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.