Willa: Last April Nina Fonoroff joined me for an interesting discussion about Billie Jean and Michael Jackson’s use of film noir. After that post went up, Elizabeth Amisu posted a couple of comments here and here about “neo-noir” in both Billie Jean and especially Who Is It. I was very intrigued by this since I’d never even heard of neo-noir, so I began talking with Elizabeth about it, and she very generously provided me with some introductory reading to help bring me up to speed – though I’m still very much a neophyte.
So today, Lisha and I are excited to be joined by both Elizabeth and Karin Merx to talk about neo-noir and how it can provide new ways of seeing and thinking about Who Is It, Billie Jean, Smooth Criminal, and other short films. Elizabeth is a lecturer of English Literature and Film Studies, and her ongoing academic research focuses on “high-status representations of black people” in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Her book, The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife, is being published by Praeger in August. Karin is both an academic and a classically trained musician, and she is currently completing her doctoral research in Art History. Last year she published an essay on Michael Jackson’s Stranger in Moscow. Together, Elizabeth and Karin co-founded and co-edit the Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies, which is a wonderful resource for anyone wanting to learn more about Michael Jackson’s art.
Thank you so much for joining us, Elizabeth and Karin! I’m really eager to learn more about neo-noir and how you see it functioning in Michael Jackson’s short films.
Elizabeth: Thank you very much for having us here on Dancing with the Elephant, Willa. It’s a real pleasure to have this conversation with you.
Karin: Thank you, Willa, for having us.
Willa: Oh, I really appreciate the chance to talk with both of you and learn more about this! So what exactly is neo-noir? I know from my conversations with Nina that noir can be really difficult to define. So how do you identify neo-noir when you see it, and how is it different from noir?
Elizabeth: That’s a very good place to start, Willa, because noir forces us to really question the way we define genre in the first place. It includes titles like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, and a whole series of Hollywood films released between 1941 and 1958, whose dark subject matter and cinematic style reflected the negative mood during and after World War II. Noir has easily recognisable and distinctive visual and thematic features, such as a striking use of silhouettes, low-key lighting, femme fatales, confessional voiceovers and dangerous urban landscapes.
Neo-noir, however, emerged in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and it comes in lots of forms, from modern-day attempts at pure noir films, to science-fiction and thrillers. A few key titles are The Usual Suspects, Blade Runner, L.A. Confidential, Se7en, Sin City, and one of my particular favourites, Drive. However, one of the most humorous places to see a noir-style pastiche is the American Dad episode, Star Trek.
Willa: Wow, Elizabeth, that list covers a really broad range. It sounds like neo-noir can be even more difficult to pin down than noir itself …
Elizabeth: Yep, you are so right. It’s that slipperiness of the term which causes so much debate. However, I think that’s what makes noir so fun for discussion. There is never a simple or straightforward answer. One cool thing about noir-style is that it translates across other genres, so Blade Runner is science-fiction, Se7en is a crime thriller, and The Usual Suspects is more of a mystery.
Lisha: Whoa. Hold up for a second here, because I’ll admit that when it comes to film noir, I still think of the instantly recognizable black-and-white Hollywood movie formula with all the cigarette smoking and a private detective in a snap-brim hat tracking down a bunch of shady characters. So can you tell us just a little more about the issues that make noir so difficult to pin down as a genre or style?
Elizabeth: You have a point, Lisha. For a lot of people noir is superficial, but for others noir’s heart lies in its themes rather than the visuals. The word does, however, mean “black film” and it actually grew out of the German Expressionism movement. The films were initially dark because of low-budget requirements.
In Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder (Willa and Nina’s discussion on Billie Jean featured it) the real darkness was found in the idea that the nicest guy in the world, Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray), found himself moving down a path of destruction. There’s a line he says, “I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.” He loses himself entirely because he thinks he can commit murder and get away with it.
That loss of self is very noir. So it’s the head-game, the psychological downfall, which always makes a noir film so compelling.
Lisha: Why do you think noir has been so irresistible for generations of filmmakers to copy as neo-noir? What accounts for its long-lasting appeal?
Elizabeth: That’s hard to say. It’s definitely true that the noir movement ended before the sixties. It just didn’t chime with the popularity of free love and liberation. However, when there’s a significant downturn, political intrigue, war and espionage, noir-style and noir-themes show up time and again.
Karin: Styles or tendencies are often revisited by artists, hence the word “neo,” from “neos” meaning “young” in the Greek. So we have words like “neo-expressionism.”
Elizabeth: Of course everyone knows the character Neo from the film, The Matrix. He is the “one,” the young saviour.
Willa: That’s interesting. So it sounds like filmmakers – and audiences too – are drawn to noir and neo-noir when they’re feeling anxious, like during a war or recession or other social unrest.
Lisha: It’s as if social events dictate when artistic themes become relevant again.
Karin: Yes, Willa and Lisha, artists are sensitive to what happens in society, and often use the general dissatisfaction with what is going on in their art. Sometimes even ahead of time.
Willa: Like when the panther dance in Black or White seemed to anticipate the Rodney King riots, as Joe Vogel pointed out in his article, “I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets: Re-screening Black Masculinity in Michael Jackson’s Black or White.”
Lisha: Great example, Willa.
Elizabeth: Also, a noir-style film can be quite compelling on a relatively low budget, which also makes them quite appealing for filmmakers. We are now a far more complex and savvy film-going audience, so a traditional noir film may not appeal to viewers as much as a sexy nostalgic homage (a respectful and admiring nod) to the past, as in L.A. Confidential.
Lisha: That’s true. Movie-goers have come to expect extremely high production values. Although I suspect some of the old films noirs still enjoy some popularity by intersecting with our notion of the “classic.”
Eliza, you also mentioned the term “noir-style pastiche,” so I’m wondering how we might define the term “pastiche.”
Elizabeth: A pastiche is how we term a work of art that is mostly an imitation of another. One film that always ends up in pastiche is the epic film, Spartacus, with people saying, “I am Spartacus!” A pastiche is usually a celebration rather than a mocking of source material. Imitation for comic effect is parody.
Lisha: That’s a good point to keep in mind, that imitation can take many forms – from a nostalgic homage to a parody or spoof. So would you say neo-noir is roughly equivalent to noir-style pastiche? Or does pastiche require a recognizable intertextual reference to a specific work?
Elizabeth: Yes, it would be very apt to refer to neo-noir as film noir in pastiche. Several neo-noir films reference quite specific works but that is not necessary to term a work a pastiche.
Karin: I agree, Elizabeth. Also pastiche is more something we use in postmodernism, by way of using elements we all recognise but put in another context.
Lisha: A tricky example might be Michael Jackson’s engagement with film noir in This Is It. In his Smooth Criminal vignette, he doesn’t imitate the genre as much as he literally inserts himself into noir classics like Gilda and The Big Sleep. Here’s a link:
Elizabeth: It’s so interesting that you say this, Lisha, because I was writing about this in my final edit of my book this morning. I dedicate an entire chapter to Jackson’s use of fashion, and in it I write about how he really made himself part of HIStory by integrating his image into that of classic Hollywood cinema. There’s something so warm and sumptuous about 1930s to 1950s cinema and it’s so clear from Smooth Criminal that this was his intention, to place himself within a classic era in the minds of his viewers.
Willa: Yes, I agree, though it’s also interesting to think about what might have attracted him in terms of the themes of Gilda and The Big Sleep, where nothing is as it seems and we’re never sure who we can trust.
Eliza: I didn’t even think of that. You are so right, Willa. That theme of “trust” is one of the most overarching themes in Jackson’s work, don’t you think? I thought of the moment in Smooth Criminal when the man with the pinstripe suit tries to stab him in the back.
Willa: Wow, what an incredible image! And this screen shot does look very noir, especially when frozen in time like this.
Lisha: It really does. Even though the film is in color, it still manages to capture the shadowy chiaroscuro lighting associated with black and white noir.
And that’s a perfect example, Eliza, on the theme of “trust.” It’s as if Michael Jackson’s character has grown eyes in the back of his head from having to constantly watch his back. Now that you mention it, I do think “trust” is an important overarching theme in Michael Jackson’s work. I’m surprised I hadn’t thought about it before.
Willa, didn’t you identify “Annie, are you ok?” as sort of anti-noir, in that it is a gesture of care and concern for the female character, Annie, rather than an assumption that she is a dangerous femme fatale who needs to be killed off by the heroic male protagonist? In this example, Michael Jackson engages with the film noir theme of distrust, while sharply departing from it at the same time.
Willa: Yes, so this is another kind of imitation – neither homage nor parody, but evoking a classic work from the past in order to rewrite it.
Lisha: That is such a fascinating and inspiring idea. I noticed another gendered anti-noir move in Smooth Criminal, in the instrumental break, when we see a beautiful female jazz saxophone player on the bandstand.
Musically speaking, jazz saxophone is the apotheosis of all noir cliches, and it strongly codes male. In film noir, the saxophone is typically heard when a sexy female appears on screen, as a sort of male cat call. In Smooth Criminal we never actually hear a saxophone – there’s no saxophone in the song – but we see a sax player onstage as a visual imitation of noir. However, it isn’t one of the boys in the band as we might expect. It’s a beautiful female musician looking somewhat glamorous in her fancy dress.
This strikes me as going against the way jazz saxophone is generically used in film noir. The image of a female saxophone player both engages our memory of film noir and disrupts it at the same time.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha. It’s kind of similar to how he used Jennifer Batten and Orianthi in concert to both evoke and disrupt our ideas about hard rock guitarists.
Lisha: That’s exactly what I was thinking!
Of course many fans understand Smooth Criminal as a specific intertextual reference to “Girl Hunt Ballet,” the play-within-a-movie from Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon. I think most Michael Jackson insiders would rightly point to Smooth Criminal as a heart-felt homage to Fred Astaire.
Willa: Yes, and one of the first things Fred Astaire’s character says in “Girl Hunt” is “Somewhere in a furnished room a guy was practicing on a horn. It was a lonesome sound. It crawled on my spine.” Which could evoke an image of a saxophone …
Lisha: You’re so right, Willa! That scene highlights what an important element jazz is in classic film noir. Although I do believe it is a trumpet player in that scene, not a sax player, if I remember correctly.
Willa: Oh, you’re right. I should know better than to trust my memory! I just watched that opening scene again, and we do hear a trumpet playing in the background, and even catch a glimpse of it through an open window. Here’s a clip of “Girl Hunt Ballet,” and the trumpet appears about a minute in:
Lisha: The Band Wagon is pretty interesting in and of itself, because I think we could interpret “Girl Hunt Ballet” as a noir-style pastiche, even though it was made in 1953, during the same time period classic films noirs were still being made.
So I wonder if pastiche plays an important role in genre formation itself, since pastiche identifies the specific elements that are needed for a successful imitation?
Willa: Wow, that’s a really interesting idea, Lisha! It reminds me of Lorena Turner’s work with Michael Jackson impersonators, and how they lead us to a better understanding of Michael Jackson’s iconography. What exactly is needed to “be” Michael Jackson? Through the impersonators Lorena photographed, it becomes clear that you really don’t need to physically look like Michael Jackson, his face and body – you simply need a glove, a fedora, and a distinctive pose, for example, or maybe a red leather jacket with a strong V cut.
So those “imitators” help us identify what is essential about Michael Jackson’s star text, just as you suggest that pastiche (like neo-noir) helps us identify what is essential to a given genre (like noir).
Lisha: Exactly! Perhaps we should think of Smooth Criminal as a noir pastiche of a noir pastiche?
Willa: Wow. So you’re saying that neo-noir is a pastiche of noir, and Smooth Criminal is a pastiche of neo-noir, so it’s a noir pastiche of a noir pastiche? Do I have that right?
Lisha: Too funny! Yes, I think I just suggested something crazy like that.
Willa: Ok, I’m really going to have to think about that … but it does sound like the kind of loop-de-loop reference that Michael Jackson loved …
So a director who is frequently mentioned in discussions of neo-noir is David Fincher, who directed Michael Jackson’s Who Is It video in 1993. For complicated reasons that aren’t very clear, there were actually two videos made for Who Is It. Joie talked about this a little bit in a post we did a couple years ago. The second version is simply a montage of concert and video clips, but for some reason it seems to be the “official” one – for example, it’s the one that was released in the US when the song debuted, and it’s the version available on the Michael Jackson channel of Vevo.
So the David Fincher version has not been widely viewed and can be a little difficult to find online, but here’s an HD version of it on YouTube:
Elizabeth: It’s relevant that the Who Is It short film included in the Dangerous Short Films anthology was the one Fincher directed.
Willa: That’s true, and it’s in the Vision boxed set also, so it has some degree of official acceptance. That’s a good point, Elizabeth.
So I love this short film, and it does have a very noir-ish feel to it, doesn’t it? What are some specific visual elements you see in Who Is It that help create that noir-type mood or feeling?
Elizabeth: It uses many of the specific visual elements Fincher used in his feature films in the following years – Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999) and much later, The Social Network (2010) – such as the repeated use of low-key lighting throughout the sequences to create an ominous tone and a sense of foreboding. Fincher also uses stark white light, as in the scene towards the end with the female character weeping, or he uses very muted lighting, where fluorescent bulbs don’t really illuminate the corners of the space.
Willa: Yes, and that’s pretty unusual, isn’t it? For example, here’s a screen capture from about 5:20 minutes, when the female lead is at the gate and the manager character won’t let her in. You can see that the edges of the shot are dark and uneven, as if the picture field weren’t fully exposed.
There are also scenes where the light is coming from below, which is pretty unsettling. We’re used to light coming from above, like sunlight, and we rarely see faces, especially, lit from below, unless it’s a 50s-style horror movie. Here’s a screen capture from about 4:20 minutes in with the light shining up from under the character’s faces:
It really makes them look eerie and artificial, like store mannequins.
Elizabeth: The store mannequins, oh yes. Nice observation, Willa. And that whole idea links to this sense of being plastic and fake, not quite real. We can’t quite trust what they say because, although they seem human, they aren’t. And this extends to the words they say and the theme of the song. In terms of the lighting, I really enjoy the fact that the light seems drowned out by the encroaching darkness.
And of course, there are so many shots where only half of a face is illuminated, giving us a sense that the characters are being duplicitous and untrustworthy. Isn’t that what Who is It is all about? Who can we trust? Who has betrayed us?
Willa: Exactly. And you’re right, there are numerous shots where a face is only partially lit, suggesting we don’t see that person completely – not their face, their motives, or their character. So even something as subtle as lighting reinforces the meaning of the film and the lyrics. Who can we trust?, as you say. And it isn’t just the shape-shifting female lead, the one who goes by so many different names (Alex, Diana, Celeste, Eve, … ). All of the characters are pretty shadowy – both psychologically and visually. It’s not clear that we can trust anyone.
Elizabeth: You’re right, Willa. And what you’ve highlighted is how amazing Michael Jackson was when it comes to linking across his mediums – song complements short film complements costume and so on and so forth. What is also quite clear is that there is an exchange of money going on for sexual services, which makes the nameless female lead into a literal “object” of desire.
Lisha: You know, the money for sex is something I find confusing in this film. When I see the world of rarefied luxury and helicopter travel depicted here, I’m thinking extremely high stakes. The wardrobe and makeup artists employed to execute these spectacular acts of duplicity evoke the world of espionage, corporate or national security, and figures in the hundreds of millions or billions. The level of intrigue seems to go way beyond the mere sexual encounter, although that is clearly one aspect of the betrayal and psychological torture going on. What do you think?
Elizabeth: Oooh Lisha, that is a cool point. You are very right that what seems to be at stake is far more than sex.
Willa: I agree. It does seem to be more like very high stakes espionage.
Elizabeth: The Second World War was famed for its duplicitous female agents, using their womanly wiles to tempt secrets out of the (predominantly male) opposition. However, I also find it quite interesting that the character of the high-end sex-worker has a value far higher than the average viewer might expect. This is a character who obviously serves very wealthy clients and tends to their every whim.
Either way, it’s a particularly dark theme. I like to think of Michael as the femme fatale himself. Two authors have discussed this in some depth: Susan Fast in Bloomsbury’s Dangerous, and Marjorie Garber in Vested Interests. Both wrote on Jackson’s crossing of the male-female binary. In one interview Karen Faye, Jackson’s personal makeup artist, stated he didn’t accept these binaries at all. He built his aesthetics (identification of beauty) on a level that went beyond masculine/feminine.
Karin: I agree, Elizabeth. I think he built his aesthetics way beyond the binary of male/female. He always thought of human beings as being all the same.
Elizabeth: And we all have feminine and masculine qualities. It really is two halves of a whole. Notions of femininity and masculinity are really constructed by society and ideologies which have no basis in biology or reality. They are obstacles we put in our own way and MJ wasn’t interested in them. But bringing it back to the theme of neo-noir is the idea of binaries too, because the femme fatale is dangerous because of her unrestrained sexuality and her ambiguous morals.
Karin: This ambiguity is what we see so well in Who Is It.
Elizabeth: You are so correct, Karin. This is another link to Billie Jean and is found in the shots below, again the bed becomes a place of intrigue. There are physical and nonphysical exchanges here that we (as an audience) are not privy to. So we must decide for ourselves what is going on, and this heightens the mystery.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Elizabeth, and this scene is evocative of the bed scene in Billie Jean, isn’t it?
Elizabeth: Yes it is, Willa. It also shows us how MJ references his own work. Other specific visual elements that Fincher often uses are found within the city itself, and I love how, in his work, the city is often given its own personality.
In Who Is It the city is presented as a golden otherworldly labyrinth that Jackson is separated/protected from by a glass wall. He is distanced from the society in which he lives, much like all of Fincher’s subsequent neo-noir protagonists. There are angel statues on the cover of the Dangerous album and they appear again in the city, bringing to mind the City of Angels, Los Angeles, which is ironic, of course, because “all that glitters (see the shot below) is not gold.”
Lisha: That is such a beautiful screen shot, Eliza. I’m wondering why I’ve never zeroed in on that before. He is in a major urban area, enjoying all the economic advantages the city has to offer, yet he is so completely isolated and alienated at the same time. The paradox is communicated by a sheet of glass.
Willa: Yes, and we see that same motif repeated in Stranger in Moscow. That film opens with a shot of a man seen through the glass of his apartment window, eating his supper from a can. Then we cut to a scene of a sad-looking woman in a coffee shop, but again we’re looking at her through a glass wall. And then there’s that wonderful scene about 3:05 minutes in where the man in his apartment sees the kids outside running through the rain, and then reaches up and touches the glass. Here’s a screen capture:
Lisha: That is such a strong image.
Willa: I agree. I love that moment, and think the glass imagery here functions like the glass wall in Who Is It. As you said, Elizabeth, this character “is within society but separated from it.” But I think this character begins to regret his isolation after seeing the kids run through the puddles, and that’s when he makes the decision to go outside and stand in the rain, and begin to experience life more fully.
Elizabeth: Oh yes, and only if he leaves his glass prison, can he hope to begin to communicate with those around him.
Karin: The difference with Stranger in Moscow is that it is not Michael behind a window that separates him from society, but the black man and the sad woman who play a role in the short film. Michael is walking the dark gritty streets of “Moscow” and, as I analyzed in my essay “From Throne to Wilderness: Michael Jackson’s ‘Stranger in Moscow’ and the Foucauldian Outlaw,” I believe he is separated but also separates himself from society in a different way. To me, he is also not part of the five people who are clearly abandoned from the so-called “normal” world. Michael seems to be separated by his “glowing face,” a face we can also see in the black and white sequence in the short film Bad.
Stranger in Moscow has this very estranged, alienated mood. The loneliness is dripping from the screen and is emphasised by the slow motion, which is not typical for noir but definitely for neo-noir. I think it is mainly the mood in Stranger in Moscow that is very neo-noir.
Lisha: I didn’t realize slow motion was characteristic of neo-noir, Karin. I’m fascinated by how the sense of alienation in Stranger is depicted through two distinct temporalities happening at once. Michael Jackson was filmed in front of a blue screen singing and walking very slowly on a treadmill, which was later added to the slow motion background. So as he sings in real time with the music, everyone and everything else is moving in slow motion, like some kind of separate, alternate reality.
Willa: Yes, that’s a very important observation, Lisha. It’s so interesting how slow motion is used in Stranger in Moscow. When we look at the city directly, everyone and everything moves at normal speed. But when it’s implied that we’re looking at the city from the perspective of one of the isolated people – the woman sitting alone in the coffee shop, or the homeless man lying by the sidewalk, or the teenager watching other kids play ball, or the man eating supper from a can, or the businessman watching pigeons, or even Michael Jackson himself – the world suddenly appears to be moving very slowly. Even the raindrops fall in slow motion.
Lisha: Wow, Willa, that’s exactly it. The slow motion is the perspective of those who are not participating in the normal rhythms of the city.
Willa: Exactly. Or who do participate to some degree, like the man with the pigeons or the woman in the coffee shop – both of them are wearing business suits – but who still feel disconnected from those rhythms. At least, that’s how it seems to me.
For example, we see pedestrians walking by the coffee shop, and they’re walking at normal speed. But then the scene shifts and we see the lonely woman watching the pedestrians, and now they seem to be moving in slow motion. So when we’re looking at them through her eyes, as it were, they’re moving in this oddly decelerated way. But she herself isn’t – she’s still moving at normal speed.
That difference in film speed creates a dislocation between those isolated people and the pedestrians who pass them by, and that disconnect is very effective at emphasizing just how detached they are from the world around them. As you write in your article, Karin,
On the one hand, the slow motion has the function of magnifying emotion, and on the other hand it shows two distinct worlds and the distance between those two worlds.
I agree completely. It also seems to be trying to capture or re-create the sensory experience of depression – of what it feels like to be in a bustling world when you are depressed and out of sync with everyone around you.
Lisha: It’s such a powerful visual depiction of “How does it feel, when you’re alone and it’s cold outside?”
Willa: I agree.
Lisha: And it allows us to inhabit the perspective of those five characters you mentioned, Karin, who are “clearly abandoned from the so-called ‘normal’ world.”
Getting back to what you said earlier, I’ve always been fascinated by the choices Michael Jackson made in this film to achieve such a glowing, colorless look for his face.
Karin: Yes, Lisha, it is as if he wants to disappear into the mass, the streets and the people walking around him.
Elizabeth: I agree wholeheartedly. It’s particularly interesting when we look at Michael’s use of his face and the concept of “masquing” and “masque” culture. This is an extended metaphor about identity in many neo-noir films, and one that Michael uses to articulate his relationship with his audience. They always seem to be wondering “who is he?”
Willa: Which refers us back again to Who Is It. Masques are a recurring theme in that film as well – from the oddly blank face we see rising beneath the white blotter on the desk or pushing out from behind the white wall, to the disguises worn by the Alex/Diana/Celeste/Eve character as she shifts identities, to the more subtle subterfuges of other characters as they decide what to reveal and what to keep hidden. We don’t truly know anyone in that film, not even Michael Jackson’s character, though the song accompanying the film is written from his point of view. So while we may be inside his mind to some extent, he is still somewhat distant and unknowable.
Elizabeth: Notions about identity are at the forefront of neo-noir films, especially in terms of being an individual in a society. No one is exempt from feeling alienated from others, and without our connection to others, how do we know that we are alive?
Karin: In the article “Eighties Noir: The Dissenting Voice in Reagan’s America” in The Journal of Popular Film and Television, Robert Arnett writes about the “face mask motif” that “furthers the analogy between the undercover plot device and ’80s visual media obsession.” In your article “Bad (1987),” Elizabeth, you write about the extreme close up in the black and white part and refer to it as act of defiance.
It is interesting to see how Michael used his own face, which was seen by the public as a mask, as “an act of defiance” in Bad because there was so much speculation in the tabloid media about his face. The mask as described by Arnett is “revered and experienced as a veritable apparition of the mythical being it represents.” However, in Bad, he does not represent himself as a mythical being but as himself in a “look at me, this is who I am” kind of way.
In Stranger in Moscow his “mask” is referring to him as a simple human being who walks the streets of Moscow. However, his glowing face-mask distinguishes him from all the other faces around him, which gives it this mythical representation, as if he has no connection to others anymore.
Willa: Yes, and that sense of alienation from society seems very noirish. As Nina said,
So many noir films convey a story about the way characters struggle with both internal and external forces to maintain their moral integrity in a fundamentally corrupt world.
That’s a good description of both Who Is It and Stranger in Moscow – and Bad also, as you mentioned, Karin. There’s a similar theme in Smooth Criminal, You Rock My World, Give In to Me, and others as well. In all of these films, the world is “fundamentally corrupt,” and Michael Jackson’s character must figure out how to negotiate that corruption without becoming tainted himself.
You know, I hadn’t really thought about it before, but that’s a recurring theme in Michael Jackson’s work, isn’t it? For example, if I think about his early videos, meaning the three videos from the Thriller album, that’s precisely what Beat It and Billie Jean are about – an innocent young man negotiating a corrupt world. But then Thriller complicates that. We’re never sure about the main character, Michael – about whether he’s innocent or not. He’s constantly shifting back and forth between a sweet, guileless teenage boy and a monster/zombie, between an innocent and the very epitome of corruption.
Elizabeth: Now we’re really taking it to another level: Jackson’s use of complex innocence and corruption themes is an entire theme in itself. The ambiguity, or what one could call the liminality of innocence, is what Jackson negotiates, don’t you think? The notions we have of the innocent and who is innocent. It comes up again and again. He never gives us a truly straight answer. In Smooth Criminal he is good but he commits violence throughout the sequences, in Thriller he’s the heartthrob and the zombie, and in Bad he is the innocent schoolboy and “bad” as he starts a dance-fight in a subway.
Lisha: And doesn’t that lead us right back to the issue of perspective? I feel like this is especially clear in Thriller, if we think about how we can experience the character “Michael” through his girlfriend’s eyes. As she is overwhelmed by the excitement of being in love, she sees and experiences a “thrill-her” date with her handsome new boyfriend. When she begins to fear where all this might take her, she sees and experiences a scary creature from a “thriller” horror film.
The girlfriend’s experience is dependent upon what she brings to the table at any particular moment in time. When she looks at the world through the perspective of love, she sees beauty. When she looks at the world through fear, she sees a monster.
Willa: Wow, that is so interesting, Lisha! As many times as I’ve watched Thriller, I’ve never thought about it that way before.
Lisha: Isn’t that a perfect reflection of how we collectively experience Michael Jackson? He is an angel or a devil, innocent or guilty, depending on what the viewer brings to the table. This ambiguity forces us to question the whole concept of reality, showing us how perception trumps what is “really there.”
Willa: Yes, that’s a really important connection. And I agree, Elizabeth, that he does seem to be exploring the grey areas between guilt and innocence – “the liminality of innocence,” as you called it – and I love those examples you gave. He may be positioned in the hero role in Smooth Criminal, but he commits numerous acts of violence, as you say. And in Billie Jean, he may not be the father of the child whose “eyes looked like mine,” but he did go to her room and something – we’re not sure what – “happened much too soon.” That ambiguity occurs throughout Michael Jackson’s work.
Elizabeth: However, one short film which is definitely not ambiguous is Scream, and it’s one we should definitely mention before closing because it has a lot of noir-esque features (including a heightened mood of alienation). It is set in the vacuum of space and “in space, no one can hear you scream.” Putting Michael and Janet in this off-world environment really heightens the connection between alienation and celebrity/fame.
Karin: Yes, they surrounded themselves with art, which is often qualified as higher status and more distanced from people. So the art with which they surround themselves in their spacecraft world can also be seen as an alienating aspect.
Elizabeth: Not only do they surround themselves with art, they also attempt things on their own or in a pair that would usually be done in a group, such as playing sports, playing music. What we see in Scream is more escapism, a self-imposed exile. These are two characters in exile, and they have been put as far from their fellow human beings as possible. They can only connect through screens and other conduits. We get a sense that they are trying desperately to amuse themselves and all of it is in vain. The up-tempo beat of the song contradicts sharply with this.
Lisha: Wow, Elizabeth! Never in a million years would I thought of Scream in terms of neo-noir, but there it is! Mind blown.
Willa: I agree. I wouldn’t have thought of Scream as neo-noir either, but it makes so much sense now that you say that, Elizabeth. All the elements we’ve been talking about, from visual elements like high-contrast lighting to thematic elements like isolation and the difficulty of being an innocent individual confronted by a corrupt society – they’re all there, aren’t they?
Elizabeth: Yes they are, Willa, Lisha. It’s one of those things that strikes you in a really uncanny way – that Scream which is free from all the stereotypes of noir is in fact very clearly neo-noir and dealing with so many of those ideas. Don’t you think that the space location serves to heighten the noir-ness of Scream?
Lisha: Most definitely. And with the sad news of David Bowie’s passing, I can’t help relating Scream to Bowie’s 1969 Space Oddity.
Bowie’s character “Major Tom,” was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowie said he strongly identified with its sense of isolation and alienation. I definitely see a lot of this work in Scream.
Willa: You know, we should talk about that sometime. There are a lot of connections there to Michael Jackson, as you say. Elizabeth, Karin – would you like to join us in that discussion?
Elizabeth: I would love to join you guys for a Bowie post. Can’t wait.
Karin: Yes, of course. I love Bowie and have listened to his music, and read a lot about him. So I’d be excited for that.
Willa: Wonderful! And thank you both so much for educating us about neo-noir! It really opened my eyes and allowed me to see some of his films in ways I never had before. I really value that, so thank you sincerely.
I’d also like to let everyone know that our friend Toni Bowers has an article about Michael Jackson and biography coming out soon in the Los Angeles Review of Books – next Tuesday, I believe. I’ll post a link as soon as it goes up, but you may want to keep a lookout for it.
Willa: A few weeks ago, Raven Woods joined me for a wonderful discussion of Michael Jackson’s concert performances of “Billie Jean.” This week I am very excited to be joined by Nina Fonoroff to talk about the short film, Billie Jean, and about Michael Jackson’s use of film noir. Nina is an associate professor in cinematic arts, an independent filmmaker, and an artist who has drawn inspiration from Michael Jackson – for example, in a series of collages she created of him. And in the course of gathering material for her collages, she has collected more than 35,000 images of him. Wow! Thank you so much for joining me, Nina.
Nina: Thanks, Willa! I look forward to exploring the “anatomy” of Billie Jean!
Willa: Oh, so do I! I’ve been wanting to take an in-depth look at Billie Jean for almost four years now, but I’ve felt kind of intimidated by it. So I really appreciate your leading the way.
So today we’re planning to talk about Billie Jean specifically, and Michael Jackson’s use of film noir more generally in a number of his films, and it seems like we should begin by defining what exactly “film noir” means. But to be honest, I’m a little fuzzy about that. What makes a piece film noir? Is it the characters (a hard-boiled detective, a seductress, a criminal mastermind like Mr. Big in Moonwalker) or the setting (gritty, urban, 1940s or 50s) or the way it’s filmed (beautifully framed black-and-white scenes with lots of shadows). Or is it something else – a mood or a feeling?
Nina: Great questions, Willa. Film scholars have never been able to determine whether to call “film noir” a style, a movement, or a genre. Billie Jean uses many elements we find in typical noir films, though there are also some distinct ways it departs from them.
In noir films, there’s often (though not always) a femme fatale who leads a man into a life of crime, or some situation that is morally compromised. So there’s the criminal ne’er-do-well, and often a detective, who we usually see wearing a trench coat and fedora hat. This detective is often the film’s protagonist, or main character – we identify with him, and typically learn everything through his point of view. (In some films, like Double Indemnity (1944), we hear the story told as a flashback, from the point of view of the man who committed the crime and who is about to die.) Some classic “noir” films were adapted from crime novels written by figures like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet, and James M. Cain. In period slang, the detective is sometimes known as a “private dick” or “shamus” – in other words, a private investigator, as distinct from a detective who is employed by the regular police force.
Willa: And we see this kind of character in Billie Jean – the private investigator or reporter who’s trailing Michael Jackson’s character. We also see a variant of this character in You Rock My World and especially Smooth Criminal, right? Michael, the main character in Smooth Criminal, isn’t a private eye, but he’s an updated version of Rod Riley, Fred Astaire’s character in “Girl Hunt Ballet” from The Band Wagon, and Rod Riley is. And Michael is certainly dressed the part, especially the fedora pulled down low over his eyes.
Nina: Yes, that’s exactly the type, and Michael was very conscious of the style. Spats, an elegant suit, a fedora. Then we have dark, deserted streets within a sinister-looking city; and parts of the story are often conveyed through voice-over narration. Usually it’s the voice of the detective we hear, a device that allows us to form a strong bond of identification with him, his observations, his experiences and – most importantly – the knowledge he acquires about the case he’s working on. We know that we can count on him to eventually crack the case and “spill the beans.”
Willa: Oh that’s interesting, Nina. And we see those “dark, deserted streets” you mentioned in a number of Michael Jackson’s videos: Billie Jean, Beat It, Thriller, Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, Dirty Diana, Smooth Criminal, Jam, Give In to Me, Who Is It, Stranger in Moscow, and You Rock My World, as well as the panther dance portion of Black or White.
We certainly see it in “Girl Hunt Ballet” also, along with the use of voiceover, as you mentioned. Here’s a video clip, and it begins with Fred Astaire’s character walking those “dark, deserted streets” and talking to us in voiceover, as you just described. As he says, “The city was asleep. The joints were closed. The rats and the hoods and the killers were in their holes.”
It’s really fun to watch that clip and look for all the ways Michael Jackson borrowed from it or modified elements of it when creating Smooth Criminal. For example, some of the costumes are a direct match, like his white suit and fedora with the blue shirt and socks, or the woman in the red dress with black gloves up past her elbows.
Nina: Fred Astaire’s performance here riffs on the classic film noir hero (or antihero), especially in the tone he adopts to tell his story. There’s a heightened sense of drama when he recounts his woes – the tale of a romantic/sexual exploit turned bad. The way he delivers his interior monologue evokes an urbane male persona, whose suaveness and sophistication are no match for the “dame” who took him unawares or “done him wrong.”
We can also hear this character in Michael Jackson’s spoken introduction to “Dangerous,” some of whose lines come directly from the Rod Riley character in “Girl Hunt Ballet.” Here’s Michael Jackson’s performance of “Dangerous” at the 1995 MTV Awards:
The way she came into the place
I knew then and there
There was something different about this girl.
The way she moved. Her hair, her face.
Her lines, divinity in motion.
As she stalked the room
I could feel the aura
Of her presence
Every head turned
Feeling passion and lust
The girl was persuasive
The girl I could not trust
The girl was bad
The girl was dangerous
She came at me in sections
With the eyes of desire
I fell trapped into her
Web of sin
A touch, a kiss
A whisper of love
I was at the point
Of no return
Willa: I love that performance of “Dangerous”! And you’re right, some of these lyrics are a direct quotation from “Girl Hunt Ballet,” as you say – specifically the lines, “She came at me in sections … She was bad / She was dangerous.” And the overall feel of these lines is very “noirish.” I can easily imagine a character from one of those 1940s crime novels – or the films based on them – saying just these words.
So what other elements mark a film as noir?
Nina: They often have complicated plot twists, including flashbacks (sometimes multiple ones) or other scenes that reveal the characters’ dark pasts. And because the genre matured in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s, when black-and-white film stocks were more commonly used, we often associate these movies with a high-contrast black-and-white look that feels atmospherically menacing, with deep shadows and their connotations of secrecy, danger, paranoia, despair. The lighting effects are often described by a lovely Italian word, chiaroscuro, which means high contrasts of dark and light. The term originated in painting, and was then applied to photography and film.
Willa: And Michael Jackson occasionally filmed his videos using high-contrast black and white, like in Stranger in Moscow or parts of Billie Jean, Bad, Black or White, and Ghosts. Or he would use color film but with a very muted palette and strong contrasts between areas of light and dark, so it resembles black-and-white film. I’m thinking of moments like the dance in the basement in You Rock My World, which is almost like a series of sepia-toned photographs.
Nina: That’s true, especially for You Rock My World, which depicts a noirish environment in color – but it’s a limited color palette, as you say.
Films noir also tend to elicit a set of emotional responses from the audience, leading us on a journey of suspense, sometimes infused with anxiety for the character or the outcome of the story. The narrative unfolds so that by the end of the movie, the resolution of a puzzle or mystery – usually a violent crime – is revealed to the audience from the detective’s point of view (though, as I pointed out in the case of Double Indemnity, sometimes another character “narrates”). Through a bleak and often cynical depiction of right and wrong, these films communicate a set of social values: we are meant to ponder, even if unconsciously, what it might mean to be trustworthy or duplicitous, or to be an “outsider” looking in – as both the detective and the criminal he follows often are.
In their obsessive intelligence, exposure to danger, risk-taking, and seemingly cold-blooded approach to human relationships, these men (the detectives, and often the women they associate with) represent social deviance – they conduct their lives, as loners, in a way that’s different from the mainstream of society. They’ve either rejected or else haven’t found access to the ordinary pleasures of domesticity, marriage, family life, home and hearth. So both the criminal, and the detective who pursues him, are figures who stand apart from ordinary people, who are safely ensconced in the trappings of middle-class existence and normative social values. They are exceptional, and often deeply ambivalent characters.
According to Tim Dirks, who writes for AMC Filmsite:
Heroes (or anti-heroes), corrupt characters and villains included down-and-out, conflicted hard-boiled detectives or private eyes, cops, gangsters, government agents, a lone wolf, sociopaths or killers, crooks, war veterans, politicians, petty criminals murderers, or just plain Joes. These protagonists were often morally ambiguous lowlifes from the dark and gloomy underworld of violent crime and corruption. Distinctively, they were cynical, tarnished, obsessive (sexual and otherwise), brooding, menacing, sinister, sardonic, disillusioned, frightened and insecure loners (usually men), struggling to survive – and in the end, ultimately losing. Amnesia suffered by the protagonist was a common plot device, as was the downfall of an innocent Everyman who fell victim to temptation or was framed…. The protagonists in film noir were normally driven by their past or by human weakness to repeat former mistakes.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Nina. It seems to me that Michael Jackson drew on elements of noir when creating his characters, but with important differences. His characters are often outsiders who “stand apart from ordinary people,” as you say – characters who “haven’t found access to the ordinary pleasures of domesticity.” We see that repeatedly in his films. But they are not “cynical, tarnished, obsessive (sexual and otherwise), brooding, menacing, sinister, sardonic, disillusioned, frightened and insecure loners,” in Dirks’ words. Not at all. In fact, often his characters are alone for the opposite reason – because they are innocent in a corrupt world. I’m thinking specifically of Billie Jean, Stranger in Moscow, and Ghosts, but there are other examples as well.
Nina: Interestingly, Willa, sometimes a noir (or “noirish”) film can feature a man who is wrongly accused. As Dirk states, he may be “an innocent Everyman who fell victim to temptation or was framed.” Of course, this totally resonates with the story of Billie Jean.
Willa: It really does. So Nina, this thematic approach to film noir helps explain some of the confusion I’ve been feeling. For example, Stranger in Moscow is beautifully shot in black and white, and it’s in an urban setting, and when I watch it a lot of the individual frames look like film noir to me. But the overall feeling of the film as a whole is very different from film noir and I wouldn’t label it that way.
On the other hand, Billie Jean and Smooth Criminal were filmed primarily in color, though muted color, and when I watch them carefully – as I did while preparing for this post – a lot of the shots don’t really look like film noir to me. Less than Stranger in Moscow, actually. But the overall feeling of these two is very much film noir, I think.
Maybe some of this has to do with the “notions of social value” you were just talking about. In all three of these films – Billie Jean, Smooth Criminal, and Stranger in Moscow – Michael Jackson’s character is an “outsider,” and there’s a sense that the world is a pretty threatening place for him. So maybe that’s the undefinable thing that makes Stranger in Moscow feel kind of “noirish” to me.
Nina: Although there are a couple of shots in Stranger in Moscow that I think look distinctly noirish, I’d say that the film as a whole lacks the necessary elements of danger, criminality, violence, and pursuit. In a noir film, we expect to meet characters whose actions fall outside of the boundaries of lawful behavior, or at least outside the confines of “acceptable” social norms. Also, most (though not all) noir films feature nighttime shots of the city – and a good deal of the action takes place at night. So I’d say You Rock My World, or Who Is It, or even Dirty Diana (of all things!) have more in common with noir films than Stranger in Moscow does.
Willa: Really? Dirty Diana?! Wow. But I see what you mean about Stranger in Moscow. There is something threatening about it, but that comes primarily from the lyrics (“We’re talking danger, baby”) and from our own knowledge of the backstory behind the film – of what the Santa Barbara police were putting him through at the time. But the mood of the film itself isn’t really threatening. It’s more a feeling of hurt and sorrow, I think.
Nina: Yes, hurt and sorrow, as well as loneliness and a burdensome alienation, are the feelings that come through most strongly for me in that film, Willa.
In general, the solution to the central question (or mystery) within a noir film occurs when the detective apprehends the criminal and hands him/her over to the police. But these films also convey something we might consider a more ideological “message”: in a word, a morality tale. (Here, we might think of the expression “crime doesn’t pay.”) This kind of messaging partly came about because of the Hollywood Production Code, in force during the 1940s and 1950s, which stipulated that films couldn’t allow a character to get away with criminal behavior. They had to be punished, either by death or through the strong arm of the law. A character who has committed a crime must never be allowed to get away with it, according to the Production Code.
Willa: Oh, I didn’t know that. That’s interesting, Nina. I’d noticed that many of those films ended with the bad guys getting their just desserts, but I thought that simply reflected the mood of the country back then. I didn’t realize it was a legal requirement.
Nina: It’s interesting how much of Hollywood cinema was governed by organizations that stipulated various projects’ adherence to “community standards,” first through the Code, and later through the ratings system that replaced it.
So many noir films convey a story about the way characters struggle with both internal and external forces to maintain their moral integrity in a fundamentally corrupt world. This is especially the case with the detective, a complex character who himself often gives way to sordid temptations. Going even further, some analysts have seen the style/genre as it evolved in the years after World War II as a critique of postwar American society: the “dark underbelly” of the culture that lies just underneath the glittering surface of optimism and prosperity. A lot of these themes touch upon ideas about the “unconscious” that were elaborated by Sigmund Freud: in particular, the “return of the repressed.” When an individual stuffs or represses an unpleasant memory today, that memory will inevitably re-emerge in a variety of morbid psychological symptoms tomorrow. The past comes back to haunt the character.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting. I wonder if that’s one reason these films were so popular back then, and why they’re still seen as classics today – because they convey a kind of psychological truth.
So, Nina, this is all much more complicated than I realized. I’m starting to understand now why it can be so difficult to classify specific films, or even specific elements of films, as noir. We can look at how the film was constructed – the characters, plot, setting, cinematography – which is all I was thinking about when we started talking. But now I’m beginning to see that there’s also a whole other element of noir, which focuses more on how it resonates with an audience and how they interpret it.
I wonder if that’s why, for me, Stranger in Moscow kind of fits the noir label and kind of doesn’t. Except for the black-and-white format, it doesn’t meet the criteria for how film noir is typically constructed. But it definitely leads us as an audience to think about “how difficult it is for individuals to maintain moral integrity in a fundamentally corrupt world,” as you said. Or rather, it asks us to consider “how does it feel” to be alone and adrift in a corrupt world.
Nina: That may be another example, Willa. It can be difficult, though, to detect how these larger meanings might come to fruition in short films like the ones Michael Jackson made. We could more easily discern these patterns in a feature-length film that follows a more traditional narrative scheme. Michael’s short films are sometimes stories in miniature: they have characters, action, and sometimes dialogue, spoken and/or sung. Yet their brevity, as well as the way they’re structured to include singing and dancing, makes the fully developed characters and complex plot development of the feature film impossible to render.
Willa: Well, it’s true that his short films don’t have the complex plots or fully developed characters you see in feature-length films. There simply isn’t the time in five or six or even 11 minutes to convey all the plot twists, for example, that you might see in a two-hour film. But it does seem to me that Michael Jackson explores some pretty complicated ideas in his short films, and in innovative ways that are difficult to describe.
Nina: You’re right there, Willa: his films do explore complicated ideas, as well as complicated emotions. They may leave us with feelings that aren’t easily resolved, because they engage our sensibilities in ways that are very different from, say, the traditional feature-length noir film, where we come out of the experience with a satisfying sense of narrative “closure” – the detective has solved his case, and so, by proxy, have we. By contrast, Michael’s short films often don’t provide that kind of closure. Billie Jean, for example, does not – nor do the other films we’ve mentioned.
Willa: I see what you’re saying, Nina, though in Billie Jean, Michael Jackson’s character has evaded the private eye who’s been stalking him – in a trenchcoat, no less! – and even turned the tables, so the one trying to “capture” him on film has literally been “captured” by the police. The last we see of the detective, the police are taking him into custody, and Michael Jackson’s character escapes. So the problem has been solved, and in that sense it does have a degree of closure.
Nina: Yes, that’s a great point, Willa. There’s a role-reversal between the detective and Michael’s character, which I believe has implications that go beyond the film itself – about which I’ll say more presently.
Willa: Sounds intriguing! So earlier you mentioned Dirty Diana and Who Is It. I don’t think I ever would have considered Dirty Diana as film noir! Or Who Is It either, though it leans more that way. That’s interesting. I’m going to have to think about that … There’s also something very noirish about the panther dance at the end of Black or White. The setting, for one thing – those gritty city streets – but more than that, the feeling of social alienation and being an “outsider,” as you mentioned before.
Nina: Well, in true postmodern fashion, Michael Jackson and his collaborators have taken a bricolage of stylistic elements, and “pastiched” them into tableaux and stories that resemble, on some level, existing cinematic genres; but they don’t function in the same ways that those feature-length cinematic works do. Still, we can explore how the detective, the hero/protagonist (but which one?), the femme fatale, and the unsettling urban atmosphere do function in Billie Jean.
Willa: Yes, I’d love to do that! So where would you like to start? At the beginning of the film and work through it chronologically?
Nina: Yes. The film starts out with a series of black-and-white shots, in closeup. The choice of black-and-white film here may have even been a self-conscious gesture, a sort of homage to noir aesthetics. We see a brick wall, a gloved hand against the wall, a man’s trouser leg and feet walking, a garbage can overflowing with papers and debris, a cat running, a man taking a drag off a cigarette, another shot of his wing-tip shoes stomping out the cigarette, and – a motif that recurs in several of Michael’s short films – a spinning coin.
What’s noteworthy here is that these are all fairly close-up shots; we don’t get a view of the whole space right away, but instead brief, almost abstract glimpses of things that foreshadow some of the motifs that will follow. They set up an atmosphere, and provide the allure of mystery and suspense – especially in conjunction with that unmistakable bass line that starts the song!
Willa: Yes, they really do. We, as an audience, are given a series of images that we try to fit together into something meaningful. It’s like we’re trying to piece the story together, just like the detective is doing. So in a way, even though we sympathize with Michael Jackson’s character, we’re also kind of aligned with the detective character. Like him, we’re watching in a kind of voyeuristic way, and maybe intruding into Michael Jackson’s life in ways that are uncomfortable for him.
And the fact that Billie Jean begins in black and white and then switches to color reminds me of Ghosts, another film about people invading his privacy and intruding into his life. In Ghosts, the initial scenes are all black and white, and then it switches to muted color when we enter the space of the Maestro – the space where he conducts his magic. Something kind of similar happens in Bad as well. The entire film is shot in black and white, except for the scenes in the subway station that are playing out in his imagination. So for Michael Jackson, black and white seems to represent “real life,” and color represents the world of magic, or his imagination. Kind of like The Wizard of Oz, where the Kansas scenes are all black and white, as compared to the full-color scenes in the land of Oz – or rather, the land of Dorothy’s imagination.
And of course, that holds true for Billie Jean as well: a lot of magic happens in the color scenes in Billie Jean …
Nina: That’s interesting, Willa – there does seem to be a pattern. And yet, the fictional space of the black-and-white scenes function differently in each film, I find. In Ghosts, for example, the trope of the townspeople and their Mayor, carrying torches, encountering a raven on a dilapidated signpost, descending on the “haunted house” that’s inhabited by a (possibly dangerous) madman seems to be more directly lifted from certain Gothic/horror B-movies from the 1950s.
Willa: Oh, I see. So more like The Revenge of Frankenstein than a noir film with Bogart and Becall.
Nina: In Billie Jean, I suspect the choice of using black-and-white film stock (a choice that was probably made by the director, Steve Barron, or another member of the crew) seems more haphazard. Another thing that’s noteworthy here: the entire image is framed by a white line, a frame-within-a frame. Why did they choose to do that? I can’t venture to say! Maybe we should ask Steve Barron….
Willa: I’m intrigued by that “frame-within-a-frame” also – it reminds me of photographs. They’re all presented as rectangles, proportioned like photographs and surrounded by a thin white line against a black background, as you say. They almost seem like shots you’d see in a police folder about a crime scene, or in a detective’s folder about the suspect he’s investigating. That resonates in an ironic way with the scenes later on where the detective keeps trying to take a picture of Michael Jackson’s character, and not succeeding.
Nina: Yes, it invokes an idea about a succession of still photographs. And this white outline will soon return, to be used in what seems a more purposeful way – breaking up the image into diptychs and triptychs – later on, when we see Michael dancing and singing “Billie Jean.”
In any case, we’re seeing the initial black-and-white images and at the same time hearing the intro to “Billie Jean,” with its unmistakable, insistent bass line and percussion. Then the synth comes in as an additional sound layer, playing those four syncopated notes that we recognize so clearly. As soon as Michael’s feet enter the picture, the film switches to color. We see a contrasting pair of two-tone wing-tip shoes. The familiar bass line comes in, and as we see Michael’s feet lighting up each square of the pavement, each of his footfalls is timed precisely with the rhythm of the music. A closeup of his hand: he throws the coin up and catches it, a perfect gesture of nonchalance that fits in with his character.
Willa: You’re right, Nina! I hadn’t noticed that before, but you’re right – it’s when he enters the picture that the film shifts to color. That seems significant … like when he appears, magic is about to happen. And it does. The concrete pavement squares glowing under his feet are an early indication of the magic he possesses. Maybe that’s why this reminds me of Ghosts …
Nina: Yes, that’s true, Willa! A bit about the mise-en-scène as a whole. (Mise-en-scène is a French term that means “putting in the scene”; it refers to everything that we can see happening in front of the camera, including the decor, the figures and their movements, costumes, makeup, lighting, etc.) Michael appears as a nattily-dressed young man who impresses us as a mysterious, slightly louche fellow, a layabout. He’s a type of hero (or antihero) from the past – despite his (almost) contemporary garb. He may be a lovable rake, but sad: he seems preoccupied, lost in thought, perhaps tragic. His evident magical powers don’t seem to bring him any joy. He saunters down the street, in no great hurry.
This character seems a familiar kind of figure to us. In fact, it’s not the first time Michael himself played this sort of cynical, world-weary “man-about-town.” Here he is in the Diana Ross TV special from 1971, doing his best imitation of Frank Sinatra with the song Sinatra made a hit, “It Was a Very Good Year”:
Willa: Wow, that’s really interesting, isn’t it? He looks exactly like a film noir detective … and acts like one, loving and leaving women without becoming emotionally attached to any of them. He even talks like one, telling Diana Ross’ character, “We’ve been taking a train to nowhere.” Of course, part of the humor is having a 12 year old talk this way …
Nina: And here’s the cover art for Frank Sinatra’s album, In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.
This man is a “type” who occupies a certain place in our collective imagination – sometimes he has a jacket slung casually over his shoulder, and he stands under a street lamp, “loitering” – possibly up to no good. He is between engagements: coming from somewhere, and on his way to something else … but we don’t know what.
Willa: Yes, and in Billie Jean the detective definitely fits this type – and so does Michael Jackson’s character to some degree, though his character is more complicated, more difficult to pin down.
Nina: Yes. What’s he doing in that seedy neighborhood on the “other side of the tracks”? Where has he recently been? His presence there is a mystery.
Willa: It is.
Nina: Then the camera shows us Michael’s point of view, as it moves in upon the homeless man who’d been hidden behind a garbage can. At the same time, we hear the first verse:
She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene
I said, “I don’t mind but what do you mean I am the one
Who would dance on the floor in the round?”
She said, “I am the one
Who would dance on the floor in the round”
But at this point, we don’t see our protagonist singing synchronously with the song. Instead, he is silent: he looks quizzically at the homeless man and again we see a closeup of the spinning coin, which lands in the man’s cup and makes it glow. Michael seems to have transformed the pauper into another nattily-dressed caricature with a white suit, white dress shoes, and a red cummerbund. The film’s images prompt us to make connections – between characters, between events – by way of visual association, rather than by setting up a specific problem, or crime, that needs to be solved.
Willa: That’s true. The images we see aren’t acting out the words of the song, as videos often do. There is no “beauty queen” and no discotheque with a dance floor “in the round.” Instead of acting out the lyrics, something much more impressionistic is happening.
By the way, just listening to your description of the opening scenes of Billie Jean conjures up noir-type images in my head. I could very easily imagine those kinds of scenes in The Maltese Falcon, for example, or Gilda, which Michael Jackson referenced in This is It.
Nina: Yes – there are so many interesting points of connection! If Billie Jean were a feature-length film, then the “Billie Jean” number would just be one scene within the larger film. But because it’s a short film (and understood in the context of a “music video”) a different set of expectations govern what we perceive. At first, just a few simple images and the first notes of the song playing have established an atmospheric world that we’ll live in for the next few minutes, which poses the question of how these isolated elements will add up and become a story that’s about to unfold.
It’s a very neatly constructed introduction, with the edits of the film often coinciding with the beats of the music: notice how his first three footfalls correspond with the rhythms of the song.
Willa: Yes, I love that!
Nina: And while we may not know what’s “going on,” it’s not necessary to know. We encounter it as a “music video,” which means that the performance of the artist will be paramount – that’s really what we’re there for! Beyond that, the film establishes an atmosphere for us to revel in which, more than anything, might describe a dream that issues from our unconscious.
Willa: That’s interesting, Nina. And that way of suggesting a story through visual cues and juxtaposed images rather than direct narration feels psychologically accurate, if that makes sense. What I mean is, that seems to be the way the mind works, so Billie Jean seems to be expressing psychological truth – “a dream that issues from our unconscious,” as you said – rather than a conventional story with a more straightforward plot and narrative.
Nina: Yes, I think so. We find in our dreams some devices that can operate in a way that’s very similar to the flow of images in a film – especially if they appear somewhat disjointed, or out of sequence. Initially, our minds may work in this more associative way, until we engage in a process of “revision” (as Freud would put it), where we begin to remember our dreams as complete narratives, with a beginning, middle, and end.
Willa: I agree. It almost feels like we’re wandering around inside this character’s mind, inside his thoughts, as much as a real geographic place. And then from the collected images we’re shown – bits of memory, perhaps – we construct a narrative.
Nina: Yes. Plus, the film has so far shown us a handful of caricatures, like cartoons – all the more, because they appear in close up. In fact, the whole of this film could easily be translated to the medium of comic book or a graphic novel.
Willa: I can see that! I hadn’t thought about that before, but you’re right. And apparently Michael Jackson felt a connection between those two forms: comic books and films. It’s been well documented, in Frank Cascio’s book and other sources, that he wanted to buy Marvel comics and turn them into movies before anyone else had the idea for doing that. And like a comic book or graphic novel illustrator, Michael Jackson was very skilled at evoking a sense of intrigue or other powerful emotion with just a few well-crafted images.
Nina: That’s interesting, Willa. He had a real flair for being richly succinct. As you and Raven pointed out in your post a few weeks ago, just a few simple items – articles of clothing, images, gestures – and a whole flood of associations comes to us. These may include even associations we may not be aware we had, but they’re nonetheless lodged somehow in our collective cultural memory. Even if some people have never seen a movie they could identify as a “Film Noir,” we’ve all encountered so many posters, photographs, advertisements, cartoons, comics – a whole storehouse of visual information that trigger these associations. Michael Jackson, an avid movie aficionado, could tap into this rich repository like a great archivist. As you say, he was very adept at selecting a few of these motifs – and by placing them in new contexts, he created meanings that are very distinct from their original use.
The images of one cat chasing another cat are significant, because they introduce a parallel: just as one cat trails another, the detective trails Michael in a game of “cat and mouse” (or “cat and cat”). We never actually see the two animals framed together in the same shot, but through the magic of film editing (it’s called “cross-cutting”), we assume that it’s a setup of pursuer/pursued – just as the detective, in a more protracted way, stalks Michael. And in fact, only twice during the film do Michael and the detective appear in the same shot. But almost from the very beginning, we understand their relationship.
Willa: Oh, interesting! And that idea is reinforced by several subtle scenes throughout the video. At 1:10 minutes in, Michael Jackson’s character pulls out a tiger-striped cloth – just like the one in “Girl Hunt Ballet” that turns out to be an important clue for helping Fred Astaire’s character solve the murder mystery. In Billie Jean, he pulls out a similar tiger-striped cloth, puts his shoe on a trash can, polishes his shoe with the cloth, and then a tiger cub appears. So there’s a symbolic connection between the tiger-striped cloth and a real (is it real?) tiger.
A few seconds later, at 1:22, we flash back to that scene and then almost immediately, at 1:25, we see the “pursued” cat turn into the tiger cub behind the same trash can. At 2:50, the photographer picks up the tiger-striped cloth – just as Fred Astaire does in “Girl Hunt Ballet” – and smiles, thinking he’s about to capture his prey. But he’s wrong. He’s the one who’s captured. As the police take him away, he drops the tiger-striped cloth, which turns into the tiger cub and escapes. Tiles light up as the tiger runs away, just as the tiles lit up under Michael Jackson’s character at the beginning.
So as you were saying, Nina, there’s an implied connection throughout Billie Jean between the cat, Michael Jackson’s character, the tiger-striped cloth, and the tiger cub that escapes at the end, though it’s never explicitly stated or shown. We just feel a connection because of those associations.
Nina: I actually thought it was Michael’s character (as an invisible presence) lighting up the tiles in the end – it didn’t occur to me that it was the tiger cub. I’ll have to look for that next time!
Willa: Or maybe it’s his character in the form of a tiger cub – an invisible tiger cub.
Nina: At any rate, it’s true that many of the relationships, motifs, and themes of the film are set up within the first minute, or even the first thirty seconds! At the second verse, we finally see a more distant shot that reveals the whole street corner, with the detective skittering around, picking up a newspaper with the headline “Billie Jean Scandal,” and hiding around the corner of the store: “Ronald’s Drugs,” as the sign tells us, on the “West Side.” Another common motif in films noir is a newspaper headline that indicates some tragic or shocking event that has occurred, which signals a further development of the film’s plot. (That trope survives today in police procedural shows like Law and Order: “Ripped from the headlines!”)
The name “Billie Jean,” which we see in the headline, is reinforced by what we’re hearing in the second verse of the song:
She told me her name was Billie Jean, and she caused a scene
Then every head turned with eyes that dreamed
Of being the one
Who will dance on the floor in the round
So this is where we come upon a way of viewing cinematic work that’s actually a departure from the ways we view more traditional narratives. It seems we’ll be wrestling with a conundrum: the flow of images seem to be “telling” us one thing, while the song’s first-person narration – as voiced by Michael – tells us another story.
This is one important element that distinguishes feature films from a short “music video” – filmmakers, writers, and cinematographers can play fast and loose with these sound-image relationships, with no obligation to “illustrate” the song by means of the image, or vice versa. Instead, they can make more abstract and associative connections than if they were hidebound by the conventions of the linear narrative development. So that’s how I view Billie Jean, as well as others of Michael’s short films. They bear some of the iconic marks of a number of narrative film genres (horror, noir, gangster, romantic costume drama, contemporary urban drama) and the mise-en-scène we often associate with these genres. But they do not work upon our minds and our viscera in all the same ways. Creative, plastic film editing (as we see in Billie Jean) is something an editor might choose to do, as much for its rhythmic and associative possibilities as for anything else.
As Michael ambles down the street with his jacket slung over his shoulder, we get seemingly random inserts of the cat, the detective’s face, and Michael’s shoe; we are seeing a landscape that represents Michael’s interior mind, or memory … or perhaps ours. But still, we’re not necessarily seeing any visual enactment or “dramatization” of what Michael sings about.
Willa: That’s an interesting point, Nina. The song and the video really are telling different stories, aren’t they? Or maybe the same story from different perspectives – the song focuses more on Billie Jean’s treacherous actions, while the video focuses more on him navigating a treacherous world. But the song and the video “fit” together so well, it feels right to see those images with those words.
Nina: The image and the sound are glued together by the coincident rhythms that both establish: Michael’s footsteps, lighting the tiles, are timed to fall exactly upon the major beat of the music. As he puts his foot up and cleans his shoe with a rag, we see further evidence of his seemingly magical ability to light things up and transform them. Then the song’s bridge:
People always told me be careful what you do
Don’t go around breaking young girls’ hearts
And mother always told me be careful who you love
Be careful what you do, ’cause a lie becomes the truth …
What appears to be “happening” in the image, and the situation that Michael describes in the song, will pull us in different directions. It’s like two stories are going on simultaneously. We haven’t seen any women, much less any beauty queens.
Willa: That’s true. The only women we see are the two women in the shifting images on the billboard. And they could be Billie Jean and My Baby, the two women in conflict in the lyrics, but there’s really nothing to suggest that other than our own desire to make meaning from the images we see. It’s interesting, though, that the billboard dominates the scene, just as these women are dominating his thoughts. In fact, at one point, at 2:14 minutes in, he stares at the billboard and then puts his hands to his head, as if he can’t contain his thoughts.
Nina: That’s so true, Willa – we have a strong desire to make meaning from the images we see, and from the words we hear, and to connect the two. When we hear a song, we form mental images of the people, places, and events that the lyrics describe. When we watch Billie Jean as a film, we are presented with an entirely different set of images of the people, places, and events that we formed in our imagination. This could present us with a major conflict! But for the most part, we’re not aware of anything particularly jarring – we simply learn to prioritize all the information that’s coming to us, and “suspend our disbelief”! We can even tolerate a certain amount of confusion.
Willa: Yes, though I never realized until you pointed it out how much the images in the video differ from the lyrics. That’s really interesting. But while the story told by the song and the story told by the video aren’t the same, they do seem related. They both center around a false accusation of sexual impropriety – a woman named Billie Jean is accusing him of fathering her son. In the song, we’re told that story through the lyrics, and in the video, we see it in that newspaper headline you mentioned before: “Billie Jean Scandal.” The song focuses primarily on his relationship with Billie Jean and the woman he loves (My Baby), their intertwined history, and the conflicts between them, while the video takes a different approach. It shows a detective who seems to be trying to gather information to support Billie Jean’s claims. So the stories they tell seem different but connected.
Nina: Yes, the stakes of the film have dramatically changed from those of the song. Michael Jackson and Steve Barron may have wanted to “triangulate” the dispute that started out with only two people, as a kind of he said/she said situation. The detective is introduced as a third element.
Michael then leans against a lamppost (lighting it up), still oblivious to the presence of the detective who is right behind him. This is where we see a Polaroid camera in the window of Ronald’s Drugs, spitting out a photograph in which Michael – to the detective’s consternation – doesn’t appear. We hear the chorus:
Billie Jean is not my lover
She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one
But the kid is not my son
She says I am the one
But the kid is not my son
Then the image fades out as we enter a new chapter: Michael is going to sing and dance.
Willa: Wow, this is all so fascinating, Nina! And we’ll pick up with that new chapter in another post, when we continue taking a cinematographic look at Billie Jean. Thank you so much for joining me, Nina! And for sharing those wonderful movie stills.
Nina: My pleasure, Willa – and thanks so much!
Willa: So Joie, we’ve talked quite a bit about Michael Jackson as a songwriter – for example, in posts with Joe Vogel and Charles Thomson and Lisha McDuff. But those conversations have focused primarily on his music and his skills as a composer. We haven’t really talked about Michael Jackson as a lyricist, and one thing I love about Michael Jackson’s songwriting is his ability to plunge us into a compelling dramatic moment with just a few simple brushstrokes. A famous example is the chorus of “Billie Jean”:
Billie Jean is not my lover She’s just a girl who says I am the one But the kid is not my son
In just three lines he sketches a surprisingly rich narrative: characters, dramatic tension and plot details, and the suggestion of a theme running throughout his work about the intersection of power and desire. It’s just elegant to me how it conveys so much so simply.
Joie: I agree with you, Willa. He had the remarkable ability to paint the most vivid picture with only a few words. I like this example from “Smooth Criminal”:
As he came in through the window Was the sound of a crescendo He came into her apartment Left the blood stains on the carpet
With just the first two lines you know immediately that something is not right. A man has smashed someone’s window and climbed in. Then with the following two lines, you know he’s in the apartment of a defenseless woman and you’re afraid for her safety. He’s set up an entire storyline in just four short brushstrokes, as you called them. I find this ability to paint such a vivid picture with just a few words really incredible. It’s a talent that not everyone has.
Willa: Oh, “Smooth Criminal” is a great example! There is so much going on in that song – and the video that contains it, and the film that contains them both – but it’s all incorporated so skillfully it feels like a simple little song. But that apparent simplicity is deceptive. This is actually one of his more complicated works, both in its emotional complexity and its narrative structure.
For example, there are actually four distinct “voices” woven together to form the narrative. Michael Jackson sings all four, but they each represent a different point of view – and he sings each of them very differently to convey that. The main “voice” is the narrator who’s telling us the story. He’s the one who sings those dramatic opening lines you quoted above. Then there’s something of a Greek chorus reacting to that narrative, with Michael Jackson’s simply one of many voices. They are the ones who sing the repeated lines of “Annie, are you OK? / Will you tell us that you’re OK?”
Then two more voices appear after the break. There’s the Smooth Criminal himself, and Michael Jackson sings his lines with this really gruff voice (“Daggone it, Baby!”). And then there’s this other character singing, “I don’t know! / I don’t know! / I don’t know why!” We don’t really know who this is, but Michael Jackson sings those lines with a high, trembling, beautiful voice – it’s really haunting. And while we don’t know for sure who this character is, I’ve always felt that it was Annie’s spirit, singing from beyond the grave.
Joie: That’s a really interesting observation, Willa. I never looked at “Smooth Criminal” that way until you brought it up. It’s a fascinating idea.
Willa: Well, it’s not clear who this mysterious voice belongs to, and I think that ambiguity is intentional so I’m reluctant to say, yes, it’s definitely Annie. But that’s how it feels to me, and that may be one reason why I like the Glee version of “Smooth Criminal” so much – because it makes explicit something that, to me, is already implicitly there in the original. I’ve always felt that when Michael Jackson sings “I don’t know why!” he’s singing it as a female character, and that whole section feels like a collage of male and female voices juxtaposed against one another. So when I heard the Glee version with the dueling male and female voices, it just felt right to me.
Joie: You know, I recently read an article online called “Why Prince Still Matters,” and in the opening paragraph the author makes the statement that while Michael Jackson was the only performer “who could compete with and even outshine Prince as a singer, dancer and charismatic performer,” he simply could never compete with Prince as a songwriter. I read that and became instantly frustrated – as usual. It’s an argument we hear over and over again from critics, and it’s something we touched on back during our conversation with Joe and Charles about MJ as a songwriter, but it’s an argument I completely disagree with and simply don’t understand.
Willa: I don’t really understand it either, but maybe it has something to do with how we define poetic language. You know, for the most part, we want the language of prose to be invisible – we want it to convey an idea without the words getting in the way. But poetic language is different – it’s language that calls attention to itself. When we hear poetic language, we don’t just think about the ideas and emotions, but the words used to convey them. And for the most part, Michael Jackson’s words don’t call attention to themselves.
But if we look carefully at his lyrics, we find that he’s very skillful in his word choices and has a poetic awareness of words. For example, he likes to engage in word play, which can be an important feature of poetry, but his word play often conveys a thematic meaning as well. A good example is “Beat It.” I love the way he redefines the title words over the course of the song. In the first verse, “Beat It!” means to scram, or run away in fear:
They told him don’t you ever come around here Don’t wanna see your face, you better disappear … So beat it. Just beat it.
Then he uses that word “beat” again, but this time it has a different meaning – one of violence. As he sings,
They’ll kick you, then they’ll beat you Then they’ll tell you it’s fair So beat it. But you wanna be bad
So in this section, he introduces a new meaning of “beat” (“they’ll beat you”) but then immediately evokes the previous meaning (“So beat it”). So he wants both definitions to be in play simultaneously. Then of course, there’s a third definition of “beat,” which is the beat of music – and importantly, it’s music that resolves the violence between the gangs. So in this sense, to “beat it” means to create a rhythm, like beating a drum. And finally, there’s a fourth definition of “beat,” which is to be victorious. For example, if someone is diagnosed with cancer and overcomes it, we say they “beat it” – they “beat” the cancer. To me, this is the predominant meaning that’s evoked in the circular, repeated chorus at the end: “Showin’ how funky strong is your fight … Just beat it.”
So those words have undergone a complete revolution. The main character is no longer being told to get lost, to “beat it.” Instead, he’s emerged victorious over gang violence through the power of his music – he’s “beat it” by showing how “funky strong” he is – but it’s a different kind of strength. It isn’t the violent force of the gangs, but the “funky” power of the artist. But while the meaning of the words “Beat It” change dramatically over the course of the song, we still hear the echoes of those alternate definitions as well, which gives that repeated chorus at the end tremendous depth.
Joie: Willa, I agree with you that he was very skillful in his word choices and possessed a poetic awareness of words. As I pointed out back during our post on In the Closet, I think Michael was very deliberate about the words he chose to use in his lyrics in order to paint a certain picture or convey a certain message, and “In the Closet” is a great example of that.
Willa: Oh, even the title is a great example. He’s taken a commonly used euphemism for gay men or lesbian women who keep their relationships and orientation hidden from public view, and shifted the meaning of those words by linking them to a different type of secret relationship.
Joie: Another great example is “Best of Joy” from the posthumous Michael album. From the very first word he utters in that song I am filled with a sense of reverence and peace and unconditional love, and I truly believe that’s the message he was trying to convey with that song. I just love these lyrics:
I am your joy Your best of joy I am the moonlight You are the spring Our love’s a sacred thing You know I always will love you I am forever
It doesn’t get much more poetic than that! That song takes my breath away and leaves me in tears every single time I listen to it.
Another really great example is “Speechless.” The lyrics to that song are simply beautiful:
Helpless and hopeless, that’s how I feel inside Nothing’s real, but all is possible if God is on my side When I’m with you I’m in light, but I cannot be found It’s as though I am standing in the place called Hallowed ground Speechless, speechless, that’s how you make me feel Though I’m with you I am far away and nothing is for real I’d go anywhere and do anything just to touch your face There’s no mountain high I cannot climb I’m humbled in your grace
Willa: I agree. I especially love the cadence of his words – how they tumble and flow – and he sings it so beautifully. But you know what’s interesting is that, ironically, this song is about his inability to express himself and put his thoughts and feelings into words. As he sings,
I have not the words here to explain Gone is the grace for expressions of passion
So despite the eloquence of his words, he still feels “speechless” to express the full scope of his feelings.
Joie: And yet, he’s constantly accused of mediocrity as a songwriter.
Willa: Really? I knew his songwriting tended to be overlooked. People often rave about his singing and dancing, but not his songwriting. But I didn’t know they actually called it mediocre. That doesn’t make sense to me.
Joie: I just don’t get it. I mean, even in “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough,” which was the first hit he ever wrote, the ‘eloquence of his words,’ as you put it, is astounding. The man is talking about something so base and simple as sexual desire, yet he does it in such a subtle and poetic way that the fact he’s talking about sex is almost overlooked.
Willa: Oh, you know how I feel about “Don’t Stop”! But talking about “Speechless” reminds me of another, very special aspect of his songwriting. You know, what perhaps draws me most to Michael Jackson’s songs and makes them so compelling for me is the way he gives voice to the voiceless – to those who are “speechless” and have traditionally been excluded from public discourse. We see that over and over in his work. “Beat It!” and “Bad” give a voice to young Black men growing up in the inner city, struggling to avoid gang violence and simply stay alive (“You have to show them that you’re really not scared”). “Smooth Criminal” gives voice to a young woman murdered in her apartment, as well as to those who care about her (“Annie, are you OK?”). “Dirty Diana” gives voice to both a rock star and a groupie in almost equal measure (“I’ll be your everything if you make me a star”). “Morphine” gives voice to a drug addict (“I’m going down, baby”). And “Earth Song” gives voice to all those – both human and nonhuman – who have been denied a voice (“What about us?”). That concern for those without a voice, and his insistence that their voice matters, was a defining characteristic of his songwriting, I think, and one that resonated with listeners around the world.
Joie: Hmm. You’re right, Willa. Giving voice to the voiceless was like a reoccurring theme in his music and he used his careful word choices wonderfully in order to do this.
But, I guess the real issue with this for me is that, I just don’t understand how critics can totally ignore the fact that Michael has written some of the most iconic songs in our history and yet, they still refuse to acknowledge him as a songwriter of any great merit. That just doesn’t compute to me. And I wonder if the bottom line here is that it’s simply more of the same back-handed treatment that he endured in other aspects of his life and career. ‘He’s different, he’s strange, he’s weird so, we’ll just shut him down and minimalize all of his efforts across the board.’
Willa: I don’t know. I could speculate about a lot of different reasons why critics might have reacted this way, but it would just be speculation. I really don’t know. But it is interesting to me how the fans, the critics, and the public at large tend to respond to him so differently, and I wonder if it’s a function of emotional engagement. You know, Michael Jackson can really take you places if you let him, but you have to be willing to let him take you there.
I get the impression that a lot of times, critics approach artists – not just Michael Jackson but all artists – with a wary attitude. It’s like they’re standing there with their arms crossed going, “OK, buddy, show me what you can do. Try to impress me.” And if you approach him that way, you may be blown away by the incredible range of his voice or the fluidity of his dance moves – the kinds of obvious things the critics tend to acknowledge – but you’re going to miss all the depth and complexity and emotional power of his work. To see and feel those aspects of his work, you really have to engage with it, and explore what’s happening, and let yourself be drawn into it emotionally. And most critics just weren’t willing to do that. And his fans were.
It kind of gets back to what we’ve said before – we see him differently because we love him. With an artist as complicated and challenging as he is, I’m not sure it’s possible to even begin to understand him or appreciate him unless you love him and “give into” him. And we do.
Willa: This week Joie and I are thrilled to be joined by Lisha McDuff, a classically trained, full-time, career musician with over 25 years of working experience – though actually, Lisha has been joining us for quite a while now. Many of you know her already as Ultravioletrae.
Lisha, we’re so excited to have you join us and share your insights about Michael Jackson’s work as one professional musician listening to another. I’ve been so intrigued by your comments in the past – especially how you’re able to share what you’re hearing and make it accessible to those of us without formal training in music. It’s like it allows me to peek into a world I don’t know how to enter on my own. So thank you very much for joining us!
In one of your comments, you mentioned that you weren’t really a Michael Jackson fan until you saw This Is It, but then you were so blown away by what you saw that you became an ardent supporter and began studying his work. So I’m curious: what exactly did you see that impressed you so much?
Lisha: I don’t know that I’ll ever stop talking about the day I decided to see This Is It. It just totally captured me the way great art has the ability to do. From Michael’s first appearance in the film through the ending credits, I was caught in the moment, totally fixed on what I was seeing and hearing. I didn’t care about anything I had ever done, or what I needed to do in the future. It took my breath away. For me, that’s what great art does. It allows you to enter a timeless realm, where your mind has to stop its incessant activity and you can do nothing else but contemplate the beauty of what’s in front of you. I think that is what Michael meant when he said he wanted to create “escapism.” It’s that magic moment, when a great painting, literature, film, whatever it is, stops you dead in your tracks, takes you out of your ordinary perception, and arrests your mind with something beautiful and fascinating.
Willa: What a wonderful image! And a great description of that special feeling when art completely enraptures you. So “that magic moment,” as you call it, happens when you’re completely mesmerized and absorbed in the present moment. I love that.
Lisha: I can remember the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas talking about this when he described how he distinguishes a truly great musical performance from an ordinary one. He said that listening to music gives the mind a chance to daydream and wander, but a great musician will never allow this to happen. A truly great musician will command your full and undivided attention, and your mind will not stray even for a second. You must hear every note. This Is It was seeing a master at work. It was riveting.
Joie: I have heard from so many people – most of them not fans in the traditional sense before viewing the film – who expressed similar reactions after watching him in action in This Is It.
Lisha: It’s surprising how many of us new fans are out there. Why weren’t we paying attention sooner? Imagine not knowing much about Michael Jackson and then plopping yourself down in a movie theater and getting hit with it all at once. It’s pretty overwhelming.
Initially, I was so struck by how creative and free everything I saw and heard was. Some of the first images in the film are things like Michael in the orange jeans and the shiny jacket doing the sideways Moonwalk across the stage, singing “you’re a vegetable” while grasping in the air with his hands, and turning into a robot. He was like an endless fountain of creativity, taking inspiration from such a vast range of influences, from 70’s dance music to Marcel Marceau. It was like nothing I usually think of as pop, rock, soul, or even song and dance for that matter. I mean, what other musician would even dream of using a mime as inspiration for their work? A mime is totally silent!
You just couldn’t tell what was coming next from Michael. He might decide to do a dance using nothing but his back and shoulders, or he might drop to the floor and wiggle his feet in the air. He might use an achingly beautiful flute solo, or the voice of Dr. King, or he might use a car horn – you just didn’t know. He sang soft, gentle melodies a capella and then did some serious rock n roll. Whatever came next, it was always a complete surprise, nothing you could have predicted or expected. And it was always just the exact right thing for that musical moment.
Watching him interact with his musicians was a jaw dropping experience, like hearing him sing a line he wanted brought out while beat boxing the accompanying rhythm! I love this clip from the film:
His comments were so astute I knew Alex Al wasn’t exaggerating when he said you can’t fool Michael – you’d better come in knowing your part. I’d be willing to bet every musician there had the feeling that Michael was listening only to them. Ears like that are rare, the musicianship even rarer.
Willa: So what does that mean exactly?
Lisha: I mean that there aren’t a lot of people on the planet who can come into a rehearsal and really hear everything that’s going on all at once, identify where the problems are, and know exactly how to fix it. That’s what I mean about having great ears.
Joie: And when you think about the fact that he hadn’t prepared for the stage in over twelve years, that ability to hear everything all at once really is amazing. You would expect him to be sorely out of practice or something but, that clearly wasn’t the case.
Lisha: But Michael wasn’t simply cleaning things up, he was shaping things, adding musical tension and interest to everything he did. In that first instruction where he beat boxed the rhythm and the guitar line, he was balancing and blending the sound. He knew that line needed to come out and knew it was so crucial to the overall musical feel. A small detail like that can make a huge difference in how effective a performance is. It was so impressive how he listened and responded to what he heard. He was addressing the kinds of details that most composers and performers leave up to the arrangers, the music director and the musicians. I was really surprised at the level of interaction – he was taking what his musicians could do to a whole new level, and they knew it. Here’s another revealing clip that just popped up on YouTube:
Willa: That’s a wonderful clip, Lisha, and it really shows just how involved he was with the background vocalists, the musicians, the music director.
Lisha: Astonishingly, Michael also seemed to have that hyper-awareness with other aspects of the show: the dancing, the lighting, the filmmaking, the special effects, etc. Who can forget the moment he took over the bulldozer scene in “Earth Song,” directing the use of silence as the bulldozer closed its jaws? You could feel your heart cracking open with the timing of the next cue for the piano solo. Extraordinary. Michael Bearden, the music director, said on his fan page something like a jolt of electricity passed through him at that moment.
Willa: I can believe it! I love that scene, and it’s another moment where you really see his influence. The musicians are playing as the bulldozer closes, following the director’s – Kenny Ortega’s – direction. But Michael Jackson is waving him and them down. He wants the music to stop before then, while the bulldozer’s jaws are still open. As he explains to them, “The value would be greater if you let it rumble – let it stay open – let it close in silence.”
Joie: I agree, that is a powerful scene. And I also love the scene where they’re rehearsing Smooth Criminal and after the film portion, Michael turns around and stands motionless for a moment, and Kenny Ortega thinks they’ve gotten their wires crossed and misunderstood when the music is supposed to kick in. But Michael is “sizzling” and waiting for just the right dramatic moment to give the cue to his drummer. Kenny then points out that Michael won’t be able to see the screen behind him change from the marquee to a shot of the city if he does it this way, and Michael says simply, “I gotta feel that. I’ll feel it on the screen behind me.” I love that! He won’t see the screen change behind him, but he’ll feel it! It’s as if every fiber of his being is completely in tune with every aspect of “the performance.” He’ll be able to feel when the screen changes just like he’ll be able to feel the exact right moment to cue the drums. Amazing!
Lisha: I was amazed by that moment in Smooth Criminal too. And how poetic of Michael to describe himself as “sizzling!” Bearden was funny, sort of imitating Michael by telling Ortega that the band didn’t miss their cue, they were waiting because “he’s sizzling.” I got the feeling that everything Michael did or said had artistic flair – it’s just the way his mind worked.
Of all the things I saw that day, the thing that really left me down for the count was what I felt he was doing with music conceptually. I still don’t think I’ve got my head around it. It’s the way he merges multiple styles of music/dance/art with his own multiple intelligences: composing, performing, producing, directing, choreographing, filmmaking, staging, imagineering, his emotional depth, compassion, universal spirituality. He is approaching music from so many disciplines, and with so much depth, history, social and psychological insight. All of it collides with these giant mythic concepts, like the infinite 4D army in They Don’t Care About Us, suggesting the epic battle between good and evil. I gasped at this, recalling the iconic pictures of his military style wardrobe, realizing he has been exploring the powerful role music plays in swaying the hearts and minds of people for years. He’s used this image and concept in many different ways.
I felt he was even exploring the boundaries of space and time with his 4D concept and time bending. He jumps out of the 3D films and onto the stage. He takes you into the future with Light Man, then he jumps back in time into the old classic movies.
Willa: Oh, Light Man is such an interesting image, especially in terms of “time bending.” He looks futuristic, but important scenes from our political and cultural history are playing across the surface of his body and the sphere he’s holding. So we are witnessing history on this shiny futuristic surface – it’s superimposing collective memories of our past onto this vision of the future.
Kenny Ortega said that Michael Jackson connected Light Man gazing at that sphere with Hamlet gazing at the skull during his “Alas, poor Yorick” speech. I love that, and it adds yet another layer of meaning to that image. And then Light Man opens and Michael Jackson jumps out onto the stage.
And then he extends his reach beyond the stage as well. He planned to break down the “fourth wall” between the performers and the audience with the huge puppets moving among the audience during the “Thriller / Ghosts / Threatened” segment. I was also really struck by how the bullets in the Smooth Criminal 3D film fly out at the audience. He frequently tried to lead us as an audience to sympathize with those who are vulnerable, and in this case he positions us so the bullets are flying right at us as well as him so we really experience what a vulnerable position he’s in, and feel the threat against him.
Lisha: I love your take on Light Man, Willa, and yes, I also felt he was using space in such an incredibly meaningful way. This is something I am totally fascinated by. Have you ever noticed this happens in his recorded music? Not long after I saw the film I read Bruce Swedien’s book In The Studio with Michael Jackson. Swedien talks about music as sonic sculpture, how he likes to make the soundfield multi-dimensional. For Swedien to be satisfied with sound, it must have the proportions of left, center, right, and depth. This was a real eye opener to me when I started paying attention to the way the sounds are localized in Michael’s recordings.
For example, when you listen to the intro to “Thriller,” the footsteps will walk right out of your right speaker, across the room or your desk, and right back into your left speaker. They don’t just pan right and left. They walk. If you’re wearing headphones, they will walk right through your head!
Joie: Oh, my God! I cannot tell you how many times I have marveled at how those footsteps seem to walk through my head when I listen to “Thriller” with my headphones on! That is simply amazing and I always wonder, how did they do that?! Because you’re right, the sound doesn’t just pan from the right speaker to the left – it literally walks across the room!
Lisha: I love to listen to “Thriller” in my car because of the clever way the sound gets sent around the space. Like in the Vincent Price rap section, Michael ad libs between the rap verses, singing “I’m gonna thrill her tonight,” which I hear in the front of my car. But from a distance as if in the back seat I hear “hee hee hee…” and “thriller, thriller baby…” like it is coming from behind me! It sounds like Michael Jackson is in the back seat of my car doing his ad libs!
Willa: That’s funny!
Lisha: What a hilarious musical joke when you consider the horror film genre he is spoofing.
Willa: Oh, I hadn’t thought about that. So you don’t just have Michael Jackson in the backseat – you actually have a monster back there … right … behind … you. That is funny!
Lisha: Are you scared yet? I feel like I’ve entered the Michael Jackson dream world, symbolized by the first sound you hear, the squeaky door opening, and the last sound, the door closing shut. You’re being taken into a space in your imagination that exists just for that song. You can see how the talent and imagination of the composer, performer, engineer and producer have to work together to create an effect like that.
Joie: Lisha, I could not agree with you more about the sonic sculpture thing. And as I think about each album, there are just so many examples of “sonic sculptures” throughout his work. The ones that immediately jump to mind for me are, “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Dangerous,” “History,” “Ghosts,” and “Heartbreaker.” And that’s just picking one song from each album but honestly, every single song on each album can be described this way. As a sonic sculpture – a three-dimensional work of art that will live on forever.
Lisha: They truly are works of art and I love every one of your examples, Joie. I even love this game music he created – and don’t forget to listen with headphones:
Joie: The game music is incredible.
Willa: It definitely shows a different side of him, doesn’t it? Though it’s not what I would have expected you to pick, Lisha, as a classically trained musician.
Joie: Willa, it’s interesting you would say that because, when I listen to that game music, I can’t help but wonder about the classical album he was working on when he died. I would give just about anything to hear that music. Talk about sonic sculpture! Can you imagine what that music must sound like?
Willa: Oh, I know! I really hope the Estate releases it sometime in some form or other because I’d love to hear it. And this idea of sonic sculpture is fascinating, especially the way it merges the senses – almost like a type of synesthesia. It’s like visualizing sound.
Joie: I love the way you put that, Willa. “Visualizing sound.” That’s very poetic.
Willa: It’s a fascinating idea, isn’t it? And this idea of sonic sculpture kind of captures something I’ve felt in his music for a long time but didn’t know how to express. For me, his music has always been very visual, but I just assumed that was because of his videos, and the imagery of his lyrics. To me, his videos seem so integral to his artistic vision. 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 the videos weren’t just something he tacked on later as a marketing tool. From the very beginning, he planned to incorporate film as part of how we experienced that album, “to present this music … visually.” And those visual elements are integral to how we experience Thriller, I think. I can’t think of any of those three songs without imagining the videos as well.
But this concept of “sonic sculpture” adds a whole other way of thinking about this. It’s like his music itself is visual in some ways – it’s three dimensional and occupies three-dimensional space, and I don’t usually think of sound doing that.
Lisha: I had never thought of music as three dimensional in quite this way before either. I still find it mind blowing. Classical music explores the spatialization of sound – other music and popular recordings do as well – but this seems different to me somehow. I’m not sure I even know how to quantify it. In the ancient architecture of South India, known as Vaastu, architecture is defined as “frozen music.” One of the concepts of Vaastu is “rhythm-bound space.” The way Michael conceives of music as architecture reminds me of these concepts in Vaastu. He merges visuals/movement/space with music in a way that leaves one indistinguishable from the other. It’s not music with dance and visuals – it’s somehow structured as one single thing. I can’t hear the music without associating it with the sensation of movement and the visual, artistic, spatial concepts. I think this is really critical to understanding Michael as a composer and as a musician.
Willa: That’s just fascinating, Lisha, and it really expands not only how I think about Michael Jackson’s music, but music in general. Wow, I’m really going to have to ponder this for a while!
And I wonder how this idea of music as spatial and visual ties back in with his videos. I visualize his videos every time I listen to his songs – the songs and videos are so interconnected for me, and there’s a lot of emotional slippage between them. I don’t know if that makes sense but, for example, for a long time I didn’t like the You Rock My World video. In fact, it made me really uncomfortable. It’s pretty angry and I didn’t understand where that anger was coming from or who it was directed against, and it always left me feeling so frustrated and unsettled that I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like all those uncomfortable emotions it aroused in me. And I didn’t like the song either because of that – because all those unsettled emotions spilled over from the video. But after Joie and I talked about You Rock My World last fall and really explored everything that was going on in that video, I came to appreciate it so much more and now I like it a lot. And I like the song much more now also. That’s what I meant by “emotional slippage” between his songs and videos – the emotions of one color the other.
But even in the songs without videos, he paints such vivid pictures sometimes that I actually visualize the woman sitting at the kitchen table in “Much Too Soon,” or the patient lying on the examining table in “Morphine,” listening to the doctor explain what’s going to happen as the drug flows into his veins.
Joie: I know exactly what you mean, Willa; I do that too. In fact, for some of his songs that don’t have an accompanying video, I have actually conjured up an entire short film in my head. And every time I hear the songs – “Money,” “Unbreakable,” and “2000 Watts,” for example – those images that my imagination created play in my mind, simply because he has painted such a vivid picture with his words.
Willa: Now I want to see your mental movies, Joie! That’s so interesting. Another good one is “Human Nature” – his voice is so expressive you can really picture the main character, feeling restless and intensely alive and full of energy, just longing to be out in the night air, walking the city streets.
Lisha: Yes, I’ve made a lot of short films in my mind too! Like “Human Nature,” which I shot looking into a high-rise apartment window, but then you turn and look outside and see the fire escape and street scenes of New York.
Willa: That’s wonderful! What a cinemagraphic way of visualizing it. I can really picture that.
Lisha: “Human Nature” was another remarkable scene in This Is It. I couldn’t believe that rehearsal, how he created so much musical tension just with his voice and his movement, no accompaniment at all, totally solo. It made a strong impression on me visually as well because I remember looking at his body and fashion sense and I thought to myself, wow, this man gave everything he had to his art, even his own body was used. He held nothing back, including every cell of his body – he gave it all. This struck me as astonishing new territory, that an artist would use their own body to make art. He was like a living, breathing piece of sculpture. I’ve seen people customize their bodies with tattoos or piercings, but never anything like this. I was fascinated by his physical beauty and what it said to me, combined with my own memory of him as a child star, a teenager, the Thriller icon, and the many images I had seen in the media over the years.
Willa: I know what you mean, Lisha. Even the color of his skin was part of his art, and it feels to me like an entirely new kind of art, a new genre of art – it creates meaning in a way that’s very different from a piercing or tattoo, I think, though there are connections. They are all “rewriting” the body to some extent, but Michael Jackson is also rewriting the cultural narratives that have been inscribed on his body in a way I’ve never seen before. So the way he’s rewriting his body carries enormous cultural implications for how we read and interpret signifiers of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and ultimately identity.
Lisha: I believe Michael Jackson does mark an entirely new chapter in music and art. Think how powerful all of this is when you consider how it is being aimed at the masses, the entire globe, the inclusion of everyone, even the planet itself. I remember seeing the intro to “Earth Song” for the first time in This Is It, realizing he had been playing with his audience all along as he revealed the true meaning of his show. This Is It isn’t “the final curtain call” or the “it” place to be. This Is It is our marching orders: time is running out to avoid a global catastrophe. He was using his musical artistic ability to reach the masses and heal the world. I thought, what event in all of art even comes close to this?
Joie: Lisha, I love what you just said about Michael’s music being aimed at the entire globe. It made me remember something that Akon once said about him in an interview. He said,
“He’s incredible. He’s a genius. Just to be in the same room [with him], I felt everything I wanted to accomplish in life has been achieved….That aura … that’s how incredible that aura is….The way he thinks … some artists think regional, some think national, I was thinking international. He thinks planets! It’s on another level!”
I always find it fascinating to learn that his music industry peers, and the younger generation of music artists who are influenced by him, find him just as mind-blowing as the fans do. And I love this quote from Akon because it illustrates so well what you were just saying about appealing to the masses. It also highlights another point you just made when you said “what event in art even comes close to this?” As Akon said, Michael didn’t think small. “He thinks planets!”
Lisha: Isn’t it true? I think Akon was right. There is something so expansive about the way Michael thinks and conceives of art. I’m also trying to think of someone else who has had that kind of reach, and I’m stumped. Is there another historical figure who has reached around the globe the way Michael Jackson has? I’m no historian, but I really can’t think of one.
Joie: I can’t think of one either, Lisha, and I’ve tried for many years.
Willa: He did have a very different way of conceptualizing art, didn’t he? Not just the global reach of his art, but the way he envisions art. I honestly believe he was creating a new poetics, an entirely new philosophy of art.
So I wanted to circle back to his musicianship for just a moment, if we could. When Joie and I talked with Joe Vogel and Charles Thomson a few weeks ago about Michael Jackson as a songwriter, we talked quite a bit about the many collaborators he worked with in the studio, and how they deserve at least some of the credit for what we hear when we listen to one of his albums. But we disagreed about what that means in terms of his musicianship and his songwriting. For example, Charles felt he had far less autonomy as a songwriter because he brought other musicians into the studio, while Joie and I tended to think he was still the composer of his songs and the guiding vision for his albums, and still had a lot of control over what happened in the studio. So as a professional musician who’s worked collaboratively with other musicians, what are your thoughts about this?
Lisha: Well, from my viewpoint, I think there is a paradigm shift going on that makes this difficult to see. Because great music will always reflect the reality of the time and place it was created, whether it intends to or not. For example, Michael Jackson lived in a country that values technology, material prosperity, and global commerce. So it’s no accident that his music strongly reflects these values. It is technologically advanced, lavishly produced, and commercially successful on a global scale.
Willa: Wow, I’d never thought about that before.
Lisha: He also lived in a time and place where it was becoming clear that human beings must develop the capacity to value each other’s perspectives and work together effectively. This was critically important as we moved into a global economy and began working to save the planet’s resources and viability. And that is exactly how I would sum up Michael’s creative process – as the ability to value multiple perspectives, working to fuse them together seamlessly in a way that benefits and enhances every part of the whole. I don’t think for a second that it diminishes his musicianship. On the contrary, I think it is his genius.
Another way to look at this is through The Beatles. I am religiously in love with their work, and I especially admire Paul McCartney. I get a kick out of reading the liner notes on his solo albums and seeing him credited as the bass player, the drummer, the lead guitar player, the keyboard player, the lead vocalist, and the background vocalists as well. Pretty amazing, DIY records! What can’t this man do? I love his solo albums. But at the end of the day, I have to admit, none of the work that The Beatles did as solo artists comes close to what they produced synergistically as The Beatles. You can really hear and understand the value of their working together – the proof is in the pudding as they say. I think it’s clear that musical synergy was a part of their genius.
Willa: What a great analogy! And I certainly don’t think that working together as The Beatles diminished the musical accomplishments of any of them: Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, or Starr.
Lisha: Not at all, it brought out their best work. That is how Kenny Ortega summed up Michael’s philosophy for This Is It – he wanted to gather the best people he could find and challenge them to work together to go beyond anything they had done before.
So I’ve asked myself the question, What work done by Michael’s collaborators on their own can hold up next to a Michael Jackson album? Even the Michael album, which contains a great deal of Michael’s work, cannot stand the test of a Michael Jackson album! Only the man himself could pull that off. Without Michael Jackson guiding the vision and polishing every last detail to perfection, I’m afraid there are no more Michael Jackson albums.
Joie: So does that mean you agree then with Will.i.am, who is very much against posthumous albums of previously unreleased music?
Lisha: Not at all. Will.i.am scared the living daylights out of me when he said he considered destroying some of the tracks he and Michael were working on! I can’t say strongly enough how important it is to preserve and archive everything EXACTLY as Michael left it, including things that were meant for the trash can. Future musicologists will need to have access to all of this. As long as that is done first, I hope the Estate releases everything that has any commercial value at all. It won’t be the exquisitely crafted works of art that Michael created no matter who does the final production work, but it will be a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a genius and his creative process. I would love to be able to hear every last bit of it, even whole albums of snippets and unfinished songs. I think most artists would die for something as good as what Michael Jackson throws away!