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Celebrating Bad: You Wanna Be a Man

Willa:  So Joie, last June we began talking about the Bad short film and video cut, but we didn’t really get a chance to look at them in depth. It seems like we’d just started chatting when we had to quit, and there’s so much more to talk about!

Joie:  I agree, Willa. It just never felt like we got into the video itself, did it?

Willa:  It really didn’t. We started talking about how there really wasn’t a forum for the full 16-minute version of Bad to be seen, which is an important issue.

Joie:  It is an important issue and I got sidetracked by my disdain for the “reality” format that killed my MTV, and I’m sorry about that. I’ll try to stay on topic this time.

Willa:  Well, sometimes those side trips can be pretty rewarding, but I would like for us to get a chance to burrow in to the film itself, so this week I was hoping we could pick up where we left off a couple months ago.

You know, it really does seem like every time I watch one of Michael Jackson’s short films I see something new, or feel echoes of something I hadn’t felt before, or see a connection I hadn’t really noticed before. And the last time I watched Bad I was really struck by the fact that his character in this film doesn’t have anyone he can truly depend on and trust. We hear the voice of his mother (spoken by Roberta Flack) and she sounds like a warm person and a loving parent, but she’s at work and unavailable. We never see her. He seems to interact and get along well with the other kids at his prep school, but there doesn’t seem to be any real depth of friendship there. He does seem to feel a connection with his friends back in his old neighborhood, but they’re pressuring him hard to prove he’s one of them, so he can’t depend on them either.

In fact, the only person he genuinely connects with in the entire film is the nameless fellow on the train. Like Daryl (and Michael Jackson himself) he’s positioned between two worlds – and this is portrayed literally, as they are riding a train from a rather unfamiliar new life back to the life they grew up in. So both of them are physically and symbolically between two worlds. This fellow on the train seems to understand what Daryl is going through – that patronizing show of acceptance from other students who don’t really accept him – because he’s experienced it himself. He asks Daryl, “How many guys proud of you?” Daryl counts in his head, then says, “Three.” “Shoot,” the other guy says, “Four guys proud of me.”

But that moment of connection lasts only a moment and then he’s gone. Interestingly, when we first see that other guy, he seems threatening. He’s watching Daryl through slitty eyes, and Daryl feels uncomfortable and turns away. So it’s a relief when we realize we can trust this guy … maybe. At least he seems like someone we can trust, but can we really? So in some ways it only heightens this feeling of doubt and alienation, and this sense that there’s no one he can really rely on.

Joie:  You are so right about that, Willa. In the beginning, it does seem like this guy on the train is someone very threatening and for a few minutes we don’t really know which way this is going to go. There is a heightened sense of anxiety because of it. Then, by the time he gets off the train, the two have clearly made a connection – as you say – even though it is fleeting. And what I find interesting is that, as he exits, he tells Daryl to “be the man.” It’s like he’s encouraging him to stand up for himself and what he believes in and not be swayed by peer pressure. It’s sort of foreboding in a way, like he’s preparing him for what’s to come.

Willa:  Joie, that is so interesting! I never looked at it that way. I always saw that line as a response to the prep school experience they’ve both had, and this idea that they’re being groomed to enter a life of privilege and “be the man.” But you’re right – it also foreshadows the test he’s about to face in his old neighborhood, which in many ways is set up as a test of his manhood. And that reminds me of the lyrics to “Beat It,” which in many ways serves as a prologue to Bad:

Don’t wanna be a boy, you wanna be a man
You wanna stay alive, better do what you can

Here too he’s talking about being “a man,” but in this context he’s obviously talking about dealing with gangs. But it’s complicated – does being a man mean you have to hurt people, or be hurt yourself?  He raises that question pretty directly in Beat It:

You better run, you better do what you can
Don’t wanna see no blood, don’t be a macho man
You wanna be tough, better do what you can
So beat it, but you wanna be bad

So while he understands “you wanna be a man,” he advises “don’t be a macho man” – though he then ends this verse by acknowledging “you wanna be bad.” So in both of these short films, he seems to be questioning what it means to be bad and be a man – and developing his own unique answers.

Joie:  And in doing so, he’s forcing others to think about those questions as well.

Willa:  Exactly.

Joie:  What does it mean to be bad? To be a man? By bringing those questions up, he’s attempting to educate us through his art – something he does so well. And when thinking about the lyrics to “Bad,” it’s almost like he’s telling young men everywhere that their ideas of what it means to be a man are all wrong, as he sings:

Your talk is cheap
You’re not a man
You’re throwing stones
To hide your hands

You know, it’s like the old expression your grandmother would sometimes say when you misbehaved – “don’t throw stones and then hide your hands!” Of course, as a kid, you never really understood what that meant; at least, I didn’t. It wasn’t until this song came out that I bothered to look it up and find out. Basically, it means to start some kind of trouble or mischief and then not take responsibility for it when the consequences start rolling in. And unfortunately, there is quite a lot of that going on in our society – it’s always someone else’s fault. So Michael Jackson was addressing that in “Bad” and saying, that’s not what a real man would do.

Willa:  You know, Joie, I always get so much out of our conversations. I’d never heard that expression before. I thought the “throwing stones” line was a reference to the Bible story where a crowd is gathering to stone a woman for committing adultery, but Jesus stops them and says, “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.” In other words, we shouldn’t “throw stones” – we should focus on improving our own behavior instead of criticizing the behavior of others. But then I didn’t understand what the “hide your hands” part meant. But what you’re saying about “don’t throw stones and then hide your hands” makes a lot of sense. That is so interesting.

Joie:  It is interesting, isn’t it? One of those old expressions that don’t make a whole lot of sense until you really stop and think about them. Of course, some of them, I never figure out. Like “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” What the heck does that mean, anyway? It drives me crazy!  But, I’m not getting sidetracked this time; I promise!

Willa:  OK, I’ll be good too and not ask what on earth “naked as a jaybird” means. Birds aren’t naked….

But anyway, it really does seem to me that he’s proposing a new definition of “bad” in this film, and through that a new definition of manhood. At first he tells his friends, “You wanna see who’s bad?” and agrees to help with the robbery. He’s going along with their definition of “bad.” But then he changes his mind and gives them (and us) a different definition – and presents us with two examples of this new definition.

One is very subtle – so subtle it’s easy to miss. It’s in the Wanted poster in the subway station. Big letters at the bottom of the poster tell us this man is “BAD” – and the man in the mugshot is Martin Scorsese, the director of Bad. The poster goes on to tell us he’s “Guilty of Sacrilege.” Scorsese was working on his film The Last Temptation of Christ at about that time, and he would come under intense criticism for it, for being sacrilegious. So he seems to be telling us that Martin Scorsese is “bad” because he’s an artist who challenges social norms.

Ironically, the other example is easy to miss for the exact opposite reason, because it’s so pervasive – it’s Michael Jackson himself. He repeatedly sings, “I’m bad,” and he is, but not because he’s tough or violent. Instead, he’s bad because he’s an artist, and an artist of a certain type – an artist who forces us to see ourselves and our world in a different way. In other words, he’s bad in the same way Martin Scorsese is.

Michael Jackson seems to be saying in this film that acting mean, carrying a gun, selling drugs, robbing an old man, hurting people – those things don’t make you “bad.” Instead, it’s developing your talents, specifically artistic talents, and then using those talents to effect important change in the world, in people’s perceptions and emotions. Michael Jackson and Martin Scorsese are respected around the world because they’re artists, with the unique courage of artists. They’re incredibly talented and creative, and in Michael Jackson’s case especially, they have the courage to present an alternate vision of how life can be lived.

And that reminds me of what you were just saying about throwing stones and then hiding your hands, and how that means to stir things up and then pretend you didn’t do it. You know, artists and gang members do have something very important in common:  they’re both transgressive, meaning they both challenge the established social order. But while gang members do it in a negative way and then “hide their hands,” artists do it in a positive way and take responsibility and even pride in their “transgressions.” They show their hands.

Joie:  That’s a very interesting analogy, Willa. I would never have thought those two things – artists and gang members – are alike in any way but, you make a great point.

Willa:  They do seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, don’t they? But they both push the limits of what’s socially acceptable, and sometimes motivate change. But while gang members tend to bring about negative change – more violence, more police, more repression, more jails – artists can sometimes bring about positive change. And I think the difference is that violence makes people fearful and reactionary, so they close their minds, while art can help open people’s minds to new ways of seeing and experiencing the world.

Joie:  Really interesting comparison. But, you know, speaking of gang members … there is something about this video that I have always found fascinating, and that’s the fact that the entire film is shot in black and white while the dance sequence with the gang members is in vibrant technicolor.

Maybe I should pause here and say that you and I talked a bit last spring about exactly who are the “gang members” in this particular short film, and I stated that I didn’t look upon Daryl’s three so-called friends as gang members but as wanna-be thugs. So, when I say “gang members,” I am referring to the dancers, not the friends.

Willa:  Though they’re a very different kind of gang – a “gang” of dancers, of artists, which circles back to that connection between artists and outlaws we were just talking about. I hadn’t thought of the dancers in Bad quite that way until just now , but they’re kind of embodying the conflation of those two categories. They are a “gang” of artists – they’re outlaw artists – so doubly transgressive.

Joie:  Oh, you’re right. Hadn’t thought of that. But I just love the way that portion of the short film is set apart from the rest of the video by the vibrant color and I always wonder, what was Michael (or Scorsese) trying to convey with that distinction? What message is hidden in that artistic decision? Could it be perhaps that the misery of the lives of the three wanna-be thugs is reflected in the bleak, dismal black and white, and that Michael is showing them through the dance sequence how vibrant and alive they could be if they left their world of violence and misery behind? Or perhaps that’s too simplistic and I’m reading too much into it.

Willa:  Oh no, I don’t think you’re reading too much into it, Joie – not at all. It must be important because he repeats that same shift in Ghosts.

Joie:  Oh, that’s right; he does make that transition in Ghosts as well!

Willa:  He does. We see the fearful villagers and the vengeful mayor creeping toward the Maestro’s castle in black and white, and then a door opens and they see a room suffused with color, and that’s the space of the Maestro. And I think your interpretation of this shift in Bad works equally well for both films. As you said, “the misery of the lives of the three wanna-be thugs,” and the villagers in Ghosts, as well, “is reflected in the bleak, dismal black and white.” And as you say, “Michael is showing them through the dance sequence how vibrant and alive they could be if they left their world of violence and misery behind.” I think that’s a beautiful way to interpret both films.

Another way to approach this is to look back at the most famous example of a film that shifts between color and black and white: The Wizard of Oz. The scenes in Kansas are all shot in black and white, and the scenes in Oz are in color. Michael Jackson was well aware of that shift, and talked about it with Rabbi Boteach when describing how he designed the drive up to Neverland, beginning with the very plain and simple gates:

I was gonna have people swing them open and really kind of have them funky and tattered, just so psychologically you really feel like you’re coming to a ranch, so that when you go around the bend I want it to change to Technicolor, like The Wizard of Oz does.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s “real” world of Kansas is black and white, but the world of her imagination – the world of Oz – is in color. And the same is true of Bad as well: the black and white scenes are “real,” and the color scenes are Daryl’s imagination.

Joie:  Willa, that’s fascinating. I hadn’t thought of that before. The color scenes are happening in Daryl’s imagination, so they are in Technicolor! That makes so much sense now.

Willa:  Yeah, but it doesn’t work for Ghosts, where all the scenes – both the color and the black and white – are “real.” There the shift seems to mean something different. The color scenes are “real,” but it’s a reality heightened and made vibrant by the creativity of a powerful artist – which is closer to your interpretation, Joie. And I wonder if that isn’t closer to what Michael Jackson had in mind for Bad as well. As in Ghosts, when we’re in the color scenes, we know we’re in the presence of an amazing artist.

So as with a lot of his work, Bad seems to be another example of meta-art – of art talking about art, including the importance of art and the role of the artist. And he seems to be saying that art can bring personal fulfillment as well as social change – that through art we too can shift from a dull, grey, monotonous world of black and white to a world of glorious color.

Joie:  That’s a nice thought, Willa.