaborate as one. And it’s a failure of the imagination not to foresee how disastrous the outcome could be, if we don’t act now.

Willa: Yes, beautifully said, Lisha. And as Bernstein said in that statement you quoted at the beginning of this post, it is artists who will lead the way.

Lisha: Before we go, I’d like to share the second part of that quote, on turning “the ‘not-yet’ into reality”:

How do you do it? Find out what you can do well, uniquely well, and then do it for all you’re worth. And I don’t mean “doing your own thing” in the hip sense. That’s passivity, that’s dropping out, that’s not doing anything. I’m talking about doing, which means serving your community, whether it’s a tiny town or six continents.

Willa: That’s really inspiring, Lisha.

Lisha: I think so too, Willa. It feels like we need our Bernsteins and Michael Jacksons now more than ever!

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Michael Jackson and “Choreographic Versioning”

Lisha: This week, Willa and I are delighted to be joined by dance scholar Elizabeth June Bergman. For the past five years Elizabeth’s fascination with Michael Jackson has produced a small body of research in MJ Dance Studies. She is currently furthering her work on Jackson as a doctoral student in the Dance Studies program at Temple University. Elizabeth also holds an MFA in dance performance from the University of Iowa (2009). She has taught a range of dance and somatic forms including yoga, ballet, modern, and improvisation as well as dance history and theory courses.

Last fall, I caught up with Elizabeth at the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association conference, where she gave a fascinating presentation titled “Allusions, Citations, and Cultural Literacy: Michael Jackson’s Choreographic Versioning.” We had such a wonderful conversation about MJ and “choreographic versioning” that I can’t wait to talk about it more with her today! Welcome, Elizabeth.

Willa:  Yes, thanks so much for joining us, Elizabeth. I’m very excited to hear about your work.

Elizabeth:  Thank you so much for having me. I am a longtime follower of Dancing with the Elephant and am so honored to join the conversation. I’ve been presenting short papers on Michael Jackson’s dance work at academic conferences since 2012 and am now relishing the mentorship and organizational structure that a doctoral program contributes to my expanding project on Jackson as a dancer and dancemaker.

Lisha:  That’s so wonderful to hear. I had a look at your impressive list of academic research on Michael Jackson and I have to say, I think you are doing really important work. Of all the pressing research that needs to be done on Michael Jackson, this is probably at the top of list, in my opinion.

Willa:  I agree. There’s a growing body of research on Michael Jackson’s music, short films, and even his persona, but it seems like the scholarship on his dance is lagging behind. So the kind of analysis you’re doing, Elizabeth, is really important, I think.

Lisha:  So to get started, would you like to explain a little bit about what you mean by the term “choreographic versioning”?

Elizabeth: Yes, “choreographic versioning” is the term I’ve recently been using to frame Jackson’s citations and homages to entertainers and artists such as James Brown, Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, etc. I was prompted to write about this last spring after reading some user comments on this YouTube “mash up” video of Bob Fosse performing as The Snake in 1974’s The Little Prince set to MJ’s Billie Jean:

Lisha: That is such an exquisite performance! I’ve read many times that Michael Jackson was quite the fan of this film. While I definitely see some very Jacksonesque movement there, I don’t know exactly how to put my finger on it.

Willa:  I agree. There are some poses that seem like exact “quotations,” like this one 2:54 minutes in:

Fosse 254

We’ve all seen Michael Jackson strike a similar pose in “Billie Jean.” Here’s a video that places some of those iconic poses side by side:

There’s also his costume. Fosse’s black hat (though it’s a bowler, not a fedora) and his white spats covered in glittery rhinestones against the black pants and shoes – that all seems very similar to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” wardrobe.

But more than the specific poses or the costume, there’s something about the way Bob Fosse moves, and the way he inhabits his body – the way he fully extends his arms, for example, or bends his knees, or shuffles his feet. There’s even a bit of a moonwalk beginning at 4:20 in the video you shared, Elizabeth. But I don’t know how to really explain the resemblance.

Elizabeth: Willa, your observations are incredibly perceptive! It is tricky to articulate exactly which of Fosse’s specific qualities and movements influenced Jackson since Jackson’s style was so hybridized, but I see an elegant angularity, instances of outstretched arms and rhythmic isolated accentuations of neck, shoulders, head, and pelvis, the series of backwards shuffling steps you mentioned, certain akimbo poses, and of course the jauntily tipped hat and glove-covered jazz hands in Fosse’s Snake choreography as being part of what Jackson might have intentionally borrowed.

Willa: The “jazz hands”! Yes, I know exactly what you mean.

Elizabeth: Of course, Fosse was also inspired by Astaire, so some of those attributes I just mentioned could easily reflect back to Astaire and his influences. The video made its point however: Jackson was clearly influenced by Fosse’s style and movement vocabulary. This was not news: Jackson was vocal about his interest in Fosse’s work. Here’s a screen grab I found on the internet from the Bad 25 documentary (at about 1:23:43) of a note penned by Jackson:

MJ handwritten note to study the greats

Willa: Wow, that’s wonderful! I don’t remember seeing that note before, but it shows that Michael Jackson was very conscientious about “study[ing] the greats” and choosing specific traditions and choreography to create certain moods or feelings. For example, he said in this 1999 MTV interview that he thought the zombie dance in Thriller should start with “a jazzy step” to create the right mood. And the note you shared, Elizabeth, shows he knew exactly where to look for inspiration for the Smooth Criminal choreography.

I’ve often read that he was a “natural” or “intuitive” dancer, which is true to some extent, I think – even Michael Jackson himself suggested that dancing required something innate, something you’re born with. But it overlooks the fact that he was also a scholar of dance and very deliberately drew inspiration from some of the best: James Brown, Fred Astaire, Jackie Wilson, Bob Fosse, even Marcel Marceau.

Elizabeth: Jackson was incredibly gifted as a mover and musician, especially in terms of rhythmic acuity. But as you point out, he was an astute student! Coming from a dance background myself, I find the term “natural” with regards to dance somewhat problematic, especially when considering the historical baggage thrust upon black dancers in the United States. Any kind of dancing is learned, whether in a social or familial setting or via a student-teacher or mentoring relationship.

I think my hesitance about framing Jackson’s dancing this way stems from my understanding of how saying something is “natural” potentially denies the labor and intelligence required for learning and mastering. It’s true Jackson didn’t grow up attending what is typically viewed as “formal” dance classes and that he did talk about dancing as requiring something innate, but my point in troubling these terms is meant to highlight his incredible acts of labor and the keen intelligence that he brought into learning dance techniques – either by mimicking the moves of James Brown he saw on TV as a child or the time he spent in the studio with, say, Bruno “Pop n Taco” Falcon or any of the other dancer/choreographers he worked with over the years.

But I digress! We were talking about Jackson’s “choreographic versioning,” which I’ll explain in more detail in a moment. It was not just the YouTube video of Jackson/Fosse that started my thinking on this, but it was the title of another YouTube video featuring the same The Little Prince footage, “Michael Jackson’s Famed Style and Moves are Fosse Knock-offs,” that got under my skin.

Lisha: I have to say, that title bothers me as well.

Elizabeth: Right?! The YouTube user who posted and titled the video doesn’t necessarily have a nuanced understanding of the history of racial politics in American entertainment and popular culture. I understand Bob Fosse to be part of the tradition of American popular and theatrical dance of borrowing, riffing on, and appropriating movements from vernacular dances as well as other theatrical artists. In his performance and choreographic career, Fosse riffed on his predecessors in popular entertainment as well as borrowed from social dances of various eras.

Lisha: That’s so true. You know Willa and I were talking about this in a post not too long ago about Fred Astaire and Michael Jackson  Because artists are constantly interacting with each other’s work, at some point in time you have to wonder, who is appropriating who?

Elizabeth: Exactly. I really appreciated the way you and Willa tackled the troubling history of racial stereotypes in the Hollywood musical in that blog and Astaire’s participation in what is viewed now as extremely offensive. Cultural borrowing is not one directional, but who gets credit and who gains capital is often unfortunately based on racial politics.

Willa: That’s a really important point, Elizabeth. Joe Vogel wrote about this phenomenon in terms of music in an article in The Atlantic a couple years ago:

The cultural gatekeepers not only failed to initially recognize the legitimacy of these new musical styles and forms, they also tended to overlook or reduce the achievements of the African-American men and women who pioneered them. The King of Jazz, for white critics, wasn’t Louis Armstrong, it was Paul Whiteman; the King of Swing wasn’t Duke Ellington, it was Benny Goodman; the King of Rock wasn’t Chuck Berry or Little Richard, it was Elvis Presley.

Elizabeth: Great reference, Willa. I respect Joe Vogel’s work on Jackson so much and what he says about American music definitely applies to American social and popular dance, although the “original authors” of these dances were typically communities and not specific individuals: the Charleston, the Lindy Hop, the Twist, hip hop, etc are all examples of social dance forms that have been capitalized upon by white artists. This issue has been the subject of various scholarly studies on popular dance in America – in fact, I’ve just finished reading a recently published book by dance scholar Anthea Kraut that deals explicitly with issues of ownership in dance. The chapter “‘Stealing Steps’ and Signature Moves” from Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance looks at methods of “borrowing,” formal innovation, and giving credit in jazz tap and other dance forms that coalesced in black communities.

Willa: Oh, that’s interesting. So it’s borrowing from a community of dancers, not one identifiable person who could be cited and maybe compensated?

Elizabeth: Absolutely – and doesn’t that make it trickier! The famous husband and wife dance duo Irene and Vernon Castle are a prime example of how cultural appropriation occurs from collectively authored “folk” sources: they took ragtime and other social dances that arose from black communities, altered them to appeal to a white audience, and made a whole performing and teaching career out of it. (Coincidentally, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers played them in the 1939 movie The Story of Irene and Vernon Castle.) I’ve been influenced by Brenda Dixon-Gottschild’s work on what she calls the “invisibilization” of Africanist aesthetics and contributions in American performance, which refers to uncredited influences, both communal and individual.

For these reasons, it’s important to remember that racial dynamics play a huge role in who gets credit and who gets famous. Fosse’s style is recognizable and distinctive and I’m not denying his immense talent as a choreographer and his contributions to jazz and American musical theater, nor accusing him of cultural appropriation. He gave credit where credit was due: Fosse’s first performing duo was called “The Riff Brothers” in homage to the incredibly talented African American jazz tap team The Nicholas Brothers. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the Dancing with the Elephant readers have seen Fayard and Harold Nicholas perform alongside the Jackson siblings on The Jackson’s Variety Show:

But generally Fosse and Astaire are the better known household names, in part due to their privileged status as white artists. Therefore, the title of the YouTube video that accused Jackson of “ripping off” Fosse brought up a lot of questions for me about aesthetic and cultural values, about the history of racism and cultural appropriation in American entertainment in general.

Lisha: It is really troubling when we can observe how consistently this seems to cut across racial lines. It’s just not a two-way street when it comes to acknowledging the hugely influential, pioneering African American artists. We’ve heard so much about Michael Jackson borrowing from Fred Astaire, but little to nothing on how indebted Fred Astaire is to black dancers before him.

Elizabeth: Totally. Given this history, I feel it’s important to ground Jackson’s dance work in black diasporic aesthetic and semantic theories.

Lisha: I agree.

Willa: So do I, and I think that’s something Michael Jackson himself tried to do. When acknowledging his mentors, he almost always mentioned both black and white figures from the past, and implied there was a long history of borrowing between them. It’s interesting in this context that one of Fred Astaire’s mentors was a black dancer, John W. Sublett, who went by the stage name John W. Bubbles. I’ve heard it suggested that Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee, Bubbles, was named in honor of Sublett, who had such a large (though rarely acknowledged) influence on Fred Astaire.

Elizabeth: I’ve been doing some reading on Astaire and was just wondering that myself earlier this week!

Lisha: Wow, I didn’t know that! What an interesting thought.

Willa:  It’s an intriguing possibility, isn’t it? And it’s hard to believe it was just coincidence, given Michael Jackson’s knowledge of dance, and Fred Astaire in particular.

So here’s a wonderful video that includes side-by-side comparisons of Michael Jackson with many different mentors in dance, including John W. Sublett, Bill Bailey, Eleanor Powell, and especially James Brown and Fred Astaire:

Lisha: That’s a fabulous comparison, Willa. I especially love the shadow dancing segment. It’s amazing to see those clips side-by-side.

Willa: It really is.

Lisha: Elizabeth, when we talked earlier, you mentioned that you were originally using the term “choreographic curation” to describe Michael Jackson’s encyclopedic knowledge of dance, instead of the concept of “versioning.” What is the basic difference and where does the term “versioning” come from?

Elizabeth: Prompted by a preliminary discussion of this project with dance scholar Sherril Dodds, I moved away from “curation” which connotes museums and Europeanist “high art” and took a deeper look at how various forms of African American cultural expression have been theorized. Many writers note the historical reflexivity, citational riffing, and intertextual nature of black creative practices and have conceived of these practices by various terms, but I borrowed the specific term “versioning” from dance scholar Thomas F. DeFrantz, who defines versioning as “the generational reworking of aesthetic ideals” or “a way to tell an old tale new.”

Willa: That sounds like a great way to think about the “borrowing” that happens among dancers.

Elizabeth: Absolutely! “Versioning” struck me as a useful term for what Jackson does with quotations of specific artists and his incorporation of various social or vernacular dance styles. DeFrantz himself borrows this term from cultural theorist Dick Hebdige’s 1987 work on Caribbean music, Cut ’n’ Mix. Hebdige claims that the basis of all Afro-American and Caribbean music has this principle of borrowing at its core, and he directly addresses the Eurocentric critical tendency to denigrate the practices of repetition and revision found in these forms.

Of course, many American genres that emerged from the nexus of black and white cultural forms – dance in musical theater being my case in point – feature riffing, pastiche, or versioning as part of their traditions. It’s my intention that the term “choreographic versioning” contextualizes Jackson’s homages and quotations as being part of a black diasporic tradition of expression and exposes the cultural biases that inform accusations of plagiarism or unoriginality expressed towards Jackson’s use of other artists’ work. My short response to the poster of the YouTube video that bothered me is that “ripping off” is not the same as “riffing on.”

Willa:  That’s a great way of expressing that, Elizabeth!

Lisha: It is! Can I steal that line from you?

Elizabeth: Ha! Of course!

Willa: And it reminds me of the controversy that erupted after Steve Knopper’s biography came out about Michael Jackson “stealing” the moonwalk and not giving proper credit to those who’d gone before him. D.B. Anderson discusses this in her review of Knopper’s book. This controversy seems to miss the point of how artistic traditions work, and how artists of all kinds – painters, sculptors, playwrights, poets, musicians, and dancers – have always built on the work that has gone before them. And this doesn’t happen just within the African-American community, but throughout art history. Shakespeare wouldn’t be Shakespeare if he hadn’t borrowed so heavily from his predecessors.

Elizabeth: I agree, the idea of the artist as some sort of wholly innovative original genius is a total myth. No one creates in a vacuum; any art is a dialogue of ideas and variations on existing forms. Jackson was a master at this. I do have to say, however, that I just submitted a conference presentation proposal that, if accepted, will force me to work through the complexities of Jackson giving so much public credit to Astaire, Brown, etc, and the relative anonymity of the dancers and choreographers he worked with (outside of the music video and commercial dance industry especially.) This could, in part, be explained by industry practices – choreographers have not been historically high on the list of acknowledgements. You only need to look at IMDB for choreography credits to realize this.

Regarding the Knopper controversy, if the intention behind calling attention to the somewhat haphazard and vague credit that Jackson did give the actual dancers who taught him the moonwalk is meant to discredit Jackson as “original,” I’d say that it was a poor strategy given our discussion about the nature of borrowing in American social and popular dance and the fact that Jackson always gave credit to another source (however vague) for the move itself.

Willa: Yes he did, though he was “vague,” as you say, and Megan Pugh offers an interesting interpretation of why in her new book, American Dancing from the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk. Pugh notes that Michael Jackson was given lessons in how to do the “backslide” by Soul Train dancers Casper Candidate, Jeffrey Daniel, and Damita Jo Freeman (who was such an impressive dancer that Pugh speculates she may have been the inspiration for “Dancing Machine”) but he didn’t reveal that to the press:

[W]hen interviewers asked Michael Jackson about how he learned to moonwalk, he gave them a different origin story. He said he picked it up from “these black children in the ghettos,” who “have the most phenomenal rhythm of anybody on the Earth. … Just riding through Harlem in the late 70s and early 80s, … I would see these kids doing these, uh sliding backwards kinda like an illusion dancing.” He took “a mental movie of it,” went home, and started practicing.

Jackson was not simply hiding his sources. He was emphasizing that he didn’t need teaching: he could pick anything up on his own. He was also presenting himself as a conduit of black culture, New York’s in particular. It was a bid for authenticity, an attempt to tap into the street culture of America’s most famous black neighborhood.

So while he acknowledged that he didn’t invent the moonwalk, as you pointed out, Elizabeth, he didn’t cite his specific teachers, and Pugh seems to think it was to give himself some street cred “at a time when hip hop, which did come out of New York streets, was threatening to outshine his own work.”

Elizabeth: I don’t completely discount Megan Pugh’s read on this because I think the commercial context Jackson operated within has to be considered as an influence on his work. I argued in an unpublished conference paper that Bad capitalized on the “edgy” associations of street culture of the late 80s, but in the same paper I recognized that Jackson and his creative team’s intentions were to call attention to the larger social problems that provoke inner city crime and gang violence, much akin to West Side Story. Motivated by empathy and a desire for social justice, but complicated by the mechanics of capitalism perhaps?

We’re seeing this same argument play out in the discourse around Beyonce’s Formation video. I think we should remain vigilant towards parties who want to diminish or draw attention away from the political and social messages at the heart of these activist-artists’ work even while it’s important to consider the economic context these radical statements are made. Any analysis of Jackson’s work has to grapple with a great deal of complexity and sometimes seeming contradictions, but I am personally committed to shifting the popular narrative around his life to a meaningful discussion on his incredible body of work, as I know both of you are. Thank god for this blog and the thinkers that contribute their voices in this endeavor.

In a similar vein, I’ve claimed elsewhere that Jackson’s versioning on Astaire and Brown’s dance moves and theatrical styles was a strategic positioning of himself amongst the entertainment greats. The relatively unknown dancers who taught him the moonwalk did not have the cultural capital that Jackson’s famous idols did (although Jeffrey Daniel was a known Soul Train dancer and member of the disco group Shalamar, which was assembled by Soul Train’s Don Cornelius, and of course Daniel later appeared in several of Jackson’s short films and co-choreographed Bad with Gregg Burge). However, as I mentioned before, it has not been the American entertainment industry’s practice to foreground the labor of the choreographers and dancers.

There are so many nuances and complexities in Jackson’s work and creative process, the topic of “credit-giving” being just one of them, and one that could also be attributed to the media’s general disinterest in the behind-the-scenes artists rather than Jackson’s actions. As many fans will know, there are notable interventions into the entertainment industry’s “tradition” of under-acknowledging choreographic and danced labor: for example, the terrific 2013 documentary on Vincent Paterson, a long-time choreographic collaborator with Jackson, by Swedish filmmaker Kristi Grunditz called The Man Behind the Throne, brings Paterson’s work with Jackson and Madonna center stage.

Willa: That’s a really important point, Elizabeth. In general, choreographers have not been given the credit they deserve, or the money they deserve either – and neither have dancers. But apparently Michael Jackson did try to make things a little more equitable. In her book, Megan Pugh says she had a private conversation with Paterson where he said “that Jackson put his dancers in ‘Smooth Criminal’ on an SAG (Screen Actors Guild) contract to guarantee them the same union wages actors were paid.”

He also included credits at the end of many of his short films – something artists rarely did in their videos – and he made sure to credit choreographers as well as directors and producers and screenwriters. For example, the credits for Thriller include this frame:

credits - Thriller

He even gives Michael Peters top billing. The credits for You Rock My World include this:

credits - YRMW

The Talauegas aren’t exactly household names – they certainly don’t have the star power of Fred Astaire or even Hermes Pan – but Michael Jackson is conscientious about giving them their due. And the credits for Moonwalker begin with Smooth Criminal and include this:

credits - Smooth Criminal

So while Michael Jackson may not have mentioned Jeffrey Daniel by name when asked how he learned the moonwalk, he did go further than most artists in giving Daniel credit for his work.

Elizabeth: Thank you for including the screengrabs of these credits, Willa! You’re right, it’s so important to note that Jackson’s very public acknowledgement in these instances complicates an easy narrative in which Jackson didn’t give credit where credit was due in the case of the moonwalk. All the choreographers Jackson worked with speak incredibly highly of him as an artist and individual, which points to the amount of respect he extended to them in working situations. It follows that he would attempt to give them the same amount of protection afforded union actors.

The particular instance of the moonwalk may be an example of a missed opportunity to credit the specific dancers who taught him the step, but I’m personally okay with accepting that Michael Jackson was a complex and contradictory person. I don’t feel that acknowledging any elisions he made in representing his creative process in the media necessarily diminishes or detracts from his legacy as a creative genius. It’s like saying Martin Luther King Jr.’s incredibly powerful social justice messages are compromised by his personal history of infidelity. We somehow have the desire to have our heroes be unblemished by complexity, which sets us up for disappointment and disillusionment. For me, that Jackson was a complex, changing, and flawed human like the rest of us makes his creative work – and his artistic message of love and compassion – so much more inspiring.

Lisha: And as you’ve so convincingly argued, it’s more complicated than one might think to quickly and accurately explain to a journalist where a dance movement might have originated from! There’s not always a simple answer.

Elizabeth, I know you’ve also approached Michael Jackson’s work through the theoretical lens of “kinesthetic empathy,” and I think this concept could be really useful in understanding Michael Jackson’s work. Would you like to explain a little about “kinesthetic empathy”?

Elizabeth: I’d love to try! Basically, kinesthetic empathy is the idea that in watching another body move you understand something of that body’s experience because of your own embodied knowledge. Very simplistically put, I can understand that someone is feeling a certain way because I have my own embodied experience with the positions, actions, or energetics of their body that express that particular emotion.

Willa: Wow, that’s fascinating, Elizabeth! A very important book for me, one that really changed how I see the world, is The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry. It’s a fascinating work and hard to describe in just a few words, and I’m sure I won’t do it justice, but part of her argument is that the body’s physicality is our most important touchstone for what’s real and what isn’t – it’s so crucial to our understanding of what’s real that it’s used to lend reality to things that may seem insubstantial, like ideologies. For example, the outcome of a war is made real through the scars of wounded soldiers and the bodies of those who were killed.

Yet in many ways that physicality that is so central to our concept of reality is inexpressible, especially the experience of pain. That’s one reason the body can be used to substantiate something separate from itself – even something hostile to itself, like war. We can be sitting right beside someone with a splitting headache and not realize it, and even if they try to describe it to us, it’s hard for them to express in words exactly what that pain feels like. Doctors have long struggled with this. Even more than that, extreme pain breaks down language, reducing the sufferer to inarticulate cries and moans. In that sense, Scarry claims we are each locked in our own physicality – an interior experience of our own body – that we can’t express.

So it’s really interesting to think about how some aspects of the body’s interior experience might be communicated in ways other than words – that if I stand in the rain with my arms outstretched, for example, I can experience some of the same physical sensations Michael Jackson experienced while making Stranger in Moscow, and maybe begin to understand “how does it feel” – at least in a physical sense.

Elizabeth: I love that you mention that beautiful moment in Stranger in Moscow because it’s absolutely one of the videos that I’ve thought about in relation to the idea (despite the fact it’s not very “dancey”). I want to read Scarry’s book on the failure of language to express subjective pain because although I’m fascinated and hopeful of the notion of “fellow-feeling” as being part of combating racism, sexism, bigotry, etc, I have major doubts that it’s possible to completely empathize physically either. Because of course my embodied experience is different than your embodied experience!

For this reason, the notion of kinesthetic empathy is a debated topic in dance studies. The notion was first propounded by dance critic John Martin in the 1930s by the various terms “kinesthetic sympathy,” “metakinesis,” and “inner mimicry.” Martin’s concept of how this aesthetic body-to-body understanding functions did not account for cultural, racial, gendered, degrees of able-bodiedness or any kind of difference. Dance scholar Susan Leigh Foster published a book in 2011 on the subject which troubled these essentialist underpinnings of the theory of kinesthetic empathy.  As I mentioned earlier, any kind of physical habit is learned, whether it be socially inscripted or learned in a more formal pedagogical context, so it follows that different cultures and communities will have different “archives” of embodied knowledge that actually mean different things.

Willa: That makes a lot of sense, Elizabeth. Different habits lead to the development of different muscles and different muscle memory, which has a big impact on how we experience movement. This is kind of a weird example, but I lived in Southeast Asia for a while, where it was not uncommon for the top of the “toilet” to be down on the floor. Islamic women, even elderly Islamic women, apparently had no trouble at all with the deep knee bends and balance needed to use those toilets – after all, they’d been using them all their lives. But many ex-pat Americans and Europeans had a lot of trouble with them. I personally would have liked a grab bar to hang on to!

So I imagine a 50-year-old Michael Jackson doing a dance step he’d done all his life – like that James Brown shuffle he performs so flawlessly in his Motown audition when he was 10 years old, and that we see him performing in concert throughout his life – would have a very different experience than a 50-year-old who was trying it for the first time.

Elizabeth: Exactly! (And two great examples, Willa.) It follows that our embodied experience extends to how we perceive and relate to someone else moving. There was an inter-institutional group from the UK that researched and reported on the theory of kinesthetic empathy in a multimodal project called “Watching Dance.” They found that audience members’ reactions were indeed colored by their experience and knowledge of the different dance forms included in their study.

I’m a very capable dancer in the forms I’ve spent years studying, but have pretty much failed in my brief attempts to master the moonwalk or any popping and locking techniques. I can’t imagine what it feels like in my body when I see another person doing any technique based on percussive isolations like popping and locking in the same way that I can relate to a ballet dancer in a space-consuming leap through the air. Watching any dancing I’m not personally versed in definitely creates an embodied response, but I don’t “feel” or relate to them in the same way. Ultimately, the idea of kinesthetic empathy is one limited by cultural and social inscription – what someone has spent time learning – but despite this I still think kinesthetic empathy is worth considering in relation to Jackson’s works that posit altruism as a way to bridge social division and prejudice.

I’m currently beginning to work through how certain examples of Jackson’s work implicitly engage this notion and how perceiving, feeling bodies are implicated in his call for altruism and social justice. How might kinesthetic empathy relate to the larger notion of empathy, and how might this incite moral action?

Willa: Those are some really intriguing and important questions.

Elizabeth: I think so! Jackson’s message of social justice often calls upon empathetic and altruistic responses to others in need. So what in art could compel people to care about others’ suffering or pain, and how do our own physical and somatic experiences shape our ability to react and relate to others? I think that Jackson’s mere posing of the question is powerful. As you quoted earlier, Willa, “how does it feel?” Of course Jackson’s lyrics ask this question in a number of ways, but as a dance scholar convinced of the potency of performance, a performative, bodily enactment of the question is what most interests me.

Lisha: What you’re both saying is utterly fascinating to me as a musician. Strictly judging from my own experience, I would translate this into sound as well. There’s no doubt in my mind that some musicians are more empathic than others. They somehow tune-in to what they hear around them and blend with other musicians in a way that makes it seem like there is only one instrument in the room. It’s an incredible feeling to work with players who can do this, and it’s something I clearly recognize in Michael Jackson.

A perfect example is “State of Shock” with Mick Jagger. Michael Jackson blends his voice into Jagger’s so completely in that recording it’s almost as if it’s one voice. Another example I know many will appreciate is “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” At times, it’s difficult to know where Siedah Garrett’s voice stops and Michael Jackson’s begins. It’s pretty remarkable.

Willa: It really is, and it’s interesting to think of that ability as a function of empathy.

Elizabeth: I love that you brought up musical empathy, Lisha, because of course musicality is rooted in the body and muscle memory.

Lisha: That’s my sense of it, too.

Elizabeth: Musicality, like the ability to move “well,” is both a “gift” that comes easier to some people than others as well as something learned and honed through continual effort and labor. Like language, dance and music express the worldview and values of the cultures in which they are created and practiced. As I’m working through this project I’ve realized I need to look into scholarship on music and empathy or sound and empathy, especially as they relate to cross-cultural communication or miscommunication.

Lisha: I’m interested in knowing more about this as well. I’m especially interested in the question you posed earlier: “how do our own physical and somatic experiences shape our ability to react and relate to others?” You must keep us posted on your research and come back to share your findings.

Elizabeth: I definitely will. This conversation has been so inspiring! It has also productively shifted some of my thinking around the topic of Jackson’s “giving credit.” You’re both so knowledgeable about everything Michael Jackson and I can’t thank you both enough for this rich and thought-provoking discussion. I’ll definitely cite your invaluable contributions to the evolution of my thought on these topics in all the forums they are aired.

Lisha: Thank you, Elizabeth!

Willa: Yes, thank you so much for joining us, Elizabeth. I love your way of looking at the artistic tradition as “riffing on” not “ripping off” the artists who’ve gone before! And I’m so intrigued by the idea of kinesthetic empathy.

I also wanted to let everyone know that a new article by Toni Bowers was just published this morning by the Los Angeles Review of Books. It begins with a review of Steve Knopper’s new biography but becomes so much more, and it ties in with some of the things we’ve been talking about today. For example, Toni points out that “Those incredible dance steps, after all, did not perfect themselves. Jackson did it, arduously.” Here’s a link to Toni’s article.

 

Announcement: Brad Sundberg Seminar in Boston

Willa: I recently heard from our friend Marie Plasse that she and Joe Vogel are helping Brad Sundberg organize a seminar in Boston, with special guests Brad Buxer and Michael Prince. Joe and Marie will be on hand as well.

Lisha McDuff and I had a wonderful conversation with Brad back in January of last year after his seminar in Toronto. A few weeks later, Eleanor Bowman, Veronica Bassil, and Sylvia Martin joined Lisha and me for a post about his Captain EO seminar in Orlando, Florida. Brad’s seminars include stories and sound recordings from his days working with Michael Jackson, as well as insights into his recording process.

The venue for the Boston seminar hasn’t been selected yet, but the date is Saturday, December 5, and tickets are already on sale.  Here’s a link for more information, and here are a couple of posters Brad has created for the event.

Boston in the Studio with MJ Poster Boston Pop-Up Poster

Causing Grief in Human Relations

Willa:  In late 2011, the Michael Jackson Academia Project posted two videos to YouTube analyzing Black or White and They Don’t Care about Us. Joie and I both thought they were interesting and well constructed – in fact, we liked them so much we published a quick post promoting them, even though we were both on Christmas vacation at the time. These videos were followed in February 2012 by two videos on the HIStory album, and again Joie and I thought they were thought provoking and well produced, and we encouraged others to watch them.

We also added the Academia Project videos to our Reading Room, providing recommendations and links, and we have kept them there ever since, even after the videos themselves were removed from YouTube for copyright infringement (something I strongly disagree with, by the way – those videos were analyzing Michael Jackson’s work, not pirating it, so I believe they should have been allowed to stay up under US copyright provisions for Fair Use). We hoped the copyright issues would be resolved and the videos would be republished.

In general, we believed the Academia Project was working to increase understanding of Michael Jackson and his art, and we wanted to support them. And I would like to continue to support them in producing positive work.

However, two days ago we received a pingback from the Academia Project website. They had just published a post accusing Joe Vogel of plagiarizing their work. I was very concerned by this because plagiarism is one of the most serious professional offenses that can be leveled against an academic – it can ruin reputations and careers – and those accusations did not square with my own experiences and observations from working with Joe. We have done several posts together over the past four years, including a post last April on the article at the center of the Academia Project accusations. I also read and provided comments on the first chapter of his dissertation, which later became that article. During the time I’ve known him, I have found him to be conscientious in recognizing the contributions of others who have gone before him, and generous in acknowledging them and expressing his gratitude for their work.

So I was deeply troubled by the allegations. I went to the Academia Project website and looked at their claims, and I found them to be without merit. Specifically, I came to the following conclusions:

First, academic writers must be scrupulous about attributing unique research data, ideas, perspectives, and turns of phrase to the people who originally collected or developed them. However, information that is considered to be common knowledge does not have to be cited. For example, if I wrote that Michael Jackson was from Gary, Indiana, I would not need to cite a source for that. And much of what the Academia Project is claiming as their unique contribution I consider to be common knowledge.

For example, the Academia Project notes that their video on Black or White includes this statement:

On 14 November 1991 the music video for Michael Jackson’s new single, ‘Black or White’, was premiered. The film was the most anticipated music video of all time and was televised simultaneously on MTV, VH1, BET, Fox and on channels around the world.

And they point out that Joe Vogel’s article includes this statement: “Michael Jackson’s 11-minute short film, Black or White, was the most watched music video premiere in television history.” This information is widely known – it has been reported numerous times, in many different sources, for more than 20 years. As such, I believe this qualifies as common knowledge.

Second, when documenting prior work, academic researchers try to cite the original source of an idea – and the Academia Project is not the original source for many of the ideas they are claiming as their own. For example, they point to this statement in their November 2011 video:

As the ‘Black or White’ video progresses, Michael sings “I ain’t scared of no sheets’ while bursting through imagery of a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning rally.

The ‘sheets’ referred to are the white hooded robes of the hate group.

They claim it is the source for this statement in Joe Vogel’s 2015 article: “The sheets Jackson refers to, of course, are the sheets of the Ku Klux Klan.” To me, this is a fairly obvious interpretation and doesn’t need to be cited. (In fact, I mentioned that the “sheets” referred to the Ku Klux Klan in M Poetica, published six months before the Academia Project videos, and I did not cite anyone.) However, Joe wrote of this connection in Man in the Music, which was published before the Academia Project videos were posted. Here’s what he says, in an image from page 159 of his book:

I aint scared of no sheets

Again, I think the reference to the Ku Klux Klan is common knowledge and that Joe doesn’t need to cite anyone. However, if he did decide to include a citation, the Academia Project would not be the original source. I would need to do some research to find out who was, but I know Eric Lott mentioned it in “The Aesthetic Ante: Pleasure, Pop Culture, and the Middle Passage” – an academic article published in the spring of 1994 – and Armond White mentioned it even earlier, in a newspaper article that I believe was published soon after the video’s premiere in 1991.

Third, while the Academia Project’s videos and Joe Vogel’s article share some similar background information, those areas of overlap are only a tiny fraction of the overall scope of Joe’s article. For example, while the Academia Project focuses primarily on the political history of race and the civil rights movement, Joe takes a more theoretical approach and looks at the constructedness of race. He also focuses on constructions of gender, as his title suggests:  “I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets: Re-screening Black Masculinity in Michael Jackson’s Black or White.” Gender isn’t addressed in the Academia Project video.

Finally, it is certainly possible and even likely for people working in similar areas, studying similar texts, to draw similar conclusions. For example, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz both developed the branch of mathematics called calculus at approximately the same time, working independently of one another and using very different notation. In another example, Samuel Johnson and Voltaire published remarkably similar novels (Rasselas and Candide) at the same time, though they lived in separate countries and wrote in different languages. Johnson himself remarked that if their books hadn’t been published simultaneously, neither author would have been able to counter the charge of plagiarizing the other.

My point is that as Michael Jackson’s stature continues to grow, the field of Jackson studies will inevitably become more crowded, with more and more people publishing analysis and posting opinions of his work. So there is bound to be some stepping on toes and jostling of elbows. However, while we may find that we disagree on some things – even strenuously disagree – it is imperative that we treat one another with respect and generosity of spirit.

I have seen too many instances of passionate fans allowing their passion to threaten or destroy something positive. The Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC) was a wonderful resource for disseminating information and sharing ideas. However, it was destroyed in large part by rival factions who could not settle their differences. And I was very disheartened to read a news article last week that a memorial in Germany may be dismantled because of ongoing disagreements between fan groups. This does not honor Michael Jackson’s legacy.

I would like to end by letting Joe respond to the Academia Project claims in his own words, from a post he published yesterday:

To be clear: My article on “Black or White” is not in any way derived from this fan’s videos, blogs, or other commentary. It is, however, indebted, to the scholars and critics I mention in my piece …

Over the years, I have interacted with numerous scholars, journalists and critics doing great work on Michael Jackson. They are overwhelmingly wonderful, generous, and civil, even when there are disagreements. I have had similar experiences with most Michael Jackson fans and fan groups.

It is my continued hope that those engaged in … attacks will instead focus on more positive ways to productively engage with Michael Jackson’s life and work.

His full post is available here.

Boy, is that Girl with You?

Willa:  This week I am so happy to be joined once again by our longtime friend, Joe Vogel. Or actually, I should say Dr. Joe Vogel – you’ve accomplished a lot since the last time we talked with you! What all have you been up to, Joe?

Joe: Hi Willa. It’s great to talk again. I’ve been so busy lately, but every time I check in with Dancing With the Elephant some great new discussion is going on. You and Joie do such a fantastic job of exploring different facets of Michael Jackson’s creative work and life.

As far as what I’ve been up to … As you noted, I recently finished my PhD at the University of Rochester. I’m now working on a book on James Baldwin that focuses on his cultural and media criticism in the 1980s.

Willa:  Oh, interesting! I knew you frequently posted things about James Baldwin on your blog, but I didn’t realize you were writing a book about him.

Joe:  Yes, it’s an outgrowth of one of my dissertation chapters. Once I began really digging into Baldwin’s work, I was amazed by his prescience. His work is still so relevant to the world we live in today.

I’ve also written a few new MJ-related things, some of which have already been published (an entry on Thriller for the Library of Congress and the liner notes for Xscape), and some of which will be published in the near future (an entry on Michael Jackson for Scribner’s encyclopedia, America in the World, 1776-present, and the article we will be discussing today, “I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets: Re-screening Black Masculinity in Michael Jackson’s Black or White,” which just recently came out in the Journal of Popular Music Studies).

Willa: And I’ve really been looking forward to talking with you about it. There are so many aspects of your article that fascinated or surprised me. For example, you see Black or White as pushing back against a long history of racism in the film industry, and you begin your article by reviewing some of that history – and to be honest, I was shocked by it.

As you point out, Hollywood’s first film, as we think of films today, was D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation – a movie that glorified the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, it was originally titled The Clansman. As you say in your article,

It ushered in a new art form – the motion picture – that transformed the entertainment industry. … Birth became the most profitable film of its time – and possibly of all time, adjusted for inflation. It was the first film to cost over $100 thousand dollars to make, the first to have a musical score, the first to be shown at the White House, the first to be viewed by the Supreme Court and members of congress, and the first to be viewed by millions of ordinary Americans. It was America’s original blockbuster.

So Birth of a Nation had a huge impact on America’s new film industry – in fact, it helped shape our ideas about what a film is or should be – but it also helped shape popular notions of race. And you see Black or White as taking on both of these issues, right? – as challenging the dual-headed hydra of racism and the film industry in the US?

Joe: Exactly. Ralph Ellison described Birth of a Nation as having “forged the twin screen image of the Negro as bestial rapist and grinning, eye-rolling clown.” It was hugely powerful and influential, not just in the South, but in the North, and in Los Angeles, where it premiered to a standing ovation.

Willa: Yes, in fact the turning point of the film is the murder of a black man accused of attempting to rape a white women, and the fear of miscegenation and black men as “bestial rapists” runs throughout it, from beginning to end. For example, the film ends with the double wedding of two white couples – a brother and sister from the North marry a brother and sister from the South – and what unites them, what unites whites from the North and South after the bitterness of the Civil War, is fear of black men.

Joe:  Michael Jackson was so knowledgeable about the history of film that I just found it interesting that, given his biggest platform in 1991, an estimated 500 million viewers around the world, he decides to use this fledgling new medium – the short music film, a medium he pioneered as much as D.W. Griffith did the long motion picture – to challenge and replace Griffith’s mythology about black masculinity and race more broadly.

Willa:  Yes, as you write in your article,

D.W. Griffith himself acknowledged that one crucial purpose of the film “was to create a feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially white women, against colored men.”

As you go on to write, Griffith does this by exaggerating racial differences and creating “a world of stark contrasts.” As you point out,

Black characters are mostly whites in blackface, making them appear darker and more uniformly black than the diverse range of skin tones of actual African-Americans. They are also more often presented in shadows with manic and animalistic expressions. The white protagonists, meanwhile, possess a glowing, radiant aura that highlights their whiteness and inherent nobility.

Michael Jackson challenges this “world of stark contrasts” throughout his short film by offering a much more complex and integrative view of humanity, and this challenge begins with the ironic title, Black or White. There is very little in Black or White that is either all black or all white.

Joe: Exactly. Throughout the song and video he is constantly complicating our understandings of these categories, and carefully juxtaposing or balancing tensions. It undercuts the central premise of Griffith’s film: the fallacy of racial purity (and by extension, white supremacy).

Willa:  Oh, I agree. For example, while Griffith presents an almost cartoonish depiction of racial differences by using white actors in blackface, Michael Jackson gives us African tribesmen whose faces have been painted with both black and white facepaint, so their faces are a collage of black and white. This is an important scene – it’s when the music of Black or White begins, and it’s when Michael Jackson makes his first appearance in the film. It seems significant to me that when we first see him, he’s dancing with these men. So his face, which complicates and resists simplistic definitions of race, is first seen amid these tribesmen, whose faces are works of art combining black and white in creative ways.

Later, there’s the famous morphing sequence, where the face of an American Indian man morphs into the face of a black woman, then a white woman, then a black man, then an East Indian woman, and so on. To me both of these scenes – the black-and-white painted faces of the tribesmen and the morphing faces sequence – are an artistic expression of “the fallacy of racial purity,” as you just said.

Biologically, there’s no such thing as race – there is no genetic binary with “black” on one side and “white” on the other. It’s a cultural concept rather than a biological reality. Humanity is a vast spectrum of physical characteristics – skin tones, facial features, hair types – and we’ve had ideas about racial divisions artificially imposed onto us. As you say in your article,

“Being a color,” Jackson suggests, is not a universal essence; it is an identity fashioned through imagination, history, narrative, and myth; it is a trope and a positioning within concentric communities.

That’s such an important point, I think, and part of what Michael Jackson is suggesting in these two scenes of the tribesmen and the morphing faces. The importance of these two scenes is emphasized by their strategic placement in the film – they bookend the central section of Black or White. It seems to me that Black or White consists of three sections: the prologue in suburbia before the music begins, the main part where the song is played, and the epilogue or “panther dance” after the music ends. And it’s significant, I think, that the main part begins with the tribesmen and ends with the morphing faces.

Joe: These are great observations. And, of course, all of this new, complex racial storytelling is being relayed, presumably, for a traditional white suburban family. The prologue, as you describe it, is about white insularity and dysfunction, particularly between the father and son. The white patriarch (played by George Wendt) is angry, on the surface, because his son (played by Macaulay Culkin) is playing music too loud.

But the point Michael Jackson is making here seems to go much deeper. The rage from the father is about ignorance. He doesn’t understand his son, or his son’s music, or his son’s heroes. His worldview is narrow, provincial, outdated – which is why his son literally blasts him out of the house, and why the father lands, recliner and all, in Africa, the cradle of civilization, where his “re-education” begins.

Willa:  Yes, and significantly, one of his son’s heroes is Michael Jackson – his father knocks his poster down when he storms into his son’s room. There’s a similar scene at the very end of the video, as you point out in your article, with Homer Simpson grabbing the remote and turning off the TV, where his son Bart has been watching Black or White – specifically, the panther dance. So the video is framed by these two scenes of an angry, repressive, white father trying to limit his son’s exposure to popular culture – specifically, pop culture as mediated by a black artist, Michael Jackson.

This seems to be an accurate reflection of the times since, as you say in your article, Black or White was released at a time of intense white male anger. Advances in civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights “eroded male dominance in the home and workplace,” as you say, and led to the rise of a predominantly white “men’s movement.” I thought it was very interesting that the most popular book of 1991, the year Black or White was released, was Robert Bly’s Iron John, which as you point out was “a book that sought to make sense of and rehabilitate broken men by restoring their inner ‘wildman’ or ‘warrior within.’”

I remember how popular Bly’s book and the “men’s movement” was back then. Men would gather in the woods to build huge bonfires and bang on drums and shed the supposedly emasculating influence of civilization. I hadn’t thought about all that in terms of Michael Jackson before, but it’s another fascinating historical context for interpreting Black or White  – especially the scene you’re talking about, Joe, where a suburban man sitting in a recliner is blasted back to Africa and then sees Michael Jackson dancing with tribesmen.

In some ways, this seems to be exactly what Bly was proposing – for men to go back to their primal origins and reconnect with the “warrior within.” But Michael Jackson deviates from Bly’s script by dancing with Thai women, and then a group of Plains Indians, including a little girl. Next he dances with an East Indian woman and a group of Russian men. So Michael Jackson’s message seems very different than Bly’s.

Joe: Right. Part of what makes Bly’s project misguided, in my opinion, is that it assumes that there is a universal essence to all men, and by extension, a universal prescription to the so-called “masculinity crisis.” He doesn’t acknowledge difference and diversity among men, as Michael Jackson so often does. But as you say, it’s another fascinating historical context that indicates that masculinity was perceived as being in crisis.

In fact, another context I ended up cutting is the role of hip hop. So much of hip hop at the time, particularly gangsta rap, was about projecting hypermasculine power. Being a real man precluded being gay or queer or soft, or treating women with respect, or being involved in interracial relationships.

So Michael’s song and video, in this context, directly challenged the prevailing discourse in hip hop and also in hard rock/metal. While hip hop was often singled out, metal was often just as misogynistic and homophobic.

Willa:  It really was.

Joe:  These genres were so influential among young people in the late 80s/early 1990s. It’s no accident Michael incorporated them both into Black or White, but reimagined their “messaging.”

Willa: That’s interesting, Joe. And these contexts are important because you see Black or White not only as a critique of racism, which is how it’s usually interpreted, but also as a critique of gender – as engaging with repressive cultural narratives of what it means to be a man, specifically what it means to be a black man, and creating a “re-vision of black masculinity.” As you write in your article,

A “pattern” existed, Jackson recognized, in how black men were represented in American media. … In cinema, of course, the pattern Jackson refers to was largely introduced with Birth of a Nation.

A different but equally restrictive “pattern” was perpetuated by Bly’s “man’s movement,” and by hip hop and heavy metal as you say. And you see Black or White as directly challenging those patterns and offering a new vision, a “re-vision” as you put it, of both race and gender. Is that right?

Joe: Yes, in an interview around the time of his trial Michael Jackson spoke about the Jack Johnson story. He was keenly aware of America’s fears about black men, specifically about black male sexuality. That’s really the central fear in Birth of a Nation: the prospect of black men defiling white female purity. The director, D.W. Griffith, makes no qualms about this. As you mentioned earlier, he speaks of wanting to elicit an “abhorrence” of miscegenation and interracial marriage. This fear goes back to slavery and continues in tragedies like the deaths of Emmett Till and Yusef Hawkins. (Keep in mind, in 1958 only 4% of Americans approved of black-white marriages. By 1991, the number had risen to 48%, but that’s still less than half of America.)

So this is the mythology Michael Jackson is challenging in Black or White. From the lyric, “‘Boy, is that girl with you?’ / ‘Yes, we’re one and the same,’” to the scene in which Michael walks through a burning cross, shouting “I ain’t scared of no sheets!,” to the morphing scene, which undercuts the very notion of racial purity, to the panther coda, which, in my opinion, is one of the boldest, most defiant moments in film history – certainly in a music video.

Willa:  Oh, I agree.

Joe: One of the things I find so fascinating about this moment in the short film is that he symbolically takes over as the auteur – the white director (John Landis) is dethroned. It’s an amazing moment given the history of film, and how overwhelmingly it has been dominated by white men. And the fact was, John Landis really did oppose what Michael was doing in the panther scene, as did Sony executives. Recently, an outtake surfaced on YouTube that shows a bit of this.

Michael insists that Landis is the one thinking “dirty,” not him. It’s actually pretty funny. But this film, and especially the panther segment, represent Michael Jackson’s artistic vision, his choices. He knew the risks, and he knew what he wanted to achieve. The sheer intelligence of the short film testifies to that – the black panther sneaking off the set, the complete shift in tone, lighting, setting – the juxtapositions and tensions, given what we witnessed in the “official cut.” It’s remarkable.

Willa:  It really is. And thank you so much for sharing that behind-the-scenes clip! I hadn’t seen that before, but it’s very telling, isn’t it? Watching that clip, it’s obvious that John Landis really didn’t understand what Michael Jackson was doing or why it was so important. And like you, I think it’s significant that, in the video, John Landis’ role symbolically ends after the morphing sequence, and the rest of the video – the panther dance – is presented as Michael Jackson’s own.

It reminds me of Liberian Girl, a video that begins with a Hollywood-style depiction of colonial Africa, complete with missionary … but then suddenly everything shifts. We hear Malcolm-Jamal Warner (a black actor) say, “I’m afraid to open any doors around here” – and isn’t that an interesting comment? Then Whoopi Goldberg (a black actress) asks, “Who’s directing this?” The camera cuts to Steven Spielberg (a white director) sitting in the director’s chair, but he’s not in control – he’s bored and waiting.

Then Rosanna Arquette (a white actress) asks Jasmine Guy (a black actress) “Do you know what we’re supposed to be doing?” Jasmine Guy answers with, “All I know is that Michael called me. I guess when he gets here, he’ll let me know what we’re supposed to do” – implying that Michael Jackson is really the one in charge. That’s borne out at the very end of the video when we finally see him … and surprisingly, he’s in the cameraman’s chair. So he’s the one who’s been controlling the camera, and he’s the one calling the shots – not the white guy sitting in the director’s chair, glancing at his watch and waiting for someone to tell him what to do. So despite the expectations raised by its intro, Liberian Girl is not another white depiction of Afro-colonialism. It’s something else entirely. It’s about a talented young black man seizing control of what appears in millions of homes around the world, but it’s all done in such a fun, light-hearted, subtle way that no one seemed to realize what he was doing.

I think the message of the John Landis scene in Black or White is similar. John Landis may be the director, but he’s not in charge. He’s really just an employee who’s helping Michael Jackson convey his vision without understanding what that vision is. John Landis himself makes that very clear in the behind-the-scenes clip you posted, Joe. At about 1:45 in, he turns to the camera and says, “I didn’t choreograph this. I’m just shooting.” He’s completely disassociating himself from everything that appears on screen during the panther dance.

Joe: Exactly. There are quotes in my article in which he says similar things – basically, that he is a hired hand for this video. Not even out of modesty, really, but because he wants to distance himself from what Michael is doing.

Willa: Yes, it seems that way to me too. He seems very uncomfortable with the panther dance portion of the video. And that makes sense because, as you said, that’s when “the white director (John Landis) is dethroned.” And Michael Jackson is not just defying the role of the white director but, even more importantly, the long history of Hollywood representations of black men and black culture. I think it’s very significant in this context that the climax of the panther dance, to my mind anyway, is the fall of the sign for the Royal Arms Hotel, which explodes in a spray of flying sparks. This is about black resistance to “Royal Arms” and that kind of colonial ideology, and to a film industry that is steeped in that racist, colonial worldview.

One important principle of that worldview is the prohibition against miscegenation, as you point out in your article. But this prohibition isn’t a legal rule enforced by the courts, as it was in the past. Instead, it’s become internalized and is now enforced through the feelings of white women who look at a black man and feel disgust or revulsion, or the feelings of white men who witness a white woman with a black man and react with intense anger.

This new kind of postcolonial racism – “to create a feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially white women, against colored men,” as D.W. Griffith said – has been at the heart of the American film industry since its inception. And it’s what Michael Jackson is taking on in the panther dance, especially, as you show so well in your analysis of Birth of a Nation and Black or White.

Joe: Well, I tried anyway. It’s a fascinating short film, and like so much of Michael Jackson’s work, it rewards deep dives. In fact, now having talked to you about it, there is more I would like to incorporate into my article!

Willa:  Oh, I know what you mean – it takes a village to fully understand a Michael Jackson work! I’ve been thinking about Black or White for years, but even so, your article opened up whole new vistas for looking at this incredible film. And once you really dive into it, you just see more and more and it’s hard to stop.

Joe: But I guess it’s probably for the best. I had to cut about 6-7,000 words as it was. That’s the nature of an academic article, and really, publishing in general. But I have no doubt this short film will continue to be written about in fresh and compelling ways. As Susan Fast points out in her amazing 33⅓ book on Dangerous, no song or video of Jackson’s has received more scholarly attention. It began with Armond White’s phenomenal article in 1991 for The City Sun, and has continued over the years, especially since Jackson’s death in 2009. My article has been in the works for a few years now (it was the first chapter I wrote for my dissertation), so it’s exciting to finally see it published!

Willa:  It really is, especially since your article helps reveal just how truly revolutionary and powerful Black or White was at the time, a few months after the Rodney King beating was captured on videotape, and how powerful it remains to this day … even though the original, 11-minute version is hard to find. Though maybe that’s why it’s so hard to find – it’s just too potent for Vevo!

So your article is now out and available?

Joe: Yes, the article is now published in the March 27.1 edition of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Unfortunately, it is quite expensive at the moment to view in full. I would love to make it free obviously, but copyright won’t allow it for now. Susan Fast wrote a great explanation on her blog recently, explaining the academic publishing process, which like many other industries, is still trying to figure out how to operate and make content accessible in the digital era.

Willa: Yes, as Susan explains, academic journals are time consuming to create – that’s why articles are so expensive. It’s not about profit. Authors of academic papers don’t earn anything from publishing them, and we don’t hold the copyrights. So, for example, I wanted to repost my “Monsters, Witches, Ghosts” article here at Dancing with the Elephant, but I couldn’t – I was asked to post a summary instead, with a link to the full article. Fortunately, most university libraries carry the Journal of Popular Music Studies, so those who live near a college or university can probably access your article for free there.

I also wanted to remind everyone that we have a link to your Library of Congress entry on Thriller available in our Reading Room, but I haven’t had a chance to talk with you about it. So this article was written for the Library of Congress and placed on the National Register, is that right?

Joe: Right, I was invited to do a short piece on Thriller, which was a real honor. The Registry now includes about 400 recordings. Each of these recordings was chosen by the Librarian of Congress, with input from the National Recording Preservation Board, because they were deemed so vital to the history of America – aesthetically, culturally or historically – that they demand permanent archiving in the nation’s library. The registry has been reaching out to scholars and music critics to flesh out their website with a variety of scholarly essays on each of the 400 titles on the Registry, each of which are about 1,000 words. So people that love music history should check out some of the other essays as well – I’ve read several and they’re great reads.

Willa:  They really are. I was just reading the entry for “Blue Moon of Kentucky” by Bill Monroe, the creator of bluegrass, and interestingly enough it begins by comparing him to D.W. Griffith:

Like Martha Graham and, arguably, D.W. Griffith, what he created during his lifetime would go on to become an entire genre of art, a language, a vocabulary in which hundreds of other artists would create in its wake.

So just as Martha Graham created modern dance, and D.W. Griffith – through Birth of a Nation – created the modern film, Bill Monroe created the genre of bluegrass. Here’s a full list of essays on the Register, and a list of recordings.

Well, thank you so much for joining me, Joe!  It’s always such a pleasure to talk with you.

Joe: Thank you, Willa. It’s always great to talk to you. And give my best to Joie!

Willa:  I will!

Summer Rewind 2014: You Make Me Feel Like … You Make Me Feel Like …

The following conversation was originally posted on December 5, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Willa:  So this week we’re going to take on a rather slippery topic: Michael Jackson’s nonverbal vocalizations, meaning the sounds he made with his voice that aren’t words, exactly. Yet those vocalizations can still carry a lot of meaning or evoke powerful emotion or add tremendous drama or texture to his songs. In fact, you could make the case that his nonverbal vocalizations are one of the elements that set him apart as a vocalist. But they’re hard to talk about simply because they are “nonverbal” and therefore outside language. How do you talk about something that’s “nonverbal”?

Joie wasn’t able to be with us this week, but I’m thrilled to be joined by two of our friends who are very interested in sounds and words: Lisha McDuff, a professional musician and musicologist, and Bjørn Bojesen, a poet and author of En Undersøgelse af Fænomenet Rim (or A Survey of the Phenomenon of Rhyming, for those of us who don’t speak Danish.) Thank you both so much for joining me! This is a challenging topic, and I’m so grateful to have you here to help grapple with it.

So I thought a good way to try to get a handle on this topic would be to look at some specific instances where Michael Jackson uses nonverbal vocalizations. For example, in their tribute issue after he died, Rolling Stone wrote this about “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough”:

Make a list of the top 10 “ooooh!” screams in history, and this hit has at least six of them.

For once, I agree whole-heartedly with Rolling Stone! So what are other examples that jump out at you as either classic Michael Jackson sounds or, on the flip side, give an indication of the wide variety of vocalizations he used?

Bjørn:  Ouch, this is hard! Is there an MJ song where he doesn’t use any “non-words”? I think the sound most people associate with Jackson is “aoow!” (as in the beginning of “Black or White”), with “hee-hee” as a close runner-up. But this is guesswork! If I have to point at any particular song, I really like how he starts “Blame it on the Boogie”: “hee-hee-hee-hee.”

Willa:  Oh, good choice! I love that too, especially the way the “hee”s start high and progressively drop down, almost like he’s playing scales with his voice.

Bjørn:  In so many others of his songs his NVVs (non-verbal vocalizations) sound pained, but here it’s pure joy. You instantly know which song it is, and who the singer is. As you, Willa, and Joie revealed in a post some months ago, the song was also sung by Mick Jackson from Britain. It’s amazing to compare the two versions, and hear how “our” MJ makes this song his own just by adding some crystalline “tittering”!

Lisha:  “Crystalline tittering” – what a poetic way of verbalizing the non-verbals, Bjørn! It’s so great to have a poet around. You both came up with some wonderful examples – NVVs that are as symbolic of Michael Jackson as the single sequined glove and the black fedora. Of course you could say the same about the vocal “hiccups” in “Billie Jean,” and the ad libbed “hoos” in the final chorus of “Earth Song.” These vocal sounds are so iconic, we often think of them as belonging only to Michael Jackson. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find an MJ impersonation that did not include them.

Bjørn:  Or an MJ parody! In 2007, Chris Tucker did an absolutely unforgettable “hee-hee” on Conan O’Brien’s talkshow:

http://www.redbalcony.com/?vid=21117

Lisha:  Chris Tucker is absolutely hysterical! And he doesn’t miss a thing, does he? The “hee-hee” is a dead giveaway for Michael Jackson’s identity – it is a sound that has become synonymous with Michael Jackson.

And these vocalizations were such a powerful part of his performances, weren’t they? I absolutely loved Vincent Patterson’s story in Bad 25, when he tells what happened when Michael Jackson let out a full-voiced “hoo” on the set of The Way You Make Me Feel:

Willa:  What a wonderful description! As Patterson says, “Everything stopped. We had to stop shooting because people just froze – they actually froze on the stage.” And I can believe it! That high, clear, powerful “hoo” is so arresting, even just listening to the video – a video I’ve watched a hundred times before. I can only imagine what it was like for the people there on set, hearing it live for the first time.

So what do you think makes these nonverbal sounds so compelling? For example, he could have used sounds from an instrument instead, or he could have sung sounds we recognize as words. What makes these sounds so powerful and expressive?

Lisha:  Good question, and I wonder if anyone really knows how to verbalize the answer to that! Popular music scholars like to talk about “the grain of the voice,” based on a famous essay by Roland Barthes, which might give us a clue. If you think about the grain of a piece of wood, for example, there is an individual characteristic to that wood that could have aesthetic value. The same could be said of the voice, though it’s exceedingly hard to define and individual preference can easily come into play.

The grain of the voice is thought to be everything that makes a voice compelling, yet it lies beyond the scope of what you might learn about singing if you were to take singing lessons. It is beyond beautiful sound, good technique, and excellent breath control – though in the example above, all those things are present too.

Willa:  That’s such an intriguing idea, Lisha. Is the grain of the voice part of what makes individual voices so unique? What I mean is that with “We are the World,” for example, even though everyone is singing in a somewhat similar style, pitch, volume, tone, tempo – all the usual characteristics we tend to think of when talking about sound – the voices are still so distinct and individualized. You don’t have to watch the video to pick out who’s singing what – it’s obvious from their voices. I don’t think anyone would confuse Willie Nelson’s voice with Ray Charles’ or Bruce Springsteen’s or Bob Dylan’s, for example, and they certainly wouldn’t confuse it with Diana Ross’ or Cyndi Lauper’s. Is that part of the “grain”?

Lisha:  Well, actually it’s just a little different. As you pointed out, every voice has its own unique sound quality and no two voices are just alike. It’s the reason you don’t always have to identify yourself over the phone – you can just say “hey, it’s me” – and if the person knows you well, they know exactly who is calling. The musical term for this is “vocal timbre”; it’s the individual quality or tone color of the voice.

The “grain of the voice” is something more than timbre, that has to do with the aesthetic quality of the voice and the ability of the voice to go beyond the function of language or traditional musical expectations. It’s all of those undefinable qualities that account for why some can deliver a song in a very powerful and meaningful way, while others we just admire and move on – even if their performances were quite expressive and technically polished. They just don’t hit you where you live, so to speak. As I understand it, the “grain of the voice” is a way of describing how the voice works at the language and the music – it takes place beyond the realm of definable musical elements or linguistic function.

The example you gave of “We are the World” is an excellent way of clarifying this. If you think of voices like Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, or Bob Dylan – those aren’t beautiful voices in the traditional pedagogical sense. Their singing doesn’t conform to the rules of great vocal technique like some of the others do. Yet, out of that amazing chorus of stellar vocal talent, those four singers are among the most respected – I would even say revered. It’s the “grain of the voice” that possibly accounts for the power of their vocal performances. They are very honest and convincing singers, capable of delivering a song in a way that really speaks to the listener.

Bjørn:  That is really interesting, Lisha! I had never thought about voices like that before, and the grain concept really helps clarify some things. So, MJ’s “grain,” his way of using his voice in the music, might explain the power of his NVVs. Perhaps it might even explain why his verbal singing affects so many people beyond the mere meaning of the words?

Lisha:  I think it at least gets us started in how to think about it. There is something very compelling about Michael Jackson’s voice that isn’t so easy to define. I think it’s one of the reasons a lot of TV talent shows inevitably feature a Michael Jackson episode. It’s quite a challenge for the judges and contestants to think about why Michael Jackson’s performances are so exceedingly difficult to match.

Bjørn:  That’s a very good point, Lisha! One of the reasons why those rising TV stars can’t match MJ, I think, is that there is more to his singing talent than the quality of the voice itself.

Lisha:  I agree.

Bjørn:  Commemorating the fourth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, Joe Vogel posted a really wonderful description of MJ using a NVV in a non-song situation. He quotes Howard Bloom, who was a publicist for the Jacksons in the mid-1980s. Bloom was going to show the Jackson brothers some portfolios so that they might choose an artist for their next album cover:

We were all bunched together on the opposite side of the pool table from the art director. Michael was in the center. I stood next to him on his left. And the brothers were crowded around us on either side. The CBS art director slid the first of the portfolios toward Michael. He opened the first page, slowly … just enough to see perhaps an inch of the image. As he took in the artwork his knees began to buckle, his elbows bent, and all he could say was “oooohhhhh.” A soft, orgasmic “ooooh.” In that one syllable and in his body language, you could feel what he was seeing.

Willa:  Oh, I can just picture that, Bjørn!  It really conveys how expressive Michael Jackson could be, nonverbally, both through his voice and gestures – “his knees began to buckle … and all he could say was ‘oooohhhhh.’” What a great image!

And I’m intrigued by what you just said, Lisha, about Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan – how “their singing doesn’t conform to the rules of great vocal technique,” but their voices are still very expressive. It reminds me of the opening lines of an article I read a while ago in Village Voice, where critic Frank Kogan wrote, “An odd thing about Michael Jackson is that he has a totally spectacular voice but he doesn’t feel the need to amaze us with it. At all.”

I disagree with much of Kogan’s article, but I do agree with this. Michael Jackson had “a totally spectacular voice,” as Kogan says, but he didn’t put it on display – that wasn’t his focus. In fact, sometimes he’d make his voice rough or staccato or in some other way use his voice in a way that hid just how beautiful it was, but conveyed tremendous emotion and meaning, I think. And I wonder if this gets back to the idea of “grain” that you were talking about, Lisha.

Lisha:  I think that’s exactly it, Willa. Serving the music was always Michael Jackson’s first priority. I honestly can’t think of a single example of where he indulges in a simple display of virtuosic vocal talent, though he certainly could have if he wanted to.

Willa:  I agree. We know that Michael Jackson was very conscientious about his voice. He worked with a voice coach, Seth Riggs, for decades, and he’d meticulously run through an hour or more of vocal exercises before a concert or recording session to fully open his voice. He wanted to make sure that beautiful tenor and those pure, clear, high notes were available to him if he needed them. But his concerts and albums aren’t a showcase of beautiful notes. His focus was always on conveying ideas and emotion, on conveying something meaningful – as he said while still just a child, “I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it.” And sometimes that means hitting a “crystalline” note, as you called it, Bjørn, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Lisha:  Sometimes he withdraws his singing voice for musical emphasis. “Money” is the perfect example of this, also “Blood on the Dance Floor.” The verses are almost spoken rather than sung, and he uses very little of his voice, at times almost a whisper, which is such a perfect choice. The voice itself is carrying so much meaning in these examples, though it’s quite the opposite of a “showcase of beautiful notes.”

I also think it also goes back to what Bjørn was saying about Michael Jackson letting out an ecstatic “oooohhhh” when he saw that amazing artwork. It seems to me that human beings have a need to express themselves vocally. If you stub your toe or burn yourself in the kitchen, the first thing you do is vocalize with an “ow!” or “ouch!” Or if your team wins, or your favorite singer gives an amazing performance, you want to yell out “yyyeess!” “woo-hoo!” or “yeah!” Intense grief or anguish is associated with sobbing and wailing sounds. A big surprise is usually followed by a gasping sound – an audible inhalation. Disgust is often followed by “uh,” vocalizing a sharp exhalation. There are so many ways we use vocal sounds to express ourselves.

Willa:  That’s a good point, Lisha, and maybe those exclamations are so evocative and emotionally powerful precisely because they’re prelingual – they happen reflexively before we have a chance to think and put our thoughts into words, so they seem more primal and maybe more true somehow.

Lisha:  Or maybe they could even be described as translingual – in that they go beyond the function of language? Certainly Michael Jackson had a good command of language, but it seems there are times when language doesn’t fully support what he wanted to convey.

Bjørn:  I’d say the ability to express our emotions is one of language’s primary functions! But I do see what you mean by the words “prelingual” and “translingual.” In linguistics, exclamations like “ouch!” or “yes” are called interjections. Unlike a verb (“to sing”), a noun (“a song”) or an adjective (“beautiful”), interjections cannot partake in the creation of phrases. Each interjection is like an autonomous phrase. When lifting your hand from a scorching cooking plate, there’s no need to formulate a phrase like “that hurt!” An “ouch!” says it all.

Some interjections are onomatopoeia or imitations of sounds in the world around us. Like when a child points at a cow and says “moo!” Other interjections are more spontaneous expressions of feelings, and this is where I see a direct link to Michael Jackson’s NVVs. As you point out in your book, Willa, one of MJ’s driving forces as an artist was his desire to help us see how belief influences our perceptions. We see a cow, think for a couple of milliseconds, then reach the mental conclusion “that’s a cow.” In that way, language helps us organize our impressions and gain some footing in the perceptional flux. The price is, however, that every time we use language to form a phrase, we also pass judgment on the world. To a certain extent, interjections are an exception to this.

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, Bjørn. I never thought of it that way – that interjections are nonjudgmental.

Bjørn:  If you’ve never ever seen a cow, and then have your very first encounter with one, you might react by letting out a surprised “o!” – just like the romantic poets.

I think MJ’s use of NVVs has everything to do with a note he once wrote to himself concerning songwriting: feel, feel, feel, feel, feel, feel… His NVVs are so powerful because they derive directly from his feelings, with no intervention of analytical thought in order to put those feelings into words. A baby cries, a lion roars. Those sounds move us immediately, because they are natural or primal. They’re very impulsive, almost instinctive, reactions to emotions like fear, joy and wonder. They come directly from the heart, and MJ knew it (or felt it, I should say).

Willa:  That’s a really important idea, Bjørn, and I think it gets to the heart of why these nonverbal vocalizations can be so powerful. It’s not just that we don’t need to say anything more than “ow!” when we burn our hand on the stove. If it hurts badly enough, we can’t say anything more – all we can do is moan, or gasp, or silently writhe on the floor. Language breaks down in the face of extreme physical or emotional pain – or extreme joy, as Michael Jackson describes in “Speechless.”

For me, the best example of this is the interlude in Smooth Criminal. Something terrible happens to Annie – we’re not sure what, but the implication is that she’s been shot by Michael, the Smooth Criminal (just as The Blond is shot by Fred Astaire’s character in The Band Wagon, and Charlotte is shot by Mike Hammer in I, the Jury– the two works Smooth Criminal is based on). Michael points his hand like a gun and shoots out the skylights, we hear the sound of a gunshot, and glass from the broken skylights crashes down on everyone in the nightclub. And importantly, there’s also a rupture in the flow of the video, and in language itself.

It’s like a psychotic break where Michael is forced to confront what he’s done and feel the pain of it, and there’s no singing or dancing or dialogue in this section – just stamping and moaning. It feels to me that we’ve entered a space of such intense emotion, language can’t function here. It’s like when you burn your hand on the stove and it hurts too much to speak in words, or when you feel emotional or psychological pain to such an extreme you can’t speak. We enter that primal, pre-verbal space in Smooth Criminal after Annie is shot.

Lisha:  But isn’t Michael the guy in the white hat throughout this short film and the entire Moonwalker film? I’ve always interpreted him as the rescuer, not the perpetrator in Smooth Criminal. I think the long NVV “ooooo” helps to clarify this. It expresses the pain and agony he feels that Annie is not “ok” – the thing that motivated him to fight and restore order in the first place.

There was even a Sega Genesis home video game about Michael Jackson’s NVVs, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, that depicts this really well. The “first person shooter” in this game isn’t armed with guns or traditional weaponry. Instead, the player is armed with Michael Jackson’s NVVs and his iconic dance moves. The task is to rescue the little blond girl “Katie” from the evil Mr. Big and his henchmen:

Bjørn:  Oh yes, I remember having played that game! The synthesized “hoows” sound worse than an underwater radio transmission of a cat, but no one is in doubt who the good guy is…

Lisha:  Too funny, but you’re right, Bjørn! Michael Jackson was apparently very frustrated with the game sound technology available at that time. Perhaps that’s the reason the “hoows” are even used in a humorous way at times, like between scenes. Here’s a link to a Brad Buxer interview that discusses this (page 76).

Willa:  That game is funny! I hadn’t seen it before, and I see what you’re saying about Michael being the rescuer. And I know how you feel, Lisha, about the idea of Michael shooting Annie. I really do. There’s something in me that completely rebels against that idea. It just feels so wrong.

But at the same time, I think what Michael Jackson is doing in Smooth Criminal is complicated but incredibly important. Our culture is steeped in stories of violence against women – or more than that, stories that glorify men who commit violence against women. That’s exactly what happens at the conclusion of I, the Jury and The Band Wagon. Both of those stories focus on a tough guy private investigator who crosses the line sometimes between legal and illegal, moral and immoral, and in both stories the protagonist shoots and kills the woman he said he loved and vowed to protect. And the really horrible thing is that, in both cases, he feels justified in killing her – and he’s presented as a hero, or rather a tough guy anti-hero, because of it.

I think that in Smooth Criminal, Michael Jackson is retelling those stories, or rather he’s “untelling” them – he’s evoking them and then undoing them. His protagonist, Michael, is morally ambiguous also. He’s “the guy in the white hat,” as you said, Lisha, but he’s also a “smooth criminal.” And he’s a mourner – think of the black armband. And he’s the narrator, since it’s his voice that sings the story of what happened. And he’s a member of the chorus, which like a Greek chorus in classical drama provides moral commentary (“Annie, are you OK?”). And to some extent he’s Annie also, since his voice sings her part as well. So he occupies many different subject positions.

Just as importantly, Michael isn’t nearly as hardened as Mike Hammer or Rod Riley, so his reaction to what happens is very different. Mike Hammer and Rod Riley seem liberated and reaffirmed as men when they kill those women, but Michael’s reaction is very different. Annie’s death is intolerable to him. It racks him with pain – you can hear it in his voice – and so we have that psychological break where language stops functioning, and all we hear are cries and other nonverbal vocalizations.

But this is just one interpretation. Both the song and video are really ambiguous about what exactly has happened, so it can be interpreted many different ways. And I fully understand where you’re coming from, Lisha.

Lisha:  That’s really fascinating, Willa. I totally agree that Smooth Criminal is doing important cultural work when it untells “stories that glorify men who commit violence against women.” Now I have to go back and really re-think all this!

Bjørn:  I really like that you introduced the wailing scene from Smooth Criminal, Willa. I was thinking about it as well, and how it shows the deep need we as human beings have to express ourselves with our voices, even when we’re in such an emotionally fraught state that we can’t produce words that point to anything in the outside world. When language breaks down, the barriers we set between us as humans also break down. (As an aside, scientists have just discovered that the one word that’s shared by most of the world’s languages is the interjection “huh”!)

Without all our words and labels, we’re no longer French or Chinese, teacher or student, sailor or politician, adult or child. We’re all just souls (or personalities or whatever one likes to call it) that happen to be embodied in a plethora of different shapes and colors. Each time MJ lets out an “ow!” he basically tells us “You’re just like me, I’m just like you” (or, in his own words, “You’re just another part of me”).

Willa:  Oh, that’s a wonderful way of interpreting this, Bjørn! – his nonverbals as a way of bridging cultural differences.

Lisha:  That is interesting, because when we use interjections like “ow!” or “ouch!” we are definitely speaking English and behaving in a way that is culturally acceptable in the English speaking world. I assume other languages have equivalent behaviors and expressions for crying out in pain. But the long “oooo” sound isn’t necessarily speaking English and it doesn’t seem limited to a specific language or culture to me.

Bjørn:  Well, in my experience you don’t have to understand English in order to get Michael Jackson’s “aoows” and “hee-hees.” You could also say that laughter is a NVV – the whole world, from Greenland to New Guinea, would understand the laughter at the beginning of “Off the Wall” (and at the end of “Thriller”)! I even think it goes further, that he somehow uses his NVVs to destabilize the boundaries between humanity and nature. After all, the vocal sounds of animals are non-verbal. (In “Black Or White” the human Jackson uses both verbal and non-verbal vocalizations; the moment he’s transformed into a panther, he can only roar.) A good example would be the way he merges monkey sounds into the music in “Monkey Business.”

Lisha:  Very interesting, Bjørn. And I wouldn’t rule out that some of those monkey sound effects are NVVs. After all, according to Bruce Swedien, it was Michael Jackson who produced the howling sounds in “Thriller.” For example, at about 20 seconds before the end of “Monkey Business” (at 5:26) there is a repeated “ach-a ach-a ach-a” sound followed by “hoo” (it’s on the far right if you’re wearing headphones) that sounds like Michael Jackson playing around with animal/monkey sounds to me.

“Monkey Business” also has something interesting in common with the album version of “Smooth Criminal,” which is the sound of the breath alone as a NVV. Just before the opening line, “Well Lord have mercy,” there is a dramatic intake of air, so close to the mic you can actually hear the air passing through the lips and teeth. And dang! Is it sexy the way he draws this breath!

Willa:  Now, now, Lisha, compose yourself!

Lisha:  Sorry, Willa, but it’s kind of hard not to notice!

Willa:  I know what you mean. You can almost feel his breath …

Lisha:  The way the song is recorded and engineered really contributes to this as well. You would have to be in very close proximity to someone to hear that much detail in their breathing and to hear such a soft voice so clearly, so the recording itself really conveys a sense of intimacy.

We also hear the sound of the breathing in the intro to “Smooth Criminal.” But in this case, the breathing gets faster and faster as the sound of the heartbeat begins to race, indicating a really frightening situation. What could be more cross-cultural, human, and natural than breathing and the beating of the heart? I think we could all agree, regardless of our cultural backgrounds, that the fast breathing in the intro to this song indicates fear and extreme anxiety, while the long, drawn out breath in “Monkey Business” is very relaxed and sexy.

Willa:  Wow, that’s really interesting, Lisha, that both songs begin with the sound of his breath, so close you can almost feel it, but it creates a very different effect – a feeling of intimacy in the first and a feeling of anxiety in the second. I hear something kind of similar at the beginning of “Is It Scary.” It’s like he catches his breath, but in a rhythmic way that’s both intimate and frightening.

Lisha:  A brilliant example! “Is It Scary” uses this so effectively throughout.

Willa:  It really does, though it’s not as intense as “Smooth Criminal.” I agree with you, Lisha – that quickening breath and racing heartbeat at the beginning of “Smooth Criminal” are really frightening. It’s almost like they create a physical entrainment, so our breath and heartbeats quicken in response to his. At least, I know mine does.

Lisha:  The heartbeat is so audible, it’s as if the listener is being cued to identify with the protagonist.

Willa:  Exactly!

Lisha:  It feels as if you’re placed right inside his head before the song ever starts. Yet, it’s interesting how you and I interpreted “Smooth Criminal” so differently, which is informed by these NVVs. To be honest, we could probably find as many different meanings attached to all of these sounds as we find different interpretations of the songs, within a certain range of course. I mean, I doubt someone would hear that first breath in “Monkey Business” as fear and anxiety and the fast breathing in “Smooth Criminal” as relaxed and sexy. But, the exact meanings attached to these sounds will differ.

Having said that about differences in interpretation, I have to agree with Bjørn that there is also something powerful about breaking down language in an attempt to speak to our commonalities rather than our differences. For example, the entire chorus of “Earth Song” is a NVV, sung on “ah” and “oo.” Michael Jackson abandons language altogether here, not only to break down the boundaries between people, but to “destabilize the boundaries between humanity and nature,” as Bjørn said so well.

Willa:  Which fits perfectly with the meaning of the song. The video reinforces this idea since we primarily see images of nature during the chorus. During the first quiet chorus, we mainly see the destruction of nature. During the second and third repetitions we see humans digging their hands into the devastated earth, reconnecting with nature, and that powerful wind begins to blow. … And then in the final glorious chorus, we see a vision of nature triumphant, with herds of animals restored to their rightful place.

Bjørn:  Furthermore, those NVV choruses muddle the musical genres… I know many pop fans find classical music boring, because there’s no human voice they can relate to. (This includes the somewhat “unnatural” voices heard in opera.) Conversely, aficionados of classical music often find pop music too superfluous and ephemeral, maybe because it’s based on an individual voice (or voices) rather than some “timeless” instrumentation that talks directly to people’s deeper selves and doesn’t require any translation. Now, “Earth Song” works on both levels, doesn’t it?

Willa:  It really does.In the chorus of “Earth Song,” his voice is literally his “instrument” since, to me anyway, it functions like an instrumental section – but he creates it with his voice, as you pointed out, Lisha. And the fact that it’s made of nonverbal sounds rather than lyrics is a big part of that, I think.

Lisha:  I hear the “ah” and “oo” sounds not as instrumentals but as lead vocals all the way! Joe Vogel called attention to how these nonverbals work on several levels – as a cry for the earth, as humanity crying out together as one human family, and as a personification of the earth itself – Mother Earth crying out in pain. It’s a stunning example of the power of NVVs and Michael Jackson’s vision as a composer.

But speaking of NVVs as a part of the musical score, there are some fabulous examples of how Michael Jackson uses NVVs as instrumentation. For example, in the beginning of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” about 9 seconds in, the guitar line is actually a blend of guitar and Michael Jackson’s NVVs, “duh-tah duh-tah dum.” He is using his voice as part of the accompaniment and I would bet my last dime the vocals came first, and that the guitar sounds were chosen later to imitate the voice.

“Don’t Be Messin’ Round” is a gold mine for understanding how Michael Jackson used NVVs as a compositional technique. You can hear the song isn’t quite finished by how the NVVs are slowly being replaced by the instrumentals. A good example is at 3:58, about the last 20 seconds of the song, where you can hear the guitar imitating the voice.

Willa:  Wow! You really can! I hadn’t noticed that before.

Lisha:  The NVVs show how Michael Jackson would “write” music by recording his voice, rather than using a pencil and paper. Because of his exceptional vocal talent, this was an extremely efficient way for him to work. Like in the bridge at 2:38, I hear “bop-bop bah dup-bah-dup” as a trumpet line. My guess is that if this song had been finished, we would have heard a trumpet or brass section there. Hearing the line sung like that gives me a lot of information about what he wanted to hear, much more than just seeing it written out on the page, which is always an approximation of sound.

Bjørn:  Yet I’ve occasionally seen claims that Jackson wasn’t a “real” composer, since he didn’t write notes like the classical composers. But who knows, maybe he was actually far ahead of his time, a composer who’s consciously ditched notes and paper because they aren’t “necessary” (as he said somewhere in his Mexico deposition)?

Lisha:  I agree. I don’t think of Michael Jackson as a pre-literate composer, but as a post-literate composer. It’s a big mistake to assume “real” composers “write notes like classical composers.” The traditional way of writing music on paper is just a way of storing and communicating musical information. Michael Jackson had an extremely efficient method of doing both that I think is far more clever.

Bjørn:  Maybe too clever for the critics? Composition and songwriting is yet another area where Michael Jackson liked to mix up everything. For example, he sometimes seems to have used an offbeat pronunciation on purpose. Remember all those discussions about things like “shamone!” or the exact lyrics of the world’s most famous denial, “The kid is not my son”? (“The chair is not my son,” as David Letterman heard it!) Jackson does a lot of roaming in the borderlands between “composing” and “improvising,” “meaning” and “not meaning,” “voice” and “instrument,” “man” and “nature,” and even “man” and “machine” – as when he uses a vocal synthesizer in “Leave Me Alone.”

And speaking of “Don’t Be Messin’ Round,” I think it’s amazing how Michael Jackson’s voice is capable of creating an independent space in the air and the listener’s mind. Did you get a chance to hear the original “Slave to the Rhythm” when it leaked? In the first seconds of that song, it is as if MJ is drawing energy out of thin air and then setting the stage for the entire song with his NVV’s! It’s so powerful, his sounds almost feel like physical objects. There’s a loud “hoo!,” then a string of commanding “chuck-chuck-chuck,” another “hoo!,” vocal hiccups and strained “ah!”s mixed with waxing-waning “woahoaow” lamentations, climaxing into a double “hoo! hoo!” Only after 22 seconds does the actual singing begin…

Lisha:  I love those NVVs in “Slave to the Rhythm”! I was also thinking about the beginning of “Workin’ Day and Night” and how he’s got two different NVV hooks going at the same time – “de-dum dah” and “uh-ah uh-ah” – that are like extra percussion instruments. The Michael Jackson Immortal soundtrack really highlights this. I can even hear a “chu-chu” vocalization that blends with the percussion shakers.

Bjørn:  While we’re at it – I just re-listened to “Speed Demon.” The NVVs of that song are very unusual. Once again, some 20 seconds pass before the singing begins. MJ sets the stage with three very guttural “chu!”s, followed by a peculiar, almost girlish “oo!” followed by another trio of “chu!”s. Nearing the end of the song, he lets out an entire NVV “monologue”: “oouh!” (2:55), “ogh!” (2:58), [“girlish”] “ah!” (3:00), “urh!” (3:03), “hoow!” (3:05). It reminds me of the printed sound effects in comics (“boom!,” “ugh!,” “kapow!”).

Willa:  I agree!  And that’s a great way of describing it, Bjørn.

Bjørn:  I wonder if he created this particular “chu!” especially for “Speed Demon”? (It’s so throaty it sounds like cockney English or my own language Danish!) To some extent it carries the whole song – just like the “dah!” sound pervading “Bad.”

Lisha:  In my opinion, “chu” was absolutely created for “Speed Demon,” as an onomatopoeia for the motorcycle engine sounds. Listen carefully and you can also hear a percussive rattling or shaking sound when the rhythm begins, after the engine revs up for the first couple of seconds of the song. If you’re wearing headphones you will hear it on the left side for 8 counts, then it moves to the right side for 8 counts, and continues to alternate left and right. That’s not a pre-recorded sound effect or another percussion instrument, but a very soft, whispered, rhythmic, NVV! And it’s a complicated pattern, not even sure how I could try to write that out without the benefit of hearing the isolated track, but it sounds like an imitation of an engine purring or rattling to me.

We talked earlier about how expressive Michael Jackson’s NVVs can be, and how they so effectively communicate emotion, but oftentimes they are used as sound effects or part of the instrumentals as much as anything else. And they are often so understated and blended into many different layers of sound, that they’re not necessarily noticeable. And they are just so imaginative, giving such amazing variety to the sound. There seems to be no limits when it comes to Michael Jackson’s imagination.

A favorite example is “Stranger in Moscow.” If you listen carefully, just before the vocals start, there is a short, whispered “tuh” sound, placed irregularly on the off beats, that adds a very soft, percussive sound. Later in the song, just after “when you’re cold inside” (1:42) he repeats that soft sound, “tuh tuh tuh tuh,” but it sounds like he’s actually breathing in on some of them, which creates a slightly different color. I mean, who else thinks like that?

In the line “how does it feel,” the word “does” is heavily accented and one of the sounds accenting that beat is a whispered “huh” that is brought up in the mix. But all these details often go unnoticed. You just feel the power of the music and the lyric blending with all these sounds.

Willa:  Well, they certainly went unnoticed by me! That’s one thing I love about talking to you both – you highlight details I would never notice on my own. I feel sometimes like I’ve been listening to these songs for years and not really hearing them. It’s so fascinating to begin to hear some of the things you guys hear.

For example, I never noticed those “tuh tuh” sounds you’re talking about, Lisha, even though “Stranger in Moscow” is one of my favorite songs and I play it often. But you’re right – you can definitely hear them at several key moments. I hear them most clearly in the “We’re talking danger … I’m living lonely” section (about 3:45 in). It’s like an explosive exhalation occurring at regular intervals, almost like we’re listening to him lift weights or do some other kind of hard physical labor. And that repeated sound subtly conveys the feeling that he’s under duress and carrying a heavy load. At least, that’s how it feels to me.

Lisha:  Great example, Willa. That exhalation feels very labored to me too, which adds so much weight musically to the song. It’s endlessly fascinating to listen for all these sounds and to try to understand how they are being used.

Oh, and I just can’t resist at least one more example of these very subtle NVVs, which is “People of the World,” a charity song that Michael Jackson wrote and produced for the people of Kobe, Japan in 1995, after a devastating earthquake:

Although it is in Japanese and Michael Jackson doesn’t sing on this track, his writing and production work are unmistakable. You can hear him literally breathe life into the song with a whispery NVV just before the vocals begin (1:38), and as a repeated percussive effect on off beats throughout. I am a huge fan of this song.

Bjørn:  I can understand why. I’ve never heard this song before, and it is really beautiful. (Pop music by other performers often makes me cringe, so that ought to be proof enough that Michael Jackson’s spirit is alive in this song!) Thank you for sharing.

Lisha:  I admit, I got a little addicted to it. It’s amazing that I feel like I somehow understand what is being said, though I don’t speak a word of Japanese. I guess that goes to the power of music and non-verbal musical expression!

You Make Me Feel Like … You Make Me Feel Like …

Willa:  So this week we’re going to take on a rather slippery topic: Michael Jackson’s nonverbal vocalizations, meaning the sounds he made with his voice that aren’t words, exactly. Yet those vocalizations can still carry a lot of meaning or evoke powerful emotion or add tremendous drama or texture to his songs. In fact, you could make the case that his nonverbal vocalizations are one of the elements that set him apart as a vocalist. But they’re hard to talk about simply because they are “nonverbal” and therefore outside language. How do you talk about something that’s “nonverbal”?

Joie wasn’t able to be with us this week, but I’m thrilled to be joined by two of our friends who are very interested in sounds and words: Lisha McDuff, a professional musician and musicologist, and Bjørn Bojesen, a poet and author of En Undersøgelse af Fænomenet Rim (or A Survey of the Phenomenon of Rhyming, for those of us who don’t speak Danish.) Thank you both so much for joining me! This is a challenging topic, and I’m so grateful to have you here to help grapple with it.

So I thought a good way to try to get a handle on this topic would be to look at some specific instances where Michael Jackson uses nonverbal vocalizations. For example, in their tribute issue after he died, Rolling Stone wrote this about “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough”:

Make a list of the top 10 “ooooh!” screams in history, and this hit has at least six of them.

For once, I agree whole-heartedly with Rolling Stone! So what are other examples that jump out at you as either classic Michael Jackson sounds or, on the flip side, give an indication of the wide variety of vocalizations he used?

Bjørn:  Ouch, this is hard! Is there an MJ song where he doesn’t use any “non-words”? I think the sound most people associate with Jackson is “aoow!” (as in the beginning of “Black or White”), with “hee-hee” as a close runner-up. But this is guesswork! If I have to point at any particular song, I really like how he starts “Blame it on the Boogie”: “hee-hee-hee-hee.”

Willa:  Oh, good choice! I love that too, especially the way the “hee”s start high and progressively drop down, almost like he’s playing scales with his voice.

Bjørn:  In so many others of his songs his NVVs (non-verbal vocalizations) sound pained, but here it’s pure joy. You instantly know which song it is, and who the singer is. As you, Willa, and Joie revealed in a post some months ago, the song was also sung by Mick Jackson from Britain. It’s amazing to compare the two versions, and hear how “our” MJ makes this song his own just by adding some crystalline “tittering”!

Lisha:  “Crystalline tittering” – what a poetic way of verbalizing the non-verbals, Bjørn! It’s so great to have a poet around. You both came up with some wonderful examples – NVVs that are as symbolic of Michael Jackson as the single sequined glove and the black fedora. Of course you could say the same about the vocal “hiccups” in “Billie Jean,” and the ad libbed “hoos” in the final chorus of “Earth Song.” These vocal sounds are so iconic, we often think of them as belonging only to Michael Jackson. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find an MJ impersonation that did not include them.

Bjørn:  Or an MJ parody! In 2007, Chris Tucker did an absolutely unforgettable “hee-hee” on Conan O’Brien’s talkshow:

http://www.redbalcony.com/?vid=21117

Lisha:  Chris Tucker is absolutely hysterical! And he doesn’t miss a thing, does he? The “hee-hee” is a dead giveaway for Michael Jackson’s identity – it is a sound that has become synonymous with Michael Jackson.

And these vocalizations were such a powerful part of his performances, weren’t they? I absolutely loved Vincent Patterson’s story in Bad 25, when he tells what happened when Michael Jackson let out a full-voiced “hoo” on the set of The Way You Make Me Feel:

Willa:  What a wonderful description! As Patterson says, “Everything stopped. We had to stop shooting because people just froze – they actually froze on the stage.” And I can believe it! That high, clear, powerful “hoo” is so arresting, even just listening to the video – a video I’ve watched a hundred times before. I can only imagine what it was like for the people there on set, hearing it live for the first time.

So what do you think makes these nonverbal sounds so compelling? For example, he could have used sounds from an instrument instead, or he could have sung sounds we recognize as words. What makes these sounds so powerful and expressive?

Lisha:  Good question, and I wonder if anyone really knows how to verbalize the answer to that! Popular music scholars like to talk about “the grain of the voice,” based on a famous essay by Roland Barthes, which might give us a clue. If you think about the grain of a piece of wood, for example, there is an individual characteristic to that wood that could have aesthetic value. The same could be said of the voice, though it’s exceedingly hard to define and individual preference can easily come into play.

The grain of the voice is thought to be everything that makes a voice compelling, yet it lies beyond the scope of what you might learn about singing if you were to take singing lessons. It is beyond beautiful sound, good technique, and excellent breath control – though in the example above, all those things are present too.

Willa:  That’s such an intriguing idea, Lisha. Is the grain of the voice part of what makes individual voices so unique? What I mean is that with “We are the World,” for example, even though everyone is singing in a somewhat similar style, pitch, volume, tone, tempo – all the usual characteristics we tend to think of when talking about sound – the voices are still so distinct and individualized. You don’t have to watch the video to pick out who’s singing what – it’s obvious from their voices. I don’t think anyone would confuse Willie Nelson’s voice with Ray Charles’ or Bruce Springsteen’s or Bob Dylan’s, for example, and they certainly wouldn’t confuse it with Diana Ross’ or Cyndi Lauper’s. Is that part of the “grain”?

Lisha:  Well, actually it’s just a little different. As you pointed out, every voice has its own unique sound quality and no two voices are just alike. It’s the reason you don’t always have to identify yourself over the phone – you can just say “hey, it’s me” – and if the person knows you well, they know exactly who is calling. The musical term for this is “vocal timbre”; it’s the individual quality or tone color of the voice.

The “grain of the voice” is something more than timbre, that has to do with the aesthetic quality of the voice and the ability of the voice to go beyond the function of language or traditional musical expectations. It’s all of those undefinable qualities that account for why some can deliver a song in a very powerful and meaningful way, while others we just admire and move on – even if their performances were quite expressive and technically polished. They just don’t hit you where you live, so to speak. As I understand it, the “grain of the voice” is a way of describing how the voice works at the language and the music – it takes place beyond the realm of definable musical elements or linguistic function.

The example you gave of “We are the World” is an excellent way of clarifying this. If you think of voices like Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, or Bob Dylan – those aren’t beautiful voices in the traditional pedagogical sense. Their singing doesn’t conform to the rules of great vocal technique like some of the others do. Yet, out of that amazing chorus of stellar vocal talent, those four singers are among the most respected – I would even say revered. It’s the “grain of the voice” that possibly accounts for the power of their vocal performances. They are very honest and convincing singers, capable of delivering a song in a way that really speaks to the listener.

Bjørn:  That is really interesting, Lisha! I had never thought about voices like that before, and the grain concept really helps clarify some things. So, MJ’s “grain,” his way of using his voice in the music, might explain the power of his NVVs. Perhaps it might even explain why his verbal singing affects so many people beyond the mere meaning of the words?

Lisha:  I think it at least gets us started in how to think about it. There is something very compelling about Michael Jackson’s voice that isn’t so easy to define. I think it’s one of the reasons a lot of TV talent shows inevitably feature a Michael Jackson episode. It’s quite a challenge for the judges and contestants to think about why Michael Jackson’s performances are so exceedingly difficult to match.

Bjørn:  That’s a very good point, Lisha! One of the reasons why those rising TV stars can’t match MJ, I think, is that there is more to his singing talent than the quality of the voice itself.

Lisha:  I agree.

Bjørn:  Commemorating the fourth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, Joe Vogel posted a really wonderful description of MJ using a NVV in a non-song situation. He quotes Howard Bloom, who was a publicist for the Jacksons in the mid-1980s. Bloom was going to show the Jackson brothers some portfolios so that they might choose an artist for their next album cover:

We were all bunched together on the opposite side of the pool table from the art director. Michael was in the center. I stood next to him on his left. And the brothers were crowded around us on either side. The CBS art director slid the first of the portfolios toward Michael. He opened the first page, slowly … just enough to see perhaps an inch of the image. As he took in the artwork his knees began to buckle, his elbows bent, and all he could say was “oooohhhhh.” A soft, orgasmic “ooooh.” In that one syllable and in his body language, you could feel what he was seeing.

Willa:  Oh, I can just picture that, Bjørn!  It really conveys how expressive Michael Jackson could be, nonverbally, both through his voice and gestures – “his knees began to buckle … and all he could say was ‘oooohhhhh.’” What a great image!

And I’m intrigued by what you just said, Lisha, about Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan – how “their singing doesn’t conform to the rules of great vocal technique,” but their voices are still very expressive. It reminds me of the opening lines of an article I read a while ago in Village Voice, where critic Frank Kogan wrote, “An odd thing about Michael Jackson is that he has a totally spectacular voice but he doesn’t feel the need to amaze us with it. At all.”

I disagree with much of Kogan’s article, but I do agree with this. Michael Jackson had “a totally spectacular voice,” as Kogan says, but he didn’t put it on display – that wasn’t his focus. In fact, sometimes he’d make his voice rough or staccato or in some other way use his voice in a way that hid just how beautiful it was, but conveyed tremendous emotion and meaning, I think. And I wonder if this gets back to the idea of “grain” that you were talking about, Lisha.

Lisha:  I think that’s exactly it, Willa. Serving the music was always Michael Jackson’s first priority. I honestly can’t think of a single example of where he indulges in a simple display of virtuosic vocal talent, though he certainly could have if he wanted to.

Willa:  I agree. We know that Michael Jackson was very conscientious about his voice. He worked with a voice coach, Seth Riggs, for decades, and he’d meticulously run through an hour or more of vocal exercises before a concert or recording session to fully open his voice. He wanted to make sure that beautiful tenor and those pure, clear, high notes were available to him if he needed them. But his concerts and albums aren’t a showcase of beautiful notes. His focus was always on conveying ideas and emotion, on conveying something meaningful – as he said while still just a child, “I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it.” And sometimes that means hitting a “crystalline” note, as you called it, Bjørn, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Lisha:  Sometimes he withdraws his singing voice for musical emphasis. “Money” is the perfect example of this, also “Blood on the Dance Floor.” The verses are almost spoken rather than sung, and he uses very little of his voice, at times almost a whisper, which is such a perfect choice. The voice itself is carrying so much meaning in these examples, though it’s quite the opposite of a “showcase of beautiful notes.”

I also think it also goes back to what Bjørn was saying about Michael Jackson letting out an ecstatic “oooohhhh” when he saw that amazing artwork. It seems to me that human beings have a need to express themselves vocally. If you stub your toe or burn yourself in the kitchen, the first thing you do is vocalize with an “ow!” or “ouch!” Or if your team wins, or your favorite singer gives an amazing performance, you want to yell out “yyyeess!” “woo-hoo!” or “yeah!” Intense grief or anguish is associated with sobbing and wailing sounds. A big surprise is usually followed by a gasping sound – an audible inhalation. Disgust is often followed by “uh,” vocalizing a sharp exhalation. There are so many ways we use vocal sounds to express ourselves.

Willa:  That’s a good point, Lisha, and maybe those exclamations are so evocative and emotionally powerful precisely because they’re prelingual – they happen reflexively before we have a chance to think and put our thoughts into words, so they seem more primal and maybe more true somehow.

Lisha:  Or maybe they could even be described as translingual – in that they go beyond the function of language? Certainly Michael Jackson had a good command of language, but it seems there are times when language doesn’t fully support what he wanted to convey.

Bjørn:  I’d say the ability to express our emotions is one of language’s primary functions! But I do see what you mean by the words “prelingual” and “translingual.” In linguistics, exclamations like “ouch!” or “yes” are called interjections. Unlike a verb (“to sing”), a noun (“a song”) or an adjective (“beautiful”), interjections cannot partake in the creation of phrases. Each interjection is like an autonomous phrase. When lifting your hand from a scorching cooking plate, there’s no need to formulate a phrase like “that hurt!” An “ouch!” says it all.

Some interjections are onomatopoeia or imitations of sounds in the world around us. Like when a child points at a cow and says “moo!” Other interjections are more spontaneous expressions of feelings, and this is where I see a direct link to Michael Jackson’s NVVs. As you point out in your book, Willa, one of MJ’s driving forces as an artist was his desire to help us see how belief influences our perceptions. We see a cow, think for a couple of milliseconds, then reach the mental conclusion “that’s a cow.” In that way, language helps us organize our impressions and gain some footing in the perceptional flux. The price is, however, that every time we use language to form a phrase, we also pass judgment on the world. To a certain extent, interjections are an exception to this.

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, Bjørn. I never thought of it that way – that interjections are nonjudgmental.

Bjørn:  If you’ve never ever seen a cow, and then have your very first encounter with one, you might react by letting out a surprised “o!” – just like the romantic poets.

I think MJ’s use of NVVs has everything to do with a note he once wrote to himself concerning songwriting: feel, feel, feel, feel, feel, feel… His NVVs are so powerful because they derive directly from his feelings, with no intervention of analytical thought in order to put those feelings into words. A baby cries, a lion roars. Those sounds move us immediately, because they are natural or primal. They’re very impulsive, almost instinctive, reactions to emotions like fear, joy and wonder. They come directly from the heart, and MJ knew it (or felt it, I should say).

Willa:  That’s a really important idea, Bjørn, and I think it gets to the heart of why these nonverbal vocalizations can be so powerful. It’s not just that we don’t need to say anything more than “ow!” when we burn our hand on the stove. If it hurts badly enough, we can’t say anything more – all we can do is moan, or gasp, or silently writhe on the floor. Language breaks down in the face of extreme physical or emotional pain – or extreme joy, as Michael Jackson describes in “Speechless.”

For me, the best example of this is the interlude in Smooth Criminal. Something terrible happens to Annie – we’re not sure what, but the implication is that she’s been shot by Michael, the Smooth Criminal (just as The Blond is shot by Fred Astaire’s character in The Band Wagon, and Charlotte is shot by Mike Hammer in I, the Jury– the two works Smooth Criminal is based on). Michael points his hand like a gun and shoots out the skylights, we hear the sound of a gunshot, and glass from the broken skylights crashes down on everyone in the nightclub. And importantly, there’s also a rupture in the flow of the video, and in language itself.

It’s like a psychotic break where Michael is forced to confront what he’s done and feel the pain of it, and there’s no singing or dancing or dialogue in this section – just stamping and moaning. It feels to me that we’ve entered a space of such intense emotion, language can’t function here. It’s like when you burn your hand on the stove and it hurts too much to speak in words, or when you feel emotional or psychological pain to such an extreme you can’t speak. We enter that primal, pre-verbal space in Smooth Criminal after Annie is shot.

Lisha:  But isn’t Michael the guy in the white hat throughout this short film and the entire Moonwalker film? I’ve always interpreted him as the rescuer, not the perpetrator in Smooth Criminal. I think the long NVV “ooooo” helps to clarify this. It expresses the pain and agony he feels that Annie is not “ok” – the thing that motivated him to fight and restore order in the first place.

There was even a Sega Genesis home video game about Michael Jackson’s NVVs, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, that depicts this really well. The “first person shooter” in this game isn’t armed with guns or traditional weaponry. Instead, the player is armed with Michael Jackson’s NVVs and his iconic dance moves. The task is to rescue the little blond girl “Katie” from the evil Mr. Big and his henchmen:

Bjørn:  Oh yes, I remember having played that game! The synthesized “hoows” sound worse than an underwater radio transmission of a cat, but no one is in doubt who the good guy is…

Lisha:  Too funny, but you’re right, Bjørn! Michael Jackson was apparently very frustrated with the game sound technology available at that time. Perhaps that’s the reason the “hoows” are even used in a humorous way at times, like between scenes. Here’s a link to a Brad Buxer interview that discusses this (page 76).

Willa:  That game is funny! I hadn’t seen it before, and I see what you’re saying about Michael being the rescuer. And I know how you feel, Lisha, about the idea of Michael shooting Annie. I really do. There’s something in me that completely rebels against that idea. It just feels so wrong.

But at the same time, I think what Michael Jackson is doing in Smooth Criminal is complicated but incredibly important. Our culture is steeped in stories of violence against women – or more than that, stories that glorify men who commit violence against women. That’s exactly what happens at the conclusion of I, the Jury and The Band Wagon. Both of those stories focus on a tough guy private investigator who crosses the line sometimes between legal and illegal, moral and immoral, and in both stories the protagonist shoots and kills the woman he said he loved and vowed to protect. And the really horrible thing is that, in both cases, he feels justified in killing her – and he’s presented as a hero, or rather a tough guy anti-hero, because of it.

I think that in Smooth Criminal, Michael Jackson is retelling those stories, or rather he’s “untelling” them – he’s evoking them and then undoing them. His protagonist, Michael, is morally ambiguous also. He’s “the guy in the white hat,” as you said, Lisha, but he’s also a “smooth criminal.” And he’s a mourner – think of the black armband. And he’s the narrator, since it’s his voice that sings the story of what happened. And he’s a member of the chorus, which like a Greek chorus in classical drama provides moral commentary (“Annie, are you OK?”). And to some extent he’s Annie also, since his voice sings her part as well. So he occupies many different subject positions.

Just as importantly, Michael isn’t nearly as hardened as Mike Hammer or Rod Riley, so his reaction to what happens is very different. Mike Hammer and Rod Riley seem liberated and reaffirmed as men when they kill those women, but Michael’s reaction is very different. Annie’s death is intolerable to him. It racks him with pain – you can hear it in his voice – and so we have that psychological break where language stops functioning, and all we hear are cries and other nonverbal vocalizations.

But this is just one interpretation. Both the song and video are really ambiguous about what exactly has happened, so it can be interpreted many different ways. And I fully understand where you’re coming from, Lisha.

Lisha:  That’s really fascinating, Willa. I totally agree that Smooth Criminal is doing important cultural work when it untells “stories that glorify men who commit violence against women.” Now I have to go back and really re-think all this!

Bjørn:  I really like that you introduced the wailing scene from Smooth Criminal, Willa. I was thinking about it as well, and how it shows the deep need we as human beings have to express ourselves with our voices, even when we’re in such an emotionally fraught state that we can’t produce words that point to anything in the outside world. When language breaks down, the barriers we set between us as humans also break down. (As an aside, scientists have just discovered that the one word that’s shared by most of the world’s languages is the interjection “huh”!)

Without all our words and labels, we’re no longer French or Chinese, teacher or student, sailor or politician, adult or child. We’re all just souls (or personalities or whatever one likes to call it) that happen to be embodied in a plethora of different shapes and colors. Each time MJ lets out an “ow!” he basically tells us “You’re just like me, I’m just like you” (or, in his own words, “You’re just another part of me”).

Willa:  Oh, that’s a wonderful way of interpreting this, Bjørn! – his nonverbals as a way of bridging cultural differences.

Lisha:  That is interesting, because when we use interjections like “ow!” or “ouch!” we are definitely speaking English and behaving in a way that is culturally acceptable in the English speaking world. I assume other languages have equivalent behaviors and expressions for crying out in pain. But the long “oooo” sound isn’t necessarily speaking English and it doesn’t seem limited to a specific language or culture to me.

Bjørn:  Well, in my experience you don’t have to understand English in order to get Michael Jackson’s “aoows” and “hee-hees.” You could also say that laughter is a NVV – the whole world, from Greenland to New Guinea, would understand the laughter at the beginning of “Off the Wall” (and at the end of “Thriller”)! I even think it goes further, that he somehow uses his NVVs to destabilize the boundaries between humanity and nature. After all, the vocal sounds of animals are non-verbal. (In “Black Or White” the human Jackson uses both verbal and non-verbal vocalizations; the moment he’s transformed into a panther, he can only roar.) A good example would be the way he merges monkey sounds into the music in “Monkey Business.”

Lisha:  Very interesting, Bjørn. And I wouldn’t rule out that some of those monkey sound effects are NVVs. After all, according to Bruce Swedien, it was Michael Jackson who produced the howling sounds in “Thriller.” For example, at about 20 seconds before the end of “Monkey Business” (at 5:26) there is a repeated “ach-a ach-a ach-a” sound followed by “hoo” (it’s on the far right if you’re wearing headphones) that sounds like Michael Jackson playing around with animal/monkey sounds to me.

“Monkey Business” also has something interesting in common with the album version of “Smooth Criminal,” which is the sound of the breath alone as a NVV. Just before the opening line, “Well Lord have mercy,” there is a dramatic intake of air, so close to the mic you can actually hear the air passing through the lips and teeth. And dang! Is it sexy the way he draws this breath!

Willa:  Now, now, Lisha, compose yourself!

Lisha:  Sorry, Willa, but it’s kind of hard not to notice!

Willa:  I know what you mean. You can almost feel his breath …

Lisha:  The way the song is recorded and engineered really contributes to this as well. You would have to be in very close proximity to someone to hear that much detail in their breathing and to hear such a soft voice so clearly, so the recording itself really conveys a sense of intimacy.

We also hear the sound of the breathing in the intro to “Smooth Criminal.” But in this case, the breathing gets faster and faster as the sound of the heartbeat begins to race, indicating a really frightening situation. What could be more cross-cultural, human, and natural than breathing and the beating of the heart? I think we could all agree, regardless of our cultural backgrounds, that the fast breathing in the intro to this song indicates fear and extreme anxiety, while the long, drawn out breath in “Monkey Business” is very relaxed and sexy.

Willa:  Wow, that’s really interesting, Lisha, that both songs begin with the sound of his breath, so close you can almost feel it, but it creates a very different effect – a feeling of intimacy in the first and a feeling of anxiety in the second. I hear something kind of similar at the beginning of “Is It Scary.” It’s like he catches his breath, but in a rhythmic way that’s both intimate and frightening.

Lisha:  A brilliant example! “Is It Scary” uses this so effectively throughout.

Willa:  It really does, though it’s not as intense as “Smooth Criminal.” I agree with you, Lisha – that quickening breath and racing heartbeat at the beginning of “Smooth Criminal” are really frightening. It’s almost like they create a physical entrainment, so our breath and heartbeats quicken in response to his. At least, I know mine does.

Lisha:  The heartbeat is so audible, it’s as if the listener is being cued to identify with the protagonist.

Willa:  Exactly!

Lisha:  It feels as if you’re placed right inside his head before the song ever starts. Yet, it’s interesting how you and I interpreted “Smooth Criminal” so differently, which is informed by these NVVs. To be honest, we could probably find as many different meanings attached to all of these sounds as we find different interpretations of the songs, within a certain range of course. I mean, I doubt someone would hear that first breath in “Monkey Business” as fear and anxiety and the fast breathing in “Smooth Criminal” as relaxed and sexy. But, the exact meanings attached to these sounds will differ.

Having said that about differences in interpretation, I have to agree with Bjørn that there is also something powerful about breaking down language in an attempt to speak to our commonalities rather than our differences. For example, the entire chorus of “Earth Song” is a NVV, sung on “ah” and “oo.” Michael Jackson abandons language altogether here, not only to break down the boundaries between people, but to “destabilize the boundaries between humanity and nature,” as Bjørn said so well.

Willa:  Which fits perfectly with the meaning of the song. The video reinforces this idea since we primarily see images of nature during the chorus. During the first quiet chorus, we mainly see the destruction of nature. During the second and third repetitions we see humans digging their hands into the devastated earth, reconnecting with nature, and that powerful wind begins to blow. … And then in the final glorious chorus, we see a vision of nature triumphant, with herds of animals restored to their rightful place.

Bjørn:  Furthermore, those NVV choruses muddle the musical genres… I know many pop fans find classical music boring, because there’s no human voice they can relate to. (This includes the somewhat “unnatural” voices heard in opera.) Conversely, aficionados of classical music often find pop music too superfluous and ephemeral, maybe because it’s based on an individual voice (or voices) rather than some “timeless” instrumentation that talks directly to people’s deeper selves and doesn’t require any translation. Now, “Earth Song” works on both levels, doesn’t it?

Willa:  It really does.In the chorus of “Earth Song,” his voice is literally his “instrument” since, to me anyway, it functions like an instrumental section – but he creates it with his voice, as you pointed out, Lisha. And the fact that it’s made of nonverbal sounds rather than lyrics is a big part of that, I think.

Lisha:  I hear the “ah” and “oo” sounds not as instrumentals but as lead vocals all the way! Joe Vogel called attention to how these nonverbals work on several levels – as a cry for the earth, as humanity crying out together as one human family, and as a personification of the earth itself – Mother Earth crying out in pain. It’s a stunning example of the power of NVVs and Michael Jackson’s vision as a composer.

But speaking of NVVs as a part of the musical score, there are some fabulous examples of how Michael Jackson uses NVVs as instrumentation. For example, in the beginning of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” about 9 seconds in, the guitar line is actually a blend of guitar and Michael Jackson’s NVVs, “duh-tah duh-tah dum.” He is using his voice as part of the accompaniment and I would bet my last dime the vocals came first, and that the guitar sounds were chosen later to imitate the voice.

“Don’t Be Messin’ Round” is a gold mine for understanding how Michael Jackson used NVVs as a compositional technique. You can hear the song isn’t quite finished by how the NVVs are slowly being replaced by the instrumentals. A good example is at 3:58, about the last 20 seconds of the song, where you can hear the guitar imitating the voice.

Willa:  Wow! You really can! I hadn’t noticed that before.

Lisha:  The NVVs show how Michael Jackson would “write” music by recording his voice, rather than using a pencil and paper. Because of his exceptional vocal talent, this was an extremely efficient way for him to work. Like in the bridge at 2:38, I hear “bop-bop bah dup-bah-dup” as a trumpet line. My guess is that if this song had been finished, we would have heard a trumpet or brass section there. Hearing the line sung like that gives me a lot of information about what he wanted to hear, much more than just seeing it written out on the page, which is always an approximation of sound.

Bjørn:  Yet I’ve occasionally seen claims that Jackson wasn’t a “real” composer, since he didn’t write notes like the classical composers. But who knows, maybe he was actually far ahead of his time, a composer who’s consciously ditched notes and paper because they aren’t “necessary” (as he said somewhere in his Mexico deposition)?

Lisha:  I agree. I don’t think of Michael Jackson as a pre-literate composer, but as a post-literate composer. It’s a big mistake to assume “real” composers “write notes like classical composers.” The traditional way of writing music on paper is just a way of storing and communicating musical information. Michael Jackson had an extremely efficient method of doing both that I think is far more clever.

Bjørn:  Maybe too clever for the critics? Composition and songwriting is yet another area where Michael Jackson liked to mix up everything. For example, he sometimes seems to have used an offbeat pronunciation on purpose. Remember all those discussions about things like “shamone!” or the exact lyrics of the world’s most famous denial, “The kid is not my son”? (“The chair is not my son,” as David Letterman heard it!) Jackson does a lot of roaming in the borderlands between “composing” and “improvising,” “meaning” and “not meaning,” “voice” and “instrument,” “man” and “nature,” and even “man” and “machine” – as when he uses a vocal synthesizer in “Leave Me Alone.”

And speaking of “Don’t Be Messin’ Round,” I think it’s amazing how Michael Jackson’s voice is capable of creating an independent space in the air and the listener’s mind. Did you get a chance to hear the original “Slave to the Rhythm” when it leaked? In the first seconds of that song, it is as if MJ is drawing energy out of thin air and then setting the stage for the entire song with his NVV’s! It’s so powerful, his sounds almost feel like physical objects. There’s a loud “hoo!,” then a string of commanding “chuck-chuck-chuck,” another “hoo!,” vocal hiccups and strained “ah!”s mixed with waxing-waning “woahoaow” lamentations, climaxing into a double “hoo! hoo!” Only after 22 seconds does the actual singing begin…

Lisha:  I love those NVVs in “Slave to the Rhythm”! I was also thinking about the beginning of “Workin’ Day and Night” and how he’s got two different NVV hooks going at the same time – “de-dum dah” and “uh-ah uh-ah” – that are like extra percussion instruments. The Michael Jackson Immortal soundtrack really highlights this. I can even hear a “chu-chu” vocalization that blends with the percussion shakers.

Bjørn:  While we’re at it – I just re-listened to “Speed Demon.” The NVVs of that song are very unusual. Once again, some 20 seconds pass before the singing begins. MJ sets the stage with three very guttural “chu!”s, followed by a peculiar, almost girlish “oo!” followed by another trio of “chu!”s. Nearing the end of the song, he lets out an entire NVV “monologue”: “oouh!” (2:55), “ogh!” (2:58), [“girlish”] “ah!” (3:00), “urh!” (3:03), “hoow!” (3:05). It reminds me of the printed sound effects in comics (“boom!,” “ugh!,” “kapow!”).

Willa:  I agree!  And that’s a great way of describing it, Bjørn.

Bjørn:  I wonder if he created this particular “chu!” especially for “Speed Demon”? (It’s so throaty it sounds like cockney English or my own language Danish!) To some extent it carries the whole song – just like the “dah!” sound pervading “Bad.”

Lisha:  In my opinion, “chu” was absolutely created for “Speed Demon,” as an onomatopoeia for the motorcycle engine sounds. Listen carefully and you can also hear a percussive rattling or shaking sound when the rhythm begins, after the engine revs up for the first couple of seconds of the song. If you’re wearing headphones you will hear it on the left side for 8 counts, then it moves to the right side for 8 counts, and continues to alternate left and right. That’s not a pre-recorded sound effect or another percussion instrument, but a very soft, whispered, rhythmic, NVV! And it’s a complicated pattern, not even sure how I could try to write that out without the benefit of hearing the isolated track, but it sounds like an imitation of an engine purring or rattling to me.

We talked earlier about how expressive Michael Jackson’s NVVs can be, and how they so effectively communicate emotion, but oftentimes they are used as sound effects or part of the instrumentals as much as anything else. And they are often so understated and blended into many different layers of sound, that they’re not necessarily noticeable. And they are just so imaginative, giving such amazing variety to the sound. There seems to be no limits when it comes to Michael Jackson’s imagination.

A favorite example is “Stranger in Moscow.” If you listen carefully, just before the vocals start, there is a short, whispered “tuh” sound, placed irregularly on the off beats, that adds a very soft, percussive sound. Later in the song, just after “when you’re cold inside” (1:42) he repeats that soft sound, “tuh tuh tuh tuh,” but it sounds like he’s actually breathing in on some of them, which creates a slightly different color. I mean, who else thinks like that?

In the line “how does it feel,” the word “does” is heavily accented and one of the sounds accenting that beat is a whispered “huh” that is brought up in the mix. But all these details often go unnoticed. You just feel the power of the music and the lyric blending with all these sounds.

Willa:  Well, they certainly went unnoticed by me! That’s one thing I love about talking to you both – you highlight details I would never notice on my own. I feel sometimes like I’ve been listening to these songs for years and not really hearing them. It’s so fascinating to begin to hear some of the things you guys hear.

For example, I never noticed those “tuh tuh” sounds you’re talking about, Lisha, even though “Stranger in Moscow” is one of my favorite songs and I play it often. But you’re right – you can definitely hear them at several key moments. I hear them most clearly in the “We’re talking danger … I’m living lonely” section (about 3:45 in). It’s like an explosive exhalation occurring at regular intervals, almost like we’re listening to him lift weights or do some other kind of hard physical labor. And that repeated sound subtly conveys the feeling that he’s under duress and carrying a heavy load. At least, that’s how it feels to me.

Lisha:  Great example, Willa. That exhalation feels very labored to me too, which adds so much weight musically to the song. It’s endlessly fascinating to listen for all these sounds and to try to understand how they are being used.

Oh, and I just can’t resist at least one more example of these very subtle NVVs, which is “People of the World,” a charity song that Michael Jackson wrote and produced for the people of Kobe, Japan in 1995, after a devastating earthquake:

Although it is in Japanese and Michael Jackson doesn’t sing on this track, his writing and production work are unmistakable. You can hear him literally breathe life into the song with a whispery NVV just before the vocals begin (1:38), and as a repeated percussive effect on off beats throughout. I am a huge fan of this song.

Bjørn:  I can understand why. I’ve never heard this song before, and it is really beautiful. (Pop music by other performers often makes me cringe, so that ought to be proof enough that Michael Jackson’s spirit is alive in this song!) Thank you for sharing.

Lisha:  I admit, I got a little addicted to it. It’s amazing that I feel like I somehow understand what is being said, though I don’t speak a word of Japanese. I guess that goes to the power of music and non-verbal musical expression!

Summer Rewind 2013, Week 10: Little Susie

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on February 20, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Lift Her with Care

Joie: Willa, I was thinking about “Little Susie” recently and the words of that song really struck me. You know, this is a song that I don’t think ever gets the recognition that it deserves and I think it’s because of the subject matter. It is such a sad, depressing, and troubling thing to think about; no one wants to dwell on it. But the song itself is truly beautiful and the music sort of commands your attention right from the beginning. In fact, I often find myself humming the melody of those opening bars because it is just so hauntingly beautiful.

But, as I was singing it to myself a few days ago, I started to really listen to the words and it made me think about Michael and that deep, almost empathic connection that he seemed to share with children in general, but with suffering children in particular. And I’m not really talking about the terminally ill. We’ve all seen the footage of Michael sitting by the bedside of some poor, sick child, offering whatever comfort he could. He was just as famous for that as he was for his amazing talent. But I’m talking about those children who were suffering in a different way. Those who were being abused or neglected. He shared a real connection with those children as well, and even wrote about it in songs like “Little Susie” and “Do You Know Where Your Children Are.”

Willa: Oh, I agree completely, Joie. “Little Susie” is “hauntingly beautiful,” as you say, and pretty complicated also – one of his most complicated songs, in some ways – so it takes a little effort to fully understand it. But it’s also just slit-your-wrists depressing, and I think you’re right – it tends to get pushed aside because it is so upsetting and depressing.

Joie: It really does. And when you just sit and really listen to the words, it’s heartbreaking. The song tells the story of a neglected little girl named Susie who is basically all on her own. As he says in one verse:

Father left home, poor mother died
Leaving Susie alone
Grandfather’s soul too had flown
 
No one to care
Just to love her
How much can one bear

So, we don’t know whether Little Susie is in foster care, or if some other family member has stepped up. All we do know is that she is very much alone, and the only person who really feels her loss is the man from next door, as Michael tells us this:

Everyone came to see
The girl that now is dead
So blind stare the eyes in her head
 
And suddenly a voice from the crowd said
“This girl lived in vain”
Her face bears such agony, such strain
 
But only the man from next door
Knew Little Susie and how he cried
As he reached down to close Susie’s eyes

So we don’t know much about her, we don’t even know how old she was. All we know is that she was alone and she lived a very sad, meaningless existence. Neglected by everyone in her life, with the possible exception of the man from next door.

Willa: That’s true, Joie, and that extreme isolation – a child on her own with no family to love and protect her and care for her – is a very important element of this song. You know, I didn’t know this until I watched the MJ Academia Project videos, but they said the lyrics were inspired by “The Bridge of Sighs,” a 1844 poem by Thomas Hood. Like “Little Susie,” it’s a poem about a young woman completely alone in the world. As Hood asks,

Who was her father?
Who was her mother?
Had she a sister?
Had she a brother?

However, unlike Susie, this young woman has a home and a family, but they cast her out when she became pregnant:

Sisterly, brotherly,
Fatherly, motherly
Feelings had changed:
Love, by harsh evidence,
Thrown from its eminence;
Even God’s providence
Seeming estranged.

So she has a family but they’ve turned against her, and like Susie (though for different reasons) she suddenly finds herself completely alone, vulnerable and abandoned – “Even God’s providence / Seeming estranged.” In a seemingly hopeless situation with no one to turn to, this nameless young woman commits suicide by jumping from a bridge and drowning herself in a river.

So like “Little Susie,” “The Bridge of Sighs” focuses on a painful, troubling story – one that in the 1800s, especially, would have been considered an inappropriate topic for polite conversation. But through its compassionate portrayal of her story, it encourages us to look at a situation that is generally ignored and feel sympathy for this fragile young woman who had no one to comfort and help her. As Hood writes in the only repeated stanza:

Take her up tenderly
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly
Young and so fair!

This is very similar to the chorus of “Little Susie”:

She lies there so tenderly
Fashioned so slenderly
Lift her with care
So young and so fair

In both cases, Thomas Hood and Michael Jackson are encouraging us to look at a situation we may not want to think about. More than that, they’re asking us to open our hearts as well as our eyes and try to care about someone no one cared about while she was alive.

Joie: That’s so true, Willa. And that’s something Michael Jackson was very good at – encouraging us to open our hearts and care deeply for those lost and overlooked souls that no one else wants to care about.

And I love that you pointed out that Thomas Hood poem. I also had no idea about “Little Susie”‘s connection to “The Bridge of Sighs” before watching the MJ Academia Project videos, but the comparisons and the similarities are really fascinating. I just love the symmetry between the repeated stanza in Hood’s poem and the repeated chorus in “Little Susie.”

Willa: I do too, and the way Michael Jackson evokes this older poem adds so much depth to the lyrics, I think. And we see him doing something similar with the music as well. For example, “Little Susie” opens with a choir singing “Pie Jesu” from Maurice Duruflé’s The Requiem. Here’s a link to mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly singing “Pie Jesu,” which roughly translates as “Pious Jesus”:

Then we hear a young girl winding a music box and singing the melody of “Little Susie” – not the lyrics, just the notes. This is followed by a few bars of one of my favorite songs, “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof. And then – nearly halfway through “Little Susie”‘s 6:13-minute runtime – Michael Jackson finally begins to sing the opening lines. So “Little Susie” opens with 3 minutes of musical “quotations,” and these musical references provide an important context for what we’re about to hear.

A requiem is music written for a Requiem Mass, which is a very formal and highly ritualized ceremony marking the passing of a community member, generally a prominent figure. And “Sunrise, Sunset” provides musical accompaniment for another very formal and highly ritualized ceremony: a Jewish wedding in turn-of-the-20th Century Russia. Here’s a clip of “Sunrise, Sunset” from the film version of Fiddler on the Roof:

So Michael Jackson has written a touching song about a little girl whose life passed unnoticed – a lonely, insignificant figure known only by the nameless “man from next door,” as you mentioned earlier, Joie. Yet he prefaces this song by evoking rituals performed for those who are important and deeply connected to their communities, which further heightens the pathos of Susie’s isolation – of her complete disconnection from a community that might have nourished and protected her.

This long intro performs another function as well, I think – it suggests that Michael Jackson felt Susie deserved a ritual of passage also. And so he has created one – a ceremony to mark the passing of one unloved and unprotected by her community. In this sense the tolling of the bells at the end of “Little Susie” is especially significant, because they memorialize one deemed too insignificant to have a requiem of her own.

Joie: I agree with you completely, Willa. He was making a very specific, very important point with this song from start to finish. He was trying to show us that everyone deserves a ‘ritual of passage,’ as you called it. Everyone deserves to be loved while we’re here and memorialized when we leave. I believe it was an idea that was very important to him. You know, our friend, Joe Vogel, had this to say about “Little Susie” in his book, Man in the Music:

“Little Susie” is yet another testament to Jackson’s range and depth as an artist. The song also demonstrates his commitment to his creative vision regardless of whom it might alienate. Many critics were simply baffled that a “mini-opera” about such a dark and grotesque subject could land on a mainstream pop record. “What it’s doing on an album with Dallas Austin and Jam and Lewis is anyone’s guess,” wrote Rolling Stone. For Jackson, however, the reasoning for “Little Susie” … was quite simple: He believed it was a great piece. Commercial viability or audience expectations didn’t matter. What mattered was the personal connection, the story, the melody.

So, apart from the melody, it was the personal connection and the story that was important to him. So important that it didn’t matter to him what the critics thought or what the audience’s expectations were. It was a story that he felt needed to be told.

Willa: I agree, and I love the way Joe pushes back against the frequently expressed yet utterly false notion that Michael Jackson measured his work strictly in terms of record sales. As Joe wrote and you quoted, “He believed it was a great piece. Commercial viability or audience expectations didn’t matter.”

Joie: Yeah, you know, I’ve never understood that argument either, Willa. All you have to do is really examine his body of solo work and you see that false argument holds no weight. But, Joe Vogel also goes on to point out what a masterpiece this song really is:

While “Little Susie” remains mostly unknown, it is one of the most poignant and unique songs in his entire catalog. ‘If he ever decides to stop being a pop singer,’ wrote Anthony Wynn, ‘this song [is] proof he could compose music for movies and seriously win Oscars for it. It’s sad, haunting, beautiful.’ Indeed, “Little Susie” reaffirms his substantial abilities as a songwriter.

And you know, Willa, it is just such a shame how true that statement is. “Little Susie” is almost virtually unknown outside of the fan world and it really shouldn’t be. It is such a beautiful song with so much to say.

Willa: It really is, and even among fans it’s not especially well known or well liked. It’s just not a feel-good song no matter which way you look at it. But while the story it tells may be painful to hear, it has something important to tell us nonetheless.

But I’m intrigued by Anthony Wynn’s belief that Michael Jackson would have been a successful composer of film scores. I think that’s true, in part because his music is so visual in some ways, as you and I talked about with Lisha McDuff in a post last March, “Visualizing Sound.” Also, he was skilled at integrating music from many different genres to create dramatic effects that would work very well in films, I think. And his music often had a grand sweep to it like good film music often does – like “Sunrise, Sunset” does, for example.

Actually, it’s really interesting to look at “Sunrise, Sunset” both in comparison to “Little Susie” and as it functions within “Little Susie.” It’s a very important motif in this song. Michael Jackson quotes it four times: in the intro just before the first verse and again after each chorus, including after the final chorus where it leads into the tolling of the bells. And thematically, “Sunrise, Sunset” forms a strong contrast with “Little Susie” because it’s the song that a father, a mother, and an entire community sing as a young woman marries, leaves her parents’ house, and starts a family of her own. So it’s a song of love for a daughter – of hope for her future as well as the pain of losing her – and it commemorates the bittersweet passage of time.

Importantly, the man she’s marrying is one she loves, one she accepted for herself, not the one her father accepted for her. In fact, now that I think about it, there’s a strong undercurrent in “Little Susie” about the fraught relationship between fathers and daughters. “The Bridge of Sighs” is the story of a young woman who loves a man without first gaining her father’s permission, so he and the rest of her family reject her – and without a man’s protection, from either a father or a proper husband, she dies.

Fiddler on the Roof then complicates that story. It’s based on a novel, Tevye and his Daughters, about a Jewish milkman and his five daughters, and it centers on the question of who should be allowed to pick their future husbands. The oldest daughter loves a poor tailor, not the wealthy butcher Tevye has promised her to. But he sees she loves him, and after some soul searching he gives them his blessing and support. “Sunrise, Sunset” is their wedding song, so in that sense it provides an exact counterpoint to “The Bridge of Sighs.”

Tevye’s second daughter stretches him even further from his traditional beliefs, falling in love with a political radical and Jewish scholar from out of town. It’s difficult for him, but he respects the young man and knows his daughter loves him, and again he gives his blessing. But then his third daughter falls in love with a young Russian who is not Jewish, and Tevye cannot accept that. When she elopes with this young man, Tevye disowns her – he’s deeply saddened by it, but nonetheless he tells his family that she “is dead to us. We’ll forget her.” She pleads with him, “I beg you to accept us,” but he can’t. As he says, “If I try and bend that far, I’ll break.” So she ends up abandoned by her family, though unlike the young woman in “The Bridge of Sighs,” she has a husband to stand by her.

It’s very interesting to me that Michael Jackson carefully situates the story of “Little Susie” against the backdrop of these other stories of young women accepted or rejected by their fathers. As you said earlier, Joie, Susie was abandoned by her father, and her mother and grandfather have died, so she has no family and no male protection of any kind – and without their support she dies. So if we take a feminist approach to “Little Susie,” there’s a subtle but strong critique of this patriarchal model where girls and even young women simply cannot survive without a male figure protecting and supporting them. We can interpret this literally to mean a father or grandfather or husband, or more expansively to mean the law of the father, which includes institutions that reinforce male power such as the family, the church, the police, the military, the media, the corporate world.

And of course, Michael Jackson routinely challenged all of those institutions of power and was constantly resisting both his own father (literally) and the law of the father (figuratively). So interpreting “Little Susie” this way seems to fit both his vision and his belief system.

Joie: Wow, Willa. I don’t think I would have ever tied “Little Susie” to the idea of challenging authority, or male power as you call it. But that is a really fascinating interpretation; thanks for sharing it! And I love what you said about the strong undercurrent of the fraught relationship between fathers and daughters in “Little Susie,” and I think you are right on the money here. By listening to the lyrics, we can guess that things would have turned out a lot differently for Susie had her father stayed home and remained a part of her life. Certainly she wouldn’t have been left all alone after her mother and grandfather passed away. Perhaps she would have had a happier existence and not been so neglected if her father and mother had stayed together and created a loving, stable environment for her. We can imagine a world where Little Susie had a happy childhood with two happy, doting parents. But sadly, that wasn’t her fate.

And you were right when you said that even among fans, this song isn’t really well known or well liked because it is just not a feel-good song. But it is a really powerful song, and a beautiful one, that deserves a lot more attention than it ever gets.

Summer Rewind 2013, Week 7: Best of Joy

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on January 9, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

We are Forever

Joie: So Willa, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all of the Michael Jackson songs that are still ‘in the vault,’ so to speak. You know, all those as of yet still unreleased tunes that we may or may not ever hear, or the ones that have leaked over the years and sound pretty much finished but, still have never been released on an actual album (I’m thinking specifically of “Slave to the Rhythm” and “Blue Gangsta” here but, there are others). And I wonder if we’ll ever see these songs released on a future posthumous album.

Willa: I don’t know. I sure hope so, though I can understand how the Estate might feel a little cautious after the Michael album and all the controversy that generated. It’s a complicated issue, as we talked about last spring, with knowledgeable, well-intentioned people passionately committed to very different points of view. And really, there are valid arguments pulling me different directions on this.

Joie: I know, me too. Both sides have really wonderful, valid arguments and it’s easy to see the merits of both. And thinking about all of this has made me take a closer look at the material that has been released since Michael’s passing three and a half years ago. Specifically, I’ve been looking at the Michael album and, you know, I can’t blame the Estate for being confused or wary at this point. The fans’ reaction to that album was so split down the middle and so vicious. On one side, you had the fans who really wanted this album and were so looking forward to hearing new, unreleased material in any form. But then on the other side you had the very large faction of fans who vehemently did not want any of Michael’s work to be touched or “finished” by other producers and just wanted the material released ‘as is.’

Willa: And then there are conflicted fans like me who agree with both sides. I think it’s very important that other artists be allowed to reinterpret his work – very important – but I also want to know what his vision was, and what his “unfinished” work sounded like.

Joie: It’s sort of like they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Willa: But why can’t we have both – new material released “as is,” alongside more polished versions completed by others?

Joie: I don’t know; why can’t we have both? That sounds like a wonderful compromise to me and it gives the fans – all of the fans, from both sides of this issue – exactly what they want. But we’re getting a little sidetracked here.

What I really wanted to talk about is the Michael album. Or rather, a specific song from that album – “Best of Joy.” So, as you know, Willa, this is not only my favorite of the new songs we’ve heard since Michael’s passing, it has quickly become one of my most favorite songs ever. I just love it.

Willa: I know – in fact, I’ve mentally redubbed it “Best of Joie” just because you love it so much….

Joie: It is so special to me for so many reasons. One of which is the fact that it was the last song Michael ever worked on in a studio before he died. I just find that knowledge so touching and so powerful somehow because to me, the lyrics of this song almost sound as if he’s saying goodbye.

 
I am your joy
Your best of joy
I am the moonlight
You are the spring
Our love’s a sacred thing
You know I always will love you
I am forever
 
I am your friend
Through thick and thin
We need each other
We’ll never part
Our love is from the heart
We never say I don’t need you
We are forever

All through the song, it’s as if he’s reminding us how great his love for us is, and how much we mean to him, and then, with the repeated refrain of “I am forever, we are forever,” it’s like he’s is assuring us that no matter what happens, his love for us will never die. It’s like a line from that old Dylan Thomas poem:

 
Though lovers be lost, love shall not
And death shall have no dominion

Willa: Oh, I love that connection to Dylan Thomas, Joie! And we see that idea of “death shall have no dominion” in a number of Michael Jackson’s songs and films – for example, in “Heaven Can Wait” where he sings, “If the angels came for me, I’d tell them no.”

Joie: Oh, I hadn’t thought of that before, Willa, but you’re right. I guess it is a theme he’s used before. But for some reason, for me at least, “Best of Joy” just really seems to emphasize this theme. Like in “Heaven Can Wait,” he’s telling us a story of two lovers where the man is considering what he would do if death ever tried to part them. But in “Best of Joy,” his tale is more personal somehow. It’s a message that he’s trying urgently to impart before it’s too late.

 
I am your friend
Through thick and thin
We need each other…
Our love is from the heart…
We are forever

It’s like he’s urging us, “Don’t forget! Don’t forget how much I love you, don’t forget how much we’ve meant to each other. Always remember!” Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it because I was grieving the first time the world ever heard this song. Admittedly, I have a very emotional attachment to this song. I have yet to listen to it when I don’t end up in tears.

Willa: It is very powerful, and it’s interesting to me that you see it not just as a love song, but also as a song to his audience. I hadn’t thought about it that way.

Joie: Really? See that’s another reason it stands out to me. Because I really have never thought of it as a love song in the traditional sense at all. Not in a “romantic” kind of way, I mean.

Willa: Oh, I agree. I mean, I can see this song as a romantic tale from one lover to another, but it has always struck me as much more than a romance as well. As we’ve talked about before, Michael Jackson likes to shift the point-of-view so much in his songs, so I always like to ask, Who is the “you” in this song – who exactly is being addressed? And who is the “I” in this song? Who is speaking? Sometimes it seems to be Michael Jackson himself, but sometimes it’s a persona, or another character, or someone very different from Michael Jackson himself. We talked about that with “Money” in a post last fall. We see multiple perspectives frequently in his work, where he adopts the point of view of other characters and speaks with their voice.

I see that in “Best of Joy” also, but with a twist. To me, Michael Jackson is in this song, but he isn’t the “I” – he’s the “you.” In other words, this isn’t a song from him but to him – this is a song of reassurance and caring to him. And the voice singing to him is Music itself. Music was his “friend / through thick and thin.” Music was there for him when everyone else abandoned him, and Music revived him when “nothing would cheer” him. Music was his “Best of Joy”:

 
I am the one who said that you are free
When living seemed so hard to be
And nothing would cheer you
I am forever
Wasn’t it I who carried you around
When all the walls came tumbling down?
When things would hurt you?
I am forever (I am forever)
We are forever (we are forever)
 

Music is forever, music was always there for him, and music is what “carried” him “when all the walls came tumbling down.”

That one line in particular is interesting because it recalls the battle of Jericho. You probably know a lot more about this than I do, Joie, but the story of Jericho is about a “battle” that was won without any fighting. Instead, it was music that made “the walls come tumbling down” – except for one apartment. That part of the wall, that one apartment, was spared. So music won the battle of Jericho without a battle being fought, and music preserved the family in that one apartment “when all the walls came tumbling down.”

I’m not exactly sure why, but I’ve always seen “Best of Joy” as a song from Music to him, a song of reassurance that music will always be there for him. I think maybe it’s because this song reminds me of “Music and Me,” that beautiful song he sang as a 15-year-old boy. It’s another song where he’s singing about a forever friendship, but that friendship isn’t with another person. It’s with Music:

 
We’re as close as two friends can be
There have been others
But never two lovers
Like music, music and me

Joie: Oh, my God, Willa … I love that interpretation! And it’s funny to me that you’ve centered in on Michael being the “you” in this song because, I’ve often felt that as well. And since becoming friends with you and reading M Poetica, I have learned that there are always many ways to interpret a song. Any song, as long as that interpretation can be supported by the lyrics, it’s valid. So, this song, to me, has many different interpretations, and while I primarily see it as a song from Michael to his audience, I also see it as a song to him, as you just suggested. Only I’ve never thought about Music being the “I” here, until you just said it, and it makes perfect sense. But for me, the “I” in this song was always God.

As we all know, Michael was always a very spiritual, very religious person and he had a long and close relationship with God. And when I think about the song that way, it also makes a lot of sense to me. Those very same lines that you pointed out earlier, have just as much meaning when viewing the song in this context as well:

 
I am the one who said that you are free
When living seemed so hard to be
And nothing would cheer you
I am forever
Wasn’t it I who carried you around
When all the walls came tumbling down?
When things would hurt you?
I am forever (I am forever)
We are forever (we are forever)
 

And you know, I really believe that this interpretation is what resonates so deeply with me and is a big part of the reason that I end up in tears whenever I listen to it. Yes, this song feels like a goodbye to me. As if Michael is saying he has to leave now but for me to remember that he will always love me. But it also makes me think about God, and about my relationship with Him and how good He’s always been to me. It’s a very emotional song for me for both of those reasons.

Willa: Wow, Joie, that’s a really powerful interpretation, and it really opens things up, doesn’t it? Michael Jackson was a very spiritual person, as you say, so that interpretation seems very true to who he was and to his worldview. But putting those two interpretations side by side – that the “I” is God and the “I” is Music – reminds me of something else we’ve talked about a couple of times: that for him, there seemed to be a deep connection between his spiritual life and his creative life. He saw his talents and his creativity as sacred gifts, which he was both thankful for and obligated to. It’s like he felt a sacred trust to use the gifts he had been given to the best of his abilities.

He also frequently talked about how he didn’t really write his songs – that’s not what his creative process felt like to him. Instead, his songs were like gifts from above that fell in his lap, and his role as a songwriter was to be receptive to them. Actually, Gennie sent us an email about this idea just last week: it was a link to a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Love, Pray, where she discusses the creative process. Gilbert’s main point is that the way we tend to conceptualize creativity in the modern world as the work of a solitary genius can be psychologically damaging to artists. So she researched how other cultures have viewed creativity, and she thinks the Greeks and Romans had a much healthier model. As she says,

“Ancient Greece and ancient Rome – people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then. People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source for distant and unknowable reasons.”

This seems very close to Michael Jackson’s idea that his creativity was something that flowed through him, and his role as an artist wasn’t to create works so much as to be receptive to that flow and allow it to express itself through him. Here’s the link Gennie sent us:

Joie: I just love that talk by Ms. Gilbert; it’s very inspiring I think. Something every artist or writer should hear and think about, in my opinion, and ‘thank you’ to Gennie for sending it to us.

But I also agree with you completely here, Willa. That does seem to be extremely close to what we know of Michael Jackson’s creative process and how he felt about it. How many times did we hear him say that he felt as if he couldn’t really take the credit for his songs because he was simply the vessel through which they came?

Willa: Exactly, and apparently that’s a feeling shared by other important modern artists, like John Lennon. In Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus, Joe Vogel says Michael Jackson posted a quotation from John Lennon where he could see it as a reminder to himself while working on “Earth Song”:

“When the real music comes to me,” it read, “the music of the spheres, the music that surpasseth understanding – that has nothing to do with me, ’cause I’m just the channel. The only joy for me is for it to be given to me, and to transcribe it like a medium…. Those moments are what I live for.”

That sounds very similar to Elizabeth Gilbert’s thoughts about creativity as a “divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source,” and it also reminds me of Dancing the Dream. In fact, I think this idea is one of the central themes of Dancing the Dream. As Michael Jackson writes in the preface:

Consciousness expresses itself through creation. This world we live in is the dance of the creator. Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on. On many an occasion when I’m dancing, I’ve felt touched by something sacred. In those moments, I’ve felt my spirit soar and become one with everything that exists. I become the stars and the moon. I become the lover and the beloved. I become the victor and the vanquished. I become the master and the slave. I become the singer and the song. I become the knower and the known. I keep on dancing and then, it is the eternal dance of creation. The creator and creation merge into one wholeness of joy.

I see this idea expressed throughout “Best of Joy” as well, like in the intro lines you quoted earlier:

 
I am your joy
Your best of joy
I am the moonlight
You are the spring
Our love’s a sacred thing
You know I always will love you
I am forever

When creativity is flowing through him, he becomes “the stars and the moon … the lover and the beloved … the singer and the song,” as he joins “the eternal dance of creation” and “merges into one wholeness of joy” – his “Best of Joy.”

Joie: Oh, that’s a nice interpretation, Willa. I never would have made that connection between “Best of Joy” and the dance before. Very interesting. And you know, I am really sort of anxious to find out what our readers think about “Best of Joy,” and hearing some of their interpretations of this one. It’s a very special little song, in my opinion.

Willa: It really is. To me, the lyrics are like poetry.

I also wanted to let everyone know that the second edition of M Poetica is now available, and you can download it for free today through Monday (January 10 – 14). Amazon gave me the option of letting it be free for up to five days, and I wanted to take advantage of that. I know a lot of our readers already have the first edition, and it didn’t seem fair that they should have to buy it again.

Also, I think a lot of fans have become kind of wary of books claiming to look at Michael Jackson in a positive way, simply because so many of those books have turned out not to be very positive. Frankly, after reading the Boteach book and the Halperin book, I can understand that. So I wanted to give those fans a chance to read it and decide for themselves.

Summer Rewind 2013, Week 6: Childhood

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on December 12, 2012. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Searching for that Wonder in My Youth

Willa: So Joie, last year at the holidays we did a special post about Michael Jackson’s close connection with childhood and its links to creativity. Now it’s getting to be holiday season again, and I was thinking it would be fun to talk about childhood again.

Joie: It would be fun to talk about childhood again, Willa. And you know, that’s one song/video that we have never really talked about before. I almost don’t know where to begin. I’m kind of excited!

Willa: Oh, “Childhood”? You’re right, we’ve quoted lyrics from it several times, but we haven’t really talked about it in depth. It’s funny – it’s another Michael Jackson song that makes people really uncomfortable, and I’m not exactly sure why. It isn’t angry, like the You Rock My World video. It doesn’t force us to confront “the dark thoughts in your head” like “Threatened” or “Money.” It doesn’t challenge us with difficult social problems like “The Lost Children,” or painful stories like “Little Susie.” It’s just a beautiful song with a beautiful video, but it really bothers some people. I think some non-fans are bothered because they think he isn’t sincere, but I think some fans are bothered because it’s too sincere.

Joie: That’s interesting, Willa, and I can see your point. This song does make some people uncomfortable. And it’s not angry or scary or dark, as you say. But it is sort of ‘in your face,’ in much the same way as those other songs you mentioned. But in a very different, very personal way.

You know, I have been with non-fans when this song has come on and the feeling I get is that it really tends to stop them in their tracks and make them think. They listen to his words and they really think about what it is that he’s asking them to do:

Before you judge me
Try hard to love me
Look within your heart, then ask …
Have you seen my childhood?

And his delivery of this song is so simple and heartfelt, that I think one can’t help but be affected by it – at least for a few fleeting moments – whether you’re a fan or not.

Willa: I think that’s true, Joie, but I also think it’s so heartfelt it’s disconcerting for some listeners. You know, when Dr. Susan Fast joined us a few weeks ago, she mentioned Michael Jackson’s lack of irony, and Eleanor wrote a very interesting response about that:

I have thought about this so much. Michael is not “cool,” he is too hot, he is sincere, he is earnest, he feels deeply the words that he sings. The impact of his work is not cerebral, but visceral. We hear his heartbeat, we feel his heartbeat – he makes us aware of the rhythm of the tide in our own bodies. He is the best at expressing and evoking powerful emotion – and that is what sets him apart – and that is the difference between a great artist and a clever artist. He is not above his topic, commenting on it, he is in it, he is part of it – he is part of “us” in “they don’t care about us.”

It is only after getting a little distance from the emotional impact that one can begin to appreciate the incredible artistry and genius that went into his work. Cerebral artists are so often directing the attention to themselves – “oh, what a clever boy/girl am I” – they are cool observers, outside of and above the fray – but Michael directs the attention to the issue itself – in earth song, in they don’t care about us, etc.

He is not cynical, he wants to heal the world – and, in spite of all, he believes that the world can be healed. He believes in love – not sentimentality. He believes in a deep connection between human beings and he is tapping into that sense of connection. Cerebral artists are often saying “I am not part of this scene, and, if you appreciate my work, you can pat yourself on the shoulder because it means that you, too, are somehow superior.” This is not Michael’s message.

That’s a long quote, but it beautifully expresses some really important ideas, I think. As Eleanor makes clear, irony gives us emotional distance from a topic – a little breathing room – and Michael Jackson doesn’t do that. He does use subtle humor in videos like Beat It, Thriller, Black or White, and Ghosts to lighten the mood, but he doesn’t give us the emotional distance that irony provides. The closest he comes to irony is Leave Me Alone, I think, but that’s unusual for him. In general, he doesn’t let us look at issues dispassionately, from a safe distance. And in works like “Childhood,” especially, I think a lot of listeners would be more comfortable if he did.

But I think Eleanor is expressing something true and important when she says, “He is the best at expressing and evoking powerful emotion – and that is what sets him apart – and that is the difference between a great artist and a clever artist.”

Joie: That is a very interesting quote from Eleanor, Willa, and she’s right. He is the best at expressing and evoking powerful emotion. No one does it better; and I think that’s because he always felt things so deeply himself. In fact, our friend Joe Vogel, writes about this in his book, Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus:

Most people read or watch the news casually, passively. They become numb to the horrifying images and stories projected on the screen. Yet such stories frequently moved Jackson to tears. He internalized them and felt physical pain. When people told him to simply enjoy his own good fortune, he got angry. He believed completely in John Donne’s philosophy that “no man is an island.”

“[For the average person],” he explained, “he sees problems ‘out there’ to be solved … But I don’t feel that way – those problems aren’t ‘out there,’ really. I feel them inside me. A child crying in Ethiopia, a seagull struggling pathetically in an oil spill … a teenage soldier trembling with terror when he hears the planes fly over: Aren’t these happening in me when I see and hear about them?”

Willa: What a great quote, Joie! And when he says, “those problems aren’t ‘out there,’ really. I feel them inside me,” you know it’s true because, through his art, he shares those feelings and we feel them inside ourselves as well. When we listen to songs like “Earth Song” or “They Don’t Care about Us” or “Speechless” or “Childhood,” we feel the pain and anger and joy, the sense of injustice or sense of wonder he’s feeling. That’s what totally captured me when I first heard “Ben” 40 years ago, and it still captivates and moves me.

Joie: Exactly! But I like what you just said about Michael not allowing us to look at issues dispassionately. That is a very true statement. He was never one to beat around the bush in his work, and opted instead for a much more ‘in your face’ approach. And you’re right when you say that with this song in particular – because it is so very personal – that approach probably made most people very uncomfortable. We don’t usually expect our entertainers to open up a vein right in front of us, but that’s exactly what “Childhood” does. Especially in these lyrics:

No one understands me
They view it as such strange eccentricities
‘Cause I keep kidding around
Like a child, but pardon me
 
People say I’m not okay
‘Cause I love such elementary things
It’s been my fate to compensate,
For the Childhood I’ve never known

Willa: Wow, that’s a vivid way to describe that, Joie, but I think you’re right – we don’t expect artists to “open up a vein right in front of us,” as you said so well, and it does feel that way. It’s like he’s in deep mourning for “the Childhood / I’ve never known.”

It also feels like he’s trying to answer those who criticize him for “compensating” for his lost childhood, as he put it, and encourage them to try to understand how he feels. And really, what a painful situation that must be, when your deepest hurt is bandied about and criticized in the press.

But, you know, what strikes me when watching the video is that, while the song’s lyrics are intensely personal, the video isn’t. This is another one of those cases where the video expands and complicates the ideas expressed in the song. Listening to this song, we would expect the video to contain footage from 2300 Jackson Street and long hours in the studio at Motown, and maybe scenes from the Jackson 5 on The Ed Sullivan Show. But the video isn’t about his childhood – at least not directly – or even a fictional character’s childhood. It’s more subtle and more complicated than that: it’s about imagination, and about childhood as a time of heightened imagination.

Joie: You know, I was thinking the exact same thing. The video isn’t at all what one would think it would be. And it’s like he purposely went in the opposite direction here, instead of showing us little glimpses into his own imperfect childhood, which is what we would expect. And I think he probably did this simply because the song itself is so personal.

Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Joie. I hadn’t thought about it that way, and that makes a lot of sense. But I also think he’s trying to express a complex idea that’s very important to him.

In the video we see Michael Jackson sitting alone in a forest, while a flotilla of sailboats full of children sails through the sky overhead. He can see them, but he can’t join them. He remains on the ground. A boy walks up and stands near him, and he sees the children in the sailboats also. One of the children in the boats – an older boy – reaches out his hand, inviting him to join them, and the boy on the ground floats up and climbs on board. But Michael Jackson stays on the ground. He wants to join them – you can sense how desperately he wants to join them – but he can’t, either because he hasn’t been invited, or because he’s outgrown that phase, or because he’s been scarred by the hardships of his life. We don’t know why.

He’s not in a bad place – he’s in a lush, beautiful forest, which is important because he also linked trees to imagination. I’m thinking about his imagination tree at Neverland, where he says he wrote many of his songs. So he’s in a place of imagination and creativity – adult creativity – but its different from the experience the children are having in the sailboats above him. He longs to be in the sailboats but he can’t get there. Unlike the boy who floated up so effortlessly, he’s earthbound.

Joie: That’s a beautiful summation of the video, Willa. And I think you’re right. He obviously wants to join the children desperately but, he isn’t able to. And, like you said, we can interpret that in many ways – he wasn’t invited, he’s outgrown that phase, he’s been scarred by life’s hardships. But it could also be that he isn’t able to join them, not because of any of those factors, but because of “us.” Or maybe more accurately, “them.” I’m not talking about the children, but the people who have criticized him over the years for that compensating that he’s been doing. Perhaps he can’t float up to join the children in the sailboats because he’s weighted down by all the negativity and speculation about the way he lived his life and his closeness to children and his desire and many efforts to hang on to that childlike wonder that was so special and important to him.

Willa: Wow, Joie, I hadn’t thought about that either, but you’re right – he had to be much more careful about interacting with children after the allegations came out, and he also became more self-aware and maybe more self-conscious about his “strange eccentricities,” as he sings in the lyrics you quoted earlier: “People say I’m not okay / ‘Cause I love such elementary things.” So maybe that “negativity” did play a part, as you say.

Joie: And as you said, it’s obvious that he desperately wants to join them, but he’s sad and sort of heartbroken that he isn’t able to.

Willa: Which is odd, because he was so incredibly creative and had such a vivid imagination, even as an adult. If the boats represent being carried away by your imagination, then it seems obvious he should be on board – after all, they’re sailing to the moon, and he’s the Moonwalker! But that isn’t where he positions himself. He places himself on the ground, looking up with longing as they sail by, and I wonder what it is exactly that he thinks he’s missing?

Maybe it isn’t just how imaginative children are, but how fully they enter into the world of imagination. I can remember getting completely lost in books as a kid. I’d get so absorbed in a story that I’d completely tune out everything around me, and when I did “come to,” sometimes I’d discover that the rest of the class was halfway through a spelling test or something like that, and I’d have to scramble to try to catch up. I was completely out of it when I was deep in a book – it really did feel like I was in another world – and it was always disorienting to come back to consciousness in this world. It was just a jolt to suddenly find myself in a world of spelling tests and math quizzes, when I’d been engaging in all sorts of adventures with the characters of a book.

Joie: That is so true, Willa. Children do tend to immerse themselves fully when they play. I can remember being on the playground during recess with my best friend. We must have been in the third or fourth grade at the time, I think. And we were so absorbed in the imaginary world we had created that we didn’t hear the bell ring. And suddenly we look up and our class is nowhere to be seen. They had all gone back inside about twenty minutes before!

Willa: Oh no! Something like that happened to me too and it was really embarrassing, so I know exactly what you mean, Joie. But it’s funny, that doesn’t seem to happen to me so much anymore. I still go off in daydreams sometimes – like I was driving down the highway a couple years ago, and suddenly “woke up” and realized I’d been driving with my head in the clouds and was about 10 miles past my turnoff. So it still happens occasionally, but not so much. Like I love books, but I don’t get so completely absorbed anymore, and I don’t tune out the real world like I once did. Even while reading a great book, I stay aware that I need to pick up my son from swim team practice in 20 minutes, or start supper or fold laundry or whatever, and I don’t get “carried away” in my imagination as fully as I did when I was younger.

So maybe that’s what he’s talking about? Because he had such a fertile imagination even as an adult, and was still intensely creative – far more creative than the average person – and he had to know that.

Joie: Yep, I agree. And as adults, we just have so many responsibilities and other priorities, you know? I mean, as children, our only priority is to figure out the world and we actively search for ways to make that learning process fun. It’s just the nature of a child. But as adults, we don’t always have that luxury because there are so many other things weighing us down, pulling on our time. So maybe that’s why he stays firmly on the ground as all the children float away above him to the moon in the sailboats. Like most adults, he just doesn’t have the time to float away on his imagination anymore.

Willa: That’s a really good point, Joie, and maybe that’s another reason why he felt he didn’t really have a childhood – because he carried the responsibilities of an adult even as a child. His family pretty much became financially dependent on him when he was 10 years old. Just think about that. And there were people at Motown whose jobs were devoted to him, and dependent on him. If he failed to please an audience, they lost their jobs, and he knew that. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a child.

Also if he fell while playing and hurt himself and couldn’t dance, it had big consequences, and he knew that too. So he had to be very careful, even while playing. And his day was so scheduled he wasn’t really free to play or “float away on his imagination,” as you said, even then.

So maybe that’s part of how he compensated as an adult – by giving himself permission to climb trees (how risky!) and have water balloon fights and play with abandon, in a way he couldn’t as a child. And by giving himself time to just float and daydream.

Joie: And maybe that’s the message of this short film, Willa. You know how I like to believe that there is a hidden message or a lesson in every Michael Jackson video?

Willa: Yeah?

Joie: Well, maybe that lesson here is that we – adults – need to try and remember what it’s like to get carried away by our imaginations every once in a while. To remember that childlike wonder that’s still there inside each and every one of us, just waiting for the chance to get lost in a book … floating away in a sailboat to the moon.

Willa: Oh, I really like that interpretation, Joie! It feels very true to his vision, I think, and it reminds me of this wonderful final shot of the sailboats:

untitled

I love this image – it’s so beautiful, I think – and there’s so much to see in it. The final boat is piloted by a young black boy who keeps his hand very seriously on the tiller, and he really catches my attention for some reason. For one thing, the first time we see him (about 2 minutes into the video) he has a very worried look on his face. None of the other kids seems anxious at all, but he does. Also, he’s alone in his boat while most of the children are in groups of two or three.

But actually, he isn’t alone. He has two cats with him, and he pets them for reassurance. And while that may just be coincidental – after all, one of the other kids has a dog – cats tend to represent something very specific in Michael Jackson’s videos: when he feels the need to escape, he disappears and a cat appears. For example, when a reporter closes in on Michael Jackson’s character in Billie Jean, he disappears and a tiger appears. When the king’s guards have him surrounded in Remember the Time, he turns into a swirling pile of sand and blows away, and then a cat comes and stands where that transformation took place. When he is feeling oppressed by racism in Black or White, he transforms into a black panther. Because that is such a common motif in his videos, it seems significant to me that this fearful young boy has two cats accompanying him, giving him comfort. So maybe Michael Jackson himself can’t join him in the sailboat, but his totem animal can?

Joie: Wow! That’s an interesting observation, Willa. I’ve never noticed that before but, I think you may be on to something there.

Willa: It does seem significant, doesn’t it? Maybe it isn’t, but it feels significant to me. And then the children are all sailing to the moon, which is metaphorically linked to Michael Jackson as well – in titles like Moonwalk and Moonwalker, obviously, but also more subtly in key scenes in Moonwalker, and in Dancing the Dream as well. In “Dance of Life,” the moon comforts him, like a mother, but also inspires him and encourages him to dance, like a muse.

So while we don’t see Michael Jackson in embodied form in this beautiful final shot of the sailboats floating to the moon, we hear his music and sense his spirit and influence throughout.

Joie: You’re right, Willa, we do ‘sense his spirit thoughout.’ Both in the short film and in the song itself. And, in fact, we ‘sense his spirit’ a lot … in everything he did. It’s in every song and video, every dance routine and live performance. You can feel it in every poem and reflection between the pages of Dancing the Dream. His spirit can be felt in every project he ever presented to the world.

So, Willa and I want to take a moment and say thank you for all of your continuing support, and we want to wish each and every one of you a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukka, Happy Kwansa and our best wishes for a wonderful New Year. Happy Holidays to one and all!