Are you okay?
People who grew up with me know that I was an enormous fan of Michael Jackson. I built a shrine to him in my bedroom and sat humming his lyrics at it each night. One time, I climbed onto the table of my shrine to hang a new photo and fell through. The top was made of glass, you see, and I was a very heavy child. Not bright either. I wasn’t injured because there was a Michael Jackson table cloth covering the top which prevented me from bleeding to death. I genuinely believed that the spirit of Michael Jackson, who was still very much alive at that point, protected me from my own stupidity.
All this to say that yesterday morning I was biking to work and “Smooth Criminal” came on my iPod. It was a slower jazzy version by a band called J. Viewz. I know every word to this song. I know every word to every song of his, but for whatever reason, today is the first day I actually listened to what the lyrics meant.
“He came into her apartment/He left the bloodstains on the carpet/She ran underneath the table/He could see she was unable/So she ran into the bedroom/She was struck down, it was her doom.” He’s killed Annie! “You’ve been hit by, you’ve been hit by a smooth criminal.” What a smooth criminal indeed.
Something about the pace of this cover, my brainwaves, and a mind-numbingly repetitive morning commute, clicked into place and led me to realize the incredible violence of this song.
I had the amusing visual of pudgy 7-year-old Marina singing about a cool dude murdering a woman while bouncing around her bedroom. “That probably did some subconscious damage,” I thought to myself and laughed it off as I passed the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Then I began thinking about subliminal messaging in music. I remember reversing audio files when I was a kid to see if I could hear secret sentences. Rumors of artists recording messages backwards, aka backmasking, from the 70s and 80s rolled over to the 90s and damn did I want to decipher something. It was titillating. Did you know that in the 80s legislators fought to have warning labels put on albums by The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Electric Light Orchestra, Queen and more? According to Wikipedia (it’s early and I’m too tired to find a better source), a “1983 California bill was introduced to prevent backmasking [which] could ‘manipulate our behavior without our knowledge or consent and turn us into disciples of the Antichrist.'” “Stairway to Heaven” was played backwards during a hearing to try to prove to the California State Assembly Consumer Protection and Toxic Materials Committee that the lyrics were damaging.
THAT’S INSANE. They are playing records backwards, forwards, and sideways in an attempt to hear if there are “subliminal messages” turning us into “disciples of the Antichrist”. You don’t need to play anything backwards, just wait for the hook. I’m not religious but I’m pretty sure murdering a woman constitutes as Antichrist-like behavior. Jesus. Focus on that, religious conservatives.
Smooth Criminal is the least of our worries. Remember when Eminem killed off a pregnant Dido? There are hundreds pop songs with catchy beats and sinister lyrics subconsciously seeping into the minds of listeners, teaching them that women are weak and easy to murder. But this isn’t a new revelation and art is art. I would never get in the way someone’s message.
Honestly, my thought process would’ve ended here, but when I got into work and hopped in a meeting with my lovely, charming, patient, inquisitive, co-workers, all male, they brought up Animal House. (We were talking about movies standing the test of time, and my boss had recently watched Animal House, one of the greatest comedies coming out of the late 70s. I mean, it put John Belushi in his first film, that alone makes it a golden piece kissable content.) Here’s the thing that I didn’t remember, and half my co-workers didn’t remember, and you might not remember: There’s a very rapey scene in there. It’s blatant. Pinto, a young gawky pledge, is about to hook up with a girl when she passes out. A devil appears on his shoulder and grunts, “Fuck her, Fuck her brains out!” The option is there, but luckily, he doesn’t take it. It’s a story known all too well on college campuses. Why reduce it to a joke in a comedy?
This is an egregious example of the way pop culture uses women to hang its deep dark desires on, but still, I watched this movie when I was young. My malleable baby brain was soaking in the world, particularly influenced by anything comedy or Michael Jackson.
All I want to say is that when we create something, whether it’s major motion pictures or jokes amongst friends, I want us to really give a lot of thought to the messaging (subliminal or explicit) we’re putting out into the world. You never know what young mind is humming at the shrine of your work.