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Text and Meaning in Michael Jackson's Xscape (part 3 of 5)

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“This is the place
That you choose to be with me
When you thought you could be in
another world…”
--Michael Jackson, A Place with No Name

More than one music critic has singled out Jackson’s re-imagining of the group America’s 1972 number 1 hit, “A Horse with No Name,” rewritten by the singer and re-recorded for Xscape as “A Place with No Name,” as the centerpiece of the album. To listen to both versions of the song back-to-back is to experience some idea of what might have been possible had Jackson lived to record entire collections of reinterpreted classic songs from different genres and eras.

The original song, written by Dewey Bunnel, has been interpreted in many ways. Some have said it describes an experience with heroine that allows the protagonist (not necessarily the singer) to escape the banalities and oppressive restrictions of his daily life as he rides a nameless horse through the desert. Bunnel himself has said drugs had nothing to do with it. He is quoted in Gary Graff’s and Daniel Durchholz’s Rock ‘n Roll Myths as stating the following:

“It really was about a desert, as simple as it is… the desert was a place of wonder; now it could be more of a place of sanctuary or shelter, away from the hordes.”

In the desert, the narrator is able to “remember his name,” or reaffirm his own identity. Yet, ultimately, he also experiences a nightmarish dystopian vision:

“The ocean is a desert with its life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of ground
But the humans will give no love…”

Jackson’s re-imagining takes the action out of the bone-dry desert. He places it instead on a highway where the modern technology of his jeep breaks down. A mysterious woman appears to guide him through thickening fog to a city that is clearly more utopian than dystopian:

“This placed is filled with love
and happiness
Why in the world could I wanna leave…"

The difference is not just a matter of equally compelling narratives. Jackson makes it a point to affirm the healing beauty of both fantasy and reality. Each gives redemptive meaning to the other as opposed to presenting the painful opposite: one circle inside hell (as with Dante’s The Divine Comedy) leading to yet another circle inside hell. The construction of such a hope- and love-filled Michael-Jacksonian vision (if you will) in direct response to a song that had mesmerized listeners across the globe, was one way to battle the seemingly endless stream of nightmare realities that so frequently characterize human existence.

The Performing Artist as Transhumanist Art

Was there a way for anyone to truly prepare for the Michael Jackson hologram––or virtual representation–– performance of “Slave to the Rhythm” on the 2014 Billboard Awards broadcast for the entire world to see? Reactions to it have run the gamut from outrage and shocked disbelief to overwhelming joy and stunned silent tears. The song, number 5 on the album, is itself a fine enough example of what Jackson once described as “putting the jelly with the jelly,” or combining the best with the best.

The performance finds Jackson in full-throttle funk mode after recording and re-recording it, according to Reid, some 24 times to get the in-your-face vocal effects he wanted. Combined with Timbaland’s contemporized production and the compositional genius of Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Reid, the song became an instant classic the moment it was tagged for the album.

With the over-the-top launch provided by the Billboard Awards, “Slave to the Rhythm” seemed guaranteed to debut somewhere near the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles chart or to at least push Xscape itself into the magazine’s prized number 1 album position. Neither of these likelihoods occurred and it is a fair enough question to ask why.

The answer may be as simple as the right song by the right creative artists presented at the wrong time. The idea of a woman as a slave within any context––musical metaphor or otherwise––creates a psychic hurdle for many people in this year 2014 when human trafficking is a real-time tragedy suffered by millions. Moreover, “Slave to the Rhythm” made its extravagant prime-time debut just as the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign was hitting its peak. That observation should not be read as a suggestion that Reid is insensitive to such social tragedies or that the King of Pop had any way of knowing, while recording the song in 1991, the extent to which human trafficking would still be a major human challenge more than two decades later.

NEXT: Text and Meaning in Michael Jackson's Xscape Part 4

by Aberjhani
author of Journey through the Power of the Rainbow
and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance

More on the Life, Music, and Legacy of Michael Jackson

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