Songs: “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Speed Demon,” “Liberian Girl”
The next three songs introduce the more specific normative constructs of gender, identity, and agency and go beyond troubling or disrupting them the way “Bad” did. They envision alternatives to hegemonic constructs and playfully experiment with different answers to questions such as these: What is a man? Is identity tied up with gender, or can they be separate? What is appropriate and not appropriate for a man to do, when and where, and how does that get constructed and policed in culture? Through these songs, Michael Jackson offers listeners expanded agency and proliferates the possibilities for socially acceptable identities.
Jackson first troubles all the normative answers to these questions that were being relentlessly disseminated through pop media during the 80s (and beyond). Michael Kimmel claims that “masculinities are constructed through media representation” (Craig xii), and if he is right then the way men are portrayed in popular music can have a real effect on how men in society think of themselves and comport themselves. In reviewing a study that catalogued how men were portrayed in music videos from the mid 1980s (the same time Bad was released), Steve Craig writes that they were overwhelmingly violent and tried to dominate others in these videos. They were “the center of attention and power and [were] more often aggressive and hostile than helpful and cooperative” (Craig 18). If the goal is to shift or expand these social, cultural, and discursive “definitions of manhood” to include other versions of manliness, we need a “serious confrontation with images of power” (Craig xii). Each of these songs confronts conventional ways of men exercising power and proposes alternative ways of gaining and using it.
Although there are several seemingly contradictory messages sent through Jackson’s music videos for “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Speed Demon,” and “Liberian Girl,” they ultimately portray a more open definition of masculinity than the videos Craig writes about. A multiplicity of discourses articulates through Jackson’s lyrics and body. The contradictions and multiple meanings work to show his identity not as stagnant or fixed, but as an effect, as constructed. Judith Butler says that “the reconceptualization of identity as an effect, that is, as produced or generated, opens up possibilities of ‘agency’ that are insidiously foreclosed by positions that take identity categories as foundational and fixed” (Gender Trouble 201). Hegemonic portrayals of masculine identity foreclose many possibly courses of action, feeling, believing, etc. for men; but in these videos Michael Jackson opens up new ways of enacting manhood and identity, proliferating possibilities for male agency and disrupting the violent and aggressive hegemonic masculinity that had reigned supreme.
In Bad, we see both hegemonic and non-hegemonic identities, but imperatively they are all obviated as performances, as constructs. As Michael moves among the various masculinities portrayed in Bad, he doesn’t advocate one certain way of “being a man;” instead, he shows precisely that there is no one certain way to be a man. He doesn’t give the answer, but rather asks the question, and in so doing disrupts the gender hegemony. By inhabiting various masculinities, he shows how agency expands when gender configurations open up.
Early in Jackson’s career, he had very little agency and subsequently his music could not challenge hegemonic constructs. The videos for “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You” (both from his early album Off The Wall) place Jackson in a very passive role. In “Rock With You” he stays in one spot on a stage. He wears essentially a bedazzled sweat suit with matching moon boots, and a green light illuminates him from behind. Even though he does some of the dance moves characteristic of his early career—a lot of snapping and hip moving—he doesn’t act on anything. He is the only person—indeed, the only object—on the screen, so there is no agency to be had.
In “Don’t Stop,” he does similar dance moves and is similarly alone. At one point, other people come onto the stage to dance with him, but they are just exact copies of him. The difference in this video is that the scenery has changed: he stands in one spot, but the background behind him changes, as if it were a Michael Jackson screen saver. If anything in the video has agency, it is the scenery that is active; Jackson is passive. The movement of dance may deceive viewers into believing that Jackson has agency, but his movements have no effects on his surroundings or on other people; his movements are without any context (done in fabricated places), they are repeated in both videos, and they are not particularly novel. These qualities of his dancing show that despite the physical movement, these representations of Jackson portray him as static, as a stage prop, a commodity through which or on which something else or someone else acts. This insidiously foreclosed agency (Butler) locks Jackson into a “fixed” identity. This fixity nips any potential subversion in the bud, and it also validates and reifies the constructs around him.
“The Way You Make Me Feel” presents a stark contrast to the Off The Wall videos in every respect. Jackson pursues greater agency through a subversion of expectations around his gender and his behavior in general. Connell reminds us that gender relations happen in moving configurations, and the “hegemonic” is a position of rather than a fixed set of characteristics (Masculinities). That is, it isn’t necessarily hegemonic for a man to pursue a woman, to compete with another man, etc.; these traits are only hegemonic when they limit or delegitimize the agency of women or other men. With that in mind, Kimmel describes some current traits of hegemonic masculinity in America: he says it is a “relentless repudiation of the feminine,” including not showing emotions, and placing value on “power, success, wealth, and status” as well as “daring and aggression” (Kimmel 30-31). Rather than trying to subvert this hegemony with anti-hegemonic men who are feminine, emotional, passive, and who lack money, power, and success, Judith Butler conceives of a different antidote: if we can reconceive of hegemonic masculinity as a “mundane operation of heterosexual drag” (Storey Intro 127), we can re-see “straight” gendered actions as performances, in the same way that “queer” and “drag” are culturally viewed as gendered performances.
Jackson’s performance in “The Way You Make Me Feel” calls attention to the actions of all sorts of men as drag performances. The video opens to a group of men fighting with the police (some getting arrested), cat calling, yelling, touching, and grabbing women violently and incessantly to a point where the women have to yell and hit the men to make them stop. They also yell at each other in competitive fashion, showing off their bravado and their machismo. They value each other based on how much attention a woman gives to them. Michael walks up to these men, but they tell him to “go on home” because he “don’t wanna be hanging with these hoodlums” – basically, to get lost because he’s not doing what they are doing. This group clearly places value on certain of Kimmel’s hegemonic masculine norms, particularly the “manly daring and aggression” and “repudiation” of the feminine (or at least differentiation between masculine and feminine). Michael’s character is neither aggressive nor daring, and his body looks somewhat feminine in comparison to theirs – his smooth face, lean body, and long hair. They exclude him from their group on the basis of a shared norm of masculinity that he doesn’t fit.
As he walks away, he passes an old man sitting down by the sidewalk. The observant man tells Michael, “You been trying to act like them boys” (as the camera pans to a man getting up in a woman’s face and her slapping him to make him go away). The man tells Michael that he doesn’t need to be like those men, that he should be himself. On the surface, this is a fairly trite sentiment; however, this remark exposes a fundamentally different attitude about being a man than the other group had: there are different ways to do it! This gives Michael the gumption or “daring” he needs to try to get a woman’s attention.
This is also where portrayals of masculinity get complicated and contradictory. To get the attention of the woman who has caught his fancy, he yells “Hey!” so loudly that all the characters stop what they’re doing (she even gasps in surprise) to look at him. He proceeds to walk up to her and ogle her slowly from head to toe, from front to back, with an objectifying male gaze. This gesture makes it appear that he has decided after all the enact the normative practices of the group of men who rejected him—this is Michael’s most hegemonic moment of the entire video. Now I’m not arguing that this is a respectful, gender-role challenging practice by any means, but it is at least less violent and intrusive than the other men’s practices. In fact, after his very long gaze he begins singing and dancing for her, which are tactics none of the others have tried.
His first movement and first lyric trouble any hegemonic affiliations he might have previously portrayed. He snaps his fingers and whips out his arm, thumb and two fingers extended. The rapidity of the movement calls attention to the gesture of his hand, which is a culturally unintelligible sign. It is illegible, a gesture that means nothing. This misdirection to the hand calls attention to what we cannot understand, the arbitrariness of bodily actions. His dance begins with a destabilizing gesture that prepares viewers for difference.
The first sung line comes right after this: “You knock me offa my feet now baby.” This line does the same thing as the hand gesture: it is complicated to read and offers several potential meanings. On the one hand, it objectifies the woman, saying her looks are what gives her power and worth; her looks are what have an effect on Michael. On the other hand, the syntax gives her agency and puts Michael in the passive position. He gives her the action of the verb “knock,” which isn’t a little thing: the men were knocking women around earlier, so it’s a big move toward equality that the woman is now the one knocking.
The video’s introduction of “The Way You Make Me Feel” sets up the expectation that hegemonic masculinity would play a major part, but within the first few seconds of the song Michael has already radically destabilized what being a man means. He continues to enact multiple positions of masculinity (Connell) throughout the video. Rather than drawing a stable, simple picture of what men “should do,” Michael instills the idea that masculinity is a moving target, a variety of roles that one can choose to inhabit or not. He redefines gender as unstable, as a construct, as a simulacrum.
Once the song starts in full force, he suddenly befriends the men who before had rejected him. They sing and dance with him, and he almost becomes a new “alpha” for their group. Michael has now solidified his masculinity because of his pursuit of a woman, a pursuit that is somewhat relentless throughout the song. Several times the woman runs away from him and he chases her. He makes sexual gestures at her while singing the line, “I swear I’m keepin’ you satisfied.” This moment happens twice, and it reinforces the idea that sexual performance is indicative of the quality of a man. These moments all speak to Kimmel’s characteristics of hegemonic masculinity. But lest we essentialize and condemn such behaviors as unilaterally “wrong” and hegemonic, recall Connell’s idea that masculinities are better understood by their relation to the gender order than by their characteristics. The examples I have explained here help Michael “fit in” with the other men in the video, but crucially not to the exclusion of the women. Michael’s treatment of both men and women can be considered counter-hegemonic. He displays an attitude of cooperation with the men: he dances with them and seeks approval from them (the old man gives him a thumbs up after he busts a move). This contrasts with how the other men treated each other in the beginning—they were competitively insulting and one-upping each other. He shows them a different way to treat women, which is much more successful than their method: while they would lay in wait and accost individual women, Michael pursues a woman and her friends on his own. Sure, this is a complicated power dynamic to read; pursuit, particularly unwanted pursuit, constitutes a violation of someone’s agency. But consider that he was not just pursuing her—she was also leading him, a point which the lyrics make more saliently than the video by attributing the active role to the woman.
Butler theorizes using the regulatory function of language to reconfigure power and change constructs surrounding gender and identity, saying that language “is as an instrument that invariably constructs the field of bodies and that ought to be used to deconstruct and reconstruct bodies outside the oppressive categories of sex” (171). Language can destroy constructs by redefining terms, appropriating them in new contexts, and more (162). The lyrics in Jackson’s songs demonstrate how specific linguistic strategies can be deployed: gender-atypical actions, attitudes about power and agency, redefinitions of terms, and unintelligible sounds.
Most of the lyrics place place Michael in a passive position. When he sings “The way you make me feel,” the woman is doing the “making.” Jackson is passive in the lyrics. The woman always does things to him: “I like the feelin’ you’re givin’ me, just hold me baby and I’m in ecstasy.” He is an object to be held; he doesn’t generate the feeling, rather it is given to him. The lyrics give agency largely to the woman. Since a redistribution of agency opens up previously fixed configurations of identity (Butler), these lyrics both allow the woman to determine her own identity (as an agent, not an object) and allow Michael to be a different kind of man, not one beholden to the expectation of objectifying women.
So how does this reading align with the video that portrays him as a fairly aggressive pursuer? These mixed messages contribute to a redefinition of gender roles. Rather than simply taking the subject → object relationship and turning it around, which would simply flip the differential power relationship, Michael tries to create a dynamic in which both men and women are subjects (Hodge) and both have agency. The gender subversion here is subtle, but perhaps more effective because of its subtlety: a direct attack on heterosexuality would be hypocritical in a way by not accepting plurality, and it could be easily written off by most audience members. Michael doesn’t become an anti-heterosexual figure, but rather a counter-hegemonic one. The equitable attribution of agency clarifies the distinction there.
Not everything about this song escapes hegemonic ideology, however. As I discussed in Chapter 2, commodities carry ideological agency with them and have an educative and naturalizing function. Michael reifies the capitalist imperative by objectifying the woman and commodifying the man in this video. He interpellates her into this hegemonic order: “Hey pretty baby with the high heels on;” she is notable because she is pretty and because of her high heels, and those two are connected. He continues, “You’re just a product of loveliness, I like the groove of your walk, your talk, your dress.” Michael literally calls her a “product,” defined by its aesthetic quality, and explains that what he likes about her is her walk (surely affected by the “high heels”), her talk, and her dress (more focus on the aesthetic pleasure of the object).
He doesn’t stop at objectifying the woman, however – he goes on to reify the role of men in this hegemonic commodity-economy: “I’ll be working from nine to five to buy you things to keep you by my side.” Men (and not women) are the providers, the breadwinners. They are supposed to work, supposed to buy things. And how do love and relationships work? The man (reduced to his production value) buys things for the woman (reduced to her object value) so she can have even more things (becoming more object-like) and so he can keep her by his side (as one would any other commodity). The capitalist imperative drives this relationship, not genuine companionship.
These values, this relational mode, are normalized and naturalized through popular culture. Near the end of the song, Michael repeats this line: “ain’t nobody’s business but mine and my baby’s.” That is a homiletic shift: the nature of this relationship (how commodity-based it is) gets attributed to Michael and the woman, which obfuscates the role that the capitalist economy (which produced this song and video) had in influencing or designing the structure of the relationship. The first clue? “Ain’t nobody’s business.” Since when do we talk about relationships using business terms? Since we live in a society where the capitalist ideology has a hegemonic hold on every aspect of culture. But by Michael’s disclaiming any institutional influence and saying that the commodity-based relationship between the woman and him is solely their “business,” it becomes a simulacrum, a confabulated norm for others to strive toward.
“Speed Demon” calls into question more “common-sense” notions that have enjoyed a hegemonic hold in American culture. In this song, Michael plays with fluidity of identity beyond gender roles. He disturbs the notion of stable identity in more radical ways, both in terms of individual identity and in terms of institutions. For a superstar figure like Michael Jackson, celebrity status makes more visible the fixing of identity and limiting of agency. At a material level, celebrities come to be physical stand-ins, embodied signifiers for the constellation of values and ideological positions consumers ascribe to them. Rosemary Coombe discusses how the American idea of exclusive property rights tries to “freeze the…constellation itself” (Coombe 107-108). There is a continual worry about representations of celebrities being accurate, authentic, and authorized. This worry produces a frozen celebrity, with a frozen gender identity, which limits the commodified celebrity’s agency and identity.
Coombe says that the celebrity body, however, always problematizes the making of a celebrity into a pure object (110-111) because it is always moving, which means that Jackson’s subversive gender practices are difficult for hegemonic culture to sanitize and appropriate. In terms of Butler’s argument, appropriating a celebrity image to subvert gender norms can be quite effective: as discrete and distinct representations of Jackson’s commodified body emerge, they “express discontinuous relations” between sex, gender, desire, and gendered practices (Gender Trouble 114-115) and proliferate acceptable combinations of those aspects of bodies.
These “discontinuous relations” in practice expose the arbitrariness of, in fact, the unnaturalness of the fixed sex-gender-desire-practice alignment of the identity simulacrum. This exposure of the normative as constructed has the effect of abolishing (or at least disregarding the regulatory function of) the “norms,” which “would have the effect of proliferating gender configurations, [and] destabilizing substantive identity” (Gender Trouble 200). This loss of a stable, fixed identity allows us to reconceptualize identity as an effect, as constructed, which opens up greater possibilities of agency. Michael Jackson’s bodily subversions are not only identity-questioning and -forming for himself, but also for the society who consumes his work.
The “Speed Demon” video opens with Michael running away from a mob of fans. He hides behind a replica of the statue of liberty, and as most of the fans pass by she comes to life and says to him, “Land of the free, home of the weird.” Immediately, the song sets itself up against a long-standing culture of American exceptionalism. Instead of American being the best, brightest, etc., this moment casts our culture as “weird,” explicitly abnormal. The first line of the song, “I’m headed for the border,” solidifies this notion that escaping America might be better than staying.
Because all the other characters are such distorted and grotesque animations, the eyes are drawn to how pretty Michael looks. His recent plastic surgeries have perfected his features in some sense—he has such smooth lines and a strong bone structure in comparison to the cartoons. Even when he turns into a bunny, he’s a charming bunny with sleek features who still gets attention from girls. As an animated cartoon who morphs into several different characters, he is still recognizable to fans because of his characteristic movements. For instance, he morphs briefly into Sylvester Stallone but does a typical Michael-spin followed by a hand in the air. His constant “identity” is not tied to his physical shape, to his body, but is instead seen through his actions, his movements. As discussed in Chapters 2 and 6, Jackson’s movements exceed the “normal” limits of what human bodies are “supposed” to do, expanding the boundaries of what can be considered possible. This calls into question the practice of assigning identity to people based on their body shape (Butler) and evokes new notions of how to (or if we should) interpret identity.
As he continues running from fans, he runs through a film set. A cartoon Stephen Spielberg, directing a western film, yells with disappointment, “I ask for a bad guy and they give me Michael Jackson!” One of the actors, an angry cowboy, says, “I’ll show you bad.” Both these people call attention to the main theme of the album: what does “bad” even mean? They insinuate that Michael doesn’t fit their definition of “bad.” Yet it’s important to note that he is pursued by people of all types in the video and the song: tourists, fans, media, cowboy actors, and notably, the police.
The video complicates our ideas of badness, our perspective on criminality and justice in general. It is unclear whether he is the “criminal” (as the police chase him for speeding) or pursued by “criminals” (who get ticketed by police for speeding and crashing). As various parties speed around the freeway in pursuit of Michael, police officers pull them over as Michael sings, “Pull over boy and get your ticket right.” For most of the song the police actually aid him in getting away from his pursuers; but police chase him as well, and he manages to avoid them (until the end). During the bridge he says, “You’re preachin’ ‘bout my life like you’re the law,” which mocks the authoritative tone of the person “preachin” but simultaneously reifies the authority of the law.
Michael subverts more than normative cultural institutions. He uses his body to subvert language itself. He uses nonsensical words and sounds in “Speed Demon” to destabilize meaning the same way his commanding finger snap gesture does in “The Way You Make Me Feel.” During the final chorus, he sings:
Pull over boy and get your ticket.
Eat your ticket,
Get your ticket,
I have centered these lines to show visually how they funnel from meaning through a breaking down of sense and finally into utter nonsense and meaninglessness. “Eat your ticket” means nothing. The only results that match in a Google search are Michael Jackson lyrics for this song. We can try to make guesses about what it might mean. “Eat yo’” and “Get yo’” mean even less, as they aren’t intelligible as complete sentences. The final “Hoo!” is simply my approximation of the sound—an undefinable one—he makes. This funnel down to meaninglessness emphasizes how we cannot neatly distinguish between what means and what doesn’t – it’s a rather slippery slope. Furthermore, this funnel makes visible the non-fixity of meaning and challenges any ideological attempt to fix it (Hall Representation).
This portion of the song may also be functioning to show sound as aesthetic, not as communicative. Jackson is well-known for making certain sounds in his singing, and this song is no exception. At the beginning and after each chorus, he makes a sound that might be spelled “chuo!” on the “a” of the 4th count of each measure. This doesn’t mean anything! It just throws off the scent of what means and what doesn’t. It is subversive because non-meaning sounds are hard to define and delimit, and hence hard to regulate or police. Jackson acts outside of what language has defined, allowed, proscribed and prescribed—and in so doing he breaks language. He uses language to reshape the discourse around bodies, and he uses language to reshape and redefine bodies. But he also uses his body to confound and reshape language. When his body does something utterly unexpected, outside of its gendered parameters, new words and concepts have to be used to describe it.
Michael is the only character in the film who can transform, and it may be because he has non-normative notions about identity as linked to physical stability. He turns into Tina Turner at one point and gives traffic tickets to a car full of men. This spectacular moment is a reversal of the gender identity script and the cultural norms surrounding abuse, power, and policing (Hodge). Halberstam says that “creative anthropomorphism” shows the “variations of gender, sex, labor, and pleasure” (“Animating Revolt” 51). As cartoon-bunny-Michael turns into cartoon-Tina, the “variations of gender” allow for historically stuck meanings to be unhinged and rearticulated by different bodies in different power relations. As Jackson dons various gender roles from one song to the next and even within songs, his repeatedly signifying alternative gender and identity practices are subversive to the normative ones (Gender Trouble 198-199).
At the end of the video Michael finally gets a ticket. In this moment he becomes “regular” again, a person who is not “above the law” (Hodge). He loses the invincibility of his shape-shifting self, and has to face the consequences of the “real world.” But he does not get the ticket for speeding—the officer cites him for dancing in a “no dancing” zone. What seems like a silly moment actually opens up to examination the nature of law and order: he is only “bad” because the sign made him bad—that is, he is only bad in relation to the (arbitrary) symbol.
When a police officer gives someone a ticket for going faster than the “Speed Limit” sign says, the practice is so naturalized that we think nothing of it. This video exposes the simulation of the law with an unexpected juxtaposition: a “no dancing” sign is absurd, and it shows that the law’s power is arbitrary and relational, not naturally occurring or essential. Baudrillard says that this type of subversion is “infinitely more dangerous” than transgression and violence “because it always leaves open to supposition that … law and order themselves might be nothing but simulation” (Simulacra and Simulation 20). So even though Michael ultimately acquiesces to the law on the surface, the video actually disrupts a stable conception of institutional power.
In a final important scene from the “Speed Demon” video, a vehicle overstuffed with media and fans overtakes Michael’s motorcycle on the highway, and they laugh and cheer as they take dozens of pictures of him. Michael allows them to do this because he sees that they are going to crash into a cop and that none of them are looking. He slyly cooperates in his own exploitation and the process of media making endless copies of him because he sees how it will end. I want to use this as a metaphor for my project in general: as the media (real life, not the cartoons in the video anymore) produce simulacra of Jackson ad nauseum, he cooperates. Whether he was consciously aware or to what level is difficult to say, but his cooperation helped expose the simulacra as constructed, which assures their eventual self-destruction.
“Liberian Girl” has similar themes lyrically to “The Way You Make Me Feel:” Michael falls in love with a woman, but has little to no agency in the relationship beyond capitalistic gestures (commodifying and marrying her, in this case). The content of the music video, however, presents a much more interesting view of Michael Jackson’s agency and identity than the lyrics. Of all the videos from Bad, this one departs furthest from the lyrical content of the song; breaking them apart for analysis will provide a juxtaposition that allows us to see the video/song combination as a meta-critique on the constructedness of media, agency in the process, and the role of the product—the commodity.
As we can see in the first verse and chorus line, “You know that you came and you changed my world,” Michael still attributes agency to the woman – she does the changing. This gets reaffirmed in the second verse: “you do this to me.” Michael is cast as an object being manipulated by the forces around him. Her agency gets problematized in the last verse when he says, “Liberian girl, more precious than any pearl, your love so complete.” He objectifies her, casting her value in terms of a commodity—one that, if we’re being honest, isn’t very valuable relative to other precious stones or metals. As discussed earlier in this chapter, this line contributes to a societal reduction of relationships to commodity exchange-value. This is one of two lines in which Michael has agency, but only ostensibly. The capitalist-imperative discourse articulates through him as a celebrity-commodity, robbing him of agency and cheapening the agency he had attributed to the Liberian girl. That is, any agency in this video is over-determined by capitalism, which fixes their identities down to prescribed roles.
The lyrics also depict this relationship as constructed, not “authentic.” Michael sings that it is “just like in the movies, with two lovers in a scene.” The two lovers in the scene have scripted dialogue and may be on their 5th or 10th take. The filming also doesn’t happen in order; it is jarring to think of these two lovers professing their love to each other (for the tenth time today) and then proceeding to film the scene which depicts when they first met (Benjamin). With any thought about what actually goes into making movies, it’s horrifying to think of any relationship that is “just like in the movies.” The comparison between this (bad) relationship and the artificiality of the movies jars us out of the naturalness of the relationship and exposes it as a construct.
This comparison may also have been the impetus for the creation of the music video, which is a video about making a video. We start as if in a black and white film in Liberia, and the Liberian girl looks into the camera at us and says, “Naku penda piya, naku taka piya, mpenziwe;” but we are jarred out of the “realistic” vibe when a man sticks a clapperboard in her face and says, “Marker.”
From that instant we are no longer in the filmic illusion, but are aware that the entire video is a construct. The camera we see through (which remains invisible throughout) makes visible to us the means of production. We see the backstage, the set, and all the accoutrement of filmmaking. We also see actors practicing lines and dances, directors establishing shots, and extras wandering about the studio. We are made conscious of the constructedness of the video itself. Lest we get fooled into thinking that we have a “privileged” or “authentic” backstage view, Bertolt Brecht reminds us what happens when media reveals its own artifice (in this case, showing the cameras and rehearsing): the verfremdungseffekt. Estrangement or alienation, he says, makes an audience see that the events, words, actions of a play are not inevitably thus and so, but that they could be different from how they are currently constituted (Brecht 431). The effect emphasizes not the actual, but the possible, because constructedness implies that disassembly and reconstruction are possible.
This Brechtian notion emphasizes that the “Liberian Girl” backstage is not a “true-to-life” view of how things happen backstage, but rather an artifice, an exposé of the means of production that serves to highlight the artificiality of the entire enterprise. The video is dedicated to revealing constructs as such. This is in some ways a healing of the disruptive gestures in the last two videos: here we see reconstructions of meanings that were deconstructed (for example, a heterosexual relationship), but the reconstructions patently own themselves as construct-ed by showing themselves as settled rather than “fixed” (Representation).
Whoopi Goldberg asks, “Who’s directing this anyway?” The camera cuts to a shot of Stephen Spielberg acting director-like from his director’s chair. But this Spielberg reference, just like the one in “Speed Demon,” reveals some sort of lie: he didn’t direct either video. Spielberg in “Speed Demon” transforms into an angry lizard, an unsettling view of humanness. In this video, however, a human Spielberg poses as a calm, professional director, resettling our notion of what humans are and what directors do—a resettling of the image from “Speed Demon.” But his image in response to Whoopi’s questions gives the lie to the “authenticity” of the backstage view. So why does he appear as the ostensible director in both videos despite directing neither? Well, to show the artifice, to show that this is all simulation. His presence shows a common move that simulacra make: they parade as an authentic representation through authenticity-building moves like showing a director or evidence of construction. This gives a Baudrillardian twist to the verfremdungseffekt happening in this video: once the poles of “authenticity” and “constructedness” collapse—that is, if we take evidence of construction as evidence of authenticity—we have entered a simulation. Noticing that Spielberg isn’t the director despite that the video says so allows us to avoid simulation.
Almost every shot of this video emphasizes Michael’s unfixity. As Richard Dreyfuss steers a fake boat (a pose that surely hearkens back to and recalls the artifice of his role in Jaws), he asks, “Exactly which Michael Jackson are we talking about anyway?” Since the entire group is made up of prolific actors who have played many roles, this question seems like a natural one to ask (are we talking about Jaws Dreyfuss or What about Bob Dreyfuss?). Whereas most of these actors have inhabited roles they could take on and slough off, Michael’s “selves” are not as neatly separated out from his body. Dreyfuss’s question highlights that Michael’s different selves are not “roles” but identities. The asking of this question shows that it has become a commonplace to not know what to expect from Jackson. He’s mysterious, spontaneous, ever-shifting. This song and video combination shows Jackson as a commodity that continually changes its own inflection. The commodity inflects through different discourses and to different people—that is, different consumers will see different “versions” of Michael Jackson. As these differences occur and these consumers have contact with one another, they have to negotiate meaning—which is precisely what happens when Dreyfuss asks “exactly which Michael Jackson” we’re talking about. The commodity ironically stabilizes itself as unfixed, as a destabilizing object.
Any semblance of a fixed identity is splintered when actors appropriate Michael’s attributes or characteristics. Several actors mime the lyrics throughout the video, and in so doing they co-opt Michael’s voice. This is not simply entertainment-as-such: when they “sing” about ideas, people, or objects through his voice, this is a literal example of a commodity (entertainer Michael) articulating a discourse (whatever attitude about the ideas) through a consumer (the mimer). This shows the commodity’s agency and emphasizes its non-fixity.
At the end of the video, Michael descends from high above looking through a camera. He has been secretly filming the explicit (simulated) filming. This reveal shows him manipulating constructedness and providing a meta-awareness of the video-creation project to the actors. They all laugh in surprise and frustration to realize that the very content of the video is themselves wondering what to do, wandering around, hanging out, reading scripts, gossiping, and preparing to make an artifact (artifice). Viewers may feel that they’re getting a privileged view of how music videos get made, that this is an “authentic” video that shows actors being “candid” and reveals the “true” nature of video-making. But this final moment ensures we don’t fall into the trap of believing the simulation to be “authentic” in those ways.
Michael’s Brechtian surprise appearance shows us that the “backstage view” is a simulation. He appears to be interested in filming an “authentic” one-take representation based on the content we see in this produced music video. But there is another camera filming Michael’s camera, the one we see through that remains invisible to us. This reminds us that these “candid” shots were scripted and choreographed, that the “authentic” dialogue was written and rehearsed. There are three layers of “sincerity” that all get broken down as constructs: the layer of the music video with the Liberian girl, which is quickly abandoned; the layer of Spielberg making the video with actors and extras, which lasts for most of the video; and the final layer of Michael’s “authentic reveal,” which we can see as a construct because this video has taught us to expect nothing less. Michael is portrayed as hyper-aware of the effects of the media game in which he is inextricably implicated as a producer, performer, and commodity; he uses this awareness to push viewers past a naive view of media, to give liberation, to open up new views of what media is for and what it can do and how it operates.
Judith Butler calls us to “destabilize and render in their phantasmic dimension the ‘premises’ of identity politics” (Gender Trouble 201-202) in order to break out of confining hegemonies and give people greater agency in constructing their identities. Jackson radically destabilizes the simulacrum of identity through “subversive repetition” (201) of non-normative practices.
“The Way You Make Me Feel” subverts hegemonic masculinity by giving agentive parity to all genders, but even this redistributed agency is mired in a capitalistic discourse about relationships, which forecloses many possibilities. The video unsettles the “fixed” norms of gender, and it also shows how identity can be shaped and limited by a variety of outside forces. “Speed Demon” presents an extreme challenge to the concept of unified identity by subverting some of these forces, such as the law, the entertainment industry, gender relations, and domesticity. It completely destabilizes the historical scripts that had become “norms.” “Liberian Girl” renegotiates and restabilizes some of these constructs, but it also shows that these newly negotiated meanings are only provisional. It does this by presenting several layers of possibly authentic content, including subversive, counter-hegemonic ideas, and then self-consciously exposing the constructedness of each layer.
In these three songs, Jackson strives to expand agency and proliferate possibilities for acceptable identities in society. As the songs reimagine alternative possibilities for identity, the videos are careful to remind viewers that the new identities are just as constructed as the old, hegemonic ones. In this way, these songs give agency to consumers to choose what type of identities they want to construct for themselves.
Julian Vigo describes Jackson’s subversions as “invention and spectacle that transcended all human divisions” (Vigo 34). Jean Baudrillard proclaims that Jackson can “reign over the world and reconcile its contradictions” and that he “will deliver us from race and sex” (“Cool Memories”). Jackson’s art defies the language that pretends to fix gender, race, and agency into locked-down boxes. However, Michael Jackson’s radical politics are in no way immune to counterattacks from hegemony, whose deft movements we will track in the next chapter.