Author Archives: Willa and Joie
Willa: So Joie, we’ve been talking recently about a couple of songs from Xscape, and it’s true there are some really great demos on that album. But to be honest, my favorite song that’s come out since Michael Jackson died is “Monster.” I know there’s been a lot of controversy about the so-called “Cascio tracks,” with some fans – including people I really respect – questioning the legitimacy of those tracks. Specifically, they question whether that’s really his voice we hear singing these songs.
Joie: Yes, we’ve all heard a lot about the controversy, Willa. And you know, I’m really not sure that it’s ever going to end. I mean, there’s no way to truly convince those who doubt that it’s Michael’s voice on those tracks that it actually is him. So, I personally don’t think that issue will ever be resolved.
Willa: You could be right, Joie, though I have a feeling that, over time, opinion will start to coalesce toward one side or the other. So what do you think? Do you think it’s his voice?
Joie: Honestly, Willa … I really don’t know. And I have to say that it really troubles me to have to admit that, but it’s the truth. The fact is, on each of the songs in question – “Breaking News,” “Keep Your Head Up,” and “Monster” – there are parts that sound unquestioningly like Michael to me. But by that same token, on each song, there are many parts that just don’t sound quite … right. Do you know what I mean? On certain parts something is just missing from this amazing, unique voice that many of us have been listening to unceasingly for over forty years.
But here’s the thing that makes me doubt these songs: it’s not just the Cascio tracks on the Michael album, it’s all the Cascio tracks. At least all the ones that I’ve heard. Supposedly, there are 12 in all, and I have 4 in my collection of unreleased music. That’s 4 other Cascio tracks besides the 3 that appeared on the Michael album, and they all have these little hiccups that Teddy Riley and others who worked on that album tried to explain away as “overprocessing” during the final producing stages to “fix” tiny imperfections like the occasional flat note or such. Now, if these little hiccups are in the 4 tracks that didn’t get that final “overprocessing” treatment in order to make it onto the album, why do they still sound like the 3 tracks that did get the “overprocessing” treatment? That’s my question.
Willa: And it’s a really good question.
Joie: But, you know, I’m not an expert. Far from it! So, it could very well be that it is in fact Michael’s voice on each and every Cascio track, and there’s a very simple explanation as to why they all sound not quite right. As I understand it, the studio they were working in was a very rudimentary homemade sort of deal, so perhaps that did play a big part in the resulting sound quality of each track.
The problem is, without Michael here to verify that, we have no way of knowing, and probably never will. If they had video recorded the entire process, I think the Michael album would have been received by the fans in a completely different light, but instead I think many of them just felt sort of alienated somehow. Like the Estate and those working on the album were trying to deceive them in some way, or trying to take advantage of their grief.
Willa: Well, it is a shock when you go to listen to a Michael Jackson song expecting to hear his voice – a voice many of us have been listening to for forty years, as you said – and hear something that just doesn’t sound right. I feel the same way about “Best of Joy,” and the legitimacy of that song is apparently beyond doubt – at least, I’ve never heard anyone question it. And actually, I do think it’s his voice. It’s just been overprocessed to the point where it sounds really off to me.
But I don’t think the Estate was intentionally trying to deceive anyone, and I think they did honestly try to find out whether those tracks were legitimate. Howard Weitzman, a lawyer for the Estate, issued a detailed letter after the controversy broke where he explained the process they used to verify the authenticity of the Cascio tracks. He said they began by asking the opinion of professionals intimately familiar with his voice:
Six of Michael’s former producers and engineers who had worked with Michael over the past 30 years – Bruce Swedien, Matt Forger, Stewart Brawley, Michael Prince, Dr. Freeze and Teddy Riley – were all invited to a listening session to hear the raw vocals of the tracks in question. All of these people listened to the a cappella versions of the vocals on the tracks being considered for inclusion on the album, so they could give an opinion as to whether or not the lead vocals were sung by Michael. They all confirmed that the vocal was definitely Michael.
Michael’s musical director and piano player on many of his records over a 20-year period, Greg Phillinganes, played on a Cascio track being produced for the album, and said the voice was definitely Michael’s. Dorian Holley, who was Michael’s vocal director for his solo tours for 20 plus years (including the O2 Concert Tour) and is seen in the This Is It film, listened to the Cascio tracks and told me the lead vocal was Michael Jackson.
Weitzman’s letter goes on to say that after receiving the panel’s opinion, the Estate gave the tracks to “one of the best-known forensic musicologists in the nation.” He conducted a waveform analysis and concluded that the vocals were Michael Jackson’s. Sony then brought in a second musicologist who conducted another, independent investigation, and he or she came to the same conclusion.
To me, that’s all pretty compelling evidence. I mean, I have a lot of faith in Bruce Swedien’s ears – more than my own, actually! And to me personally, the Cascio tracks sound like Michael Jackson’s voice, though a bit processed – but not nearly as much as on “Best of Joy.” To be honest, I have much more of a problem with it than the Cascio tracks.
Joie: And I still don’t understand your aversion to that song, Willa, because there is no comparison between the vocals on “Best of Joy” and the vocals on the Cascio tracks. They are like night and day. The vocals on “Best of Joy” didn’t get that overprocessed treatment that the Cascio songs were supposedly subjected to, and they have never been in question. In fact, we know that “Best of Joy” was the last song that Michael worked on before he died.
But there is no documentation that proves Michael ever worked on the Cascio tracks, which is why all that analysis was supposedly ordered by the Estate. All we have to go on are the words of the Cascios themselves, and of course, all of the expert voice analysis that you just listed. But my response to that is, have you ever listened to songs by MJ sound-alikes, like Jason Malachi or Marcus J. Williams? Ok, I know a lot was said about Malachi when the album came out, and he vehemently denied having had anything to do with the album, but have you ever heard Williams? Here’s a sample:
All I’m saying is that the Estate and Sony can tell us that they brought in all of these experts to verify that the vocals are genuine, and maybe they did, and maybe they are. But how do we really know? I guess it just all boils down to whether or not you choose to believe it. And let me just point out that I’m not saying that I don’t believe it’s Michael on the Cascio tracks. I’m just saying that I can see both sides of the argument, and those tracks (both the ones on the album, and the ones still unreleased) sound questionable to me.
But I want to back up a little bit and address something else you just said. “Monster” is your favorite posthumously released song? That surprises me for some reason.
Willa: Well, as we’ve talked about in many posts before, I love the way Michael Jackson encourages us to sympathize with the Other – with those who are considered outsiders and are typically ignored by popular culture or presented in unflattering or oppressive ways. We see that in some of his best songs and films: Thriller, Ghosts, Beat It, Black or White, Stranger in Moscow, “We are the World” and “Heal the World” … on and on. All the way back to “Ben,” his very first number one hit when he was just a kid. He didn’t write “Ben,” but he loved it and sang it in concerts for years, well into adulthood.
Also, frequently in his songwriting we see him adopting multiple subject positions and viewing a situation from multiple perspectives, often in a way that gradually shifts the meaning of the lyrics over the course of the song. We’ve talked about this in a lot of posts also, like when we talked about “Morphine,” “Whatever Happens,” “Money,” “Threatened,” “Dirty Diana,” the Who Is It video – even that song I have so much trouble listening to, “Best of Joy.” While his voice sounds off to me – distressingly off – I love the lyrics.
Joie: How can that beautiful falsetto on the chorus and the smooth tenor of the verses sound off to you? They are as magical on “Best of Joy” as they are on “Don’t Stop,” “Childhood,” or “Butterflies.” You know, every time you talk about it, I wonder if maybe you bought a bad CD or got a faulty mp3 download or something, because there is nothing off about that song! It’s all in your head! Or should I say your ears.
Willa: Oh heavens, Joie – talk about a controversy that will not end! How long have we been debating this? Pretty much since the Michael album came out, right? I really think we have argued about this more than anything else. You know, when we talked about “Best of Joy” in a post a while back, I was very careful not to say anything about it – about how completely off his voice sounds to me.
Joie: And I wish you had because I wanted to talk about it back then, but you asked me not to mention it, remember?
Willa: Yes, I know. It just embarrassed me that there was a song out there where I love everything about it except his vocals, especially since no one else seemed to have a problem with it. I mean, I have loved his voice since I was 9 years old. It was very confusing to me – how could his voice sound so wrong? So I didn’t say a word about it in the post, but then two people – Juney07 and Eleanor – mentioned it in their comments. As Juney wrote,
My “problem” with Best of Joy is that for some technical reason Michael’s voice sounds higher pitched on the CD I have, perhaps overproduced, or something. I’m no expert on CD production but wonder if any of you guys think the same. I know it’s Michael’s voice; that’s not the issue; if it had been released while he was living I would have wondered the same.
And then Eleanor wrote this:
I have had a similar problem with “Best of Joy,” and have hesitated to join this discussion because of it. It is the only track that bothers me on “Michael.”
I feel the exact same way as Juney and Eleanor. (And thank you both very much, because I was starting to wonder if I was crazy! Seriously. I even went to a hearing specialist to see if there was something wrong. So thank you for reassuring me that I’m not the only person on the planet who hears it this way …) Some parts are better than others, but the opening line, for example, sounds sped up to me, almost like an Alvin and the Chipmunks version of a Michael Jackson song. It makes it very hard to listen to, which is too bad because I love the lyrics and the melody.
Joie: You’ve said that before, about the opening line of that song sounding like Alvin and the Chipmunks to you. This is why I always wonder if maybe there is a bad batch of CDs out there or something. I don’t know if I’m using the correct musical terminology here or not, but to me, the cadence of that opening line – the modulation and inflection of his voice in those first four notes of the song – sound every bit as strong and clear to me as the first four notes of “Speechless.” He is singing in a slightly higher key in “Best of Joy,” but his voice sounds exactly the same in the opening lines of both songs. And I always wonder how we can hear this song so differently. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s like we truly are not listening to the same piece of music, and I find it both fascinating and frustrating. I mean, we’ve disagreed over songs before, but on things like our interpretations of them or simply what our favorites and least favorites are, but this is different. With “Best of Joy” we literally are not hearing the same piece of music. Don’t you find that odd?
Willa: I do. I find it incredibly odd. But you gave me an mp3, remember? Just to see if I had a bad CD? And it sounded fine to you and wrong to me. So we’re listening to the same file – we just hear it differently somehow.
I’ve even wondered if there’s like an auditory version of colorblindness – if maybe I’m not hearing the full range of sound somehow, so certain sections sound thin and reedy to me. I mean some sections sound beautiful, like “I was the only one around” at 0:22, but then “When things would hurt you” comes in at 0:27 and that sounds wrong to me, like it’s been sped up or something.
Joie: I had forgotten that I sent you an mp3 because of this debate, but you’re right – I remember that now. And I’m sorry. I don’t mean for “Best of Joy” to hijack this post – I’m not even sure how we got started – but you mentioned an auditory version of colorblindness, which I find both interesting and amusing. But I’m wondering if perhaps it could be whatever device you’re listening on. I also wonder what the ratio is of fans who hear it fine to fans who hear it distorted, because obviously you’re not the only one – Juney and Eleanor prove that. So, there must be others. It’s just an interesting little mystery to me.
Willa: It really is, for me too. And “distorted” is a good way to describe it, because that’s how it sounds to me.
But anyway, we were talking about “Monster” and how, in his songwriting, Michael Jackson structures the lyrics sometimes so there’s a constantly shifting point of view. This is very unusual, maybe because it’s so difficult to do. Yet Michael Jackson seems to achieve it effortlessly – it just seems to be a natural reflection of how his mind worked. We see him using this approach over and over throughout his career, from his earliest songs to his latest. To me, this feature of his songwriting is as distinctive as a fingerprint, and in that sense I see his fingerprints all over the Cascio tracks, especially “Monster.”
So whether that’s his voice singing the lyrics of “Monster” or not (and I think it is) I am absolutely convinced he wrote those lyrics, both by the subject matter – meaning the way he encourages us to sympathize with the Other – and by the complex way the lyrics are structured – meaning the way he constantly shifts point of view over the course of the song.
Joie: I don’t believe the authorship of the songs has ever been in question, only the vocals. But, did you want to talk about the song “Monster,” or only the controversy surrounding it and the other Cascio tracks?
Willa: No, I’d love to focus on “Monster” because I think it’s a great song – and an important one – that hasn’t been explored the way it deserves because of the uncertainty surrounding it. I just thought we should “dance with the elephant” a bit and address the controversy upfront because I know it’s an issue for a lot of people.
So “Monster” begins with these lines:
You can look at them coming out the walls
You can look at them climbing out the bushes
You can find them when the letter’s about to fall
He’ll be waiting with his camera right on focus
Everywhere you seem to turn, there’s a monster
When you look up in the air, there’s a monster
Paparazzi got you scared like a monster, monster, monster
So the first verse is written in second person (“You can look at them …”) which is unusual. Generally songs are written in first person (I can look at them …) or third person (He, she, or they can look at them …). What second-person narration does is put us as listeners into the song. And how we’re positioned is interesting – we are in the role of a celebrity targeted by paparazzi. They’re surrounding us and coming at us from every direction, so we can’t get away from them. They keep suddenly appearing, like the zombies in Thriller – in fact, he calls them “monsters,” so they kind of are like something out of Thriller. It’s like we’re living in a real life horror movie, being confronted by these “monsters” all around us that are impossible to escape.
Then a two-part chorus comes in, and the first part shifts this completely:
Oh oh Hollywood
It’s got you jumping like you should
It’s got you bouncing off the wall
It’s got you drunk enough to fall
Oh oh Hollywood
Just look in the mirror
And tell me you like, don’t you, don’t you like it?
It’s still written in second person (“It’s got you jumping like you should”) but we’re no longer a celebrity – a target of tabloid paparazzi. Instead, we’re a consumer of those exploitative tabloid pictures and screaming headlines. And he says that if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit we like those trashy tabloids, as much as we may pretend not to: “Just look in the mirror / And tell me you like, don’t you, don’t you like it?” In fact, we like it so much we’re addicted to it, intoxicated by it. As he says, “It’s got you bouncing off the wall / It’s got you drunk enough to fall.”
And then the second part of the chorus comes in and shifts the perspective once again:
He’s a monster
He’s an animal
He’s a monster
He’s an animal
This is sung by multiple voices, not just his voice though his voice is among them, and it seems to represent what the tabloids are saying about him. So this part is from the tabloids’ point of view, and they’re saying, “He’s a monster.” That’s a complete reversal from the first verse, where he was saying the paparazzi were acting like monsters.
So in quick succession we’ve looked at this situation from the perspective of a celebrity who’s hounded by the tabloids, a consumer who buys and reads the tabloids, and the tabloids themselves. And, as if that isn’t complicated enough, he then takes us around that full circuit of perspectives two more times. Wow!
Joie: Wow, indeed, Willa! That was a really interesting interpretation. And I agreed with most of what you said. I do believe that he has positioned us, the audience, as the celebrity in this song. And I agree that the first part of the two-part chorus shifts this and makes us the tabloid-addicted public. But I disagree completely with the last part of your interpretation. For me, the second half of that two-part chorus puts us back in the celebrity’s point of view, not the tabloids’. Especially when we look at the second voice that comes in between the lines of that part of the chorus:
(he’s like an animal)
He’s a monster
(just like an animal)
He’s an animal
(and he’s moving in the air)
He’s a monster
He’s an animal
(everybody wanna be a star)
So here we see that second voice, weaving in and out of the second part of the chorus, “He’s like an animal / just like an animal / and he’s moving in the air.” So, I think that second voice is still referring to the paparazzi as the monster, not the celebrity. And this seems to be supported the further we get into the song when that portion of the two-part chorus begins to repeat:
(why are you haunting me?)
He’s a monster
(why are you stalking me?)
He’s an animal
(why did you do it? why did you? why are you stalking me?)
(why are you haunting me?)
He’s a monster
(why are you haunting me?)
He’s an animal
(Why did you? why did you?)
Here that second voice that weaves in and out of the chorus seems to turn on the paparazzi and confront them. “Why are you haunting me? / Why are stalking me? / Why did you do it?”
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Joie. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I agree those lines do seem to be a celebrity talking to the paparazzi and asking them why they’re doing what they’re doing – as he says in one round of the chorus, “What did you do to me? Why’d you take it? Why’d you fake it?” The question “Why’d you take it?” sounds like something a celebrity would say to a photographer.
But to me, this section where the second voice weaves in and out of the chorus – the voice you put in parentheses – is really interesting because I see this section as presenting two conflicting voices. The foreground voices (or what were the foreground before – now they’ve been pushed back and sound more like they’re in the background) anyway, the voices singing, “Monster / He’s a monster / He’s an animal,” that still represents the tabloids, I think, like earlier in the song.
But now we hear that new voice you were talking about, Joie, and it’s pushing back against that narrative and implying they’re the real monsters … and as you said, it seems to be the voice of a celebrity under attack by the tabloids: “Why you stalking me? … Why you haunting me?” At least, that’s how I interpret it. It’s kind of like we talked about in the “Chicago” post a couple weeks ago, where the foreground voice and the background voice are in conflict and expressing different emotions. To me, the foreground voice and background voice are in conflict here too, and not just expressing different emotions but the opposing viewpoints of two very different groups of people: the celebrities, and the tabloids that feed off them.
Then this section is followed by a heartbreaking bridge:
Why are they never satisfied with all you give?
You give them your all
They’re watching you fall
And they eat your soul like a vegetable
The way I interpret this, the “you” in this case is the performer who gives his all on stage – so we’re positioned as a celebrity again – and the “they” are the people who read the tabloids. They’re the audience who loves you when you’re on stage but is “never satisfied” with that, and wants to read hurtful, gossipy stories about your private life as well.
At least, that’s how I see it. How do you see this part?
Joie: Well, I don’t think the “they” is only the people who read the tabloids. I think it also refers to all of us as well, the fans. I mean, he loved his fans very much, but I believe he probably sometimes felt that we wanted much more of him than he could physically give – not necessarily wanting to read hurtful, gossipy stories about him, but definitely wanting to peek inside his private life and see everything.
Willa: Oh, that’s a good point, Joie. I think you’re probably right about that – “they” probably does include all of us to some degree. After all, it wasn’t just tabloid readers who were curious about his life, but all of us.
Joie: And you might be right about the dueling voices on the last part, but as the song comes to an end I think we’re back in that second-person point of view as he addresses us, the audience, and puts us back in the celebrity’s position and says:
He’s dragging you down like a monster
He’s keeping you down like a monster
Willa: That’s interesting, because I always thought he was putting us in the consumer position in this part – that he was saying that reading tabloids and watching Hard Copy drags us all down, as a culture. But you’re right, the tabloids certainly “drag down” celebrities also, so it makes a lot of sense that way too.
However you interpret it, it’s a fascinating song by a masterful songwriter who always encouraged and sometimes forced us to view the world from a multitude of perspectives, including some we may never have considered before. That’s one reason – one of many – why his work captures my imagination and won’t let me go.
Willa: You know, Joie, one of the things I love most about Michael Jackson’s work is its emotional complexity. Real life experiences and emotions are rarely simple – we rarely feel pure love or pure anger or pure relief or pure joy. Instead, we generally feel a mix of emotions, and his work captures that so beautifully. Often, his songs will plunk us down in a situation, and then lead us through the full range of emotions we might feel in that situation.
A perfect example is “Chicago,” a song from the recently released Xscape album. In it, Michael Jackson adopts the role of a man who’s unwittingly had an affair with a married woman. Now he’s discovered the truth, and he’s singing about how that feels to him – so there’s hurt and anger and a deep sense of betrayal.
But as the song progresses, we discover that he’s singing this song to his lover’s husband. As he says, “She tried to live a double life / Loving me while she was still your wife.” So there are a lot of other emotions as well: guilt, shame, regret, and this need to try to explain what happened and justify his actions.
But he’s also replaying their entire relationship in his head – the song begins with memories of how they first met. So we experience that initial attraction also, and the tenderness and longing he once felt for her.
So he’s immersed in a jumble of conflicting emotions, and working through all that is really complicated for him – and for us as we feel those emotions through him.
Joie: You know, Willa, I’m happy you wanted to talk about this song, because I love it, for many reasons! And getting right into it, I agree with everything you just said about all of his feelings of guilt, shame and regret. But I get the sense that he’s not so much trying to explain what happened as he is attempting to warn the husband about his traitorous wife. His words actually sound very much like an accusation, like he’s telling the husband, She did it once, she’ll do it again! This is what he says:
She lied to you, lied to me
‘Cause she was loving me, loving me
Then he goes on to say this:
She tried to live a double life
Loving me while she was still your wife
She thought that loving me was cool
With you at work and the kids at school
Those words are very inflammatory, and they’re sung with such anger and bitterness. He’s clearly very hurt, and now it’s as if he’s lashing out, attempting to hurt her in turn by telling her husband all about their torrid affair.
Willa: Wow, Joie, I’m surprised it feels that way to you because I don’t get that feeling – that he’s trying to retaliate or hurt her in some way. He does tell her husband, “You should know that I’m holding her to blame,” so he is definitely holding her responsible for what happened, and he is obviously very hurt by it, but I don’t think he’s trying to lash out at her, as you put it. Rather, I think he’s explaining to her husband (and maybe to himself as well) that he’s “not that kind of man” – the kind who would sneak around and have an affair with a married women. As he tells her husband,
I didn’t know she was already spoken for
‘Cause I’m not that kind of man
Swear that I would have never looked her way
Now I feel so much shame
You know, some men would actually feel a sort of triumph in this situation, like they had put one over on her husband. But the person singing this song isn’t like that. There’s something kind of old-fashioned about him – even the words “I didn’t know she was already spoken for” are old fashioned. People don’t usually say someone is “spoken for” anymore.
And you know, an old-fashioned way for him to respond to this situation would be to act gallant – to say it was all my fault, not hers. But gallantry can be another type of lie also, and he refuses to do that. He insists on honesty. So he’s not going to soften things and delude himself that maybe she did love him, and he’s not going to make excuses for her either. He’s going to face the situation squarely, and truthfully acknowledge what happened.
But he also seems kind of shy or unsure of himself. As he says in the opening verse, “I was surprised to see / That a woman like that was really into me.” This kind of reminds me of the opening verse of “Billie Jean” where the protagonist is proud she has chosen him to dance with her. As he says, “Every head turned with eyes that dreamed of being the one / Who will dance on the floor” with Billie Jean. And actually, these songs are pretty similar in some ways. In both cases, a rather shy young man is drawn into a false relationship with a woman who isn’t at all who she seems to be.
So anyway, what I’m trying to say is that “Chicago” is a song about a man who’s had an affair with a married woman, but he isn’t some sneaky, sleazy Lothario bragging about his exploits. Just the opposite. He seems to be a very earnest young man who wanted a real relationship, and maybe wanted to be a father to her children – the children she told him she was struggling to raise on her own. But everything he thought he knew about her has turned out to be false – she already has a husband, her children already have a father, and he’s just an unwelcome intruder into their domestic situation. Now he realizes that – that “she had a family,” as he says in the closing line of the song – and as he says, “Now I feel so much shame.”
Joie: Yes, but as you pointed out in your opening, Willa, real life emotions and experiences are rarely simple. It’s rare that we feel pure love or pure anger or pure anything. And while I agree with you completely that he’s incredibly remorseful and sincere in his shame – he’s clearly owning his own guilt – I still believe that he also feels a measure of anger and bitterness toward her now. As you said, he tells her husband that he’s “holding her to blame.”
But he doesn’t just say this once. He keeps repeating the refrain throughout the entire second half of the song. In fact, those words, “Holding her to blame,” completely replace the refrain he’s been repeating in the first half of the song, “She was loving me; she was wanting me.”
Willa: Wow, that’s really interesting, isn’t it? I hadn’t picked up on that, Joie, but you’re right. There are vocal lines running in the background – I wish I knew musical terminology better, but it’s almost like a countermelody in the background while the main melody is telling the story in the foreground. And you’re right – before the bridge that countermelody alternates between “she was loving me” and “she was wanting me” – those are the only two lines we hear – but after the bridge he begins to sing “holding her to blame” over and over. That seems really significant.
Joie: Yes. It’s a very subtle change, but now he’s “holding her to blame” for everything that happened, and the bitterness of those four little words are palpable and heartbreaking. This man is broken and hurt and lashing out at the woman he thought loved him.
You know, in a lot of ways, this song reminds me of “Who is it.” I get the same sense of bitterness and hurt from both songs, especially when I think about these words:
And she promised me forever
And a day we’d live as one
We made our vows
We’d live a life anew
And she promised me in secret
That she’d love me for all time
It was a promise so untrue
Tell me what will I do?
It’s the same sort of betrayal going on here, and it brings up the same sense of a heartbroken, confused man left wondering what the heck just happened to the life and the future he thought he was building with the woman he loved.
Willa: That’s a good point, Joie, and I think comparing these two songs is really useful. There are some important parallels – like in both cases he was imagining a life together but then realizes it was all in his imagination. She isn’t the person he thought she was, and they will never have the life together that he envisioned. And in both songs, that makes him question what’s real and what isn’t. We really see that in the video for “Who Is It.” And he sings this in “Chicago”:
Her words seemed so sincere
When I held her near
She would tell me how she feels
If felt so real to me
So his world really has flipped upside-down with these revelations. Not only is he feeling sad that the relationship is over, but also deeply betrayed and unsure about what’s “real” and what isn’t, what’s true and what isn’t. And will he be able to know what’s true or real in the future, if he has another relationship?
Joie: That’s a very good point, Willa. He probably is second guessing himself now, wondering if he will have the street smarts to know or discern the real truth in the future – if he’s even brave enough to venture into a real relationship going forward after this.
Willa: Yes, and that state of confusion is really captured by the fact that he uses two very distinct voices in this song, kind of like we talked about with “Morphine” in a post with Lisha McDuff last spring. More than that, he alternates between those voices in singing two very different verse forms – a soft one and an angry one – with two different melodies. At least that’s how it seems to me. What I mean is, I don’t think this song has a chorus, which is unusual. Instead of verses and a chorus, which is a typical structure, it shifts between two distinct verse forms that are juxtaposed against each other.
The song – and I’m talking about the demo version – opens with slow, dreamy, kind of mystical music, and then a wistful voice describes how they met, two lonely people on their way to Chicago. This is the first verse form and the first melody, and it perfectly matches the mood of the music, with long, lyrical lines and a sort of hazy, dreamlike quality.
This beautiful quiet voice continues throughout the first verse, but then suddenly an angry voice slams in for the second verse with a very different tempo and rhythm. This second verse form is very different from the first, with short, sharp phrases – almost staccato – and by the end he’s almost screaming as he says “she lied to you, lied to me.”
Joie: Yes. That’s the anger and bitterness I keep referring to – that angry voice that’s lashing out at this deceitful woman and warning her husband.
Willa: And you’re right, Joie – that voice is very angry. I’m just not sure he’s trying to retaliate and hurt her too. He seems conflicted, and again that’s expressed through the music as well as the lyrics. That second verse ends, the angry voice stops, and the quiet wistful voice returns singing the first melody. We’re back to the first verse form – the slow, languid, beautiful one – and he tells us how happy he was with her, and how good it felt to be with her. As he says, “she had to be / An angel sent from heaven just for me.”
But just as abruptly, this soft verse ends and the angry voice storms in again, and this time it lasts for two full verses. So he’s alternating between the forms – one soft, one angry – but it feels like anger is starting to win, that anger is starting to take over this song. He repeats the verse he sang before – that “she said she didn’t have no man” – but now extends it to a second verse, telling us (and her husband) “She tried to live a double life / Loving me while she was still your wife.”
By this point, he seems completely consumed with anger. But while it may appear that way on the surface, his feelings are actually more complicated than that because, as you pointed out, he’s singing different words and a different melody in the background. The first melody – the softer one – is continuing behind the second one (that’s what I meant by a countermelody) and as you said, the words he’s singing are “she was loving me” and “she was wanting me.” And that beautiful, mystical instrumentation we hear throughout the first form is running through the background also.
So the foreground voice and the background voice are singing in very different ways and expressing very different emotions. That’s so interesting, and it seems to suggest that he’s in deep conflict – that despite his anger at what she’s done, there’s still this strong undercurrent of softness toward her and longing for what he thought they had together.
Then there’s a short bridge that’s mostly instrumental, but we hear him whisper a painful “Why?” and then he sings “Oh, I need her love.” It’s really heartbreaking.
And then we’re back to the alternating verse forms, and it ends with three repetitions of that confused state where the loud angry voice is in the foreground, proclaiming “she lied to you, lied to me,” while that beautiful wistful voice and mystical music continue to flow in the background.
Joie: Yes, but now, after that heartbreaking bridge, that beautiful wistful voice isn’t singing “she was loving me, she was wanting me.” Instead it’s singing “holding her to blame,” over and over.
Willa: That’s true.
Joie: I love the way you broke the song down there – that was very accurate, I think. And, you know, the more we talk about this song, the more I agree completely with what you said at the beginning of this conversation – that this song is a perfect depiction of human emotions and how we rarely feel only love or only anger or only anything. In every human experience there are a myriad of emotions, both good and bad, that come along for the ride. It’s just how we’re made, I think.
Willa: I agree, and I admire the way Michael Jackson’s songs reflect that. He doesn’t try to simplify everything down and make it all seem nice and tidy. Instead, he acknowledges how complicated and messy our emotions can be – how high and low and even contradictory they can be, all at the same time.
Joie: It’s “human nature” … no pun intended!
Willa: Wow, that’s so funny you should say that, Joie! I was just thinking about “Human Nature.” You know, that’s another song that seems to be about adultery – a lot of critics interpret it that way. And if it is, then in that song the protagonist is all for it. As the song says, “If this town is just an apple / Then let me take a bite.” So in “Human Nature” – which Michael Jackson didn’t write, and we should probably keep that in mind – the protagonist wants to fully immerse himself in all of life’s experiences, including sexual experiences, and there’s kind of a celebration of that – of taking risks and defying social norms.
The situation is completely different in “Chicago.” The protagonist is filled with guilt and shame, hurt and anger, and that brings me back to the unusual fact that this song is addressed to his lover’s husband – not to her or us or even himself, but to her husband. That’s so unexpected and interesting. He’s feeling “so much shame,” as he says, and he seems to want to confess, to get it all out, and the person he’s confessing to – really pouring his heart and soul out to – is her husband.
That’s so intriguing to me, and I wonder if it’s because her husband is the authority figure in this situation. He’s the father of this family, but there seems to be more to it than that, and I wonder if he represents The Father, meaning the generic idea of The Father – patriarchy, God the Father, the rule of law and the Ten Commandments. “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
Joie: Mmm, I don’t know about all that, Willa. I think you might be reading too much into it. I think the husband is just the husband. You know, these kinds of adulterous situations unfortunately happen quite a bit in our society, and I think telling the husband, or the wife, probably happens a lot too, and it’s got nothing to do with confessing to The Father or anyone else. In fact, a lot of times I think it’s done in an attempt to “free” the adulterer from their spouse so the “confessor” can finally have them outright.
Willa: Well, that’s an interesting idea, Joie, and it’s true the protagonist seems conflicted about the relationship ending. He did love her. But at the same time, he seems pretty clear that it’s over. I don’t think he has any intention of any sort of relationship with her, especially now that he knows who she is and what she did – that she lied to him and misled him, and “tried to live a double life.”
And maybe I am reading too much into the husband/father, but it seems to me that the protagonist isn’t just feeling emotional pain that the relationship is over, but also a sense that he has done something morally wrong – he’s had an affair with a married woman, a woman with children and a family. I keep thinking about the verse after the bridge where he sings,
I didn’t know she was already spoken for
‘Cause I’m not that kind of man
Swear that I would’ve never looked her way
Now I feel so much shame
And all things have to change
You should know that I’m holding her blame
So she hasn’t just hurt him emotionally. He also seems to feel that she’s led him astray, led him into sin. It’s almost biblical – Eve tempting Adam with the forbidden apple. And now, like Adam, he’s feeling a deep sense of shame, and confessing to The Father what he has done – what she, like Eve, led him to do.
Joie: Well, it’s an interesting interpretation, Willa, but I’m not sure I agree with it.
Willa: Well, to be honest, I’m not sure I agree with it either. I’m just kind of thinking out loud as I try to work this out. It does feel to me that the protagonist is in a terrible place, emotionally and spiritually. He feels betrayed and angry, but also that he’s done something wrong. So he confesses, but the person he confesses to is her husband. And in a way that makes sense because her husband has been hurt by all this too.
So maybe I need to come at this a different way. It seems to me that, early in his life, Michael Jackson was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, a strict religion with a lot of rules – no Christmas celebrations, no birthday parties, plus a lot more – so he grew up with a strict moral code based on rules. But that seems to have changed as he grew older. I’m thinking of that wonderful verse in “Jam”:
She prays to God, to Buddha
Then she sings a Talmud song
Confusions contradict the self
Do we know right from wrong?
I just want you to recognize me in the temple
You can’t hurt me
I found peace within myself
I love this verse – it’s both beautifully written and so profound – and he seems to be suggesting nothing less than a new kind of morality, one that isn’t based on following religious doctrine but on developing and following our own inner moral compass. “Do we know right from wrong?” It’s also based on people and the connections between us – “I just want you to recognize me in the temple.” So it isn’t the temple that’s important, or even the type of temple – Christian, Buddhist, Jewish – but the people within it and our ability to connect with one another and recognize the humanity within each other.
In other words, he’s talking about an earthly morality, not a heavenly one. And in that sense, it seems significant that the protagonist of “Chicago” confesses, not to God, but to a fellow human – a human he unintentionally hurt, her husband.
Joie: It is interesting to think about and make those parallels from his personal life. And you may be on to something with your speculations, who knows? But that’s always the fun of looking at these songs, and even the videos and live performances, so closely and trying to discern the true meanings behind them.
Joie: So, Willa, it’s a new season for Dancing with the Elephant, and I thought we could start by talking about some of the new Michael Jackson material. And I have a confession to make that I think might shock you a little bit. I’m actually not very fond of Xscape.
Willa: Wow, Joie, you’re right – I am shocked. I prefer Michael to Xscape but I like them both and listen to them a lot. So do you actually dislike Xscape, or is it just not your favorite? I mean, it’s up against some pretty stiff competition – Thriller, Dangerous, HIStory … and I know how much you love Invincible …
Joie: Well, that’s true, I do love Invincible. But maybe I should rephrase my earlier statement. It’s not that I’m not fond of Xscape, it’s just that there wasn’t much on the album that was new to me.
Let me explain … for a long time, even before Michael passed away, I had been sort of obsessed with scouring the Internet for unreleased MJ material. So, most of what was on the Xscape album had been in my collection of unreleased material for a few years. The only ones I hadn’t heard before were “Chicago” and “Loving You.”
Willa: Oh, I see what you’re saying, and that makes sense. I was really surprised when I first heard “Love Never Felt So Good” on Xscape – I’d been listening to that demo version for so long I’d forgotten it hadn’t been released! It was like listening to a new album and suddenly hearing “The Way You Make Me Feel” come out the speakers. I was thinking, Hey, what’s that doing on here? So I know what you mean, and I know how impressive your collection is! – much better than mine. In fact, I think almost all of the unreleased songs I have came from you, along with demos of released songs.
And I have to say, I love listening to Michael Jackson’s demos. In fact, I really haven’t listened to the “contemporized” songs on Xscape that much, but I’ve listened to the demo tracks a lot. And I know I’ve said this before, but I really wish they’d release the demos for Michael. I’m so happy they did that for Xscape, and hope they’ll continue that practice with all his posthumous albums. It’s a great idea, I think – they were really smart to offer Xscape that way.
Joie: I agree, it was a smart thing to do. And I agree without a doubt – I also prefer the original versions of the songs over the “contemporized” versions. But there is one song on the album that sort of puzzles me. It’s “Slave to the Rhythm.”
I don’t really know if “puzzles” is the right word, but the thing is … the version of this song that I first came across online doesn’t sound anything like the enhanced, “produced,” “contemporized” version on the album. But I was really shocked the first time I listened to the untouched demo version because the version I have doesn’t sound anything like it either. And I have to say that I much prefer the version that I’ve been listening to for a couple of years to either of the two on the album. It’s really strange.
For the longest time I didn’t have any information at all on the version that I found online, so I had no idea who mixed it or who was behind it … or even if Michael had anything to do with it or not. But I believe it sounds truer to a finished product that Michael would have released than either of the versions on the album.
You know, the bad part is that it’s been so long now, for the longest time I honestly didn’t remember where I first came across it, and I still don’t. But thanks to the power of YouTube I was able to find it there recently:
Apparently it’s a remix made by Tricky Stewart that was leaked online in 2010, although it really seems like I’ve had this version in my collection for a lot longer than that, but maybe not.
Willa: Wow, Joie, I’ve heard the two Xscape versions and the Justin Bieber version (here’s a link to that in case someone missed it) but I’ve never heard this one before. Whether it was sanctioned by Michael Jackson or not, whoever produced it somehow had to have access to his vocal tracks, right? And they were hard to find before the demo came out on Xscape, weren’t they? I mean, even you didn’t have a copy, with your extensive collection. That’s really intriguing. I wonder where it came from …
Joie: But the mysterious version is not the only interesting thing about this song. I happen to just love the song itself for many reasons- not the least of which is the lyrics. The song opens with these lines:
She dances in the sheets at night
She dances to his needs
She dances ‘til he feels just right
Until he falls asleep
So right off the bat, he sets a very distinct tone with this one. We know from the first few lines that this is a woman who caters to her man, whether that’s what she wants to do or not. “She dances to his needs.”
Willa: It is very interesting that he starts this song that way, isn’t it? A lot of his songs feel really cinemagraphic to me, if that makes sense – it’s like they describe a series of visual scenes, just like a movie – and the “opening scene” of this song, if I can describe it that way, is of them in bed having sex. It doesn’t feel right to call it “making love” because expressing love doesn’t seem to have much to do with it. It should be a moment of intimacy, but it isn’t. It’s her serving his needs, which is excellent foreshadowing for what the song is about.
Joie: Exactly. And Willa, this is where the three different versions make things really interesting for me, because I feel like in the Tricky Stewart version, the music sets an almost menacing tone for this song that I don’t feel is there in the other two versions. And I think something really gets lost in translation without this menacing, ominous beat.
Willa: That’s so interesting you should say that, Joie, because I’ve been pondering that very thing – about whether this song feels menacing or not. To be honest, the first time I heard the demo version I felt really unsettled by it. I thought this woman was in an abusive situation, and it felt very threatening to me. I just wanted her to grab the kids and go. And when she decides to come back to him at the end and stay in that situation, I was really disturbed by that. Anything would be better than letting a man abuse her children and her.
But as I’ve listened to it more, I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think he is abusive, though he’s definitely not a nice guy. He’s domineering and self-centered and emotionally distant, and he takes everything she does for granted – as Michael Jackson sings so convincingly, “She works so hard … For a man who just don’t appreciate” – but I don’t think he’s physically abusive. And really, this song isn’t about him. It’s about her and the choices she makes, and why she makes the choices she does. As you say, Joie, she spends her life catering to the needs of others – mainly her husband, but also her children and her boss. Meeting their demands forms the “rhythm” of her life, and she’s a slave to that rhythm.
Joie: I like the way you put that, Willa – meeting their demands does form the rhythm of her life. In that same first verse, Michael tells us this:
She dances at the crack of dawn
And quickly cooks his food
She can’t be late, can’t take too long
The kids must get to school
Then in the second verse, she keeps right on dancing…
She dances for the man at work
Who works her overtime
She can’t be rude as she says “Sir,
I must be home tonight.”
So, you’re absolutely right … it’s not just her domineering husband that she caters to; it’s the kids and her boss as well. And we get the sense that it’s rare for her to take any time for herself. But when listening to the other two versions of this song, I just don’t get that sense of urgency or the hint of danger that I do when listening to the Tricky Stewart version.
Willa: Really? Because the demo version begins with a sort of melancholy tune and then the whistle and crack of a whip – it’s at 0:22, just as he sings a long, quavering “Ahhhhhhhh.” It’s not on the other versions – I don’t know why they removed it – and the sound of that whip makes me flinch every time. It’s very menacing, to use that word again, and it’s also important thematically, I think. Her husband and her boss are both like slave drivers – they’re constantly “cracking the whip” and never let her relax for one moment or take time for herself, as you said. And the crack of the whip at the beginning of the demo version makes that very clear, and very literal. In fact, I think that’s one reason I thought he was abusive the first time I heard it. It creates an impression of physical danger.
Joie: Yes, but even with the sound of the cracking whip at the beginning of the demo version, the tempo of the song, the beat, is still quite mellow to me. The music is softer and less threatening. Whereas the Tricky Stewart version picks up the tempo slightly and adds the driving, aggressive beat behind it. To me it feels truer to the word “menacing” than the demo version does. The demo, for me anyway, evokes a feeling of being bone tired, working a relentless nine-to-five job that you don’t enjoy, then going home and having to work a second full-time job taking care of a demanding husband and kids.
Willa: Which is one way to interpret this song …
Joie: The Tricky Stewart version, on the other hand, evokes a real feeling of danger to me. There’s a tangible threat there when the woman in the song is late getting dinner on the table.
She dances to the kitchen stove
Dinner is served by nine
He says this food’s an hour late
She must be out her mind
I actually shudder to wonder what the man might do to her as punishment for getting his dinner on the table so late. I don’t do that when I listen to the other versions of this song. I don’t feel as physically threatened, if that makes any sense.
Willa: It does make sense, and this verse feels really threatening to me as well – though I feel it just as strongly on the demo version. I mean, if he gets that angry over a late meal, how does he react when there’s a real problem or conflict? It’s very threatening …
Joie: And the threat doesn’t stop there with that verse. He goes on to tell us that she actually ran for her life.
She danced the night that they fell out
She swore she’d dance no more
But dance she did, she did not quit
As she ran out the door
She danced through the night in fear of her life
She danced to a beat of her own
She let out a cry and swallowed her pride
She knew she was needed back home
So I think your earlier questions that this might be an abusive relationship are right on the mark here. I believe he is physically abusive. And I believe she goes back at the end, not for him, but for her children. She knew that she could never be truly free if she escaped that abusive situation without them. She couldn’t just leave them there. So she “let out a cry and swallowed her pride / She knew she was needed back home.”
Willa: I definitely see what you’re saying, Joie, because that’s how it struck me the first time I heard it. But gradually, as I listened to it more, I began to wonder if that was right or not. I mean, the lyrics say, “She danced the night that they fell out.” To me, that expression “fell out” implies an argument, where both sides are mad and making their case. So did he become abusive and she ran to avoid him, or did she finally stand up to him and have it out with him, and left because she was angry with him? My thinking about this has really changed over time, and while I can still see it either way, right now I’m leaning more the other way – that she finally had enough and stood up to him.
But then she spends the night wandering the city, and that feels really threatening to her – she has no place to go, so is on the streets “in fear of her life.” But it also says “She danced to a beat of her own.” That’s a really important moment, I think. Up to this point, the rhythm of her life has been determined by others: her husband, her boss, her children. So she’s finally able to dance to her own rhythm, which must feel liberating to some extent, but she’s also in danger and she knows her children need her. So it’s a very short-lived kind of freedom, and under terrible circumstances where she can’t enjoy it or fully express it.
So she “swallows her pride” and goes home. To me, that “swallows her pride” line is important. It wasn’t fear of her husband that was keeping her out on the streets – it was pride. And again, to me that suggests she finally stood up to him and asserted herself, and that’s why they “fell out.” But now she’s decided to go home, submit to his demands once again, and resume the same pattern of work and servitude that she endured before.
Joie: Well, you may be right, but I just hate to think of it that way because it means she willingly walked back into that horrible situation not because of love, but because she felt helpless. Like she had no other choice.
Willa: Well, she loves her children, as you said earlier, and she knows they need her …
Joie: But here’s the thing, Willa … I know that these same words are there in all three versions of this song. But the point I’m trying to make is that the whole feel of the song – or at least, the feeling it leaves me with, the impression it makes on me – changes dramatically depending on which version I’m listening to.
Willa: I agree – they each create a very different feeling, but I still think the demo version is more … somber. The Tricky Stewart version has kind of a techno pop sound that makes it seem like something you’d hear at a dance club. And actually, the Timbaland version sounds like a dance club song also. It begins with that same haunting melody we hear in the demo, but now with the solemn beat of a drum and the sound of someone walking in chains in time to the music, which is really effective, I think. But then that abruptly ends as a fast, electronic, techno pop rhythm comes in.
And in some ways, I like that pounding, driving beat – it ties in really well with the idea that “she’s a slave to the rhythm,” forced to dance as fast as she can, all day, every day. But at the same time, to me all that buzzing and popping and other sound effects we hear on the Tricky Stewart and Timbaland versions actually lighten the mood. They turn it into an upbeat dance song. So for me, the quieter mood of the original fits the mood of the song better.
But you know, it’s interesting that we both prefer the version we came to know first, and I wonder if that’s part of it? Maybe if I’d been listening to the Tricky Stewart version for a few years, like you have, I might have a similar reaction, and the demo would sound too bare or too soft to me also.
Joie: I actually think that has a lot to do with it. To me, the two versions on the album seem almost bare and stripped down … way too mellow for such a strong song with such a powerful theme, and I know it’s because I’ve been listening to a completely different version for several years now. So, to me the two versions on the album just seem foreign and not quite right. Strange, isn’t it?
Willa: This week I am thrilled to be joined once again by Dr. Susan Fast, whose new book on the Dangerous album will be coming out September 25 from Bloomsbury Press. I just want to say up front that I’ve read this book twice now, and I’m still staggered by it. For the first time we have a detailed, in-depth analysis of one of Michael Jackson’s albums, and it’s amazing – it reveals how he conveys meaning through every layer of musical creation and performance. Some sections I’ve read numerous times, going through sentence by sentence with my headphones on, trying to catch all the details and nuances of meaning Susan identifies. I was quite simply blown away by it.
Susan, your book is such a treasure trove of ideas, as well as new ways of listening and thinking about his music. There’s so much I want to talk with you about! Thank you so much for joining me.
Susan: Thanks for having me back to Dancing With the Elephant, Willa. It’s such a pleasure to exchange ideas with you again. Sorry that Joie can’t be with us this time around.
Willa: Me too. Joie is starting a new career, which is exciting, but it’s keeping her really busy.
Susan: Very exciting; I wish her the best of luck! And thanks for your incredibly generous comments about the book and for being so helpful when I was writing it: you read through drafts of every chapter (some more than once I think) and made such thoughtful suggestions, which have certainly made the book stronger. And it helped make the writing process feel less lonely which, as you well know, it often is.
Willa: Oh, I thoroughly enjoyed it! And I love the fact that you focus on Dangerous, which tends to get a lot less attention than Off the Wall or Thriller. Most critics seem to think those two albums were the high points of Michael Jackson’s artistic output, and it was all downhill from there. I don’t know how many times I’ve read that …
Susan: Yes, I point to several critiques like that in the book and they keep coming; the 35th anniversary of the release of Off the Wall just passed and Mark Anthony Neal wrote an essay that called it Jackson’s “signature achievement.” It’s a brilliant album, but all of Jackson’s albums are brilliant. As I’ve thought about it more, I actually don’t know how his albums can be compared; they’re like apples and oranges, each conceived of and framed in a unique way. I think we need to get away from putting them in a hierarchy that, in my opinion, is at least partly based upon nostalgia for the young(er) Jackson – for many complicated reasons.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Susan, and we could easily do an entire post just exploring those “complicated reasons.” I think a lot of it is nostalgia, as you say – both for the younger Michael Jackson and for our own younger selves, for the people we were when we first heard those early albums – as well as a reluctance to see him as a grown man and a mature artist.
And part of that, I think, is a deep discomfort among whites with the image of the “angry black man.” That image carries a lot of emotional weight, especially in the US, and I think a lot of people were very troubled by the idea that the sweet-faced Michael Jackson we’d watched grow up before our eyes – a celebrated success story and a symbol of integration and racial harmony – could become an “angry black man.”
But we do see flashes of anger in his later albums. And he is certainly speaking with a mature voice, as you emphasize in your book. I was interested that you see Dangerous as a significant milestone in that progression. In fact, you begin your book with the defiant claim that “Dangerous is Michael Jackson’s coming of age album.” I love that! – in part because it boldly contradicts the conventional wisdom that Dangerous was simply another stage in his decline.
Susan: The decline narrative is so misguided, in my opinion, but as you say, it depends on what you’re looking for and what your experience has been with Jackson’s music. I’ve loved the Dangerous album for so long and have always thought of it as an immensely significant artistic statement. Having the opportunity to spend so much time with it was an amazing experience; I’m grateful that the editors at 33⅓ thought it was a worthwhile project. And I’m really thrilled that they’ve chosen to make this book, the only one on Jackson in the series, the 100th volume. I’m sure this was partly an accident having to do with individual authors’ deadlines, but it warms my heart to know that such an important artist will occupy that significant milestone spot.
The series – each book is devoted to a single album – doesn’t prescribe how records should be interpreted, there’s no formula for the books – indeed, some volumes don’t talk much about individual songs or how they’re structured. But in part because I’m a musicologist, and in part because there’s been so little written about how Michael Jackson’s songs work, I really wanted to focus on that, always keeping in mind, of course, that the way musicians organize sound is inextricably bound up with the social. Musical sound doesn’t transcend time and place; it comes from somewhere, helps define that somewhere.
Willa: Yes, I love the way you explore the “anatomy” of his songs, as he called it on more than one occasion, and also provide important historical contexts for approaching Dangerous. For example, before taking an in-depth look at his songs of passion and desire, you take on the “pathologizing [of] Jackson’s sexuality,” as you put it. I think that discussion is incredibly important, especially since you are the first critic I’ve read to validate what so many fans have been saying for years: that he was unbelievably hot! Obviously! And not just in the 80s, but throughout his life. It felt so liberating to me to read that. It was like, Yes! Finally! Here’s a critic who really gets it – who understands the power of his music and his performance and the sheer presence of his body on many different levels.
Susan: The denial by so many critics of Jackson’s sexuality, or – more often – the relegation of his electrifying sexual presence to a performance – in other words, put on when he was on stage, but not “real” (whatever that means) – is something I felt compelled to address, especially because sex and lust are themes featured so prominently on this record. The thing the critics miss is that it makes absolutely no difference whether or not the person Jackson was on stage carried over to his life off stage; acting is powerful, we’re moved by good actors, they make us believe in the moment of the performance and perhaps long afterwards. Jackson did that.
Willa: That’s very true. He did.
Susan: Beyond that, I don’t see the incongruity between his commanding, aggressive, sexy onstage self and his quiet, shy offstage self as problematic in the way that so many critics do. It’s only a problem if we think in binaries; Michael Jackson was much too complex for that kind of thinking.
Willa: Yes, and as you point out in your book, that intriguing contrast of the bold onstage presence with the shy offstage demeanor was itself very sexy for a lot of women, myself included.
There were also important cultural and historical reasons for him to be cautious in how he presented himself offstage, especially with white women. Eleanor Bowman, who contributes here sometimes, recently sent a link to an NPR piece about Billy Eckstine, one of the first black artists to cross over to a white audience. To be honest, I’d never heard of him before but his biographer, Cary Ginell, told NPR that at one time “Eckstine’s popularity rivaled Frank Sinatra’s.” However, his career was derailed overnight by a photo in LIFE magazine:
“The profile featured a photograph of Eckstine coming out of a nightclub in New York City, and being mobbed by white teenage girls,” Ginell says. “If you look at the photograph, it looks very innocuous and very innocent. It’s actually what America should be like, with no racial tension, no racial separation – just honest love and happiness between the races. But America wasn’t ready for that in 1950. White America did not want Billy Eckstine dating their daughters.”
Eckstine’s crossover career abruptly ended with that one photograph: “Eckstine continued to record and perform, but white disc jockeys would not play his records.” And it’s almost like he was erased from public memory – at least, white memory. But Michael Jackson was a well-read student of history, especially black history, and I’m sure he would have known about the backlash experienced by public figures before him who had been perceived as too friendly with white women – people like Jack Johnson and Chuck Berry and Billy Eckstine.
Susan: What a tragic story this is. My overarching point in the book on Dangerous is that the politicized and sexualized adult persona that Jackson revealed on that album and the short films that went with it were incredibly threatening. And as you say, I think he knew that he had to be careful, given stories like Eckstine’s and many others, which is why that soft, sweet, off-stage public persona was so important. At the same time, he really pushed the envelope – dating high-profile white women, for example. I do address this in the book. For a long time he maintained a delicate balance, but eventually, when he started presenting a more adult, sexualized self in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this balance was thrown off. His performances couldn’t be so easily dismissed.
And what’s so interesting to me is that many critics and others could not, would not, and still cannot see him as an adult – don’t believe him as one – and I think this is one of the reasons why he is so often vilified or infantilized. Witness the recent tabloid story in which unnamed maids who supposedly worked at Neverland reported that they witnessed him “peeing” in his house and threatening to throw “animal poop snowballs” at the help; this is a very particular kind of denigration – including the kiddy language used – that strips Jackson of his adulthood. We could say it strips him of a lot of other things – dignity, the ability to be taken seriously, perhaps his humanity …
Willa: I agree! It denies his humanity in a very literal sense: peeing on the floor and throwing feces is something an ape would do, an animal would do, not a human. When I heard those stories, I immediately thought of the chorus of “Monster”:
(He’s like an animal)
He’s a monster
(Just like an animal)
He’s an animal
I think he really understood this impulse by certain segments of the population to characterize him as a monster, an animal, a bogeyman, an Other, and he forced us to acknowledge it.
Susan: Yes, for sure. But I think the use of the childish language points very specifically to the desire to relegate him to prepubescence, to childhood – in a bad way, not the way he would have embraced! In his insightful analysis of the short film for “Black or White,” Eric Lott says that at the beginning of the panther dance “something so extraordinary happened at this moment that the video’s initial audiences couldn’t take it in.”
Willa: I agree!
Susan: Me too. Elizabeth Chin elaborates on this by saying that many found the panther dance “unintelligible” in the way that encounters with the unfamiliar often are; she uses Freud’s concept of the uncanny, “the recognition of a truth that has been suppressed,” to help articulate what happened for many viewers at this moment. I think this can be said about Jackson in general, especially as he got older and started to challenge his audience more profoundly around social issues. Critics and some of his audience couldn’t take it in, couldn’t see what he was saying, or doing.
Willa: That’s true. And that’s an excellent way of describing much of his later work, isn’t it? – that he was forcing us, at some level of consciousness, to acknowledge “a truth that has been suppressed”? And the panther dance is an incredible example of that. More than 20 years later, we’re still trying to uncover the “truth” of that performance – we’re still stunned by it and can’t take it all in, to paraphrase Lott.
So Susan, reading your book I was repeatedly blown away by your insightful analysis of the “anatomy” or musical structure of specific songs, as well as the album as a whole. One thing that immediately caught my attention is how you see the overall structure of Dangerous as being like a book with “chapters,” or clusters of songs exploring a related theme. In fact, you use a similar structure in your book, so your book mirrors Dangerous, chapter by chapter.
Susan: Yes, I hear Dangerous as a concept album; the concept is loose, but it’s there. Of course the songs can be listened to and appreciated individually, but I think Jackson was going for something bigger, more cohesive, an over-arching narrative. It’s a strikingly different approach than the one he used on Thriller or Bad which – at least as far as I can hear – don’t have this kind of narrative cohesiveness. This is why we need to start thinking about each album individually, paying attention to its particular contours, themes, ideas.
Interestingly, he said in his interview with Ebony in December 2007 (and he said a similar thing elsewhere many times) that the approach to Thriller was to make it an album of hit singles. In his words:
If you take an album like Nutcracker Suite [by the classical composer Tchaikovsky], every song is a killer, every one. So I said to myself, ‘why can’t there be a pop album where every …’ People used to do an album where you’d get one good song and the rest were like B-sides. They’d call them ‘album songs’ – and I would say to myself ‘Why can’t every one be like a hit song? Why can’t every song be so great that people would want to buy it if you could release it as a single?’ So I always tried to strive for that. That was my purpose for the next album [Thriller].
(Here’s a link, and this quote begins at 3:38.) His use of Tchaikovsky as an example is so interesting to me: what pop musician models commercial success on a record of classical music?? But Tchaikovsky’s idea wasn’t far off from Jackson’s. The Nutcracker ballet was long, complicated, and required a lot of resources to mount; why not create a “greatest hits” suite that could be performed as a concert piece? I think it’s also interesting that there are eight pieces in the Nutcracker Suite, most of them quite short – the whole thing is about 25 minutes long. I can’t help but draw a parallel to the structure of Thriller: nine songs, about 42 minutes of music.
Willa: Wow, that’s a really interesting way to interpret that quote. (By the way, here are YouTube links to the full score of The Nutcracker and to the Suite.) You know, I’ve seen the ballet many times, and certain parts of the score are really popular – it seems like everywhere you go at Christmas you hear the music for the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy playing in the background, and it was also included in Disney’s Fantasia. (Just for fun, here’s a link to that too.) But I don’t think I’ve ever just listened to the music to The Nutcracker all the way through, separate from the ballet, and I never thought about the Suite like an album. That’s so interesting, especially when you put it side by side with Thriller …
Susan: Yes, that was Tchaikovsky’s aim in creating the Suite: he wanted the piece performed more often, realized it couldn’t be because of the length and cost of mounting it, and so pulled what he thought were the “greatest hits” from it and created the Suite.
But back to Thriller, the length is average for a pop album, but it’s a small number of songs, really, the smallest number of any of his solo records. And, as we know, just about every song on Thriller was a hit single. My sense is that people take this as the way he thought about putting albums together in general, but I don’t believe this is true (in fact if you look at the above quote carefully, you’ll see that he’s referring specifically to Thriller). Thriller is a very particular and uncharacteristic instance of concision from an artist who liked to be expansive.
In a May 1992 interview with Ebony, one of the questions the interviewer asked was what the “concept” for Dangerous was; I think it’s quite a striking question for the very reason that Jackson’s albums had not been particularly “conceptual” up to that point: what made the interviewer think there was a concept? The cover art work? Something about the music? In any case, in his answer Jackson again pointed to Nutcracker, but here his thinking about it was very different:
I wanted to do an album that was like Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. So that in a thousand years from now, people would still be listening to it. Something that would live forever. I would like to see children and teenagers and parents and all races all over the world, hundreds and hundreds of years from now, still pulling out songs from that album and dissecting it. I want it to live.
Well, the dissecting has begun! I have to admit that while I’d read this interview before, I didn’t remember this quote until after I’d finished writing the book: what a shame. But I feel somewhat vindicated now in thinking that Jackson did, indeed, have an overarching concept for this record, that he was not thinking in terms of hit singles (or not exclusively or primarily), but of a series of interconnected songs, laid out in a particular order, that tell us a story. And a pretty complex story, too, one that he saw as requiring a lot of analysis to unravel (the idea that an artist wants his work dissected is pretty thrilling for someone like me).
The way I see it, that story is about very big ideas: it’s about examining and challenging the state of the contemporary world with energy and resilience and allowing oneself to get lost in all the complexities of love (and lust!), of feeling hopeful, invigorated … and then being deeply, deeply, betrayed and wounded, not just by love, but by everyone and everything. From my perspective, he never completely recovers from that sense of betrayal on this record, though he does do a lot of serious soul searching. The songs are grouped, allowing ideas to be explored in considerable depth, examined through different musical and lyrical lenses.
Willa: Yes, that was so interesting to me. I’d never thought about his albums like that before – that they include groupings of related songs, like chapters in a book, and that they move us through a sequence of emotional experiences, like a novel does. But now that you’ve pointed out that structure in Dangerous, I see it in HIStory and Invincible as well.
For example, Invincible begins with three painful songs about a disastrous relationship with an uncaring woman: she’s trying to hurt him, she doesn’t understand him, she rejects him without giving him a chance to explain or win her over. And interestingly, that reflects his relationship with the public right then: the press (and the police as well) really were out to get him, people didn’t understand him, and they rejected his later albums and wouldn’t give them – or him – a chance.
Those songs are then followed by a series of five songs where he’s imagining scenes of genuine love – and pretty steamy sexual passion also. It’s like he’s trying to imaginatively conjure up the love and desire that was denied him in the first three songs.
Susan: Yes, those two groupings are certainly there on Invincible. He seemed to want to explore a theme through more than one song, in back-to-back tracks, in these later albums. Look at something from more than one angle.
Susan: Another narrative strategy on a later album that I’ve been struck by is his decision to end HIStory with “Smile.” After all that anger and venom, all that commentary on social injustices both personal and broadly cultural, delivered through some of the most aggressive grooves he ever created, he ends the album with that tragic ballad and its directive to “smile though your heart is breaking” (which his must have been); it’s very powerful.
Willa: It really is, especially when you consider that “Smile” was written by Charlie Chaplin, whose life story parallels Michael Jackson’s in significant ways. Chaplin was immensely popular in the 1920s and 30s, but then was falsely accused of fathering a child out of wedlock. There was a very public trial, and a paternity test proved he was not the father. But he was found guilty anyway, both in court and in the press, and the public turned against him. He spent the rest of his life in exile, something of a social pariah.
Given that context, I imagine “Smile” spoke to Michael Jackson in a very powerful way. And since HIStory in some respects is a response to the allegations against him, it makes sense that he would end the album with “Smile.” He rarely included cover songs on his albums, but he made an exception for “Smile” – it was that important to him.
Susan: Precisely. The point about cover songs is really significant. As you say, he didn’t really do them. The only other cover that appears on his solo albums is “Come Together” on Bad. I’ve always been intrigued by that choice as well.
Willa: I have too! He also places “Come Together” in a very prominent spot at the end of Moonwalker, and as Frank Delio has said, that movie was very important to him – he put a lot of time and energy, and his own money, into making it. So it feels like there’s something going on with “Come Together” – something important. Maybe we can do another post on that sometime and try to figure it out.
Susan: Great idea!
Willa: So it’s really fascinating to look at his later albums as made up of “chapters” of songs – and that structure seems to begin with Dangerous. As you pointed out with the two Nutcracker Suite quotes (and how interesting that he referred to it twice, in such different ways!) he doesn’t seem to have used this approach with his earlier albums. Thriller is more a collection of hit singles, as you said. But with Dangerous, he seems to be taking listeners on an emotional journey as we progress through the album – which suggests that something is lost when we listen to these songs in Shuffle mode on our iPods.
Susan: Or we just have a different kind of experience, which is fine too. I like looking at formal structures, though, and I think it’s interesting to view the album as a whole. “Jam,” for example, serves as a kind of overture on Dangerous (“it ain’t too much to Jam.” Now let me show you how it’s done for the next thirteen songs). I’m also struck by structural details, for example the first time we hear Jackson on Dangerous it’s through his breath – before he starts to sing – at the beginning of “Jam”; this aggressive use of breath returns in the last song on the album, “Dangerous,” in effect bringing the record full circle. I don’t think a detail like this is coincidental; when you listen to his music with your ears open you start to hear how intricately constructed it is, how nuanced.
Willa: Yes, and I feel like you’ve been opening my ears! There are motifs running throughout this album that I hadn’t really noticed or thought about before, like the use of his breath, or the recurring sound of breaking glass, or the visual image of the globe that appears repeatedly in the videos for this album (in Jam, Heal the World, Black or White, Will You Be There) as well as occupying a central position on the album cover. And as you point out in your book, the meaning of these motifs seems to evolve over the course of the album.
For example, the breaking glass gains new meaning once you’ve seen all the breaking glass in the panther dance of Black or White – specifically, it can be read as expressing anger at racial injustice. And once you’ve made that connection, it’s very interesting to then go back and listen to the other instances of breaking glass and see how that affects the meaning there as well. For example, I think there’s a racial component to In the Closet, as Joie and I discussed in a post a while back, and we hear breaking glass at significant moments in that song and video. And the album as a whole begins with the sound of breaking glass, so what does that tell us about the album we’re about to hear?
Susan: Indeed. What. The “non-musical” sounds on this album are really important to take into account – they help shape the narrative. The sound of breaking glass recurs in various places, as you say, and I think its meaning is multiple and complex. But one of the ways that I interpret the sound as it’s used at the beginning of the record is as a metaphor for a broken world.
Willa: Oh, that makes a lot of sense, Susan. And it really fits with the recurring image of the globe, and the feeling that he’s focusing on “very big ideas” on this album, as you said earlier.
There are also some recurring musical techniques you identify in your book that I found really intriguing as well. For example, you point out that both “Jam” and “In the Closet” include a bass line in the chorus but not in the verses – a pronounced absence, if that makes sense. And that creates a very unsettled feeling in the verses, as you point out – like we’re dangling over a void with no ground beneath us. I love that image because it describes so perfectly my uneasiness when listening to “Jam” – something I feel rather intensely but had never really thought about before or traced back to its origins, and certainly never associated with the lack of bass. And that unsettled feeling fits the meaning of the lyrics because in both songs the verses are describing a problem: a broken world, a romantic conflict.
The bass then appears in the chorus, which as you point out in the book provides a feeling of reassurance – like, Whew! Now we’re back on solid ground! And that reinforces the meaning of the lyrics also since the chorus suggests a solution. In “Jam,” he tells us the solution to a broken world is to “jam” – to come together as a community and make music together, both literally and symbolically. So the ideas and emotions expressed in the lyrics are reinforced in sophisticated ways by the music.
Susan: Yes, this is a great example of how musical sounds map onto social ideas. How does it make us feel when that grounding bassline isn’t there? How does the keyboard part that nearly mirrors the vocal line – but an octave higher and with a timbre that makes us feel tense – contribute to the sense of anxiousness in this song? Not to mention Jackson’s brilliant vocal in the verses, which is rushed: he’s constantly ahead of the beat – on purpose of course (this is really hard to do consistently, by the way).
Willa: I love the way you put that, Susan: “how musical sounds map onto social ideas.” To me, that’s really the essence of what’s so fascinating about your book. I don’t know enough about music to uncover that on my own – to figure out how specific musical details translate into creating meaning and emotion. I don’t even hear a lot of those details until you point them out, and then, Wow! It’s like I’m hearing elements of these songs for the first time – like that high unsettling keyboard line in “Jam” that you just mentioned. I hear it so clearly now since I read your book, but don’t remember ever hearing it before. So it opens up an entirely new aspect of his brilliance that’s closed to me without help from you or Lisha or others with your expertise.
Susan: I hope it’s useful to think about these things. When people say that Jackson was a perfectionist, it’s details like this that they’re talking about (along with lyrics, his dancing – which I don’t have the skills to say much about – etc.): the choice of a particular instrument or timbre, the placement of a breath, the decision to create a song in a particular genre, or to add an unsettling sound somewhere (one of the most intriguing examples of this last idea – to me at least – is the percussive sound heard after the last iteration of the chorus in “They Don’t Really Care About Us,” just before the guitar comes back in – at about 4:15. It’s just sonically interesting in and of itself, but why the dissonance at that point, why the new timbre that hasn’t been heard before in the song?). Some of these ideas came from his producers, I’m sure, but he OK’d them. The point is, he understood and appreciated the power of the musical detail. To say the least.
Willa: Absolutely. Well, it feels like we’ve really only talked in detail about the first chapter of your book – there’s so much more to discuss and explore! I hope you’ll join us again sometime. It’s always so fun to talk with you.
Susan: Yes … and we elaborated on what’s in that first chapter in some interesting ways! Thanks for the opportunity to explore these ideas with you; I’d be happy to join you again.
The following conversation was originally posted on May 22, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
We also wanted to give a reminder that Veronica Bassil’s new book, That Wonder in My Youth: Michael Jackson and Childhood, will be available for free tomorrow through September 2. Here’s a link.
Joie: Today, Willa and I are joined by our good friend, and frequent contributor, Lisha McDuff, and we’re talking about the title track of Michael’s HIStory album. More specifically, we’re talking about a certain aspect of that title track. Thanks for joining us again, Lisha!
Lisha: Thanks so much for having me!
Joie: Ok, ladies, here’s a question that I know we’ve all thought about many, many times, and I would be willing to bet that just about every Michael Jackson fan has pondered at least a dozen times while listening to this multi-layered song. What do all of those dates at the beginning and the ending of “HIStory” mean, and do they have some personal significance for Michael beyond their obvious significance to the rest of the world?
Willa: I think they have tremendous significance. For example, there are two dates set off by themselves at the beginning of the track – all the other dates come at the end. And as you pointed out, Lisha, when we first started kicking around the idea of doing a post on “HIStory,” those two have special significance.
Lisha: Exactly so. The first words spoken in the song are “Monday, March 26, 1827,” and “November 28, 1929.” Although it is never spelled out what these dates specifically reference, I find it interesting that these happen to be two important dates in music history: the death of Ludwig van Beethoven and the birth of Berry Gordy, Jr.
Willa: So do I. Putting those two dates together the way he did suggests Michael Jackson saw a connection or correlation between these two men. We don’t tend to think of them together, but Michael Jackson had tremendous admiration for both of them, and they both had a huge impact on music history. More specifically, they were both important transitional figures in the history of music.
I think most people would agree that Beethoven was one of the greatest classical composers, if not the greatest. But he also helped usher in the Romantic period in music. You know much more about this than I do, Lisha, but he helped bring about the shift from Classicism to Romanticism, right?
Lisha: That’s absolutely right. Beethoven seemed to have one foot in the Classical era and the other in the Romantic era of Western music at the same time. He is considered the bridge between these two periods.
Willa: And as the founder of Motown, Berry Gordy was also a transitional figure. He led the way in integrating “black” music into the “white” mainstream in a way that was extremely popular with both blacks and whites. And that changed the face of music in America and around the world.
Lisha: Berry Gordy essentially redefined pop by insisting it was just as black as it was white and this appealed to a very broad audience. Gordy’s impact is felt not only in American popular culture, but all over the world, as you said. He is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in all of recorded music.
I have to say, citing these dates at the top of the song is such an interesting choice, we could probably focus our entire discussion on those two dates alone!
Joie: I agree.
Willa: Me too.
Lisha: I also suspect these dates have been highlighted not only for what each of these men contributed, but also for how their contributions have been historicized.
There is no question that Beethoven is commonly thought of as one of the most important composers in all of music history, if not the most important. How we think about Beethoven is fundamental to our concept of what a composer is, what a musical work is, what intellectual property is, and what a musical genius is. The history of Western music in many ways revolves around the Beethoven paradigm and the Austro-German musical canon. It’s the Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms history of music we’ve all been taught in some form or another.
But scholars are increasingly challenging this. Does it really make any sense that musical genius could be isolated to specific time periods in Austria and Germany? And what exactly is musical genius anyway? The time has come to think a little more critically about it, and I’m guessing Michael Jackson thought quite a bit about this when he highlighted the death of Beethoven and the birth of Berry Gordy at the beginning of the song. I think we’ve all been cued to take Beethoven terribly seriously, but we usually don’t think about popular music or non-European composers in the same way.
Willa: I agree completely. In general, critics tend to maintain a strict division between “high art” composers like Beethoven and “popular” music producers like Berry Gordy, and it’s almost heresy to mention them in the same breath. But Michael Jackson repeatedly challenged that division between high art and popular art, and this is one more great example of that.
It’s also really interesting, Lisha, that you seem to see the reference to “Monday, March 26, 1827” not only in terms of Beethoven’s death, but also as representing the “death” of the canon. Is that right? In classical music, as well as other “high art” forms such as literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, or even relatively new forms like film, the canon tends to be dominated by dead white men, as the saying goes. So in that sense, by juxtaposing the date of Beethoven’s death and Berry Gordy’s birth, Michael Jackson is also suggesting the “death” of one way of thinking about music – which privileges a small group of men from Germany and Austria, as you said – and ushering in the “birth” of a new way of thinking about music.
Lisha: Yes, I believe that Michael Jackson is highlighting a new paradigm and inviting us to think about popular music and American musical achievement in a much more serious way. But, believe it or not, the idolization of the great “dead white men” in music history is a more recent phenomenon (historically speaking, that is – 19th and 20th century) that essentially revolves around our reverence for Beethoven. In many ways Beethoven’s death represents the birth, not the death, of the musical canon. So perhaps Jackson is suggesting that the death of the canon is best represented by the birth of Berry Gordy.
Willa: Oh, interesting!
Lisha: The whole idea of musical genius (commonly conceptualized as the solitary, autonomous, slightly mad composer, touched by the heavens, who remains true to his art by resisting political pressures or economic considerations) is more or less based on how we historicize Beethoven. Earlier composers, like Bach and Mozart, were employed by the church or the court, and their music was created primarily to satisfy the needs of their employers and to express their views and ideals.
But Beethoven challenged this and felt artists should be much more autonomous and free from any interference or worldly demands. As a result of his influence, the role of the composer was elevated and composers were ultimately given much more status, recognition, and control of their work. Musicians became very focused serving the composer’s vision and the great “musical work,” a concept that has been attributed to Beethoven.
It’s interesting that in the liner notes of “HIStory,” a credit is given for a sample taken from the children’s film Beethoven Lives Upstairs. To be honest, I have never found the sample in the track. I don’t know if I just keep missing it or if it was possibly omitted in a subsequent revision, but I’m interested in how this film relates to “HIStory.”
Willa: Well, the bells tolling in the background at the very beginning of the film remind me of the bells tolling in the background as Beethoven’s date of death and Berry Gordy’s date of birth are spoken in “HIStory.” Could that be it?
Lisha: Hmmm. In the beginning of the film I hear church bells ringing, and in “HIStory” I hear orchestral chimes. So, I don’t think they are the same instruments or the same sample. But now that you mention it, it is really interesting how similar the pacing of the bells and chimes are. That’s a very astute observation, Willa. I also noticed that the first words spoken in both the film and the song are “Monday, March 26, 1827.” Of all the dates mentioned in “HIStory,” I do believe this is the only one that also includes the day of the week (“Monday”). The rhythm and pacing of the voiceovers sounds pretty much identical to me. I’m getting the feeling that this film is a bigger inspiration for the track than I thought.
Watching the film, I was amazed by how precisely it reinforces the Beethoven paradigm and the myth of the composer as a god-like musical genius who can also be very peculiar, difficult, a bit mad, and terribly misunderstood. The film doesn’t miss a single cliché really. But it might be next to impossible to find a film on classical music that doesn’t historicize the composer this way. I’m thinking of Amadeus for example.
I don’t know if either of you have had a chance to see Motown The Musical, the new Broadway show written by Berry Gordy, but it’s a fabulous production that allows Gordy himself to historicize his own work. Far from expressing any desire to remain free of commercial, economic forces or other worldly demands, Gordy says that he envisioned Motown as a music company that would mimic the auto industry’s assembly line model of production. He recently explained this in a fascinating interview with the Chicago Sun-Times theatre critic, Hedy Weiss:
Willa: Wow, that really is very different from the Beethoven model, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not at all the solitary artist working obsessively alone on his magnum opus as you described, Lisha. In fact, it’s almost the total opposite.
You know, what this reminds me of is Andy Warhol, another artist who incorporated assembly-line production methods to create art, especially his screenprints – art that also questioned the divide between high art and commercial art, as we talked about in a post last fall.
Lisha: It is fascinating to me that these artists who lived and worked in a fiercely capitalistic society found themselves embracing this model, either as a critique or an expression of their own time, place, and life conditions. Remember that the songwriter/producer/arranger team behind the early Jackson 5 hits was Berry Gordy, Freddie Perren, Fonce Mizell, and Deke Richards and they were all credited for their work as simply The Corporation.
Willa: Oh, that’s right! And Andy Warhol called his studio The Factory. That’s really interesting that what Berry Gordy was doing in music, Andy Warhol was paralleling in visual art.
But getting back to the differences between the Beethoven and Berry Gordy approach – I’m trying to think where to position Michael Jackson in terms of these two models, and as with so many things, he doesn’t seem to belong strictly in either camp. As he mentioned many times in interviews, the inspiration and ideas for his songs often came to him when he was alone with his tape recorder. But when it came time to develop his ideas into songs for an album, he followed a much more collaborative approach to music production – more like the Berry Gordy model.
Lisha: Yes, that’s true, but he often worked in the conception stage with other musicians and songwriters as well. It is a highly collaborative approach that reimagines the role of the composer. The genre of rock takes quite a different approach and places a very high value on performers who author their own music, more like the Beethoven paradigm. But in the pop/Motown model (also in the Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building tradition), the songwriter primarily serves the performer and producer’s needs. In this model, I would say it is actually the performer whose importance is elevated.
However, Michael Jackson could be in a league of his own due to the fact he was so highly accomplished as a performer, singer, dancer, producer, songwriter, arranger, lyricist, musician, choreographer, film director, stage director, lighting and costume designer, businessman and marketing genius … I could keep going, but you get the idea. Of course David Bowie, Madonna, and Prince are examples of other multi-talented artists who also worked this way. But, when you look at how deeply Jackson understood all these disciplines and the way he orchestrated all these elements to work together, it does suggests he was the solitary genius behind a truly impressive body of work.
Willa: I would agree with that!
Lisha: It’s also true Jackson became very wealthy and powerful early in life so he was freed from subsistence needs or worries that his art would not be funded. Yet, he often seemed to measure his success as an artist in terms of units sold. My guess is that he believed his impact and reach were directly related to strong sales and aggressive commercialism.
Joie: Wow, you guys! You know, the two of you together are really fascinating to listen to sometimes. Have I ever told you that? This is already a completely engrossing conversation and we just got started!
Willa, I love what you said about it being the “death” of a very old and tired way of thinking about music – and truly great music – which privileges a small group of dead white men. And, as Lisha put so well, “Does it really make any sense that musical genius could be isolated to specific time periods in Germany and Austria?” So, I think we’re all in agreement that Michael did in fact have some very deliberate reasons for opening the song with these two dates.
Now I’m interested to know about the other dates at the end of the song. And maybe it’s a little weird that we’re focusing only on those dates in this conversation instead of talking about the lyrics or the actual song itself, but to me the dates have always been the most intriguing aspect of this song. Every time I listen to it, I always turn up the volume at the end so that I can try and decipher another date or two. It can become a very obsessive exercise. Have either of you ever counted them? Do we know how many dates there are? Willa, you started an actual list of all those dates, didn’t you?
Willa: Yes I did, but it’s pretty rough, with big gaps in some of them – and I’m sure I’m missing others altogether. I have a really hard time hearing some of them.
Joie: Yes, so do I.
Lisha: I’ll admit I really had a hard time with this, too. But in struggling with it, I think I discovered a trick for listening to all those dates. With a little practice and a good set of headphones, it’s possible to hear the entire segment clearly without missing any of the dates mentioned.
The spoken dates at the end of the song have been organized into four different threads that are staggered and layered on top of each other. The secret to hearing them all is to concentrate only on one thread at a time without getting distracted by competing sounds. It really helps to focus on the location of the sound as well. For example, the first thread begins in the top portion of the sound field, slightly to the right of center. It starts just after the final chord of the song (5:41) and sounds like:
February 11, 1847 Thomas Edison is born
December 30, 1865 Rudyard Kipling is born
December 7, 1903 The Wright Brothers first flight
January 15, 1929 Martin Luther King is born
October 14, 1947 Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier
February 9, 1964 The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan show
November 10, 1989 The Berlin Wall comes down
Now go back (5:42) and try to isolate the second thread, which is located in the left channel of your headphones:
January 18, 1858 Daniel Hale Williams is born
August 8, 1866 Matthew Henson is born
May 29, 1917 John F. Kennedy is born
September 1928 The discovery of penicillin
January 17, 1942 Muhammad Ali is born as Cassius Clay
April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight
April 12, 1981 The first Shuttle flight
The third thread is located on the right (5:43):
November 19, 1863 Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg address
December 5, 1901 Walt Disney is born
November 2, 1920 The first commercial radio station opens
October 9, 1940 John Lennon is born
July 17, 1955 Disneyland opens
July 20, 1969 Astronauts first land on the moon
Finally, listen once again to the top portion of the soundfield, but this time it is slightly to the left of center (5:44). You should hear:
April 9, 1865 The Civil War ends
October 28, 1886 The Statue of Liberty is dedicated
January 31, 1919 Jackie Robinson is born
November 28, 1929 Berry Gordy is born
December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks refuses to give her bus seat to a white passenger
Joie: Oh. My. Gosh. You have just cracked this code wide open! I have never been able to hear all of that in its entirety before, but now that I’ve gone back and listened with your notes in front of me, it’s all right there – like a long unsolvable puzzle has just been made crystal clear! That is amazing! I am thoroughly impressed. Both with your listening skills, and with your earphones!
Willa: Me too! I bow before you, Lisha. I can tell you have those incredible musician’s ears – your list is way better than mine!
Lisha: You guys are too funny! But it is thanks to Bruce Swedien’s brilliant engineering work that this segment is so beautifully organized.
Willa: That’s true, but still … some of these I hadn’t heard at all, like “the discovery of penicillin” and “Disneyland opens.” And there’s the second mention of Berry Gordy’s birthday. I didn’t realize that date was spoken twice, at the beginning and ending of “HIStory.” That tells me that, to Michael Jackson, this was a very significant date.
Lisha: Very significant indeed. I believe the importance of Gordy’s musical contribution is reinforced throughout the song. Probably the biggest difference between the Beethoven and Motown paradigm is that one compositional form is written while the other is based on recorded music. Popular music takes such a different approach to music that musicologists are having to rethink how to analyze, interpret, and historicize it. This new approach is often referred to as the “new musicology,” and it is a radically interdisciplinary field of research.
In “HIStory,” I believe Michael Jackson is pointing towards this shift between written and recorded music with those two dates at the top of the song and the track illustrates this quite well musically. It includes music from the classical and instrumental band repertoire, but there is also a lot of studio and technical wizardry involved. There are also two very important events in recording history that have been included towards the end of the track (6:10). The first of these is a historical clip of the first promotional recording ever made in 1906:
I am the Edison phonograph, created by the great wizard of the New World to delight those who would have melody or be amused.
Layered over this is a second clip of Thomas Edison himself, recalling the first words he spoke to create the world’s first phonograph recording in 1877:
Mary had a little lamb
It’s fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go
Believe it or not, Edison made his first recording in 1877, just 50 years after the death of Beethoven.
Willa: Seriously? Edison’s first phonograph recording was only 50 years after Beethoven? I never would have guessed that. It’s funny how our perceptions of time can telescope in and out. Like I was reading something the other day about how the Beatles “invasion” of America 50 years ago is actually closer in time to World War I than it is to us today. That stunned me.
Lisha: It’s really disorienting, isn’t it? Somehow I thought there were bigger gaps between these events as well.
Willa: Oh I know, and I think Edison and his phonograph have a lot to do with that. What I mean is that I think video and sound recordings compress our perceptions of history. We can “see” the Beatles performing on Ed Sullivan and experience it for ourselves, so it feels close in time to us. Beethoven lived before that recording technology was invented, so we will never experience him in the same way – never hear his actual voice, never see his body move. So in that sense he feels “prehistoric” to us, meaning he existed before recorded history – before history could be captured in sound and video recordings.
Lisha: Interesting, and I agree completely. Recordings keep these events much closer in our memories.
Willa: Exactly. The Beatles played on Ed Sullivan 50 years ago, but for me they also played there yesterday, which is the last time I experienced that performance. I saw them on Ed Sullivan just yesterday. Mentally I know it happened 50 years ago, but emotionally it feels really familiar to me, even though I was too young to experience when it originally happened.
So that’s another reason Edison and his phonograph would be important in a song about “history.” They’ve profoundly changed how we perceive and experience history.
Lisha: Great point as always, Willa.
Willa: Thanks, but I’m sorry, Lisha. I interrupted you in mid thought. You were talking about the huge shift from written music to recorded music, and how you think “HIStory” not only suggests that shift but also kind of reenacts it in how the song is structured, with passages of classical music at the beginning and audio clips of Edison and his phonograph at the end. That is such a fascinating idea, especially when you think of the huge impact audio recording has had on music – not only on how it’s distributed, but how it’s conceptualized and created. I’d really like to get back to that, if we could.
Michael Jackson, especially, used music technology as a “compositional tool,” as you pointed out in some fascinating comments to a post Joie and I did a long time ago with Joe Vogel and Charles Thomson. As you said in one comment under your pen name, Ultravioletrae,
I have no doubt if Jackson needed music notation he would have used it, but his own method of recording on multi tracks was far more efficient and desirable than pencil and paper or music notation software. Reading and writing in musical notation would have been a tremendous liability for a musician like him. As an example, he worked with complex, subtle rhythms that can’t be accurately notated, only approximated.
Before I began talking with you about all this, I tended to think of recording music as part of the distribution process – something musicians did to capture their music in a format where it could be shared with others. But you’ve helped me see that recording has become far more than that. It’s now an integral part of composing and creating music, but in a very different way than the Beethoven model.
Lisha: The whole idea of the great “musical work” as an exclusively written compositional form is most likely a direct result of the Beethoven myth and how we have elevated the status of (dead, white, male) composers. It’s hard to let go of this image of the composer because it has become so ingrained in the culture. But music is an aural phenomenon, so it makes an awful lot of sense to use the technology we have available to store musical information in an aural format.
When recorded music first began, the goal was to simply replicate a live performance as accurately and realistically as possible. But there were a couple of game-changing events that essentially changed all that. The first was guitarist Les Paul’s innovations in multi-track recordings, which allowed Paul to layer sound in a very creative and imaginative ways. As Bruce Swedien once told Sound On Sound’s Richard Buskin:
The first time I really got excited about pop music was when I discovered that it was possible to use my imagination. That had come with a record that I myself didn’t work on, Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “How High the Moon.” Up to that point the goal of music recording had been to capture an unaltered acoustic event, reproducing the music of big bands as if you were in the best seat in the house. It left no room for imagination, but when I heard “How High the Moon,” which did not have one natural sound in it, I thought, “Damn, there’s hope!”
Think about the imaginative way all those dates in “HIStory” are staggered and layered over each other. That is a great example of Michael Jackson and Bruce Swedien’s imaginative use of the recording studio as a compositional format, made possible by Les Paul’s inventive approach to recording.
Another milestone in recording history happened in 1967 when the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album Rolling Stone named “the greatest album of all time.” After retiring from touring in 1966, the Beatles turned their attention to the recording studio and racked up an unheard of 700 hours in the studio to make Sgt. Pepper. The album pushed the limits of multi-tracking and the recording technology so far that the recording process itself came to be recognized as a compositional format. With no plans to return to the stage, the recording itself became the “musical work.” Any attempt to perform it live would be understood as a replica of the recording, a 180-degree flip from the original use of recording technology.
“HIStory” includes the written music paradigm with an orchestral performance of “The Great Gate of Kiev” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, followed by several examples of American military-style band music. In these examples, musicians perform from printed music and attempt to recreate the composer’s intentions down to the most minute detail. The way this music was conceived, created, and performed revolves around the concept of the written “musical work,” which has been set in stone through the printed score.
But in recorded music, the role of the composer is reconceived when the “musical work” is a sound recording that also contains significant contributions from the performers, producers, and engineers.
Willa: That’s fascinating, Lisha, and it really is a very different way of thinking about a piece of music, isn’t it? In the classical model, you have the ideal vision of the piece as imagined by the composer and “set in stone” in his manuscript, as you said, and the goal of everyone after that is to try to stay true to that ideal.
The new model is not only more collaborative, as you said, but also much more fluid – perhaps too fluid, as we’ve seen with all the remixes lately – where songs are kind of a perpetual work in progress. I think it was Brad Sundberg who said that Michael Jackson would sometimes continue to make small modifications to his songs even after an album had been released, so one Dangerous album might have a slightly different version of “Black or White” than another one that came out just a few months earlier. And even songs where there is a fairly “definitive” version, like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” or “Billie Jean,” are sampled and integrated into new songs by other artists, so we can hear snippets or song shadows of them on the radio in different settings, leading us to think about them in new ways.
In other words, what I’m trying to get at is that in the new model, songs are not “set in stone” at all – they are constantly shape shifting.
Lisha: Yes, that’s definitely true, and this has created a lot of confusion in the area of intellectual property and determining who has the right to profit from a recording. But when you think about how much more sound information is contained in a musical recording as opposed to a sheet of printed music, in many ways the opposite is true. For example, I know far more about what Michael Jackson wanted “Billie Jean” to sound like than I know about what Beethoven wanted his music to sound like.
Willa: Well, that’s true, Lisha! Interesting – so music is more fixed in some ways, and more fluid in others.
Lisha: I also think classical music is not as fixed as most of us imagine. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition which is featured at the beginning of “HIStory,” is a piece of music that has been reorchestrated numerous times. The version we hear on the recording is actually an arrangement or “remix” by Maurice Ravel! And over the years, musicians change their thinking about how composers like Beethoven should be performed, and debate the merits of many different performances.
But no one has to guess what Michael Jackson wanted to hear – we have a definitive record of it. And what would be the point in trying to replicate his recordings anyway? The record company is happy to manufacture as many copies as anyone would like to buy.
Willa: That’s certainly true. So this paradigm shift in how music is composed – from a model of a lone composer writing notes on paper to a very different model of a team of musicians and sound engineers working in a studio – that shift was facilitated by new technology, like Edison’s phonograph. But also by new production models, like Berry Gordy developed at Motown and Michael Jackson experienced from a young age. So if we look at “HIStory” the way you’re suggesting, Lisha, it makes perfect sense that Michael Jackson would place Beethoven, Edison, and Gordy in such prominent positions.
Lisha: It makes a lot of sense. Especially because the old paradigm currently still exists along with the new. It really hasn’t gone anywhere yet, though we see more and more signs of its decay. As far as I can tell, there is always a period of overlap between musical eras. It’s not that easy to define when one ends and the next one begins. I think it’s important to think about how we have historicized the past and how we will historicize our present moment in the future. After all, the concept of the album is HIStory: Past, Present and Future. I think Jackson could be advocating that as we historicize great music in the future, we don’t fall into the trap of preferencing “dead white men.” I concur!
Joie: Wow, you know, I’ve never thought about “HIStory” in terms of music before, if that makes any sense. I’ve always just thought about all those dates, and the enormity and importance of the game-changing, history-making events they represent.
But what you’re saying, Lisha, is that Michael actually used the song itself not only to highlight those history-making events, but also to make us aware of this great shift from the Classical music paradigm to the “new musicology,” as it were. And what better way of doing that than by pointing repeatedly to Berry Gordy, a man who took that new musicology and pretty much created a whole new genre and style of music. Ask almost anyone around the world and they can probably tell you what the Motown Sound is and who created it.
Willa: That’s true, Joie, and he created an appreciation for “black music” around the world as well, and then helped break it out of that fairly segregated category, so black music and black artists became much more integrated into popular music generally.
And of course, we see that in Michael Jackson as well. He won one Grammy for Off the Wall: Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. R&B traditionally means “black music,” so he basically won an award for best “black music.” He was extremely upset about that and vowed his next album wouldn’t be ghettoized like that … and of course, his next album swept the Grammys. Thriller didn’t just win Best Album of the Year, it won six other Grammys as well. And it’s the biggest-selling album of all time, around the world, to many different races of people.
That leads into another important aspect of “HIStory” – that it also pays tribute to black artists, politicians, sports heroes, and other figures and shows the huge impact they’ve had on history – not just black history but human history. The roll call of important dates includes the birthdays of Martin Luther King, Daniel Hale Williams and Matthew Henson (I didn’t know who they were – I had to look them up), Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, as well as the day “Rosa Parks refuses to give her bus seat to a white passenger.” And the audio clips that form the sound “collages,” as you called them, Lisha, commemorate Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record, Muhammad Ali proclaiming he is “the greatest of all time,” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Often black pioneers and historical events are relegated to “black history,” but Michael Jackson placed them front and center in his list of important dates, demonstrating that he sees them as a very important part of our history – the shared history of all of us. Anyone who thinks Michael Jackson forgot his roots or didn’t feel pride in his race needs to pay closer attention to “HIStory.”
Joie: Oh, don’t even go there, Willa! That is a whole other conversation that we could, and probably should, have someday. But you’re absolutely right in saying it.
Well, Willa and I want to thank Lisha again for joining us today. It’s always an interesting and thought-provoking conversation when you’re here! We also want to encourage readers to check out Lisha’s lyrics and sound collages in the Lyrics Library.
The following conversation was originally posted on March 13, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
Also, Veronica Bassil has just published a new ebook, That Wonder in My Youth: Michael Jackson and Childhood. And to commemorate Michael Jackson’s birthday, she is generously making it available for free from August 29 – September 2. Here is a link.
Joie: Today, Willa and I are joined by our friend and contributor, Lisha McDuff. Thanks for spending time with us today, Lisha. What have you been up to?
Lisha: Well, Joie, I’ve been pretty busy! Can you believe I just graduated from the University of Liverpool with a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies?
Willa: And her dissertation was on Black or White!
Joie: Congratulations on that achievement!
Lisha: Thank you so much.
Joie: So ladies, I’ve been thinking about the first time we all sat down for a chat when we talked about how many of Michael Jackson’s songs can be described as a “sonic sculpture.” And I was thinking that there is a song out there that we have never really talked about before that is a perfect example of this “sonic sculpture,” and that’s “Morphine.” It has always been one of my favorite MJ songs. I love it for so many reasons, but mainly because it’s simply so aurally fascinating to listen to.
The subject matter of the song is a little bit of a departure from what we normally see from Michael Jackson. It’s a bit darker in tone than what we’re used to, but part of me feels that the music is so fascinating because the subject matter is so dark. Like this is something he did purposely in order to convey a certain emotion, or evoke a certain mood about the song. Does that make sense?
Willa: It does – it makes a lot of sense. I hadn’t thought about “Morphine” specifically as sonic sculpture before, but I think I know what you mean, Joie, and I wonder if it feels so “sculptural” in part because of the abrupt transitions from the first part into that very different middle section, and then from the middle section back out to the last part. Those transitions are so rough and abrupt, almost violent, that they really call attention to the structure of this song in a way most songs don’t.
Joie: I like how you describe that, Willa. “Violent” is a good word to use here because it truly does feel that way.
Willa: It really does. When transitions flow easily from one part of a song to the next, a lot of times you don’t even notice – you just drift along with the flow of the song. But that isn’t the case here. We’re forced to notice the architecture of this song because the transitions – the seams between the sections – are so glaringly obvious. And I think those rough transitions are really important to both the feeling and meaning of “Morphine.”
Lisha: It’s interesting that I hadn’t necessarily thought of “Morphine” in terms of sonic sculpture either, but now that you’ve mentioned it, Joie, you’re absolutely right. It does makes sense to approach it that way. There is a lot going on in this song – all kinds of industrial noise, machinery, and electronic sounds swirling around all over the place. I hear a buzzing sound vibrating right through my head much of the time, and at other times I strain to hear a far-off conversation, as if it is behind a door at a distance.
We know Michael Jackson was interested in how the ear can judge distance and identify the location of sound in space. His recordings spatialize sound in such fascinating ways. “Thriller,” is a great example of this, recorded and mixed by Bruce Swedien. Another is Disney’s Captain EO, which was the first 5.1 surround sound film ever made. Michael Jackson also experimented with a 3D binaural recording process known as “holophonics,” which was trademarked by Hugo Zuccarelli. The pillow talk introduction to “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” is an example of holophonic sound.
Zuccarelli’s recordings are like ear training exercises that demonstrate how recorded sound can be manipulated to occupy a specific location in an imaginary sonic space. You need headphones to get the full effect, but here is an example of a sonic sculpture titled “Haircut”:
It’s really interesting to listen to “Morphine” with this kind of spatialization in mind. I’m really glad that you encouraged us to approach the song as sonic sculpture, Joie.
Joie: Thanks for sharing that example, Lisha. It’s really interesting to listen to.
Willa: It really is! I swiped my son’s headphones and listened to that clip, and the way the sounds seem to occupy specific points in space and even move around you is amazing! It really reminds me of the slamming door and footsteps walking across the sound space in “Thriller,” as well as a lot of the background sounds in “Morphine,” like the knocking and television sounds off in the distance.
Joie: There are all sorts of wonderful and interesting sounds going on in the background of “Morphine,” some of them very surprising and unexpected. At times I even think that I hear what sounds like water dripping incessantly from a faucet. Do either of you hear that?
Lisha: No, I don’t! Where is that one? I missed it!
Joie: Maybe it’s a sound that I’m oversimplifying as dripping water because my mind can’t easily label it, but I hear it in the first half of the song running at measured intervals in the background. Interestingly, I don’t hear it after the abrupt middle section of the song.
Lisha: Wait a minute, Joie! I think I know what you’re talking about and what a wonderful description of that sound! I think you mean a percussive sound that occurs in the far right portion of the sound field just after the rhythm starts. It happens on the upbeat of 4 and then it occurs every 8 counts after that. Is that the one you mean? It does sound like a slow drip from a water faucet!
Joie: Yes! That’s it!
Lisha: That’s the fun of listening to these tracks, there is always something new to discover.
And as you pointed out, Willa, there are two separate and distinct sound worlds happening here, like another song has been dropped right into the middle. “Morphine” could very well be Michael Jackson’s best rock/heavy metal vocals ever, but suddenly in the middle section there is a relaxed, gentle vocal accompanied by piano, flutes, and strings. It is a startling contrast that makes for an interesting sonic experience, but a very challenging one – it certainly deals with a difficult subject, that’s for sure.
Joie: You know, I almost feel that the subject matter is one of the most interesting things about this song. I happen to be a pretty big fan of rock music in general. I love “80s hair metal” for instance, and I could (and often do) listen to bands like Aerosmith and Guns N Roses all day long. And as any fan of rock music will tell you, drug use is a big staple as far as musical themes go in that genre. In fact, in many genres.
But one of the things that set Michael Jackson apart from the rest is that he typically didn’t sing about things like drugs and sex. So “Morphine,” with its blatant, in-your-face look at drug use – from the drug’s point of view no less – is quite jarring. Every bit as jarring as the abrupt transitions that Willa mentioned earlier.
Lisha: You’re making an excellent point. Drug use is a conspicuous topic in rock music from the 1960s onward and illegal, recreational drug use is often characterized as a positive, mind-expanding experience. This seems to reflect some of the core values of rock, such as spontaneity, authenticity, and an opposition to rigid rule-following and authoritarian thinking.
However, I think “Morphine” comes from an entirely different point of view and expresses a very different set of values. “Morphine” does not address or promote recreational drug use. Instead, it problematizes legal, pharmaceutical medications that are prescribed by physicians to treat patients with serious medical concerns.
Willa: That’s true. This isn’t your typical “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” song by any means. It isn’t talking about getting high. Instead, “Morphine” is focusing very specifically on doctor-facilitated drug addiction, or even doctor-induced drug addiction.
Joie: And the lyrics in that abrupt middle section are very telling, and very personal, I think. Every time I listen to this song, I can just imagine Michael lying on a doctor’s table as these words are softly spoken to him:
This won’t hurt you
Before I put it in
Close your eyes and count to ten
I won’t convert you
There’s no need to dismay
Close your eyes and drift away
Can’t you just imagine that? A doctor assuring him that “I won’t convert you into a junkie – just close your eyes and drift away from the pain.”
Lisha: Oh, I certainly can imagine that! The music in this section is soothing, but so sad and haunting at the same time. The doctor is offering some welcome relief from severe pain, but I get this sinking feeling that the situation is much more complicated than what the doctor is willing to represent.
And I agree with you, Joie – this song feels deeply personal. I noticed in the liner notes that Michael Jackson wrote, composed, performed, and produced this song. He also did most of the arrangements himself and he even takes a turn on percussion, drums, and guitar.
Willa: Really? I didn’t know he played guitar …
Lisha: Well, maybe not in the strictest sense of the word, but I’d be willing to bet he knew his way around on it. One of his closest musical collaborators, Brad Buxer, talked about Michael Jackson’s relationship to musical instruments in an interview with the French magazine, Black & White. He said Michael Jackson was a fantastic musician and it wasn’t really necessary for him to have a high level of proficiency on any particular musical instrument. According to Buxer, “He instinctively understood the music. It was just part of him …”
Buxer played keyboards and piano on “Morphine,” but didn’t collaborate on composing the song, as he did on others. Michael Jackson had worked out the entire record in his head and communicated what he wanted to hear to Buxer:
He sang all the parts, whether the piano in the middle of the song, or those sheets of synth on the chorus. Everything is his. On this song, I simply carried out his ideas.
I am also thinking about what you said earlier, Joie, when you described the lyrical content of this song as a personification of the drug itself. That’s such an interesting idea and I thought of lines in the song that could easily be read that way:
Trust in me
Trust in me
Put all your trust in me
But I think there is another strong possibility here too – that the lyrics represent a doctor who is encouraging a patient to have complete faith in their experience and expertise as a medical professional.
Willa: That’s true, those lines could be interpreted either way – as encouraging the patient to trust the drugs or trust the doctor – and it’s chilling either way. I hadn’t thought of those lines as referring to the drug itself – that’s a really interesting way to look at that, Joie – but it makes perfect sense. I mean, just imagine Michael Jackson looking at a bottle of propofol, for example, and thinking those words: “trust in me” to give you a good night’s sleep. Or think of Dr. Conrad Murray speaking those lines. It’s really frightening either way.
Lisha: Yes, it is. And the theme of trusting the doctor happens again, about a minute and a half into the song (1:32 and repeats at 4:16). I hear what sounds like a knock at the door and a woman saying in a very stern, authoritarian voice, “you heard what the doctor said.” This is an audio clip from David Lynch’s 1980 film The Elephant Man. It’s taken from a scene in the film when the Elephant Man is frightened, distrustful, and reluctant to comply when asked to follow the doctor into his office. The head nurse intervenes and commands him to do as “the doctor said.”
Here’s a clip of the movie. The scene in the doctor’s office begins at 15:02 and the audio portion sampled in the song is at 16:25:
Willa: Wow, Lisha, you’re right! I didn’t know that – that he was sampling The Elephant Man in this section – but you’re right, he does. That seems very significant to me.
Lisha: To me, too. It feels like a really important part of the song.
Willa: Oh absolutely. Apparently the story of John Merrick (or Joseph Merrick – he’s been called both names) really resonated for Michael Jackson. You and I talked about that a while back, Joie, in the Leave Me Alone post. So it’s significant for that reason, but also thematically, I think – how it ties in with the idea of a doctor not always acting in a patient’s best interests.
I just watched The Elephant Man again after not seeing it for, heavens, years and years, and I was struck by how much it focuses on Dr. Treves. He’s on screen nearly as much as Merrick is. And while he rescues Merrick from the abusive Mr. Bytes, who was exhibiting him as a carnival sideshow, Dr. Treves’ motives aren’t purely benevolent either. As an older doctor says,
I for one am sick and tired of this competitive freak-hunting by these overly ambitious young doctors trying to make names for themselves.
Over the course of the movie, as Dr. Treves begins to see Merrick in a more sympathetic way, he begins to question himself and his reasons for seeking out Merrick and befriending him so publicly:
I’m beginning to believe that Mr. Bytes and I are very much alike. It seems that I’ve made Mr. Merrick into a curiosity all over again, doesn’t it? But this time in a hospital, rather than a carnival.
He goes on to say,
My name is constantly in the paper. I’m always being praised to the skies. Patients are now expressly asking for my services.
All because of the publicity he’s gained from being the Elephant Man’s doctor. And that horrible scene where he puts Merrick on display for the auditorium full of doctors feels very similar to how Merrick was put on display in the carnival.
So in his own way, Dr. Treves has made a career for himself out of publicizing Merrick’s physical afflictions, just as Mr. Bytes was doing. And it seems to me this somewhat predatory relationship between doctors and patients is a key element of that middle section of “Morphine.”
Joie: Wow. Willa, I’ve seen The Elephant Man many, many times; I just love that movie. But I’ve never thought about it in terms of “Morphine” before. That’s a really interesting parallel you’ve drawn.
Lisha: It really is, and I am very interested in how much the movie focuses on Dr. Treves. At about 1:37 minutes into “Morphine,” just after we hear the nurse bark out “you heard what the doctor said,” I think I also hear the voice of Dr. Treves, played by Anthony Hopkins. Do you hear the male speaking voice in this part as being that of Dr. Treves? It’s off to the right and at a distance, so it’s very hard to make out.
Willa: I think so. It’s a British accent and it sounds like his voice to me, though I can’t make out the specific words. And then there’s the sound of raucous laughter, like from a television soundtrack. There’s laughter in The Elephant Man too, and it’s not happy laughter. In fact, it generally means something exploitative is happening to Merrick. In fact, throughout the movie, laughter is almost always a cruel thing.
Lisha: Yes, it sounds like there could be a laugh track right after Dr. Treves’ voice, possibly suggesting these medical problems are a source of entertainment for some? It’s incredibly cruel.
In terms of sonic sculpture, I noticed how this sequence is spatialized from left to right. The knock is heard in the left side of the sound field, the nurse’s voice is in the center, Dr. Treves voice is on the right, and the laugh track sound is even farther to the right. It kind of swirls around the listener/patient in the story and gives the feeling of being disoriented and vulnerable.
Willa: Oh, that’s an interesting interpretation, Lisha. It feels that way to me too.
Lisha: It seems that just about everyone had a predatory relationship with John Merrick, including his doctor. It’s not hard to imagine why Michael Jackson identified with him so strongly. There’s the Carny who exploits Merrick as a freak show attraction, the hospital employee who profits from bringing crowds in at night to view him, the upper class who are eager to be associated with him when it is fashionable to do so, the mean-spirited mobs who taunt him. And of course, I couldn’t help but notice a strong parallel to Michael Jackson when women scream and go crazy at the sight of him, too.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Lisha, and the movie explores that in subtle ways, I think – both the fear people feel toward Merrick as well as the complicated yearning for the Other. There’s that horrible scene where the two young women from the tavern are forced to kiss him and then kiss the lecherous man who brought them. And then there’s the much nicer scene where he meets the actress who befriends him. They trade lines from Romeo and Juliet, and then she kisses him and says, “Oh Mr. Merrick, you’re not an Elephant Man at all. You’re Romeo.” She also gives him a glamorous photo of herself, which he places beside his bed.
And then a lot of women, especially the nurses, want to mother him. Dr. Treves’ wife seems to feel this too. She begins to cry when he shows her a picture of his absent mother, saying,
She had the face of an angel. I must have been a great disappointment to her. … If only I could find her so she could see me with such lovely friends here now. Perhaps she could love me as I am. I tried so hard to be good.
In the movie it’s implied that his mother abandoned him because of his afflictions, though apparently in real life she suffered physical disabilities as well, and loved him and cared for him until her death when he was 10. Either way, he lost his mother’s protection at a young age, and other women tried to step in when he was older and care for him the way a mother might have – something we see with Michael Jackson also. So Merrick’s relationships with women are very complicated – just like his relationship with his doctor, Dr. Treves.
Lisha: Yes, I agree.
Willa: So I don’t mean to get off track, but you know those buzzing and popping “electricity” sounds at the beginning of “Morphine” that you guys mentioned earlier? They evoke very specific images for me, and I was wondering if they do the same for you. It sounds to me like electricity running up two diverging wires and then popping at the top, which for me means one thing: Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory! Do you know what I mean? And Dr. Frankenstein is so interesting to think about in terms of this theme of predatory doctors.
Here’s a trailer from the 1939 classic, Son of Frankenstein, with Basil Rathbone as Dr. Frankenstein, Boris Karloff as the monster, and Bela Lugosi as Ygor. It shows the scene where those zapping electrical currents bring Frankenstein’s creation to life. You can hear buzzing and zapping sounds throughout, and you can very clearly see those diverging wires with the electrical current arcing between them at 1:03 minutes in:
Lisha: Wow, that’s brilliant! I was wondering what those sounds might be depicting. I think you’re really onto something here, Willa, especially when we think about the song as sonic sculpture. When I listen to the opening of “Morphine” through headphones, I notice that the electrical buzzing sound is right at the top center portion of the sound field – it feels like it’s actually buzzing inside my head.
Willa: I know what you mean, Lisha. It feels that way to me too.
Lisha: Now that I think about it, it feels like I could be in the middle of one of Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments! What is so interesting is that the location of the sound not only changes the physical and emotional effect of the sound, the location also creates a literal meaning.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Lisha! I see what you mean – it’s like the location of the sound all around us kind of positions us as listeners on the table, like we’re one of Frankenstein’s experiments. And of course, in “Morphine” we’re in the same position. “Morphine” situates us so we’re lying on the table, listening to a doctor tell us to relax as he injects a drug into our veins.
Joie: Willa, I love that Frankenstein imagery because I’ve always gotten the same feeling from those “electricity” sounds. And I think the fact that those sounds conjure up the same imagery for both of us is significant.
Willa: I think so too.
Lisha: I’m also thinking about the sound of water dripping that you identified, Joie, and I noticed that when the Elephant Man makes his first appearance in the film, I can hear the sound of water dripping in that dark, damp basement he is kept in. (In the movie clip posted above, it is around the 12:00 minute mark.) I guess it’s impossible to say what the sounds in “Morphine” were actually intended to depict, unless someone can tell us what the thought process was. But when you add all this up, it definitely begins to paint a picture.
Joie: As you said, Lisha, it’s impossible to know for certain what the intention was, but … it certainly seems that it all fits, doesn’t it?
Lisha: It does to me.
Joie: And Lisha, I never would have thought about that water dripping in The Elephant Man. Great catch!
Willa: Me neither, but all these connections between The Elephant Man, Frankenstein, and “Morphine” make perfect sense, don’t they? Just looking at the doctor/patient relationships, there are so many parallels between them – between Dr. Treves and John Merrick, Dr. Frankenstein and the monster he creates, and the doctor injecting morphine into the veins of his patient, who seems to represent Michael Jackson himself since the lyrics indirectly refer to the scandals surrounding him.
In all three cases the doctor has a privileged social position (in the case of Dr. Frankenstein, he’s a baron as well as a doctor) while the patient is a social outcast – a “freak,” a “monster,” a man accused of being a child molester. Yet in all three cases, the more we learn the more we sympathize with the “freakish,” “monstrous” patient and come to distrust the distinguished doctor treating him.
Joie: That really is interesting, isn’t it? Especially with the story of Frankenstein where we are left to question which one is really the monster, the doctor or his patient. I think this is a theme that Michael Jackson obviously identified with a great deal.
Willa: Oh, I agree. I think this is a very important theme for Michael Jackson. We see it explicitly in the lyrics to “Monster” and more subtly throughout his work. Over and over we see this impulse to take us inside the minds of those who are perceived as “monstrous” or outcast and encourage us to see things from their perspective. And you’re right, Joie, that’s a central theme of Frankenstein also – at least, it is in the novel. Some movie versions handle it differently. But in the novel, our feelings keep flipping upside-down as our sympathies shift back and forth between Dr. Frankenstein and the being he created.
That’s something we see in “Morphine” also – this emotional tension as our feelings pull us first one way and then the other. And it manifests itself on several different levels, like in the unusual way this song is structured, as we talked about earlier. In fact, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me this functions in a very complex way – in part because our emotions, our intellect, and our physical affect are often at odds with each other.
What I mean is that if I just listen to this song without really thinking about what it means, I feel very unsettled during that turbulent, pounding opening section. It’s so jarring and industrial, and his voice is practically screaming. And some lines of the lyrics are sharp as knives, like “I hate your kind, baby / So unreliable” and “You hate your race, baby / You’re just a liar.” It’s so painful to me to hear him sing those words, and imagine what it must have felt like for him to hear comments like that.
Then that beautiful middle section comes in and I start to relax. I have to say, I love his voice in this section. It’s just lovely, with the simple tinkling of a piano, followed a little later by strings and flutes, as you mentioned, Lisha. It’s all very simple and soothing and beautiful.
And then the jarring, pounding, industrial sounds start up again as we’re yanked into the third section, and it unsettles me all over again.
Joie: And I believe that unsettled feeling was his intention here.
Willa: I think so too. So the structure of “Morphine” has a significant emotional, even physical, effect but I think there’s more going on here.
If I were to interpret this song without thinking about the lyrics, I would assume that the first and third sections are depicting an industrial, mechanized, artificial world, and that the middle section is an escape into nature – into the “real” world, the natural world.
But that isn’t true. The lyrics flip that around. The first and third sections are depicting the “real” world, the harsh reality of his world after the 1993 allegations came out and the publicity machine turned against him, and the middle section is what’s false and artificial – a drug-induced escape from the real world.
Lisha: It is temporary relief from agonizing pain, but even that momentary escape is problematic.
Willa: Exactly. So there’s a dissonance between how these three sections feel and what they mean, between what’s perceived as “real” and what isn’t, and that’s so interesting to me.
The overall result is that when I listen to this song, I’m kind of a mess, frankly. The first section puts me completely on edge. Then that soft middle section begins and my body begins to relax – but at the same time, my mind is saying, Danger! Danger! Don’t succumb! Then the third section hits and I don’t know what to do. I want to escape all that jarring, abrasive confusion and I kind of want to go back to the relative quiet of the middle section, but I know I shouldn’t.
So my mind, body, and emotions are all confused and in a state of conflict – which is an approximation of the experience of addiction, I imagine.
Joie: I think that was a wonderful analogy of addiction, Willa, and really thought provoking. Just like “Morphine” itself.
Lisha: The song captures the reality of the situation quite well. In the case of a severe injury or agonizing pain, the suffering of the patient simply has to be addressed. It’s the only compassionate thing to do, and I can feel that in the soothing effect of the music in the second section. Yet, there is something so terribly sad, haunting, and dark about that music, too.
Willa: Oh, I agree.
Lisha: It’s a feeling of not knowing which is worse, the treatment or the illness, the solution or the problem, the painkiller or the pain. Those contrasting musical sections could just keep repeating in an endless, vicious cycle.
Willa: Yes, just like the cycle of addiction. So in a very real sense, Michael Jackson isn’t just singing about addiction in “Morphine” but recreating the physical and emotional experience of addiction, and forcing us as listeners to experience it for ourselves.
Lisha: As you said so well, Joie, it’s a thought-provoking sonic sculpture.
The following conversation was originally posted on February 27, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
Willa: This week I’m thrilled to be joined by four people doing fascinating work researching, thinking about, and writing about Michael Jackson. Lisha McDuff is a professional musician and musicologist whose graduate research focused on Black or White. Sylvia J. Martin is a visiting assistant professor of anthropology who has written numerous articles on Michael Jackson’s cultural function, both in the U.S. and around the world. Several of her articles can be accessed from our Reading Room. Eleanor Bowman is an environmentalist with a master’s in theology, and she is currently working on a book that looks at how Michael Jackson’s art can help move us toward a new relationship with nature. And Veronica Bassil has a Ph.D. in English and American literature and has written two books on Michael Jackson: Thinking Twice about Billie Jean and Michael Jackson’s Love for Planet Earth. Thank you all so much for joining us!
So you all recently attended Brad Sundberg’s seminar in Orlando. Lisha and I talked with Brad in a post a few weeks ago as he was preparing for it, and it sounded wonderful! I’m so curious to hear all about it.
Sylvia: The seminar was fantastic. It was also great to meet each other and everyone else who attended.
Lisha: Oh, I agree. What a treat it was to meet you, Brad, Matt, and all the other seminar participants. It was an incredible weekend.
Eleanor: Yes, it was really wonderful. I just wish everyone in the Dancing with the Elephant family could have been there! Just getting to meet Veronica and Lisha and Sylvia and talk about Michael in person would have been enough for me, but then we got to meet other MJ fans and hear their stories – and then, on top of all that, we got to hear from Brad and Matt and hear all about their up close and personal experiences with MJ. Well, it was almost too much for me to take in.
Veronica: Yes, I learned a lot, and it was great to be with everyone sharing our love for Michael and his work. And it was especially great to meet the posters from Dancing with the Elephant – Lisha, Eleanor, and Sylvia.
Willa: So what were some standout moments for you?
Sylvia: It was fascinating to be able to hear isolated tracks of Michael harmonizing on “Liberian Girl.”
Lisha: Wasn’t that amazing? Brad played the background vocals for “Liberian Girl” and then isolated the tracks so we heard each part separately as Michael Jackson sang the four-part harmony: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. It really showed his amazing vocal talent, his wide vocal range, and his impressive command of music theory and harmony. Every note had to be chosen so carefully to create those close, dense harmonies.
Brad and Matt talked about how Michael Jackson had all of these parts worked out entirely in his head, something that really amazes me. They, too, were blown away by Michael Jackson’s mastery of song construction and marveled at how he could sing every line of each individual part in its entirety, knowing exactly how each part should fit in with the other elements of the song.
I remember that in Toronto Brad also talked about Michael Jackson’s background vocals. He said each line of a four-part harmony like this would typically be doubled, or stacked, four times. That means a four-part background vocal would have a total of 16 tracks or 16 vocal parts. It’s like hearing a small choir of only Michael Jackson’s voice.
Veronica: Yes, that was really fantastic, and you said it well: “a small choir” of just MJ singing all those different harmonies! Matt also emphasized the amazing ability Michael had to know exactly where all the sounds would go in a musical creation – the harmonies, the melody, the music, the ad libs – he knew where everything would go in a stereo performance. I loved hearing those extraordinary harmonies from “Liberian Girl.”
Eleanor: And we heard them on the speakers they brought from the Westlake Studios! It was like hearing Michael Jackson for the first time. I was just stunned.
Lisha: I thought those speakers had such a luscious, refined sound – absolutely beautiful. Brad said those were the exact speakers Michael Jackson used at one time for listening to playback. I was thrilled to get to hear what they sounded like.
Sylvia: The weekend was made extra special by being able to visit Epcot the next day with Brad and Matt and hear the behind-the-scenes from Matt about Captain EO.
Eleanor: I have to admit that going to Epcot to see Captain EO was a peak experience for me. And, I got to see it sitting right next to Matt Forger! What a privilege. Brad had reserved the theater for us and I was looking for a seat when Matt motioned me over to a seat next to him. I think it was the best seat in the house for the best sound and 3D experience. Actually, it was 4D – the seats moved and bumped with the movement of the spaceship. It was fantastic.
Lisha: I was absolutely crazy about Captain EO too, for so many reasons. For starters, I think the storyline is brilliant. It’s the hero’s journey – an epic tale of good versus evil using the power of sound and music as a vehicle in the transformation of consciousness. In the hands of Michael Jackson, this epic story is cleverly disguised as a 17-minute Disney attraction.
Veronica: Yes, Lisha, that’s an excellent point. And the songs “We Are Here to Change the World” and “Another Part of Me,” as well as the storyline of transforming a deadened, mechanized planet into a vibrant, pastoral world, emphasize the change to global harmony.
Eleanor: Yes, I loved the storyline and the way it was realized, with all the special effects. In fact, I was so focused on Michael in 3D that I could hardly concentrate on the story. After experiencing Captain EO, I think Michael should be 3Deified in all his short films, and concert videos. And even though Michael didn’t write the story (I asked), we know he never sang a song that he didn’t believe in, so I’m sure Captain EO perfectly represents Michael’s vision of the ills besetting our planet and how to fix them.
So, for me, with my environmental interests, everything about Captain EO was mesmerizing. It seemed so revelatory of who Michael Jackson was and is, his role as a change agent, his concern for Planet Earth – even though it supposedly took place in a galaxy far, far away. The film shows a planet that has become a wasteland, as Veronica says, deadened and mechanized – a vision of our future? our present? But Michael sees its underlying beauty, and through his love, his deep sense of connection, expressed in the song “Another Part of Me” and sent out through the lightning from his fingertips (“sending out a message to you”), he transforms the Supreme Leader from a monster into a beautiful woman and her dying planet into a world filled with life.
Like Lisha says, it is an epic tale about the transformation of consciousness, a transformation that we desperately need, a transformation that I believe Michael, through his art, is bringing about. Speaking personally, I can attest to the fact that he certainly transformed mine.
Lisha: I think that’s a wonderful interpretation, Eleanor – it really makes sense in the context of his larger body of work.
Sylvia: I appreciate its environmental transformation, but I don’t care for the characterization of the Supreme Leader. The Disney and fairy tale trope of ugly equals bad and beautiful equals good is to be expected but eye-rolling nonetheless. Why must her supposed inner beauty be externalized? Who does that benefit, and why? Once again, a strong and flawed woman needs to be neutralized; after her transformation she is silent, passive, and pleasing to look at.
Veronica: Thanks for your comment on the Supreme Leader, Sylvia. I read some posts from people who saw the film as young kids, and they spoke about how scary it was for them – and the portrayal of the Supreme Leader was part of that. Indeed, one could argue she is a kind of Medusa figure, with metallic coils instead of snakes in her hair.
I agree that EO is the main character/hero and the Supreme Leader (Anjelica Huston) is rendered into a passive beauty at the end, silently waving as she sits on the shoulders of her attendants. On the other hand, her initial intent is definitely hostile – she wants to turn her captives into “trash cans” and give EO “100 years of torture” in her “deepest dungeon” – so he has to resist that or there would be no more story.
Eleanor: I agree that if you understand the Supreme Leader as symbolizing the feminine, the film is sexist and offensive. But if you see the Supreme Leader as symbolizing nature, as I do – which makes sense as nature traditionally has been symbolized as feminine, and clearly the Supreme Leader is an extension of her planetary world, just as it is of her – then the story is inspiring. And EO’s use of the term “beauty” reminds me of the slogan “Black is Beautiful,” where beauty was a term used to express value and worth, not just physical attractiveness. And maybe this is a stretch, but the use of 3D may be a clue that we are to look deeper – that the story, like most things, can be read on many different levels. The medium is the message.
This is the way I read Captain EO: in telling the Supreme Leader that he sees her beauty, EO is telling us that “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” and that traditional Western attitudes toward nature – that “behold” nature as something to be controlled, that “behold” matter and the material world as inert, dead, mechanical, worthless (ugly) – are cultural constructs which can and should be changed. If we can change our perceptions of nature, if we can see its worth and understand that we are “just another part of it,” we will change the way we interact with it. Who benefits? We all do.
Veronica: Eleanor, I like your reading that the Supreme Leader is a reflection of her planetary world, and that when EO makes a comment about “someone as beautiful as you,” he is seeing the intrinsic worth and value of the natural world, which is “another part” of us all – “not dangerous.” I appreciate too your reference to a powerful message of the 60’s: “Black is Beautiful.” EO tells the Leader she lacks a “key to unlock” her beauty, and this key (music) is his gift, which transforms the planet, as well as the Leader and her people. I compared her to Medusa, and it is interesting that when Medusa is defeated by the hero Perseus, the winged horse Pegasus, is born. Pegasus is a symbol of imagination and creativity, and a freedom from restrictive mental constructs that distort our ability to see the world and each other.
MJ sings that the planets are all in line “waiting for you” – waiting for us to join in and no longer be isolated. The metal coils and cables bind the Leader so that she is suspended above the ground and limited in her movement, compared to the final scenes when she walks on the ground and joins the community, one formed by dance as well as music. The power of music (in the form of MJ’s “lightning bolts”) changes the warriors into dancers who follow his beat, and MJ’s dancing is part of his transformative creative energy.
Sylvia: Also, after the male hero essentially “rescues” the female protagonist (from herself), there’s no hint of a romantic pairing. This is a Disney film, after all, and an interracial pairing probably wasn’t on the agenda. In fact, I always notice how right after EO kisses her hand, he steps right in front of her, completely obscuring her face with his, giving a big grin to the audience who are on the receiving end of his joy. It’s all about EO!
Eleanor: Yes, there is no hint of a romantic pairing, but I don’t think this is a romance. This is a mythological representation of an interaction between humanity and nature, where humanity, as usual, is represented as male and nature, as usual, is represented as female. But, in EO, the symbol for humanity is also black, which is nontraditional. Since the standard for the fully human in our society is usually the white male, the fact that EO is black is pretty revolutionary. As a nontraditional representation of humanity, EO is not bound by traditional perceptions. He can establish a new relationship, a non-exploitative relationship, with nature. Like MJ, EO is a black change agent in a white society. I did note the fact that MJ upstaged Angelica at the end, but after all, for his fans, it is all about MJ.
Lisha: I have to agree with you, Eleanor, that EO is taking us into the symbolic, mythic realm. I love the idea that the Supreme Leader could be seen as symbolizing Mother Nature herself – especially since she is so agitated at the moment, unleashing her terrible, destructive forces on her inhabitants who are so thoughtlessly invading and destroying the planet. Personally, I have no problem whatsoever mythologizing that kind of power as uniquely feminine. To my way of thinking, the forces of nature, mythologically speaking, belong in the realm of the feminine.
But I have to say, Sylvia’s point is well taken too. This story can be seen as reinforcing the Evil Queen trope that is so prevalent in fairy tales such as Disney’s Snow White, which is highly problematic from a feminist point of view – “eye-rolling,” as you said, Sylvia. I can think of some other problematic readings of the story too, in terms of one group of people invading and conquering another and then imposing their beliefs and ideals onto that group.
But for me, the more symbolic readings of the story offer the most satisfying interpretations. Another way to look at it would be from a Jungian point of view, a framework that Michael Jackson himself was interested in. The Supreme Leader from this perspective could be seen as representing Captain EO’s own psychological projections. In this scenario, the hero’s journey is a metaphor for a battle that is fought from within the human psyche.
According to Carl Jung, the dark, shadowy, unknown parts of the male psychology are known as the “anima” or the inner feminine. (In female psychology, this is the animus, or the inner masculine – think Beauty and the Beast.) The anima is the ugly, unwanted, unclaimed aspects of the self that must be discovered and battled against so that the whole, enlightened self can emerge. Because very few of us are truly aware of our own negative tendencies, the truly repulsive, monstrous, disowned parts of ourselves must be projected onto others. Myth is a powerful way of speaking to the unconscious mind – that frightening, unknown territory where we do battle with the forces of evil. According to the myth of Captain EO, music is a vehicle for this inner awareness and transformation.
Sylvia, I thought you identified an incredibly important moment towards the end of the film when Captain EO bows before the Supreme Leader, kisses her hand and then turns to face the camera, expressing his joy that the light of dawn has arisen and the forces of darkness have been dispelled. The Supreme Leader is now in her true form of goodness, truth, and beauty. If you look closely, when Captain EO turns towards the camera, the Supreme Leader doesn’t completely disappear behind him. She is quite tall, even taller than Captain EO. (In the theater, you can see this especially well.) For a brief moment, they appear to merge into a single being, symbolically integrating the masculine and feminine – the conscious and the unconscious – which is often spoken of as enlightenment, or dawn.
Willa: Oh, I love your reading of that, Lisha!
Lisha: In Jungian terms, this is known as the bright anima projection. No doubt I’m being influenced by the music here too – this is also the cue for “Another Part of Me” to begin. The story has many other elements of myth as well, such as Captain EO’s small helpers who assist the hero in his journey.
Veronica: Yes, and I’d like to mention EO’s helpers: Hooter, the elephant; Idey and Odey, the hairy, two-headed navigator; and Fuzzball, the flying monkey with butterfly wings who saves EO from menacing warriors by tying their whips together. These creatures are talking animal companions and goofball comics, especially Hooter, and give the film lightness and show EO as decidedly non-heroic. Indeed, at the start of the film we learn he and his crew are about to be booted out of the fleet. Hooter and Idey and Odey were performed by real people in costumes, including the robot Major Domo; Fuzzball was a puppet. Fuzzball and Hooter were a big part of the EO franchise.
Lisha: From the mythic point of view, these helpers magically appear just when the hero seems doomed. From out of nowhere, they provide some small assistance that literally saves the day, such as when Fuzzball ties the whips together. He ends up freeing Captain EO at precisely the moment he seemed trapped and destined to fail.
It was so wonderful to experience the film’s 3D effects on the big screen and get a sense of how the little character Fuzzball would whisper into Captain EO’s ear or zoom right off the screen and fly right up to the viewer, as if making a personal connection. There were many little details like that are missed if you don’t see the film in a theater designed to show the film.
Eleanor: Seeing Captain EO at Epcot was the first time I had ever seen it. I wanted my first-time experience to be spectacular, and it was. I am so grateful to Brad and Matt for making that possible and for enabling us to share the experience with each other. I heard that Disney is planning to discontinue showing Captain EO, which makes me very sad.
Veronica: Absolutely, Eleanor, seeing Captain EO as it was meant to be seen – in 4D – was a peak experience for me too. I have to say, Captain EO blew me away. I saw it three times, and its excellent 3D and 4D effects make one appreciate how this film, created in 1986, is still so engaging and exciting today. Not only did the seats shake, but there were blasts of air around my legs to simulate the feel of the whips threatening Michael. The 3D effects made EO’s spaceship and his little companion Fuzzball appear to hover in the air in front of our seats.
Seeing Michael as Captain EO in 3D is of course wonderful, and it was heart-warming to see crowds of people, from all age groups, enjoying this film, as we saw while sitting outside talking to Matt. Matt told us that in the early days, Captain EO was the premier attraction and there were long lines to see it.
Willa: I can vouch for that – I was in those crowds in the 1980s.
Lisha: That’s so cool, Willa!
Veronica: The song “Another Part of Me” was later expanded for the Bad album, released in 1987. On the Bad tour, Matt said it would always drive the crowd wild. He was asked during the seminar why it was chosen over “Streetwalker” and speculated that it helped to tie in with Captain EO, but perhaps more importantly “Streetwalker” was too similar to “The Way You Make Me Feel” in tone and subject.
Lisha: Yes, I remember one of the seminar participants raising the point that “Streetwalker” has a similar theme to “The Way You Make Me Feel,” making “Another Part of Me” a better overall choice for the album. We got to hear some early demos of “Streetwalker” that I thought were fabulous, as well as some later revisions. I’d love to know more about how Michael Jackson felt “Streetwalker” might have fit into the Bad album.
I will say, it was pretty intriguing to hear Matt and Brad speak of what a crowd-pleaser “Another Part of Me” was in live performance. It’s not like Michael Jackson was short of crowd-pleasing material for his concerts! So, I was surprised to learn “Another Part of Me” was such a stand out in terms of crowd response.
Veronica: Joe Vogel describes “Another Part of Me” as “the spacey synth-driven groove about the cosmic power of music to bring about global peace and harmony.” It is also associated with the Harmonic Convergence of the planets that occurred in 1987, to which the lyrics refer:
The planets are lining up
We’re bringing brighter days
They’re all in line
Waiting for you
Willa: Oh that’s interesting, Veronica. I didn’t know that, and always wondered what that line meant about “the planets are lining up.”
Veronica: In August 1987 there was an alignment of eight planets in the solar system in a grand trine. This alignment was, according to José Argüelles, a key leader of the Convergence event, to usher in a period of cleansing before the Mayan calendar date of 2012, and indicated an energy shift from war to peace. Well, we are still waiting for that to happen. But I am so glad that MJ sent us his “major love” and considered us all another part of him, another interconnected part of a global family.
I attended a local gathering to celebrate the Convergence. It was a big deal in 1987. Does anyone else remember it?
Eleanor: Yes, Veronica. I remember it well.
Sylvia: Yes, I remember it, too.
Eleanor: I was living in Huntsville, Alabama, at the time, and there was a convergence in downtown Huntsville to celebrate it. I had no idea that Michael was referencing the Harmonic Convergence in the lyrics of “Another Part of Me.” That is so fascinating. Layers on layers. But, of course, it fits perfectly.
Veronica: It was an important worldwide, cultural phenomenon and was supposed to signal the beginning of a new dawn, a new evolutionary cycle. Argüelles asked people to gather at sacred sites at dawn and hold a vision of healing and peace in a moment of unified collective consciousness, the first time this had been done on a global scale:
There comes a point when things have to change. A vibration signal was sent out. Where the signal was coming from–whether it was coming from our genetic coding, whether it was coming from the Earth, whether it was coming from outer space, or whether it was coming from all of those–this signal went out and people responded to a signal. It is very much like when a species gets a signal to change the direction of its migration pattern. The signal was, “go back to the Earth … if you want peace on this planet, go back to the Earth.”
Argüelles believed the positive, peaceful energy of people’s synchronized thoughts and feelings would create a “circumpolar rainbow bridge” around the Earth: “This is a positive visualization. A rainbow bridge around the Earth is a totally healing image. This is the healing of the Earth, the healing of our hearts, and the healing of our lives, and instant evolution.”
There were Native American prophecies about “Rainbow Warriors” who would emerge to save the Earth: “There will come a time when the birds will fall from the trees, the rivers will be poisoned and the wolves will die in the forests. But then the warriors of the rainbow will appear and save the world.” I find it so fascinating that the rainbow is also identified with Captain EO, on his t-shirt, where it even lights up, and when he leaves the planet, there is a rainbow sheen that flickers around his ship.
And things did change in unexpected ways not too long after this – the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union fell apart, Nelson Mandela was released, and the apartheid regime in South Africa ended. Around the 2012 date, we have large democratic uprisings in various countries protesting unjust and oppressive governments, such as in Egypt and the Ukraine, and other changing attitudes, such as the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage and the decriminalization of cannabis. Maybe a transformation of consciousness, such as MJ envisioned, is happening after all?
Eleanor: Well, we know where the signal was coming from: Michael Jackson!
Veronica: That’s funny, Eleanor! To add another comment on Captain EO, in Michael Jackson: Grasping the Spectacle, edited by Christopher R. Smit, Carl Miller’s chapter on “‘We are Here to Change the World': Captain EO and the Future of Utopia” draws an interesting parallel between MJ and Captain EO. The author sees MJ in his portrayal of Captain EO as representing a kind of cyborg, an amalgamation of animal, human, and mechanical, a transgressive composite that shows the open-endedness of the future: in this way MJ is “the archetypal postmodern figure of utopian potential.” The world of the Supreme Leader is in fact close to what our own world is becoming; thus, Captain EO‘s “rewriting” of that world is like the historical re-evaluation of MJ’s legacy that led to the re-emergence of Captain EO in Disney’s theme parks: “the revival of Captain EO offers a testament to both the transformative dimensions and the contemporary relevance of Jackson’s art.”
Sylvia: I haven’t read Miller’s piece yet but it sounds interesting. In the meantime, I want to approach the idea of “utopian potential” a little differently.
I remarked to Lisha after one of our viewings that MJ was like a black Luke Skywalker, that franchise having recently left its indelible mark on pop culture when EO was made. And in fact, an intriguing interpretive lens for Captain EO is Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism is a term which was coined in the 1990s, and you may hear it applied to the work of Janelle Monae today, yet it really started to become evident in literature, music and popular culture in the 1970s. Afrofuturism draws from Black Science Fiction and cosmology, and, as writer Ytasha L. Womack explains, refers to the past as well as to the future (in fact, here she references Michael’s moonwalk as part of the cosmology).
With regards to Afrofuturism’s roots in “ancient African culture” and mythology that Womack mentions, we can think of Remember the Time. In fact, at various points in Michael’s body of work there are engagements with the past/futurist themes of Afrofuturism; in addition to EO there was his reading of the ET storybook, the imagery of The Jacksons’ Can You Feel It music video, and Scream’s space ship.
As Afrofuturism scholar Valorie Thomas and others have noted, musicians who are considered foundational to Afrofuturism include George Clinton with his P-Funk mythology and 1975 album Mothership Connection, which includes the character of Starchild, an alien who arrives on earth in a spaceship. In the song “Mothership Connection,” Clinton sings that they’re “Gettin’ Down in 3D” – a lyrical call to which Michael would respond a decade later with Captain EO.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Sylvia. I hadn’t heard of Afrofuturism until a few weeks ago, and I still know very little about it, but from what I’ve read it really does tie in with Michael Jackson in so many ways. For example, many works described as Afrofuturism offer a kind of gritty utopian vision of a truly multi-cultural society – one that incorporates Difference and Otherness in positive, even joyful ways. That’s very Michael Jackson.
And as you mentioned, Sylvia, it’s futuristic, but in a way that doesn’t deny the past, but merges the past and present into the future. It reminds me of Light Man at the beginning of This Is It - he’s a being from the future, but he’s wearing a spacesuit made of video screens that display important scenes from the past.
Veronica: Yes, that’s a great point about Light Man and the blending of past, present, and future. I see EO as part of this. In fact, our discussion here is reminding me of my own past – memories of the Harmonic Convergence and a lecture I attended in 1982 by the historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, titled “Waiting for the Dawn” (and we know the name EO means “dawn” in Greek). In this lecture, Eliade suggested that the most significant event of the century was the re-valuation of non-Western spiritual traditions, namely Asiatic and Third World, including so-called “primitive” traditions, such as shamanism:
The discovery (or re-discovery) of the value and significance of non-Western spiritualities represents a cultural innovation, for it launches a dialogue and an interrelationship with the others, that is, the representatives of the Asiatic and archaic traditions.
In his view a human being is “par excellence an historic being” in the sense that any human “is continually fascinated by the chronicling of the world,” by what happens in the world or in the soul. Thus, the “essential necessity” of stories, of narrative and the imaginary world, whether of myth or artistic creation, each of which creates “imaginary universes.”
Lisha: Looking at Michael Jackson through the lens of Afrofuturism is pretty fascinating when you think about Scream, for example, as part of an album titled HIStory: Past, Present, and Future. That’s an album concept I find very intriguing. I’m also thinking about the feature film Moonwalker, with its futuristic sci-fi effects blending into the past and present in the Smooth Criminal segment set in the Club 30s.
Sylvia: HIStory: Past, Present, and Future fits very well into the Afrofuturism canon, and there is much to be said about that album!
Lisha: Most definitely.
Willa: I agree. In fact, much could be said about all those examples. You’re right, Sylvia, Afrofuturism really is a fruitful way to approach Michael Jackson. And Lisha, I agree that those sci-fi elements of Moonwalker are heightened by the fact that they’re embedded in a 1940s-style film noir setting, so we really do see the “Past, Present, and Future” blending together.
Lisha: Moonwalker also fits into the themes we see in Can You Feel It, and Captain EO. As Eleanor pointed out, Michael Jackson wasn’t credited for writing Captain EO, but I can certainly see his influence throughout. The concept of Afrofuturism helps to clarify this. I also think it’s worth mentioning another one of Michael Jackson’s sci-fi adventures, the video game Space Channel 5.
Sylvia: Yes, as you can see, Afrofuturism is a very useful perspective on Michael’s body of work; not only do we observe these past and future references in his work, but his apparent otherworldliness was, and is, evident to fans. And Margo Jefferson makes her own reference to Michael’s otherworldliness (and Clinton’s alien?) in her book with the choice of her title for the chapter on Michael’s uncanny child star experiences, “Star Child.”
Afrofuturism, as Chardine Taylor Stone writes, is a space for imagining all kinds of transformations and possibilities for members of the Black Diaspora, formed as it was by the experience of being snatched by violent intruders to a strange, new land(s). It is a way to envision new relationships to space, technology, power, fashion, and sexuality, among other things.
In EO, a black man is captaining a ship and entrusted with gifting the Supreme Leader – a not insignificant responsibility which Michael carries out in a unique manner. In fact, we can think of Michael’s experience of making EO with its new spatial dimensions and his working in a leadership capacity with the best that Disney and Lucas (Industrial Light and Magic) had to offer in technology and resources as an off-screen Afrofuturist endeavor.
Willa: That’s a really interesting way of looking at that, Sylvia – that in his work as a businessman, industry leader, and artist, Michael Jackson is enacting off screen the heroic journey he’s depicting on screen.
Sylvia: Yes, Willa, I think so, too.
Veronica: Speaking of fashion in Afrofuturism, Sylvia, EO’s spacesuit was quite wonderful, as well as the one he wore on stage when he emerged from a spaceship! The portrait of him by Arno Bani, apparently meant for the cover of Invincible, is in that mode as well.
Lisha: You know, these mythic storylines are so entertaining and fun that it’s easy to forget how deeply instructive they are for the human psyche. When you think about the influence of African American musical achievement globally, it’s easy to see that this is not just fantasy escapism but a powerful factor in “imagineering” the future of the planet and beyond, to borrow a term from Disney himself.
Sylvia: It is sobering to have this conversation about Afrofuturism given what has happened in the past year in one of the American states which hosts the Disney fantasyland where EO continues to play and where we also all converged for the seminar: Florida. The historical legacy of white male fear of, and violence towards, young black males – and its sanction – continue to play out in the so-called “postracial” world and in fact not far from where a Black futurist vision continues to be screened and celebrated.
Lisha: I agree, Sylvia. The reality is that we still see many counter examples to this vision of the future, which naturally is deeply disturbing.
Sylvia: As soon as I landed at the airport in Florida for the In the Studio with Michael Jackson seminar, my first thought was, “This is the state where a jury found George Zimmerman innocent.” Then, this past week another Florida jury found another white man innocent of murdering yet another black male teen: Jordan Davis. While Captain EO may have striven to transform consciousness through music, we learn of Michael Dunn’s fury at the loud “thug music” Jordan and his friends were playing and we see in that instance a complete breakdown in the vaunted power of music to unite us, derailed as it was here by deep-rooted racial prejudice, gun violence, ignorance, and arrogance. Tensions between the past, present, and future become poignantly apparent within this geography.
Veronica: Excellent point, Sylvia, in terms of the recent deaths of two young black men at the hands of white/Hispanic men in Florida juxtaposed to the supposed harmony envisioned in Captain EO that we saw at Epcot. It’s true that music was the source of conflict and death and did not unite in the event you refer to – but does that mean it can’t unite or that it hasn’t transformed people? Recent studies have shown the healing power of music – for example, music therapy has helped a number of people, including shooting victim Senator Gabrielle Giffords.
Michael believed in the power of music to transform and uplift, not just on an individual level, but on a larger social scale. Whether right or wrong, or just a quixotic effort, he tried to heal through his music and art. It’s sad but perhaps more realistic to think that this was just a dream – as he sang in “Earth Song”:
I used to dream
I used to glance beyond the stars
Now I don’t know where we are
Though I know we’ve drifted far
Captain EO shows an optimism that MJ later countered with trenchant social-political criticism on the HIStory album, released after the first allegations.
Sylvia: Thanks, Veronica. And you’re right, music can and certainly does unite people and mobilize communities all over the world – it has for centuries. But as with the Jordan Davis murder, we see how in a certain context music becomes racialized and even criminalized to the degree that that it is used as an excuse to act in such a hostile manner. I guess, though, this is one reason why Afrofuturism resonates for some – it allows for imagining a less restricted existence. And Michael certainly did that through his music and art, as you mention.
Willa: Yes, he did. Though to me, even the murder of Jordan Davis, as terrible as it was, points to the power of music. Music can unite us, sometimes in positive ways but sometimes in tyrannical or authoritarian ways – the Nazis’ use of Wagner is one extreme example. But music can also be powerfully disruptive and transgressive. The Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement in the U.S. were both energized by music, and in a more recent example, the band Pussy Riot is at the forefront of a rising feminist, anti-homophobia movement in Russia.
So music can give disenfranchised people a way to come together and resist a repressive majority, and this disruptive power of music lies at the heart of hip hop. That’s what Jordan Davis and his friends were doing with their “thug music,” I think – they were using music to stake out an identity that critiques and disrupts the dominant majority. And Michael Dunn felt so threatened by that – by the disruptive power of music – that he began firing bullets into their car.
Eleanor: Yes, as Sylvia says, “deep-rooted racial prejudice, gun violence, ignorance, and arrogance” are alive and well in Florida, as they are in most parts of this country, and music can certainly arouse angry reactions, as Michael knew. Just think of the way the dad reacts to Macaulay Culkin when he pumps up the volume in Black or White. But I have not given up on Michael’s dream of using music to change the world. And I don’t think he did either. How he held onto it, given all he went through, amazes me.
Veronica: Yes, Eleanor, his determination and courage to hold to his values were unfailing, and he sought to empower others to do the same. He sings in “Another Part of Me”: “This is our mission / To see it through.” And he certainly did see it through all the way to the end of his life, as we see in This Is It and his message of love and protecting the environment as an individual responsibility: “They? They who? It’s us, or it will never be done.”
Lisha: Music is a powerful force – religions, politicians and rebels use it, governments and the status quo fear it. I’m convinced Michael Jackson never lost sight of that. It’s awe-inspiring to think about the massive number of people who may have seen a Michael Jackson work like Captain EO and been influenced by it on some level.
Matt said when Captain EO opened it was the number one attraction at Disney. People (like Willa, for example!) had to wait in line for hours to get to see it. We were unbelievably fortunate to get a private showing with Brad Sundberg and to hear about the music production directly from Matt Forger, who recorded, mixed, and designed the sound.
Sylvia: Overall, the two of them provided quite a window onto the sonic experience of working with MJ. Both Brad and Matt (and Brad’s daughter Amanda) are extremely personable, patient, and generous. We peppered them with lots of questions!
Lisha: Yes, I felt like I got a very good idea of why Michael Jackson valued and trusted them so much. Spending so many hours in the studio, month after month, you can see why he needed people who were extraordinarily fun to be around, but also incredibly talented, competent, and deeply committed to their work. I saw for myself that Brad and Matt are genuinely that way, and there is no doubt they felt the same way about Michael Jackson.
Sylvia: They humanized Michael, yet they also presented a very professional and very gifted individual. Also, this may seem a mundane point, but I appreciated that Brad and Matt pointed out the amount of organization and coordination that the whole process of recording, mixing, and finishing required. Matt mentioned that besides the creative and the technical aspects, the studio engineering process for a hugely commercial album necessitates a lot of logistics, even down to numbering and naming tracks. As he remarked, organizing tracks and tape reels is dull work, but mandatory in order to deliver a product on that scale to the record label. I know this from my own experiences in editing. Bruce Swedien was apparently a mastermind at overseeing the logistical work and efficiency that went into engineering an album, particularly in the analog era.
Matt’s point underscores Michael’s situation as a commercial artist: a free-floating gift – in this case, song – must nevertheless submit to the rationalization process for the capitalist market with efficient systems for organizing labor and the materials necessary to carry out the work. And that is a complex thing, with all sorts of implications. Anyway, there are a lot of people who played a part, however small, in getting these amazing albums (and short films) to us!
Eleanor: Yes, Sylvia, and not just in getting them to us, but in the creation itself. I really had no idea what a huge part the sound engineers played in the production of music. I learned so much. I hate to reveal my ignorance, but I used to think of the recording process as just that, the process of recording a musical performance as played and sung, with the goal being to reproduce the sound as perfectly as possible. The performance was the art, the recording was just … the recording.
But, listening to them, I began to understand the whole process so differently, and appreciate the incredible amount of work that went into the album production. But the greatest revelation for me was that, in so many instances, they were in on the performance itself from the outset – working right along with Michael, midwifing his music into being. I was so moved by their dedication and commitment to helping Michael achieve his artistic vision – if someone can have a vision of a sound. Their connection with Michael was so deep and personal that they became an extension of his musical imagination.
Willa: That is so interesting, Eleanor. I’ve been doing a little bit of research about the history of popular music, and apparently the way artists think about the recording process changed radically in the 1960s. Before then, the goal of music recording was simply to capture a snapshot of a musical performance – as you say, Eleanor, “to reproduce the sound as perfectly as possible.”
But then in the mid-1960s, with the release of more experimental albums like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, that flipped upside-down. Bands began experimenting with sound and creating things in the studio which they then struggled to reproduce on tour. So it’s like the center of creativity shifted from the stage to the studio, from the act of performing live to the act of creating new sound experiences in the studio, which makes the work of people like Brad, Matt, Bruce Swedien, and Quincy Jones incredibly important. They aren’t just trying to duplicate what audiences hear at a Michael Jackson concert – they’re actually “an extension of his musical imagination,” as you said so beautifully, Eleanor. So it’s really fascinating to hear details from Brad and Matt of how his albums evolved and came together in the studio.
Eleanor: Yes, Willa. Things really did get completely “flipped upside-down.” I remember Michael, in This Is It, saying that he wanted to make sure that the musical performance was as close as possible to the music created in the studio, the music as heard on his albums. He said that was what the fans came to hear and that was what he wanted to give them.
Willa: That’s a great example, Eleanor! It perfectly illustrates this – that in his concerts he was trying to recapture what had been created in the studio, rather than the studio recording trying to capture what had happened on stage.
Eleanor: But, in fact, it really was impossible for Michael Jackson to exactly reproduce his music, as recorded, on tour. For starters, he couldn’t sing the lead vocals and the backup vocals simultaneously! It was, as you say Willa, a struggle.
Lisha: That’s exactly right. You’re raising such an important point, and I think this is something Matt and Brad indirectly helped us to understand. In popular music, the recorded work of art in many ways challenges the definition of the musical work itself. The roles of the composer, lyricist, performer, producer, and engineer have begun to blur all together, so much so, that it sometimes difficult to define the true authorship of the record.
From a performance point of view, “Man in the Mirror” is a great example. We all know the song was composed by Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett, but it is often referred to as a song “by Michael Jackson.” Somewhere along the way Michael Jackson’s performance, frozen in time through recorded sound, has assumed ownership of the song, in that any other performance we hear today would be understood as a cover of a Michael Jackson song.
Record producers and engineers also challenge traditional ideas of authorship in that they often contribute so much to the sound of the recording that they take on a significant creative role. Record producers such as Phil Spector, George Martin, and Quincy Jones are certainly thought of in this way. The same could be said of innovative recording engineers like Mark Linett (Pet Sounds) and Geoff Emerick (Sgt. Pepper) and Bruce Swedien (Thriller, et al.).
Sylvia: Good point, Lisha. It’s somewhat similar in Hollywood film and television production. For instance, a lead actor on a long-running TV show may claim ownership of the character she plays even though writers, directors, producers, editors, and studio executives author the role in various ways, as it is her performance that is visible to the public. This is especially the case if the show’s writers, directors, and producers come and go but the actor remains the same.
Lisha: One interesting side note is that Matt told us both George Martin and Geoff Emerick were present in the studio for the recording of “The Girl Is Mine.”
Willa: Wow! That’s sure intriguing, isn’t it? I wonder if there’s any footage of that?
Lisha: I’ll guess that if anyone knew the answer to that, they probably wouldn’t tell us! But surely there must be – talk about a historic moment.
I was thinking Captain EO is a good example of how challenging it can be to really define the authorship of recorded music. We know Michael Jackson was the composer, lyricist, performer, and producer of the songs heard in Captain EO, but we learned there was also a tremendous amount of responsibility given to Matt Forger, who recorded and mixed the songs. Matt described John Barnes as “a one-man band” working with Michael Jackson on “We are Here to Change the World” and “Another Part of Me.” Matt was also the theatrical sound designer for EO, working for the first time ever in 5.1 surround sound – a technology that was developed by Disney specifically for Captain EO – so he and the Disney engineers made an incredibly important contribution to Captain EO as well. But the entire film, really, is a recorded musical work – many contributed to it from a variety of disciplines.
Eleanor: I agree with you, Lisha, that in the production of music, especially today, the lines are blurred. The extent of Brad’s and Matt’s involvement in the creation of Michael’s music really made me question the whole idea of authorship or ownership, especially when an artist’s vision requires the knowledge and expertise – and artistry – of others to realize it. In trying to resolve this issue in my own mind, I thought about the music of classical composers and how I knew a piece of music was “theirs.” For example, I used to be able to recognize a piece of music by Bach, whether or not I had ever heard it before and regardless of who was playing it or singing it, from hearing only the first few notes, not because I know anything about the structure of his music, but because I have learned to recognize my own experience of it – a certain kind of “feeling tone” – as unique to Bach. And, based on my emotional experience, I recognize the music as indisputably Bach’s. It’s like it is an expression of his DNA. Is it the mark of great artists, and of great artistry, that their art is instantly recognizable as theirs?
Lisha: It’s hard to say, I suppose just about any kind of music could potentially have some recognizable features, good or bad. But it’s certainly true that in popular music, the demand for distinctive, original material is extremely high and there is no doubt that Michael Jackson met that demand. One of the things that really sets him apart is how he merged his distinctive sound with equally impressive visuals and original dance moves.
Sylvia: Yes, there is a totality to Michael Jackson’s work that few in popular music can match.
Eleanor: Michael Jackson’s dancing certainly sets him apart from anyone else on the stage. It is instantly recognizable – as is the feeling it gives me. Does Michael Jackson’s music – the music on his albums – carry his own unique artistic stamp? I believe it does.
Lisha: I believe it does too.
Eleanor: Matt said that, in producing music, Michael wanted to hit a target emotionally and that it was his job to interpret what that meant. I really liked that Matt said that. And, in my estimation, no one hits a target emotionally as perfectly as Michael Jackson does. I guess that in the final analysis, my feeling is that the power of Michael Jackson’s artistic vision was so strong that it influenced every aspect of the production, from start to finish, including the choice of a song, if it was written by someone else, the choice of a producer, or the choice of the sound engineers. And the power of his vision, among other very important, things, sets him apart and makes the music “his.” Which is not to diminish in any way the extraordinary contribution of the sound engineers and the amount of teamwork involved.
And I wanted to add that Michael’s vision, and playful, open approach, extended to “found sound” as well as surround sound. Brad told a funny but painful story about Michael repositioning a plywood screen to give himself a little more dancing room while recording “Dangerous.” The panels fell on him and the sound of them falling and hitting him was picked up by the mic. It was kept in, and a version of “Dangerous” containing it was ultimately released. Brad said that, in true MJ style, he finished the recording, and then Brad took him to the hospital to be checked for a concussion.
Lisha: Yes that’s a painful story, but from a musical point of view it is absolutely hilarious that he chose to put the sound of a studio accident in a song titled “Dangerous”! And how long have we been listening to this song without knowing what it was we were hearing? The fact that the engineers can take the ordinary sound of some objects falling and create a musical joke is utterly fascinating to me. The creative process seems limitless – contributions can come from anywhere within the system.
Sylvia: The issue of fluid forms of authorship is just another reason why the seminar – although geared towards MJ fans and MJ music aficionados – could actually be an appealing experience for anyone who is interested in music, performance, engineering, or the recording industry in general. There’s definitely a wider audience for this type of seminar. Brad and Matt’s memories and observations are really a testament to the possibilities and innovations of 1980s and 1990s American studio engineering for popular music. What other solo artist at that time was operating on this scale of resources?
Lisha: That’s probably the biggest question on my mind right now. Is there another artist in history who has ever created such massive musical productions with these huge multi-million dollar budgets? I certainly can’t think of one. I agree that learning about these recordings would be of interest to anyone interested in music as recorded art.
Eleanor: Yes, I think, as you point out, Sylvia, that the resources Michael had available allowed Matt and Brad to really push the envelope. So we were learning from the best about the best!
Lisha: Matt and Brad were quick to credit their employer, Michael Jackson, as well as their superiors, especially Bruce Swedien and Quincy Jones. They displayed a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for everyone involved and felt it was ultimately a group effort. It was definitely quite a team.
Veronica: I agree so much with what you all said about the complex teamwork needed to bring an enormous and ground-breaking project like Captain EO into being. Matt Forger, who worked on Captain EO throughout, all the way to its star-studded opening, was a marvelous window into that experience. He emphasized the evolving technology: in music, from large 24-track analog tapes, which were then transferred to laser disks, to digital recording – and in film, finding ways to create all those special effects before computers and CGI were available, using what Matt called “stop and go” special effects and building miniatures.
Brad and Matt emphasized that Michael was a “team player” and worked well with others. Brad talked about how the general motto in the studio was “Take the work seriously, but not yourself,” something that Quincy repeated with his saying, “Leave your ego at the door.” Matt emphasized over and over that MJ’s “work ethic was second to none,” and that others, including himself and Brad, would put in 16-hour work days, and sometimes MJ and Bruce Swedien even slept in the studio.
Lisha: Yes, and this went on day after day, week after week, year after year. I don’t think it’s generally understood how long and how hard Michael Jackson and his team worked to create these albums. Even before the formal recording sessions started, Michael Jackson could have a group working at Hayvenhurst for a year or more before even getting to day one of the formal recording process. Who knows how long he might have been working on a song even before that!
Veronica: Matt pointed out that in all MJ’s projects, “The creative intent is the highest priority.” And the creative intent was to strive for “the strongest emotional connection” possible, to make the listener feel the music emotionally. The songs were often born years, even decades, before and slowly worked their way into being. The albums took years, Matt said.
Eleanor: Yes, that really impressed me, Veronica! Although many people see art and technology – just as they see art and pop music – as occupying separate spheres, Michael clearly saw technology and popular music as a powerful means of achieving “the strongest emotional connection” and expressing himself as an artist.
Veronica: Matt also explained that the surround sound system for Captain EO was calibrated to meet specific music standards for highs and lows, designated by THX-approved systems, and that the four places where the film was shown – Anaheim, Epcot, Paris, and Tokyo – were checked through equalizers for sound quality.
Captain EO was shown in those four theaters for a relatively short time, from 1986 to the mid-90s, when the allegations caused the removal of the movie, and it was only restored in 2010 after MJ’s death. It is a work that has not yet received the full attention it deserves, having disappeared for such a long time. I agree with Sylvia, it is an important part of MJ’s Afrofuturism, as well as an even earlier work The Wiz – artist Derrick Adams sees this film as foundational for Afrofuturism. (Here’s a link.) I like Lisha’s reference to the “mythic” qualities in EO – such as the rainbow on his shirt and the name EO, meaning “Dawn” – and in MJ’s art in general. (And, Lisha, yes, the title HIStory: Past, Present, and Future is a very puzzling and intriguing title. It’s a fluid and complex “HIS story” for sure!)
I just wish that the film could somehow be made more generally available. There is so much there and I feel very grateful to Matt and Brad for bringing a greater understanding of the effort and dedication of so many to bring Michael’s “creative intent” into being. As Matt said, “The logistics were huge.” By the way, a recent interview with Matt is on Damien Shields’ blog, and a worthwhile video on The Making of Captain EO shows how meticulous the work was.
Lisha: Yes, I’m with you on that, Veronica. I would really like to see Captain EO made available to the public in some form or another – it is certainly worthy of much more attention. What a fabulous weekend we had learning about it and so many other Michael Jackson projects. Brad and Matt have more seminars coming up. I hope we get to do it again soon!
The following conversation was originally posted on December 19, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
Willa: I don’t think there can be any doubt that James Brown was one of Michael Jackson’s earliest and most profound influences as a singer, dancer, and larger-than-life public figure. We’ve probably all seen clips of Michael Jackson’s 1968 audition at Motown, where he performs “I Got the Feelin'” in perfect James Brown mode – the inflections, the screams and drops, the a capella “baby, baby, baby” at the break, the spins and shuffles … even the confident way he grabs the microphone stand and slings it behind him at the opening notes. It’s a perfect imitation by an 9-year-old musical prodigy who loved James Brown and watched his every move. Here’s a clip:
This week Joie and I are very happy to be joined once again by Charles Thomson, a journalist who is probably best known among Michael Jackson fans for his insightful analysis of media bias in coverage of the 2005 trial. We have links to a number of Charles’ articles in our Reading Room, including a recent post he wrote about Michael Jackson’s participation in the 2006 World Music Awards in London, an event Charles attended, and how that event was reported in the media.
It’s fascinating, Charles, to read your first-hand account of the scene at Earls Court Arena, along with video footage you provide of the extremely warm reception Michael Jackson received there, and then compare that with the “chorus of boos” that was reported again and again in the London tabloids, and later the mainstream media as well. As you say in your post, this wasn’t a case of different observers interpreting a situation in different ways. It was “a purely fabricated story,” as you say, and that’s obvious from the video footage you provide.
But Charles, you’re also a “very passionate” James Brown fan, and you’ve even interviewed several people who knew him and worked with him, right? How did that come about?
Charles: Funnily enough, the last time I saw James Brown was less than three weeks before that World Music Awards ceremony in 2006. He appeared at the Roundhouse in London to perform a concert for the BBC. I was on Mr. Brown’s guest list and attended a pre-show press conference, where I got to ask him a question. What an honor!
Willa: Really?! You actually spoke to James Brown himself? That’s awesome! So how did you become interested in his music?
Charles: It was through Michael Jackson that I became a James Brown fan. I was roughly seven or eight when I discovered Michael Jackson and started collecting his music. My mother, who grew up listening to the Jackson 5, introduced me to his early output and to Motown in general. That’s where I developed my love of soul music.
I was always aware of James Brown, cited constantly by Michael and many others as the greatest entertainer of all time, but this was before the days of YouTube, before you could search “James Brown” and thousands of videos appeared.
Willa: It’s amazing how YouTube and sites like it have changed how we learn about music, isn’t it? It’s wonderful to have such a wealth of videos and films and concert footage available at your fingertips, but I have to admit I miss the days of going to the record store to buy albums.
Joie: Yeah, the entire music industry is in such a strange place right now. There are almost no record stores anymore. I mean, they don’t exist. I find something about that very sad. Even though it is awesome to have this wealth of music right at our fingertips, as you say, it’s just very weird to think that actual record stores – and even music sections in certain department and electronic stores – are dead.
And what you’ve just said about YouTube makes me think about my MTV rant. You know, I still think it is the height of absurdity to have a television station named Music TV whose programming has absolutely nothing to do with music anymore. And I’ve made a lot of noise in the past about how they should either change the name or get back to their roots. But the truth is, they really just need to change the name because the concept is now irrelevant since people can access YouTube and sites like it right on their laptops, tablets and phones.
Charles: It is sad that we are losing our record stores. The big HMV in Piccadilly, London, closed down recently and was replaced by a memorabilia shop, of which there are already about 10 within walking distance. It’s a shame so many people aren’t prepared to pay for good music. I always buy records by artists I like, because I want them to be able to make more.
That said, even 10 years ago – because I didn’t live in the city – my local record stores’ soul sections were rather pitiful. On top of that, I was too young to own a credit card and buy things online, and too young to travel into London on my own, where the record stores might actually have a decent selection. So for years, the closest I got to understanding why Michael loved James Brown so much was a live CD I found in a bargain bin at my local shopping mall. The power and energy of the performance was incredible but I’d never properly seen him in performance mode.
In 2004, I spotted in a newspaper that James Brown was taking part in a free concert in London and tickets were being raffled. I entered and won.
Willa: Wow, Charles, you seem to have extraordinary luck when it comes to James Brown! It’s like you were fated to cover him.
Charles: I do feel very lucky that I happened to spot that advert and happened to win tickets. Without those two pieces of incredibly good fortune, my life could have been very different. As it turned out, I only had a small window of time to see James Brown live before he passed away, so I’m glad I packed in as many gigs as I did.
That concert in 2004 was one of the first times I was allowed to go to London with my friends. I was 16. Other performers on the bill included Ozzy Osbourne and Rod Stewart, but James Brown – who was 71 – performed the longest and best set of the day. I queued for hours to get to the front and he was worth every minute. His band was mindblowing. He did his signature moves and the running man over and over again and seemed to barely break a sweat. I was hooked.
I saw him again in 2005 and then two more times in 2006. In 2005 I was right in the front row. He performed “I Got the Feelin’” with the “baby, baby, baby” breakdowns. It was unbelievable.
Willa: So he was in London a lot – more than I would have expected – and still performing a lot of shows, especially for a man in his 70s.
Charles: He toured constantly. It was pretty dependable that he would do a European tour every year. It not only kept Mr. Brown fit (and he tended to let himself go a bit once he clocked off, so it was good for him to keep working – he died during a two-month hiatus in 2006, the longest break from work he’d taken in about ten years), but there were dozens of other people who were reliant on him for their income.
For instance, the nature of his shows was such that his band had to be incredibly disciplined. They had to know probably 100 songs, and they had to be able to fall in and out of them at Mr. Brown’s whim. He would communicate with them through hand signals throughout the show. Michael Jackson did the same thing on the Bad tour, for instance, when he would signal how many “stabs” he wanted during the dance portion of “Another Part of Me” by placing discreet hand signals into his dance moves.
Willa: And apparently, some of James Brown’s hand signals to the band were fines! Each time he flashed five fingers at you, he was upping the fine. Soul Survivor: the James Brown Story talks about that about 40 minutes in. Here’s a link. That cracked me up, but it also shows just how aware he was of everything that was happening onstage with his band and background singers. If they weren’t giving it their all and meeting his expectations, he let them know it, right then and there.
Charles: Mr. Brown couldn’t put on a show the way he wanted by just hiring whoever was available as and when he felt like it. He needed his tightly-drilled band behind him – but to have that, he had to keep them working, or else they might not be there when he needed them.
Joie: That’s incredible.
Willa: I agree. I’d never thought about that before – that he had to provide steady employment for his band to keep them.
Joie: And it really explains why he was always known as “the hardest working man in show business,” doesn’t it?
Charles: His shows were stupendous. Although in later years he would fluctuate a little bit – sometimes sounding a little weak or not being able to dance as energetically as he usually did – the whole experience of his shows was extraordinary. It was like being transported back in time, or witnessing some incredible ancient ritual. Jonathan Lethem wrote a brilliant article called “Being James Brown” for Rolling Stone magazine in 2006, which included the most vivid, beautiful description of the magic and the mysticism of a James Brown show. I would advise everyone to seek it out.
More than anyone else I’ve seen, Mr. Brown was the epitome of the term “living legend.” It seemed slightly unbelievable at that gig in 2005, as I staked out my spot right in front of the stage, that the James Brown – of the TAMI show and of Boston ’68 and of Zaire ’74 – was about to appear mere feet in front of me and perform. I was convinced for a short while that I had made a boob and it was going to be some unknown singer/songwriter with the same name or something. The show was just euphoric. I’ve never experienced a gig like it since. It was dizzying. What an atmosphere.
The first thing he did after walking out and bowing was to give a few short bursts of “Make It Funky,” then throw the microphone towards the audience, catching the wire and yanking it back just before it hit someone. As it flew back towards him, he spun around 360 degrees and then caught the mic stand with perfect precision, immediately letting rip one of his trademark wails.
The show continued in that vein all night. He fell to his knees for “Man’s World” right in front of me. As he spun around during the upbeat numbers, beads of sweat would fly out across the front few rows. He did all his trademark moves (except the splits, of course) with gusto. During one song my camera started playing up and I looked down to see if I could fix it. As I looked up, I saw a microphone flying at my face and reflexively recoiled. Of course, it stopped about a foot short of my face and sprang up into Mr. Brown’s waiting palm, at which he burst out laughing. For the rest of the gig he kept coming over and flicking the microphone at me, then we’d share some laughter.
At one point he knelt down at the side of the stage, took off his bowtie and placed it in my friend Angela’s hand. She has since given it to me as I’m such a huge fan. It is a wonderful memento of what was easily the greatest concert I’ve ever been to. As I walked out after it ended, I could hear people all around me – the crowd was very young – expressing their shock and wonder at just how incredible he had been, given he was now in his 70s.
Joie: That sounds amazing!
Charles: I saw him twice more in 2006. The first gig was in July at the Tower of London – a great way to celebrate after finishing my college exams. Then, in September 2006 – just as I became a journalism degree student – he announced the BBC concert at the Roundhouse, which would become the fourth and final time I saw him live.
Willa: And that’s when you talked to him?
Charles: Yes. I had the brainwave of using my new student journalist credentials to apply for an interview. I was told he was only in town for a day and wasn’t giving any interviews, but his people invited me to the press conference, where I asked him a question about a new album I’d heard he was recording. That exchange, however brief, is one of my most cherished memories.
Willa: How wonderful!
Charles: There is a very short gif of us talking on my website. Sadly, he died less than two months after that press conference. Two years later I interviewed his former sideman, Fred Wesley, for the U.S. journal Wax Poetics. I knew Fred had been involved in that final album – which was never released – so I asked him about it. It got me wondering what had happened to those tracks, so I decided to find out. I interviewed anyone I could who was involved in the album – musicians, producers, songwriters, managers, vocalists – and wound up writing a 5,000-word article: “James Brown: The Lost Album.” Two extracts are available on my website, here and here.
It became the cover story on a magazine I published. Titled JIVE, it was my final practical project at journalism school. A thousand copies were printed. I still have some of them. You can read about JIVE here and view some sample pages here.
The James Brown article won me a feature-writing award from the Guardian newspaper a few months later, and I became a sort of go-to guy for articles about his life and work. Subsequent pieces have included an exclusive interview with his widow on the four-year anniversary of his death and an in-depth exploration of his humanitarian legacy.
Willa: I’m glad you mentioned that, Charles, because I don’t think his humanitarian work is very well known. I knew he played a concert in Boston the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and I knew that concert was credited by many with diffusing a very tense situation and preventing what could have been a destructive riot. On the 40th anniversary of MLK’s death, I heard an interview on NPR with David Leaf, the director of the film, The Night James Brown Saved Boston. Here’s a clip from that film:
I also knew he was very involved in promoting black empowerment and the idea that “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” But I didn’t know about his long history of charitable work until I watched Soul Survivor and another biography, James Brown: the Godfather of Soul. Here’s a link to that one also.
Charles: That concert in Boston was one of the defining moments in Mr. Brown’s career. It demonstrated his extraordinary significance to the black community. On the night of Dr. King’s assassination, riots broke out all over America – including in the black areas of Boston. The following day the city council was going to shut down his concert for fear it would attract rioters to the city center – the white neighborhoods – but they decided instead (without Mr. Brown’s permission) that they would televise the concert in a bid to keep people indoors.
Not only did the riots not spread – there were less reports of crime that night in Boston than there were on a regular night. The TV station showed the concert over and over again, back to back, and people stayed in all night to watch James Brown. His calming effect on the city’s black community was so incredible that other cities started asking for him. Washington immediately requested his presence, and he went there and calmed the riots too.
Willa: Apparently, this was when he became known as the Godfather of Soul. That title refers to the movie The Godfather, and it means that he was as powerful as a mafia don in his ability to control situations – only he controlled them by moving people with his music rather than threatening them with henchmen. So this idea we frequently see in Michael Jackson’s videos of music overcoming violence – like in Beat It, Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, Smooth Criminal, Heal the World, Ghosts, even Captain EO – we see it literally happening through James Brown’s concerts after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.
Charles: The following year, Look magazine ran a cover story titled, “James Brown: Is He the Most Important Black Man in America?” The standfirst read, “Many men have gone from ghetto to glory, and forgotten. He bothered to come back.”
That was why, despite his various trials and tribulations, he retained the respect of America’s black community for the most part. The images of the crowds outside the Harlem Apollo for the public viewing of his body – no stars, no autographs, just a chance to pay respects – were unbelievable. Thousands and thousands turned out just to walk past his coffin and say a quiet goodbye. He commanded that respect because he never forgot his roots.
He refused to move away from Augusta, even though a relocation to Los Angeles would have aided his music career significantly. He gave to charities, funded a line of food stamps and handed out college scholarships at his concerts. Every year in Augusta he gave away hundreds of Thanksgiving turkeys and bought thousands of Christmas presents for needy children.
Willa: That’s true. According to the documentaries I watched, he was very generous in giving back to help people in need in the communities that had supported him, especially Augusta and Harlem. And he was committed to promoting education, such as through his “Don’t Be a Dropout” campaign.
Charles: But like Michael Jackson, his humanitarianism extended beyond his actions and into his music.
Willa: Yes, as you point out in your article, James Brown saw music as a way to improve the world – to “take these kids to a better life and a better place,” as you quoted from his induction speech into the U.K. Music Hall of Fame. We definitely see that idea carried forward by Michael Jackson as well – that music and the arts can lift people up and inspire us to make the world a better place.
Charles: Bootsy Collins – James Brown’s bassist for a short time in the early 1970s – released an album about two years ago which included a tribute song called “JB – Still The Man.” It was a collaboration with Reverend Al Sharpton, who eulogized Mr Brown over a James Brown-style instrumental.
Willa: Here’s a video – from YouTube, of course! – and it looks like it was uploaded by Bootsy Collins:
Charles: One segment of the song goes:
Every time an artist goes in a studio and sings for a cause bigger than themselves, that’s James Brown. He’s still The Man. Every time we use our art and our music to lift those that are down at the bottom to look toward the top and dream for a better day, I know that James Brown is still The Man.
James Brown’s catalog is filled with socially conscious anthems – from “Don’t Be a Dropout” to “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothin’” to “The Funky President.” Even his Christmas songs were socially conscious: “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto.” He recorded music with humanitarian goals even when he knew it would make him unpopular. “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” cost him a lot of airplay and a lot of contracts.
Willa: I didn’t realize that. That’s something we see in Michael Jackson also: the panther dance in Black or White was criticized for being too angry, “The Lost Children” was criticized for being too sappy, “Little Susie” was criticized for being too depressing, and “They Don’t Care about Us” was almost universally misunderstood and criticized as anti-Semitic. But even though he was heavily criticized for those songs and videos, he refused to stop trying to reach out through his music.
Charles: The humanitarian theme in Michael Jackson’s self-penned output was there right from the Jacksons days, with tracks like “Can You Feel It” – a funky track, designed specifically to pack out dance floors but also carrying a strong, positive social message. That’s textbook James Brown. But you’re right: he, like James Brown, also recorded humanitarian material in the knowledge that it might attract criticism. Can you imagine a less commercial song to release in the grunge era than “Heal The World”? A less “current” track in the mid-90s than “Earth Song”?
Willa: Exactly. He was in touch with musical trends, but his focus was always on creating work that is important and timeless, meaning it will last and be relevant even after current musical fads have shifted.
Charles: His more antagonistic, socio-political material was also steeped in James Brown influence. “They Don’t Care About Us” consists largely of a recurrent, abrasive drum track with staccato lyrics. Sure, lots of artists have recorded songs like that over the years – but it was James Brown who Michael cited as his greatest influence at any given opportunity. And when he sang lyrics like, “Black man, black male, throw the brother in jail / All I wanna say is that they don’t really care about us,” was the sentiment that far removed from James Brown’s “We’d rather die on our feet than keep living on our knees”?
Michael was raised on a diet of political music, of course. At 11, he was colleagues with Marvin Gaye during the recording of “What’s Going On.” He sat in on the recording of Stevie’s Songs in the Key of Life, which included tracks like “Black Man.” He covered Sly Stone’s “Stand,” and Jermaine Jackson’s book revealed that a young Michael loved George Clinton’s Parliament / Funkadelic – no surprise since Michael had George take part in his 2003 documentary The One.
But as I said above – it was James Brown who Michael consistently cited as his greatest influence, so it would be rather naive to ignore the massive similarities in not only their humanitarian work, but their humanitarian and socio-political output.
Joie: I have to admit that this is all very fascinating to me. I have never really been a “fan” of James Brown in the true sense of the word. I mean, there are several of his songs that I can honestly say that I love, but I was never into him enough to bother with diving into his entire catalog of music or researching his history and humanitarianism.
But as a black child, I knew growing up that James Brown was an incredibly respected and well-loved human being in the black community. Among older black people – and I shouldn’t say “older” really, I just mean my parent’s generation – James Brown was like a hero. He was someone who had been in the trenches with them and had gone through the whole civil rights fight with them, and he could do no wrong. When James Brown sang “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” they sang that line loudly with him. He was, as the song says, “the man.”
Charles: As an aside – it’s interesting that “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” is rightly considered one of the most important songs of Mr. Brown’s career, but is almost exclusively talked about in terms of its lyrical content and its socio-political impact. I would urge anyone to set aside a few minutes one day to put on some headphones, turn “Say It Loud” up really loud, forget the lyrics for a little while, and just listen to the composition. It is one of the most incredible rhythmic compositions you’ll ever hear, complex but at the same time universally appealing. Even without the lyrics, it sounds almost militaristic. It’s like a call to arms. It was co-written with Pee Wee Ellis and is an incredible achievement.
Willa: Wow, I’m really going to have to go back and listen to it more carefully.
And it’s interesting to me that we were all first exposed to a different aspect of James Brown, and came to him through a different route. Charles, your first impressions were from listening to his music on CD. Joie, yours were from hearing your family talk about him as an important cultural figure. And mine were watching him as a dancer and performer on Soul Train. I babysat a lot in junior high and high school, and there weren’t many TV channels back then – just the three big ones and a few UHF ones that didn’t always come in very well. I’d be sitting in the dark in someone else’s house, trying not to creep myself out with all the odd sounds an unfamiliar house makes at night, and I always loved it when James Brown came on because he made me feel brave. For one thing, he was so energetic he completely changed the atmosphere – the house didn’t seem so empty when he was there. And he was fearless! He’d grab that microphone like it was a live thing and whip it around like he was wrestling a snake with his bare hands. You just couldn’t feel scared when he was on.
Joie: Energetic and fearless. I love that, Willa. Those are great words to describe him, I think.
Willa: He really was – extremely energetic and fearless. I remember going to see a laser light show at Stone Mountain, Georgia – gosh, 30 years ago – back when lasers were still pretty rare. It was the first laser light show I’d ever seen, and they played some classic James Brown songs while the laser traced an outline of a dancing James Brown on this huge rockface. It was frenetic! You got the impression even the laser was having a hard time keeping up with him. …
And of course, Michael Jackson learned to imitate that high-energy dancing from an early age, and then incorporated it into his own unique performances. He liked to vary the tempo of his concerts and include ballads and other quiet moments, but he could definitely turn up the dial and execute those quicksilver spins and shuffles when he wanted to. Here’s a clip of him from 1983, performing in classic James Brown style with his mentor looking on, and be sure to watch the spin. It’s incredible. He does three-and-a-half revolutions, I think – they’re so fast I can’t even count them. I don’t think an ice skater can spin that fast with skates on. Here’s the clip:
I love James Brown’s reaction! You can tell he got such a kick out of it. And here’s another clip 20 years later, from 2003, with Michael Jackson honoring his mentor once again:
So James Brown was an important figure in dance who had a tremendous influence on Michael Jackson, and he was a musical innovator as well. For example, in the tribute song you mentioned earlier, Charles, “JB – Still the Man,” Al Sharpton says,
He changed music as we know it … He literally changed the beat, to a 1 – 3 from a 2 – 4. He taught the world to be on the 1. That’s why he’s still The Man. Cause every time I hear a hip hop record on the 1, that’s James Brown.
That’s also discussed in Deep Soul: the Uprising of James Brown. Here’s a clip:
So his music was very rhythmically driven – as his drummer said, “it’s like a dinosaur walking” – and it was extremely important culturally as well as artistically. Deep Soul declares that “funk was defiantly black music.” As music critic Rickey Vincent explains, “Funk, it was a way to sort of signify that you’re celebrating everything about your raw life. You know, we’re trapped in these ghettos, but we got a lot of raw style.” This gets back to what Rev. Sharpton was saying also – James Brown is The Man both culturally and creatively.
According to his biographer, Bruce Tucker, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” was like nothing that had ever come before. The “New Bag” is funk – the birth of funk. He moved the beat from the upbeat to the downbeat, added synchronicity, and invented a whole new genre of music.
Charles: Funnily enough, “Papa’s Bag” is often cited – including by Mr. Brown himself – as the first example of funk, but Brown experts look further back to tracks like “Out of Sight,” which had a pounding beat and an almost hypnotic rhythmic motif. In fact, “Papa’s Bag” doesn’t even have a 1-and-3 beat. Mr. Brown would often talk about coming up with the song in 1965 and stumbling on 1-and-3, but “Papa’s Bag” has a very clear 2-and-4 beat. His long-time manager Charles Bobbit told me a few years ago that Mr. Brown did this on purpose because, even decades later, he was very protective of his methods. According to Mr. Bobbit, he would refuse to enter into serious discussion of his work on most occasions, confiding in those around him that, “Them cats just wanna know where I’m coming from.” What actually spikes on the 1 in “Papa’s Bag” is the horns, not the beat.
Willa: Oh that’s interesting, Charles. I’ll have to listen again with that in mind and see if I can hear what you’re saying. You know, my understanding of music is pretty pathetic, actually, and it’s hard for me to figure out what’s going on in James Brown’s music, especially, because it is so complicated and so funky and so different.
But I’m really blown away by the idea that James Brown and his band created funk, a new genre of music. I used to think that music just evolved slowly over time, but the more I learn about music history, the more I realize that isn’t true. Every so often an incredible talent appears like a comet that changes the course of music, and then those innovations are gradually assimilated, and then another comet appears.
Bill Monroe invented bluegrass. It didn’t exist before him. That’s just astonishing to me. Southern Rock as we know it did not exist before Duane Allman and Wilson Pickett teamed up for their version of “Hey Jude.” And funk as a genre of music did not exist before James Brown “literally changed the beat,” as Rev. Sharpton says. And then I think Michael Jackson took that to a whole new level, inventing an entirely new genre of art. …
Charles: I don’t think Michael Jackson did invent a new genre of music. I can’t think of any sound or method he created that wasn’t already there. James Brown’s music sounded completely new and revolutionary. Michael Jackson’s just sounded incredibly good.
The three central tenets of funk were (1) the one-and-three beat, (2) the prominence of the bass and the drums and (3) the emphasis on rhythm over melody. Funk emerged in the early 60s. The last huge musical revolution had been rock & roll in the 50s, which was predicated almost exclusively on the two-and-four beat. Of course, one-and-three had been implemented here and there – but nobody had made a point of it; James Brown adopted it as his modus operandi. Additionally, he put the bass and drums at the front of the compositions, whereas they typically took a backseat to guitars. Thirdly, he gave his band the directive, “Play every instrument like it’s a drum,” meaning no melodic flourishes at all. Everything had to be rhythmic. The combination of those three elements constituted a completely new way of making music.
Conversely, Michael Jackson always worked within existing genres. Most of his early solo material fell comfortably within the genre conventions of soul, disco and traditional R&B. Off The Wall had a fair amount of jazz in it, too. The Bad album mostly sounded like typical 80s synth-pop with forays into genres like gospel and rock. Dangerous also explored those two genres, as well as classical and, of course, its overriding New Jack Swing sound. And so on and so forth.
What Michael Jackson did was to work within those existing genres – albeit sometimes fusing them in unusual ways (for instance, he was one of the first pop stars to start using guest rappers) – but to create his music to such a high standard that it set the benchmark for all of his peers. Did the Bad album constitute a new way of making music? No. But he made damn sure that of all the synth-pop albums recorded in the late 80s, it was one of the absolute best and would become one of the most enduring.
He was a perfectionist, meticulously recording dozens of songs per album, leaving years between releases, to make sure whatever he put out was the absolute best it could be. In this sense, he and Mr. Brown were very different. Mr. Brown would record entire albums in a matter of hours and largely hated retakes. Even if he or his band made mistakes, he would often put out the first cut rather than fix it. His saying was, “The first take is God. The second take is man.” It was all about the feeling for him.
One track with a mistake on, for instance, is “It’s a New Day.” Towards the end Mr. Brown starts singing the wrong line and has to quickly correct himself and rush out the right line as an afterthought. It’s noticeable, but the groove is so incredible that you don’t care. It just adds to that fantastic live and improvisational sound he cultivated.
I think both his and Michael Jackson’s methods were equally valid, but it’s an area where their music differed. Elsewhere, of course, Michael’s music displayed huge influence by James Brown. Perhaps the most immediately obvious similarity is their shared use of vocal tics like “ow” and “huh” throughout their recordings. James Brown explained the phenomenon in a 2005 interview with Jonathan Ross: “I used my voice like an instrument.” Michael took it that one step further, of course, and actually beat-boxed parts of his own songs.
While I don’t think Michael Jackson created any music genres, that’s not to say he wasn’t extremely influential. One area where his impact cannot be questioned is the music video. Nobody could deny his enormous influence on that art form. It could be argued, too, that Michael Jackson created a new genre of live performance – but the problem was that he did it so well that nobody who has since emulated it has been able to do it justice. By virtue of his colossal talent, Michael unwittingly set an impossible standard for his students and ultimately inflicted on us an endless parade of useless, fedora-fondling imitators – Usher, Chris Brown, etc – who I rather wish would just give up and go away, if I’m perfectly honest.
Willa: Hmmm … Well, I really like some of the new “fedora-fondling” performers who are following in his footsteps, though I agree they aren’t him. But that seems like an unfair standard! Someone like Michael Jackson is very rare indeed. …
And actually, when I said Michael Jackson created a new genre of art, I wasn’t referring to his music so much as his visual art, particularly the way he challenges how we “read” his face and body – and more generally, how we “read” race and gender and sexuality and nationality and identity and all those divisions we construct between ourselves and others. I don’t think we as a culture have even begun to understand this, which I see as his most revolutionary and important work.
But I do think he was innovative in his music as well, on many different fronts – for example, the way he juxtaposes different genres of music within one work to create a type of meaningful dissonance. Lisha McDuff talked with us about this in a post about Black and White, and then Susan Fast joined us for a post about his genre crossing more generally in both his recorded music and live performances. That’s an entirely new way of constructing music, and of thinking about how to convey meaning through music.
And like James Brown’s creation of funk, this new approach to composing music is important culturally as well as aesthetically since Michael Jackson often juxtaposes “black” and “white” genres in a way that subverts established racial hierarchies. For example, in her analysis of “Working Day and Night” from the Dangerous tour, Susan Fast told us, “Metal (the white genre) ‘serves’ the larger R&B/funk (black) genre.” That’s a subtle but powerful reversal.
Charles: Some of those genre-melding experiments were more successful than others, in my opinion. Personally, I think “Black or White” is a bit of a dog’s dinner and is often remembered more fondly than it might otherwise have been on account of the video being very good.
Willa: Oh heaven’s, Charles … “a dog’s dinner”? I’m speechless …
Joie: And I’m a little bit scandalized. While “Black or White” has never been one of my very favorites, I love the message of the song, and I certainly wouldn’t call it “a dog’s dinner.” But I have to admit, I love your British vernacular!
Willa: You’re being awfully diplomatic, Joie. …
Charles: His use of orchestral/classical musical was often very impressive, such as juxtaposing a haunting choral introduction with the hard, funky body of “Who Is It.”
That’s a very good point about the “Working Day and Night” performances. “Working Day and Night” is one of my all-time favorite Michael Jackson songs – whether on the album or on stage. Most of my favorite Michael Jackson songs are built on layers of rhythm, in the James Brown tradition. I found it very strange in later years that Michael would talk so often about how “melody is king,” given that the majority of his most popular material was rhythmic: “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” “Working Day and Night,” “Wanna Be Starting Something,” “Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal,” etc. I’m looking forward to Susan’s book about the Dangerous album.
Willa: I am too! It’s supposed to come out this summer, I think, and I have a feeling it might go a long way toward changing critical opinion about Michael Jackson, the Dangerous album, and his work more generally – especially his later work, which has been terribly undervalued. Susan let me read a rough draft, and it’s fantastic! I was blown away again and again by her insights. I highly recommend it.
Well, thank you so much for joining us, Charles! I don’t always agree with you – a “dog’s dinner” indeed! Joie and I are going to have to work on you about that – but it’s always wonderful to talk with you.
And this feels like a very appropriate time of year to talk about James Brown. He died on Christmas Day seven years ago, and apparently Michael Jackson visited the funeral home and held a private vigil for him throughout the small hours of the night. A couple years later, after his own death, WRDW-TV out of Augusta carried a news segment about it. And while I hate to direct anyone to the New York Daily News, they actually ran a more in-depth article about it three weeks later.
According to Charles Reid, the funeral director, Michael Jackson showed up around midnight and stayed until dawn. He kissed James Brown on the forehead as he lay in the casket, and then curled a lock of hair on his forehead so it looked more like him. And he talked about how much he meant to him: “‘How important Mr. Brown was to him,’ Reid remembered. ‘What an inspiration he was.'” There’s something very touching to me about this – the image of Michael Jackson quietly holding vigil for the man who had meant so much to him for so many years.
Charles: Michael’s attendance at James Brown’s public memorial was his first public appearance in the U.S. after his trial. I think that is very significant and speaks volumes about his love for Mr Brown. I thought Rev. Al Sharpton’s introduction to Michael’s brief eulogy was very smart: “Even though he knows they’re gonna criticize him, Michael says he don’t care what they say. Michael came for you today, Mr. Brown.” Of course, that’s exactly what the media did the next day, mocking Michael for kissing his mentor on the forehead as he lay in state. Interestingly, Michael’s own memorial – and even his own coffin – were modeled on Mr. Brown’s. The teacher/student relationship continued right to the end.
The similarities between the aftermaths of their deaths didn’t end there. Michael was commemorated with a ceremony at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in the days after he passed away, attended by Rev. Sharpton. That’s another tradition which appeared to begin with Mr. Brown’s death in 2006. Rev. Sharpton gave a speech at an Apollo memorial to James Brown, which is far less-known than his shorter eulogy at the subsequent arena memorial Michael attended. While not definitive, I think that Apollo speech perfectly encapsulates the monumental importance of James Brown. It never fails to bring a tear to my eye. If I may, I’d like to end our discussion by posting that eulogy, as we approach the anniversary of his death:
Willa: That’s beautiful – warm and funny and powerful. And thank you again for joining us, Charles, and sharing your deep love and respect for James Brown.
Charles: Thank you for inviting me to take part in this discussion, which I have enjoyed enormously. Given the passion and the frequency with which Michael cited James Brown as his “greatest inspiration,” his life and legacy are rarely discussed and little-known in Michael’s fan community. I hope that people will seek out some of what we have discussed here – various documentaries and recordings – and he will acquire some new fans. Michael loved him for a reason. He was a true king.
The following conversation was originally posted on December 5, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
Willa: So this week we’re going to take on a rather slippery topic: Michael Jackson’s nonverbal vocalizations, meaning the sounds he made with his voice that aren’t words, exactly. Yet those vocalizations can still carry a lot of meaning or evoke powerful emotion or add tremendous drama or texture to his songs. In fact, you could make the case that his nonverbal vocalizations are one of the elements that set him apart as a vocalist. But they’re hard to talk about simply because they are “nonverbal” and therefore outside language. How do you talk about something that’s “nonverbal”?
Joie wasn’t able to be with us this week, but I’m thrilled to be joined by two of our friends who are very interested in sounds and words: Lisha McDuff, a professional musician and musicologist, and Bjørn Bojesen, a poet and author of En Undersøgelse af Fænomenet Rim (or A Survey of the Phenomenon of Rhyming, for those of us who don’t speak Danish.) Thank you both so much for joining me! This is a challenging topic, and I’m so grateful to have you here to help grapple with it.
So I thought a good way to try to get a handle on this topic would be to look at some specific instances where Michael Jackson uses nonverbal vocalizations. For example, in their tribute issue after he died, Rolling Stone wrote this about “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough”:
Make a list of the top 10 “ooooh!” screams in history, and this hit has at least six of them.
For once, I agree whole-heartedly with Rolling Stone! So what are other examples that jump out at you as either classic Michael Jackson sounds or, on the flip side, give an indication of the wide variety of vocalizations he used?
Bjørn: Ouch, this is hard! Is there an MJ song where he doesn’t use any “non-words”? I think the sound most people associate with Jackson is “aoow!” (as in the beginning of “Black or White”), with “hee-hee” as a close runner-up. But this is guesswork! If I have to point at any particular song, I really like how he starts “Blame it on the Boogie”: “hee-hee-hee-hee.”
Willa: Oh, good choice! I love that too, especially the way the “hee”s start high and progressively drop down, almost like he’s playing scales with his voice.
Bjørn: In so many others of his songs his NVVs (non-verbal vocalizations) sound pained, but here it’s pure joy. You instantly know which song it is, and who the singer is. As you, Willa, and Joie revealed in a post some months ago, the song was also sung by Mick Jackson from Britain. It’s amazing to compare the two versions, and hear how “our” MJ makes this song his own just by adding some crystalline “tittering”!
Lisha: “Crystalline tittering” – what a poetic way of verbalizing the non-verbals, Bjørn! It’s so great to have a poet around. You both came up with some wonderful examples – NVVs that are as symbolic of Michael Jackson as the single sequined glove and the black fedora. Of course you could say the same about the vocal “hiccups” in “Billie Jean,” and the ad libbed “hoos” in the final chorus of “Earth Song.” These vocal sounds are so iconic, we often think of them as belonging only to Michael Jackson. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find an MJ impersonation that did not include them.
Bjørn: Or an MJ parody! In 2007, Chris Tucker did an absolutely unforgettable “hee-hee” on Conan O’Brien’s talkshow:
Lisha: Chris Tucker is absolutely hysterical! And he doesn’t miss a thing, does he? The “hee-hee” is a dead giveaway for Michael Jackson’s identity – it is a sound that has become synonymous with Michael Jackson.
And these vocalizations were such a powerful part of his performances, weren’t they? I absolutely loved Vincent Patterson’s story in Bad 25, when he tells what happened when Michael Jackson let out a full-voiced “hoo” on the set of The Way You Make Me Feel:
Willa: What a wonderful description! As Patterson says, “Everything stopped. We had to stop shooting because people just froze – they actually froze on the stage.” And I can believe it! That high, clear, powerful “hoo” is so arresting, even just listening to the video – a video I’ve watched a hundred times before. I can only imagine what it was like for the people there on set, hearing it live for the first time.
So what do you think makes these nonverbal sounds so compelling? For example, he could have used sounds from an instrument instead, or he could have sung sounds we recognize as words. What makes these sounds so powerful and expressive?
Lisha: Good question, and I wonder if anyone really knows how to verbalize the answer to that! Popular music scholars like to talk about “the grain of the voice,” based on a famous essay by Roland Barthes, which might give us a clue. If you think about the grain of a piece of wood, for example, there is an individual characteristic to that wood that could have aesthetic value. The same could be said of the voice, though it’s exceedingly hard to define and individual preference can easily come into play.
The grain of the voice is thought to be everything that makes a voice compelling, yet it lies beyond the scope of what you might learn about singing if you were to take singing lessons. It is beyond beautiful sound, good technique, and excellent breath control – though in the example above, all those things are present too.
Willa: That’s such an intriguing idea, Lisha. Is the grain of the voice part of what makes individual voices so unique? What I mean is that with “We are the World,” for example, even though everyone is singing in a somewhat similar style, pitch, volume, tone, tempo – all the usual characteristics we tend to think of when talking about sound – the voices are still so distinct and individualized. You don’t have to watch the video to pick out who’s singing what – it’s obvious from their voices. I don’t think anyone would confuse Willie Nelson’s voice with Ray Charles’ or Bruce Springsteen’s or Bob Dylan’s, for example, and they certainly wouldn’t confuse it with Diana Ross’ or Cyndi Lauper’s. Is that part of the “grain”?
Lisha: Well, actually it’s just a little different. As you pointed out, every voice has its own unique sound quality and no two voices are just alike. It’s the reason you don’t always have to identify yourself over the phone – you can just say “hey, it’s me” – and if the person knows you well, they know exactly who is calling. The musical term for this is “vocal timbre”; it’s the individual quality or tone color of the voice.
The “grain of the voice” is something more than timbre, that has to do with the aesthetic quality of the voice and the ability of the voice to go beyond the function of language or traditional musical expectations. It’s all of those undefinable qualities that account for why some can deliver a song in a very powerful and meaningful way, while others we just admire and move on – even if their performances were quite expressive and technically polished. They just don’t hit you where you live, so to speak. As I understand it, the “grain of the voice” is a way of describing how the voice works at the language and the music – it takes place beyond the realm of definable musical elements or linguistic function.
The example you gave of “We are the World” is an excellent way of clarifying this. If you think of voices like Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, or Bob Dylan – those aren’t beautiful voices in the traditional pedagogical sense. Their singing doesn’t conform to the rules of great vocal technique like some of the others do. Yet, out of that amazing chorus of stellar vocal talent, those four singers are among the most respected – I would even say revered. It’s the “grain of the voice” that possibly accounts for the power of their vocal performances. They are very honest and convincing singers, capable of delivering a song in a way that really speaks to the listener.
Bjørn: That is really interesting, Lisha! I had never thought about voices like that before, and the grain concept really helps clarify some things. So, MJ’s “grain,” his way of using his voice in the music, might explain the power of his NVVs. Perhaps it might even explain why his verbal singing affects so many people beyond the mere meaning of the words?
Lisha: I think it at least gets us started in how to think about it. There is something very compelling about Michael Jackson’s voice that isn’t so easy to define. I think it’s one of the reasons a lot of TV talent shows inevitably feature a Michael Jackson episode. It’s quite a challenge for the judges and contestants to think about why Michael Jackson’s performances are so exceedingly difficult to match.
Bjørn: That’s a very good point, Lisha! One of the reasons why those rising TV stars can’t match MJ, I think, is that there is more to his singing talent than the quality of the voice itself.
Lisha: I agree.
Bjørn: Commemorating the fourth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, Joe Vogel posted a really wonderful description of MJ using a NVV in a non-song situation. He quotes Howard Bloom, who was a publicist for the Jacksons in the mid-1980s. Bloom was going to show the Jackson brothers some portfolios so that they might choose an artist for their next album cover:
We were all bunched together on the opposite side of the pool table from the art director. Michael was in the center. I stood next to him on his left. And the brothers were crowded around us on either side. The CBS art director slid the first of the portfolios toward Michael. He opened the first page, slowly … just enough to see perhaps an inch of the image. As he took in the artwork his knees began to buckle, his elbows bent, and all he could say was “oooohhhhh.” A soft, orgasmic “ooooh.” In that one syllable and in his body language, you could feel what he was seeing.
Willa: Oh, I can just picture that, Bjørn! It really conveys how expressive Michael Jackson could be, nonverbally, both through his voice and gestures – “his knees began to buckle … and all he could say was ‘oooohhhhh.’” What a great image!
And I’m intrigued by what you just said, Lisha, about Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan – how “their singing doesn’t conform to the rules of great vocal technique,” but their voices are still very expressive. It reminds me of the opening lines of an article I read a while ago in Village Voice, where critic Frank Kogan wrote, “An odd thing about Michael Jackson is that he has a totally spectacular voice but he doesn’t feel the need to amaze us with it. At all.”
I disagree with much of Kogan’s article, but I do agree with this. Michael Jackson had “a totally spectacular voice,” as Kogan says, but he didn’t put it on display – that wasn’t his focus. In fact, sometimes he’d make his voice rough or staccato or in some other way use his voice in a way that hid just how beautiful it was, but conveyed tremendous emotion and meaning, I think. And I wonder if this gets back to the idea of “grain” that you were talking about, Lisha.
Lisha: I think that’s exactly it, Willa. Serving the music was always Michael Jackson’s first priority. I honestly can’t think of a single example of where he indulges in a simple display of virtuosic vocal talent, though he certainly could have if he wanted to.
Willa: I agree. We know that Michael Jackson was very conscientious about his voice. He worked with a voice coach, Seth Riggs, for decades, and he’d meticulously run through an hour or more of vocal exercises before a concert or recording session to fully open his voice. He wanted to make sure that beautiful tenor and those pure, clear, high notes were available to him if he needed them. But his concerts and albums aren’t a showcase of beautiful notes. His focus was always on conveying ideas and emotion, on conveying something meaningful – as he said while still just a child, “I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it.” And sometimes that means hitting a “crystalline” note, as you called it, Bjørn, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Lisha: Sometimes he withdraws his singing voice for musical emphasis. “Money” is the perfect example of this, also “Blood on the Dance Floor.” The verses are almost spoken rather than sung, and he uses very little of his voice, at times almost a whisper, which is such a perfect choice. The voice itself is carrying so much meaning in these examples, though it’s quite the opposite of a “showcase of beautiful notes.”
I also think it also goes back to what Bjørn was saying about Michael Jackson letting out an ecstatic “oooohhhh” when he saw that amazing artwork. It seems to me that human beings have a need to express themselves vocally. If you stub your toe or burn yourself in the kitchen, the first thing you do is vocalize with an “ow!” or “ouch!” Or if your team wins, or your favorite singer gives an amazing performance, you want to yell out “yyyeess!” “woo-hoo!” or “yeah!” Intense grief or anguish is associated with sobbing and wailing sounds. A big surprise is usually followed by a gasping sound – an audible inhalation. Disgust is often followed by “uh,” vocalizing a sharp exhalation. There are so many ways we use vocal sounds to express ourselves.
Willa: That’s a good point, Lisha, and maybe those exclamations are so evocative and emotionally powerful precisely because they’re prelingual – they happen reflexively before we have a chance to think and put our thoughts into words, so they seem more primal and maybe more true somehow.
Lisha: Or maybe they could even be described as translingual – in that they go beyond the function of language? Certainly Michael Jackson had a good command of language, but it seems there are times when language doesn’t fully support what he wanted to convey.
Bjørn: I’d say the ability to express our emotions is one of language’s primary functions! But I do see what you mean by the words “prelingual” and “translingual.” In linguistics, exclamations like “ouch!” or “yes” are called interjections. Unlike a verb (“to sing”), a noun (“a song”) or an adjective (“beautiful”), interjections cannot partake in the creation of phrases. Each interjection is like an autonomous phrase. When lifting your hand from a scorching cooking plate, there’s no need to formulate a phrase like “that hurt!” An “ouch!” says it all.
Some interjections are onomatopoeia or imitations of sounds in the world around us. Like when a child points at a cow and says “moo!” Other interjections are more spontaneous expressions of feelings, and this is where I see a direct link to Michael Jackson’s NVVs. As you point out in your book, Willa, one of MJ’s driving forces as an artist was his desire to help us see how belief influences our perceptions. We see a cow, think for a couple of milliseconds, then reach the mental conclusion “that’s a cow.” In that way, language helps us organize our impressions and gain some footing in the perceptional flux. The price is, however, that every time we use language to form a phrase, we also pass judgment on the world. To a certain extent, interjections are an exception to this.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Bjørn. I never thought of it that way – that interjections are nonjudgmental.
Bjørn: If you’ve never ever seen a cow, and then have your very first encounter with one, you might react by letting out a surprised “o!” – just like the romantic poets.
I think MJ’s use of NVVs has everything to do with a note he once wrote to himself concerning songwriting: feel, feel, feel, feel, feel, feel… His NVVs are so powerful because they derive directly from his feelings, with no intervention of analytical thought in order to put those feelings into words. A baby cries, a lion roars. Those sounds move us immediately, because they are natural or primal. They’re very impulsive, almost instinctive, reactions to emotions like fear, joy and wonder. They come directly from the heart, and MJ knew it (or felt it, I should say).
Willa: That’s a really important idea, Bjørn, and I think it gets to the heart of why these nonverbal vocalizations can be so powerful. It’s not just that we don’t need to say anything more than “ow!” when we burn our hand on the stove. If it hurts badly enough, we can’t say anything more – all we can do is moan, or gasp, or silently writhe on the floor. Language breaks down in the face of extreme physical or emotional pain – or extreme joy, as Michael Jackson describes in “Speechless.”
For me, the best example of this is the interlude in Smooth Criminal. Something terrible happens to Annie – we’re not sure what, but the implication is that she’s been shot by Michael, the Smooth Criminal (just as The Blond is shot by Fred Astaire’s character in The Band Wagon, and Charlotte is shot by Mike Hammer in I, the Jury- the two works Smooth Criminal is based on). Michael points his hand like a gun and shoots out the skylights, we hear the sound of a gunshot, and glass from the broken skylights crashes down on everyone in the nightclub. And importantly, there’s also a rupture in the flow of the video, and in language itself.
It’s like a psychotic break where Michael is forced to confront what he’s done and feel the pain of it, and there’s no singing or dancing or dialogue in this section – just stamping and moaning. It feels to me that we’ve entered a space of such intense emotion, language can’t function here. It’s like when you burn your hand on the stove and it hurts too much to speak in words, or when you feel emotional or psychological pain to such an extreme you can’t speak. We enter that primal, pre-verbal space in Smooth Criminal after Annie is shot.
Lisha: But isn’t Michael the guy in the white hat throughout this short film and the entire Moonwalker film? I’ve always interpreted him as the rescuer, not the perpetrator in Smooth Criminal. I think the long NVV “ooooo” helps to clarify this. It expresses the pain and agony he feels that Annie is not “ok” – the thing that motivated him to fight and restore order in the first place.
There was even a Sega Genesis home video game about Michael Jackson’s NVVs, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, that depicts this really well. The “first person shooter” in this game isn’t armed with guns or traditional weaponry. Instead, the player is armed with Michael Jackson’s NVVs and his iconic dance moves. The task is to rescue the little blond girl “Katie” from the evil Mr. Big and his henchmen:
Bjørn: Oh yes, I remember having played that game! The synthesized “hoows” sound worse than an underwater radio transmission of a cat, but no one is in doubt who the good guy is…
Lisha: Too funny, but you’re right, Bjørn! Michael Jackson was apparently very frustrated with the game sound technology available at that time. Perhaps that’s the reason the “hoows” are even used in a humorous way at times, like between scenes. Here’s a link to a Brad Buxer interview that discusses this (page 76).
Willa: That game is funny! I hadn’t seen it before, and I see what you’re saying about Michael being the rescuer. And I know how you feel, Lisha, about the idea of Michael shooting Annie. I really do. There’s something in me that completely rebels against that idea. It just feels so wrong.
But at the same time, I think what Michael Jackson is doing in Smooth Criminal is complicated but incredibly important. Our culture is steeped in stories of violence against women – or more than that, stories that glorify men who commit violence against women. That’s exactly what happens at the conclusion of I, the Jury and The Band Wagon. Both of those stories focus on a tough guy private investigator who crosses the line sometimes between legal and illegal, moral and immoral, and in both stories the protagonist shoots and kills the woman he said he loved and vowed to protect. And the really horrible thing is that, in both cases, he feels justified in killing her – and he’s presented as a hero, or rather a tough guy anti-hero, because of it.
I think that in Smooth Criminal, Michael Jackson is retelling those stories, or rather he’s “untelling” them – he’s evoking them and then undoing them. His protagonist, Michael, is morally ambiguous also. He’s “the guy in the white hat,” as you said, Lisha, but he’s also a “smooth criminal.” And he’s a mourner – think of the black armband. And he’s the narrator, since it’s his voice that sings the story of what happened. And he’s a member of the chorus, which like a Greek chorus in classical drama provides moral commentary (“Annie, are you OK?”). And to some extent he’s Annie also, since his voice sings her part as well. So he occupies many different subject positions.
Just as importantly, Michael isn’t nearly as hardened as Mike Hammer or Rod Riley, so his reaction to what happens is very different. Mike Hammer and Rod Riley seem liberated and reaffirmed as men when they kill those women, but Michael’s reaction is very different. Annie’s death is intolerable to him. It racks him with pain – you can hear it in his voice – and so we have that psychological break where language stops functioning, and all we hear are cries and other nonverbal vocalizations.
But this is just one interpretation. Both the song and video are really ambiguous about what exactly has happened, so it can be interpreted many different ways. And I fully understand where you’re coming from, Lisha.
Lisha: That’s really fascinating, Willa. I totally agree that Smooth Criminal is doing important cultural work when it untells “stories that glorify men who commit violence against women.” Now I have to go back and really re-think all this!
Bjørn: I really like that you introduced the wailing scene from Smooth Criminal, Willa. I was thinking about it as well, and how it shows the deep need we as human beings have to express ourselves with our voices, even when we’re in such an emotionally fraught state that we can’t produce words that point to anything in the outside world. When language breaks down, the barriers we set between us as humans also break down. (As an aside, scientists have just discovered that the one word that’s shared by most of the world’s languages is the interjection “huh”!)
Without all our words and labels, we’re no longer French or Chinese, teacher or student, sailor or politician, adult or child. We’re all just souls (or personalities or whatever one likes to call it) that happen to be embodied in a plethora of different shapes and colors. Each time MJ lets out an “ow!” he basically tells us “You’re just like me, I’m just like you” (or, in his own words, “You’re just another part of me”).
Willa: Oh, that’s a wonderful way of interpreting this, Bjørn! – his nonverbals as a way of bridging cultural differences.
Lisha: That is interesting, because when we use interjections like “ow!” or “ouch!” we are definitely speaking English and behaving in a way that is culturally acceptable in the English speaking world. I assume other languages have equivalent behaviors and expressions for crying out in pain. But the long “oooo” sound isn’t necessarily speaking English and it doesn’t seem limited to a specific language or culture to me.
Bjørn: Well, in my experience you don’t have to understand English in order to get Michael Jackson’s “aoows” and “hee-hees.” You could also say that laughter is a NVV – the whole world, from Greenland to New Guinea, would understand the laughter at the beginning of “Off the Wall” (and at the end of “Thriller”)! I even think it goes further, that he somehow uses his NVVs to destabilize the boundaries between humanity and nature. After all, the vocal sounds of animals are non-verbal. (In “Black Or White” the human Jackson uses both verbal and non-verbal vocalizations; the moment he’s transformed into a panther, he can only roar.) A good example would be the way he merges monkey sounds into the music in “Monkey Business.”
Lisha: Very interesting, Bjørn. And I wouldn’t rule out that some of those monkey sound effects are NVVs. After all, according to Bruce Swedien, it was Michael Jackson who produced the howling sounds in “Thriller.” For example, at about 20 seconds before the end of “Monkey Business” (at 5:26) there is a repeated “ach-a ach-a ach-a” sound followed by “hoo” (it’s on the far right if you’re wearing headphones) that sounds like Michael Jackson playing around with animal/monkey sounds to me.
“Monkey Business” also has something interesting in common with the album version of “Smooth Criminal,” which is the sound of the breath alone as a NVV. Just before the opening line, “Well Lord have mercy,” there is a dramatic intake of air, so close to the mic you can actually hear the air passing through the lips and teeth. And dang! Is it sexy the way he draws this breath!
Willa: Now, now, Lisha, compose yourself!
Lisha: Sorry, Willa, but it’s kind of hard not to notice!
Willa: I know what you mean. You can almost feel his breath …
Lisha: The way the song is recorded and engineered really contributes to this as well. You would have to be in very close proximity to someone to hear that much detail in their breathing and to hear such a soft voice so clearly, so the recording itself really conveys a sense of intimacy.
We also hear the sound of the breathing in the intro to “Smooth Criminal.” But in this case, the breathing gets faster and faster as the sound of the heartbeat begins to race, indicating a really frightening situation. What could be more cross-cultural, human, and natural than breathing and the beating of the heart? I think we could all agree, regardless of our cultural backgrounds, that the fast breathing in the intro to this song indicates fear and extreme anxiety, while the long, drawn out breath in “Monkey Business” is very relaxed and sexy.
Willa: Wow, that’s really interesting, Lisha, that both songs begin with the sound of his breath, so close you can almost feel it, but it creates a very different effect – a feeling of intimacy in the first and a feeling of anxiety in the second. I hear something kind of similar at the beginning of “Is It Scary.” It’s like he catches his breath, but in a rhythmic way that’s both intimate and frightening.
Lisha: A brilliant example! “Is It Scary” uses this so effectively throughout.
Willa: It really does, though it’s not as intense as “Smooth Criminal.” I agree with you, Lisha – that quickening breath and racing heartbeat at the beginning of “Smooth Criminal” are really frightening. It’s almost like they create a physical entrainment, so our breath and heartbeats quicken in response to his. At least, I know mine does.
Lisha: The heartbeat is so audible, it’s as if the listener is being cued to identify with the protagonist.
Lisha: It feels as if you’re placed right inside his head before the song ever starts. Yet, it’s interesting how you and I interpreted “Smooth Criminal” so differently, which is informed by these NVVs. To be honest, we could probably find as many different meanings attached to all of these sounds as we find different interpretations of the songs, within a certain range of course. I mean, I doubt someone would hear that first breath in “Monkey Business” as fear and anxiety and the fast breathing in “Smooth Criminal” as relaxed and sexy. But, the exact meanings attached to these sounds will differ.
Having said that about differences in interpretation, I have to agree with Bjørn that there is also something powerful about breaking down language in an attempt to speak to our commonalities rather than our differences. For example, the entire chorus of “Earth Song” is a NVV, sung on “ah” and “oo.” Michael Jackson abandons language altogether here, not only to break down the boundaries between people, but to “destabilize the boundaries between humanity and nature,” as Bjørn said so well.
Willa: Which fits perfectly with the meaning of the song. The video reinforces this idea since we primarily see images of nature during the chorus. During the first quiet chorus, we mainly see the destruction of nature. During the second and third repetitions we see humans digging their hands into the devastated earth, reconnecting with nature, and that powerful wind begins to blow. … And then in the final glorious chorus, we see a vision of nature triumphant, with herds of animals restored to their rightful place.
Bjørn: Furthermore, those NVV choruses muddle the musical genres… I know many pop fans find classical music boring, because there’s no human voice they can relate to. (This includes the somewhat “unnatural” voices heard in opera.) Conversely, aficionados of classical music often find pop music too superfluous and ephemeral, maybe because it’s based on an individual voice (or voices) rather than some “timeless” instrumentation that talks directly to people’s deeper selves and doesn’t require any translation. Now, “Earth Song” works on both levels, doesn’t it?
Willa: It really does.In the chorus of “Earth Song,” his voice is literally his “instrument” since, to me anyway, it functions like an instrumental section – but he creates it with his voice, as you pointed out, Lisha. And the fact that it’s made of nonverbal sounds rather than lyrics is a big part of that, I think.
Lisha: I hear the “ah” and “oo” sounds not as instrumentals but as lead vocals all the way! Joe Vogel called attention to how these nonverbals work on several levels – as a cry for the earth, as humanity crying out together as one human family, and as a personification of the earth itself – Mother Earth crying out in pain. It’s a stunning example of the power of NVVs and Michael Jackson’s vision as a composer.
But speaking of NVVs as a part of the musical score, there are some fabulous examples of how Michael Jackson uses NVVs as instrumentation. For example, in the beginning of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” about 9 seconds in, the guitar line is actually a blend of guitar and Michael Jackson’s NVVs, “duh-tah duh-tah dum.” He is using his voice as part of the accompaniment and I would bet my last dime the vocals came first, and that the guitar sounds were chosen later to imitate the voice.
“Don’t Be Messin’ Round” is a gold mine for understanding how Michael Jackson used NVVs as a compositional technique. You can hear the song isn’t quite finished by how the NVVs are slowly being replaced by the instrumentals. A good example is at 3:58, about the last 20 seconds of the song, where you can hear the guitar imitating the voice.
Willa: Wow! You really can! I hadn’t noticed that before.
Lisha: The NVVs show how Michael Jackson would “write” music by recording his voice, rather than using a pencil and paper. Because of his exceptional vocal talent, this was an extremely efficient way for him to work. Like in the bridge at 2:38, I hear “bop-bop bah dup-bah-dup” as a trumpet line. My guess is that if this song had been finished, we would have heard a trumpet or brass section there. Hearing the line sung like that gives me a lot of information about what he wanted to hear, much more than just seeing it written out on the page, which is always an approximation of sound.
Bjørn: Yet I’ve occasionally seen claims that Jackson wasn’t a “real” composer, since he didn’t write notes like the classical composers. But who knows, maybe he was actually far ahead of his time, a composer who’s consciously ditched notes and paper because they aren’t “necessary” (as he said somewhere in his Mexico deposition)?
Lisha: I agree. I don’t think of Michael Jackson as a pre-literate composer, but as a post-literate composer. It’s a big mistake to assume “real” composers “write notes like classical composers.” The traditional way of writing music on paper is just a way of storing and communicating musical information. Michael Jackson had an extremely efficient method of doing both that I think is far more clever.
Bjørn: Maybe too clever for the critics? Composition and songwriting is yet another area where Michael Jackson liked to mix up everything. For example, he sometimes seems to have used an offbeat pronunciation on purpose. Remember all those discussions about things like “shamone!” or the exact lyrics of the world’s most famous denial, “The kid is not my son”? (“The chair is not my son,” as David Letterman heard it!) Jackson does a lot of roaming in the borderlands between “composing” and “improvising,” “meaning” and “not meaning,” “voice” and “instrument,” “man” and “nature,” and even “man” and “machine” – as when he uses a vocal synthesizer in “Leave Me Alone.”
And speaking of “Don’t Be Messin’ Round,” I think it’s amazing how Michael Jackson’s voice is capable of creating an independent space in the air and the listener’s mind. Did you get a chance to hear the original “Slave to the Rhythm” when it leaked? In the first seconds of that song, it is as if MJ is drawing energy out of thin air and then setting the stage for the entire song with his NVV’s! It’s so powerful, his sounds almost feel like physical objects. There’s a loud “hoo!,” then a string of commanding “chuck-chuck-chuck,” another “hoo!,” vocal hiccups and strained “ah!”s mixed with waxing-waning “woahoaow” lamentations, climaxing into a double “hoo! hoo!” Only after 22 seconds does the actual singing begin…
Lisha: I love those NVVs in “Slave to the Rhythm”! I was also thinking about the beginning of “Workin’ Day and Night” and how he’s got two different NVV hooks going at the same time – “de-dum dah” and “uh-ah uh-ah” – that are like extra percussion instruments. The Michael Jackson Immortal soundtrack really highlights this. I can even hear a “chu-chu” vocalization that blends with the percussion shakers.
Bjørn: While we’re at it – I just re-listened to “Speed Demon.” The NVVs of that song are very unusual. Once again, some 20 seconds pass before the singing begins. MJ sets the stage with three very guttural “chu!”s, followed by a peculiar, almost girlish “oo!” followed by another trio of “chu!”s. Nearing the end of the song, he lets out an entire NVV “monologue”: “oouh!” (2:55), “ogh!” (2:58), [“girlish”] “ah!” (3:00), “urh!” (3:03), “hoow!” (3:05). It reminds me of the printed sound effects in comics (“boom!,” “ugh!,” “kapow!”).
Willa: I agree! And that’s a great way of describing it, Bjørn.
Bjørn: I wonder if he created this particular “chu!” especially for “Speed Demon”? (It’s so throaty it sounds like cockney English or my own language Danish!) To some extent it carries the whole song – just like the “dah!” sound pervading “Bad.”
Lisha: In my opinion, “chu” was absolutely created for “Speed Demon,” as an onomatopoeia for the motorcycle engine sounds. Listen carefully and you can also hear a percussive rattling or shaking sound when the rhythm begins, after the engine revs up for the first couple of seconds of the song. If you’re wearing headphones you will hear it on the left side for 8 counts, then it moves to the right side for 8 counts, and continues to alternate left and right. That’s not a pre-recorded sound effect or another percussion instrument, but a very soft, whispered, rhythmic, NVV! And it’s a complicated pattern, not even sure how I could try to write that out without the benefit of hearing the isolated track, but it sounds like an imitation of an engine purring or rattling to me.
We talked earlier about how expressive Michael Jackson’s NVVs can be, and how they so effectively communicate emotion, but oftentimes they are used as sound effects or part of the instrumentals as much as anything else. And they are often so understated and blended into many different layers of sound, that they’re not necessarily noticeable. And they are just so imaginative, giving such amazing variety to the sound. There seems to be no limits when it comes to Michael Jackson’s imagination.
A favorite example is “Stranger in Moscow.” If you listen carefully, just before the vocals start, there is a short, whispered “tuh” sound, placed irregularly on the off beats, that adds a very soft, percussive sound. Later in the song, just after “when you’re cold inside” (1:42) he repeats that soft sound, “tuh tuh tuh tuh,” but it sounds like he’s actually breathing in on some of them, which creates a slightly different color. I mean, who else thinks like that?
In the line “how does it feel,” the word “does” is heavily accented and one of the sounds accenting that beat is a whispered “huh” that is brought up in the mix. But all these details often go unnoticed. You just feel the power of the music and the lyric blending with all these sounds.
Willa: Well, they certainly went unnoticed by me! That’s one thing I love about talking to you both – you highlight details I would never notice on my own. I feel sometimes like I’ve been listening to these songs for years and not really hearing them. It’s so fascinating to begin to hear some of the things you guys hear.
For example, I never noticed those “tuh tuh” sounds you’re talking about, Lisha, even though “Stranger in Moscow” is one of my favorite songs and I play it often. But you’re right – you can definitely hear them at several key moments. I hear them most clearly in the “We’re talking danger … I’m living lonely” section (about 3:45 in). It’s like an explosive exhalation occurring at regular intervals, almost like we’re listening to him lift weights or do some other kind of hard physical labor. And that repeated sound subtly conveys the feeling that he’s under duress and carrying a heavy load. At least, that’s how it feels to me.
Lisha: Great example, Willa. That exhalation feels very labored to me too, which adds so much weight musically to the song. It’s endlessly fascinating to listen for all these sounds and to try to understand how they are being used.
Oh, and I just can’t resist at least one more example of these very subtle NVVs, which is “People of the World,” a charity song that Michael Jackson wrote and produced for the people of Kobe, Japan in 1995, after a devastating earthquake:
Although it is in Japanese and Michael Jackson doesn’t sing on this track, his writing and production work are unmistakable. You can hear him literally breathe life into the song with a whispery NVV just before the vocals begin (1:38), and as a repeated percussive effect on off beats throughout. I am a huge fan of this song.
Bjørn: I can understand why. I’ve never heard this song before, and it is really beautiful. (Pop music by other performers often makes me cringe, so that ought to be proof enough that Michael Jackson’s spirit is alive in this song!) Thank you for sharing.
Lisha: I admit, I got a little addicted to it. It’s amazing that I feel like I somehow understand what is being said, though I don’t speak a word of Japanese. I guess that goes to the power of music and non-verbal musical expression!
The following conversation was originally posted on October 24, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.
Willa: Last spring, longtime contributor Bjørn Bojesen shared his version of “Bili Ĝin,” which is an Esperanto translation of “Billie Jean.” That led to a behind-the-scenes discussion of Michael Jackson and foreign languages, with Joie, Bjørn, and me all brainstorming about songs or short films where he sang or incorporated words in a language other than his native English. This was such an interesting topic for us we decided to take the discussion online and talk about it in a post. Thanks for joining us, Bjørn, and for sharing “Bili Ĝin” with us!
So Esperanto is actually a good place to start this discussion since it’s such a Michael Jackson kind of concept. As I understand it, Esperanto was invented in the late 1800s using elements of many different languages to help promote global peace and understanding. Specifically, it was created by L.L. Zamenhof to provide a neutral means of communication that bridged divisions of language, nationality, and ethnicity. I can see how this would appeal to Michael Jackson since crossing boundaries and healing divisions is something he did throughout his career. And as you recently mentioned, Bjørn, he incorporated an Esperanto passage in the promo film for HIStory. Is that right?
Bjørn: Yes, that’s correct. At the very start, right before the soldiers come marching in with their heavy boots, an unseen man shouts out a declaration in Esperanto. Take a look:
In the YouTube video, there are some glitches in the subtitles, but the anonymous person’s message goes like this: “Diversaj nacioj de la mondo” (Different nations of the world) / “konstruas ĉi tiun skulptaĵon” (build this sculpture) / “en la nomo de tutmonda patrineco kaj amo” (in the name of global motherhood and love) / “kaj la kuraca forto de muziko” (and the healing power of music). A few seconds later, one of the smelters also shouts in Esperanto: “Venu ĉi tien!” (Come over here!)
The promo created quite a stir in the Esperanto community when it aired. Why would MJ use a snippet of Esperanto? I have no idea whether he actually spoke Esperanto, but I guess he scripted the lines (in English): “in the name of global motherhood and love, and the healing power of music.” Doesn’t this sound very MJ to you? I mean, just the idea of a universal motherhood instead of the usual brotherhood…
Willa: It really does. It sounds “very MJ,” as you say, and it’s also interesting how those words undercut the visuals. What follows those words is a show of military force, with goose-stepping soldiers evocative of Nazi military demonstrations. So there’s a strong tension between the Esperanto words, which describe the statue they’re building as a tribute to “global motherhood and love,” and the accompanying images, which place the statue in a military context.
Bjørn: Yes, but this tension only exists if you understand the words! 99.8 percent of the viewers would have no clue what the voice actor was saying. So, why didn’t MJ simply let the man speak his lines in English?
Willa: Well, that’s a good point, Bjørn – and I have to admit, I’m one of the 99.8 percent!
Joie: As am I. You know, Bjørn, I find this fascinating and I’m also really surprised by it. I had no idea those words were spoken in Esperanto. I don’t ever remember hearing that at the time of the video’s release. I just remember all the controversy over the film itself being declared hateful and narcissistic. But you ask an interesting question … why didn’t he simply use a language that was more easily recognizable to the masses? Even if he didn’t use English, he still could have used Russian or Spanish or even Japanese. Any other language that more people would hear and immediately recognize. But instead, he chose Esperanto. And Willa and I are of the belief that he rarely did anything artistic without a very precise reason for it. So I am intrigued.
Bjørn: I think you’re touching on something important, Joie, when you talk about a language that’s “more easily recognizable to the masses”! This is exactly why many upper-class art aficionados can’t stand Michael Jackson – they think he’s just feeding “the masses” with stuff they can easily digest. But I think MJ had a perfect understanding of this balance between being accessible and being esoteric. By dropping such small hard-to-get references – like his basing the You Are Not Alone video on the painting Daybreak by Maxfield Parrish – Michael Jackson added interpretational depth to his art. By the way, wasn’t it the MJ Academia Project that first revealed that the HIStory promo video is essentially a spoof of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 Hitler propaganda film, Triumph of the Will?
Willa: I think so … at least, that’s the first place I heard it.
Bjørn: With that in mind, it’s interesting to note that the initiator of Esperanto, Zamenhof, was a Jew…
I also think MJ is reflecting on his own use of language. His mother tongue happens to be English – which since World War II has functioned as a second language for huge parts of the world. The English language helps MJ get his message across to the masses, but at the same time it gives native English-speakers like him a communicational advantage (while others have to search for words, you can just keep talking).
Esperanto is the wannabe international language with the potential to put speakers of different mother tongues on a more equal footing. Say all the countries of the UN decided to make Esperanto a global second language, and began teaching it in every classroom on the globe. That would give people from any culture a basic tool for communication – but it would also mean that native English-speakers would have to “make a little space.” So, in this promo video, MJ is somehow endorsing the idea of Esperanto. By letting the language “guest star,” he questions the status quo (using native languages for international communication). I guess you could call it an artistic discussion about language and power.
Willa: That’s a really interesting way to look at that, Bjørn. And we could push that idea of challenging “language and power” even further if we consider that English as a “global” language began with British imperialism and colonialism. As the British Empire spread around the world, so did English culture and language, with many indigenous people encouraged or even forced to give up their native language and use English instead. And of course, racism in the United States is a direct result of British colonialism and the slave trade. So in that sense, English can be seen as a language of oppression – the language of those colonizing and displacing indigenous people around the world.
So getting back to the HIStory teaser, it’s interesting that in the visuals he’s strongly pushing back against efforts to silence him and “put him in his place” following the false allegations of 1993, and in the Esperanto spoken parts he’s pushing back against English, the language that to some degree silenced his ancestors and tried to keep them in their place.
Joie: Wow. Really interesting way of looking at that, Willa!
Bjørn: Yes, I agree, Joie, I hadn’t thought about it like that either! So, if the HIStory teaser is a kind of rebuttal – to Nazism and colonialism and the extinction of native languages caused by English and other “big tongues” – couldn’t Liberian Girl be seen as an attempt to recover what was lost? Even if the song’s intro is in Swahili, which is an East African language, and most of MJ’s forebears probably came from West Africa…
Joie: Ah! Very clever thinking, Bjørn! We could almost say the same thing about the coda at the end of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.'” The Cameroonian chant, “Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah.”
Willa: Wow, you guys, that is so interesting! I really like the idea of approaching those two from this perspective. You know, both of them seem to address the issue of representation and interpretation – or misinterpretation – to some degree, and in both the use of an African language signals a major shift in the mood of the song/video. In “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” he talks about how the media distorts meaning – like in these lyrics, for example:
I took My Baby to the doctor
With a fever, but nothing he found
By the time this hit the street
They said she had a breakdown
Most of the song is pretty edgy and fearful, and that’s all in English. But then the Cameroon part starts, and suddenly this edgy, trippy song shifts and becomes joyful and triumphant. It’s a very dramatic shift in mood.
There’s a similar shift in the Liberian Girl video. It begins in black and white, with an eerie, sustained, high-pitched note vibrating in the background as the camera pans around what seems to be a British colony in Africa. A waiter walks out of the Cafe Afrique, we see workers in African dress, and then a white missionary in European clothes with a rosary and clerical collar. The camera follows the missionary until he walks behind a beautiful black woman; then the camera stops on her. She looks up and speaks directly to the camera in Swahili, and suddenly everything changes. The black-and-white tone gives way to vibrant color, and we discover we’re not in colonial Africa but modern day Hollywood, in a studio filled with glittering celebrities.
One of the things that’s most interesting about this, in terms of language and colonialism, is that Liberia is an African nation founded and, in effect, re-colonized by free blacks and escaped slaves from the U.S. in the 1800s – people whose ancestry was African but who no longer had a home country to return to. And its official language is English, the only language this diaspora of people had in common. So it’s almost like the English language was re-colonized, just as the nation-state of Liberia was – the language of the colonizer was reclaimed and reappropriated by the colonized.
And we see that idea suggested in Liberian Girl as well. All the celebrities are milling around and Whoopi Goldberg asks, “Who’s directing this?” The camera cuts to Steven Speilberg sitting in a director’s chair, implying he’s the director, but he’s looking at his watch and he’s no more in control than anyone else. Then at the end of the video we discover who’s really been calling the shots: Michael Jackson, behind the camera. So he has reclaimed the Liberian Girl video as his own, just as the former slaves from America reclaimed Liberia and English as their own.
Bjørn: Well, the problem with this interpretation, Willa, is that Liberia was already inhabited when the African-Americans founded it! Just like Israel was already inhabited by Arabs when it was founded as a place where Jews could live in peace. To my understanding, today the “original” Liberians – talking various African languages – are second-class (or at least less fortunate) citizens in a state dominated by English-speaking “American” Liberians (with ancestors ultimately hailing from many parts of Africa, not just Liberia).
I don’t know a lot about Liberia, and I can sympathize with the idea of the ex-slaves reclaiming “English as their own” (after all, who doesn’t love his mother tongue?) But I do think that Jackson’s use of African languages in these songs reflect a longing for the uncolonized past, maybe even for a romantic Africa that never really existed (or, perhaps, for a “garden of Eden” that could come into existence in the future!) As the linguist Ben Zimmer pointed out on his blog the day after MJ had died, the chant in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” was heavily inspired by a line from “Soul Makossa” by the Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango. (Dibango sued MJ for plagiarism, but they reached an agreement out of court.) Here’s “Soul Makossa”:
Dibango sings “ma ma ko, ma ma sa, ma ko ma ko sa,” which is in his native language, Duala. So, MJ’s chant isn’t really in any African language – but so close that is certainly sounds African. In the same way, he uses Swahili (from East Africa) as a symbol of (idealized) Africanness, even if the actual Liberia is in West Africa, far away from the places where people speak Swahili… So, for me, the use of African languages in these songs are really more about a “longing for paradise on earth” as it was before colonization, and as it could become once again.
Willa: I think that’s a very important point, Bjørn – that he’s referring more to an idea than an actual place. After all, after the shift in Liberian Girl, we aren’t in Liberia; we’re on a movie set in Hollywood, so he’s clearly demonstrating that the opening scene wasn’t really a scene from the actual nation of Liberia, but a Hollywood depiction of “exotic Africa.” The challenge for us, then, is to figure out what idea, exactly, he’s trying to get across when he sings with longing about a girl from Liberia.
It’s interesting in this context to think about the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when Harriet Beecher Stowe sends Eliza, George, and the other escaped slaves to Liberia. For her, it represented a place where they could be safe and free, and where their son Harry could grow and thrive. For her, it truly meant a “paradise on earth,” as you said, Bjørn, but it also reveals a despair about her own country. Stowe didn’t think it was possible for them to ever be truly free in the United States, or even Canada, so she had to send them to Liberia to ensure their freedom.
But I don’t think Michael Jackson ever did give up on the United States – though he had good reason to, and he chose not to live here after the 2005 trial. And I think Liberia, as a concept, means something different for him than it did for Stowe.
Bjørn: That’s really interesting! I guess I’ll have to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin some day. Stowe’s “Liberia,” as you describe it, reminds me of Bob Marley and the other Rastafarians, who saw Ethiopia as a Promised Land. The name Liberia, which comes from the same Latin root as “liberty,” roughly translates as “the land of the free.” I once made an Esperanto translation of “Liberian Girl,” where the ethymology really shines through: Liberianin’ means “Liberian girl” as well as “girl from the country of freedom.”
Willa: Really? You translated “Liberian Girl” also? That’s wonderful! And I love the alternate meaning of “girl from the country of freedom.”
Bjørn: The rainforest sounds at the beginning of the song (a prequel to “Earth Song”?) could indicate that MJ used “Liberia” as a metaphor for Paradise. Now, “Paradise Girl,” that’s a little spooky, if you think about it. But I’ve always thought this song wasn’t about “Liberia” at all, but rather about a girl who’s very far away from the singer. Like MJ’s (extreme!) version of “Distant Lover,” if you know that Marvin Gaye song!
Okay, let’s get back to the language question. Why does Michael Jackson’s Liberian girl, whoever she is, speak in Swahili? Is that just to add some exotic spice, or what do you think?
Joie: Well now that is a really good question, Bjørn. And while I really enjoy picking apart a song or a short film and trying to analyze it and discern its true meaning, I also sometimes think that maybe a cigar is just a cigar. What would be wrong with adding in Swahili, or any other foreign language for that matter, for the sole purpose of adding a little exotic spice to your creation? Maybe he simply thought it sounded cool.
Willa: You’re right, Joie, it does sound cool, and it perfectly fits that space in the song. We know he was fascinated by sounds – found sounds, manufactured sounds, the sounds of nature, the sounds of the city, the sound of words – so it’s very possible he chose those phrases simply based on their sounds and rhythms.
But I’m still intrigued by the fact that both “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” and Liberian Girl focus on American pop culture and the entertainment industry, and how certain things are represented or misrepresented within that industry. And both include an African phrase that serves as an important pivot point – one that changes the whole mood of the work. That seems significant to me. But what does it mean?
As you mentioned, Bjørn, “Liberia” shares the same Latin root as “liberty.” As I understand it, the name “Liberia” was chosen to emphasize that this new nation was envisioned as a place where former slaves could find peace and liberty. So it seems significant that Michael Jackson evokes Liberia, but more as an idea than a physical place, as you suggested earlier. And to me, that’s reinforced by the fact that he incorporates Swahili, but it’s Swahili that has become unmoored from its native country and is now being used in a Hollywood video that to some extent critiques Hollywood.
The lyrics to Liberian Girl suggest something similar when he says their romance is “just like in the movies”:
With two lovers in a scene
And she says, “Do you love me?”
And he says so endlessly,
“I love you, Liberian Girl”
So their romance is presented as something of a fantasy, something that’s been scripted by Hollywood. In all of these cases, it’s like he’s both evoking a fantasy and critiquing it at the same time, and looking at where it comes from. For example, in Liberian Girl he’s evoking the exotic while questioning what it means to be labeled as exotic.
Joie: That is a very interesting interpretation, Willa! Sometimes you really do blow me away with how your mind works. It’s fascinating!
Willa: Thanks, Joie, though I might be totally missing the boat with this one – it’s pretty subtle what he’s doing. It’s just so interesting to me that he begins Liberian Girl with a classic scene of “exotic Africa,” then reveals it’s all just a Hollywood fabrication, and then suggests that the real exotica is Hollywood itself. And the Swahili phrase is the turning point where our perceptions are flipped inside out.
Joie: Do either of you know what that Swahili phrase means? I would be very interested to know what she’s saying in the opening of the song.
Bjørn: According to the album booklet, it means “I love you too – I want you too – my love.” (Google Translate seems to agree, although it renders mpenziwe as ”lover”.)
Joie: Huh. I don’t think I ever knew that before. I’ve always simply wondered at the meaning. I can’t believe it was in the album booklet all this time and I never noticed.
Bjørn: No worries, Joie, an album’s booklet is often the last thing I study too! But you know what? It just struck me there’s an interesting semantic evolution going on in this song: It starts with rainforest sounds that don’t have any particular meaning to the average listener (but who knows what the animals are really saying?) Then it progresses to a line spoken in Swahili, which to the vast audience is just as meaningless as the sound of a bird. Then, at last, Michael Jackson starts to sing in English, and because we understand the language, all of a sudden we don’t hear his words as ”sounds” any more, but as meaningful pieces of information… Perhaps Jackson added Swahili just to emphasize that the meaning we assign to words really is arbitrary, and that we might as well be in a situation where Swahili carried the information, and English was some unintelligible but exotic spice, just like the language of the forest, or even the sound of instruments…
Willa: Wow, that is fascinating, Bjørn! And if we interpret the opening that way – as examining how we make meaning – that progression of sounds is paralleled in the visuals as well. As you say, the sounds gradually become more intelligible as we move from bird song (something we don’t understand and can never understand) to Swahili (something most of us don’t understand at first but can if we put a little effort into it) to English (which for most Americans is our native language). And the visuals begin with the Cafe Afrique sign, then pan out to the Casablanca-like scene, and then keep panning out to show the Hollywood set. So as we telescope out, the images become more familiar – closer to home, in a way – and our understanding of what we’re seeing shifts and gradually becomes more clear: we’re watching a film being made.
Bjørn: This film, as you say, is being referenced to in the lyrics as well: “Just like in the movies… With two lovers in a scene…” So maybe the chief function of the Swahili phrase is to underscore the very otherworldliness of this cinematic fantasy, much like the Elvish phrases in the Lord of the Rings movies or the Na’vi dialogue in Avatar. Yes I know, Swahili is a living language spoken by real people. But still, hardly anyone in Liberia speaks Swahili! As pointed out earlier, Swahili is an East African language. Its native speakers live along the Kenya-Tanzania coastline.
What’s intriguing about Swahili, however, is that it’s become a truly international language in much of Eastern Africa! Millions of people in Congo, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya use Swahili to get their messages across a multitude of linguistic boundaries. It is, indeed, the closest we get to an African “Esperanto.”
Willa: Really? I didn’t know that.
Joie: Neither did I.
Willa: That’s fascinating to think about it as “an African ‘Esperanto.'”
Bjørn: If we look at it like that, the openings of “Liberian Girl” and the HIStory teaser are very similar: Something is being said by a non-MJ person in a cross-cultural language, before MJ himself enters the stage and reassures his English-speaking listeners that they’re not wholly “lost in translation”!
“Stranger in Moscow,” interestingly, takes the opposite approach. Here MJ’s loudly sung English-language lyrics are followed by another man whispering in the lingua franca of the Cold War Communist world: Russian.
Willa: Wow, Bjørn, that is so interesting! And to me, it feels like the Russian in “Stranger in Moscow” functions in a very different way as well. It reinforces the edgy, unsettled mood of the song, as well as the theme of alienation from his home country.
Joie: I agree with you, Willa. “Stranger in Moscow” has always been one of my favorites and I think it’s because it is such a beautifully constructed song. But you’re right, the use of Russian in the song really heightens the sense of loneliness, isolation and despair that he’s trying to convey here. The alienation as you put it. Whenever I listen to this song, I actually get the sense that his sole reason for using Russian here is to make us feel those negative emotions more fully.
Willa: It feels that way to me too, Joie, and that feeling intensifies once we learn what those Russian words mean: “Why have you come from the West? Confess! To steal the great achievements of the people, the accomplishments of the workers…”
Joie: Yes. It’s very intimidating, isn’t it? Imagine being a stranger in a strange land, detained by these scary officials and having those questions barked at you over and over again!
Willa: Or to bring it a little closer to home, imagine the police asking you, Why are you so kind and generous with children? Confess! It’s to lure them in so you can abuse them …
What I mean is, it wasn’t just the KGB who interrogated people in intimidating ways – the Santa Barbara police investigators did the same thing, and not just to Michael Jackson but to young children as well. They interrogated Jason Francia over and over again when he was only 12 years old. As he said later, “They made me come up with stuff. They kept pushing. I wanted to hit them in the head.” Like the stereotypical image of the KGB, they were determined to wring a confession from him.
And I think that’s the idea Michael Jackson is trying to get at here. He’s not pointing a finger at the Soviets – he’s pointing a finger at us, and saying in some ways we are as much of a police state as Cold War Russia. And the shock of that realization has made him feel like a stranger in his own country.
Bjørn: That’s fascinating, Joie and Willa. I hadn’t thought about it like that. Both “Stranger in Moscow” and “Liberian Girl” mention specific locations in their titles, which is a very unusual thing for MJ to do. (Most of his titles are quite unspecific – just think about “A place with no name”!) And both songs use great regional languages to create a specific mood. I’m not exactly a connoisseur of Jackson’s short films, but I have remarked a couple of times that Russians have commented that the scenes in Stranger in Moscow look nothing like Moscow at all.
Willa: That’s true. You can tell from the street signs and the close-up of the American quarter that it was filmed in the U.S. And that seems very deliberate – he wants us to know he’s really in the U.S. though he feels like he’s in a strange land.
Bjørn: So, I wonder if MJ is using Moscow and Russian in a metaphorical way, just like he uses Liberia and Swahili to evoke a dreamlike vision of Africa. Thanks to the Cold War, Russian must sound like a very alien language to many Americans. And Moscow must still be the very ”eye of the tiger” to some folks! (Poor Russian MJ fans!)
So, without demonizing too much here, we might say that while Jackson uses Swahili as a paradisaical or “angelic” language, Russian, as used by the KGB agent, does duty as the language of his demons…
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Bjørn! Or maybe the Russian is evoking a frightening unknown. In other words, it’s not so much that Russian is “the language of his demons,” but that Americans once demonized it because we didn’t understand it and were afraid of it. I have friends a little older than I am who remember the Bay of Pigs, and the school drills for what to do if the Soviets attacked with nuclear bombs. And the main feeling they remember is the uncertainty – the fear of something powerful that you don’t understand, that can attack at any time without warning. I can certainly understand how Michael Jackson might feel that way about the Santa Barbara police …
Joie: Wow. That’s really deep, Willa. And Bjørn, I love what you said about the “angelic” language and the “demon” language. I think it’s clear that both languages were used in very different ways to convey two very different realms of emotion, and that is very fascinating.
Bjørn: Yes, it is! And just as the languages help the music paint these emotional landscapes, the music also influences the way we – as non-speakers – perceive these foreign languages. Personally, I find Russian quite a beautiful language, with all its mushy sounds. And, importantly, it is whispered, as if the KGB agent is telling a secret. If we hadn’t just heard MJ’s lament, we might have thought it was a lover whispering something to his beloved, much like the Swahili girl in “Liberian Girl.” And this makes it all the more frightening – it’s like a cold embrace, followed by a stab.
Willa: Wow, that’s a fascinating way to look at that, Bjørn – and pretty chilling too.
Bjørn: So, in “Liberian Girl,” “Stranger in Moscow,” and the HIStory teaser, Michael Jackson uses bits of foreign languages to help create a mood or atmosphere. And the languages he uses have all – at some point in history – been rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication: Swahili, Esperanto, Russian. Furthermore, the pieces seem to highlight different aspects of foreignness: the exotic and alluring (Swahili), the unfamiliar and strange (Esperanto), the threatening and repulsing (Russian).
Willa: And there’s another song that fits this pattern also: “They Don’t Care about Us.” It begins with a woman saying “Michael, eles não ligam pra gente,” which is Portuguese for “Michael, they don’t care about us.” As you said of Swahili, Esperanto, and Russian, Bjørn, Portuguese is another language that has “at some point in history – been rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication.” Like England, Portugal was a powerful nation during the colonial era, and as a result, Portuguese is the official language of countries around the world, from Europe to South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
Joie: That’s very true, Willa. You know I think most people just think about Portuguese being spoken in Brazil and, of course, Portugal. But it’s actually the official language of many African nations, like Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bissau, and others. And, as you said, even in Southeast Asia. It’s interesting to think of it as “rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication,” because it really did at one point.
Willa: And still does in some regions – like I didn’t realize it was so widespread in Africa. That’s interesting, Joie. And to get back to what you were saying, Bjørn, about the different emotional effect of each of these languages, the Portugese lines at the beginning of “They Don’t Care about Us” have always struck me as sorrowful, in an almost maternal way – like the sorrow of a mother who cares deeply for her children and has seen too many of them come to harm.
Bjørn: You opened up my eyes here, Willa and Joie! I have to confess I’ve never heard that Portuguese part before. I gave the song another listen, and couldn’t hear it – but then it occurred to me that it had to be in the video! I’m a great fan of Michael Jackson’s music, but a lot of his films I haven’t watched in their entirety. So, I went to YouTube, and heard that phrase spoken for the first time.
I wonder, though, to what extent Portuguese is being used to create an emotional effect, and to what extent it’s being used to evoke an idea of “Brazil” – after all, the film does take part in real-world Brazil (not a fantasy “Liberia”), where Portuguese is spoken as the main language.
Willa: That’s a good point.
Bjørn: But if we look at the emotions, I do agree with you, Willa, that it sounds like a caring mother speaking to her son. By the way, those people who like blaming MJ for having a “Jesus complex,” should take an extra look… In the exact same moment as the Brazilian mother figure says the name “Michael,” the camera pans to the famous Rio statue of Christ the Redeemer…
Willa: Oh heavens, Bjørn! You’re just trying to stir up trouble, aren’t you?
Bjørn: Well, yes and no, Willa. This being an academic discussion, I don’t think I’d do the readers any favor by censoring what I see! It’s a fact that the name and the statue appear at the same time, and I’d like to think it’s intentional. But okay, let’s save the interpretation of that for an ”MJ and religious symbolism” post!
So, in the four “foreign language songs” we’ve looked at so far, we’ve got an Esperanto-speaking worker, a Swahili-speaking lover, a Russian-speaking agent and a Brazilian-speaking mother… MJ himself, however, still sings in his native English. The foreign culture remains inaccessible and different. Interestingly, on a couple of occasions he did cross the border, so to speak. I’m of course thinking about the versions he did of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” in two of the world’s great international languages: Spanish and French… What do you think about them?
Willa: Well, my first reaction is that I love them – they are both exquisitely beautiful, I think. And it’s interesting for me to hear a Michael Jackson song the way non-English speakers must usually hear them – where the meaning comes not so much from the words he is singing but from the expressiveness of his voice.
Joie: That’s an great point, Willa, one that I don’t often ponder. But it’s interesting to think about how non-English speakers perceive Michael’s music. Especially since his music is so very beloved all over the world. But you’re right that they must experience it much differently than native English speakers do.
You know I went through a similar phenomenon back in my teen years when I had a huge crush on the guys of the Puerto Rican boy band, Menudo. They would release albums in both Spanish and English, and oddly enough, I found that I really loved those Spanish speaking songs, even though my Spanish has never been all that great. To this day, I often find myself singing them.
Bjørn: When I discovered Michael Jackson’s music as a child, I hardly understood anything he was singing. I just liked the sound of it! So I can certainly follow you there… “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” isn’t among my favorite MJ songs, but I agree it’s nice to hear him sing in Spanish (which I understand) and French (which I don’t really understand). Why did he choose this particular song, do you think? I mean, if it was to promote the Bad album in Spanish- and French-speaking countries, he could have handed the translators the song ”Bad”… (I just hear it: ¡Porque soy malo, soy malo!)
Willa: That’s great, Bjørn! I’ll be thinking about that next time I hear, “Because I’m bad, I’m bad …”
So I don’t know why he chose “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” but it’s a beautiful song and it’s a duet – one of his few duets – and that would allow him to interact with someone while he was singing, someone fluent in Spanish or French. Maybe that’s part of why he chose this one. I don’t know about Spanish, but he did speak passable French. In fact, in the 1980s he was interviewed in French by a Montreal reporter, and he answered in French. And he loved Paris – he even named his daughter Paris. And of course he always liked to bridge boundaries, as we discussed at the beginning with Esperanto.
So thank you so much for joining us, Bjørn, and for adding a European, multilingual perspective! We always love talking with you, and hope you’ll join us again soon.