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Summer Rewind 2013, Week 8: Stranger in Moscow

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on January 23, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Wandering in the Rain

Willa: So Joie, whenever I’m talking to someone about Michael Jackson’s videos, eventually I know they’re going to ask me the dreaded question – which one is my favorite? And that’s so hard for me to answer. It’s kind of like asking a grandmother which grandchild is her favorite. As any grandma will tell you, you love them all! And if you don’t feel as connected to some as others, maybe it’s because you simply don’t know them as well.

For example, You Rock My World made me very uncomfortable for a long time – it was a difficult child for me to warm up to. But after we talked about it a couple of times – in November and December 2011 – I came to see so many fascinating things in it that I hadn’t seen before, and came to understand it much better, and now I truly love it and enjoy watching it.

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that I don’t have a favorite Michael Jackson video – I really do love them all – but I have to admit that Stranger in Moscow holds a very special place for me. For one thing, it’s so beautiful: the ideas, the images, his amazing voice. I love everything about it.

Joie: I love this video too. To me, it is just visually stunning. I love to sit and really watch the special effects in this one; I always sit sort of mesmerized whenever it’s on. It’s very hypnotic in a way. You know, my cousin once said to me, ‘don’t watch that video, it’s so depressing!’ And I understand where she’s coming from, but I just couldn’t believe she said that because, to me, this video is just beautiful. A real feast for the eyes.

Willa: It really is, though I can see what your cousin was saying too. It seems to me he’s trying to convey his emotional state at that time, in the months immediately following the 1993 allegations, and that was a horrible time for him. As he tells us in the lyrics, he was “feeling insane,” like he’d had an “Armageddon of the brain.” It seems to me he’s encouraging us to imaginatively experience what he’s been going through to try to understand what that situation would be like – to sympathize with the Other, as he does in so much of his work. So the chorus is primarily the line “How does it feel” repeated over and over again:

How does it feel?
(How does it feel?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
(How does it feel now?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel
When you’re alone and cold inside,
Like a stranger in Moscow?

 

It seems pretty clear that he’s urging us to put ourselves in his position – as someone falsely accused of a terrible crime, and condemned for it around the world so there’s no escape from it. How would that feel? What would that situation be like?

Frank Cascio talks about this in his book, My Friend Michael: An Ordinary Friendship with an Extraordinary Man, and he quotes him as saying:

“I don’t think you realize … I have the whole world thinking I’m a child molester. You don’t know what it feels like to be falsely accused, to be called ‘Wacko Jacko.’ Day in and day out, I have to get up on that stage and perform, pretending everything is perfect. I give everything I have, I give the performance that everyone wants to see. Meanwhile, my character and reputation are under constant attack. When I step off that stage, people look at me as if I were a criminal.”

I don’t think we can even begin to comprehend what that was like for him, day after day, year after year, without let-up. We can try to understand it, but I don’t think we ever really can. But in Stranger in Moscow, he’s trying to give us a glimpse of what that experience was like for him.

And that’s important on a personal level – just as one human trying to understand another human – but it’s also important on a cultural level because over his career he became the human embodiment of Difference, of Otherness. So in a way, this video is asking the exact same question “Ben” asked 40 years ago: do we have the emotional capacity to sympathize with someone excluded and ridiculed and feared because he is marked as different? Can we see this situation from the outsider’s point of view? And “how does it feel” when we do that?

Joie: That’s a really compelling question, Willa. Can we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and look at their world from their perspective? We can certainly try, if our hearts and minds are in the right place, but you know, it’s not always an easy thing for some people to do. But it was almost like Michael understood that this was a difficult task for most people and so, he kept trying over and over to show us, through different songs, what that experience was like for him. In fact, you and I talked about it in depth back in the fall of 2011 when we discussed “Is It Scary.” And I said at the end of that post that I felt he had to be one of the bravest people ever to have the courage to hold his head up day after day in that situation and still be able to create the most beautiful, profound art and present it to a world that had turned on him. It’s just incredible to me.

Willa: Oh, I agree wholeheartedly. It took tremendous courage and self-reliance – and self-knowledge as well. He knew who he was, and he had the inner strength to believe in himself even after the world had turned against him. But it still must have been tremendously painful, and I think he’s exploring that in the opening scenes of Stranger in Moscow.

Joie: You know, Willa, I agree with you. This short film really does set a particular mood, right from the opening shots. But the song itself sets a certain mood as well, and I believe this is one of the rare videos where the images on the screen portray the song perfectly. Like “Dirty Diana.”

Willa: That’s an interesting point, Joie. Some of his videos really do go off in a different direction – like, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the Leave Me Alone video from listening to the song. But some are much closer, and with “Stranger in Moscow” there really are some direct correlations between what’s being said in the song and what’s happening on screen. For example, he sings “a beggar boy called my name” and suddenly the scene shifts to some street kids playing baseball. Then at the next interlude we hear a boy shout “Michael!” and see some kids running by. So in many ways the video enacts the lyrics of the song.

But I think this video also clarifies the song in important ways. For example, a number of critics called this song “paranoid” because he mentions the Kremlin and Stalin and says the “KGB was doggin’ me.” But as the video makes clear, he’s speaking in a metaphorical way. He feels like a “stranger in Moscow,” but the video is clearly set in the United States: the cars, the coffeeshop, the street signs, the phone booth are all American, and when the passerby flips a quarter to the homeless man on the street, it’s an American quarter. So he’s in the United States, his native country, but it’s become so alien to him that, emotionally, he feels like he’s living in a foreign country. That’s what it means to me when he says, “I’m living lonely, baby / Like a stranger in Moscow.” It reminds me of that line in “They Don’t Care about Us” where he says, “I can’t believe this is the land from which I came.” His home country has become so alien and unrecognizable to him, it no longer feels like home.

And it’s very important to realize that he isn’t the only person “living lonely” in this video. We also see other people in pain and somehow removed from the flow of life. This is visually represented by showing some of the suffering people behind glass – like the sad woman in the coffeeshop, seen through a glass wall, and the lonely man in his apartment, seen through his apartment window. It’s therefore significant, symbolically, when the glass breaks, and it’s significant that it’s children at play that break it.

To me, children are a subtle but crucially important presence in this video, in part because they bring about a shift in what’s happening. In fact, I see the street kids playing baseball and breaking the window as the climax of the film. You know, there’s this common misconception that the climax of a movie or novel is the most exciting part, but technically that isn’t what the word “climax” means when you’re analyzing literature or film. Instead, the climax is the turning point, the moment that determines the outcome of the story. Sometimes it’s exciting, but often it’s not – often it’s a quiet moment when the hero or heroine makes a fateful decision that determines which path he or she will follow, and how the story will ultimately end. For example, the climax of Star Wars isn’t the big battle scene at the end when Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star. It’s the sad scene much earlier when he discovers his aunt and uncle have been killed, and he decides to go with Ben and fight the Dark Side. That’s the turning point of Star Wars. And to me, the turning point, or climax, of Stranger in Moscow is when the street kids break the glass.

Joie: That’s very interesting, Willa. And I like what you said about the climax of a story or a film often being a quiet moment when a decision is made.

But I want to talk about what you just said about the people in pain in this video. You said that they are all somehow removed from the flow of life, and that’s really true. But I think all those shots of them seen through the glass walls or the windows are also meant to evoke a feeling of isolation and despair. That’s really the feeling that Michael Jackson is trying to get at in the song, I think.

How does it feel?
(How does it feel now?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel
When you’re alone and cold inside

Each of the people – the lonely man in his apartment, the sad woman in the coffeeshop, even the homeless man lying on the street and the teenaged boy watching the other kids play ball – they’re all very isolated and in some form of despair. And each time I watch this video, I always want to know more of the story, you know? Why isn’t the teenage boy playing ball with the other kids? What has that woman in the coffeeshop so upset? Why is that man shut up in his apartment all alone, and what’s the homeless man’s story? We know why Michael is feeling like a stranger in Moscow, but what about the rest of them?

Willa: That’s a really good point, Joie, and I think our inability to truly know what they’re going through, how they’re feeling and why they’re responding that way, just adds to the sense of isolation. We don’t know what they’re experiencing, we don’t know their pain, and that inability to truly understand the suffering of others is an important element of this video, I think. They’re “living lonely” too, just like he is, and that isolation adds to the pain. So once again we’re back to the central question: “How does it feel?”

Joie: And that is such an important point, Willa. They are “living lonely,” just like he is. And that makes us think about ourselves in a way. Unless we actively reach out to others and share our burdens, we’re all living just as lonely as those people in this short film. And that sense of isolation does add to the pain and the emotional suffering. And even sometimes when we’re surrounded by people who care about us, it’s still possible to feel as though you’re “living lonely.”

Willa: That’s true, Joie, and an important point as well. And sometimes when we’re hurting, we isolate ourselves. It’s like we need some alone time to recover and get our equilibrium back, but removing ourselves like that can cause problems as well.

Joie: You know, Willa, the end of this video sort of puzzles me. It never has before but, now that you and I are talking about it, I’m beginning to think about it in ways I never have. At the end of this one, all of those lonely, anguished people see the rain coming down and they go out and embrace it. They let go of their feelings of isolation for a brief moment and stand beneath the flow and let the rain wash over them. Nothing is resolved. But yet, they each seem to be soothed in some way by the action.

That’s not exactly how I would have expected this one to end. You would think that with the subject matter of this film, in the ending we would see all those isolated people finding one another and coming together. Or maybe joining family and friends so that they’re not so isolated any longer. But that’s not what happens here. What do you make of that?

Willa: That’s such a hard question. This is a really ambiguous video – one of his most ambiguous, I think. (That might be another reason I like it so much!) So it’s possible to interpret the ending many different ways, but he does offer some important clues. For example, before those suffering people step out into the rain, we see and hear children running in the rain. The man in his apartment hears their excited shouts, looks down through his window, and sees them and others running across the street. Then he reaches up, touches his window, and ultimately leaves his apartment and stands in the rain. The way this sequence is structured suggests it’s the children who inspired him to do that.

We see Michael Jackson inspired by the children as well. He’s sheltering himself under an awning when the children run past him, splashing through the puddles, and then he steps out into the rain. This is a really long sequence, with scenes of the children running in the rain repeatedly interspliced with scenes of Michael Jackson watching them run by, and of the other sad adults as well. There’s a distant shot of the children in the rain, then Michael Jackson watching them and singing “How does it feel?,” then a long clip of the children closer up, a quick shot of Michael Jackson again singing “How does it feel?,” another long slow-motion clip of the children closer still, the man in his apartment running his hand along the glass of his window as we hear “How does it feel?,” the homeless man reaching his hand out into the rain, Michael Jackson in the background with the children running by in front of him, the homeless man drenched with rain and his face uplifted, Michael Jackson and the children all on screen together, a back view of the children splashing through the rain, the businessman in the rain, a back view of Michael Jackson stepping into the rain, the homeless man, the business man, Michael Jackson, around and around and around.

I love this sequence and the way these images are interwoven. It’s very skillfully done, and again it reinforces the idea that children are a subtle but crucially important part of the story. And Joie, you’ll like this – in the final shot of the children, they’re holding hands.

But this raises another complicated question: what does the rain represent?

Joie: Now that is a really interesting question, Willa! What does the rain represent? You know, there are actually many, many possible answers to that question. Rain is a vital resource; it’s extremely important for life. It nurtures humans, animals and crops. Without it, we couldn’t survive. And in regions where not much rain falls, it can be symbolic of life and rebirth.

Rain can also be representative of blessings pouring down from heaven, and also of curses. In fact, according to the Bible, Noah built that ark for a reason, right? And it had never rained on the Earth before that time so, no wonder all the people thought Noah was completely crazy. Water fall from the sky? Yeah, right!

But I think in today’s modern world, rain often symbolizes tears and sadness and depression. But it also, a lot of times, is symbolic of an emotional cleansing or healing. And sometimes it even connotes an air of romance! So the possibilities are truly endless, Willa.

Willa: Wow, that’s a wonderful list, Joie! And you’re right, the rain can mean many different things. In fact, I think the meaning of the rain shifts over the course of the video, which is perhaps the main reason this video is so powerful to me. At the beginning, the rain seems to represent “tears and sadness and depression,” as you mentioned, Joie. As he sings in the opening verse,

I was wandering in the rain
Mask of life, feelin’ insane
Swift and sudden fall from grace
Sunny days seem far away
Kremlin’s shadow belittlin’ me
Stalin’s tomb won’t let me be
On and on and on it came
Wish the rain would just let me

So he clearly seems to be equating sunshine with happiness (“Sunny days seem far away”) and rain with the emotional torment he’s been going through (“On and on and on it came / Wish the rain would just let me be.”)

But then he sees the children running through the rain, and he begins to think differently about it. Those children inspire him to step out from under the awning and stop avoiding the rain, and he actually immerses himself in it – in fully experiencing the rain. He holds his arms out, throws his head back, and stands with his mouth open, drinking it in. That final scene with his face upturned and his mouth open, catching raindrops, always reminds me of someone taking communion. But the rain is also pouring down on his entire body, like a baptism, and he seems to experience it that way. So it feels to me at the end that the rain has become something physically and spiritually nurturing for him, “an emotional cleansing or healing,” as you put it so beautifully, Joie.

Joie: I agree with you, Willa; I think the meaning of the rain does change throughout the course of the short film, and we see that not only in Michael Jackson’s behavior but in the behavior of the others as well. The woman in the coffee shop, the old man in his apartment, the teenaged boy watching the other kids play ball. Even the homeless man on the street. They all decide to stand beneath the flow of the rain and allow that emotional cleansing or healing to wash over them.

Willa: That’s true, the meaning of the rain has changed for all of them – they all seem to gain spiritual renewal from the rain – and that’s a crucially important point. I’m so glad you brought that up, Joie. They all experience and benefit from that shift in the meaning of the rain, and that’s so moving for me, emotionally, and so fascinating, thematically.

You know, rain is just water droplets from the sky. It doesn’t “mean” anything, intrinsically, but we humans have invested it with tremendous meaning, and we have for centuries. Just like the color of our skin doesn’t mean anything, of itself, or the shape of our eyes, or a river between two regions designated as separate countries, or a multi-colored cloth waving on a flagpole, or a black piece of cloth worn on the head, or the length of our hair, or the style of our clothes, or the accent of our speech, or thousands of other signifiers. But we have imposed meaning on those arbitrary signs and made them carry meanings – including meanings that can be very harmful to us.

Importantly, we have the power to change those meanings – and Michael Jackson knew how to do it. I can’t emphasize enough how important that is. I think that, throughout his career, Michael Jackson was very focused on questioning and altering the connotative meaning, often negative meaning, carried by certain signifiers – just as he shifts the meaning of the rain in this video.

In fact, for me, Stranger in Moscow enacts in microcosm the central project of his entire career: to alter how we interpret and emotionally respond to arbitrary physical signs, just as he alters how the suffering people in Stranger in Moscow interpret and emotionally respond to the rain – from something negative that further isolates and oppresses them, to something positive that nourishes and revitalizes them. So to me, Stranger in Moscow has become a metaphor of his life’s work. This is what Michael Jackson’s work means to me, and this is why it’s so important and so powerful to me.

Actually, I’m going to push this even further. This isn’t just a metaphor for how I see Michael Jackson’s art, but how I have come to see art in general. Art has the power to significantly alter how we perceive and experience and make sense of our world – for example, to shift the meaning of the rain, or the meaning of our skin color, or our gender, or our nationality, or the accent of our voices, or a multitude of other signs – and I now see this as art’s highest purpose. And Joie, I came to that idea through Michael Jackson. He has revolutionized my ideas, not only about art, but how we as individuals experience our world. Those ideas are all represented for me by Stranger in Moscow and how he shifts the meaning of the rain.

Joie: That’s a very interesting idea, Willa. It certainly gives us a lot to think about. But whatever the meaning of the rain, or the significance of all those signifiers you just mentioned … Stranger in Moscow is one of Michael Jackson’s most profound short films. I think we can both agree on that point.

Wandering in the Rain

Willa:  So Joie, whenever I’m talking to someone about Michael Jackson’s videos, eventually I know they’re going to ask me the dreaded question – which one is my favorite? And that’s so hard for me to answer. It’s kind of like asking a grandmother which grandchild is her favorite. As any grandma will tell you, you love them all! And if you don’t feel as connected to some as others, maybe it’s because you simply don’t know them as well.

For example, You Rock My World made me very uncomfortable for a long time – it was a difficult child for me to warm up to. But after we talked about it a couple of times – in November and December 2011 – I came to see so many fascinating things in it that I hadn’t seen before, and came to understand it much better, and now I truly love it and enjoy watching it.

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that I don’t have a favorite Michael Jackson video – I really do love them all – but I have to admit that Stranger in Moscow holds a very special place for me. For one thing, it’s so beautiful:  the ideas, the images, his amazing voice. I love everything about it.

Joie:  I love this video too. To me, it is just visually stunning. I love to sit and really watch the special effects in this one; I always sit sort of mesmerized whenever it’s on. It’s very hypnotic in a way. You know, my cousin once said to me, ‘don’t watch that video, it’s so depressing!’ And I understand where she’s coming from, but I just couldn’t believe she said that because, to me, this video is just beautiful. A real feast for the eyes.

Willa:  It really is, though I can see what your cousin was saying too. It seems to me he’s trying to convey his emotional state at that time, in the months immediately following the 1993 allegations, and that was a horrible time for him. As he tells us in the lyrics, he was “feeling insane,” like he’d had an “Armageddon of the brain.” It seems to me he’s encouraging us to imaginatively experience what he’s been going through to try to understand what that situation would be like – to sympathize with the Other, as he does in so much of his work. So the chorus is primarily the line “How does it feel” repeated over and over again:

How does it feel?
(How does it feel?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
(How does it feel now?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel
When you’re alone and cold inside,
Like a stranger in Moscow?

 

It seems pretty clear that he’s urging us to put ourselves in his position – as someone falsely accused of a terrible crime, and condemned for it around the world so there’s no escape from it. How would that feel? What would that situation be like?

Frank Cascio talks about this in his book, My Friend Michael: An Ordinary Friendship with an Extraordinary Man, and he quotes him as saying:

“I don’t think you realize … I have the whole world thinking I’m a child molester. You don’t know what it feels like to be falsely accused, to be called ‘Wacko Jacko.’ Day in and day out, I have to get up on that stage and perform, pretending everything is perfect. I give everything I have, I give the performance that everyone wants to see. Meanwhile, my character and reputation are under constant attack. When I step off that stage, people look at me as if I were a criminal.”

I don’t think we can even begin to comprehend what that was like for him, day after day, year after year, without let-up. We can try to understand it, but I don’t think we ever really can. But in Stranger in Moscow, he’s trying to give us a glimpse of what that experience was like for him.

And that’s important on a personal level – just as one human trying to understand another human – but it’s also important on a cultural level because over his career he became the human embodiment of Difference, of Otherness. So in a way, this video is asking the exact same question “Ben” asked 40 years ago: do we have the emotional capacity to sympathize with someone excluded and ridiculed and feared because he is marked as different? Can we see this situation from the outsider’s point of view? And “how does it feel” when we do that?

Joie:  That’s a really compelling question, Willa. Can we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and look at their world from their perspective? We can certainly try, if our hearts and minds are in the right place, but you know, it’s not always an easy thing for some people to do. But it was almost like Michael understood that this was a difficult task for most people and so, he kept trying over and over to show us, through different songs, what that experience was like for him. In fact, you and I talked about it in depth back in the fall of 2011 when we discussed “Is It Scary.” And I said at the end of that post that I felt he had to be one of the bravest people ever to have the courage to hold his head up day after day in that situation and still be able to create the most beautiful, profound art and present it to a world that had turned on him. It’s just incredible to me.

Willa:  Oh, I agree wholeheartedly. It took tremendous courage and self-reliance – and self-knowledge as well. He knew who he was, and he had the inner strength to believe in himself even after the world had turned against him. But it still must have been tremendously painful, and I think he’s exploring that in the opening scenes of Stranger in Moscow.

Joie:  You know, Willa, I agree with you. This short film really does set a particular mood, right from the opening shots. But the song itself sets a certain mood as well, and I believe this is one of the rare videos where the images on the screen portray the song perfectly. Like “Dirty Diana.”

Willa:  That’s an interesting point, Joie. Some of his videos really do go off in a different direction – like, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the Leave Me Alone video from listening to the song. But some are much closer, and with “Stranger in Moscow” there really are some direct correlations between what’s being said in the song and what’s happening on screen. For example, he sings “a beggar boy called my name” and suddenly the scene shifts to some street kids playing baseball. Then at the next interlude we hear a boy shout “Michael!” and see some kids running by. So in many ways the video enacts the lyrics of the song.

But I think this video also clarifies the song in important ways. For example, a number of critics called this song “paranoid” because he mentions the Kremlin and Stalin and says the “KGB was doggin’ me.” But as the video makes clear, he’s speaking in a metaphorical way. He feels like a “stranger in Moscow,” but the video is clearly set in the United States: the cars, the coffeeshop, the street signs, the phone booth are all American, and when the passerby flips a quarter to the homeless man on the street, it’s an American quarter. So he’s in the United States, his native country, but it’s become so alien to him that, emotionally, he feels like he’s living in a foreign country. That’s what it means to me when he says, “I’m living lonely, baby / Like a stranger in Moscow.” It reminds me of that line in “They Don’t Care about Us” where he says, “I can’t believe this is the land from which I came.” His home country has become so alien and unrecognizable to him, it no longer feels like home.

And it’s very important to realize that he isn’t the only person “living lonely” in this video.  We also see other people in pain and somehow removed from the flow of life. This is visually represented by showing some of the suffering people behind glass – like the sad woman in the coffeeshop, seen through a glass wall, and the lonely man in his apartment, seen through his apartment window. It’s therefore significant, symbolically, when the glass breaks, and it’s significant that it’s children at play that break it.

To me, children are a subtle but crucially important presence in this video, in part because they bring about a shift in what’s happening. In fact, I see the street kids playing baseball and breaking the window as the climax of the film. You know, there’s this common misconception that the climax of a movie or novel is the most exciting part, but technically that isn’t what the word “climax” means when you’re analyzing literature or film. Instead, the climax is the turning point, the moment that determines the outcome of the story. Sometimes it’s exciting, but often it’s not – often it’s a quiet moment when the hero or heroine makes a fateful decision that determines which path he or she will follow, and how the story will ultimately end. For example, the climax of Star Wars isn’t the big battle scene at the end when Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star. It’s the sad scene much earlier when he discovers his aunt and uncle have been killed, and he decides to go with Ben and fight the Dark Side. That’s the turning point of Star Wars. And to me, the turning point, or climax, of Stranger in Moscow is when the street kids break the glass.

Joie:  That’s very interesting, Willa. And I like what you said about the climax of a story or a film often being a quiet moment when a decision is made.

But I want to talk about what you just said about the people in pain in this video. You said that they are all somehow removed from the flow of life, and that’s really true. But I think all those shots of them seen through the glass walls or the windows are also meant to evoke a feeling of isolation and despair. That’s really the feeling that Michael Jackson is trying to get at in the song, I think.

How does it feel?
(How does it feel now?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel
When you’re alone and cold inside

Each of the people – the lonely man in his apartment, the sad woman in the coffeeshop, even the homeless man lying on the street and the teenaged boy watching the other kids play ball – they’re all very isolated and in some form of despair. And each time I watch this video, I always want to know more of the story, you know? Why isn’t the teenage boy playing ball with the other kids? What has that woman in the coffeeshop so upset? Why is that man shut up in his apartment all alone, and what’s the homeless man’s story? We know why Michael is feeling like a stranger in Moscow, but what about the rest of them?

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Joie, and I think our inability to truly know what they’re going through, how they’re feeling and why they’re responding that way, just adds to the sense of isolation. We don’t know what they’re experiencing, we don’t know their pain, and that inability to truly understand the suffering of others is an important element of this video, I think. They’re “living lonely” too, just like he is, and that isolation adds to the pain. So once again we’re back to the central question: “How does it feel?”

Joie:  And that is such an important point, Willa. They are “living lonely,” just like he is. And that makes us think about ourselves in a way. Unless we actively reach out to others and share our burdens, we’re all living just as lonely as those people in this short film. And that sense of isolation does add to the pain and the emotional suffering. And even sometimes when we’re surrounded by people who care about us, it’s still possible to feel as though you’re “living lonely.”

Willa:  That’s true, Joie, and an important point as well. And sometimes when we’re hurting, we isolate ourselves. It’s like we need some alone time to recover and get our equilibrium back, but removing ourselves like that can cause problems as well.

Joie:  You know, Willa, the end of this video sort of puzzles me. It never has before but, now that you and I are talking about it, I’m beginning to think about it in ways I never have. At the end of this one, all of those lonely, anguished people see the rain coming down and they go out and embrace it. They let go of their feelings of isolation for a brief moment and stand beneath the flow and let the rain wash over them. Nothing is resolved. But yet, they each seem to be soothed in some way by the action.

That’s not exactly how I would have expected this one to end. You would think that with the subject matter of this film, in the ending we would see all those isolated people finding one another and coming together. Or maybe joining family and friends so that they’re not so isolated any longer. But that’s not what happens here. What do you make of that?

Willa:  That’s such a hard question. This is a really ambiguous video – one of his most ambiguous, I think. (That might be another reason I like it so much!) So it’s possible to interpret the ending many different ways, but he does offer some important clues. For example, before those suffering people step out into the rain, we see and hear children running in the rain. The man in his apartment hears their excited shouts, looks down through his window, and sees them and others running across the street. Then he reaches up, touches his window, and ultimately leaves his apartment and stands in the rain. The way this sequence is structured suggests it’s the children who inspired him to do that.

We see Michael Jackson inspired by the children as well. He’s sheltering himself under an awning when the children run past him, splashing through the puddles, and then he steps out into the rain. This is a really long sequence, with scenes of the children running in the rain repeatedly interspliced with scenes of Michael Jackson watching them run by, and of the other sad adults as well. There’s a distant shot of the children in the rain, then Michael Jackson watching them and singing “How does it feel?,” then a long clip of the children closer up, a quick shot of Michael Jackson again singing “How does it feel?,” another long slow-motion clip of the children closer still, the man in his apartment running his hand along the glass of his window as we hear “How does it feel?,” the homeless man reaching his hand out into the rain, Michael Jackson in the background with the children running by in front of him, the homeless man drenched with rain and his face uplifted, Michael Jackson and the children all on screen together, a back view of the children splashing through the rain, the businessman in the rain, a back view of Michael Jackson stepping into the rain, the homeless man, the business man, Michael Jackson, around and around and around.

I love this sequence and the way these images are interwoven. It’s very skillfully done, and again it reinforces the idea that children are a subtle but crucially important part of the story. And Joie, you’ll like this – in the final shot of the children, they’re holding hands.

But this raises another complicated question: what does the rain represent?

Joie:  Now that is a really interesting question, Willa!  What does the rain represent? You know, there are actually many, many possible answers to that question. Rain is a vital resource; it’s extremely important for life. It nurtures humans, animals and crops. Without it, we couldn’t survive. And in regions where not much rain falls, it can be symbolic of life and rebirth.

Rain can also be representative of blessings pouring down from heaven, and also of curses. In fact, according to the Bible, Noah built that ark for a reason, right? And it had never rained on the Earth before that time so, no wonder all the people thought Noah was completely crazy. Water fall from the sky? Yeah, right!

But I think in today’s modern world, rain often symbolizes tears and sadness and depression. But it also, a lot of times, is symbolic of an emotional cleansing or healing. And sometimes it even connotes an air of romance! So the possibilities are truly endless, Willa.

Willa:  Wow, that’s a wonderful list, Joie! And you’re right, the rain can mean many different things. In fact, I think the meaning of the rain shifts over the course of the video, which is perhaps the main reason this video is so powerful to me. At the beginning, the rain seems to represent “tears and sadness and depression,” as you mentioned, Joie.  As he sings in the opening verse,

I was wandering in the rain
Mask of life, feelin’ insane
Swift and sudden fall from grace
Sunny days seem far away
Kremlin’s shadow belittlin’ me
Stalin’s tomb won’t let me be
On and on and on it came
Wish the rain would just let me

So he clearly seems to be equating sunshine with happiness (“Sunny days seem far away”) and rain with the emotional torment he’s been going through (“On and on and on it came / Wish the rain would just let me be.”)

But then he sees the children running through the rain, and he begins to think differently about it. Those children inspire him to step out from under the awning and stop avoiding the rain, and he actually immerses himself in it – in fully experiencing the rain. He holds his arms out, throws his head back, and stands with his mouth open, drinking it in. That final scene with his face upturned and his mouth open, catching raindrops, always reminds me of someone taking communion. But the rain is also pouring down on his entire body, like a baptism, and he seems to experience it that way. So it feels to me at the end that the rain has become something physically and spiritually nurturing for him, “an emotional cleansing or healing,” as you put it so beautifully, Joie.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa; I think the meaning of the rain does change throughout the course of the short film, and we see that not only in Michael Jackson’s behavior but in the behavior of the others as well. The woman in the coffee shop, the old man in his apartment, the teenaged boy watching the other kids play ball. Even the homeless man on the street. They all decide to stand beneath the flow of the rain and allow that emotional cleansing or healing to wash over them.

Willa:  That’s true, the meaning of the rain has changed for all of them – they all seem to gain spiritual renewal from the rain – and that’s a crucially important point. I’m so glad you brought that up, Joie. They all experience and benefit from that shift in the meaning of the rain, and that’s so moving for me, emotionally, and so fascinating, thematically.

You know, rain is just water droplets from the sky. It doesn’t “mean” anything, intrinsically, but we humans have invested it with tremendous meaning, and we have for centuries. Just like the color of our skin doesn’t mean anything, of itself, or the shape of our eyes, or a river between two regions designated as separate countries, or a multi-colored cloth waving on a flagpole, or a black piece of cloth worn on the head, or the length of our hair, or the style of our clothes, or the accent of our speech, or thousands of other signifiers. But we have imposed meaning on those arbitrary signs and made them carry meanings – including meanings that can be very harmful to us.

Importantly, we have the power to change those meanings – and Michael Jackson knew how to do it. I can’t emphasize enough how important that is. I think that, throughout his career, Michael Jackson was very focused on questioning and altering the connotative meaning, often negative meaning, carried by certain signifiers – just as he shifts the meaning of the rain in this video.

In fact, for me, Stranger in Moscow enacts in microcosm the central project of his entire career: to alter how we interpret and emotionally respond to arbitrary physical signs, just as he alters how the suffering people in Stranger in Moscow interpret and emotionally respond to the rain – from something negative that further isolates and oppresses them, to something positive that nourishes and revitalizes them. So to me, Stranger in Moscow has become a metaphor of his life’s work. This is what Michael Jackson’s work means to me, and this is why it’s so important and so powerful to me.

Actually, I’m going to push this even further. This isn’t just a metaphor for how I see Michael Jackson’s art, but how I have come to see art in general. Art has the power to significantly alter how we perceive and experience and make sense of our world – for example, to shift the meaning of the rain, or the meaning of our skin color, or our gender, or our nationality, or the accent of our voices, or a multitude of other signs – and I now see this as art’s highest purpose. And Joie, I came to that idea through Michael Jackson. He has revolutionized my ideas, not only about art, but how we as individuals experience our world. Those ideas are all represented for me by Stranger in Moscow and how he shifts the meaning of the rain.

Joie:  That’s a very interesting idea, Willa. It certainly gives us a lot to think about. But whatever the meaning of the rain, or the significance of all those signifiers you just mentioned … Stranger in Moscow is one of Michael Jackson’s most profound short films. I think we can both agree on that point.

The Force, It’s Got a Lot of Power

Willa:  Last week, Joie and I treated ourselves to a really fun look back at Off the Wall. So of course I had to listen to “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough” over and over again – strictly for research purposes only, I promise! It had nothing whatsoever to do with that amazing low voice that interjects in the middle of the line throughout the first and second verses….

Joie:  Yeah, whatever you need to tell yourself, my friend.

Willa:  Well, you know, just trying to make us look professional – keeping up appearances and all that. Which isn’t easy to do with my brain full of hot lyrics from one of his steamiest songs ever, as you so kindly quoted last week: “I’m melting (I’m melting now) like hot candle wax.” Yi yi yi.

So anyway, I was listening to “Don’t Stop” over and over again for professional reasons, and also listened to the demo version he recorded at home with Randy and Janet. And it’s truly amazing – you can hear how fully developed that song was before he even brought it in to Quincy Jones. All the major elements are already there. But there is one very noticeable difference between the original demo and the recorded version. In the demo, he sings this couplet throughout the song:

Keep on with your heart, don’t stop
Don’t stop til you get enough

But by the time the recorded version was released, he’d made a small but notable change:

Keep on with the force, don’t stop
Don’t stop til you get enough

So that started me wondering – what does he mean by “the force”?

Joie:  Willa, that is a really interesting observation. And because I am a little bit of a science fiction geek, I feel compelled to point out the obvious here and say that this album came out in the summer of 1979 and, just two years earlier in ’77, one of the greatest films of all time was released – Star Wars!

Willa:  You know, I was hesitant to make that leap, but I was kind of thinking the same thing. What do you make of that?

Joie:  Well, Star Wars was an immediate classic. People were so obsessed with this film that even the technical crew who worked on it were routinely asked for their autographs. I can remember going to see this movie for the first time. I was about eight years old and I went to the movie with my best friend Deron and his dad.

Willa:  You were eight? I was in high school. I keep forgetting how young you are.

Joie:  Aww, you say the sweetest things! But honestly though, when I look back on it, it really seems like I was older than that but, I started doing the math and yeah … I was only eight – about to turn nine! Which makes sense because I was 11 when Off the Wall came out.

But anyway, when we pulled into the theater parking lot, there was literally a line of people wrapped around the building. And they were all there to see Star Wars! It was unreal. That was the first time I had ever seen anything like that.

Star Wars was a real cultural phenomenon. It broke all box office records at the time and it remains one of the most successful films ever. I mean, it was huge! So, after its release you had people all over the country – probably all over the world – quoting lines from the movie, saying things like, “help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope,” and “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” and – oh, and this is the big one – “may The Force be with you.” People everywhere were suddenly talking about “The Force.” And if you ask someone – anyone – who was alive when the original Star Wars movie came out about “The Force,” they would know exactly what you meant.

So … I’m just going to go out on a limb here and suggest that maybe “the force” that Michael is talking about in “Don’t Stop” has something to do, at least in the abstract, with “The Force” that George Lucas envisioned in the Star Wars saga. In the movie, Jedi master, Ben ‘Obi-Wan’ Kenobi describes The Force in this way:

“Well, The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”

This idea that The Force is an energy field created by all living things, and binding us all together as one, is a concept that I can see Michael embracing. It’s sort of an extension of the message that he had already been singing about for years. If you think about it, it’s the same message from Can You Feel It, where he points out that we are all the same; we are all connected. “Yes the blood inside of me is inside of you.”

Willa:  Joie, I love the direction you took this, and I agree, when you look at it this way there are so many connections to Michael Jackson. He’s not talking about grabbing a light saber and fighting the Empire, of course. But if we look at it “in the abstract,” as you say, there do seem to be a lot of parallels between George Lucas’ ideas of the Force as “an energy field created by all living things” that “binds the galaxy together,” and Michael Jackson’s ideas about an “eternal dance of creation.”

In fact, this idea of an “eternal dance” that connects us to each other, to all living things, and to the cosmos is one of the central themes of Michael Jackson’s 1992 book of poetry and essays, Dancing the Dream, as he writes in the preface:

Consciousness expresses itself through creation. This world we live in is the dance of the creator. Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on. On many an occasion when I’m dancing, I’ve felt touched by something sacred. In those moments, I’ve felt my spirit soar and become one with everything that exists. I become the stars and the moon. I become the lover and the beloved. I become the victor and the vanquished. I become the master and the slave. I become the singer and the song. I become the knower and the known. I keep on dancing and then, it is the eternal dance of creation. The creator and creation merge into one wholeness of joy.

To me, this idea that he can “become one with everything that exists” is very similar to Ben Kenobi’s description of the Force as something that “surrounds us and penetrates us,” as you quoted above. And it’s very important, I think, that he achieves this state through dance. It’s “when I’m dancing” that he joins “the eternal dance of creation,” and that’s when, he says, “The creator and creation merge into one wholeness of joy.”  

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa, it is one of the central themes of Dancing the Dream, this notion that we are all connected. And he mentions that eternal “Dance of Creation” several times in the book. In “Heaven is Here,” one of the poems from that book, he says:

Come, let us dance
The Dance of Creation
Let us celebrate
The Joy of Life  

This idea that we are all connected was obviously very important to him as he writes about it over and over again. Later in that same poem, he goes on to say:

You are the Sun
You are the Moon
You are the wildflower in bloom
You are the Life-throb
That pulsates, dances
From a speck of dust
To the most distant star
 
And you and I
Were never separate
It’s an illusion
Wrought by the magical lens of
Perception
 

So, he’s telling us that everything – all life, all living creatures, the plants, the dust even – everything is connected.

Willa:  I’m so glad you quoted this poem, Joie, because it’s one of my favorites from Dancing the Dream, and it really highlights the connections between us all. And as we see in the last stanza you quoted, it also connects this with the faulty nature of perception, which is another central belief for both Michael Jackson and George Lucas.

There’s a wonderful scene in Star Wars where Luke is first learning to use The Force. He’s trying out the light saber Ben gave him but he’s having trouble so, ironically, Ben blocks his vision. Ben then tells him,

“I suggest you try it again, Luke. But this time let go of your conscious self and act on instinct.”

Luke protests, “But … I can’t even see. How am I supposed to fight?”

Ben replies, “Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them. Stretch out with your feelings.”

We see this idea that “Your eyes can deceive you” repeated throughout Michael Jackson’s work as well, from videos like Who Is It  to the passages you quoted from “Heaven is Here.” In this poem, he tells us that the belief that we are separate is wrong, a misperception – or as he says, “an illusion / Wrought by the magical lens of / Perception.” If we follow Ben’s advice to “let go of your conscious self” and “stretch out with your feelings,” we realize that “you and I / Were never separate / It’s an illusion,” as Michael Jackson tells us.

Joie:  We are all one with each other and the universe. And interestingly, this is an idea that we tend to think of as a tenet of Buddhism or Hinduism or some other eastern religion. It sounds sort of “new agey” or “metaphysical” but, it actually has really sound principles behind it. It’s a prevailing notion in the realm of faith healing and also in the world of science as this video from Symphony of Science points out:

As Neil deGrasse Tyson says in the video,

We are all connected
To each other, biologically
To the earth, chemically
To the rest of the universe, atomically

Willa:  My son and I love Neil deGrasse Tyson! He has a PhD in astrophysics from Columbia University, but he combines that strong background in science with a poetic sensibility, so he can explain the chemistry of the cosmos in both clear scientific and beautifully poetic ways. As Tyson tells us in his Origins series, our bodies are composed of chemical elements like carbon, oxygen, and iron, and as he explains, those elements were forged in the fiery interior of stars. So literally, “We are all stardust,” as Tyson tells us, with “carbon in our bodies, iron in our blood, calcium in our bones. Every last atom was formed in a star.”

This really connects with Michael Jackson’s ideas that you quoted earlier, Joie, from “Heaven is Here”:

You are the Life-throb
That pulsates, dances
From a speck of dust
To the most distant star

And importantly, as this poem emphasizes, for Michael Jackson this is a dynamic process that encompasses our movement as well as our substance. So not only are we formed of “stardust,” as Neil deGrasse Tyson says, but we are part of a “Dance of Creation” that connects our actions with the rhythms of the universe.

We see this in his ideas about songwriting as well. As Joe Vogel emphasizes in Man in the Music, Michael Jackson believed you had to “let the music create itself.” And when Joe talked with us last fall,  he linked that to how the Romantics described artistic inspiration:

“A common metaphor in Romantic poetry is the Aeolian harp: When the wind blows, the music comes. You don’t force it. You wait for it. …

Michael believed strongly in that principle. … Another metaphor he liked to use to illustrate his creative process is Michelangelo’s philosophy that inside every piece of marble or stone is a “sleeping form.” His job as an artist, then, was to chip away, sculpt, polish, until he “freed” what was latent. So it requires a great deal of work. You might have a vision of what it should look like, but you have to be in tune throughout the process and you have to work hard to realize it.”

This reminds me again of that scene in Star Wars where Luke is first learning to use The Force by trying out his light saber with his eyes covered. Ben tells him:

“Remember, a Jedi can feel The Force flowing through him.”

“You mean, it controls your actions?” Luke asks.

“Partially, but it also obeys your commands,” Ben says.

So Michael Jackson felt you should let creativity flow through you unimpeded, just as Ben says that “a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.” But still, an artist isn’t passive in the creative process – not at all. As Joe says, “You might have a vision of what it should look like, but you have to be in tune throughout the process and you have to work hard to realize it.” Or as Luke and Ben say in their conversation about the Force, it both “controls your actions” as well as “obeys your commands.”

Joie:  You know, Willa, what you just said here makes me think of all the times we heard Michael talk about writing music. How many times did we hear him say things like, “don’t write the song, let the song write itself,” or “I just step into it.” I love that essay from Dancing the Dream called “How I Make Music” where he says,

People ask me how  I make music. I tell them I just step into it. It’s like stepping into a river and joining the flow. Every moment in the river has its song. So I stay in the moment and listen…. When you join the flow, the music is inside and outside, and both are the same. As long as I can listen to the moment, I’ll always have music.

This is very similar to the Jedi master’s instruction to “feel The Force flowing through him.”

Willa:  I agree, and that is such a beautiful image of “stepping into” the music. But you know, the more we talk about this, the more I see some very real differences between George Lucas’ ideas and Michael Jackson’s. For one thing, the Jedi experience The Force primarily as a spiritual feeling, but with Michael Jackson, it’s much more than that. It’s very physical also. He feels most connected to it when he’s dancing – it is literally “a Dance of Creation” – and in “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough,” he suggests it’s tied in with sexual energy as well.

And this brings us back to that line you quoted last week, Joie: “I melting (I’m melting now) like hot candle wax.” As you know, that line has been getting me hot and bothered for 30 years now, and I’ve really been thinking about that a lot the past couple of weeks and trying to figure out why.

One thing that strikes me is that it’s radically different from how guys usually talk about sex. Women might melt, but guys don’t. I’ve heard guys use a lot of different metaphors when singing about sex, and no matter what genre you listen to – rock or hip hop or blues or even folk songs – there’s no melting. Definitely no melting. It seems like they’re all trying to be Sir Lancelot.

Joie:  You know, my brother is a very macho sort of guy – I’m talking 6’1″, 200 lbs. of pure muscle. And he lifts weights and works out a lot so, he’s quite imposing. However, he’s also very sensitive, kind of like Michael. And he’s also a Virgo, astrologically speaking – also like Michael. And when he’s in love, he can be very mushy. I have heard him talk about melting, believe it or not. So I think maybe men do melt. It’s just that the majority of them don’t want to advertise that fact because it’s not usually thought of as a macho thing to do.

Willa:  I’m so glad you mentioned that, Joie, because I know there are compassionate, sensitive, gentle men in the world. I know that’s true from my own household. But I’m talking about something very specific:  the way male sexuality is represented – and misrepresented – in popular music. Female sexuality is misrepresented as well. Based on popular music, you’d think all women were either completely passive to the point of invisibility or take-charge vixens in mini skirts. There’s no middle ground, and I know that’s not true. And male sexuality tends to be represented in song in pretty rigid, even aggressive ways.

And then in the midst of all this hard, unyielding hyper-masculinity, here’s Michael Jackson “melting like hot candle wax,” and it’s so erotic I still catch my breath every time I hear it. It’s such a different way of expressing male sexuality. But it also feels so natural. The mood of “Don’t Stop” is playful and joyous and exuberant, as well as wonderfully sexy and relaxed – just a natural expression of his personality.

I have to say, this image of him melting with passion is incredibly evocative to me. It’s like his autonomous self is melting and he’s merging with the one he loves:  physically, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically. That’s just so beautiful to me, and it ties in very strongly with his ideas about “the Dance of Creation.” His sexuality isn’t compartmentalized to something that only happens behind closed doors. It’s an essential part of who he is, and so his sexuality naturally manifests itself through his music and dance and everything he does. So I think that, for him, this “Dance of Creation” is both spiritual – a philosophical belief and a powerful creative force – as well as very physical.

Joie:  Wow. Ok, Willa, all this talk about how erotic that “melting” line is … is really … distracting. Hey, is it just me or have we both been … distracted … a lot lately?

Willa:  No, I think you’re right. Maybe it’s spring fever.

Joie:  Maybe it’s Michael fever. Anyway, I agree with you that in “Don’t Stop” he is suggesting that The Force is tied in with sexual energy, but I also think he’s suggesting more than that as well. Twice in the song he says this:

So let love (oh, let love)
Take us through the hours
I won’t be complainin’
‘Cause this is love power

That ‘love power’ as he calls it, is actually the very thing that the Jedi master is describing to his student. It is that energy “that binds the galaxy together,” that “something sacred” that Michael feels touched by when he’s dancing. The ‘love power’ is The Force! So, while it is a very physical phenomenon for Michael, I believe it is first and foremost very spiritual for him. As Michael himself once told us about songwriting,

“It’s the most spiritual thing in the world. When it comes, it comes with all the accompaniments – the strings, the bass, the drums, the lyrics. And you’re just the medium through which it comes, the channel. Sometimes I feel guilty putting my name on songs, ‘written by MJ,’ because it’s as if the heavens have done it already.”

And he echoes this spiritual component to songwriting in another of his essays from Dancing the Dream called simply, “God.”

“For me the form God takes is not the most important thing. What’s most important is the essence. My songs and dances are outlines for Him to come in and fill. I hold out the form, She puts in the sweetness.”

And in this same essay, he also repeats that central theme of everything being connected, and the creator and the creation merging “into one wholeness of joy” as he says,

“But for me the sweetest contact with God has no form. I close my eyes, look within, and enter a deep soft silence. The infinity of God’s creation embraces me. We are one.”

Again, we are one. We are all connected. “The creator and creation merge into one wholeness of joy.” With that statement, he could be referring to himself as the creator, and the creation is the song, or the dance, or the performance, etc. And I’m sure he probably did feel that way. But I also get the sense that he was definitely referring to God as the creator, and the creation is the earth, and the heavens, and humankind – all those living things that are connected and bound together by the force. “This world we live in is the dance of the creator.”

Willa:  Joie, that’s beautiful, and it wonderfully expresses that idea that Michael Jackson shared with us so often, through music and dance, through poetry and spoken words, through his actions and beliefs, through his very being. As you say, “We are one. We are all connected.” We are all part of the Dance of Creation. What a simple yet powerful message.

So something really fun is happening next week:  Joe Vogel and Charles Thomson are joining us for a roundtable discussion about Michael Jackson as a songwriter. Joie and I are really looking forward to it, so be sure to check back again next week. We’ve also added a few things to the Reading Room including those wonderful videos from the MJ Academia Project, several really insightful articles by Charles about media coverage of Michael Jackson, and a wonderful new article by Joe, “The Misunderstood Power of Michael Jackson’s Music,” so you may want to go visit and browse around a bit.