Roundtable: What Makes a Songwriter?

Joie:  A couple of weeks ago our friend, Joe Vogel, posed an interesting question to Willa and me and journalist, Charles Thomson. Charles, of course, is the author of the wonderful article, “One of the Most Shameful Episodes in Journalistic History,” among others. So Joe’s question sparked a very lively discussion between the four of us, and you can read that conversation below.


Joe:  Do you think the fact that MJ wasn’t a technically trained musician and couldn’t read/write music diminishes him as a songwriter? And how would you respond to critics who make this claim?

Joie:  Hmm. Joe, that’s a really good question. And it got me thinking about all of the great talents that we usually think of as prolific songwriters in our society. And so I started doing a little research on this topic and I was really surprised to learn that many of those who we bestow that mantle on never learned to read or write music either. Names like Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney. In fact, none of the Beatles could read music, not even the great John Lennon. And Paul said in an interview once that as long as he and John both knew what chords they were playing and they remembered the melody, they never had any need to write it down or to read it.

None of the Gibb brothers, who I think wrote some of the most beautiful music ever, could read or write music either. So no, I don’t think the fact that Michael couldn’t read/write music diminishes his talent as a songwriter in any way, and if that’s the argument that critics are using to deny him a spot on that list with the other “greats,” then I would say their argument clearly doesn’t hold water.

Willa:  And I would have to add that I don’t really understand this criticism, and maybe that just reflects my own lack of knowledge about how composing music really works. But it seems to me that the important part of the creative process is having the ideas, and a vision for how to express those ideas to an audience so they really feel what you’re trying to say. Writing notes on paper is just a way of capturing your musical ideas so you can remember them later, or share them with other musicians, and Michael Jackson was able to do that other ways. He could record his ideas into a tape recorder, or he could sing it live. There’s a wonderful quotation about this in your book, Joe, that just fascinated me:

“One morning [Michael] came in with a new song he had written overnight,” recalls assistant engineer Rob Hoffman. “We called in a guitar player, and Michael sang every note of every chord to him. ‘Here’s the first chord, first note, second note, third note. Here’s the second chord, first note, second note, third note,’ etc. We then witnessed him giving the most heartfelt and profound vocal performance, live in the control room through an SM57. He would sing us an entire string arrangement, every part. Steve Porcaro once told me he witnessed [Jackson] doing that with the string section in the room. Had it all in his head, harmony and everything. Not just little eight bar loop ideas. He would actually sing the entire arrangement into a microcassette recorder complete with stops and fills.”

I love that! To me, having that vision in your head is the essence of songwriting. To say Michael Jackson wasn’t really a songwriter because he didn’t know how to write notes on paper is like saying Jane Austen wasn’t really a novelist because she didn’t know how to type. That’s all fiddly bookkeeping kind of stuff, it seems to me. Having the ideas and being able to express those ideas passionately and evocatively to an audience is what’s important.

Charles:  Michael’s idol was James Brown, who famously could not read or write music either. It is probably no accident that Michael adopted Brown’s method, therefore, of surrounding himself with talented collaborators who could bring his vision to life based on beatboxing, scatting, humming, singing and so on, but also bringing their own contributions to the table.

Michael undoubtedly lacked autonomy as an artist thanks to his inability to read or write music. That’s not a criticism; it’s true of anyone in the same position. I’m going to risk a lynching by raising Prince as a comparison. Prince can not only write an entire composition out in musical terms, but then go into the studio and play every instrument exactly how he wants it, then put it all together. It’s undeniable that Prince, for example, therefore had more autonomy and independence as an artist.

Joie:  Well don’t worry, Charles; you are safe here as I actually consider myself a casual Prince fan. He is an amazing musician and very worthy of recognition. And I agree with your assertion that he certainly enjoyed more autonomy and freedom than Michael did.

Willa:  But was that because Prince could read and write music, or because he could play instruments? After all, when you write a score of music, it still leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Someone who could write music but not play instruments would still need to rely on a roomful of collaborators, but that seems like a whole other question to me.

Joie:  That’s a really good point, Willa. Prince’s autonomy probably did have a lot more to do with the fact that he is more than proficient at many musical instruments and less to do with the fact that he can read and write music. If he hadn’t had the ability to play all those instruments, things certainly would have been different.

Charles:  But, if you put Michael in a room on his own, he couldn’t have created most of his tracks and got them sounding like they did on the finished albums. Take “Billie Jean.” All the key elements of the song are there in his original demo but his team of collaborators helped him polish and tighten the composition. Bruce Swedien, for instance, came up with the idea of using a special sleeve to achieve that iconic sound on the drum.

None of this seeks to diminish Michael’s ability as a songwriter. Just look at his catalogue of self-penned classics. Most pop acts never score even a quarter of the hits Michael had, let alone with self-penned compositions.

Joie:  That’s very true, Charles. In fact, 17 out of his 28 top ten singles as a solo artist were written by him. And 9 out of his 13 number one hits as a solo artist were written by him. That’s very impressive, and like you said, it is somewhat unique among pop acts.

But I want to go back for a second to what you just said about putting Michael in a room alone. Recently, I was listening to the demo version of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” for another post that Willa and I were working on. That demo was made with just Michael and his siblings, Randy and Janet. And I was really struck by how close that demo is to the finished version that ended up on the completed album. That song was practically finished before he ever presented it to Quincy Jones and his other collaborators to “polish.” So, even though you’re probably correct in saying that he couldn’t have created most of his tracks and gotten them to sound the way they did on the finished albums, I tend to believe that he could have gotten them all pretty darn close.

Charles:  The “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” demo is very impressive but, as you say, he’s not in the studio on his own. He had instrumentalists in there helping him out, and although the key elements of the composition are present, they wouldn’t have been if he hadn’t had those instrumentalists there, and the overall composition doesn’t have the polish or sheen that he was able to achieve when working with his highly decorated collaborators.

Returning to Michael’s hero, James Brown:  It became fashionable for a period to strip James Brown of all responsibility for his compositions. Critics claimed he ‘rode the coattails’ of his collaborators and that without their expertise, he could never have produced the music he did. But I’ve spent a lot of time over the years interviewing Mr. Brown’s collaborators, from all different stages in his career. I’ve never found one who didn’t believe James Brown was a genius or who believed that any of that music would have existed without him.

When I interviewed Pee Wee Ellis, he told me:

“He was a definite collaborator, a strong influence, a leader. He had a vision that we won’t see again in this lifetime. He was the funkiest man in the world. He had more rhythm in his little finger than most of us have in our body. Just natural stuff, you know. And the way he fronted the band. If anything, the band rode on his coattails. But the band provided a platform for him to be able to do that.”

I view Michael similarly. None of those genre-defining hits he wrote could have existed without his vision, but none of them would exist as they do if he hadn’t had the right team of people around him to make his vision a reality. His inability to read or write music didn’t hinder him as long as he had people around him to interpret and bring those ideas to life.

Joe:  This is a very good point, Charles, and something I try to bring out in Man in the Music. We have this idea embedded in our culture that doing something in isolation is more admirable than doing it collaboratively (the myth of the “solitary genius”). So critics marvel at an artist like Prince who can basically take a track from conception to completion without collaborators. Not that this isn’t impressive (it is), but I would compare making an album to directing a film:  Is a director better if they carry out every single role of its creation (screenplay, camera, costumes, lighting, acting, etc.)? Or is what makes a director great the ability to bring together a creative team and guide a project with their overall vision and passion?

Willa:  That’s an excellent analogy, Joe, I think, and shifts the definition of “songwriter” to something much closer to Michael Jackson’s process. He didn’t come out of the Tin Pan Alley tradition of creating sheet music, which was then sold to a singer or musician. That’s how Neil Diamond, for example, got his start – writing songs for a publishing company – and historically, a lot of great singer/songwriters have come from that tradition. Michael Jackson came from a very different background, and his approach was much more holistic than that. He didn’t just write songs and then hand them off to someone else to produce. When he created a song, he had a vision of what he wanted the final piece to sound like, and then he guided the entire production process to achieve that vision, much like a movie director would do. So I think that comparison works really well.

Joe:  I’m glad you brought up James Brown, Charles, because I know you have done a lot of work on him, and there are certainly a lot of parallels. I found the same sentiment you found with Brown’s collaborators when speaking with MJ’s collaborators. They didn’t feel his reliance on musicians, producers, and engineers diminished him as an artist at all. All of them talked about how involved he was at every stage of the creative process, but also how he would give them space and freedom; they talked about creative chemistry and how magic often occurred in the act of collaborating. So you’re absolutely right that he may have lost something in autonomy, but he also gained something in unexpected synergistic inspiration. I think Michael picked some of this up from Quincy Jones as well, because Jones (who came with a background in jazz and film scores) was brilliant at assembling dynamic teams and getting them to work well together.

Now, to follow up on reading/writing music, I wanted to get all of your thoughts on something. Why do you think Michael often told people that learning to read/write music might ruin his creativity?

Joie:  Well, I don’t know much about songwriting but, I would imagine that if you were constantly worried about whether or not something worked “technically,” then it would sort of suck the creativity out of it. And not only that but, it would probably suck the joy and the heart out of it as well. You would be so worried about getting it right technically that you would be in danger of losing that creative flow – that magic. And we all know Michael was all about the magic. So I think his comment about fearing it would ruin his creativity was valid. And I think I read somewhere where Paul McCartney once voiced a similar concern so, it’s possible that the two even spoke about it.

Willa:  That’s a really interesting question, Joe. I can tell you’re a good teacher! To be honest, the fear that learning to write music will diminish your creativity doesn’t really make sense to me. After all, it doesn’t seem to have hindered Mozart or Beethoven or Bach too much. Musical notation is simply a way for musicians to communicate with each other, and whether you express your musical ideas through singing into a tape recorder or writing notes on paper shouldn’t make much difference.

But I agree with Joie. If I had to guess, I would imagine that fear had something to do with calculating the beats per measure and getting the key signature right and making sure it “worked ‘technically,'” as you put it, Joie. I know that when talking about dancing, he said sometimes he would watch dancers perform and he could actually see them mentally counting the beats. And he said that just doesn’t work. You have to practice and practice and practice until the steps become ingrained in you, so when you’re performing your focus is on feeling the music and expressing the ideas and the emotions of the music through your body, and not on the technical details of “one, two, three, slide.”

And I imagine he felt the same way about learning to write sheet music. It takes years to become proficient enough at it where it becomes second nature and you can do it without counting the beats in your head, so to speak. In the meantime, it would just get in the way of feeling the music, and why bother with that when he already had very effective methods for communicating his ideas to other musicians?

Charles:  It’s an interesting point about whether technical knowledge hinders creativity and the person who springs immediately to mind, once again, is James Brown. Lacking a lot of technical expertise, in my opinion, helped Mr Brown. He spoke time and again about how his music was all about the feeling.

Several of James Brown’s biggest recordings contain mistakes, but he didn’t care because for him it was all about the energy. More often than not, he would release the first take, even if it contained errors. “The first take is God,” he would say. “The second take is man.”

Willa:  What a great quote! Though it also highlights a difference between Michael Jackson and James Brown. Michael Jackson didn’t hesitate to record 50 takes, if that’s what it took to get the sound he wanted.

Charles:  In the documentary Soul Survivor, several of Mr. Brown’s collaborators said that on a technical level, a lot of his music was ‘wrong’:

“You cannot count [it], you cannot write [it] because it violates all musical rules… Things as simple as 1, 2, 3, 4 – if it doesn’t work with what he’s doing, then he may go 1, 2, 3-and-a-half.”

Mr. Brown, when told his music was ‘wrong,’ would reply, “But it sounds good. God gave you those ears. Are you gonna argue with God’s ears?”

Fred Wesley, one of Mr. Brown’s arrangers, has spoken in the past about how embarrassed he felt when fans used to come up to him and tell him how much they loved the track “Pass The Peas.” Wesley felt the track, on a technical level, was garbage. But that song is still loved around the world today. Prince regularly plays it at his concerts. It’s often the biggest crowd pleaser at any Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, or Pee Wee Ellis gig. Wesley may have found it technically unspectacular, but it touched people. It got inside them, made them smile, made them move.

If James Brown had played by the technical rules, we may never have encountered funk music. Without funk, we may never have heard disco or hip-hop. James Brown broke the rules and changed the world. Twenty years later when Michael Jackson spent all that money on the Thriller video, everybody thought his brain had gone soft. He too broke the rules and changed the world.

Maybe Michael saw the rules of writing music as oppressive. If he didn’t know what the barriers were, he couldn’t be confined by them.

Joie:  I love the way you put that, Charles! “If he didn’t know  what the barriers were, he couldn’t be confined by them.”  That is a very profound way to put it.

Willa:  I agree.

Joie:  And you are so right about James Brown. Without him, funk music may never have existed and then the whole landscape of the music scene might look very different today.

Willa:  You guys, I feel like I’m having a major light bulb moment. This is so fascinating to me. And Charles, I think I’m just now starting to get what you’ve been saying. You aren’t just talking about plunking down notes on a page. You’re talking about being trained in the “rules” of the Western songwriting tradition and internalizing those rules – and James Brown broke the beat, and broke the rules of that tradition.

I was talking to a music professor a long time ago – maybe 15 years ago – who liked to compose songs at a keyboard that was connected to her computer. She showed me this software she had where she could play a song, and the software would take what she played and automatically generate the sheet music for it. It was really cool. You’d think there’d be a lot of tweaking and clean up to get it right, but there really wasn’t. It was pretty clean. She said there’s something satisfying about handwriting notes on a staff, but it can get tedious after a while and this software let her generate sheet music as easily as playing. She could just focus on the music, and then the sheet music would magically be there when she was done.

I’ve been thinking about her throughout this whole conversation and thinking, this is no big deal. If you’re working with musicians who can play by ear, then you don’t need sheet music. If you’re working with a classically trained cellist, for example, or someone who really wants sheet music, then just buy some software or hire a grad student to jot down the notes. Either way, it’s no big deal.

But of course, that music professor was thoroughly steeped in the Western songwriting tradition, so everything she composed just consciously or unconsciously fell within the conventions of that tradition. The computer had no trouble recognizing the structure of her music and placing the notes and rests on a staff exactly where they should go because everything she played fit within the rules of what it expected her to play.

But what does the computer do when James Brown comes along and throws a time warp in the middle of a measure? I’m having this really funny mental image right now of a computer whirring and beeping, trying to crank through a James Brown song.

Joie:  Willa, you are hilarious. I swear, you crack me up sometimes! But you’re right; it does paint an amusing mental picture – this computer having a nervous breakdown trying to keep up with James Brown’s grunts and non-verbal vocalizations. That’s hysterical!

Willa:  That’s funny, Joie! It’s like James Brown’s computer is imitating James Brown – the hardest working computer in the music lab. All the other computers are sedately working through Mendelssohn and Brahms, and the James Brown computer is rocking and popping. And can you imagine what it would do if it were plotting out a song in 4/4 time and suddenly hit a measure with 3½ beats? It would blow its little circuits.

Joe:  I just want to add to this discussion that part of the dismissal of Michael Jackson as an artist, in my opinion, has to do with this White, Eurocentric understanding of music and an ignorance (or dismissal) of African-American aesthetics. Some of this has to do with what we’re talking about:  deviating from established forms/techniques. What James Brown did is not unlike the “swing” and improvisation jazz musicians injected into traditional melodies. These were deviations from long-established traditions that took time for people to acknowledge as legit. For a long time, it was considered a very low-brow form of entertainment. This is often the reaction to artistic innovation.

Willa:  Absolutely. We see this over and over again. When the novel was first developed, it was considered “low art” and serious drama, poetry, and essays were “high art.” Then when movies were first introduced, they were considered “low art” and serious novels were “high art.”  Today, music videos are considered “low art” and serious feature-length films are “high art,” though Michael Jackson’s videos clearly challenge that.

You talk about this prejudice against new art forms in your Atlantic article, Joe – specifically new music genres in the U.S. – and show there’s not just a bias against new forms, but also some deep-seated racial biases as well:

Historically, this dismissal of black artists (and black styles) as somehow lacking substance, depth and import is as old as America. … It was a common criticism of spirituals (in relation to traditional hymns), of jazz in the ’20s and ’30s, of R&B in the ’50s and ’60s, of funk and disco in the ’70s, and of hip-hop in the ’80s and ’90s (and still today). The cultural gatekeepers not only failed to initially recognize the legitimacy of these new musical styles and forms, they also tended to overlook or reduce the achievements of the African-American men and women who pioneered them. The King of Jazz, for white critics, wasn’t Louis Armstrong, it was Paul Whiteman; the King of Swing wasn’t Duke Ellington, it was Benny Goodman; the King of Rock wasn’t Chuck Berry or Little Richard, it was Elvis Presley.

And as you show so clearly in your article, this pattern clearly extends to Michael Jackson as well. He was so innovative on so many fronts, and he had to fight this two-pronged bias against Black innovators throughout his adult career.

Joe:  So, I think this informs how Jackson has been received and misunderstood. He often fuses Black and White styles in fascinating ways (see “History” and “Will You Be There,” for example). But he is rooted in the African-American tradition. That is why it’s a mistake for critics to judge his music against artists like Dylan or Springsteen or Bono or Costello (all critical darlings), because Jackson isn’t that kind of artist. It would be like expecting Langston Hughes to write poems like Robert Frost. It’s not that Jackson’s lyrics aren’t poetic; it’s that he is communicating in a different way.

Part of his greatness is in moving beyond words (as the spirituals, and the blues and jazz do); it is his non-verbal vocalizations — his cries, his exclamations of joy, his gasps, his scatting, his beatboxing, his ability to become the music. In fact, even when using language he often twists and contorts words, or delivers them with such freshness, nuance and intensity that lines become more than the sum of their parts. Stevie Wonder once said that Jackson had an amazing capacity to “read” a lyric. In other words, he had the ability to inject ordinary words with something far deeper. Music is ultimately about expression and communication, and for me, his songs (and performances) convey far greater emotional range than most artists.

Joie:  I agree with you, Joe. Michael is all about the emotion and the intensity. It’s always right there just beneath the surface in every video and live performance, on every track of every album. You don’t seem to get that kind of raw emotion with most other artists.

Joe:  Another thing that makes Jackson great as a songwriter is that he had this incredible ability to communicate across every barrier that typically divides people (race, gender, sexuality, language, culture, class). He was constantly fusing. Rock and R&B, hip hop and pop, gospel and classical. He was simultaneously accessible and challenging, simple but multi-layered. He brought Beethoven to the masses, and street music to the suburbs.

Joie:  I think that’s a beautiful thought to end wtih, Joe. And Willa and I want to thank you both for joining us in this conversation!

Next week, Willa and I will be delving into Dancing the Dream, Michael’s book of poems and essays, so be sure to come back for that discussion.


About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on February 15, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 37 Comments.

  1. Ladies, another great post.

    I’d also like to add that the collective or collaborative way of composing might also have come from Michael’s training at Motown. Isn’t that how most of the artists, musicians and songwriters worked there?

  2. Thank you for an interesting discussion.

    Regarding writing notes – I think Michael may have known more than he actually admitted. During “We Are The World” sessions you can see him using a sheet and pointing something on it to somebody else, and in Barry Gibb’s video “All In Your Name” they are using sheets also (although it could have been lyrics or notes). I think, overall, it would be hard to spend 40 years in the business and not know how 7 notes are transcribed on a sheet.

    But the point is, he didn’t really _need_ to know that, and he didn’t _want_ to know that. Why? I liked the analogy with James Brown here, I think it makes a lot of sense. And there is another way to look it at. Michael often said that music is given to him by God, that he feels like he is the medium, the channel. Maybe the reason he didn’t want to write notes was that he didn’t want to mess with the process. He felt it was meant that way, he was chosen to communicate the music to the world through him. Also, because he was a dancer, music and dance always were inseparable for him. Good music made him dance, he felt it by his body, not by his mind. He said, turn off your mind. Now, when you write down notes, it comes from mind. He must have felt that his body could communicate it better and more naturally than his mind.

    But you know, sometimes I wish he did write sheet music. When lyrics to some of his never-recorded songs show up on auctions, like “Innocent Man” or “Palestine”, for example, you can’t help but wonder what the music was. And there must have been music, because he usually started with music. Had he had the habit of writing it down, maybe we would have known the songs, instead of them being buried in his head, or locked forever in form of a beatboxed tape somewhere in the vault.

  3. Wonderful discussion thank you all. Michael said it himself when he said he didn’t need to play an instrument – he was one! Just listen to the court deposition of Dangerous and listen to a ‘master’ at work – that was a music lesson and a half! And what about the beatboxing of Who Is it on Oprah? I have heard others describe him as an encyclopedia, and that he was. I feel that people will still be listening to Michael Jackson in 300 years time, and wondering “who was Prince” – other than his son of course!

    • Hi Caro. The Dangerous deposition is fascinating, isn’t it? I kept thinking about it during our discussion this week. He was always so reluctant to talk about his songwriting process, so hearing him in a situation where he basically has to “prove” he did in fact write his songs is so interesting. btw, if anyone hasn’t heard them, here’s a link to audio files of the deposition (part 1 of 5):

      And you know, I’m afraid I don’t know Prince’s music very well at all, but I’ve always felt he was a talented musician and a very bright guy, and I’ve always felt there was a lot of respect there between him and Michael Jackson. For example, there’s this very short but really wonderful interview clip where Prince is asked about Michael Jackson, and he says everyone should just “chill.” He then says, “He may know something none of us really knows. … Let’s wait and see. Let’s wait it out. Let’s just wait it out. You never know.”

      I don’t know when this clip was recorded and I’d love to know more about it, but I really get the sense that Prince feels there may be more going on than we realize – that Michael Jackson may be doing something interesting and important. As Prince says, “He may know something none of us really knows.” And I love how he concludes with, “Ultimately, we’ve all got to come back home, so let’s just make a home for everybody.” I love that.

      • I love both Prince and Michael, but Michael has always been Nr 1 to me. However there are a lot of people who appreciate both and I feel they are somehow connected. I think they too felt that in a way. Kenny Ortega cited a funny story about Michael telling him that artistic ideas pop up in his head all the time and he needs to use them because if he won’t then “God will give them to Prince”.

        At first this relationship between the two was hyped up as a kind of rivalry (a la Beatles vs. Rolling Stones) and it really was, although I feel Prince took the rivalry aspect more seriously than Michael did. He even made references to Michael in some of his songs. For example in his song Life O Party he says:

        But it ain’t nothin’ if it ain’t fun
        My voice is gettin’ higher
        And I ain’t never had my nose done
        That’s the other guy

        This is a great article on their rivalry and encounters:

        (Unfortunately I couldn’t find Page 4 of the article.)

        But with all the rivalry there was mutual respect as well. I heard Prince got everybody banned from his official forum who mocked Michael during his trial. Also in an interview when asked about Michael, he said “genius” and when asked about Janet Jackson he said “the genius’s sister”. When Michael died he was asked about him again and he said “you are always sad when you lose someone you loved”. And at his recent tour he played “Don’t stop til you get enough” as a tribute to Michael.

        • Thanks for sharing the article about the Michael Jackson v Prince “rivalry.” There are some great quotations in there. I love this one from Questlove:

          You recall that ill-fated duet Eddie Murphy did with Michael called “Whatzupwitu?” I have five hours of raw footage during filming for that video. Michael and Eddie had a green screen behind them, so somewhere in that second hour, the conversation turns to Prince. And Eddie is like, “Yeah man… Prince is a bad motherfucker. I’m glad I’m working with you, but another dream I have is working with him too.” And I don’t even think that Mike knew the camera was on him and he goes, “Yes, he’s a natural genius.” And then four beats later, Michael says, “But I can beat him [laughs].”

          I love that! What a crack-up.

      • Thanks so much for the link to the audio from the Dangerous deposition. I had not listened to it for a while and I forgot how unbelievable it is! I actually just listened to all 5 parts again. It is so amazing to hear Michael describe his process of creating songs. I think all those in attendance at that deposition should have paid a concert fee. They got to hear a private concert from Michael Jackson! The lawyer for the woman who filed the suit had to be very inexperienced. It was almost embarrassing to listen to her. Maybe she was just a little starstruck! It was cute to hear Michael’s giggles in the background but the sad truth is how much time and money Michael had to waste defending himself against so many of these ridiculous lawsuits. I don’t know how he maintained such polite and respectful composure. I think my favorite part of Michael’s dialogue is when he describes how the speaker tower fell on him while he was recording his vocals for the Dangerous demo in the dark. Then he giggles when they play the demo and you can actually hear the speakers crash. It is definitely worth the 40-45 minutes to listen to the whole thing and get a wonderful songwriting and recording lesson from the Master! It is also interesting to hear him answer several times the repeated question about his ability to read and write music. Thanks again Willa! You made my evening.

  4. What a great and thought provoking post again!

    I never thought it was a big deal that Michael couldn’t write notes on paper or that he wasn’t a trained musician a la Prince. Prince’s knowledge is admirable and he’s in my top 3 favourite artists, but he’s not Nr 1, because that is Michael. The fact Prince plays virtually every instrument and can write notes and he can basically create a song all alone from writing it to playing all instruments on a record is very impressive, at the same time it’s Michael’s music that will invoke the most emotions in me, that can make me happy when I’m down or comfort me in hard times, or just carry me out of this world and to better ones – just like Joie and Joe mentioned in the post. There’s just something othewordly in his compositions (as well as the way he performs them) – at least for those who “get it”. For me something like “Who is it” is the non plus ultra composition. I’m not trained musician so I can only feel a song, rather then dissect and analyize it intellectually, but I think art generally is about the feelings it can invoke in all of us.

    It’s not a problem to me that not everybody “gets” Michael (there’s not an artist who everybody “gets”, that’s just the nature of art – for example Bono and U2 can be as much of critical darlings as they want, I never got them, always found them boring. There was even a time when I was trying to get into them, trying to understand what’s the big deal about them, but I just could not), however it’s sad that so few get Michael among professional critics. I definitely think there’s a kind of “white rock chauvinism” in most mainstream music magazines. Joe put it very well: a “White, Eurocentric understanding of music and an ignorance (or dismissal) of African-American aesthetics”. And I’m saying this as a white European, LOL. Perhaps the “European” adjective is not needed, because in fact Europe seems to understand Michael better than America. In the last 20 years of his life he was more popular in Europe (and elsewhere) than in his own home country. While the US seem to think his last big hit was Billie Jean, Europe appreciated his later work as well. For example “Earth Song” was huge in Europe – I’m not having data but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was his most successful single ever on the Old Continent (and not something like Billie Jean or Beat It). But I think I understand what Joe meant when he said that. It’s something like what Wikipedia writes about the Rolling Stone magazine:

    “One major criticism of Rolling Stone involves its generational bias toward the 1960s and 1970s. One critic referred to the Rolling Stone list of the “99 Greatest Songs” as an example of “unrepentant rockist fogeyism”.[6]”

    And it’s usually these type of magazines and their writers with a certain kind of taste who define what is great and what isn’t. There’s not much understanding there for Michael. I wish those critics would try to be a bit more open minded, though (and less predictable when it comes to Michael). But I think the treatment of Michael is a very complex issue with many layers and it’s not just about the music and whether rock-leaning journalists get him or not. There’s also a racist element, there’s also politics, lots of things. I have seen this recently, it’s a letter from Rolling Stone to Michael’s management in 1979:

    Michael’s management asks them to give more coverage of Michael, to which they answer: “We would very much like to do a major piece on Michael Jackson, but we feel it’s not a cover story.” You can tell Rolling Stone was never really fond of Michael, not even when he put out the album that can be called his most critically acclaimed album. And one of the most successful albums of the year was just “not a cover story” for them in 1979…

    Here are the covers of 1979:

    Keep in mind that – as Joe pointed out in his latest article – this magazine has made 13 covers of Britney Spears and some 20 of Madonna, while they did only 8 of Michael during his entire 40 years long career (and two of those after his death). They also “crowned” Justin Timberlake the “New King of Pop” on one of their covers in 2003…

    My God, I went far from the original subject! Sorry. Back to Michael as a songwriter: To me when I evaluate an artist it’s very important that he/she should be creative. I don’t rate artists who don’t write their own stuff as high as those who do. But the method of writing doesn’t matter to me. Whether someone can write down the notes or not, I consider that only technicality. That’s just a way to record things – but we have other methods too, such as tape recorders. And I appreciate if someone can play instruments well, but again this alone has nothing to do with creativity. There are lots of great instrumentalists who would never be able to compose a great piece or a hit single. Again, it’s just a way to convey music. There are other ways as well: singing, beatboxing and even dancing. Michael’s way of composing songs was to sing it to musicians note by note and telling them what he wanted to hear, rather than he himself taking an instrument in his hands. That to me takes nothing away from him as a songwriter, since he was the creative force and the ideas were there in his head and whether he plays the instrument himself or he instructs someone to play an instrument in a certain way, to play a certain melody, a certain note that Michael had in his head, is again just a matter of technicality to me.

    BTW, I think Michael did play instruments. I remember someone talked about an evening spent with Michael some time in his last years and this person said they sang Beatles songs while Michael played them on the piano.

  5. Michael Jackson wasn’t a technically trained musician? That is a complete fallacy! It’s not an agree or disagree situation, it is just factually incorrect. I don’t know how myths like this get started. Last week I commented on rhythmic and harmonic function and got busted as being a professional musician. So, this week I’ll go ahead and fess up…I do have a music degree from a prestigious university and I do earn my living from my musical ability alone, but I have nothing even close to the technical training and expertise that Michael Jackson has. No contest. His training far exceeds my own and it far exceeds the skill level of those who taught me. This is not an opinion, it is a black and white, end of, period, statement of fact.

    Jackson studied all elements of music, including composition and playing musical instruments. It started from an early age. There were the daily lessons with Joseph and he had formal lessons with Shirley Cartman in addition to other coaching, and a rigorous performance schedule, the best musical training you can have. He began learning about the recording studio as a young child, and this became his most important compositional tool. (Jake Austen is researching the Jackson 5 from 1965-68 and he has written about it for the Chicago Reader, )

    After the Motown signing, before his teenage years, Michael had a recording studio installed in home for work and study purposes and he soaked up information like a sponge from the best in the business. His hunger for more and more knowledge continued throughout his life, he never stopped training as a musician. He was an excellent drummer and percussionist (as you can hear in recordings like Don’t Stop and according to Jackson’s own drummer, Ricky Lawson, who spoke at the Columbia College Symposium Genius Without Borders: Michael Jackson). Those who were lucky enough to be in the studio with him say he knew his way around on any instrument you put in front of him. (

    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 software. Reading and writing in musical notation would have been a tremendous liability for a musician like him, he worked with complex, subtle rhythms that can’t be accurately notated, only approximated. Here is a great example of why printed music is so limiting, even if you only watch the first 5 minutes of this you can get the idea: (this is percussionist Evelyn Glennie who believe it or not is profoundly deaf!)

    Ok, now, here comes Charles’ lynching, but it really shouldn’t be so bad since I am his #1 fan and speak glowingly about him on a daily, no hourly basis. It’s true Charles can do no wrong, except for this one little lapse into total insanity 🙂 with the claim that Jackson “undoubtedly lacked autonomy as an artist”! This is not an idea that any of us should entertain! It’s wrong! To understand Jackson as a composer, you have to understand the concepts of synthesis and of multiple perspectives, to a certain extent that was covered in the comments on James Brown but I’ll take it further. Example: the white rap section in Black or White uses black hip hop, but runs it through a white perspective, Bill Bottrell’s feel good lyrics and performance. The previous section, “I am tired of this devil” uses white hard rock and heavy metal but runs it through a black perspective and the frustration of racial injustice. He is deliberately confusing musical codes here, attempting to integrate all these perspectives into a single view in a very trans-ethnic way (the way he uses his body). He is autonomously choosing the perspectives he wishes to use, ingeniously expressing the Black or White theme in the song. We could take this into infinity analyzing just this one song. But this is true of his compositional style in general and it totally breaks the conventional mold of a single composer with pen and paper in hand scribbling away on his great masterpiece. Now the recording studio itself is the pen and paper, and the recorded sounds will be selected and tweeked to perfection through technology and skill of the producer/music director/composer. It is to Jackson’s credit that he uses only the finest musicians available and doesn’t attempt to play everything himself (after all he has to choreograph and direct the shows and films too!). It takes a lifetime of devotion to master a single instrument, there is no reason not to use the best, most highly specialized players if you have the resources to do so. Did Beethoven need to know how to play every instrument in the orchesra? Nuff said.

    Finally I want to reinforce Joe’s very brilliant comment that “part of his greatness is moving beyond words”. I don’t think we have in place yet the analytical tools to fully understand the way Jackson synthesizes musical sound and lyrical content. I don’t know how we’re going to crack the code on this, but even non-english speakers can understand something about the lyrical content of his music. There is something incredibly meaningful about each vowel, each consonant, every interval up and down. The colors of the vocals and the instruments match the lyrical ideas being expressed. Looking at the lyrics page won’t get to the heart of it. Looking at a chord chart won’t explain it. You have to understand the synthesis of all the elements, the words, the sounds, the kinesthetic movement and imagery. It all works together and it doesn’t leave anyone’s viewpoint out of the mix, it includes all.

    Great post and thanks to everyone for getting these ideas out there.

    • Wonderful comment and great analysis of Black or White – WOW!

    • Ultravioletrae, what an excellent analysis of MJ’s confusing musical codes in Black or White. Have you published any of this anywhere? If so, please let us know! If not, can I please quote you from here for a piece I’m working on?

    • Ultravioletrae, thank you for coming clean about your musical background and for sharing your expertise with us; your insights on Black or White are wonderful! Also thank you for sharing the Chicago Reader article as well.

      You know, I have heard many, many times that Michael played several instruments – and played them quite well – but no one ever seems to talk much about it. I wish that were different.

    • Lots of good stuff here, ultravioletrae. I agree with most of your points, but I did want to clarify what I meant by MJ not being a technically trained musician. There is no question Jackson acquired a remarkable musical education — in fact, an education in all the arts — beginning at a very young age. He was able to watch and learn from some of the greatest musicians of the past century and was an active student of his craft. What I meant by technical training is that Jackson was never trained to play musical instruments proficiently. Every collaborator I spoke with, and in fact, Jackson himself, readily acknowledged this. He could play a bit of piano and drums and certainly knew his way around the studio; but his main method was to vocally communicate the instrument/part and then have a trained musician/producer carry it out. He had very strong, detailed, precise creative ideas, but he also enjoyed collaborating and didn’t mind relying on people to help him realize his vision. I personally don’t think this diminishes Jackson as an artist. But I think it’s important to clarify that he did operate differently than artists like Prince or Stevie Wonder.

      • Thank you so much Joe and I want you know I have given all my family and friends a copy of your book since I take Michael Jackson education so seriously! It’s no secret I would love to be one of your students. I think the reason we are all so thrilled by your exquisite writing is that it gives us a chance to reframe our old ideas, gaining a deeper understanding of what music is about. Of course I agree that Michael had an exceptional music education. When musicians like Lang Lang or David Garrett compare him to Mozart, they’re not kidding. I am mystified in the comments section of various articles and blogs by the readers who feel playing an instrument is so important for a solo artist’s presentation. I suppose we’ve been given that paradigm by The Beatles, Elton John, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, etc., so to a degree I can understand where the expectation comes from. But what I can’t understand is why these same people don’t ask themselves what dancing, choreography, performance art, film making, and production work those artists are responsible for and make the appropriate comparison. We now live in a world of constant multi- sensory stimulation and Michael Jackson’s music reflects that new reality (along with Prince, Madonna and others working in the new paradigm). As an instrumentalist myself, I can appreciate how Michael’s instrumental training informs his musical choices, especially his percussion and drumming skills. He clearly had a phenomenal ear and a thorough working knowledge of music composition and harmony, so I consider his piano, guitar skills a success, he had what he needed from them. To do the labor intensive work of playing as well as his studio musicians seems totally unnecessary, Charles’ mention of James Brown is an excellent example of why. I think the cross training Michael did in art and drawing was a smarter use of his time, given the way he merged his visual and musical ideas together. I also think he was extremely smart to spend time working on his philosophical approach, and also the understanding of commerce as it relates to his art. One of the reasons that we have the magnificent works of art he left behind is that he was one of the few artists in history wealthy enough to have created them! Thanks for all your brilliant commentary and we look forward hearing more from you soon.

        • Once again interesting comments, Ultravioletrae. I too wonder why playing instruments is put on such a pedestal as opposed to dancing, for example. Dancing too is an art form in itself, especially on the level and way Michael did it. Yet, you don’t really see music magazines discuss his dancing the same serious way they would discuss someone else’s guitar playing, for example. Just look at what renowned dancer-coreographer, Debbie Allen says about him:

          Or here are two quotes from ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov:

          “I don’t know who you could really put next to him,” said ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov, reached yesterday in Madrid. “To imitate somebody like Michael Jackson is impossible. Why bother? You just relax and admire.”


          What Baryshnikov remembers most about Jackson, he said, was “not even his turns or his grabbing his crotch. Just his simple, bouncy walk across the stage, that was what was most beautiful and arresting, swinging his hips, kicking his heel forward. That’s to me what he is: that superior confidence in his body as a dancer. You wanted to say, ‘Wow, this guy, what a cat; he can really move in his own way.’ ”

          I remember Michael Flatley talking about him with admiration too.

          Isn’t it an amazing feat that someone would be admired by such a broad and diverse range of artists? I mean Michael Jackson is admired from hip-hop artists to classical musicians, from hip-hop dancers to ballet dancers. Only not by so called “rock purists” because he didn’t stand on stage with a guitar? Isn’t that totally losing perspective of what art and music really is about?

          The funny thing is most of those “rock purists” would consider someone like Eric Clapton more of a musician than Michael. After all he goes up on the stage with a guitar – that’s how your classic rock musician should look like, right? Not someone dancing around on stage. Yet, if you go to Wikipedia and check out the track lists of Clapton’s albums you will see that he wrote relatively few of his songs. The vast majority were written by other people. But just the image of the classic rock musician with a guitar makes him taken more seiously by these rock magazines and “rock purists” than Michael Jackson who wrote or co-wrote most of his songs…

        • Thank you, ultravioletrae. I appreciate the kind words. You are absolutely right about the “mutli-sensory” nature of MJ’s work. That is why it’s so valuable to hear from people from different fields and with different training. It’s also what makes studying him so enjoyable (and challenging) because MJ forces us out of our comfort zones. We have to try to familiarize ourselves with all the various genres and mediums he is utilizing.

          I’d love to read your essay. Are you publishing it somewhere? Can you send it to me?

    • Wow, Ultravioletrae, so many interesting insights, but I was especially intrigued by your comment that “the recording studio … became his most important compositional tool.” Or as you say later on,

      his compositional style … totally breaks the conventional mold of a single composer with pen and paper in hand scribbling away on his great masterpiece. Now the recording studio itself is the pen and paper, and the recorded sounds will be selected and tweeked to perfection through technology and skill of the producer/music director/composer.

      That is such a fascinating concept to me. I keep thinking about the scenes in Amadeus where Mozart is composing his music, and the filmmakers represent that by having us, as an audience, hear the different parts of the composition as Mozart writes the notes down on paper. It’s like we’re allowed to hear the amazing symphony of color he hears in his head, and we see him sketching out his ideas with black-and-white notes so later an orchestra can look at his black-and-white “sketches” and bring those colors to life.

      But you’re leading me to think that Michael Jackson’s songwriting process is fundamentally different because, as you say, the recording studio itself is his “compositional tool.” So instead of creating a black-and-white sketch of his ideas, he’s creating a full-color collage. In fact, to extend this metaphor a little further, his songs never go to black-and-white – they stay in color the whole way through. That is so interesting to me, especially when put in context of your comment that his musical ideas couldn’t be captured very well by sheet music:

      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 software. Reading and writing in musical notation would have been a tremendous liability for a musician like him, he worked with complex, subtle rhythms that can’t be accurately notated, only approximated.

      It reminds me of the scene in This Is It where he’s talking to his music director about “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and he says the music should be a little bit behind the beat, “like you’re dragging yourself out of bed.” As soon as he says that you know what he means, but what’s the best way to accurately convey that idea in musical notation?

      By the way, I loved watching the video clip of Evelyn Glennie. I had just read about her in a very interesting book, The Power of Music by Elena Mannes. Even though Mannes provides a description of how Glennie is able to “hear” music through her feet and body, I still was having trouble imagining a deaf musician. So it was very interesting to me to watch her play. (And I noticed one of the first things she did was take off her shoes. …)

      Wow, wow, wow, Ultravioletrae. So much to think about …

      • Yes! The This Is It example is a fantastic one! I believe they are rehearsing the intro to TWYMMF, and Michael tweeks the rhythm to be more complex and the musical difference is HUGE, though both examples would be notated exactly the same. It happens again when Dorian Holley is asking for clarification on the vocal arrangement in Human Nature, and MJ tweeks the rhythm on “why”, to be placed just slightly after his solo line, almost on top of the solo vocals. I don’t know that you could notate that precisely, singing seems like a much better way to communicate the idea.

  6. Both MJ and Prince are songwriters. I love both, but I really prefer MJ’s music it really fits my listening moods.

    Prince is vastly more prolific, releasing sometimes more than one album per year, but he is more of a extraordinary musician (I insist on extraordinary) than a prolific number ones hit maker. I have a huge collection of Prince CDs, but I will rarely listen to more than half of the tracks from the same album at a time.
    On the other side, I will pick any of MJ solo releases and listen to it over and over.
    To my ears, this is the difference, the composition and songwriting being hugely likeable.

    If you go back to a genius like Mozart, we already know he did not have to play all the instruments himself first to compose his music. He practically had it all in his head, and wrote it as solfege, on music sheets, before he would teach the orchestra to play the music – as the public would finally get to hear it.
    In the same vein, Beethoven did not need to play instruments to achieve his great music. In fact, being deaf for part of his life, he relied on his talent to write down the music he mostly heard in his head.

    If Michael had to resort to musicians in the studio, it would be for the recording process and fine tuning during production. Even if he had been a seasoned musician, songwriting does not mean playing all the parts first.
    In the same way, Prince totally recorded much of his early music as a solo artist, or would later resort to his backing band to specifically play the music he conceived.
    The music played according to the instructions given to musicians become the final track – and becomes known as a song after a name is given to it.

    In both cases, the spine of each song, which is the songwriting process, is predominantly the fruition of the author, although sometimes other musicians and artists are credited for their participation in the conception.

    It is however ironical that we call this process ‘songwriting’ as what had been discussed above is more related to composition.
    More than often, MJ referred to himself as a composer rather than a songwriter, because the music he composed/played in his head would be the seed that would eventually grow into what, in the end, after the addition of lyrics and singing, the public refers to as a ‘song’.

    • Hi Arkhangael. I am learning so much from you all. I didn’t know what solfege was until I read your comment and did a bit of research. Since we tend to think of the great composers handwriting notes on a staff, I was really surprised to learn that Mozart himself didn’t do that – but then, Mozart’s genius wasn’t fully appreciated during his lifetime either.

      I’m really interested in your distinction between “songwriting” and “composing.” I’m not sure I fully understand the difference, as you see it, but you and Ultravioletrae both have me thinking about “songwriting” in a really different way.

  7. “This is often the reaction to artistic innovation.”

    It reminds me of the critique of new cultural techniques in general and new media especially which is as old as Plato’s displeasure over script. These new forms of communication mostly mean an expansion of knowledge to other areas of society. Often an alleged bad influence for example on women (books) or Children (TV) is pointed out but in truth only some tables are eventually starting to turn and ruling classes fear the loss of their powerful position.

    Again, wonderful post and comments!!! Thursday is elephant-day…

  8. It’s the best conversation I read so far and amazing. I myself amazed and I’ve been searching for the secrets of how MJ create his work. I thank you so much Willa and Joie again and again your blog helped me a lot on this particular point. Joe Vogel thank you too you book is amazing. Michael was really talented when creating music noone can ever fake that. Creating song after song in each phase was nothing like and I loved how he could do that with only letting go of his feelings. And that’s what I try to do today. I am not an artist but just like what you guys mentioned I use a software in my computer to create music. I didn’t study music but I learned so much from MJ and other great artists and just try come up with something cool. And this software ( Fruity Loops ) can make you create any type of music genres. I love it cause you don’t need studio or musician or producer you can do that all by yourself. There are lots of softwares in the Internet. Rodney Jerkins tried to make Michael use one of them called Pro Tools while recording the invincible album and Michael didn’t want to. I guess he didn’t believe in such technology to create what he used to do which is a little bit hard today for young artists. Michael loved the live band while recording which is ideal in music production. He was perfectionist.

  9. I am just blown away by this phenomenal dialogue!! Thank you so much to Willa, Joie, Joe and Charles for this wonderfully enlightening post. Thank you also to Ultravioletrae for your amazing comments! I am not a student of music and have a very limited knowledge regarding the process of writing and recording music but since rediscovering so much more of Michael’s amazing music over the past few years I have wanted to find out everything I can about Michael’s creative process. I’ve read everything I can find including of course Joe’s amazing book “Man in the Music”. I may not be able to explain what makes Michael’s music so incredible but I just know that there is no one else whose music touches my soul with so much emotion! You can feel the emotion in every single perfectly pitched note he sings, every amazing unique sound that he was able to create vocally, and every sound he discovered in an instrument, in nature or in something as everyday as a car horn or clock. It doesn’t matter how many times I listen to one of his songs, each time I feel the emotion and intensity as if I am hearing it for the first time! It is pure divine genius. As Michael always said, “it comes from the heavens”. He was the instrument through which it flowed. He brought out the best in everyone he collaborated with. This discussion has given me so much more wonderful information to think about. I will have to come back and read everything again. Thanks so much again! I am very much looking forward to your discussion of Michael’s beautiful, inspiring book “Dancing the Dream”.

  10. MIchael did play an instrument – he was the instrument. His being was music personified.
    What more is there to say?

  11. Thank you Willa, Joie, Charles and Joe for this amazingly wonderful conversation. I have enjoyed reading the different perspectives and comments in response to your dialogue, especially the comments from ultravioletrae whose musical expertise and analysis of Black and White is very interesting and takes us on a path (if just for a moment) into the mind of Michael regardless if his creative output was intentional or not. Could someone be so consciously aware of the message they convey? At some level I would say yes but when a creative genius such as Michael is coming from a place where he feels his gifts come from a Devine source, does he really have full autonomy with his creativity? I know this question might be interpreted differently but that is the question that comes to mind. Perhaps Michael is aware in some way of what his true message or expression of emotion would be.

    Ultravioletrae, I would be interested in reading what you wrote on Black and White if that is ok. May I send an email requesting your writing?

    I also have heard that Michael played many instruments and I have heard the demos so I knew that he could play; at what level I don’t know. I do know that his capacity to use his vocals to create music was just pure artistic genius and gift. I also believe from reading Joe’s book and other reference pieces that Michael was like a conductor or director when collaborating with many people in order to bring his vision to fruition. We also saw this in “This is It”. He was very gifted with that process. Perhaps it is from his exposure and lessons learned from when he was just a small child with Motown. Michael was able to pick up and learn like a sponge and I also believe he maintained that philosophy through his entire life. I also believed that Michael would encourage those who he worked with to be the best and shine their own light. After all if they were able to do that, their collaboration with him while working on his projects could only result in the output that Michael was looking for.

    There are many great perspectives here and I always enjoy Willa and Joie’s discussions here. To add Charles and Joe to the mix just makes it more exciting. Then you add the very insightful and educational perspectives from your readers allows for greater food for thought. Thank you all for this enlightening conversation.

  12. Thank you so much for another amazing post. Thanks to Charles and Joe for come and share all this amazing input with us and thanks to Ultravioletrae for her point of view. I love music but I have only basic training in one instrument and I leave it when I was very young, so I appreciate all this so much since it helps me to understand in a logical way so much better the power of Michael’s music.

    About Michael refusing to learn to write and read music I can understand it in an artistic way. I study filmmaking and off course I love movies, I see all kinds and I enjoy almost every genre. I remember my first day in film school; we had this class called film language study. Film also has its own language and its own rules. I remember my teacher told us: “You will remember this day the rest of your lives, because you will never watch a movie the same way again and for many of you movies will be ruin forever after you learn all of this”. It was kind of true, once you learn the full technical rules and language of it, you lose your innocence as an observer and also as a creator. You know you have to follow the rules and you think constantly on them while you create, but also when you watch. You are analyzing constantly the technical issues and some people because obsessed with them, losing a very big part of the creation process.

    So in a way I think he made the right choice, to stay innocent and free from rules, since he got to make his own rules and as we know it worked wonderfully!

  13. ok, I’m just gonna speak for everyone else, lol. all of you guys need to get together, joe, willa, joie and ultraviolet and write a book on MJ’s artistry. we need more books like Joe’s Man in the Music. so that everything that you guys know about MJ will be public knowledge, because many ppl really believe mj was just a “song” and “dance man” -_- (i think bill o’reily said that..i hate that guy) michael deserves much more credit than what ppl give him is what I’m saying.

  14. If there is a list being composed of those interested in reading Ultravioletrae’s Essay on “Black and White” or anything related to Michael’s songwriting and recording process, please add my name and email address to it! Reading all of these comments and ideas has been like taking a lesson on Michael Jackson’s creative genius! The links to all of the great articles and videos have been a great source of information. I was not familiar with the amazing percussionist, Evelyn Glennie. Her video was incredible!
    Thanks again to Willa, Joie and ALL!!

  15. Love this discussion. I had also read that MJ played a number of instruments. People who listened outside 100 North Carolwood said they heard him playing music on the piano a lot and it was amazing to hear–also we learned that he composed classical music and was visited at the Carolwood house by a claSSICAL musician and he sang the parts that had not yet been written down. I would love it if that music can be released one day soon. I think of MJ as being like a director–a movie director–in the studio–putting all the parts together and making a whole. Loved the comments by Mihael Baryshnikov about MJ’s amazing ‘bouncy walk’ aka SWAGGER!! As he told us in Black or White–‘I ain’t second to none”–yes, an amazing swagger–loved it all the time and esp.on Come Together video. Thanks for wonderful discussion and please put me on the list if I might be able to read Ultravioletrae’s essay on Black or White.

  16. I too would like to read Ultravioletrae’s Essay on “Black and White.” I also wanted to say how much i have appreciated Man in the Music, Poetica and the article “One of the Most Shameful Episodes in Journalistic History,” I have gifted others with these wonderful works as well as linked to them and discussed them. I know that some who i talk to have been intrigued enough to explore more, where they had been influenced previously by scourge media. It has been a quest to offer another way, rather than status quo moronic conformity. The lesson is to research and think for yourself. The benefits are enjoying these type of works, engaging in conversations such as these with others on a higher level than the American media has typically offered us. Thank you so much Willa and Joie, Joe and Charles!

  17. Count me in on Ultravioletrae’s Essay on “Black and White” as well.

  18. Can I just say a huge thank you to all of you here who have given me such positive feed back? I can’t tell you how good it makes me feel, especially coming from posters who I ALWAYS look forward to reading. I would take up all the space every week if I commented each time one of you made a “knock it out of the park” insight into MJ! My essay isn’t quite ready to share with everyone yet, I am still getting corrections and comments on it from those who have more scholarly back grounds in related areas, but I promise to share it when it is. I’m just a working musician trying to get my feet wet with my writing, so I need time to get the kinks out of it! Promise I will let you know as soon as I feel more confident with it.

  19. Can’t wait! One of the things I like more about this blog is the opportunity to hear form people who is interesting in Michael’s art and I am sure you essay will be a very interesting read.

  20. fabulous discussion…thank you all….I can hardly wait for next week’s discussion on Dancing the dream….Michael Jackson never ceases to amaze me and I love reading these discussions that delve into his creative process….he crossed so many boundaries….it’s amazing to read of the range of artists he’s influenced.

    @Ultravioletrae wow!!! I loved reading your comments…I do hope one day you post your essay on Black or white…what a amazing gift it would be to read. I am neither a student of music nor a musician so I thank you all for sharing some of your knowledge… fascinating!!

    I’m thrilled that I found this blog…thanks Willa for posting Dangerous Deposition link..I’d listened to it a while ago but listening to it again was even better as I was able to understand better what Michael was saying based on what I read here.

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