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Changing the Subject: I, Me, You, Us

Willa:  One of the most intriguing features of Michael Jackson’s lyrics, I think, is the way he frequently shifts subject positions, looking at a story from one point of view, then another, and then another. This is something Joie and I have touched on a number of times – for example, in posts about “Morphine,” “Whatever Happens,” “Money,” “Threatened,” “Dirty Diana,” “Best of Joy,” “Monster,” and the Who Is It video – but we’ve never done a post that focuses specifically on his use of multiple voices. So I was very excited when Marie Plasse wrote this comment a few weeks ago:

I think that one of the most generally misunderstood or overlooked features of Michael’s art is the way he was able to occupy different characters in his lyrics and how … he expressed and explored aspects of his own psychic divisions and struggles. (It was perhaps a willful misunderstanding of this aspect of Michael’s art that precipitated, at least in part, the controversy over the lyrics of “They Don’t Care About Us.”)

This past fall I taught a full semester college-level course on Michael Jackson (“Reading the King of Pop as Cultural Text”) and one of the things the class found most surprising (but initially most difficult to do) was close-reading his lyrics and following the shifting perspectives. The complexities and the rapid shifts are really fascinating.

Marie is a professor of English at Merrimack College, and I’m very excited to talk with her about this aspect of Michael Jackson’s aesthetic that has intrigued me for so long. Thank you so much for joining me, Marie!

Marie:  Thanks very much for inviting me, Willa. I’ve followed Dancing with the Elephant for a long time and have learned so much from your posts and the comments that readers send. I haven’t always had time to join in the comments as much as I would like, so I’m really happy to have this opportunity to talk with you.

Willa:  Oh, so am I! And I’m so glad to finally have the chance to talk in depth about Michael Jackson’s use of multiple points of view. This is a recurring feature of his art, and a very important part of his aesthetic, I think – and personally, it’s something that has attracted me to his work for a long time. So I’m eager to find out more about how he uses it and how it functions.

Marie:  I agree, Willa. Michael’s work as a lyricist is as complex as it is moving, and it’s so often overlooked as a key feature of his aesthetic. This might be because, as Joe Vogel points out in Man in the Music, Michael’s work as a songwriter is “much different from that of a traditional singer-songwriter like Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan” where the lyrics are much more “out front.” Joe goes on to suggest that Michael’s lyrics tend to get overlooked because they are only one of “several media to consider” amidst the music, short films, and dancing that are so prominently featured in his work.

But looking carefully at the lyrics on their own, and especially at their multiple points of view, reveals that Michael writes with great complexity and deep insight. I’ve gone back and reread all those posts you mentioned above in which you and Joie have talked about this quality of shifting perspectives and subject positions in Michael’s songwriting. I think you’ve already covered a lot of ground on this and opened up a lot of intriguing ideas about the possible meanings of the songs. So instead of offering my own close readings of certain lyrics, or at least before doing any of that, I thought I would try to think a bit further into this notion of multiple perspectives and voices to see where it might lead in a more general way.

Willa:  OK, that sounds really interesting.

Marie:  Reflecting on Michael’s use of multiple voices and shifting perspectives in his songs makes me think about his fervent interest in storytelling, which he talks about on the very first page of Moonwalk. His emphasis there is on how storytelling can move an audience and “take them anywhere emotionally” and on how it has the power to “move their souls and transform them.” He goes on to muse about “how the great writers must feel, knowing they have that power” and confesses that he has “always wanted to be able to do that.” He says he feels that he “could do it” and would like to develop his storytelling skills.

Just before this reflective section on storytelling ends and Michael swings into the beginnings of his own life story in the chapter, he mentions that songwriting uses the same skills as those of the great storytellers he admires, but in a much shorter format in which “the story is a sketch. It’s quicksilver.” Of course, we all know that by the time he wrote Moonwalk, Michael was already a masterful storyteller and his skills in this art only got better and better as time went on!  He does “move [our] souls and transform them” very powerfully in his songs, short films, and performances, often using a multi-media approach that is much more complex than the traditional storytelling around the fire that he seems to admire so much as he opens the first chapter of Moonwalk.

Willa:  That’s true. And I think you’ve raised a really important point in talking about how he conceptualized songwriting as storytelling. I was just reading Damien Shields’ book, Xscape Origins, and Cory Rooney talked to Damien about how important storytelling was in creating “Chicago”:

When working on the lyrics for the track, Rooney took inspiration from a conversation he’d recently had with one of Jackson’s collaborative partners – prolific songwriter Carole Bayer Sager – who urged him to write a song that tells a story. “[Michael] loves to tell a tale,” Bayer Sager told Rooney, so putting that advice into practice, Rooney went about writing a story for Jackson.

Rooney then passed that advice on to Rodney Jerkins, one of the authors of “Xscape”:

Rodney called me up and said, “Cory, we’re still confused. We don’t know what to write about. We don’t know what to do.” … So I told him, “Well, I got a little tip from Carole Bayer Sager. She told me that Michael is a storyteller. She said Michael loves to tell stories in his music. If you listen to ‘Billie Jean,’ it’s a story. If you listen to ‘Thriller,’ it’s a story. If you listen to ‘Beat It,’ it’s a story. He loves to tell a tale.”

So Carole Bayer Sager and Cory Rooney both confirm exactly what you’re saying, Marie – that Michael Jackson “loves to tell a tale.”

Marie:  That’s a great connection, Willa. Thanks for reminding us about those passages in Damien’s book (which I thought was terrific, by the way. Thank you, Damien, for your wonderful work!). They really do underscore that Michael saw himself as a storyteller. And in order to have that power to move and transform an audience that he refers to in Moonwalk, a good storyteller definitely needs to be a master at crafting the point(s) of view from which the story is told, and to have the capacity to inhabit and express the experience of the story from those different perspectives (and the characters that they belong to).

Michael’s songwriting certainly displays his mastery of these essential aspects of good storytelling. As you’ve pointed out in so many different posts, he’s able to see his subject matter from many different perspectives and to shift in and out of those perspectives in interesting and meaningful ways. This is true across the full range of his work and, perhaps most interestingly, even within individual songs. He sees and he makes us see from all sorts of different angles and he occupies and places us in many different subject positions.

Willa:  Yes, he really does. And often these subject positions and perspectives are ones that have rarely been considered before by mainstream culture. What I mean is, he frequently takes us inside the minds of outsiders – like the drug addict in “Morphine,” or the groupie in “Dirty Diana,” or the neighbor who has been labeled a “freak” and “weirdo” in Ghosts – and shows us the world from their perspective.

Marie:  Absolutely, Willa. Clearly, the multiple subject positions and perspectives are in service of Michael’s larger mission of calling attention to the experiences of those who are “othered” or forgotten by mainstream society and who suffer for it. By shifting the perspective so often to these marginalized ones, he pushes us out of what may be our own relatively comfortable positions and makes us see through the eyes of the “other.”

And while we can easily agree that these features of Michael’s art are clearly those of a master storyteller, I would also venture to associate them with yet another literary tradition. Since I study and teach plays as part of my work as a literature professor, the multiple and shifting perspectives we’re talking about also make me think about what I would call Michael’s remarkably theatrical imagination. The way he tackles his subject matter through storytelling that imagines situations from different points of view and allows many different voices to speak reminds me of the special qualities of dramatic texts, where there is no single narrative voice, but rather the multiple voices of the various characters speaking directly to the reader or audience member in the theater.

Willa:  Oh, that’s really interesting, Marie!  It’s true that his songs often feel “theatrical” to me, and I think partly that’s because he tends to approach his songs visually, if that makes sense. For example, in Moonwalk he says,

The three videos that came out of Thriller – “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” – were all part of my original concept for the album. I was determined to present this music as visually as possible.

But I think you’re right – they also feel theatrical because they often sound like snippets of dialogue from a play, with interspersed lines spoken by different characters. I hadn’t thought about that before, but I think you’re really on to something.

Marie:  What you say about his visual approach makes a lot of sense to me, Willa. I think that this visual approach to the songs in the short films is always what comes to mind first because the films have become so inextricably fused to the songs. And as we know, the songs lend themselves so well to the fully realized theatrical treatment that Michael gives them in the short films, where the different perspectives and characters in the song lyrics literally come alive in the embodied performances of the actors and the specific cinematic choices that structure the way the films are shot.

As we also know, Michael was meticulous in crafting the aesthetic and technical choices that governed his short films and live performances, working as a director rather than just the star. I remember seeing a number of comments from him on just how important camera angles – the very mechanism that creates perspective and point of view in film – were to him. I can’t recall specifically where I read this, but I seem to remember something that quoted him discussing the famous Motown 25 performance of “Billie Jean,” for example, where he explained that he designed exactly how his solo song should be presented through camera angles.

Willa:  Yes, I remember reading that too. And you can actually see him controlling the camera angle in this video of the Jacksons’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At about 14:45 minutes in, he pauses in his prepared comments and says, “I don’t like that angle. I like this one” and motions to the camera straight in front of him. Here’s that clip:

Marie:  That’s a great example, too, Willa!  He really was determined to control the perspectives from which the television audience saw not only his performances but also his public appearances at award ceremonies.

Willa:  Yes, he was!  We don’t normally think of something like this as a “performance,” but he did, and he was staging and directing it even as he was participating in it.

Marie:  Exactly!  That’s a great way to put it, Willa.  And there’s also the endearing story of how he taught his son Prince about film by watching movies with the sound turned off so they could analyze each shot visually.

Willa:  Yes, I was really struck by that story also.

Marie:  So the visual connection you made, Willa, falls nicely into place as one of the many things we know about Michael and his work that indicate that he thought deeply about the issue of perspective and the significance of multiple and shifting points of view, whether those were conveyed through song lyrics alone, through the complex visualizations of his songs that he created in the short films, or even in public appearances like the one at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But it seems that in all this the song lyrics themselves have not been given the full discussion that they deserve.

Willa:  No, they haven’t.

Marie:  Their complexity, especially their multiple perspectives, really carries a lot of significance, and I do think that they work in similar fashion to dramatic texts. In order to understand the story that a play tells, we have to follow each character’s perspective and listen to each character’s voice carefully. Unlike in conventional narrative fiction, a play text isn’t dominated by a single narrator who controls our perspective and interprets events for us. It’s through the interaction of many different perspectives and voices unfolding over time that the play delivers its message and overall effect. And since it’s set up this way, there is a certain openness to a play that leaves a lot of room for individual interpretation.

Willa:  And possibly misinterpretation, as you mentioned earlier about the uproar surrounding the lyrics to “They Don’t Care about Us.” Part of the confusion was that many critics didn’t seem to realize that when Michael Jackson sang “Jew me, sue me / Everybody do me / Kick me, kike me / Don’t you black or white me,” he was adopting the subject position of a Jewish person in the first three lines, and a black person in the fourth line. Both Jews and blacks have experienced the kind of slurs he’s addressing in these lines, and through these lines he’s showing solidarity with Jews – which is the exact opposite of the intolerance he was accused of. As Michael Jackson himself said in response to the scandal:

The idea that these lyrics could be deemed objectionable is extremely hurtful to me, and misleading. The song in fact is about the pain of prejudice and hate and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems. I am the voice of the accused and the attacked. I am the voice of everyone. I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the black man, I am the white man. I am not the one who was attacking. It is about the injustices to young people and how the system can wrongfully accuse them. I am angry and outraged that I could be so misinterpreted.

So as you were saying, Marie, he adopts different personae at different moments in this song – just like the roles in a play. As he says, “I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the black man, I am the white man.” Those are the different characters in this “play.”

So if we approach this song like a play, as I think you’re suggesting, Marie, and if we consider that the lines “Jew me, sue me” and “Kick me, kike me” are being spoken by character – a Jewish character who is protesting the prejudice against him – then the scandal makes no sense. It suddenly becomes very clear that Michael Jackson is denouncing anti-Semitism, not engaging in it – just as he said.

Marie:  That’s a great example, Willa, and a really great way of explaining the danger of misinterpretation that opens up when multiple voices and perspectives are put out there with no overarching narrative voice to explain what’s going on. These lyrics, like play texts, require us to navigate among all the different perspectives we’re given and to make our own decisions about how we understand the subject matter. And this navigation can be pretty tricky in something as compressed as a song where, as Michael pointed out, “the story is a sketch. It’s quicksilver.” The controversy that erupted about “They Don’t Care About Us” clearly demonstrates the great risk for misinterpretation that comes along with the “multi-vocal” mode he used to sketch the story in this song.

But of course that controversy also underscored the disappointing and misguided lack of understanding among mainstream critics of Michael’s lyrical abilities, among their other problems. They just didn’t expect and weren’t receptive to the complexity that is clearly there. Armond White’s brilliant discussion of the HIStory album in Chapters 10 and 11 of his book, Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles, addresses some of the larger issues at play in this controversy very well, connecting the critics’ misreading of the song’s lyrics to what he sees as white journalists’ habitual “denial of the complexity in Black artistry.” I think that White’s arguments about how the lyrics to “They Don’t Care About Us” work and about what drove that awful controversy are spot on.

Willa:  I agree, though there may have been some corporate intrigue going on as well, as D.B. Anderson discusses in “Sony Hack Re-ignites Questions about Michael Jackson’s Banned Song.”

Marie:  Yes, there’s probably a tangled web there, Willa, though from what I understand, critic Bernard Weinraub was not married to Amy Pascal, the Sony executive, until 1997, and his scathing New York Times review of “They Don’t Care About Us” appeared in 1995. Still, it appears that tensions between Michael and Sony existed even then, so it’s hard to know exactly what motivated that review.

But looking at it purely in relation to our discussion of lyrics, it seems clear that Weinraub didn’t read the so-called slurs in context and missed Michael’s intended purpose, which was to speak from the position of those being attacked. However, I also think that part of what makes those lyrics a lightning rod for the charges that Weinraub and others made is that since the words need to follow the staccato rhythm that drives the verses of the song, they are fairly elliptical, meaning that some key connecting ideas are left out in order to achieve that rhythm.

Willa:  Oh, that’s an interesting point, Marie.

Marie:  The lyrics in the verses of this song are really minimalist – they attempt to convey a complex set of observations and feelings in a really compressed way. In part, the compression is required by the medium: songs are short, so it wouldn’t work to go into long discourses.

But the shape of the verses and the way they spit out their words in a very truncated, staccato fashion is also part of the intended message and effect. The prejudice, hatred, oppression, and abuse that Michael rails against in the song do hit and bash, literally and metaphorically, and that’s what the pounding rhythm of these words conveys, along with Michael’s own disgust and frustration with these circumstances. The first verse sets the tone, offering a general picture of a world gone mad:

Skinhead
Dead head
Everybody
Gone bad
Situation
Aggravation
Everybody
Allegation
In the suite
On the news
Everybody
Dog food
Bang bang
Shot dead
Everybody’s
Gone mad

The second verse is a bit more challenging to understand, as the first-person narrator takes on the shifting subject positions that we’ve been talking about:

Beat me
Hate me
You can never
Break me
Will me
Thrill me
You can never
Kill me
Jew me
Sue me
Everybody
Do me
Kick me
Kike me
Don’t you
Black or white me

Clearly, Michael is alluding to his own recent tribulations here in lines like “Beat me / Hate me / You can never / Break me,” “Sue me,” and “Don’t you / Black or white me.”  And “thrill me,” which at first seems out of place in this string of negative action verbs (“beat,” “hate,” “kill,” “kick,” etc.), also links the speaker here very directly with Michael Jackson, in an obvious allusion to “Thriller.”

Willa:  Yes, I think so too.

Marie:  But while we might first associate “thrill me” with “Thriller” or with something more generally positive, as in the colloquial usage “I’m thrilled to be talking with you here, Willa,” the word “thrilled” can also refer to excitement of a more negative or scary sort, like the fear we might feel at a horror movie. And read in the context of the “will me” which precedes it, “thrill me” might well be alluding to the terror Michael felt as the force (or “will”) of his accusers, the criminal justice system, and the media pressed in on him. So Michael is packing this one word with a lot of meaning: it’s a blatant, even defiant, allusion to his own phenomenal success with “Thriller” and to his reputation as a thrilling performer, but it also falls in line with the more negative actions that are stacked up in these lyrics. All together, though, Michael can be pretty easily understood to be saying something like, “Go ahead, do your worst, but you’ll never defeat me.” That’s clear.

But beginning with “Jew me” in line 9, the point of view shifts radically, as Michael starts speaking in the voice of a Jewish person who is the target of anti-Semitic slurs, making that person speak in that same “go ahead, do your worst” mode that he used in the earlier lyric. Here, the Jewish person seems to be saying, “Go ahead, call me those awful names, but you’ll never defeat me,” very much parallel to the mode of expression that was used in the lyrics a few lines earlier.

Willa:  I agree.

Marie:  But again, the actual expression here is elliptical and relies on the listener to recognize the parallel. And the lyrics don’t stick with this Jewish person’s point of view for long. Michael very quickly mixes in language that seemingly shifts the point of view back to his own personal situation, with “Sue me.” Then he switches back to the perspective of the Jewish person targeted by the anti-Semitic slur with “Kike me” and quickly follows that with a return to something that would be read as more directly related to himself, “Don’t you / Black or white me.”

If a listener is not following the shifting perspectives carefully, or if they are not even aware that this technique is being used, as seems to be the case with so many critics, then it would be pretty easy to decide that there is only one narrative point of view here and that the voice of the narrator is always Michael Jackson, speaking about his own personal situation and expressing his own point of view. As an English professor, I can’t help but be frustrated at the fact that the critics were making one of the most elementary mistakes you can make when reading literature, which is to confuse the speaker of the piece with the author.

Willa:  Yes, it almost seems like a willful misreading of what he was saying.

Marie:  Exactly. It’s not just that these critics are bad students of literature! There were many reasons for the media’s “misreading” of these lines. By the time this song was released in 1995, the general practice of attacking and ridiculing Michael was well established, fueled by complicated social and political energies that are now finally being carefully explored by many good scholars, journalists, and bloggers.

But if we look with attention at what is actually there in the words of the lyrics, we can see that by shifting the point of view so quickly, Michael is rapidly stepping in and out of different roles with the same kind of agility that he steps in and out of the choreographed group dances in his performances. He speaks for himself and about his own specific situation, and then he puts himself in someone else’s shoes and speaks their troubles, too. The effect of all this shifting is to erase the distinction between himself and others, to express solidarity and understanding in relation to those who are oppressed in different ways, and by doing so, to define really carefully the “us” that is the subject of the song and the focus of the chorus.

Willa:  Yes, that’s a beautiful way of explaining this, Marie. And this ability “to erase the distinction between himself and others,” as you say, and “express solidarity … to those who are oppressed in different ways” is made very clear in the videos for the song, especially the original video – the one that’s become known as the “prison version.”

For example, in this screen capture, we see him in handcuffs with his hand positioned like a gun and his finger to his head, as if he’s about to be shot – and on the TV screen behind him, we see a prisoner of war in handcuffs who is about to be shot. In fact, this prisoner is shot as we watch, which is shocking and horrifying. And as this is happening, Michael Jackson sings “Bang, bang / Shot dead / Everybody gone bad.” So through the lyrics and these dual images, he makes a direct and visceral connection between himself and this anonymous prisoner.

they dont care about us prison version 1

By juxtaposing numerous images such as these, he links racial injustice in the US with war in Southeast Asia and hunger in Africa and political oppression in China and urban poverty in Brazil. In other words, he isn’t simply protesting the injustices he’s facing from a racially biased criminal justice system here in the US. He’s also linking that injustice with political, economic, and military oppression around the world.

Marie:  Good point, Willa, and another terrific example. I think what you’re identifying when you say that the film makes clear that the perspective offered goes beyond Michael’s personal one reflects precisely the way a particular “production” of a play script works to clarify the words on the page by actually dramatizing the situation and embodying the different perspectives from which the characters speak. The particular creative choices that a production demands typically serve to specify and clarify those “open” or ambiguous elements that a written script presents.

So while the “They Don’t Care About Us” song lyrics alone might leave room for the kind of misinterpretation you mentioned earlier, the “prison version” makes it clear that the “me” who is speaking in the second verse of the song can be generalized to encompass all those who have been oppressed by hatred and violence, as in the example from the screen capture above. What we get in the film is a clearer and visually rich version of what the song lyrics tell us in much more elliptical terms, namely that Michael deliberately identifies with these many different oppressed individuals as part of an “us,” rather than as a more distant “them.” To me, this is emblematic of the often misunderstood beauty and power of the HIStory album as a whole. Michael’s personal anger and frustration extend beyond the personal to encompass much more than that.

Willa:  I agree, and that’s part of what makes him such a powerful artist, I think.

Marie:  Yes, absolutely. But in the lyrics to individual songs like “They Don’t Care About Us,” all this unfolds very fast (as Michael said, songs are “quicksilver”), and without clear markers to clarify who is speaking, as one would find in an actual play text where the speeches are preceded by the speaking characters’ names. The complexity of what Michael is doing here is easy to miss if you’re not paying attention or if, as I think many of the critics were, you’re responding with a pre-ordained agenda in place.

Willa:  Exactly.

Marie:  But to move on a bit from “They Don’t Care About Us” and take this playwriting angle I’ve suggested a step further, we might say that one way to think about the multiple perspectives and voices Michael creates in his songs is to note that they are often used to set up explorations that are structured as powerful conflicts (between individuals or ideas). Conflict is a key element of the storytelling that goes on in plays (and many other forms of literature as well), and it’s one of the basic ways that these texts keep us interested. We get invested in the struggle, we want to see what the terms of it are, we might identify with a certain character within it, and we want to see what happens in the end.

Willa:  Oh, absolutely – either conflicts in personal relationships, like we see in “Billie Jean” or “In the Closet” or “Whatever Happens,” or between groups of people, as in “Beat It” or “Bad.” Or an individual fighting authority, as in “Ghosts” or “This Time Around.” Or internal conflicts, as in “Will You Be There” or “Stranger in Moscow.” Or large cultural conflicts as in “Earth Song” or “Black or White” or “HIStory” or “Be Not Always” or even “Little Susie.” That’s a really important point, Marie. A lot of his songs are driven by powerful conflicts, as you say – though often in complex ways where the protagonist sympathizes with the antagonist to some degree, so it’s rarely a simple “us” versus “them” situation.

Marie:  That’s a really good survey of the different kinds of conflicts Michael lays out in his songs, Willa, and I love how you can pull those titles together so quickly!  It’s so much fun to talk with you about this topic!  And yes, I agree that while many songs start off with clearly drawn conflicts, they end up complicating those basic oppositions, but we can see very clearly even in songs that remain starkly polarized how he evokes both sides really powerfully and is able to deftly sketch out what’s at stake in the conflict by invoking the shifting subject positions we’ve been talking about.

Willa:  Yes, it’s really remarkable.

Marie:  In “Scream,” for example, where it’s clear in the first part of the first verse that he’s expressing his opposition to the abuse he suffered from the press and the culture at large after the 1993 allegations (“Tired of injustice, tired of the schemes . . . as jacked as it sounds, the whole system sucks”), he follows up in the second part of the first verse with a more detailed invocation of the conflict, using the “you” pronoun in opposition to “me,” “mine,” and “I”:

You tell me I’m wrong
Then you better prove you’re right
You’re sellin’ out souls but
I care about mine
I’ve got to get stronger
And I won’t give up the fight

The rapid oscillation of the pronouns here makes me think about how spectators’ eyes move back and forth as they watch a tennis match between opposing players. The back and forth between the perspectives of the “I” and the “you” reads at first like a verbal argument (“You tell me I’m wrong / Then you better prove you’re right”), but the same opposing pronoun structure is used to ramp up the stakes of the conflict really quickly in the next couple of lines: “You’re sellin’ out souls but / I care about mine.” Now the apparent argument about who’s right or wrong takes on much larger proportions, with the “you” attached to the evil-sounding act of “sellin’ out souls” (which works both metaphorically as a way of describing terrible betrayal in economic/religious terms, and more literally in connection with the greed that was involved in the efforts to destroy Michael) and the “I” declaring how important his soul is to him and vowing to get stronger so as to keep up “the fight.” In just a few lines, the really high-stakes conflict has been sketched out for us.

Willa:  It really has. And it’s made all the more intense because of the very real conflicts he was facing, conflicts that can lead us to fill in the “you” position in different ways – as referring to the media, the police, the judicial system more generally, the music industry, the insurance industry, the specific accusers, the general public, and so on. The ambiguity of that unspecified “you” lets us fill in that slot with a multitude of characters who were complicit in “selling out souls.”

Marie:  That’s a great insight, Willa. I think you’re right about how that “unspecified you” works as an open slot that can be filled in with a number of different characters. And in typical Michael fashion, things get even more complicated in the chorus, where the second person “you” references shift really quickly as the lines move forward:

With such confusions
Don’t it make you wanna scream?
(Make you wanna scream)
Your bash abusin’
Victimize within the scheme
You try to cope with every lie they scrutinize
Somebody please have mercy
‘Cause I just can’t take it

Here, as in other songs, the “you” is ambiguous, and expansively so.

Willa:  Yes, and I like the way you put that, Marie. It’s an “expansive” you that can stretch to encompass all of us listening to his words.

Marie:  Yes, it addresses us directly and urges us to join in and identify with the speaker in his indignant question (“don’t it make you wanna scream?”) but it also sounds like he is addressing himself, as if he is suddenly on the outside looking in and asking himself about what the circumstances make him feel, just to double check on the accuracy of his feelings, or perhaps to give himself temporary relief from occupying the besieged position of “I” in this scenario. And the call and response from the background vocal that repeats “make you wanna scream” suggests yet another perspective, from a chorus that is echoing this idea, as if to confirm that yes, all this does make you wanna scream.

In the next two lines, the perspective referenced by the second-person pronoun “your” seems to shift dramatically, to those victimizers who are perpetrating all the things that make “you” and the speaker himself want to scream: “Your bash abusin’ / Victimize within the scheme.” Then in the following line, we’re back into the perspective of the previous “you” who is reacting to all this: “You try to cope with every lie they scrutinize.”

And finally, the last two lines of the chorus land squarely in the first-person, pleading, “Somebody please have mercy / ’Cause I just can’t take it,” and the rest of the chorus expands this plea into a more aggressive demand to “Stop pressurin’ me,” with the first-person objective pronoun “me” repeated eight times, once in every line, so that it’s painfully clear who is experiencing all the pressure! The effect of all this for me – the shifting perspectives described by the quick pronoun shifts – is that I feel like my head is being spun around! Trying to follow the perspectives creates for me a version of the “confusion” that the speaker is describing and makes me able to imagine just a tiny bit of what it must have felt like to be in the whirlwind of abuse that Michael went through.

Willa:  That’s a great description, Marie! And maybe this “confusion” also works to complicate the distinction between the heroes and the villains. Because there are so many shifts in perspective, the “you” is accused of “bash abusin’ / Victimize within the scheme” but is also asked, “Don’t it make you wanna scream?” as you say. So maybe the villains are pressured by the system too?  Maybe it makes them want to scream also?  And maybe we need to look at our own complicity in the system and change our own ways also?

Marie:  I like that reading very much, Willa!  It goes along with the idea from the first verse where Michael says, “The whole system sucks.” So it would make sense that the villains are caught up in it in ways that are harmful to them as well, whether they admit it or not. Your point about our own complicity in the system is interesting, too. We know from songs like “Tabloid Junkie” that Michael doesn’t let us off the hook either, as he reminds us of the role we might play in the system, specifically through the consumption of tabloids: “And you don’t have to read it / And you don’t have to eat it / To buy it is to feed it . . . And you don’t go and buy it / And they won’t glorify it / To read it sanctifies it.”

Willa:  Exactly. That’s a great connection, Marie.

Marie:  It’s also really interesting, too, that since “Scream” was recorded as a duet with Janet, the speaker who utters “I” literally shifts as each of them sings their assigned part. Janet’s sharing the lead vocal with Michael is a solid act of support for her brother (even before she appeared with him in the short film). When she sings as “I,” she’s singing from his perspective in all the “confusion” and also joining in his opposition to it.

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, and a really important point, Marie. I hadn’t thought about that before, but you’re right. And again, the ideas expressed in the lyrics are reinforced by the video, where Janet and Michael Jackson are repeatedly pictured as almost mirror images of one another, identically dressed and reflecting each other’s feelings and facial expressions. Here are some screen captures:

Scream - dancing Michael and JanetScream - angry Michael and JanetScream - hugging Michael and Janet

So unlike a play, where one actor would typically play one character while the other plays a different character – for example, where one might play the victim while the other takes on the role of victimizer – in Scream it’s like they take turns playing the same character. That’s really interesting, Marie.

Marie:  Exactly, Willa. And as they take turns playing the same character, I think that what we see, particularly in Janet’s willingness and ability to take on the role of the victim in “Scream,” is a clearer, more easily understood version of what Michael does on his own in so many songs where he himself takes turns playing all the characters, as in “They Don’t Care About Us.” In Janet’s case, it’s clear that she empathizes with her brother and can understand deeply what he’s going through. She shares and can give voice to his anger and frustration, not only because she’s his sister and she loves him, but because as a famous artist she’s also in the public eye and knows what it’s like to be subject to the abuses of “the system.” (And just think, “Scream” was recorded long before the infamous 2004 Superbowl “wardrobe malfunction” that blew up into such a nightmare for Janet.)

Thinking about Janet’s role in “Scream” also reminds me of that great moment at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards when the Scream short film won the award for Best Dance Video. When she went up to accept the award with Michael, Janet appeared in a cropped t-shirt that said “Pervert 2” on the back!

Pervert 2 shirt

Willa:  I was just thinking about that! As you were describing so well how she shoulders some of his burden in “Scream” by stepping into his subject position and speaking from his perspective – “giv[ing] voice to his anger and frustration,” as you said – I suddenly flashed on her in the “Pervert 2” t-shirt. That really was a powerful act of solidarity.

Marie:  I love how, by choosing to wear this shirt at such a widely viewed event, Janet performs a really cheeky extension of her identification with Michael in the song and the film, as if to say, “Well, if my brother is a pervert, then so am I!” Here’s a link to the awards telecast. Janet appears in the shirt right around 1:15.

The larger point here, though, is that Michael’s skill at incorporating different subject positions and points of view in his song lyrics allows him to convey so many complex and important messages in the space of the “quicksilver sketch” that the song medium requires. As Janet did with Michael in “Scream,” Michael is able to forge strong connections to the “others” that he invokes through the shifting points of view in many different songs. It’s not always about this same level of empathy that Janet displays in “Scream,” but it does suggest how important it is for him to present many different perspectives and voices. And it’s significant that he chooses not to just describe them in the third person (“he did this” or “she feels that”) but to speak “as if” he himself were these other individuals, as he does in “They Don’t Care About Us.”

Willa:  I agree, and in doing so he immerses us as listeners in those subject positions as well – not only in “Scream” and “They Don’t Care about Us” but in many other songs also.

Marie:  To me that demonstrates a remarkable spirit of openness, generosity, community, and heartfelt interest in people and situations beyond himself – all those qualities that we recognize and admire in Michael.

Willa:  Yes, absolutely, and a lifelong habit of empathy that led him to reach out emotionally and try to consider a situation from many different perspectives, even perspectives in opposition to his own.

Marie:  And just like Shakespeare and his contemporaries who worked so masterfully within the confines of the conventional fourteen-line, rhymed sonnet form, what he does is remarkable to me precisely because he’s working in such a compressed form with so many of its own constraints – song lyrics can’t be too long, they need to work with the musical rhythms and pitches of the song, they need to be pronounceable for the singer, in most cases they need to rhyme, etc.

And while it may sound crazy, I mean to draw the Shakespeare analogy here very deliberately. I specialize in Shakespeare, so he’s always on my mind and I can’t help but make the connection. But more importantly, I think that Michael’s lyrics are overlooked or misunderstood (as they were with “They Don’t Care About Us”) in part because people in general, and especially certain critics, are often reluctant to think of pop song lyrics as complex forms of language that spring from poetic impulses that are not that different from Shakespeare’s or those of any other venerated poet.

Willa:  I agree completely – though coming from you, as a Shakespeare scholar, that means a lot!

Marie:  As we’ve said, going back to the commentary I mentioned earlier from Joe Vogel, with Michael’s work there are so many other “channels” of expression to pay attention to – the music, the dance, the films, the live concerts – in short, the full spectacle that comprises the incredibly compelling pop phenomenon known as “Michael Jackson” – that the complexity of the lyrics alone is often overlooked.  (And this is even putting aside the additional effects of all the controversies and tabloid distortions that played into how Michael was viewed from the mid-1980s onward.) But I also think that there’s a certain elitism that comes into play that’s connected to the divide that still persists in some people’s minds between so-called “high culture” and “low culture” or “pop culture.”

Willa:  Absolutely, and it’s really curious how that line is drawn. Of course, for some critics no pop music is high culture. But even for those who concede some ground to popular music, the distinction often feels arbitrary. For example, for some reason U2 is generally regarded as high brow and the Beach Boys are not, even though the Beach Boys were much more experimental musically, incorporating complex arrangements and harmonies and pioneering new recording techniques that changed the course of music history.

That’s just an example, but my point is that the division between “high” and “low” art often doesn’t make much sense, and seems to depend more on some academic “cool” factor rather than artistic merit.

Marie:  The Beach Boys example is a great one, Willa. I recently saw Love and Mercy, the new film about Brian Wilson, and learned so much from it about how complex and innovative Wilson’s music was. A lot of recent academic work has critiqued that “high/low culture” divide and there are many music and cultural critics who don’t let it stop them from taking the work of popular artists seriously. (Serious considerations of hip-hop, for example, have been under way for a long time now, as evidenced not only in the music press, but in academia, where we see specialized journals, books, courses, and even college-level majors and minors in hip-hop studies.)

But as we know, Willa, as an artist whose popularity was (and still is) unprecedented around the world, Michael was often mistakenly pigeon-holed as just an “entertainer” focused mainly on mainstream commercial success as shown in record and ticket sales, rather than being viewed as a serious artist whose keen intelligence, sharp social insight, and nuanced emotional understanding got expressed in the language of his lyrics as well as in all the other media he used.

Willa:  Absolutely. You expressed my feelings exactly, Marie, though much more elegantly than I could. And it continues to mystify me how critics could have overlooked and undervalued his work for so long.

Marie:  It is hard to fathom, for sure. But working on this post has made me see even more clearly that there really have been a bunch of different obstacles preventing the kind of careful consideration and appreciation of Michael’s lyrics that we’re trying to do here. And I think we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what there is to say about how Michael’s lyrics use shifting subject positions, Willa!

Willa:  I agree, and thank you so much for joining me, Marie, to try to gain a better understand of all this. You’ve given me a lot to think about, and I really appreciate your insights into the “quicksilver” quality of his songwriting – of his ability to not only tell a story but sketch out a miniature drama in his songs. I’m really intrigued by that, and want to ponder that some more. Thank you for sharing your ideas!

Marie:  It’s been a pleasure, Willa. Thanks again for coming up with this topic and inviting me to think about it with you!

Citizen Journalism: You Can Change the World

Willa:  This week I am so excited to be joined by D.B. Anderson, author of two of the most popular articles in our Reading Room. “The Messenger King: Michael Jackson and the Politics of #BlackLivesMatter” is an opinion piece published by The Baltimore Sun that places Michael Jackson’s activism within the context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. And “Sony Hack Re-ignites Questions about Michael Jackson’s Banned Song” is a self-published article that went viral, becoming the most popular independent post in all of Gawker Media for 2014 – and it wasn’t even published until mid-December. Thank you so much for joining me, D.B.!

D.B.:  Thank you so much for having me, Willa! I’ve been reading Dancing with the Elephant for a long time and I always walk away with new insights, so it’s quite an honor to be here myself.

Willa:  Oh, it’s an honor to talk with you. And your Baltimore piece seems especially timely right now, with the Freddie Gray protests rocking the city. As you point out, #BlackLivesMatter protesters have been drawing on Michael Jackson’s work from the beginning of the movement:

On Twitter, #TheyDontCareAboutUs is a hashtag. In Ferguson, they blasted the Michael Jackson song through car windows. In New York City and Berkeley last weekend, it was sung and performed by protesters. And in Baltimore, there was a magical moment when the Morgan State University choir answered protests with a rendition of Jackson’s “Heal The World.”

We see that trend continuing in Baltimore, with protesters singing “They Don’t Care about Us” and recent videos of one resident, Dimitri Reeves, responding to both the police and the rioters with performances of “Beat It” and “Man in the Mirror.” Here he is dancing on a truck, with sirens in the background and a police helicopter swooping overhead:

And here he is in front of police in riot gear:

He talked about the experience in a National Post article:

Reeves, who has been dancing since age five, said a particularly nerve-wracking moment came during “Man in the Mirror,” which he performed in front of a line of riot police. To his amazement, after a while the cops slowly backed away. “It was beautiful.”

D.B.:  This was fantastic, and what really made me happy was the number of media outlets who covered it, even Billboard.

Willa:  Yes, and NBC, Fox, USA Today, Rolling Stone, Slate, Salon, Huffington Post, and a lot more, including the newswire service United Press International.

D.B.: I’ve heard that this gentleman actually does this regularly, and it wasn’t a one-off performance. And maybe it was just filler content, but I have a tiny hope that some media featured it because they understood a political significance.

Willa:  I hope so. I know some of the articles I read focused on the fact that he was trying to calm the violence while giving voice to the frustrations of the rioters. That’s a difficult assignment, and Michael Jackson is one of the few artists whose work is up to the task – who can provide an impassioned cultural critique while promoting nonviolent solutions.

So D.B., today we’re going to talk about strategies for effectively engaging with the media, something you’ve accomplished with both of your recent articles. But maybe we should begin by talking about how you came to write these articles. What’s the story behind them?

D.B.:  I suppose everyone who writes about Michael does so because he deeply touches them in some way, and I am no exception. No, let me rephrase that – everyone who writes thoughtfully about Michael. You know what I mean!

Willa:  Yes, I know what you mean …

D.B.: Anyway, I’ve been reading extensively about Michael for several years, and I’ve been so deeply impressed by works like Remember The Time (Whitfield) and Man in the Music (Vogel), as well as many websites and blogs like yours. And I have had great and not-so-great conversations with people all over the world, and learned so much from them.

After a while I began to feel strongly that I had something to say about and on behalf of Michael to the world, but I didn’t know what it was, if that makes any sense. I started and then stopped writing several things because I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. Did the world need another blog about Michael? I couldn’t figure out a way to add value. So I had ideas about Michael swirling around in my brain wanting desperately to get out, but I wasn’t sure where to put them.

Meanwhile, on a parallel track, I live near Washington DC, which is sort of ground zero for the media. You can’t avoid news and talk shows, and by listening to NPR and CNN all day – which I do just to have company – you become educated on how the media thinks of itself. I noticed some commentators being very critical of other media people. And there’s a giant divide between the cable news networks – they are always talking smack about each other. In particular, I started to study Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, who have developed media criticism into an art form. This became a bigger and bigger idea for me, that somehow this fit. So these two tracks started converging in my mind and I was pretty sure that “Michael and the media” would be my focus.

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, D.B. Michael Jackson criticized the media for years, both in interviews and in songs like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Leave Me Alone,” “Why You Wanna Trip on Me,” “Tabloid Junkie,” … In fact, it seems every album has at least one song taking on the media. And of course, many cable news personalities seem to take great delight in “talking smack about each other,” as you pointed out. But I hadn’t put those two threads together before, or considered that the way the media criticizes itself could provide an opening for Jackson’s supporters to join in and get their views across.

D.B.:  Michael certainly did criticize them, and for good reason. And the one constant you find is utter frustration at the journalistic malpractice that was committed with no accountability, and as far I know there has never been a loud enough, satisfying, and sincere mea culpa.

So as I was listening and studying the media it dawned on me that there is a new generation of journalists out there, ones who have no reason to be invested in covering up what happened before, and who are willing to challenge each other. So the environment is ripe for revisiting Michael’s whole story.

Willa:  And that’s an important point. Many of the commentators out there are surprisingly young, and do seem more open to questioning conventional wisdom and seeing Michael Jackson in new ways.

D.B.:  Yes! But then there is still a subject matter knowledge problem, because how many journalists truly understand the facts? They learned about Michael through news, too. So, the other important development in my own thinking was realizing it was pointless to wait for some journalist to write what I wanted to read.

Willa: Yes, very few journalists really know the circumstances surrounding the allegations, and few seem to understand his true significance as an artist and cultural leader. I gradually came to that realization also. After he died I kept reading all these tributes, but to my mind even the positive ones seemed to miss the point about what was so special about him. It’s true he was an awe-inspiring singer and dancer, but he was so much more than that – he meant so much more than that – and none of the tributes I read seemed to get that. I kept looking for something that expressed what I felt, but it just wasn’t there. Nothing even came close. And finally I started writing about him, without really intending to, just to express what I was searching for and couldn’t find.

D.B.: I’m very glad you did. I probably owe you rent for the time spent on your pages! The pieces you’ve done on analysis and interpretation of his lyrics and imagery are the ones that stick with me the most. I’m sure that much of my understanding of “They Don’t Care about Us” was informed by your posts about the HIStory album.

In thinking about the media I came to appreciate that citizen journalism is widely practiced today – for example, most of the original reporting on the ground in Ferguson came not from reporters but from ordinary people who set up their own live streams and tweeted events.

CNN was literally days behind the activists in Ferguson. And everyone on social media knew it, and was complaining about it. The entire series of protests we’ve had over the last year – all of them – if you want to know what’s happening, you go on Twitter. Realizing this was a crucial turning point in my thinking.  It was one of those ordinary citizens on the ground in Ferguson who first posted a clip of protesters blasting “They Don’t Care about Us” through open car windows. And it got passed around on social media among protesters, and then among fans, and that clip was really the first spark in what became “The Messenger King.”

The protesters continued to embrace and expand their use of “They Don’t Care about Us” throughout the fall and it was so energizing to me, that these young people found meaning in a song that was released when they were toddlers or maybe not even born yet. And I could not stop thinking how understood Michael would feel, that someone finally gets it, what this song was all about. To me, it was a vindication in many ways. You know, Michael always played a long game.

Willa: That’s true, he did. And “They Don’t Care about Us” does seem to be a perfect channel for expressing the cultural zeitgeist right now – especially among young people – at this pivotal moment in history. For example, 2Cellos just released a video of their reinterpretation of “They Don’t Care about Us,” and it blew me away. Here it is:

Even without lyrics, this video superbly captures the underlying idea that we are just pawns in a game between superpowers who “really don’t care about us.”

D.B.: By now I’m convinced that Michael understood that “They Don’t Care about Us” was a critical piece of art. It explains why he fought so hard for it. He wanted it to live, and it is living. I suspect that Michael knew The New York Times would not have the last word, you know? He was a really long-term strategic thinker.

The protesters just organically reached for this music over and over through the months. So when “where are all the celebrities?” became a topic of conversation, and Questlove held up the Dixie Chicks as an example, I got angry, to be honest! I mean, I didn’t see any clips of Dixie Chicks songs at the rallies! Are you kidding me? No. Just no. Now Questlove had a very valid point – that it is very risky to speak out – and I totally agreed with his point. It just felt to me that he had opened the door with an excellent example, but if you want to talk about brave risk-takers, let’s get down to real. He was exactly right, and he set up my premise perfectly. But at first it made me mad, and that was the juice.

Everything finally gelled after an event on December 5, and that night I sat down and wrote “The Messenger King” in about four hours. The context was, Rolling Stone had just acknowledged that their “Rape on Campus” story had serious inaccuracies, but their statement did not accept responsibility and they said they’d been misled by their source.  And then this happened:

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A media professional calling out other media for not verifying the source’s story. Publicly. In writing. With profanity for emphasis, no extra charge. When this clicked into place, I knew: The world is open to receive. This is the right moment; this is Michael’s time. Go.

And so I did. Well I didn’t write it, so much as channel it. Wrote it on Friday, spent the weekend figuring out where to submit it, submitted it on Monday, and it was published on Tuesday.

Willa:  Wow, D.B., that’s amazing.

D.B.:  I am as amazed as anyone else, really!

And then just days after that, the Sony hack happened and there was another opportunity on a silver platter. I would never have recognized Bernard Weinraub’s name had I not just fact-checked myself for “Messenger King” by re-reading Vogel. He is mentioned in Joe’s commentary on “They Don’t Care about Us,” so when I saw Weinraub in the early hack coverage, his name was fresh on my mind. I was blown away because here was a chance to go deeper into the meaning of “They Don’t Care about Us” and answer Weinraub and put that whole controversy into the “ridiculous” department where it belonged. I knew I had to write it while the iron was hot. It was a very frenzied December! I never got my Christmas things out of storage, at all.

Willa: And I’m so glad you seized the moment like you did. It obviously struck a nerve – just look at all the attention it received! So it seems like, for you, one key lesson from all this is timeliness. To have impact, “citizen journalists” as you put it, have to get their message out at just the right moment – when a relevant story is a hot topic, and news outlets are receptive to what they’re trying to say.

D.B.: Yes. Neither story would have had as much impact without the timing. Sony and the protests were in the news, and I didn’t want to write just for fans. I wanted to reach the protesters and the media and the music industry and regular people. There was only a short window to catch a wide audience.

But just as crucial is to be ready when the opportunity comes by being prepared – you never know when it will appear. So all the thinking and writing and reading prepared me for the moment. The opportunity was there for anyone to take, but no journalist got either story, because they were not prepared.

First, they just don’t know all the history. Second, they don’t know that they don’t know it. And third, they’re already very busy. But I got some great comments from members of the press after they read my pieces. So contrary to popular wisdom, I feel like the press now generally has open minds to Michael.

Willa:  And that’s a really important insight, and an important opportunity. But you have me very curious, B.D. What were some of the comments you received? And who sent them?

D.B.:  After “Messenger King” was published, I got a phone call from a popular columnist. And he asked me, “did you really just say that Michael Jackson was framed by a white prosecutor? That he was a victim of police brutality?” And I thought he was going to rip into me. But instead he told me, “You have said what everyone else has been afraid to say.”

Willa:  Really? He actually said that?

D.B.: He did! Willa, I was shaking, because you don’t get calls like this every day. And you know, his remark was so profound. A lot of journalists know there is something rotten in Denmark. They know it. Oh, they know – it’s saying it out loud that’s the problem. But as I say, the younger journalists, they are not invested in the old status quo. Changes will be made.

The biggest compliment I got was the estate posted a link to “Messenger King” on Michael’s official website. That will always be special to me. But for purposes of this discussion, their doing so has a message: “We endorse and agree with the position. This is who Michael was.” I think they’re telling us how we can help them.

Willa:  That’s interesting. So you took the initiative and wrote that first article and got it published, and at just the right time when it would garner a lot of attention. But then once it started gaining momentum, the Estate helped push things along?

D.B.:  I’m not sure how it occurred exactly. I just know that after, maybe 4 days or so, someone contacted me and said, go look at Michael’s Facebook page. The estate had seen the article – whether they are always scanning the media or whether someone sent it to them, I don’t know – they had seen it and posted about it on his website and then promoted it through his social media. And I was just stunned because I haven’t ever seen them do this before.

Since then, the estate has taken the social justice theme and run with it several times. They posted about Michael’s work during Charlie Hebdo attacks, when people were singing “Heal The World,” things like that. And, Willa, since we began this conversation yesterday, the estate has just done a post on the Baltimore dancer we spoke of! So it’s clear to me, this is where they most want the global conversation to go, in terms of his image, and well it should, because it’s absolute truth about him as a person.

Willa:  And as an artist. It’s moments like these when the power of his art really shines through.

D.B.: Oh yes. This is why he did what he did. Exactly for this.

Willa:  So what about your second article?  Did you receive feedback from the press about it as well?

D.B.:  On the piece about The New York Times, I’ll let them speak for themselves. Here’s S.I. Rosenbaum, Senior Editor at Boston Magazine:

Then there’s Wesley Lowery, national reporter covering law enforcement and justice for The Washington Post:

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And Bomani Jones, sports journalist at ESPN:

Willa:  Wow, D.B.  Reading these just does me a world of good! It’s like a tonic. And it’s really motivating.

And I see what you’re saying … it does seem like some people in the media are open to taking a closer look at the controversies surrounding Michael Jackson, and at the media’s complicity in perpetuating them – and even creating them, as in the Weinraub case.

D.B.: It was a very eye-opening and encouraging experience. You know, how many times have people said, “when are journalists going to write the truth about Michael?” And there has been a perception that the media is united in its intent to give MJ a bad rap. But this really taught me this isn’t the case nowadays. My articles were news to them!

The journalists who read the pieces – and there were more of them than I have named here – are now, I hope, more likely to consider Michael thoughtfully in the future. Over time, I think if Michael’s advocates continue to take ownership on getting the history out, the press will delve deeper and do the parts that only they can. So I really hope that more of your readers will step out into citizen journalism too, speaking to an audience beyond the fan base, because they have the power to effect change. We can be the “live streamers” and point the way.

Willa:  I agree, and this idea of citizen journalism is really exciting. Did you have any worries or concerns?

D.B.: I did have some real trepidation about doing the Weinraub/“They Don’t Care about Us” story. I was concerned that people would think I was attacking Sony – it wasn’t my goal. It’s about Weinraub, and what he was possibly up to with David Geffen, and lack of professionalism in journalism, and the very self-centered, dare I say racist, view that Weinraub took. Sony was not my target but I rode the wave. I felt slightly uncomfortable about that, but I knew that’s how the headline game is played. I was a little nervous too about taking on The New York Times, and I obsessed over making the story as bullet-proof as I could.

Willa:  So have you heard from anyone at the Times?

D.B.:  Not a word! I never expected the story to take off the way it did. It was helped greatly when Max Read, the editor at Gawker, included it in the Sony Hack pop-up blog, which was an enormous source of new readers. It had gotten, I think, a couple thousand page views already, so I emailed Max cold, and he said (I’m paraphrasing) “Fantastic; stories like this are exactly why we are publishing the emails. I am adding your story and apologize in advance for the trolls you will get.”  And this is not to be believed, but I swear it is true – I got virtually none of the usual MJ haters. Interacting with readers in the comment section at Kinja was my favorite part.

Willa:  That’s wonderful! Perhaps I’m being naive, but I really hope that we’ve moved past that intense stage of the hysteria, with all the mindless name-calling and saying terrible things without any sort of substantive evidence. It does seem that, in talking about Michael Jackson now, the conversation tends to be a little more restrained, and a little more nuanced and open-minded. But I’m very worried that the Robson-Safechuck allegations could set off a whole new round of hysteria. I worry about that a lot, actually.

D.B.:  Willa, my experience shows that the majority of people believe he is innocent, or want to believe it. There is an awakening. What people still need in order to seal the deal in their minds, are facts. And when they are reading a reasonable story, they respond in a reasonable way. Michael’s story becomes a much less complicated one when you see the obvious – that he was a rebel and a social justice fighter in the style of Gandhi, and that he was persecuted by racist law enforcement. No voodoo in sight. It’s an easier thing to believe.

I think a good strategy is to completely ignore Robson/Safechuck. Don’t feed that beast. Instead, I would like to see advocates creating their own content, really good content that calls attention to the true issues: his philanthropy, or the use of his music in times of trouble, like in Paris – or interview ten children who were assisted with their medical issues by Michael. Write about how MJ put on the 9/11 concert but no one knew it. Write about AIDS. Write about South Central LA and school shootings. Lots and lots of possibilities. But with Robson, it’s different. In my opinion the current tabloid stories need to be starved of oxygen. No clicks, no commenting, no yelling at the author, just … radio silence. That is the kiss of death for a story and a reporter.

Willa:  I see what you’re saying, but it also feels risky to let false claims go unanswered. Some pretty wild rumors have been circulated about him, and sometimes they get a lot of attention – even when there is concrete information contradicting them – because that information doesn’t get out. But I understand your point that giving those stories attention helps perpetuate them. It’s complicated.

D.B.:  Robson’s lawyers are intentionally leaking stuff to the tabloids, as a strategy to get the estate to settle.

Willa:  It does seem that way, especially with the timing of how they’ve announced the allegations. The Robson accusations were made public during the AEG trial, and the Safechuck allegations came out the day before the release of Xscape. And then there are all the really lurid leaks to the tabloids. It seems to me that Robson and Safechuck’s law firm – and they have the same law firm working for them – is engaged in a pretty sophisticated media campaign to embarrass and harass the Estate and force them to settle, as you say.

D.B.:  Exactly. I’m not buying. No one believes Wade Robson. And I have more faith in journalism than I did before.

But never underestimate tabloids. So if it does get to the state where hysteria goes around, that is the moment when one of us needs to pounce on it with a story, which I hope someone is already working on right now, about Robson not getting the job at Cirque du Soleil which apparently caused his “remembering.”

And I would go for it right out of the gate with an opening sentence like “It’s widely believed that Michael Jackson was the victim of malicious prosecution by a zealous and bigoted district attorney in 2005. Now another has tried …”  That story should be ready and waiting to be published at the critical media time, with last minute edits where needed, no matter which way the case ends up. In other words, I’d love to see a citizen journalist with a story on why Wade lost. But either way, a citizen journalist story can give the rest of the press some factual nutrition. Otherwise they’re just looking at a giant void filled with tabloid trash. Citizens are the anti-tabloid. We give the press choices.

Yes, now that you mention it, it would be very strategic to do a victory lap story, one that drives the final stake into the heart of this nonsense forever.

Willa:  Sounds like you’ve already started writing it, D.B.! … at least in your head. And I hope you do.

D.B.: I enjoy thinking about strategy but don’t think the Robson story is in my wheelhouse.  I am certain there are others more qualified to do a Robson story. Maybe we will get some volunteers in the comments section!

Willa:  Maybe so – you’ve certainly motivated me to think about new ways to work within the media. And I hope you’ll join me again to talk more about citizen journalism. This has been so enlightening as well as inspiring. I feel like you’re helping to chart a course for how we really can change the world. Thank you for joining me and sharing your insights!

D.B.: Thank you very much for having me, Willa.  I enjoyed talking with you.

We’ve Had Enough

Willa:  In response to recent high-profile cases of white police officers killing unarmed black men – a terribly familiar story whose latest victims include Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City – #BlackLivesMatter protesters have been organizing demonstrations and staging protests across the nation, including shutting down roads in cities and towns from Massachusetts to California, Illinois to Georgia. And as D.B. Anderson pointed out in an insightful article in The Baltimore Sun, many of these protesters have been singing Michael Jackson’s anthem giving voice to the voiceless, “They Don’t Care about Us.”

However, as our friend Eleanor Bowman pointed out in a recent email, there’s another Michael Jackson song, less well known, that speaks directly and powerfully to this abuse of power. It’s “We’ve Had Enough,” whose haunting lyrics tell stories of innocent people killed by men in uniform. For example, it begins with this story:

She innocently questioned why
Why her father had to die
She asked the men in blue
“How is it that you get to choose
Who will live and who will die?
Did God say that you could decide?
You saw he didn’t run
And that my daddy had no gun”

Eleanor, you’re right – this song could have been written today. It’s chilling how closely the stories it tells parallel recent events. But then, this is a very old story, as Greg Carey, a professor of theology, posted in an article on The Huffington Post.

Eleanor: Hi Willa, and thanks for inviting me to join you in this discussion of “We’ve Had Enough,” one of Michael Jackson’s most powerful protest songs.

Willa: Thank you for joining me!

Eleanor: And thanks for linking to D.B. Anderson’s great column about “They Don’t Care about Us,” which is so closely related to “We’ve Had Enough.” I was glad that D.B. pointed out that the protesters were singing Michael’s song, because nowhere else in the news media did I see Michael’s name or “They Don’t Care about Us” mentioned in relation to the protests.

Willa: Actually, I saw it mentioned several times, though some reporters seemed surprised that the protesters were singing a Michael Jackson song. But D.B. wasn’t. And actually, if you know his history and how he was targeted by prosecutors – charged with crimes based on very shaky evidence, presumed guilty by the police and the media, forced to endure a humiliating strip search and very public trial, and ultimately driven from his home – it makes perfect sense that those protesters would be singing his music, especially “They Don’t Care about Us.”

Eleanor: I think the “they” in “They Don’t Care about Us” is the same “they” he sings about in “We’ve Had Enough” (“They’ve gotta hear it from you … me … us”), just as the “us” in “They Don’t Care about Us” is the same “us” he sings about in “Earth Song”: “What about us?” And possibly the “we” in “We’ve Had Enough” unites the “they” with the “us” – just a thought. But, no matter how you look at it, Michael Jackson gets a lot of mileage out of pronouns.

Willa: He really does …

Eleanor: “We’ve Had Enough” really gets to me, right from the start – that beautiful voice filled with sadness and outrage singing that incredible opening line:

Love was taken
From a young life
And no one told her why

Willa: Yes, and then we learn soon after that the “love” that “was taken” from this young girl was the love and protection of her father, who was killed in “one more violent crime.” But ironically and tragically, this “violent crime” was committed by the police. So the “men in blue” who should have protected him were the ones who killed him.

Eleanor: Right, and the lesson, the dim light, from that violent crime is what will give direction or misdirection to her life. Given recent events, “We’ve Had Enough” is a painful reminder that the more things change, the more they remain the same. In fact, just recently I received a link to news of a similar heartbreaking event. A life was not lost, but the love and care of a grandfather was taken from other young lives, hopefully only temporarily.

And, then there’s the son of New York Times’ columnist Charles Blow, who was accosted by a police officer at gunpoint as he was exiting the Yale library. In the case of Charles Blow’s son, both the young man and the officer were black, so the significant point was that the officer was wearing a uniform, and therefore, acting officially.

As Carey says in the article you linked to:

Race dynamics have indeed changed in our society. But the basic pattern: an unarmed but anonymous black man (or boy), a confrontation with law enforcement, something goes wrong, and the law enforcement officer empties his weapon. So familiar.

And soooo depressing … and so unjust. (Are we beginning to feel the outrage yet? Can you feel it?)

But the first verse of “We’ve Had Enough’ doesn’t tell the whole story – or at least the story Michael Jackson wants to tell. So he includes a second verse where another child, perhaps in Iraq or Afghanistan, is also orphaned, but this time the uniform is military. And this story, too, is depressingly familiar:

In the middle of a village
Way in a distant land
Lies a poor boy with his broken toy
Too young to understand
He’s awakened, ground is shaking
His father grabs his hand
Screaming, crying, his wife’s dying
Now he’s left to explain

He innocently questioned why
Why his mother had to die
What did these soldiers come here for?
If they’re for peace, why is there war?
Did God say that they could decide
Who will live and who will die?
All my mama ever did
Was try to take care of her kids

In “We’ve Had Enough,” Michael Jackson has described two tragic and all-too-familiar situations – an innocent man killed by police and an innocent woman killed by a bomb or a missile, both victims of “impersonal” state actions.

Willa: Yes, and that’s a very important point, Eleanor. By paralleling these two stories the way he does, Michael Jackson draws a connection between them – and forces us to see that connection also. Through juxtaposition, we are forced to see the similarities between the girl whose father is killed by a policeman on a city street, and the boy whose mother is killed by a soldier.

Eleanor: Right. And in revealing these similarities, he shows us that these events are not isolated incidents but part of a larger cultural pattern, a pattern of behavior in which an agent of the state takes an innocent life, apparently by mistake, and no one does anything about it. And the children left behind, also victims, bereft of their parents’ love and care, seem to be the only ones asking why.

But you know something interesting, Willa? In each story he deliberately leaves a critical piece of information out, brilliantly relying on us to fill in the blanks.

In the first story he doesn’t specify the little girl’s race – all we know is that love was taken from a girl’s life for an unknown reason. She could be any race; she could be anyone’s daughter. We all immediately feel for her. No race, no prejudice. But then the circumstances (an urban environment, a man killed by police – those whose job is to serve and protect) suggest that she is African-American.

And in the second, the song doesn’t specify the boy’s nationality – he only is a poor boy in a distant land to whom some unknown horror has happened. So we are drawn in and our sympathy is aroused. But again, the circumstances (a war zone, a woman killed by soldiers – peacekeepers – a Peacekeeper missile? – whose mission is to bring peace) suggest that this isn’t just any foreign child. He is Iraqi or Afghani, at any rate an inhabitant of some country that the US is taking an unhealthy interest in, and very possibly, he is Muslim.

MJ’s knowledge that he can rely on us to fill in the blanks, itself, speaks volumes  – revealing both his understanding of human nature and his knowledge of our awareness of these atrocities. These stories, or stories like them, are old news to us, and he knows it. He also knows that by not identifying the girl’s race or the boy’s nationality that we are more likely to identify with and sympathize with them, but that once the circumstances of their parents’ deaths are revealed, whether we are black or white, we will have a pretty good idea of the girl’s race and the boy’s nationality, which proves that we are well aware of the fact that both innocent black lives and innocent Iraqi or Pakistani lives are taken. We know who these people are by the way they are treated! We cannot claim to be innocent of this information. The reckless taking of innocent lives like these has become business as usual (or not our business).

Willa: I don’t know, Eleanor. I mean, a boy from my high school was killed by police our junior year, and he was white.

Eleanor: But you still remember it because it was not routine, the way the killing, and incarceration, of black men and boys has become.  I thought it was interesting that at the Oscar ceremony earlier this week, Common brought up the fact that there are more black men incarcerated in US prisons today than were enslaved before the Civil War.

Willa: Yes, and those incarceration rates are a national tragedy.

But I think I remember Brad’s death because it was so terrible. I mean, I had known him since third grade. He had a very lively sense of humor that got him into trouble sometimes, but teachers still really liked him. You could tell. And other kids liked him too. So he wasn’t mean or anything like that – just a really funny guy. But he was going through kind of a wild phase in high school and went out joyriding with a friend one night, and the police became involved and he was killed. There was an inquest and the review board determined that the police acted appropriately.

And a few years ago a young white man from my town – the father of a 2-year-old girl – was killed by police while stopped at a rest area on the interstate. He got into some sort of altercation with state troopers and had a gun in his hand and refused to drop it, and they shot and killed him. They later discovered the gun wasn’t loaded. I was talking to a friend who knew him well, and he said they called it “suicide by police” – that they thought he actually wanted to be killed by the police. And my friend said, as horrible as it sounds, he thought that might be true. He had known this young man since he was a kid and was just torn up by his death, but he said he’d been really depressed lately and acting kind of reckless, and he thought what happened really might be a kind of suicide.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s really complicated. The police have a very difficult job, and it isn’t just a black-and-white issue. As you mentioned earlier, the policeman who pulled a gun on Charles Blow’s son was black, and young whites – especially those who are poor or homeless or abused or struggling in some way – are killed by police, though blacks are much more likely to be targeted than whites are. Much more likely. And whites are not immune to bombs either – just look at all the innocent lives lost in northern Ireland. So while race is definitely a huge part of the picture, we’re all living in a very militarized time and we are all potential targets – though some are much more likely targets than others are.

Eleanor: But, Willa, it doesn’t sound like these deaths were in any way routine. And that’s the point I was trying to make, and that’s what I think Michael Jackson is trying to point out – that the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of the police in the US have become so routine that they have ceased to matter. #BlackLivesMatter indicates things haven’t changed, which is what all the recent protests have been about.

“We’ve Had Enough” focuses specifically on tragedies that are the result of the state taking actions against people who are not enemies of the state, but US citizens or citizens of other countries which we are not formally at war with. It tells the stories of gratuitous, careless killings of the poor and vulnerable, carried out by powerful state agents, armed to the teeth. The people in these stories are killed for no reason: the girl’s father is no criminal, and the boy’s mother is no enemy combatant. In fact, if he is referring to Pakistan or Afghanistan, we are not at war with her country, but only with the enemy combatants within it. MJ is telling us that from the state’s point of view, it doesn’t matter whether or not they represent any real threat because their lives don’t matter, and then he is asking us why.

Depending on the states, different groups are expendable. Which is another reason the song leaves both race and nationality out. Because, although in terms of the US, blacks are disproportionately on the receiving end of police action, and post 9/11, Muslims have become military targets, depending on who you are and where you live, you would fill in the blanks differently.

Willa: And we might fill in the blanks differently at different times in history also. At different times in American history, for example, recent immigrants from Mexico or Japan or Ireland or Italy or the Mideast or Korea or Poland or Puerto Rico or China or wherever have been discriminated against and treated as if their lives don’t matter. And American Indians have certainly been treated as if their lives don’t matter.

And I think Michael Jackson is speaking up for all those who are outcast, for whatever reason, though I certainly agree that a disproportionate number of police victims in the US are black, and a disproportionate number of bombing victims are somehow “Other” – other races, other religions, other nationalities and ethnicities. In fact, I’ve heard some very troubling discussions about the fact that the US dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities but never on a European city. If Germany or Austria or Italy had still been in the war in August 1945, would we have dropped atomic bombs on them? Or is that unthinkable to Americans?

Eleanor:  Interesting. And I am having a hard time imagining the US using drones to bomb targets in Europe, even if there was strong evidence of concentrations of Islamic extremists there.

Willa: Yes, it’s like American policymakers use different rules for those who they see as similar to themselves, and those they see as Other.

So I think the issue of race hangs heavy over these two stories that begin “We’ve Had Enough,” but I also think it’s significant that it’s left unspoken. In some ways, it makes racial prejudice an even more potent part of the story precisely because it’s unspoken, forcing us to work through that complicated history in our own minds.

Eleanor:  Exactly. But I would say race is the issue in the first, but nationality is the key to the second.

Willa: Yes, or religion or ethnicity or some combination of those divisions. But however we interpret it or mentally picture it in our own minds as we hear these stories, Michael Jackson just sounds heart-sick as he sings these verses, and I think he would be just as saddened by a child who lost a parent in northern Ireland as by a child who lost a parent in Iraq or the Sudan or Serbia or Israel or Southeast Asia. From the child’s perspective, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the loss of the mother or the father – and “We’ve Had Enough” encourages us to consider the perspective of that child who’s lost a parent.

Eleanor: Of course, he would. But I think he’s trying to get us to look at the loss of these two lives as representative of specific types of situations – where lives are taken recklessly and casually – as if they don’t matter, because to so many of “us” they don’t.

Willa: Yes, I would agree with that. And I think that’s the message of “They Don’t Care about Us” as well, as you mentioned earlier.

Eleanor: And to focus our attention on these events, he shows us just how much they do matter to him, singing each story in a voice loaded with sorrow and loss and telling each story from the perspective of the child whose life has been destroyed – a child who has not yet been programmed to unquestioningly accept her or his fate as par for the course or the natural order of things. His voice reflects their pain and confusion.

These children, understandably, want to know “Why?” (Even if we don’t, even if we think we know why.) Why would a policeman (whose mission is to serve and protect) shoot an unarmed man – and deprive a little girl of a loving father? Why would soldiers (whose stated mission is peace) take the life of a poor boy’s mother, a woman who spent her days taking care of her kids, leaving his father devastated, “screaming and crying [as] his wife’s dying”?

And, he wants us to focus on a second question, which the children also raise: who or what gives these men in uniform the right to take their parents’ lives? What role does God or religion, if any, play in these events? Has God decided that these lives don’t matter?

Willa:  Eleanor, I think you’ve just zeroed in on the key issue at the heart of this song:  what gives one person the right to kill another person? And Michael Jackson’s answer seems to be that nothing does. Nothing gives them that right. As he sings, “Did God say that they could decide / Who will live and who will die?” He seems to be saying that only God has the right to make that decision, so only God can confer that right – not the state, not a badge, only God. If that soldier and that policeman weren’t given the right to kill directly from God – and they weren’t – then they don’t have that right.

Eleanor: Well, I agree, he certainly seems to be saying that. But I’m not convinced that’s where he’s going with this. For one thing, we don’t know whose god the children are talking about or even if it is the same god. Is it the god of white supremacists or the god of the black church? Is it a Christian god or a Muslim god? Is it your god or mine?

And, so far, all he’s given us is questions, not answers. But, by having the children ask these questions, he both raises some very serious issues and ups the emotional ante, arousing the outrage most people would feel when innocent children are victims.

Willa: That’s true, it is children asking these questions, and children are among the most defenseless and voiceless. So the image of a small child asking a towering man in uniform “Why?” – why did you kill my father? why did you kill my mother? – is incredibly moving.

Eleanor: Yes, it is. And it works. We are moved and we are outraged, at least for the moment and for the fictional children in the song, who, through Michael Jackson’s artistry, are brought fully alive. But once we get into grappling with the questions they raise, we get into the area of blame and we get into trouble.

Hearing either story by itself, we might place the blame on the policeman who fired the shot or the soldier who released the missile or dropped the bomb. But, showing us that these stories are part of a larger pattern characterized by the repetition of violent acts resulting in the taking of innocent lives carried out by agents of the state, Michael Jackson begins to redirect our rage away from the police or the military, who in the larger sense didn’t make the fatal decision, and toward the states they represent, the states who have apparently decided that these lives don’t matter.

And then he complicates things even more: through the children’s questions about God, he opens up the related questions. If God said that the state “could decide who would live and who would die,” then does that make the state God’s agent, and does being an agent of the state imply that one is an agent of God? And if God said that the state “could decide who would live and who would die,” does that mean that God allows the state to decide which lives matter and which ones don’t? Who or what bears the ultimate responsibility for this insanity?

Willa: I think I see what you’re getting at, Eleanor. So when the children say, “Did God say you could decide?” you think they aren’t just questioning the men in uniform but the idea of a loving God also, for letting this happen. That’s interesting – I hadn’t thought about it that way.

Eleanor: Well, their questions do introduce the topic of God and raise the issue of the relationship between God and the state. The little girl seems to assume that the state acts without God’s blessing. She is issuing a challenge:

How is it that you get to choose
Who will live and who will die?
Did God say that you could decide?

While the little boy seems to be asking the more philosophical question:

Did God say that they could decide
Who will live and who will die?

Willa: I see what you’re saying. I only saw one interpretation before – the girl’s implied statement that the police didn’t have the right to take her father’s life. And I saw the boy as simply repeating that. But you’re right, there’s a subtle but important difference between them.

For one thing, the girl is challenging the police directly (“Did God say that you could decide?”) while the boy is asking his father to explain what happened (“Did God say that they could decide?”). And that subtle shift in pronouns from “you” to “they” really changes the situation and how we interpret it. So once again we’re back to pronouns … And like you, I think Michael Jackson’s sophisticated use of pronouns to shift perspective is nothing short of brilliant – and something we see throughout his work.

So as you pointed out, Eleanor, the girl is standing up to the police in the heat of the moment and asking them to justify their actions, while the boy is genuinely struggling to understand, perhaps days or weeks or even years later, and is asking his father to help him understand.

Eleanor:  Yes, and the mental image of his poor father, who was powerless to save his wife’s life and who is left to explain the unexplainable to his now motherless son, is so heartbreaking.

Willa:  It really is. My father lost his father when he was five years old, and I know from personal experience that it can take a lifetime to come to grips with that loss. Few things are more devastating to a child than the loss of a parent.

Eleanor:  That’s so sad, Willa. I can’t even imagine it.

But let’s distance ourselves from the emotional content of these stories for a minute and look at the underlying logic. Both stories make clear that the men in uniform, agents of the state, are directly responsible for the deaths of the children’s parents, and both children seem to assume that only God has the power to decide who will live and who will die, so it appears that the only explanation is that God gave the state permission to take their parents’ lives. Which makes no sense at all to either child.

If their parents are innocent, then either God is evil or the state has somehow usurped God’s power, both of which are theological impossibilities. The only other logical explanation is that the children are lying and their parents are guilty of something. But this is Michael Jackson singing this song, and in MJ’s world, children don’t lie and children see clearly. It is this quality of wise innocence that MJ cherished and that these children represent. These children are the real deal.

Although adults may rationalize evil into good, the deep wisdom of children allows them to get to the heart of the matter.  No matter how you look at it, in this song, they are telling us, something is rotten, something doesn’t make sense, something doesn’t add up. If “God” gave these men the right to take these innocent lives, what kind of god is that? (With friends like these…??) The children see an inherent contradiction. They are not confused by convoluted political – or theological – sophistry that turns good into evil and evil into good, such as arguments that might claim that merely being black or being born in a distant land, now defined as enemy territory, makes their parents guilty, and justifies their killing. They are not calloused or inured or jaded or brainwashed. They are truly innocent. And they know, when things like this happen, something (our understanding of the nature of reality or even our understanding of the nature of “God”) is “out of joint.”

The children’s heartbreaking stories and their simple, straightforward, and perfectly natural questions reveal inherent contradictions in conventional assumptions about the nature of God (at least the God of the Abrahamic religious traditions) who is conventionally assumed to be both all good and all powerful. And, these contradictions suggest that this God is not God, that the God of most organized religions, is not what it is cracked up to be.

Willa: And that brings up a question people have struggled with for millennia: why would a loving, all-powerful God allow terrible things to happen? Why would a loving God allow the Holocaust to happen, or war or famine or disease or torture?  We see Michael Jackson grappling with this question in his talks with Rabbi Schmuley Boteach – for example, in a chapter of The Michael Jackson Tapes called “Karma and Justice”:

MJ: I don’t believe in karma. I think that is a bunch of crap, because so many mean-spirited, evil people are on top of the world and doing well and people love them, no matter how evil they are.

SB: I love it when you make strong statements like that.

MJ: Well, I’m sorry, it’s crap. Karma is a theory like any other theory that some human made up.

SB: Well, “what goes around comes around” is ok, because there’s great truth to that. But karma could actually be evil because karma says that handicapped children did something bad in a previous life.

MJ: That’s a fine line and I’m sorry for talking like that. But I hate whoever says something like that. A child did something in a past life so God is going to handicap them? There were all these orphans in this one country coming to America to be adopted. The plane crashed. Every child on the plane died. Why? If you could save those kids, if you were in Heaven, you would say, “This one is not going down. Maybe another one, but not this one.” I know I would.

Eleanor: That’s a really interesting exchange, Willa. It clearly shows Michael struggling with these issues and shows that he wasn’t willing to accept “off-the-shelf theology.” If we believe an all-powerful god is responsible for everything that happens, and we are morally outraged by many things that happen, as MJ was, then we are adopting a position that says humans are more moral than God, which in conventional religious thought is a no-no.

But regardless of the flaws in theo-logic, someone’s god is often given as an explanation for those things which otherwise are inexplicable, and someone’s god generally is thought to have the power of life and death, and someone’s god’s will has often been invoked as the reason behind state actions. And I think Michael Jackson really wants us to focus on and question the assumption many people make concerning the relationship between state actions and the will of God, how an assumption of such a relationship, even if unconscious, seems to paralyze our will and absolve us of personal responsibility. I think he wants us to think about exactly who “the state” is, whose will the state is really carrying out – and how anyone could believe that any lives don’t matter.

Willa: I agree. While “We’ve Had Enough” talks quite a bit about God in a way that may lead us to question conventional wisdom and even our own beliefs, I don’t think the focus of this song is on the concept of God – not really. I think it’s on us, and how people have appropriated the concept of God to advance their own ideology, whatever it may be.

Eleanor: And there is certainly a long history of exactly that.  In ancient Greece and Rome, the emperor often was worshipped as a god, so his will in the arena of state actions was viewed as the will of a god. Then over time, this idea of the emperor-god evolved into the divine right of kings, which pretty much gave free rein to European monarchs and covered a multitude of sins and has fueled endless religious wars. And even today, there is plenty of evidence that suggests that states continue to believe, or act as if they believe, that they are instruments of divine will. Some god or other is a very convenient authority to appeal to for self-serving (in)human actions.

An argument could be made that the gods of organized religions, which have traditionally worked hand in glove with states, are actually thinly veiled “agents of the state” – a psychological construct that states have used for millennia to justify their actions and manipulate their citizen/subjects – especially in the area of sorting out the lives that matter from those that don’t.

Willa: Wow, Eleanor, there’s a lot to think about here. I think it’s true that “some god or other” is often “a very convenient authority to appeal to for self-serving (in)human actions.” In other words, nations or religions (or even football teams) frequently like to claim that God is on their side, and that their actions, no matter how violent, are carrying out God’s will.

Eleanor: And, don’t forget races. White supremacy and Christian fundamentalism often go hand in hand.

Willa: Unfortunately, that often seems to be the case. But I think you’re raising a very important point about the tendency for nations or other groups based on religion or race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or whatever to appropriate the idea of God and God’s will to justify their actions – especially when those actions are violent and repressive.

That’s something we see Michael Jackson struggling with in “All in Your Name” as well, as Joie and I talked about in a post last March. According to an article in The Guardian, “Jackson showed up at [Barry] Gibb’s doorstep with the unfinished song … about three months before the United States invaded Iraq.” In that song, he isn’t just questioning the looming war but all the things that are done “in Your Name.” He is so angry and upset with the terrible things that are being done in God’s name that he questions the very existence of God. But the idea of living his life without his strong belief in God deeply troubles him also, as he and Barry Gibb sing in the dual choruses:

So what is my life
If I don’t believe
There is someone to watch me?
Follow my dreams
Take all my chances
Like those who dare?
And where is the peace
We’re searching for
Under the shadows of war?
Can we hold out
And stand up
And say no?

Only God knows
It’s all in your name
Follow me to the gates of paradise
They’re the same
It’s all in your name

It seems to me that Michael Jackson’s belief in a loving God was one of the foundations of his life. He grew up in the church, and his religious beliefs helped guide him and keep him sane through all the craziness he went through. He can’t imagine life without it – as he repeatedly sings, “What is my life / If I don’t believe?”

But at the same time, such horrible things have been done and continue to be done in God’s name: “where is the peace / We’re searching for /Under the shadows of war? … It’s all in Your name.” And we continue to see the spread of religious intolerance and holy war throughout the Mideast, and in other parts of the war. That’s intolerable to him also.

Eleanor:  So interesting, Willa….“Where is the peace?” is similar to a line out of “Earth Song” (“What about all the peace/That you pledge your only son?”), which was written years earlier. He had been dealing and struggling with these issues for such a long time.

Willa: Yes, I think so too. And so he finds himself at a crossroads, trying to understand what he should believe and what he should do. And in “All In Your Name” he seems to resolve that conflict by deciding to rise up and take a stand against religious wars and religious intolerance, while still maintaining his belief in a benevolent God. As he and Barry Gibb sing,

Can we hold out
And stand up
And say no?

Only God knows

Eleanor:  I remember that discussion well, Willa, and that song so perfectly expresses the terrible dilemma he found himself faced with, given his own deep compassion and his deep feeling of connectedness to a power that he often referred to as L.O.V.E. It shows how deeply troubled, how desperate he felt at that time – and remember, he was in New York on September 11 and had witnessed that horror.

The song, and the accompanying story, also show that the “God question” and the problem of evil was an abiding concern of his. And his dilemma is exactly the dilemma faced by the children in “We’ve Had Enough.” At the core of their being, they know that their God, understood as love and a force for good, couldn’t be responsible for the evil that has befallen them and their parents; and God, understood as all powerful, wouldn’t allow such terrible things to happen. And yet they do happen. So what is the answer?

I think Michael Jackson found the solution to his dilemma in the clear-eyed innocent wisdom of children, like those in “We’ve Had Enough.” There, he found the evidence for the existence of, not an imperial god out there backing state actions and calling the shots and deciding that some lives matter while some do not, but what in some circles is called the god within – a powerful force for good, for the common good –  that is accessible if we seek it, and that is all powerful if we unleash its force. But what a big “if.” Because we adults can, and in most cases do, choose to ignore it.

Unlike the rest of us, who in adulthood lose touch with our own wise innocence, MJ kept the channel wide open, keeping every emotion, every nerve ending alive, giving emotional depth and power to his work, and through this power, he was able to reach deep into our souls and touch our own innocence – the love and compassion which binds people together, rather than the fear and anger that drives them apart, and which he continued to believe was still there somewhere, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary.

Willa:  I agree, Eleanor, and I think he beautifully expresses this idea in “Heaven is Here,” a poem from Dancing the Dream. Here’s a wonderful reading of it:

There’s actually a whole series of these readings and I don’t know who’s creating them, but I love his voice. Anyway, as Michael Jackson says in the opening lines of this poem:

You and I were never separate
It’s just an illusion
Wrought by the magical lens of
Perception

There is only one Wholeness
Only one Mind
We are like ripples
In the vast Ocean of Consciousness

Come, let us dance
The Dance of Creation
Let us celebrate
The Joy of Life …

Eleanor: And that beautiful poem speaks to another recurring theme in his work, the idea that we are not separate beings, that “You’re Just Another Part of Me.”

Willa:  Exactly.

Eleanor:  Like the children in “We’ve Had Enough,” Michael Jackson was in touch with that inner power, that tie that binds. It informed his vision, giving him the ability and wisdom to see clearly and recognize the cruelty, the barbarity and utter senselessness – the insanity – of the type of acts described in “We’ve Had Enough.”

The children feel the deep wound of their losses – and the injustice – and so does he … and so should we all. But, as he points out in the next lines of the song, we don’t.  Instead,

We’re innocently standing by
Watching people lose their lives
It’s as if we have no voice

If we are watching people lose their lives, how could we be “innocently standing by”? He could be using irony, or he could actually see us as innocent victims of religious and cultural brainwashing. My guess is that he means it both ways. That we are both innocent bystanders and guilty as sin.

And the outrage aroused at the beginning of the song, which seemed at first to be directed at the police or the military, we now find directed at the systems that have brainwashed us, and at us for allowing ourselves to be brainwashed. After all, we do have a voice, but we choose not to use it. It is our responsibility to put a stop to these acts, but we are shirking it.  As Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Willa: He also seems to be suggesting that if we stand idly by “watching others lose their lives” then that disempowers us as well. It silences us: “It’s as if we have no voice.”

Eleanor: If we are standing by, believing ourselves to be innocent bystanders, while people lose their lives, clearly something is seriously wrong. To paraphrase “Earth Song,” “we don’t know where we are / but we know we’ve drifted far….”  In other words, we’ve lost our moral compass.

On the other hand, we could do something instead of nothing, and MJ is telling us it is long past time for us to act:

It’s time for us to make a choice
Only God  could decide
Who will live and who will die,
There’s nothing that can’t be done
If we raise our voice as one

They’ve gotta hear it from me
They’ve gotta hear it from you
They’ve gotta hear it from us

We can’t take it
We’ve already had enough
Deep in my soul, baby
Deep in your soul and let God decide

I think he is suggesting that we need to recognize that we are the medium for the expression of “God’s” will, and so he implores us in a voice filled with urgency and desperation to make that choice to open our hearts to that power “deep in [our] souls” and “let God decide.” And note the change from “only God could decide” to “let God decide” – putting the ball in our court.

Willa: Yes, and that’s an important distinction. It reminds me of the famous line by Abraham Lincoln that Barack Obama has quoted a number of times: “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.” In other words, he’s saying we should look within and try to use our understanding of God to guide us to do what’s right, rather than using God as justification to do what serves us best.

Eleanor: If we look deep in our souls and consult and access “the god within, the life force, the drive for the common good,”  a global, rather than a national or a racial common good that includes us all, that does not sacrifice the good of one group to benefit another – if we “let God decide” – it will restore our moral compass and unleash all the power that has been blocked by our inner conflicts. I think Michael Jackson sincerely believes that this energy exists, and if we let this energy guide us, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.

And the title of the song suggests that once we get our heads on straight and restore the connection between heart and brain, we should feel these injustices as if they were happening to us. Because they are; we all suffer as a consequence of these actions. And he wonders when we will decide “We’ve Had Enough” and do something.

Willa:  I agree, and I think that’s the meaning he’s trying to convey in the ad libs near the end of the song, beginning about 4:10 in:

They’ve gotta hear it from me
They’ve gotta hear it from you
They’ve gotta hear it from us
We’ve already had enough
(He’s my brother)
We’ve already had enough
(Dear God, take it from me
It’s too much for me
That’s my brother
It’s too much for me
That’s my brother, baby
That’s my lover)
We’ve already had enough

When an unarmed man – a father – is killed on the streets by a policeman, or a wife is killed in her own home by a bombing raid in a distant country, Michael Jackson doesn’t want us to think of it as something distant that doesn’t affect us. Instead, he wants us to take it personally, as if “That’s my brother” or “That’s my lover.” It’s happening to all of us.

Eleanor: And in choosing not to act, we are dooming ourselves.

Willa:  Absolutely.

Eleanor:   I don’t know when “We’ve Had Enough” was written, but it was released with the Ultimate Collection in 2004, during that period leading up to his trial, a trial that could have ended with his imprisonment and the loss of his children – an intensely painful period that had begun ten years before, and it has the same feel – anger and desperation mixed with deep sadness and compassion and frustration – of much of his later work.

And something about the level of desperation in his voice leads me to believe that not only does he feel the pain of these children and thousands like them, but he views himself – and all of us – ensnared in the same vicious pattern, a pattern that in one way or another diminishes all of us, a pattern that he believed could be broken and must be broken.

But, tragically, shockingly, we still haven’t had enough. Years after this song was first recorded, the innocents continue to die in confrontations with police and military – especially since police forces have become increasingly militarized and military actions become more and more impersonal, young soldiers sitting at consoles, playing video games that take real lives.

But perhaps the stakes are too high. Speaking up can exact a high price, which he alludes to late in the song: “It’s up to me and I’m still alive.” But, tragically, today, he isn’t. Like the children in the song, he knew the difference between right and wrong, he confronted the state with incredible strength and courage, he opened his heart and let the power of the life force come through, and he encouraged us in his life and in his art to raise our voices against injustice.  He never gave up. He never backed down. And, he paid the ultimate price.

Willa:  Yes, and that’s something D.B. Anderson talks about as well, in that article we mentioned at the beginning of this post:

Michael Jackson was never afraid to put himself out there for the truth as he saw it. We could always count on Jackson to be the global leader of the band, to give voice to everything we were feeling. His adult catalog is a trove of social activism. Starvation. AIDS. War. Gang violence. Race relations. The environment. It was Jackson who put on concerts for war-torn Sarajevo. It was Jackson who put together a group charity song and concert after 9/11. It was Jackson who used every ounce of his global celebrity to make a difference. He was there.

What happened to Jackson for his politics was so much worse than losing sales. For in speaking truth to power, Jackson made himself a target …

And D.B. Anderson is right. He did make himself a target, and he paid a terrible price for it.

Eleanor: But he left us with that powerful truth that the stakes are too high not to act, and that desperate call to action:

They’ve gotta hear it from me
They’ve gotta hear it from you
They’ve gotta hear it from us

We can’t take it
We’ve already had enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa:  Really?  I didn’t know that.

Joie:  Neither did I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa:  That’s a good point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

¡Porque Soy Malo, Soy Malo!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa:  Really?  I didn’t know that.

Joie:  Neither did I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa:  That’s a good point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Rewind Series, Week 6: Racial Equality

NOTE: The following two conversations were originally posted on December 1 and 7, 2011. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

MJ’s Art of Racial Equality

Willa:  A couple months ago we raised the question, “Was Michael Jackson Black Enough?” and we ended up really challenging the question. After all, what does it even mean to be “Black enough?” How do we define that, and what does that definition say about how we perceive and interpret racial differences?

Joie:  Well, I think during that discussion we came to the agreement that we can’t define that. No one can really say whether or not someone else is Black enough or White enough. That’s something that can only be determined by the individual, and I really feel that when this accusation is leveled at Michael Jackson, it’s really just masking something deeper.

Willa:  Absolutely. I think you are so right, Joie. It really seems like the people most threatened by Michael Jackson and most insistent on questioning whether he’s Black enough aren’t really talking about skin color at all. Instead, they’re using that as an indicator of something else. They’re speculating about the color of his skin, the shape of his nose, the parentage of his children, his relationships with women, his clothes, his hair, his penny loafers, his whole public persona, as external manifestations of his thoughts and how he sees the world.

In other words, they’re using his skin as a metaphor for his mind. And what they’re really saying is that his mind wasn’t Black enough. There seems to be this insistence that a “proper” Black man must have a Black mind, and Michael Jackson challenges that idea and calls the whole concept into question. What does it even mean to have a Black mind? What are the implications of judging him by that standard, especially when many of the commentators passing judgment on him are White? And does anyone, especially a White person, have the right to impose their definition of Black onto someone else?

We concluded that “Michael Jackson was plenty Black enough,” as you put it. However, he insisted he had the right to define for himself what that means. And in fact, everyone should have that right of self-definition.

Joie:  You know, Willa, I really do hate this Black enough question and I find it somewhat disturbing. That would be like me trying to tell you that you’re not White enough. I just find it sort of ridiculous that anyone would even attempt to impose their idea of how a certain race should “act” on others. I mean, isn’t that sort of the definition of a racial stereotype? And I wonder how interracial people feel about this topic. I’m sure this is something that they have a lot of experience with in a way. You know, they’re seen as not really Black but, not quite White either and again, I wonder who are we to determine whether or not they are Black enough or White enough? And why does it even matter? And I wonder about Michael’s children sometimes and how they see themselves and how this Black enough question affects them.

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Joie – and as Dr. Louis Henry Gates, Jr., suggested in his PBS series, Faces of America, most of us are mixed race if we look at this genetically. I am. You are. Especially in the U.S. most people are, with the possible exception of Stephen Colbert. He started laughing when Dr. Gates told him the tests they ran showed he was 100 percent White because that perfectly fits the persona he plays on his show. Dr. Gates even found that he himself has “more White ancestry than Black” – far more – though he still self-identifies as Black.

Joie:  That’s very interesting. And really funny about Stephen Colbert!

Willa:  Isn’t it? What a crack up! But this isn’t really a genetics issue. It’s a cultural issue. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, ever since we looked at You Rock My World  a couple weeks ago. The ideas generated by that video and by the fascinating comments that followed has this persistent criticism that Michael Jackson somehow wasn’t Black enough percolating in my brain all over again.

The central conflict of the video is between Michael Jackson’s character and the managers of a club. And as Ultravioletrae pointed out, all of those managers are White. There’s also this wonderful interlude in the middle of the video – just as the big face-off with the managers reaches a fever pitch, suddenly there’s a pause in the action as the everyday people in the club create a type of street music. As you described it, Joie,

“We hear the rhythm of the broom sweeping across the floor and the glasses clinking, the shoe shine guy buffing, the high heals clicking and the patrons tapping on the tables.”

And all of the people creating this street music are Black. Importantly, Michael Jackson’s character draws strength from this street music – he pulls the rhythms and energy of it into his music and then uses that beat and energy to defy the White managers. And he fights hard, flipping a henchman onto his back, punching the ringleader in the face, and ultimately burning the club down.

So we can actually look at You Rock My World as representing the conflict between Black musicians and the people who make money off them. And as Aldebaran pointed out in a comment, that conflict has a long troubled history, and Michael Jackson was very aware of that. As Aldebaran wrote,

“in Michael’s press conference about Sony and Mottola, he speaks of how black artists (like James Brown) were exploited by the music industry and how they ended up penniless and forced to perform into old age.”  

Joie:  Aldebaran was right; Michael did speak out about that troubled history very publicly. And I’m glad you brought that up, Willa, because I believe that Michael’s participation in that conference proves unquestionably where his head was at, or how Black his mind was, as you put it. During that conference, Michael told the world exactly how he saw himself:

“I know my race. I just look in the mirror; I know I’m Black.”  

Everyone always thinks that conference was all about Invincible and the shoddy way it was promoted (or not promoted) by Sony. But in actuality, the whole purpose of that conference was to fight for better contracts, royalties and distribution for Black artists. So, Michael didn’t only address racial issues in his own art, but he also became something of an activist in the fight for racial equality in the music industry as a whole. And this was a cause that was very important to him, as he said in his speech:

“I just need you to know that this is very important, what we’re fighting for, because I’m tired, I’m really, really tired of the manipulation….  they manipulate our history books. Our history books are not true; it’s a lie. The history books are lies; you need to know that. You must know that. All the forms of popular music from Jazz to Hip Hop to Bebop to Soul, you know, to talking about the different dances from the Cake Walk to the Jitter Bug to the Charleston to Break Dancing – all these are forms of Black dancing! …. What would we be like without a song? What would we be like without a dance, joy and laughter, and music? These things are very important, but if we go to the bookstore down on the corner, you won’t see one Black person on the cover. You’ll see Elvis Presley. You’ll see the Rolling Stones. But where are the real pioneers who started it? Otis Blackwell was a prolific, phenomenal writer. He wrote some of the greatest Elvis Presley songs ever. And this was a Black man! He died penniless and no one knows about this man. That is, they didn’t write one book about him that I know of, and I’ve searched the world over.”  

I once read a really interesting blog post called “How Michael Got Gangsta With Sony Music Over Black Music and Racism.” It was all about that conference and I learned some things that I hadn’t known before simply because of the way the media distorted coverage of that conference. They deliberately made light of the importance and seriousness of the issue and instead tried to make it all about Michael being upset at Sony because his album didn’t do well but, that’s not what the conference was about at all; it was about fighting for racial equality and Michael took it very seriously.

Willa:  Wow, that’s such an interesting post, Joie. I didn’t know a lot of that either, and I think it does show where his mind was at. But I think the best reflection of his mind is his work, and fighting racial prejudices and other forms of prejudice is a critically important issue in his work, though it’s often handled in subtle ways. If we look at a chronological list of all the videos he helped produce and develop the concept for, fighting racial prejudice is a recurring emphasis throughout his career, from Can You Feel It, the first on the list, to You Rock My World, the last on the list.

Joie:  You’re right, Willa, fighting racial prejudice was a recurring theme in his work and that clearly shows what an important issue this was for him. And we see it in song after song and in video after video.

You mentioned Can You Feel It. You know, I remember when that video first came out and I thought it was the coolest thing! Videos were still very new at that point and just the whole visual for it with the special effects and everything – at the time, it was actually sort of cutting edge. But the amazing thing about this video is that, for the first time really, we get to see exactly what Michael’s message was – LOVE. His dream was to bring people together. People of all backgrounds, all ages – and most importantly – all races. From the very beginning, it was obviously all about love for him, and love has no room for racial prejudice. And I think that is ultimately the message behind this particular song and video.

Willa:  I agree, Joie, it is about love. That’s evident in both the lyrics and the visuals:  the video ends with everyone joining hands as they share a new vision of the future. And this was a groundbreaking video, both in terms of its special effects and some of the ideas it puts forth.

For example, through the lyrics he “tells us twice” that “we’re all the same / Yes, the blood inside of me is inside of you.” So as we were talking about earlier, he’s saying this isn’t a genetics issue – biologically, we’re all the same. Instead, it’s about perception, as he emphasizes through the visual elements of the video. He was very interested in the relationship between perception and belief throughout his career and, in this case, genetic differences such as skin color aren’t nearly as important as how we perceive and interpret those differences.

Basically, a few biologically trivial differences such as skin color have become artificially important cultural signifiers. As we all know, dealing with how we as a people perceive and interpret those signifiers became a huge issue for him a couple years later when he discovered he had Vitiligo. Importantly, he was already thinking about these ideas before he developed Vitiligo, and I think that strongly influenced his response as his skin began losing its pigment. And I strongly believe that his response revolutionized the way White America, especially, perceives and experiences those signifiers.

You know, Lorena wrote a comment last week about her work with Michael Jackson impersonators, and I’m so intrigued by the research she’s doing. Looking at her photographs, I’m fascinated by which signifiers they thought were important to duplicate when portraying Michael Jackson, and which ones they didn’t. As I look at them, they don’t seem to be trying to replicate his appearance, as celebrity impersonators generally do. Instead, they seem to be focusing more on capturing his spirit, his style, his personality, his way of being in the world, and that’s so interesting to me.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that, for me, Michael Jackson was Black – he fully embraced his Black heritage, he fought for equal rights on many different fronts, and he always identified himself as Black – but his race didn’t define him. Instead, he defined himself to an extent that’s rarely been seen before.

Joie:  That is so true, Willa. I love the way you put that! His race didn’t define him and I wish that everyone could get to that place where race doesn’t define any of us anymore and I think, with each new generation, we’re slowly getting there. Very, VERY slowly.

You know, that makes me think of a line from one of my most favorite movies of all time – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, with Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Sidney Poitier’s character is arguing with his father about his desire to marry a White woman and he says to him, “You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.” Basically, he’s saying that the older generation has to let go of their antiquated ideas about race if we are ever going to move forward. It’s a very powerful moment in the movie and it has always stuck with me because of it. And I think your statement of ‘his race didn’t define him’ is just as powerful.

So, next week we’ll look at some other examples of Michael’s work where he addresses the subject of race and other prejudices.

Some Things in Life They Just Don’t Want to See

Joie:  So, last week we began a discussion about how Michael Jackson dealt with race issues and in particular, his fight for racial equality in his work, and we talked a little bit about Can You Feel It, which was the first video that he ever had a hand in creating the concept for. And in thinking about all of his videos and his response to racial prejudice, I can’t stop thinking about They Don’t Care About Us.

You know, before the HIStory album was even released, critics were labeling this song racist and anti-Semitic because of the lyrics, “Jew  me, sue me, everybody do me / Kick me, kike me, don’t you Black or White me.” And Michael actually took offense to that because he felt he had written a song that drew public awareness to the ridiculousness of racism and prejudice. He even issued a statement saying,

“The idea that these lyrics could be deemed objectionable is extremely hurtful to me, and misleading. The song, in fact, is about the pain of prejudice and hate, and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems. I am the voice of the accused and the attacked. I am the voice of everyone. I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the Black man, I am the White man. I am not the one who was attacking… I am angry and outraged that I could be so misinterpreted.”  

But even after his explanation the heat wouldn’t let up so he finally went back into the studio and re-recorded the lyrics. And even though both videos for the song still have the original lyrics, the offending words are masked by obscure sounds over top of them.

What intrigues me is that, I think this is probably the one and only time that Michael was ever accused of being a racist himself and it’s just sort of odd to me that anyone could look at his overall body of work up to that point and accuse him of anti-Semitism. I mean, even Sony at the time came to his defense and called the lyrics brilliant, saying that the song was an opposition to racism and had been taken out of context.

Willa:  And Sony was right. The lyrics are actually confronting anti-Semitism, not endorsing it, and that should be obvious to anyone who listens to the lyrics. Yet even Michael Jackson’s friends Steven Spielberg and David Geffen criticized the song, saying it was offensive.

I was really disappointed in Spielberg’s response, especially. As a director whose own work has been misunderstood on occasion, he should be a little more insightful than that. For him to suggest that Michael Jackson is anti-Semitic because of these lyrics is simplistic and a gross misinterpretation. It’s like calling Spielberg a Nazi sympathizer because he has Nazis in his film, Shindler’s List. Spielberg isn’t endorsing Nazis – just the opposite, he’s critiquing their beliefs, obviously – and that’s exactly what Michael Jackson was doing in the original lyrics of “They Don’t Care about Us.”

Joie:  I agree with you about Spielberg’s response; he should have been much more insightful but instead, it felt like he was just jumping on the bandwagon.

Willa:  It really did. You know, Spike Lee, who directed the videos for “They Don’t Care about Us,” talked about the controversy in a very interesting interview with The Guardian. He was actually asked about a different controversy – Quentin Tarantino’s use of racial epithets in his film, Jackie Brown. Spike Lee had spoken out about it, calling it “excessive,” and then was roundly criticized for criticizing Tarantino. So The Guardian asked Spike Lee if he regretted his comments. Here’s an excerpt from that interview:

“Oh, I don’t regret that at all. And to put the record straight, because a lot of people never got the whole story… I never said that Quentin Tarantino should not be allowed to use the word nigger. My contention was that his use of it was excessive. You know, Harvey Weinstein [co-founder of Miramax, Jackie Brown’s financiers] called me up and said he wished I’d leave this thing alone. And I said, ‘Harvey – would you ever release a film that on so many occasions used the word kike? He just cleared his throat and said, ‘No.’ So, it’s like, ‘Oh – you can’t say kike but nigger is OK?’ ”  

He lets the question hang. But he’s not done yet.  

“And then of course they say, ‘But Tarantino’s an artist, he’s just expressing himself.’ Well, if we’re talking about artists, let’s talk about…”  

Everything slows with the realization of what’s coming next.   

“Michael Jackson. Because, forgetting all that other shit for a minute, in the song ‘They Don’t Care About Us,’ Michael Jackson said ‘Sue me, Jew  me, Kick me, Kike me.’ What happened? He was ripped apart by Spielberg and David Geffen, and the record was pulled from the stores. So, Quentin Tarantino says nigger and he’s an artist, but Michael Jackson says kike and it can’t be exposed to the public?”   

That’s a really long quotation, but I think it raises several important issues:  not only are different groups, and the sensitivities of different groups, treated differently, but different artists are interpreted differently as well.

Many critics see Tarantino’s films as crossing the divide between high art and popular art, and that affects how they interpret his work:  he is given the respect due an artist, and therefore is allowed a certain artistic license to challenge social norms. But most critics dismiss Michael Jackson as “just” a pop musician, so his work is interpreted very differently. When he challenges social norms, it’s treated like an offensive publicity stunt. That’s why I think it’s so interesting and important that Spike Lee says, “Well, if we’re talking about artists, let’s talk about … [long pause] … Michael Jackson.” His point is right on target, I think.

Joie:  I think so too; I loved that quote. But, you know, it wasn’t just the song’s lyrics that came under fire for racism, it was also the video itself – or I should say videos, plural – as this is also the first time that Michael ever made more than one video for a particular song. Interestingly, both versions of the video came under fire for what you could call racial / political reasons.

As you said, both videos were directed by Spike Lee and supposedly, the Brazil version was filmed first but Michael wasn’t very happy with the finished product. So they shot the Prison version, which was reportedly filmed in a real prison with actual inmates. This is the version that was originally released but critics and others thought it was way too violent. The video was banned in several countries. And in the US, MTV and VH1 would only allow it to be shown after 9pm. So Michael withdrew the video and released the Brazil version instead.

The Brazil version was fraught with controversy because authorities in that country were afraid that images of poverty in the areas where Michael wanted to film would do damage to their tourism trade and they accused him of exploiting the poor. A judge in that country even ruled that all filming be stopped but that ruling was overturned by an injunction. I can understand why they were afraid. I mean, I think the visuals in that video really serve to highlight the poverty and social problems in countries like Brazil but, I wouldn’t call it exploitation on Michael’s part. I think he was just trying to draw attention to their plight. But it’s my opinion that this version of the video really doesn’t serve the song very well and I think Michael obviously felt that way too, seeing as how he started over and shot the Prison version.

The Prison version paints a much better picture of what the song is all about; it features real footage of police brutality against African Americans, real footage of the Ku Klux Klan and footage of violence and genocide in other parts of the world. We also see Michael himself behind bars wearing a prison uniform, handcuffed and shackled, sitting in a prison commissary with real prison inmates – many of them Black or members of other minorities. And if you examine the lyrics of the song, these were all points that Michael really wanted to make so, to me, the Prison version is so much more effective than the Brazil version in terms of evoking the feeling that Michael was going for. In fact, when describing the song, Michael himself said,

“‘They Don’t Care About Us’ has an edge. It’s a public awareness song … It’s a protest kind of song.”  

I just think it’s a shame that this version was deemed too violent because, coupled with the song’s lyrics, it really makes a powerful statement.

Willa:  I agree, it’s very powerful, and as with much of his later work, it also makes the personal political. It begins with a group of teenage girls filmed through a chain link fence. They’re all minority kids, and the fence suggests that they are imprisoned in some way – either literally imprisoned at a reform school or some place like that, or figuratively imprisoned in a social system that restricts their freedom and limits their potential.

As the girls begin to chant the chorus of “They Don’t Care About Us,” one of the girls says, “Don’t worry what people say. We know the truth.” To me, this clearly refers to the 1993 accusations against him, so he’s juxtaposing the lyrics of the song with the way he’s being treated by the police and the press. That’s what I meant when I said this song is “personal.”

Joie:  Oh, it’s no doubt that this song is very personal and obviously stems from the events of ’93.

Willa:  It seems that way to me too. But then he “makes the personal political” by situating his plight within the context of other scenes of oppression. He’s saying that the way he’s being treated isn’t an isolated incident – it’s part of a much larger pattern of systemic oppression. And in a country where a young Black man is more likely to go to prison than college, that is a crucially important point. Why are all those young men going to prison? Are they all criminals? He’s been falsely accused and painted as a criminal by the police and the press, but he’s innocent. Has that happened with other Black men as well? How widespread is this?

Joie:  All extremely good questions.

Willa:  So as with the young girls behind the chain-link fence in the opening shot, the prison can be interpreted both literally and figuratively as well – literally in that far too many young Black men are being incarcerated, and figuratively in that they are trapped in a society that presumes they are born guilty merely because of who they are.

However, he doesn’t make this a clear-cut Black and White issue. Most of the prisoners are Black or some other minority, but some are White. Most of the guards are White, but several are Black. In fact, at one point he shoves aside a guard’s billy club, and that guard is Black. And while he includes many scenes of oppressive White-on-Black violence, there are also scenes of Black-on-Black violence, and Asian-on-Asian violence, and two clips of a White truck driver being beaten by a circle of young Black men during the Rodney King riots. And when identifying leaders in the fight for justice, he cites Franklin Delano Roosevelt as well as Martin Luther King.

As in so much of his work, he’s talking about issues of race in a powerful and important way, but he refuses to simplify it down to an Us versus Them conflict, and he doesn’t align individuals with one side or the other based on physical signifiers such as skin color. Racial identity, including the physical signifiers of race, is an important element of the type of systemic oppression he’s targeting – hundreds of years of injustice and violence and prejudice make it important. But while he highlights that history of oppression and violence and forces us to look at it in ways that may make us uncomfortable, he nevertheless insists that everyone be judged by their behavior and beliefs, not their race or cultural identity. This isn’t simply a Black or White issue.

Joie:  You’re right, it’s not simply a Black or White issue and, while I believe the Prison version is the superior video for this song, the Brazil version does highlight the fact that it’s not strictly about race. It’s about the universal political issues of poverty, oppression and the abuse of human rights. And why is it that those three always seem to go together?

Willa:  Now there’s a good question.

Joie:  The video was shot in the shanty town of Dona Marta and reportedly there were about 1,500 policemen and 50 local residents acting as security guards to control the massive crowd of residents that came out to watch the filming. The government was overwhelmingly against the video being filmed there and an article printed in The New York Times  in February 1996 tells why:

Raw  sewage runs down the hills, sending nauseating odors like curses through the neighborhood. Drug dealers stand at checkpoints along winding alleys. This is the favela, or hillside slum, that the singer Michael Jackson will use as a backdrop for his music video, “They Don’t Care About Us.” The knowledge that the poverty here will be used as an international image of urban misery has sparked an emotional debate dividing the “Marvelous City,” as Rio likes to be called.

An “international image of urban misery.” That’s pretty strong language but, it’s entirely accurate.

Willa:  It’s especially striking compared with the “Marvelous City” that tourists see.

Joie:  An “international image of urban misery” is exactly what those scenes from the Brazil video have become, giving visibility to the poverty and oppression. You know, Michael was really good at throwing those ‘in-your-face’ punches in his music with songs like “Earth Song” and “They Don’t Care About Us,” and both the Brazil and the Prison videos are visual ‘in-your-face’ punches instead of musical ones.

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Joie, because it seems to me that challenging both psychological and institutional oppression and the many different forms of prejudice – especially racial prejudice – is a central theme throughout Michael Jackson’s work. But he doesn’t always address it in the same way. In fact, he uses several different approaches.   First, there are those really sexy videos from Don’t Stop til You Get Enough up through In the Closet where he’s presented as a sex symbol, which was a relatively new and provocative concept for a Black entertainer, especially a Black entertainer with cross-over appeal. There was Sidney Poitier, but he was always pretty buttoned up. I can’t really picture him ripping his shirt open like Michael Jackson does in Dirty Diana and Come Together. In all of these “sexy” videos, race is an issue whether he wants it to be or not – though I always felt he was very aware of what he was doing. In these videos, race is an issue because of who he is, and the character or persona he projects on screen.

Importantly, this kind of video abruptly ends after the 1993 accusations. To me, he always seemed a bit reluctant to portray himself as a sex symbol anyway, though he certainly handled it awfully well when he wanted to. (I’m thinking of Don’t Stop til You Get Enough at the moment. I do love that song….) But after 1993 he doesn’t put himself in that role any more. The one possible exception is You Are Not Alone, but there he’s with his wife and the mood is very different, and to me it conveys a totally different idea.

Joie:  Well, I gotta say that I completely disagree with you on that because for me, Blood on the Dance Floor is like watching MJ porn or something. That video does things to me that we should not be talking about in this blog!

Willa:  Heavens, Joie, you are incorrigible! You know, I can hardly listen to “Rock with You” any more because of you. I always loved that video because he just seemed like such a happy, exuberant kid. Then you clued me in to some of the lyrics and now I blush all over myself every time I hear it. Gracious….

Joie:  I merely suggested that the lyrics to “Rock with You” might not be all about dancing, that’s all! But seriously, you know, I’d really like to be able to say that my interest in Michael is purely intellectual but, we both know I couldn’t say that with a straight face. The fact is, there is an element to the music and the short films and the live performances that would make for a very steamy blog topic but, probably wouldn’t be very appropriate so, I’ll be a good little girl and behave myself.

Willa:  And I won’t mention that amazing poster with his boa constrictor draped over his shoulder. Oh my!

So anyway, there are these very sexy videos that present him as something entirely new in our national consciousness:  a Black teen idol, which is pretty radical if you think about it, and a major challenge to miscegenation customs and beliefs and how Black men were labeled and categorized in the past. There were a lot of White teenage girls out there thinking about Michael Jackson in ways that would have shocked our elders, and I know – I was one of them.

Then there’s the cycle of four videos set in the inner city: Beat It, Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, and Jam. The “inner city” is a term sociologists use to denote a lower income urban area with a predominately minority population, regardless of whether that area is in the middle of a city or not. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn’t. So in these videos, their setting designates race as an issue – and the Brazil version of They Don’t Care about Us fits within that as well. As with the “sexy” videos, evoking and reconfiguring racial tensions is a subtle but important undercurrent in all of these videos, and he handles that in very interesting ways.

And finally there are the videos where race is a thematic element and he confronts racial issues through the ideas he’s expressing. Sometimes it’s implicit, as we’ve talked about with You Rock My World for a couple of weeks now, and sometimes it’s more overt, as in Can You Feel It and Black or White. However, even in cases where his message is explicitly stated and seems more obvious, there’s still a lot to explore and discover as we’ve just seen with They Don’t Care about Us – the prison version, especially, which makes it so frustrating that it was banned.

The complexity of Michael Jackson’s work is one reason it was so misunderstood sometimes, but that’s also what makes it so endlessly fascinating – and I think it will help make it interesting and relevant to audiences for generations to come. His work continually surprises. And while it appears deceptively straightforward and transparent sometimes, it is never simple.

Roundtable: the MJ Academia Project

Willa:  A few weeks ago, Joie and I had a fascinating conversation with author Joe Vogel and investigative reporter Charles Thomson about Michael Jackson as a songwriter. That conversation focused on the musical aspects of his songwriting, so we decided to meet again to talk about Michael Jackson as a lyricist. However, when we sat down to talk, our discussion immediately took a left turn and developed in ways none of us had expected, but was very interesting to all of us. Here’s the discussion that followed …

*      *      *

Charles:  Have you been watching the Michael Jackson Academia Project videos? They’re magnificent. Joe spoke in the last session about how Michael’s lyrics weren’t always as great as his compositions, but those videos make a very strong argument that his lyrics were actually a lot more insightful and astute than people gave him credit for – especially on the HIStory album.

Joe:  The HIStory album, I’ve argued for years, contains some of MJ’s boldest and strongest work. It’s both his most personal album and his most political. I should clarify, since you mentioned his lyrics:  my case isn’t that Jackson’s lyrics aren’t “as great as his compositions.”  My argument is that his lyrics are augmented by their vocal delivery, supplemented by his non-verbal vocalizations, and enhanced by how they are performed and represented visually. So I think for the many critics who dismiss Jackson as a songwriter, these aspects of his artistry/creative expression need to be taken into account.

Now, regarding the MJAP videos, there are definitely things I like about what they’re doing. They take MJ’s work seriously, which is a good thing, and provide close readings of his work (I’d actually never heard the capitalist tycoon names mentioned in “Money”). They’re also quite well-made. However, for all the research that has clearly gone into them they do some things that are a bit confusing for an “academia project.” For example, they don’t attach their names to their work and from what I understand, aren’t affiliated with a university or academic organization. They also don’t cite sources that have already published the same information/interpretation in their videos, which is very important if it is going to be taken seriously outside the MJ fan community.

Joie:  I have to say that I agree with Joe on this point. I don’t understand why whoever is behind the MJAP videos seems reluctant to reveal themselves. It’s almost as if they’re hiding and I think Joe is correct in saying that they can’t really hope to be taken seriously outside of the MJ fan community if they’re unwilling to stand behind their work. Right now the videos, as great as they are, are really just preaching to the choir, so to speak.

Joe:  Also, I think in certain ways they lack context and nuance. For example, they make it seem like MJ was deeply entrenched in the Black Power movement of the 60s/70s. In one of the videos they imply that MJ was a member of, or in allegiance with the Black Panther Party; in another they quote Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam and a figure with an ideology far different than Michael’s. MJ believed deeply in social justice and equality, but never advocated Black supremacy, anti-semitism, or violence.

Willa:  That’s really interesting, Joe, because I don’t think those videos are saying that, and I don’t react to them that way at all. Maybe if the dominant narrative in the media was that Michael Jackson was an angry Black man, then I might agree that they portray him as too radical. But that isn’t the case. The dominant media image is that he was a deeply troubled Black man who was ashamed of his race – a shockingly false image. So I think they provide a much-needed counterweight.

Joe:  I think there’s some merit to that, Willa. Certainly there have been serious misunderstandings and false narratives about Jackson’s racial heritage and how that informs his identity and work. But for me, the counterweight shouldn’t be to present him as an ideologue who is aligned with Farrakhan and the Black Panthers. It should be to present him as a complex African American artist who refused to be boxed in, who constantly challenged, provoked and inspired us with his work. In certain ways, I feel the MJAP videos do that, and in certain ways they feel a bit simplistic and reductive to me.

Willa:  Wow, Joe, my response was just the opposite. I thought it was really interesting that the Academia Project showed the connections with Black Panther symbology and included the clip of Louis Farrakhan precisely because they are so different, or are perceived as being so ideologically different, from Michael Jackson.

In other words, Louis Farrakhan and Michael Jackson are two important cultural figures typically placed at opposite ends of the spectrum:  Farrakhan is portrayed as deeply divisive, a separatist, while Michael Jackson is portrayed as such an integrationist he actually wanted to be White. It’s a horrible distortion of who he was, but it’s out there. So to me, suggesting common ground between them really forces people to question their preconceived ideas about both. But showing they share some common ground doesn’t mean they’re identical. I can’t imagine anyone mistaking Michael Jackson for Louis Farrakhan. I just don’t see that.

Charles:  I think that if you listen to a song like “They Don’t Care About Us,” Michael discusses race in a clear ‘them and us’ sense. It’s right there in the title. He is juxtaposing ‘us’ – the subordinates – with ‘they’ – the establishment. He makes clear that the ‘us’ are racial minorities through other lyrics in the track. “Black man, blackmail / Throw  the brother in jail.” “I’m tired of being a victim of shame / You’re throwing me in a class with a bad name.” The use of the police radio message about the young Black man killed by police in a case of mistaken identity reinforces this position.

Then you look at the two videos which accompanied the song. The prison version shows the inmates to be almost unanimously Black. There are images of the KKK. In the Brazil version, he goosesteps and gives a Nazi salute. He stands on a balcony delivering a song based in part on Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream speech.’ There is little room for any interpretation besides that Jackson is railing against racism and identifying himself as a Black man and therefore a victim.

He reiterated this belief quite often in later years. There was the summit with Al Sharpton in 2002, where he slammed the music industry for ripping off Black artists and the media for attributing their innovations to their White contemporaries. Then there was the Jesse Jackson interview where he spoke very eloquently about the Jack Johnson story and compared himself to other Black luminaries who had been targeted by the establishment.

At the very least, I’d say Michael Jackson demonstrated conflicting ideologies on race. On the one hand, he spoke often about being ‘colour blind’ or wanting people of all races to come together. On the other, a lot of his music and his public speeches and interviews after the 1993 allegations demonstrated a deep belief that racism was very much alive and that he was a victim of it. He seemed to become more ‘militant’ after the 1993 allegations. His music spoke of police brutality, being targeted by the FBI, his prosecutor being aligned with the KKK, the media ‘lying to shame the race’. During his trial and even at the This Is It concert announcement, he would give the Black power salute. He surrounded himself with the Nation of Islam – led by Farrakhan.

I think it’s very difficult to dismiss the MJAP’s conclusions on this basis. I would also disagree with the comment that they don’t reference their work. Most of it seems to come from books, which they name explicitly in the videos.

Joe:  I’ll explain what I mean by not referencing their work. If they say that MJ’s Earth Song video was inspired by a Soviet propaganda film that looks somewhat similar, as a researcher, I just want to be able to look at where they discovered that information. Did it come from an interview? Did they have access to his archives? Or is it an educated guess based on other information? (The Triumph of the Will connection is more obvious.)

Charles:  The similarities are so striking that I’d be floored if it turned out it wasn’t an influence. Michael is dead now so it’s most likely we’ll never know for sure, but if the Earth Song video and concert performances weren’t based on that Soviet film, it’s one eerie coincidence.

Joe:  There are some striking similarities, but I’d say it’s about 50/50. Michael had a huge video archive and a personal archivist though, so it would certainly be possible to try to verify something like that.

One more example about citing:  much of what they explore in “Black or White” has been written about before (by Armond White, myself and others). So it would be customary in academia to credit ideas that have already been established so you aren’t charged with plagiarism. Of course, if these videos are primarily intended as “fan videos” these criticisms are less relevant.

Now let me go back, Charles, to the point you made about MJ engaging with race/racism:  I don’t disagree with the fact that Jackson became more politically radical and outspoken in his later career. There is no question that he was fighting against institutional racism and oppression/injustice in general. Where I disagree with MJAP (and you) is in the literalness of interpretation. For example, I see him morphing into a black panther as symbolic, not that he was secretly attending Black Panther meetings and sending out discrete codes to a specific political group. Similarly, with “They Don’t Care About Us,” I think he is identifying with the oppressed and speaking truth to power regardless of skin color or nationality. It is radical, but it has nothing to do with Nation of Islam or Louis Farrakhan (a man known for being racist, homophobic, anti-semitic, and many believe, partially responsible for the assassination of Malcolm X).

Like I said at the top, I think there is a lot to like about these videos – I think they have a lot of potential – but especially to reach outside the fan base (if that’s the goal) I think they could benefit from some nuance.

Joie:  Again, I completely agree with Joe here; I think the first MJAP video took a huge leap in suggesting that Michael was a member of, or at least in total support of both the Black Panther Party and Mr. Farrakhan simply because he morphed into a panther at the end of the “Black or White” video. And in “They Don’t Care About Us,” he is definitely “identifying with the oppressed,” as Joe put it, but ‘the oppressed’ come in many colors. As Willa and I discussed in our conversation about “They Don’t Care About Us,” this song/short film(s) is not simply a Black or White issue. It’s dealing with much more than that – poverty, the abuse of human rights, and yes, racism. And he did become much more outspoken on issues of race after 1993 and I agree that he felt very much victimized by the system. How could he not? But I don’t believe that it reveals some hidden connection to the Nation of Islam or Louis Farrakhan.

Willa:  But are these videos saying that? I don’t think so. They include a clip of Farrakhan on the Arsenio Hall show saying, “Michael is becoming politically mature. And he wants to use his political maturity, along with his wealth, to aid his people.” That’s it. To me, that shows that Louis Farrakhan has an opinion – a positive opinion – about Michael Jackson’s work and activism, but it doesn’t suggest anything more than that.

And I don’t think they are suggesting “he was secretly attending Black Panther meetings,” as you mentioned, Joe, or anything like that. I didn’t get that from the videos at all. To me, Michael Jackson’s work is this incredible tapestry that weaves together threads from many different sources. And the first Academia Project video highlights some of the Black Panther imagery in his work and traces a few of those threads. I thought that was fascinating, and it helped me appreciate a part of the tapestry I hadn’t focused on before. But I never thought they were saying he was literally a Black Panther. I just don’t see that.

Joie:  No, I’m not saying these videos are suggesting that. I don’t think that. I’m simply disagreeing with Charles’ assessment that the MJAP’s conclusions on this matter are difficult to dismiss.

That said, I do agree that the videos are really wonderful in their own way. They are very well researched and well thought out. Whoever is behind them has obviously put a great deal of time and effort into creating them and they could have a lot of potential if they were reaching the right people. Right now, they are limited to making the rounds of the MJ fan community, which is fine as there are still a lot of fans out there – especially the new fans – who maybe aren’t aware of the extent of what Michael went through and how biased the media coverage was. But in order to be really effective in changing the conversation about him, the videos need to reach a wider, more mainstream audience.

Joe:  These are very good points, Joie. I think, what I hope at least, are my constructive criticisms stem from exactly what you’re talking about:  becoming more credible so they can reach a broader audience. In fact, I think this third video they did was by far their best effort. So let me go back quickly to something Willa said. You mentioned that the Farrakhan quote is interesting because it speaks positively about Michael’s work and activism. I actually agree (mostly) with what Farrakhan is saying in this clip. But for me, again, it’s about credibility. Using Farrakhan to establish a point will actually work the opposite direction for 99% of people.

With the Black Panther stuff, I would personally just like to see more nuanced interpretation so its taken seriously in an academic context. I think they provide much more compelling interpretation when they write about how Jackson is reversing certain symbolism to opposite ends (a la the HIStory teaser and Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will).

Joie:  I agree completely with what you just said about Farrakhan and credibility. The fact is, the very sight of him turns a lot of people off and using him to establish a point or to try and persuade others to your point of view is risky and could be counterproductive.

Willa:  He is really polarizing, and I understand what you and Joe are saying, Joie. But as I said before, I think it’s really interesting and worthwhile to juxtapose Michael Jackson and Louis Farrakhan precisely because they are so different. It’s like seeing Michael Jackson on the steps of the White House with Ronald Reagan. My response is always, Wow, what a contrast! Yet they shared some common ground. That image doesn’t lead me to assume that Michael Jackson is a closet conservative and secretly funneling money to the Republican Party. Not at all. And I don’t think that about Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam either.

It’s true that Louis Farrakhan has said some things I strongly disagree with. So did Ronald Reagan, for that matter. But I don’t think the answer is to try to stuff Farrakhan in a box in the closet and pretend he doesn’t exist. Instead, I think he should be one of a collage of people who supported Michael Jackson in some way. I think it’s incredible that one person appealed to both Ronald Reagan and Louis Farrakhan, Nelson Mandela and Elizabeth Taylor, fans from the U.S. to Japan, Africa to Ireland. That’s wonderful to me.

Charles:  I don’t think the MJAP videos in any way imply that Michael Jackson was secretly attending Black Panther meetings or anything of that nature. I think they just demonstrate that his work, even prior to the allegations, was laced with political and racial commentary which was completely ignored by the critics.

Willa:  Exactly.

Charles:  I agree that using Farrakhan as a source is not going to win anybody over because the man has shown himself repeatedly to be a racist and a loon. I remember being very alarmed a while back to see fans passing around an hour or more of Farrakhan ‘preaching’ about Michael Jackson in church. During the sermon, he interpreted “They Don’t Care About Us” as a targeted assault on Jewish people and praised Michael for having the balls to express his anti-Semitic beliefs. But Farrakhan is just one of many sources used to support the point being made by the MJAP creators and I certainly agree with him that Michael Jackson’s treatment was at least partly racially motivated. If the whole thing hinged on Farrakhan, it’d be another matter – but that’s not the case.

I also disagree that the lyrics to TDCAU aren’t about any specific race. The line, “Black man, blackmail (black male) / Throw  the brother in jail” is pretty blunt, especially in tandem with the police radio message at the beginning of the track and comments throughout the rest of the album, such as “In the hood / Frame him if you could… In the black / Stab him in the back / In the face / To lie and shame the race.”

Willa:  But in the videos – the prison version, especially – the visuals complicate those lyrics. Most of the prisoners are Black, but some are White or American Indian or some other minority. Most of the guards are White, but several are Black. And I’m really struck by the fact that when he gets angry and shoves aside a guard’s billy club, that guard is Black. What that says to me is that while he’s fighting racism, as you say, it’s institutional racism, and he opposes anyone who supports that institutional racism, regardless of whether that individual is White or Black. He’s evaluating people by their beliefs and actions, not their skin color, and that’s a message he consistently expressed throughout his life.

There are also newsreel-type visuals of some fairly horrific violence – so horrific MTV refused to show this version before 9 at night. And while many of those scenes focus on images of the Ku Klux Klan or White-on-Black racial violence, there are also scenes of a White truck driver being severely beaten by young Black men during the Rodney King riots. And some of the most graphic scenes are war footage from Southeast Asia. So again, he’s fighting racism, but not in a simplistic Black versus White sort of way.

And I don’t think the lyrics are a simplistic Black versus White either. Here are those notorious lyrics that were so badly misinterpreted by a few outspoken people like Stephen Spielberg and Louis Farrakhan (speaking of strange bedfellows):

Beat me, hate me
You can never break me
Will me, thrill me
You can never kill me
 
Jew  me, sue me
Everybody do me
Kick me, kike me
Don’t you black or white me

He’s clearly fighting anti-Semitism in these lyrics, I believe, which is why it’s so galling that he was charged with anti-Semitism because of them. So this isn’t just about race. And when identifying leaders in the fight for justice, he says, “if Roosevelt was living / He wouldn’t let this be.” The next time he sings this verse, he replaces “Roosevelt” with “Martin Luther,” suggesting that the torch of civil rights was carried and passed on by many hands, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt as well as Martin Luther King, Jr.

So I think it’s an oversimplification to reduce this work down to simply Us versus Them. As Michael Jackson himself says, “Don’t you black or white me.”

Joe:  Exactly, Willa. This is what I think is so important:  Michael’s creative life and work, to me, is about getting beyond these air-tight oppositions. He always provides these shifting tensions. He was constantly pushing his audience, even in his protest songs, to consider the various faces cruelty, bigotry and injustice can take. He wasn’t calling for “black power” to replace “white power.” That’s the way the Bush’s and Farrakhan’s see the world. Us versus them. White versus Black. Christians versus Muslims. It’s more complex than that. Malcolm X began to realize that in his final years; MLK knew it; Michael Jackson knew it. He knew the history of White supremacy in America. He also knew about other forms of bigotry and cruelty, whether because of appearance, gender, sexuality, class, religion, illness or any other difference. But he fought such discrimination with rich, complex, syncretic art, not ideological dogma.

Joie:  And Willa and I just want to point out that you can find a link to the MJ Academia Project videos in our Reading Room. But for now, you can just click here.

Some Things in Life They Just Don’t Want to See

Joie:  So, last week we began a discussion about how Michael Jackson dealt with race issues and in particular, his fight for racial equality in his work, and we talked a little bit about Can You Feel It, which was the first video that he ever had a hand in creating the concept for. And in thinking about all of his videos and his response to racial prejudice, I can’t stop thinking about They Don’t Care About Us.

You know, before the HIStory album was even released, critics were labeling this song racist and anti-Semitic because of the lyrics, “Jew  me, sue me, everybody do me / Kick me, kike me, don’t you Black or White me.” And Michael actually took offense to that because he felt he had written a song that drew public awareness to the ridiculousness of racism and prejudice. He even issued a statement saying,

“The idea that these lyrics could be deemed objectionable is extremely hurtful to me, and misleading. The song, in fact, is about the pain of prejudice and hate, and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems. I am the voice of the accused and the attacked. I am the voice of everyone. I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the Black man, I am the White man. I am not the one who was attacking… I am angry and outraged that I could be so misinterpreted.”

But even after his explanation the heat wouldn’t let up so he finally went back into the studio and re-recorded the lyrics. And even though both videos for the song still have the original lyrics, the offending words are masked by obscure sounds over top of them.

What intrigues me is that, I think this is probably the one and only time that Michael was ever accused of being a racist himself and it’s just sort of odd to me that anyone could look at his overall body of work up to that point and accuse him of anti-Semitism. I mean, even Sony at the time came to his defense and called the lyrics brilliant, saying that the song was an opposition to racism and had been taken out of context.

Willa:  And Sony was right. The lyrics are actually confronting anti-Semitism, not endorsing it, and that should be obvious to anyone who listens to the lyrics. Yet even Michael Jackson’s friends Steven Spielberg and David Geffen criticized the song, saying it was offensive.

I was really disappointed in Spielberg’s response, especially. As a director whose own work has been misunderstood on occasion, he should be a little more insightful than that. For him to suggest that Michael Jackson is anti-Semitic because of these lyrics is simplistic and a gross misinterpretation. I mean, Spielberg has Nazis in his film, Shindler’s List, and they aren’t just one-dimensional characters, and presented as uniformly terrible people. The film is more nuanced than that. So does that mean Spielberg is a Nazi sympathizer? Of course not. Spielberg isn’t endorsing Nazis – just the opposite, he’s critiquing their beliefs, obviously – and that’s exactly what Michael Jackson was doing in the original lyrics of “They Don’t Care about Us.”

Joie:  I agree with you about Spielberg’s response; he should have been much more insightful but instead, it felt like he was just jumping on the bandwagon.

Willa:  It really did. You know, Spike Lee, who directed the videos for “They Don’t Care about Us,” talked about the controversy in a very interesting interview with The Guardian. He was actually asked about a different controversy – Quentin Tarantino’s use of racial epithets in his film, Jackie Brown. Spike Lee had spoken out about it, calling it “excessive,” and then was roundly criticized for criticizing Tarantino. So The Guardian asked Spike Lee if he regretted his comments. Here’s an excerpt from that interview:

“Oh, I don’t regret that at all. And to put the record straight, because a lot of people never got the whole story… I never said that Quentin Tarantino should not be allowed to use the word nigger. My contention was that his use of it was excessive. You know, Harvey Weinstein [co-founder of Miramax, Jackie Brown’s financiers] called me up and said he wished I’d leave this thing alone. And I said, ‘Harvey – would you ever release a film that on so many occasions used the word kike? He just cleared his throat and said, ‘No.’ So, it’s like, ‘Oh – you can’t say kike but nigger is OK?’ ”  

He lets the question hang. But he’s not done yet.

“And then of course they say, ‘But Tarantino’s an artist, he’s just expressing himself.’ Well, if we’re talking about artists, let’s talk about…”  

Everything slows with the realization of what’s coming next.  

“Michael Jackson. Because, forgetting all that other shit for a minute, in the song ‘They Don’t Care About Us,’ Michael Jackson said ‘Sue me, Jew  me, Kick me, Kike me.’ What happened? He was ripped apart by Spielberg and David Geffen, and the record was pulled from the stores. So, Quentin Tarantino says nigger and he’s an artist, but Michael Jackson says kike and it can’t be exposed to the public?”  

That’s a really long quotation, but I think it raises several important issues:  not only are different groups, and the sensitivities of different groups, treated differently, but different artists are interpreted differently as well.

Many critics see Tarantino’s films as crossing the divide between high art and popular art, and that affects how they interpret his work:  he is given the respect due an artist, and therefore is allowed a certain artistic license to challenge social norms. But most critics dismiss Michael Jackson as “just” a pop musician, so his work is interpreted very differently. When he challenges social norms, it’s treated like an offensive publicity stunt. That’s why I think it’s so interesting and important that Spike Lee says, “Well, if we’re talking about artists, let’s talk about … [long pause] … Michael Jackson.” His point is right on target, I think.

Joie:  I think so too; I loved that quote. But, you know, it wasn’t just the song’s lyrics that came under fire for racism, it was also the video itself – or I should say videos, plural – as this is also the first time that Michael ever made more than one video for a particular song. Interestingly, both versions of the video came under fire for what you could call racial / political reasons.

As you said, both videos were directed by Spike Lee and supposedly, the Brazil version was filmed first but Michael wasn’t very happy with the finished product. So they shot the Prison version, which was reportedly filmed in a real prison with actual inmates. This is the version that was originally released but critics and others thought it was way too violent. The video was banned in several countries. And in the US, MTV and VH1 would only allow it to be shown after 9pm. So Michael withdrew the video and released the Brazil version instead.

The Brazil version was fraught with controversy because authorities in that country were afraid that images of poverty in the areas where Michael wanted to film would do damage to their tourism trade and they accused him of exploiting the poor. A judge in that country even ruled that all filming be stopped but that ruling was overturned by an injunction. I can understand why they were afraid. I mean, I think the visuals in that video really serve to highlight the poverty and social problems in countries like Brazil but, I wouldn’t call it exploitation on Michael’s part. I think he was just trying to draw attention to their plight. But it’s my opinion that this version of the video really doesn’t serve the song very well and I think Michael obviously felt that way too, seeing as how he started over and shot the Prison version.

The Prison version paints a much better picture of what the song is all about; it features real footage of police brutality against African Americans, real footage of the Ku Klux Klan and footage of violence and genocide in other parts of the world. We also see Michael himself behind bars wearing a prison uniform, handcuffed and shackled, sitting in a prison commissary with real prison inmates – many of them Black or members of other minorities. And if you examine the lyrics of the song, these were all points that Michael really wanted to make so, to me, the Prison version is so much more effective than the Brazil version in terms of evoking the feeling that Michael was going for. In fact, when describing the song, Michael himself said,

“‘They Don’t Care About Us’ has an edge. It’s a public awareness song…. It’s a protest kind of song.”

I just think it’s a shame that this version was deemed too violent because, coupled with the song’s lyrics, it really makes a powerful statement.

Willa:  I agree, it’s very powerful, and as with much of his later work, it also makes the personal political. It begins with a group of teenage girls filmed through a chain link fence. They’re all minority kids, and the fence suggests that they are imprisoned in some way – either literally imprisoned at a reform school or some place like that, or figuratively imprisoned in a social system that restricts their freedom and limits their potential.

As the girls begin to chant the chorus of “They Don’t Care About Us,” one of the girls says, “Don’t worry what people say. We know the truth.” To me, this clearly refers to the 1993 accusations against him, so he’s juxtaposing the lyrics of the song with the way he’s being treated by the police and the press. That’s what I meant when I said this song is “personal.”

Joie:  Oh, it’s no doubt that this song is very personal and obviously stems from the events of ’93.

Willa:  It seems that way to me too. But then he “makes the personal political” by situating his plight within the context of other scenes of oppression. He’s saying that the way he’s being treated isn’t an isolated incident – it’s part of a much larger pattern of systemic oppression. And in a country where a young Black man is more likely to go to prison than college, that is a crucially important point. Why are all those young men going to prison? Are they all criminals? He’s been falsely accused and painted as a criminal by the police and the press, but he’s innocent. Has that happened with other Black men as well? How widespread is this?

Joie:  All extremely good questions.

Willa:  So as with the young girls behind the chain-link fence in the opening shot, the prison can be interpreted both literally and figuratively as well – literally in that far too many young Black men are being incarcerated, and figuratively in that they are trapped in a society that presumes they are born guilty merely because of who they are.

However, he doesn’t make this a clear-cut Black and White issue. Most of the prisoners are Black or some other minority, but some are White. Most of the guards are White, but several are Black. In fact, at one point he shoves aside a guard’s billy club, and that guard is Black. And while he includes many scenes of oppressive White-on-Black violence, there are also scenes of Black-on-Black violence, and Asian-on-Asian violence, and two clips of a White truck driver being beaten by a circle of young Black men during the Rodney King riots. And when identifying leaders in the fight for justice, he cites Franklin Delano Roosevelt as well as Martin Luther King.

As in so much of his work, he’s talking about issues of race in a powerful and important way, but he refuses to simplify it down to an Us versus Them conflict, and he doesn’t align individuals with one side or the other based on physical signifiers such as skin color. Racial identity, including the physical signifiers of race, is an important element of the type of systemic oppression he’s targeting – hundreds of years of injustice and violence and prejudice make it important. But while he highlights that history of oppression and violence and forces us to look at it in ways that may make us uncomfortable, he nevertheless insists that everyone be judged by their behavior and beliefs, not their race or cultural identity. This isn’t simply a Black or White issue.

Joie:  You’re right, it’s not simply a Black or White issue and, while I believe the Prison version is the superior video for this song, the Brazil version does highlight the fact that it’s not strictly about race. It’s about the universal political issues of poverty, oppression and the abuse of human rights. And why is it that those three always seem to go together?

Willa:  Now there’s a good question.

Joie:  The video was shot in the shanty town of Dona Marta and reportedly there were about 1,500 policemen and 50 local residents acting as security guards to control the massive crowd of residents that came out to watch the filming. The government was overwhelmingly against the video being filmed there and an article printed in The New York Times  in February 1996 tells why:

Raw  sewage runs down the hills, sending nauseating odors like curses through the neighborhood. Drug dealers stand at checkpoints along winding alleys. This is the favela, or hillside slum, that the singer Michael Jackson will use as a backdrop for his music video, “They Don’t Care About Us.” The knowledge that the poverty here will be used as an international image of urban misery has sparked an emotional debate dividing the “Marvelous City,” as Rio likes to be called.

An “international image of urban misery.” That’s pretty strong language but, it’s entirely accurate.

Willa:  It’s especially striking compared with the “Marvelous City” that tourists see.

Joie:  An “international image of urban misery” is exactly what those scenes from the Brazil video have become, giving visibility to the poverty and oppression. You know, Michael was really good at throwing those ‘in-your-face’ punches in his music with songs like “Earth Song” and “They Don’t Care About Us,” and both the Brazil and the Prison videos are visual ‘in-your-face’ punches instead of musical ones.

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Joie, because it seems to me that challenging both psychological and institutional oppression and the many different forms of prejudice – especially racial prejudice – is a central theme throughout Michael Jackson’s work. But he doesn’t always address it in the same way. In fact, he uses several different approaches.

First, there are those really sexy videos from Don’t Stop til You Get Enough up through In the Closet where he’s presented as a sex symbol, which was a relatively new and provocative concept for a Black entertainer, especially a Black entertainer with cross-over appeal. There was Sidney Poitier, but he was always pretty buttoned up. I can’t really picture him ripping his shirt open like Michael Jackson does in Dirty Diana and Come Together. In all of these “sexy” videos, race is an issue whether he wants it to be or not – though I always felt he was very aware of what he was doing. In these videos, race is an issue because of who he is, and the character or persona he projects on screen.

Importantly, this kind of video abruptly ends after the 1993 accusations. To me, he always seemed a bit reluctant to portray himself as a sex symbol anyway, though he certainly handled it awfully well when he wanted to. (I’m thinking of Don’t Stop til You Get Enough at the moment. I do love that song….) But after 1993 he doesn’t put himself in that role any more. The one possible exception is You Are Not Alone, but there he’s with his wife and the mood is very different, and to me it conveys a totally different idea.

Joie:  Well, I gotta say that I completely disagree with you on that because for me, Blood on the Dance Floor is like watching MJ porn or something. That video does things to me that we should not be talking about in this blog!

Willa:  Heavens, Joie, you are incorrigible! You know, I can hardly listen to “Rock with You” any more because of you. I always loved that video because he just seemed like such a happy, exuberant kid. Then you clued me in to some of the lyrics and now I blush all over myself every time I hear it. Gracious….

Joie:  I merely suggested that the lyrics to “Rock with You” might not be all about dancing, that’s all! But seriously, you know, I’d really like to be able to say that my interest in Michael is purely intellectual but, we both know I couldn’t say that with a straight face. The fact is, there is an element to the music and the short films and the live performances that would make for a very steamy blog topic but, probably wouldn’t be very appropriate so, I’ll be a good little girl and behave myself.

Willa:  And I won’t mention that amazing poster with his boa constrictor draped over his shoulder. Oh my!

So anyway, there are these very sexy videos that present him as something entirely new in our national consciousness:  a Black teen idol, which is pretty radical if you think about it, and a major challenge to miscegenation customs and beliefs and how Black men were labeled and categorized in the past. There were a lot of White teenage girls out there thinking about Michael Jackson in ways that would have shocked our elders, and I know – I was one of them.

Then there’s the cycle of four videos set in the inner city: Beat It, Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, and Jam. The “inner city” is a term sociologists use to denote a lower income urban area with a predominately minority population, regardless of whether that area is in the middle of a city or not. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn’t. So in these videos, their setting designates race as an issue – and the Brazil version of They Don’t Care about Us fits within that as well. As with the “sexy” videos, evoking and reconfiguring racial tensions is a subtle but important undercurrent in all of these videos, and he handles that in very interesting ways.

And finally there are the videos where race is a thematic element and he confronts racial issues through the ideas he’s expressing. Sometimes it’s implicit, as we’ve talked about with You Rock My World for a couple of weeks now, and sometimes it’s more overt, as in Can You Feel It and Black or White. However, even in cases where his message is explicitly stated and seems more obvious, there’s still a lot to explore and discover as we’ve just seen with They Don’t Care about Us – the prison version, especially, which makes it so frustrating that it was banned.

The complexity of Michael Jackson’s work is one reason it was so misunderstood sometimes, but that’s also what makes it so endlessly fascinating – and I think it will help make it interesting and relevant to audiences for generations to come. His work continually surprises. And while it appears deceptively straightforward and transparent sometimes, it is never simple.