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.
Willa: I recently heard from our friend Marie Plasse that she and Joe Vogel are helping Brad Sundberg organize a seminar in Boston, with special guests Brad Buxer and Michael Prince. Joe and Marie will be on hand as well.
Lisha McDuff and I had a wonderful conversation with Brad back in January of last year after his seminar in Toronto. A few weeks later, Eleanor Bowman, Veronica Bassil, and Sylvia Martin joined Lisha and me for a post about his Captain EO seminar in Orlando, Florida. Brad’s seminars include stories and sound recordings from his days working with Michael Jackson, as well as insights into his recording process.
The venue for the Boston seminar hasn’t been selected yet, but the date is Saturday, December 5, and tickets are already on sale. Here’s a link for more information, and here are a couple of posters Brad has created for the event.
Willa: One of the most intriguing features of Michael Jackson’s lyrics, I think, is the way he frequently shifts subject positions, looking at a story from one point of view, then another, and then another. This is something Joie and I have touched on a number of times – for example, in posts about “Morphine,” “Whatever Happens,” “Money,” “Threatened,” “Dirty Diana,” “Best of Joy,” “Monster,” and the Who Is It video – but we’ve never done a post that focuses specifically on his use of multiple voices. So I was very excited when Marie Plasse wrote this comment a few weeks ago:
I think that one of the most generally misunderstood or overlooked features of Michael’s art is the way he was able to occupy different characters in his lyrics and how … he expressed and explored aspects of his own psychic divisions and struggles. (It was perhaps a willful misunderstanding of this aspect of Michael’s art that precipitated, at least in part, the controversy over the lyrics of “They Don’t Care About Us.”)
This past fall I taught a full semester college-level course on Michael Jackson (“Reading the King of Pop as Cultural Text”) and one of the things the class found most surprising (but initially most difficult to do) was close-reading his lyrics and following the shifting perspectives. The complexities and the rapid shifts are really fascinating.
Marie is a professor of English at Merrimack College, and I’m very excited to talk with her about this aspect of Michael Jackson’s aesthetic that has intrigued me for so long. Thank you so much for joining me, Marie!
Marie: Thanks very much for inviting me, Willa. I’ve followed Dancing with the Elephant for a long time and have learned so much from your posts and the comments that readers send. I haven’t always had time to join in the comments as much as I would like, so I’m really happy to have this opportunity to talk with you.
Willa: Oh, so am I! And I’m so glad to finally have the chance to talk in depth about Michael Jackson’s use of multiple points of view. This is a recurring feature of his art, and a very important part of his aesthetic, I think – and personally, it’s something that has attracted me to his work for a long time. So I’m eager to find out more about how he uses it and how it functions.
Marie: I agree, Willa. Michael’s work as a lyricist is as complex as it is moving, and it’s so often overlooked as a key feature of his aesthetic. This might be because, as Joe Vogel points out in Man in the Music, Michael’s work as a songwriter is “much different from that of a traditional singer-songwriter like Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan” where the lyrics are much more “out front.” Joe goes on to suggest that Michael’s lyrics tend to get overlooked because they are only one of “several media to consider” amidst the music, short films, and dancing that are so prominently featured in his work.
But looking carefully at the lyrics on their own, and especially at their multiple points of view, reveals that Michael writes with great complexity and deep insight. I’ve gone back and reread all those posts you mentioned above in which you and Joie have talked about this quality of shifting perspectives and subject positions in Michael’s songwriting. I think you’ve already covered a lot of ground on this and opened up a lot of intriguing ideas about the possible meanings of the songs. So instead of offering my own close readings of certain lyrics, or at least before doing any of that, I thought I would try to think a bit further into this notion of multiple perspectives and voices to see where it might lead in a more general way.
Willa: OK, that sounds really interesting.
Marie: Reflecting on Michael’s use of multiple voices and shifting perspectives in his songs makes me think about his fervent interest in storytelling, which he talks about on the very first page of Moonwalk. His emphasis there is on how storytelling can move an audience and “take them anywhere emotionally” and on how it has the power to “move their souls and transform them.” He goes on to muse about “how the great writers must feel, knowing they have that power” and confesses that he has “always wanted to be able to do that.” He says he feels that he “could do it” and would like to develop his storytelling skills.
Just before this reflective section on storytelling ends and Michael swings into the beginnings of his own life story in the chapter, he mentions that songwriting uses the same skills as those of the great storytellers he admires, but in a much shorter format in which “the story is a sketch. It’s quicksilver.” Of course, we all know that by the time he wrote Moonwalk, Michael was already a masterful storyteller and his skills in this art only got better and better as time went on! He does “move [our] souls and transform them” very powerfully in his songs, short films, and performances, often using a multi-media approach that is much more complex than the traditional storytelling around the fire that he seems to admire so much as he opens the first chapter of Moonwalk.
Willa: That’s true. And I think you’ve raised a really important point in talking about how he conceptualized songwriting as storytelling. I was just reading Damien Shields’ book, Xscape Origins, and Cory Rooney talked to Damien about how important storytelling was in creating “Chicago”:
When working on the lyrics for the track, Rooney took inspiration from a conversation he’d recently had with one of Jackson’s collaborative partners – prolific songwriter Carole Bayer Sager – who urged him to write a song that tells a story. “[Michael] loves to tell a tale,” Bayer Sager told Rooney, so putting that advice into practice, Rooney went about writing a story for Jackson.
Rooney then passed that advice on to Rodney Jerkins, one of the authors of “Xscape”:
Rodney called me up and said, “Cory, we’re still confused. We don’t know what to write about. We don’t know what to do.” … So I told him, “Well, I got a little tip from Carole Bayer Sager. She told me that Michael is a storyteller. She said Michael loves to tell stories in his music. If you listen to ‘Billie Jean,’ it’s a story. If you listen to ‘Thriller,’ it’s a story. If you listen to ‘Beat It,’ it’s a story. He loves to tell a tale.”
So Carole Bayer Sager and Cory Rooney both confirm exactly what you’re saying, Marie – that Michael Jackson “loves to tell a tale.”
Marie: That’s a great connection, Willa. Thanks for reminding us about those passages in Damien’s book (which I thought was terrific, by the way. Thank you, Damien, for your wonderful work!). They really do underscore that Michael saw himself as a storyteller. And in order to have that power to move and transform an audience that he refers to in Moonwalk, a good storyteller definitely needs to be a master at crafting the point(s) of view from which the story is told, and to have the capacity to inhabit and express the experience of the story from those different perspectives (and the characters that they belong to).
Michael’s songwriting certainly displays his mastery of these essential aspects of good storytelling. As you’ve pointed out in so many different posts, he’s able to see his subject matter from many different perspectives and to shift in and out of those perspectives in interesting and meaningful ways. This is true across the full range of his work and, perhaps most interestingly, even within individual songs. He sees and he makes us see from all sorts of different angles and he occupies and places us in many different subject positions.
Willa: Yes, he really does. And often these subject positions and perspectives are ones that have rarely been considered before by mainstream culture. What I mean is, he frequently takes us inside the minds of outsiders – like the drug addict in “Morphine,” or the groupie in “Dirty Diana,” or the neighbor who has been labeled a “freak” and “weirdo” in Ghosts – and shows us the world from their perspective.
Marie: Absolutely, Willa. Clearly, 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 while we can easily agree that these features of Michael’s art are clearly those of a master storyteller, I would also venture to associate them with yet another literary tradition. Since I study and teach plays as part of my work as a literature professor, the multiple and shifting perspectives we’re talking about also make me think about what I would call Michael’s remarkably theatrical imagination. The way he tackles his subject matter through storytelling that imagines situations from different points of view and allows many different voices to speak reminds me of the special qualities of dramatic texts, where there is no single narrative voice, but rather the multiple voices of the various characters speaking directly to the reader or audience member in the theater.
Willa: Oh, that’s really interesting, Marie! It’s true that his songs often feel “theatrical” to me, and I think partly that’s because he tends to approach his songs visually, if that makes sense. For example, in Moonwalk he says,
The three videos that came out of Thriller – “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” – were all part of my original concept for the album. I was determined to present this music as visually as possible.
But I think you’re right – they also feel theatrical because they often sound like snippets of dialogue from a play, with interspersed lines spoken by different characters. I hadn’t thought about that before, but I think you’re really on to something.
Marie: What you say about his visual approach makes a lot of sense to me, Willa. I think that this visual approach to the songs in the short films is always what comes to mind first because the films have become so inextricably fused to the songs. And as we know, the songs lend themselves so well to the fully realized theatrical treatment that Michael gives them in the short films, where the different perspectives and characters in the song lyrics literally come alive in the embodied performances of the actors and the specific cinematic choices that structure the way the films are shot.
As we also know, Michael was meticulous in crafting the aesthetic and technical choices that governed his short films and live performances, working as a director rather than just the star. I remember seeing a number of comments from him on just how important camera angles – the very mechanism that creates perspective and point of view in film – were to him. I can’t recall specifically where I read this, but I seem to remember something that quoted him discussing the famous Motown 25 performance of “Billie Jean,” for example, where he explained that he designed exactly how his solo song should be presented through camera angles.
Willa: Yes, I remember reading that too. And you can actually see him controlling the camera angle in this video of the Jacksons’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At about 14:45 minutes in, he pauses in his prepared comments and says, “I don’t like that angle. I like this one” and motions to the camera straight in front of him. Here’s that clip:
Marie: That’s a great example, too, Willa! He really was determined to control the perspectives from which the television audience saw not only his performances but also his public appearances at award ceremonies.
Willa: Yes, he was! We don’t normally think of something like this as a “performance,” but he did, and he was staging and directing it even as he was participating in it.
Marie: Exactly! That’s a great way to put it, Willa. And there’s also the endearing story of how he taught his son Prince about film by watching movies with the sound turned off so they could analyze each shot visually.
Willa: Yes, I was really struck by that story also.
Marie: So the visual connection you made, Willa, falls nicely into place as one of the many things we know about Michael and his work that indicate that he thought deeply about the issue of perspective and the significance of multiple and shifting points of view, whether those were conveyed through song lyrics alone, through the complex visualizations of his songs that he created in the short films, or even in public appearances like the one at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But it seems that in all this the song lyrics themselves have not been given the full discussion that they deserve.
Willa: No, they haven’t.
Marie: Their complexity, especially their multiple perspectives, really carries a lot of significance, and I do think that they work in similar fashion to dramatic texts. In order to understand the story that a play tells, we have to follow each character’s perspective and listen to each character’s voice carefully. Unlike in conventional narrative fiction, a play text isn’t dominated by a single narrator who controls our perspective and interprets events for us. It’s through the interaction of many different perspectives and voices unfolding over time that the play delivers its message and overall effect. And since it’s set up this way, there is a certain openness to a play that leaves a lot of room for individual interpretation.
Willa: And possibly misinterpretation, as you mentioned earlier about the uproar surrounding the lyrics to “They Don’t Care about Us.” Part of the confusion was that many critics didn’t seem to realize that when Michael Jackson sang “Jew me, sue me / Everybody do me / Kick me, kike me / Don’t you black or white me,” he was adopting the subject position of a Jewish person in the first three lines, and a black person in the fourth line. Both Jews and blacks have experienced the kind of slurs he’s addressing in these lines, and through these lines he’s showing solidarity with Jews – which is the exact opposite of the intolerance he was accused of. As Michael Jackson himself said in response to the scandal:
The idea that these lyrics could be deemed objectionable is extremely hurtful to me, and misleading. The song in fact is about the pain of prejudice and hate and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems. I am the voice of the accused and the attacked. I am the voice of everyone. I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the black man, I am the white man. I am not the one who was attacking. It is about the injustices to young people and how the system can wrongfully accuse them. I am angry and outraged that I could be so misinterpreted.
So as you were saying, Marie, he adopts different personae at different moments in this song – just like the roles in a play. As he says, “I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the black man, I am the white man.” Those are the different characters in this “play.”
So if we approach this song like a play, as I think you’re suggesting, Marie, and if we consider that the lines “Jew me, sue me” and “Kick me, kike me” are being spoken by character – a Jewish character who is protesting the prejudice against him – then the scandal makes no sense. It suddenly becomes very clear that Michael Jackson is denouncing anti-Semitism, not engaging in it – just as he said.
Marie: That’s a great example, Willa, and a really great way of explaining the danger of misinterpretation that opens up when multiple voices and perspectives are put out there with no overarching narrative voice to explain what’s going on. These lyrics, like play texts, require us to navigate among all the different perspectives we’re given and to make our own decisions about how we understand the subject matter. And this navigation can be pretty tricky in something as compressed as a song where, as Michael pointed out, “the story is a sketch. It’s quicksilver.” The controversy that erupted about “They Don’t Care About Us” clearly demonstrates the great risk for misinterpretation that comes along with the “multi-vocal” mode he used to sketch the story in this song.
But of course that controversy also underscored the disappointing and misguided lack of understanding among mainstream critics of Michael’s lyrical abilities, among their other problems. They just didn’t expect and weren’t receptive to the complexity that is clearly there. Armond White’s brilliant discussion of the HIStory album in Chapters 10 and 11 of his book, Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles, addresses some of the larger issues at play in this controversy very well, connecting the critics’ misreading of the song’s lyrics to what he sees as white journalists’ habitual “denial of the complexity in Black artistry.” I think that White’s arguments about how the lyrics to “They Don’t Care About Us” work and about what drove that awful controversy are spot on.
Willa: I agree, though there may have been some corporate intrigue going on as well, as D.B. Anderson discusses in “Sony Hack Re-ignites Questions about Michael Jackson’s Banned Song.”
Marie: Yes, there’s probably a tangled web there, Willa, though from what I understand, critic Bernard Weinraub was not married to Amy Pascal, the Sony executive, until 1997, and his scathing New York Times review of “They Don’t Care About Us” appeared in 1995. Still, it appears that tensions between Michael and Sony existed even then, so it’s hard to know exactly what motivated that review.
But looking at it purely in relation to our discussion of lyrics, it seems clear that Weinraub didn’t read the so-called slurs in context and missed Michael’s intended purpose, which was to speak from the position of those being attacked. However, I also think that part of what makes those lyrics a lightning rod for the charges that Weinraub and others made is that since the words need to follow the staccato rhythm that drives the verses of the song, they are fairly elliptical, meaning that some key connecting ideas are left out in order to achieve that rhythm.
Willa: Oh, that’s an interesting point, Marie.
Marie: The lyrics in the verses of this song are really minimalist – they attempt to convey a complex set of observations and feelings in a really compressed way. In part, the compression is required by the medium: songs are short, so it wouldn’t work to go into long discourses.
But the shape of the verses and the way they spit out their words in a very truncated, staccato fashion is also part of the intended message and effect. The prejudice, hatred, oppression, and abuse that Michael rails against in the song do hit and bash, literally and metaphorically, and that’s what the pounding rhythm of these words conveys, along with Michael’s own disgust and frustration with these circumstances. The first verse sets the tone, offering a general picture of a world gone mad:
In the suite
On the news
The second verse is a bit more challenging to understand, as the first-person narrator takes on the shifting subject positions that we’ve been talking about:
You can never
You can never
Black or white me
Clearly, Michael is alluding to his own recent tribulations here in lines like “Beat me / Hate me / You can never / Break me,” “Sue me,” and “Don’t you / Black or white me.” And “thrill me,” which at first seems out of place in this string of negative action verbs (“beat,” “hate,” “kill,” “kick,” etc.), also links the speaker here very directly with Michael Jackson, in an obvious allusion to “Thriller.”
Willa: Yes, I think so too.
Marie: But while we might first associate “thrill me” with “Thriller” or with something more generally positive, as in the colloquial usage “I’m thrilled to be talking with you here, Willa,” the word “thrilled” can also refer to excitement of a more negative or scary sort, like the fear we might feel at a horror movie. And read in the context of the “will me” which precedes it, “thrill me” might well be alluding to the terror Michael felt as the force (or “will”) of his accusers, the criminal justice system, and the media pressed in on him. So Michael is packing this one word with a lot of meaning: it’s a blatant, even defiant, allusion to his own phenomenal success with “Thriller” and to his reputation as a thrilling performer, but it also falls in line with the more negative actions that are stacked up in these lyrics. All together, though, Michael can be pretty easily understood to be saying something like, “Go ahead, do your worst, but you’ll never defeat me.” That’s clear.
But beginning with “Jew me” in line 9, the point of view shifts radically, as Michael starts speaking in the voice of a Jewish person who is the target of anti-Semitic slurs, making that person speak in that same “go ahead, do your worst” mode that he used in the earlier lyric. Here, the Jewish person seems to be saying, “Go ahead, call me those awful names, but you’ll never defeat me,” very much parallel to the mode of expression that was used in the lyrics a few lines earlier.
Willa: I agree.
Marie: But again, the actual expression here is elliptical and relies on the listener to recognize the parallel. And the lyrics don’t stick with this Jewish person’s point of view for long. Michael very quickly mixes in language that seemingly shifts the point of view back to his own personal situation, with “Sue me.” Then he switches back to the perspective of the Jewish person targeted by the anti-Semitic slur with “Kike me” and quickly follows that with a return to something that would be read as more directly related to himself, “Don’t you / Black or white me.”
If a listener is not following the shifting perspectives carefully, or if they are not even aware that this technique is being used, as seems to be the case with so many critics, then it would be pretty easy to decide that there is only one narrative point of view here and that the voice of the narrator is always Michael Jackson, speaking about his own personal situation and expressing his own point of view. As an English professor, I can’t help but be frustrated at the fact that the critics were making one of the most elementary mistakes you can make when reading literature, which is to confuse the speaker of the piece with the author.
Willa: Yes, it almost seems like a willful misreading of what he was saying.
Marie: Exactly. It’s not just that these critics are bad students of literature! There were many reasons for the media’s “misreading” of these lines. By the time this song was released in 1995, the general practice of attacking and ridiculing Michael was well established, fueled by complicated social and political energies that are now finally being carefully explored by many good scholars, journalists, and bloggers.
But if we look with attention at what is actually there in the words of the lyrics, we can see that by shifting the point of view so quickly, Michael is rapidly stepping in and out of different roles with the same kind of agility that he steps in and out of the choreographed group dances in his performances. He speaks for himself and about his own specific situation, and then he puts himself in someone else’s shoes and speaks their troubles, too. The effect of all this shifting is to erase the distinction between himself and others, to express solidarity and understanding in relation to those who are oppressed in different ways, and by doing so, to define really carefully the “us” that is the subject of the song and the focus of the chorus.
Willa: Yes, that’s a beautiful way of explaining this, Marie. And this ability “to erase the distinction between himself and others,” as you say, and “express solidarity … to those who are oppressed in different ways” is made very clear in the videos for the song, especially the original video – the one that’s become known as the “prison version.”
For example, in this screen capture, we see him in handcuffs with his hand positioned like a gun and his finger to his head, as if he’s about to be shot – and on the TV screen behind him, we see a prisoner of war in handcuffs who is about to be shot. In fact, this prisoner is shot as we watch, which is shocking and horrifying. And as this is happening, Michael Jackson sings “Bang, bang / Shot dead / Everybody gone bad.” So through the lyrics and these dual images, he makes a direct and visceral connection between himself and this anonymous prisoner.
By juxtaposing numerous images such as these, he links racial injustice in the US with war in Southeast Asia and hunger in Africa and political oppression in China and urban poverty in Brazil. In other words, he isn’t simply protesting the injustices he’s facing from a racially biased criminal justice system here in the US. He’s also linking that injustice with political, economic, and military oppression around the world.
Marie: Good point, Willa, and another terrific example. I think what you’re identifying when you say that the film makes clear that the perspective offered goes beyond Michael’s personal one reflects precisely the way a particular “production” of a play script works to clarify the words on the page by actually dramatizing the situation and embodying the different perspectives from which the characters speak. The particular creative choices that a production demands typically serve to specify and clarify those “open” or ambiguous elements that a written script presents.
So while the “They Don’t Care About Us” song lyrics alone might leave room for the kind of misinterpretation you mentioned earlier, the “prison version” makes it clear that the “me” who is speaking in the second verse of the song can be generalized to encompass all those who have been oppressed by hatred and violence, as in the example from the screen capture above. What we get in the film is a clearer and visually rich version of what the song lyrics tell us in much more elliptical terms, namely that Michael deliberately identifies with these many different oppressed individuals as part of an “us,” rather than as a more distant “them.” To me, this is emblematic of the often misunderstood beauty and power of the HIStory album as a whole. Michael’s personal anger and frustration extend beyond the personal to encompass much more than that.
Willa: I agree, and that’s part of what makes him such a powerful artist, I think.
Marie: Yes, absolutely. But in the lyrics to individual songs like “They Don’t Care About Us,” all this unfolds very fast (as Michael said, songs are “quicksilver”), and without clear markers to clarify who is speaking, as one would find in an actual play text where the speeches are preceded by the speaking characters’ names. The complexity of what Michael is doing here is easy to miss if you’re not paying attention or if, as I think many of the critics were, you’re responding with a pre-ordained agenda in place.
Marie: But to move on a bit from “They Don’t Care About Us” and take this playwriting angle I’ve suggested a step further, we might say that one way to think about the multiple perspectives and voices Michael creates in his songs is to note that they are often used to set up explorations that are structured as powerful conflicts (between individuals or ideas). Conflict is a key element of the storytelling that goes on in plays (and many other forms of literature as well), and it’s one of the basic ways that these texts keep us interested. We get invested in the struggle, we want to see what the terms of it are, we might identify with a certain character within it, and we want to see what happens in the end.
Willa: Oh, absolutely – either conflicts in personal relationships, like we see in “Billie Jean” or “In the Closet” or “Whatever Happens,” or between groups of people, as in “Beat It” or “Bad.” Or an individual fighting authority, as in “Ghosts” or “This Time Around.” Or internal conflicts, as in “Will You Be There” or “Stranger in Moscow.” Or large cultural conflicts as in “Earth Song” or “Black or White” or “HIStory” or “Be Not Always” or even “Little Susie.” That’s a really important point, Marie. A lot of his songs are driven by powerful conflicts, as you say – though often in complex ways where the protagonist sympathizes with the antagonist to some degree, so it’s rarely a simple “us” versus “them” situation.
Marie: That’s a really good survey of the different kinds of conflicts Michael lays out in his songs, Willa, and I love how you can pull those titles together so quickly! It’s so much fun to talk with you about this topic! And yes, I agree that while many songs start off with clearly drawn conflicts, they end up complicating those basic oppositions, but we can see very clearly even in songs that remain starkly polarized how he evokes both sides really powerfully and is able to deftly sketch out what’s at stake in the conflict by invoking the shifting subject positions we’ve been talking about.
Willa: Yes, it’s really remarkable.
Marie: In “Scream,” for example, where it’s clear in the first part of the first verse that he’s expressing his opposition to the abuse he suffered from the press and the culture at large after the 1993 allegations (“Tired of injustice, tired of the schemes . . . as jacked as it sounds, the whole system sucks”), he follows up in the second part of the first verse with a more detailed invocation of the conflict, using the “you” pronoun in opposition to “me,” “mine,” and “I”:
You tell me I’m wrong
Then you better prove you’re right
You’re sellin’ out souls but
I care about mine
I’ve got to get stronger
And I won’t give up the fight
The rapid oscillation of the pronouns here makes me think about how spectators’ eyes move back and forth as they watch a tennis match between opposing players. The back and forth between the perspectives of the “I” and the “you” reads at first like a verbal argument (“You tell me I’m wrong / Then you better prove you’re right”), but the same opposing pronoun structure is used to ramp up the stakes of the conflict really quickly in the next couple of lines: “You’re sellin’ out souls but / I care about mine.” Now the apparent argument about who’s right or wrong takes on much larger proportions, with the “you” attached to the evil-sounding act of “sellin’ out souls” (which works both metaphorically as a way of describing terrible betrayal in economic/religious terms, and more literally in connection with the greed that was involved in the efforts to destroy Michael) and the “I” declaring how important his soul is to him and vowing to get stronger so as to keep up “the fight.” In just a few lines, the really high-stakes conflict has been sketched out for us.
Willa: It really has. And it’s made all the more intense because of the very real conflicts he was facing, conflicts that can lead us to fill in the “you” position in different ways – as referring to the media, the police, the judicial system more generally, the music industry, the insurance industry, the specific accusers, the general public, and so on. The ambiguity of that unspecified “you” lets us fill in that slot with a multitude of characters who were complicit in “selling out souls.”
Marie: That’s a great insight, Willa. I think you’re right about how that “unspecified you” works as an open slot that can be filled in with a number of different characters. And in typical Michael fashion, things get even more complicated in the chorus, where the second person “you” references shift really quickly as the lines move forward:
With such confusions
Don’t it make you wanna scream?
(Make you wanna scream)
Your bash abusin’
Victimize within the scheme
You try to cope with every lie they scrutinize
Somebody please have mercy
‘Cause I just can’t take it
Here, as in other songs, the “you” is ambiguous, and expansively so.
Willa: Yes, and I like the way you put that, Marie. It’s an “expansive” you that can stretch to encompass all of us listening to his words.
Marie: Yes, it addresses us directly and urges us to join in and identify with the speaker in his indignant question (“don’t it make you wanna scream?”) but it also sounds like he is addressing himself, as if he is suddenly on the outside looking in and asking himself about what the circumstances make him feel, just to double check on the accuracy of his feelings, or perhaps to give himself temporary relief from occupying the besieged position of “I” in this scenario. And the call and response from the background vocal that repeats “make you wanna scream” suggests yet another perspective, from a chorus that is echoing this idea, as if to confirm that yes, all this does make you wanna scream.
In the next two lines, the perspective referenced by the second-person pronoun “your” seems to shift dramatically, to those victimizers who are perpetrating all the things that make “you” and the speaker himself want to scream: “Your bash abusin’ / Victimize within the scheme.” Then in the following line, we’re back into the perspective of the previous “you” who is reacting to all this: “You try to cope with every lie they scrutinize.”
And finally, the last two lines of the chorus land squarely in the first-person, pleading, “Somebody please have mercy / ’Cause I just can’t take it,” and the rest of the chorus expands this plea into a more aggressive demand to “Stop pressurin’ me,” with the first-person objective pronoun “me” repeated eight times, once in every line, so that it’s painfully clear who is experiencing all the pressure! The effect of all this for me – the shifting perspectives described by the quick pronoun shifts – is that I feel like my head is being spun around! Trying to follow the perspectives creates for me a version of the “confusion” that the speaker is describing and makes me able to imagine just a tiny bit of what it must have felt like to be in the whirlwind of abuse that Michael went through.
Willa: That’s a great description, Marie! And maybe this “confusion” also works to complicate the distinction between the heroes and the villains. Because there are so many shifts in perspective, the “you” is accused of “bash abusin’ / Victimize within the scheme” but is also asked, “Don’t it make you wanna scream?” as you say. So maybe the villains are pressured by the system too? Maybe it makes them want to scream also? And maybe we need to look at our own complicity in the system and change our own ways also?
Marie: I like that reading very much, Willa! It goes along with the idea from the first verse where Michael says, “The whole system sucks.” So it would make sense that the villains are caught up in it in ways that are harmful to them as well, whether they admit it or not. Your point about our own complicity in the system is interesting, too. We know from songs like “Tabloid Junkie” that Michael doesn’t let us off the hook either, as he reminds us of the role we might play in the system, specifically through the consumption of tabloids: “And you don’t have to read it / And you don’t have to eat it / To buy it is to feed it . . . And you don’t go and buy it / And they won’t glorify it / To read it sanctifies it.”
Willa: Exactly. That’s a great connection, Marie.
Marie: It’s also really interesting, too, that since “Scream” was recorded as a duet with Janet, the speaker who utters “I” literally shifts as each of them sings their assigned part. Janet’s sharing the lead vocal with Michael is a solid act of support for her brother (even before she appeared with him in the short film). When she sings as “I,” she’s singing from his perspective in all the “confusion” and also joining in his opposition to it.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, and a really important point, Marie. I hadn’t thought about that before, but you’re right. And again, the ideas expressed in the lyrics are reinforced by the video, where Janet and Michael Jackson are repeatedly pictured as almost mirror images of one another, identically dressed and reflecting each other’s feelings and facial expressions. Here are some screen captures:
So unlike a play, where one actor would typically play one character while the other plays a different character – for example, where one might play the victim while the other takes on the role of victimizer – in Scream it’s like they take turns playing the same character. That’s really interesting, Marie.
Marie: Exactly, Willa. And as they take turns playing the same character, I think that what we see, particularly in Janet’s willingness and ability to take on the role of the victim in “Scream,” is a clearer, more easily understood version of what Michael does on his own in so many songs where he himself takes turns playing all the characters, as in “They Don’t Care About Us.” In Janet’s case, it’s clear that she empathizes with her brother and can understand deeply what he’s going through. She shares and can give voice to his anger and frustration, not only because she’s his sister and she loves him, but because as a famous artist she’s also in the public eye and knows what it’s like to be subject to the abuses of “the system.” (And just think, “Scream” was recorded long before the infamous 2004 Superbowl “wardrobe malfunction” that blew up into such a nightmare for Janet.)
Thinking about Janet’s role in “Scream” also reminds me of that great moment at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards when the Scream short film won the award for Best Dance Video. When she went up to accept the award with Michael, Janet appeared in a cropped t-shirt that said “Pervert 2” on the back!
Willa: I was just thinking about that! As you were describing so well how she shoulders some of his burden in “Scream” by stepping into his subject position and speaking from his perspective – “giv[ing] voice to his anger and frustration,” as you said – I suddenly flashed on her in the “Pervert 2” t-shirt. That really was a powerful act of solidarity.
Marie: I love how, by choosing to wear this shirt at such a widely viewed event, Janet performs a really cheeky extension of her identification with Michael in the song and the film, as if to say, “Well, if my brother is a pervert, then so am I!” Here’s a link to the awards telecast. Janet appears in the shirt right around 1:15.
The larger point here, though, is that Michael’s skill at incorporating different subject positions and points of view in his song lyrics allows him to convey so many complex and important messages in the space of the “quicksilver sketch” that the song medium requires. As Janet did with Michael in “Scream,” Michael is able to forge strong connections to the “others” that he invokes through the shifting points of view in many different songs. It’s not always about this same level of empathy that Janet displays in “Scream,” but it does suggest how important it is for him to present many different perspectives and voices. And it’s significant that he chooses not to just describe them in the third person (“he did this” or “she feels that”) but to speak “as if” he himself were these other individuals, as he does in “They Don’t Care About Us.”
Willa: I agree, and in doing so he immerses us as listeners in those subject positions as well – not only in “Scream” and “They Don’t Care about Us” but in many other songs also.
Marie: To me that demonstrates a remarkable spirit of openness, generosity, community, and heartfelt interest in people and situations beyond himself – all those qualities that we recognize and admire in Michael.
Willa: Yes, absolutely, and a lifelong habit of empathy that led him to reach out emotionally and try to consider a situation from many different perspectives, even perspectives in opposition to his own.
Marie: And just like Shakespeare and his contemporaries who worked so masterfully within the confines of the conventional fourteen-line, rhymed sonnet form, what he does is remarkable to me precisely because he’s working in such a compressed form with so many of its own constraints – song lyrics can’t be too long, they need to work with the musical rhythms and pitches of the song, they need to be pronounceable for the singer, in most cases they need to rhyme, etc.
And while it may sound crazy, I mean to draw the Shakespeare analogy here very deliberately. I specialize in Shakespeare, so he’s always on my mind and I can’t help but make the connection. But more importantly, I think that Michael’s lyrics are overlooked or misunderstood (as they were with “They Don’t Care About Us”) in part because people in general, and especially certain critics, are often reluctant to think of pop song lyrics as complex forms of language that spring from poetic impulses that are not that different from Shakespeare’s or those of any other venerated poet.
Willa: I agree completely – though coming from you, as a Shakespeare scholar, that means a lot!
Marie: As we’ve said, going back to the commentary I mentioned earlier from Joe Vogel, with Michael’s work there are so many other “channels” of expression to pay attention to – the music, the dance, the films, the live concerts – in short, the full spectacle that comprises the incredibly compelling pop phenomenon known as “Michael Jackson” – that the complexity of the lyrics alone is often overlooked. (And this is even putting aside the additional effects of all the controversies and tabloid distortions that played into how Michael was viewed from the mid-1980s onward.) But I also think that there’s a certain elitism that comes into play that’s connected to the divide that still persists in some people’s minds between so-called “high culture” and “low culture” or “pop culture.”
Willa: Absolutely, and it’s really curious how that line is drawn. Of course, for some critics no pop music is high culture. But even for those who concede some ground to popular music, the distinction often feels arbitrary. For example, for some reason U2 is generally regarded as high brow and the Beach Boys are not, even though the Beach Boys were much more experimental musically, incorporating complex arrangements and harmonies and pioneering new recording techniques that changed the course of music history.
That’s just an example, but my point is that the division between “high” and “low” art often doesn’t make much sense, and seems to depend more on some academic “cool” factor rather than artistic merit.
Marie: The Beach Boys example is a great one, Willa. I recently saw Love and Mercy, the new film about Brian Wilson, and learned so much from it about how complex and innovative Wilson’s music was. A lot of recent academic work has critiqued that “high/low culture” divide and there are many music and cultural critics who don’t let it stop them from taking the work of popular artists seriously. (Serious considerations of hip-hop, for example, have been under way for a long time now, as evidenced not only in the music press, but in academia, where we see specialized journals, books, courses, and even college-level majors and minors in hip-hop studies.)
But as we know, Willa, as an artist whose popularity was (and still is) unprecedented around the world, Michael was often mistakenly pigeon-holed as just an “entertainer” focused mainly on mainstream commercial success as shown in record and ticket sales, rather than being viewed as a serious artist whose keen intelligence, sharp social insight, and nuanced emotional understanding got expressed in the language of his lyrics as well as in all the other media he used.
Willa: Absolutely. You expressed my feelings exactly, Marie, though much more elegantly than I could. And it continues to mystify me how critics could have overlooked and undervalued his work for so long.
Marie: It is hard to fathom, for sure. But working on this post has made me see even more clearly that there really have been a bunch of different obstacles preventing the kind of careful consideration and appreciation of Michael’s lyrics that we’re trying to do here. And I think we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what there is to say about how Michael’s lyrics use shifting subject positions, Willa!
Willa: I agree, and thank you so much for joining me, Marie, to try to gain a better understand of all this. You’ve given me a lot to think about, and I really appreciate your insights into the “quicksilver” quality of his songwriting – of his ability to not only tell a story but sketch out a miniature drama in his songs. I’m really intrigued by that, and want to ponder that some more. Thank you for sharing your ideas!
Marie: It’s been a pleasure, Willa. Thanks again for coming up with this topic and inviting me to think about it with you!