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Summer Rewind Series, Week 5: Rock My World

NOTE: The following conversation was originally posted on November 17, 2011. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Spotlight on You Rock My World

Willa:  So Joie, in October we spent the entire month taking a close look at the Invincible album, including some of the battles Michael Jackson had with Sony during its production and promotion. To be honest, I never knew much about those battles or paid much attention to them, but focusing on Invincible for a month forced me to really think about what he must have been going through then, and that’s led me to look at the You Rock My World video in a whole new way.

To be honest, this video has always made me really uncomfortable. It’s very angry, for one thing – one of his angriest. But Black or White is angry also, and I love Black or White. It’s one of my favorites. But Black or White expresses a righteous anger. I watch it and come away feeling empowered and inspired and ready to take on the world. You Rock My World is completely different. I watch it and just feel frustrated and powerless and angry, and not even sure who I’m mad at.

Joie:  Well, I understand completely about the video making you uncomfortable. I have always had a similar reaction to this one. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it makes me uncomfortable but, I do come away from it feeling very on edge. The whole video just feels a little bit raw to me. Like you can actually feel the tension beneath the surface as you watch it. And I think the reasons for that are really clear. I’m sure Michael was feeling very “frustrated and powerless and angry” by that point. As you know, You Rock My World was not the video he originally wanted to make. As you mentioned last month, he really wanted to make a video for “Unbreakable.” This is also the song he wanted to be the lead single from the album, not to mention the title of the the album itself. He already had the video concept worked out and everything so, when Sony made the decision to release “You Rock My World” instead of “Unbreakable,” I know he probably felt extreme anger and frustration. One would think that an artist of Michael’s caliber would have complete autonomy and control over how a project would unfold. And maybe that very issue was one of the bones of contention between him and Sony at the time.

But, I remember getting the phone call from the MJFC president back in 2001 when all of this was happening and her telling me that the video Michael wanted to make had to be scrapped because of friction with Sony and Michael was now scrambling to make a video for “You Rock My World” and it had to be completed in a very short amount of time and he was “less than happy” about the situation. And I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, I bet he’s pissed!’

Willa:  And you can really feel a lot of those intense emotions in this video. The plot has his character trying to woo a young woman, and as we’ve talked about a number of times in previous posts, these love interests often seem to represent his audience. Importantly, another character played by Chris Tucker – a popular entertainer in his own right – is also attracted to her. So this woman – possibly representing their audience – has more than one performer competing for her attention, just as entertainers often seem to compete for an audience and market share.

Michael Jackson’s character is pretty sure of himself and confident he can win her over, but they go to a club where the managers want her also and seem to think they have a right to her, and they try to keep him away from her. In fact, he begins having confrontations with these managers and ultimately the club owner, just as Michael Jackson himself was having increasingly heated confrontations with the managers and ultimately the head of Sony over how to reach an audience.

Joie:  Wow, Willa. You know, I never really thought about that connection of the club managers and the big boss, played to perfection by Marlon Brando, as possibly representing the powers-that-be at Sony but, now that you point it out, it makes perfect sense! Really keen observation.

Willa:  Well, I’d never thought about it before either until we were working on the Invincible posts, and you clued me in to what exactly was happening then and just how bad it was. And as I was thinking about that, I realized that the emotions of that situation precisely paralleled those unsettling emotions that have always made this such an uncomfortable video for me to watch.

So Michael Jackson’s character has to deal with all these confrontations with the managers, and he responds by performing – by singing and dancing – which is what he always does in his videos when forced to deal with confrontational situations. And as we’ve seen in videos stretching back to Beat It and Bad, the power of art has always been able to bridge those differences and bring about some sort of harmonious resolution.

But that doesn’t happen this time. The outcome is completely different here than in any other Michael Jackson video because the people he’s battling against don’t respect his art. The managers watch him dance and then taunt him, saying “That’s it? That’s all you got? That ain’t nothin.’ You ain’t nothin.’ C’mon, big man, show me all you got.”

Then later, in that crucial scene with the club owner, the owner trivializes his art as well, saying, “You were pretty cute in there.” That’s exactly the kind of patronizing thing an executive, a money guy, would think about an artist, and it is so incredibly condescending and disrespectful. Can you imagine Michael Jackson, a brilliant artist who put himself on the line every time he walked on stage, coming off stage after dancing his heart out and hearing, “You were pretty cute in there.” That is such a belittling thing to say to a dancer, and it just scorches me every time I hear it.

However, Michael Jackson’s character responds in an interesting way. He gives the owner a defiant look and says, “I know who you are” – which immediately leads me to think, Who? Who is this guy? The simple answer is that he represents Tommy Mattola, the head of Sony at the time, but that’s a little too easy, I think. Instead, I think it’s more useful to see him as symbolic of all those executives and accountants and mid-level managers who make money off artists but don’t really respect them or understand what they’re doing, or realize how important it is.

Joie:  It’s interesting that you say that, Willa, because I remember reading an account of a Sony listening party for Invincible and it seemed so intense. I can’t remember now exactly where I read it but, basically it was Michael and his manager or his publicist or someone like that, in a room with a bunch of Sony executives and they sat and listened to the entire album from start to finish. And when the album was over, no one said a word. The Sony execs just got up and filed out of the room without saying a word to Michael – no congratulations, no words of praise, no nothing. And it just reminds me of that part you pointed out from the video. “Is that all you got? That ain’t nothin’. You ain’t nothin’.” I’m sure, that must have been what Michael was feeling at the end of that listening party when they all got up and left without saying a word.

Willa:  Are you serious? How awful! And it’s so interesting that you should cite that passage again because “You ain’t nothin’” is a line from the Bad video as well, which in many ways depicts a comparable situation. There, he’s a young man from the inner city who received a scholarship to a prep school, and then comes home and has to regain the respect of guys he thought were his friends, but aren’t really. Now he’s involved in a similar confrontation with Sony and having to regain the respect of people who should be supporting him, but aren’t really.

In fact, the You Rock My World video frequently references his earlier work:  “P. Y. T.,” “The Girl is Mine,” “Beat It,” “Bad,” “Dangerous.” And all of those songs were hits that made money for Sony specifically. He doesn’t mention any of his Motown hits. They’re included in a fun way, so they add a touch of humor to the video, but I think there’s an underlying message as well. He’s reminding Sony that he’s done his part – he’s built an audience and proven he can create big money-making hits. Now it’s time for them to do their part and support him while he creates something more experimental and artistically challenging, like the Invincible album.

Joie:  Again, that is such a keen observation and I have to say that I agree with you completely. And in fact, this opening sequence of the video where his earlier work is cited – first at the Chinese restaurant and then at the club – is the most fun, relaxing, entertaining part of the entire video. He’s with his friend, Chris Tucker and the two of them are having really good fun playing with the words and interacting with each other, and it is as if he is sort of reminding everyone of the hits, reminding us – Sony and the audience as well – of why we fell in love with him in the first place.

And really, if you think about it, it isn’t until he leaves Chris’ side to begin wooing the girl that things start to get a little bit uncomfortable. That’s when we begin to feel the tension creep in. That’s when we begin to get the feeling that there is more going on just beneath the surface that we’re not fully aware of. We can feel his anger and frustration but, we don’t really know why.

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Joie. While there’s something of a competition between these two characters, they’re presented as good friends and it feels like fun back-and-forth bantering – unlike the tension-filled conflicts with the managers of the club. You know, stepping back and looking at this video through the lens of all the confrontations that were happening then with the executives at Sony has helped me figure out why it always made me so uncomfortable – it’s helped me see at least one possible reason for why it’s so angry and where that anger comes from – and understanding that has given me a way to get into this video and appreciate it a lot more. It doesn’t make me so uncomfortable now because I have a better idea of what’s causing all those intense emotions.

And they are intense. To be honest, I get the feeling that by the time this video came out, Michael Jackson had had it up to here with Sony. And as he shows pretty dramatically in the conclusion to You Rock My World, he’s done with negotiations. He’s ready to burn the place down.

Joie:  He was so over it; he was done. You have to feel pretty angry to want to burn the place down, even symbolically. I don’t think it takes much art interpretation to understand that scene. The place goes up in flames and presumably, the big boss goes with it, as we see him turning to head back up the stairs instead of out of the building with everyone else. And not only is he so angry he’s ready to torch the place but, he’s also angry enough to fight. You have to remember that this is the one and only video where we see Michael throw a punch! As the club is going up in flames and he’s shouting for Chris to get the car, he is embroiled in a bar room brawl.

Willa:  Wow, Joie, I think you’ve just highlighted something really important. We’ve never seen him lash out like that before. Michael Jackson punch someone in the face? That’s shocking! But even so, he makes it clear he didn’t come looking for a fight. Before the brawl breaks out, he and his dancers perform this subtle movement of pulling back the lower edge of their jackets, just as the street tough does in Bad to reveal he has a gun. But here, they reveal they have no guns. So he’s unarmed and he isn’t looking for a fight – but he’s ready to fight if threatened and pushed too far.

Joie:  And significantly, in his own life he is going through a situation where he feels the need to fight and he does so in very public ways – something many people were not used to seeing from him. This is a man who was always more inclined to ‘turn the other cheek’ than to go into battle but he has clearly had just about all that he can stand.

And, of course, at the end we see our hero connect with his love interest – the audience – as they all pile into the car and drive safely away.

Willa:  I agree, and I think you were really onto something earlier when you said there’s a very friendly feeling between these characters. The intense conflicts in this video come almost exclusively from the confrontation with the managers, not the competition between the friends. We see that reflected in the conclusion as well. They are still friends and in a way they both have the girl – she’s in the car with both of them – just as performers can share an audience and even help each other gain an audience. Looking at this symbolically, the video seems to be saying that artists should band together because other artists aren’t the problem. The problem comes from all the people trying to control artists and how they express themselves simply to maximize profit without really understanding what they’re trying to say or accomplish through their work.

And I have to say, in this context Marlon Brando plays the role of the club owner so well, especially his interactions with the main character. He completely belittles Michael Jackson’s character but smiles a wonderful smile, he’s charming, you want to like him – and yet you know he would have his henchmen slip a knife through your heart without a moment’s regret. His smile is open, engaging, sincere, and yet he is soulless. Brando was such an amazing actor, and what he does with that little scene is so compelling. To me, it just completely captures the essence of that character.

Joie:  I agree, Brando is great, as always! But I want to go back to the middle of the video for a moment and talk about two small parts that stand out for me and I already know one of them is a big stand out moment for you too, Willa. The first one is the part that intrigues us both:  that way-too-short interlude before the fighting begins where we suddenly become aware of the sounds in the club. The “street music” as you called it. We hear the rhythm of the broom sweeping across the floor and the glasses clinking, the shoe shine guy buffing, the high heals clicking and the patrons tapping on the tables. To me, this rhythm section feels like a pause in the tension. It almost feels out of place in terms of the dominant negative emotions that are driving the rest of the video.

The second part comes just before the rhythm section when we see a stage and a spotlight. Presumably, we’re in the same club but the setting is different. No one else is around. It’s just Michael and the lady he’s trying to woo. Only she is dressed very differently in a sexy suit and fedora, like him. And instead of commanding that spotlight as he rightfully should, Michael does something unexpected. He chooses not to dance this small solo ‘spotlight’ moment, opting instead to let the female love interest take center stage and do her best MJ impersonation while he simply glides across the floor behind her. This scene has always puzzled me because, again, it just seems a little out of place among the tension of the rest of the video. And yet, I know that it’s significant because it is so different and out of place.

Willa:  You know, art interpretation is a tricky thing. It’s tremendously fun and I love it, especially with an artist like Michael Jackson whose work is so rich, with so much to discover and explore. But it can also be a challenge sometimes to explore all the possible meanings of a work while still staying true to the artist’s vision. In this case, I really don’t think that Michael Jackson sat down and said, I’m going to create a video that is a symbolic critique of Sony and its minions, and A is going to represent B, and Y is going to represent Z. I seriously doubt that. Very few artists work that way, and from everything I’ve read about his creative process, his work tended to develop much more organically than that.

But I do think that, at the time he created this video, he was embroiled in some intense conflicts with Sony and was very frustrated and angry about that, and some of those emotions and conflicts expressed themselves in his work. And I think that looking at this video through the lens of what he was experiencing at that time allows us to see some things that weren’t apparent before.

For example, that whole “street music” sequence is simply wonderful, and I love to just experience it and enjoy it for what it is – a lovely tapestry of found sounds skillfully woven together to form music. But if I look at this sequence in terms of everything that was going on then with Sony, it seems significant to me that Michael Jackson’s character is totally tuned in to this street music, this music of the people, and beautifully engages with it and threads the rhythm of it into his music – and the club managers aren’t. They’re oblivious to this rhythm of the people. So through music, Michael Jackson’s character shares a deep symbiotic connection with the people, just as Michael Jackson himself did, but it’s a connection the club managers and Sony executives don’t participate in and don’t understand. That’s why it’s so galling that they’re the ones making the marketing decisions – decisions that not only affect his art (like canceling the “Unbreakable” video) but actually impose barriers between him and his audience.

Joie:  That’s a great point, Willa and I think you just hit the ball out of the park with that one! This is why that sequence has always seemed so out of place to me. Because it’s like, for that brief instant, Michael hits the pause button on all of the tension and the anger he feels toward the club managers (and the Sony execs) and just connects with the audience for a minute – to make sure we’re still there with him. That’s why this street music portion is so powerful and such an important part of the video!

And I agree with you about his creative process. I don’t think he ever set out to create a video where A represents this and B represents that. As you and I have talked about before, ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,’ as Freud would say. And perhaps, this spotlight scene that fascinates me so much is one of those cases. Maybe it was just a cool visual that he wanted to include. Or perhaps he was aware of Kishaya Dudley – the dancer in the role – and her impressive skills and wanted to give her a spotlight to shine. Or maybe it was more than that.

Since we have argued in the past that the love interest in many of his songs and videos ultimately represents his audience, perhaps we can look at this small scene in the same way. You know, the fans were – and still are – fiercely loyal to Michael and during his conflict with Sony, the fans were very vocal and they took up his charge with gusto, executing rallies and chanting ‘Sony Sucks’ to the delight of the press. In fact, Michael often called his fans his ‘Army of Love.’ So, if the love interest is supposed to represent his audience, then maybe the message here is that it’s time for us – the audience – to get into the act, so to speak, while he encourages us from the background. Or maybe – and I think this might be more to the point – he is acknowledging how the fans always step up to fight for him just as Ms. Dudley stepped into the spotlight in his place.

Willa:  That makes a lot of sense to me, Joie, and it reminds me again of the street music sequence. It’s like he’s emphasizing once again that deep connection he and his audience share through music and dance, and the strength and vitality each receives from the other. We love and support him; he loves and inspires us. He dances; we dance. It’s a deeply interconnected relationship that nourishes us all.

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Summer Rewind Series, Week 3: Invincible (Parts 1 & 2)

NOTE:  The following two conversations were originally posted on October 6 and 13, 2011. To read the original posts and comments, please click here.

Celebrating Invincible Month, Part 1: Unbreakable

Willa:  This week Joie and I are kicking off a month-long series on the Invincible album with a close look at “Unbreakable,” a defiant battle cry we both love with some really fascinating lyrics.

Joie:  I love “Unbreakable.” It is a fascinating song with lyrics that just jump right out at you simply because they are like a window into what life must have been like for him.

Now I’m just wondering, why you think  
That you can get to me, with anything  
Seems like you’d know by now  
When and how, I get down  
And with all that I’ve been through, I’m still around  

It’s as if he’s addressing all of the Sneddons, the Dimonds, the Chandlers – all the tabloids of the world – and saying, “You tried your best but, I’m still here and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Willa:  I agree, and I love the way you put that. In fact, a lot of songs on Invincible seem like “a window into what life was like for him,” and I really see that in “Unbreakable.” It’s such a defiant response to everything he’s been going through, and I’m especially struck by this line:  “You can’t touch me ’cause I’m untouchable.”

In the caste system in India, Pakistan, and other parts of the world, Untouchables were (and in some places, still are) the people at the very bottom, the lowest of the low. They were perceived as impure – so impure that if they touched you, even brushed up against you accidentally, you would become impure also. That’s why they were “untouchable” – because you must never touch them, or let them touch you.

When I was in sixth grade, I became friends with an elderly woman who lived near us who became a doctor back when very few women were doctors. She spent nearly 30 years working in Pakistan and India, and was just an incredible person. I loved to visit her and listen to her stories, and hearing about the Untouchables made a big impression on me. I used to wonder what it would be like to have everyone you loved or everything you cared about be corrupted by your touch – kind of like King Midas, but worse. Your touch turns everything impure rather than to metal.

That was Michael Jackson’s life after the 1993 allegations. His public image became so toxic, so impure, that anyone who supported him, any place that gave him sanctuary, any project he worked on was tainted as well. His friends and family, even his fans, were ridiculed in the press, and Lisa Marie Presley was treated horribly – nearly as badly as he was. “What More Can I Give,” a song to benefit victims of the September 11th terrorist attack, was portrayed as a cynical ploy to improve his image by exploiting a national tragedy. And his efforts to help children in need were criticized as, at best, inappropriate and, at worst, additional evidence of his brazen moral corruption. In other words, by the time Invincible came out, he had become an Untouchable. No one in the press believed his motives were genuine or pure, and everything he touched was symbolically contaminated merely by association with him.

In the chorus of “Unbreakable,” he seems to acknowledge this (“You can’t touch me ’cause I’m untouchable”) but then he does something remarkable that he did throughout his career:  he takes that cultural narrative and flips it inside-out, completely rewriting it. “You can’t touch me ’cause I’m untouchable” doesn’t feel like a concession. It feels like a declaration of strength. He’s “untouchable” because he’s too powerful to be touched, too invincible to be hurt. He conveys this redefinition both through the sheer power of his voice when singing this line and through a parallel line that echoes the first, emphasizing this bold new meaning:

You can’t touch me ’cause I’m untouchable . . .  
You’ll never break me ’cause I’m unbreakable  

He sings these lines six times over the course of “Unbreakable,” including three times in succession at the end of the track. These words are important, and in some ways capture in miniature what Jackson did over and over throughout his work. He’s positioning himself with the dispossessed and giving them a voice – in this case, those (including himself) classed as impure, outcast, “untouchable” – while fundamentally changing the narrative that disempowers them. In this context, his cry that “I’m untouchable” becomes a defiant challenge to those who try to twist his motives and impose their worst interpretations onto him.

Joie:  Wow. Ok, Willa. Now you have officially blown me away with that one!! I have never thought of “Unbreakable” in terms of caste. I have read about the caste systems in various parts of the world and you’re right, it is both fascinating and sad to think about. But I had never viewed this song in those terms.

I have to make a confession here. I absolutely adore the Invincible album. I am in love with it actually and most of the time, it runs a very close race with Dangerous as they vie for the title of my favorite Michael Jackson album. I have multiple copies of both of them. They are the only two Michael CDs that I must have at least 3 copies of at all times (one for my car, one for my husband’s truck, one for the CD player in my kitchen so that I can have music while I cook dinner). And that doesn’t even count the ones that I have given away over the years to friends and family members or the digital copies on my computer and my iPod.

So, needless to say, I have listened to this album about a million times and when listening to “Unbreakable,” that line about being untouchable never struck me that way before. I am really intrigued by this idea that he was identifying with the lowliest people on earth through that line and now that you’ve pointed it out, it just makes so much sense to me. Really profound observation! And you’re completely correct when saying that anyone who supported him was tainted as well. And I think, as fans, we can all attest that we still feel that way, to some degree. That stigma never really let up. Not for us and certainly not for him or his family.

Willa:  That’s interesting, because that line has always struck me that way, maybe because of those stories my friend told me way back in sixth grade, and because of the strong parallels to his life at that time. That’s one reason I think it’s so valuable to share interpretations of his work – because we all bring different ways of seeing and we can learn so much by sharing those different views. I’ve learned so much through my conversations with you. And this line from “Unbreakable” has always evoked a very powerful image for me – of Michael Jackson being made to feel ashamed and “untouchable” for something he didn’t do, and then rewriting that as a declaration of strength.

But you’re right, that stigma never let up, and the consequences were horrible – personally, professionally, and artistically. We see references to the pain of that stigma throughout Invincible. It’s like he can never escape it, and I really don’t know how he endured it for so long. It also ham-strung his efforts to help others, which had to be incredibly frustrating for him. He was passionately committed to social change and improving the lives of those classified as outsiders – a commitment we see throughout his career from “Ben,” his first solo hit when he was 13 years old, to the “Earth Song” number he was working on the day before he died. Yet he was severely hampered after 1993 because everything he did was seen through this lens of corruption and impurity. By 2001 he had matured into a truly amazing artist and should have been at his peak creatively, but he was shackled by those allegations. Not only was he reviled in the press, but other artists became reluctant to work with him – even his own record company was hesitant to support him.

Joie:  You’re absolutely right and I feel like in many ways, he never totally rebounded from the ’93 allegations. In fact, I often find myself wondering how his career would have been different if it had never happened. I mean, he was such an extraordinary talent with so much passion and imagination so, I wonder what amazing things he could have accomplished in his career – and in his life –  had the allegations in ’93 never happened. How would his career have unfolded if he had never been falsely accused of the most horrible of crimes? But I know those thoughts are pointless because, the allegations did happen and here we are. But as for Invincible, I also wonder what heights this truly incredible album could have seen if Sony had gotten behind him and promoted it properly.

This month there is a whole movement by Michael fans around the world to get the Invincible album to number one on the charts during October. It’s called the Invincible Campaign and its mission is two-fold. The first order of business is to get the album to number one in celebration of its 10th Anniversary (it was released in October, 2001). The second purpose of the campaign is to let the music from the album serve as a sort of backdrop or a peaceful banner for Michael during the trial of Conrad Murray in order to remind the world that Michael’s art was “Unbreakable” and “Invincible.”

Willa:  It also encourages fans, as well as the public at large, to take a second look at an album that never received the attention it deserved when it was first released. There’s a long tangled history here, but the result was that Sony didn’t promote it well, as you say. Much worse, to my mind, is that Sony prevented him from producing the videos he had planned for this album. I believe his visual art was as important as his music – that, in fact, he was able to express his ideas more fully through film than music – so cutting off that avenue of artistic expression from him is tragic, for him and us. Can you imagine the Thriller album without the videos for “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” or “Thriller?” He made ten videos for the Bad album and nine for Dangerous, but Sony cut him off after two for Invincible, refusing to let him create the video he had planned for “Unbreakable,” or any others – a decision that infuriated him. (It was after this decision that he launched the protests in Harlem.)

Joie:  Actually, Michael only really created one video for the Invincible album as he was so upset with Sony at the time that he refused to participate in the video for “Cry.” But you’re right, it was really such a shame that they chose not to support him.

Willa:  To me, that decision borders on criminal. What potential works of art did the world lose because of Sony’s short-sighted decision?  I’m sorry, but if Michelangelo has an idea for a sculpture and wants a 20-foot block of marble, you give him a 20-foot block of marble. You don’t tell him that marble is too expensive. You do everything in your power to provide him with whatever he needs to fulfill his artistic vision. And if Michael Jackson wants to create a video, then you do everything in your power to facilitate that. Can you imagine if the world had been deprived of Michelangelo’s David or the Pieta because he was denied the materials he needed to create them?

That’s how I feel about Sony’s decision. I’m just stunned that they would act this way – especially since you can make the argument that there wouldn’t even be a Sony music division as we know it without Michael Jackson – and I really wonder what he had planned for “Unbreakable.” It’s fascinating to think about, especially since this is such an intriguing song. For example, what about these lyrics: “You can’t believe it / You can’t conceive it.” What does that mean? What is he thinking? And would he have provided clues in the video he had planned – a video his own record company prevented him from making?

Joie:  I absolutely agree with you. What a HUGE mistake for Sony to virtually bail on their biggest artist, and it’s easy to understand why Michael felt that the company was plotting against him. I mean, even the album’s name frustrated him. The title track was, of course, supposed to be “Unbreakable” but, Sony “mistakenly” had the cover printed up with the wrong title song and by then it was too late to fix it.

But, I do want to point out that Sony was a very different place back then. Tommy Mattola, who was the head of Sony at the time and the one giving Michael such a hard time, is no longer there and hasn’t been since 2003. In fact, Sony has gone through three other chairmen/CEO’s since Matolla left so, it really is a different environment now than it was back then.

The whole fight between Michael and Sony became such a public mess with cries of conspiracy over the Sony/ATV catalog and I am certain that Michael had very good reason to feel the way he did. But the unfortunate outcome of it was that a truly wonderful work of art that Michael Jackson spent a great deal of time on, pouring his heart and soul into for months and months, got overlooked and pushed to the wayside in all of the confusion. The Invincible album is practically unknown outside of the fan world and it’s just such a shame that the rest of the world missed it because there are some real musical gems on this record. That’s why Willa and I wanted to do our part this October and help celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Invincible by doing a month-long series on the album.

And I have to admit that I did participate in the campaign’s buy event yesterday; I went out and purchased another copy of the CD. But, of course, I do that periodically anyway … it’s like a sickness! I am obsessed with this album.

Willa:  Well, as you know, I’m not the most technologically advanced person in the world, but I have this iPod I’m gradually bonding with – at least, I’m comfortable checking email and searching the web with it now. But my son keeps laughing at me because I’m so cautious about using it. As he pointed out the other day, I let it “mellow” in its box for four months before I even opened it. Apparently he’d been monitoring the situation to see how long it would take, but finally decided I was going to let the warranty expire before I ever tried it so finally just opened it for me and got it going. (He has one too.) And then practically the first thing I did with it was somehow take a picture of my own eyeball. He thinks this is all very funny – just the whole situation of his 50-year-old mother trying to figure out an iPod. It cracks him up.

Anyway, I’ve had this thing for 10 months now and still don’t have any music on it, so I was thinking I might download Invincible – my first music download! – and support the campaign at the same time. Wish me luck! And then next week we’ll continue our discussion of this remarkable yet frequently overlooked album.

Celebrating Invincible, Part 2

Willa:  A few weeks ago, Pamela visited our blog and posted this comment:

“I think whenever Michael wrote a song about a woman, the woman was us, the fans. I think he understood the love affair we had for each other (the fans and Michael)…. I felt he looked at us, the fans, as a single relationship and that was his inspiration. If you follow his songs, according to the major events in his life, you can see the feelings he writes about are how he thinks the fans are feeling about him during that time.”  

I thought this beautifully expressed an idea Joie and I have felt also:  that Michael Jackson’s love songs can be interpreted as a romance with a woman, or more metaphorically as describing that ongoing “love affair” between him and his audience.   Seen in this way, it seems significant that Invincible has so many songs of unrequited or fading love. From “Heartbreaker” and “Invincible” in the thundering opening trilogy with their stories of cold-hearted women who don’t care about him or won’t give him a chance, to the lyrical “Don’t Walk Away” and “Whatever Happens” and their poignant depictions of a love affair in trouble and in decline, Invincible is filled with songs of unfulfilled love.

Joie:  Willa, you know before reading M Poetica, I never really spent much time thinking about the love songs in terms of Michael’s relationship with his audience. I mean, it was always just sort of there, beneath the surface. But I never really thought about it in depth before you and I began discussing his work in a serious way. And now that I have been focusing on it more, it is amazing to me how it just jumps out at you.

For instance, listening to “Don’t Walk Away,” these lyrics in particular really strike me as so meaningful when viewing this song through that lens of Michael and his audience:

Don’t walk away  
See I just can’t find the right thing to say  
I tried but all my pain gets in the way  
Tell me what I have to do so you’ll stay  
Should I get down on my knees and pray
  
How  can I stop losing you  
And how  can I begin to stay  
When there’s nothing left to do but walk away
  
I close my eyes  
Just to try and see you smile one more time  
But it’s been so long now all I do is cry  
Can’t we find some love to take this away  
‘Cause the pain gets stronger every day  

It’s as if he is begging us – the audience – to tell him how to fix it. He’s not asking us what went wrong; he’s well aware of the problems this relationship has faced over the years. But he doesn’t want to let it die. This relationship is very important to him and he’s willing to work at it:  “Can’t you see, I don’t want to walk away,” he sings. He just needs to know how. He can’t figure it out so, he’s asking us. “How can I stop losing you?”  

Willa:  Oh heavens, Joie, those lines are so heart-wrenching for me, especially that last line, “Cause the pain gets stronger every day.” And for me it’s not an either-or decision of ‘is he talking about a romance’ or ‘is he talking about his audience’ – it’s both, simultaneously. It works as the story of a fading love affair with a woman, and as the troubled “love affair” Pamela described that he had with us, his audience.   And when he goes on to sing, “How am I to understand . . . why all my dreams been broken?” I can’t help but think of the aftermath of the 1993 allegations and how devastating that was, both for him personally and in terms of his relationship with his audience. I imagine there were many times when he felt that things had become so bad, there really was “nothing left to do but walk away.” But he didn’t. He kept trying to make it work.

Joie:  It is just heartbreaking! And what makes it so painful in my mind are these lines:  “I close my eyes / Just to try and see you smile one more time / But it’s been so long now all I do is cry.” That just tears me apart. How many times did we hear him say that he just wanted to make people happy? That he loved to be able to put a smile on someone’s face with his music? That’s what it was about for him – making us happy. But somewhere along the way he lost us; and he’s acknowledging that and he wants to fix it. But he just doesn’t know how. It’s like he doesn’t understand what it is we want from him. What does he have to do to make the audience love him again?

Heartbreaking. Particularly because the audience he’s singing to – or at least, the ones who are still paying attention – are already firmly on his side. We never left him; we never stopped loving him. But this song isn’t really directed toward us – the fans. Its intended audience is made up of the others – those who fell away when things got uncomfortable (they know who they are), those who eagerly took part in all the MJ-bashing that went on (the media), and those who jumped on the bandwagon because it got them a laugh or two (late-night comedians, talk show hosts, et.al.). Those are the people he’s really singing to in this song. And, as always with the general public, his pleas fell on deaf ears. No one heard his cries but us – the fans.

Willa:  It is heartbreaking, and Joie, I think what you just said is so important. In fact, I think you put your finger on a crucial theme of this album. I was listening to all the songs of lost love on Invincible this afternoon and was really struck by this recurring theme that he’s inarticulate – either unable to speak at all, or speak in a way that will make a difference. In each of these songs, there’s a misunderstanding or some other barrier that is driving the couple apart or preventing them from connecting. He desperately wants to “tear down these walls” so she will see the truth and they will be united, but either he can’t speak or he can’t find the right words so she will listen to him. The title song, “Invincible,” begins with these lines:

If I could tear down these walls that keep you and I apart  
I know I could claim your heart and our perfect love will start  

But either he isn’t expressing himself in a way she understands, or she simply isn’t listening:

Now many times I’ve told you of all the things I would do  
But I can’t seem to get through, no matter how I try to  

As he tells us repeatedly in the chorus, “Even when I beg and plead, she’s invincible” – which perfectly parallels what you just said: “as always with the general public, his pleas fell on deaf ears.”

We see a similar situation in “Butterflies.” He’s trying to woo a woman, but he can’t speak, and she’s not listening anyway. It begins with these lines:

All you gotta do is walk away and pass me by  
Don’t acknowledge my smile when I try to say hello to you  
And all you gotta do is not answer my calls
When I’m trying to get through  
Keep me wondering why, when all I can do is sigh  

So again, he can’t communicate his thoughts and feelings to her – “all I can do is sigh.” As you quoted earlier, “Don’t Walk Away” begins with these lines:

Don’t walk away  
See I just can’t find the right thing to say  
I tried but all my pain gets in the way  
Tell me what I have to do so you’ll stay  
Should I get down on my knees and pray  

This time he can speak, but not in a way that she understands – “I just can’t find the right thing to say” – so he silently prays instead.

He repeats this idea in “Whatever Happens,” a truly beautiful song I just love. (I played this song over and over while writing M Poetica. Writing that book took me to some pretty dark and uncomfortable places, and this song helped me get through it. I just kept playing that wonderful chorus – “Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand” – and he sings it so beautifully). “Whatever happens” tells the story of a couple being torn apart by difficult circumstances in their lives, and once again his spoken words are ineffectual. All he can do is pray – in other words, speak to a higher power since he can’t seem to speak to her – and hope she somehow receives his message that way.

Everything will be all right, he assures her  
But she doesn’t hear a word that he says  
Preoccupied, she’s afraid . . .  
He doesn’t know what to say, so he prays  
Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand  

Over and over in these songs, we see this same situation of the protagonist unable to connect with the woman he loves because he can’t speak, and she can’t hear him – which is exactly how you described his relationship with the public at that time. He “can’t find the right thing to say,” and “she doesn’t hear a word that he says.” It’s pretty ironic because he’s an amazing songwriter and isn’t inarticulate at all. In fact, he’s very eloquent in describing his inarticulateness. However, it doesn’t matter how eloquent he is if his audience won’t listen to him, or misinterprets everything he says.

And then, in the midst of these songs of mute suffering, there’s “Speechless,” a beautiful expression of love and joy. The entire song is about his inability to speak – as the title says, he’s “speechless” – but it’s completely different this time. He’s speechless with joy. And even though he can’t speak, she understands and loves him anyway.

Joie:  Willa, I am floored! Until this very conversation I never paid attention to the fact there are so many songs on this amazing album that fit into this formula of parallel stories – a man and his lover / Michael and his audience. Or that have this recurring theme of not being able to communicate with the person he loves (or connect with his intended audience). Now I have to go back and listen to it all over again with new ears!

But, I love what you said about “Speechless” and I think the reason his inability to communicate feels different here is because, once again, his target audience is different. First of all, I firmly believe that this song is not about a romance but about the most precious thing in Michael’s life – his children. So, that’s the first story here. But the parallel, metaphorical story is that he’s singing to a very specific audience. That special group of people who have stood by him through thick and through thin; the millions of people whose love and support of him never wavered even when things got ugly. He’s talking to his fans here and he is so moved by the depth of their love that he can’t speak. That’s the reason she understands him anyway – because she (the fans) truly loves him unconditionally, and always has. She understands what he’s feeling even though he can’t put it into words.

Willa:  You know, when you said you felt “Speechless” was about his children, that reminded me of something Randy Taraborrelli wrote in his biography. He was doing a phone interview, I believe, and Michael Jackson told him that “Speechless” came to him while playing with a group of children. And of course, children are much more accepting than adults are. They don’t need to have everything explained to them in words – a hug works just as well. So thematically that fits also.

Joie:  Well, I am loving this whole month-long Invincible celebration and I hope everyone else is too. Next week we’ll be talking about Michael Jackson’s vocal range and the fact that he’s often not given the credit he deserves for being a truly talented vocalist – something that the Invincible album highlights perfectly!

Spotlight on You Rock My World

Willa:  So Joie, in October we spent the entire month taking a close look at the Invincible album, including some of the battles Michael Jackson had with Sony during its production and promotion. To be honest, I never knew much about those battles or paid much attention to them, but focusing on Invincible for a month forced me to really think about what he must have been going through then, and that’s led me to look at the You Rock My World video in a whole new way.

To be honest, this video has always made me really uncomfortable. It’s very angry, for one thing – one of his angriest. But Black or White is angry also, and I love Black or White. It’s one of my favorites. But Black or White expresses a righteous anger. I watch it and come away feeling empowered and inspired and ready to take on the world. You Rock My World is completely different. I watch it and just feel frustrated and powerless and angry, and not even sure who I’m mad at.

Joie:  Well, I understand completely about the video making you uncomfortable. I have always had a similar reaction to this one. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it makes me uncomfortable but, I do come away from it feeling very on edge. The whole video just feels a little bit raw to me. Like you can actually feel the tension beneath the surface as you watch it. And I think the reasons for that are really clear. I’m sure Michael was feeling very “frustrated and powerless and angry” by that point. As you know, You Rock My World was not the video he originally wanted to make. As you mentioned last month, he really wanted to make a video for “Unbreakable.” This is also the song he wanted to be the lead single from the album, not to mention the title of the the album itself. He already had the video concept worked out and everything so, when Sony made the decision to release “You Rock My World” instead of “Unbreakable,” I know he probably felt extreme anger and frustration. One would think that an artist of Michael’s caliber would have complete autonomy and control over how a project would unfold. And maybe that very issue was one of the bones of contention between him and Sony at the time.

But, I remember getting the phone call from the MJFC president back in 2001 when all of this was happening and her telling me that the video Michael wanted to make had to be scrapped because of friction with Sony and Michael was now scrambling to make a video for “You Rock My World” and it had to be completed in a very short amount of time and he was “less than happy” about the situation. And I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, I bet he’s pissed!’

Willa:  And you can really feel a lot of those intense emotions in this video. The plot has his character trying to woo a young woman, and as we’ve talked about a number of times in previous posts, these love interests often seem to represent his audience. Importantly, another character played by Chris Tucker – a popular entertainer in his own right – is also attracted to her. So this woman – possibly representing their audience – has more than one performer competing for her attention, just as entertainers often seem to compete for an audience and market share.

Michael Jackson’s character is pretty sure of himself and confident he can win her over, but they go to a club where the managers want her also and seem to think they have a right to her, and they try to keep him away from her. In fact, he begins having confrontations with these managers and ultimately the club owner, just as Michael Jackson himself was having increasingly heated confrontations with the managers and ultimately the head of Sony over how to reach an audience.

Joie:  Wow, Willa. You know, I never really thought about that connection of the club managers and the big boss, played to perfection by Marlon Brando, as possibly representing the powers-that-be at Sony but, now that you point it out, it makes perfect sense! Really keen observation.

Willa:  Well, I’d never thought about it before either until we were working on the Invincible posts, and you clued me in to what exactly was happening then and just how bad it was. And as I was thinking about that, I realized that the emotions of that situation precisely paralleled those unsettling emotions that have always made this such an uncomfortable video for me to watch.

So Michael Jackson’s character has to deal with all these confrontations with the managers, and he responds by performing – by singing and dancing – which is what he always does in his videos when forced to deal with confrontational situations. And as we’ve seen in videos stretching back to Beat It and Bad, the power of art has always been able to bridge those differences and bring about some sort of harmonious resolution.

But that doesn’t happen this time. The outcome is completely different here than in any other Michael Jackson video because the people he’s battling against don’t respect his art. The managers watch him dance and then taunt him, saying “That’s it? That’s all you got? That ain’t nothin.’ You ain’t nothin.’ C’mon, big man, show me all you got.”

Then later, in that crucial scene with the club owner, the owner trivializes his art as well, saying, “You were pretty cute in there.” That’s exactly the kind of patronizing thing an executive, a money guy, would think about an artist, and it is so incredibly condescending and disrespectful. Can you imagine Michael Jackson, a brilliant artist who put himself on the line every time he walked on stage, coming off stage after dancing his heart out and hearing, “You were pretty cute in there”? That is such a belittling thing to say to a dancer, and it just scorches me every time I hear it.

However, Michael Jackson’s character responds in an interesting way. He gives the owner a defiant look and says, “I know who you are” – which immediately leads me to think, Who? Who is this guy? The simple answer is that he represents Tommy Mattola, the head of Sony at the time, but that’s a little too easy, I think. Instead, I think it’s more useful to see him as symbolic of all those executives and accountants and mid-level managers who make money off artists but don’t really respect them or understand what they’re doing, or realize how important it is.

Joie:  It’s interesting that you say that, Willa, because I remember reading an account of a Sony listening party for Invincible and it seemed so intense. I can’t remember now exactly where I read it but, basically it was Michael and his manager or his publicist or someone like that, in a room with a bunch of Sony executives and they sat and listened to the entire album from start to finish. And when the album was over, no one said a word. The Sony execs just got up and filed out of the room without saying a word to Michael – no congratulations, no words of praise, no nothing. And it just reminds me of that part you pointed out from the video. “Is that all you got? That ain’t nothin’. You ain’t nothin’.” I’m sure, that must have been what Michael was feeling at the end of that listening party when they all got up and left without saying a word.

Willa:  Are you serious? How awful! And it’s so interesting that you should cite that passage again because “You ain’t nothin'” is a line from the Bad video as well, which in many ways depicts a comparable situation. There, he’s a young man from the inner city who received a scholarship to a prep school, and then comes home and has to regain the respect of guys he thought were his friends, but aren’t really. Now he’s involved in a similar confrontation with Sony and having to regain the respect of people who should be supporting him, but aren’t really.

In fact, the You Rock My World video frequently references his earlier work:  “P. Y. T.,” “The Girl is Mine,” “Beat It,” “Bad,” “Dangerous.” And all of those songs were hits that made money for Sony specifically. He doesn’t mention any of his Motown hits. They’re included in a fun way, so they add a touch of humor to the video, but I think there’s an underlying message as well. He’s reminding Sony that he’s done his part – he’s built an audience and proven he can create big money-making hits. Now it’s time for them to do their part and support him while he creates something more experimental and artistically challenging, like the Invincible album.

Joie:  Again, that is such a keen observation and I have to say that I agree with you completely. And in fact, this opening sequence of the video where his earlier work is cited – first at the Chinese restaurant and then at the club – is the most fun, relaxing, entertaining part of the entire video. He’s with his friend, Chris Tucker and the two of them are having really good fun playing with the words and interacting with each other, and it is as if he is sort of reminding everyone of the hits, reminding us – Sony and the audience as well – of why we fell in love with him in the first place.

And really, if you think about it, it isn’t until he leaves Chris’ side to begin wooing the girl that things start to get a little bit uncomfortable. That’s when we begin to feel the tension creep in. That’s when we begin to get the feeling that there is more going on just beneath the surface that we’re not fully aware of. We can feel his anger and frustration but, we don’t really know why.

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Joie. While there’s something of a competition between these two characters, they’re presented as good friends and it feels like fun back-and-forth banter – unlike the tension-filled conflicts with the managers of the club. You know, stepping back and looking at this video through the lens of all the confrontations that were happening then with the executives at Sony has helped me figure out why it always made me so uncomfortable – it’s helped me see at least one possible reason for why it’s so angry and where that anger comes from – and understanding that has given me a way to get into this video and appreciate it a lot more. It doesn’t make me so uncomfortable now because I have a better idea of what’s causing all those intense emotions.

And they are intense. To be honest, I get the feeling that by the time this video came out, Michael Jackson had had it up to here with Sony. And as he shows pretty dramatically in the conclusion to You Rock My World, he’s done with negotiations. He’s ready to burn the place down.

Joie:  He was so over it; he was done. You have to feel pretty angry to want to burn the place down, even symbolically. I don’t think it takes much art interpretation to understand that scene. The place goes up in flames and presumably, the big boss goes with it, as we see him turning to head back up the stairs instead of out of the building with everyone else. And not only is he so angry he’s ready to torch the place but, he’s also angry enough to fight. You have to remember that this is the one and only video where we see Michael throw a punch! As the club is going up in flames and he’s shouting for Chris to get the car, he is embroiled in a bar room brawl.

Willa:  Wow, Joie, I think you’ve just highlighted something really important. We’ve never seen him lash out like that before. Michael Jackson punch someone in the face? That’s shocking! But even so, he makes it clear he didn’t come looking for a fight. Before the brawl breaks out, he and his dancers perform this subtle movement of pulling back the lower edge of their jackets, just as the street tough does in Bad to reveal he has a gun. But here, they reveal they have no guns. So he’s unarmed and he isn’t looking for a fight – but he’s ready to fight if threatened and pushed too far.

Joie:  And significantly, in his own life he is going through a situation where he feels the need to fight and he does so in very public ways – something many people were not used to seeing from him. This is a man who was always more inclined to ‘turn the other cheek’ than to go into battle but he has clearly had just about all that he can stand.

And, of course, at the end we see our hero connect with his love interest – the audience – as they all pile into the car and drive safely away.

Willa:  I agree, and I think you were really onto something earlier when you said there’s a very friendly feeling between these characters. The intense conflicts in this video come almost exclusively from the confrontation with the managers, not the competition between the friends. We see that reflected in the conclusion as well. They are still friends and in a way they both have the girl – she’s in the car with both of them – just as performers can share an audience and even help each other gain an audience. Looking at this symbolically, the video seems to be saying that artists should band together because other artists aren’t the problem. The problem comes from all the people trying to control artists and how they express themselves simply to maximize profit without really understanding what they’re trying to say or accomplish through their work.

And I have to say, in this context Marlon Brando plays the role of the club owner so well, especially his interactions with the main character. He completely belittles Michael Jackson’s character but smiles a wonderful smile, he’s charming, you want to like him – and yet you know he would have his henchmen slip a knife through your heart without a moment’s regret. His smile is open, engaging, sincere, and yet he is soulless. Brando was such an amazing actor, and what he does with that little scene is so compelling. To me, it just completely captures the essence of that character.

Joie:  I agree, Brando is great, as always! But I want to go back to the middle of the video for a moment and talk about two small parts that stand out for me and I already know one of them is a big stand out moment for you too, Willa. The first one is the part that intrigues us both:  that way-too-short interlude before the fighting begins where we suddenly become aware of the sounds in the club. The “street music” as you called it. We hear the rhythm of the broom sweeping across the floor and the glasses clinking, the shoe shine guy buffing, the high heals clicking and the patrons tapping on the tables. To me, this rhythm section feels like a pause in the tension. It almost feels out of place in terms of the dominant negative emotions that are driving the rest of the video.

The second part comes just before the rhythm section when we see a stage and a spotlight. Presumably, we’re in the same club but the setting is different. No one else is around. It’s just Michael and the lady he’s trying to woo. Only she is dressed very differently in a sexy suit and fedora, like him. And instead of commanding that spotlight as he rightfully should, Michael does something unexpected. He chooses not to dance this small solo ‘spotlight’ moment, opting instead to let the female love interest take center stage and do her best MJ impersonation while he simply glides across the floor behind her. This scene has always puzzled me because, again, it just seems a little out of place among the tension of the rest of the video. And yet, I know that it’s significant because it is so different and out of place.

Willa:  You know, art interpretation is a tricky thing. It’s tremendously fun and I love it, especially with an artist like Michael Jackson whose work is so rich, with so much to discover and explore. But it can also be a challenge sometimes to explore all the possible meanings of a work while still staying true to the artist’s vision. In this case, I really don’t think that Michael Jackson sat down and said, I’m going to create a video that is a symbolic critique of Sony and its minions, and A is going to represent B, and Y is going to represent Z. I seriously doubt that. Very few artists work that way, and from everything I’ve read about his creative process, his work tended to develop much more organically than that.

But I do think that, at the time he created this video, he was embroiled in some intense conflicts with Sony and was very frustrated and angry about that, and some of those emotions and conflicts expressed themselves in his work. And I think that looking at this video through the lens of what he was experiencing at that time allows us to see some things that weren’t apparent before.

For example, that whole “street music” sequence is simply wonderful, and I love to just experience it and enjoy it for what it is – a lovely tapestry of found sounds skillfully woven together to form music. But if I look at this sequence in terms of everything that was going on then with Sony, it seems significant to me that Michael Jackson’s character is totally tuned in to this street music, this music of the people, and beautifully engages with it and threads the rhythm of it into his music – and the club managers aren’t. They’re oblivious to this rhythm of the people. So through music, Michael Jackson’s character shares a deep symbiotic connection with the people, just as Michael Jackson himself did, but it’s a connection the club managers and Sony executives don’t participate in and don’t understand. That’s why it’s so galling that they’re the ones making the marketing decisions – decisions that not only affect his art (like canceling the “Unbreakable” video) but actually impose barriers between him and his audience.

Joie:  That’s a great point, Willa and I think you just hit the ball out of the park with that one! This is why that sequence has always seemed so out of place to me. Because it’s like, for that brief instant, Michael hits the pause button on all of the tension and the anger he feels toward the club managers (and the Sony execs) and just connects with the audience for a minute – to make sure we’re still there with him. That’s why this street music portion is so powerful and such an important part of the video!

And I agree with you about his creative process. I don’t think he ever set out to create a video where A represents this and B represents that. As you and I have talked about before, ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,’ as Freud would say. And perhaps, this spotlight scene that fascinates me so much is one of those cases. Maybe it was just a cool visual that he wanted to include. Or perhaps he was aware of Kishaya Dudley – the dancer in the role – and her impressive skills and wanted to give her a spotlight to shine. Or maybe it was more than that.

Since we have argued in the past that the love interest in many of his songs and videos ultimately represents his audience, perhaps we can look at this small scene in the same way. You know, the fans were – and still are – fiercely loyal to Michael and during his conflict with Sony, the fans were very vocal and they took up his charge with gusto, executing rallies and chanting ‘Sony Sucks’ to the delight of the press. In fact, Michael often called his fans his ‘Army of Love.’ So, if the love interest is supposed to represent his audience, then maybe the message here is that it’s time for us – the audience – to get into the act, so to speak, while he encourages us from the background. Or maybe – and I think this might be more to the point – he is acknowledging how the fans always step up to fight for him just as Ms. Dudley stepped into the spotlight in his place.

Willa:  That makes a lot of sense to me, Joie, and it reminds me again of the street music sequence. It’s like he’s emphasizing once again that deep connection he and his audience share through music and dance, and the strength and vitality each receives from the other. We love and support him; he loves and inspires us. He dances; we dance. It’s a deeply interconnected relationship that nourishes us all.

Celebrating Invincible Month, Part 1: Unbreakable

Willa:  This week Joie and I are kicking off a month-long series on the Invincible album with a close look at “Unbreakable,” a defiant battle cry we both love with some really fascinating lyrics.

Joie:  I love “Unbreakable.” It is a fascinating song with lyrics that just jump right out at you simply because they are like a window into what life must have been like for him.

Now I’m just wondering, why you think
That you can get to me, with anything
Seems like you’d know by now
When and how, I get down
and with all that I’ve been through, I’m still around

It’s as if he’s addressing all of the Sneddons, the Dimonds, the Chandlers – all the tabloids of the world – and saying, “You tried your best but, I’m still here and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Willa:  I agree, and I love the way you put that. In fact, a lot of songs on Invincible seem like “a window into what life was like for him,” and I really see that in “Unbreakable.” It’s such a defiant response to everything he’s been going through, and I’m especially struck by this line:  “You can’t touch me ’cause I’m untouchable.”

In the caste system in India, Pakistan, and other parts of the world, Untouchables were (and in some places, still are) the people at the very bottom, the lowest of the low. They were perceived as impure – so impure that if they touched you, even brushed up against you accidentally, you would become impure also. That’s why they were “untouchable” – because you must never touch them, or let them touch you.

When I was in sixth grade, I became friends with an elderly woman who lived near us who became a doctor back when very few women were doctors. She spent nearly 30 years working in Pakistan and India, and was just an incredible person. I loved to visit her and listen to her stories, and hearing about the Untouchables made a big impression on me. I used to wonder what it would be like to have everyone you loved or everything you cared about be corrupted by your touch – kind of like King Midas, but worse. Your touch turns everything impure rather than to metal.

That was Michael Jackson’s life after the 1993 allegations. His public image became so toxic, so impure, that anyone who supported him, any place that gave him sanctuary, any project he worked on was tainted as well. His friends and family, even his fans, were ridiculed in the press, and Lisa Marie Presley was treated horribly – nearly as badly as he was. “What More Can I Give,” a song to benefit victims of the September 11th terrorist attack, was portrayed as a cynical ploy to improve his image by exploiting a national tragedy. And his efforts to help children in need were criticized as, at best, inappropriate and, at worst, additional evidence of his brazen moral corruption. In other words, by the time Invincible came out, he had become an Untouchable. No one in the press believed his motives were genuine or pure, and everything he touched was symbolically contaminated merely by association with him.

In the chorus of “Unbreakable,” he seems to acknowledge this (“You can’t touch me ’cause I’m untouchable”) but then he does something remarkable that he did throughout his career:  he takes that cultural narrative and flips it inside-out, completely rewriting it. “You can’t touch me ’cause I’m untouchable” doesn’t feel like a concession. It feels like a declaration of strength. He’s “untouchable” because he’s too powerful to be touched, too invincible to be hurt. He conveys this redefinition both through the sheer power of his voice when singing this line and through a parallel line that echoes the first, emphasizing this bold new meaning:

You can’t touch me ’cause I’m untouchable . . .
You’ll never break me ’cause I’m unbreakable

He sings these lines six times over the course of “Unbreakable,” including three times in succession at the end of the track. These words are important, and in some ways capture in miniature what Jackson did over and over throughout his work. He’s positioning himself with the dispossessed and giving them a voice – in this case, those (including himself) classed as impure, outcast, “untouchable” – while fundamentally changing the narrative that disempowers them. In this context, his cry that “I’m untouchable” becomes a defiant challenge to those who try to twist his motives and impose their worst interpretations onto him.

Joie:  Wow. Ok, Willa. Now you have officially blown me away with that one!! I have never thought of “Unbreakable” in terms of caste. I have read about the caste systems in various parts of the world and you’re right, it is both fascinating and sad to think about. But I had never viewed this song in those terms.

I have to make a confession here. I absolutely adore the Invincible album. I am in love with it actually and most of the time, it runs a very close race with Dangerous as they vie for the title of my favorite Michael Jackson album. I have multiple copies of both of them. They are the only two Michael CDs that I must have at least 3 copies of at all times (one for my car, one for my husband’s truck, one for the CD player in my kitchen so that I can have music while I cook dinner). And that doesn’t even count the ones that I have given away over the years to friends and family members or the digital copies on my computer and my iPod.

So, needless to say, I have listened to this album about a million times and when listening to “Unbreakable,” that line about being untouchable never struck me that way before. I am really intrigued by this idea that he was identifying with the lowliest people on earth through that line and now that you’ve pointed it out, it just makes so much sense to me. Really profound observation! And you’re completely correct when saying that anyone who supported him was tainted as well. And I think, as fans, we can all attest that we still feel that way, to some degree. That stigma never really let up. Not for us and certainly not for him or his family.

Willa:  That’s interesting, because that line has always struck me that way, maybe because of those stories my friend told me way back in sixth grade, and because of the strong parallels to his life at that time. That’s one reason I think it’s so valuable to share interpretations of his work – because we all bring different ways of seeing and we can learn so much by sharing those different views. I’ve learned so much through my conversations with you. And this line from “Unbreakable” has always evoked a very powerful image for me – of Michael Jackson being made to feel ashamed and “untouchable” for something he didn’t do, and then rewriting that as a declaration of strength.

But you’re right, that stigma never let up, and the consequences were horrible – personally, professionally, and artistically. We see references to the pain of that stigma throughout Invincible. It’s like he can never escape it, and I really don’t know how he endured it for so long. It also ham-strung his efforts to help others, which had to be incredibly frustrating for him. He was passionately committed to social change and improving the lives of those classified as outsiders – a commitment we see throughout his career from “Ben,” his first solo hit when he was 13 years old, to the “Earth Song” number he was working on the day before he died. Yet he was severely hampered after 1993 because everything he did was seen through this lens of corruption and impurity. By 2001 he had matured into a truly amazing artist and should have been at his peak creatively, but he was shackled by those allegations. Not only was he reviled in the press, but other artists became reluctant to work with him – even his own record company was hesitant to support him.

Joie:  You’re absolutely right and I feel like in many ways, he never totally rebounded from the ’93 allegations. In fact, I often find myself wondering how his career would have been different if it had never happened. I mean, he was such an extraordinary talent with so much passion and imagination so, I wonder what amazing things he could have accomplished in his career – and in his life –  had the allegations in ’93 never happened. How would his career have unfolded if he had never been falsely accused of the most horrible of crimes? But I know those thoughts are pointless because, the allegations did happen and here we are. But as for Invincible, I also wonder what heights this truly incredible album could have seen if Sony had gotten behind him and promoted it properly.

This month there is a whole movement by Michael fans around the world to get the Invincible album to number one on the charts during October. It’s called the Invincible Campaign and its mission is two-fold. The first order of business is to get the album to number one in celebration of its 10th Anniversary (it was released in October, 2001). The second purpose of the campaign is to let the music from the album serve as a sort of backdrop or a peaceful banner for Michael during the trial of Conrad Murray in order to remind the world that Michael’s art was “Unbreakable” and “Invincible.”

Willa:  It also encourages fans, as well as the public at large, to take a second look at an album that never received the attention it deserved when it was first released. There’s a long tangled history here, but the result was that Sony didn’t promote it well, as you say. Much worse, to my mind, is that Sony prevented him from producing the videos he had planned for this album. I believe his visual art was as important as his music – that, in fact, he was able to express his ideas more fully through film than music – so cutting off that avenue of artistic expression from him is tragic, for him and us. Can you imagine the Thriller album without the videos for “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” or “Thriller?” He made ten videos for the Bad album and nine for Dangerous, but Sony cut him off after two for Invincible, refusing to let him create the video he had planned for “Unbreakable,” or any others – a decision that infuriated him. (It was after this decision that he launched the protests in Harlem.)

Joie:  Actually, Michael only really created one video for the Invincible album as he was so upset with Sony at the time that he refused to participate in the video for “Cry.” But you’re right, it was really such a shame that they chose not to support him.

Willa:  To me, that decision borders on criminal. What potential works of art did the world lose because of Sony’s short-sighted decision?  I’m sorry, but if Michelangelo has an idea for a sculpture and wants a 20-foot block of marble, you give him a 20-foot block of marble. You don’t tell him that marble is too expensive. You do everything in your power to provide him with whatever he needs to fulfill his artistic vision. And if Michael Jackson wants to create a video, then you do everything in your power to facilitate that. Can you imagine if the world had been deprived of Michelangelo’s David or the Pieta because he was denied the materials he needed to create them?

That’s how I feel about Sony’s decision. I’m just stunned that they would act this way – especially since you can make the argument that there wouldn’t even be a Sony music division as we know it without Michael Jackson – and I really wonder what he had planned for “Unbreakable.” It’s fascinating to think about, especially since this is such an intriguing song. For example, what about these lyrics: “You can’t believe it / You can’t conceive it.” What does that mean? What is he thinking? And would he have provided clues in the video he had planned – a video his own record company prevented him from making?

Joie:  I absolutely agree with you. What a HUGE mistake for Sony to virtually bail on their biggest artist, and it’s easy to understand why Michael felt that the company was plotting against him. I mean, even the album’s name frustrated him. The title track was, of course, supposed to be “Unbreakable” but, Sony “mistakenly” had the cover printed up with the wrong title song and by then it was too late to fix it.

But, I do want to point out that Sony was a very different place back then. Tommy Mattola, who was the head of Sony at the time and the one giving Michael such a hard time, is no longer there and hasn’t been since 2003. In fact, Sony has gone through three other chairmen/CEO’s since Matolla left so, it really is a different environment now than it was back then.

The whole fight between Michael and Sony became such a public mess with cries of conspiracy over the Sony/ATV catalog and I am certain that Michael had very good reason to feel the way he did. But the unfortunate outcome of it was that a truly wonderful work of art that Michael Jackson spent a great deal of time on, pouring his heart and soul into for months and months, got overlooked and pushed to the wayside in all of the confusion. The Invincible album is practically unknown outside of the fan world and it’s just such a shame that the rest of the world missed it because there are some real musical gems on this record. That’s why Willa and I wanted to do our part this October and help celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Invincible by doing a month-long series on the album.

And I have to admit that I did participate in the campaign’s buy event yesterday; I went out and purchased another copy of the CD. But, of course, I do that periodically anyway…. it’s like a sickness! I am obsessed with this album.

Willa:  Well, as you know, I’m not the most technologically advanced person in the world, but I have this iPod I’m gradually bonding with – at least, I’m comfortable checking email and searching the web with it now. But my son keeps laughing at me because I’m so cautious about using it. As he pointed out the other day, I let it “mellow” in its box for four months before I even opened it. Apparently he’d been monitoring the situation to see how long it would take, but finally decided I was going to let the warranty expire before I ever tried it so finally just opened it for me and got it going. (He has one too.) And then practically the first thing I did with it was somehow take a picture of my own eyeball. He thinks this is all very funny – just the whole situation of his 50-year-old mother trying to figure out an iPod. It cracks him up.

Anyway, I’ve had this thing for 10 months now and still don’t have any music on it, so I was thinking I might download Invincible – my first music download! – and support the campaign at the same time. Wish me luck! And then next week we’ll continue our discussion of this remarkable yet frequently overlooked album.

One More Look at One More Chance

Joie:  So, you know how sometimes you get this idea in your head about something and your mind is made up. But then you stumble upon new information and suddenly that thing you were so certain about just takes on brand new meaning? Well, that’s what happened to me and my view of Michael Jackson’s One More Chance video.

This time
Gonna do my best to make it right.
Can’t go on without you by my side.
 
Shelter
Come and rescue me out of this storm
Get out of this cold, I need someone.
 
(If you see her)
Tell her this for me:
All I need is
One more chance at love….

This R. Kelly ballad is a really beautiful song sung to perfection by Michael, and when it was released on 2003’s Number Ones, I loved it instantly. And after Michael died and the Estate announced that they would be including the long-lost video for this song on the much anticipated Vision box set, I was ecstatic that we would finally get the chance to see Michael’s last short film.
 
But once the video collection was released and I eagerly sat down to devour it, my excitement was short lived. I have to admit, I did not love the video. I didn’t even like it. Not even a little bit. Where was Michael? The setting was gorgeous and romantic, the premise – with the audience on the stage – was unusual and intriguing, the song was beautiful and one of my favorites. But where was Michael in the video? It was all seemingly shot either totally from behind him or at really weird angles, his face – and therefore, his amazingly expressive eyes that I love – completely hidden from view. And in fact, the video even sparked some debate at MJFC as to whether it was even Michael at all. Perhaps it was merely a body double, a really good MJ impersonator! I was so disappointed. Just between you and me… I often get into my comfy sweats, fire up the DVD player and snuggle in with my Vision box set when I have a free afternoon. But honestly, the One More Chance video was one that I would frequently skip over.
 
And then recently I stumbled upon an article published just after the Vision box set was released in November of 2010. The article was written by journalist Charles Thomson and titled, “One More Chance: The Dream That Turned into a Nightmare.” Now I have to make a confession here:  this article actually came across my inbox shortly after it was published but, things have a way of getting very busy for me with MJFC and my everyday life (and now I’m dancing with elephants too!) so, I set it aside with the intentions of reading it later. Well, “later” turned into much later and, I’m ashamed to say, I just recently found it sitting in my “To Do” folder. So I took a few moments and read it. And boy…. did it change EVERYTHING!
 
In writing this article, Charles Thomson researched the video thoroughly, speaking to Michael’s publicist and his manager at the time as well as several of the crew members and extras who worked on the video, and in doing so, he gives us a peek into where Michael Jackson’s life was at the time this video was created. And it is that context, that knowledge that puts this entire video in a whole new light for me. I look at the video with new eyes now and, whereas before it really held no connection for me at all, now I have such an emotional attachment to this video and it holds so much meaning for me.

Willa:  That is so interesting, Joie. My initial response to the One More Chance video was much more positive than yours, though I know what you mean about “where’s Michael?” And my response to Thomson’s article was much less positive. I appreciate all the background information Thomson provides, and it’s definitely an article worth reading, but I thoroughly disagree with his interpretation and assessment of this video.  

Like you, I thought “One More Chance” was a beautiful love song and was eager to see the video, and like you I watched it as soon as the Vision DVDs came out. And I was surprised – it wasn’t at all what I was expecting – but I loved it. As often happens with Michael Jackson’s videos, it led me to completely rethink my ideas about this song and opened up a whole new way of interpreting it. Now I see “One More Chance” as much more than a love song. Responding to it as a beautiful love ballad is still there for me and still valid, but other interpretations have become apparent to me as well. And frankly, I think Thomson’s interpretation completely misses the boat.

In his article Thomson writes rather critically of the video’s concept:

The song was a yearning ballad about lost love in which Jackson pleaded with an ex-girlfriend for “one more chance at love.” The video would feature a unique role reversal in which an audience would stand onstage and watch Jackson as he performed the track in an empty, upscale nightclub, hopping banisters and jumping on tables. The set-up seemed to have little correlation with the song and appeared to be more of a comment on the press and public’s perpetual invasion into Jackson’s privacy – a common theme in the star’s videos – essentially showing a crowd of bystanders watching over Jackson in an intimate, off-stage moment, transfixed by his heartbreak.

Thomson is right to some extent:  if we see “One More Chance” simply as a love song, then the video doesn’t make much sense and the “set-up seem[s] to have little correlation with the song.” But I disagree with Thomson’s interpretation. I don’t think the point of this video is show “a crowd of bystanders . . . transfixed by his heartbreak.” Jackson doesn’t treat the on-stage audience in this video like intrusive voyeurs, that isn’t the mood he creates here – the mood is much more celebratory than that – and that isn’t what this video says to me. As you know, Joie, I’m all for multiple interpretations, and I think any interpretation is valid as long as it can be supported by evidence from the work, but I see very little evidence to support Thomson’s interpretation.

But what if we approach this video like the My Baby songs and view it more metaphorically? In his videos, Michael Jackson frequently parallels the relationship between a man and his lover with that of a performer and his audience. What if we view One More Chance that way? What if he isn’t talking to an ex-girlfriend, but to us, his audience? What if he’s telling us, his audience, that the false allegations and misunderstandings and years of bad press have been terrible for him – it “Hurts so bad sometimes it’s hard to breathe” – but he’s ready to try again, despite everything, and he wants us to give him “one more chance?”

As Thomson writes in his article, Michael Jackson made this video at an important turning point in his life. He was planning to make a fresh start in film, and saw this as a new beginning to his career. So maybe he’s telling us, his audience, that “This time / Gonna do my best to make it right.” Maybe the reason he set up the video with an audience on stage is because he’s talking directly to us, his audience, when he says “All I need is / One more chance.” If we view it that way, this video makes perfect sense. And the fact that the police raided his home the very next day is heartbreaking.

Joie:  It is heartbreaking. Thomson explains that with “One More Chance” – the single and the video – Michael was fulfilling his contractual obligations to Sony and CBS. Once they were completed, Michael was done. He was freeing himself from his contract with Sony and preparing to move on to bigger and better things. He was tired of touring and he wanted to venture into the realm of film. Ironically, something he tried to do in 1993 but couldn’t once the first allegations happened. So, in the video, that last shot of him turning his back on the audience and walking out of the frame with a smile on his face, was very symbolic of the transition he was about to make. He was walking away from the music industry and walking toward his long-harbored dreams of making movies. All he needed was “one more chance.”
 
And, in answer to my question of “where is Michael,” Thomson tells us that the video was purposely shot from behind Michael in order to track his movements more fluidly. The following day, they were all set to capture the frontal shots and close ups of Michael doing his thing. But that never happened because the following morning came the bad news that the police were raiding the Neverland Ranch for the second time. And I can’t help but think of the lyrics to the song itself:

Lightening
‘Bout to strike and rain only on me.
Hurts so bad sometime its hard to breathe.

I imagine those lyrics mirror what Michael must have been feeling when he got the news and realized that his dreams were being snatched away for the second time.

Willa:  Those are good points, and I really do appreciate all the background information Thomson provides. It’s really deepened my understanding of this video. Maybe I’m being a little hard on Thomson simply because One More Chance has become very special to me. Just the idea of Michael Jackson in pain but ready to try again and asking us for “one more chance” is incredibly poignant. And then the conclusion of the video is so moving, and very motivating for me personally. At the end, he has left the room, but his audience is still on stage. It’s up to us now. He’s no longer here, but we are – we’re the ones left on stage – and we’re the ones who have to act to preserve his legacy and “help these mysteries unfold.”
 
Joie:  I think you are being hard on Thomson. I don’t think he really offered any sort of interpretation of the video at all. I think he was merely just giving us the set up, explaining the premise, if you will. But I don’t think his one-sentence assessment of the premise of the video was ever intended to be viewed as an interpretation.
 
But I do understand your readiness to defend something you love. As you said, this particular video has become very special to you so, wanting to explain it and possibly make others love it as much as you do is only natural. I feel the same way about a certain ballad from the Michael album that you and I violently disagree on but, we’ll save that for another discussion!

Willa:  Joie! That is just wicked. You really aren’t going to let me forget about that are you? Oh well, I guess I deserve it. (Heavy sigh). You really are just too funny sometimes. . .
 
Joie:  Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But this video is as special to you as that song is to me so, I understand how you feel about it.
 
Willa:  So here’s some exciting news. Joie is flying to Montreal this morning to see a sneak preview of Cirque du Soleil’s tribute to Michael Jackson – The Immortal World Tour and next week she’ll tell us all about it!