Student Essays On “Black or White”: Spring 2015 Semester

black-or-white(21)-m-2Once again, I am pleased to present some of the best essays from my students on “Black or White” and “Earth Song.” When we cover this particular unit as part of the 102 curriculum, students are given the option of writing on either “Black or White” or “Earth Song.” Today I am going to feature selected essays from our unit on “Black or White.” The next post will feature some of the best essays written this past semester on “Earth Song.”

The current crop of essays are from the Spring 2015 term. These students range in age from seventeen-year-old Dual Enrollment high school students, to middle-aged returning students who grew up with Michael’s music. They are from many different backgrounds and ethnicities. Although we did discuss these works thoroughly and they did have a select number of sources to use, the many varied ideas, opinions, analysis and reactions to Michael’s work that you will read here are, as always, their own. To maintain the integrity of each essay, I have altered nothing, not even spelling or grammar mistakes (if/when they occur). These are, without exception, the words, ideas, and reactions of real students who have granted permission to me to post their work. I always find these essays very enlightening, both in learning how young people view Michael’s work and legacy today, and in seeing reflected in these pieces the understanding they have taken away from our unit.


“Worldwide” by John Drake

“When trying to communicate with them, I found one name that they all knew-Michael Jackson”-John Drake

In 2008, while in the Marine Corps, I was stationed at the entry control point to Al Taqaddum Air Base in Iraq. I had to deal with several different Iraqis who could not speak English, and I could not speak Arabic. When trying to communicate with them I found one name that they all knew, Michael Jackson. Some would even try to dances like him, to out delight. Honestly, all of them were better than me. These Iraqis and my Marines were from totally different parts of the world and different cultures, but one thing we had in common was our appreciation for Michael Jackson and his dance moves.

As Joe Vogel put it in his article, The Misunderstood Power of Michael Jackson’s Music, when referring to Michael’s dancing, he is “continuing to shape, define, and redefine his routines”. From his iconic kick to the moonwalk, Michael had helped shape our culture. In Michael’s music video for his song “Black or White” he shows off not only his dances moves, but also those from around the world.

In the opening scene, it shows a boy dancing in his room. As I am sure most of us can relate to, he is playing the air guitar and jumping around his room. The child is just being a child. Listening to load music, at the expense of his parents, and enjoying himself. In this way, Michael is showing the free spirit of children. In the context of the song, I believe he is showing that children don’t care if your black or white. All they want to do is have fun and listen to whatever music they enjoy.

The following scene has Michael dancing in Africa with a group of hunters. They start off dancing in a native tribal dance while Michael does his own thing in the middle of them. Eventually, the hunters sync up with Michael as they all start to dance in unison. Michael is showing that he does not care where you are from, we all have a common aspect to our cultures. A love of dance.

After dancing with the African hunters, Michael runs onto a stage while the hunters continue past him. There he is joined by Indonesian women, who begin to dance when Michael joins them. He does not sync up with their dance, but rather dances in the middle of them. I do not know the meaning behind this Indonesian dance, as I am sure Michael did. Either way I am sure he chose it for its beauty. As to say, no matter where you are from, or what color you are there is beauty everywhere.

Michael is then seen jumping onto a stage, surround by a group of Native Americans. They are all dancing around him, as several others ride horses around the stage and dance elsewhere. Michael again does not sync up his movement to theirs, but lets them show off their own unique dance moves from their culture as he stands among them. I do not know what dance they were performing, but I can say, do not ask a Native American to do one for you. While I was in Iraq my Marine, Lance Corporal Blue, and I were waiting for a helicopter to take us to another base. We were delayed, and had to wait several hours due to a sand storm. I told Lance Corporal Blue, who is Native American that he needed to do a rain dance and knock all the sand out of the air. He did not find it as funny as I did, telling me that he could but he would have to kill a white man first.

Following his dance with the Native Americans, Michael is seem dancing with an Indian woman. The Indian woman is performing a native dance from India, while once again Michael dances beside her. At certain points during this performance there moves do sync up, as to say we may be from different parts of the world but even some of our dance moves are the same. The segment ends with them in unison dancing together, freezing in a moment where both their hands are up looking at one another.

In the next sequence, Michael is seen dancing with a group of Russian men. The Russians are performing a dance known as the Hopak, which is a Ukrainian dance and translates to jump. I am sure Michael chose this dance for its beauty and because it is what most Americans thought of when it came to Russian dance. I say this because the roots of the Hopak dance originated from the Ukrainian military celebrating their victories, while the song “Black or White” is all about peace (Foote). Though I am sure Michael either did not know it origins or just did not care. Choosing it for its beauty above all else. Michael does sync up with the dancers in this section, them not performing his moves but him joining in on theirs.

After all of these multicultural dances, Michael is shown back in America dancing on a stoop amongst a group of children. A mixture of black and white, all the children are showing simply dancing. In this way Michael was conveying that no matter black or white, we can all get along. Especially since we are all American.

Black, white, Indonesian, or Native American Michael broke thru all of these racial divides. His music and his dance moves can be seen and heard throughout the world. His stand against racism and fight for world peace are still ongoing to this day, and the legacy that he left behind will most definitely stand the test of time. I mean, if a boy from Alabama can go to Iraq and see an Iraqi man spin, then grab himself while sticking his hand in the air I am sure of it.


“Black or White” by Chad Gardunia

Michael Jacksons Black or White music video is rife with symbolism about racism in America. It is well known that Michael Jackson was one of the first very popular African American pop artists.  The time period he first became popular, he encountered a lot of anti-black sentiment against him and other artists aspiring to be like him.  Michael was fed up with it, as he said in previous statements, and if you watched the music video until the end there is a sequence where Michael does a dance in a seemingly abandoned city street.  In this sequence he morphs to and from a panther, and is seen smashing windows, yelling, and jumping on cars.  This might be Michael showing his frustration at the music industry and the obviously biased view they had on African Americans in the industry, or it could be Michael was trying to convey what black people as a whole felt like at the time.

Michael Jackson was one of the first African American artists to become popular, and he was also one of the first to be played on MTV despite being told that his videos would not air simply because he was black.  Michael pushed through that barrier despite being told he would not, and became one of the most prominent black men of his time.  When Michael finally was aired on MTV, he asked the question “can you hear me now?”(Kaufmann). This question could have been either directed at the African Americans in the audience, which would be a supportive question meant to challenge the black community to push the boundaries against racism.  The other group the question could have been directed toward was the producers of MTV and mainstream media, asking if they could hear his voice then and challenging them to silence the message he was trying to get out.  This question was very indicative of the frustration not only Michael was feeling, but the African American community as a whole was feeling at the time.

The ending sequence after the song shows Michael transforming to and from a panther or mountain lion that is black.  The panther is very symbolic of the civil rights group called the “Black Panthers” whom advocated civil rights for African Americans against the oppression of the government, and they sometimes used violence to get their point across, though not nearly as much as some other groups such as the group that followed the civil rights advocate Malcolm X.  The appearance of the black panther symbol in one of Michael Jacksons videos could be him showing his support of the black panther’s message, their methods, or both.  The video certainly seems to show him supporting both, because after he morphs out of the panther he begins to destroy the city block he is dancing in by smashing windows, cars, and eventually smashing up a hotel, which after he smashes it up Michael turns back into a panther and walks away, seemingly finished with the message he was trying to send.  The violence Michael showed could have one other meaning, however. He could be trying to get the message to not only African Americans, but the world as a whole that an oppressed people would soon tire of being oppressed.  That the violence in the city blocks could not be placed solely on the shoulders of the ones committing the crimes.  Maybe Michael was trying to warn of the powder keg that was America, lit at both ends and pressure rising, events coming to a head one way or another.  The whole point Michael was trying to get across was that the way things were at the time, they couldn’t stay that way.  The world needed to change, or the oppressed people were going to change it.

Maybe Michael was trying to warn of the powder keg that was America, lit at both ends and pressure rising, events coming to a head one way or another."-Chad Gardunia
Maybe Michael was trying to warn of the powder keg that was America, lit at both ends and pressure rising, events coming to a head one way or another.”-Chad Gardunia

Michael Jackson’s Black or White was a video rife with symbolism for racial equality. The ending sequence of the song with the black panther was just as long as the original song for a purpose, and that purpose was to raise awareness of the impending change that was going to head our way, regardless of whether we wanted it or not.


“Retaliation in a Public Place” by Simone Robinson

Retaliation in a Public Place

Suppression of an individual or a group has the characteristics of a suppressed slinky. Yes, the force that is held within is still there, but is not fully appreciated or in other words revered until it is released. Being black in America is, more often than not, seen as a bad thing. Almost every person of African descent who came to American by means of a slave ship did so not by choice, and yet since then have been treated like they are less human due to the pigment of their skin. However, that kind of repression can last for only so long. The panther as a symbol represents a fierce demeanor and agility. However, though these felines are smaller in comparison to their relatives: lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards and such, they are known for their power (Woolcott). In Michael Jackson’s short film called “Black or White” he took on the persona of a panther because as the symbol for the activist of black progression it embodied such a fierce standard for fighting for what is right and just, as well as not tolerating the oppression anymore. As the snippet of M.J.’s short film reflects, the panther shows its ferocity when it sees that it is a necessity to do so.

"The panther shows its verocity when it sees there is a need to"-Simone Robinson
“The panther shows its verocity when it sees there is a need to”-Simone Robinson

Michael Jackson grew up in a time in which the color of his skin impaired him greatly even considering his exceptional talents. “You may recall hearing that MTV refused to play Michael Jackson’s music video short films, simply because he was African American.”(Kaufmann) After so many years of their counterparts treating them as if they were second class not only citizens but also second-class human beings. Artists like Stevie Wonder even wrote about a desire for a time of racial harmony. His song “Ebony and Ivory” could be considered to some the equivalent to Mr. Jackson’s “Black or White” (Kaufmann) The author of “Black and White and Proud”  can attest to what it feels like to feel like “less of a citizen” in the country of her birth just because of her ethnic background. Civil rights were a big deal and therefore heavily reflected in the music of those who decided to fight for the cause.

Harmony is something most wish for when they have fought the fight their entire lives because the fight is always there. It is persistent, frustrating, and just plain tiring. The short film that is associated with “Black or White” starts out with a message about parental prejudices and children with new outlooks on life and then brings in other ethnic groups from around the world to show just how broad and beautiful all the diversity is. It is extremely likely that the conclusion of the video in which the panther is used is a claim stating that the dormant feline, with fire and justice in her eyes, is awakened and ready to take a stand or at least let its voice be heard. The question is why did the song and video take such a dark twist at the end and to that, the answer is simply an arising. The dark twist signifies that enough is enough! Racism in America had been such a blunt weapon upon the heads of minorities. Even though there were alterations occurring throughout the government and the minds of some people but it was still an ongoing occurrence for those who had to deal with it on a day-to-day basis.

That illustrates the facts of being black in America—you were a target for violence at the hands of those who wanted you to “know your place” in the social hierarchy.” (Kaufmann).

Knowing that just because someone had a prejudice toward you they could do as they please on a whim even if that resulted in physical or mental harm being inflicted upon you with little or no accountability or apprehension placed on them.

The panther dance is a direct reference to racism according to an excerpt from Ms. Kaufmann’s article. It was direct disrespect from the white tap dancers who painted their faces black and danced around in such a manner as to mock the slaves. Michael Jackson’s video for “Black or White” may have taken a “dark” twist but then again American is not new to “dark” twists.



Symbols in “Black or White” by Jake Jones

Michael Jackson was a very inspirational artist.  He had a way with his words that some wished they could have.  His songs ranged from racism to the earth itself.  May things Michael Jackson dealt with in his life influenced his songs.  The song “Black and White” was written in 1991.  This was still a time of race, not like it ever ended. Michael Jackson makes references to the KKK, race of a person, and war in the world.

The KKK is an organization that is special in its own way.  They do not accept any race other than their own.  They were primarily racist against African Americans.  In Michael Jackson’s song “Black and White” a reference is made towards the KKK.  The line in the song goes, “I ain’t scared of no sheets” (Stanza 7 Line 6).  This starts to raise questions as to why he mentions them.  This song is talking about the concept of whites, and blacks in the world.  The next line in the stanza states, “I ain’t scared of nobody” this can also reference to the KKK because of some of the things they did to African Americans.  They did such things as burn crosses in the front yards of African Americans to even murdering entire families.  We know now why Michael was so passionate about the issue. The race of a person shouldn’t be an excuse for the kind of torture they received.

Secondly, the race of a person has nothing to do with who they are on the inside.  We are all human.  The last line of many stanzas in Michael Jackson’s song “Black and White” states, “It don’t matter if you’re black or white” (Black or White).  In the article Messenger King: Michael Jackson and the Politics of #BlackLivesMatter written by D. B. Anderson it states, “I think something other than apathy is really at work here: fear and trepidation.  Artists fear that taking a political stand may jeopardize their reputations and careers” (par. 4). This goes to show that there is still racism in the world we live in today.  It isn’t to the same extreme, but it is still evident that there is some.

Continuing with the race of a person we see later in the song “Black and White”, “See, it’s not about races, just places, faces, where your blood comes from is where your space is…” (Stanzas 8-9).  This is Michael saying, the world isn’t a better place with race thrown into the equation.  The world has enough problems of its own to need to deal with race.  Michael Jackson was a very influential person.  Reverting back to my earlier statement about the article, Michael did not care about what other people though, and he conveyed his message to many people without them knowing.  If more artists were like this the world would have more influence to stop the racism towards African American’s as well as other races.  Some of the issues dealing with race can even start a war on a certain race or country.

Next on the board is war.  War can be a nasty thing to deal with, and can leave “scars” meaning it can leave lasting impressions as to why the war was started.  The war on race was a major one.  Though it might not be a significantly large as a world war, it is still in our home country.  Michael Jackson states in his song in stanza eight, “for gangs, clubs, and nations causing grief in human relations, it’s turf war on a global scale…” (Black and White).  The war Michael Jackson is talking about is a global war because it is not just African Americans who are discriminated against, it is also Jewish people and Arabs.  Michael Jackson was able to show people through his lyrics that what we are doing in the world isn’t working.  We need to put the skin color and ethnic background aside and become one.

black or white indian woman
“Michael Jackson was able to show people through his lyrics that what we are doing in the world isn’t working.”-Jake Jones


All in all, Michael’s words or wisdom could be useful to American now.  With everything that is going on in the United States of America from the race riots to the shooting of officers in New York City.  The most recent was this Friday on Fox News where a Caucasian officer was shot in the head by and African American man.  The madness Jackson spoke of in this song need to stop.  From the KKK in Jacksons time, to the race of you as a person, and the war that it causes.  The KKK thankfully is nothing like what it was in the times of Jackson.  The race of a person is the main topic of discussion now days because of everything that is going on in this corrupt world.  The war it is causing between races is uncalled for.  Michael Jackson was very careful in putting this song together, the fact that he sang it and put it into the lives of many Americans shows that he has the courage to stand up to racism.


Symbolism in Michael Jackson’s “Black or White Video” by Solomon Ortega

In many of his works, Michael Jackson uses veiled imagery to represent social and cultural problems of the time.  This trend is most prominent in his music video, “Black or White” in which he uses wordplay and allusions to describe racial tensions.  In addition to the surface meaning of the video, which is the past and current injustices associated with race, there is also a good deal of symbolism that brings the problems of society to light.  The end of the video is also important as it has a darker tone and reflects more on the deeper problems of the time.  When considered with the initial reaction to the work, the two parts come together to show the problems and difficulties of a culture undergoing change.

The first part of the music video is, for the most part straight forward and literal.  However, the lyrics of the song hardly match the video’s message of acceptance and cooperation.  Phrases such as, “I aint scared of your brother, I aint scared of no sheets” (Jackson) and, “It’s a turf war on a global scale” (Jackson) represent the beatings and killings done by people and organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan as well as the attitude that it’s every group of people for themselves.  Despite the grim tone of the lyrics, the video itself has a different tone with multicultural dancers, and babies of different race sitting on a slowly revolving globe.   This contrast is itself a symbol for how people will say they act one way, but will actually, when not observed,  act another.  This idea is furthered by the line in which Jackson says, “Don’t tell me you agree with me when I saw you kicking dirt in my eye” (Jackson). The conflicting duality of the video serves to represent the confusion that surrounded the subject of race at a time when the errors of the past were not spoken of or forgotten.   In a way, Jackson uses this video to unearth  racial tensions and current wrongdoings of the time.

In the second part of the video, Jackson follows up on the song with a dance filled with racial symbolism.  While the symbols are obscure to many of the white viewers they resonated deeply with many of the African American viewers who had different experiences.  The first prominent symbol of the dance is the way in which he dances.  Tap dancing originated as a form of comedy ridiculing black people and was not often seen at the time.  Another symbol incorporated into the dance can be found in the use of eroticism that is prominent in the work.  As Barbara Kaufmann wrote in her paper “Black White and Proud”, “Whites wanted blacks to be quiet and not propagate while they used many methods of population control” (Kaufmann).  During the entire video, Jackson wears a white bandage on his right arm referencing the case in which he was reportedly beaten by a police officer resulting in extensive bruising on his arm.  One of the more obvious symbols of the dance is the panther that transforms into Jackson.  Representing the Black Panther organization, which primarily focused on black pride, the panther associated Jackson with racial pride. 

Between its message and the confusing second part of the video, there was a large controversy over its release.  Upon seeing the video, MTV initially refused to play “Black or White because it was made by an African American artist. However, the public outcry following this announcement caused the them to add the video to rotation under the condition that they could  remove the last dance as it contained too many references to slavery and inequality, and was too confusing for many people to follow.  The delay and censorship of the work further served to validate the points that the song makes as it shows that both racism and corruption were prominent in the society of the day.  As Kaufmann wrote in “Black White and Proud”, “The white community was aghast at Michael Jackson’s “antics” They completely missed the message because it wasn’t intended for them.” (Kaufmann).  It wasn’t until years after the release of the video, people began to understand What Jackson was saying.  Today,  Jackson is hailed as a visionary who broke the barrier for African American artists and began the process of cultural change in American society.

"The message of "Black or White" was interpreted and has changed how a generation of people view both themselves and others."-Solomon Ortega
“The message of “Black or White” was interpreted and has changed how a generation of people view both themselves and others.”-Solomon Ortega

Without the extensive symbolism found in “Black or White”,  much of the meaning of the video would been lost.  Ranging from the open and obvious symbolism of the first part, to the more discrete and subdued nature of the second part, The message of “Black or White” was interpreted and has changed how a generation of people view both themselves and others.   With the contribution of this song, Jackson changed the public view on race and began to pave the way to real equality.  In all, Jackson’s performance has had a lasting effect on people and has made  a lasting change in the world.


Black, White, and Something In-between by Will Murrey

Michael Jackson’s song, Black or White, he tries to show people how no matter your color, religion, or background, we are all still human.  It seems like something simple to understand and support but at the time, and even now, it was and is controversial.  The song was not just about race it also had a smaller “secret” meaning about family and how they should be together.

The opening scene in Black or White is of a young boy listening to his rock and roll in his room, just a little too loud.  The boy’s father finally has enough and marches upstairs to force him to turn the music off, slamming the door behind him causing the picture of MJ to fall to the floor and shatter.  In response the boy carries his electric guitar downstairs and plugs it into two giant speakers.  With one big “rock star” strum he sends his dad through the roof and high into the sky.  After this the main song starts and the boy is not seen again until later in the video.

"There were other songs that were “rebellious” telling people to push against authority, but this song was almost the exact opposite.  Instead, even though many did not see it at first, it was telling families to be together.  Instead of going off and doing your own thing, turn off the TV or the music or whatever else and get together and spend quality time with one another."-Will Murrey
“There were other songs that were “rebellious” telling people to push against authority, but this song was almost the exact opposite. Instead, even though many did not see it at first, it was telling families to be together. Instead of going off and doing your own thing, turn off the TV or the music or whatever else and get together and spend quality time with one another.”-Will Murrey

There were other songs that were “rebellious” telling people to push against authority, but this song was almost the exact opposite.  Instead, even though many did not see it at first, it was telling families to be together.  Instead of going off and doing your own thing, turn off the TV or the music or whatever else and get together and spend quality time with one another.  It is not too hard to imagine why MJ might have slipped this into his song.  One reason being, as Raven Woods put in her summary of the song:

All one has to do is look back a few short years to 1985 and the popular success of Twisted Sister’s I Wanna Rock and We’re Not Gonna Take it videos to see what was, in all likelihood, the seeds of what would later evolve as the Macauley Culkin/George Wendt showdown in Black or White.

However there may be another reason for MJ to put this in his song.  His own home life could have influenced the decision to put such a spin to his work.  Michael’s father is known to be a very stern and feared man, Michael himself was afraid of him and this could be another added factor of why this scene was added to the music video.

Around the middle of the video the boy from the beginning appears again surrounded by other kids of different genders and races.  “Michael is the lone adult figure in this group, but he is not seen as an authority figure” (Woods).  This seems to further enforce the idea of everyone being equal and being friends.  Children lack the discretion that adults have especially when it comes to things like racism, the adults are the ones that enforce these things causing the children to believe in the wrong morals.  The deeper meaning comes at the very end of the video with a scene from the Simpson’s TV show where Homer turns off the TV.  This may point again to the fact that Michael wants not only people but families as well to put aside their differences and spend time together.

In an interview Michael said that he never meant for the video to be so controversial, but many disagree.  It is easy to tell that he meant for this to make people “wake up” to the world that they have become blind to.  That was the real meaning behind the song, no matter how you took it, it was meant to change how you thought about the world we live in, or at least the home.


Does It Matter If You’re Black or White? by Katherine Mott

Nowadays, everyone is trying to fit a mold set by society.  Whether it is to be skinny, tall, tan, beautiful, or muscular, there are many different expectations set in place for everyone to meet.  In Michael Jackson’s time, it was especially difficult for African Americans, as they were (and still are) discriminated against for not being able to meet society’s standards.  In the video for Jackson’s song “Black or White”, the theme of transformation plays a large role.  Not only does he criticize the racism in America, but also the media’s portrayal of how everyone should look and act.  Scenes of people morphing into other people and Jackson turning into a black panther serve to show how everyone is expected to fit a perfect model created by society.

Towards the end of the first half of the music video, many different people are shown dancing and singing along to “Black or White” and then morphing into other people.  Not only does this showcase the diversity of the human race, it also serves to symbolize the expectations set by our society.  Everyone is forced to believe that in order to be beautiful, you must be a certain height, weight, color, and age.  Instead of promoting individuality, our culture promotes a specific mold that everyone must fit into.  Magazines and commercials advertising the newest weight loss program or the latest makeup bombard us.  Models and celebrities are praised for their beauty and appearance.  In his music video for “Black or White”, Jackson celebrates the individuality of each and every person, no matter his or her age, shape, or skin tone.  The people in the video are shown happy and beautiful, just as they were created.  They didn’t have to meet society’s standards to be worthy.

"In his music video for “Black or White”, Jackson celebrates the individuality of each and every person, no matter his or her age, shape, or skin tone."-Katherine Mott
“In his music video for “Black or White”, Jackson celebrates the individuality of each and every person, no matter his or her age, shape, or skin tone.”-Katherine Mott

In the second half of the music video for “Black or White”, a black panther is seen roaming the video set and then an empty street.  All of a sudden, the panther transforms into Michael Jackson.  Jackson then begins tap dancing.  Both the black panther and the dancing are important symbols.  The panther symbolizes the Black Panther Party, a group of black nationalists and socialists.  According the article “History of the Black Panther Party”, the group trained in self-defense and worked against police brutality.  They used community programs and projects to initiate revolutionary socialism (Baggins).  The Black Panthers were strong believes in equality for African Americans, even if it meant attaining it in violent ways.  The tap dancing was also a symbol.  The author of the article “Black and White and Proud” said that tap dancing “began as a mockery of slaves with ‘blackface comedy,’ in which white men painted their faces black and mimicked slave farmhands working in the fields; depicted them as clumsy, as buffoons, and attempting to run away in tap dance movements” (Kaufmann).  Jackson’s imitation of this was a way of bringing light to the racism and discrimination in America.  People who were different were mocked and ridiculed.  Jackson wanted to expose this injustice and make people uncomfortable.  He wanted them to see what society had done to his relatives in the past.  Obviously, he succeeded in making people uncomfortable, because MTV banned the music video soon after its release.  These symbols serve as part of the theme of transformation in this video.  They make people think deeper into the song than just the lyrics.

One of the greatest music artists in American history is Michael Jackson.  His songs are not only fun to listen to, but most of them share a deep message.  “Black or White” is a perfect example of this.  Behind the upbeat tune lie lyrics that cry out for change.  Jackson wants people to realize the corrupt state of our society and the media.  By trying to shape and mold everyone into this perfect ideal, we are slowly destroying the beauty and creativity inside everyone.  Through the music video for this song, Jackson portrays a theme of transformation.  He slyly mocks the media for its concentration on an ideal perfection.  Jackson wants everyone to know that it does not matter if you are black or white.  Be who you were created to be.  That is what makes this music video great. That is what makes Michael Jackson great.


Michael Jackson’s Fight for His Beliefs by Sureena Monteiro-Pai

Michael Jackson is well known for his catchy pop songs and his everlasting impact on the world of music. He used “Black and White” to show his disapproval of white supremecy and his support of civil rights and equality for those of every heritage. Michael Jackson can be seen as a civil rights activist and one who fought for everything he believed is right in his song “Black and White”.

Jackson’s civil rights activism starts from his childhood. He grew up as one who was exposed to racism and segregation. With the other members of his family, he would sneak in and out past curfew to play in town. With the older population still being accustomed to racism and slavery, he was still not treated as a true human. This is why he believes that the youth can fix what the older population has done (Kaufmann). He added the ‘parenting authority’ to encourage kids to ignore their parent’s habits of racism and integrate the children of all nationalities and races.

Jackson stated several times that he believes the press and other celebrities twist and turn his words and actions to reflect only upon the bad he does or appears to do. He spent a lot of his life dedicating time, money, and cheer to hospitals and other places with those in need (Woods). Despite this, the press would not focus on his charity work. Even though laws prevented slavery, the white community still had a lingering sense pride and entitlement to the greater resources. Although his music was popular, MTV denied him the ability to play his music videos on their channel due to his race (Kaufmann). He took this as an opportunity to strike back stronger whenever he was denied with “Black and White” and other songs. Jackson truly believed that music has the power to unify people and he used it to try to bring together people of many cultures and religions (White).

The music video of “Black and White” shows the racism and segregation seen in the world around Jackson. The video is “full of history, anger, beauty, and faith in humanity’s potential” (White). He tries to portray not only the sorrows experienced by the black community, but that it is not a curse to be Black. His main point is that all humans, no matter what color, are deserving of respect and love. In the video, the fire represents all the riots and rage between the colored community and the white community. At the time, there were riots in Chicago, especially at a hotel that he includes in the video. He makes references to the Klu Klux Klan by showing burning crosses to show how they would use flaming crosses to strike fear into the black population. He said “I ain’t afraid of no sheets” to reference the Klu Klux Klan men who wore white sheets and lynched black men (Kaufmann).

He also incorporates eroticism and tap dances to represent the cruelty of the slave owners. When he grabs his crotch, he is referencing how white men impregnated colored in order to prevent more colored children. This would instead produce lighter colored children to eventually eradicate their black heritage. The white people often could not understand what this was referring to and misinterpreted it as him being overly sexual and having sexual themes to the video. He purposely does this for the sole reason that it is highlighting an injustice that the white population has created and cannot understand. He also did the tap dance to reference slavery. White men saw the slaves work as never good enough and believed that they were all goofy and incapable of doing the work. The tap dance shows how the white men mimicked black slaves in order to make them look like they are slackers and are clumsy. It can also mimic their attempts to escape slavery (Kaufmann).

“He strolls off into the night with passive rage, doing much less damage than he did as a man…”-Sureena Monteiro-Pai

The final panther dance is considered vulgar and many people are baffled by what it means. It is actually referring to the black pride shown by James Brown and the Black Panthers. The panther also represents the fierce fighting force and the rage of the black population about the segregation (Kaufmann). He rips off both his black and white clothing to show that everyone should have the rage from when the hotel incident happened. He strolls off into the night with passive rage, doing much less damage than he did as a man. It shows his rage on the inside without doing damage on the outside.

Michael Jackson not only left his footprint on the world of music, but also established his career as a civil rights activist. He used music to try to bring together people of different heritages and cultures. His childhood greatly influenced his future aspirations as a civil rights activist. He incorporated many techniques in the music video of “Black and White” such as tap dancing, eroticism, and animal symbolism. His music created a large impact at the time it was released, as well as also having a continuing impact on the lives of many in today’s and the future’s generations.


Parental Authority by Bryant Moore

In Michael Jackson’s music video “Black or White” parental authority is used as a sub theme of the video. The music video starts off and ends with a scene of parental authority between a father and son. The role of parental authority can be observed by analyzing the opening conflict, the closing conflict and the role of childhood rebellion.

The opening scene of the music video starts with a young boy rocking out to a song a little to loud for his father’s liking. The father is watching baseball and yells for the boy to turn it down. The boy does not hear his demand so the father goes to the boy’s room to confront him. He tells the boy to turn it off, that he is wasting his time with that kind of music and to go to bed. On his way out, the father slams the boy’s door and a framed Michael Jackson poster falls and shatters. The boy decides to retaliate by setting up two incredibly large speakers and blasting the windows and his father out of the house. The father lands in a third world African country and Michael takes over with his song.

The second scene of a conflict of parental authority closes out the video and is of the television show “The Simpsons”. The camera pans out of the family’s television and shows Bart dancing on the couch to the ending of the music video, still playing on the television. Homer walks in the room and tells Bart to turn it off, to which Bart responds by telling him to chill out. Homer then takes the remote and turns the television off himself thus concluding the music video entirely.

The two instances both show a boy who is doing what he wants to do and the father telling him to stop. What the boys are doing apparently is not what the father wants them to be doing and we see the clash of interests take place. Both boys talk back against their father’s wishes and, even though the first scene never shows whether the father returns from the third world country it is implied that the son is disciplined later, the father puts a stop to what the boys are doing. The parental authority shown in these two scenes is depicted as a tyrannical form of authority. Nonetheless the boys rebel against their parents. These instances harp on childhood rebellion and Michael ties that with the real world issue of oppression and intolerance. Raven Woods touches on this topic in her post “The Seeds of Black or White and the Sub Theme of Parental Authority”. She says,

“The adults are simply being bullies, and the kids overcome the bullying by fighting for their right to express themselves. But in Black or White, Michael never strays too far from the moral compass. Parents can be bullies sometimes; they can be unreasonable, obnoxious, demanding, and annoying. But in the end, it’s only because they want what’s best for the child-and children must respect that.”

"Michael fought for equality and pushed for the oppressed to fight for their right to express themselves."-Bryant Moore
“Michael fought for equality and pushed for the oppressed to fight for their right to express themselves.”-Bryant Moore

Michael ties this in with society in the instance of oppression and intolerance of blacks. Michael fought for equality and pushed for the oppressed to fight for their right to express themselves. So, this form of childhood rebellion depicted in this music video is a smaller picture to Michael’s bigger picture of society.

In “Black or White” parental authority is shown in two instances of the video, in the opening scene and the closing. The point of these instances is to show a form of childhood rebellion to the parents who seemed to be a little out of line. These scenes are Michael’s way of depicting society’s oppression and intolerance of blacks, and plays into his push for equality between all races not just blacks and whites.


“Black or White” by Tracy Crutcher

Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video is the result of his hurt, anger and frustration from personal experiences as a victim of prejudice and racism. His feeling is expressed through his artistry of lyrics, dancing and humorous antics. It also reveals his thoughts of equality to anyone regardless of color or ethnicity. Michael Jackson, the social activist, raised his voice through his performance of fearless expressions against injustices during the video “Black or White”. His boldness simply relays the message that we are all one and the same.

Michael grew up in the sixties, during the era of the civil rights movement. He had to witness discrimination and segregation against blacks. The hatred was visible through many instances where treatment of violence and some inhumane actions towards them. As a child, his experiences and witnessing of injustices and inequalities is more than overwhelming and leaves lasting effects. Michael gains boldness to retaliate, but without violence, as the reaction to these horrible images.  His retaliation is fought with the brilliance of his mind through his artistry. His sensitive nature and love for humanity leads him to become a civil rights activist.

As an adult in the height of his fame as a singer, dancer and performer, Jackson had the world’s attention. What better way for him to use the attention as a resource to voice his concerns and feelings regarding prejudice and racism. In 1991 released video, Black or White, is about bringing all types of races and cultures together. Some of his humorous antics within the video were misinterpreted. The erotic dancing had a hidden message to a particular audience. Punching through smoky cloud referred to the thematic rebellion against racial and cultural burning of crosses by the Klu Klux Klan. The lyrics relating to this scene is letting the white supremacy know that he is not afraid of them (Kaufmann.6).

He faced misunderstood criticism which caused controversy all over the world. This worldwide controversy leads to boycotting his videos by certain networks. One particular network, “MTV”, refused to play any of his short film videos (Kaufmann 4). Fortunately, it was not a hindrance to his success. Single-handedly with bravery and boldness, Michael broke that barrier by winning his second Grammy Award (Kaufmann 4). His ability to increase the meaning of his messages vocally, visually and physically earned his right to fame and recognition. His humbled mannerism only desired respect to go beyond boundaries.

As a global celebrity, he used every part of his being to make a difference (Anderson 1).  Michael Jackson was not afraid to put himself out there for speaking the truth. Regardless of how it affected him as an artist or his integrity; it was his sacrifice for equality. He faced wrongful accusations from the media which tainted his image as a man. He was under attack by a white district attorney for many years charging him with scandalous crimes. These supposed crimes were never proven during trial (Anderson 2). He endured a great loss financially due to losing sponsorships following a protest against conspiracies of his record label as they were mocked in the press (Anderson 2). As a very vocal and influential wealthy black man, he stood to lose a lot; but all in the name of truth and standing for what is right (Anderson 2).

"Michael Jackson was not afraid to put himself out there for speaking the truth. Regardless of how it affected him as an artist or his integrity; it was his sacrifice for equality."-Tracy Crutcher
“Michael Jackson was not afraid to put himself out there for speaking the truth. Regardless of how it affected him as an artist or his integrity; it was his sacrifice for equality.”-Tracy Crutcher

Researching works of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video, have given me a greater respect for him. His work reflects his belief that all men are created equal and should be treated as equal; no matter their color or cultural background. The ingenious artistry of how his message is conveyed has attracted the attention of many all over the world. He is letting the world know, that “he’s tired of this devil, he’s tired of this stuff” and “he ain’t scared of your brother, he ain’t scared of no sheets and he ain’t scared of nobody”. It don’t matter if you’re black or white” (Michael Jackson).


Color Blind by Searia Pride

The legacy of the late Michael Jackson is one that will live forever. From a small child growing up in Gary Indiana, there was something special about him that the world had to experience. His musical talents are probably what he is most famous for however, Michael Jackson was also an activist for civil rights. In one of his most popular and controversial songs, “Black or White,” Michael Jackson displays his disgust of being a black man in America. The video conveys a number of symbolic representations.  From the KKK symbols, to the ethnic dances, to the Black Panther, Michael Jackson unmasks a racially corrupt America.

Jackson makes a profound reference to the Klu Klux Klan in one of his verses. “I ain’t afraid of no sheets,” he is describing the white sheets shaped like cones draped over the heads of a very brutal white supremacy group. They are responsible for the lynching of many blacks in the 1960’s. Jackson also shows the burning of the crosses that symbolize the torture caused by the group. The KKK would often burn crosses in the yard of blacks to terrorize them. In her article, Barbra Kaufmann describes the group being known for “vigilante justice”.

In another segment of the video Michael Jackson raises awareness about global racism. He begins to dance with different ethnic groups of the world: Asians, Africans, Native Americans, and even Russians. Kaufmann describes it as “the dance of life that encircles all humans.” Jackson shows his viewers that racism is not just an American issue, it’s a world issue. The dance choreography promotes unity and world peace.  He sings, “It’s not about races, just faces, where your blood comes from is where your space is.” He demonstrates the common problem between many ethnicities which is racism. Throughout this song he shows us that no matter where you are from, love and equality has no preference.  The dance ultimately represents his personal transformation.

Last, Jackson uses the black cat at the end of the video to reference the poplar Black Panthers Party of the 1960’s. The militant group is often depicted as terrorists; however the group and its supporters raise awareness to the “Black Power” movement. Their revolutionary and socialist demonstrations were initially used to change the behaviors of police officers and investigate police brutality. Jackson expresses his support of the party by displaying the closed fist. At the end of the video he proceeds on with what is known as the “Panther Dance.”  It was an impromptu routine that included no professional dancing. This is Michael’s interpretation of the panther’s wild and animalistic behavior: He sheds light on the mockery made of African Americans such as entertainers. The tap dancing was a reference to slavery. Many slaves were mimicked by white men that painted their faces pretending to be working slaves. Michael’s awareness of this issue is further explored by his symbolic imagery.

"Although we know Michael as a musical genius, he is also a powerful voice of racial reform. He used his platform to raise awareness to racism throughout the entire world. “Black or White” is just one of the many works that Jackson uses to cleverly depict world corrupt with racism. Who would have known that the very issues that he sung about many years ago would still exist today? In the wake of recent racial killings, his words still hold true."-Searia Pride
“Although we know Michael as a musical genius, he is also a powerful voice of racial reform. He used his platform to raise awareness to racism throughout the entire world. “Black or White” is just one of the many works that Jackson uses to cleverly depict world corrupt with racism. Who would have known that the very issues that he sung about many years ago would still exist today? In the wake of recent racial killings, his words still hold true.”-Searia Pride

Although we know Michael as a musical genius, he is also a powerful voice of racial reform. He used his platform to raise awareness to racism throughout the entire world. “Black or White” is just one of the many works that Jackson uses to cleverly depict world corrupt with racism. Who would have known that the very issues that he sung about many years ago would still exist today? In the wake of recent racial killings, his words still hold true. Jackson sings, “See it’s not about races, where your blood comes from is where your space is”.  Although he is not with us, the profound messages in his work speak to hearts of many generations.


The Black Panther by Patricia Crayton

If there was ever an artist who could stand up to the establishment and make a bold statement while making a ‘song and dance’ out of it to and mesmerize the world, it would have to be Michael Jackson. MJ has never been a conventional person and the boldness of his artistry was all too evident in the music video of the song ‘Black or White’ and a clear allusion to the black-panther symbol that stood for the trials and tribulations of the African American community in the US.

Black or White is full of vibrant symbolism that is a vocal expression of Michael Jackson’s defiance against a grossly unfair system and country that condoned discrimination along with   blatant suppression of human rights against the majority black population. It was during the 1960’s time period of racial segregation and injustice that the US had gone through and which MJ and the Jackson Five had personally witnessed and experienced.

However, the beauty about art is that it can cleverly convey a message in a manner that is laced with such finesse that it comes across as a ‘blink and you would miss it’.  MJ effortlessly makes his point while you are taken in by the sheer picturesque arrangement of the spectacularly shot video.

First, the study aims to examine the unique imagery and messaging occurring from the inclusion of the black-panther in the “Black and White” music video by Michael Jackson. There were skeptics who had completely opposed the black-panther addition in this video as being unnecessary, avoidable, self-indulgent and even offensive. The peculiar motivations for Michael Jackson to portray the black-panther in this widely acclaimed and globally watched video that had taken the world by storm on its release. One of MJ unique messaging code in when the panther approaches the statue of George Washington it growls.

Second, the Black or White music video was released on US television in November 1991 to a confused and mixed response with some sections pointing out that the video alluded to violence, racial disharmony and sexual controversy. The allusion that was found offensive revolved around the distinct imagery of the black-panther in the form of the ‘panther dance’ that came towards the very end of the music video of ‘Black or White’.

This video has three separate sections with the first section depicting a typical white family in suburbia, a picture of ‘normality’ and even luxury in the American context. The next section depicts folks of various genders and races morphing one into the other to show skin color-based diversity that exists around the world. The last few minutes of the video show consist of MJ doing the ‘black-panther;’ dance without music in a dark alley with some violent and even possibly sexually laced moves including grabbing his crotch and smashing of a car window, tossing a garbage can and lots of screaming. It is this dance portion that evoked huge controversy after the video was released.

Third, the ‘black-panther’ dance has obvious symbolic significance as it depicts the reality of race relations and the long history of discrimination and mistrust that were a reality concerning African Americans in the US (Chin). MJ first dance is not just any dance, it is a tap dance. Tap dance has a significant historical context to blacks. It is especially demeaning because it originated as “blackface comedy”.

Starting with slavery and exploitation to segregation and injustice, the African American has seen it all. The Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. espoused redemption and justice for the African American on a non-violent basis, much like the non-violent movement led by Mahatma Gandhi in India for freedom from British rule.

It was in this context that the Black Panthers Party was formed in California in 1966, as revolutionary movement to fight for the rights of blacks, using violence as a platform if need be (“The Black Panther”). The whole premise of this party was that the non-violent Civil Rights movement had failed in achieving its avowed goals; hence, there was a need to militantly fight for what was justly theirs. The Black Panthers had a 10 point charter that roughly translated to fighting for rights in education, employment, housing, and civil dignity for the African American. It is said that the FBI played a very active role in the collapse of the Black Panthers Party movement through various methods of sabotage.

“MJ was quite aware of the past, but he wanted to make sure that his work in the present would represent a hope for a brighter future…”-Patricia Crayton

Reverend Kaufman makes a reference to Michael Jackson and the Black Panther Dance in “Black and White and Proud” (Kaufman 2010) as “The past and Michael Jackson’s part in it, his contribution to the present and impact on the future, is not to be understated or dismissed.” This is a specific reference to the exact reason MJ wanted to include the Black Panther dance in the video of Black or White in terms of making a statement of the shared history of all African Americans. It was a kind of tribute to all the pain, insults and degradation that blacks in America had faced as part of their collective past, having been considered to be second or third class citizens of the USA.

Finally,  MJ was quite aware of the past, but he wanted to make sure that his work in the present would represent a hope for a brighter future and in his own unique way he represented his sentiment through the Black Panther dance in the Black or White video. There were many who misunderstood Michael Jackson and his reasons for including the Black Panther dance.


I hope you have enjoyed these. There were actually a lot more essays on “Earth Song” this semester; so many, in fact, that I may have to split those over two posts. I will try to have the first batch up within a couple of days, and then will follow with the remainder a day or so after.

A Night of Kings

This is a Michael Jackson blog and usually all my topics are focused on MJ but, every so often, a death occurs in the music world so huge that I must take a step back long enough to acknowledge their accomplishments. Like Michael, B.B. King was a global icon whose music genuinely transcended time and genres. It doesn’t matter if one is into blues, rock, pop, jazz, or country, everyone knew the name B.B. King. Tonight, as the world mourns the loss of our great blues legend B.B. King I thought it only fitting to go back in time to 1985 and a very special concert that not only featured James Brown and B.B. King on the same stage, but also Michael in a very surprise guest appearance. Well, sort of. It turns out Michael had been secretly in the audience all along. I’m not sure if it was a genuine surprise for him when James Brown called him up-he seemed to take it all in very cool stride-but it sure made for some impromptu fun!

Michael Is Called Out, The New Rising King, To Come Onstage
Michael Is Called Out, The New Rising King, To Come Onstage

Luckily, I was able to find a clip of the entire performance. What a truly magical night-The King of Blues, The King of Soul and The King of Pop (albeit all too briefly) sharing the same stage!

Another great performance from the man who still had “it” well into his 80’s:

RIP B.B. King. You and the sweet notes of Lucille will be sorely missed by all of us who love great music.

Where Michael Got His Looks: Michael Jackson’s Beautiful Grandmother, Crystal Lee King- Jackson!

crystal leeThis photo of a youthful Crystal Lee King-Jackson caused quite a sensation when it was first posted by Yashi Brown on her Twitter timeline. For those of you who, like me, have always thought that Michael never exactly looked like either Joseph or Katherine, and have wondered where did those dazzling eyes, cheekbones, and wide smile come from-look no further! Mystery solved. Michael may have inherited a lot of great characteristics from his mother, and may have borne a somewhat passing resemblance to his father (which I believe, without cosmetic surgery, would have become more pronounced as he aged) but it’s clear that from this youthful photo of Crystal Lee King -Jackson, Michael’s paternal grandmother, “that face” that we know and love so well obviously owes a huge debt to those Lee/King genetics. And it doesn’t even stop at the face. Check out the hands with those long, lovely fingers!


The Beautiful Face and Features of Crystal Lee King-Jackson Have Lived On, Obviously!
The Beautiful Face and Features of Crystal Lee King-Jackson Have Lived On, Obviously!

On Mother’s Day in past years, I have written many tributes to Katherine Jackson. But this year I thought it would be interesting to go a generation back, to the mother of Joe Jackson, and reflect on the life of the very beautiful but troubled young woman who turned many mens’ lives inside out-for better and worse.

Unfortunately, Crystal King’s own life is somewhat shrouded in mystery, and perhaps it is ironic that what little we do know has come down to us filtered through the eyes and memories of the man her actions affected most-her son Joe Jackson. Under such circumstances, it can be easy for a son’s bitterness to taint his memories of his mother, and ultimately to cloud her own story.  We may ask: How fair is it, really, for a woman-especially a girl growing up in rural Arkansas at the turn of the century-to have her entire history  and identity to be shaped and molded by the males in her life? It is an interesting paradox, especially when we look at this photo of what appears such a vibrant, sassy and confident young woman who looked ready to take on the world in the 1920’s.

Crystal was born in either 1900 or 1907 (accounts seem to vary between these two years and I have not been able to verify which is accurate, though 1907 would put her closer to the right age when she met and married Samuel Jackson). She was only sixteen and a mere schoolgirl-but quite wild by most accounts!-when she caught the eye of her handsome and distinguished teacher, Samuel Jackson, said to have been the first African-American teacher in the state of Arkansas. Theirs was a romance that would have been much frowned upon today, with the thirty-year-old Jackson, a man in a position of authority and power, courting his sixteen-year-old student. But it was a different time and era. Opportunities for women were scarce, and a man like Jackson would have been viewed as a “good catch.”

But what happened to Crystal is what often happens to young girls forced to grow up too soon; to marry and have babies and take on adult responsibilities long before they are either physically, emotionally, or mentally ready for such responsibilities. She broke, and ultimately rebelled.

After marrying Samuel, Crystal gave birth to five children in fairly quick succession, the oldest of those children a son named Joseph Walter Jackson. There was little understanding in those days of postpartum depression and its effects on young mothers, much less sympathy. Regardless of whatever shock their bodies and minds may have borne; regardless of whatever dreams they may have been forced to give up, young women were expected to smile graciously under their load, to bear the pain and to keep the husband and children happy.

The Teacher And The Student-Many Years Later, Of Course
The Teacher And The Student-Many Years Later, Of Course

Something ultimately snapped in young Crystal, and her life took a downward spiral turn that never quite righted itself. Joe Jackson would grow up with memories of a mother who too often wasn’t there; who disappeared without word for long stretches, leaving him ultimately as the man of the household. Drug addiction and even rumored prostitution became Crystal’s reality (the prostitution, no doubt, a necessity to feed her addictions). Joe remembered his mother as someone who would re-enter his life again, from time to time. Samuel still had his “thing” for her and would always take her back, like the prodigal wife and mother,but these reunions were always short-lived. By the time Joe was twelve, they had separated for good.

I don’t know if Crystal ever completely conquered her demons and found some measure of peace and happiness, but after leaving Samuel permanently, she eventually settled in East Chicago, Indiana, where her son Joseph reunited with her in 1949. It was there that he met young Katherine Scruse, and the rest is history.

Joe Jackson And His Mother, Sometime In The 70's. Though Reunited, Their Relationship Was Always A Troubled And Bitter One
Joe Jackson And His Mother, Sometime In The 70’s. Though Reunited, Their Relationship Was Always A Troubled And Bitter One

But even though Crystal Lee King Jackson lived to a fairly ripe old age (she died in 1992, having lived long enough to see many of her grandchildren become famous) her relationship with her eldest son remained a troubled one. Joe Jackson has stated that those early experiences, of being abandoned by his mother and left to take over as head of the family, scarred him and had much to do with forming his own hardened layers in order to survive. He learned not to show emotion. He learned not to cry. He had to learn how to be tough, and not to be perceived as weak.

Thus, a young man who became hard because he could never really love or understand his mother became, in turn, a hardened father who could never really allow his children to love or understand him. Such is the cycle of family pain and abuse.

Looking back at the photo of this vibrant young woman, one can’t help but wonder if Crystal’s life might have turned out very differently had been allowed to pursue the education that was duly disrupted when her own teacher fell in love and lust with her. Or would she have still been a doomed soul whose ability to drive men to distraction became her own undoing?

Janet, Also The Face Of Her Grandmother Crystal
Janet, Also The Face Of Her Grandmother Crystal

Whatever one may ponder about the life of this beautiful but ultimately tragic young woman, or how differently it might have played out had she been born in another era, one thing can’t be denied. Her genetics live on in the eyes and smiles of her famous grandchildren. I can see so much of her, especially in Rebbie, LaToya, Janet, Randy and, most especially, Michael. Genetics are funny that way. I still remember quite vividly that moment from a few years ago when I came face to face with LaToya and how it tripped me out for just a moment because it was “those” eyes; Michael’e eyes, just in a different face. There are some, certain things we can’t deny. Family and genes are right at the top of the list.

Love "Em Or Hate 'Em, Family Is Family...The Eyes Don't Lie!
Love “Em Or Hate ‘Em, Family Is Family…The Eyes Don’t Lie!

It is true that no woman shaped Michael’s life more than his mother Katherine Jackson. But let’s not forget that his family history and legacy-as is true of all of us-was shaped by the lives, sacrifices, heartaches and joys of many women and many mothers. Their blood and their tears are the rivers that flow in our veins.

As Michael might have said, they are the ones who create our HIStory.

Analyzing The 1995 Diane Sawyer Interview: What We Can Learn From It

For Once, It Was A Dance He Wouldn't Have To Do Alone
For Once, It Was A Dance He Wouldn’t Have To Do Alone

Back in October and November, a very interesting multi-part discussion of Michael’s HIStory teaser film on the Dancing With the Elephant blog led to an equally interesting discussion of Michael’s 1995 Diane Sawyer interview in the comments section.

The relevance of the Sawyer interview to that discussion was because Sawyer had played the clip of the HIStory teaser film during the interview, referencing the current controversy of the teaser as a pro-Nazi film modeled after Triumph Of The Will.  Of course, Michael denied that accusation, but the resulting debate might have been a fascinating discussion of how Michael viewed his art-had there been more time in the interview,perhaps, but also, if he had he not been so snidely cut off by Sawyer before getting a word in about his art edgewise.

The discussion led me to go back and re-watch the interview in its entirety.  A few things have always interested me about this interview, and I decided this was a good time to go back and review it again. Sure, Diane Sawyer was needlessly smug and condescending through the whole thing, but what’s interesting to me are Michael’s responses-not just the content of what he says here, but how he says it. In analyzing both the responses Michael and Lisa Marie gave, as well as their combined body language, a lot is revealed and/or can be reasonably surmised-about their relationship, their responses to the questions about the allegations, about Michael’s appearance, and how he operated as an artist. Whether directly spoken or insinuated through their body language and reactions, much can be read between the lines in this interview. In recent weeks, I have gone back to this interview time and again. Amazingly, this one interview could satisfactorily answer most of the world’s burning questions about Michael Jackson-if they would but watch and listen. And that has nothing-zero, nada, nilch-to do with Diane Sawyer’s skills as an interviewer, but everything to do with simply how her subjects responded.

One Can Almost Hear Them Say, "Let's Do This Thing!"
One Can Almost Hear Them Say, “Let’s Do This Thing!”

One reason I think this interview is possibly a little more candid than many that Michael gave solo is, perhaps, because of the fact that Lisa Marie was with him. Michael had done interviews with others before, of course. Throughout much of his youth, he had given interviews with his siblings. And he had given interviews alongside friends, such as when Elizabeth Taylor sat in briefly during his Oprah interview, but such interviews had become rare during the period of his adult superstardom-in fact, any interviews at all had become a rarity by the mid 90’s, and the few he did grant were always greeted with much pomp and circumstance, in which it was expected he would be the sole center of the event.  This occasion, therefore, was historic in that it marked the first time he had conducted a full interview sitting alongside someone whose acquaintance with him went beyond either blood relation or mere friendship-in other words, the first time he had ever sat down for an interview alomgside someone with whom he would also be going home with once the cameras stopped rolling. Yes, I’m talking about sitting down to talk about himself along with a partner; someone who knows whether or not he puts the seat back down on the toilet. In other words, a wife. Thus, there is a much more intimate vibe to this conversation than in many of Michael’s past interviews. It is only natural that we tend to lower our guard and our defenses a bit when in the company of someone who knows us intimately. And we can also observe how Michael and Lisa tend to bounce and, at times, deflect off each other. In cases where Michael might have normally dodged the question a bit, or given his stock answers, Lisa comes swooping in with answers that, at times, knocks the interview slightly off center. In fact, there are times in the interview when she seems more determined than Michael to set certain things straight (perhaps stemming from a desire to mitigate some of the harsh criticism that had been directed at her since the marriage) but we also see here a very animated Michael who, for the first time, seems to really want to speak out, even if often held in check by Sawyer who obviously is attempting to maintain control of the interview , to manipulate it and to steer it where she wants it to go. Many times throughout the interview, it’s obvious that Michael is chomping at the bit. He doesn’t want to be directed; he is wanting to have his say-and, frankly, there are times when a very obviously frustrated Sawyer has her hands full keeping him in check.

From the get-go, of course, this is the kind of dynamic that is intended to put Michael at an instant disadvantage-place him between two women who are going to be talking about him. It was the same discomfiting triangle that Oprah Winfrey created in her ’93 interview when she had Liz Taylor come out. Craig Baxter, a noted body language expert, did a very fascinating video analyzing Michael’s body language during that segment of the interview. Even though everything Liz had to say was very positive, of course, it wasn’t necessarily about the words spoken. It was the intentionally discomfiting situation of someone having to stand (literally, as he gave up his seat for Elizabeth) in a room while he’s being talked about by others. What’s more, he knows he is on national TV at this moment. What does one do? Where does one put their hands? What kind of facial expression to maintain? Craig Baxter is right. When you watch the video, you can see what a very awkward, uncomfortable moment it is for him. Imagine how uncomfortable most guys would feel if they had to sit stuck in a room with their wife and their mother-in-law, listening while they talked about him! Well, just imagine that scenario and you can pretty well surmise what Michael was feeling. Even if the comments are well intended, it doesn’t alleviate the awkward embarrassment of the moment. As Baxter noted, it seemed almost like an intentional setup to purposely put him at that disadvantage. He was supposed to be the subject of the interview, after all, not Taylor. Perhaps it was just poor planning (Oprah apparently wanted to surprise Michael with Taylor’s appearance) but you don’t ask a big star like Michael Jackson to sit for an interview and then force him to stand on the sidelines while  everyone around him gabs about him.


Now fast forward to 1995, and again, Michael has agreed to a situation that is going to place him squarely at somewhat of a disadvantage, as a man sitting between two women-his wife and a very aggressive interviewer. He has to know going in that he is going to be the subject of most of the questions. Diane Sawyer’s interest isn’t in Lisa Marie, other than indirectly as the partner in this marriage. Every question is going to be centered on aspects of his life-Did he or didn’t he molest a child? Does he or doesn’t he bleach his skin? Has he or hasn’t he slept with his own wife? He has to know already that very little of this is actually going to focus on what he really wants to discuss-his art and his new album. But with every interview is a fresh opportunity; a chance to say his piece; a chance to set some things straight. So he goes willingly into that lion’s den. Again.

The interview begins innocuously enough with Sawyer asking Michael and Lisa about the beginnings of the relationship. I would say that was a fair question because, for many of us, the relationship did seem to come suddenly, from out of nowhere (hence, much of the suspicion that also surrounded it). As it turned out, nothing could have been further from the truth. In this segment, Michael is very animated and open, gushing about an attraction that, for him, had been ongoing for twenty years.

Lisa At Age 7, When She Made A Lasting Impression On A Then 17-Year-Old Michael
Lisa At Age 7, When She Made A Lasting Impression On A Then 17-Year-Old Michael

Lisa had made a lasting impression on him at the tender age of seven. He was seventeen when they first met, backstage in Las Vegas. His body language throughout this segment of the interview is open and direct, indicating that the feelings he is expressing are indeed genuine. His demeanor is every bit that of a man still on his honeymoon high. He is still thinking of himself as the luckiest guy in the world to have finally “won” her. The spontaneity of his gestures; his smiles as he recalls their beginnings are the earmark of honest emotion. In fact, he is so caught up and bubbling about his twenty-year-long attraction to her that he almost forgets, just for a moment, that it might seem a bit creepy to some that he was seventeen and she only seven when they first met, so he’s quick to add that he didn’t start asking Branca to contact her until she was eighteen. It’s actually a very cute moment in the interview when he realizes he had best clarify that there was no romantic interest until then. It is cute in the sense that he simply can’t hide his adoration of her, and for him, it’s hard to go back in time and imagine a time when he didn’t feel this way about her.

During this segment of the interview, he is much more open than Lisa, who remains fairly quiet and closed off, allowing him to take the lead here. I don’t think too much needs to be read into this. She is allowing him to take the lead because, after all, he was seventeen then; at seven, her memories of those times aren’t going to be nearly as sharp as his. Also, she is recognizing the importance of letting him have his opportunity to express his feelings for her on a world platform. At this stage, it was something the world needed to hear-how did Michael truly feel about Lisa Marie Presley? Thank goodness, he didn’t do anything so foolish as jumping up and down on a couch! He doesn’t even say “I love this woman” but he doesn’t have to. Again, his body language here has all the earmarks of genuine honesty, especially for anyone familiar with his base line expressions and gestures. When he says he was “torn up” seeing the announcement of her marriage to someone else on a magazine cover, it seems very much an honest statement.

There are times when both of their memories seem strangely fuzzy about details of their courtship. But these are the normal lapses that can come from such a whirlwind courtship as theirs. The relationship had not been an overnight one,but things had indeed moved at a tizzying pace when they became reacquainted as adults in late 1992.  Some of the little lapses, such as one having to refresh the other’s memory about the details of their proposal, are perfectly normal and natural under the circumstances of which they became engaged. And being in an interview situation creates added pressure. The increased adrenalin levels that come with doing an interview are the same that propel the “fight or flee” instincts. You feel cornered; acutely aware that every word and gesture is going to be scrutinized. The fear of giving the “wrong” answer, even when there is nothing to hide, can create anxiety levels that will cause lapses in memory. The fact that Michael and Lisa have to occasionally jog each other’s recall is typical of many married couples, and it is amusing to watch the interplay between them. They sometimes become a bit like bickering kids-another surefire sign of real chemistry.

At this stage of the interview, they are both very much at ease. The questions aren’t producing tension. It’s an atmosphere that changes abruptly as soon as Sawyer begins to grill them about the allegations. Watch Michael’s and Lisa’s faces from about 3:18 when she steers the conversation to the idea of their marriage as being “too convenient.” You can visibly see them both steeling themselves for what’s about to come.

However, one should note here that they certainly didn’t go blindly into this interview expecting that these questions wouldn’t arise. It’s easy to sometimes bash the reporter in these situations, but Michael and Lisa had apparently signed an agreement in advance that no questions would be off limits, so it’s not exactly as if they were being ambushed out of the blue. The best interpretation of their expressions at this point is that they are both gathering their mental guns for what they know is going to be the most unpleasant segment of the interview. They know already the questions are going to be invasive, personal, and emotionally difficult to navigate-and that, in Michael’s case, an answer not well thought out could result in more problems with the Chandlers due to the legalities of the settlement (which inevitably did happen as a direct result of this interview).

Interestingly, both Michael and Lisa Marie had been public figures long enough that their base line gestures for almost any emotion or circumstance have become quite well known. They both react to the coming questions in each of their typical styles of dealing with difficult interview questions. Lisa’s baseline gesture, for example, is the tendency to duck her head and glance upward at the interviewer, the drooped eyelids (that physical trait so reminiscent of her father) becoming more pronounced. Her blinking increases dramatically. The gesture looks a bit shifty, but can actually be read as an unconscious defense mechanism. Michael’s gaze is steely and straightforward, almost non blinking, and he visibly swallows hard. The typical reaction of people who are not very well versed in body language would interpret that as a sign of nervousness or fear, equated to guilt. In reality, swallowing hard is a natural reflective reaction to a stressful situation, but not necessarily equated to guilt. It means, simply enough, that the subject is feeling stress. He clearly doesn’t welcome the prospect of having to address these issues publicly because the very subject is stressful and distasteful to him, and puts him beneath a glare of scrutiny that he would prefer not to be under. He knew the question was going to come up; he just didn’t necessarily like “going there.” But note that his gaze remains straightforward, open, steady, and firm. He isn’t dodging the question, but rather, steeling himself for it. In their own way, each of them are digesting the questions carefully and formulating their strategies for response. It is also interesting that they both adopt similar defensive poses here. If you pause the clip at 4:33, you can see that Lisa is sitting with her legs tightly crossed. Both she and Michael have clasped their hands in front of them.  As any body language expert will tell you, this is a gesture intended (unconsciously, of course) to create a barrier between themselves and the other person.

Even though Sawyer tries hard to steer the interview, both Michael and Lisa Marie turn out to be difficult subjects to “steer.” I’ve rarely seen an interview where the reporter is interrupted as often as Sawyer becomes during this segment! But we have to remember the underlying motivation of both of these people. They have obviously been led to believe this is an attempt to go on record to set some misconceptions straight-about the charges; about the status of their marriage. For both Michael and Lisa, there seems to be a lot of frustration with being cut-off in mid thought or manipulated to go in a direction other than the course they are upon.

The first such interruption occurs when Sawyer asks Lisa whether she ever asked him if the charges were true. Lisa emphatically says no; she didn’t. With that being said, the unspoken assumption is that she has taken his innocence purely on faith. Remember, this was the very thing for which she was roundly criticized in her later Oprah interview where she said as far as she knew, she never saw any wrongdoing but that she couldn’t vouch for “what went on behind closed doors.” For that remark, she got a lot of heat from fans who felt that she should have unequivocally defended him, rather than leaving a small chink open for doubters. But here it is the opposite: She leaves the impression of a woman who never doubted him, even enough to question him. It is only after Sawyer starts to speak again that she must have had some second thoughts about that answer, and interrupts to say, “I didn’t have to.” Apparently, she didn’t have to ask because Michael was being very open in supplying all the information she needed to make a judgement. That’s what she means when she says on the phone it was all, “Ahhhhhh!” Michael was using her to vent about every aspect of the case, so there was no need to ever raise the question. She had heard every detail of it.

Sawyer next turns the spotlight back on Michael. His demeanor hasn’t changed. He remains as stoic as stone during this segment, yet we can see him inwardly steeling himself for what is about to feel like being grilled on a witness stand. Even if it had been agreed in advance that they would not be afraid to answer any questions, I have to say I think it was the height of absurdity for Diane Sawyer to ask him if he had ever sexually fondled a child. Likewise, I think it is an absurd question that interviewers even to this day continue to put to Michael’s family and closest friends when they agree to do these interviews (Oprah is notorious for it). I mean, really, what are the friends and relatives supposed to say in response to such a question? What was Michael supposed to say here? Even if Michael was guilty as sin, it’s not like he’s going to sit there on national TV and admit to it. So why do they do it? What is the MO behind the strategy of such questions? From the interviewer’s perspective, the question serves a number of functions. One, of course, is that they can justify that they are giving the subject an opportunity to “set the record straight.” But more often, what they’re really hoping for is, perhaps, to trip them up in some way-not so much with an outright confession (which they know they won’t get) but by forcing them into some kind of unintentional blunder, or in some cases, simply seeing if they squirm.  This, in turn, plays into the sensationalism aspect of it; the “hook” that is guaranteed to draw ratings. The truth is that most journalists could really care less whether the crime took place or not. But in feigning interest, they can ask the questions that they know will wet viewer appetites by putting the subject in a vulnerable position. People will not only be judging their response, but how they respond. Do they seem forthright and honest, or shifty and dodgy? Viewers look not so much at what is said, but how it is said and, in some cases, what is not said. These questions are posed as an attempt to read “between the lines” of their responses. They may not be as intense as police interrogations, but they are somewhat designed with the same purpose in mind-that an innocent subject should have nothing to hide; however, a guilty one just might crumble under pressure. If a reporter can succeed in scoring such a blunder, they consider it a major coup. We can rest assured that Martin Bashir’s wet dream was when he got Michael to talk about bed sharing with children.  But it was a response that Michael was very craftily coerced into, and this becomes obvious on repeated viewings of the footage. I’m not trying to argue that Bashir put words in Michael’s mouth, but it was the overall combatant and manipulative nature of the questioning, which was designed to put Michael on the defensive. A subject who is being made to feel on the defensive is a subject under duress-a situation that is sure to work out to the reporter’s advantage, and not to the subject’s.  The more cornered and under duress a subject feels, the more the guard comes down. But this can be true regardless of the subject’s guilt or innocence. Just as most anyone will eventually break under an intense interrogation, regardless of whether they committed any crime, so, too, can a subject break and lash out if too many buttons are pushed during an interview. The sheer sensory overload of being put on the defense can drive one to become irritable and testy. Michael was often pushed to this brink in many interviews (we see it hear; we saw it in the Oprah interview, and we saw it in the Martin Bashir interview). I think his irritation arose from being asked what he perceived as invasive and irrelevant questions. Even when he agreed to these sort of “no holds barred” interviews (because he recognized their necessity and because people who had his ear were always telling him they were a good idea) he didn’t like doing them. As Lisa Marie would later say, the rebel in him often lashed out in surprising ways. And if he felt strongly about something, he wasn’t going to back down from it even if others perceived those beliefs as “odd” or “eccentric” at best.  Again, if we look at the Bashir doc, it isn’t the line of questioning of whether he sexually abused children that puts him on edge; rather, it is when Bashir badgers him on how he feels about adults sharing their bed with children. In this sense, Bashir has adverted direct accusation by, instead, focusing on what might be construed as a philosophical question directly related to Michael’s personal values. Is this a practice that is morally right or wrong? The problem with this tactic is that it is adverting from the person’s actions to the much grayer and more subjective area of personal opinion, which can be rooted quite deeply in the individual’s belief system and the values of their culture or how they were raised For Michael, who had grown up in a tiny house sharing his bed with his brothers and many cousins, it was normal for people to share beds. It is an intimacy that has nothing to do with sex; thus, his genuine belief that the practice itself constituted no moral wrongdoing. In Michael’s eyes, it only became morally wrong if a certain line was crossed-i.e., if it became sexual. This might go far in explaining what seemed to many an apparent disconnect on Michael’s part between the idea of bed sharing and actual, sexual abuse of a child. In America today, and in many cultures around the world, the bed is automatically equated as a place where sex occurs, due to the assumed intimacy of two people sharing such a small space.  The bedroom has become synonymous with sex; when we say a couple has problems “in the bedroom” it is automatically assumed we are talking about their sex life; we use the phrase “sleeping together” as a cultural euphemism for having sex. In Michael’s personal schema, however, he didn’t automatically equate the bed with sex, and didn’t particularly seem to care if society wished to scapegoat him for holding an eccentric view on the subject. In this respect, some might view him as incredibly foolish or incredibly brave. But however we feel about his responses, the oft-held belief that Michael was his own worst PR enemy in interviews is slowly beginning to give way to a new school of thought, as more and more body language experts like Craig Baxter have begun to analyze Michael’s interviews and to publicly acknowledge that, far from being the lying manipulator that detractors love to portray him as, he is actually an interview subject that is, more often than not, quite candid and brutal in his honesty. Perhaps, sometimes, too brutally honest for his own good. And this makes perfect sense when we consider his stubborn insistence on defending even behavior that he knows most would consider questionable, at best. Michael, in fact, is so honest that he can’t help being honest even when he knows his honesty is bound to be misconstrued; even detrimental. Indeed, this is not the hallmark of someone with something to hide, but rather, a metaphorical equivalent of someone bleeding his heart onto his sleeve. Instead of playing it safe with all the “safe” and “correct” answers, he literally lays it all out on the table for us, as if to say, “This is Michael Jackson. Take him or leave him.”

One really, then, must ponder the question: Would a guilty person do this? Or would they, in fact, be more apt to play safe and give all the “correct” answers, as if reading from a script? That Michael was all too “real” is, perhaps, one of the most endearing traits of his interviews.

But I realize this has been a rather long digression from the interview itself, so let’s rewind to where I left off. Anyway, Diane Sawyer had just listened to Lisa Marie’s response, and now had turned on Michael to get his take on the allegations. Despite what I said above, there is something positive to be said for Sawyer’s very specific and direct line of questioning here. Michael often said in interviews that he would never “harm a child” just as he does here. A problem with that response, however, and one that his detractors have always been quick to pounce on, is that pedophiles very seldom do believe they are “hurting” or “harming” a child when they commit sexual acts with them. The typical pedophile generally has a disconnect in which they genuinely believe that they are performing loving acts that are in no way harmful to the child. They equate the idea of “hurting” a child to physical abuse such as hitting and beating, or neglecting them. Both haters and doubters have raised this question in regard to Michael’s responses. Was this, in fact, just more of the typical pedophile disconnect? I can somewhat understand these concerns. But here, the line of questioning is very, very direct and specific, and perhaps there was, after all, a justifiable reason for it even though the questions may seem ludicrous on first listen. Sawyer asks him directly and specifically, “Did you EVER sexually engage, fondle, have sexual contact with this child or any other child?” Thus, there was absolutely no ambiguity in what was meant by “harming” the child, and no ambiguity as to whether Michael understood exactly what he was being asked. In the face of such specific and direct questioning, he still maintains, forthrightly and bluntly, that he has never committed such acts. Both his words and his gestures are forceful and emphatic here-the strong emphasis on the word “Not” when he says, ‘It’s NOT who I am,” the shaking of the head (which Baxter has noted as one of his base lines of honesty). His phrasing and gestures here are very similar to his 1993 telecast in which he first spoke out against the allegations-the same emphatic gestures; the same forceful emphasis on negating words such as “not” and “never.” As any body language expert will tell you, this is not how a person who is lying reacts. Rather, they are the words and actions of someone who is feeling a lot of outrage and frustration-exactly the kind of emotions that an unjustly accused person would be expected to have. People who are lying will unconsciously attempt to draw back as a way of deflection; there is usually very little animation or emphasis because their unconscious desire is to shift the subject and to draw as little attention to themselves and their responses as possible. Thus, instead of being very forceful and animated in their responses, as Michael was during his ’93 telecast and is here during the Diane Sawyer interview, they tend to be very flatlined in their responses. Notice, for example, the marked difference between Michael’s responses and those of Jerry Sandusky here, especially around 2:18. Sandusky’s voice is a monotone; he tends to glance away a lot, and he avoids any emphatic gestures. Compare that again to how Michael responds here.

Another interesting question was when Sawyer asks him what he thinks should be done with “someone who does that.” Since the line of questioning has been so specific, there is no doubt what is meant by “someone who does that.” You can tell the question takes Michael somewhat aback, simply because no one had ever put that question to him before. It seemed to come from out of left field and he wasn’t prepared in how to respond to it. His response here thus seems genuinely off the cuff, and we can see the wheels spinning here because he’s trying to think how to best respond to such an unexpected question. It’s obvious he hasn’t really given the matter much thought before, but his answer is very telling: “I think they need help, in some kind of way, you know.” It isn’t the stereotypical, over the top “they should be strung up” kind of remark, but rather, one that reveals some compassionate insight into the fact that a pedophile is a sick person who needs help. This is a small but important piece of commentary from Michael, and should eradicate any belief that he suffered from some delusional disconnect about the lines between appropriate and inappropriate behavior, or of what differentiates “normal” from “abnormal.” He doesn’t say here that child molestors are monsters, necessarily, but he does make it very clear where he stands on the issue of people who perform sexual acts upon children. This, in his estimation, is not normal and certainly not condonable behavior. It is the actions of a sick person who needs psychiatric help. With all ambiguity removed, there is no doubt here exactly where he stands on the issue.

The line of questioning next turns to the police photographs. There is another emotion that crosses his face, briefly ( all easy to see since the camera maintained a tight close up on his face and reactions throughout much of the interview). That expression is pure, intense sadness and humiliation-and anger, too. It had been almost two years since the day he had stood naked with detectives and police photographers surrounding him, examining and photographing his genitalia, but all of those emotions wrought by the incident were still raw and fresh in his mind. This is a painful moment for him; Sawyer has tapped into a trigger. Compare this line of questioning to asking a rape victim to go back and recount what happened. It can’t be done without causing those PTS triggers to be ignited, and this is what we are seeing during this segment of the interview. There is a sense of underlying rage as Michael addresses this particular line of questioning. I don’t think it is rage directed at Sawyer personally, but with the overall frustration of the entire situation; of being forced to “go there” and relive that moment again. It is an anger that has no true, specific target other than the injustice of the entire situation, and at this point he is getting visibly shaken and really wants the matter to be dropped. He is being earnest when he keeps insisting there was “nothing” to connect him with those charges, but his repeated, “That’s why I’m sitting here talking to you now” can be read two ways: On the one hand, it’s true, of course. If there had been an identifiable smoking gun; a piece of evidence that actually linked him to the sexual molestation of Jordan Chandler, the criminal investigation would have proceeded (settlement or no settlement); he would have been convicted and thrown in jail. This was Michael’s way of saying, “Look, if there had been any evidence-if those photos had matched his description-I wouldn’t be a free man today and I wouldn’t be sitting here doing TV interviews.” Yet his repeated insistence on this response is also a way of deflecting; an unconscious (perhaps) way of saying, “That’s all that needs to be said about it, can we move on please?’ I don’t think it is fear of the line of questioning. I think it has more to do with the distress and distaste in general of the whole subject. The line of questioning has put him mentally and emotionally back to December of 1993 and all that transpired at that time, and now he just wants out of it. But again, this is very telling of how Michael dealt with stressful situations generally in his life (the settlement, for example, is a topic that is going to come up very shortly). At this point in the interview, he’s feeling very cornered and has become somewhat passive-aggressive in his responses. The fact that Michael did indeed suffer post traumatic stress from these events is very important and I, think, too often is something overlooked when people attempt to read into his interview responses. The natural human reaction to pain is to avoid it; the natural human reaction to trauma is to not wish to “go there” (precisely why therapy sessions are often so painful and can sometimes actually make a person feel worse rather than better, at least in the beginning). As Michael is responding to this particular line of questioning, it seems he is fighting two battles within himself: He wants to fight and he wants to flee. He has never dealt well with allowing himself to become too publicly vulnerable, and that is what he senses is happening here. Although his answers remain emphatic, forthright, and earnest, he seems to be emotionally drawing back. It is not avoidance. For example, his aggressive repetition of the word “Never” (to the point that he interrupts Sawyer with it several times) is an emphatic reinforcer. He wants very forcefully to get his point across. But also, the response is akin to the erecting of a wall, one intended to block all further questioning on the matter.

We also have to consider that Michael was legally gagged insofar as how much he was allowed to discuss. Both Michael and Lisa Marie have to remind Sawyer (who surely knew!) that the conditions of the settlement stipulated that details of the case could not be discussed. It was unfair, of course, because these were the very questions that every interviewer from this point forward, from Sawyer to Bashir, were going to ask. Imagine the frustration of being accused; of knowing that many people think you’re guilty, and yet being able to say nothing publicly in your own defense without risk of a lawsuit (and indeed, just based on the little information Michael gave here, he was slapped with a $60 million lawsuit from Evan Chandler!).

At the 5:55 mark Lisa interjects some much needed comic relief into the interview when she giggles and says, “You’re not going to ask me that, are you? About the markings?” The question seemed very naughtily spontaneous.  Michael wasn’t the only one who could be a “rebel” in these interviews! Her playful remark both eases the tensions and also allows an opening for her to interject a vitally important piece of information-how the media downplayed the news that the photos did not match the description. This is a classic example of why two heads can often be better than one in interviews. Michael probably would not have thought on his own to interject that important piece of information, but thank goodness Lisa did! This was probably the first, official word that many viewers had that the photos had been officially declared a non-match, and if anyone was wondering why they hadn’t heard that until then, Lisa gave a very specific answer that detailed exactly why. Score one in her corner on this one!

From there, the conversation turns to the settlement and the big question so many wanted to know: If Michael didn’t do it, why did he pay out? I think Michael’s response here is very interesting, and is also corroborated by what he would say, again, eight years later in his Martin Bashir interview. I think it is interesting because there remains, to this day, so much confusion as to whether Michael willingly agreed to this settlement or if he was “forced” into it by his insurance company.  Both here and in the later Bashir interview, Michael never denied his own part in this decision. He does state here that he was acting on what his advisors had told him, but is very, very emphatic when he states it was a hands on, “unanimous” decision because he could not be guaranteed that “justice would prevail” and that this was something that could drag on “for seven years.” This has also been somewhat confirmed by Thomas Mesereau who has said many times that Michael “regretted” his decision to settle the case-“decision” being the key word here. In other words, Michael never wavered on his stance that he made the decision to settle; it was all up front and nothing was done without his consent, nor was he forced into anything (though there could have definitely been a fine line between “forced” and “pressured” and I do think Michael was intensely pressured to settle, so perhaps in the end the terminology is really just splitting hairs). However, this interview really should have laid to rest the myth that poor, naive Michael was somehow hoodwinked into the settlement. From what I know, he was willing to go to court and fight it initially, but after hearing repeatedly how many years it could drag on; how much money could be lost; how much bad publicity would be generated (and the constant threat of the psychotic Evan Chandler ever on his back) and on and on, he finally agreed that settling seemed the best option. It was, in hindsight, a short-term solution to end the nightmare, but a short-term solution that would end up casting a very long shadow-one that his legacy is still struggling to come out from under. Perhaps the drawn out fight would have been the better alternative, but it seemed everyone in the game was thinking only of the short term. The settlement was essentially Michael’s way of saying, as he did with most of the major conflicts of his life, I don’t want to deal with this. “Let’s get it behind us,” he says, with an emphatic thumb gesture pointing over his shoulder.

It’s the same tactic that drives Michael at this point in the interview to fall back on the reminder that nothing was found to connect him to this crime, repeating aggressively, “Nothing was found…nothing, nothing, nothing.” If it comes across as if Michael is being a little irritating here, or intentionally trying to nettle Sawyer, I don’t think they would be too far off the mark. Michael wants to get his point across, and doesn’t seem to care if he has to be outright rude or annoying to do so. He cuts Sawyer off here in the same way that she often cuts both him and Lisa off, and his intent is very purposeful (we can sense Sawyer’s feathers ruffling; it’s a moment where she visibly fears losing control of the interview).

Sawyer goes on to grill him about alleged “evidence” found. Of course, there was no hardcore “smoking gun” evidence. All that had ever been found were a few photos and art books that prosecutors tried hard to enter as “evidence.” I have heard the argument from the hater camp over and over of how these art books are often the very kind of material kept by pedophiles, in order to somehow circumvent the legality issue of possessing actual child porn. However, while there no doubt may be some truth to those claims, the possession of legal art books can only at best be deemed the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence.  Those who wish to spread the propaganda of Michael’s guilt often highlight these books while downplaying and ignoring the much more telling fact that the raids of his home yielded thousands of pornographic images of women (one source has credited as many as 1,800 images found of nude women). Common sense would tell us that if we wish to judge someone’s sexual preference based on the bulwark of explicit material found in their home, that over a thousand images of nude women should outweigh the content of a few art books.

Michael’s explanation here-of how he is often bombarded with all kinds of gifts from fans-seems plausible enough, but it is nevertheless an explanation that doubters have tried to shoot down. Their best line of defense is that Michael obviously had people who screened his mail-gatekeepers who would have opened packages, read letters, and screened all content before he ever saw them. And that, obviously, only special “gifts” that they knew Michael would have an interest in would go beyond to the next level.

That, too, seems a plausible argument-until you consider we are talking about Michael Jackson here, who, let’s just say, never exactly did things in the typical celebrity way. An excerpt from Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard’s book Remember The Time confirms that Michael was always hands-on with both his fan mail-and his gifts:

Mr. Jackson would sit in the back, classical music playing, the curtain drawn. You could hear him opening envelopes, going letter by letter. Sometimes he’d say, ‘Hey, listen to this, guys. This is so sweet.’ And he’d read us something somebody had written. People would write about their children dying of illnesses and how much his music had meant to them. Some of it made him very emotional. You could hear him getting choked up. He’d say, ‘You guys may not understand, but this is where I get a lot of my inspiration to write my songs.’

By the time we got back to the house, he’d have two separate piles of letters. He’d keep one, hand us the other and say, ‘These you can get rid of.’

Bill: People would send gifts, too-teddy bears, balloons, flowers, photos, personal keepsakes. A lot of this stuff was handmade. He liked that. Sometimes he’d get a package and it seemed suspicious to him or he just didn’t feel right about it. He’d give it to us to check it first. There was never anything dangerous, no bombs or anything like that, but a lot of teddy bears and music boxes wound up drowning in the pool for us to find that out.

There was so much of it that one of the bedrooms had to be designated as the fan mail room. The walls in there were plastered with handmade cards and letters, and the floor was covered with big stacks. And that was just what accumulated in Las Vegas over a few months’ time.

Granted, one might argue that Michael’s staff had been considerably down sized by the time Whitfield and Beard entered the picture. Nevertheless, I know from many sources that this had always been Michael’s manner of dealing with fan mail and gifts. His policy, then, was directly opposite of most celebrities. Michael, it seemed, acted as his own gatekeeper, only resorting to handlers after the fact, to deal with mail he wished discarded or felt suspicious about. Gifts were never tossed out unless inadvertently due to suspicious packaging.

So…score another one for Michael in this department. He answers the question forthrightly with an honest answer that would make perfect sense to anyone who had spent time around him.

However, he follows this up by an immediate dodge. Nevertheless, it may be an understandable dodge-even a necessary one, as I am fairly certain that the other settlement Sawyer is alluding to here is the Francia settlement, in which Michael ended up paying 2.2 million to the Francia family over an alleged tickling incident. This was a case built on the flimsiest of circumstances-that Michael had supposedly (and most likely accidentally) brushed his hand against Jason Francia’s crotch during a roughhouse tickling game. This was a case that would never have happened had it not been for the Chandler settlement first, which had opened the doors for these kinds of trivial civil suits against Michael by practically everyone who came in contact with him.  As trivial as this case was, however, we can’t deny that the settlement was paid. So how does that reflect upon Michael’s honesty here when he flat out tells Diane Sawyer that “no, that’s not true” and “I’ve heard that everything is fine and there are no others”? Unlike the rest of the interview, where his body language and responses have been very honest and forthright, here he seems to visibly draw back.  His posture is not leaning toward Sawyer, as in his past responses; there is no emphatic gesturing. His tone and demeanor is one of deflection, an attempt to divert that particular line of questioning. However, there could be a number of very plausible reasons for this, all of which must be considered before jumping to conclusions. It is very possible, at the time, that what he was saying was true insofar as he knew (but judging by his body language here I don’t believe it). The more likely reason is that he was not in a position to discuss it, and any answer he gave-considering he would have had, at best, a few seconds in which to respond-would have only been to his detriment. To address the question in a way that would have made his position understandable would have involved going into far more detail, and far more history, than he knew he would have had either time or liberty to get into. It would have involved, for example, going into the entire history of Jason’s mother Blanca Francia; her history of stealing from him and subsequent firing. It was all more than he could have adequately explained in a five second sound bite, and thus, it was wisest to say nothing at all. Certainly it was a far preferable alternative to the risk of creating the wrong impression by not having time to adequately explain himself or the case.

The next part of the interview, conversely, is  one of the most truthful and revealing. Sawyer attempts a line of questioning that is intended to put Michael on the defensive about the so-called practice of having sleepovers. It is always interesting to me when I go back to both this interview and the Bashir interview and look at how Michael actually answered these questions, as opposed to how the interviewers were trying to slant them and how much of the media chose to interpret them. Sawyer, as Bashir would also do later, tries desperately to make the line of questioning all about boys; thus Michael’s slight irritation when he comes back and says, “I never invited just boys to come into my bedroom, that’s ridiculous.” Likewise, in the Bashir interview, he makes the case that it was never just boys.  And the “sleepovers” were not so much “sleepovers” as simply cases of large, mixed company (usually consisting of parents, siblings, cousins, etc) all crashing and falling asleep wherever sleep overtook them at Neverland.

Michael’s quick trigger defense against the accusations of “just boys” is also interesting because these are the hallmark protestations of someone who is not only angry about being unjustly accused, but also angry at the sheer ignorance and gullibility of the public in believing that this was where his attractions lay.

Interestingly, in both interviews Michael does not-contrary to the popular notion propagated by the media-“defend” the practice of sleeping with kids. He does state that, according to his values and beliefs, he does not equate the practice to something automatically perverted or evil. But in both interviews, he is not so much defending the practice as trying to explain how these misconceptions about him have arisen. Here, in fact, he states outright that he has never invited anyone into his bed-period.  Interestingly, he had always maintained that he never invited kids to sleep with him, and often, in fact, slept on the floor while kids took the bed-or vice versa. In Frank Cascio’s book, Frank spoke of how he and his brother Eddie shared a sleeping bag on the floor in front of the fireplace-obviously, then, they were in Michael’s bedroom, but not in the bed. Big difference.

And, just when it may seem improbable to the average viewer that Michael is such a Pied Piper figure that kids would willingly follow him wherever he goes, score another one for Lisa Marie, whose statement that “I’ve seen these children…they don’t let him go to the bathroom without running in there; they won’t let him out of their sight, so when he jumps in the bed I’m even out…” remains for me one of the highlights of the interview.

However, this invites a couple of tense seconds when Sawyer starts to grill Lisa as to whether she would allow her own son to behave this way when he’s twelve years old. Lisa’s response is that if she didn’t know Michael and who he is, the answer would be no way but “I know who he is.” There is a brief moment, however, when the camera cuts to Michael’s reaction and it is an interesting expression, to say the least. It’s hard to tell if what he is feeling is anger or hurt, or a mixture of both. To understand Michael’s reaction, one has to appreciate what Sawyer is basically insinuating here. that he is someone that should not be trusted with his own stepson!Regardless of the intention of the question, that seems to be how he is taking it. This is a direct throwback to the discomfiture of his Oprah interview, when he was forced to stand by as two women discussed him as if he weren’t in the room. Now he is being forced to sit back in silence while two women debate his “trustworthiness.” One can only guess that, for Michael, who had spent most of his adult career totally in control of all interview situations, such scenarios were never easy.

This irritation raises its head again in the next line of questioning, when Sawyer asks if this is going to put an end to these situations “where people have to wonder.” Notice here his posture has changed. He is now on full alert; sitting on the edge of his seat and leaning forward. “Watch out for what?” he asks (with obvious, underlying anger at the question; remember, he has just sat there while she attacked his trustworthiness as a stepfather). His body language during this line of question is interesting. It suggests direct openness and honesty, as well as genuine puzzlement over the line of questioning. Regardless of how one wishes to interpret his remarks, one thing is clear and obvious: Michael sincerely feels here that he has nothing to hide, and is laying his honest feelings-for better or worse-on the table, Again, what is always most interesting about Michael’s answers is his outright refusal to give the “correct” or “stock” answers that one might normally expect under these circumstances, Most accused persons would be quick to say, “Absolutely not, I will never allow myself to be put in such a vulnerable position again” and one can clearly see here that this was the kind of answer Sawyer was expecting, so his refusal to “buckle under” so to speak, with all the correct responses, is somewhat baffling to her (and frustrating because, again, it steers the interview beyond her control).

But the real question one has to ask is this: Is giving all the “right” answers a sign of innocence, or merely a way of deflecting guilt? Interestingly, Michael seemed to realize that his best line of defense was not to play it safe in the most obvious kind of way-by going along with the song and dance-but, rather, by challenging both the interviewer’s and audience’s biases, judgments, and perceptions. Lisa has said that the rebel in Michael could never quite be controlled, and we certainly see that here.  His rebel streak could, by turns, be both his greatest asset and his worst enemy. But here I think it works wonderfully to his advantage, giving him the last word over all Sawyer’s attempts to steer him into a corner.

Speaking of rebel behavior, the next segment of the interview shows the wedding footage. Isn’t it interesting that everyone, including the bride, dressed in black for this ceremony? And that Michael chewed gum throughout his wedding vows? (Interesting considering this was his first time at the altar, supposedly to the woman whom he’d had a crush on for over twenty years. Their body language, even here, seemed to be that of two people totally at ease in each other’s company, with no need for fancy pretenses).

Also, Michael’s moods during this interview seem to pass as fleetingly as clouds. He was angry and  frustrated during the grilling over the allegations, but is instantly at ease once the topic has switched to happier subjects. Note how his face light up like a furnace blast and he grins spontaneously, ear to ear, when Sawyer asks Lisa what she loves about him. It’s still a bit of an awkward moment, but most guys love hearing themselves bragged about and Michael was no exception.

However, the questions about their intimacy are invasive, even if, granted, they were no doubt expecting these questions going in. In most cases, when two attractive people marry (and granted there is no extraordinary age gap ala’ Anna Nicole Smith and J. Howard Marshall) it is naturally assumed that they have sex. I cringe every time I hear Sawyer’s self-deprecating remark, “I didn’t spend my life as a serious journalist to ask these kinds of questions…” Oh brother. As if she hadn’t been chomping at the bit to ask that very question throughout the entire interview! Nor do I buy their random sampling of “fans” putting forth the question. None of those people strike me, particularly, as Michael Jackson fans. Nevertheless, their responses are used as a kind of justification-this is the question everybody wants to know; therefore, we are justified in asking it.  “Do we have sex?” Lisa asks, playfully beating Sawyer to the punch (I love how Michael and Lisa both, throughout the interview, keep Sawyer knocked just slightly left of center!).  “Yes, yes, yes!” she states at one point, almost giving Meg Ryan’s character from “When Harry Met Sally” a good run for her money. Hers and Michael’s reactions seem to be a genuine, honest mixture of astonishment and indignation, yet they also handle the invasive questions with an easy sense of humor that lets us know they are certainly not strangers to these allegations of their marriage as being fake. They had learned to develop a sense of humor about it because, after all, what else could they do? Obviously, no amount of protestations were going to change doubting minds, so I think they both handled the questions here as well as they could be.

It’s interesting that the very same media and public who labeled this as a marriage of convenience-who refused to believe they even slept together-were, by the same token, so quick to believe the pregnancy rumors (geez, did they ever hear that you can’t have your cake and eat it, too?). The easy camaraderie of the “baby” questions ultimately leads, however, to another tense moment when Diane Sawyer asks a truly bonehead question: Was Michael planning to adopt Lisa’s kids?

Lisa finds the question totally absurd, and minces no words in saying so. “I never heard of that, someone adopting someone else’s children,” she says, meaning in a case like theirs where there was clearly a biological father who was still in the children’s lives. I have gone back over this particular segment of the interview several times. It is interesting that Lisa is far more irked over the question than Michael (perhaps for obvious reasons) but I also believe it may be because she has caught something here that Michael did not, or at least not right away: That Sawyer is intentionally trying to entrap him with a foolish question in order to make him look foolish, especially to Lisa Marie’s fans, many of whom already had formed their own opinions about Michael and about the marriage. There may be something to this. Note how Sawyer has strung him along with the subject of adopting children (a subject I’m sure she knew he was passionate about) and then, abruptly, brings up Lisa’s kids. Yet this was the same women who, just minutes before, was insinuating that Michael was someone Lisa should not trust with her son! My honest take here is that Lisa caught what she was doing right away, even if Michael didn’t.  And interestingly, when Lisa calls her out on it as an absurd question, Sawyer backs off instantly and does not pursue the question further; however, nor does she bother to defend her reasons for asking it. Instead, she very conveniently decides it’s time for a break.

When the interview resumes, attention is next turned to Michael’s new film, the teaser for the HIStory album. This interview served as a kind of official promotion for the film, but Michael was given very little opportunity to actually discuss it. Instead, Sawyer launched immediately into the controversial aspect of it. The film itself and this particular aspect of the interview has already been quite well dissected in the multiple-part discussion on Dancing With the Elephant, so rather than focusing on the film and its merits here (which would necessitate an entire post unto itself) I will keep the discussion focused on the line of questioning and Michael’s reactions to them. I can’t watch this particular segment of the interview without feeling both enraged and short-changed. Here, again, was a perfect opportunity-on a wold platform-to allow one of the greatest artists of our time to discuss his art, and the moment was purely reduced to a trivial footnote of the interview in which the artist is pitiably reduced to a defensive “It’s art” stance, like a child backed into a corner who can only feebly protest his good intentions.

What is doubly frustrating here is that one senses, perhaps for the first time, Michael was really eager and anticipating the opportunity to discuss his art. I am sure he would have very much enjoyed being asked a few sensible, intelligent questions about the meaning behind the film; about its militant themes and symbolism and what that was really all about. In all likelihood, he would have gladly answered them. I know these kinds of interviews are all about ratings, and are not intended as serious platforms to discuss art, but it was clear from the beginning that, once again, Sawyer was merely creating a setup-a setup in which Michael was going to come out as second bested. From the beginning, Sawyer harps on nothing but the film’s controversy, making it very clear where her own biases lie. Rather than being able to engage in an intelligent discourse about his art, Michael is reduced to appearing like a begging child who-in the pitiable few seconds he is allowed to speak on the film in his behalf-can only protest that “it’s art.” After the film plays, Sawyer says rather snidely (in a way that is clearly intended to end the discussion of the matter) “Well, as we said, we’re going to clearly agree to disagree on maybe what this means to some people watching it.” Freeze the frame on Michael’s face at 3:07 as Sawyer speaks those words. That expression reads as an unspoken but pure, unadulterated “How dare you?” which can be interpreted on several layers-frustration at having his art misunderstood and its purpose distorted, without even giving him the courtesy of the last word on it; frustration at being so blithely brushed off. In fact, it’s almost a look of stunned disbelief. He doesn’t even bother jumping in with another line of defense. He seems to be thinking, What would be the point?

The conversation then turns to the controversy over “They Don’t Care About Us” and the line “Jew me, sue me.” Again, these were all recent, hotbed topics at the time this interview took place. I’m not sure that most viewers would have entirely bought Michael’s defense that he was speaking of himself as the victim with that line because the natural comeback would be “But Michael, you’re not Jewish.” However, what Michael is trying to explain here (for which, we must remember, he is only being given a very inadequate and small amount of time to state his case) is that the song is touching upon the broader strokes of racism; that he, in fact, is attempting to encompass many historical examples of racism throughout the song, all from the victim’s perspective-and there are many victims portrayed in this song. I have already written quite extensively on the topic of “They Don’t Care About Us” and appropriation in past posts:

Also, the recent Sony hacks revealed even more unsettling details surrounding this supposed “controversy”:

Again, what is most sad and frustrating about this particular segment of the interview is that, instead of being allowed to discuss his art, Michael is instead backed into a defense position, one in which he is clearly at a disadvantage no matter what punches he gets in. He seems to realize, with mounting frustration, that he is in a situation where his artistic work is not respected, where there is little actual, serious interest in it, and where there is no “right” answer he can possibly give.

Sadly, looking back at the track record, this seemed to be the case with most high profile interviews he ever gave. Perhaps part of the problem came from poor advice and poor choices. Naturally, he gravitated towards the high profile journalists who could guarantee him the highest platforms, in both exposure and ratings. But the trade off was that this often resulted in one-way conversations with shallow journalists whose only interest was in sensationalism, not art.

True to form, Sawyer no sooner dispenses with all discussion of art then here comes the next question-inevitably, steering it to Michael’s appearance and the color of his skin.

Some Of The Close-Up Looks On Michael's Face During This Interview...Priceless!
Some Of The Close-Up Looks On Michael’s Face During This Interview…Priceless!

Again, the close-ups on Michael’s face in response to these questions are priceless. I’m not sure if he’s just trying really hard to maintain a poker face (and not succeeding very well) or what the deal is, exactly, but again, we are seeing the building of anger, frustration, and “why do we have to go there” all within a matter of seconds. As before, we can clearly see when those triggers are being pressed; when his eyes become like daggers.

Admittedly I have never really understood Michael’s reluctance to speak out publicly about his disease vitiligo. He had a unique position and platform in which to educate the public about this little understood disease and to help raise awareness of it. His evasiveness on the issue is largely, in part, what led to the public’s skepticism-or, at any rate, let’s just say that it definitely didn’t help.

But in analyzing his response here, let’s go back to the exact trigger moment at 4:28; it occurs exactly when Sawyer says the words “the way you look.” Michael’s face winces; he literally draws back as if he’s been physically struck. I invite-urge-you to replay that mark of the video at least a couple of times. It is literally the physical reaction of someone who has been slapped in the face and is drawing back to deflect the blow. Once again he goes into passive-aggressive mode, giving a deliberately ambiguous and frustrating answer:

“I think it creates itself-nature.” -Michael Jackson to Diane Sawyer

On the one hand, this is Michael’s way of saying that the way he looks is out of his hands; it has all been an act of nature. On the other hand, he has to know here that he is being purposely vague by not giving an adequate answer. Obviously, some things like his skin color were beyond his control, but that was only part of the question. He purposely avoids addressing the other part of the question, which involved those choices he had obviously made on his own. Watch the way, at 4:35, he purses his lips and shakes his jaw in response to the question. That verbal cue is a brush-off; a deliberate response that says “I can’t be bothered with this.”

At this juncture, Lisa intervenes with a very telling statement. It falls in line with debates we have had on this very site, and some of the more controversial issues that have been raised by Susan Fast and other writers. She says that Michael is an artist who is constantly changing perceived imperfections and things he doesn’t like about himself.

“He’s resculpted himself; he’s an artist.”-Lisa Marie Presley to Diane Sawyer.

That is an interesting statement because, again, it goes back to the oft-debated controversy of whether Michael altered his appearance via cosmetic surgery due to insecurity about his looks, or was it, in fact, due to more purely deliberate and aesthetic choices that had more to do with being an artist, and less to do with these perceived insecurities? Lisa’s answer seems to hint at both, but it is interesting that when she makes the statement about him being an artist, Michael does not contradict her. In fact, not only does he not contradict her, he even chimes into the discussion,backing her up by adding, “I’m a performer.”

The theory that Michael did, perhaps, make a lot of conscious and deliberate choices about his appearance for artistic and aesthetic reasons-rather than simply because he saw himself as ugly or inferior (the popular body dysmorphic disorder theory that has so much become the accepted public narrative of Michael Jackson) is one that has been gaining a lot more serious attention among academic writers and other serious analysts of Michael’s work. In some ways, the theories are interesting in that, at the very least, they remove Michael from the often overhyped stigma of “victimhood”  and recast him as someone who, to the contrary, was an artist very much in control of every aesthetic decision he made about himself, including the outer canvas that he presented to the world.

Michael tries to turn it into a joke by saying, “I might want to put a red dot right there one day” (points to his forehead), “put two eyes right here (touches both cheeks). But he’s not laughing inside. His words and expressions here are not particularly jovial because the tension elicited by the discussion is still quite palpable. It’s his way of communicating to Sawyer the ridiculous absurdity of this line of questioning. On the one hand, he’s trying to deflect the tensions with humor, but freeze the video at 4:55 and note the determined smirk on his face. It’s a look that dares; a look that challenges; a look that says “Try and follow up on that; I dare you.”

Well, she does. To further the boxing match analogy, it’s as if Michael has just delivered a left hook jab but now Sawyer is going to try to hone in for the knock out punch.

“Do you wish you were the color you were again?”

Again, this is the kind of question where Michael could have simply given the “scripted” and “correct” response and been done with it, but if we read Michael’s body language, he is very much perturbed by being asked such a ridiculous and invasive question. Think about it: The question is the equivalent of asking a cancer patient, “Do you wish you still had your hair?” or “Do you miss having your healthy cells?” Why not ask a leukemia patient if they miss their red blood cell count?

Note that the minute she asks the question, Michael sits up ramrod straight and crosses his arms. Crossed arms are, again, a barrier creating gesture. It’s only a fleeting moment, but the gesture speaks volumes about the feelings this question has evoked. He is subconsciously protecting himself from what he perceives as an invasive presence. “You’ll have to ask nature that,” he says, using “nature” again as a reference to indicate the situation is beyond his control. “I love black,” he says emphatically. “I envy her (points toward Lisa) because she can tan and I can’t.”

On a more subconscious level, if he could really say what he wanted to say here, he seems to be conveying an idea that would be worded thus: “I’m obviously white as a refrigerator, can you not see this? Do you think I prefer this? Do you think I wouldn’t prefer to be normal, like she is?”

Of course, this is followed by a photo of a very youthful, dark complexioned Michael with an Afro, a photo from almost twenty years previously. As always, the insinuation is that this was the “superior” version of Michael; the way we prefer to remember him, in his prime. Michael always hated those types of comparisons, resenting the inference that he was now somehow inferior; that he could not measure up to some nostalgic ideal of himself

Michael Hated These Kinds of Comaprisons, With Their Obvious Insinuations That He Had Somehow Become Someone Or Something "Less Than" Some Nostalgic Ideal Of Himself
Michael Hated These Kinds of Comaprisons, With Their Obvious Insinuations That He Had Somehow Become Someone Or Something “Less Than” Some Nostalgic Ideal Of Himself


But, in an interview that has seen more than its share of peaks and valleys, Sawyer tries to end things on an upbeat note by asking if they plan to sing together. Michael engages in a bit of cute but show-offey behavior (the kind that used to drive Lisa bananas), singing dramatically “I would love to sing with you/would you like to sing with me?” Ever alert to any excuse for a good publicity moment, Michael’s inner child and sense of spontaneous playfulness can’t resist the moment. Lisa is a little embarrassed, but can’t resist smiling. She seems genuine when she says, “That’s not why I married Michael.” Their body language here is very relaxed and casual; his right hand rests on her back shoulder; she grabs his left hand and holds it. Again, their gestures seem to be that of a couple who feels very much at ease in each other’s company. Michael, of course, can’t resist one more joke at Lisa’s expense, making “rabbit ears” over her head as she babbles on and on about how she doesn’t need a recording career. This was a playful, teasing gesture that Michael did a lot with some of his most intimate friends, but it was sometimes also Michael’s very playful way of calling out his friends when he thought they were full of BS. It could have also been an Illuminati joke. Michael was, after all, notorious for his infamous sense of humor. “He’s a nut,” Lisa jokes, as Michael “celebrates” having survived the interview with an emphatic “Yes!”

Whatever the case, it often did seem that Michael liked to steal the spotlight whenever they were together. Here, it was cute. Later, it would become a source of real contention between them. They were, when all was said and done, two celebrities with much in common, as Lisa said-perhaps a little too much in common for any kind of lasting union. Both stubborn, rebellious, strong-willed and determined; two show business kids spoiled on the one hand, yet damaged and victimized on the other, their union was passionate, volatile, and ultimately, doomed to burn out and fail.

This interview captured their union at an interesting halfway juncture. They had been married a little over a year at this point, when the passion was still hot but some of the problems that would eventually drive them apart had set in. Sawyer ends the interview by asking where they both hoped to be in five years. It is interesting that she puts the question to them separately, as individuals, rather than together as a couple. Within five years, of course, they would be divorced; Michael would have two children by another woman, and Lisa would be on a downward spiral of guilt and bitter anger that would drive her to lash out at Michael in unbelievably cruel ways. By 2000, I am sure this interview must have seemed like a distant and painful memory to both of them.

But, for all of Diane Sawyer’s smugness; her frustrating shallowness and the sometimes outright irrelevance of much of her questioning, it remains one of Michael’s most valuable interviews-again, perhaps as much for what is not said as what is said. Michael could be, by turns, a difficult interview subject, especially when he felt cornered or pinned down by invasive, personal, or just plain idiotic questions. On the flip side of that coin, he was also a very transparent interview subject whose emphatic honesty was too often brushed off as being…well, somehow, too honest to be true. People, it seemed, were always looking for ways to second guess his honesty; to twist it into something manipulative or insincere. Michael’s very human faults, such as his tendency to resort to passive-aggressive answers when he didn’t like the direction an interview was taking, have too often been used against him, rather than, perhaps, looking at the line of questioning that brought on those responses. Michael had too much class to ever walk out on an interview, or to give outright hostile responses, as I have seen many celebrities do in more recent times. Yet he had his ways of letting his displeasure be known.

First and foremost, however, we have to remember that Michael didn’t really hate giving interviews. He just hated giving dumb ones. Some of his most interesting interviews were very low profile ones such as this candid, off the cuff radio interview he gave to Steve Harvey, where there was no pressure to be “on” and where he could actually just relax and have fun.

But as I have discovered through the years, no interview he ever gave was totally without merit. Even the Bashir piece, for all its atrocities, had its moments. Each one presented an opportunity to learn something valuable about Michael even if, granted, it was not always the thing he most wanted us to take from it-that being, usually, his views on art or humanity (the two things closest to his heart, but which so seldom became the focal pieces of any of them). Nevertheless, they do provide interesting glimpses into the heart and soul of a man who had learned, early on, that few people were to be trusted and that no journalist was ever simply looking out for his best interests.

Journalists Sucked Up To Him, But Rarely Had His Best Interests At Heart.
Journalists Sucked Up To Him, But Rarely Had His Best Interests At Heart.

We can observe how he is almost always thinking 2-3 steps ahead of the interviewer (because he had learned he had to) and how he used the art of the interview as a means of challenging us to look beyond our preconceived notions, our biases, and our judgments. He did so, by turns both consciously and subconsciously, by challenging journalists, and us, both directly and indirectly. Like a flawless dance with a ballroom partner, he knew when to hold back and follow, and when to take the lead.

lisa marie 3

And here, for once, it was a dance he didn’t have to do alone.

The Question We’d Most Like To Forget: What “IF?”

Over the years, LunaJo67 has been bringing us some amazing videos. Her tireless efforts have helped to build a volume of invaluable research in the never-ending quest to learn what really happened to Michael Jackson. However, this latest brings with it a lot of painful memories.

Although it is not something that most Michael Jackson fans like to dwell on, it remains perhaps one of the biggest “IF” questions that lurks in the backs of our minds. What “if” the verdict had gone down differently in 2005? What would have happened to Michael? What would his life have become?

Over the years I have seen two distinct schools of thought on this subject, not necessarily from fans but from the populace in general. And they can be pretty much summed up to either one of two possibilities: Either he would be alive today (the wisdom of thought being that prison life would have forced him to clean up his act and adhere to a strict regimen, one that did not include access to propofol and Dr. Murray, obviously) or he would have died even earlier than he did. Some believe he would have committed suicide in prison. Even some members of his own family have expressed this belief. Others believe that his spirit would have been so broken that he would have died; perhaps not an immediate suicide, but that eventually, refusing food and medical care, he would have fallen into a downward spiral-with the same end result. Worse yet, he would have been vulnerable to attacks from other inmates even if isolated.

Michael Was Stronger Than Many People Give Him Credit. But Could His Gentle Spirit Have Survived A 20+ Year Prison Sentence?
Michael Was Stronger Than Many People Give Him Credit. But Could His Gentle Spirit Have Survived A 20+ Year Prison Sentence?

I am of two minds on this. On the one hand, I believe that Michael Jackson was much tougher than people gave him credit for. He said that he had rhinoceros skin, and certainly he proved it throughout his life by how much he was able to endure. Even if wrongly convicted, I could see him using that opportunity to turn intensely inward, to grow closer, perhaps, in his faith to God. He might have even written some of his greatest work yet, for surely, the experience would have either fueled the kind of bitter anger that led to brilliant works like “They Don’t Care About Us” or to the kind of intensely raw self reflection of pieces like “Will You Be There.” However, the truth is more likely that the utter humiliation of being convicted and forever condemned in the public mind as a child molestor would have been too much. His whole life had been built on the adoration of the public and the everlasting quest for love. It was important for Michael that he be loved; it was, if anything, the single most driving force of his life. To be sure, I believe that his fans would have remained loyal to him even if he had been convicted. I believe that, even in the face of a conviction, most would have remained convinced that he had been unfairly railroaded. There would have been an outcry, for sure; an outcry against the injustice of the system. There would have been drives and petitions for appeals; there is a reason, after all, that Michael’s fans call themselves his “Soldiers of Love.”

Nevertheless, had those men and women of the jury failed to recognize the absurdity of the Arvizo claims and those ridiculously trumped-up charges by the DA, it would have become a very different world in which to be a Michael Jackson fan. Guilty or not, there’s just something about the idea of a conviction that carries the stench of officialness. Sure, any MJ fan can tell you that it’s been a difficult long haul, anyway, given that he was condemned in the court of public opinion with or without a conviction. But the reality is that the “Not Guilty” verdict did allow his reputation to rebound. Because of that verdict, even those who think he “might” have done it can never say with 100% certainty, and thus (at least in theory) Michael Jackson became granted a benefit of the doubt which has enabled his reputation-especially posthumously-to rebound and survive.

This would never have been the case had he been convicted. The taint of being a “convicted child molestor” and a “convicted felon” would have forever tarnished his name, and death would not have changed it. And while his old fans may have remained loyal, it is doubtful he would have gained new fans or that the reputation of his glory years would have sustained him into the new millennium. His music and short films would have all but disappeared from the public lexicon, rather than continuing to be discovered and cherished. To be sure, there is still a very disgruntled minority of the population who believe this should have been the fate of his legacy, and apparently are working tirelessly to that effect (to little avail, it might be added) but the fact is, it didn’t happen that way because he wasn’t convicted. And although some thrive on the idea of rewriting history (I suspect for their own presumed glory) the truth is that a jury of Michael Jackson’s peers agreed on that morning of June 13th, 2005, that the charges against him had not been proven. Michael Jackson was a free man. But rebuilding his life after such an ordeal would not be easy. In the end, some say the Arvizos and Tom Sneddon got what they wanted, anyway.  The cruel world that was salivating over the fate of Michael Jackson could not have known that he had only a little more than four years to live-God’s plan, ultimately, usurping the interests of a zealous prosecutor, a gold digging family and a media drunk on its own power.

I remember when this CNN clip originally aired in early June of 2005. Watching it now is a cruel reminder of just how badly the media was salivating over the prospect of a Michael Jackson conviction. It’s not the idea that the Santa Barbara county jail was already preparing for the possibility of a Michael Jackson conviction which is so irksome for me. After all, it makes sense that they would have already been putting a plan into place in the event of such a high profile conviction. They certainly wouldn’t have wanted to wait until the last minute-a sure recipe for chaos and disaster. However, were these preparations something that the public necessarily needed to see? It’s obvious that there were high stakes in the idea of a possible Michael Jackson conviction. The entire media conspiracy to convict Michael was based on one driving factor-ratings. They were already envisioning at least twenty years’ worth of never ending juicy gossip about Michael’s life behind prison bars, starting with this bit intended to tantalize audiences by providing their first glimpse of what Michael’s daily life would have been like.  These days, I can’t pass a tabloid stand on any given day without reading that “OJ is dying in prison” or that “OJ has turned gay in prison” or any number of other choice headlines, usually accompanied by jailhouse photos intended to make him look sadistic, psychotic, hideous, pathetic and ridiculous, or all five combined. Obviously, these stories sell. If they didn’t, the tabloids would cease printing them. This was the very profitable future they envisioned with a Michael Jackson conviction.

There was something else at stake, too. The media was not only salivating at the prospect of a Michael Jackson conviction, but in the whole idea of seeing Michael somehow stripped of an imagined hubris. Note how Jim Thomas and Dan Abrams practically gloat over the statement that no one will be “holding Mr. Jackson’s umbrella for him” or that no armbands would be allowed. As usual, these things were thought of as nothing more meaningful than the eccentricities of a spoiled pop star. I wonder if they would have felt any amount of shame if told that the umbrellas were to prevent Michael, a vitiligo sufferer, from getting a potentially fatal sunburn, or that his trademark armbands were said to represent the suffering of the children of the world. Somehow, I doubt it.

This same sense of “rubbing it in” is further emphasized by the need to broadcast that Michael would be denied bond, and that eventually his fate would be to be placed alongside hardened psychotic criminals in the California state prison system like Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan.

With such high stakes invested in a Michael Jackson conviction, is it any wonder that the media immediatly tucked tail and went quiet as a ghost town on the matter once the verdict was announced?

I remember those days well. In the aftermath of the June 13th verdict, there were several days’ worth of the predictable media outrage and backlashing over the verdict. And then…silence. I waited for at least one report that might say, “Congratulations, Michael, for surviving such an undeserving ordeal. What’s next for you?”

Instead, it was like the proverbial ostrich burying its head in the sand. Wow wasn’t than an embarrassment! Okay, let’s dust ourselves off. On to the next story!

These days, as Michael’s legacy is honored and celebrated, the horrific events of 2005 are becoming dimmer and more distant in memory. That’s good in one way. But in other ways, it’s also good to never forget. Just as with all dark chapters of any historical past, there is a need to move forward, but also a need to remember. In June of 2005, Michael’s fate hung in the hands of those twelve men and women of the jury. An innocent man’s life hung in the balance, and could have turned out very differently that day. There is no weakness in keeping that memory alive; the weakness is in allowing that fact to ever be forgotten.

Susan Fast’s “Dangerous”: A Review (Part 5) Utopia, Soul, and Coda

"Dangerous"-An Album That Took Us Through The Bowels of Hell To The Pinnacle of Heavenly Glimpse
“Dangerous”-An Album That Took Us Through The Bowels of Hell To The Pinnacle of Heavenly Glimpse

This post will mark my final installment of my discussion of Susan Fast’s Dangerous. I realize it has been a long stretch since I started this series in December, so it’s about time to wrap this discussion up and move on to other matters. However, these final chapters of the book contain some of Fast’s most interesting insights into the Dangerous album, and as such, deserve just as much attention as I have given to earlier segments of the book. First, let’s pick up where I left off with the discussion of “Utopia” and “Heal The World”:


“[Jackson’s] after something purer and better than the childish, rockist idea of pop rebellion. Jackson knows culture is more than that.”-Armond White, qtd in Fast (80). 

In my previous discussion, I had reflected on Fast’s quote of both “Heal The World” and “Black or White” as Michael’s “troubled vision of Utopia.”  Taken out of the context of the album, “Heal The World,” at least, seems to represent an idealistic view that utopia can be achieved. But within the context of the album, it seems to be merely a brief window of hope that is eclipsed as the album loops thematically back to its beginning.

On the Dangerous album, “Heal The World” serves as a respite in another significant way as well. According to Susan Fast, it is also the most conventionally “white” song on the album, which is doubly interesting when we consider its immediate juxtaposing  with “Black or White” (not to mention that, as Fast had already stated, this was squarely in the middle of what she deems as Michael’s “blackest” album). On an album where Michael seemed more acutely and politically conscious of his “blackness” than ever before, “Heal The World” emerges as an even stranger anomaly. Before this, his greatest and most inspirational “message” song had been “Man in the Mirror,” a song undeniably steeped in the roots of black gospel tradition-and which served as a true showcase for Michael’s skills as a gospel singer (even if, as a Jehovah’s Witness, he did not have a gospel background in the way that many successful mainstream black artists have had).

“…It’s one of the whitest sounding songs Jackson ever made. He was certainly capable of taking white forms and making them sound blacker, but he doesn’t do that here. The conventions that I’ve talked about all point in the direction of musical whiteness: the key (this isn’t a modal piece), the regularity-even musical squareness-the near absence of improvisation or call and response; there isn’t a blue note to be found. The timbre of Jackson’s voice. His uncharacteristically bland emotional palette also points to a particular idea of restraint and respectability in mainstream white pop music, a reflection of the desirability of these characteristics in middle class white culture. Indeed, even the little girl speaking at the beginning of the song sounds white.” (Fast 84-85). 

I had never really thought of “Heal The World” in terms of being a “white” song. But I realized that this seeming “blandness” which Fast refers to may have much to do with why “Heal The World” for me, personally, falls short of Michael’s other great message songs. I miss the powerful and soulful gospel improvisations of “Man in the Mirror,” for example, or the evocative call and response of “Earth Song” which never fails to send chills down my spine, no matter how many times I hear it. For a singer who was certainly capable of bringing so much raw power and intensity to a track, it really begs the question: Why did he not want this effect with “Heal The World?”

Clearly, “Heal The World” was never meant to be a song in the same category as either “Man in the Mirror” or “Earth Song” (and it would probably be fair to acknowledge that Michael also did not write “Man in the Mirror,”, either; still, one can’t deny that in performance, he certainly made the track his own). In both of those songs, Michael is putting himself at center stage as a kind of unheralded “messiah” or messenger of the piece. But the message of “Heal The World” is different; less about the messenger and more about the collective importance of the message. Fast goes on to note how Michael purposely puts himself in the background of the song, allowing the children to take center stage.

“Receding into the background of the song could be said to demonstrate the idea that unity and healing require selflessness: let the choir take the utopian moment by themselves; let the child’s voice take over near the end of the song. In fact, let Michael become the child, let his voice melt into that of the child’s, let him become as the child-another of his many physical transformations and perhaps the one he would have liked best. This too symbolically removes the child from the idea of futurity and strengthens the idea that adults become as children (as Christ suggested) to ‘solve the world’s problems.’ We could understand this song in those terms and it would still be revolutionary, wouldn’t it? It would still be a bold statement to make in the middle of a gritty and musically complex record.” (Fast 85).

On that note, this would be a good time to pause and go back, again, to “Man in the Mirror.” It seems this was not an entirely new concept to Michael because, just as he takes a backseat in “Heal The World” he also opted out of appearing in the “Man in the Mirror” video, an unusual endeavor considering that this was at the height of the video era and Michael was at the height of his solo superstardom. Instead, the official video featured a montage of world events (mostly depicting the suffering of the world) while also serving as a homage to  selfless heroes like Mother Theresa and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Perhaps for this reason, the original 1988 video of the song fell a bit off the radar for me, as it did for many fans (I have to admit, I am selfish: When I watch a Michael Jackson video, I want to see Michael). For this reason, also, the video received a fair amount of scathing criticism from critics who simply either didn’t get it or evidently didn’t buy it as a sincere message (the video, if not the song). Instead, Michael was accused of simply being too lazy to do a “decent” video for the song, while, sadly, the actual message of the song and its connection to those visual images-not surprisingly-sailed right over their heads. As always, Michael was caught in a “no win” when it came to reconciling his superstar status with a genuine desire to inspire world change. If he appeared to make it all about himself (as he was accused of doing in his “Earth Song” performances) he was labeled as an egocentric with a messiah complex; if he stepped back and took himself out of the picture completely, as he did with the “Man in the Mirror” video, he was accused of being lazy. Perhaps for this reason, the original 1988 video of the song has long been eclipsed by his many great  live performances of the song,including Wembley and, most notably, his powerful 1988 Grammy performance . So watching the original video again really gave me a fresh perspective.

Aside from the obvious fact that Michael isn’t in the video, my biggest beef with the video (a belief I had held fast to for many years) had been that the images seemed contrived, rendering the powerful message of the song to a kind of trope cliche’. Perhaps it was the nature of the times. In the 1980’s we had become almost numb to the images of starving children in Africa, violent montages of war images and clips of rioting from the Civil Rights era. By the late 80’s, there was nothing especially fresh or revolutionary in such images, and most of us sat through the entire five minutes or so thinking, “Okay, so…when is Michael going to appear?” Re-watching it again in its entirety, however, for the first time in many years, I was struck by the way that Michael-as early as 1988-was already touching on many of the world themes that he would return to again on both Dangerous and HIStory. Additionally, the images of the video are truly graphic. We are seeing live children reduced to a skeletal state. In one image, a child’s stomach is painfully and hideously bloated (the telltale sign of starvation). In another scene, a child has died and is covered by a blanket. The song’s message is rendered as even more powerful when one realizes how many times we sat watching this video on MTV in our comfy living rooms and actually having the gall to complain because Michael Jackson wasn’t performing in it! Talk about being “too blind to see!”

Granted, I don’t know how much artistic control Michael actually had over the video or the clips and images chosen, but considering that the montage featured most of his personal heroes, as well as motifs that we know he returned to time and again, I can only assume that he had to have played a crucial role in those decisions. One thing that struck me on re-watching the video is just how prominently images of the KKK are featured (a theme he returns to again in this “Utopia” section of Dangerous with “Black or White) as well as clips of Hitler and the Nazi imagery he would delve into in more depth some years later on HIStory. So it is clear that, even many years before Dangerous and HIStory, he was already focusing on racial issues as a major source of the world’s problems. Another prominent motif of the video is both as a celebration of the great peacemakers of the world, but also as a grim reminder of the price most of them paid. The references to John Lennon are especially interesting. Lennon was not a politician, but at the time, in the late 1980’s, he was probably the closest thing we had to a true messianic pop figure. It’s hard to say whether Michael was already envisioning himself among that rank, but clearly it was an ideal he wanted to aspire to.

Michael With Yoko and Sean Lennon
Michael With Yoko and Sean Lennon

However, taking himself completely out of the video (and thus completely off of center stage and, indeed, out of the picture) served the same function as it seems to do, again, on “Heal The World.” The careless dismissal of a few ignorant critics aside, ultimately we can view this as a selfless act that was purposely done so that the focus could be on the message. And, dovetailing off the discussion of both “Heal The World” and “The “Man in the Mirror” video, I don’t think we can put this in the same category as, say, the “Cry” video many years later, in which Michael’s non-involvement was simply due to his dispute with Sony (and which resulted in the all-time lamest MJ video ever, a sad capstone to a remarkable and innovative video career). I’m sure they must have been thinking, “Well, it worked okay for ‘Man in the Mirror.'” Yes, but…if we go back and look, it becomes clear that “Man in the Mirror” wasn’t just a random montage of images, nor was it a simplistic “Hands Across the World” message (“Cry” is actually a pretty amazing song, but the video was pure crap slapped together by Sony).

Michael Was Always Caught In A "No Win"...If He Put Himself Front and Center, He Was Being "Egocentric." If He Removed Himself Completely In Order To Make It About "The Message" He Was Accused Of Being Lazy.
Michael Was Always Caught In A “No Win”…If He Put Himself Front and Center, He Was Being “Egocentric.” If He Removed Himself Completely In Order To Make It About “The Message” He Was Accused Of Being Lazy.

So one might argue that at least part of Michael’s intent with “Heal The World” was similar, in that the idea was to make it as less about himself as possible, and to give it over to the world stage.

Right before Fast’s passage where she refers to “Heal The World” as Michael’s “whitest” song ever, she also says this, which I think goes far in answering the very question she herself poses-why does Michael seem to hold back so much on this track, giving such a restrained and utterly conventional delivery (when we know he is capable of so much more?):

“It’s significant that in his central utopian song on Dangerous, he recedes to the background, letting children and the chorus (the community) present the vision…” (Fast 84). 

The second track of the “Utopian” section is “Black or White.” While Fast gives the track as thorough and insightful an analysis here as all the others, I won’t dwell on it too much simply because “Black or White” is already a track I have discussed here at great length, and I don’t wish to sound like a broken record by repeating much of what I have already discussed about the track in previous blogs. So I will just hit on what I consider the high points of her analysis of the track as it applies to the overall concept of Dangerous. 

The most interesting to me was the discussion of “Black or White” as an example of musical code switching. This is especially worth noting on a track whose entire theme is centered on the idea of racial harmony as a utopian ideal (if not entirely a realistic ideal, considering the song and video’s already well known undercurrent of racial tension).

That “Black or White” boasts a very distinct Stones-like riff has long been noted, but did you know exactly which Stones song boasted the riff that later evolved into “Black or White?” It was a song called “Soul Survivor” from Exile on Main Street! You can hear it pretty clearly by about the 1:03 mark on this video, and by the end of the track, it is quite clearly the same riff-or at least close enough that the organic evolution of “Black or White” can certainly be traced back to it.

But before the rock purists start howling, let’s put this in check. It’s a known fact that the Stones, like most blues based hard rock acts, had been appropriating black music for years. (It may also be worth noting that the Stones, who are notoriously one of the most vigilant acts when it comes to taking action against younger artists ripping them off-even down to the most miniscule riff- never raised a stink about this one.  Perhaps they knew best to let sleeping dogs lie! This seems to have been a case quite similar to ZZ Top’s “La Grange,” whose riff borrows blatantly from the Stones’s “Shake Your Hips” which, in turn, was a cover of Slim Harpo’s 1966 version, which borrows heavily from a John Lee Hooker riff and…well, you get the idea.

As Fast states, this has more to do with “re-appropriation” than appropriation, and it was very purposeful on Michael’s part. But that’s far from the whole picture.

“In contrast, one of the two middle sections of ‘Black or White’ belong to rap. What’s perhaps less often noticed is that the bass line is indebted to funk, not rock; that the music played underneath the opening dialogue is MOR rock, and that the middle section borrows stylistically from metal. ” (Fast 86).

This fascinating discussion of “musical code shifting” goes on at some length. Among the more interesting was Fast’s analysis of how Michael, as a black man, appropriates the predominantly white genre of heavy metal music to showcase rage. By contrast, the rap section of the song-performed by the very white Bill Bottrell (who never intended that his version would be the ultimate version used on the album)-seems curiously watered down and almost purposefully corny, as if to emphasize that this is white rap in all its unadulterated cheesiness.

Clearly, a big question hovers over this artistic decision. Why? It wasn’t as if no black rappers were available to do the segment, and on an album where Michael had used black rappers to great effect on other tracks, such as “Jam” and “She Drives Me Wild,” why was this historical segment left, as Fast says, to the voice of the “oppressor?”

In The Video, At Least, It Was Meant To Be Cheesy...That Was Part Of Its Charm!
In The Video, At Least, It Was Meant To Be Cheesy…That Was Part Of Its Charm!

It is an interesting question that is really left for us to interpret. Fast notes that it may represent that “Jackson liked the idea of upsetting the generic apple cart” but if we look at the video (and consider that even at the recording stage Michael was surely thinking ahead to the video concept) we could, perhaps, put it down to nothing more than Michael’s famous (and sometimes infamous) sense of humor. That particular segment of the video is portrayed in a very tongue-in-cheek and humorous way, as the “white kid” Macaulay Culkin lip synchs the rap segment. It is clearly intended as a light hearted moment in the video, in which we see what Barbara Kauffmann has stated as Michael’s allusion to “Kid Power” and the kind of rainbow unity that “Kid Power” represents.  In the video, it is clearly intended to be funny and a bit cheeky when Culkin’s “rap” begins, a kind of brief respite from the video’s darker and more serious undertones (within the space of a few seconds, we go from “I ain’t scared of no sheets” and images of burning crosses, to white and black kids singing and dancing together on a street corner). Not only would much of the intended humor of that moment be lost if Culkin were lip synching to a black artist’s rap, it would even be, perhaps, outright insulting. Long before the era of Eminem, Kid Rock, and other artists who would bring white rap to the mainstream, this was the era in which Vanilla Ice had made white rap into a bad joke (though I have to confess, “Ice Ice Baby” was and is still a guilty pleasure of mine; white or black, that song was just too darn catchy to not be a hit!). The point, however, is that I think on some level this may have been Michael’s way of taking a little wink and jab at the ludicrousness of white rap. At the same time, however, the song’s bigger message seems to be not so much a melting pot effect (as Fast notes, this is not a seamless blending of musical styles, but one in which attention seems to be unduly drawn to the blend) so much as it is a statement about musical brotherhood and its myriad possibilities.

There is much more, including a detailed analysis of the “Black or White” video but again, it is mostly ground that has been covered before, so in the interest of time I am going to move forward to the “Soul” chapter. However, it is worth noting that, in quoting Elizabeth Chin, Fast puts Michael’s Panther Dance sequence into the same tradition as black dream ballet.

“Chin’s argument is that black performers often ‘refrain from exploring their own versions of escape and wish fulfillment, versions that are likely to be at odds with those imposed by dominant society.’ They entertain for the pleasure of white audiences, setting aside their own dreams, tempering their artistry, or shaping it to please the audience. One of the functions of the black dream ballet is to offer the black artist a space in which s/he can express and dream on their own terms. The ‘panther dance’ is such a moment for Jackson.” (Fast 93). 

Katherine Dunham’s dance sequence from Stormy Weather:


“The quartet of songs that follow ‘Black or White’ trace a path of torturous personal struggle and quasi-redemption; for me, this ‘cluster’ forms the heart and soul of the record. There is a profound turning inward. No more moralizing about the state of the world, no soul man machismo, no fraught utopias, no children-well, at least not until later. No noise, either. The first three songs display unmitigated and unhinged loneliness, despair, and longing, for which there appears to be little remedy.” (Fast 108-109). 

This chapter opens with a curious, but relevant and important detour from the music as Fast analyzes the artwork of the Dangerous cover. For sure, Dangerous definitely boasts the most cryptic art work of any Michael Jackson album. It was the first album which didn’t feature Michael on the cover, at least not in a typical and recognizable form. Whereas past albums had always featured a typical “star” photograph, the Dangerous album featured only the intense, staring eyes of Michael from behind a mask. Of course, his eyes were such an iconic feature that no one could mistake whose eyes were peering from behind that mask. But why?


Even by the time of Bad it was apparent that Michael’s presentation-both of himself and his music-was changing. We can practically gauge where he was “at” in his solo career just by looking at the album covers. For Off the Wall he was clearly selling himself, as a fully grown and adult artist who was in control. “Joyful” and “exuberant” are adjectives often used to describe the Michael Jackson of the Off the Wall era and those descriptors are not wrong. On Thriller, it was still evident that Michael was selling and promoting Michael. The album cover is simple, gorgeous, and iconic. It needed no embellishment, of course, because the music sold itself. By the time of Bad, the cover still features Michael but there is a marked change. He isn’t smiling and joyful, as on Off The Wall, and although he wasn’t smiling on the Thriller cover either, it was still in most regards a very stereotypical artist portrait. The message of those albums was clear: They had a good looking package to promote, and it made sense to promote it.

But along comes Bad and now it is clear that Michael is going “artsy.” He’s dressed in black leather, and not only is he not smiling, but is wearing a tough, staring-you-down scowl. No longer exuding “exuberance” or “joy,” now Michael was “Bad” and wanted us to know it.

By The 1970's, Cryptic Album Covers Had Become A Rite of Passage For Most Artists. It Was A Sign Of Having Evolved From Commercial Artist To "High Art."
By The 1970’s, Cryptic Album Covers Had Become A Rite of Passage For Most Artists. It Was A Sign Of Having Evolved From Commercial Artist To “High Art.”

By the time of Dangerous, Michael could pretty much indulge in whatever cover art he chose, and no one was going to be stupid enough to argue against what he wanted. Clearly, as the pattern of rock cover art has shown throughout the decades, the more artistic the content, generally the more cryptic and artistic the cover art. By the mid 70’s, most artists who took themselves and their music seriously were eschewing the idea of cover photos altogether-or at least photos of themselves.  Never again would a Michael Jackson album boast a simple photo of the star. With Dangerous, Michael had entered the realm of artistic hipness.

But what exactly did the cover art mean? For sure, we can glean a lot of interesting clues about Michael’s intended arch with the album by viewing the cover. Though Fast’s analysis of the cover art is rather exhaustive, her entire analysis can probably best be summed up by these lines:

“It’s meant to be read left to right, beginning in paradise and ending in hell, with a mass of humanity in various states of suffering.” (Fast 98). 

Interesting. I am not quite sure that Dangerous exactly begins in paradise, but its arch is definitely a descent into both personal and global suffering.

Of the four tracks discussed in this section, I found the discussions of “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me” most fascinating, at least in terms of forcing me to think about the tracks in new ways. Again, we get the very detailed breakdown of each segment of the track, but what I especially like is how Fast is always examining how each track fits into the bigger piece, that being the album’s overall concept.

Far From Being A Tender Love Ballad, "Give In To Me" Is A Song That Advocates Inflicting Pain For Pain; More Rape Than Seduction
Far From Being A Tender Love Ballad, “Give In To Me” Is A Song That Advocates Inflicting Pain For Pain; More Rape Than Seduction

Taken back to back, “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me” are collectively the darkest relationship songs Michael ever recorded (although Fast offers a very interesting interpretation of “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me” which may take both tracks far beyond the realm of being just songs about a love gone bad). Michael had written dark songs about relationships before, but these go several steps beyond those of his usual “femme fatale” repertoire. In these songs, he is going far beyond merely casting himself as either the spurned lover or the usual kind of self castigating that comes with doing penitence after committing a sin of the flesh (both of which had become common tropes for him by this point). In these songs, he represents a protagonist who has suffered to the point of brutal retaliation. Even if we take “Give In To Me” literally as a song about a relationship between the protagonist and a woman, it is no simple love song. And though Michael’s many legions of female fans may swoon at lines like, “Give it when I want it/Quench my desire/because I’m on fire,” a deeper reading into the song reveals its brutal nature. This is a man who wants to hurt and abuse the woman who has hurt and abused him. Let’s look at the lyrics in their entirety (emphasis are mine):

She Always Takes It With A Heart Of Stone
‘Cause All She Does Is Throw It Back To Me
I’ve Spent A Lifetime
Looking For Someone
Don’t Try To Understand Me
Just Simply Do The
Things I Say

Love Is A Feeling
Give It When I Want It
‘Cause I’m On Fire
Quench My Desire
Give It When I Want It
Talk To Me Woman
Give In To Me
Give In To Me

You Always Knew Just How To Make Me Cry
And Never Did I Ask You Questions Why
It Seems You Get Your Kicks From Hurting Me
Don’t Try To Understand Me
Because Your Words Just Aren’t Enough

Love Is A Feeling
Quench My Desire
Give It When I Want It
Takin’ Me Higher
Love Is A Woman
I Don’t Wanna Hear It
Give In To Me
Give In To Me

You And Your Friends
Were Laughing At Me In Town
But It’s Okay
And It’s Okay
You Wont Be Laughing Girl
When I’m Not Around
I’ll Be Okay
And I’ll, I’ll Not Find
Gotta, The Peace Of Mind No

Don’t Try To Tell Me
Because Your Words
Just Aren’t Enough

Love Is A Feeling
Quench My Desire
Give It When I Want It
Takin’ Me Higher
Talk To Me Woman
Love Is A Feeling
Give In To Me
Give In To Me
Give In To Me

Love Is A Feeling
I Don’t Wanna Hear It
Quench My Desire
Takin’ Me Higher
Tell It To The Preacher
Satisfy The Feeling
Give In To Me
Give In To Me

I Don’t Wanna
I Don’t Wanna
I Don’t Wanna
Hear It
Give It To The Fire
Talk To Me Woman
Quench My Desire
I Don’t Like A Lady
Talk To Me Baby
Give In To Me

Give In To The Fire
Give In To Me
Give In To Me
Give In To Me…

This is no tender seduction, but a desire to rape. He wants the satisfaction and feeling of sweet revenge that comes from having physical power over her; to subdue her to his will.  Sex is being used as a weapon. Of course, if we look back to many of the romance novels of an earlier time, long before the rise of feminism and political correctness, the “seduction by rape” had long been a popular and very romantic trope. It was ideally believed that women secretly loved and responded to such brutality; it was a way to “win” a woman when all else had failed. Hollywood films, from Rudolph Valentino’s The Shiek to the famous scene of Rhett Butler carrying Scarlett up the stairs in Gone With the Wind, played on this theme. Just prior to the climactic rape scene in 1926’s The Son of the Shiek, Valentino’s character sneers to his female captive, “I may not be the first victim, but by Allah, I’ll be the one you remember.”

In the case of Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler made his intentions very clear. He felt justified in the moment after suffering years of emotional abuse from Scarlett, who was still holding on to the idea that she loved Ashley Wilkes, and had added further insult to injury by banishing Rhett-her husband-from the bedroom. Rhett tolerates the abuse for a long time, but one night, in a drunken rage, decides he wants to “hurt her as she has hurt me” (he confesses later when he is sober and contrite over his actions). Strangely enough, the rape, a brutal action, nevertheless serves as an important turning point in their relationship. Scarlett actually enjoys it (but feels guilty about it) and desires afterwards to become close to her husband again; Rhett, on the other hand, becomes so consumed by guilt after that night that he pushes her even further away.

However disturbing it may seem by today’s standards, the idea that a woman could be submitted to a man’s will by sexual submission seemed to hold a romantic sway over public imagination. In popular culture, through songs, plays, books, and films, society seemed to condone rape as an acceptable means of breaking the will and spirit of a “difficult” woman. (Of course, the fact that women swooned over the idea of being “ravished” by handsome swashbucklers like Valentino and Gable certainly didn’t do anything to dissuade that idea!). This  similar desire to hurt and brutalize-to punish-through physical submission is also at the heart of “Give In To Me.” And again, just as in those earlier versions, it is somewhat difficult to actually appreciate the brutality that is being advocated when those words are being crooned by the very wounded but drop dead sexy Mr. Jackson! Of course, what we don’t know is whether the protagonist is actually committing the action in the song, or only fantasizing about it.

If we consider the track as a direct sequel to “Who Is It,” however, the protagonist’s torment is easy to understand, and as he slides deeper into his bitterness and personal despair, it becomes easier to understand how he might lash out in dangerous and unhealthy ways.

Fast puts “Give In To Me” squarely within the tradition of the metal power ballad, but with a decidable twist.  While the track maintains all of the surface conventions of the genre, she goes on to state:

“But his aim is to mock the conventions of the genre, to, in his deep disillusionment, to spit in the face of its treacly sentiments. The woman in his lyrics is brutal; she’s not a source of comfort; doesn’t represent ‘home,’ doesn’t teach him the wonders of romantic love, doesn’t tame his machismo or quench his desire. He’s done nothing wrong, it seems, has nothing for which to repent (one of the things that women certainly responded to in other examples of this genre). There’s heartache but no sentimentality. There’s longing, but for sex, not romance. His grief and anger cause him to lash out-this is not supposed to happen in a power ballad.” (Fast 114). 

As I was re-watching the “Give In To Me” video to refresh my memory for this piece, it occurred to me just how comfortably Michael seems to meld into the metal genre, and how seamlessly he blends in with the metal musicians around him. In fact, if one didn’t know better, it could easily be assumed that this was any typical, hair metal band of the day with Michael as its lead singer. And, except for a few very subtle spins and a quick, Michael-esque “frisking” of himself, he really plays the part straight here, toning down his usual, familiar Michael Jackson moves to literally become an almost different persona (in a way that feels even more authentic to me than on “Dirty Diana” from four years before). Of course, the decision to film the video as a straight performance piece, while certainly a beautiful performance to watch, serves the purpose of watering down the song’s actual storyline (perhaps making it a bit more palatable) with all inferences to rape reduced merely to a few, cliched’ erotic images of a couple whom we see fleetingly (capped off by climactic, pyrotechnic explosions at the end just in case we still haven’t “got” that this is all about sex!). The erotic but simmering, brooding hostility of the storyline is actually conveyed here through the sheer power of Michael’s body language and expressions-perhaps in the end a very smart move, allowing the song’s message to be conveyed metaphorically rather than literally.

I also enjoyed Fast’s analysis of both videos, and agree with many of her assessments. Back to back, both “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me” present an unusually subdued Michael, which is perhaps in keeping with the darker tone of both videos. It was unusual to get a Michael Jackson video with no dancing; now we suddenly had two in succession! I agree that, as far as the great canon of Michael Jackson videos go, “Who Is It” is certainly among the weaker offerings. It’s not a bad video by any means; just rather bland coming from the artist who was known for his groundbreaking videos. What Fast laments in this chapter-a sentiment in which I heartily concur-is that it was a shame that one of Michael’s most outstanding tracks on Dangerous did not really get a video that was worthy of its stark power. Michael looks great in it, of course, but he doesn’t dance and, what’s more, the storyline seems vague and disjointed. Again, it’s not bad; it’s just that there is nothing about the video that really stands out from hundreds of other similar videos of this ilk. Yet, as I was watching it again, I did notice some really interesting touches. For example, notice how we are introduced to Michael (from the woman’s perspective) at the :042 mark. We only see a glimpse of an unmistakably identifiable pair of black loafers, white socks, and high water pants. Traditionally, any glimpse of Michael’s feet has always been symbolic of magic and dance. But here the sight takes on a more ominous meaning. From the woman’s perspective, it means trouble, as one foot ominously taps to the beat (indeed, the scene invokes the feeling of stumbling upon a hit man who is patiently waiting). Throughout, his understated performance beautifully captures the moral dilemma of a soul in torment, pushed to the brink:

But is it possible that these two tracks, taken in sequence, could represent something much more than romantic/sexual angst? Fast offers an interesting interpretation that puts both squarely in line with the metaphysical themes of this “Soul” section.

“‘Who Is It’ and ‘Give In To Me’ are only about love and betrayal by a woman on the surface; the lyrics are sufficiently vague to call the identity of Jackson’s subject into question; ‘she’ and ‘woman’ can be viewed both as literal and metaphorical, about intimate relationships or relationships with the divine (I take this cue from Bono, who’s often said that ‘she’ in his lyrics refers to the Holy Spirit). I’ve wondered, for instance, if the ‘she’ in ‘Who Is It,’ the ‘she’ by whom the protagonist has been betrayed, is meant to signify the earthly church, by which promises were made and broken. I’ve wondered if the burning desire felt in the chorus of ‘Give In To Me’ is like that love the medieval mystics felt for Christ, described by them in erotic language (burning desire was not an unusual metaphor) that tried to capture how powerfully they felt.” (Fast 110). 

Whatever One's Opinion Of The "Who Is It" Video, It Can't Be Denied That Michael's Beautifully Understated Performance Captures  The Intensity Of A Soul In Agony, Wrestling With Moral Dilemmas
Whatever One’s Opinion Of The “Who Is It” Video, It Can’t Be Denied That Michael’s Beautifully Understated Performance Captures The Intensity Of A Soul In Agony, Wrestling With Moral Dilemmas

As I was reading the above passage, I immediately thought of the myriad of examples of poets who have described their relationship with God in erotic terms. An obvious example is John Donne’s “The Good Morrow,” in which he awakes with God in his bed as his “trothed”:

The Good-Morrow


I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.
I also thought immediately of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit priest who wrote his beautiful poems in secret and who often used erotic language to describe his relationship with God:

Let me be to Thee as the circling bird,
Or bat with tender and air-crisping wings
That shapes in half-light his departing rings,
From both of whom a changeless note is heard.

I have found my music in a common word,
Trying each pleasurable throat that sings
And every praised sequence of sweet strings,
And know infallibly which I preferred.
Let me be to Thee as the circling bird.

The authentic cadence was discovered late
Which ends those only strains that I approve,
And other science all gone out of date
And minor sweetness scarce made mention of:
I have found the dominant of my range and state —
Love, O my God, to call thee Love and Love.
Yes, other science all gone out of date
Love, O my God, to call thee Love and Love.

So let me be to Thee as the circling bird,
Or bat with tender and air-crisping wings
That shapes in half-light his departing rings,
From both of whom a changeless note is heard.
Let me be to Thee as the circling bird.-Gerard Manley Hopkins

And in “At the Wedding March” Hopkins, like Donne, uses the metaphor of marriage to describe his union with the divine:

God with honour hang your head,
Groom, and grace you, bride, your bed
With lissome scions, sweet scions,
Out of hallowed bodies bred.


Each be other’s comfort kind:
Déep, déeper than divined,
Divine charity, dear charity,
Fast you ever, fast bind.


Then let the March tread our ears:
I to him turn with tears
Who to wedlock, his wonder wedlock,
Déals tríumph and immortal years. -Gerard Manley Hopkins

And then, of course, there is Walt Whitman’s famous, erotic romp with the divine in Part 5 of “Song of Myself”:

I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed.-Walt Whitman
If God Can Be A Lover, Then How Does One React When The Relationship Has Been Betrayed? When It Has Gone South?
If God Can Be A Lover, Then How Does One React When The Relationship Has Been Betrayed? When It Has Gone South?

It would stand to reason that, if poets have been using erotic language and romantic metaphors to positively describe their relationships with God for over seven hundred years, that the same erotic language and romantic metaphors could be applied to the relationship in negative terms. If God can be a lover, then how does one react when the relationship has been betrayed? When it has seemingly gone south? While I am not sure that I entirely buy this interpretation as it applies to “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me,” it is admittedly very interesting food for thought, especially as these tracks serve to set the stage for Michael’s great spiritual set piece of the album, “Will You Be There.”who-is-it(30)-m-2

“Will You Be There” is in many ways the capstone piece of the album’s arch (from here, it begins its loop back to the coda section of the album). Taken together, “Will You Be There?” and “Keep The Faith”  represent the pinnacle pieces of this spiritual journey. If these songs are, as noted earlier, more about coping than overcoming, at least there is finally some resolution; some sense that the bitter struggle is at its end.

It Was The Moment When Despair Turned To Hope...Or Something Like It
It Was The Moment When Despair Turned To Hope…Or Something Like It

Fast notes that Michael’s quote from Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” at the beginning of “Will You Be There” “may be ‘audacious but it is not gratuitous.'”  The quoted words from Beethoven, inserted before Schiller’s poem, offer an interesting clue, according to Fast, into Michael’s artistic process and the very conscious decision to place “Will You Be There” at this juncture of the album:

“Oh Friends, not these sounds. Let us instead strike up more pleasing and more joyful ones.” (Beethoven qtd in Fast 117). 

This is truly interesting when we consider the “sounds” that have preceded much of “Will You Be There” on the album, especially the two tracks immediately preceding it! “Not these sounds” implies an almost outright rejection; a refusal to accept what has gone before in search of perhaps a more enlightened; certainly a more joyful, path.

In an article on the website, taken from a Fidelio article published in 1993, I also found this quote:

Beethoven had finally found exactly the right line of music to express the developmental possibilities of Schiller’s concept of joy. Like the folk-tune which he had earlier adapted for the great choral finale of Fidelio, the melody is one of the utmost “popular” simplicity. By using such simple material and weaving it into higher and higher orders of complexity spanning the entire universe of human thought and feeling, Beethoven unfolded the message of human redemption which is implicit throughout Schiller’s Ode to Joy, and carries us, together with the cherub at the climax of the finale, until we “stand before God.”

And note this line from the English translation of Schiller’s poem:

Fire drunken we are ent’ring
Heavenly, thy holy home!

Clearly, not only the entire composition of “Will You Be There” but its very purposeful placing at this precise juncture of Dangerous indicates that Michael had studied these pieces deeply. After all of the agony, the darkness, the soul searching, we seem to be entering the “holy home.” According to Fast, Michael reinforces this theme with the return of a black gospel choir-the Andrae Crouch singers-and a return to the black gospel roots that seemed, for all practical purposes, to have been abandoned on “Heal The World.” The return to these roots, after all of the experimentation with “the high art tradition” is no doubt symbolic, representing a spiritual homecoming of sorts. This homecoming is intensified, not only by the presence of the choir, but by Michael’s most dramatic use yet of modulation. Fast notes that the song rises dramatically “from D major, to E, to F# and, finally G# (A flat). That’s a lot of rising up. And that is where the song ends-we don’t come back to the beginning, we’ve landed, fully, in this new key, this new territory. Risen up to it.” (121).

The song ends with a spoken prayer. Fast notes that not only is it highly unusual to hear Michael speaking on a record. but that the prayer itself indicates that, despite the high spiritual plane the song has risen to, he still “has not yet found comfort.” It is, as Fast notes, an acknowledgement of the singer’s humanity. But more than that, it serves as an acknowledgment of both the frailty and violence of that humanity (a nod, perhaps, to where he has been at previous points in the journey?). Throughout the prayer, Michael speaks in a low voice that is much closer to his natural tone, without the affections of artifice (as Fast states, he also sings much of the song in this lower register) and as I have stated before, we know that this was Michael’s way of signaling to us a kind of earnestness. While Michael could, at times, be guilty of treacly sentimentality, something in the stark and honest power of this prayer defies the kind of cynical criticism often heaped on him, for example, for crying during “She’s Out of My Life” (personally, I believe the sob was genuine on the record, but that he later learned how to milk it for dramatic effect). But this moment in “Will You Be There” strikes a very genuine and honest chord; indeed, that genuine honesty is its power. By the time his voice cracks at the end, it feels truly earned because you know he has lived those words, and that the fear of both spiritual and personal abandonment is very real.

Fast also spends a good deal of time analyzing the visual performance of “Will You Be There.” This piece became essential to Michael’s live performances during the Dangerous tour, as it represented his transition from the machismo persona of the show’s first half to the more spiritual/angelic and “feminine” persona of the second half. This persona seemed to signify the idea of spiritual awakening.

If Michael had chosen to end the Dangerous album here, with the spiritual zenith reached by “Will You Be There” and “Keep The Faith” that arch alone would have rendered Dangerous as a powerful spiritual journey. But instead, on an album that has been filled with unpredictable twists and turns, we do not end on this high. Instead, the artist plunges us back into the despair of loss and, finally, brings the journey full circle back to “noise.” Why is that? The answers, of course, are not clearcut, nor are they intended to be. But as she has done throughout the book, Susan Fast gives some very thought provoking insights that can, at least, help to decipher part of the question.


As discussed previously, “Will You Be There” and “Keep The Faith” do not so much offer true resolution as simply a ray of hope. If we have to endure terrible things in this life, it’s at least good to know that we’re not fighting alone. However, that doesn’t mean the fight is necessarily over, let alone won. In quoting Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” Michael reminded us that this was a respite so that we might partake in “more pleasing and more joyful” sounds. This is essentially the high art equivalent of Monty Python’s famous line, “And now for something completely different!” The tracks bring our thirst ravaged bodies to the trough to drink, but just when we are falsely lulled into a sense of Edenic security, we are gently (with “Gone Too Soon”) and, finally, rudely (with the title track “Dangerous”) brought back to the reality of a spiritual abyss.

Fast equates “Gone Too Soon” to a kind of surrender, and listening to it with her analysis fresh in my mind, I understand where she’s coming from. If “Gone Too Soon” seems to get a little short shrifted when compared to the vast amount of time spent on discussing other tracks in this book, there may be good reason. Just as the simplest poems can sometimes be the most challenging to analyze (due to the fact that their very simplicity and straightforwardness renders the very idea of analysis absurd) “Gone Too Soon” doesn’t seem to offer much beyond what it is on the surface-a simple and beautiful lament to the idea of loss. But what exactly is the loss? Because the song became early on almost synonymous with Ryan White (due to the video which featured him) it may be difficult now to separate that association to look for additional layers of meaning.

Michael and Ryan White
Michael and Ryan White

Its very laidback quality, however, may offer the most telling clues as to why it was placed chronologically after the very upbeat “Keep The Faith” and just prior to what Fast describes as “the sharp left turn” of the closing, final track. Just as Michael often sang in his lowest and/or grittiest ranges when his emotions were most raw and intense, he tended to sing at his most conventionally sweet (as he does here) when the purpose is to convey either acceptance, surrender, or a feeling of being at peace (which naturally comes both with acceptance and surrender). For example, Fast equates Michael’s vocal performance on “Gone Too Soon” to “She’s Out of My Life.” If we think back to “She’s Out of My Life” and the emotional state of the protagonist in that song, we recall that he, too, had arrived at a state of both acceptance and resignation. He is not fighting the fact that his lover is out of his life; he has accepted it, however begrudgingly, and however much it hurts. He is also using the song as an honest reflection of himself and his own actions-the things that led to her being out of his life.

In that same vein, “Gone Too Soon” has the same feeling of resigned acceptance; acceptance of what cannot be changed. Death is as inevitable as the rising moon; as the coming of night. In the context of Dangerous and all that has gone before, it could also represent an acceptance of spiritual death as well. At the very least, it is, as Fast suggests, a kind of “letting go.” As morbid as it sounds, the song conjures up a feeling of the kind of peaceful resolve that comes with greeting death after the agony and struggle of the fight, or the kind of eerily peaceful resolve that a person contemplating suicide often feels once the struggle of that decision has been made. The song is bittersweet in the sense that there is no comforting hint at a life beyond, in Heaven,something that even the most morbid hymns and Appalachian death odes almost always offered, with the idea being that even as we shake off our mortal coil, there is another home and another existence awaiting us, one where the hope of being reunited again can at least sustain us. But “Gone Too Soon” offers a much more secular, and perhaps, realistic view of death-we are born, we live here on earth for a brief while, and then we’re simply gone.

If this track was meant to end the main narrative of the record, as Fast theorizes, then it is indeed a downer. In a spiritual journey that has taken us through the bowels of hell to the pinnacle of a heavenly glimpse, we end it all with neither hope nor despair, but simply…surrender.

But surrender to what? To an inevitable and indifferent fate, in the best Darwinism fashion? To the darkness that has consumed us? To a world gone mad?

The title track returns us abruptly to the chaotic, industrialized world of “Noise” that opens the album. In taking this turn, Michael ends Dangerous on an upbeat note-with what is perhaps one of his greatest “femme fatale” songs-but at what cost?

“Musically, the reappearance of noise and a heavy, industrialized groove signals a return to the fight, to disruption, to agitation of the status quo; his breath is part of the noise-growling, grunting, sharp exhalations of breath. Who needs words to convey the idea that you’re out to create trouble?” 

So perhaps, on that note, Dangerous does not so much end with apathy and surrender, as with a return to the fight. Another possible interpretation (if I may be excused my venturing out on a limb here): Perhaps, having come through all of the darkness and spiritual soul searching of the album’s second half, he is now more empowered to face the fight? This would seem to nullify the message of “Gone Too Soon” but, by the same token, this is an album, as already noted, full of unexpected twists and abrupt left turns. Perhaps, like Prometheus, he has returned with the power of fire. That would indeed be quite “Dangerous!”

I have only one small complaint with this section of Fast’s book (yes, this is still a review, in case you’ve forgotten!). She refers to the segment of Michael’s live MTV performance when the line is heard “You know you want me” as Michael himself speaking in a “gender ambiguous voice.” Surely Fast should be able to recognize the voice of Michael’s own sister Janet! I’m sure there isn’t much to be read into the use of the line; it was most likely a little joke between the two of them, and again, an example of Michael’s sometimes cheeky sense of humor.

After coming through 133 pages of analysis, we are left with a lot to chew on regarding what was, at the time, Michael’s most politically and musically ambitious album to date (and some still argue as to whether HIStory truly eclipsed it). The album is, as Fast states, “a monumental album” which revealed Michael Jackson “as a fully mature artist, no longer content with commercial success, ready to launch himself into the minefields of contemporary politics and subjectivities.” (132).

This was clearly a new Michael that had emerged in 1991-angrier, hungrier, hornier, and more dangerous than ever before. But also, one who was willing to bear his wounds openly and honestly for all to witness. It could not have been an easy journey to live, much less to write and record. And for sure, it is not necessarily an easy journey for the listener, even with all of its upbeat moments. But it stands, without doubt, as an artistic triumph. Is it Michael’s greatest album? That would certainly be up for debate. But for sure, it has stood the test of time as one the best album of the 1990’s decade, and its official recognition as such is long overdue.  I applaud Susan Fast again for this momentous undertaking. This is not just an important book for fans, but an important book for anyone who has a serious interest in understanding how and why this album may have more to teach us now, nearly a quarter of a century after its release, than it did in 1991.

Michael’s Boys: A Month of Milestones

blanket and princeI had to take a sidetrack from discussing the Susan Fast book and Dangerous to acknowledge this as a month of milestones for Michael’s two boys. Prince turned 18 today, and just a little over a week from now, Blanket will be turning 13.


There are a couple of things that can make me feel really old-well, maybe three. One is realizing that grunge music is now “classic rock.” Another is anytime I happen past a supermarket tabloid to see Prince William and Kate with baby George. Goodness, it seems like only yesterday that those same tabloid covers were filled with pics of William as a swaddling baby in Diana’s arms!

And the third thing…realizing that Michael Jackson’s firstborn is now an adult! And yes, just like with William, it seems like only yesterday that we were hearing the news that Michael was a father-to-be.


Michael’s three kids have been through a lot since that tragic day almost six years ago when they lost the center of their world, but they have weathered the toughest of those storms and have emerged all the stronger for it.  Now, the day that so many fans have longed to see has arrived. Prince is a legal adult, and from this day forward, will be taking the reigns as his own man. Finally, at least some of those never ceasing concerns over the children’s welfare can finally be laid to rest. Prince can now take charge of his decisions and, I am sure, will continue to look out for his younger siblings’s best interests.


As Prince embarks on the road to adulthood, his baby brother Blanket will soon be reaching a milestone of his own: On February 21, he becomes a teenager. Since Michael was apparently so very much into planned parenting, and rarely did anything by happenstance (it seems he was as much of a perfectionist about parenting as he was with everything else in his life) one can’t help but wonder if he planned it this way on purpose, so that as his eldest embarked upon the throne of adulthood, he could help lead his little brother across that troublesome threshold of teenhood. For sure, becoming a teenager can be the most exciting time in a child’s life. But it also comes with its share of problems. In Blanket’s case, I can’t think of any better support system than what he has in his two siblings, Prince and Paris.


Of Course, As We All Know, Blanket Has Already Been Perfecting His Teenage Angst Scowl For Years!
Of Course, As We All Know, Blanket Has Already Been Perfecting His Teenage Angst Scowl For Years, LOL!

Lastly, I cannot feel completely right to rejoice in these milestones for Michael’s children while knowing that, as of this writing, Bobbi Kristina Brown is still fighting for her life. But for the grace of God, Paris could have ended up in a similar fate in 2013, and I am thankful every day that Michael’s beautiful baby girl is still with us. People tend to forget that it’s a tough life for celebrity children, and especially those who have lost their parents far too young. Imagine trying to grieve, and at the same time working your way through all the up’s and down’s of adolescence, beneath the constant, unforgiving glare of the spotlight!

Recent Photo Of Paris: Still Beautiful; Still Surviving
Recent Photo Of Paris: Still Beautiful; Still Surviving

We can be thankful that all three of Michael’s beautiful children have made it through that storm. That isn’t to say that troubles and dark times won’t lie ahead. But every milestone reached is another notch carved, a reminder that love and strong family ties can help to heal all wounds.

Sketch Of Prince Testifying At His Father's Death Trial. It's Not An Easy Life For The Young Children Of Deceased Celebrities. Money Doesn't Replace A Parent's Love.
Sketch Of Prince Testifying At His Father’s Death Trial. It’s Not An Easy Life For The Young Children Of Deceased Celebrities. Money Doesn’t Replace A Parent’s Love.

Here’s wishing a very happy birthday month to Michael’s two beautiful, young men (I can’t say “boys” anymore!) and a warm embrace to all three. We love you, PP&B!


Susan Fast’s “Dangerous”: A Review (Part 4-Utopia)

Superbowl Time Always Brings A Resurgence Of Interest In Michael's Legendary Superbowl Performance-And No Discussion Of It Can Be Complete Without Acknowledging That Astounding Finale Performance of "Heal The World"
Superbowl Time Always Brings A Resurgence Of Interest In Michael’s Legendary Superbowl Performance-And No Discussion Of It Can Be Complete Without Acknowledging That Astounding Finale Performance of “Heal The World”

“Black dreams are not about utopia-how could they be?” (Elizabeth Chin qtd in Fast).


Since it has been so very long since my last post, and because all of the attention to this weekend’s Superbowl has (as it inevitably does this time of year) brought a resurgence of interest in Michael Jackson’s legendary Superbowl performance, this seemed an especially timely opportunity to turn the discussion to another of Michael’s most endearing yet often most maligned and misunderstood tracks-“Heal The World.” After all, no discussion of Michael’s 1993 Superbowl performance can be complete without also remembering that jaw dropping finale. And the fact that all of this Superbowl timeliness just happens to also coincide with my review of Susan Fast’s “Utopia” chapter from Dangerous is, well, too good and too convenient to pass up. So even though the post is not “as” complete as I would like it to be at this time,  which will no doubt necessitate extending it to another post, I would at least like to get the topic rolling without further ado.

So, after six tracks of some of the hardest hitting, angriest, sexiest, and street savvy songs of Michael’s career, the pendulum abruptly takes a far right swing with “Heal The World.” Such an abrupt shift of tone, mood, and subject matter is exactly the very thing that led many critics, as well as a lot of fans, to label Dangerous as an uneven album. But this was a trend that Michael would continue to pursue-almost with a vengeance, it seemed-on every subsequent album thereafter. Since this seemed such a purposeful pattern, perhaps it is high time we stopped being so quick to rush to judgment (assuming this was all merely part of some ego-driven desire to stuff an album with everything but the kitchen sink) and take a closer look at the album’s overall concept; the master’s design, if you will.

Fast refers to “Heal The World” as the beginning of Michael’s “Utopia” segment of Dangerous. Whereas the album’s first six tracks hit like a harsh, brazen dose of reality, this track is a throwback to escapism, or what Fast refers to as a utopic desire for a better way. It is escapism in the sense that it is presenting an ideal, rather than “what is.” And this is true regardless of whether we are talking Michael Jackson’s “Heal The World” or John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I choose those two songs to juxtapose in particular because, while critics often praise the Lennon composition, Michael’s “Heal The World” has traditionally been derided as nothing more than sentimental pap. Yet they are both espousing the same idealistic and escapist view, asking the listener to envision what “could be” if we all worked together to make it so. In fact, I would go one better and say that Michael’s composition actually has the upper hand, since he is advocating real action (even if albeit non-specific action) rather than merely daydreaming, or “imagining” that better world.

heal the worldBut this goes right back to the point Fast is making, or at least the point that dominates much of this chapter’s opening. While critics often lambasted Michael’s music as serving no artistic purpose other than “escapism” they seem to have been conveniently forgetting just how deeply rooted those ideals of utopic escapism are in both pop culture and, indeed, our human psyche. The artificial divide between art and entertainment as an “either/or” (that it must provide either escapism on the one hand, or have a social conscious on the other, and that both must be somehow mutually exclusive) is, perhaps, the very barrier that Michael most sought to eradicate-and which, for that effort, he was most unforgiven. That the desire to be swept away to a “better place” is a basic fundamental human drive, perhaps one that is vitally necessary to our mental and spiritual health, is something Michael definitely recognized.

“Where would be without a dance, a song?”-Michael Jackson, Harlem speech, 2001

Of course, it’s not that I don’t entirely “get” why some critics may have had a hard time warming up to “Heal The World.” It’s straightforward earnestness and even simplistic (though purposely simplistic) structure immediatly put it at odds with a very jaded and cynical culture, and as Joe Vogel and other music critics have already pointed out, the 90’s in general was not a time openly receptive to earnest messages. Personally, I prefer the much darker, baroque, and dystopian vision of “Earth Song.” However, perhaps in keeping with the vision that Michael had for Dangerous, it becomes easier to understand why “Heal The World” ultimately became the album’s centerpiece, and not “Earth Song” which would eventually find its home on the much darker themed HIStory album instead.

I often find it somewhat puzzling, in both a sad and ironic kind of way, that as a Michael Jackson fan my probably least two favorite compositions by him are the ones he seemed most personally proud of-“Childhood” and “Heal The World.” As a critical music fan, I know that Michael composed songs that were far superior to these, both lyrically and musically, so sometimes it’s hard to fathom why Michael seemed to view these as superior to all the rest.

In that regard, Susan Fast and I are very much on the same page as she writes in this passage:

“…Jackson claimed in an internet chat with his fans in 2001 that if he could only perform one of his songs for the rest of his life, this [“Heal The World”] would be it. And the trouble is, it doesn’t sound like an ironic statement. Really, out of all the astonishingly good music, this takes pride of place? My take is that ‘Heal The World’ serves as an important thematic pivot point on Dangerous, moving the listener from the wordly, noisy complications of the opening tracks into a somewhat troubling vision of utopia.” (Fast 77-78). 

But Michael did seem to feel that these kinds of songs came closest to capturing the essence of who he was, and that is no small thing to overlook. “Heal The World,” if anything, most represented Michael’s ideal of himself and of the world-the best of what both could be.  It makes sense, then, that if he could only perform one song for the rest of his life, which would he prefer? Something that took him to some very dark and troubled place, or something that reminded him of everything he most yearned for, and that could likewise empower others to strive for a perfect world? Given the option of only one song to perform for eternity, would you prefer bliss or torment?

Michael's Social Commentary Songs Represented The Best of Himself-The Ideals He Strove For In Himself, And Us
Michael’s Social Commentary Songs Represented The Best of Himself-The Ideals He Strove For In Himself, And Us

It reminds me of a very enlightening debate I once read between a Michael Jackson critic and a fan. The critic was going on and on about how, in his view, Michael was a hypocrite who didn’t exactly walk his talk. He went on about how Neverland was basically a carbon footprint on the land; how many resources were actually used in shooting the “Earth Song” video, how Michael was whisked around the world on private jets, and so forth. In other words, he didn’t exactly give up the superstar lifestyle to become a farmer grubbing in the dirt (but then again, could we not apply the same argument to all the celebrities who are involved in environmental causes?). Anyway, the fan managed to come back with a very good point, that while it may be easy to beat Michael up for his very human flaws (which, perhaps, sometimes did conflict with his idealistic, utopian views) what ultimately matters is not what Michael did or didn’t do. It was the ideals he set for himself-and the idealistic vision he strove to achieve for humanity-that defines who he was, and why he remains so universally loved, with millions of fans all over the world striving to live by his example. It’s not because he was perfect, or expected/demanded perfection in us, but rather, because he showed us the best in ourselves and what we are capable of being.

This was the message I took from his piece “That One In The Mirror,” in which he seems to recognize that the “one” in the mirror doesn’t always live up to his ideals. It is actually one of my favorite pieces by him because I think it is one of his most brutally honest:

“Wishing wouldn’t make it so-I knew that. When I woke up the next morning, that one in the mirror looked confused. ‘Maybe it’s hopeless,’ he whispered. Then a sly look came into his eyes, and he shrugged. ‘But you and I will survive. At least we are doing all right.'”-Michael Jackson, excerpted from “That One In The Mirror.”

As the piece progresses, he acknowledges a kind of separate detachment from himself and the image in the mirror. One feels the problems that are “out there”; the other merely “sees” the problems that are “out there” but doesn’t wish to acknowledge them.

“That one in the mirror winced and squirmed. He hadn’t thought so much about love. Seeing “problems” was much easier, because love means complete self-honesty. Ouch!”-Michael Jackson, excerpted from “That One in the Mirror.”

Here Michael seems to be facing and acknowledging multiple truths about himself. One seems to be a recognition that he has, perhaps, been more caught up in a faceless ideal-“I’m going to heal the world”-rather than honestly addressing his own needs for love, nurturing, and fulfillment. (You know the old adage: You can’t help others until you can help yourself. This seems to be a variation of that theme). Also, it appears to be an honest admonition of taking up causes, perhaps, for the wrong reasons, because it’s the “trendy” thing to do, perhaps, or enhances his own image. But that is only one side of the duality, as he is examining two halves of himself-one is an image that is being looked at from within; the other, an image that is being looked at from without. One acknowledges that what he feels for the world-its pain, its suffering, is all too real.

“He’ll get along. But I don’t feel that way. Those problems aren’t ‘out there,’ not really. I feel them inside me. A child crying in Ethiopia, a sea gull struggling pathetically in an oil spill, a mountain gorilla being mercilessly hunted,a teenage soldier trembling with terror when he hears planes fly over: Aren’t these happening in me when I see and hear about them?”-Michael Jackson, excerpted from “That One in the Mirror.”

B8dfVv1IIAENWXsEventually, in the poem, the image and the man merge as one. This, too, of course, is a representation of an ideal. The reality is that, as human beings, it is a day to day struggle to live to our fullest potential, or even to those ideals we set for ourselves. But I think what we have to keep in mind is that this ideal is sincerely who Michael wanted to be; what he strove to be, and, ultimately, wanted to be remembered as-not as some deity, saint, or martyr; not as some perfect man who healed the world with a song and a dance (and a few generous checks), but as a human being who dug deep within, who suffered much and sacrificed much, to give the world the best part of himself, even if he occasionally fell short.

But to return to the topic of “Heal The World,” the Dangerous album and Fast’s book, it is interesting that she chooses to refer to the tracks analyzed in this chapter (“Heal The World” and “Black or White”) as Michael’s “somewhat troubling vision of utopia.” Within the larger context of the album, however, this description makes sense. These tracks are placed squarely at the center of the album, a jarring and disconcerting shift (especially “Heal The World”) from the six tracks that have gone before, and only a momentary respite before we are plunged again into soulful despair with “Who Is It” and “Give In To Me” and the album’s coda which takes us back to the beginning. And, as we know, even the somewhat beguiling optimism of “Black or White” turns into a kind of false utopia, as it seems to acknowledge that racial harmony is really only an ideal (the catchy chorus aside, we know that by the time we get to the KKK references that this is no song about merely joining hands and singing “Kumbaya” but rather, a brutally honest statement about the ugly realities that will never allow this ideal to be fully realized).

Fast is probably correct, then, that “Heal The World” is meant to serve as both transition and respite. It is a momentary break from the world’s ugliness and reality, and also a momentary break from the more mundane and selfish concerns that have dominated much of the album-including love and sex, though one could certainly argue that even those themes could be utopic as well (for they are still representing a kind of escapism to some ideal place or state of being, at least in the “desire” songs that dominate much of the album’s first half).

Nevertheless, this transition represents the pattern, or motif, that will dominate most of Michael’s albums and all of his live performances thereafter, where the fun and good times eventually gives way to the serious, and where hard-bitten, human and personal emotions like anger and lust transcend to concern for the planet and humanity in general.

However, it is interesting that on Dangerous, at least, this transcendence is fleetingly brief. In performance, Michael often capped with “Heal The World” and “Man In The Mirror,” the tracks working together to create a kind of ultimate pinnacle for the audience, so that in the end, the concert becomes a truly uplifting and transitory experience. On record, however, Michael chose not to make “Heal The World” its closing track, but rather a song squarely in the middle. This would indicate that the intended arc of the Dangerous album is not one that is intended to take listeners to that pinnacle (as in the case of the live performances) but, rather, to offer it to them only as a kind of teasing interlude-a temporary oasis of hope in a world otherwise gone mad.

A pattern Fast establishes throughout her book is to begin every chapter with an appropriate quote. For this chapter, she chose the Elizabeth Chin quote which does seem fitting when we consider why Michael’s utopian segment of Dangerous also happens to be its shortest segment. After all, when John Lennon urged us to “Imagine” he had never lived a day in a black man’s shoes. Michael had-his entire life, in fact, and therein lies a crucial difference between the two artists that cannot be ignored, no matter how much modern scholars and revisionists may try to equate them. On Dangerous, at least, there emerges a somewhat disconcerting realization that any concept of “healing the world” may be a temporary and fleeting ideal, at best. It also raises an interesting question: Could it be that the pairing of “Heal The World” and “Black or White” are actually much more pessimistic representations of utopia than have been presumed?

To even raise the question is problematic because it seems that “Heal The World” is a track operating on two distinct levels of meaning-one as a separate track unto itself, and the other it may have as part of the overall context of the album and the album’s concept.  A lot may depend, ultimately, on how one interprets the remaining tracks that follow “Heal The World.” However, with perhaps the exception of “Keep the Faith.” the remaining tracks, rather than offering the easy transcendence of having found “a better way,” instead plunge us back to the depths of individual despair. Even “Keep The Faith” seems to be a message about holding on and “keeping the faith” that things may turn out better, rather than expressing any idealistic belief that they are better or likely to be better. In both “Keep The Faith” and “Will You Be There” the theme seems to be more about coping than, as we say, “rising above.” Faith can indeed help us to cope with suffering; to become stronger so that the suffering doesn’t pull us under.  But faith, in and of itself,  can’t “fix” what the problem is.

The Tracks That Follow "Heal The World" Seem To Hammer Home One Essential Point-Faith Can Help One To Cope, But It Cannot "Fix" The Problem.
The Tracks That Follow “Heal The World” Seem To Hammer Home One Essential Point-Faith Can Help One To Cope, But It Cannot “Fix” The Problem.

So where does that leave us in regard to “Heal The World?” This is an interesting question that I will continue to delve into in the next installment.

Susan Fast’s “Dangerous”: A Review (Part 3-“Desire”)

in the closet“The first time that noise gives way on Dangerous is at the beginning of ‘In the Closet;’ the calm doesn’t last for long…” (Fast 49).

Indeed, “In the Closet” was such a groundbreaking video for Michael Jackson, in so many ways, that it almost deserves its own chapter within any discussion of Dangerous. And it is now virtually impossible to separate the erotic, visual imagery of the video from the track. However, if we step into a time machine and turn the clock back to November of 1991, when many fans and listeners would have first heard the track after rushing out to buy Dangerous, there was as yet no visual imagery to connect with the song. But even without the well known images of Michael and supermodel Naomi Campbell frolicking in the desert,  the composition alone is enough to set an undeniable tone of eroticism.  Fast describes the track’s somewhat beguiling, soft opening as a foray into the “feminine,” which then gives way to the industrialized, hard beat, creating the tension and juxtaposition of these forces (the masculinity of the industrial beat and feminism of the spoken sections)that will dominate the track. I find it interesting that she references the song’s distinct Middle Eastern feel. I, too, have often noted that the track has a unique, Middle Eastern vibe.  In timbre, it has the feel of an Arabian Beledi number (in common lay terms, that is belly dance!). Such a beat, in and of itself, is more than enough to set a thematic tone of erotic desire. (On more than one occasion, I have heard “In the Closet” referred to as the ultimate lap dance number!). Add to that the element of a forbidden romance, and the dark tension that compels the track is bound to start sizzling.

Although there is nothing really ambiguous about the track, the video, combined with all the usual questions about Michael Jackson and sex, created a lot of speculation, not the least of the controversies stemming from the track’s title.

“People were understandably puzzled by Jackson’s use of the expression ‘in the closet’ to characterize a straight relationship and one has to admit that this is tantalizingly confusing, more so because in a way, this is a kind of ‘coming out’ song for Jackson even as he’s talking, ambiguously, about keeping things in the closet-coming out, that is, as interested not only in romance but sex, as a willing, even aggressive participant, not betrayed by and fearful of some femme fatale and, unbelievably to some, as straight.” (Fast 51-52).

Michael "in the closet"...literally!
Michael “in the closet”…literally!

I have often thought that people tried to read too much into the title, especially in trying to equate it to what is only a relatively recent definition of the phrase. The term as used to define a gay person hiding his/her sexual identity has been in use since the 1960’s, according to most etymology sources of the phrase, but the term “in the closet” as used simply in the sense of hiding a dark secret-any dark secret-dates back at least to the 19th century. According to most sources I have checked, the phrase most likely has roots in the even older phrase “skeletons in the closet” which usually refers to some dark, hidden secret or source of shame that a person keeps hidden. Michael is clearly (at least judging by the song’s lyrics and video concept) using the phrase in its original context, to mean a shameful thing that must be kept hidden away. Fast notes that in the video his character wears a wedding ring, which would indicate that he is a married man trying to avoid the temptations of an exotic seductress. Thus, the thing that is “in the closet” is his adultery. Not exactly a deep story line to figure out, although we have to assume that Michael was surely aware of the phrase’s more current meaning and perhaps, thus, intentionally played up that ambiguity. (This would have been in keeping with Madonna’s alleged concept of the song, which would have involved her and Michael role playing as an androgynous couple in drag! And although it may sound ludicrous in theory, this wasn’t too far removed from the concept he would actually use a few years later with his sister Janet in the “Scream” video).

In this 1992 clip on the making of “In the Closet” Naomi Campbell gives Cindy Crawford a pretty straightforward explanation of exactly what the song’s title means:

Although “In the Closet” certainly wasn’t Michael’s first foray into portraying himself as blatantly sexual in a video, it may indeed mark the first time that we see him in what appears to be, on screen, a fully developed, adult, erotic relationship. Remember that even in “The Way You Make Me Feel,” his steamy cat-and-mouse chase with Tatiana ends with a hug. A lot of us were going, WTF? All of that trouble for a frickin’ hug? Whatever one can say about Michael’s romp with Naomi Campbell in “In the Closet,” we can pretty much safely say that these characters are not going to end things with a hug. In fact, at one particularly steamy point in the video, there is even a moment of implied oral sex! If you never noticed it before, watch closely at the 4:53 mark. Clearly, we are to believe that Campbell’s character was up to something “down there” as the camera follows her body on its slow, sensual shimmy upward, and we can probably safely say she wasn’t admiring his boots.  (A bit of this shot is also briefly inserted at an earlier point in the video, around 2:37. But at 4:53, when everything stops and slows down to nothing but the sound of that clock ticking, is where it gets really extended, and really sexy!).

We Just Knew Things Were Not Going To End With A Hug...Not THIS Time!
We Just Knew Things Were Not Going To End With A Hug…Not THIS Time!

The entire track is built around a series of intermittent moments of building tension and release. “Frustrated desire” and/or “unfulfilled desire” are phrases often used for describing Michael Jackson’s more erotic numbers. Here there is still that element to some degree, because he doesn’t want to “go there” and is fighting it. In that regard, I do not entirely agree with Fast as I see “In the Closet” as being not terribly different from other songs in the Jackson femme fatale category. He is still trying to resist an illicit relationship that he doesn’t want to be in, or at least that he clearly recognizes as wrong. That he’s clearly on the losing side of this battle is no big surprise, either; in the past, it was usually clear that the “Billie Jeans” and “Dirty Dianas” of his repertoire had the upper hand. We always got the sense that, being a man and a vulnerable creature of flesh and blood he was going to give in. But then that moment of “giving in” would be followed by the inevitable “forty days and forty nights” of self-castigation. (I would actually cite “Give In To Me” as perhaps the best example where Michael breaks the lust-followed-by-self castigation cycle, a “desire” track that Fast discusses in depth a bit later in the book).

But perhaps what does differentiate “In the Closet” is the degree of fulfillment as opposed to thwarted desire. Both the music and Michael’s vocal performance leave little doubt that we are meant to interpret this as a fully consummated relationship.

“The chorus collapses twice just, it seems, as it’s about to take off-aborted attempts at fulfillment, joy, release. The third time the music of the chorus takes flight and is allowed to develop, to ‘simmer.’ Jackson’s repeated ad libs culminate in his trademark ‘hee hee’ signifying here in a profoundly different way than it ever has before-as surrender, capitulation, and fulfillment: usually this vocal gesture comes as a sharp interjection, all bravado, control, affirmation of the music’s energy and power. Here, it rounds out his series of ad libs, using his last bit of breath: a haunting, the release of a former, younger self…” (Fast 51).

In her analysis of the video, Fast again aptly deconstructs a lot of the shortsighted nonsense that, for too long, has been the accepted critical narrative, both of this video and most all others that have featured Michael interacting either erotically or romantically with female leads. She is lead at one point to raise the question, in almost perplexed exasperation: “Were we watching the same film?”

Indeed, there is nothing remotely “awkward” about the pairing of Michael and Naomi Campbell. They seemed to have had a natural chemistry that Herb Ritts was able to capitalize on via his beautiful cinematography (and I will have much more discussion of Ritts and his particular influence in just a bit). Campbell was said to have been flirting quite blatantly with Michael throughout the shoot. In the clip posted above, she admitted she wanted to kiss him. And if one story was to be believed, she was willing to take it much further than that!

Back in 2010, I did a post on this video shoot in which I related a story that had been passed down from Michael’s makeup artist Karen Faye. Since those posts are a bit difficult to access directly now, I will reprint that particular part of the post below:

From Allforloveblog, July 3, 2010:
It may have only lasted for as long as the video cameras were rolling, but the chemistry we saw between Michael and Naomi Campbell in 1992’s steamy “In The Closet”-definitely one of the sexiest romps to ever be captured on camera-was very real. At least, we know from Naomi’s end that she would have liked to have carried it “beyond” the cameras. Michael was somewhat more evasive on the subject, but if you observe the photos and body language from the video shoot-well, let’s just put it this way: He obviously wasn’t hating it.

The video conjures up every reason why average people love to hate celebrities. Imagine getting paid big bucks just to romp around in an exotic desert setting with a half-clothed Naomi Campbell, or Michael Jackson at the peak of his sexiest era,and with a bod more ripped than we’d ever been privileged to see before!

It was the one time that Michael actually hit the gym for a video shoot, as well as the studio, and the results were…ooh lala stunning. And with his hair pulled back completely from his gorgeous, chiseled face, we finally got to see some of those fine Native American features that normally our eyes were never drawn to. No wonder Naomi was sprung! And according to Michael, the primitive desert heat was “exciting.” Yes. Especially when you have Naomi sashaying around in that little white skirt!

Well, there’s a funny story I heard that I’m going to relate to you, and no, I cannot verify it with a link-sorry. Just trust me on this. I heard it from a reliable source, and there has been some debate as to whether the story was true or exaggerated. But regardless of whether you believe it or not, the story is hilarious. It goes like this:

Michael comes off the set of In The Closet and into the makeup trailer. He seems very agitated; a little embarrassed and upset. Karen Faye asks what’s wrong.

“Naomi,” Michael says. “She keeps talking dirty to me.”

Karen: “Tell her to stop.”

Michael: “She won’t.”

Karen: “Tell her again.” She goes on to tell him he has to be more aggressive and forceful.

A little while later, Michael is back again. Still upset with Naomi. “She won’t stop. She keeps talking dirty.”

Karen: ‘Well what exactly is it she’s saying?”

Michael: “I can’t tell you. It’s too bad to say.”

At this point (again, I’m merely repeating the story as it was told) Karen is almost amused and making a joke of it. She tells Michael he’s a big boy and should be able to handle the situation. “Tell her to stop doing it.” Sometime later, Michael is back again, still complaining about Naomi and her “nasty” talk. Again, Karen asks what exactly is it that she’s saying. Finally badgered into confessing, Michael looks very embarrassed and says, “She said she wants to suck my dick.”

Karen: “Well you tell her I said she can’t.”

Personally, I don’t know what to make of the story. It’s funny, but I have a hard time buying that Michael would have been too awkward and naive to handle the situation himself. Nor do I particularly buy that he would have been that offended at the idea of  being talked dirty to by a woman (I frankly don’t know many men who would be). It is possible that, with his sense of humor, he enjoyed the prospect of pitting the women against each other, just to watch the cat fur fly! In all of the “making of” videos, his body language with Naomi seems very relaxed, playful, and naturally flirtatious-not exactly the body language of someone who is feeling sexually harassed. But whatever the case-whether it was mutual attraction or one fueled by unrequited tensions, the chemistry between them was very real, and very palpable on camera. 

It is also interesting to note that in the video clip I originally posted with that piece, the reporter who was covering the shoot had absolutely no qualms and no reservations about stating it as Michael’s “sexiest video ever.”

“Michael is generating more heat than the desert sun in his sexiest video ever…”-Media reporter covering the “In the Closet” shoot.

Fast also credits much of the video’s eroticism to the vision of director Herb Ritts. Stylistically, “In the Closet” bore similarities to other sexy videos Ritts had directed, including Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.”

Since Fast devotes a good deal of space to discussing the role of Herb Ritts’s vision and his contribution to the shoot, the discussion here likewise cannot be complete without it. Ritts not only specialized in erotic visual imagery, but seemed to have a knack for bringing out a special kind of sensuality in his male subjects. It may be worth noting that many of Michael’s most alluring videos and photo shoots through the years were either those done by women, or by gay male photographers, so it may not be entirely surprising that Ritts, a gay man, was able to bring to the table an especial awareness of Michael’s erotic the closet2

It was Ritt’s vision, after all, that dominated much of the video’s storyline and imagery, including the new, exotic look that Michael sported for the shoot (the pulled back hair; the wife beater t-shirt; jeans and boots instead of the usual floods and loafers).

However, regardless of how much of the video’s vision may be credited to Ritts, there is one thing that remained a constant pattern throughout Michael’s career, and that was the fact that whenever he had a serious point to make, or really wanted to call attention to himself, things always went down. That probably sounds confusing right now. But allow me to explain. Most of Michael’s career and public persona was built around the idea of things that were high-the voice, for prime example, and the pants for another. So over the years, we started to learn that when Michael wanted to get serious-that is, when there was a serious point to be made, or when he wished to break away from his characteristic mold-things came down. The voice would drop several octaves, to a deeper and more natural tone. The pant hems came down. His hair, often worn tied back during performances, was allowed to fall loose during numbers that required a special kind of of kinetic, flowing energy (a kind of Samson-like effect).

In between takes, the flood pants and loafers came back out, lol!
In between takes, the flood pants and loafers came back out, lol!

So for “In the Closet” the pants came down (figuratively, at least!). Though his hair remained tied back, the braid was a definite departure from any previous look, and as already noted, since he knew this video was going to call for his body to be exposed as it never had been before, he actually hit the gym and beefed up a bit (not overly doing it, but just enough to give his pecs some real definition). Indeed, the whole idea, as articulated by Herb Ritts, was one of redefining himself once again. Fast refers to Ritt’s desire, for this video shoot, to remove Michael from all of his usual trappings of “dandyism.” But whether this was mostly Ritts’s concept is really beside the point. The fact is, Michael would never have gone along with these choices if he hadn’t felt right doing them (just as he outright rejected Madonna’s concept for the video!) so he must have felt that it was a vision and an image that encapsulated what he wanted to do with the song.

But Fast dips into controversial territory again (as she acknowledges) when she ponders on the “Oriental fantasy” aspect of the video. While many fans appreciated what seemed as Michael’s celebration and embracing of the black woman (all of the love interests portrayed in his videos from Dangerous are black women; Naomi Campbell in “In the Closet”; supermodel Iman in “Remember the Time”) Fast raises the idea that perhaps the casting of these women had as much to do with the desire to exploit the idea of exotic “otherness,” especially given the fact that Michael, by this time, was so “white” in appearance as to give the false impression that he could easily pass for a Caucasian male. Personally, I never bought into the idea that Michael Jackson ever looked “white.” Even during the eras when his vitiligo was most evident-if one didn’t know he had a skin disease-he looked, at the very least, biracial. As the disease progressed, he began to take on a kind of albino, pigment-less appearance. Other African-Americans who have completely lost skin pigment due to vitiligo have a similar appearance, whereby their features remain distinctly African-American even though the skin no longer has the distinguishing pigment that defines one as “black.”

A Sexy Black Couple...Or Something Else? Shots Such As This DID Seem To Emphasize The Stark Contrast Between Their Skin Tones, Raising The Possibility of ITC As An "Orientalist Fantasy."
A Sexy Black Couple…Or Something Else? Shots Such As This DID Seem To Emphasize The Stark Contrast Between Their Skin Tones, Raising The Possibility of ITC As An “Orientalist Fantasy.”

Even though much of “In the Closet” was in sepia, it is apparent that Michael wasn’t exactly pale. Indeed, just as with so many factors of his appearance in this video, it seemed some lengths had been taken to make him look even healthier and more buffed than usual, and it actually looks like he is sporting a suntan (makeup, of course, could have achieved this effect; people with universal vitiligo cannot tan, as prolonged sun exposure can be deadly). Still, I “get” what Fast is saying in the sense that Michael and Naomi could certainly appear as an interracial couple, with Michael’s appearance as closer to Hispanic than African-American, and paired, of course, against the contrast of the very exotically dark Naomi Campbell.

“Often in Orientalist fantasies it’s the dark-skinned woman who’s exoticized, who’s portrayed as some kind of ‘forbidden fruit,’ and Naomi Campbell is so dark next to Jackson that he might be thought of as racially other to her, a potentially controversial idea, I know, given that Jackson’s increasingly lighter skin led to him sometimes being called a ‘race traitor.’ I don’t mean to buy into those narratives here: only that there appears to be, on the level of skin color, a substantial racial difference between Jackson and Campbell, and that Campbell is treated as a hypersexualized ‘exotic’ woman in a way that plays right into the stereotypes.” (Fast 53).

This is similar to the debate that has often been raised with discussions of the “Remember The Time” video, where it is believed by some that Michael intentionally set himself up, surrounding himself with an all-black cast, in order to further emphasize the contrast of his “otherness.” And, in fact, Fast does touch on this later in the chapter when the discussion turns from “In the Closet” to “Remember The Time” although her discussion of Michael’s “otherness” and the contrast of himself against the other cast members, particularly the other males in the cast, goes far beyond simple issues of race or appearance. I love her theory of Michael as a trickster figure in the video, which I would agree with (like a real life Bugs Bunny, he manages to outwit his adversaries even though far outnumbered and outbrawned; but also, like the best trickster figures, he is not entirely guiltless, and his adversaries not entirely unjustified in their pursuit-after all, he has flaunted his affair with the queen, as well as her attraction for him, and has rubbed it in the king’s face-yet like the best tricksters, he is so wily, charismatic, and endearing that we are rooting for him, rather than his justified pursuers. Indeed, cultural trickster figures such as Africa’s Esu are discussed at length in conjunction with this video).

"Leave It To Michael Jackson To Reclaim A REGAL African Past"-Susan Fast
“Leave It To Michael Jackson To Reclaim A REGAL African Past”-Susan Fast


According to Fast, Michael’s intentional “otherness” in the video (the contrasting of himself against the cast and, especially, other male cast members) may have more to do with class differences.

“Even in this setting, Jackson challenges class power through his clothing from the moment we see him: the gold metal plate across his chest is called a gorgerine, worn by the Pharoahs of Egypt as a marker of their regal status. Jackson also sports a formal starched kilt worn by noblemen and officials in ancient Egypt. The other entertainers aren’t dressed in this fancy garb…” (Fast 60).

However, as Fast goes on to note, what Jackson ultimately pulls off is a hybrid style that combines ancient Egyptian regalness with modern 90’s hipness, connecting the ancient, royal history of blacks in Egypt to himself in the present.  “Leave it to Michael Jackson to reclaim a regal African past.” (Fast 60).

It made perfect sense, of course, that Michael should go to some lengths to set himself apart from the other cast members of the video. After all, he was the star of the piece, and as such, the concept was naturally to keep him as the center of attention. The choices of hairstyle, makeup, and wardrobe were all intended to emphasize a sense of his “otherness” as compared to the other male cast members, who of course are portrayed as more traditionally “masculine.” Yet the “feminism” that his character invokes is undeniably a source of appeal. The queen desires him above all others, even her own husband.

My Personal Favorite RTT Moment...Breaking Into That Impish, "Trickster" Grin As His Pursuers Overtake Him
My Personal Favorite RTT Moment…Breaking Into That Impish, “Trickster” Grin As His Pursuers Overtake Him

Fast delves into yet another controversial aspect of Michael’s aesthetic (as well as part of his appeal for many) with the topic of gender ambiguity and how Michael actually used the blurring of traditional gender lines to great effect. While this is often a hotbed topic among fans, it is nevertheless a topic that bears discussion because, for starters, it goes to the very heart of what has already been acknowledged as one of the most complex issues of Michael Jackson’s sex symbol status-why critics and the media so often resisted it; why fans embraced it. According to Fast, Michael became a master of how to blend both the masculine and feminine.  I have excerpted below a few of her quotes that best illuminate this discussion:

“During the Dangerous era, Jackson started wearing his hair longer and more loosely curled. The jheri curl had morphed into several strands that hung over his eyes and reached his chin. It’s during this time that he also first straightens, rather than relaxes, his hair…As he ages, from Dangerous onward, his face becomes increasingly ‘feminized,’ exaggerated through the use of heavy make-up, including heavy eyeliner, mascara, and various shades of lipstick…(Fast 55-56).

However, in quoting Meredith Jones and others, Fast goes on to state that Jackson’s modus operandi, if you will, had little to do with any “trans” tendencies which we as a society might normally associate with a male who goes the route of increasingly feminizing his appearance. Rather, she states, Jackson seemed more interested in combining feminine and masculine traits to create a kind of ambiguous middle ground between them.

“This analytical specificity begins to get at how Jackson’s intriguing performance of gender really works: the features don’t ‘add up’ to one gender or another, nor can they be be ‘reconciled.’ Markers of masculinity do not disappear. In fact, these characteristics, particularly the square jaw-line and cleft chin, became more pronounced as he aged, perhaps through procedures, perhaps through fluctuating weight, or perhaps, again, simply through the natural process of aging.” (Fast 56).

In quoting Judith Peraino, she arrives at perhaps the most apt phrase to describe it: “Coming out into the middle.” (58).

But the discussion of Jackson’s “gender ambiguity” cannot end with his face alone. It incorporates many other factors-his body, wardrobe choices, etc. And this is where the lines often became even more blurred.

“His body was slight, without developed muscles, but straight, angular, and strong-not a feminine thing about it, including the way he moved, right down to his walk…” (Fast 56).

This is followed by a discussion of some of his onstage wardrobe choices, particularly the Dangerous-era gold fencing shirt, purposely designed to draw “attention to his bulging groin.” (56-57).

The First Half Of The Dangerous Tour Concerts Emphasized The "Masculine"
The First Half Of The Dangerous Tour Concerts Emphasized The “Masculine”

What Fast is discussing in this section is a phenomenon similar to one I discussed a few years ago in analyzing the concept of Michael’s live performances. It was during the Dangerous era that Michael seemed to solidify the concept for his live performances which often began with the “masculine” (he would come on tough, as a persona who was very masculine, angular, and hard, with military-esque trappings) and, over the course of the performance, would evolve to a more feeling, flowing, ethereal “feminine” persona (a transition that, like the Dangerous album’s concept, usually transpired with the performance of “Heal the World,” “Will You Be There” and the other spiritual “message” songs). Michael’s onstage persona during the first half of his Dangerous tour performances was always somewhat distant and cold; he would often wear a perpetual sneer. The moves are often blatantly sexual (a lot of crotch grabbing, etc). By the time the metamorphosis is complete, he is smiling, interacting with children onstage;the fencing shirt replaced by a flowing white shirt that accentuates his ethereal quality. His dance moves have become fluid and graceful, rather than angular and hard.

Michael's Onstage Transformation From The Dangerous Tour Onward Emphasized A Shift From The "Masculine" Persona At The Beginning, To A More Graceful, Flowing "Feminine" Persona
Michael’s Onstage Transformation From The Dangerous Tour Onward Emphasized A Shift From The “Masculine” Persona At The Beginning, To A More Graceful, Flowing “Feminine” Persona

It is interesting that this metamorphosis in his live performances (which would also carry over to the HIStory tour as well) mirrored the similar transformation that takes place on the album, as the initial industrialized, new jack swing tracks (“Noise”) eventually give way to what Fast describes as the album’s “Utopia” and “Soul” sections.

These discussions may be better served in the next posts that will look at those chapters in more detail. However, it may help to illuminate some of the reasons why the purposeful blending of masculinity and femininity became so important to Michael’s aesthetic. Fans often get defensive about any insinuation of Michael as anything less than 100% masculine, but sometimes I think for the wrong reasons (often, such defensiveness is simply a kneejerk response to years of defensive conditioning that have been wrought by the media’s attempt to somehow “emasculate” Michael or to cast him into the realm of “weird otherness”). What Fast does is to go beyond the mere simplifications of either approach. For sure, there can be no honest dialog of Michael Jackson-much less an honest appreciation of his art and his place in the cultural pantheon-without acknowledging that he did challenge conventional ideas of masculinity. And we also cannot deny that, for some, at least, this made him both a source of controversy and, as someone who-whether intentionally or unintentionally-challenged those norms, perhaps a source of discomfort.

"He Didn't Like The Line Drawn Between What's Allowed For Men And What's Allowed For Women"-Karen Faye, Qtd in "Dangerous" by Susan Fast
“He Didn’t Like The Line Drawn Between What’s Allowed For Men And What’s Allowed For Women”-Karen Faye, Qtd in “Dangerous” by Susan Fast

According to Karen Faye, Michael’s longtime makeup artist, Michael believed that a man should be entitled as much as a woman to be able to use his face as a canvas; to reinvent himself, and to have the same freedom to experiment with different looks and, yes, to use makeup to enhance features or play them down, just as women do, to present a more beautiful or attractive face to the world. He reportedly loved women’s perfumes, preferring them over the often harsh masculine scents packaged and commericialized for men. But the important factor that underlies these preferences is a desire for sexual equality in cosmetic preferences (which we might reasonably assume would spill over to other areas as well). So in that regard, we might say such choices had nothing to do with wanting to be  a woman or to be “transgender” (as some falsely surmised) so much as simply being a liberated man who felt that being “pretty” should not be the exclusive right of women. Certainly we could argue as to whether a preference for pink lipstick makes one any less “masculine” than a woman who prefers wearing slacks to dresses makes her any less “feminine.” But I think it is naive to assume that Michael made these choices with no idea that he was going against the grain of cultural norms of masculinity. In making such purposeful aesthetic choices-which he had to have known as surely as he knew that wearing straightened hair, makeup and a gold gorgerine would set him apart from the other males in “Remember The Time”) he was clearly intending to draw attention to himself as someone who was testing cultural boundaries and limits in terms of gender norms.

One reason why it is important to honestly address these matters is because we have to consider not only the fans’ perception of Michael Jackson, but also how he is still perceived culturally at large-and how the public often distorted their perceived ideas of Michael and gender. For example, I have told the story before of a male friend of mine who was convinced that Michael Jackson wore womens’ clothes. I asked him where he got such a ridiculous notion-if anything, Michael’s public style, including his vast array of military jackets, were the epitome of “masculine.” He continued to argue lamely that Michael wore women’s blouses. So I put him up for a challenge. If he could produce one photo of Michael wearing a woman’s blouse (that was authentic and not photoshopped!)  I would concede he was right; if not, he would have to concede to me. After going through literally hundreds of photos on the internet, he had to reluctantly concede that I was right. His idea of Michael as a “cross dresser” had come about due to a distorted kind of cultural perception, based on both media stereotypes and misconceptions of Michael’s gender ambiguity.

There Was Nothing "Gender Ambiguous" About His Dress
There Was Nothing “Gender Ambiguous” About His Dress

This example underscores the importance of examining how Michael both challenged and defied these cultural norms and expectations-in surprising ways. Fast wisely sidesteps the temptation to draw any definitive theories or conclusions about Michael’s aesthetic choices, especially in regard to whatever “statement” he was making, intentionally or otherwise. Her theories are steeped neither in fan adulation nor the kind of critical disdain/dismissal of many earlier critics and scholars; thus, she is able to bring a refreshing honesty and candor to these discussions, successfully bridging the admiration of a fan with the objective perspective of a cultural scholar and critic.

The only thing that really bothers me in this discussion is that, while she refers many times to the controversy of Michael’s “lightened” skin color, she always seems to lump it in with his other cosmetic choices, I am not sure if this is an attempt to simply avoid the whole “did he or didn’t he have vitiligo” issue, or if, indeed, Fast even believes he had vitiligo. I am not sure of her position on this, since she never states it explicitly (indeed, the word “vitiligo” is never mentioned once in conjunction with these discussions) and I find this omission problematic, as it could leave the uninformed reader with the opinion that Michael simply controlled/manipulated his skin color change as he did so many other aspects of his appearance. The reason it is problematic and inexcusable is because the issue of whether he had the disease is, as stated in my previous post,  no longer up for debate. But while the autopsy results should have definitively settled the debate, there still remains in some circles, apparently, a lingering and disturbing notion that he must have, somehow, induced his own vitiligo through some chemical means-which, again, would go back to the notion of some cosmetic desire to appear lighter-a desire that tragically, ended up with a horribly botched result. I need not enumerate that there is still a very large faction who simply can’t put the notion to rest that Michael either did not have vitiligo, or if he did, that he must have somehow brought it on himself.

While Fast never states that she believes those rumors, she never exactly denies them, either, and in so doing, leaves that door open for interpretation and speculation. Like I said, I don’t know whether Fast believes he had vitiligo. I have not yet had an opportunity to personally ask her that question, and do not know if she has addressed it elsewhere. It would be interesting to know. But I think it would be important to any honest discussion of Michael’s appearance to at least acknowledge the existence of this disease; otherwise, it is leaving a bit of a skewered perception of his appearance changes, assuming that all of them stemmed purely from personal or artistic choice.

However, that isn’t to say I do not believe that, once he realized the disease’s inevitable course, that he purposely reworked a new aesthetic for himself based on the new possibilities that this “look” now opened for him. Indeed, it’s naive to assume that Michael Jackson wasn’t acutely aware that he was within a “new skin,” so to speak-and how that would affect the world’s view of him, for better or worse.  This is a subject that has also been addressed in some depth by Willa Stillwater and Susan Woodward, author of “Otherness and Power: Michael Jackson and His Media Critics.” In a recent blog post on the “Dancing With the Elephant” website, Woodward used a 1995 photo from the shoot for the “Earth Song” single sleeve, which she cites as “reminiscent of Italian Renaissance portraits,” as an example, using both the terms “ethereal” and (quoting Willa Stillwater from “M Poetica”) “luminous” to describe his mid 90’s persona.

As Woodward describes this quality in the post, it is a kind of transcendence “of the bonds of gender, time, and maybe even human flesh.” Below are a couple of other pics that are apparently from that same photo shoot. They both would appear to strengthen the theory that Michael was indeed going for an intentionally “ethereal” and “luminous” appearance that often characterized Italian Renaissance art:

earth song11

earth song13

Typical Italian Renaissance Portrait, "Child Crowned With Flowers," Circa 1466-1516
Typical Italian Renaissance Portrait, “Child Crowned With Flowers,” Circa 1466-1516

To quote those who knew him best and/or those fortunate enough to have met him, his appearance post vitiligo was not really “white”-certainly not Caucasian-but rather, the appearance of someone who was translucent. This description makes sense. After all, vitiligo destroys the cells that produce melanin. leaving the victim, in effect, “colorless.” Did Michael, perhaps, come to view his new, “colorless” body as a kind of blank canvas, one on which he could now reinvent himself in ways that would never have been imaginable to him before?

Portraits Like This-A Favorite Of Mine, BTW-Often Portrayed Him During His Post Vitiligo Era As Both Ethereal and "Angelicized." For Sure, They Heightened The Idea of "Gender Ambiguity"
Portraits Like This-A Favorite Of Mine, BTW-Often Portrayed Him During His Post Vitiligo Era As Both Ethereal and “Angelicized.” For Sure, They Heightened The Idea of “Gender Ambiguity” In Ways Not Entirely Coincidental

These are all ideas that Michael would have never been able to discuss openly in the press, without inviting undue controversy and having his words misquoted or taken out of context (as inevitably, they always were) and so, again, it is largely left up to us to interpret. It is no secret that, culturally, he still identified himself as a black American. The disease didn’t change who he was or his racial identity. It would also be naive to think that he welcomed the havoc the disease wracked on his life and personal appearance, all in the name of “art.”  The disease left most of his body horribly splotched, a condition he was so self conscious of that he spent most of his remaining years wearing clothing that concealed his body. He couldn’t enjoy simple pleasures, such as a day of swimming at the beach. But it is well within the realm of possibility that, in learning to adopt, he found ways to make the idea of being, literally, a black man inside a colorless body, work for him.

By The Time Of "They Don't Care About Us" An Even Angrier And More Defiant Michael Seemed Finally Willing To Show The World That There Was Nothing "Pretty" About The Disease That Had Turned Him "White"
By The Time Of “They Don’t Care About Us” An Even Angrier And More Defiant Michael Seemed Finally Willing To Show The World That There Was Nothing “Pretty” Or Ethereal or “Angelic” About The Disease That Had Turned Him “White.” For The First Time, He Allowed His Splotched Body To Appear In Its “Untouched” State For A Video Shoot.

they don't care about us2

Rather than dwelling on himself as a “victim” he chose another path, presenting an image of metamorphosis rather than of victimhood. PR wise, the decision may have been questionable. But it also enabled him to maintain the illusory aura that was such an important element of his appeal. Had he chosen the more outspoken path-allowing the public to see his blotched body; doing the talk show circuit on TV about being a vitiligo sufferer, etc-he might have won more public sympathy, but the price for that was in putting the spotlight squarely on HIM as a public figure with a disease, rather than as an artist. It was not a role he felt comfortable with, nor one he felt particularly obligated to perform.

But whatever conclusions can be drawn about Michael’s use of style, cosmetics, performance, etc in blurring gender lines, no such discussion would be complete without also considering the traditions that he was a part of. In many fan discussions, it has often been noted that it wasn’t an issue of whether Michael was “masculine” but that his was a masculinity out of step with the current times. There is, of course, a lot of observational truth in those statements and Michael was hardly the first or last male artist to circumvent the stringent defines of masculinity that have been in place, in Western culture, at least, since the Victorian era. Prior to the Victorian era, it was not at all unusual for men to wear long, flowing hair, makeup, and clothing that might be considered highly feminized by today’s standards (ruffled shirts and lace, etc). The fop, or the dandy, became a highly romanticized figure, and then as now, it was not at all unusual for women to be attracted to these men. It was only during the Victorian era that the rigid lines between what could or could not be properly considered as “masculine” became drawn (not coincidentally, these lines became more rigidly drawn as Western society’s homophobia increased).These Victorian ideals prevailed into much of the twentieth century, with no real challenge until the 1960’s and 70’s (though even in the 1920’s and earlier, movie idols such as Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr, began to challenge these notions and to revive the concept of dandyism, and writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, hardly the most masculine looking of dudes, nevertheless made women swoon and was embraced for his “feminine sensibilities.” However, by the 1930’s, the macho man was back in vogue-“virile” leading men like Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and Humphrey Bogart defined masculinity, and it would be many decades before the rock era, again, challenged these notions).  But though we have seen some considerable loosening of these ideals, even in the twenty-first century any full throwbacks to those earlier eras of “dandyism” have been mostly confined to artists. In the music world, particularly, male performers caught on early that the most guaranteed way to drive women wild was to…well, employ some feminine wiles.

Speaking of the historical context of the “dandy” figure and how male artists have used “feminine” sexuality to enhance their own appeal, here is an interesting clip that I ran across on Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors-who, of course, was as famous for his drop dead gorgeous looks and legendary sex appeal as for his music. In this documentary, chronicling Morrison’s final 24 hours, note what Steve Harris, former VP of Elektra Records, says at the 6:03 mark:

“Jim had this love for movies, and so he would emulate Greta Garbo, he had the look in his eyes of Marlene Dietrich staring you down, shaking his hair and his head like Marilyn Monroe did. He had those masculine traits with the feminine wiles, that’s what made Jim unique.”

It is interesting that when Harris mentions all of the models of sexuality that Morrison emulated for his “unique” persona, every one just happens to be a famous female performer of the past. And yet Morrison’s status as a heterosexual sex symbol and rock god who drove women wild has never been questioned.

Perhaps Morrison was, as Harris states, “unique” for the time. That as part of his self styled image (and indeed it was self styled, for The Doors early on had no PR team) he chose to emulate and combine traits of glamorous women probably had much to do with the fact that, until then, there hadn’t really been much in the way of sexual male role models-that is, without pretty much circumventing the last century (which Morrison did) and returning to models of ancient classicism. Similar to what Michael would do two decades later, Morrison was incorporating elements of feminism to create, if not exactly a morphology, at the very least a new kind of masculine ideal. As the 60’s gave way to the 70’s, we saw many rockers such as David Bowie, Marc Bolan, and others carrying this new brand of androgynous “dandyism” to even further lengths.

So why, then, did this similar brand of gender morphology become so upsetting-or perhaps more threatening-to some when it was Michael Jackson? There are many theories, but most scholars and cultural analysts are in agreement that it was, perhaps, the combination of both racism and homophobia (“homophobic” in the sense that any male who is perceived as overly sexualized in a traditionally non-masculine way is deemed threatening) that made Michael Jackson such a potent combination for many.

“To this extent it [dandyism] might also involve the appropriation of traits of femininity as a form of rebellion. This is in part what glam rockers were doing in the 1970’s; both Kobena Mercer and Michele Wallace made a comparison between their gender play and Jackson’s and noted that while it seemed alright for the likes of Bowie, it was, apparently ‘intolerable’ for a black man to experiment with gender and sexuality in this way.” (Fast 65).

However, this may be an overly simplified approach. It would fall short, for example, in explaining why Prince-the perfect 80’s embodiment of “dandyism” if ever there was one-still did not raise as much controversy as Michael, but instead, was given pretty much the same artistic pass as Bowie and others. As has been discussed here before, much of it may have had more to do with the general acceptance of avant-garde artists as opposed to “pop” or mainstream artists. We had watched Michael grow up as a beloved child star and as a member of the wholesome Jackson family act; therefore, his actions were always going to invite more scrutiny, and tongues were bound to wag when “little Michael” came out wearing lipstick and eye liner and grabbing his crotch. Most adult artists have the luxury of being able to evolve quietly, behind the scenes, for years before unleashing their persona on the world stage. Michael was never afforded that luxury. His artistic evolvement, just as with everything else in his life, had to be carried out within the metaphoric fish bowl of his existence.

Also, I don’t think we can entirely separate Michael from the context of his time. If there was ever a ripe time for “dandyism” in popular music, it was the 1980’s, the era in which Boy George became an international superstar, Duran Duran was the leading boy act of the day, and hardcore rockers like Motley Crue wore more eyeliner and lipstick than their female groupies. By the time Michael entered his metal/power ballad phase with “Dirty Diana”-replete with tumbling hair past his shoulders, open white shirt rippling in the wind machine, tight spandex pants, and more eyeliner than Apollonia-he was as much a product of his time and era as an innovator-indeed, so much so that “Dirty Diana,” in particular, is often cited as a parody of typical metal hair band videos of the day, which may be true.

We Had Never Seen A Display Of Male Auto Eroticism Quite Like This
We Had Never Seen A Display Of Male Auto Eroticism Quite Like This

If so, this may also go far in explaining at least “some” of Michael’s overly sexualized antics during the Panther Dance segment of the “Black or White” video. Fast also spends a considerable length of time analyzing this segment, for no discussion of Michael and sex (or his sexual persona, at least) can be complete without it. Unlike the eroticism of “In the Closet” or even “Remember The Time,” where he is at least interacting with a partner in a traditionally erotic sense, this segment is pure auto eroticism-and not only that, but pure auto eroticism that seems to come from totally out of left field (given that the song’s content has nothing to do with sex!). Looking back in hindsight, long before we had two decades’ worth of critical analysis of the “Black or White” video-including all of the various theories regarding the symbolism of the emasculated black male, etc-it’s easy to see why so many viewers at the time were genuinely confused (that is, when they weren’t brushing it off as Michael “simply being Michael” and, as usual, doing whatever it took to generate controversy). Michael said in his press statement, released within the hour of the controversial broadcast, that he was only attempting to “interpret the animalistic instincts of the black panther into a dance.” Clearly, the panther’s mating ritual must have been part of that interpretation!panther dance3

However, the whole idea of “gender morphology” becomes interesting when looking at the controversy this segment aroused. In essence, Michael was not doing anything that was any more auto erotic in nature than what many female “video vixens” had already been doing in music videos for years at that point. Indeed, Tawny Kitean’s famous romp on the hood of a Jaguar XJ was every bit as sexual, but as always, women have had far more leeway-certainly far more freedom-in the realm of sexual self expression. For a woman to caress her body in a sensual manner was considered sexy. For a man to do it was just…well, for many at the time, awkward and weird.

80's Video Vixens Like Tawny Kitean Made Auto Eroticism The Norm...But Not For Guys. Michael's "Panther Dance" Broke Down That Barrier.
80’s Video Vixens Like Tawny Kitean Made Auto Eroticism The Norm…But Not For Guys. Michael’s “Panther Dance” Broke Down That Barrier.

To Michael’s credit, he was at least able to pull it off far more successfully than poor Billy Squirer, whose disastrous romp in pink sheets in the “Rock Me Tonight” video cost him a legion of male fans and proved such a career setback that he never fully recovered! Perhaps the major difference was that Squirer, who had built a solid reputation as a typical, macho rocker in an already sexist genre, had never tapped into the traits of femininity that would enable him to get away with such a display. Although there are a lot of misguided theories about the intent of the “Rock Me Tonight” video, I have always believed that the concept was simply a misguided PR attempt to make Squirer appeal to female fans. They, perhaps, forgot one major factor: To successfully pull off male auto eroticism in a video, a male performer HAS to be able to embrace a certain amount of femininity, and to be able to do so naturally and comfortably. It can’t be something that is faked.

Hence, Billy Squirer failed miserably; Michael Jackson succeeded spectacularly, controversy notwithstanding.

In analyzing this segment, Fast hits on something that explains both why the segment worked, and why it invited so much controversy:

“In the ‘panther dance’ the crotch grab becomes a rub-sometimes he only uses his middle finger, and he rubs his hand down his chest into his groin too. All this rubbing, if we have to bring things down to their conventional binaries, is much more associated with female masturbation, less with jerking off…” (Fast 57-58).

Precisely why I love this book is for these moments when Fast nails concepts that I have often found myself struggling with for years, trying to pinpoint exactly why something I had seen Michael do a hundred times either unsettled, disturbed, tantalized, or aroused me-sometimes all in one fell swoop. I was not alone in that department, for across the globe, millions of women (and I would imagine many male fans as well) were reacting to those gestures the same way. The excessive “body rubbing” was something I had noticed, but had never thought to articulate it in the way that Fast does here, although I had long noted that what Michael does in the “Black or White” video certainly goes well beyond his (by then) usual crotch grab. This was something else, less stylized, more “in your face” and certainly more explicitly erotic than anything he had done thus far. But I think Fast hits on exactly what I found so simultaneously unsettling and arousing about this segment-it’s not just that these are explicitly auto erotic sexual gestures, but explicitly feminized sexual gestures. In the final segments of the sequence, just before morphing into a panther again, there is more of the kind of sensual, feminized auto eroticism that Fast refers to-he rubs both hands from chest to groin while throwing back his head in sensual ecstasy, a pose long associated with images of female orgasm.panther dance2

Again, I think what we can take from this sequence is that Michael may not have been so much about pushing gender lines as simply a liberator for the rights of a man to be able to express himself as a sexual being, apart from the repressions of conventional male sexuality. When we look at how women responded intuitively to Michael’s sexually suggestive onstage moves (the caressing of his chest; the suggestive finger wag, the hip thrusts, etc) it was because his female fans genuinely believed he was conveying how “he liked it done” and would do, in turn, to them. The simulations sparked fertile imaginations; yes, it was at least part showmanship but, like the best performers, Michael was literally making love to all of us in those moments-and leaving precious little to our imaginations.  Just as actors can cry on cue, we nevertheless know that in order to cry on cue, they must be able to connect with something that triggers that emotion. Sometimes it’s a memory; sometimes they are simply so involved in the role and the storyline that the situation has become real for them. Tears can’t be faked. Thus, even though an actor may be crying “on cue” the performance stems from a very real human emotion-a trigger. In much the same way, Michael’s onstage sexual “performances” had to have at least been some extension of his ability to tap into his own sexual feelings, whether invoked by the music or the crowd’s energy. We responded because we knew he was tapping into those triggers, and it couldn’t be faked. It’s difficult to imagine why a generation of critics found this such a difficult concept to comprehend. Like Morrison (who, in quoting Willie Dixon, aptly summed up the whole phenomenon: “The men don’t know, but the little girls understand”) and the entire legacy of hyper sexualized male performers who had learned to emulate/incorporate female eroticism to maximum effect, Michael had learned intuitively what women respond to, which for us (if we are honest with ourselves) often has more to do with an inherent, genetic attraction to our sensual, seductive, feminine selves than to the “brute strength” of traditional masculinity. Even the most casual internet search will justify this claim, for if you type in “why women love effeminate men” the hits are mind boggling, as article after article will attempt to explain, in some way, or to arrive at some answer, of why this strong mirror attraction for the feminine exists-even in women who are, by all definition, “straight.”

Fast does an excellent job of exploring how Michael Jackson both fit into the long tradition of “dandyism” and, also, in many ways, defied it. The history of black dandyism, in particular, is illuminated quite well, with Fast discussing how Michael in many ways fit the historical prototype of the “Pinkster king,” an African American man who would be elected to a prestigious position and allowed to emulate the dress (and all other pomp and circumstance) of a white elected official. The discussion of Michael’s “syncretic” style of dress and its historical context is, alone, one of the most fascinating passages in the chapter. My male friend whom I referred to earlier in this post would have done well by reading the following passage:

“Hard fabrics were used. The jackets were always short to the waist to meet his form-fitting pants…the broad chest tapering to the waist in a classic V shape is characteristic of a classically normative male form and signifies male strength; his ‘effiminacy,’ with very few exceptions, did not extend to his dress.” (Fast 67).

The “Desire” chapter focuses on many aspects of Michael, sex, and gender. In exploring all of these controversial issues, she offers no hardcore theories or “answers” but manages to successfully examine Michael’s sexual persona both within its historical context and in looking at why these have become such hot button topics, both in the past and present. Their relevance, of course, is due to the fact that the first six tracks of Dangerous (as well as their accompanying videos) solidified the adult image of Michael Jackson as both “soul man” and as a newly liberated, libidinous performer who was exploring his adult sexuality in ways he had never dared to before.

But the temptations of the flesh, as it turned out, was only one facet of Dangerous‘s many moods. In the next installment, I will look at “Utopia” and, finally, rounding the series out, I will explore what Fast has to say about Dangerous and “Soul.”

Susan Fast’s “Dangerous”: A Review (Pt 2-Desire)



“Michael Jackson’s diffuse expression of sexuality, which so many people found disturbing, because it doesn’t fit into any normative paradigm, is the ‘line of flight’ along which he continued to singularize himself…[It] is the aspect of his persona, or expression, that is least understood today, and that desperately needs to be more fully explored.”-(Steven Shapiro qtd in Fast 42).

Now I am getting into perhaps one of the most controversial; certainly most interesting chapters of “Dangerous” and that is her chapter titled “Desire.” The reason I say “controversial” is because I know already, from the various heated debates we have had here on some of these very topics, that many of these are hotbed issues among MJ fans and critics alike.  There is nothing new, of course, in the ever ongoing debates of Michael’s appearance (or more aptly, the reasons why it kept changing) or the issues of his sexuality. Susan Fast certainly offers some interesting perspectives on these topics. As I have stated before, some I agree with and some I question; that doesn’t make anyone “right” or “wrong” but only goes to show that  many of Michael’s aesthetic choices regarding his image and appearance (both the things he controlled consciously as well as those, such as his skin color, that he had no control over) are open for many varied forms of interpretation, and perhaps always will be since Michael himself was rarely forthright on these matters. In other words, there is nowhere you are going to find an interview in which Michael explicitly states, in black and white, “This is the statement I wanted to make when I…” so much of his intent has been left for fans, critics, and scholars to unravel.

However, the chapter opens with a topic that certainly no fans will dispute-Michael Jackson was undeniably one sexy mutha, but in one of the greatest and most inexplicable twists in pop music history, there arose a critical paradigm of Michael Jackson as anything but sexual, as it seemed an entire generation of critics sought to emasculate him by whatever means necessary. However, Fast’s theories delve much deeper beyond this seemingly and illogically simple explanation, even examining some of the reasons Jackson himself helped contribute to this rather blurring and confusing paradigm of himself as a “man-child”-one who was a teaser at best, but perhaps had intentionally set himself up to be a non threat (and why this was a necessity, at least in the early days of his solo career, for both his career and survival in the business).

The Annie Leibovitz Photos For "Vanity Fair" Showcased The New, Hyper Sexual Michael Jackson. He Seemed To Have Gotten Well Past Some Of His Early Shyness and Inhibitions About Being Viewed As An "Object."
The Annie Leibovitz Photos For “Vanity Fair” Showcased The New, Hyper Sexual Michael Jackson. He Seemed To Have Gotten Well Past His Early Shyness and Inhibitions About Being Viewed As An “Object.”

The reason this is an important topic to discuss in terms of Dangerous is because this was the first album in which Michael, on a serious level, really attempted to shake loose and transcend that “non threatening” image (hence the title, perhaps?). Bad had given us many hints, of course, of a “badder” and tougher Michael. But “Dirty Diana” notwithstanding, a lot of Bad still came across as a bit of over the top posturing, like a child calling attention to himself-“Look how grown up and bad ass I am”-but who, at the end of the day, still goes home to mom and dad. And this is not a far off analogy, because though Michael certainly was flexing both his wings and his muscles on Bad in ways he never had before, in the end he was still living at home with mom and dad, quite literally, and in the studio was still under the tutelage of his “father figure” Quincy Jones.

But the Dangerous era was understandably confusing to loyal fans who had grown up with Michael throughout his Jackson 5, Jacksons and Quincy Jones-era solo career. When the videos for the Bad album started playing on MTV, we noticed that Michael was looking considerably lighter than he had in the past, but for all intents and purposes, he still looked “black.” It became an unspoken consensus that Michael must be “doing something” but we didn’t know what, and because the music was so good, we frankly didn’t really care. But then, with Dangerous and the premier of the “Black or White” video-of all the ironies-we got our first taste of a completely, pale “white” Michael Jackson. (However, it is interesting that in the scene where he rips his shirt and the Royal Arms Hotel sign comes crashing down, the lighting actually makes him appear quite dark in this segment; whether this was an intentional effect I do not know, but have always wondered). And remember that an official explanation for this seeming “transformation” was still almost two years down the road (an explanation that would be mocked and disbelieved even when it came, but for the moment, let’s stay in 1991 and the mindset of the time). The reactions at the time were as varied and complex as reactions of anything relating to Michael Jackson have always been, from enchantment and awe (“I thought he must be magic!” came one memorable quote from a male fan looking back on his childhood reaction to “white” Michael) to bafflement (“what the heck IS up with him?”) to outright hostility (“how dare he?” and “who does he think he is!”).

That Michael Jackson Had Vitiligo Is No Longer Up For Debate. What DOES Remain Debatable, However, Is To What Extent His Appearance Changes Were Aesthetic Choices
That Michael Jackson Had Vitiligo Is No Longer Up For Debate. What DOES Remain Debatable, However, Is To What Extent His Other Appearance Changes Were Aesthetic Choices-Or Even If The Disease Itself Somehow Became Accepted As Part of the New “Aesthetic.”

Discussing Michael Jackson’s changes in appearance on any kind of aesthetic level is always a touchy subject because the situation simply can’t be discussed without his changing skin color being an inescapable part of it. And once that subject comes into the equation, it raises many other deeper, controversial issues-ones that have certainly been well debated here, as elsewhere. After all, we certainly aren’t talking mere cosmetic changes here. Many artists routinely change their appearance and image from album to album via conventional means such as hairstyles, makeup, and wardrobe (although Michael certainly played a pioneering role in freeing the male artist to express himself via those avenues as well). But a complete change of skin color can hardly be equated to a change of hair style! This wasn’t a mere cosmetic change, but (for many) a seismic shift in identity. The fact that the issue is still debated at all, over twenty years after the explanation was given, speaks of just how deeply this change resonated with the public, and still does.  That Michael Jackson had vitiligo was confirmed in his autopsy. That is a fact that is not up for debate. Therefore, the ongoing speculations about it, including some of the very questions that Fast raises of if, why, or how he applied this transformation to his art (in ways perhaps both conscious and subconscious) are inevitably going to be questions that invoke their share of controversy.

But before wading too deep into those waters, let’s get back to the discussion of desire. Susan Fast kicks off this chapter by raising the very question that I addressed in one of my most popular blog posts: “Why I Love The Mature Face of Michael.”

Fast’s discovery of Michael, both post vitiligo and post cosmetic surgery, as someone who was still invoking “desire” on a mass level echoes my own similar journey. She describes going on Youtube, and being fascinated to see so many fan videos devoted to the celebration of Michael’s mature “hotness.” She concludes that this is not a phenomenon unique to any one demographic, either, but rather, one that seems to be consistent among female fans from all cultures. It is not, of course, the idea of so many fans from so many diverse cultures, ages, races, and backgrounds finding one man so desirable that is the big mystery, but rather, the fact that it is such a persistent view and such a polar opposite view to the image of Michael Jackson that was being sold by the mass media.

“With all the talk of how Jackson ‘destroyed’ his face and became a monster in his later years, often described as ‘an inevitable tragedy to pity and mourn,’ it’s interesting to contemplate this very different discourse. What do these fans find so sexy, so beautiful, when pretty much all we hear from the media is that he was a freak? Some critics have admitted that Jackson ‘[irradiated] sexual dynamism in his performances, but then they’ve knocked the wind out of that claim by determining that it was all show and no action: ‘He might be threatening if Jackson gave, even for a second, the impression that he is obtainable,’ wrote Jay Cocks in 1984. Since when did the obtainability of pop stars have anything to do with them as threatening to society’s mores?” (Fast 43-44).

For the next several paragraphs, Fast goes on to point out and deconstruct many of these ridiculous critical theories. She demonstrates aptly how all of these theories, stretching from the early 80’s when Michael’s solo star first began to rise to the present, when taken as a whole, go well beyond the limits of the absurd and all seem to have one basic element in common-to somehow deny Michael’s sexual presence as a performer (even worse, perhaps, to strip it from him as a human being) or to somehow deflate its power.


The reasons for this are obvious in some ways (blatant racism, no doubt, being the biggest factor) but more troublingly elusive in others. Michael Jackson was hardly the first male black superstar to appeal to women of many races and ethnicities, but he may well have been the first in which so many unique factors-his power, influence, commercial success, and cultural status-combined to create the perfect storm. The words of Jay Cocks, as quoted in Fast’s book, may be worth a deeper examination. He purposely chose the word “threatening” and as quickly did double duty to deflate its meaning when paired in the same sentence with Michael Jackson and sex. Cocks wrote the words quoted by Fast in 1984, which means this was at least a good three years before Michael had even officially performed his first crotch grab on TV, let alone any of the hyped up sexual moves of the Bad tour (and which would become even more blatant by the Dangerous tour). It was long before the era of any controversies surrounding Michael, or talks about plastic surgery (a subject that wouldn’t really become a source of controversy for Michael until later in the decade) or before serious questions of sexuality/gender issues were raised. Yet already, it seems, he was being viewed as someone who was clearly threatening and challenging acceptable sexual norms. Otherwise, why the need to protest so much?

Michael Jackson as I recall him from this early 80’s phase was still very much within the realm of what Fast defines as the “soul man” persona. The early 1980’s was still a time when white girls such as myself, especially those of us living in the Deep South, could still not be entirely open about finding a black performer sexy. When I look back on it now, I find it amusing that I always felt the need to qualify any comment I made about Michael Jackson and “hotness” with the preface, “I could really go for him if I was black girl.” But it was the Deep South, thirty years ago, and social norms dictated what we could or could not find “sexy”-at least, not without being branded a slut or worse. (That the idea of interracial mixing was still a quite sensitive subject in the 70’s and early 80’s  was not unique to the South, however. In 1972 when Michael appeared as a guest on the popular show “The Dating Game” they made sure that all three of the “batchelorettes” he picked from were African-American; in 1982, an innocent song like “The Girl Is Mine” could still incite controversy because  it featured a black man and a white man arguing over the same girl). Yet I cannot recall, either among myself or my peers, any sort of condescension about Michael’s sexiness or any doubt regarding its authenticity. Perhaps as teenagers we simply weren’t analyzing things that deeply, but for sure, questions of whether Michael’s sexiness was “real” or “feigned” never entered the equation. Which would appear to indicate that none of these ideas of Michael’s “feigned” sexuality were coming from its most rudimentary grassroots level-that is, the actual fans and the kids who were buying his music. So if it wasn’t coming from us-the kids, the giggly suburban white girls who were secretly buying Thriller over parental objections and ogling at the cover, or the black girls who, of course, were still loving him and finding him as “fine”as they always had-then where did it come from, and why?

I Don't Think His Adult Image Was EVER Exactly "Boy Next Door." He Had Always Known How To Mix Innocence And Sex.
I Don’t Think His Adult Image Was EVER Exactly “Boy Next Door.” He Had Always Known How To Mix Innocence And Sex.

By the mid 1980’s, there had already been a major shift of perception. Michael was still the biggest pop star on the planet, but it had become fashionable by then to poke gentle fun at his masculinity and to tease anyone who openly declared themselves a Michael Jackson fan. Had the campaign to “desexualize” Michael Jackson taken its toll? Had it resulted in its desired effect? I remember quite vividly that by the time the “In The Closet” video premiered, I just found the whole thing kind of weird and awkward. (Weirdly enough, I now find it one of his most erotic and appealing videos). So when I look back on my reaction to it in 1992, versus my reaction to it today, it is clearly obvious to me that it wasn’t that I really found the video awkward; it was what I had become conditioned to thinking about Michael in terms of sex appeal and eroticism. If you hear something repeated often enough, it’s bound to rub off on you. So when I trace the full arc of my appreciation for Michael’s sexiness, it is interesting that I can pinpoint it to two very distinct eras- the era when I was still too young and naive to care about what critics thought  and, likewise after I became mature and aware enough to no longer care.

Fast explores all of these questions in depth, and arrives at some startling insights:

“…[D]enying it [his sexuality] and his masculinity, as well as his maturity, which terms like the omnipresent ‘man-child’ do, demanding reconciliation between his on- and off-stage performances of sexuality and concluding that he became grotesque and therefore undesirable through plastic surgery, works to contain his complex gendered and sexualized self and to police the boundaries of what can be considered desirable, sexy, and masculine. It erases the beautiful conundrum. But it also makes him safer” (Fast 46).

Now, why all of this talk about Michael and sex and/or love and romance is important to a discussion of Dangerous is because those initial six tracks on Dangerous not only represent some of his most politically conscious and “black” music to date, but also his most adult erotic. Again, it’s not that we hadn’t had sexy tracks from Michael before. Long before Dangerous, he had definitely proven beyond doubt-if this was his intent-that he was all grown up and not innocent little Michael anymore (although given the very grown up material he was given to sing even as a child, I am not sure we can ever pinpoint a time when he was allowed to be “innocent little Michael.”).  But again, what Fast is arguing is the very purposeful impact that is created by the tight grouping of these tracks. She also makes the very convincing argument that, perhaps for the first time, Michael is targeting these songs at a very specific age group-not children; not older listeners, but to red blooded adults (like himself, we can presume) who are caught up in the tumultuous prime of adult lust, love, romance and all that they imply.

“…It’s a full-on assault of all things sensual, sexual, and romantic like we haven’t seen from him before. While so much of his songs appeal across generations, these songs break away from that; the adult sentiments don’t, significantly for Jackson, speak to children, or perhaps to older fans (like my 87-year-old neighbor, who listens to Jackson’s music all the time, but only through the Bad album, not later work). All in all, these songs suggest that love is complicated and cruel-he’s chasing it (her), but can’t quite get it; he had it, but it slips away; he’s git it-he’s got it bad-but it needs to be hidden. These songs are as much about desires of the flesh as those of the heart…(then, following a passage in which she acknowledges some of his earlier explorations into these territories)…”[B]ut the songs on Dangerous feel more personal, more in the moment, more about a guy who’s wrestling with his libido and his heart. And unlike those earlier femme fatale songs, or songs about romantic love, Jackson is a willing partner, turned on, if never quite getting what he wants or needs. Isn’t that how the most powerful love songs go?” (Fast 46-47).

It is at this point that Fast introduces the concept of this new direction as Michael asserting “soul man masculinity” (a term originally coined by Mark Anthony Neal).   In her words, she describes the term as it applies to Jackson as “a version of gritty masculinity that maintained gender ambivalence and that was not, on the whole, violent or misogynistic.” (Fast 47).

But if “soul man masculinity” was a response to the cultural emasculation of the black male, why did Michael so strongly feel the need to reassert it now, at this time?  Fast raises one of many interesting, if albeit controversial theories put forth in this chapter when she hints that Michael himself (or his PR?) may have been at least partly responsible for the earlier sanitizing and de-sexualization of his image that would ultimately prove so difficult to overcome.

The theory seems ridiculous unless one takes into consideration the long, complex history of race relations, especially in the United States, and how deeply ingrained was the stereotype of the overly sexualized black male, who in turn was often viewed (by whites) as a threat. Up until at least the 1950’s, all black male entertainers who had achieved any degree of crossover or mainstream success had been those who were thoroughly “sanitized” (i.e, “sexless) and deemed “safe.” Performers like Louie Armstrong and Sammy Davis, Sr. were hardly going to upset the status quo (or threaten the masculinity of the white male); the black male musician was going to be for the most part either the grinning fat guy blowing brass in the band, or the jovial tap dancer (ala’ Bill Bojangles) or the seasoned blues man. There were, of course, always exceptions (the flamboyant, suave, and outrageous Cab Calloway comes to mind as perhaps the earliest example of “soul man masculinity” before the rock era) but in general, it is not until the 1950’s and the rise of performers like Little Richard and Chuck Berry that we first see truly sexualized male black performers who proved that a male black performer could be overtly sexual and, yes, could (heaven forbid!) attract your white daughters. (And yes, I include Little Richard here because then, as now, androgyny usually only added to the appeal of the taboo and the forbidden. Anyone who doesn’t think that boy was getting his fair share of “tutti fruitti” from all sides is sadly deluded).

Cab Calloway, Perhaps One Of The Earliest Examples Of "Soul Man Masculinity" Before The Rock Era
Cab Calloway, Perhaps One Of The Earliest Examples Of “Soul Man Masculinity” Before The Rock Era

Just as quickly, they made sure to get Elvis on the market. The reasoning was not too hard to figure. He may have been just as sexualized, just as “dirty” and controversial, and most parents still weren’t particularly thrilled about it, but by jove, at least he was white.  In that regard, his brand of “threat” was at least somewhat more palatable.

And we don’t even have to begin to enumerate what actually happened to successful male black performers whose sexual appeal crossed racial boundaries. It is a long and already well documented, sad history.  And the double standard ensured that a black artist would always be under the microscope of scrutiny, and would always be persecuted twice as hard, and punished twice as much, for any perceived act of sexual deviance. Thus, Elvis could move a 14-year-old girl into his home and Southern society (oh heck, let’s just say American society) barely blinked an eye; Chuck Berry could allegedly transport a 14-year-old girl across a state line and be sentenced to prison.

Where Fast is going with this is to raise the question of whether Michael may have, at least in the earlier phase of his career, purposely presented himself to be as asexual and non-threatening as possible in order to appeal to a broader audience, knowing as he must have that the only way to achieve the kind of huge mainstream, crossover success he craved would be to make himself appear as “safe” as possible. This would have entailed purposely playing down stereotypes of male black artists and presenting a pure, almost “Disney-fied” image (my phrase) in order to court those masses. Just how intentional or conscious this campaign was-if indeed it was a campaign at all-is a matter of debate. And a lot of it, no doubt, was a carryover from his Jackson 5/Motown days, where he had already been thoroughly groomed and had built a successful foundation on being a wholesome act. I don’t think that it was ever Michael’s intention to alienate his original audience; rather, it seemed to me that he was always seeking to widen his audience by maintaining a certain level of what was expected of him (or what he knew his old fans already loved about him) while at the same time constantly pushing the envelope and taking just enough risks to gain new fans.  If indeed we can liken it to a campaign, it was a cleverly subtle one; he never gave the appearance of a leopard changing its spots overnight, but rather, took it by degrees, a few steps at a time, until by the end of his career he had amassed a following so huge that he could indulge himself artistically in most any direction he chose, and would still be guaranteed universal adulation and mass record sales. However, that Michael was desperately seeking crossover, mainstream success is not a debatable point; it is fact. He stated himself that it was the main motivating factor behind his desire to create Thriller, an album that, from the very beginning, he vowed would not be ignored at the Grammy’s as he felt Off the Wall had undeservedly been. So the question must be raised: If Michael was keenly aware, as he must have been, of what it took to gain that kind of commercial, mainstream acceptance as a black performer in the late 70’s and early 80’s, did he seek to make himself-or at least his public image-as “safe” and “non threatening” to that audience as possible?

That Michael Jackson was religious; had been raised in a religious home, and would have been taught (at least in theory) that sex before marriage was wrong was no act. But that these beliefs were perhaps “amped up” in a way to make him appear as a “good, safe, wholesome boy” also seemed part of a carefully calculated plan to eliminate part of the risk factor he presented. It might be worth mentioning that at the same time that Michael’s early solo career was taking off, there were artists like Rick James who personified the “pimp” stereotype and certainly were perceived as sexual; Prince, also, was an up and comer whose album cover for Dirty Mind featured him nearly nude in bikini briefs and an overcoat-an image that was not only blatantly sexual, but also one that was already blatantly blurring gender lines. But at the time, acts like James and Prince were still quite marginalized. It was one thing to court a daring, exotic, or controversial image if one was a marginalized artist appealing to a certain demographic; quite another if one’s ambition was to be the biggest selling artist of all time. (Of course, Prince would go on to become a mega crossover star in his own right by mid decade, but arguably, that success may have owed a lot to Michael having already paved that path).

To illustrate the point that African-Americans never totally bought into Michael’s “wholesome” image Fast refers to a funny but scalpel sharp joke made by Eddie Murphy in the 80’s.

“…[Michael] went on television and said, ‘I don’t have sex because of my religious beliefs’ and the public believed it. Brothers were like ‘get the fuck out of here’ and white people going, ‘That Michael’s a special kind of guy, he’s good, clean, and wholesome…” (Eddie Murphy qtd in Fast 48).

The upshot, according to Murphy, was that by the time of the 1984 Grammy’s, Michael could waltz down the red carpet with Brooke Shields on his arm and “nobody white said shit.”

For sure, it must have felt like quite a triumph after having been snubbed as a date for Tatum O’Neal at The Wiz premier back in 1978 because her manager had said she “shouldn’t be seen with a n*gg*r”!

With Brooke Shields At The 1984 Grammy's
With Brooke Shields At The 1984 Grammy’s

But if this was all a purposeful strategy-and if it did in some ways help him achieve his goal-it was nevertheless a strategy that he as quickly began to dismantle, taking more and more risks both with his image and with his art, until by the premier of the “Black or White” video in 1991 he was smashing car windows and (more or less) simulating masturbation in our living rooms. All, it might be added, while kids everywhere watched and still proclaimed “I love Michael; he’s the best!”

The conundrum that was Michael Jackson, if not born in that moment, was certainly solidified.

In the next installment: Going even deeper into “the closet”…and into “Desire!”

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