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Monster, He’s a Monster

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

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

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

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

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

Willa: And it’s a really good question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then Eleanor wrote this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So “Monster” begins with these lines:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monster
He’s a monster
He’s an animal

Monster
He’s a monster
He’s an animal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then this section is followed by a heartbreaking bridge:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Summer Rewind 2013, Week 7: Best of Joy

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

We are Forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Are Forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posthumous Releases: What Would Michael Do?

Joie:  You know, Willa, a few weeks ago when you and I were joined by Lisha McDuff and we talked about Michael’s artistry, that post set off a sort of firestorm in the comments section about unreleased music and whether or not it should be released on future posthumous albums. And I was really struck by all of the differing opinions from the fans on this issue.

I think, for the most part, there is a consensus among the fans that they do want to hear this unreleased music. It’s sort of the only thing we have left now that Michael is gone – the unfinished projects he was working on when he left us. And most of the fans want to hear it. But, what surprised me was realizing how many of them felt that the music shouldn’t be trifled with. Several readers commented that they would rather have the music released “as is” than have another producer go into the studio and finish it, and I have to say that I think I agree with them.

Destiny, one of our readers, left this comment:

“Just leave it as is, maybe figuring out how to group it together to sell. As for finished products, I have no problem with those being released, again, just as Michael left them. For me, and this is just a personal opinion, I can’t imagine other producers getting their hands in the mix of Michael’s music without his direction. It sort of makes it LESS of a Michael Jackson song to me. Still, I do want to hear them and any demos he may have left or also him just goofing around in the booth.”  

Willa:  I really see what Destiny is saying, and I agree that I would love to hear his unreleased songs “just as Michael left them.”

Joie:  I think Destiny’s comment probably mirrors the sentiments of most fans on this issue. Joe Vogel actually said something similar to me during my interview with him for MJFC:

“I absolutely think this material should be released, and will [be released] over time. It would be a shame for it to gather dust when there is so much outstanding music and so many people that want to hear it. Plus, just from a historical standpoint, it is important. I just hope the demos are released along with whatever remixes are made.”

So there seems to be a real concern among the fans that the unreleased music stay “pure,” so to speak, and get released just the way Michael left them.

Willa:  Though Joe’s position seems to be a little different than Destiny’s. While he wants to hear these songs just as they are, he seems to be ok with other artists working with and building on the unreleased songs. As he said, “I just hope the demos are released along with whatever remixes are made.” So he wants both, and that’s pretty close to how I feel about this too. I think it’s fine to let other musicians create remixes – that’s one of the ways Michael Jackson’s work will be kept alive and vibrant. But I also want to hear the unmediated versions, and I think it’s crucially important that we have a clear understanding of which parts came from Michael Jackson himself and which parts were added or altered by others.

Joie:  Oh, I agree with you completely on that point. It is very important to know which parts came from Michael and which parts were added or altered by others. But I’m not certain that Joe was saying he’s ok with other artists finishing Michael’s work, or if he was simply acknowledging that this would likely be the case for any future material released. That’s how I look at it – it’s probably inevitable that this will be the case.

Willa:  That’s a good point, Joie. I hadn’t thought about it that way. So I guess I should say that, just speaking for myself, I enjoy hearing new interpretations of his songs, like Will.i.am’s remix of “The Girl is Mine” on the Thriller 25 album, and Akon’s remix of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.'” Of course, that’s a different situation because Michael Jackson was able to sign off on them before they were released, but my point is that new interpretations of his work can actually help bring the original versions of his songs back to life by helping us hear them in a new way, and maybe lead us to a deeper appreciation for his words and music.

For example, we’ve all heard the National Anthem played hundreds of times – so many times we probably tune it out a bit when we hear it now, simply because it is so familiar. But here’s a clip of Marvin Gaye singing the National Anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star game:

This was radical at the time. NPR ran a story about it 20 years later, and Isiah Thomas, who was one of the players standing on the court when he sang, said it was so different from anything any of them had heard before that they didn’t know how to respond.  As Thomas says,

“We were looking at each other, and almost looking for reassurance – is this ok that we move to the anthem? … Because when he started singing, he went to rocking, and I looked down at the other side of the floor and the players were swaying back and forth. And we started swaying back and forth, and then everybody in the stands started swaying back and forth. If you want to use a church term, it was like you had the Holy Ghost. It just got in you, and you couldn’t help but move.”

As Isiah Thomas says, Marvin Gaye’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” just moves you, and it’s such a new and fresh interpretation that it reinvigorates it so that you really listen to it and hear the emotion of the words and the music. I love it. And that’s what I was talking about when I said that allowing new artists to create their interpretations of Michael Jackson’s music will keep it alive and vibrant.

Joie:  I don’t know, Willa. I think I disagree with you here. You know, my Dad was a big basketball fan so, I actually remember watching the start of that game and witnessing Marvin Gaye during that performance, and I have to say that I feel the same way about it now as I did then. I was only 14 years old at the time but, to me, it just felt wrong. I love Marvin Gaye, but I’ve also always had a great respect for our National Anthem so, while I agree that the arrangement of the music in his rendition of the song did make me want to “sway back and forth” and bop my head a little, I didn’t like this version at all.

Willa:  Really? That’s so surprising to me.

Joie:  In fact, I found it slightly disrespectful, and I think that’s what Isiah Thomas was referring to when he asked, ‘Is this ok that we move to the anthem?’ I believe, on some level, he must have felt it a little disrespectful too.

On the other hand, I find the Whitney Houston version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” incredibly moving and fresh, as you say, and it totally enraptures you and enables you to really listen to the words and feel the emotion and intensity of the song. Her version, which she performed in 1991 at Super Bowl XXV, came at a time of extreme stress for our country. We were in the middle of the Gulf War and I think her more traditional rendition of our National Anthem really worked to pull the country together at a time when we really needed it. This is what she had to say about performing the song that day:

“If you were there, you could feel the intensity. You know, we were in the Gulf War at the time. It was an intense time for our country. A lot of our daughters and sons were overseas fighting. I could see … in the stadium, I could see the fear, the hope, the intensity, the prayers going up, you know, and I just felt like this is the moment. And it was hope … we needed hope, you know, to bring our babies home and that’s what it was about for me, that’s what I felt when I sang that song, and the overwhelming love coming out of the stands was incredible.”

Her version is so emotional and moving to me because she was really feeling all those intense emotions coming from the crowd as she sang it. I just don’t feel anything when I listen to the Marvin Gaye version; it feels hollow and empty to me. Just another R&B song … he could be singing about anything – it doesn’t feel like the National Anthem to me.

Willa:  Really? I’m shocked that we feel so differently. I like Whitney Houston’s version – she had an amazing voice – but Marvin Gaye’s is such a beautiful reinterpretation. You know, the story told by the National Anthem is of soldiers and sailors fighting to gain independence from England, and the rockets and bombs continued flying during the night and they weren’t really sure what the outcome of that was. So during those still morning hours just before dawn, they’re waiting to see if they were defeated or if the flag of the fledgling republic still flies. That’s the setting for what’s happening.

Most versions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” tend to emphasize “the rockets’ red glare” and that aspect of the song. But Marvin Gaye’s version softens the militarism of all those “bombs bursting in air,” and it puts me in this quiet place where I can really feel the stillness of “the twilight’s last gleaming” and those pre-dawn moments before “the dawn’s early light.” It brings out aspects of the National Anthem that I never really noticed before, and I love that. As Isiah Thomas suggests, it’s more of a reverent church-like feel than the somewhat militaristic versions we often hear.

Joie:  That is interesting, because I don’t find it reverent at all; just the opposite actually. But, I think this is the problem that arises when we talk about letting others remix – or finish –  the music that someone else started; it is always going to come down to personal feelings and preferences. For example, you mentioned the remixes on Thriller 25. Personally, I love Will.i.am’s remix of “The Girl is Mine,” but I find Akon’s remix of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” a little annoying and slightly disrespectful to the original song.

Willa:  Really? That’s so interesting to me because I don’t find it annoying or disrespectful at all. What do you think of Shinehead’s reggae version of “Billie Jean”?

Joie:  I actually really like it, Willa. But there are a lot of MJ covers out there that I absolutely love. Like Alien Ant Farm’s cover of “Smooth Criminal,” for example, and Fall Out Boy’s version of “Beat It.”  Of course both of those were really commercially successful and got quite a bit of airplay and attention. But there are also covers out there by much lesser-known bands that are just as interesting and enjoyable. We featured a few of them on the MJFC website, like the British extreme rock band, Xerath’s cover of “Speed Demon,” or Boston-based Bad Rabbits’ cover of Human Nature.  I love both of those! But, again, I think it’s just a matter of personal preference.

Willa:  Heavens, Joie. It always amazes me how much Michael Jackson knowledge you have at your fingertips. It’s very humbling. I hadn’t heard any of those, but I have heard the Glee covers, and especially love their version of “Smooth Criminal.” The cellos and dueling/overlapping male and female voices work really well, I think.

Joie:  Yeah, the MJ Tribute episode of Glee was great. But, I also think covers are a completely different animal than what we are talking about here, which is allowing other artists and producers to go into a studio and complete a song that another artist was working on before his death. I think it’s like talking about apples vs. oranges – they are two completely different things.

Willa:  That’s a really good point, Joie. They are different in that, with a cover or remix of a song released by Michael Jackson himself, we have a standard to compare everything to, and we know what his vision was and what he wanted to express because we have his version and can listen to it and compare it with the remix version.

Joie:  Exactly.

Willa:  But when another artist completes a song he left unfinished, we don’t have that. I have tremendous respect for Michael Jackson as an artist, and I always want to know what his vision was. And this is especially important with his unreleased songs, where we don’t have a standard to reference.

For example, I really like the Michael album and listen to it a lot, but I find it disconcerting that I don’t know for sure how much is his vision, and how much is the vision of those who worked on those songs after he died. In “Exclusive: Inside Michael Jackson’s ‘Hollywood'”, Joe provides some really interesting background information about the provenance of “Hollywood Tonight,” and it’s very unsettling, I think, just how much the mood and meaning of that song shifted during final production.

According to Joe’s article, the bridge Michael Jackson wrote for this song is pretty dark:

She doesn’t even have a ticket
She doesn’t even have a way back home
She’s lost and she’s alone
There’s no place for her to go
She is young and she is cold
Just like her father told her so

The take-away image we have of the main character is an idealistic girl following her dreams and running into trouble: “She’s lost and she’s alone.” But the bridge Teddy Riley wrote – the bridge used on the Michael album – is much lighter, more idealistic, and less realistic. She achieves her dreams against all odds, though they may not be as fulfilling she’d imagined they’d be:

She gave up her life to follow her dreams
Left behind everything for the movie scene
Nothing more she could want
She was determined to follow her plan
She wanted Hollywood
She wanted it bad
 
Now  that she got her dream, she became a star
It all looked so good, but only good from afar
Imprisoned in every paparazzi’s camera
Every guy wished they could
Now it’s back to reality for Miss Hollywood

This is very different from what Michael Jackson wrote. As Teddy Riley told Joe, “With the bridge we kind of made her succeed. … [She] completed her mission.”

I have a lot of respect for Teddy Riley. I love the work he did with Michael Jackson on so many great songs and albums in the past. I understand that on the Michael album he was working under very difficult circumstances, and I sincerely believe he was guided by the best possible motives – he was trying to do the best he could to preserve the legacy of a person he genuinely loved and admired. I really don’t want to criticize the work he did on “Hollywood Tonight.” But intentionally or not, he completely reversed the meaning of this song.

For example, I keep imagining a talented young dancer, full of dreams and thinking about running off to Hollywood. I think this idealistic young person was probably Michael Jackson’s intended audience for this song. And I think his message to her, especially in that haunting bridge he wrote, is Don’t go. If those are your dreams, then work hard to achieve them, but don’t run away from home expecting to be an overnight success. Don’t give up your safety net. Don’t let your dreams put you at risk – and running off to Hollywood is an enormous risk. Young runaways in Hollywood are much more likely to become prostitutes than movie stars.

But the message of “Hollywood Tonight” as it appears on the Michael album is just the opposite. She left her family and her safety net behind – “She gave up her life to follow her dream” – and it was really hard and a huge risk, but she succeeded – and maybe if you’re willing to take the risk, you can too. Her success is somewhat hollow but still, “she got her dream, she became a star,” and now she’s “Miss Hollywood.”

Joie:  You know, Willa, I agree with you completely on this. I think the demo version of this song is probably much closer to what Michael had in mind. In the demo version, he sings these lyrics in the second verse:

West-bound Greyhound
To Tinseltown, to pursue her movie star dreams
She’s givin’ hot tricks to men, just to get in
She’s taught that that’s not clean
She’s only fifteen

That “she’s only fifteen” line was very important to him; I remember reading somewhere that when he first began writing the song, the focus was to point out that she was a 15-year-old runaway and the pitfalls she could find herself in. In fact, in the album’s liner notes, there is a picture of the Beverly Hills Hotel stationary that Michael used to jot down a quick sketch of the song; it’s written in his handwriting and everything. It reads:

Story”  Girl, run away, age 15. She dreams of fame, riches, the illusion of superstardom. Her mission is to make it in Hollywood. The obstacles she undertakes are unbearable but she leaves, against her parent’s will. A true story. Based on truth.

So, it was important to him to show that dark side of this story – perhaps to make the song a warning to all young kids. Yet, in the version that appeared on the Michael album, they removed that line completely and, in doing so, changed the entire tone and feel of the song from what Michael had intended.

Willa:  Wow, Joie, that handwritten outline in the liner notes really brings it all home, doesn’t it? And those lyrics you quoted … oh my God – what a cruel situation. I love teenagers’ idealism and optimism – it’s one of the things I enjoy most about kids that age – but their idealism and optimism are precisely what put them at such risk. Just thinking about a talented, idealistic 15-year-old dancer “giving hot tricks to men, just to get in” is so horrifying to me. What a horrible, soul-crushing situation for her to be in. And this is a true story. You hear murmurings about it all the time. Just read about Marilyn Monroe’s life. She was an idealistic young girl who did what she had to do to succeed, and you just feel for her.

You know, we’re very reluctant to look at ugly things. It’s much more pleasant to hear an uplifting song about an idealistic girl who risks everything and succeeds, like Teddy Riley’s version of “Hollywood Tonight,” rather than a somber cautionary tale about an idealistic girl who puts herself at risk and is abused. But Michael Jackson’s power as an artist comes in large part from his honesty, from his determination to show us the painful side of life as well as the beautiful, and his insistence that we face problems squarely and realistically.

Joie:  That’s very true, Willa. He was never one to shy away from ugly situations. Instead, he forced us to look at some really dark, unsettling truths – both in the world and in ourselves.

Willa:  He really did. Just think about “Little Susie,” or “Money,” or “Morphine,” or “They Don’t Care about Us.”

Joie:  Oh, there are lots of other examples too. Like “Why You Wanna Trip on Me,” “Shout,” or the unreleased “Do You Know Where Your Children Are.” But, getting back to what we were saying before about Joe’s suggestion of having the unreleased songs presented sort of “as is” alongside the finished versions. I think it would be a really interesting concept. You know, “The Way You Love Me” was finished and included on the Michael album. But it was also released “as is” back in 2004 on The Ultimate Collection box set, and it’s really interesting for me to listen to the two versions side by side. I think an entire album of the finished versions next to the demo versions would be fascinating to hear.

Willa:  It really would, along with any notes or other indicators of what his vision was. As Lisha said when you asked her about this several weeks ago,

“I can’t say strongly enough how important it is to preserve and archive everything EXACTLY as Michael left it, including things that were meant for the trash can. Future musicologists will need to have access to all of this. As long as that is done first, I hope the Estate releases everything that has any commercial value at all. It won’t be the exquisitely crafted works of art that Michael created no matter who does the final production work, but it will be a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a genius and his creative process. I would love to be able to hear every last bit of it, even whole albums of snippets and unfinished songs. I think most artists would die for something as good as what Michael Jackson throws away!”

Joie:  Yes! I really loved that quote and I couldn’t agree with her more. I think an entire album of just snippets and unfinished songs would be incredibly fascinating to hear. And even just Michael “goofing around in the [vocal] booth,” as Destiny mentioned in her comment that I quoted above. That would be an amazing gift to the fans! Like the small bit of Michael on the phone, indicating what he wanted to do with “The Way You Love Me” that appears at the start of the song on the Michael album. That was great.

Willa:  I liked that too, and I agree – an album of unfinished songs, exactly as he left them, would be fascinating. But that doesn’t mean I want to throw the brakes on other artists creating their interpretations of his work. Not at all. I want to hear both – the songs “just as Michael left them” as Destiny wrote, as well as other artists’ remixes of those songs. I just think it’s crucially important that everything be clearly labeled so we know what exactly came from Michael Jackson himself, and what came from other artists trying to complete his work.

And, getting back to “Hollywood Tonight” for just a minute – I’m afraid it sounded like I was slamming Teddy Riley, and I don’t mean to do that, not at all. I just think it needs to be made clear that his version expresses his vision, and not necessarily Michael Jackson’s. And I think it’s very important that all future releases be carefully labeled so we know the provenance each song.

Joie:  I agree completely. And as I said before, I really think using other artists and producers to complete the work he left unfinished is probably a forgone conclusion. I really can’t see any other way around it. And I agree with you that it’s not an altogether bad idea. Like you, I also love the Michael album and I am grateful to the Estate for releasing it – even with all the controversy over the Cascio tracks. As I said before, I truly feel like it’s all we have left now … the music. Both the amazing catalog of music Michael has already given us, as well as all the material he left behind unfinished when he died. And I think it would be such a shame – not to mention just a huge crime against art and beauty and love – if all that work just sat in a vault somewhere gathering dust when there are so many people out there who loved him and would give just about anything to hear it.

One More Look at One More Chance

Joie:  So, you know how sometimes you get this idea in your head about something and your mind is made up. But then you stumble upon new information and suddenly that thing you were so certain about just takes on brand new meaning? Well, that’s what happened to me and my view of Michael Jackson’s One More Chance video.

This time
Gonna do my best to make it right.
Can’t go on without you by my side.
 
Shelter
Come and rescue me out of this storm
Get out of this cold, I need someone.
 
(If you see her)
Tell her this for me:
All I need is
One more chance at love….

This R. Kelly ballad is a really beautiful song sung to perfection by Michael, and when it was released on 2003’s Number Ones, I loved it instantly. And after Michael died and the Estate announced that they would be including the long-lost video for this song on the much anticipated Vision box set, I was ecstatic that we would finally get the chance to see Michael’s last short film.
 
But once the video collection was released and I eagerly sat down to devour it, my excitement was short lived. I have to admit, I did not love the video. I didn’t even like it. Not even a little bit. Where was Michael? The setting was gorgeous and romantic, the premise – with the audience on the stage – was unusual and intriguing, the song was beautiful and one of my favorites. But where was Michael in the video? It was all seemingly shot either totally from behind him or at really weird angles, his face – and therefore, his amazingly expressive eyes that I love – completely hidden from view. And in fact, the video even sparked some debate at MJFC as to whether it was even Michael at all. Perhaps it was merely a body double, a really good MJ impersonator! I was so disappointed. Just between you and me… I often get into my comfy sweats, fire up the DVD player and snuggle in with my Vision box set when I have a free afternoon. But honestly, the One More Chance video was one that I would frequently skip over.
 
And then recently I stumbled upon an article published just after the Vision box set was released in November of 2010. The article was written by journalist Charles Thomson and titled, “One More Chance: The Dream That Turned into a Nightmare.” Now I have to make a confession here:  this article actually came across my inbox shortly after it was published but, things have a way of getting very busy for me with MJFC and my everyday life (and now I’m dancing with elephants too!) so, I set it aside with the intentions of reading it later. Well, “later” turned into much later and, I’m ashamed to say, I just recently found it sitting in my “To Do” folder. So I took a few moments and read it. And boy…. did it change EVERYTHING!
 
In writing this article, Charles Thomson researched the video thoroughly, speaking to Michael’s publicist and his manager at the time as well as several of the crew members and extras who worked on the video, and in doing so, he gives us a peek into where Michael Jackson’s life was at the time this video was created. And it is that context, that knowledge that puts this entire video in a whole new light for me. I look at the video with new eyes now and, whereas before it really held no connection for me at all, now I have such an emotional attachment to this video and it holds so much meaning for me.

Willa:  That is so interesting, Joie. My initial response to the One More Chance video was much more positive than yours, though I know what you mean about “where’s Michael?” And my response to Thomson’s article was much less positive. I appreciate all the background information Thomson provides, and it’s definitely an article worth reading, but I thoroughly disagree with his interpretation and assessment of this video.  

Like you, I thought “One More Chance” was a beautiful love song and was eager to see the video, and like you I watched it as soon as the Vision DVDs came out. And I was surprised – it wasn’t at all what I was expecting – but I loved it. As often happens with Michael Jackson’s videos, it led me to completely rethink my ideas about this song and opened up a whole new way of interpreting it. Now I see “One More Chance” as much more than a love song. Responding to it as a beautiful love ballad is still there for me and still valid, but other interpretations have become apparent to me as well. And frankly, I think Thomson’s interpretation completely misses the boat.

In his article Thomson writes rather critically of the video’s concept:

The song was a yearning ballad about lost love in which Jackson pleaded with an ex-girlfriend for “one more chance at love.” The video would feature a unique role reversal in which an audience would stand onstage and watch Jackson as he performed the track in an empty, upscale nightclub, hopping banisters and jumping on tables. The set-up seemed to have little correlation with the song and appeared to be more of a comment on the press and public’s perpetual invasion into Jackson’s privacy – a common theme in the star’s videos – essentially showing a crowd of bystanders watching over Jackson in an intimate, off-stage moment, transfixed by his heartbreak.

Thomson is right to some extent:  if we see “One More Chance” simply as a love song, then the video doesn’t make much sense and the “set-up seem[s] to have little correlation with the song.” But I disagree with Thomson’s interpretation. I don’t think the point of this video is show “a crowd of bystanders . . . transfixed by his heartbreak.” Jackson doesn’t treat the on-stage audience in this video like intrusive voyeurs, that isn’t the mood he creates here – the mood is much more celebratory than that – and that isn’t what this video says to me. As you know, Joie, I’m all for multiple interpretations, and I think any interpretation is valid as long as it can be supported by evidence from the work, but I see very little evidence to support Thomson’s interpretation.

But what if we approach this video like the My Baby songs and view it more metaphorically? In his videos, Michael Jackson frequently parallels the relationship between a man and his lover with that of a performer and his audience. What if we view One More Chance that way? What if he isn’t talking to an ex-girlfriend, but to us, his audience? What if he’s telling us, his audience, that the false allegations and misunderstandings and years of bad press have been terrible for him – it “Hurts so bad sometimes it’s hard to breathe” – but he’s ready to try again, despite everything, and he wants us to give him “one more chance?”

As Thomson writes in his article, Michael Jackson made this video at an important turning point in his life. He was planning to make a fresh start in film, and saw this as a new beginning to his career. So maybe he’s telling us, his audience, that “This time / Gonna do my best to make it right.” Maybe the reason he set up the video with an audience on stage is because he’s talking directly to us, his audience, when he says “All I need is / One more chance.” If we view it that way, this video makes perfect sense. And the fact that the police raided his home the very next day is heartbreaking.

Joie:  It is heartbreaking. Thomson explains that with “One More Chance” – the single and the video – Michael was fulfilling his contractual obligations to Sony and CBS. Once they were completed, Michael was done. He was freeing himself from his contract with Sony and preparing to move on to bigger and better things. He was tired of touring and he wanted to venture into the realm of film. Ironically, something he tried to do in 1993 but couldn’t once the first allegations happened. So, in the video, that last shot of him turning his back on the audience and walking out of the frame with a smile on his face, was very symbolic of the transition he was about to make. He was walking away from the music industry and walking toward his long-harbored dreams of making movies. All he needed was “one more chance.”
 
And, in answer to my question of “where is Michael,” Thomson tells us that the video was purposely shot from behind Michael in order to track his movements more fluidly. The following day, they were all set to capture the frontal shots and close ups of Michael doing his thing. But that never happened because the following morning came the bad news that the police were raiding the Neverland Ranch for the second time. And I can’t help but think of the lyrics to the song itself:

Lightening
‘Bout to strike and rain only on me.
Hurts so bad sometime its hard to breathe.

I imagine those lyrics mirror what Michael must have been feeling when he got the news and realized that his dreams were being snatched away for the second time.

Willa:  Those are good points, and I really do appreciate all the background information Thomson provides. It’s really deepened my understanding of this video. Maybe I’m being a little hard on Thomson simply because One More Chance has become very special to me. Just the idea of Michael Jackson in pain but ready to try again and asking us for “one more chance” is incredibly poignant. And then the conclusion of the video is so moving, and very motivating for me personally. At the end, he has left the room, but his audience is still on stage. It’s up to us now. He’s no longer here, but we are – we’re the ones left on stage – and we’re the ones who have to act to preserve his legacy and “help these mysteries unfold.”
 
Joie:  I think you are being hard on Thomson. I don’t think he really offered any sort of interpretation of the video at all. I think he was merely just giving us the set up, explaining the premise, if you will. But I don’t think his one-sentence assessment of the premise of the video was ever intended to be viewed as an interpretation.
 
But I do understand your readiness to defend something you love. As you said, this particular video has become very special to you so, wanting to explain it and possibly make others love it as much as you do is only natural. I feel the same way about a certain ballad from the Michael album that you and I violently disagree on but, we’ll save that for another discussion!

Willa:  Joie! That is just wicked. You really aren’t going to let me forget about that are you? Oh well, I guess I deserve it. (Heavy sigh). You really are just too funny sometimes. . .
 
Joie:  Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But this video is as special to you as that song is to me so, I understand how you feel about it.
 
Willa:  So here’s some exciting news. Joie is flying to Montreal this morning to see a sneak preview of Cirque du Soleil’s tribute to Michael Jackson – The Immortal World Tour and next week she’ll tell us all about it!