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Roundtable: What Makes a Songwriter?

Joie:  A couple of weeks ago our friend, Joe Vogel, posed an interesting question to Willa and me and journalist, Charles Thomson. Charles, of course, is the author of the wonderful article, “One of the Most Shameful Episodes in Journalistic History,” among others. So Joe’s question sparked a very lively discussion between the four of us, and you can read that conversation below.


Joe:  Do you think the fact that MJ wasn’t a technically trained musician and couldn’t read/write music diminishes him as a songwriter? And how would you respond to critics who make this claim?

Joie:  Hmm. Joe, that’s a really good question. And it got me thinking about all of the great talents that we usually think of as prolific songwriters in our society. And so I started doing a little research on this topic and I was really surprised to learn that many of those who we bestow that mantle on never learned to read or write music either. Names like Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney. In fact, none of the Beatles could read music, not even the great John Lennon. And Paul said in an interview once that as long as he and John both knew what chords they were playing and they remembered the melody, they never had any need to write it down or to read it.

None of the Gibb brothers, who I think wrote some of the most beautiful music ever, could read or write music either. So no, I don’t think the fact that Michael couldn’t read/write music diminishes his talent as a songwriter in any way, and if that’s the argument that critics are using to deny him a spot on that list with the other “greats,” then I would say their argument clearly doesn’t hold water.

Willa:  And I would have to add that I don’t really understand this criticism, and maybe that just reflects my own lack of knowledge about how composing music really works. But it seems to me that the important part of the creative process is having the ideas, and a vision for how to express those ideas to an audience so they really feel what you’re trying to say. Writing notes on paper is just a way of capturing your musical ideas so you can remember them later, or share them with other musicians, and Michael Jackson was able to do that other ways. He could record his ideas into a tape recorder, or he could sing it live. There’s a wonderful quotation about this in your book, Joe, that just fascinated me:

“One morning [Michael] came in with a new song he had written overnight,” recalls assistant engineer Rob Hoffman. “We called in a guitar player, and Michael sang every note of every chord to him. ‘Here’s the first chord, first note, second note, third note. Here’s the second chord, first note, second note, third note,’ etc. We then witnessed him giving the most heartfelt and profound vocal performance, live in the control room through an SM57. He would sing us an entire string arrangement, every part. Steve Porcaro once told me he witnessed [Jackson] doing that with the string section in the room. Had it all in his head, harmony and everything. Not just little eight bar loop ideas. He would actually sing the entire arrangement into a microcassette recorder complete with stops and fills.”

I love that! To me, having that vision in your head is the essence of songwriting. To say Michael Jackson wasn’t really a songwriter because he didn’t know how to write notes on paper is like saying Jane Austen wasn’t really a novelist because she didn’t know how to type. That’s all fiddly bookkeeping kind of stuff, it seems to me. Having the ideas and being able to express those ideas passionately and evocatively to an audience is what’s important.

Charles:  Michael’s idol was James Brown, who famously could not read or write music either. It is probably no accident that Michael adopted Brown’s method, therefore, of surrounding himself with talented collaborators who could bring his vision to life based on beatboxing, scatting, humming, singing and so on, but also bringing their own contributions to the table.

Michael undoubtedly lacked autonomy as an artist thanks to his inability to read or write music. That’s not a criticism; it’s true of anyone in the same position. I’m going to risk a lynching by raising Prince as a comparison. Prince can not only write an entire composition out in musical terms, but then go into the studio and play every instrument exactly how he wants it, then put it all together. It’s undeniable that Prince, for example, therefore had more autonomy and independence as an artist.

Joie:  Well don’t worry, Charles; you are safe here as I actually consider myself a casual Prince fan. He is an amazing musician and very worthy of recognition. And I agree with your assertion that he certainly enjoyed more autonomy and freedom than Michael did.

Willa:  But was that because Prince could read and write music, or because he could play instruments? After all, when you write a score of music, it still leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Someone who could write music but not play instruments would still need to rely on a roomful of collaborators, but that seems like a whole other question to me.

Joie:  That’s a really good point, Willa. Prince’s autonomy probably did have a lot more to do with the fact that he is more than proficient at many musical instruments and less to do with the fact that he can read and write music. If he hadn’t had the ability to play all those instruments, things certainly would have been different.

Charles:  But, if you put Michael in a room on his own, he couldn’t have created most of his tracks and got them sounding like they did on the finished albums. Take “Billie Jean.” All the key elements of the song are there in his original demo but his team of collaborators helped him polish and tighten the composition. Bruce Swedien, for instance, came up with the idea of using a special sleeve to achieve that iconic sound on the drum.

None of this seeks to diminish Michael’s ability as a songwriter. Just look at his catalogue of self-penned classics. Most pop acts never score even a quarter of the hits Michael had, let alone with self-penned compositions.

Joie:  That’s very true, Charles. In fact, 17 out of his 28 top ten singles as a solo artist were written by him. And 9 out of his 13 number one hits as a solo artist were written by him. That’s very impressive, and like you said, it is somewhat unique among pop acts.

But I want to go back for a second to what you just said about putting Michael in a room alone. Recently, I was listening to the demo version of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” for another post that Willa and I were working on. That demo was made with just Michael and his siblings, Randy and Janet. And I was really struck by how close that demo is to the finished version that ended up on the completed album. That song was practically finished before he ever presented it to Quincy Jones and his other collaborators to “polish.” So, even though you’re probably correct in saying that he couldn’t have created most of his tracks and gotten them to sound the way they did on the finished albums, I tend to believe that he could have gotten them all pretty darn close.

Charles:  The “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” demo is very impressive but, as you say, he’s not in the studio on his own. He had instrumentalists in there helping him out, and although the key elements of the composition are present, they wouldn’t have been if he hadn’t had those instrumentalists there, and the overall composition doesn’t have the polish or sheen that he was able to achieve when working with his highly decorated collaborators.

Returning to Michael’s hero, James Brown:  It became fashionable for a period to strip James Brown of all responsibility for his compositions. Critics claimed he ‘rode the coattails’ of his collaborators and that without their expertise, he could never have produced the music he did. But I’ve spent a lot of time over the years interviewing Mr. Brown’s collaborators, from all different stages in his career. I’ve never found one who didn’t believe James Brown was a genius or who believed that any of that music would have existed without him.

When I interviewed Pee Wee Ellis, he told me:

“He was a definite collaborator, a strong influence, a leader. He had a vision that we won’t see again in this lifetime. He was the funkiest man in the world. He had more rhythm in his little finger than most of us have in our body. Just natural stuff, you know. And the way he fronted the band. If anything, the band rode on his coattails. But the band provided a platform for him to be able to do that.”

I view Michael similarly. None of those genre-defining hits he wrote could have existed without his vision, but none of them would exist as they do if he hadn’t had the right team of people around him to make his vision a reality. His inability to read or write music didn’t hinder him as long as he had people around him to interpret and bring those ideas to life.

Joe:  This is a very good point, Charles, and something I try to bring out in Man in the Music. We have this idea embedded in our culture that doing something in isolation is more admirable than doing it collaboratively (the myth of the “solitary genius”). So critics marvel at an artist like Prince who can basically take a track from conception to completion without collaborators. Not that this isn’t impressive (it is), but I would compare making an album to directing a film:  Is a director better if they carry out every single role of its creation (screenplay, camera, costumes, lighting, acting, etc.)? Or is what makes a director great the ability to bring together a creative team and guide a project with their overall vision and passion?

Willa:  That’s an excellent analogy, Joe, I think, and shifts the definition of “songwriter” to something much closer to Michael Jackson’s process. He didn’t come out of the Tin Pan Alley tradition of creating sheet music, which was then sold to a singer or musician. That’s how Neil Diamond, for example, got his start – writing songs for a publishing company – and historically, a lot of great singer/songwriters have come from that tradition. Michael Jackson came from a very different background, and his approach was much more holistic than that. He didn’t just write songs and then hand them off to someone else to produce. When he created a song, he had a vision of what he wanted the final piece to sound like, and then he guided the entire production process to achieve that vision, much like a movie director would do. So I think that comparison works really well.

Joe:  I’m glad you brought up James Brown, Charles, because I know you have done a lot of work on him, and there are certainly a lot of parallels. I found the same sentiment you found with Brown’s collaborators when speaking with MJ’s collaborators. They didn’t feel his reliance on musicians, producers, and engineers diminished him as an artist at all. All of them talked about how involved he was at every stage of the creative process, but also how he would give them space and freedom; they talked about creative chemistry and how magic often occurred in the act of collaborating. So you’re absolutely right that he may have lost something in autonomy, but he also gained something in unexpected synergistic inspiration. I think Michael picked some of this up from Quincy Jones as well, because Jones (who came with a background in jazz and film scores) was brilliant at assembling dynamic teams and getting them to work well together.

Now, to follow up on reading/writing music, I wanted to get all of your thoughts on something. Why do you think Michael often told people that learning to read/write music might ruin his creativity?

Joie:  Well, I don’t know much about songwriting but, I would imagine that if you were constantly worried about whether or not something worked “technically,” then it would sort of suck the creativity out of it. And not only that but, it would probably suck the joy and the heart out of it as well. You would be so worried about getting it right technically that you would be in danger of losing that creative flow – that magic. And we all know Michael was all about the magic. So I think his comment about fearing it would ruin his creativity was valid. And I think I read somewhere where Paul McCartney once voiced a similar concern so, it’s possible that the two even spoke about it.

Willa:  That’s a really interesting question, Joe. I can tell you’re a good teacher! To be honest, the fear that learning to write music will diminish your creativity doesn’t really make sense to me. After all, it doesn’t seem to have hindered Mozart or Beethoven or Bach too much. Musical notation is simply a way for musicians to communicate with each other, and whether you express your musical ideas through singing into a tape recorder or writing notes on paper shouldn’t make much difference.

But I agree with Joie. If I had to guess, I would imagine that fear had something to do with calculating the beats per measure and getting the key signature right and making sure it “worked ‘technically,'” as you put it, Joie. I know that when talking about dancing, he said sometimes he would watch dancers perform and he could actually see them mentally counting the beats. And he said that just doesn’t work. You have to practice and practice and practice until the steps become ingrained in you, so when you’re performing your focus is on feeling the music and expressing the ideas and the emotions of the music through your body, and not on the technical details of “one, two, three, slide.”

And I imagine he felt the same way about learning to write sheet music. It takes years to become proficient enough at it where it becomes second nature and you can do it without counting the beats in your head, so to speak. In the meantime, it would just get in the way of feeling the music, and why bother with that when he already had very effective methods for communicating his ideas to other musicians?

Charles:  It’s an interesting point about whether technical knowledge hinders creativity and the person who springs immediately to mind, once again, is James Brown. Lacking a lot of technical expertise, in my opinion, helped Mr Brown. He spoke time and again about how his music was all about the feeling.

Several of James Brown’s biggest recordings contain mistakes, but he didn’t care because for him it was all about the energy. More often than not, he would release the first take, even if it contained errors. “The first take is God,” he would say. “The second take is man.”

Willa:  What a great quote! Though it also highlights a difference between Michael Jackson and James Brown. Michael Jackson didn’t hesitate to record 50 takes, if that’s what it took to get the sound he wanted.

Charles:  In the documentary Soul Survivor, several of Mr. Brown’s collaborators said that on a technical level, a lot of his music was ‘wrong’:

“You cannot count [it], you cannot write [it] because it violates all musical rules… Things as simple as 1, 2, 3, 4 – if it doesn’t work with what he’s doing, then he may go 1, 2, 3-and-a-half.”

Mr. Brown, when told his music was ‘wrong,’ would reply, “But it sounds good. God gave you those ears. Are you gonna argue with God’s ears?”

Fred Wesley, one of Mr. Brown’s arrangers, has spoken in the past about how embarrassed he felt when fans used to come up to him and tell him how much they loved the track “Pass The Peas.” Wesley felt the track, on a technical level, was garbage. But that song is still loved around the world today. Prince regularly plays it at his concerts. It’s often the biggest crowd pleaser at any Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, or Pee Wee Ellis gig. Wesley may have found it technically unspectacular, but it touched people. It got inside them, made them smile, made them move.

If James Brown had played by the technical rules, we may never have encountered funk music. Without funk, we may never have heard disco or hip-hop. James Brown broke the rules and changed the world. Twenty years later when Michael Jackson spent all that money on the Thriller video, everybody thought his brain had gone soft. He too broke the rules and changed the world.

Maybe Michael saw the rules of writing music as oppressive. If he didn’t know what the barriers were, he couldn’t be confined by them.

Joie:  I love the way you put that, Charles! “If he didn’t know  what the barriers were, he couldn’t be confined by them.”  That is a very profound way to put it.

Willa:  I agree.

Joie:  And you are so right about James Brown. Without him, funk music may never have existed and then the whole landscape of the music scene might look very different today.

Willa:  You guys, I feel like I’m having a major light bulb moment. This is so fascinating to me. And Charles, I think I’m just now starting to get what you’ve been saying. You aren’t just talking about plunking down notes on a page. You’re talking about being trained in the “rules” of the Western songwriting tradition and internalizing those rules – and James Brown broke the beat, and broke the rules of that tradition.

I was talking to a music professor a long time ago – maybe 15 years ago – who liked to compose songs at a keyboard that was connected to her computer. She showed me this software she had where she could play a song, and the software would take what she played and automatically generate the sheet music for it. It was really cool. You’d think there’d be a lot of tweaking and clean up to get it right, but there really wasn’t. It was pretty clean. She said there’s something satisfying about handwriting notes on a staff, but it can get tedious after a while and this software let her generate sheet music as easily as playing. She could just focus on the music, and then the sheet music would magically be there when she was done.

I’ve been thinking about her throughout this whole conversation and thinking, this is no big deal. If you’re working with musicians who can play by ear, then you don’t need sheet music. If you’re working with a classically trained cellist, for example, or someone who really wants sheet music, then just buy some software or hire a grad student to jot down the notes. Either way, it’s no big deal.

But of course, that music professor was thoroughly steeped in the Western songwriting tradition, so everything she composed just consciously or unconsciously fell within the conventions of that tradition. The computer had no trouble recognizing the structure of her music and placing the notes and rests on a staff exactly where they should go because everything she played fit within the rules of what it expected her to play.

But what does the computer do when James Brown comes along and throws a time warp in the middle of a measure? I’m having this really funny mental image right now of a computer whirring and beeping, trying to crank through a James Brown song.

Joie:  Willa, you are hilarious. I swear, you crack me up sometimes! But you’re right; it does paint an amusing mental picture – this computer having a nervous breakdown trying to keep up with James Brown’s grunts and non-verbal vocalizations. That’s hysterical!

Willa:  That’s funny, Joie! It’s like James Brown’s computer is imitating James Brown – the hardest working computer in the music lab. All the other computers are sedately working through Mendelssohn and Brahms, and the James Brown computer is rocking and popping. And can you imagine what it would do if it were plotting out a song in 4/4 time and suddenly hit a measure with 3½ beats? It would blow its little circuits.

Joe:  I just want to add to this discussion that part of the dismissal of Michael Jackson as an artist, in my opinion, has to do with this White, Eurocentric understanding of music and an ignorance (or dismissal) of African-American aesthetics. Some of this has to do with what we’re talking about:  deviating from established forms/techniques. What James Brown did is not unlike the “swing” and improvisation jazz musicians injected into traditional melodies. These were deviations from long-established traditions that took time for people to acknowledge as legit. For a long time, it was considered a very low-brow form of entertainment. This is often the reaction to artistic innovation.

Willa:  Absolutely. We see this over and over again. When the novel was first developed, it was considered “low art” and serious drama, poetry, and essays were “high art.” Then when movies were first introduced, they were considered “low art” and serious novels were “high art.”  Today, music videos are considered “low art” and serious feature-length films are “high art,” though Michael Jackson’s videos clearly challenge that.

You talk about this prejudice against new art forms in your Atlantic article, Joe – specifically new music genres in the U.S. – and show there’s not just a bias against new forms, but also some deep-seated racial biases as well:

Historically, this dismissal of black artists (and black styles) as somehow lacking substance, depth and import is as old as America. … It was a common criticism of spirituals (in relation to traditional hymns), of jazz in the ’20s and ’30s, of R&B in the ’50s and ’60s, of funk and disco in the ’70s, and of hip-hop in the ’80s and ’90s (and still today). The cultural gatekeepers not only failed to initially recognize the legitimacy of these new musical styles and forms, they also tended to overlook or reduce the achievements of the African-American men and women who pioneered them. The King of Jazz, for white critics, wasn’t Louis Armstrong, it was Paul Whiteman; the King of Swing wasn’t Duke Ellington, it was Benny Goodman; the King of Rock wasn’t Chuck Berry or Little Richard, it was Elvis Presley.

And as you show so clearly in your article, this pattern clearly extends to Michael Jackson as well. He was so innovative on so many fronts, and he had to fight this two-pronged bias against Black innovators throughout his adult career.

Joe:  So, I think this informs how Jackson has been received and misunderstood. He often fuses Black and White styles in fascinating ways (see “History” and “Will You Be There,” for example). But he is rooted in the African-American tradition. That is why it’s a mistake for critics to judge his music against artists like Dylan or Springsteen or Bono or Costello (all critical darlings), because Jackson isn’t that kind of artist. It would be like expecting Langston Hughes to write poems like Robert Frost. It’s not that Jackson’s lyrics aren’t poetic; it’s that he is communicating in a different way.

Part of his greatness is in moving beyond words (as the spirituals, and the blues and jazz do); it is his non-verbal vocalizations — his cries, his exclamations of joy, his gasps, his scatting, his beatboxing, his ability to become the music. In fact, even when using language he often twists and contorts words, or delivers them with such freshness, nuance and intensity that lines become more than the sum of their parts. Stevie Wonder once said that Jackson had an amazing capacity to “read” a lyric. In other words, he had the ability to inject ordinary words with something far deeper. Music is ultimately about expression and communication, and for me, his songs (and performances) convey far greater emotional range than most artists.

Joie:  I agree with you, Joe. Michael is all about the emotion and the intensity. It’s always right there just beneath the surface in every video and live performance, on every track of every album. You don’t seem to get that kind of raw emotion with most other artists.

Joe:  Another thing that makes Jackson great as a songwriter is that he had this incredible ability to communicate across every barrier that typically divides people (race, gender, sexuality, language, culture, class). He was constantly fusing. Rock and R&B, hip hop and pop, gospel and classical. He was simultaneously accessible and challenging, simple but multi-layered. He brought Beethoven to the masses, and street music to the suburbs.

Joie:  I think that’s a beautiful thought to end wtih, Joe. And Willa and I want to thank you both for joining us in this conversation!

Next week, Willa and I will be delving into Dancing the Dream, Michael’s book of poems and essays, so be sure to come back for that discussion.