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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About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

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

Posted on May 22, 2014, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. Willa, Joie and Lisha:

    That slapping sound you may hear is my hand upside my head – I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I have listened to the song HIStory and all of the dates in Michael Jackson’s intro and outro, wondered about their significance, but never quite got around to identifying them all or pursuing the connections you have so wonderfully laid out in this article! Congratulations for another surprising reminder that there was absolutely nothing random about MJ’s art, rarely anything without significance, and rarely anything that can be taken at merely its face value.

    I love the musical theories you have put forth here on his behalf, and the additional insights about the “Beethoven Lives Upstairs” connection, compositional form vs. recorded music, recorded music as a very dynamic compositional tool, the changing of the canon and the new way of thinking about music.

    From Mussorgsky to military band marches to MJ’s somewhat atonal/staccato inspirational exhortations, to musical bridges with broad rhetorical questions (“How many people have to die before we can live as brothers…”) – this song is at least as sweeping as Earth Song and after your analysis, apparently as complex.

    Lisha, I also absolutely loved your reference to Maurice Ravel as having “remixed” the version of Mussorgsky that MJ used in the song, acknowledging that “classical” music has been reorchestrated many times with great excitement, interest, discussion and respect. Some consider remixes to be an alarming modern trend with strictly base materialistic motives but I disagree, and what you say supports my position.

    In short, I happen to be an unabashed admirer of remixes in general and the author of The Remix Manifesto, in which I present a slightly different aspect of remixes where Michael Jackson is concerned. He practiced remixing in many interesting ways during the whole length of his career; in his own art he took elements from those “greats” he admired and remixed his art upon elements of theirs – combining from music, dance, film, theatre, fine art, fashion, showmanship, motivation, spirituality, and obviously also the art of living in a historically significant sense as recognized by him in this song.

    Willa, you note that “The new model (of composition) is not only more collaborative… 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.”

    Remixes, however, are not late in coming. Michael Jackson was exposed to them early in his solo career and remixes became a viable permanent part of his catalog by the mid-1980’s. His philosophy seems very consistent over the years, and remixes were part of it: MJ was to me the epitome of a lifelong collaborator who fed off of the contributions of others as consistently and persistently as they fed off his.

    The anonymous web researcher who got me started on the subject of remixes concentrated upon “official” remixes, meaning works released under Michael Jackson’s name as Executive Producer and on his own namesake record label, MJJ Productions, and he/she found alternative versions numbering in the hundreds! These could range from simple radio edits (which perhaps removed intros and outros to streamline the song for broadcast) to extended dance mixes, to album versions, to very conceptual and heavily-reorganized artistic reinterpretations, to the wonderful acapella versions that totally astonished me. Some of my favorites include the “In the Closet Mixes Behind Door #1” (and Door #2 and Door #3), the “Classic Remix Series”, the “Dangerous Album Remixes” released in Asia, and the three-album series of mixes on “Stranger in Moscow”. Nearly every album MJ released in the late 80’s and 90’s had multiple official remixed versions, and the “Blood On the Dance Floor” album (for whatever logistical reasons) contained more remixes than newly released tracks, becoming the biggest selling remix album ever. I own over thirty albums of official MJJ Production remixes, averaging from four to six tracks each, and I’m still collecting. Including unofficial (not released by MJ or his label) tracks, my personal collection is pushing 1700 remixes. There are many more.

    Though some fans dislike any practice that seems to “mess with Michael’s music”, and may ignore historical evidence and assert that he actually disliked remixes, the fact remains that remixes were a successful and popular part of Michael’s catalog, or they would not have existed. They represent the same process of collaboration, honoring the past and dynamism into the future, which MJ was so firmly a part of during his stellar career – and also the continuing interest in engaging with what he created in completely different ways, as Ravel did with Mussorgsky, Bernstein with Mahler, etc. As biographer Joe Vogel summarizes in his liner notes for the “Xscape” album, “…it is about creatively connecting with his work, about finding new and compelling ways to capture the essence, the excitement and the magic that is Michael Jackson.”

    You consistently do a great job of that as well in this blog.

    Thank you once again for Important Dates in HIStory and another thought-provoking look at one of musical history’s most multi-faceted giants.

    • “Remixes, however, are not late in coming. Michael Jackson was exposed to them early in his solo career and remixes became a viable permanent part of his catalog by the mid-1980’s. His philosophy seems very consistent over the years, and remixes were part of it: MJ was to me the epitome of a lifelong collaborator who fed off of the contributions of others as consistently and persistently as they fed off his.”

      I agree, Chris. Artists in all fields “quote,” rework, and respond to the work of artists who’ve gone before them. In fact, depending on how loosely you define “remix,” you could even make the claim that the Beat It video is a remix of West Side Story, which is a remix of Romeo and Juliet, which is a remix of … And I think it’s very important that artists be allowed to re-imagine, even “contemporize” Michael Jackson’s work. That’s one way his work will stay alive for generations.

      My only hesitation about the remixes on Xscape is that, in terms of media attention, they’re replacing rather than augmenting the originals. However, I was VERY glad they released the originals with the remixes – I wish they would do the same with Michael. I really like Michael and don’t think it deserves the critical drubbing it’s taken, but I would like to have the originals of those songs to have a better idea of what Michael Jackson himself envisioned.

      • Willa, thank you very much for your supportive comments about remixes. We’re on the same page. And I feel as you do regarding the “Michael” album and would also like to see a redo of that release that includes the original versions that the producers remixed. Perhaps some controversy would be laid to rest too.

        That the “contemporized” versions on “Xscape” are getting more attention is logical behavior for the media outlets whose livelihood depends upon riding the changing trends and fads in music and catering to whatever the “ear” of the day happens to be. They recognize, perhaps cynically, what must be done.

        The wonderful part of the new album though, is that (unlike so much of today’s music) even the contemporized versions are based upon solid works by a masterful artist and have that underlying base of quality and strength. Six decades of evolving musical innovation by one artist cannot be pushed aside or even damaged. I trust that the new versions of his work will lead new and veteran listeners inevitably back to his original canon once he has their attention again, and that they will appreciate the level of participation he inspires.

    • This is fascinating Chris! Would love to read “The Remix Manifesto” if it is available for purchase. Any chance of that? And I would love to see a list of known official remixes from MJJ Productions. Brad Sundberg mentioned in one of his seminars that after MJ released an album, they usually worked another year or so on various edits. That’s absolutely amazing you’ve collected so many official and unofficial remixes.

      I really appreciate your philosophy and enthusiasm on this. It’s hard to make a convincing argument MJ was not a proponent of remixes given “Blood on the Dance Floor,” “Thriller 25.” and “A Place Without No Name.” Somewhere along the way what was once thought of as “stealing” or “messing with” someone’s music has turned into one of the highest compliments you can pay another artist. It’s another fascinating chapter in music “HIStory.”

      • Thank you, Ultravioletrae/Lisha, for your interest and especially the great comments in your blog with Willa and Joie that allowed me to detour into remixing music.

        At his level of popularity, there was virtually no chance that Michael Jackson’s music would not be remixed, covered and sampled by anyone with an ear to the future, the desire to emulate great success, and the sense to recognize someone who was clearly a major cut above the average level of pop music.

        I once complained to a British EBay seller from whom I was buying a remix about the tendency of their press to refer to MJ as “Jacko”. Her reply was along the lines of: “If nobody has bothered to give you a tacky nickname in the British press, you haven’t arrived…”
        In a similar vein, if nobody has bothered to work with your art in some way (remix, cover or sample it) then you haven’t arrived either. And MJ certainly had!

        I recently read another interesting story about MJ’s own tendency to borrow from others – there are so many, of course, from the chords from “Sunrise, Sunset” in “Little Susie” to Gene Kelly’s loafers, white socks and short pants. This particular story says that Michael once sought out a fellow 80’s success, Darryl Hall, to tell him that he had sampled the famous bass line in his hit song “Billie Jean” from one of Hall & Oates’ tunes. (Sorry, I don’t know which song.) Darryl Hall told him it was okay, no problem, since HE had also sampled the bass line from somewhere else! And on it goes.

        I’m not aware of any definitive list of official MJJ Productions remixes in existence yet. You can find a start in the discographies in the Cadman/Halstead book “Michael Jackson For the Record, 2nd Edition – Revised & Expanded”, however they only deal with releases in the U.S. and the U.K.; but there are many more releases from Europe, Latin America, Australia/NZ and Asia that haven’t been included.

        I’ve tried to match up the stock numbers and track lists on the remixes I own to their lists and many of mine don’t match US/UK releases. Michael was a world-wide phenomenon and the complexity of tracking what was released and where is quite something.

        I get very excited when I come across a release I haven’t seen before and doubt that my collection will ever be complete unless I win a state lottery somewhere. I’ve just started to add DJ versions on vinyl to the madness. I’m fascinated and humbled by the participatory respect Michael garnered in his amazing career.

  2. Joie, Willa, and Lisha —

    Thank you! This is wonderful. So much information and insight. I need to go back and read it again, and again — to take it all in.

    I love the discussion of the significance of juxtaposing Beethoven’s death date with Berry Gordy’s birth date.

    And, Lisha, identifying all those dates and showing how they were organized in the soundscape. Amazing.

    More later. But what a great way to start off the day.

  3. Wow! All I can say is ditto, the above comments are the same as mine.

  4. Midnite Boomer

    WOW! I can’t tell you how much joy this post gives me. I have wrestled with those dates for a long time, and now will go back and listen with Lisha’s hints. I also appreciate the discussion about Beethoven and Berry Gordy.
    Teensy “oops” I noticed: “Thriller didn’t just win Best Album of the Year, it won seven other Grammys as well.” Actually it won six others, total of 7. The eighth Grammy Michael won that year was for the ET storybook album.
    Thank you so much for this thought-provoking post!

    • “Teensy ‘oops’ I noticed: ‘Thriller didn’t just win Best Album of the Year, it won seven other Grammys as well.’ Actually it won six others, total of 7. The eighth Grammy Michael won that year was for the ET storybook album.”

      Darn it! I try really hard to double-check everything, but mistakes like this still make it through sometimes. Thanks a lot for the fact-checking, Midnight Boomer. I really appreciate it. I just changed the post so it should be right now.

  5. does anyone think the way history is mixed is remeiscent of some beatles songs? with the transitions the wat thet are and the musical collage thing he does with it?

    • You know, I do. I’m thinking of “Mr. Kite” from the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper” and how samples of circus music were randomly collaged together, just as one example. Reminds me a bit of all the John Phillip Sousa style band music in “HIStory” and how it has been stitched together with audio clips of actual historical events that are featured throughout the track.

      Sounds like you may have some other examples in mind, too!

  6. Chris Kohler, here is a remix of HIStory that I really like:
    Michael Jackson – HIStory [Remix] – YouTube
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DlhfpKPfBNE

    • Definitely a good HIStory remix, sfaikus, and it’s an official MJJ Productions one, actually released twice in 1997 on Epic 664615 2, and Epic 664796 2. The CDs have the same cover. The title of the remix is 7″ History Lesson Edit. There are many more good ones – keep listening for them!

  7. Excellent archaeology, ladies! 🙂 The transition from Beethoven’s death to Gordy’s birth is a really interesting way to start the song; the idea of the solitary genius is being replaced by the idea of multiple copies – and History can begin.

    I think it’s funny how MJ, the very personification of POP, ever so often referenced classical composers (in interviews, in samples used in his own songs, etc.) Instead of isolating himself in the elitist world of High Art – as many classical music aficionados do – MJ made his music accessible to millions of people, then subtly fed us drops of classical music while he had our attention. In a way, MJ has done both Gordy and Beethoven a favour – interrupting the industrial ”assembly line” with uniquely felt and truly memorable art, *and* turning ”Beethoven” himself into a copy in the assembly line.

    In some ways, I think MJ has become a ”honorary dead white male composer” (no vitiligo pun intended). Reviewers of Xscape ramble on about MJ’s ”original intentions” (the ”Beethoven” phase) versus the remixers ”playing Frankenstein”, ”robbing MJ’s corpse” etc. (When he was alive, the same reviewers would have made jokes about Bubbles the chimp.) We now have the ”holy canon” of MJ’s original work being mass-copied and ”dumbed down” for the young and naive masses (”who don’t know what great music is anymore”). Just wait until MJ’s own classical music is released, then MJ’s ”beethovenization” will be complete (and the music critics utterly confused!)

    To see what I mean, read the following review of Xscape: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/cdreviews/10827619/Michael-Jackson-Xscape-review-Jackson-would-approve.html

    The reviewer takes a very high-art approach – throwing in a Picasso comparison – then suddenly has to remind himself that ”this is pop, not high art”. To me, he could just as well have written: ”Wait a second, I forgot, Michael Jackson isn’t really a dead white male composer”.

    • Very interesting ideas, Bjørn, about “MJ’s ‘beethovenization'” – especially the idea of musical purity. As you said so well,

      Reviewers of Xscape ramble on about MJ’s “original intentions” (the “Beethoven” phase) versus the remixers “playing Frankenstein”, “robbing MJ’s corpse” etc. … We now have the “holy canon” of MJ’s original work being mass-copied and “dumbed down” for the young and naive masses (“who don’t know what great music is anymore”).

      I do want access to Michael Jackson’s demos and other recordings to gain insights into his “original intentions,” and I have to say that, on Xscape for example, I prefer his versions to the remixes.

      But I still support the concept of remixes, and I’m very wary of this idea of musical purity. Those who decry remixes entirely and try to limit Michael Jackon’s work to the “‘holy canon’ of MJ’s original work,” as you put it, would only succeed in preserving his work to death. Music is like a living thing – you can’t preserve it under glass any more than you can preserve a living plant or animal that way. A “preserved” specimen may look nice, but it’s dead. Other artists must be allowed to engage with and even “contemporize” Michael Jackson’s work if it’s to continue to live.

    • That’s a really interesting review and very astute observations, Bjørn! I agree with you and I’ve noticed quite a few critics dipping their toes into the waters of MJ canonization. But at the same time, like all things MJ, they allow for a split narrative, referring to the “fallen King of Pop” while advocating for “anthologising and annotating his vast troves of unreleased material.” They’re not yet sure which way they want to go!

  8. Caro Attwell

    Thank you all so much for this fascinating post. Like most everyone else who enjoyed the track the dates have remained a mystery, so I am most grateful to you for teasing them out for us, and I have now saved the list, so that I can read it when I next listen. The whole blog is a fund of information, and before I listened to MJ I only listened to classical music – now I only listen to Michael and often get the best of both worlds, as one poster says, when he inserts snippets “when he has our attention” – loved that.

    I too am very glad that Xscape contains both ‘comptemporised’ and ‘original’ tracks, and would very much like to hear the originals of ‘Michael’ also because I think it got a bum wrap as you guys would say – there are many great tracks on that album. I just L.O.V.E Xscape and am in fact off now to listen to the contemprised version on my dvd/tv surround system, and the originals (which I also prefer Willa) on earphones on my laptop, so I can compare them track for track one after the other. Am also going to read Raven’s critique on her All For Love blog as I go along – what a feast on a cold wet Cape Town afternoon – how good can life get………..

  9. Caro Attwell

    Hi Though this blog is great and I am grateful for the information, I am rather consumed with Xscape at the moment – I am sure I am not the only one – have really become a Slave to the Rhythm – so inadvertantly have my neighbours ha ha!! Have listened to it over and over, and Lisha with your wonderful ‘detective’ ears I wonder if you have picked up what Michael is singing inbetween the lines of the “Save me” bridge in Do You Know Where Your Children Are? There is nothing written in the booklet with the CD and after reading this History blog, it is driving me wild not knowing. Sorry to hijack this post, but I can’t Xscape wanting to know!! help my sanity please.

    • Hi Caro, I think we all got a little distracted by “Xscape” and listening to the new tracks! I listened very carefully to this section and my best guess is that these are unfinished lyrics. I think he is playing around with sounds, starting to hunt for what the finished lyrics will be. So, what I hear is very vague. It’s something like: “save me”…”from distance from here”…”coz’ that’s I’m gonna do”…”from time after bed”…”from this is what I do”…”from out on the road”…”coz’ out I wanna go”…”from tap of the night”…”from out I wanna be.” I think he was just looking for what might work. Is that what you think?

  10. As usual great discussion and illumination especially on the dates which I would have never been able to decipher on my own. Thank you very much for that. I was thinking that perhaps one other level of discussion could also be had in reference to this people and times in history. In what way were these particular people, their impact and their dates part of Michael’s HIStory?- Afterall he sings “everyday create YOUR history” even though these people went before him and as far as we know only Berry Gordy was intimately involved in Michael’s life. However, somehow these other seem to have all “created HIStory” in Michael’s life.

    Perhaps meaning that our thoughts, our motivations, our lives are molded directly or indirectly by events and people who’ve gone before us and we “create our history” utilizing the gift of their messages or lessons learned from their particular and respective missions within their own historical relevance. It would be interesting to find out how these different people affected Michael’s thought processes besides Beethoven and Gordy whose obvious musical overtones laid a great groundwork for his own genius to flourish. We know that Michael said himself that he was greatly moved by Martin Luther KIng Jr.’s fight for racial parity and of course his music reflects the theme of a universal brotherhood of man. Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks both refused to be relegated, whether to the back of the bus or to minor league baseball, by their skintone and Michael sings “Not gonna live my life my being a color” – So am wondering now just how the others influence him not only in his art but his opinions and viewpoints on life in general.

    Also, Michael is telling us that we not only “create our history” by who influenced the formation of our own principles but maybe more importantly by who WE shall be influencing in the future.

    Most assuredly, Michael Jackson has positively influenced a great deal of people.

    • Thanks so much for the astute comments, MJJJusticeProject. Yes, I agree we could definitely keep going with this topic. There is so much more to say about this track and how we “create our history” and influence the future in our everyday lives.

      That’s a fascinating parallel you’ve drawn between Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks, two important historical figures that I’m sure inspired MJ and us all.

      Many thanks for the kind words and for the re-blog!

  11. Reblogged this on mjjjusticeproject and commented:
    A must read – thought provoking as usual –

  12. Speaking of covers and remixes … Just saw this and had to share. It’s a group called the Bottle Boys doing a cover of “Billie Jean” by blowing into empty bottles, and it’s pretty amazing:

  1. Pingback: – Date importanti in “HIStory” – By Willa and Joie | ONLYMICHAELJACKSON

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