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.
Willa: A few weeks ago, Raven Woods joined me for a fascinating discussion of “Scared of the Moon,” but we began with a short discussion of Michael Jackson’s concerts and how they were structured. Specifically, we talked about how his performances from the Dangerous tour on tended to follow an arc that began with him appearing in a rather militaristic, authoritarian persona but ended with a much softer, more nurturing persona. That arc was punctuated by a series of set pieces that he performed in an almost ritualized way: “Beat It,” “Thriller,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Smooth Criminal,” and especially “Billie Jean.”
Today, Raven is joining me again to talk about “Billie Jean” as one of the signature pieces of a Michael Jackson concert. Thank you so much for talking with me, Raven!
Raven: Thanks for inviting me back! This discussion is actually quite timely, considering that as I’m typing this, Motown 25 has recently been re-broadcast on PBS in its entirety for the first time in over thirty years. As we all know, this special was a historic moment in that it marked the first public performance of “Billie Jean” and the first of what would become a classic staple of Michael Jackson’s live performances.
Willa: Wasn’t that incredible? Watching the full Motown 25 broadcast was like witnessing the birth of a cultural phenomenon, one that would reverberate throughout his concerts and the culture at large for decades.
Raven: That performance really was incredible. I watched the Motown special last Sunday. For starters, I was really interested in seeing the program in its entirety because I don’t think I watched it in its entirety even back in ’83. I was so young then, and like most teens/young adults, not prone to sitting around in front of the TV – especially if I had a date! My grandmother watched it, but I only remembered seeing bits and pieces of it during the original broadcast, as I was too busy that night coming in and out of the house. So I was really interested to watch it again and to catch some of the other performances, as well as Michael’s. Marvin Gaye was just astounding, and probably would have stolen the show that night – if it hadn’t been for Michael, of course!
Willa: I was really struck by Marvin Gaye’s performance also, and how heartfelt it was. He truly wanted to open everyone’s eyes to “What’s Going On.” Another thing that struck me was that Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson’s performances felt the quietest in some ways, yet ironically they were also the most powerful. It’s kind of hard to describe, but they had a quiet intensity that is still palpable, 30 years later.
Raven: I have to say I didn’t think it was possible to fall in love with Michael all over again, but I did watching that performance! I think that, through the years, I had gotten a little blasé about the original Motown 25 “Billie Jean” performance. Sure, it was the first time, and an iconic moment in TV history, but over the years I had seen so many “Billie Jean” performances that I thought were better. After seeing the piece evolve as it did throughout his Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory tours, it seemed odd to go back to Motown 25 and realize that his moonwalk was actually quite short, and you can visibly see him lose his balance on the en pointe. Michael himself was very upset about that afterwards, thinking his entire performance was ruined!
Willa: Yes, I remember reading about that. In fact, I think he said he felt like crying afterwards because he fell back and didn’t stay up on his toes as long as he wanted. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine he could be dissatisfied with that performance!
Raven: That’s true. He only started to feel better about it after Fred Astaire called and complimented him. But in watching the whole show, and putting myself back in that moment, I realized anew why this performance was so magical and special. No one had ever seen these moves performed before, so there was no gauge by which to measure how flawlessly or smoothly he executed them. From the moment Michael stepped on that stage, you could feel the palpable electricity. He was young, vibrant, and on fire – ready to prove himself to the world.
Willa: You know, Lubov Fadeeva, a professional dancer and choreographer, talks about this in her wonderful article, “Michael Jackson: The Dancer of the Dream.” Here’s what she says:
It is obvious to me that his performance at Motown 25 in 1983 is different than all his later concert versions of “Billie Jean” in many ways. It is not yet perfect, and the moonwalk isn’t performed as smoothly as in its later versions. Perhaps the floor was not slippery enough. Still, the emotional charge of the dance is so electrifying that it has never been matched by anything.
In the end of the Motown 25 performance, when Michael stops and looks into the audience … I don’t know how to describe the expression in his eyes, but I understand all of it. It is the kind of moment when a couple of minutes can change everything. … I always watch this performance and think that Michael was passing an exam there. He didn’t even have a spotlight. Just a performer on stage. But somehow it looks more spectacular than expensive shows with special effects.
I think Fadeeva captures this perfectly. His performance at Motown 25 may not have been as technically proficient as some of his later performances, where years of practicing the moonwalk, for example, enabled him to smoothly glide the entire length of the stage. But still, that “Billie Jean” performance was just “so electrifying,” as Fadeeva says.
Raven: Fadeeva nailed it perfectly! That’s exactly what I was trying to say. And although the piece did evolve somewhat through the years, Michael never really deviated drastically from this original performance of the song. All of the symbolic elements that would become identifiable with the piece and with the performance were already there.
Willa: That’s true.
Raven: Something that has occurred to me is that, anytime we are discussing and analyzing a Michael Jackson song, there are at least three separate, distinct elements that must be considered – the recording, the short film (i.e., the video), and the live performance.
Willa: Yes, and some have a longer-format film also. I’m thinking of the 16-minute version of Bad, and the 40-minute version of Smooth Criminal from Moonwalker. And then there’s the 38-minute film Michael Jackson’s Ghosts as well.
And there’s another element we may want to consider also, which is the lyrics as poetry. He actually published “Heal the World” and “Will You Be There?” as poems in Dancing the Dream, but many of his other songs can be viewed this way also. I’ve often thought when reading his lyrics that they scan like poetry. So you’re right, Raven – with many of his songs there are different forms of audio and visual performance interacting dynamically to create meaning.
Raven: Although this may be true to some degree with many artists, especially those from the video age onward, I find it is probably more true in the case of Michael Jackson than anyone else, for I know of no other artist who so successfully merged all of those aspects of performance – the auditory and visual – in the seamless way that he did. Thus, to this day, it is almost impossible to discuss a Michael Jackson track without the associations of its accompanying visual imagery. It is almost impossible, for example, to discuss the track “Thriller” without also merging the discussion with that track’s iconic video, or to discuss any aspect of “Black or White” as a track without also bringing in those important thematic elements from the “Panther Dance” sequence of the video.
Willa: Oh, I agree. I can’t listen to any of his songs that have videos without seeing those visual images play in my head. And I think they are so connected because he conceived of them that way. His videos weren’t just something he whipped up after the fact to market his songs – they were part of his vision from the beginning. As he says in Moonwalk,
The three videos that came out of Thriller – “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” – were all part of my original concept for the album. I was determined to present this music as visually as possible.
So apparently he was already thinking about the videos for these songs as he was creating the album, and I think he achieved his goal of “present[ing] this music as visually as possible.” Listening to those tracks is a surprisingly visual experience, as you said, Raven.
Raven: Yes. It seemed that Michael, moreso than any other music artist of his time, was always thinking on at least three layers with every song he recorded. Through the art of visual imagery, he was able to add additional layers of theme and symbolism to the songs that the audio tracks alone could never convey. And on yet another level, his live performances allowed him to evolve the pieces even further. Contrary to popular belief, his live performance pieces were never simply recreations of his iconic video performances. In some cases, of course, they did not deviate much (the choreography of “Beat It,” for example, remained consistently close to the video version) but what we were more apt to see were reworkings and re-stylizations of these numbers.
Willa: Yes, and sometimes the stage performances seem very different from the videos. I’m thinking specifically of “The Way You Make Me Feel,” which always feels so light and upbeat in his concert performances … but no one would ever describe the video that way. It’s much darker and grittier than the stage versions. So even though he often evoked the video on stage through his wardrobe – a loose blue shirt over a tight white T-shirt, and a white tie belt – the mood and the meaning is very different, I think.
Raven: Absolutely. And I think it goes back, again, to the idea that he was always sort of re-visualizing the concepts of his songs. He knew that what worked on the small screen might not necessarily translate well to the performance stage, and vice versa. I always liked the way he re-worked “The Way You Make Me Feel” with the slowed down, do-wop intro. I remember when This Is It came out, some reviews mentioned Michael’s “new” re-working of “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Obviously, they weren’t very familiar with Michael’s live performances. I thought, He’s been doing “The Way You Make Me Feel” like that for years!
Once Michael found something that worked for him, he tended to stick with it for many years – his live performance motto seemed to be, “Don’t fix what isn’t broken!” But as we know, the best of Michael Jackson’s set pieces usually weren’t mere performances, in the way we think of entertainers simply getting onstage and singing or performing to a song. Michael’s numbers literally became theatrical performance pieces, with as much emphasis on the narrative storylines of the numbers (as well as use of symbolic imagery) as on the singing and dancing.
Willa: Oh, I agree!
Raven: Much has been written about the song “Billie Jean” and there has also been much written about the video. But other than Veronica Bassil’s excellent book Thinking Twice about Billie Jean, I don’t think there has really been much in the way of interpreting his live performance routine of “Billie Jean” or analyzing its symbolic implications.
Willa: You know, what struck me most about Veronica’s book is that she shows how the lyrics anticipate the 1993 abuse allegations. After all, “Billie Jean” is a song about false allegations of sexual misconduct, and how he is constantly under surveillance. In the video this is depicted by the photographer who shadows him, following him to Billie Jean’s apartment and trying to catch him in a compromising position.
But that feeling of constant surveillance is there in the opening lines of the lyrics as well, in all “the eyes” watching him and the fact that he is dancing “in the round.” That arrangement isn’t nearly as popular now, but at the height of disco in the late 1970s, it was fairly common to have the audience surrounding a lighted, elevated stage, so spectators were watching from all sides and every angle. It was even common back then to have dinner theaters “in the round,” where plays would be acted out on a raised platform with the audience seated at tables all around the stage. This means that, for the performers, there was no backstage to retreat to, no side that wasn’t hidden from the audience, and no way to step out of the stoplight or retreat from the audience’s gaze. Performers were entirely exposed.
Raven: Yes, and you know that has to be a scary feeling. I believe that Michael possibly became even more conscious of this symbolic element of the song as time wore on and his performance of it evolved (and possibly as he felt more and more that he was losing control of certain aspects of his life). The round spotlight which he steps into becomes a much more important part of the performance as time goes on.
Willa: Yes, it does.
Raven: For him, this seemed to emphasize the idea of being a lone figure in “the round.” And whereas at the Motown 25 performance, he comes out as very confident from the beginning, by the time of the Munich performance in 1997, and the Madison Square performance, he comes out looking a little lost, almost bewildered – at least until he puts on the magic symbols of jacket, glove, and hat.
Willa: That’s an interesting interpretation, Raven. In his later concert performances, he usually began “Billie Jean” on a darkened stage, with a blinding spotlight aimed straight down forming a round pool of light, as you say. And I think you’re right – that light became or defined his stage “in the round.” And then he would step into that spotlight, as you say, and it’s so harsh and glaring it’s almost like stepping into a prison searchlight. So he was literally performing “in the round” harsh glare of a spotlight – just as he did, metaphorically, throughout his life, from childhood on.
Raven: Coincidentally, we are embarking on this discussion just as I am scheduled to begin a unit on symbolism in class next week, and I had been considering the possibility of using clips of Michael’s “Billie Jean” performance to discuss the concept.
Willa: Oh interesting!
Raven: I am only hesitant because they will also be looking at “Black or White” and “Earth Song” in a few weeks and I don’t want to totally burn them out on MJ, lol! But as so often happens, these discussions seem to arise at just the right moment, when my thoughts are already channeling in that direction. In the process of trying to make this decision, I have been looking at a lot of live “Billie Jean” clips in the past few days. Regardless of whether I ultimately decide to include them in the symbolism unit, it has given me a good opportunity to really assess both how the piece evolved through the years, as well as an opportunity to take a fresh look at how Michael used symbolism in the piece to create a definite story arc.
Willa: Wow, I wish I could sit in on your class …
Raven: Thank you! I guess it’s one of the perks of my job. I get to incorporate so much of what I love into it.
But getting back to “Billie Jean,” virtually everything about that performance, from the choice of clothing and colors, the placement of the spotlight, to the props used – the glove, the jacket, and perhaps, most importantly, the fedora – all played a symbolic role in the performance. It was really the beginning of many trademark Michael Jackson “looks,” including the single glove and fedora. And though he had sported the white socks and black loafers, paired with high water pants before, in “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” it was here that the look really became formalized as a permanent and iconic fixture of the Michael Jackson “brand.”
Willa: They really did. He used the high pants, white socks, and black loafers often after Motown 25 – in fact, they literally became his trademark. I’m thinking of this logo for MJJ Productions:
Raven: Yes. And in that logo, especially, he is using the en pointe stance, which became an iconic image for him. To my knowledge, however, I think that “Billie Jean” was the only performance where he used that particular pose.
Willa: You know, I think you’re right.… I hadn’t thought about that before, but I think you’re right – I think it was a strictly “Billie Jean” move. That’s interesting.
Raven: A lot of people don’t realize that Michael had certain dance moves that were only reserved for certain numbers. Both the moonwalk and en pointe are uniquely associated with “Billie Jean.” (There are brief shots of each in the Jam video as well, but even there, they are clearly not part of the choreography of that particular number. Rather, they seemed to be serving the purpose of cultural allusions – iconic MJ dance moves that everyone would instantly recognize.) And though Michael did variations of the moonwalk step in other numbers, the famous backwards glide was reserved exclusively for “Billie Jean.”
Willa: That’s true, and the black glittery jacket was reserved solely for “Billie Jean” also. Just as a white suit with a dark armband was reserved for “Smooth Criminal,” or a red leather jacket with grey shoulder patches meant “Beat It,” or a red leather jacket with a deep black V from his shoulders to his waist meant “Thriller,” a black glittery jacket meant “Billie Jean.” With the addition of a black fedora and a white sequined glove, the costume was complete.
Raven: “Billie Jean” was also one of the few numbers he did in concert where he always made sure he was in the full costume. During the Dangerous tour, for example, he would usually simply toss the “Smooth Criminal” jacket on over the gold leotard. In this way, he created a lot of hybrids of his iconic looks. There was a very practical reason for this, of course. It saved time! It would have been impossible for him to do a full costume change with every number, so the idea was to layer pieces that could work together, gradually adding and taking off pieces as the show progressed. Therefore, it was easy to make the transition into “Smooth Criminal,” for example, simply by adding the iconic white jacket, armband, and white fedora. Those pieces were symbolic enough to carry the number; it didn’t matter if he didn’t have on the full suit. But with “Billie Jean” he always took the time to do a full, complete costume change.
Willa: It’s also interesting that in his later performances, getting into costume – and into character – was itself an important part of the show, as you mentioned earlier. Here’s a clip of his “Billie Jean” performance from his 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden:
Notice how he plays with the audience as he slowly pulls out the black glittery jacket, then the fedora, and then … dramatic pause … the glove. And the roar from the crowd grows louder as each piece appears, so by the time he’s fully in costume, they’re on their feet and clapping wildly. It’s like the act of becoming that character is part of the performance.
Raven: It is amazing, isn’t it? All they have to do is see those iconic items come out, and they start to go wild because they know what’s coming! So, as you said, getting into the character becomes a part of the ritual for the audience. A good place to start might be in looking at the origin of the “Billie Jean” persona, or character. It was clear early on that Michael was not so much performing here, as enacting a role. It was a unique character that he created specifically for this number. The character was an interesting blend of both “Mack Daddy” cool on the one hand, and a quirky, whimsical geek on the other. The transformation, or metamorphosis, was usually precipitated by plopping the fedora on his head. At that moment, the geek would disappear, replaced by the cocky and confident “Mack Daddy” persona.
It was obvious that the roots of this character came from Michael’s adoration of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Here, for example, if we compare Michael’s improv segment of “Billie Jean” to Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character, we can see that there are obvious parallels:
Willa: Yes, and while some of that is the costume, a lot of it is more abstract than that – a certain jauntiness mixed with pathos that really comes through for both of them.
Raven: And in this clip of Buster Keaton we can, no doubt, see some of the origins of Michael’s improvisations with his fedora as a kind of virility symbol (note how Keaton’s character transforms from geek to suave whenever a “cool” hat is placed on his head!):
And, of course, it has already been well noted that Michael’s famous Smooth Criminal lean owes a lot to Buster Keaton’s move in College, which Michael had no doubt seen:
Years later, Johnny Depp, who, like Michael, admired Keaton and Chaplin and brought elements of them to his own performances, blended the characteristics of both to create the character of Sam in 1993’s Benny & Joon.
Depp’s “hat trick,” as seen here, will look familiar to anyone who has watched Michael Jackson’s live “Billie Jean” performances. Go back, for example to the Bucharest “Billie Jean” performance posted above and look at how Michael similarly “plays” with his hat beginning at about the 5:54 mark, as if it is something live that is taunting and teasing him, or as if he can somehow cast a spell over it!
In later years, Michael would make this parallel even more blatantly obvious. For example, by the time of the HIStory tour, he introduced a new element to the performance which consisted of his “Little Geek” character walking onstage carrying a shaving case, looking rather lost and bewildered, as if he doesn’t quite know where he is or what he’s supposed to do. Again, this is a routine that obviously has deep roots in the pathos of the Chaplinesque and Keatonesque personas he so admired. At this point, the performance has very much of a vaudeville feel to it, and Michael is clearly and intentionally evoking those echoes.
Willa: I agree completely. Even the case itself feels worn and antiquated, like it’s from an earlier era. It’s pretty distinctive – tan with two brown leather straps wrapping around it – and he uses this same style of case for years, up through his Madison Square Garden performances. It’s interesting because in Say Say Say, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney play a pair of vaudeville performers, and they each carry that exact same style of case: tan with two brown leather straps. Here’s a clip, and you can see those suitcases starting at about 4:20 minutes in:
So Michael Jackson clearly associated that particular case with vaudeville, and I think it’s part of what gives his later “Billie Jean” performances “a vaudeville feel,” as you said, Raven.
But more than that, his body language and the way he timidly shuffles across stage, as you mentioned; his simple clothes, suggesting someone who’s down on his luck; the way he slowly pulls his props from a suitcase – these all harken back to vaudeville.
Raven: Oh, yes, absolutely. I was also just thinking that there seemed to be a definite element of miming incorporated into his “Billie Jean” persona. We know that Michael very much admired the art of miming and frequently worked elements of mime into his dance routines. “The Box” is one such example. In this video of him practicing in the studio, it is the move he performs at about the 1:00 mark:
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a performance and persona so indebted to vaudeville and silent film comedians like Chaplin and Keaton would also contain elements of mime. Chaplin and Keaton were both heavily influenced by mime artists themselves. Here is a passage excerpted from the Wikipedia page on mimes:
The restrictions of early motion picture technology meant that stories had to be told with minimal dialogue, which was largely restricted to intertitles. This often demanded a highly stylized form of physical acting largely derived from the stage. Thus, mime played an important role in films prior to advent of talkies (films with sound or speech). The mimetic style of film acting was used to great effect in German Expressionist film.
Silent film comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton learned the craft of mime in the theatre, but through film, they would have a profound influence on mimes working in live theatre decades after their deaths. Indeed, Chaplin may be the most well-documented mime in history.
Willa: Oh, that’s really interesting, Raven! I’d never connected mime with silent films before, but now that you mention it, it makes perfect sense. And I really see those elements reflected in Michael Jackson’s concert performances also.
For example, Rembert Browne wrote a wonderful analysis of Michael Jackson’s performances of “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Man in the Mirror” at the 1988 Grammys. Here’s a video of that performance:
As Rembert Browne points out, Michael Jackson is creating a fully realized character in the opening moments he’s on stage – a character Browne calls “Tough Guy Mike”:
“Tough Guy Mike” is an incredible creature, less because it was so opposite of his actual personality, and more because of how he moved his limbs as Tough Guy Mike. Every step became an aggravated kick, everything was to be pointed to, and his neck roll became the sassiest thing ever captured on camera.
As Browne says, he creates this character through his body language, and also through mime-like gestures. As Browne points out, at about 1:10 in we see “Tough Guy Mike mime-smoking a fake cigarette and blowing out fake smoke.” Then he “put[s] out the imaginary cigarette with his foot.” Through these subtle gestures, Michael Jackson gives us important clues about who this character is – just as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Marcel Marceau did through their silent gestures long before him.
Raven: “Tough Guy Mike” is an excellent interpretation of that persona! The only difference, I think, is that we don’t actually “see” the transformation in the same way that we do with “Billie Jean,” or at least the later incarnations of it. In “Billie Jean” the symbols actually instigate the change.
Willa: Oh, I see what you’re saying. As you mentioned before, it’s when he puts on his fedora that he magically transforms into his “Billie Jean” character. So his hat brings about a change in him, in who he’s portraying on stage.
Raven: As we have already discussed, hats were important props for these silent film comedians, as well as for mimes, and also many vaudeville performers. The white glove, also, is something that has roots in mime art (though not necessarily a single glove to my knowledge). However, I think that Michael probably took many of his ideas, especially those relating to color schemes, from mime artists. White and black were traditionally colors often used by mimes.
In the original “Billie Jean” video Michael wore a dark suit over a bold pink shirt with a red bow tie. That was a look significantly different from the one that came to be associated with his live “Billie Jean” performances, and again, it’s one of the few instances I can think of (perhaps the only instance) where his performance attire and persona was completely different from the video version. I think it is because he took the whole performance in such a very different direction for Motown 25 that he must have known, from that point going forward, that this was the way the song had to be performed live. The video for “Billie Jean” seemed to be one of the few instances where his choreography was actually worked out after the fact.
When he did Motown 25, he still had not completely perfected the idea of using the black-and-white color contrast, and this was probably largely due to the fact that he had only recently come up with the routine and had to work with what was available for him at the time. According to most accounts, the famous sequin jacket he wore that night came from Katherine’s closet. As the old saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers so he ended up with a purple-ish sequin jacket. However, we can see that he had already worked out how he would incorporate all three symbolic objects – the hat, the glove, and sequined jacket – into the routine. It would just be a matter of how he perfected those uses through the years.
Those primary colors, black and white, both have strong ties to mime art. Michael also mimicked the age-old mime trick of using the color white to direct an audience’s eyes to whatever body part he wanted them to focus on. He learned, for example, that wearing a white glove, or wearing white tape on his fingertips, would direct the audience’s eyes to his hand gestures, and hand gestures, as we know, were very important for Michael. I really believe that this is the origin of his single, white glove. I never really bought the oft-rumored theory that it was to hide vitiligo spots on his hands. (I believe he had vitiligo, of course; I just don’t believe it was the reason for the glove.) I believe he was thinking from an artistic standpoint about what each of these things would help him accomplish on a huge stage.
Willa: That’s interesting. I tend to think it was both – that it helped him deal with his vitiligo and was an important artistic decision.
And that’s interesting about white gloves being an important part of both vaudeville and mime. It reminds me that white gloves were also an important feature of blackface minstrelsy. Here’s a clip of Fred Astaire performing in blackface in the movie Swing Time, and it’s hard to miss his large white gloves:
In fact, the last thing we see is Astaire walking off stage, waving his hand in a floppy sort of way that draws even more attention to the oversized white glove he’s wearing.
Raven: That’s interesting. And we know that Michael would have been familiar with Swing Time. He studied everything Astaire ever did! I was also recently watching a documentary on Oscar Wilde and it was mentioned there that Wilde came up with the idea of wearing white gloves during his American tour in 1882. Wilde, like Michael, was as much of a showman as he was a writer (and his number one talent was the ability to sell himself!) and it was said that he liked the way it looked when he could stick a white gloved hand from his carriage window to wave to the crowd! I couldn’t help but think of Michael when they mentioned that.
But a glove is also something a criminal wears at the scene of their crime, in order to prevent leaving incriminating fingerprints. It would be interesting to know if Michael was playing on this idea to some degree, since the song is about a man being accused. I don’t know – that might be a stretch but it’s something interesting to think about.
Something else I’ve noticed about his live “Billie Jean” performances is that, as he jumps into the spotlight and plops the hat onto his head, a transformation takes place. In later incarnations of the performance, he jumps into the spotlight almost as a kind of symbolic “plunging in.” There is hesitancy and even a bit of fearfulness (he is still in the mode of the shy, geeky, and somewhat lost/bewildered character) and then, instantaneously, he plunges in, the bass kicks in, and the metamorphosis is complete. He starts with a series of hip thrusts, indicating a shift to masculine and virile energy. (A favorite, somewhat off-color joke of mine is that he must be acting out he how he got himself in trouble with this “Billie Jean” in the first place!) Whatever the case, the moves and gestures were clearly purposeful. If there was any doubt that these moves were intended to be interpreted as sexual gestures, Michael forever laid those to rest with his very playful and bawdy exaggeration of those moves in his This Is It rehearsal performance of “Billie Jean”:
Willa: Oh, I agree! That rehearsal performance is much more overtly sexual and “bawdy,” as you say, than anything he ever did during a concert – especially near the end. But he sure knew his audience – those young dancers watching him rehearse just loved it! And I love watching them watching him. In fact, that’s one of my favorite scenes from from This Is It – he seems to be having a great time, and really connecting, through dance, with those young dancers.
But that scene also brings out important elements of the character he’s portraying – elements that are usually presented much more subtly but still add complexity to that character. For example, he begins his Motown 25 performance and many of his later “Billie Jean” performances by pulling out an imaginary comb and slicking his hair back on both sides. This is very much a mime-type gesture, as you mentioned earlier.
Raven: I love that gesture! It invokes a very cool, 50s kind of vibe to the performance … James Dean, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando from “The Wild One”!
Willa: I love it too! It has a very 50s kind of feel to me also, and it reminds me of “Tough Guy Mike” smoking his imaginary cigarette at the beginning of the 1988 Grammy performance, and then stubbing it out with his foot. In both cases, these little gestures give us important insights into the character he’s playing. His “Billie Jean” character may be young and vulnerable, and he may still have his mother’s advice echoing in his head – “Be careful who you love … ” – but that little gesture of slicking back his hair tells us that he also sees himself as something of a ladies’ man.
Raven: But even as he moves into this aspect of the performance, he would often still retain elements of his “Little Tramp”-like character. Something I have often noticed – and one of the most endearing traits of these performances – is that he didn’t seem to be trying too hard to make them “too” perfect or “too” polished. For example, we can see when he is fighting with a particularly stubborn jacket flap that doesn’t fall exactly as it’s supposed to; he can often be seen adjusting his hat during the performance to keep it from falling off or to keep it at the angle he desires. When we consider what a perfectionist he was in his performances, we can only guess that all of these little flaws and “rough spots” of the performances were, in themselves, part of the act, or at least part of the persona.
It seems he didn’t want polish or perfection in these performances so much as desiring to retain an aura of childlike playfulness and quirkiness. It was just enough endearing quirkiness, enough pathos to keep a leash on the machismo aspect of the performance. And it was wonderfully ingenious, because it kept the machismo aspect of the character just slightly off center, so that we weren’t entirely sure just how seriously we were supposed to take this transformed persona.
Willa: Oh, that’s an interesting way to look at that, Raven – and it’s a very Chaplinesque touch, as you say. It adds a touch of pathos to this young man who’s trying so hard to be suave and debonair, and not quite succeeding – but ironically he’s all the more endearing because of that.
Raven: It’s rather like watching a little kid who has suddenly been transported into an adult body, or like Frosty the Snowman when he first puts on his “magic hat” and becomes animated. He doesn’t seem quite sure what to do with himself or with his new power and abilities. We can see him kind of growing into the persona the same way an awkward and gangly adolescent has to “grow into” their new body.
Willa: Exactly! That’s how it feels to me also, though I’d never been able to really articulate that before, and that’s one reason this character is so intriguing and appealing, I think.
Well, Raven, thank you so much for joining me again! I thoroughly enjoyed it, but there’s still so much more to say about his “Billie Jean” performances. Maybe you can join me again sometime, and we can continue this discussion?
Raven: I would love that! Thanks again for another great conversation.
Willa: Oh, it’s always a pleasure talking with you.
I also wanted to let everyone know that Australian journalist and blogger Damien Shields has a new book out, Xscape Origins: the Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind. Charles Thomson posted a review this morning on The Huffington Post, and it’s interesting – while Charles has been very open about his opposition to posthumous tracks in general, and has been rather scathing in his comments about the Xscape album in particular, his review of Xscape Origins is surprisingly positive.
According to Charles, Shields was motivated by a feeling that the promotion for Xscape focused too much on the “contemporized” tracks and the producers who worked on them, and that “Jackson’s own vision and process was almost completely overlooked.” So he set about learning more. As Charles writes,
Determined to right this perceived wrong, Shields flew to America to interview a number of Jackson’s original collaborators, including songwriters, studio engineers and producers. In his book he presents a comprehensive back story for each track. The result is a revealing and exciting insight into the working habits of pop’s most reclusive star.
Willa: This week I am thrilled to be talking about “Scared of the Moon” with Raven Woods. Raven has an MA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing, and she teaches writing and literature courses at Alabama A&M University and Calhoun Community College. She’s also a freelance journalist and writer, and teaches seminars on Michael Jackson’s music and cultural importance.
She’s also the creator of AllForLoveBlog, which was the first site Joie and I added to our blogroll when we started Dancing with the Elephant. It’s a favorite for both of us, and it’s still the first place I turn whenever there’s breaking news in the Michael Jackson universe. I know I will find important information, thoughtful analysis, and a community of voices sharing ideas. In addition to current events, AllforLove also provides fabulous, rarely seen photos (that’s another reason I check in frequently!), important historical information, and insights into Michael Jackson’s music, dancing, and videos.
Thank you so much for joining me, Raven!
Raven: Thank you so much for inviting me. And I would like to return the compliment by saying that I think Dancing with the Elephant is one of the best blogs for anyone who is interested in Michael’s art foremost.
Willa: Thank you, Raven. I really appreciate that. Coming from you, that means a lot!
So I’m excited to talk with you about “Scared of the Moon” and I don’t mean to get us off track, but I was very intrigued by something you said in a recent post:
It was during the Dangerous era that Michael seemed to solidify the concept for his live performances which often began with the “masculine” (he would come on tough, as a persona who was very masculine, angular, and hard, with military-esque trappings) and, over the course of the performance, would evolve to a more feeling, flowing, ethereal “feminine” persona (a transition that, like the Dangerous album’s concept, usually transpired with the performance of “Heal the World,” “Will You Be There” and the other spiritual “message” songs).
Michael’s onstage persona during the first half of his Dangerous tour performances was always somewhat distant and cold; he would often wear a perpetual sneer. The moves are often blatantly sexual (a lot of crotch grabbing, etc). By the time the metamorphosis is complete, he is smiling, interacting with children onstage; the fencing shirt replaced by a flowing white shirt that accentuates his ethereal quality. His dance moves have become fluid and graceful, rather than angular and hard.
I had never noticed that before, Raven, but you’re right – his concerts from Dangerous on did tend to begin with a hard-edged “masculine” persona and move toward a softer, more “feminine” persona. We see it all the way up to This Is It, which documents his plans for the 2009 London concerts. Apparently, those concerts were going to begin with him in a spacesuit and then move to something called “The Drill,” a very militaristic performance of “Bad” and “They Don’t Care about Us,” before moving to softer songs like “Earth Song.”
Raven: Yes, This Is It, from all indications, was going to be a continuation of that formula. I think he liked that arc. It seemed to suit his artistic vision.
Willa: I agree. And we see a similar movement in his later albums as well, as you pointed out with Dangerous. HIStory begins in a rather in-your-face way with “Scream” and “They Don’t Care about Us,” but ends with the much softer “Smile.” And Invincible begins with the hard-driving trio of “Unbreakable,” “Heartbreaker,” and “Invincible” but concludes with softer songs like “The Lost Children” and “Whatever Happens,” though it does add a little edge at the very end with “Threatened.”
I had never noticed that structure before, but now that you’ve pointed it out, Raven, I keep seeing it, like in his performance at the MTV 10th anniversary celebration in 1991, or his Superbowl performance in 1993, or his performance at the 1995 MTV awards, or his 30th anniversary concerts at Madison Square Garden in 2001.
That movement from a hard, even militaristic opening to a much softer conclusion seems very significant, especially since he returns to it so often. And how wonderful that he enacts it during the halftime show at the Superbowl!
Raven: Oh yes, that Superbowl finale with “Heal The World’ has to be, hands down, one of the greatest moments in live TV.
Raven: As you know, I have been doing a very in-depth review of Susan Fast’s book Dangerous and that was why the topic came up, because she aptly points out how this arc forms the central concept of the Dangerous album. This seems to have been where the pattern begun, and from there, it became a kind of blueprint, almost, for all the albums and tours that followed.
As always when discussing and analyzing art, of course, it is hard to say how much of this was intentional, conscious choice and how much of it may have simply evolved organically and subconsciously. I know this because, as a writer, I often don’t see certain themes or emerging patterns in my own work until I’ve written them and have had time to step back and reflect on them – or until someone points them out. But once I am aware of them, I know they were not entirely accidental. Rather, they are the result of things buried in my subconscious that are being worked through.
But for sure, Michael was well aware (keenly aware, I am sure!) of the overall flow of his albums and performances; how the flow of one track to another, for example, impacts the listener (or the performance) and sets the overall tone and mood. He definitely liked the idea of taking listeners on a journey, and the arc was part of that journey. Susan Fast refers to it as Michael’s desire to create utopianism, and I don’t think that is a far-fetched concept. It seemed to permeate most everything he did, at least from Dangerous forward.
Willa: I agree, though I’d never noticed that arc before you – inspired by Susan – pointed it out. But I’m really intrigued by it now. For one thing, it provides a very different way of interpreting his use of military imagery – not as something he was advocating, but as something that would later be transformed into something softer and more nurturing.
So getting back to “Scared of the Moon,” what started this conversation was something you said in a comment a while back where you compared “Scared of the Moon” to “Childhood”:
“Scared of The Moon” … is a song about childhood from a very different, and darker, perspective. In that song, he addresses how we carry the traumas and fears of childhood into adulthood; how the traumas and scars of our childhoods shape even our adult selves.… I have heard that he wrote the song for Brooke Shields, but much of it seems autobiographical for Michael, also.… In both cases, they shared a fear of a parent who was a mystery to them. In both cases, the parent they feared was also the dominant parent who controlled much of their destiny.
So it seemed that, while acknowledging childhood as a kind of ideal state, he was also acknowledging that it can be a scary time as well, when one is haunted by inexplicable fears and the inability to be in control.…
Michael understood that childhood is both our happiest, most wondrous years but at the same time, because of that very innocence and the ability to perceive things so much deeper – can also be the source of our greatest pain, traumas, and fear.
Raven, I was really struck by everything you said. I love “Scared of the Moon” – it’s a truly beautiful song – but it’s very unsettling as well. Partly, that’s because of the subject matter, a child threatened by nameless fears, but also because it seems so contrary to how he usually talked about childhood. Your comment perfectly captures the ambivalence I feel whenever I listen to this haunting song, and helps explain why it’s so disturbing as well as exquisitely beautiful.
Raven: Exactly. Although it certainly is a very beautiful song melodiously, it is also one of his darker songs about childhood, though perhaps not as dark as “Little Susie,” which was about the murder of a child.
Willa: That’s true. There’s also “The Lost Children” and “Hollywood Tonight” – they’re both pretty dark as well – and “Do You Know Where Your Children Are.” That’s a very troubling song. It’s about a young girl who’s trying to escape an abusive stepfather, and the lyrics are pretty explicit about that: “she is tired of stepdaddy using her / Saying that he’ll buy her things, while sexually abusing her.” So she runs away to Hollywood, but ends up “selling her body” just to survive. In the end, she’s arrested for prostitution, even though “she’s only 12 years old” – and Michael Jackson just sounds heartbroken as he sings those words, as if he can hardly bear it.
So even though he frequently spoke up for children and repeatedly emphasized the importance of childhood, he didn’t hesitate to show the harsh realities many children face.
Raven: Your reference to “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” got me to thinking about how the subject of child prostitution has been handled in other pop songs. One example that leaps immediately to mind is the Nick Gilder classic “Hot Child in the City” (a song I remember well from my teen years) about a 15-year-old runaway who has turned to prostitution,
What’s interesting about this song is that, just as what Michael is doing with “Scared of the Moon” Gilder uses a deceptively poppy, sweet melody to cloak what is actually a very dark subject.
I remember when this song was a huge hit and it was largely because when young people my age were listening to it, we were hearing its catchy hook and not really paying much attention to the words – or if we did, we just took it as a song about a pretty girl catching boys’ eyes as she walks down the street (not exactly new subject matter in rock’n’roll; songs like Roy Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman” had been playing on that motif for years). I don’t think anyone really caught on that this song was about a kid who is selling her body and is being preyed upon by an older guy (the narrator of the song who says “we’ll talk about love”) or if we did think about it, we just kind of brushed it off – after all, it was a much less politically correct era in terms of underaged sex. I also have a very vivid memory of a video to the song that depicted a child wearing a wig and an oversized, adult evening gown, walking the streets. But again, because the song’s hook was so catchy, I suppose we could argue that it belied the very dark reality of its subject matter – or that it somehow made the dark subject matter more palatable, which perhaps was the idea.
In the case of “Do You Know Where Your Children Are,” though it has a catchy riff, it’s a somewhat ominous and gritty riff, preparing us for the reality of the song’s subject matter. The effect he achieves with “The Lost Children” is similar. Here the intent is not so much to create a dark mood, but rather, one of sadness and heartbreak. It’s a prayer that all of the “lost children” will somehow find their way, and the music intensifies that sadness and longing.
That is what makes “Scared of the Moon” even more puzzling to me; it’s as if the lyrics and melody do not “fit.” Yet we know the master’s skilled hands and ear are at work, and what he is achieving with this song must be purposeful.
Willa: Yes, I agree – and actually, the fact that they don’t “fit” heightens the eeriness of the song. It underscores the feeling that something is dreadfully wrong below the beautiful surface.
Raven: As you know, so much of Michael’s body of work was about trying to either recapture or maintain the innocence of childhood. In the song “Childhood” he is advocating that, as adults, we should look within our hearts and ask ourselves if we have seen our childhood – the idea being that, if we can recognize our inner child, it can pave the way for a healthier adulthood.
But in “Scared of the Moon” it is the opposite, a recognition that it is also the scars and traumas of childhood that shape us as adults. It is a recognition that childhood, in addition to being a magical time of innocence and wonder, can also be a scary and frightening time. For sure, it is the period that most shapes and defines who we become as adults – for better or worse. The very reason that childhood tragedies strike such a resonant chord with us – when we hear of children being murdered, beaten to death, starved, sexually abused, or caught in the crossfires of violence – is because this is supposed to be the most innocent, carefree time of their lives. If a child can’t be innocent, happy, or carefree during the first decade or so of their lives, then when on earth is that going to be possible for them? The answer is never. Once the damage is done, it’s for life.
I have often wondered if this was the reason Michael deliberately chose such a deceptively sweet, wistful melody to pair with lyrics that are, by contrast, so dark and tinged with fear. The song’s luscious arrangement gives it the quality of a lullaby, but just as we are settling in too comfortably, we realize that this is not a comfortable place we are being taken to.
Willa: That’s an interesting way to interpret that, Raven. It’s like the “sweet, wistful melody,” as you called it, evokes images of childhood the way it’s supposed to be, while the lyrics evoke a very different reality. And part of the tension of the song is the contrast between the two.
Raven: Exactly. And in something like “Little Susie,” for example, he goes with an intentionally Gothic sound that fits the theme of the song. There is no ambiguity regarding the place that the song is going to take us.
Through the years, “Scared of the Moon” has given rise to many interpretations, largely because the moon can be said to symbolize so many things. Because the moon is associated with night, it can symbolize the terrors of darkness. The song’s protagonist is a female child (as we know, he claimed to have written the song for his friend Brooke Shields) who lies in fear of unnamed terrors in the dark. But interestingly, the moon – even though it is providing “beams of light” – is no source of comfort in that darkness. Indeed, it seems to be the source of her fear.
Willa: And that’s a really important point, I think. It’s not unusual for kids to be scared of the dark, but generally the moon is seen as reassuring, almost like a friend in the darkness. I’m thinking of children’s stories like “Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown:
And there’s a wonderful story my son loved when he was little called “Owl and the Moon” by Arnold Lobel:
In both of these stories, the moon is a kind of companion who stays with you in the dark, so you don’t feel so alone. But that isn’t the situation in “Scared of the Moon,” so again there’s a sharp contrast between what we expect and what the song actually says – like the contrast between the melody and the lyrics that you described earlier.
Raven: I’ve heard speculations that it is a song about childhood sexual abuse, but I’m not sure what I make of those interpretations or their validity. It could be possible.
Willa: Yes, I’ve heard that also, and it makes sense – it makes her fears understandable. And childhood sexual abuse was an important issue for him and something he did address in his songs, like in “Do You Know Where Your Children Are,” as we mentioned earlier.
So I think that’s a perfectly valid interpretation, but I tend to see this song as more ambiguous than that, more open-ended. It’s almost like he’s trying to describe those nameless fears many children have, that are so terrifying in part because they’re nameless – because children can’t label them and analyze them, and in that way drain them of their power.
Raven: But also, the term “lunacy” is often one associated with mental illness. This would seem to be borne out by the song’s lines:
The feeling of terror
She felt as a youth
Has turned from a fantasy
Into a truth
The moon is the enemy
Twisting her soul
And taking its fearful toll
Scared of the moon
But now there are others
Who sit in their room
And wait for the sunlight
To brighten their gloom
Together they gather
Their lunacy shared
But knowing just why they’re scared
Scared of the moon
The key phrase seems to me to be “their lunacy shared” which could refer to a group of people in an institution (or it could just refer collectively to every individual with a scarred childhood that has carried over into adulthood). Either way, it seems that the fears are still there. As adults, they are better able to hide those fears in light of day, and they now understand the reasons behind them. But that knowledge doesn’t make the fears any less potent.
Willa: Those verses are really perplexing, aren’t they? And I see what you mean – I get the impression of a mental asylum also. And that goes back to a very old idea that the moon could cause a kind of temporary madness that would then fade as the moon faded from sight. In fact, the words “lunacy” and “lunatic” come from “luna,” the Latin word for “moon,” which is also where the word “lunar” comes from in phrases like “lunar eclipse” or “lunar month.”
We see this ancient idea acted out in Thriller when the Michael character transforms into a werewolf or werecat. He doesn’t just undergo physical changes but mental changes as well. As he begins to transform, he tells his girlfriend, “Run away!” because he can feel the madness coming on and knows that soon he won’t be able to control his actions. And he can’t. After he’s fully transformed, he chases and attacks her.
So interpreting this section of “Scared of the Moon” as a type of madness or mental illness brought on by the moon seems valid to me, but I wonder if it could be interpreted more metaphorically also. I mean, Michael Jackson was so linked to the moon. His signature dance was called the “moonwalk,” which is also the title of his biography. His only feature length film was Moonwalker, with the moon appearing as a very important symbol of change and creativity, even magic. We see this idea in the Childhood video also, where the moon seems to represent imagination and creativity – specifically, the intense imagination of childhood. Joie and I talked about that a little bit in a post a while back.
He expresses this idea in Dancing the Dream also, like in the opening paragraphs of “Dance of Life”:
I cannot escape the moon. Its soft beams push aside the curtains at night. I don’t even have to see it – a cool blue energy falls across my bed and I am up. I race down the dark hall and swing open the door, not to leave home but to go back to it. “Moon, I’m here!” I shout.
“Good,” she replies. “Now give us a little dance.”
But my body has started moving long before she says anything. When did it start? I can’t remember – my body has always been moving. Since childhood I have reacted to the moon this way, as her favorite lunatic …
That word “lunatic” takes us back to the idea of a kind of madness evoked by the moon, but he doesn’t use it in a negative way. Just the opposite. It’s a wonderful madness that the moon inspires in him – a kind of creative ecstasy. And it’s clearly something he cherishes.
The fact that the moon is generally such a positive image in Michael Jackson’s work, used repeatedly to represent imagination and creativity, is another reason “Scared of the Moon” is so unsettling to me. It just feels wrong to hear a Michael Jackson song where the moon is “the enemy.” And that makes me wonder if we can interpret this a different way.
For example, maybe the main character in “Scared of the Moon” is someone who’s scared of her own imagination, scared of letting herself go and expressing herself creatively. So something that should be nurturing to her (the moon, her imagination, her own artistic nature) has become frightening to her.
Raven: It is interesting to compare Michael’s “Scared of the Moon” to “I’m Open,” a track from Pearl Jam’s 1996 album No Code. This is the only song I have found that comes similarly close to Michael’s message in “Scared of the Moon.” Note the lyrics spoken in the song’s opening monologue:
A man lies in his bed, in a room with no door
He waits hoping for a presence, something, anything, to enter
After spending half his life searching, he still felt as blank
As the ceiling at which he’s staring
He’s alive, but feels absolutely nothing
So, is he?
When he was six he believed that the moon overhead followed him
By nine he had deciphered the illusion, trading magic for fact
So this is what it’s like to be an adult
If he only knew now what he knew then.
Willa: Oh, that’s really interesting, Raven. So in this song we see a man who’s completely lost touch with the moon – and also with his emotions and his inner life. “He’s alive, but feels absolutely nothing.” He had that connection when he was a child, when “he believed that the moon overhead followed him.” But then he traded “magic for fact” and lost that connection.
So like the main character in “Scared of the Moon,” he seems to be repressing parts of himself that should bring him joy. But while the things she’s repressing seem to terrify her, he feels nothing at all. He’s “as blank as the ceiling at which he’s staring.”
Raven: With the main character in the Pearl Jam song, it seems to be more of a case of lost innocence. He’s lost the magic of childhood. It is the idea of something being irretrievably lost once we are an adult and have, as he says, “deciphered the illusion.” Now that you have pointed this out, I am thinking that, thematically, this is actually closer to what Michael was stating in “Childhood.” And, also, in the video for that song we see children in a boat gliding towards the moon.
Willa: Oh, that’s a good point. Like his character in Childhood wistfully watching as children sail away on their imagination, the main character in “I’m Open” wistfully remembers his own childhood, and wishes “he only knew now what he knew then.”
This is an idea Michael Jackson frequently mentioned – that children have a deep knowledge that adults have lost. As he said in an interview when he was only 22,
One of my favorite pastimes is being with children, talking to them and playing with them. Children know a lot of secrets [about the world] and it’s difficult to get them to tell. Children are incredible. They go through a brilliant phase, but then when they reach a certain age, they lose it. My most creative moments have almost always come when I’m with children. When I’m with them, the music comes to me as easily as breathing.
So in this one small comment, he’s expressing some really profound ideas: that children have knowledge of the world that adults lack, and that this knowledge is linked to creativity.
Raven: Yes, and you know, there has been so much said about how we are never so close to our spiritual natures as when we are children. This was what William Wordsworth meant in “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” and his famous line that the child is “Father of the Man.” His entire point of that rather lengthy piece is that we are born with all our inherent qualities of divinity, grace, and perception.
Children, as we know, are much more perceptive of the spiritual and natural world, as well as much more receptive of it. Children, for example, often display psychic abilities which they tend to lose with age – for example, the ability to see auras, or ghosts. I have read many accounts where adults will recall that, as children, they once saw someone’s aura. Often, adults have childhood memories (sometimes comforting; sometimes frightening) of commuting with the spirit world. But unless an individual is especially sensitive, they tend to lose this gift with age. It’s as if we lose something of our spiritual selves the minute the world takes over and consumes our bodies and minds, as what happens in adulthood. Part of what we lose as adults is the ability to sense magic and wonder in the world. Everything now has a rational explanation. For many kids, it may be a comfort to get older and realize there is no monster hiding under the bed, but the trade-off is in realizing that, likewise, Santa Claus and the tooth fairy are not real, either. In most of his songs about childhood, Michael was usually lamenting the loss of that childhood innocence and wonder. But here he seems to be singing about another childhood rite of passage, and that is the fear of unknown and inexplicable terrors.
As you said, Michael used the moon symbolically throughout much of his career as something that was associated with magic and the imagination. In the Pearl Jam song, the moon is somewhat serving this same function – it represents something wondrous and magical, as compared to the emptiness and mundaneness of adulthood. I think that the characters in both songs may be experiencing some sort of trauma. Mental illness can produce terror in some (such as hallucinations, or flashbacks to past traumatic events) or it can also produce complete inertia and numbness.
In the case of “Scared of the Moon” I am not quite sure if the moon is intended to merely symbolize her terrors, or if it is, literally, the thing that she fears.
Willa: Yes, I wonder about that also.
Raven: Judging from the lyrics, I would register to guess that in childhood, the moon was the literal source of her fear (as children often fear things irrationally); in adulthood, she may no longer fear the moon itself, but she fears what it represents symbolically. It stands for all those inexplicable fears of childhood.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting. So instead of seeing it as an either-or question, you interpret it one way when she’s younger and the other way when she’s older. I hadn’t thought about that, but it makes a lot of sense.
Raven: In “I’m Open” it seems that the character has withdrawn emotionally from the world. That, too, can be a defense mechanism against trauma, but it does seem that in childhood, at least, the moon was a friend and a comfort, much like “Goodnight Moon” and “Owl and the Moon.” In that regard, it does differ markedly from “Scared of the Moon” where Michael even explicitly sings, “The moon is the enemy / twisting her soul.”
It is interesting in the fact that it seems so very opposite of Michael’s own feelings about the moon, which he always expressed as something that was, for him personally, something very benevolent. But then again, if he did intend for this to be a song about his friend Brooke Shields, perhaps we have to be careful about trying to project too much of “Michael” into it. As I am always reminding my students, we have to make the distinction between author, narrator, and character – or in this case, lyricist and character – and not assume they are automatically one and the same. In all likelihood, this was a very personal song between Michael and Brooke, which may have had something to do with why it went unreleased for so long. It could have been that Michael was not entirely comfortable with releasing something he had written for a friend that was so intensely personal. It would be interesting to know what Brooke’s thoughts on the song are.
I know that Brooke had a very troubled childhood. She not only began working at an even younger age than Michael, but also had to deal with an alcoholic mother. I believe I mentioned in my blog comment (the one that sparked this conversation) that in her recent People magazine interview she said that the only time she ever saw her mother sober was early in the morning before she went to school. Her mother would be drunk by the time she got home again, and her drunkenness only progressed into the evening and nights. Reading between the lines, it seems like the only time she felt safe, secure, and sure of her mother’s love was in those early morning hours, when the day was fresh. It seems that she lived in fear of darkness descending; as the day wore on, her mother became a bigger terror.
Willa: That’s a really interesting way to interpret that, Raven. It’s almost like, as the moon rises, her mother’s demons come out through her binge drinking. So if we apply that to the character in “Scared of the Moon,” maybe her fear of the moon is actually her fear of what could happen if her mother loses control.
Raven: I would imagine that she and Michael probably had many deep conversations about these fears. And, of course, they had common ground, for Michael spent most of his childhood in fear of Joseph.
I am sure you remember the story Michael recounted about the time Joseph scared them all half to death by putting on a frightening mask and coming in through their bedroom window. Joe said that it was to prove a point – to “scare” them into closing and locking their bedroom window at night, rather than leaving it open for any prowler to climb through. But if that was his intent, his child “psychology” backfired horribly. Michael said the incident caused him to be afraid of the dark and to have nightmares about being kidnapped for years afterward.
Michael respected his father, but as we know, he also feared him. “He can just give you a LOOK,” he said, and I know he was telling the truth because, from what little time I was around Joe in 2010, I got “the look” and realized if I had been a child, this man would have terrified me. I was an adult and shaking in my shoes because when Joe gives you “the look” as Michael put it, it can make you feel like a gnat! (But to set the record straight, I saw many sides of Joe that weekend, including when he sat behind me and struggled not to shed any tears during a tribute, so this is not to judge him, but only to reinforce what Michael said). To be honest, I never felt closer to Michael – or more empathy for him – than I did at that moment, standing before the man who made him (literally and figuratively, I suppose) and having those steel blue-gray eyes pierce my soul.
Willa: So Raven, now you have me terribly curious. When was this? And what were the circumstances? How did you end up spending a weekend with Michael Jackson’s father? And why on earth did he give you “the look”!
Raven: This was in Gary, Indiana, during Michael’s birthday weekend in 2010. Joe was a guest of the Fanvention that year. I had a media pass which gave me access to a lot of the events where he was attending. I half suspect that I got “The Look” because I was wearing a media badge. I recall that when I got close enough to him to ask a question, he just glanced down toward my badge and scowled, ignoring me like he didn’t even hear me (this, I have since learned, is a coping strategy that the entire family seems to have for avoiding the press or questions they don’t want to answer). So I didn’t actually talk to him that weekend, but I was in the same room with him quite a bit – more than enough to observe him. I probably should add that I could have interviewed him if I hadn’t blown my chance! I was told I could meet with him in the hotel restaurant, which was called The Star Cafe. But I misheard and went to the Starbucks instead!
Willa: Oh no!
Raven: By the time I figured out I was in the wrong place – and that she actually meant The Star Cafe which was right across from the Starbucks – it was too late. So I’ll never know if Joe and I might have gotten past our initial awkward encounter.
My experience with Katherine two years later was similar. I was in the same room with her, but never actually got face time. I had been told before I left that an interview might be possible, but once I got there, was informed that Katherine wasn’t going to do any press. Still, I treasure those experiences because I got to be around both of Michael’s parents and it afforded me a good opportunity to really observe both of them. And I can say that both of them are exactly as their children have described them! No exaggerations.
Willa: Wow, that’s amazing. I can’t imagine being in the same room with either of them. You know, there are a thousand questions I’d love to ask them, but if I actually saw them in person, I wonder if I’d really be able to ask …
Raven: Yes, and the toughest part is that you never really know what kinds of questions are totally off limits. You can choose to play it safe and ask the generic kinds of questions that you know will only net the same ol’ answers, or you can take the gamble of asking the really juicy questions that you really want to know – but which are apt to get you completely iced out. I usually start with a few “safe” questions to feel the subject out; if they seem comfortable, I may go for the tougher ones. But it also depends on how much time has been allotted.
I would say, however, that although Joe has a much crustier exterior, he actually seems to be the more amiable of the two. Katherine is much more reserved; she is very shy and doesn’t really enjoy doing press, and seems very embarrassed to have too much attention focused on her. She will usually prefer to sit in an inconspicuous corner in the back of the room, avoiding the fanfare as much as possible. Joe, on the other hand, seems to enjoy meeting the fans and the adulation – unless you cross him in some way, which I apparently did without even realizing it.
But to steer this back to the point, Michael did have a deep-rooted fear of his father. All of the Jackson children did, and as a result, they came to dread evenings and nights when they knew he would be home. Whatever the deep rooted, underlying causes, a fear of the darkness and of night did seem to plague Michael into adulthood, although it was not consistent. For example, he loved taking nighttime walks around Neverland. By his own account, he would often go out at night to sit in The Giving Tree. He seemed to be at peace with his infamous insomnia when not under the pressure of touring – in fact, he took advantage of those dark hours to engage in some of his most intense creativity. (I am just the opposite. I have to do my most intense creative thinking in the mornings, and am usually “braindead” by night!) But Michael was very much a night owl who seemed, on the one hand, to welcome the dark hours.
On the other hand, however, it seemed he also sought ways to avoid it as much as possible: Keeping a light on all night, for example (and often, what fitful sleep he did get was beneath a glaring light) and a distraction such as TV or a computer – these are all, to some degree, means of avoidance, a kind of artificial environment that simulates daytime comforts as a way of postponing or avoiding absolute darkness. I understand completely, because it is the same reason why I immediately turn on the TV when I check into a hotel room if I am alone (oddly enough, I don’t indulge this habit if I am with someone). It’s a way of creating an artificial comfort zone, so we don’t feel so alone. I sense that Michael had these fears of being alone in total darkness.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Raven. So it’s like, for him personally, the moon and nighttime in general played a fascinating double role, as a time of creative inspiration but also fear. But in his previous work – meaning his songs and poems and videos before “Scared of the Moon” – he’d only expressed the positive role the moon played for him, as muse and creative spark. So maybe “Scared of the Moon” is balancing that out by presenting the other side, and expressing hidden fears that he hadn’t expressed before – a time of night terrors where the moon is “the enemy.”
Raven: I had another interesting revelation on this topic last week when I assigned one of my classes to read “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I am sure you are probably familiar with the story, but for those who don’t know, it is a story Gilman wrote in 1892 about a woman with postpartum depression who is confined by her well-meaning but controlling husband, who is a physician, to the “bed rest” cure. The “cure” backfires, however, because her confinement slowly drives her insane. With nothing better or more fulfilling to do day in and night out, she starts to obsess over the patterns in the hideous, yellow wallpaper that decorates her room. Eventually, she starts to hallucinate and imagines that within the wallpaper’s patterns she sees women, trapped like herself, within it. This irrational fear and obsession starts to eat away at her sanity. Eventually, she starts to dread her nights alone with the wallpaper worst of all:
There is one marked peculiarity about this paper, a thing nobody seems to notice but myself, and that is that it changes as the light changes.
When the sun shoots in through the east window – I always watch for that first long, straight line – it changes so quickly that I can never quite believe it.
That is why I watch it always.
By moonlight – the moon shines in all night when there is a moon – I wouldn’t know it was the same paper.
At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it as plain as can be.
I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman.
By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still. It is so puzzling. It keeps me quiet by the hour.
It does not take astute readers long, however, to learn that the narrator and the woman “behind the pattern” are one and the same. This passage, likewise, bears a striking similarity to the girl Michael is singing about in “Scared of the Moon.” In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator likewise becomes “scared of the moon” because she starts to dread when the moon’s light will play on her mind and eye, transforming the pattern of the wallpaper into the bars of her own prison. It is, of course, the illusion she fears, rather than the moon itself. But again, it is that idea of the moon as the thing that is synonymous with nighttime fears and all which we suppress in light of day.
Willa: That’s a fascinating connection, Raven. Those lines you quoted really remind me of the opening lines of “Scared of the Moon”:
Alone she lays waiting
Surrounded by gloom
Invaded by shadows
Painting the room
The light from the window
Cuts through the air
And pins the child lying there
Scared of the moon
And another similarity is that both are told in a way that’s very sympathetic toward the main character. The woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is also the narrator and she seems so trustworthy, so reasonable, that it comes as a terrible shock to learn that she has apparently slipped into madness – pushed there by being locked in isolation day after day.
And we really sympathize with the girl in “Scared of the Moon” also, who may be suffering from a type of “lunacy” also. Mental illness is frightening, so we may try to distance ourselves from people who suffer from it. But both Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Michael Jackson encourage us to identify with their characters, and experience the fears they experience. That’s interesting. Thank you for sharing that, Raven, and thank you so much for joining me!
Raven: My pleasure. Thank you again for inviting me.
Willa: Oh, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.
I also wanted to add a quick note following up on our last post. Vanity Fair has removed a number of Maureen Orth’s articles – including “Losing His Grip” and “Neverland’s Lost Boys” – from their website. So thank you sincerely to everyone who contacted them. It seems to have made a difference. I hope Vanity Fair will now do the right thing and print a correction or retraction. I think journalistic ethics and integrity, as well as common decency, demand it.