Michael Jackson - Black or White
by Alexander Keidel
In the course of the last years, music videos have lost their impact on the development of popular culture. Music television channels such as MTV or VIVA were broadly received in the 1990s. Nowadays, television loses its influence since the internet has taken over many of its functions. Users are able to listen to their favourite music on video platforms as YouTube or via streaming softwares as Deezer or Spotify. Thus, there is no necessity for people to wait for their preferred music in front of a TV. In contrast to television channels, online platforms are not bound to a specified place but can be accessed anywhere. Although some TV channels are made available online, it is still more difficult to make use of them. Similarly, in the mid of the 1970s, radio loses influence as a medium of advertising. The inevitable next step was the introduction of the music video and own channels for that genre
and Schmidt 11).
To start with, one should find a definition for music video. Neumann-Braun and Schmidt say a music video is a “three to five-minute film in which a song (pop or rock) is visualized by different means”
(10). Beyond that
is the idea of stimulating both the optical and the acoustic attention. In
music history, there have been several attempts to combine these two sensory
impressions: ballet, dance scenes in operas etc. In his work Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, the
Russian composer Alexander Scriabin included a colour organ. Each key had its
own colour that he associated therewith. He was influenced by synaesthesia.
This was a way to combine sound and image in art music in the beginning of the
20th century. Film music emulates today what programme music has
paved the way for. Other key terms for this combination of senses are
isomorphy, synchrony and analogy (Neumann-Braun
and Schmidt 10).
According to Neumann-Braun and Schmidt there are three types of music videos. Firstly, the performance clips: the protagonist is seen in one or two scenes singing. Apart from performing the song, there is no action. Secondly, the narrative video: as the name tells, the plot of the song is staged around the interpreter. The narrator of the story and the singer are the same. The video just presents the story as a short film without commenting or adding a subtext. Thirdly, the concept video: here, the image and music are connected in an associative-illustrative way. The main concern is to transfer the star’s personality. The message is the product, which is the star
and Schmidt 13).
Nevertheless, there is a difference between music videos and film music. In
music videos, the image follows the music whereas film music refers to a
certain action in the film. Another aspect of music videos is the staging of
the star (Neumann-Braun
and Schmidt 20).
This is a central element in the music video „Black or White“ by Michael
Jackson which will be discussed in the following.
For the first time, the music video “Black or White” was simultaneously screened on November 14, 1991 in 500 countries around the world. Immediately afterwards it was cut and mitigated due to controversial sexual scenes (Wenzel 49). Wenzel also divides the video into three parts (47): a surreal frame story and two main parts.
The surreal frame story consists of an American suburban family that sits in the living room consuming standard media products. The son listens to rock music on the radio. Since the volume seems to be too loud for the father, he shouts upstairs to his son to turn the volume down. The son does not follow his father’s instructions and so the father steps into the room of his son and repeats his order. By slamming the door, he destroys a poster of Michael Jackson which was fixed at the back of the door. “This begins one of the recurring motifs in the video, that of breaking glass” (Burnett and Deivert 24). Angrily, the son wants to take revenge and pushes two big amplifiers into the living room, plugs in his electric guitar and turns the volume controller to “Are you nuts!?!”. The child now plays a power chord according to which the father -along with his armchair- is blown through the roof of the house into the desert. There, he finds himself surrounded by dancers, but also by lions. Here, the second of recurring motifs is introduced, that of cats (Burnett and Deivert 25). This frame story is revisited about ten minutes later at the end of the music video with the Simpson family (Wenzel 47). Bart Simpson sits in front of the TV, his father joins him and tells him, “turn off that noise”. Bart refuses and tells his father to “chill out”, but Homer takes the remote control and turns off the TV (Burnett and Deivert 32). This mirrors the introductory scene.
The first main part shows similarities to the advertisement of the clothing company Benetton from 1991. This is why Wenzel calls that part “Benetton-Sequence” (47). Michael Jackson dances and is surrounded by dancers that represent different ethnicities and skin colours (African, East-Asian, Indian, Native American and Russian). In the following, the video shows a black and a white baby that sit on a globe, Michael Jackson walking in front on flames, war and military tools as well as a rap scene. The latter is embedded in a “street corner society” (Wenzel 48). But, striking is the alienation. The people that hang around are starred by children. Even the rapper himself is played by a white boy who imitates his black, adult idol with a deep man’s voice in the typical Afro-American rap genre (Keazor and Wübbena 228). Subsequently, Michael Jackson stands on the Statue of Liberty surrounded by a fantasy scenery including The Giza Sphinx, Hagia Sophia, Pamukkale, The Parthenon, Taj Mahal, St. Basil's Cathedral, Pyramids of Giza, Golden Gate Bridge, Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower. The end of the first main part is a morphing scene in which faces of Asian, European and Latin-American people morph into one another.
The second main part contains only one scene, the so-called “Panther-Sequence”. In this part, there is another morphing scene: a panther walks out of the film studios into an industrially looking area where it morphs into Jackson. He is no longer dressed in white, as he is in the “Benetton-Sequence”, but in black. It is worth mentioning that there is no music at all during this scene. Jackson just dances and utters sounds and unarticulated screams (Wenzel 48). On the one hand his movements are smooth but on the other hand they are hard and edged as well. Moreover, Jackson insinuates masturbatory movements with enjoyment. Suddenly, the dance develops into a sally of anger. He destroys windows, a car and signs of a hotel. “Many of the glass-breaking sequences in the video are filmed in slow motion, including the originator of the motif, the breaking poster frame” (Burnett and Deivert 31). After this outbreak of violence he morphs back into a panther and walks away. What follows is the scene in the Simpsons’ living-room. The video has a total length of 11 minutes.
To speak about the filmic specifics of the video “Black or White” means to talk about a complex structure. The director, John Landis, is famous in his field. He was also responsible for the production of the music video “Thriller”, so it was conceivable that he exceeded the normal length for music videos (Keazor/Wübbena 226). A masterly move of director John Landis was to incorporate famous actors: Macaulay Culkin and George Wendt. Wendt was part of a series’ cast, whereas Culkin became even more famous by playing Kevin in Home Alone. Both actors have been on TV in prominent programs at the beginning of the 1990s. Hereby, they do not only have a recognition value but also a certain function which will be discussed later (Keazor/Wübbena 226). The position of Jackson himself in the video is very obvious: he is the staged object, he is in the centre. The clothes, hairstyle, voice, moves, dancing etc. are characteristic for him (Mattern 154). Nevertheless, his face is rarely shown but never in close-up (Mattern 155).
The camera work is very explicit. Jackson is filmed from different but definite perspectives, in which he is the key element and the crucial point from the viewer’s perspective. There are only few camera movements (zoom, panorama) and no extremes (close-up, total view). Most frequently Landis uses medium long short and medium short views. Moreover, the visual and auditive reception alternates, meaning the rhythm of the music fits to the change of scenes. The rap scene that lasts only 20 seconds consists of 28 different views. The camera movement is very fast and nearly elusive (Mattern 155). Most of the camera perspectives follow the phenomenon of observation. Right at the start of the video, there are very quick camera movements from space top down into a house (Wenzel 56). Often, the video works with tunnel views. The viewer is not acting but controlled by the objects themselves. It appears as the objects fly towards the camera perspective and one moment later they are behind it. Wenzel calls it “panoramic vs. analytic-distancing view” (57).
Another parameter that needs to be taken into account is time. Mattern subdivides the first main part into nine scenes. Each scenes does not last any longer that 18-24 seconds. Only scene 1 and 9 exceed this time frame, which also have longer camera moves and more narrative structures (48 and 30 seconds) (Mattern 155). In contrast to the main parts, the frame story takes up a lot of time. The actual song does not start until 1:50 minutes and ends at 06:20. The panther scene follows with a length of more than four minutes.
Furthermore, the video is full of symbolism which is also dramatized in terms of filmic elements. There are many circles in the video that stand for eternity, perfection but also for femininity (Mattern 157). The camera movements are also very circular, as the perspective circles around the two babies sitting on the globe. Another symbol is fire. Jackson walks through flames and thereby represents a brave person resisting the destruction. The camera is outside the fire but lets the viewer feel the heat by directly facing the flames (Mattern 157). Additionally, Jackson forms symbols with his body, for instance a cross which might stand for Jackson as a saviour in relation to Christian symbolism. Hurth analyses that Jackson is even more illustrated as a representative of a new Jesus. There are many visual expressions in his live-shows, such as rites to celebrate his appearance, flies through the air from above or self-dramatisation in terms of messianic self-fashioning to idolise him (Hurth 58). Moreover, he demands love from his disciples, for instance in his song Will you be there where parts of the lyrics (“love me... carry me... lift me up...”) are repeated in a “call and response-liturgy” (Mattern 157). The camera moves underline this statement as they only concentrate on Jackson who is dressed in white in the first part. All ethnic dance groups form circles around Jackson. He is the middle of everything. Even at the end of the first part when he stands on the torch of the Statue of Liberty, he can be seen as the “centre of the world” (Mattern 155).
The costs of the production are very high due to one special effect which was quite new at that time. Directly before the “Panther-Sequence” starts, there is a 50 second morphing sequence. This technique became famous since it was used in the 1985 music video “Cry” by Godley & Creme. However, that video used a different technique. There, the different pictures are layered on top of each other and cross-faded, whereas in Jackson’s video the faces literally morph into each other due to a modern technology. The innovative technique is not only money but also time consuming. One second of a morphing image needs four to five hours of work (Mattern 152). This morphing, however, implicates the quality and comparability of races. Moreover, the images break down cross-cultural borders and form a message (Keazor/Wübbena 229).
The following paragraphs try to explain why Wenzel says that the video “Black and White” can be seen as a “a media-reflexive piece of art” (56). A first criterion is the staging of media reality. For the viewer it is obvious that some scenes are constructed, e.g. scene in the steppe. Everybody can see the stage in the middle of the landscape where Jackson and his fellows dance on. Same is true for the end of the morphing-sequence. Directly after that last picture, the camera zooms out and the viewer sees the film studio with all the involved workers and hears the director say to one of the face models: “Cut, it’s perfect, how do you do that?”. “This ironic line delivered straight is part of the self-reflexive nature of the production, a meta film or meta video (Burnett and Deivert 28). Reality is modelled in a certain way and everybody is aware of that (Wenzel 57). Wenzel goes on and states that the viewer is in the role of a competent media recipient who knows the genre specific codes, film historical presets and media-technical potential. So, they are able to deal with the images and music in an objective and distanced way (64).
Secondly, one needs to go back to the intrinsic peculiarities of the genre music video. They are essential parts of popular subcultures and reflect the affiliation to an exclusive interpretation world. Here, meaning is created through montage which only members of a certain subculture understand. However, this exclusivity is also reflected (Wulff qtd. in Wenzel 53). The frame story of “Black and White” supports this thesis: the boy imitates the clothing of Jackson, and Jackson imitates the boy’s air guitar playing in the video. Thereby, he offers the boy the admittance to a subcultural identity pool (Wenzel 53).
Thirdly, the frame story suggests the victory of children over their complaining parents who do not tolerate them and their medial preferences. This message is close to the “Home Alone” movie where Kevin, also played by Macaulay Culkin, wins against the stupid burglars. Children seem to have more competencies that adults (Mattern 149). The “Black or White“-Video tells us that a better world can only consist of self-confident children who are the basis for the equality of nations and races on earth. Similarly, Jackson promotes this in his song “We Are the World”, describing a world that all people belong to, irrespective of race, skin colour, age, sex and appearance (Mattern 150). Beyond that, it is interesting that the advertisement of Benetton also includes children from every part of the world (Mattern 151).
Lastly, music videos have aesthetic expressions and so, they are a piece of art. Into the bargain, “Black or White“ offers the viewer a synasethetic experience. Neither the understanding of the lyrics nor of the images are the concern of the video but, the realisation that everything is staged: Jackson himself, the sound, the dancers, the instrumental passages etc. (Mattern 158). Mattern also hints at the short segues between the scenes. The images of the old scene are picked up in the new scene, e.g. the dancing Russians become smaller and smaller and end up being dancers in a small tub that the babies play with (159). Also, there are certain references in “Black or White“ that are “of narrow significance to a larger group, but are decodable for viewers with special interest. Burnett and Deivert argue that this is intended (22).
The controversy of the Panther-Sequence
The first screening of the video caused a great controversial debate. Concerning the video, it had consequences: there were two versions on the market afterwards. One version ended after the morphing scene, where the actual song ends. This version was broadcasted in the daily program of music video TV channels due to the sexual insinuations and the aggressive outbreak on Jackson at the end. More and more people did not seem to understand the meaning of the violence. Hence, the second version, called “The Complete Version”, contained the panther sequence which had been modified in certain points. Burnett and Deivert explain the differences very explicitly why they will be quoted to a greater extent:
The first change is the appearance of a Nazi swastika on the front left side window of the car, as well as “Hitler lives” on the left back window. We then see that “Nigger go home” is written on the back window, and “no more wetbacks” on the windshield. The words “KKK rules” appear later in a shot on the window of the store. All these windows are smashed. After the final section with Bart Simpson, where the video normally ends with the TV shut off and a snowy screen, the text “prejudice is ignorance” is superimposed on a shot of Michael Jackson with his black hat (33).
Especially “Prejudice is Ignorance” can be seen on a meta level. Not only racism but also every prejudice and the wider focus beyond it are ignorance (Keazor and Wübbena 231). Keazor and Wübbena also see the direct aggression in the second main part as a complement to the first main part where it is restrained. Furthermore, they see the cut-off of the panther-sequence as a “mutilation”. (230).
There are different opinions whether the modification of the “Panther-Sequence” was right or not and what the reasons for that were. One the one hand Wenzel claims that it was right to alter the video because the public at large wanted the destruction to make sense. Consequently, the destroyed objects needed to be assembled with racial paroles. Only then can the violence be understandable (Wenzel 65). Keazor and Wübbena have a contrary view. They say the modification was definitely not to legitimate the violence. The makers of the video only wanted to support and elucidate the message. Since the audience did not accept the previously given references, the video had to exaggerate boldly (Keazor and Wübbena 230). Nevertheless, both authors question whether the message is still the same as before the editing; the subtle and less apparent racism is not conspicuous anymore. Burnett and Deivert, however, state correctly that intertextuality is in the eye of the viewer. “Without the interpretation of the viewer, intertextuality ceases to exist” (35). Hence, every viewer needs to find his own way in dealing with the panther sequence and the present violence.
The cross-generational approach
At the first glance, the Simpsons’ family and Macaulay Culkin do not share many characteristics. But, they both have a relation to Michael Jackson. Firstly, Culkin is the godfather of Jackson’s son Prince Michael Jr. (Mattern 146). Secondly, Jackson was a great supporter of “The Simpsons”. In 1991, he worked as the voice actor for a Jackson double which is a very self-ironic way of commenting on being stereotyped. But these two facts do not only explain why John Landis included both Culkin and the Simpsons in the music video of “Black or White”.
At the end of the “Panther-Sequence”, the viewer gets the impression as if the video is over now. However, the viewer needs to step back even one more level. Not the viewer, but Bart Simpson watches the music video in the first place. The viewer only watches Bart watching the video (Keazor and Wübbena 230). Symmetrically to the poster in the first frame story, Bart wears a t-shirt with the label “Michael Jackson”. Both scenes focus on the abolition of colour bar and racism (Keazor and Wübbena 231). The connection to the first frame story with Culkin is evident in the following. Only when the Simpsons’ scene appears, some questions concerning the Culkin scene are answered. They both work as a pendant. The characters in the first frame story seem to be cartoon-like figures that are transferred into realistic film version. The revenge of the boy played by Culkin is totally inordinate and more likely to be seen in a cartoon sequence. Nonetheless, the Simpsons’ scene is rather untypical and tame for the series itself. Normally, Homer chokes his son in such situations where he refuses to follow his father’s order (Keazor and Wübbena 244).
There are more parallelisms between the two frame stories. Keazor and Wübbena found out that the nose dive of the camera at the very beginning of “Black or White” is similar to the camera perspective in the opener of the Simpsons. There, one can see clouds at first, then Springfield. The camera rushes through the streets into the school where Bart needs to do an extra exercise. Before the boy in the first frame story plays his power chord on the guitar he says to his father, “Eat this!” This is also parallel to Bart’s favourite saying “Eat my shorts!” (231).
Macaulay Culkin’s and George Wendt’s as well as Homer and Bart Simpson’s confrontation represent the extreme forms of hope and frustration that Jacksons formulates in his song. John Landis chose actors from adult series, children’s movies and cartoon series to attract young and old viewers. Thereby, he facilitates the wish of a cross-generational audience. Maybe there is also another hope articulated in between the lines, namely that generations explain the parts of the video to each other while watching it together.
It’s hardly surprising that “Black or White” was first published immediately following an episode of “The Simpsons”.
Burnett, Robert and Bert Deivert. “Black or White: Michael Jackson's Video as a Mirror of Popular Culture.” Popular Music and Society 3, 1995: 19-40.
Hurth, Elisabeth. “Die Jesus-Gesalt im Rock-Pop-Gewand: Beobachtungen zur 'Jesus-Welle' in der Pop-Religiösität.” Medien praktisch 21, 1997: 57-62.
Keazor, Henry and Thorsten Wübbena. Video thrills the radio star: Musikvideos: Geschichte, Themen, Analysen. 2. Bielefeld: transcript, 2007.
Mattern, Kirsten. Fernsehstars und Kinderalltag: Die Bedeutung von TV-Helden für die Selbstkonzeptentwicklung von Kindern. Oberhausen: Athena, 1999.
Neumann-Braun, Klaus and Axel Schmidt. “McMusic. Einführung.” Viva MTV!:Popmusik im Fernsehen. Ed. Klaus Neumann-Braun. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1999. 7-44.
Wenzel, Ulrich. “Pawlos Panther. Musikvideos zwischen bedingtem Reflex und zeichentheoretischer Reflexion.” Viva MTV!:Popmusik im Fernsehen. Ed. Klaus Neumann-Braun. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1999. 45-73.
Jackson, Michael. “Black or White.” YouTube. Web. 11 April 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3IH0N469RF8