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Summer Rewind 2014: Important Dates in HIStory

The following conversation was originally posted on May 22, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

We also wanted to give a reminder that Veronica Bassil’s new book, That Wonder in My Youth: Michael Jackson and Childhood, will be available for free tomorrow through September 2. Here’s a link.

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.

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.

Hold Me, Like the River Jordan

Willa:  Joie, you know how you get a song in your head sometimes, and it just keeps running through your mind?

Joie:  Yes. That can really drive you crazy! Especially if it’s a song that you don’t particularly care for.

Willa:  Right, like an advertising jingle. The old Oscar Mayer jingle does that to me sometimes, and I’ll go around for days thinking, “Oscar Mayer has a way with B – O – L – O – G – N – A.” And sometimes it’s just because there’s a catchy melody that grabs me. But sometimes, if I think about it, I realize there’s a reason why that particular song has caught hold of me. Like I went around singing the Schoolhouse Rock song about the Preamble to the Constitution pretty much all winter, and then realized my son was studying the Constitution in school.

Joie:  That’s funny! It is amazing how the mind works sometimes.

Willa:  It is funny, isn’t it? Anyway, that’s been happening to me for a couple of weeks now with “Will You Be There.” It’s always been one of my favorites, but something about it just seems to be speaking to me right now because it keeps running through my mind. Though I have to say, if you’re going to have a song stuck in your head, that’s an awfully nice one to have!

Joie:  Can’t argue there; what a great song! That one wouldn’t drive you nuts at all.

Willa:  Oh, it’s lovely, from those first beautiful notes to the opening lyrics to the swelling orchestration. And then the choir joins in, with his voice weaving around overhead – I just love it. It reminds me of walking by a river and watching a swallow swoop around just above the water, catching insects. The choir is the river with their big, full, flowing sound, and Jackson’s voice is the swallow dipping and diving just above it.

Joie:  Hmm. You paint a nice picture. And I agree; it is a beautiful song. And I just love the opening of the full version of the song, with the Beethoven prelude. Beautiful! You know, I don’t think many people realize that piece of music is taken from Beethoven’s famous “Ode to Joy.”

Willa:  Oh, so you’re talking about the version from the Dangerous album, right?

Joie:  Yes.

Willa:  I was thinking about the videos – the MTV 10th Anniversary one and the Free Willy one – and they don’t have the prelude. And it’s so interesting you should mention it, Joie, because I was thinking about the intro also, but in a really different way. I was focusing on the opening line of the lyrics – “Hold me, like the River Jordan” – and how much it sounds like an old slave spiritual. It even has the rhythm of a spiritual. You know how “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” begins with two long slow notes followed by a long pause, and then picks up the pace with quicker notes after the pause? Well that’s exactly how “Will You Be There” begins. So even though it’s a modern song, it’s like it has older music echoing through it, and you can really imagine those opening lyrics being sung 200 years ago.

But now that you’ve mentioned the prelude, it’s spun me off into a totally different place. You know, if you think about it, it’s really fascinating what he’s doing in that intro on the Dangerous version. We should talk to Lisha about it sometime and get some professional insight, but it begins with a musical quotation from Beethoven, as you say, so it evokes the classical genre. But then we hear the first line of the lyrics, and both the language and rhythm of those lyrics evoke a spiritual. That seems like such a contrast but somehow it works, and it works beautifully. Who else but Michael Jackson could pull off a juxtaposition like that and have it feel so right? It sounds like such a contradiction putting together those two widely divergent genres – you kinda think there’d be a jolt going from one to the other – but in his hands it feels perfectly natural, and precisely right.

Joie:  Willa, it’s so interesting that you say that because, in the classical Beethoven piece is a chorus singing lyrics in German. The English translation of those lyrics reads:

Do you bow down, millions?
Do you sense the Creator, world?
Seek Him beyond the starry canopy!
Beyond the stars must He dwell.

So the lyrics of this portion of “Ode to Joy” read very much like a hymn, or an old slave spiritual, as you said.

Willa:  Wow, that’s really interesting, isn’t it? To me, the music of that choral part has a very different feeling – it doesn’t feel like a slave spiritual to me at all – but the lyrics really do read like a hymn, don’t they?

Joie:  Yes, they really do. So, while on the surface they may seem like two very different and contradictory directions, they are actually not so far apart when you dig a little bit deeper. And you’re right; who else but Michael Jackson could pull off a juxtaposition like that and make it feel so natural and authentic? In his book, Man in the Music, Joe Vogel says of the song,

The nearly eight-minute piece is essentially an epic film score, rooted in black gospel but fused with classical music and rhythm and blues. It is yet another example of Jackson’s remarkable ability to draw from disparate musical styles and make them work together.  

This ability to ‘draw from disparate styles’ and bring differences together is the heart of his genius, in my opinion. He did it not only with music, as we’ve talked about before, but he did it with people as well. Bringing together all colors, all nationalities, and all generations.

Joe goes on to note in his book how much intros meant to Michael by quoting one of his long-time collaborators, Brad Buxer. Joe writes,

‘He was brilliant with that stuff,’ says Brad Buxer, ‘Intros and outros were really important to him. The intros were almost as important as the song itself.’

So, this beautiful intro with the angelic strains of the Cleveland Orchestral Chorus singing the very hymn-like words over Beethoven’s incredible 9th symphony wasn’t chosen randomly. I believe Michael probably knew very well what the English translation of that piece of music was and used it deliberately because, as Brad Buxer pointed out, to Michael, “the intros were almost as important as the song itself.”

Willa:  That’s fascinating, Joie, and we can really see it in “Will You Be There.” And you know, what you’ve just shared about the hymn-like qualities of that Beethoven section has me thinking about the divide between “high” art and popular art that we’ve talked about before, and that Nina mentioned in the comments last week. It’s like he begins by evoking a hymn from two very different sources – the high art of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and the folk art of a slave spiritual – but then brings them together to form this beautiful song.

So I think you have it exactly right, Joie, when you say his ability to “bring differences together is the heart of his genius.” We saw that in “Black or White,” as Lisha explicated so amazingly when we talked to her a couple months ago, and we see it again here. And as you said so well, Joie, this ability to cross boundaries extends from musical genres to demographics: “Bringing together all colors, all nationalities, and all generations.”

I think this insistence on crossing those boundaries was partly a deliberate artistic decision, as we’ve been talking about the past few weeks, but I also think it was just the way his mind worked. He really didn’t see the divisions that break the world, and us, into little separate categories – or he saw them but refused to acknowledge them. He refused to respect the boundaries between rock and rap, classical music and spirituals, just as he refused to respect the boundaries between black and white, masculine and feminine, young and old, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and Buddhist.

Joie:  I agree with you completely, Willa. I think that’s just the way his mind worked. I think he saw all those boundaries you mention and just completely, and very deliberately, chose to ignore them because they don’t matter anyway. And I think the lyrics to the song itself bear witness to that. To me, this song is all about friendship and brotherly love and being there for one another. And the differences between us just don’t matter. As he sings,

Hold me
Like the River Jordan
And I will then say to thee
You are my friend
  
Carry me
Like you are my brother
Love me like a mother
Will you be there?

Willa:  Oh, I love those verses! I think the first two lines, especially, are among his best, and I agree these verses can be interpreted as talking about brotherly love and being there for one another, as you say. But there are other interpretations as well, and it gets back to a question I find myself asking every time I listen to “Will You Be There”:  who is he talking to in this song?

For example, could he be praying to a higher power and asking a spiritual question when he sings “Will you be there?” To me, the first two lines, especially, and that word “Thee” kind of suggest that. But then he goes on to sing, “You are my friend,” and that doesn’t feel like a prayer. That feels different, like he’s talking to humanity and encouraging us all to take care of one another, as you mentioned. But then comes the following verse:

When weary
Tell me, will you hold me?
When wrong, will you scold me?
When lost, will you find me?

And that sounds like a prayer again. Even the cadence of those lines sounds Biblical to me.

Joie:  You’re right, Willa; they do sound Biblical. And going back to what you just said about it sounding like a prayer except for the line, “You are my friend” … you know, many Christian religions draw on the philosophy that God – or Jesus, more specifically – is our friend, and that we should approach Him in prayer in that way. As if we are talking to a close friend. So that interpretation of this song is completely valid and supported by the lyrics.

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, Joie. So maybe that isn’t a contradiction. And then as the lyrics continue, they become very personal, I think:

Everyone’s taking control of me
Seems that the world’s
Got a role for me
I’m so confused
Will you show to me
You’ll be there for me
And care enough to bear me?

And that verse sounds like he’s talking very specifically about himself – not humanity as a whole. But again, who is he speaking to? Is he talking to his fans, and asking us if we’ll be there for him through the hard times? (“Will you show to me / You’ll be there for me / And care enough to bear me?”) Or is this a prayer for spiritual guidance? (“Seems that the world’s / Got a role for me / I’m so confused”)

Joie:  Again, I think you’re right here, Willa. It does sound extremely personal. And strangely foreboding, given the legal troubles he found himself in soon after the song’s release as a single in 1993. He could very well have been talking to the fans, asking us if we would stand beside him or even carry him when things became too much for him to bear. It certainly feels that way when you listen to the song.

But by that same token, he could also have just as easily been talking to God and asking for divine guidance and intervention. And, you know, the video for this song and the footage of it performed in concert would seem to support this as both end with an angel, suspended above the stage seeming to fly through the air as she makes her way to him. And as the song ends she lands behind him, gracefully steps towards him and lovingly envelops him in her wings.

Willa:  That’s an excellent point, Joie, and looking at things that way, it seems significant that he included the angel in the MTV concert, which was his first live performance of this song, I think, in 1991. So it’s like it was part of his original vision for this song. And I have to say, I love everything about his MTV performance, from his quiet peace sign to the crowd at the beginning, to the “Women’s Rights Now” slogan spray-painted in a swirl of color on the roof of the car, to the children’s choir and women’s choir and men’s choir, to his lower voice in the opening lines, to his higher voice as it begins to soar, to the fluidity of his elegant dancing throughout and the choreography of all the dancers, to the protective angel at the end holding him and symbolically keeping him safe. I love it all.

And you know, when I ask myself, Who is he talking to?, I see different answers coming forward at different points in the song and find myself answering, All of the above. I think this song is a spiritual quest and a plea to humanity for brotherly love and an honest question to his fans about whether we’ll be there for him through the hard times.

Joie:  I think I agree with you, Willa. The answer is ‘All of the above.’ At least, it certainly feels that way. And I can’t help but wonder if that was his intention all along for this amazingly beautiful song.