The Groove of Your Walk, Your Talk

Willa:  This week Joie and I wanted to talk about the poetry of Michael Jackson’s lyrics, meaning the rhythmic and sound qualities of his words as well as their meaning, but we thought we needed a little professional help. Fortunately, we have an expert among us!

Bjørn Bojesen is a regular participant in the conversations here at the blogsite and the author of En Undersøgelse af Fænomenet Rim, which is currently in publication and will be available later this year. (For those of us who don’t speak Danish, I’m told that translates as A Survey of the Phenomenon of Rhyming.) Bjørn has an M.A. degree in Scandinavian studies with a focus on Nordic languages and literature, and he wrote his master’s thesis on rhyming – in fact, his master’s thesis was the basis of his book. And he helped straighten out a complicated question in the comments a few weeks ago, which was very appreciated by many of us.

Unfortunately, Joie wasn’t able to join us after all, but thank you so much for joining me, Bjørn!

Bjørn:  Thanks for inviting me to this discussion, Willa!  It’s quite an honour.

Willa:  Oh Bjørn, I am so excited and grateful to have you here! I’ve been fascinated by the poetry of Michael Jackson’s lyrics for a long time, and I’m so eager to hear your thoughts. So how did you first become interested in rhyming?

Bjørn:  Well, I’ve always had this interest in words and images. As a teenager I wrote a lot of poems, and spent hours trying to make great rhymes. During my final years at the university, I tried to find a publisher for some of my poems. When that failed, I started to think about my use of rhymes. Most modern poetry I found in bookstores had no rhymes at all. But whenever I turned on the radio, all the rappers and pop singers were rhyming, including Michael Jackson… Had the rhymes left the books only to find a new home in music? I shared my thoughts with a friend, and she agreed it would be an interesting subject for my upcoming thesis.

Willa:  That’s true, Bjørn. I hadn’t thought about those two shifts together before but you’re right – rhyming and other word play are very important elements of rap, while modern poetry almost seems to be in revolt against rhyming, or at least against regular rhyme schemes, as if they’re too constraining. And that’s interesting that you phrase that as a migration:  “Had the rhymes left the books only to find a new home in music?” It’s intriguing to think about it that way.

So this use of rhyming in music is one of the things I’d like to talk with you about. When Joie and I first started bouncing around the idea for this post, I immediately thought of a comment you posted last spring about “The Way You Make Me Feel”:

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.’

I love how you focus on the sound qualities of that first line, especially since I’ve always been struck by the wonderful cadence of that line – the rocking horse rhythm of the three trochees followed by the three strong beats at the end. I don’t quite know how to express that cadence in print, but it’s kind of like this: DUM DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da DUM DUM DUM. So I was wondering if we could start by talking about this line a little more.

Bjørn:  What’s great about this line is the way the sounds contribute to the forward movement of the song. One of the prime functions of rhymes is to create suspense and relief. Let me briefly jump to another song – “She’s Out of My Life.” Had Jackson stopped singing right after “and it cuts like a knife,” it would indeed have cut like one! But fortunately he goes on to “she’s out of my life,” and we as listeners are appeased – not just because of the completion of meaning, but also because of the sonic relief provided by the rhyme knife : life. Please note the way I write rhymes with a colon, it’s a custom I’ve borrowed from German literature.

Willa:  Oh, I like that. I’ll try to use that format too.

Bjørn:  So – we’re expecting a rhyme, and after some painful seconds of waiting we’re rewarded! Now, this is the game of traditional written poetry, and of ballads written in that vein.

Willa:  In analyzing English poetry, we call that “closure” – that feeling of resolution after a period of suspense – and it’s amazing how powerful it is. When the syntax and the meter and the meaning and the rhyme all come together and coincide in a perfect conclusion, it gives a very strong sense of closure, and it just feels right to us as listeners.

A lot of modern poetry actively denies closure and thwarts that feeling of well-being it provides. And then there are poets like Emily Dickinson, for example, who like to play with it. She’ll suggest a rhyme scheme and then throw in some slant rhymes so everything just feels a little bit off somehow. It’s surprising how unsettling that can be, and how reassuring it feels when, as you said, Bjørn, “after some painful seconds of waiting we’re rewarded” with a perfect rhyme and a sense of closure. It’s interesting to think about Michael Jackson’s lyrics in terms of using rhyme to set up expectations, and hold them in suspense, and then resolve them.

Bjørn:  Yes, I agree with that! You know, the great thing about song lyrics is that they’re not something you read in a book. A song is an organic whole, and rhymes and rhyme-like figures may pop up anywhere. You’re not confined to the visual endings of lines or the blank spaces between words. When we as listeners pick “The Way You Make Me Feel” and push the Play button, we’re not expecting “poetry” in the literary sense. But then Jackson literally assaults us with a string of rhymes – on top of “rocking horse rhythms” and “strong beats,” as you so fittingly describe it, Willa! Because of the intensity of his deliverance, a lot of seemingly random sonic similarities take on the function of rhymes: You’ve got the H- H- H- rhyme (which is an alliteration, just like in Old English poetry), you’ve got the assonance or “syllable rhyme” hey : ba– in “Hey … baby” … Depending on the scrutiny of your analysis, you could even say there’s an internal rhyme in “pretty” (pree : tee).

The point is, this patchwork of sounds echoing one another creates a lot of tension and drive! The very first word, “hey,” is echoed both in “baby” and “high” (and “heels”). Furthermore, as I indicated in that comment, “high” is the dark twin of “hey.” Up to that point, we’ve been tripping on light vowels: ey – e – e – ey – e – e – (eh). “High” is like a double marker: It brings darker vowels into the game, as a well as a remarkable change in the meaning of the lyrics….

Willa:  That is so interesting, Bjørn! Especially how you say that it creates tension and drive – I hadn’t thought about it that way before. And it’s interesting to then look at the end rhymes of that first verse also. Here’s the first couplet:

Hey pretty baby with the high heels on
You give me fever like I’ve never, ever known

The end words have a slant rhyme (on : known) – a not-quite-right rhyme – and we as listeners feel that at some level of consciousness, and feel that something isn’t quite right. But as the verse progresses, we’re given the satisfying feeling of true rhymes:

You’re just a product of loveliness
I like the groove of your walk, your talk, your dress
I feel your fever from miles aroun’
I’ll pick you up in my car and we’ll paint the town

The slight unease of the slant rhyme on : known gives way to the comfort of -ness : dress and aroun’ : town. And that parallels the increasing joy he feels at getting to know this young woman – or the excitement and anticipation of getting to know her.

Bjørn: I really like what you say about the end rhymes of that strophe, Willa! After that perfect first line, on : known is a bit jarring! It’s like a sonic illustration of that “fever” he’s singing about. As he also points out in “You Rock My World,” longing and desire often bring with them a mixed sense of “happiness and pain.”

Willa:  Exactly! Getting to know someone new is exciting, but it can be unsettling as well – just like that slightly off rhyme. But then he becomes more comfortable with the idea, and that’s paralleled by the comfort of the true rhymes in those later lines.

But if we go back and look at how the first line leads into the rest of the song, I’m curious what you meant, Bjørn, when you said, “’High’ is like a double marker: It brings darker vowels into the game, as a well as a remarkable change in the meaning of the lyrics.” I see a rising sense of joy and well-being, but perhaps you see something else happening with those “darker vowels”?

Bjørn:  I definitely do! But I must warn you: When analyzing sounds it’s all too easy to get carried away! In poetry, and by extension song lyrics, a lot of beautiful or interesting patterns appear out of pure coincidence or intuition. I don’t think Michael Jackson ever thought “let’s go for darker vowels here.” But he had a great feeling for words, and the word “high” certainly works on a sonic as well as a narrative level.

I think most people would agree “Hey pretty baby” sounds pretty trivial. What do you mean by calling someone “baby”? You could say it out of pure love and affection, as it is often done. However, I also think it contains an element of belittling the other person, especially if that person is an adult. That’s where Jackson gives his “pretty baby” high heels on. In that very instant the power balance is turned upside-down! She goes from “pretty baby” to a powerful woman who looms large above him on her high heels and gives him fever! And that change coincides with the light e sounds giving way to the dark sound of “high.” I almost hear her stamping her right heel angrily at that beat! Just one tiny detail in the large tapestry of the song, but it’s a brilliant detail.

There’s some similar juggling going on in “You’re just a product …” – hey, what kind of sexism is that!  But then comes “of loveliness,” and we as listeners go straight from degrading consumerism to divinity. (And from muddy o and u sounds to the clear ee of “loveliness.”)

Willa:  That’s so interesting, Bjørn, and I love the way you highlight the sound of the lyrics and how those sounds reinforce the meaning and emotional impact of his words – though I agree it’s possible to get “carried away,” as you say. Joie and I have talked about that a number of times – about the problem of artist’s intent, and how most of the time we can’t know how deliberate an artist was when creating a work. Was it a conscious decision, or was it an intuitive sense of what worked best?  And does it matter whether it was created consciously or not?  The result is the same either way….

So I was hoping we could apply this approach to other songs as well. For example, Joie and I talked about “Tabloid Junkie” a few weeks ago, and I was struck by the sound of the words in the first verse:

Speculate to break the one you hate
Circulate the lie you confiscate
Assassinate and mutilate
It’s the hounding media, in hysteria

The dominant sound in this verse is the repeated -ate at the end of speculate, circulate, confiscate, assassinate, mutilate, and especially hate. To me, “hate” is the controlling word – it’s in a very prominent position at the end of the first line – and it just feels to me like this verse echoes with “hate,” in both sound and meaning.

Bjørn:  “Tabloid Junkie” certainly is an interesting song. It’s like a gold mine of rhymes! In the verse you mention, Michael Jackson is singing in a way that is very close to rapping. There is hardly any melody, and the beat is almost unbearably tense…. The rhymes contribute to that feeling. They follow each other so fast that there isn’t much room left to feel the sense of relief that rhymes usually provide. Instead, they evoke a feeling of claustrophobia. It’s like being stuck in an echo chamber.

Willa:  Oh, interesting! You’re right, that’s exactly how those lines feel to me – “almost unbearably tense” and claustrophobic, as you say, and the echoing rhymes are coming fast and furious, aren’t they?  But I’d never thought about what it was exactly that made those lines so unsettling. Interesting.

Bjørn:  In a book there can be several lines of text between the two halves of an end rhyme. In music, there are so many sounds that compete for our attention… Especially in rhythmic music, the rhymes have to be more immediate. Furthermore, since there are really no lines in music, only beats and breaks, rhymes between syllables are often more important than rhymes between whole words. An assonance like night : strike would ruin one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but it works just fine in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Because the important thing in the makeup of that song is the rhyme ni- : stri-.

What I want to say with all this is that Jackson understood the nature of song rhyming. He had a rapper’s ear for finding echoing syllables, and he loved cramming his lines with as many rhymes as he could. (Just think about “You give me fever like I’ve never, ever known” in the song we discussed above.) So, to your list of “hate” rhymes I’d even add the brea– of “break.” And I agree that they all somehow highlight the word “hate.” All the other words you mention are “advanced” words borrowed from Latin. “Hate” is a basic English word, and a basic notion. In the fourth line the word is even echoed by the alliteration hounding : hysteria – but now I might be stretching this too far!

Willa:  I don’t think so – I feel the alliteration of hounding : hysteria pretty strongly, and I think it does reinforce the echoing sound of “hate” in that first verse.

So I’m intrigued that you see a difference between how rhyme functions in rap and in traditional poetry. Is that primarily because, with rap, we’re usually hearing it and with traditional poetry we’re often reading it? Or is it because we approach rap as music and approach poetry as literature? Or is there some other reason?

Bjørn: The difference lies in the way the art is created. Rhyming as a device has oral origins. Many places in Africa, there are still groups of people that sing together with a “song leader” starting off and the rest of the chorus replying. This way of singing is called “call and response,” and that’s probably the origin of the end rhyme. The response is immediate, there’s no time to ponder. All the cross-rhyming schemes of poetry – from sonnets to limericks – are the result of a poet sitting in front of a piece of paper with time enough to “think twice,” to use a quote from “Billie Jean”! The composition of “paper poetry” is very often a kind of intellectual play: “Hmm, maybe I should make the 3rd line rhyme with the 7th…” Rapping – especially when improvised, as in rap battles – reaches back to the roots. It does not try to follow a preconceived scheme – instead, it’s like a celebration of words that just happen to sound similar.

Of course, as you say, we also judge it differently because it’s boxed as “music.” However, reading and (music) listening are indeed different experiences. When you read, you’ve got just the sounds of the words in front of you. You’ve got the time to wait for a rhyme that appears several lines later. In a song, the trombone, the flute, the drum solo are going to divert your attention long before that… Because of all these other sounds, rhymes in songs also don’t have to be “pure” in the same way as in written poetry (where all your focus is on the words). Just listen to the rap song “Let’s Get Retarded,” composed by Jackson’s friend, of the Black Eyed Peas. Notice how closely the rhymes follow each other, and how “slant” they look when you capture them in writing:

In this context, there’s no disrespect
So when I bust my rhyme
You break yo necks
We got 5 minutes for this to disconnect
From all intellect and let the rhythm effect

Willa: Those lyrics are fascinating, aren’t they? They actually seem to be describing the difference between composing poetry and composing lyrics, just as you described it, Bjørn. Composing a poem with a regular rhyme scheme is an act of writing words on paper, unless we go back to its ancient roots in the oral tradition, and it tends to be an intellectual exercise, while composing rap lyrics seems to be more like music improvisation – as says, “when I bust my rhyme” he wants “to disconnect / From all intellect and let the rhythm effect.”

But I wonder if Michael Jackson somehow occupies a middle ground? He was very aware of the sound of words and generally composed his songs orally, with a tape recorder. But he was also a meticulous craftsman who wrote and revised his lyrics on paper. There are many examples of this. So he seems to have composed his lyrics with the double consciousness of a poet and a musician.

Bjørn: Yes, I agree with that! Jackson had both dimensions in mind. You see that in “Little Susie.” As was pointed out on this blog in February, Jackson took a cross-rhyming Thomas Cook verse and rewrote it as a verse rhyming in couplets (which works better with the melody). He was also aware that a melody can overrule the word accents of the spoken language. So, in the song “Free” from the Bad 25 bonus tracks, he feels indeed “Free, free like the wind blow/To fly away just like the sparrow” – and to rhyme in a way that would not have worked very well without the melody.

In “Tabloid Junkie” I think Michael Jackson made an interesting experiment which somehow bridges the gap between “improvisational rap” and “schemed poetry.” I’m thinking about the lines “They say he’s homosexual” and “She’s blonde and she’s bisexual.” They form a kind of “super-rhyme” that ties the whole song together, leading up to the final “You’re so damn disrespectable.” After so many interruptions, so many verses and musical sounds, it still works as a very strong rhyme. That says something about Jackson’s power – both as a singer and a lyricist.

Willa:  That is so interesting, Bjørn!  You’re right, those three lines are very powerful and sonically linked, especially since he abruptly stops the music and other background sounds during them, so it’s like they’re spoken to a suddenly silent room, as it were. So they do feel like they form a rhyme, even though they occur more than a minute apart. (The first one is about 1:30 minutes in, the second is at 2:50, and the third is at the very end, at 4:30.) So is that what you mean by a “super-rhyme” – a rhyme that spans the entire song?

Bjørn:  Exactly. Those were the words I was looking for, Willa! “A rhyme that spans the entire song”… I can’t think of a poetry book achieving anything similar. Usually, the “rhyme effect” disappears after a few lines. By contrasting music and silence, Jackson manages to create a rhyme spanning the largest amount of time and distractions that I’m aware of…

Willa:  That’s really interesting. So Bjørn, I was wondering if we could talk about another Michael Jackson song that, quite frankly, I’ve been kind of obsessed with lately: “You are My Life.” It doesn’t have a regular rhyme scheme, but it does use repeated sounds in a very complex way – maybe more like you were describing with rap than traditional poetry? I’m especially interested in how he uses internal vowel sounds. If we look at the first verse, we find it doesn’t rhyme, which is unusual, but it is dominated by long O sounds: alone, no one, own, lonely.

Once all alone
I was lost
In a world of strangers
No one to trust
On my own
I was lonely

These O sounds are formed at the back of the mouth, back near the throat, and they’re primal kinds of sounds. If you listen just to the sounds of this verse and don’t really think about the meaning of the words, you can still get a sense of his emotional state. It’s almost like he’s moaning:  O … O … O … O. And of course, that fits the meaning of this verse, so the texture and coloring of the word sounds help convey the meaning of the words – specifically, the sorrow he feels at being so isolated and alone, especially after the 1993 allegations hit.

Bjørn: O, that’s interesting! It reminds me of the essay “The Philosophy of Composition” by Edgar Allan Poe (1846). In this essay Poe links the O sounds to melancholia. In English, there are a lot of “O” words denoting a sense of loss, so I think that’s why Poe got the idea: old, gone, done, lore, before, forlorn, lost, loss, sorrow, mourning… Poe’s most famous poem, “The Raven,” exploits this:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door –
Only this, and nothing more.”

And we all know that Jackson liked Poe!

Willa:  Wow, Bjørn, I love that connection to Poe! And you’re right – that’s exactly the idea I was trying to get at. And that reminds me – there’s another Poe poem, “The Bells,” that ties in to this discussion really well also, I think. In “The Bells,” each stanza emphasizes a different sound to create the effect of different kinds of bells, both the sounds made by those bells as well as the emotions they evoke: the gaiety of sleigh bells, the hopeful promise of wedding bells, the sudden jerk of alarm bells, the mournful tolling of big iron bells.

And Michael Jackson does the exact same thing in “You are My Life,” with each verse dominated by a different vowel sound. Here’s the second verse:

You suddenly appeared
It was cloudy before
Now it’s all clear
You took away the fear
And you brought me 
Back to the light

So there are some rhymes, or slant rhymes, in appeared, clear, fear, me, but it’s irregular. It’s not a regular rhyme scheme like AA BB CC or AB AB CC. Importantly, the dominant sound is long E, which is pronounced at the front of the mouth and has a much brighter sound than the long O of the first verse, and again that fits the meaning of the song. In this verse, he’s talking about the birth of his children and what that’s meant to him, and how they’ve helped him deal with that dark time. There aren’t any long Os in this verse, though there is something kind of similar:  the OR sound in “before.” Interestingly, this word refers back to the first verse – “it was cloudy before” – so again, the sounds of the words reinforce their meaning.

Bjørn: You’re right that the upfront EE sound is much brighter than the various sounds represented by the letter O. Michael Jackson had been experimenting with vowel qualities from a very young age. Just think about Jackson 5 songs like “Got To Be There.” At one point he sings the word “me” so loud and clear I can’t believe my own ears: meeeeeeeeeeeeee!  In other songs, he lets other vowels “explode” too, as in “Ain’t No Sunshine” (suuuuuuuuuuun) and the much later “You are Not Alone” (alooooooooooooooooone). But still, nothing beats the clearness of the EE sound (which is usually spelt “I” in languages other than English). And in that second verse of “You are My Life” it does seem to indicate a shift in meaning (much like the “high heels” we discussed above). I think the rhymes add to that – even if they don’t follow a scheme. Rhyming can be great fun. Besides just transferring a piece of information from A to B, you allow yourself to play with the very shape of your message! So, the joy of the “you” appearing makes Jackson rhyme!

By the way, are you sure he wrote this song about his children? I always heard this as a love song from a husband to a wife… Most of the metaphors are in the singular, like the classical “You are the sun” (not “You are the suns”!) One of the first times I was listening to this song, in a moment of distraction I even misheard the recurring theme as “You are my wife”!

Willa:  That’s funny! And actually, no, now that you mention it, I’m not sure. That’s just how I’ve always thought about it – maybe because of the music box feeling, especially in the opening. It just sounds like a kid’s song to me. We need Joie – I bet she’d know something about that. But I have to admit, now I feel the urge to listen to it again as a romance and see how it feels that way…

But I love what you just said, Bjørn, that “Rhyming can be great fun. Besides just transferring a piece of information … you allow yourself to play with the very shape of your message!” I see that playfulness throughout Michael Jackson’s work – a poet’s love of words and the joy of playing with the sounds of words, as well as a very skillful use of words for both sound and meaning. For example, the second verse that we were just talking about ends with the long I sound of “light,” which leads beautifully into the chorus:

You are the sun
You make me shine
More like the stars
That twinkle at night
You are the moon
That glows in my heart
You’re my daytime 
My nighttime
My world
You are my life

The chorus is really interesting, I think. When looking at poetry and traditional song lyrics – as opposed to rap, as you described, Bjørn – we tend to focus on the sounds at the end of each line, and in the chorus that position is dominated by long I sounds:  shine, night, daytime, nighttime, and the double beat at the end, my life. To me, long I feels like a very bright sound, which again fits the meaning of the words, and there are more and more of them as the chorus progresses. The ending of the chorus is full of them: of the final 12 syllables, 8 have a long I sound.

Bjørn: Well, the English long I is essentially a diphthong or vowel glide. It starts as an “AH” sound then glides into an “E” finish. Many English-speakers are not very conscious about this, since it’s often spelt as a single letter. Spanish has a similar sound, but there it’s written so you can clearly see the two parts: ay (¡Ay, caramba!) So, as the Spanish spelling illustrates, long I is both a very dark and, as you said, a very bright sound. I hope I don’t come across as having a fetish for high heels now, but I have to drag them into the discussion once again! In the first line of “The Way You Make Me Feel,” what matters is clearly the dark quality of “high.” (It contrasts with all those bright E sounds.) He might just as well have sung Hey pretty baby with the HAH heels on. But you might be right that in this new context, it’s the finish of the “double sound” that shines…

Willa:  That is so interesting, Bjørn!  Because I see that idea of a “double sound” – and a double meaning – throughout the chorus. There are all those long I sounds but there are also some guttural, back-of-the mouth sounds (you, moon, you’re, more, glows) especially at the beginning of the line. So it’s not all light, and the lyrics reinforce this. He’s not in a place of endless sunshine – in fact, there are more nighttime than daytime images in the chorus, which is unexpected. What he seems to be saying is that he hasn’t left the darkness – the allegations are still there, and he’s still in a very dark time – but his children (or maybe a romantic partner?) have helped him see sources of light within the darkness: the moon, the stars. It’s almost like he suggests the metaphor of “the sun” (“You are the sun”) but then decides that’s not quite right – he’s not in daylight – so he revises that metaphor and says “more like the stars … the moon.”

Bjørn: I’m not sure I agree with you entirely on this, Willa. As someone very interested in religious matters, I guess MJ understood the yin-yang nature of things! There would be no light without shadows. That the lyricist is experiencing a “very dark time,” as you say, doesn’t mean that his nighttime images should be seen as a less desirable alternative to “broad daylight” (couldn’t resist quoting “Bad” here!) I remember Tom Mesereau telling how Jackson, during his trial, used to rise in the middle of the night to take a stroll underneath the stars. And as you and Joie have stressed several times (for instance in the “Best of Joy” discussion), MJ associated the moon with creativity. A modern Chinese poet (whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten!) wrote:

The dark night has given me
my dark eyes
With them I seek the light

Willa:  That’s a very good point, Bjørn. We see the moon as an emblem of creativity repeatedly in Michael Jackson’s work – for example, in Moonwalker and the Childhood video. And that suggests another layer of meaning – that he’s thankful to the “you” in this song because they’ve helped inspire his creativity.

So then the third verse is dominated by long A sounds – wake, day, face, pain – which are made toward the front of the mouth, but not as far forward as long E sounds. They’re less bright than long E but calmer, I think. And the fourth verse is dominated by short A sounds – understand, answer, am, man – which are not as far forward as long A sounds, so it’s continuing the progression of the third verse. Like the second verse, the fourth verse ends with a long I sound, leading back into the chorus.

Bjørn: Long A and short A are actually quite different sounds. Long A is a diphthong (just like long I), while short A is a single sound. Long A’s “true nature” is revealed by the way it’s spelt in the word hey! It’s like a “short E” trying to reach the “long E” (ken > cane > keen). So yes, it’s less bright. But I don’t know how to interpret the A’s of these verses. They somehow occupy a neutral position between the guttural U and O sounds and the clear EE sounds, so it’s hard to find any “symbolism” here…

Willa:  I agree that they’re kind of “a neutral position” – they feel calmer to me than the Os and EEs that came before….

Bjørn: But what’s most interesting to me is that Jackson seems to have patterned these lyrics on vowel themes rather than rhymes. That does sometimes happen in poetry, although it’s very rare! Right now all I can think of is a Danish children’s song about “Tre Små Kinesere” (Three Small Chinese). It is often sung as a “vowel game” where you’re only allowed to use one vowel at each singing. You start singing “Tra sma kanasara…,” continue with “Tre sme kenesere,” and so on.

So I guess Jackson’s playing with vowels might support your interpretation of “You are My Life” being a “kid’s song”…

Willa: There’s a similar song in English – a children’s song sung as a “vowel game,” as you said. It basically repeats the line “I like to eat, eat, eat / apples and bananas” over and over again, with a different vowel sound substituted in each time (“ay-pples and ba-nay-nays,” “ee-pples and ba-nee-nees,” …) And there does seem to be a strong sense of sound play in “You are My Life” as well.

I really see that in the bridge, which is very interesting in terms of long vowel sounds. I’ve highlighted some but not all of them:

You gave me strength when I wasn’t strong
You gave me hope when all hope was lost
You opened my eyes when I couldn’t see
Love was always here waiting for me

This progression is fascinating to me because of how these sounds are made. Here’s a diagram to help explain it:


Long U is made all the way at the back of the mouth, by the throat. Long O is just before it. As you mentioned earlier, Bjørn, Long I is a diphthong – a complex sound that’s left off of most vowel diagrams. But it basically starts in the middle of the mouth and moves to the front. Long A is almost at the front of the mouth, and long E is at the very front.  And the first three lines of this verse contain a series of short, one-syllable words that run through the vowel sounds from the back of the mouth to the front, almost like playing scales:




Bjørn: That’s interesting, Willa! I like the idea of “playing scales” on vowels (after all, as a vocalist, the human mouth was Michael Jackson’s most important musical instrument!) He isn’t just “tripping” on vowels here, he’s starting at the very back of the mouth and walking all the way to the front teeth… That gives these lines a very strong sense of release. It’s like both he and the listeners are allowed to take a deep breath, and then breathe out all the air!

Willa:  Oh, I hadn’t thought about it that way, Bjørn, but that’s fascinating!  I read an article a long time ago that talked about how, when we read poetry out loud, we re-create the breath of the poet. For example, the author looked at the line lengths of different poets, including Walt Whitman, and noticed that line lengths tend to get shorter as poets become older. So when we read aloud a poem from early in Walt Whitman’s career, we need to take big robust breaths of air like a young man, but when we read aloud a poem from late in his career, we tend to take the shallower, more frequent breath of an old man. In effect, Whitman directs our inhales and exhales and pauses, so we are breathing in precisely the same way he was when he wrote it more than a hundred years ago. It’s interesting to think that when we sing Michael Jackson’s songs, we are re-creating his breath also, and that he is, to some extent, directing our breath – almost breathing through us.

Bjørn: Now, that is fascinating! I’d really like to read that article. I think something similar happens when reading or listening. We all have an “inner voice” that helps us process the words. This mental voice actually has a physical influence on us – I’ve heard one of the techniques taught to achieve speed-reading consists in learning to inhibit the small muscular movements that tend to happen in our mouth and jaws whenever we read!

Willa:  Really?  Wow!  That’s interesting.

Bjørn: This is pure guesswork, but I like to think that the mere listening to a song would have an impact on our breath in one way or the other. I rarely “sing” MJ songs, but for me, a lot of them have this amazing power to change our mood and mind, and the thing you just said about re-creating his breathing pattern might be part of an explanation… (Not that I think he had divine powers, but he certainly expressed more energy and vitality than most of his contemporaries.)

Willa:  That is so interesting, Bjørn!  It’s kind of like musical meditation – after all, meditation is very focused on regulating the breath.

But getting back to the bridge, the two lines of the final couplet end with long E in a true rhyme – see : me – one of the few true rhymes in this song. Ending with a perfect couplet like this with a true rhyme is one strategy poets use to create a sense of closure, as we talked about earlier. But interestingly, Michael Jackson doesn’t end there. He returns to the chorus, singing it again and again in an increasingly urgent way.

So he gives us a brief moment of resolution in the final couplet of the bridge, but then he denies closure and emphasizes that his situation is not resolved.

Bjørn: Hm, Willa, you’ve given me some food for thought here! You’re right, there is no closure in the chorus, it’s more like a confusing sea of voices. This is something we know from other MJ songs – the reporters in the intro to “Tabloid Junkie” spring to mind. I would argue, however, that the final “You are my life” is an excellent closure to the song as a whole.

Willa:  Really? Because as a listener, I feel much calmer and more settled before the final choruses – they really get me all stirred up. That’s what I meant by denying closure, though you’re right – that final line does resolve things somewhat.

Bjørn:  Yes, imagine the state he would’ve left us in without that final line! After all, he does cater to our need for decent endings, even if he likes to stir things up a bit in the meantime.

Very well. In a blog post we have to give the readers a sense of closure too! I’d like to sum up what characterizes Michael Jackson as a lyricist:

• a keen ear for rhymes and sounds in general
• a rapper’s skill at improvisation combined with the afterthought of a poet
• a clever use of sounds to convey feelings
• a use of sounds and wordplay to entertain (and not just to transfer information)
• a love of internal rhymes

Did you know, Willa, a decade ago I was trying to translate some Michael Jackson songs to Esperanto. Those internal rhymes were quite a headache! How do you transfer “As he came in through the win-dow / it was the sound-of / a crescen-do” (“Smooth Criminal”) to another language? Or “She was more like a beauty-queen from a movie scene…” (“Billie Jean”)?

Willa:  Wow, I bet that was a challenge! How did it work out? Do you still have them? I’d love to see them!

Bjørn:  Unfortunately, I had to give up on “Smooth Criminal,” and “Billie Jean” almost got a similar fate. But then, the very day Michael Jackson was remembered at the Staples Center, I participated in a culture festival in Denmark. A teenage rock group heard of my translation attempts, and asked me to finish “Billie Jean”! So, I sat down, and tried to imagine how it would have sounded like if Michael Jackson had sung it in Esperanto. Later in the festival, I handed the band my finished translation, and after a number of rehearsals, the band was able to enter the stage, with a very young female singer, in a clear but also timid voice, belting out this:

Ŝi aspektis belec-reĝin’ de fikcia kin’
Mi pardonpetis, sed kial vi miiin nomas la li
Kies danc’ iros ek en la rond’
Ŝi diras mi estas li
Kies danc’ iros ek en la rond’
Ŝi al mi nomis sin Bili Ĝin, kaŭzo de fascin’
Ĉar nun okulis la kapoj siiin-image la li
Kies danc’ iros ek en la rond’
Kunuloj ĉiam diris, vin gardu en la far’
Ne rompu korojn de la knabinar’
Kaj panjo ĉiam diris, vin gardu en la am’
Vin gardu en la far’, ĉar mensogoj iĝos ver’
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Ŝi simple diras ke mi estas la li
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ŝi diras mi estas li
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Dum tago-nokta kvardek’
Helpis ŝin la leĝ’
Sed kiu daŭre kapablas kontraŭi
Ŝian planaron
Ĉar ni dancis sur la plank’, en la rond, kara!
Do mi konsilas vin tre, memoru ke pensu vi re
(Pensu re!)
Laŭ ŝi ni dancis ĝis horo tri
Ŝia vid’ al mi
Ŝi montris foton, karino kriis
Liaj okuloj tiel miis
Ĉu ni dancu sur la plank’, en la rond’, kara!
Kunuloj ĉiam diris, vin gardu en la far’
Ne rompu korojn de la knabinar’
(Ne rompu korojn)
Sed vi venis ĉi-apuden
Ekis dolĉparfumo flui
Ĉi okazis tre tro tuj
Ŝi min vokis al loĝuj’
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Ŝi simple diras ke mi estas la li
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ne, ne, ne, ne, ne
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Ŝi simple diras ke mi estas la li
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ne, ne
Ŝi diras mi estas li
(ho, kara)
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ŝi diras mi estas li
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ne, ne, ne
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Ŝi simple diras ke mi estas la li
(Vi scias kion vi faris, kara)
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ne, ne, ne, ne
Ŝi diras mi estas li
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ŝi diras mi estas li
Vi scias kion vi faris
Ŝi diras li mia fil’
Rompas mian koron, kara!
Ŝi diras mi estas li
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas

Willa:  That’s wonderful, Bjørn! Thank you so much for sharing your version of “Bili Ĝin” with us, and for joining me today. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.

(“Bili Ĝin”, translation © Bjørn A. Bojesen)

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 April 18, 2013, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 48 Comments.

  1. aldebaranredstar

    Thanks very much for this in-depth and fascinating discussion, Bjorn and Willa–I feel this is such an important topic and there’s so much to say about Michael’s understanding of sounds and words, and the way they create music and pooetry. I see him very much as a musician-poet, in the same way as, say, as Bob Dylan, and a ‘non-singing’ poet, such as Keats. One thing that seems pretty essential to his lyrics is ‘the beat’–the way the words are selected for rhythm or the way they fit into the beat of the music (and that gets us into meter). Frankly, if you look at the lyrics without knowing the music and the beat, it’s sometimes hard to see them as songs at all ( they seem more like the abstract, modern poetry that Bjorn was talking about). Sometimes, it seems he is running the words together in an unusual way to make them fit into the beat (in Billie Jean–I always have trouble getting the lines “For 40 days and 40 nights the law was on her side” into the beat of the song–but MJ can do it). I guess I am trying to say there’s depths and complexities here that are just being looked at, and thanks for uncovering these dimensions in this post.

    I like the idea that a rhyme or a phrase can run through the entire song, like a motif, and I see that in the line “I am the one” in Billie Jean–it runs through the entire song and has multiple meanings and shades of meanings. I tend to look at words for their meanings in terms of semantics but this is a whole new dimension to look at sounds, vowels, and the breath. Great!!

    • “I like the idea that a rhyme or a phrase can run through the entire song, like a motif, and I see that in the line ‘I am the one’ in Billie Jean–it runs through the entire song and has multiple meanings and shades of meanings.”

      Hi Aldebaran. I love that too, and to me it’s one of the trademark features of Michael Jackson’s work. “I am the one” is a great example. At first he’s not sure what Billie Jean means when she says he’s “the one” (“I said I don’t mind, but what do you mean I am the one?”) and then he’s proud that she’s chosen him as “the one” she wants to dance with (“Every head turned with eyes that dreamed of being the one”). But then in the chorus those words take on a more sinister meaning when he tells us she’s falsely accusing him of fathering her son (“She says I am the one, but the kid is not my son”).

      I see a similar redefinition of the word “beat” in “Beat It,” where it initially means to run away (“Don’t wanna see your face, you better disappear … So beat it”) and then violence (“They’ll kick you, then they’ll beat you”). But “beat” also refers to the “beat” of music, and as we see in both the lyrics and the video, the over-riding message of “Beat It” is that art and music are more powerful than violence – in other words, we see “how funky strong is your fight.” So by the end, “beat” means to be victorious in a way that doesn’t leave anyone feeling like a loser (because “No one wants to be defeated”). So just as a cancer survivor “beats” cancer, this young artist has found a way to “beat” the violence on the street.

      I see this kind of redefinition throughout Michael Jackson’s work, and I love it. I think that’s one reason I find Stranger in Moscow so moving – because of the way he redefines the meaning of the rain over the course of the video, from a metaphor of sorrow to a type of baptism and a source of spiritual renewal. That’s so beautiful and so powerful to me.

      • aldebaranredstar

        Hi, Willa, thanks for your comment on the multiple meanings in a single motif, and I agree that he is playing on the meanings of the words by putting them in different contexts and I love the play on “I am the one” and ‘beat it” that you discuss.

        As far as Billie Jean, when you look at the first line: “She was more like a beauty queen,” you see that Billie Jean and Beauty Queen are echoes of each other. The first words both start with ‘B,’ end in the long E, ee sound, have the same stress (/u), and Queen and Jean rhyme ( long E, ee).

        I love all the internal rhymes in BJ–beyond the “queen, Jean” rhymes, there’s “scene (in 2 contexts), mean, dream (ed), schemes, and being.” Also Beauty Queen is followed by Movie Scene, which are rhymes and repeats of the stress patterns and the ee sound.

        She was more (uu/)
        like a beauty queen (uu/u/)
        from a movie scene (uu/u/)

        Another group of internal rhymes concentrate on the long I sound (dipthong–ay): “I, eyes, lie, by, my, mine, cried, eyes, nights, side, advice, twice, right.”

        Then the line:
        She said I (uu/) this last sound is elongated and held–long I–dipthong ay)
        am the one ( uu/)
        Who would dance (uu/)
        On the floor (uu/)
        In the round (uu/)

        • That is so interesting, Aldebaran! I remember reading an interview with Quincy Jones where he said he was worried people would think about the tennis player Billie Jean King, who was very popular back then, so told Michael Jackson he should change her name – but Michael Jackson was insistent her name had to be Billie Jean. And when we look at your analysis, we can see why! No other name would “fit” that space – sonically or rhythmically – nearly so well.

        • Hi Aldebaranredstar!
          Yes, the internal rhymes in BJ are interesting.
          I actually hadn’t thought about the long group of long I rhymes… Thanks for pointing it out! (Obviously, a perfect translation of the song would not be possible.)

  2. Very interesting discussion, thank you!

    May I add my two cents? In “You Are My Life” I agree that the Os sounds like loneliness and moaning, Then I feel like the EE sound is the sound of sweetness. When you pronounce it, you stretch you lips a bit, like you do in a smile (and it’s also consonant to the word “sweet”), so it conveys the love and pleasure he feels in the company of his children. Then the long A sound in the 3rd verse is a soft sound transitioning to the short A which is an open sound. You open your mouth wider to produce it, and is symbolizes trust, opening up in front of his children, and his openness to life when he is with them. That’s how I feel it.

    I have to note that Michael didn’t write lyrics to “You Are My Life”. He allegedly changed “You are my love” to “You are my life” and that was the extent of his lyrical contribution to that song. Which doesn’t make it less beautiful in his delivery.

    • “I have to note that Michael didn’t write lyrics to ‘You Are My Life’. He allegedly changed ‘You are my love’ to ‘You are my life’ and that was the extent of his lyrical contribution to that song.”

      Hi Morinen. I’m glad you brought this up because it’s an important question. I know Randy Taraborrelli makes this claim in his biography. (Here’s a link.) But I have to say, I question it. In the liner notes for Invincible, Michael Jackson is listed as the lead songwriter of “You are My Life.” (What I mean is, his name comes first, and songwriters are generally listed by the extent of their contributions.) And this is entirely subjective, but to me, “You are My Life” just sounds like him – it sounds like his lyrics.

      btw, I’m intrigued by your ideas about the sounds of the different verses – for example, that the EE sound of the second verse (the verse where he begins talking to his children) suggests “sweetness.” That’s interesting.

      • aldebaranredstar

        Here is what Joe Vogel says in MITM: “YAML was the collaborative effort of some gifted songwriters–Babyface, Carole Bayer Sager, John McLain, and Jackson.” (242). I see what you are saying, Willa, about the credit to MJ coming first, and that’s an excellent point in favor of MJ writing a good chunk of the song. On the other hand, it seems there could be some question here. When I look at the lyrics, they don’t sound that much like the more complex lyrics that MJ tended to write. They sound to me more like lyrics from other songs that he recorded written by others, such as Heaven Can Wait, You are Not Alone, or even Why, which was given to the Three T’s and written by Babyface. It would be nice to know more definitely about this, and find out where RT got his info. Of course, it’s still a fantastic song as sung by MJ with all his intensity and feeling. BTW, it would be interesting to look at MJ’s treatment of works by others (like “Blame It on the Boogie”) and also his collaborative song-writing (some of the songs have lots of credits re various songwriters, including MJ).

        • aldebaranredstar

          Just to add that in terms of all the Beatle songs that MJ owned, he only chose one to cover–“Come Together.” And he did a wonderful version, making the song completely his own, which is not easy given the seemingly definitive stamp that the Beatles gave it.

        • Hi Aldebaran. I think I understand what you’re saying, and I agree it’s far from clear who contributed what – as is often true of collaborations. But to me, “You are My Life” is very much in the vein of “Speechless” or “The Lost Children,” two songs on Invincible that he apparently wrote on his own, and that also seem to have relatively simple lyrics.

          But I guess I would argue that the lyrics of “You are My Life” aren’t that simple. As we can see from the vowel progressions, there’s a lot more going on than may seem at first. And that’s just one small aspect. As with a lot of his work, everything fits together so well it seems simple, like a smooth round pebble, but when we take a closer look we see a complexity that wasn’t apparent at first – and the tremendous skill required to make something complicated seem simple and effortless. …

  3. This is a really interesting topic!
    I always liked the rhythm that Michael Jackson built into his lyrics, just like in Bjørn’s example from Smooth Criminal. I think it’s very obvious that Michael was a dancer, that he probably moved when he created the lyrics. I mean, you can dance to just singing “As he came in through the window / it was the sound of / a crescendo” without even hearing the music. You can dance to many of Michael’s songs in acapella versions. The acapella version of The Way You Make Me Feel is exceptional. Of course it has the finger snapping keeping the beat, but the words do their part too. I always loved that. How the delivery of the words are the rhythm in itself.

    Og jeg skal helt klart købe din bog, Bjørn! Hvornår kommer den ud?

    • Hej AP! Det ved jeg desværre ikke! Forlaget arbejder på sagen. Den bliver forhåbentligt udgivet i løbet af året.

    • @AP: ”I think it’s very obvious that Michael was a dancer, that he probably moved when he created the lyrics. I mean, you can dance to just singing “As he came in through the window / it was the sound of / a crescendo” without even hearing the music.”

      That’s a nice thought! 🙂

      As an aside, I’ve often wondered about the word ”crescendo” in this song. According to my dictionary, it means ”a gradual increase in loudness in a piece of music”.
      But as Michael Jackson sings the word, the music actually _decreases_ in loudness. Some kind of pun for music geeks?

      • LOL! Good observation Bjorn!

        It’s hard for me to tell if he meant to get softer or if it’s just that the pitch drops down. I love the way he is using he voice here, which is not much at all. He is making these short staccato notes with the consonants and using very little vocal sound on the vowels, almost a whisper. It sounds very rhythmic to me, more like drumming than singing. I understand MJ was a pretty decent drummer, which seems to inform both his singing and dancing.

        The mechanics of singing is all about the vowel sounds, which is why opera singers love to sing in Italian, a language that is all about the vowels. I just came across this YouTube the other day which I really enjoy. It’s Michael Jackson song, produced by MJ, but sung by a combination of three popular Japanese acts. Since I cannot understand Japanese, I can just enjoy the voices and the vowel sounds without attaching any meaning to them. I can also understand the intent of the song without the lyrics, which is a really fun exercise!

        The song starts at about 1:25 if you want to skip to it:

  4. Wow, grat post. Is a little bit hard to me, because I don’t understand nothing about poesy. But I loved this post.

    We have a children’s music here in Brazil with this game of vowels you spoke, Bjorn, “O Sapo Não Lava O Pé” , (The Frog Don’t Washes The FooT). It is like that:

    O sapo não lava o pé, não lava porque não quer, ele mora lá na lagoa e não lava o pé porque não quer, mas que chulé,

    and then,

    A sapa na lava a pá, na lava parca na cá, ala mara lá na lagá, na lava a pá parca na cá, mas ca chalá… and then

    E sepe ne leve e pé ele ne leve perque ne que , ele mere lé ne legue e ne leve e pé perque ne qué, me que chelé…. and go on

    (that’s so ridiculously funny!)

    I video in case of someone be curious:

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist, hahahah

    • aldebaranredstar

      Thanks, Daniela, for the cute video! In English we have similar nursery rhymes to teach the vowels sounds. If you haven’t heard Edward Reid’s more dramatic version of them on Britain’s Got Talent, here is a link to “Old Macdonald” and other nursery rhymes.

      I couldn’t resist either!!

    • I love this cartoon Daniela! Adorable! It’s a great example of how musical vowel sounds are and I’m so glad you posted this. Thanks!

      • it’s good that you like it. It’s very childish, but it was the best example I could remember. I’s very funny too, in my opinion. A frog with smelly feet ?! LOL.
        Now is caming to my mind lots of child songs, songs of my childhood, with that vowel sound and repetition of consonants too.

    • Daniela and Aldebaranredstar, I love those videos! Thanks for sharing them. Here’s one for “Apples and Bananas”:

      • I love it! It’s the same ideia of the “Frog Doesn’t Wash the Foot”, basically. Seems the whole world use the same expedient to teach childreen how to pronounce the vowels. 🙂

  5. “I’d like to sum up what characterizes Michael Jackson as a lyricist:

    • a clever use of sounds to convey feelings”
    One of the most incredible things in Mike’s song, to me, is the way he use more than words to transmit feeling. We can see it easy in Morphine – he used the sound to transmit the feeling of despair, agony, and, then, in the bridge, comes the feeling of relief caused by the drug. But, it is very fast, volatile, so he soon is back to the anguish and the music back to the unpleasant sound that hurts our ears. It’s genial.

    And talking about the moon being inspiration and bring good feeling, there is his poem from Dancing the Dream:

    Dance of Life
    I cannot escape the moon. Its soft beams push aside the curtains at night. I don’t even have to see it — a cool blue energy falls across my bed and I am up. I race down the dark hall and swing open the door, not to leave home but to go back into it. “Moon, I’m here!” I shout.
    “Good,” she replies. “Now give us a little dance.” But my body has started moving long before she says anything. When did it start? I can’t remember — my body has always been moving. Since childhood I have reacted to the moon this way, as her favorite lunatic, and not just hers. The stars draw me near, close enough so that I see through their twinkling act. They’re dancing, too, doing a soft molecular jiggle that makes my carbon atoms jump in time.With my arms flung wide, I head for the sea, which brings out another dance in me. Moon dancing is slow inside, and soft as blue shadows on the lawn. When the surf booms, I hear the heart of the earth, and the tempo picks up. I feel the dolphins leaping in the white foam, trying to fly, and almost flying when the waves curl high to the heavens. Their tails leave arcs of light as plankton glow in the waves. A school of minnows rises up, flashing silver in the moonlight like a new constellation.
    “Ah!” the sea says, “Now we’re gathering a crowd.”
    I run along the beach, catching waves with one foot and dodging them with the other. I hear faint popping sounds — a hundred panicky sand crabs are ducking into their holes, just in case. But I’m racing now, sometimes on my toes, sometimes running flat-out.I throw my head back and a swirling nebula says, “Fast now, twirl!”Grinning, ducking my head for balance, I start to spin as wildly as I can. This is my favorite dance, because it contains a secret. The faster I twirl, the more I am still inside. My dance is all motion without, all silence within. As much as I love to make music, it’s the unheard music that never dies. And silence is my real dance, though it never moves. It stands aside, my choreographer of grace, and blesses each finger and toe.
    I have forgotten the moon now and the sea and the dolphins, but I am in their joy more than ever. As far away as a star, as near as a grain of sand, the presence rises, shimmering with light. I could be in it forever, it is so loving and warm. But touch it once, and light shoots forth from the stillness. It quivers and thrills me, and I know my fate is to show others that this silence, this light, this blessing is my dance. I take this gift only to give it again. Quick, give!” says the light.
    As never before, I try to obey, inventing new steps, new gestures of joy. All at once I sense where I am, running back up the hill. The light in my bedroom is on. Seeing it brings me back down. I begin to feel my pounding heart, the drowsiness in my arms, the warm blood in my legs. My cells want to dance slower. “Can we walk a little?” they ask. “It’s been kind of wild.”
    “Sure.” I laugh, slowing to an easy amble.
    I turn the doorknob, panting lightly, glad to be tired. Crawling back into bed, I remember something that I always wonder at. They say that some of the stars that we see overhead aren’t really there. Their light takes millions of years to reach us, and all we are doing is looking into the past, into a bygone moment when those stars could still shine.
    “So what does a star do after it quits shining?” I ask myself. “Maybe it dies.”
    “Oh, no,” a voice in my head says. “A star can never die. It just turns into a smile and melts back into the cosmic music, the dance of life.” I like that thought, the last one I have before my eyes close. With a smile, I melt back into the music myself.

    From Dancing the Dream by Michael Jackson (published 1992)

  6. A bit out of my depth here, not being much of a poet, but certainly liking reading and listening to it – especially Michaels. Can’t think of anything better I have heard than Michael reciting Planet Earth himself – just magic. And what about that lovely poem discovered under the table – pure magic. Knowing that he did everything in a very considered way, I am sure that his lyrics were given as much care as was his music, and know that sometimes songs were written as poems first, as in Stranger in Moscow.

    AP said “How the delivery of the words are the rhythm in itself.” and I have often noticed in his songs how there seems often to be several things going on at once, and how the words often run counter to the music and visa versa.

  7. Thanks Willa and Bjorn for such an interesting and informative post. There are so many layers in MJ’s work, more and more to discover and appreciate. Thanks for being our guides.

    I have thought of MJ’s voice as being another musical instrument in his music — you don’t have to be able to understand every word to get the emotional message because the emotion is contained in the sounds of the words as well as the meanings of the words. So using a grammar of sounds echoes that idea — and is so interesting.

    So, we have the desire to communicate a complex set of emotions, then a beat, and the melody, and the instruments and instrumentation, and the voice and the vocal sounds — the rhythm and the rhymes — and the actual words….all working together, if an artist knows what she or he is doing.

    Also, like morinen says, the sounds connect to MJ’s body, his mouth, his tongue — the way he sings them I can almost feel the shape of his mouth as he is making the sounds. And then he also incorporates his breath and his heart beat and the beat boxing — and his music works on our bodies as well as our emotions — we can’t sit still, we feel sorrow, we feel joy.

    I think that great artists/poets/lyricists/musicians do this intuitively and associatively — sort of like great athletes don’t stop and think before they release the ball and make that impossible basket. Artists feel their way through what they are doing and we come along after them and analyze their work. What I mean is that having come up with one “ate” word like hate naturally leads to other “ate” words — and using words that sound like what they mean also is intuitive, but of course can also be deliberate.

    I started thinking about this intuitive vs. deliberate issue years ago in a renaissance drama course where we were analyzing a play about moral corruption and in which theme of corruption is underscored by imagery of decay — such as rotting food — and I came to believe that those images, in a great artist, frequently arise naturally. Sort of like unintentional puns. I mean they don’t have to wrack their brains to come up with this stuff, it flows….

    • “I think that great artists/poets/lyricists/musicians do this intuitively and associatively — sort of like great athletes don’t stop and think before they release the ball and make that impossible basket. Artists feel their way through what they are doing and we come along after them and analyze their work.”

      Hi Eleanor. This issue of artist’s intent – the “intuitive vs. deliberate issue” as you phrased it – is such a complicated question. I agree that Michael Jackson seemed to “feel” the words and the music in an embodied way, as you describe so well in your comment, and that we as an audience experience it in an embodied way. I think that’s part of what makes his work so powerful – it functions at both a verbal and pre-verbal level. And as with all great artists, I think a lot of his creative process was intuitive, and then “we come along after and analyze,” as you say. (That cracked me up. It feels painfully true to me.) And I think your analogy to athletes is a very apt one. In other words, I pretty much agree with everything you say.

      But at the same time, I’m very reluctant to call Michael Jackson’s work “intuitive” because the U.S. is still a very racist place, and there’s a long tradition here of saying that white artists and athletes are intelligent, and black artists and athletes are intuitive. It fits very closely with what we were talking about in last week’s post, where the privileged (generally upper class, white, male) are associated with the intellect, the life of the mind, the transcendent, and the less privileged (lower class, women, minorities) are associated with the body, manual labor, nature.

      And so we have announcers saying that white quarterbacks make good decisions, and black quarterbacks have good instincts. White basketball players make smart moves, while black basketball players move instinctively. White artists like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen are said to write clever, intelligent lyrics, while black artists like James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Prince are “natural” instinctive musicians. In other words, white artists are associated with the transcendent mind, and black artists are associated with the body and (animal) instincts.

      My impulse in the face of all this is to insist on the intelligence of Michael Jackson’s work. I see evidence of a brilliant mind everywhere I look in his work, and some of it seems so “deliberate” I can’t believe it was simply an instinctual reaction. (For example, the way Smooth Criminal evokes and rewrites I, the Jury and The Band Wagon must have been intentional at some level, I think. Or the way You Rock My World slyly criticizes racism in the music industry, playing off of On the Waterfront and Smooth Criminal along the way. Or think about the “intelligence” evident in Black or White or Scream or Stranger in Moscow or Ghosts or … )

      I try to emphasize Michael Jackson’s intelligence as an artist mainly because it’s true – he blows me away again and again – and because I think it enables us to see and appreciate additional depths in his work, but also to push back against some of the patronizing attitudes I see among critics who dismiss him as simply having good musical instincts.

      But I have to say, your thoughts last week about immanence and embracing the body (in other words, not privileging the mind over the body) have really influenced me, and have me questioning whether I should be so insistent on linking Michael Jackson with the intellect. As is often the case with him, I see him bridging that boundary, just as he transgressed so many other boundaries. So I guess now I want to say both – he is amazingly, breathtakingly intelligent, and he has wonderful instincts as an artist.

      • Right, Willa, I completely understand what you are saying and, as you conclude, I really don’t see it as an either/or situation. Michael Jackson’s brilliance, intelligence, etc. continues to blow me away every day as I listen to his music — but I think his genius included recognizing the value of the intuitive and letting it come though… being open to it .. and then having the wit to know what to do with it when it did. And, what came to him intuitively was drawn from his incredibly varied tastes and artistic interests. And, I think the video of the BJ demo shows just that, how he is feeling his way through the song and letting the rhythm and the cadence dictate to some degree the words. It reminds me of a comment he made about dancing –that the movement should arise from feeling the music — rather than from some superimposed counting — 1,2,3,1,2,3…

        The “charge” that blacks are intuitive while whites are smart or instinctive is similar to/ the same as the “charge” that women are emotional and men reasonable. If you get defensive about being intuitive/instinctual or emotional, you are buying into the value judgement that devalues these highly valuable characteristics — and, as you know, I don’t devalue them. And, I think it is a false dichotomy.

        I think MJ understood all this and highly valued his brilliant intuition and placed his intellect in its service. And, I also think he was acutely and painfully aware of the racial implications of the term “instinctive.” Accept it and love it.

  8. Gloria Christopher

    Dear Willa, on the subject of “lyrics” since the first time I heard “Billy Jean” I have wanted to know what the meaning of this is: dancing…on the floor in the round. What does that mean?
    ‘In the round”?

    • Can I answear it ? ´”In the round” means in the circle. Do you know what I mean? She says he will dance in the circle (with her, probably) in the center of the dance floor, in the center of attenctions.

      • Gloria Christopher

        Thank you, Daniela:
        That makes sense; I can picture that. I will pass that on to someone else who asked me what does that mean too.
        Lovingly, Gloria

  9. This post is utterly fascinating. I’ve been studying and thinking about it very carefully. Thank you so much Willa and Bjorn, this has been a real eye opener for me. Your insights are just amazing!

    So glad that Gloria mentioned Billie Jean, I love this early demo where you can hear Michael Jackson playing with the sound of words: It’s interesting to hear the process of how the lyric “who will dance on the floor in the round” was formed. He was just playing it, “when we go, in the reeee, in the rhyme” or something like that. The final version is so satisfying sonically and leaves you with this mysterious riddle of exactly what does he mean? (I love “The Civil Wars” cover of Billie Jean where the female singer smiles, bends the pitch and gives a knowing little glance that makes the sexual innuendo of their interpretation very explicit: ) Also in the early demo, listen to the huge difference between “I said don’t know” in the early demo and “I said don’t mind” in the final song. “Mind” is so much more musical than “know,” and I feel like Willa and Bjorn are shedding some light on why this is so.

    Bjorn, I’ll never listen to TWYMMF the same way again! And I’m trying to synthesize your insights with the musical harmony in the song. Remember in “This Is It” when MJ corrects Michael Bearden who is playing some chord substitutions in the introduction to this song? MJ stops him, insisting that he should not alter the chords in any way, making it clear that he wants it very simple – just two chords in each measure. This pattern just repeats over and over up until he creates some tension with “I feel your fever from miles around.” In the beginning, there is no harmonic tension building up towards a “cadence” – which I believe is the musical equivalent of what Willa defines as “closure.” (As an example, a musical cadence happens in “it cuts like a knife, she’s out of my life.” The chord progression ending on “my” absolutely insists on resolving to the chord on “life.”) The tension and release is in the words, not the harmony. “High” almost sounds like bluesy non-chord tone in the way it creates tension, but there’s no harmonic tension at all. Same thing on the first vowel of “love-liness.” It’s the emphasis on the vowel sound that creates the tension, not the pitch. The harmony is giving you the feeling of being satisfied, you’re not really wanting to go anywhere, you’re right where you want to be, with the “pretty baby with the high heels on.” Those high heels are definitely creating some tension though!

    Many years ago I remember hearing the lyricist of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” talk about how intuitive you have to be with vowels and musical intervals or the distance between notes. Because of that gigantic octave leap between “some” and “where” the original lyric had to be adjusted. I forget what the initial word was, but “where” was a much nicer sound on that high interval jump, so he changed it. I also think there is also something very musical about the “o” sound in “over,” though I wouldn’t know how to define it. But it does sound just right with that “o” sound.

    Would love to know more about light and dark vowels, if anyone has a good way of explaining it to musicians who don’t know much about these things!

    Congratulations Bjorn on the publication of your book and I am hoping the next one is about Michael Jackson’s lyrics and poetry!

    • ‘Bjorn, I’ll never listen to TWYMMF the same way again!’

      A little titbit on TWYMMF I didnt read it in the post while scanning through it.
      Michael recorded the song in response to a request from his mother Katherine to record a song with a shuffling rhythm. It worked out perfect with the lyrics. Here you see Kathrine enjoying the song she inspired backstage on the Bad tour.

      • Talking about the words he use in demos , I remembered Give in to Me demo. Lots people say he sings “love is a donut” at 1:33.

        I dont know, it just seems crazy to me. But, you know, maybe because I’m influencied by their opinion, I come to hear ” love is a donut” too. Maybe its just imagination.

        Well, Mike once said he love sugared donuts, and Joseph usde to took a package of sugared donuts to him , and left in the kitchen counter when he thought he was alone. And it was one of the only act of affection he got from Joseph. So… I don’t know. What you, guys, listen?

        • aldebaranredstar

          Daniela, thank you! I LOVE that demo–it’s even better than the ‘polished’ version IMO. And wow–he’s on fire! Michael, I surrender!

    • Wow, Ultravioletrae, thank you for the link and the interesting discussion! Like Eleanor, I listened to that demo and then went on to listen to another one, and it has me really intrigued now about how he wrote/created “Billie Jean.” Here’s the other demo:

      It’s fascinating to listen to the progression as he’s developing the lyrics. For example, the phrase that sounds like “when we go, in the reeee, in the rhyme,” as you say in the first demo (I hear it basically the same way) is something like “when we go, on the winds, on the wine” in the other demo (about 40 seconds in). And then in the final song it becomes “who will dance, on the floor, in the round.” So it’s like he knew the cadence he wanted from the beginning (and for me, as a language person rather than a music person, “cadence” means the rhythm of the words – it’s interesting to hear the musical definition). And then he experimented with different word combinations to fit that rhythm and also help convey the story he’s trying to tell. It’s fascinating to hear that experimentation in progress. …

      So I don’t know that I’m the right person to describe light and dark vowel sounds since others know much more about this than I do. But for me, vowels are organized kind of like the notes on a piano or guitar – the longer, thicker strings give a deeper, darker sound, and the shorter, thinner strings give a higher brighter sound. Some vowel sounds like long U (as in “flute” or “boot”) or long O (as in “float” or “boat”) are formed back near the throat and have a darker sound. Others like long E (as in “fleet” or “beat”) are formed at the front of the mouth and have a brighter sound.

      But that’s pretty subjective. For example, long I (as in “flight” or “bite”) is a complex sound – a diphthong, as Bjørn said – and I hear it as a very bright sound. (After all, it’s the vowel in “bright”!) But Bjørn is much more of a vowel connoisseur than I am, and he senses the complexity of that sound much more than I do. So he actually hears a darker “ah” beginning with a bright “ee” finish.

      Don’t know if that helped, or just muddied the water even more!

    • ”Bjorn, I’ll never listen to TWYMMF the same way again!”

      Thank you for that comment, ultravioletrae! 🙂

      I’m intrigued by your observations of pitch and cadence – something I have very little knowledge of myself. But yes, in this song segment, it’s funny how the vowels do the job that the melody would otherwise do.

      Dark vowels are typically vowels that are made at the back of you mouth, like the ”a” in ”dark” or the ”o” of ”lord”. The typical light vowel is the ”e” of ”breeze”, which is made at the very front of the mouth. As for the vowels in-between, it’s kind of subjective – although many would characterize the short ”e” of ”let” as light rather than dark.
      In English matters are complicated, since that language has a lot of diphthongs. So, long I both has a ”light” and a ”dark” side, as Willa pointed out before.

      As for my next book, I hope it will be a work of fiction. But who knows…

  10. Hi ultravioletrae — I wonder if the substitution was “where” for “place” in the line “some where over the rainbow.” The sound of “where” sort of evokes the word for “air” and suggests a mind’s leap into the air — over the rainbow — as does the voice’s leap from some to where . Just guessing.

    This is really interesting — opening a window in to the mind of the creator.

    • That sounds right. It’s interesting how “some place” or “some time” or another substitute doesn’t work nearly as well. I remember watching an interview on tv about this many, many years ago and I keep hoping it’ll turn up on YouTube one of these days. So far, I haven’t had any luck finding it.

  11. Also, as a follow up on ultravioletrae’s Billie Jean comments —

    I listened to the Billie Jean demo, then listened to another one. In the one ultravioletrae linked to, it sounds like Michael is saying the “chir” is not my son. In the second one I listened to, sounds like much earlier in the creation process, Michael seems to be saying “the kid”is not my son. But it seems to me that in the final version, he is saying “chir.”

    Several years ago, I heard David Letterman joking about MJ, asking what on earth does he mean “The chair is not my son.”

    Here in south Georgia, chir is a word for child. It is a back construction from “chirren” just as chile (Mississippi) is a back construction from “chillun.”

    I wonder if Michael is indeed using the word “chir” which is what it sounds like to me. And, if so, I wonder about the significance of the choice in terms of this discussion.

    I may have brought this up in some previous comment, but I really haven’t ever gotten any resolution about it, and thought this might be a good time to bring it up again.

    • Interesting that you bring that up! There is something really magical about that word in the song, the musicality just pours out of it. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone put so much emotion, tension and musical expression into a single note. It’s really striking and I’ve always wondered why.

  12. I love ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’. Such thunderous beats, celebratory horns and sass for something so lighthearted an sweet. He seemed to enjoy juxtaposition. It employs the classic echoing and rather dated sounds of the late 80’s which gave it its trendy appeal, but I think the addition of the horns and metallic lick of drums was genius since they have a tendency to freshen up any sound. Kinda like aggressive reggae considering the way his words sort of swing with the rhythm. It seems that Michael Jackson always viewed the future and lifespan of his music to ensure timelessness.

  13. aldebaranredstar

    Michael IS poetry–That’s why he moves us so much. This you must see.

  14. Aldebaranedstar,

    This quoted video was a very nice treat, thank you for the inclusion, it resonates so much how I personally feel about Michael.

    Willa, I totally agree with you on the juxtaposition of intuition versus conscious analysis concerning race. This has to do with analysing the process of being creative. Now, recent research on neurobiology has proven the importance of the unconcious, or intuitive thought, most of our behaviour has been programmed for us. Artistic creation does depend, to a large extent, on intuition, whether this is shaped by the environment, life experience, education, hero-worshiping, just name it. For me it is also genetic, perhaps even a gift from the universe, as Michaelangelo and Michael believe, without racial favourites.

  15. Love the above video! Thank you for posting it. Do you know who the vocalist is singing the song?

    • aldebaranredstar

      Hi, Gloria, the singer is Olivia Ong from Singapore. She sings a lot in English and is only in her mid-20’s. I liked her version of this song–great song too.

  16. My book on rhyming is finally available:
    Be warned, though, that’s it in Danish and a bit technical! 🙂 And MJ only appears once.

  17. Yes, congratulations, Bjørn! I wish I knew how to read Danish!

    • Thanks, Nina and Willa! If it sells well, maybe there’ll be a translation? 🙂 Well, it’s very ”niche”, so I’ll be surprised if even half of them are sold out!

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