Joie: This week, Willa and I are thrilled to be joined once again by Lisha McDuff, a professional musician who many of you know as Ultravioletrae in the comments section. She’s joining us to talk about Black or White, a song and video that hold special meaning for her.
Willa: So Lisha, back in February you made a fascinating comment about Michael Jackson’s complex approach to song composition and used Black or White as an example. Here’s what you said:
[T]he white rap section in Black or White uses black hip hop, but runs it through a white perspective, Bill Bottrell’s feel good lyrics and performance. The previous section, “I am tired of this devil” uses white hard rock and heavy metal but runs it through a black perspective and the frustration of racial injustice. He is deliberately confusing musical codes here, attempting to integrate all these perspectives into a single view in a very trans-ethnic way (the way he uses his body). He is autonomously choosing the perspectives he wishes to use, ingeniously expressing the Black or White theme in the song.
I’m so intrigued by this, and would really love to dive into this a little deeper so I understand it better. Can you explain in more detail what you hear going on in these two sections?
Lisha: These two sections in Black or White have revealed so much to me, not only about how brilliant and meticulously crafted this song is, but also about Michael Jackson as a musician, a composer, and all around force for good on the planet. It is such a thrilling concept: Black or White presents a literal “black or white” musical perspective. At any given point in the song, a simultaneous “black or white” musical idea is being offered to the listener in a way that embraces and honors both traditions. It suggests going beyond our false distinctions and ethnic boundaries. But at the same time, the song addresses some very serious issues and really challenges the listener on a more subtle level. There is a lot going on in the song and in the film, and it’s easy to be fooled by its deceptive simplicity.
At first, I was just curious about the song’s structure. There are two “middle 8” sections in the song, which just means there are two sections in the middle of the song that are each 8 bars long. The function of a “middle 8” is to introduce a new and interesting musical idea that sets up the return of the final verse and chorus. I’m talking about the “I am tired of this devil” and the “white rap” sections. While there are no hard and fast rules in song structure, it is more standard to have only one “middle 8” section, not two.
Willa: And we usually call that “middle 8” the bridge, right? But this isn’t just a long bridge – a “middle 16,” as it were. It’s actually two separate bridges juxtaposed in a very sophisticated and interesting way. Is that an accurate way of seeing this?
Lisha: Yes, that’s right. These sections function as a bridge back to the final verse and chorus, and they are significantly different from each other and the rest of the song. When I looked to see if I could understand why there were two sections like this, I began to realize there was a deliberate attempt to confuse the musical codes associated with “black or white” musical styles. This ingenious idea so beautifully expresses the lyrics and the visual images we see in the short film. The music itself expresses the message of the song: “it don’t matter if you’re black or white.”
“I am tired of this devil” is sung to the hard rock and heavy metal styles that have been overwhelmingly consumed by white audiences. According to the principal collaborator on Black or White, Bill Bottrell, Michael was very specific about this section, even composing the exact heavy metal guitar solo he wanted by singing every rhythm, note, and chord to Bottrell. The musical feeling here abruptly turns very dark, and the lyrics are direct and to the point. 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”:
I am tired of this devil I am tired of this stuff I am tired of this business Go when the going gets rough I ain’t scared of your brother I ain’t scared of no sheets I ain’t scared of nobody Girl, when the going gets mean
The next section is hip hop rap, a black musical style, but the rap lyrics are unmistakably white in tone and perspective – they were written and performed by Bill Bottrell. 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:
Protection for gangs, clubs and nations Causing grief in human relations It’s a turf war on a global scale I’d rather hear both sides of the tale You see it’s not about races, just places Faces, where your blood comes from Is where your space is I’ve seen the bright get duller I’m not gonna spend my life being a color
Joie: Lisha, I have to say that I just love talking to you about Michael’s work because you always bring such a unique perspective to the conversation. As Willa said the last time we spoke with you, it’s like you’re granting us entrance into a world that we can’t enter on our own, not being trained musicians as you are. This whole discussion of the two middle 8 sections in Black or White is completely fascinating to me, and so much more sophisticated and complex than you would expect a “pop” star to be.
Lisha: It really is very clever, isn’t it? We’re lucky to have a first hand account of how this record was created from an interview Bill Bottrell did for Sound on Sound in 2004. It seems that the use of “black or white” perspectives was an idea Michael had all along, starting with his choice of Bottrell as a co-producer for Black or White. Bottrell explained:
“As a co-producer, Michael was always prepared to listen and put his trust in me, but he was also a sort of guide all the time. He knew why I was there and, among all the songs he was recording, what he needed from me. I was an influence that he didn’t otherwise have. I was the rock guy and also the country guy, which nobody else was.”
Bottrell was selected to co-produce Black or White for the very reason that he would bring this rock/country perspective to the song. So from the very beginning, a “black or white” musical idea was beginning to take shape. Bottrell describes this song as having a Southern rock feel, achieved through his interpretation of the music Michael composed. He plays the famous guitar riff and many other parts throughout the song. Interestingly enough, it was Bottrell who had the idea to insert a rap section in the middle, not Michael. This led Michael to suggest placing a heavy metal section right next to it, side by side. However, I don’t believe Michael ever fully revealed his idea for these two middle sections to Bottrell.
The rap section was the very last part of the song to be completed after months and months of difficult, tedious and time consuming work. And while there were some serious rappers coming into the studio to work on other songs for the Dangerous album, Michael didn’t ask any of them to perform on Black or White. Bottrell couldn’t really figure out why, as he explains:
“All the time I kept telling Michael that we had to have a rap, and he brought in rappers like LL Cool J and the Notorious BIG who were performing on other songs. Somehow, I didn’t have access to them for ‘Black Or White’, and it was getting later and later and I wanted the song to be done. So, one day I wrote the rap — I woke up in the morning and, before my first cup of coffee, I began writing down what I was hearing, because the song had been in my head for about eight months by that time and it was an obsession to try and fill that last gap.”
Bottrell decided to go ahead and do a mock up of the rap section when something very unexpected happened, the birth of “LTB”:
“It seems kind of random, but it’s as if he [Michael] makes things happen through omission. There’s nobody else, and it’s as if he knows that’s what you’re up against and challenges you to do it. For my part, I didn’t think much of white rap, so I brought in Bryan Loren to rap my words and he did change some of the rhythms, but he was not comfortable being a rapper. As a result, I performed it the same day after Bryan left, did several versions, fixed one, played it for Michael the next day and he went ‘Ohhh, I love it Bill, I love it. That should be the one.’ I kept saying ‘No, we’ve got to get a real rapper,’ but as soon as he heard my performance he was committed to it and wouldn’t consider using anybody else.”
If you’ve ever looked at the credits on this song and wondered, who is “LTB”? Now you know!
Willa: That story just cracks me up! As you showed so well, Lisha, he really needed a “white” rap for this section to balance the “black” rock, so he simply makes all these incredible rappers coming in and out of the studio unavailable for this particular song. As Bottrell says, “Somehow, I didn’t have access to them for ‘Black Or White.'” Finally, he’s kinda forced to do it himself. That whole situation is too funny – I can just picture Michael Jackson telling him, “Ohhh, I love it Bill, I love it.” I think Bottrell is right – he really does “make things happen through omission” – and it’s pretty astute of Bottrell to pick up on that.
Lisha: I could laugh about it all day – I find that so hilarious. And it is just such a great example of how Michael used multiple perspectives as a compositional technique in this song. Genius. There is no better way to capture a certain perspective than to just utilize someone who is genuinely approaching music from that perspective.
Willa: That’s a really interesting way to look at this, Lisha. So, to begin expanding out to the other sections of the film, the intro section is set in a “lily white suburb,” as you say, with an Archie Bunker-like father who is throning it over his family from his recliner. The mother is completely silent as long as he’s in the house – and once he’s gone, she just worries about how upset he’ll be when he gets home. It is so stereotypically white and patriarchal.
Joie: That’s a very amusing assessment, Willa.
Willa: It is funny, isn’t it? I think there’s a lot of humor in Black or White, though it’s subtle and often overlooked. So the son is upstairs listening to loud rock music, which is generally coded as white also, just like the setting, but he has a poster of Michael Jackson hanging on the back of his door, so already there’s a bit of ambiguity. The father stomps upstairs and demands he “turn that noise off!” then slams the door. The poster falls to the floor, the glass shatters – the first of many scenes of shattering glass in this video – and it just feels to me like Michael Jackson has been released by the shattering glass. He’s no longer safely encased in the poster behind the door. He’s now been let loose, like a genie from his bottle.
The boy responds to his father’s demands with a blast of sound from his electric guitar – a mode of defiance that is generally coded as “white” – but ironically, that blast of sound shatters the windows of this insulated white suburban home and sends the father flying back to Africa and the origins of music, including ultimately hard rock and heavy metal. So it subtly forces us to question how we label and situate this music. After landing in Africa, the father observes Michael Jackson dancing with tribesman in traditional dress and body ornamentation, but they’re dancing to rock music, which again is generally coded as white. But this particular music was written by Michael Jackson, and is now forming the soundtrack for people around the world – Africa, India, North America, Russia – to engage with him in their traditional dance. So that “white” label is really being complicated and undermined on many different fronts.
Joie: As usual, Willa, your observations are brilliant and dead on! And listening to your take on the opening shots of this video really highlights just how calculating and methodical Michael was about every aspect of this project – both the song and the short film. He obviously had a vision and a message … a mission, if you will, for this particular song and video, and it’s really interesting to dissect it and decipher what that message is.
Lisha: You’re absolutely right, Joie, it’s not just a song – it’s a mission! And I really love what you said, Willa, about Michael Jackson being released from that shattered poster frame like a genie from his bottle. He comes in as such a powerful musical force when the song begins and we start to see the African landscape. The guitar introduces the strong musical motif, that famous 2 bar hook that repeats throughout the song. Underneath the guitar and the accompanying rock rhythms, you hear this light percussion with an African feel, things like cowbells and shakers. These percussive African-sounding instruments traditionally suggest the feeling of community and a continuous invitation to dance. As you point out, the short film extends that invitation out to the whole world.
According to musicologist Susan McClary’s book Conventional Wisdom, “one of the most important facts about culture of the last hundred years” is “that the innovations of African Americans have become the dominant force in music around the globe.” The short film really emphasizes this point. But it also emphasizes another point each time the camera pulls away from these traditional dance scenes. The sound stage is revealed, the artifice of the scene is exposed. We have to ask ourselves the question, is this the way it really is? Do we really dance together in harmony all over the world?
The way the sounds are layered and placed in the song tells a “black or white” story too. The white dominant culture is sonically represented by the overpowering guitar hook, but the African feel of the percussion underneath it is steady and understated, always inviting us to dance together in community.
Willa: Those kind of details are so interesting to me, Lisha, and I love your reading of this. It reinforces the idea once again that the central themes of Black or White are being expressed on so many fronts – through the lyrics and dance and visuals, but also through the music itself and how the music is structured.
Lisha: It is endlessly fascinating to think about the way the music itself gets used as part of the literal meaning in this song. One of the best examples is after Michael sings in the first verse “we’re one in the same.” Suddenly the guitar hook stops and all the musical focus is now on the down beat or the one. Beat one now carries a literal meaning of unity and oneness. “Now, I believe in miracles, and a miracle has happened tonight.” It happens again in the chorus when we hear: “If you’re thinkin’ about my baby it don’t matter if you’re black or white.” The emphasis on beat one is a sonic statement to remind us “we are one in the same.” Brilliant!
Joie: Now that’s really interesting, Lisha. Of course, we all focus on beat one as we listen to the song – as was probably Michael’s intention. But I never realized that beat one was a musical representation of our oneness. Of our unity. That is truly fascinating to me!
Let’s move on to the ending section of the short film, the part usually referred to as the panther dance. Almost from the moment the video was released on November 14, 1991, it was mired in controversy because of the suggestive way Michael danced and touched himself during the piece, as well as the uncharacteristic violence he portrayed. It was so controversial that many TV stations would only play the shortened version of the video, removing the panther dance sequence all together.
The interesting thing here to me is that, as Willa has pointed out many times in other conversations, when it came to his art, Michael usually had a very specific reason for everything he did. He knew that the public, and the ratings machine, were practically salivating at the thought of his next video. Since the colossal success of Thriller and the resulting videos for that album, Michael’s short films were debuted with all the drama of a major Hollywood release. People would mark the date on their calendars and gather around their TV sets with baited breath to watch a new Michael Jackson video, and Black or White was no exception. It was first broadcast on MTV, VH1, BET and Fox (giving that network its highest Nielsen ratings ever). It also premiered simultaneously in 27 countries around the world with an audience of over 500 million viewers – the most ever to watch a music video!
So Michael orchestrated this massive audience to sit and watch, knowing that what he was about to do would not only stir up controversy but would also be talked about for years to come! And I believe that’s exactly what he wanted from the panther dance – to create so much controversy that it would be assured that this song/video and its message could never be ignored or overlooked.
Lisha: I have to say that as I go back and look at what was going on for Michael Jackson in 1991, the release of this video seems as carefully orchestrated as the song itself. In June of that year, there was quite a stir when Madonna very publicly criticized Michael Jackson saying he needed a complete makeover. I actually remember this news item even though I wasn’t a fan at that time. Now I wonder if Michael didn’t recruit Madonna himself to make this statement because it got so much publicity! After all, they had been seeing quite a bit of each other that year. Two of Madonna’s dancers claimed to be in contact with the Jackson camp and said “we intend to get rid of the boots and buckles and glitter … We want to give him an updated street look that’s very what’s-happening-in-New-York-today.” This prompted Michael’s spokesman, Bob Jones, to release a statement denying their involvement, and he said something I find quite fascinating: “He [Michael] had a different look for each of his albums by his choice. Absolutely no one determines which direction Mr. Jackson goes.”
Willa: Wow, that is interesting, isn’t it? It states pretty clearly that “his look” – meaning the appearance of his face, his body, his hair, his clothing – was part of his art, and he hints at that in the film as well. There’s the morphing faces scene, which is so interesting, and then at the end of that section the director, John Landis, steps into the frame of the film (once again disrupting the illusion of reality and emphasizing the constructedness of this film, as you mentioned earlier, Lisha) and says to the actress, “That was perfect. How do you do that?” It’s a joke, of course, but the implication is that they aren’t using special effects to morph between different people of different races and genders; rather they’re simply filming one person as s/he morphs between race and gender. And of course, Michael Jackson himself morphed across race and gender lines, and a lot of people wondered, “How do you do that?” This is echoed immediately afterwards when the panther appears and then morphs into Michael Jackson. So there’s a lot of morphing going on – across race, across gender, even across species.
Lisha: I had never gotten that joke before. That is hysterical!
Willa: Isn’t it funny? I love that line.
Lisha: I do too, and what an insight into this piece and his entire body of work. When I go back and look at the physical images Michael released for the previous album, Bad, and even the photos of his outings with Madonna earlier in 1991, I see what we call “a person of color.” However, in this short film, what I see signifies white in my mind. I honestly think, and I am not exaggerating in any way, that this is arguably the most significant artistic creation of our time. This song and the physical image of the artist coming together in this way … I just don’t know what to say … I am awestruck by this kind of genius.
Willa: I agree wholeheartedly. He just blows me away. And it’s so interesting how what you were just saying about his body kind of echoes what you were saying earlier about the middle 8 sections, where he takes a white music genre – hard rock – and runs it through a black perspective, and takes a black genre – hip hop – and runs it through a white perspective. By this point in his career his appearance may have registered as white, but he still vigorously claimed his black identity. So just as he was “deliberately confusing the musical codes” in those middle 8 sections, as you described so well, he seems to be deliberately confusing racial codes – specifically the signifiers written on his body – and challenges how we read and interpret his face and body.
And we see that again in the panther dance that you were just talking about, Joie. His face does seem to register as white in the earlier sections of the video, as you mentioned, Lisha, but his racial “coding” is more ambiguous during the panther dance. For example, when he kneels in the puddle and rips his shirt open, I wouldn’t say his face and body in that scene can be easily classified as either black or white. But the message is definitely from a black perspective. It’s a strong protest against white imperialism, colonialism, racism, and oppression.
Lisha: Those agonizing cries and yells in this scene are so expressive – you can feel centuries of pent up anger and frustration in his vocals that point to just that. Words and literal meanings just aren’t necessary. You understand from the voice and the visual symbols what is being communicated. And I think there is something more ambiguous going on here musically too. Many have described the panther dance as being a silent dance without musical accompaniment, but I really hear this differently. I hear a complex layering of sound that feels more like an avant-garde composition, exploring the musical value of all kinds of things like glass breaking, wind, and water splashing. It feels like much more than just a soundscape. Over the recorded dance steps you can hear these very rhythmic, sharp, crisp aspirants or little whispers that function like a percussion instrument to hold the music together and keep the beat steady. Other “mouth percussion” sounds are there too, like “cha,” “sss,” “hew,” and popping sounds with the lips. It’s possible that this alternative musical expression is another form of protest as well.
Willa: Wow! That is fascinating!
Lisha: The ending panther dance coda is a little masterpiece of its own, and it creates such a perfect bookend for the song. The opening drama with its white suburban setting creates one bookend and the black panther dance set in the city streets creates the other. Perfect symmetry. We have this “black or white” song, co-produced through “black or white” perspectives, with its “black or white” middle sections, placed between these two “black or white” bookends. There doesn’t seem to be anything here that hasn’t been thought out to the “nth” degree to communicate the message of the song, including the artist himself!
Joie: Which goes back to what I was saying before about how he always had very specific, very calculated reasons for doing everything he did. When it came to his art, he really was very methodical and deliberate in his choices and his decisions. Remarkable!