Joie: You know, Willa, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Michael’s unreleased songs. Actually, that’s something I tend to think about a lot. And that rumored vault that is said to exist somewhere with hundreds of songs in various stages of completion. Doesn’t that thought just blow your mind? To think that that could be true?
Willa: It does, and I think it is true. Joe Vogel has conducted dozens of interviews with people who worked on those songs, and apparently there’s an intriguing variety of styles and genres – not just the many different styles we’ve seen Michael Jackson work in before, but also some country, some lullabies, even an album of classical music he composed.
Joie: Well, you know they recently announced the release of a new album, Xscape. And supposedly it’s going to be all new music that we’ve never heard before. Or, I should say music that hasn’t previously been released on a proper album, since some of us have gotten pretty good over the years at snatching songs when they’re leaked online. So since the title of this new project is called Xscape, I’m guessing there’s a good chance that song will be on the album.
Willa: Yes, I’ve heard it will be on there. In fact, if you get the two-CD set there will be two versions: the one MJ created with Rodney Jerkins before he died and one that has been “contemporized” by Jerkins.
Joie: I can’t help wondering though what some of the others might be.
Willa: Me too. I’ve been looking for an official track list but haven’t found one yet, though I’ve found several unofficial ones. I imagine they’ll release the official one soon. And apparently all of the songs on Xscape will be presented twice, with the “contemporized” versions on one CD and the source material that Michael Jackson left behind on the other. I was really happy to hear that, especially after all the controversy around Michael. In fact, I wish they would release a two-CD version of Michael that included the source material for those songs. I’d love to hear that!
Joie: I’m excited to see what they do with this new release, but thinking about the upcoming album only gives me the urge to go to my playlist of unreleased music. There are so many wonderful songs on there that may or may not ever see a proper release on a real album. But there are also a few that have finally been released, just maybe not here in the US. Or they were released as part of an anthology, like The Ultimate Collection boxed set.
One such song is “Someone Put Your Hand Out.” And I don’t think we’ve ever talked about that one before, but it is a hauntingly beautiful song that I feel Michael really pours his heart out on.
Willa: Oh, I agree. This song feels intensely personal to me. In fact, I feel kind of guilty listening to it – almost like I’m reading his diary or something.
Joie: Yes, it does feel incredibly personal, doesn’t it? Like he’s baring his soul to us. The lyrics are very simple, but so very intimate, and you get the feeling that he really is begging, as he says in the chorus:
Someone put your hand out
I’m begging for your love
‘Cause all I do is hand out
A heart that needs your love
It’s as if he’s reaching out for someone, anyone, to save him. And I always find myself wondering what it is exactly that he’s wanting to be saved or rescued from. As he says in the fourth verse, “Save me now from the path that I’m on.” What does he mean by that? What does he want to be saved from?
Listening to the song in its entirety, you get the feeling that he’s referring to the loneliness. But given the way he died, it makes you wonder if perhaps he was talking about something else. Of course, I’m a firm believer that loneliness was a major factor, or cause, of his other issues.
Willa: You’re right, Joie – he does seem to be asking for someone to both love him and save him from something. It’s not exactly clear what the problem is, but it does seem to be loneliness plus something more, as you said. He talks about that a bit in the verse that follows the chorus:
I’ve lived my life the lonely
A soul that cries of shame
With handicapped emotions
Save me now from what still remains
You know, it’s not clear who the speaker is in this song. Michael Jackson often adopted a persona in his songs, so he could be speaking in the character of a fictional person. Because this song feels so very personal, it’s tempting to assume it’s Michael Jackson himself, which we probably shouldn’t do. But if he is speaking his own true feelings in this song, then this verse is really troubling to me. Did he honestly believe he had “handicapped emotions”? Did he feel a sense of “shame” because of that – because he thought he couldn’t feel or express emotions the way he should? Is he asking someone to not only love him but teach him how to love?
Joie: Wow, Willa, that’s profound – teach him how to love. That never occurred to me, but you could be right. I believe he probably did feel as though he had “handicapped emotions.”
Willa: Really? Because I’d never considered that before. I mean, there were quite a few people making hurtful comments after the 1993 allegations came out, saying that he was a regressed 12-year-old – meaning they felt he couldn’t really relate to adults because he’d never developed psychologically beyond a 12-year-old level. And I always strongly, strongly disagreed with that. I mean, just look at the psychological complexity of his work, and how emotionally rich it is. That is not the work of a 12 year old. In fact, I would say his work reveals a rare sensitivity and maturity.
So I never accepted the idea that he had “handicapped emotions,” and I would never have dreamed he might feel that way about himself. Though again, he may be speaking in character when he says this, and not speaking as himself.
But you know, it does seem to me that almost everyone he met felt this longing to be validated by him – or more than that, to be fulfilled by him. It’s like they wanted him to fill up any empty places they felt in their lives. Everywhere he went there were all these grasping hands, not just wanting his money but wanting him. And he couldn’t fulfill all their desires – he couldn’t parcel himself out to millions of different people. And I wonder if that’s part of it – if he felt inadequate somehow because he wasn’t able to meet the emotional demands being placed on him by everyone he met.
Joie: Perhaps he felt like he was unable to express a true emotion unless it was written in a song. That’s sort of crazy to think about, isn’t it?
Willa: It is, but it makes sense. In fact, he kind of suggests that in these lyrics:
I’ll be your story hero
A serenading rhyme
I’m just needing that someone
Save me now from the path I’m on
It’s almost like he’s saying that when he engages in romance, he’s just playing a role – a role he’s performed on stage for years: “I’ll be your story hero / A serenading rhyme.” And he’s asking for someone to save him from simply acting that role and allow him to actually feel it.
You know, there’s a kind of distancing that happens when you sublimate your experiences into art. I’ve heard photographers talk about that quite a bit. If you’re a photographer and find yourself plunged in a profound cultural moment, what should you do? Should you distance yourself emotionally, look at it with a photographer’s eye, and document it? Or should you put the camera down and experience it? I can see how Michael Jackson might have encountered that dilemma also, since so much of his work comes from his own experiences – like this song, for example. It feels intensely personal, as you said earlier.
Joie: I think I see what you mean, Willa. You’re wondering if perhaps he ever asked himself that question – should I “document” this deeply personal life experience, or should I just experience and process it and keep it to myself?
Willa: Yes, that’s what I mean.
Joie: That’s an interesting question.
Willa: It is. You know, Lord Byron, the Romantic poet, was thrown into the dungeon of Chillon Castle in Switzerland for having an affair with a man from a lower social class than himself – and the class difference was an important part of why he was imprisoned. The lower classes were seen as less sophisticated and more innocent than the upper classes, so having a homosexual relationship with a lower-class man was very disturbing back then – kind of like corrupting a minor is seen today.
Anyway, I’m sure it was pretty uncomfortable being imprisoned in a dungeon, but Byron drew on his experiences for a poem, “The Prisoner of Chillon,” and I get the feeling he thought it was rather romantic for a poet to be imprisoned in a dungeon. Very Gothic. He even carved his name into one of the pillars in the dungeon to memorialize his stay. I visited there one time and saw it. So instead of seeing his imprisonment simply as a hardship, I think he saw it as good background material for his poetry.
So I’ve kind of wandered around a bit, but what I’m trying to say is that using your life experiences as source material for your art can actually change how you relate to those experiences, I think.
Joie: I agree, and I think probably most artists draw on their own personal life experiences more often than we know.
But getting back to the song, you know, not much is known about it in terms of the inspiration for it or the writing of it, except that it was originally written for the Bad album, and then reworked for the Dangerous album. It failed to make it onto either one, but it was eventually released in the UK/Europe in May of 1992 as a Pepsi exclusive cassette single to promote the Dangerous Tour. They were included in a promotional package along with a poster, a giant sticker, and a press file about the tour. It was also released in Japan as a CD single.
Years later it would finally see a proper US release when it was included on The Ultimate Collection boxed set in 2004. And according to Chris Cadman and Craig Halstead’s book, Michael Jackson: For the Record, it was sampled by Ludacris on the track “One More Drink” from his Theater of the Mind album.
Willa: That’s interesting, Joie. I knew it was on the shortlist for Dangerous and then was left off, but didn’t know it was originally written for Bad. So he was still fairly young when he wrote it … I wonder if his feelings changed as he got older?
You know, one thing that strikes me about this song is that the intro is spoken in a deep voice – quiet but deep, much lower than we’re used to hearing his voice – but then the rest is sung in a high voice, what many people would call falsetto. That’s very unusual. Typically, he’ll include high parts as accents, or to evoke a specific emotion at a certain point in the narrative. I’m thinking specifically of that high interlude in “Smooth Criminal” – the “I don’t know … I don’t know … I don’t know why” part that I love so much. But here, the entire song is sung in his higher range. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another song where he does that.
I was reading an interesting article not too long ago that might help explain this – why he uses his high voice so extensively here. It’s “The Nonsensical Truth of the Falsetto Voice: Listening to Sigur Rós” by Edward D. Miller, and he makes a number of intriguing claims. For example, he says “soul/funk singers such as Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and Curtis Mayfield sang in falsetto and expressed emotions of love, longing, sexual desire, and political discontent.” He goes on to say that male soul and R&B singers, as well “virile” rock singers like Mick Jagger and Robert Plant, tend to use falsetto, specifically, when they want to express a sense of “longing” or “a dramatic tenderness” or “moments of great passion.”
If that’s true, it makes sense that in a song where the main character expresses intense “longing” for someone to love, Michael Jackson would sing in falsetto.
Joie: Hmm. That’s interesting, isn’t it?
Willa: It is. It also makes me wonder about the contrast between his unusually low spoken voice in the intro and his high singing voice throughout the rest of the song. I wonder if, at some level, it suggests a contrast between his inner life and outer life.
What I mean is that in the intro we hear his everyday world – his spoken life – and he speaks with a normal voice and seems content. (And sounds unbelievably hot, I might add … Yow.) But then we enter his inner world – his singing life – and there’s this high urgent voice expressing unfulfilled desire, a longing to love and be loved. So maybe this contrast between his low spoken voice and his high singing voice represents a disparity between how he feels inside and how he appears to others. As he sings in the opening lines, “I live this life pretending / I can bear this hurt deep inside.”
Joie: That actually makes a lot of sense, Willa. Especially since by many accounts from those closest to him, his natural, everyday speaking voice was at least an octave or two lower than the world seemed to think it was.
Willa: That’s interesting, Joie, especially since many critics – male critics, especially – mocked him for his public speaking voice. Miller kind of suggests a reason for that also. In his article, he claims there is nothing “false” about the falsetto. He believes the notion that it is not an authentic male voice arises from cultural ideas about gender identity, not anything biological about male vocal cords. As he says in his article,
when the male is using this range, he is confusing gender distinctions. He is entering into tonalities usually designated for women and mimicking a range attributed to women. But the falsettist is not authentically female. It is a form of drag: a vocal masquerade. In this way, the falsetto voice challenges the authenticity of gender-assigned voices. When voices are so strictly assigned to particular bodies, the falsetto becomes transgendered – it moves between binaries of male and female.
I thought this might help explain some of the discomfort male critics, especially, seemed to feel toward Michael Jackson – that it wasn’t just his appearance that crossed boundaries, but his voice as well.
But then Miller undercuts this with a very odd footnote:
One is duty bound from the get-go to acknowledge Michael Jackson. He uses his falsetto range expertly in often a hiccupping fashion, and yes he does appear to be quite bizarre – of course for complicated reasons, mainstream media searches for ways to display his racial/sexual weirdness and to ensure that his status is as monstrous as his role in the video Thriller.
I don’t quite know how to interpret this. It’s Miller’s only footnote, and his only mention of Michael Jackson, and it seems really out of place here – especially in an academic article. It’s almost like Miller is criticizing those who are uncomfortable with falsetto voices, claiming they are falling victim to a cultural bias, but then he adds this footnote that suggests he himself feels a degree of discomfort with Michael Jackson, whom he acknowledges “uses his falsetto range expertly.” I don’t quite know what to make of it, though I think his comment about the media is pretty insightful – especially since this article was published in 2003, before Michael Jackson died and public attitudes about him began to soften and change.
Joie: Well, that is strange. But when reading the first quote here, the only thing that comes to my mind is why is it such a big deal? Why is it odd or “confusing gender distinctions” for a male singer to take full advantage of his entire vocal range? Why does it have to be a case of “entering tonalities usually designated for women”? Especially since so many male singers use the falsetto so often. You would think it would no longer be looked at as “mimicking a range attributed to women,” but simply as part of the natural male vocal range. You know, sometimes I honestly believe that some people think about things too much. Do you know what I mean?
Willa: Ha! That’s funny, Joie. You’re right, academics do tend to think about things a lot, and maybe read too much into things sometimes. But except for that unfortunate footnote, I think Miller is really onto something when he talks about the gendering of voices – and he means that in an expansive way, encompassing all the things we’re taught about what it means to be masculine or be feminine. As he says,
In most cultural understandings of the voice, high notes signify passion and evoke drama and excitement for the listener. The falsetto voice does not mimic the female one, but it grants an expressivity to male singers, allowing them to articulate and communicate a frenzy of precise emotions to the auditor. If this is confusing to gender normatives, it is because the male is taught restraint. Thus he must move beyond his “real” voice to his “false” one to express real emotion.
I was really intrigued by this. If I’m interpreting this correctly, that high voice that Michael Jackson uses so beautifully to evoke intense emotions may be seen as feminine not only because it’s so high but precisely because it’s so emotional, and because we as a culture are uncomfortable with emotional men. As Miller says, “the male is taught restraint.”
This puts male singers in a bind since one of the primary goals of singing is to express emotion. But to do that, they have to enter the realm of the feminine – what we falsely call feminine – both vocally and emotionally.
And that reminds me again of the line from “Someone Put Your Hand Out” about “handicapped emotions.” How ironic that Michael Jackson may have felt a sense of “shame” because he thought he wasn’t emotional enough, or fully capable of emotions, when perhaps he was actually perceived – and criticized – for being too emotional. Or that he may have thought he couldn’t express his emotions fully enough, when few people could express their emotions half as well as he did.
Joie: That is interesting. But it’s sort of like when you hear artists – and Michael was one of them – who say that they are extremely introverted, especially in one-on-one situations, and yet they feel perfectly comfortable getting on stage in front of millions. He expressed a wealth of emotions so freely and so well when it was in song or on stage or on a video. But this extremely personal song is telling us that he feels his emotions are “handicapped.” It’s an interesting paradox.
Willa: It is and, Joie, I think you’ve put your finger on something really important. It’s like he says in Moonwalk: “The things I share with millions of people aren’t the sort of things you share with one.”
Joie: You know, Willa … you might think I’m crazy for what I’m about to say here, but this song reminds me quite a bit of another deeply personal Michael Jackson song – “Stranger In Moscow.” They have a very similar feel to them, and they evoke a similar emotion in me. I mean, think about the chorus from each song:
Someone put your hand out
I’m begging for your love
‘Cause all I do is hand out
A heart that needs your love
How does it feel (How does it feel)
How does it feel
How does it feel
When you’re alone
And you’re cold inside
To me, both of these songs are about the same thing. They both suggest that he almost felt trapped by this crushing sense of “aloneness,” if that makes any sense. They’re both so forlorn, do you know what I mean?
Willa: Wow, Joie, that’s interesting because these songs seem very different to me. Hmmm … I’m going to have to think about that … I see what you mean that they’re both about isolation and loneliness, but why do they feel so different to me?
I wonder if it gets back to that idea of public and private that we were talking about earlier. To me, “Someone Put Your Hand Out” is talking about his private life, and how he would like to have someone share his inner life with him. But to me, “Stranger in Moscow” is about something a little different – about his “swift and sudden fall from grace” and what it feels like to be a social outcast.
But that’s not quite right, because “Stranger in Moscow” then asks us to imagine “how does it feel” to be in that situation, to be a social pariah. As you quoted from the chorus, “How does it feel / When you’re alone / And you’re cold inside?” So he’s merging the public and private and asking us to imagine what his private life was like after his public life fell to ruins. So yeah, Joie, I think I see what you’re saying. That’s really interesting. I don’t think I would have put those two together on my own.
Joie: I don’t know that I ever would have either if I hadn’t been thinking about how the song made me feel, but it’s an interesting comparison, I think. And it brings to mind your earlier question when you said that you wonder if his feelings changed as he got older. I know there were different and pretty serious circumstances going on at the time he wrote “Stranger In Moscow,” but just from the feeling of the two songs I would say the answer to that question was no.
Willa: Well, you’re right, Joie – his circumstances changed a lot. I mean, if he felt isolated in the 1980s when he wrote “Someone Put Your Hand Out,” imagine how he felt in the 1990s after the scandal broke. So I’m sure that in some ways his feelings of loneliness actually intensified.
But you know, in other ways the scandals seemed to make him a lot stronger, even more determined and sure of himself. So I wonder if he would still talk about the “shame” of “handicapped emotions” toward the end of his life? Judging from his work I don’t think so, but it’s hard to say. And it’s hard to know if he was even talking about himself in “Someone Put Your Hand Out,” or speaking in character. And it’s hard to know how much might have been attributable to the specific circumstances he was in.
Joie: That’s very true. But whatever motivated him to write this incredibly beautiful, intensely personal song, I’m grateful that he chose to share it with the world because it’s always been one of my favorites.