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Summer Rewind 2014: Trust in Me

The following conversation was originally posted on March 13, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Also, Veronica Bassil has just published a new ebook, That Wonder in My Youth: Michael Jackson and Childhood. And to commemorate Michael Jackson’s birthday, she is generously making it available for free from August 29 – September 2. Here is a link.

Joie: Today, Willa and I are joined by our friend and contributor, Lisha McDuff. Thanks for spending time with us today, Lisha. What have you been up to?

Lisha: Well, Joie, I’ve been pretty busy! Can you believe I just graduated from the University of Liverpool with a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies?

Willa: And her dissertation was on Black or White!

Joie: Congratulations on that achievement!

Lisha: Thank you so much.

Joie: So ladies, I’ve been thinking about the first time we all sat down for a chat when we talked about how many of Michael Jackson’s songs can be described as a “sonic sculpture.” And I was thinking that there is a song out there that we have never really talked about before that is a perfect example of this “sonic sculpture,” and that’s “Morphine.” It has always been one of my favorite MJ songs. I love it for so many reasons, but mainly because it’s simply so aurally fascinating to listen to.

The subject matter of the song is a little bit of a departure from what we normally see from Michael Jackson. It’s a bit darker in tone than what we’re used to, but part of me feels that the music is so fascinating because the subject matter is so dark. Like this is something he did purposely in order to convey a certain emotion, or evoke a certain mood about the song. Does that make sense?

Willa: It does – it makes a lot of sense. I hadn’t thought about “Morphine” specifically as sonic sculpture before, but I think I know what you mean, Joie, and I wonder if it feels so “sculptural” in part because of the abrupt transitions from the first part into that very different middle section, and then from the middle section back out to the last part. Those transitions are so rough and abrupt, almost violent, that they really call attention to the structure of this song in a way most songs don’t.

Joie: I like how you describe that, Willa. “Violent” is a good word to use here because it truly does feel that way.

Willa: It really does. When transitions flow easily from one part of a song to the next, a lot of times you don’t even notice – you just drift along with the flow of the song. But that isn’t the case here. We’re forced to notice the architecture of this song because the transitions – the seams between the sections – are so glaringly obvious. And I think those rough transitions are really important to both the feeling and meaning of “Morphine.”

Lisha: It’s interesting that I hadn’t necessarily thought of “Morphine” in terms of sonic sculpture either, but now that you’ve mentioned it, Joie, you’re absolutely right. It does makes sense to approach it that way. There is a lot going on in this song – all kinds of industrial noise, machinery, and electronic sounds swirling around all over the place. I hear a buzzing sound vibrating right through my head much of the time, and at other times I strain to hear a far-off conversation, as if it is behind a door at a distance.

We know Michael Jackson was interested in how the ear can judge distance and identify the location of sound in space. His recordings spatialize sound in such fascinating ways. “Thriller,” is a great example of this, recorded and mixed by Bruce Swedien. Another is Disney’s Captain EO, which was the first 5.1 surround sound film ever made. Michael Jackson also experimented with a 3D binaural recording process known as “holophonics,” which was trademarked by Hugo Zuccarelli. The pillow talk introduction to “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” is an example of holophonic sound.

Zuccarelli’s recordings are like ear training exercises that demonstrate how recorded sound can be manipulated to occupy a specific location in an imaginary sonic space. You need headphones to get the full effect, but here is an example of a sonic sculpture titled “Haircut”:

It’s really interesting to listen to “Morphine” with this kind of spatialization in mind. I’m really glad that you encouraged us to approach the song as sonic sculpture, Joie.

Joie: Thanks for sharing that example, Lisha. It’s really interesting to listen to.

Willa: It really is! I swiped my son’s headphones and listened to that clip, and the way the sounds seem to occupy specific points in space and even move around you is amazing! It really reminds me of the slamming door and footsteps walking across the sound space in “Thriller,” as well as a lot of the background sounds in “Morphine,” like the knocking and television sounds off in the distance.

Joie: There are all sorts of wonderful and interesting sounds going on in the background of “Morphine,” some of them very surprising and unexpected. At times I even think that I hear what sounds like water dripping incessantly from a faucet. Do either of you hear that?

Lisha: No, I don’t! Where is that one? I missed it!

Joie: Maybe it’s a sound that I’m oversimplifying as dripping water because my mind can’t easily label it, but I hear it in the first half of the song running at measured intervals in the background. Interestingly, I don’t hear it after the abrupt middle section of the song.

Lisha: Wait a minute, Joie! I think I know what you’re talking about and what a wonderful description of that sound! I think you mean a percussive sound that occurs in the far right portion of the sound field just after the rhythm starts. It happens on the upbeat of 4 and then it occurs every 8 counts after that. Is that the one you mean? It does sound like a slow drip from a water faucet!

Joie: Yes! That’s it!

Lisha: That’s the fun of listening to these tracks, there is always something new to discover.

And as you pointed out, Willa, there are two separate and distinct sound worlds happening here, like another song has been dropped right into the middle. “Morphine” could very well be Michael Jackson’s best rock/heavy metal vocals ever, but suddenly in the middle section there is a relaxed, gentle vocal accompanied by piano, flutes, and strings. It is a startling contrast that makes for an interesting sonic experience, but a very challenging one – it certainly deals with a difficult subject, that’s for sure.

Joie: You know, I almost feel that the subject matter is one of the most interesting things about this song. I happen to be a pretty big fan of rock music in general. I love “80s hair metal” for instance, and I could (and often do) listen to bands like Aerosmith and Guns N Roses all day long. And as any fan of rock music will tell you, drug use is a big staple as far as musical themes go in that genre. In fact, in many genres.

But one of the things that set Michael Jackson apart from the rest is that he typically didn’t sing about things like drugs and sex. So “Morphine,” with its blatant, in-your-face look at drug use – from the drug’s point of view no less – is quite jarring. Every bit as jarring as the abrupt transitions that Willa mentioned earlier.

Lisha: You’re making an excellent point. Drug use is a conspicuous topic in rock music from the 1960s onward and illegal, recreational drug use is often characterized as a positive, mind-expanding experience. This seems to reflect some of the core values of rock, such as spontaneity, authenticity, and an opposition to rigid rule-following and authoritarian thinking.

However, I think “Morphine” comes from an entirely different point of view and expresses a very different set of values. “Morphine” does not address or promote recreational drug use. Instead, it problematizes legal, pharmaceutical medications that are prescribed by physicians to treat patients with serious medical concerns.

Willa: That’s true. This isn’t your typical “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” song by any means. It isn’t talking about getting high. Instead, “Morphine” is focusing very specifically on doctor-facilitated drug addiction, or even doctor-induced drug addiction.

Joie: And the lyrics in that abrupt middle section are very telling, and very personal, I think. Every time I listen to this song, I can just imagine Michael lying on a doctor’s table as these words are softly spoken to him:

Relax
This won’t hurt you
Before I put it in
Close your eyes and count to ten
Don’t cry
I won’t convert you
There’s no need to dismay
Close your eyes and drift away

Can’t you just imagine that? A doctor assuring him that “I won’t convert you into a junkie – just close your eyes and drift away from the pain.”

Lisha: Oh, I certainly can imagine that! The music in this section is soothing, but so sad and haunting at the same time. The doctor is offering some welcome relief from severe pain, but I get this sinking feeling that the situation is much more complicated than what the doctor is willing to represent.

And I agree with you, Joie – this song feels deeply personal. I noticed in the liner notes that Michael Jackson wrote, composed, performed, and produced this song. He also did most of the arrangements himself and he even takes a turn on percussion, drums, and guitar.

Willa: Really? I didn’t know he played guitar …

Lisha: Well, maybe not in the strictest sense of the word, but I’d be willing to bet he knew his way around on it. One of his closest musical collaborators, Brad Buxer, talked about Michael Jackson’s relationship to musical instruments in an interview with the French magazine, Black & White. He said Michael Jackson was a fantastic musician and it wasn’t really necessary for him to have a high level of proficiency on any particular musical instrument. According to Buxer, “He instinctively understood the music. It was just part of him …”

Buxer played keyboards and piano on “Morphine,” but didn’t collaborate on composing the song, as he did on others. Michael Jackson had worked out the entire record in his head and communicated what he wanted to hear to Buxer:

He sang all the parts, whether the piano in the middle of the song, or those sheets of synth on the chorus. Everything is his. On this song, I simply carried out his ideas.

I am also thinking about what you said earlier, Joie, when you described the lyrical content of this song as a personification of the drug itself. That’s such an interesting idea and I thought of lines in the song that could easily be read that way:

Trust in me
Trust in me
Put all your trust in me

But I think there is another strong possibility here too – that the lyrics represent a doctor who is encouraging a patient to have complete faith in their experience and expertise as a medical professional.

Willa: That’s true, those lines could be interpreted either way – as encouraging the patient to trust the drugs or trust the doctor – and it’s chilling either way. I hadn’t thought of those lines as referring to the drug itself – that’s a really interesting way to look at that, Joie – but it makes perfect sense. I mean, just imagine Michael Jackson looking at a bottle of propofol, for example, and thinking those words: “trust in me” to give you a good night’s sleep. Or think of Dr. Conrad Murray speaking those lines. It’s really frightening either way.

Lisha: Yes, it is. And the theme of trusting the doctor happens again, about a minute and a half into the song (1:32 and repeats at 4:16). I hear what sounds like a knock at the door and a woman saying in a very stern, authoritarian voice, “you heard what the doctor said.” This is an audio clip from David Lynch’s 1980 film The Elephant Man. It’s taken from a scene in the film when the Elephant Man is frightened, distrustful, and reluctant to comply when asked to follow the doctor into his office. The head nurse intervenes and commands him to do as “the doctor said.”

Here’s a clip of the movie. The scene in the doctor’s office begins at 15:02 and the audio portion sampled in the song is at 16:25:

Willa: Wow, Lisha, you’re right! I didn’t know that – that he was sampling The Elephant Man in this section – but you’re right, he does. That seems very significant to me.

Lisha: To me, too. It feels like a really important part of the song.

Willa: Oh absolutely. Apparently the story of John Merrick (or Joseph Merrick – he’s been called both names) really resonated for Michael Jackson. You and I talked about that a while back, Joie, in the Leave Me Alone post. So it’s significant for that reason, but also thematically, I think – how it ties in with the idea of a doctor not always acting in a patient’s best interests.

I just watched The Elephant Man again after not seeing it for, heavens, years and years, and I was struck by how much it focuses on Dr. Treves. He’s on screen nearly as much as Merrick is. And while he rescues Merrick from the abusive Mr. Bytes, who was exhibiting him as a carnival sideshow, Dr. Treves’ motives aren’t purely benevolent either. As an older doctor says,

I for one am sick and tired of this competitive freak-hunting by these overly ambitious young doctors trying to make names for themselves.

Over the course of the movie, as Dr. Treves begins to see Merrick in a more sympathetic way, he begins to question himself and his reasons for seeking out Merrick and befriending him so publicly:

I’m beginning to believe that Mr. Bytes and I are very much alike. It seems that I’ve made Mr. Merrick into a curiosity all over again, doesn’t it? But this time in a hospital, rather than a carnival.

He goes on to say,

My name is constantly in the paper. I’m always being praised to the skies. Patients are now expressly asking for my services.

All because of the publicity he’s gained from being the Elephant Man’s doctor. And that horrible scene where he puts Merrick on display for the auditorium full of doctors feels very similar to how Merrick was put on display in the carnival.

So in his own way, Dr. Treves has made a career for himself out of publicizing Merrick’s physical afflictions, just as Mr. Bytes was doing. And it seems to me this somewhat predatory relationship between doctors and patients is a key element of that middle section of “Morphine.”

Joie: Wow. Willa, I’ve seen The Elephant Man many, many times; I just love that movie. But I’ve never thought about it in terms of “Morphine” before. That’s a really interesting parallel you’ve drawn.

Lisha: It really is, and I am very interested in how much the movie focuses on Dr. Treves. At about 1:37 minutes into “Morphine,” just after we hear the nurse bark out “you heard what the doctor said,” I think I also hear the voice of Dr. Treves, played by Anthony Hopkins. Do you hear the male speaking voice in this part as being that of Dr. Treves? It’s off to the right and at a distance, so it’s very hard to make out.

Willa: I think so. It’s a British accent and it sounds like his voice to me, though I can’t make out the specific words. And then there’s the sound of raucous laughter, like from a television soundtrack. There’s laughter in The Elephant Man too, and it’s not happy laughter. In fact, it generally means something exploitative is happening to Merrick. In fact, throughout the movie, laughter is almost always a cruel thing.

Lisha: Yes, it sounds like there could be a laugh track right after Dr. Treves’ voice, possibly suggesting these medical problems are a source of entertainment for some? It’s incredibly cruel.

In terms of sonic sculpture, I noticed how this sequence is spatialized from left to right. The knock is heard in the left side of the sound field, the nurse’s voice is in the center, Dr. Treves voice is on the right, and the laugh track sound is even farther to the right. It kind of swirls around the listener/patient in the story and gives the feeling of being disoriented and vulnerable.

Willa: Oh, that’s an interesting interpretation, Lisha. It feels that way to me too.

Lisha: It seems that just about everyone had a predatory relationship with John Merrick, including his doctor. It’s not hard to imagine why Michael Jackson identified with him so strongly. There’s the Carny who exploits Merrick as a freak show attraction, the hospital employee who profits from bringing crowds in at night to view him, the upper class who are eager to be associated with him when it is fashionable to do so, the mean-spirited mobs who taunt him. And of course, I couldn’t help but notice a strong parallel to Michael Jackson when women scream and go crazy at the sight of him, too.

Willa: That’s a really good point, Lisha, and the movie explores that in subtle ways, I think – both the fear people feel toward Merrick as well as the complicated yearning for the Other. There’s that horrible scene where the two young women from the tavern are forced to kiss him and then kiss the lecherous man who brought them. And then there’s the much nicer scene where he meets the actress who befriends him. They trade lines from Romeo and Juliet, and then she kisses him and says, “Oh Mr. Merrick, you’re not an Elephant Man at all. You’re Romeo.” She also gives him a glamorous photo of herself, which he places beside his bed.

And then a lot of women, especially the nurses, want to mother him. Dr. Treves’ wife seems to feel this too. She begins to cry when he shows her a picture of his absent mother, saying,

She had the face of an angel. I must have been a great disappointment to her. … If only I could find her so she could see me with such lovely friends here now. Perhaps she could love me as I am. I tried so hard to be good.

In the movie it’s implied that his mother abandoned him because of his afflictions, though apparently in real life she suffered physical disabilities as well, and loved him and cared for him until her death when he was 10. Either way, he lost his mother’s protection at a young age, and other women tried to step in when he was older and care for him the way a mother might have – something we see with Michael Jackson also. So Merrick’s relationships with women are very complicated – just like his relationship with his doctor, Dr. Treves.

Lisha: Yes, I agree.

Willa: So I don’t mean to get off track, but you know those buzzing and popping “electricity” sounds at the beginning of “Morphine” that you guys mentioned earlier? They evoke very specific images for me, and I was wondering if they do the same for you. It sounds to me like electricity running up two diverging wires and then popping at the top, which for me means one thing: Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory! Do you know what I mean? And Dr. Frankenstein is so interesting to think about in terms of this theme of predatory doctors.

Here’s a trailer from the 1939 classic, Son of Frankenstein, with Basil Rathbone as Dr. Frankenstein, Boris Karloff as the monster, and Bela Lugosi as Ygor. It shows the scene where those zapping electrical currents bring Frankenstein’s creation to life. You can hear buzzing and zapping sounds throughout, and you can very clearly see those diverging wires with the electrical current arcing between them at 1:03 minutes in:

Lisha: Wow, that’s brilliant! I was wondering what those sounds might be depicting. I think you’re really onto something here, Willa, especially when we think about the song as sonic sculpture. When I listen to the opening of “Morphine” through headphones, I notice that the electrical buzzing sound is right at the top center portion of the sound field – it feels like it’s actually buzzing inside my head.

Willa: I know what you mean, Lisha. It feels that way to me too.

Lisha: Now that I think about it, it feels like I could be in the middle of one of Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments! What is so interesting is that the location of the sound not only changes the physical and emotional effect of the sound, the location also creates a literal meaning.

Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Lisha! I see what you mean – it’s like the location of the sound all around us kind of positions us as listeners on the table, like we’re one of Frankenstein’s experiments. And of course, in “Morphine” we’re in the same position. “Morphine” situates us so we’re lying on the table, listening to a doctor tell us to relax as he injects a drug into our veins.

Joie: Willa, I love that Frankenstein imagery because I’ve always gotten the same feeling from those “electricity” sounds. And I think the fact that those sounds conjure up the same imagery for both of us is significant.

Willa: I think so too.

Lisha: I’m also thinking about the sound of water dripping that you identified, Joie, and I noticed that when the Elephant Man makes his first appearance in the film, I can hear the sound of water dripping in that dark, damp basement he is kept in. (In the movie clip posted above, it is around the 12:00 minute mark.) I guess it’s impossible to say what the sounds in “Morphine” were actually intended to depict, unless someone can tell us what the thought process was. But when you add all this up, it definitely begins to paint a picture.

Joie: As you said, Lisha, it’s impossible to know for certain what the intention was, but … it certainly seems that it all fits, doesn’t it?

Lisha: It does to me.

Joie: And Lisha, I never would have thought about that water dripping in The Elephant Man. Great catch!

Willa: Me neither, but all these connections between The Elephant Man, Frankenstein, and “Morphine” make perfect sense, don’t they? Just looking at the doctor/patient relationships, there are so many parallels between them – between Dr. Treves and John Merrick, Dr. Frankenstein and the monster he creates, and the doctor injecting morphine into the veins of his patient, who seems to represent Michael Jackson himself since the lyrics indirectly refer to the scandals surrounding him.

In all three cases the doctor has a privileged social position (in the case of Dr. Frankenstein, he’s a baron as well as a doctor) while the patient is a social outcast – a “freak,” a “monster,” a man accused of being a child molester. Yet in all three cases, the more we learn the more we sympathize with the “freakish,” “monstrous” patient and come to distrust the distinguished doctor treating him.

Joie: That really is interesting, isn’t it? Especially with the story of Frankenstein where we are left to question which one is really the monster, the doctor or his patient. I think this is a theme that Michael Jackson obviously identified with a great deal.

Willa: Oh, I agree. I think this is a very important theme for Michael Jackson. We see it explicitly in the lyrics to “Monster” and more subtly throughout his work. Over and over we see this impulse to take us inside the minds of those who are perceived as “monstrous” or outcast and encourage us to see things from their perspective. And you’re right, Joie, that’s a central theme of Frankenstein also – at least, it is in the novel. Some movie versions handle it differently. But in the novel, our feelings keep flipping upside-down as our sympathies shift back and forth between Dr. Frankenstein and the being he created.

That’s something we see in “Morphine” also – this emotional tension as our feelings pull us first one way and then the other. And it manifests itself on several different levels, like in the unusual way this song is structured, as we talked about earlier. In fact, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me this functions in a very complex way – in part because our emotions, our intellect, and our physical affect are often at odds with each other.

What I mean is that if I just listen to this song without really thinking about what it means, I feel very unsettled during that turbulent, pounding opening section. It’s so jarring and industrial, and his voice is practically screaming. And some lines of the lyrics are sharp as knives, like “I hate your kind, baby / So unreliable” and “You hate your race, baby / You’re just a liar.” It’s so painful to me to hear him sing those words, and imagine what it must have felt like for him to hear comments like that.

Then that beautiful middle section comes in and I start to relax. I have to say, I love his voice in this section. It’s just lovely, with the simple tinkling of a piano, followed a little later by strings and flutes, as you mentioned, Lisha. It’s all very simple and soothing and beautiful.

And then the jarring, pounding, industrial sounds start up again as we’re yanked into the third section, and it unsettles me all over again.

Joie: And I believe that unsettled feeling was his intention here.

Willa: I think so too. So the structure of “Morphine” has a significant emotional, even physical, effect but I think there’s more going on here.

If I were to interpret this song without thinking about the lyrics, I would assume that the first and third sections are depicting an industrial, mechanized, artificial world, and that the middle section is an escape into nature – into the “real” world, the natural world.

But that isn’t true. The lyrics flip that around. The first and third sections are depicting the “real” world, the harsh reality of his world after the 1993 allegations came out and the publicity machine turned against him, and the middle section is what’s false and artificial – a drug-induced escape from the real world.

Lisha: It is temporary relief from agonizing pain, but even that momentary escape is problematic.

Willa: Exactly. So there’s a dissonance between how these three sections feel and what they mean, between what’s perceived as “real” and what isn’t, and that’s so interesting to me.

The overall result is that when I listen to this song, I’m kind of a mess, frankly. The first section puts me completely on edge. Then that soft middle section begins and my body begins to relax – but at the same time, my mind is saying, Danger! Danger! Don’t succumb! Then the third section hits and I don’t know what to do. I want to escape all that jarring, abrasive confusion and I kind of want to go back to the relative quiet of the middle section, but I know I shouldn’t.

So my mind, body, and emotions are all confused and in a state of conflict – which is an approximation of the experience of addiction, I imagine.

Joie: I think that was a wonderful analogy of addiction, Willa, and really thought provoking. Just like “Morphine” itself.

Lisha: The song captures the reality of the situation quite well. In the case of a severe injury or agonizing pain, the suffering of the patient simply has to be addressed. It’s the only compassionate thing to do, and I can feel that in the soothing effect of the music in the second section. Yet, there is something so terribly sad, haunting, and dark about that music, too.

Willa: Oh, I agree.

Lisha: It’s a feeling of not knowing which is worse, the treatment or the illness, the solution or the problem, the painkiller or the pain. Those contrasting musical sections could just keep repeating in an endless, vicious cycle.

Willa: Yes, just like the cycle of addiction. So in a very real sense, Michael Jackson isn’t just singing about addiction in “Morphine” but recreating the physical and emotional experience of addiction, and forcing us as listeners to experience it for ourselves.

Lisha: As you said so well, Joie, it’s a thought-provoking sonic sculpture.

Trust in Me

Joie: Today, Willa and I are joined by our friend and contributor, Lisha McDuff. Thanks for spending time with us today, Lisha. What have you been up to?

Lisha: Well, Joie, I’ve been pretty busy! Can you believe I just graduated from the University of Liverpool with a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies?

Willa: And her dissertation was on Black or White!

Joie: Congratulations on that achievement!

Lisha: Thank you so much.

Joie: So ladies, I’ve been thinking about the first time we all sat down for a chat when we talked about how many of Michael Jackson’s songs can be described as a “sonic sculpture.” And I was thinking that there is a song out there that we have never really talked about before that is a perfect example of this “sonic sculpture,” and that’s “Morphine.” It has always been one of my favorite MJ songs. I love it for so many reasons, but mainly because it’s simply so aurally fascinating to listen to.

The subject matter of the song is a little bit of a departure from what we normally see from Michael Jackson. It’s a bit darker in tone than what we’re used to, but part of me feels that the music is so fascinating because the subject matter is so dark. Like this is something he did purposely in order to convey a certain emotion, or evoke a certain mood about the song. Does that make sense?

Willa: It does – it makes a lot of sense. I hadn’t thought about “Morphine” specifically as sonic sculpture before, but I think I know what you mean, Joie, and I wonder if it feels so “sculptural” in part because of the abrupt transitions from the first part into that very different middle section, and then from the middle section back out to the last part. Those transitions are so rough and abrupt, almost violent, that they really call attention to the structure of this song in a way most songs don’t.

Joie: I like how you describe that, Willa. “Violent” is a good word to use here because it truly does feel that way.

Willa: It really does. When transitions flow easily from one part of a song to the next, a lot of times you don’t even notice – you just drift along with the flow of the song. But that isn’t the case here. We’re forced to notice the architecture of this song because the transitions – the seams between the sections – are so glaringly obvious. And I think those rough transitions are really important to both the feeling and meaning of “Morphine.”

Lisha: It’s interesting that I hadn’t necessarily thought of “Morphine” in terms of sonic sculpture either, but now that you’ve mentioned it, Joie, you’re absolutely right. It does makes sense to approach it that way. There is a lot going on in this song – all kinds of industrial noise, machinery, and electronic sounds swirling around all over the place. I hear a buzzing sound vibrating right through my head much of the time, and at other times I strain to hear a far-off conversation, as if it is behind a door at a distance.

We know Michael Jackson was interested in how the ear can judge distance and identify the location of sound in space. His recordings spatialize sound in such fascinating ways. “Thriller,” is a great example of this, recorded and mixed by Bruce Swedien. Another is Disney’s Captain EO, which was the first 5.1 surround sound film ever made. Michael Jackson also experimented with a 3D binaural recording process known as “holophonics,” which was trademarked by Hugo Zuccarelli. The pillow talk introduction to “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” is an example of holophonic sound.

Zuccarelli’s recordings are like ear training exercises that demonstrate how recorded sound can be manipulated to occupy a specific location in an imaginary sonic space. You need headphones to get the full effect, but here is an example of a sonic sculpture titled “Haircut”:

It’s really interesting to listen to “Morphine” with this kind of spatialization in mind. I’m really glad that you encouraged us to approach the song as sonic sculpture, Joie.

Joie: Thanks for sharing that example, Lisha. It’s really interesting to listen to.

Willa: It really is! I swiped my son’s headphones and listened to that clip, and the way the sounds seem to occupy specific points in space and even move around you is amazing! It really reminds me of the slamming door and footsteps walking across the sound space in “Thriller,” as well as a lot of the background sounds in “Morphine,” like the knocking and television sounds off in the distance.

Joie: There are all sorts of wonderful and interesting sounds going on in the background of “Morphine,” some of them very surprising and unexpected. At times I even think that I hear what sounds like water dripping incessantly from a faucet. Do either of you hear that?

Lisha: No, I don’t! Where is that one? I missed it!

Joie: Maybe it’s a sound that I’m oversimplifying as dripping water because my mind can’t easily label it, but I hear it in the first half of the song running at measured intervals in the background. Interestingly, I don’t hear it after the abrupt middle section of the song.

Lisha: Wait a minute, Joie! I think I know what you’re talking about and what a wonderful description of that sound! I think you mean a percussive sound that occurs in the far right portion of the sound field just after the rhythm starts. It happens on the upbeat of 4 and then it occurs every 8 counts after that. Is that the one you mean? It does sound like a slow drip from a water faucet!

Joie: Yes! That’s it!

Lisha: That’s the fun of listening to these tracks, there is always something new to discover.

And as you pointed out, Willa, there are two separate and distinct sound worlds happening here, like another song has been dropped right into the middle. “Morphine” could very well be Michael Jackson’s best rock/heavy metal vocals ever, but suddenly in the middle section there is a relaxed, gentle vocal accompanied by piano, flutes, and strings. It is a startling contrast that makes for an interesting sonic experience, but a very challenging one – it certainly deals with a difficult subject, that’s for sure.

Joie: You know, I almost feel that the subject matter is one of the most interesting things about this song. I happen to be a pretty big fan of rock music in general. I love “80s hair metal” for instance, and I could (and often do) listen to bands like Aerosmith and Guns N Roses all day long. And as any fan of rock music will tell you, drug use is a big staple as far as musical themes go in that genre. In fact, in many genres.

But one of the things that set Michael Jackson apart from the rest is that he typically didn’t sing about things like drugs and sex. So “Morphine,” with its blatant, in-your-face look at drug use – from the drug’s point of view no less – is quite jarring. Every bit as jarring as the abrupt transitions that Willa mentioned earlier.

Lisha: You’re making an excellent point. Drug use is a conspicuous topic in rock music from the 1960s onward and illegal, recreational drug use is often characterized as a positive, mind-expanding experience. This seems to reflect some of the core values of rock, such as spontaneity, authenticity, and an opposition to rigid rule-following and authoritarian thinking.

However, I think “Morphine” comes from an entirely different point of view and expresses a very different set of values. “Morphine” does not address or promote recreational drug use. Instead, it problematizes legal, pharmaceutical medications that are prescribed by physicians to treat patients with serious medical concerns.

Willa: That’s true. This isn’t your typical “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” song by any means. It isn’t talking about getting high. Instead, “Morphine” is focusing very specifically on doctor-facilitated drug addiction, or even doctor-induced drug addiction.

Joie: And the lyrics in that abrupt middle section are very telling, and very personal, I think. Every time I listen to this song, I can just imagine Michael lying on a doctor’s table as these words are softly spoken to him:

Relax
This won’t hurt you
Before I put it in
Close your eyes and count to ten
Don’t cry
I won’t convert you
There’s no need to dismay
Close your eyes and drift away

Can’t you just imagine that? A doctor assuring him that “I won’t convert you into a junkie – just close your eyes and drift away from the pain.”

Lisha: Oh, I certainly can imagine that! The music in this section is soothing, but so sad and haunting at the same time. The doctor is offering some welcome relief from severe pain, but I get this sinking feeling that the situation is much more complicated than what the doctor is willing to represent.

And I agree with you, Joie – this song feels deeply personal. I noticed in the liner notes that Michael Jackson wrote, composed, performed, and produced this song. He also did most of the arrangements himself and he even takes a turn on percussion, drums, and guitar.

Willa: Really? I didn’t know he played guitar …

Lisha: Well, maybe not in the strictest sense of the word, but I’d be willing to bet he knew his way around on it. One of his closest musical collaborators, Brad Buxer, talked about Michael Jackson’s relationship to musical instruments in an interview with the French magazine, Black & White. He said Michael Jackson was a fantastic musician and it wasn’t really necessary for him to have a high level of proficiency on any particular musical instrument. According to Buxer, “He instinctively understood the music. It was just part of him …”

Buxer played keyboards and piano on “Morphine,” but didn’t collaborate on composing the song, as he did on others. Michael Jackson had worked out the entire record in his head and communicated what he wanted to hear to Buxer:

He sang all the parts, whether the piano in the middle of the song, or those sheets of synth on the chorus. Everything is his. On this song, I simply carried out his ideas.

I am also thinking about what you said earlier, Joie, when you described the lyrical content of this song as a personification of the drug itself. That’s such an interesting idea and I thought of lines in the song that could easily be read that way:

Trust in me
Trust in me
Put all your trust in me

But I think there is another strong possibility here too – that the lyrics represent a doctor who is encouraging a patient to have complete faith in their experience and expertise as a medical professional.

Willa: That’s true, those lines could be interpreted either way – as encouraging the patient to trust the drugs or trust the doctor – and it’s chilling either way. I hadn’t thought of those lines as referring to the drug itself – that’s a really interesting way to look at that, Joie – but it makes perfect sense. I mean, just imagine Michael Jackson looking at a bottle of propofol, for example, and thinking those words: “trust in me” to give you a good night’s sleep. Or think of Dr. Conrad Murray speaking those lines. It’s really frightening either way.

Lisha: Yes, it is. And the theme of trusting the doctor happens again, about a minute and a half into the song (1:32 and repeats at 4:16). I hear what sounds like a knock at the door and a woman saying in a very stern, authoritarian voice, “you heard what the doctor said.” This is an audio clip from David Lynch’s 1980 film The Elephant Man. It’s taken from a scene in the film when the Elephant Man is frightened, distrustful, and reluctant to comply when asked to follow the doctor into his office. The head nurse intervenes and commands him to do as “the doctor said.”

Here’s a clip of the movie. The scene in the doctor’s office begins at 15:02 and the audio portion sampled in the song is at 16:25:

Willa: Wow, Lisha, you’re right! I didn’t know that – that he was sampling The Elephant Man in this section – but you’re right, he does. That seems very significant to me.

Lisha: To me, too. It feels like a really important part of the song.

Willa: Oh absolutely. Apparently the story of John Merrick (or Joseph Merrick – he’s been called both names) really resonated for Michael Jackson. You and I talked about that a while back, Joie, in the Leave Me Alone post. So it’s significant for that reason, but also thematically, I think – how it ties in with the idea of a doctor not always acting in a patient’s best interests.

I just watched The Elephant Man again after not seeing it for, heavens, years and years, and I was struck by how much it focuses on Dr. Treves. He’s on screen nearly as much as Merrick is. And while he rescues Merrick from the abusive Mr. Bytes, who was exhibiting him as a carnival sideshow, Dr. Treves’ motives aren’t purely benevolent either. As an older doctor says,

I for one am sick and tired of this competitive freak-hunting by these overly ambitious young doctors trying to make names for themselves.

Over the course of the movie, as Dr. Treves begins to see Merrick in a more sympathetic way, he begins to question himself and his reasons for seeking out Merrick and befriending him so publicly:

I’m beginning to believe that Mr. Bytes and I are very much alike. It seems that I’ve made Mr. Merrick into a curiosity all over again, doesn’t it? But this time in a hospital, rather than a carnival.

He goes on to say,

My name is constantly in the paper. I’m always being praised to the skies. Patients are now expressly asking for my services.

All because of the publicity he’s gained from being the Elephant Man’s doctor. And that horrible scene where he puts Merrick on display for the auditorium full of doctors feels very similar to how Merrick was put on display in the carnival.

So in his own way, Dr. Treves has made a career for himself out of publicizing Merrick’s physical afflictions, just as Mr. Bytes was doing. And it seems to me this somewhat predatory relationship between doctors and patients is a key element of that middle section of “Morphine.”

Joie: Wow. Willa, I’ve seen The Elephant Man many, many times; I just love that movie. But I’ve never thought about it in terms of “Morphine” before. That’s a really interesting parallel you’ve drawn.

Lisha: It really is, and I am very interested in how much the movie focuses on Dr. Treves. At about 1:37 minutes into “Morphine,” just after we hear the nurse bark out “you heard what the doctor said,” I think I also hear the voice of Dr. Treves, played by Anthony Hopkins. Do you hear the male speaking voice in this part as being that of Dr. Treves? It’s off to the right and at a distance, so it’s very hard to make out.

Willa: I think so. It’s a British accent and it sounds like his voice to me, though I can’t make out the specific words. And then there’s the sound of raucous laughter, like from a television soundtrack. There’s laughter in The Elephant Man too, and it’s not happy laughter. In fact, it generally means something exploitative is happening to Merrick. In fact, throughout the movie, laughter is almost always a cruel thing.

Lisha: Yes, it sounds like there could be a laugh track right after Dr. Treves’ voice, possibly suggesting these medical problems are a source of entertainment for some? It’s incredibly cruel.

In terms of sonic sculpture, I noticed how this sequence is spatialized from left to right. The knock is heard in the left side of the sound field, the nurse’s voice is in the center, Dr. Treves voice is on the right, and the laugh track sound is even farther to the right. It kind of swirls around the listener/patient in the story and gives the feeling of being disoriented and vulnerable.

Willa: Oh, that’s an interesting interpretation, Lisha. It feels that way to me too.

Lisha: It seems that just about everyone had a predatory relationship with John Merrick, including his doctor. It’s not hard to imagine why Michael Jackson identified with him so strongly. There’s the Carny who exploits Merrick as a freak show attraction, the hospital employee who profits from bringing crowds in at night to view him, the upper class who are eager to be associated with him when it is fashionable to do so, the mean-spirited mobs who taunt him. And of course, I couldn’t help but notice a strong parallel to Michael Jackson when women scream and go crazy at the sight of him, too.

Willa: That’s a really good point, Lisha, and the movie explores that in subtle ways, I think – both the fear people feel toward Merrick as well as the complicated yearning for the Other. There’s that horrible scene where the two young women from the tavern are forced to kiss him and then kiss the lecherous man who brought them. And then there’s the much nicer scene where he meets the actress who befriends him. They trade lines from Romeo and Juliet, and then she kisses him and says, “Oh Mr. Merrick, you’re not an Elephant Man at all. You’re Romeo.” She also gives him a glamorous photo of herself, which he places beside his bed.

And then a lot of women, especially the nurses, want to mother him. Dr. Treves’ wife seems to feel this too. She begins to cry when he shows her a picture of his absent mother, saying,

She had the face of an angel. I must have been a great disappointment to her. … If only I could find her so she could see me with such lovely friends here now. Perhaps she could love me as I am. I tried so hard to be good.

In the movie it’s implied that his mother abandoned him because of his afflictions, though apparently in real life she suffered physical disabilities as well, and loved him and cared for him until her death when he was 10. Either way, he lost his mother’s protection at a young age, and other women tried to step in when he was older and care for him the way a mother might have – something we see with Michael Jackson also. So Merrick’s relationships with women are very complicated – just like his relationship with his doctor, Dr. Treves.

Lisha: Yes, I agree.

Willa: So I don’t mean to get off track, but you know those buzzing and popping “electricity” sounds at the beginning of “Morphine” that you guys mentioned earlier? They evoke very specific images for me, and I was wondering if they do the same for you. It sounds to me like electricity running up two diverging wires and then popping at the top, which for me means one thing: Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory! Do you know what I mean? And Dr. Frankenstein is so interesting to think about in terms of this theme of predatory doctors.

Here’s a trailer from the 1939 classic, Son of Frankenstein, with Basil Rathbone as Dr. Frankenstein, Boris Karloff as the monster, and Bela Lugosi as Ygor. It shows the scene where those zapping electrical currents bring Frankenstein’s creation to life. You can hear buzzing and zapping sounds throughout, and you can very clearly see those diverging wires with the electrical current arcing between them at 1:03 minutes in:

Lisha: Wow, that’s brilliant! I was wondering what those sounds might be depicting. I think you’re really onto something here, Willa, especially when we think about the song as sonic sculpture. When I listen to the opening of “Morphine” through headphones, I notice that the electrical buzzing sound is right at the top center portion of the sound field – it feels like it’s actually buzzing inside my head.

Willa: I know what you mean, Lisha. It feels that way to me too.

Lisha: Now that I think about it, it feels like I could be in the middle of one of Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments! What is so interesting is that the location of the sound not only changes the physical and emotional effect of the sound, the location also creates a literal meaning.

Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Lisha! I see what you mean – it’s like the location of the sound all around us kind of positions us as listeners on the table, like we’re one of Frankenstein’s experiments. And of course, in “Morphine” we’re in the same position. “Morphine” situates us so we’re lying on the table, listening to a doctor tell us to relax as he injects a drug into our veins.

Joie: Willa, I love that Frankenstein imagery because I’ve always gotten the same feeling from those “electricity” sounds. And I think the fact that those sounds conjure up the same imagery for both of us is significant.

Willa: I think so too.

Lisha: I’m also thinking about the sound of water dripping that you identified, Joie, and I noticed that when the Elephant Man makes his first appearance in the film, I can hear the sound of water dripping in that dark, damp basement he is kept in. (In the movie clip posted above, it is around the 12:00 minute mark.) I guess it’s impossible to say what the sounds in “Morphine” were actually intended to depict, unless someone can tell us what the thought process was. But when you add all this up, it definitely begins to paint a picture.

Joie: As you said, Lisha, it’s impossible to know for certain what the intention was, but … it certainly seems that it all fits, doesn’t it?

Lisha: It does to me.

Joie: And Lisha, I never would have thought about that water dripping in The Elephant Man. Great catch!

Willa: Me neither, but all these connections between The Elephant Man, Frankenstein, and “Morphine” make perfect sense, don’t they? Just looking at the doctor/patient relationships, there are so many parallels between them – between Dr. Treves and John Merrick, Dr. Frankenstein and the monster he creates, and the doctor injecting morphine into the veins of his patient, who seems to represent Michael Jackson himself since the lyrics indirectly refer to the scandals surrounding him.

In all three cases the doctor has a privileged social position (in the case of Dr. Frankenstein, he’s a baron as well as a doctor) while the patient is a social outcast – a “freak,” a “monster,” a man accused of being a child molester. Yet in all three cases, the more we learn the more we sympathize with the “freakish,” “monstrous” patient and come to distrust the distinguished doctor treating him.

Joie: That really is interesting, isn’t it? Especially with the story of Frankenstein where we are left to question which one is really the monster, the doctor or his patient. I think this is a theme that Michael Jackson obviously identified with a great deal.

Willa: Oh, I agree. I think this is a very important theme for Michael Jackson. We see it explicitly in the lyrics to “Monster” and more subtly throughout his work. Over and over we see this impulse to take us inside the minds of those who are perceived as “monstrous” or outcast and encourage us to see things from their perspective. And you’re right, Joie, that’s a central theme of Frankenstein also – at least, it is in the novel. Some movie versions handle it differently. But in the novel, our feelings keep flipping upside-down as our sympathies shift back and forth between Dr. Frankenstein and the being he created.

That’s something we see in “Morphine” also – this emotional tension as our feelings pull us first one way and then the other. And it manifests itself on several different levels, like in the unusual way this song is structured, as we talked about earlier. In fact, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me this functions in a very complex way – in part because our emotions, our intellect, and our physical affect are often at odds with each other.

What I mean is that if I just listen to this song without really thinking about what it means, I feel very unsettled during that turbulent, pounding opening section. It’s so jarring and industrial, and his voice is practically screaming. And some lines of the lyrics are sharp as knives, like “I hate your kind, baby / So unreliable” and “You hate your race, baby / You’re just a liar.” It’s so painful to me to hear him sing those words, and imagine what it must have felt like for him to hear comments like that.

Then that beautiful middle section comes in and I start to relax. I have to say, I love his voice in this section. It’s just lovely, with the simple tinkling of a piano, followed a little later by strings and flutes, as you mentioned, Lisha. It’s all very simple and soothing and beautiful.

And then the jarring, pounding, industrial sounds start up again as we’re yanked into the third section, and it unsettles me all over again.

Joie: And I believe that unsettled feeling was his intention here.

Willa: I think so too. So the structure of “Morphine” has a significant emotional, even physical, effect but I think there’s more going on here.

If I were to interpret this song without thinking about the lyrics, I would assume that the first and third sections are depicting an industrial, mechanized, artificial world, and that the middle section is an escape into nature – into the “real” world, the natural world.

But that isn’t true. The lyrics flip that around. The first and third sections are depicting the “real” world, the harsh reality of his world after the 1993 allegations came out and the publicity machine turned against him, and the middle section is what’s false and artificial – a drug-induced escape from the real world.

Lisha: It is temporary relief from agonizing pain, but even that momentary escape is problematic.

Willa: Exactly. So there’s a dissonance between how these three sections feel and what they mean, between what’s perceived as “real” and what isn’t, and that’s so interesting to me.

The overall result is that when I listen to this song, I’m kind of a mess, frankly. The first section puts me completely on edge. Then that soft middle section begins and my body begins to relax – but at the same time, my mind is saying, Danger! Danger! Don’t succumb! Then the third section hits and I don’t know what to do. I want to escape all that jarring, abrasive confusion and I kind of want to go back to the relative quiet of the middle section, but I know I shouldn’t.

So my mind, body, and emotions are all confused and in a state of conflict – which is an approximation of the experience of addiction, I imagine.

Joie: I think that was a wonderful analogy of addiction, Willa, and really thought provoking. Just like “Morphine” itself.

Lisha: The song captures the reality of the situation quite well. In the case of a severe injury or agonizing pain, the suffering of the patient simply has to be addressed. It’s the only compassionate thing to do, and I can feel that in the soothing effect of the music in the second section. Yet, there is something so terribly sad, haunting, and dark about that music, too.

Willa: Oh, I agree.

Lisha: It’s a feeling of not knowing which is worse, the treatment or the illness, the solution or the problem, the painkiller or the pain. Those contrasting musical sections could just keep repeating in an endless, vicious cycle.

Willa: Yes, just like the cycle of addiction. So in a very real sense, Michael Jackson isn’t just singing about addiction in “Morphine” but recreating the physical and emotional experience of addiction, and forcing us as listeners to experience it for ourselves.

Lisha: As you said so well, Joie, it’s a thought-provoking sonic sculpture.

Summer Rewind 2013, Week 2: Leave Me Alone

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on September 26, 2012. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Celebrating Bad: Leave Me Alone

Willa: So this week we’re wrapping up our month-long celebration of Bad, but that doesn’t mean we’re leaving it behind. I imagine we’ll be talking quite a bit about Bad and Bad 25, and the additional tracks, and the concert DVD, and the Spike Lee documentary as well. There are a lot of exciting things to discuss!

But this week we’re concluding our celebration with a look at Leave Me Alone, which is one of Michael Jackson’s sharpest and most pointed critiques of celebrity media – all contained in a fun and very entertaining video. And you know, Joie, one of the first things that jumps out at me are all the images of confinement we see in the video. Aldebaranredstar talked about the theme of entrapment in a comment about Dirty Diana a couple weeks ago, and we definitely see that here as well. Both he and Bubbles are portrayed with a ball and chain clamped to their ankles, and chains on their wrists. We also see a Lilliputian figure driving in a stake with ropes to hold him down, and we later discover an entire theme park has been built on his reclining body. More subtly, we see him encased in tabloid photographs, and in a dollar bill.

But importantly, he subverts all these efforts to constrain and define him. Those static images of him aren’t static at all – they move and sing, like the portraits in a Harry Potter movie. He dances with the ball and chain, so it becomes nothing more than a stage prop in a Vaudeville act. And ultimately he breaks free from the fun house industry that has built itself on him and his body.

Joie: Willa, I think it’s very interesting that you just referred to the amusement park that is restraining him as a “fun house industry,” because that is a really telling metaphor for fame and the business of being a celebrity. And I have always thought the Leave Me Alone video was just brilliant because of that image at the very end when we discover that all of the scenes we’ve just witnessed are ultimately a part of this giant amusement park – or “fun house” – that the media presumably has built around Michael Jackson. That was just a genius idea and so perfect for the concept of a video for this particular song.

Willa: I agree. It beautifully captures in a visual way how an entire industry built itself on him – and if you think about it, that’s really true.

Joie: It is true. In fact, I think an argument could be made that the current state of things, with the media feeling entitled to every aspect of a star’s personal life, began with their treatment of Michael Jackson.

Willa: Well, I don’t know. I mean, it seems like there have been people like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons since the early days of the movie industry – or at least its adolescence – and they could make life pretty miserable for celebrities. You definitely didn’t want to have them on your trail if you were a gay actor in the 1950s. And really, the tabloid press has been part of American life since before we were a nation. In fact, it’s been suggested that the American revolution might not have happened if there hadn’t been pamphleteers stirring things up. And some of the early political attacks were shocking – scandalous stories of corruption and debauchery and illegitimate children with no basis in fact.

Joie: Well, that may all be true, Willa but, I believe the media’s treatment of Michael Jackson hit an all time low and paved the way for the extremely intrusive, bully-style aggressive paparazzi that everyone loves so much. And I think that in the Leave Me Alone short film, Michael makes it pretty clear how he felt about the media’s behavior.

Willa: I see what you’re saying, Joie – I really do – but you know, even that is problematic. I mean, when he was creating this video, he obviously wanted to express his feelings about the tabloid press and what it felt like to be the subject of so much public scrutiny and speculation. And if he truly hated it, you’d think he’d depict it in unequivocally horrible ways – like being tortured by the Inquisition, or grilled during the McCarthy hearings, or nibbled to death by ants, or chased by savage hyenas, or stung by a swarm of killer bees, or something agonizing like that.

But he doesn’t. He depicts it as a ride through an amusement park, with sideshows and a carnivalesque atmosphere. And here’s the kicker – Michael Jackson loved amusement parks and sideshows and carnivals. He really admired P.T. Barnum (there’s a picture of him on the cover of the Dangerous album) and Barnum specialized in whipping up public interest in human and animal oddities and “freak shows” – precisely the kind of sideshow attractions we see throughout Leave Me Alone.

And really, the mood of this video isn’t one of anger or resentment. He seems more amused than angry, and incredulous that people would actually believe such crazy things. He’s smiling through much of the video as he rides past all these exhibits – in fact, he smiles more in this video than any other video I can think of. At one point he actually breaks out in laughter, which gives us a clue to the question he asks repeatedly in the lyrics: “Who’s laughin’, baby?” Apparently the correct answer is Michael Jackson himself. The tabloids are trying to turn him into an object of ridicule, but he’s the one laughing.

Joie: That’s true, Willa. He is smiling a lot in this video, although I think he actually smiles more in the Speed Demon short film.

Willa: Oh, you’re right! And interestingly, that video talks about celebrity also – about being pursued by obsessive fans.

Joie: Yes it does, but we’re getting a little bit off topic. I agree with you that his critique of the media in this video is very subtly done and he masks it well with the whole ‘fun house’ approach. But I believe that his disdain for the media is actually hidden in plain view here. You’re right that he loved amusement parks, they were one of his most favorite things in the world, and his admiration of P.T. Barnum is well known. But I think it’s very telling that he places himself as the subject of all of the attractions and “freak show” oddities that he rides past. And while those fun house attractions are meant to poke fun at some of the most persistent – and most ridiculous – tabloid rumors about his life, his message is pretty clear, I think. In his book, Man in the Music, Joe Vogel tells us:

“For years, the press – mainstream and tabloid alike – fed on Michael Jackson like no other pop star in history. ‘Leave Me Alone’ is his expression of exasperation at a media and public that had grown insatiable.”

And, in fact, in an interview about the song itself, Michael said this:

“I’m sending a simple message here: Leave me alone. The song is about a relationship between a guy and a girl, but what I’m really saying to people who are bothering me is, ‘leave me alone!'”

I don’t think you can get much clearer than that.

Willa: That’s true, and I think it’s significant that one of the tabloids is named The Intruder. I also think it’s very interesting that in that interview he explicitly links the lyrics “about a relationship between a guy and a girl” with his relationship “to people who are bothering me,” such as reporters and the paparazzi. That’s a pattern we see in many of his songs and something we’ve talked about quite a bit in the past, but I’d never heard Michael Jackson himself discuss that connection before. That’s really interesting.

But Joie, I also love what you just said about how “he places himself as the subject of all of the attractions and ‘freak show’ oddities that he rides past.” That is such an important point, I think. He positions himself as the “freak” in the “freak show” and exaggerates that to outrageous proportions, with one of the tabloid headlines screaming, “Jackson’s 3rd Eye Starts Sunglass Fad” and another, “Michael and Diana Same Person!”

Joie: I’ll bet he had fun coming up with those headlines!

Willa: Oh, I bet he did too! But his response to all that is interesting. He doesn’t deny those stories – they’re too ridiculous to bother with – and he certainly doesn’t try to convince us he’s normal. Instead, he celebrates difference, as he always does. So it seems to me there’s an interesting double message here. On the one hand, he doesn’t like being called a freak (which brings to mind that confrontation between the Mayor and the Maestro in Ghosts) but at the same time, he seems to be saying it’s ok to be different and kind of celebrating freakishness.

Joie: Yes, I would agree with that. And I think it’s a message he tried to get across to us often. It’s in many of his songs and videos if you think about it.

Willa: It really is – ever since “Ben,” which as you know holds a very special place for me. But all of this reminds me of P.T. Barnum again. There are people who, through no fault of their own, are treated like freaks – because of their height or their weight or their pigmentation or some other physical attribute. It’s completely unfair, and generally it’s considered polite to pretend there’s no difference, while secretly feeling that there is. But Barnum didn’t do the polite thing. He hired people who were in this position and put them on display, but he also treated them as people. Tom Thumb was his most famous “discovery,” and the two became close friends and toured Europe together – and became celebrities together.

This is all very problematic, but I do think it’s important that Barnum insisted on the humanity of every person, including people who were often treated as outcasts in their own communities. As he said in a passionate speech to the Connecticut state senate, as they were debating the rights of freed slaves following the Civil War,

“A human soul … is not to be trifled with. It may inhabit the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hotentot—it is still an immortal spirit.”

I see that insistence on the humanity of all people, including people unfairly labeled as freaks, continuing on in Michael Jackson – except in this case, the person on display is himself. Or rather, he’s in a double position: he’s the object of the spectacle, but he’s also witnessing it and commenting on it at the same time.

Joie: Hmm. I see what you’re saying and I agree with you, Willa. Barnum did insist on their humanity, and that makes me think about that old Ebony/Jet interview that took place shortly after the release of the Bad album. The journalist asks Michael about his fondness for John Merrick, the Elephant Man, and he says that his favorite part of that film is where Merrick shouts, “Leave me alone! I am not an animal. I’m a human being!” What I love about that part of the interview is that, before the interviewer can even get the words out, Michael has already quoted the very part that the interviewer is talking about. And what a quote it is! Not only is it perfect for this discussion we’re having, but it could also describe Michael himself.

Willa: It really could – and it’s so interesting that it begins with the title of this video – “Leave me alone!” – and that Merrick is the one shouting it. That’s fascinating. I wonder if that’s where the title came from?

Joie: The title of the song? I don’t know; that’s an interesting question. And it is fascinating, isn’t it? In that interview, Michael tells his interviewer that he identifies with John Merrick: “I feel a closeness to [him],” he says. You know, the media always tried to make that something weird but, in actuality, it’s a very compassionate thing to have a fondness for John Merrick.

Willa: I agree.

Joie: In fact, long before that rumor of Michael wanting to buy the Elephant Man’s bones, I developed my own fondness for John Merrick. I don’t see how anyone could watch that movie and not become fond of him. Or, at the very least, have a little bit of compassion for the man. He was – as he said – a human being! And I think it was such a bold and fun move for Michael to highlight that particular rumor in the Leave Me Alone short film the way he does, dancing with the Elephant Man’s bones. I think that is just hilarious!

Willa: Oh, it’s wonderful! It’s such a funny, bizarre, Vaudeville, carnivalesque scene – who would ever dream up something like that? But it’s also significant, I think, that he and the Elephant Man’s bones are dancing side by side. That gets back to what you were saying earlier, Joie, about how he positions himself in this video as one of the spectacles. I think it’s very important that he and the Elephant Man are both on display, dancing the same movements in tandem, so are clearly presented as equals in that scene. It’s like he’s created a visual representation of what he told the interviewer – of the connection he feels to the Elephant Man.

And importantly, Merrick tried to make people understand how painful it was to be in that position – always on display, always treated as different – by shouting, “Leave me alone! I am not an animal. I’m a human being!” as you quoted earlier. And I think that’s exactly what Michael Jackson is telling us in this video as well. He’s occupying a double position – as spectacle and as observer of the spectacle – and he’s encouraging us as an audience to consider this situation from both of those perspectives and consider what that must feel like for him.

Joie: It’s very brilliant really. And you’re right. Who would ever think of that concept but Michael Jackson? The video was directed by Jim Blashfield and it actually won a Grammy in 1988 for Best Music Video Short Form. It also won an MTV Video Music Award for Best Special Effects in a Video. And, as always, I wonder just how much of the concept was the director and how much was Michael. He told an MTV interviewer in 1999 that he was always very involved in the conception process, and Joe Vogel tells us in Man in the Music that Blashfield directed “with input from Jackson.”

Willa: Oh, I think he was very involved. If he had one or two exceptional videos to his name, then you might think it was just the work of the director. But when you consider that he made one exceptional film after another, with around 30 different directors, and the only common element was him – well, then at some point you have to conclude that the true guiding presence behind his work was Michael Jackson himself.

Celebrating Bad: Leave Me Alone

Willa:  So this week we’re wrapping up our month-long celebration of Bad, but that doesn’t mean we’re leaving it behind. I imagine we’ll be talking quite a bit about Bad and Bad 25, and the additional tracks, and the concert DVD, and the Spike Lee documentary as well. There are a lot of exciting things to discuss!

But this week we’re concluding our celebration with a look at Leave Me Alone, which is one of Michael Jackson’s sharpest and most pointed critiques of celebrity media – all contained in a fun and very entertaining video. And you know, Joie, one of the first things that jumps out at me are all the images of confinement we see in the video. Aldebaranredstar talked about the theme of entrapment in a comment about Dirty Diana a couple weeks ago, and we definitely see that here as well. Both he and Bubbles are portrayed with a ball and chain clamped to their ankles, and chains on their wrists. We also see a Lilliputian figure driving in a stake with ropes to hold him down, and we later discover an entire theme park has been built on his reclining body. More subtly, we see him encased in tabloid photographs, and in a dollar bill.

But importantly, he subverts all these efforts to constrain and define him. Those static images of him aren’t static at all – they move and sing, like the portraits in a Harry Potter movie. He dances with the ball and chain, so it becomes nothing more than a stage prop in a Vaudeville act. And ultimately he breaks free from the fun house industry that has built itself on him and his body.

Joie:  Willa, I think it’s very interesting that you just referred to the amusement park that is restraining him as a “fun house industry,” because that is a really telling metaphor for fame and the business of being a celebrity. And I have always thought the Leave Me Alone video was just brilliant because of that image at the very end when we discover that all of the scenes we’ve just witnessed are ultimately a part of this giant amusement park – or “fun house” – that the media presumably has built around Michael Jackson. That was just a genius idea and so perfect for the concept of a video for this particular song.

Willa:  I agree. It beautifully captures in a visual way how an entire industry built itself on him – and if you think about it, that’s really true.

Joie:  It is true. In fact, I think an argument could be made that the current state of things, with the media feeling entitled to every aspect of a star’s personal life, began with their treatment of Michael Jackson.

Willa:  Well, I don’t know. I mean, it seems like there have been people like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons since the early days of the movie industry – or at least its adolescence – and they could make life pretty miserable for celebrities. You definitely didn’t want to have them on your trail if you were a gay actor in the 1950s. And really, the tabloid press has been part of American life since before we were a nation. In fact, it’s been suggested that the American revolution might not have happened if there hadn’t been pamphleteers stirring things up. And some of the early political attacks were shocking – scandalous stories of corruption and debauchery and illegitimate children with no basis in fact.

Joie:  Well, that may all be true, Willa but, I believe the media’s treatment of Michael Jackson hit an all time low and paved the way for the extremely intrusive, bully-style aggressive paparazzi that everyone loves so much. And I think that in the Leave Me Alone short film, Michael makes it pretty clear how he felt about the media’s behavior.

Willa:  I see what you’re saying, Joie – I really do – but you know, even that is problematic. I mean, when he was creating this video, he obviously wanted to express his feelings about the tabloid press and what it felt like to be the subject of so much public scrutiny and speculation. And if he truly hated it, you’d think he’d depict it in unequivocally horrible ways – like being tortured by the Inquisition, or grilled during the McCarthy hearings, or nibbled to death by ants, or chased by savage hyenas, or stung by a swarm of killer bees, or something agonizing like that.

But he doesn’t. He depicts it as a ride through an amusement park, with sideshows and a carnivalesque atmosphere. And here’s the kicker – Michael Jackson loved amusement parks and sideshows and carnivals. He really admired P.T. Barnum (there’s a picture of him on the cover of the Dangerous album) and Barnum specialized in whipping up public interest in human and animal oddities and “freak shows” – precisely the kind of sideshow attractions we see throughout Leave Me Alone.

And really, the mood of this video isn’t one of anger or resentment. He seems more amused than angry, and incredulous that people would actually believe such crazy things. He’s smiling through much of the video as he rides past all these exhibits – in fact, he smiles more in this video than any other video I can think of. At one point he actually breaks out in laughter, which gives us a clue to the question he asks repeatedly in the lyrics: “Who’s laughin’, baby?” Apparently the correct answer is Michael Jackson himself. The tabloids are trying to turn him into an object of ridicule, but he’s the one laughing.

Joie:  That’s true, Willa. He is smiling a lot in this video, although I think he actually smiles more in the Speed Demon short film.

Willa:  Oh, you’re right! And interestingly, that video talks about celebrity also – about being pursued by obsessive fans.

Joie:  Yes it does, but we’re getting a little bit off topic. I agree with you that his critique of the media in this video is very subtly done and he masks it well with the whole ‘fun house’ approach. But I believe that his disdain for the media is actually hidden in plain view here. You’re right that he loved amusement parks, they were one of his most favorite things in the world, and his admiration of P.T. Barnum is well known. But I think it’s very telling that he places himself as the subject of all of the attractions and “freak show” oddities that he rides past. And while those fun house attractions are meant to poke fun at some of the most persistent – and most ridiculous – tabloid rumors about his life, his message is pretty clear, I think. In his book, Man in the Music, Joe Vogel tells us:

“For years, the press – mainstream and tabloid alike – fed on Michael Jackson like no other pop star in history. ‘Leave Me Alone’ is his expression of exasperation at a media and public that had grown insatiable.”

And, in fact, in an interview about the song itself, Michael said this:

“I’m sending a simple message here: Leave me alone. The song is about a relationship between a guy and a girl, but what I’m really saying to people who are bothering me is, ‘leave me alone!'”

I don’t think you can get much clearer than that.

Willa:  That’s true, and I think it’s significant that one of the tabloids is named The Intruder. I also think it’s very interesting that in that interview he explicitly links the lyrics “about a relationship between a guy and a girl” with his relationship “to people who are bothering me,” such as reporters and the paparazzi. That’s a pattern we see in many of his songs and something we’ve talked about quite a bit in the past, but I’d never heard Michael Jackson himself discuss that connection before. That’s really interesting.

But Joie, I also love what you just said about how “he places himself as the subject of all of the attractions and ‘freak show’ oddities that he rides past.” That is such an important point, I think. He positions himself as the “freak” in the “freak show” and exaggerates that to outrageous proportions, with one of the tabloid headlines screaming, “Jackson’s 3rd Eye Starts Sunglass Fad” and another, “Michael and Diana Same Person!”

Joie:  I’ll bet he had fun coming up with those headlines!

Willa:  Oh, I bet he did too! But his response to all that is interesting. He doesn’t deny those stories – they’re too ridiculous to bother with – and he certainly doesn’t try to convince us he’s normal. Instead, he celebrates difference, as he always does. So it seems to me there’s an interesting double message here. On the one hand, he doesn’t like being called a freak (which brings to mind that confrontation between the Mayor and the Maestro in Ghosts) but at the same time, he seems to be saying it’s ok to be different and kind of celebrating freakishness.

Joie:  Yes, I would agree with that. And I think it’s a message he tried to get across to us often. It’s in many of his songs and videos if you think about it.

Willa:  It really is – ever since “Ben,” which as you know holds a very special place for me. But all of this reminds me of P.T. Barnum again. There are people who, through no fault of their own, are treated like freaks – because of their height or their weight or their pigmentation or some other physical attribute. It’s completely unfair, and generally it’s considered polite to pretend there’s no difference, while secretly feeling that there is. But Barnum didn’t do the polite thing. He hired people who were in this position and put them on display, but he also treated them as people. Tom Thumb was his most famous “discovery,” and the two became close friends and toured Europe together – and became celebrities together.

This is all very problematic, but I do think it’s important that Barnum insisted on the humanity of every person, including people who were often treated as outcasts in their own communities. As he said in a passionate speech to the Connecticut state senate, as they were debating the rights of freed slaves following the Civil War,

“A human soul . . . is not to be trifled with.  It may inhabit the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hotentot—it is still an immortal spirit.”

I see that insistence on the humanity of all people, including people unfairly labeled as freaks, continuing on in Michael Jackson – except in this case, the person on display is himself. Or rather, he’s in a double position: he’s the object of the spectacle, but he’s also witnessing it and commenting on it at the same time.

Joie:  Hmm. I see what you’re saying and I agree with you, Willa. Barnum did insist on their humanity, and that makes me think about that old Ebony/Jet interview that took place shortly after the release of the Bad album. The journalist asks Michael about his fondness for John Merrick, the Elephant Man, and he says that his favorite part of that film is where Merrick shouts, “Leave me alone! I am not an animal. I’m a human being!” What I love about that part of the interview is that, before the interviewer can even get the words out, Michael has already quoted the very part that the interviewer is talking about. And what a quote it is! Not only is it perfect for this discussion we’re having, but it could also describe Michael himself.

Willa:  It really could – and it’s so interesting that it begins with the title of this video – “Leave me alone!” – and that Merrick is the one shouting it. That’s fascinating. I wonder if that’s where the title came from?

Joie:  The title of the song? I don’t know; that’s an interesting question. And it is fascinating, isn’t it? In that interview, Michael tells his interviewer that he identifies with John Merrick:  “I feel a closeness to [him],” he says. You know, the media always tried to make that something weird but, in actuality, it’s a very compassionate thing to have a fondness for John Merrick.

Willa:  I agree.

Joie:  In fact, long before that rumor of Michael wanting to buy the Elephant Man’s bones, I developed my own fondness for John Merrick. I don’t see how anyone could watch that movie and not become fond of him. Or, at the very least, have a little bit of compassion for the man. He was – as he said – a human being! And I think it was such a bold and fun move for Michael to highlight that particular rumor in the Leave Me Alone short film the way he does, dancing with the Elephant Man’s bones. I think that is just hilarious!

Willa:  Oh, it’s wonderful!  It’s such a funny, bizarre, Vaudeville, carnivalesque scene – who would ever dream up something like that? But it’s also significant, I think, that he and the Elephant Man’s bones are dancing side by side. That gets back to what you were saying earlier, Joie, about how he positions himself in this video as one of the spectacles. I think it’s very important that he and the Elephant Man are both on display, dancing the same movements in tandem, so are clearly presented as equals in that scene. It’s like he’s created a visual representation of what he told the interviewer – of the connection he feels to the Elephant Man.

And importantly, Merrick tried to make people understand how painful it was to be in that position – always on display, always treated as different – by shouting, “Leave me alone! I am not an animal. I’m a human being!” as you quoted earlier. And I think that’s exactly what Michael Jackson is telling us in this video as well. He’s occupying a double position – as spectacle and as observer of the spectacle – and he’s encouraging us as an audience to consider this situation from both of those perspectives and consider what that must feel like for him.

Joie:  It’s very brilliant really. And you’re right. Who would ever think of that concept but Michael Jackson? The video was directed by Jim Blashfield and it actually won a Grammy in 1988 for Best Music Video Short Form. It also won an MTV Video Music Award for Best Special Effects in a Video. And, as always, I wonder just how much of the concept was the director and how much was Michael. He told an MTV interviewer in 1999 that he was always very involved in the conception process, and Joe Vogel tells us in Man in the Music that Blashfield directed “with input from Jackson.”

Willa:  Oh, I think he was very involved. If he had one or two exceptional videos to his name, then you might think it was just the work of the director. But when you consider that he made one exceptional film after another, with around 30 different directors, and the only common element was him – well, then at some point you have to conclude that the true guiding presence behind his work was Michael Jackson himself.