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A Look at Neo-Noir in Michael Jackson’s Short Films

Willa:  Last April Nina Fonoroff joined me for an interesting discussion about Billie Jean and Michael Jackson’s use of film noir. After that post went up, Elizabeth Amisu posted a couple of comments here and here about “neo-noir” in both Billie Jean and especially Who Is It. I was very intrigued by this since I’d never even heard of neo-noir, so I began talking with Elizabeth about it, and she very generously provided me with some introductory reading to help bring me up to speed – though I’m still very much a neophyte.

So today, Lisha and I are excited to be joined by both Elizabeth and Karin Merx to talk about neo-noir and how it can provide new ways of seeing and thinking about Who Is It, Billie Jean, Smooth Criminal, and other short films. Elizabeth is a lecturer of English Literature and Film Studies, and her ongoing academic research focuses on “high-status representations of black people” in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Her book, The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife, is being published by Praeger in August. Karin is both an academic and a classically trained musician, and she is currently completing her doctoral research in Art History. Last year she published an essay on Michael Jackson’s Stranger in Moscow. Together, Elizabeth and Karin co-founded and co-edit the Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies, which is a wonderful resource for anyone wanting to learn more about Michael Jackson’s art.

Thank you so much for joining us, Elizabeth and Karin! I’m really eager to learn more about neo-noir and how you see it functioning in Michael Jackson’s short films.

Elizabeth:  Thank you very much for having us here on Dancing with the Elephant, Willa. It’s a real pleasure to have this conversation with you.

Karin:  Thank you, Willa, for having us.

Willa:  Oh, I really appreciate the chance to talk with both of you and learn more about this! So what exactly is neo-noir? I know from my conversations with Nina that noir can be really difficult to define. So how do you identify neo-noir when you see it, and how is it different from noir?

Elizabeth: That’s a very good place to start, Willa, because noir forces us to really question the way we define genre in the first place. It includes titles like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, and a whole series of Hollywood films released between 1941 and 1958, whose dark subject matter and cinematic style reflected the negative mood during and after World War II. Noir has easily recognisable and distinctive visual and thematic features, such as a striking use of silhouettes, low-key lighting, femme fatales, confessional voiceovers and dangerous urban landscapes.

Neo-noir, however, emerged in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and it comes in lots of forms, from modern-day attempts at pure noir films, to science-fiction and thrillers. A few key titles are The Usual Suspects, Blade Runner, L.A. Confidential, Se7en, Sin City, and one of my particular favourites, Drive. However, one of the most humorous places to see a noir-style pastiche is the American Dad episode, Star Trek.

Willa: Wow, Elizabeth, that list covers a really broad range. It sounds like neo-noir can be even more difficult to pin down than noir itself …

Elizabeth: Yep, you are so right. It’s that slipperiness of the term which causes so much debate. However, I think that’s what makes noir so fun for discussion. There is never a simple or straightforward answer. One cool thing about noir-style is that it translates across other genres, so Blade Runner is science-fiction, Se7en is a crime thriller, and The Usual Suspects is more of a mystery.

Lisha:  Whoa. Hold up for a second here, because I’ll admit that when it comes to film noir, I still think of the instantly recognizable black-and-white Hollywood movie formula with all the cigarette smoking and a private detective in a snap-brim hat tracking down a bunch of shady characters. So can you tell us just a little more about the issues that make noir so difficult to pin down as a genre or style?

Elizabeth: You have a point, Lisha. For a lot of people noir is superficial, but for others noir’s heart lies in its themes rather than the visuals. The word does, however, mean “black film” and it actually grew out of the German Expressionism movement. The films were initially dark because of low-budget requirements.

In Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder (Willa and Nina’s discussion on Billie Jean featured it) the real darkness was found in the idea that the nicest guy in the world, Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray), found himself moving down a path of destruction. There’s a line he says, “I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.” He loses himself entirely because he thinks he can commit murder and get away with it.

That loss of self is very noir. So it’s the head-game, the psychological downfall, which always makes a noir film so compelling.

Lisha: Why do you think noir has been so irresistible for generations of filmmakers to copy as neo-noir? What accounts for its long-lasting appeal?

Elizabeth: That’s hard to say. It’s definitely true that the noir movement ended before the sixties. It just didn’t chime with the popularity of free love and liberation. However, when there’s a significant downturn, political intrigue, war and espionage, noir-style and noir-themes show up time and again.

Karin: Styles or tendencies are often revisited by artists, hence the word “neo,” from “neos” meaning “young” in the Greek. So we have words like “neo-expressionism.”

Elizabeth: Of course everyone knows the character Neo from the film, The Matrix. He is the “one,” the young saviour.

Willa:  That’s interesting. So it sounds like filmmakers – and audiences too – are drawn to noir and neo-noir when they’re feeling anxious, like during a war or recession or other social unrest.

Lisha:  It’s as if social events dictate when artistic themes become relevant again.

Karin: Yes, Willa and Lisha, artists are sensitive to what happens in society, and often use the general dissatisfaction with what is going on in their art. Sometimes even ahead of time.

Willa: Like when the panther dance in Black or White seemed to anticipate the Rodney King riots, as Joe Vogel pointed out in his article, “I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets: Re-screening Black Masculinity in Michael Jackson’s Black or White.”

Lisha: Great example, Willa.

Elizabeth:  Also, a noir-style film can be quite compelling on a relatively low budget, which also makes them quite appealing for filmmakers. We are now a far more complex and savvy film-going audience, so a traditional noir film may not appeal to viewers as much as a sexy nostalgic homage (a respectful and admiring nod) to the past, as in L.A. Confidential.

Lisha:  That’s true. Movie-goers have come to expect extremely high production values. Although I suspect some of the old films noirs still enjoy some popularity by intersecting with our notion of the “classic.”

Eliza, you also mentioned the term “noir-style pastiche,” so I’m wondering how we might define the term “pastiche.”

Elizabeth: A pastiche is how we term a work of art that is mostly an imitation of another. One film that always ends up in pastiche is the epic film, Spartacus, with people saying, “I am Spartacus!” A pastiche is usually a celebration rather than a mocking of source material. Imitation for comic effect is parody.

Lisha:  That’s a good point to keep in mind, that imitation can take many forms – from a nostalgic homage to a parody or spoof. So would you say neo-noir is roughly equivalent to noir-style pastiche? Or does pastiche require a recognizable intertextual reference to a specific work?

Elizabeth: Yes, it would be very apt to refer to neo-noir as film noir in pastiche. Several neo-noir films reference quite specific works but that is not necessary to term a work a pastiche.

Karin: I agree, Elizabeth. Also pastiche is more something we use in postmodernism, by way of using elements we all recognise but put in another context.

Lisha: A tricky example might be Michael Jackson’s engagement with film noir in This Is It. In his Smooth Criminal vignette, he doesn’t imitate the genre as much as he literally inserts himself into noir classics like Gilda and The Big Sleep. Here’s a link:

Elizabeth: It’s so interesting that you say this, Lisha, because I was writing about this in my final edit of my book this morning. I dedicate an entire chapter to Jackson’s use of fashion, and in it I write about how he really made himself part of HIStory by integrating his image into that of classic Hollywood cinema. There’s something so warm and sumptuous about 1930s to 1950s cinema and it’s so clear from Smooth Criminal that this was his intention, to place himself within a classic era in the minds of his viewers.

Willa:  Yes, I agree, though it’s also interesting to think about what might have attracted him in terms of the themes of Gilda and The Big Sleep, where nothing is as it seems and we’re never sure who we can trust.

Eliza: I didn’t even think of that. You are so right, Willa. That theme of “trust” is one of the most overarching themes in Jackson’s work, don’t you think? I thought of the moment in Smooth Criminal when the man with the pinstripe suit tries to stab him in the back.

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Willa:  Wow, what an incredible image! And this screen shot does look very noir, especially when frozen in time like this.

Lisha:  It really does. Even though the film is in color, it still manages to capture the shadowy chiaroscuro lighting associated with black and white noir.

And that’s a perfect example, Eliza, on the theme of “trust.” It’s as if Michael Jackson’s character has grown eyes in the back of his head from having to constantly watch his back. Now that you mention it, I do think “trust” is an important overarching theme in Michael Jackson’s work. I’m surprised I hadn’t thought about it before.

Willa, didn’t you identify “Annie, are you ok?” as sort of anti-noir, in that it is a gesture of care and concern for the female character, Annie, rather than an assumption that she is a dangerous femme fatale who needs to be killed off by the heroic male protagonist? In this example, Michael Jackson engages with the film noir theme of distrust, while sharply departing from it at the same time.

Willa: Yes, so this is another kind of imitation – neither homage nor parody, but evoking a classic work from the past in order to rewrite it.

Lisha: That is such a fascinating and inspiring idea. I noticed another gendered anti-noir move in Smooth Criminal, in the instrumental break, when we see a beautiful female jazz saxophone player on the bandstand.

Musically speaking, jazz saxophone is the apotheosis of all noir cliches, and it strongly codes male. In film noir, the saxophone is typically heard when a sexy female appears on screen, as a sort of male cat call. In Smooth Criminal we never actually hear a saxophone – there’s no saxophone in the song – but we see a sax player onstage as a visual imitation of noir. However, it isn’t one of the boys in the band as we might expect. It’s a beautiful female musician looking somewhat glamorous in her fancy dress.

This strikes me as going against the way jazz saxophone is generically used in film noir. The image of a female saxophone player both engages our memory of film noir and disrupts it at the same time.

Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha. It’s kind of similar to how he used Jennifer Batten and Orianthi in concert to both evoke and disrupt our ideas about hard rock guitarists.

Lisha: That’s exactly what I was thinking!

Of course many fans understand Smooth Criminal as a specific intertextual reference to “Girl Hunt Ballet,” the play-within-a-movie from Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon. I think most Michael Jackson insiders would rightly point to Smooth Criminal as a heart-felt homage to Fred Astaire.

Willa:  Yes, and one of the first things Fred Astaire’s character says in “Girl Hunt” is “Somewhere in a furnished room a guy was practicing on a horn.  It was a lonesome sound.  It crawled on my spine.” Which could evoke an image of a saxophone …

Lisha: You’re so right, Willa! That scene highlights what an important element jazz is in classic film noir. Although I do believe it is a trumpet player in that scene, not a sax player, if I remember correctly.

Willa:  Oh, you’re right. I should know better than to trust my memory! I just watched that opening scene again, and we do hear a trumpet playing in the background, and even catch a glimpse of it through an open window. Here’s a clip of “Girl Hunt Ballet,” and the trumpet appears about a minute in:

Lisha: The Band Wagon is pretty interesting in and of itself, because I think we could interpret “Girl Hunt Ballet” as a noir-style pastiche, even though it was made in 1953, during the same time period classic films noirs were still being made.

So I wonder if pastiche plays an important role in genre formation itself, since pastiche identifies the specific elements that are needed for a successful imitation?

Willa:  Wow, that’s a really interesting idea, Lisha!  It reminds me of Lorena Turner’s work with Michael Jackson impersonators, and how they lead us to a better understanding of Michael Jackson’s iconography. What exactly is needed to “be” Michael Jackson? Through the impersonators Lorena photographed, it becomes clear that you really don’t need to physically look like Michael Jackson, his face and body – you simply need a glove, a fedora, and a distinctive pose, for example, or maybe a red leather jacket with a strong V cut.

So those “imitators” help us identify what is essential about Michael Jackson’s star text, just as you suggest that pastiche (like neo-noir) helps us identify what is essential to a given genre (like noir).

Lisha:  Exactly!  Perhaps we should think of Smooth Criminal as a noir pastiche of a noir pastiche?

Willa:  Wow. So you’re saying that neo-noir is a pastiche of noir, and Smooth Criminal is a pastiche of neo-noir, so it’s a noir pastiche of a noir pastiche? Do I have that right?

Lisha:  Too funny! Yes, I think I just suggested something crazy like that.

Willa: Ok, I’m really going to have to think about that … but it does sound like the kind of loop-de-loop reference that Michael Jackson loved …

So a director who is frequently mentioned in discussions of neo-noir is David Fincher, who directed Michael Jackson’s Who Is It video in 1993. For complicated reasons that aren’t very clear, there were actually two videos made for Who Is It. Joie talked about this a little bit in a post we did a couple years ago. The second version is simply a montage of concert and video clips, but for some reason it seems to be the “official” one – for example, it’s the one that was released in the US when the song debuted, and it’s the version available on the Michael Jackson channel of Vevo.

So the David Fincher version has not been widely viewed and can be a little difficult to find online, but here’s an HD version of it on YouTube:

Elizabeth: It’s relevant that the Who Is It short film included in the Dangerous Short Films anthology was the one Fincher directed.

Willa:  That’s true, and it’s in the Vision boxed set also, so it has some degree of official acceptance. That’s a good point, Elizabeth.

So I love this short film, and it does have a very noir-ish feel to it, doesn’t it?  What are some specific visual elements you see in Who Is It that help create that noir-type mood or feeling?

Elizabeth:  It uses many of the specific visual elements Fincher used in his feature films in the following years – Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999) and much later, The Social Network (2010) – such as the repeated use of low-key lighting throughout the sequences to create an ominous tone and a sense of foreboding. Fincher also uses stark white light, as in the scene towards the end with the female character weeping, or he uses very muted lighting, where fluorescent bulbs don’t really illuminate the corners of the space.

Willa: Yes, and that’s pretty unusual, isn’t it? For example, here’s a screen capture from about 5:20 minutes, when the female lead is at the gate and the manager character won’t let her in. You can see that the edges of the shot are dark and uneven, as if the picture field weren’t fully exposed.

There are also scenes where the light is coming from below, which is pretty unsettling. We’re used to light coming from above, like sunlight, and we rarely see faces, especially, lit from below, unless it’s a 50s-style horror movie. Here’s a screen capture from about 4:20 minutes in with the light shining up from under the character’s faces:

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It really makes them look eerie and artificial, like store mannequins.

Elizabeth: The store mannequins, oh yes. Nice observation, Willa. And that whole idea links to this sense of being plastic and fake, not quite real. We can’t quite trust what they say because, although they seem human, they aren’t. And this extends to the words they say and the theme of the song. In terms of the lighting, I really enjoy the fact that the light seems drowned out by the encroaching darkness.

And of course, there are so many shots where only half of a face is illuminated, giving us a sense that the characters are being duplicitous and untrustworthy. Isn’t that what Who is It is all about? Who can we trust? Who has betrayed us?

Willa: Exactly. And you’re right, there are numerous shots where a face is only partially lit, suggesting we don’t see that person completely – not their face, their motives, or their character. So even something as subtle as lighting reinforces the meaning of the film and the lyrics. Who can we trust?, as you say. And it isn’t just the shape-shifting female lead, the one who goes by so many different names (Alex, Diana, Celeste, Eve, … ). All of the characters are pretty shadowy – both psychologically and visually. It’s not clear that we can trust anyone.

Elizabeth: You’re right, Willa. And what you’ve highlighted is how amazing Michael Jackson was when it comes to linking across his mediums – song complements short film complements costume and so on and so forth. What is also quite clear is that there is an exchange of money going on for sexual services, which makes the nameless female lead into a literal “object” of desire.

Lisha:  You know, the money for sex is something I find confusing in this film. When I see the world of rarefied luxury and helicopter travel depicted here, I’m thinking extremely high stakes. The wardrobe and makeup artists employed to execute these spectacular acts of duplicity evoke the world of espionage, corporate or national security, and figures in the hundreds of millions or billions. The level of intrigue seems to go way beyond the mere sexual encounter, although that is clearly one aspect of the betrayal and psychological torture going on. What do you think?

Elizabeth: Oooh Lisha, that is a cool point. You are very right that what seems to be at stake is far more than sex.

Willa:  I agree. It does seem to be more like very high stakes espionage.

Elizabeth: The Second World War was famed for its duplicitous female agents, using their womanly wiles to tempt secrets out of the (predominantly male) opposition. However, I also find it quite interesting that the character of the high-end sex-worker has a value far higher than the average viewer might expect. This is a character who obviously serves very wealthy clients and tends to their every whim.

Either way, it’s a particularly dark theme. I like to think of Michael as the femme fatale himself. Two authors have discussed this in some depth: Susan Fast in Bloomsbury’s Dangerous, and Marjorie Garber in Vested Interests. Both wrote on Jackson’s crossing of the male-female binary. In one interview Karen Faye, Jackson’s personal makeup artist, stated he didn’t accept these binaries at all. He built his aesthetics (identification of beauty) on a level that went beyond masculine/feminine.

Karin: I agree, Elizabeth. I think he built his aesthetics way beyond the binary of male/female. He always thought of human beings as being all the same.

Elizabeth: And we all have feminine and masculine qualities. It really is two halves of a whole. Notions of femininity and masculinity are really constructed by society and ideologies which have no basis in biology or reality. They are obstacles we put in our own way and MJ wasn’t interested in them. But bringing it back to the theme of neo-noir is the idea of binaries too, because the femme fatale is dangerous because of her unrestrained sexuality and her ambiguous morals.

Karin: This ambiguity is what we see so well in Who Is It.

Elizabeth: You are so correct, Karin. This is another link to Billie Jean and is found in the shots below, again the bed becomes a place of intrigue. There are physical and nonphysical exchanges here that we (as an audience) are not privy to. So we must decide for ourselves what is going on, and this heightens the mystery.

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Willa: That’s a really good point, Elizabeth, and this scene is evocative of the bed scene in Billie Jean, isn’t it?

Elizabeth: Yes it is, Willa. It also shows us how MJ references his own work. Other specific visual elements that Fincher often uses are found within the city itself, and I love how, in his work, the city is often given its own personality.

In Who Is It the city is presented as a golden otherworldly labyrinth that Jackson is separated/protected from by a glass wall. He is distanced from the society in which he lives, much like all of Fincher’s subsequent neo-noir protagonists. There are angel statues on the cover of the Dangerous album and they appear again in the city, bringing to mind the City of Angels, Los Angeles, which is ironic, of course, because “all that glitters (see the shot below) is not gold.”

Lisha: That is such a beautiful screen shot, Eliza. I’m wondering why I’ve never zeroed in on that before. He is in a major urban area, enjoying all the economic advantages the city has to offer, yet he is so completely isolated and alienated at the same time. The paradox is communicated by a sheet of glass.

Willa: Yes, and we see that same motif repeated in Stranger in Moscow. That film opens with a shot of a man seen through the glass of his apartment window, eating his supper from a can. Then we cut to a scene of a sad-looking woman in a coffee shop, but again we’re looking at her through a glass wall. And then there’s that wonderful scene about 3:05 minutes in where the man in his apartment sees the kids outside running through the rain, and then reaches up and touches the glass. Here’s a screen capture:

Lisha:  That is such a strong image.

Willa:  I agree. I love that moment, and think the glass imagery here functions like the glass wall in Who Is It. As you said, Elizabeth, this character “is within society but separated from it.” But I think this character begins to regret his isolation after seeing the kids run through the puddles, and that’s when he makes the decision to go outside and stand in the rain, and begin to experience life more fully.

Elizabeth: Oh yes, and only if he leaves his glass prison, can he hope to begin to communicate with those around him.

Karin: The difference with Stranger in Moscow is that it is not Michael behind a window that separates him from society, but the black man and the sad woman who play a role in the short film. Michael is walking the dark gritty streets of “Moscow” and, as I analyzed in my essay “From Throne to Wilderness: Michael Jackson’s ‘Stranger in Moscow’ and the Foucauldian Outlaw,” I believe he is separated but also separates himself from society in a different way. To me, he is also not part of the five people who are clearly abandoned from the so-called “normal” world. Michael seems to be separated by his “glowing face,” a face we can also see in the black and white sequence in the short film Bad.

Stranger in Moscow has this very estranged, alienated mood. The loneliness is dripping from the screen and is emphasised by the slow motion, which is not typical for noir but definitely for neo-noir. I think it is mainly the mood in Stranger in Moscow that is very neo-noir.

Lisha:  I didn’t realize slow motion was characteristic of neo-noir, Karin. I’m fascinated by how the sense of alienation in Stranger is depicted through two distinct temporalities happening at once. Michael Jackson was filmed in front of a blue screen singing and walking very slowly on a treadmill, which was later added to the slow motion background. So as he sings in real time with the music, everyone and everything else is moving in slow motion, like some kind of separate, alternate reality.

Willa:  Yes, that’s a very important observation, Lisha. It’s so interesting how slow motion is used in Stranger in Moscow. When we look at the city directly, everyone and everything moves at normal speed. But when it’s implied that we’re looking at the city from the perspective of one of the isolated people – the woman sitting alone in the coffee shop, or the homeless man lying by the sidewalk, or the teenager watching other kids play ball, or the man eating supper from a can, or the businessman watching pigeons, or even Michael Jackson himself – the world suddenly appears to be moving very slowly. Even the raindrops fall in slow motion.

Lisha: Wow, Willa, that’s exactly it. The slow motion is the perspective of those who are not participating in the normal rhythms of the city.

Willa: Exactly. Or who do participate to some degree, like the man with the pigeons or the woman in the coffee shop – both of them are wearing business suits – but who still feel disconnected from those rhythms. At least, that’s how it seems to me.

For example, we see pedestrians walking by the coffee shop, and they’re walking at normal speed. But then the scene shifts and we see the lonely woman watching the pedestrians, and now they seem to be moving in slow motion. So when we’re looking at them through her eyes, as it were, they’re moving in this oddly decelerated way. But she herself isn’t – she’s still moving at normal speed.

That difference in film speed creates a dislocation between those isolated people and the pedestrians who pass them by, and that disconnect is very effective at emphasizing just how detached they are from the world around them. As you write in your article, Karin,

On the one hand, the slow motion has the function of magnifying emotion, and on the other hand it shows two distinct worlds and the distance between those two worlds.

I agree completely. It also seems to be trying to capture or re-create the sensory experience of depression – of what it feels like to be in a bustling world when you are depressed and out of sync with everyone around you.

Lisha: It’s such a powerful visual depiction of “How does it feel, when you’re alone and it’s cold outside?”

Willa:  I agree.

Lisha:  And it allows us to inhabit the perspective of those five characters you mentioned, Karin, who are “clearly abandoned from the so-called ‘normal’ world.”

Getting back to what you said earlier, I’ve always been fascinated by the choices Michael Jackson made in this film to achieve such a glowing, colorless look for his face.

Karin: Yes, Lisha, it is as if he wants to disappear into the mass, the streets and the people walking around him.

Elizabeth: I agree wholeheartedly. It’s particularly interesting when we look at Michael’s use of his face and the concept of “masquing” and “masque” culture. This is an extended metaphor about identity in many neo-noir films, and one that Michael uses to articulate his relationship with his audience. They always seem to be wondering “who is he?”

Willa: Which refers us back again to Who Is It. Masques are a recurring theme in that film as well – from the oddly blank face we see rising beneath the white blotter on the desk or pushing out from behind the white wall, to the disguises worn by the Alex/Diana/Celeste/Eve character as she shifts identities, to the more subtle subterfuges of other characters as they decide what to reveal and what to keep hidden. We don’t truly know anyone in that film, not even Michael Jackson’s character, though the song accompanying the film is written from his point of view. So while we may be inside his mind to some extent, he is still somewhat distant and unknowable.

Elizabeth: Notions about identity are at the forefront of neo-noir films, especially in terms of being an individual in a society. No one is exempt from feeling alienated from others, and without our connection to others, how do we know that we are alive?

Karin: In the article “Eighties Noir: The Dissenting Voice in Reagan’s America” in The Journal of Popular Film and Television, Robert Arnett writes about the “face mask motif” that “furthers the analogy between the undercover plot device and ’80s visual media obsession.” In your article “Bad (1987),” Elizabeth, you write about the extreme close up in the black and white part and refer to it as act of defiance.

It is interesting to see how Michael used his own face, which was seen by the public as a mask, as “an act of defiance” in Bad because there was so much speculation in the tabloid media about his face. The mask as described by Arnett is “revered and experienced as a veritable apparition of the mythical being it represents.” However, in Bad, he does not represent himself as a mythical being but as himself in a “look at me, this is who I am” kind of way.

In Stranger in Moscow his “mask” is referring to him as a simple human being who walks the streets of Moscow. However, his glowing face-mask distinguishes him from all the other faces around him, which gives it this mythical representation, as if he has no connection to others anymore.

Willa: Yes, and that sense of alienation from society seems very noirish. As Nina said,

So many noir films convey a story about the way characters struggle with both internal and external forces to maintain their moral integrity in a fundamentally corrupt world.

That’s a good description of both Who Is It and Stranger in Moscow – and Bad also, as you mentioned, Karin. There’s a similar theme in Smooth Criminal, You Rock My World, Give In to Me, and others as well. In all of these films, the world is “fundamentally corrupt,” and Michael Jackson’s character must figure out how to negotiate that corruption without becoming tainted himself.

You know, I hadn’t really thought about it before, but that’s a recurring theme in Michael Jackson’s work, isn’t it? For example, if I think about his early videos, meaning the three videos from the Thriller album, that’s precisely what Beat It and Billie Jean are about – an innocent young man negotiating a corrupt world. But then Thriller complicates that. We’re never sure about the main character, Michael – about whether he’s innocent or not. He’s constantly shifting back and forth between a sweet, guileless teenage boy and a monster/zombie, between an innocent and the very epitome of corruption.

Elizabeth: Now we’re really taking it to another level: Jackson’s use of complex innocence and corruption themes is an entire theme in itself. The ambiguity, or what one could call the liminality of innocence, is what Jackson negotiates, don’t you think? The notions we have of the innocent and who is innocent. It comes up again and again. He never gives us a truly straight answer. In Smooth Criminal he is good but he commits violence throughout the sequences, in Thriller he’s the heartthrob and the zombie, and in Bad he is the innocent schoolboy and “bad” as he starts a dance-fight in a subway.

Lisha: And doesn’t that lead us right back to the issue of perspective? I feel like this is especially clear in Thriller, if we think about how we can experience the character “Michael” through his girlfriend’s eyes. As she is overwhelmed by the excitement of being in love, she sees and experiences a “thrill-her” date with her handsome new boyfriend. When she begins to fear where all this might take her, she sees and experiences a scary creature from a “thriller” horror film.

The girlfriend’s experience is dependent upon what she brings to the table at any particular moment in time. When she looks at the world through the perspective of love, she sees beauty. When she looks at the world through fear, she sees a monster.

Willa:  Wow, that is so interesting, Lisha!  As many times as I’ve watched Thriller, I’ve never thought about it that way before.

Lisha:  Isn’t that a perfect reflection of how we collectively experience Michael Jackson? He is an angel or a devil, innocent or guilty, depending on what the viewer brings to the table. This ambiguity forces us to question the whole concept of reality, showing us how perception trumps what is “really there.”

Willa: Yes, that’s a really important connection. And I agree, Elizabeth, that he does seem to be exploring the grey areas between guilt and innocence – “the liminality of innocence,” as you called it – and I love those examples you gave. He may be positioned in the hero role in Smooth Criminal, but he commits numerous acts of violence, as you say. And in Billie Jean, he may not be the father of the child whose “eyes looked like mine,” but he did go to her room and something – we’re not sure what – “happened much too soon.” That ambiguity occurs throughout Michael Jackson’s work.

Elizabeth: However, one short film which is definitely not ambiguous is Scream, and it’s one we should definitely mention before closing because it has a lot of noir-esque features (including a heightened mood of alienation). It is set in the vacuum of space and “in space, no one can hear you scream.” Putting Michael and Janet in this off-world environment really heightens the connection between alienation and celebrity/fame.

Karin: Yes, they surrounded themselves with art, which is often qualified as higher status and more distanced from people. So the art with which they surround themselves in their spacecraft world can also be seen as an alienating aspect.

Elizabeth: Not only do they surround themselves with art, they also attempt things on their own or in a pair that would usually be done in a group, such as playing sports, playing music. What we see in Scream is more escapism, a self-imposed exile. These are two characters in exile, and they have been put as far from their fellow human beings as possible. They can only connect through screens and other conduits. We get a sense that they are trying desperately to amuse themselves and all of it is in vain. The up-tempo beat of the song contradicts sharply with this.

Lisha: Wow, Elizabeth!  Never in a million years would I thought of Scream in terms of neo-noir, but there it is!  Mind blown.

Willa:  I agree. I wouldn’t have thought of Scream as neo-noir either, but it makes so much sense now that you say that, Elizabeth. All the elements we’ve been talking about, from visual elements like high-contrast lighting to thematic elements like isolation and the difficulty of being an innocent individual confronted by a corrupt society – they’re all there, aren’t they?

Elizabeth: Yes they are, Willa, Lisha. It’s one of those things that strikes you in a really uncanny way – that Scream which is free from all the stereotypes of noir is in fact very clearly neo-noir and dealing with so many of those ideas. Don’t you think that the space location serves to heighten the noir-ness of Scream?

Lisha:  Most definitely. And with the sad news of David Bowie’s passing, I can’t help relating Scream to Bowie’s 1969 Space Oddity.

Bowie’s character “Major Tom,” was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowie said he strongly identified with its sense of isolation and alienation. I definitely see a lot of this work in Scream.

Willa:  You know, we should talk about that sometime. There are a lot of connections there to Michael Jackson, as you say. Elizabeth, Karin – would you like to join us in that discussion?

Elizabeth: I would love to join you guys for a Bowie post. Can’t wait.

Karin: Yes, of course. I love Bowie and have listened to his music, and read a lot about him. So I’d be excited for that.

Willa: Wonderful! And thank you both so much for educating us about neo-noir! It really opened my eyes and allowed me to see some of his films in ways I never had before. I really value that, so thank you sincerely.

I’d also like to let everyone know that our friend Toni Bowers has an article about Michael Jackson and biography coming out soon in the Los Angeles Review of Books – next Tuesday, I believe. I’ll post a link as soon as it goes up, but you may want to keep a lookout for it.

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More Like a Movie Scene, part 1

Willa: A few weeks ago, Raven Woods joined me for a wonderful discussion of Michael Jackson’s concert performances of “Billie Jean.”  This week I am very excited to be joined by Nina Fonoroff to talk about the short film, Billie Jean, and about Michael Jackson’s use of film noir. Nina is an associate professor in cinematic arts, an independent filmmaker, and an artist who has drawn inspiration from Michael Jackson – for example, in a series of collages she created of him. And in the course of gathering material for her collages, she has collected more than 35,000 images of him. Wow! Thank you so much for joining me, Nina.

Nina:  Thanks, Willa! I look forward to exploring the “anatomy” of Billie Jean!

Willa:  Oh, so do I! I’ve been wanting to take an in-depth look at Billie Jean for almost four years now, but I’ve felt kind of intimidated by it. So I really appreciate your leading the way.

So today we’re planning to talk about Billie Jean specifically, and Michael Jackson’s use of film noir more generally in a number of his films, and it seems like we should begin by defining what exactly “film noir” means. But to be honest, I’m a little fuzzy about that. What makes a piece film noir? Is it the characters (a hard-boiled detective, a seductress, a criminal mastermind like Mr. Big in Moonwalker) or the setting (gritty, urban, 1940s or 50s) or the way it’s filmed (beautifully framed black-and-white scenes with lots of shadows). Or is it something else – a mood or a feeling?

Nina: Great questions, Willa. Film scholars have never been able to determine whether to call  “film noir” a style, a movement, or a genre. Billie Jean uses many elements we find in typical noir films, though there are also some distinct ways it departs from them.

In noir films, there’s often (though not always) a femme fatale who leads a man into a life of crime, or some situation that is morally compromised. So there’s the criminal ne’er-do-well, and often a detective, who we usually see wearing a trench coat and fedora hat. This detective is often the film’s protagonist, or main character – we identify with him, and typically learn everything through his point of view. (In some films, like Double Indemnity (1944), we hear the story told as a flashback, from the point of view of the man who committed the crime and who is about to die.) Some classic “noir” films were adapted from crime novels written by figures  like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet, and James M. Cain. In period slang, the detective is sometimes known as a “private dick” or “shamus” – in other words, a private investigator, as distinct from a detective who is employed by the regular police force.

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

Willa: And we see this kind of character in Billie Jean – the private investigator or reporter who’s trailing Michael Jackson’s character. We also see a variant of this character in You Rock My World and especially Smooth Criminal, right? Michael, the main character in Smooth Criminal, isn’t a private eye, but he’s an updated version of Rod Riley, Fred Astaire’s character in “Girl Hunt Ballet” from The Band Wagon, and Rod Riley is. And Michael is certainly dressed the part, especially the fedora pulled down low over his eyes.

Nina: Yes, that’s exactly the type, and Michael was very conscious of the style. Spats, an elegant suit, a fedora. Then we have dark, deserted streets within a sinister-looking city; and parts of the story are often conveyed through voice-over narration. Usually it’s the voice of the detective we hear, a device that allows us to form a strong bond of identification with him, his observations, his experiences and – most importantly – the knowledge he acquires about the case he’s working on. We know that we can count on him to eventually crack the case and “spill the beans.”

Willa: Oh that’s interesting, Nina. And we see those “dark, deserted streets” you mentioned in a number of Michael Jackson’s videos: Billie Jean, Beat It, Thriller, Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, Dirty Diana, Smooth Criminal, Jam, Give In to Me, Who Is It, Stranger in Moscow, and You Rock My World, as well as the panther dance portion of Black or White.

We certainly see it in “Girl Hunt Ballet” also, along with the use of voiceover, as you mentioned. Here’s a video clip, and it begins with Fred Astaire’s character walking those “dark, deserted streets” and talking to us in voiceover, as you just described. As he says, “The city was asleep. The joints were closed. The rats and the hoods and the killers were in their holes.”

It’s really fun to watch that clip and look for all the ways Michael Jackson borrowed from it or modified elements of it when creating Smooth Criminal. For example, some of the costumes are a direct match, like his white suit and fedora with the blue shirt and socks, or the woman in the red dress with black gloves up past her elbows.

Nina: Fred Astaire’s performance here riffs on the classic film noir hero (or antihero), especially in the tone he adopts to tell his story. There’s a heightened sense of drama when he recounts his woes – the tale of a romantic/sexual exploit turned bad. The way he delivers his interior monologue evokes an urbane male persona, whose suaveness and sophistication are no match for the “dame” who took him unawares or “done him wrong.”

We can also hear this character in Michael Jackson’s spoken introduction to “Dangerous,” some of whose lines come directly from the Rod Riley character in “Girl Hunt Ballet.” Here’s Michael Jackson’s performance of “Dangerous” at the 1995 MTV Awards:

The way she came into the place
I knew then and there
There was something different about this girl.
The way she moved. Her hair, her face.
Her lines, divinity in motion.

As she stalked the room
I could feel the aura
Of her presence
Every head turned
Feeling passion and lust

The girl was persuasive
The girl I could not trust
The girl was bad
The girl was dangerous

She came at me in sections
With the eyes of desire
I fell trapped into her
Web of sin
A touch, a kiss
A whisper of love
I was at the point
Of no return

Willa: I love that performance of “Dangerous”! And you’re right, some of these lyrics are a direct quotation from “Girl Hunt Ballet,” as you say – specifically the lines, “She came at me in sections … She was bad / She was dangerous.” And the overall feel of these lines is very “noirish.” I can easily imagine a character from one of those 1940s crime novels – or the films based on them – saying just these words.

So what other elements mark a film as noir?

Nina: They often have complicated plot twists, including flashbacks (sometimes multiple ones) or other scenes that reveal the characters’ dark pasts. And because the genre matured in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s, when black-and-white film stocks were more commonly used, we often associate these movies with a high-contrast black-and-white look that feels atmospherically menacing, with deep shadows and their connotations of secrecy, danger, paranoia, despair. The lighting effects are often described by a lovely Italian word, chiaroscuro, which means high contrasts of dark and light. The term originated in painting, and was then applied to photography and film.

Willa: And Michael Jackson occasionally filmed his videos using high-contrast black and white, like in Stranger in Moscow or parts of Billie Jean, Bad, Black or White, and Ghosts. Or he would use color film but with a very muted palette and strong contrasts between areas of light and dark, so it resembles black-and-white film. I’m thinking of moments like the dance in the basement in You Rock My World, which is almost like a series of sepia-toned photographs.

Nina: That’s true, especially for You Rock My World, which depicts a noirish environment in color – but it’s a limited color palette, as you say.

Films noir also tend to elicit a set of emotional responses from the audience, leading us on a journey of suspense, sometimes infused with anxiety for the character or the outcome of the story. The narrative unfolds so that by the end of the movie, the resolution of a puzzle or mystery – usually a violent crime – is revealed to the audience from the detective’s point of view (though, as I pointed out in the case of Double Indemnity, sometimes another character “narrates”). Through a bleak and often cynical depiction of right and wrong, these films communicate a set of social values: we are meant to ponder, even if unconsciously, what it might mean to be trustworthy or duplicitous, or to be an “outsider” looking in – as both the detective and the criminal he follows often are.

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

In their obsessive intelligence, exposure to danger, risk-taking, and seemingly cold-blooded approach to human relationships, these men (the detectives, and often the women they associate with) represent social deviance – they conduct their lives, as loners, in a way that’s different from the mainstream of society.  They’ve either rejected or else haven’t found access to the ordinary pleasures of domesticity, marriage, family life, home and hearth. So both the criminal, and the detective who pursues him, are figures who stand apart from ordinary people, who are safely ensconced in the trappings of middle-class existence and normative social values. They are exceptional, and often deeply ambivalent characters.

According to Tim Dirks, who writes for AMC Filmsite:

Heroes (or anti-heroes), corrupt characters and villains included down-and-out, conflicted hard-boiled detectives or private eyes, cops, gangsters, government agents, a lone wolf, sociopaths or killers, crooks, war veterans, politicians, petty criminals murderers, or just plain Joes. These protagonists were often morally ambiguous lowlifes from the dark and gloomy underworld of violent crime and corruption. Distinctively, they were cynical, tarnished, obsessive (sexual and otherwise), brooding, menacing, sinister, sardonic, disillusioned, frightened and insecure loners (usually men), struggling to survive – and in the end, ultimately losing. Amnesia suffered by the protagonist was a common plot device, as was the downfall of an innocent Everyman who fell victim to temptation or was framed…. The protagonists in film noir were normally driven by their past or by human weakness to repeat former mistakes.

Willa: That’s really interesting, Nina. It seems to me that Michael Jackson drew on elements of noir when creating his characters, but with important differences. His characters are often outsiders who “stand apart from ordinary people,” as you say – characters who “haven’t found access to the ordinary pleasures of domesticity.” We see that repeatedly in his films. But they are not “cynical, tarnished, obsessive (sexual and otherwise), brooding, menacing, sinister, sardonic, disillusioned, frightened and insecure loners,” in Dirks’ words. Not at all. In fact, often his characters are alone for the opposite reason – because they are innocent in a corrupt world. I’m thinking specifically of Billie Jean, Stranger in Moscow, and Ghosts, but there are other examples as well.

Nina: Interestingly, Willa, sometimes a noir (or “noirish”)  film can feature a man who is wrongly accused. As Dirk states, he may be “an innocent Everyman who fell victim to temptation or was framed.” Of course, this totally resonates with the story of Billie Jean.

Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946)

Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946)

Willa: It really does. So Nina, this thematic approach to film noir helps explain some of the confusion I’ve been feeling. For example, Stranger in Moscow is beautifully shot in black and white, and it’s in an urban setting, and when I watch it a lot of the individual frames look like film noir to me. But the overall feeling of the film as a whole is very different from film noir and I wouldn’t label it that way.

On the other hand, Billie Jean and Smooth Criminal were filmed primarily in color, though muted color, and when I watch them carefully – as I did while preparing for this post – a lot of the shots don’t really look like film noir to me. Less than Stranger in Moscow, actually. But the overall feeling of these two is very much film noir, I think.

Maybe some of this has to do with the “notions of social value” you were just talking about. In all three of these films – Billie Jean, Smooth Criminal, and Stranger in Moscow – Michael Jackson’s character is an “outsider,” and there’s a sense that the world is a pretty threatening place for him. So maybe that’s the undefinable thing that makes Stranger in Moscow feel kind of “noirish” to me.

Nina: Although there are a couple of shots in Stranger in Moscow that I think look distinctly noirish, I’d say that the film as a whole lacks the necessary elements of danger, criminality, violence, and pursuit. In a noir film, we expect to meet characters whose actions fall outside of the boundaries of lawful behavior, or at least outside the confines of “acceptable” social norms. Also, most (though not all) noir films feature nighttime shots of the city – and a good deal of the action takes place at night. So I’d say You Rock My World, or Who Is It, or even Dirty Diana (of all things!) have more in common with noir films than Stranger in Moscow does.

Willa: Really? Dirty Diana?! Wow. But I see what you mean about Stranger in Moscow. There is something threatening about it, but that comes primarily from the lyrics (“We’re talking danger, baby”) and from our own knowledge of the backstory behind the film – of what the Santa Barbara police were putting him through at the time. But the mood of the film itself isn’t really threatening. It’s more a feeling of hurt and sorrow, I think.

Nina: Yes, hurt and sorrow, as well as loneliness and a burdensome alienation, are the feelings that come through most strongly for me in that film, Willa.

In general, the solution to the central question (or mystery) within a noir film occurs when the detective apprehends the criminal and hands him/her over to the police. But these films also convey something we might consider a more ideological “message”: in a word, a morality tale. (Here, we might think of the expression “crime doesn’t pay.”) This kind of messaging partly came about because of the Hollywood Production Code, in force during the 1940s and 1950s, which stipulated that films couldn’t allow a character to get away with criminal behavior. They had to be punished, either by death or through the strong arm of the law. A character who has committed a crime must never be allowed to get away with it, according to the Production Code.

Willa: Oh, I didn’t know that. That’s interesting, Nina. I’d noticed that many of those films ended with the bad guys getting their just desserts, but I thought that simply reflected the mood of the country back then. I didn’t realize it was a legal requirement.

Nina: It’s interesting how much of Hollywood cinema was governed by organizations that stipulated various projects’ adherence to “community standards,” first through the Code, and later through the ratings system that replaced it.

So many noir films convey a story about the way characters struggle with both internal and external forces to maintain their moral integrity in a fundamentally corrupt world. This is especially the case with the detective, a complex character who himself often gives way to sordid temptations. Going even further, some analysts have seen the style/genre as it evolved in the years after World War II as a critique of postwar American society: the “dark underbelly” of the culture that lies just underneath the glittering surface of optimism and prosperity. A lot of these themes touch upon ideas about the “unconscious” that were elaborated by Sigmund Freud: in particular, the “return of the repressed.” When an individual stuffs or represses an unpleasant memory today, that memory will inevitably re-emerge in a variety of morbid psychological symptoms tomorrow. The past comes back to haunt the character.

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting. I wonder if that’s one reason these films were so popular back then, and why they’re still seen as classics today – because they convey a kind of psychological truth.

So, Nina, this is all much more complicated than I realized. I’m starting to understand now why it can be so difficult to classify specific films, or even specific elements of films, as noir. We can look at how the film was constructed – the characters, plot, setting, cinematography – which is all I was thinking about when we started talking. But now I’m beginning to see that there’s also a whole other element of noir, which focuses more on how it resonates with an audience and how they interpret it.

I wonder if that’s why, for me, Stranger in Moscow kind of fits the noir label and kind of doesn’t. Except for the black-and-white format, it doesn’t meet the criteria for how film noir is typically constructed. But it definitely leads us as an audience to think about “how difficult it is for individuals to maintain moral integrity in a fundamentally corrupt world,” as you said. Or rather, it asks us to consider “how does it feel” to be alone and adrift in a corrupt world.

Nina:  That may be another example, Willa. It can be difficult, though, to detect how these larger meanings might come to fruition in short films like the ones Michael Jackson made. We could more easily discern these patterns in a feature-length film that follows a more traditional narrative scheme. Michael’s short films are sometimes stories in miniature: they have characters, action, and sometimes dialogue, spoken and/or sung. Yet their brevity, as well as the way they’re structured to include singing and dancing, makes the fully developed characters and complex plot development of the feature film impossible to render.

Willa: Well, it’s true that his short films don’t have the complex plots or fully developed characters you see in feature-length films. There simply isn’t the time in five or six or even 11 minutes to convey all the plot twists, for example, that you might see in a two-hour film. But it does seem to me that Michael Jackson explores some pretty complicated ideas in his short films, and in innovative ways that are difficult to describe.

Nina:  You’re right there, Willa: his films do explore complicated ideas, as well as complicated emotions. They may leave us with feelings that aren’t easily resolved, because they engage our sensibilities in ways that are very different from, say, the traditional feature-length noir film, where we come out of the experience with a satisfying sense of narrative “closure” – the detective has solved his case, and so, by proxy, have we. By contrast, Michael’s short films often don’t provide that kind of closure. Billie Jean, for example, does not – nor do the other films we’ve mentioned.

Willa:  I see what you’re saying, Nina, though in Billie Jean, Michael Jackson’s character has evaded the private eye who’s been stalking him – in a trenchcoat, no less! – and even turned the tables, so the one trying to “capture” him on film has literally been “captured” by the police. The last we see of the detective, the police are taking him into custody, and Michael Jackson’s character escapes. So the problem has been solved, and in that sense it does have a degree of closure.

Nina: Yes, that’s a great point, Willa. There’s a role-reversal between the detective and Michael’s character, which I believe has implications that go beyond the film itself – about which I’ll say more presently.

Willa:  Sounds intriguing! So earlier you mentioned Dirty Diana and Who Is It. I don’t think I ever would have considered Dirty Diana as film noir! Or Who Is It either, though it leans more that way. That’s interesting. I’m going to have to think about that … There’s also something very noirish about the panther dance at the end of Black or White. The setting, for one thing – those gritty city streets – but more than that, the feeling of social alienation and being an “outsider,” as you mentioned before.

Nina: Well, in true postmodern fashion, Michael Jackson and his collaborators have taken a bricolage of stylistic elements, and “pastiched” them into tableaux and stories that resemble, on some level, existing cinematic genres; but they don’t function in the same ways that those feature-length cinematic works do. Still, we can explore how the detective, the hero/protagonist (but which one?), the femme fatale, and the unsettling urban atmosphere do function in Billie Jean.

Willa: Yes, I’d love to do that! So where would you like to start? At the beginning of the film and work through it chronologically?

Nina: Yes. The film starts out with a series of black-and-white shots, in closeup. The choice of black-and-white film here may have even been a self-conscious gesture, a sort of homage to noir aesthetics. We see a brick wall, a gloved hand against the wall, a man’s trouser leg and feet walking, a garbage can overflowing with papers and debris, a cat running, a man taking a drag off a cigarette, another shot of his wing-tip shoes stomping out the cigarette, and – a motif that recurs in several of Michael’s short films – a spinning coin.

What’s noteworthy here is that these are all fairly close-up shots; we don’t get a view of the whole space right away, but instead brief, almost abstract glimpses of things that foreshadow some of the motifs that will follow. They set up an atmosphere, and provide the allure of mystery and suspense – especially in conjunction with that unmistakable bass line that starts the song!

Willa: Yes, they really do. We, as an audience, are given a series of images that we try to fit together into something meaningful. It’s like we’re trying to piece the story together, just like the detective is doing. So in a way, even though we sympathize with Michael Jackson’s character, we’re also kind of aligned with the detective character. Like him, we’re watching in a kind of voyeuristic way, and maybe intruding into Michael Jackson’s life in ways that are uncomfortable for him.

And the fact that Billie Jean begins in black and white and then switches to color reminds me of Ghosts, another film about people invading his privacy and intruding into his life. In Ghosts, the initial scenes are all black and white, and then it switches to muted color when we enter the space of the Maestro – the space where he conducts his magic. Something kind of similar happens in Bad as well. The entire film is shot in black and white, except for the scenes in the subway station that are playing out in his imagination. So for Michael Jackson, black and white seems to represent “real life,” and color represents the world of magic, or his imagination. Kind of like The Wizard of Oz, where the Kansas scenes are all black and white, as compared to the full-color scenes in the land of Oz – or rather, the land of Dorothy’s imagination.

And of course, that holds true for Billie Jean as well: a lot of magic happens in the color scenes in Billie Jean

Nina: That’s interesting, Willa – there does seem to be a pattern. And yet, the fictional space of the black-and-white scenes function differently in each film, I find. In Ghosts, for example, the trope of the townspeople and their Mayor, carrying torches, encountering a raven on a dilapidated signpost, descending on the “haunted house” that’s inhabited by a (possibly dangerous) madman seems to be more directly lifted from certain Gothic/horror B-movies from the 1950s.

Willa: Oh, I see. So more like The Revenge of Frankenstein than a noir film with Bogart and Becall.

Nina: In Billie Jean, I suspect the choice of using black-and-white film stock (a choice that was probably made by the director, Steve Barron, or another member of the crew) seems more haphazard. Another thing that’s noteworthy here: the entire image is framed by a white line, a frame-within-a frame. Why did they choose to do that? I can’t venture to say! Maybe we should ask Steve Barron….

Willa: I’m intrigued by that “frame-within-a-frame” also – it reminds me of photographs. They’re all presented as rectangles, proportioned like photographs and surrounded by a thin white line against a black background, as you say. They almost seem like shots you’d see in a police folder about a crime scene, or in a detective’s folder about the suspect he’s investigating. That resonates in an ironic way with the scenes later on where the detective keeps trying to take a picture of Michael Jackson’s character, and not succeeding.

Nina: Yes, it invokes an idea about a succession of still photographs. And this white outline will soon return, to be used in what seems a more purposeful way – breaking up the image into diptychs and triptychs – later on, when we see Michael dancing and singing “Billie Jean.”

In any case, we’re seeing the initial black-and-white images and at the same time hearing the intro to “Billie Jean,” with its unmistakable, insistent bass line and percussion. Then the synth comes in as an additional sound layer, playing those four syncopated notes that we recognize so clearly. As soon as Michael’s feet enter the picture, the film switches to color. We see a contrasting pair of two-tone wing-tip shoes. The familiar bass line comes in, and as we see Michael’s feet lighting up each square of the pavement, each of his footfalls is timed precisely with the rhythm of the music. A closeup of his hand: he throws the coin up and catches it, a perfect gesture of nonchalance that fits in with his character.

Willa: You’re right, Nina! I hadn’t noticed that before, but you’re right – it’s when he enters the picture that the film shifts to color. That seems significant … like when he appears, magic is about to happen. And it does. The concrete pavement squares glowing under his feet are an early indication of the magic he possesses. Maybe that’s why this reminds me of Ghosts

Nina: Yes, that’s true, Willa! A bit about the mise-en-scène as a whole. (Mise-en-scène is a French term that means “putting in the scene”; it refers to everything that we can see happening in front of the camera, including the decor, the figures and their movements, costumes, makeup, lighting, etc.) Michael appears as a nattily-dressed young man who impresses us as a mysterious, slightly louche fellow, a layabout. He’s a type of hero (or antihero) from the past – despite his (almost) contemporary garb. He may be a lovable rake, but sad: he seems preoccupied, lost in thought, perhaps tragic. His evident magical powers don’t seem to bring him any joy. He saunters down the street, in no great hurry.

This character seems a familiar kind of figure to us. In fact, it’s not the first time Michael himself played this sort of cynical, world-weary “man-about-town.” Here he is in the Diana Ross TV special from 1971, doing his best imitation of Frank Sinatra with the song Sinatra made a hit, “It Was a Very Good Year”:

Willa: Wow, that’s really interesting, isn’t it? He looks exactly like a film noir detective … and acts like one, loving and leaving women without becoming emotionally attached to any of them. He even talks like one, telling Diana Ross’ character, “We’ve been taking a train to nowhere.” Of course, part of the humor is having a 12 year old talk this way …

Nina: And here’s the cover art for Frank Sinatra’s album, In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.

Sinatra-In the wee small hours

This man is a “type” who occupies a certain place in our collective imagination – sometimes he has a jacket slung casually over his shoulder, and he stands under a street lamp, “loitering” – possibly up to no good. He is between engagements: coming from somewhere, and on his way to something else … but we don’t know what.

Willa: Yes, and in Billie Jean the detective definitely fits this type – and so does Michael Jackson’s character to some degree, though his character is more complicated, more difficult to pin down.

Nina: Yes. What’s he doing in that seedy neighborhood on the “other side of the tracks”? Where has he recently been? His presence there is a mystery.

Willa: It is.

Nina: Then the camera shows us Michael’s point of view, as it moves in upon the homeless man who’d been hidden behind a garbage can. At the same time, we hear the first verse:

She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene
I said, “I don’t mind but what do you mean I am the one
Who would dance on the floor in the round?”
She said, “I am the one
Who would dance on the floor in the round”

But at this point, we don’t see our protagonist singing synchronously with the song. Instead, he is silent: he looks quizzically at the homeless man and again we see a closeup of the spinning coin, which lands in the man’s cup and makes it glow. Michael seems to have transformed the pauper into another nattily-dressed caricature with a white suit, white dress shoes, and a red cummerbund. The film’s images prompt us to make connections – between characters, between events – by way of visual association, rather than by setting up a specific problem, or crime, that needs to be solved.

Willa: That’s true. The images we see aren’t acting out the words of the song, as videos often do. There is no “beauty queen” and no discotheque with a dance floor “in the round.” Instead of acting out the lyrics, something much more impressionistic is happening.

By the way, just listening to your description of the opening scenes of Billie Jean conjures up noir-type images in my head. I could very easily imagine those kinds of scenes in The Maltese Falcon, for example, or Gilda, which Michael Jackson referenced in This is It.

The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)

The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)

Nina: Yes – there are so many interesting points of connection! If Billie Jean were a feature-length film, then the “Billie Jean” number would just be one scene within the larger film. But because it’s a short film (and understood in the context of a “music video”) a different set of expectations govern what we perceive. At first, just a few simple images and the first notes of the song playing have established an atmospheric world that we’ll live in for the next few minutes, which poses the question of how these isolated elements will add up and become a story that’s about to unfold.

It’s a very neatly constructed introduction, with the edits of the film often coinciding with the beats of the music: notice how his first three footfalls correspond with the rhythms of the song.

Willa: Yes, I love that!

Nina: And while we may not know what’s “going on,” it’s not necessary to know. We encounter it as a “music video,” which means that the performance of the artist will be paramount – that’s really what we’re there for! Beyond that, the film establishes an atmosphere for us to revel in which, more than anything, might describe a dream that issues from our unconscious.

Willa: That’s interesting, Nina. And that way of suggesting a story through visual cues and juxtaposed images rather than direct narration feels psychologically accurate, if that makes sense. What I mean is, that seems to be the way the mind works, so Billie Jean seems to be expressing psychological truth – “a dream that issues from our unconscious,” as you said – rather than a conventional story with a more straightforward plot and narrative.

Nina: Yes, I think so. We find in our dreams some devices that can operate in a way that’s very similar to the flow of images in a film – especially if they appear somewhat disjointed, or out of sequence. Initially, our minds may work in this more associative way, until we engage in a process of “revision” (as Freud would put it), where we begin to remember our dreams as complete narratives, with a beginning, middle, and end.

Willa:  I agree. It almost feels like we’re wandering around inside this character’s mind, inside his thoughts, as much as a real geographic place. And then from the collected images we’re shown – bits of memory, perhaps – we construct a narrative.

Nina: Yes. Plus, the film has so far shown us a handful of caricatures, like cartoons – all the more, because they appear in close up. In fact, the whole of this film could easily be translated to the medium of comic book or a graphic novel.

Willa:  I can see that! I hadn’t thought about that before, but you’re right. And apparently Michael Jackson felt a connection between those two forms: comic books and films. It’s been well documented, in Frank Cascio’s book and other sources, that he wanted to buy Marvel comics and turn them into movies before anyone else had the idea for doing that. And like a comic book or graphic novel illustrator, Michael Jackson was very skilled at evoking a sense of intrigue or other powerful emotion with just a few well-crafted images.

Nina: That’s interesting, Willa. He had a real flair for being richly succinct. As you and Raven pointed out in your post a few weeks ago, just a few simple items – articles of clothing, images, gestures – and a whole flood of associations comes to us. These may include even associations we may not be aware we had, but they’re nonetheless lodged somehow in our collective cultural memory. Even if some people have never seen a movie they could identify as a “Film Noir,” we’ve all encountered so many posters, photographs, advertisements, cartoons, comics – a whole storehouse of visual information that trigger these associations. Michael Jackson, an avid movie aficionado, could tap into this rich repository like a great archivist. As you say, he was very adept at selecting a few of these motifs – and by placing them in new contexts, he created meanings that are very distinct from their original use.

The images of one cat chasing another cat are significant, because they introduce a parallel: just as one cat trails another, the detective trails Michael in a game of “cat and mouse” (or “cat and cat”). We never actually see the two animals framed together in the same shot, but through the magic of film editing (it’s called “cross-cutting”), we assume that it’s a setup of pursuer/pursued – just as the detective, in a more protracted way, stalks Michael. And in fact, only twice during the film do Michael and the detective appear in the same shot. But almost from the very beginning, we understand their relationship.

Willa: Oh, interesting! And that idea is reinforced by several subtle scenes throughout the video. At 1:10 minutes in, Michael Jackson’s character pulls out a tiger-striped cloth – just like the one in “Girl Hunt Ballet” that turns out to be an important clue for helping Fred Astaire’s character solve the murder mystery. In Billie Jean, he pulls out a similar tiger-striped cloth, puts his shoe on a trash can, polishes his shoe with the cloth, and then a tiger cub appears. So there’s a symbolic connection between the tiger-striped cloth and a real (is it real?) tiger.

A few seconds later, at 1:22, we flash back to that scene and then almost immediately, at 1:25, we see the “pursued” cat turn into the tiger cub behind the same trash can. At 2:50, the photographer picks up the tiger-striped cloth – just as Fred Astaire does in “Girl Hunt Ballet” – and smiles, thinking he’s about to capture his prey. But he’s wrong. He’s the one who’s captured. As the police take him away, he drops the tiger-striped cloth, which turns into the tiger cub and escapes. Tiles light up as the tiger runs away, just as the tiles lit up under Michael Jackson’s character at the beginning.

So as you were saying, Nina, there’s an implied connection throughout Billie Jean between the cat, Michael Jackson’s character, the tiger-striped cloth, and the tiger cub that escapes at the end, though it’s never explicitly stated or shown. We just feel a connection because of those associations.

Nina: I actually thought it was Michael’s character (as an invisible presence) lighting up the tiles in the end – it didn’t occur to me that it was the tiger cub. I’ll have to look for that next time!

Willa: Or maybe it’s his character in the form of a tiger cub – an invisible tiger cub.

Nina: At any rate, it’s true that many of the relationships, motifs, and themes of the film are set up within the first minute, or even the first thirty seconds! At the second verse, we finally see a more distant shot that reveals the whole street corner, with the detective skittering around, picking up a newspaper with the headline “Billie Jean Scandal,” and hiding around the corner of the store: “Ronald’s Drugs,” as the sign tells us, on the “West Side.” Another common motif in films noir is a newspaper headline that indicates some tragic or shocking event that has occurred, which signals a further development of the film’s plot. (That trope survives today in police procedural shows like Law and Order: “Ripped from the headlines!”)

The name “Billie Jean,” which we see in the headline, is reinforced by what we’re hearing in the second verse of the song:

She told me her name was Billie Jean, and she caused a scene
Then every head turned with eyes that dreamed
Of being the one
Who will dance on the floor in the round

So this is where we come upon a way of viewing cinematic work that’s actually a departure from the ways we view more traditional narratives. It seems we’ll be wrestling with a conundrum: the flow of images seem to be “telling” us one thing, while the song’s first-person narration – as voiced by Michael – tells us another story.

This is one important element that distinguishes feature films from a short “music video” – filmmakers, writers, and cinematographers can play fast and loose with these sound-image relationships, with no obligation to “illustrate” the song by means of the image, or vice versa. Instead, they can make more abstract and associative connections than if they were hidebound by the conventions of the linear narrative development. So that’s how I view Billie Jean, as well as others of Michael’s short films. They bear some of the iconic marks of a number of narrative film genres (horror, noir, gangster, romantic costume drama, contemporary urban drama) and the mise-en-scène we often associate with these genres. But they do not work upon our minds and our viscera in all the same ways. Creative, plastic film editing (as we see in Billie Jean) is something an editor might choose to do, as much for its rhythmic and associative possibilities as for anything else.

As Michael ambles down the street with his jacket slung over his shoulder, we get seemingly random inserts of the cat, the detective’s face, and Michael’s shoe; we are seeing a landscape that represents Michael’s interior mind, or memory … or perhaps ours. But still, we’re not necessarily seeing any visual enactment or “dramatization” of what Michael sings about.

Willa:  That’s an interesting point, Nina. The song and the video really are telling different stories, aren’t they? Or maybe the same story from different perspectives – the song focuses more on Billie Jean’s treacherous actions, while the video focuses more on him navigating a treacherous world. But the song and the video “fit” together so well, it feels right to see those images with those words.

Nina: The image and the sound are glued together by the coincident rhythms that both establish: Michael’s footsteps, lighting the tiles, are timed to fall exactly upon the major beat of the music. As he puts his foot up and cleans his shoe with a rag, we see further evidence of his seemingly magical ability to light things up and transform them. Then the song’s bridge:

People always told me be careful what you do
Don’t go around breaking young girls’ hearts
And mother always told me be careful who you love
Be careful what you do, ’cause a lie becomes the truth …

What appears to be “happening” in the image, and the situation that Michael describes in the song, will pull us in different directions. It’s like two stories are going on simultaneously. We haven’t seen any women, much less any beauty queens.

Willa:  That’s true. The only women we see are the two women in the shifting images on the billboard. And they could be Billie Jean and My Baby, the two women in conflict in the lyrics, but there’s really nothing to suggest that other than our own desire to make meaning from the images we see. It’s interesting, though, that the billboard dominates the scene, just as these women are dominating his thoughts. In fact, at one point, at 2:14 minutes in, he stares at the billboard and then puts his hands to his head, as if he can’t contain his thoughts.

Nina: That’s so true, Willa – we have a strong desire to make meaning from the images we see, and from the words we hear, and to connect the two. When we hear a song, we form mental images of the people, places, and events that the lyrics describe. When we watch Billie Jean as a film, we are presented with an entirely different set of images of the people, places, and events that we formed in our imagination. This could present us with a major conflict! But for the most part, we’re not aware of anything particularly jarring – we simply learn to prioritize all the information that’s coming to us, and “suspend our disbelief”! We can even tolerate a certain amount of confusion.

Willa: Yes, though I never realized until you pointed it out how much the images in the video differ from the lyrics. That’s really interesting. But while the story told by the song and the story told by the video aren’t the same, they do seem related. They both center around a false accusation of sexual impropriety – a woman named Billie Jean is accusing him of fathering her son. In the song, we’re told that story through the lyrics, and in the video, we see it in that newspaper headline you mentioned before: “Billie Jean Scandal.” The song focuses primarily on his relationship with Billie Jean and the woman he loves (My Baby), their intertwined history, and the conflicts between them, while the video takes a different approach. It shows a detective who seems to be trying to gather information to support Billie Jean’s claims. So the stories they tell seem different but connected.

Nina: Yes, the stakes of the film have dramatically changed from those of the song. Michael Jackson and Steve Barron may have wanted to “triangulate” the dispute that started out with only two people, as a kind of he said/she said situation. The detective is introduced as a third element.

Michael then leans against a lamppost (lighting it up), still oblivious to the presence of the detective who is right behind him. This is where we see a Polaroid camera in the window of Ronald’s Drugs, spitting out a photograph in which Michael – to the detective’s consternation – doesn’t appear. We hear the chorus:

Billie Jean is not my lover
She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one
But the kid is not my son
She says I am the one
But the kid is not my son

Then the image fades out as we enter a new chapter: Michael is going to sing and dance.

Willa: Wow, this is all so fascinating, Nina! And we’ll pick up with that new chapter in another post, when we continue taking a cinematographic look at Billie Jean. Thank you so much for joining me, Nina! And for sharing those wonderful movie stills.

Nina: My pleasure, Willa – and thanks so much!

Summer Rewind 2014: ¡Porque Soy Malo, Soy Malo!

The following conversation was originally posted on October 24, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Willa:  Last spring, longtime contributor Bjørn Bojesen shared his version of “Bili Ĝin,” which is an Esperanto translation of “Billie Jean.” That led to a behind-the-scenes discussion of Michael Jackson and foreign languages, with Joie, Bjørn, and me all brainstorming about songs or short films where he sang or incorporated words in a language other than his native English. This was such an interesting topic for us we decided to take the discussion online and talk about it in a post. Thanks for joining us, Bjørn, and for sharing “Bili Ĝin” with us!

So Esperanto is actually a good place to start this discussion since it’s such a Michael Jackson kind of concept. As I understand it, Esperanto was invented in the late 1800s using elements of many different languages to help promote global peace and understanding. Specifically, it was created by L.L. Zamenhof to provide a neutral means of communication that bridged divisions of language, nationality, and ethnicity. I can see how this would appeal to Michael Jackson since crossing boundaries and healing divisions is something he did throughout his career. And as you recently mentioned, Bjørn, he incorporated an Esperanto passage in the promo film for HIStory. Is that right?

Bjørn: Yes, that’s correct. At the very start, right before the soldiers come marching in with their heavy boots, an unseen man shouts out a declaration in Esperanto. Take a look:

In the YouTube video, there are some glitches in the subtitles, but the anonymous person’s message goes like this: “Diversaj nacioj de la mondo” (Different nations of the world) / “konstruas ĉi tiun skulptaĵon” (build this sculpture) / “en la nomo de tutmonda patrineco kaj amo” (in the name of global motherhood and love) / “kaj la kuraca forto de muziko” (and the healing power of music). A few seconds later, one of the smelters also shouts in Esperanto: “Venu ĉi tien!” (Come over here!)

The promo created quite a stir in the Esperanto community when it aired. Why would MJ use a snippet of Esperanto? I have no idea whether he actually spoke Esperanto, but I guess he scripted the lines (in English): “in the name of global motherhood and love, and the healing power of music.” Doesn’t this sound very MJ to you? I mean, just the idea of a universal motherhood instead of the usual brotherhood…

Willa:  It really does. It sounds “very MJ,” as you say, and it’s also interesting how those words undercut the visuals. What follows those words is a show of military force, with goose-stepping soldiers evocative of Nazi military demonstrations. So there’s a strong tension between the Esperanto words, which describe the statue they’re building as a tribute to “global motherhood and love,” and the accompanying images, which place the statue in a military context.

Bjørn: Yes, but this tension only exists if you understand the words!  99.8 percent of the viewers would have no clue what the voice actor was saying. So, why didn’t MJ simply let the man speak his lines in English?

Willa:  Well, that’s a good point, Bjørn – and I have to admit, I’m one of the 99.8 percent!

Joie:  As am I. You know, Bjørn, I find this fascinating and I’m also really surprised by it. I had no idea those words were spoken in Esperanto. I don’t ever remember hearing that at the time of the video’s release. I just remember all the controversy over the film itself being declared hateful and narcissistic. But you ask an interesting question … why didn’t he simply use a language that was more easily recognizable to the masses? Even if he didn’t use English, he still could have used Russian or Spanish or even Japanese. Any other language that more people would hear and immediately recognize. But instead, he chose Esperanto. And Willa and I are of the belief that he rarely did anything artistic without a very precise reason for it. So I am intrigued.

Bjørn:  I think you’re touching on something important, Joie, when you talk about a language that’s “more easily recognizable to the masses”! This is exactly why many upper-class art aficionados can’t stand Michael Jackson – they think he’s just feeding “the masses” with stuff they can easily digest. But I think MJ had a perfect understanding of this balance between being accessible and being esoteric. By dropping such small hard-to-get references – like his basing the You Are Not Alone video on the painting Daybreak by Maxfield Parrish – Michael Jackson added interpretational depth to his art. By the way, wasn’t it the MJ Academia Project that first revealed that the HIStory promo video is essentially a spoof of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 Hitler propaganda film, Triumph of the Will?

Willa:  I think so … at least, that’s the first place I heard it.

Bjørn:  With that in mind, it’s interesting to note that the initiator of Esperanto, Zamenhof, was a Jew…

I also think MJ is reflecting on his own use of language. His mother tongue happens to be English – which since World War II has functioned as a second language for huge parts of the world. The English language helps MJ get his message across to the masses, but at the same time it gives native English-speakers like him a communicational advantage (while others have to search for words, you can just keep talking).

Esperanto is the wannabe international language with the potential to put speakers of different mother tongues on a more equal footing. Say all the countries of the UN decided to make Esperanto a global second language, and began teaching it in every classroom on the globe. That would give people from any culture a basic tool for communication – but it would also mean that native English-speakers would have to “make a little space.” So, in this promo video, MJ is somehow endorsing the idea of Esperanto. By letting the language “guest star,” he questions the status quo (using native languages for international communication). I guess you could call it an artistic discussion about language and power.

Willa:  That’s a really interesting way to look at that, Bjørn. And we could push that idea of challenging “language and power” even further if we consider that English as a “global” language began with British imperialism and colonialism. As the British Empire spread around the world, so did English culture and language, with many indigenous people encouraged or even forced to give up their native language and use English instead. And of course, racism in the United States is a direct result of British colonialism and the slave trade. So in that sense, English can be seen as a language of oppression – the language of those colonizing and displacing indigenous people around the world.

So getting back to the HIStory teaser, it’s interesting that in the visuals he’s strongly pushing back against efforts to silence him and “put him in his place” following the false allegations of 1993, and in the Esperanto spoken parts he’s pushing back against English, the language that to some degree silenced his ancestors and tried to keep them in their place.

Joie:  Wow. Really interesting way of looking at that, Willa!

Bjørn: Yes, I agree, Joie, I hadn’t thought about it like that either! So, if the HIStory teaser is a kind of rebuttal – to Nazism and colonialism and the extinction of native languages caused by English and other “big tongues” – couldn’t Liberian Girl be seen as an attempt to recover what was lost? Even if the song’s intro is in Swahili, which is an East African language, and most of MJ’s forebears probably came from West Africa…

Joie:  Ah! Very clever thinking, Bjørn! We could almost say the same thing about the coda at the end of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.'” The Cameroonian chant, “Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah.”

Willa:  Wow, you guys, that is so interesting! I really like the idea of approaching those two from this perspective. You know, both of them seem to address the issue of representation and interpretation – or misinterpretation – to some degree, and in both the use of an African language signals a major shift in the mood of the song/video. In “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” he talks about how the media distorts meaning – like in these lyrics, for example:

I took My Baby to the doctor
With a fever, but nothing he found
By the time this hit the street
They said she had a breakdown

Most of the song is pretty edgy and fearful, and that’s all in English. But then the Cameroon part starts, and suddenly this edgy, trippy song shifts and becomes joyful and triumphant. It’s a very dramatic shift in mood.

There’s a similar shift in the Liberian Girl video. It begins in black and white, with an eerie, sustained, high-pitched note vibrating in the background as the camera pans around what seems to be a British colony in Africa. A waiter walks out of the Cafe Afrique, we see workers in African dress, and then a white missionary in European clothes with a rosary and clerical collar. The camera follows the missionary until he walks behind a beautiful black woman; then the camera stops on her. She looks up and speaks directly to the camera in Swahili, and suddenly everything changes. The black-and-white tone gives way to vibrant color, and we discover we’re not in colonial Africa but modern day Hollywood, in a studio filled with glittering celebrities.

One of the things that’s most interesting about this, in terms of language and colonialism, is that Liberia is an African nation founded and, in effect, re-colonized by free blacks and escaped slaves from the U.S. in the 1800s – people whose ancestry was African but who no longer had a home country to return to. And its official language is English, the only language this diaspora of people had in common. So it’s almost like the English language was re-colonized, just as the nation-state of Liberia was – the language of the colonizer was reclaimed and reappropriated by the colonized.

And we see that idea suggested in Liberian Girl as well. All the celebrities are milling around and Whoopi Goldberg asks, “Who’s directing this?” The camera cuts to Steven Speilberg sitting in a director’s chair, implying he’s the director, but he’s looking at his watch and he’s no more in control than anyone else. Then at the end of the video we discover who’s really been calling the shots: Michael Jackson, behind the camera. So he has reclaimed the Liberian Girl video as his own, just as the former slaves from America reclaimed Liberia and English as their own.

Bjørn: Well, the problem with this interpretation, Willa, is that Liberia was already inhabited when the African-Americans founded it! Just like Israel was already inhabited by Arabs when it was founded as a place where Jews could live in peace. To my understanding, today the “original” Liberians – talking various African languages – are second-class (or at least less fortunate) citizens in a state dominated by English-speaking “American” Liberians (with ancestors ultimately hailing from many parts of Africa, not just Liberia).

I don’t know a lot about Liberia, and I can sympathize with the idea of the ex-slaves reclaiming “English as their own” (after all, who doesn’t love his mother tongue?) But I do think that Jackson’s use of African languages in these songs reflect a longing for the uncolonized past, maybe even for a romantic Africa that never really existed (or, perhaps, for a “garden of Eden” that could come into existence in the future!) As the linguist Ben Zimmer pointed out on his blog the day after MJ had died, the chant in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” was heavily inspired by a line from “Soul Makossa” by the Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango. (Dibango sued MJ for plagiarism, but they reached an agreement out of court.) Here’s “Soul Makossa”:

Dibango sings “ma ma ko, ma ma sa, ma ko ma ko sa,” which is in his native language, Duala. So, MJ’s chant isn’t really in any African language – but so close that is certainly sounds African. In the same way, he uses Swahili (from East Africa) as a symbol of (idealized) Africanness, even if the actual Liberia is in West Africa, far away from the places where people speak Swahili… So, for me, the use of African languages in these songs are really more about a “longing for paradise on earth” as it was before colonization, and as it could become once again.

Willa:  I think that’s a very important point, Bjørn – that he’s referring more to an idea than an actual place. After all, after the shift in Liberian Girl, we aren’t in Liberia; we’re on a movie set in Hollywood, so he’s clearly demonstrating that the opening scene wasn’t really a scene from the actual nation of Liberia, but a Hollywood depiction of “exotic Africa.” The challenge for us, then, is to figure out what idea, exactly, he’s trying to get across when he sings with longing about a girl from Liberia.

It’s interesting in this context to think about the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when Harriet Beecher Stowe sends Eliza, George, and the other escaped slaves to Liberia. For her, it represented a place where they could be safe and free, and where their son Harry could grow and thrive. For her, it truly meant a “paradise on earth,” as you said, Bjørn, but it also reveals a despair about her own country. Stowe didn’t think it was possible for them to ever be truly free in the United States, or even Canada, so she had to send them to Liberia to ensure their freedom.

But I don’t think Michael Jackson ever did give up on the United States – though he had good reason to, and he chose not to live here after the 2005 trial. And I think Liberia, as a concept, means something different for him than it did for Stowe.

Bjørn:  That’s really interesting! I guess I’ll have to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin some day. Stowe’s “Liberia,” as you describe it, reminds me of Bob Marley and the other Rastafarians, who saw Ethiopia as a Promised Land. The name Liberia, which comes from the same Latin root as “liberty,” roughly translates as “the land of the free.” I once made an Esperanto translation of “Liberian Girl,” where the ethymology really shines through: Liberianin’  means “Liberian girl” as well as “girl from the country of freedom.”

Willa:  Really? You translated “Liberian Girl” also? That’s wonderful!  And I love the alternate meaning of “girl from the country of freedom.”

Bjørn:  The rainforest sounds at the beginning of the song (a prequel to “Earth Song”?) could indicate that MJ used “Liberia” as a metaphor for Paradise. Now, “Paradise Girl,” that’s a little spooky, if you think about it. But I’ve always thought this song wasn’t about “Liberia” at all, but rather about a girl who’s very far away from the singer. Like MJ’s (extreme!) version of “Distant Lover,” if you know that Marvin Gaye song!

Okay, let’s get back to the language question. Why does Michael Jackson’s Liberian girl, whoever she is, speak in Swahili? Is that just to add some exotic spice, or what do you think?

Joie:  Well now that is a really good question, Bjørn. And while I really enjoy picking apart a song or a short film and trying to analyze it and discern its true meaning, I also sometimes think that maybe a cigar is just a cigar. What would be wrong with adding in Swahili, or any other foreign language for that matter, for the sole purpose of adding a little exotic spice to your creation? Maybe he simply thought it sounded cool.

Willa:  You’re right, Joie, it does sound cool, and it perfectly fits that space in the song. We know he was fascinated by sounds – found sounds, manufactured sounds, the sounds of nature, the sounds of the city, the sound of words – so it’s very possible he chose those phrases simply based on their sounds and rhythms.

But I’m still intrigued by the fact that both “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” and Liberian Girl focus on American pop culture and the entertainment industry, and how certain things are represented or misrepresented within that industry. And both include an African phrase that serves as an important pivot point – one that changes the whole mood of the work. That seems significant to me. But what does it mean?

As you mentioned, Bjørn, “Liberia” shares the same Latin root as “liberty.” As I understand it, the name “Liberia” was chosen to emphasize that this new nation was envisioned as a place where former slaves could find peace and liberty. So it seems significant that Michael Jackson evokes Liberia, but more as an idea than a physical place, as you suggested earlier. And to me, that’s reinforced by the fact that he incorporates Swahili, but it’s Swahili that has become unmoored from its native country and is now being used in a Hollywood video that to some extent critiques Hollywood.

The lyrics to Liberian Girl suggest something similar when he says their romance is “just like in the movies”:

With two lovers in a scene
And she says, “Do you love me?”
And he says so endlessly,
“I love you, Liberian Girl”

So their romance is presented as something of a fantasy, something that’s been scripted by Hollywood. In all of these cases, it’s like he’s both evoking a fantasy and critiquing it at the same time, and looking at where it comes from. For example, in Liberian Girl he’s evoking the exotic while questioning what it means to be labeled as exotic.

Joie:  That is a very interesting interpretation, Willa! Sometimes you really do blow me away with how your mind works. It’s fascinating!

Willa:  Thanks, Joie, though I might be totally missing the boat with this one – it’s pretty subtle what he’s doing. It’s just so interesting to me that he begins Liberian Girl with a classic scene of “exotic Africa,” then reveals it’s all just a Hollywood fabrication, and then suggests that the real exotica is Hollywood itself. And the Swahili phrase is the turning point where our perceptions are flipped inside out.

Joie:  Do either of you know what that Swahili phrase means? I would be very interested to know what she’s saying in the opening of the song.

Bjørn:  According to the album booklet, it means “I love you too – I want you too – my love.” (Google Translate seems to agree, although it renders mpenziwe as ”lover”.)

Joie:  Huh. I don’t think I ever knew that before. I’ve always simply wondered at the meaning. I can’t believe it was in the album booklet all this time and I never noticed.

Bjørn:  No worries, Joie, an album’s booklet is often the last thing I study too!  But you know what? It just struck me there’s an interesting semantic evolution going on in this song: It starts with rainforest sounds that don’t have any particular meaning to the average listener (but who knows what the animals are really saying?) Then it progresses to a line spoken in Swahili, which to the vast audience is just as meaningless as the sound of a bird. Then, at last, Michael Jackson starts to sing in English, and because we understand the language, all of a sudden we don’t hear his words as ”sounds” any more, but as meaningful pieces of information… Perhaps Jackson added Swahili just to emphasize that the meaning we assign to words really is arbitrary, and that we might as well be in a situation where Swahili carried the information, and English was some unintelligible but exotic spice, just like the language of the forest, or even the sound of instruments…

Willa:  Wow, that is fascinating, Bjørn! And if we interpret the opening that way – as examining how we make meaning – that progression of sounds is paralleled in the visuals as well. As you say, the sounds gradually become more intelligible as we move from bird song (something we don’t understand and can never understand) to Swahili (something most of us don’t understand at first but can if we put a little effort into it) to English (which for most Americans is our native language). And the visuals begin with the Cafe Afrique sign, then pan out to the Casablanca-like scene, and then keep panning out to show the Hollywood set. So as we telescope out, the images become more familiar – closer to home, in a way – and our understanding of what we’re seeing shifts and gradually becomes more clear:  we’re watching a film being made.

Bjørn:  This film, as you say, is being referenced to in the lyrics as well: “Just like in the movies… With two lovers in a scene…” So maybe the chief function of the Swahili phrase is to underscore the very otherworldliness of this cinematic fantasy, much like the Elvish phrases in the Lord of the Rings movies or the Na’vi dialogue in Avatar. Yes I know, Swahili is a living language spoken by real people. But still, hardly anyone in Liberia speaks Swahili!  As pointed out earlier, Swahili is an East African language. Its native speakers live along the Kenya-Tanzania coastline.

What’s intriguing about Swahili, however, is that it’s become a truly international language in much of Eastern Africa!  Millions of people in Congo, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya use Swahili to get their messages across a multitude of linguistic boundaries. It is, indeed, the closest we get to an African “Esperanto.”

Willa:  Really?  I didn’t know that.

Joie:  Neither did I.

Willa:  That’s fascinating to think about it as “an African ‘Esperanto.'”

Bjørn:  If we look at it like that, the openings of “Liberian Girl” and the HIStory teaser are very similar: Something is being said by a non-MJ person in a cross-cultural language, before MJ himself enters the stage and reassures his English-speaking listeners that they’re not wholly “lost in translation”!

“Stranger in Moscow,” interestingly, takes the opposite approach. Here MJ’s loudly sung English-language lyrics are followed by another man whispering in the lingua franca of the Cold War Communist world: Russian.

Willa:  Wow, Bjørn, that is so interesting! And to me, it feels like the Russian in “Stranger in Moscow” functions in a very different way as well. It reinforces the edgy, unsettled mood of the song, as well as the theme of alienation from his home country.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa. “Stranger in Moscow” has always been one of my favorites and I think it’s because it is such a beautifully constructed song. But you’re right, the use of Russian in the song really heightens the sense of loneliness, isolation and despair that he’s trying to convey here. The alienation as you put it. Whenever I listen to this song, I actually get the sense that his sole reason for using Russian here is to make us feel those negative emotions more fully.

Willa:  It feels that way to me too, Joie, and that feeling intensifies once we learn what those Russian words mean: “Why have you come from the West? Confess! To steal the great achievements of the people, the accomplishments of the workers…”

Joie:  Yes. It’s very intimidating, isn’t it? Imagine being a stranger in a strange land, detained by these scary officials and having those questions barked at you over and over again!

Willa:  Or to bring it a little closer to home, imagine the police asking you, Why are you so kind and generous with children? Confess!  It’s to lure them in so you can abuse them …

What I mean is, it wasn’t just the KGB who interrogated people in intimidating ways – the Santa Barbara police investigators did the same thing, and not just to Michael Jackson but to young children as well. They interrogated Jason Francia over and over again when he was only 12 years old. As he said later, “They made me come up with stuff. They kept pushing. I wanted to hit them in the head.” Like the stereotypical image of the KGB, they were determined to wring a confession from him.

And I think that’s the idea Michael Jackson is trying to get at here. He’s not pointing a finger at the Soviets – he’s pointing a finger at us, and saying in some ways we are as much of a police state as Cold War Russia. And the shock of that realization has made him feel like a stranger in his own country.

Bjørn:  That’s fascinating, Joie and Willa. I hadn’t thought about it like that. Both “Stranger in Moscow” and “Liberian Girl” mention specific locations in their titles, which is a very unusual thing for MJ to do. (Most of his titles are quite unspecific – just think about “A place with no name”!) And both songs use great regional languages to create a specific mood. I’m not exactly a connoisseur of Jackson’s short films, but I have remarked a couple of times that Russians have commented that the scenes in Stranger in Moscow look nothing like Moscow at all.

Willa:  That’s true. You can tell from the street signs and the close-up of the American quarter that it was filmed in the U.S. And that seems very deliberate – he wants us to know he’s really in the U.S. though he feels like he’s in a strange land.

Bjørn:  So, I wonder if MJ is using Moscow and Russian in a metaphorical way, just like he uses Liberia and Swahili to evoke a dreamlike vision of Africa. Thanks to the Cold War, Russian must sound like a very alien language to many Americans. And Moscow must still be the very ”eye of the tiger” to some folks! (Poor Russian MJ fans!)

So, without demonizing too much here, we might say that while Jackson uses Swahili as a paradisaical or “angelic” language, Russian, as used by the KGB agent, does duty as the language of his demons…

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, Bjørn!  Or maybe the Russian is evoking a frightening unknown. In other words, it’s not so much that Russian is “the language of his demons,” but that Americans once demonized it because we didn’t understand it and were afraid of it. I have friends a little older than I am who remember the Bay of Pigs, and the school drills for what to do if the Soviets attacked with nuclear bombs. And the main feeling they remember is the uncertainty – the fear of something powerful that you don’t understand, that can attack at any time without warning. I can certainly understand how Michael Jackson might feel that way about the Santa Barbara police …

Joie:  Wow. That’s really deep, Willa. And Bjørn, I love what you said about the “angelic” language and the “demon” language. I think it’s clear that both languages were used in very different ways to convey two very different realms of emotion, and that is very fascinating.

Bjørn:  Yes, it is! And just as the languages help the music paint these emotional landscapes, the music also influences the way we – as non-speakers – perceive these foreign languages. Personally, I find Russian quite a beautiful language, with all its mushy sounds. And, importantly, it is whispered, as if the KGB agent is telling a secret. If we hadn’t just heard MJ’s lament, we might have thought it was a lover whispering something to his beloved, much like the Swahili girl in “Liberian Girl.” And this makes it all the more frightening – it’s like a cold embrace, followed by a stab.

Willa:  Wow, that’s a fascinating way to look at that, Bjørn – and pretty chilling too.

Bjørn:  So, in “Liberian Girl,” “Stranger in Moscow,” and the HIStory teaser, Michael Jackson uses bits of foreign languages to help create a mood or atmosphere. And the languages he uses have all – at some point in history – been rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication:  Swahili, Esperanto, Russian. Furthermore, the pieces seem to highlight different aspects of foreignness:  the exotic and alluring (Swahili), the unfamiliar and strange (Esperanto), the threatening and repulsing (Russian).

Willa:  And there’s another song that fits this pattern also:  “They Don’t Care about Us.” It begins with a woman saying “Michael, eles não ligam pra gente,” which is Portuguese for “Michael, they don’t care about us.” As you said of Swahili, Esperanto, and Russian, Bjørn, Portuguese is another language that has “at some point in history – been rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication.” Like England, Portugal was a powerful nation during the colonial era, and as a result, Portuguese is the official language of countries around the world, from Europe to South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Joie:  That’s very true, Willa. You know I think most people just think about Portuguese being spoken in Brazil and, of course, Portugal. But it’s actually the official language of many African nations, like Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bissau, and others. And, as you said, even in Southeast Asia. It’s interesting to think of it as “rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication,” because it really did at one point.

Willa:  And still does in some regions – like I didn’t realize it was so widespread in Africa. That’s interesting, Joie. And to get back to what you were saying, Bjørn, about the different emotional effect of each of these languages, the Portugese lines at the beginning of “They Don’t Care about Us” have always struck me as sorrowful, in an almost maternal way – like the sorrow of a mother who cares deeply for her children and has seen too many of them come to harm.

Bjørn: You opened up my eyes here, Willa and Joie! I have to confess I’ve never heard that Portuguese part before. I gave the song another listen, and couldn’t hear it – but then it occurred to me that it had to be in the video! I’m a great fan of Michael Jackson’s music, but a lot of his films I haven’t watched in their entirety. So, I went to YouTube, and heard that phrase spoken for the first time.

I wonder, though, to what extent Portuguese is being used to create an emotional effect, and to what extent it’s being used to evoke an idea of “Brazil” – after all, the film does take part in real-world Brazil (not a fantasy “Liberia”), where Portuguese is spoken as the main language.

Willa:  That’s a good point.

Bjørn:  But if we look at the emotions, I do agree with you, Willa, that it sounds like a caring mother speaking to her son. By the way, those people who like blaming MJ for having a “Jesus complex,” should take an extra look… In the exact same moment as the Brazilian mother figure says the name “Michael,” the camera pans to the famous Rio statue of Christ the Redeemer…

Willa:  Oh heavens, Bjørn!  You’re just trying to stir up trouble, aren’t you?

Bjørn: Well, yes and no, Willa. This being an academic discussion, I don’t think I’d do the readers any favor by censoring what I see! It’s a fact that the name and the statue appear at the same time, and I’d like to think it’s intentional. But okay, let’s save the interpretation of that for an ”MJ and religious symbolism” post!

So, in the four “foreign language songs” we’ve looked at so far, we’ve got an Esperanto-speaking worker, a Swahili-speaking lover, a Russian-speaking agent and a Brazilian-speaking mother… MJ himself, however, still sings in his native English. The foreign culture remains inaccessible and different. Interestingly, on a couple of occasions he did cross the border, so to speak. I’m of course thinking about the versions he did of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” in two of the world’s great international languages:  Spanish and French… What do you think about them?

Willa:  Well, my first reaction is that I love them – they are both exquisitely beautiful, I think. And it’s interesting for me to hear a Michael Jackson song the way non-English speakers must usually hear them – where the meaning comes not so much from the words he is singing but from the expressiveness of his voice.

Joie:  That’s an great point, Willa, one that I don’t often ponder. But it’s interesting to think about how non-English speakers perceive Michael’s music. Especially since his music is so very beloved all over the world. But you’re right that they must experience it much differently than native English speakers do.

You know I went through a similar phenomenon back in my teen years when I had a huge crush on the guys of the Puerto Rican boy band, Menudo. They would release albums in both Spanish and English, and oddly enough, I found that I really loved those Spanish speaking songs, even though my Spanish has never been all that great. To this day, I often find myself singing them.

Bjørn:  When I discovered Michael Jackson’s music as a child, I hardly understood anything he was singing. I just liked the sound of it! So I can certainly follow you there… “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” isn’t among my favorite MJ songs, but I agree it’s nice to hear him sing in Spanish (which I understand) and French (which I don’t really understand). Why did he choose this particular song, do you think? I mean, if it was to promote the Bad album in Spanish- and French-speaking countries, he could have handed the translators the song ”Bad”… (I just hear it: ¡Porque soy malo, soy malo!)

Willa:  That’s great, Bjørn! I’ll be thinking about that next time I hear, “Because I’m bad, I’m bad …”

So I don’t know why he chose “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” but it’s a beautiful song and it’s a duet – one of his few duets – and that would allow him to interact with someone while he was singing, someone fluent in Spanish or French. Maybe that’s part of why he chose this one. I don’t know about Spanish, but he did speak passable French. In fact, in the 1980s he was interviewed in French by a Montreal reporter, and he answered in French. And he loved Paris – he even named his daughter Paris. And of course he always liked to bridge boundaries, as we discussed at the beginning with Esperanto.

So thank you so much for joining us, Bjørn, and for adding a European, multilingual perspective!  We always love talking with you, and hope you’ll join us again soon.

Begging for Your Love

Joie: You know, Willa, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Michael’s unreleased songs. Actually, that’s something I tend to think about a lot. And that rumored vault that is said to exist somewhere with hundreds of songs in various stages of completion. Doesn’t that thought just blow your mind? To think that that could be true?

Willa: It does, and I think it is true. Joe Vogel has conducted dozens of interviews with people who worked on those songs, and apparently there’s an intriguing variety of styles and genres – not just the many different styles we’ve seen Michael Jackson work in before, but also some country, some lullabies, even an album of classical music he composed.

Joie: Well, you know they recently announced the release of a new album, Xscape. And supposedly it’s going to be all new music that we’ve never heard before. Or, I should say music that hasn’t previously been released on a proper album, since some of us have gotten pretty good over the years at snatching songs when they’re leaked online. So since the title of this new project is called Xscape, I’m guessing there’s a good chance that song will be on the album.

Willa: Yes, I’ve heard it will be on there. In fact, if you get the two-CD set there will be two versions: the one MJ created with Rodney Jerkins before he died and one that has been “contemporized” by Jerkins.

Joie: I can’t help wondering though what some of the others might be.

Willa: Me too. I’ve been looking for an official track list but haven’t found one yet, though I’ve found several unofficial ones. I imagine they’ll release the official one soon. And apparently all of the songs on Xscape will be presented twice, with the “contemporized” versions on one CD and the source material that Michael Jackson left behind on the other. I was really happy to hear that, especially after all the controversy around Michael. In fact, I wish they would release a two-CD version of Michael that included the source material for those songs. I’d love to hear that!

Joie: I’m excited to see what they do with this new release, but thinking about the upcoming album only gives me the urge to go to my playlist of unreleased music. There are so many wonderful songs on there that may or may not ever see a proper release on a real album. But there are also a few that have finally been released, just maybe not here in the US. Or they were released as part of an anthology, like The Ultimate Collection boxed set.

One such song is “Someone Put Your Hand Out.” And I don’t think we’ve ever talked about that one before, but it is a hauntingly beautiful song that I feel Michael really pours his heart out on.

Willa: Oh, I agree. This song feels intensely personal to me. In fact, I feel kind of guilty listening to it – almost like I’m reading his diary or something.

Joie: Yes, it does feel incredibly personal, doesn’t it? Like he’s baring his soul to us. The lyrics are very simple, but so very intimate, and you get the feeling that he really is begging, as he says in the chorus:

Someone put your hand out
I’m begging for your love
‘Cause all I do is hand out
A heart that needs your love

It’s as if he’s reaching out for someone, anyone, to save him. And I always find myself wondering what it is exactly that he’s wanting to be saved or rescued from. As he says in the fourth verse, “Save me now from the path that I’m on.” What does he mean by that? What does he want to be saved from?

Listening to the song in its entirety, you get the feeling that he’s referring to the loneliness. But given the way he died, it makes you wonder if perhaps he was talking about something else. Of course, I’m a firm believer that loneliness was a major factor, or cause, of his other issues.

Willa: You’re right, Joie – he does seem to be asking for someone to both love him and save him from something. It’s not exactly clear what the problem is, but it does seem to be loneliness plus something more, as you said. He talks about that a bit in the verse that follows the chorus:

I’ve lived my life the lonely
A soul that cries of shame
With handicapped emotions
Save me now from what still remains

You know, it’s not clear who the speaker is in this song. Michael Jackson often adopted a persona in his songs, so he could be speaking in the character of a fictional person. Because this song feels so very personal, it’s tempting to assume it’s Michael Jackson himself, which we probably shouldn’t do. But if he is speaking his own true feelings in this song, then this verse is really troubling to me. Did he honestly believe he had “handicapped emotions”? Did he feel a sense of “shame” because of that – because he thought he couldn’t feel or express emotions the way he should? Is he asking someone to not only love him but teach him how to love?

Joie: Wow, Willa, that’s profound – teach him how to love. That never occurred to me, but you could be right. I believe he probably did feel as though he had “handicapped emotions.”

Willa: Really? Because I’d never considered that before. I mean, there were quite a few people making hurtful comments after the 1993 allegations came out, saying that he was a regressed 12-year-old – meaning they felt he couldn’t really relate to adults because he’d never developed psychologically beyond a 12-year-old level. And I always strongly, strongly disagreed with that. I mean, just look at the psychological complexity of his work, and how emotionally rich it is. That is not the work of a 12 year old. In fact, I would say his work reveals a rare sensitivity and maturity.

So I never accepted the idea that he had “handicapped emotions,” and I would never have dreamed he might feel that way about himself. Though again, he may be speaking in character when he says this, and not speaking as himself.

But you know, it does seem to me that almost everyone he met felt this longing to be validated by him – or more than that, to be fulfilled by him. It’s like they wanted him to fill up any empty places they felt in their lives. Everywhere he went there were all these grasping hands, not just wanting his money but wanting him. And he couldn’t fulfill all their desires – he couldn’t parcel himself out to millions of different people. And I wonder if that’s part of it – if he felt inadequate somehow because he wasn’t able to meet the emotional demands being placed on him by everyone he met.

Joie: Perhaps he felt like he was unable to express a true emotion unless it was written in a song. That’s sort of crazy to think about, isn’t it?

Willa: It is, but it makes sense. In fact, he kind of suggests that in these lyrics:

I’ll be your story hero
A serenading rhyme
I’m just needing that someone
Save me now from the path I’m on

It’s almost like he’s saying that when he engages in romance, he’s just playing a role – a role he’s performed on stage for years: “I’ll be your story hero / A serenading rhyme.” And he’s asking for someone to save him from simply acting that role and allow him to actually feel it.

You know, there’s a kind of distancing that happens when you sublimate your experiences into art. I’ve heard photographers talk about that quite a bit. If you’re a photographer and find yourself plunged in a profound cultural moment, what should you do? Should you distance yourself emotionally, look at it with a photographer’s eye, and document it? Or should you put the camera down and experience it? I can see how Michael Jackson might have encountered that dilemma also, since so much of his work comes from his own experiences – like this song, for example. It feels intensely personal, as you said earlier.

Joie: I think I see what you mean, Willa. You’re wondering if perhaps he ever asked himself that question – should I “document” this deeply personal life experience, or should I just experience and process it and keep it to myself?

Willa: Yes, that’s what I mean.

Joie: That’s an interesting question.

Willa: It is. You know, Lord Byron, the Romantic poet, was thrown into the dungeon of Chillon Castle in Switzerland for having an affair with a man from a lower social class than himself – and the class difference was an important part of why he was imprisoned. The lower classes were seen as less sophisticated and more innocent than the upper classes, so having a homosexual relationship with a lower-class man was very disturbing back then – kind of like corrupting a minor is seen today.

Anyway, I’m sure it was pretty uncomfortable being imprisoned in a dungeon, but Byron drew on his experiences for a poem, “The Prisoner of Chillon,” and I get the feeling he thought it was rather romantic for a poet to be imprisoned in a dungeon. Very Gothic. He even carved his name into one of the pillars in the dungeon to memorialize his stay. I visited there one time and saw it. So instead of seeing his imprisonment simply as a hardship, I think he saw it as good background material for his poetry.

So I’ve kind of wandered around a bit, but what I’m trying to say is that using your life experiences as source material for your art can actually change how you relate to those experiences, I think.

Joie: I agree, and I think probably most artists draw on their own personal life experiences more often than we know.

But getting back to the song, you know, not much is known about it in terms of the inspiration for it or the writing of it, except that it was originally written for the Bad album, and then reworked for the Dangerous album. It failed to make it onto either one, but it was eventually released in the UK/Europe in May of 1992 as a Pepsi exclusive cassette single to promote the Dangerous Tour. They were included in a promotional package along with a poster, a giant sticker, and a press file about the tour. It was also released in Japan as a CD single.

Years later it would finally see a proper US release when it was included on The Ultimate Collection boxed set in 2004. And according to Chris Cadman and Craig Halstead’s book, Michael Jackson: For the Record, it was sampled by Ludacris on the track “One More Drink” from his Theater of the Mind album.

Willa: That’s interesting, Joie. I knew it was on the shortlist for Dangerous and then was left off, but didn’t know it was originally written for Bad. So he was still fairly young when he wrote it … I wonder if his feelings changed as he got older?

You know, one thing that strikes me about this song is that the intro is spoken in a deep voice – quiet but deep, much lower than we’re used to hearing his voice – but then the rest is sung in a high voice, what many people would call falsetto. That’s very unusual. Typically, he’ll include high parts as accents, or to evoke a specific emotion at a certain point in the narrative. I’m thinking specifically of that high interlude in “Smooth Criminal” – the “I don’t know … I don’t know … I don’t know why” part that I love so much. But here, the entire song is sung in his higher range. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another song where he does that.

I was reading an interesting article not too long ago that might help explain this – why he uses his high voice so extensively here. It’s “The Nonsensical Truth of the Falsetto Voice: Listening to Sigur Rós” by Edward D. Miller, and he makes a number of intriguing claims. For example, he says “soul/funk singers such as Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and Curtis Mayfield sang in falsetto and expressed emotions of love, longing, sexual desire, and political discontent.” He goes on to say that male soul and R&B singers, as well “virile” rock singers like Mick Jagger and Robert Plant, tend to use falsetto, specifically, when they want to express a sense of “longing” or “a dramatic tenderness” or “moments of great passion.”

If that’s true, it makes sense that in a song where the main character expresses intense “longing” for someone to love, Michael Jackson would sing in falsetto.

Joie: Hmm. That’s interesting, isn’t it?

Willa: It is. It also makes me wonder about the contrast between his unusually low spoken voice in the intro and his high singing voice throughout the rest of the song. I wonder if, at some level, it suggests a contrast between his inner life and outer life.

What I mean is that in the intro we hear his everyday world – his spoken life – and he speaks with a normal voice and seems content. (And sounds unbelievably hot, I might add … Yow.) But then we enter his inner world – his singing life – and there’s this high urgent voice expressing unfulfilled desire, a longing to love and be loved. So maybe this contrast between his low spoken voice and his high singing voice represents a disparity between how he feels inside and how he appears to others. As he sings in the opening lines, “I live this life pretending / I can bear this hurt deep inside.”

Joie: That actually makes a lot of sense, Willa. Especially since by many accounts from those closest to him, his natural, everyday speaking voice was at least an octave or two lower than the world seemed to think it was.

Willa: That’s interesting, Joie, especially since many critics – male critics, especially – mocked him for his public speaking voice. Miller kind of suggests a reason for that also. In his article, he claims there is nothing “false” about the falsetto. He believes the notion that it is not an authentic male voice arises from cultural ideas about gender identity, not anything biological about male vocal cords. As he says in his article,

when the male is using this range, he is confusing gender distinctions. He is entering into tonalities usually designated for women and mimicking a range attributed to women. But the falsettist is not authentically female. It is a form of drag: a vocal masquerade. In this way, the falsetto voice challenges the authenticity of gender-assigned voices. When voices are so strictly assigned to particular bodies, the falsetto becomes transgendered – it moves between binaries of male and female.

I thought this might help explain some of the discomfort male critics, especially, seemed to feel toward Michael Jackson – that it wasn’t just his appearance that crossed boundaries, but his voice as well.

But then Miller undercuts this with a very odd footnote:

One is duty bound from the get-go to acknowledge Michael Jackson. He uses his falsetto range expertly in often a hiccupping fashion, and yes he does appear to be quite bizarre – of course for complicated reasons, mainstream media searches for ways to display his racial/sexual weirdness and to ensure that his status is as monstrous as his role in the video Thriller.

I don’t quite know how to interpret this. It’s Miller’s only footnote, and his only mention of Michael Jackson, and it seems really out of place here – especially in an academic article. It’s almost like Miller is criticizing those who are uncomfortable with falsetto voices, claiming they are falling victim to a cultural bias, but then he adds this footnote that suggests he himself feels a degree of discomfort with Michael Jackson, whom he acknowledges “uses his falsetto range expertly.” I don’t quite know what to make of it, though I think his comment about the media is pretty insightful – especially since this article was published in 2003, before Michael Jackson died and public attitudes about him began to soften and change.

Joie: Well, that is strange. But when reading the first quote here, the only thing that comes to my mind is why is it such a big deal? Why is it odd or “confusing gender distinctions” for a male singer to take full advantage of his entire vocal range? Why does it have to be a case of “entering tonalities usually designated for women”? Especially since so many male singers use the falsetto so often. You would think it would no longer be looked at as “mimicking a range attributed to women,” but simply as part of the natural male vocal range. You know, sometimes I honestly believe that some people think about things too much. Do you know what I mean?

Willa: Ha! That’s funny, Joie. You’re right, academics do tend to think about things a lot, and maybe read too much into things sometimes. But except for that unfortunate footnote, I think Miller is really onto something when he talks about the gendering of voices – and he means that in an expansive way, encompassing all the things we’re taught about what it means to be masculine or be feminine. As he says,

In most cultural understandings of the voice, high notes signify passion and evoke drama and excitement for the listener. The falsetto voice does not mimic the female one, but it grants an expressivity to male singers, allowing them to articulate and communicate a frenzy of precise emotions to the auditor. If this is confusing to gender normatives, it is because the male is taught restraint. Thus he must move beyond his “real” voice to his “false” one to express real emotion.

I was really intrigued by this. If I’m interpreting this correctly, that high voice that Michael Jackson uses so beautifully to evoke intense emotions may be seen as feminine not only because it’s so high but precisely because it’s so emotional, and because we as a culture are uncomfortable with emotional men. As Miller says, “the male is taught restraint.”

This puts male singers in a bind since one of the primary goals of singing is to express emotion. But to do that, they have to enter the realm of the feminine – what we falsely call feminine – both vocally and emotionally.

And that reminds me again of the line from “Someone Put Your Hand Out” about “handicapped emotions.” How ironic that Michael Jackson may have felt a sense of “shame” because he thought he wasn’t emotional enough, or fully capable of emotions, when perhaps he was actually perceived – and criticized – for being too emotional. Or that he may have thought he couldn’t express his emotions fully enough, when few people could express their emotions half as well as he did.

Joie: That is interesting. But it’s sort of like when you hear artists – and Michael was one of them – who say that they are extremely introverted, especially in one-on-one situations, and yet they feel perfectly comfortable getting on stage in front of millions. He expressed a wealth of emotions so freely and so well when it was in song or on stage or on a video. But this extremely personal song is telling us that he feels his emotions are “handicapped.” It’s an interesting paradox.

Willa: It is and, Joie, I think you’ve put your finger on something really important. It’s like he says in Moonwalk: “The things I share with millions of people aren’t the sort of things you share with one.”

Joie: You know, Willa … you might think I’m crazy for what I’m about to say here, but this song reminds me quite a bit of another deeply personal Michael Jackson song – “Stranger In Moscow.” They have a very similar feel to them, and they evoke a similar emotion in me. I mean, think about the chorus from each song:

Someone put your hand out
I’m begging for your love
‘Cause all I do is hand out
A heart that needs your love

and then,

How does it feel (How does it feel)
How does it feel
How does it feel
When you’re alone
And you’re cold inside

To me, both of these songs are about the same thing. They both suggest that he almost felt trapped by this crushing sense of “aloneness,” if that makes any sense. They’re both so forlorn, do you know what I mean?

Willa: Wow, Joie, that’s interesting because these songs seem very different to me. Hmmm … I’m going to have to think about that … I see what you mean that they’re both about isolation and loneliness, but why do they feel so different to me?

I wonder if it gets back to that idea of public and private that we were talking about earlier. To me, “Someone Put Your Hand Out” is talking about his private life, and how he would like to have someone share his inner life with him. But to me, “Stranger in Moscow” is about something a little different – about his “swift and sudden fall from grace” and what it feels like to be a social outcast.

But that’s not quite right, because “Stranger in Moscow” then asks us to imagine “how does it feel” to be in that situation, to be a social pariah. As you quoted from the chorus, “How does it feel / When you’re alone / And you’re cold inside?” So he’s merging the public and private and asking us to imagine what his private life was like after his public life fell to ruins. So yeah, Joie, I think I see what you’re saying. That’s really interesting. I don’t think I would have put those two together on my own.

Joie: I don’t know that I ever would have either if I hadn’t been thinking about how the song made me feel, but it’s an interesting comparison, I think. And it brings to mind your earlier question when you said that you wonder if his feelings changed as he got older. I know there were different and pretty serious circumstances going on at the time he wrote “Stranger In Moscow,” but just from the feeling of the two songs I would say the answer to that question was no.

Willa: Well, you’re right, Joie – his circumstances changed a lot. I mean, if he felt isolated in the 1980s when he wrote “Someone Put Your Hand Out,” imagine how he felt in the 1990s after the scandal broke. So I’m sure that in some ways his feelings of loneliness actually intensified.

But you know, in other ways the scandals seemed to make him a lot stronger, even more determined and sure of himself. So I wonder if he would still talk about the “shame” of “handicapped emotions” toward the end of his life? Judging from his work I don’t think so, but it’s hard to say. And it’s hard to know if he was even talking about himself in “Someone Put Your Hand Out,” or speaking in character. And it’s hard to know how much might have been attributable to the specific circumstances he was in.

Joie: That’s very true. But whatever motivated him to write this incredibly beautiful, intensely personal song, I’m grateful that he chose to share it with the world because it’s always been one of my favorites.

¡Porque Soy Malo, Soy Malo!

Willa:  Last spring, longtime contributor Bjørn Bojesen shared his version of “Bili Ĝin,” which is an Esperanto translation of “Billie Jean.” That led to a behind-the-scenes discussion of Michael Jackson and foreign languages, with Joie, Bjørn, and me all brainstorming about songs or short films where he sang or incorporated words in a language other than his native English. This was such an interesting topic for us we decided to take the discussion online and talk about it in a post. Thanks for joining us, Bjørn, and for sharing “Bili Ĝin” with us!

So Esperanto is actually a good place to start this discussion since it’s such a Michael Jackson kind of concept. As I understand it, Esperanto was invented in the late 1800s using elements of many different languages to help promote global peace and understanding. Specifically, it was created by L.L. Zamenhof to provide a neutral means of communication that bridged divisions of language, nationality, and ethnicity. I can see how this would appeal to Michael Jackson since crossing boundaries and healing divisions is something he did throughout his career. And as you recently mentioned, Bjørn, he incorporated an Esperanto passage in the promo film for HIStory. Is that right?

Bjørn: Yes, that’s correct. At the very start, right before the soldiers come marching in with their heavy boots, an unseen man shouts out a declaration in Esperanto. Take a look:

In the YouTube video, there are some glitches in the subtitles, but the anonymous person’s message goes like this: “Diversaj nacioj de la mondo” (Different nations of the world) / “konstruas ĉi tiun skulptaĵon” (build this sculpture) / “en la nomo de tutmonda patrineco kaj amo” (in the name of global motherhood and love) / “kaj la kuraca forto de muziko” (and the healing power of music). A few seconds later, one of the smelters also shouts in Esperanto: “Venu ĉi tien!” (Come over here!)

The promo created quite a stir in the Esperanto community when it aired. Why would MJ use a snippet of Esperanto? I have no idea whether he actually spoke Esperanto, but I guess he scripted the lines (in English): “in the name of global motherhood and love, and the healing power of music.” Doesn’t this sound very MJ to you? I mean, just the idea of a universal motherhood instead of the usual brotherhood…

Willa:  It really does. It sounds “very MJ,” as you say, and it’s also interesting how those words undercut the visuals. What follows those words is a show of military force, with goose-stepping soldiers evocative of Nazi military demonstrations. So there’s a strong tension between the Esperanto words, which describe the statue they’re building as a tribute to “global motherhood and love,” and the accompanying images, which place the statue in a military context.

Bjørn: Yes, but this tension only exists if you understand the words!  99.8 percent of the viewers would have no clue what the voice actor was saying. So, why didn’t MJ simply let the man speak his lines in English?

Willa:  Well, that’s a good point, Bjørn – and I have to admit, I’m one of the 99.8 percent!

Joie:  As am I. You know, Bjørn, I find this fascinating and I’m also really surprised by it. I had no idea those words were spoken in Esperanto. I don’t ever remember hearing that at the time of the video’s release. I just remember all the controversy over the film itself being declared hateful and narcissistic. But you ask an interesting question … why didn’t he simply use a language that was more easily recognizable to the masses? Even if he didn’t use English, he still could have used Russian or Spanish or even Japanese. Any other language that more people would hear and immediately recognize. But instead, he chose Esperanto. And Willa and I are of the belief that he rarely did anything artistic without a very precise reason for it. So I am intrigued.

Bjørn:  I think you’re touching on something important, Joie, when you talk about a language that’s “more easily recognizable to the masses”! This is exactly why many upper-class art aficionados can’t stand Michael Jackson – they think he’s just feeding “the masses” with stuff they can easily digest. But I think MJ had a perfect understanding of this balance between being accessible and being esoteric. By dropping such small hard-to-get references – like his basing the You Are Not Alone video on the painting Daybreak by Maxfield Parrish – Michael Jackson added interpretational depth to his art. By the way, wasn’t it the MJ Academia Project that first revealed that the HIStory promo video is essentially a spoof of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 Hitler propaganda film, Triumph of the Will?

Willa:  I think so … at least, that’s the first place I heard it.

Bjørn:  With that in mind, it’s interesting to note that the initiator of Esperanto, Zamenhof, was a Jew…

I also think MJ is reflecting on his own use of language. His mother tongue happens to be English – which since World War II has functioned as a second language for huge parts of the world. The English language helps MJ get his message across to the masses, but at the same time it gives native English-speakers like him a communicational advantage (while others have to search for words, you can just keep talking).

Esperanto is the wannabe international language with the potential to put speakers of different mother tongues on a more equal footing. Say all the countries of the UN decided to make Esperanto a global second language, and began teaching it in every classroom on the globe. That would give people from any culture a basic tool for communication – but it would also mean that native English-speakers would have to “make a little space.” So, in this promo video, MJ is somehow endorsing the idea of Esperanto. By letting the language “guest star,” he questions the status quo (using native languages for international communication). I guess you could call it an artistic discussion about language and power.

Willa:  That’s a really interesting way to look at that, Bjørn. And we could push that idea of challenging “language and power” even further if we consider that English as a “global” language began with British imperialism and colonialism. As the British Empire spread around the world, so did English culture and language, with many indigenous people encouraged or even forced to give up their native language and use English instead. And of course, racism in the United States is a direct result of British colonialism and the slave trade. So in that sense, English can be seen as a language of oppression – the language of those colonizing and displacing indigenous people around the world.

So getting back to the HIStory teaser, it’s interesting that in the visuals he’s strongly pushing back against efforts to silence him and “put him in his place” following the false allegations of 1993, and in the Esperanto spoken parts he’s pushing back against English, the language that to some degree silenced his ancestors and tried to keep them in their place.

Joie:  Wow. Really interesting way of looking at that, Willa!

Bjørn: Yes, I agree, Joie, I hadn’t thought about it like that either! So, if the HIStory teaser is a kind of rebuttal – to Nazism and colonialism and the extinction of native languages caused by English and other “big tongues” – couldn’t Liberian Girl be seen as an attempt to recover what was lost? Even if the song’s intro is in Swahili, which is an East African language, and most of MJ’s forebears probably came from West Africa…

Joie:  Ah! Very clever thinking, Bjørn! We could almost say the same thing about the coda at the end of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.'” The Cameroonian chant, “Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah.”

Willa:  Wow, you guys, that is so interesting! I really like the idea of approaching those two from this perspective. You know, both of them seem to address the issue of representation and interpretation – or misinterpretation – to some degree, and in both the use of an African language signals a major shift in the mood of the song/video. In “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” he talks about how the media distorts meaning – like in these lyrics, for example:

I took My Baby to the doctor
With a fever, but nothing he found
By the time this hit the street
They said she had a breakdown

Most of the song is pretty edgy and fearful, and that’s all in English. But then the Cameroon part starts, and suddenly this edgy, trippy song shifts and becomes joyful and triumphant. It’s a very dramatic shift in mood.

There’s a similar shift in the Liberian Girl video. It begins in black and white, with an eerie, sustained, high-pitched note vibrating in the background as the camera pans around what seems to be a British colony in Africa. A waiter walks out of the Cafe Afrique, we see workers in African dress, and then a white missionary in European clothes with a rosary and clerical collar. The camera follows the missionary until he walks behind a beautiful black woman; then the camera stops on her. She looks up and speaks directly to the camera in Swahili, and suddenly everything changes. The black-and-white tone gives way to vibrant color, and we discover we’re not in colonial Africa but modern day Hollywood, in a studio filled with glittering celebrities.

One of the things that’s most interesting about this, in terms of language and colonialism, is that Liberia is an African nation founded and, in effect, re-colonized by free blacks and escaped slaves from the U.S. in the 1800s – people whose ancestry was African but who no longer had a home country to return to. And its official language is English, the only language this diaspora of people had in common. So it’s almost like the English language was re-colonized, just as the nation-state of Liberia was – the language of the colonizer was reclaimed and reappropriated by the colonized.

And we see that idea suggested in Liberian Girl as well. All the celebrities are milling around and Whoopi Goldberg asks, “Who’s directing this?” The camera cuts to Steven Speilberg sitting in a director’s chair, implying he’s the director, but he’s looking at his watch and he’s no more in control than anyone else. Then at the end of the video we discover who’s really been calling the shots: Michael Jackson, behind the camera. So he has reclaimed the Liberian Girl video as his own, just as the former slaves from America reclaimed Liberia and English as their own.

Bjørn: Well, the problem with this interpretation, Willa, is that Liberia was already inhabited when the African-Americans founded it! Just like Israel was already inhabited by Arabs when it was founded as a place where Jews could live in peace. To my understanding, today the “original” Liberians – talking various African languages – are second-class (or at least less fortunate) citizens in a state dominated by English-speaking “American” Liberians (with ancestors ultimately hailing from many parts of Africa, not just Liberia).

I don’t know a lot about Liberia, and I can sympathize with the idea of the ex-slaves reclaiming “English as their own” (after all, who doesn’t love his mother tongue?) But I do think that Jackson’s use of African languages in these songs reflect a longing for the uncolonized past, maybe even for a romantic Africa that never really existed (or, perhaps, for a “garden of Eden” that could come into existence in the future!) As the linguist Ben Zimmer pointed out on his blog the day after MJ had died, the chant in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” was heavily inspired by a line from “Soul Makossa” by the Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango. (Dibango sued MJ for plagiarism, but they reached an agreement out of court.) Here’s “Soul Makossa”:

Dibango sings “ma ma ko, ma ma sa, ma ko ma ko sa,” which is in his native language, Duala. So, MJ’s chant isn’t really in any African language – but so close that is certainly sounds African. In the same way, he uses Swahili (from East Africa) as a symbol of (idealized) Africanness, even if the actual Liberia is in West Africa, far away from the places where people speak Swahili… So, for me, the use of African languages in these songs are really more about a “longing for paradise on earth” as it was before colonization, and as it could become once again.

Willa:  I think that’s a very important point, Bjørn – that he’s referring more to an idea than an actual place. After all, after the shift in Liberian Girl, we aren’t in Liberia; we’re on a movie set in Hollywood, so he’s clearly demonstrating that the opening scene wasn’t really a scene from the actual nation of Liberia, but a Hollywood depiction of “exotic Africa.” The challenge for us, then, is to figure out what idea, exactly, he’s trying to get across when he sings with longing about a girl from Liberia.

It’s interesting in this context to think about the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when Harriet Beecher Stowe sends Eliza, George, and the other escaped slaves to Liberia. For her, it represented a place where they could be safe and free, and where their son Harry could grow and thrive. For her, it truly meant a “paradise on earth,” as you said, Bjørn, but it also reveals a despair about her own country. Stowe didn’t think it was possible for them to ever be truly free in the United States, or even Canada, so she had to send them to Liberia to ensure their freedom.

But I don’t think Michael Jackson ever did give up on the United States – though he had good reason to, and he chose not to live here after the 2005 trial. And I think Liberia, as a concept, means something different for him than it did for Stowe.

Bjørn:  That’s really interesting! I guess I’ll have to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin some day. Stowe’s “Liberia,” as you describe it, reminds me of Bob Marley and the other Rastafarians, who saw Ethiopia as a Promised Land. The name Liberia, which comes from the same Latin root as “liberty,” roughly translates as “the land of the free.” I once made an Esperanto translation of “Liberian Girl,” where the ethymology really shines through: Liberianin’  means “Liberian girl” as well as “girl from the country of freedom.”

Willa:  Really? You translated “Liberian Girl” also? That’s wonderful!  And I love the alternate meaning of “girl from the country of freedom.”

Bjørn:  The rainforest sounds at the beginning of the song (a prequel to “Earth Song”?) could indicate that MJ used “Liberia” as a metaphor for Paradise. Now, “Paradise Girl,” that’s a little spooky, if you think about it. But I’ve always thought this song wasn’t about “Liberia” at all, but rather about a girl who’s very far away from the singer. Like MJ’s (extreme!) version of “Distant Lover,” if you know that Marvin Gaye song!

Okay, let’s get back to the language question. Why does Michael Jackson’s Liberian girl, whoever she is, speak in Swahili? Is that just to add some exotic spice, or what do you think?

Joie:  Well now that is a really good question, Bjørn. And while I really enjoy picking apart a song or a short film and trying to analyze it and discern its true meaning, I also sometimes think that maybe a cigar is just a cigar. What would be wrong with adding in Swahili, or any other foreign language for that matter, for the sole purpose of adding a little exotic spice to your creation? Maybe he simply thought it sounded cool.

Willa:  You’re right, Joie, it does sound cool, and it perfectly fits that space in the song. We know he was fascinated by sounds – found sounds, manufactured sounds, the sounds of nature, the sounds of the city, the sound of words – so it’s very possible he chose those phrases simply based on their sounds and rhythms.

But I’m still intrigued by the fact that both “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” and Liberian Girl focus on American pop culture and the entertainment industry, and how certain things are represented or misrepresented within that industry. And both include an African phrase that serves as an important pivot point – one that changes the whole mood of the work. That seems significant to me. But what does it mean?

As you mentioned, Bjørn, “Liberia” shares the same Latin root as “liberty.” As I understand it, the name “Liberia” was chosen to emphasize that this new nation was envisioned as a place where former slaves could find peace and liberty. So it seems significant that Michael Jackson evokes Liberia, but more as an idea than a physical place, as you suggested earlier. And to me, that’s reinforced by the fact that he incorporates Swahili, but it’s Swahili that has become unmoored from its native country and is now being used in a Hollywood video that to some extent critiques Hollywood.

The lyrics to Liberian Girl suggest something similar when he says their romance is “just like in the movies”:

With two lovers in a scene
And she says, “Do you love me?”
And he says so endlessly,
“I love you, Liberian Girl”

So their romance is presented as something of a fantasy, something that’s been scripted by Hollywood. In all of these cases, it’s like he’s both evoking a fantasy and critiquing it at the same time, and looking at where it comes from. For example, in Liberian Girl he’s evoking the exotic while questioning what it means to be labeled as exotic.

Joie:  That is a very interesting interpretation, Willa! Sometimes you really do blow me away with how your mind works. It’s fascinating!

Willa:  Thanks, Joie, though I might be totally missing the boat with this one – it’s pretty subtle what he’s doing. It’s just so interesting to me that he begins Liberian Girl with a classic scene of “exotic Africa,” then reveals it’s all just a Hollywood fabrication, and then suggests that the real exotica is Hollywood itself. And the Swahili phrase is the turning point where our perceptions are flipped inside out.

Joie:  Do either of you know what that Swahili phrase means? I would be very interested to know what she’s saying in the opening of the song.

Bjørn:  According to the album booklet, it means “I love you too – I want you too – my love.” (Google Translate seems to agree, although it renders mpenziwe as ”lover”.)

Joie:  Huh. I don’t think I ever knew that before. I’ve always simply wondered at the meaning. I can’t believe it was in the album booklet all this time and I never noticed.

Bjørn:  No worries, Joie, an album’s booklet is often the last thing I study too!  But you know what? It just struck me there’s an interesting semantic evolution going on in this song: It starts with rainforest sounds that don’t have any particular meaning to the average listener (but who knows what the animals are really saying?) Then it progresses to a line spoken in Swahili, which to the vast audience is just as meaningless as the sound of a bird. Then, at last, Michael Jackson starts to sing in English, and because we understand the language, all of a sudden we don’t hear his words as ”sounds” any more, but as meaningful pieces of information… Perhaps Jackson added Swahili just to emphasize that the meaning we assign to words really is arbitrary, and that we might as well be in a situation where Swahili carried the information, and English was some unintelligible but exotic spice, just like the language of the forest, or even the sound of instruments…

Willa:  Wow, that is fascinating, Bjørn! And if we interpret the opening that way – as examining how we make meaning – that progression of sounds is paralleled in the visuals as well. As you say, the sounds gradually become more intelligible as we move from bird song (something we don’t understand and can never understand) to Swahili (something most of us don’t understand at first but can if we put a little effort into it) to English (which for most Americans is our native language). And the visuals begin with the Cafe Afrique sign, then pan out to the Casablanca-like scene, and then keep panning out to show the Hollywood set. So as we telescope out, the images become more familiar – closer to home, in a way – and our understanding of what we’re seeing shifts and gradually becomes more clear:  we’re watching a film being made.

Bjørn:  This film, as you say, is being referenced to in the lyrics as well: “Just like in the movies… With two lovers in a scene…” So maybe the chief function of the Swahili phrase is to underscore the very otherworldliness of this cinematic fantasy, much like the Elvish phrases in the Lord of the Rings movies or the Na’vi dialogue in Avatar. Yes I know, Swahili is a living language spoken by real people. But still, hardly anyone in Liberia speaks Swahili!  As pointed out earlier, Swahili is an East African language. Its native speakers live along the Kenya-Tanzania coastline.

What’s intriguing about Swahili, however, is that it’s become a truly international language in much of Eastern Africa!  Millions of people in Congo, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya use Swahili to get their messages across a multitude of linguistic boundaries. It is, indeed, the closest we get to an African “Esperanto.”

Willa:  Really?  I didn’t know that.

Joie:  Neither did I.

Willa:  That’s fascinating to think about it as “an African ‘Esperanto.'”

Bjørn:  If we look at it like that, the openings of “Liberian Girl” and the HIStory teaser are very similar: Something is being said by a non-MJ person in a cross-cultural language, before MJ himself enters the stage and reassures his English-speaking listeners that they’re not wholly “lost in translation”!

“Stranger in Moscow,” interestingly, takes the opposite approach. Here MJ’s loudly sung English-language lyrics are followed by another man whispering in the lingua franca of the Cold War Communist world: Russian.

Willa:  Wow, Bjørn, that is so interesting! And to me, it feels like the Russian in “Stranger in Moscow” functions in a very different way as well. It reinforces the edgy, unsettled mood of the song, as well as the theme of alienation from his home country.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa. “Stranger in Moscow” has always been one of my favorites and I think it’s because it is such a beautifully constructed song. But you’re right, the use of Russian in the song really heightens the sense of loneliness, isolation and despair that he’s trying to convey here. The alienation as you put it. Whenever I listen to this song, I actually get the sense that his sole reason for using Russian here is to make us feel those negative emotions more fully.

Willa:  It feels that way to me too, Joie, and that feeling intensifies once we learn what those Russian words mean: “Why have you come from the West? Confess! To steal the great achievements of the people, the accomplishments of the workers…”

Joie:  Yes. It’s very intimidating, isn’t it? Imagine being a stranger in a strange land, detained by these scary officials and having those questions barked at you over and over again!

Willa:  Or to bring it a little closer to home, imagine the police asking you, Why are you so kind and generous with children? Confess!  It’s to lure them in so you can abuse them …

What I mean is, it wasn’t just the KGB who interrogated people in intimidating ways – the Santa Barbara police investigators did the same thing, and not just to Michael Jackson but to young children as well. They interrogated Jason Francia over and over again when he was only 12 years old. As he said later, “They made me come up with stuff. They kept pushing. I wanted to hit them in the head.” Like the stereotypical image of the KGB, they were determined to wring a confession from him.

And I think that’s the idea Michael Jackson is trying to get at here. He’s not pointing a finger at the Soviets – he’s pointing a finger at us, and saying in some ways we are as much of a police state as Cold War Russia. And the shock of that realization has made him feel like a stranger in his own country.

Bjørn:  That’s fascinating, Joie and Willa. I hadn’t thought about it like that. Both “Stranger in Moscow” and “Liberian Girl” mention specific locations in their titles, which is a very unusual thing for MJ to do. (Most of his titles are quite unspecific – just think about “A place with no name”!) And both songs use great regional languages to create a specific mood. I’m not exactly a connoisseur of Jackson’s short films, but I have remarked a couple of times that Russians have commented that the scenes in Stranger in Moscow look nothing like Moscow at all.

Willa:  That’s true. You can tell from the street signs and the close-up of the American quarter that it was filmed in the U.S. And that seems very deliberate – he wants us to know he’s really in the U.S. though he feels like he’s in a strange land.

Bjørn:  So, I wonder if MJ is using Moscow and Russian in a metaphorical way, just like he uses Liberia and Swahili to evoke a dreamlike vision of Africa. Thanks to the Cold War, Russian must sound like a very alien language to many Americans. And Moscow must still be the very ”eye of the tiger” to some folks! (Poor Russian MJ fans!)

So, without demonizing too much here, we might say that while Jackson uses Swahili as a paradisaical or “angelic” language, Russian, as used by the KGB agent, does duty as the language of his demons…

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, Bjørn!  Or maybe the Russian is evoking a frightening unknown. In other words, it’s not so much that Russian is “the language of his demons,” but that Americans once demonized it because we didn’t understand it and were afraid of it. I have friends a little older than I am who remember the Bay of Pigs, and the school drills for what to do if the Soviets attacked with nuclear bombs. And the main feeling they remember is the uncertainty – the fear of something powerful that you don’t understand, that can attack at any time without warning. I can certainly understand how Michael Jackson might feel that way about the Santa Barbara police …

Joie:  Wow. That’s really deep, Willa. And Bjørn, I love what you said about the “angelic” language and the “demon” language. I think it’s clear that both languages were used in very different ways to convey two very different realms of emotion, and that is very fascinating.

Bjørn:  Yes, it is! And just as the languages help the music paint these emotional landscapes, the music also influences the way we – as non-speakers – perceive these foreign languages. Personally, I find Russian quite a beautiful language, with all its mushy sounds. And, importantly, it is whispered, as if the KGB agent is telling a secret. If we hadn’t just heard MJ’s lament, we might have thought it was a lover whispering something to his beloved, much like the Swahili girl in “Liberian Girl.” And this makes it all the more frightening – it’s like a cold embrace, followed by a stab.

Willa:  Wow, that’s a fascinating way to look at that, Bjørn – and pretty chilling too.

Bjørn:  So, in “Liberian Girl,” “Stranger in Moscow,” and the HIStory teaser, Michael Jackson uses bits of foreign languages to help create a mood or atmosphere. And the languages he uses have all – at some point in history – been rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication:  Swahili, Esperanto, Russian. Furthermore, the pieces seem to highlight different aspects of foreignness:  the exotic and alluring (Swahili), the unfamiliar and strange (Esperanto), the threatening and repulsing (Russian).

Willa:  And there’s another song that fits this pattern also:  “They Don’t Care about Us.” It begins with a woman saying “Michael, eles não ligam pra gente,” which is Portuguese for “Michael, they don’t care about us.” As you said of Swahili, Esperanto, and Russian, Bjørn, Portuguese is another language that has “at some point in history – been rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication.” Like England, Portugal was a powerful nation during the colonial era, and as a result, Portuguese is the official language of countries around the world, from Europe to South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Joie:  That’s very true, Willa. You know I think most people just think about Portuguese being spoken in Brazil and, of course, Portugal. But it’s actually the official language of many African nations, like Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bissau, and others. And, as you said, even in Southeast Asia. It’s interesting to think of it as “rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication,” because it really did at one point.

Willa:  And still does in some regions – like I didn’t realize it was so widespread in Africa. That’s interesting, Joie. And to get back to what you were saying, Bjørn, about the different emotional effect of each of these languages, the Portugese lines at the beginning of “They Don’t Care about Us” have always struck me as sorrowful, in an almost maternal way – like the sorrow of a mother who cares deeply for her children and has seen too many of them come to harm.

Bjørn: You opened up my eyes here, Willa and Joie! I have to confess I’ve never heard that Portuguese part before. I gave the song another listen, and couldn’t hear it – but then it occurred to me that it had to be in the video! I’m a great fan of Michael Jackson’s music, but a lot of his films I haven’t watched in their entirety. So, I went to YouTube, and heard that phrase spoken for the first time.

I wonder, though, to what extent Portuguese is being used to create an emotional effect, and to what extent it’s being used to evoke an idea of “Brazil” – after all, the film does take part in real-world Brazil (not a fantasy “Liberia”), where Portuguese is spoken as the main language.

Willa:  That’s a good point.

Bjørn:  But if we look at the emotions, I do agree with you, Willa, that it sounds like a caring mother speaking to her son. By the way, those people who like blaming MJ for having a “Jesus complex,” should take an extra look… In the exact same moment as the Brazilian mother figure says the name “Michael,” the camera pans to the famous Rio statue of Christ the Redeemer…

Willa:  Oh heavens, Bjørn!  You’re just trying to stir up trouble, aren’t you?

Bjørn: Well, yes and no, Willa. This being an academic discussion, I don’t think I’d do the readers any favor by censoring what I see! It’s a fact that the name and the statue appear at the same time, and I’d like to think it’s intentional. But okay, let’s save the interpretation of that for an ”MJ and religious symbolism” post!

So, in the four “foreign language songs” we’ve looked at so far, we’ve got an Esperanto-speaking worker, a Swahili-speaking lover, a Russian-speaking agent and a Brazilian-speaking mother… MJ himself, however, still sings in his native English. The foreign culture remains inaccessible and different. Interestingly, on a couple of occasions he did cross the border, so to speak. I’m of course thinking about the versions he did of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” in two of the world’s great international languages:  Spanish and French… What do you think about them?

Willa:  Well, my first reaction is that I love them – they are both exquisitely beautiful, I think. And it’s interesting for me to hear a Michael Jackson song the way non-English speakers must usually hear them – where the meaning comes not so much from the words he is singing but from the expressiveness of his voice.

Joie:  That’s an great point, Willa, one that I don’t often ponder. But it’s interesting to think about how non-English speakers perceive Michael’s music. Especially since his music is so very beloved all over the world. But you’re right that they must experience it much differently than native English speakers do.

You know I went through a similar phenomenon back in my teen years when I had a huge crush on the guys of the Puerto Rican boy band, Menudo. They would release albums in both Spanish and English, and oddly enough, I found that I really loved those Spanish speaking songs, even though my Spanish has never been all that great. To this day, I often find myself singing them.

Bjørn:  When I discovered Michael Jackson’s music as a child, I hardly understood anything he was singing. I just liked the sound of it! So I can certainly follow you there… “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” isn’t among my favorite MJ songs, but I agree it’s nice to hear him sing in Spanish (which I understand) and French (which I don’t really understand). Why did he choose this particular song, do you think? I mean, if it was to promote the Bad album in Spanish- and French-speaking countries, he could have handed the translators the song ”Bad”… (I just hear it: ¡Porque soy malo, soy malo!)

Willa:  That’s great, Bjørn! I’ll be thinking about that next time I hear, “Because I’m bad, I’m bad …”

So I don’t know why he chose “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” but it’s a beautiful song and it’s a duet – one of his few duets – and that would allow him to interact with someone while he was singing, someone fluent in Spanish or French. Maybe that’s part of why he chose this one. I don’t know about Spanish, but he did speak passable French. In fact, in the 1980s he was interviewed in French by a Montreal reporter, and he answered in French. And he loved Paris – he even named his daughter Paris. And of course he always liked to bridge boundaries, as we discussed at the beginning with Esperanto.

So thank you so much for joining us, Bjørn, and for adding a European, multilingual perspective!  We always love talking with you, and hope you’ll join us again soon.

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.