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Presidential Politics, Part 1: Michael Jackson and Donald Trump

Lisha: Well, it’s a presidential election year here in the U.S. and a pretty tumultuous one at that, much more so than usual it seems. And there is something going on that really has me scratching my head. Willa, have you noticed how many times Michael Jackson’s name has come up in relation to this election?

Willa: Yes, I have!

Lisha: For example, just last week, promoter Don King made headlines when he introduced Donald Trump at a campaign rally. Here’s the portion of his remarks that caused a stir:

I told Michael Jackson, I said, If you are poor, you are a poor negro – I would use the N-word – but if you are rich, you are a rich negro. If you are intelligent, intellectual – you are an intellectual negro. If you’re a dancing and sliding and gliding nigger, I mean negro, [laughter] then you are a dancing and sliding and gliding negro. So dare not alienate, because you cannot assimilate. So, you know, you’re going to be a negro until you die.

Willa:  You know, Lisha, I always feel very hesitant to speculate about what Michael Jackson would or wouldn’t do today, but I really don’t think he would appreciate Don King’s comments. As soon as I heard that I immediately thought of what King said at the end of the Victory tour:

What Michael’s got to realize is that Michael’s a nigger. It doesn’t matter how great he can sing and dance. I don’t care that he can prance. He’s one of the megastars of the world, but he’s still going to be a nigger megastar. He must accept that. Not only must he understand that, he’s got to accept it and demonstrate that he wants to be a nigger. Why? To show that a nigger can do it. (320)

Lisha: Wow. That’s from Randy Taraborrelli’s book, right? It’s almost identical to what Don King just said!

Willa:  It is strikingly similar, isn’t it? And according to Taraborrelli – who I realize can be a problematic source sometimes – Michael Jackson was so upset by King’s comments he wanted to sue him. Apparently he told his lawyer, John Branca, “That guy has been pushing my last nerve since Day One.”

Lisha: Hmmm, I wonder. Was Don King really dressing down Michael Jackson when he said this? Or was he making an important point about the racial divide in American culture? Taraborrelli definitely gives the impression that King was putting Michael Jackson in his place for not agreeing to perform in another leg of the Victory tour. But I’m not so sure I buy it, especially given King’s recent statement.

Willa: Or maybe he was doing both. What I mean is, I think Don King is saying there is an unbridgeable division in the US between black and white, and Michael Jackson is a fool if he believes he can cross that divide.

Lisha: Yes, you’re right. As King just said, “dare not alienate, because you cannot assimilate.”

You know, there’s yet another account of this story in Jermaine Jackson’s book, You Are Not Alone: Michael Through a Brother’s Eyes. Jermaine recalls Don King’s remarks were made in a completely different context. Here’s how he tells it:

Don didn’t win awards for tact and diplomacy, and his giant ego was the reason he was a promoter. He was brash but effective. Had you seen him – the loudest mouth – and Michael – the quietest soul – interacting, you might have thought, There’s the kid with the embarrassing uncle he can’t help but find funny. I’ll never forget being in a meeting when we were discussing something about the show’s direction and Michael was talking about how he wanted to pay the fans back and keep pushing higher.

“Michael!’ said Don, cutting dead the monologue. “Remember this. It don’t matter whether you’re a rich nigger, a poor nigger or just a nigger. No matter how big you get, this industry’s still gonna treat you like a nigger.” In other words, and in his opinion, you’ll always be a servant to the music industry, so don’t ever think of becoming more powerful than that. Everyone in the room froze. If the music industry blew smoke up everyone’s ass, Don blew in an icy blast of straight talk.

It was Michael who was the first to laugh, cracking the suspended silence. He found it funny, in a shocking way, and wasn’t offended. None of us was. A black man had been addressing black men, and that kind of talk was hardly foreign to someone from Gary, Indiana. (243-244)

Willa: Wow, that is a radically different interpretation, isn’t it? It’s eye-opening to put Taraborrelli’s and Jermaine Jackson’s very different accounts side by side like this. It really demonstrates how the same story can be perceived and interpreted in dramatically different ways by different viewers.

Lisha: Yes, it does. Jermaine seems to think Don King was making a larger point about systemic racism in the music industry, and that’s the way he felt his brothers understood it as well.

Willa: Well, that’s a really important distinction, Lisha, that casts the situation in a very different light. But it’s difficult to know what Michael Jackson’s true feelings were. He encouraged frank talk about race and racism, suggesting he would appreciate King’s comments as Jermaine says, but it’s also well established that he did not want King to be perceived as speaking for him during the Victory tour. In fact, he issued written instructions that “King may not communicate with anyone on Michael’s behalf without prior permission.”

Even before that, Michael Jackson made it very clear he did not want Don King hired as the promoter of the Victory tour. However, his father and his brothers supported King because he promised them a big payoff. So Michael Jackson was overruled and Don King was hired, but ultimately he was proven right, I think – Don King did not have the experience to handle the Victory tour. And all of that history may have some effect on how Jermaine portrays things. He seems to be saying that, despite the surface tensions, deep down Michael Jackson really liked Don King, and that may or may not be true.

Lisha: I agree with you. And I certainly don’t mean to be taking up for Don King! My guess is that boxing is a far cry from the world of concert promotion, so I would imagine King was out of his depth when he worked on the Victory tour. But it does sound like he was trying to be helpful when he made these remarks about the way American culture and industry intersect.

And I think that’s what King is getting at in his pitch for Donald Trump, too. He emphasizes in his speech that his support for Trump is based on a belief that the entire American political system needs to be demolished and rebuilt, because it is a system based on inequity towards women and blacks.

Willa: And that is a real call to arms that has been lost in the controversy surrounding his use of the N-word, which Michael Jackson himself used in “This Time Around.” I think they were both using it to make a point about race and perception, so for me the N-word itself is not the issue in this case. I agree with you that Don King is making a strong statement about systemic racism, and unfortunately there is a lot of truth to his words.

However, King also seems to be saying that racism is unchanging and unchangeable – that no matter what Michael Jackson does, people in the music industry – and people more generally – will always view him, and all people of color, through the lens of racism. And I think Michael Jackson would strongly disagree with that.

While he did speak out forcefully at times about racism, especially as he became older, his entire career was built on the conviction that, through his art and his unique cultural position, he could change people’s beliefs and perspectives. He saw art as a powerful force for change, and I think he fervently believed he could challenge bigotry and other prejudices and make a lasting difference in people’s hearts and minds.

Lisha: I wholeheartedly agree. Michael Jackson’s steadfast refusal to accept cultural norms, even in the face of tremendous backlash, had a powerful impact on American society – far more than we probably realize. And I wonder if rather than discouraging Michael Jackson, King ended up actually encouraging him to defy the very limitations he was being asked to negotiate.

Willa: That’s an interesting question, Lisha. I can imagine that King’s advice to accept that he would never be anything more than “a dancing and sliding and gliding negro” would fill him with ambition to prove King wrong.

Lisha: Exactly. I can’t imagine it otherwise, actually.

But Don King isn’t the only one name dropping Michael Jackson in this election! Trump himself has gone out of his way to let people know about his friendship with Michael Jackson, and I think it speaks volumes about how Michael Jackson actually pushed the culture forward. For example, here’s a Jonathan Ernst/Reuters photo that ran with an article about Donald Trump’s success in the Republican primaries:

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds up a photo of himself and late entertainer Michael Jackson that a memorabilia collector asked him to sign as he greets supporters after speaking at a rally with sportsmen in Walterboro

Apparently one of Trump’s supporters requested an autograph for this photo. But instead of just signing it and handing it back, Trump turned around and proudly displayed it to the press corps. This really struck me as a power move. Like, hey, see how awesome and powerful I am? Here’s proof I’ve hung out with Michael Jackson!

Willa: That’s an interesting way of interpreting this, Lisha, and I think you might be onto something. After all, the very next day he told Anderson Cooper that “Michael Jackson was actually a very good friend of mine.” Here’s a video clip of that interview:

Lisha: I mean, think about it. As part of his pitch for why he should be taken seriously as a candidate for the U.S. presidency, Donald Trump goes out of his way to talk about his friendship with Michael Jackson!

Willa: Yes, and I’ve been trying to figure out what it means. In that interview, Donald Trump emphasizes that he “knew the real story of Michael Jackson,” as he says, and was an insider into his world. I disagree with much of what he says about Michael Jackson – both here and other times when he’s talked about him – which suggests he really didn’t know him that well at all, but I’m struck by how eager he is to claim a close friendship.

Maybe it’s a power move, as you say, or maybe it’s a way of showing he’s in touch with pop culture and not just a businessman. After all, Trump has a lot of respect for the power of pop culture. This is a man who starred on The Apprentice for 14 years – a show that featured LaToya Jackson at one point – and used it to redeem himself after the collapse of his casinos, his airline, his entire empire. Instead of being a real estate magnate, he’s now a celebrity, and his fortune is built on his name rather than physical assets. A man like that would value the power of Michael Jackson’s celebrity, but I’m not sure he ever understood him as a person or an artist.

Lisha: Excellent point. I agree that Trump’s own words suggest he didn’t really know Michael Jackson that well. Even brother Jermaine spoke out about it and seemed pretty offended by what was said.

Willa: Yes, as Jermaine tweeted after the interview, “Name-dropping Michael don’t make you cool and won’t win you votes. Especially when using botched facts.”

Lisha: Jermaine also didn’t mind suggesting that Michael Jackson would not have supported Trump politically, either. But one of the interesting things about Michael Jackson is that he seemed comfortable with so many different people all across the political spectrum.

Willa: That’s certainly true! And it’s also true that Michael Jackson seems to have known Donald Trump for many years. For example, he was at his side during the dedication of the Taj Mahal in 1990. Here’s a video clip of that:

Lisha: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen clips of this in various reports about Donald Trump. One measure of Trump’s success seems to be how he attracted the attention of Michael Jackson. A reporter who covered the Taj Mahal event, Alex Connock, recently wrote a fascinating article about it for The Spectator. He describes the frenzy Michael Jackson created at the opening of Trump’s casino: “If Queen Cleopatra herself had risen from the dead and checked in using a solid gold Amex card there could have been no more excitement in reception than that which greeted Jacko’s arrival.” Sorry for the insulting moniker, but I think this description captures the scene perfectly!

Connock also describes being on a private plane with them after the event, when Michael Jackson produced a copy of the National Enquirer and showed an article to Trump!

Willa: Wasn’t that interesting? Can you imagine Michael Jackson and Donald Trump sitting side by side reading the National Enquirer? That is too funny! Apparently there was an article in it about Trump, and they were reading it and talking about it. I wish Connock had taken a picture of that. …

Lisha: Yes, he does too! But he said he was too intimidated to pick up the camera and shoot the picture. Can you imagine how much a photo of Trump and Michael Jackson reading the Enquirer would have been worth?

Willa: I’m sure we’d be seeing a lot of it these days! I’ve also heard that Michael Jackson had an apartment in Trump Tower for many years. Do you know anything about that? If that’s true, I imagine they did cross paths on occasion.

Lisha: I haven’t really seen much about it until recently. The apartment is now up for sale so there has been some publicity about that, including some nice photos.

The whole idea of these two men hanging out together, both of them cultural shorthand for wealth and celebrity, definitely generates some interest.

Willa: Yes, and to some extent I can see why Michael Jackson might have enjoyed spending time with Trump. He is definitely a colorful figure – kind of like P.T. Barnum in a way – and Michael Jackson was certainly drawn to colorful characters.

Lisha: Every time I hear Trump claim that all publicity is good publicity, I have to wonder if Michael Jackson schooled him on the ways of P.T. Barnum!

Willa: I do too!

Lisha:  In many ways Trump is a showman, too, something that seems to come in handy these days when you’re running for president. Did you see the funny Jimmy Fallon spoof of Trump’s dramatic entrance at the Republican National Convention?

Willa: I did! The “Smooth Criminal” segment was wonderful!

Lisha: It totally cracked me up!

Willa: But I think it’s important to note that while Michael Jackson does seem to have spent some time with Donald Trump over the years, he also subtly criticizes him in “Money,” as the MJ Academia Project pointed out several years ago. Unfortunately, their videos are no longer available, and now the transcripts seem to be gone also. But in the soundscape of “Money,” Michael Jackson calls out a list of ruthless and unethical tycoons, and he includes Trump’s name on that list.

The entire song is a harsh critique of the love of money, and it begins this way:

Money (money)
Lie for it
Spy for it
Kill for it
Die for it
So you call it trust
But I say it’s just
In the devil’s game
Of greed and lust
They don’t care
They’d do me for the money
They don’t care
They use me for the money
So you go to church
Read the holy word
In the scheme of life
It’s all absurd
They don’t care
They’d kill for the money
Do or dare
The thrill for the money
You’re saluting the flag
Your country trusts you
Now you’re wearing a badge
You’re called the just few
And you’re fighting the wars
A soldier must do
I’ll never betray or deceive you my friend but
If you show me the cash
Then I will take it
If you tell me to cry
Then I will fake it
If you give me a hand
Then I will shake it
You’ll do anything for money

That’s a harsh indictment. And if you listen carefully to the background sounds of “Money,” at 3:18 minutes in Michael Jackson says, “If you want it, earn it with dignity,” and then he calls out a list of robber-barons who most definitely did not “earn it with dignity”:  “Vanderbilt, Morgan, Trump, Rockefeller, Hinde, Getty, Getty, Getty, …”

Lisha: This segment names some of the most ruthless and unethical business tycoons in the nation’s history. They’re often called the robber-barons, as you said, and that term isn’t meant to be flattering. It was initially used to critique Cornelius Vanderbilt as both a criminal and an aristocrat. The robber-barons were despised for their predatory business practices, but because of their power and wealth, they also enjoyed a great deal of prestige.

For example, the Rockefeller name is now synonymous with privilege and wealth, but at the time, John D. Rockefeller was called the most hated man in America. He was one of the first to employ a public relations manager – a totally new concept in his day – to combat the negative publicity he received.

Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha. I didn’t know that. No wonder Michael Jackson calls him out in “Money”!

I also noticed that the list of names in “Money” ends with a repetition of “Getty, Getty, Getty, … ” J. Paul Getty made his money in oil, and at one time was the wealthiest man in America. Decades later, his grandson Mark Getty used some of that inheritance to create Getty Images, which includes many photos of Michael Jackson in its holdings, both iconic ones and scandalous ones.

Lisha: You’re right! Getty is singled out for repeat. And perhaps it’s no coincidence, given that Getty owns the rights to so many Michael Jackson photographs.

Willa: It doesn’t seem coincidental to me. And it also seems significant that Trump’s name is on the list. I don’t think Michael Jackson would have included him if he really respected him or held great affection for him.

Lisha: Interesting, isn’t it? I mean, as far as influence goes, I would guess Trump is kind of small potatoes compared to the other industrialists and financiers on the list. So maybe it is more about the unscrupulous ways these men achieved their wealth, rather than their influence and social prominence.

I also noticed that Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, mentioned Michael Jackson in an interview with DuJour, a magazine that caters to America’s ultra-wealthy 1 percent. Rolling Stone also commented on that interview because she describes this charming, intimate dinner party with Michael Jackson. To me, it gives the impression that she is indeed quite accustomed to a privileged and powerful lifestyle.

Willa: It was an interesting story, wasn’t it? And if her memory is right, it sounds like Michael Jackson felt at ease with her – as she said, “we were laughing so hard.”

Lisha: It’s such an endearing story! And impressive. Not everyone has that kind of access to Michael Jackson.

Willa: That’s true, though at the time she met Michael Jackson, not everyone wanted to meet him. I’m not sure of the exact timing, but she implies it was after her marriage to Donald Trump, which was in January of 2005. So she must have met Michael Jackson either after the 2005 trial or just before – a time when his public image was perhaps at its lowest point, and a lot of people were treating him like he was toxic. I have to say, it made me feel a little kinder toward the Trumps that they were inviting Michael Jackson into their home at that terrible period in his life.

So all this adds another layer to this entire situation – not just what it says about Donald and Melania Trump and their motives for name-dropping Michael Jackson, but also what it says about the rehabilitation of Michael Jackson’s image since his death. I mean, Trump tends to closely align himself with popular opinion – for example, he was for the Iraq War when it was popular, turned against the war when it became unpopular, and now claims he was against it all along despite recorded evidence to the contrary.

So I have a feeling if Trump had run for president in the 2008 elections, he wouldn’t have been boasting so much about his “very good friend” Michael Jackson, or flashing his picture around in front of photographers. The fact that he’s doing so now is a pretty strong indicator that Michael Jackson’s image has shifted considerably since 2009.

Lisha: Good point.

Willa: But what exactly are popular perceptions of Michael Jackson now? How does Trump see him? And what does he hope to gain by aligning himself with him? Those are the questions I’ve been wondering about….

Lisha: I can’t help thinking about your insightful conversation with Susan Woodward a while back, about how Michael Jackson conveyed a real sense of power, even with all the negative publicity he faced. Trump is clearly aligning himself with that power, and also with the narrative that media portrayals can be unfair and very misleading. He told Fox News:

I remember when Michael Jackson died, I was friends with Michael Jackson. I knew Michael Jackson very well, and then everybody commented on Michael Jackson. I said to myself, you know, it’s amazing, he didn’t even know those people. But it’s like that. The world of politics is a very strange world and people want to get on and they say things. They have no idea what they’re talking about, and I watch it and I listen to it all the time.

Willa: Yes, that’s true. And apparently media biases were a topic of conversation between Donald Trump and Michael Jackson for many years – for example, when they were reading the National Enquirer together in 1990, as you mentioned earlier.

Lisha: There’s something else that I wonder about that might have come up in conversation. Tom Barrack, whose company owns the majority of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, has been named as one of Trump’s top economic advisors. In fact, it was Barrack who introduced Trump and his daughter at the Republican National Convention.

Willa: Really? I didn’t make that connection. That’s kind of shocking to me, for reasons I can’t quite explain.

Lisha: It doesn’t sit well with me either, given that Michael Jackson’s Estate put out a statement that they were “saddened” by the intended sale of Neverland Ranch. I saw some tweets and other evidence that Michael Jackson’s children wished to keep Neverland Ranch in the family, but it looks like that isn’t going to happen.

Willa: And as we talked about in a couple of posts with Brad Sundberg, Neverland was much more than just a piece of property. It was one of Michael Jackson’s most immersive and experiential works of art, and now it’s been dismantled. That’s just tragic, on so many levels.

Lisha: For sure.

Willa: Well, Michael Jackson certainly had a long and complicated history with Donald Trump – and with the Clintons as well. After all, he sang at Bill Clinton’s inauguration celebration. And he interacted with numerous other presidents over his long career.  We’ll begin taking a look at that in our next post.

Lisha: Can’t wait to dig in!

A quick note: With the recent opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., C-Span posted a wonderful YouTube video of director Lonnie Bunch discussing a Michael Jackson costume that the museum has acquired:

 

 

Summer Rewind 2013, Week 4: Anything for Money

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on October 31, 2012. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Anything for Money

Joie: So, Willa, I’m sure you heard the news about the big Jackson family feud a couple of months ago. Unfortunately it was pretty difficult to avoid; every day it seemed there was a new wrinkle and you couldn’t really get away from it. And it just seemed to get uglier and uglier with each passing day as it became clear that the motivating factor was money. Anger and resentment over the terms of Michael Jackson’s will. And, oddly enough, all that has me thinking about the song “Money,” from the HIStory album.

He never made a short film for this particular song and I’ve always thought it’s such a shame because I would have loved to have seen what he could have come up with for it. It’s one of those songs that really makes you think. One that makes you grab the liner notes and hunker down until you’ve deciphered every word he’s saying. And it has some really fascinating lyrics.

Willa: Wow, Joie! I can’t even believe you’re going there. That’s not just dancing with elephants – more like dancing with cobras. To be honest, I tried not to get caught up in it but it’s hard not to peek sometimes, and sorting out all those conflicting rumors and accusations and hard feelings just seems like negotiating a snake pit to me. It’s complicated even more by the fact that there are so many different sides to it and it’s all so public, and it was plenty complicated enough to begin with.

Anyway, I’m not sure if the main motivation is money or creative control. I tend to think it’s more about wanting to participate in creative decisions – but of course, his songs and his films and his name are all worth a lot of money, so even that’s not a clear distinction. It just seems really, really complicated to me, and I’m very sorry everything became so heated and so public, and people got their feelings hurt.

But I’d love to talk about “Money,” and you’re right – it is fascinating.

Joie: Well, I wasn’t trying to step into a snake pit! And I don’t want to ‘go there,’ as you put it, because you’re right. It is like dancing with cobras, and ultimately, it’s really none of our business anyway.

But it does bring to mind that particular song for me and that’s what I want to focus on.

Willa: I’d love to. And I didn’t mean to be dramatic. I just get really uncomfortable talking about artists’ private lives, though it’s kind of hard to avoid with Michael Jackson because public and private get so tangled up sometimes. Like, I really don’t think we can understand his later work if we don’t know what happened in 1993, but some of that is intensely personal. So how much should be considered public, and how much private? It’s really hard to figure out where to draw that line sometimes. And it’s hard to talk about “Money” without mentioning 1993 also.

Joie: I agree with you. You can’t talk about “Money” without mentioning the events of 1993. Those allegations are at the heart of the song, I think. “Money” was included on the HIStory album, which was released in 1995, just two years after the extortion attempt and the subsequent allegations that ultimately changed his life. In fact, so many of the songs on that album do cover the events of 1993 because he actually used that album to vent his frustrations about the way he was treated – by Evan Chandler, by the police, by the public and by the media. I believe it’s the most personal, honest album in his entire catalog.

Willa: I agree – it’s very personal – but in a way that universalizes his emotions. For example, you can feel his anger on “They Don’t Care about Us,” but it draws on the biased police treatment he’s experienced and then extends that anger beyond his own experiences, so it becomes a commentary on many types of injustice. So it feels personal, but with larger social implications as well.

And even though there are some angry, painful songs on this album – and rightfully so considering the experiences he’d been through – there are also some exquisitely beautiful songs, like “Stranger in Moscow,” “Earth Song,” “You Are Not Alone,” and “Smile.” So it seems like he was in a really interesting place when he put the HIStory album together.

Joie: You know, he was in an interesting place. He had just lived through one of the most difficult periods of his life, his career was in jeopardy, and he had fallen in love and just gotten married. That’s quite a jumble of emotions for anyone to go through in such a short period of time. And he was doing it all in the public eye on top of that so, he had both the media and the public perception to deal with as well. So, you’re right. HIStory is a complex album for all of those reasons. In fact, in his book, Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson, Joe Vogel describes it this way:

“HIStory is Michael Jackson’s most personal album. From the impassioned rage of “Scream” to the pained vulnerability of “Childhood,” the record was, in Jackson’s words, ‘a musical book.’ It encompassed all the turbulent emotions and struggles of the previous few years: it was his journal, his canvas, his rebuttal.”

Willa: Absolutely, and we can really see that in “Money.” It’s a very strong “rebuttal,” as Joe says, to the 1993 accusations. In fact, it’s a counter-accusation, saying in no uncertain terms that he is innocent and those accusing him – meaning Evan Chandler and Blanca Francia and Tom Sneddon, as well as the tabloids and mainstream press who perpetuated and magnified the hysteria – are the ones who are guilty. And their crimes are “lust, gluttony, and greed.”

Joie: I agree with you completely, Willa. The song opens with an ominous, almost sinister chant from Michael proclaiming all the horrifying things that people will do for money: “Lie for it / Spy for it / Kill for it / Die for it.” And he spits the words out as if the thought completely disgusts him. Then he goes on to say,

So you call it trust
But I say it’s just
In the devil’s game
Of greed and lust
 
They don’t care
They’d do me for the money
They don’t care
They use me for the money

I think it would pretty simplistic of us to believe that this song is merely an unflattering critique of greed and materialism. In fact, I think it’s fairly clear from these opening lines who ‘they’ are and how he feels about them.

Willa: I agree, it’s a really strong indictment. But then he makes that classic Michael Jackson move we see in him so often where he suddenly flips the narrative, adopts the persona of those he’s critiquing, and begins speaking from their point of view:

I’ll never betray or deceive you my friend but
If you show me the cash
Then I will take it
If you tell me to cry
Then I will fake it
If you give me a hand
Then I will shake it
You will do anything for money

And then he breaks to the chorus, which pushes this reversal even further:

Anything (anything)
Anything for money
I’d lie for you
Would die for you
Even sell my soul to the devil

So suddenly he’s speaking from their perspective, even going so far as to say he would “sell my soul to the devil.” And the “you” he’s talking to seems to be money itself. If you didn’t know who the “you” was, you might think this was a love song, and these lines were a vow a man was pledging to his lover: I’d do anything for you, “I’d lie for you,” “die for you.”

But this is no love song. Just the opposite. He goes on to suggest that romance can’t compete with greed – so even if a woman were involved, she’d be sold out soon enough if the price were right:

You don’t care
You’d do her for the money
Say it’s fair
You’d sue her for the money

So the beloved he’s swearing loyalty to isn’t a woman but Money itself, and the effect of that personification is really chilling.

Joie: It is chilling. It’s actually a very frightening song if you just sit and really listen to it. The lyrics are not for the fainthearted, and his eerie delivery of those lyrics is somewhat disquieting. And once again, without paying at least a little attention to the details of the events of 1993, I don’t believe one can fully appreciate the message of this song. And unfortunately, that message is that many people worship money and value it above all else.

In the second verse, he makes this accusation plain, asking where our loyalties and priorities are:

Insurance?
Where do your loyalties lie?
Is that your alibi?
I don’t think so

Willa: Oh, that is such an important verse, Joie, and I agree, it clearly connects with the events of 1993. Insurance companies don’t protect their profits by upholding truth and justice, but by minimizing risk – and letting the Chandler civil case go to trial would have been a huge risk for them, financially. Michael Jackson wanted to fight, but his insurance company wanted him to settle, and so did his own lawyers because it’s always much safer to settle than go to court. So he wasn’t just fighting Evan Chandler but the people on his own team, and you can feel his outrage about that throughout this song, especially in a few pointed references, like that one, Joie.

Joie: I agree completely. And it was a pretty bold move for him to put that in a song, I thought. And then he goes on to say this:

Want your pot of gold?
Need the Midas touch?
Bet you’d sell your soul
‘Cause your God is such
 
You don’t care
You kill for the money
Do or dare
The thrill for the money

I think he’s clearly accusing the masses of worshiping money here, and near the end of the song, he begins a chant of “money makes the world go around” that punctuates his point.

Willa: I don’t know, Joie. I’m not sure he’s accusing all of us of worshiping money. I mean, there are some places where he definitely implies that, like the beginning of the final verse:

You say you wouldn’t do it
For all the money in the world?
I don’t think so
If you show me the man
Then I will sell him

He’s implying pretty strongly here that everyone has a price – “If you show me the man / Then I will sell him” – and no one is exempt from that. So I see what you’re saying, Joie, and I definitely think this song has implications for all of us. But the “you” in this song – the person or thing he’s addressing – is very interesting and complicated, and shifts around constantly.

Joie: It is complicated. In fact, I think it may be one of his most complicated songs because, as you said, the “you” does constantly shift. In one voice, he’s clearly pointing his finger and saying “you would do anything for money.” But in the next breath he’s taken on the persona of the “you” and saying he’d “even sell my soul to the devil.” And you know, I believe that ambiguity is exactly what he was going for here. He wanted us to question the “you” in this song. Because questioning the “you” also makes us question what our own feelings and thoughts about money are. Would we do “anything for money” as the chorus states? And does money make the world go around? I believe Michael was trying to prompt us to ask ourselves these hard questions.

Willa: Wow, that’s a really interesting take on that, Joie. I like that interpretation. So it’s like he’s adopting multiple personas so we as an audience have to look at it from all those different points of view and to some degree adopt those subject positions as well, and some of those subject positions aren’t very comfortable. Like, if we sing along with the car stereo – which I tend to do a lot – we find ourselves singing the words, “Anything for money / I’d lie for you / Would die for you / Even sell my soul to the devil,” and what does it feel like to sing that? What happens mentally and emotionally when we sing those lyrics?

Joie: Oh, my God, such good questions, Willa. What does it feel like when we sing those lyrics? I personally wouldn’t know because that line bothers me on a spiritual level. And, as a result, I have never sung those words before. Whenever I’m listening to this song and I’m singing along, I am very aware of that line and usually I end up replacing the word “my” with “your” when I’m singing along to this one. If I don’t do that, then I just avoid singing that line completely. And it’s really interesting to me that I do that, but I just always have.

Willa: That is interesting, Joie, and I think it underscores just how much this song challenges us to question our own actions and values – to the point of making us pretty uncomfortable in some places. I do sing along, but I’m very aware of that line too, and it always pulls me up short.

So it sounds like we both have a powerful reaction to this song, and I think that was intentional – I think he wanted to shake us up and force us to take a hard look at ourselves. This song puts us in some really weird subject positions where we have to ask ourselves a lot of hard questions, as you say. Like “If you show me the cash / Then I will take it.” Every time I sing that out loud I wonder, is that true? Would I? Would I take “the cash” if someone offered it to me? And under what circumstances?

Joie: I know what you mean, Willa. I have the same thought process whenever I listen to this song too. And I think you’re right, that was intentional. And it just proves to me, once again, how intentional he always was in his art and how brilliant he was.

Willa: Oh, he was breathtakingly brilliant – and courageous as well, with that distinctive courage of a true artist. For one thing, he didn’t always try to please his audience. Sometimes he really shook us up and challenged us and made us uncomfortable, like he does in “Money” or “Little Susie” or the You Rock My World video. But that discomfort is never gratuitous. When we take a closer look, we find it serves an important artistic function and often leads us to see ourselves and our world a little differently.

Anything For Money

Joie:  So, Willa, I’m sure you heard the news about the big Jackson family feud a couple of months ago. Unfortunately it was pretty difficult to avoid; every day it seemed there was a new wrinkle and you couldn’t really get away from it. And it just seemed to get uglier and uglier with each passing day as it became clear that the motivating factor was money. Anger and resentment over the terms of Michael Jackson’s will. And, oddly enough, all that has me thinking about the song “Money,” from the HIStory album.

He never made a short film for this particular song and I’ve always thought it’s such a shame because I would have loved to have seen what he could have come up with for it. It’s one of those songs that really makes you think. One that makes you grab the liner notes and hunker down until you’ve deciphered every word he’s saying. And it has some really fascinating lyrics.

Willa:  Wow, Joie!  I can’t even believe you’re going there. That’s not just dancing with elephants – more like dancing with cobras. To be honest, I tried not to get caught up in it but it’s hard not to peek sometimes, and sorting out all those conflicting rumors and accusations and hard feelings just seems like negotiating a snake pit to me. It’s complicated even more by the fact that there are so many different sides to it and it’s all so public, and it was plenty complicated enough to begin with.

Anyway, I’m not sure if the main motivation is money or creative control. I tend to think it’s more about wanting to participate in creative decisions – but of course, his songs and his films and his name are all worth a lot of money, so even that’s not a clear distinction. It just seems really, really complicated to me, and I’m very sorry everything became so heated and so public, and people got their feelings hurt.

But I’d love to talk about “Money,” and you’re right – it is fascinating.

Joie:  Well, I wasn’t trying to step into a snake pit! And I don’t want to ‘go there,’ as you put it, because you’re right. It is like dancing with cobras, and ultimately, it’s really none of our business anyway.

But it does bring to mind that particular song for me and that’s what I want to focus on.

Willa:  I’d love to. And I didn’t mean to be dramatic. I just get really uncomfortable talking about artists’ private lives, though it’s kind of hard to avoid with Michael Jackson because public and private get so tangled up sometimes. Like, I really don’t think we can understand his later work if we don’t know what happened in 1993, but some of that is intensely personal. So how much should be considered public, and how much private? It’s really hard to figure out where to draw that line sometimes. And it’s hard to talk about “Money” without mentioning 1993 also.

Joie:  I agree with you. You can’t talk about “Money” without mentioning the events of 1993. Those allegations are at the heart of the song, I think. “Money” was included on the HIStory album, which was released in 1995, just two years after the extortion attempt and the subsequent allegations that ultimately changed his life. In fact, so many of the songs on that album do cover the events of 1993 because he actually used that album to vent his frustrations about the way he was treated – by Evan Chandler, by the police, by the public and by the media. I believe it’s the most personal, honest album in his entire catalog.

Willa:  I agree – it’s very personal – but in a way that universalizes his emotions. For example, you can feel his anger on “They Don’t Care about Us,” but it draws on the biased police treatment he’s experienced and then extends that anger beyond his own experiences, so it becomes a commentary on many types of injustice. So it feels personal, but with larger social implications as well.

And even though there are some angry, painful songs on this album – and rightfully so considering the experiences he’d been through – there are also some exquisitely beautiful songs, like “Stranger in Moscow,” “Earth Song,” “You Are Not Alone,” and “Smile.” So it seems like he was in a really interesting place when he put the HIStory album together.

Joie:  You know, he was in an interesting place. He had just lived through one of the most difficult periods of his life, his career was in jeopardy, and he had fallen in love and just gotten married. That’s quite a jumble of emotions for anyone to go through in such a short period of time. And he was doing it all in the public eye on top of that so, he had both the media and the public perception to deal with as well. So, you’re right. HIStory is a complex album for all of those reasons. In fact, in his book, Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson, Joe Vogel describes it this way:

“HIStory is Michael Jackson’s most personal album. From the impassioned rage of “Scream” to the pained vulnerability of “Childhood,” the record was, in Jackson’s words, ‘a musical book.’ It encompassed all the turbulent emotions and struggles of the previous few years: it was his journal, his canvas, his rebuttal.”

Willa:  Absolutely, and we can really see that in “Money.” It’s a very strong “rebuttal,” as Joe says, to the 1993 accusations. In fact, it’s a counter-accusation, saying in no uncertain terms that he is innocent and those accusing him – meaning Evan Chandler and Blanca Francia and Tom Sneddon, as well as the tabloids and mainstream press who perpetuated and magnified the hysteria – are the ones who are guilty. And their crimes are “lust, gluttony, and greed.”

Joie:  I agree with you completely, Willa. The song opens with an ominous, almost sinister chant from Michael proclaiming all the horrifying things that people will do for money:  “Lie for it / Spy for it / Kill for it / Die for it.” And he spits the words out as if the thought completely disgusts him. Then he goes on to say,

So you call it trust
But I say it’s just
In the devil’s game
Of greed and lust
 
They don’t care
They’d do me for the money
They don’t care
They use me for the money

I think it would pretty simplistic of us to believe that this song is merely an unflattering critique of greed and materialism. In fact, I think it’s fairly clear from these opening lines who ‘they’ are and how he feels about them.

Willa:  I agree, it’s a really strong indictment. But then he makes that classic Michael Jackson move we see in him so often where he suddenly flips the narrative, adopts the persona of those he’s critiquing, and begins speaking from their point of view:

I’ll never betray or deceive you my friend but
If you show me the cash
Then I will take it
If you tell me to cry
Then I will fake it
If you give me a hand
Then I will shake it
You will do anything for money

And then he breaks to the chorus, which pushes this reversal even further:

Anything (anything)
Anything for money
I’d lie for you
Would die for you
Even sell my soul to the devil

So suddenly he’s speaking from their perspective, even going so far as to say he would “sell my soul to the devil.” And the “you” he’s talking to seems to be money itself. If you didn’t know who the “you” was, you might think this was a love song, and these lines were a vow a man was pledging to his lover: I’d do anything for you, “I’d lie for you,” “die for you.”

But this is no love song. Just the opposite. He goes on to suggest that romance can’t compete with greed – so even if a woman were involved, she’d be sold out soon enough if the price were right:

You don’t care
You’d do her for the money
Say it’s fair
You’d sue her for the money

So the beloved he’s swearing loyalty to isn’t a woman but Money itself, and the effect of that personification is really chilling.

Joie:  It is chilling. It’s actually a very frightening song if you just sit and really listen to it. The lyrics are not for the fainthearted, and his eerie delivery of those lyrics is somewhat disquieting. And once again, without paying at least a little attention to the details of the events of 1993, I don’t believe one can fully appreciate the message of this song. And unfortunately, that message is that many people worship money and value it above all else.

In the second verse, he makes this accusation plain, asking where our loyalties and priorities are:

Insurance?
Where do your loyalties lie?
Is that your alibi?
I don’t think so

Willa:  Oh, that is such an important verse, Joie, and I agree, it clearly connects with the events of 1993. Insurance companies don’t protect their profits by upholding truth and justice, but by minimizing risk – and letting the Chandler civil case go to trial would have been a huge risk for them, financially. Michael Jackson wanted to fight, but his insurance company wanted him to settle, and so did his own lawyers because it’s always much safer to settle than go to court. So he wasn’t just fighting Evan Chandler but the people on his own team, and you can feel his outrage about that throughout this song, especially in a few pointed references, like that one, Joie.

Joie:  I agree completely. And it was a pretty bold move for him to put that in a song, I thought. And then he goes on to say this:

Want your pot of gold?
Need the Midas touch?
Bet you’d sell your soul
‘Cause your God is such
 
You don’t care
You kill for the money
Do or dare
The thrill for the money  

I think he’s clearly accusing the masses of worshiping money here, and near the end of the song, he begins a chant of “money makes the world go around” that punctuates his point.

Willa:  I don’t know, Joie. I’m not sure he’s accusing all of us of worshiping money. I mean, there are some places where he definitely implies that, like the beginning of the final verse:

You say you wouldn’t do it
For all the money in the world?
I don’t think so
If you show me the man
Then I will sell him

He’s implying pretty strongly here that everyone has a price – “If you show me the man / Then I will sell him” – and no one is exempt from that. So I see what you’re saying, Joie, and I definitely think this song has implications for all of us. But the “you” in this song – the person or thing he’s addressing – is very interesting and complicated, and shifts around constantly.

Joie:  It is complicated. In fact, I think it may be one of his most complicated songs because, as you said, the “you” does constantly shift. In one voice, he’s clearly pointing his finger and saying “you would do anything for money.” But in the next breath he’s taken on the persona of the “you” and saying he’d “even sell my soul to the devil.” And you know, I believe that ambiguity is exactly what he was going for here. He wanted us to question the “you” in this song. Because questioning the “you” also makes us question what our own feelings and thoughts about money are. Would we do “anything for money” as the chorus states? And does money make the world go around? I believe Michael was trying to prompt us to ask ourselves these hard questions.

Willa:  Wow, that’s a really interesting take on that, Joie. I like that interpretation. So it’s like he’s adopting multiple personas so we as an audience have to look at it from all those different points of view and to some degree adopt those subject positions as well, and some of those subject positions aren’t very comfortable. Like, if we sing along with the car stereo – which I tend to do a lot – we find ourselves singing the words, “Anything for money / I’d lie for you / Would die for you / Even sell my soul to the devil,” and what does it feel like to sing that? What happens mentally and emotionally when we sing those lyrics?

Joie:  Oh, my God, such good questions, Willa. What does it feel like when we sing those lyrics? I personally wouldn’t know because that line bothers me on a spiritual level. And, as a result, I have never sung those words before. Whenever I’m listening to this song and I’m singing along, I am very aware of that line and usually I end up replacing the word “my” with “your” when I’m singing along to this one. If I don’t do that, then I just avoid singing that line completely. And it’s really interesting to me that I do that, but I just always have.

Willa:  That is interesting, Joie, and I think it underscores just how much this song challenges us to question our own actions and values – to the point of making us pretty uncomfortable in some places. I do sing along, but I’m very aware of that line too, and it always pulls me up short.

So it sounds like we both have a powerful reaction to this song, and I think that was intentional – I think he wanted to shake us up and force us to take a hard look at ourselves. This song puts us in some really weird subject positions where we have to ask ourselves a lot of hard questions, as you say. Like “If you show me the cash / Then I will take it.” Every time I sing that out loud I wonder, is that true? Would I? Would I take “the cash” if someone offered it to me? And under what circumstances?

Joie:  I know what you mean, Willa. I have the same thought process whenever I listen to this song too. And I think you’re right, that was intentional. And it just proves to me, once again, how intentional he always was in his art and how brilliant he was.

Willa:  Oh, he was breathtakingly brilliant – and courageous as well, with that distinctive courage of a true artist. For one thing, he didn’t always try to please his audience. Sometimes he really shook us up and challenged us and made us uncomfortable, like he does in “Money” or “Little Susie” or the You Rock My World video. But that discomfort is never gratuitous. When we take a closer look, we find it serves an important artistic function and often leads us to see ourselves and our world a little differently.