Joie: So, Willa, it’s a new season for Dancing with the Elephant, and I thought we could start by talking about some of the new Michael Jackson material. And I have a confession to make that I think might shock you a little bit. I’m actually not very fond of Xscape.
Willa: Wow, Joie, you’re right – I am shocked. I prefer Michael to Xscape but I like them both and listen to them a lot. So do you actually dislike Xscape, or is it just not your favorite? I mean, it’s up against some pretty stiff competition – Thriller, Dangerous, HIStory … and I know how much you love Invincible …
Joie: Well, that’s true, I do love Invincible. But maybe I should rephrase my earlier statement. It’s not that I’m not fond of Xscape, it’s just that there wasn’t much on the album that was new to me.
Let me explain … for a long time, even before Michael passed away, I had been sort of obsessed with scouring the Internet for unreleased MJ material. So, most of what was on the Xscape album had been in my collection of unreleased material for a few years. The only ones I hadn’t heard before were “Chicago” and “Loving You.”
Willa: Oh, I see what you’re saying, and that makes sense. I was really surprised when I first heard “Love Never Felt So Good” on Xscape – I’d been listening to that demo version for so long I’d forgotten it hadn’t been released! It was like listening to a new album and suddenly hearing “The Way You Make Me Feel” come out the speakers. I was thinking, Hey, what’s that doing on here? So I know what you mean, and I know how impressive your collection is! – much better than mine. In fact, I think almost all of the unreleased songs I have came from you, along with demos of released songs.
And I have to say, I love listening to Michael Jackson’s demos. In fact, I really haven’t listened to the “contemporized” songs on Xscape that much, but I’ve listened to the demo tracks a lot. And I know I’ve said this before, but I really wish they’d release the demos for Michael. I’m so happy they did that for Xscape, and hope they’ll continue that practice with all his posthumous albums. It’s a great idea, I think – they were really smart to offer Xscape that way.
Joie: I agree, it was a smart thing to do. And I agree without a doubt – I also prefer the original versions of the songs over the “contemporized” versions. But there is one song on the album that sort of puzzles me. It’s “Slave to the Rhythm.”
I don’t really know if “puzzles” is the right word, but the thing is … the version of this song that I first came across online doesn’t sound anything like the enhanced, “produced,” “contemporized” version on the album. But I was really shocked the first time I listened to the untouched demo version because the version I have doesn’t sound anything like it either. And I have to say that I much prefer the version that I’ve been listening to for a couple of years to either of the two on the album. It’s really strange.
For the longest time I didn’t have any information at all on the version that I found online, so I had no idea who mixed it or who was behind it … or even if Michael had anything to do with it or not. But I believe it sounds truer to a finished product that Michael would have released than either of the versions on the album.
You know, the bad part is that it’s been so long now, for the longest time I honestly didn’t remember where I first came across it, and I still don’t. But thanks to the power of YouTube I was able to find it there recently:
Apparently it’s a remix made by Tricky Stewart that was leaked online in 2010, although it really seems like I’ve had this version in my collection for a lot longer than that, but maybe not.
Willa: Wow, Joie, I’ve heard the two Xscape versions and the Justin Bieber version (here’s a link to that in case someone missed it) but I’ve never heard this one before. Whether it was sanctioned by Michael Jackson or not, whoever produced it somehow had to have access to his vocal tracks, right? And they were hard to find before the demo came out on Xscape, weren’t they? I mean, even you didn’t have a copy, with your extensive collection. That’s really intriguing. I wonder where it came from …
Joie: But the mysterious version is not the only interesting thing about this song. I happen to just love the song itself for many reasons- not the least of which is the lyrics. The song opens with these lines:
She dances in the sheets at night
She dances to his needs
She dances ‘til he feels just right
Until he falls asleep
So right off the bat, he sets a very distinct tone with this one. We know from the first few lines that this is a woman who caters to her man, whether that’s what she wants to do or not. “She dances to his needs.”
Willa: It is very interesting that he starts this song that way, isn’t it? A lot of his songs feel really cinemagraphic to me, if that makes sense – it’s like they describe a series of visual scenes, just like a movie – and the “opening scene” of this song, if I can describe it that way, is of them in bed having sex. It doesn’t feel right to call it “making love” because expressing love doesn’t seem to have much to do with it. It should be a moment of intimacy, but it isn’t. It’s her serving his needs, which is excellent foreshadowing for what the song is about.
Joie: Exactly. And Willa, this is where the three different versions make things really interesting for me, because I feel like in the Tricky Stewart version, the music sets an almost menacing tone for this song that I don’t feel is there in the other two versions. And I think something really gets lost in translation without this menacing, ominous beat.
Willa: That’s so interesting you should say that, Joie, because I’ve been pondering that very thing – about whether this song feels menacing or not. To be honest, the first time I heard the demo version I felt really unsettled by it. I thought this woman was in an abusive situation, and it felt very threatening to me. I just wanted her to grab the kids and go. And when she decides to come back to him at the end and stay in that situation, I was really disturbed by that. Anything would be better than letting a man abuse her children and her.
But as I’ve listened to it more, I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think he is abusive, though he’s definitely not a nice guy. He’s domineering and self-centered and emotionally distant, and he takes everything she does for granted – as Michael Jackson sings so convincingly, “She works so hard … For a man who just don’t appreciate” – but I don’t think he’s physically abusive. And really, this song isn’t about him. It’s about her and the choices she makes, and why she makes the choices she does. As you say, Joie, she spends her life catering to the needs of others – mainly her husband, but also her children and her boss. Meeting their demands forms the “rhythm” of her life, and she’s a slave to that rhythm.
Joie: I like the way you put that, Willa – meeting their demands does form the rhythm of her life. In that same first verse, Michael tells us this:
She dances at the crack of dawn
And quickly cooks his food
She can’t be late, can’t take too long
The kids must get to school
Then in the second verse, she keeps right on dancing…
She dances for the man at work
Who works her overtime
She can’t be rude as she says “Sir,
I must be home tonight.”
So, you’re absolutely right … it’s not just her domineering husband that she caters to; it’s the kids and her boss as well. And we get the sense that it’s rare for her to take any time for herself. But when listening to the other two versions of this song, I just don’t get that sense of urgency or the hint of danger that I do when listening to the Tricky Stewart version.
Willa: Really? Because the demo version begins with a sort of melancholy tune and then the whistle and crack of a whip – it’s at 0:22, just as he sings a long, quavering “Ahhhhhhhh.” It’s not on the other versions – I don’t know why they removed it – and the sound of that whip makes me flinch every time. It’s very menacing, to use that word again, and it’s also important thematically, I think. Her husband and her boss are both like slave drivers – they’re constantly “cracking the whip” and never let her relax for one moment or take time for herself, as you said. And the crack of the whip at the beginning of the demo version makes that very clear, and very literal. In fact, I think that’s one reason I thought he was abusive the first time I heard it. It creates an impression of physical danger.
Joie: Yes, but even with the sound of the cracking whip at the beginning of the demo version, the tempo of the song, the beat, is still quite mellow to me. The music is softer and less threatening. Whereas the Tricky Stewart version picks up the tempo slightly and adds the driving, aggressive beat behind it. To me it feels truer to the word “menacing” than the demo version does. The demo, for me anyway, evokes a feeling of being bone tired, working a relentless nine-to-five job that you don’t enjoy, then going home and having to work a second full-time job taking care of a demanding husband and kids.
Willa: Which is one way to interpret this song …
Joie: The Tricky Stewart version, on the other hand, evokes a real feeling of danger to me. There’s a tangible threat there when the woman in the song is late getting dinner on the table.
She dances to the kitchen stove
Dinner is served by nine
He says this food’s an hour late
She must be out her mind
I actually shudder to wonder what the man might do to her as punishment for getting his dinner on the table so late. I don’t do that when I listen to the other versions of this song. I don’t feel as physically threatened, if that makes any sense.
Willa: It does make sense, and this verse feels really threatening to me as well – though I feel it just as strongly on the demo version. I mean, if he gets that angry over a late meal, how does he react when there’s a real problem or conflict? It’s very threatening …
Joie: And the threat doesn’t stop there with that verse. He goes on to tell us that she actually ran for her life.
She danced the night that they fell out
She swore she’d dance no more
But dance she did, she did not quit
As she ran out the door
She danced through the night in fear of her life
She danced to a beat of her own
She let out a cry and swallowed her pride
She knew she was needed back home
So I think your earlier questions that this might be an abusive relationship are right on the mark here. I believe he is physically abusive. And I believe she goes back at the end, not for him, but for her children. She knew that she could never be truly free if she escaped that abusive situation without them. She couldn’t just leave them there. So she “let out a cry and swallowed her pride / She knew she was needed back home.”
Willa: I definitely see what you’re saying, Joie, because that’s how it struck me the first time I heard it. But gradually, as I listened to it more, I began to wonder if that was right or not. I mean, the lyrics say, “She danced the night that they fell out.” To me, that expression “fell out” implies an argument, where both sides are mad and making their case. So did he become abusive and she ran to avoid him, or did she finally stand up to him and have it out with him, and left because she was angry with him? My thinking about this has really changed over time, and while I can still see it either way, right now I’m leaning more the other way – that she finally had enough and stood up to him.
But then she spends the night wandering the city, and that feels really threatening to her – she has no place to go, so is on the streets “in fear of her life.” But it also says “She danced to a beat of her own.” That’s a really important moment, I think. Up to this point, the rhythm of her life has been determined by others: her husband, her boss, her children. So she’s finally able to dance to her own rhythm, which must feel liberating to some extent, but she’s also in danger and she knows her children need her. So it’s a very short-lived kind of freedom, and under terrible circumstances where she can’t enjoy it or fully express it.
So she “swallows her pride” and goes home. To me, that “swallows her pride” line is important. It wasn’t fear of her husband that was keeping her out on the streets – it was pride. And again, to me that suggests she finally stood up to him and asserted herself, and that’s why they “fell out.” But now she’s decided to go home, submit to his demands once again, and resume the same pattern of work and servitude that she endured before.
Joie: Well, you may be right, but I just hate to think of it that way because it means she willingly walked back into that horrible situation not because of love, but because she felt helpless. Like she had no other choice.
Willa: Well, she loves her children, as you said earlier, and she knows they need her …
Joie: But here’s the thing, Willa … I know that these same words are there in all three versions of this song. But the point I’m trying to make is that the whole feel of the song – or at least, the feeling it leaves me with, the impression it makes on me – changes dramatically depending on which version I’m listening to.
Willa: I agree – they each create a very different feeling, but I still think the demo version is more … somber. The Tricky Stewart version has kind of a techno pop sound that makes it seem like something you’d hear at a dance club. And actually, the Timbaland version sounds like a dance club song also. It begins with that same haunting melody we hear in the demo, but now with the solemn beat of a drum and the sound of someone walking in chains in time to the music, which is really effective, I think. But then that abruptly ends as a fast, electronic, techno pop rhythm comes in.
And in some ways, I like that pounding, driving beat – it ties in really well with the idea that “she’s a slave to the rhythm,” forced to dance as fast as she can, all day, every day. But at the same time, to me all that buzzing and popping and other sound effects we hear on the Tricky Stewart and Timbaland versions actually lighten the mood. They turn it into an upbeat dance song. So for me, the quieter mood of the original fits the mood of the song better.
But you know, it’s interesting that we both prefer the version we came to know first, and I wonder if that’s part of it? Maybe if I’d been listening to the Tricky Stewart version for a few years, like you have, I might have a similar reaction, and the demo would sound too bare or too soft to me also.
Joie: I actually think that has a lot to do with it. To me, the two versions on the album seem almost bare and stripped down … way too mellow for such a strong song with such a powerful theme, and I know it’s because I’ve been listening to a completely different version for several years now. So, to me the two versions on the album just seem foreign and not quite right. Strange, isn’t it?
Willa: So this week Joie and I wanted to talk about a song that’s a favorite for both of us: “Whatever Happens” from the Invincible album. I was so glad you suggested it, Joie, because I absolutely love this song.
Joie: Now that’s really funny to me, Willa, because I remember you suggesting this song, not me. And when you did, I was really happy because it’s been one of my favorites from the start.
Willa: Really? I suggested it? Wow, Joie, I’m sorry – I have this middle-aged brain and it’s not always super reliable. I was sure you’d suggested it, and I remember being excited about it.… Anyway, I think I’ve told you this before, but after Michael Jackson died I played this song a lot. For some reason, it was really comforting to me, just hearing that beautiful voice sing, “Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand.”
Joie: Actually, I don’t think I knew that, but I can understand it perfectly.
Willa: Yeah, it’s like it conveyed something I really needed to hear right then. But I loved it even before he died. It tells a complicated story that isn’t resolved at the end, so it’s bittersweet, as many of his songs are. And you know, one thing that’s interesting about this song is that, in it, we see the intersection of two important themes for Michael Jackson. The first is the problem of communication between men and women, which runs throughout his songwriting – especially on the Invincible album. We talked about that a little bit during our month-long celebration of Invincible. And the other is the problem of work, and how crushing it can be to the spirit to work in an unfulfilling job.
Joie: Ok, first I want to say that I loved that month-long celebration of Invincible so much. Those posts are still some of my most favorite that we’ve ever done, and I know it’s because I just completely adore that album from start to finish!
But enough gushing … because you just said something that sort of puzzles me. I never think about the theme of working an unfulfilling job as a Michael Jackson staple. I’m probably going to be smacking my head in a moment, but besides “Working Day and Night” I can’t think of any song where this theme has played a major part, so please explain.
Willa: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a staple – it’s not something he focuses on in song after song, like he does with some other themes. But he does touch on it every so often, and he focuses on it pretty extensively in “Working Day and Night,” like you said, and in “Keep Your Head Up.” As he sings in the opening verse:
She’s working two jobs, keeping alive
She works in a restaurant night and day
She waits her life away
She wipes her tears away
It’s part of “Slave to the Rhythm” also, though there’s more going on than that. The main character isn’t just working in an unfulfilling job during the day. When she comes home at night she’s also slaving away for an unappreciative husband. And it’s central to “Whatever Happens,” of course.
Joie: Ok, I see what you mean now, and you’re right, it is a theme he touches on more than once.
Willa: And over a long period of time. “Working Day and Night” was released in 1979 and “Whatever Happens” in 2001. That’s more than two decades.
But you know, it’s really interesting to compare these two songs because they’re both addressing a similar scenario – a man toiling away in a dead-end job because of the woman he loves – but they couldn’t be more different. In “Working Day and Night,” his girlfriend is encouraging to him to put in the hours on that job because she wants his money. But the situation in “Whatever Happens” is much more subtle and much more complicated than that.
Joie: I agree that the situation in “Whatever Happens” is much more complicated than the high-maintenance girlfriend in “Working Day and Night.”
In “Whatever Happens” we are introduced to a couple in love – presumably a husband and wife – who obviously love and care very deeply about one another, but they are in the middle of a crisis of some type. And although we are never told exactly what the conflict is between them, we know immediately that it’s a pretty serious issue, as he sings in the opening verse:
He gives another smile
Tries to understand her side
To show that he cares
She can’t stay in the room
With everything that’s been going on
“Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand”
So right off the bat, he tells us that the man is trying very hard to understand her side of things, but the woman is so upset about the situation that she can’t even stay in the same room and discuss it. But at the same time, she begs him not to let go of her hand, no matter what.
Willa: What a terrible situation! And you’re right, Joie – she’s “so upset … she can’t even stay in the room to discuss it.” You know, as many times as I’ve listened to that song, I never got that before. But you’re right, she leaves the room when he tries to talk to her – and that’s really important because, whatever the crisis is, the real problem is that they can’t seem to talk about it. We see that in the second verse also:
“Everything will be all right,”
He assures her
But she doesn’t hear a word that he says
Afraid what they’ve been doing’s not right
He doesn’t know what to say
So he prays,
“Whatever, whatever, whatever
Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand”
So he tries to talk to her – tries to tell her “Everything will be all right” – but she either can’t or won’t listen to him: “she doesn’t hear a word that he says.” So by the end of the verse he seems to give up. Instead of talking to her, he’s praying.
They both really care about one another, obviously, and they don’t want to break up. The first verse ends with her saying “don’t let go of my hand,” as you said, Joie, and the second verse ends with him praying the exact same words. And by the end, in the ad libs, Michael Jackson is singing, “I said, yeah, don’t you let go, baby.” So the pronouns shift from “she says” to “he prays” to “I said.” I swear, someone could write a book simply about his use of pronouns, and how he’s constantly shifting point of view.
So we look at this situation from her perspective and his perspective, and they both truly want to be together, but you can just feel them tearing apart. It’s really tragic. Neither one wants it – we can see that very clearly – but they don’t seem to know how to stop it.
Joie: It does seem like a very heartbreaking song on some level, doesn’t it? And in the third verse we see that theme of working a dead-end job that you mentioned before when he says:
He’s working day and night
Thinks he’ll make her happy
Forgetting all the dreams that he had
He doesn’t realize
It’s not the end of the world
It doesn’t have to be that bad
She tries to explain,
“It’s you that makes me happy”
So here is where we see the main difference between this song and “Working Day and Night,” because unlike the girl who only wants his money, the woman in this song isn’t interested in the things the man’s money can buy her. Instead, she keeps trying to tell him that he is what makes her happy, not the money or the things, just being with him. But he doesn’t seem to understand this, and instead he’s focused on spending all of his time working to buy those “things” when he could be focusing on following the dreams he once had, and on the love that they presumably once shared.
Willa: Yes, though is he working just to buy extravagant things, or does his paycheck pay the rent? or the mortgage? or buy clothes for the kids? Just making ends meet can be really overwhelming when you’re on a tight budget – so overwhelming it’s hard to remember your dreams. And Michael Jackson seemed very aware of that fact – that, ironically, sometimes it’s the ones we love most who end up trapping us in an unfulfilling life. For example, he sings this in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”:
If you can’t feed your baby
Then don’t have a baby
And don’t think maybe
If you can’t feed your baby
You’ll be always trying
To stop that child from crying
Hustling, stealing, lying
Now baby’s slowly dying
So he’s telling this person that, if she has a baby she isn’t able to care for financially – at least not yet, not at this point in her life – then she could become trapped in a life of “hustling, stealing, lying” to try to support her child. We don’t know, but it could be kind of a similar situation in “Whatever Happens.” It could be the man in the story is giving up his dreams and working in a boring job because they really need the money.
Joie: Well, that’s certainly true, Willa. And I know from experience that men tend to internalize that kind of thing, and carry it around like they have the entire world sitting on their shoulders. They let it become their whole existence until they’re just crushed by the depression and the stress of trying to make ends meet. And I think you’re right, I believe that is what’s going on in this song, at least in part. And I feel like I identify with the woman in this song. I understand what she’s going through, trying to make him understand that worrying about the money – or lack thereof – is no way to live. They still have each other. They could still find a way to pursue their dreams and focus on the love they share, instead of always obsessing over the lack of money. It gets frustrating trying to keep a man in a positive frame of mind when money is extremely tight.
In fact, now that I think about it … I’m seeing that first verse a lot differently. When he says,
She can’t stay in the room
With everything that’s been going on
Before I said that she was so upset that she couldn’t even stay in the room and discuss their problems. But now, looking at this song in a new light, I think she can’t stay in the room not because she’s upset, but because she’s frustrated and angry. She feels like she’s beating her head against a brick wall trying to make him understand that their money problems are “not the end of the world.” And I think this interpretation is supported by that third verse you mentioned earlier.
Willa: Wow, Joie, that’s a really interesting way of approaching this – that it’s highlighting a cultural difference between men and women, and “that men tend to internalize that kind of thing, and carry it around like they have the entire world sitting on their shoulders.” That really jumped out at me when you said that because it ties in with something he expresses in “Working Day and Night”:
You say that working
Is what a man’s supposed to do
But I say it ain’t right
If I can’t give sweet love to you
I’m tired of thinking
Of what my life’s supposed to be
So he’s questioning that expectation that men are supposed to bury themselves in work and be the providers – which is a terrible burden, especially if they’re stuck in a job they don’t like. But many men do it because, as he says, “working / Is what a man’s supposed to do.”
Joie: It is a terrible burden, Willa. I’m sure we can all relate to working a job that we hated at some point in our lives. If we’re lucky, that happens at the start of our adult lives when we’re young, and then we go on to discover what it is that we really love to do and are able to transition into a job that we enjoy. But for many people it doesn’t always happen that way, and it’s unfortunate. And it can cause some really distressing issues in our personal lives. In fact, it could even be detrimental to our health, both physically and emotionally.
Willa: That’s true, or even change our personalities to some extent. Our dreams are a big part of us, of who we are. They help define us. If we give up our dreams, we lose that part of ourselves, and it changes us.
Joie: That’s very true, Willa.
Willa: So the woman in “Whatever Happens,” she obviously loves this man – a man who had dreams – but now he’s giving up those dreams, so he’s not quite the same person she fell in love with. But he’s making that sacrifice for her, or thinks he is. As the narrator sings in the last verse you quoted, Joie, “He’s working day and night / Thinks he’ll make her happy / Forgetting all the dreams that he had.” But she doesn’t want him to give up his dreams.
Joie: No, she doesn’t. And she keeps trying to explain that to him, but he’s not getting it because all he can see are their money issues.
Willa: It does seem that way, doesn’t it? Though the song begins with the lines “He gives another smile / Tries to understand her side / To show that he cares,” as you quoted earlier. So he’s trying to see things from her perspective. But he doesn’t seem able to, and she doesn’t understand him either – can’t even listen to him – so they’re both really frustrated.
It’s a really complicated situation, and you can genuinely feel for both sides. This is not a simple story of a good guy and an uncaring woman taking advantage of him, which seems to be the situation in “Working Day and Night,” or a good woman and an uncaring man taking her for granted, which is what we see in “Slave to the Rhythm.” Rather, it’s a much more complicated story that explores all the conflicting emotions of two people who love each other deeply and want what’s best for the person they love – they truly want to make each other happy – but they can’t understand each other, can’t even see what the other person really wants and needs. So they’re pulling against each other and struggling to resolve it without tearing themselves apart.
You know, Joie, actually, thinking about all this … I’m thinking maybe you’re right – maybe I did suggest this song. I know I was thinking about it quite a bit while we were doing our last post on “Someone Put Your Hand Out” – specifically, when we were talking about that line that refers to “handicapped emotions.” There were quite a few people – even people who seemed to genuinely like Michael Jackson – who suggested he was in a state of arrested development. Specifically, they seemed to think that because he maintained a childlike wonder, he never matured psychologically beyond the level of a child.
For example, here’s an interview with John Landis, and it’s obvious he feels great affection for Michael Jackson. But he also says he was like “an incredibly gifted 10 year old” and that he was “emotionally stunted”:
I have such mixed reactions watching this. I have some good feelings for him because he clearly cared about Michael Jackson and is very upset that he’s gone, but I’m also just stunned at some of the things he says. I mean, John Landis is known for creating adolescent comedies like Animal House and American Werewolf in London, and there are some funny scenes, but have you seen Kentucky Fried Movie? I hate to be critical, but my goodness … talk about juvenile …
Joie: I don’t know, Willa, I think it’s a really nice interview. I think we get to see John just being John, and I love the fact that he gets emotional and doesn’t try to hide it or explain it away. He talks about Michael wearing his heart on his sleeve, and yet here he is wiping tears because his friend is gone.
Willa: That’s true.
Joie: And yes, I have seen Kentucky Fried Movie, and Animal House, both of which I find very juvenile. But I’ve always loved An American Werewolf, so I understand what you’re saying, but I think what he’s getting at is that Michael wasn’t so much “juvenile” as he was “childlike.” You know there’s a difference between movies with juvenile humor and movies with childlike charm. One is very immature jokes with sexual connotations while the other is sweet, innocent fun and adventure. So when he calls Michael a “really talented 10 year old,” to me he’s saying that Michael had a very “childlike” nature and thought process.
Willa: Yes, but he also says he was “emotionally stunted” and “had all kinds of issues.” I haven’t seen all of John Landis’ movies by any means, but as far as I know he never created anything as emotionally complex as “Whatever Happens.” I mean, he’s a professional filmmaker, but has he ever made a film with the emotional depth or nuance of Billie Jean or Smooth Criminal or Stranger in Moscow? Or what about the profound psychological insights of Ghosts – or Thriller, for that matter? He directed Thriller, but whenever he talks about it he doesn’t seem to realize it’s anything more than a cheesy monster movie. And yet he describes Michael Jackson as a “gifted 10 year old.” How is that possible, that the man who created Kentucky Fried Movie calls the man who created “Whatever Happens” – a poignant, exquisite song that explores the heartbreak of two adults struggling through painful, difficult emotions – “emotionally stunted”? That just feels completely backwards to me.
Joie: Well, I haven’t seen all of his films either, but I have seen several. And while I agree completely that we wouldn’t normally think of someone who is labeled as “emotionally stunted” as being able to create works so emotionally complex as “Whatever Happens,” “Billie Jean” or “Stranger in Moscow,” I would argue that John Landis is actually brilliant at what he does. You know, everybody thinks that comedy is easy and horror always gets a bad rap … but there is actually a great deal of skill and mastery needed to scare people half to death or make them laugh, and do both in really intelligent – or juvenile – ways. I mean, they may not have been Oscar contenders, but John Landis is responsible for some of the most iconic films in our culture. You named two of them: Animal House and An American Werewolf in London. But there are others too, like The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, and Coming to America. All five of those films are beloved by millions of people.
And, Willa … I stand by what I said in our last post on “Someone Put Your Hand Out.” I believe that Michael did have what he himself called “handicapped emotions” in that song. I believe that he was able to express himself so beautifully in song, with lyrics that were poignant and full of complex emotional depth and “profound psychological insights.” But I also believe that on some level, at the very core of who he was, Michael was, if not “emotionally stunted,” emotionally handicapped.
You have to think about how he grew up. He had a childhood that not many of us could ever truly comprehend. He was never allowed to really play or interact with other children his age because he was always working. Always being groomed to think about work, to think about how he was perceived by the audience, and how to make the performance better. That was his life from age three. He didn’t learn things like how to properly interact with others his age. He didn’t learn the normal social cues that other children learn at the various life stages. Willa, there is a reason why he never had a “normal” courtship or married life with either of his two wives, and there are lots of quotes out there from people who believe that Michael was sort of an asexual being. Well, I can’t speak on that, but I do believe that he was simply unable to express that kind of real feeling or emotion unless it was in a song, or in a video, or on a stage. I believe that unless it had to do with a performance, it just wasn’t in his repertoire. The performance was his life. His life was the performance. So, in that sense, I think the term “emotionally stunted” is accurate.
Willa: Wow, Joie, I’m astonished. I guess this is one of those areas where we’re just going to have to agree to disagree, because I disagree completely. I have a lot of friends who are not coupled up in long-term relationships, and there is absolutely nothing “emotionally handicapped” about them. Things just didn’t work out that way for them, or they chose not to live that way. But I disagree that says anything about them psychologically, and I also disagree with the assumption that if people aren’t coupled up then that’s evidence there’s something wrong with them.
In fact, I think that assumption is really dangerous, and one of the biases Michael Jackson had to fight against. I think a lot of people assumed there was something wrong with him, and that maybe he really was a pedophile, simply because he wasn’t married or have a long-term girlfriend. And I think he understood that. As the Mayor tells the Maestro in Ghosts, “You’re weird, you’re strange, and I don’t like you. You’re scaring these kids, living up here all alone.” I think the Mayor is simply echoing what a lot of people were saying about Michael Jackson back then – that he was “weird” and “strange” and scary simply because he lived alone.
By the way, it’s interesting how the Maestro responds to the Mayor in Ghosts. He says, “I’m not alone” and then brings a host of fantasy people to life, so the townspeople can see the figures who have been populating his imagination. In other words, he’s not alone because of his art, and his life is full because of his art.
Joie: I think you’re misunderstanding me. I’m not saying that because he wasn’t in a long-term relationship that something must have been wrong with him. In fact, I shouldn’t have even brought up his romantic relationships at all, but I was attempting to illustrate my point. A point which you ignored completely in your rush to defend how he lived his life. But you’re right in saying it’s dangerous to make assumptions about a person’s psychological makeup by looking at their relationship status – and that’s not what I was doing. I’m sorry if it came off that way.
Willa: I’m sorry, Joie. I guess I did misunderstand you. I should have asked you to clarify, rather than jumping in and preaching you a sermon. I’m sorry about that.
Joie: Well, that’s ok. But the point I was trying to make is that Michael didn’t grow up like other kids. He didn’t spend time with other kids his age – at any age! Besides his brothers, he was always in the company of adults, talking about adult things like work and how to do the work better, and how to become the best at it. He never had a chance to learn all of the subtle, nuanced social cues that most 5 year olds learn from other 5 year olds. Or the ones that 8 year olds learn from other 8 year olds. Or the ones that 12 year olds learn from other 12 year olds, and so on, and so on, and so on. So, in that sense, he was emotionally, and socially, stunted.
Willa: Well, I think I have a better idea now of what you mean, Joie, and you’re right – I don’t think anyone else has ever had a childhood like he had. Not only was he a child star, but he was put in the difficult role of being a representative of black America when he was only 10 years old. If he did something wrong, it wasn’t just damaging to him and his reputation – it also reflected badly on an entire race of people. That’s a huge additional pressure – something Shirley Temple and Elizabeth Taylor and Justin Bieber never had to think about. That pressure only intensified as their success – the success of the Jackson 5 and him personally – grew, and he had a very controlling father who was determined his sons weren’t going to mess up. As you said, Joie, it’s hard to even imagine what that was like – what his childhood was like. But while I agree he had an extremely difficult childhood, and it must have had an effect on him, I still disagree that he was left “emotionally stunted” because of all that.
Joie: Well, that’s ok too. It’s ok to disagree about things. But I think something you just said sort makes my point for me. In talking about Ghosts, you said, “He says, ‘I’m not alone’ and then brings a host of fantasy people to life, so the townspeople can see the figures who have been populating his imagination. In other words, he’s not alone because of his art, and his life is full because of his art.” This is exactly what I meant when I said that the performance was his life, and his life was the performance. That’s what it was all about for him, and yes, he lived a beautiful and fulfilled life because of it. But, Willa … someone who lives their life completely inside their own imagination is by definition socially – and therefore emotionally – stunted to some degree.
Willa: I think I see what you’re saying, and I agree that in a lot of ways “the performance was his life, and his life was the performance,” as you said. Especially after the 1993 allegations, his life and his art became intertwined in ways that are hard to untangle. But I don’t think he lived his life entirely in his imagination. His imagination enriched his life – and ours as well – but it didn’t replace his life. That wasn’t what I meant when I quoted that scene from Ghosts.
I think that, because of his art, Michael Jackson had a rich, full, rewarding life – he had a kind of emotional self-sufficiency that we aren’t really used to – but he also repeatedly emphasized the connections between us, and how important it is to honor those connections. That’s a different way of being in the world – one that I find both intriguing and inspiring.
It seems to me that a lot of times people are kind of desperate to couple up because they’re lonely or because there’s an emptiness in their lives, and they think sharing their life with someone else will make that loneliness and emptiness go away. We like the romance story where two incomplete people meet and complete each other – where two halves come together and, between them, form a whole – and where everything else is sacrificed to the ideal of romantic love. But ironically, I think this can actually lead us to be “emotionally stunted,” to use John Landis’ words, because in that model we only learn to be half of a whole, not a fulfilled, self-realized person on our own. We see that a little bit in “Whatever Happens,” where this man is limiting himself and sacrificing his dreams to be what he thinks the woman he loves wants him to be.
On the other hand, in America, especially, we have the story of the rugged individual – the loner, the cowboy, the tough-as-nails private investigator – who doesn’t need anyone, and doesn’t really connect with anyone. That’s subtly suggested in “Whatever Happens” also, by the genre of this song. The beginning, especially, sounds like a western. I can easily imagine that intro being used as the soundtrack to a Clint Eastwood movie – one where the mysterious hero rides into town alone, rescues a girl (who inevitably falls in love with him, and just as inevitably dies), gets rid of the bad guys, and then rides off alone.
Those are two competing cultural narratives, and most people pick one or the other. They’re either the rugged individualist or the hopeless romantic. But Michael Jackson is subtly critiquing both of those models, I think – not just here but repeatedly in his art – and he seems to be working toward a different model. It’s one where we find fulfillment within ourselves – something he found through his art – but where we still care deeply for others and value the connections between us.
Joie: Well, I disagree with some of what you’ve said here about romantic love, but mostly I disagree that the man in “Whatever Happens” is limiting himself and sacrificing his dreams to be what he thinks his woman wants him to be. I think he’s limiting himself and sacrificing his dreams because he feels he has no choice financially. He has a family to provide for, and being emotionally stunted by romantic love has nothing to do with that. I’m also not sure I agree that most people choose one or the other between those two cultural narratives you just described. I think it’s possible for a person to be both. But I understand what you’re getting at where Michael is concerned.
Willa: Well, you’re right that I’m talking about these as models, so they’re an extreme. As with any model, few people fit them entirely. Few people are a Clint Eastwood character – the self-reliant individual who doesn’t need anyone, and doesn’t want anyone dependent on them. And on the other hand, few live the romantic ideal we see on screen so often where a person is really only half of a couple, and their sole source of happiness comes from the love they share with their romantic partner.
But I do think that, in general, people tend to see themselves as one or the other – as an autonomous individual or as defined in large part by their relationships. And as with so many dichotomies, Michael Jackson seems to be suggesting a different way. He’s not dependent on others for fulfilment – he finds that within himself through his art. But then he shares that with others, and the connections he feels through his art – to his audience, to the long line of performers who came before him, to the deep rhythms of the cosmos that he talks about in Dancing the Dream – are integral to who he is. As the song says, “You’re Just Another Part of Me.”
So before we go, I wanted to mention a new book that just came out – or actually, Book One of a trilogy. It’s The Algorithm of Desire by Eleanor Bowman, a regular contributor here. In fact, she discussed some of the ideas she was working on for her book in a post with us last spring. To quote Eleanor,
Book One … investigates the role of creation myths in the construction of a society’s perception of reality, how creation myths program a society’s views and values of the world, and how a culture’s worldview and value system promote, or threaten, collective survival.
Eleanor’s ideas are fascinating, and Book Three of her trilogy focuses on Michael Jackson. As she says, he “not only understood the predicament we find ourselves in, but showed us how to ‘heal the world.’” I’m really looking forward to that.
Book One of the trilogy is available now through Amazon, and Eleanor is offering it for free from May 8th through 12th.