Michael Jackson’s Beastly Transformations in Thriller: Killing the Hypersexualized, “Musical” Body.
Nearly six entire centuries have passed since Chaillou’s interpolated Roman de Fauvel was brought into completion. Today, the enclosed world of reading for whom fr. 146 was probably meant for is replicated under the strict surveillance of the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale, fully accessible only to a limited number of viewers at a time. Despite the restricted circumstances of Fauvel viewership, paradoxically, the musical components of fr. 146 have never been more accessible. Over the last decade, the publication of the colossal Fauvel Studies has ushered in a new wave of Fauvel interest, succeeded by Emma Dillon’s Medieval Music-Making and the Roman de Fauvel, which both seek to relocate Chaillou’s interpolations within the epistemology of the “book,” and correspondingly, its intertextual relations with other items also included in fr. 146.
Acquiring a Fauvellian sound-byte has never been easier, thanks to new disseminative pathways such as the CDs, recordings, and the digitization of music over the internet. At the click of a button, almost every single musical item in the Roman de Fauvel can be purchased over i-tunes, Amazon, “ripped off” via file-sharing networks, or sampled on media-sharing sites such as imeem or youtube. On the front of contemporary music-making, groups as diverse as the Clemencic Consort, Studio der Frühen Musik, Ensemble P.A.N., Boston Camerata, Ordo Virtutum, The Ensemble for Early Music and even community amateur groups have tried their hand at theatricalising Fauvel from page to stage. Contrary to Gervais’ and Chaillou’s poetic predictions, Fauvel is far from deceased; his multiplied, sonorous musical form permeates the far corners of contemporary reconstructions of medieval music-making, with musicologists idolizing the Roman as one of the most important documents of music in the early fourteenth century.
Today, fr. 146 makers’ concerns over hermeneutic and exegetic “beastliness” seem to be lost in contemporary culture. Thanks to the Hollywood industry, medieval worry over the possibility of “beastly mutation” has been largely quelled by recent films such as X-men (2002) and its sequels (2003, 2006, 2009), The Incredible Hulk (2008) and the highly popular Twilight movie series (2008 followed by New Moon in 2009). In these films, the ability to transmute between beastly and humanoid bodies is fashioned as an imaginary additional appendage, a signifier of extraordinary abilities and fantastic powers beyond human possibilities. Although “beastliness” in its contemporary positive incarnations has the power to inspire awe and admiration, it is worth considering how these films as such respond to beast/human hybridity with ambivalence; to use a cursory example, the massive strength of the Incredible Hulk comes at the cost of uncontrollable rage and monstrous destructive urges. Such is the case demonstrated succinctly in Michael Jackson’s (MJ) immortalized music video Thriller (1983) directed for television by famed horror filmmaker John Landis (American House, American Werewolf in London, Twilight Zone), in which the music-star persona of Michael Jackson – then internationally lauded as the “King of Pop” – vacillates with a ghastly, monstrous filmic persona as if both the aura of celebrity musical genius and the horror of beast stem from the same metaphysical source.
In the fourteen minute music video, Landis and Jackson present us with a modern cinematic version of the Roman de Fauvel’s “Gesamtkuntswerk” aesthetic, marrying image, text and music unfolding temporally over a television “page.” More importantly, I believe the video reproduces similar concerns as the Roman de Fauvel’s anxiety over the sensuous, beastly (musically-suffused) body, albeit in a contemporary setting. The video opens with a lengthy expositional narrative sequence without Jackson’s signature pop tune (the catchy C-D-F-G-D repeating bass vamp only begins 4:13 minutes into the video), in which Jackson transforms into a hideous werewolf as soon as he and his onscreen date (Ola Ray, OR) declare their affection for each other, and the former presents her with an engagement ring [1:43] (see fig. 5.1).
Fig. 5.1. MJ presents OR with an engagement ring [1:43].
Leading up to his beastly transformation, the following dialogue ensues:
1:55 MJ: I have something I wanna tell you.
OR: Yes Michael?
MJ: I’m not like other guys.
OR: Of course not! That’s why I love you.
MJ: No, I mean I’m different.
OR: What are you talkin’ about?
2:10 Screenshot of clouds clearing away revealing the moon. MJ winces and crouches over
2:21 OR: Are you alright?
Cut to MJ, who has semi-transformed into a werewolf
2:24 MJ: (With a gruff, beastly voice) Go away!
Fig. 5.2. MJ transformed into a werewolf [2:51].
MJ’s transformation from 2:10 is ominously paired with “scary music” provided by Elmer Bernstein, which juxtaposes the audience’s expectation of Jackson’s lyricized pop tune with a nondiegetic “external” musical accompaniment (that is, music which seems to originate from a source other than onscreen narrative). In the self-contained fantastic world of Thriller, Bernstein’s music is presented as an “excessive” surplus to MJ’s song, conspicuously paired with moments of filmic beastly mutation. In other words, MJ’s mutations are flamboyantly “musical” in the sense that Bernstein’s “addicions” lack the neutralizing component of text (the word). It is as if the dimension of beastly transformation is explicitly linked to the wordless orchestration of Bernstein’s “beastly” scary music, or even apparent as its complicit source. During the transformation, even MJ’s human voice takes on a gruff, bestialized, monstrous quality [2:24], finally overtaking the mechanisms of speech: the fully transformed werewolf is completely “musical” in the sense that he is unable to produce words, his seat of grammatical reason reduced to “musical” howling and chaotic roaring akin to the intoxicated bray of a thought-deprived cantor (see fig. 5.2 above).
This beastly, speech-impaired “musical” version of werewolf-MJ threatens to break the anthropocentric social pact of MJ and OR’s wedding engagement, pursuing her ruthlessly [3:00 – 3:41] and pinning her to the ground (fig. 5.3 below). That is, the masculine hyper-sensualized (-sexualized) “musical” body of MJ-the-werewolf threatens to overwhelm the disciplinary “human” restrictions of nuptial relations. As Bernstein’s “scary music” surges to a crescendo, the “excesses” of the textless musicality of Thriller reaches a high point as the werewolf prepares to “consume” OR. This sequence has been oft interpreted as the rapacious beastliness of sexual predation, recapitulating Alan and Arnulf’s apprehension of the uncontrollable excessiveness of beastly sexual desires we encountered in chapter 1. MJ is suggestively posed above OR who, stricken with fear, lies helplessly on the ground; whether his approach concludes with sexual or oral consummation is, however, ingeniously left to the imagination of the viewer. At the critical point of attack (rape? Devouring?), the camera cuts to a shot of a movie theatre audience watching a horror film, with a “modern-day” (human) version of MJ and a differently fashioned OR amidst the crowd [3:42]; the viewer than “discovers” that the fright sequence was all but a dreamlike movie-style sequence.
Fig. 5.3. A fear-stricken OR [3:39] sprawled on the floor, encroached upon by a werewolf version of MJ [3:41].
In the second half of the video, the “modern-day” MJ (of the movie theatre) leaves the theatre at the request of “modern-day” OR, at which point the C-D-F-G-D bass vamp begins [4:13]. The beastly excesses of Bernstein’s orchestration are left behind in the movie theatre, “domesticated” as such by containing it within the theatre, and hence the fantastic imagination of the film both actors previously “watched.” After singing three permutations of the song’s verse, the camera pans to a graveyard where, accompanied by an organ underscoring, a different sort of monstrous, “beastly” being emerges. From 6:31 to 8:03, zombies (another form of liminal beastly being perched between life and death) emerge from beneath the ground, as if drawn to the infectious “musicality” of the song’s textless, repetitive bass vamp. Like the “imperfect” neumatic coloration of the tenor line of Garrit Gallus/In Nova Fert, the sensuous pulsation of Thriller’s ground bass appears to breathe “pneumatic” life into the corpses of the dead, spawning an army of aural-pleasure-seeking creatures. This monstrous life-giving quality of MJ’s metaphysical musicality is further strengthened by the deterioration of MJ’s vocals into meaningless, sensuous warbling: at 7:32, the zombies rise to MJ’s signature “hiccup” vocal hook, and his musical improvisation on intoning “ooh,” “yeah,” “ooh baby,” and “woah yeah,” approximating nonsensical glossia: precisely the kind of avian-like literate but inarticulate particulate vox which transform the signifying capacities of the sign into pure aural titillation (see chapter 2). Are the zombies drawn to the “musical” qualities of MJ’s voice, or are they enraptured by the significance of his envoiced words (i.e. the logos of the sign)?
Fig. 5.4. MJ’s zombie metamorphosis [8:26].
By 8:03, the auditory zombies have encircled MJ and OR. At this moment, the Thriller vamp drops out completely, while Bernstein’s “scary music” theme irrupts out of its movie theatre enclosure and into “modern” MJ and OR’s narrative, articulated with an alternating E-flat/F dyad (another musically “metamorphosing” pitch sequence?) in the string section [8:09-8:21], proceeded by an atonal D-C#-C falling chromatic pattern in the strings from [8:21-8:24]. This section climaxes on a loud dissonant cluster in the orchestra [8:25], as the camera pans onto “modern” MJ’s, himself suddenly transformed into a beastly, zombie-like being (fig. 5.4 above) to the bewilderment of “modern” OR. Immediately after this ghastly “reveal,” at 8:28 the familiar Thriller bass vamp kicks into gear, inspiring the ghoulish MJ and his zombie accomplices into a wordless dance sequence which continues until 9:40 (fig. 5.5), which heightens the relationship between textless “musicality” and the rhythmic, sensual drives of the (dancing) body. However, at 9:41 where the text of the chorus returns, the ghoulish MJ spins around to face the camera and sing only for the viewer to discover that his beastly “mutation” has abruptly come to an end. Indeed the moment MJ returns his musical piping to a worded chain of signification, all signs of transformation vanishes, leaving the pop star intact in his fully humanized body (fig. 5.6).
Fig. 5.5. The zombie dance sequence [9:24].
Fig. 5.6. A “re-humanized” MJ [9:41].
By returning to the safe, productive realm of signification, the music video seems to suggest that MJ overcomes his own “beastly” self by becoming an intelligent master of the word (logos), thereby returning to the realm of humanness. On the contrary, by abandoning the symbolic functions of the sign and appealing to the metaphysical excesses of “musicality,” MJ is portrayed as degenerating into the sphere of beastliness. Once MJ’s sung chorus break [9:41-10:34] ends, a shot of MJ’s face in 10:40 shows him retransformed into a zombie. It is only by speaking again (“what’s the problem?”) in 11:47 that MJ breaks the spell of his beastly ontology and, predictably, acquires the affection of his recovering girlfriend. The aesthetic of the word’s power in MJ and Landis’ modern-day Gesamtkuntswerk is further reified by an opening message signed by MJ at the beginning of the video:
Due to my strong personal convictions,
I wish to stress that this film in no
Way endorses a belief in the occult.
- Michael Jackson.
MJ and Landis therefore use the hermeneutic strength of the signifying word to quell any alternative “beastly” forms of exegesis, or acts of misreading which may result from watching the film. In other words, MJ’s opening statement covertly works to dispel, indeed “kill” misinformed acts of reading arising from the metaphysical excess of the film’s semiotic signs in play. By “framing” our viewing experience by warning the viewer not to interpret the film as evidence of MJ’s occult-based beliefs, does not MJ position himself as a version of the clerky, masterful “reader” instructing his students (fans/viewers) of “carnal” reading? MJ disciplines the field of the film’s reception through use of the word, reminding spectators that the filmic events should be understood at an aesthetic, “figurative” level rather than one that is “literal.”
From his onscreen persona to his public persona, MJ’s “performance” of the self in public has also repeated the authority of the word against the metaphysical excesses of wordless “musicality.” This has come to bear on MJ’s deliberate refusal to participate in discourses of his sexuality (the discursive domain of the sensuous beast), his business associate Shirley Brooks explaining that it is “none of anyone else’s business.” Yet, MJ’s suppressed “beastly” domain has nonetheless attracted the admiration of thousands of adoring fans, who, like Alan’s pleasure-seeking sodomites, figure MJ’s sexual appeal into the “musicality” of the voice rather that its textual passengers. Mercer explains:
Just what is it that makes this young, black man so different, so appealing? Undoubtedly, it is the voice which lies at the heart of his appeal. Rooted in the Afro-American tradition of ‘soul,’ Jackson’s vocal performance is characterized by breathy gasps, squeaks, sensual sighs and other wordless sounds which have become his stylistic signature. The way in which this style punctuates the emotional resonance and bodily sensuality of the music corresponds to what Roland Barthes called the ‘grain’ of the voice – ‘the grain is the body in the voice as it sings.’ The emotional and erotic expressiveness of the voice is complemented by the sensual grace and sheer excitement of Jackson’s dancing style: even as a child, his stage performance provoked comparisons with James Brown and Jackie Wilson.
However, as we have seen in the Thriller video, MJ’s “stylistic signature” of erotic “musicality” is similarly the sensuous, metaphysical agent which initiates his mutation from man to beast, an uncontrollable monstrous entity which must be killed by the presence of the word for meaningful figurations of the social contract. The beast is undeniably on the outside, and must be brought back within the boundaries of signification in order to discipline, police, and regulate the meanings of human interactions. One only need venture beyond the bounds of MJ’s regulated stronghold of signification into fan-based circles and the discourse of popular tabloids to observe the destructive effects of beastliness and the “musicality” of signification gone awry on MJ’s reputation. In 1993, MJ’s fame was tarnished by a permutation of such sensuous beastliness, himself stigmatized by a spate of child-molestation scandals, the repercussions of which are still felt today after the celebrity’s untimely death in 2009 from drug overdose. Put differently, MJ’s ambiguous flirtations with the realm of beastly, erotic sensuousness in music videos such as Thriller was an integral part of his rise to fame, as much it was ultimately the blemish that tarnished his public “humanly” image. Indeed, the mutative, beastly quality of MJ’s Thriller video spills over to his public persona in which, under the charged rumours of his deviant acts of sexual predation, construes MJ as a queer, hybridized beast of sorts, shuttling between the glorified super-human object of desire and his monstrous incarnation as a predatory paedophile.
Another name for the musical, sensuous beastliness which dominated MJ’s charges is suggested by John Nguyet Erni as “queer,” a term which designates a deviance from yardsticks of (sexual) normativity while also containing the potential to “queer” the “givenness” of normative templates against which it was first measured. Drawing on the work of literary queer theorists such as Michael Warner and Judith Butler, Erni describes MJ’s “queer figuration” in the realm of the cultural-political as:
[Increasingly] a zone of socially licensed excess, and one without guarantee. “Queer” is a point of resistance, a locus of repeated stigmatization, and a site for overcommodification all at the same time. However, realizing this is never an underestimation of the over-and-above charge of queer practices and queer practices and queer modes of articulation. Rather, it is to trust, with due caution, that the queer performative self – whether it is about performing the transitive “race,” the crossover “gender,” or the topsy-turvy “sexuality,” [and, one should add, the beast-human hybrid,] Michael Jackson style or otherwise plays in the phantom space on all sides of the social and political sphere, and produces itself as vigilant, imaginative, and vastly revisable, but invariably paradoxical, political fictions.
On the front of musicology, the late Philip Brett brilliantly demonstrated the historical semantic connection between beastly “queerness” and “musicality.” Inspired by the work of Eve Sedgwick, Brett argues that the beastly ineffability of queerness (under the regulating gaze of the heteronormative) due to what Sedgwick calls the “epistemology of the closet” made it structurally complementary to music’s own alleged ineffability, to the extent that they became nearly coterminous. “Musical” came to be a slippery “codeword,” an identifying catchphrase amidst members of the same deviating class that could potentially signify that which was other than itself, in other words, signify the beastly, unstable transmuting locus of the “queer.”
Paradoxically, then, “musical” only “signifies” queerness when it signifies defectively, when it short-circuits the pathway of normative signification. Like Fauvel’s visual and musical ontology as a sensuous/sign hybrid, musical queerness threatens the legitimacy of normative signifying systems by being impossible to firmly “pin down.” It revels in the metaphysical, sonorous excesses of the sign and the uncontrollable generation of multiple meanings through play while refuting a unidirectional epistemology of signification. Instead, as the sonorous explosion of “boive” and its sister signs on folio 45r, meaning is amplified (amplificato) in all directions, rupturing a one-way signification street and causing an experience of disorientation or intoxication. Similarly, MJ’s “beastly” persona in Thriller is equally resistant to the grasp of reason – his mutating body slips effortlessly between human, werewolf and zombie, in turn “queering” the authenticity of his “original” humanly appearance, relating, as it were, to the slippery, hybridized quality of the Fauvellian sign teetering between signification and self-absorption.