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No One Can Find Me

Lisha: Willa, I can’t stop thinking about our previous discussion on “The Lost Children.” To be honest, I hadn’t given this song a lot of thought before, so I was surprised to discover how much is there. Now the song hits me in a totally different way. It somehow went from this sweet, simple little song to something that has a lot more weight to it, musically. Actually, I’m surprised that I now hear it as both heavy and light, all at the same time, which is something I previously missed, if that makes any sense.

Willa: Yes, I know exactly what you mean! At least, I think I do. The opening music is light and fun, with a twinkling kind of sound like a kid’s song – something Raffi might sing.

Lisha: Exactly. Overall, this feels a lot like a children’s song to me. I think it is safe to assume that was intentional, given it’s a song about children and we hear children’s voices throughout.

Willa: I think so too. And even the lyrics sound like a kid’s song, if you think only about form and not content. What I mean is, the lyrics are composed almost entirely of one- and two-syllable words, which is surprisingly difficult to do. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to write a kid’s book, but it’s hard! There are only two words longer than two syllables in the entire song: “families” and “addressing.” That’s it. And most of the words are only one syllable.

Lisha: Wow, you’re absolutely right. Most of these lyrics would be suitable for a young reader.

Willa: Yes, or even a pre-reader. Even children as young as three or four could understand most of these words when hearing them, I think. And then those one- and two-syllable words are combined into really short phases – most are only five words. And except for the chorus, Michael Jackson’s voice tends to go up at the end of each phrase, which also creates a “lighter” feel.

Lisha: There’s also a slight little stretch on the first beat of each measure, which gives the melody a lilting quality and emphasizes the light waltz feel.

Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Lisha! I hadn’t noticed that. So all of these things combine to create a song that sounds like a nice, light kid’s song, at least on the surface.

But once you start thinking about what the words mean, suddenly it becomes much darker. And that coupling of a “light” form with “dark” content is pretty unsettling.

Lisha: It’s deceptive. I guess I should have expected that given the subject matter: “The Lost Children.” It isn’t exactly a cheery song title, and it doesn’t have happy ending either. You never get any assurance that the children have made it safely home.

Willa:  No, you don’t. We hear Prince’s voice at the end saying, “It’s getting dark. I think we’d better go home now,” so there’s the implication that they are heading home, but we don’t hear a happy homecoming. Instead, the ending is left unresolved. It’s not clear if they make it home or not.

Lisha: The more I think about that, the more unsettling it is.

Willa: It really Is.

Lisha: Willa, there’s a small detail in this song that you mentioned to me earlier, and I think it’s worth really zeroing in on it. It’s an unusual word choice, “thee,” which happens at the end of the bridge:

Home with their fathers
Snug close and warm
Loving their mothers
I see the door simply wide open
But no one can find
thee

The word “thee” feels like it just comes out of nowhere. We have this simple tune – easy, simple lyrics – and then suddenly the word “thee” appears. What is up with the inexplicable shift into old English? Wouldn’t “them” or “you” fit the writing style much better? Why the odd use of the word “thee”?

Willa: That’s a good question, Lisha. “Them” or “you” does seem like a more obvious choice. Or the word “me.” In fact, I thought it was “me” until I saw the liner notes said “thee.” Then I asked you about it, and you put your trained musician’s ears to the task and decided the liner notes were right (they aren’t always!) and it was “thee.”

Lisha: Well, I did listen quite a few times because I also thought the lyric was “no one can find me.” I’m still not 100 percent sure, but I finally concluded it does sound more like “thee,” just because that word has a crisp, clear attack, which would be more difficult to do with the word “me.”

Willa: Hmmm. So now you have me intrigued. What do you mean by “a crisp, clear attack”?

Lisha: Well, I just noticed the beginning consonant has a very neat, tidy beginning to it. The “mmm” sound requires you to vocalize with the lips closed, so I would expect it to take just a split second longer and not be quite as clear on the attack. I’m splitting hairs here trying to figure this out, so bear with me.

The art of singing is really all about vowel sounds – learning to produce beautiful, clear sounds by sustaining the different vowels. But if you want to add semantic meaning to those sounds, you need to add consonants, which are more difficult to produce and they are hard on the vocal cords. One of the big challenges in singing is learning how to deal with consonants. In general, the trick is get off of them as quickly as possible and let the voice rest on the vowel.

Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha. I’m not a singer but I’ve sung with choirs a few times, and they do encourage you to sustain a word with the vowels, not the consonants. Like if the word “home” is to be held for a measure, they’d rather you sing it like “hooooooooome” than “hommmmmmmmmmme” – in other words, hold it on the “o” sound, not the “m” sound. But I thought that was just because they thought it sounded better that way, not because it could hurt your voice.

Lisha: Yes, you’re right. It does sound better. And I didn’t mean to imply that the only reason to avoid consonants is because they are hard on the voice. Just as you said, when you’re singing the word “home,” what you’re really singing is the vowel “o.” Adding a quick “h” and “m” gives that “o” a very specific meaning. Now that I think about it, I wonder if it’s even possible to sustain a consonant without adding a vowel. For example, even with your lips closed you can hear a subtle difference between “ma, mo, me, may, moo.” The vowel sort of blends in with the consonant. It’s the vowels that make singing possible. Believe it or not, a lot of instrumentalists think about how to convey vowel sounds through their instruments too.

Willa: Really? That’s interesting!

Lisha: Yes, it’s out there, I know! But many instrumentalists study the art of singing to improve their playing. It reveals so much about how to deliver a melody with real style and flair.

Along these lines, I’ve enjoyed listening to some recordings of Seth Riggs coaching Michael Jackson over the phone. Here’s one from YouTube:

In the first part of this warm-up, you hear Michael Jackson vocalizing while buzzing his lips. I know this exercise sounds really goofy, but it pays big dividends for singers because it warms up the voice very gently without straining the vocal cords. The next part of the routine is a series of vowels. Consonants are added later, working for a clean attack while keeping that same clear tone on the vowels. So for example at about 6:05 in the recording, you can hear Michael Jackson practicing “ma.” I’m not a singer or a vocal coach, but I think I can hear him adding his tongue in the highest notes, which makes more of an “n” sound. The tongue gives those high notes a sharper attack. The true “m” sound isn’t quite as crisp, to my ear.

Willa: That clip is really interesting, Lisha!  I’ve listened to some of these before but not this one, and there’s a fascinating discussion starting about 6:40 minutes in. After talking about the approach for singing the phrase “is a cold,” as in “Dom Stanton is a cold man,” Riggs gives Michael Jackson some advice on how to make that phrase easier to sing:

All right, so the “c” could throw you, so just be careful that you keep it as pure as you can and drop your jaw on “o.” [Riggs sings “is a cold.”] If the “kuh” throws you too much, you can take “is a gold” – put a “g” on it. It’ll sound like a “c.” But if Bruce picks up on it, of course, and you do too, then you’ll have to put the “c.” [Riggs sings “is a gold.”]

Lisha: Isn’t that interesting? Notice how Michael Jackson saves his voice here (7:25) by singing the phrase on “o,” leaving the consonants for the recording session. Riggs’ suggestion for this high passage really makes a lot of sense, since “g” is much softer on the vocal cords and requires less air on the attack. Good musicians have thousands of little tricks like this. But, they require good judgment as to when to use them, as Riggs cautions. For example, I hear an obvious stylistic consideration as well. Notice how operatic that “g” sounds when Riggs demonstrates the phrase “is a gold.” Not sure that would really fit with D.S. “is a cold man”!

Willa: No. You’re right – “D.S.” is intentionally harsh, with a short, choppy, jabbing feel, so an operatic voice wouldn’t fit very well at all!

Lisha: Exactly. I think this music requires harsh sounding attacks! There’s good reason to lash out on these lyrics.

Willa: That’s a good point, Lisha. But I have to admit, I’m kind of shocked by Seth Riggs’ suggestion to sing “cold” as “gold.” I tend to focus on the meaning of words much more than the sounds, so it’s pretty startling to hear a vocal coach talk about words this way!

Lisha: It’s a completely different logic for sure.

Willa: You know, this discussion of swapping out “cold” for “gold” reminds me of the bridge in “Much Too Soon”:

Take away this never-ending sorrow
Take this lonely feeling from my soul
If only I knew what things bring tomorrow
She’d be sitting here beside me
And my heart wouldn’t be cold

At least, I think that’s what he’s singing. To be honest, I have trouble understanding that last line. That final word sounds like “gold” to me but that wouldn’t make sense – he must mean “cold.” And Seth Riggs’ suggestion that he substitute “gold” for “cold” may explain why I hear it the way I do.

Lisha: You’re right! There’s such a tiny difference between “gold” and “cold.” It’s easy to confuse the two. The “c” requires more forceful air and a stronger click on “cold.” Other than that, they are pretty much identical. Riggs suggests using that confusion to the singer’s advantage.

Willa: Yes, which is kind of a shocking concept to me! But you’re right – you hold your mouth and tongue in the same position for both “gold” and “cold.” The primary difference is the hard “g” is voiced and the hard “c” isn’t. It’s like “z” and “s,” which are identical except “z” is voiced and “s” isn’t.

Lisha: Exactly. And it’s interesting to me that you hear that line as: “And my heart wouldn’t be cold.” I’ve always heard the softer sound: “And my heart would then be gold.” I looked at the liner notes and it shows yet another variation: “And my heart would fill with gold.”

So out of curiosity, I checked Google Play and Metro Lyrics. They both claim the line is “And my heart would dimly go.” A-Z Lyrics drops the guttural consonant altogether for “And my heart would then be whole.”

Willa: Really? That’s funny!

Lisha: It definitely shows how ambiguous that line is!

Willa: It really does.

Lisha: I think this raises an important point about Michael Jackson’s work in general. I’m not convinced Michael Jackson necessarily wanted to lock in specific meanings for his lyrics. From what I can tell, his first priority was melody and sound. In the writing process, the lyrics were often crafted last, after the musical ideas had fallen into place.

Willa: Yes, I think you’re right. Though that doesn’t mean that the meaning of his songs wasn’t important to him. I think it was very important. But he conveyed meaning through many different threads at once, all interwoven to work beautifully together, and the denotative meaning of the lyrics was just one of those threads. And he had a poet’s awareness of the music of words themselves – of the sounds and rhythm of words.

Lisha: Oh I agree, absolutely.

Willa: I remember reading an interview with Paul McCartney where he said he and Michael Jackson debated the word “doggone” in “The Girl is Mine.” Paul McCartney didn’t like it and wanted to substitute a different word, but Michael Jackson insisted they keep it because he felt the song needed those particular sounds in that particular spot.

Lisha: Gosh, I had forgotten about that interview! What a brilliant example, Willa! Here’s the McCartney quote, which is from the 1983 Newsweek article titled “Michael Jackson: The Peter Pan of Pop”:

The song I’ve just done with Michael Jackson, you could say that it’s shallow … There was even a word – ‘doggone’ – that I wouldn’t have put in it. When I checked it out with Michael, he explained that he wasn’t going for depth – he was going for rhythm, he was going for feel. And he was right. It’s not the lyrics that are important on this particular song – it’s much more the noise, the performance, my voice, his voice.

Willa: Wow, thanks for tracking that down, Lisha! You are a marvel at research! And of course this is all secondhand, but McCartney’s memory of their discussion is that Michael Jackson felt the meaning of the words were less important – at least in this instance – than the “rhythm” or sound of the words.

Lisha: Although it doesn’t get talked about much, the sound of the words is such an important consideration in songwriting. There is a real art to making words fit a melody, and a lot of that is based on “feel” as McCartney says. Michael Jackson seemed to be hyper-aware of this.

As we were discussing the “o” in “gold” and “cold,” I thought of another famous song, Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow” from Wizard of Oz. According to the lyricist, Yip Harburg, the opening line was created out of the need to insert the sound “o” into this melody. The original working title was “I Want To Be Somewhere on the Other Side of the Rainbow.” But Harburg changed it when he realized the “ee” sounds were too harsh for the melody. Here’s a clip of Harburg himself explaining the sound of “o” in “Over The Rainbow.” (Skip to 8:20):

As he says,

I finally came to the thing, the way our logic lies with it, “I want to be somewhere on the other side of the rainbow.” And, I began trying to fit it…Now, if you say “ee,” you couldn’t sing “ee, ee, ee, ee.” You had to sing “o.” That’s the only thing that would get it … I had to get something with “o” in it, you see. [sings tune on “o”] Now that sings beautifully, see. So this sound forced me into the word “over,” which was much better than “on the other side.”

Willa: Wow, Lisha, that is so interesting!

Lisha: Isn’t it? I really hope everyone can access the Yip Harburg interview, because when you hear him sing the tune both ways, it makes perfect sense why the sound of the words have to be matched to the melody.

Willa: I love hearing a songwriter work through his creative process like this, and it’s so interesting to hear how Yip Harburg solved the problem of conveying the meaning he wanted while getting the sounds he needed – in this case, that important long “o” sound. As he said, “I had to get something with ‘o’ in it,” and that emphatic “o” sound in “over” and “rainbow” really does drive the melody and the lyric.

Lisha: It is such a dramatic example. The vowel sounds, completely separate from their semantic meaning, have to fit the music just so.

Many Michael Jackson demos show how this creative process works. You can hear him experimenting with all different kinds of vocal sounds, looking for something that will fit musically. His primary objective seems to be melody and sound. The lyrics sort of fall into place later, pieced together like a puzzle. One of my favorite examples is the demo of “People of the World”:

There are a ton of great made-up words and nonsensical phrases in this like, “the Black Hills of North Virginia.” That phrase is pretty funny, since there is no state named North Virginia, and the Black Hills are actually located in South Dakota! It is obvious this was never intended as the final lyric. But notice how beautifully those words fit the melody. In that sense, it’s flawless. I understand perfectly why he wanted to experiment with those words in this particular phrase.

Willa: That’s a great example, Lisha! But it’s forcing me rethink the distinction I made earlier between form and content. Even though there are “great made-up words and nonsensical phrases,” as you say, there is still meaning conveyed by the sounds he sings and the way he sings them. For example, there’s a sweetness to this song, but it doesn’t sound like a love song to me. Instead, there’s a lolling quality that makes me think of time passing, and I also get a strong sense of harmony – and yearning for harmony. So he is conveying a lot of meaning in this unfinished song even without fully developed lyrics.

Lisha: You’re right and I think that’s a very important distinction to make. Musical ideas are expressed even without the lyrics, just as instrumentalists make music without words. Singers have the advantage of being able to add semantic meaning to the musical phrase, but it’s almost like icing on the cake. If musical expression were not the primary consideration, there wouldn’t be a need to sing. You could simply read the words aloud as a poem and that would be enough.

I think it’s worth remembering here that not all Michael Jackson’s vocalizations include words. Think of the chorus in “Earth Song,” sung entirely on the vowel sounds, or the famous vocal tics all throughout his work. In fact, we devoted an entire post to Michael Jackson’s non-verbal vocalizations a while back.

Willa: Yes, I remember that post with Bjørn – as a poet, he’s always so interesting to talk to about aspects of language we don’t often think of, like the sounds and rhythm of language. Bjørn and I did another post where he talked explicitly about vowel sounds – the “o” sound in particular – and referenced Edgar Allan Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition”:

In this essay Poe links the “o” sounds to melancholia. In English, there are a lot of “o” words denoting a sense of loss, so I think that’s why Poe got the idea: old, gone, done, lore, before, forlorn, lost, loss, sorrow, mourning…

So Bjørn suggests that sounds convey meaning separate from the denotative definition of a word. And Poe’s linking of “o” with melancholia certainly fits “Over the Rainbow” with all its “o” sounds, where a young girl is longing to escape her problems to a happier place.

Lisha: Oh that is just fascinating! It’s absolutely true that spoken words can be quite musical without any kind of musical accompaniment. Maybe that accounts for why Michael Jackson loved Edgar Allan Poe so much and why he tended to focus on the sound of a word, beyond what it denotes.

Circling back to where we started with all this, “no one can find thee/me” in “The Lost Children,” I can’t help notice how the “ee” sound seems to hit that phrase just perfectly in a musical sense. “No one can find them” or “you” just doesn’t work at all. There’s a lot of tension on that note, and that bright, open “ee” works so beautifully right there at the end of the bridge. It leads the listener right into the chorus, reminding me of something Michael Jackson said about songwriting in his Mexico City deposition: “when the chorus comes it should be like a flower blossoming in your face.”

Willa:  I love that image!

Lisha: I do too! And the “ee” sound in that transition from the bridge to chorus really feels like “a flower blossoming in your face”! It is the exact right sound for that moment in the song.

But is it “thee” or “me” that he sings? I keep thinking about our previous post and what Michael Jackson told author Darlene Craviotto about the old man in “Kick the Can.”  He said, “This is me! This is me! This is me!” The lyric “No one can find me” makes an awful lot of sense in that context.

Willa: It really does, and actually that’s how I still “hear” it – as “no one can find me” – even though the actual sounds might be “thee,” if that makes any sense.

But I also really like the way the sound and meaning slips back and forth between “me” and ”thee,” so that it’s like I’m hearing it both ways at once. As Marie Plasse mentioned in a post with us a while back, Michael Jackson often encouraged us to see a situation from multiple points of view, including the perspectives of those who are generally overlooked or ignored. As Marie said,

the multiple subject positions and perspectives are in service of Michael’s larger mission of calling attention to the experiences of those who are “othered” or forgotten by mainstream society and who suffer for it. By shifting the perspective so often to these marginalized ones, he pushes us out of what may be our own relatively comfortable positions and makes us see through the eyes of the “other.”

And of course, missing children, homeless children, runaways … they are all very much on the margins of society and rarely have a voice. So it makes sense to me that he wouldn’t draw a clear distinction between “no one can find thee” and “no one can find me.” In the first, we as listeners are in the position of someone who’s searching for a lost child and feeling despair because we can’t find them. In the second, we are in the position of a child who is lost and feeling despair because the people we care about can’t find us. Both ways make sense. So both ways work, and they work beautifully together.

Lisha: Beautifully said, Willa. I think that’s why the more I thought about the slipperiness of thee/me lyric, the more haunting and tragic this song became for me. When you think of all the ways that an intense longing to return home might apply to the composer/artist of this song, it’s heartbreaking. Shocking, actually. It raises some serious questions in my mind about what we as a society demanded from Michael Jackson, and at what cost to him personally.

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HIStory Teaser, Part 3: a New Kind of Hero

Willa:  This week Eleanor Bowman and I conclude our three-part series on the short film Michael Jackson created to promote his HIStory album. In Part 1 of this series, we focused on its most obvious influence, the one critics at the time tended to focus on: the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. In Part 2 we looked at a more subtle but even more significant influence: Charlie Chaplin’s satirical film, The Great Dictator. And today we’re considering other works and historical references in the HIStory teaser.

Thanks for joining me again, Eleanor! I’ve learned so much from our discussions about HIStory.

Eleanor:  Thanks for extending the invitation, Willa. I’ve learned a lot, too. In my continuing quest to understand HIStory, I have discovered allusions to three more films, which open yet more doors to new worlds of meaning.

Willa:  Yes, and there’s one more we haven’t figured out yet …

Eleanor: At least!

Willa: There’s also the location where HIStory was filmed – Heroes’ Square in Budapest – which from what you’ve told me is very significant. I’d like to talk with you about that today also.

Eleanor: Right, HIStory’s setting, Budapest, Hungary, in 1994, was anything but random.

Thinking about it, that powerful image of the unveiling of the statue of MJ in HIStory’s final scene seems emblematic of HIStory’s use of references and allusions to unveil the nature and aspirations of this remarkable man. But the more I study this film, the more I get the feeling we have only scratched the surface.

Willa:  I agree. So I guess the best place to begin is by identifying those other references. In addition to Triumph of the Will and The Great Dictator, what other films do you see referenced in HIStory?

Eleanor:  Would you believe the teasers for Terminator 2, The Hunt for Red October, and Apocalypse Now – as well as the movies themselves?

Full disclaimer, Willa. I would never have made the first two connections without a comment that I found on the Film Score Monthly site from KonstantinosZ. So, many thanks to KonstatinosZ, wherever you are. As for Apocalypse Now, which was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who also directed Captain EO, it was the helicopters that tipped me off.

Willa:  That’s so interesting, Eleanor – and so unexpected! Michael Jackson really did pull inspiration from just about everywhere, didn’t he? High culture, pop culture, paintings, movies, children’s stories, poems, cartoons, symphonies, tap dancing, hip hop, pantomime, ballet … the list just goes on and on. But why these particular films? What’s the connection?

Eleanor: Well, superficially they seem very different, but all three are about the madness of war.

Willa: That’s true, and they’re all about a specific kind of war – a global war, or a war with global implications. Apocalypse Now is set in Vietnam, a former French colony, during the Vietnam War, when Southest Asia became the chessboard for the playing out of Cold War ambitions between the US on one side and the Soviet Union and China on the other. The Hunt for Red October is also set during the Cold War, focusing specifically on military tensions between the US and USSR. And Terminator 2 involves time travel from a horrific future where humans and machines are fighting each other for global and even interstellar control. The goal is to alter the present to avoid that terrible future. And of course Triumph of the Will and The Great Dictator are also addressing the spread of an ideology with global implications, with Triumph promoting it and The Great Dictator fighting it – an ideology that ultimately resulted in World War II.

So all five movies referenced in HIStory are engaging with the horror of global war and global empire-building.

Eleanor: Yes, all focus on some aspect of war or nationalism – and reveal our fascination with it.

Willa: That’s true – we do seem fascinated as well as horrified by it. I’m especially intrigued by the inclusion of Terminator 2 and The Hunt for Red October. Michael Jackson directly quotes music from both of them in the first half of the HIStory teaser, and includes subtler allusions as well.

Referencing these two movies in particular is so unexpected, but thinking about it, there are some very interesting parallels between them. Both films are about an object of intense fear that threatens global annihilation of humankind. In Terminator 2, a cyborg assassin has been sent back from the future to find the future leader of the humans at war with the machines they created. And in Red October, a Soviet submarine captain is piloting a nuclear-armed submarine toward US waters – a situation that could trigger World War III.

But – and this is the crucial part – as it turns out, both are actually trying to prevent global war and preserve and protect humankind. While the cyborg was trying to kill his human target in the first Terminator movie, in Terminator 2 he’s been given a new mission and is now devoted to protecting his target.

Eleanor: Right. In the original Terminator movie, the terminator is sent back from the future by Skynet, the computer network that launched a nuclear holocaust to wipe out humanity. Returning to the pre-nuclear holocaust past, he is tasked with killing the woman who would become the mother of John Connor – the man who leads the post-nuclear holocaust survivors in their resistance to Skynet – thereby preventing his birth and the resistance. But the terminator failed, and John Connor was born.

In Terminator 2, the terminator has been rebuilt by the resistance fighters themselves, who send him back to the pre-nuclear holocaust past reprogrammed to protect the child, John Connor. Back in the past, he is rewired with the ability to learn by John’s mother, and his mission expands to include destroying Skynet, thus preventing the nuclear holocaust altogether. He not only saves the boy, but changes the future and saves humanity.

Willa: Exactly. That’s a great summary, Eleanor. And the submarine captain in Red October is trying to defect and share new technology with the US, so the delicate Cold War equilibrium between east and west will remain in balance. So in both of these films, someone who is initially seen as a terrible threat to humankind is actually working toward its salvation.

And that’s exactly Michael Jackson’s position, isn’t it? Many people saw him as very threatening – a “beast,” a “monster,” “the living dead,” and “your worst nightmare,” as he says in “Threatened” – though he was actually working to “heal the world.”

And that’s kind of how the HIStory promo film functions as well. At first glance, it feels really uncomfortable and intimidating. Michael Jackson leading an army? What?! But if we can tamp down our fear and animosity long enough to explore deeper, we start to see things differently.…

Eleanor:  I really like that, Willa. We need to have enough faith in MJ to overcome our initial discomfort with HIStory, because making the effort to understand it will deepen our understanding of him and his story.

Willa:  I agree. At least, I know that exploring all these different references has transformed how I interpret and respond to HIStory. And actually, transforming interpretation is an important element of both of those movies as well.

What I mean is, The Hunt for Red October is an action-adventure movie, but the real suspense comes from trying to decide if the Americans should trust the Soviet captain or not. Is he trying to defect, or is he planning to launch a nuclear weapon at a major US city? Is he a savior or a villain? A renegade hero breaking with his leadership and his past, or a Soviet pawn? Or maybe he’s a “madman,” as the president’s National Security Adviser calls him, who wants to kill himself following his wife’s suicide and has decided to take the whole world out with him. How should they interpret him and what he’s doing? And how should we as an audience interpret what’s happening? Figuring out how to interpret his actions is the critical question at the heart of the movie.

And interpretation – specifically, trying to figure out who or what we can trust – is at the heart of Terminator 2 also. We learn fairly early on that the terminator is trying to protect John Connor, but he’s protecting him against another cyborg made of liquid metal who’s a shape-shifter. This other cyborg can appear in any guise – as a policeman, a little girl, John’s mother, or even inanimate objects.

Eleanor:  Right. And the visual effects you mention, which are an integral part of the story, represented a major “breakthrough in computer-generated imagery.” I think that’s one of the things that drew MJ to this movie. Although many see technology in opposition to art, Michael Jackson (and James Cameron, the director of Terminator 2) viewed technology as a powerful means of artistic expression.

Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Eleanor. It’s true that Michael Jackson was very interested in new technology and in general was quick to embrace it. That’s a good point.

So in both Terminator 2 and Red October, we’re constantly asking ourselves, Can we trust what we see? Are people (and things) really as they appear to be? How can we be sure we’re interpreting everything correctly? And of course, Michael Jackson was a shape-shifter as well, and a lot of people weren’t sure how to interpret him either or if he could be trusted.

Eleanor:  That’s true, Willa. In these two films, there’s a whole lot of shape shifting goin’ on. In Terminator 2, the bad guy’s shape shifting is on the outside. Inside he remains absolutely true to his original mission. On the other hand, the terminator and the sub captain never shift shapes, they look the same way they always have on the outside, but their missions change radically. In alluding to these films, HIStory tells us that Michael Jackson may have changed on the outside, but remains true to his mission to heal the world through music. We can trust him absolutely. But it is also telling us that when the chips are down, people are capable of profound psychological change.

Willa: That’s an interesting way to look at that, Eleanor. It’s also true that the films themselves are constantly shape-shifting as our interpretations of them and what’s happening changes. And interpretations of Michael Jackson were constantly shifting also – just look at how quickly things changed after he died.

Eleanor: Yes, which sadly proves his point that people can change, in this case, almost overnight. But unfortunately for him, it was too late. It took something as terrible and tragic as his death to shock a lot of people – including me, I regret to confess – into recognizing what a treasure he was, the magnitude of our loss, and the cruel injustice that had been done to him. Which then led me to begin to investigate what our treatment of him reveals about us.

And it may take the impending destruction of the planet and everything on it to force us to recognize and change the self-destructive cultural beliefs we hold about human nature and collective survival. However, through its many allusions, HIStory expresses MJ’s belief that people are capable of making changes to their core values, just as the terminator does by having Sarah Connor open his head (open his mind?), remove the CPU, and flip the switch, allowing him to learn, to expand his vision and his mission!

Willa: I think maybe I need one of those switches …

Eleanor:  Right, I love that image. Would that it were so easy for us to open our minds to new ways of being!  But the good news is that different human societies in different times and places have held very different cultural values, which shows us that human cultural beliefs are not hardwired. Let’s just hope that, like the sub captain and the terminator, our culture will opt for survival – and make some deep changes in our belief systems, even and especially where notions of power and hierarchy are concerned. Through his art, Michael Jackson was trying to show us the way.

Willa: That’s a beautiful way of interpreting that, Eleanor. So I was thinking, we should probably back up a bit and identify where all these references are in HIStory, and how they’re used.

Eleanor:  Good idea. In our previous post, we discussed the fact that HIStory opens with no images, only a blank screen and the words spoken in Esperanto, which link HIStory and Michael Jackson’s story to The Great Dictator and its star/director, Charlie Chaplin, and to the theme of internationalism. And although HIStory’s first allusion is to be found in what we hear rather than what we see, even the blank screen serves a purpose, focusing our attention on the words. And come to think about it, Apocalypse Now also opens with a blank screen and just the sound of a helicopter, a symbol of war rather than peace.

Willa: That’s really interesting, Eleanor. That is similar to the opening of HIStory, though HIStory’s intro is more ambiguous. We hear a man shouting but we don’t know why, and unless we speak Esperanto – and most of us don’t – we don’t know what he’s saying.

Eleanor: Yes, and he doesn’t sound very peaceful.

Willa: No, he doesn’t.

Eleanor: In the rest of the film, the references, both historic and cinematic, are to be found in HIStory’s sights and its sounds – the sounds providing a commentary on what we are seeing – a non-verbal and sometimes oblique narration. For example, in HIStory, the first image we see is the statue of the turul, Hungary’s “state bird,” representing Hungarian nationalism. And the sounds we hear following the words spoken in Esperanto are the militaristic sounds of jackboots.

Willa: So giving it a somewhat threatening feeling – kind of like the sound of helicopters at the beginning of Apocalypse Now, as you just mentioned?

Eleanor: Yes. In these opening frames, HIStory is contextualizing Michael Jackson’s history within the framework of Hungary’s history, which is emblematic of the history of imperial conquest in general. And given that Esperanto is so closely followed by the sound of jackboots, it appears that Michael Jackson’s story – and his view of the world – is to be told through contrasting sights and sounds, and the juxtaposition of peace and war.

Willa: That’s really interesting, Eleanor. It is true that the “sights and sounds” don’t seem to go together. As Bjørn Bojesen translated for us in a post last year, the man shouting in Esperanto is talking of “global motherhood and love and the healing power of music,” while the images are militaristic and scary. So once we know what the Esperanto words mean, it is a powerful “juxtaposition of peace and war,” as you say.

Eleanor: Right. Next, there is the scene of workers building what appears to be an enormous statue, accompanied by loud and threatening industrial sounds – the hissing of molten metal and banging of hammers, calling to mind the scene in the Terminator 2 teaser, where the cyborg is being rebuilt and reprogrammed with his new mission.

Willa: Yes, and in the background there’s the very repetitious, industrial-sounding music that plays during confrontation scenes in Terminator 2. You can hear it in this clip:

It’s especially noticeable from 35 to 50 seconds in. You can hear that exact same groaning, repetitious, industrial-type music in the HIStory teaser from about 15 to 40 seconds in.

Eleanor: And then, as those sights and sounds fade into images of troops dressed in the uniforms of the Red army, HIStory’s soundtrack shifts into “Hymn to Red October,” the music from the film The Hunt for Red October, bringing to mind not only the film, but themes associated with the Soviet Union and the terrors of the Cold War.

Willa: Yes, and this is a very important reference, I think. Here’s a link to “Hymn to Red October” that includes the lyrics in both Russian and English:

These lyrics take us inside the mind of a soldier or sailor, who may spend months at a time far away from home. Here’s a translation of the Russian lyrics we hear in HIStory:

Cold, hard, empty
Light that has left me
How could I know that you would die?
Farewell again, our dear land
So hard for us to imagine it is real and not a dream
Motherland, native home
Farewell, our Motherland

The opening lines seem to refer to the sub captain’s backstory. His wife committed suicide during his last deployment (“How could I know that you would die?”) though, as he says, he spent so much time at sea “I widowed her the day I married her.” Now he’s going to sea again, and having very conflicted feelings about that.

But then the pronouns shift from “me” to “us,” and the lines that follow seem to express the feelings of sailors and soldiers more generally as they leave to spend months away from home (“Farewell again, our dear land / So hard for us to imagine it is real and not a dream”). So as we talked about in last week’s post, while Michael Jackson (like Chaplin before him) is ultimately critiquing war and imperialism, he’s not demonizing the soldiers and sailors who carry out orders from above. Instead, he seems to sympathize with them and the complicated situations they find themselves in, and these lyrics reflect that.

Eleanor: Thanks for finding those lyrics, Willa. And I agree completely with your interpretation.

Willa: You can hear this music playing through much of the first half of the HIStory trailer, beginning about 40 seconds in, with the music from Terminator 2 merging directly into “Hymn for Red October.”

And as you mentioned, Eleanor, this is another case where the “sights and sounds” don’t quite match up – or rather, the sounds complicate the visuals. On the surface, we see soldiers marching triumphantly toward Heroes’ Square, but the Russian lyrics give us a sadder, more human, and more nuanced view of what those soldiers may be feeling.

By the way, this music was composed by Basil Poledouris, who also scored the soundtrack for the first two Free Willy movies. And of course, Michael Jackson was involved in both of those as well – he wrote and performed “Will You Be There,” which became the theme song for the first movie, and then “Childhood,” which was used in the second one. These movies came out in 1993 and 1995, right around the time HIStory was being made, so it seems there were a number of connections between Michael Jackson and Basil Poledouris in the mid-1990s.

Eleanor: I didn’t know that. That is so interesting.

Willa: It is, isn’t it? So getting back to what you were saying about Terminator 2, I searched for trailers and there were several different ones made. In fact, the Director’s Cut DVD includes eight different trailers – it was a well-publicized movie!  But this seems to be the primary one, and also the one closest to HIStory. Is this the one you’re talking about, Eleanor?

Eleanor: Yes, that’s the one. Beginning about 1:03 are the scenes of the terminator being rebuilt. The terminator is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who became identified with the lines, “I’ll be back,” which he first spoke in the original Terminator movie. In that film, he gets everything but the kitchen sink thrown at him, but as the Terminator 2 teaser shows, he survives to fight another day. He’s back!

If that’s not a clue to Michael Jackson’s frame of mind when he was making HIStory, I don’t know what is! The teaser as well as the film itself, which came out in 1991, just prior to the escalation of attacks on Michael Jackson, help tell MJ’s story. I think an absolutely furious and outraged Michael Jackson, by referencing Terminator 2 in HIStory, was making the statement that he was not going to let anyone get him down. He was coming back in a big way.

Willa:  Oh that’s funny, Eleanor! So like the terminator, he was saying, “I’ll be back”?

Eleanor:  Right. And there’s some other really interesting stuff going on in Terminator 2 relative to Michael Jackson and his story. For example, the narrator says, “Once he was programmed to destroy the future, now his mission is to protect it; his loyalty is to a child….” And then “the Arnold” says, “Trust me,” another line he made famous. No wonder MJ referenced this teaser – and, through the teaser, the movie, which is about protecting the future and a child – at this time in his life. He couldn’t have found a better in-your-face, back-at-you response to the allegations of child abuse. And as a result of the allegations, trust had become a huge issue for him.

Willa: Wow, it’s true that when you look at it that way – that while the terminator is seen as a threat, he’s actually “protecting the future and a child” – it makes a lot of sense that Michael Jackson would reference this movie. And the line “Trust me” also gets back to the issue of interpretation we mentioned earlier. Can we really trust someone (a cyborg, a Soviet submarine captain, a shape-shifting pop star) who in some ways is so threatening to the world as we know it?

Eleanor:  Yes, and through this association, MJ is proclaiming loudly, Yes, you can trust me. Yes, you can trust my music. Remember, “I don’t sing it if I don’t mean it.” Much of the power of his music resides in the raw truth of his emotions, his extraordinary ability to musically express truths that come from a deep, deep place within him and touch a correspondingly deep place within us. Truths that are liberating to some and threatening to others. Which is why the mainstream was throwing “everything but the kitchen sink” at him – to discredit him and take away his power.

Willa: It’s also interesting that in the trailer they are welding together the metal skeleton of a cyborg that will become the terminator. It seems very reminiscent of those scenes in HIStory where they are pouring molten metal and welding together the enormous statue and Esperanto star.

Eleanor:  Yes, the reference to the terminator rebuilding scene fits perfectly, doesn’t it? The terminator is coming back to save humankind, (from itself, really, as humans created Skynet and its cyborg minions that are out to destroy them). And Michael’s artistic return with the HIStory album, maybe his most political album to date, emphasized and reinforced his commitment to healing a world that was and is badly out of joint – saving us from ourselves.

Also, I think it is interesting that this allusion associates MJ with a robot, given his famous robotic dance moves. Did you know that the word “robot,” which was coined by a Czech playwright, comes from the Czech word “robotnik,” which itself was derived from the word for forced labor and an older Slavic term for slave, and was used to refer to peasants in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (remember, HIStory was filmed in Hungary) who revolted against rich landowners in the late 19th century? Whew!

Willa: No, I had no idea.

Eleanor: Well, I didn’t either. So much history contained in a single word! And from my experience researching HIStory, I am positive that MJ was aware of all of it. In associating MJ – or his statue – with a robot, HIStory is associating the enslavement of African-Americans with the forced labor of the peasants in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, at the same time, HIStory touches on ideas of liberation and change from a robot-like existence.

HIStory’s reference to Terminator 2 tells us that Michael Jackson is back. And just as the terminator tells us to trust him, HIStory is asking us to trust MJ’s interpretation of events, rather than THEIRstory of his life.

But in referencing Terminator 2, HIStory is also telling us something about ourselves – that in spite of the fact that humans seem to be caught in a self-destructing loop of war after war, we are capable of change, that real change is possible. As Sarah Connor says at the end of Terminator 2, “If a machine, a terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.”

Willa:  That’s a really important point, I think, and it reminds me of another connection between Terminator 2, The Hunt for Red October, and HIStory … and actually The Great Dictator as well: they all center on a new kind of hero. The hero of Terminator 2 isn’t John Connor or even Sarah Connor, though they both do courageous things. It’s the terminator, a cyborg assassin that has been reprogrammed to preserve human life. Talk about an unconventional hero!

And in some ways, The Hunt for Red October is even more unconventional. It actually has two heroes: a Soviet submarine captain and an American naval analyst for the CIA. The captain wants to defect and share new technology with the west, and when the Soviet leadership realizes this, they order their navy to sink his sub rather than let it fall into enemy hands. They also tell their American counterparts that he is a rogue and dangerous, and ask the US military to attack his ship – and most of the Americans are only too happy to oblige …

Eleanor:  “Rogue and dangerous,” like “armed and dangerous”! That reminds me so much of the scene in Terminator 2 where Sarah and John and the terminator are blowing up the computer company to short-circuit Skynet and prevent the coming nuclear holocaust. The police are warned that they are “armed and dangerous.” When, if anything, it is the police who, armed to the teeth and sent to destroy the terminator, are dangerous. As in the plot of The Hunt for Red October, if the “good guys” (the US military or the police) kill off the “bad guys” (the Russian sub captain or the terminator) well, then, it is curtains for us. So Michael is saying, You know, they are pointing fingers at me, saying I am the threat, I am dangerous, when I am only trying to heal the world and prevent a disaster that will come if we do not change our ways.

Willa: That’s true – both films really challenge conventional ideas about “good guys” and “bad guys,” don’t they? And in both a traditional bad guy ultimately turns out to be a hero.

Even more unconventionally, in Red October the outcome of the movie ultimately comes down to empathy, the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes – even if they’re from a very different background – and imaginatively see the world the way they do. Action-adventure movies don’t generally place a high value on empathy, but it’s at the core of Red October. The CIA analyst has studied the sub captain and even met him once, and he seems to understand him and what’s important to him. Even more importantly, the analyst has an empathetic personality and is able to put himself in the sub captain’s position and intuit his motives and future actions. Because of this extraordinary ability to empathize, he interprets the sub captain’s actions very differently than the others: not as an attack, but as assistance.

Eleanor: Just as Sarah and John understand the terminator – and as Michael Jackson’s fans understood/understand MJ.

Willa: That’s true, Eleanor. Michael Jackson’s fans in particular see him very differently than most people because we empathize with him and try to see things from his perspective. That’s a good point.

So in Red October these two very different men from two very different cultures both defy conventional wisdom and their own leadership. They take a huge leap of faith, meet in a neutral place in the Atlantic Ocean, and reach an understanding. So what makes them heroes isn’t daring actions in battle. Rather, it’s having empathy and understanding one another, having the courage to trust someone very different from you, and having the wisdom to avoid war – which is exactly what Charlie Chaplin is advocating in his powerfully moving speech at the end of The Great Dictator. And of course, that’s another film with an unconventional hero: a shy, sensitive barber thrust against his will onto the world stage, who is then able to use that position to condemn fascism and avert war.

Thinking about it, empathy can profoundly affect how we interpret HIStory as well. On the surface, it feels scary and threatening, the work of a megalomaniac – “the most boldly vain-glorious self-deification a pop singer ever undertook with a straight face,” as Diane Sawyer quoted one critic. But if we approach it with empathy for Michael Jackson, for what happened to him in 1993, the year before HIStory was made, and for what he tried to accomplish throughout his career, and if we look more closely and carefully at what’s actually going on in HIStory – at the meaning of the Esperanto words at the beginning and the Russian lyrics soon after, at the many references to The Great Dictator and other films as well as Triumph of the Will – we begin to interpret things very differently, just like the CIA analyst does in Hunt for Red October. Michael Jackson isn’t advocating fascism or “self-deification” as Diane Sawyer implied. Instead, he’s trying to alter our beliefs and perceptions and bring about deep cultural change.

Eleanor: Exactly. And from everything I have learned about Michael Jackson and what drove him, I believe that he was convinced that we humans were capable of making the changes necessary to save ourselves – that we are not irredeemably locked into the cultural patterns that drive us to make war and despoil the earth.

As John Connor says in Terminator 2, just before he and his mom and the terminator change the future by destroying the computer technology that, if it continues to exist, will cause the holocaust, “The future’s not written. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.” Which, of course is the message of Michael Jackson’s lyrics in the song, “HIStory”:

Every day create your history
Every path you take you’re leaving your legacy ….
All nations sing
Let’s harmonize all around the world

In song after song, Michael Jackson returned to the theme of change leading to global harmony. He believed that humans have the power to change ourselves – to create our own history, to refuse to let the past determine our future.

Willa: That’s true – this idea runs throughout his life and his work. In “Much Too Soon,” which was written in the early 80s, I believe, he sings these lines, which I just love:

I hope to make a change now for the better
Never letting fate control my soul

And in the “Earth Song” segment of This Is It, recorded just a day or two before he died, he says this:

The time has come. This is it. People are always saying, “They’ll take care of it. The government’ll … Don’t worry, they’ll …” They who? It starts with us. It’s us, or else it’ll never be done.

Throughout his career until the very end of his life, he was encouraging us to take control of our own destiny, to create our own history, to “Heal the World.”

Eleanor:  And he saw music as a means of bringing about that change – because of its power to touch our emotions. To tell you the truth, Willa, without Michael Jackson and his strong belief in the power of music, and especially his music, to change human nature (or what we take for it) and set us on a new path, I think by now I would have lost all hope.

I believe that Michael Jackson himself represents a new version of humanity, a new model of the fully human, a new kind of hero, who inspires us to make peace not war. By associating the statue with the reprogrammed cyborg, HIStory is saying that Michael Jackson’s all about revolution, but a revolution within, in thinking and feeling – but most especially feeling – not a military action. And he deeply believed in the power of art to touch our hearts and create the empathy which you talked about earlier as a means of bringing about change.

Willa: Yes, repeatedly through his art he encouraged us to “create your history,” as you say, and he also thought it was important to know our history. There are many historical references in both HIStory (the album) and “HIStory” (the song), as Lisha, Joie, and I talked about in a post last spring. And there are important historical references in the HIStory promo film also, especially its setting. I know you’ve done some research about that, Eleanor. Would you like to talk about what you’ve found?

Eleanor: Yes, Willa. If nothing else, HIStory proves that MJ had a much better grasp of history than most of us do (as I keep saying, just researching HIStory has been a history lesson for me), and that he was a big proponent of the idea that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Setting HIStory in Budapest, Hungary, in 1994, following Hungary’s long period of domination by the Soviets, and using imagery associated with the Soviet Union, links Michael Jackson’s recent personal history, the history of African-Americans in the United States, and the history of oppressed peoples in general to the history of the Hungarian people, who under Soviet domination were “tortured, tried, and imprisoned in concentration camps or interned as slave labour on collective farms where many died.”

And, to make sure we see the connection, HIStory’s marching soldiers wear the uniform of the Soviet Union, and their destination is Budapest’s Heroes’ Square, which is centered around Hungary’s Millennium Monument, erected in 1896 (when Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire) to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the foundation of the Hungarian state in 896.

Significantly, although the Millennium Monument occupies the central position in Heroes’ Square, the square is architecturally defined by the Museum of Fine Arts and the Palace of Arts, bringing together the themes of art and heroism – a heroic art? the artist as hero? – juxtaposed with reminders of empire.

Willa:  Oh, I like that, Eleanor! – the idea of “the artist as hero,” a different kind of hero. And we see this idea visually represented by the towering statue of Michael Jackson himself in HIStory.

Heroes’ Square is a place filled with statues to commemorate military and political heroes, and in HIStory we’re watching the addition of a new statue – one that towers over all the others. But it’s a statue of a new kind of hero. He’s not a military or political leader, someone who leads armies to change geographical lines on a map. Rather, he’s a powerful artist who changes the way we think, and encourages us to empathize with people around the world from very different cultures and ethnicities. So this statue truly represents “the artist as hero,” as you say.

Eleanor: Layering “Hymn to Red October” over images of troops dressed in Soviet uniforms also brings to mind two October revolutions associated with “the reds”:  the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution, that overthrew the tsarist empire in Russia and brought the soviets to power, and the failed 1956 Hungarian revolution against the Soviets, who had been in control of Hungary since WWII – a revolution which played “a role in the downfall of the Soviet Union decades later.” His point being that historically one revolution is generally followed by another and so on. The pattern never ends.

Willa: That’s an interesting interpretation, Eleanor. And the October Revolution in Russia is referenced in the lyrics to “Hymn to Red October”:

Sail on fearlessly
Pride of the northern seas
Hope of the Revolution
You are the burst of faith of the people
In October, in October
We report our victories to you, our Revolution
In October, in October
And to the heritage left by you for us

Eleanor: Leading a new kind of army (us, his fans?), whose rifles (arms) are “bandaged” in white (like his arm is bandaged?), marching into Budapest’s Heroes’ Square which is festooned with banners, opening his “not-iron” fist to throw kisses, Michael Jackson represents a hero of a new age, whose goal is to end the cycle of conquest/revolution/conquest – and to provide a new image of a new humanity capable of working together for the well-being of all.

I wish I knew Russian, but I don’t, so I don’t know what the banners or the bands on the uniforms say.

Willa: Actually, I tried to translate the message on the banners using Google Translate and Babelfish and didn’t have much luck – it doesn’t seem to be a recognizable word. Then I asked Bjørn, our resident European languages expert, about it and about the soldiers’ armbands, and his reply was fascinating:

I don’t think the soldiers’ armbands have Cyrillic (Russian) letters on them. They look like runes. It was probably inspired by the Nazis’ SS logo. I’ve been looking around a bit, and I don’t find the characters in any runic alphabet. I guess they were invented for the film. The three visible armbands look like variations of this pattern:

armband runes cropped

They may be readable or not.

So while there are suggestions that the soldiers are Russian, as you say, or maybe German or even American, they aren’t clearly labeled.

So maybe we’re supposed to interpret them more generically than strictly Russian? The “invented” armbands seem to suggest that. And as Arcadio Coslov wrote in a comment last week:

Military Parades are held in Russia, France, Germany, China and USA. It’s part of military culture generally. The flitter that rains down on the parade for example is typical US-American.

So according to Arcadio and Bjørn, there are mixed signals about the nationality of these soldiers. Michael Jackson seems to be combining Russian-style uniforms with a Nazi-style armband and an American-style military parade to complicate how we “read” this army.

And the more I think about it, the more this makes sense to me – that the nationality of the soldiers would intentionally be left ambiguous, with an “invented” language on their armbands, rather than words or symbols that would clearly link them to a particular country.

Eleanor:  Well, the soldiers were actually hired from the UK because no Hungarian would put on a Soviet army uniform – an interesting fact from an article filled with interesting facts.

Willa:  Wow, that is interesting! They really went to a lot of trouble to make sure the soldiers were wearing Soviet uniforms, didn’t they? As the translation of the article says,

Michael … has invested $5 million U.S. of his own fortune to run this movie which promises to be spectacular. Some hundreds of young Hungarians had the pleasure of working as extras in the video, but all of them wanted to play members of the peace.

The Hungarian extras refused to wear the uniform of soldiers of the Red Army to recreate a similar sequence to the triumphal march that rallied the troops of Hitler at the beginning of the Second World War. They therefore have to use the services of a British recruitment agency to hire real soldiers. They arrived with 100 Royal Marines and some paratroopers. These soldiers have received a fee of $135 U.S. per day, plus stay in four star hotels and enjoy, of course, a free trip. It will cost to hire those soldiers, about U.S. $150,000.

Michael Jackson must have thought it was very important for the soldiers to wear Soviet uniforms to go to all that trouble and expense. So maybe we are supposed to see them as Soviet soldiers. That’s really interesting, Eleanor.

Then, following those scenes of Michael Jackson with the marching soldiers, we have an odd intermediary section. I don’t quite know what to call it – if this were a song, I’d call it a bridge. The mood is very different all of a sudden, very chaotic and fearful. Suddenly it’s night time and a car is burning, helicopters are swooping overhead, explosions are going off, people are screaming and either running or cowering in fear … in other words, it’s a scene of chaos and turmoil, which is so different from the extreme order and precision of the scenes that come before it.

Eleanor: Yes. And here HIStory is quoting the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, with the helicopters appearing, black against the red sun – a scene very closely identified with that film.

Willa:  I agree. I hadn’t made that connection until you mentioned it, but now that you’ve pointed it out, it does feel like a direct visual quotation, doesn’t it? Here are screen captures from the helicopter scenes in Apocalypse Now and HIStory, and they’re remarkably similar.

helicopters

Eleanor:  Apocalypse Now is a film about the horrors and insanity of war in general, and specifically the Vietnam war where America “lost its innocence,” where Americans learned on the six o’clock news that we too were capable of atrocities, and where thousands upon thousands of young men, doing their patriotic duty, were caught in a gigantic war machine that, if it didn’t take take their lives, it chewed them up and spit them out, broken physically, mentally, and morally.

The people running in panic  at the sight of HIStory’s helicopters are like the terrified Vietnamese school children and fishermen running for cover from the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now – just before the missiles hit and their world explodes. War’s innocent victims. Again, the good guys are the bad guys and vice versa.

And, given that HIStory also quotes Riefenstahl and the Nazis, it is interesting that the helicopters in Apocalypse Now are outfitted with loudspeakers blasting Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” as they come in for the kill.  No matter what side we are on, we are all victims of insane nationalistic political systems that result in war over and over.

Willa: Those are such interesting connections, Eleanor, with important implications for how we interpret HIStory, I think. For many Americans, the Vietnam War is a shameful episode that has come to symbolize military excess without a clear mission. Young US soldiers – many of them in their late teens or early 20s – were dropped in a foreign land where it wasn’t always clear who was a civilian and who was a combatant, and then set loose in confusing and hostile circumstances without clear guidance. It was devastating to the Vietnamese and to the young Americans who were sent there.

Even if we don’t catch the reference to Apocalypse Now – and I didn’t – it’s still clear that this scene in HIStory is depicting panicked citizens in fear of the military. This is such a contradictory message to the adoring crowds welcoming the military, led by Michael Jackson, that we see in the first section. So again, he juxtaposes contradictory images to complicate the meaning.

You know, as frightening and unsettling as this odd little entr’acte is, I think it’s one of the most important scenes in HIStory and serves a very important function. It powerfully undermines and complicates the Riefenstahl-type imagery that came before it – imagery that idealizes the military – and forces us to imagine that same army being turned against us. In effect, it shows that the fearsome might of a strong military can be a threat as well as protection.

Eleanor: Yes, I agree with you about this scene’s importance.  And perhaps this scene explains why MJ was insistent on the Soviet uniforms. Given their recent experience with the Soviet Union, it would make sense to depict the Hungarian people as “gun shy” – as wary and ready to panic at the first sign of what appears to be aggression from an army wearing the uniforms of the country that had so recently been their oppressor. Have they really changed? Are these really good guys? Can we trust them?

Willa:  That’s a good point, Eleanor. And Budapest is the perfect spot to illustrate how threatening powerful armies can be. I visited a friend in Budapest in the summer of 1991, I think it was, and we actually stood in Heroes’ Square as she told me some of her country’s history. And I was shocked by it – they were occupied by one group or another for hundreds of years, most recently the Soviet Union.

And while I’m sure things have changed a lot since 1991, when I was there the physical evidence of World War II was still very visible – for example, in mortar scars on buildings. That wasn’t true in any other European nation I visited that summer, but in Hungary reminders of World War II were still very noticeable. It seems appropriate then that since HIStory draws so much imagery from World War II – specifically Triumph of the Will – that it would be filmed in a place where the effects of that war were still so present.

Importantly, those mortar scars came from Allied – namely, Soviet – bombing since Hungary was part of the Axis (who Americans see as the bad guys in World War II) and the USSR joined with the Allies (who Americans see as the good guys). So when Americans see a WWII-era scene of Soviet soldiers marching into Hungary, like in HIStory, we should identify with the Soviets – after all, we were on the same side in World War II.

But in the helicopter scene, especially, it seems to me that we as an audience tend to sympathize with the Hungarian (Axis) civilians under threat from the Soviet (Allied) troops. Talk about mixing up the good guys and the bad guys! The Soviets would then occupy Hungary for decades following World War II, as you mentioned earlier, Eleanor, using brutal measures to repress dissent and rebellion – further complicating any simplistic notions we may have about good guys and bad guys.

That’s one reason it’s so interesting and significant that Michael Jackson, an American, would film HIStory in Hungary using imagery from World War II. The Hungarians were our enemies in that war and the Soviets were our allies, but that’s not how it feels watching this film. So he’s flipping our perceptions and emotions inside out.

Eleanor: Hmmm… Willa, that’s interesting, because I don’t see MJ so much as an American but as a citizen of the world, and I don’t see HIStory as being set in WWII, but in 1994. And in 1994, the recently defunct USSR would have been viewed as the enemy by both Hungarians and Americans. Which makes it doubly weird – and complicated – that MJ would be leading such an army in Budapest.

Do you really see it set in WWII?

Willa:  That’s a good question, Eleanor. The short answer is no, but the Riefenstahl imagery and other historical allusions make it more complicated than that.

I guess I see HIStory as set in the present but strongly evoking the past, so there are persistent echoes of World War II and the Soviet occupation running throughout it. It’s almost a type of double vision, with images of the past – the long lines of troops from Triumph of the Will and The Great Dictator, the monument to power in the background – coexisting with crowds dressed in contemporary clothes. So there’s the Hungary that fought against the USSR (and indirectly the US) in World War II, and the Hungary that suffered under Soviet occupation for decades following that war, existing as ghost images alongside the Hungary of 1994, when the film was made.

How do you see it?

Eleanor: I see HIStory set in a country whose people are still so traumatized by the Soviet occupation that they wouldn’t wear Soviet uniforms even for a film. So when the helicopters appear in the movie, their terror is believable, associated with the recent occupation. In 1994, they are not Axis civilians, but Hungarians recently liberated and still none too trustful of Russians, even make-believe ones. And I don’t see the audience for this film as necessarily American.

Willa:  I agree. That’s one reason I think it’s so interesting an American made it – because it’s not a typical American point of view. Just the opposite. I mean, how many times have we seen an American leading a Soviet army? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before, ever. It’s another one of those juxtapositions of discordant images that you were talking about earlier, Eleanor. They’re the bad guys, we’re the good guys – that’s the typical view – so why is he there with them? It is interesting to think about how an American audience would react to that, emotionally and psychologically, but I don’t think Americans are the only audience, by any means.

And I just have to say that what he’s doing here is really complicated and hard to figure out. I’m still struggling with it.…

Eleanor: Well, it’s no wonder. Michael Jackson took on a terrifically complicated (there’s that word again) task with HIStory, and compressed a tremendous amount of  information into a very short film. But, I feel like we’ve come a long way toward better understanding it.

Willa: I do too.

Eleanor: And returning to your point about WWII, I agree that it is helpful to think about the HIStory helicopter scene not only as alluding to the Vietnam war, but also as layered over the memory of a battle that took place many years ago, when Hungary was America’s enemy, not its friend. I think that what MJ is saying in HIStory is that, no matter who’s in power, power structures based on the principle of divide and conquer will never bring justice, but just ensure the continuation of injustice, and that war never brings peace but only more war. The players may change, but the pattern doesn’t. The constantly shifting interpretation of who’s good and who’s bad calls into question the ethics of war in general.

And it fits in with our previous Chaplin discussion – where those who were anti-fascist (therefore good) during WWII, were transformed into communists (bad) during the Cold War, just a few short years later.

So, in light of these themes of constantly shifting sands, Budapest does seem especially fitting as HIStory’s locale.

Willa: Yes, I think so too.

Eleanor: And although the Hungarians were at peace in 1994, the world was not. In fact, there was a particularly brutal war going on, not too many miles distant, in Bosnia.

Willa: That’s true. I hadn’t thought about that.

Eleanor: And that was a war that was so complicated that I have never really been able to figure it out.

But HIStory soon makes it clear that the appearance of helicopters does not signal the commencement of a military attack, but a celebration. A celebration of the unveiling of the statue forged in this new hero’s honor – a hero whose mission is to deliver us from this never-ending cycle.

But Willa, from this point forward, HIStory’s allusions elude me. And given what great clues are to be found in HIStory’s soundtrack, as well as the sights, I am sure I am missing a great deal of what is going on here.

Willa:  I agree. I’ve really been trying to figure out where the music comes from that we hear during the unveiling of the statue, but haven’t been able to track it down – and like you, I have a feeling it’s significant. I thought it might be from The Hunt for Red October soundtrack – maybe something other than the theme song – but I listened to the entire score and didn’t hear that particular piece of music. Then I thought it might be from Carmina Burana, a similar-sounding work that Michael Jackson loved and used on his Dangerous tour. But I listened to a performance on YouTube (the opening piece, “O Fortuna,” will probably sound very familiar to Michael Jackson fans) and it isn’t there either. I also tried searching for song credits for HIStory (the promo film, not the album) and did other research – even emailed an orchestrator who may have worked on it – but haven’t identified it yet.

So Eleanor, I agree this music seems important, but I don’t know what it is. It may be from Hunt for Red October or other music by Basil Poledouris – it sounds like it – but I don’t know.

Eleanor: Well, Willa. I guess we are just going to have to wing it.

HIStory’s final scenes have a futuristic, sci-fi feel – completely different from the earlier part of the film, which is dominated by the past, architecturally, historically, cinematically. And HIStory uses CGI to completely transform Heroes’ Square. Just before dark falls, we see that the tall column which is part of the Millennium Monument has been removed from its central position in the square and replicated.

Willa: And this is an important detail, I think. That tall Millennium Column is topped by an archangel, so in the digitally modified Heroes’ Square that we see in HIStory, the long central avenue is now lined with archangels, as we can see in this screen capture:

archangels - HIStory

This seems significant in light of Michael Jackson’s symbolic association with the archangel Michael, as stephenson pointed out in a comment a few weeks ago. Stephenson mentioned “the role of Michael the Archangel in scripture and legends as the leader of God’s army of angels,” and suggests this is another way to interpret the scene in HIStory where “Michael” is leading an army. In this light, it seems significant that a series of columns, each topped with an archangel, surrounds and frames the scene.

Eleanor:  Yes, I am sure that this archangel, who it turns out is Gabriel, is significant, especially since in one scene the statue of MJ is seen through his wings. But the significance does not seem clear cut. On the one hand, Gabriel plays a significant part in Hungarian legend, offering the crown of Hungary to its first king, St. Stephen. So Gabriel’s position atop the Millennium Monument deepens its symbolic meaning in terms of the history of the Hungarian people.

Removing Gabriel and the column – and what the column plus the archangel represent – from the center of things, symbolically marginalizes the imperial message, which makes sense in terms of HIStory’s anti-imperial message.

However, as you point out, the column with Gabriel atop it has not been removed from the scene altogether but, thanks to CGI, has been copied, and its copies now surround the square. And Gabriel, even apart from Hungarian legend, is known as the announcer of big news, having to do with beginnings and endings. So his replicated presence surrounding the square indicates that momentous things are about to happen – something big is to be revealed.

Willa: Oh, I like that interpretation, Eleanor. Something very big is about to be revealed, both literally and figuratively …

Eleanor: In place of the Millennium Monument, in the center of Heroes’ Square stands a gigantic statue, wrapped and bound, and the mood of the crowd shifts from celebration to anticipation. As the klieg lights come on, they illuminate the statue and a man, dressed in military garb, clinging to the side, setting an explosive charge. Expressions change from wonder to anxiety. What is going on? Is he going to blow up the statue?

Once he has rappelled down the side of the statue and is safely away, the distinguished-looking old man (symbolizing the imperial past) signals the military officer (symbolizing military authority), who flips down the cool scope-like lens of his glasses (which symbolize military technology), gets the statue in the cross hairs, and gives the final command to the man in charge of the detonator (who symbolizes those who do the bidding of imperial/military authority), who plunges the lever and sets off the explosion (symbolizing a military attack).

To everyone’s great relief, the statue remains standing. It is the bonds that burst dramatically apart, allowing the wraps to billow slowly to the ground, unveiling the statue of Michael Jackson, standing impossibly tall. Representing his art, his legacy, it is a monument to a man who, through his person and his art, explodes the old myths that have created the mindset that results in war after war. A monument to a man whose art carries and releases a new energy, driving us to work with, not against, each other. A monument to a new millennium, ushering in a new age, based on the power of art, not military might, to create a global society where people no longer need to live in fear of each other.

Willa: That’s a fascinating way to interpret this scene, Eleanor. Like you, I think it’s especially important that the new central statue commemorates an artist rather than a political or military leader, suggesting the creation of a new ideology and a new world order – “one based on the power of art, not military might,” as you say.

Eleanor: And in this final scene, HIStory presents art co-opting all the symbols of empire and employing them in the service of art. HIStory transforms technology from a means of keeping people in chains, to a means of liberating them – an instrument of peace, not war.

Technology can contribute to the making of a work of art, and it can carry it to every part of the globe. So it is fitting that, in HIStory, technology is the means used to reveal a statue representing Michael Jackson’s artistic legacy. Which reminds me of Charlie Chaplin’s focus on technology as a uniter, not a divider, in the final speech in The Great Dictator:

The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all. …

You, the people have the power – the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.

Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world ….

Willa: I’m so glad you brought us back to Chaplin’s speech, Eleanor. In many ways, it serves as kind of a blueprint for HIStory, and you’re right, Chaplin talks at length about the power of technology for good as well as evil – for peace as well as war, to unite us as well as divide us.

Eleanor: Just as the explosive charges are set, using the latest and greatest technology, and then triggered, releasing the statue from its bonds, so technology will release the full power of art on the world to heal the world.

Once the statue is unveiled, the helicopters continue to buzz around it like dragonflies, the crowd erupts in cries of joy, and the fireworks begin.

In HIStory’s final frames – the camera focuses on the face of  the statue, its expression pensive, an expression frequently seen on the face of Michael Jackson. He knows we can change our destiny. But is he wondering if we can change the future before it is too late?

Willa: A critically important question that he asked many times, in many different ways. I’m thinking again of the words he spoke in the “Earth Song” segment of This Is It, and of the words he spoke near the end of the film when he’s encouraging the other musicians and dancers to “give your all”:

We’re putting love back into the world to remind the world that love is important. Love is important, to love each other. We’re all one. That’s the message – and to take care of the planet. We have four years to get it right or else it’s irreversible, the damage we’ve done.

It’s been more than four years since he spoke those words …

Eleanor, thank you so much for joining me! We’ve covered an awful lot of ground in these three posts about the HIStory teaser, and I deeply appreciate all the information and insights you’ve shared about this complex and disconcerting short film. You’ve really opened my eyes to new ways of seeing and interpreting it, and given us all a lot to think about.

Eleanor: Thank you, Willa, for inviting me and giving me the opportunity to delve into HIStory’s mysteries. And happy Thanksgiving to you and all your readers. I’m especially thankful for Michael and his music.

Willa:  Thank you, and happy Thanksgiving to you as well.

I also wanted to add a quick note that Susan Fast has just published a fascinating article about Michael Jackson and “posthumanism.” Here’s a link.

HIStory Teaser, Part 2: The Great Dictator

Willa:  This week Eleanor Bowman and I are continuing our discussion of the film Michael Jackson made to promote his HIStory album. As we talked about in our last post, the HIStory teaser caused quite a stir when it first aired, in large part because it appears to be modeled after the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. And as we talked about last time, there are in fact some interesting and important connections between those two films.

However, there’s another film that serves as an important intermediary between the two: Charlie Chaplin’s daring masterpiece, The Great Dictator. This film satirizes Triumph of the Will and other propaganda films like it, and in doing so deftly opposes and undermines Nazi ideology. And the HIStory teaser subtly references The Great Dictator, which profoundly complicates and shifts the meaning of HIStory, I think.

That’s what we’d like to talk about this week: the connections between Triumph of the Will, The Great Dictator, and the HIStory teaser, and how those connections influence how we interpret HIStory. Eleanor, thank you so much for joining me again to continue this discussion!

Eleanor:  Hi Willa. Thank you for the invitation. There’s nothing I’d rather do than think about and write about Michael Jackson, except of course listen to his music. To tell you the truth, I am still having trouble grasping not only the breadth and depth of MJ’s understanding and knowledge of world history and film history (when did he have time to figure all this out???), but also the incredible artistic facility with which he weaves together all this history in HIStory to fill this brief, brief film with so much meaning.

As we have been working on these posts, I have come to see HIStory as a complex collage of film references, each loaded with emotional power and packed with historical information. And all put together to tell Michael Jackson’s own story, his side of the story – the story of a powerful black artist who rises to fame in a dominant white society – by situating himself and his experience in a much broader context, providing insights into his personal experience as well as into the experiences of everyone ensnared in a system that is designed to elevate one group at the expense of another. HIStory really is a history lesson, a lesson in Michael Jackson, and a lesson in compassion – one that I have found absolutely fascinating, and I hope others will as well.

On the personal level, HIStory is a rebuttal to THEIRstory, the lies that were told over and over by the press and which took root in the public psyche. These lies were an example of what Hitler called “the big lie,” a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” And similar to the terrible lies that Hitler told to discredit the Jews in Nazi Germany.

With HIStory, Michael Jackson defends himself by taking aim at the system that has just put him through hell. And he used both The Great Dictator and Triumph of the Will to accomplish his aim. MJ uses images associated with Triumph to liken the culture that has attempted to destroy him to Nazi Germany, and references the plot and theme of The Great Dictator not only to expose the evils of what Triumph celebrates, but also to offer an alternative vision, mapped to The Great Dictator’s famous final speech.

Willa:  That’s an interesting overview, Eleanor. Thank you.

Eleanor: You are welcome.

Willa: So if we approach these three films chronologically, I suppose we should begin by comparing Triumph of the Will, which came out in 1934, with The Great Dictator, which came out in 1940. First, The Great Dictator is a satire, so while Adolf Hitler is presented as noble and almost superhuman in the first film, Charlie Chaplin portrays him as arrogant and incompetent – the inept Adenoid Hynkel. To further undermine the mythic aura surrounding Hitler, Chaplin calls him the Phooey, rather than the Führer. Likewise, Hitler’s cabinet ministers Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels are transformed in Chaplin’s film into the bumbling Herr Herring and Herr Garbitsch (pronounced “Garbage”).

Eleanor: And interestingly, The Great Dictator followed on the heels of another satire of Hitler’s Germany starring MJ’s favorite comedy trio, the Three Stooges.

Willa: That’s right – their short film, You Nazty Spy. There’s a new book out about Hollywood’s response – or rather, lack of response – to the rise of fascism in Germany. I haven’t read it yet, but according to this article, it cites “the Three Stooges as among the very first in the cinema to expose Nazi Germany for what it was.” The Great Dictator, a feature-length film, came out later the same year.

So the mood of The Great Dictator is very different from Triumph of the Will, but so is the perspective and point of view. Everything in Triumph is on a vast scale – huge crowds, hundreds of thousands of troops, monumental  architecture – and the Nazi leaders are presented exteriorly, if that makes sense. What I mean is, the way the camera is angled we’re almost always looking up at them, as if they are statues on a pedestal, or gods on Mount Olympus. There’s no attempt to get inside their heads and show their thoughts and feelings. In fact, we aren’t supposed to see their humanity. Instead, they’re presented as almost mythic, godlike figures.

Eleanor: Right. Riefenstahl is using every trick of the trade to present the Nazis as the Übermenschen or “Supermen.”

Willa: Exactly. By contrast, The Great Dictator – like all of Chaplin’s films – is very much on a human scale, and it shows the poignancy of everyday human life, especially the lives of those living in a Jewish ghetto targeted by the authorities. This is emphasized by the fact that Chaplin plays two roles: that of dictator Hynkel issuing impulsive decrees, and that of a Jewish barber whose life is turned upside down by those decrees. We keep switching back and forth between scenes of Hynkel and scenes of the barber, so we see very clearly how the grandiose, unthinking, unfeeling, fascist beliefs of the dictator affect the lives of the barber and his friends, as well as their entire community.

So while these films address a similar topic – the impact of fascist ideology on a country’s future and identity, its sense of itself – the perspective, the mood, and ultimately the meaning of these two films could not be more different.

Eleanor:  Right. And, thinking about these films chronologically, a lot happened between 1934, when Triumph was made, and 1940, when The Great Dictator was made, and between 1940 and the end of WWII, to change their meaning and significance.

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, Eleanor.

Eleanor:  For example, in 1934, Hitler and the Nazis were being praised for giving Germany hope after their defeat in WWI, and for being a bulwark against communism, so the Riefenstahl film was lauded and applauded. By 1940, however, the war in Europe had broken out and Germany was beginning to make a lot of people very nervous. As a result, the tide of world opinion was beginning to change, and the same film was being viewed with a great deal of skepticism, as a propaganda tool of a very questionable regime.

To draw attention to the Nazi threat and undermine Hitler’s power and charisma, Chaplin made The Great Dictator, which premiered in NYC in October of 1940, a year before the U.S. entered WWII. Referencing the imagery Riefenstahl used to pump Hitler up, he used it to ridicule his grandiosity, to cut him down to size. Calling on his formidable talent for comedy, he exposed a far from funny situation.

Today, I think most people would look on using satire to critique the Nazis as inappropriate, at best. However, we have to remember that, in 1940, the full extent of Hitler’s insanity was not known and the “final solution” had not been fully implemented. In later years, Chaplin himself said “he would not have made the film had he known about the actual horrors of the Nazi concentration camps at the time.”

Willa: And that’s a very important point. Looking back, The Great Dictator may seem callous to us today, as if it’s trivializing a tragedy. But the atrocities of the concentration camps, for example, weren’t known in 1940 – and in fact, the worst atrocities hadn’t occurred yet, as you say. They happened late in the war.

U.S. attitudes toward what was happening overseas were really complicated at this time. The U.S. wouldn’t officially enter the war until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, though we were providing weapons, money, and other aid to the Allies in 1940. In fact, the only peacetime draft in our nation’s history began in September 1940, a month before The Great Dictator was released. So the U.S. was preparing for war but was not actively involved in it yet – and was very reluctant to get involved after the carnage of World War I.

So I agree, Eleanor. To understand and appreciate The Great Dictator, it’s important to consider the historical context of when it was made – a time of great indecision in the U.S. as we watched the war overseas engulf country after country, and when the full horror of the Holocaust hadn’t unfolded yet.

Eleanor: Right, Willa. And, just as the revelations of WWII changed the way we emotionally respond to The Great Dictator, it completely reversed the way Triumph was meant to be viewed. Triumph had come to symbolize death camps and genocide – not the greatness of the Third Reich. And to complicate our discussion of HIStory and its use of these films, the years between 1940 and 1994 again changed the significance of these two films – radically.

By 1994, when HIStory was made, generations of filmmakers had used Riefenstahl-like imagery as a sort of shorthand to reference both Nazi atrocities and the arrogance underlying them, which is why we instantly recoil from its imagery when it appears in HIStory. In using this imagery, HIStory called on the deep and often unconscious emotions it arouses and coupled them with the mechanism of “guilt by association” to expose the evils of racism in our own American culture, and oppression in general. And by 1994, The Great Dictator was remembered not so much for its satire of the Nazi regime, but for the role the film played in Chaplin’s fall from grace, a fall that paralleled Michael Jackson’s.

Willa: That’s a very good point, Eleanor. And since Michael Jackson appears to have been very knowledgeable about Charlie Chaplin, studying his films and his life for decades, and even visiting his family in Switzerland, he almost certainly would have known how The Great Dictator contributed to turning the tide of public opinion against him.

Eleanor: Yes, I think that’s an assumption we can safely make.

The Great Dictator got Chaplin in a lot of hot water for a number of reasons. At first because, even as late as 1940, Hitler had supporters in the U.S. who did not appreciate The Great Dictator’s anti-fascist message. Later, as communism became the bête noire, being anti-fascist was viewed as being pro-communist – so even though Chaplin vehemently “denied being a communist, instead calling himself a ‘peacemonger,’” his reputation took a serious hit.

But, I have come to believe that his real “crime” was his internationalism, his vision of global harmony, and his criticism of nationalism in general, which he expressed in The Great Dictator.

Willa:  That’s another very important point, Eleanor – and another connection to Michael Jackson. As he told Rabbi Boteach in The Michael Jackson Tapes, “I feel like a person of the world. I can’t take sides. That’s why I hate saying, ‘I am an American.’ For that reason.”

Eleanor: That is so interesting, Willa. Michael Jackson’s global reach certainly attests to the fact that people all over the world responded – and continue to respond – to him as “one of us.” But, unfortunately, this kind of internationalism – or anti-nationalism – can result in being accused of being “unAmerican.” Which is what happened to Chaplin.

Willa: Yes, it did – and during the hysteria of McCarthyism, when that was a very serious charge.

Eleanor: As a result of The Great Dictator, specifically its final speech where Chaplin voices his own personal views, he came under attack, and by 1947 a movement was underway to drive him out of the country. Representative John E. Rankin of Mississippi told Congress in June 1947:

His very life in Hollywood is detrimental to the moral fabric of America. [If he is deported] … his loathsome pictures can be kept from before the eyes of the American youth. He should be deported and gotten rid of at once.

Chaplin’s demonization was aided and abetted with tabloid stories and legal charges of sexual immorality which very effectively destroyed his reputation and his credibility, to the point that when he left the U.S. for Europe in 1956, his visa to re-enter the country was revoked.

Willa: Which is just unbelievable considering his stature and his contributions to film and culture. And “demonization” is the right word, as Chaplin himself was fully aware. Karin Merx, one of the founders of the Michael Jackson Academic Studies website, recently told me an interesting story. Charlie Chaplin went for a sitting with photographer Richard Avedon just before leaving the U.S. for good. At the end of the sitting, he asked to do one more shot … and then faced the camera with his fingers poking out from his head, like devil horns. Here’s a documentary Karin shared with me where Richard Avedon talks about that (about 39:20 minutes in):

(Interestingly, just before he tells the Chaplin story, Avedon talks about photographing the Duke and Duchess of Windsor who, as you mentioned in our last post, Eleanor, were very supportive of Hitler. Avedon says he used to see them gambling in Nice, and he expresses the opinion that “they loved dogs, a lot more than they loved Jews.”)

Fifty years later, Michael Jackson was being demonized in a way remarkably similar to Chaplin. And in response, he struck the exact same pose for photographers at the Santa Maria Courthouse, as mentioned in an article by BBC News. Here are those “devilish” photos of Charlie Chaplin and Michael Jackson:

devilish photos of CC and MJ

Eleanor:  Wow, that is so fascinating. When you think about it, it is no wonder that MJ identified with Charlie Chaplin. There are so many parallels. I have even heard that Michael Jackson identified so closely with Chaplin that he once said, “I sometimes feel like I am him.”

Willa: Yes, he said that in an interview as part of the documentary, Michael Jackson’s Private Home Movies, which also includes a wonderful clip of him dressed as the Little Tramp and twitching his moustache, as Chaplin often did. Here’s a fan-made video for “Smile” that includes several photos of a Chaplinesque Michael Jackson, as well as screen captures from the Private Home Movies documentary:

These photos were taken from two different photo sessions, one early in his solo career and one late, so you can tell he admired Chaplin for a long time – for his entire career, basically – and identified with him too, as you said.

Eleanor: Yes, and sketches of Chaplin which MJ did when he was a child suggest that he had been interested in Chaplin from an early age, possibly because of Chaplin’s extraordinary ability as a silent film star to communicate without words, using the language of the body – just as MJ did.  (Here are a couple of links to Chaplin sketches. The first is to the sketch that was featured on Antiques Road Show. The second is to a Pinterest page of MJ’s drawings of many subjects, including Chaplin.)

But I also like to think it was because, even at an early age, an extraordinarily sensitive and empathetic Michael Jackson, deeply moved by the injustice he saw in the world, was drawn to Chaplin’s vision of peace and harmony. And referencing The Great Dictator to tell MJ’s story, HIStory brings to mind the startling parallels between MJ’s life and Chaplin’s.

Both Chaplin and Michael Jackson had a vision of global harmony; both realized that their visions required global change; both understood that global change depended on global communication; and, as it so happens, both excelled at global communication – Chaplin through the development of a powerful body language that he used with great success as a silent film star, and Jackson through the language of music and dance. And, as both were great artists who were also superstars with a global audience, they had the power to touch and change hearts and minds – all over the world.

As Chaplin says in The Great Dictator, playing the part of the Jewish barber, but speaking his own mind and reflecting the actual situation,

Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.

And, as a result of their views, both became the object of vicious attacks, because of their commitment to global harmony, their skill at global communication which could actually bring about global change, and their star power represented a serious threat to those committed to hierarchy and nationalism, rather than democracy and internationalism.

Willa: Yes, I agree completely, Eleanor.

Eleanor: So, Willa, it seems to me that referencing The Great Dictator – specifically its final speech – in HIStory at this particular time of his life, Michael Jackson identifies his own demonization at the hands of the press and his unjust, and brutal, treatment at the hands of the law with Chaplin’s, and suggests that the allegations of sexual impropriety leveled at both himself and Chaplin were tools of a society which feared the political power of the artist to inspire actions that would bring about much-needed social change, a power Michael Jackson possessed (and still possesses) in spades.

And significantly, their commitment to global peace and understanding is symbolized by the international language Esperanto, which puts in an appearance in both HIStory and The Great Dictator. HIStory opens to the sound of words spoken in Esperanto, while The Great Dictator features Esperanto as the language on the signs in its scenes of the Jewish ghetto.

Willa:  Yes, that seems significant to me also. We talked about Esperanto a little bit in a post about this time last year, and provided a brief history:

Esperanto was invented in the late 1800s using elements of many different languages to help promote global peace and understanding. Specifically, it was created by L.L. Zamenhof to provide a neutral means of communication that bridged divisions of language, nationality, and ethnicity.

So it truly is an “international language,” as you said, Eleanor, with a mission of “global peace and understanding.”

Eleanor:  Right. And HIStory both puts it front and center and hides it in plain sight. I’m sure most people viewing HIStory (like those who see The Great Dictator), not recognizing the language or understanding the words, completely miss the significance – or just fail to notice its presence altogether.

However, thanks to a great discussion that you referred to above with guest contributor and Esperanto expert, Bjørn Bojesen, readers of Dancing with the Elephant not only were alerted to its use in HIStory (and history), but discovered the meaning of the words. (Also, in re-reading that post, I saw that Bjørn had noted in the comment section that Esperanto was used in The Great Dictator.)

HIStory’s opening words, spoken in Esperanto, translated into English, say “Different nations of the world build this sculpture in the name of  global motherhood and love and the healing power of music.” The words, spoken in Esperanto, not only reference the use of Esperanto in the The Great Dictator, but echo the sentiments in The Great Dictator’s final speech. And both the language and the words point to Michael Jackson’s own belief in the importance of global communication as a condition of creating global harmony, specifically his belief in music as a means of bringing the different nations of the world together in peace and L.O.V.E.

In researching the international language Esperanto, whose name, not co-incidentally, means “hope,” I have come to believe that it – and the internationalism it represents – is key to understanding HIStory.

In the post on Esperanto, the question was raised as to why MJ would use a language so few understand to open the film and introduce its theme. (The same question could be used about Chaplin’s use of Esperanto in The Great Dictator.) I think one of the main reasons was to arouse our curiosity – to prod us to identify the language and discover the meaning of the words. Because seeking answers to those questions leads us to find answers to larger questions.

For example, digging deeper into the history of Esperanto, it turns out that the use of Esperanto in both HIStory and The Great Dictator not only associates MJ with CC, but links both with the Esperantists in Germany and Russia, whose pacifist and internationalist tendencies were seen as subversive by both Hitler and Stalin and who were brutally punished and even executed.

In his work, Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler specifically mentioned Esperanto as an example of a language that could be used by an international Jewish conspiracy once they achieved world domination. Esperantists were killed during the Holocaust, with [Esperanto creator] Zamenhof’s family in particular singled out for murder…. Esperanto was forbidden in 1936. … [In] 1937, Stalin … denounced Esperanto as “the language of spies” and had Esperantists exiled or executed. The use of Esperanto was effectively banned until 1956.

Willa: Oh heavens, Eleanor. I had no idea. So those Esperanto words and symbols in the HIStory teaser really do carry a powerful message – a message that radically alters interpretation of the totalitarian images that dominate that film. I can see now why you said that “Esperanto … and the internationalism it represents, is key to understanding HIStory.” I’m starting to agree with you.

Eleanor:  Well, that’s good to know!  So, opening the film with words spoken in Esperanto, Michael Jackson lays claim to his own “dangerous” internationalist leanings, and reveals the danger his leanings put him in, identifying the source of his troubles as a culture that, because it considered him and his views as a serious threat, represented a serious threat to him – a threat that HIStory suggests, through the use of the notorious fascist imagery, is still present, lurking in the shadows. (“We’re talkin’ danger, we’re talkin’ danger, baby!”)

In the opening scene of the film, the blank screen and the words in Esperanto are accompanied by and juxtaposed to the staccato beat of jackboots, followed by the images of boots on the ground and a stone falcon – the turul – an ancient Hungarian symbol. (HIStory was filmed in Budapest. More on that later.) Then, an American swat team comes into view. Seemingly menacing and aggressive, they march toward the audience, rising from the bottom of the screen, à la Patton in the film of the same name. The scene then immediately shifts to images of workers ladling out rivers of molten metal, reminiscent of Soviet propaganda films illustrating Soviet industrial muscle.

Given who Michael Jackson was and what he stood for, opening an MJ film with imperialist and totalitarian imagery is jarring and indicates that there is more here than meets the eye, that something very interesting is going on – something that becomes a lot clearer once you recognize and understand the significance of HIStory’s use of Esperanto and understand the meaning of the words. For the words explain that these workers do not represent the workers of a totalitarian regime. Rather, they represent the different nations of the world who have come together to build a monument to a man who has dedicated his art to promoting world peace.

In addition to the statue, they have also forged a gigantic star that is yet another reference to Esperanto. For, as I learned in researching Esperanto, the star is the symbol for Esperanto, its points representing the five continents Europe, America, Asia, Oceania, Africa. A minute or so later, we see that the star of Esperanto also adorns MJ’s uniform – a star of peace worn by a pop star of peace.

Willa: That is so interesting, and reminds me of two important images from Triumph of the Will. The central scene in the film – the iconic one almost every filmmaker references when visually quoting that film, where Hitler is addressing hundreds of thousands of troops aligned before him in precise formation – that scene begins with a still shot looking up at an enormous iron eagle, a symbol of Nazi Germany. Then as the camera pans down, we see it is sitting atop a huge swastika inscribed within a circle.

By contrast, HIStory opens with a still shot looking up at the Hungarian turul or falcon. From what I’ve been able to gather, this is a complicated symbol representing different, even contradictory things to different people. But Wikipedia is a fairly middle-of-the-road source, and here’s what they say about it:

The turul is the most important bird in the origin myth of the Magyars (Hungarian people). It is a divine messenger, and perches on top of the tree of life along with the other spirits of unborn children in the form of birds.

And then we see workers forging a huge Esperanto star inscribed within a circle. So through these images, HIStory appropriates symbols of fascism and totalitarianism from Triumph and then subverts them, completely refiguring them.

Here are screen captures looking up at the iron eagle in Triumph of the Will, and at the turul in HIStory:

iron eagle and turul

And then here are screen captures of the enormous swastika within a circle from Triumph of the Will, and the Esperanto star within a circle from HIStory.

swastika and star 2

Both the swastika and the star are dark against a pale blue background, with a glowing light shining through openings in the giant sculptures from behind. And if you look carefully, you can see workers dwarfed by the star (in fact, a welder is sitting on one arm of the star – you can see the sparks from his blowtorch) so it must be enormous, even bigger than the encircled swastika it evokes and replaces.

Eleanor: Wow, Willa, those images are amazing and demonstrate Michael Jackson’s attention to detail and his deep understanding of the power of symbolism. Contrasting the Esperanto star with the swastika, and the star’s meaning with other, more traditional, meanings of the five-pointed star – the Soviet military machine or the badge of law enforcement or the stars that decorate an American army general’s uniform – and associating it with the pop star Michael Jackson, HIStory contrasts HIStory’s message and HIStory’s hero with traditional military legends and heroes. In HIStory, Michael Jackson offers us a vision of a world where human energy will no longer be poured into building tools of domination to serve the interests of empires and nations, but used to forge a new global community.

HIStory’s opening frames are followed by images of a vast army, its leader’s identity unknown, but tantalizingly hinted at by shots of his legs, sheathed in his signature thigh-high boots, which finally reach his beautiful face, revealing the leader of this army to be none other than Michael Jackson.

Although in HIStory, MJ never speaks or sings or dances, his face and body communicate plenty, and what they communicate to me is very similar to the words spoken by Chaplin, in the character of the barber:

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone, if possible – Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

Here’s a link to the complete text.

Willa: That speech is incredible – many call it the greatest speech in American cinema. I would encourage everyone to watch The Great Dictator in its entirety, if they haven’t seen it already (it’s available on YouTube, in segments – here’s a link to the first one), but certainly everyone should watch Chaplin’s final speech. It’s especially striking coming as it does after the speech by Herr Garbitsch, where he says:

Victory shall come to the worthy. Today, democracy, liberty, and equality are words to fool the people. No nation can progress with such ideas. They stand in the way of action. Therefore, we frankly abolish them. In the future, each man will serve the interests of the state with absolute obedience. Let him who refuses beware.

The rights of citizenship will be taken away from all Jews and other non-Aryans. They are inferior, and therefore enemies of the state. It is the duty of all true Aryans to hate and despise them. …

And then Chaplin, in the dual role of the Jewish barber disguised as the dictator (it’s a case of mistaken identity), rises and gives his speech advocating love among all people that you quoted earlier:

I should like to help everyone, if possible – Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.

Here is the final section of The Great Dictator, which includes both Garbitsch’s speech and Chaplin’s powerfully moving response:

Eleanor:  Thanks for these clips, Willa. Actually seeing these speeches delivered on film is a lot more powerful than just reading the words on the page.

Willa: I agree. And in this final clip we can also see the way The Great Dictator visually evokes the monumental scale of Triumph of the Will. Chaplin reenacts Hitler’s arrival by motorcade that begins Triumph, and also the intimidating monuments to power and the long columns of troops – something the HIStory teaser will re-create as well. Here are screen captures from Triumph, The Great Dictator, and HIStory, and you can easily see the similarities – namely, the gigantic emblem of the power of the state in the background of all three, and the seemingly endless sea of troops in the foreground.

Here’s a scene from Triumph of the Will:

Triumph - troops 2

The Great Dictator:

Great Dictator - troops

and the HIStory trailer:

HIStory - troops

Through images like these, The Great Dictator (and HIStory as well) captures the expansive scope of Triumph of the Will. But then it alternates these imperialist images with scenes of Jewish citizens oppressed and even murdered by their own government – by soldiers carrying out the dictates of the fascist regime.

Eleanor: Right. Although The Great Dictator was a satire, it dealt with deep pain and very explosive issues. Just as HIStory does. And, just like The Great Dictator, HIStory skated close to the edge in a number of ways. In a brilliant act of artistic economy, HIStory uses Riefenstahl’s imagery to reference both the Nazi horror show and The Great Dictator in order to situate Michael Jackson both historically and personally.

As this insightful post at MJJJusticeProject puts it,

Like his hero Charlie Chaplin before him, Jackson referenced the visuals of Triumph of The Will in an effort to completely corrupt the sentiment. Where Chaplin had satirised the film in his Oscar-nominated The Great Dictator, Jackson referenced the film in order to celebrate the victims of the Nazi regime and deride the mindset of those that still supported fascist beliefs.

Willa: That is a wonderful post that puts the HIStory trailer in historical context, and also places it within the context of the HIStory album – the album it was made to promote.

Eleanor: Placing Michael Jackson in the midst of Riefenstahl-like pomp and circumstance, where we would expect to find a dictatorial military leader (like Adolf Hitler) not a peace-loving pop star, the HIStory teaser evokes the scene in The Great Dictator where the gentle Jewish barber becomes a stand-in for the thinly-disguised Hitler character. Associating Jackson with the Jewish barber, while alluding to Nazi Germany, HIStory parallels the black experience with the Jewish experience – the black ghetto with the Jewish ghetto – and the treatment of Jews with the treatment of blacks in America.

Willa: That’s an interesting way to look at this, Eleanor – that Michael Jackson in the unexpected role of dictator parallels the Jewish barber’s experience in The Great Dictator, where he finds himself unexpectedly thrust into the role of dictator. Though one difference is that the barber looks very uncomfortable in that role, as if he really were thrust in that role against his will, while Michael Jackson doesn’t. He looks assured and confident in HIStory.

Eleanor: Well, Willa, to clarify, I don’t see Michael Jackson in the role of a dictator, but as replacing a dictator. Striding along at the head of his troops, he occupies the position where we would expect to find a dictatorial leader. But instead, we find Michael Jackson, a man who stands for the opposite of dictatorship. A man, who like the barber “does not want to be an emperor. That’s not [his] business. [He doesn’t] want to rule or conquer anyone.”

But, I agree with you that MJ is at ease, while the barber is anything but. But, after all, they were both being true to character: the barber wasn’t accustomed to being in the limelight, while Jackson, although not a political figure, was.

Willa:  That’s true.

Eleanor:  But, I am glad you brought up how MJ looks in those brief moments when we see him, because I have been wanting to mention his beautiful smile again. I think his smile is a visual representation of Chaplin’s song, “Smile,” which concluded the HIStory album – his radiance covering his pain, the type of pain that Chaplin was familiar with.

But getting back to the scene of Michael and the troops, I think it maps directly to another section of Chaplin’s closing speech in The Great Dictator. In fact, I see the speech as a kind of playbook for HIStory:

Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you, enslave you – who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!

As the leader of rank on rank of uniformed and uniform robotic soldiers, MJ provides an alternative to military leaders, the “brutes … who regiment [their] lives.” As a different kind of hero, he empathizes with all those who have been conscripted to do the work of the state, losing their humanity in the process. As the leader of these men, he identifies with them, rather than the regimes they represent, illustrating a greatness of heart that blames a system that, to quote Chaplin, “makes men torture and imprison innocent people” – not the people themselves. Torturers and tortured alike are caught in the evil web of empire.

Willa:  That’s an important point, Eleanor. It is significant, I think, that Chaplin addresses this part of his speech to the soldiers carrying out the dictator’s repressive orders, and appeals to their humanity. He doesn’t deny the harm they’ve done – he shows them harassing and even murdering civilians. But even so, he doesn’t demonize them. Rather, he implies that the soldiers are being victimized too by leaders “who despise you, enslave you … treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder.”

And as you say, Michael Jackson doesn’t seem to feel animosity toward soldiers or the police either, meaning the people on the ground carrying out orders. In fact, he aligns himself with them.

Eleanor:  Yes. That very eloquent salute to his troops conveys that message – feelings of empathy and respect, rather than animosity or hate, even for those who are tasked with carrying out the will of the oppressors.

Willa: Yes. As Susan Woodward pointed out to me in an email, after that enormous statue is uncovered we can see an emblem on one arm – it’s a patch with the word “POLICE” in bold letters beneath an Esperanto star.

Eleanor: Thanks to Susan. I hadn’t noticed that – need to go back and take a look.

Willa: I hadn’t noticed it either, but it’s an important detail, I think. Michael Jackson’s experiences with the Santa Barbara police, especially those carrying out the strip search, easily could have led him to feel animosity toward the police in general. But that isn’t the impression I get from HIStory. What he’s expressing is more complicated than that.

To be honest, it feels to me like an act of appropriation. Just as white singers and musicians have appropriated “black” music from jazz to hip hop and recast it through a white perspective, in HIStory Michael Jackson seems to be appropriating images of white authority (and what better example of race-based authoritarianism than Nazi Germany?) and recasting it through a multi-national Esperanto perspective. Or maybe a better analogy is the way groups like Queer Nation or a lot of young black hip hop artists have appropriated disparaging words that have been hurled at them in the past – words like “nigger” and “queer” – and now wear them as a badge of honor, and so drain them of their power to hurt them.

Eleanor:  Yes, an act of appropriation and transformation. Imperial and nationalistic power structures assume that conquering the other is a survival strategy of human nature, rather than a survival strategy adopted by human cultures. And they have assumed that he who is in possession of the technologies of domination have the upper hand. And yet our technologies – agricultural, industrial, military – are backfiring on us, creating a world that may in the not too distant future be uninhabitable for all of us, just as it has been made uninhabitable by war for some of us even now.

As Chaplin put it,

Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….

Although we tout free will as a pre-eminently human characteristic, somehow we don’t seem to believe that we actually have the will to change the way we interact with each other, collectively or individually. But I think that Michael Jackson disagreed with that notion. I think that he believed that humans are capable of profound change, and he believed art was instrumental to that change, and he believed in himself and his art as a means of bringing about change at a fundamental level – imagining a very different “triumph of the will.”

Contrasting himself with the usual iron-fisted tyrant, Michael Jackson emphasizes the differences between his values, the values of an African-American artist who believes art can heal the world, and the values that lead to oppression, pointing out the evils of the system, while having compassion for those caught in it.

Willa:  That’s a beautiful summary, Eleanor. Thank you, and thanks also for joining me again to try to better understand this complex film. We’ll conclude this discussion in our next post when we consider some other significant references in HIStory.

Also, I wanted to let everyone know that the Library of Congress recently published an article by Joe Vogel about the Thriller album. We’ve added it to the Reading Room, so you can access it there, or you can jump to it directly via this link.

Eleanor:  That’s good to know. Thanks for making it available on Dancing.  And I look forward to working with you on the final part of this series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisha:  I agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa:  Now, now, Lisha, compose yourself!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa:  Exactly!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Rewind 2014: ¡Porque Soy Malo, Soy Malo!

The following conversation was originally posted on October 24, 2013. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Willa:  Last spring, longtime contributor Bjørn Bojesen shared his version of “Bili Ĝin,” which is an Esperanto translation of “Billie Jean.” That led to a behind-the-scenes discussion of Michael Jackson and foreign languages, with Joie, Bjørn, and me all brainstorming about songs or short films where he sang or incorporated words in a language other than his native English. This was such an interesting topic for us we decided to take the discussion online and talk about it in a post. Thanks for joining us, Bjørn, and for sharing “Bili Ĝin” with us!

So Esperanto is actually a good place to start this discussion since it’s such a Michael Jackson kind of concept. As I understand it, Esperanto was invented in the late 1800s using elements of many different languages to help promote global peace and understanding. Specifically, it was created by L.L. Zamenhof to provide a neutral means of communication that bridged divisions of language, nationality, and ethnicity. I can see how this would appeal to Michael Jackson since crossing boundaries and healing divisions is something he did throughout his career. And as you recently mentioned, Bjørn, he incorporated an Esperanto passage in the promo film for HIStory. Is that right?

Bjørn: Yes, that’s correct. At the very start, right before the soldiers come marching in with their heavy boots, an unseen man shouts out a declaration in Esperanto. Take a look:

In the YouTube video, there are some glitches in the subtitles, but the anonymous person’s message goes like this: “Diversaj nacioj de la mondo” (Different nations of the world) / “konstruas ĉi tiun skulptaĵon” (build this sculpture) / “en la nomo de tutmonda patrineco kaj amo” (in the name of global motherhood and love) / “kaj la kuraca forto de muziko” (and the healing power of music). A few seconds later, one of the smelters also shouts in Esperanto: “Venu ĉi tien!” (Come over here!)

The promo created quite a stir in the Esperanto community when it aired. Why would MJ use a snippet of Esperanto? I have no idea whether he actually spoke Esperanto, but I guess he scripted the lines (in English): “in the name of global motherhood and love, and the healing power of music.” Doesn’t this sound very MJ to you? I mean, just the idea of a universal motherhood instead of the usual brotherhood…

Willa:  It really does. It sounds “very MJ,” as you say, and it’s also interesting how those words undercut the visuals. What follows those words is a show of military force, with goose-stepping soldiers evocative of Nazi military demonstrations. So there’s a strong tension between the Esperanto words, which describe the statue they’re building as a tribute to “global motherhood and love,” and the accompanying images, which place the statue in a military context.

Bjørn: Yes, but this tension only exists if you understand the words!  99.8 percent of the viewers would have no clue what the voice actor was saying. So, why didn’t MJ simply let the man speak his lines in English?

Willa:  Well, that’s a good point, Bjørn – and I have to admit, I’m one of the 99.8 percent!

Joie:  As am I. You know, Bjørn, I find this fascinating and I’m also really surprised by it. I had no idea those words were spoken in Esperanto. I don’t ever remember hearing that at the time of the video’s release. I just remember all the controversy over the film itself being declared hateful and narcissistic. But you ask an interesting question … why didn’t he simply use a language that was more easily recognizable to the masses? Even if he didn’t use English, he still could have used Russian or Spanish or even Japanese. Any other language that more people would hear and immediately recognize. But instead, he chose Esperanto. And Willa and I are of the belief that he rarely did anything artistic without a very precise reason for it. So I am intrigued.

Bjørn:  I think you’re touching on something important, Joie, when you talk about a language that’s “more easily recognizable to the masses”! This is exactly why many upper-class art aficionados can’t stand Michael Jackson – they think he’s just feeding “the masses” with stuff they can easily digest. But I think MJ had a perfect understanding of this balance between being accessible and being esoteric. By dropping such small hard-to-get references – like his basing the You Are Not Alone video on the painting Daybreak by Maxfield Parrish – Michael Jackson added interpretational depth to his art. By the way, wasn’t it the MJ Academia Project that first revealed that the HIStory promo video is essentially a spoof of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 Hitler propaganda film, Triumph of the Will?

Willa:  I think so … at least, that’s the first place I heard it.

Bjørn:  With that in mind, it’s interesting to note that the initiator of Esperanto, Zamenhof, was a Jew…

I also think MJ is reflecting on his own use of language. His mother tongue happens to be English – which since World War II has functioned as a second language for huge parts of the world. The English language helps MJ get his message across to the masses, but at the same time it gives native English-speakers like him a communicational advantage (while others have to search for words, you can just keep talking).

Esperanto is the wannabe international language with the potential to put speakers of different mother tongues on a more equal footing. Say all the countries of the UN decided to make Esperanto a global second language, and began teaching it in every classroom on the globe. That would give people from any culture a basic tool for communication – but it would also mean that native English-speakers would have to “make a little space.” So, in this promo video, MJ is somehow endorsing the idea of Esperanto. By letting the language “guest star,” he questions the status quo (using native languages for international communication). I guess you could call it an artistic discussion about language and power.

Willa:  That’s a really interesting way to look at that, Bjørn. And we could push that idea of challenging “language and power” even further if we consider that English as a “global” language began with British imperialism and colonialism. As the British Empire spread around the world, so did English culture and language, with many indigenous people encouraged or even forced to give up their native language and use English instead. And of course, racism in the United States is a direct result of British colonialism and the slave trade. So in that sense, English can be seen as a language of oppression – the language of those colonizing and displacing indigenous people around the world.

So getting back to the HIStory teaser, it’s interesting that in the visuals he’s strongly pushing back against efforts to silence him and “put him in his place” following the false allegations of 1993, and in the Esperanto spoken parts he’s pushing back against English, the language that to some degree silenced his ancestors and tried to keep them in their place.

Joie:  Wow. Really interesting way of looking at that, Willa!

Bjørn: Yes, I agree, Joie, I hadn’t thought about it like that either! So, if the HIStory teaser is a kind of rebuttal – to Nazism and colonialism and the extinction of native languages caused by English and other “big tongues” – couldn’t Liberian Girl be seen as an attempt to recover what was lost? Even if the song’s intro is in Swahili, which is an East African language, and most of MJ’s forebears probably came from West Africa…

Joie:  Ah! Very clever thinking, Bjørn! We could almost say the same thing about the coda at the end of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.'” The Cameroonian chant, “Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah.”

Willa:  Wow, you guys, that is so interesting! I really like the idea of approaching those two from this perspective. You know, both of them seem to address the issue of representation and interpretation – or misinterpretation – to some degree, and in both the use of an African language signals a major shift in the mood of the song/video. In “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” he talks about how the media distorts meaning – like in these lyrics, for example:

I took My Baby to the doctor
With a fever, but nothing he found
By the time this hit the street
They said she had a breakdown

Most of the song is pretty edgy and fearful, and that’s all in English. But then the Cameroon part starts, and suddenly this edgy, trippy song shifts and becomes joyful and triumphant. It’s a very dramatic shift in mood.

There’s a similar shift in the Liberian Girl video. It begins in black and white, with an eerie, sustained, high-pitched note vibrating in the background as the camera pans around what seems to be a British colony in Africa. A waiter walks out of the Cafe Afrique, we see workers in African dress, and then a white missionary in European clothes with a rosary and clerical collar. The camera follows the missionary until he walks behind a beautiful black woman; then the camera stops on her. She looks up and speaks directly to the camera in Swahili, and suddenly everything changes. The black-and-white tone gives way to vibrant color, and we discover we’re not in colonial Africa but modern day Hollywood, in a studio filled with glittering celebrities.

One of the things that’s most interesting about this, in terms of language and colonialism, is that Liberia is an African nation founded and, in effect, re-colonized by free blacks and escaped slaves from the U.S. in the 1800s – people whose ancestry was African but who no longer had a home country to return to. And its official language is English, the only language this diaspora of people had in common. So it’s almost like the English language was re-colonized, just as the nation-state of Liberia was – the language of the colonizer was reclaimed and reappropriated by the colonized.

And we see that idea suggested in Liberian Girl as well. All the celebrities are milling around and Whoopi Goldberg asks, “Who’s directing this?” The camera cuts to Steven Speilberg sitting in a director’s chair, implying he’s the director, but he’s looking at his watch and he’s no more in control than anyone else. Then at the end of the video we discover who’s really been calling the shots: Michael Jackson, behind the camera. So he has reclaimed the Liberian Girl video as his own, just as the former slaves from America reclaimed Liberia and English as their own.

Bjørn: Well, the problem with this interpretation, Willa, is that Liberia was already inhabited when the African-Americans founded it! Just like Israel was already inhabited by Arabs when it was founded as a place where Jews could live in peace. To my understanding, today the “original” Liberians – talking various African languages – are second-class (or at least less fortunate) citizens in a state dominated by English-speaking “American” Liberians (with ancestors ultimately hailing from many parts of Africa, not just Liberia).

I don’t know a lot about Liberia, and I can sympathize with the idea of the ex-slaves reclaiming “English as their own” (after all, who doesn’t love his mother tongue?) But I do think that Jackson’s use of African languages in these songs reflect a longing for the uncolonized past, maybe even for a romantic Africa that never really existed (or, perhaps, for a “garden of Eden” that could come into existence in the future!) As the linguist Ben Zimmer pointed out on his blog the day after MJ had died, the chant in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” was heavily inspired by a line from “Soul Makossa” by the Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango. (Dibango sued MJ for plagiarism, but they reached an agreement out of court.) Here’s “Soul Makossa”:

Dibango sings “ma ma ko, ma ma sa, ma ko ma ko sa,” which is in his native language, Duala. So, MJ’s chant isn’t really in any African language – but so close that is certainly sounds African. In the same way, he uses Swahili (from East Africa) as a symbol of (idealized) Africanness, even if the actual Liberia is in West Africa, far away from the places where people speak Swahili… So, for me, the use of African languages in these songs are really more about a “longing for paradise on earth” as it was before colonization, and as it could become once again.

Willa:  I think that’s a very important point, Bjørn – that he’s referring more to an idea than an actual place. After all, after the shift in Liberian Girl, we aren’t in Liberia; we’re on a movie set in Hollywood, so he’s clearly demonstrating that the opening scene wasn’t really a scene from the actual nation of Liberia, but a Hollywood depiction of “exotic Africa.” The challenge for us, then, is to figure out what idea, exactly, he’s trying to get across when he sings with longing about a girl from Liberia.

It’s interesting in this context to think about the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when Harriet Beecher Stowe sends Eliza, George, and the other escaped slaves to Liberia. For her, it represented a place where they could be safe and free, and where their son Harry could grow and thrive. For her, it truly meant a “paradise on earth,” as you said, Bjørn, but it also reveals a despair about her own country. Stowe didn’t think it was possible for them to ever be truly free in the United States, or even Canada, so she had to send them to Liberia to ensure their freedom.

But I don’t think Michael Jackson ever did give up on the United States – though he had good reason to, and he chose not to live here after the 2005 trial. And I think Liberia, as a concept, means something different for him than it did for Stowe.

Bjørn:  That’s really interesting! I guess I’ll have to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin some day. Stowe’s “Liberia,” as you describe it, reminds me of Bob Marley and the other Rastafarians, who saw Ethiopia as a Promised Land. The name Liberia, which comes from the same Latin root as “liberty,” roughly translates as “the land of the free.” I once made an Esperanto translation of “Liberian Girl,” where the ethymology really shines through: Liberianin’  means “Liberian girl” as well as “girl from the country of freedom.”

Willa:  Really? You translated “Liberian Girl” also? That’s wonderful!  And I love the alternate meaning of “girl from the country of freedom.”

Bjørn:  The rainforest sounds at the beginning of the song (a prequel to “Earth Song”?) could indicate that MJ used “Liberia” as a metaphor for Paradise. Now, “Paradise Girl,” that’s a little spooky, if you think about it. But I’ve always thought this song wasn’t about “Liberia” at all, but rather about a girl who’s very far away from the singer. Like MJ’s (extreme!) version of “Distant Lover,” if you know that Marvin Gaye song!

Okay, let’s get back to the language question. Why does Michael Jackson’s Liberian girl, whoever she is, speak in Swahili? Is that just to add some exotic spice, or what do you think?

Joie:  Well now that is a really good question, Bjørn. And while I really enjoy picking apart a song or a short film and trying to analyze it and discern its true meaning, I also sometimes think that maybe a cigar is just a cigar. What would be wrong with adding in Swahili, or any other foreign language for that matter, for the sole purpose of adding a little exotic spice to your creation? Maybe he simply thought it sounded cool.

Willa:  You’re right, Joie, it does sound cool, and it perfectly fits that space in the song. We know he was fascinated by sounds – found sounds, manufactured sounds, the sounds of nature, the sounds of the city, the sound of words – so it’s very possible he chose those phrases simply based on their sounds and rhythms.

But I’m still intrigued by the fact that both “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” and Liberian Girl focus on American pop culture and the entertainment industry, and how certain things are represented or misrepresented within that industry. And both include an African phrase that serves as an important pivot point – one that changes the whole mood of the work. That seems significant to me. But what does it mean?

As you mentioned, Bjørn, “Liberia” shares the same Latin root as “liberty.” As I understand it, the name “Liberia” was chosen to emphasize that this new nation was envisioned as a place where former slaves could find peace and liberty. So it seems significant that Michael Jackson evokes Liberia, but more as an idea than a physical place, as you suggested earlier. And to me, that’s reinforced by the fact that he incorporates Swahili, but it’s Swahili that has become unmoored from its native country and is now being used in a Hollywood video that to some extent critiques Hollywood.

The lyrics to Liberian Girl suggest something similar when he says their romance is “just like in the movies”:

With two lovers in a scene
And she says, “Do you love me?”
And he says so endlessly,
“I love you, Liberian Girl”

So their romance is presented as something of a fantasy, something that’s been scripted by Hollywood. In all of these cases, it’s like he’s both evoking a fantasy and critiquing it at the same time, and looking at where it comes from. For example, in Liberian Girl he’s evoking the exotic while questioning what it means to be labeled as exotic.

Joie:  That is a very interesting interpretation, Willa! Sometimes you really do blow me away with how your mind works. It’s fascinating!

Willa:  Thanks, Joie, though I might be totally missing the boat with this one – it’s pretty subtle what he’s doing. It’s just so interesting to me that he begins Liberian Girl with a classic scene of “exotic Africa,” then reveals it’s all just a Hollywood fabrication, and then suggests that the real exotica is Hollywood itself. And the Swahili phrase is the turning point where our perceptions are flipped inside out.

Joie:  Do either of you know what that Swahili phrase means? I would be very interested to know what she’s saying in the opening of the song.

Bjørn:  According to the album booklet, it means “I love you too – I want you too – my love.” (Google Translate seems to agree, although it renders mpenziwe as ”lover”.)

Joie:  Huh. I don’t think I ever knew that before. I’ve always simply wondered at the meaning. I can’t believe it was in the album booklet all this time and I never noticed.

Bjørn:  No worries, Joie, an album’s booklet is often the last thing I study too!  But you know what? It just struck me there’s an interesting semantic evolution going on in this song: It starts with rainforest sounds that don’t have any particular meaning to the average listener (but who knows what the animals are really saying?) Then it progresses to a line spoken in Swahili, which to the vast audience is just as meaningless as the sound of a bird. Then, at last, Michael Jackson starts to sing in English, and because we understand the language, all of a sudden we don’t hear his words as ”sounds” any more, but as meaningful pieces of information… Perhaps Jackson added Swahili just to emphasize that the meaning we assign to words really is arbitrary, and that we might as well be in a situation where Swahili carried the information, and English was some unintelligible but exotic spice, just like the language of the forest, or even the sound of instruments…

Willa:  Wow, that is fascinating, Bjørn! And if we interpret the opening that way – as examining how we make meaning – that progression of sounds is paralleled in the visuals as well. As you say, the sounds gradually become more intelligible as we move from bird song (something we don’t understand and can never understand) to Swahili (something most of us don’t understand at first but can if we put a little effort into it) to English (which for most Americans is our native language). And the visuals begin with the Cafe Afrique sign, then pan out to the Casablanca-like scene, and then keep panning out to show the Hollywood set. So as we telescope out, the images become more familiar – closer to home, in a way – and our understanding of what we’re seeing shifts and gradually becomes more clear:  we’re watching a film being made.

Bjørn:  This film, as you say, is being referenced to in the lyrics as well: “Just like in the movies… With two lovers in a scene…” So maybe the chief function of the Swahili phrase is to underscore the very otherworldliness of this cinematic fantasy, much like the Elvish phrases in the Lord of the Rings movies or the Na’vi dialogue in Avatar. Yes I know, Swahili is a living language spoken by real people. But still, hardly anyone in Liberia speaks Swahili!  As pointed out earlier, Swahili is an East African language. Its native speakers live along the Kenya-Tanzania coastline.

What’s intriguing about Swahili, however, is that it’s become a truly international language in much of Eastern Africa!  Millions of people in Congo, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya use Swahili to get their messages across a multitude of linguistic boundaries. It is, indeed, the closest we get to an African “Esperanto.”

Willa:  Really?  I didn’t know that.

Joie:  Neither did I.

Willa:  That’s fascinating to think about it as “an African ‘Esperanto.'”

Bjørn:  If we look at it like that, the openings of “Liberian Girl” and the HIStory teaser are very similar: Something is being said by a non-MJ person in a cross-cultural language, before MJ himself enters the stage and reassures his English-speaking listeners that they’re not wholly “lost in translation”!

“Stranger in Moscow,” interestingly, takes the opposite approach. Here MJ’s loudly sung English-language lyrics are followed by another man whispering in the lingua franca of the Cold War Communist world: Russian.

Willa:  Wow, Bjørn, that is so interesting! And to me, it feels like the Russian in “Stranger in Moscow” functions in a very different way as well. It reinforces the edgy, unsettled mood of the song, as well as the theme of alienation from his home country.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa. “Stranger in Moscow” has always been one of my favorites and I think it’s because it is such a beautifully constructed song. But you’re right, the use of Russian in the song really heightens the sense of loneliness, isolation and despair that he’s trying to convey here. The alienation as you put it. Whenever I listen to this song, I actually get the sense that his sole reason for using Russian here is to make us feel those negative emotions more fully.

Willa:  It feels that way to me too, Joie, and that feeling intensifies once we learn what those Russian words mean: “Why have you come from the West? Confess! To steal the great achievements of the people, the accomplishments of the workers…”

Joie:  Yes. It’s very intimidating, isn’t it? Imagine being a stranger in a strange land, detained by these scary officials and having those questions barked at you over and over again!

Willa:  Or to bring it a little closer to home, imagine the police asking you, Why are you so kind and generous with children? Confess!  It’s to lure them in so you can abuse them …

What I mean is, it wasn’t just the KGB who interrogated people in intimidating ways – the Santa Barbara police investigators did the same thing, and not just to Michael Jackson but to young children as well. They interrogated Jason Francia over and over again when he was only 12 years old. As he said later, “They made me come up with stuff. They kept pushing. I wanted to hit them in the head.” Like the stereotypical image of the KGB, they were determined to wring a confession from him.

And I think that’s the idea Michael Jackson is trying to get at here. He’s not pointing a finger at the Soviets – he’s pointing a finger at us, and saying in some ways we are as much of a police state as Cold War Russia. And the shock of that realization has made him feel like a stranger in his own country.

Bjørn:  That’s fascinating, Joie and Willa. I hadn’t thought about it like that. Both “Stranger in Moscow” and “Liberian Girl” mention specific locations in their titles, which is a very unusual thing for MJ to do. (Most of his titles are quite unspecific – just think about “A place with no name”!) And both songs use great regional languages to create a specific mood. I’m not exactly a connoisseur of Jackson’s short films, but I have remarked a couple of times that Russians have commented that the scenes in Stranger in Moscow look nothing like Moscow at all.

Willa:  That’s true. You can tell from the street signs and the close-up of the American quarter that it was filmed in the U.S. And that seems very deliberate – he wants us to know he’s really in the U.S. though he feels like he’s in a strange land.

Bjørn:  So, I wonder if MJ is using Moscow and Russian in a metaphorical way, just like he uses Liberia and Swahili to evoke a dreamlike vision of Africa. Thanks to the Cold War, Russian must sound like a very alien language to many Americans. And Moscow must still be the very ”eye of the tiger” to some folks! (Poor Russian MJ fans!)

So, without demonizing too much here, we might say that while Jackson uses Swahili as a paradisaical or “angelic” language, Russian, as used by the KGB agent, does duty as the language of his demons…

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, Bjørn!  Or maybe the Russian is evoking a frightening unknown. In other words, it’s not so much that Russian is “the language of his demons,” but that Americans once demonized it because we didn’t understand it and were afraid of it. I have friends a little older than I am who remember the Bay of Pigs, and the school drills for what to do if the Soviets attacked with nuclear bombs. And the main feeling they remember is the uncertainty – the fear of something powerful that you don’t understand, that can attack at any time without warning. I can certainly understand how Michael Jackson might feel that way about the Santa Barbara police …

Joie:  Wow. That’s really deep, Willa. And Bjørn, I love what you said about the “angelic” language and the “demon” language. I think it’s clear that both languages were used in very different ways to convey two very different realms of emotion, and that is very fascinating.

Bjørn:  Yes, it is! And just as the languages help the music paint these emotional landscapes, the music also influences the way we – as non-speakers – perceive these foreign languages. Personally, I find Russian quite a beautiful language, with all its mushy sounds. And, importantly, it is whispered, as if the KGB agent is telling a secret. If we hadn’t just heard MJ’s lament, we might have thought it was a lover whispering something to his beloved, much like the Swahili girl in “Liberian Girl.” And this makes it all the more frightening – it’s like a cold embrace, followed by a stab.

Willa:  Wow, that’s a fascinating way to look at that, Bjørn – and pretty chilling too.

Bjørn:  So, in “Liberian Girl,” “Stranger in Moscow,” and the HIStory teaser, Michael Jackson uses bits of foreign languages to help create a mood or atmosphere. And the languages he uses have all – at some point in history – been rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication:  Swahili, Esperanto, Russian. Furthermore, the pieces seem to highlight different aspects of foreignness:  the exotic and alluring (Swahili), the unfamiliar and strange (Esperanto), the threatening and repulsing (Russian).

Willa:  And there’s another song that fits this pattern also:  “They Don’t Care about Us.” It begins with a woman saying “Michael, eles não ligam pra gente,” which is Portuguese for “Michael, they don’t care about us.” As you said of Swahili, Esperanto, and Russian, Bjørn, Portuguese is another language that has “at some point in history – been rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication.” Like England, Portugal was a powerful nation during the colonial era, and as a result, Portuguese is the official language of countries around the world, from Europe to South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Joie:  That’s very true, Willa. You know I think most people just think about Portuguese being spoken in Brazil and, of course, Portugal. But it’s actually the official language of many African nations, like Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bissau, and others. And, as you said, even in Southeast Asia. It’s interesting to think of it as “rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication,” because it really did at one point.

Willa:  And still does in some regions – like I didn’t realize it was so widespread in Africa. That’s interesting, Joie. And to get back to what you were saying, Bjørn, about the different emotional effect of each of these languages, the Portugese lines at the beginning of “They Don’t Care about Us” have always struck me as sorrowful, in an almost maternal way – like the sorrow of a mother who cares deeply for her children and has seen too many of them come to harm.

Bjørn: You opened up my eyes here, Willa and Joie! I have to confess I’ve never heard that Portuguese part before. I gave the song another listen, and couldn’t hear it – but then it occurred to me that it had to be in the video! I’m a great fan of Michael Jackson’s music, but a lot of his films I haven’t watched in their entirety. So, I went to YouTube, and heard that phrase spoken for the first time.

I wonder, though, to what extent Portuguese is being used to create an emotional effect, and to what extent it’s being used to evoke an idea of “Brazil” – after all, the film does take part in real-world Brazil (not a fantasy “Liberia”), where Portuguese is spoken as the main language.

Willa:  That’s a good point.

Bjørn:  But if we look at the emotions, I do agree with you, Willa, that it sounds like a caring mother speaking to her son. By the way, those people who like blaming MJ for having a “Jesus complex,” should take an extra look… In the exact same moment as the Brazilian mother figure says the name “Michael,” the camera pans to the famous Rio statue of Christ the Redeemer…

Willa:  Oh heavens, Bjørn!  You’re just trying to stir up trouble, aren’t you?

Bjørn: Well, yes and no, Willa. This being an academic discussion, I don’t think I’d do the readers any favor by censoring what I see! It’s a fact that the name and the statue appear at the same time, and I’d like to think it’s intentional. But okay, let’s save the interpretation of that for an ”MJ and religious symbolism” post!

So, in the four “foreign language songs” we’ve looked at so far, we’ve got an Esperanto-speaking worker, a Swahili-speaking lover, a Russian-speaking agent and a Brazilian-speaking mother… MJ himself, however, still sings in his native English. The foreign culture remains inaccessible and different. Interestingly, on a couple of occasions he did cross the border, so to speak. I’m of course thinking about the versions he did of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” in two of the world’s great international languages:  Spanish and French… What do you think about them?

Willa:  Well, my first reaction is that I love them – they are both exquisitely beautiful, I think. And it’s interesting for me to hear a Michael Jackson song the way non-English speakers must usually hear them – where the meaning comes not so much from the words he is singing but from the expressiveness of his voice.

Joie:  That’s an great point, Willa, one that I don’t often ponder. But it’s interesting to think about how non-English speakers perceive Michael’s music. Especially since his music is so very beloved all over the world. But you’re right that they must experience it much differently than native English speakers do.

You know I went through a similar phenomenon back in my teen years when I had a huge crush on the guys of the Puerto Rican boy band, Menudo. They would release albums in both Spanish and English, and oddly enough, I found that I really loved those Spanish speaking songs, even though my Spanish has never been all that great. To this day, I often find myself singing them.

Bjørn:  When I discovered Michael Jackson’s music as a child, I hardly understood anything he was singing. I just liked the sound of it! So I can certainly follow you there… “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” isn’t among my favorite MJ songs, but I agree it’s nice to hear him sing in Spanish (which I understand) and French (which I don’t really understand). Why did he choose this particular song, do you think? I mean, if it was to promote the Bad album in Spanish- and French-speaking countries, he could have handed the translators the song ”Bad”… (I just hear it: ¡Porque soy malo, soy malo!)

Willa:  That’s great, Bjørn! I’ll be thinking about that next time I hear, “Because I’m bad, I’m bad …”

So I don’t know why he chose “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” but it’s a beautiful song and it’s a duet – one of his few duets – and that would allow him to interact with someone while he was singing, someone fluent in Spanish or French. Maybe that’s part of why he chose this one. I don’t know about Spanish, but he did speak passable French. In fact, in the 1980s he was interviewed in French by a Montreal reporter, and he answered in French. And he loved Paris – he even named his daughter Paris. And of course he always liked to bridge boundaries, as we discussed at the beginning with Esperanto.

So thank you so much for joining us, Bjørn, and for adding a European, multilingual perspective!  We always love talking with you, and hope you’ll join us again soon.

You Make Me Feel Like … You Make Me Feel Like …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisha:  I agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa:  Now, now, Lisha, compose yourself!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa:  Exactly!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

¡Porque Soy Malo, Soy Malo!

Willa:  Last spring, longtime contributor Bjørn Bojesen shared his version of “Bili Ĝin,” which is an Esperanto translation of “Billie Jean.” That led to a behind-the-scenes discussion of Michael Jackson and foreign languages, with Joie, Bjørn, and me all brainstorming about songs or short films where he sang or incorporated words in a language other than his native English. This was such an interesting topic for us we decided to take the discussion online and talk about it in a post. Thanks for joining us, Bjørn, and for sharing “Bili Ĝin” with us!

So Esperanto is actually a good place to start this discussion since it’s such a Michael Jackson kind of concept. As I understand it, Esperanto was invented in the late 1800s using elements of many different languages to help promote global peace and understanding. Specifically, it was created by L.L. Zamenhof to provide a neutral means of communication that bridged divisions of language, nationality, and ethnicity. I can see how this would appeal to Michael Jackson since crossing boundaries and healing divisions is something he did throughout his career. And as you recently mentioned, Bjørn, he incorporated an Esperanto passage in the promo film for HIStory. Is that right?

Bjørn: Yes, that’s correct. At the very start, right before the soldiers come marching in with their heavy boots, an unseen man shouts out a declaration in Esperanto. Take a look:

In the YouTube video, there are some glitches in the subtitles, but the anonymous person’s message goes like this: “Diversaj nacioj de la mondo” (Different nations of the world) / “konstruas ĉi tiun skulptaĵon” (build this sculpture) / “en la nomo de tutmonda patrineco kaj amo” (in the name of global motherhood and love) / “kaj la kuraca forto de muziko” (and the healing power of music). A few seconds later, one of the smelters also shouts in Esperanto: “Venu ĉi tien!” (Come over here!)

The promo created quite a stir in the Esperanto community when it aired. Why would MJ use a snippet of Esperanto? I have no idea whether he actually spoke Esperanto, but I guess he scripted the lines (in English): “in the name of global motherhood and love, and the healing power of music.” Doesn’t this sound very MJ to you? I mean, just the idea of a universal motherhood instead of the usual brotherhood…

Willa:  It really does. It sounds “very MJ,” as you say, and it’s also interesting how those words undercut the visuals. What follows those words is a show of military force, with goose-stepping soldiers evocative of Nazi military demonstrations. So there’s a strong tension between the Esperanto words, which describe the statue they’re building as a tribute to “global motherhood and love,” and the accompanying images, which place the statue in a military context.

Bjørn: Yes, but this tension only exists if you understand the words!  99.8 percent of the viewers would have no clue what the voice actor was saying. So, why didn’t MJ simply let the man speak his lines in English?

Willa:  Well, that’s a good point, Bjørn – and I have to admit, I’m one of the 99.8 percent!

Joie:  As am I. You know, Bjørn, I find this fascinating and I’m also really surprised by it. I had no idea those words were spoken in Esperanto. I don’t ever remember hearing that at the time of the video’s release. I just remember all the controversy over the film itself being declared hateful and narcissistic. But you ask an interesting question … why didn’t he simply use a language that was more easily recognizable to the masses? Even if he didn’t use English, he still could have used Russian or Spanish or even Japanese. Any other language that more people would hear and immediately recognize. But instead, he chose Esperanto. And Willa and I are of the belief that he rarely did anything artistic without a very precise reason for it. So I am intrigued.

Bjørn:  I think you’re touching on something important, Joie, when you talk about a language that’s “more easily recognizable to the masses”! This is exactly why many upper-class art aficionados can’t stand Michael Jackson – they think he’s just feeding “the masses” with stuff they can easily digest. But I think MJ had a perfect understanding of this balance between being accessible and being esoteric. By dropping such small hard-to-get references – like his basing the You Are Not Alone video on the painting Daybreak by Maxfield Parrish – Michael Jackson added interpretational depth to his art. By the way, wasn’t it the MJ Academia Project that first revealed that the HIStory promo video is essentially a spoof of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 Hitler propaganda film, Triumph of the Will?

Willa:  I think so … at least, that’s the first place I heard it.

Bjørn:  With that in mind, it’s interesting to note that the initiator of Esperanto, Zamenhof, was a Jew…

I also think MJ is reflecting on his own use of language. His mother tongue happens to be English – which since World War II has functioned as a second language for huge parts of the world. The English language helps MJ get his message across to the masses, but at the same time it gives native English-speakers like him a communicational advantage (while others have to search for words, you can just keep talking).

Esperanto is the wannabe international language with the potential to put speakers of different mother tongues on a more equal footing. Say all the countries of the UN decided to make Esperanto a global second language, and began teaching it in every classroom on the globe. That would give people from any culture a basic tool for communication – but it would also mean that native English-speakers would have to “make a little space.” So, in this promo video, MJ is somehow endorsing the idea of Esperanto. By letting the language “guest star,” he questions the status quo (using native languages for international communication). I guess you could call it an artistic discussion about language and power.

Willa:  That’s a really interesting way to look at that, Bjørn. And we could push that idea of challenging “language and power” even further if we consider that English as a “global” language began with British imperialism and colonialism. As the British Empire spread around the world, so did English culture and language, with many indigenous people encouraged or even forced to give up their native language and use English instead. And of course, racism in the United States is a direct result of British colonialism and the slave trade. So in that sense, English can be seen as a language of oppression – the language of those colonizing and displacing indigenous people around the world.

So getting back to the HIStory teaser, it’s interesting that in the visuals he’s strongly pushing back against efforts to silence him and “put him in his place” following the false allegations of 1993, and in the Esperanto spoken parts he’s pushing back against English, the language that to some degree silenced his ancestors and tried to keep them in their place.

Joie:  Wow. Really interesting way of looking at that, Willa!

Bjørn: Yes, I agree, Joie, I hadn’t thought about it like that either! So, if the HIStory teaser is a kind of rebuttal – to Nazism and colonialism and the extinction of native languages caused by English and other “big tongues” – couldn’t Liberian Girl be seen as an attempt to recover what was lost? Even if the song’s intro is in Swahili, which is an East African language, and most of MJ’s forebears probably came from West Africa…

Joie:  Ah! Very clever thinking, Bjørn! We could almost say the same thing about the coda at the end of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.'” The Cameroonian chant, “Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah.”

Willa:  Wow, you guys, that is so interesting! I really like the idea of approaching those two from this perspective. You know, both of them seem to address the issue of representation and interpretation – or misinterpretation – to some degree, and in both the use of an African language signals a major shift in the mood of the song/video. In “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” he talks about how the media distorts meaning – like in these lyrics, for example:

I took My Baby to the doctor
With a fever, but nothing he found
By the time this hit the street
They said she had a breakdown

Most of the song is pretty edgy and fearful, and that’s all in English. But then the Cameroon part starts, and suddenly this edgy, trippy song shifts and becomes joyful and triumphant. It’s a very dramatic shift in mood.

There’s a similar shift in the Liberian Girl video. It begins in black and white, with an eerie, sustained, high-pitched note vibrating in the background as the camera pans around what seems to be a British colony in Africa. A waiter walks out of the Cafe Afrique, we see workers in African dress, and then a white missionary in European clothes with a rosary and clerical collar. The camera follows the missionary until he walks behind a beautiful black woman; then the camera stops on her. She looks up and speaks directly to the camera in Swahili, and suddenly everything changes. The black-and-white tone gives way to vibrant color, and we discover we’re not in colonial Africa but modern day Hollywood, in a studio filled with glittering celebrities.

One of the things that’s most interesting about this, in terms of language and colonialism, is that Liberia is an African nation founded and, in effect, re-colonized by free blacks and escaped slaves from the U.S. in the 1800s – people whose ancestry was African but who no longer had a home country to return to. And its official language is English, the only language this diaspora of people had in common. So it’s almost like the English language was re-colonized, just as the nation-state of Liberia was – the language of the colonizer was reclaimed and reappropriated by the colonized.

And we see that idea suggested in Liberian Girl as well. All the celebrities are milling around and Whoopi Goldberg asks, “Who’s directing this?” The camera cuts to Steven Speilberg sitting in a director’s chair, implying he’s the director, but he’s looking at his watch and he’s no more in control than anyone else. Then at the end of the video we discover who’s really been calling the shots: Michael Jackson, behind the camera. So he has reclaimed the Liberian Girl video as his own, just as the former slaves from America reclaimed Liberia and English as their own.

Bjørn: Well, the problem with this interpretation, Willa, is that Liberia was already inhabited when the African-Americans founded it! Just like Israel was already inhabited by Arabs when it was founded as a place where Jews could live in peace. To my understanding, today the “original” Liberians – talking various African languages – are second-class (or at least less fortunate) citizens in a state dominated by English-speaking “American” Liberians (with ancestors ultimately hailing from many parts of Africa, not just Liberia).

I don’t know a lot about Liberia, and I can sympathize with the idea of the ex-slaves reclaiming “English as their own” (after all, who doesn’t love his mother tongue?) But I do think that Jackson’s use of African languages in these songs reflect a longing for the uncolonized past, maybe even for a romantic Africa that never really existed (or, perhaps, for a “garden of Eden” that could come into existence in the future!) As the linguist Ben Zimmer pointed out on his blog the day after MJ had died, the chant in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” was heavily inspired by a line from “Soul Makossa” by the Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango. (Dibango sued MJ for plagiarism, but they reached an agreement out of court.) Here’s “Soul Makossa”:

Dibango sings “ma ma ko, ma ma sa, ma ko ma ko sa,” which is in his native language, Duala. So, MJ’s chant isn’t really in any African language – but so close that is certainly sounds African. In the same way, he uses Swahili (from East Africa) as a symbol of (idealized) Africanness, even if the actual Liberia is in West Africa, far away from the places where people speak Swahili… So, for me, the use of African languages in these songs are really more about a “longing for paradise on earth” as it was before colonization, and as it could become once again.

Willa:  I think that’s a very important point, Bjørn – that he’s referring more to an idea than an actual place. After all, after the shift in Liberian Girl, we aren’t in Liberia; we’re on a movie set in Hollywood, so he’s clearly demonstrating that the opening scene wasn’t really a scene from the actual nation of Liberia, but a Hollywood depiction of “exotic Africa.” The challenge for us, then, is to figure out what idea, exactly, he’s trying to get across when he sings with longing about a girl from Liberia.

It’s interesting in this context to think about the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when Harriet Beecher Stowe sends Eliza, George, and the other escaped slaves to Liberia. For her, it represented a place where they could be safe and free, and where their son Harry could grow and thrive. For her, it truly meant a “paradise on earth,” as you said, Bjørn, but it also reveals a despair about her own country. Stowe didn’t think it was possible for them to ever be truly free in the United States, or even Canada, so she had to send them to Liberia to ensure their freedom.

But I don’t think Michael Jackson ever did give up on the United States – though he had good reason to, and he chose not to live here after the 2005 trial. And I think Liberia, as a concept, means something different for him than it did for Stowe.

Bjørn:  That’s really interesting! I guess I’ll have to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin some day. Stowe’s “Liberia,” as you describe it, reminds me of Bob Marley and the other Rastafarians, who saw Ethiopia as a Promised Land. The name Liberia, which comes from the same Latin root as “liberty,” roughly translates as “the land of the free.” I once made an Esperanto translation of “Liberian Girl,” where the ethymology really shines through: Liberianin’  means “Liberian girl” as well as “girl from the country of freedom.”

Willa:  Really? You translated “Liberian Girl” also? That’s wonderful!  And I love the alternate meaning of “girl from the country of freedom.”

Bjørn:  The rainforest sounds at the beginning of the song (a prequel to “Earth Song”?) could indicate that MJ used “Liberia” as a metaphor for Paradise. Now, “Paradise Girl,” that’s a little spooky, if you think about it. But I’ve always thought this song wasn’t about “Liberia” at all, but rather about a girl who’s very far away from the singer. Like MJ’s (extreme!) version of “Distant Lover,” if you know that Marvin Gaye song!

Okay, let’s get back to the language question. Why does Michael Jackson’s Liberian girl, whoever she is, speak in Swahili? Is that just to add some exotic spice, or what do you think?

Joie:  Well now that is a really good question, Bjørn. And while I really enjoy picking apart a song or a short film and trying to analyze it and discern its true meaning, I also sometimes think that maybe a cigar is just a cigar. What would be wrong with adding in Swahili, or any other foreign language for that matter, for the sole purpose of adding a little exotic spice to your creation? Maybe he simply thought it sounded cool.

Willa:  You’re right, Joie, it does sound cool, and it perfectly fits that space in the song. We know he was fascinated by sounds – found sounds, manufactured sounds, the sounds of nature, the sounds of the city, the sound of words – so it’s very possible he chose those phrases simply based on their sounds and rhythms.

But I’m still intrigued by the fact that both “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” and Liberian Girl focus on American pop culture and the entertainment industry, and how certain things are represented or misrepresented within that industry. And both include an African phrase that serves as an important pivot point – one that changes the whole mood of the work. That seems significant to me. But what does it mean?

As you mentioned, Bjørn, “Liberia” shares the same Latin root as “liberty.” As I understand it, the name “Liberia” was chosen to emphasize that this new nation was envisioned as a place where former slaves could find peace and liberty. So it seems significant that Michael Jackson evokes Liberia, but more as an idea than a physical place, as you suggested earlier. And to me, that’s reinforced by the fact that he incorporates Swahili, but it’s Swahili that has become unmoored from its native country and is now being used in a Hollywood video that to some extent critiques Hollywood.

The lyrics to Liberian Girl suggest something similar when he says their romance is “just like in the movies”:

With two lovers in a scene
And she says, “Do you love me?”
And he says so endlessly,
“I love you, Liberian Girl”

So their romance is presented as something of a fantasy, something that’s been scripted by Hollywood. In all of these cases, it’s like he’s both evoking a fantasy and critiquing it at the same time, and looking at where it comes from. For example, in Liberian Girl he’s evoking the exotic while questioning what it means to be labeled as exotic.

Joie:  That is a very interesting interpretation, Willa! Sometimes you really do blow me away with how your mind works. It’s fascinating!

Willa:  Thanks, Joie, though I might be totally missing the boat with this one – it’s pretty subtle what he’s doing. It’s just so interesting to me that he begins Liberian Girl with a classic scene of “exotic Africa,” then reveals it’s all just a Hollywood fabrication, and then suggests that the real exotica is Hollywood itself. And the Swahili phrase is the turning point where our perceptions are flipped inside out.

Joie:  Do either of you know what that Swahili phrase means? I would be very interested to know what she’s saying in the opening of the song.

Bjørn:  According to the album booklet, it means “I love you too – I want you too – my love.” (Google Translate seems to agree, although it renders mpenziwe as ”lover”.)

Joie:  Huh. I don’t think I ever knew that before. I’ve always simply wondered at the meaning. I can’t believe it was in the album booklet all this time and I never noticed.

Bjørn:  No worries, Joie, an album’s booklet is often the last thing I study too!  But you know what? It just struck me there’s an interesting semantic evolution going on in this song: It starts with rainforest sounds that don’t have any particular meaning to the average listener (but who knows what the animals are really saying?) Then it progresses to a line spoken in Swahili, which to the vast audience is just as meaningless as the sound of a bird. Then, at last, Michael Jackson starts to sing in English, and because we understand the language, all of a sudden we don’t hear his words as ”sounds” any more, but as meaningful pieces of information… Perhaps Jackson added Swahili just to emphasize that the meaning we assign to words really is arbitrary, and that we might as well be in a situation where Swahili carried the information, and English was some unintelligible but exotic spice, just like the language of the forest, or even the sound of instruments…

Willa:  Wow, that is fascinating, Bjørn! And if we interpret the opening that way – as examining how we make meaning – that progression of sounds is paralleled in the visuals as well. As you say, the sounds gradually become more intelligible as we move from bird song (something we don’t understand and can never understand) to Swahili (something most of us don’t understand at first but can if we put a little effort into it) to English (which for most Americans is our native language). And the visuals begin with the Cafe Afrique sign, then pan out to the Casablanca-like scene, and then keep panning out to show the Hollywood set. So as we telescope out, the images become more familiar – closer to home, in a way – and our understanding of what we’re seeing shifts and gradually becomes more clear:  we’re watching a film being made.

Bjørn:  This film, as you say, is being referenced to in the lyrics as well: “Just like in the movies… With two lovers in a scene…” So maybe the chief function of the Swahili phrase is to underscore the very otherworldliness of this cinematic fantasy, much like the Elvish phrases in the Lord of the Rings movies or the Na’vi dialogue in Avatar. Yes I know, Swahili is a living language spoken by real people. But still, hardly anyone in Liberia speaks Swahili!  As pointed out earlier, Swahili is an East African language. Its native speakers live along the Kenya-Tanzania coastline.

What’s intriguing about Swahili, however, is that it’s become a truly international language in much of Eastern Africa!  Millions of people in Congo, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya use Swahili to get their messages across a multitude of linguistic boundaries. It is, indeed, the closest we get to an African “Esperanto.”

Willa:  Really?  I didn’t know that.

Joie:  Neither did I.

Willa:  That’s fascinating to think about it as “an African ‘Esperanto.'”

Bjørn:  If we look at it like that, the openings of “Liberian Girl” and the HIStory teaser are very similar: Something is being said by a non-MJ person in a cross-cultural language, before MJ himself enters the stage and reassures his English-speaking listeners that they’re not wholly “lost in translation”!

“Stranger in Moscow,” interestingly, takes the opposite approach. Here MJ’s loudly sung English-language lyrics are followed by another man whispering in the lingua franca of the Cold War Communist world: Russian.

Willa:  Wow, Bjørn, that is so interesting! And to me, it feels like the Russian in “Stranger in Moscow” functions in a very different way as well. It reinforces the edgy, unsettled mood of the song, as well as the theme of alienation from his home country.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa. “Stranger in Moscow” has always been one of my favorites and I think it’s because it is such a beautifully constructed song. But you’re right, the use of Russian in the song really heightens the sense of loneliness, isolation and despair that he’s trying to convey here. The alienation as you put it. Whenever I listen to this song, I actually get the sense that his sole reason for using Russian here is to make us feel those negative emotions more fully.

Willa:  It feels that way to me too, Joie, and that feeling intensifies once we learn what those Russian words mean: “Why have you come from the West? Confess! To steal the great achievements of the people, the accomplishments of the workers…”

Joie:  Yes. It’s very intimidating, isn’t it? Imagine being a stranger in a strange land, detained by these scary officials and having those questions barked at you over and over again!

Willa:  Or to bring it a little closer to home, imagine the police asking you, Why are you so kind and generous with children? Confess!  It’s to lure them in so you can abuse them …

What I mean is, it wasn’t just the KGB who interrogated people in intimidating ways – the Santa Barbara police investigators did the same thing, and not just to Michael Jackson but to young children as well. They interrogated Jason Francia over and over again when he was only 12 years old. As he said later, “They made me come up with stuff. They kept pushing. I wanted to hit them in the head.” Like the stereotypical image of the KGB, they were determined to wring a confession from him.

And I think that’s the idea Michael Jackson is trying to get at here. He’s not pointing a finger at the Soviets – he’s pointing a finger at us, and saying in some ways we are as much of a police state as Cold War Russia. And the shock of that realization has made him feel like a stranger in his own country.

Bjørn:  That’s fascinating, Joie and Willa. I hadn’t thought about it like that. Both “Stranger in Moscow” and “Liberian Girl” mention specific locations in their titles, which is a very unusual thing for MJ to do. (Most of his titles are quite unspecific – just think about “A place with no name”!) And both songs use great regional languages to create a specific mood. I’m not exactly a connoisseur of Jackson’s short films, but I have remarked a couple of times that Russians have commented that the scenes in Stranger in Moscow look nothing like Moscow at all.

Willa:  That’s true. You can tell from the street signs and the close-up of the American quarter that it was filmed in the U.S. And that seems very deliberate – he wants us to know he’s really in the U.S. though he feels like he’s in a strange land.

Bjørn:  So, I wonder if MJ is using Moscow and Russian in a metaphorical way, just like he uses Liberia and Swahili to evoke a dreamlike vision of Africa. Thanks to the Cold War, Russian must sound like a very alien language to many Americans. And Moscow must still be the very ”eye of the tiger” to some folks! (Poor Russian MJ fans!)

So, without demonizing too much here, we might say that while Jackson uses Swahili as a paradisaical or “angelic” language, Russian, as used by the KGB agent, does duty as the language of his demons…

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, Bjørn!  Or maybe the Russian is evoking a frightening unknown. In other words, it’s not so much that Russian is “the language of his demons,” but that Americans once demonized it because we didn’t understand it and were afraid of it. I have friends a little older than I am who remember the Bay of Pigs, and the school drills for what to do if the Soviets attacked with nuclear bombs. And the main feeling they remember is the uncertainty – the fear of something powerful that you don’t understand, that can attack at any time without warning. I can certainly understand how Michael Jackson might feel that way about the Santa Barbara police …

Joie:  Wow. That’s really deep, Willa. And Bjørn, I love what you said about the “angelic” language and the “demon” language. I think it’s clear that both languages were used in very different ways to convey two very different realms of emotion, and that is very fascinating.

Bjørn:  Yes, it is! And just as the languages help the music paint these emotional landscapes, the music also influences the way we – as non-speakers – perceive these foreign languages. Personally, I find Russian quite a beautiful language, with all its mushy sounds. And, importantly, it is whispered, as if the KGB agent is telling a secret. If we hadn’t just heard MJ’s lament, we might have thought it was a lover whispering something to his beloved, much like the Swahili girl in “Liberian Girl.” And this makes it all the more frightening – it’s like a cold embrace, followed by a stab.

Willa:  Wow, that’s a fascinating way to look at that, Bjørn – and pretty chilling too.

Bjørn:  So, in “Liberian Girl,” “Stranger in Moscow,” and the HIStory teaser, Michael Jackson uses bits of foreign languages to help create a mood or atmosphere. And the languages he uses have all – at some point in history – been rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication:  Swahili, Esperanto, Russian. Furthermore, the pieces seem to highlight different aspects of foreignness:  the exotic and alluring (Swahili), the unfamiliar and strange (Esperanto), the threatening and repulsing (Russian).

Willa:  And there’s another song that fits this pattern also:  “They Don’t Care about Us.” It begins with a woman saying “Michael, eles não ligam pra gente,” which is Portuguese for “Michael, they don’t care about us.” As you said of Swahili, Esperanto, and Russian, Bjørn, Portuguese is another language that has “at some point in history – been rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication.” Like England, Portugal was a powerful nation during the colonial era, and as a result, Portuguese is the official language of countries around the world, from Europe to South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Joie:  That’s very true, Willa. You know I think most people just think about Portuguese being spoken in Brazil and, of course, Portugal. But it’s actually the official language of many African nations, like Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bissau, and others. And, as you said, even in Southeast Asia. It’s interesting to think of it as “rivaling English as a transcultural means of communication,” because it really did at one point.

Willa:  And still does in some regions – like I didn’t realize it was so widespread in Africa. That’s interesting, Joie. And to get back to what you were saying, Bjørn, about the different emotional effect of each of these languages, the Portugese lines at the beginning of “They Don’t Care about Us” have always struck me as sorrowful, in an almost maternal way – like the sorrow of a mother who cares deeply for her children and has seen too many of them come to harm.

Bjørn: You opened up my eyes here, Willa and Joie! I have to confess I’ve never heard that Portuguese part before. I gave the song another listen, and couldn’t hear it – but then it occurred to me that it had to be in the video! I’m a great fan of Michael Jackson’s music, but a lot of his films I haven’t watched in their entirety. So, I went to YouTube, and heard that phrase spoken for the first time.

I wonder, though, to what extent Portuguese is being used to create an emotional effect, and to what extent it’s being used to evoke an idea of “Brazil” – after all, the film does take part in real-world Brazil (not a fantasy “Liberia”), where Portuguese is spoken as the main language.

Willa:  That’s a good point.

Bjørn:  But if we look at the emotions, I do agree with you, Willa, that it sounds like a caring mother speaking to her son. By the way, those people who like blaming MJ for having a “Jesus complex,” should take an extra look… In the exact same moment as the Brazilian mother figure says the name “Michael,” the camera pans to the famous Rio statue of Christ the Redeemer…

Willa:  Oh heavens, Bjørn!  You’re just trying to stir up trouble, aren’t you?

Bjørn: Well, yes and no, Willa. This being an academic discussion, I don’t think I’d do the readers any favor by censoring what I see! It’s a fact that the name and the statue appear at the same time, and I’d like to think it’s intentional. But okay, let’s save the interpretation of that for an ”MJ and religious symbolism” post!

So, in the four “foreign language songs” we’ve looked at so far, we’ve got an Esperanto-speaking worker, a Swahili-speaking lover, a Russian-speaking agent and a Brazilian-speaking mother… MJ himself, however, still sings in his native English. The foreign culture remains inaccessible and different. Interestingly, on a couple of occasions he did cross the border, so to speak. I’m of course thinking about the versions he did of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” in two of the world’s great international languages:  Spanish and French… What do you think about them?

Willa:  Well, my first reaction is that I love them – they are both exquisitely beautiful, I think. And it’s interesting for me to hear a Michael Jackson song the way non-English speakers must usually hear them – where the meaning comes not so much from the words he is singing but from the expressiveness of his voice.

Joie:  That’s an great point, Willa, one that I don’t often ponder. But it’s interesting to think about how non-English speakers perceive Michael’s music. Especially since his music is so very beloved all over the world. But you’re right that they must experience it much differently than native English speakers do.

You know I went through a similar phenomenon back in my teen years when I had a huge crush on the guys of the Puerto Rican boy band, Menudo. They would release albums in both Spanish and English, and oddly enough, I found that I really loved those Spanish speaking songs, even though my Spanish has never been all that great. To this day, I often find myself singing them.

Bjørn:  When I discovered Michael Jackson’s music as a child, I hardly understood anything he was singing. I just liked the sound of it! So I can certainly follow you there… “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” isn’t among my favorite MJ songs, but I agree it’s nice to hear him sing in Spanish (which I understand) and French (which I don’t really understand). Why did he choose this particular song, do you think? I mean, if it was to promote the Bad album in Spanish- and French-speaking countries, he could have handed the translators the song ”Bad”… (I just hear it: ¡Porque soy malo, soy malo!)

Willa:  That’s great, Bjørn! I’ll be thinking about that next time I hear, “Because I’m bad, I’m bad …”

So I don’t know why he chose “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” but it’s a beautiful song and it’s a duet – one of his few duets – and that would allow him to interact with someone while he was singing, someone fluent in Spanish or French. Maybe that’s part of why he chose this one. I don’t know about Spanish, but he did speak passable French. In fact, in the 1980s he was interviewed in French by a Montreal reporter, and he answered in French. And he loved Paris – he even named his daughter Paris. And of course he always liked to bridge boundaries, as we discussed at the beginning with Esperanto.

So thank you so much for joining us, Bjørn, and for adding a European, multilingual perspective!  We always love talking with you, and hope you’ll join us again soon.

The Groove of Your Walk, Your Talk

Willa:  This week Joie and I wanted to talk about the poetry of Michael Jackson’s lyrics, meaning the rhythmic and sound qualities of his words as well as their meaning, but we thought we needed a little professional help. Fortunately, we have an expert among us!

Bjørn Bojesen is a regular participant in the conversations here at the blogsite and the author of En Undersøgelse af Fænomenet Rim, which is currently in publication and will be available later this year. (For those of us who don’t speak Danish, I’m told that translates as A Survey of the Phenomenon of Rhyming.) Bjørn has an M.A. degree in Scandinavian studies with a focus on Nordic languages and literature, and he wrote his master’s thesis on rhyming – in fact, his master’s thesis was the basis of his book. And he helped straighten out a complicated question in the comments a few weeks ago, which was very appreciated by many of us.

Unfortunately, Joie wasn’t able to join us after all, but thank you so much for joining me, Bjørn!

Bjørn:  Thanks for inviting me to this discussion, Willa!  It’s quite an honour.

Willa:  Oh Bjørn, I am so excited and grateful to have you here! I’ve been fascinated by the poetry of Michael Jackson’s lyrics for a long time, and I’m so eager to hear your thoughts. So how did you first become interested in rhyming?

Bjørn:  Well, I’ve always had this interest in words and images. As a teenager I wrote a lot of poems, and spent hours trying to make great rhymes. During my final years at the university, I tried to find a publisher for some of my poems. When that failed, I started to think about my use of rhymes. Most modern poetry I found in bookstores had no rhymes at all. But whenever I turned on the radio, all the rappers and pop singers were rhyming, including Michael Jackson… Had the rhymes left the books only to find a new home in music? I shared my thoughts with a friend, and she agreed it would be an interesting subject for my upcoming thesis.

Willa:  That’s true, Bjørn. I hadn’t thought about those two shifts together before but you’re right – rhyming and other word play are very important elements of rap, while modern poetry almost seems to be in revolt against rhyming, or at least against regular rhyme schemes, as if they’re too constraining. And that’s interesting that you phrase that as a migration:  “Had the rhymes left the books only to find a new home in music?” It’s intriguing to think about it that way.

So this use of rhyming in music is one of the things I’d like to talk with you about. When Joie and I first started bouncing around the idea for this post, I immediately thought of a comment you posted last spring about “The Way You Make Me Feel”:

Things like the first line of TWYMMF are rhythmically and sonically brilliant:  Hey pretty baby with the high heels on…’

Here ‘hey’ rhymes with the ‘ba-‘ of ‘baby’; while ‘pretty’ and ‘baby’ sort of half-rhyme with the -y ending, which is also reflected in the i of ‘with.’ Hey,’ high’ and ‘heels’ alliterate (start with the same sound), giving the song’s opening a breathy, urgent feel. ‘High’ is like the dark echo of hey.’

I love how you focus on the sound qualities of that first line, especially since I’ve always been struck by the wonderful cadence of that line – the rocking horse rhythm of the three trochees followed by the three strong beats at the end. I don’t quite know how to express that cadence in print, but it’s kind of like this: DUM DUM-da DUM-da DUM-da DUM DUM DUM. So I was wondering if we could start by talking about this line a little more.

Bjørn:  What’s great about this line is the way the sounds contribute to the forward movement of the song. One of the prime functions of rhymes is to create suspense and relief. Let me briefly jump to another song – “She’s Out of My Life.” Had Jackson stopped singing right after “and it cuts like a knife,” it would indeed have cut like one! But fortunately he goes on to “she’s out of my life,” and we as listeners are appeased – not just because of the completion of meaning, but also because of the sonic relief provided by the rhyme knife : life. Please note the way I write rhymes with a colon, it’s a custom I’ve borrowed from German literature.

Willa:  Oh, I like that. I’ll try to use that format too.

Bjørn:  So – we’re expecting a rhyme, and after some painful seconds of waiting we’re rewarded! Now, this is the game of traditional written poetry, and of ballads written in that vein.

Willa:  In analyzing English poetry, we call that “closure” – that feeling of resolution after a period of suspense – and it’s amazing how powerful it is. When the syntax and the meter and the meaning and the rhyme all come together and coincide in a perfect conclusion, it gives a very strong sense of closure, and it just feels right to us as listeners.

A lot of modern poetry actively denies closure and thwarts that feeling of well-being it provides. And then there are poets like Emily Dickinson, for example, who like to play with it. She’ll suggest a rhyme scheme and then throw in some slant rhymes so everything just feels a little bit off somehow. It’s surprising how unsettling that can be, and how reassuring it feels when, as you said, Bjørn, “after some painful seconds of waiting we’re rewarded” with a perfect rhyme and a sense of closure. It’s interesting to think about Michael Jackson’s lyrics in terms of using rhyme to set up expectations, and hold them in suspense, and then resolve them.

Bjørn:  Yes, I agree with that! You know, the great thing about song lyrics is that they’re not something you read in a book. A song is an organic whole, and rhymes and rhyme-like figures may pop up anywhere. You’re not confined to the visual endings of lines or the blank spaces between words. When we as listeners pick “The Way You Make Me Feel” and push the Play button, we’re not expecting “poetry” in the literary sense. But then Jackson literally assaults us with a string of rhymes – on top of “rocking horse rhythms” and “strong beats,” as you so fittingly describe it, Willa! Because of the intensity of his deliverance, a lot of seemingly random sonic similarities take on the function of rhymes: You’ve got the H- H- H- rhyme (which is an alliteration, just like in Old English poetry), you’ve got the assonance or “syllable rhyme” hey : ba– in “Hey … baby” … Depending on the scrutiny of your analysis, you could even say there’s an internal rhyme in “pretty” (pree : tee).

The point is, this patchwork of sounds echoing one another creates a lot of tension and drive! The very first word, “hey,” is echoed both in “baby” and “high” (and “heels”). Furthermore, as I indicated in that comment, “high” is the dark twin of “hey.” Up to that point, we’ve been tripping on light vowels: ey – e – e – ey – e – e – (eh). “High” is like a double marker: It brings darker vowels into the game, as a well as a remarkable change in the meaning of the lyrics….

Willa:  That is so interesting, Bjørn! Especially how you say that it creates tension and drive – I hadn’t thought about it that way before. And it’s interesting to then look at the end rhymes of that first verse also. Here’s the first couplet:

Hey pretty baby with the high heels on
You give me fever like I’ve never, ever known

The end words have a slant rhyme (on : known) – a not-quite-right rhyme – and we as listeners feel that at some level of consciousness, and feel that something isn’t quite right. But as the verse progresses, we’re given the satisfying feeling of true rhymes:

You’re just a product of loveliness
I like the groove of your walk, your talk, your dress
I feel your fever from miles aroun’
I’ll pick you up in my car and we’ll paint the town

The slight unease of the slant rhyme on : known gives way to the comfort of -ness : dress and aroun’ : town. And that parallels the increasing joy he feels at getting to know this young woman – or the excitement and anticipation of getting to know her.

Bjørn: I really like what you say about the end rhymes of that strophe, Willa! After that perfect first line, on : known is a bit jarring! It’s like a sonic illustration of that “fever” he’s singing about. As he also points out in “You Rock My World,” longing and desire often bring with them a mixed sense of “happiness and pain.”

Willa:  Exactly! Getting to know someone new is exciting, but it can be unsettling as well – just like that slightly off rhyme. But then he becomes more comfortable with the idea, and that’s paralleled by the comfort of the true rhymes in those later lines.

But if we go back and look at how the first line leads into the rest of the song, I’m curious what you meant, Bjørn, when you said, “’High’ is like a double marker: It brings darker vowels into the game, as a well as a remarkable change in the meaning of the lyrics.” I see a rising sense of joy and well-being, but perhaps you see something else happening with those “darker vowels”?

Bjørn:  I definitely do! But I must warn you: When analyzing sounds it’s all too easy to get carried away! In poetry, and by extension song lyrics, a lot of beautiful or interesting patterns appear out of pure coincidence or intuition. I don’t think Michael Jackson ever thought “let’s go for darker vowels here.” But he had a great feeling for words, and the word “high” certainly works on a sonic as well as a narrative level.

I think most people would agree “Hey pretty baby” sounds pretty trivial. What do you mean by calling someone “baby”? You could say it out of pure love and affection, as it is often done. However, I also think it contains an element of belittling the other person, especially if that person is an adult. That’s where Jackson gives his “pretty baby” high heels on. In that very instant the power balance is turned upside-down! She goes from “pretty baby” to a powerful woman who looms large above him on her high heels and gives him fever! And that change coincides with the light e sounds giving way to the dark sound of “high.” I almost hear her stamping her right heel angrily at that beat! Just one tiny detail in the large tapestry of the song, but it’s a brilliant detail.

There’s some similar juggling going on in “You’re just a product …” – hey, what kind of sexism is that!  But then comes “of loveliness,” and we as listeners go straight from degrading consumerism to divinity. (And from muddy o and u sounds to the clear ee of “loveliness.”)

Willa:  That’s so interesting, Bjørn, and I love the way you highlight the sound of the lyrics and how those sounds reinforce the meaning and emotional impact of his words – though I agree it’s possible to get “carried away,” as you say. Joie and I have talked about that a number of times – about the problem of artist’s intent, and how most of the time we can’t know how deliberate an artist was when creating a work. Was it a conscious decision, or was it an intuitive sense of what worked best?  And does it matter whether it was created consciously or not?  The result is the same either way….

So I was hoping we could apply this approach to other songs as well. For example, Joie and I talked about “Tabloid Junkie” a few weeks ago, and I was struck by the sound of the words in the first verse:

Speculate to break the one you hate
Circulate the lie you confiscate
Assassinate and mutilate
It’s the hounding media, in hysteria

The dominant sound in this verse is the repeated -ate at the end of speculate, circulate, confiscate, assassinate, mutilate, and especially hate. To me, “hate” is the controlling word – it’s in a very prominent position at the end of the first line – and it just feels to me like this verse echoes with “hate,” in both sound and meaning.

Bjørn:  “Tabloid Junkie” certainly is an interesting song. It’s like a gold mine of rhymes! In the verse you mention, Michael Jackson is singing in a way that is very close to rapping. There is hardly any melody, and the beat is almost unbearably tense…. The rhymes contribute to that feeling. They follow each other so fast that there isn’t much room left to feel the sense of relief that rhymes usually provide. Instead, they evoke a feeling of claustrophobia. It’s like being stuck in an echo chamber.

Willa:  Oh, interesting! You’re right, that’s exactly how those lines feel to me – “almost unbearably tense” and claustrophobic, as you say, and the echoing rhymes are coming fast and furious, aren’t they?  But I’d never thought about what it was exactly that made those lines so unsettling. Interesting.

Bjørn:  In a book there can be several lines of text between the two halves of an end rhyme. In music, there are so many sounds that compete for our attention… Especially in rhythmic music, the rhymes have to be more immediate. Furthermore, since there are really no lines in music, only beats and breaks, rhymes between syllables are often more important than rhymes between whole words. An assonance like night : strike would ruin one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but it works just fine in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Because the important thing in the makeup of that song is the rhyme ni- : stri-.

What I want to say with all this is that Jackson understood the nature of song rhyming. He had a rapper’s ear for finding echoing syllables, and he loved cramming his lines with as many rhymes as he could. (Just think about “You give me fever like I’ve never, ever known” in the song we discussed above.) So, to your list of “hate” rhymes I’d even add the brea– of “break.” And I agree that they all somehow highlight the word “hate.” All the other words you mention are “advanced” words borrowed from Latin. “Hate” is a basic English word, and a basic notion. In the fourth line the word is even echoed by the alliteration hounding : hysteria – but now I might be stretching this too far!

Willa:  I don’t think so – I feel the alliteration of hounding : hysteria pretty strongly, and I think it does reinforce the echoing sound of “hate” in that first verse.

So I’m intrigued that you see a difference between how rhyme functions in rap and in traditional poetry. Is that primarily because, with rap, we’re usually hearing it and with traditional poetry we’re often reading it? Or is it because we approach rap as music and approach poetry as literature? Or is there some other reason?

Bjørn: The difference lies in the way the art is created. Rhyming as a device has oral origins. Many places in Africa, there are still groups of people that sing together with a “song leader” starting off and the rest of the chorus replying. This way of singing is called “call and response,” and that’s probably the origin of the end rhyme. The response is immediate, there’s no time to ponder. All the cross-rhyming schemes of poetry – from sonnets to limericks – are the result of a poet sitting in front of a piece of paper with time enough to “think twice,” to use a quote from “Billie Jean”! The composition of “paper poetry” is very often a kind of intellectual play: “Hmm, maybe I should make the 3rd line rhyme with the 7th…” Rapping – especially when improvised, as in rap battles – reaches back to the roots. It does not try to follow a preconceived scheme – instead, it’s like a celebration of words that just happen to sound similar.

Of course, as you say, we also judge it differently because it’s boxed as “music.” However, reading and (music) listening are indeed different experiences. When you read, you’ve got just the sounds of the words in front of you. You’ve got the time to wait for a rhyme that appears several lines later. In a song, the trombone, the flute, the drum solo are going to divert your attention long before that… Because of all these other sounds, rhymes in songs also don’t have to be “pure” in the same way as in written poetry (where all your focus is on the words). Just listen to the rap song “Let’s Get Retarded,” composed by Jackson’s friend, will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas. Notice how closely the rhymes follow each other, and how “slant” they look when you capture them in writing:

In this context, there’s no disrespect
So when I bust my rhyme
You break yo necks
We got 5 minutes for this to disconnect
From all intellect and let the rhythm effect

Willa: Those lyrics are fascinating, aren’t they? They actually seem to be describing the difference between composing poetry and composing lyrics, just as you described it, Bjørn. Composing a poem with a regular rhyme scheme is an act of writing words on paper, unless we go back to its ancient roots in the oral tradition, and it tends to be an intellectual exercise, while composing rap lyrics seems to be more like music improvisation – as will.i.am says, “when I bust my rhyme” he wants “to disconnect / From all intellect and let the rhythm effect.”

But I wonder if Michael Jackson somehow occupies a middle ground? He was very aware of the sound of words and generally composed his songs orally, with a tape recorder. But he was also a meticulous craftsman who wrote and revised his lyrics on paper. There are many examples of this. So he seems to have composed his lyrics with the double consciousness of a poet and a musician.

Bjørn: Yes, I agree with that! Jackson had both dimensions in mind. You see that in “Little Susie.” As was pointed out on this blog in February, Jackson took a cross-rhyming Thomas Cook verse and rewrote it as a verse rhyming in couplets (which works better with the melody). He was also aware that a melody can overrule the word accents of the spoken language. So, in the song “Free” from the Bad 25 bonus tracks, he feels indeed “Free, free like the wind blow/To fly away just like the sparrow” – and to rhyme in a way that would not have worked very well without the melody.

In “Tabloid Junkie” I think Michael Jackson made an interesting experiment which somehow bridges the gap between “improvisational rap” and “schemed poetry.” I’m thinking about the lines “They say he’s homosexual” and “She’s blonde and she’s bisexual.” They form a kind of “super-rhyme” that ties the whole song together, leading up to the final “You’re so damn disrespectable.” After so many interruptions, so many verses and musical sounds, it still works as a very strong rhyme. That says something about Jackson’s power – both as a singer and a lyricist.

Willa:  That is so interesting, Bjørn!  You’re right, those three lines are very powerful and sonically linked, especially since he abruptly stops the music and other background sounds during them, so it’s like they’re spoken to a suddenly silent room, as it were. So they do feel like they form a rhyme, even though they occur more than a minute apart. (The first one is about 1:30 minutes in, the second is at 2:50, and the third is at the very end, at 4:30.) So is that what you mean by a “super-rhyme” – a rhyme that spans the entire song?

Bjørn:  Exactly. Those were the words I was looking for, Willa! “A rhyme that spans the entire song”… I can’t think of a poetry book achieving anything similar. Usually, the “rhyme effect” disappears after a few lines. By contrasting music and silence, Jackson manages to create a rhyme spanning the largest amount of time and distractions that I’m aware of…

Willa:  That’s really interesting. So Bjørn, I was wondering if we could talk about another Michael Jackson song that, quite frankly, I’ve been kind of obsessed with lately: “You are My Life.” It doesn’t have a regular rhyme scheme, but it does use repeated sounds in a very complex way – maybe more like you were describing with rap than traditional poetry? I’m especially interested in how he uses internal vowel sounds. If we look at the first verse, we find it doesn’t rhyme, which is unusual, but it is dominated by long O sounds: alone, no one, own, lonely.

Once all alone
I was lost
In a world of strangers
No one to trust
On my own
I was lonely

These O sounds are formed at the back of the mouth, back near the throat, and they’re primal kinds of sounds. If you listen just to the sounds of this verse and don’t really think about the meaning of the words, you can still get a sense of his emotional state. It’s almost like he’s moaning:  O … O … O … O. And of course, that fits the meaning of this verse, so the texture and coloring of the word sounds help convey the meaning of the words – specifically, the sorrow he feels at being so isolated and alone, especially after the 1993 allegations hit.

Bjørn: O, that’s interesting! It reminds me of the essay “The Philosophy of Composition” by Edgar Allan Poe (1846). In this essay Poe links the O sounds to melancholia. In English, there are a lot of “O” words denoting a sense of loss, so I think that’s why Poe got the idea: old, gone, done, lore, before, forlorn, lost, loss, sorrow, mourning… Poe’s most famous poem, “The Raven,” exploits this:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door –
Only this, and nothing more.”

And we all know that Jackson liked Poe!

Willa:  Wow, Bjørn, I love that connection to Poe! And you’re right – that’s exactly the idea I was trying to get at. And that reminds me – there’s another Poe poem, “The Bells,” that ties in to this discussion really well also, I think. In “The Bells,” each stanza emphasizes a different sound to create the effect of different kinds of bells, both the sounds made by those bells as well as the emotions they evoke: the gaiety of sleigh bells, the hopeful promise of wedding bells, the sudden jerk of alarm bells, the mournful tolling of big iron bells.

And Michael Jackson does the exact same thing in “You are My Life,” with each verse dominated by a different vowel sound. Here’s the second verse:

You suddenly appeared
It was cloudy before
Now it’s all clear
You took away the fear
And you brought me 
Back to the light

So there are some rhymes, or slant rhymes, in appeared, clear, fear, me, but it’s irregular. It’s not a regular rhyme scheme like AA BB CC or AB AB CC. Importantly, the dominant sound is long E, which is pronounced at the front of the mouth and has a much brighter sound than the long O of the first verse, and again that fits the meaning of the song. In this verse, he’s talking about the birth of his children and what that’s meant to him, and how they’ve helped him deal with that dark time. There aren’t any long Os in this verse, though there is something kind of similar:  the OR sound in “before.” Interestingly, this word refers back to the first verse – “it was cloudy before” – so again, the sounds of the words reinforce their meaning.

Bjørn: You’re right that the upfront EE sound is much brighter than the various sounds represented by the letter O. Michael Jackson had been experimenting with vowel qualities from a very young age. Just think about Jackson 5 songs like “Got To Be There.” At one point he sings the word “me” so loud and clear I can’t believe my own ears: meeeeeeeeeeeeee!  In other songs, he lets other vowels “explode” too, as in “Ain’t No Sunshine” (suuuuuuuuuuun) and the much later “You are Not Alone” (alooooooooooooooooone). But still, nothing beats the clearness of the EE sound (which is usually spelt “I” in languages other than English). And in that second verse of “You are My Life” it does seem to indicate a shift in meaning (much like the “high heels” we discussed above). I think the rhymes add to that – even if they don’t follow a scheme. Rhyming can be great fun. Besides just transferring a piece of information from A to B, you allow yourself to play with the very shape of your message! So, the joy of the “you” appearing makes Jackson rhyme!

By the way, are you sure he wrote this song about his children? I always heard this as a love song from a husband to a wife… Most of the metaphors are in the singular, like the classical “You are the sun” (not “You are the suns”!) One of the first times I was listening to this song, in a moment of distraction I even misheard the recurring theme as “You are my wife”!

Willa:  That’s funny! And actually, no, now that you mention it, I’m not sure. That’s just how I’ve always thought about it – maybe because of the music box feeling, especially in the opening. It just sounds like a kid’s song to me. We need Joie – I bet she’d know something about that. But I have to admit, now I feel the urge to listen to it again as a romance and see how it feels that way…

But I love what you just said, Bjørn, that “Rhyming can be great fun. Besides just transferring a piece of information … you allow yourself to play with the very shape of your message!” I see that playfulness throughout Michael Jackson’s work – a poet’s love of words and the joy of playing with the sounds of words, as well as a very skillful use of words for both sound and meaning. For example, the second verse that we were just talking about ends with the long I sound of “light,” which leads beautifully into the chorus:

You are the sun
You make me shine
More like the stars
That twinkle at night
You are the moon
That glows in my heart
You’re my daytime 
My nighttime
My world
You are my life

The chorus is really interesting, I think. When looking at poetry and traditional song lyrics – as opposed to rap, as you described, Bjørn – we tend to focus on the sounds at the end of each line, and in the chorus that position is dominated by long I sounds:  shine, night, daytime, nighttime, and the double beat at the end, my life. To me, long I feels like a very bright sound, which again fits the meaning of the words, and there are more and more of them as the chorus progresses. The ending of the chorus is full of them: of the final 12 syllables, 8 have a long I sound.

Bjørn: Well, the English long I is essentially a diphthong or vowel glide. It starts as an “AH” sound then glides into an “E” finish. Many English-speakers are not very conscious about this, since it’s often spelt as a single letter. Spanish has a similar sound, but there it’s written so you can clearly see the two parts: ay (¡Ay, caramba!) So, as the Spanish spelling illustrates, long I is both a very dark and, as you said, a very bright sound. I hope I don’t come across as having a fetish for high heels now, but I have to drag them into the discussion once again! In the first line of “The Way You Make Me Feel,” what matters is clearly the dark quality of “high.” (It contrasts with all those bright E sounds.) He might just as well have sung Hey pretty baby with the HAH heels on. But you might be right that in this new context, it’s the finish of the “double sound” that shines…

Willa:  That is so interesting, Bjørn!  Because I see that idea of a “double sound” – and a double meaning – throughout the chorus. There are all those long I sounds but there are also some guttural, back-of-the mouth sounds (you, moon, you’re, more, glows) especially at the beginning of the line. So it’s not all light, and the lyrics reinforce this. He’s not in a place of endless sunshine – in fact, there are more nighttime than daytime images in the chorus, which is unexpected. What he seems to be saying is that he hasn’t left the darkness – the allegations are still there, and he’s still in a very dark time – but his children (or maybe a romantic partner?) have helped him see sources of light within the darkness: the moon, the stars. It’s almost like he suggests the metaphor of “the sun” (“You are the sun”) but then decides that’s not quite right – he’s not in daylight – so he revises that metaphor and says “more like the stars … the moon.”

Bjørn: I’m not sure I agree with you entirely on this, Willa. As someone very interested in religious matters, I guess MJ understood the yin-yang nature of things! There would be no light without shadows. That the lyricist is experiencing a “very dark time,” as you say, doesn’t mean that his nighttime images should be seen as a less desirable alternative to “broad daylight” (couldn’t resist quoting “Bad” here!) I remember Tom Mesereau telling how Jackson, during his trial, used to rise in the middle of the night to take a stroll underneath the stars. And as you and Joie have stressed several times (for instance in the “Best of Joy” discussion), MJ associated the moon with creativity. A modern Chinese poet (whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten!) wrote:

The dark night has given me
my dark eyes
With them I seek the light

Willa:  That’s a very good point, Bjørn. We see the moon as an emblem of creativity repeatedly in Michael Jackson’s work – for example, in Moonwalker and the Childhood video. And that suggests another layer of meaning – that he’s thankful to the “you” in this song because they’ve helped inspire his creativity.

So then the third verse is dominated by long A sounds – wake, day, face, pain – which are made toward the front of the mouth, but not as far forward as long E sounds. They’re less bright than long E but calmer, I think. And the fourth verse is dominated by short A sounds – understand, answer, am, man – which are not as far forward as long A sounds, so it’s continuing the progression of the third verse. Like the second verse, the fourth verse ends with a long I sound, leading back into the chorus.

Bjørn: Long A and short A are actually quite different sounds. Long A is a diphthong (just like long I), while short A is a single sound. Long A’s “true nature” is revealed by the way it’s spelt in the word hey! It’s like a “short E” trying to reach the “long E” (ken > cane > keen). So yes, it’s less bright. But I don’t know how to interpret the A’s of these verses. They somehow occupy a neutral position between the guttural U and O sounds and the clear EE sounds, so it’s hard to find any “symbolism” here…

Willa:  I agree that they’re kind of “a neutral position” – they feel calmer to me than the Os and EEs that came before….

Bjørn: But what’s most interesting to me is that Jackson seems to have patterned these lyrics on vowel themes rather than rhymes. That does sometimes happen in poetry, although it’s very rare! Right now all I can think of is a Danish children’s song about “Tre Små Kinesere” (Three Small Chinese). It is often sung as a “vowel game” where you’re only allowed to use one vowel at each singing. You start singing “Tra sma kanasara…,” continue with “Tre sme kenesere,” and so on.

So I guess Jackson’s playing with vowels might support your interpretation of “You are My Life” being a “kid’s song”…

Willa: There’s a similar song in English – a children’s song sung as a “vowel game,” as you said. It basically repeats the line “I like to eat, eat, eat / apples and bananas” over and over again, with a different vowel sound substituted in each time (“ay-pples and ba-nay-nays,” “ee-pples and ba-nee-nees,” …) And there does seem to be a strong sense of sound play in “You are My Life” as well.

I really see that in the bridge, which is very interesting in terms of long vowel sounds. I’ve highlighted some but not all of them:

You gave me strength when I wasn’t strong
You gave me hope when all hope was lost
You opened my eyes when I couldn’t see
Love was always here waiting for me

This progression is fascinating to me because of how these sounds are made. Here’s a diagram to help explain it:

vowel_chart

Long U is made all the way at the back of the mouth, by the throat. Long O is just before it. As you mentioned earlier, Bjørn, Long I is a diphthong – a complex sound that’s left off of most vowel diagrams. But it basically starts in the middle of the mouth and moves to the front. Long A is almost at the front of the mouth, and long E is at the very front.  And the first three lines of this verse contain a series of short, one-syllable words that run through the vowel sounds from the back of the mouth to the front, almost like playing scales:

U A E

U A E

U O I I I E

Bjørn: That’s interesting, Willa! I like the idea of “playing scales” on vowels (after all, as a vocalist, the human mouth was Michael Jackson’s most important musical instrument!) He isn’t just “tripping” on vowels here, he’s starting at the very back of the mouth and walking all the way to the front teeth… That gives these lines a very strong sense of release. It’s like both he and the listeners are allowed to take a deep breath, and then breathe out all the air!

Willa:  Oh, I hadn’t thought about it that way, Bjørn, but that’s fascinating!  I read an article a long time ago that talked about how, when we read poetry out loud, we re-create the breath of the poet. For example, the author looked at the line lengths of different poets, including Walt Whitman, and noticed that line lengths tend to get shorter as poets become older. So when we read aloud a poem from early in Walt Whitman’s career, we need to take big robust breaths of air like a young man, but when we read aloud a poem from late in his career, we tend to take the shallower, more frequent breath of an old man. In effect, Whitman directs our inhales and exhales and pauses, so we are breathing in precisely the same way he was when he wrote it more than a hundred years ago. It’s interesting to think that when we sing Michael Jackson’s songs, we are re-creating his breath also, and that he is, to some extent, directing our breath – almost breathing through us.

Bjørn: Now, that is fascinating! I’d really like to read that article. I think something similar happens when reading or listening. We all have an “inner voice” that helps us process the words. This mental voice actually has a physical influence on us – I’ve heard one of the techniques taught to achieve speed-reading consists in learning to inhibit the small muscular movements that tend to happen in our mouth and jaws whenever we read!

Willa:  Really?  Wow!  That’s interesting.

Bjørn: This is pure guesswork, but I like to think that the mere listening to a song would have an impact on our breath in one way or the other. I rarely “sing” MJ songs, but for me, a lot of them have this amazing power to change our mood and mind, and the thing you just said about re-creating his breathing pattern might be part of an explanation… (Not that I think he had divine powers, but he certainly expressed more energy and vitality than most of his contemporaries.)

Willa:  That is so interesting, Bjørn!  It’s kind of like musical meditation – after all, meditation is very focused on regulating the breath.

But getting back to the bridge, the two lines of the final couplet end with long E in a true rhyme – see : me – one of the few true rhymes in this song. Ending with a perfect couplet like this with a true rhyme is one strategy poets use to create a sense of closure, as we talked about earlier. But interestingly, Michael Jackson doesn’t end there. He returns to the chorus, singing it again and again in an increasingly urgent way.

So he gives us a brief moment of resolution in the final couplet of the bridge, but then he denies closure and emphasizes that his situation is not resolved.

Bjørn: Hm, Willa, you’ve given me some food for thought here! You’re right, there is no closure in the chorus, it’s more like a confusing sea of voices. This is something we know from other MJ songs – the reporters in the intro to “Tabloid Junkie” spring to mind. I would argue, however, that the final “You are my life” is an excellent closure to the song as a whole.

Willa:  Really? Because as a listener, I feel much calmer and more settled before the final choruses – they really get me all stirred up. That’s what I meant by denying closure, though you’re right – that final line does resolve things somewhat.

Bjørn:  Yes, imagine the state he would’ve left us in without that final line! After all, he does cater to our need for decent endings, even if he likes to stir things up a bit in the meantime.

Very well. In a blog post we have to give the readers a sense of closure too! I’d like to sum up what characterizes Michael Jackson as a lyricist:

• a keen ear for rhymes and sounds in general
• a rapper’s skill at improvisation combined with the afterthought of a poet
• a clever use of sounds to convey feelings
• a use of sounds and wordplay to entertain (and not just to transfer information)
• a love of internal rhymes

Did you know, Willa, a decade ago I was trying to translate some Michael Jackson songs to Esperanto. Those internal rhymes were quite a headache! How do you transfer “As he came in through the win-dow / it was the sound-of / a crescen-do” (“Smooth Criminal”) to another language? Or “She was more like a beauty-queen from a movie scene…” (“Billie Jean”)?

Willa:  Wow, I bet that was a challenge! How did it work out? Do you still have them? I’d love to see them!

Bjørn:  Unfortunately, I had to give up on “Smooth Criminal,” and “Billie Jean” almost got a similar fate. But then, the very day Michael Jackson was remembered at the Staples Center, I participated in a culture festival in Denmark. A teenage rock group heard of my translation attempts, and asked me to finish “Billie Jean”! So, I sat down, and tried to imagine how it would have sounded like if Michael Jackson had sung it in Esperanto. Later in the festival, I handed the band my finished translation, and after a number of rehearsals, the band was able to enter the stage, with a very young female singer, in a clear but also timid voice, belting out this:

Ŝi aspektis belec-reĝin’ de fikcia kin’
Mi pardonpetis, sed kial vi miiin nomas la li
Kies danc’ iros ek en la rond’
Ŝi diras mi estas li
Kies danc’ iros ek en la rond’
Ŝi al mi nomis sin Bili Ĝin, kaŭzo de fascin’
Ĉar nun okulis la kapoj siiin-image la li
Kies danc’ iros ek en la rond’
 
Kunuloj ĉiam diris, vin gardu en la far’
Ne rompu korojn de la knabinar’
Kaj panjo ĉiam diris, vin gardu en la am’
Vin gardu en la far’, ĉar mensogoj iĝos ver’
 
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Ŝi simple diras ke mi estas la li
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ŝi diras mi estas li
Sed la id’ ne filas min
 
Dum tago-nokta kvardek’
Helpis ŝin la leĝ’
Sed kiu daŭre kapablas kontraŭi
Ŝian planaron
Ĉar ni dancis sur la plank’, en la rond, kara!
Do mi konsilas vin tre, memoru ke pensu vi re
(Pensu re!)
 
Laŭ ŝi ni dancis ĝis horo tri
Ŝia vid’ al mi
Ŝi montris foton, karino kriis
Liaj okuloj tiel miis
Ĉu ni dancu sur la plank’, en la rond’, kara!
 
Kunuloj ĉiam diris, vin gardu en la far’
Ne rompu korojn de la knabinar’
(Ne rompu korojn)
Sed vi venis ĉi-apuden
Ekis dolĉparfumo flui
Ĉi okazis tre tro tuj
Ŝi min vokis al loĝuj’
 
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Ŝi simple diras ke mi estas la li
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ne, ne, ne, ne, ne
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Ŝi simple diras ke mi estas la li
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ne, ne
Ŝi diras mi estas li
(ho, kara)
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ŝi diras mi estas li
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ne, ne, ne
 
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Ŝi simple diras ke mi estas la li
(Vi scias kion vi faris, kara)
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ne, ne, ne, ne
Ŝi diras mi estas li
Sed la id’ ne filas min
Ŝi diras mi estas li
Vi scias kion vi faris
Ŝi diras li mia fil’
Rompas mian koron, kara!
Ŝi diras mi estas li
 
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
Bili Ĝin min ne koramas
 

Willa:  That’s wonderful, Bjørn! Thank you so much for sharing your version of “Bili Ĝin” with us, and for joining me today. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.

(“Bili Ĝin”, translation © Bjørn A. Bojesen)