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Celebrating Bad: You Wanna Be a Man

Willa:  So Joie, last June we began talking about the Bad short film and video cut, but we didn’t really get a chance to look at them in depth. It seems like we’d just started chatting when we had to quit, and there’s so much more to talk about!

Joie:  I agree, Willa. It just never felt like we got into the video itself, did it?

Willa:  It really didn’t. We started talking about how there really wasn’t a forum for the full 16-minute version of Bad to be seen, which is an important issue.

Joie:  It is an important issue and I got sidetracked by my disdain for the “reality” format that killed my MTV, and I’m sorry about that. I’ll try to stay on topic this time.

Willa:  Well, sometimes those side trips can be pretty rewarding, but I would like for us to get a chance to burrow in to the film itself, so this week I was hoping we could pick up where we left off a couple months ago.

You know, it really does seem like every time I watch one of Michael Jackson’s short films I see something new, or feel echoes of something I hadn’t felt before, or see a connection I hadn’t really noticed before. And the last time I watched Bad I was really struck by the fact that his character in this film doesn’t have anyone he can truly depend on and trust. We hear the voice of his mother (spoken by Roberta Flack) and she sounds like a warm person and a loving parent, but she’s at work and unavailable. We never see her. He seems to interact and get along well with the other kids at his prep school, but there doesn’t seem to be any real depth of friendship there. He does seem to feel a connection with his friends back in his old neighborhood, but they’re pressuring him hard to prove he’s one of them, so he can’t depend on them either.

In fact, the only person he genuinely connects with in the entire film is the nameless fellow on the train. Like Daryl (and Michael Jackson himself) he’s positioned between two worlds – and this is portrayed literally, as they are riding a train from a rather unfamiliar new life back to the life they grew up in. So both of them are physically and symbolically between two worlds. This fellow on the train seems to understand what Daryl is going through – that patronizing show of acceptance from other students who don’t really accept him – because he’s experienced it himself. He asks Daryl, “How many guys proud of you?” Daryl counts in his head, then says, “Three.” “Shoot,” the other guy says, “Four guys proud of me.”

But that moment of connection lasts only a moment and then he’s gone. Interestingly, when we first see that other guy, he seems threatening. He’s watching Daryl through slitty eyes, and Daryl feels uncomfortable and turns away. So it’s a relief when we realize we can trust this guy … maybe. At least he seems like someone we can trust, but can we really? So in some ways it only heightens this feeling of doubt and alienation, and this sense that there’s no one he can really rely on.

Joie:  You are so right about that, Willa. In the beginning, it does seem like this guy on the train is someone very threatening and for a few minutes we don’t really know which way this is going to go. There is a heightened sense of anxiety because of it. Then, by the time he gets off the train, the two have clearly made a connection – as you say – even though it is fleeting. And what I find interesting is that, as he exits, he tells Daryl to “be the man.” It’s like he’s encouraging him to stand up for himself and what he believes in and not be swayed by peer pressure. It’s sort of foreboding in a way, like he’s preparing him for what’s to come.

Willa:  Joie, that is so interesting! I never looked at it that way. I always saw that line as a response to the prep school experience they’ve both had, and this idea that they’re being groomed to enter a life of privilege and “be the man.” But you’re right – it also foreshadows the test he’s about to face in his old neighborhood, which in many ways is set up as a test of his manhood. And that reminds me of the lyrics to “Beat It,” which in many ways serves as a prologue to Bad:

Don’t wanna be a boy, you wanna be a man
You wanna stay alive, better do what you can

Here too he’s talking about being “a man,” but in this context he’s obviously talking about dealing with gangs. But it’s complicated – does being a man mean you have to hurt people, or be hurt yourself?  He raises that question pretty directly in Beat It:

You better run, you better do what you can
Don’t wanna see no blood, don’t be a macho man
You wanna be tough, better do what you can
So beat it, but you wanna be bad

So while he understands “you wanna be a man,” he advises “don’t be a macho man” – though he then ends this verse by acknowledging “you wanna be bad.” So in both of these short films, he seems to be questioning what it means to be bad and be a man – and developing his own unique answers.

Joie:  And in doing so, he’s forcing others to think about those questions as well.

Willa:  Exactly.

Joie:  What does it mean to be bad? To be a man? By bringing those questions up, he’s attempting to educate us through his art – something he does so well. And when thinking about the lyrics to “Bad,” it’s almost like he’s telling young men everywhere that their ideas of what it means to be a man are all wrong, as he sings:

Your talk is cheap
You’re not a man
You’re throwing stones
To hide your hands

You know, it’s like the old expression your grandmother would sometimes say when you misbehaved – “don’t throw stones and then hide your hands!” Of course, as a kid, you never really understood what that meant; at least, I didn’t. It wasn’t until this song came out that I bothered to look it up and find out. Basically, it means to start some kind of trouble or mischief and then not take responsibility for it when the consequences start rolling in. And unfortunately, there is quite a lot of that going on in our society – it’s always someone else’s fault. So Michael Jackson was addressing that in “Bad” and saying, that’s not what a real man would do.

Willa:  You know, Joie, I always get so much out of our conversations. I’d never heard that expression before. I thought the “throwing stones” line was a reference to the Bible story where a crowd is gathering to stone a woman for committing adultery, but Jesus stops them and says, “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.” In other words, we shouldn’t “throw stones” – we should focus on improving our own behavior instead of criticizing the behavior of others. But then I didn’t understand what the “hide your hands” part meant. But what you’re saying about “don’t throw stones and then hide your hands” makes a lot of sense. That is so interesting.

Joie:  It is interesting, isn’t it? One of those old expressions that don’t make a whole lot of sense until you really stop and think about them. Of course, some of them, I never figure out. Like “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” What the heck does that mean, anyway? It drives me crazy!  But, I’m not getting sidetracked this time; I promise!

Willa:  OK, I’ll be good too and not ask what on earth “naked as a jaybird” means. Birds aren’t naked….

But anyway, it really does seem to me that he’s proposing a new definition of “bad” in this film, and through that a new definition of manhood. At first he tells his friends, “You wanna see who’s bad?” and agrees to help with the robbery. He’s going along with their definition of “bad.” But then he changes his mind and gives them (and us) a different definition – and presents us with two examples of this new definition.

One is very subtle – so subtle it’s easy to miss. It’s in the Wanted poster in the subway station. Big letters at the bottom of the poster tell us this man is “BAD” – and the man in the mugshot is Martin Scorsese, the director of Bad. The poster goes on to tell us he’s “Guilty of Sacrilege.” Scorsese was working on his film The Last Temptation of Christ at about that time, and he would come under intense criticism for it, for being sacrilegious. So he seems to be telling us that Martin Scorsese is “bad” because he’s an artist who challenges social norms.

Ironically, the other example is easy to miss for the exact opposite reason, because it’s so pervasive – it’s Michael Jackson himself. He repeatedly sings, “I’m bad,” and he is, but not because he’s tough or violent. Instead, he’s bad because he’s an artist, and an artist of a certain type – an artist who forces us to see ourselves and our world in a different way. In other words, he’s bad in the same way Martin Scorsese is.

Michael Jackson seems to be saying in this film that acting mean, carrying a gun, selling drugs, robbing an old man, hurting people – those things don’t make you “bad.” Instead, it’s developing your talents, specifically artistic talents, and then using those talents to effect important change in the world, in people’s perceptions and emotions. Michael Jackson and Martin Scorsese are respected around the world because they’re artists, with the unique courage of artists. They’re incredibly talented and creative, and in Michael Jackson’s case especially, they have the courage to present an alternate vision of how life can be lived.

And that reminds me of what you were just saying about throwing stones and then hiding your hands, and how that means to stir things up and then pretend you didn’t do it. You know, artists and gang members do have something very important in common:  they’re both transgressive, meaning they both challenge the established social order. But while gang members do it in a negative way and then “hide their hands,” artists do it in a positive way and take responsibility and even pride in their “transgressions.” They show their hands.

Joie:  That’s a very interesting analogy, Willa. I would never have thought those two things – artists and gang members – are alike in any way but, you make a great point.

Willa:  They do seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, don’t they? But they both push the limits of what’s socially acceptable, and sometimes motivate change. But while gang members tend to bring about negative change – more violence, more police, more repression, more jails – artists can sometimes bring about positive change. And I think the difference is that violence makes people fearful and reactionary, so they close their minds, while art can help open people’s minds to new ways of seeing and experiencing the world.

Joie:  Really interesting comparison. But, you know, speaking of gang members … there is something about this video that I have always found fascinating, and that’s the fact that the entire film is shot in black and white while the dance sequence with the gang members is in vibrant technicolor.

Maybe I should pause here and say that you and I talked a bit last spring about exactly who are the “gang members” in this particular short film, and I stated that I didn’t look upon Daryl’s three so-called friends as gang members but as wanna-be thugs. So, when I say “gang members,” I am referring to the dancers, not the friends.

Willa:  Though they’re a very different kind of gang – a “gang” of dancers, of artists, which circles back to that connection between artists and outlaws we were just talking about. I hadn’t thought of the dancers in Bad quite that way until just now , but they’re kind of embodying the conflation of those two categories. They are a “gang” of artists – they’re outlaw artists – so doubly transgressive.

Joie:  Oh, you’re right. Hadn’t thought of that. But I just love the way that portion of the short film is set apart from the rest of the video by the vibrant color and I always wonder, what was Michael (or Scorsese) trying to convey with that distinction? What message is hidden in that artistic decision? Could it be perhaps that the misery of the lives of the three wanna-be thugs is reflected in the bleak, dismal black and white, and that Michael is showing them through the dance sequence how vibrant and alive they could be if they left their world of violence and misery behind? Or perhaps that’s too simplistic and I’m reading too much into it.

Willa:  Oh no, I don’t think you’re reading too much into it, Joie – not at all. It must be important because he repeats that same shift in Ghosts.

Joie:  Oh, that’s right; he does make that transition in Ghosts as well!

Willa:  He does. We see the fearful villagers and the vengeful mayor creeping toward the Maestro’s castle in black and white, and then a door opens and they see a room suffused with color, and that’s the space of the Maestro. And I think your interpretation of this shift in Bad works equally well for both films. As you said, “the misery of the lives of the three wanna-be thugs,” and the villagers in Ghosts, as well, “is reflected in the bleak, dismal black and white.” And as you say, “Michael is showing them through the dance sequence how vibrant and alive they could be if they left their world of violence and misery behind.” I think that’s a beautiful way to interpret both films.

Another way to approach this is to look back at the most famous example of a film that shifts between color and black and white: The Wizard of Oz. The scenes in Kansas are all shot in black and white, and the scenes in Oz are in color. Michael Jackson was well aware of that shift, and talked about it with Rabbi Boteach when describing how he designed the drive up to Neverland, beginning with the very plain and simple gates:

I was gonna have people swing them open and really kind of have them funky and tattered, just so psychologically you really feel like you’re coming to a ranch, so that when you go around the bend I want it to change to Technicolor, like The Wizard of Oz does.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s “real” world of Kansas is black and white, but the world of her imagination – the world of Oz – is in color. And the same is true of Bad as well: the black and white scenes are “real,” and the color scenes are Daryl’s imagination.

Joie:  Willa, that’s fascinating. I hadn’t thought of that before. The color scenes are happening in Daryl’s imagination, so they are in Technicolor! That makes so much sense now.

Willa:  Yeah, but it doesn’t work for Ghosts, where all the scenes – both the color and the black and white – are “real.” There the shift seems to mean something different. The color scenes are “real,” but it’s a reality heightened and made vibrant by the creativity of a powerful artist – which is closer to your interpretation, Joie. And I wonder if that isn’t closer to what Michael Jackson had in mind for Bad as well. As in Ghosts, when we’re in the color scenes, we know we’re in the presence of an amazing artist.

So as with a lot of his work, Bad seems to be another example of meta-art – of art talking about art, including the importance of art and the role of the artist. And he seems to be saying that art can bring personal fulfillment as well as social change – that through art we too can shift from a dull, grey, monotonous world of black and white to a world of glorious color.

Joie:  That’s a nice thought, Willa.

Who’s Bad?

Joie:  So, Willa, you know that there is a whole huge campaign going on right now for Sony’s upcoming re-issue of the Bad album. They’re re-releasing it in honor of its 25th Anniversary and it sounds like it’s going to be a pretty big deal, with a re-issue of the album itself, plus a separate disc of previously unreleased material that was recorded during the Bad sessions, plus a third disc recorded live during the Bad tour – the first ever Michael Jackson live CD – and a DVD of the July 16, 1988, concert at Wembley Stadium performed in front of the Prince and Princess of Wales! I’m really excited about it.

Willa:  I am too. I actually went to Walmart today to get the new Bad-era single “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” / “Don’t Be Messin’ ‘Round.” To be honest, I haven’t bought a single since the old 45s with the big hole in the middle. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as singles anymore, except on iTunes. So I went to Walmart and was completely disoriented – wandered around for about 10 minutes before I even found the music section – and then it wasn’t there. They had Immortal and Number Ones but that was it, and I didn’t see any singles for anyone anywhere. So either they had sold out already, or that store wasn’t carrying it.

Joie:  You know, I couldn’t find it at my Walmart either. I don’t know if they can’t keep it stocked or if they didn’t carry it at all but, I was very disappointed. Anyway, not surprisingly, all this has me thinking about the Bad album, and more specifically, the Bad video. I just love the long version of that video with the black and white, Martin Scorsese film. And I love the way that story sort of frames the actual music video itself.

Willa:  I do too. I saw the video many times when it was in rotation on MTV, but didn’t see the full Scorsese film until years later, and I was stunned by it. I’ve always really liked the Bad video. He’s addressing some very important and sensitive issues – and at the risk of sounding like a teeny bopper, let me just say upfront that he is unbelievably gorgeous throughout the entire dance sequence. But the film is fascinating and adds so much nuance and dimension to what’s happening in the video cut. As with so many of Michael Jackson’s films, there is so much going on – and the more you look, the more you see.

Joie:  Oh, I agree. I always see something new, or something that I hadn’t noticed before, every time I watch a Michael Jackson video or live performance. It is really amazing how that happens. But I’m shocked by your admission. You really went years before you saw the full short film version of this video? How did that happen?

Willa:  Well, Joie, I guess the short answer is that I’m old! I wrote my college papers on a typewriter, if you can believe that. It had built-in correction tape, and I thought that was really high-tech!  And I did my graduate research without the Internet. Just imagine. I went to the library to do my research. How quaint is that? My son actually asked me the other day if cars were invented when I was a kid. For Pete’s sake.

Joie:  Oh, Willa. Sometimes you make yourself sound like a dinosaur. You are not THAT old! I wrote my college papers on a typewriter too, for heaven’s sake!

Willa:  Really? Well, that’s reassuring. Thanks, Joie. And I don’t mean to sound like a dinosaur – I think I’m still a little wigged out from wandering around inside that huge strange store with no idea where anything was, or what I was even looking for. I felt like Mr. Magoo.

So anyway, MTV played the Bad video, but they didn’t play the entire film. And it wasn’t in movie theaters. And there wasn’t any YouTube – there wasn’t even an Internet. So where would I have seen it? Where did you see it?

Joie:  Well, you know, sometimes MTV and VH1 and others would have a special ‘Michael Jackson Weekend’ and they would play the long versions of all the videos. You might have seen it that way. So anyway, now I’m really interested to know, since you had only seen the short version for so long, what was your initial reaction when you finally saw the long version? Did it measure up to things you had maybe heard about it? Or had you even heard about it?

Willa:  I don’t think I did know there was a longer film or I would have made an effort to see it. I’ve always liked the video cut, and think it’s fascinating how he’s redefining what it means to be “bad.” He’s not bad because he’s mean or macho, but because he has self-knowledge – he’s in tune with himself. He’s creative and talented and more adorable than mere mortals have any right to be, and he’s not afraid to show it. I loved that.

You know, a lot of critics mocked him because they said he looked effeminate but was claiming to be “bad,” and I absolutely disagreed with that all the way around. First of all, he’s not effeminate. He doesn’t reject his feminine side (which is refreshing) but he certainly doesn’t reject his masculine side either – he just seems like a wonderfully complete person to me. Secondly, I strongly objected to the notion that you have to be macho to be “bad,” or worthy of respect. To me, this video is pushing back against that kind of thinking – in fact, that’s the whole point, to my mind – and I really welcomed that.

But then I saw the complete film, and suddenly the video portion took on so much more meaning than it ever had before. It was amazing to me. So you didn’t have that experience? You saw the long film around the same time as the video, so knew how it all fit together?

Joie:  Yes. In fact, the first few times I saw the video, it was the long version. I think MTV played it in its entirety for like a whole day or something. You know … back then, they used to make a really big deal out of video premieres, and the day a video premiered, they would show it at the top of every hour for the entire day.

You know, this is slightly off topic here but, I feel led to say this. MTV really used to be something special. Now, of course, you would never know that because all they show anymore are “reality” shows but, back in the day – when Music Television actually focused on the music – it was the coolest station on cable. Never before had there been a station completely devoted to popular music; it was awesome and unlike anything we had ever seen! And then it just … died. I honestly don’t know how they still get away with calling themselves MTV. They should change their name to RTV!

Willa:  Actually, that raises a really important question, Joie. Where do people go to see music videos now? YouTube? I use YouTube a lot for looking up things I already know about, but I don’t know that it exposes you to new bands and new videos the way MTV did.

Joie:  No, that’s really true, Willa. And it’s also a little sad. I have a teenaged nephew who loves “reality” TV shows and MTV is his favorite channel because that’s all they show. When I told him what the M in MTV actually stood for, he had no clue! He had no idea that it used to be a channel devoted to music. And he’s a very talented young musician himself! But I just think it’s so sad that there’s an entire generation out there that has no idea how great MTV used to be.

Willa:  Hampton Stevens talks about that a bit in his wonderful article in The Atlantic, “Michael Jackson’s Unparalleled Influence,” and he has an interesting take on the rise and fall of MTV:

The oft-repeated conventional wisdom – that Jackson’s videos made MTV and so “changed the music industry” is only half true. It’s more like the music industry ballooned to encompass Jackson’s talent and shrunk down again without him. 

I have to say, I think he’s on to something.

Joie:  It is an interesting thought, isn’t it? And in some ways, it’s a very valid point he’s making. Of course, that’s not to discredit all the thousands of other wonderful bands and artists that were featured on MTV over the years but, it is almost as if they simply couldn’t exist in the music format without the continued contributions of the King of Pop. You know, this is a topic that fascinates me and it may need further exploration sometime.

But getting back to the Bad video, even though I had seen the whole short film version when it premiered, after that it really was like it went underground for several years and you just had to be lucky enough to catch one of those ‘Michael Jackson Weekends’ in order to get a glimpse of the film version. But it really is an incredible film, and what I love most about it is the fact that it really showcases Michael’s acting ability. You know, he was not a bad actor and he’s never really been given credit for that.

Willa:  Oh, I think he’s an amazing actor, and an intelligent actor, if that makes sense. One of the things I love most about his lyrics are their emotional complexity, and we see that emotional complexity in his acting as well. The character he plays in Bad has a lot of different forces weighing on him, and as an actor, he conveys that so subtly and well.

His character is a smart kid from the inner city who’s done well and earned a scholarship to a prestigious prep school, and the film opens with him at the prep school trying to negotiate this other world that sees him as something of an outsider. Then we see him coming back to his old neighborhood and trying to re-enter and negotiate the world he grew up in, but that world doesn’t fit him anymore either. So we see him positioned between these two worlds – just as Michael Jackson himself always seemed to be positioned between two worlds – and we can really see and feel his internal struggles as he works through all that.

Joie:  I agree with that statement, Willa, that Michael himself always seemed to be positioned between two worlds. I never quite made that comparison between his own life and this short film though. Very keen observation.

Willa:  It’s funny, isn’t it? On the surface, this kid from the inner city seems to have very little in common with a superstar like Michael Jackson, but there are some pretty profound connections between them, I think. Or maybe it’s just part of his skill as an actor that we feel a connection between him and the character he’s portraying.

Joie:  But you know, the really interesting thing about this video is that the storyline of the short film is actually based on a true story. In fact, Michael was very careful not to take credit for the storyline of the video, as we saw during a taped interview for Ebony/Jet Magazine back in 1987. Michael told the interviewer that they adapted the story from an actual incident that was reported in Time or Newsweek magazine where a young Black boy from the ghetto named Daryl goes away upstate to prep school in a bid to better his life, and when he returned home on Thanksgiving break, his old friends back in the hood became so envious of him and suddenly saw him as such an outsider, that they actually killed him. So, once again, we see him using his art to draw attention to the social ills plaguing us.

Willa:  Oh, I’m glad you shared that, Joie, because I had that story all wrong. I thought the real story behind the screenplay was that his old friends talked him into joining them in a robbery, and he was killed during the robbery.

But what’s really interesting to me about how the screenplay revises the actual story is that there are no bad guys. As you say, he often uses his videos and longer films to draw attention to social ills, but he also forces us to then think about those social ills in more complicated ways. It’s very easy to say the problem of gang violence is simply that there are all these evil hoodlums running around in gangs. But as Bad shows us, these guys may be talking tough and playing the role of hoodlums – “wanna-be thugs” as you called them a few weeks ago, Joie – but they aren’t mean or evil. They’re just young men trying to prove themselves and protect themselves in a harsh environment.

At the same time, it’s very easy to go to the opposite extreme as well – from a position of rigid condemnation of these young men to a position of moral relativism – and say we’re all the product of social forces so there’s really no such thing as free will, and no such thing as right and wrong. And Michael Jackson rejects that as well. As he sings to those wanna-be gang members, “You’re doing wrong / Gonna lock you up before too long.” And in the long call-and-response at the end, he tells them that if they don’t know the difference between right and wrong, they need to find out:

Ask your brother
Ask your mother
Ask your sister
Ask me
’Cause you’re doing wrong  

So while he refuses to condemn them, he still insists that they need to make a choice between right and wrong, and he insists that their choice matters.

Joie:  And I think that’s a message that he tried repeatedly to convey to us, Willa. That our choices matter. Whether we’re talking about racism, like in “Black or White,” or about prostitution, like in the Who Is It short film, or about gang violence and inner-city turmoil like in this video. We always have a choice in life – no matter what the circumstance – and our choices are important; they shape the outcome of our lives.

Willa:  That’s a really important point, Joie. You’re right – we can’t control the circumstances we’re born into, or many of the things that happen to us, but we can control how we respond to those circumstances, and those decisions matter. As he sings so beautifully in “Much Too Soon” from the Michael album,

I hope to make a change now for the better
Never letting fate control my soul

We can’t control fate, but that doesn’t mean we have to let fate control us.

Joie:  And I think that is the central message of the Bad short film, Willa.

So, next week, Willa and I will begin a 10-week Summer hiatus. It’s that time of year when everyone is busily taking advantage of the nice weather and enjoying some much needed R & R with their families, and Willa and I both have some upcoming travel plans so, it’s time for Summer vacation. But this doesn’t mean that we’re going to leave you high and dry! We have decided to revisit some of our favorite blog posts over the next 10 weeks and we’re actually really excited about it. We spent a great deal of time going over our conversations and deciding which ones to “rerun” and I think we were a little surprised when our choices coincided perfectly.

Willa:  Though looking back, maybe it’s not so surprising, Joie. We discovered that, while it’s important to look at larger cultural issues sometimes, such as prejudices about race, gender, and sexuality, what really nourishes both of us is Michael Jackson’s art – his songs, his videos, his voice. That’s not too surprising! So for the next 10 weeks we’ll snuggle in with some blog posts from throughout the year that take a close look at his art. And the comments sections will still be open, so we hope you’ll join us as we revisit some of his songs and videos and maybe bring new perspectives to the conversation the second time around.