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Summer Rewind 2013, Week 1: Speed Demon

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on September 19, 2012. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Celebrating Bad: Speed Demon

Willa: So Joie, you’d think I’d have learned by now never to label any of Michael Jackson’s videos as “just entertainment.” I thought that about You Rock My World – that it was “just entertainment” – but after talking with you about it last fall I’ve come to see it as a very pointed critique of the music industry. I thought that about In the Closet, but after talking with you about it last January I’ve come to see it as a fascinating look at taboo relationships. At different times I’ve thought it about Thriller, and Smooth Criminal, and Scream, but later came to see those three as some of his most important works. And I’ve thought it about Speed Demon, but now I’m starting to wonder if I haven’t been overlooking something important in that video as well.

It seems to me there are two major themes running through the nine Bad videos. First, there’s the extremely complicated issue of violence, poverty, and criminality, especially as it presents itself in the inner city. We see this theme in the videos for Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, Man in the Mirror, Smooth Criminal, and Speed Demon. Then there’s the complicated issue of celebrity and fame, as we see in Dirty Diana, Leave Me Alone, Liberian Girl, Another Part of Me, and Speed Demon. So Speed Demon – that cute, quirky, inoffensive little claymation video – is the place where those two major themes intersect.

Joie: Willa, I have to say, you have me intrigued now because I don’t think of Speed Demon in terms of “violence, poverty and criminality,” as you put it.

Willa: Well, he has a light touch. You wouldn’t think someone could make an enjoyable video about some of our worst and most complicated social ills, but he did – over and over again.

Joie: Well, yes. That’s true; he did. But, I’m not sure I see that going on in Speed Demon. And I also never would have thought about Liberian Girl or Another Part of Me as commentaries on celebrity and fame so, I’m interested to see where you’re going with this.

Willa: I know what you mean, Joie. I would have said the same thing just a few days ago. Speed Demon especially seems to have more in common with Wallace & Gromit than Beat It, at least on the surface.

Joie: Wallace & Gromit. That’s funny!

Willa: Well, you know what I’m saying – it’s claymation! But remember a couple weeks ago when you asked me what I saw as the major themes of Bad?

Joie: Yeah.

Willa: Well, I’d never thought about that before, so I started listening to the songs and watching the videos with that question in mind, and as I was doing that these two very disparate themes started to emerge, especially in the videos. I mean, think about it: is there a video anywhere with more celebrities than Liberian Girl? It’s nothing but celebrities. And suddenly there’s Michael Jackson behind the scenes laughing, which seems like such an interesting statement all in itself!

And look at the opening of Another Part of Me and how it focuses on his complicated relationship with his fame – how he both enjoys it but seeks refuge from it, and how he uses it to convey his “message” – a message he states very clearly in the chorus:

We’re sending out a major love
And this is our message to you
The planets are lining up
We’re bringing brighter days
They’re all in line waiting for you
Can’t you see?
You’re just another part of me

So he’s on a mission to send “major love” out into the world, and he uses his art and his celebrity to help him accomplish that. But this isn’t an easy issue – his celebrity both empowers him and isolates him. And as usual, he presents these ideas in subtle but sophisticated ways in the video.

Joie: Hmm. That is very interesting, Willa. I see your point. And what you’re saying makes a lot of sense. I guess, now that you mention it, I have been thinking of both Liberian Girl and Another Part of Me as purely entertainment. And you’re right – that is something that we should never do when it comes to Michael Jackson.

Willa: We really shouldn’t. It’s easy to fall into that because his work is so entertaining, but there are always so many layers to his work, and a lot of times there are really interesting things happening if we just look. Like it’s easy to dismiss Speed Demon as just a cartoon, but it addresses his complicated relationship with his celebrity as well. It opens with him being chased by some over-eager fans, and they’re pretty rude and obnoxious.

Joie: Oh, they are incredibly rude and obnoxious! And it makes me kind of sad to think that he may have encountered that often, you know? That fans were ever that thoughtless and unkind to him. In fact, I have a hard time thinking of them as fans; to me, they’re more like an angry mob that’s out to get him. They even seem to be quite angry at him as they chase him around the movie set and out onto the open road. And the longer they chase him, the angrier they seem to become.

Willa: They really do. You know, it’s presented as this fun chase sequence – and he does seem to enjoy it – but all the same, there is something threatening about it and he really doesn’t want them to catch him. And I think he did have to deal with obnoxious fans sometimes. He talked about it in a 1978 phone interview with Lisa Robinson. She asked him, “do you still like meeting your fans?” and he said,

I enjoy all that sometimes, seeing people who love me, or buy my records. I think it’s fun, and I enjoy meeting my fans and I think it’s important. But sometimes people think you owe your life to them; they have a bad attitude – like, ‘I made you who you are.’ That may be true – but not that one person. Sometimes you have to say to them, If the music wasn’t good, you wouldn’t have bought it. Because some of them think they actually own you. Someone will say, “Sit down,” “Sign this,” or “Can I have your autograph?” and I’ll say, “Yes, do you have a pen?” And they say, “No, go get one.” Honestly. I’m not exaggerating. But I just try to deal with it.

And remember, this was in 1978 – three years before Thriller came out.

Joie: Yes, I remember that interview and it is really sad when you think about it. And again, I have a difficult time thinking of those people as fans. I guess I just have a different idea of what that word means. “Fan.” You know, oftentimes that word has such a negative connotation to it. Especially with regard to Michael Jackson fans. But I’ve been in the fan community a long time and I know Michael Jackson fans to be some of the nicest, most respectful people I’ve ever met, so that’s difficult for me to reconcile. But, I’m certain from his point of view there were times when the attention probably became extremely rude or even threatening. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live with that kind of attention 24/7.

But I was really more referring to the video itself – not his real life. In the short film, the “fans” who are chasing him sort of become this angry mob that seems like they’re out to get him. And it’s not clear what they intend to do with him if they catch up to him. Do they want to hurt him or do they simply want his autograph? It’s difficult to tell by the snarls on their faces. It’s no wonder he’s trying to get away from them!

Willa: I think you’re exactly right, Joie – they are like a “mob,” meaning they’re gripped by that weird mob mentality that takes over sometimes, and I think Michael Jackson had seen how dangerous that could be and was scared of it. We see that fear of the mob in the intro to Ghosts. And he said in a number of interviews that being mobbed “hurts.” That people go crazy and start pulling your hair and twisting your arms, and it really hurts. Apparently, the first time the Jackson 5 went to England, a mob scene broke out at the airport and he could have been killed. He was wearing a scarf, and one girl grabbed one end and another grabbed the other end, and they were both pulling as hard as they could. The scarf was tightening around his neck, and he couldn’t breathe and couldn’t loosen it, and his brothers had to rescue him. What a scary story!

So you’re right – it’s hard to predict what a mob will do, and it’s not clear at all what the mob chasing him in Speed Demon will do if they catch him.

Joie: But luckily, they don’t get that chance because they all end up getting stopped for speeding and causing a pile-up of sorts. The last we see of them, they’re all being taken away in a police wagon as Michael speeds away, finally free to breathe now that the mob that was chasing him is gone. He heads out to the open road and stops for a few minutes to discard the costume he used to escape his pursuers, then finds himself in the middle of a dance-off when that costume comes to life and issues a challenge.

But I have to say, Willa, that while I agree that the complicated issues of celebrity and fame are definitely present in this short film, I’m still not really seeing the issues of ‘violence, poverty and criminality’ in Speed Demon that you mentioned at the beginning of this discussion.

Willa: Well, think about those repeated lines from the police: “Pull over, boy, and get your ticket right.” There’s so much sheer joy of flight in Speed Demon, just the exhilaration of speed and escaping all the pressures being put on him. But then near the end a trooper gives him a ticket. In fact, there are policemen throughout this video, and a lot of times they’re chasing him too. So while it’s a policeman who puts those obsessive fans in jail and kind of rescues him from the mob, as you just described, another policeman shows up and treats him like a criminal.

You know, what really started me thinking differently about Speed Demon was the MJ Academia Project videos. Unfortunately, the people who posted those videos have taken them down and they aren’t available at the moment, which is disappointing. I’d really like to watch them again and link to them right now. I hope they repost them. But anyway, in one of their videos they talk about how Michael Jackson repeatedly uses the word “boy” in a number of songs and videos as a code word for how black men have been treated by the criminal justice system in the U.S., and they specifically mention Speed Demon. I’d never thought of Speed Demon like that – as anything more than a cartoon, actually – but I started listening to it differently after that. And one thing I realized is that the video really softens the message of the song. If you can somehow block the video images out of your mind while listening to it, it feels much grittier than when your mind is full of Michael Jackson in a dancing competition with Spike, the claymation rabbit (which I love, by the way).

So, as he does so many times with so many different subjects, he shows how complicated human relationships can be. He loves his fans, but feels threatened by them when they turn into a mob. He feels protected by the police, especially when the mob is carted off to the police station, but he also knows the police can turn on him at any minute and criminalize him. And this was filmed in 1988, before he’d really experienced just how biased and abusive the police could be.

Joie: Well, I agree with you, the video does really soften the message of the song. And I wonder if he did that intentionally, seeing as how this video was part of the movie, Moonwalker – which is really sort of a kid’s movie with a feel-good theme to it. But, as we talked about last week, this is one of those short films where the visual he presents us with is much different than what we conjure up in our minds when merely listening to the song itself.

Willa: That’s true, though we need to be careful about viewing Moonwalker as just entertainment also. It does have a fun, “feel-good” mood through most of it, but there’s a lot of very interesting things going on in that movie. We should talk about that sometime. I can’t believe we’ve been chatting about Michael Jackson’s work for a year now and still haven’t talked about Moonwalker.

But getting back to Speed Demon, we really see that structure of a fun entertaining film overlying a serious message here too. In some ways, he seems to be exploring the role of artists in society, and how artists and police are kind of at cross purposes. The police tend to want everyone to follow the rules and behave in conventional ways, even if that has nothing to do with legality, and artists are constantly challenging those conventions. We see that conflict between the police and the artist with the “sheriff” from the western movie early in the video. He starts chasing Michael Jackson and calls out to him in this really patronizing way, “Hey, Songbird.” And then at the end the trooper gives him the ticket, saying, “I need your autograph right here.” Importantly, the ticket isn’t for speeding. It’s for dancing.

Joie: Well, in the trooper’s defense, Willa, it was a clearly marked No Dancing zone!

Willa: That’s true! And you notice he’s a very law-abiding citizen. He doesn’t dance after the trooper points to that funny sign telling him he’s not supposed to, though you know he disagrees with it.

But you know, while this is all handled in a very light, entertaining way, it’s addressing some really complex ideas as well. The policeman is trying to rein him in and prevent him from dancing, from expressing his art, and even treats him as a criminal, or at least a law-breaker, because of his dancing. And this ties back to what we talked about a couple weeks ago with the Bad short film. As we said then, artists and criminals actually have something in common: they both challenge social norms. They do it in very different ways – one legally to improve our cultural awareness, and one illegally and often destructively – but sometimes that distinction becomes blurred and artists are treated as criminals. And Michael Jackson was very aware of that, as he shows us in Speed Demon and Bad, and perhaps most explicitly in Ghosts. Remember, the “crime” he’s accused of in Ghosts is being an artist, a teller of ghost stories, and too outrageously different.

And I think this criminalization of artists played out in very real ways in how the police (and the press and the public) interpreted the allegations against him in 1993 and 2003. It’s like there was this idea that he was willing to transgress social norms – by singing and dancing, by challenging gender and racial boundaries, by representing the Other, as Joe Vogel described a few weeks ago – so some people seemed to think that maybe he was willing to transgress legal and moral boundaries as well and do illegal, immoral things.

Joie: I think that’s a very interesting point, Willa. And maybe a very simplistic way of describing that is the old saying ‘judging a book by its cover.’ Because he looked “strange” or “freaky” to some, then perhaps he was more likely to be a criminal than someone who looked sweet and innocent. Actress Winona Ryder comes to mind. Who would have ever imagined she would behave like a common criminal? After all, she looked so “normal.”

Willa: I don’t really know much about the Winona Ryder case, except that it got a lot of attention in the press – far more than shoplifting charges usually get. But this criminalization of artists has a long history. Think about the McCarthy trials, and how many artists’ careers were destroyed by them. And William Tyndale, who may have been the greatest English poet of all time. Most of the King James Bible was written by Tyndale, and you can make the case that Shakespeare wouldn’t have been Shakespeare without him – even the cadence of his language reflects Tyndale. And Tyndale was burned at the stake.

And I always wonder how many of the women, and men too, condemned as witches during the Salem witch trials had an artist’s sensibility. They were definitely people who didn’t fit in, and were seen as “strange” or “freaky,” as you just said. Many were independent women who didn’t marry and lived unconventional lives. And this is interesting: one of the first people accused during the trials was a slave named Tituba who liked to tell children stories, just like the Maestro in Ghosts.

Joie: That’s a really interesting point, Willa. And you’re probably right about that, many of them probably were artists in some form, or at the very least, free thinkers – also like the Maestro in Ghosts. But I think what you’re trying to get at is that, even though on the surface it’s a cute little claymation video, Speed Demon is anything but childish or simplistic.

Willa: Exactly. Or maybe what I’m trying to say is that it works on both levels. It’s a fun, cartoon-like film that kids enjoy, but there are some complicated ideas for adults to grapple with as well.

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Celebrating Bad: Speed Demon

Willa:  So Joie, you’d think I’d have learned by now never to label any of Michael Jackson’s videos as “just entertainment.” I thought that about You Rock My World – that it was “just entertainment” – but after talking with you about it last fall I’ve come to see it as a very pointed critique of the music industry. I thought that about In the Closet, but after talking with you about it last January I’ve come to see it as a fascinating look at taboo relationships. At different times I’ve thought it about Thriller, and Smooth Criminal, and Scream, but later came to see those three as some of his most important works. And I’ve thought it about Speed Demon, but now I’m starting to wonder if I haven’t been overlooking something important in that video as well.

It seems to me there are two major themes running through the nine Bad videos. First, there’s the extremely complicated issue of violence, poverty, and criminality, especially as it presents itself in the inner city. We see this theme in the videos for Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, Man in the Mirror, Smooth Criminal, and Speed Demon. Then there’s the complicated issue of celebrity and fame, as we see in Dirty Diana, Leave Me Alone, Liberian Girl, Another Part of Me, and Speed Demon. So Speed Demon – that cute, quirky, inoffensive little claymation video – is the place where these two major themes intersect.

Joie:  Willa, I have to say, you have me intrigued now because I don’t think of Speed Demon in terms of “violence, poverty and criminality,” as you put it.

Willa:  Well, he has a light touch. You wouldn’t think someone could make an enjoyable video about some of our worst and most complicated social ills, but he did – over and over again.

Joie:  Well, yes. That’s true; he did. But, I’m not sure I see that going on in Speed Demon. And I also never would have thought about Liberian Girl or Another Part of Me as commentaries on celebrity and fame so, I’m interested to see where you’re going with this.

Willa:  I know what you mean, Joie. I would have said the same thing just a few days ago. Speed Demon especially seems to have more in common with Wallace & Gromit than Beat It, at least on the surface.

Joie:  Wallace & Gromit. That’s funny!

Willa:  Well, you know what I’m saying – it’s claymation! But remember a couple weeks ago when you asked me what I saw as the major themes of Bad?

Joie:  Yeah.

Willa:  Well, I’d never thought about that before, so I started listening to the songs and watching the videos with that question in mind, and as I was doing that these two very disparate themes started to emerge, especially in the videos. I mean, think about it:  is there a video anywhere with more celebrities than Liberian Girl? It’s nothing but celebrities. And suddenly there’s Michael Jackson behind the scenes laughing, which seems like such an interesting statement all in itself!

And look at the opening of Another Part of Me and how it focuses on his complicated relationship with his fame – how he both enjoys it but seeks refuge from it, and how he uses it to convey his “message” – a message he states very clearly in the chorus:

We’re sending out a major love
And this is our message to you
The planets are lining up
We’re bringing brighter days
They’re all in line waiting for you
Can’t you see?
You’re just another part of me

So he’s on a mission to send “major love” out into the world, and he uses his art and his celebrity to help him accomplish that. But this isn’t an easy issue – his celebrity both empowers him and isolates him. And as usual, he presents these ideas in subtle but sophisticated ways in the video.

Joie:  Hmm. That is very interesting, Willa. I see your point. And what you’re saying makes a lot of sense. I guess, now that you mention it, I have been thinking of both Liberian Girl and Another Part of Me as purely entertainment. And you’re right – that is something that we should never do when it comes to Michael Jackson.

Willa:  We really shouldn’t. It’s easy to fall into that because his work is so entertaining, but there are always so many layers to his work, and a lot of times there are really interesting things happening if we just look. Like it’s easy to dismiss Speed Demon as just a cartoon, but it addresses his complicated relationship with his celebrity as well. It opens with him being chased by some over-eager fans, and they’re pretty rude and obnoxious.

Joie:  Oh, they are incredibly rude and obnoxious! And it makes me kind of sad to think that he may have encountered that often, you know? That fans were ever that thoughtless and unkind to him. In fact, I have a hard time thinking of them as fans; to me, they’re more like an angry mob that’s out to get him. They even seem to be quite angry at him as they chase him around the movie set and out onto the open road. And the longer they chase him, the angrier they seem to become.

Willa:  They really do. You know, it’s presented as this fun chase sequence – and he does seem to enjoy it – but all the same, there is something threatening about it and he really doesn’t want them to catch him. And I think he did have to deal with obnoxious fans sometimes. He talked about it in a 1978 phone interview with Lisa Robinson. She asked him, “do you still like meeting your fans?” and he said,

I enjoy all that sometimes, seeing people who love me, or buy my records. I think it’s fun, and I enjoy meeting my fans and I think it’s important. But sometimes people think you owe your life to them; they have a bad attitude – like, ‘I made you who you are.’ That may be true – but not that one person. Sometimes you have to say to them, If the music wasn’t good, you wouldn’t have bought it. Because some of them think they actually own you. Someone will say, “Sit down,” “Sign this,” or “Can I have your autograph?” and I’ll say, “Yes, do you have a pen?” And they say, “No, go get one.” Honestly. I’m not exaggerating. But I just try to deal with it.

And remember, this was in 1978 – three years before Thriller came out.

Joie:  Yes, I remember that interview and it is really sad when you think about it. And again, I have a difficult time thinking of those people as fans. I guess I just have a different idea of what that word means. “Fan.” You know, oftentimes that word has such a negative connotation to it. Especially with regard to Michael Jackson fans. But I’ve been in the fan community a long time and I know Michael Jackson fans to be some of the nicest, most respectful people I’ve ever met, so that’s difficult for me to reconcile. But, I’m certain from his point of view there were times when the attention probably became extremely rude or even threatening. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live with that kind of attention 24/7.

But I was really more referring to the video itself – not his real life. In the short film, the “fans” who are chasing him sort of become this angry mob that seems like they’re out to get him. And it’s not clear what they intend to do with him if they catch up to him. Do they want to hurt him or do they simply want his autograph? It’s difficult to tell by the snarls on their faces. It’s no wonder he’s trying to get away from them!

Willa:  I think you’re exactly right, Joie – they are like a “mob,” meaning they’re gripped by that weird mob mentality that takes over sometimes, and I think Michael Jackson had seen how dangerous that could be and was scared of it. We see that fear of the mob in the intro to Ghosts. And he said in a number of interviews that being mobbed “hurts.” That people go crazy and start pulling your hair and twisting your arms, and it really hurts. Apparently, the first time the Jackson 5 went to England, a mob scene broke out at the airport and he could have been killed. He was wearing a scarf, and one girl grabbed one end and another grabbed the other end, and they were both pulling as hard as they could. The scarf was tightening around his neck, and he couldn’t breathe and couldn’t loosen it, and his brothers had to rescue him. What a scary story!

So you’re right – it’s hard to predict what a mob will do, and it’s not clear at all what the mob chasing him in Speed Demon will do if they catch him.

Joie:  But luckily, they don’t get that chance because they all end up getting stopped for speeding and causing a pile-up of sorts. The last we see of them, they’re all being taken away in a police wagon as Michael speeds away, finally free to breathe now that the mob that was chasing him is gone. He heads out to the open road and stops for a few minutes to discard the costume he used to escape his pursuers, then finds himself in the middle of a dance-off when that costume comes to life and issues a challenge.

But I have to say, Willa, that while I agree that the complicated issues of celebrity and fame are definitely present in this short film, I’m still not really seeing the issues of ‘violence, poverty and criminality’ in Speed Demon that you mentioned at the beginning of this discussion.

Willa:  Well, think about those repeated lines from the police:  “Pull over, boy, and get your ticket right.” There’s so much sheer joy of flight in Speed Demon, just the exhilaration of speed and escaping all the pressures being put on him. But then near the end a trooper gives him a ticket. In fact, there are policemen throughout this video, and a lot of times they’re chasing him too. So while it’s a policeman who puts those obsessive fans in jail and kind of rescues him from the mob, as you just described, another policeman shows up and treats him like a criminal.

You know, what really started me thinking differently about Speed Demon was the MJ Academia Project videos. Unfortunately, the people who posted those videos have taken them down and they aren’t available at the moment, which is disappointing. I’d really like to watch them again and link to them right now. I hope they repost them. But anyway, in one of their videos they talk about how Michael Jackson repeatedly uses the word “boy” in a number of songs and videos as a code word for how black men have been treated by the criminal justice system in the U.S., and they specifically mention Speed Demon. I’d never thought of Speed Demon like that – as anything more than a cartoon, actually – but I started listening to it differently after that. And one thing I realized is that the video really softens the message of the song. If you can somehow block the video images out of your mind while listening to it, it feels much grittier than when your mind is full of Michael Jackson in a dancing competition with Spike, the claymation rabbit (which I love, by the way).

So, as he does so many times with so many different subjects, he shows how complicated human relationships can be. He loves his fans, but feels threatened by them when they turn into a mob. He feels protected by the police, especially when the mob is carted off to the police station, but he also knows the police can turn on him at any minute and criminalize him. And this was filmed in 1988, before he’d really experienced just how biased and abusive the police could be.

Joie:  Well, I agree with you, the video does really soften the message of the song. And I wonder if he did that intentionally, seeing as how this video was part of the movie, Moonwalker – which is really sort of a kid’s movie with a feel-good theme to it. But, as we talked about last week, this is one of those short films where the visual he presents us with is much different than what we conjure up in our minds when merely listening to the song itself.

Willa:  That’s true, though we need to be careful about viewing Moonwalker as just entertainment also. It does have a fun, “feel-good” mood through most of it, but there’s a lot of very interesting things going on in that movie. We should talk about that sometime. I can’t believe we’ve been chatting about Michael Jackson’s work for a year now and still haven’t talked about Moonwalker.

But getting back to Speed Demon, we really see that structure of a fun entertaining film overlying a serious message here too. In some ways, he seems to be exploring the role of artists in society, and how artists and police are kind of at cross purposes. The police tend to want everyone to follow the rules and behave in conventional ways, even if that has nothing to do with legality, and artists are constantly challenging those conventions. We see that conflict between the police and the artist with the “sheriff” from the western movie early in the video. He starts chasing Michael Jackson and calls out to him in this really patronizing way, “Hey, Songbird.” And then at the end the trooper gives him the ticket, saying, “I need your autograph right here.” Importantly, the ticket isn’t for speeding. It’s for dancing.

Joie:  Well, in the trooper’s defense, Willa, it was a clearly marked No Dancing zone!

Willa:  That’s true! And you notice he’s a very law-abiding citizen. He doesn’t dance after the trooper points to that funny sign telling him he’s not supposed to, though you know he disagrees with it.

But you know, while this is all handled in a very light, entertaining way, it’s addressing some really complex ideas as well. The policeman is trying to rein him in and prevent him from dancing, from expressing his art, and even treats him as a criminal, or at least a law-breaker, because of his dancing. And this ties back to what we talked about a couple weeks ago with the Bad short film. As we said then, artists and criminals actually have something in common: they both challenge social norms. They do it in very different ways – one legally to improve our cultural awareness, and one illegally and often destructively – but sometimes that distinction becomes blurred and artists are treated as criminals. And Michael Jackson was very aware of that, as he shows us in Speed Demon and Bad, and perhaps most explicitly in Ghosts. Remember, the “crime” he’s accused of in Ghosts is being an artist, a teller of ghost stories, and too outrageously different.

And I think this criminalization of artists played out in very real ways in how the police (and the press and the public) interpreted the allegations against him in 1993 and 2003. It’s like there was this idea that he was willing to transgress social norms – by singing and dancing, by challenging gender and racial boundaries, by representing the Other, as Joe Vogel described a few weeks ago – so some people seemed to think that maybe he was willing to transgress legal and moral boundaries as well and do illegal, immoral things.

Joie:  I think that’s a very interesting point, Willa. And maybe a very simplistic way of describing that is the old saying ‘judging a book by its cover.’ Because he looked “strange” or “freaky” to some, then perhaps he was more likely to be a criminal than someone who looked sweet and innocent. Actress Winona Ryder comes to mind. Who would have ever imagined she would behave like a common criminal? After all, she looked so “normal.”

Willa:  I don’t really know much about the Winona Ryder case, except that it got a lot of attention in the press – far more than shoplifting charges usually get. But this criminalization of artists has a long history. Think about the McCarthy trials, and how many artists’ careers were destroyed by them. And William Tyndale, who may have been the greatest English poet of all time. Most of the King James Bible was written by Tyndale, and you can make the case that Shakespeare wouldn’t have been Shakespeare without him – even the cadence of his language reflects Tyndale. And Tyndale was burned at the stake.

And I always wonder how many of the women, and men too, condemned as witches during the Salem witch trials had an artist’s sensibility. They were definitely people who didn’t fit in, and were seen as “strange” or “freaky,” as you just said. Many were independent women who didn’t marry and lived unconventional lives. And this is interesting: one of the first people accused during the trials was a slave named Tituba who liked to tell children stories, just like the Maestro in Ghosts.

Joie:  That’s a really interesting point, Willa. And you’re probably right about that, many of them probably were artists in some form, or at the very least, free thinkers – also like the Maestro in Ghosts. But I think what you’re trying to get at is that, even though on the surface it’s a cute little claymation video, Speed Demon is anything but childish or simplistic.

Willa:  Exactly. Or maybe what I’m trying to say is that it works on both levels. It’s a fun, cartoon-like film that kids enjoy, but there are some complicated ideas for adults to grapple with as well.

Roundtable: the MJ Academia Project

Willa:  A few weeks ago, Joie and I had a fascinating conversation with author Joe Vogel and investigative reporter Charles Thomson about Michael Jackson as a songwriter. That conversation focused on the musical aspects of his songwriting, so we decided to meet again to talk about Michael Jackson as a lyricist. However, when we sat down to talk, our discussion immediately took a left turn and developed in ways none of us had expected, but was very interesting to all of us. Here’s the discussion that followed …

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Charles:  Have you been watching the Michael Jackson Academia Project videos? They’re magnificent. Joe spoke in the last session about how Michael’s lyrics weren’t always as great as his compositions, but those videos make a very strong argument that his lyrics were actually a lot more insightful and astute than people gave him credit for – especially on the HIStory album.

Joe:  The HIStory album, I’ve argued for years, contains some of MJ’s boldest and strongest work. It’s both his most personal album and his most political. I should clarify, since you mentioned his lyrics:  my case isn’t that Jackson’s lyrics aren’t “as great as his compositions.”  My argument is that his lyrics are augmented by their vocal delivery, supplemented by his non-verbal vocalizations, and enhanced by how they are performed and represented visually. So I think for the many critics who dismiss Jackson as a songwriter, these aspects of his artistry/creative expression need to be taken into account.

Now, regarding the MJAP videos, there are definitely things I like about what they’re doing. They take MJ’s work seriously, which is a good thing, and provide close readings of his work (I’d actually never heard the capitalist tycoon names mentioned in “Money”). They’re also quite well-made. However, for all the research that has clearly gone into them they do some things that are a bit confusing for an “academia project.” For example, they don’t attach their names to their work and from what I understand, aren’t affiliated with a university or academic organization. They also don’t cite sources that have already published the same information/interpretation in their videos, which is very important if it is going to be taken seriously outside the MJ fan community.

Joie:  I have to say that I agree with Joe on this point. I don’t understand why whoever is behind the MJAP videos seems reluctant to reveal themselves. It’s almost as if they’re hiding and I think Joe is correct in saying that they can’t really hope to be taken seriously outside of the MJ fan community if they’re unwilling to stand behind their work. Right now the videos, as great as they are, are really just preaching to the choir, so to speak.

Joe:  Also, I think in certain ways they lack context and nuance. For example, they make it seem like MJ was deeply entrenched in the Black Power movement of the 60s/70s. In one of the videos they imply that MJ was a member of, or in allegiance with the Black Panther Party; in another they quote Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam and a figure with an ideology far different than Michael’s. MJ believed deeply in social justice and equality, but never advocated Black supremacy, anti-semitism, or violence.

Willa:  That’s really interesting, Joe, because I don’t think those videos are saying that, and I don’t react to them that way at all. Maybe if the dominant narrative in the media was that Michael Jackson was an angry Black man, then I might agree that they portray him as too radical. But that isn’t the case. The dominant media image is that he was a deeply troubled Black man who was ashamed of his race – a shockingly false image. So I think they provide a much-needed counterweight.

Joe:  I think there’s some merit to that, Willa. Certainly there have been serious misunderstandings and false narratives about Jackson’s racial heritage and how that informs his identity and work. But for me, the counterweight shouldn’t be to present him as an ideologue who is aligned with Farrakhan and the Black Panthers. It should be to present him as a complex African American artist who refused to be boxed in, who constantly challenged, provoked and inspired us with his work. In certain ways, I feel the MJAP videos do that, and in certain ways they feel a bit simplistic and reductive to me.

Willa:  Wow, Joe, my response was just the opposite. I thought it was really interesting that the Academia Project showed the connections with Black Panther symbology and included the clip of Louis Farrakhan precisely because they are so different, or are perceived as being so ideologically different, from Michael Jackson.

In other words, Louis Farrakhan and Michael Jackson are two important cultural figures typically placed at opposite ends of the spectrum:  Farrakhan is portrayed as deeply divisive, a separatist, while Michael Jackson is portrayed as such an integrationist he actually wanted to be White. It’s a horrible distortion of who he was, but it’s out there. So to me, suggesting common ground between them really forces people to question their preconceived ideas about both. But showing they share some common ground doesn’t mean they’re identical. I can’t imagine anyone mistaking Michael Jackson for Louis Farrakhan. I just don’t see that.

Charles:  I think that if you listen to a song like “They Don’t Care About Us,” Michael discusses race in a clear ‘them and us’ sense. It’s right there in the title. He is juxtaposing ‘us’ – the subordinates – with ‘they’ – the establishment. He makes clear that the ‘us’ are racial minorities through other lyrics in the track. “Black man, blackmail / Throw  the brother in jail.” “I’m tired of being a victim of shame / You’re throwing me in a class with a bad name.” The use of the police radio message about the young Black man killed by police in a case of mistaken identity reinforces this position.

Then you look at the two videos which accompanied the song. The prison version shows the inmates to be almost unanimously Black. There are images of the KKK. In the Brazil version, he goosesteps and gives a Nazi salute. He stands on a balcony delivering a song based in part on Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream speech.’ There is little room for any interpretation besides that Jackson is railing against racism and identifying himself as a Black man and therefore a victim.

He reiterated this belief quite often in later years. There was the summit with Al Sharpton in 2002, where he slammed the music industry for ripping off Black artists and the media for attributing their innovations to their White contemporaries. Then there was the Jesse Jackson interview where he spoke very eloquently about the Jack Johnson story and compared himself to other Black luminaries who had been targeted by the establishment.

At the very least, I’d say Michael Jackson demonstrated conflicting ideologies on race. On the one hand, he spoke often about being ‘colour blind’ or wanting people of all races to come together. On the other, a lot of his music and his public speeches and interviews after the 1993 allegations demonstrated a deep belief that racism was very much alive and that he was a victim of it. He seemed to become more ‘militant’ after the 1993 allegations. His music spoke of police brutality, being targeted by the FBI, his prosecutor being aligned with the KKK, the media ‘lying to shame the race’. During his trial and even at the This Is It concert announcement, he would give the Black power salute. He surrounded himself with the Nation of Islam – led by Farrakhan.

I think it’s very difficult to dismiss the MJAP’s conclusions on this basis. I would also disagree with the comment that they don’t reference their work. Most of it seems to come from books, which they name explicitly in the videos.

Joe:  I’ll explain what I mean by not referencing their work. If they say that MJ’s Earth Song video was inspired by a Soviet propaganda film that looks somewhat similar, as a researcher, I just want to be able to look at where they discovered that information. Did it come from an interview? Did they have access to his archives? Or is it an educated guess based on other information? (The Triumph of the Will connection is more obvious.)

Charles:  The similarities are so striking that I’d be floored if it turned out it wasn’t an influence. Michael is dead now so it’s most likely we’ll never know for sure, but if the Earth Song video and concert performances weren’t based on that Soviet film, it’s one eerie coincidence.

Joe:  There are some striking similarities, but I’d say it’s about 50/50. Michael had a huge video archive and a personal archivist though, so it would certainly be possible to try to verify something like that.

One more example about citing:  much of what they explore in “Black or White” has been written about before (by Armond White, myself and others). So it would be customary in academia to credit ideas that have already been established so you aren’t charged with plagiarism. Of course, if these videos are primarily intended as “fan videos” these criticisms are less relevant.

Now let me go back, Charles, to the point you made about MJ engaging with race/racism:  I don’t disagree with the fact that Jackson became more politically radical and outspoken in his later career. There is no question that he was fighting against institutional racism and oppression/injustice in general. Where I disagree with MJAP (and you) is in the literalness of interpretation. For example, I see him morphing into a black panther as symbolic, not that he was secretly attending Black Panther meetings and sending out discrete codes to a specific political group. Similarly, with “They Don’t Care About Us,” I think he is identifying with the oppressed and speaking truth to power regardless of skin color or nationality. It is radical, but it has nothing to do with Nation of Islam or Louis Farrakhan (a man known for being racist, homophobic, anti-semitic, and many believe, partially responsible for the assassination of Malcolm X).

Like I said at the top, I think there is a lot to like about these videos – I think they have a lot of potential – but especially to reach outside the fan base (if that’s the goal) I think they could benefit from some nuance.

Joie:  Again, I completely agree with Joe here; I think the first MJAP video took a huge leap in suggesting that Michael was a member of, or at least in total support of both the Black Panther Party and Mr. Farrakhan simply because he morphed into a panther at the end of the “Black or White” video. And in “They Don’t Care About Us,” he is definitely “identifying with the oppressed,” as Joe put it, but ‘the oppressed’ come in many colors. As Willa and I discussed in our conversation about “They Don’t Care About Us,” this song/short film(s) is not simply a Black or White issue. It’s dealing with much more than that – poverty, the abuse of human rights, and yes, racism. And he did become much more outspoken on issues of race after 1993 and I agree that he felt very much victimized by the system. How could he not? But I don’t believe that it reveals some hidden connection to the Nation of Islam or Louis Farrakhan.

Willa:  But are these videos saying that? I don’t think so. They include a clip of Farrakhan on the Arsenio Hall show saying, “Michael is becoming politically mature. And he wants to use his political maturity, along with his wealth, to aid his people.” That’s it. To me, that shows that Louis Farrakhan has an opinion – a positive opinion – about Michael Jackson’s work and activism, but it doesn’t suggest anything more than that.

And I don’t think they are suggesting “he was secretly attending Black Panther meetings,” as you mentioned, Joe, or anything like that. I didn’t get that from the videos at all. To me, Michael Jackson’s work is this incredible tapestry that weaves together threads from many different sources. And the first Academia Project video highlights some of the Black Panther imagery in his work and traces a few of those threads. I thought that was fascinating, and it helped me appreciate a part of the tapestry I hadn’t focused on before. But I never thought they were saying he was literally a Black Panther. I just don’t see that.

Joie:  No, I’m not saying these videos are suggesting that. I don’t think that. I’m simply disagreeing with Charles’ assessment that the MJAP’s conclusions on this matter are difficult to dismiss.

That said, I do agree that the videos are really wonderful in their own way. They are very well researched and well thought out. Whoever is behind them has obviously put a great deal of time and effort into creating them and they could have a lot of potential if they were reaching the right people. Right now, they are limited to making the rounds of the MJ fan community, which is fine as there are still a lot of fans out there – especially the new fans – who maybe aren’t aware of the extent of what Michael went through and how biased the media coverage was. But in order to be really effective in changing the conversation about him, the videos need to reach a wider, more mainstream audience.

Joe:  These are very good points, Joie. I think, what I hope at least, are my constructive criticisms stem from exactly what you’re talking about:  becoming more credible so they can reach a broader audience. In fact, I think this third video they did was by far their best effort. So let me go back quickly to something Willa said. You mentioned that the Farrakhan quote is interesting because it speaks positively about Michael’s work and activism. I actually agree (mostly) with what Farrakhan is saying in this clip. But for me, again, it’s about credibility. Using Farrakhan to establish a point will actually work the opposite direction for 99% of people.

With the Black Panther stuff, I would personally just like to see more nuanced interpretation so its taken seriously in an academic context. I think they provide much more compelling interpretation when they write about how Jackson is reversing certain symbolism to opposite ends (a la the HIStory teaser and Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will).

Joie:  I agree completely with what you just said about Farrakhan and credibility. The fact is, the very sight of him turns a lot of people off and using him to establish a point or to try and persuade others to your point of view is risky and could be counterproductive.

Willa:  He is really polarizing, and I understand what you and Joe are saying, Joie. But as I said before, I think it’s really interesting and worthwhile to juxtapose Michael Jackson and Louis Farrakhan precisely because they are so different. It’s like seeing Michael Jackson on the steps of the White House with Ronald Reagan. My response is always, Wow, what a contrast! Yet they shared some common ground. That image doesn’t lead me to assume that Michael Jackson is a closet conservative and secretly funneling money to the Republican Party. Not at all. And I don’t think that about Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam either.

It’s true that Louis Farrakhan has said some things I strongly disagree with. So did Ronald Reagan, for that matter. But I don’t think the answer is to try to stuff Farrakhan in a box in the closet and pretend he doesn’t exist. Instead, I think he should be one of a collage of people who supported Michael Jackson in some way. I think it’s incredible that one person appealed to both Ronald Reagan and Louis Farrakhan, Nelson Mandela and Elizabeth Taylor, fans from the U.S. to Japan, Africa to Ireland. That’s wonderful to me.

Charles:  I don’t think the MJAP videos in any way imply that Michael Jackson was secretly attending Black Panther meetings or anything of that nature. I think they just demonstrate that his work, even prior to the allegations, was laced with political and racial commentary which was completely ignored by the critics.

Willa:  Exactly.

Charles:  I agree that using Farrakhan as a source is not going to win anybody over because the man has shown himself repeatedly to be a racist and a loon. I remember being very alarmed a while back to see fans passing around an hour or more of Farrakhan ‘preaching’ about Michael Jackson in church. During the sermon, he interpreted “They Don’t Care About Us” as a targeted assault on Jewish people and praised Michael for having the balls to express his anti-Semitic beliefs. But Farrakhan is just one of many sources used to support the point being made by the MJAP creators and I certainly agree with him that Michael Jackson’s treatment was at least partly racially motivated. If the whole thing hinged on Farrakhan, it’d be another matter – but that’s not the case.

I also disagree that the lyrics to TDCAU aren’t about any specific race. The line, “Black man, blackmail (black male) / Throw  the brother in jail” is pretty blunt, especially in tandem with the police radio message at the beginning of the track and comments throughout the rest of the album, such as “In the hood / Frame him if you could… In the black / Stab him in the back / In the face / To lie and shame the race.”

Willa:  But in the videos – the prison version, especially – the visuals complicate those lyrics. Most of the prisoners are Black, but some are White or American Indian or some other minority. Most of the guards are White, but several are Black. And I’m really struck by the fact that when he gets angry and shoves aside a guard’s billy club, that guard is Black. What that says to me is that while he’s fighting racism, as you say, it’s institutional racism, and he opposes anyone who supports that institutional racism, regardless of whether that individual is White or Black. He’s evaluating people by their beliefs and actions, not their skin color, and that’s a message he consistently expressed throughout his life.

There are also newsreel-type visuals of some fairly horrific violence – so horrific MTV refused to show this version before 9 at night. And while many of those scenes focus on images of the Ku Klux Klan or White-on-Black racial violence, there are also scenes of a White truck driver being severely beaten by young Black men during the Rodney King riots. And some of the most graphic scenes are war footage from Southeast Asia. So again, he’s fighting racism, but not in a simplistic Black versus White sort of way.

And I don’t think the lyrics are a simplistic Black versus White either. Here are those notorious lyrics that were so badly misinterpreted by a few outspoken people like Stephen Spielberg and Louis Farrakhan (speaking of strange bedfellows):

Beat me, hate me
You can never break me
Will me, thrill me
You can never kill me
 
Jew  me, sue me
Everybody do me
Kick me, kike me
Don’t you black or white me

He’s clearly fighting anti-Semitism in these lyrics, I believe, which is why it’s so galling that he was charged with anti-Semitism because of them. So this isn’t just about race. And when identifying leaders in the fight for justice, he says, “if Roosevelt was living / He wouldn’t let this be.” The next time he sings this verse, he replaces “Roosevelt” with “Martin Luther,” suggesting that the torch of civil rights was carried and passed on by many hands, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt as well as Martin Luther King, Jr.

So I think it’s an oversimplification to reduce this work down to simply Us versus Them. As Michael Jackson himself says, “Don’t you black or white me.”

Joe:  Exactly, Willa. This is what I think is so important:  Michael’s creative life and work, to me, is about getting beyond these air-tight oppositions. He always provides these shifting tensions. He was constantly pushing his audience, even in his protest songs, to consider the various faces cruelty, bigotry and injustice can take. He wasn’t calling for “black power” to replace “white power.” That’s the way the Bush’s and Farrakhan’s see the world. Us versus them. White versus Black. Christians versus Muslims. It’s more complex than that. Malcolm X began to realize that in his final years; MLK knew it; Michael Jackson knew it. He knew the history of White supremacy in America. He also knew about other forms of bigotry and cruelty, whether because of appearance, gender, sexuality, class, religion, illness or any other difference. But he fought such discrimination with rich, complex, syncretic art, not ideological dogma.

Joie:  And Willa and I just want to point out that you can find a link to the MJ Academia Project videos in our Reading Room. But for now, you can just click here.

The MJ Academia Project

Hello everyone! Hope you are all having a wonderful holiday season. Willa and I are still enjoying our holiday vacation but we can’t wait to get back to the conversation next week. In the meantime, we were forwarded a link to The MJ Academia Project videos by Black Shark, one of our regular readers here, and we wanted to share them with all of you since they highlight some of the things we’ve been talking about in this blog for the past several months. The videos are really excellent so here they are – enjoy!