Monthly Archives: May 2014

Important Dates in HIStory

Joie: Today, Willa and I are joined by our good friend, and frequent contributor, Lisha McDuff, and we’re talking about the title track of Michael’s HIStory album. More specifically, we’re talking about a certain aspect of that title track. Thanks for joining us again, Lisha!

Lisha: Thanks so much for having me!

Joie: Ok, ladies, here’s a question that I know we’ve all thought about many, many times, and I would be willing to bet that just about every Michael Jackson fan has pondered at least a dozen times while listening to this multi-layered song. What do all of those dates at the beginning and the ending of “HIStory” mean, and do they have some personal significance for Michael beyond their obvious significance to the rest of the world?

Willa: I think they have tremendous significance. For example, there are two dates set off by themselves at the beginning of the track – all the other dates come at the end. And as you pointed out, Lisha, when we first started kicking around the idea of doing a post on “HIStory,” those two have special significance.

Lisha: Exactly so. The first words spoken in the song are “Monday, March 26, 1827,” and “November 28, 1929.” Although it is never spelled out what these dates specifically reference, I find it interesting that these happen to be two important dates in music history: the death of Ludwig van Beethoven and the birth of Berry Gordy, Jr.

Willa: So do I. Putting those two dates together the way he did suggests Michael Jackson saw a connection or correlation between these two men. We don’t tend to think of them together, but Michael Jackson had tremendous admiration for both of them, and they both had a huge impact on music history. More specifically, they were both important transitional figures in the history of music.

I think most people would agree that Beethoven was one of the greatest classical composers, if not the greatest. But he also helped usher in the Romantic period in music. You know much more about this than I do, Lisha, but he helped bring about the shift from Classicism to Romanticism, right?

Lisha: That’s absolutely right. Beethoven seemed to have one foot in the Classical era and the other in the Romantic era of Western music at the same time. He is considered the bridge between these two periods.

Willa: And as the founder of Motown, Berry Gordy was also a transitional figure. He led the way in integrating “black” music into the “white” mainstream in a way that was extremely popular with both blacks and whites. And that changed the face of music in America and around the world.

Lisha: Berry Gordy essentially redefined pop by insisting it was just as black as it was white and this appealed to a very broad audience. Gordy’s impact is felt not only in American popular culture, but all over the world, as you said. He is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in all of recorded music.

I have to say, citing these dates at the top of the song is such an interesting choice, we could probably focus our entire discussion on those two dates alone!

Joie: I agree.

Willa: Me too.

Lisha: I also suspect these dates have been highlighted not only for what each of these men contributed, but also for how their contributions have been historicized.

There is no question that Beethoven is commonly thought of as one of the most important composers in all of music history, if not the most important. How we think about Beethoven is fundamental to our concept of what a composer is, what a musical work is, what intellectual property is, and what a musical genius is. The history of Western music in many ways revolves around the Beethoven paradigm and the Austro-German musical canon. It’s the Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms history of music we’ve all been taught in some form or another.

But scholars are increasingly challenging this. Does it really make any sense that musical genius could be isolated to specific time periods in Austria and Germany? And what exactly is musical genius anyway? The time has come to think a little more critically about it, and I’m guessing Michael Jackson thought quite a bit about this when he highlighted the death of Beethoven and the birth of Berry Gordy at the beginning of the song. I think we’ve all been cued to take Beethoven terribly seriously, but we usually don’t think about popular music or non-European composers in the same way.

Willa: I agree completely. In general, critics tend to maintain a strict division between “high art” composers like Beethoven and “popular” music producers like Berry Gordy, and it’s almost heresy to mention them in the same breath. But Michael Jackson repeatedly challenged that division between high art and popular art, and this is one more great example of that.

It’s also really interesting, Lisha, that you seem to see the reference to “Monday, March 26, 1827” not only in terms of Beethoven’s death, but also as representing the “death” of the canon. Is that right? In classical music, as well as other “high art” forms such as literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, or even relatively new forms like film, the canon tends to be dominated by dead white men, as the saying goes. So in that sense, by juxtaposing the date of Beethoven’s death and Berry Gordy’s birth, Michael Jackson is also suggesting the “death” of one way of thinking about music – which privileges a small group of men from Germany and Austria, as you said – and ushering in the “birth” of a new way of thinking about music.

Lisha: Yes, I believe that Michael Jackson is highlighting a new paradigm and inviting us to think about popular music and American musical achievement in a much more serious way. But, believe it or not, the idolization of the great “dead white men” in music history is a more recent phenomenon (historically speaking, that is – 19th and 20th century) that essentially revolves around our reverence for Beethoven. In many ways Beethoven’s death represents the birth, not the death, of the musical canon. So perhaps Jackson is suggesting that the death of the canon is best represented by the birth of Berry Gordy.

Willa: Oh, interesting!

Lisha: The whole idea of musical genius (commonly conceptualized as the solitary, autonomous, slightly mad composer, touched by the heavens, who remains true to his art by resisting political pressures or economic considerations) is more or less based on how we historicize Beethoven. Earlier composers, like Bach and Mozart, were employed by the church or the court, and their music was created primarily to satisfy the needs of their employers and to express their views and ideals.

But Beethoven challenged this and felt artists should be much more autonomous and free from any interference or worldly demands. As a result of his influence, the role of the composer was elevated and composers were ultimately given much more status, recognition, and control of their work. Musicians became very focused serving the composer’s vision and the great “musical work,” a concept that has been attributed to Beethoven.

It’s interesting that in the liner notes of “HIStory,” a credit is given for a sample taken from the children’s film Beethoven Lives Upstairs. To be honest, I have never found the sample in the track. I don’t know if I just keep missing it or if it was possibly omitted in a subsequent revision, but I’m interested in how this film relates to “HIStory.”

Willa: Well, the bells tolling in the background at the very beginning of the film remind me of the bells tolling in the background as Beethoven’s date of death and Berry Gordy’s date of birth are spoken in “HIStory.” Could that be it?

Lisha: Hmmm. In the beginning of the film I hear church bells ringing, and in “HIStory” I hear orchestral chimes. So, I don’t think they are the same instruments or the same sample. But now that you mention it, it is really interesting how similar the pacing of the bells and chimes are. That’s a very astute observation, Willa. I also noticed that the first words spoken in both the film and the song are “Monday, March 26, 1827.” Of all the dates mentioned in “HIStory,” I do believe this is the only one that also includes the day of the week (“Monday”). The rhythm and pacing of the voiceovers sounds pretty much identical to me. I’m getting the feeling that this film is a bigger inspiration for the track than I thought.

Watching the film, I was amazed by how precisely it reinforces the Beethoven paradigm and the myth of the composer as a god-like musical genius who can also be very peculiar, difficult, a bit mad, and terribly misunderstood. The film doesn’t miss a single cliché really. But it might be next to impossible to find a film on classical music that doesn’t historicize the composer this way. I’m thinking of Amadeus for example.

I don’t know if either of you have had a chance to see Motown The Musical, the new Broadway show written by Berry Gordy, but it’s a fabulous production that allows Gordy himself to historicize his own work. Far from expressing any desire to remain free of commercial, economic forces or other worldly demands, Gordy says that he envisioned Motown as a music company that would mimic the auto industry’s assembly line model of production. He recently explained this in a fascinating interview with the Chicago Sun-Times theatre critic, Hedy Weiss:

Willa: Wow, that really is very different from the Beethoven model, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not at all the solitary artist working obsessively alone on his magnum opus as you described, Lisha. In fact, it’s almost the total opposite.

You know, what this reminds me of is Andy Warhol, another artist who incorporated assembly-line production methods to create art, especially his screenprints – art that also questioned the divide between high art and commercial art, as we talked about in a post last fall.

Lisha: It is fascinating to me that these artists who lived and worked in a fiercely capitalistic society found themselves embracing this model, either as a critique or an expression of their own time, place, and life conditions. Remember that the songwriter/producer/arranger team behind the early Jackson 5 hits was Berry Gordy, Freddie Perren, Fonce Mizell, and Deke Richards and they were all credited for their work as simply The Corporation.

Willa: Oh, that’s right! And Andy Warhol called his studio The Factory. That’s really interesting that what Berry Gordy was doing in music, Andy Warhol was paralleling in visual art.

But getting back to the differences between the Beethoven and Berry Gordy approach – I’m trying to think where to position Michael Jackson in terms of these two models, and as with so many things, he doesn’t seem to belong strictly in either camp. As he mentioned many times in interviews, the inspiration and ideas for his songs often came to him when he was alone with his tape recorder. But when it came time to develop his ideas into songs for an album, he followed a much more collaborative approach to music production – more like the Berry Gordy model.

Lisha: Yes, that’s true, but he often worked in the conception stage with other musicians and songwriters as well. It is a highly collaborative approach that reimagines the role of the composer. The genre of rock takes quite a different approach and places a very high value on performers who author their own music, more like the Beethoven paradigm. But in the pop/Motown model (also in the Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building tradition), the songwriter primarily serves the performer and producer’s needs. In this model, I would say it is actually the performer whose importance is elevated.

However, Michael Jackson could be in a league of his own due to the fact he was so highly accomplished as a performer, singer, dancer, producer, songwriter, arranger, lyricist, musician, choreographer, film director, stage director, lighting and costume designer, businessman and marketing genius … I could keep going, but you get the idea. Of course David Bowie, Madonna, and Prince are examples of other multi-talented artists who also worked this way. But, when you look at how deeply Jackson understood all these disciplines and the way he orchestrated all these elements to work together, it does suggests he was the solitary genius behind a truly impressive body of work.

Willa: I would agree with that!

Lisha: It’s also true Jackson became very wealthy and powerful early in life so he was freed from subsistence needs or worries that his art would not be funded. Yet, he often seemed to measure his success as an artist in terms of units sold. My guess is that he believed his impact and reach were directly related to strong sales and aggressive commercialism.

Joie: Wow, you guys! You know, the two of you together are really fascinating to listen to sometimes. Have I ever told you that? This is already a completely engrossing conversation and we just got started!

Willa, I love what you said about it being the “death” of a very old and tired way of thinking about music – and truly great music – which privileges a small group of dead white men. And, as Lisha put so well, “Does it really make any sense that musical genius could be isolated to specific time periods in Germany and Austria?” So, I think we’re all in agreement that Michael did in fact have some very deliberate reasons for opening the song with these two dates.

Now I’m interested to know about the other dates at the end of the song. And maybe it’s a little weird that we’re focusing only on those dates in this conversation instead of talking about the lyrics or the actual song itself, but to me the dates have always been the most intriguing aspect of this song. Every time I listen to it, I always turn up the volume at the end so that I can try and decipher another date or two. It can become a very obsessive exercise. Have either of you ever counted them? Do we know how many dates there are? Willa, you started an actual list of all those dates, didn’t you?

Willa: Yes I did, but it’s pretty rough, with big gaps in some of them – and I’m sure I’m missing others altogether. I have a really hard time hearing some of them.

Joie: Yes, so do I.

Lisha: I’ll admit I really had a hard time with this, too. But in struggling with it, I think I discovered a trick for listening to all those dates. With a little practice and a good set of headphones, it’s possible to hear the entire segment clearly without missing any of the dates mentioned.

The spoken dates at the end of the song have been organized into four different threads that are staggered and layered on top of each other. The secret to hearing them all is to concentrate only on one thread at a time without getting distracted by competing sounds. It really helps to focus on the location of the sound as well. For example, the first thread begins in the top portion of the sound field, slightly to the right of center. It starts just after the final chord of the song (5:41) and sounds like:

February 11, 1847 Thomas Edison is born
December 30, 1865 Rudyard Kipling is born
December 7, 1903 The Wright Brothers first flight
January 15, 1929 Martin Luther King is born
October 14, 1947 Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier
February 9, 1964 The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan show
November 10, 1989 The Berlin Wall comes down

Now go back (5:42) and try to isolate the second thread, which is located in the left channel of your headphones:

January 18, 1858 Daniel Hale Williams is born
August 8, 1866 Matthew Henson is born
May 29, 1917 John F. Kennedy is born
September 1928 The discovery of penicillin
January 17, 1942 Muhammad Ali is born as Cassius Clay
April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight
April 12, 1981 The first Shuttle flight

The third thread is located on the right (5:43):

November 19, 1863 Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg address
December 5, 1901 Walt Disney is born
November 2, 1920 The first commercial radio station opens
October 9, 1940 John Lennon is born
July 17, 1955 Disneyland opens
July 20, 1969 Astronauts first land on the moon

Finally, listen once again to the top portion of the soundfield, but this time it is slightly to the left of center (5:44). You should hear:

April 9, 1865 The Civil War ends
October 28, 1886 The Statue of Liberty is dedicated
January 31, 1919 Jackie Robinson is born
November 28, 1929 Berry Gordy is born
December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks refuses to give her bus seat to a white passenger

Joie: Oh. My. Gosh. You have just cracked this code wide open! I have never been able to hear all of that in its entirety before, but now that I’ve gone back and listened with your notes in front of me, it’s all right there – like a long unsolvable puzzle has just been made crystal clear! That is amazing! I am thoroughly impressed. Both with your listening skills, and with your earphones!

Willa: Me too! I bow before you, Lisha. I can tell you have those incredible musician’s ears – your list is way better than mine!

Lisha: You guys are too funny! But it is thanks to Bruce Swedien’s brilliant engineering work that this segment is so beautifully organized.

Willa: That’s true, but still … some of these I hadn’t heard at all, like “the discovery of penicillin” and “Disneyland opens.” And there’s the second mention of Berry Gordy’s birthday. I didn’t realize that date was spoken twice, at the beginning and ending of “HIStory.” That tells me that, to Michael Jackson, this was a very significant date.

Lisha: Very significant indeed. I believe the importance of Gordy’s musical contribution is reinforced throughout the song. Probably the biggest difference between the Beethoven and Motown paradigm is that one compositional form is written while the other is based on recorded music. Popular music takes such a different approach to music that musicologists are having to rethink how to analyze, interpret, and historicize it. This new approach is often referred to as the “new musicology,” and it is a radically interdisciplinary field of research.

In “HIStory,” I believe Michael Jackson is pointing towards this shift between written and recorded music with those two dates at the top of the song and the track illustrates this quite well musically. It includes music from the classical and instrumental band repertoire, but there is also a lot of studio and technical wizardry involved. There are also two very important events in recording history that have been included towards the end of the track (6:10). The first of these is a historical clip of the first promotional recording ever made in 1906:

I am the Edison phonograph, created by the great wizard of the New World to delight those who would have melody or be amused.

Layered over this is a second clip of Thomas Edison himself, recalling the first words he spoke to create the world’s first phonograph recording in 1877:

Mary had a little lamb
It’s fleece was white as snow
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go

Believe it or not, Edison made his first recording in 1877, just 50 years after the death of Beethoven.

Willa: Seriously? Edison’s first phonograph recording was only 50 years after Beethoven? I never would have guessed that. It’s funny how our perceptions of time can telescope in and out. Like I was reading something the other day about how the Beatles “invasion” of America 50 years ago is actually closer in time to World War I than it is to us today. That stunned me.

Lisha: It’s really disorienting, isn’t it? Somehow I thought there were bigger gaps between these events as well.

Willa: Oh I know, and I think Edison and his phonograph have a lot to do with that. What I mean is that I think video and sound recordings compress our perceptions of history. We can “see” the Beatles performing on Ed Sullivan and experience it for ourselves, so it feels close in time to us. Beethoven lived before that recording technology was invented, so we will never experience him in the same way – never hear his actual voice, never see his body move. So in that sense he feels “prehistoric” to us, meaning he existed before recorded history – before history could be captured in sound and video recordings.

Lisha: Interesting, and I agree completely. Recordings keep these events much closer in our memories.

Willa: Exactly. The Beatles played on Ed Sullivan 50 years ago, but for me they also played there yesterday, which is the last time I experienced that performance. I saw them on Ed Sullivan just yesterday. Mentally I know it happened 50 years ago, but emotionally it feels really familiar to me, even though I was too young to experience when it originally happened.

So that’s another reason Edison and his phonograph would be important in a song about “history.” They’ve profoundly changed how we perceive and experience history.

Lisha: Great point as always, Willa.

Willa: Thanks, but I’m sorry, Lisha. I interrupted you in mid thought. You were talking about the huge shift from written music to recorded music, and how you think “HIStory” not only suggests that shift but also kind of reenacts it in how the song is structured, with passages of classical music at the beginning and audio clips of Edison and his phonograph at the end. That is such a fascinating idea, especially when you think of the huge impact audio recording has had on music – not only on how it’s distributed, but how it’s conceptualized and created. I’d really like to get back to that, if we could.

Michael Jackson, especially, used music technology as a “compositional tool,” as you pointed out in some fascinating comments to a post Joie and I did a long time ago with Joe Vogel and Charles Thomson. As you said in one comment under your pen name, Ultravioletrae,

I have no doubt if Jackson needed music notation he would have used it, but his own method of recording on multi tracks was far more efficient and desirable than pencil and paper or music notation software. Reading and writing in musical notation would have been a tremendous liability for a musician like him. As an example, he worked with complex, subtle rhythms that can’t be accurately notated, only approximated.

Before I began talking with you about all this, I tended to think of recording music as part of the distribution process – something musicians did to capture their music in a format where it could be shared with others. But you’ve helped me see that recording has become far more than that. It’s now an integral part of composing and creating music, but in a very different way than the Beethoven model.

Lisha: The whole idea of the great “musical work” as an exclusively written compositional form is most likely a direct result of the Beethoven myth and how we have elevated the status of (dead, white, male) composers. It’s hard to let go of this image of the composer because it has become so ingrained in the culture. But music is an aural phenomenon, so it makes an awful lot of sense to use the technology we have available to store musical information in an aural format.

When recorded music first began, the goal was to simply replicate a live performance as accurately and realistically as possible. But there were a couple of game-changing events that essentially changed all that. The first was guitarist Les Paul’s innovations in multi-track recordings, which allowed Paul to layer sound in a very creative and imaginative ways. As Bruce Swedien once told Sound On Sound’s Richard Buskin:

The first time I really got excited about pop music was when I discovered that it was possible to use my imagination. That had come with a record that I myself didn’t work on, Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “How High the Moon.” Up to that point the goal of music recording had been to capture an unaltered acoustic event, reproducing the music of big bands as if you were in the best seat in the house. It left no room for imagination, but when I heard “How High the Moon,” which did not have one natural sound in it, I thought, “Damn, there’s hope!”

Think about the imaginative way all those dates in “HIStory” are staggered and layered over each other. That is a great example of Michael Jackson and Bruce Swedien’s imaginative use of the recording studio as a compositional format, made possible by Les Paul’s inventive approach to recording.

Another milestone in recording history happened in 1967 when the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album Rolling Stone named “the greatest album of all time.” After retiring from touring in 1966, the Beatles turned their attention to the recording studio and racked up an unheard of 700 hours in the studio to make Sgt. Pepper. The album pushed the limits of multi-tracking and the recording technology so far that the recording process itself came to be recognized as a compositional format. With no plans to return to the stage, the recording itself became the “musical work.” Any attempt to perform it live would be understood as a replica of the recording, a 180-degree flip from the original use of recording technology.

“HIStory” includes the written music paradigm with an orchestral performance of “The Great Gate of Kiev” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, followed by several examples of American military-style band music. In these examples, musicians perform from printed music and attempt to recreate the composer’s intentions down to the most minute detail. The way this music was conceived, created, and performed revolves around the concept of the written “musical work,” which has been set in stone through the printed score.

But in recorded music, the role of the composer is reconceived when the “musical work” is a sound recording that also contains significant contributions from the performers, producers, and engineers.

Willa: That’s fascinating, Lisha, and it really is a very different way of thinking about a piece of music, isn’t it? In the classical model, you have the ideal vision of the piece as imagined by the composer and “set in stone” in his manuscript, as you said, and the goal of everyone after that is to try to stay true to that ideal.

The new model is not only more collaborative, as you said, but also much more fluid – perhaps too fluid, as we’ve seen with all the remixes lately – where songs are kind of a perpetual work in progress. I think it was Brad Sundberg who said that Michael Jackson would sometimes continue to make small modifications to his songs even after an album had been released, so one Dangerous album might have a slightly different version of “Black or White” than another one that came out just a few months earlier. And even songs where there is a fairly “definitive” version, like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” or “Billie Jean,” are sampled and integrated into new songs by other artists, so we can hear snippets or song shadows of them on the radio in different settings, leading us to think about them in new ways.

In other words, what I’m trying to get at is that in the new model, songs are not “set in stone” at all – they are constantly shape shifting.

Lisha: Yes, that’s definitely true, and this has created a lot of confusion in the area of intellectual property and determining who has the right to profit from a recording. But when you think about how much more sound information is contained in a musical recording as opposed to a sheet of printed music, in many ways the opposite is true. For example, I know far more about what Michael Jackson wanted “Billie Jean” to sound like than I know about what Beethoven wanted his music to sound like.

Willa: Well, that’s true, Lisha! Interesting – so music is more fixed in some ways, and more fluid in others.

Lisha: I also think classical music is not as fixed as most of us imagine. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition which is featured at the beginning of “HIStory,” is a piece of music that has been reorchestrated numerous times. The version we hear on the recording is actually an arrangement or “remix” by Maurice Ravel! And over the years, musicians change their thinking about how composers like Beethoven should be performed, and debate the merits of many different performances.

But no one has to guess what Michael Jackson wanted to hear – we have a definitive record of it. And what would be the point in trying to replicate his recordings anyway? The record company is happy to manufacture as many copies as anyone would like to buy.

Willa: That’s certainly true. So this paradigm shift in how music is composed – from a model of a lone composer writing notes on paper to a very different model of a team of musicians and sound engineers working in a studio – that shift was facilitated by new technology, like Edison’s phonograph. But also by new production models, like Berry Gordy developed at Motown and Michael Jackson experienced from a young age. So if we look at “HIStory” the way you’re suggesting, Lisha, it makes perfect sense that Michael Jackson would place Beethoven, Edison, and Gordy in such prominent positions.

Lisha: It makes a lot of sense. Especially because the old paradigm currently still exists along with the new. It really hasn’t gone anywhere yet, though we see more and more signs of its decay. As far as I can tell, there is always a period of overlap between musical eras. It’s not that easy to define when one ends and the next one begins. I think it’s important to think about how we have historicized the past and how we will historicize our present moment in the future. After all, the concept of the album is HIStory: Past, Present and Future. I think  Jackson could be advocating that as we historicize great music in the future, we don’t fall into the trap of preferencing “dead white men.” I concur!

Joie: Wow, you know, I’ve never thought about “HIStory” in terms of music before, if that makes any sense. I’ve always just thought about all those dates, and the enormity and importance of the game-changing, history-making events they represent.

But what you’re saying, Lisha, is that Michael actually used the song itself not only to highlight those history-making events, but also to make us aware of this great shift from the Classical music paradigm to the “new musicology,” as it were. And what better way of doing that than by pointing repeatedly to Berry Gordy, a man who took that new musicology and pretty much created a whole new genre and style of music. Ask almost anyone around the world and they can probably tell you what the Motown Sound is and who created it.

Willa: That’s true, Joie, and he created an appreciation for “black music” around the world as well, and then helped break it out of that fairly segregated category, so black music and black artists became much more integrated into popular music generally.

And of course, we see that in Michael Jackson as well. He won one Grammy for Off the Wall: Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. R&B traditionally means “black music,” so he basically won an award for best “black music.” He was extremely upset about that and vowed his next album wouldn’t be ghettoized like that … and of course, his next album swept the Grammys. Thriller didn’t just win Best Album of the Year, it won six other Grammys as well. And it’s the biggest-selling album of all time, around the world, to many different races of people.

That leads into another important aspect of “HIStory” – that it also pays tribute to black artists, politicians, sports heroes, and other figures and shows the huge impact they’ve had on history – not just black history but human history. The roll call of important dates includes the birthdays of Martin Luther King, Daniel Hale Williams and Matthew Henson (I didn’t know who they were – I had to look them up), Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, as well as the day “Rosa Parks refuses to give her bus seat to a white passenger.” And the audio clips that form the sound “collages,” as you called them, Lisha, commemorate Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record, Muhammad Ali proclaiming he is “the greatest of all time,” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Often black pioneers and historical events are relegated to “black history,” but Michael Jackson placed them front and center in his list of important dates, demonstrating that he sees them as a very important part of our history – the shared history of all of us. Anyone who thinks Michael Jackson forgot his roots or didn’t feel pride in his race needs to pay closer attention to “HIStory.”

Joie: Oh, don’t even go there, Willa! That is a whole other conversation that we could, and probably should, have someday. But you’re absolutely right in saying it.

Well, Willa and I want to thank Lisha again for joining us today. It’s always an interesting and thought-provoking conversation when you’re here! We also want to encourage readers to check out Lisha’s lyrics and sound collages in the Lyrics Library.

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Don’t Let Go of My Hand

Willa: So this week Joie and I wanted to talk about a song that’s a favorite for both of us: “Whatever Happens” from the Invincible album. I was so glad you suggested it, Joie, because I absolutely love this song.

Joie: Now that’s really funny to me, Willa, because I remember you suggesting this song, not me. And when you did, I was really happy because it’s been one of my favorites from the start.

Willa: Really? I suggested it? Wow, Joie, I’m sorry – I have this middle-aged brain and it’s not always super reliable. I was sure you’d suggested it, and I remember being excited about it.… Anyway, I think I’ve told you this before, but after Michael Jackson died I played this song a lot. For some reason, it was really comforting to me, just hearing that beautiful voice sing, “Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand.”

Joie: Actually, I don’t think I knew that, but I can understand it perfectly.

Willa: Yeah, it’s like it conveyed something I really needed to hear right then. But I loved it even before he died. It tells a complicated story that isn’t resolved at the end, so it’s bittersweet, as many of his songs are. And you know, one thing that’s interesting about this song is that, in it, we see the intersection of two important themes for Michael Jackson. The first is the problem of communication between men and women, which runs throughout his songwriting – especially on the Invincible album. We talked about that a little bit during our month-long celebration of Invincible. And the other is the problem of work, and how crushing it can be to the spirit to work in an unfulfilling job.

Joie: Ok, first I want to say that I loved that month-long celebration of Invincible so much. Those posts are still some of my most favorite that we’ve ever done, and I know it’s because I just completely adore that album from start to finish!

But enough gushing … because you just said something that sort of puzzles me. I never think about the theme of working an unfulfilling job as a Michael Jackson staple. I’m probably going to be smacking my head in a moment, but besides “Working Day and Night” I can’t think of any song where this theme has played a major part, so please explain.

Willa: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a staple – it’s not something he focuses on in song after song, like he does with some other themes. But he does touch on it every so often, and he focuses on it pretty extensively in “Working Day and Night,” like you said, and in “Keep Your Head Up.” As he sings in the opening verse:

She’s working two jobs, keeping alive
She works in a restaurant night and day
She waits her life away
She wipes her tears away

It’s part of “Slave to the Rhythm” also, though there’s more going on than that. The main character isn’t just working in an unfulfilling job during the day. When she comes home at night she’s also slaving away for an unappreciative husband. And it’s central to “Whatever Happens,” of course.

Joie: Ok, I see what you mean now, and you’re right, it is a theme he touches on more than once.

Willa: And over a long period of time. “Working Day and Night” was released in 1979 and “Whatever Happens” in 2001. That’s more than two decades.

But you know, it’s really interesting to compare these two songs because they’re both addressing a similar scenario – a man toiling away in a dead-end job because of the woman he loves – but they couldn’t be more different. In “Working Day and Night,” his girlfriend is encouraging to him to put in the hours on that job because she wants his money. But the situation in “Whatever Happens” is much more subtle and much more complicated than that.

Joie: I agree that the situation in “Whatever Happens” is much more complicated than the high-maintenance girlfriend in “Working Day and Night.”

In “Whatever Happens” we are introduced to a couple in love – presumably a husband and wife – who obviously love and care very deeply about one another, but they are in the middle of a crisis of some type. And although we are never told exactly what the conflict is between them, we know immediately that it’s a pretty serious issue, as he sings in the opening verse:

He gives another smile
Tries to understand her side
To show that he cares
She can’t stay in the room
She’s consumed
With everything that’s been going on
She says,
“Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand”

So right off the bat, he tells us that the man is trying very hard to understand her side of things, but the woman is so upset about the situation that she can’t even stay in the same room and discuss it. But at the same time, she begs him not to let go of her hand, no matter what.

Willa: What a terrible situation! And you’re right, Joie – she’s “so upset … she can’t even stay in the room to discuss it.” You know, as many times as I’ve listened to that song, I never got that before. But you’re right, she leaves the room when he tries to talk to her – and that’s really important because, whatever the crisis is, the real problem is that they can’t seem to talk about it. We see that in the second verse also:

“Everything will be all right,”
He assures her
But she doesn’t hear a word that he says
Preoccupied
She’s afraid
Afraid what they’ve been doing’s not right
He doesn’t know what to say
So he prays,
“Whatever, whatever, whatever
Whatever happens, don’t let go of my hand”

So he tries to talk to her – tries to tell her “Everything will be all right” – but she either can’t or won’t listen to him: “she doesn’t hear a word that he says.” So by the end of the verse he seems to give up. Instead of talking to her, he’s praying.

They both really care about one another, obviously, and they don’t want to break up. The first verse ends with her saying “don’t let go of my hand,” as you said, Joie, and the second verse ends with him praying the exact same words. And by the end, in the ad libs, Michael Jackson is singing, “I said, yeah, don’t you let go, baby.” So the pronouns shift from “she says” to “he prays” to “I said.” I swear, someone could write a book simply about his use of pronouns, and how he’s constantly shifting point of view.

So we look at this situation from her perspective and his perspective, and they both truly want to be together, but you can just feel them tearing apart. It’s really tragic. Neither one wants it – we can see that very clearly – but they don’t seem to know how to stop it.

Joie: It does seem like a very heartbreaking song on some level, doesn’t it? And in the third verse we see that theme of working a dead-end job that you mentioned before when he says:

He’s working day and night
Thinks he’ll make her happy
Forgetting all the dreams that he had
He doesn’t realize
It’s not the end of the world
It doesn’t have to be that bad
She tries to explain,
“It’s you that makes me happy”

So here is where we see the main difference between this song and “Working Day and Night,” because unlike the girl who only wants his money, the woman in this song isn’t interested in the things the man’s money can buy her. Instead, she keeps trying to tell him that he is what makes her happy, not the money or the things, just being with him. But he doesn’t seem to understand this, and instead he’s focused on spending all of his time working to buy those “things” when he could be focusing on following the dreams he once had, and on the love that they presumably once shared.

Willa: Yes, though is he working just to buy extravagant things, or does his paycheck pay the rent? or the mortgage? or buy clothes for the kids? Just making ends meet can be really overwhelming when you’re on a tight budget – so overwhelming it’s hard to remember your dreams. And Michael Jackson seemed very aware of that fact – that, ironically, sometimes it’s the ones we love most who end up trapping us in an unfulfilling life. For example, he sings this in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”:

If you can’t feed your baby
Then don’t have a baby
And don’t think maybe
If you can’t feed your baby
You’ll be always trying
To stop that child from crying
Hustling, stealing, lying
Now baby’s slowly dying

So he’s telling this person that, if she has a baby she isn’t able to care for financially – at least not yet, not at this point in her life – then she could become trapped in a life of “hustling, stealing, lying” to try to support her child. We don’t know, but it could be kind of a similar situation in “Whatever Happens.” It could be the man in the story is giving up his dreams and working in a boring job because they really need the money.

Joie: Well, that’s certainly true, Willa. And I know from experience that men tend to internalize that kind of thing, and carry it around like they have the entire world sitting on their shoulders. They let it become their whole existence until they’re just crushed by the depression and the stress of trying to make ends meet. And I think you’re right, I believe that is what’s going on in this song, at least in part. And I feel like I identify with the woman in this song. I understand what she’s going through, trying to make him understand that worrying about the money – or lack thereof – is no way to live. They still have each other. They could still find a way to pursue their dreams and focus on the love they share, instead of always obsessing over the lack of money. It gets frustrating trying to keep a man in a positive frame of mind when money is extremely tight.

In fact, now that I think about it … I’m seeing that first verse a lot differently. When he says,

She can’t stay in the room
She’s consumed
With everything that’s been going on

Before I said that she was so upset that she couldn’t even stay in the room and discuss their problems. But now, looking at this song in a new light, I think she can’t stay in the room not because she’s upset, but because she’s frustrated and angry. She feels like she’s beating her head against a brick wall trying to make him understand that their money problems are “not the end of the world.” And I think this interpretation is supported by that third verse you mentioned earlier.

Willa: Wow, Joie, that’s a really interesting way of approaching this – that it’s highlighting a cultural difference between men and women, and “that men tend to internalize that kind of thing, and carry it around like they have the entire world sitting on their shoulders.” That really jumped out at me when you said that because it ties in with something he expresses in “Working Day and Night”:

You say that working
Is what a man’s supposed to do
But I say it ain’t right
If I can’t give sweet love to you

I’m tired of thinking
Of what my life’s supposed to be

So he’s questioning that expectation that men are supposed to bury themselves in work and be the providers – which is a terrible burden, especially if they’re stuck in a job they don’t like. But many men do it because, as he says, “working / Is what a man’s supposed to do.”

Joie: It is a terrible burden, Willa. I’m sure we can all relate to working a job that we hated at some point in our lives. If we’re lucky, that happens at the start of our adult lives when we’re young, and then we go on to discover what it is that we really love to do and are able to transition into a job that we enjoy. But for many people it doesn’t always happen that way, and it’s unfortunate. And it can cause some really distressing issues in our personal lives. In fact, it could even be detrimental to our health, both physically and emotionally.

Willa: That’s true, or even change our personalities to some extent. Our dreams are a big part of us, of who we are. They help define us. If we give up our dreams, we lose that part of ourselves, and it changes us.

Joie: That’s very true, Willa.

Willa: So the woman in “Whatever Happens,” she obviously loves this man – a man who had dreams – but now he’s giving up those dreams, so he’s not quite the same person she fell in love with. But he’s making that sacrifice for her, or thinks he is. As the narrator sings in the last verse you quoted, Joie, “He’s working day and night / Thinks he’ll make her happy / Forgetting all the dreams that he had.” But she doesn’t want him to give up his dreams.

Joie: No, she doesn’t. And she keeps trying to explain that to him, but he’s not getting it because all he can see are their money issues.

Willa: It does seem that way, doesn’t it? Though the song begins with the lines “He gives another smile / Tries to understand her side / To show that he cares,” as you quoted earlier. So he’s trying to see things from her perspective. But he doesn’t seem able to, and she doesn’t understand him either – can’t even listen to him – so they’re both really frustrated.

It’s a really complicated situation, and you can genuinely feel for both sides. This is not a simple story of a good guy and an uncaring woman taking advantage of him, which seems to be the situation in “Working Day and Night,” or a good woman and an uncaring man taking her for granted, which is what we see in “Slave to the Rhythm.” Rather, it’s a much more complicated story that explores all the conflicting emotions of two people who love each other deeply and want what’s best for the person they love – they truly want to make each other happy – but they can’t understand each other, can’t even see what the other person really wants and needs. So they’re pulling against each other and struggling to resolve it without tearing themselves apart.

You know, Joie, actually, thinking about all this … I’m thinking maybe you’re right – maybe I did suggest this song. I know I was thinking about it quite a bit while we were doing our last post on “Someone Put Your Hand Out” – specifically, when we were talking about that line that refers to “handicapped emotions.” There were quite a few people – even people who seemed to genuinely like Michael Jackson – who suggested he was in a state of arrested development. Specifically, they seemed to think that because he maintained a childlike wonder, he never matured psychologically beyond the level of a child.

For example, here’s an interview with John Landis, and it’s obvious he feels great affection for Michael Jackson. But he also says he was like “an incredibly gifted 10 year old” and that he was “emotionally stunted”:

I have such mixed reactions watching this. I have some good feelings for him because he clearly cared about Michael Jackson and is very upset that he’s gone, but I’m also just stunned at some of the things he says. I mean, John Landis is known for creating adolescent comedies like Animal House and American Werewolf in London, and there are some funny scenes, but have you seen Kentucky Fried Movie? I hate to be critical, but my goodness … talk about juvenile …

Joie: I don’t know, Willa, I think it’s a really nice interview. I think we get to see John just being John, and I love the fact that he gets emotional and doesn’t try to hide it or explain it away. He talks about Michael wearing his heart on his sleeve, and yet here he is wiping tears because his friend is gone.

Willa: That’s true.

Joie: And yes, I have seen Kentucky Fried Movie, and Animal House, both of which I find very juvenile. But I’ve always loved An American Werewolf, so I understand what you’re saying, but I think what he’s getting at is that Michael wasn’t so much “juvenile” as he was “childlike.” You know there’s a difference between movies with juvenile humor and movies with childlike charm. One is very immature jokes with sexual connotations while the other is sweet, innocent fun and adventure. So when he calls Michael a “really talented 10 year old,” to me he’s saying that Michael had a very “childlike” nature and thought process.

Willa: Yes, but he also says he was “emotionally stunted” and “had all kinds of issues.” I haven’t seen all of John Landis’ movies by any means, but as far as I know he never created anything as emotionally complex as “Whatever Happens.” I mean, he’s a professional filmmaker, but has he ever made a film with the emotional depth or nuance of Billie Jean or Smooth Criminal or Stranger in Moscow? Or what about the profound psychological insights of Ghosts – or Thriller, for that matter? He directed Thriller, but whenever he talks about it he doesn’t seem to realize it’s anything more than a cheesy monster movie. And yet he describes Michael Jackson as a “gifted 10 year old.” How is that possible, that the man who created Kentucky Fried Movie calls the man who created “Whatever Happens” – a poignant, exquisite song that explores the heartbreak of two adults struggling through painful, difficult emotions – “emotionally stunted”? That just feels completely backwards to me.

Joie: Well, I haven’t seen all of his films either, but I have seen several. And while I agree completely that we wouldn’t normally think of someone who is labeled as “emotionally stunted” as being able to create works so emotionally complex as “Whatever Happens,” “Billie Jean” or “Stranger in Moscow,” I would argue that John Landis is actually brilliant at what he does. You know, everybody thinks that comedy is easy and horror always gets a bad rap … but there is actually a great deal of skill and mastery needed to scare people half to death or make them laugh, and do both in really intelligent – or juvenile – ways. I mean, they may not have been Oscar contenders, but John Landis is responsible for some of the most iconic films in our culture. You named two of them: Animal House and An American Werewolf in London. But there are others too, like The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, and Coming to America. All five of those films are beloved by millions of people.

And, Willa … I stand by what I said in our last post on “Someone Put Your Hand Out.” I believe that Michael did have what he himself called “handicapped emotions” in that song. I believe that he was able to express himself so beautifully in song, with lyrics that were poignant and full of complex emotional depth and “profound psychological insights.” But I also believe that on some level, at the very core of who he was, Michael was, if not “emotionally stunted,” emotionally handicapped.

You have to think about how he grew up. He had a childhood that not many of us could ever truly comprehend. He was never allowed to really play or interact with other children his age because he was always working. Always being groomed to think about work, to think about how he was perceived by the audience, and how to make the performance better. That was his life from age three. He didn’t learn things like how to properly interact with others his age. He didn’t learn the normal social cues that other children learn at the various life stages. Willa, there is a reason why he never had a “normal” courtship or married life with either of his two wives, and there are lots of quotes out there from people who believe that Michael was sort of an asexual being. Well, I can’t speak on that, but I do believe that he was simply unable to express that kind of real feeling or emotion unless it was in a song, or in a video, or on a stage. I believe that unless it had to do with a performance, it just wasn’t in his repertoire. The performance was his life. His life was the performance. So, in that sense, I think the term “emotionally stunted” is accurate.

Willa: Wow, Joie, I’m astonished. I guess this is one of those areas where we’re just going to have to agree to disagree, because I disagree completely. I have a lot of friends who are not coupled up in long-term relationships, and there is absolutely nothing “emotionally handicapped” about them. Things just didn’t work out that way for them, or they chose not to live that way. But I disagree that says anything about them psychologically, and I also disagree with the assumption that if people aren’t coupled up then that’s evidence there’s something wrong with them.

In fact, I think that assumption is really dangerous, and one of the biases Michael Jackson had to fight against. I think a lot of people assumed there was something wrong with him, and that maybe he really was a pedophile, simply because he wasn’t married or have a long-term girlfriend. And I think he understood that. As the Mayor tells the Maestro in Ghosts, “You’re weird, you’re strange, and I don’t like you. You’re scaring these kids, living up here all alone.” I think the Mayor is simply echoing what a lot of people were saying about Michael Jackson back then – that he was “weird” and “strange” and scary simply because he lived alone.

By the way, it’s interesting how the Maestro responds to the Mayor in Ghosts. He says, “I’m not alone” and then brings a host of fantasy people to life, so the townspeople can see the figures who have been populating his imagination. In other words, he’s not alone because of his art, and his life is full because of his art.

Joie: I think you’re misunderstanding me. I’m not saying that because he wasn’t in a long-term relationship that something must have been wrong with him. In fact, I shouldn’t have even brought up his romantic relationships at all, but I was attempting to illustrate my point. A point which you ignored completely in your rush to defend how he lived his life. But you’re right in saying it’s dangerous to make assumptions about a person’s psychological makeup by looking at their relationship status – and that’s not what I was doing. I’m sorry if it came off that way.

Willa: I’m sorry, Joie. I guess I did misunderstand you. I should have asked you to clarify, rather than jumping in and preaching you a sermon. I’m sorry about that.

Joie: Well, that’s ok. But the point I was trying to make is that Michael didn’t grow up like other kids. He didn’t spend time with other kids his age – at any age! Besides his brothers, he was always in the company of adults, talking about adult things like work and how to do the work better, and how to become the best at it. He never had a chance to learn all of the subtle, nuanced social cues that most 5 year olds learn from other 5 year olds. Or the ones that 8 year olds learn from other 8 year olds. Or the ones that 12 year olds learn from other 12 year olds, and so on, and so on, and so on. So, in that sense, he was emotionally, and socially, stunted.

Willa: Well, I think I have a better idea now of what you mean, Joie, and you’re right – I don’t think anyone else has ever had a childhood like he had. Not only was he a child star, but he was put in the difficult role of being a representative of black America when he was only 10 years old. If he did something wrong, it wasn’t just damaging to him and his reputation – it also reflected badly on an entire race of people. That’s a huge additional pressure – something Shirley Temple and Elizabeth Taylor and Justin Bieber never had to think about. That pressure only intensified as their success – the success of the Jackson 5 and him personally – grew, and he had a very controlling father who was determined his sons weren’t going to mess up. As you said, Joie, it’s hard to even imagine what that was like – what his childhood was like. But while I agree he had an extremely difficult childhood, and it must have had an effect on him, I still disagree that he was left “emotionally stunted” because of all that.

Joie: Well, that’s ok too. It’s ok to disagree about things. But I think something you just said sort makes my point for me. In talking about Ghosts, you said, “He says, ‘I’m not alone’ and then brings a host of fantasy people to life, so the townspeople can see the figures who have been populating his imagination. In other words, he’s not alone because of his art, and his life is full because of his art.” This is exactly what I meant when I said that the performance was his life, and his life was the performance. That’s what it was all about for him, and yes, he lived a beautiful and fulfilled life because of it. But, Willa … someone who lives their life completely inside their own imagination is by definition socially – and therefore emotionally – stunted to some degree.

Willa: I think I see what you’re saying, and I agree that in a lot of ways “the performance was his life, and his life was the performance,” as you said. Especially after the 1993 allegations, his life and his art became intertwined in ways that are hard to untangle. But I don’t think he lived his life entirely in his imagination. His imagination enriched his life – and ours as well – but it didn’t replace his life. That wasn’t what I meant when I quoted that scene from Ghosts.

I think that, because of his art, Michael Jackson had a rich, full, rewarding life – he had a kind of emotional self-sufficiency that we aren’t really used to – but he also repeatedly emphasized the connections between us, and how important it is to honor those connections. That’s a different way of being in the world – one that I find both intriguing and inspiring.

It seems to me that a lot of times people are kind of desperate to couple up because they’re lonely or because there’s an emptiness in their lives, and they think sharing their life with someone else will make that loneliness and emptiness go away. We like the romance story where two incomplete people meet and complete each other – where two halves come together and, between them, form a whole – and where everything else is sacrificed to the ideal of romantic love. But ironically, I think this can actually lead us to be “emotionally stunted,” to use John Landis’ words, because in that model we only learn to be half of a whole, not a fulfilled, self-realized person on our own. We see that a little bit in “Whatever Happens,” where this man is limiting himself and sacrificing his dreams to be what he thinks the woman he loves wants him to be.

On the other hand, in America, especially, we have the story of the rugged individual – the loner, the cowboy, the tough-as-nails private investigator – who doesn’t need anyone, and doesn’t really connect with anyone. That’s subtly suggested in “Whatever Happens” also, by the genre of this song. The beginning, especially, sounds like a western. I can easily imagine that intro being used as the soundtrack to a Clint Eastwood movie – one where the mysterious hero rides into town alone, rescues a girl (who inevitably falls in love with him, and just as inevitably dies), gets rid of the bad guys, and then rides off alone.

Those are two competing cultural narratives, and most people pick one or the other. They’re either the rugged individualist or the hopeless romantic. But Michael Jackson is subtly critiquing both of those models, I think – not just here but repeatedly in his art – and he seems to be working toward a different model. It’s one where we find fulfillment within ourselves – something he found through his art – but where we still care deeply for others and value the connections between us.

Joie: Well, I disagree with some of what you’ve said here about romantic love, but mostly I disagree that the man in “Whatever Happens” is limiting himself and sacrificing his dreams to be what he thinks his woman wants him to be. I think he’s limiting himself and sacrificing his dreams because he feels he has no choice financially. He has a family to provide for, and being emotionally stunted by romantic love has nothing to do with that. I’m also not sure I agree that most people choose one or the other between those two cultural narratives you just described. I think it’s possible for a person to be both. But I understand what you’re getting at where Michael is concerned.

Willa: Well, you’re right that I’m talking about these as models, so they’re an extreme. As with any model, few people fit them entirely. Few people are a Clint Eastwood character – the self-reliant individual who doesn’t need anyone, and doesn’t want anyone dependent on them. And on the other hand, few live the romantic ideal we see on screen so often where a person is really only half of a couple, and their sole source of happiness comes from the love they share with their romantic partner.

But I do think that, in general, people tend to see themselves as one or the other – as an autonomous individual or as defined in large part by their relationships. And as with so many dichotomies, Michael Jackson seems to be suggesting a different way. He’s not dependent on others for fulfilment – he finds that within himself through his art. But then he shares that with others, and the connections he feels through his art – to his audience, to the long line of performers who came before him, to the deep rhythms of the cosmos that he talks about in Dancing the Dream – are integral to who he is. As the song says, “You’re Just Another Part of Me.”

So before we go, I wanted to mention a new book that just came out – or actually, Book One of a trilogy. It’s The Algorithm of Desire by Eleanor Bowman, a regular contributor here. In fact, she discussed some of the ideas she was working on for her book in a post with us last spring. To quote Eleanor,

Book One … investigates the role of creation myths in the construction of a society’s perception of reality, how creation myths program a society’s views and values of the world, and how a culture’s worldview and value system promote, or threaten, collective survival.

Eleanor’s ideas are fascinating, and Book Three of her trilogy focuses on Michael Jackson. As she says, he “not only understood the predicament we find ourselves in, but showed us how to ‘heal the world.’” I’m really looking forward to that.

Book One of the trilogy is available now through Amazon, and Eleanor is offering it for free from May 8th through 12th.