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If the Angels Came for Me, I’d Tell Them No

Willa:  Joie, a few weeks ago we were talking about “Best of Joy,” and you quoted some lines from Dylan Thomas:

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

I’ve been thinking about those lines ever since because we see this idea of “death shall have no dominion” a number of times in Michael Jackson’s work – perhaps most explicitly in “Heaven Can Wait,” but also when he seemingly dies but then returns in Moonwalker and Ghosts.

Joie:  That’s true, Willa. It is a theme that we see more than once from him – in both songs and short films.

Willa:  And not just from him, Joie, but many major artists, and I think it’s because death is probably the most difficult concept humans have to face. I read an article a long time ago where the author said he felt the real distinction between humans and other animals is the terrible knowledge that we’re all going to die. As he said, all animals die but humans are the only animals that know it. Or we assume we’re the only animals that know it. Elephants will sometimes visit the bones of their ancestors, and handle them in an almost reverent way. Does that mean they understand the concept of death? Do they know they’re going to die?

Joie:  You know, I am a firm believer that animals know a lot more than we as humans will ever comprehend. I believe that some are more intuitive than others – like the majestic elephant – and they know things and understand things about our world. Much more than humans will ever give them credit for.

Willa:  Oh I agree, and think it’s a huge mistake to assume that since we don’t know the depth of an animal’s thoughts and emotions, they don’t have profound thoughts and emotions. When one of my dogs died of bone cancer several years ago, the other went into deep mourning for a long time and never forgot his friend. If I mentioned his friend’s name in conversation, even years later, he’d look up and watch me very closely.

But the point I’m trying to make is that we all carry the terrible burden of knowing we’re going to die someday, and so are all the people we care about. And one function of art is to help us deal with our deepest emotions, like the fear of death and the grief of losing someone we love. Poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, musicians – artists in many different forms – have struggled for centuries to somehow come to grips with that terrible, terrible knowledge. How do you face life when you know you’re going to die? How do you let yourself love someone fully and deeply when you know they’re going to die? How do you have children when you know they will die someday and pass on this legacy of death? Does life become bitter for us, or does it seem all the more sweet and precious because of that constant threat of death?

Joie:  Wow. Those are heavy questions, Willa. But you’re right … artists have struggled with that knowledge for centuries and have used it to fuel some of the greatest artistic works of all time.

Willa:  They really have, and they’ve come up with a wide range of responses, though some are a lot more popular than others. For example, there’s the famous Thomas Herrick poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” where he advises “the Virgins” to go ahead and have a good time while they can:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

Herrick published this poem in the 1600s, and this “carpe diem” philosophy of “have fun now while you’re young and full of life” is expressed in poetry written more than 2,000 years ago. And it’s still very popular today – especially with musicians, it seems. You hear it on the radio all the time, like in the Kesha song with the repeated refrain, “Let’s make the most of the night / Like we’re gonna die young.”

Joie:  Ok, I see what you’re saying, Willa. It is a very popular topic with musicians. But getting back to your question of ‘does life become bitter for us or does it seem all the more sweet and precious’ because of this constant threat of death … I think the answer to that lies with the individual. Some people are inevitably going to lean toward the bitter option. But I like to think that, for most of us, we tend to embrace the latter idea of life becoming more sweet and precious because of this knowledge. And I think what you said about some artists’ responses being more popular than others reflects that.

Willa: Yes, but artists can also lead us to think about these ideas in new ways. Like I just heard a song on the radio called “Carry On,” and it had these lyrics:

So I met up with some friends at the edge of the night
At a bar off 75
And we talked and talked about how our parents will die
All our neighbors and wives
But I like to think I can cheat it all
To make up for the times I’ve been cheated on

So what the band, Fun, seems to be saying with these lyrics is that they want to believe they can “cheat” death and in that way compensate for times when they’ve felt “cheated on” by life. You know, I’ve never thought about things in quite that way before.

An even better example, I think, is Michael Jackson’s “Be Not Always.” It’s a song about war (“Mothers cry, babies die / Helplessly in arms / While rockets fly”) and racism (“How can we claim to stand for peace / When the races are in strife / Destroying life?”) and poverty (“To have nothing / To dream something / Then lose hoping …”). In other words, this song addresses some of our biggest societal problems – problems so big and so complicated we tend to think of them as eternal and unsolvable. But Michael Jackson is begging us to stop thinking that way. He’s telling us these problems don’t have to be eternal … and shame on us if they are:

Be not always
But if always
Bow our heads in shame
Please, be not always
‘Cause if always
Bow our heads in blame
‘Cause time has made promises
Just promises

This is the chorus, and he sings it twice with a slight variation between them. The first time he sings it, he ends with “Time has made promises / Just promises,” and to me, what he seems to be saying is that these problems are difficult but not everlasting. Time is what’s eternal, and “time has made promises” that we can solve these problems if we keep working at them. But as he goes on to say, time gives us “just promises.” Those promises won’t come true unless we work for them – and we must. In fact, we should “bow our heads in shame” if we don’t keep striving against them until we’ve solved them.

But then he sings the chorus a second time, and this time around he changes that final line. This time he sings, “Time has made promises / Death promises.” Joie, that line just gives me chills, but it’s also strangely inspiring. He’s revised what he told us before, and now his message is much darker. What he seems to be saying is that, really, the only thing Time promises us for certain is that we’re all going to die. Time makes “death promises.” And because of that – because Time will surely bring death to each of us someday – we need to strive with everything we have to preserve the preciousness of all life.

Joie:  I see what you’re saying, Willa. But I have to be honest with you and admit that I really don’t care for that particular song. I understand the importance of the message behind it, but the song itself is so depressing and morbid in tone and feeling. And I understand why the critics at the time were really left scratching their heads when the Victory album came out. Their question was, what is this song of such gloom and doom doing on an album that is supposed to be a victorious celebration? It just didn’t fit, and I remember reading somewhere back then that the brothers weren’t very happy with Michael’s choice of song either.

But I’m getting slightly off topic here. You are right in your assertion that this song points out, rather bluntly, that the only thing Time really promises to us is death.

Willa:  But so does the Kesha song, and no one seems to think it’s morbid. And to me, if a song is going to remind me of my own mortality, I’d much rather it be a beautiful ballad like “Be Not Always” than a flippant pop song. And the Thomas Herrick / Kesha idea that we’re all going to die so we should just party like there’s no tomorrow quite frankly isn’t very inspiring to me. In fact, it makes life seem pretty pointless. To me, Michael Jackson’s approach in “Be Not Always” is much more uplifting. It makes me feel like I should try to live in a meaningful way precisely because life is so short and so precious.

And actually, in one of those funny little moments of synchronicity, our friend Lisha McDuff just sent me a wonderful 10-minute short film called The Empathic Civilization that touches on this very topic. It’s based on a speech by economist and writer Jeremy Rifkin. Here’s a link:

I love this film, and two things especially jump out at me. First, scientists in Italy have found that mammals are “soft wired” to feel empathy – especially humans and primates, probably elephants, and maybe dogs and dolphins. And secondly, that our empathetic development takes a huge leap forward – an “existential leap” – when we realize that we’re going to die someday, and so is every other living thing on this planet. It’s precisely that painful knowledge that leads us to care deeply for other people we may not even have met. And to me, this is exactly the idea Michael Jackson is getting at in “Be Not Always.”

Joie:  That is such an interesting video to watch, Willa. The animation really holds your attention and illustrates the “lesson” the narrator is giving.

But I disagree with your assertion that “Be Not Always” is more uplifting than Kesha’s “Die Young.” I’m not a fan of the song by any means but, all it’s really saying is ‘hey, let’s go out and have a good time tonight.’ “Be Not Always,” on the other hand is talking about some really heavy, overwhelmingly depressing subject matter. And his delivery of it, while poignant, heartbreaking and thought-provoking, is so raw. It’s almost too painful to listen to. For me, anyway. I’m sorry to be so negative here. You know that I can count the number of Michael Jackson songs that I really don’t like on one hand, but this song just happens to be one of them. In fact … I honestly can’t think of another one right now. This may actually be the only one.

Willa:  Wow, that’s interesting, Joie. We have such similar reactions to so many of Michael Jackson’s works, it always kind of shocks me when we see things differently. And I guess we see “Be Not Always” very differently. To me, it’s a lot like Stranger in Moscow, where he’s taking a painful situation and turning it into something beautiful and meaningful. I love it when he does that. To me, that’s Michael Jackson at his best.

Joie:  Well, I agree with that statement, Willa. That is Michael Jackson at his best. But I just don’t see that happening here. To me, “Be Not Always” just takes a painful situation and makes it more morbid. And I’ll admit that I’m probably just not “getting it,” but the message is totally lost on me because I can’t get past how depressing it is. And I know this is going to sound extremely shallow of me, but I can’t listen to a song that’s only going to depress me.

You know, we talked about “Little Susie” a few weeks ago, and to me that song is a great example of Michael taking a painful situation and turning it into something beautiful, as you said. And yet, even though the subject matter is sad and depressing, the lyrics are beautiful. The music itself is breathtaking. The song grabs a hold of me from the very beginning and draws me in, making me care about this poor, neglected, dead little girl.

“Be Not Always” doesn’t do that for me. Instead of being drawn in, I am repelled. There’s nothing for me to grab onto – the lyrics are distressing, the music is bleak, the mood is hopeless. At the end of the song I feel empty, not uplifted.

Willa:  Joie, I’m just astonished. To me, “Little Susie” is far more depressing than “Be Not Always.” And the melody and his voice are so beautiful, and so is the instrumentation – just a simple acoustic guitar accompanying him throughout the entire song. It’s like his own version of MJ Unplugged, something we don’t get to hear very often.

Joie:  Wow. I can’t believe you find “Little Susie” more depressing than “Be Not Always.” I’m actually equally astonished, Willa. And I find our differences in opinion on this one so interesting. I don’t know that we’ve ever had such a huge gap in our feelings about a song before, do you?

Willa:  No, I think you’re right. We’ve disagreed about how we interpret different aspects of certain songs or videos, but I can’t remember us ever having such completely opposite reactions before. I feel like I need to listen to “Be Not Always” again with your words in mind to see if I can try to hear it the way you do, because I respond so differently.

But to get back to the theme of death, he actually touches on it fairly often, in different ways. Sometimes he addresses it more directly, like in “Gone Too Soon,” the song he dedicated to Ryan White. And sometimes he’s much more subtle. For example, it’s part of the backstory for the Bad short film, and contributes to the sense of threat and foreboding we feel in that film, I think.

Joie:  Oh, I agree, it is a theme that he touched on often and in varying degrees.

Willa:  It is, and what I really wanted to talk about were the “death shall have no dominion” ones. For example, in Moonwalker, the main character, Michael, is surrounded by armed soldiers with seemingly no escape. He transforms into an armed robot and begins fighting back – though interestingly, his most powerful weapon seems to be his voice, crying in pain. He then transforms into a spaceship and tries to escape, but is shot down and seems to be destroyed. But when the evil Mr. Lideo threatens the children, the spaceship returns and destroys Mr. Lideo and his entire operation instead – and again, even though he is now a spaceship and not human, we hear his voice, crying in pain. And again, his voice seems to be what makes him so powerful.

Then he begins to fly off into space, but a shooting star suddenly appears. We see a shooting star repeatedly in Moonwalker, and it’s somehow linked with the Michael character and with magic – it seems to call out the magic that’s within him. But this time the shooting star collides with the spaceship, there’s a big explosion, and he’s gone. The children miss him, and even start to question whether that magic exists – as Katie says, “It’s not a lucky star.” But then she says, “I wish he would come back,” and he does. So he seemingly dies not once but twice, and then against all odds he reappears and there’s a happy reunion.

Ghosts has a somewhat similar structure, but with some major differences also. Once again his character, the nameless Maestro, is under attack, but this time it’s not by a criminal mastermind and his thugs – it’s by the Mayor and townspeople where he lives. And they aren’t attacking him because they harbor evil ambitions, but because they’re frightened and want to make that fear go away. So his goal is different. He isn’t trying to defeat the villagers but connect with them and dissipate that fear. And as in Moonwalker, his voice – actually, the evocative power of both his singing and dancing – is his most powerful weapon.

However, the Mayor still wants him to leave, so the Maestro destroys himself – pounding himself to dust, which then blows away. After he’s gone, the children miss him, and even the townspeople who were trying to drive him out of town feel regret for what’s happened. And it’s after that change of heart that he returns.

Joie:  Oh, I see what you’re saying, Willa. It’s as if he’s repeating that theme of “death shall have no dominion” in each of those short films by returning just when everyone starts to believe that he really is gone. You know, it’s a subject he addresses head on in the song “Heaven Can Wait.” And of course, much more subtly in “Best of Joy,” as we talked about a few weeks ago.

Willa:  Exactly, but it seems to function a little differently here. He doesn’t seem to be trying to say something about death, so much as using death as an artistic device for psychological and artistic reasons. What I mean is, he’s using the presumed death and reappearance of these two protagonists to create a specific emotional effect in the audience.

In both of these films, the protagonist is under attack and undergoes a deep personal trauma – one we as an audience experience also through our identification with him. In Moonwalker, we witness Michael’s powerlessness as Mr. Lideo hits and threatens Katie, and then kicks and beats him when he tries to help her. In Ghosts we hear the Mayor threaten and ridicule the Maestro and stir the villagers against him, and then we watch the Maestro brutally destroy himself in front of our very eyes.

These are both very traumatic events. When Michael and the Maestro “die,” it draws out all the painful emotions evoked by those traumas: grief, fear, compassion, anger, outrage. It’s like a snakebite kit pulling venom from a wound. And then when Michael and the Maestro return, all of those emotions are washed away, and we’re left with a feeling of relief and renewal. So taken together, this double movement of death and reappearance provide us with catharsis – almost like a Reset button for rebooting our emotions so we aren’t stuck with the trauma of what we’ve experienced.

Joie:  That’s a very interesting way of looking at that, Willa. I’m not sure I would have thought of it in that way before but, I like the way you put that.

Willa:  Well, there are many different ways to interpret these two films, and this is only one approach. But it’s very interesting to me to think about how his character’s death and reappearance in these films affect us as an audience. The extreme emotional whiplash we experience when he dies and comes back to life seems to bring about a kind of psychological cleansing – a purging of the deep trauma we endured before this final crisis. And using art to purge an audience of uncomfortable emotions and bring about a feeling of rebirth or renewal is precisely what Aristotle meant by the word “catharsis.”

It’s a very old concept – more than 2,000 years old – and we tend to think we’ve changed a lot in those 2,000 years. But while daily life for humans has changed tremendously since then, human nature apparently hasn’t, and this process of catharsis still powerfully moves us as an audience, even today.