Summer Rewind 2014: You Make Me Feel Like … You Make Me Feel Like …

The following conversation was originally posted on December 5, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Willa:  So this week we’re going to take on a rather slippery topic: Michael Jackson’s nonverbal vocalizations, meaning the sounds he made with his voice that aren’t words, exactly. Yet those vocalizations can still carry a lot of meaning or evoke powerful emotion or add tremendous drama or texture to his songs. In fact, you could make the case that his nonverbal vocalizations are one of the elements that set him apart as a vocalist. But they’re hard to talk about simply because they are “nonverbal” and therefore outside language. How do you talk about something that’s “nonverbal”?

Joie wasn’t able to be with us this week, but I’m thrilled to be joined by two of our friends who are very interested in sounds and words: Lisha McDuff, a professional musician and musicologist, and Bjørn Bojesen, a poet and author of En Undersøgelse af Fænomenet Rim (or A Survey of the Phenomenon of Rhyming, for those of us who don’t speak Danish.) Thank you both so much for joining me! This is a challenging topic, and I’m so grateful to have you here to help grapple with it.

So I thought a good way to try to get a handle on this topic would be to look at some specific instances where Michael Jackson uses nonverbal vocalizations. For example, in their tribute issue after he died, Rolling Stone wrote this about “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough”:

Make a list of the top 10 “ooooh!” screams in history, and this hit has at least six of them.

For once, I agree whole-heartedly with Rolling Stone! So what are other examples that jump out at you as either classic Michael Jackson sounds or, on the flip side, give an indication of the wide variety of vocalizations he used?

Bjørn:  Ouch, this is hard! Is there an MJ song where he doesn’t use any “non-words”? I think the sound most people associate with Jackson is “aoow!” (as in the beginning of “Black or White”), with “hee-hee” as a close runner-up. But this is guesswork! If I have to point at any particular song, I really like how he starts “Blame it on the Boogie”: “hee-hee-hee-hee.”

Willa:  Oh, good choice! I love that too, especially the way the “hee”s start high and progressively drop down, almost like he’s playing scales with his voice.

Bjørn:  In so many others of his songs his NVVs (non-verbal vocalizations) sound pained, but here it’s pure joy. You instantly know which song it is, and who the singer is. As you, Willa, and Joie revealed in a post some months ago, the song was also sung by Mick Jackson from Britain. It’s amazing to compare the two versions, and hear how “our” MJ makes this song his own just by adding some crystalline “tittering”!

Lisha:  “Crystalline tittering” – what a poetic way of verbalizing the non-verbals, Bjørn! It’s so great to have a poet around. You both came up with some wonderful examples – NVVs that are as symbolic of Michael Jackson as the single sequined glove and the black fedora. Of course you could say the same about the vocal “hiccups” in “Billie Jean,” and the ad libbed “hoos” in the final chorus of “Earth Song.” These vocal sounds are so iconic, we often think of them as belonging only to Michael Jackson. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find an MJ impersonation that did not include them.

Bjørn:  Or an MJ parody! In 2007, Chris Tucker did an absolutely unforgettable “hee-hee” on Conan O’Brien’s talkshow:

http://www.redbalcony.com/?vid=21117

Lisha:  Chris Tucker is absolutely hysterical! And he doesn’t miss a thing, does he? The “hee-hee” is a dead giveaway for Michael Jackson’s identity – it is a sound that has become synonymous with Michael Jackson.

And these vocalizations were such a powerful part of his performances, weren’t they? I absolutely loved Vincent Patterson’s story in Bad 25, when he tells what happened when Michael Jackson let out a full-voiced “hoo” on the set of The Way You Make Me Feel:

Willa:  What a wonderful description! As Patterson says, “Everything stopped. We had to stop shooting because people just froze – they actually froze on the stage.” And I can believe it! That high, clear, powerful “hoo” is so arresting, even just listening to the video – a video I’ve watched a hundred times before. I can only imagine what it was like for the people there on set, hearing it live for the first time.

So what do you think makes these nonverbal sounds so compelling? For example, he could have used sounds from an instrument instead, or he could have sung sounds we recognize as words. What makes these sounds so powerful and expressive?

Lisha:  Good question, and I wonder if anyone really knows how to verbalize the answer to that! Popular music scholars like to talk about “the grain of the voice,” based on a famous essay by Roland Barthes, which might give us a clue. If you think about the grain of a piece of wood, for example, there is an individual characteristic to that wood that could have aesthetic value. The same could be said of the voice, though it’s exceedingly hard to define and individual preference can easily come into play.

The grain of the voice is thought to be everything that makes a voice compelling, yet it lies beyond the scope of what you might learn about singing if you were to take singing lessons. It is beyond beautiful sound, good technique, and excellent breath control – though in the example above, all those things are present too.

Willa:  That’s such an intriguing idea, Lisha. Is the grain of the voice part of what makes individual voices so unique? What I mean is that with “We are the World,” for example, even though everyone is singing in a somewhat similar style, pitch, volume, tone, tempo – all the usual characteristics we tend to think of when talking about sound – the voices are still so distinct and individualized. You don’t have to watch the video to pick out who’s singing what – it’s obvious from their voices. I don’t think anyone would confuse Willie Nelson’s voice with Ray Charles’ or Bruce Springsteen’s or Bob Dylan’s, for example, and they certainly wouldn’t confuse it with Diana Ross’ or Cyndi Lauper’s. Is that part of the “grain”?

Lisha:  Well, actually it’s just a little different. As you pointed out, every voice has its own unique sound quality and no two voices are just alike. It’s the reason you don’t always have to identify yourself over the phone – you can just say “hey, it’s me” – and if the person knows you well, they know exactly who is calling. The musical term for this is “vocal timbre”; it’s the individual quality or tone color of the voice.

The “grain of the voice” is something more than timbre, that has to do with the aesthetic quality of the voice and the ability of the voice to go beyond the function of language or traditional musical expectations. It’s all of those undefinable qualities that account for why some can deliver a song in a very powerful and meaningful way, while others we just admire and move on – even if their performances were quite expressive and technically polished. They just don’t hit you where you live, so to speak. As I understand it, the “grain of the voice” is a way of describing how the voice works at the language and the music – it takes place beyond the realm of definable musical elements or linguistic function.

The example you gave of “We are the World” is an excellent way of clarifying this. If you think of voices like Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, or Bob Dylan – those aren’t beautiful voices in the traditional pedagogical sense. Their singing doesn’t conform to the rules of great vocal technique like some of the others do. Yet, out of that amazing chorus of stellar vocal talent, those four singers are among the most respected – I would even say revered. It’s the “grain of the voice” that possibly accounts for the power of their vocal performances. They are very honest and convincing singers, capable of delivering a song in a way that really speaks to the listener.

Bjørn:  That is really interesting, Lisha! I had never thought about voices like that before, and the grain concept really helps clarify some things. So, MJ’s “grain,” his way of using his voice in the music, might explain the power of his NVVs. Perhaps it might even explain why his verbal singing affects so many people beyond the mere meaning of the words?

Lisha:  I think it at least gets us started in how to think about it. There is something very compelling about Michael Jackson’s voice that isn’t so easy to define. I think it’s one of the reasons a lot of TV talent shows inevitably feature a Michael Jackson episode. It’s quite a challenge for the judges and contestants to think about why Michael Jackson’s performances are so exceedingly difficult to match.

Bjørn:  That’s a very good point, Lisha! One of the reasons why those rising TV stars can’t match MJ, I think, is that there is more to his singing talent than the quality of the voice itself.

Lisha:  I agree.

Bjørn:  Commemorating the fourth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, Joe Vogel posted a really wonderful description of MJ using a NVV in a non-song situation. He quotes Howard Bloom, who was a publicist for the Jacksons in the mid-1980s. Bloom was going to show the Jackson brothers some portfolios so that they might choose an artist for their next album cover:

We were all bunched together on the opposite side of the pool table from the art director. Michael was in the center. I stood next to him on his left. And the brothers were crowded around us on either side. The CBS art director slid the first of the portfolios toward Michael. He opened the first page, slowly … just enough to see perhaps an inch of the image. As he took in the artwork his knees began to buckle, his elbows bent, and all he could say was “oooohhhhh.” A soft, orgasmic “ooooh.” In that one syllable and in his body language, you could feel what he was seeing.

Willa:  Oh, I can just picture that, Bjørn!  It really conveys how expressive Michael Jackson could be, nonverbally, both through his voice and gestures – “his knees began to buckle … and all he could say was ‘oooohhhhh.’” What a great image!

And I’m intrigued by what you just said, Lisha, about Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan – how “their singing doesn’t conform to the rules of great vocal technique,” but their voices are still very expressive. It reminds me of the opening lines of an article I read a while ago in Village Voice, where critic Frank Kogan wrote, “An odd thing about Michael Jackson is that he has a totally spectacular voice but he doesn’t feel the need to amaze us with it. At all.”

I disagree with much of Kogan’s article, but I do agree with this. Michael Jackson had “a totally spectacular voice,” as Kogan says, but he didn’t put it on display – that wasn’t his focus. In fact, sometimes he’d make his voice rough or staccato or in some other way use his voice in a way that hid just how beautiful it was, but conveyed tremendous emotion and meaning, I think. And I wonder if this gets back to the idea of “grain” that you were talking about, Lisha.

Lisha:  I think that’s exactly it, Willa. Serving the music was always Michael Jackson’s first priority. I honestly can’t think of a single example of where he indulges in a simple display of virtuosic vocal talent, though he certainly could have if he wanted to.

Willa:  I agree. We know that Michael Jackson was very conscientious about his voice. He worked with a voice coach, Seth Riggs, for decades, and he’d meticulously run through an hour or more of vocal exercises before a concert or recording session to fully open his voice. He wanted to make sure that beautiful tenor and those pure, clear, high notes were available to him if he needed them. But his concerts and albums aren’t a showcase of beautiful notes. His focus was always on conveying ideas and emotion, on conveying something meaningful – as he said while still just a child, “I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it.” And sometimes that means hitting a “crystalline” note, as you called it, Bjørn, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Lisha:  Sometimes he withdraws his singing voice for musical emphasis. “Money” is the perfect example of this, also “Blood on the Dance Floor.” The verses are almost spoken rather than sung, and he uses very little of his voice, at times almost a whisper, which is such a perfect choice. The voice itself is carrying so much meaning in these examples, though it’s quite the opposite of a “showcase of beautiful notes.”

I also think it also goes back to what Bjørn was saying about Michael Jackson letting out an ecstatic “oooohhhh” when he saw that amazing artwork. It seems to me that human beings have a need to express themselves vocally. If you stub your toe or burn yourself in the kitchen, the first thing you do is vocalize with an “ow!” or “ouch!” Or if your team wins, or your favorite singer gives an amazing performance, you want to yell out “yyyeess!” “woo-hoo!” or “yeah!” Intense grief or anguish is associated with sobbing and wailing sounds. A big surprise is usually followed by a gasping sound – an audible inhalation. Disgust is often followed by “uh,” vocalizing a sharp exhalation. There are so many ways we use vocal sounds to express ourselves.

Willa:  That’s a good point, Lisha, and maybe those exclamations are so evocative and emotionally powerful precisely because they’re prelingual – they happen reflexively before we have a chance to think and put our thoughts into words, so they seem more primal and maybe more true somehow.

Lisha:  Or maybe they could even be described as translingual – in that they go beyond the function of language? Certainly Michael Jackson had a good command of language, but it seems there are times when language doesn’t fully support what he wanted to convey.

Bjørn:  I’d say the ability to express our emotions is one of language’s primary functions! But I do see what you mean by the words “prelingual” and “translingual.” In linguistics, exclamations like “ouch!” or “yes” are called interjections. Unlike a verb (“to sing”), a noun (“a song”) or an adjective (“beautiful”), interjections cannot partake in the creation of phrases. Each interjection is like an autonomous phrase. When lifting your hand from a scorching cooking plate, there’s no need to formulate a phrase like “that hurt!” An “ouch!” says it all.

Some interjections are onomatopoeia or imitations of sounds in the world around us. Like when a child points at a cow and says “moo!” Other interjections are more spontaneous expressions of feelings, and this is where I see a direct link to Michael Jackson’s NVVs. As you point out in your book, Willa, one of MJ’s driving forces as an artist was his desire to help us see how belief influences our perceptions. We see a cow, think for a couple of milliseconds, then reach the mental conclusion “that’s a cow.” In that way, language helps us organize our impressions and gain some footing in the perceptional flux. The price is, however, that every time we use language to form a phrase, we also pass judgment on the world. To a certain extent, interjections are an exception to this.

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, Bjørn. I never thought of it that way – that interjections are nonjudgmental.

Bjørn:  If you’ve never ever seen a cow, and then have your very first encounter with one, you might react by letting out a surprised “o!” – just like the romantic poets.

I think MJ’s use of NVVs has everything to do with a note he once wrote to himself concerning songwriting: feel, feel, feel, feel, feel, feel… His NVVs are so powerful because they derive directly from his feelings, with no intervention of analytical thought in order to put those feelings into words. A baby cries, a lion roars. Those sounds move us immediately, because they are natural or primal. They’re very impulsive, almost instinctive, reactions to emotions like fear, joy and wonder. They come directly from the heart, and MJ knew it (or felt it, I should say).

Willa:  That’s a really important idea, Bjørn, and I think it gets to the heart of why these nonverbal vocalizations can be so powerful. It’s not just that we don’t need to say anything more than “ow!” when we burn our hand on the stove. If it hurts badly enough, we can’t say anything more – all we can do is moan, or gasp, or silently writhe on the floor. Language breaks down in the face of extreme physical or emotional pain – or extreme joy, as Michael Jackson describes in “Speechless.”

For me, the best example of this is the interlude in Smooth Criminal. Something terrible happens to Annie – we’re not sure what, but the implication is that she’s been shot by Michael, the Smooth Criminal (just as The Blond is shot by Fred Astaire’s character in The Band Wagon, and Charlotte is shot by Mike Hammer in I, the Jury– the two works Smooth Criminal is based on). Michael points his hand like a gun and shoots out the skylights, we hear the sound of a gunshot, and glass from the broken skylights crashes down on everyone in the nightclub. And importantly, there’s also a rupture in the flow of the video, and in language itself.

It’s like a psychotic break where Michael is forced to confront what he’s done and feel the pain of it, and there’s no singing or dancing or dialogue in this section – just stamping and moaning. It feels to me that we’ve entered a space of such intense emotion, language can’t function here. It’s like when you burn your hand on the stove and it hurts too much to speak in words, or when you feel emotional or psychological pain to such an extreme you can’t speak. We enter that primal, pre-verbal space in Smooth Criminal after Annie is shot.

Lisha:  But isn’t Michael the guy in the white hat throughout this short film and the entire Moonwalker film? I’ve always interpreted him as the rescuer, not the perpetrator in Smooth Criminal. I think the long NVV “ooooo” helps to clarify this. It expresses the pain and agony he feels that Annie is not “ok” – the thing that motivated him to fight and restore order in the first place.

There was even a Sega Genesis home video game about Michael Jackson’s NVVs, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, that depicts this really well. The “first person shooter” in this game isn’t armed with guns or traditional weaponry. Instead, the player is armed with Michael Jackson’s NVVs and his iconic dance moves. The task is to rescue the little blond girl “Katie” from the evil Mr. Big and his henchmen:

Bjørn:  Oh yes, I remember having played that game! The synthesized “hoows” sound worse than an underwater radio transmission of a cat, but no one is in doubt who the good guy is…

Lisha:  Too funny, but you’re right, Bjørn! Michael Jackson was apparently very frustrated with the game sound technology available at that time. Perhaps that’s the reason the “hoows” are even used in a humorous way at times, like between scenes. Here’s a link to a Brad Buxer interview that discusses this (page 76).

Willa:  That game is funny! I hadn’t seen it before, and I see what you’re saying about Michael being the rescuer. And I know how you feel, Lisha, about the idea of Michael shooting Annie. I really do. There’s something in me that completely rebels against that idea. It just feels so wrong.

But at the same time, I think what Michael Jackson is doing in Smooth Criminal is complicated but incredibly important. Our culture is steeped in stories of violence against women – or more than that, stories that glorify men who commit violence against women. That’s exactly what happens at the conclusion of I, the Jury and The Band Wagon. Both of those stories focus on a tough guy private investigator who crosses the line sometimes between legal and illegal, moral and immoral, and in both stories the protagonist shoots and kills the woman he said he loved and vowed to protect. And the really horrible thing is that, in both cases, he feels justified in killing her – and he’s presented as a hero, or rather a tough guy anti-hero, because of it.

I think that in Smooth Criminal, Michael Jackson is retelling those stories, or rather he’s “untelling” them – he’s evoking them and then undoing them. His protagonist, Michael, is morally ambiguous also. He’s “the guy in the white hat,” as you said, Lisha, but he’s also a “smooth criminal.” And he’s a mourner – think of the black armband. And he’s the narrator, since it’s his voice that sings the story of what happened. And he’s a member of the chorus, which like a Greek chorus in classical drama provides moral commentary (“Annie, are you OK?”). And to some extent he’s Annie also, since his voice sings her part as well. So he occupies many different subject positions.

Just as importantly, Michael isn’t nearly as hardened as Mike Hammer or Rod Riley, so his reaction to what happens is very different. Mike Hammer and Rod Riley seem liberated and reaffirmed as men when they kill those women, but Michael’s reaction is very different. Annie’s death is intolerable to him. It racks him with pain – you can hear it in his voice – and so we have that psychological break where language stops functioning, and all we hear are cries and other nonverbal vocalizations.

But this is just one interpretation. Both the song and video are really ambiguous about what exactly has happened, so it can be interpreted many different ways. And I fully understand where you’re coming from, Lisha.

Lisha:  That’s really fascinating, Willa. I totally agree that Smooth Criminal is doing important cultural work when it untells “stories that glorify men who commit violence against women.” Now I have to go back and really re-think all this!

Bjørn:  I really like that you introduced the wailing scene from Smooth Criminal, Willa. I was thinking about it as well, and how it shows the deep need we as human beings have to express ourselves with our voices, even when we’re in such an emotionally fraught state that we can’t produce words that point to anything in the outside world. When language breaks down, the barriers we set between us as humans also break down. (As an aside, scientists have just discovered that the one word that’s shared by most of the world’s languages is the interjection “huh”!)

Without all our words and labels, we’re no longer French or Chinese, teacher or student, sailor or politician, adult or child. We’re all just souls (or personalities or whatever one likes to call it) that happen to be embodied in a plethora of different shapes and colors. Each time MJ lets out an “ow!” he basically tells us “You’re just like me, I’m just like you” (or, in his own words, “You’re just another part of me”).

Willa:  Oh, that’s a wonderful way of interpreting this, Bjørn! – his nonverbals as a way of bridging cultural differences.

Lisha:  That is interesting, because when we use interjections like “ow!” or “ouch!” we are definitely speaking English and behaving in a way that is culturally acceptable in the English speaking world. I assume other languages have equivalent behaviors and expressions for crying out in pain. But the long “oooo” sound isn’t necessarily speaking English and it doesn’t seem limited to a specific language or culture to me.

Bjørn:  Well, in my experience you don’t have to understand English in order to get Michael Jackson’s “aoows” and “hee-hees.” You could also say that laughter is a NVV – the whole world, from Greenland to New Guinea, would understand the laughter at the beginning of “Off the Wall” (and at the end of “Thriller”)! I even think it goes further, that he somehow uses his NVVs to destabilize the boundaries between humanity and nature. After all, the vocal sounds of animals are non-verbal. (In “Black Or White” the human Jackson uses both verbal and non-verbal vocalizations; the moment he’s transformed into a panther, he can only roar.) A good example would be the way he merges monkey sounds into the music in “Monkey Business.”

Lisha:  Very interesting, Bjørn. And I wouldn’t rule out that some of those monkey sound effects are NVVs. After all, according to Bruce Swedien, it was Michael Jackson who produced the howling sounds in “Thriller.” For example, at about 20 seconds before the end of “Monkey Business” (at 5:26) there is a repeated “ach-a ach-a ach-a” sound followed by “hoo” (it’s on the far right if you’re wearing headphones) that sounds like Michael Jackson playing around with animal/monkey sounds to me.

“Monkey Business” also has something interesting in common with the album version of “Smooth Criminal,” which is the sound of the breath alone as a NVV. Just before the opening line, “Well Lord have mercy,” there is a dramatic intake of air, so close to the mic you can actually hear the air passing through the lips and teeth. And dang! Is it sexy the way he draws this breath!

Willa:  Now, now, Lisha, compose yourself!

Lisha:  Sorry, Willa, but it’s kind of hard not to notice!

Willa:  I know what you mean. You can almost feel his breath …

Lisha:  The way the song is recorded and engineered really contributes to this as well. You would have to be in very close proximity to someone to hear that much detail in their breathing and to hear such a soft voice so clearly, so the recording itself really conveys a sense of intimacy.

We also hear the sound of the breathing in the intro to “Smooth Criminal.” But in this case, the breathing gets faster and faster as the sound of the heartbeat begins to race, indicating a really frightening situation. What could be more cross-cultural, human, and natural than breathing and the beating of the heart? I think we could all agree, regardless of our cultural backgrounds, that the fast breathing in the intro to this song indicates fear and extreme anxiety, while the long, drawn out breath in “Monkey Business” is very relaxed and sexy.

Willa:  Wow, that’s really interesting, Lisha, that both songs begin with the sound of his breath, so close you can almost feel it, but it creates a very different effect – a feeling of intimacy in the first and a feeling of anxiety in the second. I hear something kind of similar at the beginning of “Is It Scary.” It’s like he catches his breath, but in a rhythmic way that’s both intimate and frightening.

Lisha:  A brilliant example! “Is It Scary” uses this so effectively throughout.

Willa:  It really does, though it’s not as intense as “Smooth Criminal.” I agree with you, Lisha – that quickening breath and racing heartbeat at the beginning of “Smooth Criminal” are really frightening. It’s almost like they create a physical entrainment, so our breath and heartbeats quicken in response to his. At least, I know mine does.

Lisha:  The heartbeat is so audible, it’s as if the listener is being cued to identify with the protagonist.

Willa:  Exactly!

Lisha:  It feels as if you’re placed right inside his head before the song ever starts. Yet, it’s interesting how you and I interpreted “Smooth Criminal” so differently, which is informed by these NVVs. To be honest, we could probably find as many different meanings attached to all of these sounds as we find different interpretations of the songs, within a certain range of course. I mean, I doubt someone would hear that first breath in “Monkey Business” as fear and anxiety and the fast breathing in “Smooth Criminal” as relaxed and sexy. But, the exact meanings attached to these sounds will differ.

Having said that about differences in interpretation, I have to agree with Bjørn that there is also something powerful about breaking down language in an attempt to speak to our commonalities rather than our differences. For example, the entire chorus of “Earth Song” is a NVV, sung on “ah” and “oo.” Michael Jackson abandons language altogether here, not only to break down the boundaries between people, but to “destabilize the boundaries between humanity and nature,” as Bjørn said so well.

Willa:  Which fits perfectly with the meaning of the song. The video reinforces this idea since we primarily see images of nature during the chorus. During the first quiet chorus, we mainly see the destruction of nature. During the second and third repetitions we see humans digging their hands into the devastated earth, reconnecting with nature, and that powerful wind begins to blow. … And then in the final glorious chorus, we see a vision of nature triumphant, with herds of animals restored to their rightful place.

Bjørn:  Furthermore, those NVV choruses muddle the musical genres… I know many pop fans find classical music boring, because there’s no human voice they can relate to. (This includes the somewhat “unnatural” voices heard in opera.) Conversely, aficionados of classical music often find pop music too superfluous and ephemeral, maybe because it’s based on an individual voice (or voices) rather than some “timeless” instrumentation that talks directly to people’s deeper selves and doesn’t require any translation. Now, “Earth Song” works on both levels, doesn’t it?

Willa:  It really does.In the chorus of “Earth Song,” his voice is literally his “instrument” since, to me anyway, it functions like an instrumental section – but he creates it with his voice, as you pointed out, Lisha. And the fact that it’s made of nonverbal sounds rather than lyrics is a big part of that, I think.

Lisha:  I hear the “ah” and “oo” sounds not as instrumentals but as lead vocals all the way! Joe Vogel called attention to how these nonverbals work on several levels – as a cry for the earth, as humanity crying out together as one human family, and as a personification of the earth itself – Mother Earth crying out in pain. It’s a stunning example of the power of NVVs and Michael Jackson’s vision as a composer.

But speaking of NVVs as a part of the musical score, there are some fabulous examples of how Michael Jackson uses NVVs as instrumentation. For example, in the beginning of “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” about 9 seconds in, the guitar line is actually a blend of guitar and Michael Jackson’s NVVs, “duh-tah duh-tah dum.” He is using his voice as part of the accompaniment and I would bet my last dime the vocals came first, and that the guitar sounds were chosen later to imitate the voice.

“Don’t Be Messin’ Round” is a gold mine for understanding how Michael Jackson used NVVs as a compositional technique. You can hear the song isn’t quite finished by how the NVVs are slowly being replaced by the instrumentals. A good example is at 3:58, about the last 20 seconds of the song, where you can hear the guitar imitating the voice.

Willa:  Wow! You really can! I hadn’t noticed that before.

Lisha:  The NVVs show how Michael Jackson would “write” music by recording his voice, rather than using a pencil and paper. Because of his exceptional vocal talent, this was an extremely efficient way for him to work. Like in the bridge at 2:38, I hear “bop-bop bah dup-bah-dup” as a trumpet line. My guess is that if this song had been finished, we would have heard a trumpet or brass section there. Hearing the line sung like that gives me a lot of information about what he wanted to hear, much more than just seeing it written out on the page, which is always an approximation of sound.

Bjørn:  Yet I’ve occasionally seen claims that Jackson wasn’t a “real” composer, since he didn’t write notes like the classical composers. But who knows, maybe he was actually far ahead of his time, a composer who’s consciously ditched notes and paper because they aren’t “necessary” (as he said somewhere in his Mexico deposition)?

Lisha:  I agree. I don’t think of Michael Jackson as a pre-literate composer, but as a post-literate composer. It’s a big mistake to assume “real” composers “write notes like classical composers.” The traditional way of writing music on paper is just a way of storing and communicating musical information. Michael Jackson had an extremely efficient method of doing both that I think is far more clever.

Bjørn:  Maybe too clever for the critics? Composition and songwriting is yet another area where Michael Jackson liked to mix up everything. For example, he sometimes seems to have used an offbeat pronunciation on purpose. Remember all those discussions about things like “shamone!” or the exact lyrics of the world’s most famous denial, “The kid is not my son”? (“The chair is not my son,” as David Letterman heard it!) Jackson does a lot of roaming in the borderlands between “composing” and “improvising,” “meaning” and “not meaning,” “voice” and “instrument,” “man” and “nature,” and even “man” and “machine” – as when he uses a vocal synthesizer in “Leave Me Alone.”

And speaking of “Don’t Be Messin’ Round,” I think it’s amazing how Michael Jackson’s voice is capable of creating an independent space in the air and the listener’s mind. Did you get a chance to hear the original “Slave to the Rhythm” when it leaked? In the first seconds of that song, it is as if MJ is drawing energy out of thin air and then setting the stage for the entire song with his NVV’s! It’s so powerful, his sounds almost feel like physical objects. There’s a loud “hoo!,” then a string of commanding “chuck-chuck-chuck,” another “hoo!,” vocal hiccups and strained “ah!”s mixed with waxing-waning “woahoaow” lamentations, climaxing into a double “hoo! hoo!” Only after 22 seconds does the actual singing begin…

Lisha:  I love those NVVs in “Slave to the Rhythm”! I was also thinking about the beginning of “Workin’ Day and Night” and how he’s got two different NVV hooks going at the same time – “de-dum dah” and “uh-ah uh-ah” – that are like extra percussion instruments. The Michael Jackson Immortal soundtrack really highlights this. I can even hear a “chu-chu” vocalization that blends with the percussion shakers.

Bjørn:  While we’re at it – I just re-listened to “Speed Demon.” The NVVs of that song are very unusual. Once again, some 20 seconds pass before the singing begins. MJ sets the stage with three very guttural “chu!”s, followed by a peculiar, almost girlish “oo!” followed by another trio of “chu!”s. Nearing the end of the song, he lets out an entire NVV “monologue”: “oouh!” (2:55), “ogh!” (2:58), [“girlish”] “ah!” (3:00), “urh!” (3:03), “hoow!” (3:05). It reminds me of the printed sound effects in comics (“boom!,” “ugh!,” “kapow!”).

Willa:  I agree!  And that’s a great way of describing it, Bjørn.

Bjørn:  I wonder if he created this particular “chu!” especially for “Speed Demon”? (It’s so throaty it sounds like cockney English or my own language Danish!) To some extent it carries the whole song – just like the “dah!” sound pervading “Bad.”

Lisha:  In my opinion, “chu” was absolutely created for “Speed Demon,” as an onomatopoeia for the motorcycle engine sounds. Listen carefully and you can also hear a percussive rattling or shaking sound when the rhythm begins, after the engine revs up for the first couple of seconds of the song. If you’re wearing headphones you will hear it on the left side for 8 counts, then it moves to the right side for 8 counts, and continues to alternate left and right. That’s not a pre-recorded sound effect or another percussion instrument, but a very soft, whispered, rhythmic, NVV! And it’s a complicated pattern, not even sure how I could try to write that out without the benefit of hearing the isolated track, but it sounds like an imitation of an engine purring or rattling to me.

We talked earlier about how expressive Michael Jackson’s NVVs can be, and how they so effectively communicate emotion, but oftentimes they are used as sound effects or part of the instrumentals as much as anything else. And they are often so understated and blended into many different layers of sound, that they’re not necessarily noticeable. And they are just so imaginative, giving such amazing variety to the sound. There seems to be no limits when it comes to Michael Jackson’s imagination.

A favorite example is “Stranger in Moscow.” If you listen carefully, just before the vocals start, there is a short, whispered “tuh” sound, placed irregularly on the off beats, that adds a very soft, percussive sound. Later in the song, just after “when you’re cold inside” (1:42) he repeats that soft sound, “tuh tuh tuh tuh,” but it sounds like he’s actually breathing in on some of them, which creates a slightly different color. I mean, who else thinks like that?

In the line “how does it feel,” the word “does” is heavily accented and one of the sounds accenting that beat is a whispered “huh” that is brought up in the mix. But all these details often go unnoticed. You just feel the power of the music and the lyric blending with all these sounds.

Willa:  Well, they certainly went unnoticed by me! That’s one thing I love about talking to you both – you highlight details I would never notice on my own. I feel sometimes like I’ve been listening to these songs for years and not really hearing them. It’s so fascinating to begin to hear some of the things you guys hear.

For example, I never noticed those “tuh tuh” sounds you’re talking about, Lisha, even though “Stranger in Moscow” is one of my favorite songs and I play it often. But you’re right – you can definitely hear them at several key moments. I hear them most clearly in the “We’re talking danger … I’m living lonely” section (about 3:45 in). It’s like an explosive exhalation occurring at regular intervals, almost like we’re listening to him lift weights or do some other kind of hard physical labor. And that repeated sound subtly conveys the feeling that he’s under duress and carrying a heavy load. At least, that’s how it feels to me.

Lisha:  Great example, Willa. That exhalation feels very labored to me too, which adds so much weight musically to the song. It’s endlessly fascinating to listen for all these sounds and to try to understand how they are being used.

Oh, and I just can’t resist at least one more example of these very subtle NVVs, which is “People of the World,” a charity song that Michael Jackson wrote and produced for the people of Kobe, Japan in 1995, after a devastating earthquake:

Although it is in Japanese and Michael Jackson doesn’t sing on this track, his writing and production work are unmistakable. You can hear him literally breathe life into the song with a whispery NVV just before the vocals begin (1:38), and as a repeated percussive effect on off beats throughout. I am a huge fan of this song.

Bjørn:  I can understand why. I’ve never heard this song before, and it is really beautiful. (Pop music by other performers often makes me cringe, so that ought to be proof enough that Michael Jackson’s spirit is alive in this song!) Thank you for sharing.

Lisha:  I admit, I got a little addicted to it. It’s amazing that I feel like I somehow understand what is being said, though I don’t speak a word of Japanese. I guess that goes to the power of music and non-verbal musical expression!

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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 July 31, 2014, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Willa, Lisha, Bjorn: This is one of my favorite DWTE articles ever – and that’s not an easy thing to determine, given how good they ALL are. Your comments here are just wonderful.

    The subject of MJ’s NVV’s is absolutely fascinating. I’ve been totally addicted to them (and to the “grain” of his voice, which is striking to say the least) and can’t get enough of his unique compositional additions, whether percussional, instrumental, or interjectional. Even his playfulness with pronunciation is fabulous.

    I can contribute two favorites:

    First, there’s the song “What More Can I Give”. Right after the intro, and in spite of the strong palette of voices he has to paint with there, MJ adds just one small but intriguing element right off the bat — he quietly blows, just a couple of beats — against the percussion that is already there. Just puts his lips together and blows. It reminds me of a percussive sound, as if a live drummer stroked a brush across a snare. Just a tiny thing – but what it represents is immense, namely that INSTINCT, that mind-blowing instinct that was his from birth, that a little something was needed there, just a little something, to help the song start to gain momentum. I can only hear it in the first verse and as the song builds in intensity after the chorus, it’s gone, overwhelmed by his skillful mixing of the ensemble vocals. But it accomplished its task.

    Lisha, you mention the interesting NVVs you hear during SIM and proffer that it sounds like he is actually taking air IN on some of the sounds, adding a slightly different color to the sound, and ask “Who would do that”?

    Well, we know who would do that. The same man who, at the end of Smile, whistles by INhaling instead of EXhaling. When I first heard that, I assumed he was just one of those interesting people who can’t whistle, but — now I wonder about that. What subtle color might he have been looking for to end his rendition of the famous song in a very personal way? I’ve heard a number of children whistle that way… and that is precisely the impression he gives to the end of that simple but profoundly moving song. The simplicity and innocence of a child.

    Thanks to all of you for this great collection of analyses!

    • Hi Chris. After reading your comment I immediately had to go listen to “What More Can I Give” and listen for that sound you’re talking about. It does add just the right the color there, doesn’t it? And because it comes from the breath, it’s a very “embodied” sound, if that makes sense, which supports the central ideas of “What More Can I Give.” He’s giving it his everything – body and soul.

      btw, I have to confess that I’m one of those people who whistles by taking air in rather than blowing air out. For some reason, I can just whistle a lot better that way. You just can’t do it when there are bugs around! I’ve sucked in a bug before …

    • Hi, Chris, I don’t think it’s MJ who is whistling in WH, but your point is well taken about the instinct in the NVV’s. I particularly like the ‘lubalubahlubah’ sounds at the opening of This Time Around–wow!!

      Have you guys heard about NL being sold?–sad.

  2. LOL! Bug-sucking. Having stage-managed a number of outdoor opera performances, I know exactly what you mean! They go in the ears too, very distracting.

    That tiny sound MJ adds to WMCIG is – YES! – embodied, perfect word. It felt to me as if he was almost breathing life into the song somehow. Blowing up the musical balloon. As if the compassion he put into the song was as natural as breathing and for him it certainly was. An absolute original in so many ways…

  3. Hi stephenson – the whistle I was referring to is at the end of Smile… I agree that WH is somebody else’s whistle for sure.

    And at the beginning of TTA, those off-the-wall NVVs are certainly different! I always heard lackalackalacka… but, whatever! With MJ one never knows, except to know it will be something only he would blow your mind with…

  1. Pingback: Dancing with the Elephant – Summer Rewind 2014: You Make Me Feel Like … You Make Me Feel Like … – Michael Jackson Academic Studies

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