Willa: This spring we’ve been talking quite a bit about “Billie Jean,” both the song and the video. Raven Woods joined me in March for a post about Michael Jackson’s concert performances of “Billie Jean.” Then Nina Fonoroff joined me in April for a post about the initial scenes of the Billie Jean video and how they draw on film noir. Nina and I continued that discussion two weeks ago in a post that focused on the “second chapter” of the video and how it evokes and reverses The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz, both visually and thematically.
However, in addition to being a song and a video, Billie Jean is also a character – a woman who tries to ensnare the protagonist by claiming he’s the father of her son – and the prototype for a recurring figure in Michael Jackson’s work. She’s a femme fatale, a “dangerous” seductress who leaves chaos in her wake. And that’s what Raven and I will be focusing on today. Thank you so much for joining me again, Raven!
Raven: Thank you again for inviting me. It’s always exciting to talk about one of my favorite subjects – Michael Jackson and his women, or at least, the mythical pantheon of female characters who dominate his work.
Many of them are quite well known to us – Billie Jean and Dirty Diana would come instantly to most minds. Others, like Susie from “Blood on the Dance Floor,” are perhaps not as well known outside the hardcore fan base but are perhaps even more lethal. Then there are the many nameless women who managed to wreck their own particular brand of havoc, such as the title characters of “Dangerous” and “Heartbreaker” and the seductress of “In the Closet” who threatens the stability of a married man’s life and home. Whether it is very well known tracks like “Billie Jean” and “Dirty Diana” or lesser known tracks like “Chicago,” in which a married woman manages to entangle a naive and basically decent man in her web of deceit, the femme fatale was certainly a recurring motif throughout Michael’s body of work.
Willa: She really was. There are subtle differences between them – for example, the scheming woman who lies about him in “Heartbreak Hotel” doesn’t have the aura, the same power to entrap men’s minds, as Dirty Diana or the femme fatale in “Dangerous,” though all three of them tell a manipulative kind of lie that hurts My Baby and drives her away. And there’s a kind of sorrow surrounding the adulterous wife and mother in “Chicago” that we don’t see in his other femme fatale songs. But despite their differences, these women nevertheless share important characteristics and function in similar ways, and they appear again and again, as you say, Raven.
Raven: The big question this raises is Why? I think it is a question worth addressing, especially given that the sheer number of such femme fatale characters who have populated his songs have given rise, perhaps, to some unfair criticisms of Michael’s personal character. For starters, these songs haven’t exactly alleviated the beliefs in certain quarters that Michael had a misogynistic streak in him. And that is certainly something I would like to address, while at the same time remaining ever respectful of the fact that when we are talking about art, we must always take care to differentiate the artist from the person.
Willa: Yes, that’s a very important point that his critics sometimes forget. And we also need to differentiate the characters he portrays from the artist and the person as well. The protagonist of “Billie Jean” or “Heartbreak Hotel” or “Who Is It” or “Chicago” is a fictional character, not Michael Jackson.
Raven: Interpreting – or trying to interpret – motifs that occur repeatedly throughout an artist’s body of work has always been a fascinating study to me, anyway. As a literature teacher, this is a subject that often comes up in my classes, though unfortunately the somewhat rushed pace of a typical semester (where many different writers and works are to be covered) doesn’t always allow the leisure time to study any one particular author’s work in depth. But sometimes it is very apparent, even from comparing and contrasting two to three works, how some writers are obsessed with certain themes – themes they feel compelled to keep returning to over and over.
And it is not a tendency limited to writers by any means, but seems to run the full spectrum of art, from music, painting and film to sculpture and architecture. We might ask why, for example, was F. Scott Fitzgerald so obsessed with characters who are trying to recapture some elusive ideal from their past? Of course, if we understand even a little of the man’s life, we know why this theme was so important to him. Similarly, in turning to pop music, we might ask why is Prince so concerned with images of the apocalypse in his songs? What was Kurt Cobain’s obsession with dolls, fetuses, and bleach? (References to all three crop up repeatedly in his songs). Why did snakes and lizards feature so prominently in Jim Morrison’s lyrics? Why did Hendrix’s songs feature so many references to both astral and aquatic themes and out of body experiences?
Often when these kinds of discussions come up in class, we have to agree that no one, not even the best critics and scholars, can ever really probe into an artist’s mind to arrive at some definitive answer.
Willa: That’s true. We can’t even probe the depths of our own psyches, so how can we ever presume to know what’s happening in an artist’s mind?
Raven: Even the artists themselves may often find that they are returning to these themes subconsciously, perhaps not even aware of how often they are reoccurring. The best we can say is that these kinds of recurring themes are almost always an indicator of something the artist is trying to work through (again, whether consciously or subconsciously) and this is because the act of creating art is in itself a therapeutic process.
Clearly, Michael had somewhat of an obsession with femme fatales – even (we might daresay) a love/hate relationship with them.
Willa: Or a love/hate relationship with what they represent, which leads to a very different type of interpretation. For example, in one of our very first posts, Joie and I talked about these “bad girls,” and Joie said something that just blew me away. She suggested that maybe these seductive but threatening women represent the allure of fame:
Could these women possibly represent another side of his own psyche? Perhaps the part of him that courted fame, the side of him that was drawn to entertaining and creating and being on stage. That part of him that loved being in front of a camera or onstage performing in front of 80,000 people. Is it possible that these “dangerous” women represent fame itself and that Michael Jackson often felt seduced by it? Compelled to go off with her instead of going home to My Baby. Compelled to pursue his career instead of nurturing that secret part of himself that he tried to keep safely hidden away from the limelight.
When Joie said this, it hit me like a thunderbolt and gave me a whole new way of interpreting these women. This love triangle we see over and over in his work, with the main character torn between My Baby (quiet, domestic, the “good” woman who loves him) and a femme fatale (very public, very visible, wild, sensuous, unpredictable – the “dangerous” woman who lures him “into her web of sin”), can be seen as conflicting parts of his own personality.
As he repeatedly said, he was actually very shy and rather fearful of fame and all the attention it brings. He also said he liked to spend quiet evenings at home and didn’t really go in for nightclubs and the party scene – just like My Baby. But at the same time, he loved performing before an audience, loved the energy and excitement – and maybe even the danger – of being on stage. And one way to approach this ongoing conflict between My Baby and the femme fatale is to see it as reflecting and working through this internal conflict between those two sides of his personality.
So I tend to interpret these women much more symbolically now, but that doesn’t mean other interpretations aren’t there and aren’t valid. I mean, it’s true these songs are populated by a series of seductive, dangerous women, and there are many ways to interpret that …
Raven: That is an interesting interpretation. If one were to ask any woman in Michael’s life – Lisa Marie Presley being a prime example – which came first in his life, she would probably tell you very quickly that his work and career came before anything else. Michael said many times that he was “married” to his work, and it seemed to become a way of explaining why real-life relationships were so hard for him to sustain. If we consider that his work was put ahead of most relationships in his life, then we can also pretty safely add to that mix the seduction of fame and all that his fame represented for him.
I think he may have always, to some degree, felt a measure of guilt about the fact that he could not entirely rise above that seduction. For example, after watching the clip of Michael’s particularly moving Brunei performance of “Earth Song,” one of my students astutely observed that Michael had a higher calling than performing. She believed he could have worked for God and saved souls, but instead made the conscious decision to remain a secular entertainer instead. And it did seem sometimes that Michael was torn between two dual sides of his nature – the one that wanted to heal the world, and the one that loved being in the spotlight and adored by screaming throngs. The former satisfied the altruistic aspect of himself – that higher ideal of himself that he aspired to – while the latter was a kind of immediate gratification that validated both his ego and the desire to feel loved.
I believe this was at least part of what he meant in his piece “That One in the Mirror” from Dancing the Dream. Initially he describes the experience of looking in the mirror as looking at an alter ego version of himself who is detached from the world’s suffering and actually quite content to remain so. He ends the fourth paragraph of that piece by admitting that maybe all of the world’s problems are hopeless to solve, but “that one in the mirror” assures him that “you and I will survive. At least, we’re doing all right.” Michael then writes of his alter ego reflection:
He sees problems “out there” to be solved. Maybe they will be; maybe they won’t. He’ll get along. But I don’t feel that way …
Eventually, of course, the dualities are merged and “that one in the mirror” begins to fade away. The ideal (the compassionate soul who cares about the plight of the world) trumps self-gratification.
But what’s interesting to me about this piece is not so much the outcome, but the fact that he introduces and honestly acknowledges this kind of dual conflict between his alter egos. I love it because this is Michael honestly acknowledging the side of him that is very human – after all, if we are totally honest with ourselves, aren’t we all more concerned with our own well-being and gratification than the suffering of humans on the other side of the world whose names we will never know, or of animals whose suffering will never directly affect us? And it was that very human side of Michael that loved the instant gratification he got from performing and the adulation of fame.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Raven, and it reminds me of another piece from Dancing the Dream that I’ve struggled with how to interpret. It’s called “Two Birds,” and one bird sings with a voice “like crystal from the sky while the other bird keeps silent.” One is beautiful and highly visible – it glows with “light on its silver feathers” – while the other remains invisible. One is celebrated while the other is ignored. And we can interpret this invisible bird as someone he loves, someone the world knows nothing about, but we can also interpret it as part of himself – as “my soul,” as he calls it. As he says in the concluding lines,
It’s easy to guess which bird I am, but they’ll never find you. Unless …
Unless they already know a love that never interferes, that watches from beyond, that breathes free in the invisible air. Sweet bird, my soul, your silence is so precious. How long will it be before the world hears your song in mine?
Oh, that is a day I hunger for!
I go back and forth on how to interpret this. On the one hand, we can read it like a love letter to someone who quietly supports and sustains him. But it’s also possible to interpret “Two Birds” as representing two parts of his own psyche – one quiet and hidden, the other famous and successful – just like My Baby and the string of dangerous women he sings about in song after song.
Raven: You have me very intrigued with this! I dug out my copy of Dancing the Dream to re-read “Two Birds.” I have noticed that these themes of duality between body and soul, or the dualities between alter ego versions of himself, seem to be quite prominent throughout the book. In looking up “Two Birds” I also ran across “The Elusive Shadow” in which he describes his soul as a stranger he has never allowed himself to know. “Your music I did not hear,” he says. “Two Birds” seems like a continuation of that theme, although in reading it I also get a sense of “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” As you may recall, that song is written from the perspective of someone who has a lot of glory, and is paying homage to the “invisible” friend who was always there, unrecognized and unsung in the background, lending the support that made it possible for the other to fly.
This poem could have possibly been Michael’s homage to such a friend, but Michael tended to be pretty straightforward when paying tribute to his friends and I believe he would have provided a clue to the person’s identity had that been the case. After all, there was certainly nothing cryptic or especially metaphoric about his poem “Mother” or the piece titled “Ryan White.”
Willa: That’s true.
Raven: And given that the entire book is really about a man’s journey of self discovery, it lends even more credence to the interpretation of “Two Birds” as a conversation with his soul. It reminds me of Walt Whitman’s conversation with his soul in Part 5 of “Song of Myself” in which the separateness of his body and soul are resolved through an erotic encounter. In the edition of Dancing the Dream that I have, “Two Birds” is accompanied by a beautiful photo from the climactic moment of his “Will You Be There” performance when the angel swoops down and wraps him in her wings. I interpret that as the protection of a guardian angel, or God’s love enveloping him and holding him up. If we assume that photo was chosen deliberately to accompany “Two Birds,” it could give a possible clue to the interpretation, as perhaps his guardian angel or spirit who sustains him.
Willa: Oh, that’s a good point, Raven. I hadn’t put those together, but you’re right – when you look at it that way, that photo does suggest that the invisible bird is his inner self.
Raven: Of course, the conclusion that Michael eventually comes to in “That One in the Mirror” is that the two halves of himself need not be mutually exclusive, and I think this was also the same peace he eventually made with his own internal conflict regarding Fame vs. Selflessness. To go back to what my student said, although it was a very good point, who’s to say that Michael wasn’t fulfilling his calling to God by performing and using the very gifts that God gave him in order to reach out to millions?
Willa: Exactly. He was able to spread his vision of a more peaceful world, a more just world, through his art. His art was his calling.
Raven: His fame gave him the greatest platform imaginable for that purpose, as well as providing the wealth that made it possible for him to go forth with much of his charity work. And even if he did not, perhaps, strictly speaking, give up the allure of fame and secular entertaining to become Mother Teresa, he still found a way to merge these dualities within himself and to solve his internal conflict in a way that, I believe, eventually gave him peace with himself and his chosen path.
But to tie this back to our subject of femme fatales and the interpretation of these women as representations of fame, I definitely agree in the sense that these women represent the idea of something that is very alluring but forbidden – a temptation that holds a very strong sway over the male protagonist in these songs.
Willa: Yes, exactly. And that “something that is very alluring but forbidden” could be sex, but it could also be fame, or material success, or some other temptation.
Raven: We know that close on the heels of these sentiments comes guilt. And guilt is really the driving factor of all of these songs. Most of them (with a few exceptions that I hope we’ll get to cover) come down to a very simplistic moral tale of Seduction (Evil) vs. Overcoming (Good), with “good” often represented as “My Baby,” the girl who is waiting at home. What is interesting, however, is the fact that “Good” very seldom triumphs in these songs. The protagonist, being a man of flesh and blood, is almost always lured into these relationships, and thus the cycle begins – momentary gratification followed by the plunge into darkness and self-castigation, or “the wages of sin.”
Willa: That’s a really good point, Raven, and I think that’s part of what gives Michael Jackson’s songs their emotional complexity. The protagonist of these songs is not a simple “good” man ensnared by an “evil” woman. It’s much more complicated than that. He’s drawn to these threatening women – in fact, he’s drawn to them precisely because they’re so threatening. As he sings in “Dangerous”:
Her mouth was smoother than oil
But her inner spirit and words
Were as sharp as a two-edged sword
But I loved it ’cause it’s dangerous
So he sees very clearly what kind of woman this is – that she’s “bad” and “dangerous” – but that’s preciously what attracts him. And repeatedly we find that he isn’t battling her so much as the part of himself that’s drawn to her, that’s drawn to this kind of dangerous, intoxicating passion. That’s a really important distinction. So these femme fatale songs aren’t so much a story of good versus evil, but rather a psychological story about his own conflicting desires.
Raven: This is another aspect of Michael’s femme fatale songs that I find quite interesting. Other male pop singers also write and sing songs about seductive women, but more often, the songs are all about the celebration and even glorification of the seductress/vixen. An immediate example that comes to mind is Michael’s own arch rival, Prince, who brought us many sexy variations of the femme fatale in his own works. (I especially love direct comparisons of Prince’s and Michael’s two most famous groupie songs, “Darling Nikki” and “Dirty Diana,” respectively).
But from “Little Red Corvette” to “Darling Nikki,” sex with these women is almost always an ends to its own means, even when the girls seem to have the upper hand, as is certainly the case with both “Little Red Corvette” and “Darling Nikki.” There is none of the kind of self-castigation for the protagonist that comes with Michael’s songs. And clearly, this is for one simple reason – the protagonist in Prince’s songs, for example, feels no guilt about the encounter. He had a great time, living out every male’s fantasy, and other than being a little worse for wear and tear, obviously enjoyed the experience enough to celebrate it in song.
This is a far cry from Michael’s “forty days and nights” worth of penitence and torture over what most guys would consider a mere fling.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Raven, and you’re right – the protagonist of these two Prince songs seems to have a great time with very little guilt or angst or anything but satisfaction. But I think you can make the case that Prince felt more conflicted than it seems.
For example, I haven’t watched his movie Purple Rain in about 30 years, but I just looked up the “Darling Nikki” scenes from Purple Rain, and it’s surprisingly similar to what you might find in a Michael Jackson song. Prince’s character is on stage singing about the “sex fiend” Little Nikki, who seduces him – and as you say, Raven, the protagonist of the song feels very little remorse about that. But as he sings this song, he’s being watched by Appollonia, the “good woman” who loves him – a woman very similar to My Baby. She begins to cry and leaves the nightclub, and when he realizes he’s hurt her, he abruptly walks off stage and storms around his dressing room. Here’s a link.
So there’s a difference between the song as it’s written and how it functions in Purple Rain, where it creates a situation remarkably similar to My Baby and the dangerous women who threaten her and drive her away. Though maybe Appollonia is upset because she thinks he’s accusing her of being a “sex fiend” like Little Nikki. I’m not sure about that.
Raven: Yes, and as we have discussed before, songs can take on many additional layers of meaning as they evolve from track to video and live performance, or in this case, to film. I know that Prince wrote the album Purple Rain as a soundtrack to the film, but I don’t know if the songs came first or if he already had the storyline for the film in mind. (I suspect he did.) When his character “The Kid” performs the song “Darling Nikki” in the film, it’s clearly intended, as you said, to hurt Appollonia because he knows she’s in the audience.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the film, also, so I can’t remember exactly what had transpired between the two characters before then, but I do recall this – his entire intention with that performance was to humiliate her and to spite the audience in general. (As you can clearly see, everyone is quite uncomfortable and put off by the performance.) When Appollonia leaves, he calls out for Nikki to “come back,” which does make it sound like “Darling Nikki” might have been her all along. And as you pointed out, even though the performance was clearly done out of spite, he regrets his actions afterward, so that is the guilt factor coming in.
Willa: Yes, but even so, to me it doesn’t seem to have the complexity of so many of Michael Jackson’s songs. This isn’t a psychological study. What I mean is, the main character may feel guilty, but he isn’t exploring his own mind and his own conflicting impulses as so many of Michael Jackson’s protagonists do.
Raven: Interestingly, it was said that Michael walked out on Purple Rain and when asked why, he reportedly said that he didn’t like the way Prince treated women. I don’t know if that is true, however, or just an urban myth. Their rivalry was always more of a press invention than anything else. But if you actually compare Prince’s sex or femme fatale songs to Michael’s, I would say the ones in Michael’s songs are often much more demonized. “Dirty Diana,” for example, is more than just a groupie. She is portrayed almost as a soul stealer. The same could be said for “Billie Jean” but I think with “Dirty Diana” it is even more graphic.
In going back and watching the original video of “Dirty Diana” I can see a lot of elements that lend credence to all of these interpretations. Diana seems to be both a literal woman who is a seducer and soul stealer (the protagonist knows he is supposed to go home to his wife or girlfriend) but could also be a metaphor for the seduction of fame itself.
At the video’s beginning, we see two events happening simultaneously: a guy is going onstage, walking into a lone spotlight to perform before an audience, and a girl with wickedly long, sexy legs is getting out of a limo and walking towards the backstage door. That first note sets up a very ominous tone, and we see her throughout the video only in shadow. The video will then continuously cut back and forth between the performer onstage and the gradually encroaching Diana. The moment when the protagonist steps onstage is also very reminiscent of the moment in “Billie Jean” when he steps into the lone spotlight and becomes “the one” in the round, but here, perhaps because it’s more of a rock song, the emphasis is on performing rather than dancing. But it seems to be the same concept, more or less.
Also, as in most of his “Billie Jean” performances, he wears a combination of black and white. Michael liked this color combination; he used it a lot. In short films like Black or White the meaning behind the color symbolism of his clothes was quite obvious. But he also liked to use this color combination in “Billie Jean” and “Dirty Diana” and it may represent the duality of someone who is in battle with the pure/ideal side of his nature on the one hand, and the darker, corrupt side of himself that he seems to be battling.
Willa: That’s interesting, Raven. I hadn’t noticed that before.
Raven: To carry that analogy further, he also always wore a black-and-white color combination when singing “Will You Be There,” which is also, in many ways, a song about a protagonist’s battle with his own humanity vs. some imposed “ideal” purity of spirit:
But they told me
A man should be faithful
And walk when not able
But I’m only human
In “Billie Jean,” black is usually the dominant color, with white usually providing a mere contrast via his undershirt, socks, and the stripes of the jogging pants. But in “Dirty Diana” it is the opposite. White is the dominant color via the full, flowing shirt he wears, and when he steps into the spotlight, it gives him an almost angelic appearance. This is contrasted sharply with the ominous, shapely legs in shadow, creeping ever closer. (Sadly, Lisa Dean, the woman whose legs were made famous in that video, lost her battle with cancer in 2010.)
The fact that “Dirty Diana” focuses so prominently on a woman’s body part was not unusual for the 80s. This was, after all, a very sexist era and most of the metal videos of the day – which “Dirty Diana” is obviously parodying – would routinely feature a vixen’s sexy legs or other body part, and not much else. Both with Dirty Diana and those videos, it’s a kind of dehumanization intended to reduce the female to little more than a body part.
But there is a decided difference in the way this dehumanization is presented in most of the 80s metal videos as compared to Dirty Diana. Whereas in most of the videos from that era, the dehumanization of females to a mere body part was all done in cheesy fun (it was just part of the culture, and the girls were always shown as having as much fun with it as the guys) in Dirty Diana there is a striking difference. Again, in most of the metal videos from the era, it was obvious that it was all in good fun and the guys obviously adored the girls (even as they exploited them) but in Dirty Diana the dehumanization of Diana seems intended to both keep her at a distance and to demonize her in some respects. Thus, while some girls might have identified with typical groupies (“Look how much fun she’s having; I want that, too!”) Dirty Diana is not someone that either male or female viewers could ever get too close to, or identify with. There’s no face to put with her, and this intensifies the idea of her as something both mysterious and ominously evil – something not quite of this world. Even the lyrics make it clear that she’s not someone who is there to have fun. She is the equivalent of a psychic vampire or succubus, someone who is there to take your soul and to leave you among the damned.
There is that great, climactic moment as the song approaches its bridge (here it occurs at about 2:47) where Michael drops to his knees as if in prayer. The moment is suspended for several seconds (he doesn’t rise to his feet until he begins singing the next verse) so obviously, it was intended to have an impact on the viewer. Michael liked these kinds of theatrics in his performances; we know that. However, he seldom threw in such theatrics without some purpose that could be applied to the interpretation of the song. Here it seems to be, as I said, very much a gesture of prayer, as if the protagonist is aware of Diana’s ever-approaching presence and is praying for the strength of spirit to be able to resist.
There is also something of the sacrificial lamb in that pose, as if he knows he is ultimately going to be sacrificed at the altar of Diana. But as the song and performance enter the final stages, and Michael’s vocal delivery intensifies to match the intensity of the struggle, it’s obvious he is going to be on the losing end of this battle.
Willa: That’s so interesting, Raven. I tend to interpret “Dirty Diana” a little differently than you do. For example, I don’t see her as evil but as very human – a woman who wants a different life and will do whatever it takes to get that life:
She waits at backstage doors
For those who have prestige
Who promise fortune and fame
A life that’s so carefree
She’s saying, That’s ok
Hey baby, do what you want
I’ll be your night loving thing
I’ll be the freak you can taunt
And I don’t care what you say
I want to go too far
I’ll be your everything
If you make me a star
In some ways, I feel a lot of sympathy for this woman who’s trapped in the life of a groupie because she craves fame so desperately – something Michael Jackson himself seemed to understand.
And as Joie mentioned in that post a long time ago, this is another case where My Baby is the quiet domestic good woman, while Dirty Diana is a femme fatale who seems to represent a lust for fame and stardom. So I tend to interpret her more symbolically, and the fact that we don’t see her face supports that. She’s a symbol of a drive or an emotion – a very human emotion – rather than an individual person.
Raven: I find a lot of elements here that do support Joie’s interpretation as well. For example, this entire video is set up as a showcase performance piece. We never actually see a man and a woman interacting or engaging. What we see is one man, on a stage, in a spotlight, with his band and the adoring audience in front of him. This could well represent the idea of fame and its seduction.
Willa: Yes, I agree.
Raven: His girl wants him at home (the normal life) and a part of him wants to be able to give her that part of himself, but he seems to doubt if it is ever going to be possible. The allure and seduction of fame have too big of a grip on him.
Even if we take the song literally (let’s say it really is just the story of a groupie) the interpretation still works because, for male performers, groupies and women like Dirty Diana go with the territory. In other words, part of the price of fame is selling your soul and accepting the things that come with it that will corrupt you. Dirty Diana and Fame could well simply be two sides of the same coin for this guy, as he may find the distinction increasingly blurred in his mind.
The ending of the video has been the subject of much critical debate and scrutiny. The last thing we see is the performer (Michael) running offstage, hoping to escape in the waiting limo. But when he opens the door, “she” is waiting inside for him. That ominous pause where he simply freezes – the expression on his face an inscrutable blank that is neither totally surprise, joy, or dread – is hands down one of the greatest and yet most cryptic endings of the entire history of music videos. The only thing we can really interpret about that moment is that the performer seems to recognize that his soul is irretrievably lost from this moment, and there is no going back. And again, whether we interpret the song as a cautionary tale about sex and the wages of sin, or as a metaphor for the seduction of fame, both make sense. What we’re left with is a protagonist who knows he’s entrapped.
Willa: Hmmm. That’s interesting, Raven. Again, I interpret this scene a little differently. To me, this is a moment of conflict – the moment when he has to decide if he will get in the car with her or not. He’s been singing about this decision for four minutes, and now it’s arrived. So what will he choose? Will he go home to My Baby, or will he go off with Dirty Diana? And to me, that’s still very much up in the air.
Raven: I guess for me I don’t see it so much as a debate for him at that point as it is a foregone conclusion. But again, it may depend on how literally one is interpreting the song – whether it is a tale of conflict over a seduction, or something deeper. But he did leave that ending very ambiguous for a reason, obviously, and that reason is to keep us guessing. I don’t know; I may be reading too much into it, but I’ve always found it one of the darkest of Michael’s femme fatale songs.
But something interesting about Michael’s “sex” songs is the very clear distinction and progression we see moving from the 80s into the 90s. Although when we say “sex” songs I think we have to distinguish those, certainly, from romance songs. In his great ballad “Lady of My Life,” for example, this is obviously an intimate relationship but one gets the feeling that the female partner is definitely one of his romanticized ideals, probably a very classy young woman, one who is closer to “My Baby.”
I would also put “Rock with You” in that category as well. He is obviously singing about making love, but it’s very much in the vein of what Susan Fast calls his “soul man” persona, where everything is very sweet, very tender, very romantic. There aren’t very many songs from this era where sex and/or the femme fatale as an object of sexual desire is celebrated in and of itself, and of course, when such women did present themselves, it was almost always in the form of a cautionary tale.
“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” may be one of the earliest exceptions, a song that seems to joyously and simply celebrate the sex act, but even here, it becomes a bit of a cautionary tale. In the spoken intro, Michael is asking his partner whether they should continue because “the force, it has a lot of power.” So again, even though it is certainly a much lighter and more joyous track than “Dirty Diana,” it’s that same sense of struggling to resist yielding to a temptation that, once given in to, will ultimately ensnare you and from which there will be no escape. However, Michael himself argued (in part to appease Katherine) that “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” wasn’t necessarily about sex. “The force” could be whatever one interpreted it to be. But it is still, basically, the idea of something bigger than one’s self that acquires a certain kind of power over you. In this case, it’s simply that giving in just happens to feel good and provides joy rather than self-castigation.
However, it really isn’t until the 90s and the Dangerous era that we really begin to see a shift, with Michael seemingly willing to write or perform songs that could simply celebrate sexuality, groupies, and sexy women without the need for a moral consequence or self-castigation.
I am sure that breaking away from the Jehovah’s Witness had much to do with liberating his views sexually. Of course, as some have pointed out, the Jacksons were never exactly strict Jehovah’s Witnesses, anyway, but we do know that Michael struggled harder than his siblings to try to maintain his faith. He truly tried to believe in the doctrines for most of his life, even when he was sometimes confused by them, and this struggle did bleed into his lyrics. The break, therefore, must have felt like a tremendous weight being lifted and, as some have attested, the impact was evident in his personal life as well, allowing him to have a new openness about his own sexuality that had before been mostly denied or repressed. Not surprisingly, this also carried over into his songwriting, and perhaps plays a huge part in why Dangerous became his sexiest and most adult album to date.
Willa: Yes, though even in his later songs, it stays complicated. For example, “Dangerous” is not the free-wheeling “Little Red Corvette,” as you mentioned earlier.
Raven: Speaking of Prince, it seems to me one of those great ironies of pop music is that, just as Prince was becoming more religious and evangelical in his songs (reflecting his own, personal spirituality) Michael’s trajectory was going the opposite direction – becoming funkier, dirtier, and a “bad boy” who could – on occasion at least – sing the praises of a dirty vixen as well as the next guy.
While tracks like “In the Closet” do seem to continue his typical femme fatale trope (though in subtly different ways), other tracks like “She Drives Me Wild” present a protagonist who shows no shame in lusting after a woman who is presented as pure sex. And one of my all-time favorite tracks from the Dangerous sessions – an outtake that didn’t make the album – is a song called “She Got It.”
Most people who hear this track recognize immediately that it has a very distinct, Prince-like sound (perhaps this was Michael attempting to out-Prince Prince!) but whatever the case, I think it does represent an important progression for Michael personally. The girl is clearly one of his typical femme fatales in many respects …
Willa: Yes. For example, like so many of his femme fatales, she craves with fame. As he sings, “She wants to be a movie star / She’d sell on TV.” And there’s still some internal conflict. For example, the title tells us “She’s Got It,” but the chorus undercuts that by repeatedly telling us, “She don’t like it / And the boy don’t want it.”
Raven: But here the subject matter is dealt with in a humorous, light fashion (reminiscent of a group of guys getting together to joke about groupies) and the protagonist clearly enjoys enumerating her assets without shame or guilt.
Willa: That’s true.
Raven: This girl clearly isn’t a romantic ideal; she isn’t even particularly a sexual ideal (the description makes her seem almost like a pig-ish caricature) but she’s clearly a good-time gal who has the protagonist sprung, even when he feebly protests “she’s too much for me.”
I call this a progression even though I know some fans might look at a song like “She Got It” and call it it a kind of regression. For example, some might argue that Michael’s vision on songs like “Billie Jean” and “Dirty Diana” was much more artistically mature than what we get here, with a song like “She Got It,” and I certainly wouldn’t argue that point. But I think it’s an interesting artistic progression for Michael in that he seems to finally feel comfortable, flirty, and free enough to allow himself to write and perform these kinds of songs – again, without the need to insert a moral compass or to turn them into a cautionary tale. However, that didn’t mean he was finished with writing cautionary tales – far from it, in fact, as “Blood on the Dance Floor” would prove.
Willa: Or “Heartbreaker,” or “Black Widow” from the Cascio tracks, if you believe those songs are his, or numerous other songs. This is a figure that runs the entire length of his career, and thank you so much, Raven, for joining me to talk about this complicated, intriguing, but difficult to interpret character!
Raven: Thank you, Willa! Always a pleasure to be a part of Dancing with the Elephant.
Joie: A couple of weeks ago our friend, Joe Vogel, posed an interesting question to Willa and me and journalist, Charles Thomson. Charles, of course, is the author of the wonderful article, “One of the Most Shameful Episodes in Journalistic History,” among others. So Joe’s question sparked a very lively discussion between the four of us, and you can read that conversation below.
Joe: Do you think the fact that MJ wasn’t a technically trained musician and couldn’t read/write music diminishes him as a songwriter? And how would you respond to critics who make this claim?
Joie: Hmm. Joe, that’s a really good question. And it got me thinking about all of the great talents that we usually think of as prolific songwriters in our society. And so I started doing a little research on this topic and I was really surprised to learn that many of those who we bestow that mantle on never learned to read or write music either. Names like Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney. In fact, none of the Beatles could read music, not even the great John Lennon. And Paul said in an interview once that as long as he and John both knew what chords they were playing and they remembered the melody, they never had any need to write it down or to read it.
None of the Gibb brothers, who I think wrote some of the most beautiful music ever, could read or write music either. So no, I don’t think the fact that Michael couldn’t read/write music diminishes his talent as a songwriter in any way, and if that’s the argument that critics are using to deny him a spot on that list with the other “greats,” then I would say their argument clearly doesn’t hold water.
Willa: And I would have to add that I don’t really understand this criticism, and maybe that just reflects my own lack of knowledge about how composing music really works. But it seems to me that the important part of the creative process is having the ideas, and a vision for how to express those ideas to an audience so they really feel what you’re trying to say. Writing notes on paper is just a way of capturing your musical ideas so you can remember them later, or share them with other musicians, and Michael Jackson was able to do that other ways. He could record his ideas into a tape recorder, or he could sing it live. There’s a wonderful quotation about this in your book, Joe, that just fascinated me:
“One morning [Michael] came in with a new song he had written overnight,” recalls assistant engineer Rob Hoffman. “We called in a guitar player, and Michael sang every note of every chord to him. ‘Here’s the first chord, first note, second note, third note. Here’s the second chord, first note, second note, third note,’ etc. We then witnessed him giving the most heartfelt and profound vocal performance, live in the control room through an SM57. He would sing us an entire string arrangement, every part. Steve Porcaro once told me he witnessed [Jackson] doing that with the string section in the room. Had it all in his head, harmony and everything. Not just little eight bar loop ideas. He would actually sing the entire arrangement into a microcassette recorder complete with stops and fills.”
I love that! To me, having that vision in your head is the essence of songwriting. To say Michael Jackson wasn’t really a songwriter because he didn’t know how to write notes on paper is like saying Jane Austen wasn’t really a novelist because she didn’t know how to type. That’s all fiddly bookkeeping kind of stuff, it seems to me. Having the ideas and being able to express those ideas passionately and evocatively to an audience is what’s important.
Charles: Michael’s idol was James Brown, who famously could not read or write music either. It is probably no accident that Michael adopted Brown’s method, therefore, of surrounding himself with talented collaborators who could bring his vision to life based on beatboxing, scatting, humming, singing and so on, but also bringing their own contributions to the table.
Michael undoubtedly lacked autonomy as an artist thanks to his inability to read or write music. That’s not a criticism; it’s true of anyone in the same position. I’m going to risk a lynching by raising Prince as a comparison. Prince can not only write an entire composition out in musical terms, but then go into the studio and play every instrument exactly how he wants it, then put it all together. It’s undeniable that Prince, for example, therefore had more autonomy and independence as an artist.
Joie: Well don’t worry, Charles; you are safe here as I actually consider myself a casual Prince fan. He is an amazing musician and very worthy of recognition. And I agree with your assertion that he certainly enjoyed more autonomy and freedom than Michael did.
Willa: But was that because Prince could read and write music, or because he could play instruments? After all, when you write a score of music, it still leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Someone who could write music but not play instruments would still need to rely on a roomful of collaborators, but that seems like a whole other question to me.
Joie: That’s a really good point, Willa. Prince’s autonomy probably did have a lot more to do with the fact that he is more than proficient at many musical instruments and less to do with the fact that he can read and write music. If he hadn’t had the ability to play all those instruments, things certainly would have been different.
Charles: But, if you put Michael in a room on his own, he couldn’t have created most of his tracks and got them sounding like they did on the finished albums. Take “Billie Jean.” All the key elements of the song are there in his original demo but his team of collaborators helped him polish and tighten the composition. Bruce Swedien, for instance, came up with the idea of using a special sleeve to achieve that iconic sound on the drum.
None of this seeks to diminish Michael’s ability as a songwriter. Just look at his catalogue of self-penned classics. Most pop acts never score even a quarter of the hits Michael had, let alone with self-penned compositions.
Joie: That’s very true, Charles. In fact, 17 out of his 28 top ten singles as a solo artist were written by him. And 9 out of his 13 number one hits as a solo artist were written by him. That’s very impressive, and like you said, it is somewhat unique among pop acts.
But I want to go back for a second to what you just said about putting Michael in a room alone. Recently, I was listening to the demo version of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” for another post that Willa and I were working on. That demo was made with just Michael and his siblings, Randy and Janet. And I was really struck by how close that demo is to the finished version that ended up on the completed album. That song was practically finished before he ever presented it to Quincy Jones and his other collaborators to “polish.” So, even though you’re probably correct in saying that he couldn’t have created most of his tracks and gotten them to sound the way they did on the finished albums, I tend to believe that he could have gotten them all pretty darn close.
Charles: The “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” demo is very impressive but, as you say, he’s not in the studio on his own. He had instrumentalists in there helping him out, and although the key elements of the composition are present, they wouldn’t have been if he hadn’t had those instrumentalists there, and the overall composition doesn’t have the polish or sheen that he was able to achieve when working with his highly decorated collaborators.
Returning to Michael’s hero, James Brown: It became fashionable for a period to strip James Brown of all responsibility for his compositions. Critics claimed he ‘rode the coattails’ of his collaborators and that without their expertise, he could never have produced the music he did. But I’ve spent a lot of time over the years interviewing Mr. Brown’s collaborators, from all different stages in his career. I’ve never found one who didn’t believe James Brown was a genius or who believed that any of that music would have existed without him.
When I interviewed Pee Wee Ellis, he told me:
“He was a definite collaborator, a strong influence, a leader. He had a vision that we won’t see again in this lifetime. He was the funkiest man in the world. He had more rhythm in his little finger than most of us have in our body. Just natural stuff, you know. And the way he fronted the band. If anything, the band rode on his coattails. But the band provided a platform for him to be able to do that.”
I view Michael similarly. None of those genre-defining hits he wrote could have existed without his vision, but none of them would exist as they do if he hadn’t had the right team of people around him to make his vision a reality. His inability to read or write music didn’t hinder him as long as he had people around him to interpret and bring those ideas to life.
Joe: This is a very good point, Charles, and something I try to bring out in Man in the Music. We have this idea embedded in our culture that doing something in isolation is more admirable than doing it collaboratively (the myth of the “solitary genius”). So critics marvel at an artist like Prince who can basically take a track from conception to completion without collaborators. Not that this isn’t impressive (it is), but I would compare making an album to directing a film: Is a director better if they carry out every single role of its creation (screenplay, camera, costumes, lighting, acting, etc.)? Or is what makes a director great the ability to bring together a creative team and guide a project with their overall vision and passion?
Willa: That’s an excellent analogy, Joe, I think, and shifts the definition of “songwriter” to something much closer to Michael Jackson’s process. He didn’t come out of the Tin Pan Alley tradition of creating sheet music, which was then sold to a singer or musician. That’s how Neil Diamond, for example, got his start – writing songs for a publishing company – and historically, a lot of great singer/songwriters have come from that tradition. Michael Jackson came from a very different background, and his approach was much more holistic than that. He didn’t just write songs and then hand them off to someone else to produce. When he created a song, he had a vision of what he wanted the final piece to sound like, and then he guided the entire production process to achieve that vision, much like a movie director would do. So I think that comparison works really well.
Joe: I’m glad you brought up James Brown, Charles, because I know you have done a lot of work on him, and there are certainly a lot of parallels. I found the same sentiment you found with Brown’s collaborators when speaking with MJ’s collaborators. They didn’t feel his reliance on musicians, producers, and engineers diminished him as an artist at all. All of them talked about how involved he was at every stage of the creative process, but also how he would give them space and freedom; they talked about creative chemistry and how magic often occurred in the act of collaborating. So you’re absolutely right that he may have lost something in autonomy, but he also gained something in unexpected synergistic inspiration. I think Michael picked some of this up from Quincy Jones as well, because Jones (who came with a background in jazz and film scores) was brilliant at assembling dynamic teams and getting them to work well together.
Now, to follow up on reading/writing music, I wanted to get all of your thoughts on something. Why do you think Michael often told people that learning to read/write music might ruin his creativity?
Joie: Well, I don’t know much about songwriting but, I would imagine that if you were constantly worried about whether or not something worked “technically,” then it would sort of suck the creativity out of it. And not only that but, it would probably suck the joy and the heart out of it as well. You would be so worried about getting it right technically that you would be in danger of losing that creative flow – that magic. And we all know Michael was all about the magic. So I think his comment about fearing it would ruin his creativity was valid. And I think I read somewhere where Paul McCartney once voiced a similar concern so, it’s possible that the two even spoke about it.
Willa: That’s a really interesting question, Joe. I can tell you’re a good teacher! To be honest, the fear that learning to write music will diminish your creativity doesn’t really make sense to me. After all, it doesn’t seem to have hindered Mozart or Beethoven or Bach too much. Musical notation is simply a way for musicians to communicate with each other, and whether you express your musical ideas through singing into a tape recorder or writing notes on paper shouldn’t make much difference.
But I agree with Joie. If I had to guess, I would imagine that fear had something to do with calculating the beats per measure and getting the key signature right and making sure it “worked ‘technically,'” as you put it, Joie. I know that when talking about dancing, he said sometimes he would watch dancers perform and he could actually see them mentally counting the beats. And he said that just doesn’t work. You have to practice and practice and practice until the steps become ingrained in you, so when you’re performing your focus is on feeling the music and expressing the ideas and the emotions of the music through your body, and not on the technical details of “one, two, three, slide.”
And I imagine he felt the same way about learning to write sheet music. It takes years to become proficient enough at it where it becomes second nature and you can do it without counting the beats in your head, so to speak. In the meantime, it would just get in the way of feeling the music, and why bother with that when he already had very effective methods for communicating his ideas to other musicians?
Charles: It’s an interesting point about whether technical knowledge hinders creativity and the person who springs immediately to mind, once again, is James Brown. Lacking a lot of technical expertise, in my opinion, helped Mr Brown. He spoke time and again about how his music was all about the feeling.
Several of James Brown’s biggest recordings contain mistakes, but he didn’t care because for him it was all about the energy. More often than not, he would release the first take, even if it contained errors. “The first take is God,” he would say. “The second take is man.”
Willa: What a great quote! Though it also highlights a difference between Michael Jackson and James Brown. Michael Jackson didn’t hesitate to record 50 takes, if that’s what it took to get the sound he wanted.
Charles: In the documentary Soul Survivor, several of Mr. Brown’s collaborators said that on a technical level, a lot of his music was ‘wrong’:
“You cannot count [it], you cannot write [it] because it violates all musical rules… Things as simple as 1, 2, 3, 4 – if it doesn’t work with what he’s doing, then he may go 1, 2, 3-and-a-half.”
Mr. Brown, when told his music was ‘wrong,’ would reply, “But it sounds good. God gave you those ears. Are you gonna argue with God’s ears?”
Fred Wesley, one of Mr. Brown’s arrangers, has spoken in the past about how embarrassed he felt when fans used to come up to him and tell him how much they loved the track “Pass The Peas.” Wesley felt the track, on a technical level, was garbage. But that song is still loved around the world today. Prince regularly plays it at his concerts. It’s often the biggest crowd pleaser at any Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, or Pee Wee Ellis gig. Wesley may have found it technically unspectacular, but it touched people. It got inside them, made them smile, made them move.
If James Brown had played by the technical rules, we may never have encountered funk music. Without funk, we may never have heard disco or hip-hop. James Brown broke the rules and changed the world. Twenty years later when Michael Jackson spent all that money on the Thriller video, everybody thought his brain had gone soft. He too broke the rules and changed the world.
Maybe Michael saw the rules of writing music as oppressive. If he didn’t know what the barriers were, he couldn’t be confined by them.
Joie: I love the way you put that, Charles! “If he didn’t know what the barriers were, he couldn’t be confined by them.” That is a very profound way to put it.
Willa: I agree.
Joie: And you are so right about James Brown. Without him, funk music may never have existed and then the whole landscape of the music scene might look very different today.
Willa: You guys, I feel like I’m having a major light bulb moment. This is so fascinating to me. And Charles, I think I’m just now starting to get what you’ve been saying. You aren’t just talking about plunking down notes on a page. You’re talking about being trained in the “rules” of the Western songwriting tradition and internalizing those rules – and James Brown broke the beat, and broke the rules of that tradition.
I was talking to a music professor a long time ago – maybe 15 years ago – who liked to compose songs at a keyboard that was connected to her computer. She showed me this software she had where she could play a song, and the software would take what she played and automatically generate the sheet music for it. It was really cool. You’d think there’d be a lot of tweaking and clean up to get it right, but there really wasn’t. It was pretty clean. She said there’s something satisfying about handwriting notes on a staff, but it can get tedious after a while and this software let her generate sheet music as easily as playing. She could just focus on the music, and then the sheet music would magically be there when she was done.
I’ve been thinking about her throughout this whole conversation and thinking, this is no big deal. If you’re working with musicians who can play by ear, then you don’t need sheet music. If you’re working with a classically trained cellist, for example, or someone who really wants sheet music, then just buy some software or hire a grad student to jot down the notes. Either way, it’s no big deal.
But of course, that music professor was thoroughly steeped in the Western songwriting tradition, so everything she composed just consciously or unconsciously fell within the conventions of that tradition. The computer had no trouble recognizing the structure of her music and placing the notes and rests on a staff exactly where they should go because everything she played fit within the rules of what it expected her to play.
But what does the computer do when James Brown comes along and throws a time warp in the middle of a measure? I’m having this really funny mental image right now of a computer whirring and beeping, trying to crank through a James Brown song.
Joie: Willa, you are hilarious. I swear, you crack me up sometimes! But you’re right; it does paint an amusing mental picture – this computer having a nervous breakdown trying to keep up with James Brown’s grunts and non-verbal vocalizations. That’s hysterical!
Willa: That’s funny, Joie! It’s like James Brown’s computer is imitating James Brown – the hardest working computer in the music lab. All the other computers are sedately working through Mendelssohn and Brahms, and the James Brown computer is rocking and popping. And can you imagine what it would do if it were plotting out a song in 4/4 time and suddenly hit a measure with 3½ beats? It would blow its little circuits.
Joe: I just want to add to this discussion that part of the dismissal of Michael Jackson as an artist, in my opinion, has to do with this White, Eurocentric understanding of music and an ignorance (or dismissal) of African-American aesthetics. Some of this has to do with what we’re talking about: deviating from established forms/techniques. What James Brown did is not unlike the “swing” and improvisation jazz musicians injected into traditional melodies. These were deviations from long-established traditions that took time for people to acknowledge as legit. For a long time, it was considered a very low-brow form of entertainment. This is often the reaction to artistic innovation.
Willa: Absolutely. We see this over and over again. When the novel was first developed, it was considered “low art” and serious drama, poetry, and essays were “high art.” Then when movies were first introduced, they were considered “low art” and serious novels were “high art.” Today, music videos are considered “low art” and serious feature-length films are “high art,” though Michael Jackson’s videos clearly challenge that.
You talk about this prejudice against new art forms in your Atlantic article, Joe – specifically new music genres in the U.S. – and show there’s not just a bias against new forms, but also some deep-seated racial biases as well:
Historically, this dismissal of black artists (and black styles) as somehow lacking substance, depth and import is as old as America. … It was a common criticism of spirituals (in relation to traditional hymns), of jazz in the ’20s and ’30s, of R&B in the ’50s and ’60s, of funk and disco in the ’70s, and of hip-hop in the ’80s and ’90s (and still today). The cultural gatekeepers not only failed to initially recognize the legitimacy of these new musical styles and forms, they also tended to overlook or reduce the achievements of the African-American men and women who pioneered them. The King of Jazz, for white critics, wasn’t Louis Armstrong, it was Paul Whiteman; the King of Swing wasn’t Duke Ellington, it was Benny Goodman; the King of Rock wasn’t Chuck Berry or Little Richard, it was Elvis Presley.
And as you show so clearly in your article, this pattern clearly extends to Michael Jackson as well. He was so innovative on so many fronts, and he had to fight this two-pronged bias against Black innovators throughout his adult career.
Joe: So, I think this informs how Jackson has been received and misunderstood. He often fuses Black and White styles in fascinating ways (see “History” and “Will You Be There,” for example). But he is rooted in the African-American tradition. That is why it’s a mistake for critics to judge his music against artists like Dylan or Springsteen or Bono or Costello (all critical darlings), because Jackson isn’t that kind of artist. It would be like expecting Langston Hughes to write poems like Robert Frost. It’s not that Jackson’s lyrics aren’t poetic; it’s that he is communicating in a different way.
Part of his greatness is in moving beyond words (as the spirituals, and the blues and jazz do); it is his non-verbal vocalizations — his cries, his exclamations of joy, his gasps, his scatting, his beatboxing, his ability to become the music. In fact, even when using language he often twists and contorts words, or delivers them with such freshness, nuance and intensity that lines become more than the sum of their parts. Stevie Wonder once said that Jackson had an amazing capacity to “read” a lyric. In other words, he had the ability to inject ordinary words with something far deeper. Music is ultimately about expression and communication, and for me, his songs (and performances) convey far greater emotional range than most artists.
Joie: I agree with you, Joe. Michael is all about the emotion and the intensity. It’s always right there just beneath the surface in every video and live performance, on every track of every album. You don’t seem to get that kind of raw emotion with most other artists.
Joe: Another thing that makes Jackson great as a songwriter is that he had this incredible ability to communicate across every barrier that typically divides people (race, gender, sexuality, language, culture, class). He was constantly fusing. Rock and R&B, hip hop and pop, gospel and classical. He was simultaneously accessible and challenging, simple but multi-layered. He brought Beethoven to the masses, and street music to the suburbs.
Joie: I think that’s a beautiful thought to end wtih, Joe. And Willa and I want to thank you both for joining us in this conversation!
Next week, Willa and I will be delving into Dancing the Dream, Michael’s book of poems and essays, so be sure to come back for that discussion.