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Summer Rewind 2013, Week 8: Stranger in Moscow

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on January 23, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Wandering in the Rain

Willa: So Joie, whenever I’m talking to someone about Michael Jackson’s videos, eventually I know they’re going to ask me the dreaded question – which one is my favorite? And that’s so hard for me to answer. It’s kind of like asking a grandmother which grandchild is her favorite. As any grandma will tell you, you love them all! And if you don’t feel as connected to some as others, maybe it’s because you simply don’t know them as well.

For example, You Rock My World made me very uncomfortable for a long time – it was a difficult child for me to warm up to. But after we talked about it a couple of times – in November and December 2011 – I came to see so many fascinating things in it that I hadn’t seen before, and came to understand it much better, and now I truly love it and enjoy watching it.

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that I don’t have a favorite Michael Jackson video – I really do love them all – but I have to admit that Stranger in Moscow holds a very special place for me. For one thing, it’s so beautiful: the ideas, the images, his amazing voice. I love everything about it.

Joie: I love this video too. To me, it is just visually stunning. I love to sit and really watch the special effects in this one; I always sit sort of mesmerized whenever it’s on. It’s very hypnotic in a way. You know, my cousin once said to me, ‘don’t watch that video, it’s so depressing!’ And I understand where she’s coming from, but I just couldn’t believe she said that because, to me, this video is just beautiful. A real feast for the eyes.

Willa: It really is, though I can see what your cousin was saying too. It seems to me he’s trying to convey his emotional state at that time, in the months immediately following the 1993 allegations, and that was a horrible time for him. As he tells us in the lyrics, he was “feeling insane,” like he’d had an “Armageddon of the brain.” It seems to me he’s encouraging us to imaginatively experience what he’s been going through to try to understand what that situation would be like – to sympathize with the Other, as he does in so much of his work. So the chorus is primarily the line “How does it feel” repeated over and over again:

How does it feel?
(How does it feel?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
(How does it feel now?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel
When you’re alone and cold inside,
Like a stranger in Moscow?

 

It seems pretty clear that he’s urging us to put ourselves in his position – as someone falsely accused of a terrible crime, and condemned for it around the world so there’s no escape from it. How would that feel? What would that situation be like?

Frank Cascio talks about this in his book, My Friend Michael: An Ordinary Friendship with an Extraordinary Man, and he quotes him as saying:

“I don’t think you realize … I have the whole world thinking I’m a child molester. You don’t know what it feels like to be falsely accused, to be called ‘Wacko Jacko.’ Day in and day out, I have to get up on that stage and perform, pretending everything is perfect. I give everything I have, I give the performance that everyone wants to see. Meanwhile, my character and reputation are under constant attack. When I step off that stage, people look at me as if I were a criminal.”

I don’t think we can even begin to comprehend what that was like for him, day after day, year after year, without let-up. We can try to understand it, but I don’t think we ever really can. But in Stranger in Moscow, he’s trying to give us a glimpse of what that experience was like for him.

And that’s important on a personal level – just as one human trying to understand another human – but it’s also important on a cultural level because over his career he became the human embodiment of Difference, of Otherness. So in a way, this video is asking the exact same question “Ben” asked 40 years ago: do we have the emotional capacity to sympathize with someone excluded and ridiculed and feared because he is marked as different? Can we see this situation from the outsider’s point of view? And “how does it feel” when we do that?

Joie: That’s a really compelling question, Willa. Can we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and look at their world from their perspective? We can certainly try, if our hearts and minds are in the right place, but you know, it’s not always an easy thing for some people to do. But it was almost like Michael understood that this was a difficult task for most people and so, he kept trying over and over to show us, through different songs, what that experience was like for him. In fact, you and I talked about it in depth back in the fall of 2011 when we discussed “Is It Scary.” And I said at the end of that post that I felt he had to be one of the bravest people ever to have the courage to hold his head up day after day in that situation and still be able to create the most beautiful, profound art and present it to a world that had turned on him. It’s just incredible to me.

Willa: Oh, I agree wholeheartedly. It took tremendous courage and self-reliance – and self-knowledge as well. He knew who he was, and he had the inner strength to believe in himself even after the world had turned against him. But it still must have been tremendously painful, and I think he’s exploring that in the opening scenes of Stranger in Moscow.

Joie: You know, Willa, I agree with you. This short film really does set a particular mood, right from the opening shots. But the song itself sets a certain mood as well, and I believe this is one of the rare videos where the images on the screen portray the song perfectly. Like “Dirty Diana.”

Willa: That’s an interesting point, Joie. Some of his videos really do go off in a different direction – like, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the Leave Me Alone video from listening to the song. But some are much closer, and with “Stranger in Moscow” there really are some direct correlations between what’s being said in the song and what’s happening on screen. For example, he sings “a beggar boy called my name” and suddenly the scene shifts to some street kids playing baseball. Then at the next interlude we hear a boy shout “Michael!” and see some kids running by. So in many ways the video enacts the lyrics of the song.

But I think this video also clarifies the song in important ways. For example, a number of critics called this song “paranoid” because he mentions the Kremlin and Stalin and says the “KGB was doggin’ me.” But as the video makes clear, he’s speaking in a metaphorical way. He feels like a “stranger in Moscow,” but the video is clearly set in the United States: the cars, the coffeeshop, the street signs, the phone booth are all American, and when the passerby flips a quarter to the homeless man on the street, it’s an American quarter. So he’s in the United States, his native country, but it’s become so alien to him that, emotionally, he feels like he’s living in a foreign country. That’s what it means to me when he says, “I’m living lonely, baby / Like a stranger in Moscow.” It reminds me of that line in “They Don’t Care about Us” where he says, “I can’t believe this is the land from which I came.” His home country has become so alien and unrecognizable to him, it no longer feels like home.

And it’s very important to realize that he isn’t the only person “living lonely” in this video. We also see other people in pain and somehow removed from the flow of life. This is visually represented by showing some of the suffering people behind glass – like the sad woman in the coffeeshop, seen through a glass wall, and the lonely man in his apartment, seen through his apartment window. It’s therefore significant, symbolically, when the glass breaks, and it’s significant that it’s children at play that break it.

To me, children are a subtle but crucially important presence in this video, in part because they bring about a shift in what’s happening. In fact, I see the street kids playing baseball and breaking the window as the climax of the film. You know, there’s this common misconception that the climax of a movie or novel is the most exciting part, but technically that isn’t what the word “climax” means when you’re analyzing literature or film. Instead, the climax is the turning point, the moment that determines the outcome of the story. Sometimes it’s exciting, but often it’s not – often it’s a quiet moment when the hero or heroine makes a fateful decision that determines which path he or she will follow, and how the story will ultimately end. For example, the climax of Star Wars isn’t the big battle scene at the end when Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star. It’s the sad scene much earlier when he discovers his aunt and uncle have been killed, and he decides to go with Ben and fight the Dark Side. That’s the turning point of Star Wars. And to me, the turning point, or climax, of Stranger in Moscow is when the street kids break the glass.

Joie: That’s very interesting, Willa. And I like what you said about the climax of a story or a film often being a quiet moment when a decision is made.

But I want to talk about what you just said about the people in pain in this video. You said that they are all somehow removed from the flow of life, and that’s really true. But I think all those shots of them seen through the glass walls or the windows are also meant to evoke a feeling of isolation and despair. That’s really the feeling that Michael Jackson is trying to get at in the song, I think.

How does it feel?
(How does it feel now?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel
When you’re alone and cold inside

Each of the people – the lonely man in his apartment, the sad woman in the coffeeshop, even the homeless man lying on the street and the teenaged boy watching the other kids play ball – they’re all very isolated and in some form of despair. And each time I watch this video, I always want to know more of the story, you know? Why isn’t the teenage boy playing ball with the other kids? What has that woman in the coffeeshop so upset? Why is that man shut up in his apartment all alone, and what’s the homeless man’s story? We know why Michael is feeling like a stranger in Moscow, but what about the rest of them?

Willa: That’s a really good point, Joie, and I think our inability to truly know what they’re going through, how they’re feeling and why they’re responding that way, just adds to the sense of isolation. We don’t know what they’re experiencing, we don’t know their pain, and that inability to truly understand the suffering of others is an important element of this video, I think. They’re “living lonely” too, just like he is, and that isolation adds to the pain. So once again we’re back to the central question: “How does it feel?”

Joie: And that is such an important point, Willa. They are “living lonely,” just like he is. And that makes us think about ourselves in a way. Unless we actively reach out to others and share our burdens, we’re all living just as lonely as those people in this short film. And that sense of isolation does add to the pain and the emotional suffering. And even sometimes when we’re surrounded by people who care about us, it’s still possible to feel as though you’re “living lonely.”

Willa: That’s true, Joie, and an important point as well. And sometimes when we’re hurting, we isolate ourselves. It’s like we need some alone time to recover and get our equilibrium back, but removing ourselves like that can cause problems as well.

Joie: You know, Willa, the end of this video sort of puzzles me. It never has before but, now that you and I are talking about it, I’m beginning to think about it in ways I never have. At the end of this one, all of those lonely, anguished people see the rain coming down and they go out and embrace it. They let go of their feelings of isolation for a brief moment and stand beneath the flow and let the rain wash over them. Nothing is resolved. But yet, they each seem to be soothed in some way by the action.

That’s not exactly how I would have expected this one to end. You would think that with the subject matter of this film, in the ending we would see all those isolated people finding one another and coming together. Or maybe joining family and friends so that they’re not so isolated any longer. But that’s not what happens here. What do you make of that?

Willa: That’s such a hard question. This is a really ambiguous video – one of his most ambiguous, I think. (That might be another reason I like it so much!) So it’s possible to interpret the ending many different ways, but he does offer some important clues. For example, before those suffering people step out into the rain, we see and hear children running in the rain. The man in his apartment hears their excited shouts, looks down through his window, and sees them and others running across the street. Then he reaches up, touches his window, and ultimately leaves his apartment and stands in the rain. The way this sequence is structured suggests it’s the children who inspired him to do that.

We see Michael Jackson inspired by the children as well. He’s sheltering himself under an awning when the children run past him, splashing through the puddles, and then he steps out into the rain. This is a really long sequence, with scenes of the children running in the rain repeatedly interspliced with scenes of Michael Jackson watching them run by, and of the other sad adults as well. There’s a distant shot of the children in the rain, then Michael Jackson watching them and singing “How does it feel?,” then a long clip of the children closer up, a quick shot of Michael Jackson again singing “How does it feel?,” another long slow-motion clip of the children closer still, the man in his apartment running his hand along the glass of his window as we hear “How does it feel?,” the homeless man reaching his hand out into the rain, Michael Jackson in the background with the children running by in front of him, the homeless man drenched with rain and his face uplifted, Michael Jackson and the children all on screen together, a back view of the children splashing through the rain, the businessman in the rain, a back view of Michael Jackson stepping into the rain, the homeless man, the business man, Michael Jackson, around and around and around.

I love this sequence and the way these images are interwoven. It’s very skillfully done, and again it reinforces the idea that children are a subtle but crucially important part of the story. And Joie, you’ll like this – in the final shot of the children, they’re holding hands.

But this raises another complicated question: what does the rain represent?

Joie: Now that is a really interesting question, Willa! What does the rain represent? You know, there are actually many, many possible answers to that question. Rain is a vital resource; it’s extremely important for life. It nurtures humans, animals and crops. Without it, we couldn’t survive. And in regions where not much rain falls, it can be symbolic of life and rebirth.

Rain can also be representative of blessings pouring down from heaven, and also of curses. In fact, according to the Bible, Noah built that ark for a reason, right? And it had never rained on the Earth before that time so, no wonder all the people thought Noah was completely crazy. Water fall from the sky? Yeah, right!

But I think in today’s modern world, rain often symbolizes tears and sadness and depression. But it also, a lot of times, is symbolic of an emotional cleansing or healing. And sometimes it even connotes an air of romance! So the possibilities are truly endless, Willa.

Willa: Wow, that’s a wonderful list, Joie! And you’re right, the rain can mean many different things. In fact, I think the meaning of the rain shifts over the course of the video, which is perhaps the main reason this video is so powerful to me. At the beginning, the rain seems to represent “tears and sadness and depression,” as you mentioned, Joie. As he sings in the opening verse,

I was wandering in the rain
Mask of life, feelin’ insane
Swift and sudden fall from grace
Sunny days seem far away
Kremlin’s shadow belittlin’ me
Stalin’s tomb won’t let me be
On and on and on it came
Wish the rain would just let me

So he clearly seems to be equating sunshine with happiness (“Sunny days seem far away”) and rain with the emotional torment he’s been going through (“On and on and on it came / Wish the rain would just let me be.”)

But then he sees the children running through the rain, and he begins to think differently about it. Those children inspire him to step out from under the awning and stop avoiding the rain, and he actually immerses himself in it – in fully experiencing the rain. He holds his arms out, throws his head back, and stands with his mouth open, drinking it in. That final scene with his face upturned and his mouth open, catching raindrops, always reminds me of someone taking communion. But the rain is also pouring down on his entire body, like a baptism, and he seems to experience it that way. So it feels to me at the end that the rain has become something physically and spiritually nurturing for him, “an emotional cleansing or healing,” as you put it so beautifully, Joie.

Joie: I agree with you, Willa; I think the meaning of the rain does change throughout the course of the short film, and we see that not only in Michael Jackson’s behavior but in the behavior of the others as well. The woman in the coffee shop, the old man in his apartment, the teenaged boy watching the other kids play ball. Even the homeless man on the street. They all decide to stand beneath the flow of the rain and allow that emotional cleansing or healing to wash over them.

Willa: That’s true, the meaning of the rain has changed for all of them – they all seem to gain spiritual renewal from the rain – and that’s a crucially important point. I’m so glad you brought that up, Joie. They all experience and benefit from that shift in the meaning of the rain, and that’s so moving for me, emotionally, and so fascinating, thematically.

You know, rain is just water droplets from the sky. It doesn’t “mean” anything, intrinsically, but we humans have invested it with tremendous meaning, and we have for centuries. Just like the color of our skin doesn’t mean anything, of itself, or the shape of our eyes, or a river between two regions designated as separate countries, or a multi-colored cloth waving on a flagpole, or a black piece of cloth worn on the head, or the length of our hair, or the style of our clothes, or the accent of our speech, or thousands of other signifiers. But we have imposed meaning on those arbitrary signs and made them carry meanings – including meanings that can be very harmful to us.

Importantly, we have the power to change those meanings – and Michael Jackson knew how to do it. I can’t emphasize enough how important that is. I think that, throughout his career, Michael Jackson was very focused on questioning and altering the connotative meaning, often negative meaning, carried by certain signifiers – just as he shifts the meaning of the rain in this video.

In fact, for me, Stranger in Moscow enacts in microcosm the central project of his entire career: to alter how we interpret and emotionally respond to arbitrary physical signs, just as he alters how the suffering people in Stranger in Moscow interpret and emotionally respond to the rain – from something negative that further isolates and oppresses them, to something positive that nourishes and revitalizes them. So to me, Stranger in Moscow has become a metaphor of his life’s work. This is what Michael Jackson’s work means to me, and this is why it’s so important and so powerful to me.

Actually, I’m going to push this even further. This isn’t just a metaphor for how I see Michael Jackson’s art, but how I have come to see art in general. Art has the power to significantly alter how we perceive and experience and make sense of our world – for example, to shift the meaning of the rain, or the meaning of our skin color, or our gender, or our nationality, or the accent of our voices, or a multitude of other signs – and I now see this as art’s highest purpose. And Joie, I came to that idea through Michael Jackson. He has revolutionized my ideas, not only about art, but how we as individuals experience our world. Those ideas are all represented for me by Stranger in Moscow and how he shifts the meaning of the rain.

Joie: That’s a very interesting idea, Willa. It certainly gives us a lot to think about. But whatever the meaning of the rain, or the significance of all those signifiers you just mentioned … Stranger in Moscow is one of Michael Jackson’s most profound short films. I think we can both agree on that point.

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Wandering in the Rain

Willa:  So Joie, whenever I’m talking to someone about Michael Jackson’s videos, eventually I know they’re going to ask me the dreaded question – which one is my favorite? And that’s so hard for me to answer. It’s kind of like asking a grandmother which grandchild is her favorite. As any grandma will tell you, you love them all! And if you don’t feel as connected to some as others, maybe it’s because you simply don’t know them as well.

For example, You Rock My World made me very uncomfortable for a long time – it was a difficult child for me to warm up to. But after we talked about it a couple of times – in November and December 2011 – I came to see so many fascinating things in it that I hadn’t seen before, and came to understand it much better, and now I truly love it and enjoy watching it.

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that I don’t have a favorite Michael Jackson video – I really do love them all – but I have to admit that Stranger in Moscow holds a very special place for me. For one thing, it’s so beautiful:  the ideas, the images, his amazing voice. I love everything about it.

Joie:  I love this video too. To me, it is just visually stunning. I love to sit and really watch the special effects in this one; I always sit sort of mesmerized whenever it’s on. It’s very hypnotic in a way. You know, my cousin once said to me, ‘don’t watch that video, it’s so depressing!’ And I understand where she’s coming from, but I just couldn’t believe she said that because, to me, this video is just beautiful. A real feast for the eyes.

Willa:  It really is, though I can see what your cousin was saying too. It seems to me he’s trying to convey his emotional state at that time, in the months immediately following the 1993 allegations, and that was a horrible time for him. As he tells us in the lyrics, he was “feeling insane,” like he’d had an “Armageddon of the brain.” It seems to me he’s encouraging us to imaginatively experience what he’s been going through to try to understand what that situation would be like – to sympathize with the Other, as he does in so much of his work. So the chorus is primarily the line “How does it feel” repeated over and over again:

How does it feel?
(How does it feel?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
(How does it feel now?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel
When you’re alone and cold inside,
Like a stranger in Moscow?

 

It seems pretty clear that he’s urging us to put ourselves in his position – as someone falsely accused of a terrible crime, and condemned for it around the world so there’s no escape from it. How would that feel? What would that situation be like?

Frank Cascio talks about this in his book, My Friend Michael: An Ordinary Friendship with an Extraordinary Man, and he quotes him as saying:

“I don’t think you realize … I have the whole world thinking I’m a child molester. You don’t know what it feels like to be falsely accused, to be called ‘Wacko Jacko.’ Day in and day out, I have to get up on that stage and perform, pretending everything is perfect. I give everything I have, I give the performance that everyone wants to see. Meanwhile, my character and reputation are under constant attack. When I step off that stage, people look at me as if I were a criminal.”

I don’t think we can even begin to comprehend what that was like for him, day after day, year after year, without let-up. We can try to understand it, but I don’t think we ever really can. But in Stranger in Moscow, he’s trying to give us a glimpse of what that experience was like for him.

And that’s important on a personal level – just as one human trying to understand another human – but it’s also important on a cultural level because over his career he became the human embodiment of Difference, of Otherness. So in a way, this video is asking the exact same question “Ben” asked 40 years ago: do we have the emotional capacity to sympathize with someone excluded and ridiculed and feared because he is marked as different? Can we see this situation from the outsider’s point of view? And “how does it feel” when we do that?

Joie:  That’s a really compelling question, Willa. Can we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and look at their world from their perspective? We can certainly try, if our hearts and minds are in the right place, but you know, it’s not always an easy thing for some people to do. But it was almost like Michael understood that this was a difficult task for most people and so, he kept trying over and over to show us, through different songs, what that experience was like for him. In fact, you and I talked about it in depth back in the fall of 2011 when we discussed “Is It Scary.” And I said at the end of that post that I felt he had to be one of the bravest people ever to have the courage to hold his head up day after day in that situation and still be able to create the most beautiful, profound art and present it to a world that had turned on him. It’s just incredible to me.

Willa:  Oh, I agree wholeheartedly. It took tremendous courage and self-reliance – and self-knowledge as well. He knew who he was, and he had the inner strength to believe in himself even after the world had turned against him. But it still must have been tremendously painful, and I think he’s exploring that in the opening scenes of Stranger in Moscow.

Joie:  You know, Willa, I agree with you. This short film really does set a particular mood, right from the opening shots. But the song itself sets a certain mood as well, and I believe this is one of the rare videos where the images on the screen portray the song perfectly. Like “Dirty Diana.”

Willa:  That’s an interesting point, Joie. Some of his videos really do go off in a different direction – like, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the Leave Me Alone video from listening to the song. But some are much closer, and with “Stranger in Moscow” there really are some direct correlations between what’s being said in the song and what’s happening on screen. For example, he sings “a beggar boy called my name” and suddenly the scene shifts to some street kids playing baseball. Then at the next interlude we hear a boy shout “Michael!” and see some kids running by. So in many ways the video enacts the lyrics of the song.

But I think this video also clarifies the song in important ways. For example, a number of critics called this song “paranoid” because he mentions the Kremlin and Stalin and says the “KGB was doggin’ me.” But as the video makes clear, he’s speaking in a metaphorical way. He feels like a “stranger in Moscow,” but the video is clearly set in the United States: the cars, the coffeeshop, the street signs, the phone booth are all American, and when the passerby flips a quarter to the homeless man on the street, it’s an American quarter. So he’s in the United States, his native country, but it’s become so alien to him that, emotionally, he feels like he’s living in a foreign country. That’s what it means to me when he says, “I’m living lonely, baby / Like a stranger in Moscow.” It reminds me of that line in “They Don’t Care about Us” where he says, “I can’t believe this is the land from which I came.” His home country has become so alien and unrecognizable to him, it no longer feels like home.

And it’s very important to realize that he isn’t the only person “living lonely” in this video.  We also see other people in pain and somehow removed from the flow of life. This is visually represented by showing some of the suffering people behind glass – like the sad woman in the coffeeshop, seen through a glass wall, and the lonely man in his apartment, seen through his apartment window. It’s therefore significant, symbolically, when the glass breaks, and it’s significant that it’s children at play that break it.

To me, children are a subtle but crucially important presence in this video, in part because they bring about a shift in what’s happening. In fact, I see the street kids playing baseball and breaking the window as the climax of the film. You know, there’s this common misconception that the climax of a movie or novel is the most exciting part, but technically that isn’t what the word “climax” means when you’re analyzing literature or film. Instead, the climax is the turning point, the moment that determines the outcome of the story. Sometimes it’s exciting, but often it’s not – often it’s a quiet moment when the hero or heroine makes a fateful decision that determines which path he or she will follow, and how the story will ultimately end. For example, the climax of Star Wars isn’t the big battle scene at the end when Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star. It’s the sad scene much earlier when he discovers his aunt and uncle have been killed, and he decides to go with Ben and fight the Dark Side. That’s the turning point of Star Wars. And to me, the turning point, or climax, of Stranger in Moscow is when the street kids break the glass.

Joie:  That’s very interesting, Willa. And I like what you said about the climax of a story or a film often being a quiet moment when a decision is made.

But I want to talk about what you just said about the people in pain in this video. You said that they are all somehow removed from the flow of life, and that’s really true. But I think all those shots of them seen through the glass walls or the windows are also meant to evoke a feeling of isolation and despair. That’s really the feeling that Michael Jackson is trying to get at in the song, I think.

How does it feel?
(How does it feel now?)
How does it feel?
How does it feel
When you’re alone and cold inside

Each of the people – the lonely man in his apartment, the sad woman in the coffeeshop, even the homeless man lying on the street and the teenaged boy watching the other kids play ball – they’re all very isolated and in some form of despair. And each time I watch this video, I always want to know more of the story, you know? Why isn’t the teenage boy playing ball with the other kids? What has that woman in the coffeeshop so upset? Why is that man shut up in his apartment all alone, and what’s the homeless man’s story? We know why Michael is feeling like a stranger in Moscow, but what about the rest of them?

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Joie, and I think our inability to truly know what they’re going through, how they’re feeling and why they’re responding that way, just adds to the sense of isolation. We don’t know what they’re experiencing, we don’t know their pain, and that inability to truly understand the suffering of others is an important element of this video, I think. They’re “living lonely” too, just like he is, and that isolation adds to the pain. So once again we’re back to the central question: “How does it feel?”

Joie:  And that is such an important point, Willa. They are “living lonely,” just like he is. And that makes us think about ourselves in a way. Unless we actively reach out to others and share our burdens, we’re all living just as lonely as those people in this short film. And that sense of isolation does add to the pain and the emotional suffering. And even sometimes when we’re surrounded by people who care about us, it’s still possible to feel as though you’re “living lonely.”

Willa:  That’s true, Joie, and an important point as well. And sometimes when we’re hurting, we isolate ourselves. It’s like we need some alone time to recover and get our equilibrium back, but removing ourselves like that can cause problems as well.

Joie:  You know, Willa, the end of this video sort of puzzles me. It never has before but, now that you and I are talking about it, I’m beginning to think about it in ways I never have. At the end of this one, all of those lonely, anguished people see the rain coming down and they go out and embrace it. They let go of their feelings of isolation for a brief moment and stand beneath the flow and let the rain wash over them. Nothing is resolved. But yet, they each seem to be soothed in some way by the action.

That’s not exactly how I would have expected this one to end. You would think that with the subject matter of this film, in the ending we would see all those isolated people finding one another and coming together. Or maybe joining family and friends so that they’re not so isolated any longer. But that’s not what happens here. What do you make of that?

Willa:  That’s such a hard question. This is a really ambiguous video – one of his most ambiguous, I think. (That might be another reason I like it so much!) So it’s possible to interpret the ending many different ways, but he does offer some important clues. For example, before those suffering people step out into the rain, we see and hear children running in the rain. The man in his apartment hears their excited shouts, looks down through his window, and sees them and others running across the street. Then he reaches up, touches his window, and ultimately leaves his apartment and stands in the rain. The way this sequence is structured suggests it’s the children who inspired him to do that.

We see Michael Jackson inspired by the children as well. He’s sheltering himself under an awning when the children run past him, splashing through the puddles, and then he steps out into the rain. This is a really long sequence, with scenes of the children running in the rain repeatedly interspliced with scenes of Michael Jackson watching them run by, and of the other sad adults as well. There’s a distant shot of the children in the rain, then Michael Jackson watching them and singing “How does it feel?,” then a long clip of the children closer up, a quick shot of Michael Jackson again singing “How does it feel?,” another long slow-motion clip of the children closer still, the man in his apartment running his hand along the glass of his window as we hear “How does it feel?,” the homeless man reaching his hand out into the rain, Michael Jackson in the background with the children running by in front of him, the homeless man drenched with rain and his face uplifted, Michael Jackson and the children all on screen together, a back view of the children splashing through the rain, the businessman in the rain, a back view of Michael Jackson stepping into the rain, the homeless man, the business man, Michael Jackson, around and around and around.

I love this sequence and the way these images are interwoven. It’s very skillfully done, and again it reinforces the idea that children are a subtle but crucially important part of the story. And Joie, you’ll like this – in the final shot of the children, they’re holding hands.

But this raises another complicated question: what does the rain represent?

Joie:  Now that is a really interesting question, Willa!  What does the rain represent? You know, there are actually many, many possible answers to that question. Rain is a vital resource; it’s extremely important for life. It nurtures humans, animals and crops. Without it, we couldn’t survive. And in regions where not much rain falls, it can be symbolic of life and rebirth.

Rain can also be representative of blessings pouring down from heaven, and also of curses. In fact, according to the Bible, Noah built that ark for a reason, right? And it had never rained on the Earth before that time so, no wonder all the people thought Noah was completely crazy. Water fall from the sky? Yeah, right!

But I think in today’s modern world, rain often symbolizes tears and sadness and depression. But it also, a lot of times, is symbolic of an emotional cleansing or healing. And sometimes it even connotes an air of romance! So the possibilities are truly endless, Willa.

Willa:  Wow, that’s a wonderful list, Joie! And you’re right, the rain can mean many different things. In fact, I think the meaning of the rain shifts over the course of the video, which is perhaps the main reason this video is so powerful to me. At the beginning, the rain seems to represent “tears and sadness and depression,” as you mentioned, Joie.  As he sings in the opening verse,

I was wandering in the rain
Mask of life, feelin’ insane
Swift and sudden fall from grace
Sunny days seem far away
Kremlin’s shadow belittlin’ me
Stalin’s tomb won’t let me be
On and on and on it came
Wish the rain would just let me

So he clearly seems to be equating sunshine with happiness (“Sunny days seem far away”) and rain with the emotional torment he’s been going through (“On and on and on it came / Wish the rain would just let me be.”)

But then he sees the children running through the rain, and he begins to think differently about it. Those children inspire him to step out from under the awning and stop avoiding the rain, and he actually immerses himself in it – in fully experiencing the rain. He holds his arms out, throws his head back, and stands with his mouth open, drinking it in. That final scene with his face upturned and his mouth open, catching raindrops, always reminds me of someone taking communion. But the rain is also pouring down on his entire body, like a baptism, and he seems to experience it that way. So it feels to me at the end that the rain has become something physically and spiritually nurturing for him, “an emotional cleansing or healing,” as you put it so beautifully, Joie.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa; I think the meaning of the rain does change throughout the course of the short film, and we see that not only in Michael Jackson’s behavior but in the behavior of the others as well. The woman in the coffee shop, the old man in his apartment, the teenaged boy watching the other kids play ball. Even the homeless man on the street. They all decide to stand beneath the flow of the rain and allow that emotional cleansing or healing to wash over them.

Willa:  That’s true, the meaning of the rain has changed for all of them – they all seem to gain spiritual renewal from the rain – and that’s a crucially important point. I’m so glad you brought that up, Joie. They all experience and benefit from that shift in the meaning of the rain, and that’s so moving for me, emotionally, and so fascinating, thematically.

You know, rain is just water droplets from the sky. It doesn’t “mean” anything, intrinsically, but we humans have invested it with tremendous meaning, and we have for centuries. Just like the color of our skin doesn’t mean anything, of itself, or the shape of our eyes, or a river between two regions designated as separate countries, or a multi-colored cloth waving on a flagpole, or a black piece of cloth worn on the head, or the length of our hair, or the style of our clothes, or the accent of our speech, or thousands of other signifiers. But we have imposed meaning on those arbitrary signs and made them carry meanings – including meanings that can be very harmful to us.

Importantly, we have the power to change those meanings – and Michael Jackson knew how to do it. I can’t emphasize enough how important that is. I think that, throughout his career, Michael Jackson was very focused on questioning and altering the connotative meaning, often negative meaning, carried by certain signifiers – just as he shifts the meaning of the rain in this video.

In fact, for me, Stranger in Moscow enacts in microcosm the central project of his entire career: to alter how we interpret and emotionally respond to arbitrary physical signs, just as he alters how the suffering people in Stranger in Moscow interpret and emotionally respond to the rain – from something negative that further isolates and oppresses them, to something positive that nourishes and revitalizes them. So to me, Stranger in Moscow has become a metaphor of his life’s work. This is what Michael Jackson’s work means to me, and this is why it’s so important and so powerful to me.

Actually, I’m going to push this even further. This isn’t just a metaphor for how I see Michael Jackson’s art, but how I have come to see art in general. Art has the power to significantly alter how we perceive and experience and make sense of our world – for example, to shift the meaning of the rain, or the meaning of our skin color, or our gender, or our nationality, or the accent of our voices, or a multitude of other signs – and I now see this as art’s highest purpose. And Joie, I came to that idea through Michael Jackson. He has revolutionized my ideas, not only about art, but how we as individuals experience our world. Those ideas are all represented for me by Stranger in Moscow and how he shifts the meaning of the rain.

Joie:  That’s a very interesting idea, Willa. It certainly gives us a lot to think about. But whatever the meaning of the rain, or the significance of all those signifiers you just mentioned … Stranger in Moscow is one of Michael Jackson’s most profound short films. I think we can both agree on that point.

Summer Rewind Series, Week 6: Racial Equality

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

MJ’s Art of Racial Equality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joie:  All extremely good questions.

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

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

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

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

Willa:  Now there’s a good question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Rewind Series, Week 5: Rock My World

NOTE: The following conversation was originally posted on November 17, 2011. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Spotlight on You Rock My World

Willa:  So Joie, in October we spent the entire month taking a close look at the Invincible album, including some of the battles Michael Jackson had with Sony during its production and promotion. To be honest, I never knew much about those battles or paid much attention to them, but focusing on Invincible for a month forced me to really think about what he must have been going through then, and that’s led me to look at the You Rock My World video in a whole new way.

To be honest, this video has always made me really uncomfortable. It’s very angry, for one thing – one of his angriest. But Black or White is angry also, and I love Black or White. It’s one of my favorites. But Black or White expresses a righteous anger. I watch it and come away feeling empowered and inspired and ready to take on the world. You Rock My World is completely different. I watch it and just feel frustrated and powerless and angry, and not even sure who I’m mad at.

Joie:  Well, I understand completely about the video making you uncomfortable. I have always had a similar reaction to this one. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it makes me uncomfortable but, I do come away from it feeling very on edge. The whole video just feels a little bit raw to me. Like you can actually feel the tension beneath the surface as you watch it. And I think the reasons for that are really clear. I’m sure Michael was feeling very “frustrated and powerless and angry” by that point. As you know, You Rock My World was not the video he originally wanted to make. As you mentioned last month, he really wanted to make a video for “Unbreakable.” This is also the song he wanted to be the lead single from the album, not to mention the title of the the album itself. He already had the video concept worked out and everything so, when Sony made the decision to release “You Rock My World” instead of “Unbreakable,” I know he probably felt extreme anger and frustration. One would think that an artist of Michael’s caliber would have complete autonomy and control over how a project would unfold. And maybe that very issue was one of the bones of contention between him and Sony at the time.

But, I remember getting the phone call from the MJFC president back in 2001 when all of this was happening and her telling me that the video Michael wanted to make had to be scrapped because of friction with Sony and Michael was now scrambling to make a video for “You Rock My World” and it had to be completed in a very short amount of time and he was “less than happy” about the situation. And I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, I bet he’s pissed!’

Willa:  And you can really feel a lot of those intense emotions in this video. The plot has his character trying to woo a young woman, and as we’ve talked about a number of times in previous posts, these love interests often seem to represent his audience. Importantly, another character played by Chris Tucker – a popular entertainer in his own right – is also attracted to her. So this woman – possibly representing their audience – has more than one performer competing for her attention, just as entertainers often seem to compete for an audience and market share.

Michael Jackson’s character is pretty sure of himself and confident he can win her over, but they go to a club where the managers want her also and seem to think they have a right to her, and they try to keep him away from her. In fact, he begins having confrontations with these managers and ultimately the club owner, just as Michael Jackson himself was having increasingly heated confrontations with the managers and ultimately the head of Sony over how to reach an audience.

Joie:  Wow, Willa. You know, I never really thought about that connection of the club managers and the big boss, played to perfection by Marlon Brando, as possibly representing the powers-that-be at Sony but, now that you point it out, it makes perfect sense! Really keen observation.

Willa:  Well, I’d never thought about it before either until we were working on the Invincible posts, and you clued me in to what exactly was happening then and just how bad it was. And as I was thinking about that, I realized that the emotions of that situation precisely paralleled those unsettling emotions that have always made this such an uncomfortable video for me to watch.

So Michael Jackson’s character has to deal with all these confrontations with the managers, and he responds by performing – by singing and dancing – which is what he always does in his videos when forced to deal with confrontational situations. And as we’ve seen in videos stretching back to Beat It and Bad, the power of art has always been able to bridge those differences and bring about some sort of harmonious resolution.

But that doesn’t happen this time. The outcome is completely different here than in any other Michael Jackson video because the people he’s battling against don’t respect his art. The managers watch him dance and then taunt him, saying “That’s it? That’s all you got? That ain’t nothin.’ You ain’t nothin.’ C’mon, big man, show me all you got.”

Then later, in that crucial scene with the club owner, the owner trivializes his art as well, saying, “You were pretty cute in there.” That’s exactly the kind of patronizing thing an executive, a money guy, would think about an artist, and it is so incredibly condescending and disrespectful. Can you imagine Michael Jackson, a brilliant artist who put himself on the line every time he walked on stage, coming off stage after dancing his heart out and hearing, “You were pretty cute in there.” That is such a belittling thing to say to a dancer, and it just scorches me every time I hear it.

However, Michael Jackson’s character responds in an interesting way. He gives the owner a defiant look and says, “I know who you are” – which immediately leads me to think, Who? Who is this guy? The simple answer is that he represents Tommy Mattola, the head of Sony at the time, but that’s a little too easy, I think. Instead, I think it’s more useful to see him as symbolic of all those executives and accountants and mid-level managers who make money off artists but don’t really respect them or understand what they’re doing, or realize how important it is.

Joie:  It’s interesting that you say that, Willa, because I remember reading an account of a Sony listening party for Invincible and it seemed so intense. I can’t remember now exactly where I read it but, basically it was Michael and his manager or his publicist or someone like that, in a room with a bunch of Sony executives and they sat and listened to the entire album from start to finish. And when the album was over, no one said a word. The Sony execs just got up and filed out of the room without saying a word to Michael – no congratulations, no words of praise, no nothing. And it just reminds me of that part you pointed out from the video. “Is that all you got? That ain’t nothin’. You ain’t nothin’.” I’m sure, that must have been what Michael was feeling at the end of that listening party when they all got up and left without saying a word.

Willa:  Are you serious? How awful! And it’s so interesting that you should cite that passage again because “You ain’t nothin’” is a line from the Bad video as well, which in many ways depicts a comparable situation. There, he’s a young man from the inner city who received a scholarship to a prep school, and then comes home and has to regain the respect of guys he thought were his friends, but aren’t really. Now he’s involved in a similar confrontation with Sony and having to regain the respect of people who should be supporting him, but aren’t really.

In fact, the You Rock My World video frequently references his earlier work:  “P. Y. T.,” “The Girl is Mine,” “Beat It,” “Bad,” “Dangerous.” And all of those songs were hits that made money for Sony specifically. He doesn’t mention any of his Motown hits. They’re included in a fun way, so they add a touch of humor to the video, but I think there’s an underlying message as well. He’s reminding Sony that he’s done his part – he’s built an audience and proven he can create big money-making hits. Now it’s time for them to do their part and support him while he creates something more experimental and artistically challenging, like the Invincible album.

Joie:  Again, that is such a keen observation and I have to say that I agree with you completely. And in fact, this opening sequence of the video where his earlier work is cited – first at the Chinese restaurant and then at the club – is the most fun, relaxing, entertaining part of the entire video. He’s with his friend, Chris Tucker and the two of them are having really good fun playing with the words and interacting with each other, and it is as if he is sort of reminding everyone of the hits, reminding us – Sony and the audience as well – of why we fell in love with him in the first place.

And really, if you think about it, it isn’t until he leaves Chris’ side to begin wooing the girl that things start to get a little bit uncomfortable. That’s when we begin to feel the tension creep in. That’s when we begin to get the feeling that there is more going on just beneath the surface that we’re not fully aware of. We can feel his anger and frustration but, we don’t really know why.

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Joie. While there’s something of a competition between these two characters, they’re presented as good friends and it feels like fun back-and-forth bantering – unlike the tension-filled conflicts with the managers of the club. You know, stepping back and looking at this video through the lens of all the confrontations that were happening then with the executives at Sony has helped me figure out why it always made me so uncomfortable – it’s helped me see at least one possible reason for why it’s so angry and where that anger comes from – and understanding that has given me a way to get into this video and appreciate it a lot more. It doesn’t make me so uncomfortable now because I have a better idea of what’s causing all those intense emotions.

And they are intense. To be honest, I get the feeling that by the time this video came out, Michael Jackson had had it up to here with Sony. And as he shows pretty dramatically in the conclusion to You Rock My World, he’s done with negotiations. He’s ready to burn the place down.

Joie:  He was so over it; he was done. You have to feel pretty angry to want to burn the place down, even symbolically. I don’t think it takes much art interpretation to understand that scene. The place goes up in flames and presumably, the big boss goes with it, as we see him turning to head back up the stairs instead of out of the building with everyone else. And not only is he so angry he’s ready to torch the place but, he’s also angry enough to fight. You have to remember that this is the one and only video where we see Michael throw a punch! As the club is going up in flames and he’s shouting for Chris to get the car, he is embroiled in a bar room brawl.

Willa:  Wow, Joie, I think you’ve just highlighted something really important. We’ve never seen him lash out like that before. Michael Jackson punch someone in the face? That’s shocking! But even so, he makes it clear he didn’t come looking for a fight. Before the brawl breaks out, he and his dancers perform this subtle movement of pulling back the lower edge of their jackets, just as the street tough does in Bad to reveal he has a gun. But here, they reveal they have no guns. So he’s unarmed and he isn’t looking for a fight – but he’s ready to fight if threatened and pushed too far.

Joie:  And significantly, in his own life he is going through a situation where he feels the need to fight and he does so in very public ways – something many people were not used to seeing from him. This is a man who was always more inclined to ‘turn the other cheek’ than to go into battle but he has clearly had just about all that he can stand.

And, of course, at the end we see our hero connect with his love interest – the audience – as they all pile into the car and drive safely away.

Willa:  I agree, and I think you were really onto something earlier when you said there’s a very friendly feeling between these characters. The intense conflicts in this video come almost exclusively from the confrontation with the managers, not the competition between the friends. We see that reflected in the conclusion as well. They are still friends and in a way they both have the girl – she’s in the car with both of them – just as performers can share an audience and even help each other gain an audience. Looking at this symbolically, the video seems to be saying that artists should band together because other artists aren’t the problem. The problem comes from all the people trying to control artists and how they express themselves simply to maximize profit without really understanding what they’re trying to say or accomplish through their work.

And I have to say, in this context Marlon Brando plays the role of the club owner so well, especially his interactions with the main character. He completely belittles Michael Jackson’s character but smiles a wonderful smile, he’s charming, you want to like him – and yet you know he would have his henchmen slip a knife through your heart without a moment’s regret. His smile is open, engaging, sincere, and yet he is soulless. Brando was such an amazing actor, and what he does with that little scene is so compelling. To me, it just completely captures the essence of that character.

Joie:  I agree, Brando is great, as always! But I want to go back to the middle of the video for a moment and talk about two small parts that stand out for me and I already know one of them is a big stand out moment for you too, Willa. The first one is the part that intrigues us both:  that way-too-short interlude before the fighting begins where we suddenly become aware of the sounds in the club. The “street music” as you called it. We hear the rhythm of the broom sweeping across the floor and the glasses clinking, the shoe shine guy buffing, the high heals clicking and the patrons tapping on the tables. To me, this rhythm section feels like a pause in the tension. It almost feels out of place in terms of the dominant negative emotions that are driving the rest of the video.

The second part comes just before the rhythm section when we see a stage and a spotlight. Presumably, we’re in the same club but the setting is different. No one else is around. It’s just Michael and the lady he’s trying to woo. Only she is dressed very differently in a sexy suit and fedora, like him. And instead of commanding that spotlight as he rightfully should, Michael does something unexpected. He chooses not to dance this small solo ‘spotlight’ moment, opting instead to let the female love interest take center stage and do her best MJ impersonation while he simply glides across the floor behind her. This scene has always puzzled me because, again, it just seems a little out of place among the tension of the rest of the video. And yet, I know that it’s significant because it is so different and out of place.

Willa:  You know, art interpretation is a tricky thing. It’s tremendously fun and I love it, especially with an artist like Michael Jackson whose work is so rich, with so much to discover and explore. But it can also be a challenge sometimes to explore all the possible meanings of a work while still staying true to the artist’s vision. In this case, I really don’t think that Michael Jackson sat down and said, I’m going to create a video that is a symbolic critique of Sony and its minions, and A is going to represent B, and Y is going to represent Z. I seriously doubt that. Very few artists work that way, and from everything I’ve read about his creative process, his work tended to develop much more organically than that.

But I do think that, at the time he created this video, he was embroiled in some intense conflicts with Sony and was very frustrated and angry about that, and some of those emotions and conflicts expressed themselves in his work. And I think that looking at this video through the lens of what he was experiencing at that time allows us to see some things that weren’t apparent before.

For example, that whole “street music” sequence is simply wonderful, and I love to just experience it and enjoy it for what it is – a lovely tapestry of found sounds skillfully woven together to form music. But if I look at this sequence in terms of everything that was going on then with Sony, it seems significant to me that Michael Jackson’s character is totally tuned in to this street music, this music of the people, and beautifully engages with it and threads the rhythm of it into his music – and the club managers aren’t. They’re oblivious to this rhythm of the people. So through music, Michael Jackson’s character shares a deep symbiotic connection with the people, just as Michael Jackson himself did, but it’s a connection the club managers and Sony executives don’t participate in and don’t understand. That’s why it’s so galling that they’re the ones making the marketing decisions – decisions that not only affect his art (like canceling the “Unbreakable” video) but actually impose barriers between him and his audience.

Joie:  That’s a great point, Willa and I think you just hit the ball out of the park with that one! This is why that sequence has always seemed so out of place to me. Because it’s like, for that brief instant, Michael hits the pause button on all of the tension and the anger he feels toward the club managers (and the Sony execs) and just connects with the audience for a minute – to make sure we’re still there with him. That’s why this street music portion is so powerful and such an important part of the video!

And I agree with you about his creative process. I don’t think he ever set out to create a video where A represents this and B represents that. As you and I have talked about before, ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,’ as Freud would say. And perhaps, this spotlight scene that fascinates me so much is one of those cases. Maybe it was just a cool visual that he wanted to include. Or perhaps he was aware of Kishaya Dudley – the dancer in the role – and her impressive skills and wanted to give her a spotlight to shine. Or maybe it was more than that.

Since we have argued in the past that the love interest in many of his songs and videos ultimately represents his audience, perhaps we can look at this small scene in the same way. You know, the fans were – and still are – fiercely loyal to Michael and during his conflict with Sony, the fans were very vocal and they took up his charge with gusto, executing rallies and chanting ‘Sony Sucks’ to the delight of the press. In fact, Michael often called his fans his ‘Army of Love.’ So, if the love interest is supposed to represent his audience, then maybe the message here is that it’s time for us – the audience – to get into the act, so to speak, while he encourages us from the background. Or maybe – and I think this might be more to the point – he is acknowledging how the fans always step up to fight for him just as Ms. Dudley stepped into the spotlight in his place.

Willa:  That makes a lot of sense to me, Joie, and it reminds me again of the street music sequence. It’s like he’s emphasizing once again that deep connection he and his audience share through music and dance, and the strength and vitality each receives from the other. We love and support him; he loves and inspires us. He dances; we dance. It’s a deeply interconnected relationship that nourishes us all.

I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me, Part 2

Joie:  Last week, we began a discussion about Michael’s frequent use of an on-screen audience in many of his short films, and how he used this on-screen audience to convey a certain mood or to model behavior in the video that he wanted us – the off-screen audience – to emulate. And during our discussion, Willa and I were surprised to find that there was so much ground to cover on this topic. So much, in fact, that we had no choice but to do it in two posts.

So this week, we want to continue by picking up where we left off with our conversation about how Michael often breaks the illusion of reality in his videos, as we pointed out he does at the end of Beat It. The dancers are doing their thing while the gang members watch and then the camera pans back to reveal that they are actually on a stage and we hear the roar of the unseen on-screen audience, which makes it clear that this has been a performance.

Willa:  That’s true, Joie, and he does that a lot in his work, even when there isn’t an on-screen audience. He likes to draw us in – immerse us in a story or an experience – and then remind us that it’s a performance. Black or White may be the best example. He’s constantly breaking the illusion of reality in that video: after almost every scene he reveals that he’s been performing on a soundstage. And at the big break in the middle – before the panther dance begins – he pans back to show us the film crew, and the director stepping into the frame to talk with the actress who was performing for us. We’re never allowed to forget that this is a performance.

He’s even more explicit about emphasizing he’s a performer in Remember the Time. In fact, the plot of this video focuses on the interactions between a performer and his audience. An Egyptian royal couple is bored and eager for entertainment, but they’re ruthless in passing judgment on those who try to please them. One poor entertainer is beheaded; another is thrown to the lions. So clearly, if you’re to survive as a performer, you have to please your audience. Michael Jackson’s character succeeds in pleasing the queen – and as he frequently does in his work, he presents the relationship between him and his audience, the queen, as a love affair. But while the queen is pleased, the king is not. In fact, he turns against Michael Jackson’s character precisely because the queen is so taken with him. Clearly, the life of a performer is not an easy one.

Joie:  That’s interesting, Willa. I never really think about Remember the Time in terms of an on-screen audience but I guess it does apply. The king and queen are watching several performers, looking for someone to entertain them, so they are indeed the audience here!

Willa:  They really are, and they aren’t a very loving audience either – at least, not entirely. His relationship with this on-screen audience is pretty complicated, just as his relationship with the public was really complicated. We have two different elements of his audience – represented by the king and queen – reacting in very different ways to his performance, and each is motivated by a complex mix of emotions. The queen is bored and falls for him simply because his performance amuses her, but she’s capricious. She could easily change her mind. The king is initially drawn to his performance also, but then he observes how the queen is responding and turns against him.

And of course, something very similar happened off screen with the general public as well. Michael Jackson first appeared as this cute little bundle of energy singing and dancing with the Jackson 5, and a lot of people became caught up in the sheer delight of that. And then his fame grew and grew with Off the Wall and of course Thriller, and a large segment of the population became completely infatuated with him – like the queen does. But at the same time, the critics began to turn against him – just like the king – and the haters began to appear, along with people who were just too cool to like someone that popular.

I don’t know if you have friends like this, Joie, but I know people who are constantly gushing about some new undiscovered talent, and then turning against them when they get too popular. I have friends who loved REM when they were playing little clubs in Athens, Georgia, but lost interest as soon as they became a big name. They loved Bruce Springsteen when he was a scrawny kid from New Jersey but shook their heads and said he’d “sold out” somehow when he muscled up and became recognized as the voice of the working class.

Joie:  Yeah, I know people like that. One in particular who just loved the band Journey when they weren’t very successful. But the minute they hired Steve Perry to be their lead singer and the group suddenly started turning out hits, he didn’t like them anymore. They were too popular, too “commercial.” I don’t understand that at all.

Willa:  I don’t really understand that either – performers are just as talented after they become popular as they were before – but I see this same story playing out over and over again:  with Charlie Chaplin and Elvis and Barbra Streisand and The Beatles, and now Justin Bieber. And I see Michael Jackson exploring that phenomenon in Remember the Time. So he’s doing something a little different with his on-screen audience this time. He isn’t modeling how he wants us to react. Instead, he’s reflecting our emotions back at us so we’re forced to look at them and think about them, at some level of consciousness.

Joie:  Hmm. I never would have made that connection or thought of it in that way. But, like I said, I hadn’t ever thought about Remember the Time as having an on-screen audience before now so, that really floors me. You’ve just given me a whole new way of thinking about this short film.

But, you know, there are a couple of other videos that I never really thought about as having an on-screen audience before. One of those is You Rock My World. But I guess you could say that the club patrons and the managers of the club are his audience in that one. After all, he does take it upon himself to get up on the stage in that video. They haven’t asked him to perform. In fact, the club managers look like they want to kill him the minute he enters the establishment, so they don’t want him on the stage. But he gets up there and gives an impromptu performance anyway.

Willa:  That’s interesting, Joie, and it connects back to Remember the Time in really interesting ways. I hadn’t thought about those two videos together like that before, but there are some striking parallels between them. As we talked about last fall, the club managers and club owner in You Rock My World seem to represent the managers and CEO of Sony, while the patrons – especially the love interest in the green dress – seem to represent the public. And both of these groups are watching him as he performs.

So, as in Remember the Time, he has a split audience. The love interest is drawn to the performer, just like the queen in Remember the Time, and the club managers feel very threatened by that, just like the king. The club managers act like they own her, and when they see she’s drawn to his performance, they begin bullying him and taunting him, saying, “That’s it? That’s all you got? That ain’t nothin.’ You ain’t nothin.’ C’mon, big man, show me all you got.” And that highlights an important difference between these two videos. While the king seems to respect his talent, even though he’s threatened by it, the club owner and club managers don’t – which is pretty telling if they really do represent Sony management at that time.

Joie:  Those are eye-opening observations, Willa. I had never drawn those parallels between these two videos before.

Willa:  I hadn’t either, until you mentioned You Rock My World while Remember the Time was still on my mind. But I can see now why one reminded you of the other because, in terms of the on-screen audience, they really are very similar.

Joie:  Yeah, it’s interesting how my mind made that connection on a subconscious level, isn’t it? You know, another video I never really thought about in terms of an on-screen audience before reading M Poetica and our subsequent conversations is The Way You Make Me Feel but, you explain how the group of guys talking on the street corner and even the group of girls across the street are all watching the protagonist as he tries to get the object of his affection to talk to him. They all become his audience, as well as his cheering section.

Willa:  Oh, The Way You Make Me Feel is just fascinating to me! There is so much going on in that video. And you’re right, the people on the street are cheering him on as he woos this beautiful young woman, but they’re also judging him as well. It’s really interesting how he sets that all up. And then once he starts to connect with this woman and care for her, he’s pretty uncomfortable having all those eyes watching him as he tries to develop a relationship with her. It’s all so public, and he wants some privacy. As he sings, “Ain’t nobody’s business but mine and My Baby’s.” So in this case, he includes an on-screen audience that performs several different functions, and one is to show how intrusive it feels to have an audience when you’re wanting a private moment.

Joie:  It does feel very intrusive at times, even for us – the off-screen audience – as we watch him try to woo the girl. We sort of breathe a little bit easier when he’s finally able to maneuver her onto a somewhat private porch so they can sit and be alone. But it’s short-lived because she quickly runs away from him again. And then there’s the tension we feel when he joins his friends in the shadows and does this very primal dance for her and there’s a little bit of awkwardness because, again, it is so not private when it really should be.

Willa:  I agree – I really get the sense that he wants his relationship with her to be intimate and private, so he disappears. And then when she begins searching for him, that on-screen audience isn’t just awkward. It’s threatening. We see a series of male faces staring right at us – he’s placed us in her position so we’re experiencing what she experiences – and all those male faces are staring straight at us. It’s very unsettling, I think. Even the policeman’s face feels threatening.

Joie:  And then we – the off-screen audience – breathe a collective sigh of relief at the end when she envelops him in her arms.

Willa:  Exactly. And I think it’s significant that the on-screen audience is gone by then.

Joie:  Oh, I never made that connection before. You’re right! This is a really interesting use of the on-screen audience, I think, because he’s using them to fuel the tension throughout the film.

Willa:  Oh, I like that! I hadn’t thought of it quite that way, Joie, but I think you’re right – I think the on-screen audience does “fuel the tension” in this video.

Joie:  By contrast, in another short film, Say, Say, Say, with Paul McCartney, he uses the on-screen audience in just the opposite way – to promote a feeling of light-heartedness.

In this video, there are several different instances of an on-screen audience and each of them sort of fosters this feeling of goodwill or light-heartedness. The first one is the crowd of on-lookers who are obviously being scammed by the “Mac and Jack” miracle potion. Only they don’t know they’re being scammed, so all they feel is happy and excited about this new product. The second on-screen audience we see here is the group of children and workers at the orphanage who benefit from that miracle potion scam. Our main characters jump out of the truck and “Mac” and his wife – the adults, taking care of business – hand over the money to the workers of the orphanage, while “Jack” – Michael’s character – immediately gathers up the children; they follow him as soon as he hops off the truck, like he’s the pied piper. The workers are delighted with the money, of course, while the children are delighted with “Jack’s” presence; he entertains them, balancing on the fence, dancing around for them. At the end of his little display for the children, he even takes a bow – to point out that it’s been a performance. Then they jump back onto the truck as quickly as they arrived and move on.

The final on-screen audience we see in this video is the crowd sitting in the saloon, watching the “Mac and Jack” Vaudeville Show. That show is full of such fun and humor that the watching crowd can’t help but be amused by their antics and we – the off-screen audience – likewise, can’t help but smile as we watch it all.

Willa:  Wow, Joie, I hadn’t thought about all the different audiences but you’re right, and the entertainers modify their performance for each audience. With the townspeople at the beginning, they’re mostly con artists – putting on a performance to bilk them of their money. With the kids, it’s pure performance, the sheer joy of entertaining. And with the Vaudeville crowd at the end, it’s a mix – they’re performing on stage, but they’re still presented as hucksters and hustlers. When the police come in and things start looking a little dodgy, they start a small fire as a distraction and then escape out the back.

Joie:  That’s true, they never let us forget that this is a small band of con-artists who need to keep moving.

Willa:  They really are. They’re fooling their audience as well as entertaining them. And this idea of the performer as a type of huckster has me thinking about Who Is It again. As we talked about a couple weeks ago, in that film he seems to parallel the experiences of this high-priced call girl and con artist with his life as a performer, and we definitely see that parallel here too – the entertainer as a kind of hustler and con artist. And he conveys that idea through the on-screen audience.

And then there’s Ghosts. That is such an amazing film in so many ways, and the on-screen audience is at the absolute center of that film. It’s very psychological, and to me, the central conflict of the film is actually happening inside the on-screen audience’s heads.

Joie:  I agree, it is psychological but I don’t think it’s happening inside their heads. I think it’s real for them; they really are seeing these ghosts climbing the walls and dancing on the ceiling and the Mayor really is temporarily possessed by the Maestro and then runs screaming through a window when he just can’t take the “strangeness” any longer.

Willa:  Oh, I see what you’re saying. I didn’t explain myself very well – that isn’t what I meant. I agree that the ghosts “really” are there, and the villagers really are experiencing them. What I meant was that, in a lot of films, the plot focuses on some sort of external conflict, like crossing a frozen tundra with sled dogs, or pulling off a bank heist, or fighting the evil Empire, or something like that. But in this film, there’s very little going on, in that sense. A group of people stand in a room and stare at each other. What kind of plot is that?

But there’s actually a lot going on in this film. It’s just that the conflict is all interior – the conflict is inside the villagers’ minds – and the resolution of that conflict is occurring inside their minds as well. There aren’t any sled dogs, but this film traces a journey just as difficult as the Iditarod in some ways. It begins with a group of scared villagers with burning torches invading the home of an artist, the Maestro. The villagers are from a place called Normal Valley, and they’re scared of the Maestro because he doesn’t fit their definition of “normal.” And they want to drive him out of town because of that fear.

So the plot of the film traces the Maestro’s attempts to change their thoughts and feelings about him. And he succeeds, but he does it in an interesting way. He doesn’t reassure them that he’s normal and really one of them. Just the opposite. He responds by becoming even more freakish and then altering their emotional response to things that aren’t normal – that seem different or strange or freakish to them.

I have to say, everything about this film fascinates me: how he represents their psychological journey, how he brings it about, how he resolves it – but not completely – at the end. There’s still a lot of uncertainty, even at the end. And the on-screen audience is central to all that. And we as an off-screen audience are watching them and tracking their thought processes as they take this psychological journey so, in a way, we take that psychological journey with them. It’s just fascinating to me.

Joie:  Oh, I see what you’re saying. And you’re right, the on-screen audience is totally central to that film, the whole plot hinges on them.

But you know, of course, the ultimate on-screen audience is the one in the video for One More Chance, which we discussed at length back in the fall. That video really puts the presence of the on-screen audience to interesting use, placing them on the stage while he pleads with them for just “one more chance at love.”

As you pointed out in that discussion, at the end of the video he’s left the room but the audience is still up on the stage. This visual suggests to the off-screen audience that there’s nothing left for him to do now. His work is done and it’s up to us now. We’re the ones who have to carry on in his absence and do what we can to preserve his legacy and help “make these mysteries unfold.”

You know, Willa, the fact that this turned out to be Michael’s final video is really sort of bittersweet when we understand the purpose of that on-screen audience and the final shot of the short film. It becomes very emotional for me personally.

Willa:  I know exactly what you mean, Joie. It’s emotional for me too, but it’s also really motivating as well. “Bittersweet” is a good description.

I’m really committed to changing the conversation about Michael Jackson, and sometimes I just get overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. It’s like trying to push water upstream with your hands. This river of negative commentary is all flowing in the opposite direction, and it’s like, How can we possibly fight all that? But I honestly believe that, with all of us working together, we can begin to channel that water in a different direction. I already sense a major shift happening, and I’m so inspired by seeing all these different people around the world working hard to make a difference. And I’m inspired by you, Joie. I’m so impressed with all the work you’ve done for so many years. You’ve really kept the faith a long time. And I’m motivated by the One More Chance video as well. When I get discouraged, I watch it and think, He’s left the room but we haven’t. We’re still here. It’s up to us now.

MJ’s Art of Racial Equality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spotlight on You Rock My World

Willa:  So Joie, in October we spent the entire month taking a close look at the Invincible album, including some of the battles Michael Jackson had with Sony during its production and promotion. To be honest, I never knew much about those battles or paid much attention to them, but focusing on Invincible for a month forced me to really think about what he must have been going through then, and that’s led me to look at the You Rock My World video in a whole new way.

To be honest, this video has always made me really uncomfortable. It’s very angry, for one thing – one of his angriest. But Black or White is angry also, and I love Black or White. It’s one of my favorites. But Black or White expresses a righteous anger. I watch it and come away feeling empowered and inspired and ready to take on the world. You Rock My World is completely different. I watch it and just feel frustrated and powerless and angry, and not even sure who I’m mad at.

Joie:  Well, I understand completely about the video making you uncomfortable. I have always had a similar reaction to this one. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it makes me uncomfortable but, I do come away from it feeling very on edge. The whole video just feels a little bit raw to me. Like you can actually feel the tension beneath the surface as you watch it. And I think the reasons for that are really clear. I’m sure Michael was feeling very “frustrated and powerless and angry” by that point. As you know, You Rock My World was not the video he originally wanted to make. As you mentioned last month, he really wanted to make a video for “Unbreakable.” This is also the song he wanted to be the lead single from the album, not to mention the title of the the album itself. He already had the video concept worked out and everything so, when Sony made the decision to release “You Rock My World” instead of “Unbreakable,” I know he probably felt extreme anger and frustration. One would think that an artist of Michael’s caliber would have complete autonomy and control over how a project would unfold. And maybe that very issue was one of the bones of contention between him and Sony at the time.

But, I remember getting the phone call from the MJFC president back in 2001 when all of this was happening and her telling me that the video Michael wanted to make had to be scrapped because of friction with Sony and Michael was now scrambling to make a video for “You Rock My World” and it had to be completed in a very short amount of time and he was “less than happy” about the situation. And I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, I bet he’s pissed!’

Willa:  And you can really feel a lot of those intense emotions in this video. The plot has his character trying to woo a young woman, and as we’ve talked about a number of times in previous posts, these love interests often seem to represent his audience. Importantly, another character played by Chris Tucker – a popular entertainer in his own right – is also attracted to her. So this woman – possibly representing their audience – has more than one performer competing for her attention, just as entertainers often seem to compete for an audience and market share.

Michael Jackson’s character is pretty sure of himself and confident he can win her over, but they go to a club where the managers want her also and seem to think they have a right to her, and they try to keep him away from her. In fact, he begins having confrontations with these managers and ultimately the club owner, just as Michael Jackson himself was having increasingly heated confrontations with the managers and ultimately the head of Sony over how to reach an audience.

Joie:  Wow, Willa. You know, I never really thought about that connection of the club managers and the big boss, played to perfection by Marlon Brando, as possibly representing the powers-that-be at Sony but, now that you point it out, it makes perfect sense! Really keen observation.

Willa:  Well, I’d never thought about it before either until we were working on the Invincible posts, and you clued me in to what exactly was happening then and just how bad it was. And as I was thinking about that, I realized that the emotions of that situation precisely paralleled those unsettling emotions that have always made this such an uncomfortable video for me to watch.

So Michael Jackson’s character has to deal with all these confrontations with the managers, and he responds by performing – by singing and dancing – which is what he always does in his videos when forced to deal with confrontational situations. And as we’ve seen in videos stretching back to Beat It and Bad, the power of art has always been able to bridge those differences and bring about some sort of harmonious resolution.

But that doesn’t happen this time. The outcome is completely different here than in any other Michael Jackson video because the people he’s battling against don’t respect his art. The managers watch him dance and then taunt him, saying “That’s it? That’s all you got? That ain’t nothin.’ You ain’t nothin.’ C’mon, big man, show me all you got.”

Then later, in that crucial scene with the club owner, the owner trivializes his art as well, saying, “You were pretty cute in there.” That’s exactly the kind of patronizing thing an executive, a money guy, would think about an artist, and it is so incredibly condescending and disrespectful. Can you imagine Michael Jackson, a brilliant artist who put himself on the line every time he walked on stage, coming off stage after dancing his heart out and hearing, “You were pretty cute in there”? That is such a belittling thing to say to a dancer, and it just scorches me every time I hear it.

However, Michael Jackson’s character responds in an interesting way. He gives the owner a defiant look and says, “I know who you are” – which immediately leads me to think, Who? Who is this guy? The simple answer is that he represents Tommy Mattola, the head of Sony at the time, but that’s a little too easy, I think. Instead, I think it’s more useful to see him as symbolic of all those executives and accountants and mid-level managers who make money off artists but don’t really respect them or understand what they’re doing, or realize how important it is.

Joie:  It’s interesting that you say that, Willa, because I remember reading an account of a Sony listening party for Invincible and it seemed so intense. I can’t remember now exactly where I read it but, basically it was Michael and his manager or his publicist or someone like that, in a room with a bunch of Sony executives and they sat and listened to the entire album from start to finish. And when the album was over, no one said a word. The Sony execs just got up and filed out of the room without saying a word to Michael – no congratulations, no words of praise, no nothing. And it just reminds me of that part you pointed out from the video. “Is that all you got? That ain’t nothin’. You ain’t nothin’.” I’m sure, that must have been what Michael was feeling at the end of that listening party when they all got up and left without saying a word.

Willa:  Are you serious? How awful! And it’s so interesting that you should cite that passage again because “You ain’t nothin'” is a line from the Bad video as well, which in many ways depicts a comparable situation. There, he’s a young man from the inner city who received a scholarship to a prep school, and then comes home and has to regain the respect of guys he thought were his friends, but aren’t really. Now he’s involved in a similar confrontation with Sony and having to regain the respect of people who should be supporting him, but aren’t really.

In fact, the You Rock My World video frequently references his earlier work:  “P. Y. T.,” “The Girl is Mine,” “Beat It,” “Bad,” “Dangerous.” And all of those songs were hits that made money for Sony specifically. He doesn’t mention any of his Motown hits. They’re included in a fun way, so they add a touch of humor to the video, but I think there’s an underlying message as well. He’s reminding Sony that he’s done his part – he’s built an audience and proven he can create big money-making hits. Now it’s time for them to do their part and support him while he creates something more experimental and artistically challenging, like the Invincible album.

Joie:  Again, that is such a keen observation and I have to say that I agree with you completely. And in fact, this opening sequence of the video where his earlier work is cited – first at the Chinese restaurant and then at the club – is the most fun, relaxing, entertaining part of the entire video. He’s with his friend, Chris Tucker and the two of them are having really good fun playing with the words and interacting with each other, and it is as if he is sort of reminding everyone of the hits, reminding us – Sony and the audience as well – of why we fell in love with him in the first place.

And really, if you think about it, it isn’t until he leaves Chris’ side to begin wooing the girl that things start to get a little bit uncomfortable. That’s when we begin to feel the tension creep in. That’s when we begin to get the feeling that there is more going on just beneath the surface that we’re not fully aware of. We can feel his anger and frustration but, we don’t really know why.

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Joie. While there’s something of a competition between these two characters, they’re presented as good friends and it feels like fun back-and-forth banter – unlike the tension-filled conflicts with the managers of the club. You know, stepping back and looking at this video through the lens of all the confrontations that were happening then with the executives at Sony has helped me figure out why it always made me so uncomfortable – it’s helped me see at least one possible reason for why it’s so angry and where that anger comes from – and understanding that has given me a way to get into this video and appreciate it a lot more. It doesn’t make me so uncomfortable now because I have a better idea of what’s causing all those intense emotions.

And they are intense. To be honest, I get the feeling that by the time this video came out, Michael Jackson had had it up to here with Sony. And as he shows pretty dramatically in the conclusion to You Rock My World, he’s done with negotiations. He’s ready to burn the place down.

Joie:  He was so over it; he was done. You have to feel pretty angry to want to burn the place down, even symbolically. I don’t think it takes much art interpretation to understand that scene. The place goes up in flames and presumably, the big boss goes with it, as we see him turning to head back up the stairs instead of out of the building with everyone else. And not only is he so angry he’s ready to torch the place but, he’s also angry enough to fight. You have to remember that this is the one and only video where we see Michael throw a punch! As the club is going up in flames and he’s shouting for Chris to get the car, he is embroiled in a bar room brawl.

Willa:  Wow, Joie, I think you’ve just highlighted something really important. We’ve never seen him lash out like that before. Michael Jackson punch someone in the face? That’s shocking! But even so, he makes it clear he didn’t come looking for a fight. Before the brawl breaks out, he and his dancers perform this subtle movement of pulling back the lower edge of their jackets, just as the street tough does in Bad to reveal he has a gun. But here, they reveal they have no guns. So he’s unarmed and he isn’t looking for a fight – but he’s ready to fight if threatened and pushed too far.

Joie:  And significantly, in his own life he is going through a situation where he feels the need to fight and he does so in very public ways – something many people were not used to seeing from him. This is a man who was always more inclined to ‘turn the other cheek’ than to go into battle but he has clearly had just about all that he can stand.

And, of course, at the end we see our hero connect with his love interest – the audience – as they all pile into the car and drive safely away.

Willa:  I agree, and I think you were really onto something earlier when you said there’s a very friendly feeling between these characters. The intense conflicts in this video come almost exclusively from the confrontation with the managers, not the competition between the friends. We see that reflected in the conclusion as well. They are still friends and in a way they both have the girl – she’s in the car with both of them – just as performers can share an audience and even help each other gain an audience. Looking at this symbolically, the video seems to be saying that artists should band together because other artists aren’t the problem. The problem comes from all the people trying to control artists and how they express themselves simply to maximize profit without really understanding what they’re trying to say or accomplish through their work.

And I have to say, in this context Marlon Brando plays the role of the club owner so well, especially his interactions with the main character. He completely belittles Michael Jackson’s character but smiles a wonderful smile, he’s charming, you want to like him – and yet you know he would have his henchmen slip a knife through your heart without a moment’s regret. His smile is open, engaging, sincere, and yet he is soulless. Brando was such an amazing actor, and what he does with that little scene is so compelling. To me, it just completely captures the essence of that character.

Joie:  I agree, Brando is great, as always! But I want to go back to the middle of the video for a moment and talk about two small parts that stand out for me and I already know one of them is a big stand out moment for you too, Willa. The first one is the part that intrigues us both:  that way-too-short interlude before the fighting begins where we suddenly become aware of the sounds in the club. The “street music” as you called it. We hear the rhythm of the broom sweeping across the floor and the glasses clinking, the shoe shine guy buffing, the high heals clicking and the patrons tapping on the tables. To me, this rhythm section feels like a pause in the tension. It almost feels out of place in terms of the dominant negative emotions that are driving the rest of the video.

The second part comes just before the rhythm section when we see a stage and a spotlight. Presumably, we’re in the same club but the setting is different. No one else is around. It’s just Michael and the lady he’s trying to woo. Only she is dressed very differently in a sexy suit and fedora, like him. And instead of commanding that spotlight as he rightfully should, Michael does something unexpected. He chooses not to dance this small solo ‘spotlight’ moment, opting instead to let the female love interest take center stage and do her best MJ impersonation while he simply glides across the floor behind her. This scene has always puzzled me because, again, it just seems a little out of place among the tension of the rest of the video. And yet, I know that it’s significant because it is so different and out of place.

Willa:  You know, art interpretation is a tricky thing. It’s tremendously fun and I love it, especially with an artist like Michael Jackson whose work is so rich, with so much to discover and explore. But it can also be a challenge sometimes to explore all the possible meanings of a work while still staying true to the artist’s vision. In this case, I really don’t think that Michael Jackson sat down and said, I’m going to create a video that is a symbolic critique of Sony and its minions, and A is going to represent B, and Y is going to represent Z. I seriously doubt that. Very few artists work that way, and from everything I’ve read about his creative process, his work tended to develop much more organically than that.

But I do think that, at the time he created this video, he was embroiled in some intense conflicts with Sony and was very frustrated and angry about that, and some of those emotions and conflicts expressed themselves in his work. And I think that looking at this video through the lens of what he was experiencing at that time allows us to see some things that weren’t apparent before.

For example, that whole “street music” sequence is simply wonderful, and I love to just experience it and enjoy it for what it is – a lovely tapestry of found sounds skillfully woven together to form music. But if I look at this sequence in terms of everything that was going on then with Sony, it seems significant to me that Michael Jackson’s character is totally tuned in to this street music, this music of the people, and beautifully engages with it and threads the rhythm of it into his music – and the club managers aren’t. They’re oblivious to this rhythm of the people. So through music, Michael Jackson’s character shares a deep symbiotic connection with the people, just as Michael Jackson himself did, but it’s a connection the club managers and Sony executives don’t participate in and don’t understand. That’s why it’s so galling that they’re the ones making the marketing decisions – decisions that not only affect his art (like canceling the “Unbreakable” video) but actually impose barriers between him and his audience.

Joie:  That’s a great point, Willa and I think you just hit the ball out of the park with that one! This is why that sequence has always seemed so out of place to me. Because it’s like, for that brief instant, Michael hits the pause button on all of the tension and the anger he feels toward the club managers (and the Sony execs) and just connects with the audience for a minute – to make sure we’re still there with him. That’s why this street music portion is so powerful and such an important part of the video!

And I agree with you about his creative process. I don’t think he ever set out to create a video where A represents this and B represents that. As you and I have talked about before, ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,’ as Freud would say. And perhaps, this spotlight scene that fascinates me so much is one of those cases. Maybe it was just a cool visual that he wanted to include. Or perhaps he was aware of Kishaya Dudley – the dancer in the role – and her impressive skills and wanted to give her a spotlight to shine. Or maybe it was more than that.

Since we have argued in the past that the love interest in many of his songs and videos ultimately represents his audience, perhaps we can look at this small scene in the same way. You know, the fans were – and still are – fiercely loyal to Michael and during his conflict with Sony, the fans were very vocal and they took up his charge with gusto, executing rallies and chanting ‘Sony Sucks’ to the delight of the press. In fact, Michael often called his fans his ‘Army of Love.’ So, if the love interest is supposed to represent his audience, then maybe the message here is that it’s time for us – the audience – to get into the act, so to speak, while he encourages us from the background. Or maybe – and I think this might be more to the point – he is acknowledging how the fans always step up to fight for him just as Ms. Dudley stepped into the spotlight in his place.

Willa:  That makes a lot of sense to me, Joie, and it reminds me again of the street music sequence. It’s like he’s emphasizing once again that deep connection he and his audience share through music and dance, and the strength and vitality each receives from the other. We love and support him; he loves and inspires us. He dances; we dance. It’s a deeply interconnected relationship that nourishes us all.