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Summer Rewind 2013, Week 7: Best of Joy

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

We are Forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Rewind 2013, Week 6: Childhood

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

Searching for that Wonder in My Youth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa: Yeah?

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

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

untitled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Magic of Studio 54

Willa:  This week Joie and I are very happy to be joined by our friend, Eleanor Bowman. Eleanor joined us a few weeks ago for a fascinating look at Michael Jackson’s environmental works, and how she believes he’s challenging our notions of a mind/body split as well as reconfiguring our relationship with nature. Since then, Eleanor has been researching what she sees as an important but largely overlooked period in Michael Jackson’s artistic development: the late 1970s, when he and La Toya Jackson were living in New York, he was working on The Wiz, and he was spending a lot of time at Studio 54. Eleanor, thanks so much for joining us!

Eleanor:  Hi Willa. Thanks to you and Joie for inviting me.

Joie:  We’re excited to have you.

Willa:  So Eleanor, I love the interview you shared of Michael Jackson at Studio 54, talking with Jane Pauley about what made Studio 54 special and different from any other club:

Eleanor:  Isn’t that interview great!  His innocence and sweetness and kindness and sincerity are so “out there.” Probably one of the last unguarded interviews he ever did.

Willa:  He seems so earnest, doesn’t he? Like he’s trying really hard to explain to Jane Pauley how he sees things and feels about things, but she isn’t quite getting it.

Eleanor:  Right. One of the funny things about this interview is that Pauley seems amazed at MJ’s seemingly innocent enjoyment of Studio 54, which was notorious for sex and drugs – but he just wasn’t “going there” in the interview. He wanted to focus on other things – on the magic and fun and the freedom. I think Pauley didn’t really understand that Michael’s childhood touring experiences – sharing rooms with his older, sexually active brothers and opening for strip shows – had pretty much inured him to being shocked by anything (except, of course, cruelty and hate). I think she couldn’t understand that the innocent he appeared to be could take what he wanted and needed from the Studio 54 experience and leave the rest alone.

Joie:  Why don’t you explain Studio 54, Eleanor, for those who aren’t aware of what it was exactly.

Eleanor:  I’d be happy to, Joie. Studio 54 was a legendary Manhattan disco – the brainchild of a couple of young guys, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. It was so famous that it defined New York night life in the late 70’s and early 80’s. People came from all over the world to join the crowds outside its doors, hoping to get in. Rubell and Schrager apparently had hit on the perfect recipe for providing a place where the glamorous – celebrities and non-celebrities alike – could mix and mingle and dance, and live out their fantasies (which for some meant being able to openly indulge in sex and drugs). And, it was probably the last place I would expect to find the shy, retiring Michael Jackson. Yet, there he was, along with Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Andy Warhol, Cher, Brooke Shields, Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, Mick Jagger, Bianca Jagger, Steven Tyler, Caroline Kennedy, Maria Shriver, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Tatum O’Neil. Here are some pictures:

Studio 54Studio 54 pic 3Studio 54 pic 1

He was even rumored to DJ with Truman Capote….

Willa:  Wow, Michael Jackson and Truman Capote DJing together? Wouldn’t you love to know what they played? And how they decided? And what they said into the mic? And what they said to each other?

Eleanor:  I can’t even begin to imagine it – talk about an odd couple. But, from the number of times Michael shows up in photos of Studio 54 and the enthusiasm he displays in the Pauley interview, I think he must have been having a good time. This is one of the few periods in his life where we can see him relaxed and enjoying himself in a social situation. After his megastardom kicked in, this type of experience was no longer available to him.

Joie:  It’s interesting to think of it that way, isn’t it? And it is almost strange, as a fan, to see him so relaxed in a social setting because we didn’t see that very many times during his life.

Eleanor:  Yes, I know. But I’m so happy that at least he had that brief window of time where he could enjoy a relatively normal life – normal at least for MJ.

Willa:  So why do you see this as such an important time period for him? And how does Studio 54 figure into that?

Eleanor:  Well, this was the time (1977-79) when Michael was not only entering adulthood, but also transitioning from the lead singer of the Jackson 5 and The Jacksons to Michael Jackson, megastar. During this time his physical appearance and personal style also were undergoing a significant change, which I think mirrored the psychological changes he was going through and which are reflected in the photos and video clips taken of him at Studio 54. Right before your eyes you can see the excited wide-eyed nineteen-year-old Michael Jackson with the big ‘fro in the interview with Jane Pauley morph into the sophisticated young man in sports jacket, ascot, and Jheri curl, celebrating his 21st birthday.

Studio 54 - 21st birthday

I think he had a very clear idea of who he was and what he was capable of. As I was working on this post, I came across this interesting piece of information:  in 1979, when Michael was 21, he wrote a note to himself, declaring exactly how he intended to transform himself – from the child star that he had been to the adult megastar he would become. He declared that he wanted to be magic:

“MJ will be my new name,” he wrote. “No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a whole new look. I should be a totally different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang ABC, I Want You Back.’ I should be a new, incredible actor/singer/dancer that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a masterer. I will be better than every great actor roped into one.”

He knew where he was going, but he needed a vision.  And along came Studio 54 – at just the right time. At Studio 54 it was all laid out in front of him, to pick and choose what he could use. I think Studio 54 gave him permission – and the tools – to act out his fantasies in terms of his appearance and his art – influencing his music videos, his creation of Neverland, and his live performances. He not only wanted to be the best – at everything – he wanted to be spectacular. He wanted to be magic – and he had seen magic and fantasy worlds created before his eyes at Studio 54.

Willa:  This idea of creating “magic” and “fantasy worlds,” as you call it, Eleanor, sounds very Michael Jackson, doesn’t it? I can see how that would capture his imagination, and it really doesn’t seem to be the nightclub scene that he was after. As he says in the interview, “I’ve been to a lot of discotheques and I don’t like them,” but he says “I like the atmosphere at Studio 54.” And when Jane Pauley questions him about why Studio 54 seems different, he says, “I don’t know – the feeling, the excitement, the props coming down, the balcony. It’s just exciting, honestly.” So it does seem to be that feeling of magic and fantasy that he was after.

How did Studio 54 create that sense of “magic”?

Eleanor:  Well, for one thing Rubell and Schrager hired Broadway set designers to create moveable sets, and they spent up to $20,000 a night to transform the cavernous space of Studio 54 into different fantasy worlds. For a New Year’s Eve party, four tons of glitter were dumped in a four-inch layer on the floor. Schrager described the experience as like “standing on stardust.” The lavish set-like decorations invited guests to dress up in costumes and become part of the show.

Michael saw how much people – even celebrities – seemed to hunger and long for escape – how they came night after night to escape into the magical world Rubell and Shrager created. He saw how people – through costumes and make up – could create incredible illusions; how transvestite men could become extravagantly beautiful women. Adding all this to his experience doing The Wiz, with its own elaborate sets (The World Trade Center was the set for the Emerald City. Isn’t that fascinating!), Studio 54 opened his eyes not only to the techniques of creating fantasy, but to how much people craved it.

It is this theatricality, this magic, that Michael focuses on in the Jane Pauley interview – and his description of how he experiences Studio 54 really got my attention. It reminded me so much of what Michael said, 30 years later, at the conclusion of This Is It when he tells the young singers and dancers that the show is a great adventure: “we just want to give them experiences, escapism, take them to places they’ve never been before, show them talent like they’ve never seen before.” And, it was Schrager’s and Rubell’s ability to do just that that contributed to Studio 54’s incredible success.

Joie:  Eleanor, I think that’s fascinating! Honestly, I had never wondered where Michael first fell in love with this sense of magic and theatricality that was always so present in his solo work but, you are probably absolutely correct in saying that it most likely began with Studio 54 and the time he spent there. Amazing! And how many times throughout his career did we hear him talk about that escapism that people craved so much. He said it over and over, that he just wanted to make people happy and give them that escapism that they desired.

Eleanor:  Right, Joie. And maybe it had something to do with that period of time when he came of age. You know, the Manhattan of the 70’s was very different from the Manhattan of today. Like most inner cities of that time, it was crumbling and crime ridden – a place where it was not just the rich and famous who craved escapism and found it in music. At night, the parks were filled with young people – mainly black – dancing to music pulsating from boomboxes wired up to lamp posts – and orchestrated by neighborhood DJ’s. Here’s a link to a short video about those times:

No matter where Michael Jackson looked, people rich and poor, white and black were looking for magic, for escape and finding it in music and dance – often his. Whether he was traveling the black streets of Manhattan and Queens (where The Wiz production studios were) or enjoying the privileged white world of Studio 54, he saw the power of music and dance – especially the power it had to provide not only an escape, but an ecstatic experience. But, he also saw the desperation in this need for escape, a desperation which often degenerated into sex and drugs (and sometimes violence) – whether in the parks or the disco. And he watched as excess quickly destroyed Studio 54 – its drugged-out proprietors stuffing walls and ceiling with cash until they were finally hauled off to jail for tax evasion – and the magic ended.

As Willa points out in M Poetica, I think he was coming to see music and dance as an alternative and safer means of escape  – an alternative to indiscriminate sex and drugs and street violence. As a member of the Jackson 5 and the Jacksons, he knew his music could make people happy, bring joy to their lives. I love seeing video clips of him as a teenager engaging with the audience, getting them to sing along. But I think as he matured and became more and more aware of the terrible problems in the world, he also wanted to be an agent of change – and his experience at Studio 54 and in 70’s NYC not only deepened this desire, but provided him with both the psychological insights and the technical know-how to achieve his goals.

Willa:  That’s a really interesting way to look at that, Eleanor, because for many people, Studio 54 didn’t represent fantasy and theatricality so much as the epitome of 70s excess, especially indiscriminate sex and drug use. So Studio 54 was kind of like a huge circus tent of human desire, in many different forms – from sex and drugs to escapism and magic. And it’s interesting to think of a young Michael Jackson wandering around in there, observing what humans desire most, how it expresses itself, and what the implications and consequences are of indulging those desires.

Eleanor:  “A huge circus tent of human desire.” What a great image.  And I love to think of him there, enjoying himself, yet detached. Soaking it all up, taking it all in, absorbing it, to be transformed into his own unique creations by his astonishing and awesome artistic vision. He truly was a magician. He was magic.

Willa:  Oh, he was definitely a magician!  I think we all can agree about that.

So thank you again for joining us, Eleanor. We really enjoyed it. Joie and I also wanted to announce that we won’t be publishing new posts from June 25th to August 29th. (It’s like our own 10-week version of Lent.) However, like last year we’ll be be posting summer reruns each week of some of our favorite posts. We hope this will give us a chance to revisit some of those posts and talk about them in more depth, and maybe explore areas we didn’t discuss the first time around. We’re also hoping to use this time to update the Reading Room, so if you have any suggestions for articles we should add, please let us know.

We Are Forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Searching for that Wonder in My Youth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa:  Yeah?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa:  I would also like to ask a big favor. I’m hoping to publish a second edition of M Poetica with bibliographic notes and web links, and some images and information that weren’t available when it was first published in 2011. I’d also like to fix as many errors and typos as possible, so if you’ve read M Poetica and noticed mistakes, I’d love to hear from you. Just send your corrections to dancing.with.the.elephant@gmail.com. Thank you!

Summer Rewind Series, Week 3: Invincible (Parts 1 & 2)

NOTE:  The following two conversations were originally posted on October 6 and 13, 2011. To read the original posts and comments, please click here.

Celebrating Invincible Month, Part 1: Unbreakable

Willa:  This week Joie and I are kicking off a month-long series on the Invincible album with a close look at “Unbreakable,” a defiant battle cry we both love with some really fascinating lyrics.

Joie:  I love “Unbreakable.” It is a fascinating song with lyrics that just jump right out at you simply because they are like a window into what life must have been like for him.

Now I’m just wondering, why you think  
That you can get to me, with anything  
Seems like you’d know by now  
When and how, I get down  
And with all that I’ve been through, I’m still around  

It’s as if he’s addressing all of the Sneddons, the Dimonds, the Chandlers – all the tabloids of the world – and saying, “You tried your best but, I’m still here and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Willa:  I agree, and I love the way you put that. In fact, a lot of songs on Invincible seem like “a window into what life was like for him,” and I really see that in “Unbreakable.” It’s such a defiant response to everything he’s been going through, and I’m especially struck by this line:  “You can’t touch me ’cause I’m untouchable.”

In the caste system in India, Pakistan, and other parts of the world, Untouchables were (and in some places, still are) the people at the very bottom, the lowest of the low. They were perceived as impure – so impure that if they touched you, even brushed up against you accidentally, you would become impure also. That’s why they were “untouchable” – because you must never touch them, or let them touch you.

When I was in sixth grade, I became friends with an elderly woman who lived near us who became a doctor back when very few women were doctors. She spent nearly 30 years working in Pakistan and India, and was just an incredible person. I loved to visit her and listen to her stories, and hearing about the Untouchables made a big impression on me. I used to wonder what it would be like to have everyone you loved or everything you cared about be corrupted by your touch – kind of like King Midas, but worse. Your touch turns everything impure rather than to metal.

That was Michael Jackson’s life after the 1993 allegations. His public image became so toxic, so impure, that anyone who supported him, any place that gave him sanctuary, any project he worked on was tainted as well. His friends and family, even his fans, were ridiculed in the press, and Lisa Marie Presley was treated horribly – nearly as badly as he was. “What More Can I Give,” a song to benefit victims of the September 11th terrorist attack, was portrayed as a cynical ploy to improve his image by exploiting a national tragedy. And his efforts to help children in need were criticized as, at best, inappropriate and, at worst, additional evidence of his brazen moral corruption. In other words, by the time Invincible came out, he had become an Untouchable. No one in the press believed his motives were genuine or pure, and everything he touched was symbolically contaminated merely by association with him.

In the chorus of “Unbreakable,” he seems to acknowledge this (“You can’t touch me ’cause I’m untouchable”) but then he does something remarkable that he did throughout his career:  he takes that cultural narrative and flips it inside-out, completely rewriting it. “You can’t touch me ’cause I’m untouchable” doesn’t feel like a concession. It feels like a declaration of strength. He’s “untouchable” because he’s too powerful to be touched, too invincible to be hurt. He conveys this redefinition both through the sheer power of his voice when singing this line and through a parallel line that echoes the first, emphasizing this bold new meaning:

You can’t touch me ’cause I’m untouchable . . .  
You’ll never break me ’cause I’m unbreakable  

He sings these lines six times over the course of “Unbreakable,” including three times in succession at the end of the track. These words are important, and in some ways capture in miniature what Jackson did over and over throughout his work. He’s positioning himself with the dispossessed and giving them a voice – in this case, those (including himself) classed as impure, outcast, “untouchable” – while fundamentally changing the narrative that disempowers them. In this context, his cry that “I’m untouchable” becomes a defiant challenge to those who try to twist his motives and impose their worst interpretations onto him.

Joie:  Wow. Ok, Willa. Now you have officially blown me away with that one!! I have never thought of “Unbreakable” in terms of caste. I have read about the caste systems in various parts of the world and you’re right, it is both fascinating and sad to think about. But I had never viewed this song in those terms.

I have to make a confession here. I absolutely adore the Invincible album. I am in love with it actually and most of the time, it runs a very close race with Dangerous as they vie for the title of my favorite Michael Jackson album. I have multiple copies of both of them. They are the only two Michael CDs that I must have at least 3 copies of at all times (one for my car, one for my husband’s truck, one for the CD player in my kitchen so that I can have music while I cook dinner). And that doesn’t even count the ones that I have given away over the years to friends and family members or the digital copies on my computer and my iPod.

So, needless to say, I have listened to this album about a million times and when listening to “Unbreakable,” that line about being untouchable never struck me that way before. I am really intrigued by this idea that he was identifying with the lowliest people on earth through that line and now that you’ve pointed it out, it just makes so much sense to me. Really profound observation! And you’re completely correct when saying that anyone who supported him was tainted as well. And I think, as fans, we can all attest that we still feel that way, to some degree. That stigma never really let up. Not for us and certainly not for him or his family.

Willa:  That’s interesting, because that line has always struck me that way, maybe because of those stories my friend told me way back in sixth grade, and because of the strong parallels to his life at that time. That’s one reason I think it’s so valuable to share interpretations of his work – because we all bring different ways of seeing and we can learn so much by sharing those different views. I’ve learned so much through my conversations with you. And this line from “Unbreakable” has always evoked a very powerful image for me – of Michael Jackson being made to feel ashamed and “untouchable” for something he didn’t do, and then rewriting that as a declaration of strength.

But you’re right, that stigma never let up, and the consequences were horrible – personally, professionally, and artistically. We see references to the pain of that stigma throughout Invincible. It’s like he can never escape it, and I really don’t know how he endured it for so long. It also ham-strung his efforts to help others, which had to be incredibly frustrating for him. He was passionately committed to social change and improving the lives of those classified as outsiders – a commitment we see throughout his career from “Ben,” his first solo hit when he was 13 years old, to the “Earth Song” number he was working on the day before he died. Yet he was severely hampered after 1993 because everything he did was seen through this lens of corruption and impurity. By 2001 he had matured into a truly amazing artist and should have been at his peak creatively, but he was shackled by those allegations. Not only was he reviled in the press, but other artists became reluctant to work with him – even his own record company was hesitant to support him.

Joie:  You’re absolutely right and I feel like in many ways, he never totally rebounded from the ’93 allegations. In fact, I often find myself wondering how his career would have been different if it had never happened. I mean, he was such an extraordinary talent with so much passion and imagination so, I wonder what amazing things he could have accomplished in his career – and in his life –  had the allegations in ’93 never happened. How would his career have unfolded if he had never been falsely accused of the most horrible of crimes? But I know those thoughts are pointless because, the allegations did happen and here we are. But as for Invincible, I also wonder what heights this truly incredible album could have seen if Sony had gotten behind him and promoted it properly.

This month there is a whole movement by Michael fans around the world to get the Invincible album to number one on the charts during October. It’s called the Invincible Campaign and its mission is two-fold. The first order of business is to get the album to number one in celebration of its 10th Anniversary (it was released in October, 2001). The second purpose of the campaign is to let the music from the album serve as a sort of backdrop or a peaceful banner for Michael during the trial of Conrad Murray in order to remind the world that Michael’s art was “Unbreakable” and “Invincible.”

Willa:  It also encourages fans, as well as the public at large, to take a second look at an album that never received the attention it deserved when it was first released. There’s a long tangled history here, but the result was that Sony didn’t promote it well, as you say. Much worse, to my mind, is that Sony prevented him from producing the videos he had planned for this album. I believe his visual art was as important as his music – that, in fact, he was able to express his ideas more fully through film than music – so cutting off that avenue of artistic expression from him is tragic, for him and us. Can you imagine the Thriller album without the videos for “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” or “Thriller?” He made ten videos for the Bad album and nine for Dangerous, but Sony cut him off after two for Invincible, refusing to let him create the video he had planned for “Unbreakable,” or any others – a decision that infuriated him. (It was after this decision that he launched the protests in Harlem.)

Joie:  Actually, Michael only really created one video for the Invincible album as he was so upset with Sony at the time that he refused to participate in the video for “Cry.” But you’re right, it was really such a shame that they chose not to support him.

Willa:  To me, that decision borders on criminal. What potential works of art did the world lose because of Sony’s short-sighted decision?  I’m sorry, but if Michelangelo has an idea for a sculpture and wants a 20-foot block of marble, you give him a 20-foot block of marble. You don’t tell him that marble is too expensive. You do everything in your power to provide him with whatever he needs to fulfill his artistic vision. And if Michael Jackson wants to create a video, then you do everything in your power to facilitate that. Can you imagine if the world had been deprived of Michelangelo’s David or the Pieta because he was denied the materials he needed to create them?

That’s how I feel about Sony’s decision. I’m just stunned that they would act this way – especially since you can make the argument that there wouldn’t even be a Sony music division as we know it without Michael Jackson – and I really wonder what he had planned for “Unbreakable.” It’s fascinating to think about, especially since this is such an intriguing song. For example, what about these lyrics: “You can’t believe it / You can’t conceive it.” What does that mean? What is he thinking? And would he have provided clues in the video he had planned – a video his own record company prevented him from making?

Joie:  I absolutely agree with you. What a HUGE mistake for Sony to virtually bail on their biggest artist, and it’s easy to understand why Michael felt that the company was plotting against him. I mean, even the album’s name frustrated him. The title track was, of course, supposed to be “Unbreakable” but, Sony “mistakenly” had the cover printed up with the wrong title song and by then it was too late to fix it.

But, I do want to point out that Sony was a very different place back then. Tommy Mattola, who was the head of Sony at the time and the one giving Michael such a hard time, is no longer there and hasn’t been since 2003. In fact, Sony has gone through three other chairmen/CEO’s since Matolla left so, it really is a different environment now than it was back then.

The whole fight between Michael and Sony became such a public mess with cries of conspiracy over the Sony/ATV catalog and I am certain that Michael had very good reason to feel the way he did. But the unfortunate outcome of it was that a truly wonderful work of art that Michael Jackson spent a great deal of time on, pouring his heart and soul into for months and months, got overlooked and pushed to the wayside in all of the confusion. The Invincible album is practically unknown outside of the fan world and it’s just such a shame that the rest of the world missed it because there are some real musical gems on this record. That’s why Willa and I wanted to do our part this October and help celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Invincible by doing a month-long series on the album.

And I have to admit that I did participate in the campaign’s buy event yesterday; I went out and purchased another copy of the CD. But, of course, I do that periodically anyway … it’s like a sickness! I am obsessed with this album.

Willa:  Well, as you know, I’m not the most technologically advanced person in the world, but I have this iPod I’m gradually bonding with – at least, I’m comfortable checking email and searching the web with it now. But my son keeps laughing at me because I’m so cautious about using it. As he pointed out the other day, I let it “mellow” in its box for four months before I even opened it. Apparently he’d been monitoring the situation to see how long it would take, but finally decided I was going to let the warranty expire before I ever tried it so finally just opened it for me and got it going. (He has one too.) And then practically the first thing I did with it was somehow take a picture of my own eyeball. He thinks this is all very funny – just the whole situation of his 50-year-old mother trying to figure out an iPod. It cracks him up.

Anyway, I’ve had this thing for 10 months now and still don’t have any music on it, so I was thinking I might download Invincible – my first music download! – and support the campaign at the same time. Wish me luck! And then next week we’ll continue our discussion of this remarkable yet frequently overlooked album.

Celebrating Invincible, Part 2

Willa:  A few weeks ago, Pamela visited our blog and posted this comment:

“I think whenever Michael wrote a song about a woman, the woman was us, the fans. I think he understood the love affair we had for each other (the fans and Michael)…. I felt he looked at us, the fans, as a single relationship and that was his inspiration. If you follow his songs, according to the major events in his life, you can see the feelings he writes about are how he thinks the fans are feeling about him during that time.”  

I thought this beautifully expressed an idea Joie and I have felt also:  that Michael Jackson’s love songs can be interpreted as a romance with a woman, or more metaphorically as describing that ongoing “love affair” between him and his audience.   Seen in this way, it seems significant that Invincible has so many songs of unrequited or fading love. From “Heartbreaker” and “Invincible” in the thundering opening trilogy with their stories of cold-hearted women who don’t care about him or won’t give him a chance, to the lyrical “Don’t Walk Away” and “Whatever Happens” and their poignant depictions of a love affair in trouble and in decline, Invincible is filled with songs of unfulfilled love.

Joie:  Willa, you know before reading M Poetica, I never really spent much time thinking about the love songs in terms of Michael’s relationship with his audience. I mean, it was always just sort of there, beneath the surface. But I never really thought about it in depth before you and I began discussing his work in a serious way. And now that I have been focusing on it more, it is amazing to me how it just jumps out at you.

For instance, listening to “Don’t Walk Away,” these lyrics in particular really strike me as so meaningful when viewing this song through that lens of Michael and his audience:

Don’t walk away  
See I just can’t find the right thing to say  
I tried but all my pain gets in the way  
Tell me what I have to do so you’ll stay  
Should I get down on my knees and pray
  
How  can I stop losing you  
And how  can I begin to stay  
When there’s nothing left to do but walk away
  
I close my eyes  
Just to try and see you smile one more time  
But it’s been so long now all I do is cry  
Can’t we find some love to take this away  
‘Cause the pain gets stronger every day  

It’s as if he is begging us – the audience – to tell him how to fix it. He’s not asking us what went wrong; he’s well aware of the problems this relationship has faced over the years. But he doesn’t want to let it die. This relationship is very important to him and he’s willing to work at it:  “Can’t you see, I don’t want to walk away,” he sings. He just needs to know how. He can’t figure it out so, he’s asking us. “How can I stop losing you?”  

Willa:  Oh heavens, Joie, those lines are so heart-wrenching for me, especially that last line, “Cause the pain gets stronger every day.” And for me it’s not an either-or decision of ‘is he talking about a romance’ or ‘is he talking about his audience’ – it’s both, simultaneously. It works as the story of a fading love affair with a woman, and as the troubled “love affair” Pamela described that he had with us, his audience.   And when he goes on to sing, “How am I to understand . . . why all my dreams been broken?” I can’t help but think of the aftermath of the 1993 allegations and how devastating that was, both for him personally and in terms of his relationship with his audience. I imagine there were many times when he felt that things had become so bad, there really was “nothing left to do but walk away.” But he didn’t. He kept trying to make it work.

Joie:  It is just heartbreaking! And what makes it so painful in my mind are these lines:  “I close my eyes / Just to try and see you smile one more time / But it’s been so long now all I do is cry.” That just tears me apart. How many times did we hear him say that he just wanted to make people happy? That he loved to be able to put a smile on someone’s face with his music? That’s what it was about for him – making us happy. But somewhere along the way he lost us; and he’s acknowledging that and he wants to fix it. But he just doesn’t know how. It’s like he doesn’t understand what it is we want from him. What does he have to do to make the audience love him again?

Heartbreaking. Particularly because the audience he’s singing to – or at least, the ones who are still paying attention – are already firmly on his side. We never left him; we never stopped loving him. But this song isn’t really directed toward us – the fans. Its intended audience is made up of the others – those who fell away when things got uncomfortable (they know who they are), those who eagerly took part in all the MJ-bashing that went on (the media), and those who jumped on the bandwagon because it got them a laugh or two (late-night comedians, talk show hosts, et.al.). Those are the people he’s really singing to in this song. And, as always with the general public, his pleas fell on deaf ears. No one heard his cries but us – the fans.

Willa:  It is heartbreaking, and Joie, I think what you just said is so important. In fact, I think you put your finger on a crucial theme of this album. I was listening to all the songs of lost love on Invincible this afternoon and was really struck by this recurring theme that he’s inarticulate – either unable to speak at all, or speak in a way that will make a difference. In each of these songs, there’s a misunderstanding or some other barrier that is driving the couple apart or preventing them from connecting. He desperately wants to “tear down these walls” so she will see the truth and they will be united, but either he can’t speak or he can’t find the right words so she will listen to him. The title song, “Invincible,” begins with these lines:

If I could tear down these walls that keep you and I apart  
I know I could claim your heart and our perfect love will start  

But either he isn’t expressing himself in a way she understands, or she simply isn’t listening:

Now many times I’ve told you of all the things I would do  
But I can’t seem to get through, no matter how I try to  

As he tells us repeatedly in the chorus, “Even when I beg and plead, she’s invincible” – which perfectly parallels what you just said: “as always with the general public, his pleas fell on deaf ears.”

We see a similar situation in “Butterflies.” He’s trying to woo a woman, but he can’t speak, and she’s not listening anyway. It begins with these lines:

All you gotta do is walk away and pass me by  
Don’t acknowledge my smile when I try to say hello to you  
And all you gotta do is not answer my calls
When I’m trying to get through  
Keep me wondering why, when all I can do is sigh  

So again, he can’t communicate his thoughts and feelings to her – “all I can do is sigh.” As you quoted earlier, “Don’t Walk Away” begins with these lines:

Don’t walk away  
See I just can’t find the right thing to say  
I tried but all my pain gets in the way  
Tell me what I have to do so you’ll stay  
Should I get down on my knees and pray  

This time he can speak, but not in a way that she understands – “I just can’t find the right thing to say” – so he silently prays instead.

He repeats this idea in “Whatever Happens,” a truly beautiful song I just love. (I played this song over and over while writing M Poetica. Writing that book took me to some pretty dark and uncomfortable places, and this song helped me get through it. I just kept playing that wonderful chorus – “Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand” – and he sings it so beautifully). “Whatever happens” tells the story of a couple being torn apart by difficult circumstances in their lives, and once again his spoken words are ineffectual. All he can do is pray – in other words, speak to a higher power since he can’t seem to speak to her – and hope she somehow receives his message that way.

Everything will be all right, he assures her  
But she doesn’t hear a word that he says  
Preoccupied, she’s afraid . . .  
He doesn’t know what to say, so he prays  
Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand  

Over and over in these songs, we see this same situation of the protagonist unable to connect with the woman he loves because he can’t speak, and she can’t hear him – which is exactly how you described his relationship with the public at that time. He “can’t find the right thing to say,” and “she doesn’t hear a word that he says.” It’s pretty ironic because he’s an amazing songwriter and isn’t inarticulate at all. In fact, he’s very eloquent in describing his inarticulateness. However, it doesn’t matter how eloquent he is if his audience won’t listen to him, or misinterprets everything he says.

And then, in the midst of these songs of mute suffering, there’s “Speechless,” a beautiful expression of love and joy. The entire song is about his inability to speak – as the title says, he’s “speechless” – but it’s completely different this time. He’s speechless with joy. And even though he can’t speak, she understands and loves him anyway.

Joie:  Willa, I am floored! Until this very conversation I never paid attention to the fact there are so many songs on this amazing album that fit into this formula of parallel stories – a man and his lover / Michael and his audience. Or that have this recurring theme of not being able to communicate with the person he loves (or connect with his intended audience). Now I have to go back and listen to it all over again with new ears!

But, I love what you said about “Speechless” and I think the reason his inability to communicate feels different here is because, once again, his target audience is different. First of all, I firmly believe that this song is not about a romance but about the most precious thing in Michael’s life – his children. So, that’s the first story here. But the parallel, metaphorical story is that he’s singing to a very specific audience. That special group of people who have stood by him through thick and through thin; the millions of people whose love and support of him never wavered even when things got ugly. He’s talking to his fans here and he is so moved by the depth of their love that he can’t speak. That’s the reason she understands him anyway – because she (the fans) truly loves him unconditionally, and always has. She understands what he’s feeling even though he can’t put it into words.

Willa:  You know, when you said you felt “Speechless” was about his children, that reminded me of something Randy Taraborrelli wrote in his biography. He was doing a phone interview, I believe, and Michael Jackson told him that “Speechless” came to him while playing with a group of children. And of course, children are much more accepting than adults are. They don’t need to have everything explained to them in words – a hug works just as well. So thematically that fits also.

Joie:  Well, I am loving this whole month-long Invincible celebration and I hope everyone else is too. Next week we’ll be talking about Michael Jackson’s vocal range and the fact that he’s often not given the credit he deserves for being a truly talented vocalist – something that the Invincible album highlights perfectly!

Summer Rewind Series, Week 2: Race

NOTE:  The following two conversations were first posted last September 1st and 8th. You can see the original posts and comments here.

Was Michael Jackson Black Enough?

Willa:  This week, Joie and I wanted to dance with one of those elephants in the room and address the recurring criticism that Michael Jackson wasn’t “Black enough.” We’re not talking about skin color. We’re talking about the criticism that began way back in the 1970s and 80s, when critics would look at his penny loafers and his public persona and say he wasn’t doing enough to embrace his Black heritage.

Joie:  OK, this is a hard one for me. Not because I don’t know where I stand on this issue but, because this question makes me a little angry for a couple of reasons. One of them is that it’s a question that has been leveled at me on more than one occasion. I had a very middle-class upbringing and the schools I went to in the 1970s and ’80s were a pretty good mix of Black and White. But because I chose not to strictly hang out with only the other Black kids and instead had many friends who were White, suddenly I was trying to be a White girl. And this criticism came not just from other Black kids, but from one of my own siblings as well. Never mind the fact that I had more in common with the kids I chose to hang out with than I did the kids who looked like me. That, apparently wasn’t the point. But here’s the thing … I’m still not really sure what the point is and I don’t believe anyone else knows either.

My nephew, whom I adore, recently graduated from Morehouse College. It’s an all Black, all male campus (its female counterpart, Spelman, is just across the road). I asked him what he thought of this “Black enough” question and I have to admit I was a little saddened by his response. Saddened because he said that even on an all Black campus, there were guys who had to endure this same criticism – either because of the way they dressed (like fitted clothes instead of baggy or relaxed hair instead of natural) or who they dated (White girlfriends instead of Black). Well, by that standard, there are any number of Black people out there – both male and female (myself included) who are just not Black enough anymore! Why, oh why didn’t someone tell me that by relaxing my hair and entering into an interracial marriage that I was selling out my race! Oh the shame!! Guess it’s a good thing I’m a firm believer that we all come from the same race – the Human one!

Willa:  Joie, that sentence, “I’m still not really sure what the point is and I don’t believe anyone else knows either,” really caught my attention. Because what exactly is the underlying issue here? I do understand the fear that a group’s cultural heritage will be lost. I really do get that. My grandfather’s grandmother was Potawatomi, but except for a few quilt squares they made together when he was a child and an old sepia-toned photograph, I have no access to my great-great-grandmother or to that culture. That’s all completely lost to me. If I’m filling out a form and have to check a box to identify myself, I check White. Even if I’m allowed to check more than one box, I still only check White. Genetically I’m a little bit Potawatomi, but culturally I’m not, and it would feel presumptuous to me to claim a connection to a heritage I know nothing about. I really regret that that heritage has been lost to me, but at this point it has.

At the same time, I find it very troubling when commentators, especially White commentators, criticize Michael Jackson or President Obama or any Black public figure for allegedly not embracing a more-traditional Black identity. For one thing, it assumes there’s only one definition of Black and that everyone who is Black should conform to it. I know if I were shopping at the grocery store in jeans and a t-shirt and a man came up to me and told me I needed to embrace my femininity, I’d be pretty taken aback by it – and a little offended, frankly. What right does he have to impose his ideas about what’s feminine onto me? I get to decide for myself what’s feminine and what isn’t, or whether or not I even want to be feminine, whatever that means, and I think most people would agree with me.

Yet somehow it’s OK for White commentators to impose their definition of what’s Black onto Michael Jackson. And generally when they say that, it doesn’t feel like it’s expressing concern for Black culture. It feels like a put-down, of a really manipulative and insidious kind.

Joie:  That’s because it is a put-down. But here’s what really bothers me about this issue, Willa, and it’s something that you just touched on. And I would like for all of those doing the criticizing to really pay attention and understand this:  what is a “traditional Black identity?” Because the truth is that whatever your response is to that question will undoubtedly be a stereotype. There is NO SUCH THING as a “traditional Black identity.” There are as many different “kinds” of Black people as there are shades of Black. We come from all walks of life, from all social and economic backgrounds – contrary to what the media would have you believe! And why is it that if I’m listening to Rap music and talking in slang, that’s OK but, if I’m listening to Heavy Metal and speaking articulately, then I have lost touch with my heritage? In my nephew’s words … why are we allowing pop culture to be the measuring stick by which we decide who’s “Black enough?” In order to really be Black you have to wear certain clothes and listen to/sing certain music and date certain people and speak a certain way? That’s just plain silly. And that line of thinking that insists all Black people must conform to a certain stereotype is, in a way, its own weird form of internal, self-imposed racism. I don’t understand that thinking at all. I mean, if all Black people went through life taking this view to heart, how much beauty and wonder would the world be deprived of because of it? Would there even be a Michael Jackson for us to discuss then?

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, YES! Michael Jackson was plenty Black enough. And so are Darius Rucker and Charlie Pride, for that matter! Whoever said that music has to be color-coded? Who said that our Black public figures had to fit into some imaginary stereotypical pigeon hole in order to be seen as valid? Why can’t we simply take pride in the fact that Michael Jackson – a proud Black man – became the greatest, most celebrated entertainer of all time, beloved by millions the world over? Why can’t we take pride in the knowledge that Michael Jackson – a proud Black man – became the most influential musical innovator in the world; he never followed the trends, he set them! Why can’t we just celebrate the fact that Michael Jackson – a proud Black man – is responsible for the biggest-selling album in history? He will forever be known as the one and only King of Pop. A Black man did that! A proud, beautiful, strong, hard-working Black man did all that and so much more! Why can’t we just celebrate him instead of accusing him of not being “Black enough?”

I guess the real reason this question upsets me is because I find it extremely insulting that it is never asked of anyone else. No one ever asks is Jackie Chan Chinese enough or is Robin Thicke White enough? I mean really, let’s just look at that for a minute. Robin Thicke is a very talented singer with a really wonderful voice. But he sings R&B and he kind of talks Black and he is married to a beautiful Black woman so, I don’t know … I think maybe he’s sold out his White heritage. Is anybody worried about that?

Willa:  That’s a really interesting point, and one I’d never thought about before. I’ve never once in my life questioned if I was White enough, and I’ve never felt I had to rein myself in or second guess myself or limit myself in any way to conform with my racial identification. I can wear my hair straight or permed or even in dreadlocks, I can have French toast for breakfast and sushi for lunch and fish tacos for supper, I can fall under the spell of a book by Toni Morrison or Leslie Marmon Silko or Maxine Hong Kingston, and it’s simply not an issue. Because I’m White and belong to the “dominant” culture, I can explore other cultures as much as I want and it doesn’t threaten my identity in any way. And no one ever questions that. I could be accused of appropriating someone else’s culture, which is a whole other issue. But I’ve never had to deal with the kinds of external criticisms or internal self-doubts you’re talking about.

Maybe that’s what Michael Jackson was referring to in the rap section of “Black or White” when he wrote, “I’m not going to spend my life being a color.” I believe Michael Jackson resisted anything that led us to limit ourselves, including our age, gender, nationality, sexuality, or racial identification. As you said, he “was plenty Black enough” – he was a direct heir of James Brown and Jackie Wilson and Sammy Davis, Jr., and was very proud of that – but he reserved the right to define for himself what it means to be Black.

Ideally, everyone should have that right of self-definition, of defining for ourselves who we are and who we want to be. Artists tend to experiment with that right of self-definition more than most people – and no one pushed that right of self-definition further than Michael Jackson did. He absolutely refused to be boxed in by other people’s expectations of him. If he wanted to wear red lipstick, he did. However, that resistance to cultural expectations has a long history as well. Josephine Baker and James Baldwin severely challenged the cultural roles laid out for them, but that doesn’t in any way suggest that they didn’t respect their Black heritage. Instead, they were extending it, and creating a new chapter in the history of Black culture. And as you described so well, Michael Jackson boldly created a whole new chapter all his own.

I think Michael Jackson was a transformative cultural figure who profoundly influenced how we as a people perceive and experience the differences that segment and divide us – differences of race, gender, age, religion, nationality, sexuality – and I believe he was the most important artist of our time. Not the most important Black artist. The most important artist, period. No artist since Warhol has challenged and changed us the way Michael Jackson did. And ironically, he accomplished that, in part, by defying the very constraints he’s accused of transgressing.

Joie:  Wow. I love the way you put that: “…by defying the very constraints he’s accused of transgressing.” You’re so right. And I really believe it was his goal to unite the world – all races, all colors, all nationalities – through his gift of music. He once told reporter Sylvia Chase:

“When they’re all holding hands, and everybody’s rockin’ and all colors of people are there, all races… it’s the most wonderful thing. Politicians can’t even do that!”  

The awe in his voice as he said those words to her is so real and so reverent, you just know that he truly is moved by the sight of it. You can feel it in his voice and I believe that he really felt what he sang in “Black or White”:  “If you’re thinkin’ of being my brother / it don’t matter if you’re Black or White.” I believe those lyrics really spoke to him and were important to him. I think on the surface, it was seen by most people as a sweet,”can’t-we-all-just-get-along,” yeah unity type of song but, really it was a very serious message that he was trying to get across to us all. It really doesn’t matter if you’re Black or White, and all of the judging and the labeling is only serving to keep us all down. Is someone Black enough? White enough? Chinese enough? Puerto Rican enough? That’s not even a valid question. Certainly not one that anybody – of any race – should ever be asking of anyone else because only the individual can answer that question. Only I have the right to ask if I’m Black enough just like only you, Willa, have the right to ask if you’re White enough. And only Michael Jackson had the right to question whether or not he was Black enough. And I think he answered that question for us over and over again both in his art and in the causes he chose to support, like the United Negro College Fund and the Equality For Blacks in the Music World conference.

Not Gonna Spend My Life Being a Color

Willa:  Last week Joie and I danced with one of those elephants in the room and discussed the question, “Was Michael Jackson Black Enough?” And we began by saying we weren’t talking about skin color. This week we are. We’re going to dance with a really big elephant and address the question of why the apparent color of his skin shifted from dark to light.

Joie:  As Willa mentioned in our very first blog post, she and I have really drastically disagreed over this particular issue. For months now we have had very heated discussions on this topic, going back and forth and back and forth, and finally we seem to have met somewhere in the middle. But I think it’s important to note that we were not always on the same page on this one. In fact, we were polar opposites for a very long time, and we each felt very strongly about our points of view. But the following conversation is what finally brought us together, and made us each understand where the other was coming from….

************

Joie:  Well, I have a first-hand account of sorts of the turmoil that Michael must have gone through. So, my mom was out of town at the funeral of a relative and, as always happens at those sorts of gatherings, it turned into a kind of family reunion. Anyway, she was startled to see a distant cousin of hers who has Vitiligo. Startled not because she wasn’t aware that the woman had the condition, but because she wasn’t aware of the new way she was treating it. Seems her condition had worsened in the past few years and her spots had grown more widespread. What she used to be able to cover up and hide with dark makeup was just too overwhelming now. So instead, she had resorted to depigmentation – removing the remaining dark pigment in the skin in order to produce a more uniform skin tone. My mother said her skin looked a lot like Michael Jackson’s.

So, that got me thinking about what it must feel like for a person with this disease and I tried to put myself in their shoes. Imagine this…. You are a music superstar. From the time you were a little kid you have been “major” famous. You had four number one hits by the time you were 11 years old and the world loves you. Oh, I forgot to mention that you are African American AND your career began during the late 1960’s in America. That’s right, say it loud… “you’re Black and you’re Proud!” Not only does the world love you; Black America really LOVES you!

Still with me? OK, good. Now imagine that the older you get, the more successful and more famous you become. You grow from a teenage music superstar into an adult music icon. You are a Rock Star! You are bigger than that Elvis guy (oh yeah, I said it!). Now imagine that at the height of your fame and popularity, your doctor tells you that you have a devastating, autoimmune disease known as Vitiligo.

Vitiligo is a disorder that causes a loss of pigmentation in the skin. Patients with Vitiligo develop white spots in the skin that vary in size and location. The disease affects both sexes and all races, but the distinctive patches of discoloration are most noticeable in people with darker skin tones. Because Vitiligo causes such dramatically uneven skin color, most patients experience emotional and psychological distress – especially if the spots develop on visible areas of the body, like the face, hands, arms, feet, or even on the genitals. Most patients often feel embarrassed, ashamed, depressed, and worried about how others will react. So, for an African American person who’s been in front of the camera for most of his life – and who has already been disillusioned with his own reflection because of severe acne as a teenager and a nose that he was never happy with – this diagnosis would be traumatic, to say the least. Especially if he were constantly confronted with cruel and unfair reporting from a biased media, basically calling him a liar and leading the very same public that used to love him into believing that he just didn’t like the color of the skin he was born with.

Sounds really awful, doesn’t it? This was Michael Jackson’s life. For years after the Vitiligo began, thousands, maybe even millions of people around the world believed that Michael Jackson was ashamed of his race and all because the media refused to believe him when he said that he had no control over the loss of color in his skin. In fact, it was only after his death when the coroner’s report confirmed that he did indeed suffer from the disease, that the world finally believed him. And every news story you read was basically saying the same thing: “Huh, I guess he was telling the truth after all,” or “Well, we finally got that mystery cleared up.”

OK, is it just me? Am I the only one who finds this scary? For years, this incredibly talented, kind-hearted man told us over and over that he had this condition and that it bothered him deeply because he loved his race and he was proud of his heritage and the media (both tabloid and mainstream alike) called him a liar who just wanted to be White. They laughed big belly laughs when the late-night comedians took up the charge and poked fun at his skin color and called him all sorts of unkind and hurtful things. They basically tortured him about his disease for the rest of his life, and now that he’s gone all they can say is, “Hmm, guess he was telling the truth.” I’m sorry but, I find that scary. And really, really sad.

I remember watching the Oprah Winfrey show years ago – way before she ever interviewed Michael – when her friend, Maya Angelou, was a guest. And I don’t know why this stuck with me but it did. Ms. Angelou said that when someone tells you who they are, you should believe them. She reasoned that they know themselves a whole lot better than you know them so, when someone tells you who they are, believe them! It sounds so simple. Yet, Michael told us over and over again who he really was, but no one ever believed him. That must have been so frustrating for him!

Willa:  Joie, that is really powerful, and I absolutely agree with everything you just said. But I don’t think the story ends there. If we continue to imagine ourselves in his shoes, imagine you’re Michael Jackson, a deeply spiritual person who said numerous times that he felt he must have been given his talent for a reason – that he was put on this Earth and given his tremendous talent to fulfill some higher purpose. And he becomes a superstar, but he’s much more than that. He’s not just a famous singer and dancer. He’s also a transformative cultural figure who leads people to think differently about race, and he takes that very seriously. Can You Feel It, the first video he produced and developed, from initial concept through final production, beautifully expresses the idea that we are all one people, regardless of racial differences, and he returns to that idea again and again in his work. This is a concept he thought about extensively and cared about deeply.

And then, at the height of his fame, he discovers he has Vitiligo. And it is devastating and traumatic, as you say, and he begins wearing a glove and dark makeup. But the disease keeps progressing. More and more of his skin is losing its pigmentation – on his face, his neck, his arms, his whole body. And it is horrifying to him. But he’s a strong person with deeply held convictions, and he’s an amazing artist, with an artist’s sensibilities. And maybe he begins to wonder if he was given Vitiligo for a purpose as well, if there’s some reason why he has been put in this incredibly difficult position. He’s the most famous Black man ever, celebrated for promoting pride in being Black, and now his skin is literally turning white. How ironic is that? But it highlights a crucial issue as well. He’s been telling us for years that racial differences don’t matter – that we are all one people regardless of skin color. And now, the color of his skin is literally changing from dark to light.

Racism against Black people in America is nothing more than a web of lies that have been told and retold for centuries, and that we as individuals have more or less internalized to some degree. But at the heart of this web of lies is one central lie, the lie that all others radiate out from:  that Black people and White people are essentially different. That is the lie at the very center of racism in America. And growing up in the South in the 1960s I received a lot of conflicting messages, but still I was told that lie over and over again in numerous subtle and not-so-subtle ways:  you shouldn’t swim in an integrated swimming pool, you shouldn’t drink water from a water fountain immediately after a Black kid, you shouldn’t borrow a Black girl’s comb (which I did one time when I was “old enough to know better”). The unstated reason is that Black bodies and White bodies are essentially different and should remain separate. That was the message I was told again and again growing up in the South forty years ago.

But when Michael Jackson’s skin changed from dark to light, he proved that is a lie – he proved that Black bodies and White bodies are essentially the same – and he struck a shattering blow at the very heart of racism.

I have a White college friend who grew up with a Black housekeeper. One day the housekeeper was working in the kitchen and cut her hand, and my friend, who was just a child at the time, was shocked to see that her blood was red. Before that, she had assumed her blood was dark – as dark as her skin. My friend told me this story several times, generally with a laugh at how silly she’d been. But despite her laughter, I could tell this story was very important to her. It was one of those rare “Ah ha!” moments when your perceptions flip upside down and you’re suddenly forced to question things you thought you knew to be true.

When Michael Jackson’s skin changed from dark to light, I think he created an “Ah ha!” moment like that on a global scale. He had told us repeatedly through his music and his videos that we are all one people, regardless of skin color, and now he had a chance to prove it artistically. He could prove in a way that cannot be denied that our bodies are essentially the same, and he could do it in a way that even a child could understand. That is an incredibly powerful message, and he seized an opportunity to illustrate and broadcast that message in a way that had never been done before. And he expanded the definition of art in a way that had never been done before either. That’s why he was so misunderstood.

Joie:  Willa, you make a very convincing argument. And I’m sure that, being the incredibly artistic person that he was, he probably did tend to look at things or approach difficult situations from an artistic point of view. So, you could be absolutely correct in saying that he made a conscious decision to turn his disease into an artistic commentary on racism. And you know, when we first began disagreeing over this issue I never would have imagined I’d say that but, there it is.

Willa:  Well, as I mentioned in our very first blog, you’ve really changed how I see this also. This isn’t a new thing for me. I’ve been fighting this battle for years. I can remember going to grad school in the South in the mid-to-late 1980s, and almost every semester someone at some point would bring up Michael Jackson and the changing color of his skin. And they would almost always say something like, it was an incredible cultural phenomenon, but of course it was just a product of his own insecurities. He was creating this incredibly powerful cultural moment that was forcing White America, especially, to question some of our deepest racial prejudices, but he was doing it accidentally.

And I always questioned that. Why assume it’s accidental? He’s a brilliant artist, he’s been actively fighting racial prejudices for years, he’s obviously thought about this issue deeply – so why assume he doesn’t know what he’s doing? I always thought he knew exactly what he was doing, and I think the evidence backs me up. His dermatologist has said that he frequently called his face “a work of art.” And as I tried to show in both M Poetica and “Rereading Michael Jackson,” I think he tried to explain through his work – through his short films, especially – that his changing appearance began as a medical decision but became a deliberate artistic decision.

But until I started talking with you, I didn’t realize just how difficult and painful that decision must have been for him. I knew he was the object of a lot of snarky comments by White commentators that just made me heartsick. And I knew there were people in the Black community who felt betrayed by him and by the changing color of his skin. But I didn’t realize how deeply those emotions ran, or how painful the accusations of betraying his race must have been for him.

Joie:  Oh, it must have been horrible! I always think about his interview with Oprah when he tells her,

“I’m a Black American, I am proud to be a Black American, I am proud of my race. I am proud of who I am. I have a lot of pride and dignity. It is something that I cannot help, ok? But when people make up stories that I don’t want to be who I am, it hurts me … I mean, it makes me very sad.”

Those are his words. And the emotion in his voice and the pain on his face as he said them were obvious. But now, as I look back on that interview, I notice that he also said this during that same conversation:

“But you know what’s funny, why is that so important? That’s not important to me. I’m a great fan of art. I love Michelangelo. If I had the chance to talk to him or read about him I would want to know what inspired him to become who he is … I mean that’s what is important to me.”

So, maybe he told us then and we just didn’t listen. Maybe he was saying, ‘Yes, I have this disease and it is horrifying and no one believes me but, I don’t care because I’m going to use it to educate you anyway!’

The Trilogy: We Don’t Need Freaks Like You

Joie:  So, Willa, for the past two weeks, we have looked at two out of the three Michael Jackson works that you say sort of form The Trilogy of his aesthetic – “Ben” and Thriller. This week, let’s go over the final work in that trilogy – Ghosts – and talk about how it fits in and how all three of them seem to deal with this complicated issue of crossing the boundaries that separate us. As we all know, this is a subject that Michael dealt with often in his career and, for you, this idea of The Trilogy is very important because of it, right?

Willa:  It really is, partly because each of these works is so important individually, and partly because looking at them together allows us to see the progression of his ideas.

In “Ben,” which was recorded in January of 1972, Michael Jackson adopts the role of a young boy who becomes friends with a rat. Most humans see rats as disgusting, as “other,” so this friendship is a socially transgressive act. In other words, “Ben” is the story of an improper friendship. But it presents this relationship as so special and beautiful that it challenges us to alter our perceptions about this unconventional friendship. Importantly, though, while the boy and the rat cross social boundaries, they’re external boundaries. What I mean is they cross the boundary between them by becoming friends, but the boy remains a boy and the rat remains a rat.

Twelve years later, in December of 1983, Michael Jackson released the Thriller video, and it expands the ideas of “Ben” in crucially important ways. Once again, Michael Jackson is a young man crossing socially prohibited boundaries, but this time those boundaries are within himself. He becomes a werewolf, which blurs the boundary between man and animal, and then becomes a zombie, which blurs the boundary between living and dead. So Thriller isn’t about an “improper” friendship but about an “improper” person whose identity is constantly in flux. So it internalizes the crossing of those boundaries and alters how we perceive and respond to this unconventional person, as well as how we perceive and maybe express the prohibited boundaries we feel within ourselves.

What’s especially interesting about Thriller, though, is how it reworks the emotions of this issue. Basically, Thriller tells us that crossing boundaries isn’t scary – it’s fun!  It’s thrilling, in fact. Look at the many Michael characters on screen. Which one do you want to be? The repressed Michael at the beginning who’s trying very hard to be a proper person, or the free-spirited Michael who’s cutting loose and dancing with zombies? As you said so well last week, Joie, he’s “inhabiting those differences” he feels within himself – he’s embracing the many different aspects of his personality, including the scary or shameful parts we’re told to keep hidden – and he’s having a blast! Just look at him dance, and look at his face at the end when he turns and fixes us with those freaky cat eyes. He’s beaming! He couldn’t be happier. Thriller handles this all so skillfully and effortlessly that we don’t realize what a radical psychological shift this is, but I believe Thriller functions at a deep psychological level to challenge some of our most primal fears about difference, about “other,” and neutralize them. And it’s brilliant.

Thirteen years later, in 1996, Michael Jackson created Ghosts and took another quantum leap forward. This time he’s approaching the issue in a theoretical way and suggesting specific ways in which art can help us overcome the boundaries between us. In other words, Ghosts isn’t just a work of art. It’s meta-art – it’s art about art – and in it we see evidence of Michael Jackson creating a new poetics.

Joie:  You know, Willa, that’s something you say often – that Michael was creating a new poetics. Can you explain what you mean in very simple terms for those who may not understand what it is you’re trying to say?

Willa:  That’s a really good question, Joie. There are many different definitions, actually, but what I mean is that he’s creating a new philosophy of art, or a new paradigm for conceptualizing art – a new theoretical framework for understanding what art is, how it functions, and what it has the potential to accomplish. You know, if we go back and look at the major artists in history – artists like da Vinci, Michelangelo, Vermeer, Monet, van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol – they didn’t just create important works of art. They also altered our definition of art, and that’s what Michael Jackson is doing. He’s creating exquisite works of art, but he’s also redefining what art is and expanding our ideas about what is possible through art. And that’s why he’s the most important artist of our time.

Joie:  Ok, so let’s talk about what’s going on in Ghosts and why you feel it’s part of The Trilogy. You say that Ghosts is art about art, but how does it fit in with this theme of crossing the boundaries that keep us separated?

Willa:  Well, as we’ve talked about before, Ghosts is the story of an artist – a Maestro – who’s under attack by the provincial townspeople of Normal Valley. They’re scared of him because he’s so unnervingly different – they think he’s a “freak,” a “weirdo” – so they approach his home with torches in hand, determined to drive him away. But something unexpected happens: the Maestro engages them in a series of artistic experiences, and through those artistic experiences not only changes how they feel about him, but how they feel about difference more generally.

So Ghosts is functioning on several levels at once. On one level, it’s pure entertainment and engaging us in an interesting story. At another level, it’s creating a parable for what was actually happening to Michael Jackson himself in real life, and explaining how he plans to respond as an artist to the threats against him by Tom Sneddon and others. And at another level, it’s art talking about art and demonstrating how art can change perceptions and bring about significant social change – just like it changes the perceptions and attitudes of the residents of Normal Valley.

Joie:  That is really very interesting, Willa. You know, I’ve said this before but, I really feel like I need to say it again. Before you asked me to read M Poetica and give you my opinion on it, I never really thought about Michael’s work on such a deep artistic level before. And I know now that it was because I didn’t really have the tools or the knowledge to do so. But I really feel like you have taught me so much about art and about how to interpret art, and I’m really grateful for that. Its allowed me to really examine Michael’s work in a way I never really had before.

Willa:  Well, believe me, Joie, I know exactly how you feel. I enjoyed Thriller for years simply as a very entertaining video. In fact, I still enjoy it that way, and that’s perfectly ok. In the 1999 MTV interview we cited last week, Michael Jackson is asked what makes a good music video, and his first response is, “In my opinion, it has to be completely entertaining.” And he succeeded: his work in general, and Thriller in particular, is wonderfully entertaining.

But as much as I appreciated Thriller simply as entertainment, I increasingly felt there was a lot more going on – but I just couldn’t get my mind around it somehow. I could feel that something significant was happening, but I couldn’t explain it, not even to myself. It wasn’t until I started studying Ghosts that something clicked for me. As I mentioned earlier, Ghosts isn’t just a work of art – it’s also art talking about art, and exploring specific ways that art can change people’s minds about difference and bring about social change. And as I studied that and thought about it, I suddenly realized that the specific processes he’s describing in Ghosts are happening in Thriller. So basically, Ghosts gave me the tools I needed to interpret Thriller in a whole new way. For me, Ghosts opened up a new avenue for thinking about art, and that new view allowed me to see Thriller in ways I never had before.

So Michael Jackson isn’t just creating a new type of art that functions in a new way, which is amazing enough. He’s also providing us with the theoretical apparatus we need to interpret this new kind of art. And Joie, it just blows me away. As an artist, he’s phenomenally intelligent and phenomenally creative – just off-the-charts brilliant – and I think we’re only beginning to realize the depths of his work and the tremendous implications of what he’s showing us.

Joie:  Well, I agree completely that he is ‘off-the-charts brilliant’ as you put it. I don’t think anyone would dispute that. And I have to say that, I really love your observation that Ghosts is ‘art talking about art.’ That’s not only a really profound statement to make but, it was also a very profound, very bold move for Michael Jackson to make. Create a video – a work of art – that talks about art and the ways we can use it to educate and to change people’s minds about the social injustices surrounding us. That’s amazing stuff!

Willa:  It really is. And in Ghosts, we see him directly addressing a very specific question about art and the power of art: How can an artist use art to change people’s minds about those they reject as different, especially when their antipathy is based on false narratives and unfounded prejudices?

As I mentioned earlier, Ghosts begins with the residents of Normal Valley approaching the Maestro’s home, intent on driving him out because they think he’s monstrous, a “freak.” And their emotions at that moment are pretty complicated: they fear him, but they’re also excited and empowered by the idea of driving him out.

As we discussed in a post about Ghosts a few weeks ago, the Maestro responds to the townspeople with a two-phase process. First he takes on their fears and desires and reflects those emotions back at them: he appears to them in a mask, so gives them the monster they want him to be. But then he lowers the mask and reveals it’s just an illusion. That’s the second phase. And this quick double movement of first inflating their fears and desires and then deflating them provides a type of catharsis, and helps neutralize the emotions they are projecting onto him.

But the Mayor doesn’t want those fears neutralized. His goal is just the opposite – he wants to whip up those emotions and keep the townspeople in a state of fear and agitation. So he begins building his case against the Maestro: that he’s a “freak,” a scary unknown, a monster who’s infecting the town’s children with mysterious ghost stories. In response, the Maestro once again evokes that two-phase movement of embodying and inflating the emotions they’re projecting onto him and then deflating them. First, he distorts his face, making it grotesque and scary. Here are a couple of screen captures:

Then he rips his face off altogether so there’s nothing but a laughing skull. But importantly, after the townspeople have fully experienced those emotions they were projecting onto him, he cracks the skull, reveals his true face, and shows it’s all just an illusion.

Then he enacts this two-phase process a third time, but it’s a little different this time around because their emotions have changed, so the emotions they’re projecting onto him have changed. They aren’t as afraid of him as they were before – in fact, they’re starting to enjoy him and his “freakish” troupe of dancers – but they’re still unsure of him and still want him to leave, though they’re conflicted about it. So he enacts those emotions for them: he destroys himself and turns to dust before their eyes. But then he reappears and once again shows it was just an illusion. So repeatedly we see him embodying and even exaggerating the fears and desires the townspeople are projecting onto him, and then diffusing them.

Joie:  I think it’s really interesting that he repeats this process over and over again throughout this short film. That lets me know that he was really trying to make a point. There’s something that he wants us to really get … some idea that he wants us to really grasp and understand. Otherwise why keep repeating yourself?

Willa:  It feels that way to me too. He enacts this double movement three times in Ghosts, one right after the other – in fact, that’s basically the plot of Ghosts, that series of three double movements – which tells me this is really significant. Importantly, that’s exactly what he’s doing in Thriller as well, as we talked about last week. In fact, the plot of Thriller is also a series of three double movements – or rather two and a half since the last one ends unresolved – and if we look at what was happening in 1983, the plot of Thriller makes perfect sense. In the early 1980s, he was our nation’s first Black teen idol, which was both titillating and monstrous to a lot of people. So he responds by becoming a monster onscreen – a werewolf, a zombie, an unknown creature with cat eyes – but then neutralizes those emotions by showing us “It’s only a movie.”

And I believe he responded to the media hysteria surrounding the false molestation allegations the same way. Through the illusion of plastic surgery, he made himself monstrous in the public mind. But it’s just an illusion. He’s merely reflecting what the public is projecting onto him, as he explains very clearly in “Is It Scary”:

I’m gonna be
Exactly what you wanna see
It’s you who’s taunting me
Because you’re wanting me
To be the stranger in the night
 
Am I amusing you
Or just confusing you?
Am I the beast you visualized?
 
And if you wanna see
Eccentric oddities
I’ll be grotesque before your eyes
Let them all materialize. …
 
So did you come to me
To see your fantasies
Performed before your very eyes?
 
A haunting ghostly treat
The ghoulish trickery
And spirits dancing in the night?
 
But if you came to see
The truth, the purity
It’s here inside a lonely heart
So let the performance start
 
So tell me, Is that realism for you, baby?
Am I scary for you?

The plastic surgery scandal was, in fact, a type of performance art, but it was an entirely new kind of art unlike any we’ve ever seen before. It was “realism” on a scale we’ve never experienced before. It’s such a new kind of art it’s hard to recognize it at first, but it’s a work of art with a very specific purpose and function – to rewrite a false cultural narrative and provide catharsis for the emotions driving that false narrative. It’s breathtaking in its sheer audacity, but once we get our minds around it, we realize it’s built on sound principles of art and psychology – and the intersection of art and psychology, especially group psychology, is a primary focus of Michael Jackson’s aesthetic. In other words, it’s perfectly aligned with the artistic principles he’s establishing in Ghosts and throughout his work.

And Joie, I can’t say emphatically enough how important and radical this work is. In M Poetica I said that I see his face as his masterpiece, and I believe that strongly. I love his voice and his music and his dancing and his films – you know how much I love them – but his face, and the illusions he conducted through his face, points the way to a new kind of art that has the potential to challenge some of our most entrenched cultural narratives and rewrite those narratives. And that is truly revolutionary.

Joie:  Willa, I love the way you put that: “It’s breathtaking in its sheer audacity.” That is such a true statement when it comes to anything having to do with Michael Jackson. I think that sentence pretty much sums up his entire career and persona. He was “breathtaking in his sheer audacity!”

Celebrating Invincible, Part 2

Willa:  A few weeks ago, Pamela visited our blog and posted this comment:

I think whenever Michael wrote a song about a woman, the woman was us, the fans. I think he understood the love affair we had for each other (the fans and Michael)…. I felt he looked at us, the fans, as a single relationship and that was his inspiration. If you follow his songs, according to the major events in his life, you can see the feelings he writes about are how he thinks the fans are feeling about him during that time.

I thought this beautifully expressed an idea Joie and I have felt also:  that Michael Jackson’s love songs can be interpreted as a romance with a woman, or more metaphorically as describing that ongoing “love affair” between him and his audience.

Seen in this way, it seems significant that Invincible has so many songs of unrequited or fading love. From “Heartbreaker” and “Invincible” in the thundering opening trilogy with their stories of cold-hearted women who don’t care about him or won’t give him a chance, to the lyrical “Don’t Walk Away” and “Whatever Happens” and their poignant depictions of a love affair in trouble and in decline, Invincible is filled with songs of unfulfilled love.

Joie:  Willa, you know before reading M Poetica, I never really spent much time thinking about the love songs in terms of Michael’s relationship with his audience. I mean, it was always just sort of there, beneath the surface. But I never really thought about it in depth before you and I began discussing his work in a serious way. And now that I have been focusing on it more, it is amazing to me how it just jumps out at you.

For instance, listening to “Don’t Walk Away,” these lyrics in particular really strike me as so meaningful when viewing this song through that lens of Michael and his audience:

Don’t walk away
See I just can’t find the right thing to say
I tried but all my pain gets in the way
Tell me what I have to do so you’ll stay
Should I get down on my knees and pray

How  can I stop losing you
And how  can I begin to stay
When there’s nothing left to do but walk away

I close my eyes
Just to try and see you smile one more time
But it’s been so long now all I do is cry
Can’t we find some love to take this away
‘Cause the pain gets stronger every day

It’s as if he is begging us – the audience – to tell him how to fix it. He’s not asking us what went wrong; he’s well aware of the problems this relationship has faced over the years. But he doesn’t want to let it die. This relationship is very important to him and he’s willing to work at it:  “Can’t you see, I don’t want to walk away,” he sings. He just needs to know how. He can’t figure it out so, he’s asking us. “How can I stop losing you?”

Willa:  Oh heavens, Joie, those lines are so heart-wrenching for me, especially that last line, “Cause the pain gets stronger every day.” And for me it’s not an either-or decision of ‘is he talking about a romance’ or ‘is he talking about his audience’ – it’s both, simultaneously. It works as the story of a fading love affair with a woman, and as the troubled “love affair” Pamela described that he had with us, his audience.

And when he goes on to sing, “How am I to understand . . . why all my dreams been broken?” I can’t help but think of the aftermath of the 1993 allegations and how devastating that was, both for him personally and in terms of his relationship with his audience. I imagine there were many times when he felt that things had become so bad, there really was “nothing left to do but walk away.” But he didn’t. He kept trying to make it work.

Joie:  It is just heartbreaking! And what makes it so painful in my mind are these lines:  “I close my eyes / Just to try and see you smile one more time / But it’s been so long now all I do is cry.” That just tears me apart. How many times did we hear him say that he just wanted to make people happy? That he loved to be able to put a smile on someone’s face with his music? That’s what it was about for him – making us happy. But somewhere along the way he lost us; and he’s acknowledging that and he wants to fix it. But he just doesn’t know how. It’s like he doesn’t understand what it is we want from him. What does he have to do to make the audience love him again?

Heartbreaking. Particularly because the audience he’s singing to – or at least, the ones who are still paying attention – are already firmly on his side. We never left him; we never stopped loving him. But this song isn’t really directed toward us – the fans. Its intended audience is made up of the others – those who fell away when things got uncomfortable (they know who they are), those who eagerly took part in all the MJ-bashing that went on (the media), and those who jumped on the bandwagon because it got them a laugh or two (late-night comedians, talk show hosts, et.al.). Those are the people he’s really singing to in this song. And, as always with the general public, his pleas fell on deaf ears. No one heard his cries but us – the fans.

Willa:  It is heartbreaking, and Joie, I think what you just said is so important. In fact, I think you put your finger on a crucial theme of this album. I was listening to all the songs of lost love on Invincible this afternoon and was really struck by this recurring theme that he’s inarticulate – either unable to speak at all, or speak in a way that will make a difference. In each of these songs, there’s a misunderstanding or some other barrier that is driving the couple apart or preventing them from connecting. He desperately wants to “tear down these walls” so she will see the truth and they will be united, but either he can’t speak or he can’t find the right words so she will listen to him. The title song, “Invincible,” begins with these lines:

If I could tear down these walls that keep you and I apart
I know I could claim your heart and our perfect love will start

But either he isn’t expressing himself in a way she understands, or she simply isn’t listening:

Now many times I’ve told you of all the things I would do
But I can’t seem to get through, no matter how I try to

As he tells us repeatedly in the chorus, “Even when I beg and plead, she’s invincible” – which perfectly parallels what you just said: “as always with the general public, his pleas fell on deaf ears.”

We see a similar situation in “Butterflies.” He’s trying to woo a woman, but he can’t speak, and she’s not listening anyway. It begins with these lines:

All you gotta do is walk away and pass me by
Don’t acknowledge my smile when I try to say hello to you
And all you gotta do is not answer my calls
When I’m trying to get through
Keep me wondering why, when all I can do is sigh

So again, he can’t communicate his thoughts and feelings to her – “all I can do is sigh.” As you quoted earlier, “Don’t Walk Away” begins with these lines:

Don’t walk away
See I just can’t find the right thing to say
I tried but all my pain gets in the way
Tell me what I have to do so you’ll stay
Should I get down on my knees and pray

This time he can speak, but not in a way that she understands – “I just can’t find the right thing to say” – so he silently prays instead.

He repeats this idea in “Whatever Happens,” a truly beautiful song I just love. (I played this song over and over while writing M Poetica. Writing that book took me to some pretty dark and uncomfortable places, and this song helped me get through it. I just kept playing that wonderful chorus – “Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand” – and he sings it so beautifully). “Whatever happens” tells the story of a couple being torn apart by difficult circumstances in their lives, and once again his spoken words are ineffectual. All he can do is pray – in other words, speak to a higher power since he can’t seem to speak to her – and hope she somehow receives his message that way.

Everything will be all right, he assures her
But she doesn’t hear a word that he says
Preoccupied, she’s afraid . . .
He doesn’t know what to say, so he prays
Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand

Over and over in these songs, we see this same situation of the protagonist unable to connect with the woman he loves because he can’t speak, and she can’t hear him – which is exactly how you described his relationship with the public at that time. He “can’t find the right thing to say,” and “she doesn’t hear a word that he says.” It’s pretty ironic because he’s an amazing songwriter and isn’t inarticulate at all. In fact, he’s very eloquent in describing his inarticulateness. However, it doesn’t matter how eloquent he is if his audience won’t listen to him, or misinterprets everything he says.

And then, in the midst of these songs of mute suffering, there’s “Speechless,” a beautiful expression of love and joy. The entire song is about his inability to speak – as the title says, he’s “speechless” – but it’s completely different this time. He’s speechless with joy. And even though he can’t speak, she understands and loves him anyway.

Joie:  Willa, I am floored! Until this very conversation I never paid attention to the fact there are so many songs on this amazing album that fit into this formula of parallel stories – a man and his lover / Michael and his audience. Or that have this recurring theme of not being able to communicate with the person he loves (or connect with his intended audience). Now I have to go back and listen to it all over again with new ears!

But, I love what you said about “Speechless” and I think the reason his inability to communicate feels different here is because, once again, his target audience is different. First of all, I firmly believe that this song is not about a romance but about the most precious thing in Michael’s life – his children. So, that’s the first story here. But the parallel, metaphorical story is that he’s singing to a very specific audience. That special group of people who have stood by him through thick and through thin; the millions of people whose love and support of him never wavered even when things got ugly. He’s talking to his fans here and he is so moved by the depth of their love that he can’t speak. That’s the reason she understands him anyway – because she (the fans) truly loves him unconditionally, and always has. She understands what he’s feeling even though he can’t put it into words.

Willa:  You know, when you said you felt “Speechless” was about his children, that reminded me of something Randy Taraborrelli wrote in his biography. He was doing a phone interview, I believe, and Michael Jackson told him that “Speechless” came to him while playing with a group of children. And of course, children are much more accepting than adults are. They don’t need to have everything explained to them in words – a hug works just as well. So thematically that fits also.

Joie:  Well, I am loving this whole month-long Invincible celebration and I hope everyone else is too. Next week we’ll be talking about Michael Jackson’s vocal range and the fact that he’s often not given the credit he deserves for being a truly talented vocalist – something that the Invincible album highlights perfectly!

Not Gonna Spend My Life Being a Color

Willa:  Last week Joie and I danced with one of those elephants in the room and discussed the question, “Was Michael Jackson Black Enough?” And we began by saying we weren’t talking about skin color. This week we are. We’re going to dance with a really big elephant and address the question of why the apparent color of his skin shifted from dark to light.

Joie:  As Willa mentioned in our very first blog post, she and I have really drastically disagreed over this particular issue. For months now we have had very heated discussions on this topic, going back and forth and back and forth, and finally we seem to have met somewhere in the middle. But I think it’s important to note that we were not always on the same page on this one. In fact, we were polar opposites for a very long time, and we each felt very strongly about our points of view. But the following conversation is what finally brought us together, and made us each understand where the other was coming from…..
 

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Joie:  Well, I have a first-hand account of sorts of the turmoil that Michael must have gone through. So my mom was out of town at the funeral of a relative and, as always happens at those sorts of gatherings, it turned into a kind of family reunion. Anyway, she was startled to see a distant cousin of hers who has Vitiligo. Startled not because she wasn’t aware that the woman had the condition, but because she wasn’t aware of the new way she was treating it. Seems her condition had worsened in the past few years and her spots had grown more widespread. What she used to be able to cover up and hide with dark makeup was just too overwhelming now. So instead, she had resorted to depigmentation – removing the remaining dark pigment in the skin in order to produce a more uniform skin tone. My mother said her skin looked a lot like Michael Jackson’s.
 
So, that got me thinking about what it must feel like for a person with this disease and I tried to put myself in their shoes. Imagine this…. You are a music superstar. From the time you were a little kid you have been “major” famous. You had four number one hits by the time you were 11 years old and the world loves you. Oh, I forgot to mention that you are African American AND your career began during the late 1960’s in America. That’s right, say it loud… “you’re Black and you’re Proud!” Not only does the world love you; Black America really LOVES you!
 
Still with me? OK, good. Now imagine that the older you get, the more successful and more famous you become. You grow from a teenage music superstar into an adult music icon. You are a Rock Star! You are bigger than that Elvis guy (oh yeah, I said it!). Now imagine that at the height of your fame and popularity, your doctor tells you that you have a devastating, autoimmune disease known as Vitiligo.
 
Vitiligo is a disorder that causes a loss of pigmentation in the skin. Patients with Vitiligo develop white spots in the skin that vary in size and location. The disease affects both sexes and all races, but the distinctive patches of discoloration are most noticeable in people with darker skin tones. Because Vitiligo causes such dramatically uneven skin color, most patients experience emotional and psychological distress – especially if the spots develop on visible areas of the body, like the face, hands, arms, feet, or even on the genitals. Most patients often feel embarrassed, ashamed, depressed, and worried about how others will react. So, for an African American person who’s been in front of the camera for most of his life – and who has already been disillusioned with his own reflection because of severe acne as a teenager and a nose that he was never happy with – this diagnosis would be traumatic, to say the least. Especially if he were constantly confronted with cruel and unfair reporting from a biased media, basically calling him a liar and leading the very same public that used to love him into believing that he just didn’t like the color of the skin he was born with.
 
Sounds really awful, doesn’t it? This was Michael Jackson’s life. For years after the Vitiligo began, thousands, maybe even millions of people around the world believed that Michael Jackson was ashamed of his race and all because the media refused to believe him when he said that he had no control over the loss of color in his skin. In fact, it was only after his death when the coroner’s report confirmed that he did indeed suffer from the disease, that the world finally believed him. And every news story you read was basically saying the same thing: “Huh, I guess he was telling the truth after all,” or “Well, we finally got that mystery cleared up.”
 
OK, is it just me? Am I the only one who finds this scary? For years, this incredibly talented, kind-hearted man told us over and over that he had this condition and that it bothered him deeply because he loved his race and he was proud of his heritage and the media (both tabloid and mainstream alike) called him a liar who just wanted to be White. They laughed big belly laughs when the late-night comedians took up the charge and poked fun at his skin color and called him all sorts of unkind and hurtful things. They basically tortured him about his disease for the rest of his life, and now that he’s gone all they can say is, “Hmm, guess he was telling the truth.” I’m sorry but, I find that scary. And really, really sad.
 
I remember watching the Oprah Winfrey show years ago – way before she ever interviewed Michael – when her friend, Maya Angelou, was a guest. And I don’t know why this stuck with me but it did. Ms. Angelou said that when someone tells you who they are, you should believe them. She reasoned that they know themselves a whole lot better than you know them so, when someone tells you who they are, believe them! It sounds so simple. Yet, Michael told us over and over again who he really was, but no one ever believed him. That must have been so frustrating for him!
 
Willa:  Joie, that is really powerful, and I absolutely agree with everything you just said. But I don’t think the story ends there. If we continue to imagine ourselves in his shoes, imagine you’re Michael Jackson, a deeply spiritual person who said numerous times that he felt he must have been given his talent for a reason – that he was put on this Earth and given his tremendous talent to fulfill some higher purpose. And he becomes a superstar, but he’s much more than that. He’s not just a famous singer and dancer. He’s also a transformative cultural figure who leads people to think differently about race, and he takes that very seriously. Can You Feel It, the first video he produced and developed, from initial concept through final production, beautifully expresses the idea that we are all one people, regardless of racial differences, and he returns to that idea again and again in his work. This is a concept he thought about extensively and cared about deeply.

And then, at the height of his fame, he discovers he has Vitiligo. And it is devastating and traumatic, as you say, and he begins wearing a glove and dark makeup. But the disease keeps progressing. More and more of his skin is losing its pigmentation – on his face, his neck, his arms, his whole body. And it is horrifying to him. But he’s a strong person with deeply held convictions, and he’s an amazing artist, with an artist’s sensibilities. And maybe he begins to wonder if he was given Vitiligo for a purpose as well, if there’s some reason why he has been put in this incredibly difficult position. He’s the most famous Black man ever, celebrated for promoting pride in being Black, and now his skin is literally turning white. How ironic is that? But it highlights a crucial issue as well. He’s been telling us for years that racial differences don’t matter – that we are all one people regardless of skin color. And now, the color of his skin is literally changing from dark to light.

Racism against Black people in America is nothing more than a web of lies that have been told and retold for centuries, and that we as individuals have more or less internalized to some degree. But at the heart of this web of lies is one central lie, the lie that all others radiate out from:  that Black people and White people are essentially different. That is the lie at the very center of racism in America. And growing up in the South in the 1960s I received a lot of conflicting messages, but still I was told that lie over and over again in numerous subtle and not-so-subtle ways:  you shouldn’t swim in an integrated swimming pool, you shouldn’t drink water from a water fountain immediately after a Black kid, you shouldn’t borrow a Black girl’s comb (which I did one time when I was “old enough to know better”). The unstated reason is that Black bodies and White bodies are essentially different and should remain separate. That was the message I was told again and again growing up in the South forty years ago.

But when Michael Jackson’s skin changed from dark to light, he proved that is a lie – he proved that Black bodies and White bodies are essentially the same – and he struck a shattering blow at the very heart of racism.

I have a White college friend who grew up with a Black housekeeper. One day the housekeeper was working in the kitchen and cut her hand, and my friend, who was just a child at the time, was shocked to see that her blood was red. Before that, she had assumed her blood was dark – as dark as her skin. My friend told me this story several times, generally with a laugh at how silly she’d been. But despite her laughter, I could tell this story was very important to her. It was one of those rare “Ah ha!” moments when your perceptions flip upside down and you’re suddenly forced to question things you thought you knew to be true.

When Michael Jackson’s skin changed from dark to light, I think he created an “Ah ha!” moment like that on a global scale. He had told us repeatedly through his music and his videos that we are all one people, regardless of skin color, and now he had a chance to prove it artistically. He could prove in a way that cannot be denied that our bodies are essentially the same, and he could do it in a way that even a child could understand. That is an incredibly powerful message, and he seized an opportunity to illustrate and broadcast that message in a way that had never been done before. And he expanded the definition of art in a way that had never been done before either. That’s why he was so misunderstood.

Joie:  Willa, you make a very convincing argument. And I’m sure that, being the incredibly artistic person that he was, he probably did tend to look at things or approach difficult situations from an artistic point of view. So, you could be absolutely correct in saying that he made a conscious decision to turn his disease into an artistic commentary on racism. And you know, when we first began disagreeing over this issue I never would have imagined I’d say that but, there it is. 
 
Willa:   Well, as I mentioned in our very first blog, you’ve really changed how I see this also. This isn’t a new thing for me. I’ve been fighting this battle for years. I can remember going to grad school in the South in the mid-to-late 1980s, and almost every semester someone at some point would bring up Michael Jackson and the changing color of his skin. And they would almost always say something like, it was an incredible cultural phenomenon, but of course it was just a product of his own insecurities. He was creating this incredibly powerful cultural moment that was forcing White America, especially, to question some of our deepest racial prejudices, but he was doing it accidentally.

And I always questioned that. Why assume it’s accidental? He’s a brilliant artist, he’s been actively fighting racial prejudices for years, he’s obviously thought about this issue deeply – so why assume he doesn’t know what he’s doing? I always thought he knew exactly what he was doing, and I think the evidence backs me up. His dermatologist has said that he frequently called his face “a work of art.” And as I tried to show in both M Poetica and “Rereading Michael Jackson,” I think he tried to explain through his work – through his short films, especially – that his changing appearance began as a medical decision but became a deliberate artistic decision.

But until I started talking with you, I didn’t realize just how difficult and painful that decision must have been for him. I knew he was the object of a lot of snarky comments by White commentators that just made me heartsick. And I knew there were people in the Black community who felt betrayed by him and by the changing color of his skin. But I didn’t realize how deeply those emotions ran, or how painful the accusations of betraying his race must have been for him.
 
Joie:  Oh, it must have been horrible! I always think about his interview with Oprah when he tells her, “I’m a Black American, I am proud to be a Black American, I am proud of my race. I am proud of who I am. I have a lot of pride and dignity….It is something that I cannot help, ok? But when people make up stories that I don’t want to be who I am, it hurts me….I mean, it makes me very sad.”
 
Those are his words. And the emotion in his voice and the pain on his face as he said them were obvious. But now, as I look back on that interview, I notice that he also said this during that same conversation:  “But you know what’s funny, why is that so important? That’s not important to me. I’m a great fan of art. I love Michelangelo. If I had the chance to talk to him or read about him I would want to know what inspired him to become who he is….I mean that’s what is important to me.” 
 
So, maybe he told us then and we just didn’t listen. Maybe he was saying, ‘Yes, I have this disease and it is horrifying and no one believes me but, I don’t care because I’m going to use it to educate you anyway!’