Willa: Last April Nina Fonoroff joined me for an interesting discussion about Billie Jean and Michael Jackson’s use of film noir. After that post went up, Elizabeth Amisu posted a couple of comments here and here about “neo-noir” in both Billie Jean and especially Who Is It. I was very intrigued by this since I’d never even heard of neo-noir, so I began talking with Elizabeth about it, and she very generously provided me with some introductory reading to help bring me up to speed – though I’m still very much a neophyte.
So today, Lisha and I are excited to be joined by both Elizabeth and Karin Merx to talk about neo-noir and how it can provide new ways of seeing and thinking about Who Is It, Billie Jean, Smooth Criminal, and other short films. Elizabeth is a lecturer of English Literature and Film Studies, and her ongoing academic research focuses on “high-status representations of black people” in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Her book, The Dangerous Philosophies of Michael Jackson: His Music, His Persona, and His Artistic Afterlife, is being published by Praeger in August. Karin is both an academic and a classically trained musician, and she is currently completing her doctoral research in Art History. Last year she published an essay on Michael Jackson’s Stranger in Moscow. Together, Elizabeth and Karin co-founded and co-edit the Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies, which is a wonderful resource for anyone wanting to learn more about Michael Jackson’s art.
Thank you so much for joining us, Elizabeth and Karin! I’m really eager to learn more about neo-noir and how you see it functioning in Michael Jackson’s short films.
Elizabeth: Thank you very much for having us here on Dancing with the Elephant, Willa. It’s a real pleasure to have this conversation with you.
Karin: Thank you, Willa, for having us.
Willa: Oh, I really appreciate the chance to talk with both of you and learn more about this! So what exactly is neo-noir? I know from my conversations with Nina that noir can be really difficult to define. So how do you identify neo-noir when you see it, and how is it different from noir?
Elizabeth: That’s a very good place to start, Willa, because noir forces us to really question the way we define genre in the first place. It includes titles like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, and a whole series of Hollywood films released between 1941 and 1958, whose dark subject matter and cinematic style reflected the negative mood during and after World War II. Noir has easily recognisable and distinctive visual and thematic features, such as a striking use of silhouettes, low-key lighting, femme fatales, confessional voiceovers and dangerous urban landscapes.
Neo-noir, however, emerged in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and it comes in lots of forms, from modern-day attempts at pure noir films, to science-fiction and thrillers. A few key titles are The Usual Suspects, Blade Runner, L.A. Confidential, Se7en, Sin City, and one of my particular favourites, Drive. However, one of the most humorous places to see a noir-style pastiche is the American Dad episode, Star Trek.
Willa: Wow, Elizabeth, that list covers a really broad range. It sounds like neo-noir can be even more difficult to pin down than noir itself …
Elizabeth: Yep, you are so right. It’s that slipperiness of the term which causes so much debate. However, I think that’s what makes noir so fun for discussion. There is never a simple or straightforward answer. One cool thing about noir-style is that it translates across other genres, so Blade Runner is science-fiction, Se7en is a crime thriller, and The Usual Suspects is more of a mystery.
Lisha: Whoa. Hold up for a second here, because I’ll admit that when it comes to film noir, I still think of the instantly recognizable black-and-white Hollywood movie formula with all the cigarette smoking and a private detective in a snap-brim hat tracking down a bunch of shady characters. So can you tell us just a little more about the issues that make noir so difficult to pin down as a genre or style?
Elizabeth: You have a point, Lisha. For a lot of people noir is superficial, but for others noir’s heart lies in its themes rather than the visuals. The word does, however, mean “black film” and it actually grew out of the German Expressionism movement. The films were initially dark because of low-budget requirements.
In Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder (Willa and Nina’s discussion on Billie Jean featured it) the real darkness was found in the idea that the nicest guy in the world, Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray), found himself moving down a path of destruction. There’s a line he says, “I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.” He loses himself entirely because he thinks he can commit murder and get away with it.
That loss of self is very noir. So it’s the head-game, the psychological downfall, which always makes a noir film so compelling.
Lisha: Why do you think noir has been so irresistible for generations of filmmakers to copy as neo-noir? What accounts for its long-lasting appeal?
Elizabeth: That’s hard to say. It’s definitely true that the noir movement ended before the sixties. It just didn’t chime with the popularity of free love and liberation. However, when there’s a significant downturn, political intrigue, war and espionage, noir-style and noir-themes show up time and again.
Karin: Styles or tendencies are often revisited by artists, hence the word “neo,” from “neos” meaning “young” in the Greek. So we have words like “neo-expressionism.”
Elizabeth: Of course everyone knows the character Neo from the film, The Matrix. He is the “one,” the young saviour.
Willa: That’s interesting. So it sounds like filmmakers – and audiences too – are drawn to noir and neo-noir when they’re feeling anxious, like during a war or recession or other social unrest.
Lisha: It’s as if social events dictate when artistic themes become relevant again.
Karin: Yes, Willa and Lisha, artists are sensitive to what happens in society, and often use the general dissatisfaction with what is going on in their art. Sometimes even ahead of time.
Willa: Like when the panther dance in Black or White seemed to anticipate the Rodney King riots, as Joe Vogel pointed out in his article, “I Ain’t Scared of No Sheets: Re-screening Black Masculinity in Michael Jackson’s Black or White.”
Lisha: Great example, Willa.
Elizabeth: Also, a noir-style film can be quite compelling on a relatively low budget, which also makes them quite appealing for filmmakers. We are now a far more complex and savvy film-going audience, so a traditional noir film may not appeal to viewers as much as a sexy nostalgic homage (a respectful and admiring nod) to the past, as in L.A. Confidential.
Lisha: That’s true. Movie-goers have come to expect extremely high production values. Although I suspect some of the old films noirs still enjoy some popularity by intersecting with our notion of the “classic.”
Eliza, you also mentioned the term “noir-style pastiche,” so I’m wondering how we might define the term “pastiche.”
Elizabeth: A pastiche is how we term a work of art that is mostly an imitation of another. One film that always ends up in pastiche is the epic film, Spartacus, with people saying, “I am Spartacus!” A pastiche is usually a celebration rather than a mocking of source material. Imitation for comic effect is parody.
Lisha: That’s a good point to keep in mind, that imitation can take many forms – from a nostalgic homage to a parody or spoof. So would you say neo-noir is roughly equivalent to noir-style pastiche? Or does pastiche require a recognizable intertextual reference to a specific work?
Elizabeth: Yes, it would be very apt to refer to neo-noir as film noir in pastiche. Several neo-noir films reference quite specific works but that is not necessary to term a work a pastiche.
Karin: I agree, Elizabeth. Also pastiche is more something we use in postmodernism, by way of using elements we all recognise but put in another context.
Lisha: A tricky example might be Michael Jackson’s engagement with film noir in This Is It. In his Smooth Criminal vignette, he doesn’t imitate the genre as much as he literally inserts himself into noir classics like Gilda and The Big Sleep. Here’s a link:
Elizabeth: It’s so interesting that you say this, Lisha, because I was writing about this in my final edit of my book this morning. I dedicate an entire chapter to Jackson’s use of fashion, and in it I write about how he really made himself part of HIStory by integrating his image into that of classic Hollywood cinema. There’s something so warm and sumptuous about 1930s to 1950s cinema and it’s so clear from Smooth Criminal that this was his intention, to place himself within a classic era in the minds of his viewers.
Willa: Yes, I agree, though it’s also interesting to think about what might have attracted him in terms of the themes of Gilda and The Big Sleep, where nothing is as it seems and we’re never sure who we can trust.
Eliza: I didn’t even think of that. You are so right, Willa. That theme of “trust” is one of the most overarching themes in Jackson’s work, don’t you think? I thought of the moment in Smooth Criminal when the man with the pinstripe suit tries to stab him in the back.
Willa: Wow, what an incredible image! And this screen shot does look very noir, especially when frozen in time like this.
Lisha: It really does. Even though the film is in color, it still manages to capture the shadowy chiaroscuro lighting associated with black and white noir.
And that’s a perfect example, Eliza, on the theme of “trust.” It’s as if Michael Jackson’s character has grown eyes in the back of his head from having to constantly watch his back. Now that you mention it, I do think “trust” is an important overarching theme in Michael Jackson’s work. I’m surprised I hadn’t thought about it before.
Willa, didn’t you identify “Annie, are you ok?” as sort of anti-noir, in that it is a gesture of care and concern for the female character, Annie, rather than an assumption that she is a dangerous femme fatale who needs to be killed off by the heroic male protagonist? In this example, Michael Jackson engages with the film noir theme of distrust, while sharply departing from it at the same time.
Willa: Yes, so this is another kind of imitation – neither homage nor parody, but evoking a classic work from the past in order to rewrite it.
Lisha: That is such a fascinating and inspiring idea. I noticed another gendered anti-noir move in Smooth Criminal, in the instrumental break, when we see a beautiful female jazz saxophone player on the bandstand.
Musically speaking, jazz saxophone is the apotheosis of all noir cliches, and it strongly codes male. In film noir, the saxophone is typically heard when a sexy female appears on screen, as a sort of male cat call. In Smooth Criminal we never actually hear a saxophone – there’s no saxophone in the song – but we see a sax player onstage as a visual imitation of noir. However, it isn’t one of the boys in the band as we might expect. It’s a beautiful female musician looking somewhat glamorous in her fancy dress.
This strikes me as going against the way jazz saxophone is generically used in film noir. The image of a female saxophone player both engages our memory of film noir and disrupts it at the same time.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha. It’s kind of similar to how he used Jennifer Batten and Orianthi in concert to both evoke and disrupt our ideas about hard rock guitarists.
Lisha: That’s exactly what I was thinking!
Of course many fans understand Smooth Criminal as a specific intertextual reference to “Girl Hunt Ballet,” the play-within-a-movie from Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon. I think most Michael Jackson insiders would rightly point to Smooth Criminal as a heart-felt homage to Fred Astaire.
Willa: Yes, and one of the first things Fred Astaire’s character says in “Girl Hunt” is “Somewhere in a furnished room a guy was practicing on a horn. It was a lonesome sound. It crawled on my spine.” Which could evoke an image of a saxophone …
Lisha: You’re so right, Willa! That scene highlights what an important element jazz is in classic film noir. Although I do believe it is a trumpet player in that scene, not a sax player, if I remember correctly.
Willa: Oh, you’re right. I should know better than to trust my memory! I just watched that opening scene again, and we do hear a trumpet playing in the background, and even catch a glimpse of it through an open window. Here’s a clip of “Girl Hunt Ballet,” and the trumpet appears about a minute in:
Lisha: The Band Wagon is pretty interesting in and of itself, because I think we could interpret “Girl Hunt Ballet” as a noir-style pastiche, even though it was made in 1953, during the same time period classic films noirs were still being made.
So I wonder if pastiche plays an important role in genre formation itself, since pastiche identifies the specific elements that are needed for a successful imitation?
Willa: Wow, that’s a really interesting idea, Lisha! It reminds me of Lorena Turner’s work with Michael Jackson impersonators, and how they lead us to a better understanding of Michael Jackson’s iconography. What exactly is needed to “be” Michael Jackson? Through the impersonators Lorena photographed, it becomes clear that you really don’t need to physically look like Michael Jackson, his face and body – you simply need a glove, a fedora, and a distinctive pose, for example, or maybe a red leather jacket with a strong V cut.
So those “imitators” help us identify what is essential about Michael Jackson’s star text, just as you suggest that pastiche (like neo-noir) helps us identify what is essential to a given genre (like noir).
Lisha: Exactly! Perhaps we should think of Smooth Criminal as a noir pastiche of a noir pastiche?
Willa: Wow. So you’re saying that neo-noir is a pastiche of noir, and Smooth Criminal is a pastiche of neo-noir, so it’s a noir pastiche of a noir pastiche? Do I have that right?
Lisha: Too funny! Yes, I think I just suggested something crazy like that.
Willa: Ok, I’m really going to have to think about that … but it does sound like the kind of loop-de-loop reference that Michael Jackson loved …
So a director who is frequently mentioned in discussions of neo-noir is David Fincher, who directed Michael Jackson’s Who Is It video in 1993. For complicated reasons that aren’t very clear, there were actually two videos made for Who Is It. Joie talked about this a little bit in a post we did a couple years ago. The second version is simply a montage of concert and video clips, but for some reason it seems to be the “official” one – for example, it’s the one that was released in the US when the song debuted, and it’s the version available on the Michael Jackson channel of Vevo.
So the David Fincher version has not been widely viewed and can be a little difficult to find online, but here’s an HD version of it on YouTube:
Elizabeth: It’s relevant that the Who Is It short film included in the Dangerous Short Films anthology was the one Fincher directed.
Willa: That’s true, and it’s in the Vision boxed set also, so it has some degree of official acceptance. That’s a good point, Elizabeth.
So I love this short film, and it does have a very noir-ish feel to it, doesn’t it? What are some specific visual elements you see in Who Is It that help create that noir-type mood or feeling?
Elizabeth: It uses many of the specific visual elements Fincher used in his feature films in the following years – Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999) and much later, The Social Network (2010) – such as the repeated use of low-key lighting throughout the sequences to create an ominous tone and a sense of foreboding. Fincher also uses stark white light, as in the scene towards the end with the female character weeping, or he uses very muted lighting, where fluorescent bulbs don’t really illuminate the corners of the space.
Willa: Yes, and that’s pretty unusual, isn’t it? For example, here’s a screen capture from about 5:20 minutes, when the female lead is at the gate and the manager character won’t let her in. You can see that the edges of the shot are dark and uneven, as if the picture field weren’t fully exposed.
There are also scenes where the light is coming from below, which is pretty unsettling. We’re used to light coming from above, like sunlight, and we rarely see faces, especially, lit from below, unless it’s a 50s-style horror movie. Here’s a screen capture from about 4:20 minutes in with the light shining up from under the character’s faces:
It really makes them look eerie and artificial, like store mannequins.
Elizabeth: The store mannequins, oh yes. Nice observation, Willa. And that whole idea links to this sense of being plastic and fake, not quite real. We can’t quite trust what they say because, although they seem human, they aren’t. And this extends to the words they say and the theme of the song. In terms of the lighting, I really enjoy the fact that the light seems drowned out by the encroaching darkness.
And of course, there are so many shots where only half of a face is illuminated, giving us a sense that the characters are being duplicitous and untrustworthy. Isn’t that what Who is It is all about? Who can we trust? Who has betrayed us?
Willa: Exactly. And you’re right, there are numerous shots where a face is only partially lit, suggesting we don’t see that person completely – not their face, their motives, or their character. So even something as subtle as lighting reinforces the meaning of the film and the lyrics. Who can we trust?, as you say. And it isn’t just the shape-shifting female lead, the one who goes by so many different names (Alex, Diana, Celeste, Eve, … ). All of the characters are pretty shadowy – both psychologically and visually. It’s not clear that we can trust anyone.
Elizabeth: You’re right, Willa. And what you’ve highlighted is how amazing Michael Jackson was when it comes to linking across his mediums – song complements short film complements costume and so on and so forth. What is also quite clear is that there is an exchange of money going on for sexual services, which makes the nameless female lead into a literal “object” of desire.
Lisha: You know, the money for sex is something I find confusing in this film. When I see the world of rarefied luxury and helicopter travel depicted here, I’m thinking extremely high stakes. The wardrobe and makeup artists employed to execute these spectacular acts of duplicity evoke the world of espionage, corporate or national security, and figures in the hundreds of millions or billions. The level of intrigue seems to go way beyond the mere sexual encounter, although that is clearly one aspect of the betrayal and psychological torture going on. What do you think?
Elizabeth: Oooh Lisha, that is a cool point. You are very right that what seems to be at stake is far more than sex.
Willa: I agree. It does seem to be more like very high stakes espionage.
Elizabeth: The Second World War was famed for its duplicitous female agents, using their womanly wiles to tempt secrets out of the (predominantly male) opposition. However, I also find it quite interesting that the character of the high-end sex-worker has a value far higher than the average viewer might expect. This is a character who obviously serves very wealthy clients and tends to their every whim.
Either way, it’s a particularly dark theme. I like to think of Michael as the femme fatale himself. Two authors have discussed this in some depth: Susan Fast in Bloomsbury’s Dangerous, and Marjorie Garber in Vested Interests. Both wrote on Jackson’s crossing of the male-female binary. In one interview Karen Faye, Jackson’s personal makeup artist, stated he didn’t accept these binaries at all. He built his aesthetics (identification of beauty) on a level that went beyond masculine/feminine.
Karin: I agree, Elizabeth. I think he built his aesthetics way beyond the binary of male/female. He always thought of human beings as being all the same.
Elizabeth: And we all have feminine and masculine qualities. It really is two halves of a whole. Notions of femininity and masculinity are really constructed by society and ideologies which have no basis in biology or reality. They are obstacles we put in our own way and MJ wasn’t interested in them. But bringing it back to the theme of neo-noir is the idea of binaries too, because the femme fatale is dangerous because of her unrestrained sexuality and her ambiguous morals.
Karin: This ambiguity is what we see so well in Who Is It.
Elizabeth: You are so correct, Karin. This is another link to Billie Jean and is found in the shots below, again the bed becomes a place of intrigue. There are physical and nonphysical exchanges here that we (as an audience) are not privy to. So we must decide for ourselves what is going on, and this heightens the mystery.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Elizabeth, and this scene is evocative of the bed scene in Billie Jean, isn’t it?
Elizabeth: Yes it is, Willa. It also shows us how MJ references his own work. Other specific visual elements that Fincher often uses are found within the city itself, and I love how, in his work, the city is often given its own personality.
In Who Is It the city is presented as a golden otherworldly labyrinth that Jackson is separated/protected from by a glass wall. He is distanced from the society in which he lives, much like all of Fincher’s subsequent neo-noir protagonists. There are angel statues on the cover of the Dangerous album and they appear again in the city, bringing to mind the City of Angels, Los Angeles, which is ironic, of course, because “all that glitters (see the shot below) is not gold.”
Lisha: That is such a beautiful screen shot, Eliza. I’m wondering why I’ve never zeroed in on that before. He is in a major urban area, enjoying all the economic advantages the city has to offer, yet he is so completely isolated and alienated at the same time. The paradox is communicated by a sheet of glass.
Willa: Yes, and we see that same motif repeated in Stranger in Moscow. That film opens with a shot of a man seen through the glass of his apartment window, eating his supper from a can. Then we cut to a scene of a sad-looking woman in a coffee shop, but again we’re looking at her through a glass wall. And then there’s that wonderful scene about 3:05 minutes in where the man in his apartment sees the kids outside running through the rain, and then reaches up and touches the glass. Here’s a screen capture:
Lisha: That is such a strong image.
Willa: I agree. I love that moment, and think the glass imagery here functions like the glass wall in Who Is It. As you said, Elizabeth, this character “is within society but separated from it.” But I think this character begins to regret his isolation after seeing the kids run through the puddles, and that’s when he makes the decision to go outside and stand in the rain, and begin to experience life more fully.
Elizabeth: Oh yes, and only if he leaves his glass prison, can he hope to begin to communicate with those around him.
Karin: The difference with Stranger in Moscow is that it is not Michael behind a window that separates him from society, but the black man and the sad woman who play a role in the short film. Michael is walking the dark gritty streets of “Moscow” and, as I analyzed in my essay “From Throne to Wilderness: Michael Jackson’s ‘Stranger in Moscow’ and the Foucauldian Outlaw,” I believe he is separated but also separates himself from society in a different way. To me, he is also not part of the five people who are clearly abandoned from the so-called “normal” world. Michael seems to be separated by his “glowing face,” a face we can also see in the black and white sequence in the short film Bad.
Stranger in Moscow has this very estranged, alienated mood. The loneliness is dripping from the screen and is emphasised by the slow motion, which is not typical for noir but definitely for neo-noir. I think it is mainly the mood in Stranger in Moscow that is very neo-noir.
Lisha: I didn’t realize slow motion was characteristic of neo-noir, Karin. I’m fascinated by how the sense of alienation in Stranger is depicted through two distinct temporalities happening at once. Michael Jackson was filmed in front of a blue screen singing and walking very slowly on a treadmill, which was later added to the slow motion background. So as he sings in real time with the music, everyone and everything else is moving in slow motion, like some kind of separate, alternate reality.
Willa: Yes, that’s a very important observation, Lisha. It’s so interesting how slow motion is used in Stranger in Moscow. When we look at the city directly, everyone and everything moves at normal speed. But when it’s implied that we’re looking at the city from the perspective of one of the isolated people – the woman sitting alone in the coffee shop, or the homeless man lying by the sidewalk, or the teenager watching other kids play ball, or the man eating supper from a can, or the businessman watching pigeons, or even Michael Jackson himself – the world suddenly appears to be moving very slowly. Even the raindrops fall in slow motion.
Lisha: Wow, Willa, that’s exactly it. The slow motion is the perspective of those who are not participating in the normal rhythms of the city.
Willa: Exactly. Or who do participate to some degree, like the man with the pigeons or the woman in the coffee shop – both of them are wearing business suits – but who still feel disconnected from those rhythms. At least, that’s how it seems to me.
For example, we see pedestrians walking by the coffee shop, and they’re walking at normal speed. But then the scene shifts and we see the lonely woman watching the pedestrians, and now they seem to be moving in slow motion. So when we’re looking at them through her eyes, as it were, they’re moving in this oddly decelerated way. But she herself isn’t – she’s still moving at normal speed.
That difference in film speed creates a dislocation between those isolated people and the pedestrians who pass them by, and that disconnect is very effective at emphasizing just how detached they are from the world around them. As you write in your article, Karin,
On the one hand, the slow motion has the function of magnifying emotion, and on the other hand it shows two distinct worlds and the distance between those two worlds.
I agree completely. It also seems to be trying to capture or re-create the sensory experience of depression – of what it feels like to be in a bustling world when you are depressed and out of sync with everyone around you.
Lisha: It’s such a powerful visual depiction of “How does it feel, when you’re alone and it’s cold outside?”
Willa: I agree.
Lisha: And it allows us to inhabit the perspective of those five characters you mentioned, Karin, who are “clearly abandoned from the so-called ‘normal’ world.”
Getting back to what you said earlier, I’ve always been fascinated by the choices Michael Jackson made in this film to achieve such a glowing, colorless look for his face.
Karin: Yes, Lisha, it is as if he wants to disappear into the mass, the streets and the people walking around him.
Elizabeth: I agree wholeheartedly. It’s particularly interesting when we look at Michael’s use of his face and the concept of “masquing” and “masque” culture. This is an extended metaphor about identity in many neo-noir films, and one that Michael uses to articulate his relationship with his audience. They always seem to be wondering “who is he?”
Willa: Which refers us back again to Who Is It. Masques are a recurring theme in that film as well – from the oddly blank face we see rising beneath the white blotter on the desk or pushing out from behind the white wall, to the disguises worn by the Alex/Diana/Celeste/Eve character as she shifts identities, to the more subtle subterfuges of other characters as they decide what to reveal and what to keep hidden. We don’t truly know anyone in that film, not even Michael Jackson’s character, though the song accompanying the film is written from his point of view. So while we may be inside his mind to some extent, he is still somewhat distant and unknowable.
Elizabeth: Notions about identity are at the forefront of neo-noir films, especially in terms of being an individual in a society. No one is exempt from feeling alienated from others, and without our connection to others, how do we know that we are alive?
Karin: In the article “Eighties Noir: The Dissenting Voice in Reagan’s America” in The Journal of Popular Film and Television, Robert Arnett writes about the “face mask motif” that “furthers the analogy between the undercover plot device and ’80s visual media obsession.” In your article “Bad (1987),” Elizabeth, you write about the extreme close up in the black and white part and refer to it as act of defiance.
It is interesting to see how Michael used his own face, which was seen by the public as a mask, as “an act of defiance” in Bad because there was so much speculation in the tabloid media about his face. The mask as described by Arnett is “revered and experienced as a veritable apparition of the mythical being it represents.” However, in Bad, he does not represent himself as a mythical being but as himself in a “look at me, this is who I am” kind of way.
In Stranger in Moscow his “mask” is referring to him as a simple human being who walks the streets of Moscow. However, his glowing face-mask distinguishes him from all the other faces around him, which gives it this mythical representation, as if he has no connection to others anymore.
Willa: Yes, and that sense of alienation from society seems very noirish. As Nina said,
So many noir films convey a story about the way characters struggle with both internal and external forces to maintain their moral integrity in a fundamentally corrupt world.
That’s a good description of both Who Is It and Stranger in Moscow – and Bad also, as you mentioned, Karin. There’s a similar theme in Smooth Criminal, You Rock My World, Give In to Me, and others as well. In all of these films, the world is “fundamentally corrupt,” and Michael Jackson’s character must figure out how to negotiate that corruption without becoming tainted himself.
You know, I hadn’t really thought about it before, but that’s a recurring theme in Michael Jackson’s work, isn’t it? For example, if I think about his early videos, meaning the three videos from the Thriller album, that’s precisely what Beat It and Billie Jean are about – an innocent young man negotiating a corrupt world. But then Thriller complicates that. We’re never sure about the main character, Michael – about whether he’s innocent or not. He’s constantly shifting back and forth between a sweet, guileless teenage boy and a monster/zombie, between an innocent and the very epitome of corruption.
Elizabeth: Now we’re really taking it to another level: Jackson’s use of complex innocence and corruption themes is an entire theme in itself. The ambiguity, or what one could call the liminality of innocence, is what Jackson negotiates, don’t you think? The notions we have of the innocent and who is innocent. It comes up again and again. He never gives us a truly straight answer. In Smooth Criminal he is good but he commits violence throughout the sequences, in Thriller he’s the heartthrob and the zombie, and in Bad he is the innocent schoolboy and “bad” as he starts a dance-fight in a subway.
Lisha: And doesn’t that lead us right back to the issue of perspective? I feel like this is especially clear in Thriller, if we think about how we can experience the character “Michael” through his girlfriend’s eyes. As she is overwhelmed by the excitement of being in love, she sees and experiences a “thrill-her” date with her handsome new boyfriend. When she begins to fear where all this might take her, she sees and experiences a scary creature from a “thriller” horror film.
The girlfriend’s experience is dependent upon what she brings to the table at any particular moment in time. When she looks at the world through the perspective of love, she sees beauty. When she looks at the world through fear, she sees a monster.
Willa: Wow, that is so interesting, Lisha! As many times as I’ve watched Thriller, I’ve never thought about it that way before.
Lisha: Isn’t that a perfect reflection of how we collectively experience Michael Jackson? He is an angel or a devil, innocent or guilty, depending on what the viewer brings to the table. This ambiguity forces us to question the whole concept of reality, showing us how perception trumps what is “really there.”
Willa: Yes, that’s a really important connection. And I agree, Elizabeth, that he does seem to be exploring the grey areas between guilt and innocence – “the liminality of innocence,” as you called it – and I love those examples you gave. He may be positioned in the hero role in Smooth Criminal, but he commits numerous acts of violence, as you say. And in Billie Jean, he may not be the father of the child whose “eyes looked like mine,” but he did go to her room and something – we’re not sure what – “happened much too soon.” That ambiguity occurs throughout Michael Jackson’s work.
Elizabeth: However, one short film which is definitely not ambiguous is Scream, and it’s one we should definitely mention before closing because it has a lot of noir-esque features (including a heightened mood of alienation). It is set in the vacuum of space and “in space, no one can hear you scream.” Putting Michael and Janet in this off-world environment really heightens the connection between alienation and celebrity/fame.
Karin: Yes, they surrounded themselves with art, which is often qualified as higher status and more distanced from people. So the art with which they surround themselves in their spacecraft world can also be seen as an alienating aspect.
Elizabeth: Not only do they surround themselves with art, they also attempt things on their own or in a pair that would usually be done in a group, such as playing sports, playing music. What we see in Scream is more escapism, a self-imposed exile. These are two characters in exile, and they have been put as far from their fellow human beings as possible. They can only connect through screens and other conduits. We get a sense that they are trying desperately to amuse themselves and all of it is in vain. The up-tempo beat of the song contradicts sharply with this.
Lisha: Wow, Elizabeth! Never in a million years would I thought of Scream in terms of neo-noir, but there it is! Mind blown.
Willa: I agree. I wouldn’t have thought of Scream as neo-noir either, but it makes so much sense now that you say that, Elizabeth. All the elements we’ve been talking about, from visual elements like high-contrast lighting to thematic elements like isolation and the difficulty of being an innocent individual confronted by a corrupt society – they’re all there, aren’t they?
Elizabeth: Yes they are, Willa, Lisha. It’s one of those things that strikes you in a really uncanny way – that Scream which is free from all the stereotypes of noir is in fact very clearly neo-noir and dealing with so many of those ideas. Don’t you think that the space location serves to heighten the noir-ness of Scream?
Lisha: Most definitely. And with the sad news of David Bowie’s passing, I can’t help relating Scream to Bowie’s 1969 Space Oddity.
Bowie’s character “Major Tom,” was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowie said he strongly identified with its sense of isolation and alienation. I definitely see a lot of this work in Scream.
Willa: You know, we should talk about that sometime. There are a lot of connections there to Michael Jackson, as you say. Elizabeth, Karin – would you like to join us in that discussion?
Elizabeth: I would love to join you guys for a Bowie post. Can’t wait.
Karin: Yes, of course. I love Bowie and have listened to his music, and read a lot about him. So I’d be excited for that.
Willa: Wonderful! And thank you both so much for educating us about neo-noir! It really opened my eyes and allowed me to see some of his films in ways I never had before. I really value that, so thank you sincerely.
I’d also like to let everyone know that our friend Toni Bowers has an article about Michael Jackson and biography coming out soon in the Los Angeles Review of Books – next Tuesday, I believe. I’ll post a link as soon as it goes up, but you may want to keep a lookout for it.
Willa: So Joie, a few weeks ago we talked about how Michael Jackson seemed to see a connection between his creative life and his spiritual life, something we’ve talked about a couple times before. But you know, he also saw a connection between his creativity, his spirituality, and the physicality of his body, especially his body’s movements as a dancer. He seemed to feel a deep connection between spiritual energy, creative energy, and physical energy, including sexual energy.
All of this has me wondering – how is sex and sexual energy represented in Michael Jackson’s work, what does it mean, and does it perhaps mean different things at different times? For example, what does it mean when he sings about sex in “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough” or “Give In to Me” or “Superfly Sister” or “Break of Dawn”? What does it mean when he zips his fly during the panther dance in Black or White? And what does it mean, exactly, when he’s dancing and grabs his crotch?
Joie: Hmm. All very good questions, Willa. But you know, I seem to remember Michael telling Oprah that he really didn’t think about it when he was dancing and that the whole crotch grab thing just sort of happened on its own and meant nothing. I think he said he was just a slave to the rhythm or something.
Willa: Well, I think that’s true, Joie, but I don’t think it’s the whole truth. I think sometimes he’d be dancing and get really absorbed in the music and, Bam! He’d punctuate a dance sequence with a crotch grab, kind of like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. But I also think that sometimes he’d decide he liked that exclamation point and deliberately make it part of the choreography.
So, for example, we have that hilarious dance rehearsal in This Is It where two middle-aged women are teaching a group of young male dancers proper crotch-grabbing technique, and I have to say, that whole scene just cracks me up. First there is the Russian ballet instructor, Irina Brecher, explaining how the movements they’re doing compare with Baryshnikov’s:
“I saw you! You were going like this. What it this? That’s Russian! This is Russian. So Baryshnikov does it like this, and you guys are doing like this. Same thing.”
Then the assistant choreographer, Stacy Walker, helps them perfect their technique. She says, “One more time,” and they all do a crotch grab in unison. And they’re all so earnest – it just makes me laugh. Then she demonstrates proper crotch-grabbing movements while saying,
“We’re straight up and down now, right? I don’t think it’s anything except hand moving…. I think that’s smoother, you know what I mean? I mean, I have nothing to move….”
That is such a funny scene! I get such a kick out of it, but I also love seeing how trusting and respectful these talented young dancers are toward these older women. It’s really wonderful.
So this funny little scene shows us several important things: that the crotch grab was a deliberate part of the choreography, that it really wasn’t sexual in a traditional sense (and Michael Jackson always said it wasn’t), and that it certainly wasn’t a way to show dominance over women. After all, those two women were the instructors! And they were handling it in a very fun, lighthearted way.
Joie: Well, I find it very funny that we are having a discussion about crotch grabbing!
Willa: Oh c’mon, Joie. This is a very academic discussion!
Joie: Uh huh. But I have to say I agree with you, Willa. I believe that he did like ‘the exclamation point’ of the crotch grab and it really did become sort of his signature move – or one of his signature moves because, we all know, there are several.
Willa: That’s true. Like there’s that move called the Moonwalk that got a bit of attention….
Joie: Yeah. Or the twisting leg kick. But he really is synonymous with the crotch grab now. Whenever we see another singer or dancer execute that move, our minds will immediately, and forever, associate that with Michael Jackson.
But you said something that I find really interesting. You said the crotch grab wasn’t sexual and that Michael always maintained that it wasn’t sexual. The reason I find this statement interesting is because I think most people just always assumed the complete opposite. I think to most of the world, the reason the crotch grab was so controversial or provocative was precisely because they projected a sexual connotation onto it that Michael never intended for it to have.
Willa: Well, now you have me thinking, Joie – what did I mean when I said it wasn’t sexual? Hmmm … Now that I think about it, that seems too absolute because obviously there are sexual connotations, but I guess I meant it doesn’t seem erotic to me, like he isn’t using it to evoke a sexual feeling or suggest a sexual situation – not like, say, that long undulating crotch grab in the “Billie Jean” segment of This Is It. Oh my. Now, that is sexual. So he certainly knew how to do it in a suggestive way if he wanted to, but he never did that on stage, ever. That scene in This Is It was strictly a fun thing for the enjoyment of the cast and crew at the rehearsal, especially those young dancers. He never did anything like that in a real performance.
Instead, it was almost always just a quick exclamation mark, as we said earlier, and it seemed to me to express an artistic impulse rather than a sexual urge, though it’s hard to completely separate that out since he seemed to feel a strong connection between creativity and sexual energy. We talked about that a little bit with Give In to Me last April.
But there’s another element to it too, which is that the crotch grab always kind of struck me as something of a political statement as well, especially when he defiantly continued doing it despite all the controversy. You know, he was a very sexy black man – a sex idol, even – in a country that’s very uncomfortable with sexual black men, and I think he felt a lot of pressure to restrain his sexuality because of that. And in that sense, the crotch grab always kind of felt to me like a way for him to reclaim his sexuality and his own body, in a way. It’s like he’s calling attention to the fact that, not only does he have a beautiful, talented, amazing body, but it’s a sexual body as well.
Joie: I think you may be on to something, Willa. It could also have been a way for him to sort of flip off the world. I don’t mean to be crass here but, grabbing the crotch was never really seen as a nice gesture. In fact, long before Michael ever adopted it and turned it into a signature dance move, a guy grabbing his crotch was seen as either an insult (if it was directed toward another man) or a very lewd gesture (if it was directed toward a woman). So your suggestion that it could have been sort of political really fits here. It could definitely be considered a defiant, ‘up yours’ type of gesture.
Willa: Wow, that’s true, Joie. It’s funny but I never thought about that before, but you’re right, it definitely could be interpreted that way. And he did express those impulses every so often, as we see in Scream. And there’s that line in Shaquille O’Neal’s rap in “2Bad”:
Grab my crotch, twist my knee, then I’m through Mike’s bad. I’m bad. Are you?
“2Bad” as a whole is a declaration that he won’t be broken or bowed – “I’m standin’ though you’re kickin’ me” – and that line in particular is a pretty defiant statement.
Joie: That is a defiant statement, Willa. In fact, the whole song is pretty defiant, you’re right. But I wonder if we can go back to your original question if we can. You asked what does it mean when Michael sings about sex in his songs and how is that sexual energy expressed in his work? So, obviously I’m thinking you have some thoughts on this?
Willa: I don’t know that I really have thoughts, or any firm conclusions – just a lot of questions. I see sex represented so many different ways in his work, and I wonder how it all fits together. Like, what do you make of the sexual references in the panther dance? That whole section is a strong protest against racism, but it includes some pretty explicit sexual gestures – more explicit than critics were used to seeing from Michael Jackson, that’s for sure. There was a lot of criticism about that when Black or White first aired. Here was a song that a lot of critics interpreted as being about racial harmony, and suddenly in the panther dance section Michael Jackson is breaking glass, zipping his fly, and grabbing his crotch pretty explicitly. Why is that there? How do you interpret that?
Joie: Well, I’m honestly not sure about how to interpret it. But you’re correct in saying that it was much more explicit than critics were used to seeing from him, and sometimes I think that was the intended purpose. Perhaps it was done simply to shake things up a little bit. If you think about it, it was done at a time when Michael was going through some changes. He had broken away from his long and successful association with Quincy Jones and he was taking the reins of producing by himself and he was eager to try new things, new producers, new sounds. And the resulting album, Dangerous, really has a much edgier feel because of it. So maybe he simply wanted to do something edgy. And let’s face it, that panther dance is certainly edgy.
But also, I want to point out the fact that those racial slurs that are written on the car and the building in the panther dance weren’t actually in the original version that first aired to millions of people around the world. Those were added in after the initial hoopla over the “disturbing violence and simulating masturbation.” So, I’ve never really held the belief that that section of the video was meant to be a protest against racism. Maybe it was but, it doesn’t feel that way to me. How do you interpret it?
Willa: Really? Wow, I’m surprised, Joie. To me, adding in those slogans didn’t change the meaning at all, just clarified what was already there. I mean, the title of the song is “Black or White,” and the lyrics are all about standing up to racial prejudices – he even references the KKK specifically when he sings, “I ain’t scared of no sheets.” So when he added in the KKK and neo-Nazi and Aryan Nation-type graffiti, it felt right to me and just seemed to fit right in. How do you see it?
Joie: Well, that’s true, it does fit right in. But, I don’t know; I guess I’ve just always looked at it as an afterthought, a way to simply try and clean up the controversy. But what you just said makes a lot of sense too, that it was done as a way to sort of clarify the artist’s intentions. You’re probably right.
Willa: Well, it’s pretty ambiguous. There’s breaking glass throughout Black or White, beginning with the crashing poster and exploding windows in the opening sequence, so the violence of the breaking glass could mean many different things. In fact, the entire panther dance is pretty ambiguous, with so many intriguing elements and so many different ways to approach and interpret them.
It begins with the panther walking down into a basement, just like Michael Jackson’s character does before the first dance sequence in You Rock My World, and in both cases there’s a suggestion that we’re going into subterranean territory both literally and figuratively as well, into the subconscious. He transforms back into a human, and is immediately caught in a spotlight. For me, it doesn’t feel so much like the spotlight of a stage as the spotlight of a prison or an interrogation, and the bars on the windows and over the doorway reinforce that idea. But he strikes a pose in that spotlight nonetheless, with one hand on his crotch. Then he straightens up, stands tall, and a cat jumps out of a garbage can, which is interesting since Michael Jackson is frequently linked to cats symbolically. He was just a panther, after all.
So the cat’s out of the bag, or out of the can, and it feels like some aspect of Michael Jackson himself has been released. He pulls his shirt back like a gunslinger about to enter a duel with the town marshal, and an eerie wind blows past him that seems to suggest he’s entering an alternate space and time. (For example, a similar wind blows past him when he opens the door to Club 30s in Smooth Criminal, a wind that transports him back to Dem Bones Cafe of The Band Wagon.) He begins a dance routine that evokes a long history of dance in the U.S., then he and the panther yowl in unison, and that’s when he begins the segment that had critics in an uproar.
Joie: I like the way you put that, Willa. That some aspect of Michael Jackson himself has been released. And I think you just hit on exactly what it is that I feel whenever I watch the panther dance. You asked me how I interpret it, and you were surprised when I said that I have never ascribed any sort of racial protest to it. But I think you just touched on the reason why. Because to me, it just feels like Michael unchained and free. It is a very passionate, expressive dance sequence in which we are given the pleasure of watching one of the greatest dancers in the world just … let … go! We are treated to four blissful, astounding (and yes, erotic) minutes of Michael Jackson doing what only Michael Jackson can. And to me … there is nothing racially motivated about it. It is beautiful, it is celebratory, it is alive! It is the Eternal Dance of Creation that he talks about over and over again in Dancing the Dream, and it is pure joy to witness!
Willa: Oh I agree with that, Joie! But I also think it’s especially significant because of who he was and the cultural position he occupied.
We live in a very strange age where we as a culture are both over-sexed and overly repressed. It’s a bizarre combination. And I think Michael Jackson felt that much more intensely than most of us because of his unique position as the first black teen idol – a sex symbol who clearly aroused desire in white women, black women, women of many races. That was a potentially explosive situation, and he had to be very careful about how he presented himself in public. He was obviously very sexy on stage, but off stage he made sure that people – white people in particular – felt he was “safe,” asexual. In fact, I remember a Saturday Night Live skit years ago where Eddie Murphy pulled the pants off a Michael Jackson doll and used that as proof that he was literally asexual – without sex organs.
The panther dance feels like a dramatic departure from all that. He’s reclaiming his sexuality – he is black, beautiful, and sexual – but that doesn’t mean he plans to spend a lot of time with groupies. In other words, resisting sexual repression doesn’t seem to mean advocating a life of one-night stands. As he sings in “Superfly Sister,”
Push it in Stick it out That ain’t what it’s all about
So he isn’t talking about mindless sex. As we’ve talked about a couple of times before, he seems to see sexuality as much more than just a physical act. Instead, he seems to be saying that we need to reclaim our sexuality as part of our whole being, so that our sexuality isn’t something that only appears behind closed doors but is integrated with who we are as a person – creatively, emotionally, psychologically.
So to me, when looking at how sexuality is represented in the panther dance, the most significant part isn’t the “release” sequence that got critics in an uproar – though that’s important – but the “integration” sequence that happens immediately after. He’s standing on the sidewalk with that ethereal wind blowing, and the camera zooms past him four times as he repeatedly pushes his hands from his heart to his groin, visually joining them, integrating them.
Joie: Well, that’s an interesting interpretation, Willa. And it seems to me that our ideas are not that far off from each other. You seem to see the panther dance as a bold statement on reclaiming our sexuality. While to me, the panther dance is a very sexually charged, incredible dance sequence. One that Michael Jackson seems to delight in performing. Dancing just for the pure joy of dancing.
Willa: Well, actually, I see reclaiming his sexuality is just one aspect of it – to me, it’s really about reclaiming the entirety of himself and his body, including his sexuality. But I love what you just said, Joie, and I think you’re right, we’re not that far apart, and I think you put your finger right on the central point – it’s joy.
I think that, in the panther dance, we see Michael Jackson pushing back against all the cultural narratives that have been imposed on him and his body – ideas about what it means to be a man (or woman), what it means to be black (or white), what it means to be normal (or abnormal), what it means to cool (or uncool), what it means to be desirable (or not desirable), what it means to be lovable (or unlovable) – a human being worthy (or unworthy) of love. He pushes back so hard he shatters the confining narratives written on his body, just like he shatters the ugly confining narratives written on the glass.
And what we find when we break through all those labels and prejudices and false ideologies is something so simple yet so profound – a person fully inhabiting his body, and finding joy in that. As you said so beautifully, Joie, “It is beautiful, it is celebratory, it is alive! It is the Eternal Dance of Creation.”
Willa: This week Joie and I are thrilled to be joined by Lisha McDuff, a classically trained, full-time, career musician with over 25 years of working experience – though actually, Lisha has been joining us for quite a while now. Many of you know her already as Ultravioletrae.
Lisha, we’re so excited to have you join us and share your insights about Michael Jackson’s work as one professional musician listening to another. I’ve been so intrigued by your comments in the past – especially how you’re able to share what you’re hearing and make it accessible to those of us without formal training in music. It’s like it allows me to peek into a world I don’t know how to enter on my own. So thank you very much for joining us!
In one of your comments, you mentioned that you weren’t really a Michael Jackson fan until you saw This Is It, but then you were so blown away by what you saw that you became an ardent supporter and began studying his work. So I’m curious: what exactly did you see that impressed you so much?
Lisha: I don’t know that I’ll ever stop talking about the day I decided to see This Is It. It just totally captured me the way great art has the ability to do. From Michael’s first appearance in the film through the ending credits, I was caught in the moment, totally fixed on what I was seeing and hearing. I didn’t care about anything I had ever done, or what I needed to do in the future. It took my breath away. For me, that’s what great art does. It allows you to enter a timeless realm, where your mind has to stop its incessant activity and you can do nothing else but contemplate the beauty of what’s in front of you. I think that is what Michael meant when he said he wanted to create “escapism.” It’s that magic moment, when a great painting, literature, film, whatever it is, stops you dead in your tracks, takes you out of your ordinary perception, and arrests your mind with something beautiful and fascinating.
Willa: What a wonderful image! And a great description of that special feeling when art completely enraptures you. So “that magic moment,” as you call it, happens when you’re completely mesmerized and absorbed in the present moment. I love that.
Lisha: I can remember the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas talking about this when he described how he distinguishes a truly great musical performance from an ordinary one. He said that listening to music gives the mind a chance to daydream and wander, but a great musician will never allow this to happen. A truly great musician will command your full and undivided attention, and your mind will not stray even for a second. You must hear every note. This Is It was seeing a master at work. It was riveting.
Joie: I have heard from so many people – most of them not fans in the traditional sense before viewing the film – who expressed similar reactions after watching him in action in This Is It.
Lisha: It’s surprising how many of us new fans are out there. Why weren’t we paying attention sooner? Imagine not knowing much about Michael Jackson and then plopping yourself down in a movie theater and getting hit with it all at once. It’s pretty overwhelming.
Initially, I was so struck by how creative and free everything I saw and heard was. Some of the first images in the film are things like Michael in the orange jeans and the shiny jacket doing the sideways Moonwalk across the stage, singing “you’re a vegetable” while grasping in the air with his hands, and turning into a robot. He was like an endless fountain of creativity, taking inspiration from such a vast range of influences, from 70’s dance music to Marcel Marceau. It was like nothing I usually think of as pop, rock, soul, or even song and dance for that matter. I mean, what other musician would even dream of using a mime as inspiration for their work? A mime is totally silent!
You just couldn’t tell what was coming next from Michael. He might decide to do a dance using nothing but his back and shoulders, or he might drop to the floor and wiggle his feet in the air. He might use an achingly beautiful flute solo, or the voice of Dr. King, or he might use a car horn – you just didn’t know. He sang soft, gentle melodies a capella and then did some serious rock n roll. Whatever came next, it was always a complete surprise, nothing you could have predicted or expected. And it was always just the exact right thing for that musical moment.
Watching him interact with his musicians was a jaw dropping experience, like hearing him sing a line he wanted brought out while beat boxing the accompanying rhythm! I love this clip from the film:
His comments were so astute I knew Alex Al wasn’t exaggerating when he said you can’t fool Michael – you’d better come in knowing your part. I’d be willing to bet every musician there had the feeling that Michael was listening only to them. Ears like that are rare, the musicianship even rarer.
Willa: So what does that mean exactly?
Lisha: I mean that there aren’t a lot of people on the planet who can come into a rehearsal and really hear everything that’s going on all at once, identify where the problems are, and know exactly how to fix it. That’s what I mean about having great ears.
Joie: And when you think about the fact that he hadn’t prepared for the stage in over twelve years, that ability to hear everything all at once really is amazing. You would expect him to be sorely out of practice or something but, that clearly wasn’t the case.
Lisha: But Michael wasn’t simply cleaning things up, he was shaping things, adding musical tension and interest to everything he did. In that first instruction where he beat boxed the rhythm and the guitar line, he was balancing and blending the sound. He knew that line needed to come out and knew it was so crucial to the overall musical feel. A small detail like that can make a huge difference in how effective a performance is. It was so impressive how he listened and responded to what he heard. He was addressing the kinds of details that most composers and performers leave up to the arrangers, the music director and the musicians. I was really surprised at the level of interaction – he was taking what his musicians could do to a whole new level, and they knew it. Here’s another revealing clip that just popped up on YouTube:
Willa: That’s a wonderful clip, Lisha, and it really shows just how involved he was with the background vocalists, the musicians, the music director.
Lisha: Astonishingly, Michael also seemed to have that hyper-awareness with other aspects of the show: the dancing, the lighting, the filmmaking, the special effects, etc. Who can forget the moment he took over the bulldozer scene in “Earth Song,” directing the use of silence as the bulldozer closed its jaws? You could feel your heart cracking open with the timing of the next cue for the piano solo. Extraordinary. Michael Bearden, the music director, said on his fan page something like a jolt of electricity passed through him at that moment.
Willa: I can believe it! I love that scene, and it’s another moment where you really see his influence. The musicians are playing as the bulldozer closes, following the director’s – Kenny Ortega’s – direction. But Michael Jackson is waving him and them down. He wants the music to stop before then, while the bulldozer’s jaws are still open. As he explains to them, “The value would be greater if you let it rumble – let it stay open – let it close in silence.”
Joie: I agree, that is a powerful scene. And I also love the scene where they’re rehearsing Smooth Criminal and after the film portion, Michael turns around and stands motionless for a moment, and Kenny Ortega thinks they’ve gotten their wires crossed and misunderstood when the music is supposed to kick in. But Michael is “sizzling” and waiting for just the right dramatic moment to give the cue to his drummer. Kenny then points out that Michael won’t be able to see the screen behind him change from the marquee to a shot of the city if he does it this way, and Michael says simply, “I gotta feel that. I’ll feel it on the screen behind me.” I love that! He won’t see the screen change behind him, but he’ll feel it! It’s as if every fiber of his being is completely in tune with every aspect of “the performance.” He’ll be able to feel when the screen changes just like he’ll be able to feel the exact right moment to cue the drums. Amazing!
Lisha: I was amazed by that moment in Smooth Criminal too. And how poetic of Michael to describe himself as “sizzling!” Bearden was funny, sort of imitating Michael by telling Ortega that the band didn’t miss their cue, they were waiting because “he’s sizzling.” I got the feeling that everything Michael did or said had artistic flair – it’s just the way his mind worked.
Of all the things I saw that day, the thing that really left me down for the count was what I felt he was doing with music conceptually. I still don’t think I’ve got my head around it. It’s the way he merges multiple styles of music/dance/art with his own multiple intelligences: composing, performing, producing, directing, choreographing, filmmaking, staging, imagineering, his emotional depth, compassion, universal spirituality. He is approaching music from so many disciplines, and with so much depth, history, social and psychological insight. All of it collides with these giant mythic concepts, like the infinite 4D army in They Don’t Care About Us, suggesting the epic battle between good and evil. I gasped at this, recalling the iconic pictures of his military style wardrobe, realizing he has been exploring the powerful role music plays in swaying the hearts and minds of people for years. He’s used this image and concept in many different ways.
I felt he was even exploring the boundaries of space and time with his 4D concept and time bending. He jumps out of the 3D films and onto the stage. He takes you into the future with Light Man, then he jumps back in time into the old classic movies.
Willa: Oh, Light Man is such an interesting image, especially in terms of “time bending.” He looks futuristic, but important scenes from our political and cultural history are playing across the surface of his body and the sphere he’s holding. So we are witnessing history on this shiny futuristic surface – it’s superimposing collective memories of our past onto this vision of the future.
Kenny Ortega said that Michael Jackson connected Light Man gazing at that sphere with Hamlet gazing at the skull during his “Alas, poor Yorick” speech. I love that, and it adds yet another layer of meaning to that image. And then Light Man opens and Michael Jackson jumps out onto the stage.
And then he extends his reach beyond the stage as well. He planned to break down the “fourth wall” between the performers and the audience with the huge puppets moving among the audience during the “Thriller / Ghosts / Threatened” segment. I was also really struck by how the bullets in the Smooth Criminal 3D film fly out at the audience. He frequently tried to lead us as an audience to sympathize with those who are vulnerable, and in this case he positions us so the bullets are flying right at us as well as him so we really experience what a vulnerable position he’s in, and feel the threat against him.
Lisha: I love your take on Light Man, Willa, and yes, I also felt he was using space in such an incredibly meaningful way. This is something I am totally fascinated by. Have you ever noticed this happens in his recorded music? Not long after I saw the film I read Bruce Swedien’s book In The Studio with Michael Jackson. Swedien talks about music as sonic sculpture, how he likes to make the soundfield multi-dimensional. For Swedien to be satisfied with sound, it must have the proportions of left, center, right, and depth. This was a real eye opener to me when I started paying attention to the way the sounds are localized in Michael’s recordings.
For example, when you listen to the intro to “Thriller,” the footsteps will walk right out of your right speaker, across the room or your desk, and right back into your left speaker. They don’t just pan right and left. They walk. If you’re wearing headphones, they will walk right through your head!
Joie: Oh, my God! I cannot tell you how many times I have marveled at how those footsteps seem to walk through my head when I listen to “Thriller” with my headphones on! That is simply amazing and I always wonder, how did they do that?! Because you’re right, the sound doesn’t just pan from the right speaker to the left – it literally walks across the room!
Lisha: I love to listen to “Thriller” in my car because of the clever way the sound gets sent around the space. Like in the Vincent Price rap section, Michael ad libs between the rap verses, singing “I’m gonna thrill her tonight,” which I hear in the front of my car. But from a distance as if in the back seat I hear “hee hee hee…” and “thriller, thriller baby…” like it is coming from behind me! It sounds like Michael Jackson is in the back seat of my car doing his ad libs!
Willa: That’s funny!
Lisha: What a hilarious musical joke when you consider the horror film genre he is spoofing.
Willa: Oh, I hadn’t thought about that. So you don’t just have Michael Jackson in the backseat – you actually have a monster back there … right … behind … you. That is funny!
Lisha: Are you scared yet? I feel like I’ve entered the Michael Jackson dream world, symbolized by the first sound you hear, the squeaky door opening, and the last sound, the door closing shut. You’re being taken into a space in your imagination that exists just for that song. You can see how the talent and imagination of the composer, performer, engineer and producer have to work together to create an effect like that.
Joie: Lisha, I could not agree with you more about the sonic sculpture thing. And as I think about each album, there are just so many examples of “sonic sculptures” throughout his work. The ones that immediately jump to mind for me are, “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Dangerous,” “History,” “Ghosts,” and “Heartbreaker.” And that’s just picking one song from each album but honestly, every single song on each album can be described this way. As a sonic sculpture – a three-dimensional work of art that will live on forever.
Lisha: They truly are works of art and I love every one of your examples, Joie. I even love this game music he created – and don’t forget to listen with headphones:
Joie: The game music is incredible.
Willa: It definitely shows a different side of him, doesn’t it? Though it’s not what I would have expected you to pick, Lisha, as a classically trained musician.
Joie: Willa, it’s interesting you would say that because, when I listen to that game music, I can’t help but wonder about the classical album he was working on when he died. I would give just about anything to hear that music. Talk about sonic sculpture! Can you imagine what that music must sound like?
Willa: Oh, I know! I really hope the Estate releases it sometime in some form or other because I’d love to hear it. And this idea of sonic sculpture is fascinating, especially the way it merges the senses – almost like a type of synesthesia. It’s like visualizing sound.
Joie: I love the way you put that, Willa. “Visualizing sound.” That’s very poetic.
Willa: It’s a fascinating idea, isn’t it? And this idea of sonic sculpture kind of captures something I’ve felt in his music for a long time but didn’t know how to express. For me, his music has always been very visual, but I just assumed that was because of his videos, and the imagery of his lyrics. To me, his videos seem so integral to his artistic vision. As he says in Moonwalk,
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.
So the videos weren’t just something he tacked on later as a marketing tool. From the very beginning, he planned to incorporate film as part of how we experienced that album, “to present this music … visually.” And those visual elements are integral to how we experience Thriller, I think. I can’t think of any of those three songs without imagining the videos as well.
But this concept of “sonic sculpture” adds a whole other way of thinking about this. It’s like his music itself is visual in some ways – it’s three dimensional and occupies three-dimensional space, and I don’t usually think of sound doing that.
Lisha: I had never thought of music as three dimensional in quite this way before either. I still find it mind blowing. Classical music explores the spatialization of sound – other music and popular recordings do as well – but this seems different to me somehow. I’m not sure I even know how to quantify it. In the ancient architecture of South India, known as Vaastu, architecture is defined as “frozen music.” One of the concepts of Vaastu is “rhythm-bound space.” The way Michael conceives of music as architecture reminds me of these concepts in Vaastu. He merges visuals/movement/space with music in a way that leaves one indistinguishable from the other. It’s not music with dance and visuals – it’s somehow structured as one single thing. I can’t hear the music without associating it with the sensation of movement and the visual, artistic, spatial concepts. I think this is really critical to understanding Michael as a composer and as a musician.
Willa: That’s just fascinating, Lisha, and it really expands not only how I think about Michael Jackson’s music, but music in general. Wow, I’m really going to have to ponder this for a while!
And I wonder how this idea of music as spatial and visual ties back in with his videos. I visualize his videos every time I listen to his songs – the songs and videos are so interconnected for me, and there’s a lot of emotional slippage between them. I don’t know if that makes sense but, for example, for a long time I didn’t like the You Rock My World video. In fact, it made me really uncomfortable. It’s pretty angry and I didn’t understand where that anger was coming from or who it was directed against, and it always left me feeling so frustrated and unsettled that I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like all those uncomfortable emotions it aroused in me. And I didn’t like the song either because of that – because all those unsettled emotions spilled over from the video. But after Joie and I talked about You Rock My World last fall and really explored everything that was going on in that video, I came to appreciate it so much more and now I like it a lot. And I like the song much more now also. That’s what I meant by “emotional slippage” between his songs and videos – the emotions of one color the other.
But even in the songs without videos, he paints such vivid pictures sometimes that I actually visualize the woman sitting at the kitchen table in “Much Too Soon,” or the patient lying on the examining table in “Morphine,” listening to the doctor explain what’s going to happen as the drug flows into his veins.
Joie: I know exactly what you mean, Willa; I do that too. In fact, for some of his songs that don’t have an accompanying video, I have actually conjured up an entire short film in my head. And every time I hear the songs – “Money,” “Unbreakable,” and “2000 Watts,” for example – those images that my imagination created play in my mind, simply because he has painted such a vivid picture with his words.
Willa: Now I want to see your mental movies, Joie! That’s so interesting. Another good one is “Human Nature” – his voice is so expressive you can really picture the main character, feeling restless and intensely alive and full of energy, just longing to be out in the night air, walking the city streets.
Lisha: Yes, I’ve made a lot of short films in my mind too! Like “Human Nature,” which I shot looking into a high-rise apartment window, but then you turn and look outside and see the fire escape and street scenes of New York.
Willa: That’s wonderful! What a cinemagraphic way of visualizing it. I can really picture that.
Lisha: “Human Nature” was another remarkable scene in This Is It. I couldn’t believe that rehearsal, how he created so much musical tension just with his voice and his movement, no accompaniment at all, totally solo. It made a strong impression on me visually as well because I remember looking at his body and fashion sense and I thought to myself, wow, this man gave everything he had to his art, even his own body was used. He held nothing back, including every cell of his body – he gave it all. This struck me as astonishing new territory, that an artist would use their own body to make art. He was like a living, breathing piece of sculpture. I’ve seen people customize their bodies with tattoos or piercings, but never anything like this. I was fascinated by his physical beauty and what it said to me, combined with my own memory of him as a child star, a teenager, the Thriller icon, and the many images I had seen in the media over the years.
Willa: I know what you mean, Lisha. Even the color of his skin was part of his art, and it feels to me like an entirely new kind of art, a new genre of art – it creates meaning in a way that’s very different from a piercing or tattoo, I think, though there are connections. They are all “rewriting” the body to some extent, but Michael Jackson is also rewriting the cultural narratives that have been inscribed on his body in a way I’ve never seen before. So the way he’s rewriting his body carries enormous cultural implications for how we read and interpret signifiers of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and ultimately identity.
Lisha: I believe Michael Jackson does mark an entirely new chapter in music and art. Think how powerful all of this is when you consider how it is being aimed at the masses, the entire globe, the inclusion of everyone, even the planet itself. I remember seeing the intro to “Earth Song” for the first time in This Is It, realizing he had been playing with his audience all along as he revealed the true meaning of his show. This Is It isn’t “the final curtain call” or the “it” place to be. This Is It is our marching orders: time is running out to avoid a global catastrophe. He was using his musical artistic ability to reach the masses and heal the world. I thought, what event in all of art even comes close to this?
Joie: Lisha, I love what you just said about Michael’s music being aimed at the entire globe. It made me remember something that Akon once said about him in an interview. He said,
“He’s incredible. He’s a genius. Just to be in the same room [with him], I felt everything I wanted to accomplish in life has been achieved….That aura … that’s how incredible that aura is….The way he thinks … some artists think regional, some think national, I was thinking international. He thinks planets! It’s on another level!”
I always find it fascinating to learn that his music industry peers, and the younger generation of music artists who are influenced by him, find him just as mind-blowing as the fans do. And I love this quote from Akon because it illustrates so well what you were just saying about appealing to the masses. It also highlights another point you just made when you said “what event in art even comes close to this?” As Akon said, Michael didn’t think small. “He thinks planets!”
Lisha: Isn’t it true? I think Akon was right. There is something so expansive about the way Michael thinks and conceives of art. I’m also trying to think of someone else who has had that kind of reach, and I’m stumped. Is there another historical figure who has reached around the globe the way Michael Jackson has? I’m no historian, but I really can’t think of one.
Joie: I can’t think of one either, Lisha, and I’ve tried for many years.
Willa: He did have a very different way of conceptualizing art, didn’t he? Not just the global reach of his art, but the way he envisions art. I honestly believe he was creating a new poetics, an entirely new philosophy of art.
So I wanted to circle back to his musicianship for just a moment, if we could. When Joie and I talked with Joe Vogel and Charles Thomson a few weeks ago about Michael Jackson as a songwriter, we talked quite a bit about the many collaborators he worked with in the studio, and how they deserve at least some of the credit for what we hear when we listen to one of his albums. But we disagreed about what that means in terms of his musicianship and his songwriting. For example, Charles felt he had far less autonomy as a songwriter because he brought other musicians into the studio, while Joie and I tended to think he was still the composer of his songs and the guiding vision for his albums, and still had a lot of control over what happened in the studio. So as a professional musician who’s worked collaboratively with other musicians, what are your thoughts about this?
Lisha: Well, from my viewpoint, I think there is a paradigm shift going on that makes this difficult to see. Because great music will always reflect the reality of the time and place it was created, whether it intends to or not. For example, Michael Jackson lived in a country that values technology, material prosperity, and global commerce. So it’s no accident that his music strongly reflects these values. It is technologically advanced, lavishly produced, and commercially successful on a global scale.
Willa: Wow, I’d never thought about that before.
Lisha: He also lived in a time and place where it was becoming clear that human beings must develop the capacity to value each other’s perspectives and work together effectively. This was critically important as we moved into a global economy and began working to save the planet’s resources and viability. And that is exactly how I would sum up Michael’s creative process – as the ability to value multiple perspectives, working to fuse them together seamlessly in a way that benefits and enhances every part of the whole. I don’t think for a second that it diminishes his musicianship. On the contrary, I think it is his genius.
Another way to look at this is through The Beatles. I am religiously in love with their work, and I especially admire Paul McCartney. I get a kick out of reading the liner notes on his solo albums and seeing him credited as the bass player, the drummer, the lead guitar player, the keyboard player, the lead vocalist, and the background vocalists as well. Pretty amazing, DIY records! What can’t this man do? I love his solo albums. But at the end of the day, I have to admit, none of the work that The Beatles did as solo artists comes close to what they produced synergistically as The Beatles. You can really hear and understand the value of their working together – the proof is in the pudding as they say. I think it’s clear that musical synergy was a part of their genius.
Willa: What a great analogy! And I certainly don’t think that working together as The Beatles diminished the musical accomplishments of any of them: Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, or Starr.
Lisha: Not at all, it brought out their best work. That is how Kenny Ortega summed up Michael’s philosophy for This Is It – he wanted to gather the best people he could find and challenge them to work together to go beyond anything they had done before.
So I’ve asked myself the question, What work done by Michael’s collaborators on their own can hold up next to a Michael Jackson album? Even the Michael album, which contains a great deal of Michael’s work, cannot stand the test of a Michael Jackson album! Only the man himself could pull that off. Without Michael Jackson guiding the vision and polishing every last detail to perfection, I’m afraid there are no more Michael Jackson albums.
Joie: So does that mean you agree then with Will.i.am, who is very much against posthumous albums of previously unreleased music?
Lisha: Not at all. Will.i.am scared the living daylights out of me when he said he considered destroying some of the tracks he and Michael were working on! I can’t say strongly enough how important it is to preserve and archive everything EXACTLY as Michael left it, including things that were meant for the trash can. Future musicologists will need to have access to all of this. As long as that is done first, I hope the Estate releases everything that has any commercial value at all. It won’t be the exquisitely crafted works of art that Michael created no matter who does the final production work, but it will be a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a genius and his creative process. I would love to be able to hear every last bit of it, even whole albums of snippets and unfinished songs. I think most artists would die for something as good as what Michael Jackson throws away!