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.