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Monster, He’s a Monster

Willa: So Joie, we’ve been talking recently about a couple of songs from Xscape, and it’s true there are some really great demos on that album. But to be honest, my favorite song that’s come out since Michael Jackson died is “Monster.” I know there’s been a lot of controversy about the so-called “Cascio tracks,” with some fans – including people I really respect – questioning the legitimacy of those tracks. Specifically, they question whether that’s really his voice we hear singing these songs.

Joie:  Yes, we’ve all heard a lot about the controversy, Willa. And you know, I’m really not sure that it’s ever going to end. I mean, there’s no way to truly convince those who doubt that it’s Michael’s voice on those tracks that it actually is him. So, I personally don’t think that issue will ever be resolved.

Willa:  You could be right, Joie, though I have a feeling that, over time, opinion will start to coalesce toward one side or the other. So what do you think? Do you think it’s his voice?

Joie:  Honestly, Willa … I really don’t know. And I have to say that it really troubles me to have to admit that, but it’s the truth. The fact is, on each of the songs in question – “Breaking News,” “Keep Your Head Up,” and “Monster” – there are parts that sound unquestioningly like Michael to me. But by that same token, on each song, there are many parts that just don’t sound quite … right. Do you know what I mean? On certain parts something is just missing from this amazing, unique voice that many of us have been listening to unceasingly for over forty years.

But here’s the thing that makes me doubt these songs:  it’s not just the Cascio tracks on the Michael album, it’s all the Cascio tracks. At least all the ones that I’ve heard. Supposedly, there are 12 in all, and I have 4 in my collection of unreleased music. That’s 4 other Cascio tracks besides the 3 that appeared on the Michael album, and they all have these little hiccups that Teddy Riley and others who worked on that album tried to explain away as “overprocessing” during the final producing stages to “fix” tiny imperfections like the occasional flat note or such. Now, if these little hiccups are in the 4 tracks that didn’t get that final “overprocessing” treatment in order to make it onto the album, why do they still sound like the 3 tracks that did get the “overprocessing” treatment? That’s my question.

Willa: And it’s a really good question.

Joie: But, you know, I’m not an expert. Far from it! So, it could very well be that it is in fact Michael’s voice on each and every Cascio track, and there’s a very simple explanation as to why they all sound not quite right. As I understand it, the studio they were working in was a very rudimentary homemade sort of deal, so perhaps that did play a big part in the resulting sound quality of each track.

The problem is, without Michael here to verify that, we have no way of knowing, and probably never will. If they had video recorded the entire process, I think the Michael album would have been received by the fans in a completely different light, but instead I think many of them just felt sort of alienated somehow. Like the Estate and those working on the album were trying to deceive them in some way, or trying to take advantage of their grief.

Willa: Well, it is a shock when you go to listen to a Michael Jackson song expecting to hear his voice – a voice many of us have been listening to for forty years, as you said – and hear something that just doesn’t sound right. I feel the same way about “Best of Joy,” and the legitimacy of that song is apparently beyond doubt – at least, I’ve never heard anyone question it. And actually, I do think it’s his voice. It’s just been overprocessed to the point where it sounds really off to me.

But I don’t think the Estate was intentionally trying to deceive anyone, and I think they did honestly try to find out whether those tracks were legitimate. Howard Weitzman, a lawyer for the Estate, issued a detailed letter after the controversy broke where he explained the process they used to verify the authenticity of the Cascio tracks. He said they began by asking the opinion of professionals intimately familiar with his voice:

Six of Michael’s former producers and engineers who had worked with Michael over the past 30 years – Bruce Swedien, Matt Forger, Stewart Brawley, Michael Prince, Dr. Freeze and Teddy Riley – were all invited to a listening session to hear the raw vocals of the tracks in question. All of these people listened to the a cappella versions of the vocals on the tracks being considered for inclusion on the album, so they could give an opinion as to whether or not the lead vocals were sung by Michael. They all confirmed that the vocal was definitely Michael.

Michael’s musical director and piano player on many of his records over a 20-year period, Greg Phillinganes, played on a Cascio track being produced for the album, and said the voice was definitely Michael’s. Dorian Holley, who was Michael’s vocal director for his solo tours for 20 plus years (including the O2 Concert Tour) and is seen in the This Is It film, listened to the Cascio tracks and told me the lead vocal was Michael Jackson.

Weitzman’s letter goes on to say that after receiving the panel’s opinion, the Estate gave the tracks to “one of the best-known forensic musicologists in the nation.” He conducted a waveform analysis and concluded that the vocals were Michael Jackson’s. Sony then brought in a second musicologist who conducted another, independent investigation, and he or she came to the same conclusion.

To me, that’s all pretty compelling evidence. I mean, I have a lot of faith in Bruce Swedien’s ears – more than my own, actually! And to me personally, the Cascio tracks sound like Michael Jackson’s voice, though a bit processed – but not nearly as much as on “Best of Joy.” To be honest, I have much more of a problem with it than the Cascio tracks.

Joie: And I still don’t understand your aversion to that song, Willa, because there is no comparison between the vocals on “Best of Joy” and the vocals on the Cascio tracks. They are like night and day. The vocals on “Best of Joy” didn’t get that overprocessed treatment that the Cascio songs were supposedly subjected to, and they have never been in question. In fact, we know that “Best of Joy” was the last song that Michael worked on before he died.

But there is no documentation that proves Michael ever worked on the Cascio tracks, which is why all that analysis was supposedly ordered by the Estate. All we have to go on are the words of the Cascios themselves, and of course, all of the expert voice analysis that you just listed. But my response to that is, have you ever listened to songs by MJ sound-alikes, like Jason Malachi or Marcus J. Williams? Ok, I know a lot was said about Malachi when the album came out, and he vehemently denied having had anything to do with the album, but have you ever heard Williams? Here’s a sample:

All I’m saying is that the Estate and Sony can tell us that they brought in all of these experts to verify that the vocals are genuine, and maybe they did, and maybe they are. But how do we really know? I guess it just all boils down to whether or not you choose to believe it. And let me just point out that I’m not saying that I don’t believe it’s Michael on the Cascio tracks. I’m just saying that I can see both sides of the argument, and those tracks (both the ones on the album, and the ones still unreleased) sound questionable to me.

But I want to back up a little bit and address something else you just said. “Monster” is your favorite posthumously released song? That surprises me for some reason.

Willa:  Well, as we’ve talked about in many posts before, I love the way Michael Jackson encourages us to sympathize with the Other – with those who are considered outsiders and are typically ignored by popular culture or presented in unflattering or oppressive ways. We see that in some of his best songs and films: Thriller, Ghosts, Beat It, Black or White, Stranger in Moscow, “We are the World” and “Heal the World” … on and on. All the way back to “Ben,” his very first number one hit when he was just a kid. He didn’t write “Ben,” but he loved it and sang it in concerts for years, well into adulthood.

Also, frequently in his songwriting we see him adopting multiple subject positions and viewing a situation from multiple perspectives, often in a way that gradually shifts the meaning of the lyrics over the course of the song. We’ve talked about this in a lot of posts also, like when we talked about “Morphine,” “Whatever Happens,” “Money,” “Threatened,” “Dirty Diana,” the Who Is It video – even that song I have so much trouble listening to, “Best of Joy.” While his voice sounds off to me – distressingly off – I love the lyrics.

Joie:  How can that beautiful falsetto on the chorus and the smooth tenor of the verses sound off to you? They are as magical on “Best of Joy” as they are on “Don’t Stop,” “Childhood,” or “Butterflies.” You know, every time you talk about it, I wonder if maybe you bought a bad CD or got a faulty mp3 download or something, because there is nothing off about that song! It’s all in your head! Or should I say your ears.

Willa: Oh heavens, Joie – talk about a controversy that will not end! How long have we been debating this? Pretty much since the Michael album came out, right? I really think we have argued about this more than anything else. You know, when we talked about “Best of Joy” in a post a while back, I was very careful not to say anything about it – about how completely off his voice sounds to me.

Joie: And I wish you had because I wanted to talk about it back then, but you asked me not to mention it, remember?

Willa: Yes, I know. It just embarrassed me that there was a song out there where I love everything about it except his vocals, especially since no one else seemed to have a problem with it. I mean, I have loved his voice since I was 9 years old. It was very confusing to me – how could his voice sound so wrong? So I didn’t say a word about it in the post, but then two people – Juney07 and Eleanor – mentioned it in their comments. As Juney wrote,

My “problem” with Best of Joy is that for some technical reason Michael’s voice sounds higher pitched on the CD I have, perhaps overproduced, or something. I’m no expert on CD production but wonder if any of you guys think the same. I know it’s Michael’s voice; that’s not the issue; if it had been released while he was living I would have wondered the same.

And then Eleanor wrote this:

I have had a similar problem with “Best of Joy,” and have hesitated to join this discussion because of it. It is the only track that bothers me on “Michael.”

I feel the exact same way as Juney and Eleanor. (And thank you both very much, because I was starting to wonder if I was crazy! Seriously. I even went to a hearing specialist to see if there was something wrong. So thank you for reassuring me that I’m not the only person on the planet who hears it this way …) Some parts are better than others, but the opening line, for example, sounds sped up to me, almost like an Alvin and the Chipmunks version of a Michael Jackson song. It makes it very hard to listen to, which is too bad because I love the lyrics and the melody.

Joie:  You’ve said that before, about the opening line of that song sounding like Alvin and the Chipmunks to you. This is why I always wonder if maybe there is a bad batch of CDs out there or something. I don’t know if I’m using the correct musical terminology here or not, but to me, the cadence of that opening line – the modulation and inflection of his voice in those first four notes of the song – sound every bit as strong and clear to me as the first four notes of “Speechless.” He is singing in a slightly higher key in “Best of Joy,” but his voice sounds exactly the same in the opening lines of both songs. And I always wonder how we can hear this song so differently. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s like we truly are not listening to the same piece of music, and I find it both fascinating and frustrating. I mean, we’ve disagreed over songs before, but on things like our interpretations of them or simply what our favorites and least favorites are, but this is different. With “Best of Joy” we literally are not hearing the same piece of music. Don’t you find that odd?

Willa:  I do. I find it incredibly odd. But you gave me an mp3, remember? Just to see if I had a bad CD? And it sounded fine to you and wrong to me. So we’re listening to the same file – we just hear it differently somehow.

I’ve even wondered if there’s like an auditory version of colorblindness – if maybe I’m not hearing the full range of sound somehow, so certain sections sound thin and reedy to me. I mean some sections sound beautiful, like “I was the only one around” at 0:22, but then “When things would hurt you” comes in at 0:27 and that sounds wrong to me, like it’s been sped up or something.

Joie: I had forgotten that I sent you an mp3 because of this debate, but you’re right – I remember that now. And I’m sorry. I don’t mean for “Best of Joy” to hijack this post – I’m not even sure how we got started – but you mentioned an auditory version of colorblindness, which I find both interesting and amusing. But I’m wondering if perhaps it could be whatever device you’re listening on. I also wonder what the ratio is of fans who hear it fine to fans who hear it distorted, because obviously you’re not the only one – Juney and Eleanor prove that. So, there must be others. It’s just an interesting little mystery to me.

Willa: It really is, for me too. And “distorted” is a good way to describe it, because that’s how it sounds to me.

But anyway, we were talking about “Monster” and how, in his songwriting, Michael Jackson structures the lyrics sometimes so there’s a constantly shifting point of view. This is very unusual, maybe because it’s so difficult to do. Yet Michael Jackson seems to achieve it effortlessly – it just seems to be a natural reflection of how his mind worked. We see him using this approach over and over throughout his career, from his earliest songs to his latest. To me, this feature of his songwriting is as distinctive as a fingerprint, and in that sense I see his fingerprints all over the Cascio tracks, especially “Monster.”

So whether that’s his voice singing the lyrics of “Monster” or not (and I think it is) I am absolutely convinced he wrote those lyrics, both by the subject matter – meaning the way he encourages us to sympathize with the Other – and by the complex way the lyrics are structured – meaning the way he constantly shifts point of view over the course of the song.

Joie: I don’t believe the authorship of the songs has ever been in question, only the vocals. But, did you want to talk about the song “Monster,” or only the controversy surrounding it and the other Cascio tracks?

Willa: No, I’d love to focus on “Monster” because I think it’s a great song – and an important one – that hasn’t been explored the way it deserves because of the uncertainty surrounding it. I just thought we should “dance with the elephant” a bit and address the controversy upfront because I know it’s an issue for a lot of people.

So “Monster” begins with these lines:

You can look at them coming out the walls
You can look at them climbing out the bushes
You can find them when the letter’s about to fall
He’ll be waiting with his camera right on focus
Everywhere you seem to turn, there’s a monster
When you look up in the air, there’s a monster
Paparazzi got you scared like a monster, monster, monster

So the first verse is written in second person (“You can look at them …”) which is unusual. Generally songs are written in first person (I can look at them …) or third person (He, she, or they can look at them …). What second-person narration does is put us as listeners into the song. And how we’re positioned is interesting – we are in the role of a celebrity targeted by paparazzi. They’re surrounding us and coming at us from every direction, so we can’t get away from them. They keep suddenly appearing, like the zombies in Thriller – in fact, he calls them “monsters,” so they kind of are like something out of Thriller. It’s like we’re living in a real life horror movie, being confronted by these “monsters” all around us that are impossible to escape.

Then a two-part chorus comes in, and the first part shifts this completely:

Oh oh Hollywood
It’s got you jumping like you should
It’s got you bouncing off the wall
It’s got you drunk enough to fall
Oh oh Hollywood
Just look in the mirror
And tell me you like, don’t you, don’t you like it?

It’s still written in second person (“It’s got you jumping like you should”) but we’re no longer a celebrity – a target of tabloid paparazzi. Instead, we’re a consumer of those exploitative tabloid pictures and screaming headlines. And he says that if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit we like those trashy tabloids, as much as we may pretend not to: “Just look in the mirror / And tell me you like, don’t you, don’t you like it?” In fact, we like it so much we’re addicted to it, intoxicated by it. As he says, “It’s got you bouncing off the wall / It’s got you drunk enough to fall.”

And then the second part of the chorus comes in and shifts the perspective once again:

Monster
He’s a monster
He’s an animal

Monster
He’s a monster
He’s an animal

This is sung by multiple voices, not just his voice though his voice is among them, and it seems to represent what the tabloids are saying about him. So this part is from the tabloids’ point of view, and they’re saying, “He’s a monster.” That’s a complete reversal from the first verse, where he was saying the paparazzi were acting like monsters.

So in quick succession we’ve looked at this situation from the perspective of a celebrity who’s hounded by the tabloids, a consumer who buys and reads the tabloids, and the tabloids themselves. And, as if that isn’t complicated enough, he then takes us around that full circuit of perspectives two more times. Wow!

Joie:  Wow, indeed, Willa! That was a really interesting interpretation. And I agreed with most of what you said. I do believe that he has positioned us, the audience, as the celebrity in this song. And I agree that the first part of the two-part chorus shifts this and makes us the tabloid-addicted public. But I disagree completely with the last part of your interpretation. For me, the second half of that two-part chorus puts us back in the celebrity’s point of view, not the tabloids’. Especially when we look at the second voice that comes in between the lines of that part of the chorus:

Monster
(he’s like an animal)
He’s a monster
(just like an animal)
He’s an animal
(and he’s moving in the air)

Monster
He’s a monster
He’s an animal
(everybody wanna be a star)

So here we see that second voice, weaving in and out of the second part of the chorus, “He’s like an animal / just like an animal / and he’s moving in the air.” So, I think that second voice is still referring to the paparazzi as the monster, not the celebrity. And this seems to be supported the further we get into the song when that portion of the two-part chorus begins to repeat:

Monster
(why are you haunting me?)
He’s a monster
(why are you stalking me?)
He’s an animal
(why did you do it? why did you? why are you stalking me?)

Monster
(why are you haunting me?)
He’s a monster
(why are you haunting me?)
He’s an animal
(Why did you? why did you?)

Here that second voice that weaves in and out of the chorus seems to turn on the paparazzi and confront them. “Why are you haunting me? / Why are stalking me? / Why did you do it?”

Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Joie. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I agree those lines do seem to be a celebrity talking to the paparazzi and asking them why they’re doing what they’re doing – as he says in one round of the chorus, “What did you do to me? Why’d you take it? Why’d you fake it?”  The question “Why’d you take it?” sounds like something a celebrity would say to a photographer.

But to me, this section where the second voice weaves in and out of the chorus – the voice you put in parentheses – is really interesting because I see this section as presenting two conflicting voices. The foreground voices (or what were the foreground before – now they’ve been pushed back and sound more like they’re in the background) anyway, the voices singing, “Monster / He’s a monster / He’s an animal,” that still represents the tabloids, I think, like earlier in the song.

But now we hear that new voice you were talking about, Joie, and it’s pushing back against that narrative and implying they’re the real monsters … and as you said, it seems to be the voice of a celebrity under attack by the tabloids: “Why you stalking me? … Why you haunting me?” At least, that’s how I interpret it. It’s kind of like we talked about in the “Chicago” post a couple weeks ago, where the foreground voice and the background voice are in conflict and expressing different emotions. To me, the foreground voice and background voice are in conflict here too, and not just expressing different emotions but the opposing viewpoints of two very different groups of people: the celebrities, and the tabloids that feed off them.

Then this section is followed by a heartbreaking bridge:

Why are they never satisfied with all you give?
You give them your all
They’re watching you fall
And they eat your soul like a vegetable

The way I interpret this, the “you” in this case is the performer who gives his all on stage – so we’re positioned as a celebrity again – and the “they” are the people who read the tabloids. They’re the audience who loves you when you’re on stage but is “never satisfied” with that, and wants to read hurtful, gossipy stories about your private life as well.

At least, that’s how I see it. How do you see this part?

Joie:  Well, I don’t think the “they” is only the people who read the tabloids. I think it also refers to all of us as well, the fans. I mean, he loved his fans very much, but I believe he probably sometimes felt that we wanted much more of him than he could physically give – not necessarily wanting to read hurtful, gossipy stories about him, but definitely wanting to peek inside his private life and see everything.

Willa: Oh, that’s a good point, Joie. I think you’re probably right about that – “they” probably does include all of us to some degree. After all, it wasn’t just tabloid readers who were curious about his life, but all of us.

Joie: And you might be right about the dueling voices on the last part, but as the song comes to an end I think we’re back in that second-person point of view as he addresses us, the audience, and puts us back in the celebrity’s position and says:

He’s dragging you down like a monster
He’s keeping you down like a monster

Willa: That’s interesting, because I always thought he was putting us in the consumer position in this part – that he was saying that reading tabloids and watching Hard Copy drags us all down, as a culture. But you’re right, the tabloids certainly “drag down” celebrities also, so it makes a lot of sense that way too.

However you interpret it, it’s a fascinating song by a masterful songwriter who always encouraged and sometimes forced us to view the world from a multitude of perspectives, including some we may never have considered before. That’s one reason – one of many – why his work captures my imagination and won’t let me go.

Summer Rewind 2013, Week 7: Best of Joy

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on January 9, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

We are Forever

Joie: So Willa, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all of the Michael Jackson songs that are still ‘in the vault,’ so to speak. You know, all those as of yet still unreleased tunes that we may or may not ever hear, or the ones that have leaked over the years and sound pretty much finished but, still have never been released on an actual album (I’m thinking specifically of “Slave to the Rhythm” and “Blue Gangsta” here but, there are others). And I wonder if we’ll ever see these songs released on a future posthumous album.

Willa: I don’t know. I sure hope so, though I can understand how the Estate might feel a little cautious after the Michael album and all the controversy that generated. It’s a complicated issue, as we talked about last spring, with knowledgeable, well-intentioned people passionately committed to very different points of view. And really, there are valid arguments pulling me different directions on this.

Joie: I know, me too. Both sides have really wonderful, valid arguments and it’s easy to see the merits of both. And thinking about all of this has made me take a closer look at the material that has been released since Michael’s passing three and a half years ago. Specifically, I’ve been looking at the Michael album and, you know, I can’t blame the Estate for being confused or wary at this point. The fans’ reaction to that album was so split down the middle and so vicious. On one side, you had the fans who really wanted this album and were so looking forward to hearing new, unreleased material in any form. But then on the other side you had the very large faction of fans who vehemently did not want any of Michael’s work to be touched or “finished” by other producers and just wanted the material released ‘as is.’

Willa: And then there are conflicted fans like me who agree with both sides. I think it’s very important that other artists be allowed to reinterpret his work – very important – but I also want to know what his vision was, and what his “unfinished” work sounded like.

Joie: It’s sort of like they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Willa: But why can’t we have both – new material released “as is,” alongside more polished versions completed by others?

Joie: I don’t know; why can’t we have both? That sounds like a wonderful compromise to me and it gives the fans – all of the fans, from both sides of this issue – exactly what they want. But we’re getting a little sidetracked here.

What I really wanted to talk about is the Michael album. Or rather, a specific song from that album – “Best of Joy.” So, as you know, Willa, this is not only my favorite of the new songs we’ve heard since Michael’s passing, it has quickly become one of my most favorite songs ever. I just love it.

Willa: I know – in fact, I’ve mentally redubbed it “Best of Joie” just because you love it so much….

Joie: It is so special to me for so many reasons. One of which is the fact that it was the last song Michael ever worked on in a studio before he died. I just find that knowledge so touching and so powerful somehow because to me, the lyrics of this song almost sound as if he’s saying goodbye.

 
I am your joy
Your best of joy
I am the moonlight
You are the spring
Our love’s a sacred thing
You know I always will love you
I am forever
 
I am your friend
Through thick and thin
We need each other
We’ll never part
Our love is from the heart
We never say I don’t need you
We are forever

All through the song, it’s as if he’s reminding us how great his love for us is, and how much we mean to him, and then, with the repeated refrain of “I am forever, we are forever,” it’s like he’s is assuring us that no matter what happens, his love for us will never die. It’s like a line from that old Dylan Thomas poem:

 
Though lovers be lost, love shall not
And death shall have no dominion

Willa: Oh, I love that connection to Dylan Thomas, Joie! And we see that idea of “death shall have no dominion” in a number of Michael Jackson’s songs and films – for example, in “Heaven Can Wait” where he sings, “If the angels came for me, I’d tell them no.”

Joie: Oh, I hadn’t thought of that before, Willa, but you’re right. I guess it is a theme he’s used before. But for some reason, for me at least, “Best of Joy” just really seems to emphasize this theme. Like in “Heaven Can Wait,” he’s telling us a story of two lovers where the man is considering what he would do if death ever tried to part them. But in “Best of Joy,” his tale is more personal somehow. It’s a message that he’s trying urgently to impart before it’s too late.

 
I am your friend
Through thick and thin
We need each other…
Our love is from the heart…
We are forever

It’s like he’s urging us, “Don’t forget! Don’t forget how much I love you, don’t forget how much we’ve meant to each other. Always remember!” Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it because I was grieving the first time the world ever heard this song. Admittedly, I have a very emotional attachment to this song. I have yet to listen to it when I don’t end up in tears.

Willa: It is very powerful, and it’s interesting to me that you see it not just as a love song, but also as a song to his audience. I hadn’t thought about it that way.

Joie: Really? See that’s another reason it stands out to me. Because I really have never thought of it as a love song in the traditional sense at all. Not in a “romantic” kind of way, I mean.

Willa: Oh, I agree. I mean, I can see this song as a romantic tale from one lover to another, but it has always struck me as much more than a romance as well. As we’ve talked about before, Michael Jackson likes to shift the point-of-view so much in his songs, so I always like to ask, Who is the “you” in this song – who exactly is being addressed? And who is the “I” in this song? Who is speaking? Sometimes it seems to be Michael Jackson himself, but sometimes it’s a persona, or another character, or someone very different from Michael Jackson himself. We talked about that with “Money” in a post last fall. We see multiple perspectives frequently in his work, where he adopts the point of view of other characters and speaks with their voice.

I see that in “Best of Joy” also, but with a twist. To me, Michael Jackson is in this song, but he isn’t the “I” – he’s the “you.” In other words, this isn’t a song from him but to him – this is a song of reassurance and caring to him. And the voice singing to him is Music itself. Music was his “friend / through thick and thin.” Music was there for him when everyone else abandoned him, and Music revived him when “nothing would cheer” him. Music was his “Best of Joy”:

 
I am the one who said that you are free
When living seemed so hard to be
And nothing would cheer you
I am forever
Wasn’t it I who carried you around
When all the walls came tumbling down?
When things would hurt you?
I am forever (I am forever)
We are forever (we are forever)
 

Music is forever, music was always there for him, and music is what “carried” him “when all the walls came tumbling down.”

That one line in particular is interesting because it recalls the battle of Jericho. You probably know a lot more about this than I do, Joie, but the story of Jericho is about a “battle” that was won without any fighting. Instead, it was music that made “the walls come tumbling down” – except for one apartment. That part of the wall, that one apartment, was spared. So music won the battle of Jericho without a battle being fought, and music preserved the family in that one apartment “when all the walls came tumbling down.”

I’m not exactly sure why, but I’ve always seen “Best of Joy” as a song from Music to him, a song of reassurance that music will always be there for him. I think maybe it’s because this song reminds me of “Music and Me,” that beautiful song he sang as a 15-year-old boy. It’s another song where he’s singing about a forever friendship, but that friendship isn’t with another person. It’s with Music:

 
We’re as close as two friends can be
There have been others
But never two lovers
Like music, music and me

Joie: Oh, my God, Willa … I love that interpretation! And it’s funny to me that you’ve centered in on Michael being the “you” in this song because, I’ve often felt that as well. And since becoming friends with you and reading M Poetica, I have learned that there are always many ways to interpret a song. Any song, as long as that interpretation can be supported by the lyrics, it’s valid. So, this song, to me, has many different interpretations, and while I primarily see it as a song from Michael to his audience, I also see it as a song to him, as you just suggested. Only I’ve never thought about Music being the “I” here, until you just said it, and it makes perfect sense. But for me, the “I” in this song was always God.

As we all know, Michael was always a very spiritual, very religious person and he had a long and close relationship with God. And when I think about the song that way, it also makes a lot of sense to me. Those very same lines that you pointed out earlier, have just as much meaning when viewing the song in this context as well:

 
I am the one who said that you are free
When living seemed so hard to be
And nothing would cheer you
I am forever
Wasn’t it I who carried you around
When all the walls came tumbling down?
When things would hurt you?
I am forever (I am forever)
We are forever (we are forever)
 

And you know, I really believe that this interpretation is what resonates so deeply with me and is a big part of the reason that I end up in tears whenever I listen to it. Yes, this song feels like a goodbye to me. As if Michael is saying he has to leave now but for me to remember that he will always love me. But it also makes me think about God, and about my relationship with Him and how good He’s always been to me. It’s a very emotional song for me for both of those reasons.

Willa: Wow, Joie, that’s a really powerful interpretation, and it really opens things up, doesn’t it? Michael Jackson was a very spiritual person, as you say, so that interpretation seems very true to who he was and to his worldview. But putting those two interpretations side by side – that the “I” is God and the “I” is Music – reminds me of something else we’ve talked about a couple of times: that for him, there seemed to be a deep connection between his spiritual life and his creative life. He saw his talents and his creativity as sacred gifts, which he was both thankful for and obligated to. It’s like he felt a sacred trust to use the gifts he had been given to the best of his abilities.

He also frequently talked about how he didn’t really write his songs – that’s not what his creative process felt like to him. Instead, his songs were like gifts from above that fell in his lap, and his role as a songwriter was to be receptive to them. Actually, Gennie sent us an email about this idea just last week: it was a link to a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Love, Pray, where she discusses the creative process. Gilbert’s main point is that the way we tend to conceptualize creativity in the modern world as the work of a solitary genius can be psychologically damaging to artists. So she researched how other cultures have viewed creativity, and she thinks the Greeks and Romans had a much healthier model. As she says,

“Ancient Greece and ancient Rome – people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then. People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source for distant and unknowable reasons.”

This seems very close to Michael Jackson’s idea that his creativity was something that flowed through him, and his role as an artist wasn’t to create works so much as to be receptive to that flow and allow it to express itself through him. Here’s the link Gennie sent us:

Joie: I just love that talk by Ms. Gilbert; it’s very inspiring I think. Something every artist or writer should hear and think about, in my opinion, and ‘thank you’ to Gennie for sending it to us.

But I also agree with you completely here, Willa. That does seem to be extremely close to what we know of Michael Jackson’s creative process and how he felt about it. How many times did we hear him say that he felt as if he couldn’t really take the credit for his songs because he was simply the vessel through which they came?

Willa: Exactly, and apparently that’s a feeling shared by other important modern artists, like John Lennon. In Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus, Joe Vogel says Michael Jackson posted a quotation from John Lennon where he could see it as a reminder to himself while working on “Earth Song”:

“When the real music comes to me,” it read, “the music of the spheres, the music that surpasseth understanding – that has nothing to do with me, ’cause I’m just the channel. The only joy for me is for it to be given to me, and to transcribe it like a medium…. Those moments are what I live for.”

That sounds very similar to Elizabeth Gilbert’s thoughts about creativity as a “divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source,” and it also reminds me of Dancing the Dream. In fact, I think this idea is one of the central themes of Dancing the Dream. As Michael Jackson writes in the preface:

Consciousness expresses itself through creation. This world we live in is the dance of the creator. Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on. On many an occasion when I’m dancing, I’ve felt touched by something sacred. In those moments, I’ve felt my spirit soar and become one with everything that exists. I become the stars and the moon. I become the lover and the beloved. I become the victor and the vanquished. I become the master and the slave. I become the singer and the song. I become the knower and the known. I keep on dancing and then, it is the eternal dance of creation. The creator and creation merge into one wholeness of joy.

I see this idea expressed throughout “Best of Joy” as well, like in the intro lines you quoted earlier:

 
I am your joy
Your best of joy
I am the moonlight
You are the spring
Our love’s a sacred thing
You know I always will love you
I am forever

When creativity is flowing through him, he becomes “the stars and the moon … the lover and the beloved … the singer and the song,” as he joins “the eternal dance of creation” and “merges into one wholeness of joy” – his “Best of Joy.”

Joie: Oh, that’s a nice interpretation, Willa. I never would have made that connection between “Best of Joy” and the dance before. Very interesting. And you know, I am really sort of anxious to find out what our readers think about “Best of Joy,” and hearing some of their interpretations of this one. It’s a very special little song, in my opinion.

Willa: It really is. To me, the lyrics are like poetry.

I also wanted to let everyone know that the second edition of M Poetica is now available, and you can download it for free today through Monday (January 10 – 14). Amazon gave me the option of letting it be free for up to five days, and I wanted to take advantage of that. I know a lot of our readers already have the first edition, and it didn’t seem fair that they should have to buy it again.

Also, I think a lot of fans have become kind of wary of books claiming to look at Michael Jackson in a positive way, simply because so many of those books have turned out not to be very positive. Frankly, after reading the Boteach book and the Halperin book, I can understand that. So I wanted to give those fans a chance to read it and decide for themselves.

We Are Forever

Joie:  So Willa, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all of the Michael Jackson songs that are still ‘in the vault,’ so to speak. You know, all those as of yet still unreleased tunes that we may or may not ever hear, or the ones that have leaked over the years and sound pretty much finished but, still have never been released on an actual album (I’m thinking specifically of “Slave to the Rhythm” and “Blue Gangsta” here but, there are others). And I wonder if we’ll ever see these songs released on a future posthumous album.

Willa:  I don’t know. I sure hope so, though I can understand how the Estate might feel a little cautious after the Michael album and all the controversy that generated. It’s a complicated issue, as we talked about last spring, with knowledgeable, well-intentioned people passionately committed to very different points of view. And really, there are valid arguments pulling me different directions on this.

Joie:  I know, me too. Both sides have really wonderful, valid arguments and it’s easy to see the merits of both. And thinking about all of this has made me take a closer look at the material that has been released since Michael’s passing three and a half years ago. Specifically, I’ve been looking at the Michael album and, you know, I can’t blame the Estate for being confused or wary at this point. The fans’ reaction to that album was so split down the middle and so vicious. On one side, you had the fans who really wanted this album and were so looking forward to hearing new, unreleased material in any form. But then on the other side you had the very large faction of fans who vehemently did not want any of Michael’s work to be touched or “finished” by other producers and just wanted the material released ‘as is.’

Willa:  And then there are conflicted fans like me who agree with both sides. I think it’s very important that other artists be allowed to reinterpret his work – very important – but I also want to know what his vision was, and what his “unfinished” work sounded like.

Joie:  It’s sort of like they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Willa:  But why can’t we have both – new material released “as is,” alongside more polished versions completed by others?

Joie:  I don’t know; why can’t we have both? That sounds like a wonderful compromise to me and it gives the fans – all of the fans, from both sides of this issue – exactly what they want. But we’re getting a little sidetracked here.

What I really wanted to talk about is the Michael album. Or rather, a specific song from  that album – “Best of Joy.” So, as you know, Willa, this is not only my favorite of the new songs we’ve heard since Michael’s passing, it has quickly become one of my most favorite songs ever. I just love it.

Willa:  I know – in fact, I’ve mentally redubbed it “Best of Joie” just because you love it so much….

Joie:  It is so special to me for so many reasons. One of which is the fact that it was the last song Michael ever worked on in a studio before he died. I just find that knowledge so touching and so powerful somehow because to me, the lyrics of this song almost sound as if he’s saying goodbye.

 
I am your joy
Your best of joy
I am the moonlight
You are the spring
Our love’s a sacred thing
You know I always will love you
I am forever
  
I am your friend
Through thick and thin
We need each other
We’ll never part
Our love is from the heart
We never say I don’t need you
We are forever

All through the song, it’s as if he’s reminding us how great his love for us is, and how much we mean to him, and then, with the repeated refrain of “I am forever, we are forever,” it’s like he’s is assuring us that no matter what happens, his love for us will never die. It’s like a line from that old Dylan Thomas poem:

 
Though lovers be lost, love shall not
And death shall have no dominion

Willa:  Oh, I love that connection to Dylan Thomas, Joie!  And we see that idea of “death shall have no dominion” in a number of Michael Jackson’s songs and films – for example, in “Heaven Can Wait” where he sings, “If the angels came for me, I’d tell them no.”

Joie:  Oh, I hadn’t thought of that before, Willa, but you’re right. I guess it is a theme he’s used before. But for some reason, for me at least, “Best of Joy” just really seems to emphasize this theme. Like in “Heaven Can Wait,” he’s telling us a story of two lovers where the man is considering what he would do if death ever tried to part them. But in “Best of Joy,” his tale is more personal somehow. It’s a message that he’s trying urgently to impart before it’s too late.

 
I am your friend
Through thick and thin
We need each other…
Our love is from the heart…
We are forever

It’s like he’s urging us, “Don’t forget! Don’t forget how much I love you, don’t forget how much we’ve meant to each other. Always remember!” Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it because I was grieving the first time the world ever heard this song. Admittedly, I have a very emotional attachment to this song. I have yet to listen to it when I don’t end up in tears.

Willa:  It is very powerful, and it’s interesting to me that you see it not just as a love song, but also as a song to his audience. I hadn’t thought about it that way.

Joie:  Really? See that’s another reason it stands out to me. Because I really have never thought of it as a love song in the traditional sense at all. Not in a “romantic” kind of way, I mean.

Willa:  Oh, I agree.  I mean, I can see this song as a romantic tale from one lover to another, but it has always struck me as much more than a romance as well. As we’ve talked about before, Michael Jackson likes to shift the point-of-view so much in his songs, so I always like to ask, Who is the “you” in this song – who exactly is being addressed?  And who is the “I” in this song? Who is speaking? Sometimes it seems to be Michael Jackson himself, but sometimes it’s a persona, or another character, or someone very different from Michael Jackson himself. We talked about that with “Money” in a post last fall. We see multiple perspectives frequently in his work, where he adopts the point of view of other characters and speaks with their voice.

I see that in “Best of Joy” also, but with a twist. To me, Michael Jackson is in this song, but he isn’t the “I” – he’s the “you.” In other words, this isn’t a song from him but to him – this is a song of reassurance and caring to him. And the voice singing to him is Music itself. Music was his “friend / through thick and thin.” Music was there for him when everyone else abandoned him, and Music revived him when “nothing would cheer” him. Music was his “Best of Joy”:

 
I am the one who said that you are free  
When living seemed so hard to be
And nothing would cheer you
I am forever
Wasn’t it I who carried you around
When all the walls came tumbling down?
When things would hurt you?
I am forever (I am forever)
We are forever (we are forever)
 

Music is forever, music was always there for him, and music is what “carried” him “when all the walls came tumbling down.”

That one line in particular is interesting because it recalls the battle of Jericho. You probably know a lot more about this than I do, Joie, but the story of Jericho is about a “battle” that was won without any fighting. Instead, it was music that made “the walls come tumbling down” – except for one apartment. That part of the wall, that one apartment, was spared. So music won the battle of Jericho without a battle being fought, and music preserved the family in that one apartment “when all the walls came tumbling down.”

I’m not exactly sure why, but I’ve always seen “Best of Joy” as a song from Music to him, a song of reassurance that music will always be there for him. I think maybe it’s because this song reminds me of “Music and Me,” that beautiful song he sang as a 15-year-old boy. It’s another song where he’s singing about a forever friendship, but that friendship isn’t with another person. It’s with Music:

 
We’re as close as two friends can be
There have been others
But never two lovers
Like music, music and me 

Joie:  Oh, my God, Willa … I love that interpretation! And it’s funny to me that you’ve centered in on Michael being the “you” in this song because, I’ve often felt that as well. And since becoming friends with you and reading M Poetica, I have learned that there are always many ways to interpret a song. Any song, as long as that interpretation can be supported by the lyrics, it’s valid. So, this song, to me, has many different interpretations, and while I primarily see it as a song from Michael to his audience, I also see it as a song to him, as you just suggested. Only I’ve never thought about Music being the “I” here, until you just said it, and it makes perfect sense. But for me, the “I” in this song was always God.

As we all know, Michael was always a very spiritual, very religious person and he had a long and close relationship with God. And when I think about the song that way, it also makes a lot of sense to me. Those very same lines that you pointed out earlier, have just as much meaning when viewing the song in this context as well:

 
I am the one who said that you are free
When living seemed so hard to be 
And nothing would cheer you
I am forever
Wasn’t it I who carried you around
When all the walls came tumbling down?
When things would hurt you?
I am forever (I am forever)
We are forever (we are forever)
 

And you know, I really believe that this interpretation is what resonates so deeply with me and is a big part of the reason that I end up in tears whenever I listen to it. Yes, this song feels like a goodbye to me. As if Michael is saying he has to leave now but for me to remember that he will always love me. But it also makes me think about God, and about my relationship with Him and how good He’s always been to me. It’s a very emotional song for me for both of those reasons.

Willa:  Wow, Joie, that’s a really powerful interpretation, and it really opens things up, doesn’t it? Michael Jackson was a very spiritual person, as you say, so that interpretation seems very true to who he was and to his worldview. But putting those two interpretations side by side – that the “I” is God and the “I” is Music – reminds me of something else we’ve talked about a couple of times: that for him, there seemed to be a deep connection between his spiritual life and his creative life. He saw his talents and his creativity as sacred gifts, which he was both thankful for and obligated to. It’s like he felt a sacred trust to use the gifts he had been given to the best of his abilities.

He also frequently talked about how he didn’t really write his songs – that’s not what his creative process felt like to him. Instead, his songs were like gifts from above that fell in his lap, and his role as a songwriter was to be receptive to them. Actually, Gennie sent us an email about this idea just last week:  it was a link to a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Love, Pray, where she discusses the creative process. Gilbert’s main point is that the way we tend to conceptualize creativity in the modern world as the work of a solitary genius can be psychologically damaging to artists. So she researched how other cultures have viewed creativity, and she thinks the Greeks and Romans had a much healthier model. As she says,

“Ancient Greece and ancient Rome – people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then. People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source for distant and unknowable reasons.”

This seems very close to Michael Jackson’s idea that his creativity was something that flowed through him, and his role as an artist wasn’t to create works so much as to be receptive to that flow and allow it to express itself through him. Here’s the link Gennie sent us:

Joie:  I just love that talk by Ms. Gilbert; it’s very inspiring I think. Something every artist or writer should hear and think about, in my opinion, and ‘thank you’ to Gennie for sending it to us.

But I also agree with you completely here, Willa. That does seem to be extremely close to what we know of Michael Jackson’s creative process and how he felt about it. How many times did we hear him say that he felt as if he couldn’t really take the credit for his songs because he was simply the vessel through which they came?

Willa:  Exactly, and apparently that’s a feeling shared by other important modern artists, like John Lennon. In Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus, Joe Vogel says Michael Jackson posted a quotation from John Lennon where he could see it as a reminder to himself while working on “Earth Song”:

“When the real music comes to me,” it read, “the music of the spheres, the music that surpasseth understanding – that has nothing to do with me, ’cause I’m just the channel. The only joy for me is for it to be given to me, and to transcribe it like a medium…. Those moments are what I live for.” 

That sounds very similar to Elizabeth Gilbert’s thoughts about creativity as a “divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source,” and it also reminds me of Dancing the Dream. In fact, I think this idea is one of the central themes of Dancing the Dream. As Michael Jackson writes in the preface:

Consciousness expresses itself through creation. This world we live in is the dance of the creator. Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on. On many an occasion when I’m dancing, I’ve felt touched by something sacred. In those moments, I’ve felt my spirit soar and become one with everything that exists. I become the stars and the moon. I become the lover and the beloved. I become the victor and the vanquished. I become the master and the slave. I become the singer and the song. I become the knower and the known. I keep on dancing and then, it is the eternal dance of creation. The creator and creation merge into one wholeness of joy.

I see this idea expressed throughout “Best of Joy” as well, like in the intro lines you quoted earlier:

 
I am your joy
Your best of joy
I am the moonlight
You are the spring
Our love’s a sacred thing
You know I always will love you
I am forever

When creativity is flowing through him, he becomes “the stars and the moon … the lover and the beloved … the singer and the song,” as he joins “the eternal dance of creation” and “merges into one wholeness of joy” – his “Best of Joy.”

Joie:  Oh, that’s a nice interpretation, Willa. I never would have made that connection between “Best of Joy” and the dance before. Very interesting. And you know, I am really sort of anxious to find out what our readers think about “Best of Joy,” and hearing some of their interpretations of this one. It’s a very special little song, in my opinion.

Willa:  It really is. To me, the lyrics are like poetry.

I also wanted to let everyone know that the second edition of M Poetica is now available, and you can download it for free today through Monday (January 10 – 14). Amazon gave me the option of letting it be free for up to five days, and I wanted to take advantage of that. I know a lot of our readers already have the first edition, and it didn’t seem fair that they should have to buy it again.

Also, I think a lot of fans have become kind of wary of books claiming to look at Michael Jackson in a positive way, simply because so many of those books have turned out not to be very positive. Frankly, after reading the Boteach book and the Halperin book, I can understand that. So I wanted to give those fans a chance to read it and decide for themselves.

Because Your Words Just Aren’t Enough

Willa:  So Joie, we’ve talked quite a bit about Michael Jackson as a songwriter – for example, in posts with Joe Vogel and Charles Thomson and Lisha McDuff. But those conversations have focused primarily on his music and his skills as a composer. We haven’t really talked about Michael Jackson as a lyricist, and one thing I love about Michael Jackson’s songwriting is his ability to plunge us into a compelling dramatic moment with just a few simple brushstrokes. A famous example is the chorus of “Billie Jean”:

Billie Jean is not my lover
She’s just a girl who says I am the one
But the kid is not my son

In just three lines he sketches a surprisingly rich narrative: characters, dramatic tension and plot details, and the suggestion of a theme running throughout his work about the intersection of power and desire. It’s just elegant to me how it conveys so much so simply.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa. He had the remarkable ability to paint the most vivid picture with only a few words. I like this example from “Smooth Criminal”:

As he came in through the window
Was the sound of a crescendo
He came into her apartment
Left the blood stains on the carpet

With just the first two lines you know immediately that something is not right. A man has smashed someone’s window and climbed in. Then with the following two lines, you know he’s in the apartment of a defenseless woman and you’re afraid for her safety. He’s set up an entire storyline in just four short brushstrokes, as you called them. I find this ability to paint such a vivid picture with just a few words really incredible. It’s a talent that not everyone has.

Willa:  Oh, “Smooth Criminal” is a great example! There is so much going on in that song – and the video that contains it, and the film that contains them both – but it’s all incorporated so skillfully it feels like a simple little song. But that apparent simplicity is deceptive. This is actually one of his more complicated works, both in its emotional complexity and its narrative structure.

For example, there are actually four distinct “voices” woven together to form the narrative. Michael Jackson sings all four, but they each represent a different point of view – and he sings each of them very differently to convey that. The main “voice” is the narrator who’s telling us the story. He’s the one who sings those dramatic opening lines you quoted above. Then there’s something of a Greek chorus reacting to that narrative, with Michael Jackson’s simply one of many voices. They are the ones who sing the repeated lines of “Annie, are you OK? / Will you tell us that you’re OK?”

Then two more voices appear after the break. There’s the Smooth Criminal himself, and Michael Jackson sings his lines with this really gruff voice (“Daggone it, Baby!”). And then there’s this other character singing, “I don’t know! / I don’t know! / I don’t know why!” We don’t really know who this is, but Michael Jackson sings those lines with a high, trembling, beautiful voice – it’s really haunting. And while we don’t know for sure who this character is, I’ve always felt that it was Annie’s spirit, singing from beyond the grave.

Joie:  That’s a really interesting observation, Willa. I never looked at “Smooth Criminal” that way until you brought it up. It’s a fascinating idea.

Willa:  Well, it’s not clear who this mysterious voice belongs to, and I think that ambiguity is intentional so I’m reluctant to say, yes, it’s definitely Annie. But that’s how it feels to me, and that may be one reason why I like the Glee version of “Smooth Criminal” so much – because it makes explicit something that, to me, is already implicitly there in the original. I’ve always felt that when Michael Jackson sings “I don’t know why!” he’s singing it as a female character, and that whole section feels like a collage of male and female voices juxtaposed against one another. So when I heard the Glee version with the dueling male and female voices, it just felt right to me.

Joie:  You know, I recently read an article online called “Why Prince Still Matters,” and in the opening paragraph the author makes the statement that while Michael Jackson was the only performer “who could compete with and even outshine Prince as a singer, dancer and charismatic performer,” he simply could never compete with Prince as a songwriter. I read that and became instantly frustrated – as usual. It’s an argument we hear over and over again from critics, and it’s something we touched on back during our conversation with Joe and Charles about MJ as a songwriter, but it’s an argument I completely disagree with and simply don’t understand.

Willa:  I don’t really understand it either, but maybe it has something to do with how we define poetic language. You know, for the most part, we want the language of prose to be invisible – we want it to convey an idea without the words getting in the way. But poetic language is different – it’s language that calls attention to itself. When we hear poetic language, we don’t just think about the ideas and emotions, but the words used to convey them. And for the most part, Michael Jackson’s words don’t call attention to themselves.

But if we look carefully at his lyrics, we find that he’s very skillful in his word choices and has a poetic awareness of words. For example, he likes to engage in word play, which can be an important feature of poetry, but his word play often conveys a thematic meaning as well. A good example is “Beat It.” I love the way he redefines the title words over the course of the song. In the first verse, “Beat It!” means to scram, or run away in fear:

They told him don’t you ever come around here
Don’t wanna see your face, you better disappear …
So beat it. Just beat it.

Then he uses that word “beat” again, but this time it has a different meaning – one of violence. As he sings,

They’ll kick you, then they’ll beat you
Then they’ll tell you it’s fair
So beat it. But you wanna be bad

So in this section, he introduces a new meaning of “beat” (“they’ll beat you”) but then immediately evokes the previous meaning (“So beat it”). So he wants both definitions to be in play simultaneously. Then of course, there’s a third definition of “beat,” which is the beat of music – and importantly, it’s music that resolves the violence between the gangs. So in this sense, to “beat it” means to create a rhythm, like beating a drum. And finally, there’s a fourth definition of “beat,” which is to be victorious. For example, if someone is diagnosed with cancer and overcomes it, we say they “beat it” – they “beat” the cancer. To me, this is the predominant meaning that’s evoked in the circular, repeated chorus at the end: “Showin’ how funky strong is your fight … Just beat it.”

So those words have undergone a complete revolution. The main character is no longer being told to get lost, to “beat it.” Instead, he’s emerged victorious over gang violence through the power of his music – he’s “beat it” by showing how “funky strong” he is – but it’s a different kind of strength. It isn’t the violent force of the gangs, but the “funky” power of the artist. But while the meaning of the words “Beat It” change dramatically over the course of the song, we still hear the echoes of those alternate definitions as well, which gives that repeated chorus at the end tremendous depth.

Joie:  Willa, I agree with you that he was very skillful in his word choices and possessed a poetic awareness of words. As I pointed out back during our post on In the Closet,  I think Michael was very deliberate about the words he chose to use in his lyrics in order to paint a certain picture or convey a certain message, and “In the Closet” is a great example of that.

Willa:  Oh, even the title is a great example. He’s taken a commonly used euphemism for gay men or lesbian women who keep their relationships and orientation hidden from public view, and shifted the meaning of those words by linking them to a different type of secret relationship.

Joie:  Another great example is “Best of Joy” from the posthumous Michael album. From the very first word he utters in that song I am filled with a sense of reverence and peace and unconditional love, and I truly believe that’s the message he was trying to convey with that song. I just love these lyrics:

I am your joy
Your best of joy
I am the moonlight
You are the spring
Our love’s a sacred thing
You know I always will love you
I am forever  

It doesn’t get much more poetic than that! That song takes my breath away and leaves me in tears every single time I listen to it.

Another really great example is “Speechless.” The lyrics to that song are simply beautiful:

Helpless and hopeless, that’s how I feel inside
Nothing’s real, but all is possible if God is on my side
When I’m with you I’m in light, but I cannot be found
It’s as though I am standing in the place called Hallowed ground
 
Speechless, speechless, that’s how you make me feel
Though I’m with you I am far away and nothing is for real
I’d go anywhere and do anything just to touch your face
There’s no mountain high I cannot climb
I’m humbled in your grace

Willa:  I agree. I especially love the cadence of his words – how they tumble and flow – and he sings it so beautifully. But you know what’s interesting is that, ironically, this song is about his inability to express himself and put his thoughts and feelings into words.  As he sings,

I have not the words here to explain
Gone is the grace for expressions of passion

So despite the eloquence of his words, he still feels “speechless” to express the full scope of his feelings.

Joie:  And yet, he’s constantly accused of mediocrity as a songwriter.

Willa:  Really? I knew his songwriting tended to be overlooked. People often rave about his singing and dancing, but not his songwriting. But I didn’t know they actually called it mediocre. That doesn’t make sense to me.

Joie:  I just don’t get it. I mean, even in “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough,” which was the first hit he ever wrote, the ‘eloquence of his words,’ as you put it, is astounding. The man is talking about something so base and simple as sexual desire, yet he does it in such a subtle and poetic way that the fact he’s talking about sex is almost overlooked.

Willa:  Oh, you know how I feel about “Don’t Stop”! But talking about “Speechless” reminds me of another, very special aspect of his songwriting. You know, what perhaps draws me most to Michael Jackson’s songs and makes them so compelling for me is the way he gives voice to the voiceless – to those who are “speechless” and have traditionally been excluded from public discourse. We see that over and over in his work. “Beat It!” and “Bad” give a voice to young Black men growing up in the inner city, struggling to avoid gang violence and simply stay alive (“You have to show them that you’re really not scared”). “Smooth Criminal” gives voice to a young woman murdered in her apartment, as well as to those who care about her (“Annie, are you OK?”). “Dirty Diana” gives voice to both a rock star and a groupie in almost equal measure (“I’ll be your everything if you make me a star”). “Morphine” gives voice to a drug addict (“I’m going down, baby”). And “Earth Song” gives voice to all those – both human and nonhuman – who have been denied a voice (“What about us?”). That concern for those without a voice, and his insistence that their voice matters, was a defining characteristic of his songwriting, I think, and one that resonated with listeners around the world.

Joie:  Hmm. You’re right, Willa. Giving voice to the voiceless was like a reoccurring theme in his music and he used his careful word choices wonderfully in order to do this.

But, I guess the real issue with this for me is that, I just don’t understand how critics can totally ignore the fact that Michael has written some of the most iconic songs in our history and yet, they still refuse to acknowledge him as a songwriter of any great merit. That just doesn’t compute to me. And I wonder if the bottom line here is that it’s simply more of the same back-handed treatment that he endured in other aspects of his life and career. ‘He’s different, he’s strange, he’s weird so, we’ll just shut him down and minimalize all of his efforts across the board.’

Willa:  I don’t know. I could speculate about a lot of different reasons why critics might have reacted this way, but it would just be speculation. I really don’t know. But it is interesting to me how the fans, the critics, and the public at large tend to respond to him so differently, and I wonder if it’s a function of emotional engagement. You know, Michael Jackson can really take you places if you let him, but you have to be willing to let him take you there.

I get the impression that a lot of times, critics approach artists – not just Michael Jackson but all artists – with a wary attitude. It’s like they’re standing there with their arms crossed going, “OK, buddy, show me what you can do. Try to impress me.” And if you approach him that way, you may be blown away by the incredible range of his voice or the fluidity of his dance moves – the kinds of obvious things the critics tend to acknowledge – but you’re going to miss all the depth and complexity and emotional power of his work. To see and feel those aspects of his work, you really have to engage with it, and explore what’s happening, and let yourself be drawn into it emotionally. And most critics just weren’t willing to do that. And his fans were.

It kind of gets back to what we’ve said before – we see him differently because we love him. With an artist as complicated and challenging as he is, I’m not sure it’s possible to even begin to understand him or appreciate him unless you love him and “give into” him. And we do.