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Monster, He’s a Monster

Willa: So Joie, we’ve been talking recently about a couple of songs from Xscape, and it’s true there are some really great demos on that album. But to be honest, my favorite song that’s come out since Michael Jackson died is “Monster.” I know there’s been a lot of controversy about the so-called “Cascio tracks,” with some fans – including people I really respect – questioning the legitimacy of those tracks. Specifically, they question whether that’s really his voice we hear singing these songs.

Joie:  Yes, we’ve all heard a lot about the controversy, Willa. And you know, I’m really not sure that it’s ever going to end. I mean, there’s no way to truly convince those who doubt that it’s Michael’s voice on those tracks that it actually is him. So, I personally don’t think that issue will ever be resolved.

Willa:  You could be right, Joie, though I have a feeling that, over time, opinion will start to coalesce toward one side or the other. So what do you think? Do you think it’s his voice?

Joie:  Honestly, Willa … I really don’t know. And I have to say that it really troubles me to have to admit that, but it’s the truth. The fact is, on each of the songs in question – “Breaking News,” “Keep Your Head Up,” and “Monster” – there are parts that sound unquestioningly like Michael to me. But by that same token, on each song, there are many parts that just don’t sound quite … right. Do you know what I mean? On certain parts something is just missing from this amazing, unique voice that many of us have been listening to unceasingly for over forty years.

But here’s the thing that makes me doubt these songs:  it’s not just the Cascio tracks on the Michael album, it’s all the Cascio tracks. At least all the ones that I’ve heard. Supposedly, there are 12 in all, and I have 4 in my collection of unreleased music. That’s 4 other Cascio tracks besides the 3 that appeared on the Michael album, and they all have these little hiccups that Teddy Riley and others who worked on that album tried to explain away as “overprocessing” during the final producing stages to “fix” tiny imperfections like the occasional flat note or such. Now, if these little hiccups are in the 4 tracks that didn’t get that final “overprocessing” treatment in order to make it onto the album, why do they still sound like the 3 tracks that did get the “overprocessing” treatment? That’s my question.

Willa: And it’s a really good question.

Joie: But, you know, I’m not an expert. Far from it! So, it could very well be that it is in fact Michael’s voice on each and every Cascio track, and there’s a very simple explanation as to why they all sound not quite right. As I understand it, the studio they were working in was a very rudimentary homemade sort of deal, so perhaps that did play a big part in the resulting sound quality of each track.

The problem is, without Michael here to verify that, we have no way of knowing, and probably never will. If they had video recorded the entire process, I think the Michael album would have been received by the fans in a completely different light, but instead I think many of them just felt sort of alienated somehow. Like the Estate and those working on the album were trying to deceive them in some way, or trying to take advantage of their grief.

Willa: Well, it is a shock when you go to listen to a Michael Jackson song expecting to hear his voice – a voice many of us have been listening to for forty years, as you said – and hear something that just doesn’t sound right. I feel the same way about “Best of Joy,” and the legitimacy of that song is apparently beyond doubt – at least, I’ve never heard anyone question it. And actually, I do think it’s his voice. It’s just been overprocessed to the point where it sounds really off to me.

But I don’t think the Estate was intentionally trying to deceive anyone, and I think they did honestly try to find out whether those tracks were legitimate. Howard Weitzman, a lawyer for the Estate, issued a detailed letter after the controversy broke where he explained the process they used to verify the authenticity of the Cascio tracks. He said they began by asking the opinion of professionals intimately familiar with his voice:

Six of Michael’s former producers and engineers who had worked with Michael over the past 30 years – Bruce Swedien, Matt Forger, Stewart Brawley, Michael Prince, Dr. Freeze and Teddy Riley – were all invited to a listening session to hear the raw vocals of the tracks in question. All of these people listened to the a cappella versions of the vocals on the tracks being considered for inclusion on the album, so they could give an opinion as to whether or not the lead vocals were sung by Michael. They all confirmed that the vocal was definitely Michael.

Michael’s musical director and piano player on many of his records over a 20-year period, Greg Phillinganes, played on a Cascio track being produced for the album, and said the voice was definitely Michael’s. Dorian Holley, who was Michael’s vocal director for his solo tours for 20 plus years (including the O2 Concert Tour) and is seen in the This Is It film, listened to the Cascio tracks and told me the lead vocal was Michael Jackson.

Weitzman’s letter goes on to say that after receiving the panel’s opinion, the Estate gave the tracks to “one of the best-known forensic musicologists in the nation.” He conducted a waveform analysis and concluded that the vocals were Michael Jackson’s. Sony then brought in a second musicologist who conducted another, independent investigation, and he or she came to the same conclusion.

To me, that’s all pretty compelling evidence. I mean, I have a lot of faith in Bruce Swedien’s ears – more than my own, actually! And to me personally, the Cascio tracks sound like Michael Jackson’s voice, though a bit processed – but not nearly as much as on “Best of Joy.” To be honest, I have much more of a problem with it than the Cascio tracks.

Joie: And I still don’t understand your aversion to that song, Willa, because there is no comparison between the vocals on “Best of Joy” and the vocals on the Cascio tracks. They are like night and day. The vocals on “Best of Joy” didn’t get that overprocessed treatment that the Cascio songs were supposedly subjected to, and they have never been in question. In fact, we know that “Best of Joy” was the last song that Michael worked on before he died.

But there is no documentation that proves Michael ever worked on the Cascio tracks, which is why all that analysis was supposedly ordered by the Estate. All we have to go on are the words of the Cascios themselves, and of course, all of the expert voice analysis that you just listed. But my response to that is, have you ever listened to songs by MJ sound-alikes, like Jason Malachi or Marcus J. Williams? Ok, I know a lot was said about Malachi when the album came out, and he vehemently denied having had anything to do with the album, but have you ever heard Williams? Here’s a sample:

All I’m saying is that the Estate and Sony can tell us that they brought in all of these experts to verify that the vocals are genuine, and maybe they did, and maybe they are. But how do we really know? I guess it just all boils down to whether or not you choose to believe it. And let me just point out that I’m not saying that I don’t believe it’s Michael on the Cascio tracks. I’m just saying that I can see both sides of the argument, and those tracks (both the ones on the album, and the ones still unreleased) sound questionable to me.

But I want to back up a little bit and address something else you just said. “Monster” is your favorite posthumously released song? That surprises me for some reason.

Willa:  Well, as we’ve talked about in many posts before, I love the way Michael Jackson encourages us to sympathize with the Other – with those who are considered outsiders and are typically ignored by popular culture or presented in unflattering or oppressive ways. We see that in some of his best songs and films: Thriller, Ghosts, Beat It, Black or White, Stranger in Moscow, “We are the World” and “Heal the World” … on and on. All the way back to “Ben,” his very first number one hit when he was just a kid. He didn’t write “Ben,” but he loved it and sang it in concerts for years, well into adulthood.

Also, frequently in his songwriting we see him adopting multiple subject positions and viewing a situation from multiple perspectives, often in a way that gradually shifts the meaning of the lyrics over the course of the song. We’ve talked about this in a lot of posts also, like when we talked about “Morphine,” “Whatever Happens,” “Money,” “Threatened,” “Dirty Diana,” the Who Is It video – even that song I have so much trouble listening to, “Best of Joy.” While his voice sounds off to me – distressingly off – I love the lyrics.

Joie:  How can that beautiful falsetto on the chorus and the smooth tenor of the verses sound off to you? They are as magical on “Best of Joy” as they are on “Don’t Stop,” “Childhood,” or “Butterflies.” You know, every time you talk about it, I wonder if maybe you bought a bad CD or got a faulty mp3 download or something, because there is nothing off about that song! It’s all in your head! Or should I say your ears.

Willa: Oh heavens, Joie – talk about a controversy that will not end! How long have we been debating this? Pretty much since the Michael album came out, right? I really think we have argued about this more than anything else. You know, when we talked about “Best of Joy” in a post a while back, I was very careful not to say anything about it – about how completely off his voice sounds to me.

Joie: And I wish you had because I wanted to talk about it back then, but you asked me not to mention it, remember?

Willa: Yes, I know. It just embarrassed me that there was a song out there where I love everything about it except his vocals, especially since no one else seemed to have a problem with it. I mean, I have loved his voice since I was 9 years old. It was very confusing to me – how could his voice sound so wrong? So I didn’t say a word about it in the post, but then two people – Juney07 and Eleanor – mentioned it in their comments. As Juney wrote,

My “problem” with Best of Joy is that for some technical reason Michael’s voice sounds higher pitched on the CD I have, perhaps overproduced, or something. I’m no expert on CD production but wonder if any of you guys think the same. I know it’s Michael’s voice; that’s not the issue; if it had been released while he was living I would have wondered the same.

And then Eleanor wrote this:

I have had a similar problem with “Best of Joy,” and have hesitated to join this discussion because of it. It is the only track that bothers me on “Michael.”

I feel the exact same way as Juney and Eleanor. (And thank you both very much, because I was starting to wonder if I was crazy! Seriously. I even went to a hearing specialist to see if there was something wrong. So thank you for reassuring me that I’m not the only person on the planet who hears it this way …) Some parts are better than others, but the opening line, for example, sounds sped up to me, almost like an Alvin and the Chipmunks version of a Michael Jackson song. It makes it very hard to listen to, which is too bad because I love the lyrics and the melody.

Joie:  You’ve said that before, about the opening line of that song sounding like Alvin and the Chipmunks to you. This is why I always wonder if maybe there is a bad batch of CDs out there or something. I don’t know if I’m using the correct musical terminology here or not, but to me, the cadence of that opening line – the modulation and inflection of his voice in those first four notes of the song – sound every bit as strong and clear to me as the first four notes of “Speechless.” He is singing in a slightly higher key in “Best of Joy,” but his voice sounds exactly the same in the opening lines of both songs. And I always wonder how we can hear this song so differently. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s like we truly are not listening to the same piece of music, and I find it both fascinating and frustrating. I mean, we’ve disagreed over songs before, but on things like our interpretations of them or simply what our favorites and least favorites are, but this is different. With “Best of Joy” we literally are not hearing the same piece of music. Don’t you find that odd?

Willa:  I do. I find it incredibly odd. But you gave me an mp3, remember? Just to see if I had a bad CD? And it sounded fine to you and wrong to me. So we’re listening to the same file – we just hear it differently somehow.

I’ve even wondered if there’s like an auditory version of colorblindness – if maybe I’m not hearing the full range of sound somehow, so certain sections sound thin and reedy to me. I mean some sections sound beautiful, like “I was the only one around” at 0:22, but then “When things would hurt you” comes in at 0:27 and that sounds wrong to me, like it’s been sped up or something.

Joie: I had forgotten that I sent you an mp3 because of this debate, but you’re right – I remember that now. And I’m sorry. I don’t mean for “Best of Joy” to hijack this post – I’m not even sure how we got started – but you mentioned an auditory version of colorblindness, which I find both interesting and amusing. But I’m wondering if perhaps it could be whatever device you’re listening on. I also wonder what the ratio is of fans who hear it fine to fans who hear it distorted, because obviously you’re not the only one – Juney and Eleanor prove that. So, there must be others. It’s just an interesting little mystery to me.

Willa: It really is, for me too. And “distorted” is a good way to describe it, because that’s how it sounds to me.

But anyway, we were talking about “Monster” and how, in his songwriting, Michael Jackson structures the lyrics sometimes so there’s a constantly shifting point of view. This is very unusual, maybe because it’s so difficult to do. Yet Michael Jackson seems to achieve it effortlessly – it just seems to be a natural reflection of how his mind worked. We see him using this approach over and over throughout his career, from his earliest songs to his latest. To me, this feature of his songwriting is as distinctive as a fingerprint, and in that sense I see his fingerprints all over the Cascio tracks, especially “Monster.”

So whether that’s his voice singing the lyrics of “Monster” or not (and I think it is) I am absolutely convinced he wrote those lyrics, both by the subject matter – meaning the way he encourages us to sympathize with the Other – and by the complex way the lyrics are structured – meaning the way he constantly shifts point of view over the course of the song.

Joie: I don’t believe the authorship of the songs has ever been in question, only the vocals. But, did you want to talk about the song “Monster,” or only the controversy surrounding it and the other Cascio tracks?

Willa: No, I’d love to focus on “Monster” because I think it’s a great song – and an important one – that hasn’t been explored the way it deserves because of the uncertainty surrounding it. I just thought we should “dance with the elephant” a bit and address the controversy upfront because I know it’s an issue for a lot of people.

So “Monster” begins with these lines:

You can look at them coming out the walls
You can look at them climbing out the bushes
You can find them when the letter’s about to fall
He’ll be waiting with his camera right on focus
Everywhere you seem to turn, there’s a monster
When you look up in the air, there’s a monster
Paparazzi got you scared like a monster, monster, monster

So the first verse is written in second person (“You can look at them …”) which is unusual. Generally songs are written in first person (I can look at them …) or third person (He, she, or they can look at them …). What second-person narration does is put us as listeners into the song. And how we’re positioned is interesting – we are in the role of a celebrity targeted by paparazzi. They’re surrounding us and coming at us from every direction, so we can’t get away from them. They keep suddenly appearing, like the zombies in Thriller – in fact, he calls them “monsters,” so they kind of are like something out of Thriller. It’s like we’re living in a real life horror movie, being confronted by these “monsters” all around us that are impossible to escape.

Then a two-part chorus comes in, and the first part shifts this completely:

Oh oh Hollywood
It’s got you jumping like you should
It’s got you bouncing off the wall
It’s got you drunk enough to fall
Oh oh Hollywood
Just look in the mirror
And tell me you like, don’t you, don’t you like it?

It’s still written in second person (“It’s got you jumping like you should”) but we’re no longer a celebrity – a target of tabloid paparazzi. Instead, we’re a consumer of those exploitative tabloid pictures and screaming headlines. And he says that if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit we like those trashy tabloids, as much as we may pretend not to: “Just look in the mirror / And tell me you like, don’t you, don’t you like it?” In fact, we like it so much we’re addicted to it, intoxicated by it. As he says, “It’s got you bouncing off the wall / It’s got you drunk enough to fall.”

And then the second part of the chorus comes in and shifts the perspective once again:

Monster
He’s a monster
He’s an animal

Monster
He’s a monster
He’s an animal

This is sung by multiple voices, not just his voice though his voice is among them, and it seems to represent what the tabloids are saying about him. So this part is from the tabloids’ point of view, and they’re saying, “He’s a monster.” That’s a complete reversal from the first verse, where he was saying the paparazzi were acting like monsters.

So in quick succession we’ve looked at this situation from the perspective of a celebrity who’s hounded by the tabloids, a consumer who buys and reads the tabloids, and the tabloids themselves. And, as if that isn’t complicated enough, he then takes us around that full circuit of perspectives two more times. Wow!

Joie:  Wow, indeed, Willa! That was a really interesting interpretation. And I agreed with most of what you said. I do believe that he has positioned us, the audience, as the celebrity in this song. And I agree that the first part of the two-part chorus shifts this and makes us the tabloid-addicted public. But I disagree completely with the last part of your interpretation. For me, the second half of that two-part chorus puts us back in the celebrity’s point of view, not the tabloids’. Especially when we look at the second voice that comes in between the lines of that part of the chorus:

Monster
(he’s like an animal)
He’s a monster
(just like an animal)
He’s an animal
(and he’s moving in the air)

Monster
He’s a monster
He’s an animal
(everybody wanna be a star)

So here we see that second voice, weaving in and out of the second part of the chorus, “He’s like an animal / just like an animal / and he’s moving in the air.” So, I think that second voice is still referring to the paparazzi as the monster, not the celebrity. And this seems to be supported the further we get into the song when that portion of the two-part chorus begins to repeat:

Monster
(why are you haunting me?)
He’s a monster
(why are you stalking me?)
He’s an animal
(why did you do it? why did you? why are you stalking me?)

Monster
(why are you haunting me?)
He’s a monster
(why are you haunting me?)
He’s an animal
(Why did you? why did you?)

Here that second voice that weaves in and out of the chorus seems to turn on the paparazzi and confront them. “Why are you haunting me? / Why are stalking me? / Why did you do it?”

Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Joie. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I agree those lines do seem to be a celebrity talking to the paparazzi and asking them why they’re doing what they’re doing – as he says in one round of the chorus, “What did you do to me? Why’d you take it? Why’d you fake it?”  The question “Why’d you take it?” sounds like something a celebrity would say to a photographer.

But to me, this section where the second voice weaves in and out of the chorus – the voice you put in parentheses – is really interesting because I see this section as presenting two conflicting voices. The foreground voices (or what were the foreground before – now they’ve been pushed back and sound more like they’re in the background) anyway, the voices singing, “Monster / He’s a monster / He’s an animal,” that still represents the tabloids, I think, like earlier in the song.

But now we hear that new voice you were talking about, Joie, and it’s pushing back against that narrative and implying they’re the real monsters … and as you said, it seems to be the voice of a celebrity under attack by the tabloids: “Why you stalking me? … Why you haunting me?” At least, that’s how I interpret it. It’s kind of like we talked about in the “Chicago” post a couple weeks ago, where the foreground voice and the background voice are in conflict and expressing different emotions. To me, the foreground voice and background voice are in conflict here too, and not just expressing different emotions but the opposing viewpoints of two very different groups of people: the celebrities, and the tabloids that feed off them.

Then this section is followed by a heartbreaking bridge:

Why are they never satisfied with all you give?
You give them your all
They’re watching you fall
And they eat your soul like a vegetable

The way I interpret this, the “you” in this case is the performer who gives his all on stage – so we’re positioned as a celebrity again – and the “they” are the people who read the tabloids. They’re the audience who loves you when you’re on stage but is “never satisfied” with that, and wants to read hurtful, gossipy stories about your private life as well.

At least, that’s how I see it. How do you see this part?

Joie:  Well, I don’t think the “they” is only the people who read the tabloids. I think it also refers to all of us as well, the fans. I mean, he loved his fans very much, but I believe he probably sometimes felt that we wanted much more of him than he could physically give – not necessarily wanting to read hurtful, gossipy stories about him, but definitely wanting to peek inside his private life and see everything.

Willa: Oh, that’s a good point, Joie. I think you’re probably right about that – “they” probably does include all of us to some degree. After all, it wasn’t just tabloid readers who were curious about his life, but all of us.

Joie: And you might be right about the dueling voices on the last part, but as the song comes to an end I think we’re back in that second-person point of view as he addresses us, the audience, and puts us back in the celebrity’s position and says:

He’s dragging you down like a monster
He’s keeping you down like a monster

Willa: That’s interesting, because I always thought he was putting us in the consumer position in this part – that he was saying that reading tabloids and watching Hard Copy drags us all down, as a culture. But you’re right, the tabloids certainly “drag down” celebrities also, so it makes a lot of sense that way too.

However you interpret it, it’s a fascinating song by a masterful songwriter who always encouraged and sometimes forced us to view the world from a multitude of perspectives, including some we may never have considered before. That’s one reason – one of many – why his work captures my imagination and won’t let me go.

Summer Rewind 2013, Week 9: With Your Pen, You Torture Men

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on February 6, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

With Your Pen, You Torture Men

Joie: So, Willa, I’ve been thinking lately about Michael’s existence and about how surreal it would be to have that kind of public scrutiny on your life 24/7. Can you imagine how crazy that would be? Or how special your quiet, private time would become to you if that were your life? I can’t imagine being a public figure on that level. Well, on any level really but, especially on that level. When I really just sit and contemplate it, it blows my mind. He really was one of those people who the world loved to watch and hear about. Whether you loved him or loved to hate him, everybody always wanted more – we couldn’t get enough of him.

Willa: That’s true, Joie. His whole life was conducted on a global stage – not just his performances, but his off-screen life too. And as you say, it’s almost impossible to imagine what that would be like. What if every embarrassing thing you’d ever said or done ever in your life was exposed to the whole world? Or if your most painful moments were on display and debated by a global audience? Just imagine – your wife files for divorce, which is painful enough, but then millions of people around the world feel free to speculate about whether she ever really loved you to begin with. That’s just unimaginable to me.

Joie: It is unimaginable. And impossible to wrap your head around. He often wrote about his experiences in songs like “Leave Me Alone,” “Scream” and “Privacy.” And he was often accused by critics of being paranoid because of it. And actually, if you think about it, there are many, many songs that could fall into the ‘perceived paranoia’ category. Songs like “Tabloid Junkie,” “Money,” and “Is It Scary.” Even songs like “2Bad” and “This Time Around.” And the really big one that comes to my mind is the unreleased song, “Xscape.” Those lyrics are all about that ‘perceived paranoia.’

Everywhere I turn, no matter where I look
The system’s in control, it’s all run by the book
I’ve got to get away so I can clear my mind,
Xscape is what I need,
Away from electric eyes
 
No matter where I am, I see my face around
They pen lies on my name, then push from town to town
Don’t have a place to run, but there’s no need to hide,
I’ve got to, find a place,
So I won’t hide away
 
(Xscape) Got to get away from the system loose in the world today
(Xscape) The pressure that I face from relationships that could go away
(Xscape) The man with the pen that writes the lies that hassle this man
(Xscape) I do what I wanna cause I gotta please nobody but me
 

I love that song so much; I really hope it finds its way onto a proper album someday so everyone can enjoy it. But for now, here’s a version you can listen to on YouTube:

Willa: Wow, Joie, I’d never heard that song before, but it’s fascinating, isn’t it? The drums have this rat-tat-tat-tat rhythm, like machine gun fire, and there are electronic sound effects that really give a sense that he’s under surveillance, or even being hunted by those “electric eyes.” And the lyrics reflect that too – it really feels like, no matter where he travels, he’s in a confined space with the walls closing in.

Joie: The words are really sort of sad in a way. What is that like to see your face on all the tabloids, everywhere you look, with unflattering, untrue, and even downright nasty headlines attached to it?

You know, I never really understood the whole paranoia claim. Yes, he seemed to make a point of including at least one such song on every album but, why label him paranoid for simply writing a song about his life experience? That just doesn’t seem fair to me.

Willa: And you aren’t being paranoid if what you’re saying is true. You’re only being paranoid if you have a delusional sense that people are out to get you when they aren’t. But people really were out to get him, from paparazzi ambushing him for a shock photo, to alleged business partners suing him for a piece of his wealth, to family members trying to guilt him into concerts he didn’t want to do, to executives trying to squeeze every last drop of revenue out of him that they could. That wasn’t paranoia. That was his life.

Joie: Exactly! That was his life! You know, I was watching the Golden Globes a few weeks ago and Jodie Foster was being given the Cecil B. DeMille Award for her lifetime achievements to her craft. And in her speech, she said something that really struck me and immediately made me think of Michael. She said,

“But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy.”

That part of her speech really stood out for me because, as we all know, Jodie Foster is a notoriously private actress who is almost as famous for the way she fiercely guards that privacy as she is for her amazingly impressive catalog of films. She’s also someone who can totally relate to what Michael must have gone through in his lifetime. Like Michael, she became a huge star and a household name at a very, very young age, and she has gone to great lengths over the years to “fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal.” Yet, to my knowledge, no one has ever accused her of being paranoid for trying to protect her privacy.

Willa: That’s true, and I don’t think Jodie Foster ever experienced the level of intrusiveness Michael Jackson experienced. He really was on camera 24/7, as you said. It’s like that movie, The Truman Show, where an entertainment corporation adopts a baby and then puts his entire life on display as an extended reality show. In fact, this is interesting – Aldebaranredstar shared a quotation from Peter Weir, the director of The Truman Show, where says his ideas about the main character came from Michael Jackson:

“You watch The Truman Show and, I mean, Jim Carrey did a fantastic job, but Michael Jackson is Truman. He’s who I based him on and he is the nearest thing to Truman.”

Joie: You know, I hadn’t heard that until after Michael passed away. And I’ve never really been a fan of Jim Carrey so, I’ve actually never watched The Truman Show, believe it or not. But since hearing that comment from Peter Weir I really want to see it. Maybe I’ll rent it this weekend.

Willa: Oh, it’s fascinating, Joie – especially watching it with Michael Jackson in mind. I think you’ll get a lot out of it.

Joie: I’m really interested in it now. I’ll let you know when I watch it. But I want to talk about a couple of those other songs I mentioned earlier. For instance, the lyrics to “Tabloid Junkie” have always fascinated me, and when I think about them in the context of this ‘perceived paranoia’ that so many tried to label Michael Jackson with, they become really telling.

Speculate to break the one you hate
Circulate the lie you confiscate
Assassinate and mutilate
It’s the hounding media, in hysteria

Those are very strong words, and I’m sure that from his point of view and his life experiences, those words were very true.

Willa: Those are strong words, in sound and meaning. In fact, I’m intrigued by the sounds of those words – speculate, circulate, confiscate, assassinate, mutilate – and how they echo the word “hate,” a word he places in a very prominent position at the end of the first line. The way those sounds are located, it almost seems like there’s a reverberation of “hate, hate, hate, hate, hate” throughout this verse. And I wonder if that’s what it felt like to him, being hit with one hateful story after another.

Joie: Wow, I never thought of it that way, Willa. It probably did feel like hate to him. But that was his life and I’m guessing that, at times, it must have seemed unbearable to him. But, looking at those words, I can also see where the critics – or the media – would take offense and want to strike back by trying to make him seem crazy and paranoid. Especially when he included words like these:

It’s slander
You say it’s not a sword
But with your pen you torture men
You’d crucify the Lord

And he goes on to say this:

It’s slander
With the words you use
You’re a parasite in black and white
Do anything for news
 
If you don’t go and buy it
Then they won’t glorify it
To read it sanctifies it
Then why do we keep foolin’ ourselves?

You know, it was almost like they were taunting each other. Michael would write a song about his life experience, the media would take offense to it and strike out against him, so he would lash out in the only way he could … by writing another song about the experience. A vicious cycle. It was a very precarious sort of relationship between them.

Willa: I see what you’re saying, Joie, but it’s a complicated issue, and we see some of that complexity in the verses you just cited. For example, in the lines “You say it’s not a sword / But with your pen you torture men,” he’s referencing the old saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” That adage is actually lauding the power of the written word to bring about positive social change. It’s saying that the written word – whether in novels or essays or poetry or the press – is more powerful than armies at resisting oppression, exposing injustice, and righting wrongs. That’s very similar to the idea he expresses in Beat It and Bad and Jam, among others, that art is more powerful than violence, and we know that was an idea he passionately believed.

But today’s press, with its focus on the sensational and the trivial, denies the power it has – “you say it’s not a sword” – and then carelessly squanders that power to “torture men.” Instead of being a beacon for good, they have become “a parasite in black and white.”

Joie: I just love that phrase! “A parasite in black and white. Do anything for news.” It’s so perfect for the predatory celebrity news that we see today, I think.

Willa: It really is. So it seems to me that he’s criticizing the press not only for attacking him, but for neglecting the higher purpose they should be fulfilling. They should be doing their part to “Heal the world / Make it a better place,” and they aren’t. Instead, they attack those who try. I’ve even read snarky articles about Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. As Michael Jackson tells the press in those lines you cited above, Joie, “You’d crucify the Lord” given the chance, instead of helping to fight injustice.

Joie: I agree with you, Willa. The entire song is a really scathing look at the media. It’s another example of Michael Jackson holding up a mirror for us to examine ourselves but, of course, no one’s listening but the fans. Everyone else is still calling him paranoid.

Willa: Oh, it’s a very scathing look. Not only are the attacks on him unfair and hurtful, but they also distract news organizations from the real work they should be doing. We see that idea in “Breaking News,” as well. In fact, the whole song is a play on the words “breaking news.” Usually those words refer to a news bulletin about an event that’s just happened, but he shifts the meaning so those words refer to how dysfunctional news organizations have become. Those organizations can no longer report real news because the traditional news-gathering systems are falling apart – as he says, “You’re breaking the news.”

It’s also interesting that once again he subtly refers to the idea that “the pen is mightier than the sword” when he sings, “You write the words to destroy like it’s a weapon.” So again, he’s saying that the media have this mighty sword – the power of the press – and they’re misusing it to “torture men” rather than expose corruption and injustice and fight for a better world.

Joie: You’re right, Willa. And what you just said about the press misusing their power to “torture men” instead of using it to fight against corruption and injustice makes me think of another song that could be included in this discussion, “Why You Wanna Trip on Me.” At first listen, it’s not really a ‘paranoid’ song but, when we examine the lyrics, it just fits in so well with what you just said:

They say I’m different
They don’t understand
But there’s a bigger problem
That’s much more in demand
You got world hunger
Not enough to eat
So there’s really no time
To be trippin’ on me
 
You got school teachers
Who don’t wanna teach
You got grown people
Who can’t write or read
You got strange diseases
Ah but there’s no cure
You got many doctors
That aren’t so sure
So tell me
 
Why you wanna trip on me?

What he’s saying here is that, with all the millions of real problems in the world, why on earth is the media tripping on him all the time? Why are they breaking their necks to follow his every move and shove cameras in his face when there are so many other, much more important and distressing issues going on in the world?

Willa: Wow, Joie, I didn’t even think about “Why You Wanna Trip on Me,” but you’re right – that really spells it all out, doesn’t it? As he says, “There’s a bigger problem / That’s much more in demand” for attention from the press, so why are they spending so much time and energy chasing and criticizing him?

But you know, it seems to me that when critics call Michael Jackson paranoid, they aren’t just referring to his songs about the press. They’re also referring to his songs about the lying, threatening, stalking women who hurt My Baby – songs like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Billie Jean,” “Dirty Diana,” and “Dangerous.” But as you pointed out in one of our very first posts, Joie, those threatening women can be interpreted as representing fame, celebrity, or more specifically, the media. For example, there are these lyrics from “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”:

Billie Jean is always talking
When nobody else is talking
Telling lies and rubbing shoulders
So they called her mouth a motor

Bille Jean could be a woman who’s “always talking” and whose mouth is like “a motor,” but that’s a pretty accurate description of the tabloids as well.

Joie: Oh, wow. Good point, Willa! I never really think of those songs as being part of the whole ‘paranoia’ narrative but, you’re right; it does fit, doesn’t it? The threatening women in all those songs were sort of out to get him, weren’t they? That’s really interesting.

You know, this entire conversation still makes me think about that comment Jodie Foster made in that Golden Globes speech about fighting for a life that feels ‘real and honest and normal.’ And it’s just so sad that he never really had that because his life was constantly put on display. And as you said earlier, he wasn’t paranoid in the clinical sense because “they” really were after him. Everyday of his life. Maybe they weren’t out to get him but, they were certainly out to capture his every move.

Willa: Yes, they were. But as he points out in many of those songs, they’re providing what the consumer wants, as you quoted above from “Tabloid Junkie”:

If you don’t go and buy it
Then they won’t glorify it
To read it sanctifies it
Then why do we keep foolin’ ourselves?

He expresses a similar idea in “Monster”:

It’s got you jumping like you should
It’s got you bouncing off the wall
It’s got you drunk enough to fall
 

So he’s saying that consumers have become addicted to those shock stories – “It’s got you drunk enough to fall” – and the media is feeding that addiction. But if we (the collective “we”) can somehow detox ourselves from that kind of slander and remove the market for those stories, that kind of journalism will shrivel up and die.

Joie: And you know, the really difficult thing to understand is why? It seems that everyone complains about “that kind of journalism” but still it persists. And so often, “that kind of journalism” isn’t even true or accurate. Michael pointed that out so well in “Tabloid Junkie”:

Just because you read it in a magazine
You see it on a TV screen
Don’t make it factual

Willa: And Joie, that’s perhaps the most important point of all. You know, I think most people realize that tabloid-style articles and television shows don’t really report the news – that they’re sensationalized or gross exaggerations or even complete fabrications – so why do they exist? What’s the point of “newspapers” and celebrity “news” shows that report false news? That doesn’t make any sense.

I think they’re actually a type of entertainment – a corrupt entertainment – not news. The tabloids turned Michael Jackson into a “monster” and an “animal,” as he sings in “Monster,” and then mocked him as a type of cruel entertainment. For some reason, we insist on turning people into monsters every so often, and the tabloids did that to him and forced him to play that cultural role. He talks about that phenomenon quite a bit in his later work – in songs like “Threatened” and “Is It Scary” and “Monster” and “Breaking News.” And it’s cruel.

You know, my son is 14 and he’s brought home a lot of information about bullying the last few years. The schools are really working hard to prevent bullying, and help kids deal with it when it happens. And one of the things I’ve realized is that almost everything my son has told me about bullying – from name-calling to cyber-bullying to ganging up on those who are perceived as different – applies to the tabloid press as well. They are bullies, and we should be as vigilant in preventing hurtful behavior by tabloid-style media as we are in preventing hurtful behavior by bullies.

We should prevent it not only because it hurts the targets, people like Michael Jackson, but also because it hurts us as well. I think most people think the tabloids are pretty harmless – just mindless fluff about UFOs and celebrities and Nostradamus predictions – and they don’t realize how damaging that constant barrage of misinformation and mean-spirited behavior can be. I think the tabloids and shock-jock radio shows and those kinds of inflammatory entertainment have influenced how we talk to one another, making us less civil and more judgmental. And whether we realize it or not, they’ve also influenced our perceptions and world view. As Michael Jackson told Oprah back in 1993, “If you hear a lie often enough, you start to believe it.”

Joie: Willa, I could not agree with you more. I especially like what you just said about tabloids and shock-jock radio shows being a type of inflammatory entertainment, and I think probably 90% of the so-called “reality” TV shows can be placed in that same catagory. And shows like that have influenced the way we talk to and relate to one another – and not at all in a good way. Again, it’s one of the many lessons that Michael Jackson tried over and over to teach us but, most refuse to listen.

He’s a Monster, He’s an Animal

Willa:  Joie, I know we’ve tended to stay away from breaking news and sensationalized stories, with good reason. It’s all too easy to get caught up on the rollercoaster of rumor and innuendo and pseudo news, and lose sight of the big picture. In general, I think it’s much better to focus on Michael Jackson’s art and let the sensationalism wear itself out.

Joie:  I couldn’t agree more.

Willa:  But one interesting aspect of Michael Jackson’s art is that he wrestled with complex issues like mass media, public perception, and prejudice, and the complicated interconnections between them. And something happened last week that really underscored that for me. Wade Robson’s lawyer, Henry Gradstein, said in a prepared statement that “Michael Jackson was a monster, and in their hearts every normal person knows it.”

Joie, how many times did Michael Jackson warn us about this – about “normal people” becoming fearful of those who are different, and imagining they’re “monsters” because of that fear? That’s the central plot of Ghosts. (I can actually close my eyes and imagine the Mayor saying Gradstein’s words during that long speech when he’s confronting the Maestro:  “We have a nice normal town, normal people, normal kids. We don’t need freaks like you. …”) He addresses that fear in Thriller as well – in fact, it provides the psychological underpinnings of that short film. Thriller “works” because it taps into that fear. And that’s exactly what he’s talking about in “Is It Scary,” “Threatened,” and “Monster” as well.

Joie:  You know, Willa, it’s still so shocking to me that people feel that way about him. I mean, it’s one thing to jump on the bandwagon and badmouth someone when everybody else seems to be doing it too. But to attack someone after they’re gone in such a vicious manner … I was just really shocked when I read that quote last week. In fact, I think I still am.

But to get back to what you just said, you’re absolutely right. Michael addressed this very topic over and over and over again. It’s almost as if it was constantly at the forefront of his mind and his imagination. And if you think about it, I’m sure it probably was. I mean, after all, it was a subject he just couldn’t seem to get away from. It was, quite literally, “the story of his life.” And I just think it’s so sad. When you first proposed this topic for this week’s post, the lyrics to “Monster” came immediately to my mind, and I just felt so tired. Do you know what I mean?

Willa:  Oh, I do. I know exactly what you mean. …

Joie:  Like I actually took a deep, sad breath and I just felt so exhausted. If I felt that way, can you imagine how he must have felt when he wrote these words:

Monster
He’s a monster
He’s an animal

We hear that short refrain over and over again in the song, and it just breaks my heart. He goes on to say:

Why are they never satisfied with all you give?
You give them your all
They’re watching you fall
And they eat your soul like a vegetable 

Don’t you ever wonder what that felt like to him? How lonely and miserable that must have been? I don’t know that there has ever been a more miserable soul on this planet than Michael Jackson’s. Which is truly heartbreaking when you think about the immense amount of talent he possessed and the staggering numbers of people that he brought happiness to. And yet, he himself was this miserable, tragic, sad, sad creature.

Willa:  Well, yes and no. I mean, Michael Jackson endured a level of public vilification few of us can even imagine. I mean, it’s literally unimaginable to me – beyond my capacity to comprehend what he went through. But I think he also experienced a kind of joy few of us can imagine either – the joy of creative ecstasy as we talked about a little bit with Give In to Me last spring. So I guess I feel he had higher highs as well as lower lows.

But I do know what you’re saying, Joie, and I think those lyrics you quoted are really important, especially that last line, “they eat your soul like a vegetable.” One reason that jumps out at me is because it echoes words he wrote much earlier in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” where he repeatedly sings these lines at the end of each chorus:

You’re a vegetable (You’re a vegetable)
Still they hate you (You’re a vegetable)
You’re just a buffet (You’re a vegetable)
They eat off of you (You’re a vegetable)

This song was written in the mid-1970s and “Monster” was written in the mid-2000s, sometime after the 2005 trial – that’s a 30-year time span – yet both songs express a similar idea using the same metaphor:  that the press feeds off him (“they eat your soul”) just like the zombies in a horror movie feed off the souls of the living.

So there’s this interesting reversal where the mass media is portraying him as a “monster,” but he’s saying they are the true monsters. He’s alive – vibrantly alive – with the exuberant vitality of a dancer and creative artist, but their souls are dead – they have no creative spark animating them – and so they try to feed off him. He makes that reversal explicit the last couple of times he sings the chorus you quoted earlier, when he reverses the meaning by adding interstitial lines:

Monster
(Why you haunting me?)
He’s a monster
(Why are you stalking me?)
He’s an animal
(Why’d you do it? Why’d you? Why you stalking me?)
 

Joie:  Willa, I think that’s a wonderful interpretation of “Monster” and I love what you just said, comparing the press to flesh-eating zombies that can’t wait to feed off of Michael Jackson’s creativity and vitality. It’s a beautiful assessment of the situation.

Willa:  It is fascinating how he sets that up and then flips it around, isn’t it? And that idea that the tabloids are feeding off him reminds me of those threatening teeth in Leave Me Alone that we talked about last fall. Those chomping teeth form the bass line of Leave Me Alone, which is an extended look at media excess that links modern tabloids with exploitative freak shows of the past. So again he’s suggesting that the press wants to feed off him, and the sound of those teeth throughout the video reinforces that.

Joie:  What’s really interesting to me, Willa, is how, in one corner, you’ve got the press, who keep repeatedly referring to him as a monster, and all of the “talking heads” from all of the news outlets (be it tabloid or mainstream) join in on the charge. But then in the other corner, there’s Michael himself, pointing back at the press and stating very clearly for all who will listen, that he’s not the monster … they are! It almost feels like that episode of the old Twilight Zone series where the people in a diner all know very clearly that there is an alien/monster among them. Only no one is really quite sure exactly who the real monster is and they’re all accusing each other! Remember that episode?

Willa:  No, I don’t think I ever saw that one, but it sounds really interesting. And thinking of The Twilight Zone reminds me of “Threatened,” with its posthumous Rod Serling intro:

Tonight’s story is somewhat unique and calls for a different kind of introduction. A monster had arrived in the village. The major ingredient of any recipe for fear is the unknown, and this person or thing is soon to be met. He knows every thought. He can feel every emotion. Oh yes, I did forget something, didn’t I? I forgot to introduce you to the monster.

And then we hear Michael Jackson’s voice – he’s the monster Rod Serling was talking about. So we’re in the unusual position of hearing the story from the monster’s point of view.

And that reminds me of one of the first monster stories, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. In the original novel, Mary Shelley casts Frankenstein’s monster as an intelligent, sensitive soul who’s abused and mistreated because his appearance is so frightening. In fact, in some ways the people he meets are the true monsters because they’re so vicious to him. So the question is, who’s the real monster in this situation?

That’s a question Michael Jackson raised many times. For example, in “Is It Scary” he says, “It’s you who’s haunting me / Because you’re wanting me / To be the stranger in the night.” And he concludes with this fairly blunt assessment:

I’m tired of being abused
You know you’re scaring me too
I see the evil is you
Is it scary for you, baby? 

In other words, the “evil” that people fear is coming from their own minds. They’re imposing their fears onto him, and he’s just a mirror reflecting their own thoughts and fears back at them:

Can the heart reveal the proof
Like a mirror reveals the truth?
See the evil one is you

Joie:  Yeah, that song is just so telling. And really, if you just sit and listen to them, most of the “scary” songs are very telling, deeply personal glimpses into what his life must have felt like to him. And you know, Willa, whenever I let myself dwell on it, I just cannot imagine living with that level of scrutiny every single day of my life, and still being able to function. And ultimately, I guess the argument could be made that he wasn’t able to function that way for very long.

Willa:  Oh, it’s just unbelievable what his life must have been like, but we can kind of get a glimpse of it through these “monster” songs and films because one thing he’s trying to do in these works is show us what it feels like to be in that position – to be the object of everyone fears.

You know, Michael Jackson had an incredible habit of empathy. We see it in his work as well as interviews. Whenever he’s trying to understand a situation, his first impulse is almost always to immediately look at it from the other person’s point of view. We see that over and over again, like in “Dirty Diana” where a groupie is trying to manipulate him, but instead of simply rejecting her, or using her and walking away as many rock stars would do, he tries to understand her by looking at things from her perspective. He does something similar in his “scary” songs where he doesn’t just push back against the attacks, but also tries to get inside the mind of his attackers and understand why they are treating him like a monster. (And by the way, this habit of empathy is one reason I’m so sure he would never molest a child, in addition to all the evidence. If you have that habit of empathy, you can’t abuse someone because you’re too aware of how that abuse must feel to them.) And he also encourages us to try to see things from his perspective as well.

So one way of interpreting his “monster” works is to see them as an artistic way for him to work through these issues and explore why the police, the press, and the public were so insistent on seeing him as a monster – and there are important cultural and psychological reasons for why that keeps happening. As he tells us in “Threatened,” “I’m not a ghost from Hell / but I’ve got a spell on you.” He is the Other, the “monster,” the embodiment of difference that both fascinates and frightens us – that is the “spell” he has on the public imagination – but he’s an Other who seems to know us all too well:

You’re fearing me
’Cause you know I’m a beast …
I’m the living dead
The dark thoughts in your head
I heard just what you said
That’s why you’ve got to be threatened by me

So we fear that he’s a “beast” but an extremely intelligent beast, a beast who knows “the dark thoughts in your head” and can move us emotionally and psychologically in ways we don’t fully understand – and what could be more frightening than that? That’s why he tells us “You should be watching me / You should feel threatened,” because he represents our worst fears.

But that’s not really who he is – he’s not really a monster – it’s just a reflection of our own minds. We’re simply giving vent to all our deepest fears by projecting them onto him.

Joie:  And the ugly truth is that he made such an easy target of himself. He made it almost effortless for those doing the venting to project that madness onto him. But he always turned the other cheek with such dignity and grace, never lowering himself to their standards, never lashing out in anger. Not really the actions of a monster, huh?

With your Pen, you Torture Men

Joie:  So, Willa, I’ve been thinking lately about Michael’s existence and about how surreal it would be to have that kind of public scrutiny on your life 24/7. Can you imagine how crazy that would be? Or how special your quiet, private time would become to you if that were your life? I can’t imagine being a public figure on that level. Well, on any level really but, especially on that level. When I really just sit and contemplate it, it blows my mind. He really was one of those people who the world loved to watch and hear about. Whether you loved him or loved to hate him, everybody always wanted more – we couldn’t get enough of him.

Willa:  That’s true, Joie. His whole life was conducted on a global stage – not just his performances, but his off-screen life too. And as you say, it’s almost impossible to imagine what that would be like. What if every embarrassing thing you’d ever said or done ever in your life was exposed to the whole world? Or if your most painful moments were on display and debated by a global audience? Just imagine – your wife files for divorce, which is painful enough, but then millions of people around the world feel free to speculate about whether she ever really loved you to begin with. That’s just unimaginable to me.

Joie:  It is unimaginable. And impossible to wrap your head around. He often wrote about his experiences in songs like “Leave Me Alone,” “Scream” and “Privacy.” And he was often accused by critics of being paranoid because of it. And actually, if you think about it, there are many, many songs that could fall into the ‘perceived paranoia’ category. Songs like “Tabloid Junkie,” “Money,” and “Is It Scary.” Even songs like “2Bad” and “This Time Around.” And the really big one that comes to my mind is the unreleased song, “Xscape.” Those lyrics are all about that ‘perceived paranoia.’

Everywhere I turn, no matter where I look
The system’s in control, it’s all run by the book
I’ve got to get away so I can clear my mind,
Xscape is what I need,
Away from electric eyes
 
No matter where I am, I see my face around
They pen lies on my name, then push from town to town
Don’t have a place to run, but there’s no need to hide,
I’ve got to, find a place,
So I won’t hide away
 
(Xscape) Got to get away from the system loose in the world today
(Xscape) The pressure that I face from relationships that could go away
(Xscape) The man with the pen that writes the lies that hassle this man
(Xscape) I do what I wanna cause I gotta please nobody but me
 

I love that song so much; I really hope it finds its way onto a proper album someday so everyone can enjoy it. But for now, here’s a version you can listen to on YouTube:

Willa:  Wow, Joie, I’d never heard that song before, but it’s fascinating, isn’t it? The drums have this rat-tat-tat-tat rhythm, like machine gun fire, and there are electronic sound effects that really give a sense that he’s under surveillance, or even being hunted by those “electric eyes.” And the lyrics reflect that too – it really feels like, no matter where he travels, he’s in a confined space with the walls closing in.

Joie:  The words are really sort of sad in a way. What is that like to see your face on all the tabloids, everywhere you look, with unflattering, untrue, and even downright nasty headlines attached to it?

You know, I never really understood the whole paranoia claim. Yes, he seemed to make a point of including at least one such song on every album but, why label him paranoid for simply writing a song about his life experience? That just doesn’t seem fair to me.

Willa:  And you aren’t being paranoid if what you’re saying is true. You’re only being paranoid if you have a delusional sense that people are out to get you when they aren’t. But people really were out to get him, from paparazzi ambushing him for a shock photo, to alleged business partners suing him for a piece of his wealth, to family members trying to guilt him into concerts he didn’t want to do, to executives trying to squeeze every last drop of revenue out of him that they could. That wasn’t paranoia. That was his life.

Joie:  Exactly! That was his life! You know, I was watching the Golden Globes a few weeks ago and Jodie Foster was being given the Cecil B. DeMille Award for her lifetime achievements to her craft. And in her speech, she said something that really struck me and immediately made me think of Michael. She said,

“But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy.”

That part of her speech really stood out for me because, as we all know, Jodie Foster is a notoriously private actress who is almost as famous for the way she fiercely guards that privacy as she is for her amazingly impressive catalog of films. She’s also someone who can totally relate to what Michael must have gone through in his lifetime. Like Michael, she became a huge star and a household name at a very, very young age, and she has gone to great lengths over the years to “fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal.” Yet, to my knowledge, no one has ever accused her of being paranoid for trying to protect her privacy.

Willa:  That’s true, and I don’t think Jodie Foster ever experienced the level of intrusiveness Michael Jackson experienced. He really was on camera 24/7, as you said. It’s like that movie, The Truman Show, where an entertainment corporation adopts a baby and then puts his entire life on display as an extended reality show. In fact, this is interesting – Aldebaranredstar shared a quotation from Peter Weir, the director of The Truman Show, where says his ideas about the main character came from Michael Jackson:

“You watch The Truman Show and, I mean, Jim Carrey did a fantastic job, but Michael Jackson is Truman. He’s who I based him on and he is the nearest thing to Truman.”

Joie:  You know, I hadn’t heard that until after Michael passed away. And I’ve never really been a fan of Jim Carrey so, I’ve actually never watched The Truman Show, believe it or not. But since hearing that comment from Peter Weir I really want to see it. Maybe I’ll rent it this weekend.

Willa:  Oh, it’s fascinating, Joie – especially watching it with Michael Jackson in mind. I think you’ll get a lot out of it.

Joie:  I’m really interested in it now. I’ll let you know when I watch it. But I want to talk about a couple of those other songs I mentioned earlier. For instance, the lyrics to “Tabloid Junkie” have always fascinated me, and when I think about them in the context of this ‘perceived paranoia’ that so many tried to label Michael Jackson with, they become really telling.

Speculate to break the one you hate
Circulate the lie you confiscate
Assassinate and mutilate
It’s the hounding media, in hysteria

Those are very strong words, and I’m sure that from his point of view and his life experiences, those words were very true.

Willa:  Those are strong words, in sound and meaning. In fact, I’m intrigued by the sounds of those words – speculate, circulate, confiscate, assassinate, mutilate – and how they echo the word “hate,” a word he places in a very prominent position at the end of the first line. The way those sounds are located, it almost seems like there’s a reverberation of “hate, hate, hate, hate, hate” throughout this verse. And I wonder if that’s what it felt like to him, being hit with one hateful story after another.

Joie:  Wow, I never thought of it that way, Willa. It probably did feel like hate to him. But that was his life and I’m guessing that, at times, it must have seemed unbearable to him. But, looking at those words, I can also see where the critics – or the media – would take offense and want to strike back by trying to make him seem crazy and paranoid. Especially when he included words like these:

It’s slander
You say it’s not a sword
But with your pen you torture men
You’d crucify the Lord

And he goes on to say this:

It’s slander
With the words you use
You’re a parasite in black and white
Do anything for news
 
If you don’t go and buy it
Then they won’t glorify it
To read it sanctifies it
Then why do we keep foolin’ ourselves?

You know, it was almost like they were taunting each other. Michael would write a song about his life experience, the media would take offense to it and strike out against him, so he would lash out in the only way he could … by writing another song about the experience. A vicious cycle. It was a very precarious sort of relationship between them.

Willa:  I see what you’re saying, Joie, but it’s a complicated issue, and we see some of that complexity in the verses you just cited. For example, in the lines “You say it’s not a sword / But with your pen you torture men,” he’s referencing the old saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” That adage is actually lauding the power of the written word to bring about positive social change. It’s saying that the written word – whether in novels or essays or poetry or the press – is more powerful than armies at resisting oppression, exposing injustice, and righting wrongs. That’s very similar to the idea he expresses in Beat It and Bad and Jam, among others, that art is more powerful than violence, and we know that was an idea he passionately believed.

But today’s press, with its focus on the sensational and the trivial, denies the power it has – “you say it’s not a sword” – and then carelessly squanders that power to “torture men.” Instead of being a beacon for good, they have become “a parasite in black and white.”

Joie:  I just love that phrase! “A parasite in black and white. Do anything for news.” It’s so perfect for the predatory celebrity news that we see today, I think.

Willa:  It really is. So it seems to me that he’s criticizing the press not only for attacking him, but for neglecting the higher purpose they should be fulfilling. They should be doing their part to “Heal the world / Make it a better place,” and they aren’t. Instead, they attack those who try. I’ve even read snarky articles about Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. As Michael Jackson tells the press in those lines you cited above, Joie, “You’d crucify the Lord” given the chance, instead of helping to fight injustice.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa. The entire song is a really scathing look at the media. It’s another example of Michael Jackson holding up a mirror for us to examine ourselves but, of course, no one’s listening but the fans. Everyone else is still calling him paranoid.

Willa:  Oh, it’s a very scathing look. Not only are the attacks on him unfair and hurtful, but they also distract news organizations from the real work they should be doing. We see that idea in “Breaking News,” as well. In fact, the whole song is a play on the words “breaking news.” Usually those words refer to a news bulletin about an event that’s just happened, but he shifts the meaning so those words refer to how dysfunctional news organizations have become. Those organizations can no longer report real news because the traditional news-gathering systems are falling apart – as he says, “You’re breaking the news.”

It’s also interesting that once again he subtly refers to the idea that “the pen is mightier than the sword” when he sings, “You write the words to destroy like it’s a weapon.” So again, he’s saying that the media have this mighty sword – the power of the press – and they’re misusing it to “torture men” rather than expose corruption and injustice and fight for a better world.

Joie:  You’re right, Willa. And what you just said about the press misusing their power to “torture men” instead of using it to fight against corruption and injustice makes me think of another song that could be included in this discussion, “Why You Wanna Trip on Me.” At first listen, it’s not really a ‘paranoid’ song but, when we examine the lyrics, it just fits in so well with what you just said:

They say I’m different
They don’t understand
But there’s a bigger problem
That’s much more in demand
You got world hunger
Not enough to eat
So there’s really no time
To be trippin’ on me
 
You got school teachers
Who don’t wanna teach
You got grown people
Who can’t write or read
You got strange diseases
Ah but there’s no cure
You got many doctors
That aren’t so sure
So tell me
 
Why you wanna trip on me?

What he’s saying here is that, with all the millions of real problems in the world, why on earth is the media tripping on him all the time? Why are they breaking their necks to follow his every move and shove cameras in his face when there are so many other, much more important and distressing issues going on in the world?

Willa:  Wow, Joie, I didn’t even think about “Why You Wanna Trip on Me,” but you’re right – that really spells it all out, doesn’t it?  As he says, “There’s a bigger problem / That’s much more in demand” for attention from the press, so why are they spending so much time and energy chasing and criticizing him?

But you know, it seems to me that when critics call Michael Jackson paranoid, they aren’t just referring to his songs about the press. They’re also referring to his songs about the lying, threatening, stalking women who hurt My Baby – songs like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Billie Jean,” “Dirty Diana,” and “Dangerous.” But as you pointed out in one of our very first posts, Joie, those threatening women can be interpreted as representing fame, celebrity, or more specifically, the media. For example, there are these lyrics from “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”:

Billie Jean is always talking
When nobody else is talking
Telling lies and rubbing shoulders
So they called her mouth a motor

Bille Jean could be a woman who’s “always talking” and whose mouth is like “a motor,” but that’s a pretty accurate description of the tabloids as well.

Joie:  Oh, wow. Good point, Willa! I never really think of those songs as being part of the whole ‘paranoia’ narrative but, you’re right; it does fit, doesn’t it? The threatening women in all those songs were sort of out to get him, weren’t they? That’s really interesting.

You know, this entire conversation still makes me think about that comment Jodie Foster made in that Golden Globes speech about fighting for a life that feels ‘real and honest and normal.’ And it’s just so sad that he never really had that because his life was constantly put on display. And as you said earlier, he wasn’t paranoid in the clinical sense because “they” really were after him. Everyday of his life. Maybe they weren’t out to get him but, they were certainly out to capture his every move.

Willa:  Yes, they were. But as he points out in many of those songs, they’re providing what the consumer wants, as you quoted above from “Tabloid Junkie”:

If you don’t go and buy it
Then they won’t glorify it
To read it sanctifies it
Then why do we keep foolin’ ourselves?

He expresses a similar idea in “Monster”:

It’s got you jumping like you should
It’s got you bouncing off the wall
It’s got you drunk enough to fall
 

So he’s saying that consumers have become addicted to those shock stories – “It’s got you drunk enough to fall” – and the media is feeding that addiction. But if we (the collective “we”) can somehow detox ourselves from that kind of slander and remove the market for those stories, that kind of journalism will shrivel up and die.

Joie:  And you know, the really difficult thing to understand is why? It seems that everyone complains about “that kind of journalism” but still it persists. And so often, “that kind of journalism” isn’t even true or accurate. Michael pointed that out so well in “Tabloid Junkie”:

Just because you read it in a magazine
You see it on a TV screen
Don’t make it factual

Willa:  And Joie, that’s perhaps the most important point of all. You know, I think most people realize that tabloid-style articles and television shows don’t really report the news – that they’re sensationalized or gross exaggerations or even complete fabrications – so why do they exist? What’s the point of “newspapers” and celebrity “news” shows that report false news? That doesn’t make any sense.

I think they’re actually a type of entertainment – a corrupt entertainment – not news. The tabloids turned Michael Jackson into a “monster” and an “animal,” as he sings in “Monster,” and then mocked him as a type of cruel entertainment. For some reason, we insist on turning people into monsters every so often, and the tabloids did that to him and forced him to play that cultural role. He talks about that phenomenon quite a bit in his later work – in songs like “Threatened” and “Is It Scary” and “Monster” and “Breaking News.”  And it’s cruel.

You know, my son is 14 and he’s brought home a lot of information about bullying the last few years. The schools are really working hard to prevent bullying, and help kids deal with it when it happens. And one of the things I’ve realized is that almost everything my son has told me about bullying – from name-calling to cyber-bullying to ganging up on those who are perceived as different – applies to the tabloid press as well. They are bullies, and we should be as vigilant in preventing hurtful behavior by tabloid-style media as we are in preventing hurtful behavior by bullies.

We should prevent it not only because it hurts the targets, people like Michael Jackson, but also because it hurts us as well. I think most people think the tabloids are pretty harmless – just mindless fluff about UFOs and celebrities and Nostradamus predictions – and they don’t realize how damaging that constant barrage of misinformation and mean-spirited behavior can be. I think the tabloids and shock-jock radio shows and those kinds of inflammatory entertainment have influenced how we talk to one another, making us less civil and more judgmental. And whether we realize it or not, they’ve also influenced our perceptions and world view. As Michael Jackson told Oprah back in 1993, “If you hear a lie often enough, you start to believe it.”

Joie:  Willa, I could not agree with you more. I especially like what you just said about tabloids and shock-jock radio shows being a type of inflammatory entertainment, and I think probably 90% of the so-called “reality”  TV shows can be placed in that same catagory. And shows like that have influenced the way we talk to and relate to one another – and not at all in a good way. Again, it’s one of the many lessons that Michael Jackson tried over and over to teach us but, most refuse to listen.

I’m Gonna Be Exactly What You Wanna See

Willa:  This week we’re celebrating Halloween with one of Michael Jackson’s “scary” songs. And I have to admit, I was pretty excited when Joie suggested we talk about “Is It Scary” because it’s one of my favorites.

Joie:  It’s one of my favorites too. So, the first time I heard “Is It Scary,” I was immediately struck by how sad it was and I actually cried. I remember hitting the repeat button several times and pouring over the liner notes, trying to make sure that I had heard Michael’s words correctly because, to me, this song is just so telling and so completely heartbreaking. All you have to do is listen to the lyrics to get a very real sense of what kind of pain he must have been in.

I’m gonna be exactly what you wanna see
It’s you who’s taunting me
Because you’re wanting me
To be the stranger in the night

Am I amusing you
Or just confusing you
Am I the beast you visualized 

And if you wanna see
Eccentric oddities
I’ll be grotesque before your eyes
Let them all materialize

It makes you wonder what kind of toll it must take on a person. Always being seen as some kind of freak or monster. Always hearing that the entire world thinks you’re strange and weird and bizarre. Constantly having a very vile label attached to your name and being seen as public enemy number one. What does that feel like? How do you cope with that? How much does that hurt? Michael Jackson knew the answers to those questions. And the first time I listened to “Is It Scary,” I got the feeling he wanted the rest of the world to know those answers too. Just for a few minutes, to put themselves in his place and feel what he must have felt.

But he didn’t just want us to put ourselves in his place for a while. He wanted us to take a look at ourselves and try to wrap our heads around the fact that he is not the oddity in this freak show – we are! We’re the ones who keep putting those ugly labels on him. We’re the ones who, for some reason, need him to play the role of the monster in our imagined horror movie. We’re the ones with the sick minds who insist that he has done very inappropriate things with inappropriate people. We – not the fans, of course but, the rest of the world – have tried and convicted him for something he never even thought about doing. All because he “seemed” weird.

Willa:  Joie, I feel the exact same way about this song. I don’t think we can begin to imagine how horrible those 1993 allegations were for him. The pain of those allegations are a constant presence in his later work. We saw that in Invincible last month. The pain of those allegations is just beneath the surface of every single song on that album. He can’t get past it, can’t escape it. It’s just a constant ache. And we see it so clearly in “Is It Scary,” which was written, recorded, and released in the years immediately after those allegations came out. His voice is so beautiful and so expressive on this song, and when he sings these lyrics, you just want to bow your head and cry:

So did you come to me
To see your fantasies
Performed before your very eyes

A haunting ghostly treat
The ghoulish trickery
And spirits dancing in the night

But if you came to see
The truth the purity
It’s here inside a lonely heart
So let the performance start

But there’s something else going on here also. He isn’t just expressing the pain he’s feeling because of those allegations. He’s also telling us how he’s going to respond to them.

As he says in the lyrics you cited, Joie, “I’m gonna be / Exactly what you wanna see.” In other words, if people are going to insist he’s a monster, then he’s going to become one – he’s going to fulfill their “fantasies” and give them what they want. As he says, “you’re wanting me / To be the stranger in the night.” The tabloid press, especially, and much of the public are “wanting” to see him as a pedophile (a “stranger in the night”) even though the evidence clearly contradicts it. The facts don’t matter, though, because this isn’t about reason or logic. It’s about mass hysteria – the same kind of mass hysteria that led us to attack Iraq, a sovereign nation, for no reason. We tend to think we’ve progressed since the days of the Salem witch trials, but I don’t think we have. We just vent our fears in different ways now. And he’s caught in the midst of this hysteria and he’s the target of all that mindless fear, and he’s trying to deal with it. He and his lawyers tried to fight those allegations by citing the evidence, and it made no difference at all. In fact, it just seemed to blow things up bigger, if possible, and make things worse. So now he’s developed an artistic response. As he tells us, “if you wanna see / Eccentric oddities / I’ll be grotesque before your eyes / Let them all materialize.” 

Joie:  I think you’re absolutely right, Willa, and I think the lyrics are so self-explanatory. All you have to do is pay attention to what it is he’s saying here and you’ll see it. He’s telling us very plainly exactly what he’s about to do next. You know, it’s almost like a defiant teenager who’s rebelling against his parents: ‘Oh, you think I’m acting out now? Well, just you wait.’ It’s a very strange tendency we have as humans to respond to personal attacks in this almost self-sabotaging way. It’s as if Michael was saying ‘So, you want to think of me as a freak show? Well, hold on tight, ’cause I’ll show you a freak show!’ It’s a point he illustrates so well in the Ghosts short film when confronted by the town Mayor.

Willa:  Hold on tight is right! It was a pretty wild ride after that, especially the plastic surgery scandal, or the story printed in Vanity Fair that he paid a Mali witchdoctor $150,000 to sacrifice 42 cows and put a curse on Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. That’s crazy. I can’t believe they actually printed that.

Joie:  I can’t believe they printed such a ridiculous story either. You know, sometimes I think the crazier the press got, the more it only served to make THEM look foolish, not Michael. And the fact that the public believed it just floors me. It’s no wonder he decided to “be exactly what you wanna see.” He must have felt like he couldn’t win.

Willa:  And Joie, I imagine part of that was defiance. He definitely had a strong streak of defiance in his character – I don’t think he could have survived everything he faced without it – so that could be one reason why he decided to be “what you wanna see” and become the monster the press and the public wanted him to be.

But I think there’s something else going on here too, something critically important. And to understand that, I think it helps to step back for a moment and look at his other “monster” works:  Thriller, Ghosts, “Threatened,” “Monster.” Repeatedly, we see him taking on the role of the monster, but these aren’t horror stories in the conventional sense. For one thing, they aren’t very scary. A conventional horror story plunges us into a frightening situation and encourages us to become immersed in feeling the full terror of that situation, but he doesn’t. He touches on it, then pulls back and shows us it’s an illusion, then touches on it again and pulls back again. We see this same structure in all of these works. He doesn’t really want to scare us. That’s not what these are about. As he said in a 1999 MTV interview when asked if he liked horror movies,

“Believe it or not, I’m afraid to watch scary movies. Honestly, I don’t quite like to watch them very much. I never thought I’d be involved in making that sort of thing.”

But he didn’t really make “that sort of thing,” because these aren’t really horror stories. But what are they?

To understand that, I think it helps to go back even further – in fact, more than 2,000 years – and look at Aristotle’s theories about art. In Ars Poetica, Aristotle says that one function of art – especially tragedy – is to bring about catharsis, meaning the purging of base emotions such as fear. I think that’s what Michael Jackson is doing in his “monster” works. He’s not encouraging us to feel base emotions. In fact, he’s doing just the opposite – he’s purging us of those emotions. In Thriller, he’s attempting to purge us of a specific type of racial prejudice – the fear many people felt for him as a very sexy Black man, a sex symbol even, and our first Black teen idol. And in Ghosts, “Threatened,” “Monster,” and “Is It Scary,” he’s trying to purge us of that horrible mob mentality that erupted in the hysteria of the 1993 allegations.

Joie:  Well, Willa, I have not read Aristotle since my college philosophy class so, I really can’t comment much on that. But, I do understand the idea of catharsis and purging those base emotions and cleansing and healing the psyche. So, I think this makes a lot of sense.

Willa:  You know, I’m still trying to figure this out myself, but I see something really different happening in these works, and in the “eccentric oddities” that dominated the media after the release of “Is It Scary.” I think he’s creating a new type of art – in fact, I think you could make the case that he’s creating an entirely new genre of art – and it just fascinates me. And if I haven’t mentioned it in a while, let me say once again that I think Michael Jackson was brilliant – just knock your socks off, bug your eyes out, blow your mind brilliant.

Joie:  I know what you mean; it is really unbelievable at times when you think about just how brilliant he was. Almost scary brilliant, actually, and I have never been able to understand those people who just don’t get it. Like, I know that I am a hard-core fan but, it just flabbergasts me to know that there are people out there who don’t think that Michael Jackson is the single most fascinatingly creative person ever to walk the earth. I am just so bewildered by that knowledge – like, how is that even possible? Why isn’t everyone as crazy about him as I am? I just don’t understand.

Willa:  Joie, that is so funny because I’ve asked myself some of those exact same questions. Why are they so threatened by him, and why do they condemn him so harshly? Can’t they see how amazing and important his work is? Don’t they get it? I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot lately – about why Michael Jackson’s fans see him so differently than everyone else does – and I’ve decided the answer is very simple: it’s because we love him. And if you look at someone with compassion, you simply see them differently than if you don’t.

I was at the grocery store a few months ago and there was an elderly woman several people ahead of me in line. She was pretty slow and disorganized and was answering the check-out person’s questions in kind of an abrupt, almost rude way, and you could tell the check-out person was getting pretty annoyed with her, and so were the other people in line. But I’d worked with that woman and her husband on a community project, and while I didn’t know her well, I did know that her son had just died the week before after a long battle with cancer. When I was leaving the grocery store, I noticed she was standing at the entrance looking kind of lost and fumbling for her keys so I went over and said hi, and Joie, you could tell that she was just barely holding it together. That trip to the grocery store was about the limit of what she could do right then. And just knowing a little something about her history and what she was going through and seeing her with compassion led me to interpret her words and actions in a really different way than the other people behind her in line.

I think the same thing is true of Michael Jackson and how various people saw him. Those of us who knew his music and his ideas – knew how committed he was to social change, and how important children were for him, both personally and in terms of social change – had a much better understanding of what he must have been going through after the 1993 allegations came out, and that led us to see him with sympathy and interpret him in a much more compassionate way. And when you look at him and the situation he was in from that perspective, it all looks very different from the harsh, condemning criticism you read in the papers.

Joie:  It’s really very sad when you think about it that way, you know? To realize that so many of our day-to-day conflicts could be resolved, or even totally eliminated, if we would all just have a little bit more compassion with one another and look at each other with a little bit of love first instead of always immediately reacting with annoyance. And the really sad part is, that’s a lesson Michael had been trying to teach us for so many years. Wow. That just blew my mind a little bit. Thanks for sharing that story, Willa.

But, getting back to “Is It Scary,” what makes this song especially heartbreaking for me, are these lyrics at the very end:

I’m tired of being abused
You know you’re scaring me too
I think the evil is you
Is that scary for you, baby

These last few lines just make me want to cry. You can hear all of his emotions at the end of this song – frustration, rage, anger, sadness. Especially when coupled with his mournful cries of  “Don’t wanna talk about it / I don’t wanna talk about it” that immediately precede this last verse. It’s almost difficult to listen to and I feel like, if every person on the planet would really listen to this song and take it in and really digest it, then maybe the world would finally understand him a little bit better and realize all they had put him through.

I know. It’s a pipe dream. But, a girl can hope.

Willa:  I agree. This song just seems to be a pure expression of all the emotions he was going through after the 1993 allegations came out. And it amazes me that in the midst of the pain of those allegations, at a time when I personally would want nothing more than to hide under the covers and cry, he was able to distance himself a bit, think through what was happening at a cultural level, and create an artistic response. That just astonishes me, on many different levels, and creates this whole mix of emotions – everything from admiration for what he accomplished to a deep sorrow for everything he had to go through, and for everything we’ve lost.

Joie:  I know. It is truly amazing to think about. How anyone could have the courage to hold their head up day after day in his situation… it is just amazing to me and I think he was one of the bravest people ever. Can you imagine being in his shoes and going through the public humiliation that he did, every single day? And in the midst of it all, to still be able to work and write and create truly compelling art and keep presenting it to a world that had turned on you. He’s just incredible to me.

Willa: Well, we can both certainly agree on that.