Lisha: In a previous post with Elizabeth Amisu and Karin Merx, we began discussing the late David Bowie as an important influence in Michael Jackson’s work. Specifically, we mentioned the theme of isolation and alienation in Bowie’s 1969 music video Space Oddity, and how strongly it echoes in Michael and Janet Jackson’s 1995 short film, Scream.
With the news of David Bowie’s recent passing, we wanted to take another look at some of the connections between him and Michael Jackson. Willa is off this week, but not to worry! She will be back soon. Elizabeth’s upcoming book, The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife, features a fascinating comparison between Michael Jackson and David Bowie. So I’m really excited to welcome Eliza and Karin back to discuss this more!
Elizabeth: Hello again, Lisha. I’m so pleased to be back for a post on the late great Bowie. I was so sad to hear the news. But he has left a great legacy behind.
Lisha: He really has, and it’s wonderful to have you both here to talk about it. Thank you, Elizabeth and Karin.
Karin: Hello, Lisha, nice to be back for a Bowie post. All the great ones seem to go way too early.
Lisha: That does seem true, doesn’t it?
I was wondering if either of you happened to catch the David Bowie exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013. It was a fascinating collection of artifacts from David Bowie’s own archives simply titled: David Bowie Is. I understand the exhibit is touring internationally now. I have to say, it’s one of the most beautiful museum exhibits I have ever seen, featuring these magnificent multimedia displays of Bowie’s work:
As I was walking through the exhibit, I couldn’t help noticing a lot of Jackson/Bowie connections, although I hadn’t really considered it much before. Just curious if either of you had the same experience.
Elizabeth: Hey Lisha, I’m glad you brought this up. I spend a lot of time at the V & A for my research so I caught glimpses. I also perused the book, David Bowie Is, and it’s really something special… So many comparisons and connections between the two. What kept striking me is how Bowie’s influence and his uniqueness is really regarded by the British “establishment” while Jackson is often only begrudgingly tolerated. I thought, I understand exactly why the V & A would host this, but in the same breath, an exhibition on Jackson would be equally wonderful.
Lisha: You read my mind! David Bowie is taken up as a “serious” artist, worthy of a major exhibit at one of the world’s finest museums, while Michael Jackson still gets a fair amount of the wacko treatment and worse. I wonder how David Bowie was so successful in constructing his image as an important avant-garde artist?
Karin: I thought about that, Lisha, and I think it has to do with several factors, including cultural. First of all, when Bowie started his Ziggy Stardust in 1972, it was based on Glam Rock (glitter, high heel boots, etc. – typical British) and lots of teenagers felt drawn to it. It was a way they could express themselves and be accepted. But I don’t think that Bowie was as such tolerated in America. So there we already have a cultural difference.
Lisha: I do get the feeling that David Bowie’s impact in Britain was quite different than in America, although he enjoyed tremendous popularity in the US as well. What else might account for this?
Karin: Pop music, I think, is more a British invention than it was an American. And if you know that a lot of the popular music in America has its roots in black music and was taken over by white groups, then there is already a significant difference. Both, by the way, had their cultural revolution in the sixties and the beginning of the seventies – all a reflection from the second World War, although the US was fighting for equal rights for black people, and had their own war in Vietnam. There were a lot of artists in Europe that demonstrated against that war.
Lisha: You bring up a good point. There’s been a very productive musical dialogue between Britain and the US for some time, with musical innovations traveling back and forth. Of course this includes British Pop and American R&B, which were hugely influential for both artists.
But for some reason I don’t remember Bowie receiving such strong push back in the US, the way Michael Jackson did. Am I wrong about that?
Karin: Umm…wasn’t it Bowie who said he was bisexual in the US? Being controversial just because? That certainly did not fall into good soil …
Lisha: You’re right, that would certainly invite controversy! No doubt about it, especially in the 1970s. But as I reflect on David Bowie’s work, one of the things I admire is how effective he was at leading societal attitudes. He wasn’t so many steps ahead that you couldn’t read what he was doing and follow along. For example, there have been some wonderful stories recently about how effective he was at addressing social prejudice towards the LGBT community. I think it’s an important part of his legacy.
Elizabeth: You’re so right, Lisha. I watched an interview with him where he said that discussions about his sexual orientation really affected his ability to be as successful as he wanted to in the States.
Elizabeth: Jackson also had a lot of rumours about his sexuality. I wonder why that often seems to be the first questionable subject when a maverick appears in the industry.
Lisha: That’s an extremely important question. Refusing to conform to social constructions of heteronormativity is often considered very problematic, and we’ve seen a number of popular musicians challenge this in a very productive way. But when rumors of sexuality combine with other factors, such as racial politics, things can really get ugly. Michael Jackson faced backlash that I don’t think any other artist has had to deal with.
For example, I don’t recall anyone challenging David Bowie about his one blue eye. No one called it weird, claimed he surgically altered his eye, or made comments about eye color and racial identity. It was just accepted he had an eye injury and that was that. His blue eye read as edgy and cool.
Elizabeth: That is SO TRUE! Bowie’s eyes were seen as obviously having a serious medical reason, another thing that made him unique and special and enigmatic. However, the dominant narrative about Jackson altering himself (starting in the 1980s) quickly became the go-to answer for everything about his physical changes. It is unfair in a lot of ways.
Lisha: Incredibly so.
Elizabeth: Also, it seems that eye colour is not nearly as contentious as skin colour. Due to the legacy of racial stereotyping and eugenics, ethnicity has so much added cultural value. Some of which is so deeply ingrained that we don’t even know where exactly it stems from.
Lisha: I agree. And society could choose to categorize people by eye color, but for whatever reason we don’t, except perhaps to praise the beauty of blue eyes. Of course that raises a very troubling question: why should one eye color be valued more than another? It’s a problematic notion that no doubt carries a lot of historical baggage.
Here’s a photo of Bowie playing up the difference in his eyes:
I find it fascinating that Michael Jackson also experimented with different eye colors for the cover of the Invincible album:
Here’s another photo by Arno Bani that was considered for the cover of Invincible:
Elizabeth: Yes, Lisha. I’m so glad you introduced Invincible into this discussion because it’s so often overlooked. Invincible is possibly Jackson’s most avant-garde album. It wasn’t really designed to be a people pleaser so much as an artistic expression of Jackson’s own making. The cover and the illumination of the right eye (the viewer’s left) is particularly interesting. Again, it is unexplained but I always draw attention to the pixelation of this eye indicates Jackson is becoming digital, on the cusp of a digital age, and that digital sound is really evident in songs like 2000 Watts. Also, there is the adage, ‘the eyes are the window to the soul’. Hence why on the cover of Dangerous we look into Jackson’s eyes and are confronted with an explosion of all these images which proliferate around them.
Lisha: The single pixelated eye found on back of the album reinforces your points quite well. That’s a wonderful connection you make between the digital cover art and digital sound of the recording! I agree it’s an album that deserves much more attention.
Thinking about all this just made me flash on another Bowie move, which is the bright red Ziggy Stardust hairstyle that’s been called “A Radical Red Revolution.” Suzi Ronson was the hairstylist behind the look, and she said that Bowie wanted to do something different from the typical long hair in rock music. So she cut his hair short and dyed it bright red to create a look that was antithetical to rock at that time.
Last summer I was doing some research and was surprised to learn that red hair is commonly stigmatized, especially in Britain, where it is associated with Irish and Scottish descent. It got me to thinking about how David Bowie’s red hair reads as super glam rock cool and really busts through this social prejudice, whether it intends to or not.
Red hair is also part of a familiar comedy routine – the classic clown character – which has been interpreted as a parody based on prejudice towards the Irish and Scottish. According to The Racial Slur Database:
Not used so much as a racial slur, however, the classic clown is based on a stereotyped image of Irish people: bushy red hair, a large red nose (from excessive drinking), and colorful clothes often with plaids, and often with a great many patches to represent that the Irish were poor and could not buy themselves new clothes. With excessive plaid is a Scottish variation.
Getting back to Michael Jackson, there is considerable overlap in the history of clowning and blackface minstrelsy, both of which feature comical characters with painted faces and bushy wigs. Willa and I talked with Harriet Manning a while back about her work on blackface minstrelsy, and she very convincingly showed how Michael Jackson engaged with these demeaning stereotypes while effectively turning them inside out.
So I think we can draw a connection between Michael Jackson and David Bowie as artists who have engaged with deeply ingrained stereotypes and their historical representation. They’ve done important cultural work by pushing back against social prejudices that have been perpetuated through the entertainment industry. Most of this work flies under the radar of public awareness. As you said, Elizabeth, these stereotypes have become so deeply ingrained, we often have no idea where they came from.
In regard to the response it generated, what are other explanations for why Michael Jackson and David Bowie were treated so differently in the press?
Karin: Bowie did not disappear from the public, unlike Michael Jackson after his massive Thriller success. That gave the press all the space to create their own stories. And Bowie developed all his personas, created with 27 studio albums, whereas Michael’s personas were, probably because of his absence most of the time, created by the press (the monster) and fans (the angel) etc. Furthermore, Michael could have created tons of albums, but only made about 6. I think that if you can follow an artist and his development, and here Bowie and his personas, the combination, theatre/pop-music, it is like following the development of an artist, who is then taken seriously and accepted as an artist.
Lisha: I agree that the amount of effort, time and money that went into Michael Jackson’s mature work meant there were not going to be a lot of albums to promote. And musically, I think this is one of the biggest differences between the two: Bowie’s music feels spontaneous and almost improvised, while Jackson’s music is unbelievably detailed, highly polished and lavishly produced.
Elizabeth: I agree with you both. We can underestimate the sheer complexity of the recording process, and the quality vs. quantity argument is always very relevant. However, the rate of output of one album every four years is a relatively slow output. On the 2001 Special Edition of Bad, there are some lovely interviews with Quincy Jones and he talks about having to make final cuts with Jackson. It seems like an arduous process. In the music industry the longer one is away, the more releases are produced in the interim, the more publicity dissipates, and the more work it is to make the next album a success.
Lisha: That’s a great point, although many artists worry about overexposure as well. It must be like walking a tightrope to get it just right!
As you’ve both mentioned, Michael Jackson’s inaccessibility probably did lead to negative publicity. Sony executive Dan Beck talked about this in a recent interview:
A lot of people in the media were unhappy with Michael because he didn’t talk to them and Frank DiLeo [Jackson’s manager] essentially kept him away from the press, I think with good reason because Michael only had so much to say and he also was a very vulnerable guy. He wasn’t media savvy in the way of sitting down with a journalist and really having that engaging conversation. He was just too much in a bubble.
Frank kept him away, so with all the success that he had there were some media people who were very frustrated that they couldn’t talk to him. So, when things started to crack and there were more odd entities in his life, it started to turn negative.
Karin: But it was also Dileo who – together with Jackson – made up that weird hyperbaric chamber story, which gained Jackson a lot of negativity. And I read somewhere that Jackson liked the mystique of not being too much on TV or in the public eye.
Elizabeth: Do we know this for sure? In Man in the Music Joe Vogel writes:
[H]e cultivated a persona that kept people guessing (and talking). He liked the idea of being mysterious and elusive. He was fascinated with masks, costumes, and metamorphosis. Around this time, he even began to embrace and perpetuate the public perception of his strangeness and eccentricity. (106)
Lisha: I wonder if all of the above is true. If DiLeo planted the hyperbaric chamber story, I think there’s an argument to be made that it backfired. I’m curious if that might be one reason they decided to stay away from the press altogether. But then again, Bowie and others got away with doing and saying many strange and eccentric things, yet didn’t suffer too much for it!
At least for some period of time, it seems Michael Jackson had a deliberate strategy to avoid interviews. I was intrigued by this revealing personal note he wrote in his copy of the book, The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene:
“No more talking. Silence is more powerful.”
Here’s a screenshot of Michael Jackson’s handwritten note from Bonham’s website, the auction house that sold his annotated copy of the book:
Elizabeth: Ah, so interesting. It’s this balance between being seen and being a spectacle. The magic is the reveal. To hold back the representation of self until the reveal.
Lisha: I agree! There is so much dramatic tension in this.
Elizabeth: However, “when the media didn’t cooperate with his [Jackson’s] game and turned malicious,” to quote Joe Vogel again, we began to see a very ugly side of Jackson’s representation by the press. The press constructed Wacko Jacko out of the vacuum constructed from this disappearing act. It’s this persona which, coupled with the Monster Persona, seems to be keeping Jackson out of the V & A. Bowie didn’t have the same level of absence in his appearance, so much more about his performance was a performance, whereas Jackson’s “entire life would be performance art,” as Vogel says, “a way to turn the tables on an intrusive media and public that felt they owned him… they were subject to his directions and imagination” (106).
Lisha: I have often wondered why so many journalists felt they were entitled to have access to Michael Jackson. That’s really troubling to me actually, like a display of their power. It obviously spiraled out of control when law enforcement decided to join in the game.
There’s something else I’m curious about, and Karin, I thought you would be well positioned to answer this. The British sociomusicologist Simon Frith, who is one of the key figures in popular music studies, wrote a book in 1987 titled Art Into Pop. Frith argues very persuasively about how the British art education system influenced popular music and its reception. For example, experimental jazz became quite fashionable after it was taken up by art students who deemed it art school chic. It gained social and cultural capital that it previously lacked. So I’ve been thinking about how visual artists function as cultural gatekeepers in popular music, influencing what can be accepted as “cool.”
Do you see this influence in popular music? How much of Bowie’s reception is based on his legibility as art school chic?
Karin: Oh, Lisha, I absolutely think Frith is right. And also what he writes about the blurred boundaries between the so called “High” and “Low” art. These blurring lines were to be found in all kind of art forms. Designers became artists and vice versa, artists played music, created bands, ended up in music, and it is not so strange to see theatrical forms mixed into the performances. In Holland also, lots of art students had bands and one of them, Fay Lofsky, is a trained visual artist who ended up in music, making all kind of experimental sounds, instruments, etc.
I definitely think that a part of Bowie’s reception is based on his legibility as art school chic, which I think is very European. Difficult to describe, but I also believe that the artists who took on popular music, “messed” with it as much as they did with visual art – the “everything is possible” way of thinking. And even though I think Jackson was one of the first and most experimental sound designers of his time, it never came across as such. We know now, but he polished his complex compositions in a way that his music was/is for everyone. Bowie is more niche and therefore may also be considered more avant-garde.
Lisha: That’s a great observation that a niche market often translates into “cool.” I’ve noticed that as well. And I’m also amazed there is so little attention given to how detailed, complex, and experimental Michael Jackson’s recordings are. They are commonly understood as simplistic, which must have to do with perception, since it doesn’t accurately describe the recordings themselves.
Karin: I think, Lisha, that has also to do with the commerce. Michael Jackson was incredibly commercial, or maybe we should say he was a bestselling artist, and somehow people think that those two do not go well together, commerce and art. But there are/were very rich, very well selling great artists, like Basquiat for instance in the beginning of the eighties, and there are equally very good artists that do or did not sell well or not at all. That has nothing to do with whether their art is good or bad. That whole idea is connected with some silly romantic thought that artists should be or are poor. In short, the overall perception is that commercial works cannot be products of high standard art, and that’s how Jackson’s work was treated.
Lisha: You’re so right that there is a very stubborn, rigid cultural idea out there that says commercially successful music cannot be of high artistic value. Yet, as Susan Fast points out in her book on the Dangerous album, certain rock musicians are curiously exempt from this rule! Very suspicious, indeed.
David Bowie gave an interview to National Public Radio’s Terry Gross in 2003, and in it I think it gives us a clue about the relationship of visual art to popular music. Curious to hear your take on it:
Some of us were failed artists, or reluctant artists. The choices were either, for most Brit musicians at that point, painting or making music, and I think we opted for music. One, because it was more exciting, and two, because you can actually earn a living at it.
But I think we brought a lot of our aesthetic sensibilities to it, in terms of we wanted to manufacture a new kind of vocabulary, a new kind of currency. And so, the so-called “gender-bending,” the picking up of maybe aspects of the avant-garde, and aspects, for me personally, things like the Kabuki theater in Japan, and German expressionist movies, and poetry by Baudelaire, and it’s so long ago now — everything from Presley to Edith Piaf went into this mix of this hybridization, this pluralism about what, in fact, rock music was and could become . . .
It was a pudding, you know? It really was a pudding. It was a pudding of new ideas, and we were terribly excited, and I think we took it on our shoulders that we were creating the 21st century in 1971. That was the idea. And we wanted to just blast everything in the past.
Karin: Yeah, and to come back on the difference in culture, this is definitely one of them. Not to downplay American history, but what Bowie says here is very European.
Lisha: I so agree with you!
Karin: It also came right after the “democratisation wave” that kept most parts of Europe very busy at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies. Artists worked conceptually, which meant that they created controversial work or as Bowie mentions, “we wanted to just blast everything in the past.” That brought also the more improvised feel with it as you mentioned before. Jackson was more into creating perfection, to the extent that, even though he composed many songs, just a few were carefully selected for his album. I saw a little footage after Bowie passed away that showed Bowie on the floor of his studio with a pair of scissors cutting up text that obviously became a lyric for one of his songs – so a massive difference in the creative process. He also did not spend as much on a record as Jackson did.
Lisha: I found this short clip of Bowie demonstrating his “cut-ups” technique:
Karin: Brilliant! Lisha, that to me is what I wrote before, about the visual artist messing with (pop) music, and therefore I believe the influence art had in this music. It’s kind of creating a collage but then for lyrics of a song – sort of a Matisse way of creating a new colorful picture, but now creating “colorful” lyrics. Brian Eno (Roxy Music) had the same background and way of creating, and it was definitely an influence in pop music.
Lisha: That’s such a good point. I think we can see how Bowie used these artistic concepts and how it enhanced his image as art school chic.
Karin: It is by the way interesting to read that Bowie did not like performing that much, where Michael always tried to create the biggest show on earth. So Bowie is more for a niche audience than Jackson, and that gives this “avant-garde” feel.
Lisha: Yes, and isn’t it interesting that Bowie managed to retain his avant-garde appeal, even after his act became very big business?
I’ve been thinking a lot about how David Bowie and Michael Jackson were both strong visual artists themselves. To my eye, Bowie’s artwork expresses a more dystopian vision of the future and conforms to an avant-garde chic aesthetic, while Michael Jackson takes a very different approach, more towards a fantasy and utopian impulse. I wonder if we can relate this to their musical ideas as well.
For example, Willa and Joie wrote a wonderful blog on “Will You Be There,” and they described how Michael Jackson quotes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the intro to the song, using it like a hymn to express a utopian vision of brotherhood. It sets up the song by first suggesting a vision of the world as it could be.
As early as 1972, Bowie also used portions of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as an introduction for his live Ziggy Stardust shows. The recording he used is a synthesizer version by Wendy Carlos, which was featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film Clockwork Orange. However, Beethoven’s music was used both in the film and in Bowie’s show to express a nightmarish, dystopian vision of the future, quite the opposite from how Michael Jackson used the same work. David Bowie described his Ziggy Stardust concept to William S. Burroughs in Rolling Stone:
The time is five years to go before the end of the earth . . . Ziggy’s adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, ’cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news . . . It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite . . . they take bits of Ziggy . . . they tear him to pieces onstage during the song “Rock and Roll Suicide” . . .
I think this demonstrates how David Bowie and Michael Jackson were both particularly adept at musical hybridization, utilizing elements as disparate as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in popular music. But it’s interesting to note how they used the very same technique and the same music to express very different ideas. The connection is quite compelling and reveals their difference at the same time.
Another very interesting connection that comes to mind is that they were both a part of the glamorous Studio 54 scene in New York in the 1970s, although once again, their participation might be viewed in very different ways.
Elizabeth: It’s a strange one, Lisha. You’re right. Raven Woods talks about this in a recent post at All For Love Blog: “It was even reported that they had danced together at Studio 54, when Michael supposedly taught David how to do ‘The Robot’!”
Most of the final section of The Dangerous Philosophies is about how Jackson receives different treatment from other artists and why that is. The first thing we have to recognise is that Jackson was a child star. Immediately, that sets him apart from everyone else.
Lisha: Yes. Not only was Michael Jackson a child star, he was a teen idol and the lead singer of a group that is still described as a “boy band,” to make matters worse. Just this past September, Rolling Stone named “I Want You Back” as the “Greatest Boy Band” song ever. Talk about a back-handed compliment! I can’t find any evidence to suggest the Jackson 5 were produced any differently from all the other spectacular Motown acts, so I really have trouble with defining the Jackson 5 as a “boy band.” It’s also pretty clear that the Jackson 5 appealed to adult audiences, even in the early days, thus the late night club dates Michael Jackson worked while still attending elementary school. I don’t believe the Jackson 5 were ever exclusively a youth act, nor did they exclusively appeal to females.
Elizabeth: Yep. It’s true. But sometimes we underestimate the power of the boy band on the collective social consciousness. I recently caught MTV doing a feature on One Direction, and I didn’t realize they were so successful. I also remember when Take That split, people were crying. The Jackson 5 were the genesis of all this global adoration and mass hysteria, and the hold that has makes it so difficult for someone like Jackson to be able to change physically and artistically right before his public.
Lisha: There is just so much social baggage that goes along with being a teen idol and there is no doubt Michael Jackson suffered as a result. I noticed in that even in the new Spike Lee documentary, there is a lot of anxiety about whether or not Michael Jackson was “adult” enough. For anyone who’s interested, here’s a quick overview of the topic from Dr. Robin James: “If You Hate Justin Bieber, Patriarchy Wins.”
Eliza, would you like to say a little more about the Bowie/Jackson comparison in your upcoming book?
Elizabeth: The chapter in my book which discusses Bowie and Jackson is “Horcruxes: Michael (Split Seven Ways) Jackson.” I also compare Jackson to Johann Sebastian Bach, Stevie Wonder and four other artists. I really tried to find a new way of talking about Jackson because he’s so unique. One of the most challenging things is to come up with a language for how we relate to him as audiences and spectators. Jackson is superlative. One of the ways I try and explore this is through metaphor.
Lisha: Wow, that does sound fascinating. What a counterintuitive group of artists to compare! I am so looking forward to reading your book. By the way, what exactly is a horcrux? It sounds like something spooky from a Harry Potter movie!
Elizabeth: I’m really so excited for you to read it. It’s been a labor of love for two years. A “horcrux” is from a Potter movie. It’s a way to cheat death by putting pieces of a soul into objects. For a fuller explanation (and pretty pictures) see: Pottermore. I like this metaphor for Michael Jackson, especially in terms of looking at him from new perspectives. If you look at Jackson through the prism of another artist it becomes easier to articulate who and what he signifies. I also really like the image of a prism because through it white light is revealed to be many colours. Jackson, for me, is like that. I always find more than I was looking for when I look in different way.
Lisha: That sounds like a perfect metaphor. I’m always amazed by how many lenses it takes to view Michael Jackson’s work. Like I was saying earlier, I didn’t really think about David Bowie as a major Michael Jackson influence until I saw the V & A exhibit in London. Then it seemed like such an obvious connection I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before.
Elizabeth: That’s what happened to me. Every time I found a new person to compare Jackson to I found more connections. I was really inspired by Willa’s book and how she deconstructed the appearance of Warhol in the Scream short film: another horcrux. Jackson met Warhol on several occasions and Bowie played Warhol in a film. There’s a great powerful connection there.
Lisha: For all we know, the three of them were hanging out together at Studio 54! Willa’s analysis is really inspiring, I agree. We also started to tackle a Warhol/Jackson comparison a little while back. Like everything Michael Jackson, there’s so much more to explore.
I wonder how much is known about any possible interaction between Michael Jackson and David Bowie? In Molly Meldrum’s tribute to Bowie written shortly after his death, he reports that Michael Jackson was “a major David Bowie fan.” I had not heard that before, but I must say I’m not surprised in the least.
Elizabeth: I don’t know that much about Jackson and Bowie’s interactions on a personal level, but artistically, they share a wonderful sense of style, enigmatic persona-creation, showmanship and definitely, the power of androgynous self-representation.
Karin: I don’t know how much interaction there was between the two, but if you know Bowie and his artistic life, you can at least see a lot of similarities. Apart from the way they often provoked the world with their music, both also were very good actors. If you know the film Basquiat by artist Julian Schnabel, Bowie plays Andy Warhol, very well.
So, we know about Warhol and Jackson, they met and have a lot in common, and the same goes for Bowie and Jackson, as Elizabeth writes, the androgynous self-representation, showmanship etc. It is interesting to me that the three somewhere meet, and with somewhere I mean the way all three had the ability to cultivate a persona. Warhol kind of started this, Bowie took it and used it throughout his career and Jackson did the same. All three were exploiting the boundaries between the artist and their art. However, I think the relation between Jackson and Bowie or Warhol is not that clear at first hand for a lot of people.
Elizabeth: But that’s because Jackson has only really started meriting serious academic discussion posthumously. So when we start with something simple like Ziggy Stardust, the stage character Bowie created, with (like Harry Potter) a lightning bolt on his face. He lands on stage, an alien from mars, a spectre. Jackson did the same in the HIStory tour. He landed in a spacecraft in a gold and silver spacesuit.
Lisha: I think this points to one of the most important connections between two: the sheer theatricality of their performances. As popular music scholar John Covach recently noted, there were a number of rock musicians back in the 60s and 70s bringing strong theatrical elements into their work, but Bowie seemed to really take it to another level.
Elizabeth: He completely does. Also, if we think about Glam Rock, it’s all about the show. Making it bigger and more outlandish than ever. I read in David Bowie: Style that he went to learn stagecraft and stage design and then he started to incorporate a lot of what he learned into his productions.
Lisha: I can definitely see how this must have influenced Michael Jackson. Bowie even said that as young musician, he dreamed of writing for musical theatre:
I really wanted to write musicals. That’s what I wanted to do more than anything else. And because I like rock music, I kind of moved into that sphere, somehow thinking that somewhere along the line I’d be able to put the two together. And I suppose I very nearly did with the Ziggy character … My point was I wanted to rewrite how rock music was perceived and I thought that I could do some kind of vehicle involving rock musicals and presenting rock and characters and storyline in a completely different fashion.
Elizabeth: Bowie really understood that a performer is far more than the music. They are a character within their viewers’ minds. The world of the celebrity is often so distant from their experience that they might as well be aliens. Bowie wielded the power of a persona so expertly, Ziggy Stardust became entirely separate from him.
Lisha: Raven Wood’s wonderful post you mentioned really gets into this. Michael Jackson and David Bowie are both incredibly theatrical musicians and performers, but the major difference is that Bowie’s alter egos were perfectly legible as theatrical roles, while Michael Jackson’s were not. As John Covach said, “Michael Jackson was still Michael Jackson.” I think that’s a crucially important distinction.
To prove the point, we don’t need to look any further than Jarvis Cocker’s disruption of “Earth Song” at the 1996 Brit Awards. Cocker told The Guardian’s Lucy Siegle in 2012 that he protested this performance because he objected to Michael Jackson “pretending to be Christ.” Siegle writes:
Does [Cocker] feel remorse for that stage invasion incident at the Brits in 1996 now that he’s engaged with the Arctic and other environmental issues? After all, Michael Jackson was merely giving an epic performance of “Earth Song,” presumably directing our attention to the strife of the planet. “Well, and pretending to be Christ,” says Jarvis, only slightly rolling his eyes. “It is a right good song, obviously.”
The same year Jarvis Cocker gave the above interview to The Guardian, he praised Bowie’s use of alter egos in a BBC special titled David Bowie & the Story of Ziggy Stardust, showing a great deal of reverence for Bowie’s theatrical roles.
While I’m not at all convinced Michael Jackson was “pretending to be Christ” at the Brit Awards, I would be curious to hear Cocker’s take on other actors who have played the role. For example, David Bowie played the role of Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ. He did a very powerful scene opposite Willem Dafoe as Christ. Is Cocker similarly offended?
What about Bowie’s 1999 album cover ‘hours. . .’?
According to Nicholas Pegg, David Bowie confirmed the cover photo was inspired by Michelangelo’s La Pieta, a sculpture of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Christ. I’d love to know Cocker’s thoughts on Bowie as both the Virgin Mary and Christ!
And what about David Bowie “pretending to be Christ” in his 2013 video The Next Day?
I noticed Cocker didn’t seem to object at all in the interviews he gave following the video’s release.
Elizabeth: You’ve hit the nail on the head, Lisha. Bowie was clearly playing different roles but Jackson left us with ambiguity because, being “Michael Jackson” was the role. There’s a vacuum between person and persona. In my essay, “‘Throwing Stones to Hide Your Hands’: The Mortal Persona of Michael Jackson,” I deconstruct these personas. There’s a fissuring of Jackson’s reception which makes it difficult for us to come to the kind of agreement needed to legitimise him in art and culture. Everyone is looking at the same artist and seeing something different.
Lisha: This is an excellent point. There is still no consensus on Michael Jackson and I think there is a segment of society that wants to punish him for his transgressions. Your excellent article compares Michael Jackson’s reception to a biblical stoning. Doesn’t Jarvis Cocker’s protest reflect this punishing attitude as well?
Elizabeth: That is entirely true. Unfortunately, because of the ways in which Jackson bucked the trend and crossed boundaries, he becomes the scapegoat for a lot of society’s neuroses. I recently read a wonderful essay by a student, Maya Curry, called “But Did We Have a Good Time? An Examination of the Media Massacre of Michael Jackson.” It won an award in 2010. There was almost a sense of glee in the way in which Jackson was hounded on every front. Primarily by the press but also by stalkers and admirers. Germaine Greer wrote this in her obituary for him in The Guardian. It brings to mind the Shakespeare quote, “here’s much to do with hate, but more with love” (Romeo and Juliet 1.1.165). The stoning was part and parcel of everyone who made him, the press, the public and even the overwhelming adoration he endured which made it impossible to go anywhere anonymously.
Lisha: Wow, that’s really it! And thank you so much for mentioning Curry’s essay. You’ve given us so much to think about in terms of Michael Jackson’s reception and how David Bowie made parallel moves to a very different effect.
There’s just so much more to say about the connections between Bowie and Jackson, especially how they both created music with such strong visual elements. So in closing, maybe we should let some imagery do the talking. Thank you so much Elizabeth and Karin for joining me and for such a wonderful discussion!
Willa: Last April Nina Fonoroff joined me for an interesting discussion about Billie Jean and Michael Jackson’s use of film noir. After that post went up, Elizabeth Amisu posted a couple of comments here and here about “neo-noir” in both Billie Jean and especially Who Is It. I was very intrigued by this since I’d never even heard of neo-noir, so I began talking with Elizabeth about it, and she very generously provided me with some introductory reading to help bring me up to speed – though I’m still very much a neophyte.
So today, Lisha and I are excited to be joined by both Elizabeth and Karin Merx to talk about neo-noir and how it can provide new ways of seeing and thinking about Who Is It, Billie Jean, Smooth Criminal, and other short films. Elizabeth is a lecturer of English Literature and Film Studies, and her ongoing academic research focuses on “high-status representations of black people” in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Her book, The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife, is being published by Praeger in August. Karin is both an academic and a classically trained musician, and she is currently completing her doctoral research in Art History. Last year she published an essay on Michael Jackson’s Stranger in Moscow. Together, Elizabeth and Karin co-founded and co-edit the Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies, which is a wonderful resource for anyone wanting to learn more about Michael Jackson’s art.
Thank you so much for joining us, Elizabeth and Karin! I’m really eager to learn more about neo-noir and how you see it functioning in Michael Jackson’s short films.
Elizabeth: Thank you very much for having us here on Dancing with the Elephant, Willa. It’s a real pleasure to have this conversation with you.
Karin: Thank you, Willa, for having us.
Willa: Oh, I really appreciate the chance to talk with both of you and learn more about this! So what exactly is neo-noir? I know from my conversations with Nina that noir can be really difficult to define. So how do you identify neo-noir when you see it, and how is it different from noir?
Elizabeth: That’s a very good place to start, Willa, because noir forces us to really question the way we define genre in the first place. It includes titles like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, and a whole series of Hollywood films released between 1941 and 1958, whose dark subject matter and cinematic style reflected the negative mood during and after World War II. Noir has easily recognisable and distinctive visual and thematic features, such as a striking use of silhouettes, low-key lighting, femme fatales, confessional voiceovers and dangerous urban landscapes.
Neo-noir, however, emerged in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and it comes in lots of forms, from modern-day attempts at pure noir films, to science-fiction and thrillers. A few key titles are The Usual Suspects, Blade Runner, L.A. Confidential, Se7en, Sin City, and one of my particular favourites, Drive. However, one of the most humorous places to see a noir-style pastiche is the American Dad episode, Star Trek.
Willa: Wow, Elizabeth, that list covers a really broad range. It sounds like neo-noir can be even more difficult to pin down than noir itself …
Elizabeth: Yep, you are so right. It’s that slipperiness of the term which causes so much debate. However, I think that’s what makes noir so fun for discussion. There is never a simple or straightforward answer. One cool thing about noir-style is that it translates across other genres, so Blade Runner is science-fiction, Se7en is a crime thriller, and The Usual Suspects is more of a mystery.
Lisha: Whoa. Hold up for a second here, because I’ll admit that when it comes to film noir, I still think of the instantly recognizable black-and-white Hollywood movie formula with all the cigarette smoking and a private detective in a snap-brim hat tracking down a bunch of shady characters. So can you tell us just a little more about the issues that make noir so difficult to pin down as a genre or style?
Elizabeth: You have a point, Lisha. For a lot of people noir is superficial, but for others noir’s heart lies in its themes rather than the visuals. The word does, however, mean “black film” and it actually grew out of the German Expressionism movement. The films were initially dark because of low-budget requirements.
In Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder (Willa and Nina’s discussion on Billie Jean featured it) the real darkness was found in the idea that the nicest guy in the world, Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray), found himself moving down a path of destruction. There’s a line he says, “I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.” He loses himself entirely because he thinks he can commit murder and get away with it.
That loss of self is very noir. So it’s the head-game, the psychological downfall, which always makes a noir film so compelling.
Lisha: Why do you think noir has been so irresistible for generations of filmmakers to copy as neo-noir? What accounts for its long-lasting appeal?
Elizabeth: That’s hard to say. It’s definitely true that the noir movement ended before the sixties. It just didn’t chime with the popularity of free love and liberation. However, when there’s a significant downturn, political intrigue, war and espionage, noir-style and noir-themes show up time and again.
Karin: Styles or tendencies are often revisited by artists, hence the word “neo,” from “neos” meaning “young” in the Greek. So we have words like “neo-expressionism.”
Elizabeth: Of course everyone knows the character Neo from the film, The Matrix. He is the “one,” the young saviour.
Willa: That’s interesting. So it sounds like filmmakers – and audiences too – are drawn to noir and neo-noir when they’re feeling anxious, like during a war or recession or other social unrest.
Lisha: It’s as if social events dictate when artistic themes become relevant again.
Karin: Yes, Willa and Lisha, artists are sensitive to what happens in society, and often use the general dissatisfaction with what is going on in their art. Sometimes even ahead of time.
Willa: Like when the panther dance in Black or White seemed to anticipate the Rodney King riots, as Joe Vogel pointed out in his article, “I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets: Re-screening Black Masculinity in Michael Jackson’s Black or White.”
Lisha: Great example, Willa.
Elizabeth: Also, a noir-style film can be quite compelling on a relatively low budget, which also makes them quite appealing for filmmakers. We are now a far more complex and savvy film-going audience, so a traditional noir film may not appeal to viewers as much as a sexy nostalgic homage (a respectful and admiring nod) to the past, as in L.A. Confidential.
Lisha: That’s true. Movie-goers have come to expect extremely high production values. Although I suspect some of the old films noirs still enjoy some popularity by intersecting with our notion of the “classic.”
Eliza, you also mentioned the term “noir-style pastiche,” so I’m wondering how we might define the term “pastiche.”
Elizabeth: A pastiche is how we term a work of art that is mostly an imitation of another. One film that always ends up in pastiche is the epic film, Spartacus, with people saying, “I am Spartacus!” A pastiche is usually a celebration rather than a mocking of source material. Imitation for comic effect is parody.
Lisha: That’s a good point to keep in mind, that imitation can take many forms – from a nostalgic homage to a parody or spoof. So would you say neo-noir is roughly equivalent to noir-style pastiche? Or does pastiche require a recognizable intertextual reference to a specific work?
Elizabeth: Yes, it would be very apt to refer to neo-noir as film noir in pastiche. Several neo-noir films reference quite specific works but that is not necessary to term a work a pastiche.
Karin: I agree, Elizabeth. Also pastiche is more something we use in postmodernism, by way of using elements we all recognise but put in another context.
Lisha: A tricky example might be Michael Jackson’s engagement with film noir in This Is It. In his Smooth Criminal vignette, he doesn’t imitate the genre as much as he literally inserts himself into noir classics like Gilda and The Big Sleep. Here’s a link:
Elizabeth: It’s so interesting that you say this, Lisha, because I was writing about this in my final edit of my book this morning. I dedicate an entire chapter to Jackson’s use of fashion, and in it I write about how he really made himself part of HIStory by integrating his image into that of classic Hollywood cinema. There’s something so warm and sumptuous about 1930s to 1950s cinema and it’s so clear from Smooth Criminal that this was his intention, to place himself within a classic era in the minds of his viewers.
Willa: Yes, I agree, though it’s also interesting to think about what might have attracted him in terms of the themes of Gilda and The Big Sleep, where nothing is as it seems and we’re never sure who we can trust.
Eliza: I didn’t even think of that. You are so right, Willa. That theme of “trust” is one of the most overarching themes in Jackson’s work, don’t you think? I thought of the moment in Smooth Criminal when the man with the pinstripe suit tries to stab him in the back.
Willa: Wow, what an incredible image! And this screen shot does look very noir, especially when frozen in time like this.
Lisha: It really does. Even though the film is in color, it still manages to capture the shadowy chiaroscuro lighting associated with black and white noir.
And that’s a perfect example, Eliza, on the theme of “trust.” It’s as if Michael Jackson’s character has grown eyes in the back of his head from having to constantly watch his back. Now that you mention it, I do think “trust” is an important overarching theme in Michael Jackson’s work. I’m surprised I hadn’t thought about it before.
Willa, didn’t you identify “Annie, are you ok?” as sort of anti-noir, in that it is a gesture of care and concern for the female character, Annie, rather than an assumption that she is a dangerous femme fatale who needs to be killed off by the heroic male protagonist? In this example, Michael Jackson engages with the film noir theme of distrust, while sharply departing from it at the same time.
Willa: Yes, so this is another kind of imitation – neither homage nor parody, but evoking a classic work from the past in order to rewrite it.
Lisha: That is such a fascinating and inspiring idea. I noticed another gendered anti-noir move in Smooth Criminal, in the instrumental break, when we see a beautiful female jazz saxophone player on the bandstand.
Musically speaking, jazz saxophone is the apotheosis of all noir cliches, and it strongly codes male. In film noir, the saxophone is typically heard when a sexy female appears on screen, as a sort of male cat call. In Smooth Criminal we never actually hear a saxophone – there’s no saxophone in the song – but we see a sax player onstage as a visual imitation of noir. However, it isn’t one of the boys in the band as we might expect. It’s a beautiful female musician looking somewhat glamorous in her fancy dress.
This strikes me as going against the way jazz saxophone is generically used in film noir. The image of a female saxophone player both engages our memory of film noir and disrupts it at the same time.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha. It’s kind of similar to how he used Jennifer Batten and Orianthi in concert to both evoke and disrupt our ideas about hard rock guitarists.
Lisha: That’s exactly what I was thinking!
Of course many fans understand Smooth Criminal as a specific intertextual reference to “Girl Hunt Ballet,” the play-within-a-movie from Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon. I think most Michael Jackson insiders would rightly point to Smooth Criminal as a heart-felt homage to Fred Astaire.
Willa: Yes, and one of the first things Fred Astaire’s character says in “Girl Hunt” is “Somewhere in a furnished room a guy was practicing on a horn. It was a lonesome sound. It crawled on my spine.” Which could evoke an image of a saxophone …
Lisha: You’re so right, Willa! That scene highlights what an important element jazz is in classic film noir. Although I do believe it is a trumpet player in that scene, not a sax player, if I remember correctly.
Willa: Oh, you’re right. I should know better than to trust my memory! I just watched that opening scene again, and we do hear a trumpet playing in the background, and even catch a glimpse of it through an open window. Here’s a clip of “Girl Hunt Ballet,” and the trumpet appears about a minute in:
Lisha: The Band Wagon is pretty interesting in and of itself, because I think we could interpret “Girl Hunt Ballet” as a noir-style pastiche, even though it was made in 1953, during the same time period classic films noirs were still being made.
So I wonder if pastiche plays an important role in genre formation itself, since pastiche identifies the specific elements that are needed for a successful imitation?
Willa: Wow, that’s a really interesting idea, Lisha! It reminds me of Lorena Turner’s work with Michael Jackson impersonators, and how they lead us to a better understanding of Michael Jackson’s iconography. What exactly is needed to “be” Michael Jackson? Through the impersonators Lorena photographed, it becomes clear that you really don’t need to physically look like Michael Jackson, his face and body – you simply need a glove, a fedora, and a distinctive pose, for example, or maybe a red leather jacket with a strong V cut.
So those “imitators” help us identify what is essential about Michael Jackson’s star text, just as you suggest that pastiche (like neo-noir) helps us identify what is essential to a given genre (like noir).
Lisha: Exactly! Perhaps we should think of Smooth Criminal as a noir pastiche of a noir pastiche?
Willa: Wow. So you’re saying that neo-noir is a pastiche of noir, and Smooth Criminal is a pastiche of neo-noir, so it’s a noir pastiche of a noir pastiche? Do I have that right?
Lisha: Too funny! Yes, I think I just suggested something crazy like that.
Willa: Ok, I’m really going to have to think about that … but it does sound like the kind of loop-de-loop reference that Michael Jackson loved …
So a director who is frequently mentioned in discussions of neo-noir is David Fincher, who directed Michael Jackson’s Who Is It video in 1993. For complicated reasons that aren’t very clear, there were actually two videos made for Who Is It. Joie talked about this a little bit in a post we did a couple years ago. The second version is simply a montage of concert and video clips, but for some reason it seems to be the “official” one – for example, it’s the one that was released in the US when the song debuted, and it’s the version available on the Michael Jackson channel of Vevo.
So the David Fincher version has not been widely viewed and can be a little difficult to find online, but here’s an HD version of it on YouTube:
Elizabeth: It’s relevant that the Who Is It short film included in the Dangerous Short Films anthology was the one Fincher directed.
Willa: That’s true, and it’s in the Vision boxed set also, so it has some degree of official acceptance. That’s a good point, Elizabeth.
So I love this short film, and it does have a very noir-ish feel to it, doesn’t it? What are some specific visual elements you see in Who Is It that help create that noir-type mood or feeling?
Elizabeth: It uses many of the specific visual elements Fincher used in his feature films in the following years – Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999) and much later, The Social Network (2010) – such as the repeated use of low-key lighting throughout the sequences to create an ominous tone and a sense of foreboding. Fincher also uses stark white light, as in the scene towards the end with the female character weeping, or he uses very muted lighting, where fluorescent bulbs don’t really illuminate the corners of the space.
Willa: Yes, and that’s pretty unusual, isn’t it? For example, here’s a screen capture from about 5:20 minutes, when the female lead is at the gate and the manager character won’t let her in. You can see that the edges of the shot are dark and uneven, as if the picture field weren’t fully exposed.
There are also scenes where the light is coming from below, which is pretty unsettling. We’re used to light coming from above, like sunlight, and we rarely see faces, especially, lit from below, unless it’s a 50s-style horror movie. Here’s a screen capture from about 4:20 minutes in with the light shining up from under the character’s faces:
It really makes them look eerie and artificial, like store mannequins.
Elizabeth: The store mannequins, oh yes. Nice observation, Willa. And that whole idea links to this sense of being plastic and fake, not quite real. We can’t quite trust what they say because, although they seem human, they aren’t. And this extends to the words they say and the theme of the song. In terms of the lighting, I really enjoy the fact that the light seems drowned out by the encroaching darkness.
And of course, there are so many shots where only half of a face is illuminated, giving us a sense that the characters are being duplicitous and untrustworthy. Isn’t that what Who is It is all about? Who can we trust? Who has betrayed us?
Willa: Exactly. And you’re right, there are numerous shots where a face is only partially lit, suggesting we don’t see that person completely – not their face, their motives, or their character. So even something as subtle as lighting reinforces the meaning of the film and the lyrics. Who can we trust?, as you say. And it isn’t just the shape-shifting female lead, the one who goes by so many different names (Alex, Diana, Celeste, Eve, … ). All of the characters are pretty shadowy – both psychologically and visually. It’s not clear that we can trust anyone.
Elizabeth: You’re right, Willa. And what you’ve highlighted is how amazing Michael Jackson was when it comes to linking across his mediums – song complements short film complements costume and so on and so forth. What is also quite clear is that there is an exchange of money going on for sexual services, which makes the nameless female lead into a literal “object” of desire.
Lisha: You know, the money for sex is something I find confusing in this film. When I see the world of rarefied luxury and helicopter travel depicted here, I’m thinking extremely high stakes. The wardrobe and makeup artists employed to execute these spectacular acts of duplicity evoke the world of espionage, corporate or national security, and figures in the hundreds of millions or billions. The level of intrigue seems to go way beyond the mere sexual encounter, although that is clearly one aspect of the betrayal and psychological torture going on. What do you think?
Elizabeth: Oooh Lisha, that is a cool point. You are very right that what seems to be at stake is far more than sex.
Willa: I agree. It does seem to be more like very high stakes espionage.
Elizabeth: The Second World War was famed for its duplicitous female agents, using their womanly wiles to tempt secrets out of the (predominantly male) opposition. However, I also find it quite interesting that the character of the high-end sex-worker has a value far higher than the average viewer might expect. This is a character who obviously serves very wealthy clients and tends to their every whim.
Either way, it’s a particularly dark theme. I like to think of Michael as the femme fatale himself. Two authors have discussed this in some depth: Susan Fast in Bloomsbury’s Dangerous, and Marjorie Garber in Vested Interests. Both wrote on Jackson’s crossing of the male-female binary. In one interview Karen Faye, Jackson’s personal makeup artist, stated he didn’t accept these binaries at all. He built his aesthetics (identification of beauty) on a level that went beyond masculine/feminine.
Karin: I agree, Elizabeth. I think he built his aesthetics way beyond the binary of male/female. He always thought of human beings as being all the same.
Elizabeth: And we all have feminine and masculine qualities. It really is two halves of a whole. Notions of femininity and masculinity are really constructed by society and ideologies which have no basis in biology or reality. They are obstacles we put in our own way and MJ wasn’t interested in them. But bringing it back to the theme of neo-noir is the idea of binaries too, because the femme fatale is dangerous because of her unrestrained sexuality and her ambiguous morals.
Karin: This ambiguity is what we see so well in Who Is It.
Elizabeth: You are so correct, Karin. This is another link to Billie Jean and is found in the shots below, again the bed becomes a place of intrigue. There are physical and nonphysical exchanges here that we (as an audience) are not privy to. So we must decide for ourselves what is going on, and this heightens the mystery.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Elizabeth, and this scene is evocative of the bed scene in Billie Jean, isn’t it?
Elizabeth: Yes it is, Willa. It also shows us how MJ references his own work. Other specific visual elements that Fincher often uses are found within the city itself, and I love how, in his work, the city is often given its own personality.
In Who Is It the city is presented as a golden otherworldly labyrinth that Jackson is separated/protected from by a glass wall. He is distanced from the society in which he lives, much like all of Fincher’s subsequent neo-noir protagonists. There are angel statues on the cover of the Dangerous album and they appear again in the city, bringing to mind the City of Angels, Los Angeles, which is ironic, of course, because “all that glitters (see the shot below) is not gold.”
Lisha: That is such a beautiful screen shot, Eliza. I’m wondering why I’ve never zeroed in on that before. He is in a major urban area, enjoying all the economic advantages the city has to offer, yet he is so completely isolated and alienated at the same time. The paradox is communicated by a sheet of glass.
Willa: Yes, and we see that same motif repeated in Stranger in Moscow. That film opens with a shot of a man seen through the glass of his apartment window, eating his supper from a can. Then we cut to a scene of a sad-looking woman in a coffee shop, but again we’re looking at her through a glass wall. And then there’s that wonderful scene about 3:05 minutes in where the man in his apartment sees the kids outside running through the rain, and then reaches up and touches the glass. Here’s a screen capture:
Lisha: That is such a strong image.
Willa: I agree. I love that moment, and think the glass imagery here functions like the glass wall in Who Is It. As you said, Elizabeth, this character “is within society but separated from it.” But I think this character begins to regret his isolation after seeing the kids run through the puddles, and that’s when he makes the decision to go outside and stand in the rain, and begin to experience life more fully.
Elizabeth: Oh yes, and only if he leaves his glass prison, can he hope to begin to communicate with those around him.
Karin: The difference with Stranger in Moscow is that it is not Michael behind a window that separates him from society, but the black man and the sad woman who play a role in the short film. Michael is walking the dark gritty streets of “Moscow” and, as I analyzed in my essay “From Throne to Wilderness: Michael Jackson’s ‘Stranger in Moscow’ and the Foucauldian Outlaw,” I believe he is separated but also separates himself from society in a different way. To me, he is also not part of the five people who are clearly abandoned from the so-called “normal” world. Michael seems to be separated by his “glowing face,” a face we can also see in the black and white sequence in the short film Bad.
Stranger in Moscow has this very estranged, alienated mood. The loneliness is dripping from the screen and is emphasised by the slow motion, which is not typical for noir but definitely for neo-noir. I think it is mainly the mood in Stranger in Moscow that is very neo-noir.
Lisha: I didn’t realize slow motion was characteristic of neo-noir, Karin. I’m fascinated by how the sense of alienation in Stranger is depicted through two distinct temporalities happening at once. Michael Jackson was filmed in front of a blue screen singing and walking very slowly on a treadmill, which was later added to the slow motion background. So as he sings in real time with the music, everyone and everything else is moving in slow motion, like some kind of separate, alternate reality.
Willa: Yes, that’s a very important observation, Lisha. It’s so interesting how slow motion is used in Stranger in Moscow. When we look at the city directly, everyone and everything moves at normal speed. But when it’s implied that we’re looking at the city from the perspective of one of the isolated people – the woman sitting alone in the coffee shop, or the homeless man lying by the sidewalk, or the teenager watching other kids play ball, or the man eating supper from a can, or the businessman watching pigeons, or even Michael Jackson himself – the world suddenly appears to be moving very slowly. Even the raindrops fall in slow motion.
Lisha: Wow, Willa, that’s exactly it. The slow motion is the perspective of those who are not participating in the normal rhythms of the city.
Willa: Exactly. Or who do participate to some degree, like the man with the pigeons or the woman in the coffee shop – both of them are wearing business suits – but who still feel disconnected from those rhythms. At least, that’s how it seems to me.
For example, we see pedestrians walking by the coffee shop, and they’re walking at normal speed. But then the scene shifts and we see the lonely woman watching the pedestrians, and now they seem to be moving in slow motion. So when we’re looking at them through her eyes, as it were, they’re moving in this oddly decelerated way. But she herself isn’t – she’s still moving at normal speed.
That difference in film speed creates a dislocation between those isolated people and the pedestrians who pass them by, and that disconnect is very effective at emphasizing just how detached they are from the world around them. As you write in your article, Karin,
On the one hand, the slow motion has the function of magnifying emotion, and on the other hand it shows two distinct worlds and the distance between those two worlds.
I agree completely. It also seems to be trying to capture or re-create the sensory experience of depression – of what it feels like to be in a bustling world when you are depressed and out of sync with everyone around you.
Lisha: It’s such a powerful visual depiction of “How does it feel, when you’re alone and it’s cold outside?”
Willa: I agree.
Lisha: And it allows us to inhabit the perspective of those five characters you mentioned, Karin, who are “clearly abandoned from the so-called ‘normal’ world.”
Getting back to what you said earlier, I’ve always been fascinated by the choices Michael Jackson made in this film to achieve such a glowing, colorless look for his face.
Karin: Yes, Lisha, it is as if he wants to disappear into the mass, the streets and the people walking around him.
Elizabeth: I agree wholeheartedly. It’s particularly interesting when we look at Michael’s use of his face and the concept of “masquing” and “masque” culture. This is an extended metaphor about identity in many neo-noir films, and one that Michael uses to articulate his relationship with his audience. They always seem to be wondering “who is he?”
Willa: Which refers us back again to Who Is It. Masques are a recurring theme in that film as well – from the oddly blank face we see rising beneath the white blotter on the desk or pushing out from behind the white wall, to the disguises worn by the Alex/Diana/Celeste/Eve character as she shifts identities, to the more subtle subterfuges of other characters as they decide what to reveal and what to keep hidden. We don’t truly know anyone in that film, not even Michael Jackson’s character, though the song accompanying the film is written from his point of view. So while we may be inside his mind to some extent, he is still somewhat distant and unknowable.
Elizabeth: Notions about identity are at the forefront of neo-noir films, especially in terms of being an individual in a society. No one is exempt from feeling alienated from others, and without our connection to others, how do we know that we are alive?
Karin: In the article “Eighties Noir: The Dissenting Voice in Reagan’s America” in The Journal of Popular Film and Television, Robert Arnett writes about the “face mask motif” that “furthers the analogy between the undercover plot device and ’80s visual media obsession.” In your article “Bad (1987),” Elizabeth, you write about the extreme close up in the black and white part and refer to it as act of defiance.
It is interesting to see how Michael used his own face, which was seen by the public as a mask, as “an act of defiance” in Bad because there was so much speculation in the tabloid media about his face. The mask as described by Arnett is “revered and experienced as a veritable apparition of the mythical being it represents.” However, in Bad, he does not represent himself as a mythical being but as himself in a “look at me, this is who I am” kind of way.
In Stranger in Moscow his “mask” is referring to him as a simple human being who walks the streets of Moscow. However, his glowing face-mask distinguishes him from all the other faces around him, which gives it this mythical representation, as if he has no connection to others anymore.
Willa: Yes, and that sense of alienation from society seems very noirish. As Nina said,
So many noir films convey a story about the way characters struggle with both internal and external forces to maintain their moral integrity in a fundamentally corrupt world.
That’s a good description of both Who Is It and Stranger in Moscow – and Bad also, as you mentioned, Karin. There’s a similar theme in Smooth Criminal, You Rock My World, Give In to Me, and others as well. In all of these films, the world is “fundamentally corrupt,” and Michael Jackson’s character must figure out how to negotiate that corruption without becoming tainted himself.
You know, I hadn’t really thought about it before, but that’s a recurring theme in Michael Jackson’s work, isn’t it? For example, if I think about his early videos, meaning the three videos from the Thriller album, that’s precisely what Beat It and Billie Jean are about – an innocent young man negotiating a corrupt world. But then Thriller complicates that. We’re never sure about the main character, Michael – about whether he’s innocent or not. He’s constantly shifting back and forth between a sweet, guileless teenage boy and a monster/zombie, between an innocent and the very epitome of corruption.
Elizabeth: Now we’re really taking it to another level: Jackson’s use of complex innocence and corruption themes is an entire theme in itself. The ambiguity, or what one could call the liminality of innocence, is what Jackson negotiates, don’t you think? The notions we have of the innocent and who is innocent. It comes up again and again. He never gives us a truly straight answer. In Smooth Criminal he is good but he commits violence throughout the sequences, in Thriller he’s the heartthrob and the zombie, and in Bad he is the innocent schoolboy and “bad” as he starts a dance-fight in a subway.
Lisha: And doesn’t that lead us right back to the issue of perspective? I feel like this is especially clear in Thriller, if we think about how we can experience the character “Michael” through his girlfriend’s eyes. As she is overwhelmed by the excitement of being in love, she sees and experiences a “thrill-her” date with her handsome new boyfriend. When she begins to fear where all this might take her, she sees and experiences a scary creature from a “thriller” horror film.
The girlfriend’s experience is dependent upon what she brings to the table at any particular moment in time. When she looks at the world through the perspective of love, she sees beauty. When she looks at the world through fear, she sees a monster.
Willa: Wow, that is so interesting, Lisha! As many times as I’ve watched Thriller, I’ve never thought about it that way before.
Lisha: Isn’t that a perfect reflection of how we collectively experience Michael Jackson? He is an angel or a devil, innocent or guilty, depending on what the viewer brings to the table. This ambiguity forces us to question the whole concept of reality, showing us how perception trumps what is “really there.”
Willa: Yes, that’s a really important connection. And I agree, Elizabeth, that he does seem to be exploring the grey areas between guilt and innocence – “the liminality of innocence,” as you called it – and I love those examples you gave. He may be positioned in the hero role in Smooth Criminal, but he commits numerous acts of violence, as you say. And in Billie Jean, he may not be the father of the child whose “eyes looked like mine,” but he did go to her room and something – we’re not sure what – “happened much too soon.” That ambiguity occurs throughout Michael Jackson’s work.
Elizabeth: However, one short film which is definitely not ambiguous is Scream, and it’s one we should definitely mention before closing because it has a lot of noir-esque features (including a heightened mood of alienation). It is set in the vacuum of space and “in space, no one can hear you scream.” Putting Michael and Janet in this off-world environment really heightens the connection between alienation and celebrity/fame.
Karin: Yes, they surrounded themselves with art, which is often qualified as higher status and more distanced from people. So the art with which they surround themselves in their spacecraft world can also be seen as an alienating aspect.
Elizabeth: Not only do they surround themselves with art, they also attempt things on their own or in a pair that would usually be done in a group, such as playing sports, playing music. What we see in Scream is more escapism, a self-imposed exile. These are two characters in exile, and they have been put as far from their fellow human beings as possible. They can only connect through screens and other conduits. We get a sense that they are trying desperately to amuse themselves and all of it is in vain. The up-tempo beat of the song contradicts sharply with this.
Lisha: Wow, Elizabeth! Never in a million years would I thought of Scream in terms of neo-noir, but there it is! Mind blown.
Willa: I agree. I wouldn’t have thought of Scream as neo-noir either, but it makes so much sense now that you say that, Elizabeth. All the elements we’ve been talking about, from visual elements like high-contrast lighting to thematic elements like isolation and the difficulty of being an innocent individual confronted by a corrupt society – they’re all there, aren’t they?
Elizabeth: Yes they are, Willa, Lisha. It’s one of those things that strikes you in a really uncanny way – that Scream which is free from all the stereotypes of noir is in fact very clearly neo-noir and dealing with so many of those ideas. Don’t you think that the space location serves to heighten the noir-ness of Scream?
Lisha: Most definitely. And with the sad news of David Bowie’s passing, I can’t help relating Scream to Bowie’s 1969 Space Oddity.
Bowie’s character “Major Tom,” was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowie said he strongly identified with its sense of isolation and alienation. I definitely see a lot of this work in Scream.
Willa: You know, we should talk about that sometime. There are a lot of connections there to Michael Jackson, as you say. Elizabeth, Karin – would you like to join us in that discussion?
Elizabeth: I would love to join you guys for a Bowie post. Can’t wait.
Karin: Yes, of course. I love Bowie and have listened to his music, and read a lot about him. So I’d be excited for that.
Willa: Wonderful! And thank you both so much for educating us about neo-noir! It really opened my eyes and allowed me to see some of his films in ways I never had before. I really value that, so thank you sincerely.
I’d also like to let everyone know that our friend Toni Bowers has an article about Michael Jackson and biography coming out soon in the Los Angeles Review of Books – next Tuesday, I believe. I’ll post a link as soon as it goes up, but you may want to keep a lookout for it.