In June 2016, the Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies [2, No. 4 (2016)] published an opinion piece by Ivana Recmanová titled Thoughts on Michael Jackson’s Lyrics and Gender. In the article she challenges the view expressed by some critics that Michael Jackson’s repertoire “includes tracks that depict women in an unfavorable light…” Her article proceeds to examine a number of key tracks to reveal that the lyrics “show a range of approaches to gender identities and gender performing, whether they recreate gender stereotypes or challenge them.” (1)
Ivana’s thought-provoking article, when I revisited it recently, acted as the springboard for considering my own interpretations of some of Michael’s songs and how they might reflect his feelings (or otherwise) on their subject matter, including gender issues. Of course, without Michael here to confirm or correct our speculations, we can only go by what he has published or revealed in interviews to gain some insight into his opinion on these matters.
From my own experience as a fan of his music, I believe that some of Michael’s lyrics should be read as “storytelling” in terms of his depiction of interaction between the sexes and other subject matter. According to one of Michael’s recording engineers, Matt Forger, “Each [Michael Jackson] song was its own special case of exploring an idea, a melody, a groove, a story to tell, or an emotion to communicate.” Forger also described Michael as “a person who loved storytelling…” (2)
Telling a story allows a writer (or lyricist) to tackle themes beyond their experience and which they may not fully comprehend. In his 1988 autobiography Moonwalk, Michael talks about his composition Heartbreak Hotel (a.k.a. This Place Hotel) which contains revenge. “I am fascinated by the concept of revenge,” he says. “It’s something I can’t understand.” (3) From this statement we can deduce that Michael Jackson the storyteller is at work in the writing of Heartbreak Hotel. He wasn’t making short films with these types of themes (yet), but he was writing songs almost as if they could be film scripts. (Read Willa Stillwater’s speculation on the lyrics of Heartbreak Hotel on the Dancing with the Elephant blog site for yet another perspective on the content of this song.)
When it comes to the opposite sex, we don’t have to guess how Michael felt, because in Moonwalk he actually tells us. “If this song [Heartbreak Hotel] and Billie Jean seemed to cast women in an unfavourable light, it was not meant to be taken as a personal statement. Needless to say, I love the interaction between the sexes, it is a natural part of life and I love women. I just think that when sex is used as a form of blackmail or power, it’s a repugnant use of one of God’s gifts.” (4)
His opinions on numerous issues may have changed from the early 90s onwards, given everything (including marriage, divorce, fatherhood, false allegations of sexual impropriety and a criminal trial) that happened to him subsequent to the publication of his 1988 autobiography. However, songs like Heartbreak Hotel, Billie Jean, Dirty Diana, The Way You Make Me Feel, Smooth Criminal and Song Groove AKA Abortion Papers precede, are close to, or contemporaneous with Moonwalk and Michael’s opinions as stated therein.
For another in-depth analysis of Michael Jackson songs devoted in subject matter to women, and clandestine heterosexual relationships, I recommend the opinion piece by Jan Carlson, Femmes Fatale – The ‘Dangerous Woman’ Narrative published in The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 3, No. 3 (2016) a link to which is provided below.
In the instance of his femme fatale songs such as Smooth Criminal, Dangerous and Blood on the Dance Floor and the performance or filming thereof, we can see and hear the influence on his storytelling of the film noir genre Michael was so fond of (and which I wrote about previously). This genre invariably makes use of tension between the sexes as a driver for the storyline.
(By way of contrast, the lyrics for You Rock My World which portray a man totally enthralled by a woman to the point of obsession, give no hint of the noir genre within which the accompanying short film is firmly rooted, just as Remember the Time doesn’t reference the ancient Egyptian setting of its short film.)
Though Michael’s original introduction to the noir cinematic style was via the monochrome classic The Third Man (1949), a more recent example is the film L.A. Confidential (1997). This is a story of vice and corruption within the police force in Los Angeles in the early 1950s. Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger represent opposite sides of the law, yet their characters are drawn together by their mutual desire for justice and/or retribution – as well as sexual attraction. Basinger plays a woman who is certainly dangerous to know because of her associates, yet whose attraction is irresistible for Crowe’s quick-tempered policeman. (5)
“The girl was persuasive / The girl I could not trust / The girl was bad / The girl was dangerous.” (6)
As a storytelling lyricist, Michael Jackson could very well have written the theme song for L.A. Confidential, but, in a sense, he already had.
- Recmanová, Ivana. “Thoughts on Michael Jackson’s Lyrics and Gender.” Opinion Piece, The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 2, no. 4 (2016). Published electronically 28/06/16. http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/oped-piece-by-ivana-recmanova-thoughts-on-michael-jacksons-lyrics-and-gender/
- Matt Forger in the preface to “Xscape Origins: The Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind” by Damien Shields, as excerpted in “Michael Jackson, the Songwriter (Part 1)” by Annemarie Latour https://annemarielatour.wordpress.com/2016/05/02/michael-jackson-the-songwriter-part-1/ Emphasis of “a story to tell” is my own.
- Michael Jackson “Moonwalk” 1988, Arrow Books 2010 paperback edition.
- “L.A. Confidential” (1997) on IMDb http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119488/
- “Dangerous” written by Michael Jackson, Bill Bottrell and Teddy Riley (1991)
More on Michael Jackson and the film noir genre published in the Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies and on WordPress:
- Carlson, Jan ”Femmes Fatale – The Dangerous Woman Narrative.” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 3, no. 3 (2016). Published electronically 21/12/16. http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/femmes-fatale-the-dangerous-woman-narrative/
- Hennigan, Kerry “Annie, are you OK?” Michael Jackson and Film Noir Part 1 http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mjstudiesxii/
- Hennigan, Kerry “The Girl is so Dangerous” – Michael Jackson and Film Noir – Part 2 http://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-xiii/
- Hennigan, Kerry “What is it about ‘Blood on the Dance Floor’? or, Michael Jackson as Alpha Male” WordPress https://kerryhennigan.wordpress.com/2016/06/30/what-is-it-about-blood-on-the-dance-floor-or-michael-jackson-as-alpha-male/
Videos to watch:
Michael Jackson – Heartbreak Hotel Live Yokohama 1987: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vF1LV-_tqU
Michael Jackson – Smooth Criminal – “Moonwalker” version 1988: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZed4kuFsJs
Michael Jackson – Dangerous Live Korea 1999: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaiNBQsTu5I
Michael Jackson – Blood on the Dance Floor official short film 1997: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c3_NntYhzV4