Because Your Words Just Aren’t Enough

Willa:  So Joie, we’ve talked quite a bit about Michael Jackson as a songwriter – for example, in posts with Joe Vogel and Charles Thomson and Lisha McDuff. But those conversations have focused primarily on his music and his skills as a composer. We haven’t really talked about Michael Jackson as a lyricist, and one thing I love about Michael Jackson’s songwriting is his ability to plunge us into a compelling dramatic moment with just a few simple brushstrokes. A famous example is the chorus of “Billie Jean”:

Billie Jean is not my lover
She’s just a girl who says I am the one
But the kid is not my son

In just three lines he sketches a surprisingly rich narrative: characters, dramatic tension and plot details, and the suggestion of a theme running throughout his work about the intersection of power and desire. It’s just elegant to me how it conveys so much so simply.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa. He had the remarkable ability to paint the most vivid picture with only a few words. I like this example from “Smooth Criminal”:

As he came in through the window
Was the sound of a crescendo
He came into her apartment
Left the blood stains on the carpet

With just the first two lines you know immediately that something is not right. A man has smashed someone’s window and climbed in. Then with the following two lines, you know he’s in the apartment of a defenseless woman and you’re afraid for her safety. He’s set up an entire storyline in just four short brushstrokes, as you called them. I find this ability to paint such a vivid picture with just a few words really incredible. It’s a talent that not everyone has.

Willa:  Oh, “Smooth Criminal” is a great example! There is so much going on in that song – and the video that contains it, and the film that contains them both – but it’s all incorporated so skillfully it feels like a simple little song. But that apparent simplicity is deceptive. This is actually one of his more complicated works, both in its emotional complexity and its narrative structure.

For example, there are actually four distinct “voices” woven together to form the narrative. Michael Jackson sings all four, but they each represent a different point of view – and he sings each of them very differently to convey that. The main “voice” is the narrator who’s telling us the story. He’s the one who sings those dramatic opening lines you quoted above. Then there’s something of a Greek chorus reacting to that narrative, with Michael Jackson’s simply one of many voices. They are the ones who sing the repeated lines of “Annie, are you OK? / Will you tell us that you’re OK?”

Then two more voices appear after the break. There’s the Smooth Criminal himself, and Michael Jackson sings his lines with this really gruff voice (“Daggone it, Baby!”). And then there’s this other character singing, “I don’t know! / I don’t know! / I don’t know why!” We don’t really know who this is, but Michael Jackson sings those lines with a high, trembling, beautiful voice – it’s really haunting. And while we don’t know for sure who this character is, I’ve always felt that it was Annie’s spirit, singing from beyond the grave.

Joie:  That’s a really interesting observation, Willa. I never looked at “Smooth Criminal” that way until you brought it up. It’s a fascinating idea.

Willa:  Well, it’s not clear who this mysterious voice belongs to, and I think that ambiguity is intentional so I’m reluctant to say, yes, it’s definitely Annie. But that’s how it feels to me, and that may be one reason why I like the Glee version of “Smooth Criminal” so much – because it makes explicit something that, to me, is already implicitly there in the original. I’ve always felt that when Michael Jackson sings “I don’t know why!” he’s singing it as a female character, and that whole section feels like a collage of male and female voices juxtaposed against one another. So when I heard the Glee version with the dueling male and female voices, it just felt right to me.

Joie:  You know, I recently read an article online called “Why Prince Still Matters,” and in the opening paragraph the author makes the statement that while Michael Jackson was the only performer “who could compete with and even outshine Prince as a singer, dancer and charismatic performer,” he simply could never compete with Prince as a songwriter. I read that and became instantly frustrated – as usual. It’s an argument we hear over and over again from critics, and it’s something we touched on back during our conversation with Joe and Charles about MJ as a songwriter, but it’s an argument I completely disagree with and simply don’t understand.

Willa:  I don’t really understand it either, but maybe it has something to do with how we define poetic language. You know, for the most part, we want the language of prose to be invisible – we want it to convey an idea without the words getting in the way. But poetic language is different – it’s language that calls attention to itself. When we hear poetic language, we don’t just think about the ideas and emotions, but the words used to convey them. And for the most part, Michael Jackson’s words don’t call attention to themselves.

But if we look carefully at his lyrics, we find that he’s very skillful in his word choices and has a poetic awareness of words. For example, he likes to engage in word play, which can be an important feature of poetry, but his word play often conveys a thematic meaning as well. A good example is “Beat It.” I love the way he redefines the title words over the course of the song. In the first verse, “Beat It!” means to scram, or run away in fear:

They told him don’t you ever come around here
Don’t wanna see your face, you better disappear …
So beat it. Just beat it.

Then he uses that word “beat” again, but this time it has a different meaning – one of violence. As he sings,

They’ll kick you, then they’ll beat you
Then they’ll tell you it’s fair
So beat it. But you wanna be bad

So in this section, he introduces a new meaning of “beat” (“they’ll beat you”) but then immediately evokes the previous meaning (“So beat it”). So he wants both definitions to be in play simultaneously. Then of course, there’s a third definition of “beat,” which is the beat of music – and importantly, it’s music that resolves the violence between the gangs. So in this sense, to “beat it” means to create a rhythm, like beating a drum. And finally, there’s a fourth definition of “beat,” which is to be victorious. For example, if someone is diagnosed with cancer and overcomes it, we say they “beat it” – they “beat” the cancer. To me, this is the predominant meaning that’s evoked in the circular, repeated chorus at the end: “Showin’ how funky strong is your fight … Just beat it.”

So those words have undergone a complete revolution. The main character is no longer being told to get lost, to “beat it.” Instead, he’s emerged victorious over gang violence through the power of his music – he’s “beat it” by showing how “funky strong” he is – but it’s a different kind of strength. It isn’t the violent force of the gangs, but the “funky” power of the artist. But while the meaning of the words “Beat It” change dramatically over the course of the song, we still hear the echoes of those alternate definitions as well, which gives that repeated chorus at the end tremendous depth.

Joie:  Willa, I agree with you that he was very skillful in his word choices and possessed a poetic awareness of words. As I pointed out back during our post on In the Closet,  I think Michael was very deliberate about the words he chose to use in his lyrics in order to paint a certain picture or convey a certain message, and “In the Closet” is a great example of that.

Willa:  Oh, even the title is a great example. He’s taken a commonly used euphemism for gay men or lesbian women who keep their relationships and orientation hidden from public view, and shifted the meaning of those words by linking them to a different type of secret relationship.

Joie:  Another great example is “Best of Joy” from the posthumous Michael album. From the very first word he utters in that song I am filled with a sense of reverence and peace and unconditional love, and I truly believe that’s the message he was trying to convey with that song. I just love these lyrics:

I am your joy
Your best of joy
I am the moonlight
You are the spring
Our love’s a sacred thing
You know I always will love you
I am forever  

It doesn’t get much more poetic than that! That song takes my breath away and leaves me in tears every single time I listen to it.

Another really great example is “Speechless.” The lyrics to that song are simply beautiful:

Helpless and hopeless, that’s how I feel inside
Nothing’s real, but all is possible if God is on my side
When I’m with you I’m in light, but I cannot be found
It’s as though I am standing in the place called Hallowed ground
Speechless, speechless, that’s how you make me feel
Though I’m with you I am far away and nothing is for real
I’d go anywhere and do anything just to touch your face
There’s no mountain high I cannot climb
I’m humbled in your grace

Willa:  I agree. I especially love the cadence of his words – how they tumble and flow – and he sings it so beautifully. But you know what’s interesting is that, ironically, this song is about his inability to express himself and put his thoughts and feelings into words.  As he sings,

I have not the words here to explain
Gone is the grace for expressions of passion

So despite the eloquence of his words, he still feels “speechless” to express the full scope of his feelings.

Joie:  And yet, he’s constantly accused of mediocrity as a songwriter.

Willa:  Really? I knew his songwriting tended to be overlooked. People often rave about his singing and dancing, but not his songwriting. But I didn’t know they actually called it mediocre. That doesn’t make sense to me.

Joie:  I just don’t get it. I mean, even in “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough,” which was the first hit he ever wrote, the ‘eloquence of his words,’ as you put it, is astounding. The man is talking about something so base and simple as sexual desire, yet he does it in such a subtle and poetic way that the fact he’s talking about sex is almost overlooked.

Willa:  Oh, you know how I feel about “Don’t Stop”! But talking about “Speechless” reminds me of another, very special aspect of his songwriting. You know, what perhaps draws me most to Michael Jackson’s songs and makes them so compelling for me is the way he gives voice to the voiceless – to those who are “speechless” and have traditionally been excluded from public discourse. We see that over and over in his work. “Beat It!” and “Bad” give a voice to young Black men growing up in the inner city, struggling to avoid gang violence and simply stay alive (“You have to show them that you’re really not scared”). “Smooth Criminal” gives voice to a young woman murdered in her apartment, as well as to those who care about her (“Annie, are you OK?”). “Dirty Diana” gives voice to both a rock star and a groupie in almost equal measure (“I’ll be your everything if you make me a star”). “Morphine” gives voice to a drug addict (“I’m going down, baby”). And “Earth Song” gives voice to all those – both human and nonhuman – who have been denied a voice (“What about us?”). That concern for those without a voice, and his insistence that their voice matters, was a defining characteristic of his songwriting, I think, and one that resonated with listeners around the world.

Joie:  Hmm. You’re right, Willa. Giving voice to the voiceless was like a reoccurring theme in his music and he used his careful word choices wonderfully in order to do this.

But, I guess the real issue with this for me is that, I just don’t understand how critics can totally ignore the fact that Michael has written some of the most iconic songs in our history and yet, they still refuse to acknowledge him as a songwriter of any great merit. That just doesn’t compute to me. And I wonder if the bottom line here is that it’s simply more of the same back-handed treatment that he endured in other aspects of his life and career. ‘He’s different, he’s strange, he’s weird so, we’ll just shut him down and minimalize all of his efforts across the board.’

Willa:  I don’t know. I could speculate about a lot of different reasons why critics might have reacted this way, but it would just be speculation. I really don’t know. But it is interesting to me how the fans, the critics, and the public at large tend to respond to him so differently, and I wonder if it’s a function of emotional engagement. You know, Michael Jackson can really take you places if you let him, but you have to be willing to let him take you there.

I get the impression that a lot of times, critics approach artists – not just Michael Jackson but all artists – with a wary attitude. It’s like they’re standing there with their arms crossed going, “OK, buddy, show me what you can do. Try to impress me.” And if you approach him that way, you may be blown away by the incredible range of his voice or the fluidity of his dance moves – the kinds of obvious things the critics tend to acknowledge – but you’re going to miss all the depth and complexity and emotional power of his work. To see and feel those aspects of his work, you really have to engage with it, and explore what’s happening, and let yourself be drawn into it emotionally. And most critics just weren’t willing to do that. And his fans were.

It kind of gets back to what we’ve said before – we see him differently because we love him. With an artist as complicated and challenging as he is, I’m not sure it’s possible to even begin to understand him or appreciate him unless you love him and “give into” him. And we do.

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 May 10, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 54 Comments.

  1. Caro Attwell

    Thank you again for this wonderful blog. Until I started reading your blog I also was just totally blown away with the music and performance and missed the meaning of the words, apart from Speechless which I did get right from the beginning and loved. Dancing the Dream gave me a new appreciation of just how poetic Michael is, some of those essays and poems are as worthy as anything written by Wordsworth or Shelly for instance.
    Your comments –

    “To see and feel those aspects of his work, you really have to engage with it, and explore what’s happening, and let yourself be drawn into it emotionally.” and
    “It kind of gets back to what we’ve said before – we see him differently because we love him. With an artist as complicated and challenging as he is, I’m not sure it’s possible to even begin to understand him or appreciate him unless you love him and “give into” him. And we do.”

    just say it all for me, but there are so many people out there who’s lives would be so enriched if only they ‘listened’ to Michael.

    On many levels of course, people did and continue to listen, albeit subliminally or unconsciously, but I am sure that Michael’s words have changed many maay people’s worlds whether they know it or not, and I know for sure that he has changed mine, and only for the better, and that feeling sometimes leaves me feeling Speechless!

    Just want to add a thank you for the Reading Room – so many wonderful articles. I loved the article by Forbes Landis, one of the best I have found so far, which says it all so perfectly no matter where you live in the world.

  2. @caro, expressed so well, yes, when words to Michael’s songs are really “heard”, it’s a life altering experience, really. His performance level was unmatched, and the lyric was frequently missed; now that I have listened to nearly every word of every known Michael song, it’s been an awakening of sorts, a “deer in the headlight” moment that I know has irrevocably changed me. There isn’t a day goes by I don’t listen to Michael’s music, really HEARING his lyrics and meaning. Thank you, ladies, so much for your continued otherworldly work here.

  3. Boom! That’s it! I’ve been searching for reasons why I love Michael’s music so much and you’ve just hit the nail on the head here:

    “To see and feel those aspects of his work, you really have to engage with it, and explore what’s happening, and let yourself be drawn into it emotionally.”

    The beauty of his voice draws me in and I can’t help but lose myself in the magic of the song; the pictures his words paint for me and the passion he conveys in the delivery bring up such amazing emotions. You’re completely absorbed, lost in his world. I’m sure it’s been said before, but you don’t just listen to Michael’s music, you feel it.

  4. I can certainly see why the dude believes Prince to be a better song writer. NOT! Oh yeah,Sexy M.F. is poetry in motion. In all seriousness no one in my opinion has ever come close to Michael Jackson’s talent as a song writer or anything else for that matter.

  5. Thanks again!

  6. I was surprised at the depth of his lyrics in his fast, scatty songs. If you don’t read along, you miss a lot of meaning and don’t realize how hard-hitting they are. Michael kept the courage to leave his heart open to us creatively even through the worst of it. He was always passing along his best, asking us to give ours. The beauty and emotional purity of the little Jackson 5 boy lived in him always. “Normal” people grow up and learn to turn off their innermost feelings. He rejected that path, and I treasure him all the more for it.

  7. Joie and Willa,

    I totally agree with your analysis of Michael’s lyrics, in fact Michael’s poetry. It is totally imbued with thought, emotions and rhythm that the listener cannot be indifferent to. Read his poems in his own Dancing the Dream and that’s where his sublime reflections are poetically stated. Michael was otherwordly, other than being a superb performer, he was a profound and highly enlightened man. His poetry should be given its due.

    A thought that occured to me just now, why not analyse his poems within the realm of Transcendentalist influence which was so powerful over him?


  8. I am so glad you brought up Speechless as a powerful example of MJ’s poetic voice as it is one of my favorite songs. Well written lyrics hide many layers of meaning and I think this song exemplifies that. Although it could be argued he is writing about his children, or children in general as they were such an inspiration for him, I feel he is writing about his art. Or maybe he is writing about both, because for him, they were intertwined. This song is a window to his soul. He cannot explain how he feels in words, so…he uses music. The lyrics, “When I’m with you, I am in the light, where I cannot be found; It’s as though I am standing in the place called hallowed ground,” conveys the idea that he has lost all sense of himself. I think when he created his music – as many artists do – he turned himself over to it, dissolving his sense of self. Where is this light, this hallowed ground that he musically emphasizes? I feel it is when he is fully engaged in his artistic endeavors. This is his spiritual place: his art and his soul have met. He is “humbled in (the) grace” of the heavens that have bestowed their gift to him. When you are looking at the face of god – the wellspring of your musical gift – who wouldn’t be speechless? Lyrics don’t get more powerful than that.

    • Caro Attwell

      Fantastic Chris. You have made me cry again with this comment, just as I do when I ‘listen’ to Speechless. MJ was indeed a truly inspired genius and I feel so bless to know him. Am off to Russia today but hope to access the blog while I am there – can’t go 2 weeks without it, anymore than I can go a day without Michael and so have all his cds on an ipod to take with me. A Stranger in Moscow with MJ in my ears – can it get any better ha ha.

    • Hi Chris. I hadn’t thought about “Speechless” this way – as describing that feeling when inspiration comes and he is fully immersed in his art – but I’m really taken with this approach. We branched into a bit of a discussion about “Speechless” in some comments back in October when we were talking about the Invincible album, and Sandra wrote that she interpreted “Speechless” as describing his relationship with God. That really struck me at the time, and I see your approach as a somewhat parallel interpretation since, as Michael Jackson expressed so well in Dancing the Dream, he saw art and creativity as a spiritual experience.

      I’m especially taken with your reading of the lines “When I’m with you, I am in the light, where I cannot be found / It’s as though I am standing in the place called hallowed ground.” As you say, it “conveys the idea that he has lost all sense of himself. I think when he created his music – as many artists do – he turned himself over to it, dissolving his sense of self.” This really captures an idea we see running throughout Dancing the Dream – that when he is fully engaged in his art, he literally “loses himself” in his work – loses his sense of himself as a separate identity, loses his awareness of himself – and enters a “spiritual place,” as you say, where “his art and his soul have met.”

      Wow, I’m going to have to think about this a lot more. …

  9. I’m happy you write about MJ’s lyrics, and am hoping you’re also going to have a roundtable discussion about MJ as a lyricist…

    As a word-addict I’ve always paid a lot of attention to MJ’s way of saying things.
    When I wrote my M.A. thesis, about rhyming, MJ kept entering my mind.

    Things like the first line of TWYMMF are rhythmically and sonically brilliant:
    Hey pretty baby with the high heels on…

    Here ’hey’ rhymes with the ’ba-’ of ’baby’; while ’pretty’ and ’baby’ sort of half-rhyme with the -y ending, which is also reflected in the i of ’with’. ’Hey’, ’high’ and ’heels’ alliterate (start with the same sound), giving the song’s opening a breathy, urgent feel. ’high’ is like the dark echo of ’hey’.

    Admitted, it’s quite easy to exaggerate analyses of this kind (literally seeing ”ghost rhymes”). So let’s look at the lyrical contents:

    ’Hey baby!’ is found in thousands of songs and would be nothing but a cliche.
    ’Hey pretty baby’ – hm, now we’re onto something, it isn’t that original, but it isn’t that common either…
    ’Hey pretty baby with the high heels on’… Wow!

    Those heels do it for me:
    MJ takes a quite cliched expression, and then literally raises it to another level with just a couple of heels! 🙂

    They clearly mark a shift in viewpoint:
    When you’re addressing an adult person as ’baby’, you’re in a way saying ”yes, I know you’re not a new-born child, but I love you so much I’ll treat you with the same unconditional care and affection as if you were one”. Even if you’re not consciously casting yourself as ”the adult”, you’re in a way (in a loving way) looking ”down” on the person addressed, like a father or mother would do in front of their beloved child, or like a gardener finding a precious flower.
    But hey! she’s got high heels on! She’s up there! She’s got power!
    She isn’t just a ’pretty baby’ (yes, she is that too!), she’s an almost towering presence that changes the singer’s viewpoint from ”down” to ”up” with her beauty and personality. Now he is the ’baby’, struck with awe and – as we learn from the next line – fever.

    So much in one brushstroke!

    • Hi Musubana. So you wrote your Master’s thesis about rhyme, and “MJ kept entering [your] mind”? How intriguing! I would love to learn more about this, and see more of those kinds of details that you see.

      I love your reading of “Hey pretty baby … ” and I agree, his lyrics do generally scan as poetry – a very sophisticated style of poetry. However, because he tended to go for a conversational tone in his lyrics – in fact, a number of his songs are structured as conversations – his lyrics feel “natural” and don’t call attention to themselves in the way poetic language often does. However, if we look closely at his lyrics, as you do here, we see that he has a poetic awareness of the materiality of words, meaning their attributes separate from meaning – not only rhythm and rhyme and alliteration, but also more subtle things like the percussive quality of certain sounds and the lilting quality of others, the length of some vowels sounds compared with others, and the way some words “taste” in your mouth when you say them, if that makes sense.

      I read an interview with Paul McCartney a long time ago where he said he didn’t like the word “doggone” in “The Girl is Mine” – he thought it sounded hokey – and tried to talk Michael Jackson into changing it. But he wouldn’t and in fact fought for that word really hard, saying that he needed those exact sounds right there. I think he may have had other reasons for wanting those “hokey” lyrics also, but it’s true that “doggone” has a very strong two beats, with the percussive “d” and “g” sounds, and the repeated “ah” sound in the middle of each syllable – and those specific sound qualities work very well there.

      • Thank you, Willa, I’m happy you liked my interpretation! 🙂

        Yes, I wrote my thesis about rhyming, and I must have hit something, because it is going to be published later this year as a book at the University of Copenhagen (I’m Danish).
        Unfortunately, though, I included no MJ examples in the final text – it was written in 2008, when most people here (above all academics!) were negative towards MJ, so I guess I must have been self-censoring… 😦

        So, although MJ did pop up in my mind very often, as I pondered the various constellations of sound and meaning, I mentioned him only once in the text itself: In conjunction with the ”Wacko Jacko” moniker – an example of rhyming used to floor people.

        ”Hey pretty baby…” is the line I’ve been thinking most about, but perhaps I should give this some thought… 🙂

        On the fly:

        SC has some really interesting sound patterns. Most notably it turns many trochees (metrical units consisting of one stressed syllable + one unstressed, as in ”Thriller”) into spondees (metrical units consisting of two equally stressed syllables, as in ”Big Ben”):

        As he came in through the WIN-DOW
        was the SOUN-DOV a creSCEN-DO.

        Maybe the last word should rather be represented as ”creSCEN-do”, as MJ does seem to put less intensity on the second DO(W) syllable…
        Which is interesting, as a crescendo by definition is a rising sound… I don’t know if this is a conscious pun on MJ’s part – a ”crescendo” that playfully betrays its literal (semantic) meaning on a musical meta-level!
        Nevertheless, the way MJ uses words and syllables as percussive ”droplets”, he often unleashes the underlying meanings in surprising ways.
        In SC, he reminds us that the word apartment contains the dreadful A-PART (as in apartheid). Even the way he stresses ”Sunday” and ”black day” (it was Sunday/What a black day) conjures up powerful images for me: BLACK SUN – or has it something to do with black people and Christianity?


        Wow, that’s interesting, Willa. I never understood what kind of business that word had in TGIM. But it sure is hooky, and has an African ring to it (the Dogon people). (While I was a teenager, it caused me to dream that a girl I knew had actually turned into a dog!)

        • Hi, Musubana, Thanks very much for examining MJ’s lyrics in depth like this to see exactly what is going on poetically. I LOVE your term “percussive ‘droplets.'” wow!! When someone can beatbox and make the sounds MJ can, no wonder he explored and played with the sounds of words in such masterful ways. I noticed that sometimes he shifts the emphasis or stress patterns on syllables, for instance, in Dirty Diana, he sings “because I FOR-got the key” instead of pronouncing the word the way it usually is (for-GOT). I really hope you will pursue this and write something about MJ’s rhyming strategies. You are obviously an expert, and congratulations on your book being published–kudos!

          • Hi Aldebaran, thanks for the nice words! I’ll have to think about your suggestion, but can’t promise anything at the time being – too many projects… Great observation about DD, btw!

  10. “one thing I love about Michael Jackson’s songwriting is his ability to plunge us into a compelling dramatic moment with just a few simple brushstrokes”

    I agree so much!

    Another example from the unreleased song “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?”

    “Now she’s on the move, she’s off to Hollywood
    She says she wanna be a star, she heard the money’s good
    She gets off from the train station, the man is waiting there
    “I’ll show you where the money is, girl just let down your hair”

    I think Prince is a genius musically but lyrically I don’t see anything special there. Many of his songs are actually pretty vulgar and one thing I like about Michael is that he is able to talk about sex in his lyrics in a way that is incredibly erotic but you will never see him vulgar about it. Unlike Prince. I’m not prudish at all, but to me vulgarity actually ruins the erotic experience. And to me something like “In The Closet” is much more sexy than “Sexy M.F”, even if latter is more sexually explicit. But exactly that’s why ITC is sexier! (Same goes for the respective videos for the two songs.)

  11. Iris Valgaeren

    Dear Willa and Joie,

    BAM… this is it! “We love MJ”
    That last paragraph of your discussion is exactly what I feel and what makes us such loyal MJ-fans.
    We can see through the gossip, through the media, through the stories of so-called friends, through everything… because we try/tried to understand him.
    We are willing to give Michael Jackson a chance to express himself!
    In the past he did not only ask us “to love him before we judge him” (Childhood) but he also told us to really listen to his songs, because all the answers can be found in them.
    This was his way to communicate with us!
    The only thing we have to do is to open our heart to feel his emotions and to open our mind to hear the truth.

    Respect to the man we all love!!


  12. Thanks Willa and Joie for another insightful discussion and thanks to all commenters. It is so affirming to come here and read such beautiful expressions of exactly what I feel. Like every other aspect of his art, MJ’s lyrics are exactly right, the perfect lyrical expression of the story he is telling, the emotions he is evoking. As Willa says: “And for the most part, Michael Jackson’s words don’t call attention to themselves” — as say, Cole Porter’s very clever lyrics do. They are so much a part of the music and the emotion, that they slide right into your ears and into your psyche — without being noticed separately, part of the overall powerful effect. But when you consciously focus just on the lyrics, there is the brilliance in every word, in every syllable, in every vocalization.

    But, with Michael, it is hard to focus just on his words, they are so integral to the whole and to Michael’s being. When thinking of Michael, I am reminded of Yeats’ line — “How can you know the dancer from the dance?” Or, in the case of MJ’s lyrics, how can you separate the words from the song and the song from the singer when they all work together so seamlessly and powerfully? It is hard to do, but you did it! Thanks, again.

    • “When thinking of Michael, I am reminded of Yeats’ line — ‘How can you know the dancer from the dance?’ Or, in the case of MJ’s lyrics, how can you separate the words from the song and the song from the singer when they all work together so seamlessly and powerfully?”

      Eleanor, this beautifully expresses something I’ve been pondering about Michael Jackson for a while – how he integrates lyrics, melody, harmony, instrumentation, voice, dance, film into a unified whole, with everything working together “so seamlessly and powerfully,” as you say. For some reason, this reminds me of an anecdote I read about Marilyn Monroe one time. She said that when getting ready for a big event, she would fix her hair, her makeup, her clothes, her jewelry, and then she would go stand in front of a mirror. And if anything drew her attention, like an especially beautiful ring or dazzling necklace or even the color of her lipstick, she would take it off. She didn’t want any one thing calling attention away from the whole. You would think that she would want to wear a beautiful necklace, but if it distracted from the overall effect, she’d rather wear no necklace at all. Her appearance was part of her “art,” and she was trying to create a specific effect through her art, and it required that everything work together.

      I don’t know if this makes sense, but I see Michael Jackson’s holistic approach to art in a somewhat similar way. In general, he does not engage in flashy wordplay, and his lyrics don’t call attention to themselves in the way that “Cole Porter’s very clever lyrics do,” as you point out. They’re skillfully constructed – sometimes “natural” sounding lines that scan well are the hardest to create – but understated. Like Marilyn Monroe’s overly dazzling necklace, he doesn’t want any one thing detracting from the functioning of the work as a whole.

  13. Still about lyrics, but another slant.

    In the version of “Billie Jean” I listen to, the line is not

    “But the kid is not my son”

    It sounds more like “the chir is not my son.”

    On YouTube some time ago, I saw a clip of David Letterman pointing this out and joking about “the chair” being MJ’s son. I puzzled over this for a long time, and then I heard someone using that exact construction — chir for child, and I asked about it, to make sure that what I was hearing was correct. And then, I thought, of course: “chir” is a back construction of “chirren,” a very common way to pronounce “children” in south Georgia where I live, just as “chile” — e.g., honeychile — is a back construction of “chillen”–more common in Mississippi and West Tennessee where I grew up.

    And, I am sure that this was no accident. In using “chir,” Michael is factoring in a little known element of black dialect, authenticating it, identifying with it. I read recently somewhere that Michael had a disagreement very early in his career with some of his Motown handlers who wanted him to change some word pronunciations so they would be more like standard “white” English — and he refused because he believed, rightly, that it would somehow interfere with the directness and power of his communication — with what he had to say. How did he know these things when he was a child? Amazing!

    Anyway, I wondered if anyone has offered any other explanations for “chir.”


    • Hi Eleanor. It would be interesting to study this in more depth. I haven’t thought about this in terms of “Billie Jean,” specifically, but I have noticed that he can speak the queen’s English when he wants to, or black vernacular when he wants to, and can slip back and forth between them very easily, like a bilingual speaker slipping between English, Spanish, and Spanglish. And sometimes there does seem to be a thematic reason for how he pronounces certain words.

      By the way, I read an article a couple years ago by a Montreal reporter who said he had interviewed Michael Jackson when he was in town (and apparently was considering buying a house there – this was after the 2005 trial) and he said the interview was conducted entirely in French. He said he was surprised, but Michael Jackson could speak French at least well enough to get by. He also said he was pretty knowledgeable about local issues – for example, he had some fairly decided opinions about the Quebecois separatist movement. Wow. That’s definitely a side of Michael Jackson you don’t read about in the tabloids. …

  14. If there is one thing I wished for, if that is even the right word because I’m so thankful for all that Michael gave to us, but I really wish he could have ventured more into films. As you’ve made clear with this discussion, Michael is such a great songwriter, not only for the way he puts a song together musically, but for the stories he tells. Everything is so visual for me with Michael, even without the videos. I can remember being a child and putting on The Jackson records with headphones and just closing my eyes and visualizing everything that was being sung.

    Also, on another post we talked about “The Power” and how that was a theme in Michael’s songs. I questioned if it had any connection to JW teachings and I still want to look that up. But I found another song that talks of “The Power” and that’s Blues Away which I think might be the first song recorded that Michael wrote. The lyrics:

    I’ve got the power
    Doin’ it out
    Say anything
    ‘Cause I’ve got this feeling
    Say I
    I’ve got the power
    Come on
    Come on

  15. Mahmoud Radwan

    Great great article…. It’s the one I wanna read since long time!!!!
    By the way …. The best example of MJ changing his voice in a song as two characters was in Blood on the Dance Floor, he was the guy that telling the story in a way of teasing and tryin to be scary to the man who did it with Suzi… And then change his voice to be the man himself when he says “to escape from world I got to enjoy that simple dance…..”
    Then again he change it for the third time to be part of a group who start seriously threaten the man when they said “Suzi got your number and Suzi aint your friend…” its such a great song to the greatest artist of all time.

  16. I’ve been watching many Michael performances on YT from the BAD Tour (wow, You Are My Lovely One), prepping for whatever 25th anniv releases may come out (hopefully) and was surprised to see Michael use “Dark Room Lover” on several of these songs. I thought Dark Room Lover’s first use was with the Dangerous Tour, but apparently not. Willa and Joie, I apologize if I’ve missed any prior posts where you may have explained DRL, but seeing as Michael used it in so much of his music, what’s your interpretation of the meaning? A hidden relationship perhaps?

  17. This is a real unique issue in Michael Jackson’s life of creativity. I think Michael observed a lot beside he was born with a great talent. We all know his background his community the Jacksons cared so much for a family. Mrs. Katherine taught Michael and the rest of the family how to say things in good manners and how they can express what they want to say. When the Jacksons signed with Motown Josef Jackson knew his boys were in good hands. Berry Gordy took good care of them he made Diana Rose to be their mentor especially Michael she really did a great job teaching them everything they needed not only about performing but also how to deal with most of the things about life. Susane De Pass was also another great mentor. And in the music recording environment in the studio from a very early age Michael was observing from great stars like Gladys knight, Smoky Robinsons, Stevie Wonder and many many more who really were great song writers at the time. He grew up learning also during the recording for the greatest album of all times Thriller Michael was with the A Team including Rod Temperton who wrote amazing lyrics. And I also wanted to point out Michael was a great reader he thought that education can never stop. His interview with Oprah 1993 she asked him : you’re 34 years old what do you know for sure?
    Michael : I’m still learning life is an education for me.
    That answer blew my mind because it was an answer of a wise man.
    I’m glad that most of the comments here mentioned Michael’s book Dancing The Dream in the second page you’ll read Thank you Deapak Chopra. Deapak is a great Indian thinker who was a good friend of Michael and Michael read all his books which helped him a lot. What really impressed me about Michael that he was a true dreamer who incredibly believed in magic. He believed that sitting over his giving tree make him creative. We don’t have no writer of any field can come up with the same method ( innocence ).
    All those elements I mentioned I think really helped Michael to be super unique in his song writing. His songs are incredible that can revive your mind and spirit from life pressure.
    Michael Jackson’s creativity can never be replaced.

  18. twinlakesprairie

    When you mentioned in last week’s post that the bridge in “Hollywood” was written by Teddy Riley, not MJ, I said ahah! The first time I heard Hollywood, I loved the song but that bridge just rubbed me wrong – it didn’t sound like MJ. It didn’t flow, it was too wordy, too direct. MJ’s lyrics get his point across in a much more subtle way.

    Some of my favorite lyrics, not yet mentioned here:

    Are you infected with the same disease
    Of lust, gluttoney and greed?
    Then watch the ones
    With the biggest smiles
    The idle jabbers…Cuz they’re the backstabbers
    It’s slander
    You say it’s not a sword
    But with your pen you torture men
    You’d crucify the Lord
    And you don’t have to read it, read it
    And you don’t have to eat it, eat it
    To buy it is to feed it, feed it
    So why do we keep foolin’ ourselves
    (Tabloid Junkie)
    This won’t hurt you
    Before I put it in
    Close your eyes and count to 10
    Don’t cry
    I won’t convert you
    There’s no need to dismay
    Close your eyes and drift away

    He’s tried
    Hard to convince her
    To give more of what he had
    Today he wants it twice as bad
    Don’t cry
    I won’t resent you
    Yesterday you had his trust
    Today he’s taking twice as much
    Love ain’t what it used to be
    That is what they’re tellin’ me
    Push it in stick it out
    That ain’t what it’s all about

    Sister say she love him some
    God is jammin’ on the run
    Mother’s preaching Abraham
    Brothers they don’t give a damn

    Johnny’s begging pretty please
    Keep the brother on his knees
    Susie likes to agitate
    Get the boy and make him wait

    Sister’s marries to a hood
    Sayin’ that she got it good
    Holy Mary Mercy me
    I can’t believe the things I see

    Thinkin’ that they got it made
    They doin’ what they used to hate
    Push it in stick it out
    That ain’t what it’s all about
    That ain’t what it’s all about
    (Superfly Sister)

    • Hi Twinlakesprairie. I had the exact same experience when listening to “Hollywood Tonight” the first time. The bridge just felt off to me, almost like a flat note. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it was just “too wordy, too direct,” too something. It just didn’t feel right – didn’t feel like Michael Jackson to me.

      • Just to add that while that bridge may not have worked–maybe it was too clunky–another bridge not written by MJ did work–the rap lyrics in ‘Monster’ were written by Curtis Jackson (performed by 50 cents).

        This is what Joe Vogel writes about ‘Hollywood” in The Man in the Music:

        “From the Gregorian chant intro (Jackson’s idea) to the slick bass line to the funky guitar riff, ‘Hollywood Tonight’ sounds, perhaps more than any other track, like the direction Jackson may have been heading for his new album. Instantly danceable, with a chorus that sticks in the head, this is classic Michael Jackson. It is one of his best bass lines since ‘Who Is It.'” (265).

        MJ started work on it in 1999 when he stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel and that is when he wrote the short outline (‘a true story’) that appears in the ‘Michael’ liner notes and which Willa and Joie’s post quotes.

        • Hi Aldebaran. I agree – the rap in “Monster” works really well, I think. And I just want to say again that I don’t think it’s “wrong” for Teddy Riley to write a rap for “Hollywood Tonight” or rework it the way he thinks best. I just want it to be clearly labeled that way. And I’d really like to hear the versions Michael Jackson himself worked on, so we have them as kind of the guiding vision for the direction he was heading with it.

          • It is labeled in the booklet to ‘Michael’ that T. Riley wrote the lyrics to the spoken bridge. It also list T. R. and MJ as producers and Theron ‘Neff-U’ Feemster as co-producer.

          • Here is the full labeling or notes to ‘HT’ on the Michael album:

            “Written by Michael Jackson, Brad Buxer//Spoken Bridge Written by Teddy Riley// Published by Mijac Music, Adida Music Inc.//Produced by Teddy Riley, Michael Jackson/Co-Produced by Theron “Neff-U” Feemster.”

            I am curious, Willa, what other labeling would you like to see here?

            Joe Vogel adds that the lead and background vocals are MJ. Joe writes that over 10 years from the time MJ got the idea for the song in 1999, he worked on it with Brad Buxer and that Michael Prince added the “Billy-Jean”-esque kick and snare in the last mix MJ requested. . . Jackson and Brad Buxer continued tinkering with it in Las Vegas in 2007. In October, 2008, Jackson, now living in Los Angeles, asked recording engineer Michael Prince to put the latest mix of “Hollywood” on CD so he could listen to it and see what might be improved. Sadly, he never got around to working on it again. Following Jackson’s death, Theron Feemster and Teddy Riley worked on the song, adding new production and a new bridge.”

            I gather there are 2 demos and 2 released versions of HT (on ‘Michael’ and as a single, where the bridge was eliminated). Sometimes we have to ask, as was asked in the film for Liberian Girl, “Exactly which Michael Jackson are we talking about?”

          • According to Joe Vogel, there are more ‘incarnations’ of HT out there:

            “Hollywood Tonight,” then, has gone through many incarnations: the several different demos Jackson recorded with Brad Buxer and Michael Prince, from 1999 to 2008; the two versions Theron Feemster worked on following Jackson’s death (one of which is reportedly quite impressive); the polished album version completed by Teddy Riley; and, of course, the new single.” (from the huff post article)

            According to a post by Alex, the short film version is called “The Throwback Version,” and uses the MJ vocals from a demo. Oy Veh!

          • Pardon me for jumping in…

            I’m one who likes the MJ songs just as is, but I appreciate everyone’s opinion on this. I also like what Willa said about labels and I’m glad aldebaran found it for HT.

            I think what I would really appreciate from the estate is to take a step back for a moment, understanding that there might be some money issues that causes them to act quickly. Take a step back and maybe archive everything possible. With what you mentioned, aldebaran, there are many ‘versions’ of HT. I would love to be able to go to one place and find them all. maybe know the dates when each was recorded. Something like that would help to better understand or just follow Michael’s production and creative process. I know all the information is out there, but I think something like that could be helpful to fans and non-fans (or new fans) and also make the estate money. Just IMHO.

  19. This is a wonderful discussion. Just to add that I have read that MJ’s approach was to write the poem or the lyrics first and then write the music afterwards. (Sorry that I don’t have the source for that.) I also recently read a note that MJ wrote (it’s on that talks about the preeminence of feeling in his music. And I do think it’s the feeling that is so powerful. As Armond White says, “MJ’s art countered an unfeeling world with pure feeling–also high creativity and utterly convincing sincerity.”

    Sometimes the emphasis on the feeling, and the beat, makes the words, at least for me, hard to distinguish. For example, on Smooth Criminal, I could never figure out what he said in the chorus–was it ‘Eddie, are you walking?’ Annie, are you walking?’–no, it’s ‘Annie, are you ok.” Also in ‘Dirty Diana” when I first heard it, I could not tell what he was saying when he sang the impassioned chorus ‘Dirty Diana, no!’ All I could hear was the emotion and the amazing vowel sounds (which someone else talks about in a comment above re the ‘Hey, pretty baby’ in TWYMMF). In that phrase I count 6 vowel sounds (“Dirty Diana, no’). English is rich as an emotionally expressive (poetic) language with its 15 vowel sounds and Michael may have invented a few more! In ‘Dirty Diana’ when he screams ‘Come on!’ as the guitar riff plays–that is amazing in its fire, urgency, power. I think MJ really did open us up emotionally with his music if, as Willa says, we gave in to him. Armond White makes this comment about MJ’s song ‘Ben’: ‘His tender, profound emotionality taught teenagers everywhere that they could feel more deeply than they realized.”

    Once we are connected to MJ emotionally, then we can start to investigate the lyrics more fully. The lyrics in TDCAU, for example, and the fast scatting lyrics in Why You Want to Trip on Me, or whatever ones we want to study. For instance, in Heal the World, we may think we know all the simple lyrics (make it a better place, etc), but then comes this lyric:

    “And the dream we were conceived in will reveal a joyful face… and the world we once believed in will shine again in grace. Then why do we keep strangling life wound this Earth, crucify its soul. Though it’s plain to see, this world is heavenly. We could be God’s glow… Heal the world.”

    I think MJ was a master teacher–he was teaching us on so many levels and the lyrics are one more level.

  20. I’d like to add to the comment by Willa and Joie that a distinguishing feature of MJ’s lyrics involved giving ‘voice to the voiceless,’ and this meant both human and nonhuman voices. In ‘Earth Song’ MJ mentions two specific 2 nonhuman species–elephants (“have we lost their trust”) and whales (“What about crying whales”). These are both advanced mammalian species with a highly complex social structure. I read a comment by a biologist that “the cries of whales or the faltering trust of elephants” show MJ’s concern and awareness of the “two largest and certainly most socially advanced creatures” on earth struggling to survive environmental devastation. He does sing more generally about animals and the planet in Earth Song, but these two species get specific mention. They are both highly endangered and also keystone species (ones that anchor the ecosystem).

    Nick Brandt, who was the director for Earth Song (he also directed Cry, Childhood, and Stranger in Moscow) was so impressed with the African wildlife he saw in 95 during production that he started a career as a photographer and has published 3 books–On This Earth; A Shadow Falls; and the last one On This Earth, A Shadow Falls. He photographs in Black and White and does not use telephoto or zoom lenses. His studies are portraits of the wildlife and they are breathtaking, truly amazing. He captures the spirit of the animals. He also started a foundation about a year ago (Big Life Foundation) to help stop the destruction and the poaching of African wildlife. They have set up stations, purchased vehicles, hired rangers, trained tracker dogs, established relationships with the local tribes, etc to try and stop the decline of species. They do need donations to continue. Lion populations are down 90% over the past 20 years. 35,000 elephants are killed every year (10% of the population). I was so glad to learn about Nick Brandt’s work and how filming Earth Song and being with MJ set him on this path–MJ was such an inspiration!

    • Hi Aldebaran. I think that’s really true. As the title “Earth Song” implies, he’s trying to give voice to the Earth itself, and to all the creatures and plants and ecosystems and phenomena it contains – all the wondrous life forms and processes that have been marginalized by consumer culture. (btw, I hear that line about the whales a little differently. It sounds to me like he’s saying “have they lost their tusks?” which connects with the images we see in the video. I don’t think that’s what it says in the liner notes, but his liner notes are notoriously inaccurate, for some reason.)

  21. Hi, Willa, Thanks for your suggestion. Certainly the words ‘tusks’ and ‘trust’ are similar sounds. Maybe this is a ‘sound echo,’ or a ‘ghost rhyme’ (as musubana talks about). Interesting. I don’t see the word ‘tusks’ in any lyrics or liner notes that I have read, but you say these are ‘notoriously inaccurate.’ I wonder why that is? That sure doesn’t help us interpret the lyrics. Wouldn’t MJ have wanted them published correctly?

    The play on trust/tusks is intriguing–the poor elephants are being killed for their tusks, even when they are just stumps. Ivory is at $2,000/lb. As the elephants’ numbers drop, the price will go up. Protection is essential and urgent. I read that in 1930 Africa had 30 million elephants, now 350,000. So. very. sad.

  22. Maybe MJ uses lyrics as a kind of sound rorschach so that the listener can construct his/her own words and meanings? There seems a deliberate fuzziness or blurring of words, and I think the purpose is to stress the feeling as paramount–anguish, longing, anger, joy, sexuality, love, and so on.

    • Aldebaran, What a fascinating idea — a deliberate blurring.

      I also really agree that MJ’s purpose is “to stress the feeling as paramount.” I often have a difficult time hearing the lyrics, but I don’t have trouble feeling the song.

      Reading this post, I was thinking about words as underlying structures — sounds to carry emotion. Most people who go to operas haven’t a clue what the singers are singing, but the emotion is in the sound of the voice. And the intellectual meaning of poems can sometimes be hard to understand, but poems, when read aloud — with the rhythm and the sound of the words combined –can often get their meaning across, even when the ideas are a little obscure.

      • About “a deliberate blurring” of the lyrics – that is a fascinating idea, and it’s one answer to why his liner notes are off so often. He was so meticulous about his music, often reworking songs for years until they were just the way he wanted them, so it’s surprising that the same meticulousness doesn’t carry over to the printed version of his lyrics. Joie and I have developed a habit of double-checking when citing his lyrics in a blog post: we’ll begin with the lyrics as they appear in the liner notes, then listen as we read along, and frequently will need to change the lyrics to reflect the words we both hear. And maybe that reflects the fact that his lyrics evolved over time, so the lyrics he ultimately sang were not the ones he originally wrote. Or maybe that slippage between the lyrics as they’re written and as they’re sung was deliberate, as you suggest, Aldebaran. From what I can tell, he loved ambiguity – loved leaving his work open to multiple interpretations – so maybe this was one more avenue for opening his work up to a multitude of meanings.

        • Perhaps he sang variant lyrics in different recorded versions of the same song as well as in different performances?

  23. Yes, Eleanor, I agree heartily with what you said about opera and poetry being ‘sounds to carry emotion,’ sounds and rhythm. Thanks for your insight. MJ really played with this–even echoing the sounds of the earth itself in ‘Earth Song’–the aahhhh and oooohh–and with his many sounds that were not words, the hooo-hooo, heee–heee, the roars and the ‘vocal hiccups.’ The other thing I have read about his voice is that he had remarkable speed–he could sing so quickly that the words did blurr together–this happened so many times.

    Having said this, though, I have been thinking that it would be good to have a definitive list of MJ’s lyrics as a resource. When Joe Vogel’s book came out, someone commented that it would have been good to have included all the lyrics of the songs in the 10 albums MJ released as a solo artist as an appendix to the book. I realize this is somewhat contradicting the idea that MJ is asking us to create our own meaning from the lyrics by deliberately blurring them, but poetry as a genre invites us to explore meanings and responses anyway as we engage with words, sounds, rhythms, and feelings.

    Since there is so much that is fascinating and important in this topic of MJ as a lyricist, I would really like it if Willa and Joie continued this discussion another time and invited Joe Vogel to participate as a guest.

  24. Hi, Destiny, I’m glad you jumped in and I agree that archiving is really important. It does take time and is usually something that scholars find essential. I would love to see, for example, a complete list of all the BOOKS MJ had in his library at NL, which I have read was a library of 20,000 volumes! wow! He loved to read and buy books. I would love to know what he had in that library. Then it would be good to archive the LYRICS to the 10 albums released in his lifetime–with any variants–and lyrics to posthumous works. Then we need the cataloguing of the MUSIC, with the variants, the demos, the collaborators, as you suggest. Then we could archive the PERFORMANCES, and the TOURS. Then MJ’s ART, his own and what he commissioned or purchased.

    There is so much to archive and it’s going to take time. Maybe we have to be patient. I hope the Estate will manage to pay off the debts, which must be a major focus now, and then move on to projects like these. In fact, maybe they could solicit help from the fans as volunteers. I feel sure many would be glad to help. Working with the fans might be the way for the Estate to start these archiving projects now.

    One person who made a big impact on the music archiving is Joe Vogel in his books on MJ. He interviewed the people who worked with MJ in the studio and gave us great info about each album. However, there is more to be done. I have a feeling we are going to be doing this for many years.

    • Agree 100000% with everything you just said. And I LOVE the idea of fan volunteers.

      I do feel for the estate because they have much to do and I know getting Michael’s finances in order is number one because that is what will feed the children from here on out. I know many people have a dislike for Branca and McClain. I’m not in that camp. I think they are doing the best they can.

      Still like we have both mentioned above, I think a new approach as to how to handle a deceased artist’s estate is emerging here. I think the has the potential to be unlike anything that has ever been done before. An idea a had once regarding all of this was to have some type of virtual warehouse for all of this so that it could be shared with all the fans around the world. But you are right – all of this will take time.

  25. Hi, Destiny, I love the idea you mentioned of a “virtual warehouse”–what a great concept. That would be so wonderful. I wanted to correct what I wrote above about the books–apparently he had 10,000 volumes at NL and another 10,000 somewhere else (but until they are archived we won’t know exact #s); also there were 7 (not 10) solo albums released. Yes, the Estate needs to be careful that all this is catalogued/archived for the future. Thanks for liking the fan volunteer idea–I think it would be a great way to have the Estate and the fans work together on projects, and it would be good for the fans and scholars too to get ‘everything MJ’ archived and accessible. Then it could all go in the “virtual warehouse.” Yay!

    • @aldebaran, haha – we need the number or address to the estate (and yes, I’m only half kidding!). These are great ideas we need to pass along to them.

    • Destiny and Aldebaran,

      The “virtual warehouse” idea is intriguing. Joie and I have been talking about your ideas, and I think we might try to get an Annotated Lyrics tab going where we list the lyrics for each song according to the liner notes, as well as what we actually hear him singing. We’re thinking there’d also be space for comments about the lyrics to each song so we could discuss how specific words echo the lyrics of other songs, or reflect on specific historical events, etc. It might take a few weeks to get that up and running, but I think we’re going to try to do that. Thanks for all the great ideas!

      Also, Aldebaran, thank you for the liner notes to “Hollywood Tonight.” I agree they accurately labeled who produced the song and who wrote the bridge. For me, though, the issue is whether or not Michael Jackson himself signed off on it. For example, Bill Bottrell wrote the bridge for “Black or White” and I’m perfectly comfortable with that because I know it’s exactly what he wanted. As Lisha pointed out a couple weeks ago, Michael Jackson apparently went to great lengths to induce Bill Bottrell to write and perform the bridge, and when he heard it he said, “I love it!”

      He also didn’t write “Ben” or “Human Nature” or “Man in the Mirror,” but when he performed those songs he fully inhabited them and made them his own, and they feel like Michael Jackson songs to me, even though he didn’t write them. The ideas they express, the way they express them, the instrumentation, that voice – it all comes together for me and says “Michael Jackson.” (I read somewhere that “Man in the Mirror” was the most watched video on YouTube in the weeks after he died, so apparently a lot of people see it as an essential Michael Jackson song.) And I don’t feel that way about the Michael version of “Hollywood Tonight.” That may sound odd since he wrote “Hollywood Tonight” and didn’t write “Man in the Mirror,” but for me it’s a matter of his vision and his aesthetic, and wanting to know if a song fits his vision and his aesthetic.

      If it were just “Hollywood Tonight,” I wouldn’t be pressing this issue so hard. However, there are reports of more than 200 unreleased songs in the vaults, so it is very possible that there could be more albums released after his death than while he was alive. Just think about that. And what will that flood of posthumous music do to his legacy? Will it enhance it, or will it muddy the water about what a Michael Jackson song sounds like, what it means, and what it represents? Those are huge questions, and I think that’s what has been struggling with.

      I believe it’s crucially important to consider Michael Jackson’s legacy when thinking about the posthumous music because I believe his music will be around for a long time. Do you realize it’s been 50 years since the Beatles began recording? Wow. People will be listening to Michael Jackson’s music 100 years from now, and longer. And when those people 100 years from now look at a list of virtual albums, listed alphabetically on their virtual playing devices, they probably aren’t going to remember which ones were released while he was alive and which ones were released after he died. There could be people in the future who feel that one of the posthumous releases is their favorite Michael Jackson song. (Actually, there could be people who feel that way now.) So for a lot of different reasons, it’s very important that posthumous releases stay true to his vision and his aesthetic.

      Sorry for the long response, but I just wanted to clarify why this is so important to me.

      • Hi, Willa, thanks for the idea of the Annotated Lyrics tab–that is a such great idea!! This will get the ball rolling on getting the lyrics together, and the idea of having a place to comment on them is fabulous! Actually, after I read Destiny’s comment about contacting the Estate I was thinking of maybe writing them a letter. There is so much to do and archive for the future, and I agree we will be discussing MJ for 100s of years, and that is one reason why the archiving of the materials we have now, that may be uncollected or scattered, needs to get started. I am so looking forward to your Annotated Lyrics tab and thank you for discussing the ideas we came up with and putting them into action. YAY!!!

        Thanks too for explaining and amplifying your concerns about posthumous releases. I have a better understanding now of your take on this. I agree that in future people may have a favorite MJ song that is actually a posthumous song. For example, I love ‘Don’t Walk Away’–to me, it is real and heartbreaking and very MJ. On the other hand, we have to be careful about deciding what is and is not MJ–for example, I myself do not like ‘2000 watts’ and don’t see it as an MJ song, even though he ‘signed off on it’ as you say.

        I think it’s clear that MJ did not ‘sign off’ on either the bridge in HT or the bridge in ‘Monster,’ b/c they were written after he passed so he could not have. However, people can have different opinions about whether they work or don’t. The Monster bridge is generally seen as working well. Also, remember we are only talking about HT in the album, that bridge was taken out of the single (maybe b/c the Estate responded to criticisms?).

        Your concerns about his legacy and whether people will forget to distinguish between MJ releases while he was alive and MJ releases posthumously are interesting. Personally, I think his legacy is established by songs we know he performed over and over–they are part of his ‘cannon’–such as ‘Earth Song,” ‘Man in the Mirror, Heal the World, Billy Jean, Jam, and so on. I think the songs that he performed will always have a central place in his cannon–always–b/c he brought them alive on stage with his singing, dancing, production, improvisations. The short films he made while alive will be a central part of his cannon too. So personally, I am not concerned about the posthumous releases taking over his legacy BUT I agree so much that care needs to be taken that the posthumous releases meet the standard of excellence, as much as humanly possible, that MJ set.

        If people in the future can’t remember what were MJ releases in his lifetime and what were posthumous releases, I hope MJ’s ghost will tap them on the side of the head, the way the mother in Ghosts was tapped by the invisible hand!

        • whoops–just felt MJ’s tap on the side of MY head–‘don’t walk away’ is on Invincible! oy veh!

  26. “You know, Michael Jackson can really take you places if you let him, but you have to be willing to let him take you there.”

    I actually sort of disagree with that statement. It’s not even, so much, about being willing. You are taken without thought; which, is one of the most capturing things about his music. What I’m trying to say is that those words–those beats–those moves–and that smile– get into your body and take over in the form of the inability to move, prolonged staring, increased heart-rate, goosebumps, etc. and leave an impression that truly moves you and leaves a mark. And its the most beautiful feeling to be taken there– willingly or not.

  27. @ twinlakesprairie – That performance was the same for me. I saw it several months ago, and for me it is one of the most pure and stunning (the perfect word) performances I have seen.

    On another subject related to this particular blog, I just spent some time with a remarkable MJ fan of thirty years who does not speak one word of English. I found myself pondering what it was like for her to listen to his music, the lyrics, attend his concerts (27!) and not understand one word of his lyrics, along with, I am sure, millions of other non-english speaking fans. After reading this blog I am convinced that he had the unique ability of conveying all the emotion, sincereity and beauty of his lyrics through his voice, dance, body and ultimately his love. It is such a testament to his brilliance and purity. I would love to see this discussed this more thoroughly on your blog, the idea that he could convey the meaning of his music through his voice to even those that did not understand his lyrics.

  28. Another nice topic you all brought forth here. But I have one question, why hasn’t anyone mentioned that Michael Jackson’s song “Scared of the Moon” was inspired by Brooke Shields’ half sister being scared of the moon and not Brooke?

    According to Joe Vogel’s book “Man in the Music” the song “Scared of the Moon” was written by Michael after a conversation with Brooke Shields, where she told him that her half sister used to be terrified of the moon at night. Michael was surprised by this and said, “You can imagine being scared of something as beautiful as the moon.”

    Were you all aware of what Joe Vogel said in his book when you had this conversation, and you only went by what fans said? And can you tell me what you think about this? Thank you.

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