Willa: This week I am so happy to be joined once again by our longtime friend, Joe Vogel. Or actually, I should say Dr. Joe Vogel – you’ve accomplished a lot since the last time we talked with you! What all have you been up to, Joe?
Joe: Hi Willa. It’s great to talk again. I’ve been so busy lately, but every time I check in with Dancing With the Elephant some great new discussion is going on. You and Joie do such a fantastic job of exploring different facets of Michael Jackson’s creative work and life.
As far as what I’ve been up to … As you noted, I recently finished my PhD at the University of Rochester. I’m now working on a book on James Baldwin that focuses on his cultural and media criticism in the 1980s.
Willa: Oh, interesting! I knew you frequently posted things about James Baldwin on your blog, but I didn’t realize you were writing a book about him.
Joe: Yes, it’s an outgrowth of one of my dissertation chapters. Once I began really digging into Baldwin’s work, I was amazed by his prescience. His work is still so relevant to the world we live in today.
I’ve also written a few new MJ-related things, some of which have already been published (an entry on Thriller for the Library of Congress and the liner notes for Xscape), and some of which will be published in the near future (an entry on Michael Jackson for Scribner’s encyclopedia, America in the World, 1776-present, and the article we will be discussing today, “I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets: Re-screening Black Masculinity in Michael Jackson’s Black or White,” which just recently came out in the Journal of Popular Music Studies).
Willa: And I’ve really been looking forward to talking with you about it. There are so many aspects of your article that fascinated or surprised me. For example, you see Black or White as pushing back against a long history of racism in the film industry, and you begin your article by reviewing some of that history – and to be honest, I was shocked by it.
As you point out, Hollywood’s first film, as we think of films today, was D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation – a movie that glorified the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, it was originally titled The Clansman. As you say in your article,
It ushered in a new art form – the motion picture – that transformed the entertainment industry. … Birth became the most profitable film of its time – and possibly of all time, adjusted for inflation. It was the first film to cost over $100 thousand dollars to make, the first to have a musical score, the first to be shown at the White House, the first to be viewed by the Supreme Court and members of congress, and the first to be viewed by millions of ordinary Americans. It was America’s original blockbuster.
So Birth of a Nation had a huge impact on America’s new film industry – in fact, it helped shape our ideas about what a film is or should be – but it also helped shape popular notions of race. And you see Black or White as taking on both of these issues, right? – as challenging the dual-headed hydra of racism and the film industry in the US?
Joe: Exactly. Ralph Ellison described Birth of a Nation as having “forged the twin screen image of the Negro as bestial rapist and grinning, eye-rolling clown.” It was hugely powerful and influential, not just in the South, but in the North, and in Los Angeles, where it premiered to a standing ovation.
Willa: Yes, in fact the turning point of the film is the murder of a black man accused of attempting to rape a white women, and the fear of miscegenation and black men as “bestial rapists” runs throughout it, from beginning to end. For example, the film ends with the double wedding of two white couples – a brother and sister from the North marry a brother and sister from the South – and what unites them, what unites whites from the North and South after the bitterness of the Civil War, is fear of black men.
Joe: Michael Jackson was so knowledgeable about the history of film that I just found it interesting that, given his biggest platform in 1991, an estimated 500 million viewers around the world, he decides to use this fledgling new medium – the short music film, a medium he pioneered as much as D.W. Griffith did the long motion picture – to challenge and replace Griffith’s mythology about black masculinity and race more broadly.
Willa: Yes, as you write in your article,
D.W. Griffith himself acknowledged that one crucial purpose of the film “was to create a feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially white women, against colored men.”
As you go on to write, Griffith does this by exaggerating racial differences and creating “a world of stark contrasts.” As you point out,
Black characters are mostly whites in blackface, making them appear darker and more uniformly black than the diverse range of skin tones of actual African-Americans. They are also more often presented in shadows with manic and animalistic expressions. The white protagonists, meanwhile, possess a glowing, radiant aura that highlights their whiteness and inherent nobility.
Michael Jackson challenges this “world of stark contrasts” throughout his short film by offering a much more complex and integrative view of humanity, and this challenge begins with the ironic title, Black or White. There is very little in Black or White that is either all black or all white.
Joe: Exactly. Throughout the song and video he is constantly complicating our understandings of these categories, and carefully juxtaposing or balancing tensions. It undercuts the central premise of Griffith’s film: the fallacy of racial purity (and by extension, white supremacy).
Willa: Oh, I agree. For example, while Griffith presents an almost cartoonish depiction of racial differences by using white actors in blackface, Michael Jackson gives us African tribesmen whose faces have been painted with both black and white facepaint, so their faces are a collage of black and white. This is an important scene – it’s when the music of Black or White begins, and it’s when Michael Jackson makes his first appearance in the film. It seems significant to me that when we first see him, he’s dancing with these men. So his face, which complicates and resists simplistic definitions of race, is first seen amid these tribesmen, whose faces are works of art combining black and white in creative ways.
Later, there’s the famous morphing sequence, where the face of an American Indian man morphs into the face of a black woman, then a white woman, then a black man, then an East Indian woman, and so on. To me both of these scenes – the black-and-white painted faces of the tribesmen and the morphing faces sequence – are an artistic expression of “the fallacy of racial purity,” as you just said.
Biologically, there’s no such thing as race – there is no genetic binary with “black” on one side and “white” on the other. It’s a cultural concept rather than a biological reality. Humanity is a vast spectrum of physical characteristics – skin tones, facial features, hair types – and we’ve had ideas about racial divisions artificially imposed onto us. As you say in your article,
“Being a color,” Jackson suggests, is not a universal essence; it is an identity fashioned through imagination, history, narrative, and myth; it is a trope and a positioning within concentric communities.
That’s such an important point, I think, and part of what Michael Jackson is suggesting in these two scenes of the tribesmen and the morphing faces. The importance of these two scenes is emphasized by their strategic placement in the film – they bookend the central section of Black or White. It seems to me that Black or White consists of three sections: the prologue in suburbia before the music begins, the main part where the song is played, and the epilogue or “panther dance” after the music ends. And it’s significant, I think, that the main part begins with the tribesmen and ends with the morphing faces.
Joe: These are great observations. And, of course, all of this new, complex racial storytelling is being relayed, presumably, for a traditional white suburban family. The prologue, as you describe it, is about white insularity and dysfunction, particularly between the father and son. The white patriarch (played by George Wendt) is angry, on the surface, because his son (played by Macaulay Culkin) is playing music too loud.
But the point Michael Jackson is making here seems to go much deeper. The rage from the father is about ignorance. He doesn’t understand his son, or his son’s music, or his son’s heroes. His worldview is narrow, provincial, outdated – which is why his son literally blasts him out of the house, and why the father lands, recliner and all, in Africa, the cradle of civilization, where his “re-education” begins.
Willa: Yes, and significantly, one of his son’s heroes is Michael Jackson – his father knocks his poster down when he storms into his son’s room. There’s a similar scene at the very end of the video, as you point out in your article, with Homer Simpson grabbing the remote and turning off the TV, where his son Bart has been watching Black or White – specifically, the panther dance. So the video is framed by these two scenes of an angry, repressive, white father trying to limit his son’s exposure to popular culture – specifically, pop culture as mediated by a black artist, Michael Jackson.
This seems to be an accurate reflection of the times since, as you say in your article, Black or White was released at a time of intense white male anger. Advances in civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights “eroded male dominance in the home and workplace,” as you say, and led to the rise of a predominantly white “men’s movement.” I thought it was very interesting that the most popular book of 1991, the year Black or White was released, was Robert Bly’s Iron John, which as you point out was “a book that sought to make sense of and rehabilitate broken men by restoring their inner ‘wildman’ or ‘warrior within.’”
I remember how popular Bly’s book and the “men’s movement” was back then. Men would gather in the woods to build huge bonfires and bang on drums and shed the supposedly emasculating influence of civilization. I hadn’t thought about all that in terms of Michael Jackson before, but it’s another fascinating historical context for interpreting Black or White – especially the scene you’re talking about, Joe, where a suburban man sitting in a recliner is blasted back to Africa and then sees Michael Jackson dancing with tribesmen.
In some ways, this seems to be exactly what Bly was proposing – for men to go back to their primal origins and reconnect with the “warrior within.” But Michael Jackson deviates from Bly’s script by dancing with Thai women, and then a group of Plains Indians, including a little girl. Next he dances with an East Indian woman and a group of Russian men. So Michael Jackson’s message seems very different than Bly’s.
Joe: Right. Part of what makes Bly’s project misguided, in my opinion, is that it assumes that there is a universal essence to all men, and by extension, a universal prescription to the so-called “masculinity crisis.” He doesn’t acknowledge difference and diversity among men, as Michael Jackson so often does. But as you say, it’s another fascinating historical context that indicates that masculinity was perceived as being in crisis.
In fact, another context I ended up cutting is the role of hip hop. So much of hip hop at the time, particularly gangsta rap, was about projecting hypermasculine power. Being a real man precluded being gay or queer or soft, or treating women with respect, or being involved in interracial relationships.
So Michael’s song and video, in this context, directly challenged the prevailing discourse in hip hop and also in hard rock/metal. While hip hop was often singled out, metal was often just as misogynistic and homophobic.
Willa: It really was.
Joe: These genres were so influential among young people in the late 80s/early 1990s. It’s no accident Michael incorporated them both into Black or White, but reimagined their “messaging.”
Willa: That’s interesting, Joe. And these contexts are important because you see Black or White not only as a critique of racism, which is how it’s usually interpreted, but also as a critique of gender – as engaging with repressive cultural narratives of what it means to be a man, specifically what it means to be a black man, and creating a “re-vision of black masculinity.” As you write in your article,
A “pattern” existed, Jackson recognized, in how black men were represented in American media. … In cinema, of course, the pattern Jackson refers to was largely introduced with Birth of a Nation.
A different but equally restrictive “pattern” was perpetuated by Bly’s “man’s movement,” and by hip hop and heavy metal as you say. And you see Black or White as directly challenging those patterns and offering a new vision, a “re-vision” as you put it, of both race and gender. Is that right?
Joe: Yes, in an interview around the time of his trial Michael Jackson spoke about the Jack Johnson story. He was keenly aware of America’s fears about black men, specifically about black male sexuality. That’s really the central fear in Birth of a Nation: the prospect of black men defiling white female purity. The director, D.W. Griffith, makes no qualms about this. As you mentioned earlier, he speaks of wanting to elicit an “abhorrence” of miscegenation and interracial marriage. This fear goes back to slavery and continues in tragedies like the deaths of Emmett Till and Yusef Hawkins. (Keep in mind, in 1958 only 4% of Americans approved of black-white marriages. By 1991, the number had risen to 48%, but that’s still less than half of America.)
So this is the mythology Michael Jackson is challenging in Black or White. From the lyric, “‘Boy, is that girl with you?’ / ‘Yes, we’re one and the same,’” to the scene in which Michael walks through a burning cross, shouting “I ain’t scared of no sheets!,” to the morphing scene, which undercuts the very notion of racial purity, to the panther coda, which, in my opinion, is one of the boldest, most defiant moments in film history – certainly in a music video.
Willa: Oh, I agree.
Joe: One of the things I find so fascinating about this moment in the short film is that he symbolically takes over as the auteur – the white director (John Landis) is dethroned. It’s an amazing moment given the history of film, and how overwhelmingly it has been dominated by white men. And the fact was, John Landis really did oppose what Michael was doing in the panther scene, as did Sony executives. Recently, an outtake surfaced on YouTube that shows a bit of this.
Michael insists that Landis is the one thinking “dirty,” not him. It’s actually pretty funny. But this film, and especially the panther segment, represent Michael Jackson’s artistic vision, his choices. He knew the risks, and he knew what he wanted to achieve. The sheer intelligence of the short film testifies to that – the black panther sneaking off the set, the complete shift in tone, lighting, setting – the juxtapositions and tensions, given what we witnessed in the “official cut.” It’s remarkable.
Willa: It really is. And thank you so much for sharing that behind-the-scenes clip! I hadn’t seen that before, but it’s very telling, isn’t it? Watching that clip, it’s obvious that John Landis really didn’t understand what Michael Jackson was doing or why it was so important. And like you, I think it’s significant that, in the video, John Landis’ role symbolically ends after the morphing sequence, and the rest of the video – the panther dance – is presented as Michael Jackson’s own.
It reminds me of Liberian Girl, a video that begins with a Hollywood-style depiction of colonial Africa, complete with missionary … but then suddenly everything shifts. We hear Malcolm-Jamal Warner (a black actor) say, “I’m afraid to open any doors around here” – and isn’t that an interesting comment? Then Whoopi Goldberg (a black actress) asks, “Who’s directing this?” The camera cuts to Steven Spielberg (a white director) sitting in the director’s chair, but he’s not in control – he’s bored and waiting.
Then Rosanna Arquette (a white actress) asks Jasmine Guy (a black actress) “Do you know what we’re supposed to be doing?” Jasmine Guy answers with, “All I know is that Michael called me. I guess when he gets here, he’ll let me know what we’re supposed to do” – implying that Michael Jackson is really the one in charge. That’s borne out at the very end of the video when we finally see him … and surprisingly, he’s in the cameraman’s chair. So he’s the one who’s been controlling the camera, and he’s the one calling the shots – not the white guy sitting in the director’s chair, glancing at his watch and waiting for someone to tell him what to do. So despite the expectations raised by its intro, Liberian Girl is not another white depiction of Afro-colonialism. It’s something else entirely. It’s about a talented young black man seizing control of what appears in millions of homes around the world, but it’s all done in such a fun, light-hearted, subtle way that no one seemed to realize what he was doing.
I think the message of the John Landis scene in Black or White is similar. John Landis may be the director, but he’s not in charge. He’s really just an employee who’s helping Michael Jackson convey his vision without understanding what that vision is. John Landis himself makes that very clear in the behind-the-scenes clip you posted, Joe. At about 1:45 in, he turns to the camera and says, “I didn’t choreograph this. I’m just shooting.” He’s completely disassociating himself from everything that appears on screen during the panther dance.
Joe: Exactly. There are quotes in my article in which he says similar things – basically, that he is a hired hand for this video. Not even out of modesty, really, but because he wants to distance himself from what Michael is doing.
Willa: Yes, it seems that way to me too. He seems very uncomfortable with the panther dance portion of the video. And that makes sense because, as you said, that’s when “the white director (John Landis) is dethroned.” And Michael Jackson is not just defying the role of the white director but, even more importantly, the long history of Hollywood representations of black men and black culture. I think it’s very significant in this context that the climax of the panther dance, to my mind anyway, is the fall of the sign for the Royal Arms Hotel, which explodes in a spray of flying sparks. This is about black resistance to “Royal Arms” and that kind of colonial ideology, and to a film industry that is steeped in that racist, colonial worldview.
One important principle of that worldview is the prohibition against miscegenation, as you point out in your article. But this prohibition isn’t a legal rule enforced by the courts, as it was in the past. Instead, it’s become internalized and is now enforced through the feelings of white women who look at a black man and feel disgust or revulsion, or the feelings of white men who witness a white woman with a black man and react with intense anger.
This new kind of postcolonial racism – “to create a feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially white women, against colored men,” as D.W. Griffith said – has been at the heart of the American film industry since its inception. And it’s what Michael Jackson is taking on in the panther dance, especially, as you show so well in your analysis of Birth of a Nation and Black or White.
Joe: Well, I tried anyway. It’s a fascinating short film, and like so much of Michael Jackson’s work, it rewards deep dives. In fact, now having talked to you about it, there is more I would like to incorporate into my article!
Willa: Oh, I know what you mean – it takes a village to fully understand a Michael Jackson work! I’ve been thinking about Black or White for years, but even so, your article opened up whole new vistas for looking at this incredible film. And once you really dive into it, you just see more and more and it’s hard to stop.
Joe: But I guess it’s probably for the best. I had to cut about 6-7,000 words as it was. That’s the nature of an academic article, and really, publishing in general. But I have no doubt this short film will continue to be written about in fresh and compelling ways. As Susan Fast points out in her amazing 33⅓ book on Dangerous, no song or video of Jackson’s has received more scholarly attention. It began with Armond White’s phenomenal article in 1991 for The City Sun, and has continued over the years, especially since Jackson’s death in 2009. My article has been in the works for a few years now (it was the first chapter I wrote for my dissertation), so it’s exciting to finally see it published!
Willa: It really is, especially since your article helps reveal just how truly revolutionary and powerful Black or White was at the time, a few months after the Rodney King beating was captured on videotape, and how powerful it remains to this day … even though the original, 11-minute version is hard to find. Though maybe that’s why it’s so hard to find – it’s just too potent for Vevo!
So your article is now out and available?
Joe: Yes, the article is now published in the March 27.1 edition of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Unfortunately, it is quite expensive at the moment to view in full. I would love to make it free obviously, but copyright won’t allow it for now. Susan Fast wrote a great explanation on her blog recently, explaining the academic publishing process, which like many other industries, is still trying to figure out how to operate and make content accessible in the digital era.
Willa: Yes, as Susan explains, academic journals are time consuming to create – that’s why articles are so expensive. It’s not about profit. Authors of academic papers don’t earn anything from publishing them, and we don’t hold the copyrights. So, for example, I wanted to repost my “Monsters, Witches, Ghosts” article here at Dancing with the Elephant, but I couldn’t – I was asked to post a summary instead, with a link to the full article. Fortunately, most university libraries carry the Journal of Popular Music Studies, so those who live near a college or university can probably access your article for free there.
I also wanted to remind everyone that we have a link to your Library of Congress entry on Thriller available in our Reading Room, but I haven’t had a chance to talk with you about it. So this article was written for the Library of Congress and placed on the National Register, is that right?
Joe: Right, I was invited to do a short piece on Thriller, which was a real honor. The Registry now includes about 400 recordings. Each of these recordings was chosen by the Librarian of Congress, with input from the National Recording Preservation Board, because they were deemed so vital to the history of America – aesthetically, culturally or historically – that they demand permanent archiving in the nation’s library. The registry has been reaching out to scholars and music critics to flesh out their website with a variety of scholarly essays on each of the 400 titles on the Registry, each of which are about 1,000 words. So people that love music history should check out some of the other essays as well – I’ve read several and they’re great reads.
Willa: They really are. I was just reading the entry for “Blue Moon of Kentucky” by Bill Monroe, the creator of bluegrass, and interestingly enough it begins by comparing him to D.W. Griffith:
Like Martha Graham and, arguably, D.W. Griffith, what he created during his lifetime would go on to become an entire genre of art, a language, a vocabulary in which hundreds of other artists would create in its wake.
So just as Martha Graham created modern dance, and D.W. Griffith – through Birth of a Nation – created the modern film, Bill Monroe created the genre of bluegrass. Here’s a full list of essays on the Register, and a list of recordings.
Well, thank you so much for joining me, Joe! It’s always such a pleasure to talk with you.
Joe: Thank you, Willa. It’s always great to talk to you. And give my best to Joie!
Willa: I will!
Willa: This week I am thrilled to be talking about “Scared of the Moon” with Raven Woods. Raven has an MA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing, and she teaches writing and literature courses at Alabama A&M University and Calhoun Community College. She’s also a freelance journalist and writer, and teaches seminars on Michael Jackson’s music and cultural importance.
She’s also the creator of AllForLoveBlog, which was the first site Joie and I added to our blogroll when we started Dancing with the Elephant. It’s a favorite for both of us, and it’s still the first place I turn whenever there’s breaking news in the Michael Jackson universe. I know I will find important information, thoughtful analysis, and a community of voices sharing ideas. In addition to current events, AllforLove also provides fabulous, rarely seen photos (that’s another reason I check in frequently!), important historical information, and insights into Michael Jackson’s music, dancing, and videos.
Thank you so much for joining me, Raven!
Raven: Thank you so much for inviting me. And I would like to return the compliment by saying that I think Dancing with the Elephant is one of the best blogs for anyone who is interested in Michael’s art foremost.
Willa: Thank you, Raven. I really appreciate that. Coming from you, that means a lot!
So I’m excited to talk with you about “Scared of the Moon” and I don’t mean to get us off track, but I was very intrigued by something you said in a recent post:
It was during the Dangerous era that Michael seemed to solidify the concept for his live performances which often began with the “masculine” (he would come on tough, as a persona who was very masculine, angular, and hard, with military-esque trappings) and, over the course of the performance, would evolve to a more feeling, flowing, ethereal “feminine” persona (a transition that, like the Dangerous album’s concept, usually transpired with the performance of “Heal the World,” “Will You Be There” and the other spiritual “message” songs).
Michael’s onstage persona during the first half of his Dangerous tour performances was always somewhat distant and cold; he would often wear a perpetual sneer. The moves are often blatantly sexual (a lot of crotch grabbing, etc). By the time the metamorphosis is complete, he is smiling, interacting with children onstage; the fencing shirt replaced by a flowing white shirt that accentuates his ethereal quality. His dance moves have become fluid and graceful, rather than angular and hard.
I had never noticed that before, Raven, but you’re right – his concerts from Dangerous on did tend to begin with a hard-edged “masculine” persona and move toward a softer, more “feminine” persona. We see it all the way up to This Is It, which documents his plans for the 2009 London concerts. Apparently, those concerts were going to begin with him in a spacesuit and then move to something called “The Drill,” a very militaristic performance of “Bad” and “They Don’t Care about Us,” before moving to softer songs like “Earth Song.”
Raven: Yes, This Is It, from all indications, was going to be a continuation of that formula. I think he liked that arc. It seemed to suit his artistic vision.
Willa: I agree. And we see a similar movement in his later albums as well, as you pointed out with Dangerous. HIStory begins in a rather in-your-face way with “Scream” and “They Don’t Care about Us,” but ends with the much softer “Smile.” And Invincible begins with the hard-driving trio of “Unbreakable,” “Heartbreaker,” and “Invincible” but concludes with softer songs like “The Lost Children” and “Whatever Happens,” though it does add a little edge at the very end with “Threatened.”
I had never noticed that structure before, but now that you’ve pointed it out, Raven, I keep seeing it, like in his performance at the MTV 10th anniversary celebration in 1991, or his Superbowl performance in 1993, or his performance at the 1995 MTV awards, or his 30th anniversary concerts at Madison Square Garden in 2001.
That movement from a hard, even militaristic opening to a much softer conclusion seems very significant, especially since he returns to it so often. And how wonderful that he enacts it during the halftime show at the Superbowl!
Raven: Oh yes, that Superbowl finale with “Heal The World’ has to be, hands down, one of the greatest moments in live TV.
Raven: As you know, I have been doing a very in-depth review of Susan Fast’s book Dangerous and that was why the topic came up, because she aptly points out how this arc forms the central concept of the Dangerous album. This seems to have been where the pattern begun, and from there, it became a kind of blueprint, almost, for all the albums and tours that followed.
As always when discussing and analyzing art, of course, it is hard to say how much of this was intentional, conscious choice and how much of it may have simply evolved organically and subconsciously. I know this because, as a writer, I often don’t see certain themes or emerging patterns in my own work until I’ve written them and have had time to step back and reflect on them – or until someone points them out. But once I am aware of them, I know they were not entirely accidental. Rather, they are the result of things buried in my subconscious that are being worked through.
But for sure, Michael was well aware (keenly aware, I am sure!) of the overall flow of his albums and performances; how the flow of one track to another, for example, impacts the listener (or the performance) and sets the overall tone and mood. He definitely liked the idea of taking listeners on a journey, and the arc was part of that journey. Susan Fast refers to it as Michael’s desire to create utopianism, and I don’t think that is a far-fetched concept. It seemed to permeate most everything he did, at least from Dangerous forward.
Willa: I agree, though I’d never noticed that arc before you – inspired by Susan – pointed it out. But I’m really intrigued by it now. For one thing, it provides a very different way of interpreting his use of military imagery – not as something he was advocating, but as something that would later be transformed into something softer and more nurturing.
So getting back to “Scared of the Moon,” what started this conversation was something you said in a comment a while back where you compared “Scared of the Moon” to “Childhood”:
“Scared of The Moon” … is a song about childhood from a very different, and darker, perspective. In that song, he addresses how we carry the traumas and fears of childhood into adulthood; how the traumas and scars of our childhoods shape even our adult selves.… I have heard that he wrote the song for Brooke Shields, but much of it seems autobiographical for Michael, also.… In both cases, they shared a fear of a parent who was a mystery to them. In both cases, the parent they feared was also the dominant parent who controlled much of their destiny.
So it seemed that, while acknowledging childhood as a kind of ideal state, he was also acknowledging that it can be a scary time as well, when one is haunted by inexplicable fears and the inability to be in control.…
Michael understood that childhood is both our happiest, most wondrous years but at the same time, because of that very innocence and the ability to perceive things so much deeper – can also be the source of our greatest pain, traumas, and fear.
Raven, I was really struck by everything you said. I love “Scared of the Moon” – it’s a truly beautiful song – but it’s very unsettling as well. Partly, that’s because of the subject matter, a child threatened by nameless fears, but also because it seems so contrary to how he usually talked about childhood. Your comment perfectly captures the ambivalence I feel whenever I listen to this haunting song, and helps explain why it’s so disturbing as well as exquisitely beautiful.
Raven: Exactly. Although it certainly is a very beautiful song melodiously, it is also one of his darker songs about childhood, though perhaps not as dark as “Little Susie,” which was about the murder of a child.
Willa: That’s true. There’s also “The Lost Children” and “Hollywood Tonight” – they’re both pretty dark as well – and “Do You Know Where Your Children Are.” That’s a very troubling song. It’s about a young girl who’s trying to escape an abusive stepfather, and the lyrics are pretty explicit about that: “she is tired of stepdaddy using her / Saying that he’ll buy her things, while sexually abusing her.” So she runs away to Hollywood, but ends up “selling her body” just to survive. In the end, she’s arrested for prostitution, even though “she’s only 12 years old” – and Michael Jackson just sounds heartbroken as he sings those words, as if he can hardly bear it.
So even though he frequently spoke up for children and repeatedly emphasized the importance of childhood, he didn’t hesitate to show the harsh realities many children face.
Raven: Your reference to “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” got me to thinking about how the subject of child prostitution has been handled in other pop songs. One example that leaps immediately to mind is the Nick Gilder classic “Hot Child in the City” (a song I remember well from my teen years) about a 15-year-old runaway who has turned to prostitution,
What’s interesting about this song is that, just as what Michael is doing with “Scared of the Moon” Gilder uses a deceptively poppy, sweet melody to cloak what is actually a very dark subject.
I remember when this song was a huge hit and it was largely because when young people my age were listening to it, we were hearing its catchy hook and not really paying much attention to the words – or if we did, we just took it as a song about a pretty girl catching boys’ eyes as she walks down the street (not exactly new subject matter in rock’n’roll; songs like Roy Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman” had been playing on that motif for years). I don’t think anyone really caught on that this song was about a kid who is selling her body and is being preyed upon by an older guy (the narrator of the song who says “we’ll talk about love”) or if we did think about it, we just kind of brushed it off – after all, it was a much less politically correct era in terms of underaged sex. I also have a very vivid memory of a video to the song that depicted a child wearing a wig and an oversized, adult evening gown, walking the streets. But again, because the song’s hook was so catchy, I suppose we could argue that it belied the very dark reality of its subject matter – or that it somehow made the dark subject matter more palatable, which perhaps was the idea.
In the case of “Do You Know Where Your Children Are,” though it has a catchy riff, it’s a somewhat ominous and gritty riff, preparing us for the reality of the song’s subject matter. The effect he achieves with “The Lost Children” is similar. Here the intent is not so much to create a dark mood, but rather, one of sadness and heartbreak. It’s a prayer that all of the “lost children” will somehow find their way, and the music intensifies that sadness and longing.
That is what makes “Scared of the Moon” even more puzzling to me; it’s as if the lyrics and melody do not “fit.” Yet we know the master’s skilled hands and ear are at work, and what he is achieving with this song must be purposeful.
Willa: Yes, I agree – and actually, the fact that they don’t “fit” heightens the eeriness of the song. It underscores the feeling that something is dreadfully wrong below the beautiful surface.
Raven: As you know, so much of Michael’s body of work was about trying to either recapture or maintain the innocence of childhood. In the song “Childhood” he is advocating that, as adults, we should look within our hearts and ask ourselves if we have seen our childhood – the idea being that, if we can recognize our inner child, it can pave the way for a healthier adulthood.
But in “Scared of the Moon” it is the opposite, a recognition that it is also the scars and traumas of childhood that shape us as adults. It is a recognition that childhood, in addition to being a magical time of innocence and wonder, can also be a scary and frightening time. For sure, it is the period that most shapes and defines who we become as adults – for better or worse. The very reason that childhood tragedies strike such a resonant chord with us – when we hear of children being murdered, beaten to death, starved, sexually abused, or caught in the crossfires of violence – is because this is supposed to be the most innocent, carefree time of their lives. If a child can’t be innocent, happy, or carefree during the first decade or so of their lives, then when on earth is that going to be possible for them? The answer is never. Once the damage is done, it’s for life.
I have often wondered if this was the reason Michael deliberately chose such a deceptively sweet, wistful melody to pair with lyrics that are, by contrast, so dark and tinged with fear. The song’s luscious arrangement gives it the quality of a lullaby, but just as we are settling in too comfortably, we realize that this is not a comfortable place we are being taken to.
Willa: That’s an interesting way to interpret that, Raven. It’s like the “sweet, wistful melody,” as you called it, evokes images of childhood the way it’s supposed to be, while the lyrics evoke a very different reality. And part of the tension of the song is the contrast between the two.
Raven: Exactly. And in something like “Little Susie,” for example, he goes with an intentionally Gothic sound that fits the theme of the song. There is no ambiguity regarding the place that the song is going to take us.
Through the years, “Scared of the Moon” has given rise to many interpretations, largely because the moon can be said to symbolize so many things. Because the moon is associated with night, it can symbolize the terrors of darkness. The song’s protagonist is a female child (as we know, he claimed to have written the song for his friend Brooke Shields) who lies in fear of unnamed terrors in the dark. But interestingly, the moon – even though it is providing “beams of light” – is no source of comfort in that darkness. Indeed, it seems to be the source of her fear.
Willa: And that’s a really important point, I think. It’s not unusual for kids to be scared of the dark, but generally the moon is seen as reassuring, almost like a friend in the darkness. I’m thinking of children’s stories like “Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown:
And there’s a wonderful story my son loved when he was little called “Owl and the Moon” by Arnold Lobel:
In both of these stories, the moon is a kind of companion who stays with you in the dark, so you don’t feel so alone. But that isn’t the situation in “Scared of the Moon,” so again there’s a sharp contrast between what we expect and what the song actually says – like the contrast between the melody and the lyrics that you described earlier.
Raven: I’ve heard speculations that it is a song about childhood sexual abuse, but I’m not sure what I make of those interpretations or their validity. It could be possible.
Willa: Yes, I’ve heard that also, and it makes sense – it makes her fears understandable. And childhood sexual abuse was an important issue for him and something he did address in his songs, like in “Do You Know Where Your Children Are,” as we mentioned earlier.
So I think that’s a perfectly valid interpretation, but I tend to see this song as more ambiguous than that, more open-ended. It’s almost like he’s trying to describe those nameless fears many children have, that are so terrifying in part because they’re nameless – because children can’t label them and analyze them, and in that way drain them of their power.
Raven: But also, the term “lunacy” is often one associated with mental illness. This would seem to be borne out by the song’s lines:
The feeling of terror
She felt as a youth
Has turned from a fantasy
Into a truth
The moon is the enemy
Twisting her soul
And taking its fearful toll
Scared of the moon
But now there are others
Who sit in their room
And wait for the sunlight
To brighten their gloom
Together they gather
Their lunacy shared
But knowing just why they’re scared
Scared of the moon
The key phrase seems to me to be “their lunacy shared” which could refer to a group of people in an institution (or it could just refer collectively to every individual with a scarred childhood that has carried over into adulthood). Either way, it seems that the fears are still there. As adults, they are better able to hide those fears in light of day, and they now understand the reasons behind them. But that knowledge doesn’t make the fears any less potent.
Willa: Those verses are really perplexing, aren’t they? And I see what you mean – I get the impression of a mental asylum also. And that goes back to a very old idea that the moon could cause a kind of temporary madness that would then fade as the moon faded from sight. In fact, the words “lunacy” and “lunatic” come from “luna,” the Latin word for “moon,” which is also where the word “lunar” comes from in phrases like “lunar eclipse” or “lunar month.”
We see this ancient idea acted out in Thriller when the Michael character transforms into a werewolf or werecat. He doesn’t just undergo physical changes but mental changes as well. As he begins to transform, he tells his girlfriend, “Run away!” because he can feel the madness coming on and knows that soon he won’t be able to control his actions. And he can’t. After he’s fully transformed, he chases and attacks her.
So interpreting this section of “Scared of the Moon” as a type of madness or mental illness brought on by the moon seems valid to me, but I wonder if it could be interpreted more metaphorically also. I mean, Michael Jackson was so linked to the moon. His signature dance was called the “moonwalk,” which is also the title of his biography. His only feature length film was Moonwalker, with the moon appearing as a very important symbol of change and creativity, even magic. We see this idea in the Childhood video also, where the moon seems to represent imagination and creativity – specifically, the intense imagination of childhood. Joie and I talked about that a little bit in a post a while back.
He expresses this idea in Dancing the Dream also, like in the opening paragraphs of “Dance of Life”:
I cannot escape the moon. Its soft beams push aside the curtains at night. I don’t even have to see it – a cool blue energy falls across my bed and I am up. I race down the dark hall and swing open the door, not to leave home but to go back to it. “Moon, I’m here!” I shout.
“Good,” she replies. “Now give us a little dance.”
But my body has started moving long before she says anything. When did it start? I can’t remember – my body has always been moving. Since childhood I have reacted to the moon this way, as her favorite lunatic …
That word “lunatic” takes us back to the idea of a kind of madness evoked by the moon, but he doesn’t use it in a negative way. Just the opposite. It’s a wonderful madness that the moon inspires in him – a kind of creative ecstasy. And it’s clearly something he cherishes.
The fact that the moon is generally such a positive image in Michael Jackson’s work, used repeatedly to represent imagination and creativity, is another reason “Scared of the Moon” is so unsettling to me. It just feels wrong to hear a Michael Jackson song where the moon is “the enemy.” And that makes me wonder if we can interpret this a different way.
For example, maybe the main character in “Scared of the Moon” is someone who’s scared of her own imagination, scared of letting herself go and expressing herself creatively. So something that should be nurturing to her (the moon, her imagination, her own artistic nature) has become frightening to her.
Raven: It is interesting to compare Michael’s “Scared of the Moon” to “I’m Open,” a track from Pearl Jam’s 1996 album No Code. This is the only song I have found that comes similarly close to Michael’s message in “Scared of the Moon.” Note the lyrics spoken in the song’s opening monologue:
A man lies in his bed, in a room with no door
He waits hoping for a presence, something, anything, to enter
After spending half his life searching, he still felt as blank
As the ceiling at which he’s staring
He’s alive, but feels absolutely nothing
So, is he?
When he was six he believed that the moon overhead followed him
By nine he had deciphered the illusion, trading magic for fact
So this is what it’s like to be an adult
If he only knew now what he knew then.
Willa: Oh, that’s really interesting, Raven. So in this song we see a man who’s completely lost touch with the moon – and also with his emotions and his inner life. “He’s alive, but feels absolutely nothing.” He had that connection when he was a child, when “he believed that the moon overhead followed him.” But then he traded “magic for fact” and lost that connection.
So like the main character in “Scared of the Moon,” he seems to be repressing parts of himself that should bring him joy. But while the things she’s repressing seem to terrify her, he feels nothing at all. He’s “as blank as the ceiling at which he’s staring.”
Raven: With the main character in the Pearl Jam song, it seems to be more of a case of lost innocence. He’s lost the magic of childhood. It is the idea of something being irretrievably lost once we are an adult and have, as he says, “deciphered the illusion.” Now that you have pointed this out, I am thinking that, thematically, this is actually closer to what Michael was stating in “Childhood.” And, also, in the video for that song we see children in a boat gliding towards the moon.
Willa: Oh, that’s a good point. Like his character in Childhood wistfully watching as children sail away on their imagination, the main character in “I’m Open” wistfully remembers his own childhood, and wishes “he only knew now what he knew then.”
This is an idea Michael Jackson frequently mentioned – that children have a deep knowledge that adults have lost. As he said in an interview when he was only 22,
One of my favorite pastimes is being with children, talking to them and playing with them. Children know a lot of secrets [about the world] and it’s difficult to get them to tell. Children are incredible. They go through a brilliant phase, but then when they reach a certain age, they lose it. My most creative moments have almost always come when I’m with children. When I’m with them, the music comes to me as easily as breathing.
So in this one small comment, he’s expressing some really profound ideas: that children have knowledge of the world that adults lack, and that this knowledge is linked to creativity.
Raven: Yes, and you know, there has been so much said about how we are never so close to our spiritual natures as when we are children. This was what William Wordsworth meant in “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” and his famous line that the child is “Father of the Man.” His entire point of that rather lengthy piece is that we are born with all our inherent qualities of divinity, grace, and perception.
Children, as we know, are much more perceptive of the spiritual and natural world, as well as much more receptive of it. Children, for example, often display psychic abilities which they tend to lose with age – for example, the ability to see auras, or ghosts. I have read many accounts where adults will recall that, as children, they once saw someone’s aura. Often, adults have childhood memories (sometimes comforting; sometimes frightening) of commuting with the spirit world. But unless an individual is especially sensitive, they tend to lose this gift with age. It’s as if we lose something of our spiritual selves the minute the world takes over and consumes our bodies and minds, as what happens in adulthood. Part of what we lose as adults is the ability to sense magic and wonder in the world. Everything now has a rational explanation. For many kids, it may be a comfort to get older and realize there is no monster hiding under the bed, but the trade-off is in realizing that, likewise, Santa Claus and the tooth fairy are not real, either. In most of his songs about childhood, Michael was usually lamenting the loss of that childhood innocence and wonder. But here he seems to be singing about another childhood rite of passage, and that is the fear of unknown and inexplicable terrors.
As you said, Michael used the moon symbolically throughout much of his career as something that was associated with magic and the imagination. In the Pearl Jam song, the moon is somewhat serving this same function – it represents something wondrous and magical, as compared to the emptiness and mundaneness of adulthood. I think that the characters in both songs may be experiencing some sort of trauma. Mental illness can produce terror in some (such as hallucinations, or flashbacks to past traumatic events) or it can also produce complete inertia and numbness.
In the case of “Scared of the Moon” I am not quite sure if the moon is intended to merely symbolize her terrors, or if it is, literally, the thing that she fears.
Willa: Yes, I wonder about that also.
Raven: Judging from the lyrics, I would register to guess that in childhood, the moon was the literal source of her fear (as children often fear things irrationally); in adulthood, she may no longer fear the moon itself, but she fears what it represents symbolically. It stands for all those inexplicable fears of childhood.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting. So instead of seeing it as an either-or question, you interpret it one way when she’s younger and the other way when she’s older. I hadn’t thought about that, but it makes a lot of sense.
Raven: In “I’m Open” it seems that the character has withdrawn emotionally from the world. That, too, can be a defense mechanism against trauma, but it does seem that in childhood, at least, the moon was a friend and a comfort, much like “Goodnight Moon” and “Owl and the Moon.” In that regard, it does differ markedly from “Scared of the Moon” where Michael even explicitly sings, “The moon is the enemy / twisting her soul.”
It is interesting in the fact that it seems so very opposite of Michael’s own feelings about the moon, which he always expressed as something that was, for him personally, something very benevolent. But then again, if he did intend for this to be a song about his friend Brooke Shields, perhaps we have to be careful about trying to project too much of “Michael” into it. As I am always reminding my students, we have to make the distinction between author, narrator, and character – or in this case, lyricist and character – and not assume they are automatically one and the same. In all likelihood, this was a very personal song between Michael and Brooke, which may have had something to do with why it went unreleased for so long. It could have been that Michael was not entirely comfortable with releasing something he had written for a friend that was so intensely personal. It would be interesting to know what Brooke’s thoughts on the song are.
I know that Brooke had a very troubled childhood. She not only began working at an even younger age than Michael, but also had to deal with an alcoholic mother. I believe I mentioned in my blog comment (the one that sparked this conversation) that in her recent People magazine interview she said that the only time she ever saw her mother sober was early in the morning before she went to school. Her mother would be drunk by the time she got home again, and her drunkenness only progressed into the evening and nights. Reading between the lines, it seems like the only time she felt safe, secure, and sure of her mother’s love was in those early morning hours, when the day was fresh. It seems that she lived in fear of darkness descending; as the day wore on, her mother became a bigger terror.
Willa: That’s a really interesting way to interpret that, Raven. It’s almost like, as the moon rises, her mother’s demons come out through her binge drinking. So if we apply that to the character in “Scared of the Moon,” maybe her fear of the moon is actually her fear of what could happen if her mother loses control.
Raven: I would imagine that she and Michael probably had many deep conversations about these fears. And, of course, they had common ground, for Michael spent most of his childhood in fear of Joseph.
I am sure you remember the story Michael recounted about the time Joseph scared them all half to death by putting on a frightening mask and coming in through their bedroom window. Joe said that it was to prove a point – to “scare” them into closing and locking their bedroom window at night, rather than leaving it open for any prowler to climb through. But if that was his intent, his child “psychology” backfired horribly. Michael said the incident caused him to be afraid of the dark and to have nightmares about being kidnapped for years afterward.
Michael respected his father, but as we know, he also feared him. “He can just give you a LOOK,” he said, and I know he was telling the truth because, from what little time I was around Joe in 2010, I got “the look” and realized if I had been a child, this man would have terrified me. I was an adult and shaking in my shoes because when Joe gives you “the look” as Michael put it, it can make you feel like a gnat! (But to set the record straight, I saw many sides of Joe that weekend, including when he sat behind me and struggled not to shed any tears during a tribute, so this is not to judge him, but only to reinforce what Michael said). To be honest, I never felt closer to Michael – or more empathy for him – than I did at that moment, standing before the man who made him (literally and figuratively, I suppose) and having those steel blue-gray eyes pierce my soul.
Willa: So Raven, now you have me terribly curious. When was this? And what were the circumstances? How did you end up spending a weekend with Michael Jackson’s father? And why on earth did he give you “the look”!
Raven: This was in Gary, Indiana, during Michael’s birthday weekend in 2010. Joe was a guest of the Fanvention that year. I had a media pass which gave me access to a lot of the events where he was attending. I half suspect that I got “The Look” because I was wearing a media badge. I recall that when I got close enough to him to ask a question, he just glanced down toward my badge and scowled, ignoring me like he didn’t even hear me (this, I have since learned, is a coping strategy that the entire family seems to have for avoiding the press or questions they don’t want to answer). So I didn’t actually talk to him that weekend, but I was in the same room with him quite a bit – more than enough to observe him. I probably should add that I could have interviewed him if I hadn’t blown my chance! I was told I could meet with him in the hotel restaurant, which was called The Star Cafe. But I misheard and went to the Starbucks instead!
Willa: Oh no!
Raven: By the time I figured out I was in the wrong place – and that she actually meant The Star Cafe which was right across from the Starbucks – it was too late. So I’ll never know if Joe and I might have gotten past our initial awkward encounter.
My experience with Katherine two years later was similar. I was in the same room with her, but never actually got face time. I had been told before I left that an interview might be possible, but once I got there, was informed that Katherine wasn’t going to do any press. Still, I treasure those experiences because I got to be around both of Michael’s parents and it afforded me a good opportunity to really observe both of them. And I can say that both of them are exactly as their children have described them! No exaggerations.
Willa: Wow, that’s amazing. I can’t imagine being in the same room with either of them. You know, there are a thousand questions I’d love to ask them, but if I actually saw them in person, I wonder if I’d really be able to ask …
Raven: Yes, and the toughest part is that you never really know what kinds of questions are totally off limits. You can choose to play it safe and ask the generic kinds of questions that you know will only net the same ol’ answers, or you can take the gamble of asking the really juicy questions that you really want to know – but which are apt to get you completely iced out. I usually start with a few “safe” questions to feel the subject out; if they seem comfortable, I may go for the tougher ones. But it also depends on how much time has been allotted.
I would say, however, that although Joe has a much crustier exterior, he actually seems to be the more amiable of the two. Katherine is much more reserved; she is very shy and doesn’t really enjoy doing press, and seems very embarrassed to have too much attention focused on her. She will usually prefer to sit in an inconspicuous corner in the back of the room, avoiding the fanfare as much as possible. Joe, on the other hand, seems to enjoy meeting the fans and the adulation – unless you cross him in some way, which I apparently did without even realizing it.
But to steer this back to the point, Michael did have a deep-rooted fear of his father. All of the Jackson children did, and as a result, they came to dread evenings and nights when they knew he would be home. Whatever the deep rooted, underlying causes, a fear of the darkness and of night did seem to plague Michael into adulthood, although it was not consistent. For example, he loved taking nighttime walks around Neverland. By his own account, he would often go out at night to sit in The Giving Tree. He seemed to be at peace with his infamous insomnia when not under the pressure of touring – in fact, he took advantage of those dark hours to engage in some of his most intense creativity. (I am just the opposite. I have to do my most intense creative thinking in the mornings, and am usually “braindead” by night!) But Michael was very much a night owl who seemed, on the one hand, to welcome the dark hours.
On the other hand, however, it seemed he also sought ways to avoid it as much as possible: Keeping a light on all night, for example (and often, what fitful sleep he did get was beneath a glaring light) and a distraction such as TV or a computer – these are all, to some degree, means of avoidance, a kind of artificial environment that simulates daytime comforts as a way of postponing or avoiding absolute darkness. I understand completely, because it is the same reason why I immediately turn on the TV when I check into a hotel room if I am alone (oddly enough, I don’t indulge this habit if I am with someone). It’s a way of creating an artificial comfort zone, so we don’t feel so alone. I sense that Michael had these fears of being alone in total darkness.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Raven. So it’s like, for him personally, the moon and nighttime in general played a fascinating double role, as a time of creative inspiration but also fear. But in his previous work – meaning his songs and poems and videos before “Scared of the Moon” – he’d only expressed the positive role the moon played for him, as muse and creative spark. So maybe “Scared of the Moon” is balancing that out by presenting the other side, and expressing hidden fears that he hadn’t expressed before – a time of night terrors where the moon is “the enemy.”
Raven: I had another interesting revelation on this topic last week when I assigned one of my classes to read “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I am sure you are probably familiar with the story, but for those who don’t know, it is a story Gilman wrote in 1892 about a woman with postpartum depression who is confined by her well-meaning but controlling husband, who is a physician, to the “bed rest” cure. The “cure” backfires, however, because her confinement slowly drives her insane. With nothing better or more fulfilling to do day in and night out, she starts to obsess over the patterns in the hideous, yellow wallpaper that decorates her room. Eventually, she starts to hallucinate and imagines that within the wallpaper’s patterns she sees women, trapped like herself, within it. This irrational fear and obsession starts to eat away at her sanity. Eventually, she starts to dread her nights alone with the wallpaper worst of all:
There is one marked peculiarity about this paper, a thing nobody seems to notice but myself, and that is that it changes as the light changes.
When the sun shoots in through the east window – I always watch for that first long, straight line – it changes so quickly that I can never quite believe it.
That is why I watch it always.
By moonlight – the moon shines in all night when there is a moon – I wouldn’t know it was the same paper.
At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it as plain as can be.
I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman.
By daylight she is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still. It is so puzzling. It keeps me quiet by the hour.
It does not take astute readers long, however, to learn that the narrator and the woman “behind the pattern” are one and the same. This passage, likewise, bears a striking similarity to the girl Michael is singing about in “Scared of the Moon.” In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator likewise becomes “scared of the moon” because she starts to dread when the moon’s light will play on her mind and eye, transforming the pattern of the wallpaper into the bars of her own prison. It is, of course, the illusion she fears, rather than the moon itself. But again, it is that idea of the moon as the thing that is synonymous with nighttime fears and all which we suppress in light of day.
Willa: That’s a fascinating connection, Raven. Those lines you quoted really remind me of the opening lines of “Scared of the Moon”:
Alone she lays waiting
Surrounded by gloom
Invaded by shadows
Painting the room
The light from the window
Cuts through the air
And pins the child lying there
Scared of the moon
And another similarity is that both are told in a way that’s very sympathetic toward the main character. The woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is also the narrator and she seems so trustworthy, so reasonable, that it comes as a terrible shock to learn that she has apparently slipped into madness – pushed there by being locked in isolation day after day.
And we really sympathize with the girl in “Scared of the Moon” also, who may be suffering from a type of “lunacy” also. Mental illness is frightening, so we may try to distance ourselves from people who suffer from it. But both Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Michael Jackson encourage us to identify with their characters, and experience the fears they experience. That’s interesting. Thank you for sharing that, Raven, and thank you so much for joining me!
Raven: My pleasure. Thank you again for inviting me.
Willa: Oh, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.
I also wanted to add a quick note following up on our last post. Vanity Fair has removed a number of Maureen Orth’s articles – including “Losing His Grip” and “Neverland’s Lost Boys” – from their website. So thank you sincerely to everyone who contacted them. It seems to have made a difference. I hope Vanity Fair will now do the right thing and print a correction or retraction. I think journalistic ethics and integrity, as well as common decency, demand it.
Willa: Happy holidays, everyone! For our first Christmas here at Dancing with the Elephant, Joie and I wanted to do something special so we wrote a post about Michael Jackson and his ideas about childhood and creativity. Then the following year, we did a Christmas post about his song, “Childhood,” and the beautiful video he made for it.
We’d like to continue that tradition this year by talking with Veronica Bassil about her warm and insightful book, That Wonder in My Youth: Michael Jackson and Childhood. Veronica has a Ph.D. in English and American literature, and this is actually her third book about Michael Jackson. She’s also the author of Michael Jackson’s Love for Planet Earth and Thinking Twice about Billie Jean.
Thank you so much for joining us again, Veronica!
Joie: Welcome, Veronica. You’ve been busy!
Veronica: Yes, you’re right, Joie – I have. I feel as if I have been Michaeling pretty much nonstop since he left us in 2009. And it’s been great to share that journey with you both and your wonderful blog participants. I’ve learned so much from these discussions. I feel as if we have all been together on this “great adventure,” exploring the various dimensions of MJ’s art and in the process building a better, fuller, and more accurate understanding of who he was and what he was communicating.
So I am very happy to join you now to discuss That Wonder in My Youth, which incidentally I noticed was the title for one of your previous posts. I think it’s such a haunting and powerful line from MJ’s “Childhood” – “I’m searching for that wonder in my youth.”
Joie: It is an interesting line, isn’t it? So I’ve been wondering, what was it that made you want to write about this aspect of Michael’s life? Can you tell us a little about what drew you to focus on his childhood?
Veronica: Sure, Joie, I’d be glad to. I considered that removing the encrustations of media disinformation that had constructed a false picture of who MJ was and what his art was about was critical to revealing his true stature as an artist and a person.
For example, in terms of his music, he was to a large extent portrayed as just a lightweight pop star, and then later as a has-been lightweight pop star, when he is in reality a powerful musical innovator, poet, and philosopher (by this I mean a visionary thinker on the deepest level). He is a modern-day Socrates who questioned and challenged the status quo, the beliefs of “Normal Valley.” His challenges provoked discomfort, and like Socrates, he became a thorn in the side of those who wanted to maintain existing social norms and beliefs. Interestingly, Socrates was also accused of corrupting the young and put on trial. Found guilty, he was sentenced to death as an old man in his 80s.
MJ’s work to focus our attention on the plight of children worldwide was distorted or disregarded. Instead of investigating our real-world commitment to children, many found it easier to attack the messenger and criticize his very being.
In an effort to correct this false media persona, my first book discussed MJ’s passionate environmentalism, which I saw (as did others, Joe Vogel especially) as central to his work. Then the allegations of course were and sadly still are a huge stumbling block that keeps people from appreciating him and his art. So that was my second book, using the accusations in “Billie Jean” as an access point. In this recent book, I tackled the third major stumbling block when it comes to MJ – namely, his views on children and childhood, including his own experiences as a child.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Veronica. I’ve read all three of your books and enjoyed them individually, but hadn’t put that together – that each one is addressing a “major stumbling block” to understanding and appreciating Michael Jackson and his work.
Veronica: Thanks so much, Willa, for reading my work! Yes, the three books tie together. MJ has been so profoundly misunderstood and misinterpreted, and his effort to focus the world’s attention on the need to care about children and learn from them, seeing them as teachers and guides, is at the top of the list. His philosophy grew out of his own childhood experiences, which he saw as deprived of the normal pleasures and carefree days of childhood, and this gave him insight into the sufferings and neglect of children worldwide.
By the way, I have been reading the book Michael Jackson, Inc. by Forbes writer Zack O’Malley Greenburg, and he says that in 1966 (when MJ was 7 or 8), he was doing 5 sets a night, 6 nights a week, on top of going to school and rehearsing! That is so amazing.
Willa: Really? I had no idea. I mean, I knew he and his brothers worked very hard to succeed – were forced to work hard to succeed – but that’s really troubling that a second grader would be working that much. I’ve read Greenburg’s book also, but somehow that went right past me – or maybe I just didn’t stop to think about what it meant. He really didn’t have time to experience childhood in a normal sense, did he?
Veronica: No, he didn’t, and I think even we, his fans, don’t fully grasp what that kind of childhood work was like and how it affected him.
Willa: Yes, and I’m afraid I’m one of those people. I try to understand, but just when I think I’m starting to get a good picture of what his life was like as a child star, growing up with that extreme level of fame and hard work and harsh discipline from his father, I hear something like that and realize, no, I still don’t get it. I still have no concept of what it was like for him.…
Veronica: MJ talked about it quite a lot – for example, in his autobiography Moonwalk – and he makes this point again in “Childhood” when he sings about “the painful youth I’ve had.” But I think it’s easy to underplay or discount it, perhaps because his experience is incomprehensible in that it is so far from our own.
In terms of MJ’s awareness of the plight of children in general, I’ve been reading Losing Our Way, an important book recently published by former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, and he talks about how the USA was for a time number 1 in child poverty of all industrialized countries. It is now number 2 after Romania.
Willa: That’s shocking. I didn’t know that.
Veronica: Yes, it is scandalously shocking. One in 5 children (23 percent) in our nation live in poverty today.
Joie: I’m actually aware of that statistic, and it is shocking.
Veronica: Yes, Joie, I agree. Herbert also writes that since the recession of 2008, billions upon billions of dollars have been cut from our public school budgets. This means eliminating or curtailing supposedly “nonessential” programs that are actually vital, such as music, art, band, foreign languages, sports, and early childhood education programs. This lack of care and nurture of children is what MJ wanted to draw our attention to on a worldwide scale, as well as his focus on the enormous value of children, how they can show us a new way. As he says so wonderfully in his Grammy Legend Award speech of 1993:
The magic, the wonder, the mystery, and the innocence of a child’s heart are the seeds of creativity that will heal the world. I really believe that. What we need to learn from children isn’t childish. Being with them connects us to the deeper wisdom of life, which is ever present and only asks to be lived. They know the way to solutions that lie waiting to be recognized within our own hearts.
I absolutely love this speech, and his reference to “a child’s heart” is so important. Incidentally, the Immortal version of “Childhood” includes 2 passages. Here’s a link to the full speech:
Willa: I agree – what he is saying in this speech is crucially important, and I think this is one way critics really misunderstood what he was saying. When he talked about wanting to retain the childlike part of himself, critics tended to interpret that as meaning he was reluctant to grow up and be a responsible adult. But that wasn’t what he was saying at all. He felt very responsible about trying to help solve the many problems that face our world.
And this is the critically important part: he felt that connecting with the creativity and “deeper wisdom” of childhood would help us solve those problems. Susan Fast talks about this in her Dangerous book:
In the collection of short films that accompanies Dangerous, Jackson says in a preamble to “Heal the World”: “Being with [children] connects us to the deep wisdom of life, the simple goodness shines straight from their hearts.”
Many conventional ideas about childhood link it to the future through the belief that children enter the world as empty vessels, that there is, therefore, an opportunity – or obligation – to educate them, “fill” them, shape them, in order that they will hopefully produce a “better” future … that they will fulfill the dreams of their parents, and that they will carry on family lines.
But Jackson rarely talks or sings about children in this conventional way … For him, there was a utopian impulse in children not because they represent the future, the hopes and dreams of adults, the continuation of a “normal” progression of time and family, but because their honesty, simplicity and innocence center adults, bring us back to feeling, to good affect; “now, when the world is so confused and its problems so complicated,” he says in the same preamble, “we need our children more than ever.”
So as Susan emphasizes, Michael Jackson isn’t saying that we can create a better future by molding children into better people – into the people we want them to be. Just the opposite. He’s saying that when we spend time with children, it “connects us to the deep wisdom of life” and makes us better people.
We really see this in the Heal the World video, where we see children playing in war-torn areas around the world as soldiers watch, and then the soldiers throw down their rifles. And we see it more subtly in the Jam video, where he juxtaposes images of children playing, dancing, making music against images of urban poverty. Importantly, he explicitly talks about solving the world’s problems in the lyrics of “Jam,” like in these opening lines:
Nation to nation
All the world must come together
Face the problems that we see
Then maybe somehow we can work it out
And in the chorus he goes on to say that the way to solve these problems is to “jam” – meaning to play like children, to connect creatively with one another and find innovative solutions. So he seemed to see this childlike wonder and playfulness as a powerful force for social change, and thought it was very important for adults to reconnect to the childlike parts of themselves to tap into this creative force. As he says in the passage Susan quoted, “now, when the world is so confused and its problems so complicated, we need our children more than ever.”
Veronica: Amen to that, Willa! I agree with what you just said so well and with what Susan Fast wrote. The word “center” here is very important: “their honesty, simplicity and innocence center adults, bring us back to feeling.” This is one place where we can see MJ as a philosopher. When he talks about the “playfulness of life” and the “deeper wisdom of life” in the Grammy speech, what is he really telling us? We need to look closely at this speech, which is a condensed form of insights that are reflected elsewhere – for example, in the Heal the World introduction, in Dancing the Dream, and maybe throughout his entire work.
Here I’d like to quote from a wonderful book, The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer. In the final chapters, he talks about the Tao of Lao-tzu and the Tao te Ching. The Tao (pronounced “dow”) is translated as “the Way,” a way of balance, or being at the center of extremes, also called The Middle Way. Singer uses the example of a pendulum that will, when pushed, swing one way to one extreme and then back again to the other extreme to the same degree. Eventually it will come to center, to a balance point, where it rests. Singer also uses the analogy of sailing, where the balance point of the energies is more complicated because it involves the wind, the sail, the rudder, and the tautness with which sailor holds the ropes.
He suggests that our entire planet lives within a balance of energies known as “The Way” and that if we humans can stop going from one extreme to the other and find the center, we can reach our full potential.
First you have to realize that since everything has its yin and yang, everything has its own balance point. It is the harmony of all these balance points, woven together, that forms the Tao. This overall balance maintains its equilibrium as it moves through time and space. Its power is phenomenal.
If you want to imagine the power of the Tao, examine how much energy is wasted swinging sideways. Suppose you want to go from point A to point B, but instead of walking there directly, you move from side to side like a sine wave. That would take you a long time, and you would waste a lot of energy…. When you spend your energy trying to maintain the extremes, nothing goes forward. You get stuck in a rut. The more extreme you are, the less forward movement there is…. In the Tao of sailing, the balance point is not static; it’s a dynamic equilibrium. You move from balance point to balance point, from center to center. You can’t have any concepts or preferences; you have to let the forces move you.
In the Way, nothing is personal. You are merely an instrument in the hands of the forces, participating in the harmony of balance. You must reach the point where your whole interest lies in the balance and not in any personal preference for how things should be.
How does this relate to MJ and his feelings about children? Children, MJ believed, were fully present to life – they were in effect living the Tao, the Way. He expressed some of these ideas regarding what might be called philosophical Taoism before, for instance, in 1983:
In this interview at Hayvenhurst, Michael describes his creative inspirations and how he “plays off of life”:
You can feel the energy, everything around you. You can feel it. The energy from the moon, or the plants, everything around you. It’s wonderful.
I mean, nature, animals, and all those things, are very inspirational to my work. I play off of those things, and children, and it stimulates ideas, creates all kind of things. I just can’t tell you. I think the majority of my success is from these sources. Some people say, “Well, go into detail.” But it’s hard. You really can’t. It’s just the whole world. You just play off of life.
I think it’s the same for what inspires painters, sculptures, and people of the arts. It’s the whole world, though. It’s magic.
Willa: That’s a wonderful description of his creative process! And it really does go hand in hand with Singer’s description of “dynamic equilibrium,” doesn’t it? – where, he encourages us to be in tune with “the energy, everything around you,” as Michael Jackson describes it.
Veronica: Singer writes about moving in sync with the forces of the Way. He compares the Tao to the eye of a hurricane, a balance point of forces that swirl around it. The forces of movement outside and the balance inside are part of this centering. MJ spoke about the need to “keep moving” – to keep growing, evolving, and creating – and he repeatedly advised musicians to let the music create itself. He said if I try and write a hit song, nothing will happen – I have to let it “drop into my lap.”
When I create my music, I feel like an instrument of nature. I wonder what delight nature must feel when we open our hearts and express our God-given talents. The sound of approval rose across the universe and the whole world abounds in magic. Wonder fills our hearts for what we have glimpsed for an instant: the playfulness of life….
MJ calls himself “an instrument of nature” – echoing the idea he expressed before about “playing off of life.” In both passages, he appears to be speaking about the Way, the balance, the harmony of life that children are more in tune with, when he speaks about “the deeper wisdom of life” and the “playfulness of life.”
Here we come back to that key word “wonder,” one that appears so significantly in the line in “Childhood.” Wonder, mystery, magic, creativity, a child’s heart, nature – all these seem connected to something MJ called “the playfulness of life” and that he saw as a gift that children had to offer our “wounded world.”
Willa: Yes, that phrase “the playfulness of life” is interesting, isn’t it? And the fact that he attaches such importance to it – to this spirit of play. We don’t usually think of play as important, but repeatedly we see him linking this spirit of playfulness with creativity and a sense of personal well-being – and with global well-being as well.
Veronica: The importance of play in our lives, from children to adults, is undervalued. In my research I came across the work of Dr. Stuart Brown, co-founder of the National Institute for Play, who affirms that play is as biologically essential as sleep or dreams, and equally necessary for adults and children. Play is a universal language of higher intelligence species and is important for neurological and social development. Play promotes memory, stress management, and resiliency, and is one of the Rights of the Child adopted by the U.N.
In the USA, maybe because of the strong influence of the Puritan work ethic, we are just way too serious! We need to play more, and MJ promoted this in his own life – for example, in the creation of Neverland and in the way he brought children and children’s issues to the forefront, perhaps more than any other performer has ever done. Dr. Brown also says that we must incorporate play into our lives fully, and realize that the opposite of play is not work but depression.
Willa: Wow, that’s really interesting. I never looked at it that way. Maybe instead of prescribing anti-depressants, doctors should encourage their patients to play more!
Veronica: Sounds good to me! In so many ways, our lives are impoverished by a lack of play.
But seeing the problem, as MJ sings in the lines from “Jam” you quoted, Willa, is what we tend to avoid, because it’s sometimes painful to see “what’s going on” (to quote Marvin Gaye), and the corporate mass media is an all-too-willing vehicle to distract us (via consumerism, celebrity gossip, scandals, and so on). MJ, however, was not afraid to “speak truth to power.” In the Grammy speech he goes on to connect worldwide problems, such as wars, terrorism, and incarceration, with the fact that “children have had their childhood stolen from them.”
Willa: Yes, and this is another critically important point, I think. Michael Jackson not only tells us that reconnecting with childhood can help solve the world’s problems but, on the flip side, that many of those problems directly result from a loss of childhood, as you say.
Veronica: Yes, absolutely. MJ had made the same point earlier in “On Children of the World” from Dancing the Dream:
We have to heal our wounded world. The chaos, despair, and senseless destruction we see today are a result of the alienation that people feel from each other and their environment. Often this alienation has its roots in an emotionally deprived childhood. Children have had their childhood stolen from them. A child’s mind needs the nourishment of mystery, magic, wonder, and excitement. I want my work to help people rediscover the child that’s hiding in them.
Willa: I’m so glad you shared this quote, Veronica, because this is the crux of the issue, isn’t it? We live in a “wounded world” because “of the alienation people feel from each other and their environment.” I think that’s exactly it.
And as he says, “Often this alienation has its roots in an emotionally deprived childhood.” Or this alienation can appear in adults who may have had happy childhoods but have lost the “deeper knowledge” they had as children. In fact, often we find ourselves encouraged to cast aside that “deeper knowledge” as childish, and focus on adult concerns like earning money, building a career, being respectable.
Veronica: This is so true, Willa. In terms of Singer’s analysis, we go to an extreme and lose the balance point. This “senseless destruction” and alienation cause great pain. Too many of us have some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from not being nurtured or encouraged enough as children or from feeling pressured by social norms to abandon our childlike values, like spontaneity, creativity, magic, open-heartedness, as we grow up. Michael wanted to recast our social and personal tendency to disregard children into a deep respect and appreciation for what they have to offer.
It’s interesting that an artist so extraordinarily gifted himself would be disregarded in the same way children are often disregarded. There is an irony in that, while asking us to see children and their gifts more clearly, he himself was misperceived precisely for his very playfulness in his personal life and in his art.
Willa: I agree.
Veronica: To get back to the song “Childhood,” it is so poignant to me when MJ sings,
No one understands me
They view it as such strange eccentricities…
‘Cause I keep kidding around
Like a child, but pardon me …
He was actually modelling for us the values he wanted to see. It’s interesting too that in “Childhood,” he gets really animated and excited when singing about play:
Have you seen my childhood?
I’m searching for that wonder in my youth
Like pirates in adventurous dreams,
Of conquest and kings on the throne …
Have you seen my childhood?
I’m searching for that wonder in my youth
Like fantastical stories to share
The dreams I would dare, watch me fly …
The fact that we, as adults, often no longer experience play, adventurous dreams, and wonder was something MJ spoke about a lot, particularly in conversations with Schmuley Boteach. (He refers to a book on childlike values that he was working on with Boteach in his Oxford Union Speech of 2001. Boteach published these conversations in Honoring Child Spirit, a book I might not have read but someone I respect recommended it, so I took a look and discovered a lot of valuable discussion there.)
MJ reveals to Boteach how much he thinks adults have shut down and lost the natural playfulness and creativity that they once had as children. He even persuaded Boteach to climb a tree with him and sit in its branches to recapture those lost feelings!
MJ: The world is gift-wrapped for them [children] and everything is a new experience and they know it is all out there waiting for them and all these different categories of fun, a wonderful fantastical mission to take. Why do they [adults] lose it? Why does it go away? You felt that way, you remember feeling that way. Can you go back to that place?
SB: The only time I felt like that again is when I was with you watching Toy Story on Thanksgiving, and at Neverland, when we went to the tree that morning. We climbed up and spent a full hour there, just hanging out. And I have to say, it was pretty liberating. Two grown men, hanging out in a tree house. It was memorable.
MJ: Isn’t that wonderful? Everybody should have that experience and never feel that I am too old to climb a tree.
Willa: And he invited Martin Bashir to have that same experience. Near the beginning of Living with Michael Jackson, he climbs his “Giving Tree” and encourages Bashir to climb with him. Here’s a clip:
It’s interesting that in talking to Bashir, he explicitly links the childlike joy of climbing the tree with his creativity. As he tells Bashir, “I’ve written so many of my songs in this tree. I wrote ‘Heal the World’ in this tree, ‘Will You Be There,’ ‘Black or White,’ ‘Childhood.’”
As he climbs he calls down to Bashir, “Aren’t you coming?” but Bashir says, “No way.” He’s intrigued, though, and does end up climbing a short way, but then stops – either because he’s worried about falling, or worried he’ll look ridiculous on camera. Later, when they’re both back on the ground, Bashir quizzes him about it in a somewhat mocking way, and then in voiceover asks, “So how had this singing and dancing genius arrived in this surreal place that is his life today?”
So Bashir doesn’t understand what Michael Jackson is saying – and more importantly, he doesn’t seem to want to understand. He wants to look down at him from the privileged position of a respectable adult and criticize him.
Veronica: Thanks for this comparison, Willa. What a contrast between MJ and Bashir here! Bashir had closed down to childlike value to a huge degree and had become a stultifying, judgmental adult. That was what was truly “surreal.” MJ looks so peaceful and happy sitting up high in his “Giving Tree.”
Willa: Though he also seems a little self-conscious to me, like he knows Bashir is judging him.
Joie: You know the truly interesting part in all of this? At least, to me anyway … is the fact that he understood that no one was taking him seriously, and that no one was going to take him seriously in this endeavor. He even addressed it in “Childhood” when he sang the simple words,
Before you judge me
Try hard to love me
He knew that people were going to listen to that song and roll their eyes in a sort of, “Oh, he’s at it again” attitude.
Veronica: Yes, that’s a good point – he sure did perceive and anticipate that judgmental criticism. But the next line of the song is an instruction (these lines are in the imperative, or command, form) to “Look within your heart, then ask / Have you seen my childhood?” I think MJ took a heart-centered approach and tried to speak to people on that level and ask them to respond on that level. And look at the fans and how much they responded to that. When he says in This Is It, “Love is important,” he knew that love was the way to reach people on the deepest levels.
Here is another snippet from Honoring Child Spirit:
SB: You are very successful, so you can afford to forgive people and remain childlike. “But me?” someone can say, “I live in a trailer park. How can I forgive people? Life is bitter for me. G-d has let me down. I have no time for my children. I am a single mother with two jobs to support my kids.” What would you say to someone who says, “Come on, Michael. This is not realistic. You want to be like Peter Pan? You want to take me to this fantasy land called Neverland. Get real. I can’t go to fantasy land. I have children to support. My husband beats me.” What would you say to someone like that?
MJ: I would think they should try to find the truth about the power of love, and the way that I think it should be done, without sounding selfish, the way I have discovered what real bliss is. I think if they even gave it a chance they would feel it.
Willa: That is so interesting! I haven’t read this book but I looked up this passage in Google Books, and here he’s specifically talking about “a childlike way of being,” right? So he seems to be saying that maintaining those childlike qualities within ourselves not only can help solve problems on a global scale, but on a personal level as well. As he tells Rabbi Boteach, it can lead to “real bliss.”
Veronica: Yes, it’s in the chapter called “Love and Guidance,” where MJ and Boteach discuss loving children and guiding them, and learning from them too. MJ says, “They are my teachers. I watch them and I learn. It’s important for us to try and be like them and imitate them. They are golden.” In another place he says, “They are the sunshine of the world.”
Joie: Here’s a question that I’m fond of asking during these types of discussions. Do you think, ladies, that the public at large will ever “get it”? Will they ever open themselves up and receive the message that he tried so hard to impart? Because I have to be honest and say that, sadly, I don’t think they will. I always wonder if the tide will ever turn where Michael is concerned. If he will ever be seen as the truly remarkable artist, thinker, and visionary that he was, or if his image and his legacy are tarnished forever. And I’m actually an optimist in my everyday life, but about this, I’m just not sure anymore.
Veronica: Well, I think the general public, and by that I mean people who are not MJ fans and advocates, are lacking a true picture of who MJ was. They are lacking information. They have been fed lies from the tabloids for decades. Remember how MJ called it junk food? They have been eating all that junk food and don’t have the real nourishment that would come from eating healthy food – meaning true information.
Recently, I gave a talk at a gallery about my book. I was a bit worried that some media-indoctrinated people would show up and harass me, but luckily, it was my friends who came. But few of my friends have read my books, and they don’t know much about MJ either. During the talk, one person commented that Michael had “mutilated” his face. I recognized that this came from the relentless tabloid-type stories (for instance, see Susan Woodward’s reference to the Daily Mirror article that MJ sued them over), but I stayed calm and just said, “Well, plenty of women love ‘mature Mike’ and if you go on YouTube you can find videos about that.” I also referred to This Is It, which some people had seen. And I kept going. This same person just sent me an email, which I quote, unedited:
Thanks for sending this beautiful video [a link to the Childhood video]. Veronica, I have a new perception of who Michael was and an understanding of what happened to him that, perhaps, explains his actions. His is a very sad story …
Thanks again. Your presentation was far more enjoyable than what I expected. At first I wanted to come because I was interested but, primarily, because I wanted to be there for you. After hearing your talk, I was very glad I attended because I learned so much!
So many misperceptions about MJ can’t be changed in a short talk, but we can open up fissures in the biases that people have absorbed from the media. As MJ advocates spread their knowledge outside the fan community more and more, it slowly ripples out.
I remember when, in the early 90’s, Bill Moyers asked Oren Lyons, the Onondaga Faith-Keeper of the Iroquois nation, if the Native American tradition was basically finished in the modern world, and Oren replied (I am paraphrasing here), “As long as there is one person to talk and one person to listen, the stories will continue.” That is so hopeful – and true.
In my opinion, it is on this fundamental level of person to person, heart to heart, where deep change occurs. Yes, there is a lot of doubt and skepticism out there, but with true information, people can learn. And the other hopeful thing is of course MJ’s music: “If you want to know me, listen to my music. The love is stored there and will not die.”
Willa: That’s beautiful! I hadn’t heard that before: “The love is stored there and will not die.” So he must have believed that his image would be redeemed someday, and that his ideas might spark significant change in the future.
Veronica: In my talk, I emphasized the reasonableness of MJ’s thinking – namely, that if we want a better world, we have to take better care of our children. We have to love and value them, nurture them, and learn from them. We have to honor them and listen to them. I read some passages from the beautiful conclusion to MJ’s Oxford Union speech – here is a link to that speech:
Someone commented afterwards how impressed she was with his “intelligence and articulateness.” Well, this is no surprise to us, but it is for people who have been told lies for decades. I remember being shocked after MJ’s passing when Larry King asked someone, “Was Michael Jackson intelligent?” I mean, it blew my mind that he even had to ask that question! We have our work cut out for us, but I think people are becoming more receptive to MJ’s messages, particularly on subjects like children and the environment. He was so advanced in his thinking, light-years ahead, and we are starting to catch up at last.
Willa: Yes, I think so too, and I strongly believe that someday he will be seen as the most important artist of our time. And that day may not be too far away. I mean, perceptions of him seem to have changed dramatically since he died, and they’re continuing to evolve as people like your friends, Veronica, learn more about him. Thank you for sharing that story. We just need to keep “Michaeling,” as you say, until everyone “gets it,” as you put it, Joie.
Joie: Well, that’s all for this post, and we want to thank Veronica for joining us. Willa and I also want to thank you for your continued support over the last three years.
As some of you may remember, when we began this blog it was a weekly feature, and we were so overwhelmed with all the love you guys heaped on us. We were truly surprised at the reception we received, and we quickly came to recognize what an awesome platform we had built for exploring new and thought-provoking ideas about the way Michael Jackson’s art is perceived. But after that first year, we also realized that in order to do it justice we couldn’t keep up the weekly schedule and still bring you the quality posts we wanted to. So we switched to posting on a bi-weekly schedule, and that worked well for us for a time. However, as the circumstances of our lives change, we need to acknowledge that this blog needs to adapt to fit our changing lives.
So we have decided to take a more laid-back approach and post when the inspiration strikes. We have some fun and interesting topics lined up for the coming year, and we still hope to post fairly frequently – we will just have a less structured posting schedule. We hope you understand, and we look forward to your continued support in the new year. Thanks again!
Willa: Yes, and thank you, Veronica, for joining us for this special holiday post. We really appreciate it, and hope you have a warm and wonderful Christmas today, and a very happy new year.
Veronica: It was my honor and pleasure to be with you, and I look forward to more great discussions ahead. Happy holidays to you!
Willa: This week I am thrilled to be joined once again by Dr. Susan Fast, whose new book on the Dangerous album will be coming out September 25 from Bloomsbury Press. I just want to say up front that I’ve read this book twice now, and I’m still staggered by it. For the first time we have a detailed, in-depth analysis of one of Michael Jackson’s albums, and it’s amazing – it reveals how he conveys meaning through every layer of musical creation and performance. Some sections I’ve read numerous times, going through sentence by sentence with my headphones on, trying to catch all the details and nuances of meaning Susan identifies. I was quite simply blown away by it.
Susan, your book is such a treasure trove of ideas, as well as new ways of listening and thinking about his music. There’s so much I want to talk with you about! Thank you so much for joining me.
Susan: Thanks for having me back to Dancing With the Elephant, Willa. It’s such a pleasure to exchange ideas with you again. Sorry that Joie can’t be with us this time around.
Willa: Me too. Joie is starting a new career, which is exciting, but it’s keeping her really busy.
Susan: Very exciting; I wish her the best of luck! And thanks for your incredibly generous comments about the book and for being so helpful when I was writing it: you read through drafts of every chapter (some more than once I think) and made such thoughtful suggestions, which have certainly made the book stronger. And it helped make the writing process feel less lonely which, as you well know, it often is.
Willa: Oh, I thoroughly enjoyed it! And I love the fact that you focus on Dangerous, which tends to get a lot less attention than Off the Wall or Thriller. Most critics seem to think those two albums were the high points of Michael Jackson’s artistic output, and it was all downhill from there. I don’t know how many times I’ve read that …
Susan: Yes, I point to several critiques like that in the book and they keep coming; the 35th anniversary of the release of Off the Wall just passed and Mark Anthony Neal wrote an essay that called it Jackson’s “signature achievement.” It’s a brilliant album, but all of Jackson’s albums are brilliant. As I’ve thought about it more, I actually don’t know how his albums can be compared; they’re like apples and oranges, each conceived of and framed in a unique way. I think we need to get away from putting them in a hierarchy that, in my opinion, is at least partly based upon nostalgia for the young(er) Jackson – for many complicated reasons.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Susan, and we could easily do an entire post just exploring those “complicated reasons.” I think a lot of it is nostalgia, as you say – both for the younger Michael Jackson and for our own younger selves, for the people we were when we first heard those early albums – as well as a reluctance to see him as a grown man and a mature artist.
And part of that, I think, is a deep discomfort among whites with the image of the “angry black man.” That image carries a lot of emotional weight, especially in the US, and I think a lot of people were very troubled by the idea that the sweet-faced Michael Jackson we’d watched grow up before our eyes – a celebrated success story and a symbol of integration and racial harmony – could become an “angry black man.”
But we do see flashes of anger in his later albums. And he is certainly speaking with a mature voice, as you emphasize in your book. I was interested that you see Dangerous as a significant milestone in that progression. In fact, you begin your book with the defiant claim that “Dangerous is Michael Jackson’s coming of age album.” I love that! – in part because it boldly contradicts the conventional wisdom that Dangerous was simply another stage in his decline.
Susan: The decline narrative is so misguided, in my opinion, but as you say, it depends on what you’re looking for and what your experience has been with Jackson’s music. I’ve loved the Dangerous album for so long and have always thought of it as an immensely significant artistic statement. Having the opportunity to spend so much time with it was an amazing experience; I’m grateful that the editors at 33⅓ thought it was a worthwhile project. And I’m really thrilled that they’ve chosen to make this book, the only one on Jackson in the series, the 100th volume. I’m sure this was partly an accident having to do with individual authors’ deadlines, but it warms my heart to know that such an important artist will occupy that significant milestone spot.
The series – each book is devoted to a single album – doesn’t prescribe how records should be interpreted, there’s no formula for the books – indeed, some volumes don’t talk much about individual songs or how they’re structured. But in part because I’m a musicologist, and in part because there’s been so little written about how Michael Jackson’s songs work, I really wanted to focus on that, always keeping in mind, of course, that the way musicians organize sound is inextricably bound up with the social. Musical sound doesn’t transcend time and place; it comes from somewhere, helps define that somewhere.
Willa: Yes, I love the way you explore the “anatomy” of his songs, as he called it on more than one occasion, and also provide important historical contexts for approaching Dangerous. For example, before taking an in-depth look at his songs of passion and desire, you take on the “pathologizing [of] Jackson’s sexuality,” as you put it. I think that discussion is incredibly important, especially since you are the first critic I’ve read to validate what so many fans have been saying for years: that he was unbelievably hot! Obviously! And not just in the 80s, but throughout his life. It felt so liberating to me to read that. It was like, Yes! Finally! Here’s a critic who really gets it – who understands the power of his music and his performance and the sheer presence of his body on many different levels.
Susan: The denial by so many critics of Jackson’s sexuality, or – more often – the relegation of his electrifying sexual presence to a performance – in other words, put on when he was on stage, but not “real” (whatever that means) – is something I felt compelled to address, especially because sex and lust are themes featured so prominently on this record. The thing the critics miss is that it makes absolutely no difference whether or not the person Jackson was on stage carried over to his life off stage; acting is powerful, we’re moved by good actors, they make us believe in the moment of the performance and perhaps long afterwards. Jackson did that.
Willa: That’s very true. He did.
Susan: Beyond that, I don’t see the incongruity between his commanding, aggressive, sexy onstage self and his quiet, shy offstage self as problematic in the way that so many critics do. It’s only a problem if we think in binaries; Michael Jackson was much too complex for that kind of thinking.
Willa: Yes, and as you point out in your book, that intriguing contrast of the bold onstage presence with the shy offstage demeanor was itself very sexy for a lot of women, myself included.
There were also important cultural and historical reasons for him to be cautious in how he presented himself offstage, especially with white women. Eleanor Bowman, who contributes here sometimes, recently sent a link to an NPR piece about Billy Eckstine, one of the first black artists to cross over to a white audience. To be honest, I’d never heard of him before but his biographer, Cary Ginell, told NPR that at one time “Eckstine’s popularity rivaled Frank Sinatra’s.” However, his career was derailed overnight by a photo in LIFE magazine:
“The profile featured a photograph of Eckstine coming out of a nightclub in New York City, and being mobbed by white teenage girls,” Ginell says. “If you look at the photograph, it looks very innocuous and very innocent. It’s actually what America should be like, with no racial tension, no racial separation – just honest love and happiness between the races. But America wasn’t ready for that in 1950. White America did not want Billy Eckstine dating their daughters.”
Eckstine’s crossover career abruptly ended with that one photograph: “Eckstine continued to record and perform, but white disc jockeys would not play his records.” And it’s almost like he was erased from public memory – at least, white memory. But Michael Jackson was a well-read student of history, especially black history, and I’m sure he would have known about the backlash experienced by public figures before him who had been perceived as too friendly with white women – people like Jack Johnson and Chuck Berry and Billy Eckstine.
Susan: What a tragic story this is. My overarching point in the book on Dangerous is that the politicized and sexualized adult persona that Jackson revealed on that album and the short films that went with it were incredibly threatening. And as you say, I think he knew that he had to be careful, given stories like Eckstine’s and many others, which is why that soft, sweet, off-stage public persona was so important. At the same time, he really pushed the envelope – dating high-profile white women, for example. I do address this in the book. For a long time he maintained a delicate balance, but eventually, when he started presenting a more adult, sexualized self in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this balance was thrown off. His performances couldn’t be so easily dismissed.
And what’s so interesting to me is that many critics and others could not, would not, and still cannot see him as an adult – don’t believe him as one – and I think this is one of the reasons why he is so often vilified or infantilized. Witness the recent tabloid story in which unnamed maids who supposedly worked at Neverland reported that they witnessed him “peeing” in his house and threatening to throw “animal poop snowballs” at the help; this is a very particular kind of denigration – including the kiddy language used – that strips Jackson of his adulthood. We could say it strips him of a lot of other things – dignity, the ability to be taken seriously, perhaps his humanity …
Willa: I agree! It denies his humanity in a very literal sense: peeing on the floor and throwing feces is something an ape would do, an animal would do, not a human. When I heard those stories, I immediately thought of the chorus of “Monster”:
(He’s like an animal)
He’s a monster
(Just like an animal)
He’s an animal
I think he really understood this impulse by certain segments of the population to characterize him as a monster, an animal, a bogeyman, an Other, and he forced us to acknowledge it.
Susan: Yes, for sure. But I think the use of the childish language points very specifically to the desire to relegate him to prepubescence, to childhood – in a bad way, not the way he would have embraced! In his insightful analysis of the short film for “Black or White,” Eric Lott says that at the beginning of the panther dance “something so extraordinary happened at this moment that the video’s initial audiences couldn’t take it in.”
Willa: I agree!
Susan: Me too. Elizabeth Chin elaborates on this by saying that many found the panther dance “unintelligible” in the way that encounters with the unfamiliar often are; she uses Freud’s concept of the uncanny, “the recognition of a truth that has been suppressed,” to help articulate what happened for many viewers at this moment. I think this can be said about Jackson in general, especially as he got older and started to challenge his audience more profoundly around social issues. Critics and some of his audience couldn’t take it in, couldn’t see what he was saying, or doing.
Willa: That’s true. And that’s an excellent way of describing much of his later work, isn’t it? – that he was forcing us, at some level of consciousness, to acknowledge “a truth that has been suppressed”? And the panther dance is an incredible example of that. More than 20 years later, we’re still trying to uncover the “truth” of that performance – we’re still stunned by it and can’t take it all in, to paraphrase Lott.
So Susan, reading your book I was repeatedly blown away by your insightful analysis of the “anatomy” or musical structure of specific songs, as well as the album as a whole. One thing that immediately caught my attention is how you see the overall structure of Dangerous as being like a book with “chapters,” or clusters of songs exploring a related theme. In fact, you use a similar structure in your book, so your book mirrors Dangerous, chapter by chapter.
Susan: Yes, I hear Dangerous as a concept album; the concept is loose, but it’s there. Of course the songs can be listened to and appreciated individually, but I think Jackson was going for something bigger, more cohesive, an over-arching narrative. It’s a strikingly different approach than the one he used on Thriller or Bad which – at least as far as I can hear – don’t have this kind of narrative cohesiveness. This is why we need to start thinking about each album individually, paying attention to its particular contours, themes, ideas.
Interestingly, he said in his interview with Ebony in December 2007 (and he said a similar thing elsewhere many times) that the approach to Thriller was to make it an album of hit singles. In his words:
If you take an album like Nutcracker Suite [by the classical composer Tchaikovsky], every song is a killer, every one. So I said to myself, ‘why can’t there be a pop album where every …’ People used to do an album where you’d get one good song and the rest were like B-sides. They’d call them ‘album songs’ – and I would say to myself ‘Why can’t every one be like a hit song? Why can’t every song be so great that people would want to buy it if you could release it as a single?’ So I always tried to strive for that. That was my purpose for the next album [Thriller].
(Here’s a link, and this quote begins at 3:38.) His use of Tchaikovsky as an example is so interesting to me: what pop musician models commercial success on a record of classical music?? But Tchaikovsky’s idea wasn’t far off from Jackson’s. The Nutcracker ballet was long, complicated, and required a lot of resources to mount; why not create a “greatest hits” suite that could be performed as a concert piece? I think it’s also interesting that there are eight pieces in the Nutcracker Suite, most of them quite short – the whole thing is about 25 minutes long. I can’t help but draw a parallel to the structure of Thriller: nine songs, about 42 minutes of music.
Willa: Wow, that’s a really interesting way to interpret that quote. (By the way, here are YouTube links to the full score of The Nutcracker and to the Suite.) You know, I’ve seen the ballet many times, and certain parts of the score are really popular – it seems like everywhere you go at Christmas you hear the music for the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy playing in the background, and it was also included in Disney’s Fantasia. (Just for fun, here’s a link to that too.) But I don’t think I’ve ever just listened to the music to The Nutcracker all the way through, separate from the ballet, and I never thought about the Suite like an album. That’s so interesting, especially when you put it side by side with Thriller …
Susan: Yes, that was Tchaikovsky’s aim in creating the Suite: he wanted the piece performed more often, realized it couldn’t be because of the length and cost of mounting it, and so pulled what he thought were the “greatest hits” from it and created the Suite.
But back to Thriller, the length is average for a pop album, but it’s a small number of songs, really, the smallest number of any of his solo records. And, as we know, just about every song on Thriller was a hit single. My sense is that people take this as the way he thought about putting albums together in general, but I don’t believe this is true (in fact if you look at the above quote carefully, you’ll see that he’s referring specifically to Thriller). Thriller is a very particular and uncharacteristic instance of concision from an artist who liked to be expansive.
In a May 1992 interview with Ebony, one of the questions the interviewer asked was what the “concept” for Dangerous was; I think it’s quite a striking question for the very reason that Jackson’s albums had not been particularly “conceptual” up to that point: what made the interviewer think there was a concept? The cover art work? Something about the music? In any case, in his answer Jackson again pointed to Nutcracker, but here his thinking about it was very different:
I wanted to do an album that was like Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. So that in a thousand years from now, people would still be listening to it. Something that would live forever. I would like to see children and teenagers and parents and all races all over the world, hundreds and hundreds of years from now, still pulling out songs from that album and dissecting it. I want it to live.
Well, the dissecting has begun! I have to admit that while I’d read this interview before, I didn’t remember this quote until after I’d finished writing the book: what a shame. But I feel somewhat vindicated now in thinking that Jackson did, indeed, have an overarching concept for this record, that he was not thinking in terms of hit singles (or not exclusively or primarily), but of a series of interconnected songs, laid out in a particular order, that tell us a story. And a pretty complex story, too, one that he saw as requiring a lot of analysis to unravel (the idea that an artist wants his work dissected is pretty thrilling for someone like me).
The way I see it, that story is about very big ideas: it’s about examining and challenging the state of the contemporary world with energy and resilience and allowing oneself to get lost in all the complexities of love (and lust!), of feeling hopeful, invigorated … and then being deeply, deeply, betrayed and wounded, not just by love, but by everyone and everything. From my perspective, he never completely recovers from that sense of betrayal on this record, though he does do a lot of serious soul searching. The songs are grouped, allowing ideas to be explored in considerable depth, examined through different musical and lyrical lenses.
Willa: Yes, that was so interesting to me. I’d never thought about his albums like that before – that they include groupings of related songs, like chapters in a book, and that they move us through a sequence of emotional experiences, like a novel does. But now that you’ve pointed out that structure in Dangerous, I see it in HIStory and Invincible as well.
For example, Invincible begins with three painful songs about a disastrous relationship with an uncaring woman: she’s trying to hurt him, she doesn’t understand him, she rejects him without giving him a chance to explain or win her over. And interestingly, that reflects his relationship with the public right then: the press (and the police as well) really were out to get him, people didn’t understand him, and they rejected his later albums and wouldn’t give them – or him – a chance.
Those songs are then followed by a series of five songs where he’s imagining scenes of genuine love – and pretty steamy sexual passion also. It’s like he’s trying to imaginatively conjure up the love and desire that was denied him in the first three songs.
Susan: Yes, those two groupings are certainly there on Invincible. He seemed to want to explore a theme through more than one song, in back-to-back tracks, in these later albums. Look at something from more than one angle.
Susan: Another narrative strategy on a later album that I’ve been struck by is his decision to end HIStory with “Smile.” After all that anger and venom, all that commentary on social injustices both personal and broadly cultural, delivered through some of the most aggressive grooves he ever created, he ends the album with that tragic ballad and its directive to “smile though your heart is breaking” (which his must have been); it’s very powerful.
Willa: It really is, especially when you consider that “Smile” was written by Charlie Chaplin, whose life story parallels Michael Jackson’s in significant ways. Chaplin was immensely popular in the 1920s and 30s, but then was falsely accused of fathering a child out of wedlock. There was a very public trial, and a paternity test proved he was not the father. But he was found guilty anyway, both in court and in the press, and the public turned against him. He spent the rest of his life in exile, something of a social pariah.
Given that context, I imagine “Smile” spoke to Michael Jackson in a very powerful way. And since HIStory in some respects is a response to the allegations against him, it makes sense that he would end the album with “Smile.” He rarely included cover songs on his albums, but he made an exception for “Smile” – it was that important to him.
Susan: Precisely. The point about cover songs is really significant. As you say, he didn’t really do them. The only other cover that appears on his solo albums is “Come Together” on Bad. I’ve always been intrigued by that choice as well.
Willa: I have too! He also places “Come Together” in a very prominent spot at the end of Moonwalker, and as Frank Delio has said, that movie was very important to him – he put a lot of time and energy, and his own money, into making it. So it feels like there’s something going on with “Come Together” – something important. Maybe we can do another post on that sometime and try to figure it out.
Susan: Great idea!
Willa: So it’s really fascinating to look at his later albums as made up of “chapters” of songs – and that structure seems to begin with Dangerous. As you pointed out with the two Nutcracker Suite quotes (and how interesting that he referred to it twice, in such different ways!) he doesn’t seem to have used this approach with his earlier albums. Thriller is more a collection of hit singles, as you said. But with Dangerous, he seems to be taking listeners on an emotional journey as we progress through the album – which suggests that something is lost when we listen to these songs in Shuffle mode on our iPods.
Susan: Or we just have a different kind of experience, which is fine too. I like looking at formal structures, though, and I think it’s interesting to view the album as a whole. “Jam,” for example, serves as a kind of overture on Dangerous (“it ain’t too much to Jam.” Now let me show you how it’s done for the next thirteen songs). I’m also struck by structural details, for example the first time we hear Jackson on Dangerous it’s through his breath – before he starts to sing – at the beginning of “Jam”; this aggressive use of breath returns in the last song on the album, “Dangerous,” in effect bringing the record full circle. I don’t think a detail like this is coincidental; when you listen to his music with your ears open you start to hear how intricately constructed it is, how nuanced.
Willa: Yes, and I feel like you’ve been opening my ears! There are motifs running throughout this album that I hadn’t really noticed or thought about before, like the use of his breath, or the recurring sound of breaking glass, or the visual image of the globe that appears repeatedly in the videos for this album (in Jam, Heal the World, Black or White, Will You Be There) as well as occupying a central position on the album cover. And as you point out in your book, the meaning of these motifs seems to evolve over the course of the album.
For example, the breaking glass gains new meaning once you’ve seen all the breaking glass in the panther dance of Black or White – specifically, it can be read as expressing anger at racial injustice. And once you’ve made that connection, it’s very interesting to then go back and listen to the other instances of breaking glass and see how that affects the meaning there as well. For example, I think there’s a racial component to In the Closet, as Joie and I discussed in a post a while back, and we hear breaking glass at significant moments in that song and video. And the album as a whole begins with the sound of breaking glass, so what does that tell us about the album we’re about to hear?
Susan: Indeed. What. The “non-musical” sounds on this album are really important to take into account – they help shape the narrative. The sound of breaking glass recurs in various places, as you say, and I think its meaning is multiple and complex. But one of the ways that I interpret the sound as it’s used at the beginning of the record is as a metaphor for a broken world.
Willa: Oh, that makes a lot of sense, Susan. And it really fits with the recurring image of the globe, and the feeling that he’s focusing on “very big ideas” on this album, as you said earlier.
There are also some recurring musical techniques you identify in your book that I found really intriguing as well. For example, you point out that both “Jam” and “In the Closet” include a bass line in the chorus but not in the verses – a pronounced absence, if that makes sense. And that creates a very unsettled feeling in the verses, as you point out – like we’re dangling over a void with no ground beneath us. I love that image because it describes so perfectly my uneasiness when listening to “Jam” – something I feel rather intensely but had never really thought about before or traced back to its origins, and certainly never associated with the lack of bass. And that unsettled feeling fits the meaning of the lyrics because in both songs the verses are describing a problem: a broken world, a romantic conflict.
The bass then appears in the chorus, which as you point out in the book provides a feeling of reassurance – like, Whew! Now we’re back on solid ground! And that reinforces the meaning of the lyrics also since the chorus suggests a solution. In “Jam,” he tells us the solution to a broken world is to “jam” – to come together as a community and make music together, both literally and symbolically. So the ideas and emotions expressed in the lyrics are reinforced in sophisticated ways by the music.
Susan: Yes, this is a great example of how musical sounds map onto social ideas. How does it make us feel when that grounding bassline isn’t there? How does the keyboard part that nearly mirrors the vocal line – but an octave higher and with a timbre that makes us feel tense – contribute to the sense of anxiousness in this song? Not to mention Jackson’s brilliant vocal in the verses, which is rushed: he’s constantly ahead of the beat – on purpose of course (this is really hard to do consistently, by the way).
Willa: I love the way you put that, Susan: “how musical sounds map onto social ideas.” To me, that’s really the essence of what’s so fascinating about your book. I don’t know enough about music to uncover that on my own – to figure out how specific musical details translate into creating meaning and emotion. I don’t even hear a lot of those details until you point them out, and then, Wow! It’s like I’m hearing elements of these songs for the first time – like that high unsettling keyboard line in “Jam” that you just mentioned. I hear it so clearly now since I read your book, but don’t remember ever hearing it before. So it opens up an entirely new aspect of his brilliance that’s closed to me without help from you or Lisha or others with your expertise.
Susan: I hope it’s useful to think about these things. When people say that Jackson was a perfectionist, it’s details like this that they’re talking about (along with lyrics, his dancing – which I don’t have the skills to say much about – etc.): the choice of a particular instrument or timbre, the placement of a breath, the decision to create a song in a particular genre, or to add an unsettling sound somewhere (one of the most intriguing examples of this last idea – to me at least – is the percussive sound heard after the last iteration of the chorus in “They Don’t Really Care About Us,” just before the guitar comes back in – at about 4:15. It’s just sonically interesting in and of itself, but why the dissonance at that point, why the new timbre that hasn’t been heard before in the song?). Some of these ideas came from his producers, I’m sure, but he OK’d them. The point is, he understood and appreciated the power of the musical detail. To say the least.
Willa: Absolutely. Well, it feels like we’ve really only talked in detail about the first chapter of your book – there’s so much more to discuss and explore! I hope you’ll join us again sometime. It’s always so fun to talk with you.
Susan: Yes … and we elaborated on what’s in that first chapter in some interesting ways! Thanks for the opportunity to explore these ideas with you; I’d be happy to join you again.
Willa: This week Joie and I are excited and honored to be joined by Dr. Susan Fast, Professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University and Director of their graduate program in Gender Studies and Feminist Research. And, in addition to all that, you’re a musicologist and study popular music as well. Is that right?
Susan: Studying popular music is really the main thing that I do!
Willa: Really? Well, then we definitely want to have a nice, long chat with you!
Susan: Well, I want to begin by thanking you both for inviting me to be part of the rich conversation about Michael Jackson that you have on this blog. I’m so glad that there are, increasingly, spaces devoted to the serious discussion of his work and cultural impact.
Joie: Yes, so are we. It’s way overdue.
Willa: That’s true, Joie. And Susan, you’ve done so much interesting work with Michael Jackson’s music and stage performances. There’s “Difference That Exceeded Understanding: Remembering Michael Jackson, 1958-2009,” a popular article in our Reading Room, and the recently published “Michael Jackson’s Queer Musical Belongings.” You also co-edited the special Michael Jackson issue of Popular Music and Society that came out a few months ago, and you’re currently working on a book about the Dangerous album, which will be published by Bloomsbury Press next year, right?
Susan: Yes, I’m really thrilled to be able to write a book on Dangerous as part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, in which an entire book is devoted to the study of a single album. Remarkably, there is no book in that series about any of Michael Jackson’s records! You can go here to see which albums have been written about, and which books are forthcoming.
Willa: That’s really exciting!
Joie: It is exciting. And again, it’s long overdue. Susan, here’s a question for you, and it’s one that I know really puzzles and frustrates so many fans. Why do you believe there haven’t been more publications of serious study of the work and artistry of Michael Jackson?
Susan: This is quite puzzling, Joie. I remember looking for scholarly work right after his death and I was stunned at how little there was; it was one of the things that made me want to write about him. There is a little bit from the 1980’s and early 90’s – a wonderful article on “Thriller” by Kobena Mercer, a chapter of a book called Invisibility Blues by Michelle Wallace, and one in Michael Eric Dyson’s book Reflecting Black, etc. And then there was Margo Jefferson’s rich book On Michael Jackson from 2006. (Joe Vogel has a good bibliography on his website.) But considering what an important cultural figure Michael was, it’s a pitifully small amount, and some of it isn’t all that sound in terms of scholarship. Scholars of popular music have been much more interested in MJ’s contemporaries, Prince and Madonna, because they saw there a more radical questioning of gender and, in the case of Prince, racial norms.
My sense is that MJ’s lack of irony played a key role in scholars’ disinterest in his work; this is a perpetual problem in popular music studies: one is just not hip if one is playing it straight. He was not considered oppositional enough, in a counter or subcultural way – at least not on the surface of much of his work.
I also think that the accusations of child molestation played a role in scholars staying away from him as a research subject. There have only been a few scholarly articles that have taken up the accusations, and then not particularly well. This is beginning to change; unfortunately it took his death to make it happen.
Willa: It’s terribly unfortunate. And I agree the lack of irony in his work was a big factor – one that hasn’t been examined nearly enough. The postmodern aesthetic tends toward irony, and since his work is so earnest and sincere, it was seen by many as simplistic and harkening back to an earlier, outdated and discredited point of view. However, as you and other critics are starting to reveal, his work is far from simple. And if one of the goals of postmodernism is to expose the constructedness of our beliefs and perceptions – in part by undermining binary oppositions such as black/white, masculine/feminine, gay/straight – then Michael Jackson wasn’t just in touch with the times but at the forefront, pushing the envelope.
I also wonder if another factor was his refusal to interpret his work for us. He always resisted attempts to draw him out about what his work meant, and many critics took that as a sign that it didn’t mean anything – or if it did, it was purely unintentional. Here’s a quote from Randy Taraborrelli, and while I know he’s not really a critic, it expresses a feeling shared by many critics, I think.
Even if [Michael Jackson’s publicists] could fathom a way to promote him as an accessible human artist with goals that were artistic instead of just commercial, it would never work. No one would believe it; Michael simply wasn’t that way and didn’t even know how to act that way.
Michael has always been myopic in his thinking about the music business: how many records are being bought by the fans? How long does it take to get to number one? How many records are sold? For Michael, commercialism is key, and he doesn’t understand any artist who doesn’t get that. …
For instance, Michael has never been a fan of Madonna, a woman who has managed to combine commerciality with artistic vision because, from the start, she has had something she wants to communicate with her music and, usually, a clear-eyed vision as to how to go about it. She gives interviews; she has a point of view. Other than lamenting about his lost childhood and his victimization at the hands of the media, Michael has never had much of a public viewpoint about anything. He’s not what one would call articulate, not by any stretch of the imagination.
I shouldn’t pick on Taraborrelli because he isn’t a critic and for the most part doesn’t pretend to be, but this just makes me crazy. Thank goodness there are critics and academics and musicologists like you, Susan, who are starting to lead us to a deeper understanding of Michael Jackson’s work, and just how complex and meaningful it really is.
Susan: Same with your work, Willa, which is also giving us new ways to think about his work and life. You’re so right: Michael’s reluctance to give interviews and really talk about his work left the door wide open for critics to dismiss or misconstrue it – although Prince doesn’t talk about his work much either and there hasn’t been the same problem, I think because there isn’t the same kind of cultural and artistic illegibility and confusion as there is with MJ.
Willa: That’s another reason pioneering work like yours is so important. It not only provides insights into his music and performances, but also legitimizes the serious study of his art and helps frame his work in new ways.
So I wanted to ask you about the title of your most recent article. Generally when we hear the word “queer,” it brings to mind sexual orientation as well as a specific political stance. Basically, it means gay and proud, and opposed to any attempt to cast shame onto anyone’s sexual orientation. But that isn’t what your article is about. It’s a wonderfully insightful analysis of how Michael Jackson incorporates and juxtaposes and plays with and off of different genres in his music and concert performances. So what does the word “queer” mean to you in terms of his work, and why did you choose that title for your article?
Susan: I chose to situate Michael’s genre-crossing in terms of queerness in order to, hopefully, shine a new light on the powerful cultural politics of his work. I’m not the only one to have used this frame to think about MJ – there are two other recent articles and one older one that look at him through this lens, but in ways very different from my approach. Queerness is not only about subverting, and thereby questioning, norms, but about the creation of ambiguity, of de-stablizing binaries, especially around gender and sexuality. It’s meant to be an empowering idea in that it gets us away from the notion that our identities need to be pigeon-holed into tidy, rigid categories. An important queer theorist, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, put it this way: queer is “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning” when someone’s gender, sexuality, or race can’t be made to “add up” in the way we’re used to, or isn’t stable.
Willa: That’s a wonderful definition, and very applicable to Michael Jackson.
Susan: Queerness often refers to sexuality, but it has also been used more broadly – in my article I also talk about race, and others have used the term to refer to the “non-normal” more broadly, although this can have the effect of diluting the concept. So … I’m not interested in MJ’s private life at all in this essay, but rather in the way he played with gender, sexuality, and race in his work in order to make us think about these categories and in order to subvert them, mess them up, and shift normal power relations in the process.
Willa: And we definitely see that urge to subvert categories and in that way “shift normal power relations” running throughout his work – in his music, dance, fashion, films, stage performances, and even public perceptions of his own body. And in your article you take a really detailed look at how this “queering” of established categories and genres functions in his music and live performances, especially.
Susan: Yes, that was my goal. Everyone knows how skillful he was at combining elements of pop, rock, soul, R&B, Tin Pan Alley and later hip hop in his work; his ability to cross genres is partly what made his music accessible to a wide audience. That’s a story that’s often been told about him. What I wanted to examine is what that “crossover” really looks like in particular songs and performances of those songs. Musical genres are deeply connected to ideas of social belonging, of ideas we have about race, gender, sexuality, class and so on. We already understand this in the well-known narrative about MJ and genre: his inclusion of elements of pop and rock made his music reach into the white mainstream, while the music of his idol, James Brown, remained deeply connected to black musical forms and didn’t have the same crossover appeal. When one begins to cross musical genres, one recognizes these categories more forcefully: they become denaturalized, and what gets called “normal” comes into question.
Joie: Susan, I love what you just said about musical genres being deeply connected to our ideas of social belonging and the ideas we have about race. I think that’s so unfortunate, but it is also so very true. I can think of so many instances where a person was harassed or just made to feel really uncomfortable because of the type of music he or she liked to listen to, and it was all because it just didn’t fit into the racial “norm.” Black kids aren’t supposed to like rock or country, and white kids are ridiculed and made fun of everyday for having an affinity for rap and hip hop. It just doesn’t make sense; music should be universal. And I have always believed that striving for that was one of Michael Jackson’s goals.
Susan: Yes, I agree, but on the positive side, music gives us such a powerful way to feel connected to others, to feel a sense of belonging when we might otherwise feel socially isolated; feeling part of a social scene organized around genre is one way that that happens. We could also think of genre as a way of celebrating difference. And it’s certainly a means through which artists cultivate their audience, which makes MJ’s successful crossing of generic boundaries all the more interesting. I think his musical virtuosity is what made that possible; people sometimes write about his genre-crossing as a brilliant marketing ploy: sure, but there aren’t many artists who can pull off moving so easily among very disparate musical genres convincingly.
Joie: Well, I agree with you that music is a great way to feel connected to and accepted by others, but I believe strongly that we shouldn’t allow it to close us off from other genres either. I believe that Michael was constantly trying to educate us – on so many different subjects – and I think this is one of his lessons. And you’re right, there aren’t many other artists out there who could move between genres so convincingly.
Susan: I recently watched his 1989 performance at the Sammy Davis Jr. TV special, a song he wrote for that occasion called “You Were There,” which could have come right out of a Broadway musical, and tried to reconcile this with, for example, a song like “Jam,” or “Give Into Me.” He internalized generic codes so that somehow he was as convincing as a rock star as he was a Broadway or soul singer. And I agree with you, Joie, exploiting this incredible skill was probably an extension of MJ’s desire to blur, or queer, all kinds of boundaries.
In my essay on MJ’s queer musical belongings, I look at a lot of different songs, but one of my favorite examples is the live performance of “Working Day and Night” from the 1992 Bucharest concert.
Here’s a song that first appears on what is often considered to be the finest disco album ever made, Off the Wall, transformed from its glossy production values into quite a raunchy R&B/funk number (by punching up the groove, emphasizing the slap bass part and, especially, through MJ’s gritty vocals – completely transformed from the album version). In live performance this song really ends up being quite the homage to James!
So MJ has already messed with genre and, in the process, social relations here, by highlighting the black roots of disco in soul and funk, a connection that often got lost as disco entered the mainstream in the late 1970’s. The part of this performance that truly blows my mind, however, is Jennifer Batten’s metal guitar solo. What on earth is this doing in the middle of “Working Day and Night?”
Willa: That is so interesting, Susan, and you know, looking back at that clip I see exactly what you’re saying – that guitar solo really is quite a disruption – but I never thought about it until I read your article. The guitar solo sounded perfectly “natural” to me, so I didn’t question it. And in talking to you, Susan, I feel like I have to put that word “natural” in quotation marks because as you point out so well, he’s really calling into question so many things we tend to think of as “natural.”
But you’re right. That guitar solo is like a sudden intrusion of “white male” rock by a female guitarist into the middle of a black R&B/funk/disco song – just a classic Michael Jackson situation!
Susan: It does seem “natural” at first because both the hard-driving funk groove and the metal guitar solo are high-energy, but when you start to take it apart, it’s pretty camp and queer! Of course it could be argued that the guitar solo adds to the spectacle of the performance – it’s near the end of the show and MJ clearly wanted to ramp the energy up – but this could have been done without creating such genre dissonance. What’s interesting is that musically, Batten’s guitar solo is never really integrated into the rest of the performance: it’s left as a disturbance, a generic dissonance – that’s partly what makes it queer. The loose ends aren’t neatly tied up. Metal (the white genre) “serves” the larger R&B/funk (black) genre.
MJ liked to queer rock music in particular: it’s a genre of music that really (even still) belongs to white men, who control so many things in our culture. He was clearly aware of rock’s cultural power and turned it on its head. First, he chooses one of the only women guitarists in the 80s and 90s who is a heavy metal virtuoso; Batten is an excellent guitarist, but so are plenty of men: why choose a woman, when you know that it’s unusual, unless you want to point to how unusual it is?
Clearly MJ was interested in questioning genre expectations in this respect. And he was going to do it again in the This Is It concerts, for which he chose Orianthi Panagaris, another blonde, white, woman rock guitarist. MJ dressed Batten up to parody the typical rock guitar god (and the look was his idea); although other musicians in his band wore costumes, none of them were as camp as Jennifer. He wanted to point to the genre of rock/metal in a particular way, a way that, I suggest signifies his control over it. So he makes sure that rock’s whiteness is represented in the figure of the metal guitar player (Batten is one of the very few white musicians in his touring band, and in this show, the only one who takes center stage with him, representing the genre of rock music), but subverts genre expectations by choosing a woman. Brilliant!
Joie: Susan, it is so fascinating to go back and watch the footage of that performance keeping in mind your comments here. And really, all of his live performances where Jennifer Batten was featured very prominently. You’re correct in saying that she was always the only member of his band that he routinely presented center stage during performances. And as Willa and I have learned during the course of this blog, Michael rarely did anything without having a very good reason for it.
Willa: That’s true, Joie – it does seem like this was a deliberate artistic decision on his part because we see it repeatedly in his work. Lisha McDuff described a similar inversion and disruption of genres in the post we did with her about the Black or White video.
“I am tired of this devil” is sung to the hard rock and heavy metal styles that have been overwhelmingly consumed by white audiences. … But they are not coming from the viewpoint of the white musical style being offered. The lyrics are coming from a black perspective of frustration and the horror of racial injustice, even invoking an image of the KKK with a reference to “sheets” …
The next section is hip hop rap, a black musical style, but the rap lyrics are unmistakably white in tone and perspective … This rap section flies at a completely different altitude than we might expect. The message is uplifting and inspirational, and in the short film it is lip synced by Macaulay Culkin, the same white child who appears in the opening drama. Instead of appearing in a lily white suburb as he does earlier, the child is now in an urban melting pot and his clothing and mannerisms register black.
So in the Black or White video as well as the “Working Day or Night” concert performance – and Susan, I love your analysis of that – he’s inverting the norms of white male rock so it becomes very self-referential and kind of a critique of itself, and he’s doing it in both a musical and visual way, as you say.
Susan: That’s a very perceptive analysis of “Black or White,” one that made me go and read the entire blog you did with Lisha. Her reading of the song and video is terrific – it begins to get at how complicated MJ’s music is and how we need to dig beneath the surface to really understand it.
In the issue of Popular Music and Society that I co-edited, there’s an article by musicologist David Brackett in which he talks about “Black or White” and his analysis moves in the same direction as Lisha’s. One of the points he makes is that the main guitar riff sounds remarkably similar to the Rolling Stones’ song “Soul Survivor,” off of Exile on Main Street.
The riff incorporates, generally, sounds that are central to Keith Richards’ rhythm guitar style. David’s point is that Michael chose what has become an archetypal rock riff, from an album that is central to the rock canon: it’s not some random “rock-like” sound, but one that goes to the heart of white blues rock; it’s also an interesting re-appropriation of blues-based white rock by a black musician. Touché, Michael!
What makes this even more interesting is that this guitar riff is combined with a bass guitar part that comes out of the R&B/funk tradition, rather than the straight-ahead rock bass part that is used in “Soul Survivor” (or other Stones’ songs). So from the very beginning of the song, two generic, racialized and gendered worlds are brought together.
Willa: And he does something similar in the Bucharest performance of “Working Day or Night,” right? There’s a very funky bass guitar solo right before Jennifer Batten’s hard rock guitar solo.
Susan: Yes, that’s right: Don Boyette, his touring bassist, takes centre stage for a slap bass solo, but it’s not nearly as lengthy or developed as Batten’s solo, and there are no theatrics associated with it. Boyette just comes to centre stage and plays.
Willa: You talk about those theatrics quite a bit in your article, pointing out how important the onstage visual drama between Michael Jackson and Jennifer Batten is to the meaning of the performance. I was so intrigued by that.
Susan: The interaction between MJ and Batten during the solo is fascinating. It’s quite complex – there’s an awful lot going on. But one of the things that’s striking is that MJ seems to control the performance. Batten follows him back and forth across the stage and when he’s watching her play, it sometimes appears that he is conjuring the sounds out of her guitar himself. Often in rock performances, the relationship between singer and guitar player is quite different: the guitarist (the virtuoso) controls the performance. My reading of this performance is that Batten stands in for hegemonic, or controlling, white power, albeit queerly because of her gender, and that MJ ends up mostly controlling that power. A pretty significant social statement.
Willa: That is such a fascinating interpretation!
Joie: It really is. I’m blown away! I had never thought of it in this way before but it makes so much sense knowing what we do about the way he liked to blur the lines.
Susan: Yes, and while I’ve mentioned the racial politics here, it’s also pretty interesting to consider what’s happening in terms of gender. Batten’s appearance points in a complicated way both to the feminization we see in glam rockers of the 80’s and earlier 90’s and the understanding that these were generally not female bodies: so we get all the expected “hard” and aggressive moves associated with rock from Batten. At the same time, there is MJ’s quite complicated gendered body playing against this. He is androgynous, somewhat feminized, but still performs traditional masculinity through some of his moves, and the fact that he’s in control of Batten’s performance. While many of these kinds of exchanges between singers and guitarists in rock bands have an erotic element to them, I don’t see that in the performance here. MJ was certainly capable of creating eroticized spectacle on stage (think of some of those steamy encounters with Sheryl Crow or Siedah Garrett during performances of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” for example), but that was not the intent here.
I think this is one of many instances where MJ queered all kinds of normative social and musical relations. Willa, your analysis of “Ben” in your book, M Poetica, including the pictures you offer of MJ with rats on his shoulder and his pet snake draped over him can similarly be thought of as queering human/animal relations, of rethinking ideas of kinship, for example.
Willa: That’s an interesting way to look at that, Susan, and it’s significant in that context that the animals he’s holding aren’t traditional pets. Just the opposite – they’re animals that are viewed with fear and loathing by many people. It wouldn’t be “queering” the human/animal relationship in the same way if he were holding a cat or dog or riding a horse. And of course we see this again in his very public relationship with Bubbles.
Susan: Exactly. These are examples of what can be called queer kinship; whatever might have been going on in his private life, the vision of family that he presented as part of his public self included children (some his own, some not), animals, and various adults, like Elizabeth Taylor. He eschewed the normative nuclear family structure, creating instead a more and less fluid chosen family consisting of both humans of various generations, as well as non-humans. There has been a lot of interesting scholarly work done on the role of the nuclear family as a primary means of structuring power – patriarchal power, for one, but also integral to such things as the smooth running of capitalism. Queer kinship threatens patriarchy as well as all kinds of other power structures.
Joie: Now I find that truly fascinating because I believe we are increasingly seeing this ‘queer kinship’ becoming the norm in our society. More and more, people are creating their own versions of what we know as the nuclear family. And yet, Michael Jackson was severely criticized and ridiculed for such behavior.
Willa: He really was. In fact, while he resisted social normalization on so many fronts – norms of what it means to be black, to be a man, to be straight, to be a pop artist, to be a father figure – it was this last transgression that proved intolerable. As threatening as they were, those other transgressions could still be accepted more easily than his defiance of the traditional family unit. Even people who concede that the evidence shows he was not guilty of abusing children still see something damning in his creating familial relationships with children who were not related to him. It shows just how deeply engrained the idea of the nuclear family is. Of all the boundaries he crossed, that was the line that could not be crossed. And as you said so well, Susan, the nuclear family plays an important cultural role – politically, legally, psychologically – in “structuring power.” No wonder that transgression was so threatening.
Susan: Absolutely. Judith (Jack) Halberstam has written beautifully about time, space and normativity, citing, for example, reproductive time – the biological clock for women – and the “bougeois rules of respectability and scheduling for married couples” and how these have become not only normalized, but naturalized and desirable. She talks about how everyday time gets regulated – when to eat, sleep, play, for children, etc. – and how this gets tied to normative morality (I think of MJ’s sleepovers with a bunch of kids here and how many normative lines this crossed). She also talks about the time of inheritance, meaning how generational wealth, including both goods and morals, pass through the family – so if you aren’t part of a traditional one, heaven help you – and how this also connects the family to the history of the nation and forward to the nation’s future (the book is In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives). MJ transgressed these rules about family, space and time in almost every way. I think the narrative that we constantly hear about how his children could not possibly be his biological offspring is partly a way of striking back at his threat to the normative family unit, along with a general desire to emasculate him whenever possible.
Halberstam and other queer theorists claim the queering of space and time for the LGBTQ community and it’s tricky to talk about queerness – as I do in my article and as we’ve done in this blog – in a context that isn’t explicitly queer in terms of sexual orientation, although other musicologists have done so (for a wonderful example, see Freya Jarman-Iven’s book Queer Voices: Technologies, Vocalities and the Musical Flaw). There’s the risk that the political potential of the term could be watered down and re-appropriated for straight culture. But I actually don’t think it’s inappropriate to talk about MJ in these terms, because he so messed with heteronormativity and with race and left the reading of his work and life so open and unsettled. I’ve never really understood why he hasn’t been claimed by the queer community, although I suspect that his more-or-less insistence that he was straight, as well as the accusations and trial tempered enthusiasm for this.
Willa: This is such an important issue, Susan, and I’m so glad you raised it. I’ve asked myself a similar question many times. If ever there was a champion of difference it was Michel Jackson, so why didn’t the groups who’ve traditionally advocated tolerance for difference support him when he was under attack? He had no constituency other than his fans – which, granted, is a lot of people, but it’s not a political constituency. So why didn’t certain political advocacy groups support him?
I think partly it’s because the accusations were so ugly that many saw him as a tainted messenger, and that “tempered enthusiasm” as you say. But I wonder if there isn’t another reason also, which is that tolerance for difference, at least as a political stance, has itself been normalized, and Michael Jackson refused to express his difference in proper ways. While we like to believe we’ve moved beyond the White male stereotypes of the past, they still exist and have been joined by stereotypes of diversity that in many ways are just as constraining. For example, Black kids are supposed to show pride in their race by identifying with the approved genres for their demographic and “aren’t supposed to like rock or country,” as you pointed out earlier, Joie. And “queer,” which by definition should be a celebration of difference, has been politically codified as well.
You express this so well in your “Difference that Exceeded Understanding” article, Susan, when you write,
Michael Jackson’s subjectivity off the stage was disquieting … racial, gendered, able-bodied/disabled, child/teenager/adult, adult man who loved children, father/mother. These differences were impenetrable, uncontainable, and they created enormous anxiety. Please be black, Michael, or white, or gay or straight, father or mother, father to children, not a child yourself, so we at least know how to direct our liberal (in)tolerance. And try not to confuse all the codes simultaneously.
I love this quote, and I think it really gets to the heart of why he wasn’t supported by those who traditionally support the disenfranchised – namely liberals.
Susan: We desperately want categories in order to make sense of the world; there’s safety in being able to say someone is this or that. It bothered many people that this was not possible with MJ. And that’s exactly why I think “queer” is a productive way to think of him (partly because it names the confusion – very unqueer!). Queer is a process, a constant becoming (of something else); by its definition, as musicologist Freya Jarman argues, it cannot be and does not want to be contained. It is “anti-normal.”
Joie: I like that. “Anti-normal.” What a great way to put that!
Susan, thank you again, so much for taking the time to sit and chat with us. Willa and I really appreciate it and we had so much fun talking to you. We hope that you’ll join us again some time!
Susan: And thanks again for inviting me to blog with you! It was really a pleasure.