“Christmas is love; it’s a celebration of love. And I can’t imagine Christmas without Michael, or Michael without Christmas.”-Elizabeth Taylor
Every year, I enjoy revisiting this cute clip of Michael celebrating his first Christmas-as a 35-year-old adult. Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, Christmas-that joyous holiday so many of us take for granted-was one of many that Michael was never allowed to celebrate as a child. When we think about how often Michael told us he never had a childhood, we usually interpret it to mean the hard work he was forced to do in show business. And that was a big part of it, for sure. But think about the child who is eventually old enough to realize that every house on his street is lit at a certain time of year-except for his, which remains in the dark. Or the child who is one day old enough to realize that, at a special time of year, all the other kids in the neighborhood get really cool presents to show off, but he never has any.
Jermaine Jackson’s book You Are Not Alone, Michael: Through a Brother’s Eyes contains a poignant passage describing what the Jackson children often felt in their tiny house on Jackson Street every Christmas:
“We observed all this from inside a home with no tree, no lights, no nothing. Our tiny house, on the corner of Jackson Street and 23rd Avenue, was the only one without decoration. We felt it was the only one in Gary, Indiana, but Mother assured us that, no, there were other homes and other Jehovah’s Witnesses who did not celebrate Christmas…But that knowledge did nothing to clear our confusion: we could see something that made us feel good, yet we were told it wasn’t good for us. Christmas wasn’t God’s will: it was commercialism. In the run-up to December 25 we felt as if we were witnessing an event to which we were not invited, and yet we still felt its forbidden spirit.
At our window, we viewed everything from a cold, gray world, looking into a shop where everything was alive, vibrant and sparkling with color; where children played in the street with their new toys, rode new bikes or pulled new sleds in the snow. We could only imagine what it was to know the joy we saw on their faces…I’ve read many times that Michael did not like Christmas, based on our family’s lack of celebration. This was not true. It had not been true since that moment as a four-year-old when he said, staring at the Whites’ house; ‘When I’m older, I’ll have lights. Lots of lights. It will be Christmas every day.'”-pp. 4-5.
Don’t get me wrong, I certainly do not intend this to be a piece bashing Jehovah’s Witnesses, their beliefs or practices. I respect the right of all religions to worship as they see fit, and to practice the creeds and customs of their belief. Most Witnesses will deny vehemently that they are depriving their children of anything, let alone the joy of love or family. Rather than celebrating commercialized holidays like Christmas, Easter, or even birthdays, most Jehovah’s Witness families instead set aside certain, non declared days as a family member’s special day. But, just as with Jewish children and all children of families who practice minority religions that do not celebrate Christmas, there is always the sting of feeling “different.” For children raised in the Jehovah’s Witness faith, especially, their later adult lives inevitably follow one of two paths-either learning to embrace their difference as the price that must be paid for walking “the true path” or to rebel. There usually isn’t much in the way of in-between, but the fact that Michael Jackson-despite finally breaking away from the faith in 1987-remained conflicted throughout his life has much to do with understanding the adult he became. In fact, I would go as far as to say that, despite all the hundreds of books that have been written purporting to get to the “truth” of who Michael Jackson was, no one can hope to seriously examine that question without taking a serious look at the impact of his upbringing in this religion, even if, as has often been pointed out, Katherine Jackson may not have been the strictest JW parent on the planet. But therein lies the seed of much of young Michael’s confusion-a confusion that I don’t think we can under estimate as a direct cause of much of the eventual perplexing dualities of Michael’s nature.
Imagine, for an instant, being a child raised in this religion in which every lived moment on Earth is merely preparation for Armageddon and in which there is no real concept of “Grace” as it is taught in other Christian denominations. (JW do believe in Jesus as the son of God, but they do not believe in the concept of the Trinity or that one can be “saved” through faith in Jesus alone). Because JW do not believe in the concept of “Grace” but, rather, that one must strive to please Jehovah to be among the “saved” there is often a nagging feeling of guilt and uncertainty. What if my best isn’t “good enough” to please Jehovah? Witnesses who are active in the faith may deny this, of course, insisting that those who are strong in their faith have no such doubts. But the testament of many ex Witnesses (those who have converted to other faiths) tells a very different story. In Michael’s case, we can certainly see him tortured by these conflicted feelings of doubt throughout his youth. As Joe Vogel stated in his book Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus, Michael would often “pore over doctrines” and would question church elders about doctrines he found “confusing or unfair.” And though his disassociation in 1987 may have liberated him artistically, it is somewhat more ambiguous as to whether he achieved the complete personal and spiritual liberation he so craved. Certainly the vestiges of having been raised as a JW remained with him for the rest of his life. When something has been a part of your identity and, indeed, your fundamental makeup for almost thirty years, that isn’t something that can be so blithely tossed aside. Imagine being taught that all forms of celebration and holidays are a sin to Jehovah, and yet you are still being expected to record an album of Christmas carols because, well, that’s what the record company wants and Mother says it will be okay just this once-it’s only for money. Imagine you have a mother who teaches you devoutly that sex before marriage is wrong; that even thoughts of lust are wicked and wrong, and then you have a father who, as soon as Mother is out of sight and out of mind, is inviting women into his hotel room and sending groupies to yours and your brothers’ rooms, encouraging you that “this is what real men do.” Now imagine you witness the hypocrisy when your father returns home to your mother, kissing her up with lies: “Oh, baby, I missed you so much.” These are all things that Michael and his siblings have spoken of, first hand. Theirs’ was a childhood of constant conflict, between the devout teachings of Kingdom Hall and a life within the very wordly demands of show business-and between parents who were two very, very different people, walking two very different paths, yet trying to put on a united front for the world.
It is common knowledge that Michael, following in the eventual footsteps of all of his siblings except for Rebbie, broke away from the JW after many years of conflict and the constant struggle of attempting to reconcile his art with his religion. But what is not as well known is just how much spiritual conflict this decision threw him into. It was not a decision that came lightly, or without cost. And it is also, perhaps, difficult for the layperson to fathom the extent of just how much of a personal sacrifice this decision was for Michael. It came literally at cost of everything he had known. The following is excerpted from JWFacts.com:
In 1987, Michael disassociated himself from the Watchtower Society.
“At this same time, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ elders in Woodland Hills, California, began pressuring Michael again. They felt strongly that the recent publicity on the Witnesses was doing them great damage, and that it reflected poorly on the Witnesses, because Michael was so representative of the faith. Michael was becoming disenchanted with the church’s elders by this time, mostly because he didn’t wan to be told what to do. What’s more he couldn’t reconcile his lifestyle and career with the religion’s strict tenets. In truth, it’s almost impossible to be a Jehovah’s Witness and be an entertainer. Therefore, in the spring of 1987, Michael withdrew from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A letter from the Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, sent as a press release, stated that the organization ‘no longer considers Michael Jackson to be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.’ Gary Botting, author of The Orwellian World of Jehovah’s Witnesses and a Witness himself, said that leaving the religion is ‘worse than being disfellowshipped, or kicked out.” He observed, ‘if you wilfully reject God’s holy organization on earth, that’s the unforgivable sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit.’
Michael’s decision to leave the church puzzled his mother, Katherine, and caused her great despair. Katherine wasn’t sure she knew her own son any longer. However, there was no discussing the spiritual matter with him – literally. As it is strictly prohibited for a Witness to discuss matters of faith with ex-members, even if they are family, Katherine says that she has never asked Michael what happened, and she says that she never intends to ask such questions. ‘I was not required to “shun” my son,’ she claimed, referring to rumours of that nature. ‘But we can’t talk about matters of faith any longer, which is a shame.'” Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness p.363
The publicity surrounding Michael’s disassociation promoted the Watchtower headquarters to send the following letter to the Body of elder’s and Circuit Overseers explaining how to reply to questions.
Even after Michael disassociated in 1987 he likely still suffered greatly from guilt, as he retained much of the Watchtower belief system. By disassociating, Michael now became part of the group that the Watchtower classifies as the AntiChrist and as such to be hated by Witnesses.
“Such ones willfully abandoning the Christian congregation thereby become part of the ‘antichrist.'” Watchtower 1985 Jul 15 p.31
“Our attitude toward apostates should be that of David, who declared: “Do I not hate those who are intensely hating you” Watchtower 1992 Jul 15 pp.12-13
Michael, moreso perhaps than any of his other siblings, had been devout in his beliefs and in his desire to please his mother by remaining true to her faith. Also, for someone as deeply spiritual and philanthropic as Michael to be thought of as some sort of “AntiChrist” to be “hated by Witnesses” would have to have been a galling thought indeed. Nor does there appear to be any one, satisfactory conclusion as to how he eventually resolved his spiritual crisis. It is one of those things where everyone who knew him seems to have their own steadfast belief, and if you ask twenty people, you may be apt to get twenty very different responses. If you read enough, you will hear everything from that he converted to Islam to, eventually, a JW again. Yet there is no evidence to bear any of this out. And indeed, it is not such a mystery, as Michael clearly spelled out most of his newfound spiritual beliefs in his 1992 book Dancing The Dream, as well as writing his way through most of his darkness and light in the hundreds of songs he continued to churn out throughout his mature years (yet, amazingly, his own words continue to be often the last resort that journalists turn to when attempting to “psychoanalyze” him). What is known with certainty is that Michael remained deeply spiritual throughout his life, was an avid reader of the Bible with a profound knowledge of it, and while no longer beholden to any particular creed or dogma, maintained a close relationship with God that did not appear to be celebrity lip service, but instead, welled from a deep and personal connection. It was a relationship that had been borne out of coming between those “clashing rocks” and which had withstood his own, personal storm.
Very recently, I was browsing through a copy of “The Watchtower,” the JW magazine that is often distributed and left lying about at various businesses (Michael himself used to peddle the magazine door to door). It was a long afternoon at the laundromat, and the issues were lying about in abundance-and, of course, were free for the taking. I have had an avid interest in studying JW beliefs primarily because I know that understanding their beliefs is crucial to understanding the spiritual foundation that shaped young Michael’s life and the person he became (and of which, yes, even the conflicts play an essential role). Because the Christmas season was approaching, there was an article explaining why Witnesses do not celebrate Christmas and why they believe that Christmas is offensive to God. The article quoted heavily from the Hebrew prophet Amos and a Biblical verse in particular that Witnesses have taken to heart, believing it proves Jehovah’s ardent disapproval of music and celebration:
“Spare me the din of your songs;
And let me not hear the melodies
Of your stringed instruments
Only let justice flow down like waters
And righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5: 23, 24).
I was struck by the irony of those words-“Spare me the din of your songs/And let me not hear the melodies”-knowing that this would have been part of the early indoctrination of Michael Jackson, future King of Pop who, of course, would leave his indelible imprint of musical genius upon the world. But closer inspection of Hebrew scripture reveals that Amos’s words were not so much directed against music as against the idea of pagan ceremonies and all forms of pagan worship (which Witnesses, of course, believe includes the celebration of Christmas with all of its festivities, lights, singing and glittery razzmatazz ). This is further clarified in Amos 5:21:
So, hear the word that springs forth from the Holy Mountain:
‘I hate, I despise your festivals
And I take no pleasure in the aroma
Of your solemn assemblies’
Indeed, from what I know from many Witnesses, worldy music is not necessarily forbidden, though the extent to which one may embrace it (as well as all other forms of popular entertainment) depend on the branch of the organization one belongs to, how strictly the elders enforce the “do’s” and “don’ts” of the religion, and the personal choice of the individual as to what they personally feel is displeasing to Jehovah. In that regard, Witnesses are actually a lot more tolerant than certain Christian denominations such as the Pentecosts (as I well know from the time when my mother, for God knows what reason, went through a phase where she decided to join a Pentecost church). This tolerance would have explained why Michael and his siblings were allowed to pursue musical careers without fear of apostasy, though it was a conflict that would become much more troublesome during the early years of Michael’s adult solo career, as his act became more grown up and, as an inevitable by-product, more overtly sexualized. Michael himself described the conflicted feelings he experienced as his JW beliefs began to clash both with his art and his own newfound awakening-an awakening that included the realization that not everything preached against by the JW are necessarily “bad”:
Schmuley Boteach: Do you think a hatred of pride is still a relic of your religious upbringing?
Michael Jackson: It hurt me a lot and it helped me a lot.
SB: How did it hurt you?
MJ:r… (long silence) When I did certain things in the past that I didn´t realized were against the religion and I was deprimanded for it, it almost destroyed me. Certain things that I did as an artist in my music I didn´t realized I was crossing a line with them and when they chastised me, it really hurt me. It almost destroyed me. My mother saw it.
SB: Their disapproval, their rejection?
MJ: When I did the Moonwalk for the first time, Motown 25, they told me that I doing burlesque dancing and it was dirty and I went for months and they said, “You can never dance like that again.” I said 90,9 percent of dancing is moving the waist. They said, “We don´t want you to do it.” So I went around trying to dance for a long time without moving this part of my body. Then when I made Thriller with all the ghouls an ghosts, they said that it was demonic and part of the occult and that Brother Jackson can´t do it. I called my lawyer and was crying and I said: “Destroy the video, have it destroyed.” And because he went against my wishes, people have “Thriller” today. They made me feel so bad about it that I ordered people to destroy it.
SB: So you have seen two sides of religion, the loving side that teaches you not to like pride and humility, but you have also seen what you would described as mean-spiritedness and judgmentalism.
MJ: Because they can discriminate sometimes in wrong ways. I don´t think God meant it in that way. Like Halloween, I missed of Halloween for years and now I do it. It´s sweet to go from door-to-door and people give you candy. We need more of that in the world. It brings the world together.
It is also a commonly held myth, as I have discovered, that the JW do not allow music or singing of any kind. This misconception stems from the fact that they do frown upon gospel music, as they believe that gospel music preaches a false religion. But that doesn’t mean that the JW are a religion devoid of song; in fact, I am just beginning to discover the rich wealth of music contained in the Jehovah’s Witnesses’s Song Book. Many of their songs can be heard on Youtube. I am including here a couple of my favorite examples (obviously, there are many more if one cares to look!).
Although for my personal taste I do not find the music as soul stirring as gospel, many of the songs, like these two, are nevertheless quite beautiful-not only beautiful, but filled with positive, inspiring messages that can certainly be relevant no matter what one’s personal religious belief may be. However, as opposed to gospel music, which has strong roots in Africa and the black oral tradition, JW music is, by contrast, much more structured and chorale. When it comes to Christian music, it is about as “white” as it gets, which is interesting considering that if Michael did grow up singing any form of music at all in Kingdom Hall, it would have been songs very much like this (as opposed to the amazing gospel skills he would later showcase in songs like “Man in the Mirror” and “Earth Song.”). I do not know for certain if the Kingdom Hall the Jacksons attended in Gary, Indiana used the Song Book, but it seems quite certain that the Kingdom Hall Katherine has attended for many years in Northridge (and of which Michael attended quite faithfully at least up to as late as 1984) includes music, as evidenced by the fact that Paris Jackson was photographed holding a Song Book in hand in 2010 when the children accompanied their grandmother to Kingdom Hall.
Although this phase would be short lived (none of Michael’s three children, to my knowledge, have continued to be active JW; they were probably, at best, curious about the religion their father had been raised in, and of course, were seeking comfort in their immediate bereavement) it is interesting to note that Michael evidently had never “talked down” to them about his religious upbringing or actively discouraged them from taking part in it. I believe if he had, they probably would not have so willingly gone along with their grandmother’s wishes.
But even with the allowance of music (so long as it glorifies Jehovah), a quick glance at the website Truth Rundown reveals no less than 141 things that a JW cannot do. Here are just a few of the most interesting, as they pertain to Michael:
8.Contribute to the Presidential Campaign Fund on their tax return 9.Join the armed forces and defend their country 10.Say the Pledge of Allegiance 11.Salute the flag 12.Vote 13.Run for leadership in their organization. (JW’s are ‘appointed’ and invited to be leaders.) 14.Run for leadership in any organization 15.Take a stand for any political issue inside their organization 16.Take a stand on any political or ‘worldly’ issue outside of their organization 17.Campaign for a political candidate 18.Hold political office 19.Discuss politics
All of the above would explain why Michael remained vehemently apolitical throughout most of his life (and also why he could be as at ease in accepting an award from Ronald Reagan as attending the Clinton inauguration). It goes even deeper, of course. A JW cannot engage in any form of patriotism as we know it. They cannot serve in the military, even in time of war. Veteran’s Day is among the long list of holidays that cannot be celebrated. In the eyes of the JW, all of these acts equate to the idea of putting wordly issues ahead of Jehovah. In recent weeks, I have joked that if Michael were alive, he might be more than a little torn over the current presidential race-after all, he counted both Donald Trump andBill and Hillary Clinton among his friends. But although I believe his personal leanings were Democratic, he remained-publicly, at least-often frustratingly hard to pin down insofar as political stance.
Conversely, however, it can also help us to even better appreciate the courage it took for him to eventually become such an outspoken advocate for many causes, including human rights, minority rights, AIDS, and environmental activism (in itself something he could never have truly permitted himself to do as a JW). Yet his early upbringing, and the JW influence, would still go far in explaining why he could never be as overtly political as many of his celebrity peers.
And how about this one?
24.Wear military uniforms or clothing associated with war
Just imagine most any familiar photo, concert image, or dance choreography of Michael from the 80’s and 90’s and you can instantly see that Michael not only embraced the military style and look into his image and art, but did so with brazen defiance considering his background as a JW. Could all of the military style dancing and costumes have been intended as a direct affront to the elders? It’s interesting that we see him really beginning to embrace his “military phase” post-1987. However, the military jacket had already become an iconic part of his “look” as early as 1984.
JW also do not believe in carrying guns or weapons, and it has been said that Michael’s “Smooth Criminal” video may, in fact, have been one of the final nails in the coffin leading to his disassociation.
Or how about this clincher?
35.Shop at the Salvation Army
Although I am speaking as a generalization, of course, it is known that JW do not support charitable organizations or the idea of giving to charity, believing that most charitable organizations are corrupt or have the potential to corrupt one spiritually. Judging from Michael’s legendary love of shopping for bargains at the Salvation Army-foisted no doubt by the fact that Katherine was a frequent shopper who clothed most of her large family thanks to Salvation Army hand-me-down’s-is a strong indicator that not all JW rules were strictly followed to the letter in the Jackson home. Again, we have to look at this example and say that if Michael (or any of the Jackson kids) grew up with mixed messages and signals about their religion, it’s certainly not something they can be faulted for.
And then there is this one, which Michael referenced in his conversation with Boteach above:
92.Do suggestive and immodest dancing in a public place
I’ve often said I don’t believe it was any coincidence that the crotch grab became an iconic fixture of Michael’s dance routine right about the same time he stopped being a JW. And, needless to say, it doesn’t get anymore “public” than on the world’s stage!
Lastly, we can only imagine how Michael must have grappled with this one, knowing the mass hysteria and adulation he inspired:
135.Idolize any celebrity or love and admire them to excess
Most of the JW bans on holidays are understandable within the context of their beliefs. Many Christian denominations, for example, frown upon holidays like Halloween which are viewed as pagan rituals. But the JW ban on any form of holiday-including those like Christmas and Easter which are embraced by most Christian religions-is certainly more extremist than most. Even though Michael celebrated every Christmas post 1993, there are still some who insist it was more for the sake of his children, and in the interest of fellowship with his close friends, than for himself. Michael wanted his kids to experience all of the joyous occasions he had been denied as a child. Birthdays, Easter, Halloween, and, most of all, Christmas were celebrated openly and joyously in the Jackson household. But his makeup artist Karen Faye has stated that he would still often hide in the closet to wrap gifts, and that he never got over feeling awkward when wished a “Happy Birthday.”
Nevertheless, it seems evident that Michael eventually made his peace with Christmas, recognizing it as a season of love and giving-those very qualities which most epitomized everything he stood for in his life. Although he never again recorded another Christmas carol album following The Jackson 5 Christmas Album in 1970, he did, perhaps, embody the Christmas spirit in many more lasting and permanent ways. His Christmas messages to the world, a (nearly-if-not-quite-annual) tradition begun in 1992, always emphasized positive messages to regions and people in need of hope. And in the latter videos, we see even more what Christmas was really all about for him.
But, of course, there was at least one other thing. Those lights; those beautiful lights…lots and lots of lights!
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.
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).
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?”
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 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.
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
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).
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”:
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
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.”
“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.
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 schillerinstitute.org 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.
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.
From time to time, I like to share with you what my students have written after our studies on “Black or White” and “Earth Song.” Here is one that was submitted last summer which left an impression on me. As always, I present my students’ views here exactly as they wrote them.
“Earth Song” by Garrett Rogers
In 1995 Michael Jackson released “Earth Song” on the album HIStory. To some, it was a song that they could understand, but to others it was something that brought their initial reactions to be very judgmental and condescending towards the work. “The six and half minute piece that materialized over the next seven years was unlike anything heard before in popular music” (Vogel). This was exactly how the public interpreted this song. While the critics kept critiquing, Michael Jackson knew exactly what he was doing when he released this top hit single. His spiritual background and how he would break away from it are key elements of why he would write this song.
While studying Michael Jackson this last week, I have come to know and understand things about his life that I never knew were true. I had always cast my judgment on him like everyone else did and didn’t know the truth about his work or his personal life. Michael really was a true musical genius and “Earth Song” is a prime example of how he could write and perform anything in a way that could be inspirational to millions. In learning about Michael I could see that throughout his whole life he was actually a very devout and spiritual person. His mother raised him to be a Jehovah’s Witness, which is a type of religion that can be extremely difficult to understand and interpret the faith, especially for a young boy like Michael. It would be very hard for any young man trying to find himself in life while ultimately preparing for an Armageddon that only 144,000 of the righteous would be able to survive and preside over the Earth. “He pored over the Bible while feeling deep anxiety about his eternal salvation” (Vogel). While becoming very confused with some of the doctrines of the faith, Michael decided to officially resign from the faith. In resigning from his faith, I think he was almost able to release a part of himself that couldn’t have been reached while being a devout/practicing Jehovah’s Witness. He was now able to take to a whole new meaning of who God was and what kind of relationship he could have with him into his life. “For me the form God takes is not the most important thing. What’s most important is the essence. My songs and dances are outlines for Him to come in and fill. I hold out the form, She puts in the sweetness” (Michael Jackson). I think this quote alone is how “Earth Song” was written. He doesn’t think God has a form but he knows that they are one together. He is now a prophet for God. He also loved our planet and most all the people that surrounded him. Michael was now using his gift of music and dancing to prophet with his God above, while still trying to impact literally the entire face of the Earth. If this were to have been anyone but Michael Jackson I would have told you this was impossible. God gifted him with so many things and he was just starting to realize how useful he could make of them.
I believe while cutting ties with his mother’s religion, there was still a lot to gain from that experience. He was able to develop a desire to learn, along with a touch of dedication towards something that you believe strongly in. I was shocked when we watched how he actually saved a child’s life in “Michael Jackson Visits Children’s Hospital.” While this title makes it sound like he did this type of thing once a year, they don’t want to portray Michael for being a true visionary in important matters in life that did not pertain to his own well-being. I still will stand by that I think this is a result of his mother being so involved in his life in a loving way, which was complete opposite of how his father was towards him.
After Michael broke away from his mother’s religion he even began to write his feelings of his decision. In “Heaven Is Here” Michael says, “You are much more than I ever imagined/You are the sun and the moon/You and I were never separate, that was just an illusion.” He then goes on to say, “Let us celebrate the joy of life.” From this poem I can take away a few new things that Michael is experiencing. He is seeing his faith begin to work in the lives of others. That being said in “Earth Song,” he put everything inside a song that he felt strongly about including his newly developed faith towards God. While number of songs sold may not mean anything, this was his best selling song in the UK of all time. Michael had succeeded. He was able to take his experiences and his worldviews and put them into words. Not only were they just words, but they were visual examples of what he was talking about in his world-renowned music video.
With Michael breaking away from a religion and developing his own opinions and making his own decisions, he did himself and everyone that is inspired by him a great service. I think that his religious decision affected him for the rest of his career in music and in life. He was able to make a statement to the world by showing them who Michael Jackson really was in a six minute song. This was probably the happiest time of his life. He was at the peak of his career and he knew all too well that he would not have been able to accomplish any of this without the help of his mother showing him a part of religion that he didn’t want to pursue, along with God giving him his ultimate feeling of faith and love the rest of his life.