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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.

Don’t Let Go of My Hand

Willa: So this week Joie and I wanted to talk about a song that’s a favorite for both of us: “Whatever Happens” from the Invincible album. I was so glad you suggested it, Joie, because I absolutely love this song.

Joie: Now that’s really funny to me, Willa, because I remember you suggesting this song, not me. And when you did, I was really happy because it’s been one of my favorites from the start.

Willa: Really? I suggested it? Wow, Joie, I’m sorry – I have this middle-aged brain and it’s not always super reliable. I was sure you’d suggested it, and I remember being excited about it.… Anyway, I think I’ve told you this before, but after Michael Jackson died I played this song a lot. For some reason, it was really comforting to me, just hearing that beautiful voice sing, “Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand.”

Joie: Actually, I don’t think I knew that, but I can understand it perfectly.

Willa: Yeah, it’s like it conveyed something I really needed to hear right then. But I loved it even before he died. It tells a complicated story that isn’t resolved at the end, so it’s bittersweet, as many of his songs are. And you know, one thing that’s interesting about this song is that, in it, we see the intersection of two important themes for Michael Jackson. The first is the problem of communication between men and women, which runs throughout his songwriting – especially on the Invincible album. We talked about that a little bit during our month-long celebration of Invincible. And the other is the problem of work, and how crushing it can be to the spirit to work in an unfulfilling job.

Joie: Ok, first I want to say that I loved that month-long celebration of Invincible so much. Those posts are still some of my most favorite that we’ve ever done, and I know it’s because I just completely adore that album from start to finish!

But enough gushing … because you just said something that sort of puzzles me. I never think about the theme of working an unfulfilling job as a Michael Jackson staple. I’m probably going to be smacking my head in a moment, but besides “Working Day and Night” I can’t think of any song where this theme has played a major part, so please explain.

Willa: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a staple – it’s not something he focuses on in song after song, like he does with some other themes. But he does touch on it every so often, and he focuses on it pretty extensively in “Working Day and Night,” like you said, and in “Keep Your Head Up.” As he sings in the opening verse:

She’s working two jobs, keeping alive
She works in a restaurant night and day
She waits her life away
She wipes her tears away

It’s part of “Slave to the Rhythm” also, though there’s more going on than that. The main character isn’t just working in an unfulfilling job during the day. When she comes home at night she’s also slaving away for an unappreciative husband. And it’s central to “Whatever Happens,” of course.

Joie: Ok, I see what you mean now, and you’re right, it is a theme he touches on more than once.

Willa: And over a long period of time. “Working Day and Night” was released in 1979 and “Whatever Happens” in 2001. That’s more than two decades.

But you know, it’s really interesting to compare these two songs because they’re both addressing a similar scenario – a man toiling away in a dead-end job because of the woman he loves – but they couldn’t be more different. In “Working Day and Night,” his girlfriend is encouraging to him to put in the hours on that job because she wants his money. But the situation in “Whatever Happens” is much more subtle and much more complicated than that.

Joie: I agree that the situation in “Whatever Happens” is much more complicated than the high-maintenance girlfriend in “Working Day and Night.”

In “Whatever Happens” we are introduced to a couple in love – presumably a husband and wife – who obviously love and care very deeply about one another, but they are in the middle of a crisis of some type. And although we are never told exactly what the conflict is between them, we know immediately that it’s a pretty serious issue, as he sings in the opening verse:

He gives another smile
Tries to understand her side
To show that he cares
She can’t stay in the room
She’s consumed
With everything that’s been going on
She says,
“Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand”

So right off the bat, he tells us that the man is trying very hard to understand her side of things, but the woman is so upset about the situation that she can’t even stay in the same room and discuss it. But at the same time, she begs him not to let go of her hand, no matter what.

Willa: What a terrible situation! And you’re right, Joie – she’s “so upset … she can’t even stay in the room to discuss it.” You know, as many times as I’ve listened to that song, I never got that before. But you’re right, she leaves the room when he tries to talk to her – and that’s really important because, whatever the crisis is, the real problem is that they can’t seem to talk about it. We see that in the second verse also:

“Everything will be all right,”
He assures her
But she doesn’t hear a word that he says
Preoccupied
She’s afraid
Afraid what they’ve been doing’s not right
He doesn’t know what to say
So he prays,
“Whatever, whatever, whatever
Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand”

So he tries to talk to her – tries to tell her “Everything will be all right” – but she either can’t or won’t listen to him: “she doesn’t hear a word that he says.” So by the end of the verse he seems to give up. Instead of talking to her, he’s praying.

They both really care about one another, obviously, and they don’t want to break up. The first verse ends with her saying “don’t let go of my hand,” as you said, Joie, and the second verse ends with him praying the exact same words. And by the end, in the ad libs, Michael Jackson is singing, “I said, yeah, don’t you let go, baby.” So the pronouns shift from “she says” to “he prays” to “I said.” I swear, someone could write a book simply about his use of pronouns, and how he’s constantly shifting point of view.

So we look at this situation from her perspective and his perspective, and they both truly want to be together, but you can just feel them tearing apart. It’s really tragic. Neither one wants it – we can see that very clearly – but they don’t seem to know how to stop it.

Joie: It does seem like a very heartbreaking song on some level, doesn’t it? And in the third verse we see that theme of working a dead-end job that you mentioned before when he says:

He’s working day and night
Thinks he’ll make her happy
Forgetting all the dreams that he had
He doesn’t realize
It’s not the end of the world
It doesn’t have to be that bad
She tries to explain,
“It’s you that makes me happy”

So here is where we see the main difference between this song and “Working Day and Night,” because unlike the girl who only wants his money, the woman in this song isn’t interested in the things the man’s money can buy her. Instead, she keeps trying to tell him that he is what makes her happy, not the money or the things, just being with him. But he doesn’t seem to understand this, and instead he’s focused on spending all of his time working to buy those “things” when he could be focusing on following the dreams he once had, and on the love that they presumably once shared.

Willa: Yes, though is he working just to buy extravagant things, or does his paycheck pay the rent? or the mortgage? or buy clothes for the kids? Just making ends meet can be really overwhelming when you’re on a tight budget – so overwhelming it’s hard to remember your dreams. And Michael Jackson seemed very aware of that fact – that, ironically, sometimes it’s the ones we love most who end up trapping us in an unfulfilling life. For example, he sings this in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”:

If you can’t feed your baby
Then don’t have a baby
And don’t think maybe
If you can’t feed your baby
You’ll be always trying
To stop that child from crying
Hustling, stealing, lying
Now baby’s slowly dying

So he’s telling this person that, if she has a baby she isn’t able to care for financially – at least not yet, not at this point in her life – then she could become trapped in a life of “hustling, stealing, lying” to try to support her child. We don’t know, but it could be kind of a similar situation in “Whatever Happens.” It could be the man in the story is giving up his dreams and working in a boring job because they really need the money.

Joie: Well, that’s certainly true, Willa. And I know from experience that men tend to internalize that kind of thing, and carry it around like they have the entire world sitting on their shoulders. They let it become their whole existence until they’re just crushed by the depression and the stress of trying to make ends meet. And I think you’re right, I believe that is what’s going on in this song, at least in part. And I feel like I identify with the woman in this song. I understand what she’s going through, trying to make him understand that worrying about the money – or lack thereof – is no way to live. They still have each other. They could still find a way to pursue their dreams and focus on the love they share, instead of always obsessing over the lack of money. It gets frustrating trying to keep a man in a positive frame of mind when money is extremely tight.

In fact, now that I think about it … I’m seeing that first verse a lot differently. When he says,

She can’t stay in the room
She’s consumed
With everything that’s been going on

Before I said that she was so upset that she couldn’t even stay in the room and discuss their problems. But now, looking at this song in a new light, I think she can’t stay in the room not because she’s upset, but because she’s frustrated and angry. She feels like she’s beating her head against a brick wall trying to make him understand that their money problems are “not the end of the world.” And I think this interpretation is supported by that third verse you mentioned earlier.

Willa: Wow, Joie, that’s a really interesting way of approaching this – that it’s highlighting a cultural difference between men and women, and “that men tend to internalize that kind of thing, and carry it around like they have the entire world sitting on their shoulders.” That really jumped out at me when you said that because it ties in with something he expresses in “Working Day and Night”:

You say that working
Is what a man’s supposed to do
But I say it ain’t right
If I can’t give sweet love to you

I’m tired of thinking
Of what my life’s supposed to be

So he’s questioning that expectation that men are supposed to bury themselves in work and be the providers – which is a terrible burden, especially if they’re stuck in a job they don’t like. But many men do it because, as he says, “working / Is what a man’s supposed to do.”

Joie: It is a terrible burden, Willa. I’m sure we can all relate to working a job that we hated at some point in our lives. If we’re lucky, that happens at the start of our adult lives when we’re young, and then we go on to discover what it is that we really love to do and are able to transition into a job that we enjoy. But for many people it doesn’t always happen that way, and it’s unfortunate. And it can cause some really distressing issues in our personal lives. In fact, it could even be detrimental to our health, both physically and emotionally.

Willa: That’s true, or even change our personalities to some extent. Our dreams are a big part of us, of who we are. They help define us. If we give up our dreams, we lose that part of ourselves, and it changes us.

Joie: That’s very true, Willa.

Willa: So the woman in “Whatever Happens,” she obviously loves this man – a man who had dreams – but now he’s giving up those dreams, so he’s not quite the same person she fell in love with. But he’s making that sacrifice for her, or thinks he is. As the narrator sings in the last verse you quoted, Joie, “He’s working day and night / Thinks he’ll make her happy / Forgetting all the dreams that he had.” But she doesn’t want him to give up his dreams.

Joie: No, she doesn’t. And she keeps trying to explain that to him, but he’s not getting it because all he can see are their money issues.

Willa: It does seem that way, doesn’t it? Though the song begins with the lines “He gives another smile / Tries to understand her side / To show that he cares,” as you quoted earlier. So he’s trying to see things from her perspective. But he doesn’t seem able to, and she doesn’t understand him either – can’t even listen to him – so they’re both really frustrated.

It’s a really complicated situation, and you can genuinely feel for both sides. This is not a simple story of a good guy and an uncaring woman taking advantage of him, which seems to be the situation in “Working Day and Night,” or a good woman and an uncaring man taking her for granted, which is what we see in “Slave to the Rhythm.” Rather, it’s a much more complicated story that explores all the conflicting emotions of two people who love each other deeply and want what’s best for the person they love – they truly want to make each other happy – but they can’t understand each other, can’t even see what the other person really wants and needs. So they’re pulling against each other and struggling to resolve it without tearing themselves apart.

You know, Joie, actually, thinking about all this … I’m thinking maybe you’re right – maybe I did suggest this song. I know I was thinking about it quite a bit while we were doing our last post on “Someone Put Your Hand Out” – specifically, when we were talking about that line that refers to “handicapped emotions.” There were quite a few people – even people who seemed to genuinely like Michael Jackson – who suggested he was in a state of arrested development. Specifically, they seemed to think that because he maintained a childlike wonder, he never matured psychologically beyond the level of a child.

For example, here’s an interview with John Landis, and it’s obvious he feels great affection for Michael Jackson. But he also says he was like “an incredibly gifted 10 year old” and that he was “emotionally stunted”:

I have such mixed reactions watching this. I have some good feelings for him because he clearly cared about Michael Jackson and is very upset that he’s gone, but I’m also just stunned at some of the things he says. I mean, John Landis is known for creating adolescent comedies like Animal House and American Werewolf in London, and there are some funny scenes, but have you seen Kentucky Fried Movie? I hate to be critical, but my goodness … talk about juvenile …

Joie: I don’t know, Willa, I think it’s a really nice interview. I think we get to see John just being John, and I love the fact that he gets emotional and doesn’t try to hide it or explain it away. He talks about Michael wearing his heart on his sleeve, and yet here he is wiping tears because his friend is gone.

Willa: That’s true.

Joie: And yes, I have seen Kentucky Fried Movie, and Animal House, both of which I find very juvenile. But I’ve always loved An American Werewolf, so I understand what you’re saying, but I think what he’s getting at is that Michael wasn’t so much “juvenile” as he was “childlike.” You know there’s a difference between movies with juvenile humor and movies with childlike charm. One is very immature jokes with sexual connotations while the other is sweet, innocent fun and adventure. So when he calls Michael a “really talented 10 year old,” to me he’s saying that Michael had a very “childlike” nature and thought process.

Willa: Yes, but he also says he was “emotionally stunted” and “had all kinds of issues.” I haven’t seen all of John Landis’ movies by any means, but as far as I know he never created anything as emotionally complex as “Whatever Happens.” I mean, he’s a professional filmmaker, but has he ever made a film with the emotional depth or nuance of Billie Jean or Smooth Criminal or Stranger in Moscow? Or what about the profound psychological insights of Ghosts – or Thriller, for that matter? He directed Thriller, but whenever he talks about it he doesn’t seem to realize it’s anything more than a cheesy monster movie. And yet he describes Michael Jackson as a “gifted 10 year old.” How is that possible, that the man who created Kentucky Fried Movie calls the man who created “Whatever Happens” – a poignant, exquisite song that explores the heartbreak of two adults struggling through painful, difficult emotions – “emotionally stunted”? That just feels completely backwards to me.

Joie: Well, I haven’t seen all of his films either, but I have seen several. And while I agree completely that we wouldn’t normally think of someone who is labeled as “emotionally stunted” as being able to create works so emotionally complex as “Whatever Happens,” “Billie Jean” or “Stranger in Moscow,” I would argue that John Landis is actually brilliant at what he does. You know, everybody thinks that comedy is easy and horror always gets a bad rap … but there is actually a great deal of skill and mastery needed to scare people half to death or make them laugh, and do both in really intelligent – or juvenile – ways. I mean, they may not have been Oscar contenders, but John Landis is responsible for some of the most iconic films in our culture. You named two of them: Animal House and An American Werewolf in London. But there are others too, like The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, and Coming to America. All five of those films are beloved by millions of people.

And, Willa … I stand by what I said in our last post on “Someone Put Your Hand Out.” I believe that Michael did have what he himself called “handicapped emotions” in that song. I believe that he was able to express himself so beautifully in song, with lyrics that were poignant and full of complex emotional depth and “profound psychological insights.” But I also believe that on some level, at the very core of who he was, Michael was, if not “emotionally stunted,” emotionally handicapped.

You have to think about how he grew up. He had a childhood that not many of us could ever truly comprehend. He was never allowed to really play or interact with other children his age because he was always working. Always being groomed to think about work, to think about how he was perceived by the audience, and how to make the performance better. That was his life from age three. He didn’t learn things like how to properly interact with others his age. He didn’t learn the normal social cues that other children learn at the various life stages. Willa, there is a reason why he never had a “normal” courtship or married life with either of his two wives, and there are lots of quotes out there from people who believe that Michael was sort of an asexual being. Well, I can’t speak on that, but I do believe that he was simply unable to express that kind of real feeling or emotion unless it was in a song, or in a video, or on a stage. I believe that unless it had to do with a performance, it just wasn’t in his repertoire. The performance was his life. His life was the performance. So, in that sense, I think the term “emotionally stunted” is accurate.

Willa: Wow, Joie, I’m astonished. I guess this is one of those areas where we’re just going to have to agree to disagree, because I disagree completely. I have a lot of friends who are not coupled up in long-term relationships, and there is absolutely nothing “emotionally handicapped” about them. Things just didn’t work out that way for them, or they chose not to live that way. But I disagree that says anything about them psychologically, and I also disagree with the assumption that if people aren’t coupled up then that’s evidence there’s something wrong with them.

In fact, I think that assumption is really dangerous, and one of the biases Michael Jackson had to fight against. I think a lot of people assumed there was something wrong with him, and that maybe he really was a pedophile, simply because he wasn’t married or have a long-term girlfriend. And I think he understood that. As the Mayor tells the Maestro in Ghosts, “You’re weird, you’re strange, and I don’t like you. You’re scaring these kids, living up here all alone.” I think the Mayor is simply echoing what a lot of people were saying about Michael Jackson back then – that he was “weird” and “strange” and scary simply because he lived alone.

By the way, it’s interesting how the Maestro responds to the Mayor in Ghosts. He says, “I’m not alone” and then brings a host of fantasy people to life, so the townspeople can see the figures who have been populating his imagination. In other words, he’s not alone because of his art, and his life is full because of his art.

Joie: I think you’re misunderstanding me. I’m not saying that because he wasn’t in a long-term relationship that something must have been wrong with him. In fact, I shouldn’t have even brought up his romantic relationships at all, but I was attempting to illustrate my point. A point which you ignored completely in your rush to defend how he lived his life. But you’re right in saying it’s dangerous to make assumptions about a person’s psychological makeup by looking at their relationship status – and that’s not what I was doing. I’m sorry if it came off that way.

Willa: I’m sorry, Joie. I guess I did misunderstand you. I should have asked you to clarify, rather than jumping in and preaching you a sermon. I’m sorry about that.

Joie: Well, that’s ok. But the point I was trying to make is that Michael didn’t grow up like other kids. He didn’t spend time with other kids his age – at any age! Besides his brothers, he was always in the company of adults, talking about adult things like work and how to do the work better, and how to become the best at it. He never had a chance to learn all of the subtle, nuanced social cues that most 5 year olds learn from other 5 year olds. Or the ones that 8 year olds learn from other 8 year olds. Or the ones that 12 year olds learn from other 12 year olds, and so on, and so on, and so on. So, in that sense, he was emotionally, and socially, stunted.

Willa: Well, I think I have a better idea now of what you mean, Joie, and you’re right – I don’t think anyone else has ever had a childhood like he had. Not only was he a child star, but he was put in the difficult role of being a representative of black America when he was only 10 years old. If he did something wrong, it wasn’t just damaging to him and his reputation – it also reflected badly on an entire race of people. That’s a huge additional pressure – something Shirley Temple and Elizabeth Taylor and Justin Bieber never had to think about. That pressure only intensified as their success – the success of the Jackson 5 and him personally – grew, and he had a very controlling father who was determined his sons weren’t going to mess up. As you said, Joie, it’s hard to even imagine what that was like – what his childhood was like. But while I agree he had an extremely difficult childhood, and it must have had an effect on him, I still disagree that he was left “emotionally stunted” because of all that.

Joie: Well, that’s ok too. It’s ok to disagree about things. But I think something you just said sort makes my point for me. In talking about Ghosts, you said, “He says, ‘I’m not alone’ and then brings a host of fantasy people to life, so the townspeople can see the figures who have been populating his imagination. In other words, he’s not alone because of his art, and his life is full because of his art.” This is exactly what I meant when I said that the performance was his life, and his life was the performance. That’s what it was all about for him, and yes, he lived a beautiful and fulfilled life because of it. But, Willa … someone who lives their life completely inside their own imagination is by definition socially – and therefore emotionally – stunted to some degree.

Willa: I think I see what you’re saying, and I agree that in a lot of ways “the performance was his life, and his life was the performance,” as you said. Especially after the 1993 allegations, his life and his art became intertwined in ways that are hard to untangle. But I don’t think he lived his life entirely in his imagination. His imagination enriched his life – and ours as well – but it didn’t replace his life. That wasn’t what I meant when I quoted that scene from Ghosts.

I think that, because of his art, Michael Jackson had a rich, full, rewarding life – he had a kind of emotional self-sufficiency that we aren’t really used to – but he also repeatedly emphasized the connections between us, and how important it is to honor those connections. That’s a different way of being in the world – one that I find both intriguing and inspiring.

It seems to me that a lot of times people are kind of desperate to couple up because they’re lonely or because there’s an emptiness in their lives, and they think sharing their life with someone else will make that loneliness and emptiness go away. We like the romance story where two incomplete people meet and complete each other – where two halves come together and, between them, form a whole – and where everything else is sacrificed to the ideal of romantic love. But ironically, I think this can actually lead us to be “emotionally stunted,” to use John Landis’ words, because in that model we only learn to be half of a whole, not a fulfilled, self-realized person on our own. We see that a little bit in “Whatever Happens,” where this man is limiting himself and sacrificing his dreams to be what he thinks the woman he loves wants him to be.

On the other hand, in America, especially, we have the story of the rugged individual – the loner, the cowboy, the tough-as-nails private investigator – who doesn’t need anyone, and doesn’t really connect with anyone. That’s subtly suggested in “Whatever Happens” also, by the genre of this song. The beginning, especially, sounds like a western. I can easily imagine that intro being used as the soundtrack to a Clint Eastwood movie – one where the mysterious hero rides into town alone, rescues a girl (who inevitably falls in love with him, and just as inevitably dies), gets rid of the bad guys, and then rides off alone.

Those are two competing cultural narratives, and most people pick one or the other. They’re either the rugged individualist or the hopeless romantic. But Michael Jackson is subtly critiquing both of those models, I think – not just here but repeatedly in his art – and he seems to be working toward a different model. It’s one where we find fulfillment within ourselves – something he found through his art – but where we still care deeply for others and value the connections between us.

Joie: Well, I disagree with some of what you’ve said here about romantic love, but mostly I disagree that the man in “Whatever Happens” is limiting himself and sacrificing his dreams to be what he thinks his woman wants him to be. I think he’s limiting himself and sacrificing his dreams because he feels he has no choice financially. He has a family to provide for, and being emotionally stunted by romantic love has nothing to do with that. I’m also not sure I agree that most people choose one or the other between those two cultural narratives you just described. I think it’s possible for a person to be both. But I understand what you’re getting at where Michael is concerned.

Willa: Well, you’re right that I’m talking about these as models, so they’re an extreme. As with any model, few people fit them entirely. Few people are a Clint Eastwood character – the self-reliant individual who doesn’t need anyone, and doesn’t want anyone dependent on them. And on the other hand, few live the romantic ideal we see on screen so often where a person is really only half of a couple, and their sole source of happiness comes from the love they share with their romantic partner.

But I do think that, in general, people tend to see themselves as one or the other – as an autonomous individual or as defined in large part by their relationships. And as with so many dichotomies, Michael Jackson seems to be suggesting a different way. He’s not dependent on others for fulfilment – he finds that within himself through his art. But then he shares that with others, and the connections he feels through his art – to his audience, to the long line of performers who came before him, to the deep rhythms of the cosmos that he talks about in Dancing the Dream – are integral to who he is. As the song says, “You’re Just Another Part of Me.”

So before we go, I wanted to mention a new book that just came out – or actually, Book One of a trilogy. It’s The Algorithm of Desire by Eleanor Bowman, a regular contributor here. In fact, she discussed some of the ideas she was working on for her book in a post with us last spring. To quote Eleanor,

Book One … investigates the role of creation myths in the construction of a society’s perception of reality, how creation myths program a society’s views and values of the world, and how a culture’s worldview and value system promote, or threaten, collective survival.

Eleanor’s ideas are fascinating, and Book Three of her trilogy focuses on Michael Jackson. As she says, he “not only understood the predicament we find ourselves in, but showed us how to ‘heal the world.’” I’m really looking forward to that.

Book One of the trilogy is available now through Amazon, and Eleanor is offering it for free from May 8th through 12th.

¡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 2013, Week 9: With Your Pen, You Torture Men

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on February 6, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

With Your Pen, You Torture Men

Joie: So, Willa, I’ve been thinking lately about Michael’s existence and about how surreal it would be to have that kind of public scrutiny on your life 24/7. Can you imagine how crazy that would be? Or how special your quiet, private time would become to you if that were your life? I can’t imagine being a public figure on that level. Well, on any level really but, especially on that level. When I really just sit and contemplate it, it blows my mind. He really was one of those people who the world loved to watch and hear about. Whether you loved him or loved to hate him, everybody always wanted more – we couldn’t get enough of him.

Willa: That’s true, Joie. His whole life was conducted on a global stage – not just his performances, but his off-screen life too. And as you say, it’s almost impossible to imagine what that would be like. What if every embarrassing thing you’d ever said or done ever in your life was exposed to the whole world? Or if your most painful moments were on display and debated by a global audience? Just imagine – your wife files for divorce, which is painful enough, but then millions of people around the world feel free to speculate about whether she ever really loved you to begin with. That’s just unimaginable to me.

Joie: It is unimaginable. And impossible to wrap your head around. He often wrote about his experiences in songs like “Leave Me Alone,” “Scream” and “Privacy.” And he was often accused by critics of being paranoid because of it. And actually, if you think about it, there are many, many songs that could fall into the ‘perceived paranoia’ category. Songs like “Tabloid Junkie,” “Money,” and “Is It Scary.” Even songs like “2Bad” and “This Time Around.” And the really big one that comes to my mind is the unreleased song, “Xscape.” Those lyrics are all about that ‘perceived paranoia.’

Everywhere I turn, no matter where I look
The system’s in control, it’s all run by the book
I’ve got to get away so I can clear my mind,
Xscape is what I need,
Away from electric eyes
 
No matter where I am, I see my face around
They pen lies on my name, then push from town to town
Don’t have a place to run, but there’s no need to hide,
I’ve got to, find a place,
So I won’t hide away
 
(Xscape) Got to get away from the system loose in the world today
(Xscape) The pressure that I face from relationships that could go away
(Xscape) The man with the pen that writes the lies that hassle this man
(Xscape) I do what I wanna cause I gotta please nobody but me
 

I love that song so much; I really hope it finds its way onto a proper album someday so everyone can enjoy it. But for now, here’s a version you can listen to on YouTube:

Willa: Wow, Joie, I’d never heard that song before, but it’s fascinating, isn’t it? The drums have this rat-tat-tat-tat rhythm, like machine gun fire, and there are electronic sound effects that really give a sense that he’s under surveillance, or even being hunted by those “electric eyes.” And the lyrics reflect that too – it really feels like, no matter where he travels, he’s in a confined space with the walls closing in.

Joie: The words are really sort of sad in a way. What is that like to see your face on all the tabloids, everywhere you look, with unflattering, untrue, and even downright nasty headlines attached to it?

You know, I never really understood the whole paranoia claim. Yes, he seemed to make a point of including at least one such song on every album but, why label him paranoid for simply writing a song about his life experience? That just doesn’t seem fair to me.

Willa: And you aren’t being paranoid if what you’re saying is true. You’re only being paranoid if you have a delusional sense that people are out to get you when they aren’t. But people really were out to get him, from paparazzi ambushing him for a shock photo, to alleged business partners suing him for a piece of his wealth, to family members trying to guilt him into concerts he didn’t want to do, to executives trying to squeeze every last drop of revenue out of him that they could. That wasn’t paranoia. That was his life.

Joie: Exactly! That was his life! You know, I was watching the Golden Globes a few weeks ago and Jodie Foster was being given the Cecil B. DeMille Award for her lifetime achievements to her craft. And in her speech, she said something that really struck me and immediately made me think of Michael. She said,

“But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy.”

That part of her speech really stood out for me because, as we all know, Jodie Foster is a notoriously private actress who is almost as famous for the way she fiercely guards that privacy as she is for her amazingly impressive catalog of films. She’s also someone who can totally relate to what Michael must have gone through in his lifetime. Like Michael, she became a huge star and a household name at a very, very young age, and she has gone to great lengths over the years to “fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal.” Yet, to my knowledge, no one has ever accused her of being paranoid for trying to protect her privacy.

Willa: That’s true, and I don’t think Jodie Foster ever experienced the level of intrusiveness Michael Jackson experienced. He really was on camera 24/7, as you said. It’s like that movie, The Truman Show, where an entertainment corporation adopts a baby and then puts his entire life on display as an extended reality show. In fact, this is interesting – Aldebaranredstar shared a quotation from Peter Weir, the director of The Truman Show, where says his ideas about the main character came from Michael Jackson:

“You watch The Truman Show and, I mean, Jim Carrey did a fantastic job, but Michael Jackson is Truman. He’s who I based him on and he is the nearest thing to Truman.”

Joie: You know, I hadn’t heard that until after Michael passed away. And I’ve never really been a fan of Jim Carrey so, I’ve actually never watched The Truman Show, believe it or not. But since hearing that comment from Peter Weir I really want to see it. Maybe I’ll rent it this weekend.

Willa: Oh, it’s fascinating, Joie – especially watching it with Michael Jackson in mind. I think you’ll get a lot out of it.

Joie: I’m really interested in it now. I’ll let you know when I watch it. But I want to talk about a couple of those other songs I mentioned earlier. For instance, the lyrics to “Tabloid Junkie” have always fascinated me, and when I think about them in the context of this ‘perceived paranoia’ that so many tried to label Michael Jackson with, they become really telling.

Speculate to break the one you hate
Circulate the lie you confiscate
Assassinate and mutilate
It’s the hounding media, in hysteria

Those are very strong words, and I’m sure that from his point of view and his life experiences, those words were very true.

Willa: Those are strong words, in sound and meaning. In fact, I’m intrigued by the sounds of those words – speculate, circulate, confiscate, assassinate, mutilate – and how they echo the word “hate,” a word he places in a very prominent position at the end of the first line. The way those sounds are located, it almost seems like there’s a reverberation of “hate, hate, hate, hate, hate” throughout this verse. And I wonder if that’s what it felt like to him, being hit with one hateful story after another.

Joie: Wow, I never thought of it that way, Willa. It probably did feel like hate to him. But that was his life and I’m guessing that, at times, it must have seemed unbearable to him. But, looking at those words, I can also see where the critics – or the media – would take offense and want to strike back by trying to make him seem crazy and paranoid. Especially when he included words like these:

It’s slander
You say it’s not a sword
But with your pen you torture men
You’d crucify the Lord

And he goes on to say this:

It’s slander
With the words you use
You’re a parasite in black and white
Do anything for news
 
If you don’t go and buy it
Then they won’t glorify it
To read it sanctifies it
Then why do we keep foolin’ ourselves?

You know, it was almost like they were taunting each other. Michael would write a song about his life experience, the media would take offense to it and strike out against him, so he would lash out in the only way he could … by writing another song about the experience. A vicious cycle. It was a very precarious sort of relationship between them.

Willa: I see what you’re saying, Joie, but it’s a complicated issue, and we see some of that complexity in the verses you just cited. For example, in the lines “You say it’s not a sword / But with your pen you torture men,” he’s referencing the old saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” That adage is actually lauding the power of the written word to bring about positive social change. It’s saying that the written word – whether in novels or essays or poetry or the press – is more powerful than armies at resisting oppression, exposing injustice, and righting wrongs. That’s very similar to the idea he expresses in Beat It and Bad and Jam, among others, that art is more powerful than violence, and we know that was an idea he passionately believed.

But today’s press, with its focus on the sensational and the trivial, denies the power it has – “you say it’s not a sword” – and then carelessly squanders that power to “torture men.” Instead of being a beacon for good, they have become “a parasite in black and white.”

Joie: I just love that phrase! “A parasite in black and white. Do anything for news.” It’s so perfect for the predatory celebrity news that we see today, I think.

Willa: It really is. So it seems to me that he’s criticizing the press not only for attacking him, but for neglecting the higher purpose they should be fulfilling. They should be doing their part to “Heal the world / Make it a better place,” and they aren’t. Instead, they attack those who try. I’ve even read snarky articles about Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. As Michael Jackson tells the press in those lines you cited above, Joie, “You’d crucify the Lord” given the chance, instead of helping to fight injustice.

Joie: I agree with you, Willa. The entire song is a really scathing look at the media. It’s another example of Michael Jackson holding up a mirror for us to examine ourselves but, of course, no one’s listening but the fans. Everyone else is still calling him paranoid.

Willa: Oh, it’s a very scathing look. Not only are the attacks on him unfair and hurtful, but they also distract news organizations from the real work they should be doing. We see that idea in “Breaking News,” as well. In fact, the whole song is a play on the words “breaking news.” Usually those words refer to a news bulletin about an event that’s just happened, but he shifts the meaning so those words refer to how dysfunctional news organizations have become. Those organizations can no longer report real news because the traditional news-gathering systems are falling apart – as he says, “You’re breaking the news.”

It’s also interesting that once again he subtly refers to the idea that “the pen is mightier than the sword” when he sings, “You write the words to destroy like it’s a weapon.” So again, he’s saying that the media have this mighty sword – the power of the press – and they’re misusing it to “torture men” rather than expose corruption and injustice and fight for a better world.

Joie: You’re right, Willa. And what you just said about the press misusing their power to “torture men” instead of using it to fight against corruption and injustice makes me think of another song that could be included in this discussion, “Why You Wanna Trip on Me.” At first listen, it’s not really a ‘paranoid’ song but, when we examine the lyrics, it just fits in so well with what you just said:

They say I’m different
They don’t understand
But there’s a bigger problem
That’s much more in demand
You got world hunger
Not enough to eat
So there’s really no time
To be trippin’ on me
 
You got school teachers
Who don’t wanna teach
You got grown people
Who can’t write or read
You got strange diseases
Ah but there’s no cure
You got many doctors
That aren’t so sure
So tell me
 
Why you wanna trip on me?

What he’s saying here is that, with all the millions of real problems in the world, why on earth is the media tripping on him all the time? Why are they breaking their necks to follow his every move and shove cameras in his face when there are so many other, much more important and distressing issues going on in the world?

Willa: Wow, Joie, I didn’t even think about “Why You Wanna Trip on Me,” but you’re right – that really spells it all out, doesn’t it? As he says, “There’s a bigger problem / That’s much more in demand” for attention from the press, so why are they spending so much time and energy chasing and criticizing him?

But you know, it seems to me that when critics call Michael Jackson paranoid, they aren’t just referring to his songs about the press. They’re also referring to his songs about the lying, threatening, stalking women who hurt My Baby – songs like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Billie Jean,” “Dirty Diana,” and “Dangerous.” But as you pointed out in one of our very first posts, Joie, those threatening women can be interpreted as representing fame, celebrity, or more specifically, the media. For example, there are these lyrics from “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”:

Billie Jean is always talking
When nobody else is talking
Telling lies and rubbing shoulders
So they called her mouth a motor

Bille Jean could be a woman who’s “always talking” and whose mouth is like “a motor,” but that’s a pretty accurate description of the tabloids as well.

Joie: Oh, wow. Good point, Willa! I never really think of those songs as being part of the whole ‘paranoia’ narrative but, you’re right; it does fit, doesn’t it? The threatening women in all those songs were sort of out to get him, weren’t they? That’s really interesting.

You know, this entire conversation still makes me think about that comment Jodie Foster made in that Golden Globes speech about fighting for a life that feels ‘real and honest and normal.’ And it’s just so sad that he never really had that because his life was constantly put on display. And as you said earlier, he wasn’t paranoid in the clinical sense because “they” really were after him. Everyday of his life. Maybe they weren’t out to get him but, they were certainly out to capture his every move.

Willa: Yes, they were. But as he points out in many of those songs, they’re providing what the consumer wants, as you quoted above from “Tabloid Junkie”:

If you don’t go and buy it
Then they won’t glorify it
To read it sanctifies it
Then why do we keep foolin’ ourselves?

He expresses a similar idea in “Monster”:

It’s got you jumping like you should
It’s got you bouncing off the wall
It’s got you drunk enough to fall
 

So he’s saying that consumers have become addicted to those shock stories – “It’s got you drunk enough to fall” – and the media is feeding that addiction. But if we (the collective “we”) can somehow detox ourselves from that kind of slander and remove the market for those stories, that kind of journalism will shrivel up and die.

Joie: And you know, the really difficult thing to understand is why? It seems that everyone complains about “that kind of journalism” but still it persists. And so often, “that kind of journalism” isn’t even true or accurate. Michael pointed that out so well in “Tabloid Junkie”:

Just because you read it in a magazine
You see it on a TV screen
Don’t make it factual

Willa: And Joie, that’s perhaps the most important point of all. You know, I think most people realize that tabloid-style articles and television shows don’t really report the news – that they’re sensationalized or gross exaggerations or even complete fabrications – so why do they exist? What’s the point of “newspapers” and celebrity “news” shows that report false news? That doesn’t make any sense.

I think they’re actually a type of entertainment – a corrupt entertainment – not news. The tabloids turned Michael Jackson into a “monster” and an “animal,” as he sings in “Monster,” and then mocked him as a type of cruel entertainment. For some reason, we insist on turning people into monsters every so often, and the tabloids did that to him and forced him to play that cultural role. He talks about that phenomenon quite a bit in his later work – in songs like “Threatened” and “Is It Scary” and “Monster” and “Breaking News.” And it’s cruel.

You know, my son is 14 and he’s brought home a lot of information about bullying the last few years. The schools are really working hard to prevent bullying, and help kids deal with it when it happens. And one of the things I’ve realized is that almost everything my son has told me about bullying – from name-calling to cyber-bullying to ganging up on those who are perceived as different – applies to the tabloid press as well. They are bullies, and we should be as vigilant in preventing hurtful behavior by tabloid-style media as we are in preventing hurtful behavior by bullies.

We should prevent it not only because it hurts the targets, people like Michael Jackson, but also because it hurts us as well. I think most people think the tabloids are pretty harmless – just mindless fluff about UFOs and celebrities and Nostradamus predictions – and they don’t realize how damaging that constant barrage of misinformation and mean-spirited behavior can be. I think the tabloids and shock-jock radio shows and those kinds of inflammatory entertainment have influenced how we talk to one another, making us less civil and more judgmental. And whether we realize it or not, they’ve also influenced our perceptions and world view. As Michael Jackson told Oprah back in 1993, “If you hear a lie often enough, you start to believe it.”

Joie: Willa, I could not agree with you more. I especially like what you just said about tabloids and shock-jock radio shows being a type of inflammatory entertainment, and I think probably 90% of the so-called “reality” TV shows can be placed in that same catagory. And shows like that have influenced the way we talk to and relate to one another – and not at all in a good way. Again, it’s one of the many lessons that Michael Jackson tried over and over to teach us but, most refuse to listen.

He’s a Monster, He’s an Animal

Willa:  Joie, I know we’ve tended to stay away from breaking news and sensationalized stories, with good reason. It’s all too easy to get caught up on the rollercoaster of rumor and innuendo and pseudo news, and lose sight of the big picture. In general, I think it’s much better to focus on Michael Jackson’s art and let the sensationalism wear itself out.

Joie:  I couldn’t agree more.

Willa:  But one interesting aspect of Michael Jackson’s art is that he wrestled with complex issues like mass media, public perception, and prejudice, and the complicated interconnections between them. And something happened last week that really underscored that for me. Wade Robson’s lawyer, Henry Gradstein, said in a prepared statement that “Michael Jackson was a monster, and in their hearts every normal person knows it.”

Joie, how many times did Michael Jackson warn us about this – about “normal people” becoming fearful of those who are different, and imagining they’re “monsters” because of that fear? That’s the central plot of Ghosts. (I can actually close my eyes and imagine the Mayor saying Gradstein’s words during that long speech when he’s confronting the Maestro:  “We have a nice normal town, normal people, normal kids. We don’t need freaks like you. …”) He addresses that fear in Thriller as well – in fact, it provides the psychological underpinnings of that short film. Thriller “works” because it taps into that fear. And that’s exactly what he’s talking about in “Is It Scary,” “Threatened,” and “Monster” as well.

Joie:  You know, Willa, it’s still so shocking to me that people feel that way about him. I mean, it’s one thing to jump on the bandwagon and badmouth someone when everybody else seems to be doing it too. But to attack someone after they’re gone in such a vicious manner … I was just really shocked when I read that quote last week. In fact, I think I still am.

But to get back to what you just said, you’re absolutely right. Michael addressed this very topic over and over and over again. It’s almost as if it was constantly at the forefront of his mind and his imagination. And if you think about it, I’m sure it probably was. I mean, after all, it was a subject he just couldn’t seem to get away from. It was, quite literally, “the story of his life.” And I just think it’s so sad. When you first proposed this topic for this week’s post, the lyrics to “Monster” came immediately to my mind, and I just felt so tired. Do you know what I mean?

Willa:  Oh, I do. I know exactly what you mean. …

Joie:  Like I actually took a deep, sad breath and I just felt so exhausted. If I felt that way, can you imagine how he must have felt when he wrote these words:

Monster
He’s a monster
He’s an animal

We hear that short refrain over and over again in the song, and it just breaks my heart. He goes on to say:

Why are they never satisfied with all you give?
You give them your all
They’re watching you fall
And they eat your soul like a vegetable 

Don’t you ever wonder what that felt like to him? How lonely and miserable that must have been? I don’t know that there has ever been a more miserable soul on this planet than Michael Jackson’s. Which is truly heartbreaking when you think about the immense amount of talent he possessed and the staggering numbers of people that he brought happiness to. And yet, he himself was this miserable, tragic, sad, sad creature.

Willa:  Well, yes and no. I mean, Michael Jackson endured a level of public vilification few of us can even imagine. I mean, it’s literally unimaginable to me – beyond my capacity to comprehend what he went through. But I think he also experienced a kind of joy few of us can imagine either – the joy of creative ecstasy as we talked about a little bit with Give In to Me last spring. So I guess I feel he had higher highs as well as lower lows.

But I do know what you’re saying, Joie, and I think those lyrics you quoted are really important, especially that last line, “they eat your soul like a vegetable.” One reason that jumps out at me is because it echoes words he wrote much earlier in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” where he repeatedly sings these lines at the end of each chorus:

You’re a vegetable (You’re a vegetable)
Still they hate you (You’re a vegetable)
You’re just a buffet (You’re a vegetable)
They eat off of you (You’re a vegetable)

This song was written in the mid-1970s and “Monster” was written in the mid-2000s, sometime after the 2005 trial – that’s a 30-year time span – yet both songs express a similar idea using the same metaphor:  that the press feeds off him (“they eat your soul”) just like the zombies in a horror movie feed off the souls of the living.

So there’s this interesting reversal where the mass media is portraying him as a “monster,” but he’s saying they are the true monsters. He’s alive – vibrantly alive – with the exuberant vitality of a dancer and creative artist, but their souls are dead – they have no creative spark animating them – and so they try to feed off him. He makes that reversal explicit the last couple of times he sings the chorus you quoted earlier, when he reverses the meaning by adding interstitial lines:

Monster
(Why you haunting me?)
He’s a monster
(Why are you stalking me?)
He’s an animal
(Why’d you do it? Why’d you? Why you stalking me?)
 

Joie:  Willa, I think that’s a wonderful interpretation of “Monster” and I love what you just said, comparing the press to flesh-eating zombies that can’t wait to feed off of Michael Jackson’s creativity and vitality. It’s a beautiful assessment of the situation.

Willa:  It is fascinating how he sets that up and then flips it around, isn’t it? And that idea that the tabloids are feeding off him reminds me of those threatening teeth in Leave Me Alone that we talked about last fall. Those chomping teeth form the bass line of Leave Me Alone, which is an extended look at media excess that links modern tabloids with exploitative freak shows of the past. So again he’s suggesting that the press wants to feed off him, and the sound of those teeth throughout the video reinforces that.

Joie:  What’s really interesting to me, Willa, is how, in one corner, you’ve got the press, who keep repeatedly referring to him as a monster, and all of the “talking heads” from all of the news outlets (be it tabloid or mainstream) join in on the charge. But then in the other corner, there’s Michael himself, pointing back at the press and stating very clearly for all who will listen, that he’s not the monster … they are! It almost feels like that episode of the old Twilight Zone series where the people in a diner all know very clearly that there is an alien/monster among them. Only no one is really quite sure exactly who the real monster is and they’re all accusing each other! Remember that episode?

Willa:  No, I don’t think I ever saw that one, but it sounds really interesting. And thinking of The Twilight Zone reminds me of “Threatened,” with its posthumous Rod Serling intro:

Tonight’s story is somewhat unique and calls for a different kind of introduction. A monster had arrived in the village. The major ingredient of any recipe for fear is the unknown, and this person or thing is soon to be met. He knows every thought. He can feel every emotion. Oh yes, I did forget something, didn’t I? I forgot to introduce you to the monster.

And then we hear Michael Jackson’s voice – he’s the monster Rod Serling was talking about. So we’re in the unusual position of hearing the story from the monster’s point of view.

And that reminds me of one of the first monster stories, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. In the original novel, Mary Shelley casts Frankenstein’s monster as an intelligent, sensitive soul who’s abused and mistreated because his appearance is so frightening. In fact, in some ways the people he meets are the true monsters because they’re so vicious to him. So the question is, who’s the real monster in this situation?

That’s a question Michael Jackson raised many times. For example, in “Is It Scary” he says, “It’s you who’s haunting me / Because you’re wanting me / To be the stranger in the night.” And he concludes with this fairly blunt assessment:

I’m tired of being abused
You know you’re scaring me too
I see the evil is you
Is it scary for you, baby? 

In other words, the “evil” that people fear is coming from their own minds. They’re imposing their fears onto him, and he’s just a mirror reflecting their own thoughts and fears back at them:

Can the heart reveal the proof
Like a mirror reveals the truth?
See the evil one is you

Joie:  Yeah, that song is just so telling. And really, if you just sit and listen to them, most of the “scary” songs are very telling, deeply personal glimpses into what his life must have felt like to him. And you know, Willa, whenever I let myself dwell on it, I just cannot imagine living with that level of scrutiny every single day of my life, and still being able to function. And ultimately, I guess the argument could be made that he wasn’t able to function that way for very long.

Willa:  Oh, it’s just unbelievable what his life must have been like, but we can kind of get a glimpse of it through these “monster” songs and films because one thing he’s trying to do in these works is show us what it feels like to be in that position – to be the object of everyone fears.

You know, Michael Jackson had an incredible habit of empathy. We see it in his work as well as interviews. Whenever he’s trying to understand a situation, his first impulse is almost always to immediately look at it from the other person’s point of view. We see that over and over again, like in “Dirty Diana” where a groupie is trying to manipulate him, but instead of simply rejecting her, or using her and walking away as many rock stars would do, he tries to understand her by looking at things from her perspective. He does something similar in his “scary” songs where he doesn’t just push back against the attacks, but also tries to get inside the mind of his attackers and understand why they are treating him like a monster. (And by the way, this habit of empathy is one reason I’m so sure he would never molest a child, in addition to all the evidence. If you have that habit of empathy, you can’t abuse someone because you’re too aware of how that abuse must feel to them.) And he also encourages us to try to see things from his perspective as well.

So one way of interpreting his “monster” works is to see them as an artistic way for him to work through these issues and explore why the police, the press, and the public were so insistent on seeing him as a monster – and there are important cultural and psychological reasons for why that keeps happening. As he tells us in “Threatened,” “I’m not a ghost from Hell / but I’ve got a spell on you.” He is the Other, the “monster,” the embodiment of difference that both fascinates and frightens us – that is the “spell” he has on the public imagination – but he’s an Other who seems to know us all too well:

You’re fearing me
’Cause you know I’m a beast …
I’m the living dead
The dark thoughts in your head
I heard just what you said
That’s why you’ve got to be threatened by me

So we fear that he’s a “beast” but an extremely intelligent beast, a beast who knows “the dark thoughts in your head” and can move us emotionally and psychologically in ways we don’t fully understand – and what could be more frightening than that? That’s why he tells us “You should be watching me / You should feel threatened,” because he represents our worst fears.

But that’s not really who he is – he’s not really a monster – it’s just a reflection of our own minds. We’re simply giving vent to all our deepest fears by projecting them onto him.

Joie:  And the ugly truth is that he made such an easy target of himself. He made it almost effortless for those doing the venting to project that madness onto him. But he always turned the other cheek with such dignity and grace, never lowering himself to their standards, never lashing out in anger. Not really the actions of a monster, huh?

With your Pen, you Torture Men

Joie:  So, Willa, I’ve been thinking lately about Michael’s existence and about how surreal it would be to have that kind of public scrutiny on your life 24/7. Can you imagine how crazy that would be? Or how special your quiet, private time would become to you if that were your life? I can’t imagine being a public figure on that level. Well, on any level really but, especially on that level. When I really just sit and contemplate it, it blows my mind. He really was one of those people who the world loved to watch and hear about. Whether you loved him or loved to hate him, everybody always wanted more – we couldn’t get enough of him.

Willa:  That’s true, Joie. His whole life was conducted on a global stage – not just his performances, but his off-screen life too. And as you say, it’s almost impossible to imagine what that would be like. What if every embarrassing thing you’d ever said or done ever in your life was exposed to the whole world? Or if your most painful moments were on display and debated by a global audience? Just imagine – your wife files for divorce, which is painful enough, but then millions of people around the world feel free to speculate about whether she ever really loved you to begin with. That’s just unimaginable to me.

Joie:  It is unimaginable. And impossible to wrap your head around. He often wrote about his experiences in songs like “Leave Me Alone,” “Scream” and “Privacy.” And he was often accused by critics of being paranoid because of it. And actually, if you think about it, there are many, many songs that could fall into the ‘perceived paranoia’ category. Songs like “Tabloid Junkie,” “Money,” and “Is It Scary.” Even songs like “2Bad” and “This Time Around.” And the really big one that comes to my mind is the unreleased song, “Xscape.” Those lyrics are all about that ‘perceived paranoia.’

Everywhere I turn, no matter where I look
The system’s in control, it’s all run by the book
I’ve got to get away so I can clear my mind,
Xscape is what I need,
Away from electric eyes
 
No matter where I am, I see my face around
They pen lies on my name, then push from town to town
Don’t have a place to run, but there’s no need to hide,
I’ve got to, find a place,
So I won’t hide away
 
(Xscape) Got to get away from the system loose in the world today
(Xscape) The pressure that I face from relationships that could go away
(Xscape) The man with the pen that writes the lies that hassle this man
(Xscape) I do what I wanna cause I gotta please nobody but me
 

I love that song so much; I really hope it finds its way onto a proper album someday so everyone can enjoy it. But for now, here’s a version you can listen to on YouTube:

Willa:  Wow, Joie, I’d never heard that song before, but it’s fascinating, isn’t it? The drums have this rat-tat-tat-tat rhythm, like machine gun fire, and there are electronic sound effects that really give a sense that he’s under surveillance, or even being hunted by those “electric eyes.” And the lyrics reflect that too – it really feels like, no matter where he travels, he’s in a confined space with the walls closing in.

Joie:  The words are really sort of sad in a way. What is that like to see your face on all the tabloids, everywhere you look, with unflattering, untrue, and even downright nasty headlines attached to it?

You know, I never really understood the whole paranoia claim. Yes, he seemed to make a point of including at least one such song on every album but, why label him paranoid for simply writing a song about his life experience? That just doesn’t seem fair to me.

Willa:  And you aren’t being paranoid if what you’re saying is true. You’re only being paranoid if you have a delusional sense that people are out to get you when they aren’t. But people really were out to get him, from paparazzi ambushing him for a shock photo, to alleged business partners suing him for a piece of his wealth, to family members trying to guilt him into concerts he didn’t want to do, to executives trying to squeeze every last drop of revenue out of him that they could. That wasn’t paranoia. That was his life.

Joie:  Exactly! That was his life! You know, I was watching the Golden Globes a few weeks ago and Jodie Foster was being given the Cecil B. DeMille Award for her lifetime achievements to her craft. And in her speech, she said something that really struck me and immediately made me think of Michael. She said,

“But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy.”

That part of her speech really stood out for me because, as we all know, Jodie Foster is a notoriously private actress who is almost as famous for the way she fiercely guards that privacy as she is for her amazingly impressive catalog of films. She’s also someone who can totally relate to what Michael must have gone through in his lifetime. Like Michael, she became a huge star and a household name at a very, very young age, and she has gone to great lengths over the years to “fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal.” Yet, to my knowledge, no one has ever accused her of being paranoid for trying to protect her privacy.

Willa:  That’s true, and I don’t think Jodie Foster ever experienced the level of intrusiveness Michael Jackson experienced. He really was on camera 24/7, as you said. It’s like that movie, The Truman Show, where an entertainment corporation adopts a baby and then puts his entire life on display as an extended reality show. In fact, this is interesting – Aldebaranredstar shared a quotation from Peter Weir, the director of The Truman Show, where says his ideas about the main character came from Michael Jackson:

“You watch The Truman Show and, I mean, Jim Carrey did a fantastic job, but Michael Jackson is Truman. He’s who I based him on and he is the nearest thing to Truman.”

Joie:  You know, I hadn’t heard that until after Michael passed away. And I’ve never really been a fan of Jim Carrey so, I’ve actually never watched The Truman Show, believe it or not. But since hearing that comment from Peter Weir I really want to see it. Maybe I’ll rent it this weekend.

Willa:  Oh, it’s fascinating, Joie – especially watching it with Michael Jackson in mind. I think you’ll get a lot out of it.

Joie:  I’m really interested in it now. I’ll let you know when I watch it. But I want to talk about a couple of those other songs I mentioned earlier. For instance, the lyrics to “Tabloid Junkie” have always fascinated me, and when I think about them in the context of this ‘perceived paranoia’ that so many tried to label Michael Jackson with, they become really telling.

Speculate to break the one you hate
Circulate the lie you confiscate
Assassinate and mutilate
It’s the hounding media, in hysteria

Those are very strong words, and I’m sure that from his point of view and his life experiences, those words were very true.

Willa:  Those are strong words, in sound and meaning. In fact, I’m intrigued by the sounds of those words – speculate, circulate, confiscate, assassinate, mutilate – and how they echo the word “hate,” a word he places in a very prominent position at the end of the first line. The way those sounds are located, it almost seems like there’s a reverberation of “hate, hate, hate, hate, hate” throughout this verse. And I wonder if that’s what it felt like to him, being hit with one hateful story after another.

Joie:  Wow, I never thought of it that way, Willa. It probably did feel like hate to him. But that was his life and I’m guessing that, at times, it must have seemed unbearable to him. But, looking at those words, I can also see where the critics – or the media – would take offense and want to strike back by trying to make him seem crazy and paranoid. Especially when he included words like these:

It’s slander
You say it’s not a sword
But with your pen you torture men
You’d crucify the Lord

And he goes on to say this:

It’s slander
With the words you use
You’re a parasite in black and white
Do anything for news
 
If you don’t go and buy it
Then they won’t glorify it
To read it sanctifies it
Then why do we keep foolin’ ourselves?

You know, it was almost like they were taunting each other. Michael would write a song about his life experience, the media would take offense to it and strike out against him, so he would lash out in the only way he could … by writing another song about the experience. A vicious cycle. It was a very precarious sort of relationship between them.

Willa:  I see what you’re saying, Joie, but it’s a complicated issue, and we see some of that complexity in the verses you just cited. For example, in the lines “You say it’s not a sword / But with your pen you torture men,” he’s referencing the old saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” That adage is actually lauding the power of the written word to bring about positive social change. It’s saying that the written word – whether in novels or essays or poetry or the press – is more powerful than armies at resisting oppression, exposing injustice, and righting wrongs. That’s very similar to the idea he expresses in Beat It and Bad and Jam, among others, that art is more powerful than violence, and we know that was an idea he passionately believed.

But today’s press, with its focus on the sensational and the trivial, denies the power it has – “you say it’s not a sword” – and then carelessly squanders that power to “torture men.” Instead of being a beacon for good, they have become “a parasite in black and white.”

Joie:  I just love that phrase! “A parasite in black and white. Do anything for news.” It’s so perfect for the predatory celebrity news that we see today, I think.

Willa:  It really is. So it seems to me that he’s criticizing the press not only for attacking him, but for neglecting the higher purpose they should be fulfilling. They should be doing their part to “Heal the world / Make it a better place,” and they aren’t. Instead, they attack those who try. I’ve even read snarky articles about Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. As Michael Jackson tells the press in those lines you cited above, Joie, “You’d crucify the Lord” given the chance, instead of helping to fight injustice.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa. The entire song is a really scathing look at the media. It’s another example of Michael Jackson holding up a mirror for us to examine ourselves but, of course, no one’s listening but the fans. Everyone else is still calling him paranoid.

Willa:  Oh, it’s a very scathing look. Not only are the attacks on him unfair and hurtful, but they also distract news organizations from the real work they should be doing. We see that idea in “Breaking News,” as well. In fact, the whole song is a play on the words “breaking news.” Usually those words refer to a news bulletin about an event that’s just happened, but he shifts the meaning so those words refer to how dysfunctional news organizations have become. Those organizations can no longer report real news because the traditional news-gathering systems are falling apart – as he says, “You’re breaking the news.”

It’s also interesting that once again he subtly refers to the idea that “the pen is mightier than the sword” when he sings, “You write the words to destroy like it’s a weapon.” So again, he’s saying that the media have this mighty sword – the power of the press – and they’re misusing it to “torture men” rather than expose corruption and injustice and fight for a better world.

Joie:  You’re right, Willa. And what you just said about the press misusing their power to “torture men” instead of using it to fight against corruption and injustice makes me think of another song that could be included in this discussion, “Why You Wanna Trip on Me.” At first listen, it’s not really a ‘paranoid’ song but, when we examine the lyrics, it just fits in so well with what you just said:

They say I’m different
They don’t understand
But there’s a bigger problem
That’s much more in demand
You got world hunger
Not enough to eat
So there’s really no time
To be trippin’ on me
 
You got school teachers
Who don’t wanna teach
You got grown people
Who can’t write or read
You got strange diseases
Ah but there’s no cure
You got many doctors
That aren’t so sure
So tell me
 
Why you wanna trip on me?

What he’s saying here is that, with all the millions of real problems in the world, why on earth is the media tripping on him all the time? Why are they breaking their necks to follow his every move and shove cameras in his face when there are so many other, much more important and distressing issues going on in the world?

Willa:  Wow, Joie, I didn’t even think about “Why You Wanna Trip on Me,” but you’re right – that really spells it all out, doesn’t it?  As he says, “There’s a bigger problem / That’s much more in demand” for attention from the press, so why are they spending so much time and energy chasing and criticizing him?

But you know, it seems to me that when critics call Michael Jackson paranoid, they aren’t just referring to his songs about the press. They’re also referring to his songs about the lying, threatening, stalking women who hurt My Baby – songs like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Billie Jean,” “Dirty Diana,” and “Dangerous.” But as you pointed out in one of our very first posts, Joie, those threatening women can be interpreted as representing fame, celebrity, or more specifically, the media. For example, there are these lyrics from “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”:

Billie Jean is always talking
When nobody else is talking
Telling lies and rubbing shoulders
So they called her mouth a motor

Bille Jean could be a woman who’s “always talking” and whose mouth is like “a motor,” but that’s a pretty accurate description of the tabloids as well.

Joie:  Oh, wow. Good point, Willa! I never really think of those songs as being part of the whole ‘paranoia’ narrative but, you’re right; it does fit, doesn’t it? The threatening women in all those songs were sort of out to get him, weren’t they? That’s really interesting.

You know, this entire conversation still makes me think about that comment Jodie Foster made in that Golden Globes speech about fighting for a life that feels ‘real and honest and normal.’ And it’s just so sad that he never really had that because his life was constantly put on display. And as you said earlier, he wasn’t paranoid in the clinical sense because “they” really were after him. Everyday of his life. Maybe they weren’t out to get him but, they were certainly out to capture his every move.

Willa:  Yes, they were. But as he points out in many of those songs, they’re providing what the consumer wants, as you quoted above from “Tabloid Junkie”:

If you don’t go and buy it
Then they won’t glorify it
To read it sanctifies it
Then why do we keep foolin’ ourselves?

He expresses a similar idea in “Monster”:

It’s got you jumping like you should
It’s got you bouncing off the wall
It’s got you drunk enough to fall
 

So he’s saying that consumers have become addicted to those shock stories – “It’s got you drunk enough to fall” – and the media is feeding that addiction. But if we (the collective “we”) can somehow detox ourselves from that kind of slander and remove the market for those stories, that kind of journalism will shrivel up and die.

Joie:  And you know, the really difficult thing to understand is why? It seems that everyone complains about “that kind of journalism” but still it persists. And so often, “that kind of journalism” isn’t even true or accurate. Michael pointed that out so well in “Tabloid Junkie”:

Just because you read it in a magazine
You see it on a TV screen
Don’t make it factual

Willa:  And Joie, that’s perhaps the most important point of all. You know, I think most people realize that tabloid-style articles and television shows don’t really report the news – that they’re sensationalized or gross exaggerations or even complete fabrications – so why do they exist? What’s the point of “newspapers” and celebrity “news” shows that report false news? That doesn’t make any sense.

I think they’re actually a type of entertainment – a corrupt entertainment – not news. The tabloids turned Michael Jackson into a “monster” and an “animal,” as he sings in “Monster,” and then mocked him as a type of cruel entertainment. For some reason, we insist on turning people into monsters every so often, and the tabloids did that to him and forced him to play that cultural role. He talks about that phenomenon quite a bit in his later work – in songs like “Threatened” and “Is It Scary” and “Monster” and “Breaking News.”  And it’s cruel.

You know, my son is 14 and he’s brought home a lot of information about bullying the last few years. The schools are really working hard to prevent bullying, and help kids deal with it when it happens. And one of the things I’ve realized is that almost everything my son has told me about bullying – from name-calling to cyber-bullying to ganging up on those who are perceived as different – applies to the tabloid press as well. They are bullies, and we should be as vigilant in preventing hurtful behavior by tabloid-style media as we are in preventing hurtful behavior by bullies.

We should prevent it not only because it hurts the targets, people like Michael Jackson, but also because it hurts us as well. I think most people think the tabloids are pretty harmless – just mindless fluff about UFOs and celebrities and Nostradamus predictions – and they don’t realize how damaging that constant barrage of misinformation and mean-spirited behavior can be. I think the tabloids and shock-jock radio shows and those kinds of inflammatory entertainment have influenced how we talk to one another, making us less civil and more judgmental. And whether we realize it or not, they’ve also influenced our perceptions and world view. As Michael Jackson told Oprah back in 1993, “If you hear a lie often enough, you start to believe it.”

Joie:  Willa, I could not agree with you more. I especially like what you just said about tabloids and shock-jock radio shows being a type of inflammatory entertainment, and I think probably 90% of the so-called “reality”  TV shows can be placed in that same catagory. And shows like that have influenced the way we talk to and relate to one another – and not at all in a good way. Again, it’s one of the many lessons that Michael Jackson tried over and over to teach us but, most refuse to listen.

Summer Rewind, Week 1: My Baby

NOTE:  The My Baby series was originally posted last August on the 14th, 20th and 27th. You can see the original posts and comments here.

Thinking About My Baby

Willa:  As Joie mentioned last week, the idea for this blog grew out of a long series of emails we were exchanging back and forth. We were having a wonderful time sharing ideas and comparing notes about Michael Jackson’s work, and we each really enjoyed talking with someone who knew his work and cared about it as much as we did. One thing she and I discovered over the course of our emails is that we’re both fascinated by My Baby, and have been for a long time.

Joie:  You all know who she is; you have heard Michael sing about her for years. She is presumably the girl of his dreams, the woman who knows him and loves him and truly cares about him. She’s also the woman who is constantly hurt time and time again by other devious, “bad girls” who throw themselves into Michael’s orbit like in “Billie Jean,” “Dirty Diana,” and “Dangerous.”

Willa:  She’s a very important figure in Michael Jackson’s work, appearing on album after album, from Triumph and Thriller in the early 1980s to Invincible in 2001. And, as Joie says, she’s almost always hurt or threatened in some way. In fact, we often see her walking away in tears.

Joie:  What draws my attention to her, I guess, is the fact that Michael sings about her as if she is someone who has been in his life for a long time. Even though her appearance on the songs I just mentioned – and others – is usually brief, we get the feeling that she is incredibly important to him. He loves her and he clearly wants to protect her from the ‘wicked women,’ he sings about in “Heartbreak Hotel,” (a.k.a. This Place Hotel). We see him constantly fretting over the fact that she will be hurt somehow by the “bad girls” and that they will drive her away from him.

Someone’s always tryin’  
to start My Baby cryin.’  
Talking, squealing, lying,  
saying you just want to be startin’ somethin.’

It’s almost as if he’s describing a relationship that has seen its share of ups and downs. They’ve been through this sort of thing before and My Baby always ends up hurt. At least, in the early years of their relationship – in the 1980s and ’90s. But by 2001’s “Heaven Can Wait,” it’s clearly a much different relationship. Here we see that My Baby not only loves him and cares about him, but now she trusts him too; she has faith in him. Their relationship is solid and no one can come between them anymore. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with and it’s the greatest love affair either of them has ever experienced. He loves her so deeply that he doesn’t want to leave her for an instant – not even for heaven!

Oh no, can’t be without My Baby.  
Won’t go, without her I’ll go crazy.  
Oh no, guess Heaven will be waiting.

It’s really interesting to me that their union changes over time. The way he writes about her grows and matures over the years just as if it were a real relationship. We see the initial infatuation in songs like “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and “Streetwalker,” and we watch it grow and blossom in songs like “Black or White,” and “Fly Away.” And then we see the culmination of their love on the beautiful “Heaven Can Wait.”

Willa:  As Joie says, in his early albums, she’s threatened by another woman. My Baby seems to be a private person who knows and cares about the protagonist, though she avoids the limelight and seems somewhat uncomfortable with his fame. He loves her and tries to protect her, but she’s repeatedly hurt by another woman who wants to push her out and take her place. This second woman doesn’t really know him or care about him, but she’s much bolder than My Baby and is actually attracted to fame, the protagonist’s fame – in fact, she’s something of an adventurer. The protagonist recognizes all that and distrusts her. Yet at the same time, he finds himself strangely drawn to this other, bolder woman.

Joie:  And his relationship with this other woman is just as interesting as his relationship with My Baby. It’s almost like you can’t have one without the other. Like they are two halves of the same coin, so to speak.

Willa:  I agree. The recurring conflict between these women is very interesting. There’s obviously something very important going on here – something Michael Jackson explored and wrestled with for years. I think that’s one reason I started seeing My Baby as representing more than just a romantic relationship. To me, My Baby and the other woman seem to represent his shy side versus his public side, or his private life versus his public life, with the intrusions of the media and intense public interest in him threatening to destroy his private life, just as that bold other woman threatens to drive away My Baby.

Or these two women could represent his muse – the woman of myth who has quietly inspired artists’ creativity for centuries – and the audience and critics who kept demanding that he create another Thriller and just wanted him to sing “Billie Jean” over and over again for the rest of his life. But it’s not an either/or situation. While I see these other interpretations, I still see My Baby as a woman who knows him and cares for him, and provides for him emotionally as well.

Welcome to Heartbreak Hotel

Willa:  We first meet My Baby in “Heartbreak Hotel” (or “This Place Hotel”), which Michael Jackson wrote and recorded for The Jacksons’ 1980 Triumph album. And it seems to have been an important song for him: he performed it with his brothers on the Triumph and Victory tours, and it was the only Jacksons’ song he sang throughout his Bad tour.

“Heartbreak Hotel” begins with a reference to a traumatic loss that happened “Ten years ago on this day”:

Live in sin  
Ten years ago on this day my heart was yearning  
I promised I would never ever be returning  
Where My Baby broke my heart and left me yearning

Importantly, “ten years ago” is when Michael Jackson first became a public figure on the national stage: “I Want You Back” became the Jackson 5’s first number one hit in 1970.

The protagonist and My Baby enter Heartbreak Hotel together. It’s a public place where they encounter a crowd of “faces staring.” And while the staring people are strangers, they seem to know him: “they smiled with eyes that looked as if they knew me.” But they don’t really know him, and he doesn’t know them. It’s a pretty accurate description of the life of a celebrity. This stanza ends with Jackson singing, “This is scaring me.”

He and My Baby walk upstairs together and enter his hotel room, but two women are there already. One of them approaches him and says, “This is the place / You said to meet you right here at noon.” It’s not true, but My Baby believes her – believes this stranger is his lover – and Jackson sings, “Hope is dead.” He goes on to describe how My Baby is hurt because she doesn’t understand the situation, but ends with “Someone’s evil to hurt my soul.” So this lie not only hurts My Baby; it also hurts “my soul.” The two are so closely connected, it’s as if My Baby is his soul. The stanza ends with these lines:

This is scaring me  
Then the man next door had told  
He’s been here in tears for fifteen years  
This is scaring me

Who is this man? Could it possibly be Elvis? After all, Elvis begins his song “Heartbreak Hotel” (which was his first number one hit) with the lines:

Since My Baby left me  
I found a new  place to dwell
 It’s down at the end of Lonely Street  
At Heartbreak Hotel

So apparently Elvis lives there. Now Michael Jackson has checked into the room next door, and he’s in the same position Elvis was in for years.

This “man next door” says “He’s been here in tears for fifteen years,” so since 1965 – right when Elvis’ career began its decline, and his celebrity began to take an ugly turn. Elvis was the King in the late 1950s and early ’60s, but then the British Invasion took place from 1964 to 1966. Suddenly, the Beatles and Rolling Stones were climbing the pop charts, and Elvis was increasingly seen as outdated and irrelevant, even an object of ridicule.

So in these two very different songs with the same name, Elvis and Michael Jackson describe a situation that’s emotionally devastating to them. However, while Elvis is clearly singing about a romantic loss, Jackson’s song is much more complicated, and much more ambiguous. Is it just a shattered romance, or more than that? Jackson’s “Heartbreak Hotel” ends with these lines:

Someone’s stabbing my heart  
This is Heartbreak Hotel  
Ten years ago today  
Hurting my mind  
You break My Baby’s heart  
This is Heartbreak Hotel  
Just welcome to the scene

“Welcome to the scene” is a pretty odd ending for a song about lost love. So again, there seems to be more going on than just an ill-fated romance. And once again, he and My Baby are conflated: his heart is hurt, her heart is hurt, his mind is hurt. They share the same pain. He’s feeling what she’s feeling, as if she were a part of him.

Joie:  Wow! Not sure I would have made the obvious Elvis connection here but, I’ve got to say, it makes a crazy kind of sense.

Willa:  I know. It does sound kind of crazy, doesn’t it? I wasn’t expecting to go off on an Elvis tangent, and obviously “the man next door” could mean many different things, but suddenly that idea popped into my head and I went with it, just to see where it took me. I think any interpretation – even a crazy-sounding interpretation – is valid as long as it can be adequately supported by evidence from the text, and there’s quite a bit of evidence to support this. And it does make a lot of sense if you see this song as talking about celebrity, which was a very important theme for Michael Jackson.

Joie:  Well, I’ll go with that for a minute and say that, if this was intentional on Michael’s part, it’s actually brilliant. However, when The Jacksons made the decision to change the name of the song to “This Place Hotel,” Michael did say that he was not familiar with Elvis’ song. So, while I agree that the imagery of both songs work very well together, I’m skeptical that there is any real connection between the two.

But I love what you have to say about My Baby possibly representing his own soul. And that line towards the end where he says “Hurting my mind.” It’s like My Baby represents him: his psyche. His mind, his heart, his soul – the inner self that he keeps protected from public view. As I said last week, Michael sings about My Baby as if she is someone who is very important to him and has been in his life for a very long time, and I think this notion that she is symbolic of his own inner being carries a lot of weight. In “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” Michael says,

Someone’s always tryin’  
To start My Baby cryin’  
Talking, squealing, lying  
Saying you just want to be startin’ somethin’

If we look at this verse in these terms, it’s very easy to see how My Baby could be a euphemism for his inner self. Someone’s always trying to hurt him. He goes on to sing,

Billie Jean is always talkin’  
When nobody else is talkin’  
Telling lies and rubbing shoulders  
So they called her mouth a motor

Sticking with this theory we can argue that Billie Jean – and all of the other “bad girls” who come his way – represents his public life and all the baggage that comes with it (the lies, the media, the paparazzi, etc.).

Willa:  I agree, and I really like that quotation you cited. “Billie Jean is always talkin’” – just like the media is always talking. From a very young age, Michael Jackson faced constant commentary and speculation about his private life. And the media’s mouth isn’t just “a motor.” It’s an industry.

Joie:  An industry he would end up battling for the rest of his career. But we’ll talk more about that next time when we take a closer look at the “bad girls” in this threesome.

Willa:  Right. And this three-way conflict between My Baby, the intrusive women who hurt her, and the protagonist who finds himself caught between the two continues to evolve – just as Michael Jackson’s relationship with the media evolved. We see this scenario of My Baby being hurt by an aggressive, dishonest woman recurring again and again: for example, in “Billie Jean” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” on Thriller, in “Dirty Diana” from Bad, and in the title track to Dangerous. And then she disappears. My Baby isn’t mentioned once on his HIStory album, which was his first album after the 1993 molestation allegations. It’s like his public life has become so toxic she’s completely hidden from view now.

Or maybe not. Maybe she does appear, but in an unexpected way, and in an unexpected place – in the video to a song he didn’t write, “You Are Not Alone.” The song opens with a story of lost love:

Another day has gone  
I’m still all alone  
How could this be  
You’re not here with me
 
You never said goodbye  
Someone tell me why  
Did you have to go  
And leave my world so cold

However, the video opens with a crowd of reporters and photographers pressing in on him as he walks by with his head bowed. It’s the exact same situation he sang about repeatedly in earlier albums: these intrusive people are claiming to know him and telling lies about him, and My Baby has left him. Only this time he’s telling that story through visual cues.

He’s devastated, heartbroken, feeling so sad and alone. Then he hears a voice. We don’t know whose voice it is, but it “whispers” to him, and this is what it tells him:

You are not alone  
I am here with you  
Though you’re far away  
I am here to stay
 
You are not alone  
I am here with you  
Though we’re far apart  
You’re always in my heart  
But you are not alone

Whose voice is this? The lyrics don’t say, but once again there are visual cues. The scene of walking before a sea of aggressive reporters alternates with another scene, far removed from the media: it’s the setting of Maxfield Parrish’s Daybreak, a beautiful painting of serenity and rebirth. He’s happy, and sharing an intimate moment with a woman.

And it’s not just any woman. It’s his wife, Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis Presley. When Elvis’ public life was falling apart and he was a target of criticism and even ridicule by the press, he had a little girl who stood by him and brought some joy into his life. Now Michael Jackson is in the same position Elvis was in before. And that little girl has grown up and married him, and she’s standing by him through one of the worst periods of his life and bringing some joy into his life.

I’m pretty uncomfortable talking about all this because these are real people, and I try very hard to stay out of an artist’s private life as much as possible. But these real people also symbolize certain things, and the symbolism of that image with Lisa Marie Presley is so powerful to me.

Joie:  Well, I absolutely agree with you that the still small voice in “You Are Not Alone” is definitely that of My Baby. But I can’t agree that it has anything to do with Lisa Marie Presley in the literal sense. In the abstract as a visual cue, yes definitely. The recreation of Daybreak for this video was an inspired choice in my opinion as it expertly captures the intimate, private place that Michael is trying to take us to here, and the use of his wife as the visual portrayal of My Baby makes perfect sense to me. After all, if My Baby were a real person, she would certainly be the person who was closest to him and knew him intimately – as a wife does.

However, he repeatedly says that “something whispers in his ear.” Not someone, something. That still small voice. His very soul. His inner self. That part of him that he has nurtured and tried so hard to protect over the years and keep pure. Away from all of the “bad girls” and the bad media that have threatened My Baby for so long. And what does that voice say to him? “You are not alone.” Even though he may feel like the loneliest person on the face of the earth – which is the feeling all those shots of him standing alone in front of the beautiful nature scenes and onstage in the deserted theater are meant to evoke – he is not alone. He still has his soul and it’s intact and strong. It may be a little bruised and banged up but, it is still there. And he can still feel it, calling to him, telling him that what he has just been through was a nightmare but, he got through it and he came out the other side and there is still hope for a bright future.

Even though Michael didn’t write this particular song, I believe that the lyrics must have spoken to him on some level and perhaps they expressed something – some emotion or idea – that he could relate to and identify with. And I think that something was My Baby.

Willa:  Joie, that’s beautiful. I was groping forward, trying to get at what that recurring scene symbolized and why it was so moving for me, and just not getting there. And you beautifully captured in words that feeling I have when I watch this video. I do think it’s significant that the woman in this scene is Lisa Marie Presley. It wouldn’t have the same depth of meaning if it were just any actress from a casting call who didn’t have her history. But I love the way you brought our discussion back to the idea of My Baby as representing a part of himself – as something that will always be there for him, whether it’s his soul or his heart or his muse. As you describe so well, this video is an affirmation that there is something inside that will sustain him, regardless of what threatens him in the outside world.

A Touch, a Kiss, a Whisper of Love

You’ll never make me stay  
So take your weight off of me  
I know your every move  
So won’t you just let me be
  
I’ve been here times before  
But I was too blind to see  
That you seduce every man  
This time you won’t seduce me

Joie:  With these words begin the game of seduction that is “Dirty Diana.” And it’s apparently one they’ve been playing for some time. He knows her “every move,” he’s “been here times before.” But this time it’s different. This time he’s finally opened his eyes and he sees her now for what she really is, and he doesn’t want to go through it again.

She’s saying that’s ok  
Hey baby do what you please  
I have the stuff that you want  
I am the thing that you need
  
She looked me deep in the eyes  
She’s touchin’ me so to start  
She says there’s no turnin’ back  
She trapped me in her heart

She wants him and she’s not willing to take no for an answer. So she taunts him, telling him that she knows exactly what he wants and what he needs. Then she touches him suggestively and says, “there’s no turnin’ back.” He’s been trapped by this beautiful, ruthless seductress and he’s torn. On one side there’s My Baby, the woman he loves and has waiting for him at home. But standing right in front of him is this wicked temptress, telling him that she’s ready and willing. He wants to be faithful. But he’s also strangely drawn to this other woman. She’s wild and exciting and unpredictable and he likes that. But he also likes the fact that My Baby is in his life, someone who knows him and loves him and cares about him. He feels this same dilemma in “Dangerous”:

She came at me in sections  
With the eyes of desire  
I fell trapped into her web of sin
 
A touch, a kiss  
A whisper of love
I was at the point of no return

Once again, he feels trapped. But this time, it’s a little darker. The first time, he sings, “She trapped me in her heart.” The second time, he is “trapped into her web of sin.” The Bad album was released in 1988 when Michael was still a relatively young, inexperienced man but Dangerous is released a few years later in 1991, and few years can make a whole lot of difference. So in 1988, he was a little bit naive and then caught completely by surprise when Diana grabs the phone out of his hand and tells My Baby that he’s not coming home “because he’s sleeping with me.” But in 1991, he’s not so naive anymore and he knows exactly what he’s getting into.

Her mouth was  
Smoother than oil  
But her inner spirit  
Is as sharp as  
A two-edged sword  
But I loved it
‘Cause it’s dangerous

He knows it’s wrong. He knows he shouldn’t. But he can’t help himself; he’s inexplicably drawn to her. But who is she really? And if we continue to see My Baby as representing a part of his psyche or his inner self, then who exactly are these other women who constantly threaten her and try to come between them? Could these women possibly represent another side of his own psyche? Perhaps the part of him that courted fame, the side of him that was drawn to entertaining and creating and being on stage. That part of him that loved being in front of a camera or onstage performing in front of 80,000 people. Is it possible that these “dangerous” women represent fame itself and that Michael Jackson often felt seduced by it? Compelled to go off with her instead of going home to My Baby. Compelled to pursue his career instead of nurturing that secret part of himself that he tried to keep safely hidden away from the limelight.

Fame is the dream of many,  the hope of millions. But it always comes at a price and often, those who find it end up wishing that it was different. Fame is wild and exciting and unpredictable – just like the temptress in both “Dirty Diana” and “Dangerous.” But fame can also be brutal and unkind and hurtful to those who get in its way. Just ask My Baby.

Willa:  Wow, Joie. You’ve officially blown me away. I had never considered the possibility that these seductive, threatening women were fame itself, or that part of himself that was drawn to fame. But now that you say that, it makes perfect sense. It never made sense to me that he would be attracted to a cruel person, to someone whose “inner spirit is as sharp as a two-edged sword.” But fame is cruel, and he knows it, but still he’s drawn to it. That makes perfect sense. It also explains why he can’t escape it – why these seductive women reappear again and again, album after album, threatening My Baby. He can’t escape it because it’s also a part of him, just as My Baby is – the part of himself that’s drawn to fame.

It also explains why this complicated love triangle that has entangled him for years suddenly disappears after the false accusations came out in 1993, and he discovered just how cruel fame could be. That was such a searing experience for him that fame no longer attracts him. The spell has been broken, and now he sees fame for what it truly is. He still recognizes and respects its power – maybe more so than before – but he’s no longer naively drawn to it, and he doesn’t let it threaten My Baby.

Joie:  No, he doesn’t let it threaten My Baby anymore. It’s like from that point (1993) on, he goes to much greater efforts to keep the two apart, and he makes a conscious decision to focus on My Baby – or his private life. He gets married and tries to start a family. It doesn’t work the first time but, he keeps trying. He becomes a father. He takes active steps to build a happy private life, to nurture My Baby a little bit.

And I never thought about it before either! For years, I always thought that the threatening women were referring to the media, the tabloids, the paparazzi, etc. It wasn’t until writing this blog and focusing on “Dirty Diana” and “Dangerous” that it hit me like a lightning bolt. Fame is the bold, threatening presence in this threesome. I think it all makes so much sense now.

Willa:  I agree, and I’m so intrigued by this idea. I really want to go back and listen to those earlier songs again with this interpretation in mind, and see if it sheds new light on that ongoing conflict between the protagonist, My Baby, and the women who threaten her. But this conflict abruptly disappears after 1993. After the horror of that experience, he no longer lets the allure of fame threaten My Baby. She’s still somewhat fragile and in need of protection, but the threats are different now.

We’re introduced to one of those threats in “Ghosts,” the first song to reference My Baby after the 1993 scandal erupted. As the video makes clear, he’s addressing a threatening figure – a figure many critics saw as representing District Attorney Tom Sneddon, the man who led the investigation against Jackson. The protagonist is standing up to this figure and demanding answers, repeatedly asking him,

And who gave you the right to shake my family?  
And who gave you the right to shake My Baby?  
She needs me  
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?

So once again My Baby is at risk, but this time it isn’t a seductress who hurts her. It’s the police. And this time the protagonist isn’t torn by conflicting impulses. He knows whose side he’s on, and he’s doing everything he can to defend and protect her. He’s clearly addressing an authority figure in this scene, and importantly, he’s challenging the very basis of his authority. As he repeatedly asks this man, “who gave you the right . . . ?” Why do you have this authority, this power to “shake” another person’s life? Where does this authority come from? What gives you the right to treat other people this way?

This line of questioning is repeated three times over the course of “Ghosts,” but the third time it’s extended and a new question is subtly added in the midst of the other questions:

And who gave you the right to shake my family?  
And who gave you the right to shake My Baby?  
She needs me  
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?
And who gave you the right to take intrusion,  
To see me?  
And who gave you the right to shake my family?  
And who gave you the right to shake My Baby?  
She needs me  
And who gave you the right to shake my family tree?

This new question is “Who gave you the right to take intrusion / To see me?” I think this is clearly a reference to the strip search that was conducted on December 20, 1993 – a procedure ordered by Tom Sneddon – where the most intimate parts of Michael Jackson’s body were photographed and videotaped by the police.

My sense is that he experienced that strip search as a rape – a police-authorized rape – and I don’t use that word lightly. For example, in “They Don’t Care about Us,” he says, “I am the victim of police brutality. . . . You’re raping me of my pride.” And in “Privacy” he references “that cold winter night” when “my pride was snatched away.” The immediate context suggests he’s talking about the death of Princess Diana while being chased by paparazzi, but she died in August. The strip search occurred in December. And if we look at the wider context of those lyrics, we see that he repeatedly juxtaposes his experiences and hers.

I’m not sure it’s possible to overstate how deeply the events of 1993 impacted Michael Jackson. His world view shifts in profound ways after that time, and one of those shifts is in the way he viewed institutions of power, such as the police or the press. He was always very concerned about injustice and discrimination, but before 1993 his focus was on occasional injustices that occurred within those institutions. After 1993, his focus is on the institutions themselves, and what gives them the right to invade the most intimate aspects of a person’s life – the place where My Baby dwells.

Joie:  Willa, I completely agree with you that he experienced the strip search as a rape and was deeply affected by it. It’s like after the events of 1993 and that whole battle, he is a different person in terms of his relationship with his fame. And I think you were right when you said that My Baby is still fragile and in need of protection but that the threats to her are different now. In fact, the threats to her seem to have turned a little bit sinister after the allegations. Just listening to the lyrics of “Ghosts” makes that clear. And the lyrics of “Heaven Can Wait” are somewhat sinister as well, and also slightly sad.

You’re beautiful  
Each moment spent with you is simply wonderful  
This love I have for you girl, it’s incredible  
I don’t know what I’d do, if I can’t be with you  
The world could not go on so every night I pray
  
If the Lord should come for me before I wake  
I wouldn’t wanna go if I can’t see your face  
Can’t hold you close  
What good would Heaven be  
If the angels came for me I’d tell them no

On the surface, it’s a beautiful song about how he loves this woman – My Baby – so much that he doesn’t want to leave her for anything. Not even for Heaven. But if My Baby represents his private life that he has worked so hard to build and maintain – a life that now includes his precious children who he adores – then this song suddenly takes on new meaning. And if we continue our theory that the threat to My Baby is fame itself, then these lyrics are like a foreshadowing. Almost as if he has resigned himself to the fact that, ultimately, his fame will be the reason for his demise and he feels powerless to overcome that. At the end of the song he begs, “Just leave us alone. Please leave us alone.” It’s a futile attempt and he knows it, but he has to try anyway. His babies – My Baby – are at stake now.

Willa:  Joie, I agree with you for the most part, except that I see him feeling much more empowered than you do. He’s been severely tested now. Really, he’s been to hell and back. And he survived, with his soul, his psyche, his inner being intact. It was horrible – no one should have to go through the years of misery he endured – but he survived. He knows nothing can separate him from My Baby without his permission. And now he’s challenging Death itself to divide him from that innermost part of himself. As he sings in the final stanza, he refuses to go without her:

Oh no, can’t be without My Baby
Won’t go, without her I’ll go crazy
Oh no, guess Heaven will be waiting

He knows his own strength now. He may lose everything else – he can’t control fate – but he won’t lose My Baby: his soul, his psyche, his self-knowledge, his creativity.

Joie:  No, don’t misunderstand me. What I’m saying is that his plea, “Just leave us alone,” is futile. He knows that, no matter how much he begs, fame (or death, or the media, or Sneddon) is never going to leave him alone. All of those threats to My Baby are never truly going away. But I agree with you that he is empowered. As I said, he is a much different person after the events of 1993, and in many ways he is much stronger and much wiser than he ever was before. And he’s also much more at peace. It’s like My Baby is his anchor and he finally realizes that and respects it and he’ll do anything to protect it.

Welcome to Heartbreak Hotel

Willa:  We first meet My Baby in “Heartbreak Hotel” (or “This Place Hotel”), which Michael Jackson wrote and recorded for The Jacksons’ 1980 Triumph album. And it seems to have been an important song for him: he performed it with his brothers on the Triumph and Victory tours, and it was the only Jacksons’ song he sang throughout his Bad tour.

“Heartbreak Hotel” begins with a reference to a traumatic loss that happened “Ten years ago on this day”:

Live in sin
Ten years ago on this day my heart was yearning
I promised I would never ever be returning
Where My Baby broke my heart and left me yearning

Importantly, “ten years ago” is when Michael Jackson first became a public figure on the national stage: “I Want You Back” became the Jackson 5’s first number one hit in 1970.

The protagonist and My Baby enter Heartbreak Hotel together. It’s a public place where they encounter a crowd of “faces staring.” And while the staring people are strangers, they seem to know him: “they smiled with eyes that looked as if they knew me.” But they don’t really know him, and he doesn’t know them. It’s a pretty accurate description of the life of a celebrity. This stanza ends with Jackson singing, “This is scaring me.”

He and My Baby walk upstairs together and enter his hotel room, but two women are there already. One of them approaches him and says, “This is the place / You said to meet you right here at noon.” It’s not true, but My Baby believes her – believes this stranger is his lover – and Jackson sings, “Hope is dead.” He goes on to describe how My Baby is hurt because she doesn’t understand the situation, but ends with “Someone’s evil to hurt my soul.” So this lie not only hurts My Baby; it also hurts “my soul.” The two are so closely connected, it’s as if My Baby is his soul. The stanza ends with these lines:

This is scaring me
Then the man next door had told
He’s been here in tears for fifteen years
This is scaring me

Who is this man? Could it possibly be Elvis? After all, Elvis begins his song “Heartbreak Hotel” (which was his first number one hit) with the lines:

Since My Baby left me
I found a new  place to dwell
It’s down at the end of Lonely Street
At Heartbreak Hotel

So apparently Elvis lives there. Now Michael Jackson has checked into the room next door, and he’s in the same position Elvis was in for years.

This “man next door” says “He’s been here in tears for fifteen years,” so since 1965 – right when Elvis’ career began its decline, and his celebrity began to take an ugly turn. Elvis was the King in the late 1950s and early ’60s, but then the British Invasion took place from 1964 to 1966. Suddenly, the Beatles and Rolling Stones were climbing the pop charts, and Elvis was increasingly seen as outdated and irrelevant, even an object of ridicule.

So in these two very different songs with the same name, Elvis and Michael Jackson describe a situation that’s emotionally devastating to them. However, while Elvis is clearly singing about a romantic loss, Jackson’s song is much more complicated, and much more ambiguous. Is it just a shattered romance, or more than that? Jackson’s “Heartbreak Hotel” ends with these lines:

Someone’s stabbing my heart
This is Heartbreak Hotel
Ten years ago today
Hurting my mind
You break My Baby’s heart
This is Heartbreak Hotel
Just welcome to the scene

“Welcome to the scene” is a pretty odd ending for a song about lost love. So again, there seems to be more going on than just an ill-fated romance. And once again, he and My Baby are conflated: his heart is hurt, her heart is hurt, his mind is hurt. They share the same pain. He’s feeling what she’s feeling, as if she were a part of him.
 
Joie:  Wow! Not sure I would have made the obvious Elvis connection here but, I’ve got to say, it makes a crazy kind of sense.

Willa:  I know. It does sound kind of crazy, doesn’t it? I wasn’t expecting to go off on an Elvis tangent, and obviously “the man next door” could mean many different things, but suddenly that idea popped into my head and I went with it, just to see where it took me. I think any interpretation – even a crazy-sounding interpretation – is valid as long as it can be adequately supported by evidence from the text, and there’s quite a bit of evidence to support this. And it does make a lot of sense if you see this song as talking about celebrity, which was a very important theme for Michael Jackson.

Joie:  Well, I’ll go with that for a minute and say that, if this was intentional on Michael’s part, it’s actually brilliant. However, when The Jacksons made the decision to change the name of the song to “This Place Hotel,” Michael did say that he was not familiar with Elvis’ song. So, while I agree that the imagery of both songs work very well together, I’m skeptical that there is any real connection between the two.
 
But I love what you have to say about My Baby possibly representing his own soul. And that line towards the end where he says “Hurting my mind.” It’s like My Baby represents him: his psyche. His mind, his heart, his soul – the inner self that he keeps protected from public view. As I said last week, Michael sings about My Baby as if she is someone who is very important to him and has been in his life for a very long time, and I think this notion that she is symbolic of his own inner being carries a lot of weight. In “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” Michael says,

 
Someone’s always tryin’
To start My Baby cryin’
Talking, squealing, lying
Saying you just want to be startin’ somethin’

 
If we look at this verse in these terms, it’s very easy to see how My Baby could be a euphemism for his inner self. Someone’s always trying to hurt him. He goes on to sing,

 
Billie Jean is always talkin’
When nobody else is talkin’
Telling lies and rubbing shoulders
So they called her mouth a motor

 
Sticking with this theory we can argue that Billie Jean – and all of the other “bad girls” who come his way – represents his public life and all the baggage that comes with it (the lies, the media, the paparazzi, etc.).

Willa:  I agree, and I really like that quotation you cited. “Billie Jean is always talkin'” – just like the media is always talking. From a very young age, Michael Jackson faced constant commentary and speculation about his private life. And the media’s mouth isn’t just “a motor.” It’s an industry.  
 
Joie:  An industry he would end up battling for the rest of his career. But we’ll talk more about that next time when we take a closer look at the “bad girls” in this threesome.

Willa:  Right. And this three-way conflict between My Baby, the intrusive women who hurt her, and the protagonist who finds himself caught between the two continues to evolve – just as Michael Jackson’s relationship with the media evolved. We see this scenario of My Baby being hurt by an aggressive, dishonest woman recurring again and again: for example, in “Billie Jean” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” on Thriller, in “Dirty Diana” from Bad, and in the title track to Dangerous. And then she disappears. My Baby isn’t mentioned once on his HIStory album, which was his first album after the 1993 molestation allegations. It’s like his public life has become so toxic she’s completely hidden from view now.

Or maybe not. Maybe she does appear, but in an unexpected way, and in an unexpected place – in the video to a song he didn’t write, “You Are Not Alone.” The song opens with a story of lost love:

 
Another day has gone
I’m still all alone
How  could this be
You’re not here with me
You never said goodbye
Someone tell me why
Did you have to go
And leave my world so cold

However, the video opens with a crowd of reporters and photographers pressing in on him as he walks by with his head bowed. It’s the exact same situation he sang about repeatedly in earlier albums: these intrusive people are claiming to know him and telling lies about him, and My Baby has left him. Only this time he’s telling that story through visual cues.

He’s devastated, heartbroken, feeling so sad and alone. Then he hears a voice. We don’t know whose voice it is, but it “whispers” to him, and this is what it tells him:

You are not alone
I am here with you
Though you’re far away
I am here to stay

You are not alone
I am here with you
Though we’re far apart
You’re always in my heart
But you are not alone

Whose voice is this? The lyrics don’t say, but once again there are visual cues. The scene of walking before a sea of aggressive reporters alternates with another scene, far removed from the media: it’s the setting of Maxfield Parrish’s Daybreak, a beautiful painting of serenity and rebirth. He’s happy, and sharing an intimate moment with a woman.

And it’s not just any woman. It’s his wife, Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis Presley. When Elvis’ public life was falling apart and he was a target of criticism and even ridicule by the press, he had a little girl who stood by him and brought some joy into his life. Now Michael Jackson is in the same position Elvis was in before. And that little girl has grown up and married him, and she’s standing by him through one of the worst periods of his life and bringing some joy into his life. I’m pretty uncomfortable talking about all this because these are real people, and I try very hard to stay out of an artist’s private life as much as possible. But these real people also symbolize certain things, and the symbolism of that image with Lisa Marie Presley is so powerful to me.
 
Joie:  Well, I absolutely agree with you that the still small voice in “You Are Not Alone” is definitely that of My Baby. But I can’t agree that it has anything to do with Lisa Marie Presley in the literal sense. In the abstract as a visual cue, yes definitely. The recreation of Daybreak for this video was an inspired choice in my opinion as it expertly captures the intimate, private place that Michael is trying to take us to here, and the use of his wife as the visual portrayal of My Baby makes perfect sense to me. After all, if My Baby were a real person, she would certainly be the person who was closest to him and knew him intimately – as a wife does.
 
However, he repeatedly says that “something whispers in his ear.” Not someone, something. That still small voice. His very soul. His inner self. That part of him that he has nurtured and tried so hard to protect over the years and keep pure. Away from all of the “bad girls” and the bad media that have threatened My Baby for so long. And what does that voice say to him? “You are not alone.” Even though he may feel like the loneliest person on the face of the earth – which is the feeling all those shots of him standing alone in front of the beautiful nature scenes and onstage in the deserted theater are meant to evoke – he is not alone. He still has his soul and it’s intact and strong. It may be a little bruised and banged up but, it is still there. And he can still feel it, calling to him, telling him that what he has just been through was a nightmare but, he got through it and he came out the other side and there is still hope for a bright future.

Even though Michael didn’t write this particular song, I believe that the lyrics must have spoken to him on some level and perhaps they expressed something – some emotion or idea – that he could relate to and identify with. And I think that something was My Baby.

Willa:  Joie, that’s beautiful. I was groping forward, trying to get at what that recurring scene symbolized and why it was so moving for me, and just not getting there. And you beautifully captured in words that feeling I have when I watch this video. I do think it’s significant that the woman in this scene is Lisa Marie Presley. It wouldn’t have the same depth of meaning if it were just any actress from a casting call who didn’t have her history. But I love the way you brought our discussion back to the idea of My Baby as representing a part of himself – as something that will always be there for him, whether it’s his soul or his heart or his muse. As you describe so well, this video is an affirmation that there is something inside that will sustain him, regardless of what threatens him in the outside world. 

We’ll conclude this series on My Baby next week when we look more closely at what some of those threats are.

Joie:  And don’t forget to weigh in on our discussion and let us know what you think about My Baby. You can comment here or on our Facebook page.