Songs: “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Dirty Diana,” “Leave Me Alone”
Michael Jackson’s post-Bad career was very explicitly about redefining, questioning, subverting, and casting a critical eye on cultural assumptions (as Susan Fast documents in Dangerous). But he started these challenges on Bad. Hegemony has never been keen on admitting defeat, though, and the attempts to appropriate Jackson, to neutralize his subversions, appear simultaneously with his challenges. Starting in the mid 1980s (and incessantly after that) a huge number of rumors and stories about Michael Jackson circulated through tabloid media. Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra provides a useful way of examining this multiplicity of representations of Michael Jackson. In this chapter I use the songs “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Dirty Diana,” and “Leave Me Alone,” all songs about relationships, to better understand the nature of the ongoing and every-shifting relationships between Michael Jackson and the simulacra that depict him.
A simulacrum is a copy for which there is no original; when I use the term in this chapter, I am referring to constructed representations of Michael Jackson that claim to be authentic representations of the “real” man. Entertainment commodities, like a story in a tabloid magazine about Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzees, can act as simulacra: an object manufactured to be bought and sold and to generate entertainment and profit, but that also represents its subjects with certain ideological inflections. These types of stories rarely acknowledge their function as commodities, their subjectivity and partial perspective, the piecemeal construction, the marketing, etc. Instead, they come off as if (or are read as if) they were one-to-one equivalencies of material reality. When a consumer purchases a copy of the magazine, they know they haven’t purchased “the original,” but the copy seems to have its basis in an original, actual, real story. If the story isn’t actually a one-to-one representation of reality (which it really can never be), then it is a simulacrum that creates and proliferates an ideological version of reality.
What such representations do, if they are hegemonic, is make Michael Jackson into an extraordinary, bizarre case against which “norms” can be measured. In a word, they make him into a spectacle. Once his subversions are made spectacular, norms seem normal-er. Commodities thus create “universal validity and legitimacy for accounts of the world which are partial and particular” and pass off these “particular constructions” as if they were “the real.” I argue that commodities, then, are one “mechanism of ‘the ideological’” (Hall, “Rediscovery” 132-133). Commodities function as simulacra by creating and reinforcing discourse that sets itself up as the “natural” and “authentic,” by hiding the constructedness of their representation, and by posing as “authentic” copies.
Many of these simulacra have the effect of sanitizing and appropriating Jackson’s subversions back into the hegemonic order. But they have an additional, unintended effect, and I aim to expose this effect in this chapter: by proliferating representations of Jackson, these simulacra reveal the constructed nature of all the discourses surrounding Jackson, thereby calling into question which stories are “true” and which norms are “natural.”
All three of the songs analyzed here portray Michael addressing a person (“you,” “Dirty Diana,” and “baby” respectively), and each song shows Michael in a unique relationship dynamic (symbiotic, exploited, and exasperated). I choose to interpret the relationships depicted as analogous to Jackson’s relationships with media simulacra. These songs show us how Jackson fought against, reveled in, and even helped create these (un)authorized versions.
“I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” portrays a loving, mutually beneficial relationship. It was the first single released from Bad and the first of many chart-topping number ones from the album. The song is a duet sung by Michael Jackson and Siedah Garrett (one of the songwriters for “Man in the Mirror”). Since there was no music video made, I give just a few brief notes about some of the lyrics and how they can be seen as a set-up for “Leave Me Alone.”
The introduction of the song features Michael speaking softly and lovingly to a woman. Most of what he says pertains directly to their relationship, but these two lines seem unrelated or tangential at best: “A lot of people misunderstand me. That’s because they don’t know me at all.” This raises many questions and provides no answers. What don’t people know about Michael? Do they only know him as a spectacle? What differences exist between that and the man? And what misunderstandings does that create? None of the answers are supplied here, but these out-of-the-blue lines set up the listener to experience this song as a sort of commentary on Michael Jackson’s personal life.
During the bridge, Siedah sings a lyric found in “Bad,” in Captain EO, and “Man in the Mirror,” which she helped write: “We can change all the world tomorrow.” Michael sings back, “We can sing songs of yesterday.” Although these could simply be trite lyrics, they could also show how they plan to change the world: by singing. Several of my analyses show that these “songs of yesterday” on Bad have some capacity to disrupt hegemonic thinking and spur people to question institutions of dominance. This pair of lines shows that the singers are talking about something beyond a personal relationship—this relationship is a metaphor that invites us to read the song as an analogy to other types of relationships.
The relationship between the two singers is symbiotic, but also codependent, which is a parallel to Michael’s relationship with the media. They sing, “My life ain’t worth living if I can’t be with you.” What kind of life would Michael have lived without the coverage and consequent fame the media gave him? And what kind of life would media people live without celebrities to cover? They need each other to survive, to exist, and they cannot conceive of what would or could exist beyond the relationship: “I just can’t stop loving you, and if I stop, then tell me just what will I do?” In a sense, Michael and the media offer each other an amplified agency that they would not otherwise have. But when that codependency grows deeper and the agency gets amplified beyond control, the screeching feedback can really pierce eardrums.
The relationship reaches its most violent point in the raucous, raunchy “Dirty Diana,” where the subject of the song (Diana or media representations) ruins Jackson’s personal life and career. This song has a lot in common with other femme fatale songs such as “Billie Jean,” but this one depicts the most unilaterally exploitative woman of them all. The previous song, which depicts an idealistic and mutual love, is diametrically opposed to “Dirty Diana”: there is lust instead of love, exploitation instead of mutual cooperation, and commodification instead of respect.
The ways Diana exploits Michael parallel the way the media leeched off of him for their own benefit (and profit). Diana “waits at backstage doors for those who have prestige, who promise fortune and fame, a life that’s so carefree.” To extend the comparison to the media, they also hound rich and famous people in order to get a paycheck, a carefree life. As long as Michael Jackson exists, they have a ready-made spectacle and are virtually assured of profits. Diana / the media also promise something in return: “I’ll be your everything if you make me a star.” Diana projects sexual desire onto Michael to justify her exploitation, and this limits the “everything” she gives to just her body as a sexual object; the media projects a desire for spectacle onto Jackson to justify their hounding, which sets in motion a cyclical spectacle / fame building engine that runs itself out of control in “Leave Me Alone.”
The cycle’s voracious appetite quickly moves beyond the public musical career of Jackson’s life as an artist into his private home life in search of ever more stories to feed the spectacle. The unique relationship Jackson had with media stories highlights the way the public and the private feed into each other, the way the man and the music inform each other. As Michael sings to his “baby” on the phone, “Baby I’m alright,” Diana interrupts and yells into the phone, “He’s not coming back because he’s sleeping with me!” His relationship with the media forecloses any possibility of having a neat, clean separation between a private home life and a public work life for Michael Jackson—the two would always be intertwined and in conflict.
“I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Dirty Diana” are touchstones on opposite ends of a spectrum to which “Leave Me Alone” can be fruitfully compared. In the first there is a co-agentive relationship of peace, love, and cooperation. The second portrays Michael with little to no agency and feeling harrowed and helpless. In “Leave Me Alone,” he strikes an interesting middle-ground between these extreme poles not by negating aspects of either but by integrating them into a convoluted game of representation that refuses fixed meanings and reveals simulacra as such. The lyrics hearken back directly to the two previous songs to establish a thematic connection of relationship building. In a line reminiscent of the tenderness in “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” Michael sings, “There was a time I used to say ‘girl I need you.’” The next line sounds more like “Dirty Diana” and recalls a relationship gone sour: “You really hurt, you used to take and deceive me.” These two extremes stand as reminders for a protagonist who continues to struggle through a rocky relationship; the intertext hints at chronological progress as well as increasing thematic sophistication as Michael tries to build an equitable partnership with the subject of the song.
The first line of the song depicts a negative relationship right off the bat: “I don’t care what you talkin’ ’bout baby, I don’t care what you say.” Besides not caring about what the person says, Michael also has his mind made up, and is not going to change it no matter what the other person says. While it’s a negative relationship like in “Dirty Diana,” Michael has developed a greater awareness of the dynamic and progressed to a place of taking back and exerting his own agency. He also seems aware of the exploitation and determined to stop it now, whereas he naively let it happen before. He pejoratively depicts the way she used him, saying, “Don’t you come walkin’ beggin’ back mama.” When he sings, “time after time I gave you all of my money,” he acknowledges his own compliance in the exploitation, but depicts himself as generous and the recipient as having “no excuses to make.” This first stanza shows him not as the helpless victim of an unhealthy relationship, but as a man with newly-(re)found agency and a sense of control. In the chorus Michael doesn’t beg, nor does he ask politely; he demands, “So just leave me alone!” and “Stop it!” These lines evince a forcefulness and agency not dreamt of in the passive “Dirty Diana.” All this suggests that Michael Jackson is prepared to take a stand against media representations of him that exploit him and demand that they stop it and leave him alone.
The angst in the “Dirty Diana” relationship has given way to a defiant, if exasperated, confidence in dealing with the media and their representations. He sees their moves to capitalize on him less as unavoidable traps and more as “begging” that he can react to as he chooses. This disparaging tone continues at the end of the chorus when he sings, “Just stop doggin’ me around.” In the video, reporters and journalists take the physical form of dogs dressed in suits, which is both a demeaning and surrealistic metaphor, perhaps an attempt to restructure the terms of the relationship. The song paints the media as dogs who beg for their subsistence, and Michael has grown tired of their excuses.Never one to have a straightforward and simple stance, Michael introduces ambiguity into the song. Alongside a more confident and defiant attitude, he demonstrates a playful one in this song by asking ambiguous questions and creating confusion. He sings during the bridge, “Who’s laughing baby? Don’t you know?” And truthfully, listeners and viewers can’t be sure. Perhaps the media used to be laughing, but now that Michael has figured out the game he gets the last laugh. However, in the video as he sings this line he falls into the water and seems to be a target of laughter. If anything has come to light in this project, it’s that when Michael Jackson asks a question there is no clear answer. If his ambiguous questions aren’t enough to refuse a stabilized meaning, he offers a direct contradiction—he sings “I ain’t lovin’ you” during the second verse, and he sings “I love you, I don’t want it” at the end of the song. So which is it: does he love the girl or not? Or does he love her but doesn’t want to? The possible answers to that question, mapped onto Michael Jackson’s relationship with the media, show that the solution to the simulation problem is not as simple as asserting a new-found agency. This sets up listeners for a truly perplexing experience once they turn to the video.
A line at the beginning of each bridge acts as a troublesome but productively destabilizing gesture when read in concert with the video. He sings, “‘Cause there’s a time when you’re right and you know you must fight,” which is a strange message about a fixed right and wrong, atypical of Michael Jackson. In context of the argument I’ve made here, this line suggests that Michael is right and that the media representations are wrong. It further suggests that the appropriate solution is to “fight,” which might mean that Michael should correct the false representations, call attention to their falsity, create “right” representations. Yet the video doesn’t accomplish any of these tasks, so therein lies a contradiction: as he sings about wanting to be left alone and complaining about misrepresentation, he is visually represented enacting all the very same things the media attribute to him. He is, in a sense, proving them right, fighting for them. But by stacking so many different representations of himself into one short artifact, it becomes impossible (and somewhat useless) to distinguish the “real” from the hyperreal. That is, by cooperating with the media in the production of simulacra, he may in fact disrupt their power by exposing the means of production.
At the beginning of the music video, the camera slowly zooms in on a trailer on a California beach, and as soon as the door opens Michael erupts out of the top of the trailer. This non-normal way of exiting the house sets up the expectation that not much will go as expected in the video. The camera follows Michael through a house, down a river, through a cave, and finally through an amusement park. The entire piece functions as a tour through the museum of simulacra of Michael Jackson, but also as a pastiche of them and a commentary on them. The following two sections outline two lenses for understanding these simulacra and analyze several examples from the music video using those lenses.
Hegemonic vs. Counter-Hegemonic Simulacra
An essay from a compilation entitled Michael Jackson: Grasping the Spectacle highlights spectacle as one effect of hegemonic simulacra. The collection’s title shows one tendency toward the hegemonic: it constructs Michael Jackson as a “spectacle,” as aberrant, and further, as a spectacle that can be “grasped,” understood, and in a final sense, fixed in place. Jesse Schlotterbeck’s “The ‘Split’ Biography” says that Jackson was unable to promote a positive popular image of himself because of his troubled relationship with the tabloid media. He reads “Leave Me Alone” as a desperate attempt and failure on Jackson’s part to portray himself in a good light and undo the bad the media did to him as a person. In a sense, he argues that the spectacle defeated the man.
Where Scholtterbeck characterizes Jackson’s “inability” to contain and control a particular image of himself as a personal failure, he ignores the ideological aspect of this battle of representation. He shows a desire for the “authentic” Jackson: victory for him would be to grasp a “true” understanding of both Jackson and his music. He concludes with renewed charges that Jackson failed, but his description of the weakness in Jackson’s music inadvertently matches my description of its strengths: the songs “perpetuate a ritualistic enactment of misunderstanding and mis-recognition” (80). Deliberate destabilization, leading to mis-recognition, is the primary characteristic in Jackson’s music that allows it to be counter-hegemonic. This disjunct, so troubling to Schlotterbeck that he reads it as failure, is precisely the victory in the battle against the tabloid media. Both Jackson’s self-representations and media simulacra paint “numerous versions of a ‘split’ self,” and this multivocality “encourages the audience to read him ambivalently” (80). Jackson refused to create a singular, unified representation of himself, but rather than reading that as a failure, we can read it as him taking advantage of the mechanisms of simulation in order to expose it as such.
Throughout the course of the music video, a dozen or so newspapers open up onto the screen, each featuring Jackson’s face singing alongside a large headline containing some rumor or another about him. Some of these stories about Michael Jackson were printed in actual newspapers, while others weren’t. Some of the stories are true, others may be true, others may be false. It would be counterproductive to bother citing them or finding their origin. These rumors were often effective at appropriating Jackson back into the hegemonic order or portraying him as a spectacle, and they are effective precisely because they seem natural and authentic, not created artifacts from a news outlet. But the endless proliferation of these artifacts, which Jackson aids in this video, has interesting effects.
One headline near the beginning states, “Michael proposes to Liz,” referencing his close friendship with Elizabeth Taylor. Another pops up soon after that reads, “Michael builds shrine to Liz.” Placing Michael Jackson into the most heteronormative narrative possible certainly sanitizes him. It “answers” the question about his sexuality (never mind the contradiction apparent in the rumors of both asexuality and homosexuality). It portrays his “bad” side as just a product of youthfulness that he can grow out of. It reifies, also, the progression from youthful revelry to responsible manhood, which includes marriage to a woman and instructions on how to treat (objectify) that woman. Certainly this representation of Michael is hegemonic on all accounts. But later we see the headline “Michael to Marry Brooke,” and after that another reading, “Michael Weds Alien.” He is purported to have married three different beings in the video. On top of that, he actually married twice, to Lisa Marie Presley and Debbie Rowe. When all these representations come together in a small amount of space/time, viewers can’t help but wonder which, if any, is true. This bevvy of (faux)marriages signal a satirical or caustic attitude towards marriage and all the trappings wrapped up in heteronormative hegemony. It’s not that Michael Jackson is trying to mock marriage as such; rather, the overblown representations expose as a construct both the story about Jackson and marriage itself.
A similar thing happens with the headline “Michael Confides to Pet Chimp.” It’s readily accepted that a person would talk to his pet, and it’s conceivable, but much less likely, that an eccentric person would get a chimpanzee as a pet. This representation portrays Michael as having gone past socially acceptable boundaries and paints him as a spectacle, mere entertainment to be ogled and laughed at and subsequently discarded. But another headline also makes its way across the screen: “Bubbles the Chimp Bares All About Michael.” This is a satirical flip on the other representation. It creates an image so unconceivable and unbelievable that we cannot help but discredit it right away (as weird as Michael Jackson is, chimpanzees cannot talk). This juxtaposed pair could function to give an audience pause before labeling the man as eccentric, thus preserving his subversions as worth attending to in a serious way.
Finally, there are several headlines dealing with Michael Jackson’s body. The first to crop up says, “Michael’s Cosmetic Nose Surgery,” and a giant nose and scalpel fly across the screen soon after. This headline also tries to turn Michael’s body into a spectacle not worth taking seriously. It is, by almost all accounts, true that Michael Jackson had several plastic surgeries including rhinoplasty. But other headlines about his body are obviously false, like “Michael and Diana Same Person” and “Jackson’s 3rd Eye Starts Sunglass Fad.” These overblown attempts to pathologize Michael’s deviant body have the opposite effect of making all the surrounding representations less spectacular, less bizarre. His body still appears modified and different from “normal” bodies, but the counter-hegemonic representations open up the space for his body to be an acceptable alternative.
In these examples, the juxtaposition of real(istic) simulacra and outlandish ones can do both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic work: the outlandish can exercise gravity on the realistic, making it seem worse, more aberrant; but the outlandish can also make all the representations seem crazier, more numerous, and less believable—and thus less spectacular. By participating in hegemonic simulation and overdoing it (rather than trying to correct it) this video lifts the curtain and shows the machinery of production.
That machinery serves one of the master hegemonic narratives: capitalism. Near the beginning, Michael’s hand comes out of a teapot holding a $20 dollar bill with his face on it, singing. This image reminds us that the production and consumption of these representations of him (including this very video) all revolve around making commodities that will sell. And he is the commodity: he rides his boat towards a set of chomping teeth, a striking meta-metaphor that he, in the form of these representations, is a commodity to be consumed.
Representing the Body as a Simulacrum
Seth Silberman argues that the “real” Michael orchestrated and corroborated the bizarre stories about himself because he wanted to be seen as something unfamiliar, nonhuman (“This is Not It”). To some extent, Silberman’s view shows how the simulacra affect the consumer’s view of Michael Jackson. But Jackson didn’t need a simulacrum to make him look unfamiliar or bizarre: Chapters 2 and 6 detail how his unfamiliar look expands cultural notions of how bodies “should” look and what they can do. To give a bit more nuance to Silberman’s argument, the simulacra of Jackson take the unfamiliar, nonhuman aspects of Michael Jackson and make them into a spectacle in order to render them less effective. Instead of fighting against this (surely a losing battle), Jackson embraced the process of simulation and orchestrated even more simulacra, which had the effect of rendering each one less potent.
To explain how this counterintuitive process works, Baudrillard draws on a very old idea that shouldn’t be taken too literally, but works as an explanatory metaphor. He entertains Benjamin’s critique of mechanical reproduction (that making mechanical copies removes the “aura” from the work of art) to detail two ways that bodies can be simulated in a technological age. Baudrillard’s “hologram” is a copy of the body but without any physicality, a mirage. In a way, a hologram is the aura without the body (“Holograms”). His “clone,” on the other hand, is the physical body without the aura (“Clone Story”). The clone and the hologram combined might pass as a humanist subject, a cohesive, unified identity . This outdated metaphor of a unified identity disrupts simulation in the same way as Butler’s theory of performative identity and Brecht’s idea of making visible the means of production. One well-projected hologram is clear to see and easy to believe. But line up fifteen holographic projections all at once and each is rendered opaque and blurry, and hence less “authentic” or convincing. The case is similar with clones: a single clone might appear an “authentic” and believable body. But lining up multiple bodies purported to be the same person makes it obvious that each one lacks the “aura” or “authenticity.”
Right before Michael’s boat sails into the teeth, a phone and a camera come out of the water to make media representations of him—clones and holograms that imitate the body in some way (the headlines analyzed earlier are notable examples of this). Inside the mouth is a strange cave that represents Michael Jackson’s mind (evidenced by the floating brain and the eventual exit from the ear of a Giant Michael). Present in the brain of the giant body are two somewhat unexpected parties: a smaller version of Michael and several dogs, who represent the media. This scene suggests several possibilities in terms of representation. It’s possible that Giant Michael has orchestrated the simulacra by projecting a constructed version of himself (Little Michael) to be recorded and represented by the media. This reading would be congruent with my reinterpretation of Schlotterbeck’s comments as well as with my reading of the newspaper headlines in the previous sections—Michael Jackson participates willfully, consciously in the production of simulacra. Another reading could be that the media try to get inside Michael’s head to find an “authentic” version of him – but subsequent scenes suggest that the media are more interested in constructing versions of him than revealing the “one true version.”
As Little Michael exits the body of Giant Michael, the video shows that the body has an amusement park built over it. The entire video has been essentially a carnival ride of Michael Jackson’s life and home. We get the sense that this is all a game as we watch one Michael and the media-dogs ride around on another Michael’s body. The defiant, confident tone of the lyrics certify that Jackson has discovered the media’s game of exploiting his body (“I found out right away”), and he intends to play along until he breaks it.
The entire amusement park, being constructed all the while by some of the media-dogs, exudes spectacle. From the world’s strongest man to the animals with multiple heads, it’s a carnival-esque atmosphere that showcases the bizarre and emphasizes deviance. The media-dogs have set up a spectacle of Michael Jackson amidst all these others: near an open newspaper reading “Michael to buy elephant man’s bones,” we see Bubbles chained up and Michael, in ball and chain, dancing with the Elephant Man skeleton. This representation of Michael casts him as bizarre, but it is identifiable as a clone. Another Michael rides in front of the dancing one and saves Bubbles, placing in front of the clone a duplicate body that is a responsible pet owner rather than an eccentric weirdo. In this scene, there are multiple Michael Jacksons enacting different versions of him and doing different ideological work.
The last line of the final chorus, “Just stop doggin’ me around,” comes from Giant Michael’s head. It turns out to have been a living body all the time, not just a statuesque representation constructed by the media-dogs. The giant’s taped fingers start flexing in and out to the beat, and then he raises his enormous arms to start standing up. This embodied action demolishes the amusement park, a metaphor about the power of the body to disrupt hegemonic representation. In the roller coaster car Little Michael and Bubbles pass in front of Giant Michael, who has destroyed the entire amusement park in the process of standing. This final moment is an “enactment of misunderstanding and mis-recognition,” to Schlotterbeck’s lament and my joy, for it portrays the two “good” Michael Jacksons at once and refuses to identify the “real” one. In this way, the final scene reminds us that the entire video is yet another simulacrum, and that the only way to disarm the others is not by denying them but by reveling in them and participating in their production.
When seen as constructed rather than “authentic,” the simulacra open up possibilities for consumers to construct their own versions of reality instead of accepting pre-fabricated versions. The hyper-proliferation of representations of Michael Jackson exposes the constructed nature of dominant norms. The more dangerous representations of Michael Jackson become to hegemony (gender, sexuality, and more), the more simulacra come forth to sanitize them; but as more simulacra come into existence, viewers come to doubt the “real-ity” of any of them. The more radical Michael Jackson’s subversions become, the greater the foothold of non-dominant ideologies in society.
To lead into the final chapter of this thesis, I emphasize one last image from this video. While in the cave, we see a dog pounding stakes into the ground to hold down ropes that immobilize Giant Michael’s hand. This metaphorically shows that hegemonic simulation attempts to fix meaning and foreclose alternative possibilities, particularly where bodies and action are involved. Yet at the end when the body comes to life, it defies all attempts to fix it. It breaks down simulation by moving. The final chapter shows how bodies, dancing, and movement disrupt cultural reproduction through counter-hegemonic representation.